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On the day of Alex Forrester’s funeral, the sun gleamed high in the sky. I wanted it to rain, if only to prove that the heavens really opened to mourn our tragedies and the friends we lost. Instead, the sunshine mocked our grief from on high, watchful and seeing nothing.
It was a simple affair in a small cemetery five miles outside the city, orchestrated within a day of the offi- cial death declaration. We had no body, so there was no casket—it’s damned hard to find the ashes of a half-Blood vampire amid the rubble of an apartment fire. But his father, Leo Forrester, wanted a small memorial. He needed to believe his son was at peace, even though Alex had died at war with himself. And what better way to offer postmortem peace to the dead than with an ancient burial ritual meant to comfort the living?
I wanted the comforting commiseration of rain as I followed Leo through the cemetery, but rain would have revealed me to the prying eyes of people who still thought me dead. We were all safer for the deception, Wyatt had insisted, and I agreed.
A sleepy minister already hovered next to the simple marble marker, laid flat on the earth. “Alexander Forrester, Beloved Son, Best Friend,” above the years in which he was born and died. It was all we could afford. Part of me wanted something grander to show he’d been here and touched our lives. The other part of me knew this was enough, maybe more than was necessary, and not to waste good money on sentimentality.
Especially with me and Wyatt both out of jobs.
Leo stopped across the marker from the minister. Wyatt Truman, my partner and constant companion, flanked his left side as we had agreed. I shifted to Leo’s right and brushed his elbow to indicate my presence. The minister acknowledged the two men with a nod and began to recite a prayer. He wasn’t ignoring me. Thanks to an orange crystal shard and a bargained favor from a human mage named Brutus, the minister couldn’t see me. No one could, due to the invisibility spell contained in the crystal.
I tuned out the words of the prayer and closed my eyes. I reached up and held the plain silver cross looped around my neck on a thin chain—a gift Alex had once given to his best friend Chalice. I tried to picture Alex’s face in the short time I’d known him—friendly blue eyes, broad shoulders, an innocent smile that didn’t belong on a twenty-eight-year-old medical student. I caught the memory and enjoyed it briefly until another superimposed itself. Hair mottled with silver and iridescent eyes, baby fangs that had punctured his lower lip. Sniveling and crying and begging me to kill him.
And I had, a little over a week ago. I’d shot him in the back of the head. Just another on the long list of sins I’d never atone for.
I wanted to cry, but I had no tears left to shed.
No, that was a lie. I’d mourned Alex as best I could, and I was sick of crying. It was time to stop punishing myself for Alex and move on with my life. The life I wanted to start with Wyatt. Burying Alex, putting this chapter of my afterlife behind me, was the first step.
“. . . and I will dwell in the house of the Lord. Amen,” the minister said.
I opened my eyes and stepped back, barely missing Leo’s elbow as he reached out to shake the minister’s hand. It was over that quickly. A few mourners, a smattering of words, and the well-wishes of a man who didn’t know us or the dead man he’d just prayed over.
Rituals were so odd.
The minister hustled off, probably racing away to his next gig of offering empty comfort to those willing to pay him for it. Once he was out of earshot, I said, “That was nice,” and could have smacked myself for it. It was a stupid thing to say.
“It was,” Leo said. He turned, seeking a face he couldn’t see, and fixed his attention on Wyatt instead. It was probably easier to have a conversation with an invisible person when you had a visible one to look at. “That’s it, then.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Leo removed his wire-rimmed glasses and wiped the lenses on the corner of a wadded tissue. His eyes were red. He seemed to be choosing his words as he cleaned the glasses, then returned them to the bridge of his nose. “Simple words for a simple fact, Evy,” he said. “I’ve buried the last of my family. I have no home. That’s it for me.”
I put my hand on his shoulder. He jumped under the unexpected touch but didn’t pull away. He seemed to easily accept the notion that I was invisible and yet standing right next to him. We’d talked yesterday for hours. Well, I’d talked for hours, feeding him details of my old life as a Dreg Bounty Hunter, the circumstances of my death and resurrection into the body of a woman who happened to have magical teleporting powers, and Alex’s brave and tragic desire to help me, all the way through my second “death” in a factory fire last Saturday. All in all, he was handling his newfound education with amazing aplomb.
