Celeste Holland’s entire life changed on the night Dom’s fighting career ended in Omaha a year past. For losing that fight, Nate wanted him put down, but Lucas had thrown himself across the torn, bloodied dog, shielding him even as Nate drew his gun. Celeste intervened, knocking Nate’s pistol aside, causing the bullet to whiz past Lucas’s head.
After that incident which took place at a ranch up in Omaha, Lucas and Celeste had managed to get the half-dead Dom into her Blazer. They headed away from the ranch, desperate to find a vet. They ended up at a Gypsy encampment complete with motor homes and brightly painted wooden wagons.
They were greeted by a tall, dark-haired man who introduced himself as the “Cingane Chieftain,” of this particular clan. The man took one concerned look at Dom and set to work.
During the process of the Chieftain tending to Dom, Celeste fell asleep next to an open campfire. When she awoke, the sun had gone down. By the faint glow of the smoldering fire, she could see Dom resting peacefully nearby.
However, the entire encampment of Gyspsies was gone.
“Celeste?” Lucas had said, a deep furrow creasing his brow. “That is the most wicked tattoo I’ve ever seen!”
Celeste offered him a puzzled frown, moving toward her Blazer to take a look in the reflection of her tinted back window. She actually gasped when she saw the intricate tattoos left on her throat and neck by an obvious professional. The stag in the hollow of her throat had antlers that created the twin wolves that snaked up on either side of her neck. The wide-antlered stag held a fierce gaze in his dark eyes, and the two wolves were facing sideways, their lips locked in mid-howl.
It was a fascinating piece of work, and yet Celeste had no memory of the ink being applied.
Lucas said, “The Cingane Chieftain said those tattoos are talismans you will would need in order to be my Guardian. He said their power would be revealed if Molech ever found us.”
Turning to face her little brother, Celeste offered him a puzzled frown, and then gasped again when a small, bald-headed monkey-like creature appeared beside her.
“That,” Lucas said, “is Jango. He’s a Mogrim. The Chieftain said he would serve you even as you served me. He said we’re involved in an ancient war that has been raging for countless centuries.”
The strange, black-eyed Jango had affectionately embraced Celeste, wrapping his skinny arms around her legs.
“You’re not going to believe this,” Lucas added, “but the entire Gypsy caravan passed through some sort of a magical gateway, vanishing into these silver banks of shimmering mist.”
The little kid stared at her for several long moments.
Finally, he said, “Do you think it was the drugs, Celeste?”
She had stared back at him. “Drugs?”
“Yeah,” Lucas said with a heavy sigh. “I only smoked one joint in my entire life, and then I saw . . . the magic gate.”
Turning back to the reflection in the window, Celeste ran her fingers across the tattoo on her throat and neck. “I don’t think drugs had a thing to do with this, little brother. Because how would you explain this?” She slowly lowered her hand to caress Jango on his shiny head.
Her gift came to life a few minutes later when Dom awoke from beside the fire. The large, gray pit bull took one startled look at the black imp clinging to Celeste’s legs. Dom went into attack mode. And yet even as he charged across the clearing, Celeste sent her thoughts out to the enraged, overprotective dog: *Dominique! No! Stand down! He means me no harm!*
Dom skidded to a halt, his sights shifting from the hissing demon monkey to instead meet Celeste’s gaze. He understood her, which surprised him. She had not spoken one word, yet he fully comprehended her thoughts.
Dom stopped, his nose inches from Jango’s alarmed face. In the seconds that both creatures could have erupted into a savage fight, Celeste sent her thoughts to Jango: *Calm down! You two are on the same side. Let’s keep the peace, okay?*
Moments later, Dom and Jango playfully wrestled in the grass at Celeste’s feet, while Lucas looked on in amazement.
Walking in the shadows beside Lucas and the dogs, Celeste said, “We’ll take the dogs to Johnny’s place.”
Lucas looked over at her. “Johnny? I thought you hated him for being such a dick for being Mister Truancy Tracker.”
“He is a dick,” Celeste said. “But he’s the only one who ain’t afraid of Uncle Nate in a five-mile radius. He’s also the only one who would stand up to Nate if he comes to take Dom and Gob. Do you want the dogs thrown into this fight?”
“Hell, no,” Lucas said.
Celeste said, “Then, take the dogs to Johnny’s house.”
Lucas continually glanced behind them. “Me? Why? Where are you going, Celeste? And what about finding the bag? You ever gonna admit that you stole it from my drawer? I know you gave the scroll to Gus. I know he wanted to include the story in that book you’re helping him with. But why?”
“Just get your scrawny butt over there, Lucas. I’ll be along shortly. Why? Are you afraid to ask Johnny for help?”
“I just don’t want a lecture about why I haven’t been sticking to my court order. Ever endured one of Johnny’s lectures?”
“Yes, I have. I know he’s a pain in the ass, but he’s the best alternative we have.”
Celeste skidded to a stop. She made a stiff-armed gesture at the dark alley ahead of them. Reluctantly, Lucas led the dogs in through Johnny’s back gate. Celeste waited, making sure that the kid and dogs had gone to ground as she had commanded.
She reached Gus Howard’s back porch ten seconds later. She listened to the sounds coming from inside. A police radio gave off a static that was annoying. Someone turned it down. A robotic voice relayed information that Celeste could not discern. There came a thump from the bedroom inside. Footsteps across the linoleum floor in the kitchen. More noises from the front of the house. Car doors slamming. An engine starting. A firetruck driving off, a steady grinding of gears echoing in the night.
Snapping her fingers, Celeste stood there waiting. Three seconds later, Jango scampered out of the nearby shrubbery. The small, bug-eyed creature stared up at Celeste, puzzlement in its gaze. Kneeling down beside it, she gently stroked the fur at the base of its neck.
The demon monkey chortled with glee, craning his small, bald head to the left and right, pleased with the attention Celeste was giving him. She whispered into his ear, then stepped off the porch as Jango crawled in through the cat door. Blending there with the deep shadows, she listened intently. “What the hell?” a startled voice said. Loud footsteps could be heard inside the kitchen. Jango came shooting out through the cat door. The back door swung open. Beef stepped outside.
He followed the black monkey across the yard, stopping when he reached the back gate. In the alley ahead of him, Jango wheeled back around. Beef clawed at his holstered pistol. Before he could draw the weapon, Jango hurtled into him taking him to the ground. Jango perched on his chest, doubled up his tiny fists, and gave Beef a furious pounding.
By then, Celeste had slipped inside the house. She went directly to the computer work station. Keenly aware that she was not alone, she listened several seconds to the murmur of two female voices coming from the bedroom. When certain the two forensic officers were busy going about their work, Celeste removed a thumb drive from the coin pocket of her black jeans.
Celeste worked quickly to download information from the C drive of the computer. The moment the files she wanted were downloaded onto the thumb drive, she removed it from the USB port and slipped the drive into her shirt pocket. She started to get up to move quietly to the back door, when the red flashing light on the answering machine caught her eye.
Silently, she removed the machine from the cord attaching it to the plug in the nearby wall. Tucking it beneath her arm, she hurried through the kitchen, slipping silently through the door.
The moment Jango spotted her, he sprang off of Beef and scampered away into the darkness, leaving the detective dazed from the beating he took. Celeste cut through the backyard, sticking to the shadows along the back of the house. When she reached the edge of the yard, she glanced back to see the cop on his hands and knees. It appeared he had not seen her.
Tucking the answering machine beneath her arm, Celeste raced away into the darkness of night.