This is the last sample chapter for Ghouls in the Grocery Store before it comes out in less than two weeks. I'm so excited that this is my sixth release for 2019. It feels like I'm finally getting my groove back.
All three of us dropped to the floor.
More surprised shouts echoed from the high industrial-style ceiling. The cries shifted to howls of pain and shrieks of terror. One last scream abruptly cut off. An occasional moan swept from other parts of the grocery store. Otherwise, it was eerily quiet.
“Shit,” I muttered. Ares!
Still no answer to my silent prayer.
“Mommy, language,” Ellie chided under her breath. I should never have let her watch Captain America movies. She was turning into a goody-two-shoes.
Waiting for my eyes to adjust, I wrapped my left hand around her right. We crept to the edge of the railing and peeked between the slats around the back wall of the café. Outside the main doors of the grocery store, the security lamps for the parking lot were off, too. Against the ambient light from the stores across the street, tall shadows shuffled in front of the glass. Whatever they were, they didn’t move with the speed and elegance of vampires or fae, nor with the purpose of healthy Normals.
“I count a dozen outside,” I whispered.
The warmth of Jake’s body against my back was comforting as he peered over my head. “Same. They probably have more waiting for you by your SUV and at the pharmacy entrance. What the hell are they?”
So he noticed the discrepancies, too.
“Don’t know,” I breathed. “Don’t want to find out either.” The emergency generator still hadn’t kicked on. Whoever was after us had done their research on the building’s power supply.
“There’s a door to the storage area in the dairy section,” he whispered. “Maybe we can go out the delivery bay.”
“If they have the main entrances and my vehicle staked out, then they’ll have someone watching the back.”
Ellie tugged on my hand. “Mommy, I don’t see any vampire eyes.”
She was right. Most of the rogues we’d encountered over the last few years were newborns, like the ones who initially attacked us. Baby vamps couldn’t keep their emotions in check while hunting. When my uncle Duncan was Turned in the sixteenth century, those glowing eyes caused terror. Now, the signature glow made the younger vampires a convenient target.
So either really old vampires stalked us with Murphy only knew what those shadows outside were, or whatever was after Ellie were things we’d never encountered before. I hoped, anyway. If they were dino demons, we were seriously fucked.
“Dairy section then,” I breathed the words to Jake. “Ellie—”
“I know the drill, Mommy,” she whispered back fiercely. “Stay quiet and do what you and Uncle Jake tell me.”
The cavernous interior of the store was pitch black. We carefully backtracked out of the café. I crept down the closest aisle, trying not to breath too loud. Ellie’s damp hand clung to mine as she matched my steps. My boot brushed something, and it rolled away with a clatter that sounded obscenely loud compared to the silence of the rest of the store.
Dammit! Leave it to me to select the canned goods aisle in the dark.
Snuffling sounds came from all around us. My heart pounded.
“Up,” Jake whispered. He grabbed Ellie and boosted her to the top shelf. She kicked the shelf below her in her effort to climb up, and more cans hit the floor in a series of bangs and clangs.
A shadow slightly darker than our surroundings moved at the end of the aisle. It stumbled on other cans probably knocked over by panicked shoppers. And the monster reminded me of how I’d captured a certain red-coated, home-intruding elf who wasn’t as harmless on Christmas Eve as everyone thought.
I holstered my gun and ran toward the shadow, sweeping my left arm along the fourth shelf. More cans landed on the linoleum tiles, the sound reminiscent of a horrendous hail storm. The noises drew the shadow closer, and it sniffed loudly at the cans rolling toward it.
Taking advantage of the distraction. I scrambled up the shelving and reached the top. Teeth snapped behind me. I looked down, but I couldn’t make out much in the dark. It was about the size of a St. Bernard. Its smell wasn’t remotely canine though. Pulling up my legs, I knocked over some more cans. The monster below grunted when they hit it, but otherwise, the blows didn’t seem to faze the creature.
Instead, the thing raised its head, or what I thought was its head, and let loose a rising and falling whine that sounded suspiciously like an emergency vehicle siren. Snuffling from the other things got closer.
“Stay here.” The shadow that was Jake clambered to the top of the opposite shelving unit. His silhouette stood out against the red lights of a cereal display a couple of aisles away that must have been battery-powered. He race-walked along the narrow tops of the shelving units, trying not to knock anything over and attract the monster’s attention, before he faded into the rest of the darkness.
Below us, the creature leapt and snapped in Jake’s general direction before it resumed its call. Without knowing how to kill these creatures, shooting them could be a waste of bullets. Not to mention, the noise would attract the others, and we’d be surrounded within seconds.
“Mommy?” The one word from my daughter could barely be called a whisper.
“I’m right here.” I crawled toward her, desperately trying to think of a way to get her away from these creatures. I trusted Jake, but I’d learned a long time ago not to put all my faith in other people’s great ideas.
“We need to make it be quiet.” Ellie lifted a can and threw it in the direction of the siren call. Another grunt followed the dull thud, but it did stop its weird wail.
