Allison is studying a bird’s nest when suddenly, down below, a blur of a figure runs past.
Grabbing her backpack from a nearby branch, she slides down the tree, and in the distance, the figure stops, turns around, and studies her with tense body language.
Waving, she greets, “Hi. Are you okay?”
Cautiously making his or her way back, the figure stops a few feet away, and Allison can see the other person is a short, big-boned young woman with brownish skin. She’s wearing blue denim overalls with a green t-shirt underneath, brown boots with fake fur, and her corkscrew hair has colourful beads in it.
Hesitantly coming over, the woman clears her throat. “Um, hi. I thought this was a park you could drive through, but my car got two flat tires. There was a creepy man, and I- just ran.”
Scanning her, Allison asks, “Did he hurt you?”
“No. He didn’t really do anything wrong. He was- just creepy, and my parents have always told me to listen to my gut when it comes to things like that.”
Nodding, Allison digs out her ID. “I’m a bounty hunter. Is there anything I can do to help you?”
The woman studies it. “And a, uh, hunter of other things, too? I mean, not humans?”
Allison’s heard a similar tone in the past, and she wonders if this woman was really in danger. “I hunt some, yeah. But it’s not hunting season right now.”
"Do you have a something with Wi-Fi or that can just make calls?"
“Sorry, I have a bad habit of not carrying my cell with me. I usually leave it in hotel rooms or whatever vehicle I’m renting.”
“That’s very dangerous,” the other woman protests.
“I can take care of myself.” Getting her hunting knife out, Allison holds it out to her. “Here, take this. Do you want me to lead you back out?”
Taking a step back, the woman gives the knife an uneasy look. “I don’t know how to use it, and I might hurt myself.” Looking utterly relieved when Allison puts it up, she continues, “Uh, yes, please. If it’s not too much trouble.”
Smiling, Allison assures her, “It’s not.”
“Um, my name’s Nita.” She offers her hand.
Allison shakes it. “Nice to meet you.”
“Thanks for doing this, Ms Valet.”
“Please, call me Allison.”
At several points, Allison can feel eyes on her, and it’s obvious Nita can, too. Withdrawing her knife and angling it at her side so that the sun glints off it, she quietly says, “It’s okay, sweetheart. If anyone tries anything, I’ll handle them.”
Eventually, they get to the car. It’s an affordable hybrid, made for city streets, not rougher terrains, and instead of two flat tires, it has four.
“Oh, come on!” After a tense look around, Nita says more quietly, “I’ve had this car since I was sixteen, and it’s never even gotten one flat. Until now. And of course, this is the one time I forget my spare tire. I mean, I don’t know how to change a tire, but still.”
Assuming Nita truly believes the four simply deflated on their own and isn’t responsible herself, Allison isn’t going to inform her the other two have been slashed and her suspicions about what happened to the first two. She peers inside, and seeing no one, goes to stand by the trunk. “Get your suitcase, sweetheart.”
Unlocking the doors, Nita gets her suitcase and snack bag. Relocking them, she says, “I can leave the ice-chest. It’s filled with juice. I have some bottled water I was saving for the hotel in my bag.”
Allison takes the suitcase. “The highway’s this way.”
“Don’t- don’t you have a tent and stuff of your own?”
“No. I tend to make camp up in the trees,” Allison answers.
Nita gives her a disbelieving look but doesn’t say anything.
They resume walking.
“Um, thanks for helping me.”
“No problem. I’ve had my share of creepy encounters. And a few times, unfortunately, I’ve been the creepy part of the equation.”
Like now, she doesn’t say. Whether Nita is supernatural or not, she doesn’t completely trust this woman who slid down a tree and is carrying a hunting knife, but she is hoping Allison’s presence will deter the unseen eyes out in the forest and that Allison isn’t worse than they might be.
“Yeah, that sounds like my mom. Me and my brother, if you knew our parents, you’d understand the irony. My mom would have handled that man easily. She’s fearless, and when she was a teenager, she had a bit of a wild streak. She’s still the type who doesn’t take crap from anyone. My dad, he’s way more laid-back and cautious. Sometimes, she’d drag him into things, but there were times when he was the one talking her down. Probably the only one who could, honestly.”
“Older or younger brother?”
“He’s two years older. Alex. I’m the baby of the family, and he’s the one who gave our parents heart attacks all through high school. He’s still a party animal, but he’s inherited our dad’s skill with numbers and is studying to be an actuary. So, uh, if it’s not too personal, how does a person decide to become a bounty hunter?”
