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The Fright List

By 49thShelf
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Happy Halloween! Books to scare your socks off.
The Thirteen

The Thirteen

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
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The Witches of Eastwick meets Desperate Housewives in Susie Moloney's The Thirteen, a Globe and Mail Best Book.

Haven Woods is suburban heaven, a great place to raise a family. It's close to the city, quiet, with great schools and its own hospital right up the road. Property values are climbing. The streets are clean, people keep their yards really nicely. It's fairly pet friendly, though barking dogs are not welcomed. The crime rate is practically non-existent, unless you count the odd human sa …

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Excerpt

ONE
 
The drunk at table eight was shouting something at the dancer. Paula couldn’t hear what it was over the music, but from his ugly expression she guessed it wasn’t nice. Then he threw something that landed on the stage in front of poor Rachel. A typical Tuesday night at Blondie’s.
 
Paula looked away, pretended not to see. Another asshole in the bar. She hated her job. Hated.
 
“What the fuck?” Andy said from behind the bar. “Go see what’s going on.”
 
“He threw something at Rachel,” Paula said. She and Andy had a sometimes thing, which she also sometimes hated. Today she could smell his cologne on her hair. Chaps. Right now she didn’t like his tone.
 
“I said go see,” he snarled, and turned his back to her.
 
Paula groaned and grabbed her tray, wet with spilled beer, and headed for the fray.
 
There were only about ten people in the whole bar. It was early, just a couple of hours into her shift. The man had been drunk when she’d got there, obnoxious, loud. She’d picked him out right away. When the first dancer came on, he’d shut up and Paula had hoped that would be it.
 
“Excuse me, sir,” she said. Even as she did she tensed against the inevitable transfer of his anger. His spittle.
 
Wet-eyed, he tried to focus. Paula had a horrible moment of bar clarity as she imagined this guy stumbling home to his family and picking a fight with his sober, half-awake wife. Keep your voice down, honey, you’ll wake the kids—
 
Shut the fuck up—
 
The man ignored Paula and lurched to his feet, yelling at Rachel to get her fat ass off the stage.
 
At Rachel’s feet was an olive. She must have stepped on it, because it was flattened and the pimento had separated. It must be what the man had thrown at her. Rachel’s face was red and her movements were choppy. Choppier than usual. Andy didn’t exactly run the A-list on the first shift.
 
“Sir,” Paula repeated firmly, “please take your seat.”
 
An ugly grin began on his mouth and gave up early. “What did you say to me?”
 
“Could you sit down, please? The dancer’s just doing her job.”
 
He was middle-aged—they always were—overweight, wearing a good jacket. Probably from out of town. Maybe his business hadn’t gone well. He pointed a fat finger at her. A wedding ring glinted in the stage lights. “And you can shut your fat mouth.”
 
He reeked of gin, usually a pleasant, juniper-bush smell. Not on him.
 
“C’mon, mister, please?” She tried to smile but she couldn’t do it.
 
“Aren’t you just a fucking crackerjack bitch . . .”
 
She stared at him, and for a moment his red-blotched, booze-slackened face disappeared. His eyes were clear and burning on her, his gaze steady. This time he managed his grin, and for an instant Paula felt as if she should duck.
 
“You should shut your mouth and get your fat ass home,” he said, not slurring anymore.
 
“Excuse me?”
 
She’d had enough, and turned away. The song was just midway through, the few patrons in the bar every bit as interested in what was going on off the stage as on. She raised her hand to try to signal Andy, and then Rachel screamed.
 
The drunk had grabbed Rachel’s ankle, catching it on a turn, and she fell to the hard stage floor with a terrible thud. Paula heard the air rush out of her.
 
That was it.
 
“Let her go!” Paula slapped her tray onto the nearest table. Nickels and quarters jumped wetly in the beery ashtray. It startled the drunk and he twisted his fat head on his fat neck to look at her. His eyes narrowed, whether to focus or to look mean, she wasn’t sure.
 
He was still hanging on to Rachel’s ankle. “If I want to watch some old cow take her clothes off I’ll stay home with my wife.”
 
Rachel groaned and tried to kick free of his hand. Her cheap strappy sandal came off and dangled sadly from her foot.
 
“Let go of Rachel and sit down—” Paula could feel bile rising in her throat; the smell of him, mixed with beer and sweat, was almost too much. He was her fourth bad drunk of the week and she was done. Fucking done. Her right hand clenched into a fist and she ached to use it. She said it again: “Let go of her.”
 
