"Welcome home, baronessa."
Luciana Rossetti's private boat waited at the dock of the Marco Polo Airport, and her driver helped her descend from the dock into the polished mahogany vessel. The water shimmered, early morning sunlight glancing off the surface of the lagoon. "Thank you, Massimo. It's good to be home.'
"No luggage, signora?" the driver asked.
"I made an unexpected departure from America," she answered, settling into a seat at the rear of the boat. She leaned against the tan leather upholstery, relaxing at last. Inhaled deeply. And exhaled a sigh of pure relief.
Unexpected departure was an understatement. Narrow escape was more like it.
But at the moment, words escaped her. Mere language could not begin to relate what had happened in the past three months. She simply lacked the energy to explain it all to Massimo.
"Is everything all right?" Massimo asked as he steered the boat, navigating out into the lagoon. If anyone could sense when something was amiss with her, it was him. He was her maggiordomo, her steward, her right-hand man, and he had been for the past two centuries. He glanced backward now, brows drawn together as he scrutinized her. "You look tired."
"How many times have I told you not to say that, Massimo? No woman wants to hear it, even if it's true," she said, narrowing her eyes at him. "I'm finer
She was not fine.
She closed her eyes and leaned against the leather. Perhaps with a little bit of time, she would be fine. But right now, she was absolutely exhausted. Utterly depleted.
But still alive.
"Everything is perfectly fine, Massimo," she lied again, repeating the word for emphasis. "I had a brief run-in with some enemies, but suffered no permanent damage. There is only one thing of importance. I have made it home in time to attend this year's Redentore Festival."
"Yes, of course, baronessa." Massimo's handsome face lit with a smile. "You are a strong woman. And you have the support of your humble servants, we Gatekeepers. Do you think you will have enough strength for the hunt?" he asked, clearly worried. "If you don't, I can assemble the staff. We can take care of your responsibilities if you wish."
"No, Massimo," she said, rubbing her temples.
Her Gatekeepers, low-ranking demons in her service, all happened to be young, Italian, male and pretty to look at. They were competent enough in their roles as housekeeping staff and minions for errands. But she didn'tcouldn'ttrust them to carry out her work.
"Don't concern yourself," she said. "I need a few hours to rest. By tonight I'll be completely recovered. Tonight is an eternity away. There is no need for the staff to take over a job that I am perfectly capable of doing myself."
Massimo nodded, concentrating on steering the boat as they entered the Grand Canal.
"A job that I am obligated to do myself," she added.
Moments later, the boat passed into the shadow under the Rialto Bridge, and her head began to ache. The bridge invariably brought back agonizing reminiscences of the man who had just caused her impromptu departure from America. Because over two hundred years ago, she had met her ex-lover here. When she'd been barely seventeen years old, still innocent. Still fresh. Still human.
Before Julian Ascher had ruined everything.
Pain, white-hot and sharp, seared between her temples. Her fingers curled around the little glass vial hanging on a delicate gold chain around her neck. The single object she had managed to salvage during her rapid departure from America. The contents of that little vial would help her achieve her heart's most fervent desire.
She had gone to America to get revenge. And she had failed miserably.
Luciana's plan had been to make Julian Ascher pay for all the things he had done to her. For getting her into the insufferable business of being a Rogue demon in the first place. When that plan had failed, she had nearly managed to kill the fledgling angel he was screwinga moronically innocent girl called Serena St. Clair. And after failing to finish that kill, too, Luciana had only narrowly escaped capture at the hands of the Company of Angels.
And then she had returned home.
Exhausted. Depleted. But still alive.
Julian Ascher will pay, she thought. The Company of Angels will pay.
Luciana would have vengeance on them all. Inside of her, a dark alchemy had transformed this longing into a substance so hard and so sharp, it might have cut diamond. Once she finished with her annual hunt, she would turn her mind to completing her revenge.
At the thought of it, she smiled.
The boat cruised out from under the bridge, back into the sunshine.
Luciana tilted her face upward in the humid air, gazing at the palazzos lining the waterway in their elegant decay. The day was still new. The possibilities, endless. The winding streets of Venice teemed with people, already beginning their preparations for tonight's festivities.
"You're looking better already, baronessa," Massimo said, smiling back at her.
"Thank you, Massimo. The city is a balm to my soul," she said. "And the Redentore Festival always brings me such joy."
The fireworks display and homage to the Virgin Mary marked the height of every summer. Boats decked with garlands would crowd St. Mark's Basin for the pyrotechnic spectacle. Restaurants and bars would overflow with drunken patrons. The canals would stream with locals and tourists alike, come to watch and to party.
Venetians were masters of celebration. They had been honing the art of revelry for centuries. Looking up from their preparations, a boatful of shirtless men whistled as they watched her boat speed past.
"Che bellissima!" one of them shouted. "Ciao, bella!"
Ah, si. The catcall. That was another thing Venetian men had mastered.
Normally, she simply ignored such men. Had been doing so since adolescence, when her womanhood had begun to flower. This time, she gave them an enigmatic little smile and called back, "Te lo puoi sognare!"
In your dreams
Across an ocean, the full moon shone brightly on a night that was just beginning.
Brandon Clarkson was deep undercover in the seediest area of downtown Detroit. A greasy sheen covered his body from not having showered in days, a stale feeling of exhaustion hung in his lungs. His ripped jeans and leather jacket, unwashed and overripe.
To look at him, you would never guess he was what he was.
Not one of the drug dealers he had been tracking for months.
He slid into the dark alley, following the criminals he was on the verge of catching. He was close, so close. Knew they were here. Sensed their heartbeats nearby, could feel their breath mingling with the cool night breeze. The scent of them hanging in the air, alongside the smell of urine and garbage rotting in the darkness. The skitter of unseen vermin, animal and human, hidden in the shadows, surrounded him.
