Excerpts for Crystal Fire


West Hollywood
10:20 p.m.


A sane person wouldn't think about going inside?alone?but Caila Ferrie didn't have a choice. She wasn't a stranger to darkness. She'd spent much of her life sinking into it, forced into the shelter and anonymity of shadows by her own choosing. That realization hit her as she stared at a deserted old warehouse from a murky alley across the street, believing she'd be better off inside than where she was. Brick walls were scrawled with veins of graffiti and glutted by neglect. Light from the street reflected off the jagged glass of busted windows and made the pitch-black broken parts look as if the building had eyes.

It was the third location she'd tried tonight, her last shot at finding Oliver Blue. She shut her eyes and took a deep breath.Please let this be it, she prayed. If she came up empty, she had nowhere else to go. Before she cut across the street, she looked over her shoulder and listened hard. She'd been careful and thought no one followed her, but it never hurt to be sure. Caila stuck to the shadows, even if it meant she had to take the long way around to cross the street. She took the precaution as much for Oliver as she did for her.

The guy was a loner. That's why few people knew anything about him. She'd met him only once through her friend Zack, who'd said that if anything bad happened, Oliver would be a guy she could trust. Zack never said why he had such faith in him, but he'd been adamant.

Because she trusted her friend, Caila had listened when he told her where to look for the guy, but the one time she'd met Oliver, he put her on edge. He didn't say much and barely made eye contact. He looked irritated that Zack had brought her. After her friend pulled him aside to explain, Oliver nudged his chin and mumbled the only words he'd directed at her."Zack's a good guy to watch your back. Hope you do the same for him." Oliver left without saying another word. At the time she never thought she'd see him again.

If she wasn't desperate, she wouldn't have come.

It took Caila time to check every door and the loading bay for a way into the abandoned building. Everything on street level was locked tight. She almost gave up until she spotted a fire escape that led to the upper floors and the rooftop. Climbing those steps would make her a target for anyone watching the warehouse. If she found a way in, she wouldn't have much of an escape if she needed one, and metal stairs made noise. She debated her options, but the fact was that she didn'thave any. She hadn't risked searching for Oliver to give up now.

Caila climbed the rusted steps and didn't look down. She kept her hands on the filthy railing, even in the spots riddled with gross chewing gum. With a bird's-eye view, she took comfort that she hadn't been followed and felt safe enough to crouch on a step in the dark. She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out her last can of Cheez Whiz and squirted it in her mouth. She had to take a hit to keep her stomach from growling. After she emptied the can, she left it on the fire escape and got moving.

Zack had always kept her supplied with the stuff, that and spray whipped cream. Cheez Whiz reminded her of him. She'd found Zack when she'd needed someone to look after her, but memories of him were blasted out of her skull by an absurd habit she had almost no control over. Whenever she got nervous, random Disney songs earwormed her. An outburst from the French chef inThe Little Mermaid erupted in her head like a brain itch.

Not now!

Whoever had control of the Disney MP3 in her brain took weird pleasure in torturing her with a music doodle when she least expected it. The habit had come from a distant memory, something she should have remembered as important, but couldn't quite recall. It usually signaled something bad, but not always. After she found a metal door with a broken lock on the second level, she stepped into the crushing silence of the abandoned warehouse?and even the French chef quit singing. A tingle raced across her skin like the chilling touch of a cold hand. Caila wasn't alone. Someone watched her. Her gift of second sight had sent her a warning, a rippling sensation that had started in her chest and raced down her arms. Being psychic, she relied on her instincts for everything. The impulse to run grew stronger, but she fought the push.

Her promise to Zack made her stay.

It took time for her eyes to adjust to the darkness as she searched every corner for anything that moved. The oppressive silence felt as if no one was there, but she knew better. Her bad case of warning tingles had intensified and felt as if jolts of electricity shuddered through her. Even though her throat felt parched and raw, she took the risk of calling out his name.

"Oliver? It's me, Caila. Zack's friend."

