Whatever you do, don't be afraid of the dark
Cover your eyes, the devil's inside.
Honest to God I'll break your heart
Tear you to pieces and rip you apart
“So. What’ll it be, mister?” Jo Harvelle sidled up to the table occupied by a lone figure—a hunter, if the notebook he was poring over was any indication. Just like ninety-nine percent of their clientele at the Roadhouse.
He raised his head from the page of scribbled handwriting, glancing at Jo then taking a second, longer look. He sat back in his chair. “Huh,” he said, a smirk spreading across his face. “Aren’t you a little young to be a barmaid?” He rubbed a hand over the scruff covering his dark cheeks.
Jo indignantly flipped her long hair off her face. “I’ll be eighteen soon. Look, do you want something to drink or not?” She didn’t mention that “soon” was a year and a half.
“Sure, darlin’. Gimme a shot and a beer.”
A shy smile made a brief appearance before Jo glided away to put in his order with her mother Ellen, who tended the bar.
“Hey, Mom,” Jo greeted Ellen, flopping onto a stool at the bar. “Guy at table ten wants a boilermaker. Do you know who he is?”
Ellen looked up from wiping down the polished wood surface with a rag and leaned a bit to one side to see past her daughter. Her eyes narrowed slightly as she assessed the man in question. “Name’s Gordon Walker. I’ve heard of him. He’s good, one of the best. But we’ve never been introduced.”
Ellen pulled two glasses off the shelves behind her and plunked them down on the bar before reaching for the bottle of Jack she kept near at hand. Jo pivoted to look over her shoulder at him again, taking in the high cheekbones, the outline of hair shorn close to his head, and the ripple of muscle under the dark skin on his arms as he turned the page of the book he was studying. Her stomach fluttered.
There were no old hunters. The business of keeping the unknowing masses safe from spirits and monsters was a harsh and dangerous life. It left the folks who lived it looking like they’d been rode hard and put away wet. Glancing around the bar, there wasn’t anyone in the place past forty. The oldest hunters she knew were Uncle Bobby, Uncle John, and Rufus—Rufus had growled at Ellen the first time she’d tried to pin “Uncle” in front of his name—and they were only straddling fifty. Which in her mind, was pretty close to ancient, but still considered in their prime by civilians. Not even close to retirement if they’d had normal nine-to-fives that didn’t involve digging up graves and decapitating monsters on a regular basis. But few hunters were still in the business after fifty—either they got out or were taken out. Like her dad.
But Gordon, he was young. Probably not much over twenty and at the top of his game. And damn cute. Yeah, she was not going to be calling him “Uncle”.
Jo’s face split in a sly smile that she quickly suppressed before turning back to take the drinks from her mother and put them on her serving tray. She snagged a bowl of pretzels from the bar and put them on the tray, too.
By the time she returned to his table, he’d brought a second, larger book out of a bag on the floor and flipped it open. This book was bound with a leather cover, like those volumes of encyclopedias at the local library. Except the pages were yellow with uneven edges; it looked much older. Gordon held down a page with one finger while he scribbled in the notebook next to it. Jo glanced at the opposite page not covered by his hand as she leaned over to put the tray on the table. The line drawing on it showed a grotesque humanoid figure munching on what appeared to be a human arm like it was a turkey drumstick. Jo shuddered a little.
“You working a job?” she asked knowingly as she set the two glassed in front of him with a clink. The beer mug was already covered in a film of condensation in the July heat. “Or just doin’ research?”
“And what would you know about it, sweetness?” he asked, not pausing in what he was writing.
Well, at least he wasn’t calling her “kid”, like too many of the other hunters did, even the ones not that much older than her. But she was sick of no one taking her seriously.
“I know lots of stuff. I have a journal where I write down all my research, and I’m goin’ on a hunt as soon as I can.” As soon as I can get out from under Mom’s thumb.
He stopped writing and looked up at her with a glint in his eye. “That so?”
“Yep. As soon as I can get out of here.”
