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New town. New job. New supernatural power. I reap the dead and there's plenty of work in Eerie Valley.
"Break on through to the other side," I whispered as I backed my old VW out of my driveway and onto Cherry Lane. The line was from an old song. One my parents often listened to.
After they died, I thought I understood what the words meant. Now, I wasn't so sure. Death had become something I'd grown accustomed to. Or, not really. It was more a familiarity with seeing the souls of the dead before sending them on to the other side.
Not so funnily enough, since becoming a reaper, I had more questions about death than answers. Like, were there pearly gates signifying the entrance to the afterlife? Did a person's spirit have to break through? Was there a welcome party of angels or those who went on before? Or, were the gates merely part of a fairy tale long told to keep the people in line?
Just that morning, I'd sent my very favorite neighbor, Ina, on to the afterlife. She'd been my first friend in Eerie Valley. And even though she died of old age, I would miss her terribly.
Before she left, I had a heartfelt yet sad talk with her spirit, where I shared that I was a reaper and that the power was newly acquired. She thought my gift was groovy and encouraged me to use it. She'd also suggested I check out some books on ghosts from the library, which I agreed to do if I got the chance. Then she'd given me her daughter's phone number and made me promise to call.
"I'm ready now," she'd said, thick emotion softening her voice.
"I'm so sorry," I'd replied, doing my best not to cry. She was one of a handful of people I liked in town. She saw me as few others did.
"Don't be. I lived a long, happy life. Everything will be fine, except …"
"What is it, Ina?"
"Will moving on hurt?" She'd looked only a little worried.
Either way, she was going, but I guessed she wanted to be prepared.
"Not at all." That was a lie because I didn't know. Past experience had shown me that the lie was more comforting than the unknown.
"Good." She'd reached for my outstretched hand. "I'll see you again someday," she said and was gone.
After that, I called the police and mentioned that Ina hadn't stopped by after her morning walk as usual. Two patrolmen found her body. The coroner revealed she died peacefully in her sleep. I'd given my statement and promised to call Ina's daughter. While I was on the phone with Beth, Ina's body was loaded into the truck and taken away.
While I drove through the neighborhood, thoughts of my elderly friend preoccupied my mind. As well as questions about death I wanted the answers to. Until my car went over a severe bump like I'd run over a rock or worse.
"What the hell?" I slammed on my brakes and checked my rearview mirror. There appeared to be a blanket on the road. It was midafternoon, the hottest time of the day, and a blanket seemed out of place, even if it was shiny. "Crap." I jumped out the driver's side door and ran over to whatever I'd hit.
I didn't know whether to be relieved or terrified when it started moving. Hopefully, the creature wasn't in too much pain. Squatting, I moved the material, preparing myself. To my relief and utter horror, a teen, probably sixteen or seventeen, was lying on his back and laughing.
"You're— Did I run over you?" I asked, knowing I sounded like an idiot. If I had run over him, he wouldn't have been laughing.
"Yeah, you did. But I'm fine." He hopped up, adjusting what I now could see was a cape. "Let's assess the damage." He pushed up the sleeves of his gray tee shirt before revealing his flat white stomach. "Oooh, there's tire tread marks. You got me good." As he spoke, his puckered and bloody skin mended so that it was smooth once again.
"You're a vampire," I said, remembering how Steve's wounds had healed the same way.
He eyed me, surprised. "You know about vampires?"
"It would seem so." Apprehension curled around my brain, warning me to be careful.
"Well, then you know I'm going to have to kill you." His gangly body was immediately on me. His fangs pressed into my neck.
The puncture wounds hurt but not too bad. It occurred to me I should be screaming. Or fighting to get away. But in the months since receiving my reaper ability and dealing with a kindred demon and then a Jorogumo, my reality had shifted in a big way.
"Hey," I said. "Knock it off, kid."
He growled and released me, wiping his mouth. "I'm not a kid, you bi—" He stuck out his tongue like he tasted something terrible. "Your blood is like drinking light. It burns." His eyes got wide, and he grabbed at his throat. "Shit. It burns. Are you made of battery acid?"
"It burns?" That was new, and I widened my eyes in shock at the changes in him.