“Those of us who survive owe it to our loved ones to make our lives count,” I said. Words I’d come to believe in more and more since the violent deaths of my former Triad partners, Jesse and Ash, two weeks ago.
But my disembodied words didn’t sink in. I considered removing the crystal from my jeans pocket and speaking the phrase meant to reverse the magic early, before its six-hour time limit wore off. I could force Leo to look me in the eye, get him to understand why he had to keep going.
But training won out over emotion. All but five people in the world thought I was dead—burned to death in a factory fire started, on purpose, to kill me—and I couldn’t risk exposing myself. I had more enemies than allies now, and that meant preserving every advantage I could find. Being dead had worked in my favor once before.
Besides, I couldn’t possibly hope to understand Leo’s perspective. I knew much of his story—enough to realize he would never get to ask Alex’s forgiveness for past sins, and that was eating him up inside. A son had died blaming his father. No, I couldn’t relate—not to that—but perhaps Wyatt could.
Wyatt had, after all, been the unwitting pawn in the game that had killed my partners, killed me, then brought me back only to further a plot to unleash an ancient demon on the world. He’d once destroyed the life of one of his former Hunters in a misguided effort to save it, and that Hunter had returned with a vendetta that led to the deaths of sixty-four people. So many unforgiven sins.
“I’m fifty-six years old,” Leo said. “I can’t see making my life count for much of anything now.”
“You can stay in the city and help us.” I ignored the strangled sound Wyatt made from somewhere behind me. “I can use all the allies I can get.”
Leo shook his head, the lines around his mouth deepening in a frown. “No, I don’t think I can do that. I’ve accepted what you’ve both told me about the things in this city, but I don’t want any part of it.”
I guess he still wasn’t over shooting a jaguar that had morphed into a naked man. I had mental images of him ending up drunk in a gutter, dead of alcohol poisoning, gnawed on by stray animals. I wanted more for him than I’d been able to do for his son.
“Your motel is paid up for another couple of days,” Wyatt said.
Leo nodded. “I appreciate that, but—”
“Someone’s coming,” Wyatt said. He’d twisted his head around to look behind him. From the direction of the cemetery’s narrow road, a man strode toward us. He was lean, of average height and looks, with a narrow nose and wild, curly hair sporting more gray than brown. Older, in his mid-forties by the looks of him, he walked with the tired gait of someone who’d seen too much. Probably a cop.
“I’m on your right, Leo,” I said softly. I maintained proximity while staying out of his way if he turned suddenly. I didn’t want to try to explain Leo’s elbowing an invisible obstacle, or the splat in the grass I’d make if I fell.
The stranger smiled pleasantly as he approached, both hands tucked into the pockets of his khaki trousers. He wore a blue collared shirt without a jacket, sleeves rolled up in the day’s heat. Wyatt tensed and took up a defensive position between the stranger and Leo, hands loose at his sides.
“Mr. Leo Forrester?” the man asked, looking right past Wyatt. His voice was pleasant enough, nondescript and polite.
“Yeah,” Leo said. “Why?”
The stranger’s already gentle expression softened further, as though Leo’s gruffness demanded he pour on the honey, only it didn’t seem to be an act. “I’m truly sorry for your loss, Mr. Forrester.”
Leo grunted. I smiled and could almost hear Wyatt’s internal monologue—wondering who had the potential to be ruder, me or Leo.
“And you are?” Wyatt said, asking the question on all our minds.
“Apologies,” the man said. “My name’s James Reilly. I’m a private investigator, Mister . . . ?”
“Mr. Truman.” Reilly offered his hand, the same affable smile firmly in place.
Wyatt observed Reilly’s hand. I couldn’t see his face, but the tilt of Wyatt’s head hinted at what was probably his own special brand of distrust mixed with interest. “A P.I., huh?” he said, giving Reilly’s hand a brief, loose shake. “What are you investigating, Mr. Reilly?”
“Real estate, mostly.”
“Looking into a plot of your own?”
“Oh no, not that sort of real estate. I’m more interested in apartment buildings.”
And he’d come here on the day of Alex’s funeral. Alarms clanged in my head. This guy had to be investigating the building where Alex had “officially” died. The fire that had consumed the entire fifth floor of a low-rent apartment building had been ruled an accident, or so all the official reports said. But that never squelched speculation. Especially when the fire had actually been set by a were-osprey intent on revenge for his slaughtered Clan, and Alex had been long dead by the time the blaze began.
