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Frank / FORBIDDEN
Docia huffed out a frustrated sound as she just missed spilling coffee on the tops of her shoes, jumping out of the way of the car that careened close to the curb she had been about to step off of. It was a miracle she didn’t get killed, kept most of her coffee in her cup, and managed to keep her cellphone from hitting the pavement.
“Hello? Jackson?” she said quickly. “I didn’t hear that last part.”
“Nothing important, Sissy. Just bitching about Landon. I think I’m going to jail for murder soon.”
“Nah, you can’t do that,” she countered. “You know what they do to cops in prison?”
“Ah, crap. You’re right. I’m totally fucked.”
Docia bit her lips, trying not to laugh. Despite his play at humor, she could tell her brother was seriously put out. Seriously off his game, too. He had been ever since his partner, Chico, had taken a bullet to the brain six months ago. Jackson was grieving in his own way, and that way seemed to be one of a lot less patience for a micromanaging boss than he would usually have. Unfortunately, Landon wasn’t a touchy-feely type who would understand Jackson popping off and punching him in the head. It was crucial she help her brother refocus a little.
“So, how’s Sargent doing?”
Jackson paused. “He’s undisciplined and a pain in my ass. He keeps running away.”
“Yikes.” That wasn’t good. If Jackson couldn’t control Sargent, that could mean a lot more trouble down the line. But her brother had a special touch with these K-9 pups. No dog would ever be able to replace Chico in Jackson’s heart, but Docia believed there was room for him to move over and share. The trouble was, Jackson might not be ready to think the same way. It was probably too soon for him to have the new dog. He should have waited. Given it more time. But as one of only two K-9 officers in the Saugerties Police Department, he didn’t have the luxury of waiting too long to replace a downed officer. Especially considering how much time, money, and effort went into training a dog. The department needed the dog badly, and they needed him to be well trained. They also knew that Jackson was the best man to do it. “Well, you’ll get him under control,” she said, not a hint of doubt in her mind. “He’s only a year old.”
“Yeah, well, at a year I had Chico heeling with a snap.”
“Yes,” she said, stepping off the curb once more, “but he’s not Chico, honey. It’s not fair to him to expect him to be. You’ve only had him for a short time.”
Again there were those beats of silence. Docia could almost see him nodding firmly to himself in agreement. Jackson was logical, dedicated, and very ambitious. It wasn’t in him to accept defeat. He just had to get his heart in the game.
“I know,” Jackson said simply, but making it clear by his tone that he had heard his sister’s wisdom. “So where are you?”
Docia smiled at the turn of topic. He needed a little space now, and she would give it to him. She was just happy that he was talking it out with her. He’d been in a very dark place when Chico died. Some people huffed and called him “just a dog,” but Chico was every inch the partner a human might have been for Jackson. Almost none of those scoffers were his fellow cops. They all respected Chico for the officer he had been. Even the irritating chief Avery Landon.
“Well, I just passed Kiss My Feet not too long ago, which reminds me that it’s been far too long since I had a pedicure. Or a waxing.”
“Okay, that’s a need to know, Sissy. And I didn’t need to know.”
“Pfft,” she huffed. “Like you don’t like a girl with all her”—she used her coffee-filled hand to gesture in a circle over the front of her body as if he could see her—“landscaping trimmed.”
“I’m not talking about my sister’s landscaping!” he choked out.
She punched a button, chuckling as she hung up on him. She loved leaving him flustered like that. It amused the bejeezus out of her. Well, he’d wanted the change of topic. So he had gotten exactly that. She stuffed her phone in her bag, a cute little pink-and-gray pouch she’d seen at a local resurrection boutique. That was what she liked to call thrift and secondhand stores. Only in her dreams could she own a brand-new designer bag. No one noticed the slightly worn edge on the bottom, and it looked darling with her winter jacket and its faux fur–lined hood. She would wear the set the entire winter because she couldn’t afford to change it up, but she was perfectly content with what she had and didn’t waste time and worries on what she didn’t have. Although she didn’t have much time to worry about anything at all lately.