“My dad was a licensed arms dealer, and we moved around all the time when I was growing up. I had to repeat my sophomore year. When I graduated, originally, I was going to take a year off before college, but I got into the family business, by that time, my dad had started up a security consultation practise, and college just never happened.”
“If it’s none of my business- do you ever regret it?”
She considers the question. “Sometimes, I wonder what it might have been like. Growing up, I had all these dreams about college. But no, not really. Aside from some very regretful things I did as a teenager, I’ve lived a good life and done some great things.”
Suddenly, there’s a roll of thunder, and they look up to see dark clouds forming in the already dusky sky.
“I swear, the worst thing I ever did was purposefully run over a neighbour kid, but I was like eight, and he was a teenager, and I didn’t actually cause any damage to his foot. It was with Alex’s old tricycle, which I was only riding because he’d deliberately run over our bikes with his brother’s car, which he wasn’t old enough to even legally drive!”
Setting the suitcase down and putting up the knife, Allison cautiously squeezes Nita’s shoulder. “Hey, it’s okay, Nita. Let’s go back to the car, build a fire, and have something to eat. If we need to, we can sleep in the car until morning.”
“Alright,” Nita glumly agrees.
They find some logs, make a fire, and share the bottled water, rations, and snack foods. Nita confesses she has a satellite smartwatch, but it’s water-resistant nature does not hold up to being accidentally dropped in a cup of juice.
Allison laughs. “I had a boyfriend in high school who couldn’t keep a phone for more than a year, but somehow, he never managed to lose one that way. Are you heading home from college?”
“Yeah, I’m taking journalism classes. I’m hoping to be a copy editor for The Herbalist, but if that doesn’t work, hopefully, my home town hasn’t filled in my old job. I worked at a daily free newspaper since I was fifteen.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of The Herbalist.”
“Yeah, well, admittedly, their subscription model sucks,” Nita says. “That’s one thing me and Alex agree on. But it’s full title is California’s Herbalist Guide to Gardening. It covers everything from tea-making to alternative medicine. Um, my parents had us both vaccinated, and if something was really wrong, we’d find someone trained to help us. But there are times when alternative methods are better for humans and- than conventional.”
“That’s true,” Allison says. “When I was in my twenties, I threw out my back on a case, and a friend more-or-less threatened me at sword point to let her mom do acupuncture on me. It wasn’t an immediate cure, but it did help significantly speed up the healing process.”
Nita laughs. “What about you? Any brothers or sisters?”
“No. Only child.”
“Are your parents happy you’re sort of following in your dad’s footsteps?”
Allison takes a minute to gather her thoughts. “They’re both dead. Don’t say you’re sorry, sweetheart. My mom- she had issues. But whatever her issues, and whatever issues those caused in me, she’ll always be my mom. I know, in her own way, she loved me. And my dad, well, I miss them both every day, but my dad, at least, died a hero. I’m glad for that.”
Reaching over, Nita links her fingers through Allison’s, and smiling into the fire, Allison gives them a gentle squeeze.
After they put the fire out, Allison insists Nita takes the backseat. “Don’t worry. In my junior year, I learned how to sleep in class without any of my teachers even knowing.”
In turn, Nita insists Allison take the one blanket she has packed. “I’m not cold, but you are. My family, we aren’t sensitive to temperatures like most people are.”
It takes time for them to both fall asleep, and Allison quickly learns Nita isn’t a quiet sleeper. She snores, mumbles, and makes adorable puppy-like noises that remind Allison of Isaac.
Allison finally goes into a deep enough sleep that these noises don’t keep waking her, and suddenly, Nita is shaking her shoulder and whispering, “Allison!”
“Wha- What is it?”
“The man’s here. I just know he is. I’m not sure I can explain-”
All traces of sleep gone, Allison is digging into her backpack and slipping on her shooting glove. “Roll up the window, and stay in the car, sweetheart. And,” she rolls down the window, “you might want to shield your eyes.”
Lifting herself up onto the roof, she waits until the window is fully rolled back up, readies her bow, and when she sees a vague figure in the distance, she aims and fires.
It hits a tree next to him, and through the flash/bang’s glare, she can see he’s fallen down to the ground, but he scampers out of the light and into the darkness before she can discern any identifying details about him.
Sitting down, she readies another arrow, and hearing the window roll down slightly, she says, “It’s okay, Nita. I’ve gotten enough sleep. If he comes back, the next one’s not going into a tree.”
As soon as the sun starts to peek out, they head back for the highway.
