A dead body on the beach turns out to be a live demon on the run from some of the nastiest bounty hunters in this dimension-or the next. Protecting one demon from another, Tess gets wrapped up in a case that's as dangerous as it is mind-boggling, especially when it begins to involve her own past.
I was in the middle of cleaning out my fridge when I heard growling.
Great. It's either a pit bull or a hellhound, and my gun is in the bedroom.
Currently, I was surrounded by pickle jars and other condiments, along with an impressive pile of soy sauce packets that I'd found hiding in the vegetable crisper. Nothing close to a weapon.
I heard the noise again. It was definitely coming from the living room. Could it be Mia? I wouldn't put it past her to be moving furniture at three a.m. But it didn't sound like furniture. It sounded like something with teeth.
I slipped off the pair of latex gloves that I'd been wearing and placed them gently on the counter. The bulb in the fridge needed to be replaced, and it flickered as I closed the door. Now the kitchen was dark.
I walked slowly down the hallway. The hardwood was cold on my bare feet, but I preferred it to carpet because the wood was more conducive to drawing materia. With each step I tugged a little at the strands of earth energy below me, unsnarling them, convincing them to flow upward into the reservoir that I was building. If I drew too much too fast, I could crack the floorboards, and I didn't have the money to replace them.
The growling returned. I didn't sense anything particularly demonic, but higher-tier demons could cloak their essence. I couldn't imagine why something that powerful would be here, but if it was, I had about three seconds to act before it vivisected me.
It seemed unfair, though. I was wearing an old pair of Derrick's boxers and my UBC sweatshirt. So much for a dignified departure.
The living room was dark. Nothing but shadows and corners.
I inched forward. I'd drawn enough materia by now to raise a bit of hell, but I still wasn't sure what direction to go in. Earthquake? If we survived, the repair bill would bankrupt us. A kinetic wave might knock the creature for a loop, but it would also blow out the windows, and we'd just installed new storm glass. There was only so much I could do without my athame, which I'd left on the nightstand. I really had to stop using it as a bookmark.
I moved my hand slowly along the wall, searching for the light switch. The growling started again, and my stomach clenched. The earth materia was buzzing in my ears. It was now or never. Time to look death in the face.
I turned on the light.
The room was empty. I swallowed. Something invisible? I couldn't feel anything. Why the hell couldn't I feel anything?
I took a step forward. I heard the growling again, this time closer. It seemed to be right next to me, but there was nothing there.
Don't freak out. Don't lose the power that you've drawn.
I took another step, until I was standing next to the coffee table. Silence. Something caught my eye, though. A winking green light. I looked down, and this time the low growl made me jump backward, it was so close.
My pager was inching across the table.
I'd left it on vibrate, and it was growling as it moved, inch by inch, about to fall off the edge. The message light blinked green.
I took a moment to let the adrenaline dissipate. Then I released the power that I'd been gathering, and it flowed back into the ground, warming my feet and the tips of my toes as it returned to its source.
I picked up the pager and looked at the screen. There was a 911 page from Selena Ward, my supervisor and the director of the forensics lab. I was in no mood to answer it, but I didn't have a choice. Working the night shift meant being perpetually on call, and we were short-staffed. It took so much effort to hide our investigations from the general public that we were always spread thin.
I walked back down the hallway and ran into Lucian, frozen in the act of putting on his shirt and stifling a yawn. The white lily tattoo on his neck seemed to glow slightly, as always. He handed me my athame, holding it gingerly by the handle, since the blade was hot.
"This woke me up," he said. "Then I felt the power that you were drawing. Was the fridge really so messy that you had to attack it with materia?"
I took the athame, which calmed down as soon as my fingers touched it. I didn't want to admit to Lucian that I'd nearly exploded my pager.
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Fair enough." He kissed me lightly on the cheek. "Time to go to work?"
"Looks like it."
"I'll make myself scarce, then."
"You don't have to leave. Just be quiet while I'm on the phone with her, and then you can go back to sleep."
"I was dreaming about you."
"Oh, yeah? What was I doing?"
"Building a model airplane. I think. Isn't that weird?"