“What’s your name, darlin’?”
“Well Jo, why don’t you sit down and join me? Maybe we can compare some notes.” He smiled at her, and she was too flattered by the attention to notice that the expression didn’t touch his eyes. She reached up and tucked a few errant strands of hair behind her ear.
She glanced over to see if Ellen was watching, but her mother had her back to the rest of the room, wiping out glasses and stacking them on shelves. “Yeah, okay. I guess I can take a break for a while. It’s not very busy yet.” Jo sat in the chair across the table from Gordon. “What’s that old book?” she asked with a nod toward the bigger tome.
“Legends of vampires. I’ve been tracking some activity in the area that seems to be random and unrelated, but the pattern is there if you know what to look for. There’s a big nest of fangs working this area. But they’re smart. Discrete. They’ve spread their kills out over a big area, so it’s hard to pinpoint where they might be holed up.”
Jo leaned forward over her crossed arms. “Vampires?” she whispered, wide-eyed and breathless. “Wow. They’re pretty hard to kill, huh?”
Gordon’s gaze flicked down to where her breasts pushed into the scooped neck of her tank top. He licked at the film of sweat on his upper lip. “A couple or three aren’t too much of a problem, especially if you can get the drop on them. But this nest looks to be pretty big, given the rate they’ve been dropping bodies in a hundred-mile radius. Big nest needs a big hunting ground.”
“Have you killed a lot of vampires? Does that book tell you how to gank ‘em?” She leaned toward him, as if craning her head to get a better look at the book. But really, she just wanted to get closer, maybe brush her shoulder against his. She could feel the heat radiating off him even from the small distance between them. Unlike the sweaty, unwashed odor that most of the other hunters gave off, he smelled musky in a way that was totally masculine—and totally sexy. From under her eyelashes, she studied his face and suddenly wondered what it would feel like to be kissed by those full, silken lips. She flushed at the thought, ducking her face to hide the heat rising in her cheeks.
“…a nest down in New Orleans,” he was saying when the roar in Jo’s ears subsided enough for her to tune back into the conversation. “We managed to burn them out, but a couple got away. That’s what led me up here. I think those stragglers have hooked up with this nest. Which means they have intel. They’re going to be on the alert for hunters looking for them.”
He scanned the barroom, still mostly empty except a handful of occupied tables and a couple of guys shooting pool. “I was hoping to recruit a few more hunters to help me clean house. Does this place pick up at some point? I heard this was a big hunter hangout.”
“Oh yeah.” Jo waved her hand and made a p’shing noise. “It’s still early. Come supper time, you won’t be able to swing a dead cat without hitting a hunter.”
“Good.” Gordon threw back the shot of whiskey and then took a deep draught of the beer. “Got any recommendations of folks to talk to who might be interested in taking out some fangs?” He smiled again, but his eyes stayed hard and cold. “Unless maybe you’d like to come along? Get your first hunt under your belt?”
Jo sat up straighter, taken aback by his offer. No, there was no way her mother would ever agree to it. Not against that many vampires. But God, how cool would that be?
“I… I can’t,” she stammered.
“Hey, I understand if your not ready—”
“I’m ready,” she hissed. “I mean, I still have stuff to learn, but how am I ever going to learn without going out on a job, right?” She lowered her eyes, embarrassed. “But my Mom—” Shrugging, she hooked a thumb over her shoulder toward the bar.
“Ahh. I see.” Gordon took another swig from his beer. His expression was unreadable, but he at least he wasn’t mocking her.
An idea came to her, and she beamed at Gordon. “But maybe… maybe you could teach me some stuff?” Excitement coursed through her veins again. She raked a hand through her hair, pushing it back from her face. “You could train me! You know, if… if you have time and stuff.” She bit her lip, wondering if maybe she’d pushed too hard.
Gordon laughed, a conspiratorial chuckle that made a warmth spread between her thighs. Yeah, he was damn cute when he smiled and laughed. When he reached over and covered one of her hands with his, she thought she would just about die.
