Roc Books by Jacqueline Carey
Pemkowet in November is a study in neutral hues. Don’t get me wrong—it’s still a beautiful place, but you have to work a little harder to see the beauty. Except for the dark green pines, the trees are naked and barren. It’s overcast more often than not, a sullen gray sky reflected in the gray waters of the Kalamazoo River.
Still, it makes you appreciate the subtler charms that it’s easy to overlook on a bright summer day: the tawny expanses of marsh grass waving gracefully along the shallow verges of the river, the elegant yellow-gold traceries of willow branches draping toward the water.
And of course the dunes, the vast sand dunes, rendered more majestic without the foliage of cottonwood, oak, and birch trees that disguises their scope in the growing season. Those dunes are what make a little town in southwest Michigan such a popular tourist destination. Well, the dunes, the white-sand beaches on the shores of Lake Michigan, and the eldritch community—and, last month, the hauntings.
I was glad that was over. It had been a close call, but the gateway between the dead and the living was closed. The annual Halloween parade had been a debacle, but it hadn’t turned into a cataclysmic bloodbath. Talman “Tall Man” Brannigan’s remains had been laid to rest once more, and the local coven had sealed the mausoleum with all kinds of protection spells just in case.
And I was still Hel’s liaison, authorized by the Norse goddess of the dead, who presided over the underworld that lay beneath the sweeping dunes, to maintain the balance between her rule of order and the mundane authorities. It helps that I work for the Pemkowet Police Department. Technically, I’m a part-time file clerk, but the chief calls me in to consult anytime there’s eldritch involvement in a case.
That’s me: Daisy Johanssen, girl detective.
Well, except that at twenty-four, I can’t really call myself a girl. And, perhaps more significant, there’s the fact that I’m only half human.
My mom’s a hundred percent human and one of the nicest people you’d care to meet. No one here holds it against her that at nineteen years of age she inadvertently summoned my father, Belphegor, lesser demon and occasional incubus, with a Ouija board.
Obviously, she wasn’t originally from Pemkowet. Well, obvious to anyone who was, at least. I consider myself a local, and no local would risk fooling around with a Ouija board. When you’re sitting on top of a functioning underworld, there’s just no telling what could happen.
The problem is that the Pemkowet Visitors Bureau promotes paranormal tourism while downplaying the possible risks, and as a result, we get tourists who are unaware of the very real dangers they might face—like the spectators at the Halloween parade last month, who weren’t expecting to encounter the reanimated corpse of an infamous axe murderer.
Or like my mom, who was vacationing here on spring break with some college girlfriends.
If you’re wondering what sort of special powers my demonic heritage gives me, the answer is pretty much none, which is because I refuse to claim my birthright.
There’s a good reason for it. If I did, it would breach the Inviolate Wall, which separates the divine forces of the apex faiths—Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, all the big -isms—from the mortal plane. And a breach of the Inviolate Wall could ultimately unleash Armageddon.
At least that’s what I’ve always been told. It’s conventional wisdom around these parts.
Oh, and two weeks ago, one of the Norns laid some major soothsaying on me and informed me that someday the fate of the world might hinge on the choices I make.
No pressure, right?
When I asked her for advice, she told me to trust my heart. The problem with that—I mean, aside from the fact that it sounds like a line of dialogue from a Lifetime movie—was that my heart was in a serious state of confusion, which is why I’d been spending an inordinate amount of time that November mooning over the subtle glimpses of beauty to be found in the bleak, dun-colored landscape instead of confronting actual issues. And if one of the issues hadn’t decided to man up and acknowledge the fact that we had things to discuss, I’d probably still be mooning.
Mooning, by the way, is a particularly apt term when there’s a werewolf involved.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my heart leaped when my phone rang and Cody Fairfax’s name popped up on the screen. I hadn’t seen him since Halloween night, and I was pretty sure he’d been avoiding me on purpose, not entirely without reason.
I let the phone ring a few times before I answered. “Hey.” I kept my tone casual in case Cody was calling on a police matter. “What’s up?”
“Nothing,” he said. “I’m off duty today. And I just thought . . .” There was a long pause. “We need to talk, Daisy.”
No kidding. It had been well over a month since we’d had what I’d categorize as earth-shattering sex. I hadn’t made a secret of the fact that I’d had a crush on Cody since we were kids riding the school bus together. Cody hadn’t made a secret of the fact that there was no possibility of a real relationship between us because I was an unsuitable mate for a werewolf. Kind of ironic, since he was in the eldritch closet, so to speak, but there you have it.
My temper stirred and my tail twitched. Um, yeah. I don’t have any demonic powers, but I do have super-size emotions that occasionally cause bad things to happen, especially when I lose my temper . . . and I have a tail, of a more modest size. “Are we really going to have this conversation on the phone, Cody?”
“No, no,” he said hastily. “I just wanted to see if you were free. Are you at your apartment? I’ll come over.”
“Yeah, that’s fine.”
“I’ll see you in ten.” He hung up.
I spent the next ten minutes tidying my apartment and, okay, checking my makeup. For the record, I mostly resemble my mom: fair skin, white-blond Scandinavian hair, a pert nose. The only trait I inherited from dear old Dad’s side of the family—well, aside from the tail—is jet-black eyes, the kind you don’t find in ordinary mortal humans.
Ten minutes later, I heard Cody’s footsteps on the stairs leading to my apartment, which was located above Mrs. Browne’s Olde World Bakery.
“I brought cinnamon rolls,” he offered, holding out a bag when I opened the door. Mrs. Browne’s cinnamon rolls were legendary. All her baked goods were. No one, human or eldritch, can bake a better brownie.
“Thanks.” I took the bag. “Come on in.”
I put the cinnamon rolls on a plate while Cody hovered in the living room of my apartment, which seemed smaller with him in it.
“Have a seat.” I set the plate with the cinnamon rolls on the coffee table in front of my futon couch.
“Daise . . .” Cody stayed on his feet. His hands opened and closed in a gesture of frustration. “I’m sorry. This is awkward.”
“Yeah.” I blew out a breath. “Sit. Let’s talk.”
He sat on the futon, and I took a seat on the adjacent armchair. The cinnamon rolls sat untouched. Mogwai, the big calico tomcat who had more or less adopted me, peered warily around the door to my bedroom.
“How have you been?” Cody asked. “Since . . . ?” He let the sentence die.
“Okay,” I said. “You?”
See, here’s the thing. I’ll spare the details, but the gist of the matter is that if Cody and I hadn’t hooked up that first time—which was, by the way, completely spontaneous and unexpected—it’s possible that we would have found the Tall Man’s stolen remains; or at least Cody, with his werewolf-keen olfactory sense, would have. There’s absolutely, positively no way we could have known it at the time, but the fact is that while we were lolling in the afterglow of earth-shattering sex, a thunderstorm washed away a scent trail we would have stumbled across in the course of duty, which would have meant no Halloween debacle, no axe-wielding zombie skeleton. All in all, a much better outcome.
I know Cody didn’t blame me, but I knew he blamed himself for it, which made a situation that was already awkward even worse. And it frustrated me, because it gave him an excuse to avoid me.
Which is why I’d put a lot of thought into the matter while I was mooning over life’s subtle beauties.
“It probably wouldn’t have mattered, you know,” I said to Cody. He looked blankly at me. “You and me? Delaying the investigation?” I shook my head. “It wouldn’t have mattered, Cody. We spent a couple of hours canvassing the neighborhood around the cemetery that morning. Either way, the thunderstorm would have passed through long before we went to Brannigan’s house. That scent trail would have been gone.”
“Yeah.” Cody ran a hand through his bronze-colored hair. “I figured that out after I had a chance to cool down. We still should have started investigating right away and I’m not letting myself off the hook for it, but . . .” He shrugged. “That’s not why I’m here.”
“Why?” I asked softly, regarding him. He wore a worn flannel shirt and faded jeans, and it looked good on him. Unlike a lot of men, Cody Fairfax could pull off backwoods chic. “Are you here to give me the unsuitable-mate speech, Cody? Because I’ve already heard it.”
A corner of his mouth twitched wryly, but there was regret in his topaz eyes. “Not the long version.”
I said nothing.
Cody glanced around the living room, his gaze lighting on the small steel buckler leaning against my bookcase. “What the hell do you have a shield for, Daisy? Are you going to a Renaissance fair?”
“No,” I said. “It’s for practicing. It helps me visualize a mental shield.”
While I don’t have any special powers per se, it turns out that thanks to my outsize emotions, I do have an abundance of what Stefan Ludovic—hot ghoul, six-hundred-year-old immortal Bohemian knight, and the issue I was actively avoiding—informed me the ancient Greeks called pneuma, or the breath of life, and George Lucas called the Force, or midi-chlorians. Just kidding on that last part. I don’t think Stefan’s seen Star Wars, although he has surprised me before. At any rate, under his tutelage, I’ve learned to channel that energy into a mental shield, which is handy for warding off things like the emotion-draining ability of ghouls—more politely known as the Outcast—and vampiric hypnosis.
