By Sherrilyn Kenyon
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 Sherrilyn Kenyon
All rights reserved.
"Have you ever wanted to put your head in a blender and turn on the liquefy switch?"
Simone Dubois frowned then laughed at Tate Bennett, the parish coroner for New Orleans, as he took a seat at the dark wood table, across from her. As always, Tate was impeccably dressed in a white button-down shirt and black slacks. His skin was dark and flawless, a gift from his Creole and Haitian heritage. With sharp, sculpted features, he was extremely good-looking and those dark eyes of his never missed a detail.
His impeccable attire was a sharp contrast to her faded jeans, navy sweater and riotous mop of dark brown curls that would never obey any style Simone attempted to beat them into. The only feature she had that she considered even remotely interesting were her hazel brown eyes that turned gold whenever the sun hit them.
She wiped her mouth on her napkin. "Honestly ... I can't say that I have. But there have been a few other heads I'd like to do that to. Why?"
He dropped a folder in front of her. "How many serial killers can one city have?"
"I'm not up on those stats. Depends on the city I suppose. Are you telling me we have another one here?"
He unwrapped his silverware and placed his napkin on his lap. "I don't know. Couple of weird murders have come through my office over the last two weeks. Seemingly unrelated."
Those two words were loaded with meaning. "But ..."
"But I have a gut feeling on this and it's not the oh-look-it's-a- bright-shiny-world kind."
Simone took a sip of her soda before she opened the file and grimaced at the grisly crime scene photos. As always, they were gory and detailed. "I just love the gifts you bring me for lunch. Other girls get diamonds. Me? I get mayhem and blood—and all before noon. Thanks, Tate."
He leaned over and stole a French fry from her plate. "Don't worry, boo, I'm buying. Besides, you're the only woman I know I can meet for lunch and talk business with. Everyone else gets squeamish."
She looked up. "You know, I'm not sure that's much of a compliment."
"Trust me, it is. If LaShonda ever comes to her senses and leaves me, you're the next Mrs. Tate."
"Again, not flattering to either of us. Should I tell LaShonda what her hubby thinks of her?" she teased.
"Please don't. She might poison my cush-cush ... or worse, beat my tush-tush."
Simone laughed again. "Don't worry, I'd make sure and bring her to justice for it."
"I'm sure you would." He paused to order a shrimp po'boy and fries from the waitress.
Simone continued to look at the photos while he spoke to the young Goth woman who was taking his order.
Yeah, these pictures were pretty gruesome. But then these types of photos usually were. How she hated that the world was filled with people capable of doing such horrific things to others. What people could do to each other was bad enough. What the other, nonhuman inhabitants could do was a whole other nightmare. Literally.
And she was more than just a little acquainted with both kinds of monsters.
The waitress headed back toward the kitchen.
Tate leaned closer. "You getting any vibes from the other side?"
She shook her head. "You know it doesn't work that way, T. I have to be touching the body or something that belonged to the victim. Photos only give me a paper cut ... and the willies." Shivering in sympathy for the way the poor woman had died, she closed the file and slid it back toward him.
"Want to come to the morgue with me after lunch?"
She arched one brow at his offer. "I shudder at the thought of the pickup line you must have used the night you met LaShonda. Come with me, baby, and see my collection of stiffs."
He laughed. "God, I love your sense of humor."
Too bad a married man was one of the very few people who actually got her offbeat humor. The only other person to really appreciate it was a teenaged ghost who'd been haunting her since she was ten years old.
Jesse was seated to her right, but only Simone knew that. No one else could see or hear him—oh, lucky her. Especially since Jesse was locked in a late 1980s time warp. Case in point, he was wearing a light blue blazer reminiscent of Don Johnson from Miami Vice with a curly black pompadour courtesy of Jon Cryer from the movie Pretty in Pink. Jesse was a huge John Hughes fan who made her watch way too many reruns. He completed his offbeat outfit with a skinny white keyboard satin tie and matching white checkerboard Vans.
"I don't want to go to the morgue, Simone," Jesse said from between clenched teeth. "I don't like it there."
She could certainly understand that sentiment. It was her favorite spot to visit right after the proctologist's office.
She gave Jesse a pitying look, but they both knew that she'd have no choice except to go. There was nothing she wouldn't do to bring a killer to justice and that included hanging out in the creepy city morgue instead of her lab at Tulane.
"So what's the strangest part about these murders?" she asked, trying to distract Jesse from repeating a tirade she was more than familiar with. Besides, he could go home without her—he just didn't like being in the house when she wasn't there.
Jesse could be a very needy ghost sometimes.
Tate stole another fry before he answered. "The fact that Ms. Gloria here got up and walked off her examining table."
