Authors: Kelly Meding
Tags: #Romance, #Paranormal, #Fantasy, #Adult, #Magic, #Vampire, #Urban Fantasy
For Mom and Dad—
there aren’t enough ways to say “thank you”
As always, special thanks to the usual suspects who’ve helped shape this series into what it’s become—my fabulous agent, Jonathan Lyons; my equally fabulous editor, Anne Groell; the awesome David Pomerico and the amazing and patient folks at Bantam/Random House and Suvudu.
Lots of love to Nancy and Melissa for listening to my rants, frustrations, and shrieks of joy when something goes right, and for being terrific friends. Thanks to my family for loving me no matter what, ignoring my mood swings, and for being my biggest fans.
A shout-out to Wendy and the Newark crew—because you didn’t think I would! Your support has meant the world to me.
And of course, hugs and kisses to my readers, I wouldn’t be here without you. Thank you for exploring Dreg City with me.
On the day of Alex Forrester’s funeral, the sun gleamed high in the sky. I wanted it to rain, if only to prove that the heavens really opened to mourn our tragedies and the friends we lost. Instead, the sunshine mocked our grief from on high, watchful and seeing nothing.
It was a simple affair in a small cemetery five miles outside the city, orchestrated within a day of the official death declaration. We had no body, so there was no casket—it’s damned hard to find the ashes of a half-Blood vampire amid the rubble of an apartment fire. But his father, Leo Forrester, wanted a small memorial. He needed to believe his son was at peace, even though Alex had died at war with himself. And what better way to offer postmortem peace to the dead than with an ancient burial ritual meant to comfort the living?
I wanted the comforting commiseration of rain as I followed Leo through the cemetery, but rain would have revealed me to the prying eyes of people who still thought me dead. We were all safer for the deception, Wyatt had insisted, and I agreed.
A sleepy minister already hovered next to the simple marble marker, laid flat on the earth. “Alexander Forrester, Beloved Son, Best Friend,” above the years in which he was born and died. It was all we could afford. Part of me wanted something grander to show he’d been here and touched our lives. The other part of me knew
this was enough, maybe more than was necessary, and not to waste good money on sentimentality.
Especially with me and Wyatt both out of jobs.
Leo stopped across the marker from the minister. Wyatt Truman, my partner and constant companion, flanked his left side as we had agreed. I shifted to Leo’s right and brushed his elbow to indicate my presence. The minister acknowledged the two men with a nod and began to recite a prayer. He wasn’t ignoring me. Thanks to an orange crystal shard and a bargained favor from a human mage named Brutus, the minister couldn’t see me. No one could, due to the invisibility spell contained in the crystal.
I tuned out the words of the prayer and closed my eyes. I reached up and held the plain silver cross looped around my neck on a thin chain—a gift Alex had once given to his best friend Chalice. I tried to picture Alex’s face in the short time I’d known him—friendly blue eyes, broad shoulders, an innocent smile that didn’t belong on a twenty-eight-year-old medical student. I caught the memory and enjoyed it briefly until another superimposed itself. Hair mottled with silver and iridescent eyes, baby fangs that had punctured his lower lip. Sniveling and crying and begging me to kill him.
And I had, a little over a week ago. I’d shot him in the back of the head. Just another on the long list of sins I’d never atone for.
I wanted to cry, but I had no tears left to shed.
No, that was a lie. I’d mourned Alex as best I could, and I was sick of crying. It was time to stop punishing myself for Alex and move on with my life. The life I wanted to start with Wyatt. Burying Alex, putting this chapter of my afterlife behind me, was the first step.
“… and I will dwell in the house of the Lord. Amen,” the minister said.
I opened my eyes and stepped back, barely missing Leo’s elbow as he reached out to shake the minister’s hand. It was over that quickly. A few mourners, a smattering of words, and the well-wishes of a man who didn’t know us or the dead man he’d just prayed over.
Rituals were so odd.