“You got yourself a deal, darlin’.” He winked at her. “And when the time comes for your first hunt, I’ll know you’ve got my back.”
At that moment, a mop handle whacked against the side of the table as Ellen dropped it at Jo’s feet. Startled, Jo quickly pulled her hand back like she’d been burned and looked up to into her mother’s narrow-eyed stare.
“Jo, I need you to swab out the men’s room before the evening rush starts.” Jo rolled her eyes and groaned inwardly. She swore her mother was purposely trying to make her die of embarrassment. But she grabbed the mop and, with a quick, apologetic glance at Gordon, slinked away to do the chore. Ellen watched her go, then turned back to Gordon.
“Name’s Ellen Harvelle, I own this joint. I don’t believe we’ve been introduced proper,” she heard her mother saying to Gordon, her tone of affable hospitality sounding forced to Jo’s ears.
Great, just great, Jo thought. Ellen wasn’t going to be overtly hostile—she did have a business to run, after all, and didn’t want to chase away customers—but she would let Gordon know in no uncertain terms that her daughter was off limits.
At this rate, she’d never get another hunter to take her seriously.
But Gordon turned out to be braver than most hunters. Even the most seasoned monster-fighter and bone-burner shrank under one of Ellen’s icy glares. And none of them had the testicular fortitude to cross her once she’d made clear the boundaries surrounding her only child.
Although Ellen managed to keep Jo away from Gordon the rest of the evening, delivering his food and drinks herself, Jo watched him as he chatted up other hunters. Occasionally he shook hands with a few at the end of their conversation as if a deal had been struck. The first time he caught her staring at him, he winked at her. She almost dropped the tray of drinks she was taking to the pool table before she stilled her shaking hands and reined in her galloping heart. Gordon tilted back his head and laughed, probably at something the other man he was conversing with had said, but she felt a little secret thrill at the idea that they were sharing a private joke.
The smile she still wore when she delivered the round of beers to the pool players earned her an extra five dollar tip.
An hour before closing, Ellen went into the stock room to get another case of whiskey while Jo stood in for her behind the bar. The door had barely closed to the back room before Gordon slid onto one of the stools. He pushed a hundred dollar bill across the bar toward Jo.
“Here you go, darlin’. That should take care of my tab. And keep the rest for a tip,” he said with another wink. When she reached out to take the money, he intercepted her hand and pressed another piece of paper into it. “And this is how you can contact me, so we can work on that training.”
When Gordon next visited the Roadhouse a month later, he was sporting a line of stitches across one forearm. Jo knew all about it. Gordon has set up a special email account for her that Ellen didn’t know about, strictly for “hunter business”. She’d read that email with a dry mouth, chewing on a fingernail, as Gordon described the nest of twenty vampires they’d found and destroyed. One of the fangs had given his arm a wicked slice with a Bowie knife before Gordon had decapitated him—it, Gordon’s Rule Number One: all monsters were its—with a machete.
Jo was fuming because she’d had an argument with her mother just that morning about wanting to go on a hunt.
“Why can’t I go out with Caleb?” They both knew she wasn’t asking about a date, either. “This job is a milk run, and it’s just a couple of miles away. I’d be back before dark!” Caleb was investigating the suspicious deaths of two teenagers who bought it in a locker room during summer football practice, at a school only a couple of towns away. She wouldn’t even have to see the bodies—not that they would have been gross or anything, since the kids’ hearts just stopped for no reason—because she would only be going along to check out the high school. Caleb thought maybe she’d be useful for talking to some of the other players. Jocks always responded better to a pretty girl than some old, creepy guy.
“Because in this business, there’s no such thing as a milk run. And you are too young to go out hunting.” Ellen laughed ruefully. “Hell, when you are old and gray, you’ll still be too young.”
“I’m not a baby!” she screeched at her mother. “You can’t keep me here forever, you know. I’m sixteen—I could leave now if I wanted to!”
“Joanna Beth, where would you go, exactly?”
