I pressed my lips together in a hard line. “I’m tired of lying to her, Jared.”
The stars had crowded out the last colors left behind by the setting sun, and the ocean was as black as the sky above. I might have been chil y at night by the water a few months before, but being wrapped in Jared’s arms coupled with my own elevated temperature, the sun might as wel have been bearing down on my skin.
The wind rol ing off the water blew my hair into Jared’s face, and he turned his head, blowing the strands from his mouth.
I smiled, but my amusement quickly faded. “Speaking of Jerusalem….”
“If they know we’re going, won’t they try to stop us? If it gets worse than a car bomb we’re going to be busy. What if they wire the plane?” I laughed once without humor. “What if they shoot us down?”
“That is a possibility. But we’re prepared.”
Dread settled over me. We were vulnerable on the plane, and it was a ten-hour flight.
“We’ll land, get you and the book to the Sepulchre, and wait it out underground until you deliver.”
“You make it sound simple, but you forget demons wil do everything they can to stop us.”
“We just have to get you there. It’s smooth sailing after that.”
The skin around Jared’s eyes tightened. “I’m going to stop by the warehouse before we leave. Talk to Eli.”
“I thought he said to come to him when we only had one question to ask?”
Jared kept his eyes on the ocean. “I don’t think the question is ours to ask.”
The Road Home
We revisited that spot on the beach many times over the next two days. Jared sat with me and watched the waves rol onto the sand, and the water carry distant ship slowly across the horizon. We discussed our upcoming trip to Jerusalem, but Jared kept most of the details to himself. He didn’t want to worry me with the truth of what he saw coming. Although I was much stronger than I used to be, that didn’t change the fact that I was carrying our child.
The only sound was the wind and the intermittent waves sizzling against the sand, but my mind was crowded and loud. Sometimes I would close my eyes tight and try to push out the hundreds of frightening thoughts in my head, but then I would see Sasha. No matter how tight Jared wrapped his eyes around me, or how hard I tried to pretend we were in Little Corn, thoughts of demons, and Sasha, and bombs plagued me.
My cel phone rang several times. Beth’s phone number dominated the cal log, and my voicemail, with her frantic pleas. Sasha hadn’t come to work, and it was clear she was also missing. Before long, other people began to cal . Even Cynthia, although I assumed it was just to keep up pretenses for the police. As far as they knew, she was afraid I was dead or missing.
By the evening of the second day, Jared’s phone buzzed. “Ryel.” Jared listened for a moment, gave a quick affirmation, and then hung up. “The investigators expect the results of the dental records any minute. It won’t be long.”
“Wel , that’s good news, I guess.”
Sasha’s family learning that it was her remains the police had found inside of my vehicle wasn’t a good thing, but it was a means to an end. It al was. The true good news was that I could final y cal Beth.
Claire was right, within the hour, she texted a confirmation. When Jared gave me the go ahead, I dialed Beth’s number.
“Where in the hel have you been?” she wailed. “I thought you were dead!” Her breathing quickened until sobs developed in her throat, fol owed by a pause in the form of muffled noises before Chad came on the line.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I left a note. I thought everyone knew I was gone. Jared and I needed some time away, so I turned off my phone. I feel awful.”
The last bit was true. I could hear Beth sobbing in the background; hearing Chad try to comfort her only made me feel worse. Between consoling her, he tried to fil me in on what had happened. He described the scene at Titan, the police tape, the lines of employees waiting to be questioned, and the blackened asphalt where my BMW burned into the night.
Before long Beth took the phone back and put it to her ear. “My life has been miserable. Everyone at Titan either spread rumors, or spontaneously burst into tears, or alternating between irritated and hateful. Did you know Sasha is missing, too? It’s insane!”
“Missing?” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. The guilt weighed on me with every lie I told.
“Oh my...oh my God, Nina. The last person to speak to Sasha was her mother. She said Sasha was working late at Titan the night she went missing. Do you think it was her in your car? I mean...if it wasn’t you, then who?”