It can also be used as a weapon, which Stefan warned me was very, very dangerous, and that I should not attempt it before he gauged me ready. Given that I nearly got myself killed doing that very thing, I’d say he was right.
“Did Ludovic give that to you?” Cody asked me, an edge to his tone. His nostrils flared slightly, and there was a glint of phosphorescent green in his eyes. In the bedroom doorway, Mogwai hissed and bristled.
“Yeah,” I said. “He did.” My heart ached a little. “Goddammit, Cody! We’ve been over this before, too. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t tell me I’m an unsuitable mate, then act jealous. It’s not fair.”
“I know, I know!” Cody took a deep breath and wrestled himself under control. “That’s why I’m here.”
I swallowed. “Is this the long version of the speech?”
“Yeah,” he said quietly. “It is. You know I haven’t been in a relationship since Caroline died—”
“You’ve dated a ton of women!” Not exactly a considerate response under the circumstances since he’d just referenced his Canadian werewolf girlfriend who was tragically killed five years ago, but it was true.
“Human women,” he said. “They don’t count.”
Being half human myself, I couldn’t help feeling a surge of indignation. My tail lashed, and a few knickknacks on my bookshelves rattled in protest. “I’m sure it would warm their hearts to hear it.”
Cody sighed. “I didn’t mean it like that. But it’s not the same, and you know it.”
Unfortunately, I did. The intensity of what I’d experienced with Cody was unlike anything else I’d ever known.
He shifted on the futon. “That’s why I never dated anyone for longer than a month. I never let it get serious. I never, ever misled anyone.”
“I never said you misled me,” I pointed out. “And you also never dated anyone longer than a month because they might start noticing a conspicuous pattern of absence around the full moon.”
“True.” Cody gave me the ghost of a smile. “But you . . .”
I waited. “What?”
His smile was gone. “You’re getting under my skin, Daise,” he said simply. “I wasn’t expecting it, but you surprised me.”
Oh, crap. My heart gave another painful hitch. “But.”
“But I have a duty to my clan.” Cody leaned forward and clasped his hands loosely between his spread knees. “I know it doesn’t seem fair, but it’s not just one of those arbitrary eldritch protocols. The entire survival of our species depends on our mating and breeding with our own kind.”
“I know,” I whispered. “But . . .” I didn’t have a “but.” There really wasn’t anything to say.
“My family’s given me a lot of leeway since Caroline’s death,” Cody said. “But at twenty-six, it’s time I started thinking about settling down with a suitable mate.”
“Are you sure?” I was just stalling now. “Twenty-six is still young.”
“Not when you run a higher than average risk of being shot by a hunter or a game warden,” he murmured.
That was how his Canadian werewolf girlfriend had died. “But . . .”
Cody’s gaze was candid and human. “But it’s not going to happen if we go any further with this, Pixy Stix.”
Despite everything, I made a face at the nickname. “Oh, gah!”
“See?” His lips curved into a rueful smile. “That’s one of the ways I know I’m getting in too deep. I find myself making up excuses to tease you.”
“Yeah, if we were six and eight again, you’d be pulling my pigtails on the playground at recess,” I muttered.
“Not at the risk of setting off your temper,” he said. “That old boiler at East Pemkowet Elementary was awfully touchy.”
“Don’t make me laugh,” I pleaded.
“Sorry.” Cody rubbed his hands over his face. “I really am, Daise. But I have to try to do the right thing.”
“So . . . what?” I asked him. “Does the Fairfax clan have someone in mind? Are you going to settle down with your second cousin?”
“No.” He dropped his hands to his knees. “We’re careful about bloodlines. With a relatively small gene pool, we have to be. Even wolves in the wild do their best to avoid intrafamilial breeding.” He hesitated. “Sometime in the next couple of months, the Fairfax clan will host a mixer.”
“A mixer?” I echoed.
“Yeah.” To his credit, Cody didn’t look happy about it. In fact, he looked fairly miserable.
“Okay.” I stood up. “Well, thanks for telling me.”
Cody stood, too. “Daisy . . .”
“What?” I spread my arms. “It is what it is, Cody. Like I said, you never misled me. I knew what you are.”
“I wish I could share it with you, Daisy,” he said to me. “All of it.” A distant, slightly dreamy expression crossed his face. “The call of the full moon rising, all silvery and bright in the night sky, tugging at muscle and sinew and bone. The incredible release of shifting, the incredible freedom of casting off your humanity and hunting with your packmates; howling to each other, howling back at the moon, howling for the sake of knowing you’re alive. The thrill of the chase and the glory of the kill, the scent of your prey’s fear in your nostrils and the taste of blood in your mouth. I wish I could. Because you’d love it, Daise. You’d fucking love it. But I can’t.”
“I know.” Well, I didn’t know about the whole taste-of-blood-in-your-mouth thing, but I knew what Cody meant. I’d love it if I were a werewolf, but I wasn’t and I never would be, which meant there was an intrinsic part of his life that I could never, ever share with him.
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence.
“So I guess . . .” Cody cleared his throat. “That’s all I had to say. I’m sorry, Daisy. I really am.”
I nodded. “Are you going to be okay if we have to work together again?”
“Sure,” I said. “It’s my job. I’ve been doing it all along.”
He nodded, too, and held out his hand. “Anytime, partner.”
I gave him a look. “Jesus, Cody! A handshake? Really?”
Cody grabbed my hand and yanked me in for a hug, hard and fast enough that I stumbled into the embrace. I wrapped my arms around him, feeling his lean, muscled strength, my fingertips digging into his shoulder blades. I inhaled his scent of pine needles, musk, and a trace of Ralph Lauren’s Polo mixed with laundry detergent from his shirt. He pressed his cheek against my hair, then let me go.
“Take care, Daise,” he murmured.
I blinked back tears. “You, too.”
On that note, Cody made his exit. I waited until the sound of his footsteps had receded to let my tears fall. If he’d just stuck with the unsuitable-mate speech, it would have been easier. Somehow, the fact that he’d admitted to developing feelings for me made it worse. Mogwai wound around my ankles and purred, trying to console me.
“Dammit, Mog,” I whispered. “It’s not fair.”
He purred louder in agreement.
I got up and put Billie Holiday on the stereo to sing about heartache, then ate one of the cinnamon rolls. Neither did a whole lot to make me feel better, so I grabbed my phone and called my friend Jen.
“Hey,” I said when she answered. “Any chance you’re available to come over and get epically drunk with me?”
Everyone should be lucky enough to have a BFF. Jennifer Cassopolis has been mine since we were in high school. We knew each other’s histories and secrets, hopes and fears and dreams. When you need to get good and drunk, that’s the kind of person you want keeping pace with you.
“Okay, girlfriend,” she announced as I opened the door. “I’ve got a bottle of Cuervo, a bag of limes, and a carton of Breyers cookies and cream, just in case. So go get your saltshaker and—” She cocked her head at my stereo. “Oh, hell no!”
Jen thrust a shopping bag at me. “Put the ice cream in the freezer and cut some limes. I’m putting on some music from this century.”
“Okay, okay!” I went into the kitchen. In the living room, the plaintive strains of Billie Holiday’s voice gave way to the stomp-and-clap cheerleading beats of Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl.” “Hey, that’s not our old high school playlist, is it?”
“Yeah. I plugged my phone into your stereo.” Jen came into the kitchen. “Remember when you and I’d have our own dance parties in your mom’s trailer?”
“Yeah.” I smiled. “Good times.”
“Uh-huh.” Jen hopped up to perch on the counter beside my cutting board. Her dark, lustrous eyes were shrewd. “So, what’s the damage, Daisy? Officer Down-low or the hot ghoul?”
I finished slicing a lime into wedges and fetched a pair of shot glasses from the cupboard. “Cody.”
“Oh, Officer Down-low!” Jen shook her head. “What now?”
I sighed. “Let’s move into the living room.”
Over the course of a couple of tequila shots, I laid out my tale of woe. Of course, Jen knew the background.
“Damn,” she said sympathetically when I’d finished. “I’m sorry, Daise. That’s harsh.”
I shrugged. “Like I said to Cody, it is what it is. I mean, it’s not his fault. It’s no one’s fault.”
“Yeah, but . . .” Jen licked the web of skin between the thumb and forefinger of her left hand and shook a judicious amount of salt onto it. “He didn’t have to tell you that he was basically starting to fall for you. That just makes it harder, doesn’t it?”
I salted my own left hand. “I know, right? It totally does! Do you think he did it to make himself feel better? Or me?”
By the time we’d finished giving my conversation with Cody the sort of thorough analysis and dissection that it deserved, the level in the bottle of Cuervo had dropped noticeably, and both of us were feeling the effects. Not exactly drunk yet, but sober was definitely in the rearview mirror. On the stereo, Outkast was telling us to shake it like a Polaroid picture, and after one more tequila shot, it seemed obvious that the thing to do was order a pizza, dance around the living room, and flirt with the blushing delivery boy when the pizza arrived.
