“Donald Bartholomew Williams, get your ass back here now!”
My bellow still hung in the air when movement drew my gaze to the right. Just behind a headstone shaped like a small, weeping angel stood my uncle. Don stared at me as he tugged on his eyebrow in a way that expressed his discomfort more
eloquently than a litany of words. In his suit and tie, gray hair combed back in its usual impeccable style, Don would look like your average middle-aged businessman to anyone observing him, except for one thing. You had to be undead or a psychic to be able to see him.
Don Williams, former head of a covert branch of Homeland Security that guarded the public against rogue supernatural creatures, had died ten days ago. Yet there he stood. A ghost.
I’d sobbed at his bedside when that fatal heart attack struck, seen to his cremation afterward, been like a zombie at his wake, and even brought his ashes back to my home so I could keep him near me. Little did I know how near to me Don had actually been, considering all those times I’d thought I caught sight of him out of the corner of my eye. I’d chalked up those brief glimpses of my uncle to nothing more than grief-induced mirages until five minutes ago, when I realized my husband, Bones, could see him, too. Even though we were in the middle of a cemetery that still had bodies strewn about from a recent
battle and I had silver bullets burning inside me like agonizing little bonfires, all I could focus on was that Don hadn’t wanted me to know that he was still grave-side up.
My uncle looked none too pleased that I’d discovered his secret. Part of me wanted to throw my arms around him while another part wanted to shake him until his teeth rattled. He should have told me, not skulked in the background playing a phantomish version of peek-a-boo! Of course, despite my dual urges, I could neither shake nor hug Don now. My hands would slip right through his newly-diaphanous form, and likewise, my uncle couldn’t touch anything – or anyone – corporeal anymore. So all I could do was stare at him, battling confusion, joy, and disbelief combined with some irritation at his deception.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” I finally asked.
His gray gaze flicked a few feet beyond me. I didn’t need to turn around to know that Bones came up behind me. Since he’d changed me from a half breed into a full vampire, I could feel Bones like our auras were supernaturally intertwined. Which they were, I supposed. I still didn’t know everything about what made up the connection between a vampire and their sire. All I knew was that it existed, and it was powerful. Unless he shielded himself, I could sense Bones’s feelings as though they were a continuous stream threaded into my psyche.
That’s how I knew Bones was a lot more in control than I was. His initial shock at discovering Don as a ghost had given way to guarded contemplation. I, on the other hand, still felt like my emotions were in a whirlwind. Bones drew even with me, his
dark brown gaze on my uncle.
“You see that she is safe,” Bones stated, an English accent coloring his words. “We stopped Apollyon, so ghouls and vampires are at peace once more. You can go in peace. All is well.”
Understanding bloomed along with a spurt of heart-wrenching emotion. Was that why my uncle hadn’t “crossed over” like he should have? Probably. Don was even more of a control freak than I was, and though he’d rejected my repeated offers to cure his cancer by becoming a vampire, maybe he’d been too worried about the brewing undead hostilities to let go entirely when he died. I’d seen at least one ghost stay on long enough to ensure the safety of a loved on. Making sure I’d survived this battle and protected humanity by preventing a clash between vampires and ghouls was no doubt the anchor that had held Don here, but now, like Bones said, he could go.
I blinked past the sudden moisture in my gaze. “He’s right,” I said, my voice rasping. “I’ll always love and miss you, but you’re…you’ve got somewhere else to be now, don’t you?”
My uncle gazed at both of us, his expression somber. Even though he didn’t have actual lungs anymore, it sounded like he let out a slow, relieved breath.
“Goodbye, Cat,” he said, the first words he’d spoken to me since the day he died. Then the air around him became hazy, blurring his features and obscuring his outline. I reached for Bones’s hand, feeling his strong fingers curling around mine with a comforting squeeze. At least Don wasn’t in pain like the last time I’d had to say goodbye to him. I tried to smile as my uncle’s image faded entirely, but grief hit me in a fresh wave. Knowing he was going on to where he belonged didn’t mean the ache of losing him went away.
Bones waited several moments after Don vanished before turning to me.
“Kitten, I know it’s wretched timing, but we still have things we must do. Like getting those bullets out of you, removing the bodies –”
“Oh shit,” I whispered.
Don appeared behind Bones while he was talking. A fierce scowl darkened my uncle’s features and he waved his arms in an uncharacteristic display of emotional excess.
“Does anyone want to explain why the hell I can’t seem to leave?”
I crumpled up the invoice in front of me, not throwing it away only because it wasn’t the minister’s fault that burying Don’s ashes in hallowed ground didn’t do jack toward sending my uncle to the Great Beyond. We’d now tried everything that our
friends – alive, undead, or otherwise – had suggested to get my uncle to cross from this plane to the next one. None of it worked, as evidenced by Don pacing next to me, his feet not quite touching the floor.
His frustration was understandable. When you died, unless that was just a precursor to changing into a vampire or ghoul, you rather expected not to be stuck on earth anymore. Yeah, I’d been around ghosts before – a lot lately – but considering the number of people who died compared to the number of ghosts that existed, the odds of getting your Casper on were less than
one percent. Yet my uncle seemed to be stuck in this rare between-worlds stasis whether he liked it or not. For someone who had been almost Machiavellian in his ability to manipulate circumstances, his current helplessness had to rankle that much more now.
