Luke Vargas awoke to darkness. There was tape over his eyes nose and mouth. The twenty-eight year-old had no idea where he was or what was happening, or if he would live to see thirty.
This was no time to panic, Luke knew he needed to focus. He had his hearing, and just enough of a gap near his nose to silently breathe. His hands and feet were also bound, And judging by the cold air hitting his skin he had been stripped down to his boxers.
Large hands grabbed him by his shoulders, then his torso, hurling him over a thick metal railing. ‘Splash,’ His body hit the water with unnatural force and speed.
‘Crash,’ Luke sank into the cold water, the waves tossing him in every direction while a weight pulled his legs. Deeper and deeper, whatever was attached to his legs aimed to sink him into a watery grave.
He continued to struggle against the bonds of the tape. The material felt like duct tape, but cheaper: breakable. Luke struggled against the bonds of the tape, forcing air pockets to form. The more of the tape he managed to loosen the weaker the adhesive became until he was able to free his hands. He quickly freed his legs and feet just enough to float back to the surface as his body gave into exhaustion.
“Don’t give up,” a voice echoed within the waves. It was as if someone was telepathically screaming into Luke’s head. “You have to find them,” the voice was changing; male, female, a chorus of sound, “you have to save them.”
“I can’t,” Luke answered, in his mind. His heart was breaking and with it his resolve.
“You have to,” The voice was his late father; the voice of a kind man who lived a noble life before losing his battle with stomach cancer. “You’re all they have.”
The sound was enough to calm Luke’s mind as he felt himself start to lose consciousness. I would not die here, he would not give up on his family.
When Luke opened his eyes he was laying on a freezing cold beach looking up at a foggy sky. Luke rolled over, freeing himself of the tape. He managed to force his weight onto his pain-stricken arms. But as he took a breath he was exposed to a horrific realization. “Oh God,” the sound was less than a whisper, as blood spilled from his lips. With every panicked breath, he could feel the open wound where his tongue used to be. His body froze, he needed to get to a hospital. But even then what could be done?
“Please get up,” the ghostly voice was now a female.
Luke blinked his eyes and forced himself to look up. Standing over him was a little girl in a red dress. She had long black hair and blue eyes, like his step-daughter, but she wasn’t Shannon. His little girl had just turned one. This girl was at least five if not older.
“Hi, who are you?”
The little girl tilted her head like an owl. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
“That was a good question. Luke stared down at his hands. A wedding ring? A wedding? he had married Kelsey in Portland, Oregon. They had no other family, his parents were dead and her family was as well. All except for Shannon’s biological father. Nick? Nate… Nevin Tyler Brooks.
“You married my mother, you tried to give us a new life.” The little girl’s voice sounded like an echo.
But now the memory was clear as day. He saw Kelsey in a fifty dollar dress she bought at Target. They were married in city hall, exchanging vows, and he gave her his mother’s ring. Then there were gun shots. The courthouse was held up by a gang of armed individuals wearing clown masks. There were at least six maybe even ten. But there was a team of three, the only ones not firing their weapons. They were the three who grabbed Kelsey and little Shannon.
Kelsey was screaming, crying. “Nevin, please no.” One man hit her in the face while the two grabbed Luke.
A henchman with a taser, shot Luke in the stomach, causing the groom to fall to his knees in pain. The last thing he remembered before blacking out was seeing one of the attackers holding a taser to little Shannon’s neck.
“They stole us,” said the girl in the red dress, “the bad people tried to hurt you.”
“Tried?” The word came out as a cough as Luke started to laugh. Nevin hadn’t just tried, Nevin won. Luke was so screwed he couldn’t even speak.
But just as he felt like crying she touched his face. He could feel her? “I can hear you, I will guide you to them.” The little girl raised her hand, motioning towards a rocky cover. “And so will they.”
Luke glanced at the rocks. He had brought his four cats from New Jersey to Portland and somehow here they were. Monday, Tuesday, Garfield, and Icee. The four black cats, all rescued strays they stood tall on the rocks like little jaguars.
With a meow that sounded like a shrill roar, each animal summoned a small team of cats. One by one they brought forth items; clothing, packaged food, even money. The last team of three brought him an old, decaying map.
Luke picked it up. “Welcome to San Francisco?” The air was thick with cold fog.
He looked at the little girl. She started to become transparent, further solidifying the idea that she was a hallucination, or a ghost. As she turned away, a gust of wind blew her long hair revealing massive holes in her dress; some looked like cigarette burns, others like stab wounds.
When she turned to face him again. her little cheeks were covered in bruises and there was a gash on both her eye and her lip.
Luke now knew what she was. This girl was Shannon if he failed.
“What do I need to do?” Luke asked in a whisper. He was expecting an answer from the little girl but she was now fading from existence.
The cats crowed around him as he got dressed, their feline sounds, morphing into human voices. “You know that saying, ‘The devil you know beats the devil you don’t?'”
“How would you know that saying?”
“We know of many things; devils, angels, mermaids, fairies, gods and demons….” A small black cat with blue eyes held a piece of paper in its mouth.
Luke picked it up: it was a card, more specifically a BART ticket. He needed to go to the underground metro system?
“The devil you know is Nevin Brooks, but the devil we know is someone much more powerful.” The kitten’s voice was hypnotic.
“Tell me more.”
The army of cats spoke up one by one. “She is a queen.”
A small white cat crawled on Luke’s shoulder. “She was told to abandon the source of her power and live as a human. All to repent for her sins.”
“Her sins?” Luke started to walk towards the street, the army of cats leading the way.
“You need not concern yourself with her sins, only what she can do for you.” The cats started to disperse as they walked along the crowded Geary st following the bus line. In the early morning hours people were on their way to work or school.
No, not school. He looked up at the decorated light posts. It was December; holiday break.
Closer to downtown he and the cats blended into the crowd of shoppers and homeless people. But Luke kept a close eye on his four cats. They seemed to be walking over the crowds.
“This way,” said Monday, as she leaped from the platform.
She appeared to be jumping on to the tracks, but as a train came forward Luke caught a glimpse of her through a window. She and all of the cats were crossing through a portal in one of the billboards. It was an ad for ‘Butterfly Mortuary, guiding you through the next stage of life.’
Luke couldn’t help but chuckle at the sight of a funeral home ad in a subway tunnel. ‘For those who need a little encouragement,’ he said to himself. But then he realized that was exactly what he needed; he needed to cross the tracks himself, to follow the cats.
Since he had nothing to lose but his life, he did just that.
In the shadow of the departing train, Luke ducked onto the tracks. He could still feel the radiant heat on the metal as he quickly climbed to the billboard and fell through. ‘Ow!’
He landed hard on his shoulder. Looking up he saw a cave system lit up with Christmas lights. “Hello?” He stood up and looked around. On the far wall he saw a logo that looked like blue bio-luminescent paint. “What is that, a bug?”
“Actually,” replied a youthful female voice. “It’s a caterpillar.”
Luke looked around. The voice sounded so sweet and kind. “I’m Luke.”
A woman with long black hair and a red gown stepped out from the shadows. “You can call me Azzy.” Except it wasn’t a gown made of cloth, but rather blood human parts. “Do you like it? I made it myself with the corpses of my enemies.”
Luke’s cats cuddled at her feet all purring comfortably. “All hail our queen.”
Luke took a knee, because it felt like the appropriate thing to do. “Can you help me?”
“Yes, I can. The men who took your family are one of many clans trying to dethrone me. Do you trust me?”
That was the big question.