A winding road, a freak storm, and a lightning strike. Jude Altfall's life, just beginning to coalesce after her divorce, is shattered afresh. Dazed with grief, she's not sure if the weird things happening around her are hallucinations…or something more. And there's the mark on her hip—a tattoo she can't for the life of her remember getting.
Preston Marlock left a shadowy government agency two years ago, to hunt a killer. Each time the bastard strikes the trail goes cold, and not even Marlock's more-than-natural abilities are helping. Now the killer's taken one of his very few friends, and there's a surviving witness. The Altfall woman is now that most precious and fragile of targets, newly Marked. All Marlock has to do is dangle her like bait, and the killer will eventually show up.
The Skinner knows some people are different. Special. He has a collection of stretched skin and pretty pictures, each harvested with care. The trick is to take them while the victim is still struggling, still alive, otherwise their power is lost. He is careful, methodical, and precise, but chance robs him of a prize. Once he realizes Jude Altfall has what he covets, and has possibly seen his face, her fate is sealed. And just to be cautious, the Skinner might swat at the annoying fly who has buzzed along his trail for two years.
Sometimes you survive. You bear a Mark.
And some things are worse than death.
Ms. Saintcrow knows her psychopomps and this novel shows it. In cooking shows the chefs often talk about dishes being 'deconstructed' meaning that all the elements of the familiar dish are there, but rearranged in new and interesting ways. This novel is that, but for psychopomps. – Rhonda Parrish
The situation called for desperate measures. "Jesus wept," Jude said, but softly, her knuckles white on the steering wheel as she braked. A thread of dark hair fell into her face, and she blew it away, impatiently. Their ancient brown and white van slowed even further, windshield wipers struggling to cope with the downpour. "I know it's scary. But we'll be at Auntie Aggie's soon, and dinner tonight is burgerdoodle."
"Burgerdoodle!" Simon crowed and clapped his hands, his eyes all but dancing with glee.
Essie, however, was a little more skeptical. "Really?" Her daughter's face screwed up in the same I-don't-believe-this expression she'd worn when first born, and Jude had to tear her gaze away from the rearview and concentrate on Bath End Road. "But you hate burgerdoodle!"
I will do just about anything to get out of cooking tonight. "Well, I did have some liver and onions I was planning on." Jude managed to keep her tone level as another flash of lightning cracked the sky. The roll of thunder was eight seconds behind instead of twelve, and that was worrisome. The trees, almost fully leafed-out at the end of spring, thrashed wildly under a lashing wind. There hadn't been anything on the radio about a storm, but then again, it was the season for quick weather changes. "But if you two are good while I talk to Auntie Aggie, and don't try to break the balustrade, I might be persuaded to stop at the Shack and get you cheeseburgers. With French fries."
"And mayo and a choclik shake? Pleeeeeeeeeeeeze?" Simon was now wholeheartedly in "negotiation mode", and Jude reflected that she was setting a bad precedent.
Well, if she hadn't already screwed both kids up for life by divorcing that no-good sonofabitch, fast food this once wasn't going to do it. "Maybe, Simon. We'll see." Of course, she thought as she slowed down even further to negotiate a tricky curve, the wind suddenly shoving at the van like a living thing, she shouldn't have married him in the first place.
But that would have meant no Essie, and no Simon, and that was one thing the lately-Jude Edmonds, née and once again Altfall, couldn't even bring herself to wish. Even if she was exhausted. She couldn't even worry about the money she would spend on burgers and shakes, either, and that was a disturbing sign. The van would smell like grease for a week.
Aggie would want to go along, and she'd want to pay for the food, too. Jude's stomach closed like a fist at the thought.
Essie, true to form, was not calmed by the prospect of mayo or a shake. "What are you gonna have?"
"Liver and onions at home." Jude grinned at their chorus of pointed uggggh sounds, squinting, and decided not to risk turning the defroster fan up another notch. Sometimes it blew out if you turned it to "high." And the windshield wipers were old, but still working, and that was good because the rain was in full-on Noah and the Flood mode—
Another bolt of lightning, sizzling-white. This time the thunder was immediate, and Essie let out a tiny scream lost in its immensity. Jude blinked, clearing the sudden blindness. God was taking pictures or striking sinners, as Granny Lefdotter would've said.
"Relax." Jude's hands tightened again on the wheel's thin cushioning as the van shimmied. The rain was coming down in curtains, and she was not going to get to the old house in anything under a half-hour. It hadn't been more than damp at the apartment, a fine drizzle more like enthusiastic mist than anything else. She'd chosen to cut through Bath End because it was so pretty, with the trees making their green tunnel nearly complete since summer was around the corner. Besides, she needed to brace her nerves, because Aggie would give her the Look again, and she would suggest—again—that Jude and the kids come and live in the old house. I rattle around here like a pea in a pod, Jujube. Come on.
It would ease the financial strain, that was for damn sure, especially since the layoff notice had come through just that morning, on tissue-thin pink paper. She'd thought pink slips were just in the movies, but apparently not.
Dave knew where her parents' house was. Jude was granted full custody, and Dave had just sat there, staring at her from the other side of his stolid, gray-haired lawyer. Jude, her left third finger bare except for a divot, had not been comforted. She knew that look.
"Relax," she repeated. She hadn't even changed out of her work clothes, and her skirt was a little too big, so it was bunching in weird ways the longer she drove. She should have changed into jeans, but that would have required going back to the apartment. "It's only thunder. Any lightning will hit the trees on top of the ridges, not us."
