People say karma’s a…well, you know. Personally, I don’t think I’m that bad.
It’s not like I wanted this job. I wasn’t even in my right mind when I accepted
Now, I’m surrounded by crazy coworkers like Lady Luck, who’s a bit of a tramp,
and Murphy’s Law, who’s a bumbling oaf. But the worst is Fate. He’s got a problem with transfers like myself, and I have to see him constantly. It’s unavoidable. We’re hunting the same man, my murderer.
It’s very hard to work with someone who tried to murder me. But when the mysterious senator reappears on the scene, I’m desperate enough to take whatever help I can get, even if it is from Cormac. Dealing with him is nothing compared to losing a few hundred lives and that’s the best case scenario. Worst case? I lose them all.
I thought I could be a hero. That was before I helped destroy the world. Now, as I stand among the rubble of what used to be, I wonder how we’re ever going to pick up the pieces.
Everyday is a struggle, and people are getting desperate. Creatures that never should have existed are picking away at the dwindling numbers of the human race. And the knowledge that could be our salvation lies with the senator who reigns supreme on the other half of the globe.
Up until now, I’ve done everything wrong. Deserted, and feeling more alone than ever, I need to lead my people in this new barbaric world. I’ve got to defend them against the power hungry senator and shield them from even themselves. All this while my heart is being ripped to shreds.
Sometimes, redemption is found in your darkest moments.
What people are saying about The Alchemy Series…
“I was hooked instantly and emotionally invested before I knew what hit me. ” – I Smell Sheep
“Awesome urban fantasy that I enjoyed as much as Kim Harrison, Keri Arthur and similar . Nicely written with great characters and the story kept me hooked from start to finish I couldn’t put it down. ”
“If you love the Kate Daniels series then The Alchemy series is for you.”
“Another stunning 5***** star read from Donna Augustine! I (personally) can’t wait for book 3!”
Keep scrolling for the first four chapters and watch for it on Amazon soon!
When I’d opened the birthday gift Kaden had given me and found a key, I hadn’t expected this. I thought it was for the outpost—not that I’d ever seen one used. Or a key for a studio, or maybe a small apartment at most. But no. That wasn’t how Kaden worked.
I gazed around the town house, my town house, at least for the time being. It was nearly as large as his. The architecture and design was clean and simple, as if he’d somehow known exactly what I’d like. The colors were neutral and calming. It wasn’t furnished, as if he’d known I’d prefer to do that myself. There was only one huge, glaring problem. This town house was right next to his.
It would almost be like living with him. He’d know every single person who came and went. Every. Single. One. Gram wouldn’t stand a chance of slipping past him to get to me here. It had to be the reason he’d gotten me this place. Why else?
I’d given my word that I wouldn’t act against him, but he’d taken out an insurance policy on me for the price tag of a town house. It appeared as if he trusted me about as much as I trusted him. Was there a chance he’d done it because I was wholly unprepared for all that dwelled in Nowhere? Maybe, but taking one glance over at him gave me the distinct impression that was not the case.
Kaden was leaning against the counter, watching me. His dark hair was pushed back and his light eyes nearly glowing as they watched me. The angle of his body, the slight arrogance of his expression, was of someone who thought they had it all under control, the writer of the play we were all acting out per his direction. Yep. There was a reason he was keeping me close, and it had nothing to do with benefiting me. This was nothing but a potential trap.
When certain things came to light, certain relations, this wasn’t the place I’d be able to hole up. Only a lunatic would hide in plain sight of the person who was hunting them. I hadn’t needed to know Kaden long to know that hell might be preferable to his wrong side.
“What’s wrong? You said you wanted to live in Nowhere, and yet you don’t appear happy about this?” he asked.
“I am. I’m definitely happy.” I smiled so hard my cheeks wanted to break. I made a show of looking around the place before my face cramped from strain. “It’s very generous, but…maybe too much? I did only just start with the company, after all. I’m not sure this is appropriate?” I laid a hand on the railing that led upstairs, keeping my gaze on anything but him.
It really wasn’t fair that I had to perfect my lies with someone who’d surely lived for centuries. I’d barely made it two and half decades and hadn’t started practicing deception until much more recently.
“I’m sure it’ll all work out in the end. Not to mention there wasn’t that much available, so it’ll have to.” He was leaning and smiling, plotting and maneuvering—it was all working out exactly as he wanted.
We’d see about that.
“Is there a realtor or someone who handles these things? Maybe something else will open up?” I stared down at the wood flooring, admiring the grain as if the finish were my biggest concern in life at the moment.
“Sure. I’ll get you his number. He should be back in a few months or so.” He strolled over, stopping not far from where I stood at the bottom of the stairs. “I’d get settled in while you wait. No rush, right?” He dug into his pocket, pulling out a key. “A spare, not that you need to lock it. No one would dare break in here.”
Just as I figured. This place was literally an extension of his town house. I nodded, taking the key, too aware of even the most casual brush of hands.
I needed to start dating. If my life weren’t in complete upheaval, it would be easier to do so, but my hormones didn’t care that I was in a mess. They seemed to want to fixate on the closest source of testosterone around, and that was Kaden. It didn’t help that he had so damned much of it.
He watched me as if he could sense my thoughts. He couldn’t, but even the possibility warmed my cheeks. I took a step back, taking a spin around the living room and putting a healthy buffer in between us.
The door swung open, and Cookie, the biggest mood killer and my savior, barged in.
Kaden nodded to us both and left, swaggering out. Of course he’d be feeling his oats. He’d worked me into a corner, gotten his way, and we were both well aware of it.
Cookie walked in and spun around, curling up her lip. “Man, this place is sterile. It’s going to need a lot of work to make it livable.” She patted the air in my direction. “Don’t worry, though. I know a guy. He owns the place I got the furnishings for the outpost. He’ll hook you up.”
Oh no, not that. This place would look like a seventies sitcom set after its twentieth season of use.
“Yeah, that’s really nice of you, but I can’t put you out like that. I can manage.” For once in Cookie’s life, please let her be easy about something and not dig in. It was bad enough I was going to be stuck here under surveillance. Couldn’t it at least look pretty?
“You’re my girl. I can’t let you live like this.” She was shaking her head, throwing her hands in the air and circling. “You’ll die of depression coming back here night after night. I know no one likes my taste that much, but I’m telling you, you’ll come to see the wisdom of my design aesthetic. You just need to give it a few decades to grow on you. You don’t like it after that, do whatever you want and I won’t say a thing.” She made a motion of zipping her lips.
A few decades? She was staring at me, waiting for some acknowledgment. Hopefully I wouldn’t be here more than a few weeks, so it wouldn’t matter. I gave a nod and the best smile I had left, which didn’t say much.
Connor walked in, glanced around, and shrugged. Having given his stamp of approval, he headed over to the kitchen, opening up the empty fridge. “Any food in this place?”
Connor had to eat constantly to feed all those muscles.
“Not yet,” I said.
Cookie was walking toe to heel across the living room area counting, but stopped long enough to say, “Dice is bringing some.”
How much time did I have? Would she go shopping without me? It didn’t matter. I had to keep remembering that this was temporary.
Dice walked in a minute later with bags and boxes in hand, following Connor’s earlier path.
“Nice place,” he said, dropping all his goods on the kitchen island. “But I can’t believe you want to live right next door to Kaden. He’s going to know every single thing you do. You know that, right?”
“Yeah, I kind of figured.” Which was why instead of grabbing a slice of the weird-looking pizza he was pulling out of the box, I wanted to slam my head into the stone counter. It wasn’t as if I didn’t want the town house. It just wasn’t compatible with my long-term survival.
Cookie grabbed a slice of the black dough coated with what appeared to be some sort of melted cheese. “It’s got decent bones, but I’ve got to help her make it livable.”
Both of the guys laughed, Connor looking like he was choking on his pizza.
“Screw you both. I have good taste.” Cookie pointed at Dice. “You think black tie means to polish all your guns for the affair.” She turned to Connor. “And you. I don’t know what shit you’re taking, but you can’t even put those arms down anymore. You won’t have any shirts that fit soon. Time to quit it.”
Connor, usually either silent or nodding, actually looked offended for the first time. “Hey! I’m in good shape. I care about my body.”
Cookie planted both hands on the island and leaned toward him. “Why? We. Don’t. Die. At least not from poor health. You’re the only tinker I know who morphs and still has the same crazy body. Take a day off once in a while.”
She spun to go at Dice again, but he cut her off first.
“Oh no, you ain’t talking more shit about my guns after how many times they saved your ass.”
She shrugged. “Fine.” The room fell silent before she looked at the food. “I’ll leave the guns alone, but a little stingy with the food, no? What, Kaden cut your pay or something? Too many hookers this week?”
“Considering she doesn’t even have a plate or napkin for us, I’d be happy there’s anything,” Dice said.
They all turned to me.
“He’s right,” Cookie said. “If you’re going to have us over, at least have a couple plates, and maybe a chair wouldn’t kill you.” She was already chowing down on another slice of pizza.
Oh no, they weren’t turning this on me.
“I don’t remember inviting any of you,” I said.
“You had to know we’d be showing up,” Dice said, as if that had been the lamest excuse ever.
“Fine. It’s my fault,” I said with the tone of someone saying shut the hell up. I took a slice before I didn’t get one. There weren’t that many left, and it wasn’t looking as if they were going to save me one. “Where do you get this stuff?” The flavor was a little strange, but in an oddly intriguing way.
“Place a couple blocks away. I’ll show it to you tomorrow on the way to the furniture store,” Cookie said, and then took her pizza back to the living area and started doing her heel-to-toe measurements again.
Connor and Dice were looking at each other, choking on laughter. They looked my way as if this were the funniest thing they’d seen in a year.
“By the way, you are stingy with the food,” I said.
It didn’t so much as ding their smiles.
“The surprise is here?” I asked, following Cookie upstairs in my town house.
She stopped in front of the door to the master bedroom and flung it open. “Ta da!” she said.
I braced myself for what I was about to see and then stepped into the room. I should’ve taken a few more minutes to prepare. There was a black dresser on the side that looked shiny enough to see my reflection in. The patchwork quilt on the bed had colors that never should’ve touched each other, ever. Then there was the pompom rainbow fringe.
“Is the bed…” I moved closer to make sure the strange color combination wasn’t creating an illusion of a dent in the center. I reached down to touch it but stopped short. It might be wise to put on a pair of gloves before touching anything.
“Amazing? Yes. It’s already got a dent to roll right into.” She followed me into the room, looking around and nodding. “Now this is comfy. No throw pillows to fuss with. If you come home drunk, you won’t care if you leave your boots on with this cover.” She dropped onto the bed, kicking up her feet to demonstrate.
“You’re definitely right about that.” I wouldn’t care one bit if this stuff fell apart. If it got stained, it would blend in with the other ones it had.
“Give it a couple of decades. I’m telling you, it’s going to grow on you.” Her smile was exploding with pride, almost to the point of supernova. She was so pleased with herself that I couldn’t summon up a rain cloud. “You’re shocked at how quick I can pull a place together, right? I have had centuries of practice, though.”
“You do work quickly.” It had been one day. I’d planned on dragging out my move from the outpost, but it wasn’t going to work out well if she kept this up. Although it might offer me cover. No one would wonder why I didn’t want to move in. They’d be more surprised if I rushed.
“Are you busy right now? We can go get some more shit.” She jumped off the bed a little too quickly to be bluffing.
No way was I going to the origin of this stuff. This room had been more than enough for one day.
“Actually, I wanted to head back to the outpost and start packing a few things.” And it was going to take me a very long time to do so.
“That’s fine. I’ve got a couple more things to do around here anyway,” she said as she followed me out of the room and downstairs.
She headed toward a box in the living room and pulled out a pillow with moth holes and a ripped throw blanket. “I know you don’t have a couch yet, but I couldn’t resist. It was such a good deal. Ninety percent off. Can you even imagine? They were practically giving this stuff away.”
Unfortunately, I could. I didn’t want to see what else was in that box.
“See you in a bit.”
I didn’t bother telling her to lock up on her way out. I’d consider myself lucky if I got robbed.
I headed out, not sure where I was going, but anywhere was better than getting dragged to the scary place she bought these items. I headed down the streets of Nowhere, still feeling out of sorts roaming this place, let alone having a home here. The eternal night, even with a sky full of swirling stars, didn’t offset the strange feeling of the darkness at noon. But the night fit this place. Its shiny black streets reflected the glowing lights from the establishments, some of which seemed to be created right from stardust. Everything felt alive, even the signs that would twist and turn or twinkle. The people were even odder, almost as if this place was composed of carnies.
I tried to keep my gaze straight ahead, not meeting eyes with any of them as I passed. I’d been warned by Cookie, Dice, and Connor to stay on the main roads, not to engage. They said if I minded my own business, I’d probably be okay.
Kaden hadn’t given me a warning of any kind. Cookie said he’d warned all of Nowhere that I was officially part of his crew. Apparently that carried more weight than anything else. As long as I didn’t look for trouble, it most likely wouldn’t find me.
Or he’d find them.
Still, everyone else’s warning had me ready to launch into an attack when a pair of hands landed on my back.
“Turn here,” Gram said before I could get my bearings and swing.
“Gram?” I would’ve turned and hugged her, but she kept steering me into the nearest dark alley.
The second she stopped, I threw my arms around her, squeezing her tighter than her old bones could probably take. In this new world, my closest friends were people I’d only known for a couple of months. But she was a piece of me, my life, a person who knew me better than anyone. My throat swelled and I dragged in a shuddering breath.
I held on to her as if she’d get taken away at any second, but the longer we hugged, the more I noticed something odd. I’d hugged her more times than I could count. I knew her hugs the way I recognized my own face. The body I was holding didn’t feel like Gram, unless she’d gotten a grammy makeover, and even then it was iffy.
I backed up and took in her frame. She still looked like Gram, but there was something altogether different lurking underneath.
“Why do you feel…different?” I took another step back. Was this Gram at all? My gut said yes. I could even smell an aroma of lingering marigolds. But something wasn’t lining up.
“I didn’t want to alarm you, but I’ve upgraded a bit since the last time I saw you. You want to see?” she asked, her voice shifting into a higher and younger version as she spoke. She took a step back, smiling as she put her hands on her waist as if posing her new look.
Did I? It wasn’t like I could say no even if I didn’t, the way she was waiting.