"Good goddess, I'm dying. I can feel your blood killing me from …" He fell to his knees. One of his legs broke away from his body like a chunk of ice dropping from a glacier. He fell onto his side as his body shriveled and fell apart. "What are—" He couldn't finish before his bottom jaw tumbled onto the pavement. Pain clouded his red eyes, and then he was a pile of dust.
"What the hell?" I was beyond shaken. The vampire was gone. But he'd been someone's child at one point. And I'd killed him. With my blood. "What the hell?" I couldn't help the repetition. The shock caused my pulse to race and my heart to thud in my ears. I glanced around, hoping someone else had seen what had just happened. The whole incident felt unreal. But there was no one around except the vampire's ghost.
After what transpired with Steve, I wondered whether vampires would have spirits. This kid did. His ghostly form shook, and he wouldn't look at me.
"Hey," I barked to get his attention. "I can see you."
A glimmer of hope appeared on his face but quickly evaporated. "What do you want? To kill me again?"
I snorted despite the situation. "No, I'm a reaper. It's my duty to send you on."
"Reaper blood? That's how you murdered me." He wrung his hands together. "I can't believe it. I'd just started living."
The kid had some nerve. I didn't correct him or add that it could be my angel fire. I still wasn't sure how it worked. I hadn't used it since the Jorogumo fight and then healing Lucas and Kara. And I'd flat-out ignored what I'd seen with Aaron. That I was the blade. Because that meant I not only sent spirits to the afterlife once they were dead. I had the power to destroy as well. Like I'd done with the vampire in front of me.
"I'm not sure why drinking my blood caused you to die, but you wouldn't be dead if you hadn't tried to murder me first." Though it was the truth, it sounded trite. None of that mattered any longer. "I'm sorry," I added.
"You should be. There's a war coming. Soon enough, this town will be crawling with vampires, and every human within will die." He chuckled darkly. "You'll have your hands full reaping then."
I didn't know what to say to that. Was his threat legitimate or only bluster?
He floated over, so we were nose to nose. "I hope one of the old vampires sucks you dry before tearing you into little pieces and feeding you to the demons." He was angry. That made sense.
But I wasn't going to let him push my buttons. I needed to remember my police training and stay calm. "Demons, huh?" I forced myself not to shudder at the word. "Do you have any family you want me to contact?"
"Yeah, thousands of demons." He smiled, flashing crooked teeth. "I'm not from around here, and there isn't anyone alive who gives a shit about me anyway. Now send me on. I can't look at your ugly reaper face another second."
I nodded and touched his hand. "Hope the afterlife treats you better than this one."
He flipped me the middle finger as his spirit disappeared.
"Classy." Still shaken, I slid into the driver's seat and leaned my forehead against the steering wheel. Deep breath in. Out. Over and over until I didn't feel like I was going to pass out. The detective in me wanted to call the police, but there was no proof of what had happened. They'd think me irrational or seeking attention. Neither of which was true.
I checked my neck in the rearview mirror. There was blood, but the puncture wounds were already healed. As I put my car in drive and returned to the road, I thought about what Aaron had told me. That my reaper power came from the angels. I'd been injected with serum given to BITA. So, my insides possessed some angel DNA. Thoughts of what I'd done to the young vampire consumed me as I tried to figure out how my life had turned upside down.
I loved being a detective. Solving cases. But when it came to events involving demons, Jorogumo, and vampires? I gripped the wheel and ground my teeth together. Despite what I was and what I'd seen, that part of my life didn't feel real.
To my right, Dr. Riff Jordan was working on the perennials in front of his church. He waved when he saw my car. Reluctantly, I rolled down the window and waved back. Then wiped at the blood on my neck with a napkin. "Afternoon, reverend." The scent of his roses fluttered along the breeze, filling my car.
"It's Riff," he replied.
He didn't look like a Riff. He was definitely a reverend with his clergy collar tucked into his shirt. He had to be ninety, but in the right light, he appeared much, much younger. Hell, actually, in any light, he didn't seem a day over fifty. Yet, according to Ina, he'd been sermonizing at the church since before she could remember.