The minister hustled off, probably racing away to his next gig of offering empty comfort to those willing to pay him for it. Once he was out of earshot, I said, “That was nice,” and could have smacked myself for it. It was a stupid thing to say.
“It was,” Leo said. He turned, seeking a face he couldn’t see, and fixed his attention on Wyatt instead. It was probably easier to have a conversation with an invisible person when you had a visible one to look at. “That’s it, then.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Leo removed his wire-rimmed glasses and wiped the lenses on the corner of a wadded tissue. His eyes were red. He seemed to be choosing his words as he cleaned the glasses, then returned them to the bridge of his nose. “Simple words for a simple fact, Evy,” he said. “I’ve buried the last of my family. I have no home. That’s it for me.”
I put my hand on his shoulder. He jumped under the unexpected touch but didn’t pull away. He seemed to easily accept the notion that I was invisible and yet standing right next to him. We’d talked yesterday for hours. Well, I’d talked for hours, feeding him details of my old life as a Dreg Bounty Hunter, the circumstances of my death and resurrection into the body of a woman who happened to have magical teleporting powers, and Alex’s brave and tragic desire to help me, all the way through my second “death” in a factory fire last Saturday. All in all, he was handling his newfound education with amazing aplomb.
“Those of us who survive owe it to our loved ones to make our lives count,” I said. Words I’d come to believe in more and more since the violent deaths of my former Triad partners, Jesse and Ash, two weeks ago.
But my disembodied words didn’t sink in. I considered removing the crystal from my jeans pocket and speaking the phrase meant to reverse the magic early, before its six-hour time limit wore off. I could force Leo to look me in the eye, get him to understand why he had to keep going.
But training won out over emotion. All but five people in the world thought I was dead—burned to death in a factory fire started, on purpose, to kill me—and I couldn’t risk exposing myself. I had more enemies than allies now, and that meant preserving every advantage I could find. Being dead had worked in my favor once before.
Besides, I couldn’t possibly hope to understand Leo’s perspective. I knew much of his story—enough to realize he would never get to ask Alex’s forgiveness for past sins, and that was eating him up inside. A son had died blaming his father. No, I couldn’t relate—not to that—but perhaps Wyatt could.
Wyatt had, after all, been the unwitting pawn in the game that had killed my partners, killed me, then brought me back only to further a plot to unleash an ancient demon on the world. He’d once destroyed the life of one of his former Hunters in a misguided effort to save it, and that Hunter had returned with a vendetta that led to the deaths of sixty-four people. So many un-forgiven sins.
“I’m fifty-six years old,” Leo said. “I can’t see making my life count for much of anything now.”
“You can stay in the city and help us.” I ignored the strangled sound Wyatt made from somewhere behind me. “I can use all the allies I can get.”
Leo shook his head, the lines around his mouth deepening in a frown. “No, I don’t think I can do that. I’ve accepted what you’ve both told me about the things in this city, but I don’t want any part of it.”
I guess he still wasn’t over shooting a jaguar that had morphed into a naked man. I had mental images of him ending up drunk in a gutter, dead of alcohol poisoning, gnawed on by stray animals. I wanted more for him than I’d been able to do for his son.
“Your motel is paid up for another couple of days,” Wyatt said.
Leo nodded. “I appreciate that, but—”
“Someone’s coming,” Wyatt said. He’d twisted his head around to look behind him. From the direction of the cemetery’s narrow road, a man strode toward us. He was lean, of average height and looks, with a narrow nose and wild, curly hair sporting more gray than brown. Older, in his mid-forties by the looks of him, he walked with the tired gait of someone who’d seen too much. Probably a cop.
“I’m on your right, Leo,” I said softly. I maintained proximity while staying out of his way if he turned suddenly. I didn’t want to try to explain Leo’s elbowing an invisible obstacle, or the splat in the grass I’d make if I fell.
The stranger smiled pleasantly as he approached, both hands tucked into the pockets of his khaki trousers. He wore a blue collared shirt without a jacket, sleeves rolled up in the day’s heat. Wyatt tensed and took up a defensive position between the stranger and Leo, hands loose at his sides.