Gram melted away, and all of a sudden there was a drop-dead gorgeous creature in front of me. She looked like a bombshell from the fifties with bright red hair and curves that were high and round. This wasn’t the Gram I craved when I was feeling lonely and down. This looked like a party friend. I’d never been much of a partier, but it looked like I’d have to adjust.
“How exactly did you upgrade?” I asked.
“Don’t look at me that way. It’s completely normal. That old lady’s body was dead and lying in a box back on Earth. I had to do it. Plus it’s a bit of a perk from having the friends I have.”
“Where did you get a new one?”
“Had it ordered. They grow them on Omega Nine. I’ve got some pull over there. But we’ve got more important things to talk about. I need—”
“We do. How do I get in touch with you if I need to talk to you? Where are you staying? I have no way of getting to you.” There was no way I was letting her disappear again with no option of getting in touch with her.
“You can’t. I’m not staying in Nowhere. This place is too hot until we get some things settled.”
She spoke as if it weren’t a big deal I couldn’t get to her, so I tamped down how jumbled up it made me feel. It wasn’t as if it made a difference if I complained. If there was a way to get in touch, she would’ve told me.
“Because of Kaden? What is the problem with you two?” I asked.
“It’s a long story and I don’t have time to get into it. I don’t want to stay too long. I can’t risk being spotted. I just wanted to let you know I was around and that I’ll be back.”
She took my hands in hers. Even her grasp felt alien, her bony hands gone and replaced with a young woman’s, complete with long, pointy nails that sparkled.
I was staring at those hands as she asked, “I can depend on you, can’t I?”
I glanced up. How could she even ask such a question? My entire life, it had been Gram and me.
“You know you can,” I said, searching this new face for a sign of why she’d even doubt that.
“No, I mean really depend on you.” She moved her grip to my shoulders. “This isn’t Earth. The stakes are a lot higher. I have to know that you’ll step up if the time comes.”
Step up? A question I’d taken as innocent before was suddenly feeling a little messier and more sordid. This wasn’t my older grandmother asking if I’d be there to drive her to the doctor.
Was she… She didn’t mean to act against Kaden, did she? Maybe not. Either way, I’d made a promise to him as well, and I’d meant it. Unless he was actively trying to hurt her, I couldn’t imagine a way to justify going against my promise. How to explain that to her, though? She’d never been a fan of buts.
“You know that I would always be there for you in any way you needed—”
“Shh.” She held a finger up to her lips as she turned her head, listening for something. Her attention focused on a little mouse that was standing on its hind legs at the edge of the shadows. “Gotta go. I’ll be in touch soon.” She took off down the alley.
“Gram? What the hell? It’s just a mouse.”
She was already gone.
Gram 2.0 moved a lot quicker than the previous version, and I was yelling at an empty alley. No wonder I’d been hanging on to her for dear life. This was becoming a serious issue with her. Now when would I see her? I hadn’t had a chance to warn her about the town house, although she probably knew.
I stared in the direction of where she’d disappeared, not finding any trace of her, just inky darkness. I continued to stare for another few minutes as I replayed what she’d said, and everything about it made me want to shudder.
We needed to have a long talk. Enough with these short meetings. I needed to know what was going on between her and Kaden. I’d given my word, and I hadn’t done that lightly.
I should probably get out of this alleyway, though. This was exactly the thing the guys and Cookie had warned me about. If standing in a dark alley wasn’t asking for trouble, nothing was.
I spun to leave and then stopped. Kaden was there at the opening of the alley. He was standing so still that I wasn’t sure he was breathing.
The look on his face made my lungs stop working. My heart seized and a tremor ran down my spine. Had he been somewhere close? Had he heard me talking to Gram? How much had he heard? What had I said? I replayed every word in my mind. If he’d heard only that last bit? It wasn’t good. No, it was worse than not good. It was horrific. The more of the tail end of the conversation he’d witnessed, the worse it all appeared.
Knowing him, that was where his mind would go. He wasn’t the trusting sort. He’d think I was colluding with my grandmother and not just reassuring the one I loved I’d always be there for them. If he wanted to, he could twist that conversation into all sorts of horrible things—and from the look in his eyes, he was already hard at work.
This was it. This was what had kept me up at night, made me fear getting too close, too settled. From his expression, it was going to be every bit as bad as I’d expected it to be. Every time I thought of this moment, I’d gotten a knot in my stomach, and the reality felt a million times worse.
If he’d hear me out, give me the benefit of the doubt… I had to try, and I had to do it now, because he wasn’t going to give me another opportunity from the looks of it.
I took a few steps toward him but then paused as his gaze hardened even more on my approach.
“Kaden, I don’t know what you heard, but that conversation—”
“Do you realize who your gram is? That the one you assured your loyalty to is the infamous Rathia?”
I wanted to declare that whoever he was talking about wasn’t my grandmother, that he was mistaken. Except I’d heard that name before. Grandpa used to call her that. I remembered asking him why he had, since it wasn’t her given name. He’d said he didn’t know himself, other than it made her happy.
“I don’t know what your issues are, but she’s not the monster you think.”
“I guess that depends on what side of the line you’re on, and you’ve made it very clear where you’re standing.” His voice was chillingly cold.
“Don’t accuse me after what you’ve done. Why did you want me at the town house if not to keep tabs on me? What are you doing now if not spying on me?” Instead of keeping it cool, trying to talk to him, I was yelling and throwing accusations back.
He stared my way, his anger filling the alley. “You need to leave Nowhere tonight.”
That was it. I’d been judged and sentenced in all of a few minutes. Why had I ever imagined anything else?
It didn’t matter. He could say whatever he wanted. It was my life, and I was done taking orders.
“I’m not leaving,” I said.
“Nowhere is mine, and I want you out. You won’t have anywhere to stay unless I allow it.”
He said that Nowhere was his. But it wasn’t. No one owned Nowhere. Not even the king himself.
“I’ll figure it out on—”
He turned his back on me mid-sentence, not willing to hear another word. That was it. We were finished.
I didn’t think we’d be best friends, but I’d thought we’d formed some kind of relationship that would merit at least his hearing me out. But this was it. I didn’t even get to attempt an explanation of what happened. He just cut me off. Just tossed me out like last night’s leftovers.
I stood there, debating my options until a fine drizzle turned into rain. I was standing in a puddle as I sorted through what my options were.
Gram hadn’t given me a way to contact her, so she wasn’t an option. Did I pack a bag and go Topside? I still had money. I could find somewhere to stay.
The clerk at whatever hotel I found might not remember me for more than five minutes, but I wouldn’t be without shelter. It would just be a miserable existence of no one ever knowing me. If I left here, I’d be doomed to a life of invisibility. Every meeting would be a one-off. A life filled with elevator conversations.
If my prospects Topside were bad, Nowhere was worse. I wouldn’t even have a roof over my head in Nowhere because Kaden would surely lock me out of the town house.
Unless I had a job, and a new position. I did have options. There was always Alaric, but I didn’t want to show up there, wherever he was, in the middle of the night, drenched and desperate.
So where did that leave me? With one option.
I stood on the stoop to Cookie’s place. She was as loyal as they came, but she was also independent. Would she hear me out, or would she immediately side with Kaden? I’d spent the entire walk envisioning her kicking me down the front steps with her steel-toed boots. Even if Kaden had already told her I was to be banished from Nowhere, maybe she’d at least listen to my side, try to understand where I was coming from. She was my best bet—and also my only option at the moment.
I was mid-knock when she flung open the door and looked at me for a half-second. That was all it took for her forehead to bunch up like a used accordion and her jaw to drop.
“You look like shit. What happened?” She waved me in.
Cookie didn’t care for upscale furnishings, and she also didn’t care if you dripped all over her floor. There was something very endearing about that when you were down and out, and forming puddles wasn’t even on your radar.
“Before I tell you, I need you to promise to hear me out.”
She sucked air in between her teeth. “That bad, eh?”
It wasn’t bad if she’d listen. If she heard the story from Kaden, though…
“On the surface, it might appear that way. I swear, though, it wasn’t what it sounded like. Will you hear me out?” If I couldn’t get Cookie to listen, it would be downhill from here. Without her help, I’d be doomed to live a nameless life in Topside. The guys might not condemn me, but my hunch was they’d ultimately follow Kaden’s lead. Gram was as dependable a shelter as a tent in a hurricane.
“Of course. I’d probably say almost anything at this point to hear what happened.” She walked toward her living room, motioning me farther in.
Dice and Connor were lounging on her couch, and my brain skipped. It was going to be bad enough telling her, but I was going to have to tell all of them? At the same time?
I’d have to. If I didn’t, Kaden would.
“Damn, you look almost as shitty as that first day you showed up at the outpost. Remember? You thought you were going to get tossed off the bridge,” Dice said, and then laughed.
That had to be the worst memory he could’ve recalled. They didn’t know how close their boss was to throwing me into the river himself right now.
“Well? Out with it,” Cookie said. “You can’t make an entrance like this and then leave everyone hanging.”
I glanced down at Cookie’s feet. At least she didn’t have her steel-toed boots on. Dice had his guns, but they were holstered. Connor was slumped, muscles looking lax. None of this guaranteed my safety, but I’d have a better shot.
“I’m guessing you all remember there were some questions around who my grandmother was.”
“Shit. I’m not sure I want to hear this,” Dice said, then leaned forward, making sure he wouldn’t miss a word of it.
Connor rolled his eyes and let out a low groan.
Cookie dropped onto her couch, still looking unaggressive. “Oh no, this ain’t going to be good. I mean, I knew it would be bad, but I thought there’d be some entertainment value in it. This isn’t going to just be bad—it’s going to be bad bad, isn’t it?” she asked.
“Just get it out,” Dice said.
I nodded again and then began to pace the room in front of them. “I didn’t know who my grandmother was initially, but I’d come to suspect in the last few weeks that she wasn’t just the little old lady I loved. She was also someone Kaden didn’t particularly like. Tonight, he found out who she was, and it didn’t go well.” I ran through the entire story, knowing at this point that there was no holding back.
I finally stopped pacing and looked at my audience. All three of them were gaping at me.
“Wait, who did you say your grandmother was?” Dice asked.
“You heard her. It’s Rathia,” Connor said, and then groaned again.
“That’s pretty bad. But you know that, right?” Cookie asked, looking subdued for the first time since I’d known her.
She shrugged but didn’t stand up, or scream that I needed to get out of her house right then and there. Dice wasn’t pulling out his guns, and Connor wasn’t flexing. They didn’t instantaneously hate me, and I was finally feeling like I might not have to make a mad dash for the door and run for my life. They were doing what I’d hoped Kaden would’ve done, but hadn’t—they’d given me a chance to explain. They’d trusted that I wasn’t a monster. They’d heard me out and understood.
“Oh, what a shit pile this is. And Kaden only heard the end of the conversation?” Dice asked.
“I don’t know, but I think so. I just don’t know…” I began to pace again. It was better than watching Connor hide his face in his palm, Dice shake his head, and Cookie frozen in her cringe face.
“I can’t even imagine how pissed he was,” Dice said.
“He told me I have to leave Nowhere.” Kaden had kicked me out. Not just of the house, the outpost, or his life. He found me so detestable that he’d booted me from an entire place.
“Well, that’s a little severe. It’s not like you were working with her,” Cookie said, but still looked a bit dazed.
“I’ve barely seen her. How could I have been plotting with someone I haven’t talked to for more than a handful of minutes in months?” I threw my hands up, feeling like I was spinning out of control. Why couldn’t Kaden have listened to me? Just heard me out?
“We all know she’s too shitty a liar to have pulled that off,” Dice said, and then looked over at me. “No offense. It’s working in your favor, and right now, you need all you can get.”
“None taken.” I walked over and dropped onto the chair. “The only reason I didn’t say anything when I first suspected there was a problem was that I was afraid of this very thing happening. And now it’s as bad as I feared.”
“When did you suspect that your grandmother was working for the other side?” Dice asked.
“The first time was when she sent me a message asking for a meeting at that bar in Nowhere. Kaden showed up instead, saying he was looking for someone he didn’t exactly get along with. It might’ve been a coincidence, but then I saw Gram again and questioned her. She said there was some bad blood but didn’t say anything else. I still don’t know what the problem is. I only know they’re on opposite sides of a fight.” Whatever the cause, it was bad enough that I was getting hit with shrapnel because of proximity.
“It’s a pretty big divide. The people she’s with have done some bad things,” Dice said.
I waited to see if he’d continue. It would be nice to know why I was getting excommunicated.
He shook his head. “Kaden should really be the one to tell you.”
“Sure.” Didn’t look like I’d ever know, because Kaden might never speak to me again.
Cookie kicked my foot with hers. “Look. He’ll get over it. I’m not saying that it won’t be awkward for a bit, but he’ll realize you weren’t trying to screw him over. It’ll get better. He doesn’t like surprises.”
“You really think he’ll get over it?” I tried to focus solely on Cookie and ignore the looks flying between Connor and Dice.
“Of course.” She flipped her hand, as if this wasn’t the end of the world. “It throws you when you first hear it, but I’m already adjusting to Rath”—she took a deep breath—“Rathia being your distant relation. He’ll adjust.”
Distant relation? I swallowed. Even Cookie had to pretend to get past it.
“So what do I do now?” I asked, glancing around.
The three of them looked at each other, no one saying anything. In spite of what Cookie said, this was bad. Nothing would make me think anything else.
“You come to the outpost tomorrow like nothing happened,” Cookie said, breaking the silence.
“He doesn’t even want me in Nowhere. I’m not sure the outpost is the way to go. Maybe he needs a cooling-off period?”
She shook her head immediately. “Kaden is like forged steel. Once he cools down, he hardens more. He’ll be set in his ways. Better to get him while he’s still malleable, or as much as he can be. You’ll stay here tonight and go in with me tomorrow. It’ll be fine.”
“That’s a solid plan. Yeah, it’ll be good.” Dice gave me a thumbs-up.
I glanced over at Connor, who was quiet. He opted for a noncommittal shrug. It wasn’t confidence inspiring. In fact, it gave the impression that he thought this was going to go down in flames. That made two of us.
I was on my spot on the couch in the outpost, going through lollipops like an alcoholic throwing back shots on a wicked bender. I’d had five in this last episode of Seinfeld alone. It was a particularly funny one, and it still couldn’t keep my attention. All I could do was watch the door, waiting for Kaden to walk through it.
It felt like we were all waiting. Dice had cleaned the same gun barrel three times. Cookie was putting back almost as many lollipops as I was. Connor, who was always quietest, had been pretty much mute the whole morning. It’s as if we were all expecting a storm to touch down and none of us knew if it would come in as a breeze or take out the entire town.
