“Did she tell you where she was going?” He stood across the counter, leaning towards the older man.
The ‘older man’ was not really a man, but a demigod. As soon as Athan saw Peter Stanley he recognized the heavyset butcher. He’d allowed himself to age, and he had less hair, but his facial features were exactly the same as the pictures. If he looked there would be a red, raised birthmark of hammer on his left forearm. The son of Hephaestus. Peter Stanley left the protection of the conservatory decades ago. And he ended up here, in Goldendale. Unbelievable.
The bland features of the butcher were frozen in perplexity. “Who did you say you are?”
“Athan Michael. Hermes’s son.” No sense in hiding his identity.
Mr. Stanley nodded, and continued to stack chicken breast into the display case. His eyes tight as he ground his teeth.
Even an idiot could see he wasn’t about to betray Hope.
“And why are you looking for her?” he asked, pulling another handful of raw meat from the container.
His probing questions implied that he knew something. Athan would need to tread lightly; he needed these answers.
“She and I had a . . . disagreement.”
“A disagreement?” The butcher gave Athan a hard stare. “Really?”
This was not going well, and for the first time in years, Athan wanted to punch a bag with Xan, the demigod son of Ares. “Yes. And I need to apologize.”
“I’m sure you do, Athan Michael. Hermes’s son.”
“Did she tell you?” The words came out a choked plea. Desperation didn’t even begin to express the ugly sensation in his chest. He needed to find her.
Mr. Stanley stopped putting meat into the case and sized up the young immortal. “Something is not quite right here. I know the games you demigods play, and I want nothing to do with it.” His eyes narrowed on Athan, fixing him with a glare. “And if Hope didn’t want anything else to do with you, I would want to protect her, not help you.”
It was a sucker punch. And one well deserved. He swallowed back the panic. “Please? Did she tell you anything? Has she said anything to Haley?”
“Now, what did you say you two fought about?”
What was with the twenty questions? “I didn’t.”
“Ah. Well then, I’m not sure I can help you any further.” Mr. Stanley turned his back and went through the blue doors to drop off the now empty container.
Athan would not let it end like this. He rounded the counter and pushed through the double doors.
Mr. Stanley peeled off the gloves and threw them into a large black trash can. He turned, and when their eyes met, the older man raised his eyebrows.
“Listen.” Athan stood in front of the doors as if to block the entrance. “You don’t have to like me. I’m okay with that. But you do need to listen.”
The butcher frowned.
Athan realized the mistake right away. “Sorry. I would really appreciate it if you would listen.” As much as he wanted to use his persuasive powers, he worried. If he failed, he would make an eternal enemy, and even if he won this round . . . No, it wasn’t worth the risk. “Please, just listen.”
“Despite how irritating you are, I am listening.”
He nodded. “Hope’s in a lot of trouble. She’s . . .” What could he say that wouldn’t break her confidence? “She has more powers than I thought. A lot more. I don’t think she’s safe by herself.”
“And where would she be safer? With you?”
He wanted so much for it to be true. But the truth . . . His eyes fell to the ground. “I don’t know,” he murmured.
“Now that is the first time I actually believe you. Listen, you seem to care about her. And I know she left Goldendale pretty upset.” He held up his hand to stop the explanation. “Not that I want to know what it was.”
“Then what do you want?” Athan’s eyes widened and he extended his arms in a plea. “What would it take for you to help me find her? I swear, I never wanted anything bad to happen to her. I just . . .” His arms fell to his sides, and his breath shuddered. “I just want to help her.”
“What will you do if you find her?”
This was touchy, but Peter had already said he didn’t want to know. The lie came out smoothly, “I was told to take her to a conservatory.”
“Do you know what will happen to her if you take her there?”
He shook his head. He didn’t know, but he could guess. Monsters were feared, hated, and hunted. Taking her to the conservatory would be taking her to her death.
“Would you keep her safe? If she were at the conservatory, would you even be able to?”
Athan didn’t know what to say. Could he keep her safe? Was him trying to protect her madness?
Mr. Stanley said nothing more as he busied himself with his work, stacking plastic bins, and pulling something out of the walk-in refrigerator. He dropped the meat on a long counter, and grabbed a cleaver, but froze when Athan spoke.
“I don’t know.” Athan swallowed his pride and any illusion of deception. “My dad— He wanted to talk with her.”
Peter Stanley blanched. “The gods are involved with her?”
The cleaver came down with a forceful thwack. “You should know . . . If the gods are involved . . . Why would I help you find her, son of Hermes?”
“What if I pledge to you that I will protect her? I will not take her anywhere unless I can keep her safe.”
Mr. Stanley was silent in his contemplation.
Athan held his gaze, uncertain what he was looking for, but desperately hoping he would find it.
Peter Stanley sighed. With two strides he crossed the room.
“I believe that you would try.” He touched Athan’s chest. “In here, I know you would do whatever you could. I’m so sorry. I cannot tell you what I do not know.”
“What?” The question was an exhale of disappointment.
“She did not tell me or Haley where she was going, only that she was moving closer to the city, closer to her aunt. That’s all I know.” He offered the information with a wan smile. “But, she told Haley she would keep in touch. If she calls, or comes over here to Goldendale, would you like me to call you?”
His surging hope fell into the beaten surf of useless wishes. “Please. If you would.”
The bell rang from the counter.
Mr. Stanley pointed to a desk in the corner. “You’ll find a piece of paper and a pen there. Write down your number and I’ll call you.” With a sigh, he pushed through the double doors.
Athan wrote his cell number down and put it in the center of the desk. He stepped out the loading door into the alley behind the store, and caught his breath.
The shadow by the dumpster was shifting in undulations of movement. The putrid smell of carrion wafted on the breeze. His heart stuttered, tripping over itself.
If he left now he’d be gone by the time the creatures attacked. He didn’t owe Hephaestus’s son anything. But the thought of Hope, Haley, and even having to face himself in the mirror told him he was a liar for thinking he could walk away.
Athan slid his daggers out, and without looking away from the darkness, he pounded on the back entrance.
Seconds later, Mr. Stanley’s bulky frame opened the metal door. “By the gods you are annoy–”
Athan didn’t look at him, he was still staring at the shadows in the alley.
The amorphous pitch took shape, and three men with midnight eyes climbed out of the darkness and ambled toward the demigods.
Athan pointed his immortal weapons, while shifting into a defensive stance. “I hope you have a blade on you. Skia are here. Thought you should know.”