“Mr. Leo Forrester?” the man asked, looking right past Wyatt. His voice was pleasant enough, nondescript and polite.
“Yeah,” Leo said. “Why?”
The stranger’s already gentle expression softened further,
as though Leo’s gruffness demanded he pour on the honey, only it didn’t seem to be an act. “I’m truly sorry for your loss, Mr. Forrester.”
Leo grunted. I smiled and could almost hear Wyatt’s internal monologue—wondering who had the potential to be ruder, me or Leo.
“And you are?” Wyatt said, asking the question on all our minds.
“Apologies,” the man said. “My name’s James Reilly. I’m a private investigator, Mister …?”
“Mr. Truman.” Reilly offered his hand, the same affable smile firmly in place.
Wyatt observed Reilly’s hand. I couldn’t see his face, but the tilt of Wyatt’s head hinted at what was probably his own special brand of distrust mixed with interest. “A P.I., huh?” he said, giving Reilly’s hand a brief, loose shake. “What are you investigating, Mr. Reilly?”
“Real estate, mostly.”
“Looking into a plot of your own?”
“Oh no, not that sort of real estate. I’m more interested in apartment buildings.”
And he’d come here on the day of Alex’s funeral. Alarms clanged in my head. This guy had to be investigating the building where Alex had “officially” died. The fire that had consumed the entire fifth floor of a low-rent apartment building had been ruled an accident, or so all the official reports said. But that never squelched speculation. Especially when the fire had actually been set by a were-osprey intent on revenge for his slaughtered Clan, and Alex had been long dead by the time the blaze began.
“I haven’t got one to sell you,” Leo snapped. He stepped forward, across the marker, and stood shoulder to shoulder with Wyatt. “If you don’t mind, I just buried my son.”
“I realize this is bad timing, Mr. Forrester, and I apologize,” Reilly said. The words were scripted, but the delivery was genuine. Annoying. “But police were called to your son’s own apartment three times in the last nine days, with one of those calls coming a day after he died. I’m sure you agree that those facts are a bit strange—especially the third call.”
“He had a roo—”
I kicked Leo in the calf before he could blurt out the word “roommate.” His right leg buckled, and he stumbled a bit before catching himself. Reilly’s eyebrows arched into twin peaks.
“Are you all right, Mr. Forrester?” he asked.
“Leg cramp is all. Old injury, it’s nothing.”
“You were saying he had a what?”
Leo stayed silent. He was smart enough to recognize when discretion was needed, but not a good enough actor to come up with a better lie on the spot. He chose a blank stare.
“Do you have to ask your questions now?” Wyatt asked, affecting a nice snarl. It was almost protective.
“Again, I do apologize for the venue,” Reilly said, “but Mr. Forrester is a difficult man to find.”
“Side effect of being homeless,” Leo said.
Reilly’s genuine sympathy and nice-guy attitude were starting to grate on my nerves. People just weren’t that kind. “I’ll be brief, I promise,” he said. “You see, I spoke to the leasing agent at your son’s building, and the very helpful Ms. Young said she was sure that two names were on the lease. However, computer records only showed Alexander’s name, and the hard copy was missing several pages. The ones with the signatures on them, as a matter of fact.”
Leo didn’t have to fake his confusion. “So? Maybe this mysterious second name moved out?”
“Perhaps. But, you see, I also spoke with the young
couple next door in 505. They’d been neighbors the entire two years Alexander lived in the apartment, and Mrs. Gates told me he lived there with a pretty brunette named Chalice.”
“Probably his girlfriend,” Wyatt said.
“Mrs. Gates didn’t think so. Her daughter, Angie, claimed to be good friends with Chalice Frost. She said they shared secrets.”
Angie was the little girl I’d met in the elevator. The inquisitive child had given me a spare key and let me into a strange woman’s apartment on my first day of resurrection. A meeting that was coming back around to bite us in the ass, and I was helpless to direct the conversation.