Jo faltered a moment, not having thought past the hurtful words. “I... I could go with Caleb… or… or Shawn. They’d let me hunt with them!” She didn’t mention Gordon, because she didn’t want her mother to know about their deal. Or the fact that they’d been exchanging emails while he was out hunting.
Ellen’s lips pressed together until they were a white line. When she spoke, her voice was quiet and rough. “Fine.” She jerked her head. “There’s the door. Don’t let it hit you on the fanny.” She turned her back on her daughter to start getting ready for the day’s customers. Jo didn’t see her hands shake as she filled bowls with pretzels and nuts.
Jo stared at her mother’s back, her breath coming fast and hard, and she closed her open mouth with a click of teeth. She wasn’t sure how far she was willing to take this bluff, but if she backed down now, she felt like she would never get out from under her mother’s control.
But after a few minutes of bravado posturing, that’s exactly what she did. She went back to the storeroom to get the broom to start sweeping the floor before the doors opened. When she returned, Ellen let out a gusty sigh of relief that she held a broom and not a backpack.
“Hey, Gordon.” Jo smiled at the hunter, her bad mood improving by the minute. “The usual?”
“Yeah, darlin’. And why don’t you bring a soda for yourself and join me for a while?” He gave her a little wink, and she felt her pulse start to race. The other hunters never asked her to sit with them unless she pestered them first. But Gordon was different; he treated her like a… a colleague. Even though they were limited to email exchanges, he’d been teaching her all sorts of important things, giving her lists of books to read and websites to investigate. And she was proud that she’d talked Ash into letting her work out with him, lifting weights and practicing fight moves.
She was totally ready to go out on a job.
When she returned to the bar to fetch the drinks, Ellen was staring daggers in Gordon’s direction, but Jo didn’t care. Gordon was her friend, and she wasn’t going to let her mother ruin that.
“Don’t neglect your other customers,” Ellen told her frostily as she poured the beer and whiskey. The muscle on the side of her jaw twitched, but she didn’t press the issue further.
Jo reached over the bar and pulled a bottle of Coke out of the cooler. “I won’t,” she replied just as tersely. The “other customers” were two guys huddled over a stack of newspapers, still nursing the same beers they’d ordered half an hour ago.
Once she had settled at the table, she tentatively reached out a finger toward the row of small, neat stitches. “You do that yourself?”
“Yeah,” Gordon replied with a smirk. “Hospitals ask too many questions.”
“Nice.” She took a sip of her Coke to cover her nervousness and tried not to fidget.
Gordon downed the whiskey and sat back with a sigh, resting the beer mug on his chest. The moisture from the glass left a ring on his white t-shirt. “So you get out on a job yet?”
“No.” Her scowl returned. “Caleb asked me just today if I would come help him, but Mom wouldn’t let me. And it wasn’t even anything dangerous, just questioning some witnesses.”
“The hunter who’s not allowed to hunt.” Gordon’s tone was mocking but sympathetic. He flicked a quick glance over her shoulder, then leaned in and pitched his voice low. “You know, you didn’t have to tell her that’s where you were going.”
Jo scoffed. “Caleb would have told her,” she whispered. “All the other hunters are scared of her, y’know? Maybe they think she’ll put rat poison in their food or something.”
“Well, she is formidable. Good think I’m not intimidated by strong women.” He sipped his beer.
“So then why don’t you take me out on a job, huh?” Jo challenged. “If you’re not afraid of her.”
Gordon put his beer down and cocked his head to one side, his expression suddenly turned serious. “It’s about time. I’ve been waiting for you to get up the nerve to ask me.”
Jo mouth dropped open and she just stared for a few moments. “Really?” she squeaked. At Gordon’s shushing motion, she leaned closer and lowered her voice. “Really? You got a lead on something right now?”
He chuckled. “Matter of fact, I do.”
“What? What is it? A ghost? Another vamp? What?”
His eyes narrowed. “You ever heard of a Rawhead?”
“No,” Jo breathed. “Sounds nasty.”
