Sponsored Collection

Atlantic Books for the Holidays

Recommended Reading List
Kelley Armstrong Books
Download list
Please login or register to use this feature.

Kelley Armstrong Books

By Deborah Rubach
0 ratings
rated!
rated!
tagged:
Books by Kelley Armstrong
Bitten

Bitten

Women of the Otherworld
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback Audiobook (CD)
More Info
Excerpt

I HAVE TO.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Elena?"

His voice is a sleep-stuffed croak.

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

"Fully dressed?" he says.

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

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

"I need to be alone. To think."

"It's not safe."

"I know. I'm sorry."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nod, not trusting myself to speak.

"Shower first?" he says.

"Or flip for it?"

"You go ahead."

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

Sometimes I get so hungry.

close this panel
Why it's on the list ...
First book in the Women of the Otherworld series
close this panel
Stolen
Excerpt

Prologue

He hated the forest. Hated its eternal pockets of damp and darkness. Hated its endless tangle of trees and bushes. Hated its smell of decay -- dead vegetation, dead animals, everything dying, even the living creatures incessantly pursuing their next meal, one failure away from the slow descent into death. Soon his body would be one more stink fouling the air, maybe buried, maybe left for the carrion feeders, his death postponing theirs for another day. He would die. He knew that, not with the single-minded intent of the suicidal or the hopeless despair of the doomed, but with the simple acceptance of a man who knows he is only hours from passing out of this world into the next. Here in this stinking, dark, damp hell of a place, he would die.

He didn’t seek death. If he could, he’d avoid it. But he couldn’t. He’d tried, planning his breakout for days, conserving his energy, forcing himself to eat, to sleep. Then he’d escaped, surprising himself really. He’d never truly believed it would work. Of course, it hadn’t actually worked, just appeared to, like a mirage shimmering in the desert, only the oasis hadn’t turned to sand and sun, but damp and dark. He’d escaped the compound to find himself in the forest. Still hopeful, he’d run. And run. And gone nowhere. They were coming now. Hunting him.

He could hear the hound baying, fast on his trail. There must be ways to trick it, but he had no idea how. Born and raised in the city, he knew how to avoid detection there, how to become invisible in plain sight, how to effect an appearance so mediocre that people could stare right at him and see no one. He knew how to greet neighbors in his apartment building, eyes lowered, a brief nod, no words, so if anyone asked about the occupants of 412, no one really knew who lived there: Was that the elderly couple? The young family? The blind girl? Never rude or friendly enough to attract attention, disappearing in a sea of people too intent on their own lives to notice his. There he was a master of invisibility. But here, in the forest? He hadn’t set foot in one since he was ten, when his parents finally despaired of ever making an outdoorsman out of him and let him stay with his grandmother while his siblings went hiking and camping. He was lost here. Completely lost. The hound would find him and the hunters would kill him.

“You won’t help me, will you?” he said, speaking the words in his mind.

For a long moment, Qiona didn’t reply. He could sense her, the spirit who guided him, in the back corner of his mind, the farthest she ever went from him since she’d first made herself known when he was a child too young to speak.

“Do you want me to?” she asked finally.

“You won’t. Even if I want it. This is what you want. For me to join you. You won’t stop that.”

The hound started to sing, joy infusing its voice with melody as it closed in on its target. Someone shouted.

Qiona sighed, the sound fluttering like a breeze through his mind. “What do you want me to do?”

“Which way is out?” he asked.

More silence. More shouts.

“That way,” she said.

He knew which way she meant, though he couldn’t see her. An ayami had presence and substance but no form, an idea impossible to explain to anyone who wasn’t a shaman and as easy for a shaman to understand as the concept of water or sky.

Turning left, he ran. Branches whipped his face and bare chest and arms, raising welts like the marks of a flagellant. And equally self-inflicted, he thought. Part of him wanted to stop. Give up. Accept. But he couldn’t. He wasn’t ready to surrender his life yet. Simple human pleasures still held too much allure: English muffins with butter and strawberry jam at the Talbot Café, the second-story balcony, farthest table on the left, the sun on his forearms, tattered mystery novel in one hand, coffee mug in the other, people yelling, laughing on the busy street below. Silly things, Qiona would sniff. She was jealous, of course, as she was of anything she couldn’t share, anything that kept him bound to his body. He did want to join her, but not yet. Not just yet. So he ran.

