In honor of returning to one of my favorite story settings, I want to introduce readers to my main source of Steel City inspiration, Dave Dicello. Dave takes amazing photographs and has been hit hard by the pandemic. He had to close his gallery this spring. However, his prints are available online for purchase. I’ll be adding them to story-links for this chapter.
Now, here’s your story.
The wind moved the grass beyond the old farmhouse, heading away from mountains in the distance. Chelsea watched the ripples, wishing she could move on as easily. Beau Chang had been buried that morning, and now the monster hunters had gathered yet again. One last send off for the old man.
I should be in Pittsburgh already.
She found a laugh for herself. If she hadn’t come to bury Beau, she wouldn’t even have a place to start looking for Amber.
A sad voice came from her right. “Good to see you smiling.”
Chelsea eyed Florence. The teenager was an immaculate hostess and her grandfather’s death hadn’t put a hitch her giddyup. “Since when have you cared about my mood?”
Florence shrugged. “Keegan mentioned it a lot. He was always worried about you.”
“Yeah.” Chelsea swallowed a thick throat. “He still does that.”
It was Florence’s turn to laugh. “I’m glad you two keep in touch. Some teams don’t when they break up.”
Chelsea leaned against the post. “How you holding up, really?”
“I’m good.” Florence sighed. “I grew up around hunters. I’ve been arranging funerals for years. Took over when my mom got killed hunting nightlings. This will be harder when everybody leaves, but it’ll be easier too.”
Chelsea had no intention of hugging Florence, but an arm slung around the girl’s shoulders. “My parents were killed… an accident… a mugging. If you ever just need to talk…”
Florence leaned her head on Chelsea’s shoulder. “Thank you.” She stood up and wiped at her eyes. “So, why are you still here?”
“What?” Chelsea leaned back.
The girl giggled, sounding close to her normal self. “You hate people and crowds, and Sonja mentioned you were looking for someone. Grand is in the ground. Why are you still here?”
Chelsea’s face grew hot. “I don’t hate people–”
Florence giggled once more. “Let me get some food to take on the road.” She ignored Chelsea’s protests and headed for the kitchen. Less than an hour later, Chelsea found herself back on the road, a small fishing cooler full of leftovers in the trunk.
The prairie gave way to the rolling, green hills of the upper Mississippi, and Chelsea made sure to sleep in truck stop parking lots to avoid the local cops. The corridor of highway hurt her soul after the openness of the West. But Amber was somewhere in this mess of brick and concrete.
She rolled into Pittsburgh with the rising sun. Her GPS pointing her towards an old brick building in a shopping district known as the Strip. She parked down the block and reluctantly settled Bentley in the car. Out West he had the run of haunts, but she didn’t remember the East coast being so animal friendly.
The haunt had the usual camera and speaker. Chelsea pressed the button. “I’m here to talk to Rita. I’m looking for a friend.”
The camera buzzed seconds before the speaker hummed at her. “And who are you?”
Chelsea rolled her eyes, flashed a middle finger, and put her other hand on her hip. “Chelsea Childling. I just drove in from burying Beau Chang and I don’t have the patience for this bullshit.”
The heavy, metal door clicked and opened slightly. Chelsea slammed it shut behind her. The man on the other side waved her down the hall. “Welcome to Pittsburgh.”
“Thanks.” She stalked down the dark hall, expecting the usual, despite the neighborhood. Most haunts were squat, dark and dirty, with a decorating scheme of “Good enough for hunters.”
Rita’s bar was a cavern of glowing oak and gleaming brass. Stained glass windows left diamonds of blue and green across the floor. The giant wooden U of the bar commanded attention, as did the bartender.
Silver hair and gleaming green eyes pierced the bar’s natural dimness. She stood slim and imperious, wiping down the immaculate wood, while she studied Chelsea. “And who’d you’d be, girlie?” The accent was nasal and the ends of words clipped off. Nothing like the warm drawls of her youth.
“I’m Chelsea. I’m looking for a friend. Claud Elder told me to start with you.”
“Claud Elder? Never heard of him.”
Chelsea fought annoyance. A lot of hunters used fake names. But Claud had been pretty distinct, none the less. “Food his beard, dirty, wears a trench coat.”
Rita rolled her eyes. “The Trojan, huh?” She shook her head. “Have a seat and an Arhn.”
Chelsea refrained from repeating the odd word. The red and black label of the bottle of beer told her that the old lady had meant ‘Iron’. “So who is this ‘Trojan’?”
“The Trojan is a pain in the ass.”
“Why is he called the Trojan?”
A chuckle from behind her revealed a man younger than Rita, but still grey-haired. “He got himself captured by a nit of nightlings, on purpose, and somehow came out unscathed. And them? All dead.”
“Bullshit.” Chelsea couldn’t help the expletive. She’s fought nightlings head on and barely survived both times.
Rita and the other man laughed together, before the bartender flashed a smile. “You gotta good head on yer shoulders. Now, who you lookin’ fer?”
“Amber Neill. Young woman, Asian. Tends to be a bit of an asshole, even more than normal hunters.” Chelsea reluctantly pulled a small notebook out of her coat and showed a few sketches to Rita and the older man.
He whistled. “You draw these?”
Chelsea gave a curt nod, and the man grinned. “You’re good.”
“Thanks. Have you seen her?”
Rita shook her head. “Not fer a few months. She rolled through last fall, but didn’t say where she was goin’ or when she’d be back.”
Chelsea slumped on her stool. “Thanks anyway.”
Rita shook her head. “Now hold on, girlie. Let me see what I can dig up.”
The old woman grinned. “I might have some work for you while I look for your friend.”
“And how do you know I’m looking for work?”
“You a hunter?”
“Then yer looking a fer monster to kill. It’s just common sense.”
Chelsea found herself laughing. “Fair enough. Who needs some help?”
Annoyance rose her once more. “Who says I’m a newbie?”
Rita’s grin turned sharp. “You ran into the Trojan and didn’t know it. You ain’t been doing this too long.”
Holding back a sigh, Chelsea made her voice even. “I also need a place to stay, where I can keep my dog.”
Rita studied the ceiling. “I might be able to help you there, too. Lemme make some calls.”
Chelsea took her beer and wandered to a table. As she got settled, more people, some with fresh bandages, some still wet with monster blood, wandered in. As the booze flowed, a fight broke out and Chelsea relaxed. This was a haunt all right.
Eventually, the old man came over, a napkin in his hand. “We got a place for you. Your new partner will be here tonight. And somebody will be by with food in a bit”
“Thanks.” Chelsea left her unfinished bottle on the table and pocketed the napkin. “See you later.”
If you loved Rita, she first shows up in Uncommon Animals.
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