Most people grabbed a coffee on the way to work. I was clinking my way to the liquor store checkout with three bottles of Jack Daniels. One bottle would probably get the job done, but I snagged an extra pair for insurance. There was no way in hell I was doing this twice.
The clerk’s eyes went from the bottles to me and back again before scanning them into the register.
“For the morning staff meeting,” I said. “Gets the week off right.”
The man gave me an I-just-work-here grunt. “Need a bag?”
“Got it covered.”
I started loading bottles into the messenger bag slung across my chest, winding an old towel I’d brought with me around and between them, careful to keep the bottles away from the borrowed thermal night vision goggles that were almost as critical as the booze for tonight’s job. I wasn’t far from where I was going, but I was trying to avoid any icy sidewalk accidents on the way there.
It was two days until New Year’s Eve. The temperatures hadn’t risen above freezing the entire week, and since we had gotten an extra half foot of the white stuff last night, it felt at least ten degrees colder than it actually was. Though when you added in a wind that was cold enough to give an icicle frostbite, a couple of degrees one way or another didn’t make a hill of beans worth of difference.
The liquor store was a block from the subway station, and it was only two more blocks from there to Ollie’s, so I walked and slipped and clinked. A man sitting propped against the outside of the liquor store heard that telltale sound and looked at me like he was a Lab and I’d just bounced a tennis ball. He started to get up, staggering as he did so. I pushed back my coat, giving him a good look at my gun. I wasn’t big, but my gun was.
It was also a fake.
I’d learned real quick that there was a big difference between owning, carrying, and shooting guns in the big city and doing the same back home. There were lots of rules that the NYPD got real bent out of shape about if you messed with. As a result, my new employer had yet to deem me qualified for a company-issued gun, so I’d bought myself one of those water pistols that looked exactly like a 9mm. If the sight of it wasn’t enough of a deterrent, I’d loaded it with tequila. Aim for the eyes then run like hell. It wasn’t much, but it was something.
The man looked at me for a second or two, his eyes shadowed under a tattered hat, and apparently decided that while a small blonde sporting a ponytail wasn’t scary, the gun told him the risk probably wouldn’t be worth it. He actually smiled at me through a couple of days’ worth of dark stubble as he sat back down. Good. Strange, but good. I really didn’t want to start my evening by squirting a homeless man.
I’m Makenna Fraser. I’m from a place called Weird Sisters, a small town in the far western point of North Carolina that doesn’t show up on Google Earth, was named in reference to the three witches in Macbeth, and where the first word of the town name perfectly describes most of its citizens. I’ll be the first to admit that includes me. I’m not what most people would call normal, never have been, never will be, and I’m fine with that.
Weird Sisters had been settled by the kind of people that normal people didn’t want to have living next door. Most times, they couldn’t put their reasons into words; it was more of a feeling than anything else. Other folks could put words to what they felt while in town just fine. Heebie-jeebies, the creeps, or just plain spooked. Outsiders passing through town instinctively knew whether they belonged there, or if they ought to just keep going.
Weird Sisters was said to be located on a ley line that supposedly magnified psychic and paranormal energies. I didn’t know if there was anything to that or not, but something attracted people—and non-people—to stop and stay here. Quite a few of our townsfolk didn’t exactly qualify as human. They looked human enough, and sounded like regular folks, but make no mistake—they were something else entirely.
Creatures from myth and legend are real.
Members of my family could see them for what they really were. We were what my Grandma Fraser called seers. We could see through any veil, ward, shield, or spell any supernatural could come up with as a disguise. Some used magic; most didn’t. Veils were a survival mechanism, much like how a chameleon changed its colors to blend in with its surroundings to protect itself from predators. Or how predators looked perfectly harmless until something—or someone—they wanted to eat wandered by.
Down through the years, my family has taken it on themselves to protect the prey from the predators. Since the town’s founding in 1786, there’s been a Fraser as marshal, then sheriff, and now police chief. I chose my own way to expose the truth. Supernaturals didn’t have the market cornered on predatory behavior. As a little girl, I dreamed of becoming an investigative reporter for our local paper.
But with the coming of the New Age movement, our main street became lined with shops, cafés, and tea rooms populated with psychics, mediums, crystal healers, tarot and palm readers, clairvoyants, and way too much more. Between that, the influx of tourists from Asheville, and the advent of the Internet, it didn’t take long for our newspaper and its website to become just another way to market the town. And when I came back home with my shiny new degree in journalism, I realized that in a town with more than its fair share of psychics (some of whom were the real thing), unsolved crimes were few and far between.
