About the Author

Kelley Armstrong

Books by this Author
A Darkness Absolute

A Darkness Absolute

A Rockton Thriller (City of the Lost 2)
edition:Hardcover
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Betrayals

Betrayals

The Cainsville Series
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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Bitten
Excerpt

I HAVE TO.

I've been fighting it all night. I'm going to lose. My battle is as futile as a woman feeling the first pangs of labor and deciding it's an inconvenient time to give birth. Nature wins out. It always does.

It's nearly two a.m., too late for this foolishness and I need my sleep. Four nights spent cramming to meet a deadline have left me exhausted. It doesn't matter. Patches of skin behind my knees and elbows have been tingling and now begin to burn. My heart beats so fast I have to gulp air. I clench my eyes shut, willing the sensations to stop but they don't.

Philip is sleeping beside me. He's another reason why I shouldn't leave, sneaking out in the middle of the night again and returning with a torrent of lame excuses. He's working late tomorrow. If I can just wait one more day. My temples begin to throb. The burning sensation in my skin spreads down my arms and legs. The rage forms a tight ball in my gut and threatens to explode.

I've got to get out of here-I don't have a lot of time left.

Philip doesn't stir when I slip from the bed. There's a pile of clothing tucked underneath my dresser so I won't risk the squeaks and groans of opening drawers and closets. I pick up my keys, clasping my fist around them so they don't jangle, ease open the door, and creep into the hallway.

Everything's quiet. The lights seem dimmed, as if overpowered by the emptiness. When I push the elevator button, it creaks out a complaint at being disturbed at so ungodly an hour. The first floor and lobby are equally empty. People who can afford the rent this close to downtown Toronto are comfortably asleep by this time.

My legs itch as well as hurt and I curl my toes to see if the itching stops. It doesn't. I look down at the car keys in my hand. It's too late to drive to a safe place-the itching has crystallized into a sharp burn. Keys in my pocket, I stride onto the streets, looking for a quiet place to Change. As I walk, I monitor the sensation in my legs, tracing its passage to my arms and the back of my neck. Soon. Soon. When my scalp starts to tingle, I know I have walked as far as I can so I search for an alley. The first one I find has been claimed by two men squeezed together inside a tattered big-screen TV box. The next alley is empty. I hurry to the end and undress quickly behind a barricade of trash bins, hide the clothes under an old newspaper. Then I start the Change.

My skin stretches. The sensation deepens and I try to block the pain. Pain. What a trivial word-agony is better. One doesn't call the sensation of being flayed alive "painful." I inhale deeply and focus my attention on the Change, dropping to the ground before I'm doubled over and forced down. It's never easy-perhaps I'm still too human. In the struggle to keep my thoughts straight, I try to anticipate each phase and move my body into position-head down, on all fours, arms and legs straight, feet and hands flexed, and back arched. My leg muscles knot and convulse. I gasp and strain to relax. Sweat breaks out, pouring off me in streams, but the muscles finally relent and untwist themselves. Next comes the ten seconds of hell that used to make me swear I'd rather die than endure this again. Then it's over.

Changed.

I stretch and blink. When I look around, the world has mutated to an array of colors unknown to the human eye, blacks and browns and grays with subtle shadings that my brain still converts to blues and greens and reds. I lift my nose and inhale. With the Change, my already keen senses sharpen even more. I pick up scents of fresh asphalt and rotting tomatoes and window-pot mums and day-old sweat and a million other things, mixing together in an odor so overwhelming I cough and shake my head. As I turn, I catch distorted fragments of my reflection in a dented trash can. My eyes stare back at me. I curl my lips back and snarl at myself. White fangs flash in the metal.

I am a wolf, a 130-pound wolf with pale blond fur. The only part of me that remains are my eyes, sparking with a cold intelligence and a simmering ferocity that could never be mistaken for anything but human.

I look around, inhaling the scents of the city again. I'm nervous here. It's too close, too confined; it reeks of human spoor. I must be careful. If I'm seen, I'll be mistaken for a dog, a large mixed breed, perhaps a husky and yellow Labrador mix. But even a dog my size is cause for alarm when it's running loose. I head for the back of the laneway and seek a path through the underbelly of the city.

My brain is dulled, disoriented not by my change of form but by the unnaturalness of my surroundings. I can't get my bearings and the first alley I go down turns out to be the one I'd encountered in human form, the one with the two men in the faded Sony box. One of them is awake now. He's tugging the remnants of a filth-encrusted blanket between his fingers as if he can stretch it large enough to cover himself against the cold October night. He looks up and sees me. His eyes widen. He starts to shrink back, then stops himself. He says something. His voice is crooning, the musical, exaggerated tones people use with infants and animals. If I concentrated, I could make out the words, but there's no point. I know what he's saying, some variation of "nice doggy," repeated over and over in a variety of inflections. His hands are outstretched, palms out to ward me off, the physical language contradicting the vocal. Stay back-nice doggy-stay back. And people wonder why animals don't understand them.

I can smell the neglect and waste rising from his body. It smells like weakness, like an aged deer driven to the fringe of the herd, prime pickings for predators. If I were hungry, he'd smell like dinner. Fortunately, I'm not hungry yet, so I don't have to deal with the temptation, the conflict, the revulsion. I snort, condensation trumpeting from my nostrils, then turn and lope back up the alley.

Ahead is a Vietnamese restaurant. The smell of food is embedded in the very wood frame of the building. On a rear addition, an exhaust fan turns slowly, clicking with each revolution as one blade catches the metal screen casing. Below the fan a window is open. Faded sunflower-print curtains billow out in the night breeze. I can hear people inside, a room full of people, grunting and whistling in sleep. I want to see them. I want to stick my muzzle in the open window and look inside. A werewolf can have a lot of fun with a roomful of unprotected people.

I start to creep forward but a sudden crackle and hiss stops me. The hiss softens, then is drowned out by a man's voice, sharp, his words snapped off like icicles. I turn my head each way, radar searching for the source. He's farther down the street. I abandon the restaurant and go to him. We are curious by nature.

He's standing in a three-car parking lot wedged at the end of a narrow passage between buildings. He holds a walkie-talkie to his ear and leans one elbow against a brick wall, casual but not resting. His shoulders are relaxed. His gaze goes nowhere. He is confident in his place, that he has a right to be here and little to fear from the night. The gun dangling from his belt probably helps. He stops talking, jabs a button, and slams the walkie-talkie into its holster. His eyes scan the parking lot once, taking inventory and seeing nothing requiring his attention. Then he heads deeper into the alley maze. This could be amusing. I follow.

My nails click against the pavement. He doesn't notice. I pick up speed, darting around trash bags and empty boxes. Finally, I'm close enough. He hears the steady clicking behind him and stops. I duck behind a Dumpster, peer around the corner. He turns and squints into the darkness. After a second he starts forward. I let him get a few steps away, then resume the pursuit. This time when he stops, I wait one extra second before diving for cover. He lets out a muffled oath. He's seen something-a flash of motion, a shadow flickering, something. His right hand slips to his gun, caressing the metal, then pulling back, as if the reassurance is enough. He hesitates, then looks up and down the alley, realizing he is alone and uncertain what to do about it. He mutters something, then continues walking, quicker this time.

As he walks, his eyes flick from side to side, wariness treading the border of alarm. I inhale deeply, picking up only wisps of fear, enough to make my heart pound, but not enough to send my brain spinning out of control. He's safe quarry for a stalking game. He won't run. I can suppress most of my instincts. I can stalk him without killing him. I can suffer the first pangs of hunger without killing him. I can watch him pull his gun without killing him. Yet if he runs, I won't be able to stop myself. That's a temptation I can't fight. If he runs, I will chase. If I chase, either he'll kill me or I'll kill him.

As he turns the corner down a connecting alley, he relaxes. All has been silent behind him. I creep from my hiding place, shifting my weight to the back of my foot pads to muffle the sound of my nails. Soon I am only a few feet behind him. I can smell his aftershave, almost masking the natural scent of a long day's work. I can see his white socks appearing and disappearing between his shoes and pant legs. I can hear his breathing, the slight elevation in tempo betraying the fact that he's walking faster than usual. I ease forward, coming close enough that I could lunge if I want to and knock him to the ground before he even thought to reach for his gun. His head jerks up. He knows I'm there. He knows something is there. I wonder if he will turn. Does he dare to look, to face something he can't see or hear, but can only sense? His hand slides to his gun, but he doesn't turn. He walks faster. Then he swings back to the safety of the street.

I follow him to the end and observe from the darkness. He strides forward, keys in hand, to a parked cruiser, unlocks it, and hops inside. The car roars and squeals from the curb. I watch the receding taillights and sigh. Game over. I won.

That was nice but it wasn't nearly enough to satisfy me. These city backstreets are too confining. My heart is thudding with unspent excitement. My legs are aching with built-up energy. I must run.

A wind gusts from the south, bringing the sharp tang of Lake Ontario with it. I think of heading to the beach, imagine running along the stretch of sand, feeling the icy water slapping against my paws, but it's not safe. If I want to run, I must go to the ravine. It's a long way, but I have little choice unless I plan to skulk around human-smelling alleyways for the rest of the night. I swing to the northwest and begin the journey.

Nearly a half hour later, I'm standing at the crest of a hill. My nose twitches, picking up the vestiges of an illegal leaf fire smoldering in a nearby yard. The wind bristles through my fur, chill, nearly cold, invigorating. Above me, traffic thunders across the overpass. Below is sanctuary, a perfect oasis in the middle of the city. I leap forward, throwing myself off. At last I'm running.
My legs pick up the rhythm before I'm halfway down the ravine. I close my eyes for a second and feel the wind slice across my muzzle. As my paws thump against the hard earth, tiny darts of pain shoot up my legs, but they make me feel alive, like jolting awake after an overlong sleep. The muscles contract and extend in perfect harmony. With each stretch comes an ache and a burst of physical joy. My body is thanking me for the exercise, rewarding me with jolts of near-narcotic adrenaline. The more I run, the lighter I feel, the pain falling free as if my paws are no longer striking the ground. Even as I race along the bottom of the ravine, I feel like I'm still running downhill, gaining energy instead of expending it. I want to run until all the tension in my body flies away, leaving nothing but the sensations of the moment. I couldn't stop if I wanted to. And I don't want to.

Dead leaves crackle under my paws. Somewhere in the forest an owl hoots softly. It has finished its hunting and rests contented, not caring who knows it's around. A rabbit bolts out of a thicket and halfway across my path, then realizes its mistake and zooms back into the undergrowth. I keep running. My heart pounds. Against my rising body heat, the air feels ice-cold, stinging as it storms through my nostrils and into my lungs. I inhale, savoring the shock of it hitting my insides. I'm running too fast to smell anything. Bits of scents flutter through my brain in a jumbled montage that smells of freedom. Unable to resist, I finally skid to a halt, throw my head back, and howl. The music pours up from my chest in a tangible evocation of pure joy. It echoes through the ravine and soars to the moonless sky, letting them all know I'm here. I own this place! When I'm done, I drop my head, panting with exertion. I'm standing there, staring down into a scattering of yellow and red maple leaves, when a sound pierces my self-absorption. It's a growl, a soft, menacing growl. There's a pretender to my throne.

I look up to see a brownish yellow dog standing a few meters away. No, not a dog. My brain takes a second, but it finally recognizes the animal. A coyote. The recognition takes a second because it's unexpected. I've heard there are coyotes in the city, but have never encountered one. The coyote is equally confused. Animals don't know what to make of me. They smell human, but see wolf and, just when they decide their nose is tricking them, they look into my eyes and see human. When I encounter dogs, they either attack or turn tail and run. The coyote does neither. It lifts its muzzle and sniffs the air, then bristles and pulls its lips back in a drawn-out growl. It's half my size, scarcely worth my notice. I let it know this with a lazy "get lost" growl and a shake of my head. The coyote doesn't move. I stare at it. The coyote breaks the gaze-lock first.

I snort, toss my head again, and slowly turn away. I'm halfway turned when a flash of brown fur leaps at my shoulder. Diving to the side, I roll out of the way, then scramble to my feet. The coyote snarls. I give a serious growl, a canine "now you're pissing me off." The coyote stands its ground. It wants a fight. Good.

My fur rises on end, my tail bushing out behind me. I lower my head between my shoulder bones and lay my ears flat. My lips pull back and I feel the snarl tickling up through my throat then reverberating into the night. The coyote doesn't back down. I crouch and I'm about to lunge when something hits me hard in the shoulder, throwing me off balance. I stumble, then twist to face my attacker. A second coyote, gray-brown, hangs from my shoulder, fangs sunk to the bone. With a roar of rage and pain, I buck up and throw my weight to the side.

As the second coyote flies free, the first launches itself at my face. Ducking my head, I catch it in the throat, but my teeth clamp down on fur instead of flesh and it squirms away. It tries to back off for a second lunge, but I leap at it, backing it into a tree. It rears up, trying to get out of my way. I slash for its throat. This time I get my grip. Blood spurts in my mouth, salty and thick. The coyote's mate lands on my back. My legs buckle. Teeth sink into the loose skin beneath my skull. Fresh pain arcs through me. Concentrating hard, I keep my grip on the first coyote's throat. I steady myself, then release it for a split second, just long enough to make the fatal slash and tear. As I pull back, blood sprays into my eyes, blinding me. I swing my head hard, ripping out the coyote's throat. Once I feel it go limp, I toss it aside, then throw myself on the ground and roll over. The coyote on my back yips in surprise and releases its hold. I jump up and turn in the same motion, ready to take this other animal out of the game, but it scrambles up and dives into the brush. With a flash of wire-brush tail, it's gone. I look at the dead coyote. Blood streams from its throat, eagerly lapped up by the dry earth below. A tremor runs through me, like the final shudder of sated lust. I close my eyes and shiver. Not my fault. They attacked me first. The ravine has gone quiet, echoing the calm that floods through me. Not so much as a cricket chirps. The world is dark and silent and sleeping.

I try to examine and clean my wounds, but they are out of reach. I stretch and assess the pain. Two deep cuts, both bleeding only enough to mat my fur. I'll live. I turn and start the trip out of the ravine. In the alley I Change then yank my clothes on and scurry to the sidewalk like a junkie caught shooting up in the shadows. Frustration fills me. It shouldn't end like this, dirty and furtive, amidst the garbage and filth of the city. It should end in a clearing in the forest, clothes abandoned in some thicket, stretched out naked, feeling the coolness of the earth beneath me and the night breeze tickling my bare skin. I should be falling asleep in the grass, exhausted beyond all thought, with only the miasma of contentedness floating through my mind. And I shouldn't be alone. In my mind, I can see the others, lying around me in the grass. I can hear the familiar snores, the occasional whisper and laugh. I can feel warm skin against mine, a bare foot hooked over my calf, twitching in a dream of running. I can smell them: their sweat, their breath, mingling with the scent of blood, smears from a deer killed in the chase. The image shatters and I am staring into a shopwindow, seeing nothing but myself reflected back. My chest tightens in a loneliness so deep and so complete I can't breathe.

I turn quickly and lash out at the nearest object. A streetlamp quavers and rings with the blow. Pain sears down my arm. Welcome to reality-changing in alleyways and creeping back to my apartment. I am cursed to live between worlds. On the one side there is normalcy. On the other, there is a place where I can be what I am with no fear of reprisals, where I can commit murder itself and scarcely raise the eyebrows of those around me, where I am even encouraged to do so to protect the sanctity of that world. But I left and I can't return. I won't return.

As I walk to the apartment, my anger blisters the pavement with every step. A woman curled up under a pile of dirty blankets peers out as I pass and instinctively shrinks back into her nest. As I round the corner, two men step out and size up my prospects as prey. I resist the urge to snarl at them, but just barely. I walk faster and they seem to decide I'm not worth chasing. I shouldn't be here. I should be home in bed, not prowling downtown Toronto at four a.m. A normal woman wouldn't be here. It's yet another reminder that I'm not normal. Not normal. I look down the darkened street and I can read a billet on a telephone post fifty feet off. Not normal. I catch a whiff of fresh bread from a bakery starting production miles away. Not normal. I stop by a storefront, grab a bar over the windows, and flex my biceps. The metal groans in my hand. Not normal. Not normal. I chant the words in my head, flagellating myself with them. The anger only grows.

Outside my apartment door, I stop and inhale deeply. I mustn't wake Philip. And if I do, I mustn't let him see me like this. I don't need a mirror to know what I look like: skin taut, color high, eyes incandescent with the rage that always seems to follow a Change now. Definitely not normal.

When I finally enter the apartment, I hear his measured breathing from the bedroom. Still asleep. I'm nearly to the bathroom when his breathing catches.

"Elena?"

His voice is a sleep-stuffed croak.

"Just going to the washroom." I try to slip past the doorway, but he's sitting up, peering nearsightedly at me. He frowns.

"Fully dressed?" he says.

"I went out." A moment of silence. He runs a hand through his dark hair and sighs.

"It's not safe. Damn it, Elena. We've discussed this. Wake me up and I'll go with you."

"I need to be alone. To think."

"It's not safe."

"I know. I'm sorry."

I creep into the bathroom, spending longer than necessary. I pretend to use the toilet, wash my hands with enough water to fill a Jacuzzi, then find a fingernail that needs elaborate filing attention. When I finally decide Philip has fallen back asleep, I head for the bedroom. The bedside lamp is on. He's propped on his pillow, glasses in place. I hesitate in the doorway. I can't bring myself to cross the threshold, to go and crawl into bed with him. I hate myself for it, but I can't do it. The memory of the night lingers and I feel out of place here.

When I don't move, Philip shifts his legs over the side of the bed and sits up.
"I didn't mean to snap," he says. "I worry. I know you need your freedom and I'm trying-"

He stops and rubs his hand across his mouth. His words slice through me. I know he doesn't mean them as a reprimand, but they are a reminder that I'm screwing this up, that I'm fortunate to have found someone as patient and understanding as Philip, but I'm wearing through that patience at breakneck speed and all I seem capable of doing is standing back and waiting for the final crash.
"I know you need your freedom," he says again. "But there has to be some other way. Maybe you could go out in the morning, early. If you prefer night, we could drive down to the lake. You could walk around. I could sit in the car and keep an eye on you. Maybe I could walk with you. Stay twenty paces behind or something." He manages a wry smile. "Or maybe not. I'd probably get picked up by the cops, the middle-aged guy stalking the beautiful young blonde."
He pauses, then leans forward. "That's your cue, Elena. You're supposed to remind me that forty-one is far from middle-aged."

"We'll work something out," I say.

We can't, of course. I have to run under the cover of night and I have to do it alone. There is no compromise.

As he sits on the edge of the bed, watching me, I know we're doomed. My only hope is to make this relationship so otherwise perfect that Philip might come to overlook our one insurmountable problem. To do that, my first step should be to go to him, crawl in bed, kiss him and tell him I love him. But I can't. Not tonight. Tonight I'm something else, something he doesn't know and couldn't understand. I don't want to go to him like this.

"I'm not tired," I say. "I might as well stay up. Do you want breakfast?"

He looks at me. Something in his expression falters and I know I've failed-again. But he doesn't say anything. He pulls his smile back in place. "Let's go out. Someplace in this city has to be open this early. We'll drive around until we find it. Drink five cups of coffee and watch the sun come up. Okay?"

I nod, not trusting myself to speak.

"Shower first?" he says.

"Or flip for it?"

"You go ahead."

He kisses my cheek as he passes. I wait until I hear the shower running, then head for the kitchen.

Sometimes I get so hungry.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Broken
Excerpt

Changes

Clayton doesn't do "unobtrusive" well. Not even when he tries, and that afternoon, he was trying his damnedest. He was downwind of me, at least two hundred feet away, so I couldn't smell him, see him or hear him. But I knew he was there.

As I stood under the oaks, I couldn't suppress a twinge of resentment at the pressure his presence added to an already gut-twisting situation. Yes, I'd been the one to suggest the run, leaping up from the lunch table and declaring I was ready. He'd asked if he should stay inside—possibly the first time in our fifteen-year relationship that Clay had been willing to give me space. But I'd grabbed his hand and dragged him out with me. Now I was blaming him for being here. Not fair. But better than to admit that what I felt was not resentment but fear—fear that I would fail, and in failing I would disappoint him.

I took a deep breath and filled my lungs with the loamy richness of a forest emerging from winter, the first buds appearing tentatively, as if still uncertain. Uncertain . . . good word. That was what I felt: uncertainty.

Uncertainty? Try abject, pant-pissing, stomach-heaving terror—

I took another deep breath. The scent of the forest filled me, called to me, like Clay's presence out there, beckoning—

Don't think of him. Just relax.

I followed the sound of a rabbit thumping nearby, upwind and oblivious of me. As I moved, I saw my shadow and realized I was still standing. Well, there was the first problem. I'd undressed, but how would I Change if I was still on two legs?

As I started to crouch, a pang ran through the left side of my abdomen and I froze, heart pounding. It was probably a random muscle spasm or a digestive complaint. And yet . . .

My fingers rubbed the hard swell of my belly. There was definitely a swell there, however staunchly Jeremy swore otherwise. I could feel it with my hand, feel it in the tightening waistband of my jeans. Clay tried to avoid the question—smart man—but when pressed he would admit I did seem to be showing already. Showing, when I was no more than five weeks pregnant. That shouldn't be. Yet one more thing to add to my growing list of worries.

At the top of the list was this: the regular transformation from human to wolf that my body required. I had to Change, but what would it do to my baby?

My fear over losing my child came as a revelation to me. In the nearly three years I'd wrestled with the thought of having a baby, I'd considered the possibility that the choice wouldn't be mine to make, that being a werewolf might mean I wouldn't be able to conceive or carry a child to term. I'd accepted that. If my pregnancy ended, I'd know that I couldn't have a child. That would be that.

Now that I was actually pregnant I couldn't believe I'd been so cavalier. This was more than a collection of cells growing in me, it was the actualization of a dream I'd thought I'd lost when I became a werewolf. A dream I was certain I'd given up when I decided to stay with Clay.

But I had to Change. Already I'd waited too long, and I could feel the need in every muscle spasm and restless twitch, hear it in my growls and snaps whenever someone spoke to me. Twice I'd come out here with Clay, and twice I'd been unable—or refused—to Change. Make it a third, and Clay and Jeremy would be flipping coins to see who locked me in the cage. That was a safety precaution—being Change-deprived makes us violent and unpredictable—but given my surly behavior this past week, I wouldn't blame them if they fought over the privilege.

Just Change, goddamn it! Get down on your knees . . . See? That feels fine, right? Now put your hands on the ground . . . There. Now concentrate—

My body rebelled, convulsing so hard I doubled over, gasping. Change into a wolf? With a baby inside me? Was I crazy? I'd rip, tear, suffocate—

No!

I pushed up onto all fours and cleared my head, then opened the gate only to thoughts bearing the pass-code of logic. Was this my first Change since I'd become pregnant? No. It was the first since I'd learned I was pregnant, two weeks ago. I must have Changed a half-dozen times between conception and testing.

Had anything happened during those Changes? Bleeding? Cramping? No.

So stop worrying. Take a deep breath, smell the forest, dig your fingers into the damp soil, hear the whistle of the April wind, feel the ache in your muscles. Run to Clay, who'll be so happy, so relieved . . .

My skin prickled, stretching, itching as fur sprouted—

My brain threw up the brakes again and my body tensed. Sweat trickled down my cheeks. I growled and dug my fingers and toes into the soft earth, refusing to reverse the process.

Relax, relax, relax. Just stop worrying and let your body do the work. Like constipation. Relax and nature takes over.

Constipation? Oh, there was a romantic analogy. I laughed, and my changing vocal cords squeezed the sound into a hideous screech, more worthy of a hyena than a wolf, which only made me laugh all the harder. I toppled sideways and, as I lay there, laughing, I finally relaxed.

The Change took over, spontaneous. My convulsions of laughter turned to spasms of pain, and I twisted and writhed on the ground. The pain of a Change. Yet some still-panicked part of my brain convinced me this wasn't the normal kind of pain—I was killing my child, suffocating it as my body contorted.

I must—Must stop—Oh, God, I couldn't!

I tried to stop—fighting, snarling, concentrating on reversing to human. But it was too late. I'd waited too long, and now my body was determined to see it through.

Finally, the pain ended, gone without so much as a lingering ache, and I lay on my side, panting, then leapt to my feet.

Damn it, not so fast! Be careful.

I stood there, motionless except for my tail, which wouldn't stop whipping from side to side, as if to say "Well, we're Changed. What are you waiting for? Let's run!" The rest of my body didn't disagree with the sentiment, though it let the tail do the shouting, settling for subtler displays of restlessness: heart tripping, ears swiveling, muscles tensing. I refused to move, though; not until I'd taken inventory, made sure everything was as it should be.

First, my belly. No obvious signs of distress. I panted, letting my chest rise and fall, testing whether the movement seemed to hurt anything. It didn't, though my stomach did let out a growl as that nearby rabbit's scent wafted past. You wouldn't know I'd just devoured a three-course lunch. Ungrateful stomach. But the other part of my belly, newly filling with life, felt fine.

I lifted my paws one at a time, stretching and rotating my joints. Good. My nose and ears had done fine picking up that rabbit. And the still-wagging tail was obviously working. Okay, enough of this.

I stepped forward. One paw, two, three, four . . . No sudden scream of complaint from my belly. I broke into a lope, then a run, then a headlong dash across the clearing. Still no signs of distress.

Next, the tougher moves—the wolf maneuvers. I crouched, wiggled my hindquarters, then leapt at an imaginary mouse. As I hit the ground, I wheeled around, teeth bared as I snapped at an unseen foe. I bounded across the clearing. I jumped and twisted in midair. I pranced. I lunged. I charged. I chased my tail—

A wheezing sound erupted behind me and I froze, the tip hairs of my tail still caught between my teeth. There, across the clearing, was a huge, golden-haired wolf, his head between his forepaws, eyes closed, hindquarters in the air, body quivering with that strange wheezing noise. His eyes opened, bright blue eyes dancing with relief and amusement, and I realized what that noise was. He was laughing at me.

Laughing? I'd just gone through a horrible trauma, and the guy had the nerve to laugh? I knew half of that laughter was relief at seeing me Changed, and I admit I probably looked a little silly gallivanting alone in the clearing. But still, such indignities should not be tolerated.

With as much grace as I could muster with tail fur hanging out of my mouth, I swept around and stalked in the other direction. Halfway across the clearing, I wheeled and charged, teeth bared. His eyes widened in "oh, shit" comprehension and he backpedaled just in time to get out of my way, then bolted into the forest.

I tore after him. I loped along the path, muzzle skimming the ground. The earth was thick with the scent of my prey—a deliberate move, as he weaved and circled, permeating this patch of forest with his smell, hoping to throw me off the trail.

I untangled the web of trails and latched onto the most recent. As I picked up speed, the ground whooshed past beneath me. Ahead, the path opened into a clearing. I pitched forward, straining for the open run, but before I hit the edge of the clearing, I dug in my claws and skidded to a graceless stop.

I stood there, adrenaline roaring, urging me to find him, take him down. I closed my eyes and shuddered. Too eager. Keep that up and I'd run straight into a trap. After a moment, the adrenaline rush ebbed and I started forward again, cautious now, ears straining, muzzle up, sniffing as I walked.

My eyes saved me this time. That and the sun, peeking from fast-moving clouds. One break in the cloud cover and I caught the glint of gold through the trees. He was downwind, crouched to the left of the path's end, waiting for me to come barreling out.

I retraced my last few steps, walking backward. An awkward maneuver—some things easily accomplished on two legs are much more difficult to coordinate with four. Once I'd gone as far as I could, I craned to look over my shoulder. The trees closed in on me from either side. Not enough room to guarantee a silent about-face.

I took a careful step off the path. The undergrowth was soft and moist with spring rain. I prodded at it, but it stayed silent. Hunkering down to stay below branch level, I started forward, looping to slink up behind him. Once close enough to see through the trees, I peered out. He was crouched beside the path, as still as a statue, only the twitch of his tail betraying his impatience.

I found the clearest line of fire, hunched down, then sprang. I hit him square on the back and sank my teeth into the ruff around his neck. He yelped and started to rear up, then stopped. I let out a growling chuckle, knowing he didn't dare throw me off in my "condition." All I had to do was hang on—

He dropped, letting his legs fold, his body cushioning my drop, but the suddenness of it was enough of a surprise that I let go of his ruff. As he slid from under me, he twisted and pinned me, his teeth clamping around the bottom of my muzzle. I kicked at his underbelly. He snorted as my claws made contact, but made no move to fight back.

He looked down at me, indecision flickering in his eyes. Then he released my muzzle and his head shot down to my throat. I wriggled, trying to pull out of the way, but he only buried his nose in the ruff around my neck and inhaled deeply. He shuddered, legs vibrating against my sides. A moment's hesitation. Then a soft growl, and he twisted off me and dove into the woods again.

I scrambled to my feet and set off in pursuit. This time he had too much of a head start, and I could only get close enough to see his hindquarters bounding ahead. He flicked his tail up. Mocking me, damn him. I surged forward, getting close enough to hear the pounding of his heartbeat. He veered and crashed into the forest, off the trail, and I chortled to myself. Now I had him. Cutting a fresh path would slow him down just enough to let me—

A brace of ptarmigan flew up, almost under my feet, and I slid to a halt, nearly flipping over backward in my surprise. As the panicked birds took to the sky, I got my bearings again, looked around . . . and found myself alone. Tricked. Damn him. And damn me for falling for it.

I found his trail, but before I'd gone a hundred feet, a gurgling moan rippled through the silence. I stopped, ears going up. A grunt, then panting. He was Changing.

I dove into the nearest thicket and began my own Change. It came fast, spurred by a healthy double shot of adrenaline and frustration. When I finished, he was still in his thicket.

I crept around to the other side, pulled back a handful of leaves and peered through. He was done, but recovering, crouched on all fours, panting as he caught his breath. By the rules of fair play, I should have given him time to recuperate. But I wasn't in the mood for rules.

I sprang onto his back. Before he could react, my arm went around his neck, forearm jammed against his windpipe.

I leaned over his shoulder. "Did you think you could escape that easily?"

His lips formed an oath, but no sound came out. His shoulders slumped, as if defeated. Like I was stupid enough to buy that. I pretended to relax my grip. Sure enough, the second I did, he twisted, trying to grab me.

I slid off his back and pulled him down sideways. Before he could recover, I was on top of him, my forearm again at his throat. His hands slid up my sides, snuck around and cupped my breasts.

"Uh-uh," I growled, pressing against his windpipe. "No distractions."

He sighed and let his hands slide away. I eased back. As soon as I did, he flipped me over, still far more gently than usual, and pinned me as securely as he had in wolf-form. He eased down, belly and groin against mine. He slid his hands back to my breasts and grinned at me, daring me to do something about it now.