“S’not so bad. I think it’s holed up in an abandoned factory, but I need to do some surveillance to be sure. Strictly a stake-out. But it’s a start.”
“Can you get away tonight?”
Jo caught her bottom lip between her teeth, considering. “Well, Tuesday is about our slowest night, so probably. But I’ll have to come up with something to tell Mom.”
“Tell her you’re going to a friend’s house for a sleepover. But you’ll have to pretend to take a call to make it plausible. Think you can manage that?” He cocked an eyebrow at her.
“Yeah. I’ll take care of it. Where do you want me to meet you?”
“I’m gonna take off shortly to go run some errands. Call me when you have it all figured out, and we’ll arrange a rendezvous. That way we won’t be seen leaving together.” He looked again over at Ellen behind the bar. “Now, I’m gonna go talk to Garth and Daryl over there while I finish my beer, so it doesn’t look like I came here just to talk to you. You best go make yourself busy, darlin’. And I’ll see you tonight.”
Jo studied the huge building they’d just pulled up in front of in Gordon’s truck. The sides were covered in corrugated metal sheets with only a few blackened windows. Next to the windowless steel door was a series of larger openings covered with industrial roller doors. She tried to swallow past a throat suddenly gone dry. Yeah, the place was creepy enough even without possibly being a monster’s lair.
“Aren’t we kinda close?” she asked as he parked not ten feet from the door. “Shouldn’t we park further away and use, like, night-vision binoculars or something to keep an eye on the place?”
Gordon reached over the seat and lifted out a dirty canvas duffle bag. “Oh, we’re gonna get a lot closer.” He unzipped the duffle and pulled out a sawed-off shotgun. Jo caught a glimpse of several other weapons before he zipped it back up.
“What do you mean, c-closer?” Jo stammered.
“This thing doesn’t come and go through the front door,” Gordon explained, his tone terse and clipped. “It uses sewers and utility tunnels. We’ll have hide inside if we’re gonna have a chance of seeing it.”
“Inside?” Jo hated how her voice squeaked when she was nervous.
Gordon gave her a stern look. “You’re not going to chicken out on me now, are you, hunter girl?”
She could hear the mocking challenge in his words. “No. I’m in. Let’s go.”
The grin that Gordon flashed her remind her fleetingly of a shark.
They’d been kneeling down behind a stack of old crates for a couple of hours. Jo’s joints and muscles felt like they were going to be permanently stuck in her cramped position. And boring! She’d never imagined that hunting could be this boring; it was supposed to be exciting and dangerous and… well, she wasn’t sure what, but not this.
She’d just started to doze off when Gordon nudged her.
“I heard something,” he whispered, his mouth right next to the shell of her ear. She was instantly awake, from both adrenalin and his proximity. “I’m gonna go check it out. You stay here.”
She moved into a crouch, leaning on one of the crates. She hadn’t heard any noise other than the quiet susurration of their breathing and the occasional rustle when they shifted position. Peering out into the inky black, she couldn’t see anything, either. She watched Gordon disappear, melting into the shadows. When her ears started buzzing and starbursts bloomed across her vision, she let out the breath she’d been holding. Just breathe, girl. She strained to catch any hint of sound that might signal Gordon’s return—or that he was in trouble.
The shambling figure appeared out of the darkness not ten feet from where Jo crouched. It bore down on her with a relentless single-mindedness that all monsters seemed to posses. Its footfalls sounded squelchy, as if it was walking in shoes filled with water. Jo stared, frozen with shock and horror, unable to move. Clothes hung off a gaunt frame; the skeletal hands that stuck out of the sleeves as they reached toward her was pasty white and wrinkled, like something that had been too long in a bath. Each finger was tipped with a long, black nail that looked wicked sharp. The face, oh god, the face was even worse. Beneath the straggle of long, stringy hair, the skin looked melted, drooping around the eyes and nose, the mouth fixed in a permanent “O” of surprise.