The drunk made his own fist and raised it. “Gimme a reason.”
 
Paula felt a rush of heat through her body—a tempting heat, a huge desire to lash out, to pound this man’s sweaty face. Her eyes closed as she drew her own fist back like a bow—somewhere far away she heard someone gasp and a titter of laughter hit him kid knock him to the floor. Then she thought of her daughter, Rowan. Twelve and at home alone, probably curled up in front of the TV, maybe homework in her lap, waiting for her mom to call on her break. She did not hit him.
 
She opened her eyes to see the drunk backed up against the stage, hands up, palms out, Rachel sitting up, sobbing and rubbing her ankle, just as Andy got there.
 
“Back off!” Andy shouted.
 
Paula’s fist was still cocked and she realized Andy was talking to her. Her arm dropped to her side. She laughed nervously. “Whoa,” was all she could think of to say.
 
“She was going to fucking hit me,” the drunk said.
 
“Sit down,” Andy said to the drunk, who was suddenly innocent take it easy buddy what kind of joint you running as if he had never grabbed Rachel, as if he’d never made a fist at Paula.
 
“Andy—” Paula started. He turned to her angrily and pointed to the back. “Get outta here. Dump your tray and change at the bar.”
 
“I’m not missing a shift for this loser,” she protested.
 
“You’re not missing shit, Paula. You’re fired.”
 
Her mouth dropped open. He had to be kidding.
 
“You’re kidding.”
 
Andy pointed again to the bar. “Go.”
 
She grabbed her tray and stomped away. Behind her she heard a guffaw. Her stomach got tight and she was momentarily thrown again, this time by fear. She hated herself for it. She set her tray on the bar carefully, and then she lifted the ashtray with her change from the puddle of beer and put that beside the cash.
 
She was at a loss. She’d stomped out of her fair share of jobs, but she’d never been fired.
 
“Paula, I’m so goddamn sorry,” Rachel said from behind her. Paula turned to find the dancer, an unlit cigarette in her hand, a man’s long denim jacket over her costume. Her eye makeup was smeared. “I’m going for a smoke. Bastards. Thanks for trying, Paula. It’s a sisterhood, eh?” Rachel popped the cigarette into the corner of her mouth.
 
She waved Rachel away. “Don’t worry about it. Go have your smoke.” Rachel stood a second longer, checked over her shoulder for Andy, who was in a firing mood. When she saw him walking very slowly towards them, she scuttled away.
 
When he was close enough, Paula said, “What the hell, Andy?”
 
“You were going to hit a customer—what’s that shit?”
 
“I didn’t hit him. You’re firing me for something I didn’t even get to do.”
 
He snorted. “I’m firing you for lots of reasons. That one’s just handy.”
 
“What?” she said, too loudly. “No way. No fucking way. I’m on time, I work hard enough. What are you talking about?”
 
Andy stepped back behind the bar and punched keys on the register. It popped open. He got some bills from under the tray. He held them out to her. They both looked at the money.
 
“Debbie’s hired back,” he said.
 
Debbie who?
 
“My girlfriend.”
 
Ah. He held out the cash. It was twenties, maybe five of them. A hundred bucks. She laughed softly and shook her head. Unbelievable.
 
“I quit anyway. This place is a dive.”
 
He handed her the money, not looking her in the eye.
 
Fuck you she wanted to add, but her mouth was too dry. She went into the back and got her jacket and purse. When she came out, he still wouldn’t meet her eye. She left by the back door.
 
She made it as far as the edge of the parking lot before it hit her. She was unemployed. Again.
 
Worst Tuesday at Blondie’s, ever.
 

 
Normally Paula took a taxi home after her evening shift, using tip money, but tonight she headed for the bus. Who knew when she’d have another job. Streetlamps were the only light on the road. Most of the businesses around there were daytime things, wholesale places and electrical shops that turned off their signs to save a buck. A traffic light half a block away flashed red.
 
The bus was empty, just her and the driver, who stared straight ahead when Paula got on and put her money in the box. By the time she’d sat down—at the back, where the losers sit—she was in full panic, full pity, full fear mode.
 
What would she tell Rowan? The truth seemed harsh.
 
Paula pictured Rowan in her school uniform and decided she couldn’t say a thing.
 