“I...I don’t know. Maybe you should say something to the investigators.”
Beth began to cry again. “That poor girl. You should cal your mother, and then cal Providence PD and tel them you’re okay. You’l probably have to come back right away.” She sniffed again. “I’m sorry in advance if I smack you upside your head for scaring the beejeezus outta me.”
I laughed once. “You’re forgiven.”
“I’m just glad you’re okay. As much as I loathed that woman, I hope it wasn’t Sasha, either. That’s an awful way to die...Nina?”
“Someone put a bomb on your car.”
“It certainly appears that way.”
“But...doesn’t that...doesn’t that bother you?”
I sighed, resolved to tel her at least some of the truth. “I’m used to it, Beth. Why do you think my father hired Jared?”
Beth didn’t speak for a long while, and then final y managed a whisper. “I guess I didn’t think about it. I’m sorry. I remember Mr. Dawson, but I...I didn’t know things were so frightening for you.”
“I’m at the beach, Beth, and I’m married to my bodyguard. Don’t worry for me, okay? We’ll talk when I get back.”
Beth blew a deep breath of relief into the phone. “Please hurry. I need to see you.”
“Jared is already packing.”
I sat in the truck, dreading the long car ride home while Jared checked out at the front desk. He jogged to the Tundra, and slid into the driver’s seat, leaning in to kiss me. “I know it was stressful, but I cherished these last three days with you. When we go away, it’s easy to forget about the rest of the world.”
I grabbed his hand, holding it tight. He knew as wel as I did that our return would stir a hornet’s nest. We had just enjoyed our last few days of peace, and now we would be fighting for our lives. I touched my stomach, and Jared reached over to touch the same spot with his free hand.
His blue-gray eyes darkened, and his brows pul ed in. I nodded, knowing exactly what was on his mind. He leaned in for a kiss, soft and slow. His lips pul ed at mine the way they did when we first met, as if it could be the last time. He pul ed away, and then pressed his forehead against mine.
We sat there in silence, in our emotional embrace. Neither one having the courage to cry or speak, just in case it became overwhelming.
Jared put one hand back and wheel and shoved the gear in drive. “Okay,” he sighed. “Back to Providence.”
The drive home seemed to take less time. Jared made me repeat the story we would tel the police over and over. I had recited the words dozens of times when the twinge hit.
Jared immediately looked down to my stomach, and then his eyes met mine. “Are you okay?”
I grimaced. “Maybe we could pul over for a moment. I should walk, I think.”
The Tundra made a gentle turn to the left, pulling into the gas station we had stopped at on the way to Virginia Beach. A familiar group of transients idled in the parking lot. Jared opened my door, and kept close as we made our way into the store. To escape the eyes of the quiet group as we walked past, I kept my eyes on the asphalt, noting the grease spots and wads of old gum. I wasn’t sure if it was their presence, but something seemed off, and I could tel that Jared felt it, too.
Jared held the door open for me, and even though I let out the breath I’d been holding, the heavy feeling only became worse. Apart from the cashier, we were the only ones in the store, but I stil couldn’t Meandering in the aisles with no real goal, I stretched my back and neck, picking up a package of something and then setting it back onto the shelf. A roach crawled from behind bags of crackers and then disappeared. I lurched back my hand, and glanced around. I didn’t recal the store being quite so filthy the last time we were in, but my memory consisted of a quick trip to the bathroom.
One of the fluorescent lights blinked and buzzed overhead. From my peripheral vision, I could see that the man behind the counter was staring at me. He was of smal build, and dark-complexioned. His lack of expression made me instantly nervous. I’d seen that look before.
I heard the cooler doors shut, and then Jared rounded the corner with two large bottles of water and a forced smile. He held out his hand, pul ing in his fingers twice to signal me to come to him. The air around us felt stale, and my heart began to thump loudly against my chest.
“You don’t have long,” the man behind the counter said, glancing to my protruding bel y.
I instinctively touched my stomach with my free hand.
Jared cautiously approached the cash register, keeping me a safe distance behind him. He took another step and paused. “Are you okay?”
