The storm raged overhead, pounding through the yard, shaking the trees that stood sentinel by the house, and rattling the windows.
Joan sat at her kitchen table facing Max. She stared down the barrel of his gun and didn't flinch.
Max sneered, his lips curling up hard, accentuating his strong jaw. “It’s time to pay your dues. Joan, you turned from your power. For that, you will die.”
Joan didn't react as the man lifted the gun, as a massive bolt of lightning struck the street outside and lit up the kitchen in a blast of iridescent light. As it spilled through the room, it lit up the man’s massive form. Just as the light receded, it highlighted the shadow behind his left shoulder. A shadow from the past.
She shifted her gaze from Max and locked it on his shadow. As her eyes readjusted to the gloom, she picked out the long broadsword slung at the shadow’s side, the tanned leather hides strung across his back, the glint of power and domination in his eyes.
“Yes, I turned from the future,” she replied. “But only so I could create a better one. You cannot understand that, McCane, but trust me – it’s far more important.”
The real man – Max – stood, pushing up from his chair, his perfectly formed shadow following him – pulling him up, in fact, as it kept a dark hand locked against Max’s shoulder.
Max’s camel-colored leather boots ground into the polished floorboards, his bones creaking with a sound no normal human would make, as his shadow – McCane – smiled mirthlessly.
Joan stared from McCane’s enraged gaze to the muzzle of the gun.
“I'll come for your granddaughter. And mark my words,” McCane controlled Max’s mouth, “she will fall to me.”
“And mark my words,” Joan pressed her old, stiff hands into the edge of her table and rose, “she will not. She will realize what you are. She'll realize what these powers cost. She won't allow you to turn her into a husk so you can finally end your loneliness, McCane. Not my granddaughter. She will not see your future – she will create her own.”
“No. She’ll be mine. I will finally have my perfect seer. I will force her to use her powers until they consume her.”
“No,” Joan’s voice punched high and rattled with a blast. “She will break your curse and save what’s left of you.” Joan’s eyes shifted off the shadow and locked on the real man as he stood opposite her.
And that real man? He fired.
The bullet ripped from the gun and plunged through the center of her chest, disappearing in a flash of light.
Joan was dead before her lifeless old body struck the polished floorboards of her kitchen.
The shadow remained for several seconds, sneering at the old woman’s lifeless, dead body. But McCane could not remain forever. The past would call him back. He would not be capable of remaining in this time until she opened his door.
In the time that remained, he turned and stared upon his other self. Max. The scrap of McCane’s soul that was not locked in the past – his only hope that the future would finally be his.
In a flash of light, McCane disappeared, his shadow shattering apart like a mirror dropping onto flagstones.
Max rocked back on his feet, confusion swamping his body, tearing at his fragile memories like wild animals to flesh.
He dropped the gun as a haze flooded through his mind. The gun struck the polished, blood-stained black and white tile with a clatter, immediately disappearing in a curling wisp of black smoke.
He staggered towards the open French doors and fled into the night.
He would return, for McCane was not done using him yet.
It was windy. Wet. Wild. The biggest, most violent, ugliest storm I'd ever seen tore down the street, the meteorological equivalent of the apocalypse.
I lifted my head up, fringe scattering madly over my forehead as I tried but failed to shelter under the protection of my collar.
I'd made the mistake of parking on the opposite side of the street. Now I fought against the gale as I rushed over and threw myself onto the pavement.
The weather was so damn violent that it must have taken out the electricity along the entire block. I jerked my head up and cast my nervous gaze over the swaying trees. I heard their branches creak with such ominous force it sounded as if they were seconds from flying off and pinning me to the ground.
I didn’t like storms. Never had.
Call it a stupid phobia, but I’d always assumed storms were out to get me. Punishment for when I did something wrong.
And little Chi always did wrong.
Not on purpose. And only ever to make a living.
I hadn’t always been like this. As a kid, I’d been the kind of irritating moral upstart to tell on the other first-graders for swearing.
Now? Now I pulled my phone from my pocket, protecting it with my sleeve as I checked for any messages.
Yep – another fortune request. As soon as I got somewhere dry, I’d have to respond to it.
I instantly began rehearsing the crap I’d spout this time.
You should stay away from people whose name starts with K. You should stay indoors on Friday – otherwise you’ll suffer a terrible accident. If you join a local dating site, you’ll finally find your dream man.
It was always the same stuff.
I shoved the phone back in my pocket, noting the battery was almost empty.
Great. Or as my mom – who always preferred to swear in Chinese – would say, aiya!
Huddling even further under the protection of my large woolen jacket, I reached the right gate.
Despite the fact the night was dark, and cast even darker by the eerie lack of streetlights, I could still see the house before me. It was pushed back from the road, a generous yard leading up to a three-story Victorian style house.
I could barely see it, just make out the shape of its pointed roof and the sweet framed windows. Still, I'd seen it in photos from the will. The thing looked like it was right out of colonial history. That, or some fantasy book.
