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“Okay. I’m ready. Give me a leg up.”
With my right leg bent at the knee, foot poised in the air, and my fingers grasping the brick ledge below the broken window, I turned just enough to fire a withering glare at my partner. “Hank! A little help here?”
He didn’t budge.
My eyes narrowed to slits as he stood there frowning at me like usual. I shook my foot at him and reached higher, my arm and shoulder muscles burning. “Oh, just forget it,” I muttered, dropping my hands from the ledge and hopping back, giving my partner a push toward the window. “You’re taller, you try.”
A dark blond eyebrow rose, and he shifted his weight onto one foot. Two seconds passed before he let out a dubious sigh and graced the world with his rich baritone. “I’m going to take a wild guess, Charlie, and say the chief doesn’t know about our afternoon detour.”
I glanced at the derelict parking lot, forcing down a shiver. “Your powers of observation are mind-blowing.”
“I have been called ‘mind-blowing’ once or twice,” he said, completely ignoring my sarcasm as he removed a few chunks of broken glass from the bottom window frame.
“Once or twice, that’s all?” I teased. “Wouldn’t go around admitting that if I were you. Might give all sirens a bad name.”
He shot a glower over his shoulder. “I was trying to be modest. Now, if you want to get technical, the number is quite—” The light atop the corroded steel pole behind us blinked out with a loud electrical buzz.
Five seconds passed in darkness.
The unusually mild December wind sent brittle leaves dancing like skeletons over the concrete parking lot. The echoes of their skip and scratch made the warehouse district seem even more desolate and remote despite the distant sounds of Atlanta’s midday traffic. “Let’s just get in and get out. This place gives me the creeps.”
The light sizzled back to life, illuminating the heavy gray clouds undulating above us like white-water rapids in slow motion. Occasionally a bottle-green flash would light up the sky—silent and strange—each burst never quite the same. I frowned, wondering if I’d ever get used to the darkness that hung above the city for the last two months.
“Why the hell did Ebel-whatever-his-name-is lock the place back up?” Pieces of glass hit the concrete and shattered into small bits as Hank finished clearing the window.
“It’s Ebel wyn,” I said. “And I doubt he was thinking straight. You know … saw dead body, ran, locked the door behind him. That’s what real estate agents do; they lock the door behind them. Creatures of habit, I guess.”
“Could’ve told him to meet us here with the key.”
“I did. He was so spooked, he wouldn’t come back.”
The tip I received earlier had come from a darkling fae, a Charbydon who’d stopped by the warehouse to check out the property and put up a For Sale sign. Not surprising he hadn’t called the ITF—relations between Charbydons and law enforcement were on pretty shaky ground right now, as were relations between Charbydons and Elysians. The darkness made everyone edgy. Anyone with a scrap of common sense would’ve known calling the ITF to report an Elysian body inside of a Charbydon-owned property meant trouble.
Hank moved aside and brushed his palms lightly over his cargo pants. “The window is too small for me to fit through. You’ll have to go.”
He bent low, linking his fingers together to hoist me up. I placed both hands on the cool leather jacket that covered his shoulders and put my foot in the cradle of his hands, getting a whiff of the same herby scent that perfumed The Bath House in Underground. I glanced down.
Dark sapphire orbs stared up at me, set in features that remained mostly grim ever since the night his voice-mod had been fused together, stuck on his neck and subduing his greatest power—his siren’s call.
Of course the voice-mod did nothing to stifle the sensual quality of his voice or the natural siren magnetism that constantly emanated from him. Nor did it stop him from using his other natural abilities—healing, sensing energies, and being a superb wiseass.
I reached for the ledge. The sharp brick edges scraped my wrists, pulling my attention back to the job at hand. Once up, I balanced on my stomach and swung one leg over, then followed with the other until I was looking down at my partner’s upturned face. “I’ll see if I can open the side door from the inside. Meet me over there.”
“Careful, Charlie,” his voice came out low, “there’s negative energy all around this place.”
“Yeah, I know.”
I dropped down into the darkness of the two-story warehouse, my boots slapping hard against the concrete floor and echoing through the lofty space. The flap of startled wings sent my heart to my throat, and my hand to my Nitro-gun. It slid from the harness with a comforting whisper.
Owls. Just owls.