Okay, maybe we were more than a little drunk.
One medium sausage-and-mushroom pizza, two beers I’d found in my refrigerator, and at least another tequila shot later, we were definitely drunk.
“Okay, Daise.” Jen set down her empty shot glass with an emphatic thud. “What about the hot ghoul? Are we gonna talk about the hot ghoul?”
“Outcast,” I said automatically.
She blinked at me. “You want to put it on repeat?”
I blinked back at her. “What?”
Oh, right. “Not the band,” I clarified. “I mean Stefan’s kind of Outcast.”
To be fair, I can’t blame Jen for using the term ghoul. Everyone does it. I haven’t entirely broken the habit myself, though I try to be respectful.
“Outcast, right. Sorry.” Jen paused. “Did you ever find out what he did to get . . . Outcast?”
Here’s the thing about the Outcast. The name, which is the name they call themselves, refers to the fact that they’re formerly mortal human beings who’ve been cast out of heaven and hell alike and condemned to an eternal existence on the mortal plane, forced to subsist on the emotions of other humans.
Hence, the reputation as ghouls.
I admit, I’d found ghouls—the Outcast—pretty damn creepy myself before Stefan Ludovic came to town. If I’ve changed my tune, it’s in part because I’ve gotten to know him, and realized that you don’t get kicked out of heaven and hell without one heck of a tragic backstory. I’m not exactly sure how it works—even the Outcast themselves aren’t certain—but essentially, a human soul becomes Outcast by dying in a state of commingled sin and faith and transcendently powerful emotion, which creates some sort of theological loophole that thrusts them back into their bodies in the mortal plane . . . over and over and over again.
Oh, they can die, all right; but they come back. Cast out again. It happens in the space of a heartbeat. I’ve seen it and it’s profoundly unnerving. As far as I know, there are only two ways one of the Outcast can end his or her existence. One is to be starved of human emotions for a prolonged and agonizing period of time, until they consume their own essence and fade into the void of nonbeing.
The other is if I kill them, because I just so happen to possess a magic dagger that only I can wield and that’s capable of killing even the immortal undead. It was given to me by Hel herself, and its name is dauda-dagr, which means “death-day” in Old Norse. Right now, it was in a hidden sheath in the custom-made messenger bag hanging from my coatrack. So far, I’d only had to kill two ghouls and dispatch one zombie skeleton with it.
“Daisy!” Jen snapped her fingers at me. “Daise?”
“Um, yeah.” I poured myself another shot of tequila and downed it without bothering with the salt or lime. “Stefan’s uncle killed his father and married his mother. He—”
“Wait.” She interrupted me. “Isn’t that the plot—”
“Of Hamlet,” I agreed. “Only Stefan wasn’t indecisive. He killed his uncle outright, and his uncle’s guards stabbed him to death.”
Jen shivered. “Damn.”
“Honor thy father and thy mother,” she murmured. “That’s the element of faith, right?”
We sat in silence with that for a moment. On the stereo, Snoop Dogg advised us to drop it like it’s hot.
“I think you should do it.” Jen poured another shot for both of us. “One date. What do you have to lose?”
I held up my shot glass and squinted at the tequila it held. “Well, there is the small matter of one of the Norns warning me that the fate of the world might hinge on the choices I make.”
She did her shot with salt and lime. “Do you really think the Norn was talking about your love life?”
“Probably not,” I admitted.
I pointed at her. “I can’t believe you of all people would suggest I date an eldritch predator.” That was because Jen’s sister Bethany had spent eight years as a blood-slut in thrall to a vampire. Okay, she proved to be a surprisingly badass vampire in her own right when he finally turned her, but for eight long years, no one would have guessed it. Plus, her blood-bonded vampire mate was an insufferable prat.
“I know, I know! But . . .” Jen hesitated. “Daise, sometimes I forget that you’re not human. If all you really wanted was a nice human guy—”
“I’d still be dating Sinclair,” I finished for her, downing my shot.
She nodded. “You know what brought it home to me? When you told me that first time with Cody, he was a little . . . wolfy.”
“Sorry.” I grimaced. “I didn’t mean to freak you out.”
“I know.” Jen refilled our shot glasses, her shiny black hair falling forward. She tucked it behind her ears. “I’m just thinking, you’ve spent your whole life trying to repress your inner nature. Maybe it’s time to explore it.”
Okay, this definitely wasn’t a conversation we’d be having sober. I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Jen was right. I had spent my entire life trying to contain my outsize emotions, especially anger and anything linked to the Seven Deadlies. I had an array of visualization techniques that my mom began teaching me at an early age. It kept me safe—safe from the prejudices of mundane humans, safe from the temptation scenarios my father, Belphegor, whispered to me when my unruly temper weakened the Inviolate Wall dividing us.
Too safe, maybe? After all, I’d recently indulged in some serious lust without any apocalyptic consequences. And when I’d nearly gotten myself killed using the pneuma as a weapon, it was my anger that had turned the tide.
On the other hand, unleashing Armageddon really wasn’t something you want to take a chance on.
“You’re the one I count on to keep me grounded,” I said to Jen. “This is not exactly helpful.”
She shrugged. “Look, the Norn said to trust your heart, right?”
“But you don’t know what your heart wants.” Jen pushed the full shot glass toward me. “How the hell else are you supposed to find out?”
I picked up the shot. “You have a point.”
“And you know what else?” She was warming to the topic. “Stefan’s interested in you, Daise. I don’t know . . . I don’t know exactly what that means for a ghoul, um, Outcast, and a hell-spawn, but . . . he’s being upfront about it, you know? He’s not dicking you around. What did he say when he kissed you?”
“He said he couldn’t offer me eternity,” I murmured, “but he could offer me the here and now.”
“Right!” Jen gestured with her shot glass, tequila slopping over the sides. “He’s not gonna sneak around on the down-low like Cody. He’s owning it.”
“He’s sexy and he knows it,” I said, paraphrasing the not exactly immortal lyrics of LMFAO.
For some reason—well, the obvious reason—this struck us both as hysterically funny, and we spent a solid minute laughing our fucking asses off. Which, under the circumstances, was appropriate.
“Oh, my God.” Jen wiped away tears of laughter. “You know what, though? He really is.”
“Mm-hmm.” That was undeniable.
“You know what else?” She fumbled for the saltshaker. “I think Stefan actually respects you, Daise. Unlike some werewolves.”
“Cody respects me!” I protested.
“Oh, fuck Cody!” Jen waved the saltshaker. “Because Cody . . . Cody . . . Look, it’s not like plenty of couples don’t struggle with fertility issues. He’s willing to write you off just because you can’t have his were-puppies. Who does that?”
“Members of a dwindling species fighting for their survival,” I said. “Plus, there’s that whole hunting-beneath-the-full-moon thing I could never share with him.”
Jen made a dismissive sound. “Yeah, and if I was dating a guy who ran marathons, that’s not something we’d ever share, no matter how much he went on about the endorphin high.”
Again, she had a point. I’d never thought about it that way.
“So call Stefan.” Seeing me weaken, Jen put down the saltshaker and looked around for my phone. “Here. Call him.”
“No.” I folded my arms. “I am not drunk-dialing a six-hundred-year-old immortal Bohemian knight.”
I hesitated. “No.”
“You want to,” Jen said. “You so want to. Fine. I’ll do it for you.”
“Don’t you dare!”
Her thumbs danced over my phone’s screen. “Too late.”
“Jen!” I pleaded.
She put the phone out of my reach. “You’ll thank me in the morning, Daisy. Trust me on this one.”
After that, it gets a little blurry.
I’m pretty sure that Jen and I reached the maudlin stage of drunk, bawling along to a Kelly Clarkson song on our old playlist and declaring our undying friendship for the umpteenth time. I have a vague memory of the two of us digging into a carton of Breyers cookies and cream with a pair of spoons, talking about whether or not Lee Hastings would ever summon the courage to ask Jen out, and an even vaguer memory of ransacking the linen closet and dumping an armful of clean sheets and a blanket onto the futon for Jen before staggering to my own bed, where I collapsed in an unconscious heap.
All in all, a successful night.
I awoke with a hangover.
Not just any hangover, but an epic hangover—the kind of hangover they make movies about.
Unfortunately, I did remember the thing I’d rather have forgotten about last night, and it jolted me out of bed and in search of my phone. And when I found it, it was even worse than I’d feared.
“Jennifer Mary Cassopolis, what the fuck were you thinking?” I shouted at the figure buried beneath a pile of linens on my futon.
“Huh?” The pile stirred.
“The text,” I said grimly. “The text you sent Stefan!”
“What?” Jen’s head poked out of the covers. Her eyes were bleary and she looked as hungover as I felt. “Why?”
I showed her the message she’d sent on my phone’s screen. UR HAWTT!! LETS DO THIS!!!
“Oh, shit!” Jen made a sound somewhere between a gasp and a laugh. “Daise, I’m sorry. Is there any coffee?”