She winced at the sound of her own voice. It echoed in the belly of the old warehouse and made her feel stupid for yelling like an idiot. Caila had never been brave.

"Oliver?" She wrung her hands and kept moving with her eyes alert. "Please? I need to talk to you."

She crept between old wooden crates and rusted barrels, peering through the darkness for any signs of life?or any reason to run. She got both when a guy's low voice came from nowhere.

"This better be important."

Caila stopped dead still, with her heart throttling in the red zone. She fought hard not to show that he'd almost given her a heart attack. When she turned, she spotted Oliver staring down, crouched in the metal rafters above her. She only saw part of his face in the dim light coming from a cracked window.

"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't." She returned his glare but backed off on the attitude when she remembered why she'd come.

"Anyone follow you?"

"No, I was real careful?and I didn't see anybody below when I climbed those stairs."

He stared at her and didn't say anything for a long time. Caila didn't move an inch?or breathe.

"Why are you here?"

"It's Zack. He's missing. I haven't seen him in three days."

"Maybe he doesn't want to be found."

"Not Zack." She crossed her arms. "He wouldn't do that to me, unless something bad happened."

Oliver glared at her for another strained moment before he finally stood. "I'm coming down. Stay put and don't move."

When the guy vanished into the shadows, she listened for him but heard nothing. Not a creak of a floorboard or a scuff of a boot. He simply reappeared from behind a pile of tossed empty boxes. Dressed in worn jeans with holes in the knees and a black T-shirt with a bloody yellow smiley face on the chest, Oliver walked toward her with his eyes fixed on her.

Those eyes.

That's what she'd remembered most about him. His eyes were smoky green, intense and unforgettable. When they first met, she wanted him to look at her, but whenever he did, she felt raw and exposed as if he knew all her sins. Seeing him in the shadows magnified that feeling.

He was bigger than she recalled and towered over her with his broad shoulders and long legs. His scruffy black hair and bristled chin made him look older, even though Zack had told her that he was nineteen?only three years older than her. He had an upward turn to the corners of his lips that made her believe smiling had once been easy for him, but an unshakable sadness in his eyes weighed heavier now.

In another life she could picture him being a good son, tolerable brother and anyone's trusted best friend, but too much had happened to change him. Most girls would go bat shit if he even looked at them?normal girls who lived in an alternative universe light-years away who wouldn't recognize the walking wounded on sight as she did. She couldn't afford to let a guy like him get to her.

Letting her guard down made her vulnerable, especially now that Zack was gone. She hadn't lived on the streets of L.A. that long. Without Zack to run interference, she didn't know ifshe liked being alone with Oliver.

He kept his distance and said, "Tell me everything."

Caila stared at the blood-splattered smiley face on Oliver's T-shirt as he crossed his arms, and she thought of Zack. The tattered fringes of her life frayed apart as hunger and exhaustion from her sleepless nights made her feel light-headed. She'd have one chance to convince Oliver to help her.

Running on empty, she had nothing left?only the truth.

West Hollywood
10:50 p.m.


"Why do you think he's in trouble?" Oliver asked.

He stood in a wash of moonlight coming from a broken window that silhouetted his body. His black hair covered one eye and shone under a bluish light that made him look like a ghost. Caila shoved that morbid thought from her mind.

"That time we met, you said that Zack was a good guy to have my back and I should do the same for him." She felt the burn of tears and had nothing left to fight them off. "Zack got the raw end. When he needed me, I wasn't there. If that makes a difference to you, I'll leave and never come back, but Zack needs help."

Caila didn't know what she'd do if he kicked her out. She needed someone to talk to, but when a rush of emotions hit her hard, tears came and carried a weight of their own. Her face grew hot and she felt dizzy.

Oliver cocked his head and lowered his voice.

"Took guts to come here," he said. "You look wiped. This wasn't the first place you looked, was it?" After she shook her head and lowered her chin, he said, "I'd say you have his back. Talk to me."