Simone choked on the Coke she was drinking. "Excuse me?"
"You heard right. Nialls is now in a straitjacket because of it. He freaked out so badly we had to call the psych ward for him."
She coughed twice to clear her throat before she spoke again. "The victim was in a coma?"
"The victim was dead as a doornail. As you saw from the photos, her throat had been ripped out and Nialls had just opened up her chest for the autopsy. Her heart was in his hands when she started breathing."
"Uh-huh ..." It was the only response she could manage for a moment. "And she got up and walked off ..."
He nodded glumly. "Welcome to my world. Oh, wait, welcome to your world. Yours is even more bizarre than mine. At least I don't live with a ghost who has his own bedroom in my house." He glanced around the table, then lowered his voice. "Is Jesse here?"
Simone inclined her head in the direction of where her friend was seated and staring at them with a stern frown.
"Please explain to me how she got up while he was holding her heart," she said slowly.
"That's what I want you to tell me. See, I deal with ... well, most days, bizarre paranormal crap. You are Queen Weird. I need the queen on this before I have to start hiring a new staff of medical examiners who don't freak out when the dead move off their tables. You know where I can find some of these unusual people? I know you hang out with them."
"Thanks, Tate. I always look forward to these ego-bolstering pep talks of ours."
"Yes, but at least you know I love you."
"Like a hole in your shoe."
He laughed. "Not true. You are the best damned medical examiner I've ever seen and you know that. If I could get you away from Tulane and hire your butt for the city, I'd do it in a heartbeat. The fact that you're the only one I can talk to about paranormal deaths is a major bonus to me. Anyone else would have me in a room next to Nialls."
Simone reached for her pickle. "True. I'm also told they have incredible drugs to help curb those hallucinations."
"Then sign me up. I could definitely use them."
So could she, but that was another story. Then again, her entire life was bizarre enough to be considered one massive hallucination.
If only it were.
Simone paused as she got that weird feeling in her gut again. She glanced about the dark restaurant, then out the window to the left of her that showed the traffic on Decatur Street. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary, but still the sensation persisted.
"Is something wrong?" Jesse asked.
"I've got that feeling again."
Tate scowled. "What feeling?"
Her face heated at his question. "I was actually talking to Jesse. But for the last couple of weeks I've had this bizarre sensation that something is watching me."
"You mean someone, right?"
She shook her head. "I know it sounds crazy—"
"I just had a body walk off the table mid-autopsy and you think your story is nuts? Yeah, boo ..."
That was what she liked most about Tate. He made her feel almost normal. Not to mention he was the only person besides her who knew about Jesse. Of course she was also the only person outside of a small handful who knew Tate was a Squire for the Dark-Hunters—a group of immortal warriors who hunted down and executed the vampiric Daimons who preyed on human souls.
Yeah, her life was anything but normal.
So why should she even be concerned about the fact that she felt as if something evil were watching her? It probably was. And unfortunately, it wouldn't be the first time. She only wanted to make sure it wasn't the last one.
"Do you know where it's coming from?" Jesse asked.
"No. I can't pinpoint it. All I know is that it's making my skin crawl."
Tate leaned back in his chair to stare at her. "I really wish I could hear Jesse. It's so disconcerting when you two talk. Makes me wonder if he's not sitting there, mocking me."
She smiled. "Jesse only makes fun of me."
"That's not true."
She looked at Jesse. "Yes it is."
"No it's not," Tate inserted.
Simone frowned at him. "Do you even know what you're arguing?"
"Not really. It just seemed natural to add that."
She laughed. "How I ever got mixed up with the two of you, I'll never know." But that wasn't true. Jesse had come to her during the darkest hour of her life and he'd been with her ever since.
Tate ... he'd been there when she'd come the closest she'd ever been to catching her mother's and brother's killer. Unfortunately, her hunch hadn't panned out and the evidence she thought would give them a clue to her mother's murderer had been too tainted to use. Even so, Tate had fought for her tooth and nail even though he hadn't known her at the time. That meant more to her than anything and they'd been friends ever since.
There was nothing she wouldn't do for him and he knew it.
Tate, LaShonda, and Jesse were the only family she had.
He leaned back and waited for the waitress to put his plate on the table and leave before he spoke again. "Are you sure it's not one of the ghosts you see eyeballing you?"
She shook her head. "No. They're never this subtle. They usually pop in, like 'yo, she-bitch, do my bidding.' This ... this is something else."
"Evil is coming for you," Jesse said in a grim, echoing voice.
Simone narrowed her eyes on him. "I hate it when you do that."
Tate pulled back as if he were offended. "What'd I do?"
She smiled at him. "Not you. Jesse. He's using his ghost voice on me. It's extremely unnerving."
