Chelsea reached greedily for the proffered coffee cup with her uninjured arm. Hot, and somehow both bitter and smooth, she savored the drink. One of the hedge doctors had bought her one from the coffee shop downstairs when she limped in this morning. She was on her third. “I swear this almost doesn’t need sugar.”
Stephen chuckled as he finished smoothing a bandage over her fresh stitches. “Welcome to Seattle.” Smiling he took a step back. “Now about payment.”
She sipped at her drink again, not at all ready for this conversation. “I have money.”
“So do we.” The hedge doctor’s smile turned rueful. “What I need is a favor.”
The wince came despite her wishes. No monster hunter wanted to owe hedge doctors a favor, especially not the ones like Chelsea, who moved from town to town. She loved her freedom and this would inhibit that.
“Hunters.” The affectionate chuckle came with Stephen’s little head shake, long black hair shining blue in the light. “Luckily, I have something that needs to be handled immediately.”
“Oh yeah?” Chelsea took another long drink of her coffee, some tension leaving her.
The older man grinned at her. “You ever hunt nightlings?”
A shiver ran through Chelsea. “Just the once.”
“Well, there’s a nest here in Seattle. We need some help getting rid of them.”
Chelsea swallowed. “Some help means a team, right?”
He laughed. “Oh yes, a team. Some of our locals, you’d be filling out the ranks. They’re short a person and want this cleaned out fast.”
Relief filled her. “I can do that.”
As the hedge doctor got her the address for the local haunt, Chelsea fought back the memories. During the dead of a northeast cold snap, she’d learned monsters were real the hard way when a nightling killed her friend. That one night had lead directly to this day and this new fight.
A scrape on the metal table brought her back to the present. Stephen smiled as he slid her a clay jar. “A salve for the stitches. It’ll help with the itching.”
“Thanks again.” She raised her coffee at him and headed down the stairs to her car. Bentley’s enormous brown head hung out the open window, his thick tongue smudging the glass. “Hey buddy.”
The big mutt’s tail slammed into the seat. She plopped down behind the wheel. “I know we decided to leave the Pacific Northwest, but we kind of have to kill a nightling first. Okay?”
Bentley yipped and licked at her face. Chelsea gently pushed him away before heading north. The pleasant suburb with its manicured lawns became highway with frightening ease, but the city proper was grid locked.
She inched through traffic until she got to Center City. Frustrated with the whole thing, she found a parking spot, paid for the day, and then followed her phone to the restaurant, Bentley’s leash loosely wrapped around her wrist.
Salt breezes and trees framed buildings meant to dazzle with architecture, or artwork or both. Chelsea didn’t mind climbing the cement hills. The views of the water and the city made every step worth taking. Seattle loved art, and it wanted you to know it.
Brick side streets hosted tables of wares and crowds of people that didn’t thin despite the random showers. Smiles and conversation followed them. Chelsea felt happily anonymous in the moving crowd.
She was almost disappointed when her phone pointed to her destination. Like most haunts, this one seemed run down and close to abandoned. She settled Bentley at a parking meter with his sign: “I’m waiting for my owner and love pets.” Coos came from behind her almost immediately.
Chelsea was surprised at the lack of security at the restaurant’s front door as she wandered in. Exposed brick and piping framed what seemed to be local artist’s work for sale.
There were a few booths and a small, empty counter barely big enough for the cash register it held.
She wandered over to a tatty, purple vinyl booth and sat. Without someone watching the door, she was at a loss on what to do. There wasn’t even a placemat to doodle on.
A waitress, young, purple-haired and perky, popped out of the dented kitchen door and bopped over. “Need a menu?” The question had an edge to it.
Chelsea took a chance. “Not really. I’m here on business.”
“You should head upstairs then.” She pointed to a set of wooden stairs, blocked off by a ratty red velvet rope.
Chelsea smiled her thanks before hopping over the barrier. Narrow and creaky, the stairs lead to a single, huge, dirty room. A small bar, a few stools, and two tables held a group of plaid clad hunters. Tired eyes studied her over bottles of beer.
She waved, unperturbed by their glares. “Hey, I’m here to help with a nightling hunt. Stephen sent me.”
