Authors: Vicki Pettersson
Tags: #Horror & Ghost Stories
THE SECOND SIGN OF THE ZODIAC
For Becky Brahma—
sister, confidante, friend.
It’s funny how a name can change the world’s perception…
Portals are to the supernatural realm what dreams are to…
Once I was sure the guards had gone, I bounded…
I was too antsy to return to the auction, and…
The greatest benefit in taking over Olivia’s identity was not…
Ever since Steve Wynn single-handedly revitalized the casino industry with…
He wore no mask, though I’d have known who he…
When I’d first learned about my troop’s superhero hideout, a.k.a.…
“What, in this particular Universe, were you thinking?”
Saturn’s Orchard, located at the top of a stunted and…
After a few days of nothing happening—and I mean nothing,…
The sanctuary exploded with sound just before dawn. I took…
If you don’t count the traffic, Vegas is an easy…
The others didn’t return to the sanctuary that dawn, the…
If you head away from the Strip on the I–95,…
With no conduit, no leverage against his superior physical position,…
I took the meal they brought me at noon, the…
“…with reports of at least a half dozen other plague-related…
The last time the leader of troop 175—paranormal division, Las…
The memory of Marlo’s lifeless body kept me going those…
It was seven o’clock, just two hours before the swingers’…
There were questions to answer in the days following Ian’s…
It was the last place I should have gone, a…
I couldn’t turn the fucking thing on.
Every person I’ve ever met believes, to a varying extent,…
I was winging along L and Stone Street, trying to…
Back in the days when cowboys still clipped along dusty…
Less than an hour later I was home—having driven Jasmine…
“Where have you been?”
The Tulpa let me have my head start, but he…
“Do you like to fly?” the Tulpa asked after I’d…
Hunter and I were allowed back in the sanctuary the…
It’s funny how a name can change the world’s perception of you. Your perception of yourself. My mother used to stroke my cheek with her fingertips, calling me her Jo-baby—my earliest identity; a child both loved and cherished—though obviously that was before she abandoned me. And while the man I’d once thought was my father just called me Joanna, the way he said it was telling as well, all the syllables crisply clipped and pronounced, like he was biting them off between his teeth before spitting them out. Like being Joanna, like being me, was a bad thing. And then there was the love of my life. He’d called me Jo-Jo, and that was the name I missed most of all.
Because for the past six months everyone had called me by my sister’s name, and it was the one I used on myself now, fluffing my blond hair as I stood in a makeshift dressing room in one of Las Vegas’s most opulent resorts, the Valhalla Hotel and Casino.
“Olivia Archer,” I muttered as I straightened my Chanel pencil skirt, my feet screaming in heels as high as flagpoles. “What the hell were you thinking?”
Of course, she couldn’t answer. The real Olivia was six
months dead, and while I still mourned her every day and every minute, even if she’d been here I doubt her answer would’ve made sense to me. I mean, how did one even come up with the idea of selling women to raise money for charity? Much less entering herself in the bidding?
I’d been asking myself this ever since I received the phone call from City of Light Charities two months earlier, asking if the bachelorette auction was still on in spite of “recent events.” I’d then scrambled to make sure it was, as Olivia would’ve done. Because that was one thing I needed to do.
Be Olivia Archer. Or be dead.
And so I stood, staring in the mirror at skin that was supposed to be mine, buffed, fluffed, and shellacked to aesthetic perfection, about to auction myself off to the highest bidder.
“Livvy-girl!” The screech—another of my new names—could be heard above the emcee’s cheery voice as yet another debutante was sold out front. “Olivia! No, no! Get away!”
I whirled, images of honed blades and demon faces assailing me, but there was only Cher, Olivia’s best friend—now mine—waving frantically as she danced from foot to foot. She breathed a theatrical sigh as I picked up my Dior handbag and clicked over to her in my medieval torture devices. Yanking me to her side, she whispered harshly, “That’s the suicide mirror, remember? Leave that for the other hags…er, contestants.”
She batted her thickened lashes when I glared at her. I needed this event to be a success. Which meant cheering on all the other hags. Er, contestants.
“It’s true,” added Madeleine Cross airily, mistaking my annoyance for disbelief. I recognized her from her photo in Vegas’s equivalent of Page Six, and it turned out she was just as vain and self-absorbed as reported. She flipped back a lock of recently streaked auburn hair and ran her finger across a perfectly waxed brow. “Two socialites, sharing that mirror, were brought down by bad press after last year’s event.”
“Social homicide,” Cher said, and both women shuddered.
I wanted to say,
But it was for a good cause,
and only just managed to keep my mouth shut and face straight. “Oh. Well…thanks. For saving me, I mean.”
“’Course, darlin’! We’re BFFs!” Cher gave my shoulders a squeeze before her gaze strayed over my shoulder and she gasped. “Oh my God! Don’t look!”
We turned, and a squeaky sound from Cher whipped us back around. Madeleine leaned forward to peer at the offending contestant through the critical lens of our mirror.