"Did you hear about Ina?" I lowered the volume on the soundtrack blaring through my car speakers and ignored the anxiety in my veins.
"I did. Very sad," he stated. "But I've spoken with her daughter. We have a meeting set up for tomorrow about Ina's services."
"That's nice. Will she be buried here?" I checked my mirror and saw several tombstones.
"She will. Her husband is here."
"Makes sense." I felt off. Like there should've been a red flag on my forehead with the word murderer on it. Sure, it'd been a vampire, but still.
"Mrs. Flannigan and Ms. Masters called to say they'd be willing to help with the food after the funeral."
"Her frenemies," I said quietly. "She wouldn't like that. They weren't close."
"Right. I'll talk to Ina's daughter about someone else catering."
He blinked slowly as though taking me in. Or thinking about something I couldn't understand. There was definitely something off about him. I could feel it in my bones.
"I'm sure Quill's Bakery would be happy to help." I'd only been inside the bakery a few times, but every morsel I'd tried had been fantastic. Not to mention, Ina would roll over in her grave if Mrs. Flannigan and Ms. Masters had anything to do with her funeral except paying their condolences and saying goodbye.
"That's who I was thinking too." He wiped his forehead with a cloth he pulled from his back pocket. "Beth will be staying at her mom's for a few days. You might want to go over and introduce yourself if you get a chance."
I nodded. "I will. Ina had the best stories. Plus, her baked goods were like snacking on pieces of heaven."
"They were delicious," he said, though not with the rapture I was feeling. "Now, tell me," he went on. "What's bothering you?"
Did he know I'd accidentally killed a vampire not five minutes ago? Apparently, my blood was murder.
My bottom lip trembled at those thoughts before I pressed them together. "Nothing, really," I said, glancing down at my shirt. I wanted to pick at a button but resisted.
"If you say so. But my door is always open for a talk if you change your mind." He gave a wry smile, but I sensed he would be a good listener. It was part of his job, after all.
"Thanks. I'll think about it."
"Good. Where are you off to this warm afternoon?" He tipped his extra-large straw hat up so I could see his eyes.
Though his face remained in the shadow of the brim, his eyes glistened with what seemed a hint of red. I squinted, trying to verify I'd seen what I saw, but it was gone before I could be sure.
It had to be anxiety that had me hallucinating.
"I have a meeting with Alice and Wrythe. The couple who started the private investigations agency." I didn't add that their business primarily catered to those cases of the supernatural persuasion. Not many people knew of such things. However, Ina hadn't been overly surprised when she found out what I could do. Not to mention some of the street names in Eerie Valley gave the impression that those who founded the town were familiar with the bizarre. Hell, the city's name suggested we lived in a strange place.
"Ah, yes. Mighty fine folks. I had dinner with them the other night, and they shared several insights I'll be using in my next sermon." He straightened, cracking his back, before leaning on the end of the rake.
It didn't escape my notice that he seemed perfectly comfortable with what Alice and Wrythe did, which made me doubt he knew the specifics of their business. I took a mental note of that as I admired his flowers. The man had a green thumb. Each bush and blossom seemed to flourish under his care.
"Are you going to work for them?" he asked.
I hadn't told anyone about getting fired from the police department, but it seemed everyone knew anyway. I shook my head. "Don't think so, but I should let them down in person, don't you think?" Those words didn't sit right, either. I'd met with Alice and her hulking husband twice already. Each time they talked about the position they were offering, including the money, which seemed like too much, and what I could start. I didn't need the money, thanks to my inheritance. But I could use my pay to open a wellness center or something. At least donate it all to a good cause.
Alice and Wrythe had also shared stats on satisfied clients they'd already worked with. But that wasn't why I kept going back. Strangely, I felt a connection to Alice. Like I knew her. Even though that was impossible. Because before a few months ago, I'd never seen her in my life.
Except that wasn't true. Aaron, the damned archangel, had said that I did know them. I snorted and pushed that aside. He said a lot of things without backing them up. Yet, I couldn't deny the bond between Alice and me. Nor could I deny what came with it, including a sense of power, excitement, and victory all rolled into one.