“We’ll try something else,” I offered, mustering up a false smile. “Hey, you’re a pro at overcoming insurmountable odds. You managed to keep Americans from finding out about the supernatural world despite complications like cell phone video, the internet, and YouTube. You’ll find a way to move on.”
My attempt at cheerfulness only earned me a baleful look. “Fabian never found a way to cross over,” Don muttered, a swipe of his hand indicating my ghostly friend who lurked just outside of my office. “Neither did any of the countless others
who’ve found their way to you since you’ve become a spook magnet.”
I winced, but he was right. I’d thought being born as the offspring of a vampire and a human was the height of improbability, but that only showed my lack of faith in Fate’s twisted sense of humor. Turning into a full vampire put me firmly in first place as the World’s Weirdest Person. I didn’t feed off of human blood like every other vampire. No, I needed undead blood to survive instead, and I absorbed more than nourishment from it. I also – temporarily – absorbed whatever special abilities the owner of that blood contained. Drinking from a ghoul who just happened to have incredible ties to the grave had made me irresistible to any ghost who happened to be in the same area code as me. Privately I worried that my new, borrowed abilities might be one of the reasons Don couldn’t cross over yet. I’m sure the thought had occurred to him, too, hence his grumpier than usual attitude with me.
“Ask them to keep it down, Kitten,” Bones muttered when he came in the room. “Can’t hear myself bloomin’ think.”
I raised my voice to be sure that it carried not just around the house, but the porch and back yard, too.
“Please, guys, a little softer with the chatter?”
Dozens of conversations instantly become muted even though I’d made it a request instead of an order. I was still uncomfortable with how my new, unwanted ability meant that ghosts had to obey whatever I commanded. I didn’t want that kind of power over anyone, so I was very careful in how I phrased my communications with the spectral dead. Especially my uncle. How things have changed, I mused. For years when I worked as one of Don’s team of elite soldiers, I’d chafed at having to follow his orders. Now he’d have to follow mine, if I chose, something I’d longed for back then – and couldn’t wait
to get rid of now.
Bones sank into the chair nearest me. His lean, muscled frame exuded a heady mixture of sexiness and coiled energy even though he sat in a casual sprawl, one bare foot propped against my thigh. His dark hair was damp from his recent shower, making his short curls cling even tighter to his head. A stray bead of water lazily trailed down his neck toward the hard grooves in his chest, making me moisten my lips at my sudden urge to trace its path with my tongue.
If we were alone, I wouldn’t have needed to suppress that urge. Bones would be all too willing to indulge in some afternoon delight. His sex drive was as legendary as his dangerousness, but with two ghosts watching us, my tongue explorations would
have to wait until later.
“If more noisy ghosties keep showing up, I’m going to plant garlic and weed ‘round the entire house,” Bones stated in a conversational tone.
My uncle glowered at him, knowing both those items in large quantities would repel most ghosts. “Not until I’m where I should be.”
I coughed, something I didn’t need to do since breathing became optional for me.
“By the time it would grow in, this power should be out of my system. The longest I wielded borrowed abilities was two months. It’s been almost that long since…well.”
It still wasn’t common knowledge that Marie Lavaeu, voodoo queen of New Orleans, was the reason I was now the equivalent of a ghostly den mother. It had been her blood I was forced to drink. Yeah, I understood later why she’d made me do it, but at the time, I’d been more than a little pissed.
“I knew a ghost who once took three weeks to cross over,” Fabian spoke up from the door frame. At my grateful smile, he came all the way in. “I’m sure Cat will think of something that will help you make the journey,” he added with supreme
Bless Fabian. True friends came in all forms, even transparent ones.
Don wasn’t convinced. “I’ve been dead for over five weeks,” he replied shortly. “Did you know anyone who took that long to
My cell rang, giving Fabian an excuse not to reply as I answered it. Good timing with the interruption, too, because from his expression, Don wouldn’t have liked Fabian’s answer.
I didn’t need to glance at the numbers to recognize Tate, my former first officer, just from that one syllable. He was probably calling to talk to Don, but as a ghost’s voice didn’t travel well through technology, I’d have to act as relay.
“Hey, what’s up?” I said, waving Don over while mouthing, it’s Tate.
“Can you come to the compound tonight?” Tate’s voice sounded odd. Too formal. “The team’s operations consultant would like to meet you.”
Operations consultant? “Since when do we have one of those?” I asked, forgetting that I hadn’t been part of the team’s “we” in a while.
“Since now,” Tate replied flatly.
I glanced at Bones but didn’t wait for his acquiescing shrug before answering. We didn’t have important plans, and my curiosity was piqued. “All right. I’ll see you in a couple hours.”
“Don’t come alone.”
Tate whispered the last part right before hanging up. My brows rose, more that he’d made the sentence inaudible to anyone without supernatural hearing than the words themselves.
