Authors: Rinda Elliott
This book is first dedicated to Rachel Vincent. Her bleeding red pen and hilarious comments got me through many rewrites. Her loyal support and friendship got me through a lot of the harder stuff that came after. I’m the luckiest critique partner in the world.
This is also dedicated to The Deadline Dames. When Devon Monk first approached me about joining, I was flustered, intrigued and flattered. I was already a fan of them all. And now, they are also my friends. The incredible support I’ve found in our tight group is priceless. Very special thanks go to Devon Monk, Jenna Black, Keri Arthur, Lilith Saintcrow, Karen Mahoney, Toni Andrews, Jackie Kessler and again, Rachel Vincent.
To the ladies of Romance Ink—Christy, Kathy, Sarah, Lou and Carol—who read the first hilarious chapters of this idea. Chapters that changed drastically later.
Thanks to my agent, Miriam Kriss, who liked this book enough to take me on. To Heather Osborn, who gave Beri a try and liked her enough to say yes. To my new editor, Holly Atkinson, who didn’t laugh at my many simultaneous action slips.
And as always, thanks to my wonderful husband and children, who don’t mind all the spaghetti nights when I’ve worked late. Love you guys!
“Ever trapped smoke in a jar? It writhes, twists and turns, seeking the smallest opening for escape. It finds it. Always.” - The Dweller on the Threshold
The swamp waters secreted his victims with the same relentless determination he’d used to hunt them. A faint smile twisted Victor VonBrahm’s cold, bloody lips.
Seemed his children were coming to bid him adieu.
He’d been tracking the passing time by the streaks of light that shimmered across a thick spider web. He no longer had the strength to lift his head. Didn’t need to. He could hear the bubbling of the oozing mud, and the spill of water in the basement below his ear. The fetid odor already crept through the air.
Victor kept his hazy focus on the one window. Remnants of an ancient screen hung by threads and every so often, hornets buzzed into the room. At this point, he would welcome the bite of a good sting.
It had been over an hour since he’d felt his legs.
Hornets weren’t the only curious insects roving inside. By now, his back must be black with the number of mosquitoes feasting on his current state of misfortune. He watched one, probably following the scent of old blood, wander through a gap in the floorboards before disappearing through. This place had been in his family for six generations. He knew every room, every loose board, every secret.
Wood splintered in the front room as the raging father hacked through another door. A roar, fueled by months of terror, followed. This man wanted the house’s secrets and he would find them.
Victor knew that to be human, one must carry flaws. Over-confidence had proved to be his downfall. Thinking this tiny excuse for a house had passed under the radar, he had not bothered to completely disguise his years of work. He should have known even an expensive, waterproof basement was no match for the bog.
It wouldn’t be long now. His death.
His captor was mad with grief, and dying himself. Yet he’d tracked Victor with a tenacity lacking in the various law enforcement agencies that had searched for him. Forty years spent in four different countries satisfying his insatiable appetite, and not even the FBI had come close.
Not even when he’d returned to his roots
The blood pooling beneath him was no longer warm. It was remarkable really, how long his mind held on. Victor didn’t worry about death, even as he felt it gathering force in his body. He’d done his duty.
It was time for the rebirth.
The man stumbled through the doorway, carrying the ax that had been buried in Victor’s back. Mediterranean features and a short, stocky body—still powerful despite the cancer—filled Victor’s sight. Victor tried to grin at him, but found his face muscles stiff. He managed to work his lips until he could whisper, “Fanaticism is the mark of madness.”
Bushy, black brows met in the center of the father’s forehead before harsh, guttural coughs bent him over a handkerchief. Blood, sharp and lovely, glistened against the snowy-white material when he pulled the fabric away. “You’re lecturing me, you sick fuck?” He dropped to his knees. “Where is my daughter?”
Victor couldn’t even remember the girl’s name. She’d been only a small part of a much, much bigger process. “She’s beyond your help now.”
The man bent further to the floor, his face twisted in grief. Blood trickled from the corner of colorless lips. Victor recognized the wasting illness. Had originally sought this family out because of it. His own father had suffered from it up until Victor had ended things. People never believed a twelve-year-old could kill. He’d gotten away with it. He’d gotten away with them all. Except for this one. Victor eyed the man’s sallow, olive skin, and yellowed eyes and found himself admiring this father who had held onto life with hope—hope that he’d find his little girl still in one piece. He’d entered the worst of what society had to offer to find Victor. That his hope survived was a miracle in itself.
Victor’s nerves jumped back into screaming protest. Raw, lethal pain tore through every bit of tissue that still held life. He was ready to let this body go. He knew the euphoria of what was coming. He pulled in every last bit of energy and managed to snarl at the man. His voice, raspy with the blackness hollowing his throat, barely broke air in the room. “You’re…pathetic. Took her…right under your nose.” He sucked in a deep breath. “By the time I released her soul, she’d become a thing of beauty. She no longer cried…with pain.”
The man’s shoulders flinched with each word. Blood and tears splattered on the floor as he coughed again before lifting his ravaged face to Victor. “I’m sending you to Hell where you belong.”
“You won’t be far behind.”
“Maybe. But I’ll outlive you.” The man slowly stood and raised the ax, then froze as a new sound filtered into the room. A cry, thready and weak…the sound of a young child.
Victor’s vision narrowed to a pinprick as he watched those eyes flare wide, horror bleaching them white. The ax clattered to the floor as the man turned to stagger toward the noise.
