"It was a stupid idea!""Brenna, sweetie, wake up." Her father's warm voice penetrated through her sleep. She rolled on to her side. "Brenna, you can't sleep here, sweetie."
"Spells /might/ exist."
"What about the killer, though?"
"Summer, could this be a ritual instead?"
"Don't wan' wake up," Brenna murmured.
"I know, dear, but you have your own bed upstairs. You should really use it."
"But I'm comfy here."
A note of sternness crept into Gary's tone. "Bren, come on. Let's go upstairs."
With great reluctance, Brenna forced herself up. She blinked the sleep out of her eyes. "Daddy?"
"Come on, up we go, Bren."
"What time is it?"
Gary looked at the cable box for the time. "Just past midnight."
"You didn't have to wait up for me, sweetie." Gary helped his daughter to her feet.
Brenna hugged her father. "I know."
"Let's go. We're both tired."
Tricia tossed a change of clothes into her briefcase on top of her toiletries and knives then slammed the lid shut. She set case beside a backpack filled with her more occult equipment. Time to look beyond her back yard for the next victim. She was sure that if she tried to find another sacrifice in San Diego, the police would find her.
She hauled her gear down to her black Lexus, tossing everything into the back seat. Locking the car behind her, she returned inside and back upstairs to her guest bedroom. Tricia unbuttoned her shirt and adjusted her miniskirt; her outfit wasn't the robes the ashen man preferred, but other men had shown their appreciation of it in the past. She rolled out the tarp, performing the same ritual to contact the ashen man as before.
As the smoke filled portal appeared, Tricia pulled the bobby pin keeping her long black hair in place. She kept her eyes fixed on the ground as a deep voice intoned, "Yes?"
"I need to go out of town," Tricia said. She raised her head, arching he back slightly. "I won't be able to let you sample the next offering. Do you trust my judgement?"
"You have not disappointed yet. You will keep up with your usual quality?" The last felt more like an order to Tricia than a question.
"Of course. Why start messing with what's working?" Tricia smiled. "It wouldn't be prudent."
"I'm glad to see we agree."
"With your leave, I'll head out."
"You should have your offering before the end of Monday."
Sunday morning, Brenna woke up feeling better than she had in the previous weeks. She picked up the note that her sister had written for her yesterday and put on her reading glasses. The remainder of the note warned Brenna that Amy was going to stay overnight Friday. Brenna crumpled the note and tossed it into her wastebasket.
Once dressed in a simple blouse and a long skirt, Brenna went downstairs for to eat breakfast. Seeing no one else around, she figured that her father was still sleeping. Brenna looked out a window, checking to see if Grace's convertible was back. Her sister's space in the driveway was still empty.
Brenna grabbed an apple from the basket of fruit. She walked outside, barefoot, as she nibbled on the fruit. Her father's new black Challenger sat in front of the garage with plenty of space for Brenna to fit the Savana in beside it. It took Brenna a few minutes to back the converted cargo van in so it faced outward at the road, but, when she looked at her van beside her father's car, she felt the effort was worth it. At least Grace couldn't complain about the van being in front of the house anymore. Besides, the lavender beside the black worked for Brenna's sense of color, though she reasoned it would work better if the Savana was black and the car was a light purple. Returning inside, Brenna picked up the downstairs cordless handset. She dialed Missy's number.
After two rings, a sleepy voice said, "'lo?"
Brenna felt bad right away. "Oh, sorry Krista. I didn't think you'd still be sleeping."
"It's okay, Brenna. Give me a moment?"
"Sure, sure." Brenna waited as she heard her friend stumble around.
Krista returned to the line. "Hi, sorry Bren. Late night last night."
"Sorry for waking you."
"Don't worry about it. What's up?"
"I just wanted to see if you had plans today. Maybe just go to the beach early and talk."
"Sounds great, but can we skip the beach? Me and Missy did that yesterday and I've got a wicked burn right now. Hey, what about that coffee shop near school we always went to."
"Sure. Want me to pick you up?"
"Definitely. I want to see what that van of yours looks like on the inside."
Brenna smiled. "Okay. I'll be there in about ten minutes."
"That should be enough time for me to look presentable. See you in ten!" Krista hung up.
Brenna set the handset down. She ran around the house, gathering her cell phone and her prescription, then walked back to the van. As she pulled out of the driveway, she wistfully looked at the parking spot she left open. Grace would have her Volkswagen in there before Brenna could get home later.
Brenna's estimate to drive to Missy's apartment was almost perfect. She arrived a couple of minutes later than she expected. Krista was already at the lobby waiting and ran out when Brenna pulled up along the curb. The young brunette opened the passenger door for her friend.
"Hi, Bren!" Krista kissed Brenna's cheeks. She got comfortable in the passenger's seat. "I don't think anyone in our class would have expected you to drive this beast." Krista looked around at the front cab. "I like it, though. Do you have a stereo?"