Something else was clearly up. I knew he wasn’t asking me to bring Bones since Tate knew he always accompanied me on trips to my old work place. Tate must mean someone else, and there was only person I could think of.
I turned to Don. “Feel like going on a field trip?”
From the air, the compound looked like a nondescript single story building surrounded by a lot of wasted parking lot space. In reality, it was an old military nuclear fallout shelter that had four extensive sublevels underneath its deliberately plain
exterior. Security was rigid here, as you’d expect for a secret government facility that policed the activities of the undead. Still, I was surprised when we had to hover for ten minutes before our chopper was given clearance to land. It’s not like we were dropping in unexpectedly, for crying out loud.
Bones and I exited the chopper but were stopped by three helmeted guards when we attempted to go inside the roof’s double doors.
“ID,” the guard closest to us barked.
I laughed. “Good one, Cooper.”
The guards’ visors were so dark that I couldn’t see any of their features underneath, but they all had heartbeats, and Cooper was the only one of my old human friends who was smartass enough to attempt such a stunt.
“Identification,” the guard repeated, drawing the word out enough to determine that his voice was unfamiliar to me. Okay, not Cooper, and not a joke, either. The flanking guards tightened their grips ever so slightly on their automatic weapons.
“I don’t like this,” Don muttered, coming to float on my right. None of the guards even flinched in his direction, but of course, as humans they couldn’t see him.
I didn’t like it, either, but it was obvious these guards were bent on seeing our ID before letting us enter. I began to dig through my pocket, having learned the hard way to always carry a wallet even if I didn’t think I’d need it, but Bones just
smiled at the trio.
“Want my identification?” he asked silkily. “Here it is.” Then his eyes changed to glowing emerald green while fangs slid out from his upper teeth, extending to their full length like mini ivory daggers.
“Let us pass or we’ll leave, and then you can explain to your boss that the visitors he expected had better things to do than have their time wasted.”
The guard who’d demanded our ID hesitated for a loaded moment, and then stepped aside without another word. The twin fangs gleaming from Bones’s teeth retracted and his eyes bled back to their normal dark brown color.
I put my wallet back in my pants. Guess I wasn’t going to need my driver’s license after all.
“Wise choice,” Bones commented. I brushed past the guards with him following behind me, my uncle still muttering that he didn’t like this. No shit, I thought, but didn’t say it for more reasons than not wanting to appear like I was talking to myself. This was Don’s first trip back to the building he’d run for years and ultimately died in. Now he was returning in a supernatural form that most of his colleagues couldn’t even see. That had to be discomfiting in more ways than I could imagine.
We went down the hallway toward the elevator and I mentally catalogued the differences since the last time I’d been here. There used to be two busy offices in this section, but now the only sounds of activity were our steady footfalls on the linoleum
When we got in the elevator, I pressed the button for the second sub level where the staff offices were located. A poignant sense of déjà vu washed over me as the shiny doors closed. The last time I’d ridden this elevator on the way down, I had been
rushing to Don’s bedside to say goodbye. Now he stood next to me, the other side of the elevator hazily visible through his profile. Life certainly had some bends in the road that I never would have anticipated.
“Just so you know, if I see a bright light while I’m here, I’m running into it without waiting for you to say a damn word,” my uncle said, breaking the silence.
The wryness in his tone made me laugh. “I’d be cheering you the whole way,” I assured him, glad his sardonic sense of humor hadn’t vanished despite the roughness of the past several weeks.
The elevator stopped and we got out. I instinctively wanted to turn toward what used to be Don’s office, but made a left instead. Tate said he didn’t feel right moving into Don’s old office even though it was the largest and had a mini command
station in it. I didn’t blame him. It would feel like grave robbing to strip Don’s things out of his office when he was still technically here, though only a handful of people in this building were aware of that. My uncle hadn’t wanted anyone to know of his new ghostly status, but I’d flatly refused to hide the information from any team undead members who could still see and talk to Don.
Tate’s door was slightly ajar. I went inside without knocking though I knew he wasn’t alone. Someone with a heartbeat was in there with him. A heartbeat, and too much cologne for a vampire’s sensitive nose.
“Hey, Tate,” I said, noting how stiff his posture was despite the fact that he was sitting. The reason for his tenseness must be the tall, thin man who stood a few feet away from Tate’s desk. He had graying hair cut in the same high and tight style
Tate favored, but something about his bearing suggested his hair was the only military influence he had. His stance was too relaxed, his hands boasting calluses that I’d bet came from pens versus weapons. His startled glance up revealed that he didn’t know we were here until I spoke, either, and while vampires were stealthy, I’d made no attempt to conceal the sound of our approach.
The arrogance in his stare once he recovered from his surprise made me mentally reclassify him from civilian to government desk jockey. Usually just two things accounted for such an immediate, overconfident attitude at a first meeting: a wealth of badass undead abilities, or a person who firmly believed that his connections meant he could make his own rules. Since Mr. Cocky was human, that left the latter.
“You must be the new operations consultant,” I said, smiling in a way that would look friendly to someone who didn’t know me.
