Authors: Maria Lima
Copyright ©2007 by Maria Lima
First published in 2005, 2004
It takes a village ... or in this case, many villages ... many people without whom this book would not have been written and I thank each and every one of you. Of course, if I detailed the lot of you, this list would be longer than the book. Please know that each of you holds a special place in my heart.
That said, there are some that deserve a shout-out:
* First and foremost, my family both virtual and non—my parents, my sister Laura Condit, my brother-in-law Ken, all the Buds—Tea, Buffy or otherwise. Without you, this would still be a dream.
* My unofficial critiquers who helped me over more than a few bumps in a long road: Partner in Crime Donna Andrews, Second Twin Carla Coupe, the Evil Doctor Dana, Enabler Dina and my lovely “twin,” Elaine Yamaguchi.
* Lonnie Cruse, whose knowledge of the funeral industry saved me from a most embarrassing gaffe.
* A extra special thank you to Jan Burke, Charlaine Harris, and Jerrilyn Farmer—who many times kept me going when the going got way more than rough.
I know the dead and the dead know me. Not a personal choice, mind you, just the result of being born into a family of necromancers. It's in our blood, so to speak. Not that I am one—not yet anyway. It's more that they needed someone to learn the family business. So instead of more practical training, I learned how to deal with death.
Two years ago, my entire life changed and I ended up more or less back where I'd started—the heart of Texas Hill Country in a small town called Rio Seco—babysitting a whiny forty-year-old mortician cousin whose idea of fun was to call me at the ass crack of what-the-hell-time-is-it, a couple of hours past my usual dawnish bedtime, and beg for money. Okay, I had it and he didn't, but all I wanted from him was a little respect—you know, the stuff Aretha sang about. My cousin had plenty of respect for his clients (actually, for their families who were paying for his services) but not for me. Marty Nelson would always bitch to me about his dead-end (pun intended) job, his life (mostly useless) and his lack of funds (eternal).
Enduring two years of boredom, near-solitude, and conversations with a man with whom I had less in common than a family pet wasn't what I'd imagined. Okay, so I had made this choice. What can I say? At the time, it sounded easy. I hadn't bothered to consider the consequences, imagine the future and recognize how unspeakably bored I would become. Marty certainly didn't make it any easier.
Then things started changing. Over the past couple of weeks, I'd been blessed with my own personal nightmare freak show. Lifelike dreams, crashing into my REM cycle with an overwhelming assault of vivid Technicolor, Surroundsound and Smell-o-vision. I spent years as Death's assistant and now those years were coming back to haunt me ... not with guilt or accusation, but in nightmares full of pain, fear, violence and a hell of a lot of blood.
That was the part I kept wondering about. Clan deaths were rarely violent, at least in the last century or so. Nowadays, when our folk died, it was by choice, not by chance. I wasn't sure where all this was coming from, maybe it was just my own sick psyche dealing with the so-called facts of my life.
This last one was the worst so far. Even the bright mid-afternoon sun couldn't chase it away. I still tasted blood, tasted death. The rich flavor of life bleeding into lifelessness hovered at the back of my throat, covering my tongue with that morning-after-the-night-before fuzzy coating that makes you run to the nearest toothbrush and giant bottle of Scope.
I could still remember, every last bloody minute of it.
I ran. Faster than I could ever remember running, my feet passing smoothly over rough terrain, my body automatically turning, avoiding rocks, cacti, and stumps of dead mesquite dangerously spearing the still night air. As the pale light of the nearly full moon blazed my path, my night vision adjusted automatically.
I could smell them in front of me. Hot fear-scent mixed with the exhilaration of the chase. This was what I wanted, what I needed.
Two hunters ran in front of me, staying in the shadows so I couldn't see who they were. No matter; after they fed, then I would.
I lunged forward, impatient now to reach my—
The smell slammed into my nose as I heard their prey fall, one body, then another. My gut roiled in agony, anticipation.
Blood. Lots of it. Where were they?
Fog clouded my vision. My senses shut down as the blood spoor became my only focus. I broke through the bushes, branches scratching my face, my arms, my body, pain receding into the background. There they were—ahead, in a clearing just by the lake, next to the homey picnic benches scattered throughout the small area.
Two of them, torn and bleeding. The rich scent teased me, luring me over. I looked around. The hunters were gone. Long gone. No one was there but the dead ... and me.
I stepped closer. Two deer, small, defenseless, spotted bodies too small to escape the things that chased them. I reached down, my hand operating independently of my conscious brain, my body taking over, knowing it needed—
I screamed as I realized that the bloody corpse nearest me wasn't a deer after all.
It was my cousin, Marty.
Something buzzed at my hip and my hands jerked the wheel. The Land Rover's right front tire slid off the road onto the gravel shoulder, kicking up dust. I recovered, steering back on to the road.
