“The lights are on,” he said, the hope in his voice the first real energy he’d shown since the creature’s venom had begun to wear off.
They picked up the pace, hurrying up to the little parking lot. The rental agency had a brightly lit orange-and-blue sign, but it was set up in what appeared to be an abandoned gas station. Kitsune did not spend a great deal of time on this side of the Veil, but she knew the world well enough not to like it very much. There were places of great beauty, and there was real magic in the human race—some of them, at least—but there was also despair and filth, and this town reeked of both.
Inside the squat little rental car building, a thick-necked, red-faced man sat behind a counter smoking unfiltered Turkish cigarettes whose herb-redolent stench choked the air. Kitsune hung back away from the counter, feeling the shroud of smoke covering her fur, and wrinkled her nose in distaste. The middle-aged bull of a man took a long draw from his cigarette and watched her with a gleam of cruel lust in his eyes. Only when Oliver had made several attempts to speak with him did he at last pay attention and then a horrible distaste curled his lip, as though they had come into his place of business covered in offal.
The man held up his hands in surrender. “No English.”
Oliver shifted the duffel bag to his other shoulder and glanced at Kitsune. “And I don’t speak German.” Again he focused on the man behind the counter as he reached into his back pocket and withdrew his wallet. He slid his American Express card out and snapped it down onto the counter.
“You don’t need to speak English to understand me. Car. Vienna. One night. One,” and now he held up a finger, “nacht.”
He tapped the American Express card.
The man behind the counter continued to regard Oliver as though he were some sort of leper, for at least a count of ten before finally reaching out and picking up the credit card and studying it. Then he looked up.
“See,” Oliver said. “What language barrier?”
He handed the man a pair of cards, one of which was the international driver’s license he’d gotten in London. Kitsune felt sure the man would demand a passport, but after glancing at the license he picked up the credit card again, placed it beside his computer, and began typing, eyes on the monitor. The tak-tak-tak of the keyboard made her head hurt. The welts where the Hunter had stung her were little more than blemishes now, but they ached fiercely.
The man finished inputting information into his computer, then sat back and watched the screen, waiting for something. Approval, perhaps.
Then the man blinked and all trace of the hostility he had shown vanished. When he glanced at Oliver, it had been replaced by a kind of wary deference. He held up a finger to indicate that they should wait, and picked up the phone.
“What is it?” Kitsune asked.
Oliver shrugged. “Probably has to get phone verification on the charge or something. Nothing to worry about.”
The fox-woman pulled her cloak closely around herself, not at all convinced. The man’s demeanor had changed, his body language too, and though in the miasma of Turkish cigarette stench it was difficult to be sure, she thought his scent was also different.
In the short, hard-edged language of his countrymen, the rental agent spoke to someone on the phone. When he hung up, he showed them a placating smile whose falseness was inarguable.
“Oliver,” Kitsune cautioned.
He nodded, as if to reassure her. The man held up a finger again, indicating that they should wait, and then he went back to typing information into the computer. Every few moments he would frown as though what he read on-screen was not to his liking.
“What’s the problem?” Oliver asked.
“No,” the man said, smiling again. “No problem.”
He understood that much. Pulling himself away from the computer he looked out through the dirty glass of his little building and studied the cars in his parking lot, then ran his fingers across rows of keys hanging on hooks on the wall. The man continued to puff on that horrid cigarette and the smoke choked Kitsune’s lungs.
“I cannot breathe in here,” she said. “I’m going to wait outside.”
A bell dinged above the door as she left. Odd that she hadn’t noticed it when they entered. On the concrete curb in front of the rental office she stood and glanced out across the small fleet of rental cars at the town beyond. There was nothing left here of nature or magic, only the worst that humanity brought to the world. Pavement and metal and brick, smoke and garbage and cars spewing dark exhaust. Whatever magic there was in the season of this holiday of Oliver’s, it did not show itself here.