The thing moved deceptively fast. The creature was close enough that Jo could smell the fetid, swampy stink radiating off it, could see the dead flatness of its eyes, could hear the wet gurgling of its breath. With a shriek, she surged to her feet and ran. Any second, she expected to feel the brush of those long, bony fingers with their claw-like nails snagging on her jacket, pulling her to her doom.
“GORDON!” she screamed. With all the windows blacked out with paint, the inside of the factory was flat and murky. The darkness pressed in on her like a thick blanket. Where the hell was the goddamned door?
She heard the bang of the steel door hitting the wall as it was flung open. The rectangle of thin light that spilled in was a beacon after the absolute darkness. Jo put her head down and sprinted for her only chance to escape.
And almost ran smack into her mother. Ellen stood five feet inside the doorway with a shotgun raised to her shoulder, aimed directly at Jo.
“Behind me!” Ellen screamed at Jo. As soon as Jo was out of the line of fire, Ellen shot straight into the creature’s chest. She pumped the handle under the barrel to reload and fired again, while retreating a half-step.
The impact of the buckshot mixed with rock salt knocked the creature off its stride, but only for a moment. Then it turned and disappeared back into the darkness as quickly as it had appeared.
Ellen pumped the shotgun again, sweeping back and forth with the barrel in case some new threat emerged. When Gordon came jogging up to them, she almost peppered him in the face before she realized who it was. Then she considered shooting him anyway.
“You let it get away!” he yelled at her. “Now I’m gonna hafta track it down all over again.”
“Gordon, so help me God…” Jo could hear the anger in her mother’s voice, the barely controlled tremor that had nothing to do with fear. “Jo! Outside. Now.”
Ellen stalked after Jo until they reached her beat up Chevy parked next to Gordon’s. Jo reached to open the passenger door, but Ellen shoved it back closed.
“Joanna Beth, you ever lie to me again and go running off with a hunter, and I swear, you are not too old for me to lay over my knee and tan your backside.”
“How did you…?” Jo sputtered, trying to press herself into the metal door of the truck.
“I checked the caller ID on incoming calls on the bar phone. There was no call from a friend. So I had your cell GPS turned on. And I knew you weren’t having no sleepover in an abandoned factory.” Ellen searched her daughter’s face, daring Jo to deny or make excuses. “You are grounded until… well, until I decide I don’t want to kill you myself.”
“But—”Jo started to object.
“You can’t baby the girl forever.” Gordon’s voice piped up from behind Ellen. “She wants to be a hunter.”
Ellen whirled on him. “You need to stay the hell away from my daughter, Gordon.”
“She’s not a child.”
“She’s my child!” Ellen strode over to him, her face inches from his. She stabbed a finger in his chest. “And I think that’s exactly why you wanted her here tonight, because she is a child. An innocent. Rawheads aren’t exactly interested in anything but fresh meat! She was the only way you could draw it out. She was the bait!”
Jo’s jaw dropped. Man, she knew her Mom was pissed, but now she was just talking crazy. Gordon wouldn’t use her as bait for a monster. Her brow furrowed together. He just wouldn’t… would he?
“Now that ain’t the way it went down.” He scrubbed a hand over his close-shorn head. “She wanted a chance to hunt, I gave it to her. This was just supposed to be a watch-and-wait. I didn’t intend for her to mix it up.”
“Yeah, right,” Ellen scoffed. “Do I look like an idiot? Ain’t nothing happened here tonight that you didn’t intend, except for that thing getting away. Get in the truck, Jo,” Ellen tossed over her shoulder. She clutched her shotgun with both hands, holding it across her body as a warning. “I’m not gonna tell you again, Gordon. Stay away from my daughter.”
She turned and marched around the truck, yanked the door open so hard the hinges squealed. Already scrambling to get in the passenger side, Jo gave Gordon an apologetic glance. The tires spun and gravel flew as Ellen backed up and roared off into the night.
“Mom—” Jo gave one last ditch effort to talk her Mom down, to try to explain.
“Not another word, Jo,” Ellen growled. “Not another word.”