Night Falls on the Wicked
Author:Sharie Kohle

ONE

A gust of late winter wind blew through the open door as another group of loggers tromped inside Sam’s Diner. Darby sucked in a breath and tensed against the bitter cold, breathing again when the door thudded shut. Air that cold was something she would never grow accustomed to—even after three years of living in subarctic temperatures.

As the door chimed shut, she hurried with menus to the table—the same as any other night. Handing out menus, refilling glasses, hefting trays of burgers and fries as snow continued to fall in sheets of white outside.

“Darby, girl,” a logger with raw, wind-chapped cheeks called to her good-naturedly. “When you gonna marry me?”

Darby pasted a smile on her face and gestured widely with a hand that clutched a coffeepot. “And leave all this?”

The logger snorted. “Who said anything about leaving this? I was hoping you’d support me. Always wanted to be a kept man.”

Darby rolled her eyes. “I’m not keeping anyone on the tips you guys leave me.”

His friends laughed. They were good men. Big, burly men who worked hard for a living. She knew many of their names, but nothing else about them. Just as they knew nothing of her. And they never would. She never let anyone close. It wasn’t safe to forge relationships.

“Why don’t you cut out early? You been here since five,” Maggie offered when Darby returned to the counter with their orders.

Darby scanned the narrow diner. At least five tables sat at full occupancy. “Trying to make off with all my tips?” she teased.

Maggie scoffed. They both knew that no one in this town was a big tipper. Not when the majority of residents could barely afford their heating bills.

Maggie waved a thick hand. “You go on. We don’t need three waitresses for this crowd.” She nodded to Corey at the other end of the diner. “Besides, the kids are at their dad’s. Might as well work late. Hate coming home to an empty place.”

Darby’s smile slipped as she refilled a salt shaker and screwed the lid back on. She knew all about coming home to an empty place. It’s all she knew.

“Well, all right then. If you’re sure. I don’t mind clocking out early.” She nodded to a just-vacated table. “I’ll just bus up that one and head out.”

“Invitation for dinner tomorrow is still open. Do you good to do something on our day off besides sit around staring at the walls. And my nephew will be there—”

“The taxidermist?”

“Yep. Nicest guy you’ll—”

Darby winced. Maggie always knew a nice guy. “No, thanks.”

“What?” She sighed, scratching her head with a pencil. “Some reality show marathon on TV?”

An old Alfred Hitchcock movie actually. She always loved the classics—had watched them a lot as a girl with her aunts. Rather than admit this, she shrugged. “Just thought I’d relax, read a book, get in a run—”

“Ugh. Who runs for fun?”

“Lots of people do. It’s good exercise.” And it helped. Helped keep her mind off things. Gave her a release.

Maggie snorted. “If you had a man you’d be getting plenty of exercise.” She laughed at her crude joke.

Darby rolled her eyes. “Trust me, Maggie. You don’t want to set your nephew up with me.”

Maggie sniffed and swiped at her nose. “Why not?” She leaned close and dropped her voice, her eyes wide, hungry as a hound on the scent. “You hiding from the law or something? That would explain a lot about you, you know.”

Darby smiled. Yes. She supposed that would explain a lot, and it would be more plausible than the truth. “No. Nothing like that.” She was running from something far worse than the law.

“Well, a date wouldn’t hurt. Even Corey’s got a date this week.” Maggie jerked a thumb to the other waitress.

Corey had a date? The single mom was about as uninterested in dating as Darby was. Well, uninterested wasn’t an accurate description exactly. Darby was interested. Achingly interested. Some nights she couldn’t sleep for all of her aching interest. Darby was simply unable to date. Big difference.

She watched Corey as she bused a table, her ponytail bouncing as she worked. For some reason the notion of Corey dating made her lonelier than ever. Now Maggie had no one to nag but Darby.

Corey must have seen something on her face. As she passed with a heavily laden tray of drinks, she shook her head at Darby. “Don’t let her start on you, Darby. It’s just a date. Don’t make a big deal out of it, Maggie.”

“It is a big deal,” Maggie flung back. “What’s it been for you, Corey? Three years?”

Darby stiffened. Three years. The same amount of time had passed since she’d felt free to go on a date. Since she left home, her family and friends. Three years that yawned on like forever. She swallowed against the sudden tightness in her throat. God—what was the rest of her life going to be like?

She shook her head. It was better than the alternative. She knew that. Was okay with that. Really.

It wasn’t an issue of wanting or deserving love. She wanted love, romance. A family, children of her own. She deserved it as much as the next person, but it was never going to happen. It was a beautiful dream. A fantasy.

Reality, sadly, didn’t offer any of those things for her. She contented herself with the past—with what little romance she’d had then. Bradley, her off-again, on-again boyfriend through high school. He’d been a good kisser. Had bought her a lovely watch she still owned. And there had been the occasional dates in college. That was all she would ever have.