“I haven’t got one to sell you,” Leo snapped. He stepped forward, across the marker, and stood shoulder to shoulder with Wyatt. “If you don’t mind, I just buried my son.”
“I realize this is bad timing, Mr. Forrester, and I apologize,” Reilly said. The words were scripted, but the delivery was genuine. Annoying. “But police were called to your son’s own apartment three times in the last nine days, with one of those calls coming a day after he died. I’m sure you agree that those facts are a bit strange— especially the third call.”
“He had a roo—”
I kicked Leo in the calf before he could blurt out the word “roommate.” His right leg buckled, and he stumbled a bit before catching himself. Reilly’s eyebrows arched into twin peaks.
“Are you all right, Mr. Forrester?” he asked.
“Leg cramp is all. Old injury, it’s nothing.”
“You were saying he had a what?”
Leo stayed silent. He was smart enough to recognize when discretion was needed, but not a good enough actor to come up with a better lie on the spot. He chose a blank stare.
“Do you have to ask your questions now?” Wyatt asked, affecting a nice snarl. It was almost protective.
“Again, I do apologize for the venue,” Reilly said, “but Mr. Forrester is a difficult man to find.”
“Side effect of being homeless,” Leo said.
Reilly’s genuine sympathy and nice-guy attitude were starting to grate on my nerves. People just weren’t that kind. “I’ll be brief, I promise,” he said. “You see, I spoke to the leasing agent at your son’s building, and the very helpful Ms. Young said she was sure that two names were on the lease. However, computer records only showed Alexander’s name, and the hard copy was missing several pages. The ones with the signatures on them, as a matter of fact.”
Leo didn’t have to fake his confusion. “So? Maybe this mysterious second name moved out?”
“Perhaps. But, you see, I also spoke with the young couple next door in 505. They’d been neighbors the entire two years Alexander lived in the apartment, and Mrs. Gates told me he lived there with a pretty brunette named Chalice.”
“Probably his girlfriend,” Wyatt said.
“Mrs. Gates didn’t think so. Her daughter, Angie, claimed to be good friends with Chalice Frost. She said they shared secrets.”
Angie was the little girl I’d met in the elevator. The inquisitive child had given me a spare key and let me into a strange woman’s apartment on my first day of resurrection. A meeting that was coming back around to bite us in the ass, and I was helpless to direct the conversation.
“What sort of secrets does a child have?” Leo asked.
“You know, I asked Angie the same question in slightly different words. She said girl secrets.”
“Fascinating,” Wyatt drawled.
“Yes, it was, actually,” Reilly said, completely missing Wyatt’s sarcasm. He was either doing it on purpose or was denser than he looked. My money was on the former. “I asked Angie when was the last time she spoke to Chalice, and she said Tuesday last week, around dinnertime. She said Chalice was wearing funny clothes and had forgotten her keys somewhere, so Angie gave her a spare.”
“A lot of things can explain a woman coming home wearing strange clothes.”
“Yes, they can.” Reilly seemed pleased with himself, and I realized Wyatt’s verbal flub. “It also seems to confirm that Chalice did indeed live there with Alexander, which is why I’m here. I’m trying to find Chalice, so I can ask her a few questions.”
“Have you tried the phone book?”
“I have, but the apartment number was listed under Forrester. And as I said, computer searches bring up nothing. Mrs. Gates wasn’t sure where Chalice worked, so I dead-ended there.”
“Why don’t you ask one of your cop friends to let you into the apartment to sniff around?”
Wyatt and I both knew the answer to that one. The Triads had gone in not long after the were-cats attacked me and Leo there and cleaned house. Removed belongings, furniture, carpet, scrubbed the place down, and done it efficiently to remove all traces of what had happened. Nothing remained for Reilly to find.
He gave an answer, though, that I didn’t expect. “I would have, Mr. Truman, but I’m new to the city. I’m still making connections here.”
Someone from the outside brought in to investigate the fire?
Reilly switched his attention to Leo. “Is there anything you can tell me about Chalice, Mr. Forrester? Anything your son might have mentioned?”