“Yes,” was his cool reply. “My name is –”
“Jason Madigan,” Don completed the sentence the same time as the gray-haired government contractor. My uncle’s voice sounded strained, almost shocked. “What is he doing here?”
I kept my attention on Madigan, not looking over at Don even though it was my first instinct. Mustn’t let on that there was a ghost in the room, and the question had been rhetorical since Don knew Madigan couldn’t hear him.
“Cat Crawfield…Russell,” I introduced myself. Okay, Bones and I weren’t married according to human law, but by vampire standards, we were bound together tighter than a piece of paper could ever make two people.
A wave of pleasure brushed against my subconscious, drifting out from the shields Bones had erected around himself as soon as our helicopter landed. He liked that I’d added the last name he’d been born with to my own. That was all the officiating I needed to decide that I’d be Catherine Crawfield Russell from this day forth.
Even though I hadn’t needed Don’s reaction to deduce that Madigan was going to be a pain in my ass, years of strict farm-bred manners made it impossible for me not to offer my hand. Madigan looked at it for a fraction too long before shaking it. His hesitancy revealed that Madigan had a prejudice against women or vampires, neither of which endeared him any
further to me.
Bones stated his name with none of my hand-offering compulsions, but then again, his childhood had been spent begging or thieving to survive the harsh circumstances of being the bastard son of a prostitute in 18th century London. Not being endlessly drilled about manners and respecting your elders like mine. He stared at Madigan without blinking, his hands resting inside the pockets of his leather coat, his half smile more challenging than courteous.
Madigan took the hint. He dropped his hand from mine and didn’t attempt extending it to Bones. The faintest expression of relief might have even crossed his face, too.
Prejudice against vampires, then. Perfect.
“You were right, weren’t you?” Madigan said to Tate with a jovialness that rang false. “He did come with her.”
For a second my gaze flicked to Don. Good God, could Madigan see him? He was human, but maybe Madigan had some psychic abilities…
“With vampires, if you invite one spouse, the other is automatically included as well,” Bones replied lightly. “That’s an age-old rule, but I’ll forgive you for not knowing it.”
Oh, Madigan meant Bones. I stifled my snort. What he said was true, but even if it wasn’t, Bones wouldn’t have stayed behind. I didn’t work here anymore, so it’s not like I could be threatened with anything if Madigan didn’t like my attitude. And he wouldn’t, I could promise him that.
“What’s up with the ID check on the roof?” I asked to steer things away from the staring contest between Madigan and Bones that the consultant would lose. No one could out-stare a vampire.
Madigan shifted his attention to me, his natural scent souring ever so slightly underneath its preponderance of chemical enhancement.
“One of the oversights I noted when I arrived two days ago was that no one checked my identification when I landed. This facility is too important to be compromised by something as simple as sloppy security.”
Tate bristled, hints of emerald appearing in his indigo eyes, but I just snorted.
“If you’re arriving by air, they kinda figure that after they’ve double-checked the identity of the aircraft, the crew, and the flight plan, whoever’s inside is who they’re supposed to be. Especially if you invited those people here. But if they weren’t and they still pulled all the rest of that off, fake ID would be the easy part. Besides” -another snort-“if anyone got here by air that didn’t belong, you think they’d be able to get away with their aircraft in weapons range and several vampires able to track them by scent alone?”
Instead of being defensive by my blunt analysis of how useless a roof ID check was, Madigan just stared at me in a thoughtful way.
“I heard you had difficulty with authority and following orders. Seems that wasn’t exaggerated.”
“Nope, that’s true,” I replied with a cheery smile. “What else did you hear?”
He waved a hand dismissively. “Too many things to list. Your former team raved about you so
much I simply had to meet you.”
“Yeah?” I didn’t buy that as the reason I was here, but I’d play along. “Well, whatever you do, ignore what my mom has to say about me.”
Madigan didn’t even crack a smile. Uptight prick.
“What does an operations consultant do, I wonder?” Bones asked, as if he hadn’t been busy using his mindreading skills to
filch in Madigan’s mind from the moment we arrived.
“Ensures that the transfer of management in a highly sensitized Homeland Security department is as smooth as it needs to be for the sake of national security,” Madigan said, that smugness back in his tone. “I’ll be reviewing all records over the next
few weeks. Missions, personnel, budgets, everything. This department is too critical to only hope that Sergeant Bradley is up for the task of running it.”
Tate didn’t so much as twitch a brawny muscle even though the implied insult had to burn. For all the issues I’d had with him in the past, his competence, dedication, and work ethic had never been among them.
“You won’t find anyone more qualified to run this operation now that Don’s gone,” I said with quiet steel.
“That’s not why he’s here,” Don hissed. He’d been quiet for the past several minutes, but now he sounded more agitated than I’d ever heard him. Did becoming a ghost give my normally urbane uncle less control over his emotions, or did he and Madigan have a nasty history together?
“He’s after something more important than auditing Tate’s job performance,” Don went on.
“I’m particularly interested in getting caught up on your records,” Madigan said to me, oblivious to the other conversation in the room.
I shrugged. “Knock yourself out. Hope you like stories about the bad guys – or girls – getting it in the end.”