I decided it was time for me to leave for good.
I came to New York with the dream of running with the big dogs at the New York Times, or even sticking close to my hometown roots and writing for the Weird News section at the Huffington Post. But all I could get was a job at a seedy tabloid called the Informer, where only stories like “Donald Trump Is a Werewolf Love Child” had any hope of making it to the front page. If a story was the truth, great; if not, lies worked just fine. The majority of our gullible readership thought everything we printed was the gospel truth anyway. That particular headline had been an obvious lie—at least it’d been obvious to me. No self-respecting werewolf would have hair like that. But my stories had been the truth and had the dubious distinction of having been on the front page more than once, which had been good for keeping food in the fridge, but bad for my professional pride.
I could write about the weird and the spooky because I could see it. Implying that a mob boss on trial was less than human didn’t make anyone bat an eye. Making the mistake of telling my now ex-editor that said mobster had horns and a tail, and that his lawyer was a literal bloodsucker had made me the darling of his black, profit-loving heart.
As luck would have it, that same story had also put me squarely in my new employer’s sights. By that point, any job that’d let me regain my self-respect was a job that I’d gladly take—even if it took me back into family business. When SPI recognized me for what I was and made me an offer, I’d literally skipped to my editor’s office to resign.
Now I work for Supernatural Protection&Investigations, also known as SPI. They battle the supernatural bad guys of myth and legend, and those who would unleash them.
My family was thrilled to hear about my new job.
And I realized I couldn’t run away from who and what I was.
Most supernaturals come here wanting the same things as the rest of us: a good job, nice house, 2.5 kids, and a dog. The others? Well, their powers are stronger here, their greed is bigger, and any treaties or bindings that might have made them behave back home don’t mean squat here. They don’t just want their slice of the American Dream; they want the whole pie, and they don’t care what they have to do, who they have to kill, or how many city blocks they have to level to get what they want.
SPI’s mission is twofold: keep the world safe for supernaturals and humans alike, and cover up the truth. Because when it comes to supernaturals, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson: people can’t handle the truth. SPI has offices worldwide, and their agents are recruited from various alphabet agencies, top police forces, and military special ops, and are supported by the sharpest scientific and academic minds.
Then there’s me.
My job as the seer for the New York office is to point out the supernatural bad guys, then step aside so the aforementioned commando-ninja-badass monster fighters can take them into custody—or if necessary, take them out. Doing my part to help keep the world safe is gratifying work, with regular pay, and my job description includes three of the most beautiful words in the English language: full medical coverage. If Bigfoot was on the rampage hurting innocent campers, I’d hunt him with a butterfly net if it meant having a dental plan.
But the bottom line was that I liked my job. Since starting at SPI, New York wasn’t just the place where I lived; now it was home, a home that seemed to have supernaturals around every corner, kinds I’d never seen before, sitting at tables in every sidewalk café, and sharing every subway car with me. You’d be surprised at how many supernaturals lived in New York—then again, maybe you wouldn’t. Perhaps that was why they liked it here; they were just another face in the crowd.
When I’d first arrived in the city, I discovered that New York supernaturals were even better than the ones back home at disguising what they were and fitting in with their human neighbors. But I could see them, and they could see me seeing them. I’d give them a little smile and a nod whenever that happened, to let them know that I was cool with what they were. After an initial moment of surprise, more often than not, they’d smile back.
Yes, I’d traded the scent of mountain laurel for diesel fumes, and a ley line running under the mountains for a subway line running under the city, but New York had an energy all its own. I could see why it was called the city that never sleeps—it didn’t want to miss one thing. And neither did I.
I loved New York.
A blast of wind that must have come straight from the North Pole brought my wandering mind back to where it belonged—keeping me from busting my ass on a icy street in SoHo. We got plenty of snow back home; it was pretty coming down and pretty when it landed. When I’d stand in the woods on the side of the mountain, it was as if the whole world came to a stop to watch in complete and awe-struck silence.
There wasn’t nothing quiet about New York.
A man was walking toward me on the sidewalk. Only then did I notice that we were the only people I could see. That was beyond odd for SoHo, regardless of the time. Maybe everyone else had more sense than we did, and was at home and staying warm on a subfreezing night. The snow on the sidewalk was packed down and slick. I didn’t want to risk falling, so I started to step aside and let the guy pass.
He beat me to it. Chivalry wasn’t dead.
