Nicole flicked off the engine and moved to pull the key from the ignition. I reached across and trapped her hand.
“Just wait,” I said softly, as if the person on the motorbike could hear us.
We sat silently and waited. Instead of driving down the road, he turned down the next driveway. The shadows moved. Whoever it was ducked around the big bush at the end of a long brick wall that shielded the driveway from our view. It stretched from the road, right up past the motel.
“We’re being followed.”
Nicole moved to switch the car on again but I gripped her hand more tightly.
“If we go, they’re going to keep following us. We need a plan,” I said.
“We need another car.” Guy’s tired eyes made him seem more exhausted than he had before.
“And we need to get into it without him realizing,” Briana piped up, stating the obvious.
The front of the motel was devoid of any sign of life. Apart from the main reception, all of the windows were dark, and except for our car, the parking lot was empty.
“Wait here,” Guy said, moving to push his door open.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Pretending to check in. It’ll make them think we haven’t seen them and give me a reason to scout around the back.”
He walked to the reception door and pushed it open. It didn't take long; he came out again in less than five minutes.
“Drive the car around the back,” he said, sliding in.
Nicole started the engine again, maneuvering the car around the corner of the building.
“There are no guests. All of the keys were still on their hooks.”
I surveyed the empty space behind the building. “We’re going to have to try another way to leave without them noticing.”
The multi-level building in front of me gave me an idea. “I’ll do it.”
The other three didn’t argue. I climbed out of the car and went around to the trunk. I yanked my bag open and extracted a silver canister.
I shut the trunk silently and climbed on top of the station wagon. The roof was low. I sprang from the car and caught the gutter pipe overhanging the second floor before hoisting myself onto the old tiles.
Slinking across the old roof, I crouched low so no one could see me from the road. I crept to the opposite side of the building, where the eves overhung the tall stone wall. With every step, I tested the roof with my foot before putting my whole weight on it; some of the tiles were old and worn, and I didn’t want to fall through them.
I lowered myself from the roof onto the narrow row of bricks. I listened carefully. I couldn’t hear any heart beat, but there was a strange, irregular sound coming from the direction of the bike.
The grass beneath the wall softened my landing. I tiptoed toward the dark shadow of the motorbike.
A sweet smell drifted from behind me. It was like the flowers Mom used to keep in a glass on our little kitchen table. I paused near the tree; a slight rustle met my ears. Something brushed against a branch behind me.
I spun and punched where I judged the mystery person to be, but not fast enough. Whoever it was caught my arm and twisted it behind my back.
The canister slipped from my hand.
With the momentum, I swung my elbow up into the person’s jaw, turning farther than he or she was anticipating.
I managed to escape, but a hand caught my hair as I attempted to put distance between us. The nails were long and scratched my scalp. An arm snaked around the back of my neck, tucking me into a headlock.
Pressed to the side of the person's body I could feel feminine curves, even though her muscles were hard.
I swung my left elbow into the woman's stomach to see if it would dislodge her. It didn’t. I pulled down on the arm with my right hand, trying to give myself a little room to breathe. I squeezed my other hand between us then reached backwards over my head.
I stretched until I reached my assailant’s face. I dug my thumb into her nasal septum, the cartilaginous wall separating the nostrils—it would have hurt, a lot. She didn’t loosen her hold. I clawed two of my fingers and gouged at her eyes instead. The woman let go with a yelp.
Her grip loosened, I punched her in the stomach again. She let go of me completely and I dropped to the ground. I lunged for the canister, clutched it tightly between my hands, and depressed the button while spinning to face my attacker.
I held my breath as the gas deployed.
Whoever she was, she dropped to the ground like a sack of potatoes. Certain she was out cold, I took my finger off the button. She lay still, giving me my first chance to study her.
I yanked up the sleeve of her left arm, displaying an array of dots tattooed on the inside of her wrist. To anyone else, it would have seemed like twenty-seven random marks. I wasn’t just anyone else.
I could recognize those two constellations as easily as I could identify any letter of the alphabet. They were the stars of Leo and Virgo, identical to those in the night sky, identical to those on my wrist and each of the other girls’.
The woman and the beast. The sign of the Sphinx Project.
Leaving her where she lay, I turned and sprinted back to the car.
“Drive!” I said as I climbed inside.
“Where to?” Nicole glanced at Guy in the rear-view mirror.
“Head back to the last intersection and go left, then left again,” he said.
He pulled a book of maps out of a pocket on the back of Nicole’s seat, leafing through it until he found the right page. “You’re going there.” he handed it to me, pointing out the exact location.
We drove until long after dark before stopping again. We found the old motel immediately after we crossed into Atlanta and stopped in for the night. Guy chose a card from his wallet and handed it across the counter to the elderly woman on the other side. She peered at us curiously but didn’t say anything.
The room was small, but it was enough. Nicole and I volunteered to take the double bed, Guy and Briana took the bunks and Mouse camped out on a low cot.
We rationed out the food, but Guy waved his aside, opting instead to crash straight onto his bed. He hadn’t even pushed back the covers before falling into a deep sleep. His skin was pale, a sheen of sweat coated his forehead.