Chapter One

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Rain drizzled softly on the cardboard box, lulling the sleeping girl inside with a momentary sense of security. A can rattled along the cement and crashed into a brick wall. Kira's head snapped up, her startled heart pounding as she stared into the night, scanning for the source of the noise.

She wished for moonlight but saw only creeping steam rising from the sewer drains and crowding the alleyway. Shifting within the overturned appliance box, she pushed her sleeping bag off her shoulders to lean out of the box and gaze into the alley.

Madame Fortuna's neon sign buzzed and flickered, casting an eerie green glow on the steam, obscuring her vision even more. Kira waited and watched silently. Probably just a four-legged dumpster visitor, scavenging for food.

The aroma of baking bread told her it was pre-dawn, the only time of the day a pleasant smell competed with the rotten vestige of overflowing garbage. Kira's stomach grumbled in protest, but she was used the sound by now. And the numbness that followed.

When no other sign of movement came from the alley, she released the breath she'd been holding and inched backward into her box. She tugged her sleeping bag around her shoulders and listened to the sound of the light morning rain.

It was always drizzling in Portland. Most of the homeless learned to place their lean-tos, boxes, or shelters on top of a wooden pallet to separate themselves from the pooling water and to stretch a tarp over their shelter. Someone out there was benefitting from Kira's tarp even now. They'd stolen it just before nightfall, and she had very little hope of staying dry much longer. She'd have to find another box or tarp.

A shadow moved in front of her box's opening—bigger than any animal. Kira froze, her eyes narrowing as she reached into the small space behind her for the broken two-by-four she'd spiked with jagged nails. The shadow moved again, and a pair of big black boots stopped right in front of her box. Men's. Her mouth curled in a feral grin, and she pulled back the club to stab the ankles if the owner of the boots moved toward her.

She wasn't prepared for the assault to come through the top of the box. A second attacker's hands burst through the wet cardboard and gripped her neck. Strong arms pulled her against a solid chest, and a big hand covered her mouth with something foul-smelling. She kicked, fought, and scratched at the vise-like arms. But nothing helped. The arms lifted her high into the air, leaving her bag, club, and few possessions abandoned in her destroyed box as her assailant dragged her across the alley.

He smelled worse than her lecherous stepfather. She'd have to escape again. Good thing she'd had so much practice.

Hands removed a heavy grate from the sewer drain, and Kira screamed into the rag at the darkness below. The purple curtain in Madame Fortuna's storefront moved, and a pale, gaunt face appeared in the window, but the curtain quickly dropped back into place. Clearly, the old fortune teller wasn't interested in what lay beyond her fake crystal ball, heated flat, and big screen TV.

Or perhaps she'd already seen Kira's future. The woman had confronted her in the alley just the other day, her salt-and-pepper braid in much need of a thorough combing. Small gold rings made her plump fingers look like sausages as they'd poked seventeen-year-old Kira in the chest.

"Death!" Her voice rasped. "Death surrounds you."

"Go away, you hag!" Kira pushed her sausage finger away.

"Kira Lier," she chanted in a singsong voice. "Kira Lier brings death to us all." The woman had wandered back to the side door of her shop and hadn't come back out to bother Kira since. Now she wished she would.

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