She was twenty-eight years old. She’d just been fired from a bar job. This was not how it was supposed to be. When she’d been a kid back in Haven Woods, bar girl was not on her list of life goals. She couldn’t quite remember what had been, but she could remember sitting for hours in a homemade tent with her friends, dreaming about who they would grow up to be.
 
Not bar girls.
 
A sisterhood, Rachel had said.
 
Six hundred in chequing, a hundred and fourteen in her wallet, courtesy of Andy’s hush money, and thirty in the coffee can at home. There was a brief moment of regret when she thought about her temper and how hard it was sometimes to keep it down. She had really wanted to clock that drunk
 
(but I didn’t)
 
She leaned her head against the bus window and watched as industrial turned into downtown, then into residential, across the railroad yard to the wrong side of the tracks. Home.
 
Every light in the apartment was on, as usual. Paula didn’t mind so much. When she was Rowan’s age, she was never left alone, never mind most nights.
 
She walked through the apartment, flipping lights off as she went until she was in the kitchenette. Supper things were still on the table, a plate scraped clean, knife and fork, a glass with milk slowly drying in the bottom and chopsticks.
 
Chopsticks.
 
On the counter beside the sink was a Styrofoam takeout container, empty. She opened the fridge. Two more takeout containers were in there, one with a serving spoon sticking out the top.
 
A brown bag in the recycling box was from Captain Wu’s, the receipt for eighteen dollars, which left twelve dollars in the coffee can.
 
Paula went to Rowan’s door, which was open just a crack, her Ariel nightlight glowing. Rowan still watched The Little Mermaid now and then even though she was getting too old.
 
“Ro?” Paula whispered. She could just make her out under the covers, all limbs and hair. A fierce love rose in her, as familiar as the panic and fear, but better.
 
She was about to give up and close the door; it was nearly eleven.
 
“Mom? How come you’re home?”
 
“Ro, did you have takeout?”
 
“Mmm, yeah. Delivery.”
 
“Where did you get the money?”
 
“From the emergency can.”
 
“Who said you could use that? That money’s for emergencies—”
 
Rowan sat up and rubbed her eyes. “It was an emergency. There was nothing to eat.”
 
Paula groaned. “Rowan! There was tinned soup. Tuna. Leftover casserole from Sunday—I know you don’t love it, but we can’t just have takeout whenever we freaking want.” She was trying to stay calm, but it was hard, thinking of the thirty dollars that had been in the can, reducing their total wealth now to
 
six hundred in chequing, fourteen in my purse, twelve in the can—
 
“Jeez, I’m sorry. I had homework. I didn’t feel like cooking.” Rowan flopped backwards and closed her eyes.
 
“Ro—” Paula started.
 
“I’m sorry, Mom. I have to go to sleep. Can’t you ground me tomorrow?”
 
“It’s not funny, Ro.”
 
She turned over onto her side and Paula could hear a change in her breathing. Then she spoke again. “I’m sorry. Don’t be mad.”
 
Eighteen dollars. What was that? Bread and milk and eggs, maybe the paper.
 
“I’m not,” Paula finally said. “Not really. I love you.” She backed out of the room, remembering to leave her daughter’s door open just a crack.
 
In the kitchen she pulled the leftover takeout from the fridge and ate it with the chopsticks, standing up, not tasting it. Her throat was thick, wanting to cry, to freak out.
 
What was lower than bar waitress? Not too much.
 
Welfare, she guessed. Rowan’s tuition was paid to the end of the year, thanks to her mother, but after that she’d have to go to public school. She didn’t even have a car they could live in, although there was a beater for sale across the street. She passed it every day.
 
She threw the takeout container into the trash, then dropped to the sofa and picked up the remote. She turned on the TV to snow, then noticed a note taped to the back of the remote. She squinted to read it. You didn’t pay cable Mom.
 
She flicked off the set and soon she was asleep, dreamless except for one moment in the middle of the night when she thought she heard her mother calling her to get up. It was time for
 
 
It was a beautiful morning, but little of it bled though the frosted glass windows of the second-floor bathroom at St. Mary’s Academy for Girls. Rowan was with Nicki and Caleigh. Nicki had stolen a couple of cigarettes from her mother’s pack. They were all crowded into the last stall and Nicki was about to light one.
 
Caleigh had shoved gum in the smoke detectors. It was bright pink against the rest of the gobs of gum, some so ancient they had lost all colour.
 
Nicki flicked the lighter (also pinched from her mother) and held the flame to the end of the cigarette. It caught and flared briefly, like a firework. Rowan and Caleigh—children of nonsmokers—flinched and stepped back a little.
 