Luckily enough, there’s a parked squad car literally right next to the clearing they come out of, and after taking their statements, the deputy drives them to a nearby police station.
Once they arrive, Nita is lead to a phone, and Allison is pulled aside by the sheriff. “I can’t stop you, Miss Valet, but I recommend you don’t go back. There’ve been several female hikers and campers who we’re still trying to locate.” She lets out a heavy sigh. “Of course, I pray for a miracle, but realistically, if we ever find anything, it’ll be the bones. The one thing these women all have in common is they were last seen heading into those woods. We’ve tried posting deputies, and some forest rangers have come down, but whoever this monster is, he’s smart enough to wait until we’re obligated to ease up.”
“Thank you for the warning, Sheriff DeLuca.”
Letting out another sigh and giving her a sad, disappointed look, the sheriff goes back to her work.
“Hey, my mom’s coming to pick me up,” Nita says. Handing Allison a soda, she sits down. “My dad and brother are going to borrow a friend’s- whatever it’s called and bring my car back on it. Don’t worry, my dad’s also borrowing another friend’s shotgun. He’s sort of like your dad, he’s been around weapons his whole life, so, he knows how to use them.”
“Have you ever hunted wolves,” Nita blurts out.
“Wolves are protected animals, and for a carnivorous species, they’re usually peaceful towards humans. I’m not a vegetarian; I hunt animals for meat, but not for trophies. What I don’t eat, I sell to reputable companies who make use of it. The only time I kill outside of hunting for meat is if I believe another person or animal is an immediate threat to me or another person.”
Nita doesn’t push, and Allison doesn’t know if it’s because she’s satisfied with the answer or simply finds it prudent not to.
Suddenly, Nita cocks her head. “Oh, my mom’s here. She’ll love meeting you!”
With this, Nita is out the door with her things in hand.
Going outside, Allison feels her heart leap into her throat.
“I’m so happy you’re okay, baby. Daddy’s going to meet us soon. Alex wanted to come with me, but- Here, sweetie, let me see your eyes.”
Allison can’t see Nita’s eyes from this angle, but she’s too busy taking in Erica to try to move to a different one. Physically, Erica only looks a little older than she did in high school, but the way she’s looking at and holding her daughter shows the girl Allison once waged war against has become not only a woman but a mother, and suddenly, she does see and appreciate the irony of how like and unlike Nita is in comparison to both of her parents.
“It’s okay, Mama, no one got hurt. Here, let me introduce you to the woman who helped me. Her name is-”
It hurts, but there’s no surprise when Erica takes her in, yanks Nita back by the hand Nita was leading her with, and orders, “Inside the car!”
“What? Mama, this-”
“Juanita Laurel Reyes, get in the car,” Erica practically roars with her eyes flashing.
Nita instantly complies, and Erica has barely shut the driver’s door before she’s tearing out of the police parking lot. Thankfully, Nita had gotten her door shut, too, and the stuff had been loaded before Allison came out, but Allison winces at the fact neither of them had put their seatbelt on.
After a few hours in town, Allison heads down the highway and back into the woods.
She pauses when she gets there and sees two men get out of a truck near Nita’s car. Then, realising who they are and taking in the car, a mixture of emotions bursts through her.
Boyd looks more approachable than she ever remembers him being, and where Nita takes after him in everything but height, his son matches him in height and skin colour but undeniably takes more after Erica.
The sight of the car isn’t so pleasant. Every window has been broken, it’s been scratched so badly it’s a wonder there’s any paint left, and she can only imagine what else that isn’t immediately visibly obvious was done.
She tries to focus on the relief they took the ice-chest. They’d poured the ruined juice out at the station, put the bottles in the station’s recycling bin, and cleaned the chest out as best they could in the station’s kitchen, and Nita had bemoaned the waste, but at least, this sicko wasn’t able to contaminate said juice or chest.
Then, she can’t help but laugh.
Wearing gloves, father and son sweep as much glass out of the car as they can, lift the car up with their hands, carry it onto the flatbed, secure it, and then, pull and snugly fasten a tarp over it.
Her laughter fades when she catches sight of the gun in the truck. It’s not a shotgun, but she doesn’t expect Nita to know or care what it’s actual classification is.
Boyd was always the most cautious of Derek's three betas, she knows, and this isn’t him giving in and showing off on the lacrosse field. He and his son don’t care if a human witnesses their supernatural strength (easy enough to convince a harmless one of logical explanations), and the gun isn’t for their protection.
She can’t blame them.