“My favorite kind,” Madigan replied with a glint in his eye that I didn’t care for.
“Are Dave, Juan, Cooper, Geri, and my mom in the Wreck Room?” I asked, done with playing these stupid word games. If I spent much more time with him, my temper might overcome my common sense, and that wouldn’t be good. The smartest thing would be to play docile and let Tate find out if Madigan was really sniffing around this operation for ulterior motives.
“Why do you want to know their location?” Madigan asked coolly, as if I had nefarious intentions he needed to protect them from.
My smile hid the fact that I was gritting my teeth. “Because since I’m here, I want to say hi to my friends and family,” I managed to reply, proud of myself for not ending the sentence with dickhead.
“Soldiers and trainees are too busy to drop what they’re doing just because a visitor wants to chat,” Madigan stated crisply.
My fangs jumped out of their own accord, almost aching with my desire to tear the snotty expression right off Madigan’s lightly wrinkled face. Maybe some of that showed, because he followed that comment with, “I must warn you, any hostile actions toward me will be taken as an attack against theUnited States itself.”
“Pompous prick,” Don snapped, striding over to Madigan before stopping abruptly, as if remembering there wasn’t a single thing he could do to him in his current state.
A thread of warning edged into my furious emotions, Bones’s silent reminder for me to get control of myself. I did, forcing my fangs to retract and my eyes to return from sizzling green to their normal shade of medium gray.
“Whatever would give you the idea that I’d attack you?” I asked, making my voice as innocent and surprised as I could while mentally folding him into the shape of a pretzel.
“I might be new here, but I’ve extensively studied reports on your kind,” Madigan said, dropping his patronizing G-man façade to show the naked hostility underneath. “All of them show that vampires’ eyes change color right before they attack.”
Bones laughed, a caressing sound that was at odds with the dangerous energy starting to push at his walls. “Bollocks. Our eyes turn green for reasons that have nothing to do with intent to kill – and I’ve seen vampires rip throats out without the
slightest change in iris color. Is that the only experience you’ve had with vampires? Reports?”
The last word was heavy with polite scorn. Madigan visibly stiffened.
“I’ve had enough experience to know that some can read minds.”
“Shouldn’t concern you. Men with nothing to hide have nothing to fear, right, mate?”
I waited to see if Madigan would nut up and accuse Bones of prying into his mind during this conversation, but he simply adjusted his wire rim glasses as though their location on his nose was of prime importance.
“Your mom and the others will be done with training in an hour,” Tate said, the first words he’d spoken since we’d come into his office. “You can wait here, if you’d like. Madigan was just leaving.”
“Are you dismissing me?” Madigan asked with a touch of incredulity.
Tate’s expression was bland. “Didn’t you say right before Cat got here that you’d had enough of me for the day?”
Faint color rose in Madigan’s cheeks. Not embarrassment, from his scent spiking with hints of kerosene. Carefully controlled indignation.
“I did,” he replied shortly. “You’ll have those reports for me in the morning? I assume staying up the rest of the night should be no hardship for someone like you.”
Oh, what an asshole. My fangs did that let me at him! thing again, but this time, I kept them in my gums while also stifling the nosferatu green from leaping into my gaze.
Then Madigan turned back to us. “Cat. Bones.” He said our names like we should apologize for them, but I just smiled as though I hadn’t already eviscerated him in my fantasies several times by now.
“So great to meet you,” I said, holding out my hand again only because I knew he didn’t want to touch it.
He took it with the same faint pause he’d shown last time. I didn’t squeeze once I had him in my grip, but oh, it was tempting.
As soon as I let him go, Madigan swept out of Tate’s office, trailing a cloud of aftershave and irritation behind him.
“I’m following him,” my uncle said flatly. “And I’m not going back with you later, Cat.”
I glanced at Tate, who gave me a barely perceptible nod. In truth, I was relieved that he didn’t attempt to argue. Don could snoop on Madigan a hell of a lot more effectively than anyone else. Maybe Madigan was here because Uncle Sam was just being paranoid at a vampire in charge of an operation that hunted and concealed evidence of the undead. If so, Madigan would waste a lot of taxpayer dollars by scrutinizing this operation only to come to the conclusion that Tate was an outstanding replacement for Don. His record was spotless, so I had no fear of Madigan unearthing any skeletons in Tate’s closet – real or metaphorical.
But that wasn’t why I was glad my uncle was focusing more on Madigan than on finding his way to the eternal doorway for the other side. If Madigan had a more sinister reason for being here, Don could alert us faster than anyone else. I had faith in Tate, Dave, and Juan being able to get themselves out of here if Madigan’s dislike of the undead took a more menacing turn, but my mother, for all her bravado, just wasn’t as tough as they were.
And this wasn’t a regular building that she could just bust through a wall to escape from. The fourth sublevel was built to contain vampires against their will. I should know. I designed it back when I was capturing vampires so Don’s scientists could make a synthetic wonder drug called Brams. That drug, derived from the healing compound in undead blood, had kept several members of our team alive after they’d sustained grievous injury. Then Bones joined the operation, and Don got over his fear that raw vampire blood – far more effective in healing than Brams – would turn anyone evil who drank it. Bones donated enough of his blood for Don to parse out to injured team members as needed, and the vampire cells on the fourth sublevel had remained empty for years as a result.