"I never know what's weird anymore."
I passed him and ducked into the bedroom. My cell was on the dresser, and I dialed Selena's number while struggling into a pair of jeans. She answered before the phone could even ring.
"What took you so long? I paged you five minutes ago."
"My pager was in the other room." And I thought it was a hellhound. I decided to omit that. "Where do you need me?"
"Not just you. I need everyone."
I heard the door to Derrick's room open.
"Okay. Where are we going?"
"To the lab."
I blinked. "Someone died at work?"
"No. I need you all here for a debriefing. Get here as soon as possible. Do you know where Sedgwick is? I sent him a Teletype instant message."
There was a brief silence. Then I could practically sense her wry grin on the other end of the phone. "Fine. Just get everyone down to the lab." She paused. "That includes Lucian Agrado. If you can reach him at this hour."
Lucian was currently standing in the doorway, brushing his teeth. I put a finger to my lips. "Sure. I'll send him a text. He's probably still awake."
"I'll bet he is."
She hung up.
It was a matter of debate whether Selena knew about our relationship or not. If she did know, she seemed to have no interest in exposing us. Officially, he and I weren't supposed to be anything more than "colleagues," and even that was stretching it.
Unofficially, we'd been something else for nearly two years. Something largely unclassifiable. I wasn't sure that I could call it "dating," although we did see a lot of each other. Sometimes I felt like we were two ciphers trying to solve each other without any measurable success. Last year, he told me that he loved me, but he hadn't repeated the sentiment since then. We'd been arguing at the time, and I often thought that I'd misheard him. Maybe he'd really said You're crazy or Get away from me, and I'd merely heard whatever I wanted to hear.
That was the weird part, though. Of all the things that Lucian might have told me, I love you was never high on my list. I would have preferred to know anything about his past, where he'd been born, what his parents were like, or if Agrado was even his real last name. In retrospect, it was just about the least useful thing that he could have said.
Not that I wanted him to take it back.
"Can you hand me a hair elastic?"
Lucian walked over to where I was standing in front of the full-length mirror. He already had the elastic in his hand. "Here. It was under your athame."
"Yeah, that's where most things end up." I pulled my hair into something that resembled a lump, purely in order to get it out of my eyes.
Lucian put his hand on the back of my neck. His touch was cool. I shivered slightly, and paused, one hand raised, the other dangling at my side. I wanted to lean my head back, to settle myself into the crook of his neck. Instead, I turned around.
"You're coming with us."
"I know. That's why I was brushing my teeth."
"How did you know?"
He shrugged. "I just did."
"I can't imagine why she needs you there. It's not like you work for us."
"Please. I'm a highly sought-after consultant."
"You should be putting out fires in the hidden city."
"That's a job for those closer to Lord Nightingale. I'm only Seventh Solium. Let his favorites deal with whatever crisis is brewing."
"You won't get in trouble?"
"For what? Spending too much time here?" He put his hands on my shoulders. "Tess, I don't live in Trinovantum. I just work there. This is my home."
The city of Trinovantum was a diurnal melting pot for a number of demons, exiles, and other marginalized creatures who couldn't eke out a living (or undying) anywhere else. It was always night there.
I smiled slightly. "That's good to know."
"Besides. The food is better here."
"You don't miss the black watermelons from the night market?"
"No. They have a strange aftertaste."
Mia walked into my bedroom without knocking. "What's going on?"
She looked at Lucian. "You're going, too?"
"So it seems."
"What about Derrick and Miles?"
"Affirmative," Derrick called from the hallway. "We'll bring you back something from Timmy's if you want."
"You'd better." She sighed. "I guess I can study while I'm up."
"Have you ever tried just relaxing?" Lucian asked. "I've heard it's amazing. You can just turn on the TV and forget all of your troubles."
"I don't have time for that."
"Mia, you're sixteen." He spread his hands. "You've got nothing but time. Why don't you try goofing off for once?"
"I don't even know what that means." She walked out of the bedroom. "I'm going to wake Patrick up."
"Careful," I called after her. "He's all fangs at this hour."