Something in the pit of his gut called to him, a little voice whispering urgently that something wasn't right here.
His brain overrode it, with a message that was loud and clear.
You've been hunting these criminals for the past six months. This may be the only chance you'll ever get.
It was time to put these scumbags away. He knew their habits. Knew the sheer volume of their trade. Had seen a warehouse's worth of heroin and cocaine pass through their hands, enough to keep the entire city of Detroit high for a week.
He stepped forward, moving farther into the alley, holding his handgun at eye level, ready to shoot.
Tonight's the night, he told himself. This ends right here.
He heard a noise behind him. A few quick footsteps striking on the pavement. A pop so loud he thought his eardrum might have erupted. And then his spine exploded. He felt a burst of pain that seared and radiated, like magma surging in his vertebrae, more intense than any pain he had felt in his life. A burst that could only be a bullet.
He fell, the structure of his body ruptured, the sturdy architecture of flesh and bones shattered in a single instant.
Heard the footsteps nearing.
He was dying. He knew it. Sprawled on his side, he could almost feel the life seeping out of him through the hole blown in his back. He shoved his hand in his pocket. Pulled out the old silver pocket watch he had carried every day of his job, ran his fingers over the raised engraving of Saint Michael on the back.
To the patron saint of cops and warriors, Brandon whispered a request for help.
"Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil."
He held the old watch against his heart, felt the wetness soaking his shirt. Realized it was because the bullet had blown clean through his body. He was bleeding out, left to die here on the filthy pavement of this alley.
Heard the scrape of a shoe near his ear, so close now.
A second explosion as another shot slammed into the back of Brandon's skull.
Death came instantly. But the last sliver of his human existence, less than a fraction of a breath, stretched into an eternity that seemed to encompass his entire life span.
The last thing he saw through his human eyes was his watch, its second hand clicking its last tick.
All of time seemed to hover in a single instant, packed into the space between those two black lines that demarcated one second from another.
And in that second, the summary of his human experience pouredforth in his mind.
Every image he had ever experienced, all flooding into his memory in a simultaneous rush. Emerging out of his mother's body, into the cold light of a hospital room
his infancy and childhood in a run-down suburb of Detroit
roughhousing with his brothers
frontyards full of rusted-out cars and tall weeds
his high school sweetheart, Tammy
the police academy
their first home.lovemaking in the afternoons.
All rushing through him and past him, as if he were being sucked backward through a tunnel.
And now, this.
The moments of his death were literally the worst moments of his life. In them, he felt loss, sorrow, regret, fear. Swirling together like a black hole in the cosmos. Nothing that words could ever describe, the feeling was so much more intense than language, which failed utterly to scratch the surface of that experience.
The experience of intense suffering.
Enough for a lifetime, compacted into the last fleeting scrap of consciousness.
What a shitty way to die, he thought.
Those were the last words that ran through his human mind.
He spiraled upward, flying out of his human body.
Looking down, he saw his mortal form sprawled on the ground, bleeding out onto the dirty pavement in the dark of night. Over his now-lifeless body, the killer leaned.
Brandon could only see the killer's back as the man bent down to remove the object enclosed in the curled hand of the corpse. The final impression of Brandon's human experience was one of absolute injustice. Not only had the killer taken Brandon's life, but he had also stolen Brandon's goddamned watch.
Fortunately, Brandon no longer cared. Detached from his human body, he spun upward.
Into light, he had been born. And now in death, he returned to light again. But not the light of the human world. Not a cold light this time, but reaching toward the warmest and most joyful light he had ever known.
Reaching, reaching, upward, upward.
To hang in the cosmos for a single, shining, glorious instant. An instant as long as eternity and shorter than the blink of an eye. But he knew he could not stay there forever.
Not yet. There were things to be done.
And then falling, plunging downward at a dizzying velocity, traveling faster than matter.
Because he, Brandon, was constructed of pure light.
He landed with a jolt, the light of his soul crashing back into his physical body.
Lying in bed. Howling a keening cry of mourning for the life he had just lost.
Just as he did every time he woke from this nightmare.
Every single fucking night for the past ten years, he awoke shivering in terror.
Thanking God that it was only a dream.
Because the first time it happened, it hadn't been a dream.
That time, it had been real.
Three o'clock in the morning.
That's what time his bedroom clock read.
The clock that existed in real time. Not dream time.
He shut his eyes against the memory of his death. Brought himself back to the here and now. Dragged in one long breath, and then another. Beneath him, he felt the damp of the sheets. Soaked through with sweat. The throb of adrenaline still coursing through his body.
In the darkness of his room he lay, recounting the facts to himself.
He, Brandon Clarkson, was no longer human.
But he had been, once.
It had been ten years since his human death. Why he revisited the scene of his own death every night, he wasn't entirely sure. He would have taken it for a curse if he had not been reborn as something other.
Immortal, but sent back in a human body. With all the same problems bound up with physical incarnation. Fatigue. Stress. Insomnia.
Reaching for the lamp beside his bed, he switched on the light. Blinking a few times, he squinted in the brightness. He got up and wandered around his apartment. The sleek modern loft in a historic Art Nouveau building was a world away from the alley where he'd died. He stood at the window, looking down at the river thirty stories below, shimmering gold in the hot July night, downtown city lights aglow on the surface of the water.
Not the Detroit River, but the Chicago River.
Not Detroit, he reminded himself.
Not Detroit, where he had been born. Where he had lived. Where he had died.
I'm in Chicago. Where he now worked as a Guardian in the Company of Angels. Where he had been promoted to supervisor, overseeing his own unit, after his preliminary training in the Los Angeles unit.
Chicago was a world away from his human existence. A lifetime away.