But that didn’t mean they couldn’t be put back into use, if Don was right and Madigan was here for other reasons than a routine evaluation.
Or maybe I’d had so much shit happen lately that I assumed the worst about everyone now, whether I had valid reason to or not. I gave my head a shake to clear it. For all that Madigan pissed me off, it wasn’t too long ago that Don had had the same
prejudice about vampires. Hell, it was just eight years ago that I’d thought the only good bloodsucker was a dead bloodsucker! Yes, Madigan’s attitude screamed Suspicious Bureaucratic Bastard, but hopefully spending some time with Tate, Juan, Dave,
and my mother would make him realize there was more to supernaturals than what he’d read in the pages of classified murder reports.
“So, what do you think of him?” Tate drawled, that former tightness now gone from his tone.
“That he and I won’t be BFF’s,” was all I said. No need to say more when this room could be bugged.
Tate grunted. “I’m getting that vibe, too. Maybe it’s a good thing that…circumstances are what they are.”
By Tate’s careful allusion to Don’s condition, it was obvious that he too was taking no chances over our words being played back to Madigan later.
I gave a concurring shrug. “I suppose everything does happen for a reason.”
By the time Bones and I got in our car on our last leg home, it was only an hour before dawn. We could’ve gotten back to our Blue Ridge house quicker if we flew the whole way, but it was less flashy to keep our helicopter at the local private airport. Even though our nearest neighbor was over two dozen acres away, a helicopter coming and going tended to attract a lot more
notice than a car. The lower our profile in this area, the better.
Once in our car, however, Bones and I could speak freely. The first item on my To Do list after I got some sleep was to have the helicopter swept for bugs, and I didn’t mean of the insect variety. Madigan struck me as the type who’d consider it standard operational procedure to have listening and tracking devices planted on our chopper while Bones and I were at the compound. Hell, when I first started with the team and everyone worried that I’d turn to the dark side, Don had bugged my
vehicle and had me followed 24/7. It took my uncle years to trust me enough to drop the surveillance and wire taps. Something told me Madigan would take even longer.
“So what’s it like in his mind?” I asked.
Bones gave me a sideways glance as he navigated up the winding roads. “Murky. He clearly suspects my abilities and has fabricated a decent defense against them.”
“Really?” Madigan hadn’t struck me as having the exceptional mental fortitude necessary to prevent Bones’s mindreading, but guess that meant I’d underestimated him.
“He repeats rhymes nonstop in his head, making that the majority of what I hear,” Bones replied with grudging admiration. “Managed to pick up a few things past them, like how he believes dousing himself in cologne will negate a vampire’s ability to scent his emotions, and that he despised Don. The mere mention of your uncle’s name caused a spate of insults to appear in his thoughts.”
“Don didn’t seem too fond of him, either.”
I’d have to ask my uncle about their history the next time I saw him. Maybe it was as simple as rivalry over a woman; that had been enough to start the Trojan wars, after all. Still, as long as Madigan kept his actions above board now, whatever happened between him and Don in the past didn’t matter. Madigan thought my uncle was dead and gone. He didn’t know he was only right on one of those counts.
“He also deeply distrusts vampires, as you had guessed yourself,” Bones added. “Aside from that, all I heard was enough repetitions of “how many chucks could a woodchuck chuck” to make me want to stake myself.”
I laughed. Maybe underneath Madigan’s pompousness and prejudice, there lurked a sense of humor. That gave me hope. Pride wasn’t the world’s worst flaw and vampire prejudice could be overcome with time. But the lack of a sense of humor was an insurmountable defect, in my opinion.
“Makes me grateful my mind-reading skills were on the fritz earlier.”
Bones grunted. “Lucky you, pet.”
Since I’d made Bones’s blood my regular diet, I had more days where I could read humans’ thoughts than not, but every once in a while, that ability blinked out. I chalked it up to mindreading being a power Bones had only recently inherited
when his co-ruler, Mencheres, shared some of his formidable abilities through a blood bond. Too bad I didn’t also catch occasional breaks from my inner ghostly paging system, but then again, the spectral juju juice in Marie Laveau’s blood had had centuries to ferment.
At last, we turned onto the final gravel road that led to our house. Since it was at the top of a small mountain, it still took a few more minutes until we pulled into our driveway. Numerous ghosts lounged on our porch and in the surrounding woods, their energy making my skin tingle with a faint pins-and-needles sensation. Every head turned my way when our car came to a stop, but at least they didn’t rush me when I got out. I’d had to explain several times that while I appreciated their enthusiasm, only my cat was allowed to twine around me when I came back from an outing.
“Hello, everyone,” I said in greeting, turning in a circle to encompass the lot of them. Then I held out my hands, my signal that whoever wanted could do a fly through on them. At once, a steady streak of silvery forms came at me, my hands almost
burning from the multiple contacts the ghosts made with them.