“Crap, it’s cold,” I muttered to myself as I finally gathered the gumption to shift forward, hand slipping over the chipped paint of the gate. After a few sharp tugs, the thing opened. It was old, and it creaked. And for some damn reason, I heard that creak even over the roar that was the storm.
I felt something crawl up my back, too. The kind of biting, sharp sensation I'd always get if I rode the bus late at night or headed down the wrong alleyway only to hear distant footsteps following me.
The kind of feeling that told me my time was up.
“You're making it up, as usual,” I told myself tersely as I walked with as much determination as I could down the cracked flagstones that led to the house.
A sudden gust of wind snapped a branch in one of the gnarled, old oaks in the yard. There was a god almighty creak and groan as the branch snapped in half and fell several meters behind me. The creak couldn't match my scream. It pitched from my throat as I bucked forward, letting go of the flaps of my jacket as the wind took them and sent them slapping around my arms and legs.
After a few heart-tearing seconds I realized I wasn't dead. I forced my sopping wet shoes to twist on the broken flagstones, and I pushed forward. Another few steps and I made it to the porch. It was old, and every step I took, the wooden boards creaked and protested under my weight.
I winced. The last thing I needed was for this house to require urgent repairs.
I couldn't afford repairs. Hell, I couldn't afford to pay the rates.
So I was going to sell the place, right?
That's what I’d decided on the plane trip over here.
This place meant nothing to me. My grandma had meant nothing to me. I’d met her once when I was five, and then once again when my grandfather had died.
My dad had always told me grandma was impossible to live with. A woman with crippling expectations who pushed everyone away. Of the brief interactions I'd had with her, I'd been able to confirm my dad’s assessments.
I could still remember how my grandmother had stared at me during grandad’s funeral. The way her eyes had ticked disapprovingly over the black shirt and trousers I'd worn. How her eyebrows had descended in a flick as I’d paid my breathy, mumbling, stumbling respects to my grandad.
She barely said two words to me. She’d ignored my dad, too, only acknowledging me once when she’d muttered, “Her father’s daughter then? Such little promise.”
Such little promise.
I'd barely known the woman, and ostensibly she’d had no effect on my life, but that refrain had always stuck in my head.
When I dropped out of college, it had been there – such little promise.
When I'd lost my 10th job in a year, it had been there – such little promise.
And when I turned my hand to fortune-telling, following in my mother's footsteps, it had been louder than ever – such little promise, such little promise.
Now I grit my teeth, reached the door, and fumbled for the keys in my pocket. I pared my lips back. “Such little promise,” I said pointedly to the house as the door unlocked and scraped open.
“Such little promise,” I heard something whisper from behind me.
I spun on my foot, eyes bulging as I searched for someone skulking through the shadows.
Except, there was no one there. Because my mind had made it up, right?
A combination of the nerves still scattering up and down my back and that godawful screeching wind.
“Pull yourself together,” I snapped as I brought a hand up, searched under the sodden collar of my shirt, and drew out the necklace from my mother.
It was a circle with blue, white, and gold enamel. On one side it depicted a golden arrowana, on the other, a tiger with its paw stretched forward. The fish symbolized gold. Prosperity. The tiger, among other things, protection.
While my father was of Scottish descent, my mother was Chinese. It was a weird mix, and left me with the smooth skin of my mother and yet the freckles of my father. And the gritty determination of both.
My necklace, while categorically being the most expensive thing I owned, was also a handy barometer of my mood. If I was trying to attract cash, out came the fish.
If things were going stupidly wrong as they were now? Out came the tiger.
You know in the oval office how there’s meant to be a big circular carpet depicting a bald eagle looking at a quiver of arrows or an olive leaf depending if the US is at war? Yeah, my necklace is like that.
Except for me, not so much the peace – more the money.
I held onto my necklace for a second then let it go, flipping the tiger forward deftly.
Don’t ask me why, but heading into this house felt like breaching the first line of a battle.
Steeling my nerves, I fumbled for the light switch, finding it after bumping into several side tables. Rubbing my knee, I flicked the switch several times only to remind myself that the power wasn't on along the entire street.
“Shit,” I swore under my breath.
I hadn't brought a torch, and I was sure the hire car wouldn't have one. Plus, my phone was almost out of charge.
I could head back out to the car and wait for the power to come on, but who knew how long that would take? On a night as wild and windy as this one, I wouldn't be surprised if the power stayed out until the morning.
But I was a big girl, wasn’t I? All I had to do was stumble my way to a couch or a bed and ride this out. Then, in the morning, I'd explore this place a little and call the real estate agent. The quicker I was out of here, the better.
Even as I thought that, I rolled my eyes. “Why, Chi? What exactly do you have to go back to? A shitty sliver of an apartment and a crappy fortune-telling job at the local Italian bistro?”
Yes. That was my life – hopeless, going nowhere, and essentially worthless.
Such little hope, my grandma’s disembodied voice repeated in my mind once more.
“Piss off,” I snarled at the memory as I stalked forward.
Mistake. I kneed something and plowed headfirst onto the carpet. I didn't roll, but rather ground my face into the rug, chafing my cheek and tearing my jacket.