The man was panting, his body swaying in a rhythmic movement. Sweat glistened across his face and neck, and dampened his white polo shirt.
The darkened circles under his eyes made his sunken eyes seem even more alarming.
When offered no response, Jared took a step back and threw a ten-dol ar bil onto the counter. “That should cover it.”
The man looked down at the folded bil before him, and then closed his eyes. He pressed his fingertips onto the counter, and then his body vibrated for a few moments before he snapped straight. He peered up at Jared. His eyes had changed; now obsidian orbs bulging from their sockets.
Jared put his hand on my chest and nudged me toward the door. “It’s time to go.”
I stumbled back, reaching blindly for the glass door behind me. The smal man jumped into the air and landed in a crouch on the counter. “I’m going to gut her like a fish.” The sound of his voice was terrifying; a combination of a smal child and the hiss of a snake.
I pushed open the door and ran head first into one of the large men that belonged to the group of bikers in the parking lot. He had a long, gray beard, and wore riding leathers. Forgetting my new strength, I plowed over him, knocking him to the ground. The man looked up at me with shock and confusion. Within seconds, all expression left his face, and the blackness of his pupils spil ed into his irises, and then to the whites of his eyes.
I scrambled away from him, and then Jared grabbed my arm, pulling me to the Tundra at ful speed. The passenger door slammed in my face, and then Jared was next to me.
“Seatbelt!” he commanded.
I grabbed for the clasp, trying in vain to remain calm. The smal , dark man gal oped toward us on all fours. Jared stomped on the gas pedal. The nozzle was stil tucked in the Tundra’s gas tank, and after a quick yank, the line came free of the pump, dragging behind us as Jared fish tailed onto the highway.
I rol ed down the window.
“What are you doing?” Jared yel ed.
“Your gun!” I said, my heart pounding against my rib cage.
He pul ed his Glock out from behind him, and placed it on the seat between us. I grabbed it, and then leaned out the window. Jared grabbed a fistful of my dress to keep me from tumbling to the road below. The smal man stood in the parking lot, chin down, watching us flee with his unnatural black eyes. I stretched out my arms in front of me, and pointed the gun at him, aiming at his forehead.
“What are you doing?” Jared yanked on my skirt, pulling me into the cab of the truck. “You can’t kill him!”
“Why in the hel not? He was going to kill us!”
“Once the demon leaves, the Shel is human again. He’s an innocent, Nina.” Jared pressed a button on his door, and my window rol ed up, cutting off the wind that had blown my blonde hair into a wild mess.
I turned to keep an eye on the Shel s. There was no tel ing how many had turned. The fuel line swaying against the asphalt distracted my attention.
The nozzle final y broke free of the Tundra, and rol ed into the ditch. A loud boom vibrated the truck, and a bal of smoke and fire rol ed into the sky.
The smal man stil stood in the street, glaring at us, just in front of the roaring flames.
“Jared!” I cried.
“So much for that,” Jared said, frowning. He peered into the rearview mirror to assess the damage. A column of fire shot up from fuel pumps. It would be a miracle if any of the people we’d left behind survived.
“Those people,” I moaned, touching the palm of my hand to my forehead. My eyes fil ed with tears, and I turned to face the front.
A few miles later, two large fire trucks, a pumper truck, and an ambulance raced toward us. all four vehicles ran hot, ful lights and sirens screaming, fading away as they passed. The ambulance trailed behind, but the second its back bumper was in line with ours, it flipped around.
“I see it,” Jared said, grabbing his side arm from the seat. He reached over, pulling my seat belt tight, and then without slowing down, jerked the Tundra to the right, turning one hundred and eighty degrees until we were face to face with the black-eyed ambulance drivers. Jared held his Glock outside of the window and aimed, shooting at their tires. The ambulance fishtailed, and then Jared jerked the truck again until we were once again facing north, with the ambulance behind us.
The ambulance skidded, and then tumbled forward, final y cartwheeling across the road and into the field on the opposite side.