Several times she glanced back inside. Oliver stood tensely by the counter, glaring impatiently at the rental agent. The thick-necked man seemed nervous, and more than once she saw him peering out through the dirty glass at her, at the cars.
No. That was wrong. He was looking to the street.
Kitsune’s heart clenched. She spun, peered into the darkness of the town, and saw blue lights flashing in the distance. Her travels through man’s world had crossed centuries. Though they had been infrequent of late, she had been here often enough to know what those lights meant.
She pushed through the door with such force that the glass shattered. The man shouted as though he’d been shot. Oliver turned, staring at her as though she’d gone mad.
“He’s called the police.”
Oliver blinked. “What? Why?”
Kitsune shook her head. “I don’t know, but there will be time to discover that later. We must hurry if you want to get to Vienna tonight.”
She left unspoken the fact that if they did not reach Vienna soon, the plan would have to wait until the following night, and that would be another entire day’s delay before they could reach Collette.
Anger flared upon Oliver’s face. The rental agent was a big man, broad across the shoulders, with enormous hands, but when Oliver slammed his hand on the counter the man backed away instantly.
“Why?” Oliver shouted.
The man began to curse at him in German, throwing up his hands. Spittle flew from his mouth and his red face turned purple. Oliver swore, swept up his I.D. and credit card, then reached over to snatch a ring of keys from the wall, the heavy duffel bag banging the front of the counter as it swung forward.
The man tried to grab him but Oliver was too quick.
“Hurry!” Kitsune called.
They ran out of the little building. In the low thrum of city noises there were no sirens, but the lights had grown brighter. Down the darkened street, slicked with freezing rain, the police car was coming.
“How do we—” she began.
Oliver held up the keys, touched a button, and one of the cars chirped, its taillights flashing. They ran to it. The blue lights swept closer.
“Just get in and get down,” Oliver said.
The car was in the second row, third in from the end. Oliver pushed the duffel in and they tumbled inside, shutting the doors in the very same moment that the police car pulled into the car rental lot. They sat in the darkness, both of them breathing hard, as the police car stopped right in front of the little building.
A single policeman climbed out, glanced around once, and walked to the door. He stared at the broken glass and then entered.
Oliver put the keys in the ignition.
“Wait,” Kitsune said.
She opened the door, cursing the momentary flash of the dome light, and shut it quickly behind her. Then she was moving across the lot with an inhuman swiftness, racing along on fox feet. Inside, the car rental agent was shouting at the police officer in guttural German, gesturing wildly to the cars in the parking lot. The policeman snapped, pointing at the man, not pleased at all with being spoken to in such fashion. He held up a hand, wanting to make sure the rental agent stayed inside.
Cautiously, the police officer opened the door again, shoes crunching shattered glass.
By the time he stepped out of the little building, Kitsune had slashed both of his rear tires with unnaturally sharp claws. Unaware, he began to walk toward the darkened rental cars, brandishing a flashlight.
The fox dashed across the lot.
From fox to woman, she stood in a crouch and opened the car door. The dome light went on again.
The cop saw the light and started to shout.
“Drive!” Kitsune cried.
The engine roared as Oliver turned the key, and she practically fell into the car as he put it in gear and tore out of the parking space. The policeman shouted after them even as he ran back toward his car.
Seconds later they were out onto the street, racing into the darkness and grime of an unknown Austrian town, headed for Vienna in a stolen car.
The policeman would not be able to give chase. There would be others, Kitsune knew, but if they could get out of this little industrial town without being caught, she felt sure they would reach Vienna.
“What just happened?” Oliver said, and she was sure the question was directed more to himself than to her, so she did not respond. “Why are they after me?”
Kitsune said nothing, only watched the troubled expression on his pale features as oncoming headlights washed over them. She reached out and put a comforting hand upon his thigh. They drove in silence, the echo of unanswered questions drowning out anything else they might have wished to say to one another.
