Silver bullet (exiles of.., p.1
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       Silver Bullet (Exiles of Ambercross 1, p.1
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           Chelsea Gaither
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Silver Bullet (Exiles of Ambercross 1
Silver Bullet

  By Chelsea Gaither

   

  Discover other books by Chelsea!

   

  Exiles

  Silver Bullet (book one)

  Blue Ghosts(book two)

  Gray Fox

   

  Tales of the Gray Prince

  This Found Thing (book one)

   

  Starbleached:

  Starbleached (book one)

   Planet Bob (book two)

  Silver Bullet

  Casey Winter sighed. Details in a murder case were like a magician’s secrets. Once the audience knows them, you’re screwed. The sniper might not be Corpus Christi’s first serial case, but she couldn’t think of another. The bullets he fired were silver plated, and it was bad, bad, bad that she knew about them now.

  She folded up the newspaper and put it back in the stand beside her register.

  Corpus wasn’t a large city. You could fit its population into Houston three or four times and have plenty of room left over. The perks of living on the coast, though, compensated for small town misfortunes. Beachfront property, camping trips where the ocean sang you to sleep (and sometimes soaked you awake), and all-you-can-eat fried shrimp at the tourist dives. Some even counted the mild winters. Personally, Casey felt broiling in summer wasn’t worth a forty average in December.

  Crime here was mostly drug related. There was a gang problem; people locked their doors, stayed off certain streets. The last month, though, had changed everything. Four people had been murdered, and not in domestic disputes or drug deals. At random, via custom made armor piercing silver bullets. Though the public hadn’t known about that until yesterday. Sitting on unique details, like gun caliber and specific wound patterns, was standard operating procedure for cops. After all, if the information didn’t come from them, they could track it back to the hands that fired the shot. At least, that was the plan before the local news broadcast CCPD’s hole card to the world.

  Silver bullets. Silver freaking bullets. Way to go, Channel Ten. Casey shuddered. Now, anyone with psychotic delusions, impulse control problems and an electro-plate kit could go wild and blame it on the crazy already roaming the streets. Thank God, this Leopard Street gas station was a regular stop for cops.

  Corpus’s few nasty places all empty into Leopard Street. Even the anemic weeds crawling through the sidewalk cracks looked desperate. A few blocks over, Loaves and Fishes offered a free meal for the homeless every day. Gang signs proliferated on pawn shop windows. This time of year, autumn fog draped curtains over everything. Nothing was hidden. If you were on Leopard Street, chances were you’d given up.

  A sniper was not something they were ready for.

  The first man killed had been a Hispanic gangster down on Staples Street. People assumed drive-by. One week later another gangster was killed, this time on Airline and Williams on the opposite side of town. He’d been waiting for a bus ride home. The men were connected—best friends, cousins, members of the same gang—so the press speculated about a gang turf war. Then the next two victims were killed. Neither had ever been in a gang.

  Working retail usually devolved into massive amounts of polishing, sweeping and window-scrubbing. The door alert rang. Casey gave off dusting the candy bars and turned with her happy customer face in place. A black buzz cut walked past the five-foot-two mark by the door, followed by a blond, and if reality had any justice he would be modeling underwear a thousand miles from here. She smiled. Arthur Ramirez was a Hispanic fireplug disguised as a cop. His drank biblical amounts of coffee; cuppa of black joe every hour, on the hour. Casey ran the only twenty-four-hour convenience store in his patrol area, so he bought his fix from her.

  Though she wondered how much of that habit had to do with discovering a crippled woman behind the cash register of Leopard Street’s favorite stop-and-rob. When the attacks started, Arthur’d been given the Leopard Street patrol. He’d come back two times that first night, three times the next night, then settled into a four-cups-a-night coffee habit.

  Casey tried to argue with his concern, but she was five-five of skinny, pale and brown. And no matter how fit she’d been a couple years ago, her ex husband had blown a big hole in her world when he’d shattered her right knee with a rolling pin. She’d divorced him the second she’d recovered enough to hold a pen. Free at last…which didn’t count for much. She was still picking broken-life pieces up every time she turned around. In one aching moment of now, Jackson Winter had turned her life into a whole before and a broken, nasty after.

  Coffee addiction and overprotective nature were, well, endurable. But Arthur Ramirez also had a heavy case of hero worship, and it kind of sucked. She finished dusting candy bars just as he came to the counter with his tall cup of liquid rocket fuel. The odds of someone in Corpus Christi knowing who fantasy novelist K.C. Winter was, these were pretty good. Relms’ Con would commence over at Bank of America Center in a couple weeks, and nerds galore would flock to the seller’s tables. Knowing K.C. equaled Casey, those odds were a little slimmer. Knowing her by sight, you’re moving into lottery-winner territory. For the cop assigned to her working neighborhood to be a rabid Ambercross fan? God’s irony fairy was working overtime.