Nicki inhaled and coughed roughly, but not as much as a person might expect. Then she held it out to Caleigh. “Don’t just stare at it. Smoke it, dork.”
 
With a glance at Rowan, Caleigh put it in her mouth like a straw. She sucked on it once, then burst into terrible, deep coughs, as if she had lung cancer or something.
 
Nicki laughed, and patted her hard on the back. Thump thump thump. “You baby!” She took the cigarette back. “They keep you skinny. That’s why my mom smokes. She says if she quits she’ll put on, like, twenty pounds.”
 
Nicki held it out to Rowan. “C’mon.”
 
Rowan shook her head. Caleigh was still sputtering and looked sick.
 
“I don’t think so. It causes cancer.”
 
“Not the first time,” Nicki said.
 
“I don’t want to.”
 
Nicki drew on the cigarette herself and blew smoke out like a pro, holding in a cough that made her eyes water. “If you try it I’ll let you use my Friis bag for the city trip. My big one.” Grade seven and eight French students were going to Montreal for a weekend, to see an opera in French and to eat in French restaurants in order to have an “immersion experience.” Sister Claire was taking them. Everyone loved Sister Claire. Rowan would like to be Sister Claire, except for the nun part.
 
Nicki watched her with a half-grin, but Rowan wouldn’t meet her eyes. She stared at her feet, then the wall. “No way,” she said finally. “I’m not going anyway.”
 
“Really? Why not?” Caleigh said.
 
“It’s lame.” It cost five hundred dollars. “I don’t want to go.”
 
Nicki grinned slyly. “Can’t your mother afford it?”
 
“That’s none of your business, Sickie Nicki,” Caleigh said. “Get the money from your dad,” she said to Rowan. “That’s what I do when my mom won’t give me something.”
 
“My dad’s dead,” Rowan said. “He died in a car wreck when I was a baby. I’ve never even seen him, except in pictures.”
 
“Wow,” said Caleigh. “That’s kind of sad. My dad had a heart attack two years ago, but he’s okay now.” Caleigh looked at Rowan with a new sort of interest.
 
Nicki played with the cigarette. “Isn’t your mom a stripper? They make lots of money, you know. She should totally have the money.”
 
“She’s not a stripper, Nic,” Rowan said.
 
“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with being a stripper. I think it’s cool. I would love to have men staring at me because I’m beautiful,” Nicki said.
 
“They stare at strippers because they’re naked, not because they’re pretty,” Caleigh said. “Is your mom a stripper really?”
 
No!” Rowan was red-faced. “She works in a bar downtown. But gawd, she’s not a stripper.”
 
“But she’s poor, right? That’s why you’re not going on the trip—”
 
“Fuck off, Nicki.” Rowan stared her down.
 
“Whatever, Wittmore,” Nicki said, as she put the cigarette to her mouth for another puff. “If my mom was a stripper I wouldn’t lie—” It was as far as she got before Rowan pulled back and smacked her in the face. The cigarette hit the wall, and sparks and ash bounced off the tile.
 
The smack seemed to echo loudly in the bathroom. Nicki blinked, her mouth dropped open in total surprise, a red mark appearing where Rowan had hit her. There was complete, shocked silence for a split second. Then Caleigh screamed.
 
“You fucking hit me,” Nicki said.
 
“You have a big mouth,” Rowan said, surprised at how her heart was pounding, and also at how good it had felt to hit Nicki’s (smug) face.
 
Then Nicki’s chin started to wiggle and her bottom lip practically swallowed her top lip as fat tears plopped out of her eyes onto her pink cheeks. “You fucking hit me, Wittmore! You fucking did so!”
 
“Shut up, Nicki,” Rowan said.
 
Caleigh put her hands up. “I’m going to—” and then she ran away from them, leaving Nicki and Rowan standing like idiots, staring each other down while the cigarette burned between them on the washroom floor.
 
That’s how it was when Sister Claire came in, Caleigh trailing behind her, and all hell broke loose, shit hit the fan, everybody had a big fat crap sandwich.
 
 
Light burned through Paula’s eyelids, something wrong about that for sure, but there was something else too, a shoo-fly feeling, an irritation like an itch, pulsing.
 
She was not in her bedroom. The light was coming at her from the big window at the front of the apartment. Morning light. She was on the sofa in the living room, still in her clothes from the night before. She could smell beer very faintly. From her pants, most likely. Ugh.
 
