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The darkened skies turned to a witches' brew of boiling clouds and fire. Lightning spit, striking a dry desert and leaving black scars of burnt sandstone behind. Torrents of slapping, rushing water, which she knew were a rarity on the Navajo reservation, gushed into parched gullies and flooded sage-clogged ravines.
Alexis Ayze took her foot off the gas pedal and turned to check on Jack, who was buckled into his car seat. Oblivious to his mother's growing fears, the little boy slept soundly, in the deep kind of sleep only a child of four who implicitly trusts his world could manage.
Thank heaven. She had to stay strong for Jack, regardless of how tired and terrified she became.
Lexie wasn't sure why she felt so jumpy and edgy. Well okay, maybe going to meet her in-laws for the first time was a little nerve-wracking all by itself. But as their son's widow and the mother of their grandson, she was positive they would welcome her-even though they had more or less cut her late husband, Dan, out of their lives long ago.
In pure desperation, Lexie had written to them and was relieved when they'd called to insist she and Jack come to stay. They had been her last hope of escaping Dan's debts and finding a way to carve out a new life for herself and her son.
The growing thunderstorm wasn't helping her current state either, despite her familiarity with harsh storms. During her marriage to Dan, the two of them had lived in a lot of areas of the world subject to storms. Every oil field or potential well site had been fair game for Dan. The North Sea, the North Slope fields of Alaska and the Permian Basin in West Texas were just some of the places with plenty of nasty weather. She'd lived through them all. But this one still felt different.
Another sudden spark of dark fire raced across the night sky and Lexie felt static electricity run up her arms. It was so black out here. She wasn't even sure where here was exactly. There weren't any highway signs.
At the crack of thunder, Jack stirred in the backseat, and she stepped lightly on the brakes again. The rain was coming down too hard to see more than a few feet ahead, so she pulled off to the right side of the road and brought the car to a stop. By the time she turned back to check on Jack, he had quieted down again.
How did single mothers ever learn to cope with the concern all by themselves? Since having Jack, she'd gained a whole new respect for what her father had gone through as a single parent.
Lexie wouldn't give her darling boy up for anything on this earth. In fact, she would gladly die for him. But four years ago, if she had known she'd be raising a child all by herself, she might've thought better about having one.
The constant worry was the hardest part. Damn Daniel Ayze for bringing them all to this point.
She swiped at the few stray tears leaking from her eyes. If only her own father were still alive. He would've taken her and Jack into his home in a heartbeat.
The one person who'd loved her more than life had not lived to meet his grandson. In fact, her father's death eight years ago was what had put in motion a complete change in Lexie's world. One that eventually led her right here-taking her son to Dan's family home on the reservation in Arizona.
And she and Jack were almost there. They couldn't have more than a few miles left to go.
She didn't know much about Dan's family. In fact, the only family member she'd even met was his older brother, Michael, who'd defied the rest of the family and had come to their Las Vegas wedding six years ago.
It was kind of eerie, going to live with people she didn't know. But she had no choice. Lexie had promised herself that she and Jack would only stay with her inlaws until she could get back on her feet and finish paying off Dan's debts. She needed their help taking care of her son while she went to work.
The rain began to let up and she stared out past the windshield wipers at what had suddenly become the darkest, blackest night she'd ever seen. Were they lost?
Where the heck were his dead brother's wife and child? This was no night for strangers to be out after dark.
Lexie knew she was lost. What she didn't know was how to turn around and go back.
She'd been so positive she'd made the right turn off the asphalt highway back there. But after a mile or two of driving, the gravel road had almost disappeared. Until, finally and miserably, she found herself heading down a narrow, one-lane path with tall brush growing higher than the car on both sides.
How on earth was she going to get out of here? She blinked back another frisson of panic and reminded herself that even narrow gravel roads went somewhere. Eventually she would come to a house or another turnoff. All she needed was enough space to turn the car around.
If only the weather had been a little better tonight. True, the downpour had slowed to a drizzle, but misty fog had begun to fill up all the dips in the road. The gravel lane she'd been driving had dips, potholes and gullies in abundance, too.