This still felt like a very odd version of giving a group high five, but I’d come to discover that ghosts craved contact even though they passed through whoever – and whatever – they touched. And least my hands were a far more appropriate body
part for them to poltergeist than other areas that some of them had “accidentally” flown through. Implementing an automatic eviction order on any ghost who did a fly-by below the belt put a stop to those incidents.
Bones gave a sardonic snort as he strode past me into the house. I knew I wasn’t the only ones counting down the days until the voodoo queen’s borrowed powers faded from my blood. Even though he understood the reasons behind it, Bones liked a bunch different men and women zinging through my flesh about as much as I liked running into his countless former flings.
Once I was done with my unique form of saying hello, I went into the house, dropping my jacket onto the nearest chair. Bones’s voice stopped me from flopping my body there next, his English accent sharper with annoyance.
“Fabian du Brac, I trust you have a good reason for this?”
Uh oh. Bones didn’t use Fabian’s full name unless he was ticked, and there were only a few rules we’d set down when we agreed to let Fabian live with us. When I came into the living room, I saw which one of those rules Fabian had broken.
“Um, hi,” I said to the female ghost floating by Fabian’s side. She wore a dark, rather shapeless dress that did its best to conceal what must have been a Marilyn Monroe-like figure when she had skin, and her severe bun only highlighted how naturally beautiful her face was.
Bones didn’t appear impressed by the new ghost’s lovely visage. He continued to give Fabian a quelling look, dark brow arched in challenge. Fabian knew that only he and my uncle were allowed to float inside our home. We’d had to set some ground rules to protect our privacy, after all. Otherwise, we’d have ghosts trailing us from room to room, even following Bones and me into the shower or running a stream of commentary about our bedroom activities. That whole traveling through walls thing made most ghosts forget about what was appropriate and inappropriate behavior.
“I can explain,” Fabian began, throwing me a beseeching look over Bones’s shoulder.
“Allow me,” the female ghost replied in an accent that might have been German. “First, let me introduce myself. My name is Elisabeth.”
She dipped into a curtsey first to Bones and then to me as she spoke, her voice even despite her obvious unease.
Some of the tightness left Bones’s shoulders as he bowed in return while extending his leg in a manner that went out of style centuries before I was born.
“Bones,” he replied, straightening. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
I hid a smile. Bones might be able to snub Madigan’s extended hand without a second thought, but he’d always had a soft spot for women. I settled for giving Elisabeth a smile and a welcoming nod while I told her my name. Hey, curtseying wasn’t
something I’d ever done before, but I’d learn just to see Bones do that courtly bow again. He somehow managed to make even the formal gesture look sexy.
“Fabian did not think it wise to reveal my presence to the others,” Elisabeth went on, yanking my attention away from my musings. “That is why he bade me to wait inside for your return.”
She spoke mainly to me, though her gaze flicked to Bones more than once in mild consternation. Guess word had traveled that Bones was less than thrilled with my new popularity among the living-impaired.
“Why is it a big deal if the others know you’re here?” I wondered out loud. Sure, some of the ghosts might grumble about Elisabeth being inside when they’d been given strict orders not to breach the house’s walls, but it wasn’t every day that Fabian
enticed a hot babe to come home with him –
“I am considered an outcast by many of my kind.” The words were whispered so low, I almost wasn’t sure I heard her.
“An outcast?” I repeated. I hadn’t even known ghosts had outcasts. Jeez, looked like no group could totally get along no matter what side of the dirt they were on. “Why?”
Elisabeth squared her shoulders as she met my gaze. “Because I am trying to kill another ghost.”
Both my brows went up while a dozen questions sprang into my mind. Bones let out a low whistle before turning to give me a slight, jaded smile.
“May as well be comfortable to hear the rest of this, so why don’t we have a seat?”
Fabian nodded toward the curtained windows. “Perhaps you could arrange for more privacy first, Cat?”
Right. The other ghosts might not be able to see our new, enigmatic visitor, but if they floated too close to the house, they might accidentally overhear the rest of our conversation with Elisabeth. I sighed.
“Wait here. I’ll be right back.”
Once I’d politely insisted that all transparent persons vacate the premises for the next hour, I returned to the family room. Bones sat on the couch, a half empty whiskey glass in his hand. Vampires were one of the few who could honestly claim to drink for the taste since alcohol had zero affect on us.
Fabian and Elisabeth hovered in a sitting position above the couch opposite Bones. I sat next to my husband, tucking up my legs more for warmth than comfort. Predawn in the early fall at these altitudes meant chillier temperatures. If I didn’t hope
to be in bed soon, I would’ve started a fire. Luckily for me, my cat, Helsing, took my seated position as a cue to jump from his window perch onto the couch next to me. His furry body was like a mini furnace as he settled himself across my legs.
“So,” I said, drawing the word out while I gave Helsing a few scratches around his ears, “how do you two know each other?”
“We met in New Orleans several decades ago,” Elisabeth murmured.
“June, nineteen-thirty-five,” Fabian supplied before giving one of his sideburns a self-conscious rub. “I remember because it was, ah, unusually hot that year.”