I glared up at him. Then I shot forward and sank my teeth into his shoulder. He jerked away. I scrambled up, then pinned him, hands on his shoulders, knees on his thighs. He struggled, but couldn't get me off without throwing me.

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Deceptions

Deceptions

The Cainsville Series
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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Dime Store Magic
Excerpt

Todd adjusted his leather power seat and smiled. Now, this was the good life -- driving along the California coast, road stretching empty before him, cruise control set at fifty, climate control at sixty-eight, Brazilian coffee keeping warm in its heated cup-holder. Some might say it’d be even better to be the guy lounging in the back seat instead of his driver, but Todd liked being where he was. Better to be the bodyguard than the guy who needed one.

His predecessor, Russ, had been the more ambitious type, which may explain why Russ had been missing for two months. Odds around the office water-cooler were split fifty-fifty between those who assumed Kristof Nast had finally tired of his bodyguard’s insubordination and those who thought Russ had fallen victim to Todd’s own ambitions. Bullshit, of course. Not that Todd wouldn’t have killed to get this job, but Russ was a Ferratus. Todd wouldn’t even know how to kill him.

Todd figured the Nasts were behind Russ’s sudden disappearance, but that didn’t bother him. When you signed up with a Cabal, you had to know what to expect. Give them your respect and your loyalty, and you had the cushiest gig in the supernatural world. Double-cross them and they’ll wreak their revenge right into your afterlife. At least the Nasts weren’t as bad as the St. Clouds. If the rumors were right about what the St. Clouds did to that shaman? Todd shivered. Man, he was glad --

Lights flashed in the side mirror. Todd looked to see a state patrol car behind him. Christ, where had that come from? He checked his speedometer. Dead-on fifty. He made this trip twice a month and knew the speed limit didn’t change along this stretch.

He slowed, expecting the police car to whiz past. It stayed on his tail. He shook his head. How many cars had zoomed by in the last hour, going seventy or more? Oh, but they hadn’t been custom-designed Mercedes limos. Better to pull over someone who looks as if he might pass you a few twenties to avoid the hassle of a ticket. If so, they’d picked the wrong car. Kristof Nast didn’t bribe mere highway patrolmen.

As Todd put on his signal and pulled over, he lowered the shield separating him from his passenger. Nast was on his cellphone. He said something, then held the phone away from his ear.

“We’re being pulled over, sir. I had the cruise set at the speed limit.”

Nast nodded. “It happens. We have plenty of time. Just take the ticket.”

Todd raised the shield and rolled down his window. Through his side mirror he watched the patrolman approach. No, make that patrolwoman. A cute one, too. Slender, maybe thirty, with shoulder-length red hair and a California tan. Her uniform could fit better, though. It looked a couple of sizes too large, probably a hand-me-down from a male colleague.

“Morning, officer,” he said, taking off his sunglasses.

“License and registration.”

He handed them over with a smile. Her face stayed impassive, eyes and expression hidden behind her shades.

“Please step out of the vehicle.”

Todd sighed, and opened his door. “What seems to be the problem, officer?”

“Broken tail light.”

“Aw, shit. Okay, then. Write me up and we’ll get it fixed in San Fran.”

As he stepped onto the empty road, the woman turned and marched to the rear of the vehicle.

“Can you explain this?” she asked.

“Explain what?”

As he walked toward her, his heart beat a little faster, but he reminded himself that there couldn’t be a serious problem. The Nasts never used their family cars for anything illegal. Just in case, though, he flexed his hands, then clenched them. His fingertips burned hot against his palms.

He glanced at the patrol car, parked a mere two feet behind his. It was empty. Good. If things went bad, he’d only have to worry about the woman.

The officer stepped into the narrow gap between the cars, bent, and checked something just to the right of the left tail light. She frowned, eased out of the gap, and waved at the bumper.

“Explain that,” she said.

“Explain what?”

Her jaw tightened and she motioned for him to look for himself. He had to turn sideways to fit between the cars. Couldn’t she have backed up? She could see he was a big guy. He bent over as much as he could and peered down at the bumper.

“I don’t see anything.”

“Underneath,” she said curtly.

Bitch. Would it kill her to be polite? It wasn’t like he was arguing with her.

He lowered himself to his knees. Christ, was this gap narrower than he’d thought or had he been packing on the pounds? The front bumper of the patrol car pressed against his mid-back.

“Ummm, do you think you could back your car up a little? Please?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Is this better?”

The patrol car pitched forward, pinning him. The air flew from his lungs. He opened his mouth to yell for her to put it into reverse, then realized she was still standing beside the car . . . which wasn’t running. He grabbed the limo’s bumper and pushed. The smell of burning rubber filled the air.

“Oh, come on,” the woman said, leaning over him. “You can do better than that. Put some real firepower into it.”

When he swiped at her, she backpedaled out of reach and laughed. He tried to speak but could only get enough air to grunt. Again he pushed against the bumper. The rubber stripping melted against his fingers, but the car didn’t budge.

“Only an Igneus?” she said. “The Cabals must really be hard up for half-demons. Maybe there’s an opening for me after all. Sit tight, now, and I’ll be right back.”

* * * * *
Leah opened the driver’s door and climbed into the limo’s front seat. She looked across the rows of buttons on the dash. Talk about electronic overkill. Now which one --

The shield between the seats whirred. Well, that saved her the trouble.

“Did everything go -- ” Nast began. He saw her and stopped. His hand lifted, just off his lap, fingers moving as his lips parted.

"Now, now," Leah said. "No spellcasting."

Nast's seat belt jerked tight, taking up the slack so fast he gasped.

"Hands where I can see them," Leah ordered.

Nast's eyes blazed. His fingers flicked and Leah shot backward, hitting the dash.

"Okay, I deserved that," she said, grinning as she righted herself. She looked at the seat belt. It loosened. "Better?"

"I'd suggest you seriously consider what you're doing," Nast replied. He adjusted his suit jacket and eased back into his seat. "I doubt this is a road you wish to take."

"Hey, I'm not stupid or suicidal. I didn't come here to hurt you. Didn't even hurt your bodyguard. Well, nothing a few weeks of bedrest won't cure. I came here to make you a deal, Kristof -- oops, sorry -- Mr. Nast, I mean. It's about your daughter."

His chin jerked up, eyes meeting hers for the first time.

"And now that I have your attention..."

"What about Savannah?"

"Been looking for her, haven't you? Now that Eve's gone, there's no one to stop you from taking what's yours. And I'm just the person to help you do it. I know exactly where she is."

Nast shot his sleeve up and checked his watch, then looked at Leah. "Is my driver in any shape to resume his duties?"

She shrugged. "Questionable."

"Then let's hope you can talk and drive at the same time."

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Exit Strategy

Exit Strategy

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
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Excerpt

I twisted my fork through the blueberry pie and wished it was apple. I’ve never been fond of blueberry, not even when the berries were wild and fresh from the forest. These were fresh from a can.
 
Barry’s Diner advertised itself as “home of the best blueberry pie in New York City.” That should have been the tip-off, but the sign outside said only Award-Winning Homemade Pie. So I’d come in hoping for a slice of fresh apple and found myself amid a sea of diners eating blueberry. Sure, the restaurant carried apple, but if everyone else was eating blueberry, I couldn’t stand out by ordering something different. It didn’t help that I had to accompany the pie with decaf coffee—in a place that seemed to brew only one pot and leave it simmering all day.
 
The regular coffee smelled great, but caffeine was off my menu today, so I settled for inhaling it as I nibbled the crust on my pie. At least that was homemade. I shifted on my seat, the vinyl-covered stool squeaking under me, the noise lost in the sounds of the diner—the clatter of china and silverware, the steady murmur of conversation regularly erupting in laughs or shouts. The door behind me opened with a tinkle of the bell, a gust of October air and a belch of exhaust fumes that stole that rich scent of fresh coffee.
 
A man in a dirt-encrusted ball cap clanked his metal lunch box onto the counter beside my plate. “He got another one last night.Number four. Police just confirmed it.”
 
I slanted my gaze his way, in case he was talking to me. He wasn’t, of course. I was invisible . . . or as close to it as a nonsuperhero could get, having donned the ultimate female disguise: no apparent makeup and thirty-five pounds of extra padding.
 
“Who’d he get this time?” the server asked as she poured coffee for the newcomer.
 
“Little old Chinese lady closing up her shop. Choked her with a wire.”
 
“Garroted,” said a man sitting farther down the counter.
 
“Gary who?”
 
The other man folded his newspaper, rustling it with a flourish. “Garroted. If you use something to strangle someone, it’s called garroting. The Spanish used it as a method of execution.”
 
I glanced at the speaker. A silver-haired man in a suit, manicured fingernails resting on his Wall Street Journal. Not the sort you’d expect to know the origin of the term “garroted.” Next thing you know, his neighbors would be on TV, telling the world he’d seemed like such a nice man. They continued talking. I struggled to ignore them.
 
Had to ignore them. I had a job to do, and couldn’t allow myself to be sidetracked.
 
It wasn’t easy. Words and phrases kept tumbling my way. Killer. Victim. Police. Investigation. No leads. I could, with effort, block the words, remind myself that they had nothing to do with me, but the voices weren’t so easy to push aside. Sharp with excitement, as if this was something they’d seen in a movie and the victims were nothing more than actors who, when the credits rolled, would stand up, wash off the fake blood and grab a cigarette before heading home to their families.
 
The Helter Skelter killer. Even the name was catchy, almost jocular. I bet he was proud of it. He’d risen from the ranks of the unnamed and now he was someone—the Helter Skelter killer. I pictured him sitting in a coffee shop like this, eavesdropping on a conversation like this one, his heart tripping every time he heard his new name.My hand tightened on my fork. A burr on the handle dug in. I squeezed until pain forced my thoughts back on track.
 
It wasn’t my concern. There were dozens of killers all across the continent, plotting crimes just as ruthless. Nothing to be done about it, and I was no longer in a position to try.
 
I took a swig of coffee. Bitter and burned, foul on my tongue, acid in my stomach. I took another gulp, deeper, almost draining the mug. Then I pushed it aside with my half-eaten pie, got to my feet and walked out.
 
I stood in the subway station and waited for Dean Moretti. Moretti was a Mafia wannabe, a small-time thug with tenuous connections to the Tomassini crime family. Three months earlier, he had decided it was time to strike out on his own, so he’d made a deal with the nephew of a local drug lord. Together they’d set up business in a residential neighborhood previously untapped—probably because it was under the protection of the Riccio family.
 
When the Riccios found out, they went to the Tomassinis, who went to the drug lord, who decided, among the three of them, that this was not an acceptable entrepreneurial scheme. The drug lord’s nephew had caught the first plane to South America and was probably hiding in the jungle, living on fish and berries.Moretti wasn’t so easily spooked, which probably speaks more to a lack of intelligence than an excess of nerve.
 
While I waited for him, I wandered about the platform, taking note of every post, every garbage can, every door- way. Busywork, really. I’d already scouted this station so well I could navigate it blindfolded, but I kept checking and double-checking.
 
My stomach fluttered. Not fear. Anticipation. I kept moving, trying to work past it. There was no more room here for anticipation than there was for fear. It was a job. It had to be approached with cool, emotionless efficiency. You cannot enjoy this work. If you do, you step onto the fast slide to a place you’ll never escape, become something you swore you’d never be.
 
I kept my brain busy with last-minute checks. There was one security camera down here, but an antiquated one, easy to avoid. I’d heard rumors of post-9/11 upgrades, but so far, this station had avoided them. Though I hadn’t seen a uniformed transit cop, I knew there could be a plainclothes one, so I spotted the most likely suspects and stayed out of their way. Not that it mattered—in addition to the extra padding I was wearing a wig, colored contacts, eyeglasses and makeup to darken my skin tone.
 
I’d spent three days watching Moretti, long enough to know he was a man who liked routines. Right on schedule, he bounced down the subway steps, ready for his train home after a long day spent breaking kneecaps for a local bookie.
 
Partway down the stairs he stopped and surveyed the crowd below. His gaze paused on anyone of Italian ancestry, anyone wearing a trench coat, anyone carrying a bulky satchel, anyone who looked . . . dangerous. Too dumb to run, but not so dumb that he didn’t know he was in deep shit with the Tomassinis. At work, he always had a partner with him. From here, he’d take the subway to a house where he was bunking down with friends, taking refuge in numbers. This short trip was the only time he could be found alone, obviously having decided that public transit was safe enough.
 
As he scouted the crowd from the steps, people jostled him from behind, but he met their complaints with a snarl that sent them skittering around him. After a moment, he continued his descent into the subway pit. At the bottom, he cut through a group of young businessmen, then stopped beside a gaggle of careworn older women chattering in Spanish. He kept watching the crowd, but his gaze swept past me. The invisible woman.
 
I made my way across the platform, eyes straining to see down the tunnel, pretending to look for my train, flexing my hands as I allowed myself one last moment of anticipation. I closed my eyes and listened to the distant thumping of the oncoming train, felt the currents of air from the tunnel.
 
It was like standing in an airplane hatch, waiting to leap. Everything planned, checked, rechecked, every step of the next few minutes choreographed, the contingencies mapped out, should obstacles arise. Like skydiving, I controlled what I could, down to the most minute detail, creating the ordered perfection that set my mind at ease.Yet I knew that in a few seconds, when I made my move, I left some small bit to fate.
 
I inhaled deeply and concentrated on the moment, slowing my breathing,my pulse. Focusing.
 
No time to second-guess. No chance to turn back. At the squeal of the approaching train, I opened my eyes, unclenched my hands and turned toward Moretti.
 
I quickened my pace until I was beside him. Tension blew off him in waves.His right hand was jammed into his pocket, undoubtedly fondling a nice piece of hardware.
 
The train headlights broke through the darkness. Moretti stepped forward. I stepped on the heel of the woman in front of me. She stumbled. The crowd, pressed so tightly together, wobbled as one body. As I jostled against Moretti,my hand slid inside his open jacket. A deft jab followed by a clumsy shove as I “recovered” my balance. Moretti only grunted and pushed back, then clambered onto the train with the crowd.
 
I stepped onto the subway car, took a seat at the back, then disembarked at the next stop, merging with the crowd once again.

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Frostbitten
Excerpt

MESSAGE
You can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. And you really can’t help someone who runs the moment you get within shouting distance, making a beeline for the nearest train, plane or bus terminal, destination anywhere as long as it takes him hundreds of miles from you.

As I chased Reese Williams through the streets of Pittsburgh–the third city in two days–I had to admit I was starting to take this rejection personally. I don’t usually have this problem with guys. Sure, at five foot ten, I’m a little taller than some like. My build is a little more athletic than most like. I don’t always put as much care into my appearance as I should, usually forgoing makeup, tying my hair back with an elastic and favoring jeans and T-shirts. But I’m a blue-eyed blonde, so men usually decide that they can overlook my deficiencies and not run screaming the other way.

Sure, if they found out I was a werewolf, I could understand a little screaming and running. But Reese had no such excuse. He was a werewolf himself, and considering I’m the only known female of our species, when guys like him meet me, they’re usually the ones doing the chasing . . . at least until they realize that’s not such a good idea if they’d like to keep all their body parts intact.

I’d lost Reese when he’d cut through a throng of rowdy Penguins fans heading off to a game. I’d tried following him through the drunken mob, but the Pack frowns on me cold-cocking humans for grabbing my ass, so after enduring a few unimaginative sexual suggestions, I retreated and waited for them to move on.

By then Reese’s trail was overlaid and interwoven with a score of human ones. And the air here already stunk, the city core entering construction season, the stink of machinery and diesel almost overwhelming the smell of the Ohio River a half mile over. There was no way I was picking up Reese’s trail at this intersection. Not without changing into a wolf in downtown Pittsburgh . . . another thing the Pack frowns on.

When I caught up with him two blocks later, he was being sucked in by the glow of a Starbucks sign, presumably hoping for a populated place to rest. When he saw that all the seats inside were empty, he veered across the road.

Reese ran into one of those office-drone oases typical of big cities, where they carve out a store-size chunk of land and add interlocking brick, foliage and random pieces of art in hopes of convincing workers to relax there, enjoy the scenery, listen to the symphony of squealing tires and blaring horns and imbibe a little smog with their lattes.

After a dozen strides, Reese was through the tiny park and veering again, this time to a sidewalk beside the lot. Headlights appeared, blinding me, then dipped down into an underground lot. Reese grabbed the barrier and vaulted into the lane. I raced over to see the automatic door below closing behind a van . . . with Reese running, hunched over, right behind it.

I did a vault of my own and ran down the incline, reaching the bottom, then dropping and rolling under the door just as it was about to close. I leapt to my feet and darted through the dimly lit garage, hiding behind the nearest post. Then I strained to hear footsteps. For almost a minute, the van engine rumbled on the far side of the garage. It quit with a shudder and a gasp. A door desperate for oil squeaked open, then slammed shut.

Hunched over, I hopscotched between the sparse parked cars. Ahead I could hear the van driver’s heavy steps thudding as he walked the other way.

A door creaked and a distant rectangle of light appeared. The door hadn’t even clicked shut when Reese darted out from his hiding space, his boots slapping the asphalt as he ran.

I kicked into high gear, no longer bothering to hide, but he was too close to the stairwell. I was almost at the closed door when it flew open again, and I narrowly missed barreling into a middle-aged man.

“Sorry,” I said as I tried to brush past him. “I was just–”

“Running for the exit because you’re afraid to walk through an underground lot at night?”

“Uh, yes.”

“There are plenty of lots aboveground, miss. Much safer. Here, let me walk you up to your floor.”

It was obvious there were only two ways I could get past this guy–let him play the gentleman or shove him out of the way. Clay would have done the latter–no question–and thrown in a snarl for good measure. But I haven’t overcome my Canadian upbringing, which forbade being rude to anyone who hadn’t done anything to deserve it.

So I let the guy escort me up the stairs, and thanked him at the top.

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t park underground . . .” he began.

“I understa–”

“Hell, it’s your right to park wherever you want. What you shouldn’t do is need to be afraid. This will help.”

He held out a paper-thin white rectangle, making me think they really had done a lot with personal alarms since I’d last seen one. But it was a business card.

“My wife runs Taser parties.”

“Taser . . . “”
“You know, like Tupperware parties. A bunch of women get together, have a good time, share some potluck and get a demonstration of the latest in personal security devices.”

I searched his face for some sign that he was joking. He wasn’t. I thanked him again and hurried out of the stairwell.

Reese’s trail led out the front door. As I went after him, I realized I was still holding the card, which featured a cute little red Taser that I’m sure fit into a purse and accessorized very nicely, for women who carried purses or accessorized.

From Tupperware parties to lingerie parties to Taser parties. I shook my head and stuffed the card into my pocket. Right now, I actually wouldn’t mind a Taser. It might be the only way to stop Reese. Of course, I’d need to get close enough to use it, which wasn’t looking very likely.

Three blocks later, I finally caught up with Reese on a rooftop. He’d climbed up the fire escape, probably thinking I wouldn’t follow.

When I swung over the top, he broke into a run, heading for the opposite side, boots sliding on the gravel. When I realized he wasn’t going to veer at the last second, I threw on the brakes, gravel crunching as I skidded to a stop.

“Okay,” I called. “I’m not coming any closer. I just want to talk to you.”

He was close enough to the edge to make my heart race. He slowly pivoted to face me.

Reese Williams, twenty years old, and recently emigrated from Australia. With broad shoulders, sun-streaked wavy blond hair and the remnants of a tan, he looked like the kind of kid who should be leading tour groups into the outback, all smiles and corny jokes.
Only he wasn’t joking or smiling now.

“My name is Elena–” I began.

“I know who you are,” he said. “But where is he?”

“Not here, obviously.” I gestured around me. “In two days, you haven’t caught a whiff of any werewolf except me, which should be a sure sign that Clay’s not around.”

“So you’re alone?” The sarcasm in his voice made that a statement. I was the only female werewolf. Obviously, I needed protection, which must be why I’d taken refuge with the Pack and, for a mate, had chosen the Alpha’s second-in-command–the baddest, craziest werewolf around.

“He’s teaching,” I said. “Georgia State University, this week.”

His glower said he didn’t appreciate my joke. I wasn’t kidding–that bad and crazy werewolf also had a Ph.D. in anthropology and was currently lecturing at a symposium on cult worship in ancient Egypt. But there was no way Reese would believe that.

“Fine,” I said. “You think he’s been lurking in the shadows, out of sight and downwind for two days. Unobtrusive is one word that’s never been applied to Clay but, sure, let’s go with that theory. Unless he’s learned to fly, though, the only way up is that ladder behind me, so you’re going to see him coming. Now, let’s take a minute and chat. The reason I’ve been chasing you for two days is that I want to talk to you about–”

“South Carolina.”

“Right.”

“I didn’t kill those humans.”

“I know.”

He allowed himself two seconds of surprise, and in those two seconds, he looked like a kid on his first day away at college–lonely, confused and hoping he’d found someone to help. Then his face hardened again. He might be no older than a college student, but he wasn’t that naïve or that optimistic, not anymore.

I hurried on. “You emigrated last year and hooked up with a couple of morons named Liam Malloy and Ramon Santos. They promised to show you the ropes of werewolf life in America. Then the half-eaten bodies started showing up–”
“I didn’t do it.”

“No, they did, and they’re blaming you for it. We know–”

He inched back toward the edge.

“Don’t–” I began. “Just stop there. Better yet, take a step toward me.”

“Am I making you nervous?”

I met his gaze. “Yes.”

“A jumper would be a real mess to clean up, wouldn’t it? Better to calm me down and get me into a nice stretch of forest for easy burial.”

“That’s not–” An exasperated sigh hissed through my teeth. “Fine. You’re convinced I’m going to kill you. The only question, then, is–”

He stepped back . . . and plummeted.

I lunged so fast I nearly did a face-plant in the gravel, scrabbling to get to the edge, heart in my throat, cursing myself for being so careless, so flippant–

Then I saw the second roof, two stories below, and Reese running across it.

Clay would have taken a dramatic flying leap. I felt the urge, but reminded myself I was the mother of two and would turn forty in a few months. Even though I had the body of a bionic thirty-year-old, I had responsibilities to my family, to my Alpha and, most important right now, to this dumbass kid who’d get killed if I broke my ankle and couldn’t warn him about Liam and Ramon.

So I crouched on the edge, checked my trajectory and jumped carefully. I landed on my feet and took off after Reese. I was barely on the second rooftop before he was off it. It was a three-story drop this time, which was a bit much even for a twenty-year-old werewolf. The thump of a hard landing and a gasp of pain confirmed that.

I picked up speed, hoping I’d see him huddled below, hurt and unable to run. But the pavement was empty, as was the parking lot beyond. I caught a flash of movement in a recessed doorway, where he crouched, hidden in the shadows, waiting to ambush me. Good thing I hadn’t pulled a Clay and charged headlong after my prey.

I walked to the adjoining edge, lowered myself over, then dropped. Twin shocks of pain blasted through my legs as I hit the asphalt. I was going to pay for that in the morning. For now, I rubbed it out, then snuck to the corner of the building.

The wind shifted and I caught a whiff of Reese, his scent heavy with fear. It wasn’t me he should be afraid of, though, but his old traveling buddies.

Liam and Ramon had killed three humans in South Carolina and set up Reese to take the fall. Now they were hoping to find and kill him before I got his side of the story.

How was I so sure of this?

Because they’d done it before. Five years ago they’d befriended a twenty-three-year-old immigrant werewolf named Yuli Etxeberria. When evidence of man-killing pointed to Etxeberria, Clay had wanted to swoop in and grab him. I’d held back. I’d been suspicious, but not suspicious enough. Liam killed Etxeberria and mailed us his hand, as if expecting a commendation for taking care of this “maneater.”

That wouldn’t happen this time. I strode down the grassy strip between the building and the parking lot, as if I was scanning that lot, giving Reese the perfect ambush target.

When I reached the recessed doorway, I dove. Reese’s shadow passed over me, pouncing and catching only air. I leapt up, grabbed the back of his jacket and threw him onto the grass.

He landed with a thud. He tried to roll out of it and bounce up swinging, but a twenty-year-old with a werewolf’s strength and agility is like a twenty-year-old behind the wheel of a Lamborghini–all that power but not enough experience using it–and he fumbled the bounce back to his feet.

I tossed him face-first onto the grass again. This time he stayed where he landed.
“Where did we leave off?” I said. “Right. Liam and Ramon and their plot to end your existence.”

“Kill me?” He slowly rose. “Why would they–?”

He charged, hoping to catch me off guard. I stepped aside and he smacked into the wall, then wheeled fast and came at me again. Again, I stepped aside, this time grabbing him and pitching him through the air.

As he hit the ground, he let out a stream of profanity.

I shook my head. “If I wanted to hurt you, I wouldn’t be throwing you on the grass, would I?”

“Right, you’re here to help me, after getting tipped off that I’m a man-eater. Do you really expect me to–”

He tried the dash-in-midsentence trick again, making a break for the alley. I tore after him. As I caught the back of his jacket, he spun and hit me with an upper cut that sent me sailing off my feet.

I kept my grip on his coat, and we both went down. I tried to scramble up, but he pinned me. It was then that his wolf brain kicked in. His pupils dilated, his breathing quickened, his erection pressed into my thigh, his wolf side telling him this wasn’t a fight–it was foreplay, and damn, I smelled good.

He froze as the still-human part of his brain warned him that what the wolf wanted was a very bad idea. But his nostrils still flared, drinking in my scent.

I knew which side would win, and that’s when things always got ugly.

So while he fought his inner battle, I heaved him off me.

“That’s why I don’t do hand-to-hand combat with mutts,” I said.

He nodded as he got to his feet, rubbing his face briskly with his sleeve, gaze down, cheeks flaming. He pinched his nose and shook his head, trying to clear my scent.

It took a smart kid to back off that fast. And Reese was smart–that was the problem. If he’d been a dumb lunk who’d keep trying to hump my leg, then he’d have believed me when I said I was here to rescue him. Instead, he saw all the ways it could be a trick.

“Liam and Ramon are after you,” I said. “You haven’t noticed because they aren’t nearly as good at tracking as I am. Give them a few weeks to catch up and–”

He charged, switching to the dash-while-your-opponent-is-in-midspeech tactic. Again, I sidestepped. Only this time, he hooked the back of my knee. I stumbled, but came up swinging. Unfortunately, he was already ten feet away, running for the road.

I took off after him.

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Haunted
Excerpt

1

"Come on," Savannah whispered, tugging the young man's hand.

She climbed a wooden fence into the backyard of a narrow two-story house.

"Watch out for the roses," she said as his feet threatened to land in the border. "We gotta come this way or the old bugger next door will bitch about me having friends over when no one's home."

"Yeah," the boy said. "I get shit from my folks about that, too."

"Oh, Paige and Lucas don't care, as long as I clean up and don't have any monster parties. Well, they might care if they found out I was bringing a guy over. But if that old man sees me having friends over? He starts telling people that Paige and Lucas are crappy guardians, shit like that. Makes me want to—" She swallowed her next words and shrugged. "Tell him off or something."

I was less than a half-dozen paces behind, but they never turned around, never even peered over their shoulders. Sometimes that really pisses me off. Sure, all teenagers ignore their mothers. And, sure, Savannah had a good excuse, since I'd been dead for three years. Still, you'd think we'd have a deeper connection, that she'd somehow hear me, if only as a voice in her head that said "Don't listen to that girl" or "That boy's not worth the trouble." Never happened, though. In life, I'd been one of the most powerful women in the supernatural world, an Aspicio half-demon and witch master of the black arts. Now I was a third-rate ghost who couldn't even contact her own daughter. My afterlife sucked.

Savannah took the boy through the lean-to, dragged him away from Lucas's latest motorcycle restoration project and into the house. The back door swung shut in my face. I walked through it.

They shed their shoes, then climbed the small set of stairs from the landing to the kitchen. Savannah headed straight for the fridge and started grabbing sandwich fixings. I walked past them, through the dining room, into the living room, and settled into my favorite spot, a butter yellow leather armchair.

I'd done the right thing, sending Savannah to Paige. Quite possibly the smartest thing I'd ever done. Of course, if I'd been really smart, Savannah wouldn't have needed anyone to take her in. I wouldn't have been in such a hellfire rush to escape that compound, wouldn't have gotten myself killed, wouldn't have endangered my little girl—

Yes, I'd screwed up, but I was going to fix that now. I'd promised to look after my daughter, and I would . . . just as soon as I figured out how.

Savannah and her friend took their sandwiches into the dining room. I leaned forward to peer around the corner, just a quick check in case . . . In case what, Eve? In case she chokes on a pickle? I silenced the too-familiar inner voice and started to settle back into my chair when I noticed a third person in the dining room. In a chair pulled up to the front window sat a gray-haired woman, her head bent, shoulders racked with silent sobs.

Savannah brushed past the woman, and took a seat on the opposite side of the table. "Did you hear Ms. Lenke might not be back before the city finals? She'd better be. Callahan doesn't know the difference between a dead ball and a free ball."

The boy snorted. "I'd be surprised if that moron could tell a basketball from a football. At last week's practice . . ."

I tuned them out and focused on the woman. As I drew near, I could hear her muted sobs. I sighed and leaned against the dining room doorway.

"Look," I said. "Whatever happened to you, I'm sure it was bad, but you have to move on. Go into the light or click your heels three times or whatever. Get thee to the other side, ghost."

The woman didn't even look up. Only thing worse than a stubborn spirit is a rude one. I'd seen her here at least a dozen times since the kids had moved in, and not once had she so much as acknowledged my presence. Never spoke. Never left that chair. Never stopped crying. And I thought I had a lousy afterlife.

I softened my tone. "You have to get over it. You're wasting your time—"

She faded, and was gone. Really. Some people.

"Where's that new stereo you got?" the boy asked through a mouthful of multigrain bread.

"In my room." Savannah hesitated. "You wanna go up and see it?"

The boy jumped to his feet so fast his chair tumbled over backward. Savannah laughed and helped him right it. Then she grabbed his hand and led him to the stairs.

I stayed at the bottom.

A moment later, music rocked the rafters. Nothing I recognized. Dead three years, and I was already a pop-culture has-been. No, wait. I did recognize the song. "(Don't Fear) the Reaper" . . . but with a techno beat. Who the hell was this? Not Blue Oyster Cult, that's for sure. What kind of crap—? Oh God, I was turning into my mother. I'd avoided it all my life and now—

A man walked through the wall. Two inches taller than me. A decade older. Broad shoulders. Thickening middle. Thinning blond hair. Gorgeous bright blue eyes, which followed my gaze to the stairs.

"And what does our daughter desperately need your help with today?" he asked.

Kristof Nast's contribution to "our daughter" had been purely biological, having not entered her life until just days before the end of his. My choice, not his. After I'd become pregnant, I'd skedaddled. Took him thirteen years and a mortal blow to the head, but he'd finally caught up with me.

