Excerpt from “Birds of a Darker Feather”

(Originally published in SNM Horror Mag, October 2010 issue)

“Alright Mr. Million Maybes, what do you think they are?”

“I have seen much of the world, Hannah. Many strange things which I cannot explain. These men we’re chasing…”, he sweeps his hand out toward the mesa, that black field on a background of stars, “…they are not of this world.”

A long silence passes. Hannah feels dizzy.

Must be sucking in fumes from his tembur, she thinks.

Manuq takes another glowing pull on the bidi, which is dying now, as low as the embers in the fire. The wind whips around the edges of the mesa, and Hannah curls her arms around herself. She decides his last words have hung in the air long enough. “You gonna share that smoke, or what?”

Manuq smiles and leans it over to her. She takes it and lifts it. “Finally, a little friggin courtesy around h-”

It’s smacked out of her fingers before it even makes it to her lips. Manuq’s boot mashes it into the sand.

“The fuck, I didn’t even-

His enormous hand clamps over her mouth. His eyes are large and white, his free hand is poised, his teeth are gnashed. The hiss that comes through them needs no interpretation.

He tilts his head, listening.

A long moment passes in silence. Nothing but the wind hissing sand around them and through the dagger shrubs. Finally, his hand drops.

A little grunt escapes him, as if embarrassed by the display. “Heard something,” he mumbles.

She stretches her lips back and forth on her face, massages some feeling back into her cheeks. “Prob’ly heard a fox or a vulture or something.” She kneels down, feeling around in the dark for the bidi. Her fingers run into it, nothing but a stub now. She re-lights it on an ember, pulling on it until it glows again. “They say this shit makes you paranoid, you know that?” she says, sucking in her breath.

“Yes,” he answers, and Hannah doesn’t need to see his face to tell he’s not really hearing her, still peering into the darkness.

“Be nice if I still had, like, a nose and lips and a jaw when we run into Birch.” She massages her jaw. “He may be into some whacked out shit, but I’m pretty sure he likes girls who aren’t missing the lower half of their faces, you know?”

“Sorry,” Manuq says absently. “I was almost sure…” He sits again. “I suppose you are right. All the same, I think we had better sleep in turns. I will patrol when there is light. You go ahead, I am not tired.”

“I can see that. Shit.” She coughs. “You gotta stop stressing so much, my man. Worrying about all this crap… got you jumpy. See what talking does?”

“Perhaps.”

“Well, this thing is cashed. Shit friggin’ reeks, you know that? Anyway, m’off to bed, Uncle Ned.” She yawns, pulling her pack up under one ear and lying her head on it. “If you gotta flog the log, don’t wake the dog…” Her voice trails off in another yawn.

“Fair dreams, Hannah,” he says quietly.

She lies there a while, trying to cram her eyes shut. Imagines herself drifting off into the night sky on wisps of smoke.

It doesn’t work for shit, of course.

She’s thinking about all of it. Birch, the crow-headed demons from his stories. An ambush ahead. All of it. Are they on a path? Can they get off at their choosing?

Her eyes open and stay that way. She lies there, her pack pressing its leathery ribs into her cheek, listening to the wind blow over the top of the mesa in a low, eerie hum, listening to Manuq spinning at every gust, and wishing he hadn’t said the last thing he did.

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