Kaden would be walking through that door any second, and my gut was saying no amount of lollipops was getting me through this unscathed. Cookie had thought this was the way to go—just show up like I should be here. She hadn’t heard him last night, seen the way he’d looked at me. Dice had sought him out earlier today, but no one had been able to reach him, which was unusual. He’d been so angry at me he hadn’t wanted to speak to anyone.
Cookie nudged my leg with her foot. “Calm down. It’ll be fine.”
“I’m good.” I took a deep breath and then another, but no amount of breathing seemed to unclench the tightness around my chest or the ache in my gut. I wiped my palms on my jeans.
She’d known him much longer than I had, by a measure of decades. She thought this would work, and I should believe her. Who was I to say she was wrong? I was some Johnny Come Lately, a newbie without a clue. But no matter how I tried to convince myself, I still couldn’t seem to unclench my muscles or stop staring at that door, almost wishing I could get this over with one way or another.
It turned out I didn’t have to wait much longer. The man of the hour walked in fifteen minutes later. His gaze met mine the second the door swung open and didn’t leave it.
The room went still. Or stiller. Even Seinfeld seemed to shut up, but it might’ve been the blood pounding in my ears, dulling the noise coming from the television. My lungs burned because I’d stopped breathing at the same time my heart decided it was running a marathon.
He stopped at the edge of the sofa where I sat. His expression was closed off, giving me no idea if he was going to tell me I had an assignment or point at the door and tell me to get the hell out.
“Why are you here?” he asked, his voice cutting through the ringing that had filled my ears.
“I…” I swallowed, suddenly losing the ability to speak. This hadn’t been the right move. In fact, it couldn’t have been more wrong. He hated me, and this would not end well. “I, uh…”
His gaze skimmed me before returning to my face. “I thought I made myself clear last night that you aren’t to come here anymore. You’re. Not. Wanted. Here.”
Kaden had never looked at me so coldly, not even the first time I met him. I felt like I was six years old again, abandoned and unwanted.
“We told her to come,” Cookie said, getting to her feet. Dice stood as well, along with Connor, gathering around me.
I was the only one sitting, feeling like I was almost cowering, but it took everything I had not to crumble. My eyes were burning; the tears wanted to come and shame me even more. My bottom lip trembled until I pressed my lips tightly closed.
Cookie moved forward until she was standing in front of me, placing herself in between us. I wanted to take back every horrible thing I’d ever thought of her when we first met. She might be the best person I’d ever known, and as soon as I could talk, I’d tell her.
Kaden turned his icy gaze on her. “You shouldn’t have. She needs to leave. Now.” He took one last glance at me, and then I was dismissed as he turned and walked away.
Silence followed. Dice and Connor might’ve been whispering something to each other, but I couldn’t hear it. Couldn’t compute anything past the humiliation I was feeling. I leaned forward, resting my arms on my legs and letting my head drop forward.
I’d lost my human life months ago. I was supposed to be an accountant, but that future was gone. Then I was going to be a tinker, but now I wasn’t that either. I’d barely been clinging on to this new world, hardly had my feet underneath me, and now this life was gone as well.
I had nothing. I was nothing.
No. That wasn’t totally true. I could get other work. Alaric might still want me. I’d go to his organization and pray he never figured out my weird link with Chaos. Would Kaden tell my secret? I hadn’t believed he ever would, but I’d also hoped this wouldn’t come to such a dire end.
I dragged myself from the shock of what was happening to hear Cookie chasing Kaden down like a pit bull.
“Kaden, she didn’t do anything wrong,” she said.
“She’s out of here. Now.” His tone reverberated down the hall, as if his wrath could shake the building.
The sound of his footsteps faded.
Cookie was back, one hand on her hip, another pointing in the direction of Kaden’s office, as she stared at Dice and Connor. “Are you two going to do something? Get in there and help me try to fix this.”
“I’ll go try to talk to him,” Dice said, but he sounded already defeated. He knew it wasn’t going to work, just the way I did.
Connor nodded, not looking any more optimistic, but following Dice anyway.
I sat there, not moving. I had to move. Dice and Connor were only going to make this worse. Cookie might’ve known Kaden longer, but my instincts about this had turned out to be more accurate. If I didn’t move, Kaden might come back and drag me out of here. It would be a final blow I couldn’t handle. I had to get to my feet and get out of here, but I was paralyzed.
I finally looked up and saw Cookie staring at me with pity. I’d cut my teeth on pity and had never acquired a taste for it. It was bitter and salty and all-around crap, and I’d never wanted to see that look again. The only thing it did was force me to my feet so I wasn’t so pathetic looking.
“I’m fine,” I said, even though that was ridiculous and we both knew it. I glanced at both exit doors: one that would lead to Nowhere and one that would lead to Topside. There was nothing left for me Topside. I couldn’t work, have friends, or a life at all because no one would remember me.
But my options in Nowhere were bleak as well. I had no place to go, and Kaden would try to drive me out.
“What’s wrong? Come on, you’re going to come with me,” Cookie said, as if she could hear the mental debate in my head. She grabbed my arm, tugging me toward the door to Nowhere. “You’re one of us, and you belong in Nowhere.” She motioned to the door to Topside. “There’s nothing for you there.”
I nodded, moving in her direction before she decided to drag me across the room.
She went to open the door, and I pulled back. There was one final thing I needed. I couldn’t be a coward and leave without it.
“I need to talk to him one last time before we go. Can you give me a minute?”
“You sure?” She didn’t have any of the hope she’d clung to yesterday, or even a couple hours ago.
“Yes. It has to be done before I leave.”
She nodded, seeming more at ease. This wasn’t going to be some sort of last-ditch begging affair where she’d have to come drag me out.
I took a deep breath and headed toward Kaden’s office, now expecting things to be as ugly as I’d feared. I kept walking, praying my knees wouldn’t give out, steeling my spine as I did. All I wanted was to leave this place, but I couldn’t. Not yet.
Connor and Dice were walking out of the office as I approached.
Dice opened his mouth and shook his head.
“I’ve got to,” I said, moving around them as they both stood there, stumped at why I’d subject myself to anything further.
The door was ajar and Kaden was standing behind his desk, looking down as he sorted through papers. I shut the door to the office, not wanting an audience to any further humiliation I’d endure.
He wouldn’t look up, even as I neared.
Each further insult from him battered against the steel I was trying to keep erected, making it look more and more impossible that we’d ever speak again. Every step closer was further confirmation he was turning his back on me for good. I’d started to believe Kaden would be someone I could rely on. I’d expected him to be mad, but not to cut me out like this.
Yes, I hadn’t told him that Gram might be someone from his past, but it wasn’t as if I’d conspired against him. Was I expected to give him blind loyalty? For what reason? He’d never given it to me. We’d never signed some mutual pact that said we had to tell each other every detail of our lives. I’d sworn I wouldn’t act against him, and I hadn’t.
I stopped right in front of his desk, refusing to say a word until he acknowledged me, as my own rage rose to meet his.
He finally looked at me. “What?” The word was short, clipped, and cold, and that was nothing compared to the hoarfrost generated by his stare.
In this moment, I hated him. Hated that he could turn against me so easily. Hated that I’d trusted him even a little. Hated that I might’ve started to care for him. It had been a one-way street. No one who cared for me could turn their back like this without hearing me out.
“I need one thing from you. That’s it, and you’ll never have to deal with me again.”
If he cared, he didn’t show it. His face was stone cold.
“Then get on with it,” he said, having already dismissed me and going back to shuffling through some papers.
“I want your word you won’t tell anyone about Chaos.”
His hands stilled for a second. “I told you I wouldn’t.”
“You’ve told me a lot of things.” Things I’d believed. Not anymore.
His hand stilled for a fraction of a second. I wasn’t delusional enough to believe it revealed some softer emotion. He was heartless.
“I won’t. Now if that’s it, get out.”
I turned and left, swearing I’d never come here again, not even if he begged me on his hands and knees. I’d swallow a bullet first.
I worked hard, everything I planned almost within my grasp,and then one flicker in time, mere seconds, and it’s all gone. Now I’m starting at zero, stuck in a place called the outpost, which is neither here nor there but some limbo land for those who haven’t transitioned.
I’m sleeping in a broom closet, choking on fumes, while everyone declares me useless. Kaden, the guy that runs this place, keeps telling me there’s nothing I can do to go back. That once the change is set in motion, it’s impossible to reverse.
Every day, each step, takes me farther away from where I want to be and closer to Kaden and a mysterious land of darkness. The only way out of this mess is forward, away from the life I built, and the people I love…
I ignored the toll bridge operator’s screams and sprinted ahead. This drawbridge took forever to open and close. If I got stuck waiting for the ancient thing to run its cycle, the interview would be over before I got there. The bridge was just starting to creak open, barely a foot gap. The toll bridge guy was hot on my heels as I leapt to the other side. Or tried to.
I tripped over my own feet, flying forward. I skidded to a stop on my hands and knees.
That was when it all changed. The sun was gone. The breeze was gone and the air grew—flat. The world was gone. All the things Gram had said right before I left the house came rushing back to me. What the hell had she done?
Two hours before the world as I knew it ended…
Jeannie: Did you watch?
Me: You know I didn’t. I never do.
Jeannie: Good. He doesn’t deserve your attention.
Me: Talk later. Leaving for the interview soon.
I took a last look in the mirror, smoothing down some stray auburn hairs and straightening the suit my friend Jeannie had lent me. Today I would get the job I’d gone into debt for. The day I stopped worrying about every dime as the beginning of the month came again, along with the bills. It would be the day I hung up my waitress apron, gave up walking in between the tables like an invisible ghost until someone’s food was too cold or a meal took too long.
I opened the door to leave my room, and my mother was headed toward me, letter crumpled in her hand, anger roiling off her.
“He’s saying he’s going to raise our rent again,” she said, thrusting the piece of paper at me.
I took it, scanning the words while trying to keep a calm exterior. My mother was quick to temper, and my getting worked up as well would only fuel the issue. As it was, I’d taken over all communication with the landlord. It was the only way he’d allowed us to stay after she threw a pot at him when he raised the rent last time.
My stomach dropped. He was hiking the rent on our small house by five hundred dollars. The rents in Southwest Florida were so bad that we’d have to pay it. There was nowhere else to go.
“Can you believe what he wants for this dump? He’s just like all the rest of them, trying to screw us. Take everything we have.” Her voice was shrill as she headed toward her cabinet, the one where she kept her vodka.
“I’ll call him and talk to him. I’m sure we can work something out,” I said in a soft monotone, knowing that what I’d be working out was a possible extension until I got a paycheck. When she was like this, giving her the slightest hint of your own fury was like handing her another magazine of bullets. After managing her moods for more than two decades, I’d gotten quite proficient at it, even as that tone of hers sometimes made me feel like that small, scared child again.
I tucked the letter into my purse on the kitchen table so she wouldn’t be able to reread it another fifty times, working herself up until she was taking a sledgehammer to the bathroom.
Grammy walked out of her bedroom, took one look at her daughter, and rolled her eyes before taking a seat at the kitchen table. She patted the chair next to her.
“Billie, come sit and talk to me before you leave,” she said, smiling. Gram was always smiling—even when she was being mean, she smiled. It was a mystery to many how she’d given birth to a woman who never smiled at all.
“Ma, she doesn’t have time. She’ll talk to you when she gets back.” My mother paused to take a drink from her coffee mug filled with vodka. “Right now we need her to get to this interview if you want to have a place to live next week. God knows the tips she’s making at the diner aren’t cutting it.”
“I’ve got a couple of minutes.” It was quarter to eight. I could squeeze out fifteen minutes for the woman who’d been the most mothering female I’d had in my life.
“Yeah, sure. You’ve always got time to talk to her. You two know everything.” Mom’s eyes were glued to me as I sat next to Gram. “You know, I bet his new wife doesn’t have to worry about anything. She gets everything she looks at. She doesn’t have to concern herself with who’s covering the bills. We’d still be getting money too if you weren’t so proud and above it all.”
My father must’ve won the award for her to be bristling this bad. I hadn’t watched last night’s ceremonies, but the sound of awards being given out had been coming from her room. As much as I tried to avoid all information regarding him, I’d seen snippets that he was up for best artist.
Knowing what a glutton for punishment she was, she’d probably watched the red carpet leading up to them as well, where he would’ve been posing with his wife and upgraded daughter. She would’ve watched every second as they stood there posing, lights shining on their glossy matching blond hair and tall, slender forms. She’d probably recorded it to watch repeatedly.
“You know, if you’d taken that college money then you wouldn’t have all this student debt and—”
“Mom, we don’t need him or his money. I’ll get this job and it’ll all be okay.”
He’d been ordered by the court to pay for child support and then college. I didn’t want a dime from him. I’d had no say over what Mom got before I was eighteen, but he’d get no credit for anything I had a say in. It was bad enough I saw his green eyes staring back at me every time I looked in the mirror.
She was glaring at both of us now as I tried to ignore her. The last thing I’d wanted this morning was a fight.
I sipped the last of my coffee while sitting next to my grandmother, who was looking a little sharper in the eyes than she had in a while. “What’s going on, Gram?” I asked.
My grandmother might not know what day it was, but she was still the most pleasant person in the household.
She smiled at me, patting my hand while turning toward my mother. “Do you mind?”
My mother scowled, making the lines on her face even harsher. “Really? I’m getting kicked out of the kitchen?”
“There are things Billie and I need to discuss that require privacy.”
Gram had never made it a secret that I was her favorite, even over her own daughter. She’d said many times she thanked the powers that be that my mother had me, so Gram having her hadn’t been a complete waste of resources. I was never quite sure how to reply to that, so I’d usually just nod.
My mother shook her head, took her mug, and grabbed her pack of cigarettes. “I’ll be outside if anyone needs me.”
“Good. We’re alone.” Gram smiled as if oblivious to her daughter’s glare. She might be. After you saw something enough times, it was easy to become blind to it.
“What’s going on, Gram? I don’t have too much time before I have to leave.”
Two wrinkled, frail hands wrapped around mine. “I have some things I need to tell you before you go that are very important. When you get to the outpost, tell them you have a reservation or they’ll toss you in the river.”
“Gram, don’t worry, the firm I have an appointment with won’t throw me in a river.” I smiled, patting her hands, hating how thin and fragile they felt. She was really losing it now, worse than usual. How much longer would we have before we couldn’t have any kind of conversation?