He cocked his head, listened to the music, and pulled a face. "Well, at least she's out of the boy-band stage. And it could be worse. Bryce went through heavy metal, then rap, then hip-hop, and at each phase I swore the next one couldn't be any worse, but he always found something—" Kristof stopped and waved a hand in front of my eyes.

"Come on, Eve," he said. "Savannah's taste may be questionable, but she doesn't require musical supervision."

"Shhh. Can you hear anything?"

He arched his brows. "Besides a badly tuned bass guitar and vocals worthy of a castrated stray cat?"

"She has a boy up there."

Another frown, deeper this time. "What kind of boy?"

"Human."

"I meant what 'sort' of boy. This isn't the same one—" He closed his mouth with an audible click of his teeth, then launched into a voice I knew only too well, one I heard in my head when he wasn't around. "All right. Savannah has a boy in her room. She's fifteen. We both know they aren't up there on a study date. As for exactly what they're doing . . . is that really any of your business?"

"I'm not worried about sex, Kris. She's a smart girl. If she's ready — and I don't think she is — she'll take precautions. But what if he's ready? I barely know this guy. He could—"

"Force her to do something she doesn't want?" His laugh boomed through the foyer. "When's the last time anyone forced you to do something against your will? She's your daughter, Eve. First guy who puts a hand where she doesn't want it will be lucky if he doesn't lose it."

"I know, but—"

"What if they do turn that music down? Do you really want to hear what's going on?"

"Of course not. That's why I'm staying down here. I'm just making sure--"

"You can't make sure of anything. You're dead. That boy could pull a gun on her and there's not a damn thing you could do about it."

"I'm working on that!"

He sighed. "You've been working on it for three years. And you're no better off than when you started." He hesitated, then plowed forward. "You need to step back from it for a while. Take a break."

"And do what?"

"Well, funny you should ask. That's what I wanted to talk to you about. I happen to have a temp job lined up for you. Full of adventure, mystery, maybe even a little danger . . ."

"Just a little?"

He grinned. "Depends on how you play it."

I paused, then glanced up the stairs. "We'll talk about it later."

Kristof threw up his hands and disappeared into the wall. I plunked down onto the step. Savannah and I had a special bond he couldn't possibly understand . . . I only wish that were true. Kris had single-parented both his sons after his wife had left them while his youngest was still in diapers. Soon after we'd met, his secretary had paged him because Sean had been hit in the head during a baseball game. For barely more than a bump, he'd blown off an important dinner meeting to catch the next plane home. And that's when my opinion of him had begun the slow but steady shift that led to Savannah.

It had ended there, though. Once I'd realized I was a black witch carrying the bastard child of a Cabal sorcerer heir, I hadn't been dumb enough to stick around and see what his family thought. As for what Kristof thought of me taking our daughter away . . . well, I'd spent twelve years trying not to think about that. I knew I'd made a mistake, an error in judgment overshadowed only by that final error in judgment I'd made in the compound.

Yet for twelve years I'd been able to coast on my guilt trip, telling myself maybe Kristof hadn't really cared that I'd taken Savannah. Bullshit, of course. But not having him there to say otherwise had made it easier . . . until six months after my death, when I'd seen him fight for custody of her, and die trying to protect her.

Upstairs, the music ended. Savannah popped in another CD . . . or switched MP3s . . . or whatever music came on these days. The next song began, something slow, and definitely soft enough for me to hear giggles and murmurs.

Damn it, Kris was right. Following my daughter to the mall was one thing. Listening to her make out with a boy was wrong. And creepy. But now I was stuck here. If Kristof found out I'd left right after him, he'd know I'd seen his point, and I wasn't ready to admit that. Maybe—

A sharp oath burst from the living room. I took a cautious step toward the corner. In life, I would have strode over there, defensive spell at the ready. But here? Well, here things were different.

Kristof stepped from behind the sofa, picking what looked like cobwebs from his rumpled shirt. The back of his hair stuck straight up, as if someone had run a static-charged hand through it. His tie was shredded.

He gave a fierce wet-dog shake. When he finished, he was immaculate again . . . except for his tie, which was tucked into his shirt. I plucked it out and straightened it.

"Let me guess," I said. "Wrong turn . . . again?"

He gave a helpless shrug. "You know how I am with spells."

"Uh-huh."

I glanced back at the stairs. A sigh floated down.

I turned back to Kris. "Want a lift?"

"Please."

2

Transportation is my afterlife specialty — my quest to help Savannah meant I spent a lot of time tracking down sources. In other areas of ghost activity, I'm not so good, though I didn't think the Fates needed to send me through that damned orientation course three times.

My afterlife world was a version of earth, with some weird subdimensions that we really tried to avoid. Everyone here was a supernatural, but not every supernatural was here. When I'd died, my first thought on waking had been "Great, now I finally find out what comes next." Well, actually that had been my second thought, after "Hmmm, I thought it would have been hotter." Yes, I'd escaped the fiery hell my mother and many others had prophesied for me, but in dying, I hadn't found out what comes next, only what came next for me. Was there fire and brimstone somewhere else? Were there halos and heavenly harps? I have no idea. I only know that where I am is better than where I expected to be, so I'm not complaining.

I dropped Kristof off on the courthouse steps. Yes, we have courts here. The Fates take care of all major disciplinary issues, but they let us handle disputes between ghosts. Hence the courts, where Kristof worked. Not that he'd practiced law in real life. The day he'd passed the bar exam, he'd gone into business with his family. But here he was, playing lawyer in the afterlife. Even Kris admitted this wasn't his first choice for a new career, but until they started a ghost world NHL franchise, he was stuck with it.

Speaking of jobs . . . Kristof was right. I needed a break. I'd known that for a while now, but couldn't bring myself to admit it. I knew Kris's "temp job" wouldn't be the kind of employment the Fates would approve of, but that was more incentive than obstacle.

That thought had no sooner left my mind than a bluish fog blew in and swirled around my leg.

"Hey, I was just—"

The fog sucked me into the ground.

The Searchers deposited me in the Fates' throne room, a white marble cavern with moving mosaics on the walls. The Fates are the guardians of the supernatural layers of the ghost world, and just about the only time they call us in is when we've screwed up. So as the floor began to turn, I braced myself. When it didn't turn fast enough, I twisted around to face the Fates myself. A pretty girl threaded yarn onto a spinning wheel. She looked no more than five or six years old, with bright violet eyes that matched her dress.

"Okay," I said. "What did I do?"

The girl smiled. "Isn't the question: What did I do now?"

I sighed, and in less time than it takes to blink, the girl morphed into a middle-aged version of herself, with long graying dark hair, and light-brown skin showing the first wrinkles and roughness of time.

"We have a problem, Eve."

"Look, I promised I wouldn't use the codes for excessive unauthorized travel. I never said—"

"This isn't about unauthorized travel."

I thought for a moment. "Visiting Adena Milan for spell-swapping? Hey, that was an honest mistake. No one told me she was on the blacklist."

The middle-aged Fate shook her head. "Admittedly, there might be some amusement to be had in making you recite the whole list of your infractions, but I'm afraid we don't have that much time. Eighteen months ago, you made a deal with us. If we returned Paige and Lucas to the living world, you'd owe us a favor."

"Oh . . . that."

Damn. When they hadn't mentioned it again, I'd hoped they'd forgotten. Like that's going to happen. The Fates can remember what Noah ate for breakfast on the morning of the flood.

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Industrial Magic

Industrial Magic

Women of the Otherworld
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Excerpt

That Cortez Boy

I sat in a hotel room, across from two thirty-something witches in business suits, listening as they said all the right things. All the polite things. How they'd heard such wonderful accounts of my mother. How horrified they'd been to learn of her murder. How delighted they were to see that I was doing well despite my break with the Coven.

All this they said, smiling with just the right mixture of sadness, commiseration, and support. Wendy Aiken did most of the talking. While she did, her younger sister Julie's eyes darted to where Savannah, my thirteen-year-old ward, perched on the bed. I caught the looks Julie shot her, distaste mingled with fear. A black witch's daughter, in their hotel room.

As Wendy's lips moved in rehearsed platitudes, her gaze slipped past me to the clock. I knew then that I would fail . . . again. But I gave my spiel anyway. I told them my vision of a new Coven for the technological age, linked by sisterhood instead of proximity, each witch living where she chooses, but with a full Coven support system only a phone call or e-mail away.

When I finished, the sisters looked at each another.

I continued. "As I mentioned, there's also the grimoires. Third-level spells, lost for generations. I have them and I want to share them, to return witches to their former glory."

To me, these books were my trump card. Even if you didn't give a damn about sisterhood or support, surely you'd want this power. What witch wouldn't? Yet, as I looked at Wendy and Julie, I saw my words wash right over them, as if I was offering a free set of steak knives with the purchase of a complete living-room suite.

"You're a very compelling saleswoman," Wendy said with a smile.

"But . . ." Savannah muttered from the bed.

"But we must admit, we have a problem with the . . . present company you keep."

Julie's gaze slid toward Savannah. I tensed, ready to leap to her defense.

"That Cortez boy," Wendy said. "Well, young man, I should say. Yes, I know he's not involved with his family's Cabal, but we all know how things like that turn out. Youthful rebellion is all very well, but it doesn't pay the bills. And I hear he's not very successful in that regard."

"Lucas--"

"He's still young, I know, and he does a lot of pro bono work. That's very noble, Paige. I can see how a young woman would find it romantic--"

"But," Julie cut in, "like Wendy says, it doesn't pay the bills. And he is a Cortez."

Wendy nodded. "Yes, he is a Cortez."

"Hey," Savannah said, standing. "I have a question." She stepped toward the sisters. Julie shrank back. "When's the last time you saved a witch from being murdered by Cabal goons? Lucas did that just last month."

"Savannah . . ." I said.

She stepped closer to the two women. "What about defending a shaman set up by a Cabal? That's what Lucas is doing now. Oh, and Paige does charity work, too. In fact, she's doing it right now, offering two-faced bitches like you a spot in her Coven."

"Savannah!"

"I'll be in the hall," she said. "Something in here stinks."

She wheeled and marched out of the hotel room.

"My god," Wendy said. "She is her mother's daughter."

"And thank God for that," I said, and left.

As I drove out of the city core, Savannah broke the silence.

"I heard what you said. It was a good comeback."

The words "even if you didn't mean it" hung between us. I nodded and busied myself scanning traffic. I was still working on understanding Savannah's mother, Eve. It wasn't easy. My whole being rebelled at the thought of empathizing with a dark witch. But, even if I could never think of Eve as someone I could admire, I'd come to accept that she'd been a good mother. The proof of that was beside me. A thoroughly evil woman couldn't have produced a daughter like Savannah.

"You know I was right," she said. "About them. They're just like the Coven. You deserve--"

"Don't," I said quietly. "Please."

She looked at me. I could feel her gaze, but didn't turn. After a moment, she shifted to stare out the window.

I was in a funk, as my mother would have said. Feeling sorry for myself and knowing there was no good reason for it. I should be happy--ecstatic even. Sure my life had taken a nasty turn four months ago--if one can call "the end of life as I knew it" a nasty turn--but I'd survived. I was young. I was healthy. I was in love. Damn it, I should be happy. And when I wasn't, that only added guilt to my blues, and left me berating myself for acting like a spoiled, selfish brat.

I was bored. The Web site design work that had once fired a passion in me now piled up on the desk—drudgery I had to complete if anyone in our house intended to eat. Did I say house? I meant apartment. Four months ago, my house near Boston had burned to cinders, along with everything I owned. I was now the proud renter of a lousy two-bedroom apartment in a lousier neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. Yes, I could afford better, but I hated digging into the insurance money, terrified I'd wake up one day with nothing in the bank and be forced to spend eternity living beneath a deaf old woman who watched blaring talk shows eighteen hours a day.

For the first two months, I'd been fine. Lucas, Savannah, and I had spent the summer traveling. But then September came and Savannah had to go to school. So we set up house—apartment—in Portland, and carried on. Or, I should say, Savannah and Lucas carried on. They'd both lived nomadic lives before, so this was nothing new. Not so for me. I'd been born near Boston, grown up there, and never left—not even for school. Yet in my fight to protect Savannah last spring, my house hadn't been the only thing to burn. My entire life had gone up in smoke—my business, my private life, my reputation—all had been dragged through the tabloid cesspool, and I'd been forced to relocate clear across the country, someplace where no one had heard of Paige Winterbourne. The scandal had fizzled out quickly enough, but I couldn't go back. The Coven had exiled me, which meant I was forbidden to live within the state boundaries. Still, I hadn't given up. I'd sucked in my grief, dried my tears, and marched back into the fight. My Coven didn't want me? Fine, I'd start my own. In the last eight weeks I'd met with nine witches. Each one said all the right things, then turned me down flat. With each rejection, the abyss widened.

We went out for dinner, followed by an early movie. My way of apologizing to Savannah for inflicting another witch-recruitment session on her.

Back at the apartment, I hustled Savannah off to bed, then zoomed into my room just as the clock-radio flipped to 10:59. I grabbed the cordless phone, jumped onto the bed, and watched the clock. Two seconds after it hit 11:00, the phone rang.

"Two seconds late," I said.

"Never. Your clock must be running fast."

I smiled and settled back onto the bed. Lucas was in Chicago, defending a shaman who'd been set up by the St. Cloud Cabal to take the fall for a corporate espionage scheme gone awry.

I asked Lucas how the case was going, and he filled me in. Then he asked how my afternoon had gone, specifically my meeting with the witches. For a second, I almost wished I had one of those boyfriends who didn't know or care about my life outside his sphere of influence. Lucas probably noted all my appointments in his Day-Timer, so he'd never do something as inconsiderate as fail to ask about them afterward.

"Shot down," I said.

A moment of silence. "I'm sorry."

"No big—"

"Yes, it is. I know it is. However, I'm equally certain that, given the right circumstances and timing, you'll eventually find yourself in a position where the number of witches clamoring to join your Coven will far exceed your requirements."

"In other words, give it time and I'll need to beat 'em off with a stick?"

A soft chuckle floated down the line. "I get even less coherent after a day in court, don't I?"

"If you didn't talk like that once in a while, I'd miss it. Kind of like I'm missing you. Got an ETA for me yet?"

"Three days at most. It's hardly a murder trial." He cleared his throat. "Speaking of which, another case was brought to my attention today. A half-demon killed in Nevada, apparently mistaken for another who was under Cabal warrant for execution."

"Whoops."

"Exactly. The Boyd Cabal isn't admitting their mistake, let alone conducting a proper investigation and procedural review. I thought perhaps you might be able to assist me. That is, if you aren't busy—"

"When can we leave?"

"Sunday. Savannah could spend the night at Michelle's, and we'd return Monday evening."

"Sounds—" I stopped. "Savannah has an orthodontic appointment Monday afternoon. I'd reschedule, but . . ."

"It took six weeks to get it, I know. Yes, I have it marked right here. Three o'clock with Doctor Schwab. I should have checked before I asked." He paused. "Perhaps you could still come along and leave early Monday morning?"

"Sure. That sounds good."

The words came out empty, the elation that surged only a moment ago drained by this sudden glimpse of my future, calendar pages crammed with orthodontic appointments, Saturday morning art classes, and PTA meetings stretching into eternity.

On the heels of that thought came another. How dare I complain? I'd taken on this responsibility. I'd wanted it. I'd fought for it. Only a few months ago, I'd seen the same snapshot of my future and I'd been happy. Now, as much as I loved Savannah, I couldn't deny the occasional twinges of resentment.

"We'll work something out," Lucas said. "In the meantime, I should mention that I took advantage of a brief recess today to visit some of Chicago's lesser-known shopping venues, and found something that might cheer you up. A necklace."

I grinned. "An amulet?"

"No, I believe it's what they call a Celtic knot. Silver. A simple design, but quite elegant."

"Sure. Good . . . great."

"Liar."

"No really, I—" I paused. "It's not a necklace, is it?"

"I've been told, on good authority, that jewelry is the proper token of affection. I must admit I had my doubts. One could argue that you'd prefer a rare spell, but the jewelry store clerk assured me that all women prefer necklaces to musty scrolls."

I rolled onto my stomach and grinned. "You bought me a spell? What kind? Witch? Sorcerer?"

"It's a surprise."

"What?" I shot upright. "No way! Don't you dare—"

"It'll give you something to look forward to when I get home."

"Well, that's good, Cortez, 'cause God knows, I wasn't looking forward to anything else."

A soft laugh. "Liar."

I thumped back onto the bed. "How about a deal? You tell me what the spell does and I'll give you something to look forward to."

"Tempting."

"I'll make it more than tempting."

"That I don't doubt."

"Good. Now here's the deal. I give you a list of options. If you like one, then you can have it when you get home if you tell me about the spell tonight."

"Before you begin, I really should warn you, I'm quite resolved to secrecy. Breaking that resolve requires more than a laundry list of options, however creative. Detail will be the key."

I grinned. "You alone?"

"That goes without saying. If you're asking whether I'm in my hotel room, the answer is yes."

My grin broadened. "Good, then you'll get all the detail you can handle."

I never did find out what the spell was, probably because, five minutes into the conversation, we both forgot what had started it and, by the time we signed off, I crawled under the covers, forgetting even the most basic nighttime toiletry routines, and promptly fell asleep, my curiosity the only thing left unsatisfied.
Death Before Dishonor

Come morning, i bounded out of bed, ready to take on the world. This would have been a positive sign had I not done the same thing every morning for the past two weeks. I awoke, refreshed, determined this would be the day I'd haul my ass out of the pit. I'd cook breakfast for Savannah. I'd leave a cheerful message of support on Lucas's cell phone. I'd jog two miles. I'd dive into my Web site projects with renewed vigor and imagination. I'd take time out in the afternoon to hunt down season-end tomatoes at the market. I'd cook up a vat of spaghetti sauce that would fill our tiny freezer. The list went on. I usually derailed somewhere between leaving the message for Lucas and starting my workday . . . roughly around nine a.m.

That morning, I sailed into my jog still pumped. I knew I wouldn't hit two miles, considering I'd never exceeded one mile in my entire running career, which was now in its fifth week. Over the last eighteen months it had come to my attention, on multiple occasions, that my level of physical fitness was inadequate. Before now, a good game of pool was as active as I got. Ask me to flee for my life, and we could be talking imminent heart failure.

As long as I was reinventing myself, I might as well toss in a fitness routine. Since Lucas ran, that seemed the logical choice. I hadn't told him about it yet. Not until I reached the two-mile mark. Then I'd say, "Oh, by the way, I took up running a few days ago." God forbid I should admit to not being instantly successful at anything.

That morning, I finally passed the one-mile mark. Okay, it was only by about twenty yards, but it was still a personal best, so I treated myself to an iced chai for the walk home.

As I rounded the last corner, I noticed two suspicious figures standing in front of my building. Both wore suits, which in my neighborhood was extremely suspicious. I looked for Bibles or encyclopedias, but they were empty-handed. One stared up at the building, perhaps expecting it to morph into corporate headquarters.

I fished my keys from my pocket. As I glanced up, two girls walked past the men. I wondered why they weren't in school—dumb question in this neighborhood, but I was still adjusting—then realized the "girls" were at least forty. My mistake arose from the size differential. The two men towered a foot above the women.

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Living with the Dead
Excerpt

Adele

To call Portia Kane a waste of space was being charitable. She was negative space – a vacuum that sucked in everything around her. An entire industry had grown up to service this spoiled ”celebutante.“ Lives were wasted catering to her whims, feeding her ego, splashing her vapid face across the news.

And for what? She wasn’t smart, wasn’t talented, wasn’t pretty, wasn’t even interesting. Adele should know. She’d spent the last two years wallowing in the oatmeal mush that was Portia’s mind. But soon she’d be free. If she dared.

Adele stabbed a ripe baby tomato. The innards squirted down the front of her shirt. The insanely expensive white shirt she’d bought just for this meeting. She grabbed a linen napkin, but only ground the pulp into a bloody smear.

A tinkling laugh rose above the murmur of the lunch crowd. Adele turned to see Portia leaning over the table, whispering to Jasmine Wills. Laughing. At Adele? No. To them, she was invisible. That was the goal – never let your prey know it’s being stalked.

Paparazzi. An ugly word, with an uglier reputation. The kumpania never used it. They weren’t like those curs, endlessly chasing their prey, trying to corner it, provoke it, snatching mouthfuls of flesh where they could. Kumpania photographers were clever foxes, staying out of the fray and getting the most profitable shots through cunning, craft and clairvoyance.

A man cut through the gathering near the restaurant entrance. Was that him? They’d only spoken by phone, but she was sure it was. He had their look – the thinning blond hair, the unnaturally blue eyes, the arrogant tilt of the chin, the razor-sharp cut of the suit.

And he was looking right at her. Smiling at her. Coming toward her. In that moment, Adele knew how a fox felt when it saw its first grizzly.

All sensible supernaturals feared the Cabals, those corporations run by sorcerers whose idea of severance packages usually involved the removal of body parts. For clairvoyants, though, that fear rose to outright terror. By the time clairvoyants finished working for a Cabal, they’d lost the most vital body part of all – their minds.

The power of clairvoyance came with the price tag of insanity, a fate the kumpania promised to save them from…in return for a lifetime of servitude. They also promised to protect their clairvoyants from the Cabals, which would woo them with promises of wealth, then drain their powers and retire them to a padded cell, drooling and raving, brought out only for horrific experiments.

And now Adele was willingly meeting with a Cabal sorcerer. Willingly offering herself to his corporation. Was she mad? She had to run, escape while she still could.

She gripped her thighs, squeezing until the pain crystallized her fear into resolve. The grizzly might be the biggest predator in the forest, but a clever fox could use that. A clever clairvoyant could use the Cabals, make her fortune and get out while she was still sane enough to enjoy it.

Adele touched her stomach. In it, she carried the ultimate bargaining chip. With it, she didn’t need to flee the grizzly. She could run to it, hide behind it, use it to escape the kumpania and get the kind of life she deserved.

The man stopped beside her table. ”Adele Morrissey?“ He extended his hand. ”Irving Nast. A pleasure to meet you. We have a lot to talk about.“

Robyn

The world was a shitty place; no one knew that better than Robyn Peltier. Every day for the past six months, she’d scoured the news for a story that proved it. She sometimes had to check two newspapers, but never more than that.

No common murder or assault would do. What Robyn looked for were the stories that made people call over their shoulders, ”Hey, hon, can you believe this?“ The ones you really didn’t want to believe because they supported a sneaking suspicion that this world was an ugly, fucked-up place where no one gave a damn about anyone else.

The experts blamed everything from video game violence to hormones in the milk to the wrath of God. People wrung their hands and moaned about what the world was coming to, as if callous disregard for human life was some new phenomenon. Bullshit. It started back when the first caveman clubbed a buddy for his wicked new spear.

But it’s easier to tell yourself the world is a good, civilized place, filled with good, civilized people, because that’s what you need to believe to keep going. And it works just fine until the day the ugliness seeps to the surface and sucks your life into the cesspool.

Today, Robyn found her story on page two of the L.A. Times. A man had shot a kid for walking across his lawn and thought he was perfectly justified – because, after all, it was his lawn. She clipped the article, laid it on a fresh page of her bulging scrapbook, then smoothed the plastic over it. Number 170.

Before she put the scrapbook back on the shelf, she flipped back to page one and read the headline, as she had 170 times before: ”Good Samaritan Gunned Down on Highway.“ She touched the face in the photo, tracing his cheek, where the plastic covering was almost worn through, and she thought, for the 170th time, what a crappy picture it was.

There was no excuse for picking a bad photo. As a public relations consultant, Robyn knew better than anyone the importance of providing the right picture to convey your message. She thought of all the ones she could have given the press. Damon playing hoops with his nephews. Damon treating his tenth-grade class to post-exam pizza. Damon goofing around with his garage band. Damon grinning at their wedding.

Damn it, any picture of him smiling would have done. How hard was that? The man was a born performer – stick a camera in his face and he lit up. After five years together, she had hundred of photos of him, any one of which would have shown the world what it had lost that night.

But when asked for a photo, she’d been dealing with the press, the police, the funeral arrangements, everyone clamoring for her attention when all she’d wanted to do was slam the door, fall to the floor and sob until exhaustion blessed her with sleep. She’d grabbed the first picture she could find – his somber college graduation shot – and shoved it into their hands.

Robyn’s cell phone rang. ”Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.“ Portia had set up the ring tone. Not that Portia needed her own special one. These days, if Robyn’s phone rang, it was almost always Portia, who kept her busier than her dozen clients back in Philadelphia. In this business, the only job crazier than doing PR for Paris Hilton was doing PR for the girl who wanted to be the next Paris Hilton.

She put the scrapbook back on the shelf, then answered.

”Finally,“ Portia breathed. ”It rang, like, ten times, Rob.“

Three, but Robyn knew better than to correct her. ”Sorry, I was in the other room.“

Silence, as Portia contemplated the concept of being, even momentarily, cell phone free.

”So how was lunch with Jasmine?“ Robyn asked.

She braced for the answer and prayed if cleanup was required, it wouldn’t involve posting bail this time. The tabloids called Jasmine Wills a ”frenemy“ of Portia’s, but if there was any ”friend“ in the equation, Robyn had yet to see it.

The two young women hadn’t spoken since Jasmine stole Brock DeBeers, the former boy-band heartthrob who really had made Portia’s heart throb. Robyn had warned Portia not to accept the invitation to a makeup lunch, but Portia had only laughed, saying Robyn didn’t understand the game yet, and besides, she hadn’t really liked Brock that much. She only kept his photo in her room because she hadn’t found time to redecorate.

Apparently, Jasmine had spent the entire meal regaling Portia with tales of her wild sex life with Brock. Man’s inhumanity to man. Sometimes it was shooting a helpful stranger, sometimes it was beating your BFF’s dignity into the ground with a crowbar.

”But I’m going to get her back. I have a plan.“

Portia’s singsong cracked at the edges, and Robyn bled a little for her. She wished she could write Portia off as a vacuous twit who was sucking her dry with her neediness, but she supposed it would take another 170 articles in her scrapbook to drain her last ounce of sympathy.

Or maybe Robyn just liked to bleed. Maybe that was why she’d taken the job. Representing Portia Kane was the lowest, most meaningless form of PR work she could imagine. But after Damon’s death, she’d had enough of representing not-for-profit organizations for a pittance. No one else cared. Why should she?

”Oh, and then, just before the bill came, Penny called and guess what? They can’t make it to Bane tonight because – get this – they’re going to the opening of Silhouette with Jasmine. How much you want to bet Jasmine told Penny to call at lunch so she could watch my reaction?“

Every dollar I have, thought Robyn. Portia wasn’t stupid. That was the problem. It’d be so much easier if Robyn could write her off as a vacuous twit. But then she’d show some spark of intelligence, some proof that she could do more with her life than grace club openings.

”So what about that benefit concert tonight?“ Robyn asked. ”If you’re skipping Bane, I can call and get you back on the list–“

”Benefit concert? Oh God, Rob, kill me now. No, I’m still going to Bane, and you’re coming with me.“

How lonely did you need to be to invite your PR rep clubbing? ”I’d love to, but I have plans. Remember that friend I was with yesterday, when you came by?“

”The Indian girl?“

”Hope is Indo American."

Portia’s put-upon sigh made Robyn press her fingertips into her temples. Portia never ceased to complain about Robyn correcting her gaffes, ignoring the fact she’d asked for that ”sensitivity training“ herself, after she’d been quoted making a racist comment about the city’s Hispanic population. Hiring Robyn had been her idea of damage control. She needed a new PR rep and someone mentioned Robyn, saying she was looking to relocate after her husband’s death. A real tragedy. He was trying to help a stranded motorist, but the woman saw a black guy coming at her on an empty highway and shot him.

With that, Portia saw the perfect way to prove she wasn’t racist. Then Robyn showed up – blond haired and green eyed – and from the look on Portia’s face, you’d think she’d never heard the term interracial marriage.

Portia was still nattering on about Hope. ”So bring her and make sure she looks hot – but not hotter than me.“

”We already had plans, Portia.“

”It’s Bane. Now, I know she works for True News, but under absolutely no circumstances is she allowed to report on our evening. Got it?“

In other words, Portia expected full coverage on the front page.

”Hope isn’t a celebrity reporter. She’s their weird tales girl, so unless you’re going to sprout a tail or breathe fire, she’s not–“

”Okay, tell her she can report on it. An exclusive. Oh, and make sure she brings that hot boyfriend, and tell him to bring some friends. Hot friends.“

”He doesn’t have friends here, Portia. They aren’t from L.A.–“

Portia let out an eardrum-splitting squeal. ”Finally. Jasmine’s coming out of the restaurant. Tim, start the car. Move forward, slowly. Rob, hold on.“

”What–?“

The line went dead. Robyn was putting the phone down when it rang again.

It was Portia. ”Remember how you gave me shit for wearing that micro skirt last week? Wait until you see this.“ A split-second pause. ”Well? What do you think?“

”Of what?“

”The photo I just sent you.“

Robyn checked her mail. There, with the caption ”Wait til tabs see this!!!“ was a picture of Jasmine Wills wearing what looked like a baby-doll nightgown. A see-through nightgown. Gauzy pink, with a red bra-and-panty set underneath.

”Well?“

”I’m…speechless.“

”You’re going to send it, right? To the tabs? Oh! Send it to your girlfriend at True News.”

”She doesn’t cover–“

”Then tell her to make an exception. Oh, my God! There’s Brock! Tim, pull forward.“

Click. Portia was gone.

Hope

It took a half-dozen tries to get the key-card light to work – long enough that Hope was tempted to practice her electronic lock-picking skills. When the light finally did turn green, she was leaning against the door, handle down, and it flew open under her weight, sending her stumbling inside. She listened for Karl’s laugh and when it didn’t come, felt a twinge of disappointment.

She shouldn’t have been surprised. She’d told him she’d probably have to work late, so she didn’t expect him back. Still, her disappointment smacked of dependence. Karl wasn’t the kind of guy she should count on.

Hope went to toss her purse on the bed, but threw her laptop case instead. Too much on her mind, fretting about how to help Robyn, worrying about her relationship with Karl, fighting the nagging feeling that the two weren’t unrelated. The more she watched her friend spiral downhill, the more anxious she got about where she was heading with Karl.

She kicked off her pumps and squeezed the carpet between her toes, luxuriating in the feel of it, inhaling the scent of…flowers?

There, on the desk, was a bouquet of yellow and purple irises. Hope read the tag. From her mother, hoping her first week of work was going well. It wasn’t exactly a new job – she’d been at True News for four years, and this was her second L.A. work exchange.

She hadn’t planned to return. Los Angeles wasn’t her kind of city, really. But the chance for a six-week stint came right as Hope had been trying to schedule vacation time to visit Robyn, and it seemed like the perfect solution.