I glared at her. “Seriously?”
She sat upright, pushing the hair out of her face. “I’m sorry! It seemed funny at the time.”
“He’s a six-hundred-year-old immortal!” I said. “You sent him a text from my phone that sounded like it came from a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl!”
“Look, just explain it to him. If he’s got a sense of humor, he’ll understand,” Jen said. “And if he doesn’t, you might as well find out now and avoid wasting your time . . . Daisy, what are you doing?”
I’d disconnected her phone from my stereo and was composing a message on it. “I’m returning the favor.” Jen made a futile, blanket-encumbered lunge in my direction, which I dodged handily. “There.” I finished and handed her the phone.
“Want to get a cup of coffee sometime this week?” she read aloud, then made a face. “You sent that to Lee? I just texted Skeletor for a date?”
Back in the day, I would have been surprised to find myself considering Lee a friend. He’d been a tall, painfully thin—hence the nickname—geeky kid who’d spent all his time hanging with a couple of other geeky kids, playing World of Warcraft. But things change. Oh, Lee was still tall and too thin, but he’d parlayed his love of video games and genius with computers into a successful career out in Seattle. Now he was back in Pemkowet, doing consulting work and caring for his ailing mother. And since Jen had given him a makeover last month, he was actually looking halfway decent.
Plus, he’d developed an awesome database that would let me keep track of the eldritch population in town, and he was doing some research on the side into a matter that Hel had asked me to look into.
“It’s just coffee,” I said to Jen. “And at least I had the decency to make you sound like an adult.”
“Yeah, and I’ll sound like a jerk if I try to explain it was just a joke,” she grumbled. “Speaking of coffee—seriously, is there any?”
“I’ll make some.”
“Thanks.” Jen began extricating herself from the tangle of sheets and blankets. “Hey, Daise? Did Stefan reply? You didn’t say.”
In my mortification, I’d forgotten to look. Now I did, and what I saw made me frown. “Yeah, he did.”
“He says he needs to talk to me,” I said. “And I should stop by the Wheelhouse today.” Jen and I exchanged a look. “Do you think he changed his mind? Do you think he got sick of waiting for me to make up mine?”
Jen shook her head. “I don’t think someone who’s been alive for six hundred years loses patience easily.”
I wasn’t so sure. That text might have been enough to remind Stefan of the vast gap in age and experience that lay between us and convince him to change his mind.
On the other hand, thanks to the fact that I’d let him feed on my emotions last summer, Stefan had a direct pipeline into what I was feeling—a fact that I conveniently managed to ignore most of the time. At least that meant he’d know I was a little messed up last night. And today, for that matter. With the weight of my hangover crushing down on me, coffee seemed like a very good idea.
I shrugged. “We’ll see.”
In the kitchen, Jen shuffled up behind me, wrapped in a blanket. “I’m really sorry about the text, Daise.” She rested her chin on my shoulder as I poured water into the coffeemaker. “Honestly, I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“I blame the playlist,” I said. “We wouldn’t have been acting like teenagers if you’d left Billie Holiday on.”
Jen grimaced. “I blame the tequila.”
“That, too.” I turned to face her. “But you laid some righteous truths on me, too.”
She gave me a wry smile. “Well, I hope I didn’t undo whatever good it did.”
“Eh.” I waved a dismissive hand. “You’re right about that, too. Screw him if he can’t take a joke.”
Half an hour later, fortified by coffee, we drove in separate cars to the Sit’n Sip; separate cars because I planned to stop by the Wheelhouse later and, no matter how hot she thought Stefan was, Jen had no intention of walking into a biker bar filled with ghouls; and the Sit’n Sip because when you have a towering hangover in Pemkowet, that’s where you go for a gloriously greasy breakfast. I’m talking the equivalent of a Denny’s Grand Slam, scrambled eggs, bacon, and hash browns, plus a side of biscuits and sausage gravy. It sounds disgustingly excessive—okay, it is disgustingly excessive, but there’s nothing better for putting ballast in your belly to offset that queasy, acidic, roiling sensation.
By the time I scraped my plate clean, I felt marginally human—no pun intended. When it came to hangovers, apparently I was all human.
Of course, now I had to face Stefan, and despite what I’d said to Jen, I wasn’t feeling all that easy, breezy, and carefree about it. For one thing, there was the lingering mortification. For another, there was the dawning realization that it really wasn’t a good idea to respond to someone’s interest in you immediately after someone else has . . . well, not broken your heart, but definitely dinged it.
Especially when that initial someone can read your emotions like a book and will know that’s exactly what you’re doing, which is why I entered the Wheelhouse with my mental shield blazing.
At this hour—it was around eleven thirty a.m. on a Sunday—it wasn’t busy. Actually, the Wheelhouse was never really what I’d call busy for a bar in a thriving resort town. There just aren’t that many Outcast in existence, and according to Stefan, far fewer of them are created in the postmodern era. But since their numbers barely dwindle, the small patronage that existed was stable.
And, of course, there were their . . . hangers-on, I guess. Victims is the word that comes to mind, but that’s probably rude. The unhappy souls on whom the Outcast fed, and who relied upon the Outcast to take away their pain and misery.
Before Stefan came to town, that included a lot of drug addicts—meth-heads in particular. The Outcast did a lively trade in meth, perpetuating a vicious cycle of misery that gave them a constant source of sustenance. Stefan considered that particular flavor of wretchedness a kind of chemically induced poison and after establishing himself as the head ghoul in charge, he banned the drug trade.
But there are plenty of reasons why people can be miserable in this world, and some of the patrons, mostly women, came to the Wheelhouse for the respite they found there. For the record, the overwhelming majority of the Outcast I’d encountered had been men. The only female member of the Outcast I’d met was dead.
I know, because I killed her.
There was a little silence as I entered the bar, the Outcast assessing my psychic shield, the hangers-on evaluating me as a rival. Cooper, Stefan’s chief lieutenant, peeled himself away from the pool table, where he’d been engaged in conversation with a woman who looked old enough to be his mother, and sauntered over.
“Hey there, Miss Daisy,” he greeted me, looking a bit wary. “You’re keeping well, I hope?”
“Well enough, thanks,” I said. “And you?”
Cooper’s mouth twisted as he regarded the mental shield I kept raised between us. “Well enough that you needn’t fear me.”
The last time I’d seen Cooper, he’d been ravening, which is what happens when one of the Outcast loses self-control, and pretty much what it sounds like. It wasn’t entirely his fault—he’d been part of the ghoul squad that was providing emergency emotional crowd control at the Halloween parade, and had overestimated his discipline and stayed too long. But the upshot was that he’d completely drained a couple of mortal humans, a father and daughter, of their emotions, rendering them terrifyingly vacant. Stefan had assured me that they would recover in a week’s time. I sure as hell hoped that they had.
At any rate, Cooper’s pupils were steady and normal now, not out-of-control pits of blackness. I lowered my shield a measure. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you.”
He shrugged his narrow shoulders. “Ah, you’ve the right to. It’s you I’m owin’ an apology.”
“Accepted.” I started to put out my hand, then thought better of it. When it came to me and my super-size emotions, Cooper preferred to avoid temptation.
“Hey, Coop!” His hanger-on joined us, carrying a drink with the exaggerated care of someone who’s already had a few. Not that I was one to judge, certainly not this morning. “Who’s your friend?”
There was a jealous note in her voice. At close range, she wasn’t as old as I’d taken her for, probably only a few years older than me. Years of hard living had taken a toll, and her heavy makeup wasn’t doing her any favors.
Cooper glanced sidelong at her, his pupils dilating slightly. The apparent age gap between them was still disconcerting, but then, it was bound to be. Cooper was over two hundred years old, but he had been seventeen when he was Outcast, and his body would never age a day.
The tense lines of the woman’s face softened under his gaze, her jealousy vanishing.
“Daisy here is Hel’s liaison,” Cooper said to her in a surprisingly gentle tone. “The right-hand woman of the goddess herself. Go back to the pool table, Susie lass, and I’ll join you in a tick.”
She went, placid and obedient.
“Is she your . . .?” I didn’t know what to call her.
“Source?” He shrugged again. “One of them, sure enough.” The bleakness that lived behind his angelic blue eyes surfaced briefly. “Nothing more.”
“I’m sorry,” I murmured, painfully aware of the inadequacy of the words.
“I know.” Cooper set aside his pain to summon a sweet smile. “So! Here to see the big man, are we?”
“We are,” I confirmed.
He beckoned. “Come along, then. Himself will be tickled.”
I hoped so.
Stefan was on a phone call when Cooper knocked on the door to his office at the rear of the bar, but he opened the door and waved me in. I took a seat and waited. Stefan paced as he spoke into his cell phone, unusually restless for him. I had no idea who he was talking to or what they were talking about, since he wasn’t speaking English or any language I recognized. Not that I’m any great linguist—I’ve got two years of high school Spanish under my belt—but at least I have a passing familiarity with some of the biggies. I mean, I’ve seen foreign films. Whatever this was, not so much.