“Stop running,” Qiona said.

He ignored her.

“Slow down,” she said. “Pace yourself.”

He ignored her.

She withdrew, her anger a flash fire in his brain, bright and hot, then smoldering, waiting to flare again. He’d stopped hearing the hound, but only because his blood pounded too loudly. His lungs blazed. Each breath scorched through him, like swallowing fire. He ignored it. That was easy. He ignored most of his body’s commands, from hunger to sex to pain. His body was only a vehicle, a medium for transmitting things like strawberry jam, laughter, and sunlight to his soul. Now after a lifetime of ignoring his body, he asked it to save him and it didn’t know how. From behind him came the bay of the hound. Was it louder now? Closer?

“Climb a tree,” Qiona said.

“It’s not the dog I’m afraid of. It’s the men.”

“Slow down then. Turn. Confuse them. You’re making a straight trail. Slow down.”

He couldn’t. The end of the forest was near. It had to be. His only chance was to get there before the dog did. Ignoring the pain, he summoned every remaining vestige of strength and shot forward.

“Slow down!” Qiona shouted. “Watch -- ”

His left foot hit a small rise, but he adjusted, throwing his right foot out for balance. Yet his right foot came down on empty air. As he pitched forward, he saw the streambed below, at the bottom of a small gully eroded by decades of water flow. He flipped over the edge of it, convulsed in midair, trying to think of how to land without injury, but again he didn’t know how. As he hit the gravel below, he heard the hound. Heard its song of triumph so loud his eardrums threatened to split. Twisting to get up, he saw three canine heads come over the gully edge, one hound, two massive guard dogs. The hound lifted its head and bayed. The other two paused only a second, then leaped.

“Get out!” Qiona screamed. “Get out now!”

No! He wasn’t ready to leave. He resisted the urge to throw his soul free of his body, clenching himself into a ball as if that would keep it in. He saw the undersides of the dogs as they flew off the cliff. One landed atop him, knocking out his last bit of breath. Teeth dug into his forearm. He felt a tremendous wrenching. Then he soared upward. Qiona was dragging him from his body, away from the pain of dying.

“Don’t look back,” she said.

Of course, he did. He had to know. As he looked down, he saw the dogs. The hound was still at the top of the gully, howling and waiting for the men. The two other dogs didn’t wait. They tore his body apart in a shower of blood and flesh.

“No,” he moaned. “No.”

Qiona comforted him with whispers and kisses, pleaded with him to look away. She’d tried to save him from the pain, but she couldn’t. He felt it as he looked down at the dogs destroying his body, felt not the pain of their teeth, but the agony of unbelievable loss and grief. It was over. All over.

“If I hadn’t tripped,” he said. “If I’d run faster . . .”

Qiona turned him then, so he could look out across the forest. The expanse of trees went on and on, ending in a road so far away the cars looked like bugs crawling across the earth. He glanced back at his body, a mangled mess of blood and bone. The men stepped from the forest. He ignored them. They didn’t matter anymore. Nothing did. He turned to Qiona and let her take him away.

* * * * *

“Dead,” Tucker said to Matasumi as he walked into the cell-block guard station. He scraped the mud of the forest off his boots. “Dogs got him before we did.”

“I told you I wanted him alive.”

“And I told you we need more hounds. Rottweilers are for guarding, not hunting. A hound will wait for the hunter. A rottie kills. Doesn’t know how to do anything else.” Tucker removed his boots and laid them on the mat, perfectly aligned with the wall, laces tucked in. Then he took an identical but clean pair and pulled them on. “Can’t see how it matters much. Guy was half-dead anyway. Weak. Useless.”

“He was a shaman,” Matasumi said. “Shamans don’t need to be Olympic athletes. All their power is in their mind.”

Tucker snorted. “And it did him a whole lotta good against those dogs, let me tell you. They didn’t leave a piece of him bigger than my fist.”

As Matasumi turned, someone swung open the door and clipped him in the chin.

“Whoops,” Winsloe said with a grin. “Sorry, old man. Damn things need windows.”

Bauer brushed past him. “Where’s the shaman?”

“He didn’t . . . survive,” Matasumi said.