  And he’d been horrified to find her working here. Like everyone else on planet earth he’d assumed that “successful published writer” meant “millionare in Victorian mansion”. Okay. So Casey could have lived off her writing income alone, if Jack hadn’t gone nuts and ended their marriage with a bang. Between the legal bills, the medical bills, and the general costs of living, she couldn’t make enough money writing to stop working. But she also couldn’t make enough working to stop writing. At least, not at the kind of job that would hire a cripple pushing forty without a college degree.

  Even she knew she deserved better. No one should waste time selling coffees and gas with a big target pinned to her back. But escaping the grind required effort, and she just had nothing left to give. And why should she try, anyway? Jack was gone, her money was gone, her body was shot, her family had pretty much disowned her, and her career…contrary to popular opinion, midlist author was pretty much a dead end. A gas station on Leopard Street was a perfect fit from that perspective. If you didn’t have a future, this was where you belonged.

  And it had a couple perks. Arthur Ramirez’s first visit of the night usually came with Marco Creed, Arthur’s extraordinarily hot best friend. His pattern was even more predictable than Arthur’s: Buy one hot-dog with mustard, take up residence at small yellow table, read and do paperwork until dawn. There was a big sign on the door that said no Loitering, an identical sign over Casey’s register. But Marco and Arthur had taken the owner aside two weeks ago and had a talk. Marco could camp here if he wanted, as long as he escorted the nightshift girls in and out of the store.

  It certainly improved the view. She glanced over at Marco. Six-two of blond, blue eyed gorgeous. Twenty years too young for Casey, goddamn it. He came to the register with money and the hotdog. She took the money. His garage, Anderson-Creed Auto, was a few blocks over. He made very glossy custom jobs, and guarded them with a large fence and a very ugly dog. The yellow table he’d staked out two weeks ago sat beside the door. Now he loaded it down with paperwork and a paper bag full of books.

  All but one of the sniper attacks had happened between two and four a.m. Casey traded shifts with her relief at three. Marco would be here when Jeannie came on and she clocked out, and he would leave with Jeannie when the day manager finally showed.

  This was all because of that first dead girl. Two dead gangsters weren’t scary. Nicole Hartman, however, had been a pretty blond colleg
e kid studying history. She had good family, good grades. She had type two diabetes, though, and didn’t like the stuff in Del Mar College’s vending machines. She’d made a run to the Stripes on a corner, like she did every night, and had been standing on the median between highway lanes. A black car had passed her on the left, and a rifle had fired.

  Casey had read every news story obsessively. Nicole had been studying Celtic history. She had a little brother named Jerry and a gap between her front teeth that turned her smile dazzling in its imperfection. She wanted to be a teacher. The bullet had shattered on her pelvis and she died after three hours of pain.

  The bell over the door rang again, this time admitting two Hispanic men. One of them looked okay, Casey thought. Only one tattoo, a skillful tangle of roses across his upper back which must have been a considerable chunk of change and pain. The other one looked like he’d gotten out of jail two days ago. Arthur stiffened like someone had stuck a broomstick up his spine. Marco just read and ate his hotdog. It was nice of Arthur to engineer protection, Casey thought, but she’d rather have had the garage’s ugly dog. At least Marco’s puppy knew when bad guys had shown up.

  “What are you doing here, Julio?” Arthur asked.

  “Hey man,” the rose tattoo said. “We just buying groceries, man. Can’t a man buy groceries, man?”

  Oh, please. Casey rolled her eyes. Julio put a hand on the little guy’s shoulder. Cool it. “My lady blew through her cigarettes. Tony here needs to get some beer, too.”

  “It’s your probation if you drink, bro,” Arthur said.

  “And I’m not doing a goddamned thing to risk it. I got two kids now, Artie. I got one more shot, and I’m gonna make it count.”

  Tony the Rose Tattoo, meanwhile, leaned into a cooler and pulled out a six pack of beer. He looked old enough to buy it, barely. There was a mermaid amid the roses on his back, and Casey was stunned by its beauty and realism. Whoever had done it was really talented. Tony dropped the beer on the counter and said, “Pall-Malls.”

  “Where’d you get the ink done?” She asked.