They'd been friends since high school, when Hope's private academy had been running a joint fund-raiser with Robyn’s public school, and they’d been assigned to the same committee. Afterward they’d stayed in touch, gradually becoming friends. Then, in Hope’s senior year, when the visions and voices started, she’d had a breakdown and spent her prom night in a mental ward. Robyn had been the only friend who hadn’t slipped away, as if Hope’s problems might be contagious.

Now Hope had a chance to help Robyn with her problem. When she'd come to L.A., she’d expected Karl would take the opportunity to do a ”work exchange“ of his own in Europe. Instead, he’d joined her. As good as that felt, she couldn’t shake the fear she was getting too used to having him join her on business trips, and that the day he didn’t want to come along, she’d be devastated.

”You’re home early. You should have called.“

She spun as Karl stepped inside. He’d changed since meeting her for lunch, trading designer chinos and a brilliant blue polo for a dark suit that looked like it came from a department store, well below Karl’s usual standards. Not that it mattered. Karl could make Goodwill castoffs look good. But the lowbrow attire was camouflage — Karl’s way of blending into a crowd. The moment he stepped into the room, though, the tie and jacket were off, cast onto the chair like a hair shirt.

”Good hunting?“ Hope asked.

”You forgot to lock the deadbolt and chain.“

He kissed the top of her head, cushioning the rebuke. She could feel the chaos waves of worry rolling off him. When Karl settled in a new city, he couldn’t relax until he’d cleared out any other werewolves. Kill Karl Marsten, and a werewolf would instantly seal his reputation, guaranteeing for years to come that others would clear out of his way.

Hope knew that having her there made it worse. She was an easy way to get to him. So if he wanted her triple-locking the doors and taking a taxi to work until he’d finished scouting, she understood. The same way he understood the quirks and issues of a chaos half-demon girlfriend.

As he took off his shoes, she told him about Robyn’s call and Portia Kane’s ”invitation.“

”And, apparently, Portia insists I bring my ‘hot boyfriend.’ “

Karl snorted as he put his shoes aside. Not that he doubted Portia found him attractive. Hope knew his ego was too healthy for that. What he objected to was being called anything as common as ”hot.“

”Give it some thought while I grab a shower,“ she said. ”If you want to get more scouting done instead, that’s fine.“

”If you’re out, I’d rather stay close. I know you wanted to spend time alone with Robyn, though . . .“

”Not much use if Portia’s there.“ Hope started unbuttoning her blouse. ”In fact, it’d probably be better if you did come, keep Portia occupied, so she doesn’t spend the night ordering Rob around.“

”Using me as a distraction. I should be insulted.“

”You aren’t.“

”True.“ He reclined on the bed, arms folded behind his head as he watched her undress. ”She was wearing a lovely diamond bracelet the other day. At least ten carats. Platinum setting . . .“

”Don’t you dare.“

”If I’m expected to spend my evening charming a silly little girl, I think I’m entitled to compensation.“

”Oh, you’ll get compensation.“

He plucked the hem of her skirt as she passed to the bathroom.

”It’s a big job. I think I need an advance.“

”And I need a shower.“

”The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.“

She paused, as if thinking it over, then lunged, shirt breaking from his grasp as she sprinted for the bathroom. She got the door closed just before he thumped against it, then she quickly fastened the lock. That would slow him down . . . for about ten seconds.

She smiled and tugged off her skirt.

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Living With the Dead

Living With the Dead

Women of the Otherworld
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover Paperback
tagged : suspense
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Excerpt

Adele

To call Portia Kane a waste of space was being charitable. She was negative space – a vacuum that sucked in everything around her. An entire industry had grown up to service this spoiled “celebutante.” Lives were wasted catering to her whims, feeding her ego, splashing her vapid face across the news.

And for what? She wasn’t smart, wasn’t talented, wasn’t pretty, wasn’t even interesting. Adele should know. She’d spent the last two years wallowing in the oatmeal mush that was Portia’s mind. But soon she’d be free. If she dared.

Adele stabbed a ripe baby tomato. The innards squirted down the front of her shirt. The insanely expensive white shirt she’d bought just for this meeting. She grabbed a linen napkin, but only ground the pulp into a bloody smear.

A tinkling laugh rose above the murmur of the lunch crowd. Adele turned to see Portia leaning over the table, whispering to Jasmine Wills. Laughing. At Adele? No. To them, she was invisible. That was the goal – never let your prey know it’s being stalked.

Paparazzi. An ugly word, with an uglier reputation. The kumpania never used it. They weren’t like those curs, endlessly chasing their prey, trying to corner it, provoke it, snatching mouthfuls of flesh where they could. Kumpania photographers were clever foxes, staying out of the fray and getting the most profitable shots through cunning, craft and clairvoyance.

A man cut through the gathering near the restaurant entrance. Was that him? They’d only spoken by phone, but she was sure it was. He had their look – the thinning blond hair, the unnaturally blue eyes, the arrogant tilt of the chin, the razor-sharp cut of the suit.

And he was looking right at her. Smiling at her. Coming toward her. In that moment, Adele knew how a fox felt when it saw its first grizzly.

All sensible supernaturals feared the Cabals, those corporations run by sorcerers whose idea of severance packages usually involved the removal of body parts. For clairvoyants, though, that fear rose to outright terror. By the time clairvoyants finished working for a Cabal, they’d lost the most vital body part of all – their minds.

The power of clairvoyance came with the price tag of insanity, a fate the kumpania promised to save them from…in return for a lifetime of servitude. They also promised to protect their clairvoyants from the Cabals, which would woo them with promises of wealth, then drain their powers and retire them to a padded cell, drooling and raving, brought out only for horrific experiments.

And now Adele was willingly meeting with a Cabal sorcerer. Willingly offering herself to his corporation. Was she mad? She had to run, escape while she still could.

She gripped her thighs, squeezing until the pain crystallized her fear into resolve. The grizzly might be the biggest predator in the forest, but a clever fox could use that. A clever clairvoyant could use the Cabals, make her fortune and get out while she was still sane enough to enjoy it.

Adele touched her stomach. In it, she carried the ultimate bargaining chip. With it, she didn’t need to flee the grizzly. She could run to it, hide behind it, use it to escape the kumpania and get the kind of life she deserved.

The man stopped beside her table. “Adele Morrissey?” He extended his hand. “Irving Nast. A pleasure to meet you. We have a lot to talk about.”

Robyn

The world was a shitty place; no one knew that better than Robyn Peltier. Every day for the past six months, she’d scoured the news for a story that proved it. She sometimes had to check two newspapers, but never more than that.

No common murder or assault would do. What Robyn looked for were the stories that made people call over their shoulders, “Hey, hon, can you believe this?” The ones you really didn’t want to believe because they supported a sneaking suspicion that this world was an ugly, fucked-up place where no one gave a damn about anyone else.

The experts blamed everything from video game violence to hormones in the milk to the wrath of God. People wrung their hands and moaned about what the world was coming to, as if callous disregard for human life was some new phenomenon. Bullshit. It started back when the first caveman clubbed a buddy for his wicked new spear.

But it’s easier to tell yourself the world is a good, civilized place, filled with good, civilized people, because that’s what you need to believe to keep going. And it works just fine until the day the ugliness seeps to the surface and sucks your life into the cesspool.

Today, Robyn found her story on page two of the L.A. Times. A man had shot a kid for walking across his lawn and thought he was perfectly justified – because, after all, it was his lawn. She clipped the article, laid it on a fresh page of her bulging scrapbook, then smoothed the plastic over it. Number 170.

Before she put the scrapbook back on the shelf, she flipped back to page one and read the headline, as she had 170 times before: “Good Samaritan Gunned Down on Highway.” She touched the face in the photo, tracing his cheek, where the plastic covering was almost worn through, and she thought, for the 170th time, what a crappy picture it was.

There was no excuse for picking a bad photo. As a public relations consultant, Robyn knew better than anyone the importance of providing the right picture to convey your message. She thought of all the ones she could have given the press. Damon playing hoops with his nephews. Damon treating his tenth-grade class to post-exam pizza. Damon goofing around with his garage band. Damon grinning at their wedding.

Damn it, any picture of him smiling would have done. How hard was that? The man was a born performer – stick a camera in his face and he lit up. After five years together, she had hundred of photos of him, any one of which would have shown the world what it had lost that night.

But when asked for a photo, she’d been dealing with the press, the police, the funeral arrangements, everyone clamoring for her attention when all she’d wanted to do was slam the door, fall to the floor and sob until exhaustion blessed her with sleep. She’d grabbed the first picture she could find – his somber college graduation shot – and shoved it into their hands.

Robyn’s cell phone rang. “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Portia had set up the ring tone. Not that Portia needed her own special one. These days, if Robyn’s phone rang, it was almost always Portia, who kept her busier than her dozen clients back in Philadelphia. In this business, the only job crazier than doing PR for Paris Hilton was doing PR for the girl who wanted to be the next Paris Hilton.

She put the scrapbook back on the shelf, then answered.

“Finally,” Portia breathed. “It rang, like, ten times, Rob.”

Three, but Robyn knew better than to correct her. “Sorry, I was in the other room.”

Silence, as Portia contemplated the concept of being, even momentarily, cell phone free.

“So how was lunch with Jasmine?” Robyn asked.

She braced for the answer and prayed if cleanup was required, it wouldn’t involve posting bail this time. The tabloids called Jasmine Wills a “frenemy” of Portia’s, but if there was any “friend” in the equation, Robyn had yet to see it.

The two young women hadn’t spoken since Jasmine stole Brock DeBeers, the former boy-band heartthrob who really had made Portia’s heart throb. Robyn had warned Portia not to accept the invitation to a makeup lunch, but Portia had only laughed, saying Robyn didn’t understand the game yet, and besides, she hadn’t really liked Brock that much. She only kept his photo in her room because she hadn’t found time to redecorate.

Apparently, Jasmine had spent the entire meal regaling Portia with tales of her wild sex life with Brock. Man’s inhumanity to man. Sometimes it was shooting a helpful stranger, sometimes it was beating your BFF’s dignity into the ground with a crowbar.

“But I’m going to get her back. I have a plan.”

Portia’s singsong cracked at the edges, and Robyn bled a little for her. She wished she could write Portia off as a vacuous twit who was sucking her dry with her neediness, but she supposed it would take another 170 articles in her scrapbook to drain her last ounce of sympathy.

Or maybe Robyn just liked to bleed. Maybe that was why she’d taken the job. Representing Portia Kane was the lowest, most meaningless form of PR work she could imagine. But after Damon’s death, she’d had enough of representing not-for-profit organizations for a pittance. No one else cared. Why should she?

“Oh, and then, just before the bill came, Penny called and guess what? They can’t make it to Bane tonight because – get this – they’re going to the opening of Silhouette with Jasmine. How much you want to bet Jasmine told Penny to call at lunch so she could watch my reaction?”

Every dollar I have, thought Robyn. Portia wasn’t stupid. That was the problem. It’d be so much easier if Robyn could write her off as a vacuous twit. But then she’d show some spark of intelligence, some proof that she could do more with her life than grace club openings.

“So what about that benefit concert tonight?” Robyn asked. “If you’re skipping Bane, I can call and get you back on the list–”

“Benefit concert? Oh God, Rob, kill me now. No, I’m still going to Bane, and you’re coming with me.”

How lonely did you need to be to invite your PR rep clubbing? “I’d love to, but I have plans. Remember that friend I was with yesterday, when you came by?”

“The Indian girl?”

“Hope is Indo American."

Portia’s put-upon sigh made Robyn press her fingertips into her temples. Portia never ceased to complain about Robyn correcting her gaffes, ignoring the fact she’d asked for that “sensitivity training” herself, after she’d been quoted making a racist comment about the city’s Hispanic population. Hiring Robyn had been her idea of damage control. She needed a new PR rep and someone mentioned Robyn, saying she was looking to relocate after her husband’s death. A real tragedy. He was trying to help a stranded motorist, but the woman saw a black guy coming at her on an empty highway and shot him.

With that, Portia saw the perfect way to prove she wasn’t racist. Then Robyn showed up – blond haired and green eyed – and from the look on Portia’s face, you’d think she’d never heard the term interracial marriage.

Portia was still nattering on about Hope. “So bring her and make sure she looks hot – but not hotter than me.”

“We already had plans, Portia.”

“It’s Bane. Now, I know she works for True News, but under absolutely no circumstances is she allowed to report on our evening. Got it?”

In other words, Portia expected full coverage on the front page.

“Hope isn’t a celebrity reporter. She’s their weird tales girl, so unless you’re going to sprout a tail or breathe fire, she’s not–”

“Okay, tell her she can report on it. An exclusive. Oh, and make sure she brings that hot boyfriend, and tell him to bring some friends. Hot friends.”

“He doesn’t have friends here, Portia. They aren’t from L.A.–”

Portia let out an eardrum-splitting squeal. “Finally. Jasmine’s coming out of the restaurant. Tim, start the car. Move forward, slowly. Rob, hold on.”

“What–?”

The line went dead. Robyn was putting the phone down when it rang again.

It was Portia. “Remember how you gave me shit for wearing that micro skirt last week? Wait until you see this.” A split-second pause. “Well? What do you think?”

“Of what?”

“The photo I just sent you.”

Robyn checked her mail. There, with the caption “Wait til tabs see this!!!” was a picture of Jasmine Wills wearing what looked like a baby-doll nightgown. A see-through nightgown. Gauzy pink, with a red bra-and-panty set underneath.

“Well?”

“I’m…speechless.”

“You’re going to send it, right? To the tabs? Oh! Send it to your girlfriend at True News.“

“She doesn’t cover–”

“Then tell her to make an exception. Oh, my God! There’s Brock! Tim, pull forward.”

Click. Portia was gone.

Hope

It took a half-dozen tries to get the key-card light to work – long enough that Hope was tempted to practice her electronic lock-picking skills. When the light finally did turn green, she was leaning against the door, handle down, and it flew open under her weight, sending her stumbling inside. She listened for Karl’s laugh and when it didn’t come, felt a twinge of disappointment.

She shouldn’t have been surprised. She’d told him she’d probably have to work late, so she didn’t expect him back. Still, her disappointment smacked of dependence. Karl wasn’t the kind of guy she should count on.

Hope went to toss her purse on the bed, but threw her laptop case instead. Too much on her mind, fretting about how to help Robyn, worrying about her relationship with Karl, fighting the nagging feeling that the two weren’t unrelated. The more she watched her friend spiral downhill, the more anxious she got about where she was heading with Karl.

She kicked off her pumps and squeezed the carpet between her toes, luxuriating in the feel of it, inhaling the scent of…flowers?

There, on the desk, was a bouquet of yellow and purple irises. Hope read the tag. From her mother, hoping her first week of work was going well. It wasn’t exactly a new job – she’d been at True News for four years, and this was her second L.A. work exchange.

She hadn’t planned to return. Los Angeles wasn’t her kind of city, really. But the chance for a six-week stint came right as Hope had been trying to schedule vacation time to visit Robyn, and it seemed like the perfect solution.

They`d been friends since high school, when Hope's private academy had been running a joint fund-raiser with Robyn’s public school, and they’d been assigned to the same committee. Afterward they’d stayed in touch, gradually becoming friends. Then, in Hope’s senior year, when the visions and voices started, she’d had a breakdown and spent her prom night in a mental ward. Robyn had been the only friend who hadn’t slipped away, as if Hope’s problems might be contagious.

Now Hope had a chance to help Robyn with her problem. When she`d come to L.A., she’d expected Karl would take the opportunity to do a “work exchange” of his own in Europe. Instead, he’d joined her. As good as that felt, she couldn’t shake the fear she was getting too used to having him join her on business trips, and that the day he didn’t want to come along, she’d be devastated.

“You’re home early. You should have called.”

She spun as Karl stepped inside. He’d changed since meeting her for lunch, trading designer chinos and a brilliant blue polo for a dark suit that looked like it came from a department store, well below Karl’s usual standards. Not that it mattered. Karl could make Goodwill castoffs look good. But the lowbrow attire was camouflage — Karl’s way of blending into a crowd. The moment he stepped into the room, though, the tie and jacket were off, cast onto the chair like a hair shirt.

“Good hunting?” Hope asked.

“You forgot to lock the deadbolt and chain.”

He kissed the top of her head, cushioning the rebuke. She could feel the chaos waves of worry rolling off him. When Karl settled in a new city, he couldn’t relax until he’d cleared out any other werewolves. Kill Karl Marsten, and a werewolf would instantly seal his reputation, guaranteeing for years to come that others would clear out of his way.

Hope knew that having her there made it worse. She was an easy way to get to him. So if he wanted her triple-locking the doors and taking a taxi to work until he’d finished scouting, she understood. The same way he understood the quirks and issues of a chaos half-demon girlfriend.

As he took off his shoes, she told him about Robyn’s call and Portia Kane’s “invitation.”

“And, apparently, Portia insists I bring my ‘hot boyfriend.’ ”

Karl snorted as he put his shoes aside. Not that he doubted Portia found him attractive. Hope knew his ego was too healthy for that. What he objected to was being called anything as common as “hot.”

“Give it some thought while I grab a shower,” she said. “If you want to get more scouting done instead, that’s fine.”

“If you’re out, I’d rather stay close. I know you wanted to spend time alone with Robyn, though . . .”

“Not much use if Portia’s there.” Hope started unbuttoning her blouse. “In fact, it’d probably be better if you did come, keep Portia occupied, so she doesn’t spend the night ordering Rob around.”

“Using me as a distraction. I should be insulted.”

“You aren’t.”

“True.” He reclined on the bed, arms folded behind his head as he watched her undress. “She was wearing a lovely diamond bracelet the other day. At least ten carats. Platinum setting . . .”

“Don’t you dare.”

“If I’m expected to spend my evening charming a silly little girl, I think I’m entitled to compensation.”

“Oh, you’ll get compensation.”

He plucked the hem of her skirt as she passed to the bathroom.

“It’s a big job. I think I need an advance.”

“And I need a shower.”

“The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”

She paused, as if thinking it over, then lunged, shirt breaking from his grasp as she sprinted for the bathroom. She got the door closed just before he thumped against it, then she quickly fastened the lock. That would slow him down . . . for about ten seconds.

She smiled and tugged off her skirt.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Made to be Broken
Excerpt

Chapter One
Below the belfry, the city sparkled, the late afternoon sun glinting off the skyscrapers, every surface dripping from a brief shower. A spectacular view . . . even through the scope of a sniper's rifle.

A pigeon landed on the ledge beneath the belfry, squawking about the rain. My eye still fixed to the scope, I reached into my pocket and tossed a handful of dried corn into the courtyard below. A flapping of wings told me he'd gone for it. The pigeons were the one drawback to this perch. Fortunately, I'd noticed them when scouting and came prepared. I didn't want a sudden flurry of birds from the belfry telling onlookers exactly where the shot had come from.

The doors below opened onto the quiet side street and at exactly five-thirty, out walked Grant Beecham. A creature of habit, like most people. He was alone. I expected that, but found myself instinctively looking for bodyguards or well-armed friends. I was used to Mafia thugs who knew there was a mark on their heads and never set foot outside alone.

But Beecham had no reason to think his life was in danger. He was just a pharmaceutical company researcher. Yes, he'd suppressed reports of fatalities in a new multiple sclerosis drug study. But his confession came only after evidence was found in an illegal search, so it'd been ruled inadmissible, the case thrown out. He hadn't even been fired; he was too valuable.

Sure, there were devastated families who'd lost loved ones, but this wasn't the Wild West. Injured parties seek financial restitution through the courts, and you take the money and shut up. You don't use your payoff to hire a hitman.

Beecham's car rounded the corner. A Lincoln with a driver to take him to his big house in Forest Hill, maybe with a stop along the way to convince another desperate family that he could provide—under the table and for the right price—the suppressed miracle drug.

I pulled the trigger. The bullet passed through the base of his skull, killing him instantly.

I didn't wait to see him crumple to the sidewalk. Or to watch passersby look over warily, assessing the cut of his suit before deciding he hadn't just fallen down drunk. By the time someone took out a cell phone, I'd be halfway down the belfry stairs.

I moved as quickly and silently as I could. Not easy when the steps were so ancient each one protested under my weight.

Dust whirled in my wake. I was wearing disposable booties, the kind considerate furniture deliverers wear. They'd eliminate prints, but did nothing for the dust reaching my nose and eyes. At my second stifled sneeze, a head popped around the bottom flight. Quinn, aka the Boy Scout—though the latter wasn't used by anyone who wanted to get on his good side.

Beecham was Quinn's job. Vigilante work was the only kind he did, hence the unflattering alternate nom de guerre. Among professional killers, a vigilante—even one as solid as Quinn—is viewed with the same disdain a veteran beat cop has for an idealistic, college-educated young detective. A prissy boy who wants to do a man's job without getting his hands dirty.

At six foot two, with a solid linebacker's physique, square face, stubborn jaw, and piercing eyes, Quinn didn't fit anyone's image of a "prissy boy." But few of the hitmen who scorned him had ever seen him. Like me, Quinn kept to himself, and for good reason. Killing criminals wasn't the only way Quinn pursued justice. He was a federal agent. What branch, I had no idea. I didn't ask.

Most people in my profession would have a problem partnering with a cop, even one moonlighting as a hitman. I didn't. I came from a long line of law-enforcement officers. My life goal had been to join that family tradition. And I had . . . until seven years ago, when I shot a suspect point-blank, made national headlines, and saw my life crash and burn.

As I rounded the last flight, Quinn backed inside. Gaze still fixed on the trash-cluttered courtyard, he unbuttoned his dark overcoat to reveal a suit. I passed him the fake briefcase that housed my takedown rifle. As I tugged off my shoes, he backed in another step and gave me his arm for support. Off with the sneakers, and on with pumps more suited to my slacks and blazer. There was more to our disguises than clothing, but that was all we changed.

I let go of his arm, then slung the leather knapsack with my gear onto my shoulder. Quinn took my hand. We walked quickly through a narrow alley, then slowed to a stroll as we stepped into a paved passage between office towers. At the end, we merged with the commuter crowd heading to the subway.

As we stepped onto the subway stairs, the distant wail of sirens was almost swallowed by the roar of rush-hour traffic.

There are many names for what I do. Want to channel your inner Godfather? Go for hatchet man or hired gun. Prefer an air of legitimacy? Try professional killer or contract killer. Add an air of mystery and intrigue? Use assassin. I like it plain and simple. Hitman. Hitwoman or even hit-person, if one wants to be PC, but if you ask me, "politically correct" and "killer" are two terms never meant to go together.

I moonlight as a hitman to keep my business—a wilderness lodge—open. After the crash of my life seven years ago, the lodge is my lifeline to sanity, and if killing traitors for a small New York crime family keeps it running, then that's fine with me. I know it shouldn't be. But it is.

Quinn doesn't need the money; he needs to scratch the itch that can come with immersing yourself in a justice system that doesn't always see justice done. I exploded on the job and watched my career implode. Quinn found a better way.

I met him six months ago. My mentor, Jack, put together a team to go after a hitman whose foray into serial-killer-hood put us at risk. He'd invited Quinn to keep us abreast of the federal investigation.

Quinn and I had exchanged almost weekly e-mails since. Then, two weeks ago, he said he had a job in Toronto, could use a second pair of hands and eyes, and, knowing I lived somewhere in Ontario, would I be interested.

I'd insisted on taking the shot. I'd been distance shooting since high school and narrowly missed being on the Olympic team. Quinn had started three years ago. When he balked, I'd reminded him that he was risking my safety on his marksmanship. That made him back down.

"Hey, there's the CN Tower," he said as we emerged from the subway. "Earlier it was hidden in the fog."

"Smog."

"I didn't think you got that up here."

"We get everything up here. Except HBO."

He peered up at the tower as we moved away from the commuter crowd. "Nice and clear now, though. Good night to eat in that revolving restaurant."

I made a face. "Overpriced tourist food."

He went quiet. I looked over to see him scratching his chin.

"Unless you want to, of course," I said quickly. "You are a tourist. It might be tough without reservations . . ." I caught his look. "You made reservations."

"Kind of. Yeah."

"Shit. I'm sorry. Really, I'd love to try it. I've just never had the cash to go."

"I should have asked you first. You're the local. I wanted to take you someplace nice, to say, you know . . ."

"Thanks for pulling my hit?"

A sharp laugh. "Yeah. I tried finding a Hallmark. They say they have a card for every occasion, but they seem to have missed that one. I thought we could have a quiet dinner, maybe talk about that thing I mentioned."

"Sure."

When I'd arrived, Quinn had announced he needed to talk to me about something personal. It was almost certainly about where our relationship was heading. Now, even as he mentioned it, my heart thumped double time. With anticipation or dread? I honestly wasn't sure. Fear probably covered it either way.

Last year, Quinn had made it clear he was interested in me. Very clear and very interested. Stoked by the case, I'd reciprocated. He was fun and sexy and we had a lot in common. And, yes, I'll admit it, I'd been flattered. I'm a thirty-three-year-old wilderness lodge proprietor. The closest thing I get to a pass these days is married guys with beer breath cornering me in the boathouse and saying they think I'm "kinda cute."

After the job ended, we had to go our separate ways, so we'd stepped back into friendship.

Months passed and, as much as we communicated, there'd been no whiff of anything but friendship. Maybe I should have been disappointed. But I wasn't. I was almost . . . relieved.

I have an odd relationship with risk. I grew up looking each way twice before crossing the road. Then, after my life-crash, one day I found myself perched at the hatch of an airplane, parachute on my back. Today, I couldn't live without the adrenaline rush of white-water rafting or rappelling down a cliff. But I still look both ways—twice—before crossing. I have tidy boxes for the risk in my life, and Quinn doesn't fit into them.

I like him. I think we could have something. As weird as it sounds, he could be exactly what my life needs. But even now—walking with him, enjoying his company, sneaking peeks and liking what I see—I can't feel what I want to feel. I'm sure it will come. I just don't want to rush into a decision. So I'm praying that whatever he needs to talk about, it isn't that.

We were still in disguise at dinner. That's the downside of socializing with colleagues in this job. You can never just be yourself. Quinn had briefly seen me without a disguise last fall accidentally, but that was no excuse to leave it off now. With Quinn, I wasn't Nadia, I was "Dee." Yes, that was my nom de guerre. I'd have preferred one with a little more flair, but Jack had picked it. Jack didn't do flair.

We'd just stepped inside the base of the CN Tower when Quinn's cell phone buzzed. I wandered over to read one of the displays while he took the call. Likely business—the legitimate kind. He'd arranged the Beecham hit to coincide with a work trip. I wasn't sure that was wise, but trusted he knew what he was doing.

When he was done with his call, we went up the tower, where I was pleasantly surprised to find that the "revolving restaurant" didn't revolve very fast. I don't know what I expected: a merry-go-round? It moved so slowly you didn't notice until you looked up and realized the view had changed. And it was a good thing the motion didn't cause queasiness, because the prices certainly did. After I choked on the thought of paying fourteen dollars for a Caesar salad, Quinn confiscated my menu and read me the choices.

Through the appetizers and into the entrees we talked about our ski seasons, comparing stories and injuries.

"I have to admit," Quinn said. "When I first mentioned getting together, that's what I had in mind. A ski trip. I had a place in Vermont picked out. Even scanned a brochure to e-mail you. Then I chickened out."

"How come?"

He stabbed a pearl onion with his fork, his gaze fixed on his plate. "I guess I took another look at the brochure—couples in hot tubs, couples sipping hot chocolate, couples in front of blazing fires—and it just seemed so . . . couple-ish."

"Which isn't what you had in mind."

"I know I rushed things last time. The job was intense, and that spilled over."

"No kidding, huh?" I gave a small laugh. "Look, I totally understand—"

I broke off as his cell rang again. A murmured apology to me and he pulled it out. A matron at the next table shot me a glare, as if to say I shouldn't tolerate such behavior. Obviously she'd never dated a cop.

"Work," he said as he glanced at the display.

"I'll go to the washroom while you—"

He laid his hand on my arm as I rose. "Sit. Eat while it's warm. If I need to, I'll step outside, but it's probably the same as last time. He can't find a file."

I'd rather have had the excuse to leave for a minute, gather my thoughts, prepare for what was coming. Because I knew now that it wasn't good.

Since we'd met that morning, Quinn hadn't flirted with me, hadn't even given me one of his sexy grins. That was not the Quinn I remembered. I'd thought he was just trying to play it cool until after the job, having been chewed out by Jack last year for acting unprofessional. But now, with his admission about the ski lodge, I knew I was about to get the infamous "Maybe we should just be friends" speech.

I should have been happy. Hadn't I been thinking the same thing? But it still stung. To have a guy be interested, then back off once he got to know me better? I only wish I could say it was the first time that ever happened.

Quinn's brows furrowed as he listened to his call. "What?"

Pause.

"When?"

Pause.

"Goddamn it!"

A furtive look my way, then a slight rise in color as he caught the glower of the woman beside us. He mouthed an apology.

I tried not to eavesdrop, focusing my attention on his free hand, drumming the table. He had square hands, big and broad. Smooth, but with ghosts of calluses and tiny scars, as if he'd worked with them once, maybe teen summers in construction.

He'd stopped drumming now, fingers gone still, tips raised a quarter-inch above the table, as if halted midtap. His fingers curled under, clenching as his voice went brittle before his fingers unfolded and collapsed, palm flat, to the tablecloth.

It took a moment to realize he'd hung up and was watching me, waiting until he had my attention. When I looked over, the crease between his brows was still there, now joined by faint lines at the corners of his mouth.

"You have to go," I said.

He nodded. "It's a case. I'm booked on a flight in two hours."

"Should we get the bill?"

"No, no. We're finishing. I get through security a little faster than the average tourist."

We ate for another five minutes before I said, "So what did you want to talk to me about?"
He moved a mushroom aside. "It wasn't important."

Before I could prod, he launched into the story of getting snowbound driving to a ski hill, and I realized I wasn't getting a better answer. Not tonight.

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Made To Be Broken

Made To Be Broken

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
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More Info
Excerpt

Chapter One
Below the belfry, the city sparkled, the late afternoon sun glinting off the skyscrapers, every surface dripping from a brief shower. A spectacular view . . . even through the scope of a sniper's rifle.

A pigeon landed on the ledge beneath the belfry, squawking about the rain. My eye still fixed to the scope, I reached into my pocket and tossed a handful of dried corn into the courtyard below. A flapping of wings told me he'd gone for it. The pigeons were the one drawback to this perch. Fortunately, I'd noticed them when scouting and came prepared. I didn't want a sudden flurry of birds from the belfry telling onlookers exactly where the shot had come from.