Brenna nodded. "Though the speakers are just up here. Eventually, I want some in back, too, so I can listen to music before bed." She put the van into first gear and drove away from Missy's building.
Krista looked back at the cargo area. "You have a bed in here?"
"And other stuff, too. I can show you when we get to the coffee shop. Give you the full tour of my little apartment." Brenna laughed at her joke.
"Bren, this is something. How much was it, if you don't mind me asking?"
"Dad bought it for me. He got both me and Grace cars when we started college, so we could get there and back without him having to drive us. All he paid was for the repairs and some of the extras, like the bunk. Anything else I want, like a stereo or a generator, I have to pay for."
"What about the curtains?" Krista asked.
"Those, I made myself."
"And your dad only paid for the repairs?"
"His mechanic recovered the van after it was totaled," Brenna explained. "I don't know how much it cost, though."
"Still, nice graduation gift. What did your sister get?"
Brenna half shrugged while holding the steering wheel. "A Beetle convertible. Slightly more cooler than this."
Krista smirked. "Bah. She doesn't have a bed in her car. Come on, Bren, retired old farts spend tens and hundreds of thousands on RVs. You've got one that didn't cost you a cent. I think you got the better end of things. Ever go off-road in this?"
"A few times. Last week, when I was out near Barstow. It's quiet in the desert. Cold, though. I need insulation put in."
"I need to interview you for my paper. Not for the murders, though you still owe one me for that. But I think you'd be someone people would like to read about. Independent, with your own transportation, living the American Dream."
Brenna laughed. "I don't think the American Dream includes living in a van because you can't afford a motel or a phone call because your art didn't sell as well as you'd hoped."
"That's the perfect angle, though. What it costs to live the Dream."
"Can I give you a maybe?"
"Sure. One news story at a time right now."
Brenna pulled into the coffee shop's small parking lot. The name of the shop had changed since she and Krista had been in high school, but the smell as the women entered brought back many memories of just hanging out away from the popular cliques in school. Out of nostalgia, Brenna ordered a hot chocolate, just as she had done far too many times in high school. Krista, on the other hand, asked for a double espresso with a splash of cinnamon.
Once they sat, Brenna stared at Krista's drink. "You're not going to explode on me with that, are you?"
"I need caffeine to get me going in the morning." Krista brought out her mp3 player. "Do you mind if I record the interview? It helps me with keeping everything straight."
"Sure, I guess." Brenna took a closer look at the device. "How do you record?"
Krista brought out her earphones. "With these. I just plug them into the mic port instead. Looks totally innocent if I'm out walking, too. I just leave the earbuds out so I can record and people think that I'm just paying attention, which I usually am."
"Have to keep people honest somehow." Krista took a sip of her double espresso. "Oh, nice. Now I remember why we kept coming here."
"You wanted to flirt with the barista?" Brenna smirked.
"That, too, yes." Krista leaned forward in her chair. "Okay, ready to start?"
"Wait." Brenna took a long draught of her hot chocolate. "There. Ready."
Krista chuckled. "You're the only person I know who takes a shot of chocolate to fortify herself. Okay." She pressed a button on her mp3 player. "Interview with Unnamed Source One, San Diego, Sunday morning, " she checked her watch, "at nine forty-five. Okay, you claim to have found one of the bodies, correct? For the record."
"For the record, yes."
"Where did you find the body?"
Brenna thought back over the past few days. "It was in an office – I never got the name of it – downtown. I was following a, um, can I call it a hunch?"
"Sure." Krista smiled reassuringly. "So, you followed your hunch to this office and what did you see?"
"I saw the body inside, bent around a desk, blood on the rug. I didn't stay long. The smell was just horrible. I ran out and asked my sister to call the police."
"When you say the body was bent around a desk, was it lying face down on top of it?"
"No. It was on the floor." Brenna forced herself to remember how she found the victim. "Either on its side or face down, I can't remember. It wasn't quite wrapped around a leg, but something like that."
Krista paused the recording. "Bren, you're looking a little green. Do you want to continue?"
"I'm okay." Brenna took another drink from her cup. "Just give me a moment?"
"It's okay, Brenna."
Brenna gave her friend a grim smile, then took a deep breath. "Okay, ready."
Krista restarted the recording. "The body, can you remember if it was a man or a woman?"
"I don't know. I mean, I saw the body, saw how it was lying, but didn't notice much else. Except, well, long hair. Probably a woman?" Brenna shrugged. "Hard to tell with all the blood and gore." A thought crossed Brenna's mind. "Oh, son of a bitch."
"What is it?"
"Something that Summer told me."
"Summer?" Krista's confusion was more than evident on her expression.
"My cousin. She lives in San Francisco. Or near enough to it. She was doing some research for me. One of the rituals bound a piece of the soul to the body so it could walk around."
"Like a zombie?"
"Summer's words exactly." Brenna tapped on the table as she thought. "But if there's bodies, then you can't really have zombies."
Krista shrugged. "Makes sense so far."
Brenna leaned forward. "But what if that's how the skeletons were removed?"