  “What’s it to you, bitch?” Tony asked. He puffed up like a fighting rooster, sans spurs. “Gimme a pack of fuckin’ Pall-Mall already.”

  Okay. Sorry, kiddo. You watch too many gangster movies. She rang up the beer and the cigarettes. “ID?” She said.

  “Bitch, do I look like I’m under age?”

  “You look twenty two. I have to check. Sorry.” She shrugged. Grudgingly, a wallet was produced. He was twenty-five.

  Behind him, Arthur and Julio appeared to be deep in conversation. Casey heard the name Amaya Hernandez, and her stomach lurched. Amaya had been a slightly overweight itty bitty Hispanic woman with gray hair, a big heart and nerves of steel. And she, too, had died.

  Charity, Casey thought as she handed Tony his change, was a nice, big word. You felt good dropping a fifty dollar check in an envelope addressed to Ethiopia. You win the Cheerful Giver merit badge…but make sure it's the right charity. Make sure that your drop in the bucket goes to some college fund for the deserving, or a teen mother choosing adoption over abortion. Make sure your charity is socially acceptable. Places like Loaves and Fishes weren’t that kind of charity. They didn't ask for blood tests, or your status in AA. They didn't check to make sure you were furthering your education through the socially approved networks. It’s one thing to give to people who are trying hard. It’s another thing entirely to devote your life and time to people who have already given up. Perhaps it’s not a better gift, but it certainly is a bigger one.

  Amaya Hernandez had been an administrator for Loaves and Fishes, until she resigned to become a social worker for CPS. She was a children’s advocate in CASA. She connected needy families to Habitat for Humanity. She had touched the hearts of wealthy philanthropists and gangsters with three or four murders under their belt, she had probably saved more lives than she could count, and she’d been gunned down on Leopard Street two nights ago, while escorting a pair of children home.

  Today the news had leaked: She'd been shot by the same killer as the gangsters and Nicole Hartman. All linked by a silver bullet.

  Julio shook his head at Arthur. “Look…I don’t know who killed Miz Maya, alright? You can bank on that, sir.”

  Tony rolled his eyes and took his beer. Arthur said, “Alright, man.”

  Julio’s eyes had a crazy white cast to them now. “Because if I did know, you’d be arresting me right now, Artie. She took care of my kids. She took care of my mom. My wife, when she had nobody, she knew Miz ‘Maya would be there. I find out who did it, I shoot the motherfucker. And then I’ll call you, and shit on the son-of-a-bitch’s face ‘fore you get there.”

  “Get in line,” Casey said quietly. Julio, Arthur and Marco all looked at her, then smiled. The tension broke like clouds.

  “Hey, Miz Winter, right? When we gonna get another book? You left that Leythorne dude in a nasty mess last time.”

  Oh for God’s sake. Can we give Irony Fairy a break, already? Arthur and Marco looked like puppies begging for treats. Even Tony looked interested. She sighed. Fantasy novels. Elves and Faeries. Even things out of her personal nightmares. For some people, it was better than candy. “You’ll get it when you get it, mkay?” She said, demurely. Julio laughed.

  “Let’s get, dude.” Tony said, and shuffled out of the store. Julio took a minute longer, clapping Arthur on the back, shaking Marco’s hand, and giving Casey a smile that left her craving a shower.

  “That guy,” Marco said, “is bad news.”

  Arthur rolled his eyes. “Julio and I went to highschool together. He’s screwed up. Bad. I don’t know if he can pull himself out of it, but I think he is going to try.” He rubbed his scalp.

  “I meant the kid.” Marco turned a page.

  “What’s wrong with Tony?” Casey asked.

  Arthur sighed. “He’s nothing. Gangster wannabe. If he gets busted for selling one more time, he’s going in for longer than Julio. I’ll see you kids later.” He waved at Marco, at Casey, and then went back to his patrol car.

  Marco settled onto his stool and took a book out of a paper bag. Naturally, it was one of hers.

  For the last few nights, walking out to her car had been Casey’s personal hell. Her tiny red Nissan glowed in the October fog like a bulls-eye. Footsteps echoed off walls like a gunshot in a concrete canyon. Stoplights blinked like eyes; orange streetlamps caught the air on fire. Cars drifted out of this haze like sharks. If you wanted to sneak up on someone, all you had to do was sit just up the road, lights off, and wait.

  It was two-forty-five. She got off this shift at three.

  “I’m amazed you’re not more worried.” Marco’s words startled Casey out of her reverie. She shook herself, studied his face, and smiled. He wore a ball cap even indoors, and would have looked naked without it. Nobody, she decided, should look that pretty. “You saw the news. Sniper’s packing silver plated bullets with the ends filed to points.”