“Dogs,” Tucker added.

Bauer shook her head and kept walking. A guard grabbed the interior door, holding it open as she walked through. Winsloe and the guard trailed after her. Matasumi brought up the rear. Tucker stayed at the guard station, presumably to discipline whoever had let the shaman escape, though the others didn’t bother to ask. Such details were beneath them. That’s why they’d hired Tucker.

The next door was thick steel with an elongated handle. Bauer paused in front of a small camera. A beam scanned her retina. One of the two lights above the door flashed green. The other stayed red until she grasped the door handle and the sensor checked her handprint. When the second light turned green, she opened the door and strode through. The guard followed. As Winsloe stepped forward, Matasumi reached for his arm, but missed. Alarms shrieked. Lights flashed. The sound of a half-dozen steel-toed boots clomped in synchronized quickstep down a distant corridor. Matasumi snatched the two-way radio from the table.

“Please call them back,” Matasumi said. “It was only Mr. Winsloe. Again.”

“Yes, sir,” Tucker’s voice crackled through the radio. “Would you remind Mr. Winsloe that each retinal and hand scan combination will authorize the passage of only one staff member and a second party.”

They both knew Winsloe didn’t need to be reminded of any such thing, since he’d designed the system. Matasumi stabbed the radio’s disconnect button. Winsloe only grinned.

“Sorry, old man,” Winsloe said. “Just testing the sensors.”

He stepped back to the retina scanner. After the computer recognized him, the first light turned green. He grabbed the door handle, the second light flashed green, and the door opened. Matasumi could have followed without the scans, as the guard had, but he let the door close and followed the proper procedure. The admittance of a second party was intended to allow the passage of captives from one section of the compound to another, at a rate of only one captive per staff member. It was not supposed to allow two staff to pass together. Matasumi would remind Tucker to speak to his guards about this. They were all authorized to pass through these doors and should be doing so correctly, not taking shortcuts.

Past the security door, the interior hall looked like a hotel corridor, each side flanked by rooms furnished with a double bed, a small table, two chairs, and a door leading to a bathroom. Not luxury accommodations by any means, but simple and clean, like the upper end of the spectrum for the budget-conscious traveler, though the occupants of these rooms wouldn’t be doing much traveling. These doors only opened from the outside.

The wall between the rooms and the corridor was a specially designed glass more durable than steel bars—and much nicer to look at. From the hallway, an observer could study the occupants like lab rats, which was the idea. The door to each room was also glass so the watcher’s view wasn’t obstructed. Even the facing wall of each bathroom was clear Plexiglas. The transparent bathroom walls were a recent renovation, not because the observers had decided they wanted to study their subjects’ elimination practices, but because they’d found that when all four walls of the bathrooms were opaque, some of the subjects spent entire days in there to escape the constant scrutiny.

The exterior glass wall was actually one-way glass. They’d debated that, one-way versus two-way. Bauer had allowed Matasumi to make the final decision, and he’d sent his research assistants scurrying after every psychology treatise on the effects of continual observation. After weighing the evidence, he’d decided one-way glass would be less intrusive. By hiding the observers from sight, they were less likely to agitate the subjects. He’d been wrong. At least with two-way glass the subjects knew when they were being watched. With one-way, they knew they were being watched -- none were naive enough to mistake the full-wall mirror for decoration -- but they didn’t know when, so they were on perpetual alert, which had a regrettably damning effect on their mental and physical health.

The group passed the four occupied cells. One subject had his chair turned toward the rear wall and sat motionless, ignoring the magazines, the books, the television, the radio, everything that had been provided for his diversion. He sat with his back to the one-way glass and did nothing. That one had been at the compound nearly a month. Another occupant had arrived only this morning. She also sat in her chair, but facing the one-way glass, glaring at it. Defiant . . . for now. It wouldn’t last.

Tess, the one research assistant Matasumi had brought to the project, stood by the defiant occupant’s cell, making notations on her clipboard. She looked up and nodded as they passed.

“Anything?” Bauer asked.

Tess glanced at Matasumi, shunting her reply to him. “Not yet.”

“Because she can’t or won’t?” Bauer asked.

Another glance at Matasumi. “It appears . . . I would say . . .”

“Well?”