She studiously kept her eyes forward as she walked past Krause’s Candy. The red-and-white-striped decorations on the columns were just screaming at her, begging her to press her nose against the glass and pretend she could smell all those pounds of delicious chocolate. But she persevered. She was late enough as it was. She had a tiny little office to get to and a grouchy boss of her own to deal with if she showed up late.
After a few minutes she was stepping onto the green steel bridge, its concrete retaining walls set about waist level, safe enough but also low enough to allow her to see the water of the Esopus River as it rushed to empty and join with the larger and more majestic Hudson River. The current was stronger than usual for this time of year because they were having such unseasonably warm weather for winter . . . if you could call forty-three degrees warm. But it wasn’t freezing, so the Hudson on her left didn’t have so much as a single ice patch, and the river beneath her feet wasn’t slowed down in the least as it journeyed a short distance before smashing down over deceptively warm-looking tan–and-gray boulders. It was nothing compared with what it would be in the summer, though. The rushing rampage of water would spit out at a violent velocity that would have much more in common with a volcano venting in an angry upheaval.
She was romanticizing and daydreaming, she realized, picking up her pace over the bridge. The bridge itself was a throwback from a time when automobiles rushing around the curve that led onto it weren’t capable of great speed and drivers wouldn’t disrespect signs and logic and take the turn and narrow bridge a bit too dangerously. That equation hardly left room for even a pedestrian to make it safely across. However, it was the only way for her to get to work, seeing as how her clunky little Volvo had choked to a halt last week and refused to budge without a new alternator. That was a hearty two hundred and fifty bucks she wouldn’t have until her paycheck made its appearance on Friday. Happily, that was only a day away.
“Bad Boys,” the theme to the TV show Cops, burst to musical life in her purse just a few steps shy of the bridge’s midpoint. Docia expertly snatched the cell from the depths of the little bag and put it to her ear.
“I thought I skeeved you out talking about my landscaping,” she said, stifling a giggle when the reminder made Jackson stutter over his next words.
“You—you did. Just don’t talk about it anymore. Not this early in the damn day. Actually, scratch that. Not ever in the damn day.”
“Did you just call me back to order me around or is there a point to this call?”
“I’m serious, Sissy! Promise me you won’t mention it again.”
“I’m hanging up on you,” she threatened.
“You’re being a child,” he groused.
Docia snickered through her nose and had a perfect comeback for that. She really did. But as she caught sight of the huge SUV barreling toward her on her side of the bridge, a shower of sparks pluming up as it laved the wall like a lover running his tongue up his partner’s neck, the juicy retort froze in her throat.
She dropped everything. Cup of coffee. Phone. Cute pink-and-gray bag. And somehow she managed to scramble up onto the wall and avoid becoming human hamburger as the SUV ground past her, close enough to catch her skirt and rip it.
Close enough for the passenger to lean his bulk out the window, reach out, and shove her hard off the bridge.
For a moment there was nothing but air. An instant where she sucked in her breath, a flash of existence where she seemed to float without gravity. That indrawn breath seemed so loud to her own ears and the scream that followed not loud enough. And just before she hit the maw of rocks and water beneath her because the laws of gravity had not been suspended after all, all she could think of was that she hoped the current was running fast enough to sweep her body out of Jackson’s jurisdiction.
It was all she had time for before rocks crashed into her head and her back and a rushing swirl of icy water swept her up and slammed her into another set of rocks as though someone had tossed her into some kind of sick demonic machine in the Laundromat, filled with stones and the ultimate cold-water cycle. The pressured water slammed up her nose and clawed across her face, forcing itself into her open, screaming mouth and down her throat. It punched its way into lungs fighting instinctively to resist its invasion. She had never thought inhaling water would hurt so much. And her first instinct, the instinct to scream with the pain, was robbed from her because her lungs were paralyzed with frozen water.