Regaining my composure, I pulled the standard-issue flashlight from my belt with my free hand and clicked it on, liking the weight and the chill of the metal. I didn’t bother looking for a light switch—Ebelwyn had said the lights didn’t work, and he’d never made it to the main fuse box to trip the breakers. He’d gotten as far as the body, dropped his flashlight, and ran like hell. And if the flashlight was still on, I couldn’t see it from this distance.
The inside of the warehouse was massive, a long, hollow tomb. Owl eyes blinked at me from steel beams high overhead. Part of the ceiling was gone in places, exposing the inside of the warehouse to the elements. Many of the second-story windows were cracked or broken, and the floor was littered with glass, dust, and an odd assortment of trash, wooden pallets, and steel parts.
My light beamed over graffiti—names, faces, cityscapes, and a life-size rendition of Mary Magdalene. On the other wall were the spray-painted symbols of black crafting; pentagrams, spirals, zodiac signs, planetary symbols, and Enochian script.
The warehouse was too deep for my light to penetrate the blackness completely, but I sensed there was something down there—not a physical presence, but something that made my instincts fire off warning signals.
A body. A nymph, I think, Ebelwyn had said, shaken and breathless over the phone. Can’t fucking miss it.
I focused, using my senses to get a clearer picture of what lurked in the darkness, proud of myself for remembering to try in the first place. Thirty-one years of being human and relying on human instincts made it difficult to switch gears and rely on the off-world abilities I’d recently been given, especially out in the field.
Regulate your breathing. Sharpen your focus, Aaron’s voice echoed in my mind. My teacher had done nothing but drill me in focus and concentration for the last two months, something that bored me to tears most sessions. But I was getting better at it.
As soon as my concentration peaked, my throat closed.
A smothering, vile sensation gripped me so hard I stumbled, grabbing my neck, instantly panicked by the feel of thick sludge filling and stretching my throat. My pulse hammered heavy and quick.
It’s not real. It’s not real. It’s not real.
All my instincts, both natural and engineered, propelled me away, and I stumbled again, scrambling backward to the side door.
Fear had ignited my entire body, making it hum, making me lose control as my hand flailed around for the doorknob, losing my hold on the flashlight. There. A wave of hot power surged from my core and down my arm as I yanked on the knob. The door broke open, snapping the bottom steel hinge in half.
A blink later, the sensation vanished.
Oxygen filled my lungs as I bent at the waist, bracing both hands on my knees, my right hand still curled around my weapon, trying to reclaim those lost moments of precious air and shake away the mental fuzziness. So fast. It all had happened so fast.
A long shadow across the warehouse floor shifted. I glanced up as Hank cleared his throat, giving me a raised eyebrow and then stopping the door from swinging with one hand as he ducked under and stepped inside.
“Might want to prepare yourself,” I said, picking up my light. “It’s worse in here.”
He straightened and scanned the area. “What’s that smell?”
“Not sure. Dead rat, maybe? There are owls here. Could be their leftovers.”
Whatever happened, it was just me and Hank. We worked on a need-to-know basis with the ITF, which meant they didn’t need to know what the hell we were up to unless we wanted them to. We were the only 5th Floor agents in Atlanta, and if we bought it, two others—willing or blackmailed into it—would take our place, going outside the boundaries of the law to bring down the most vile and vicious off-world criminals in the city.
To our covert supervisors in Washington, we were replaceable. And, for now, we were on our own.
“You feel anything?” I asked.
“No substantial presence. Nothing but smut,” he said, using our popular term for negative energy signatures.
“Nothing but smut,” I echoed softly and took a step forward.
The whining charge of Hank’s Hefty filled the cavernous space. Until we knew what we were dealing with, an Elysian or Charbydon threat, we each drew separate weapons. My own Hefty was safely tucked against my left side and on my hip was a human firearm—a 9mm SIG Sauer. Three weapons for the races of three different worlds.
Both of our lights crisscrossed the darkness as we moved down the center of the warehouse. The force of whatever lurked beyond was so strong, so negative that it felt as though we were trudging through knee-deep mud. We passed old sleeping bags and shopping carts, cardboard boxes that were once used as makeshift shelters. Who knew how many homeless had lived here at one time—or who might, even now, be watching us from the dark corners beyond our flashlights and vision.
“It’s getting thicker. Damn eyes are burning,” Hank whispered.