“Good for Corey,” she murmured, fighting back the acrid taste of jealously rising up in her throat. To go out on an actual date. To feel a man’s hand on the small of her back as they walked through a crowded room. Darby couldn’t deny missing that. Among other things.

Maggie tossed her hands up in the air. “I give up.”

Darby grabbed a tub and moved to the table—the familiar need for distance surging back inside her again—and started collecting dishes. She worked quickly, ready to get off her feet and curl up on her couch. The solitude of her cozy room above the diner beckoned. Better that than this—surrounding herself with people that she had to forever and always keep at arm’s length. For her sake. For theirs.

She walked back to the kitchen and deposited the heavy tub of dishes next to Sam with a grunt.

“Headed out?” her boss asked around a mouthful of chew, maneuvering the hose in the sink and sending warm water splashing everywhere. Behind him food cooked on the grill, burgers that looked like they needed flipping.

She nodded, slipping off her work shoes and squeezing her feet into her snow boots waiting at the back door. “Yep. Good night.”

Sam muttered a response as she slipped on her parka and worked with the double zipper, preparing to leave out the back. “See you Wednesday.”

At the sudden thought of her day off tomorrow, she stopped and looked back at her boss. “Hey, Sam, you mind if I come over tomorrow to use your computer for a little bit? I need to look up some stuff.”

“Sure. Whenever you need to. We’ll be home all day.” Of course, he would. Tuesday was the only day of the week the diner was closed and Sam usually spent it relaxing at home with his family.

“Thanks.” It was time she started investigating her next move. Maggie’s prodding and nosy ways had clued her in that something was off with Darby. It wouldn’t take long for others to start wondering about her, too, and the last thing Darby needed was people prying into her life.

Spring was coming. She needed to start planning her next move anyway. She couldn’t stay here forever. It was already getting too comfortable. The people here were too nice. Which is why she couldn’t stay and put them in jeopardy.

“I’ll come over in the afternoon.”

“Might as well stay for dinner,” he suggested. “Vera’s going to make a pot roast.”

Darby gave a single nod, not bothering to decline. She wouldn’t be staying for dinner. Even as much as she would like to, as much as she craved the company—craved being around a family again. It wasn’t to be. It couldn’t be.

She knew everyone thought she was odd, antisocial even. And that was fine. Better that than the truth.

Better that than dead.

She shook her head as she stepped outside. The cold hit her like a fist. She burrowed into her hood and wrapped her scarf around her throat several times, tugging the fabric up to her chin.

Dead. If it was only just that simple. Sadly, there were things worse than death. Her chest tightened. She knew firsthand about such things.

DARBY FINISHED JOTTING DOWN the last of her notes in her spiral, everything she needed to know about Lancaster, Alaska. Population seventeen hundred. A new town for her. One of the only habitable places in Alaska’s Arctic Circle. But it needed to be cold during the summer. As far as she was concerned, Lancaster would fit her needs perfectly.

She never visited the same place twice. It was too easy to make friends, to build a life with people in it … people who could care about her. She’d discovered that people who cared about her weren’t easy to lie to. And lying was all she could do. Unfortunately, the truth wasn’t something she could give to anyone. Nor could she give any part of herself. Ever.

She was no good. Tainted. It was in everyone’s best interest for her to keep to herself. It was a full-time job to do just that. She missed people, longed for company, a simple friend. It was difficult to stay on guard 24/7, but that’s what she had to do.

As long as she lived, that’s what she would do.

Either that or throw in the towel like her mother did, and Darby couldn’t do that. She shivered at the idea. She wasn’t a quitter. She’d keep on moving, running, hiding—and try to take what pleasures she could from life in the process.

That was the only thing she could do. The only plan she had. The alternative to that …

A chill skated down her spine as she recalled the alternative awaiting her. There was no alternative.

She logged off the computer and gathered her bag, stuffing her spiral inside. She needed to go to the store, but she also wanted to squeeze in a run before it became too dark. The endorphins always helped. Always made everything brighter … less depressing now that her life had become this non-life. Not to mention she slept like the dead after a hard run. A deep, dreamless sleep. That was seriously important for her.

Her boots thudded along the wood floor as she left Sam’s office and followed the delicious aroma of food into the kitchen.

Vera was setting four plates at the table. Rory, their fourteen-year-old son, sat at the table working on his homework.

She forced a smile.

“Hey, Darby,” Rory said, looking up shyly from beneath his shaggy bangs.

“Hey, Rory.” She bit back her inclination to ask him what he was studying. She didn’t need to know. Didn’t need to reveal that she might care.

Darby’s gaze moved to the fourth place set at the table, her stomach sinking. Unless they were expecting company, Vera set that plate for her. And she was going to appear rude when she declined. But she had to. Because no way could she stay.