The doors below opened onto the quiet side street and at exactly five-thirty, out walked Grant Beecham. A creature of habit, like most people. He was alone. I expected that, but found myself instinctively looking for bodyguards or well-armed friends. I was used to Mafia thugs who knew there was a mark on their heads and never set foot outside alone.

But Beecham had no reason to think his life was in danger. He was just a pharmaceutical company researcher. Yes, he'd suppressed reports of fatalities in a new multiple sclerosis drug study. But his confession came only after evidence was found in an illegal search, so it'd been ruled inadmissible, the case thrown out. He hadn't even been fired; he was too valuable.

Sure, there were devastated families who'd lost loved ones, but this wasn't the Wild West. Injured parties seek financial restitution through the courts, and you take the money and shut up. You don't use your payoff to hire a hitman.

Beecham's car rounded the corner. A Lincoln with a driver to take him to his big house in Forest Hill, maybe with a stop along the way to convince another desperate family that he could provide—under the table and for the right price—the suppressed miracle drug.

I pulled the trigger. The bullet passed through the base of his skull, killing him instantly.

I didn't wait to see him crumple to the sidewalk. Or to watch passersby look over warily, assessing the cut of his suit before deciding he hadn't just fallen down drunk. By the time someone took out a cell phone, I'd be halfway down the belfry stairs.

I moved as quickly and silently as I could. Not easy when the steps were so ancient each one protested under my weight.

Dust whirled in my wake. I was wearing disposable booties, the kind considerate furniture deliverers wear. They'd eliminate prints, but did nothing for the dust reaching my nose and eyes. At my second stifled sneeze, a head popped around the bottom flight. Quinn, aka the Boy Scout—though the latter wasn't used by anyone who wanted to get on his good side.

Beecham was Quinn's job. Vigilante work was the only kind he did, hence the unflattering alternate nom de guerre. Among professional killers, a vigilante—even one as solid as Quinn—is viewed with the same disdain a veteran beat cop has for an idealistic, college-educated young detective. A prissy boy who wants to do a man's job without getting his hands dirty.

At six foot two, with a solid linebacker's physique, square face, stubborn jaw, and piercing eyes, Quinn didn't fit anyone's image of a "prissy boy." But few of the hitmen who scorned him had ever seen him. Like me, Quinn kept to himself, and for good reason. Killing criminals wasn't the only way Quinn pursued justice. He was a federal agent. What branch, I had no idea. I didn't ask.

Most people in my profession would have a problem partnering with a cop, even one moonlighting as a hitman. I didn't. I came from a long line of law-enforcement officers. My life goal had been to join that family tradition. And I had . . . until seven years ago, when I shot a suspect point-blank, made national headlines, and saw my life crash and burn.

As I rounded the last flight, Quinn backed inside. Gaze still fixed on the trash-cluttered courtyard, he unbuttoned his dark overcoat to reveal a suit. I passed him the fake briefcase that housed my takedown rifle. As I tugged off my shoes, he backed in another step and gave me his arm for support. Off with the sneakers, and on with pumps more suited to my slacks and blazer. There was more to our disguises than clothing, but that was all we changed.

I let go of his arm, then slung the leather knapsack with my gear onto my shoulder. Quinn took my hand. We walked quickly through a narrow alley, then slowed to a stroll as we stepped into a paved passage between office towers. At the end, we merged with the commuter crowd heading to the subway.

As we stepped onto the subway stairs, the distant wail of sirens was almost swallowed by the roar of rush-hour traffic.

There are many names for what I do. Want to channel your inner Godfather? Go for hatchet man or hired gun. Prefer an air of legitimacy? Try professional killer or contract killer. Add an air of mystery and intrigue? Use assassin. I like it plain and simple. Hitman. Hitwoman or even hit-person, if one wants to be PC, but if you ask me, "politically correct" and "killer" are two terms never meant to go together.

I moonlight as a hitman to keep my business—a wilderness lodge—open. After the crash of my life seven years ago, the lodge is my lifeline to sanity, and if killing traitors for a small New York crime family keeps it running, then that's fine with me. I know it shouldn't be. But it is.

Quinn doesn't need the money; he needs to scratch the itch that can come with immersing yourself in a justice system that doesn't always see justice done. I exploded on the job and watched my career implode. Quinn found a better way.

I met him six months ago. My mentor, Jack, put together a team to go after a hitman whose foray into serial-killer-hood put us at risk. He'd invited Quinn to keep us abreast of the federal investigation.

Quinn and I had exchanged almost weekly e-mails since. Then, two weeks ago, he said he had a job in Toronto, could use a second pair of hands and eyes, and, knowing I lived somewhere in Ontario, would I be interested.

I'd insisted on taking the shot. I'd been distance shooting since high school and narrowly missed being on the Olympic team. Quinn had started three years ago. When he balked, I'd reminded him that he was risking my safety on his marksmanship. That made him back down.

"Hey, there's the CN Tower," he said as we emerged from the subway. "Earlier it was hidden in the fog."

"Smog."

"I didn't think you got that up here."

"We get everything up here. Except HBO."

He peered up at the tower as we moved away from the commuter crowd. "Nice and clear now, though. Good night to eat in that revolving restaurant."

I made a face. "Overpriced tourist food."

He went quiet. I looked over to see him scratching his chin.

"Unless you want to, of course," I said quickly. "You are a tourist. It might be tough without reservations . . ." I caught his look. "You made reservations."

"Kind of. Yeah."

"Shit. I'm sorry. Really, I'd love to try it. I've just never had the cash to go."

"I should have asked you first. You're the local. I wanted to take you someplace nice, to say, you know . . ."

"Thanks for pulling my hit?"

A sharp laugh. "Yeah. I tried finding a Hallmark. They say they have a card for every occasion, but they seem to have missed that one. I thought we could have a quiet dinner, maybe talk about that thing I mentioned."

"Sure."

When I'd arrived, Quinn had announced he needed to talk to me about something personal. It was almost certainly about where our relationship was heading. Now, even as he mentioned it, my heart thumped double time. With anticipation or dread? I honestly wasn't sure. Fear probably covered it either way.

Last year, Quinn had made it clear he was interested in me. Very clear and very interested. Stoked by the case, I'd reciprocated. He was fun and sexy and we had a lot in common. And, yes, I'll admit it, I'd been flattered. I'm a thirty-three-year-old wilderness lodge proprietor. The closest thing I get to a pass these days is married guys with beer breath cornering me in the boathouse and saying they think I'm "kinda cute."

After the job ended, we had to go our separate ways, so we'd stepped back into friendship.

Months passed and, as much as we communicated, there'd been no whiff of anything but friendship. Maybe I should have been disappointed. But I wasn't. I was almost . . . relieved.

I have an odd relationship with risk. I grew up looking each way twice before crossing the road. Then, after my life-crash, one day I found myself perched at the hatch of an airplane, parachute on my back. Today, I couldn't live without the adrenaline rush of white-water rafting or rappelling down a cliff. But I still look both ways—twice—before crossing. I have tidy boxes for the risk in my life, and Quinn doesn't fit into them.

I like him. I think we could have something. As weird as it sounds, he could be exactly what my life needs. But even now—walking with him, enjoying his company, sneaking peeks and liking what I see—I can't feel what I want to feel. I'm sure it will come. I just don't want to rush into a decision. So I'm praying that whatever he needs to talk about, it isn't that.

We were still in disguise at dinner. That's the downside of socializing with colleagues in this job. You can never just be yourself. Quinn had briefly seen me without a disguise last fall accidentally, but that was no excuse to leave it off now. With Quinn, I wasn't Nadia, I was "Dee." Yes, that was my nom de guerre. I'd have preferred one with a little more flair, but Jack had picked it. Jack didn't do flair.

We'd just stepped inside the base of the CN Tower when Quinn's cell phone buzzed. I wandered over to read one of the displays while he took the call. Likely business—the legitimate kind. He'd arranged the Beecham hit to coincide with a work trip. I wasn't sure that was wise, but trusted he knew what he was doing.

When he was done with his call, we went up the tower, where I was pleasantly surprised to find that the "revolving restaurant" didn't revolve very fast. I don't know what I expected: a merry-go-round? It moved so slowly you didn't notice until you looked up and realized the view had changed. And it was a good thing the motion didn't cause queasiness, because the prices certainly did. After I choked on the thought of paying fourteen dollars for a Caesar salad, Quinn confiscated my menu and read me the choices.

Through the appetizers and into the entrees we talked about our ski seasons, comparing stories and injuries.

"I have to admit," Quinn said. "When I first mentioned getting together, that's what I had in mind. A ski trip. I had a place in Vermont picked out. Even scanned a brochure to e-mail you. Then I chickened out."

"How come?"

He stabbed a pearl onion with his fork, his gaze fixed on his plate. "I guess I took another look at the brochure—couples in hot tubs, couples sipping hot chocolate, couples in front of blazing fires—and it just seemed so . . . couple-ish."

"Which isn't what you had in mind."

"I know I rushed things last time. The job was intense, and that spilled over."

"No kidding, huh?" I gave a small laugh. "Look, I totally understand—"

I broke off as his cell rang again. A murmured apology to me and he pulled it out. A matron at the next table shot me a glare, as if to say I shouldn't tolerate such behavior. Obviously she'd never dated a cop.

"Work," he said as he glanced at the display.

"I'll go to the washroom while you—"

He laid his hand on my arm as I rose. "Sit. Eat while it's warm. If I need to, I'll step outside, but it's probably the same as last time. He can't find a file."

I'd rather have had the excuse to leave for a minute, gather my thoughts, prepare for what was coming. Because I knew now that it wasn't good.

Since we'd met that morning, Quinn hadn't flirted with me, hadn't even given me one of his sexy grins. That was not the Quinn I remembered. I'd thought he was just trying to play it cool until after the job, having been chewed out by Jack last year for acting unprofessional. But now, with his admission about the ski lodge, I knew I was about to get the infamous "Maybe we should just be friends" speech.

I should have been happy. Hadn't I been thinking the same thing? But it still stung. To have a guy be interested, then back off once he got to know me better? I only wish I could say it was the first time that ever happened.

Quinn's brows furrowed as he listened to his call. "What?"

Pause.

"When?"

Pause.

"Goddamn it!"

A furtive look my way, then a slight rise in color as he caught the glower of the woman beside us. He mouthed an apology.

I tried not to eavesdrop, focusing my attention on his free hand, drumming the table. He had square hands, big and broad. Smooth, but with ghosts of calluses and tiny scars, as if he'd worked with them once, maybe teen summers in construction.

He'd stopped drumming now, fingers gone still, tips raised a quarter-inch above the table, as if halted midtap. His fingers curled under, clenching as his voice went brittle before his fingers unfolded and collapsed, palm flat, to the tablecloth.

It took a moment to realize he'd hung up and was watching me, waiting until he had my attention. When I looked over, the crease between his brows was still there, now joined by faint lines at the corners of his mouth.

"You have to go," I said.

He nodded. "It's a case. I'm booked on a flight in two hours."

"Should we get the bill?"

"No, no. We're finishing. I get through security a little faster than the average tourist."

We ate for another five minutes before I said, "So what did you want to talk to me about?"
He moved a mushroom aside. "It wasn't important."

Before I could prod, he launched into the story of getting snowbound driving to a ski hill, and I realized I wasn't getting a better answer. Not tonight.

close this panel
Men of the Otherworld
Excerpt

"Antonio." Dominic walked to the table and plunked down a bottle of cheap champagne. "I've decided to name him Antonio."

Malcolm sipped his beer as a chorus of "good choice" rose up from the others. Wally and Raymond Santos glanced Malcolm's way, as if seeking permission to congratulate Dominic, but Malcolm just kept drinking and let them make up their own minds. After a moment, Wally joined in with a raised glass to the new father, while sixteen-year-old Raymond busied himself cleaning out a thumbnail.

Dominic paused behind the head chair. Billy Koenig scrambled out of it, making a quick joke about keeping it warm for him. Dominic thudded into the chair and dropped his burly arms onto the table so hard Malcolm's beer sloshed. Typical Dominic — always throwing his weight around, as if he was already Pack Alpha, not just heir apparent.

"A drink for Antonio," Dominic thundered, his voice reverberating through the dingy bar. He turned to the owner, across the room, counting bottles. "Vinnie! Glasses!"

Waiting tables certainly wasn't Vincent's job, but he hopped to it. As Vincent approached, Malcolm held up his empty mug. Vincent paused, but only for a second, then took Malcolm's glass. Dominic allowed himself only a split-second scowl, but it was enough for Malcolm. It was easy to establish dominance when you were bigger than everyone else. Doing it without that advantage was the real accomplishment.

Once the glasses were filled and distributed, Dominic lifted his. "To fatherhood."

Everyone clinked glasses.

"Now, how about a wager?" Dominic boomed. "Take bets on who'll be the next new father. I'll pick Malcolm." A quick grin. "God knows, he's been trying hard enough."

Malcolm gritted his teeth as the others laughed and called out good-natured jabs. It was his own damned fault. Malcolm had meant to keep his hopes secret until he could show off the goods, but two years ago, sitting around this very table listening to Dominic brag about his sons, he'd announced a pending arrival of his own . . . only to discover a month later, when the child was born, that it wasn't his. Since then, everyone knew he'd been trying, and hadn't even sired a daughter.That was his father's fault — difficulty siring children was one family blight Malcolm couldn't overcome through sheer strength of will.

He had only to look at his father — sitting at the next table with the Alpha, Emilio — to see the second family blight, a cane resting beside his father's chair. He bristled, as he always did, at this physical proof of Edward's weakness. Not just weakness. Cowardice.

As a Danvers, Edward had been expected to fight for Alphahood, but when the opportunity arose, he'd somehow managed to cripple his leg. No one was quite sure how it had happened — the story changed with the teller — but whatever the cause, the injury permanently took him out of the line of succession. As a mediocre fighter, Edward had stood no chance of winning an Alpha match, so he'd intentionally taken himself out of the race. Everyone in the Pack knew it.

Malcolm had spent his life wiggling out from under the shadow of his father's cowardice. And he had. After Dominic, he was now the best fighter in the Pack, and among the mutts, his reputation for ruthlessness surpassed that of every other Pack werewolf. But when his father looked over, there was no pride in his face. Just a lifting of his chin, listening in on the younger men's conversation, making sure Malcolm wasn't saying anything to embarrass him.

As they drank the champagne, the cleaning girl stopped by to wipe off their table. She murmured something that was probably meant to be "excuse me," but her thick accent and whispered voice rendered the words unintelligible.

The girl didn't speak more than a dozen words of English. Malcolm figured the only reason Vincent had hired her was because he could pay her half what he'd pay anyone else, her being a Jap and all. Still, it had to be bad for business. How many ex-GIs came in here, saw her, and turned around and left? Malcolm wasn't sure whether the girl really was Japanese, but it didn't matter. People saw slanted eyes and they saw Pearl Harbor, and five years wasn't enough to make anyone forget.

The girl paused at Malcolm's side and lowered her head. Wally grinned and kicked him under the chair. Malcolm leaned back to let the girl wipe his place. Unlike the quick swipe she'd given the others, she made sure to get every spot, including a few that'd probably been there for weeks.

When the girl finished, she scurried off and intercepted Vincent with Malcolm's fresh beer. She took it and returned to the table. First she wiped a spot for the mug, then she wiped off the mug itself, and finally she laid it before him like a ceremonial chalice. As Malcolm grunted his thanks, snickers raced up and down the table.

The girl pointed to the nearly empty bowl of peanuts nearest him.

"Sure," he said. "Fill it up."

When she scampered off with the bowl, Wally hooted. "That girl has it bad, Mal. Gets worse every time we come here."

Malcolm only gulped his beer.

"Hey, come on, Mal. Think about it. She waits on you like that in public? Imagine what she'd do for you in private."

Another chorus of snickers.

"Not my type," Malcolm muttered.

Dominic leaned forward. "Because she's Japanese? Nothing wrong with that. From what I hear, they're damned eager to please, if you know what I mean."

Billy nodded. "Buddy of mine at work has one of them for a girlfriend, on the side, of course, and you wouldn't believe the stories he tells. Ever heard of geishas? All their girls learn some of that shit, and they'll do anything to make a guy happy. Nothing's too kinky —"

Dominic cut him short as the girl approached.

"What?" Billy hissed. "She doesn't understand English."

"Doesn't matter," Dominic murmured.

When she was gone, they started up again, regaling Malcolm with tales of Asian women.

"And," Dominic said as they finished, "unless my nose is wrong, there might be a bonus."

"Just what I need," Malcolm said. "A slant-eyed Jap brat."

His father looked over sharply, frowning his disapproval.

Billy snickered. "You're going to get a talking-to later, Mal."

Malcolm snorted and pretended it didn't matter. Edward wouldn't give him a "talking-to." That implied anger, and Edward never showed that much emotion with his son. He'd calmly speak to him about stereotypes and prejudices, and counsel him to make better choices with his opinions and his language, all the while clearly doubtful that his words were having any impact. Malcolm was a fighter, not a thinker . . . to Edward's everlasting disappointment.

"You should give it a shot, Mal," Dominic said. "Don't worry about who the mother is. Look at Ross Werner. His momma was black and you can hardly tell. With us, it's the male blood that counts. Women . . ." He shrugged. "Just the vehicle. At most you might get a kid with dark hair and dark eyes, but yours are dark enough anyway. Wouldn't matter. And . . ." He leaned closer. "You never know. A little foreign matter in the mix might be just what your boys need to get the job done."

Malcolm gritted his teeth. Dominic always sounded so sincere, like a big brother who really wanted to help, but Malcolm knew he'd like nothing better than to see Malcolm humiliate himself by presenting a half-breed baby to the Pack.

As the night wore on, though, and Malcolm drank more beer, he couldn't stop thinking about what Dominic had said. Mixing up the bloodline might help. He'd never tried that. And Ross's case did suggest the foreign blood wouldn't show, which was all that mattered.

The girl was in the fertile stage of her cycle, and she obviously wanted him. An easy conquest. Plus, if Asian women were as submissive as the others said . . . Malcolm smiled. Submissive was good. Especially if it came from a girl who was in no position to complain if things got out of hand.

By the time the group settled the bill, Malcolm had made up his mind. He sent the others on without him, then cornered the girl as she came out of the back storage room. She started, seeing him there, then dropped her gaze and made no move to get past him.

"Been a long night," he said. "Bet you could use a drink."

When she didn't answer, he pantomimed drinking, then pointed from her to himself. "Drink. You. Me."

"I—I work," she said. "Done soon."

"No, babe, you're done now. Let me handle Vinnie."

He reached for her apron and snapped it off. She gave a shy little smile, then nodded.

"Get drink," she said. "For you."

She took his hand. Hers was tiny, almost birdlike. He wondered how hard he'd need to squeeze to hear those thin bones snap like twigs. Not very hard, he'd wager.

He turned to let her lead him into the bar, but she stopped at a locked door a few feet down and took out a key.

"Room," she said, gaze still lowered. "Upstairs. My room. Yes?"

He smiled down at the girl. "Sure, babe. Whatever you want."

Malcolm sat in a tiny room, empty except for his chair and a sleeping mat. A few candles cast a wavering, sickly light that lined the room with shadows. When the girl went to get his drink, he'd flicked the light switch, but nothing had happened.

That cheap bastard Vincent probably cut off the electricity when he let the girl take the room. Maybe, if the girl was as good as the others claimed she'd be, he'd see about "persuading" Vincent to spring for lights and heat up here. Wouldn't be any inconvenience to him, and the girl sure would be grateful. She'd leave the welcome mat out for anytime he felt like coming back.

The girl slipped from the back room. She'd changed out of her work clothes and into a white cotton robe with an embroidered belt. Her bare feet seemed to glide across the floor. Tiny feet, like the rest of her, slender and hesitant, as graceful and defenseless as a doe. Pretty as one, too. Now that he'd looked past his prejudice, he had to admit she was damned pretty, especially in that white robe, holding a tray like the offering of some virgin priestess. When she bowed before him, the liquid in the glass didn't so much as ripple. He peered at it. The drink was amber, like beer, but clear and . . . steaming.

"Tea?" he said, lip curling. "I don't drink —"

"No, no tea," she said quickly. "Special drink. For you. Make —" A meaningful look at the sleeping pad.
"Make good."

"Make me good?" He started to rise. "I don't need any damned drink to make me good."

"No, no. Please." She backed away, gaze downcast. "Not you. You good. Drink make me good. For you. Make you . . ." She struggled for the word. "Feel better. Make it feel better. For you."

She babbled on some more, waving at the mat, but he got the gist of it. The drink was supposed to make the sex better. He'd heard of things like that, and as the others had said, these girls were supposed to know all there was to know about pleasing a man. This must be one of their tricks.

Malcolm took the drink and sniffed it. Herbs. His werewolf nose didn't detect any taint of anything noxious. He took a sip. Fire burned down his throat, like hundred-proof whiskey.

He closed his eyes and shook himself. The heat spread to his groin and he smiled. Not like he needed the help, but sure, why not. He took a bigger sip.

"Yes?" the girl said.

He looked up to see that she'd unfastened her belt. He could see a swath of pale skin running from her throat, down between her small breasts, over her flat stomach, to the dark thatch below. His cock jumped and he raised the glass in salute. Another sip and she let the robe fall off one shoulder. A third sip, and she dipped the other shoulder, and the robe slid down her body to pool at her feet. For a moment, she stood before him, naked and pale in the wavering candlelight. Then, without a word, she knelt and reached for his zipper.

Malcolm rolled over. A moment's sleep-fog of thinking Why am I lying on the floor? then he remembered and smiled. Whatever foreign hoodoo that girl had put into his drink, it was something else. He closed his eyes and sighed, the tip of his tongue sliding between his teeth as he stretched. Shit, he hurt, and it had nothing to do with sleeping on the floor.

After all those things he'd been thinking in the bar, about what he could do to a little slip of a girl like this, he hadn't even tried. Couldn't be bothered. He'd just laid back and let her work her magic. He'd roused himself for a bit of energetic thrusting, but that'd been the extent of his participation. She'd done all the work.

And work she had. Gave him three damned fine rides . . . maybe even four — he'd been getting hazy near the end. But three times was bragging rights enough. He rolled onto his back and grinned.

Whatever was in that drink was some powerful stuff . . . and so was the girl. Masterful, but never dominant, always letting him know he was in charge. After the second time — or was it the third? — he'd thought he was down, but she'd managed a revival, rubbing, licking, cajoling . . . begging. He felt a fresh surge and leaned back, savoring the memory until he was hard again. Then he rolled over for another go . . . and found himself alone.

Malcolm grunted and lifted his head. The simple movement felt like tumbling headfirst out of a tree. He steadied himself. When the world stopped whirling, he opened his eyes and peered around the dark room. Where was that girl? Helluva time to take a piss.

A voice wafted in from the adjacent room. A singsong voice. He chuckled. Singing while she sat on the john — guess she was still feeling pretty good, too. Maybe she was cleaning up for the next round. Better give her some time; there'd be a lot to clean up. As he lay down, a second voice joined the first. He blinked. A radio or record player? But if there was no electricity up here . . .

Malcolm pushed himself up again, so fast this time that he almost blacked out. He wobbled to his feet and had to rest a moment to get his bearings. His first step nearly sent his legs skidding out from under him like a newborn fawn's. He'd been hung over worse than this, though. Mind over matter, as with everything else in life. If you have the guts and the will, you can do anything.

He closed his eyes and ordered his muscles to obey. Still, it was slow going. His head pounded, and every fiber of his body urged him to lie back down and sleep it off.

Finally, he made it to the wall, then inched around to the door. When he reached it, he peered around the corner. The first thing he saw was the wallpaper. Strange white wallpaper with black geometric shapes. He blinked. No, not wallpaper. Someone had drawn on the walls. Drawn . . . symbols.

A smell wafted out. Something burning, giving off a sweetish odor so faint even his nose could barely detect it. The voices started up again. Singing, but with no tune. Chanting.

There, across the room, was the girl, sitting on a high stool, naked. But she looked . . . different. There were circles drawn around her breasts and stomach, but that wasn't what gave him a start. It was the way she sat, chin high, gaze steady, her poise exuding confidence, no sign of the shy girl he'd just bedded.

The girl's lips were still. She wasn't the one chanting. It was the two women in front of her, their backs to him, one white-haired, one dark. The white-haired one had her head bowed. The other swung a pendulum in front of the girl's stomach. The girl said something and the dark-haired woman snapped at her. The white-haired woman murmured a few words and the girl sighed, then said something that made both women laugh. The old woman patted the girl's bare knee and they started chanting again.

As Malcolm watched, his legs began to tremble, begging him to go lie back down. When he resisted, the room went hazy, and he seemed to float there, the chanting filling his head, lifting him up, symbols swirling around him . . .

A soft growl and he shook the sensation off. Goddamn that drink. First a killer hangover, now hallucinations. That's what this was — a dream or hallucination, caused by the drink. Had to be. His mind set, he stumbled back to the mat and crashed into sleep.

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Missing
Excerpt

Reeve’s End is the kind of town every kid can’t wait to escape. Each summer, a dozen kids leave and at least a quarter never come back. I don’t blame them—I’ll do the same in another year. We thought it was just something that happened in towns like ours.
We were wrong.
"Twenty dollars an hour," I say to the guy who’s stopped me as I head for Doc Southcott’s. I know his name. When your high school has only two hundred kids, you can’t even pretend you don’t. But from his expression, you’d think I’ve clearly forgotten him. Forgotten who he is, at least.
   I lean against the crumbling brickwork. "You asked if I can help boost your math grade. The answer is yes. For twenty dollars an hour." 
   "But . . ."
   "I know, Garrett. You expected I’d do it for the pleasure of your company. That’s what you’re used to—girls jumping at the chance to spend time with you. You’re a decent guy, though, so I’ll warn that it’s not so much you they’re after as a one-way ticket out of Reeve’s End. Preferably with a cute boy who’ll earn a football scholarship . . . as long as he can get the grades for college. Which is why you’re here."
   "Uh . . ."
   I sigh and look down the road. There’s nothing to see. Pothole-ridden streets. Rust-plagued pickups. Even the mutt tied outside the Dollar Barn gazes at the fog-shrouded Appalachians as if dreaming of better.
   I turn back to Garrett. "I’m happy to help. But you’re not the only one who wants out, and college is expensive."
   "Not for you. With your grades, you’re guaranteed a full ride."
   "Nothing is guaranteed. And I doubt I’ll get a full ride for my post-grad."
   "Med school?" He glances at Doc Southcott’s office. "You’re not serious about that."
   "Are you serious about a football scholarship?"
   "Hell, yeah. It’s just . . . med school?"
   Kids from Reeve’s End don’t go to med school. Especially those like me, who even here would be from the wrong side of the tracks . . . if Reeve’s End had tracks. Sometimes I figure the train purposely diverted around us for the same reason we don’t have buses or taxis—so it’s harder to escape.
   Tutoring won’t get me through med school. Neither will working for Doc Southcott. But I’ve got a plan, and every penny counts. It’s always counted.
   "You have your dreams, Garrett, and I have mine. Yours will cost twenty bucks an hour. If you put in the effort, I can bring you up to a B. And the bonus to paying me? You won’t need to flirt to win my help."
   He shakes his head. "You’re a strange girl, Winter Crane."
   "No, I’m just strange for Reeve’s End. So, do we have a deal? I’ve got one tutor slot open, which will fill in another week, when kids finally admit midterms are coming."
   He agrees, still looking confused.
   "Tomorrow, after school at the library," I say. "Payment in advance."

I have a short shift at the doc’s that day. Mrs. Southcott has managed to convince her husband to take an extended long-weekend vacation, leaving this afternoon. I tried to argue that I could do office work while they’re gone, but apparently she figures Doc Southcott isn’t the only one overdue for time off.
   I head to the trailer park. My official address, even if I spend as little time there as possible. Mom died when I was seven. My sister left last year. It’s just me and Bert now. He prefers Rob, but Bert better suits a guy who traded an engineering career in the city for a string of crap jobs that pay just enough to keep him in bourbon. He lost the right to be called Dad when he decided I was a burden to be borne and not gladly.
   I pass our trailer and duck into the forest. My real home is out there—an abandoned shack that’s far more habitable than our trailer.
   Thick forest leads from the town to the foothills, and what used to be a good source of income back when the local coal mine operated. Shitty work—old-timers still cough black phlegm decades later. But that doesn’t stop them from reminiscing as if they’d had cushy office jobs. There was money then. Good and steady money. Then the mine closed and the town emptied. Those who stayed did so because they had no place else to go . . . or no place else would have them.
   My shack is nearly a mile in. That’s a serious hike through dense forest, but it means I don’t need to worry about local kids using my cabin for parties. Hunters do stumble over it in season—and out of season, Reeve’s End not being a place where people pay attention to laws if they interfere with putting food on the table.
   I check my boundary thread. One section is slack, as if something pushed against it and then withdrew. Humans barrel through without noticing, so I’m guessing this was a deer. Or so I hope, because the alternative is a black bear or coyote or, worse, one of the feral dogs that have been giving me trouble.
   I tighten the thread and duck under. My shack is exactly that—a dilapidated wooden structure maybe eight feet square. It’s empty inside except for a rickety chair near the wall. I pry up a loose floorboard and remove my gear. Spread my carpet. Pour a cup of water. Set aside my sleeping bag and lantern. Home sweet home.
   I write up a lab experiment while the light is good. Then I go check my snares, the bow over my shoulder doubling my chance to add meat to my ramen noodles. I forage, too, but it’s the hunting that marks me as a girl who lives in a place like Reeve’s End, as I discovered when a scholarship sent me to science camp in Lexington. Some city girls must hunt, but you wouldn’t think so from my fellow students’ expressions when I told them how I got my ace dissection skills.
   "Aren’t there supermarkets where you live?" one girl asked.
   Well, no. Reeve’s End only has a grocery and a small one at that. But food costs money, and as much as possible, money is for my savings account. At least I know where my meat comes from, which is more than I can say for those kids.
   I’m drawing near the second snare when I notice something white lying beside it. I inhale, hoping it’s not a skunk—polecat in these parts. But it’s just white. Shit. I hope I haven’t trapped someone’s cat.
   I jog over to see . . . a sneaker?
   I peer at the surrounding forest, expecting a prank. My snares are far from the trails, and even if someone stumbled on one, the trap is hardly life-threatening. Yet from the looks of the flattened ground cover, this person fought hard to get free.
I examine the shoe. If the mate were here, I’d take it. At size eleven, it wouldn’t fit me, but it’s a nearly new Air Jordan, which I could sell for at least fifty bucks. I turn the shoe over.
   That’s when I see the blood. Then I spot a red handprint on a sapling, where he must have righted himself after the trap. I figure "he" given the size of the shoe. That shoe also means he’s not from Reeve’s End, where wearing three-hundred-dollar sneakers would be the equivalent of riding to school in a chauffeured Escalade. 
   I follow his trail for a bit. Mostly I’m just curious. But as I track him, I start to worry. He’s like an injured black bear, staggering and stumbling and mowing down everything in his path. Wounded and lost in what must have seemed endless wilderness.
   I should try to find him. It’s inconvenient, but it’ll be a hell of a lot more inconvenient when some hunter finds his body and I suffer the guilt of knowing I might have been able to help.
   I continue tracking him for close to a mile. That’s when I hear the distant growls of feral dogs.