The phone rang beside her head once more, pulling her completely out of sleep.
 
“Shit,” Paula mumbled, pawed towards the sound of the phone and hit upon the receiver, thumbing the button as much to make it stop as to answer the call.
 
“Hello?”
 
“Mrs. Wittmore? This is Candace Fines, principal at St. Mary’s Academy—”
 
“It’s Miss,” Paula corrected her, her voice froggy.
 
“Be that as it may . . .” Fines continued, her voice chilly.
 
Paula listened, anger growing inside her, feeling like the bitter taste of the last straw. She hung up the phone and dragged herself off the sofa and changed her clothes.
 
Rowan was in deep trouble. In deep shit.
 
shit shit shit
 
 
Rowan was sitting on the wooden bench outside the principal’s office when Paula came out. She looked up shyly, but with a tiny bit of the expression Nicki probably had seen right before Rowan clocked her.
 
The two Wittmore girls stared at each other. Paula kept her expression blank, both because she was unsure how she felt and because she was exhausted. It was only ten thirty in the morning and there had already been a disaster. Mother Teresa would have been exhausted.
 
“Get your book bag,” Paula said. “Do you have anything in your locker that you’ll need?”
 
Rowan’s eyes widened and the trace of defiance disappeared. “Need for what?”
 
Paula’s purse felt as if it weighed twenty pounds. She dropped it to the floor and sat beside her daughter on the bench.
 
“Need in the next two months. You’ve been suspended for the rest of term.”
 
Rowan gasped. “Because I hit Nicki?”
 
Paula nodded. “They have a zero-tolerance violence policy.”
 
“What about the smoking?”
 
“You were smoking?”
 
Rowan let out a frustrated sigh. “No. Nicki had a cigarette and was trying to make us try it. But I didn’t.”
 
“Is that why you hit her?” In truth she was still trying to digest the idea of Rowan hitting anyone. She’d never been what you would call an angelic child, but she’d never been violent. Rowan had always used her words when she was angry.
 
Rowan shook her head.
 
“Well, what then?”
 
Rowan stared at the floor, her hair covering her face, but Paula could still see her through the breaks in the curtain it made. She was frowning.
 
“Nicki’s an asshole.”
 
“Rowan! You’re not making this any better for yourself. Tell me why you hit her.”
 
Rowan shook her head and then shrugged. “What did Fines say?”
 
“She said, ‘Nicole and Rowan had a disagreement and Rowan struck Nicole in the face.’ And when I asked what the disagreement was about, she suggested I ask you, that it was personal.”
 
She put her hand on Rowan’s shoulder. “What was it about, honey?”
 
“Nicki said you were a stripper.”
 
It was Paula’s turn to be speechless. And when she didn’t respond, Rowan looked at her, concerned. “You’re not, are you?”
 
“No. No. Rowan, you know I’m not. I’m a waitress. Lots of women are waitresses—”
 
“Not here.”
 
Touché. Paula stood up. “Go get your stuff. I’ll meet you out front.”
 
 
Without discussion they took the long way home, down Cascade Street, past the library and the big Whole Foods that they went to around Christmas time. Neither of them was anxious to get back to the crummy apartment.
 
For most of the walk they were quiet. Then Paula said, “I’m still surprised you hit her, Ro. You want to talk about it?”
 
“No.”
 
Paula couldn’t help it, and laughed a little. Of course she didn’t want to talk about it. Neither did Paula, truthfully. But she had to say something.
 
She took a breath. “I wish I was a lawyer or a doctor or something great like that, but I got pregnant and had you, and I had to choose. I wanted to be your mother more than I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer.”
 
It was true, after a fashion. Paula had been lost in those days, heartbroken, angry. She had been only sixteen, practically a child and pregnant with one. Her father had just died. What had surprised her most of all was her mother’s solution. At a time when they should have needed each other most, her mother had sent her away, to the same school Rowan was now suspended from. Maybe it had been too much for both of them. Their house had become unbearably sad, grief seeming to echo off every wall.
 
Paula had been full of secrets that she couldn’t share. Sometimes she suspected that her mother knew that. But neither of them said anything then, and they had said nothing since about those days. Bad times, but a long time ago.
 
Rowan snorted, and that took Paula by surprise. “What?”
 
“Maybe it would have been better if you’d been doctor or something. Look at us now—we’re all broke and crap. We don’t even have cable any more.”
 