The bartender gestured her over. A young woman, not yet in her 30s, with long, blonde hair and a tranquil smile. She seemed to embody the granola girl spirit of the West Coast with her embroidered shirt and patched jeans. “Welcome, I’m Tracy. None of these folks are hunting those nightlings, but I can text them for ya.”
“Thanks.” Chelsea settled on a stool. “I’m still a little new to the scene.”
A grin appeared over Tracy’s phone. “We’re all new once. No biggie.” When she finished, her phone disappeared into her apron. “Can I get you anything to drink?”
Chelsea shook her head. “Nah, I just had a coffee.”
Tracy looked her up and down. “Let me guess. Americano?”
“Triple shot, no dairy can touch the glass, and it can’t be sweet enough. When I’m not stuck drinking instant, anyway.”
“At least you aren’t a coffee newbie.”
Chelsea’s answering smile felt a little stiff. Expensive coffee had been more than a daily ritual once upon a time. The college student Chelsea had been lived on the stuff, especially at finals. The urge to call Sister Mary Clarence and check in washed over her.
I miss her more than drawing and painting.
She feared the old nun wouldn’t recognize her anymore. Chelsea had moved so far beyond the depressed artist drinking her weekends away.
“You okay?” Tracy’s concerned gray eyes studied her.
Chelsea waved a hand. “Just feeling a little homesick. Though not for the coffee. The stuff in this city is the best I’ve ever had.”
Tracy’s sunny smile lit up her face, and her fingers grazed Chelsea’s hand. The goosebumps were immediate.
Chelsea cleared her throat. “Do you ever hunt, or can I always find you behind the bar?”
“I don’t have the guts to go toe to toe with anything that goes bump in the night,” Tracy looked Chelsea up and down. “But you can find me just about anywhere you want.”
“I’d need a number first.” Chelsea waved her phone at the bartender.
Before Tracy could do more than lick her lips, her phone buzzed. She pulled it out with a sigh. “Jacob says hi and welcome to the hunt. They’ll meet you here tonight to discuss a strategy.”
“Sounds good to me. And thanks for playing middleman.”
“It’s the job. I might not hunt, but I do my part.” Tracy turned to cooler behind her and shuffled around some bottles.
Tracy glanced at her phone again. “My shift ends in an hour.”
“Let me check on my dog, and I’ll be happy to hang out. If you want…” Chelsea barely waited for the answering smile to wink and hurry off.
By the time Bentley had been pulled away from his admirers and taken for a walk, Tracy’s shift was over. She lived a few blocks away. The apartment building had seen better days, but the Mexican restaurant next door was heavenly.
When the last grain of rice had been consumed, Tracy and Chelsea retired to the fire escape. Chelsea slowly pulled off her boots, planted purple-socked feet on the railing. “And here I was thinking of leaving.”
Tracy glanced at Chelsea’s wiggling toes and giggled. “Why would you ever want to leave? This may be the most perfect place in the country.”
The salt breeze brought a dash of damp as Chelsea gazed out over the city. “South Dakota was my happy spot for a long time. I headed here just to see something new. But I’ve seen it, and now… well, I’m ready to see something else.”
“Hm….” Tracy leaned on Chelsea’s shoulder. “Have you thought about heading into the Cascades? There’s plenty of monsters out there, and it might as well be another part of the world.”
“Yeah…” She’d blown through the mountains at the tail end of winter. “I dun–”
“It’s the high desert, so it’s kind of like the Dakotas, but hotter and dryer, with a ton more rivers and lakes and stuff.” Tracy sighed. “It’s gorgeous out there. I haven’t been in years.”
Chelsea slipped her fingers over the other woman’s. “You want to come with me?”
Tracy smiled and squeezed Chelsea’s fingers. “Sounds like fun, but I don’t get a ton of time off.”
“Neither do I.” People thought of hunters as wandering knights, but only a few really traveled far these days. They stuck to their territory. Chelsea was one of a dying breed. She worked when she wanted, but monsters didn’t really take vacations.
She banished the unpleasant thoughts. “So, what did you have in mind while we waited?”
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