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March 21, late night
I suck at magic.
Had no idea what I was doing.
Which was probably why I found myself looking at a six-foot purple flame burning an astral hole in my mom's living room. Earlier I'd pulled the rug back to reveal the huge pentagram painted on the wood floor beneath. The big Book of Everything lay open on the papasan chair, turned to a page I evidently had no business reading, and I was pretty much trapped between the flame and the fireplace.
Screaming seemed the appropriate thing to do—so I did.
Only—no one could hear me.
My name's Zoë. Martinique. And in the span of two weeks, I had lost my mother's soul, banished my best friend from my life, scared the crap out of my cop boyfriend, experienced crazy erotic dreams about another cop in whom I spent some recoup time (hey—clean thoughts here!), learned I was being stalked by two secret societies, as well as possibly damned my soul for all eternity.
Oh—and the cherry—my great-uncle was responsible for it all.
All of these things combined have proven one thing to me—I am the winner in the world's most-dysfunctional-family contest.
Top that! Ha!
Oh, and I'm mute. Not deaf. Though some people tended to think those two were synonymous, so when they discovered I couldn't talk, they started shouting at me really slow.
Though that word pretty much applied to me at that moment, as I attempted again to get around the flame. But if I tried to move to the right and jump on the couch, the damned thing moved with me. If I tried to fake it and jump to the left, it matched me again. And forget going through it. I'd already tried that and had one hell of a burn working along my right shoulder where the flame touched me. My jacket was still smoking. I had to face it— the flame was stalking me. Literally pushing me up against the fireplace.
Just as I was about to see if a human could climb up a chimney, I heard the bell over the front door chime, as well as felt the vibration on the hardwood floor. Seeing past the flame was getting difficult—I could make out the arch between the botanica where I was pinned, and the tea shop where the front door was. A beaded curtain usually separated the two stores—but I'd taken the damned thing down. Got tired of seeing it move with a breeze and thinking someone was in the house. Don't ask me where that breeze was coming from—I had no idea. I'd been jumpy—and with good reason. Knowing complete strangers were watching me was worse than not knowing. As I pressed myself against the mantel of the fireplace, I heard someone call my name, and I screamed out—both with my silent vocal cords as well as my thoughts. What the hell are you doing? came the voice in my mind. It was a male voice— but it wasn't Joe's. Whoever it was could hear my thoughts. So—I must have overshadowed (slipped inside of their body— kinda like possession but not really— at least not to me) them at some point. Unless it was a ghost?
Speaking of ghosts—where were Tim and Steve? Wasn't there something they could do? Oh—Tim and Steve were the resident ghosts of Mom's combo of house and shop (half botanica and half tea shop)—a couple who died in the basement. Pretty gruesome. Now's not the time to elaborate.
Zoë? You there?
Well, whoever it was knew me, and I could hear them.
I was hanging on. To the mantel. Two more inches and this thing was going to roast me alive!
A light brighter than the fire nearly blinded me, and I squinted, then looked away with my hand up in front of me. I was expecting to get singed any second—and let's not even talk about how bad my shoulder was hurting where the fire had touched it before.
And then the light against my eyelids dimmed to nothing, leaving me extremely cold.
A warm hand touched my cheek, and I jumped— I would have squeaked if I could— and there was the familiar voice again. I was blinking as fast as I could, but it was like looking too long into the center of a lightbulb, then looking away— I couldn't make out what was in front of me.
". . . Zoë? Hey . . . look at me. You okay? Did the Portal Fire touch you?"
I blinked again. I could make out an outline. Definitely male. Close to my height. Short, tousled hair, and warm hands.
There was a soft laugh. "No. Not hardly. You didn't look into the flame, did you?"
There was a sigh. "Zoë . . ." It was more of a drawn-out whine than my name. Though I'd never noticed how well my name translated into a whine till that moment.
I shrugged. He put his hands on my wrist, then my shoulder, and guided me away from the fireplace and into the brighter light of the tea shop. Once there, I blinked even faster as I bumped into the table closest to the arch.
"Christ— you got singed! That shoulder looks bad. Sit down over here. I'll make you a calming tea and then get to work on the damage, okay?"
I could see the table and the chair easily enough, and I sat down. I hadn't realized I was shaking. Not just from nerves—mainly because I'd just nearly barbecued my ass— but because I was actually chilled. I could see the guy moving around in the kitchen, behind the cake-and-pie display. I could even see the display case pretty good.
Why can't I see this person? Why isn't his voice registering with me? Did that flame burn out brain cells?
Hey— no comments.
My shoulder started throbbing— each heartbeat feeding the stinging pain— so I reached around with my left hand and pulled my right arm closer to my chest. Ow, ow, ow. I felt a vibration on the floor and knew someone was at the back door before the lock turned and the hinges squeaked. From the sound of the shuffle, I knew it was the neighbor and Mom's friend, Jemmy Shultz.
"Hey, Jemmy!" the stranger called out.