Tess inhaled. “Her attitude suggests that if she could do more, she would.”

“Can’t, then,” Winsloe said. “We need a Coven witch. Why we bothered with this one—”

Bauer interrupted. “We bothered because she’s supposed to be extremely powerful.”

“According to Katzen,” Winsloe said. “If you believe him. I don’t. Sorcerer or not, the guy’s full of shit. He’s supposed to be helping us catch these freaks. Instead, all he does is tell us where to look, then sits back while our guys take all the risks. For what? This?” He jabbed a finger at the captive. “Our second useless witch. If we keep listening to Katzen, we’re going to miss out on some real finds.”

“Such as vampires and werewolves?” Bauer’s lips curved in a small smile. “You’re still miffed because Katzen says they don’t exist.”

“Vampires and werewolves,” Matasumi muttered. “We are in the middle of unlocking unimaginable mental power, true magic. We have potential access to sorcerers, necromancers, shamans, witches, every conceivable vessel of magic . . . and he wants creatures that suck blood and howl at the moon. We are conducting serious scientific research here, not chasing bogeymen.”

Winsloe stepped in front of Matasumi, towering six inches over him. “No, old man, you’re conducting serious scientific research here. Sondra is looking for her holy grail. And me, I’m in it for fun. But I’m also bankrolling this little project, so if I say I want to hunt a werewolf, you’d better find me one to hunt.”

“If you want to hunt a werewolf, then I’d suggest you put one in those video games of yours, because we can’t provide what doesn’t exist.”

“Oh, we’ll find something for Ty to hunt,” Bauer said. “If we can’t find one of his monsters, we’ll have Katzen summon something suitably demonic.”

“A demon?” Winsloe said. “Now that’d be cool.”

“I’m sure it would,” Bauer murmured and pushed open the door into the shaman’s former cell.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

close this panel
Why it's on the list ...
Women of the Otherworld Series
close this panel
Haunted
Excerpt

1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stayed at the bottom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Shhh. Can you hear anything?"

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

"She has a boy up there."

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

"Human."

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

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

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

"I know, but—"

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

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

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

"I'm working on that!"

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

"And do what?"

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

"Just a little?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Uh-huh."

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

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

"Please."

2

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

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

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

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

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

"Hey, I was just—"

The fog sucked me into the ground.

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

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

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

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

"We have a problem, Eve."

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

"This isn't about unauthorized travel."

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

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

"Oh . . . that."

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

close this panel
Why it's on the list ...
Women of the Otherworld Series
close this panel
No Humans Involved
Excerpt

I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hello, Brendan," said the woman.

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

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

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

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

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

Hallucinating.

Drugged?

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

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

Gasoline.

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

JAIME VEGAS, CENTER STAGE

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

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

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

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

"M–Ms. Vegas? Jaime Vegas?"

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

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

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

"A photo would be great."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Hardcover edition.

close this panel
Why it's on the list ...
Women of the Otherworld Series
close this panel
Dime Store Magic
Excerpt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“License and registration.”

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

“Please step out of the vehicle.”

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

“Broken tail light.”

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

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

“Can you explain this?” she asked.

“Explain what?”

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

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

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

“Explain that,” she said.

“Explain what?”

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

“I don’t see anything.”

“Underneath,” she said curtly.

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

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

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

“Oh, I’m sorry. Is this better?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What about Savannah?"

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

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

She shrugged. "Questionable."

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

From the Trade Paperback edition.

close this panel
Why it's on the list ...
Women of the Otherworld Series
close this panel
Industrial Magic
Excerpt

That Cortez Boy

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

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

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

When I finished, the sisters looked at each another.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Lucas--"

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

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

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

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

"Savannah . . ." I said.

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

"Savannah!"

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

She wheeled and marched out of the hotel room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Two seconds late," I said.

"Never. Your clock must be running fast."

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

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

"Shot down," I said.

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

"No big—"

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

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

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

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

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

"Whoops."

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

"When can we leave?"

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

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

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

"Sure. That sounds good."

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

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

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

I grinned. "An amulet?"

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

"Sure. Good . . . great."

"Liar."

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

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

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

"It's a surprise."

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

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

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

A soft laugh. "Liar."

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

"Tempting."

"I'll make it more than tempting."

"That I don't doubt."