"What?" Krista stopped recording. "Bren, that doesn't make any sense."
"Neither do the murders. I'd have to read Summer's email, but I bet there's several rituals that could be used instead of only just one."
"Okay, Mystic Girl, back up a moment." Krista took drank some of her espresso to try to keep up with her friend. "What's with the skeletons?"
"I have no idea, Krista, but, it fits. According to the paper, the last victim had no bones in him. How many bones are there in a human body?"
Krista shrugged. "I have no idea. I dropped biology as soon as I could."
"Same here, but there are lots. Lots and lots."
"Bren, the headline could have been exaggerating to get sales."
"No, it fits. The body I found was bent all wrong, too. Boneless." Triumphant, Brenna drained her hot chocolate.
"Hate to burst your bubble, girlfriend, but why would your killer want even one full skeleton?"
"Oh." Brenna deflated. "I don't know. I wish I did. I wouldn't feel so damned useless right now if I did."
"You can't be the protector of the city, Bren. It's too big for just one person. Otherwise, Matt would be marshal and not just an officer."
"I know. But he'd look hot in Superman's tights."
Krista squealed with laughter. "You totally did not just say that!"
Brenna blushed. "Okay, he's hot. Really cute. He filled out well. And, well, here I am, mousy little Brenna Halliday who shouldn't be allowed around men because I can barely restrain my sex drive long enough to say word one to them."
"What about your doctor?" Krista patted her friend's arm.
"I can talk to her if I need to.
"Not what I meant, Brenna. Has she given you anything to help?"
Brenna nodded. "But I could outgrow that, too. At this point, I might as well freebase birth control for all the good it'll do me."
"Have you thought about just sleeping with him?"
"It's been in my mind a lot since Tuesday."
"I mean, just calling him, going with him, and then just go to his place or your place or even the back of your van and doing him?"
"It wouldn't be fair to Matt, though."
"You have to think about yourself, too."
Brenna got up to return her mug. "I don't want a one night stand, Krista. I want someone to share my life with. I want someone who can be a father to my daughters. I want someone loving, caring, interested in me. Try finding someone like that when every urge you have is telling you, 'Take him! Take him now!'" She sighed, then turned to the barista. "Another hot chocolate, please."
"Look, you need to find someone. I think you're going to explode if you don't. Matt's a nice guy and he has a job. Try finding that combination in this economy."
"I know, Krista. I just don't want to scare him off." Brenna picked up her new mug of hot chocolate. "Thanks." She returned to her chair. "How do you think Matt will react if I say, 'Hi, I like you a lot, I want to see you more, and, oh, if you don't mind, I need to use you for sex, starting right now.'"
"So don't phrase it like that. Besides, you've only had the one date."
"Not even." Brenna sprawled back in her chair, letting her hot chocolate cool a little. "It was dinner after an evening of interrogation at the police station."
Krista's eyes widened. "He interrogated you? Why?"
"It wasn't Matt. It was this detective. He was trying to find out how I knew where the body was."
"What did you tell him?"
"Eventually, I told him the truth. He probably still doesn't believe me. I wouldn't in his position."
"Forget the detective. What about Matt? Does he know?"
Brenna shook her head. "He wasn't there. We went for dinner, then Matt drove me home."
"You mentioned making out Friday."
"Right, forgot about that."
"Oh, please. There's no way you'd forget making out with anyone." Krista giggled. "When's your next date?"
"No idea." Brenna shrugged. "Matt's switching back to night shift. Who knows if he'll ever call me again."
Krista smacked Brenna on the arm. "Stop that. Bren, you are a sweet girl. Guys should be falling all over themselves to get your attention. Give yourself a chance."
"Bren," Krista said with a warning tone to her voice.
"Do you want me to call Matt?"
"Great idea. Saves him from having to call you."
Brenna closed her eyes and gave her head a shake. "Have you done this, Krista?"
"No." Krista gave her friend a sheepish grin. "Missy gave me this advice last year. I figured I should pass it to you if I'm not using it."
Brenna laughed. "Thought so. Hey, are you seeing anyone?"
Krista finished her espresso. "Not right now. I was dating someone back in February, but it got awkward. He was looking for someone just like his ex. I wanted someone who had a spine. But, not bitter."
"We need to do a pub crawl in Needles and find someone for you."
"For me? Which one of us hasn't dated at all since high school?"
"Not me. I had a dinner date this past week." Both women erupted in peels of laughter.
When she recovered, Krista said, "God, I miss San Diego. I miss you and Missy and . . . and everything. I even miss the zoo."
"I miss you, too, Krista."
"Listen to us, like we're seniors." Krista stood up. "Come on. I want to see your cousin's email."
Brenna finished her hot chocolate, needing several large swallows. "Coming, coming!" She ran after her friend.
"A ritual to put a man completely at your control."
"Does your cousin know how to spell?"
"Then why am I the only person I know not following her dream?"
"You have to start somewhere."