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Michael Prescott

STEALING FACES

Light thickens,

And the crow makes wing to th’ rooky wood;

Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,

Whiles night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.

— Shakespeare, Macbeth

Prologue

She had been a person once.

Hours earlier, when she started her long run through the hills under the moonless sky, she’d had a name and a job and a son to live for.

All of that was gone now, and she was only a scratched and muddy animal crawling through tall stands of reeds along a stream bank.

She was instinct and reflex. Her world was a flow of sensation — the movement of her body, the rack of pain, the press of fear.

The chase had taken her dignity and her freedom of will, and the shock of the bullet in her leg had taken her memories and hopes. Blood loss and rising panic had done the rest.

Somewhere, not inside her but out there, apart from her and distant, a presence named Sharon Andrews hovered like a ghost. Sharon Andrews, thirty-four, divorced mother raising a seven-year-old boy named Todd, working five days a week as a receptionist in the showroom of Edison Auto Mart on East Speedway Boulevard in Tucson, Arizona.

This woman, this Sharon Andrews, had read dinosaur books to her son in the evenings. She had worried about the rent on their two-bedroom apartment when the alimony check was late. She had stopped at the local video store once a week to raid the bargain bin for Disney movies on sale, used, for $9.99. When she smiled, her mouth turned downward, and when she sneezed she said, Excuse me, even if she was alone.

This woman, this Sharon Andrews, had been all quirks and opinions and worries and loves and disappointments and ideas picked up from magazines and strange, lonely moods when she wondered about the infinite.

This woman did not exist anymore, and would never exist again.

Where she had been, there was the bloodied, wounded, tattered, desperate thing now splashing into the shallow stream, drawn there by an agonizing thirst and a need to soothe the burn of the bullet hole.

The streambed was slick, and her bare feet slipped in a groove of ooze. She fell in the water, inhaling some of it, gasping and retching, then struggled on.

She had no conscious reason to continue. She did not lash herself with what-if and if-only. She was aware of no plan, no strategy for survival, and nothing but fear had impelled her down the steep hillside to the stream.

A person might have imagined that the stream would erase her trail and throw off her pursuer, but there was no person now.

Sometimes limping, sometimes crawling, she splashed through ten inches of water, traveling with the current because she was too tired to resist it, covering distance she couldn’t measure, running a race with an adversary she no longer clearly remembered.

The stream curved, narrowing. Somewhere a coyote sang to the night, its cry high-pitched and sad.

She’d heard it before, when she was Sharon Andrews. Then, she had ignored it, knowing coyotes were no threat to her, but now she knew nothing but direct perception and intuitive response, and the predator’s song chilled her.

She ran faster and lost her footing again, coming down hard on the soft bank, spattered with muck, and abruptly all motion fled her, and she lay utterly still.

The night was large and silent, heavy with darkness. She looked at the sky. The stars had dimmed.

She did not understand that the leakage of blood from the hole in her leg had impaired her thinking and now even her vision.

She was aware of pain and weakness, hunger, and the fast feathery beating of her frightened heart.

This was all there was for her, this and the great stillness all around, the silence that stretched and stretched as if it might last forever.

The second bullet caught her in the hip.

She jerked with the impact, her eyes watering in surprise and pain.

Her hands found the bullet hole and felt the rush of sticky warmth suffusing her skirt. Blindly she tried to plug the hole with her fingers, but the effort was hopeless and she was much too tired.

She’d never even heard the gunshot — perhaps her startled yelp had covered the noise — but she heard the coyote again, keening a ululant song.

It was not a coyote, of course. It never had been.

It was him.

Some part of her registered this fact. She looked behind her and saw him striding along the bank of the stream, the pistol in his gloved hand.

If she had been Sharon Andrews, she would have known she was finished. Somehow she knew anyway, though her body fought against the knowledge, insisting on survival.

When he reached her, she was clawing feebly at the mud, straining to rise, but she would never rise. The second shot had shattered her hip and damaged the base of her spine, leaving her legs limp and unresponsive even as her upper body thrashed and flailed.

Crouching beside her, he touched the carotid artery at the side of her neck. She moaned.

“Quiet now,” he said. “Quiet.”

Roughly he turned her on her back.

A light snapped on, dim and red, a low-power flashlight with a red filter.

Swimming in the red haze was the blur of his face. He leaned close, studying her, his eyes narrowed and intense.

“Now I see you,” he whispered. “Now I see you as you really are. I see the essence of you.”

She heard words, but they meant nothing, they were only sounds, dull sounds. She was sleepy.

Her eyes were closing when she saw the knife.

He’d slipped it from a sheath at his waist. A long knife with a double-edged blade.

A last reflex of fear stiffened her.

“There, there.” He set down the flashlight. “Be calm. This won’t take long.”

Then he was bending nearer, one hand on her chin, the other holding the knife against the tender hollow of her jaw.

“You wear a mask,” he said. “All your life you’ve worn it.”

His tone soothed her, a steady tone that stroked her in a calm caress.

“But not tonight. Tonight you’ve been unmasked. Tonight you’re pretending no longer. Isn’t it good, not to pretend? Isn’t it right, to be real for once? To be only what you are?”

She didn’t understand, but she knew there was only a little more to go, and she relaxed, waiting for it to be

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