As if to prove her point, the car's headlights shined on the edge of a huge, dark dip in the road. No choice now but to slow down and carefully navigate the upcoming hill like she'd already done for the last few.
But as the car slowly moved over the edge, she saw that this particular gully seemed a lot steeper than any before. On the way down, her headlights beamed against a puddle at the bottom. She'd already driven through a lot of wet spots on the roads, but it was hard to judge the width of any puddle in the extreme darkness of the cloudy night.
Slowing to a stop as her car came to the edge of the water, Lexie tried to peer across but couldn't see to the uphill side of the gully because of the fog. She put her foot on the brake, closed her eyes and rested her forehead on the steering wheel.
What could she do to keep herself from becoming totally spooked? She had to remain calm for Jack, so she tried a series of small stretches. Would her car be able to get up enough speed in order to climb the other side?
Please let this old sedan make it as far as her in-laws' house. She'd never been very religious and hadn't prayed in years. But this was the time for it.
"You've made a bad mistake. Get out of here." Dan? The voice seemed to be her dead husband's. Impossible. She must be hallucinating.
She opened her eyes and turned to the familiar voice coming from the passenger seat. There, casually slumped in the seat and grinning the same old nonchalant smile she'd once fallen in love with, was her husband, Dan.
Oh. My. God. Lexie blinked, then swiped at her tired eyes. She bit back a scream and took shallow breaths, trying desperately not to freak out. This was one more time where she needed to stay strong for Jack.
Seeing dead people wasn't a totally foreign concept. Lexie's talent for such things had been immature while her mother had been alive, but definitely there, whether she'd wanted it or not.
Lexie had put that part of her life away in a secret compartment of her mind after her mother's death. Mother had been the one who'd seen ghosts.
Why was Dan's ghost here? Why now? "Am I dreaming?" she managed to say as she tried to stem the shakes. "Or dead, maybe?"
and you are definitely not dead. Not yet anyway."
She shot a quick glance at Jack in the backseat, trying to assure herself he was okay. Her child kept on sleeping and seemed fine. Turning back, she frowned at the vision of his father.
"What's going on?" she demanded, as if the apparition were her real husband. "Why are you here?"
He laughed in the same overly charming manner that had once enthralled her but eventually had grated on her nerves. "I'm whatever you want me to be, and I'm here to warn you away."
"Warn me away from what? Will you please stop speaking in code? Would it kill you to say what you mean?"
Her words brought out another bark of laughter from Dan's ghost, and she gritted her teeth to keep from yelling at him. Death did not seem to make her husband any more endearing than he'd ever been.
"I'd say there isn't much that can kill me these days, darlin'."
"R-right." She swallowed hard. "Then at least tell me straight out what you came to say."
The vision of her husband sat up and lightly touched her face. "I've missed you, Lex. That's one thing I wanted to say."
Lexie wondered if she shouldn't be more afraid of seeing a ghost. But she wasn't.
Lexie wasn't scared of Dan's spirit in the least. Instead, she found herself becoming more and more furious at his memory.
Rearing away from his touch, she scowled. "You shouldn't have left us to run off to Iraq. What was so wrong with making enough money at home to pay off your debts? You shouldn't have done anything so dangerous. You had a child to think of."
He chuckled. "Why should I have thought of him? You were doing enough of it for both of us." Straightening and shaking his head, Dan continued, "Speaking of dangerous, you shouldn't have come here, Lex. You're in the wrong place."
"I know we're on the wrong road, dammit. Tell me something I don't know. Like how to get out of here."
"You should not have come to Dinetah at all. There's great evil on the reservation. Go home."
Evil? "We don't have a home to go to anymore. Thanks to you. And what do you mean by-"
Her words were stopped by a sudden rumble of thunder coming from her left. She turned to look for the lightning flash, trying to judge how far away the bolt had hit. It had sounded close.
She felt the ground move before she fully realized how much trouble they were in. A massive wall of water appeared out of the darkness and quickly covered the hood of her car before she could even catch her breath.
She didn't have a moment to think. The sound hadn't been thunder at all, but the roar of rushing water coming straight at them. Where was the water coming from? "Dan, help us." She turned back, but the vision of him was gone.