I felt the weight of the energy, but not the sting. Hank, being one hundred percent Elysian, was way more sensitive to smut than I was. I glanced over my shoulder. We were so far in now that the darkness had closed in behind us, wrapping us in a cocoon of noxious black energy.
I jumped as Hank’s hand touched my arm. He’d stopped cold. I returned my light to the path in front of us. “What the hell is that?”
A mountain of debris. The source of all the negative energy.
I covered my nose as we approached; the smell of something rotting was bad enough to trigger my gag reflex. Our lights beamed against the jumble of trash and debris and—dear God —limbs.
With a sinking realization in my stomach, my trembling light traveled slowly over the pile, revealing pieces and parts of several corpses mingled with the debris. Tendons. Flesh hanging off bone. A torso. An arm. A mass of curly blond hair.
“Looks like we found our missing Adonai,” I said, stunned.
“Hold on,” Hank muttered. “There’s an office …”
I backed away from the pile as Hank made his way to a glass-enclosed office. He shoved a desk end over end, tossed a mattress to the side, and found his target—an electrical box.
The switches Ebelwyn never found, four in all, echoed loudly in succession like church bells tolling the dead. Large round lights, running in spaced intervals down the length of the warehouse ceiling, sputtered to life. Some bulbs popped, some didn’t work at all, but enough blinked on so that the mound in front of us lit up like a Broadway stage from the depths of hell.
As Hank returned to my side, I gestured with my flashlight to the top of the pile. “They’re fresher at the top.”
No need to say more. I think we both understood what we were looking at. A dumping ground, a place to toss the latest victim like they were garbage. Not even buried or hidden. Not even worth that much.
The horror of it made me turn away, and I wondered if I’d ever be able to wash away the smell, if I’d ever get the burn of it out of my nose and throat.
My eyes began to water. “Okay, I’m done.”
“You see those symbols?” Hank asked, not hearing me. “There, on the wall? It’s a charm. Probably to hide the stench. Otherwise, we should’ve been able to smell this place a mile away.”
“What about those?” I pointed to an odd batch of symbols on the opposite wall.
“Not sure. Never seen script like that in vertical rows before. Some of these letters or symbols look like ancient Elysian, but the others …” He shrugged. “Could be Charbydon.”
“Aaron or Rex can probably tell us.” I took out my camera phone and snapped a few photos of the unusual script that also bore echoes of Enochian, Egyptian hieratic, and Aramaic. Definitely odd. Bryn probably knew what this was, too, but the last thing I wanted was to bring my sister into another investigation—the last one, fighting Mynogan and his followers to save my daughter, had nearly killed her, and left her with an addiction to ash that was making her life miserable.
“I’ll call the chief.” Hank walked away, cell in hand.
Our medical examiner, Liz, was going to have a field day with this one. She and her team would need months to sort through the carnage.
From the very beginning, from the moment we learned that six members of the Adonai race had simply vanished, I knew the outcome would be bad. Adonai were the ruling elite of Elysia—some called them divinities or angels, and for good reason. They were the most powerful beings from that heaven-like world; they didn’t just vanish into thin air, not without a fight. Whoever had done this was very powerful—a butcher who, until now, had left no trace of his or her crimes.
Was it carelessness to leave the bodies here like this? Or had the killer wanted us to find them? Or maybe it was just complete and total arrogance. Maybe our perp didn’t give a shit either way, so sure of his power and right to kill that law enforcement really didn’t factor into the equation.
I went to turn away, but a flash of pale skin caught my eye. A hand, palm upturned, on the floor near the edge of the pile. I moved closer.
I dropped down next to what appeared to be the remains of a female nymph. Her tanned skin was sunken, as though every ounce of moisture and fluid had been sucked from her body. Her dark, wavy hair was matted and held bits of debris, possibly due to a roll from the top of the pile.
He must’ve kept his light trained on the ground in front of him, the light beaming on this body first. And then he ran, never knowing what else lurked in the debris pile. His broken flashlight lay nearby.
I grabbed a pair of latex gloves from my inside jacket pocket, pulled them on, and then reached into the front pouch of her thin hooded sweatshirt. A few dollars. A set of keys. A gym ID with her picture and name: Daya Machanna. No purse or wallet that I could see from a quick scan around the body.