"Yes, but you still love me." Jesse winked at her.
"Of course I do. But save the voice for a haunting."
"I would if anyone else could hear me. Have you any idea how annoying that is? No, 'cause everyone hears you when you talk." He stood up and danced in the corner. "Hey, people!" he shouted. "See the freaky ghost dance." He flapped his arms around and shook his booty. "I'm bad, I'm bad, I'm bad." He stopped and looked around at the people who went on about their business, oblivious to his offbeat antics. "See. Sucks."
She passed a dry look to Jesse, who held his hands up in surrender. There were times when he was a strange cross between a nagging mother and a wife combined with a lunatic brother.
She focused her attention on Tate. "Anyway, back to the decedent ... do the police have any leads?"
Tate shook his head. "She was found in an alley down in the Warehouse District. Her throat was lacerated with something clawlike. Too large to be animal and too jagged to be individual knife marks."
"Definitely not a Daimon attack then." Daimons were a particular breed of vampire who called New Orleans home ... and unlike many of the others who made ambitious blood-sucking claims, these guys were real and they were deadly predators with highly developed supernatural powers. As medical examiners, she and Tate were used to seeing their handiwork come through their offices.
Her acceptance and willingness to help cover the Daimons' tracks was what kept her close to Tate. They weren't protecting the Daimons, they were keeping the rest of humanity safe by not informing them of what was really out there ready to take them down. If mankind were ever to know, they would freak out and kill innocent people, too.
The bad thing was that even though the Daimons drank blood, they didn't feed on it. They fed on actual human souls. Luckily a single human soul could keep them fed for a long time, so as a rule, they weren't out hunting victims every night.
If you could call that lucky. Which Simone did, and that more than anything said just how weird her life was.
Anytime the Daimons left their holes, the Dark-Hunters Tate worked for would seek them out, hoping to stop them from killing more people. A bonus to the Daimons' deaths was that it also freed the human souls they'd eaten so that their victims could go on to the afterlife.
Tate swabbed his fry in ketchup. "Definitely not Daimon," he repeated. "She was drained of all her blood, and since none was found at the crime scene, we assume she died somewhere else and was dumped in the alley. You sure you can't summon her from the grave and ask her what happened?"
"That would be a voodoo priestess, Tate. The decedents come to me, not the other way around."
He stifled a look of disappointment. "We need to find the body ASAP. Her parents are on their way down from Wichita and I don't want to tell them that their little girl went AWOL from the examining table."
"Did you get anything from Nialls?"
Tate scoffed. "Nothing coherent. As you can imagine, he was a bit hysterical. All he'd say was that she smiled at him on her way out the door."
"So you don't know if she was a zombie then?"
"Thankfully, I've never seen a zombie. Much other weird shit on the job, but not that. Have you?"
"No. However, I've learned to not question things like that. If there's a legend, then there's something real behind it."
He saluted her with his drink.
"What about your Squire contacts? Have they anything to offer on this?"
Tate shook his head. "None of them know anything more about the dead walking around than you or I. Daimons don't make the dead rise. They make the living fall."
Simone looked at Jesse. "You have any suggestions?"
"Only that I wish my body were still walking around. It would make my undeath easier to bear."
"Thanks for the nonhelp, Jess. You're such a doll."
Simone didn't speak much more as they finished lunch, then headed to the morgue. Jesse opted to stay outside while she followed Tate into the crypt. Honestly, she couldn't blame Jesse for his feelings. She didn't like hanging out with the dead, either, Jesse notwithstanding. The only reason she did what she did was to help the victims and their families. Having seen her own mother and brother gunned down before her, the last thing she wanted was to stand by and let someone else's killer go free.
It was why she worked cases for the city pro bono and why she spent her life training the next generation of medical examiners at Tulane. She figured she could do more good by training other MEs to be conscientious than she could working on mundane cases. The more people who did their jobs right, the fewer criminals who would go free to slaughter again.
That philosophy was also what kept her single. Most men didn't appreciate dating a woman who was handy with both a scalpel and a shovel.
Tate opened a door in the middle of the crypt vault and pulled out an empty drawer. "She was stored in here."
"Do you have any of her personal items?"
"Let me get them."
Simone closed the drawer and turned slightly as she felt a presence behind her. It was a young woman around the age of twenty-four. Her brown hair was mussed and she looked a bit confused. It was a natural state for many of the newly deceased.
"Can I help you?" Simone asked the girl.
"Where am I?"
Simone hesitated. She never liked being the one to tell another that they were no longer alive. "What's the last thing you remember?"
"I was walking home from work." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Dream Chaser by Sherrilyn Kenyon. Copyright © 2008 Sherrilyn Kenyon. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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