"Are you sure?" Essie was no doubt clutching at herself, her fingers digging in. She didn't have Simon's sunny optimism. Of course, she was a full two years older, and she took that very seriously. Esther was born taking things seriously. Kind of like Jude herself, while Simon had all Aggie's let-it-ride.
It was funny to see genetics play out. Downright hilarious, really.
"Yes, I'm very sure. It's what lightning does—it goes for the highest point." Jude squinted, hunching to look through the glass the defroster was managing to keep clear. The wipers were on high and the windshield was still wavering under a sheet of ripples.
Fuck this. Bath End took a long curve just ahead, with the creek at the bottom of a sheer but short drop on the left and the bulk of Cameron Hill rising just as steep on the right. There was a wide flat graveled area between the shoulder and the Hill, and she could pull over there and wait for the storm to subside.
"Mom?" Simon, plaintive now. "I hafta go potty."
Oh, for the love of—
That was as far as she got. The curve opened up in front of her, lightning smashed down, and a moving shadow in the road alerted her just in time.
"SHIT!" She hit the brakes hard, the van rocked, and Essie's more full-throated scream was drowned in a crescendo of thunder that poured through the van on a wall of vibration. Tires locked, skidding on the wet road, and Simon screamed too. The accident played out in slow motion inside her head—metal buckling, the van tipping, glass shattering—until the van halted with a jerk neatly in the right lane and sat obediently running, wipers swishing back and forth ineffectually against the monsoon.
Rain drummed hungrily on the van's roof. The man just stood there, a smeared shape through the blurring on the windshield, and hot acid fear crawled up Jude's throat.
"You said a bad word," Simon whispered, sounding more awestruck than anything else.
"I know I did." She swallowed, hard. Is it him? Please God, don't let it be him. "I was surprised."
"What's going on?" Essie sounded near hysterical. If Jude showed any sign of cracking up now, she'd start crying and heaving. She remembered things Simon was too young to. Loud noises, Dave's fist banging through drywall, tears leaking down her mother's face.
"She's gonna puke," Simon volunteered, helpfully.
"There's something in the road." Jude's particular Mommy Voice came out, just like always. Authoritative, firm, clear through the persistent thunder and the rain's drumming. Maybe labor flipped a switch in your brain and made it not only possible but mandatory to use the I-am-in-charge-and-it-will-be-fine tone. "Essie. Calm down. Do your deep breathing." Please do not let it be him.
If it was…the thought of pressing on the accelerator floated through her head, was shoved hastily away. Vehicular homicide, however appealing, would leave her children afloat. Especially if it was only attempted, not actual.
Jude shoved that thought away, too.
"I think she's gonna puke, Mommy," Simon persisted.
"I am not." Essie was calm enough to object, at least. That was a good sign. Progress had been made.
All sorts of it, since she'd left Dave. "Just keep doing your breathing. There's something in the road, I'm going to wait for a second." The whistling was Jude's own breath, coming high and hard. Her pulse throbbed in her wrists and throat, and the fine hairs all over her body were standing up. The guy in the road was too tall to be Dave, and there was no way he could have known she was going to Aggie's today…but still. Fear did funny things to you.
He stood right in her lane, arms slightly spread as if daring the van to come for him. Jude frankly stared, trying to see through the water pouring down the windshield.
"What's in the road? Is it a deer?" Simon bounced in his seat. The van rocked slightly, and thunder muttered. "A wolf, mebbe? Oooh, is it a coyote?" His class was doing a section on animals this week. Everything was a wolf to him, and Jude had told him coyotes were more likely.
She peered out the windshield. The man's back must have been to her, because he began to turn to face the van. Still with his arms spread, and there was something on his other side. Some indistinct shape, black in the eerie gray-yellow stormlight.
It was wrong. And the little spatters and crackles of light around him were wrong too. A screaming gust of wind rocked the van, and Jude let out a soft unconscious sound, trying to make the blurred images through the windshield turn into a comprehensible picture.
Thunder boomed. The rain slacked a little, enough for the glass to clear a bit. The radio, turned down low and forgotten since they'd hit the storm at the beginning of Bath End Road, gave a squawk and started to fizz. She reached for the volume knob, as if in a dream.
"Ooooh! Is it a coyote?" Essie bounced too, forgetting her momentary terror. Between the two of them, they could probably destroy the shocks in the van if she let them. Not that there were many shocks left, the van was older than dirt. Older than Jude, at least, and she felt ancient most days.
"Hush now." Jude inhaled sharply, deciding. Whatever the man was doing was none of her business. It was a hell of a storm, and she had two kids in the car to protect. Her headlights were on, and she had to chance that nobody would be coming around the other, sharper end of the curve. If the guy was hurt or something, he'd be trying to flag her down, wouldn't he? Instead he was just standing there, and the darkness behind him moving.
Her arms tensed to turn the wheel. Her foot slipped off the brake.
The world turned over as bolt after bolt of lightning touched down. The last thing she heard was Essie's scream as the van lifted, hurricane winds funneling down the road hugging Cameron Hill and the bulk of Gray Mountain on the other side of the creek. Air squeezed into one howling blast managed not to uproot every tree in its path, almost as if it chose not to. Everything turned greasy-white as pure force walloped through the van, glass shattering.
Jude Altfall did not even have time to scream.