But the man was.
Though technically and clinically, he was undead.
Vampires were off limits to me in my job. It didn’t take a seer’s skill to recognize a vamp, and my seer’s skill wouldn’t do squat to protect me from one. Most monsters would eat almost anything. Vampires fed on one thing and one thing only—human blood. I was human, and I had blood. The guy who had my job before me had gone and gotten himself exsanguinated in an on-the-job mishap involving a school of giant North American sewer leeches. I wasn’t going to meet a similar end on an icy sidewalk in SoHo.
My panicking brain told me what not to do: don’t look him in the eye, don’t act like prey. I knew what I wanted to do—run. But my brain was so busy telling me what not to do that it couldn’t send the move-your-ass memo to my feet.
So I just stood there like a chipmunk cornered by a rattlesnake. I was shaking so hard, the liquor bottles were clinking together in my bag. If I ran, I’d probably just slip and fall like some B horror-movie actress. On the upside, if that happened, I’d probably die of embarrassment before he got his fangs into me.
The vampire resumed his slow approach. Anyone watching would think he was being careful walking on the ice. I knew he was playing with me, his dark eyes glittering like I was a hot toddy made just for him.
My hand fumbled under my coat for my gun, and I was kicking myself for not buying a second squirt gun for holy water. The vamp smiled, showing me fangs that were way too bright to be natural. Someone had gotten one or five whitening treatments too many. He was also wearing a fancy suit with no coat, though it wasn’t like vampires had to worry about freezing to death. The strap of a laptop case was slung over one shoulder.
Aw jeez. Death by yuppie vampire.
That ain’t gonna happen. I got my hand on my gun. A squirt in the eye with tequila might at least buy me enough time to get back in the liquor store. It might not stop him from draining me dry, but at least there’d be witnesses while it happened.
The vamp graciously inclined his head. “Miss Fraser.”
I froze and my fingers went numb on the butt of my gun. I knew a handful of vampires by name, only one lived in New York, and this guy wasn’t him. What were the chances that a fancy-suited, laptop-toting vamp who knew my name just happened to be walking where I was walking on a night when no one with a lick of sense was outside?
Next to nil.
Faster than I could react, the vamp closed the distance between us and grabbed my hand, his bloodless fingers sliding past my gloves and up under my coat, his grip a paralyzing cold around my bare wrist. I opened my mouth, trying to scream, when the yuppie vamp’s gaze darted over my shoulder and behind me. Now it was his turn to shake in his shoes, though I was sure his had to be much nicer than mine. I didn’t want to risk taking my eyes off the vampire, but if there was something worse behind me, I needed to know about it.
The only other person on the street two minutes ago had been the homeless man. If the vampire couldn’t get me, the homeless man would be easy pickings—that is, if the whatever- was-behind-me hadn’t already gotten him. I didn’t want either to happen.
I turned around.
I’d been surprised by a lot of things since starting at SPI, but this was near the top of the list.
The homeless man was the only person—living or otherwise—that I could see, and he might have been homeless, but right now, he looked far from helpless. He stood with no staggering this time; his movements smooth and predatory. Regardless of the battered coat and hat, if he had been a supernatural, I would have been able to see at least an aura of his true form. Yet, his face—or at least the bottom half that I could see—now revealed much more. Faint impressions of multiple faces, each different from the one before, were layered one upon another, stretching back into the distance, like looking into a wall of funhouse mirrors. My instincts told me that they had all been real enough at one point in time or another.
The vampire must have known or sensed something more about the creature that I couldn’t. His expression went from thinking he’d found dinner, to wondering if he was dinner, as he actually jumped back and landed on his ass in the gutter then crab-crawled backward, desperate to get away. So desperate that he didn’t hear or care that his pants caught on something in the street, ripping them when he scrambled to his feet. The vamp’s fancy shoes found traction, and he ran across the street, slipping and sliding, half the ass torn out of his pants, showing the world one red-satin-boxers–covered cheek. I dimly wondered if there was a Santa on the front, or maybe Rudolph.
“Give my regards to your partner,” said a silky voice from behind me.
I sucked in my breath and spun back toward the homeless man—or whatever he was.
Gone. As in no trace that he’d ever been there.
A real person couldn’t have vanished that quickly. My seer vision wasn’t something I could turn on and off. The man had been just that—a man. Maybe. Perhaps a man who had lived a lot of lives. That wasn’t cause to freak out, but the little hairs on the back of my neck were telling me otherwise.