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

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

I grinned. "You alone?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

close this panel
Why it's on the list ...
Women of the Otherworld Series
close this panel
Broken
Excerpt

Changes

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

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

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

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

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

Don't think of him. Just relax.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No!

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

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

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

My skin prickled, stretching, itching as fur sprouted—

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

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

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

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

I must—Must stop—Oh, God, I couldn't!

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

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

Damn it, not so fast! Be careful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

close this panel
Why it's on the list ...
Women of the Otherworld Series
close this panel
Personal Demon
Excerpt

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

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

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

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

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

"Did you really think I'd pay?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Adams?"

"That's right."

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

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

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

"You took him, didn't you?"

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

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

"If you mean the victim-"

"I meant the werewolf."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Ms. Adams? A word please?"

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

"Let's head over there."

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

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

"But you could fix that."

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

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

"And that would be?"

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

The name clicked-Benicio Cortez's personal bodyguard.

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

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

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

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

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

"He needs to talk to you now."

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

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

"Mr. Cortez will look after that."

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

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

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

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

A Cabal looked like a regular multinational corporation, but it was owned and staffed by supernaturals, and the unique abilities of its employees gave it a massive advantage over its competitors. It used that edge for everything from the legitimate (sorcerer spells to protect their vaults) to the unethical (astral-projecting shamans conducting corporate espionage) to the despicable (a teleporting half-demon assassin murdering a business rival).

I'd spent two years working for the Cortez Cabal. Unintentionally. Hired by Tristan Robard, who I thought was a representative of the interracial council, I'd been placed with True News to keep an eye on supernatural stories, suppressing or downplaying the real ones and alerting the council to potential trouble. My job soon expanded to helping them locate rogue supernaturals.

It had been the perfect way to guiltlessly indulge my hunger for chaos. The phrase "too good to be true" comes to mind, but I'd been in such a dark place-depressed, angry, confused. When you're that far down and someone offers you a hand back up, you grab it and you don't ask questions.
Then came my toughest assignment. Capturing a werewolf jewel thief during a museum gala. I'd been so pleased with myself . . . until that werewolf-Karl Marsten-ripped the rose-colored glasses from my eyes and proved that I was really working for the Cortez Cabal. When we escaped that mess, cleaning services came from an unexpected quarter: Benicio. My employment had been a secret operation of Tristan's, and his attack on Karl a personal matter, so in apology, Benicio had disposed of the bodies and provided medical assistance for Karl.

In return, we owed him. Until now, I'd never worried about that because I had a codebtor. Karl was a professional thief-capable of guiding me through whatever underworld task Benicio set us.
But now Benicio had come to collect, and Karl wasn't around to do anything about it.

My skirt gave an obscene squeak as I slid onto the SUV's leather seat. If the man within noticed, he gave no sign, just put out a hand to help me.

As the door closed, the roar of morning traffic vanished, replaced by the murmur of calypso jazz, so soft I had to strain to recognize it. Gone too were the exhaust fumes, making way for the stench of stale smoke.

"Cigar," the man said, catching my nose wrinkling. "Cuban, though the expense doesn't make the smell any better. I requested a nonsmoking vehicle, but with high-end rentals, people think if they pay enough, they can do as they please."

Benicio Cortez. He bore little resemblance to the one Cortez I knew-his youngest son, Lucas. Benicio was at least sixty, probably no more than five eight, broad-faced and stocky. Only his eyes reminded me of his son-nice eyes, big and dark. The kind of guy you'd let hold your purse or take your son into the bathroom. Bet that came in handy when he was telling you he understood why you didn't want to sell your three-generation family business . . . while text-messaging a fire half-demon to torch the place before you got back from lunch.

From the Hardcover edition.

close this panel
Why it's on the list ...
Women of the Otherworld Series
close this panel
comments powered by Disqus

There are two ways to make a reading list

This way:

  1. Click the "Create a New List" button just above this panel.
  2. Add as many books as you wish using the built-in search on the list edit page.

Or that way:

  1. Go to any book page.
  2. In the right-hand column, click on "Add to List." A drop-down menu will appear.
  3. From the drop-down menu, either add your book to a list you have already created or create a new list.
  4. View and edit your lists anytime on your profile page.
X
Contacting facebook
Please wait...