“The firm? Of course they won’t do that, but that’s not where you’re going. You aren’t supposed to be an accountant. I keep telling you that, but you don’t believe me. I understand why, but you need to listen to me now.”
Those frail, bony hands were gripping mine with more strength than I’d thought she possessed.
“Gram, being an accountant is a good job.”
“It’s not what you’re meant for. You’re like me. You’re special.” She grinned as her eyes lit up. “You know, if I hadn’t loved your grandpa, I never would’ve quit. But it was all worth it for him, and now you.”
Quit? Had she had a job she could quit? I’d never before heard her speak of any kind of career.
“Gram, I thought you were a housewife?”
“That’s what I chose to be after I quit, but I couldn’t tell anyone about my life before Grandpa. It would’ve caused issues.” The last sentence was a mere whisper, as if she were afraid my mother was listening in and she’d find out her secrets.
My phone buzzed on the table, my boyfriend’s name flashing on the screen.
“Is that Johnny?” Gram asked, forgetting about all else as she stared at the phone like she wanted to smash it to pieces.
“Gram, Johnny is a good person.” I slipped my phone into my pocket, hoping she’d forget about him and let it go.
“What’s he want?” Her tone dripped disdain. From the second he walked through our door, complete with a bouquet of daisies for her, she’d despised him on the spot for no apparent reason.
“He’s wishing me luck.”
“Gram, I don’t know why you dislike him so much. He’s a good man.” It wasn’t actually that surprising. She hated almost everyone, and sometimes only seemed to tolerate my mother. Grandpa and I were the only two people she’d ever seemed to really love, and even I was no match for him. The sun had risen and set with that man until the day he died.
“He’s a bad apple. Not to mention a man like that is going to curl into a ball and cry when the shit hits the fan. Do you really want to be with someone like that? Just like your father. Bad blood.” She made a wiping motion with her hands, as if rubbing off the dirt he’d left behind.
“He’s nothing like my father. And I don’t need him to be some sort of protector. We aren’t living in medieval times.”
“You never know when you might need someone capable of fighting beside you. He’s not it.” She spoke of him like he was her mortal enemy instead of a nice guy that I’d met in my first year of accounting. He’d been graduating as I was just starting.
“You don’t need to worry. There will be no fighting in my future.”
“Sure,” she said, nodding at me as if I were the one needing placating. “He doesn’t matter anyway, and that’s not what I needed to tell you.” She took me in a hug. “You need to know I won’t see you for a while after today. I’ll be gone before you get back. I’ll see what I can do after I get settled, and I’ll get in touch with you.”
“Gram, where are you going? Why do you say these things?” I glanced at the clock. Eight minutes before I had to leave for an interview and she had to do this now?
“I only speak the truth, Billie. I used up the last of my resources getting you the reservation. I’ll be dying this afternoon, but you won’t be back until after I’m gone.”
“Gram, I’m going to go to the interview and I’ll be back before dinner. Then maybe we’ll go to the park, okay?”
She smiled serenely. “Sure.”
She was really losing it. The doctors had told us the dementia would slowly get worse. But why was it that she always told me the craziest things? Did I bring out the cuckoo in her somehow? Did she build it up inside her and then I was the trigger?
“Gram, why don’t you talk like this to Mom or my cousins?”
“Because they aren’t like us. They’re boring.” She sighed loudly, shrugging petite shoulders. “What can I say? Special skips a generation sometimes. I never liked to say anything bad about them, but I find them to be annoying.”
She waved her left hand, her wedding ring still shining on her finger. She smirked and added softly, “Look, they aren’t important. Never really were, to be totally frank.” She shook her head, as if trying to shake off the rest of the family. “You go have your meeting and just remember to tell them you have a reservation and it’ll be okay. Just make sure you tell them fast so you don’t end up in the river and they box you up for an eternity.” She finished that off with another smile and her arms out. “Now give me a hug and know I’ll see you again at some point.”
“Okay. I love you,” I said, trying to get my wits about me. Gram was crazy, but this was a new low.
I gave her a kiss on the cheek, grabbed my purse, and headed to the door.
“You’re going to do great. I’ll be dead before you get home, so I just want you to know that.” She waved from her seat.
My heart was racing and a feeling of dread filled every part of me, and why? Nobody knew when they were dying. She hadn’t said anything about knowing Grandpa was going to die until after he was gone. A lot of people made great predictions in the past tense.
My mother was sitting on the front stoop, leaning against the corner of the house, the rage seeming to have worked its way out a bit. “Good luck on your interview. You’ll do well. You always do well. You try too hard not to,” she said.
“Thanks.” I patted my pocket, making sure I had my phone, and dug through my purse for my car keys, which I dropped with shaky fingers.
“Is your grandmother telling you crazy stories again? You know she’s got dementia, right?” My mother took a long drag from her cigarette as she watched me trying to orient myself.
“I know.” Somehow admitting that Gram was nuts, even to my mother, felt like a betrayal.
“But she still gets to you anyway. I understand. She gets to me too, just in a different way,” she said, and then sipped from her mug. “She is what she is.”
“Okay, well, she’s telling me she’s dying today, so can you go sit with her?” I never asked my mother to do anything. I’d given up relying on her a long time ago, but even the farce of her possibly doing this might help me get through today.
She shrugged, which I was going to take as a tentative agreement.
“Did she mention what time she would be departing?” Mom asked.
“Sometime this afternoon.”
“I guess she didn’t want to go before she had her midmorning snack?” My mother raised her eyebrows, as if to say, You can’t possibly believe this. She shook her head. “I’ll go sit with her. Get going. You don’t want to be late. And don’t forget to call the landlord, since I’m not allowed to.”
I nodded and took off, knowing I’d need the ride to the firm to calm my nerves, and talking to my mother any longer wouldn’t help matters.
The accounting firm was one mile away when my car decided it didn’t feel like moving anymore. The light changed, I hit the gas, but the thing wouldn’t budge. I floored it, and it moved all of two inches. My transmission, which had been slipping on occasion, seemed to have decided that this was the moment it wanted to make its final stand. I tried again and again. It wouldn’t move.
Cars were honking behind me, and I put my flashers on, rolled down the window, and waved my hand, signaling for them to go around.
I slammed the wheel and grabbed my purse. It was one mile. Just on the other side of the bridge. With ten minutes left until the interview, if I ran and their interviews before me went over a little bit, I might be okay.
I abandoned my car, waving at the people cursing. If I got the job, it would be more than worth the towing bill.
I sprinted toward the bridge; I sprinted into nowhere. I sprinted into what would be the end of my current life and a new one that was unimaginable.
I jumped across the small gap that had opened. The ground had been right there, but somehow I was stumbling into nothingness, surrounded by the kind of darkness that was so utterly complete, your eyes had nothing to adjust to, and then suddenly there was light again. The ground underneath my feet was a worn wood as I found myself in a room.
In front of me, lounging on a sofa, a woman with platinum-blond hair was sucking on a lollipop, glaring at the man sitting on the couch across from her.
“You’re such an asshole, Dice. You take all the good colors and leave the lime,” she said.
The guy wasn’t paying attention to her complaints because he and another man were too busy staring at me as I stood.
The girl finally glanced over at me and then looked back at her friends. “I’m not cleaning that up specifically because you took all the good colors. I don’t care if it’s my turn. You toss her.” She went back to sucking on her green lollipop, making noises of displeasure at the same time.
“Oh no, Cookie,” Dice said. “I’ll get you a bag of strawberry. I’m not cleaning this one up. The last one ripped my favorite shirt as I was tossing him.”
Tossing him? Gram had said something about getting tossed in the river. This couldn’t be real, could it?
No, I’d hit my head. I was dreaming. Now that I knew I was dreaming, I could wake myself up. Unless I was knocked out cold. What if I was in a coma?
“I did it last time. I’m not doing it,” said the other guy, the one whose shirt looked like it was going to rip apart under the strain of his muscles.
No one was looking at me much. I glanced behind me, looking for the bridge. If I was dreaming, then whatever I wanted would happen and there would be a bridge. But all I saw was a door. I would’ve remembered coming through a door. I squeezed my eyes shut, telling myself that there was a bridge.
No bridge? Why was there no bridge? I’d been on a bridge. Then where was I? Had I fallen into some room attached to the underside of the bridge? Had I fallen and hit my head?
“Not only did I not eat the last of the good lollipops, I’m almost positive it’s not my turn. You two figure it out,” Cookie said.
“Fine. We’ll draw straws for who does it,” Dice said, looking at the muscleman.
They were definitely talking about throwing me into the river. What else could they be talking about? It had to be me. But that would be insane, right?
The room looked normal enough, with some couches and shelves. It looked like a random family room that was a little dated, more than a bit worn, but pretty comfortable.
And the people, the ones who were ignoring me as they bickered, looked normal enough too. Well, sort of normal. The chick had a nasty-looking dagger strapped to her leg.
The guy she’d called Dice looked fairly normal too, with sandy brown hair and a friendly enough face. If it wasn’t for the gun holstered on his waist, his shoulders—another one on his leg…
The guy holding the straws had forearms the size of redwoods and looked like he spent his day chugging protein shakes. He could probably break my bones with a snap of his fingers, let alone toss me into a river.
Yeah, these people weren’t that normal.
“Fuck,” Dice said, looking at the short straw in his hand.
“You have the worst luck of anyone I’ve ever met. I don’t know who gave you the name Dice, because you shouldn’t ever be let near a pair.” Cookie was giggling.
Dice sneered. “Go screw, Cookie. Where’d you get your name? Not like there’s anything sweet about you.”
The insult didn’t seem to put a dent in her laughter, or the muscleman’s.
Dice walked over to me.
I stepped back.
“What’s your name?” he asked, chewing on the end of his short straw.
“Wilhelmina Adelaide, but I’m called Billie.” I answered before considering whether it was a good thing for this man to know my full name. I’d never had anything to hide before, though. When someone asked me my name, I always told them.
“Well, Wilhelmina Adelaide, Billie, whatever you want to call yourself, you are a trespasser. Unless you can offer a defense, you will be terminated, and your body will be thrown into the river. Do you have anything to say for yourself before this sentence is carried out?”
He went back to chewing on his straw as he glanced at his watch, the casualness of his demeanor not boding well for where I might end up. If this was some sort of sick joke, he would’ve tried to act scarier. This guy didn’t care if he killed me.
And he’d said terminated. How many killers said terminated? They’d say something like “I’m going to kill you,” right? Gram had used the word terminated, too. Holy shit, Gram, where the hell was I? Was he reading me some twisted version of my Miranda rights? What the hell was this?
No. This was all too crazy.
“What do you mean exactly by ‘throw me in the river’ and ‘terminate’? Are you saying you’re going to kill me?” This couldn’t be for real. I hadn’t even done anything to these people. I didn’t know who they were, and they were going to toss me into a river? A river I couldn’t even see anymore?
He looked at his watch again. “You have thirty more seconds. Do you wish to add anything else to your defense?”
“These trespassers are so annoying,” Cookie said from across the room, where she settled back on the couch. Her boots dropped onto the table with a thud. “It isn’t like anyone ever has a defense. Just more red tape for us.” She motioned to the muscleman. “Connor, give me that magazine.”
Connor tossed it to her and the two of them went back to what they’d been doing.
“Twenty seconds,” Dice said, staring at his watch. “Nineteen.” He cracked his neck.
My pulse was racing and it felt like there was no air in the room.
“Just toss her,” Connor said.
What if this wasn’t a dream? This didn’t feel like a dream in the slightest. If this wasn’t a dream…
“I have a reservation,” I blurted out, following Gram’s instructions.
Dice’s head jerked up. Cookie and Connor turned to me, and Cookie’s lollipop fell out of her mouth.
Connor said, “Huh?” as if he hadn’t heard me right.
“I have a reservation.” Another few seconds of silence ticked by. “A reservation?” I repeated, afraid they hadn’t heard me. If there was a chance of getting thrown in the river, I’d repeat “reservation” as many times as needed. I’d skip and sing it too, if that helped.
Cookie got off the couch and walked over, looking me up and down. “You have a reservation?” She scoffed, shaking her head. “No way am I buying that.”
“I do. I’m supposed to be here.” I infused as much strength and confidence in my tone as possible, as if my life depended on it, which it probably did.
Dice ran his gaze over me again, as if he were truly paying attention now. “Who put a reservation in for you?”
The way they kept saying you in that tone was starting to get my hackles up, not that I was ready to make this situation worse. I had to focus on getting out of here alive first.
“Tessa Hendrick.” Gram, you got me into this. You better get me out.
“Tessa Hendrick? Never heard of her,” Dice scoffed. “Who is she?”
“My gram,” I said. “I mean, my grandmother.”
“Gram?” Cookie said, snickering. She turned to Connor, who was heading over. “Connor, you hear that? Her gram got her a reservation.”
Dice turned to his friends. “Yeah, her gram.” They all laughed some more.
“It’s my grandmother. I call her Gram. It’s not an unusual nickname.”
They continued to snicker. I barely knew these people, but I was finding them very unlikable.
Dice stopped laughing, glancing at me before looking back at his friends. “What if she does have a reservation?” His voice was a little softer now, losing some of the arrogance.
“Gotta call the boss,” Connor said, shrugging overly large shoulders.
“Nothing else to do,” Cookie said, waving her lollipop around.
They were all staring at me.
I shrugged. “I’ve got a reservation. You have to call,” I said, as if I had a clue about anything I was saying.
Dice shook his head, sighed, and then dug a phone from his pocket, dialing who could only be the “boss.”
“We’ve got a trespasser who says she has a reservation.” Dice kept his gaze on me as he listened. “I’ll check, boss, but she doesn’t look reservation-worthy.” His nose crinkled, as if I smelled. “Okay, I’ll get back to you.”
“Well?” Cookie asked the second he took the phone from his ear.
“Says to put a call into the system.” Dice raised his brows.
Cookie tilted her head a bit as Connor bobbed his. I was getting the distinct impression that reservations didn’t happen very often.
Dice headed to the other side of the room, where a mustard-yellow phone was hanging on the wall. The thing was straight out of the sixties, with a spiral cord and rotary dial. The last time I’d seen anything like that was an estate sale down the street, when old man Harper passed and his kids tried to sell literally anything that wasn’t nailed down.
Dice dialed only four numbers before putting the phone to his head. “I need to check a reservation for a…” Dice looked at me.
“Wilhelmina Adelaide,” I said.
He repeated my name into the phone and then smiled a moment later, looking in my direction like a person who was about to say, I told you so. “No reservation? You’re sure?”