“Goddammit,” I spat as I reached a hand out, found the wall, and pulled myself up.
Hobbling, I pressed forward, about as pissed off as a girl could be.
Though I told myself I should be thankful that my grandmother had given me this house, the will hadn’t gone to probate yet, and for all I knew, dear old grandma Joan probably had debts as high as the Empire State building. This house would be sold, and I'd be left with nothing but a bruised knee and a bill for flying halfway across the country.
Feeling petulant, I kicked the wall as I felt my way into a room.
The room seemed large, and as I widened my eyes to let in as much light as I could, I figured out it had to be some kind of sitting room. There was the shape of a sofa, a bay window around the front, curtains, and other paraphernalia.
All I cared about was the sofa.
“Bingo,” I muttered as I carefully made my way towards it, knee still smarting. I would kick myself if I’d done anything to it. The last thing I could afford right now was a medical bill.
I managed to reach the couch without further incident and flopped down onto it.
Another big mistake.
Something hissed and squirmed out from underneath me, scratching me right across the thigh.
I shrieked and jerked back as I saw the unmistakable shape of a frazzled cat skitter across the room. It stopped in front of the bay windows, jumped up onto the window ledge, and pressed itself against the glass before turning to me and hissing again with extreme disapproval.
“Aiya, grandma had a cat. Why did no one bother to tell me that grandma had a frigging cat?” I spat as I clutched the scratch along my thigh. Pressing my fingers together, I felt blood. The little prick had gotten me good.
Baring my teeth and hissing back at it, even though I usually liked cats, I felt around the couch and this time checked it meticulously before I allowed myself to sit.
An enormous bolt of lightning suddenly flashed in the street outside, illumination spilling through the bay window and blasting into the room like a shot from a flash gun.
Immediately afterward the largest clap of thunder I'd ever heard hurtled through the room, shaking the walls, shuddering up the floor, even jittering my teeth in my skull.
Unashamedly, I clapped my hands over my ears and screamed again.
I expected the cat to bolt from where it was sitting, to skitter across the floor, and to throw itself into the hallway to find some nice bed to hide under.
It didn't. It just sat there. And as the illumination abated, I saw a flash of its eyes.
It was watching me.
“All right, you creepy prick, I'm sorry I sat on you,” I muttered at it, not caring that my voice shook with nerves – after all, it wasn't like the cat could judge me and there was no-one else to witness my fear.
Still rubbing the spot where it had scratched me, I settled back against the sofa.
At least it was comfortable.
Pushing around with prying fingers, I found a cushion and curled up.
“Oh crap, you’ve got to work,” I reminded myself with a groan.
I plucked my phone from my pocket, the bling pink-and-white Hello Kitty case scratching against the sopping wet fabric of my jeans.
I rubbed my head and groaned again, fingers pausing for a single second before I unlocked my phone.
I needed the money, right?
Yeah, I’d ostensibly just inherited this place, but I still needed liquid cash.
So I crumpled forward, pinned my elbow on my knee, and started furiously texting.
Though the method of fortune-telling had changed in recent years, the content was still the same.
While I worked for an Italian bistro reading palms and cards, I got supplemental work from online fortune-telling sites.
I had a profile on all the major social networking sites. My online profile was Madam Veritas. And I liked to think I was getting a name for myself.
“Alright, what have we got here?” I thumbed along the automated message. “Looking to find love, ha? Aren’t we all.”
Same old stuff. Some poor soul going through troubles turns to a fortune teller to figure out what happens next.
My ma had a tried-and-true method.
Every fortune consisted of three things – the general, the specific, and the common sense.
“Dear Anna,” I texted, “you will find luck on Tuesdays. Be on the lookout for any opportunities. You must avoid traveling on public transport for a week. And you need to join Fetch Me a Heart – a dating site where your dream man is just waiting for you.”
I always sent clients to Fetch Me a Heart – we had a financial agreement. They ran our ads – we referred business back to them.
I hesitated before sending the text. Did I really need this job? It would get me like three bucks. And to be honest, this wasn’t the best fortune I’d ever written. Not to say it wasn’t true – it was totally false. I couldn’t read the future. I could, however, spin a very convincing statistical lie.
I rubbed my closed lips over my teeth as I battled with my tiny scrap of a conscience.
I looked up as I still pondered whether to ignore the fortune request, let alone send this abysmal reply, and I noticed the outline of the cat.
It was still watching me.
“Christ, you’re creepy,” I admonished.
I hit send.
Three bucks in the bank.
I turned my phone off just as the battery died.
I stuck it securely under the couch, tugged the cushion back up, and tried to close my eyes.
Just before I did, there was another flash of lightning.
It lit up the cat.
It was still sitting there and staring at me.
Maybe it was just my overactive imagination, but I swore it shook its head like it was disappointed in me.
Such little promise.
Those three words jumped into my head and lodged between my eyes like a blow from a cricket bat.
I squeezed my eyes closed and tried to ignore that repeating refrain.
But it, like the storm, beat on in my head.