Give my regards to your partner.
My partner, Ian Byrne, had been a SPI agent for the past three years. For the five years before that, he’d been with the NYPD, and the prior seven had been in the military doing things that no one else at SPI knew about; and believe me, I’d snooped around. That information wasn’t around to be had.
I stood there, unmoving, my quick breaths visible as tiny puffs of steam in the subfreezing air. I was alone on the street. That is until the next monster who knew my name or my partner showed up. I clutched my messenger bag to my chest, and got the hell out of there. Fast.
My destination tonight was Barrington Galleries, a glorified pawn shop on the edge of SoHo. The owner, Oliver Barrington-Smythe, called it a collection of antiquities, artifacts, and curiosities.
I called it a store full of spooky shit that only even spookier people would want. Most of Ollie’s merchandise looked like it’d been dug up, either from the ground, a crypt, a basement, or a psycho’s imagination. Among the stuff for sale that packed Ollie’s place floor to ceiling were Victorian exorcism and vampire hunter kits, squishy things preserved in jars, dried things not in jars, funeral portraits, voodoo paraphernalia, and a sarcophagus that stood next to the counter with an actual, honest-to-God mummy inside. Well, there was until one of Ollie’s saner customers literally caught wind of the occupant and alerted the city health department. So now the mummy was a well-wrapped mannequin.
Ollie’s present problem was a stowaway in his latest shipment from Germany. He had a Bavarian nachtgnome running loose in his shop. Ollie liked money, and the green stuff would stop coming in real quick if word got around that something with fangs and an appetite for exposed body parts was loose in his shop.
That was where I came in. This wasn’t an official assignment; nachtgnomes didn’t register on SPI’s radar, unless there were a couple hundred of the little critters overrunning Grand Central Terminal at rush hour. This was a favor for a friend—and my best information source for supernatural activity in the city. As a former reporter, I knew the importance of a good snitch. I’d only been working for SPI a few months, but I’d been introduced to Ollie during my first week. A big part of being a seer was knowing where to look for the bad guys. Any flake in town with supernatural connections or leanings was drawn to Ollie’s place like a kid to a candy store.
Oliver Barrington-Smythe was short, beady-eyed, balding, and resented being all of the above, so it came as no surprise that Ollie rubbed most people the wrong way. I definitely wasn’t most people, and liked the borderline rude little guy. I liked his accent, and he liked mine. We’d hit it off—once I’d made him understand in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t a hillbilly—and he kept me in the know. To keep that gossip wheel greased and the goodwill coming, I was going to use a fifth of Jack to lure a Bavarian nachtgnome out of hiding and into a cage.
I’d never actually seen one before, but I’d studied the company manual. Nachtgnomes were short, shy, and wasted after one drink. Kind of reminded me of my last date. I’d had an easier time finding monsters in New York than a nice guy to spend time with. Ollie had promised to leave an iron cage to scoot the little guy into until morning. My job was just to catch it; Ollie had made other arrangements for getting it out of his shop. And no, I hadn’t asked what those arrangements were, because I really didn’t want to know. Though I suspected the population of the New Jersey marshes was about to increase by one. I’d learned in training that it was one of the more popular spots with the local criminals for getting rid of a dead body—or a disagreeable supernatural critter. On second thought, Ollie might not know that according to the manual, nachtgnomes could reproduce all by their lonesome. Maybe I should leave him a note.
At anywhere from a foot to eighteen inches tall, a full-grown nachtgnome would be big enough to drink right from the bottle. And as their name indicated, nachtgnomes were nocturnal, hence the NVGs. I’d learned how to use them in one of my training classes, so I saw no reason why I shouldn’t take advantage of Ollie’s gnome problem to get some practical application of my newly gained classroom knowledge.
I’d brought an old pair of plastic Scooby-Doo cups I’d dug out of the back of my kitchen cabinets. Needless to say, I wasn’t going to be using them again after tonight. I bought two instead of one because I wanted the gnome to drink enough to make it catchable the first time. I’d fill up both cups and leave the rest of the bottle. First call should be last call.
I was about half a block from Ollie’s place, and had been looking over my shoulder almost constantly, when a tall, shadowy figure stepped out of the shop’s recessed doorway.
At least I knew who the shadow belonged to, but I also knew that I’d been busted. Though right now, after what had already happened to me tonight, I was kind of relieved. Almost.
There was no mistaking Ian Byrne’s silhouette of relaxed readiness.