“Billie Adelaide. Everyone calls me Billie,” I said. Gram knew better than anyone how much I hated my given name.
He sighed, rolling his eyes. “What about Billie Adelaide?”
A couple of seconds later, his face scrunched, just like someone whose I told you so was about to get boomeranged right back at them.
“Yeah, thanks,” he said, not sounding thankful at all, then hung up the phone a bit forcefully. “It looks like she does indeed have a reservation.”
He walked over and stopped in between Cookie and Connor.
“It doesn’t make sense. She seems so flat,” Cookie said.
“Yeah, I know,” Dice said.
Flat? That wasn’t something I’d ever been called. He couldn’t mean my physical appearance. I’d been told I was born with more curves than a roller coaster.
So what did he mean by flat? Yeah, I was going to be an accountant, and sometimes they got a bum rap, but that didn’t mean I was humorless. I had a decent personality, or so I’d been told. No one should judge my personality based upon this situation. That wouldn’t be fair.
Cookie was twirling a platinum-blond lock. “Are you sure we have to keep her? She doesn’t look like much. Call the boss. Maybe we can throw her into the river anyway.”
Dice was already digging his phone back out. “I’ll ask, but if she’s got a reservation, he’s going to say we have to keep her.”
His two friends were staring at him as he waited for an answer. I was trying to remain calm as I assessed all the different exits in case I had to run. There was a door across the room, a door behind me, and a hallway to the left. The door behind me might be my best bet, since that was the direction I’d come from.
“Yeah, she’s got a reservation. Can we just—” His chest rose and fell. “Okay.”
Dice ended his call. His friends were all ears while my muscles tensed. I was ready to sprint, punch, kick, bite. I wasn’t taking anything off the table.
“He says we have to keep her,” Dice said.
“But she’s so human. This can’t be right. I don’t see why we get stuck with her,” Cookie said.
Were these people not human? Where the hell was I? Had I been abducted? The yellow phone and plaid couch didn’t scream cutting-edge technology, but maybe it was a decorating choice?
“Are you…aliens?” I asked.
Cookie threw back her head, laughing. “She thinks we’re aliens. This is absurd. And we’re supposed to keep her?”
Dice took a few steps toward the hall and then looked pointedly at me. “You need to follow me now,” he said, as if I were an idiot for not reading his mind.
The other two didn’t look like they were going to come, which meant wherever I was heading, the odds would improve. That was enough to get me following him down the hall.
“Don’t talk,” Dice said. “I should’ve told you that one first. And don’t touch anything. Don’t look anywhere. If you do, I might still throw you in the river, reservation or not.”
At least I knew that last threat was empty. Whoever the “boss” was, he’d laid down the law, and so far, that included not killing me.
There wasn’t much to look at as we proceeded down a plain hall, not even a picture hanging. I wasn’t sure what he was so worried about me touching.
“Could you just tell me where I am?” I asked.
“You’re talk-ing,” he said, almost singing the word.
It was done. There was no way I was changing my mind—ever. These people—aliens, whatever they were—were horrid, and I hated every one of them.
He opened a door to a room that was a cluttered mess.
“Go in there and wait. Don’t touch anything, don’t do anything until he gets here.”
“Who’s he?” I wasn’t going to take another step until he told me.
He stared at me, as if he knew that I’d drawn a line. “Kaden. That’s the boss.” He pointed in the room. “Now in.”
I walked in. Before I could ask another question, the door slammed shut. The footsteps retreated and I edged closer to the door, finding it locked.
I’ve been locked away in a vampire dungeon for nearly a year, and I’ll die here if that’s what it takes to protect my secret. Now he arrives with his pack and thinks he’ll be the one to break me? I’ll die first.
It was just another raid until we found her. Shivering and bedraggled, she should’ve seen me as her savior, but she stares at me as if I’m her worst enemy. Maybe I am, because I should let her go, forget I ever saw her, but I won’t…
The door to the basement opened, and I shifted farther into the shadows of my cell. It was too early for mealtime, which meant they were coming for something or someone else. They’d stopped experimenting on me a while ago, but every now and then, they’d have a guest who’d want to check me out, like the one last week. He was called Heiko, and when he’d touched me, smelled my skin, it felt like someone had taken a metal grater to my intestines.
Multiple footsteps and a female crying. I sagged into my spot, guilt warring with relief. They weren’t here for me. They were bringing in a new human. I’d lost count of how many had come and gone in my time here. None of them lasted long. A few feedings at most before the vampires would drain them. Expendable lives, meaningless to the creatures that kept us, no more important than a bug squashed under their heel.
The steps grew louder as she came into sight, with flushed, chubby cheeks, shiny hair, and all the hallmarks of health. She might make it a couple of weeks if she could pull it together, but right now her tears were wetting the floor as the vampire dragged her past my cell.
She caught sight of me, and her sobbing went from a pathetic whimpering to full-blown nose-running meltdown. She assumed I was the fate waiting for her. She didn’t realize her situation would be much worse. The vampires didn’t feed on me, an unknown curiosity they were afraid to sample. She wouldn’t be so lucky. She’d be dead soon.
Or maybe she was the lucky one.
I closed my eyes, trying to forget about the crying as they threw her in one of the cells with the other humans. My mind took me somewhere else, away from the cold stone floor that puddled when it rained, away from the smell of mildew, sickness, and death.
This wasn’t a dank basement anymore but a meadow with birds chirping and the wind rustling through trees, carrying the scent of flowers.
And dark clouds with obsidian specks of light…
My eyes snapped open again, seeking out the cracks in the window for a hint of what I’d seen in my mind. Something was about to happen, but what?
I didn’t have to wait long before there was a loud bang overhead, followed by thumps and then screams. The vampire who’d brought the new girl slammed the cell shut and dashed back upstairs, the sounds of screaming and things thudding and crashing growing louder.
There were loud footsteps crisscrossing overhead, as if utter chaos was breaking out. A growl split the air, so loud it nearly shook the foundation. That noise wasn’t a vampire.
There’d been rumors that the pact that held the shifter-vampire alliance together, the one that had enabled them to take over the U.S., had been growing tenuous. Even locked away down here, I’d heard snippets of gossip, talk of the inevitable war. Had it finally come?
Everyone in the basement had grown quiet, including the new hysterical girl. Something very bad was happening, and we didn’t need it to spill over to us. The enemy of your enemy wasn’t always your friend. The shifters had as large a part in suppressing humans as the vampires, and my kind hadn’t fared any better.
The new girl let out another wail. One of the women in the same cell walked over, laying a soothing hand on her back. The girl kept crying loudly, as if she’d cracked.
One of the men loomed over her. “Shut the fuck up before you get us all killed.” He spoke in a hushed voice, but it didn’t strip away any of the violence he promised.
She quieted down and curled into the woman’s arms.
Upstairs, the screams slowed as well, the running and thumping turning back into brisk walking and loud voices.
The door to the basement creaked open and the lights were flipped on.
I squinted, my eyes unaccustomed to the brightness.
“Jobo, put some pants on. There’s a bunch of humans down there already freaked out, and I don’t need them all screaming,” a male by the top of the stairs said.
A young man walked downstairs, his russet hair in disarray. He had jeans on, but his torso and feet were bare, and there were red droplets and splatters all over his flesh. Another young man followed behind him in sweatpants and similar remnants of blood.
The shifter’s face skewed as he took in the scene of the cells filled with humans. Or maybe it was the smell that disgusted him. After a while, you became nose-blind to the odor of mildew mixing with the latrine buckets, until you saw the horror on a newcomer’s expression.
The sweatpants-clad shifter with raven hair made a gagging noise as he followed his friend.
“What the fuck, Frankie? I hate when they do this shit,” Jobo said.
Frankie scanned the place, found a hook with several keys, and tossed them to Jobo.
“Start down that end. Let’s get them out and get out of here before I gag,” Frankie said. He made his way to the closest cell that was packed full of humans, including the new girl, who was still sobbing quietly. He tried several keys before finding the right one and pulling the door open.
“Come on, we’re letting you out. You’re all free.” Frankie spoke like someone who had said his lines repeatedly.
No one moved. Typically if you left this cell, you had fifty-fifty odds of living to see the next morning.
“You can come out. We’re not vampires. My name is Frankie. I’m a shifter, and I don’t have all day for this. You can leave the cell or stay, but I’ve got other things to do.” Frankie was either the best actor I’d ever seen or clearly didn’t give a shit what these people did. My money was on the latter.
The others must’ve had a similar read. The wailing girl broke for the exit first, followed by a stampede from the rest.
“Go outside. There’ll be someone there to direct you where to go next,” Frankie said, sounding a little like an underpaid cruise director.
Another two cells opened, and with no cajoling needed, the humans fled outside.
They both finished up in front of my cell. I was on my feet, halfway back, trying to keep a buffer in between us.
Frankie toyed with the key in the lock for a minute or so. My cell was always jammed. Half of my meals had ended up thrown on the floor because of it.
“Why are you in one by yourself?” Jobo asked as Frankie kept trying to force the rusted metal to open.
“I don’t know.” My heart was thumping so hard that I was afraid it would give out before I was let out.
Frankie sighed, and Jobo tried, fidgeting with it. Just as my fear that they’d give up and leave me began to grow, the lock gave out and the cell door opened.
Frankie waved me forward. “Come on. You’re free. Time to leave.”
Frankie waited for me as Jobo began making his way out of the basement.
One part of me wanted to run past Frankie and the other didn’t want to get too close, knowing what might happen. It was the same thing that had landed me here.
“Come on already,” Frankie said, watching me.
His friend at the bottom of the stairs turned back around. “Do vampires bake?” Jobo asked Frankie, looking confounded.
“You smell apple pie too?” Frankie said.
“Yeah,” Jobo said. “Smells so good I’m getting hungry.”
Shit, shit, shit.
With a deep breath and a leap of faith, I exited the cell, hoping they wouldn’t catch on.
Frankie stepped in front of me, stopping me from getting to the stairs. Everything I’d feared showed in his expression. Even as dirty and grimy as I was, they knew the smell was coming from me. It had been my downfall last time, and would be again.
“Hang on a second. What are you?” Frankie moved closer, his nostrils flaring. Odds were he wouldn’t recognize my race, just that it was different. This was a setback but not an absolute disaster.
“I’m River,” I said.
“Not who. What?” Jobo asked, coming closer and smelling the air around me as well. His face scrunched up with a thousand questions.
Even as young and inexperienced as they might be, they knew something was off.
“I’m human,” I said, pretending to be as confused as they were.
Frankie nodded and moved out of my way. There was still hope, but it was slim.
I walked up and through the mayhem of the main floor. Shifters, still in their beast form, were patrolling the house, probably looking for missed vampires. I’d seen shifters from afar, but not up close, like this. They were huge in their beast forms, tightly muscled and with fangs. Most had to be seven feet tall. They had so much going on that they’d forget about the odd girl and move on.
I kept heading toward the door. A shifter slowed down and moved closer, sniffing loud enough to be audible.
“Keep it moving, Charlie,” Frankie said, stepping in between us and ushering me outside.
It was a crisp autumn evening with a huge harvest moon lighting the landscape. The smell of wet leaves and fresh dirt was the most beautiful perfume ever created. At least if I died tonight, I’d felt the fresh air on my skin one last time.
“Stay there,” Frankie said, pointing to a spot off to the side.
The place was crawling with shifters, and all the human captives were being shuttled onto an old yellow school bus.
Frankie and Jobo walked a few steps away but didn’t bother to keep their voices down.
“What do you think?” Jobo asked. They both kept looking at me.
“We can’t put her on the bus with the others until we get Dante over here, just in case.”
Dante. The name was familiar. He was the alpha of a nearby pack, and the vampires had spoken of him being a possible problem. Looked like they’d gotten part of that right but had underestimated how much of one he truly was. From the clear wreckage of this place, and the dead vampire parts I’d stepped over on the way out, he hadn’t pulled his punches.
I crossed my arms in front of me as the chill seeped through my threadbare t-shirt, the same one I’d been wearing when I came to this place. I didn’t care. The fresh air was better than any shelter I’d gotten in that hell.
“Stay with her,” Frankie said right before he took off, probably in search of this Dante.
I tracked Frankie’s passage through the crowd as he approached one of the scariest beasts in the clearing. He was one of the largest, all lean muscles with a smattering of fur, and the meanest looking of them all, which said something in this group.
He started to shift to his human form, which was almost as intimidating as the beast. He was still over six feet, with blood marring his tanned skin and something gooey in his black hair. His dark gaze met mine across the clearing, and a shiver shot through me, this one having nothing to do with the cold.
Even if the amount of blood on his skin hadn’t warned me, there was something even more alarming in his eyes. He had the hard, cold stare of a killer, equipped with a body to execute his desires, and it was instantly obvious he was about to become a big problem for me.
This particular hive of vampires had been causing issues for way too long, with humans disappearing from the nearby town—humans I hadn’t hated. The pact between shifters and vampires, the one that held our two races together, decreed that humans were beneath contempt. That didn’t mean it was smart. It was bad business, in my opinion. There were too many of them and not enough of us.
Frankie walked over to me as I shifted back into human form, blood splattered over my skin. He might be young to be my second, but he had a loyal streak a mile wide, plus brilliant instincts that seemed next to perfect.
Except right now he was looking stumped.
“What’s wrong? Do we have a problem?” Everyone else was moving around, doing their job as if the attack had gone off without a hitch.
“The vampires are all dead, but when we let out the humans, we found an unexpected…” His gaze shot across the lawn. “We found something…odd.”
“What’s odd?” Everything about our life at this point was odd. We were out in the open as a species. We were supposed to be in a pact with vampires, our mortal enemies, except we were secretly at war. Odd was our day-to-day existence.
“Technically it’s a female. I’m not sure what to do with her.” Frankie was scratching his jaw.
A human female? That was the issue?
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” I began walking around the perimeter, having more important things to do.
Frankie jogged to keep up with me as I surveyed the building, making sure there had been nothing missed. This place had to be scoured for any potential information that could help us going forward before it was burned to the ground, the evidence destroyed.
“I don’t know if I will. She’s pretty weird,” he said. “I don’t know if I want to make a call on her without you checking her out.”
“She’s a human?” I asked, scanning the trees. Some of these places had surveillance rigged up and connected to the cloud. Every mission was inviting an open war we weren’t ready for, but if I didn’t try to keep the vampire numbers down, when the war did come, we’d have no way of winning. They were becoming the supernatural version of rabbits lately, except instead of fucking their way to numbers, they were biting.