“She’s using M·A·C lipstick in…” She squinted before drawing back, chin lifted. “Vegas Volt. At least two coats. The whore.”
I leaned over and joined her in study of the woman now perched obliviously in front of the suicide mirror. She was dressed in high-class hooker wear and dripping diamonds, just like the rest of us. “I think she looks good.”
“Olivia!” Cher looked at me like I’d just told her I wore press-on nails. “Priscilla Chambers is her own object of desire!”
“Truly,” said Madeleine, applying more mascara as she rolled her eyes, nearly stabbing herself in the eyeball. “Watch, she’ll bid on herself.”
Olivia had lined up the bachelorettes months before—thank God—and clearly I was missing out on some social nuances. So under the guise of polite inquisitiveness, I probed for more information. “Well, what about her? In blue?”
Cher and Madeleine jostled for mirror time, but neither glanced in the direction of the woman about to take to the stage. “Lena Carradine. Puh-lease.”
Madeleine executed another perfect eye roll. “Queen of the facelift tribe.”
“See where her brows are tattooed? Those used to be her cheeks.”
“Ladies?” Oh, thank God, I knew that voice. We all turned to find a reporter standing so close she’d easily copped every word. She smiled. “Could I get a couple quotes for the
Las Vegas Sentinel
Cher and Madeleine launched into a litany of clichés about charity, peace on earth, and the quest for a good man, and the reporter pretended to jot it all down, an expression of carefully vacuous cheerfulness on her honeyed face. Meanwhile I studied Vanessa Valen; naturally bronzed, exotic as a hothouse orchid, and a woman who had the art of camouflage down to a science. Though I’d seen her do it a hundred times now, it was still mystifying how easily she disappeared in a crowd. She was beautiful, but more than that, she had a rock-solid presence and a will to match. She also had a steel fan with viciously curved claws resting somewhere beneath her tidy reporter’s guise, and was my only real ally at this whole bubble-brained affair. It was all I could do not to latch on to her leg and hang there.
When Cher and Madeleine unexpectedly took a breath at the same time, Vanessa managed to shoehorn in a request. “Perhaps I could have a one-on-one with the chair of the”—here she glanced down at her pad—“Cheesecake for Charity Auction?”
The smirk was slight, but it was there, and I discreetly shot her the bird as I pretended to brush back my hair. Then Cher pushed me forward, amusing Vanessa all the more, and we waited in silence until we were alone.
“Tell me I’m your hero,” Vanessa finally said, tawny eyes twinkling when I turned back to her. “That’s all the thanks I need.”
A heroine’s hero. Yeah, that’s funny. I reached down and rubbed the sole of one foot, wincing. “I’ll repay you with backstage gossip from Vegas’s most famous glitterati. You wouldn’t believe how catty this crowd can get.”
“Please. I may be a superhero, but I’m still a woman.” She glanced around the room with distaste before arrowing back
in on me. “Nice shoes, by the way. And quite an event. Even the mighty Henshalls are here. Didn’t they snub last year’s affair as ‘too gauche for words’?”
“Did they?” I too had snubbed last year’s fleshfest.
“And looks like your so-called father is working the room for you. He never even shows up for his own functions. Maybe he’s growing a charitable spirit.”
I snorted. “I could write a doctoral dissertation on his ‘charitable spirit.’”
She twirled a strand of hair around her finger as Cher had and said airily, “Yeah, if you were, like, a doctor.”
“Hey, don’t pick on her. She said you have nice toe cleavage.”
“Really?” Vanessa looked down hopefully, then caught my smug look and straightened, clearing her throat. “Anyway, Daddy Dearest just provided me with a rare quote. He said you’re the kindest, most generous person he knows.”
I considered what I knew of Xavier Archer’s business, personal, and—most importantly—
contacts, and could believe it. Then again, Olivia had been the best person I’d known too. Even with her predilection for over-priced shoes.
“Shows how well he knows me, huh?”
Vanessa cocked a hand on her hip. “Right. I mean, if he knew his supposed daughter was really a member of Zodiac troop 175, charged with promoting peace and cosmic balance in the Universe—”
“Or at least in the greater Las Vegas valley—”
“And that taking over Olivia Archer’s identity was really a crafty plot to infiltrate our enemy’s most profitable mortal-run corporation…he’d shit bricks.”
“Yeah,” I said wryly, and motioned down my cartoon character body. “Crafty.”
Vanessa pursed her lips. “Hey, it’s a great cover. You’re like Diana Prince and Wonder Woman. Or Clark Kent and Superman. Bruce Wayne and Batman.”
I drew back, Olivia’s most haughty expression on my face. “Excuse me, but I have nothing in common with that…bat.”
“Sure you do. He was a billionaire philanthropist and playboy. You’re a—”
“Millionaire heiress and Playmate?” I quipped, as the emcee sold another woman out front. “Sure, rub it in.”