Hank knelt next to me, intelligent eyes scanning the body. “She looks mummified.” He placed two hands on her neck. “That’s odd—she’s still warm.”
A rush of hope blew through me. “I’ll call Liz.” I jumped up, removing the gloves as I walked away, mentally praying that this was the break we needed.
A few steps in, I froze, the hairs on my arms standing straight, instantly gripped with the sense that something new had made its way into the warehouse, something that brought with it the scents of the darkness outside.
A low growl confirmed my suspicions.
I spun slowly on my heel to see two red orbs approaching from the shadowed side of the debris pile. Hank was on one side of the body and the hellhound on the other.
I let the gloves fall to the floor. My hand moved for my Nitro-gun. Hank eased up, inch by inch, to his full height, his arm slowly going back for his weapon.
The hellhound stepped forward.
Jesus, it was huge. Bald, gray head hung low between muscled shoulders, muzzle drawn back in a snarl.
This was its territory. Now the carnage made sense. It had been feeding on these discarded victims.
And Hank was standing over its freshest meal yet, directly in my line of fire.
I pulled my weapon. The whisper to tell him to get out of the way was on my tongue, but I dared not. The slightest move or sound could trigger an attack. Hank’s thumb flicked the snap to the holster strap. I winced. It might as well have been a bomb going off. Shit.
The hellhound leapt.
His half-drawn weapon clattered to the ground as the hellhound slammed into him. They fell to the floor, the hound’s teeth snapping inches from Hank’s face. “Shoot it, Charlie!” His big hands squeezed the beast’s jowls, holding it at bay.
I ran to the side, trying to get a line for a clean shot. “I’m trying!”
“Try harder, for Christ’s sake!”
I ran closer to the debris pile, my attention so fixed on the two that I tripped over a small piece of plywood, landing hard on my hands and knees. The hellhound lifted its head and stilled—perfect time to shoot it if I hadn’t been on all fours, the wood angled between my calves.
The wide nostrils flared intensely. In and out.
I rolled, kicking out the board and then scrambling to my feet, adrenaline firing as Hank’s warning shout echoed through the warehouse. I didn’t look back, didn’t have to. I just ran, arms pumping, leaping over debris and trying to get a lead so I could turn and fire.
Too late, though. No one could outrun such a creature.
Paws landed on my shoulder blades. Warm, moist breath breezed across the back of my neck an instant before my face met the floor. I struck with at least two hundred pounds of hellhound on my back, every ounce of air forced from my lungs as my forehead smacked the concrete with a loud crack. Pain surged over my skull like a shockwave—hot, consuming pressure that stunned me for several seconds and stole my vision.
Wet jowls smacked eagerly, the sound of an eating frenzy that finally terrorized some sense into me and made me gasp for what little air my squished lungs could hold. It had straddled me, paws on floor, belly grazing my back, and its muzzle nudging and pressing and licking my neck. I closed my eyes bracing for the killing bite …
… that never came.
No fangs, no broken skin, no scent of blood; just an intent, slobbery licking at the back of my neck, drool running down both sides.
And then it hit me. Of course. Brimstone. Sonofabitch! I had a rescued hellhound living in my house. Brimstone’s scent must be all over me … at least to the beast on my back it was. Slowly, I lifted my aching head and rolled slightly to look over my shoulder, but a bright flash stopped me cold. Everything became suspended, but my mind burst with color. Colors that soon became images …
Hank behind the beast …
Four small fetuses curled within the womb of this terrifying animal …
And then just as quickly as it came, the vision ended and reality rushed back in, the yell already in my throat. “Don’t kill it!” I didn’t need to look beyond the beast to know my partner’s dark silhouette was already there, weapon raised for a clean shot. “Low stun, Hank! Don’t kill it!”
A nitro capsule sank into the beast’s hip to the sound of Hank’s curse. She leapt straight up, yelped, and bounded away, each stride becoming slower and slower as the nitro spread through her muscle. It didn’t take long before she fell onto her side, her distended belly pushed skyward and her entire torso rising and falling in quick pants.
The cold would paralyze her long enough to figure out a plan of action, but it wouldn’t kill or damage her permanently. No doubt the healing process was already beginning—something all off-worlders, beings and animals alike, were blessed with. Pump too much nitro into a Charbydon, though, and no amount of natural healing would help. They were particularly sensitive to the cold, just as most Elysians had a severe reaction to high frequency sound waves.