"So am I."
If someone had told me three years ago that I'd end up taking care of two teenaged vampires—one latent, the other very much active—I would have said they were crazy. But it was amazing what you could adjust to, especially when you didn't have a choice. I didn't exactly feel like an occult soccer mom, but I liked to think that I wasn't a complete failure as a guardian. Derrick provided the unconditional love, and I tried to keep both of them from getting into too much trouble.
Aside from exposure to several homicides and a few brushes with death, their lives were proceeding more or less normally. If normal still applied to us.
Sometimes I forgot that Mia was, technically, a vampire, since she'd never exhibited any symptoms of the vampiric retrovirus. She'd been infected at thirteen as part of a vampiric political coup, which had failed, but still left her with the virus burning in her blood. The antiviral medication that she'd been taking for the last four years kept things in check.
She didn't talk about it much anymore, not since last year when she found out that drugs prescribed by the Central Occult Regulation Enterprise might also be dampening her latent mystical abilities. There didn't seem to be a practical way to prove this. Hey, try to burn the house down and see if it works wasn't the most motherly advice that I could give her.
Selena insisted that the medication, which resembled synthetic insulin, was designed purely to be an antiviral. But I saw the way that Mia looked at her EpiPen whenever I suggested she take her meds. She trusted it about as much as she trusted me. I was part of the CORE, and that made me suspect. I could hardly blame her. Most of the time I barely trusted myself.
I heard muttering coming from the hallway. Patrick had emerged, wrapped in a duvet and sporting some impressive bedhead. Mia now teased him ruthlessly about his chest hair, which had started to grow in as a perfect triangle. She called it Puppy, as in, Hey, Puppy's looking pretty fierce this morning.
It was mostly smoke and mirrors, though. Lately, I'd noticed a subtle difference in the way that she joked around with him. There was a prickly tension, along with furtive glances from both of them. The new dynamic made me nervous. When we'd first adopted Patrick, I was worried about anything romantic developing between them, but Mia had been barely fourteen then.
Now she was starting to notice things that she'd previously ignored. Like the fact that he was a cool glass of water with a killer smile. It was hard to tell where his vestigial human charm gave way to a captivating vampiric aura, and the last thing I wanted was for him to start hypnotizing her. Patrick was basically ethical, as much as a hormonal teen could be, so I trusted him up to a point. But I still wanted to install a dead bolt on Mia's door, even if it seemed a bit alarmist.
"Wow," I said. "She wasn't kidding about waking you up."
"In all fairness, most vampires aren't asleep at this time of night."
"Most vampires didn't inherit a resistance to sunlight. I can thank Caitlin for that, at least. She didn't tell me much before she died and passed on her title to me, but at least she gave me the gift of walking by day." He scratched his head. "Is there coffee? If I'm going to be conscious, there should at least be coffee."
"I'm sure Derrick's making some."
"I'm not a domestic," he called from the kitchen.
"But you're making some, right?"
A pause. "Yeah."
"So what's the deal?" Patrick blinked. "Did everyone in the house get called to the crime scene, or is it just mass insomnia?"
"Everyone got paged. Chances are we'll be gone until morning."
He shrugged. "That's fine. I have a geography test that I should probably be studying for. Do you have any idea what a caldera is?"
"You're asking the wrong person."
Patrick had decided to enroll at Capilano College, and I was secretly quite proud that he'd been admitted, although he rolled his eyes whenever I mentioned it. Like most first-year undergrads, he was majoring in Everything. At first, it made me ache a little to return to school, but I thought better of it once I saw the bill for his textbooks. I had a problem with shelling out two hundred bucks for a hardcover sociology text called Reflections. Luckily, Derrick was a whiz at finding used copies online, and didn't seem to mind visiting sketchy apartments in order to pick them up.
"I will never own a hot plate," he told me during the first week of classes, "and if you ever bring one into this house, I'll destroy it."
I suspected that Mia was helping Patrick with some of his homework, but I felt like I had to let it slide. He was already vampire magnate of Vancouver, and it was impressive that he managed to make it to school at all. I couldn't tell if he was opting for a normal life, or just trying to distract himself from the grim politics that he encountered on a nightly basis.