  “Hell,” Casey said. “I still have to walk to the car, you know? Damned if I’m gonna crawl on the ground because some lunatic’s tired of shooting at target posters.”

  Marco chuckled. “You know…you’re a lot braver than you come off.”

  “Thanks,” she said, dryly. Then she chuckled to herself.

  “What?”

  “I will bet you money, I’m the only person to hear about the bullets and not immediately think ‘werewolf.” She grinned at him, and he smiled back.

  “You’d lose,” he wraggled the book at her. In Casey’s novels, Faeries reacted to steel the way vampires reacted to holy water. A stainless steel fork could burn them worst than napalm, not that they had forks in Ambercross. Or napalm. Or gunpowder, for that matter. The darker species of Faerie—she supposed they’d be the unseelie court, though she didn’t divide them that way in her novels—were just as badly injured by silver. In Ambercross, it was standard for an Elf to carry a silver
plated knife in a boot so that, if one such nasty should appear, he could kill it without damaging himself or another Faerie. If an Elf owned a gun, he’d carry silver bullets.

  Two-fifty. Two fifty-five. Casey closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Jeannie Weston pushed through the door at exactly two-fifty-nine. Casey’s relief was an overweight red-headed single mother of two. She slammed the door behind her and said “Safe!” dramatically. You only saw the white skin and trembles if you knew her really well. Jeannie was terrified of the sniper, but she’d turned her anxiety into a running gag. She was, Casey decided, an okay human being to know.

  Jeannie nodded to Marco as she made a b-line for the back room time clock. Casey followed. In an hour, she would be home. Thirty minutes later, she’d be asleep. Wake up at noon, try to get some writing done, shower, drive out here. Life was like the instructions on a shampoo bottle. Lather, Rinse, Repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

  Marco stood as she neared the door. “Walk you out, Lady Winter?” He asked. She let him open the door for her. He tapped the brow of his ballcap as she passed. It was their evening ritual. Part of her would be very sad when this was over and Marco stayed at his body shop all night again. God he was handsome. Why couldn’t he be forty? Or even thirty five?

  They stepped into the banks of October fog. Cars and buildings across the street were hunkered shapes. She shivered. Given the events this month, not being able to see was—

  Tires squealed, and the world slowed down.

  A car broke through the fog like a glossy black bullet. Light gleamed off its mist shrouded curves. The grill was chrome teeth, and the rear driver's-side window was down. A long, narrow tube poled out of the window. Reality melted like an icicle. The car oozed forward, motor purring. The gun barrel had a wide and staring eye, and it was looking right at her.

  Run, she thought, and came down wrong on her bad knee. Fire shot through her bones and her good knee gave out. Marco grabbed her, twisted her under him, and the retort echoed off buildings. Something hard grazed her shoulder. A small black hole opened on the back of her car. Marco’s weight pulled her to the ground. She rolled across asphalt, scraping her bad cheek against the gravel. Another shot fired, and something wet and hot splattered over her. Marco screamed. There was a third shot, and then the murderer’s engine roared. Red tail-lights flashed once in the darkness, and then the car was gone.

  Life exists in terms of before, now, and after. Casey thought, in the shocked silence that followed. I was in before. This is now, and when this passes everything that follows will be changed. So are we done? Am I after, yet?

  Warmth dribbled across her cheek. Marco’s blood. It dribbled out of a hole in Marco’s shoulder. He rolled away, groaning, and she stared at the harsh lights of the gas pump overhang. Blood pumped furiously through Marco’s fingers.

  Blood, she realized, that was the wrong color. A shallow and transparent amber, far removed from human blood. It was pouring out of his body, and she felt cold. She knew what bled like that. Oh God, oh God, oh yes she did.

  This is it. This is now.

  Jeannie poked her head out of the convenience store. "What the hell--"

  "Call the police!" Marco shouted. Casey couldn’t move. His hat had fallen off, and through his tangled curls Casey saw the tip of one pointed ear. He met her eyes and smiled ruefully. One pale finger arched to his lips, shhhhh. Slowly, a little theatrically, he put the ball cap on with his uninjured hand. The blood flow slowed, then stopped. Whole white flesh showed through the bullet hole in his shirt.

  It had healed. Completely.

  The only reason, Casey thought, to shoot a silver bullet is to hunt a monster…or to avoid killing a Faerie.

  This is after.

  The man who saved her life was an Elf.
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