Suddenly, the younger Boyd looks over, and she’s taken aback by the way his eyes light up. Waving, he calls, “Hello! Nice day today, miss!”
Oh, God, he is Erica’s, goes through her head. Once Erica settled down a little with the overt displays of sexuality and added in a little softness, she could be quite the little Miss Charmer, and her son has this same effortless aura exuding from him.
Boyd looks over, and to her further surprise, he gives her a genuine smile.
She’s seen him genuinely smile before, but she doesn’t think she ever rated even a sarcastic, bitter smile.
They meet near the truck.
“Thank you for protecting my daughter,” he says.
Smiling, she nods. “She’s a good kid.”
“Hi, I’m Alex Reyes, and if you’d allow me to-”
“Don’t even think about it,” Boyd interrupts in a half-exasperated, utterly fond tone. “This is Allison Argent, a hunter.”
“It’s Valet, now. I legally changed it.”
“Maid of Gevaudan?”
“I’ve read some about her,” Alex says. “Is it true the Argents are her descendants?”
“Yes. What about you? Are you and your sister Boyds or Reyeses?”
“Reyes,” the two answer simultaneously.
“I’m Alejandro Isaiah Reyes,” Alex says with his hand offered.
She shakes it.
“Our birth certificates actually say Reyes-Boyd, but ever since they got married, Dad’s been Boyd Reyes. I don’t see why me being a werewolf and you being a hunter has to be a barrier. I fit within the code, and if we got serious, one of our coyote cousins married a Campbell hunter-”
“That turned out well,” Boyd interjects.
“They’re still happy,” Alex protests. “She didn’t mean to set that fire, and no one was hurt.”
Dread goes through her, but Boyd catches her eyes and shakes his head. “I don’t approve of the marriage, but it was a grease fire that got out of control. She had some moderate burns and the house was more-or-less burnt to the ground, but no one was badly hurt.”
“I’m flattered by your interest, but I’m not looking for anything with anyone, werewolf or otherwise, at the moment,” she tells Alex with a smile.
Sighing, he gives her a soft grin. “Well, at least, I tried. Can I, at least, give you my number and email, just in case-”
“No,” Boyd says. He squeezes Alex’s neck. “I’m still paying for your car, and I want to be able to go home to my wife.”
“If you or your sister ever get involved with a hunter, your mother will blame me. I’ll take your car away before I’ll risk losing her.”
“Like you could ever lose Mom,” Alex responds. “She took on an alpha for you and almost won.”
Kissing Alex’s head, Boyd asks her, “Could I talk to you in private?”
Rolling his eyes, Alex climbs into the truck, and the sound of the radio wafts out.
Nodding, she walks away from the truck with him.
“Erica and I truly appreciate what you did. She just- panicked when she first saw you.”
“She has a right to be angry and bitter, Boyd,” she quietly says. “I let go of mine a long time ago, and you don’t know how nice it is to know you have, too, but she has the right to keep hers.”
He nods. “Still: Thank you.”
“Take care of them and yourself. You have two special kids.”
Smiling widely, he nods. “We have room in the truck. We could drive you back to town.”
“No, thank you. Now that Nita’s safe, I’m behind on some hunting.”
His expression is a mixture of understanding and several other sadder emotions. “Whoever he is, I don’t think he’s around right now. And I think he’s probably human.”
She doesn’t respond.
“Do you want the gun? We don’t need it.”
“No. I have my own weapons.”
He hesitates. “Take care of yourself, Allison.”
“Don’t worry,” she says. “I keep the code.”
Taking his wallet out, he hands her a card.
A hologram of a cute building reading Hale’s Sweets and Breads pops up, and she reads the address on the card.
“Derek gave us a loan when we got married, and Erica bought the bakery, called The Sweet Shoppe back then, when it was going out of business. She’s turned it into a success,” he proudly declares.
“If you’re ever in Dayton, stop by. It’s been used as neutral ground for the supernatural and hunters several times over the years. She won’t be happy, but she won’t kick you out, and you can guarantee she’ll give you samples you don’t have to worry about.”
“That sounds great,” she sincerely tells him.
Nodding, he goes back over to the truck. Once inside, he puts on his seatbelt and waits until Alex does, too, to start the truck.
Alex waves, and she waves back.
Sitting in front of a small fire, the moon is a sliver of a crescent in the sky, and Allison can suddenly feel eyes on her.
Killing the fire down, she stands up, feels the weapon inside her pocket, and with a smile, heads into the darkness and towards the unseen eyes.