“Well, she’s definitely not a vampire.” His gaze kept shooting back across the lawn.
“Then what’s the issue? If she’s a human, ask her if she wants to go to the sanctuary or scare the shit out of her about talking and let her go. I don’t have to tell you all this. You know the drill.” This wasn’t the first raid or the first stash of humans. At this point, I’d be more surprised if there weren’t a few humans locked away somewhere. Vampires kept stashes of people in the basement the way humans kept chips in the cabinet.
“That’s not quite clear either. She’s not a vampire, but I’m not sure she’s a human. That’s the problem. I can’t tell, and neither can Jobo. We found her in the basement in a cell by herself. She definitely wasn’t here willingly, but she’s not exactly looking at us like we’re her saviors—not that it means that much.” Frankie ruffled his hair.
At this point, it was becoming easier to check out the female than continue this conversation. Over on the other side of the property, recently freed humans were being loaded onto the bus. One female stood out immediately, like a jolt of color on a black-and-white canvas.
She was slender, overly so, as if she’d been in that basement a long time. Her long tawny hair hung in nappy locks, like it hadn’t seen a brush in months. Her t-shirt might’ve once been white but was now a dingy gray with mottled stains, including blood, and hung from her shoulders like it was on a wire hanger. Her jeans weren’t in any better shape, and her feet were bare and dirty. She looked like she’d break in a strong wind, but her back was ramrod straight.
I walked over as she watched me unflinchingly. She tilted her head back, meeting my stare with bright eyes the color of light beryl. They dominated a delicate face covered in grime. The shade wasn’t impossible in the human race, but it wasn’t common either, not with the way they nearly glimmered.
But beyond the fire in her eyes, her scent was what slammed the door shut on there being a remote chance of her being human. Even as filthy as she was, there was an overpowering sweetness to her scent, an aroma reminiscent of warm cinnamon apples baking in the oven. I’d smelled it the second I walked into the vampire’s house, but had written it off. It wasn’t a perfume or a chemical re-creation. I’d never picked up a scent like this from a human, or any other race, but it was something coming from who or what she was.
I tilted my head, signaling Jobo and Frankie to give us a little space.
Her narrowing eyes shot to Jobo’s retreating back for a flicker, but that was all that was needed. By the looks of her, she hadn’t been well treated by the vampires, but she didn’t appear to be a fan of shifters either, or at least not us. Her attention shot back to me fast enough to signal who she thought was the bigger threat.
“What are you?” I asked.
“I’m River. Your man wouldn’t let me get on the bus with everyone else, and I’d like to know why.” Chin up, she stared at me as if she were the one in the position to ask questions.
She probably hadn’t had a good meal in months, maybe years. She had one foot sitting on top of the other, as if her feet were frozen, and there was a smattering of goosebumps up and down her arms.
“He wouldn’t let you on the bus because that’s where the humans go.” I moved closer. The moon was full, but seeing her wasn’t the issue. I didn’t need a bright light to know something was wrong, but damned if I could say what it was.
Not only was I a werewolf, a shifter, I was an alpha. I could spot an animal running through the forest on a new moon more than five hundred yards away and name the creature before I saw it. My senses were better than the best of my race. But I couldn’t label something I’d never encountered before.
“Which is why I should be on it.” Her stare was full of venom.
“You aren’t human, though,” I said, adding a low rumble into my voice, daring her to lie to me again. “What are you? You can tell me now or wait and tell me later. Either way, you’ll tell me.” I leaned a little closer, just in case she was too slow to realize the threat I posed.
She crossed her arms, being either obstinate or cold. Experience led me to believe it had nothing to do with the temperature.
She didn’t stay silent long.
“Tell you what? You’re the one who seems to have all the answers. If I’m not human, you tell me what I am.” She shrugged, her nonchalance in strong contrast to the heat in her eyes and the anger seeping into her voice.
There were a million other things that needed to be done right now, and none of them included arguing with this odd female. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and rattle her until she spilled all the answers. There was a strange strength about her that promised a longer fight, maybe to the death, if I wanted something she wasn’t ready to give.
I grabbed her wrist, since her heartbeat was so soft that I could barely hear it with all the chaos and movement around us. She immediately pulled at my grasp, but I held her until I got what I wanted. Her pulse was racing, and so erratic it was hard to tell if it was adrenaline or if she had some kind of condition. I let her go. It didn’t tell me anything that helped identify her, and there were a million other things to handle. Frankie’s dilemma was becoming much clearer.
She wrapped her hand around where I’d grabbed her, eyes narrowed and accusing, as if she couldn’t fathom how I dared to touch her.
I softened my tone, trying a different angle. “Can you at least tell me how long you’ve been here? I’d like to let one of my doctors look you over. You don’t look like you’re in great shape.”
Hope flared in her eyes and guilt swelled in my chest. If she wasn’t going to be forthcoming, I’d have to get my information however I could.
She looked down at her feet. There was the subtlest shake of her head as she said, “I’m not sure.” She spoke so softly that I wasn’t sure if she meant to answer me. “What’s today’s date?” she asked, looking up at me, her voice slightly louder.
“October first,” I answered, not allowing myself to pity this girl. It wasn’t usually an issue, but it was already clear she’d been living in that hell for longer than my sanity would’ve lasted.
“Ten months,” she said, staring at the ground again, as if she couldn’t quite believe her answer. She jerked her gaze back to mine. “But I’m fine. I can go with the others. I don’t need a doctor.”
Ten fucking months and no puncture wounds on her neck? They weren’t feeding off her, and they hadn’t killed her. They’d kept her alive, barely. The vampires didn’t keep anything that wasn’t useful alive.
That answer told me more than she realized. If the vampires had kept her, she must have some sort of worth that wasn’t obvious. She couldn’t be released, not without answers.
Frankie had moved farther away, directing shifters, but Jobo was still nearby waiting.
The second I turned my back on River, she took the opportunity to head toward the bus the humans were boarding.
I wrapped an arm around her waist, hauling her back. “Oh no, you’re not going with them.”
“You said I could leave.” Her voice was breaking, as if I’d offered her the ticket to freedom after all this time, and then ripped it up before she could snatch it from my fingers.
I dropped her back at the same spot. “No, I didn’t. And I won’t until you tell me what you are.”
I waited, expecting to see tears. All I got was anger so thick it nearly roiled off her.
“I’m human,” she said, but her words lacked the same energy of before, as if she knew the farce had come to an end.
I signaled for Jobo to near. “She’s not going with the rest of them. She’s coming back with us for a while. Keep an eye on her until we leave.”
Jobo was one of my tougher guys, someone who wouldn’t typically be wasted on a baby-sitting detail, but he seemed to realize things weren’t that clear-cut. He watched her with an intensity that was usually reserved for hundred-year-old vampires.
I put some distance between myself and River, something about her sticking in my craw more than it should.
Frankie finished with another shifter and then headed over to me. “Do you know what she is?”
“She’s not a shifter, vampire, human, or anything I’ve ever encountered.” There was no clear box to put her in, but I’d find one, even if I needed to build it myself.
“What do you want to do with her?”
What was I going to do with her? It would be so much easier to shove her on the bus, with the rest of the humans, but there were too many creatures in this world that had been rearing their ugly heads lately. She might not appear to be a threat—or an asset, for that matter—but some of the most vicious things I’d ever encountered were wrapped up in cute packaging. I didn’t have the luxury of guessing wrong.
“For now, drive her back with you. Bring Jobo along, just in case.”
“You think I’m going to need backup?” Frankie’s eyes went wide as he looked past me to River, as if we’d discovered some rare creature capable of killing with a glance.
“I’m not sure, but until we get a better read on her, and what she is, we’re going to use caution. She’s your responsibility until I figure out what to do with her.”
“Okay,” he said, and started walking toward her as if he’d been told he was taking home a class pet or something.
“Frankie,” I called.
He turned back to me. “Yeah?”
“Get her a blanket and some food. I don’t want her dead before we figure it out.”
And that was the only reason I cared. I couldn’t have her die before I learned her riddle or unloaded her.
I’m the dying leader of the human resistance. He’s the Alpha of the D.C. pack. He’s as rough and cold as they come and destined to be my enemy. But he needs me for something only a human can achieve. If I can pull off his mission, he’s got something no human can give me: a chance at living beyond a few months.
When I agreed, I knew I might lose my life, but danger has never scared me. I didn’t know I might also lose my heart…
The sound of laughter drifted outside of the rambling mausoleum my sister now called home as she said goodnight to the last of her dinner guests. Ever since she’d married the current alpha werewolf of the district, Penelope had become D.C. royalty. I wasn’t sure if she enjoyed it, but she was damned good at the role.
I was always invited to the shindigs but preferred a cigarette in the shadows of the garage. I’d taken up smoking a few weeks ago, along with a list of other bad habits too long to recite. It was sort of ironic that my impending death had led to a fuller life.
Well, fuller might not be the best term. More exciting existence? That might not be quite right either. A life of depravity. I wasn’t quite there, but it was a good goalpost.
I took another swig from the bottle of bourbon I’d grabbed from my brother-in-law’s stash, letting the burn wash away all thoughts of the faraway future. Another several gulps and I wouldn’t care that there wouldn’t be a next year for me. I had today, tomorrow, maybe next month, and a long list of things I was going to accomplish before I left this world.
The back door to the house opened. Donovan scanned the lawn and headed over to where I lurked in the shadows.
“That’s not going to help matters,” he said, pointing to the cigarette hanging from my fingers.
I lifted it and took another drag, looking the other way. We didn’t discuss my sickness, and I had no plans on changing that now. He might have had a lapse in memory, but that didn’t mean I would.
“Are you going to tell her before we leave?” he asked, not taking the hint.
I’d never met someone as stubborn as myself until my sister found him. It was like she was trying to double down on the pains in the asses in her life.
“No, I’m not.” As much as I wanted to ignore the topic, this was something I couldn’t afford to leave murky.
“What if you’re not here when she gets back?” Donovan stepped closer, a hint of the menace this shifter was capable of right beneath the surface.
I didn’t even straighten off the wall as I continued to smoke. He’d take a bullet for my sister, and I’d realized soon enough that he’d take some shrapnel for me too, simply because I was an extension of her. There was no doubt his bite was lethal, but he was all bark at the moment.
“If you tell her, she’ll stay. Is that what you want? Because I don’t.” And he didn’t either.
He stood still, staring up at the night sky as if he could wrench some answers out of it if he tried hard enough. “We could delay our leaving. We’d still go, but—”
“Wait for me to die first? Make her sit here and watch me wither away when there’s nothing she can do? I’m not doing that to her, and you won’t either.”
There were very few things I was sure of in life, and the feelings Donovan had for my sister were among them. It helped me sleep at night that she wouldn’t be alone after I was gone. He’d have her back until the bitter end. I might be doomed to die before I hit my twenty-fifth birthday, but she’d have him. They had one of those love stories that you couldn’t help but envy, that only the luckiest of the luckiest would ever experience.
He took a step away, dropped his head, hands in his pockets as he still tried to search for a solution that would save my sister pain.
“The doctor might still be able to fix you. We don’t know if this is it.”
It was hard not to laugh. The “cure” that had bought me some time wasn’t working anymore. His personal doctor had been poking and prodding at me for over a year, and all it had done was slow the progress. But I was still dying.
“It’s time to get her out of here and start a new life. I need to know that she’s somewhere happy and safe, away from all this mess.” As the wife of an alpha, and one that bore him an alpha son, she was protected to a certain degree from the chaos that was this world.
But if you were human? This wasn’t the place to live. Ever since the vampires and werewolves had made a pact and taken over the U.S., humans had become nothing more than slave labor and a food source. She was lucky. Most humans couldn’t get out. She could, and she’d be doing it if I had my way, which I intended.
“Somewhere happy, safe, and expecting you to follow?” His voice was gruff as he glanced over at me.
“Yes, if that’s what it takes.”
“You should come.”
“Did you miss the part about me withering away? Her choices have been about me for far too long. I want her to have a fresh start with no bad memories attached. I’m not going to keep dragging her down, making her worry. She can have a great life with you, and I want her to start living it.”
He didn’t respond, and the tilt of his head didn’t give me any confidence that this would be the end of the discussion.
“You’ll keep my secret, right?” He hadn’t given me up yet, but that didn’t mean it was a guarantee. I hadn’t yet been able to wriggle the promise out of him. He’d been keeping my secret for a long time now, and for a man that was usually up front, it had to be a strain.
He dropped his gaze to the ground and kept it there.
“It’s better for her this way,” I said, knowing that trumped all in his world.
He reached over and slipped the cigarette from my fingers, taking a drag of it. “It’s your secret to tell.” He crushed it under his heel after he did. “By the way, these things will kill you.”
I laughed at his bad joke because we both knew the Sucking Sickness would kill me long before the cigarettes would.
As far as brothers-in-law went, I’d done pretty well with Donovan, even if he was technically the enemy. His unfortunate status as a werewolf I wrote off as an accident of birth.
“By the way, what happened to your wayward guest?” I asked.
Donovan laughed before he said, “Cole arrives when he wants.”
“You sure this is the guy that should be taking over the pack?” From the little I’d heard, the guy sounded like a total dick. I guess you needed to be a dick to step in as an alpha to a pack that didn’t know you.
“He might be the only one who can.”
“What about Huddy?” I asked, knowing it was already a done deal.
“He’s got the ability but zero desire. For what’s coming, only someone brutal will do anyway.”
For what’s coming…
No one knew for sure how long the pact with the vampires and werewolves would last, but the tensions with all the races had been running high. Most humans didn’t have work or a steady supply of food. The situation between the vampires and the werewolves was rumored to be developing cracks. All the creatures that had crawled out of the woodwork with them had a stake in this messed-up situation. You couldn’t walk down the street and not feel the tension in every breathing being, and there were many that had crawled out of the depths after the war and takeover.
“That’s why you need to get her out of here,” I said to Donovan.
“I will.” He gave me a last look, brimming with the things he wished he could do and regrets for the things that were coming.
Just when I thought I’d crack under the heaviness of the reality he was dishing out, he gave me a nod and retreated back to the house, as he would disappear from this hell.
I took a few more swigs from the bottle, trying to wash away the unpleasant thoughts he’d left. I’d drown them in alcohol along with the rest of the things I didn’t like to think about.