Holy crap. I really had to stop thinking about this, especially while I was driving. Maybe I should try to adjust my sleep cycle and sleep at night, like normal people. Yeah, right.
Ignore the obvious.
The buzz-tickle came again—damned cell phone. Would I ever get used to this thing? I fumbled it out of my pocket, while steering one-handed and answered. “Hello?"
"Hi, Marty.” Great. I should have looked at the Caller ID before answering. Who else would call at three p.m.—early for me—but my charge, my responsibility, the reason for my dissatisfaction and the frequent star of many of my recent nightmares? Of course, the dreams of his death might just be the product of my jumbled mind sorting out not-so-cousinly feelings. Could just be a bit of scary wishful thinking. After all, two years was twenty-four months too long to be riding herd over a man only three years my senior, especially one as annoying as my cousin. After this last set of dreams, though, I was considering changing my analysis. These nightmares weren't fodder for a shrink's couch. They'd send any would-be Freud screaming.
"Are you busy?"
Busy trying to not freak out, but otherwise, not really. Can't say “busy” describes my life these days.
I pulled over to the side of the road so I could concentrate on talking to him. I didn't like to talk while driving the narrow, winding back roads.
"Not exactly. What's up?"
He paused, as if my question was too hard to answer.
"Keira, I'm sorry, I know you hate to be called early, but ... uhm ... I sort of need ... I've got...” A sigh and another pause followed.
An armadillo waddled across the asphalt, its leaden progress hypersonic compared to the conversation I didn't actually seem to be having. The silence stretched. I could hear Marty breathing, but no words.
I finally spoke, unwilling to sit watching armadillos avoid becoming road decor any longer.
"Marty, what the hell do you want? I can't do anything if you won't talk to me."
Closing my eyes, I leaned back in my seat, holding on to my temper. I could feel it rising, an almost automatic response. Deep breaths, Keira. Slow, calming breaths. It didn't pay to get angry with Marty. He never really noticed.
No doubt his skinny, balding self was now sitting behind his previously-owned pressboard desk, the very picture of a respectable mortician in a baggy Men's Wearhouse three-piece suit while I sat here like an idiot in my vintage Land Rover Defender waiting for him to tell me something that mattered. It never mattered to me—only to Marty and his overbearing sense of self-importance. The fact I'd been “assigned” to him couldn't help his misguided illusions of grandeur.
"I think I'm in trouble,” he finally whispered. Marty's voice sounded hesitant.
"How much is it this time? Another security door? The latest and greatest embalming machine or whatever?” At the beginning of this particular month, he'd needed to pay his property taxes. The week before that he didn't have enough to cover an overdue invoice. Two days before that ... well, it was always the same thing. Just a couple of weeks ago, I'd paid for a state-of-the-art security door after another phone call, during which he whined for the better part of a half hour and then gloated over his nifty new toy, an electronic door controlled by a security touchpad. Expensive high-tech protection. Just what a small town mortuary run by one guy and a part-time receptionist needed. As always, it had been easier to write the check and pay the invoice. If money could buy a little peace and quiet, then so be it.
"No, it's not—Keira, I ... can't ... Shit. I need you to come over.” He sounded exasperated, a change from his usual pity-poor-me-I-need-money whine.
"Excuse me? Come over?
before I eat breakfast?"
"I really need you to come over here, Keira."
"Why—the door break down?” I couldn't help it. I'd not only paid way too much money for the thing, I'd also had to pay for the special technician to come in from Austin and re-install the door after Marty's local bargain guy messed it up.
"Look, I really need to talk to you. It's important. But I can't talk right now, and not on the phone."
The last words were more breaths than actual words, as if he were trying not to let someone overhear. Who, I had no idea, since the receptionist was older than God and almost as deaf as Marty's clients. She was unlikely to be there at this hour anyway.
Damn it, if I avoided him now, he'd keep badgering me with phone calls and voice messages until I gave in anyway. But I gave it one more shot.
"Marty, can I call you later, after I get some food in me? I just got up."
"Yeah, I guess,” he said, reluctantly. “But don't call, just come by when you're done eating. I have to see you in person, Keira.” He hesitated, then continued. “This is family important ... blood important. Please."
Bloody freaking hell. I hated this already and I didn't even know what it was about. I'd let the words sway me, but I knew his tendency to exaggerate. Last time he'd sworn it was a family thing he'd been scared he'd gotten his then-girlfriend pregnant. He wanted money for an abortion. She wanted the baby and a husband—turned out to be a false alarm. A few weeks later, she moved to Dallas with a new guy. Marty kept the money and bought a new suit. That was eight months ago. I told him then that if he ever invoked the family again when it was a personal problem, I'd call in said family. Why did I think he'd listened?