I rolled from my side onto my back, staring up at the dark ceiling and taking several more deep breaths to calm my pulse. That’s when my sense of smell kicked in, and my gut clenched into a hard, sour ball at the foul, rot-scented saliva encasing my neck and dampening strands of my hair. Nice.
“Goddamn, Charlie,” Hank said, stunned. “You okay?” He reached down with an outstretched hand.
“Peachy, thanks. Who wouldn’t love a tongue bath from a hellhound feeding on body parts?” I slapped my hand in his and let him pull me to my feet, realizing my words only made me more nauseous.
Once upright, dizziness swamped me and pain stabbed my brain in hot pulses. “Fuck.” I squeezed Hank’s hand and bent over as bile stung the back of my throat and the mother of all migraines descended.
“Breathe.” Hank peeled my fingers away from his hand. “You can heal now, remember?”
“Oh, yeah, right.” My response came between small, quick breaths. “That’s a little hard to do when your breakfast is about to come back up.” I closed my eyes as his footsteps retreated toward the direction of the hellhound, using the time to refocus and reach beyond the pain.
Hank was right. Thanks to my new genetic make-up, I had the ability to heal courtesy of both the Elysian and Charbydon DNA that now ran through my system. Double whammy—and something those in my small circle of friends believed made me indestructible. Of course, there was the little problem of figuring out how to use those abilities. Unlike my partner, it wasn’t second nature for me to heal or manipulate the natural energy that existed all around us. It took concentration and effort. Two things that were kind of hard to do when you’re in pain and about to barf.
A cloth hit me on the left side of the face, bringing with it a burst of machine oil aroma. I straightened and pulled the old work rag off my shoulder. It was better than nothing to wipe the slime off the back of my neck. I tucked the rag between my knees, twisted my disheveled hair and then tied it into a knot, my band lost in the hellhound lovefest. Then I set to work slowly wiping the slobber from my skin, eyes closed, and focusing on sending healing messages to my aching head.
Cool breezes. Laughter. Peace. Joy. Love. Strong emotions that I tapped into, that gathered in my chest with each long, controlled inhale until a faint tingle spread out in all directions. My toes wiggled in response. Once the healing energy was alive within me, I zeroed in on my head, pulling the energy up, directing it, and letting it take over.
A deep, accusing voice broke my concentration. “She’s pregnant.”
I cracked one eye open to see my partner standing in front of me with his brow raised, one corner of his mouth drawn down, and both hands on his hips, drawing back the sides of his black leather jacket. The stark white of his T-shirt was almost too bright for my head to bear. I finished with the rag. “And your point?”
A flash of exasperation widened his eyes. He flung a hand and a glance back at the hellhound. Anyone seeing her lying there like that could tell she was expecting. “You knew it was pregnant.”
I shrugged in answer. How in the hell was I supposed to explain? And why even bother? So I could feel more freakish than I already was? No thanks. Those closest to me knew I was changing, still morphing into something no one had ever seen before thanks to the gene manipulation. Two months had passed since I learned the truth behind the strange evolution taking place inside of me, but damned if I wanted to talk about every weird-ass side effect. Healing. Making nightmares a reality. Throwing bolts of power out of my hands. Eating like a sumo wrestler. Why not visions? A sharp laugh burst from my throat and I rubbed a hand down my face.
Might be cool if it wasn’t going to kill me.
I finished with the rag and tossed it into a nearby trash pile. “I’ll call Animal Control and have them send her back to Charbydon.”
“They never send them back, Charlie. It’s policy to euthanize them. You should’ve let me kill her.”
There was a time I’d have agreed wholeheartedly with my partner. Having Brimstone around must be making me soft. I blew my long bangs away from my eyes. “Why? Because some asshole brought her here for God knows what reason and then abandoned her? She’s not evil, Hank. She’s just an animal trying to survive.” I brushed the debris from my raw elbows and hands. “I’ll make sure they send her back.”
I marched away, tracking down my Nitro-gun, which had skidded down the warehouse floor when I hit the ground, glad for a reason to get out from under Hank’s curious gaze. Once I located my gun, I holstered it and then called a friend at Animal Control.
My next call was to Liz. We had a body to raise from the dead. And this was just the break we needed.
© 2010 Kelly Gay