Vanessa’s amusement returned. “Okay, so instead of a loyal butler you have a bubble-brained socialite as your closest confidante. But your tactical support ain’t so bad”—and here she took a bow—“and I bet you have all the martial assistance you need tucked between your legs.”
“Don’t be crude.”
She smirked. “You know what I mean.”
I did know, but I hadn’t been able to squeeze anything else beneath this pencil skirt, so I clipped open my handbag and showed her the conduit I’d stashed there. It was a palm-sized bow and arrow, weighty, but made just for me. I never left home, much less hosted a charity auction, without it.
The polished slide of the metal beneath my fingers was soothing, and I shot Vanessa a wry grin as I snapped the bag shut again. She was right. It could be worse. “So what are you going to write about this time, Vanessa?”
“The usual. I’ll use this event to recap how the beautiful and wealthy Olivia Archer has bounced back from an attack on her life—that killed her sister—to become this city’s premiere philanthropic icon.”
I winced at the nutshell version of “Olivia’s” recent past, though anyone who’d been in the Las Vegas valley more than a minute would’ve already heard all the gory details. They’d dominated headlines for weeks.
CASINO HEIRESS PLUMMETS TO DEATH WHILE SISTER WATCHES.
Only thing, it’d been Olivia plummeting and me watching. Not the reverse.
“So, where’ve you been lately?” Vanessa asked abruptly.
I shifted uncomfortably. Apparently she was here to do
more than polish her pristine reporter’s persona. “Is that your not-so-subtle way of telling me I’m wanted back at the sanctuary?”
“Wow, beauty and brains,” she quipped, then shrugged, returning to the topic. “You haven’t been back in weeks.”
“I’m taking the scenic route to superherodom.” I joked, but this time she didn’t smile. Well, she was right. It
been a while. “Okay. Dawn or dusk?”
She blew out a breath, obviously relieved to be able to give our troop leader good news. “Dusk tomorrow is fine. The training field should be ready by then.”
I lifted a brow. Training field?
“Oh yeah,” she said, seeing my expression. “Tekla’s set up a new lesson for us. Everyone is going to be there.”
Great, I thought wryly. Heropalooza.
Vanessa looked over my shoulder. “I think you’re being paged.”
I turned to find the stage manager waving at me frantically. Apparently I was up next. “Oh God. I wonder what exactly these people think they’re buying.”
“Whatever it is, tell them you’ll throw in the knife set for free.”
“I don’t think they know I’m the kind of girl who plays with knives,” I said, and couldn’t help but return her grin.
I joined Cher huddled next to the runway ramp, peering through the gold lamé curtain as the emcee announced Lena Carradine. She pivoted and twirled her way down the catwalk, lifted her surgically enhanced face into the blazing spotlight, and blew air kisses with a mouth stretched so tight she could barely pucker. Cher hissed at Lena through her peephole. “Go on, girl. Hurl yourself down the walk of shame.”
“I’m trying to raise money here,” I reminded Cher.
She turned to me, placed one palm on each of my cheeks, and said encouragingly, “And you will, honey. The second you set foot on that stage, you’ll have more to give to charity than Warren Buffett.”
I looked at her.
“Before the Gates Foundation got to him, I mean. Now go.”
Pushing my handbag up to my elbow, I lined up, took a deep breath, and when I heard my new name called, stepped onto the stage and into my personal hell.
A soft, sensuous tune from the live orchestra accompanied my stride down the catwalk, and I fought the impulse to look down, hide my face, and rush through the torture of being so blatantly stared at, knowing Olivia would do none of those things. So I forced myself to make eye contact with those seated at the numbered tables—both the men who eyed me with appreciative speculation, and the women who sought out flaws where there were none—and shot them all Olivia’s most blinding smile. There were only a handful of faces I recognized, dozens I didn’t, and one in particular I wish I hadn’t: Olivia’s father, Xavier—owner of Valhalla, human lackey to the most evil man on the planet, and the man who’d made my teen years a living hell.
He probably thought selling off his daughter for charity was a good investment. I snarled inwardly as I shot him a saccharine smile. He nodded back.
Could this get any worse?
It could—and did—as soon as the bidding began. I held my breath until the first paddle was lifted in the air, sending a relieved smile out to number 15, but the emcee’s voice quickly acknowledged a second bidder, then a third…then a stream of numbers in such quick succession I lost count. I concentrated on keeping a look of cheery interest plastered on my face, feeling sweat trickle down my spine as the bidding, and minutes, went on.
Finally, after what felt like light years, the bidding was narrowed to four. Number 15 was still in it, but he lifted his paddle more slowly now, and it shook slightly in the air, which meant his funds couldn’t match the heart practically pulsing on his sleeve. The three other bidders saw it and doubled the pace. One, surprisingly, was a young
woman—blond, tidy, her good looks understated in unrelieved black—but the emcee didn’t question her right to bid, nor did anyone else. This was Vegas, after all. Money didn’t just talk here, it screamed for attention.