Donovan hadn’t been gone for more than ten minutes or so when something large leapt over the back wall a few hundred feet away. I jerked back into the shadows, my hand going for the knife tucked into my boot. My reflexes were only a split second slower than they were a few chugs of bourbon ago, but much slower than they were before the night started.
The man strolling across the lawn had too much confidence and brazenness to be an intruder. Looked like the wayward alpha, Donovan’s soon-to-be replacement, had finally decided to arrive. He’d been here for a week already but had barely been at the house. I’d yet to meet him, and I ducked farther into the shadows, along the path to the side door, hoping to prolong my winning streak.
“Hey, you.” Cole’s voice was deep, carrying easily across the sprawling lawn.
I kept walking. He might think he was going to be in charge of the D.C. district, but I wasn’t going to be one of his charges, no matter where I lived.
“Stop,” he said.
Stop? Not “Excuse me, miss?” or even “Hello.” Oh yes, this werewolf reeked of alpha, even more so than my brother-in-law.
“I told you to stop,” he said. There was a breeze of motion, and then he was blocking my way to the door. “Did you not hear me?”
His shoulders filled the side door I’d been about to enter, his body all hard, coiled muscles underneath his t-shirt, just ready to strike. Messy, dark locks, nearly black, contrasted with eyes so grey, as to nearly appear silver, and added a chill to his sun-warmed skin.
Donovan had said he needed someone tough, cold—raw, even—to step into the alpha position. He hadn’t been kidding. The man that stood in front of me sucked up all the air around him the way a bomb did right before it leveled a city. The glint in his steel eyes left no doubt he’d walk away from the destruction without a shred of regret as he stepped over the bodies on his way out.
The aroma of bourbon drifted off him. That I could smell it after what I’d put down didn’t bode well for his intake—or mine. I definitely needed to drink some more.
He ran his eyes over the length of me, taking in the ripped jeans and snug sweater with a snag on the hem. The rough quality of my clothing didn’t seem to deter his appreciation of my form.
“You off work for the night?” he asked, leaning a shoulder on the doorjamb as he gave me a lazy smile.
He thought I was a servant. Or maybe even a whore. He didn’t know my sister would’ve ripped Donovan apart if he touched another woman, but then, she was a human. Most shifters had the lowest opinions of us.
Part of me wanted to punch him in the face. A larger part of me wanted to take him up on the offer he was presenting.
He was dark, dangerous, and disposable. He was everything a dying girl needed to feel alive without remorse when I walked away after the fun was over. In other words, the perfect ending to my evening.
I edged in closer, leaning on the opposite side of the door.
“My evening might be free, depending.” My words might’ve been biting, but the smile made it clear I wasn’t opposed to his invitation.
His eyes ran the length of me, stopping on my breasts and then my hips before nodding. “If I’d known you were going to be here, I might’ve come sooner.”
He leaned closer, raising a finger to trail over my lower lip before moving his hand down to graze the skin of my neck.
Oh yes, he’d be perfect for the evening. My good nights were running in short supply. Everyone had a finite amount of time, but the urgency in grabbing all the joy out of life you could rose as that clock started ticking down. I was watching the final sands run out and needed to make the most of the time I had left. I was down to counting good nights, and I planned on having as many as possible.
Why not fuck him? What did I have left to hold on to? There would never be a mister right in my life.
There was only one little catch. Did I warn him now or let him find out at a later date? I didn’t particularly like surprises.
“Just an FYI, I’m Sassy, Penelope’s sister—Donovan’s sister-in-law.” Even if I did decide to fuck him, it was best to get that out of the way. Didn’t need any awkward shocks after the fact when I ran into him at the family dinner or something.
“Does that matter for some reason?” he asked, a smirk appearing because clearly he didn’t think it mattered.
“Not to me,” I said, arching slightly.
“Then we agree.” He reached around to the base of my skull, pulling me closer.
He pressed me into the door as his lips grazed mine, then he weaved his fingers into my thick platinum locks. If the way he kissed was any indication, and it usually was, this was going to be a good night.
This man would know exactly what he was doing and wouldn’t be shy in doing it. Why shouldn’t I spend the night with him?
He pulled back, his mouth hovering near mine. We stood there frozen for a moment as he breathed in my scent, examining my face as if he hadn’t quite seen me the first time. If I hadn’t been confident in my appeal, I might’ve pulled back first from the read I was getting off him.
The heat from his eyes cooled and they shuttered, becoming void of emotion. He dropped his fingers from my hair, taking a strand with them in his eagerness to untangle from me.
“Maybe another time,” he said, putting a few more steps in between us and giving me a smile like he’d just handed me a wilted bunch of flowers in a beauty pageant I’d taken second place in. “Donovan wouldn’t like me messing around with his little sister.”
I knew bullshit when I heard it. Not even seconds ago, it hadn’t mattered one bit. This man was an alpha to his core. They did as they pleased, always.
“I’m sure I’ll see you around.”
He turned, walking away, leaving me staring at his back, trying to piece the situation together.
My breath might’ve smelled of booze, but so did his. He could hardly fault me for that.
Stupid, stupid, Sassy. He was an alpha.
“It’s because I’m sick.”
He froze and then turned back toward me. His eyes flickered for a second with…pity? Remorse? I couldn’t tell; it had been too fleeting, only there long enough to add to the insult.
“Some things aren’t meant to be.” He shrugged and continued on.
My shoulder crashed into the wall as I leaned against it, feeling all of two inches tall. He smelled the Sucking Sickness on me. He didn’t want to fuck the sick girl.
I stayed glued to the wall for some time with only my bottle of bourbon to warm me.
I went from being an outcast in Salem, to living in Xest, a world that exists solely on magic. I have a good job brokering hopes and wishes, a hot boss, and a cool place to live. My life is a witch’s dream.
Except there are a couple of teensy little problems. I might’ve accidentally gotten infused with some magic that didn’t belong to me. The hot boss? I might be falling in love with him, to my detriment. If that isn’t enough, heaven and hell have finally caught up to me, demanding I return the extra magic or else. Too bad I don’t know how to do that.
14 Years Ago
The needle had pierced the skin on the back of my neck so many times that it felt like surely the skin would be a lump of mutilated flesh. “It hurts, Mommy. Can we stop yet?”
She stabbed again with her needle, and I wriggled forward in my seat. She dug her fingers into my shoulder, pulling me back.
“Stop it, Tippi. You know it’s for your own good.” She leaned forward, grabbing my chin, her dark hair wild around her shoulders. “You have evil inside of you, and if I don’t do this, that evil can spread to the rest of the world. Do you want everyone to know what you are? Do you know what happens then? The bad people come and get you.”
“But I don’t do anything bad,” I said.
She let go of my chin, and I turned my gaze away from her. She’d had that look since this morning, the one where I never knew what she was going to do, and I didn’t want to find out.
The needle was pushed deeper into the flesh of the back of my neck. I shouldn’t have spoken. If I’d sat silently, maybe she would be done by now.
“You don’t have to do bad things. It’s what you are, what you were made from. You were born from evil.” She turned, fiddling with the ink on the table beside her. She paused, letting out a sigh as her movements slowed.
Maybe by tonight, she’d be calm again. She usually was afterward, but it was hard to know how long this part would last.
She turned to me, needle in hand but pausing, as if unsure whether to stop.
“Mommy, I want to be good.” If she knew how much I wanted it, maybe she’d stop.
“You can’t be. It’s who you are. I’m your mother, so I will fix you as much as I can, but you must always be guarded because you aren’t normal, do you understand?” She dipped her needle again, her movements growing jerky.
“Yes.” I sniffed, trying not to cry. She hated when I cried.
“Move your hair. If I have to tell you again, you won’t be getting any lunch.”
I pulled my hair over my shoulder and clenched my fists together in front of me, trying not to shift. Mommy didn’t eat breakfast, and there was never much food in the apartment. If I didn’t get to share lunch, my stomach would hurt.
She pressed her needle deeper, and I forced myself to sit still. Don’t think of the stinging. Anything but the stinging.
A burst of yelling and laughter drifted through the open window, and then the familiar sound of metal squealing against metal as the kids at the playground hopped on the swing set. All the kids in the complex played there, even me. Sometimes when Mommy drank her medicine and got tired, I would sneak out and swing too. I didn’t talk to the other kids, but sometimes I’d wave to one or two of them.
“Don’t let me catch you playing with them. You know you’re not allowed. Do you want them to discover who you are? Do you want them to drive us out of our home after they figure out that you’re evil?”
She put down her needle and stared at the ink again. I didn’t speak this time.
She cleaned the needle and then covered the small container of ink with the lid, talking as she did. “I’m the only one who will ever accept you. Don’t you forget it. Only a mother could love something like you. I’m the only one you’ll ever have, and be grateful that I didn’t let them kill you at birth.”
I watched her move about the room. “I know, Mommy.”
She grabbed her medicine off the counter, unscrewed the cap, and sipped from the bottle. “Even your father wouldn’t stay, because he knew what you were. He wanted to be with me, but you were just too much to handle. I don’t have a husband because someone had to stay with you. I gave up my life for you, so you’d better not complain about anything. I’m the only reason you weren’t killed.”
I nodded, knowing that she’d take her medicine and fall asleep on the couch soon. I hoped the medicine worked fast this time and that she was better when she woke up. I didn’t like it when she was sick.
Sometimes, when she was better, we’d go for walks or color in my books. Sometimes she’d get us popcorn and a movie. She taught me how to play checkers last week, and we played for a couple of hours. She told me how things were going to be like this forever because she wasn’t sick anymore. She was going to make more money because she could do things other normal people couldn’t do. She was going to buy me all sorts of toys and games, and we’d always have plenty of food. I believed her, but then she got sick again. She always got sick again.
I didn’t move from the chair, not wanting to draw attention to myself, even when I had to pee, even when I got thirsty, not even to go get Allison, my doll. I didn’t dare move until a long while later, when Mommy’s soft breathing turned into an ugly snore that meant she wouldn’t be stirring.
I got up, stretched my cramped legs, and went to the bathroom. Her head was turned, drool on the side of her face when I came back and laid a blanket on her. I closed her medicine bottle so it didn’t spill, knowing it was the only thing that brought peace when she got sick. Then I went in the kitchen and found a can of chicken broth, because Mommy wouldn’t be getting us lunch today.
A mother walked down the road in front of me, holding her daughter’s hand. The two smiled at each other as if they shared some secret. The girl beamed as she looked at the woman, as if she were the sun, the stars, and everything good in the world.
Had I ever felt that way about anyone? What would it be like to trust someone that completely? Never fear that they would hurt you or betray you in any way? That they’d sacrifice their life so that you might survive?
“Did you hear me?” Bibbi asked.
I dragged my gaze away from the scene up ahead, having no idea what she’d said but hearing the urgency in her tone. “Sorry, what was that you were saying?”
“I think we’re being followed.” There was a sharp edge to her voice, displaying the steel beneath the coiled curls of hair and the frilly skirt with layers of lace she was wearing. In the past month, she’d bought out every frilly frock Bewitching carried. She was a walking conflict, soft and fuzzy on the outside but rock solid with pointy fangs beneath the surface. She’d come a long way from the timid, unassuming girl I’d first met.
“Yeah, I noticed.” The group of six witches and warlocks had been following us for about ten minutes already, and my pulse had yet to break its rhythm. The only thing soft left about me was my rainbow-streaked hair, and even that was tugged back into a severe-looking ponytail. My wardrobe didn’t have a frill in sight. My boots were steel-toed, better to kick my enemies with. My pants and tops were well fitted, and not in a vain attempt to showcase my lean form, but to avoid giving an enemy an easy place to grab. My jackets shrugged off with ease for the same reason.
Once upon a time, I’d been soft. That was way before I’d been abducted to Xest and dumped in a wish factory for forced labor. I’d been nearly killed by an invisible evil monster, a dragon, and a gigantic bat, and those were just a few of the fun times I’d had since living here.
Turned out that was the easy part of living in Xest. I’d even thought I was turning a corner, getting ready to settle into some calm, boring day-to-day stuff up until about a month ago. That was when a demon and an angel told me I possessed too much magic to be allowed to live. Too much of theirmagic, to be precise, the very seed magic that had helped Xest come to be. Before that, I’d stressed over the little things in life: would I be homeless; would I get kicked out of the broker building again; would Helen, the Helexorgomay machine, decide a black cloud would be the best thing for me?
Those days were over. Something had broken in me after that last visit and looming threat, or perhaps something had been fixed. All the soft spots left in me had melted away, leaving nothing but hard-angled surfaces. There was only one weakness I had left, and it had zero to do with a marauding group of witches and warlocks who hadn’t had their mettle tested the way I had.
“Let’s duck into the alley.” I motioned to the infamous place of one of the worst beat-downs I’d ever received in my life. A normal person would never set foot in there again.
Normal wasn’t even a word in my vocabulary, and I was doing my damnedest to evict the word fear as well. In my opinion, this was the best spot to avenge my previous history, the weakness I’d displayed, and leave a better memory in its wake.
“Why are we turning in here? Am I supposed to run? I’m not running this time. That was a bad plan. You looked like hell after that. It was surprising you even lived. And I thought we were done with that anyway?”
I turned into the alley as Bibbi continued to fuss, knowing she’d follow me in spite of her reservations.
“I’m not going to ask you to run anywhere,” I said as she joined me. “I think this is a better place to deliver a beating, is all. I don’t want to scare off any more of the witches and warlocks in Xest who still might be friendly.” It was bad enough that a lot of them crossed the street when they saw me, like I wanted to eat them for dinner or something.
I shrugged out of my jacket as my words sank in.
“Really?” Her face lit up like she’d seen a rainbow for the first time after living in a pitch-black cave for a decade. Nothing made Bibbi happier than a good meal of chilled revenge.
“Yes. I’m kicking their asses. If you want to hang out and watch, be my guest. But could you do me a favor and hold my jacket? I just bought it, and I really don’t want to throw it on the ground or stain it with blood. I’ve yet to find a spell that removes those stains for good.”
She held it up. “I don’t blame you. This is a really cute jacket.”
There was rustling at the end of the alley.
“Thanks. If you could stand back a bit, too? I don’t want to worry about splatter.”
“Have I told you how impressive you are these days?” she asked. She folded the jacket over her arm and took a step back. “I’ll be right here if you need me.” She gave me a thumbs-up. Bibbi was near bouncing with her blood lust, little sicko that she’d become. She was still the best roommate I’d ever had.
