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The Soul Shifters Trilogy

The Soul Shifters

The Soul Shifters: A Novel

Chapter 1

Someone's in the house! Ellie Montgomery thought. She'd heard a noise over the whirr of her blow dryer. Frightened, she turned off her dryer and remained seated at her vanity table, afraid to move. "Dad?"

Silence.

Her heightened senses remained on red alert. Shivering now, she tightened the forest-green towel around her chest. She could see the half-open bedroom door in her mirror. She was terrified that a stranger could be lurking there—standing right behind her.

Heart pounding, she turned and looked at the doorway. There were no strange shadows, no sounds. "Mom?" she called.

Not moving a muscle, she listened.

She could hear the ticking of the grandfather clock in the hallway below. A full minute passed.

It must have been her imagination. She sighed in relief.

Nobody's here. I just have the jitters. Too much coffee while cramming for my calculus test.

She jumped as her cellphone rang, then chuckled at herself as she put a hand on her still-pounding heart. The ringtone was four measures of a ragtime-jazz piano piece. Nothing could be less threatening, even when it was this close—next to her elbow on the vanity table. She glanced at the screen. Liz was calling her, probably to say that the snow had slowed her drive, although Liz was always chronically late. Ellie and Liz went to the same high school, but lived in different neighborhoods of Philadelphia.

Ellie answered with a breezy "Hi," but Liz's "Hey, Elony" was a bad sign; Liz only used Ellie's full name when she was discouraged. She should be well on her way by now.

"Are you stuck in traffic?"

"Big time. So much for my brilliant decision to take the Express Way. I'm sorry about this. We should already be at The Sink by now."

"No worries. I'm not even dressed yet."

"It feels like I'm parked in this one spot on the highway. There's a pickup truck behind me that's had his high beams on the whole time. I'm getting blinded by the reflection in my mirrors."

"I hate that," Ellie said.

"It gets worse: the guy next to me is blasting techno music, and it's so loud I can feel the beat. Literally. My car is vibrating."

"So basically, you're in a bad club," Ellie said. "You can't see anything, and you're forced to listen to loud, crappy music."

Liz laughed. "At least there's no cover charge."

"And you don't have a permanent 'X' on the back of your hand." The Sink, where she and Liz were going tonight, admitted 18 year-olds until midnight, but marked their hands with orange Day-Glo markers. "Plus, you have a seat."

"Yeah. With genuine fake-leather upholstery. And I'm inhaling car fumes instead of second-hand smoke."

"Hmm. Carbon monoxide versus recycled nicotine. That's a tough call."

"It is. But by the time I arrive, I'll already . . . Wait a sec. I'm picking up speed! Maybe I can get to your house in another forty, forty-five. Did you want to go on ahead and meet me? Angie and Mike are already there. We're celebrating the fact that you got into Stanford, after all."

"Nah, that's okay. I'd just as soon wait for you. Give me a call when you've got an ETA."

"Will do. In the meantime, you can make an appearance at your neighbor's party!"

Ellie grinned. Liz was teasing her; they'd already discussed Ellie's lack of enthusiasm for this particular party. "It is the place to be," she said. "Provided you aren't between the ages of twelve and thirty." She caught sight of her blue-gray eyes in her vanity mirror and averted her gaze. "No worries, Liz. I'll keep myself entertained till you get here."

"Woohoo! My speedometer just hit twenty-five!"

"See you soon. Can't wait!"

Ellie hung up and sighed as she studied her reflection. She wished she looked more like Liz—tall and thin—instead of short and pudgy, more cute than pretty. Maybe a darker shade of bronzer would help accentuate her cheekbones.

An instant later, she decided that she had better things to think about. It was almost Christmas. In another hour or so she'd be with her two closest friends (along with Angie's clingy boyfriend) to celebrate her early admissions to her dream school. Six months from now, she'd graduate and get her diploma. She'd be out on her own at last. She'd be free!

Ellie put on her jeans and a black cable-knit sweater. Her long auburn hair was still a little damp. She grabbed her blow dryer, but froze when she heard a thud downstairs. This time, she was dead certain someone was in the house. Was that the back door?

She glanced at the window. The motion detectors for the back yard had turned on. Had someone walked across their patio?

Her parents had just been telling her about two recent burglaries in the area. She'd dismissed their concern. Their home was nice, but hardly a mansion. Tonight would be a prime time to hit the houses in the immediate area, though. So many homes were deserted in favor of the annual bash four blocks away.

Dad probably just bailed on Mom and came back home, Ellie thought.

Then again—he'd driven to the party. Why would he have used the back door? Or walked across the patio deck?

Yet another noise resounded from below. Ellie grabbed her cellphone, trying to steady her hands to dial 911.

"Ellie?" her dad called up the stairs. "I'm home."

Thank God, Ellie thought. It must have been the front door after all. "Too much fun for one night?" she called out, almost giddy with relief.

"Something like that. I just dropped your mom off and doubled back."

Mom's not going to like that. If he'd seen how excited her mom had been when she was showing Ellie her new dress for tonight, he'd have realized how important this party was to her.

She set down her dryer. I'm going to have to help Mom out. "Hey, Dad?" she called, heading for the bedroom door. "I'm rethinking going to the party."

"At the Silvermans?" Her father was standing at the base of the stairs, looking up at her.

"Yeah. It'd be fun for me to at least make an appearance tonight. Will you come with me so I don't have to go by myself?"

"Sure. If you really want to go. That'd make Cassandra happy . . . though she's fine either way. You know how your mom loves big parties. But isn't Liz going to arrive any minute?"

Ellie grabbed the handrail and started to descend the stairs. "No, she's going to be an hour—"

A floorboard creaked. Her father turned to look.

Her father's head jerked as a gunshot split the air. He was propelled backward. Blood exploded behind him as he dropped to the floor, lifeless.

Ellie heard herself scream, yet felt paralyzed with shock and fear.

This can't be happening! It makes no sense!

A man wearing all-black clothing and a black ski mask rounded the base of the stairs. He took aim at her.

Ellie turned and tried to scramble away. A second gunshot resounded. A bullet ripped through her back and chest.

Her pain was at once unfathomable and irrelevant. She got her hands out in front of her as she dropped to the floor. Her blood pooled all around her. She had to get up. She was just a couple of strides away from her bedroom door.

The gunman was climbing the staircase after her. She could hear his footsteps resounding, could feel the minute vibrations in the palms of her hands, pressed against the floorboards.

She couldn't rise, couldn't get to her feet. She was going to die without a struggle.

Her cheeks were wet with tears. She whimpered and shrieked. She felt like a terrified little girl and just wanted to be cradled in her mother's lap.

She didn't want to die. She needed to get up, to get away from this monster, to call 911. This couldn't be happening. Nobody had any reason to kill her or her dad. They had no enemies. She was so weak, so tired.

Something was being shoved against the base of her skull. The barrel of the gun, maybe. Yet it felt like a dozen sharp pins digging into the nape of her neck at once.

She stared helplessly at the killer's shoes as she lost consciousness.

© Leslie O'Kane


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