The average rainfall in South Lake Tahoe, California, was only slightly more than eight inches a year, but Eleanor was willing to bet that they were getting it all in one fell swoop, judging by the full-fledged downpour that beat a heavy, thunderous beat against the roof of the Range Rover.
A willowy brunette with shadow-cast eyes, Eleanor sat in the passenger seat, seatbelt still latched in place, her thick cascade of hair drawn back, fastened with a faux tortoise-shell clip at the nape of her neck. Her body was thin, her complexion pale, her fingers wiry as she twined them together restlessly against the nest of her lap. Her clothes seemed to hang on her much as they might have a dry cleaner’s rack, loose and ill-fitting, accentuating the gaunt haggardness that marred what otherwise would have been a face of striking, nearly mesmerizing beauty.
By contrast, Naima, the woman sitting behind the Rover’s wheel, had dark brown skin and chocolate-colored eyes, her black hair sheared so closely to her scalp it looked more like a shadow draping the pate of her ebony skin. Her body was long and strong, all elegant lines and muscular curves. She, too, was beautiful, her features chiseled, nearly regal.
Together, the pair watched the Heavenly Motor Lodge, an older motel built in Tudor Revival style. With a fading white stucco and exposed hardwood trim façade, it was a relatively nondescript building made all the more lackluster by the shroud of rain. There wasn’t much to see. A housekeeper pushed a wheeled cart, heavy with stacks of folded white linens and paper-wrapped rolls of toilet paper, along the awning-covered walkway. A young African American woman, her skin a lighter hue than Naima’s, had returned shortly before the rain had begun; dressed in a sweat suit, she’d obviously been out for a morning jog. No one else had yet to venture out and brave the weather.
The woman had ducked into one of the motel rooms, but emerged now, nearly twenty minutes later, redressed in blue jeans and a long-sleeved fleece pullover. They watched as she followed the walkway to a neighboring door some distance from her own, then raised her fist and knocked loudly against the wood.
"Who is that, do you suppose?" Eleanor murmured, as the windshield wipers slid against the glass in sweeping arcs, awarding her a brief glimpse of the girl that was quickly obscured by a fresh pelting of raindrops.
"Her name is Angelina Jones," Naima replied as the motel room door opened and the young black woman ducked quickly inside. She used her telepathic abilities with an abandon that would have been frowned upon among the Brethren of Kentucky. Without inhibition or reservation, she’d open her mind and glean whatever she wanted or needed to know. "They call her Lina. She’s traveling with them." She cut a glance at Eleanor. "She’s sleeping with Brandon."
The motel room door opened again, and a man stepped briefly past the threshold. He panned his gaze, looking around the parking lot, his brows drawn, his mouth turned in a frown.
"That must be Rene," Eleanor said.
"Yes." Eleanor didn’t have to look at Naima to know she was frowning. It was obvious in her voice. "It must."
"He senses us."
"No, he doesn’t." Naima shook her head. "He can’t. I’m blocking him."
"That won’t work, will it?" Eleanor asked as, again, the wipers cut a clear path on the windshield. "He’s like you."
"No." Naima’s frown deepened. "He’s not."
The man, Rene, went inside again, closing the door behind him.
"Let’s go." Eleanor reached for her seatbelt, unbuckling the latch. "It’s almost noon. Surely they’re up by now."
"You promised you’d wait," Naima said, catching her by the coat sleeve, her dark eyes wide with sudden alarm.
"No, I said I would wait." She flapped her arm, dislodging Naima’s hand. "I never promised anything."
She opened the truck door and got out, slamming it on Naima’s startled, sputtered protest. The rain was on her immediately, pounding the top of her head, beating against her shoulders, soaking her, and she drew the back of her parka up vainly by the collar, trying to shield herself as she scurried across the parking lot.
When she reached the shelter of the covered walkway running the length of the motel, Naima caught her again. Winded and drenched, the two women stood together, shivering, puddles of rain pooling on the sidewalk beneath them.
"We have to go back," Naima said, water spattering from her lips. "You’ll need your treatment soon. Michel made me promise-"
"I’m fine. Michel is a mother hen." Eleanor pressed her fingertips to her thumb, a crude shape meant to simulate a bird’s beak, which she then used to poke at Naima’s arm. "Peck, peck, peck. I don’t have time for his incessant nagging."
She turned, but Naima’s fingers coiled against her coat, stopping her once more. "The man in that room…" Naima cut her eyes toward the motel room door, her expression grim. "He has a gun."
Eleanor smiled, the corner of her mouth hooking. "You won’t let him shoot me."
When she turned, walking toward the motel room door, Naima didn’t try to stop her. "No, but I should," she muttered as she followed, loud enough for Eleanor to hear.