Water began seeping around the door into the passenger compartment. She had to get out of here. She had to get her baby out of here.
Flipping open her seat belt, she gripped the door handle and tugged. The door wouldn't budge.
She reached for the electric window buttons and discovered the car had died. Without power, none of the windows would open.
Dear God. No!
The force of the rushing water began to rock the whole car. Icy cold water was already covering her feet.
"Jack! Wake up, baby. We have to get out of the car." She fought her way to her knees and prepared to crawl over the seat to get to Jack.
Lexie threw herself forward, landing in a heap on the through from dropping into the quickly rising water. Shivering, she reached for her child.
"Jack. Help Mommy get you out of the seat belt, honey." It took everything she had to keep her voice calm.
Instead of helping him undo the belt, she trusted him to do it. Grabbing the door handle next to him, Lexie shoved hard. She had to find a way out of the car. The water was already creeping up to the edge of the seat and she could feel the whole vehicle being shoved sideways by the sheer force of the water's current.
The back door next to Jack's seat was locked tight and refused to budge. Trust the childproof safety windows and door locks to work when you didn't want them to.
"Are you free?" she asked Jack as she reached for him.
"I'm scared." He scooted toward her.
"Don't be afraid. We're going to be okay." She hugged him close and tried to think. "This is a new game, honey. First move is getting into the front seat. Can you do it?"
"Yes," he said and scrambled up and over. "Do I win?"
"Not yet, baby." Lexie wished she was as limber as her child. "My turn."
Putting aside the overwhelming panic, she grabbed the seat and somersaulted over it, landing next to Jack. "You okay?"
He mumbled an answer and she could tell he was beginning to shake. "Move away from the door, honey. I'm going to push it open so we can get out."
Jack inched toward the steering wheel on the driver's side of the car, out of her way. Lexie grabbed the passenger door handle and shoved hard. Miraculously, it opened. Slightly. But when she kept on pushing, the door refused to go any farther than an inch or two.
What were they going to do?
Lexie felt around in the water on the floor, hoping to find something heavy enough to break the window. Of course, there was nothing like that.
She took off her shoe and began to bang it against the glass. Nothing happened except dull thuds.
They couldn't get out and were going to drown. Her baby was going to die. The dark purple fog of hysteria clutched at her throat.
Starting to cry, Lexie beat against the window with her fists. Then she turned, opened the glove box and dragged out everything it contained. Maps. Gas receipts. Cheap sunglasses. But nothing that could break glass.
Jack caught her panic and started to scream. The water covered the bottom of the seat now and gushed through the car, shoving everything toward her and pinning her to the partially open door.
Her little boy grabbed hold of her neck with a death grip. "Out. Mommy, I want out."
She couldn't get herself together enough to calm her child. They were going to die. Hugging him to her, she was lost in great gulping spasms.
All of a sudden, Jack reared back and pointed to the door. "Daddy! Daddy, I want out now. I don't like this game."
Lexie turned in the direction he was pointing just in time to see the already partially opened door wrenched wider. A dark shadow of a man bent down and pulled both her and Jack out of the car and into his arms.
Driving their old sedan from Louisiana had meant a good three-day drive with all the gasoline and motels and food included. At this point she was running low on cash and worried about Jack getting enough to eat. She could skip meals, but he couldn't.
So she had continued driving after their early dinner instead of stopping for another night at a motel in Gallup. But she'd had no idea how dark it could become in this remote, rural area of the reservation. Or how hard the rain could come down. Or that there would be no highway signs after they left the last major turnoff.
Lexie wasn't even positive they were still on the right road. They hadn't passed another car for the last half hour. She turned on the dashboard lights and studied the map again. Had she made the proper turn back there?
Putting a shaky finger on the road marked Navajo Route 7, she followed it northward from the corner where the huge Ft. Defiance Indian Hospital had been located. What an impressive place that had been, all lit up for the night.
They'd turned at the intersection and were still traveling on the same asphalt road. But where was the gravel lane that was supposed to be her next turn? It had to be right ahead. It just had to be.