"Well, I'll be!" came her comforting and familiar Southern drawl. She was laughing, and I could actually see her! Ah! Why could I see Jemmy just fine and not this other guy? Was he some sort of new, freaky Symbiont, Daimon, Abysmal thingie?
Oh God . . . is it TC? No . . . he has my voice . . . not a melodic man's voice.
I could hear backslapping and laughing. "Child—where have you been keeping yourself? It's been a coon's age since I saw you around here."
"Eh . . . here and there. Been a little busy since that little mess back in December. I was here briefly in January before things got crazy for me again. Heard what happened to Nona and came to see Zoë as soon as I could."
"Yeah," Jemmy said. "I just got back from my daily visit'n. Not sure I'm so comfortable with Nona being all quiet like that. Just staring at the ceiling."
My mom was soulless, lying in a bed at a long-term facility in Alpharetta called Miller Oaks. Sounded more like a mortuary to me. I knew why she was in a coma, and so did Jemmy. The doctors? Not so much. It was getting more and more expensive to keep her there, and I'd already moved into the shop and given up my apartment in midtown. Medicare and Medicaid only covered so much before the cost bled over into my mom's estate.
And I was not letting them touch her shop. They could drain my accounts before taking what she'd worked long and hard for. But I was about to hit rock bottom with the money—and I still hadn't found Mom's soul.
"Yeah . . . but what is that smell?"
"Burned magic," mystery man said.
I noticed she was coming toward me, and I waved. Her shuffle sped up, and the next thing I knew her cold hand was on my forehead, then she was touching my neck, my wrist.
Uh . . . hello? Who's that in the kitchen?
Too bad Jemmy couldn't hear me.
"Zoë!" Her hands were on my shoulder, and I hissed air. "What you been doing? How did you burn yourself up there? Oh my," she made a "tsk-tsk" noise. "That's gonna need some special care." She placed her cool hand on my forehead again. "You feel really warm. What's wrong with the botanica? It's all hazy and nasty."
"Coyote Flame," came the male voice. He came back to the table with something in his hand. Jemmy moved out of the way, and he pulled up a chair, the metal scraping on the wood floor.
"Apparently our little Wraith here decided to do magic."
"Oh noah," Jemmy said, and moved into the botanica.
"What were you trying to do, Zoë? You know magic's best left to those who can do it. Your momma's one of the best." She sighed and put her hands on her hips. I was looking at her back, then looking at the blurry guy beside me. "Well, there's bandages and rubb'n alcohol on the top shelf in the pantry."
"I won't need it."
"Oh? You got a bit more in those—"
There was a low laugh and whispering. And I could see Jemmy chuckling. And then he answered. "You could say that."
"Well then, you get Zoë all better, and I start cleaning and cleansing. I swear . . ." And she toddled off.
My attention focused on Blurry Dude. He put a hand on my forehead too, only his touch was still as warm as it had been before. And then he put his hand over my eyes.
Why can't I see you?
"Because of the burn. The Coyote Flame touched your skin—and you looked into its heart. Its purpose when summoned is to protect the Portal from intruders. Causes loss of sight, breath, illness, and eventually death."
He made a heavy sigh. "This would have worked if you'd been OOB, Zoë. Why in the hell aren't you out of body? If you want to build a gate, just do it—the Coyote Flame is for magicians who can't walk astrally, not Wraiths."
I suppressed the urge to reach out and pop this person in the face. Well, nobody told me that. He laughed again. "It's okay. I can fix it."
I rubbed at my eyes and tried to see him. It was like one of those weird films where everything's in black-and-white except for the main focus. Only everybody else was sharp, and he was blurry. It was just damned intolerable.
Mental note: never look into the purple flame.
"You don't recognize me, do you?"
Uh . . . Can you give me a multiple choice?
"You and I traveled through a similar door back in December," he said as he put his hand over my eyes. This time his hand turned cold, and it was like ice against my forehead. I winced—just a bit scared this was gonna turn into brain freeze. "Remember Allard Bonville? He pulled us through the door, but he was more experienced, so the Coyote Flame didn't try to prevent us from traveling. It's sort of a guardian against amateurs—only with a bit more danger."
Bonville. Shadow door.
. . . little mess back in December . . .
. . . was here briefly in January . . .?
This guy was talking about that little Shadow People incident I'd run into with Rhonda and—
He moved his hand away from my eyes. I blinked once, and his face came into sharp focus.
Dags winced, closing his left eye. "Yow—you need to dial down the astral yelling, lady."
I stared at him, taking in every inch of him. I hadn't seen Dags since he'd brought me coffee in the hospital that day when Joseph vanished, his tether to the physical world severed. Dags had disappeared not long after. I'd tried calling him in the two weeks since I somehow released Holmes in the warehouse, but his number had been disconnected.
It'd been over a month since I'd seen him— and he'd changed so much in that time. Something about him was different—physically as well as astrally.