Docia disappeared from the world as she knew it very shortly after that.
“Hello? . . . Helloooo? . . . Sis?” Jackson frowned at the phone, then hung it up with the push of a button. His sister’s cellphone was a piece of crap. He knew it was all she could afford on her salary, but it bugged him that she dropped calls all the time and had a hard time getting a good signal. One of these days she was going to need help or something and that crappy little phone wasn’t going to do her any good.
He made a mental note to get her a better one for Christmas.
You are much too young to die, a beautiful voice breathed across Docia’s mind.
She agreed wholeheartedly. But she didn’t see how she had much choice in the matter. Who really did? When your ticket was punched, your ticket was punched. There wasn’t much that could be done about it.
So easily you give up. I have no compatibility with such a weakness.
Oh, bite me, she thought back heatedly to whatever afterlife spirit had suddenly decided to harass her at the shittiest moment of her impending death. Since this is my first death, you’ll have to excuse the hell out of me if I don’t know what’s expected of me! she railed at the voice twisting around her spirit. Where the hell was the warm, fuzzy light and the peace everyone said she was supposed to be feeling? No one ever mentioned a nagging, judgmental bitch with an exotic accent picking on her flaws.
Then Docia found herself on her feet in a soft environment. She could smell the thick presence of incense in the air, pungent and sweet, yet musky and as erotic as it was exotic. She was surrounded by a swirling grayness with ever-moving clouds of fog tumbling past her as though they were commanded by a current as rest- less as the one she had fallen into.
Been shoved into.
Hey, what the fuck was with that, anyway? she wanted to know. If she was going to be all dead, shouldn’t she be able to look down onto the world or something and find out all the answers she hadn’t been able to see when she’d been alive? Oh . . . hell . . . could she be an angel if she thought the word fuck a lot? Oh fuck! What if she said it all the time? That was bad, right? She really wanted to be an angel. Not that hell scared her so much—no, wait, it did—but more because she wanted to be able to watch Jackson. To make sure he made it okay. Angels got to watch their loved ones, didn’t they? Maybe protect them?
You will be useless to them dead, that annoying bitch in her head said depressingly. But she was less in her head now and more in front of her. She materialized before Docia, a small, petite creature dressed all in gold and rough-cut gems that seemed to catch the sudden growing sunlight that poured in around and over them both. Now here was the amazing warmth she had been expecting, but she had not expected it to feel like lying in the sun on the beach . . . that baking heat that singed her nostrils. The clearer the unseen spirit became to Docia’s eyes, the more beautiful she seemed. Crisply banged black hair smoothed to straight perfection beneath a gleaming gold headdress, its crest looking like a serpent in a very Egyptian fashion on her forehead. She had skin the color of a dark nut, but her eyes were the most vibrant black and brown she’d ever seen in her life. She’d always thought brown eyes, such as her own, were dull and plain, but there was nothing dull or boring about these eyes that ran over her from head to toe. In fact, she seemed to be sharp and assessing, alive and regal in ways that Docia had envied in powerful women she had seen in the media. She had envied them their braveness and their seemingly unstoppable will. Traits she felt eddying off the woman in front of her.
“Welcome to the Ether,” she greeted Docia crisply. Not that she didn’t sound very welcoming, just that she sounded impatient, as though she resented the time she had to waste on the formality. She confirmed that with her next words. “We haven’t much time. You show some promise, I must say. You have more strength than you know.”
“Good to know,” Docia said dryly, her eyes rolling.
The woman tsked. “She’s impatient.”
“She’s in need of molding, love.” A disembodied male voice burst to life, its depth and richness seeming to come from all around her, pressing in from all sides with power and strength. “You will lend her all she needs.”
The queenly figure tilted her crowned head and narrowed her kohl-lined eyes on Docia. The heavy black-and-gold accent should have made her look like an overmade piece of trailer trash, but somehow it did not. It made her even more beautiful, even more imposing, made those brilliant brown eyes all the more exotic.