“Oh, please—”
 
“Maybe you should have gotten a better job or gone to a better school or something. Instead, now we’re stuck and you can’t even make it better!”
 
“First of all, I went to a very good school—the same one you just got booted out of. I don’t have to explain my choices to you, Ro.”
 
“Why? Aren’t you always asking me what I think about life and telling me to be honest? Well, are you a stripper? You could be, right? I mean, you had me and you weren’t married or even with a boyfriend—”
 
“Rowan! What does that have to do with anything?”
 
“I don’t know! I just wish—we were normal. I don’t have a dad, I don’t have a sister or a brother . . . I don’t even have a grandma! All the teachers call you Mrs. Wittmore and I don’t tell them you’re not married . . . but everybody knows—” Rowan’s forehead was sweaty, as it always got when she was upset, and her bangs clung.
 
“You have a grandmother, Ro. She pays your tuition, remember?”
 
“But I don’t see her,” she said, petulantly. “Is she ashamed of me?”
 
Paula reached out. “Rowan, of course not! She loves you. She’s just not . . . that kind of grandmother. Come on, you’re upsetting yourself. Let me take your bag—”
 
She jerked away. “No! I’m going home—you walk too slow!”
 
“Jesus, Ro—” she said, but Ro was leaving. She’d adjusted her bag on her tiny shoulders and was actually stomping away.
 
“Do you have your key?” Paula called.
 
She spun back to face her mother. “Yes, I have my key. Of course I have my key. I always have my key—I’m a latchkey kid!”
 
“You’re not a latchkey kid, Ro. You go to the lunch program.”
 
“I am at night!”
 
“Rowan, please—”
 
 
When Paula got back she found an envelope taped to the apartment door. Paula Wittmore was written in pencil on the front in Andy’s handwriting.
 
Paula unstuck the envelope, then let herself into the apartment. She could hear music, a little too loud, coming from Rowan’s room. She was grateful not to have to face her. Paula would have to say something about her job situation
 
(which did not bear thinking about just yet)
 
and they would have to plan for the days of school Ro would miss. She dropped her purse and tossed her jacket onto the sofa, where the blanket from the night before was still where she had left it. She took the envelope over to the kitchen counter, stuck her finger under the flap and tore it open.
 
The cheque was for five hundred dollars. Double what she was expecting. There was no note. Guilt money
 
(and she didn’t care)
 
and she noticed that the message light was blinking on the archaic answering machine.
 
Paula pressed Play.
 
“Paula? This is a message for Paula—” and even as she heard the voice, her heart nearly stopped in her chest, and everything else about the day slid off her.
 
“Dear, it’s Izzy Riley, from Haven Woods? I’m sorry to tell you, but your mother has taken ill. She’s in the hospital here. I hope you’ll come home. I know you and she haven’t been so close these past years, but she’d love to see you. And your daughter.”
 
Her mother was ill, badly enough off to be in the hospital in Haven Woods. That crummy little hospital. She and Rowan had been back home to visit only once, and Rowan had gotten so sick they had to go back to the city—there was no way she was taking her baby to the Haven Woods emergency room.
 
Her mother had come to see them maybe twice since then and actively discouraged any suggestion from Paula that she and Rowan come home.
 
And now . . . Izzy Riley.
 
Paula dropped to a chair beside the table and tried to take that in. Last time she’d seen Izzy she’d been standing outside the church after David’s funeral. Izzy had turned and looked over her shoulder just as the Wittmores got into their car. A quick glance and then she turned back to talk to someone. That was the last time Paula had laid eyes on a Riley.
 
Rowan’s other grandmother. Not that Izzy knew that.
 
She would go home. She and Rowan.
 
Her mother was ill: Audra was ill. Old Tex, the dog—he would be sixteen, seventeen? She pondered that, considered that he might be dead. The house would be empty.
 
Haven Woods, a million miles away from Blondie’s, St. Mary’s Academy; a million miles away from where she was now.
 
A million miles away.

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Living With the Dead

Living With the Dead

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

The men and women of the Otherworld – witches, werewolves, demons, vampires – live unseen among us. Only now a reckless killer has torn down the wall, trapping one very human woman in the supernatural crossfire.

Robyn moved to LA after her husband died to try to put some distance between herself and the life they had together. And the challenges of her job as the PR consultant to a Paris Hilton wannabe are pretty distracting. But then her celebutante is gunned down in a night club, and Rob …

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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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