When I was around Alice, the world became less bleak. I felt better. Less out of sorts with my life. Peace enveloped me, and somehow I knew that if I told her about the dead vampire, she'd understand and maybe even have answers.
"In person is always preferable when letting someone down." The reverend smiled, flashing almost too pointy teeth. They reminded me a little of a vampire's teeth. Except that was impossible. He took a step toward me. "But if I might be so bold as to insert my opinion into your personal matters, I believe you working with Alice and Wrythe could be a blessing. Not only for you but for the town as well." He nodded like he'd revealed a new commandment, and it filled me with dread.
Along with his words and how he looked at me was the odd, almost terrifying sensation I got around him. The feeling seeped into my skin. Suddenly, I was nervous, and it took everything in me not to punch the gas pedal and speed away.
Again, I wondered if he detected the malevolence beneath our city or the influx of supernaturals congregating here. I'd perceived the changes. Most of the time, I successfully disregarded them, but they were getting stronger by the day.
I gripped the steering wheel tight. "Thanks for saying so." My gut told me he was right, but I was still holding out hope that Chief Collins would have a change of heart and ask me back. That was where I wanted to be. "I'll consider it," I added. Then waved again. "See you Sunday."
"Drive safely," he responded. Tipped his hat and went back to raking beneath the rose bushes.
Still thinking about what the reverend had said and what I'd done, I continued toward Alice and Wrythe's offices. After turning onto Supernatural Lane, their building came into view. Only one other car was parked in the lot. They still hadn't hung a sign above the entrance telling potential patrons who they were or what they did. Not that I blamed them for keeping what they did low-key.
I parked my old VW Bug in the space closest to the door. Got out. Locked my car and entered the building.
Alice and Wrythe stood behind the counter, preoccupied with something. Both of them appeared upset by whatever they were looking at. Like someone had stolen all their money or damaged property.
"Sorry I'm late," I said, stopping just inside the lobby.
They'd done a lot to the place since buying it. First and foremost, the mildew smell was replaced by cinnamon and vanilla. There was new paint on every wall and the ceiling. Faux leather furniture and area rugs anchored the room, along with glass tables and light-colored chairs with gold accents. There were also several plants near the windows, and even the puke-green carpet had been replaced with what appeared to be hand-scraped hardwood floors.
The artwork was strange, though. At first, I'd believed they were nothing more than inkblots. Each time I studied them left me with confusion. But this time, as I considered the one nearest me, the shape changed into a pair of wings. I closed my eyes, waiting for it to return to an indecipherable blob. But when I opened them, I could only see the wings.
Alice glanced up from whatever she was working on, barely covering her irritation before she spoke. "Hey, Faith. No worries," she said and then turned her gaze back to what I guessed was a computer screen. "Glad you came," she added.
Wrythe barely acknowledged me. His brows creased together in frustration.
"What's wrong?" I moved over to the counter, resting my arms on the white quartz countertop.
"It's this computer program," Alice said. "I did something, and now everything I've painstakingly entered the last two months is gone."
"Mind if I have a look?" I wasn't a computer wizard, but I'd helped more than one of my coworkers with issues in the past. Besides, Aaron had said Alice and I had been friends and friends helped each other.
"Sure." Alice stood, and Wrythe moved out of the way, letting me by.
I sat in Alice's leather office chair and rolled in close, looking over the program. It was one I'd used before. "Are you okay if I try to fix it?" I glanced back for approval. I wasn't positive I could, but if her work was already gone, it wouldn't hurt to try.
"Please," Alice said, her shoulders dropping with relief. "That would be amazing."
The program was touchy, but I knew what to do. "Let's see." I clicked on one of the cells. Then right clicked to verify my hunch was correct. Then pressed the control button and the plus button at the same time. Immediately, the cells were filled with the information once again. Words appeared one after the other, and I guessed they were notes about cases. One word, in particular, caught my attention and caused my stomach to turn. Vampires. I sucked in a breath, thinking of Hikari and Steve and the vampire I'd killed as I continued to read. According to the summaries, there had been multiple deaths in Los Angeles in the last few weeks and an influx of fairies in the area.