The Vittora no longer spoke, not even nonsense words. Even the insinuating tone of its quotes from her favorite films had ceased. Collette sat propped against the grating sand wall of her strange cell, turned to one side, legs drawn up beneath her. She had made herself very small, there in that rounded prison. The moon and starlight that came through the high, arched windows provided no comfort. As though she lay in her bed at home and could burrow underneath the bedclothes for protection and privacy, she huddled there, lost in thought.
Her mind wandered, lulled and lured by the voice of the Vittora. It no longer spoke to her, but that did not mean it was silent. Rather, its voice had become a ceaseless song, a high, childlike, singsong melody that segued from “Over the Rainbow” to “As Time Goes By” to “In Your Eyes” and on through others before starting all over again. This perversion of the music from her favorite films had begun to tear down her passion for those cherished memories. The incessant humming was quickly becoming the soundtrack for her madness.
The Vittora, she’d been told, comprised all her hope. Its separation from her flesh was harbinger to her doom. Yet as she drew her limbs even more tightly to herself, it occurred to her that the Vittora might be the place she was storing the fear and hysteria that she ought to have been feeling.
In that moonlit pit, she sat in her filthy pajamas with sand in every conceivable crevice, the stale smell of her own body in her nose, and the stubble of her unshaven legs prickly under the cotton. The Vittora was a tiny sphere of light, no larger now than a baseball—a golden glow that flickered and swayed on the other side of the chamber as though taunting her.
But as much as she hated the thing and wanted to snuff it out completely, Collette felt certain that as long as the Vittora remained, she would not succumb entirely to terror. As long as the Vittora remained, she could think.
A vast abyss seemed to open up beneath her. Collette felt the pull of it, as though she teetered on the edge and would tumble into it any moment.
“Up,” she whispered.
With that single syllable, she placed one hand on the wall and practically leaped to her feet. The Vittora hummed the tune for the Lollipop Guild and Collette laughed under her breath. Images of the Munchkins of Oz blossomed in her mind but were quickly replaced by small children, mutilated by the Sandman.
“Fucker.” Her voice was a dry rasp. It seemed she had not had anything to eat or drink for a while, and presumed that her captor was punishing her for spying on him or trying to escape, or both.
The question is how, she thought. How the hell did you do that?
The Vittora sang softly, as though to itself. Collette turned her back on it, half wishing the thing would simply disappear despite what that might mean. She stared at the gently curved wall, at the glitter of small bits of quartz or other reflective mineral in the sand.
Brow furrowed, she reached out and pressed the tips of her fingers against the wall. Nothing. It was entirely unyielding. Adding pressure, she tried to dig her fingers in, staring at the sand, at her ragged fingernails. Gritting her teeth, she put her weight into it, trying to drive her nails in. A little dart of pain shot up her ring finger and she hissed and pulled away, sucking on that finger, wondering if she had torn the nail.
Where was the door?
With only her palm, she brushed against the hard, abrasive surface of the sand wall, but it was truly like cement. She had been around and around her cell, probing for another soft place like the one she had discovered before, and found nothing.
Home. Collette had felt it, sensed it, tasted and smelled it. That bedroom, where the child had been horribly murdered, existed back in her own world. The place she was supposed to be. The Sandman could pass back and forth between the two worlds.
“So did he let me through, or did I dig my own way?” she whispered to the wall, to the night.
The Vittora paused and for a moment she thought it would give one of its nonsense replies, but then it began humming again, a shrill melody that she recognized from childhood, from some Disney film or other, though she could not place it precisely.
She ignored it.
Focused on the wall, she tried again to press her fingers into the sand, working the tips against the wall. Grimly determined, she slid her fingers across the hard surface, testing again and again. Useless. The wall was only a wall and her fingers could not penetrate.
It had to have been the Sandman, making the sand malleable, giving her the chance to follow. The creature had allowed her to dig away at soft sand and find that door and see what she had seen.
But then, why was he so furious?
The question lingered. She remembered quite well the way it felt to plunge her fingers into the yielding sand and to excavate that door that led out of her prison. It had certainly felt as though she was doing it herself.