Sometimes I felt like a voyeur watching my own life through a window (possibly a bullet-riddled window), and all I could do was stare in amazement. I was about to turn twenty-eight, and I lived in a house with two preternatural teens and a psychic. My boyfriend had already come back from the dead once, and my goblin therapist was almost certain that I had PTSD.
The door to Derrick's bedroom opened, and Miles emerged, shirtless and wearing a pair of Canucks pajama bottoms.
"Nice jammies," I said.
His eyes widened. Then he blushed and practically ran for the bathroom.
I walked into the kitchen. Lucian was now fully dressed and sitting at the table, next to Mia. Both of them were staring at the coffeemaker expectantly. Derrick was rummaging around in the fridge.
"It's so clean. How much did you throw away?"
"About seventy percent of what was in there." I sat down. "I was going along at a nice clip, too, until my pager went off."
Lucian put his hand on my knee. "What's the plan for tonight? I can take a cab if you think we should arrive separately."
I shrugged. "We can just say we picked you up on the way. It shouldn't raise any eyebrows, and if it does, I'm too tired to care."
"Eventually you're going to have to tell her," Derrick said, closing the fridge. "I mean, she probably knows already."
"Selena's too busy to interpret subtext."
"That's fine." Lucian gave me a playful look. "I don't mind being your amor clandestino. It's hot."
"I hope you still think that when we're eighty, because it's never going to get any easier to come out to the CORE."
He grinned. "Do you think we'll still be together when we're eighty?"
"For all I know, you could be eighty already."
"Maybe I am."
"How does that work?" Mia asked. "I mean, do you have, like, eighty-year-old organs? Because that would be gross."
Lucian put his arm around me. "My father used to say that you're only as old as the woman you feel."
I made a face. "I'm not sure how to respond to that."
"Feminist ire?" Derrick poured the first cup of coffee. "Okay. I have no idea how to decide who gets this. Maybe you could all just make a case for who's the most deserving, and then we'll draw up some kind of chart."
Miles walked into the kitchen, now wearing jeans and a collared shirt. He adjusted his hearing aid, then smiled sweetly at Derrick.
"Is that coffee for me?"
Derrick looked uncertain for a moment. Then he handed Miles the cup, and everyone groaned.
"Unfair!" Mia pounded the table. "No special treatment for significant others."
This is a romance, Miles signed, not a democracy.
Derrick turned back to the coffee machine. "I think I can stretch the rest of this into two more cups. Maybe three."
"There's no time," I said. "Just fill up a travel mug, and we'll pass it around until we get to the Timmy's drive-through."
"Ugh. Haven't you heard of mononucleosis?"
"Have you heard of hysterical blindness caused by caffeine deprivation? Because that's what I'm about to experience, and I doubt you want me driving the new SUV into the opposing lane of traffic."
"Fine. But I'm not sharing saliva with everyone here."
He was about to say something else when his pager started buzzing. I heard my pager buzzing in the next room as well.
"Selena's getting cranky." I turned to Mia. "Did Patrick remember to put gas in the car?"
"How should I know? It's not like you ever let me drive it."
"I lent you the car last week."
"Yeah, so that I could go to an SAT workshop. You lend it to him every other day so that he can drive his vampire buddies around."
"Fine." I stood up. "We'll make a schedule. Something official-looking with Excel. Derrick, make a note of it."
"When did I become your PA?"
"You and Miles are the only ones who know how to use the computer for anything other than playing FarmVille. And Miles is a guest, so any scheduling duties naturally fall to you."
"That doesn't seem natural at all," he muttered.
"Well, you know us. Always pushing the definition."
"What are you talking about?" Mia smiled. "We're practically a nuclear family. The only difference is that we have powers."
"And some of us can read minds," Derrick said.
"Quick. What am I thinking right now?" Mia leaned forward. "It's not about you, and it's not something dirty. I promise."
His eyes narrowed for a moment. Then he shook his head.
"God. Why do I always fall for that?"
She laughed. "'Cause you're a sucker."
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