Before Christmas—a week or so after Hirokumi was killed and Susan was saved—and of course I made the deal with TC to become the Wraith again—Dags, Rhonda, and I became involved with a Ceremonial Magician named Allard Bonville. Or rather—Rhonda and I became involved with him because Dags had joined the man's circle of spooky friends. We learned that Dags had received magical tattoos on his hands and could summon a weird light that blasted out shadows.
That little side adventure had nearly cost him his life when Bonville dragged him physically through the Abysmal plane. He'd died briefly in the hospital later— and been revived.
I admit the events were a bit hazy—and before now I'd been a little uncertain with him even when he'd come to the hospital with Joe to see me.
But that didn't stop me from grabbing him up and hugging him as tightly as I could despite the screaming pain in my shoulder. I also couldn't stop the embarrassing flood of tears that spilled over my cheeks and nose. It'd been so long since I'd had any real contact, especially with anyone I considered a friend— my mom was always a big hugger. And I'd gotten so used to Daniel's smile . . .
"Hey, hey, hey," Dags said as he pulled away but didn't let go. He kept his right hand in my left one and wiped at my tears with his left. "Shhh . . . take a deep breath."
I nodded and did what he asked—though it was hard. I was afraid I'd do that hiccuping crying I used to do when I was a kid— the big cry that usually put me out for a good couple of hours.
Watching him—I was amazed at how much he'd changed in just a month. No wonder I hadn't recognized him.
For starters, his ponytail was gone. He'd cut the back off pretty short though I noticed strands of hair that hugged his neck, but the top and sides looked more like he'd just rolled out of bed. And he had sideburns. His face seemed older somehow—as if he'd grown up in a short amount of time. And his eyes . . .
There was something different about his eyes. Had they been like this that day in the hospital when he coded? I couldn't remember no matter how hard I tried. There were so many other problems back then— I'd sort of dismissed him as being a sort of side character.
"Let me do something about that shoulder." He put his hands together, palms facing each other kinda like he was praying. Abruptly, a soft white light leaked out from between the two of them.
That's when I remembered the tattoos on his palms. I'd completely forgotten about them.
He reached out with his left hand— palm glowing, and I could just make out the circles— were they spinning? He held it over my shoulder. Then he held out his right hand, palm facing down, and the light shone through the hardwood of the floor. My shoulder stung, and I winced.
"Be as still as possible," Dags said in a very deep but firm voice.
I did as he said. And within seconds the pain vanished. He sat back and rubbed his hands together. I looked at my shoulder. My jacket was still burned— but my shoulder was—
How'd you do that? I turned and looked at him. I'd seen him use the light from those tattoos to banish the oogy from dark corners— namely Shadow People. But— I'd never seen him use it for healing.
"A lot's happened in the past month."
His hand was on my forehead again. "Jemmy's right, Zoë. You feel okay? You're very warm."
I nodded and closed my eyes. I knew I had a fever—felt the heat in my eyelids. But I was afraid I'd been fighting off a cold for over a week. I'm fine. I just— Thanks for coming in when you did.
Dags frowned at first, then nodded. We discovered pretty early on that Dags could hear me, but not like Joe had. For Dags, communication with me was more like images in his head. And he sometimes had to interpret what he saw to understand what I was saying.
"What's wrong?" Jemmy came out of the botanica, a broom and a black candle in her hands.
"Do you know where a thermometer is? I think you're right— Zoë's sick."
"Well, I wouldn't be surprised. Especially with the smell in here. But I know where Nona keeps them. You stay here." She set the broom down and ambled off.
He released my arm and turned to pick up the now-cooled cup of tea. "You drink this and tell me what the hell you were doing opening a doorway."
I took the tea and sipped it. It was sweet, and I recognized hibiscus, as well as something else in there that was familiar. You know what's happened?
He nodded. "Most of it. I've been up to see Nona myself. Archer— you call him TC— was the one that took her soul?"
Yeah— but how could you know what's happened? I haven't seen you— or spoken to you. And your phone's been disconnected. Even Jamael didn't know where you'd gone.
He smirked. I didn't like it much. Reminded me too much of Joe. "I have my sources. And like I said—I've got most of it. TC's never contacted you?"
No. And I thought that he'd eventually contact me somehow—threaten me with a ransom or something. I mean, why else take my mom's soul, right? I sighed. I'm doing this by myself—I've always had Mom and Rhonda to tell me what to do. You know, what something means, how I use it, what's wrong with it. But I've been alone at this— and I finally decided I needed to just open a door to the Abysmal and go get her myself.
Dags pursed his lips and nodded slowly. "You know traveling through the Abysmal in a physical body can kill you."
"Why magic? That's not really your forte, is it? Something wrong with just going OOB and stepping into the Abysmal?" He nodded to the botanica. "Instead of trying to burn yourself?"
And here it was— the truth. I didn't want to tell him. I didn't want to face his sympathy either.
But Dags was a smart guy, and he was watching my face. He tucked a finger under my chin and looked into my eyes. "What is it, Zoë?"
I blinked back tears again— because I knew I was going to have to admit to something I didn't want to. It's because I can't go OOB anymore, Dags. I'm no longer a Wraith.