As Eleanor raised her hand to knock on the door, it flew open wide, startling her. It took her a wide-eyed, surprised moment to realize she stood face to face with the business end of a pistol, one that was aimed with lethal emphasis squarely between her eyes. On the other end of the gun-visible only through her peripheral vision because she was too busy gawking at the barrel, or rather, the black, fathomless hole in the center of it-stood Rene, the man they’d seen earlier in the doorway, his dark blond hair swept messily about his face, his brows furrowed deeply, hiding his eyes in heavy shadows.
"Bon jour," he said, his voice low and menacing. Beyond his shoulder, Eleanor caught a glimpse of the young woman, Angelina Jones, and another girl, pale-skinned and dark haired, sitting against the edge of the bed, looking as weak and exhausted as Eleanor felt.
"Bang," Rene said, his fingertip against the trigger, flexing inward to fire. "You’re dead, chère."
Naima was on him before his finger finished folding. She shoved her hand forward, and he flew through the air like he’d been jerked back by an invisible set of strings. He sailed across the motel room, crashing into a large mirror over the vanity sink, shattering the glass. With a breathless grunt, he crumpled face-first onto the ground, surrounded by a shower of tinkling, glittering shards, the gun knocked from his hand.
"Rene!" the young woman, Tessa, cried, scrambling to her feet. Naima’s eyes had rolled over to black, her pupils widening. As she whipped her head around to face Lina and Tessa, her jaw snapped open wide, her fangs distending.
"Jesus!" Lina grabbed the nearest, closest approximation to a weapon she could find-a brass floor lamp. "Tessa, get behind me!" she cried, swinging the lamp like a baseball bat, sending the weighted rectangular base smashing into the side of Naima’s head, knocking her sideways, stunning her. When she moved to swing it again, Naima thrust her hand out, and the lamp was wrenched violently from Lina’s grasp.
Lina skittered backwards, her eyes wide with shock and fright, and she blinked at the lamp dangling in the air, whirling in sharp, snapping circles above her head. "What the…?" she gasped, gawking between the lamp and Naima. "What the fuck-?"
She might have said more, but her voice cut short in a startled yelp as Rene staggered to his feet and tackled Naima, breaking her concentration. The lamp toppled to the floor, causing Lina to dance clumsily out of its path while Rene and Naima landed heavily against the carpet. Like hers, his pupils had swollen, swallowing his eyes with blackness, and his fangs had fully dropped. They grappled together, and Rene straddled her, one hand clamped heavily against her throat, the other drawn back, his fist poised to strike.
"Naima!" Eleanor cried, just as Naima gathered her wits and telekinetically shoved Rene from atop her, slamming him up against the ceiling and pinning him there, nearly spread-eagle and immobilized against the plaster.
At the sound of Eleanor’s voice, Tessa turned, seeing her clearly for the first time. Her eyes widened, the alarmed color that had risen in her cheeks draining abruptly to ashen.
"Tessa…" Rene gritted his teeth, the tendons in his neck standing out as he strained against Naima’s invisible hold, struggling to move. His face was riddled with cuts and scrapes from the broken mirror, rivulets of blood streaming in thin lines down his forehead from his scalp. "Lina…both of you…run!"
Eleanor had been looking at Tessa, at the sudden, tussling flood of emotions in the girl’s face as she had recognized her-shock, grief, disbelief, joy and, inexplicably, outrage-but her eyes snapped toward Lina at the click of a gun hammer being drawn back. Again, she found herself facing the barrel of Rene’s pistol, only this time, Lina wielded it, swinging it wildly between Eleanor and Naima, her eyes enormous with panic, her arm shaking with fright.
"Let him go!" she shouted at Naima, her voice hoarse and shrill.
Naima met her gaze coolly. The lamp base had busted open her bottom lip and she brushed her fingertips gingerly against the wound, dabbing at the blood.
"I said let him go!" Lina cried. "Do it now or I’ll shoot!"
"Lina…!" Rene gasped, still pinned above her head, his face flushed with the effort to move now. His eyes rolled desperately toward Tessa. "Tessa…for God’s sake…run!"
"I’m a police officer!" The pistol shook violently in Lina’s hand, and she clasped it with her free one as well, struggling to steady her aim. "I’ll shoot you, I swear to fucking Christ! Whatever you’re doing…whatever the fuck you are, bitch…let him go. Now!"
"It’s alright." Tessa stepped directly into Lina’s line of sight, moving between the pistol, Eleanor and Naima, her hands outstretched. "Lina, put the gun down."
Lina stared at Tessa, dumbfounded, not lowering the pistol. "Are you crazy? Tessa, get out of the way!"
"Lina, please," Tessa said. "Put the gun down. It’s alright." She turned to the doorway, to Eleanor and again, Eleanor had no accounting for the anger, bright and apparent, flashing in her dark eyes. "This is my grandmother."