Instead of restarting its call, it jumped toward the source of the projectile. The shelving unit wobbled. A muffled shriek came from my daughter’s direction. But her action and the creature’s response gave me an excellent idea.
I reached for her, and she shivered beneath my touch. “You had the right idea, sweetie.” I didn’t bother keeping my voice down anymore and peered over the other side into the health foods aisle. Two darker shapes snuffled and prowled the floor. “Throw cans at the ones over here.” I drew her hand to where I wanted her to aim.
“But two monsters will knock over these shelves—ooooo! We jump to the next shelves and the other monster will get squished!”
“That’s my girl.” I squeezed Ellie’s hand and released it. A little prayer escaped me. Ares still didn’t appear.
There was a time I would have banked my daughter’s life on a response from one of the gods in our lives, but not anymore. Not after what happened to Max.
“Ready,” I said. “Go!”
We threw can after can at the two creatures below. The grunts of pain turned to growls. At the same time, the first creature started its siren wailing again. Finally, the two we were trying to antagonize threw themselves against the unit.
The shelving started to rock, but it wasn’t enough. “Keep throwing, sweetie,” I ordered before I launched a couple of cans at the first creature. Its alternating howl cut off, and it leapt at me. The unit swung wildly. Ellie squeaked and I grabbed her.
The monsters after us must have instinctively decided to work in tandem to knock us off our perch. Or they were just dumb enough not to realize the units were close enough for a domino effect if one was knocked over. The shelves swayed with their rhythm as they took turns ramming the steel, each oscillation bringing us closer to our target.
I rose to a crouch and pulled Ellie to her feet. “When say go, jump as high and as far as you can.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Her palm was definitely sweaty, or mine was. Maybe it was both of us.
The unit hovered over the single monster in the canned good aisle before it did a slow swing back. Had I miscalculated?
As the shelves became perpendicular with the floor, the other two creatures must have sensed they were close to capturing us. They slammed into the steel rack.
Cans rained to the floor. The single monster’s howl of pain abruptly cut off when the unit we leapt from slammed into its counterpart. Our landing spot slid away beneath our feet. The acceleration made us overshoot both the opposite side of the canned goods and the international foods aisle.
I curled around Ellie, hoping beyond hope I didn’t break any of my own bones or hers when we landed. We crashed into another rack before we dropped. Plastic bags and cardboard boxes exploded beneath me. The scent of wheat, corn, and sugar filled the air.
“Up, Mommy!” Ellie yanked on my arm once, but I couldn’t move fast enough. I covered Ellie as more cardboard boxes pummeled me from above. A series of successive clangs followed by a tsunami of products crashing to the floor rattled my eardrums as each row of shelves tipped over into the next.
When quiet settled over the store again, I relaxed my tight grip on Ellie and listened. No snuffling or siren wailing pierced the silence. It was too much to hope the monsters had been crushed under the falling debris, but we definitely couldn’t stay here.
“Follow me,” I whispered before I brushed aside boxes and loose cereal and crawled toward the reddish lights gleaming at the end of the tunnel formed by the tilted shelves. Glow-in-the-dark yo-yo’s hanging from the endcap marked the right side of the aisle. Those might come in handy for a distraction later if more creatures prowled the store.
A soft crunching came from behind me that sure as hell didn’t sound like it was caused by hands and knees. It was too…wet. I paused. Murphy, please tell me my baby wasn’t doing what I thought she was doing.
I didn’t want to ask, but I had to. “Ellie, are you eating cereal off the floor?”
“Just the pieces on top of the piles,” she whispered. “I’m hungry.”
Only my daughter would be worried about food while we were mortal danger. “If you’re too full of cereal to go to McDonald’s…”
The crunching stopped. “I’m not.”
“Follow me.” I gritted my teeth and crawled toward the red lights and glowing yo-yo’s again. I really couldn’t complain. I’d done far weirder shit when I was a kid. At least, my daughter wasn’t being raised by vampires.
A shadow appeared between the glowing cereal display and the yoyos. I stopped and drew my sidearm. We had no place to go if another creature stalked us from the opposite end of the makeshift tunnel.
I relaxed at Jake’s whisper and started to stow my gun when an awful thought occurred. The dino demons, the ones who helped the rebel vampire Giovanni beat Max to death and kidnap Ellie, could shapeshift beyond a were’s two forms. They could become anyone. And you wouldn’t know until they were ripping out your heart.
I aimed at the shadow. “What were you planning to help me with this weekend?”
The shadow shifted before he said, “Your damn garbage disposal. When was our first kiss?”
“You’ve never kissed me, asshole.” But I relaxed and holstered my weapon.
“I think you two should,” my daughter piped up from behind me.
Thank Murphy, it was dark. From the heat in my face, my lily-white skin would be glowing like the freaking cardboard tiger beneath the battery-operated Christmas lights.
“No one’s kissing anyone,” I muttered. I crawled toward Jake.
“Why not?” Ellie asked. “You like each other.”
Jake helped me to my feet. “Yeah. Why not?” His dark eyes glittered red from the cereal display.