I almost bit the sides of my cheeks to keep from laughing. Fabian had a crush on the lovely ghost! His lame explanation for remembering the exact month and year they met when ghosts didn’t even feel temperatures was topped only by the cow-eyed look he darted her way before schooling his features to faux blandness.
Yep, he had it bad, all right.
“Okay, you two have been friends for a while, but you’re clearly not here just for a social visit, so what brings you, Elisabeth?”
I assumed it had something to do with the ghost she wanted to kill, but if so, she’d be shit out of luck. For one, I wasn’t a contract killer of any species, and Bones had long since retired from that business himself. For another, I couldn’t even help my uncle willingly find a way to the other side. So offing a phantom was way outside my abilities even if I did have a sudden urge to go ghostbusting, which I didn’t.
She folded her hands in her lap, fingers twisting together. “Back in fourteen eighty nine, at the age of twenty-seven, I was burned at the stake for witchcraft,” she began softly.
Even though that was over half a millennia ago, I winced. I’d been burned before, and both times had been excruciating experiences.
“I’m sorry,” I said, and meant it.
Elisabeth nodded, not looking away from her hands. “I wasn’t a witch,” she added, as if that made any difference in the horrific nature of her execution. “I was a midwife who challenged the local magistrate when he accused a mother of deliberately strangling her baby with its own cord. The fool knew nothing of the complications that birthing often wrought and I told him so. Soon after, he sent for Heinrich Kramer.”
“Who was he?”
“A murdering bastard,” Bones replied before Elisabeth had a chance. “He wrote the Malleus Maleficarum, the Hammer of
Witches, a book responsible for several centuries worth of witch hunts. According to Kramer, anyone in a skirt was like as not to be a witch.”
So Elisabeth had been killed by a homicidal zealot with a serious case of misogyny. I knew what it was like to be singled out by a zealot, and that made me even more sympathetic toward her.
“I’m sorry,” I said with even more sincerity this time. “However Kramer bought it back then, I hope it was long and painful.”
“It wasn’t,” she said, bitterness edging her tone. “He fell off his horse and broke his neck instantly instead of being stomped on and left to suffer.”
“Not fair,” I agreed while thinking that at least Kramer would’ve gotten a taste of his own fiery medicine in hell.
Bones gave Elisabeth a long, speculative look. “Know quite a few details about his death, do you?”
Elisabeth met his gaze. In her half hazy state, her eyes were medium blue, making me wonder if they were as dark an indigo as Tate’s when she’d been alive.
“Yes, I’m the one who spooked his horse,” she replied defensively, oblivious to the pun in her words. “I wanted revenge for what he’d done to me, and to put a stop to the deaths of more women in the town he was traveling to.”
“Good for you,” I said at once. If she’d expected judgment, she hadn’t heard much about me. Or Bones. “Wish I could shake your hand.”
“Too right,” Bones said, raising his whiskey in salute.
Elisabeth stared at both of us for several seconds. Then, very slowly, she rose and floated over, holding out her hand to me.
I shifted self-consciously. Guess she didn’t know what a metaphorical statement was. Then I stuck out my hand, reminding myself that this was no different than all the other times I’d let ghosts pass through my flesh in greeting. But when her hand
closed over mine, that usual tingling feeling followed by my fingers poking right through her didn’t happen. Unbelievably, an icy cold grip squeezed back with the same firmness and consistency as my own flesh.
“Son of a bitch!” I exclaimed, jumping to my feet. My cat hissed and leapt to the side of the couch, miffed at being unseated.
Elisabeth suddenly stood before me in vibrant color, like she’d been switched from being broadcast in a fuzzy channel to high def. Her hair, which I’d thought had been a nondescript brown, shone with rich auburn highlights and her eyes were so deep blue that they looked like the ocean at midnight. Her cheeks even had a pink flush to them, highlighting a complexion that could only be described as peaches and cream.
“Bloody hell,” Bones muttered, standing also. His hand shot out to grasp Elisabeth’s arm, his expression mirroring my shock as his fingers closed around solid flesh instead of passing through vaporous energy.
“I told you some of my kind were stronger than others,” Fabian murmured from behind Elisabeth.
You weren’t shitting, were you? I thought numbly, unable to stop myself from squeezing Elisabeth’s very cold, very firm fingers just to verify once more that she was really solid.
But soon after I did, I felt a pop of energy in the air, like an invisible balloon had burst. Pins and needles broke out across my skin while the hand I’d been clasping simply vanished. In the next instant, Elisabeth’s appearance dulled back into
muted colors and the arm Bones had been holding melted under his grip, leaving his fingers curled – like mine were – around nothing more than a transparent outline of flesh that was no longer there.
“The longest I can merge into solid form is a few minutes, but it is very draining,” Elisabeth said, as if what she’d done wasn’t incredible enough. “Yet Kramer is stronger than I am.”
I felt like my brain was still playing catch up from everything I’d just witnessed. “Kramer? You said he died centuries ago.”
“He did,” Elisabeth replied with frightening grimness. “Yet every All Hallows Eve, he walks.”