Oliver pulled two wooden crates over and made a spot for them to sit. Caila took it as a positive sign that he hadn't kicked her butt to the street. She joined him and filled Oliver in on the days before Zack went missing and told him everything. Thinking of Zack used to make her smile. Now all she felt was guilt.

"The last time I saw him he had a few dollars and went to buy us a couple of burgers. I get headaches and wasn't feeling good. He was always doing nice stuff like that for me." She rubbed the back of her neck. "He never came back."

Oliver nodded and kept listening, but he clenched his jaw as if he was stewing on something.

"I went looking for him," she said. "No one at that burger place remembered seeing him, but you know how that goes. I checked with other kids he knows, even went to a couple of hospitals and clinics. He hasn't turned up. Not anywhere."

Caila looked him in the eye. "I'm scared, Oliver. Zack always told me to find you if something happened. I got no one else."

Oliver grew quiet and glared into the dark. She had an awful feeling about what he'd say next, but he surprised her with a question she never saw coming.

"How did you two hook up?" he asked. "Zack never said."

"Oh, we're only friends. We never? I mean, it wasn't like that with Zack."

"Like what?"

Caila stammered and racked her brain for what to say as heat rose to her cheeks. When he shot her a half smile, she realized that he didn't expect an answer.

"You remind me of him. He liked making me squirm. Guess I made it easy," she said. "Can you help me find him?"

"I don't know. Maybe. Did Zack ever talk about me and my freak-show talent?"

"Not really. Guess he figured that was private."

"Yeah, good man. You have anything of his, something he touched?"

"No, he never told me about bringing anything." She dug through her pockets but couldn't even come up with coins that he'd touched, until?"Wait a minute. Yeah, I got something."

Caila jumped off the crate and raced back the way she had come. When she got to the fire escape, she grabbed what she needed and came back.

"Here. He touched this." She handed him the empty can.

"Will this work?"

Oliver scrunched his face when he stared at the Cheez Whiz.

"Don't knock it," she said. "Squirt cheese is genius."

He smiled without a smart-ass remark and got down to business. Oliver shut his eyes and held the can tight. When he started to shake and breathe funny, she edged closer. His face twisted as if it hurt to hold the can. When he opened his eyes and had a hard time looking her in the face, Caila knew it wouldn't be good news.

"You know what happened to him, don't you?"

Oliver set the empty can at his feet without saying a word. It took him a long time to answer her. He got up and leaned a shoulder against a brick wall. Eventually he slid down and crouched near the floor.

"I only got glimpses of him, but I saw enough. Guys in uniform took him and they weren't the police." He shook his head. "Ever hear of the Church of Spiritual Freedom? Some kids call 'em the Believers. I call 'em fuckin' soul vampires."

She'd heard Zack say something similar. At first she thought that those stories were nothing but urban legend. Zack never wanted to scare her. He only shared enough to make her cautious with strangers and be aware of people following her. But from the expression on Oliver Blue's face, she had a bad feeling that everything Zack had told her had been true.

"They're for real?" Caila had a hard time breathing. She shook her head and tried to remember stuff Zack had said. "Who could help us find out if they have him? I mean, there's gotta be a way of getting him back."

The look on Oliver's face told her plenty when he came to sit with her again.

"They got resources and money and cops on the payroll. We can't trust anyone. These bastards are high-tech. I hear they can hack into the city's surveillance and traffic cams. Makes it harder to keep ahead of 'em and hide, you know? You don't even feel a push until they're right on top of you."

"But why? Why would they come after?kids?"

Oliver stared into the dark for a long moment before he answered.

"Fear is a drug. They're afraid of us?of what we can do. To them, we're freaks." He turned back to her. "When people believe God is on their side, they think that gives them permission to do anything. They see us as a threat."

"But Zack? He wasn't dangerous. He never hurt anyone." Caila felt the darkness in the warehouse closing in on her. "Could you tell where he is now?"

"Normally, yeah, but not this time." He sighed and ran a hand through his hair.

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