“My apologies,” Stefan said after concluding his call. “So.” He sat behind his desk and raised one eyebrow, the faintest hint of a smile hovering in the corners of his mouth. “Haaawwwtt?”
Oh, my God. Somehow, the way he drew the word out made it even worse. Although I kept my shield in place to deflect my emotions, a scalding tide of blood rose to flush my face. “Um, yeah, about that. I didn’t . . .” I paused. Okay, I hadn’t sent the text, but I hadn’t stopped Jen from sending it. And middle-school language or not, the sentiment was apt. Stefan sat motionless, regarding me with the patience and discipline honed by centuries. His pupils were steady in his ice-blue eyes, a stunning hue you only see in Siberian huskies and the occasional supermodel.
Unexpectedly, I decided to own it. “Yeah,” I said, lowering my shield. “That’s what the kids called it back in my day.”
Stefan’s smile deepened and his eyelids flickered slightly. “Based on the chagrin I sense mingled with your embarrassment, I suspect you were not the author of the message, Daisy. But the fact that you were willing to allow me to believe it to be the case is . . . intriguing.”
I squared my shoulders and raised my chin, ignoring the fact that my heart rate had increased. “I’m glad you think so.”
A shadow of regret crossed Stefan’s face. “Unfortunately, I asked to speak to you on a professional matter as Hel’s liaison. A situation that requires my attention has arisen in Wieliczka.”
“Wieliczka?” I echoed.
“The town in Poland where I most recently resided,” Stefan said. His jaw hardened and his pupils waxed. “Apparently, the successor I appointed there is encountering some . . . difficulties.”
“Oh.” I found myself unreasonably disappointed by the news. “Do you have to go yourself? Can you send one of your lieutenants?”
He shook his head. “It is a delicate business that requires knowledge of the situation and the players. I must go myself. If there is aught that you require, Cooper will be in charge in my absence.”
“Duly noted,” I said. “Any idea when you’ll be back?”
Ohh-kay. There wasn’t a lot I could say to that, which seemed to be something of a theme to my weekend.
“I do apologize.” Behind the desk, Stefan stood. “Having so recently established my authority among the Outcast in Pemkowet, I am reluctant to leave on such short notice. But this successor is a friend of long standing. And if I understand the situation rightly . . .” His voice turned grave as he rounded the desk. “I may have a favor to ask of you, Daisy. A very great favor.”
I rose from my seat. “Care to give me a hint?”
He hesitated. “Lest what I fear not come to pass, I would rather not say.”
“Okay.” I shrugged. “Safe travels.”
“Daisy.” Stefan’s voice dropped to a lower register, setting off butterflies in the pit of my stomach. He took a step toward me. I fought the urge to raise my shield, caught in the push-pull of conflicting emotions that his nearness created in me. He cupped my face, his thumbs caressing my cheekbones, and bowed his head toward me, his slightly-too-long black hair falling to frame his face. “Given the state of your emotions last night, perhaps it is for the best that we must continue this conversation at a later date,” he murmured. “But do you agree that we will continue it?”
I raised my hands to grip his wrists—not to push him away, just to hold him in place. “Yes.”
Stefan’s mouth covered mine as he kissed me, hard. I kissed him back. I could feel the bond between us, feel a part of myself spilling into him. The two of us together was a dangerous proposition, which was what made it so damn exciting and terrifying. The last time he’d kissed me, I’d pulled away and raised my shield.
This time, I didn’t.
It was Stefan who broke the kiss. He was breathing hard, his pupils dilated, a sliver of icy blue rimmed in black around them. His mouth stretched into a predator’s grin. “I will count the hours, Daisy Johanssen.”
I smiled back at him just as fiercely. “So will I.”
What can I say?
On Monday morning, I arrived at the police station to catch up on filing, only to walk into a situation. I’d call it a domestic disturbance, except the wild-eyed guy and the skinny, bleached-blond chick screaming at each other weren’t in their own domicile.
“—want to file a report, goddammit!” he yelled at her. “Some crazy old bitch breaks into our apartment in the middle of the night—”
“—need to go back on yer meds!”
“—fucking sits on my chest—”
“Yuh need to go back on yer meds, Scott!”
Behind the reception desk, Patty Rogan looked more annoyed than frightened, probably because Chief Bryant was in the process of lumbering out of his office like a bear disturbed from its hibernation.
“What seems to be the problem here?” he rumbled, hitching up his duty belt. “Oh, morning, Daisy.”
“Morning, chief.” I kept my distance. I’d rather face down an ogre than get in the middle of a domestic dispute, especially since the only ogre I know is a friend of the family.
The feuding couple began shouting at the same time again. The chief winced and held up one big hand for silence. It worked. For an ordinary human being, the chief has a lot of presence. He looked at Patty Rogan, who cleared her throat.
“Mr. Evans here would like to file a report regarding an intruder,” Patty said in a neutral tone. “Mrs. Evans is of the opinion that there was no intrusion.”
Chief Bryant pointed at the wild-eyed guy. “Scott Evans, right? Braden’s boy?” The guy nodded, looking marginally less agitated. “You first.”
“That ain’t—” his wife began indignantly.
The chief silenced her with a look. “You’ll get your turn, ma’am.”
The upshot of Scott Evans’s story was that he’d awakened in the middle of the night to find an elderly woman sitting on his chest—an elderly woman with skeletal features, glowing red eyes, and long, lank hair, that is. He’d been terrified and unable to move as she’d reached down and begun to throttle him, leaning over to inhale his breath. He was sure he was going to die, but then his wife, Dawn, rolled over in her sleep, and the scary old lady fled.
Somewhere in the course of Scott’s less-than-coherent recitation, the chief gave me an inquiring look, which I answered with a slight shrug and head shake. I wasn’t sure if a succubus was anything like an incubus, but it didn’t sound at all similar to my mother’s experience. Other than that, I couldn’t think of anything in Pemkowet’s eldritch population that would fit the profile.
“All right, ma’am,” the chief said to Dawn Evans when her husband had finished. “What’s your version?”
She sighed, her shoulders slumping. “There weren’t no old lady, sir.” There were dark circles under her eyes. “Scott’s got the PTSD. Sometimes he sees thangs. And he ain’t bin takin’ his meds.”
“It’s got nothing to do with the meds!” he shouted. “She was there, dammit!”
“Oh, honey! Ah know yuh think so.” Sorrow, a whole world of it, had replaced the anger in her tone. “But she weren’t.”
It was enough to convince Chief Bryant. “All right, here’s what we’re going to do. Scott, Mrs. Rogan here’s going to take your statement, and I’ll send Officer Mallick over to examine the apartment for any sign of forced entry. Meanwhile, I want you to go home and take your medication. Can you do that for me?”
“Is that an affirmative, soldier?” The chief pressed him.
Scott Evans stood a bit taller. “Yes, sir!”
“Good man.” The chief nodded in approval. “All right, then. Carry on.”
Feeling bad for Dawn, I sat with her while her husband repeated his story and Patty took down the details. “I take it you’re not from here?” I said to her.
“No’m.” She gave me a tired smile. “Is it that obvious?”
“Kind of, yeah,” I admitted. “Where are you from originally?”
“Alabama,” Dawn murmured, tears filling her eyes. She sniffled and knuckled her eyes. “Ah’m sorry. It’s just that this is so hard. Ah love Scott, ah do, but this is so goddamn hard. His family tries to help as best they can, but . . .” A stifled sob escaped her, and she clenched her teeth on another.
“Hey, hey!” I put my arm around her shoulders. “It’s okay. I mean, it’s not, but . . . just breathe, okay?”
Dawn swallowed and nodded. “Thank yuh.”
I found a tissue in my messenger bag and handed it to her. “So how did you end up here in Pemkowet?”
She blew her nose. “We met in Iraq,” she said, pronouncing it “eye-rack.” “Same ole story. Girl meets boy, falls in love and gits married, moves to his hometown.”
“You served in Iraq?”
Dawn gave me a sidelong look. “Yes, ma’am. U.S. Army, maintenance and repair personnel. Ah drive a mean Humvee.”
“I’m impressed,” I said.
“Yuh mean surprised?” she asked wearily.
I was beginning to regret my initial assessment of Dawn Evans as “skinny, bleached-blond chick.” Okay, I stand by the hair—it was pretty bad—but there was a lot more going on here. God knows, I knew what it was like to be underestimated because of my looks and age, and the thick Southern accent probably wasn’t doing her any favors in these parts. “Look.” I lowered my voice. “You’re probably right about this whole thing. I mean, you know Scott. You know what he’s been through. I don’t. I can’t even begin to imagine what you guys have seen and done and how you’re coping with it. But just to be on the safe side, it wouldn’t hurt to sprinkle your bed with holy water. And, um, hang some cold iron over your front door. An old horseshoe or something. It keeps away the fey.”