It was the last thing Victor saw before his soul was viciously ripped from his body.
The monsters never show up when they’re supposed to.
I’d been in the damned marsh for hours. Crouched. Cramped.
I could walk this part of Florida’s wilderness coast blindfolded, yet I’d picked the worst possible hiding place. One could only take cold, wet, goo-encrusted jeans and wrinkled fingertips for so long.
And the damned prickly grass!
Scratches burned on my face and exposed arms where the whip-like strands had smacked my skin with the wind.
If I hadn’t been in such a hurry to run after this most recent rumor, I would have remembered to put on the windbreaker I kept in the back of my new, shiny red Jeep. Any monster investigator worth her weight went to a scene prepared. I knew better. At least I had my bag of tricks—my backpack—strapped into place and luckily I’d remembered to grab my binoculars.
I grimaced when the tall grass started shifting again. The current came as a flat sheet of water creeping through the marshes, forming bubbles between the blades. Small creatures scuttled about, gathering gifts from the ocean. A fiddler crab raced by the hand I had propped on a slippery piece of higher ground.
Ignoring the crab, I trained the binocular lenses on one narrow, glistening strip of ocean—the only part of the coast visible in the light of the full moon. Most of the sky rolled thick and black from the blanket of clouds that wrapped everything else. The moon glowered through, as if daring them to block her light. Usually, I felt more a part of nature’s world than that of humans. The earth called to me, especially water. The never-ending expanse of moving, living liquid, the swoosh as it crashed into the beach…the tinge of salt on the wind.
Somehow, it all worked together to wipe the worries from my mind.
But not tonight.
There was something to the air lately. Something that curled dark and low in my gut…something that kept reminding me of the final case I ran with my sister—the night the last of my humanity had been viciously pulled loose. I’d been left in the kind of shadowy place where no one should ever dwell. As a result, I hadn’t seen my sister for months. There was a time when that would have seemed crazy.
Shivering, I narrowed my eyes to that strip of ocean and focused on the problem at hand. Two people had drowned here a week ago. Two good swimmers—lifeguards for Goddess’s sake. I’d hit up a cop I knew for details on the investigation and come up with nothing, because that’s what he had. No one could tell why they’d drowned.
I thought I knew.
And I was sure of it the next moment when a wispy being formed over the water.
My heart sank like a lead weight. The ghosts of the drowned were the most powerful kind of spirits. Because the marsh water here moved slowly, its sluggish swoop combined with the energy of the water itself did something powerful to the dead, something that made them grow in power until they drew even the strong to their sweet call.
A call that ended none-too-sweetly.
Biting my lip, I watched the spirit’s agitated whiz-and-zip over the surface of the water. I had no idea how I was going to rid this place of the angry creature. I couldn’t leave a layer of rock salt on the ground for days—not here. Couldn’t leave out a bowl of vinegar. In fact, my repertoire for sending ghosts on their way was pitifully small. I had only played ghost hunter a few times over the years I’d been investigating the monsters. And ghosts were pretty standard creatures.
The spirit made a low rumbling noise—not a growl exactly, but more a masculine moan of long-suffering agony. I felt the sound in my soul, its pain sharp, breath-stealing.
Damn. I needed a witch. Or a medium.
I nearly dropped the binoculars when the cell phone in my back pocket rang and vibrated against my ass. Only one person had my number. I briefly closed my eyes. My sister had been trying to call me for a week. This was the fourth time today. If I didn’t answer, the noise would continue and I had no doubt Elsa would use her cop status to somehow trace my position by satellite and come after me.
I quickly sat back and swallowed a groan when my jean-clad butt sucked up more cold water. After yanking the damp phone out, I flipped it on and whisper-hissed into it. “I’m busy.” I kept the binoculars up, watching that creature rage.
“I don’t give a crap. Besides, I’ve been calling all week. What’s with not answering my calls?”
I tracked the spirit as it zoomed left. Didn’t bother answering. I had no good reason.
“Beri, something’s really wrong out there. Tell me you can feel the evil in the air. Because I can.”
Stunned, I pulled the phone away for a second to look at it. My detective sister was aware of magic—thanks to me—but she usually dealt in logic, not feelings.
“Your silence is telling.” Her sigh was loud. “Listen to me, please. I’m not asking you to come back here to stay, just to see. Something really bad is going on and it’s everywhere—not just in my city. People are dropping like flies but they aren’t dying. They’re in these weird comas. I thought maybe you could—”
I broke in. “What? What could I do, Elsa? I’m not a cop, remember? Besides, what if something were to happen again? Do you think I could live with myself if I ever—”
“No.” She interrupted with one calm word.
I could picture her—probably in her living room with her bare feet tucked under her on her couch—still wearing one of her slim pants suits from work. Her smooth blonde hair would be back in a bun.
“I don’t need a cop,” she gritted out. “I need
. I don’t know how to explain it. I only know in my gut that you can find the answer. Maybe see if their spirit guides are hanging around. Talk to them.”
Elsa was the only human being, living anyway, who knew that I had a little
in the sensory department. She also sounded close to panicked and that was unusual enough to twist my gut. Elsa never lost it. I knew her better than anyone else and we weren’t even really sisters.
Blood didn’t count as much as loyalty and love. We’d bonded during the worst time of my life. Elsa had stood by me when others backed nervously away, and for that I owed her everything.