Leo paused—a perfect tell for anyone who knew how to spot them. And Reilly struck me as much brighter than he let on. I considered becoming visible and scaring the shit out of him—an amusing fantasy I had no real inclination to enact. Keeping my cover was more important.
“I never met Chalice,” Leo finally said. “Alex and I . . . we didn’t talk much. I came to the city hoping to fix things, but I was too late. Missed my chance.”
“But you’re still here.”
“Like I said, I’ve got nowhere to go.”
Reilly nodded, then shifted his attention. “And you were a friend of the deceased, Mr. Truman?”
Wyatt didn’t even blink; he’d probably been rehearsing his story from the moment Reilly walked over. “Alex and I were pals in elementary school. We even liked the same girl on the playground once.”
“Which school was that?”
A deep frown creased Wyatt’s forehead. “It was twenty years ago, halfway across the state,” he said, doing a great job of appearing deep in thought.
“Mancini Elementary, wasn’t it?” Leo asked.
“Yeah, that was it.”
“Of course,” Reilly said. “I’m sorry, Mr. Truman, but I didn’t catch your first name.”
“That’s because I didn’t give it to you.” He said it matter-of-factly, no hint of confrontation or ire. It could have been a joke between friends, and Reilly seemed to take it as such. The man was inscrutable.
“Right. I don’t suppose you can shed any light on this mystery girlfriend, or where I might find her?”
I bit down on my lower lip, mostly to keep in an amused snort. If he only knew how close he stood to the mystery girl, he’d shit his shorts. I hated snooping into a conversation in which I couldn’t participate.
“Like I said,” Wyatt replied in a mimic of Leo’s earlier comment, “I hadn’t seen Alex in twenty years. I heard he died, so I came to support his dad.”
Reilly reached into his jacket. I tensed, but instead of a weapon, he produced a well-thumbed notebook and nub of a pencil. He flipped through scribbled-on, dog-eared pages until he found a clean one near the end, then wrote what looked like gibberish. I couldn’t scoot around to read over his shoulder—I might be invisible, but my feet would still imprint on the grass, and my jeans would whisper my presence. Couldn’t risk it around someone so used to noticing tiny details.
“I apologize for taking your time,” Reilly said for the umpteenth time. Someone who apologized so much needed to work in a confessional. He tucked the pencil nub behind his ear, then thumbed back a few pages. “Just one more question, and I’ll leave you be.”
“Which is?” Leo asked.
“I’ve been equally unsuccessful at locating someone else involved in the fire that killed your son, Mr. Forrester. The man whose apartment was the source of the blaze—a man named Rufus St. James.”
I grunted before I could stop myself. Reilly’s head snapped to the space between Wyatt and Leo, right where I stood. He seemed to look me directly in the throat for a moment, then down. At my feet. I followed his gaze.
The creepy thing about the invisibility spell was that I was not only cloaked from other people, I couldn’t even see my own damned self. Not my own hands or legs or feet. Just the four vaguely flat patches of grass where my boots’ heels and soles pressed down. I kept still and held my breath.
“Don’t know him,” Leo said.
Reilly pulled himself out of it and looked up. “And you, Mr. Truman?”
Wyatt shook his head. “I wish I could help you out. Have you tried the hospitals, or local motels?”
“Yes, I have, actually, but thank you for the suggestions.” Reilly shook both of their hands briefly, then turned and strolled back toward the narrow road where his car was likely parked.
No one spoke until he was well out of earshot.
“That was bizarre,” I said.
Leo jumped a mile, hand flying to his heart. “Christ, I forgot you were there.”
“This is just what we don’t need,” Wyatt said. “Some glory-hungry P.I. poking around, asking questions.”
“We’ve dealt with them before,” I said. With all the strange events that happened in the city on a daily basis, someone was always asking the wrong questions. Trying to dig up an explanation for misshapen, rotting bodies that didn’t look human. Rag reporters looking for answers to questions they were better off not asking, until the Triads politely instructed them to shut the hell up.
I’d always hated threatening civilians, but the alternative was allowing them to ask the wrong question of the wrong person and end up dead. Or worse. And contrary to popular opinion, there are things worse than death.
“Yeah, but back then we weren’t freelance, remember?” he said.
“He seems harmless enough,” Leo said.