Turning off the interior light and easing back onto the highway, she blinked away more of the petrified tears welling in her eyes. Something was off. She could feel it in her bones. Rather than turning back at this point though, she fought her quaking nerves and gritted her teeth in determination.
In another few minutes, she finally spotted what must be her turn and swung the wheel to take it. They needed to get out of this storm and find safety right now. So as they crept along a narrow gravel road that showed no sign of life, Lexie prayed she hadn't already made one of the most stupid moves of her entire life.
"What do you mean, you're still expecting them tonight? It's already pitch dark. And the storm " Michael Ayze tried to keep the annoyance and panic out of his voice as he talked to his mother over the phone. His mother knew little of the secret Skinwalker war raging across Dinetah, and it would not be smart to upset her more by mentioning it.
"My daughter-in-law called from Gallup to say they wanted to come ahead tonight," Louise Ayze told her oldest son. "She and my grandson have been on the road for many days already. I wanted to bring them under our roof as soon as possible so I encouraged her to continue driving. But now "
"It's probably all right, Mother," he told her with a calm lie. "Alexis is not familiar with the roads. She's no doubt just a little turned around in the dark. I'll go down to the turnoff and see if I can spot their car on any of the side roads."
Michael carefully hung up the receiver, hoping not to scare his mother any more than she already was. Navajos on the reservation had an inherent fear of the night-even the ones who did not know of the current war.
But he did know, and the knowledge was nearly paralyzing. Swallowing hard, he grabbed up his rain slicker and keys and dashed out to his pickup.
Up to now, he hadn't let himself consider his sisterin-law's visit. His mother had mentioned that Alexis and his nephew would be coming to stay with the family for a while, but he'd pushed the unwanted knowledge aside.
Ever since the day he'd met Alexis six years ago at her and Daniel's wedding, he had tried hard never to think of his sister-in-law. He wasn't always successful, but most of the time he'd managed to suspend his memories of her soft hazel eyes and the slender curve of her neck under the silky, ash-colored hair.
Anyway, there had been many other things besides Daniel's sexy wife for him to think of recently. Most importantly, the Skinwalker war.
As a member of the Brotherhood, the society of Navajo medicine men who had banded together to fight off the evil ones, Michael's days and nights were consumed with finding ways to overpower and outsmart their enemies. The most difficult and scary fact of their war was that no one knew exactly what the enemy looked like. Or rather, the enemy could look like anyone-or anything.
Skinwalkers were Navajo men who had turned to the dark side and had taken up Navajo witchcraft and shapeshifting. But most of the time they kept to their regular human forms and appeared as ordinary neighbors and family members.
All the better to confuse and terrorize the Dine, who refused to talk or think about the unnatural and out-ofbalance monsters who walked among them.
It seemed the Brotherhood had been making inroads in the war over the last year, though. Few Navajos had been bothered by witches lately and no one had died or disappeared in months.
But Michael was increasingly uneasy about the unholy quiet in Dinetah. He'd taken a leave of absence from his day job as a professor of anthropology and comparative religion at the Dine College three months ago to search for the ultimate answer to putting an end to their terror.
The Brotherhood had learned that a special map, an ancient guide to long-lost parchments, was missing. The parchments were thought to contain chants and potions which would either kill off the Skinwalker witches-or allow them to live forever.
The map in question had been hidden a year ago by a Skinwalker lieutenant in some kind of double cross of his superior, the Navajo Wolf. But that foolish Skinwalker lieutenant had died before revealing where he had buried the map. Now, both the Wolf and the Brotherhood were racing to uncover the map first.
Their searches had been keeping Skinwalkers and the Brotherhood from skirmishing with each other. But Michael knew it was only a matter of time before the uneasy peace would be over.
He braked, looking up through the windshield as the downpour continued and a layer of clouds descended from the mountain tops. Fog had moved into low spots and wetness dripped from every branch and rock. Rivulets of running water trickled over roadside gravel with a force Michael would not have recognized from the rare rain on the reservation.
Fighting off a shiver, he wondered if this unusually strong storm might be nature's signal that their inadvertent truce with the deadly enemy had already been broken.