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No Humans Involved
Excerpt

I

Brendan struggled to stay awake. A tough battle–far tougher than it should have been under the circumstances.

They'd approached him behind a bank, its parking lot empty as evening turned to night. He'd been cutting through to the shelter, hoping it would still have meals. Hot meals would be too much to hope for at that hour, but he'd settle for free.

The bank had erected a fence between itself and the shelter to stem the flow of kids taking the shortcut from the bus stop. Brendan had been halfway up when the woman had hailed him. Fearing trouble, he'd only climbed faster, until she'd laid a hand on his calf and he'd turned to see not cops, but a middle-aged couple–well-dressed professional types.

They'd told him some story about losing their son to the streets and devoting their lives to helping other kids. Bullshit, of course. In real life, everyone wanted something. Despite their sincere smiles and concerned eyes, he'd decided that what they wanted was sex. And, as long as they were willing to pay for it, that was okay with him.

It wouldn't be the first trick he'd turned. He'd briefly teamed up with a kid from the shelter, until Ricky had found a better-looking partner. Brendan should have taken this as a sign. If he wasn't good-looking enough to be a whore in L.A. he sure as hell wasn't going to make it as a movie star. But it was too late to go home now. Too late to admit he didn't have what it took. Too hard to face everyone who'd told him so.

He did have talent. Won the top role in every school play. Got a job at the summer theater three years running. Did two TV commercials for local businesses. So, at sixteen, tired of his parents telling him to go to college first, he'd taken his savings and come to L.A.

Now the money was gone and he'd found no decent way to earn more, and if this couple wanted what he figured they wanted, that was fine by him. They had kind faces. Maybe in Hollywood that didn't count for shit, but where he'd come from it meant something.

They'd driven him to their home in Brentwood. He'd recognized the neighborhood from a "Star Tours" bus trip he'd taken when he first arrived. He'd sat in the back of their SUV, peering out the tinted windows into the night, watching the fabled neighborhood pass. They'd pulled into the garage of a modest-looking house, then led him inside. They'd offered food, but he'd claimed he wasn't hungry, despite his rumbling stomach. He might be naive, but he knew better than to accept food or drink.

When they'd taken him downstairs, through a TV room into a guest bedroom, he'd been certain this was where the situation would change. But they'd only turned on the lights, pointed out the adjoining washroom and said they'd see him in the morning. They hadn't even closed the door, but left it ajar, so he wouldn't feel locked in.

Now, as he fought the urge to sleep, footsteps sounded on the stairs. The woman's voice, sharp with an accent. Then the man's. Then another man's. And another . . .

Oh, shit.

Heart hammering, he tried to rouse himself. Why was he so tired? Goddamn it, he had to make a break for it, before he found himself in the middle of a gang bang or–

Outside, in the TV room, the woman offered refreshments. Two of the men asked for wine, the third accepted water. Then their voices settled into one place, as if they were sitting.

Wine and conversation as a prelude to sex games with a teenage boy?

Brendan strained to make out their words. They were talking about books. "Texts" as they called them, tossing around words like belief and ritual, debating the different translated meanings of Hebrew and Latin versions.

Latin. That's what the woman had been speaking earlier. As he'd been getting into their car, she had been saying something to the man in another language, and with her accent, Brendan had figured she was reverting to her mother tongue to relay a private message. The language, though, had sounded familiar. Now he knew why. As a Christmas and Easter Catholic, he'd heard enough Latin.

Now these people were discussing religious texts, and that couldn't be a coincidence. The couple had said they wanted to help, as penance for their mistakes with their son. Good Samaritans.

"–too old," one man was saying, his voice rising enough for Brendan to hear him easily. "All of our success has been with kids much younger, and I don't understand why we need to change that now."

"We aren't changing," another man said. "We're expanding and experimenting. There's a limited supply of younger children out there and it's difficult getting access to them. If we can adjust the procedure to work successfully with teens, we open the door to limitless possibilities."

"Don's right." The woman again. "One or two a year isn't enough, not for the scale we . . ."

Her voice dropped soothingly until, once again, Brendan could only catch the odd word.

He couldn't blame them for setting their sights on children. By his age, most street kids had no interest in "rescue." They were too immersed in the life to accept help. But he would. Drugs weren't a problem–he'd never been able to afford them. They could spout all the Bible verses they wanted and he'd smile and agree if it meant getting on a bus home. He could tell his parents he hadn't failed; he'd just had a religious experience and had changed his mind.

He closed his eyes and pictured himself walking up his drive, imagined his mother's face, his little sister's squeals, his father's expression–stern but relieved.

The conversation outside his door seemed to have turned to a heated debate on the nature of suffering. Yeah, he thought with a chuckle, definitely Catholic. From what he could make out, it sounded a hell of a lot like a conversation between two Goths he'd overheard last week.

Morbid. The word popped into his head and he turned it over in his mind. A cool word. Described Goths and some religious types alike–that fixation with death and suffering.

In the room beyond, a male voice had picked up volume again.

"–Romans used crucifixion not only because it was publicly humiliating, but for the degree of suffering inflicted. With the weight of the body pulling down, breathing becomes difficult, and the condemned could hang for days, slowly suffocating."

"True, but according to accounts of the witch trials, burning was the worst way to die. If you keep the person from dying from smoke inhalation, they can live a surprisingly long time, and suffer unimaginable pain."

Brendan shivered. Okay, that went beyond morbid. Maybe these weren't mainstream religious do-gooders, but some kind of fanatical sect. Like the Scientologists or something. Most religious people he knew were good folks, but there were wackos. As much as he wanted to go home, he wouldn't put up with any kind of sick shit. He should get up, go in there, maybe tell them he'd changed his mind. But he was so tired.

The voices had stopped. Good. He'd rest for a few more minutes, then sneak out–

The door opened. In walked the man and woman, followed by three others: a younger woman, a balding man and a white-haired one.

"Hello, Brendan," said the woman.

Brendan struggled to his feet. "I want to leave."

The woman nodded. Then she stepped forward, lifted her hand to her mouth and blew. A cloud of white dust flew into Brendan's face. He tried to cough, but only wheezed. She started speaking in Latin again and his knees gave way. The other two men rushed to grab him, each taking an arm, their grips gentle as they helped him to his feet.

The men lifted his arms around their shoulders. His eyelids flagged and closed. His feet dragged across the floor as they took him into a second, smaller room. The men exchanged words, then lowered him to the floor. A cold, hard floor.

He opened his eyes. There, from high above, a dog stared down at him. A terrier, like his sister's dog. But there was something wrong . . .

Legs. It didn't have any legs. Just a torso and a head perched on the edge of an overhang, watching him.

Hallucinating.

Drugged?

He should care–knew he should care–but he couldn't work up the energy. He squeezed his eyes shut and huddled there, too weak to even think. He heard them talking and he could tell they were speaking English, but deciphering the meaning of the words required too much energy, so he just listened to the sound and let it lull him.

Liquid splashed onto his back, seeping through his shirt. Cold and wet and stinking of something he should recognize. Then, as he was about to drift off, his wandering brain identified the smell.

Gasoline.

He snapped awake, panicked, telling his arms and legs to move, his mouth to scream, but nothing obeyed. He cracked open his eyes just enough to see the people filing from the room. The woman stopped in front of him and bent. Her smiling lips parted, saying something reassuring. Then she struck the match.

JAIME VEGAS, CENTER STAGE

One drawback to being onstage for most of your life is that eventually you forget how to act when you're off it. Not that it matters. In such a life, you're never really offstage. Even walking from your bedroom to the kitchen you can't lower your guard . . . at least not if you're on the set of one of the most anticipated TV specials of the season–one costarring you.

I'd started my career at the age of three, forced onto the toddler beauty pageant catwalks by a mother who'd already decided I needed to earn my keep. I should have grown up dreaming of the day I'd be off that stage. But when I stepped into the limelight, every eye was on me and I shone. It became my refuge and now, forty years later, while there were days when I really didn't feel like strapping on four-inch heels and smiling until my jaw hurt, my heart still beat a little faster as I walked down that hall.

The buzz of a saw drowned out the clicking of my heels on the hardwood. I caught a whiff of sawdust and oil, and shuddered to imagine what alterations the crew was making to the house. From what I'd heard, the homeowners weren't likely to complain–they desperately needed the money. The "official" rumor was a failed film project, but the one I'd heard involved an unplanned baby project with the nanny. Tabloid stories to be suppressed, a young woman to be paid off, a wife to placate–it could all get very expensive.

As I passed a young man measuring the hall, I nodded and his jaw dropped.

"M–Ms. Vegas? Jaime Vegas?"

I swung around and fixed him with a megawatt smile that I didn't need to fake. Shallow of me, I know, but there's no ego boost like the slack-jawed gape of a man half your age.

"Geez, it is you." He hurried over to shake my hand. "Could I–? I know it's unprofessional to ask, but is there any chance of getting an autograph?"

"Of course. I'm heading to a meeting right now, but you can grab an autograph from me anytime. Just bring me something to sign. Or if you prefer a photo . . ."

"A photo would be great."

My smile brightened. "A photo it is, then. I have some in my room."

"Thanks. Grandpa will love it. He's such a fan of yours. He has a thing for redheads, but you're his favorite. All his buddies in the nursing home think you're hot."

Just what I needed on the first day of a big job–the reminder that in Hollywood time, I was already a decade past my best-before date.

I kept smiling, though. Another minute of conversation, and the promise of a handful of signed photos for Gramps and the boys, and I was off again.

As I neared the dining room, I heard a crisp British voice snap, "Because it's ridiculous, that's why. Mr. Grady is a professional. He will not be subjected to mockery."

Before I pushed open the door, I pictured the speaker: a stylish woman, roughly my age, dressed in a suit and oozing efficiency. I walked in, and there she was–short blond hair, thin lips, small and wiry, as if extra flesh would be a sign of softness she could ill afford. Icy green eyes glared from behind her tiny glasses. Personal assistant model A: the bulldog, designed to raise hell on her client's behalf, leaving him free to play the gracious, good-natured star.

Facing her was a younger woman, maybe thirty, dumpy, with a shoulder-length bob and worried eyes. Director model C: the overwhelmed first-timer.

The dining room, like most of the house, had been "redecorated" to accommodate the shoot. The homeowners had cleared out anything they didn't want damaged, so the dining set was gone, replaced by a cheaper one. As for the dead guy hanging from the chandelier, I suspected he came with the house, and was probably tough to remove without an exorcism or two.

The hanging man was maybe fifty, average size but with heavy jowls, as if he'd lost a lot of weight fast. He swayed from an old crystal chandelier, superimposed over the modern one. His face was mottled and swollen, eyes thankfully closed.

I eyed him from the doorway so I wouldn't be tempted to stare once I was in the room. After thirty years of seeing ghosts, you learn all the tricks.

This one, though, wasn't a ghost, but a residual. What tragedy had brought him to an end so emotionally powerful that the image was seared forever in this room? I doused my curiosity. It would do me no good. When you see scenes like this every day, you can't afford to stop and wonder. You just can't.

Both women turned as I entered. The assistant's gaze slid over me, lips tightening as if someone had shoved a lemon wedge in her mouth. I flashed a smile and her lips pursed more. If you can't still turn the heads of twenty-year-old boys, winning the catty disapproval of women your own age is a good consolation prize.

I stopped a hairbreadth from the hanged man and tried not to recoil as his swaying body circled my way.

"I hope I'm not interrupting," I said to the woman with the worried eyes. "I was sent to speak to the director, Becky Cheung. Would that be you?"

She smiled and extended a hand. "It is. And you must be Jaime Vegas. This is Claudia Wilson, Bradford Grady's assistant."

I shook Cheung's hand. "Should I step outside and let you two finish?"

"No, no." Desperation touched Becky's voice. "This concerns you too. We're discussing a promo shot. Mr. Simon has decided he wants the three stars to say a line."

Claudia shot a hard look at Becky. "A specific line. Tell her what it is."

"Um . . . 'I see dead people.' "

From the Hardcover edition.

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Omens

Omens

The Cainsville Series
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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Otherworld Chills

Otherworld Chills

Final Tales of the Otherworld
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
tagged : short stories
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Otherworld Nights

Otherworld Nights

More Otherworld Tales
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also available: Hardcover
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Otherworld Secrets

Otherworld Secrets

More Thrilling Otherworld Tales
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Personal Demon
Excerpt

Lucifer's Daughter
There was a time in my life when the prospect of watching a man die would have filled me with horror. Now, as I shivered beside the cenotaph, knowing death was coming, what I felt was very different.

Only knowing it was too late to stop what was about to happen kept me from screaming a warning as I clutched the cold marble.

"Did you bring the money?" the first man asked, his voice tight with an anxiety that strummed through the air. He wore dress slacks an inch too long, hems pooling around scuffed department store loafers. His old leather jacket was done up against the bitter March night, but misbuttoned. I could picture his fingers trembling as he'd hurried out to this midnight meeting.

The other man was a decade older, his jogging suit hood pulled tight around his red-cheeked face. Beside him, a Chow panted, the chuff-chuff filling the silence, black tongue lolling as the dog strained the confines of its short leash.

"Did you bring the money?" the younger man asked again as he glanced around the park, his anxiety sharp against the cold rage blowing off the other man.

"Did you really think I'd pay?"

The older man lunged. A blast of fear, so intense my eyelids quivered. Then a gasp, rich with shock and pain. Chaos rolled over me and moonlight sparked red against the knife blade. The stink of voided bowels filled the air as the younger man staggered back into a spindly maple. He tottered for a moment, propped against it, then slumped at its base.

The killer pulled his dog closer. The Chow danced, its chaos fluttering past me, confusion warring with hunger. The man shoved its head to the wound, steaming blood pumping. The dog took a tentative lick, then-

The vision broke and I reeled, grabbing the cenotaph. A moment's pause, eyes squeezed shut. Then I straightened and blinked against the bright morning sun.

At the foot of the cenotaph, a shrine had started, with plucked daffodils and scraps of paper scrawled with "We'll Miss You, Brian" and "Rest in Peace, Ryan." Anyone who knew Bryan Mills well enough to spell his name was still at home, in shock. The people hugging and sobbing around the shrine were only hoping to catch the eye of a roving TV camera, say a few words about what a great guy "Ryan" had been.

As I circled the crime scene tape, I passed the fake mourners, and their sobbing rose . . . until they noticed I wasn't carrying a camera, and fell back to sipping steaming coffees and huddling against the icy morning.

They might not have made me for a reporter, but the closest cop guarding the scene did, his glower telling me not to bother asking for a statement. I'm sure "Hey, I know what happened to your dead guy" would have been a guaranteed conversation opener. But then what would I say?

"How do I know? Um, I had a vision. Psychic? No. I can only see the past-a talent I inherited from my father. More of a curse, really, though I'm sure he thinks otherwise. Maybe you've heard of him? Lucifer? No, not Satan-that's a whole different guy. I'm what they call a half-demon, a human fathered by a demon. Most of us get a special power, like fire, telekinesis or teleportation, without a demon's need for chaos. But that chaos hunger is all I get, plus a few special powers to help me find it. Like visions of past trauma, which is why I know how your victim died. And I can read chaotic thoughts, like the one going through your head right now, Officer. You're wondering whether you should quietly call for the ambulance or pin me to the ground first, in case my psychotic break turns violent."

So I stuck to my job: reporting the news, not becoming it. I found a likely target-the youngest officer, buttons gleaming, gaze following the news cameras, shoulders straightening each time one promised to swing his way, then slumping when it moved elsewhere.

As I approached, his gaze traveled over me and his chin lifted to showcase a square jaw. A smile tweaked his lips. When I took out my notebook, the smile ignited, and he stepped forward to intercept me, lest I change my mind.

"Hello, there," he said. "I haven't seen you before. New at the Gazette?"

I shook my head. "I'm national."

His eyes glittered, envisioning his name in Time or USA Today. I always felt a little bad about that. True News was a national publication, though . . . a national supermarket tabloid.

"Hope Adams," I said, thrusting out my hand.

"Adams?"

"That's right."

A flush bloomed on his cheeks. "Sorry, I, uh, wasn't sure I heard that right."

Apparently, I didn't look like this officer's idea of a "Hope Adams." My mother had been a student from India when she met my dad at college. Will Adams, though, was not my biological father, and half-demons inherit their appearance from their maternal DNA.

As I chatted him up, a man lurched from behind the cenotaph. He peered around, his eyes wild behind green-lensed glasses. Spying us, he strode over, one black-nailed finger jabbing.

"You took him, didn't you?"

The officer's hand slid to his belt. "Sir, you need to step back-"

"Or what?" The man stopped inches from the officer, swaying. "You'll shoot me? Like you shot him? Take me away too? Study me? Dissect me? Then deny everything?"

"If you mean the victim-"

"I meant the werewolf."

The officer cleared his throat. "There, uh, was no werewolf, sir. The victim was-"

"Eaten!" The man leaned forward, spittle flying. "Torn apart and eaten! Tracks everywhere. You can't cover it up this time."

"A werewolf?" said a woman, sidling over as she passed. "I heard that too."

The officer slid a small "can you believe this?" smile my way. I struggled to return it. I could believe that people thought this was a werewolf; that's why True News had sent their "weird tales girl" to cover the story. As for werewolves themselves, I certainly believed in them-though even before the vision I'd known this wasn't one of their kills.

"Sorry about that," the officer said when he'd finally moved the conspiracy theorist on.
"Werewolves? Dare I even ask where that rumor came from?"

"The kids who found the body got all freaked out, seeing dog tracks around it, and they started posting online about werewolves. I have no idea how the dog got involved."

I was already mentally writing my story. "When asked about the werewolf rumors, an officer on the site admitted he couldn't explain the combined signs of canine and human." That's the trick of writing for a tabloid. You take the facts and massage them, hinting, implying, suggesting . . . As long as no one is humiliated unfairly, and no sources are named, I don't have a problem giving readers the entertainment they want.

Karl would have found it entertaining too. If I'd been assigned this story a couple of months ago, I'd have been waiting for his next call, so I could say, "Hey, I got a werewolf story. Can I get a statement?" He'd make some sardonic comment, and I'd curl up, settling in for a long talk, telling myself it was just friendship, that I'd never be fool enough to fall for Karl Marsten. Kidding myself, of course. The moment I let him cross that line past friendship, I got burned . . . and it was just as bad as I'd always feared.

I pushed memories of Karl aside and concentrated on the story. The officer had just let slip a lead on the kids who'd found the body-two girls who worked at the 7-Eleven on the corner-when clouds suddenly darkened the day to twilight. Thunder boomed, and I dropped my pen. As the officer bent to grab it, I snuck a glance around. No one was looking at the sky or running for cover. They were all carrying on as they had been.

The officer kept talking, but I could barely hear him through the thunderclaps. I gritted my teeth and waited for the vision to end. A storm moving in? Possible, if it promised enough destruction to qualify as chaotic. But I suspected the source was a Tempestras-a "storm" half-demon. One offshoot of my "gift" was the ability to sense other supernaturals through their chaotic powers.

I cast another surreptitious glance around. My gaze settled instead on the one person I hadn't noticed before. A dark-haired man, at least six foot three, with a linebacker's body ill-concealed by a custom-tailored suit.

He seemed to be looking my way, but with his dark sunglasses it was impossible to tell. Then he lowered them, pale blue eyes meeting mine, chin dipping in greeting. He walked over.

"Ms. Adams? A word please?"

Hope
Godfather
I checked for chaos vibes and felt nothing. Still, any time a hulking half-demon stranger sought me out hundreds of miles from my home, I had reason to be alarmed.

"Let's head over there."

He nodded to a quiet corner under an elm. When we stopped, he shivered and looked up into the dense branches.

"Not the warmest spot," he said. "I guess that's why it's the one empty corner in the park. No sunshine."

"But you could fix that."

I braced myself for a denial. Instead I got a grin that thawed his ice-blue eyes.

"Now that's a handy talent. I could use that in my line of work."

"And that would be?"

"Troy Morgan," he said, as if in answer. "My boss would like to talk to you."

The name clicked-Benicio Cortez's personal bodyguard.

I followed Troy's gaze to a vehicle idling fifty feet away. A white SUV with Cadillac emblems on the wheels. Beside it stood a dark-haired man who could pass for Troy's twin. If both of Benicio Cortez's bodyguards were here, there was no doubt who sat behind those tinted windows.

My hastily eaten breakfast sank into the pit of my stomach.

"If it's about this-" I waved at the crime scene, "-you can tell Mr. Cortez it wasn't a werewolf, so . . ." I trailed off, seeing his expression. "It isn't about the werewolf rumor, is it?"

Troy shook his head. Why else would Benicio Cortez fly from Miami to speak to a half-demon nobody? Because I owed him. The bagel turned to lead.

"Okay," I said, lifting my notebook. "I'm in the middle of a story right now, but I could meet him in an hour, say . . ." I scanned the street for a coffee shop.

"He needs to talk to you now."

Troy's voice was soft, gentle even, but a steel edge in his tone told me I didn't have a choice. Benicio Cortez wanted to talk to me, and it was Troy's job to make that happen.

I glanced at the crime scene. "Can I just get a few more minutes? If I can talk to one more witness, I'll have enough for a story-"

"Mr. Cortez will look after that."

He touched my elbow, gaze settling on mine, sympathetic but firm. When I still resisted, he leaned down, voice lowering. "He'd like to speak to you in the car, but if you'd be more comfortable in a public place, I can arrange it."

I shook my head, shoved my notebook into my pocket and motioned for him to lead the way.

As I moved toward the curb, a passing car hit a patch of melting snow, throwing up a sheet of slush. I scampered back, but it caught my legs, dappling my skirt and nylons, the icy pellets sliding down and coming to rest in my shoes. So much for looking presentable.

I rubbed my arms and told myself the goose bumps were from the ice, not trepidation over meeting Benicio Cortez. I'm a society girl-meeting a CEO shouldn't be any cause for nerves. But Cortez Corporation was no ordinary Fortune 500 company.

A Cabal looked like a regular multinational corporation, but it was owned and staffed by supernaturals, and the unique abilities of its employees gave it a massive advantage over its competitors. It used that edge for everything from the legitimate (sorcerer spells to protect their vaults) to the unethical (astral-projecting shamans conducting corporate espionage) to the despicable (a teleporting half-demon assassin murdering a business rival).

I'd spent two years working for the Cortez Cabal. Unintentionally. Hired by Tristan Robard, who I thought was a representative of the interracial council, I'd been placed with True News to keep an eye on supernatural stories, suppressing or downplaying the real ones and alerting the council to potential trouble. My job soon expanded to helping them locate rogue supernaturals.

It had been the perfect way to guiltlessly indulge my hunger for chaos. The phrase "too good to be true" comes to mind, but I'd been in such a dark place-depressed, angry, confused. When you're that far down and someone offers you a hand back up, you grab it and you don't ask questions.
Then came my toughest assignment. Capturing a werewolf jewel thief during a museum gala. I'd been so pleased with myself . . . until that werewolf-Karl Marsten-ripped the rose-colored glasses from my eyes and proved that I was really working for the Cortez Cabal. When we escaped that mess, cleaning services came from an unexpected quarter: Benicio. My employment had been a secret operation of Tristan's, and his attack on Karl a personal matter, so in apology, Benicio had disposed of the bodies and provided medical assistance for Karl.

In return, we owed him. Until now, I'd never worried about that because I had a codebtor. Karl was a professional thief-capable of guiding me through whatever underworld task Benicio set us.
But now Benicio had come to collect, and Karl wasn't around to do anything about it.

My skirt gave an obscene squeak as I slid onto the SUV's leather seat. If the man within noticed, he gave no sign, just put out a hand to help me.

As the door closed, the roar of morning traffic vanished, replaced by the murmur of calypso jazz, so soft I had to strain to recognize it. Gone too were the exhaust fumes, making way for the stench of stale smoke.

"Cigar," the man said, catching my nose wrinkling. "Cuban, though the expense doesn't make the smell any better. I requested a nonsmoking vehicle, but with high-end rentals, people think if they pay enough, they can do as they please."

Benicio Cortez. He bore little resemblance to the one Cortez I knew-his youngest son, Lucas. Benicio was at least sixty, probably no more than five eight, broad-faced and stocky. Only his eyes reminded me of his son-nice eyes, big and dark. The kind of guy you'd let hold your purse or take your son into the bathroom. Bet that came in handy when he was telling you he understood why you didn't want to sell your three-generation family business . . . while text-messaging a fire half-demon to torch the place before you got back from lunch.

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Rituals

Rituals

The Cainsville Series
edition:Hardcover
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Sea of Shadows

Sea of Shadows

Age of Legends
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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Spell Bound
Excerpt

Sitting g cross-legged on my motel bed in the dark, I cast my light-ball spell for the twentieth time. As I recited the incantation, I waited for the mental click that told me it had worked. When that didn’t come, I opened my eyes, still expecting to see the glowing ball floating over my fingers. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t seen it the first nineteen times. It was a damned light-ball spell, so simple I usually didn’t even need to finish the incantation before it worked.
 
The room stayed dark.
 
On a chair by the bed, Adam mumbled and shifted in his sleep. Adam Vasic, Exustio half-demon, the guy I’d been in love with since I was twelve, now my best friend. He’d followed me when I took off in a tantrum of guilt and grief, snuck into my motel room, and quietly fell asleep.
 
He was close to waking now, and even my whispered incantations had him fussing. He needed sleep, not more of my angst, so I slid from the room.
 
I stepped outside. It was a wet spring night, the earlier storm gone, whipping winds and a bone-chilling cold left behind. I walked over to Adam’s Jeep, parked beside my vintage Triumph motorcycle. I peered through the back of his vehicle, in case I’d left a sweater there. All I could see was his duffel bag, and I didn’t want to break in and go through his stuff, which was proof that I really wasn’t myself tonight.
 
A soda machine glowed across the motel lot. I wasn’t thirsty, but I had change in my pocket and it gave me a destination. After sloshing through one puddle in the dark, I didn’t bother trying to avoid the rest, just trudged along, icy water soaking my sneakers. When gravel crackled to my left, I spun and spotted a shape darting behind the motel. Which reminded me . . . Besides losing my powers, I was also the target of a witch-hunter. Apparently she’d found me again.
 
I glanced toward my room. I should get Adam. Without my spells, I was—
 
Powerless? Hardly. I was six feet tall and in great shape. The witch-hunter was a scrawny mouse of a girl, barely an adult, barely five-foot-five, with no apparent supernatural powers. I took another step, careful now, and instinctively started whispering a sensing spell under my breath. Then I stopped. Do it the old-fashioned way. Look and listen.
 
I did, but couldn’t hear anything. Peering around the corner didn’t help. Then gravel crunched overhead.
 
On the roof. A trick she’d pulled before. I should have been prepared.
 
I looked around. There had to be a fire escape or trash bins I could climb—
 
A loud noise sent me spinning, back to the wall, hands lifted for a spell. Tires squealed as a car roared past the motel.
 
I looked down at my fingers, still outstretched, ready to cast. I inhaled sharply and clenched my fists.
 
What if she did have a gun? Sure, I knew some martial arts, but I was no black belt. I’d learned grudgingly, knowing my spells were better than any roundhouse kick.
 
I’d love to bring this kid down on my own, but the important thing was to stop her before she targeted another witch. Time to get backup.
 
I was two doors from my room when a hand clamped on my shoulder. I spun, fingers flying up in a useless knockback spell. It was a man, a huge guy, at least three hundred pounds and a few inches taller than me. Beard stubble covered his fleshy face. He smelled like he’d showered in Jack Daniel’s.
 
“You got a dollar?” he said. “I’m hungry.” He pointed at the vending machine. “I don’t got a dollar.”
 
“Neither do I,” I said.
 
He grabbed my arm and yanked me, his other arm going around my waist as he pulled me against him. I froze. Just froze, my brain stuttering through all the spells I couldn’t cast, refusing to offer any alternatives.
 
“Let her go,” said a familiar voice.
 
Adam walked over, hands at his sides, fingers glowing faintly, gaze fixed on the man. I snapped to my senses and elbow-jabbed the guy, who fell back, whining, “I just wanted a dollar.”
 
Adam is my height and well built, but he’s no muscle-bound bruiser. Still the guy shrunk, then slithered off to his room. “Well, that was humiliating,” I said. “Tell you what, I’ll buy that new top for your Jeep if you promise never to tell anyone you rescued me from a drunk asking for spare change.”
 
He didn’t smile. Just studied me, then said, “Let’s get inside.”
 
“Can’t. My little witch-hunter has returned. She’s up on the roof. I was just coming in to get you for backup.”
 
That gave him pause, but he only nodded, then peered up at the dark rooftop. “I’ll go around the rear and climb up. You cover the front.”
 
I should have warned him that I was spell-free. I really should have. I didn’t.
 
A few minutes later, gravel crunched on the roof again and I tensed, but it was only Adam. He walked to the front, hunkered down, and motioned me over.
 
“No sign of her,” he whispered. “But I can’t see shit. Can you toss up a light ball?”
 
“Is there a flashlight in the Jeep?” I asked. “That’d be easier.”
 
“Sure.” He dropped the keys into my hand. “Glove box.”

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Spellcasters

Spellcasters

The Case of the Half-Demon Spy, Dime Store Magic, Industrial Magic, Wedding Bell Hell
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Stolen
Excerpt

Prologue

He hated the forest. Hated its eternal pockets of damp and darkness. Hated its endless tangle of trees and bushes. Hated its smell of decay -- dead vegetation, dead animals, everything dying, even the living creatures incessantly pursuing their next meal, one failure away from the slow descent into death. Soon his body would be one more stink fouling the air, maybe buried, maybe left for the carrion feeders, his death postponing theirs for another day. He would die. He knew that, not with the single-minded intent of the suicidal or the hopeless despair of the doomed, but with the simple acceptance of a man who knows he is only hours from passing out of this world into the next. Here in this stinking, dark, damp hell of a place, he would die.

He didn’t seek death. If he could, he’d avoid it. But he couldn’t. He’d tried, planning his breakout for days, conserving his energy, forcing himself to eat, to sleep. Then he’d escaped, surprising himself really. He’d never truly believed it would work. Of course, it hadn’t actually worked, just appeared to, like a mirage shimmering in the desert, only the oasis hadn’t turned to sand and sun, but damp and dark. He’d escaped the compound to find himself in the forest. Still hopeful, he’d run. And run. And gone nowhere. They were coming now. Hunting him.