She knit her brows. “Yuh think—”
“I just think it’s worth taking the precaution,” I said. “I’m going to look into it. And if it happens again . . . call me. Oh, I’m Daisy, by the way. Daisy Johanssen.”
“Ah know who yuh are,” Dawn said, fishing for her phone so we could trade numbers. “Yer the ghostbuster. Ah seen yuh on YouTube.”
I winced. “Right.”
“Ah ’preciate it,” she said to me, direct and forthright. “And ah’d ’preciate if you didn’t say nothin’ to Scott ’lessen yer sure. He’s got enough bad thoughts in his head. He don’t need no one else puttin’ none there.”
I nodded. “Understood.”
Dawn reached out to grasp my hand and squeeze it. “Thank yuh.”
“Anytime.” I returned her squeeze. “Seriously. Even if you just need to talk . . . call me.”
Seeing Scott approaching, she stood. “Ah will.”
Call me crazy, but I just don’t get the whole concept of a war of choice. I mean, war’s awful, right? I guess at some point there’s a choice involved in everything, but when it comes to war, it seems to me it should be the absolute last resort. And it’s a choice that should only be made for majorly compelling reasons, like defending your loved ones, or at least a grand humanitarian cause, not some trumped-up excuse to carry out a political agenda that turns out to be totally ill-conceived.
But hey, that’s just the opinion of one lone hell-spawn. Humanity’s been waging war against itself since the dawn of recorded history, so maybe I’m missing something. All I know is I’m glad it’s a choice I’d never had to make.
I put in a couple of hours filing, then used the department’s laptop and secure connection to covertly check the Pemkowet Ledger, which is the name of the top secret online database that Lee created for me. Covertly, because Chief Bryant was a little touchy on the subject of my refusal to allow anyone else in the department access to the ledger.
I felt a little guilty about that, but not enough to change my mind. For one thing, the eldritch code requires that I respect the privacy of members of the community, and as Hel’s liaison, I had to honor it. For another, it turns out that the ledger was a valuable tool in terms of negotiating with the community. The eldritch have a healthy regard for the notion of favors and debts owed, and I’d realized that I could use my ledger to influence individual members who were eager to rack up favor points or have past transgressions erased.
The Pemkowet Ledger was a work in progress—I was still inputting data from the past few years—but I did several keyword searches to see if they turned up any cases I’d forgotten that involved a scary old lady sitting on someone’s chest or attempting to throttle them in their sleep.
I checked the Vault and the Penalty Box, which aggregated favors and transgressions. Nothing useful there, either, but one entry in the Vault gave me a pang.
Jojo (nickname) the joe-pye weed fairy: One large favor owed for identifying a hex charm created by Emmeline Palmer.
Jojo the joe-pye weed fairy never got to claim that favor. Talman Brannigan—or at least his reanimated remains—had cut her down in midflight while she was attempting to defend my ex-boyfriend Sinclair Palmer, whose secret twin sister had hexed me some weeks earlier.
Have I mentioned that my life is complicated?
I let the cursor hover over Jojo’s entry, thinking I should probably delete it, then decided against it. Maybe someday I could repay the favor to one of her clan, assuming joe-pye weed fairies had a clan.
Since there was nothing of use to be found in the ledger, I elected to pay a visit to one of my favorite resources: Mr. Leary, my old high school Myth and Literature teacher, who knew more eldritch folklore than most members of the community themselves.
Mr. Leary lived in a charming old cottage in East Pemkowet, which is a separate governmental entity from the city of Pemkowet proper and Pemkowet Township; a distinction that often confuses tourists since the three are joined at the hip for all intents and purposes.
“Daisy Johanssen!” He greeted me effusively at the door, waving a mug. “Welcome, my favorite ontological anomaly. I hope you’ve brought me an interesting conundrum to ponder. Can I entice you to join me in a hot rum toddy on this dreary day?”
I considered the offer. After all, it was a dreary day, and technically speaking, I wasn’t on the job. “You know what? That sounds delightful.”
“Wonderful!” Mr. Leary beamed at me. Well, maybe beamed wasn’t the right word. With his long, saturnine features and majestic mane of white hair, Mr. Leary wasn’t a beamy kind of guy, but he definitely looked pleased. I guess when you’re that passionate about your libations, it’s nice to have someone to share them with.
He ushered me into his tidy bachelor’s kitchen, where I perched on a stool and watched him set about making a rum toddy with all the ceremony of a priest preparing to offer communion. The teakettle was filled with fresh water. Once that reached a boil, Mr. Leary used a pair of silver tongs to place one sugar cube in the bottom of a mug. After dissolving the sugar in boiling water, he added two precisely measured ounces of rum, topped the mug with more water and garnished it with a slice of lemon.
“La pièce de résistance,” he announced, retrieving a whole nutmeg and a microplane grater from the counter. With judicious care, he passed the nutmeg over the grater three times, studied the results, then took a final swipe. “One simply must use fresh whole nutmeg.” He handed me the mug with a grave nod. “I consider that one of life’s great truths, Daisy. Heed it well.”
I hid my smile behind the mug. “I will.”
In the living room, we followed our familiar ritual and took our seats on the overstuffed furniture draped with old-fashioned crocheted antimacassars. For the record, I had no idea what Mr. Leary’s sexual orientation was. Although he always seemed pleased to see me, he also seemed perfectly content without companionship. I thought for a while, when he was spending time with poor old Emma Sudbury, that that might turn into something, but it appeared their friendship was purely platonic.
“So!” Mr. Leary set his mug on a coaster and rubbed his hands together in anticipation. “What do you have for me?”
I took a sip of my rum toddy—and he might be onto something with that fresh nutmeg, because it was delicious—and told him about Scott Evans’s experience.
“Oh, dear.” Mr. Leary gave a disappointed sigh. “I was so hoping for a good challenge.”
“Not so much, huh?”
He gave me a look. “What an appalling colloquialism that is. The good news is that the phenomenon is easily identified.” Rising, he perused his bookshelves and selected a volume of folklore. “In layman’s terms it’s called Night Hag Syndrome,” he said, finding the page he wanted and handing me the book. “It’s actually a common form of sleep disorder called sleep paralysis.”
I skimmed the entry, which fit Scott Evans’s description to a T. So did the accompanying illustration of a beaky old crone crouching on the chest of a nubile young woman. Well, the crone part, anyway. “So you’re saying the Night Hag doesn’t exist?”
Mr. Leary shook his head. “It’s a hypnopompic hallucination. It’s been well documented at clinics that specialize in sleep disorders,” he added. “There’s one affiliated with the hospital in Appeldoorn. You might suggest that the young fellow pay it a visit.”
If Scott Evans wasn’t even taking whatever meds he’d been prescribed for post–traumatic stress disorder, I doubted he’d be willing to go to a sleep clinic, but it couldn’t hurt to suggest it to Dawn. Maybe he’d be amenable to the idea once his mood was stabilized.
“Thank you,” I said. “I will.”
Mr. Leary hoisted his mug. “At your service, my dear.”
There was another line of inquiry I was planning to pursue regarding the Night Hag—it was good to have a name to put to her, even if she was a hallucination—just to cover all my bases, but I was distracted by a call from Lee Hastings asking if we could meet for an update on his investigation.
Long story short, there was a mysterious lawyer representing an unknown entity that was buying up large tracts of undeveloped land in Pemkowet. I’d caught a glimpse of him, and I was pretty sure he was a hell-spawn like me.
Not only that, I was pretty sure he’d claimed his birthright. Don’t ask me how I knew, but I did. He smelled wrong. Well, that’s not exactly right, but it was something like a smell; and since he’d handily persuaded a number of people to sell property that they’d cherished for years, I was willing to bet he had demonic powers of persuasion, which meant that he had to have invoked his birthright.
Which, of course, shouldn’t be possible without breaching the Inviolate Wall. Like I said, mysterious. And it had Hel concerned enough to ask me to look into it. All I’d had to go on was a cell phone number and a Gmail address—again, pretty mysterious for a lawyer—on the card he gave Amanda Brooks at the Pemkowet Visitors Bureau after talking to her about purchasing some property that had been in her family for ages. When he didn’t respond to my calls or e-mails, I asked our resident genius and computer whiz, Lee, to investigate.
At any rate, since a request from Hel took precedence over a sleep disorder in my book, I drove over to Lee’s place to meet with him. He actually owns his own house, which given the property values around here is unusual for someone in their mid-twenties, but Lee made a lot of money in video games out in Seattle, where he was headhunted right out of high school. He moved back to Pemkowet to take care of his mother, who has severe rheumatoid arthritis, which is particularly admirable of him given the fact that she’s a nasty, controlling old bitch. Hence, the purchase of his own house.
I suppose Lee could have rented, but privacy was important to him. Or, to put it less charitably, he had a paranoid streak. Either that, or the gaming industry is rife with corporate espionage like he claims. Or both. But at least Lee seems to trust me now, and I think he considers me a friend, too.
“Hey, Daisy!” he greeted me at the door. “Come on in.”