I continued to peruse when the top field populated, and I froze. It was a case involving an America's Miss Beautiful contestant. I recognized the name. She represented Miss Nevada. The death was ruled a suicide, but her parents didn't believe it. They swore they saw a ghost near her body …
"You did it," Alice said, leaning over my shoulder. "Thank you."
"No problem." I stood and pushed out of the way. With her so close, there was electricity between us. It wasn't anything lustful or romantic. On the contrary, it was more like she was my sister or best friend.
"You're a genius," Wrythe said, his baritone voice filling the space around us.
"I'm not," I replied, waving the compliment away. "I'm just glad I could help." I went back to the other side of the counter.
"Have you come to accept our offer?" Alice asked, beaming.
Everything in me demanded I say yes, but when I opened my mouth, all that came out was, "No."
"What? Why?" Alice's face fell. "We need you," she added.
"Alice is right," Wrythe said, placing a hand on either of her shoulders. He was a good foot taller than her and twice as wide.
"I'm sorry," I said, backing away. What was wrong with me? I did want to find out what had happened to the America's Miss Beautiful contestant. And from what I'd read in their notes, they might have information about the vampires and a possible war.
The door opened. I turned and was stunned to see Kara walk in, looking haphazard. Her honey eyes were pinched with worry, her clothes were rumpled and dirty, and several of her usually perfectly manicured nails were broken and jagged.
It'd been a full moon last night. She'd obviously just returned after shifting into her werewolf self. Had she seen something? Kara was also psychic. Or had she killed someone? There was no reaper pull nearby.
"Faith, do you work here?" She sucked in a huge gasp. "I need help. My ex-husband is after me."
I wasn't sure whether it was that I was overly freaked about the vampire I'd killed because of my blood. That Ina had died that morning. Or, the fact that Kara had caught me here, but I bolted. For whatever reason, I clamped my teeth together and, without a word, pushed passed her and outside.
As I took off toward home, I knew I was running, but I couldn't imagine why. Tears filled my eyes and spilled down my cheeks. "What the hell is wrong with me?" I was pissed at myself for bailing on Alice and Wrythe, but especially Kara. "I do want to work for them. I do. And Kara needs my help. Get yourself together, Faith!"
I pulled off the road and slammed on the brakes for the second time in thirty minutes. "This is ridiculous," I said to my reflection in the rearview mirror. Though my pulse pounded in my veins, I knew what I needed to do.
Skipping out on helping Kara would haunt me for the rest of my life. Not to mention I was supposed to work for Alice and Wrythe. Even the damned reverend believed that.
Was there even another option? Could I run or, more specifically, drive away from where I was meant to be? After several long moments, I checked for cars and turned around. Letting Kara down was out of the question. Same with Alice and Wrythe.
After parking next to Kara's BMW, I hurried to the door. Yanked it open and rushed into the lobby. Relief washed over me. Yep, I'd made the right decision.
Kara, Alice, and Wrythe were seated to my right. Three sets of eyes found mine. Alice smiled.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I don't know what came over me." I met Kara's gaze, hoping she was in a forgiving mood.
Kara studied me a moment, and I held my breath. If she remained mad for months, I wouldn't blame her. So, I waited.
Finally, she gave me a nod. "Well, get over here, and I'll fill you in." She patted the seat on the sofa beside her. She had already forgiven me.
"It's nice to have you back," Alice said as her smile widened.
"I know Kara is your friend, but she is also a client," Wrythe said. "Are you here officially?" He pinned me with his startling gray eyes.
"Yes," I said, and I meant it. For the first time in two weeks, I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. "What's going on?" I asked. "I thought Julian—your ex—was …" I paused, glancing at Alice and Wrythe. Did I want to finish the sentence?
"He isn't dead," Kara said, rolling her eyes. "He's been in New York working as an architect, as far as I know. Except now …" She glanced down at her hands, picking at one of her nails. "My damn werewolf ex wants to mate with me. He wants an heir. But I'd sooner die than allow him to raise our child in his archaic ways."
"I couldn't agree more," I said, flabbergasted. Obviously, Kara, Alice, and I had a lot to discuss.
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