He was funny and cute, and he doted over Ellie. As much as I hated to admit it to myself, he’d replaced Gerard Butler in my fantasies. And with that silent admission, old guilt crashed over me.
“Don’t make me break my promise to Alex,” I hissed.
“And what’s that?” Jake asked as he pulled Ellie from under the fallen shelving and lifted her onto his hip.
Ellie cupped her hands around his ear, but I could hear her anyway. “Grandpa Alex told her she’s not allowed to shoot you.”
Jake’s teeth flashed scarlet in the light. “I’m glad Grandpa Alex is looking out for me. I wouldn’t want to be shot.”
She nodded solemnly. “I won’t let Mommy shoot you either.” She patted his cheek.
“I’m glad somebody has my back.” His voice grew serious. “We’re not getting out the rear entrance. There’s a dozen of those things prowling the unloading dock.”
“What about the, um…” I didn’t want to ask about the grocery employees who should have been in the store room in front of Ellie.
“There’s a lot of frozen pizza and sausage on the floor back there,” Jake murmured. “Nothing we could really use.”
For an instant, I wanted to hug him for his discretion. Ellie didn’t need to see the mangled bodies of the employees. “So why haven’t they come in after all the racket we made?”
“Same reason the ones in the front haven’t come in.” His voice turned grim. “They got us trapped, or they think they do.”
I glanced around us. Still quiet. “So what are they waiting for?”
“I don’t think we want to find out,” he said.
Faint snuffling came from a few aisles away, followed by the pop and crunch of a bag filled with more air than snack food.
Jake nudged me in the opposite direction. “Let’s head to the manager’s office. It’s defensible and we can call for backup.” He left out that the land lines had probably been cut the same time the power had been. But talking on a cell phone before we were out of the monsters reach wasn’t smart either.
The better question was whether my cell phone still worked after my awkward landing in the cereal aisle.
I grabbed a couple of the glow-in-the-dark yo-yo’s and shoved them into my jacket pockets before we crept through the dairy section, keeping low against the waist-high refrigerator units in the middle of the floor. Ellie stayed silent. If it weren’t for the adrenaline rush, my heart would have broken. I didn’t want my daughter to grow up like I had, her life in constant danger.
Max and I tried so fucking hard to give her a normal life. But here we were—hunted through the damn grocery store.
Crawling behind the floor units in the dark kept Ellie from seeing the bodies. There weren’t many though, not for the amount of people in the store when we arrived. And they sure weren’t killed by falling cans or broken wine bottles.
Unfortunately, the super-dim secondary emergency bulbs kicked on around the perimeter of the store as we neared the end of the dairy section. The battery-powered lamps were designed to give shoppers and employees enough light to evacuate the building in the event of an earthquake. It also meant the things hunting us wouldn’t have to rely on their noses anymore.
The shelving units we’d tipped over came to a rest against the first section of upright freezers. Movement flickered inside the endcap unit. I hissed, and Jake halted his crawl. Using hand signs, we argued about checking the unit.
He wanted to take care of the creature inside. Logically, I pointed out why the hell would one of them open the freezer, much less crawl inside?
“It’s a kid,” Ellie whispered.
We both looked at her. Pantomiming us, she emphatically jabbed a thumb at her chest before pointing at the freezer.
Jake and I exchanged looks. Something rustled a few aisles away. Cereal crunched and popped, followed by a snuffling sound. One of the creatures had picked up our trail.
Shit. We couldn’t leave a child in the damn freezer. The mom had probably shoved him or her inside before a vampire or a canine monster gutted her.
I ignored Jake’s gestures and crept around the corner of the floor freezer. His loyalty to Max meant he’d keep Ellie safe. Holstering my sidearm, I checked the dairy aisle. Nothing in sight. More crunching came from our landing spot in the cereal.
There wasn’t any time left. Condensation fogged the interior glass of the upright freezer. I eased the door open and laid my finger over my lips. The boy didn’t look much older than my own daughter. Thankfully, terror kept him from even whimpering.
I beckon for him to come out. He shook his head wildly. Even in the dim emergency lighting, the whites of his eyes stood out against his dark skin. I couldn’t leave him in there. He was dressed in a t-shirt and shorts. Even if the monsters couldn’t find him, the hypothermia would kill him.
From halfway across the store, the crunching came closer. Choosing your battles is part of parenthood, but this wasn’t a battle I could let the child win, even when the kid wasn’t mine. Not for the first time, I wished I was telepathic.
I stuck my head in the freezer. The little boy tried to meld his back into the plastic shelving.
“I can get you some place safe and help you find your mommy and daddy.” My whisper turned into a cloud inside the unit. I hoped I hadn’t just lied to the kid. “But we have to go now.”
Finally, he nodded. The shelf creaked as he crawled out of the freezer. I took his chilly hand and turned.
A dark shadow emerged from the tunnel that used to be the cereal aisle. It immediately howled its companion’s siren-like wail. Or maybe it was the same damn monster.
Whatever. The fucking thing stopped calling for backup and barreled straight for me and the kid.