“She has heart,” she said after a long moment.
“The rest will come,” assured that resonating, bodiless male voice.
Docia opened her mouth to say something, feeling a bit irritable, seeing as how she’d just died and all, and the woman raised a hand to forestall her.
“No,” she corrected. “Not dead yet. But on the cusp. That is the only reason you are able to come to the Ether and see me,” she said strongly. “You have a choice to make. To live or to die. Only now, on the brink of death, as you open enough to allow me in . . . only now do you have an opportunity like no other. I cannot promise it will always be everything that is good and wondrous, but if you let me in, it could help us both to evolve into the beings we wish to be.”
“I’m supposed to decide between life and death? Well, duh. That’s a no-brainer,” Docia said dryly.
“But you will not be Docia any longer,” the regal beauty warned her. “You will share everything about yourself with me from this moment forward. In some ways you will supersede your mortal flesh. Nothing will ever be the same for you again.”
“Nothing? You mean, I won’t see my brother?”
The Egyptian beauty hesitated, then looked over her shoulder as if at someone else. The owner of that disembodied male voice, no doubt.
“You will see him. But . . . all your relationships will change. This cannot be helped. Often, humans cannot accept change. And there will be much change. Now decide quickly. Time runs very short for you. Your hold on the Ether is weakening.”
Life or death. Herself but different. Leave Jackson and make him suffer another difficult loss, or stay and—
“Leave or stay for yourself only, Docia,” the stranger urged her. “Your love for your sibling is admirable, but he cannot be your reason for staying. You must make this choice for yourself and yourself alone. No other reason.”
No other reason. No other reason except that she was too young to die. Hell, she’d barely even had a chance to live. She’d never traveled outside of New York. She’d never fallen in love or had mind-blowing sex. Sex, yes, but her mind had remained decidedly unblown. She’d wanted to go white-water rafting . . . Oh. Wait. Scratch that. She might have been missing a raft, but that definitely had just been a white-water classification.
And she wanted to find out just who the hell had pushed her over the wall. The jerk. Was that some kind of joke? Not to her! There was no way in hell she was going to let someone get away with killing her!
“I want to live,” she said quickly, before the ethereal queen could tell her vengeance was an unacceptable reason for living. It was only one of them. And it wasn’t vengeance so much as a powerful desire for justice.
“Justice is one of the best reasons to fight for survival,” the other woman countered as she reached out to touch Docia’s face. But just before she made contact, she stopped. Docia realized the Egyptian beauty was breathing hard, her hand shaking as it hesitated in the air. That was when Docia realized the grand and composed woman was more than a little afraid. She glanced over her shoulder once again, and there was another wash of warmth, again like sun radiating off well-baked sand.
“Go. It is well past your time, love. You will be very needed,” the male encouraged her in a warm whisper of strength that seemed to emanate all throughout.
“I will see you again,” the beauty whispered to him just before she touched Docia’s cheek, leaned in, and kissed her full on the lips. It was a kiss of warmheartedness, almost tender at first, but it quickly grew stronger and more passionate. Docia was shocked by the aggressive sensation of a tongue parting her lips, reaching to touch her own. She wanted to balk . . . she would have balked . . . but the moment that tongue touched hers, a searing golden light began to pour into her from every orifice, starting with her hot, burning mouth.
She breathed in, a reflexive reaction, and just like breathing in ice-cold water, the act of breathing in the fiery heat of this burning light was excruciatingly painful. She felt as though her body and soul were bursting apart, devolving into a molecular state where all the tiny bits of atoms that made up Docia came apart, unraveled, and hung suspended in that hot, golden light. Then the molecules slowly drew together again . . . only this time when they connected, there were newer little atoms weaving their way into her makeup.
By the time she was whole again, she had collapsed into unconsciousness and let the comfort of darkness take hold of her.