“Thanks.” She’d told me the same thing at least ten times in the last few weeks. I probably should be flattered, but I was finding that the farther along I got in not giving a shit, the less flattery seemed to affect me, because, well, I just didn’t give a shit. After that last incident with Lou and Xazier, I only had two states of being: kill or be killed. Everything else had been muted.
I cracked my knuckles, waiting to see if today would be a killing day. A head popped around the corner and then disappeared.
The alley opening was empty again. What the hell? I didn’t have all day for this crap. I had a client coming into the broker office in a couple of hours, and, even more pressing, I needed to have a tea or two first. I hadn’t slept that well and couldn’t stop yawning.
Maybe I’d bug Mertie to go get me a cocoa at the Sweet Shop. Ever since Gillian had decided to move out again, anybody associated with the broker building or the broker himself were cut off from cocoa. Except for Mertie, that was, because no one had the nerve to turn down a retired demon.
Although if I managed to time my visit to the Sweet Shop during Gillian’s break, her employees were too scared to turn me away. If these losers didn’t hurry things up, I wouldn’t manage a cocoa or a tea before my appointment. I yawned again, getting more annoyed by the second.
I glanced back at Bibbi. “We should send Mertie for some cocoa after we’re done here.”
She waved a hand toward the end of the alley. “Which will be when? A year from now?”
I shook my head, sharing her disgust.
“I know you’re there. We doing this thing or don’t you have the stones?” I called loud enough for my voice to carry past them and to the other side of the street. If I had to wait to kick their asses, I was going to make it that much worse and humiliate them in the process.
The fifth wind was only making me more annoyed. They said you got used to the bone-chilling cold of Xest, but my body must be a slow learner. It’d been months and I still felt the burn on my skin like two hot pokers every time the wind kicked up, which it was doing right now.
I turned toward Bibbi. “They get two more minutes, then I’m leaving. I really don’t have time for this.”
Bibbi’s smile melted. “Really? But they’re right there. I can hear them shuffling about.” She pointed, as if I couldn’t hear their oafish movements.
I understood her need for vengeance on my behalf, even if these might not be the same group who’d beaten me to a pulp in this very same spot, but it really was getting quite chilly.
A hand slowly poked out and waved. “Miss Tippi?”
Miss Tippi?Bit of an odd way to start a bloody battle, but, I guess, why not be polite about it? If I thought about it for more than a passing moment, I could respect that.
“Yes? Did you want to discuss something first?”
The top of a shaggy head of hair was followed by a big-eyed face and some lean shoulders, but he didn’t go as far as revealing his entire torso, as if the partial building in front of him would save him from my wrath. If he had any idea of the weird things happening around me lately, he’d know it didn’t stand a chance.
“We were just hoping to have a word with you?” His question ended on an awkwardly high note, the vocal equivalent of showing me his belly.
Was this a trap? Did he think he was going to trick me somehow?
Was a word going to turn into a spell kind of word? A word before we fought? I glanced at Bibbi again, to see if she had a better read on the situation, being a Xest native. Was there some sort of fighting etiquette I’d been unaware of until now?
All I got was a shrug and a pinched face.
I shook my head. This was not the fun I’d expected.
“You’re going to have to come closer for that word.” My tone revealed my lack of patience.
The person disappeared for a few seconds, and I walked closer to Bibbi.
“I know this is going to be a disappointment, but if this doesn’t pick up soon, we’re going to have to leave. I was fine for a fight, but I don’t feel like standing here and having a damned tea party while I wait for it.”
She crossed her arms, shaking her head. “They should get kicked out of Xest completely for behavior like this. This is just embarrassing, if you ask me. This is worse than getting your ass kicked.”
“Look, maybe it’ll work out and they follow us down the street. I’ll beat them up in a different alley.” I wasn’t optimistic, though.
“Stop trying to make me feel better. They’re never going to do it.” She held out my jacket to me. “If it’s not going to work, I’d rather just go.”
She took a few heavy steps before we both stopped and looked at the entrance to the alley.
There were five witches and warlocks making their way toward me, very slowly. I would’ve sworn there had been six, but clearly one didn’t have the guts to make it into the arena.
I stretched my arms, and then my neck, loosening up because it seemed the appropriate thing to do, according to the action movies I’d seen.
The only thing I accomplished was a crick and to slow the group to a complete halt. I let out a sigh, shooting Bibbi another commiserating look. They really weren’t worth the aggravation.
I looked at where they’d stopped and shook my head again. “If you want to fight, you’re going to have to get a little closer. If you think you can stand back there and use your magic on me, it’s not going to work. I’m a lot stronger than I look.”
I was definitely stronger than I’d ever imagined I was. If someone had laid out the challenges that would be before me back when I lived in Salem, I wouldn’t have left my apartment ever again.
A year ago, I hadn’t known what I was made of. I’d never been tested the way I had been this past year. That was the one beauty about tests: pass or fail, at least you knew what kind of raw material you were dealing with. I’d kept surviving, sometimes in spite of myself. If this ragtag crew in front of me thought they could take me down, they’d find out as well.
The lean kid with the slender shoulders began waving his hands, and not in a hocus-pocus kind of way. This was white-flag behavior. Maybe that ridiculously high tone was legit?
“Oh, no! That’s not it at all! We aren’t looking to fight you,” Lanky said.
“No, definitely not,” a short little redhead added, peeking her head out from behind him.
“Spells, then? I really don’t see that working out for you, to be honest. Not to judge, but none of you appear to be very strong.” When I first got to Xest, what seemed like an eternity ago, I hadn’t known what magic was. Back then, everyone seemed mystical and awe-inspiring. Now? I could pretty much pick out the minor threats from the little annoyances. It might’ve been the way they held themselves or it was this weird sixth sense I got. Either way, I’d come to rely heavily upon my first gut reaction.
“No! Not that either. Actually, we were hoping you’d sign something for us?” He reached into his back pocket and held out a book. Black Unicorns and Other Unexpected Anomalies That Shape Our World.
Was I an Unexpected Anomaly? I’d been called a lot of things, good and bad, but that was a new one.
There was a very loud sigh behind me. “All that buildup and for nothing,” Bibbi grumbled.
A few of the witches and warlocks glanced her way with confused expressions.
“Yeah, sure.” I held out my hand for the book, and four more appeared.
The grumbles behind me grew louder.
Mertie’s hoofs sounded through the office on her way to the back room.
Zab tossed his book on the table as Oscar dumped his tea in the sink. Bertha and Musso took a seat at the table. Even Dusty, the rare and elusive dust bunny, became visible.
Mertie walked into the back room with a tray of cocoas that she placed down on the table.
“I’m not sure how I got stuck doing all the bitch work around here, but here’s your damn cocoas.”
No one blinked an eye at her salty tone. Who would’ve ever imagined she’d still be here, andwould be a better fit than Gillian? In fact, Mertie was such a good fit that she’d even started taking on some freelance jobs, doing especially well with anything causing misery.
She’d moved in when things started going downhill in Xest and never left. I didn’t blame her, either. The broker building was about the best place to live in Xest. It was the oddest place I never could’ve imagined. Close to the center of town but far enough away that the street traffic wasn’t that bad. The interior was where it got really interesting. It was a weird blend of an old English library and a witches’ lair, buried in a bunch of antiquities you’d find in some archeologist’s office. And one could never forget to mention Helen’s machinery, which took up over an entire wall with gears and wheels and rivets, always humming, whirling, and whistling.
The fireplace in the back room was big enough to stand in, which was good, since Xest was cold enough to freeze you alive. The only thing the building didn’t have was good cocoa, but luckily, we still had Mertie.
“Mertie, you have to go because you’re the only one Gillian will let in the Sweet Shop,” Zab said, handing out the cocoas.
“And why is that? I live here, same as you all do. Why am I not cut off?” Mertie took a seat and kicked her hoofs up onto the chair next to her.
“Don’t take it personally. She assumes you hate us. If you told her you liked us, I’m sure you’d get cut off as well.” I grabbed my cocoa, and a puff of dust exploded by my feet. “I didn’t forget you.” I turned back to the table, knowing we’d be living in the dust bowl if there wasn’t cocoa for Dusty. He had a two-a-day habit.
Mertie huffed. “As if she’d ever believe I like you people.” She reached down, scooping up Dusty.
“That’s unfortunately why you’ll have to continue getting the cocoas,” I said, watching as she let Dusty drink from her cocoa.
Bibbi was sitting silently at the table, not offering a comment.
Zab placed a cocoa in front of her, and we all watched. She hadn’t taken a sip of the stuff in months on some sort of principle. It was nicer to say that than that she hated Gillian too much to drink her cocoa. But the way she’d been staring when the cocoas arrived lately, we were all waiting for her to crack. It was going to happen soon. You could practically hear her saliva glands firing as the aroma filled the room.
Bibbi reached for the cocoa, and we all froze. Then she placed it away from her, and we all sighed. Today would not be the day Bibbi cracked.
“Mertie, I appreciate you picking it up for me, but I find Gillian’s cocoa has a bitter taste I’m not drawn to.”
Musso groaned as he drank his. Bertha, who’d been on the end of many of Gillian’s jibes, smirked quietly in the corner.
Mertie tapped the cocoa cup with a long black fingernail attached to blood-red skin. “As much as I appreciate your ability to hold on to hate, which is really quite impressive, and this is coming from someone with vast experience in the field, you do realize you’re an idiot, right? That this is just cocoa and not some sort of master war you’re waging? That Gillian doesn’t give a shit or know if you’re drinking it?”
Bibbi raised her chin. “Just the same, I’ll pass. I find it to be inferior.”
Bertha actually let out a small giggle.
Hawk walked in, the light of the fireplace harshening the angles of his face in a way that shouldn’t have made him more alluring but did anyway. A glint of steel that had nothing to do with the color flickered in his deep-set eyes. Had he always been this hard, or did I see him clearer now from a wider vantage point? Strange how your perceptions were colored by the life you’d lived. It felt like I’d seen everything in muted shades of grey. Now I saw every color of the rainbow and some I didn’t know existed.
No matter how hard and cold he seemed, I’d felt the heat that raged underneath that exterior, and it was scorching. As hardened as I’d become myself, his heat was the one thing that could melt me on the spot. I wasn’t sure if that was an asset or a hindrance, but it definitely felt like my soft underbelly was showing, and it made me want to growl as much as roll over.
I lifted my head, glancing in his direction as I nodded. His gaze met mine, a frisson running between us that felt like it lit the room with a charge. I sipped a little slower, my taste for cocoa shifting into something much more carnal.
I didn’t fixate on the way he moved across the room, or the woodsy, fresh scent that made me feel like I was part feral deep down inside. Or the tingle of awareness that spread across my skin and down my spine as his gaze remained on me, even as I shifted my focus elsewhere.
Oscar tipped his head in his direction. “Any word?”
I didn’t have to ask what he was referring to. Hawk had been checking with his sources on a regular basis about my angel and demon problem.
The room went quiet, as everyone in the room was aware of the situation. It tended to have a sobering effect on most.
“Tippi, you’re quite calm about everything, you know, considering you have an angel and a devil, not on each shoulder per se, but standing behind you, aiming their little arrows and pitchforks.” Oscar let out a half laugh, enjoying his description of my situation. He was never one to let an opportunity for amusement go to waste.
It didn’t bother me in the least. I’d take a laugh wherever I could get it, especially from someone who’d proven themselves loyal.
Hawk shot Oscar a glance that said he didn’t find it overly amusing as he grabbed a seat at the table, a chair buffer between us. When he looked my way, the few feet meant nothing. I would’ve needed a few football fields to chill the heat in his eyes.
“I don’t see what you people are fretting about. There’s an obvious answer to all of this, Dread, the imbalance, the demon and the angel.” Mertie waved her hand in the air as if it were all so obvious to her.
“Which is?” I asked, wondering what brilliance she’d figured out that the rest of us were too stupid to see.
“Take down Lou, trap him in the hill somehow, and that’ll offset the imbalance of Dread. Xazier likes you for some unknown reason, so he won’t put up much of a fuss. All good.” She sipped her cocoa as if that were the end of it.
“Even if it were that simple, I still have too much magic. That’s one of their issues,” I reminded her.
“I bet if you take care of Lou, Xazier will be more willing to negotiate,” Mertie said with a smirk.
She was right. Xazier would be. And even if she was wrong, it wasn’t a bad idea. Although I might’ve been alone in thinking that. The rest of the room listened without comment, except Hawk, who was now making his distaste known with a glare in her direction.
I didn’t care if Hawk hated the idea and everyone else thought it was stupid. I was open to giving anything a try.
“If one were to give this a go, any idea on how to get Lou in the hill?” I asked.
“I can’t be the idea girl, the logistics, the executor of said plan, and the one that has to get the cocoa several times a day. You people have to do some of the work too, you know.” Mertie huffed, and a small puff of smoke came out of her nose as she crossed her hooves. She stopped suddenly, looking at her left hoof. “Oh, well, that’s great. Now I chipped a hoof. I just painted them and they’re ruined.” She got up and stormed out of the room, stomping and complaining the whole time.
“It doesn’t matter who wants to kill her. Tippi can live through anything. She’s tough,” Bibbi said.
Oh no. Oooooh no. How could I have forgotten?
“You should’ve seen her luring a group into the alley so she could kick their teeth in without an audience,” Bibbi continued.
Hawk looked over at Bibbi. “Really? That sounds like an interesting day,” he said.
By the avid attention around the table, it was clear there would be no one saving me with an interruption. Bibbi was better than Zab was with a secret, but only if you made sure to instruct her that it was a secret. That was what I got for being distracted by cocoa. There were no freebies in life. That cocoa was going to cost me an earful later.
How many times had Hawk said in the last few weeks to keep my guard up? That anything could be a setup? I’d lost count, as I’d gone deaf to all the warnings after a while, but the count was way up there, all the way up with goodies like “make sure you floss” and “wash your hands after you go to the bathroom.”
Hawk’s attention appeared to be solely on Bibbi as she told the tale with great fanfare, and, of course, embellishing where needed to make it more entertaining. This would lead to one of the things I’d been avoiding the most in the last few weeks, and that wasn’t a demon or an angel or a fight. I could do all three of those things standing on my head while simultaneously playing the bongos. What I couldn’t handle was the man sitting a couple of chairs over who was going to want to discuss things with me.
He was my kryptonite, the one thing left that could slay me emotionally and mentally, and I hadn’t quite figured out how to defend myself against him yet.
Although I had some time, as Bibbi laid out all the sordid details of my bravado, knowing I’d single-handedly be paying a fee for the entertainment after the show was over.