“Find what you were looking for?” Vera inquired.

“Yes. Thanks.”

“Well, wash up.” She nodded toward the sink. “Supper’s almost ready.”

“Oh, thanks, but I can’t stay.”

Vera gave Darby a disapproving glare. “Have plans, do you?”

“Um, yeah.”

“Really?” Vera arched a brow as she wiped her hands on a checked dishcloth. “Because you sure haven’t done much around this town since you moved here, not counting jogging and working long hours for Sam. Such a shame … a pretty girl like you should—”

“Thanks for letting me use your computer, Vera,” Darby cut in, unwilling to suffer the well-meaning lecture when she could offer no explanation as to why a young woman would prefer to live a life of isolation.

Vera released a defeated sigh. “Sure, any time.” She slapped the dish towel over her shoulder and shook her head as if Darby was a creature beyond her understanding.

Once on the porch, Darby met Sam coming in with an armful of wood for the fireplace. Warm air puffed in a cloud from his lips. He frowned at her. “Let me guess. You’re not staying for dinner.”

“No.” She shook her head. “Thanks though.”

“Well, let me walk you into town.”

“That’s not necessary,” she protested.

He frowned. “With the wolves acting up lately, it is necessary.”

“Sam, it’s a short walk into town.” She motioned down the driveway to the squat buildings outlined in the near distance. “And it’s still daylight. None of the attacks have happened during the day. I’ll be fine.”

He scratched his bristly jaw, looking uncertain.

“Stop worrying, Sam. Go eat your dinner and enjoy the rest of your day off.” Her boots thudded down the wooden steps of his porch. She was halfway down his drive when she looked back over her shoulder to see Sam still standing there, watching her. “See! I’m halfway to town and no problems!”

He waved a hand after her, but she could see his lips twitch. It warmed her heart—as it shouldn’t—to make him smile.

She had always been able to make her aunts smile. She hardly remembered those days with them anymore. It had been a long time since she’d made anyone smile or laugh. You had to be close to someone for that to happen.

She tromped down the well-traveled road, following in the tire tracks, where the snow was the smoothest and flattest and it took less work to walk. The pines on either side of her thinned out as she entered the town, passing first the post office and the squat, square building that was the city courthouse.

A couple descended the courthouse steps, their hands laced together. They walked close, leaning into each other. The woman dropped her head against his shoulder as if she couldn’t resist, as if she had to touch him, had to be close. He turned and pressed a tender kiss to her cheek. She smiled and stretched her hand out in front of her, wriggling her fingers, admiring the modest wedding ring, and Darby guessed they’d just tied the knot in the courthouse.

Something tightened in her chest, a familiar pang at the sight of what she could never have, what could never be hers. Damn it. She was maudlin lately.

She turned her gaze away and increased her pace, avoiding the sight of them as if that would shield her from the sad state of her own life and what it was always destined to be. Her mother had known what awaited her, had whispered it in her ear as she brushed her hair every night at bedtime.

There are worse things than being alone, Darby. Never forget that. Mommy won’t be here for you forever. Someday you’ll be alone. If you’re smart, you’ll learn to accept it. Don’t be weak and stupid like me and let a man sweet-talk his way into your life. The last thing you need is a baby.

Hard stuff for an eight-year-old to hear at bedtime. Only she hadn’t realized it. At age eight, it didn’t occur to her to be insulted. She’d simply nodded and agreed. Yes, Mommy.

She didn’t understand then what she knew now—that her mother regretted her father … that she regretted Darby. Now that she knew that, now that she was alone just as her mother had predicted, it was her mother’s voice she constantly heard in her head. That voice kept her strong, kept her on track.

Always remember, Darby, that there are real-life monsters out there, ready to gobble you up, possess you, turn you into the same horrible monsters they are. Just like your aunt Lena.

Aunt Lena made nationwide news when she burned down her office building, killing three and injuring several more. She’d disappeared before she could be apprehended. Law enforcement assumed she’d headed for Mexico, but Darby’s family knew she was headed for cooler climes. Someplace where she could wrest some control from the demon possessing her, the entity that was pure evil and forcing her to do terrible things. Like burn down buildings. And kill.

As soon as it started to get bad for Darby, once the demons came for her almost nightly, plaguing her constantly, she took her mother’s advice.

Better sooner than later. She wasn’t going to wait until a demon possessed her and forced her to kill somebody. Three years ago the demons had become particularly bothersome, invading her dreams, terrorizing her at every turn.

Just as they had done with her mother.

So as her mother recommended, Darby chose the path that didn’t just keep her safe, it kept the world safe.

It was as simple as that.

Across the street, Maggie stepped out of the hardware store. She waved widely and called out. Darby stared straight ahead, deliberately avoiding her, snuggling deeper into her parka, sealing herself inside herself.

And sealing the world out.