He could hear the hound baying, fast on his trail. There must be ways to trick it, but he had no idea how. Born and raised in the city, he knew how to avoid detection there, how to become invisible in plain sight, how to effect an appearance so mediocre that people could stare right at him and see no one. He knew how to greet neighbors in his apartment building, eyes lowered, a brief nod, no words, so if anyone asked about the occupants of 412, no one really knew who lived there: Was that the elderly couple? The young family? The blind girl? Never rude or friendly enough to attract attention, disappearing in a sea of people too intent on their own lives to notice his. There he was a master of invisibility. But here, in the forest? He hadn’t set foot in one since he was ten, when his parents finally despaired of ever making an outdoorsman out of him and let him stay with his grandmother while his siblings went hiking and camping. He was lost here. Completely lost. The hound would find him and the hunters would kill him.

“You won’t help me, will you?” he said, speaking the words in his mind.

For a long moment, Qiona didn’t reply. He could sense her, the spirit who guided him, in the back corner of his mind, the farthest she ever went from him since she’d first made herself known when he was a child too young to speak.

“Do you want me to?” she asked finally.

“You won’t. Even if I want it. This is what you want. For me to join you. You won’t stop that.”

The hound started to sing, joy infusing its voice with melody as it closed in on its target. Someone shouted.

Qiona sighed, the sound fluttering like a breeze through his mind. “What do you want me to do?”

“Which way is out?” he asked.

More silence. More shouts.

“That way,” she said.

He knew which way she meant, though he couldn’t see her. An ayami had presence and substance but no form, an idea impossible to explain to anyone who wasn’t a shaman and as easy for a shaman to understand as the concept of water or sky.

Turning left, he ran. Branches whipped his face and bare chest and arms, raising welts like the marks of a flagellant. And equally self-inflicted, he thought. Part of him wanted to stop. Give up. Accept. But he couldn’t. He wasn’t ready to surrender his life yet. Simple human pleasures still held too much allure: English muffins with butter and strawberry jam at the Talbot Café, the second-story balcony, farthest table on the left, the sun on his forearms, tattered mystery novel in one hand, coffee mug in the other, people yelling, laughing on the busy street below. Silly things, Qiona would sniff. She was jealous, of course, as she was of anything she couldn’t share, anything that kept him bound to his body. He did want to join her, but not yet. Not just yet. So he ran.

“Stop running,” Qiona said.

He ignored her.

“Slow down,” she said. “Pace yourself.”

He ignored her.

She withdrew, her anger a flash fire in his brain, bright and hot, then smoldering, waiting to flare again. He’d stopped hearing the hound, but only because his blood pounded too loudly. His lungs blazed. Each breath scorched through him, like swallowing fire. He ignored it. That was easy. He ignored most of his body’s commands, from hunger to sex to pain. His body was only a vehicle, a medium for transmitting things like strawberry jam, laughter, and sunlight to his soul. Now after a lifetime of ignoring his body, he asked it to save him and it didn’t know how. From behind him came the bay of the hound. Was it louder now? Closer?

“Climb a tree,” Qiona said.

“It’s not the dog I’m afraid of. It’s the men.”

“Slow down then. Turn. Confuse them. You’re making a straight trail. Slow down.”

He couldn’t. The end of the forest was near. It had to be. His only chance was to get there before the dog did. Ignoring the pain, he summoned every remaining vestige of strength and shot forward.

“Slow down!” Qiona shouted. “Watch -- ”

His left foot hit a small rise, but he adjusted, throwing his right foot out for balance. Yet his right foot came down on empty air. As he pitched forward, he saw the streambed below, at the bottom of a small gully eroded by decades of water flow. He flipped over the edge of it, convulsed in midair, trying to think of how to land without injury, but again he didn’t know how. As he hit the gravel below, he heard the hound. Heard its song of triumph so loud his eardrums threatened to split. Twisting to get up, he saw three canine heads come over the gully edge, one hound, two massive guard dogs. The hound lifted its head and bayed. The other two paused only a second, then leaped.

“Get out!” Qiona screamed. “Get out now!”

No! He wasn’t ready to leave. He resisted the urge to throw his soul free of his body, clenching himself into a ball as if that would keep it in. He saw the undersides of the dogs as they flew off the cliff. One landed atop him, knocking out his last bit of breath. Teeth dug into his forearm. He felt a tremendous wrenching. Then he soared upward. Qiona was dragging him from his body, away from the pain of dying.

“Don’t look back,” she said.

Of course, he did. He had to know. As he looked down, he saw the dogs. The hound was still at the top of the gully, howling and waiting for the men. The two other dogs didn’t wait. They tore his body apart in a shower of blood and flesh.

“No,” he moaned. “No.”

Qiona comforted him with whispers and kisses, pleaded with him to look away. She’d tried to save him from the pain, but she couldn’t. He felt it as he looked down at the dogs destroying his body, felt not the pain of their teeth, but the agony of unbelievable loss and grief. It was over. All over.

“If I hadn’t tripped,” he said. “If I’d run faster . . .”

Qiona turned him then, so he could look out across the forest. The expanse of trees went on and on, ending in a road so far away the cars looked like bugs crawling across the earth. He glanced back at his body, a mangled mess of blood and bone. The men stepped from the forest. He ignored them. They didn’t matter anymore. Nothing did. He turned to Qiona and let her take him away.

* * * * *

“Dead,” Tucker said to Matasumi as he walked into the cell-block guard station. He scraped the mud of the forest off his boots. “Dogs got him before we did.”

“I told you I wanted him alive.”

“And I told you we need more hounds. Rottweilers are for guarding, not hunting. A hound will wait for the hunter. A rottie kills. Doesn’t know how to do anything else.” Tucker removed his boots and laid them on the mat, perfectly aligned with the wall, laces tucked in. Then he took an identical but clean pair and pulled them on. “Can’t see how it matters much. Guy was half-dead anyway. Weak. Useless.”

“He was a shaman,” Matasumi said. “Shamans don’t need to be Olympic athletes. All their power is in their mind.”

Tucker snorted. “And it did him a whole lotta good against those dogs, let me tell you. They didn’t leave a piece of him bigger than my fist.”

As Matasumi turned, someone swung open the door and clipped him in the chin.

“Whoops,” Winsloe said with a grin. “Sorry, old man. Damn things need windows.”

Bauer brushed past him. “Where’s the shaman?”

“He didn’t . . . survive,” Matasumi said.

“Dogs,” Tucker added.

Bauer shook her head and kept walking. A guard grabbed the interior door, holding it open as she walked through. Winsloe and the guard trailed after her. Matasumi brought up the rear. Tucker stayed at the guard station, presumably to discipline whoever had let the shaman escape, though the others didn’t bother to ask. Such details were beneath them. That’s why they’d hired Tucker.

The next door was thick steel with an elongated handle. Bauer paused in front of a small camera. A beam scanned her retina. One of the two lights above the door flashed green. The other stayed red until she grasped the door handle and the sensor checked her handprint. When the second light turned green, she opened the door and strode through. The guard followed. As Winsloe stepped forward, Matasumi reached for his arm, but missed. Alarms shrieked. Lights flashed. The sound of a half-dozen steel-toed boots clomped in synchronized quickstep down a distant corridor. Matasumi snatched the two-way radio from the table.

“Please call them back,” Matasumi said. “It was only Mr. Winsloe. Again.”

“Yes, sir,” Tucker’s voice crackled through the radio. “Would you remind Mr. Winsloe that each retinal and hand scan combination will authorize the passage of only one staff member and a second party.”

They both knew Winsloe didn’t need to be reminded of any such thing, since he’d designed the system. Matasumi stabbed the radio’s disconnect button. Winsloe only grinned.

“Sorry, old man,” Winsloe said. “Just testing the sensors.”

He stepped back to the retina scanner. After the computer recognized him, the first light turned green. He grabbed the door handle, the second light flashed green, and the door opened. Matasumi could have followed without the scans, as the guard had, but he let the door close and followed the proper procedure. The admittance of a second party was intended to allow the passage of captives from one section of the compound to another, at a rate of only one captive per staff member. It was not supposed to allow two staff to pass together. Matasumi would remind Tucker to speak to his guards about this. They were all authorized to pass through these doors and should be doing so correctly, not taking shortcuts.

Past the security door, the interior hall looked like a hotel corridor, each side flanked by rooms furnished with a double bed, a small table, two chairs, and a door leading to a bathroom. Not luxury accommodations by any means, but simple and clean, like the upper end of the spectrum for the budget-conscious traveler, though the occupants of these rooms wouldn’t be doing much traveling. These doors only opened from the outside.

The wall between the rooms and the corridor was a specially designed glass more durable than steel bars—and much nicer to look at. From the hallway, an observer could study the occupants like lab rats, which was the idea. The door to each room was also glass so the watcher’s view wasn’t obstructed. Even the facing wall of each bathroom was clear Plexiglas. The transparent bathroom walls were a recent renovation, not because the observers had decided they wanted to study their subjects’ elimination practices, but because they’d found that when all four walls of the bathrooms were opaque, some of the subjects spent entire days in there to escape the constant scrutiny.

The exterior glass wall was actually one-way glass. They’d debated that, one-way versus two-way. Bauer had allowed Matasumi to make the final decision, and he’d sent his research assistants scurrying after every psychology treatise on the effects of continual observation. After weighing the evidence, he’d decided one-way glass would be less intrusive. By hiding the observers from sight, they were less likely to agitate the subjects. He’d been wrong. At least with two-way glass the subjects knew when they were being watched. With one-way, they knew they were being watched -- none were naive enough to mistake the full-wall mirror for decoration -- but they didn’t know when, so they were on perpetual alert, which had a regrettably damning effect on their mental and physical health.

The group passed the four occupied cells. One subject had his chair turned toward the rear wall and sat motionless, ignoring the magazines, the books, the television, the radio, everything that had been provided for his diversion. He sat with his back to the one-way glass and did nothing. That one had been at the compound nearly a month. Another occupant had arrived only this morning. She also sat in her chair, but facing the one-way glass, glaring at it. Defiant . . . for now. It wouldn’t last.

Tess, the one research assistant Matasumi had brought to the project, stood by the defiant occupant’s cell, making notations on her clipboard. She looked up and nodded as they passed.

“Anything?” Bauer asked.

Tess glanced at Matasumi, shunting her reply to him. “Not yet.”

“Because she can’t or won’t?” Bauer asked.

Another glance at Matasumi. “It appears . . . I would say . . .”

“Well?”

Tess inhaled. “Her attitude suggests that if she could do more, she would.”

“Can’t, then,” Winsloe said. “We need a Coven witch. Why we bothered with this one—”

Bauer interrupted. “We bothered because she’s supposed to be extremely powerful.”

“According to Katzen,” Winsloe said. “If you believe him. I don’t. Sorcerer or not, the guy’s full of shit. He’s supposed to be helping us catch these freaks. Instead, all he does is tell us where to look, then sits back while our guys take all the risks. For what? This?” He jabbed a finger at the captive. “Our second useless witch. If we keep listening to Katzen, we’re going to miss out on some real finds.”

“Such as vampires and werewolves?” Bauer’s lips curved in a small smile. “You’re still miffed because Katzen says they don’t exist.”

“Vampires and werewolves,” Matasumi muttered. “We are in the middle of unlocking unimaginable mental power, true magic. We have potential access to sorcerers, necromancers, shamans, witches, every conceivable vessel of magic . . . and he wants creatures that suck blood and howl at the moon. We are conducting serious scientific research here, not chasing bogeymen.”

Winsloe stepped in front of Matasumi, towering six inches over him. “No, old man, you’re conducting serious scientific research here. Sondra is looking for her holy grail. And me, I’m in it for fun. But I’m also bankrolling this little project, so if I say I want to hunt a werewolf, you’d better find me one to hunt.”

“If you want to hunt a werewolf, then I’d suggest you put one in those video games of yours, because we can’t provide what doesn’t exist.”

“Oh, we’ll find something for Ty to hunt,” Bauer said. “If we can’t find one of his monsters, we’ll have Katzen summon something suitably demonic.”

“A demon?” Winsloe said. “Now that’d be cool.”

“I’m sure it would,” Bauer murmured and pushed open the door into the shaman’s former cell.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Tales of the Otherworld
Excerpt

Aaron stumbled from the tavern and gasped as the first blast of cold air slapped him. He paused in the doorway and took a deep breath. Geoffrey jostled him from behind, and Aaron gave him a good-natured shoulder that sent his friend staggering back.  

"Move it, you big ox," John said, kneeing Aaron in the rear. 

  "Just push me out of the way." Aaron shot a grin over his shoulder. "Or maybe you should squeeze past instead. You're skinny enough."

   Aaron stepped onto the cobblestone street and grimaced. So much for fresh air. The narrow street stank of shit--horse shit, dog shit, human shit; that's what came of living so close you couldn't take a crap without piling it on someone else's. Give himfarm life any day. Plenty of shit there, too, but at least there was room to spread it around.   He squinted up and down the street, his ale-soaked brain struggling to remember which way they'd come. That was another problem with towns. You couldn't see a damn thing. The buildings not only crowded your view, they crowded out the moonlight, and thelanterns dotting the street added more smoke than light.  

"Inn's this way," Geoffrey said, smacking Aaron's arm. "Come on before the mistress locks the door."  

She had locked them out the last time, and it had been a long, cold night on the street. Aaron and Geoffrey came to the city every other month, bringing goods to market. They'd finished their work this morning, but their families didn't expect them backuntil Sunday night, knowing that any young man who stayed home to help his parents on the farm deserved time to sample the cosmopolitan treats he was forgoing.  

One of those "treats" peered out from a side street as they passed. She met Aaron's gaze and batted her lashes in what he supposed was meant to be a come-hither look, but seemed more like soot caught in her eyes. She couldn't have been more than twelve,the bodice of her dirty dress stuffed to simulate the curves she wouldn't see for another few years . . . if she lived that long.  

Aaron walked over, and pressed a few coins into the whore's palm. A look--part relief, part trepidation--sparked in her eyes, then they clouded with confusion as he returned to his friends.  

John bumped against him. "How drunk are you? You forgot to take what you paid for." 

  "Oh, Aaron never has to pay for it," Geoffrey said. "When a tart sees him coming, she closes her purse and opens her legs."  

"If you don't want it, I'll take it."  

John started to turn, but Aaron grabbed his shoulders and steered him forward.  

"What?" John grumbled. "It's paid for."  

As they stumbled past an alley, a whimper snaked out from the darkness, followed by the crack of a fist hitting flesh.   Aaron stopped.  

"Ya gotta have more than that," a voice rumbled. "Find it . . . or I will."  

"Aaron . . ." Geoffrey said, plucking Aaron's sleeve. "It's none of your business. And, for once, let's leave it that way, or we'll spend another night on the street."  

Aaron brushed his friend off and strode into the alley. As he walked, his steps steadied, the effects of the ale sloughing off as he focused on the voices. He pulled himself up to his full height and peeled off his jacket. That was often enough--towerover the thug and flex his muscles, and most decided they really didn't need that few pence tonight after all. As he approached the black-haired lout and quaking shopkeeper, his gaze went to the ruffian's hands, looking for a weapon. Nothing. Good.  

Aaron grabbed the man's shoulder. "You want to rob someone? Try me."  

The lout's hand slammed forward. A flash of metal. Where had that come--?  

The blade drove into his chest. Aaron shoved the man away and staggered back. His hands went to his chest. Blood pumped out over his fingers. The man came at him again, but the sound of running footsteps made him think better of it and he ran off intothe darkness.  

"Aaron? Aaron!"  

Aaron tried to take a step, but faltered and hit the wall. He stood there, knees locked, forcing himself to stay upright. Then he crumpled.    

Aaron twisted in his bed. The damned thing dug into both of his shoulders and butted against the top of his head and bottoms of his feet. Inns. Cram as many people into a room as they can, and if you're more than average height, well, that's not the inn'sfault. 

  Eyes still closed, he took a deep breath. Flowers and a faint musty smell. The mistress probably set out fresh blooms to cover the stink, so she wouldn't have to change the bedding more than once a month. 

  He should open his eyes. He knew that--but he also knew that first blare of morning sun was going to feel like Satan's imps stabbing his eyes with pitchforks. He shouldn't drink so much. He wasn't used to it, and he paid for his folly every morning after.

 Speaking of folly . . . He let out a groan as he remembered the man in the alley. Next time he decided to rescue someone, he'd take an extra moment to make damned sure the lout wasn't concealing a knife. Now he really didn't want to get up. He'd been stabbedin the chest once before, and it had taken him weeks to recover.  

The last time, he'd been unable to lift anything heavier than a piglet for a month. His father had to do all the chores, and he'd kept sighing and muttering "Aaron, Aaron, Aaron," his weathered face wrinkling. But he kept his gaze down when he said it,to cover the pride in his eyes.  

"A big strong boy with a good heart," he'd boast to the neighbors when he thought Aaron couldn't hear. "What more could a father want?"  

"God gave you strength," his mother always said. "Always remember that it's a gift, and gifts from God are to be used in his service. Help those less fortunate than you, and you'll please him." 

  Helping others, though, did not mean getting stabbed and being unable to help his father. His mother would be very firm about that.  

"Be careful, Aaron," she'd say. "You're too quick to act. Take a moment to think as well."  

Maybe he could persuade one of his brothers to come back home for a month and help. Even as the thought occurred, though, he dismissed it. They had their own families and jobs and farms. He was the only one left. His father relied on him.  

He groaned again.  

Enough of that. Time to grit his teeth and get up.  

He pulled up his knees and they struck something with a hollow thwack. He opened one eye. The wavering glow of candlelight cast a dim glow in the dark room. Was it still night?   He reached sideways to brace himself as he sat up, and his hand smacked against wood. A bed with sides on it? Had Geoffrey and the others dumped him in a horse trough again?  

He opened the other eye. Then, grabbing the sides, he heaved himself up, bracing for the throb of pain through his chest. It didn't come.   Had he dreamed the stabbing? His fingers moved to his chest. It felt fine . . . fine and whole. That damned cheap ale was giving him nightmares now. 

  He sat up and blinked. He was in a dark, empty room, lit only by a few candles. It looked vaguely familiar. There was a board across his boxlike bed, pushed sideways away from his head and chest; that's what he'd hit his knees on. A black-robed figuresat near his feet, head bent forward in sleep.   Aaron rubbed his eyes. Where the hell was he? It looked familiar. Then he blinked as the memory clicked. It looked like the inside of the family mausoleum. Well, not really a mausoleum; it was made of rough-hewn wood. A mausoleum for a farmer's familywas ridiculous, as every neighbor had at some point whispered to another. But that was the condition of marriage his mother had made.   "My children must be buried aboveground," she'd told his father. "It is our way."  

His father hadn't argued. Who knew what her ways were? She was a Jew and a foreigner, and all he knew was that this beautiful young woman he'd met in London was willing to marry a forty-year-old bachelor and bear his sons. She could have said she wantedhim to build her a tower to the moon, and he'd have done it.

   As for why Aaron was waking up in the mausoleum . . . well, obviously the ale was giving him nightmares. Damn. He'd really hoped the stabbing part of his evening had been the dream, not the waking. 

  He went to lie back down when his knees knocked the board again, this time sending it clattering to the floor. The figure in the chair jumped up, her hood falling back, and he saw a dark-haired woman, gracefully sliding into middle age--his mother.  

"Aaron!"  

She rushed to him, hands grabbing his shoulders, fingers digging in. Her face loomed over his--blotchy with tears, eyes swollen, hair bedraggled.  

"Say something," she whispered. "Please."  

"I drank too much. Again."   Her arms flew around him, head going to his chest, burrowing in, shoulders convulsing in a silent sob.  

"I prayed it would be you," she whispered. "I know it's not right for a mother to have favorites, but I always hoped that if God chose one of my children for the blessing, I hoped it would be you. And then after . . ." She hiccuped a sob. "I prayed, Aaron.I prayed you'd be the one."  

"What one?" He pulled back to look at her. "I really think I drank too much. Maybe if I go back to sleep--"  

He tried to lie down, but her fingers dug into his shoulders.  

"No! There's no time. Your father wants to seal the coffin. It's been three days. It must be sealed."  

"Seal? Coffin?" Aaron looked down. "I'm sleeping in a coffin?"  

His mother took his hand and pressed it to a spot above her breast. "What do you feel, Aaron?"

   His fingers almost trembled with the beat of her racing heart. Before he could answer, she moved the fingers to his own breast . . . and they went still. 

  "Now what do you feel?" 

  "Noth-- Bloody hell!" He jumped, almost tumbling back into the coffin. "What--"  

"You're alive. A different kind of life, Aaron, but you are alive, and that's all that matters."  

"All that--? I'm not breathing! I don't have a--"  

"You died, and you've been born again. It's a gift of my blood, told to each woman before she weds. Every generation, only a few are blessed. They die, and return to live again . . . to live and live, and nothing can kill them. A blessing beyond measure."  

"So I'm alive?" He chewed his lip, then nodded. "All right. But what do we tell Father?"   Her gaze dropped. "We can't tell him, Aaron. You can't ever see him again." She hugged him again. "I'm so sorry, but he wouldn't understand. What you are . . . they have a name for it. They do not understand it." 

  "What am I?" he asked slowly.  

When his mother didn't answer, he reached up, wrapped his hands around her upper arms, and pulled her away from him, his gaze going to hers.   "Mother, what am I?"  

She wouldn't look him in the eye. "They call it a . . . a vampire, Aaron, but they don't understand--"  

"A vampire?"   "It is not what they think, Aaron. You are not some soulless demon. You are still my son--still as good and as God-fearing a man as you ever were."  

He forced her chin up, to meet her eyes. "And the blood-taking, Mother? Is that a lie, too?"  

"You must feed, yes. On human blood. But it is only feeding, like taking milk from a cow or eggs from a hen. You'll do no harm."  

"So I don't need to kill?" 

  A long hesitation before she hurried on, words tumbling out, almost incomprehensible. "Only once a year, before the anniversary of your death." 

  "And if I do not?"  

Her gaze met his then, eyes blazing. "You must, Aaron. You must!"  

"Kill another person to prolong my own life?" 

  She hesitated again, and the struggle in her eyes sliced him to the core--the conscience of a moral woman at battle with the ferocious instinct of a mother.  

"You can make careful choices," she said softly. "Find those who are dying, and relieve them of their suffering. It is only once a year, Aaron. There are people--many people--who are not long for this earth. Take their lives and do some good with it. HonorGod in that way, and he will understand."

   God? Aaron bit back the word before it flew from his mouth. He suspected God had very little to do with this "blessing," but if his mother had convinced herself that it was so, then he would not destroy her faith by questioning the origin of this taintin her blood. And, as he sat there, holding her, listening to her cry, he knew he would not destroy her hope either. He'd been a loving, loyal son in life, and so he would be in this nonlife. 

  She said he couldn't see his father, which meant she'd expect him to leave. If he were to decide his new life lay in the New World before the year was up, she would understand.  

He had a year. A year of feeding on the blood of men. But if she was right, and it did them no harm, he could stomach that. He would visit her, and feign contentment for her, and before the year was up, he would leave and let her believe he was still walkingthis earth, somewhere. That much he could do for her.    

Aaron slunk through the alley looking for passed-out drunks. Like a stray dog rooting for scraps in the trash. He'd been a vampire for nearly a month now, and it wasn't getting any easier. Instinct showed him how to feed, but he despised every second ofit.  

It didn't seem to have much effect on the humans--his mother had been right about that. Yet skulking through alleys like a scavenger, preying on the weak . . . It made his stomach churn. Or it would, if his stomach could still churn. The only thing hisgut did these days was complain when he wasn't paying it enough attention.  

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The Awakening

The Awakening

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also available: Paperback
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Excerpt

Chapter One
When the door to my cell clicked open, the first thought that flitted through my doped-up brain was that Liz had changed her mind and come back. But ghosts don’t open doors. They will, on occasion, ask me to open one, so I can raise and interrogate the zombies of supernaturals killed by a mad scientist, but they never need one opened for themselves.

I sat up in bed and rubbed my bleary eyes, blinking away the lingering fog of the sedative. For a moment, the door stayed open only a crack. I slid from the bed, tiptoeing across the thick carpet of my fake hotel room, praying the person on the other side had been called away and I could escape before these people started whatever experiments they’d brought me here to –

“Hello, Chloe.” Dr. Davidoff beamed his best kindly-old-man smile as he pushed the door wide. He wasn’t that old – maybe fifty – but in a movie, I’d cast him as the doddering absent-minded scientist. It was an act I’m sure he’d worked on until he got it just right.

The woman behind him had chic blond hair and a New York suit. I’d cast her as the mother of the nastiest girl in class. Which was cheating, because that’s exactly who she was. Mother of Victoria – Tori – Enright, the one housemate we’d left out of our plans when we’d escaped from Lyle House, and for good cause, considering she was one of the reasons I’d needed to escape.

Tori’s mom carried a Macy’s bag, like she’d just been out shopping and popped in to conduct a few horrific experiments before heading to lunch.

“I know you have a lot of questions, Chloe,” Dr. Davidoff said as I sat on the edge of the bed. “We’re here to answer them for you. We just need a little help from you first.”

“Simon and Derek,” Mrs. Enright said. “Where are they?”

I looked from her to Dr. Davidoff, who smiled and nodded encouragingly, like he fully expected me to turn in my friends.

I’d never been an angry kid. I’d never run away from home. Never stamped my feet and screamed that life was unfair and I wished I’d never been born. Whenever my dad told me we were moving again and I needed to transfer schools, I’d swallowed a whiny “but I just made new friends,” nod, and tell him I understood.

Accept your lot. Count your blessings. Be a big girl.

Now, looking back at a life of doing what I was told, I realized I’d bought into the game. When adults patted me on the head and told me I was so grown-up, what they really meant was that they were glad I wasn’t grown-up enough yet to question, to fight back.

Looking at Dr. Davidoff and Mrs. Enright, I thought of what they’d done to me – lying to me, locking me up – and I wanted to stamp my feet. Wanted to scream. But I wasn’t going to give them that satisfaction.

I widened my eyes as I met Mrs. Enright’s gaze. “You mean you haven’t found them yet?”

I think she would have slapped me if Dr. Davidoff hadn’t lifted his hand.

“No, Chloe, we haven’t found the boys,” he said. “We’re very concerned for Simon’s safety.”

“Because you think Derek might hurt him?”

“Not intentionally, of course. I know Derek’s fond of Simon.”
Fond? What a strange word to use. Derek and Simon were foster brothers, tighter than any blood brothers I knew. Sure, Derek was a werewolf, but that wolf part of him was what would stop him from ever hurting Simon. He’d protect him at all costs – I’d already seen that.

My skepticism must have shown on my face, because Dr. Davidoff shook his head, as if disappointed in me. “All right, Chloe. If you can’t spare any concern for Simon’s safety, maybe you can for his health.”

“W-what ab-bou–” My stutter cropped up most when I was nervous, and I couldn’t let them know they’d struck a nerve. So I tried again, slower now. “What about his health?”

“His condition.”

Apparently I wasn’t the only one who watched too many movies. Now they would tell me that Simon had some rare medical condition and if he didn’t get his medicine within twelve hours, he’d spontaneously combust.

“What condition?”

“He has diabetes,” Dr. Davidoff said. “His blood sugar levels need to be monitored and regulated.”

“With one of those blood testing things?” I said slowly, thinking back. Simon had always disappeared into the bathroom before meals. I’d thought he just liked to wash up. I’d bumped into him once coming out as he’d been shoving a small black case into his pocket.

“That’s right,” Dr. Davidoff said. “With proper care, diabetes is easily managed. You weren’t aware of it because you didn’t need to be. Simon leads a normal life.”

“Except for one thing,” Tori’s mom said.

She reached into the Macy’s bag and took out a backpack. It looked like Simon’s, but I wasn’t falling for that – they’d probably bought a matching one. Sure, she pulled out a hoodie I recognized as Simon’s, but he’d left behind a whole closet of clothing at Lyle House. Easy enough to grab stuff from there.

Next came a pad of paper and pouch of colored pencils. Simon’s room was filled with his comic book sketches. Again, easy enough to –

Mrs. Enright flipped through the sketch pad, holding up pages. Simon’s work in progress. He’d never have left that behind.

Finally, she laid a flashlight on the table. The flashlight from Lyle House – the one I’d watched him put into his bag.

“Simon slipped going over the fence,” she said. “He had his backpack over one shoulder. It fell. Our people were right behind him so he had to leave it. There’s something in here that Simon needs much more than clothing and art supplies.”

She opened a navy nylon pouch. Inside were two penlike vials, one filled with cloudy liquid, the other clear. “The insulin to replace what Simon’s body can’t produce. He injects himself with these three times a day.”

“What happens if he doesn’t?”

Dr. Davidoff took over. “We aren’t going to scare you and say that if Simon skips a single shot, he’ll die. He’s already missed his morning one, and I’m sure he only feels a bit out of sorts. But by tomorrow, he’ll be vomiting. In about three days, he’ll lapse into a diabetic coma.” He took the pouch from Tori’s mom and set it in front of me. “We need to get this to Simon. To do that, you need to tell us where he is.”

I agreed to try.

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The Darkest Powers Series, Book 1: The Summoning
Excerpt

12 years earlier...

Mommy forgot to warn the new baby-sitter about the basement.

Chloe teetered on the top step, chubby hands reaching up to clutch both railings, her arms
shaking so much she could barely hang on. Her legs shook too, the Scooby Doo heads on her
slippers bobbing. Even her breath shook, puffing like she’d been running.

“Chloe?” Emily’s muffled voice drifted up from the dark basement. “Your mom said the
Coke’s in the cold cellar, but I can’t find it. Can you come down and help me?”

Mommy said she’d told Emily about the basement. Chloe was sure of it. She closed her eyes
and thought hard. Before Mommy and Daddy left for the party, she’d been playing in the TV
room. Mommy had called, and Chloe had run into the front hall where Mommy had scooped her
up in a hug, laughing when Chloe’s doll poked her eye.

“I see you’re playing with Princess–I mean, Pirate Jasmine. Has she rescued poor Aladdin
from the evil genie yet?”

Chloe shook her head, then whispered. “Did you tell Emily about the basement?”

“I most certainly did. No basements for Miss Chloe. That door stays closed.” When Daddy
came around the corner, Mommy said, “We really need to talk about moving, Steve.”

“Say the word and the sign goes up.” Daddy ruffled Chloe’s hair. “Be good for Emily,
kiddo.”

And then they were gone.

“Chloe, I know you can hear me,” Emily yelled.

Chloe peeled her fingers from the railing and stuck them in her ears.

“Chloe!”

“I c-can’t go down there,” Chloe called. “I-I’ m not allowed.”

“Well, I’m in charge and I say you are. You’re a big girl.”