“Thanks.” I eyed him. “Hey, you got the cast off?”
Lee waved his right arm, which had been broken in an altercation with Jen’s newly risen vampire sister, Bethany, earlier in the fall. “Last week.”
“You look good,” I said. It was true; he looked less gaunt, fuller in the face. “Do they have you doing physical therapy?”
“A little.” He flushed with pleasure. “Mostly just some light strength training. And I, um, joined the gym.”
“Good for you.”
His flush deepened. It was sort of cute. “Thanks. Do you, um, want a protein shake? I was just going to make one for myself.”
“I’ll pass,” I said. “But go right ahead. What have you got on our mysterious lawyer friend?”
Lee gave me the basics while he whipped up a vile-looking protein shake for himself in the kitchen.
In a nutshell, our mysterious lawyer, Daniel Dufreyne, was listed as a senior advisor at a financial services firm based in Detroit, although there was no direct contact information for him on the company’s website. He was a member of the Michigan and International Bar Associations, and he owned a residence in Birmingham, a wealthy suburb of Detroit.
“That’s as far as I’ve gotten on Dufreyne,” Lee said, beckoning me over to the dining table where he had a laptop with a large screen set up. “It looks like he’s gone out of his way to leave a light electronic footprint. I can dig deeper if you like, but I don’t think he’s the real story. Look.” He called up a map of the Pemkowet area.
I peered at it. “What am I looking at?”
“See these properties in red?” Lee pointed. “Here, here, and here. Those are purchases that Dufreyne negotiated in Pemkowet over the past six months. I checked the current property records, and they’re all registered to Elysian Fields LLC.”
“Which is . . . ?” I asked.
Lee shrugged. “You tell me. It’s a privately held company, and they haven’t released a public profile.”
I studied the map. “That’s a lot of property.”
He nodded. “It is.”
“And it’s adjacent to Little Niflheim, isn’t it?”
For the record, Little Niflheim is the unofficial—call it irreverent but affectionate—term for Hel’s demesne, the underworld beneath the dunes. Once upon a time, back in the nineteenth century, it had been an actual aboveground community, a logging town called Singapore. After the terrain was deforested by the likes of Talman Brannigan and the other shortsighted lumber barons, the dunes rolled over the town and swallowed it. Hel, Norse goddess of the dead, took up residence here in the late summer of 1914, relocating her entire cosmology in advance of the tides of World War I in Europe. The most powerful earthquake ever to occur in Michigan was recorded when Yggdrasil II, a pine tree the size of a missile silo, erupted from the sands.
My skin prickled.
“This is the old Cavannaugh property that belongs to Amanda Brooks.” Lee pointed to a sizable green wedge on the map. “You can see why someone would want to acquire it if they were looking to develop here.”
I could. “What about Little Niflheim? Who owns that property?” Oddly enough, it had never occurred to me to wonder before.
Lee’s cursor hovered over it. “It’s actually owned by the City of Pemkowet.”
I relaxed a little. “So that’s not on the market.”
“None of these were ever on the market,” Lee observed. “At least they were never listed. Apparently Elysian Fields made them an offer they couldn’t—”
“Dammit!” I didn’t mean to interrupt him, but a thought had struck me. “I’m an idiot.”
He blinked at me. “Any particular reason?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know how to get hold of Dufreyne.”
“Well, you can try the general number for the investment firm,” Lee said in a dubious tone. “I’m sure they’ll get the message to him. But if he hasn’t returned any of your other calls or—”
“Right,” I said. “He’s not going to return this one. Which is why I’m not going to call him. Amanda Brooks is going to call him to set up a meeting about selling the Cavannaugh property.”
“You think she’d do that for you?”
“She’d better.” I stood up and slung my messenger bag over my shoulder. “She owes me. Meanwhile, keep looking. See if you can find out anything more about this Elysian Fields outfit.”
“Will do.” Lee escorted me to the door. “Hey, did Jen happen to mention that we’re getting together for coffee tomorrow?”
“Maybe,” I said, playing it cool. “Why?”
A tinge of pink had returned to his face. “No reason. It’s just . . . she probably wants to talk about my mom, right?”
Jen had been helping out with Mrs. Hastings while Lee’s arm healed. She’d actually offered Jen a job as her full-time caretaker, and Jen had even considered it before deciding that the old crabapple would make her life miserable—which was saying something, since working for the Cassopolis family business cleaning houses wasn’t exactly a bed of roses.
“Well, I don’t think she’s changed her mind about the job,” I said. “And I doubt she’s been missing your mom since you got your cast off.”
He laughed self-consciously. “So you think it’s a date?”
“I think it’s coffee, Lee. Ask her out to dinner. Tell her you want to thank her for helping take care of your mom.”
“Just call me Cupid.” Hopefully, Lee would never find out I was the one who had sent the text in the first place. Given his paranoid streak, he’d probably think we were making fun of him.
I drove over to the Pemkowet Visitors Bureau office to talk to Amanda Brooks. Somewhat to my surprise, her daughter, Stacey—also known as my old high school nemesis—wasn’t working the reception desk. Instead, a pleasant young woman I vaguely recognized as being a couple of years behind me in high school informed me that Amanda could meet with me in ten minutes and offered me a cup of coffee. I liked the improvement, although in terms of people offering me beverages today, Mr. Leary won hands down.
Ten minutes later, I was sitting across from Amanda Brooks.
“What can I do for you, Daisy?” she inquired, almost sounding sincere. There wasn’t a whole lot of love lost between us, but we both knew that if she’d taken my advice and called off the Halloween parade last month, hundreds of innocent spectators wouldn’t have gotten injured. Frankly, we were lucky there were no fatalities. Oh, and I’d pretty much saved Stacey’s life, although Stacey didn’t give me the credit for it.
“Do you remember that lawyer who wanted to buy the Cavannaugh property?” I asked her. “I need you to call him and set up a meeting.”
Amanda raised her brows, or at least tried to. Botox, I suspect. She was an attractive woman, in a brittle, highly groomed fashion, and she worked hard at maintaining her looks. “Why? I have no intention of selling it.”
It hadn’t looked that way to me—before I’d talked her out of it, she’d shown every appearance of considering it. “No, I know,” I said. “I don’t think you should. But I want to talk to him.”
My tail twitched with suppressed irritation. Once, just once, it would be nice if she trusted me. “He’s representing a company called Elysian Fields,” I said. “They’ve bought up a good chunk of property around Hel’s demesne.”
She frowned—or again, tried to. “Are you sure? I haven’t heard anything about it.”
It wasn’t just arrogance on her part. Pemkowet was a small town, and Amanda Brooks had her finger on every pulse. The fact that this was happening unnoticed was definitely strange.
“I’m sure.” I played my trump card. “And Hel is concerned. That’s why I want to talk to this Dufreyne guy and find out what’s going on. But he won’t return my calls.”
Amanda drummed her manicured nails on the desk. “Well, that’s highly unprofessional of him.”
Duh. “That’s why I need your help,” I said. “There’s something very odd about this whole business.”
If you’re wondering why I didn’t tell her I suspected Daniel Dufreyne was a hell-spawn, there were two reasons. One, I had no proof. Two, when trying to obtain the cooperation of certain people, it’s best not to remind them that I’m one myself. Amanda Brooks was one of those people.
“All right,” she said reluctantly. “I’m not fond of the idea, but if Hel is truly concerned, I’ll do it.”
“Excellent.” I made myself smile at her. “Let me know when the meeting’s set up. Oh, and whatever you do, don’t meet with him alone.”
Amanda gave me a suspicious look. “Why? After all, I’ve met with him before.”
Oops. “Just give me this one, will you?”
She hesitated. “Is he dangerous? Because I seem to remember . . . something.”
“I’m not sure,” I said honestly. “But as Hel’s liaison, I’d like to take every precaution with him.”
“Very well.” She nodded. “I’ll be in touch.”
“Thanks.” I stood to leave. “Oh, by the way, did Stacey take a job somewhere else? I was just wondering.” Wondering if I could quit bracing myself for the encounter every time I entered the PVB, really.
“You might say so.” A smile of maternal pride lit Amanda’s face, softening her features. “She’s our new head of online promotion. I suggested it after she did such a wonderful job with the video footage of our, ah, manifestations last month. The board approved the position last week.”
I fell asleep that night thinking about the ominous blotch of red on the map Lee had shown me, encroaching on Hel’s territory.
I didn’t like the look of it, not one bit.
I woke up to my phone ringing at approximately six o’clock in the morning, which is never a good thing.
“Daisy?” a woman’s voice rasped in a heavy Alabama accent. “Ah’m so sorry to trouble yuh, but it happened agin, and Scott’s out on the balcony with a gun.”
“What?” I sat bolt upright and fumbled for the lamp on my nightstand. Curled on the bed beside me, Mogwai let out a mewl of protest at being disturbed. “Dawn, what’s happening?”