“Yeah,” I replied, “and so does a rose until it stabs you with a thorn.”
“People stab themselves on thorns.”
I started to retort, but words failed me. Good thing he couldn’t see my expression. I imagined it was full of priceless confusion.
“Regardless,” Wyatt said, “I don’t like that he’s asking around about Chalice or Rufus.”
“So report him to the Triads and be done with it,” I said, not much liking the idea but unable to offer an alternative. Investigating private investigators wasn’t my idea of a fun afterlife.
He sighed and dug his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “Guess we should go.”
Leo gave his son’s marker another look, then turned awkwardly and walked back to the cars; his was parked in the lane in front of Wyatt’s. We didn’t speak, which suited me fine. Dozens of thoughts whirled through my mind—questions about what was next for us, with Wyatt stuck in some sort of limbo with the Triads, not really fired but not allowed to just quit, and me dead (again). The city was still picking up the pieces after the Parker’s Palace massacre, and people were asking questions. Headlines reported everything from a massive gang initiation to a gas leak that made everyone inside the theater go mass-murder crazy.
Everything we’d dedicated our lives to protecting was starting to crumble.
A tremor vibrated through my feet, into my legs, all the way to my chest. I faltered. Stopped walking. The vibration was so faint, I was certain I’d imagined it. Like the gentlest of earthquakes, it was there and gone in seconds.
“Whoa,” I muttered.
“Did you feel that?” Wyatt asked. He’d stopped an arm’s reach from his car and was looking at a point just past my head, but close enough.
“Yeah, I felt it.”
“Felt what?” Leo asked.
“Small earthquake, just now. You didn’t feel it?”
He wasn’t lying. I saw it in his face. So why had Wyatt and I felt it?
“Probably nothing, then,” Wyatt said.
I scowled but didn’t press. It wasn’t something to discuss in front of Leo.
“I suppose I should get going,” Leo said. “No use in hanging around here all day when I’ve got miles to make.”
My heart sped up. As much as I didn’t want Leo to stay so I would worry about his safety, I also didn’t want him to leave. He’d saved my life and kept my bizarre secret. I’d never known my own father, and while Leo had a truckload of faults, in the end he’d loved his children.
He’d also never be safe in my world. We’d talked about it for long hours and, finally, agreed that leaving the city was the lesser of two evils.
“Wish I could see your face to say good-bye.”
“It’s not safe,” Wyatt said.
I could have punched him in the arm for that, but refrained. “You don’t have to go,” I said. But we all knew he did.
Leo looked in my direction. I shifted so at least I knew he was looking me in the eye. “Thanks for being his friend,” he said. “You did more for him than I ever could.”
The irony in his statement struck like a fist. As his father, Leo had given Alex life. As his friend, all I’d done was take it away from him. I’d introduced him to my horrifying, painful world, then to death.
I touched his face. Leo flinched from the unexpected contact, then relaxed. I wanted to hug him but didn’t. I had to let him go, and quickly. “Good-bye, Leo. Take care of yourself.”
“You, too, Evy Stone.” He gave my invisible form a wide berth, then shook Wyatt’s hand. “You take good care of her.”
“I will if she lets me,” Wyatt said.
This time I did swat him on the shoulder. The blow rustled the fabric of his shirt. Somehow he caught my hand in his and gave it a gentle squeeze. The way his fingers curled around air, even though I felt the warmth of his touch, looked a bit ridiculous.
Leo’s mouth quirked in a wistful smile. His plan was to leave the city and drive north, past the mountains. There were some nice towns up there. I hoped he found the fresh start he wanted. He climbed into his car. The engine gurgled to life a moment later. We watched him navigate the narrow road that wound through the cemetery, until his car was out of sight.
“That wasn’t an earthquake, was it?” I asked.
“Not a normal one, no.” Wyatt squeezed my hand again, let it go, and then unlocked the car door. “That wasn’t from the ground, Evy, not the tremor I felt. It came from deeper than that.”
“What do you mean?” I slid across the bench into the passenger seat.
He climbed in and slammed the door shut, mouth drawn and face pinched. I hated that look. “It wasn’t external. It was an internal tremor that only you and I felt—two Gifted people, Evy. I think something’s happening at First Break.”
From the Paperback edition.