Chloe made her feet move down one step. The back of her throat hurt and everything looked
fuzzy, like she was going to cry.

“Chloe Saunders, you have five seconds or I’ll drag you down here and lock the door.”

Chloe raced down the steps so fast her feet tangled and she tumbled into a heap on the
landing. She lay there, ankle throbbing, tears burning her eyes as she peered into the basement,
with its creaks and smells and shadows. And Mrs. Hobb.

There’d been others, before Mrs. Hobb scared them away. Like old Mrs. Miller, who’d play
peek-a-boo with Chloe and call her Mary. And Mr. Drake, who’d ask weird questions like
whether anyone lived on the moon yet, and most times Chloe didn’t know the answer, but he’d
still smile and tell her she was a good girl.

Chloe used to like coming downstairs and talking to the people. All she had to do was not
look behind the furnace, where a man hung from the ceiling, his face all purple and puffy. He
never said anything, but seeing him always made Chloe’s tummy hurt.

“Chloe?” Emily’s muffled voice called. “Are you coming?”

Mommy would say “Think about the good parts, not the bad.” So as Chloe walked down the
last three steps, she remembered Mrs. Miller and Mr. Drake and she didn’t think about Mrs.
Hobb at all . . . or not very much.

At the bottom, she squinted into the near darkness. Just the night lights were on, the ones
Mommy had put everywhere when Chloe started saying she didn’t want to go downstairs and
Mommy thought she was afraid of the dark, which she was, a little, but only because the dark
meant Mrs. Hobb could sneak up on her.

Chloe could see the cold cellar door, though, so she kept her eyes on that and walked as fast
as she could. When something moved, she forgot about not looking, but it was only the hanging
man, and all she could see was his hand peeking from behind the furnace as he swayed.

Chloe ran to the cold cellar door and yanked it open. Inside, it was pitch black.

“Chloe?” Emily called from the darkness.

Chloe clenched her fists. Now Emily was being really mean. Hiding on her–
Footsteps pattered overhead. Mommy? Home already?

“Come on, Chloe. You aren’t afraid of the dark, are you?” Emily laughed. “I guess you’re
still a little baby after all.”

Chloe scowled. Emily didn’t know anything. Just a stupid, mean girl. Chloe would get her
Coke, then run upstairs and tell Mommy, and Emily would never baby-sit her again.

She leaned into the tiny room, trying to remember where Mommy kept the Coke. That was it
on the shelf, wasn’t it? She darted over, and stood on her tiptoes. Her fingers closed around a
cool metal can.

“Chloe? Chloe!” It was Emily’s voice, but far away, shrill. Footsteps pounded across the
floor overhead. “Chloe, where are you?”

Chloe dropped the can. It hit the concrete with a crack, then rolled against her foot, hissing
and spitting, soda pooling around her slippers.

“Chloe, Chloe, where are you?” mimicked a voice behind her, like Emily’s, but not quite.

Chloe turned slowly.

In the doorway stood an old woman in a pink housecoat, her eyes and teeth glittering in the
dark. Mrs. Hobb. Chloe wanted to squeeze her eyes shut, but she didn’t dare because it only
made her madder, made everything worse.

Mrs. Hobb’s skin rippled and squirmed. Then it went black and shiny, crackling like twigs
in a campfire. Big chunks fell off, plopping onto the floor. Her hair sizzled and burned away.
And then there was nothing left but a skull dotted with scraps of blackened flesh. The jaws
opened, the teeth still glittering.

“Welcome back, Chloe.”

One

I bolted up in bed, one hand clutching my pendant, the other wrapped in my sheets. I struggled to
recapture wisps of the dream already fluttering away. Something about a basement . . . A little
girl . . . Me? I couldn’t remember ever having a basement–we’d always lived in condo
apartments.

A little girl in a basement, something scary . . . Weren’t basements always scary? I shivered
just thinking about them, dark and damp and empty. But this one hadn’t been empty. There’d
been . . . I couldn’t remember what. A man behind a furnace . . .?

A bang at my bedroom door made me jump.

“Chloe!” Annette shrieked. “Why hasn’t your alarm gone off? I’m the housekeeper, not
your nanny. If you’re late again, I’m calling your father.”

As threats went, this wasn’t exactly the stuff of nightmares. Even if Annette managed to get
hold of my dad in Berlin, he’d just pretend to listen, eyes on his BlackBerry, attention riveted to
something more important, like the weather forecast. He’d murmur a vague “Yes, I’ll see to it
when I get back” and forget all about me the moment he hung up.

I turned on my radio, cranked it up, and crawled out of bed.

A half-hour later, I was in my bathroom, getting ready for school. I pulled the sides of my hair
back in clips, glanced in the mirror, and shuddered. The style made me look twelve years old . . .
and I didn’t need any help. I’d just turned fifteen and servers still handed me the kiddie menu in
restaurants. I couldn’t blame them. I was five foot nothing with curves that only showed if I wore
tight jeans and a tighter T-shirt.

Aunt Lauren swore I’d shoot up–and out–when I finally got my period. By this point, I
figured it was “if,” not “when.” Most of my friends had gotten theirs at twelve, eleven even. I
tried not to think about it too much, but of course I did. I worried that there was something
wrong with me, felt like a freak every time my friends talked about their periods, prayed they
didn’ t find out I hadn’t gotten mine. Aunt Lauren said I was fine, and she was a doctor, so I
guess she’d know. But it still bugged me. A lot.

“Chloe!” The door shuddered under Annette’s meaty fist.

“I’m on the toilet,” I shouted back. “Can I get some privacy maybe?”

I tried just one clip at the back of my head, holding the sides up. Not bad. When I turned my
head for a side view, the clip slid from my baby-fine hair.

I never should have gotten it cut. But I’d been sick of having long, straight, little-girl hair. I’d
decided on a shoulder-length, wispy style. On the model it looked great. On me? Not so much.
I eyed the unopened hair color tube. Kari swore red streaks would be perfect in my
strawberry-blond hair. I couldn’t help thinking I’d look like a candy cane. Still, it might make
me look older . . .

“I’m picking up the phone, Chloe,” Annette yelled.

I grabbed the tube of dye, stuffed it in my backpack, and threw open the door.

I took the stairs, as always. The building might change, but my routine never did. The day I’d
started kindergarten, my mother held my hand, my Sailor Moon backpack over her other arm as
we’d stood at the top of the landing.

“Get ready, Chloe,” she’d said. “One, two, three–”

And we were off, racing down the stairs until we reached the bottom, panting and giggling,
the floor swaying and sliding under our unsteady feet, all the fears over my first school day gone.
We’d run down the stairs together every morning all though kindergarten and half of first
grade and then . . . well, then there wasn’t anyone to run down the stairs with anymore.

I paused at the bottom, touching the necklace under my T-shirt, then shook off the memories,
hoisted my backpack, and walked from the stairwell.

After my mom died, we’d moved around Buffalo a lot. My dad flipped luxury apartments,
meaning he bought them in buildings in the final stages of construction, then sold them when the
work was complete. Since he was away on business most of the time, putting down roots wasn’t
important. Not for him, anyway.

This morning, the stairs hadn’t been such a bright idea. My stomach was already fluttering
with nerves over my Spanish midterm. I’d screwed up the last test–gone to a weekend
sleepover at Beth’s when I should have been studying–and barely passed. Spanish had never
been my best subject, but if I didn’t pull it up to a C, Dad might actually notice and start
wondering whether an art school had been such a smart choice.

Milos was waiting for me in his cab at the curb. He’d been driving me for two years now,
through two moves and three schools. As I got in, he adjusted the visor on my side. The morning
sun still hit my eyes, but I didn’t tell him that.

My stomach relaxed as I rubbed my fingers over the familiar rip in the armrest and inhaled
chemical pine from the air freshener twisting above the vent.

“I saw a movie last night,” he said as he slid the cab across three lanes. “One of the kind you
like.”

“A thriller?”

“No.” He frowned, lips moving as if testing out word choices. “An action-adventure. You
know, lots of guns, things blowing up. A real shoot-’em-down movie.”

I hated correcting Milos’ s English, but he insisted on it. “You mean, a shoot-’em-up movie.”

He cocked one dark brow. “When you shoot a man, which way does he fall? Up?”

I laughed, and we talked about movies for a while. My favorite subject.

When Milos had to take a call from his dispatcher, I glanced out the side window. A
long-haired boy darted from behind a cluster of businessmen. He carried an old-fashioned plastic
lunch box with a superhero on it. I was so busy trying to figure out which superhero it was, I
didn’ t notice where the boy was headed until he leaped off the curb, landing between us and the
next car.

“Milos!” I screamed. “Watch–”

The last word was ripped from my lungs as I slammed against my shoulder belt. The driver
behind us, and the one behind him, laid on their horns, a chain reaction of protest.

“What?” Milos said. “Chloe? What’s wrong?”

I looked over the hood of the car and saw . . . nothing. Just an empty lane in front and traffic
veering to our left, drivers flashing Milos the finger as they passed.

“Th-th-th–” I clenched my fists, as if that could somehow force the word out. If you get
jammed, take another route, my speech therapist always said. “I thought I saw
some-wha-wha–”

Speak slowly. Consider your words first.

“I’m sorry. I thought I saw someone jump in front of us.”

Milos eased the taxi forward. “That happens to me sometimes, especially if I’m turning my
head. I think I see someone, but there’s no one there.”

I nodded. My stomach hurt again.

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The Gathering
Excerpt

SERENA STOOD ON THE rock ledge twenty feet above the lake, singing in a voice known to bring tears to the eyes of everyone who heard it. Everyone except me. “For God’s sake, Seri,” I said, “just dive already.” Serena stuck out her tongue and shifted closer to the edge, toes wrapping around it. She bounced there, blond ponytail bobbing, cheeks puffing. Then she dove. It was, as usual, an effort worthy of the Olympics, and she sliced into the water so smoothly that barely a ripple pinged across the glassy surface.
 
She popped back up, sleek as a seal. “Your turn, Maya!” I flipped her the finger. She laughed and dove again. Serena was the swimmer—captain of the school team. It’s not my thing, really. This was the part I liked, just sitting on the rock ledge, bare feet dangling. I basked in the morning sun, drinking in the rich, late-summer air and the perfect view of the crystal-clear lake, the distant snow-capped mountains, the endless evergreens.
 
As Serena swam to the middle of the lake, I squinted over at the path, looking for a familiar blond head. Daniel was supposed to join us.
 
Daniel and I had been friends since I’d moved to Salmon Creek when I was five. Then, last year, there’d been a school dance where the girls were supposed to invite the guys, and Serena thought we should draw straws to see who asked Daniel. I liked him, but not the way Serena did, so I’d fixed the game so she’d win. They’d been together ever since.
 
As Serena swam back toward me, I stripped to my bra and panties, dropping my clothes into the bushes below.
 
“Ooh la la,” she called. “Check out the new undies. Did some amazing friend finally take pity and buy you grown-up stuff?”
 
“Yes, and she’d better be right about them not going seethrough when they get wet. Otherwise her boyfriend is going to see a lot more of me than she’d like.”
 
Serena laughed. “They’ll be fine. White’s your color. Shows off your tan.”
 
I shook my head at her and plaited my long black hair. I don’t have a tan. I’m Native. Navajo, maybe. I’d been adopted as a baby and my mother hadn’t been around to fill in any background forms.
 
I climbed farther up the rocks and stopped at one overhanging the lake.
 
As I balanced there, Serena called, “Hey, those low riders show off your birthmark. Did you ask your parents about getting that tattoo?”
 
My fingers dropped to the mark on my hip. It looked like a faded paw print, and I wanted to get it tattooed so it would show up better.
 
“Mom says maybe when I’m sixteen. Dad says when I’m sixty.”
 
“He’ll come around.” She flipped onto her back and floated. “He always does. You should do it for your sixteenth birthday next year. We’ll get your mom to take us over to Vancouver, make a weekend of it. I’ll get one, too. I want a nightingale, right over my boob, so when I get up on stage in my sexy dress, cut down to—”
 
She flailed suddenly. “Maya!”
 
She went under. Disappeared completely, like a hook had dragged her down.
 
I jumped into the water, and I hit it wrong. Pain smacked me so hard I gasped. Water filled my mouth and my nose. I swam out in a frantic dog paddle. I could see the rings where Serena had gone under. They seemed to get farther away with every clumsy stroke I took.
 
I treaded water, looking around. “Serena?”
 
No answer.
 
“If this is a prank to get me in the lake, it worked,” I said, my voice quavering.
 
When she didn’t reply, I dove. As I went under, panic hit, like it always did—my gut telling me this was wrong, dangerous, get above the surface or I’d drown.
 
The normally clear lake was brown, churned up dirt swirling through it, and I couldn’t see.
 
I shot up from the water.
 
“Help!” I shouted. “Someone! Please!”
 
I dove again, blind and flailing, praying my hand or foot would brush Serena.
 
She’s been under too long.
 
No, she hadn’t. Serena could hold her breath forever. Last year, we’d timed her at a swim meet and she’d stayed under for five minutes before the coach ran over and made her stop. I couldn’t hold my breath even for a minute. I bobbed up again, gasping.
 
“Maya!”
 
I followed the shout to the shore. The sun glinted off the wet rocks and I blinked. Then I glimpsed blond wavy hair and a flash of tanned skin as Daniel yanked off his shirt.
 
“It’s Serena,” I shouted. “She went und—”
 
My kicking leg caught on something. I tried to pull, but it tightened around my ankle. I went under, screaming. Water filled my mouth as it closed over my head.
 
I fought, kicking and twisting, trying to grab at whatever had me. My fingers brushed something soft, and my brain screamed “Serena!” I tried to grab her, but I was dragged deeper and deeper until my feet hit the bottom. Then, whatever was wrapped around my ankle fell away.
 
I pushed up through the murky water. But as soon as my feet left the lake bottom, I couldn’t tell where the surface was anymore. Everything was dark. My lungs burned. My head throbbed. I kept fighting my way up. Oh God, let it be up. Finally I broke through. I felt the sunlight and the slap of cool air, only to go back down again. I pushed up, but couldn’t stay afloat, couldn’t seem to remember how to tread water. My whole body ached. Staying above was such a struggle, it was almost a relief when the water closed over my head again, peaceful silence enveloping me.
 
I had to struggle not to give in, had to force my arms and legs to keep churning, get my head back above—
 
Arms grabbed me. They seemed to be pulling me under and I struggled against them.
 
“Maya!” Daniel shouted. “It’s me.”
 
I didn’t care. I needed him to let go of me, leave me be, let me breathe. He gripped me tighter, wrapping one strong arm around me as he swam.
 
I told Daniel to let me go, that I could make it to shore, just find Serena, please find Serena. He thought I was still panicking and kept hauling me along until, finally, he heaved me onto the rocks.
 
“Serena,” I gasped. “Get Serena.”
 
He hoisted himself up and scanned the shore and I realized he hadn’t understood. Oh God, he hadn’t heard me.
 
“Serena!” I yelled. “She went under. I was trying to find her.”
 
His eyes widened. He twisted and plunged into the lake. I huddled there on a rock, coughing, as he swam out. I watched him dive and come back up. Dive and come back up. Dive and come back up . . .
 
They dragged the lake that afternoon and found Serena’s body. Her death was ruled an accidental drowning. A healthy teenage girl, captain of the swim team, had drowned. No one knew how it happened. An undertow. A cramp. A freak panic attack. There were plenty of guesses but no answers.
 
Soon all that was left of Serena was a monument in the school yard. The town moved on. I didn’t. Something had happened in that lake, something I couldn’t explain. But I would. One day, I would.

From the Hardcover edition.

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The Reckoning

The Reckoning

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Excerpt

One
 
 
AFTER FOUR NIGHTS ON the run, I was finally safe, tucked into bed and enjoying the deep, dreamless sleep of the dead . . . until the dead decided they’d really rather have me awake. It started with a laugh that slid into my sleep and pulled me out of it. As I rose on my elbows, blinking and struggling to remember where I was, a whisper snaked around me, words indistinguishable.
 
I rubbed my eyes and yawned. Dull gray light shone through the curtains. The room was silent and still. No ghosts, thank God. I’d had enough in the last few weeks to last me a lifetime.
 
A scrape at the window made me jump. These days, every branch scratching the glass sounded like a zombie I’d raised from the dead, clawing to get in.
 
I went to the window and pulled back the curtains. It’d been nearly dawn by the time we got to the house, so I knew it had to be at least midmorning, but the fog outside was so thick I couldn’t see anything. I leaned closer, nose pressed to the cold glass.
 
A bug splattered against the window and I jumped a foot in the air. A laugh sounded behind me.
 
I whirled, but Tori was still in bed, whimpering in her sleep. She’d thrown off the covers and was curled up on her side, her dark hair spiked across the pillow.
 
Another chuckle erupted behind me. Definitely a guy’s laugh. But no one was there. No, strike that. I just couldn’t see anyone. For a necromancer, that doesn’t mean no one is there.
 
I squinted, trying to catch the flicker of a ghost and saw, off to the left, the flash of a hand that was gone before I could see more.
 
“Looking for someone, little necro?”
 
I spun. “Who’s there?”
 
A snicker answered me—the kind of snicker every fifteen-year-old girl has heard a million times from jerk boys.
 
“If you want to talk to me, you have to show yourself,” I said.
 
“Talk to you?” he said in an arrogant high school quarterback voice. “I think you’re the one who wants to talk to me.”
 
I snorted and headed back to bed.
 
“No?” His voice slid around me. “Huh. I figured you’d want to know more about the Edison Group, the Genesis experiments, Dr. Davidoff . . .”
 
I stopped.
 
He laughed. “Thought so.”
 
The four of us—Tori, Derek, Simon, and me—were on the run from the Edison Group after discovering we were subjects in the Genesis project, an experiment for genetically modifying supernaturals. My aunt Lauren had been one of the doctors involved, but she’d betrayed her colleagues by helping us get away. Now she was being held captive. Or so I hoped. Last night, when the Edison Group tracked us down, a ghost had tried to help me . . . a ghost who had looked like Aunt Lauren.
 
We were supposedly in a safe house owned by a group opposing the experiments. Now a teenaged ghost showed up, knowing about the project? I wasn’t about to banish him, however tempting it might be.
 
“Show yourself,” I said.
 
“Bossy little necro, aren’t you?” His voice slid behind me. “You just want to see if I’m as hot as I sound.”
 
I closed my eyes, pictured a vague male form, and gave a mental tug. He began to materialize—a dark-haired guy, maybe sixteen, seventeen, nothing special, but with a smarmy smile that said he thought he was. I could still see through him, like he was a hologram, so I closed my eyes to give him another pull.
 
“Uh-uh,” he said. “You want more, we gotta get to know each other a little better.” He disappeared again.
 
“What do you want?” I asked.
 
He whispered in my ear. “Like I said, to get to know you better. Not here, though. You’ll wake your friend. She’s cute, but not really my type.” His voice moved to the door. “I know a place we can chat in private.”
 
Yeah, right. Did he think I’d just started talking to ghosts yesterday? Well, close—two weeks ago, actually. But I’d already seen enough to know that while there were some ghosts who wanted to help and some who just wanted to talk, there were more who wanted to cause a little trouble, spice up their afterlife. This guy definitely fell in the last category.
 
Still, if he was another Edison Group subject, one who’d presumably died in this house, I needed to find out what had happened to him. But I wanted backup. Tori had no experience helping me with ghosts and, while we were getting along better, she still wasn’t anyone I wanted watching my back.
 
So I followed the ghost into the hall, but stopped at Simon and Derek’s door.
 
“Uh-uh,” the ghost said. “You don’t need to bring a guy along.”
 
“They’d like to talk to you, too.” I raised my voice, praying Derek would hear me. He usually woke at the slightest noise—werewolves have superhearing. All I could hear, though, was Simon’s snores. There was no one else upstairs. Andrew, the guy who’d brought us here, had taken the downstairs bedroom.
 
“Come on, necro girl. This is a limited-time offer.”
 
You know he’s up to no good, Chloe.
 
Yes, but I also needed to know if we were in danger here. I decided to proceed with extreme caution. My subconscious voice didn’t argue, which I took as a positive sign.
 
I started walking.
 
We’d gone straight to bed after we got here, so I hadn’t gotten a good look at our new place. I only knew that it was huge—a rambling Victorian straight out of a Gothic horror movie.
 
As I followed the voice down the hall, I had the weird sense I was in one of those movies, caught in an endless narrow corridor, passing closed door after closed door until I finally reached the staircase . . . heading up.
 
From what I’d seen of the house as we’d driven up, it was three stories. The bedrooms were on the second floor, and Andrew had said the third was an attic.
 
So the ghost was leading me to the dark, spooky attic? I wasn’t the only one who’d seen too many horror films.
 
I followed him up the stairs. They ended at a landing with two doors. I paused. A hand appeared through the door in front of me, beckoning. I took a second to prepare myself. No matter how dark it was in there, I couldn’t let him see my fear.
 
When I was ready, I grabbed the doorknob and—
 
It was locked. I turned the dead bolt latch and it clicked free. Another deep breath, another second of mental preparation, then I swung the door open and stepped in—
 
A blast of cold air knocked me back. I blinked. Ahead, fog swirled.
 
A dead bolt on an attic door, Chloe?
 
No, I was standing on the roof.

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The Unquiet Past

The Unquiet Past

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Thirteen

Thirteen

A Women of the Otherworld Novel
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Visions

Visions

The Cainsville Series
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Waking the Witch
Excerpt

One
 
 
For five years, I’d toiled as executive assistant slave to Lucas and Paige and now, finally, I was in charge. For the next week anyway.
 
The plaque still read Cortez-Winterbourne Investigations, but  that could be easily changed with the deft use of an energy-bolt spell. Levine Investigations rolled off the tongue so much more easily. At one time, I would have done it, if only as a joke, but there are things you can get away with at sixteen that just don’t fly at twenty-one.
 
I used my key card, then crept through the lobby, trying to squelch the click of my heels.
 
“Savannah!” a voice chirped behind me. “I thought I heard you come in.”
 
I started a cover spell, but Tina had already spotted me. I considered a knockback spell—make her trip and give me time to escape. But that would, sadly, not be a good way to launch my week playing a responsible adult.
 
When Paige said we were getting an accountant for a tenant, I’d thought, Great, someone nice and quiet. That was the stereotype, but apparently, no one had told Tina.
 
“I’m so glad I caught you,” she said. “It’s almost ten and no one’s in the office yet.”
 
It was 9:14.
 
“There was a man here looking for Lucas,” she continued. “I called upstairs and the phone rang and rang. Did he and Paige leave on vacation already? I know Adam is at a conference. In Spokane, isn’t he?”
 
I made a noncommittal noise. Tina might be human, but she had a supernatural sense for snooping. Adam said we should hire her. I threatened to give her his home address and that shut him up.
 
“I hate to tell you kids how to run your business, but you really need to have someone up there during business hours. It’s no wonder you have hardly any clients. You need a full-time receptionist.” She patted my arm. “Yes, I know, dear, you’re the receptionist, but you’re always flitting off, doing God-knows-what. I could—”
 
“Oh, my cell phone’s vibrating,” I lied. “Could be a client. I’ll talk to Paige about drop-ins.”
 
“It’s no bother, dear. I wanted to speak to you anyway. I think I have a job for you.” Tina lowered her voice, though we were the only ones in the lobby. “I started dating this man. A widower I met online.”
 
“And you want me to run a background check? Good idea.”
 
“Oh, no. A man has the right to his privacy. It’s just . . . Well, I was watching this show on private investigators, about a firm of women hired by other women to test their mate’s loyalty.”
 
It took me a second to catch her drift. “You want me to try to seduce your boyfriend?”
 
Her lips pursed. “Certainly not. Just get dolled up, talk to him, flirt with him, and see whether he’ll flirt back.”
 
“I’m probably half his age. I’d be worried if he didn’t flirt back.”
 
A muffled snort made me glance down the hall. A guy a couple of years older than me leaned out of the stairwell doorway. Light hair just past his collar, denim jacket, boots, and a pair of snug-fitting worn blue jeans. He lifted a finger to his lips, shushing me, and I tried not to stare even if he was definitely stare-worthy.
 
I turned back to Tina. “That guy who wanted to speak to Lucas. Did you let him in?”
 
“Certainly not.” She lowered her voice. “He looked a little dodgy.”
 
“Was he in his midtwenties? Dark blond hair? Looks like he lost contact with his razor a few days ago?”
 
The guy arched his brows, mock-indignant.
 
“Yes, that’s him,” Tina said. “Now about my job offer . . .”
 
“Spend the money on a shopping spree at Victoria’s Secret and make sure he’s too exhausted to look at twenty-year-olds.”
 
Before she recovered from that suggestion, I took off.
 
The guy waited until she was safely in her office, then strolled to meet me.
 
“Dodgy?” he said. “I’m not the one wanting a hot chick to try seducing my new boyfriend.” He extended his hand. “Jesse Aanes.”
 
I’d heard of him. A half-demon PI out of Seattle who’d worked with Lucas a few times. Lucas said he was a good guy, which was the only seal of approval I needed.
 
“What brings you to Portland?” I asked.
 
“Cases. One that I’m working now and a new one I wanted to run past Lucas. Two birds, one stone. I left him a message, but he hasn’t returned it, which isn’t like him.”
 
“He’s on vacation with Paige. I confiscated their cell phones and the only messages I’m passing on are well wishes and death notices.”
 
He laughed. “Good idea. They can use the break. Did that woman say Adam isn’t around either?”
 
“He’s at a conference. It’s just me for the rest of the week.”

Jesse hesitated and I knew what he was thinking—he needed help, but I wasn’t what he had in mind.
 
“Why don’t you come up to the office,” I said. “Tell me what you’ve got.”
 
I used my key card to unlock the stairwell door. Yes, we have key card entry everywhere, plus a shitload of protective spells for the second floor. I undid them under my breath as we walked.
 
As Tina said, we don’t get a lot of drop-in clients. We don’t want to. While we rarely turn away paying human customers, our clientele is almost exclusively supernatural and they don’t need an ad in the Yellow Pages to find us. Given that Lucas is heir to the Cortez Cabal, though, not everyone who finds us wants to hire us. Hence the heavy security.
 
Jesse followed me up the stairs. “I guess the daughter of Eve Levine and Kristof Nast doesn’t need to worry about strangers attacking her in an empty office.”
 
“If they do, I can always use them for my next ritual sacrifice. Volunteers are so hard to come by.”
 
It’s not the sort of crack you should make when you have a notorious dark witch for a mother and an equally notorious cutthroat sorcerer for a father. It was a test of sorts, and Jesse passed, just laughing and saying, “I’ll watch my step then.”
 
“So what’s your power? I know you’re a half-demon.”
 
“Agito.”
 
Telekinesis, then. Agito was the second of the three levels, meaning he had mediocre abilities. Having dealt with a high-level Volo before, I was much more comfortable with an Agito.
 
His powers explained how he’d snuck past Tina. Using telekinesis, he’d caught the door before it closed. I’d have to talk to Lucas about that. Yet another argument against human tenants.
 
I led Jesse into the meeting room. He didn’t sit down—didn’t even take off his jacket—just strode straight to the table and pulled files from his satchel.
 
He set a crime-scene photo on the table. “Six months ago, two young women were murdered in Columbus, Washington, about an hour over the Oregon border. I doubt it made the Portland news. Nothing all that hinky about the killings. No sign of a serial killer or sexual sadism. Just the shooting death of two twenty-five-year-olds who led the kind of lives where you sort of figure, sooner or later”—he gestured at the photo of the two women—“this is how they’re going to end up.”
 
“Hookers?”
 
He shook his head. “Just not exactly sterling members of society.”
 
“Drugs?” I said. “Booze? Petty crime? All of the above?”
 
“You got it. Nothing you haven’t seen a million times before. I was on that path myself until Lucas got me out of some trouble and persuaded me there were legal ways to use my skills. Anyway, these girls didn’t run into a Lucas. They were high school dropouts. Never held a job more than a few months. One had a kid at sixteen. Both had short rap sheets, and a string of boyfriends with longer ones.”
 
I lifted the photo to take a closer look. The two bodies lay on a floor. Both were fully dressed, T-shirts covered in blood, each bearing a hole. Single gunshot wounds to the chest. One was on her back, eyes open, arms akimbo, legs twisted, a pool of blood under her. The other was stretched out, arms and legs only slightly bent, eyes closed. The blood under her was smeared.
 
“Both shot, as you see,” Jesse said. “A through-and-through for the first, the bullet apparently lodging in the wall over there.” He pointed to the edge of the photo. “They recovered another bullet from inside the second victim. The first one died immediately. The second didn’t.”
 
“Doesn’t look like she tried to get away, though. Drugged?”
 
“I don’t have tox screens.”
 
“No sign of rape or torture, like you said. Looks execution style. A classic case of ‘Hey, bitch, you gonna pay for that dope or what?’ The answer, apparently, being ‘or what.’ ”
 
“Yep, that’s what it looks like.”
 
When he didn’t go on, I glanced at him. “So what’s your interest? Is one of these girls a supernatural?”
 
“Not as far as I know.”
 
He set a second photo on the table. It was another murdered young woman, also early twenties, though one glance told me this girl didn’t sell herself for dime bags.
 
I put the two photos side by side. All three bodies had been left in the same place.
 
“Basement?” I asked.
 
“Of an abandoned building.”
 
I could hear Lucas’s voice. The fact that the deceased are found in a common location may speak less to a connection than to a simple matter of convenience. Yes, Lucas really did talk that way. Drove me nuts, especially when I found myself slipping into the same speech patterns. On the plus side, I may not be an A student, but I sure as hell can sound like one.
 
When I told Jesse my theory—small town, not a lot of places to put a body, someone had already used this one, so the second killer followed suit—he shrugged. “Possible, but in this particular small town, there’s no shortage of abandoned buildings.”
 
“What’s the local murder rate?”
 
“You’re looking at it. This double killing last fall, then the single one ten days ago. Before that, the last homicide was a domestic incident in 1999.”
 
“Lot of drug activity in town?”
 
“It has its share, maybe a little more. You can blame that on a depressed economy, though. It’s not exactly a hotbed of gangsta activity. Mostly kids selling pot from their lockers, the laid-off guy down the road dealing out of his garage, that sort of thing.”
 
“Do the police think it’s the same killer for all three?”
 
“Yep, but only because otherwise they’d need to catch two murderers, and that’s more work than they care to contemplate.”
 
“You’re going to make me guess what the supernatural connection is, aren’t you.”
 
“I was just seeing if you’d pick it up. It’s—”
 
I lifted a hand to cut him off. “Is the answer here?” I asked, pointing at the photos.
 
He nodded.
 
“Give me a minute.”

From the Hardcover edition.

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Werewolves

Werewolves

Book One: Bitten, Stolen and Beginnings
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