“He tried to strangle me in mah sleep.” Her voice was thick with tears, and possibly the effects of an attempted strangling. “Now he’s threatenin’ to kill hisself.”
My brain jolted into alertness. “Did you call 911?”
“Yes, ma’am, there’s an officer on the way, only ah thought . . . yuh seemed to know things the police mebbe don’t.”
Shifting the phone against my ear, I rummaged for clothing. “What’s your address?”
“Beechwood Grove,” she said. “Apartment 207.”
“I’m on my way.”
Although I didn’t have the first idea how I could help, I drove like a bat out of hell through sleet and darkness to Beechwood Grove, an apartment complex that had been nice enough when it was first built in the 1970s, but was now a bit run-down. There was already a police cruiser parked in front of the Evanses’ apartment.
Dawn Evans opened the door before I could knock, clad in a ratty aqua-blue chenille bathrobe. Her eyes were red-rimmed and weary, her face was tear-streaked, and there were serious bruises already forming on her throat. “Thank yuh,” she murmured. “Ah do ’preciate it.”
“Scott’s upstairs?” I asked.
She nodded. “On the balcony off the master bedroom. The officer’s tryin’ to talk him down. Ah best get back to him.”
In the master bedroom, a sliding glass door that led to a small balcony was wide-open, cold air and icy sleet blowing through it. Beyond the police officer blocking the doorway, I could see Scott Evans, wearing only a pair of drawstring pajama pants, the muzzle of a pistol pressed under his chin.
I must have said it out loud, because the officer glanced back at me. It was Cody, his eyes grave and worried. “Daise. Do you think—?”
I knew what he meant and I shook my head, indicating that it wasn’t an eldritch matter.
He blew out his breath. “Mr. Evans, just come inside for a moment, won’t you? It’s freezing out there. No one can think straight in that kind of cold. I’m freezing. You’re freezing. Your wife’s freezing. Just step inside long enough so we can all warm up.”
“Lissen to him, Scott!” Dawn pleaded. “It’s all right. Ah know yuh didn’t mean to do it. We bin through way worse, yew and me.”
“No, I don’t think so.” Scott bared his teeth in a grimace, but there were tears in his eyes, too. “Bitch nearly got me to kill you tonight, honey. We can’t go on like this. We can’t. I love you, but it’s for the best.”
His finger tightened on the trigger, knuckle whitening.
“Wait!” Cody spread his hands. “Okay, you don’t have to come inside, but Mr. Evans, Chief Bryant’s on his way. You promised me you’d talk to him. You promised me you’d wait until he got here, right? You don’t want to renege on a promise, do you?”
“He’s right,” I said. “The chief’s going to be pissed as hell if we dragged him out of bed at this hour for nothing.”
Beside me, Dawn let out a choked, hysterical laugh, biting down on her knuckle to stifle it.
“Okay, so we’re all waiting for the chief to get here,” Cody said in a calm, level tone. “No problem.”
I had to give Cody credit—he kept up a steady stream of quiet, innocuous talk, keeping Scott Evans’s attention engaged while we waited for Chief Bryant to arrive. It was likely a technique he’d learned in training at the police academy, but as far as I knew, he’d never had to use it before. Still, it felt like forever before the chief’s car pulled into the parking lot, though it was probably only five minutes.
“Yuh promise yuh’ll lissen to what the man has to say?” Dawn asked Scott.
The muzzle of the pistol remained firmly lodged under his chin, and the slow, steady tears that leaked from his eyes were half-frozen on his cheeks. He was shivering in the cold so hard I was afraid he’d pull the trigger by accident. “Said I’d give him the courtesy, didn’t I?”
She nodded. “Yuh did.”
Jesus fucking Christ, my heart ached for both of them, and I felt helpless; obscenely helpless.
“I’m sorry,” I said to Dawn. “I’m so sorry. I wish I did know something that could help, but I don’t.”
“It means a lot that yuh came,” she murmured. “Mebbe yuh could show the chief inside?”
I nodded. “Of course.”
Chief Bryant’s face was pouchy with sleep and his hair was disheveled, but his eyes were sharp and alert beneath their heavy lids. “All right,” he said in a deep, reassuring voice as he entered the master bedroom. “Let’s everyone just take this down a notch, okay? Mr. Evans, why don’t you step inside so we can talk man-to-man?”
“No, sir.” Scott shook his head. “I’m fine right where I am.”
“All right, then, why don’t you just hand the gun over to Officer Fairfax?” the chief suggested.
Scott wasn’t budging. Well, except for the violent shivering. “No, sir,” he said politely. “I can’t do that.”
“Sure you can.”
Something caught my eye. Scott Evans wasn’t the only thing shivering. The silver watch chain dangling from the chief’s coat pocket was vibrating visibly.
“Son of a bitch!” I said without thinking. Chief Bryant shot me a look. “Chief, the watch, the watch!”
He glanced down. “Must have shoved it into my pocket on the way out. Force of habit.”
“Take it out!” I said. “Hold it over the bed!”
“Excuse me?” Dawn said in a perplexed tone. On the balcony, her husband looked as bewildered as she sounded—bewildered enough that he’d involuntarily lowered the pistol a few inches.
I couldn’t blame them, but I didn’t want to take the time to explain. Chief Bryant fished the watch out of his pocket and let it dangle over the bed. It rotated in a circle on the end of its chain, the hands on the dial spinning backward.
“Son of a bitch!” I said again. That’s what I got for lending too much credence to a mundane expert. I whirled around to face the open sliding door. “Scott, you’re not crazy. She’s real. The Night Hag’s real.”
He lowered the pistol a few more inches. “She is?”
“She is?” Dawn echoed.
“Yeah.” I glanced at Dawn. “You didn’t put a horseshoe over the door, did you?”
She shook her head. “Ah couldn’t find one on short notice. Ah was gonna call yuh tomorrow.”
I grimaced. “It’s my fault. I should have figured this out yesterday. Scott, will you come inside now?”
He still hesitated. “This is a trick, isn’t it?”
“No trick,” I promised him. “The chief’s watch is genuine dwarfish craftsmanship. It responds to the residue of eldritch presence.”
Scott looked uncertainly at Chief Bryant.
“Crazy as it sounds, she’s telling the truth, son,” the chief said. “I give you my word of honor.”
“That means we can catch the bitch.” My tail lashed with vehemence, my temper surging. “She’s not free to prey on anyone in my town.”
“Hell, yeah!” For the first time, Scott Evans smiled, a tight, fierce smile as he lowered the pistol to his side.
Unfortunately, at that very moment the balcony gave an alarming creak. Scott took a lurching step, his bare feet slipping on the sleet-covered wood. His hand clenched on the trigger as he fell backward and the pistol discharged, the gunshot sounding like . . . pretty much nothing but a gunshot. A scream caught in my throat. Scott hit the railing hard, and the pistol fell from his hand. If the balcony had been up to code, it would have caught him, but the old 1970s-built railing was at least a foot and a half lower than current regulations required, and he began to topple backward over it.
Moving with inhuman speed, Cody let out a growl and lunged through the sliding glass door, catching Scott by the waist of his drawstring pajama pants. I’d like to say I was there in a flash to back him up, but it was Dawn who helped him wrestle her husband into the bedroom. Cody kept his face averted, and I hoped she was distracted enough not to notice.
“Are yuh shot?” she asked Scott with professional efficiency. “Lemme see.”
His teeth were chattering. “I’m okay.”
“It’s all right,” Cody said, his voice sounding muffled as he retrieved the pistol and examined the balcony. “The bullet went straight down.”
“Yuh idiot!” Dawn clutched Scott’s shoulders, tears in her voice. “Yuh goddamn idiot!”
“I know,” he whispered, wrapping his arms around her. Oblivious to the world, they held each other.
“Well, then.” The chief hitched up his belt. “Daisy, Cody, it looks like you’ve got yourself a case.”
A few days ago, I would have been glad to hear it. Today, I stifled a sigh.
Cody and I took another statement from Scott Evans. It was identical to the first one, except that this time he’d broken the paralysis to fight back; or at least he thought he had, until he awoke to find himself throttling his wife.
“So what happens now?” he asked us, an afghan blanket wrapped around him.
“Ideally, I’d suggest you get out of town until we find the Night Hag,” I said. “The eldritch need a functioning underworld to enable their magic, and she shouldn’t be able to operate outside of Hel’s territory. Is there anyone you can stay with well outside the city limits?”
Revue de presse
“Jacqueline Carey proves her versatility with this compelling piece of urban fantasy.” —#1 New York Times Bestselling Author Charlaine Harris
“Fans have come to expect the amazing from [New York Times bestselling author Jacqueline Carey] and her new urban fantasy series won’t disappoint them.”—Library Journal (Starred Review)
“Insanely addictive.”—News and Sentinel (Parkersburg, WV)
“World building that recalls [George R. R.] Martin.”—SF Reviews
“Carey knows her fantasy and this latest trip into fantasy realism is a page-turner.” —San Francisco Book Review
“Delightfully distinctive.”—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)