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UNDER A SPELL
The Underworld Detection Agency Chronicles
By HANNAH JAYNE
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Hannah Schwartz
All rights reserved.
"You want me to do what?"
In all my years as the only breathing employee at the Underworld Detection Agency, I've been asked to do a lot of things—hobgoblin slobbery, life-or-death, blood-and-flesh kind of things. But this? This took the cake.
Pete Sampson leaned back in his leather chair, and though I usually beamed with pride when he did that—as I had been instrumental in getting him back into head of the UDA position—this time, I couldn't. My stomach was a firm, black knot and heat surged through every inch of my body as he looked up at me expectantly.
"I really thought you would be excited to visit your old stomping grounds."
My knees went Jell-O wobbly then and I thumped back into Sampson's visitor's chair. I yanked a strand of hair out of my already-messy ponytail and wrapped it around my finger until the tip turned white.
"Excited? To return to the source of my deepest angst, my inner-turmoil—to the brick walls that can only be described as a fiery, brimstony hell?"
Sampson cocked an eyebrow. "It's just high school, Sophie."
Most people would say that high school is the most traumatic time in their lives—myself included. And since in the last few years I'd been shot at, stabbed, hung by my ankles, almost eaten, and sexually harassed by an odoriferous troll, most traumatic took on a whole new significance.
"Isn't there anything else we can do? Anything I can do? And I'm talking human sacrifice, demon sacrifice, total surrender of my Baskin Robbins punch card."
"Sophie," Sampson started.
"Wait." I held up a hand. "Are we sure we have to go in at all? And why me, specifically? I mean"—I rifled through my purse and pulled out a wrinkled business card—"it's been a while since you've been back at the Agency, Sampson. See?" I slid the card across the desk to him. "It says right there: Sophie Lawson, Fallen Angels Division." I stabbed at my name on the card as though that would somehow give my title more emphasis. "Does this case have anything to do with fallen angels? Because if not, I'm sure there are other UDA employees who would be excellent in this investigation. And then I would be able to really focus on my current position."
Granted, my position more often than not found me pinning a big baddie to a corkboard or locked in a public restroom san clothes, but still.
Sampson stacked my business card on top of a manila file folder and pressed the whole package toward me.
"You should go in because you know the high school."
"I'll draw you a map." I narrowed my eyes, challenging.
"And because everyone else around here—" Sampson gestured to the open office, and I refused to look, knowing that I would be staring into the cold, flat eyes of the undead—and the occasional unhelpful centaur. "Well, everyone else would have trouble passing. Besides, it's not like you're going in alone."
"I'm not worried about that. And hey, I'm flattered, but there really is no way I'm going to pass as a student."
Though I'm only five-five (if I fudge it, stand on a phone book, and stretch), often wear my fireengine red hair in two sloppy braids, and have, much to my best friend's chagrin, been known to wear SpongeBob SquarePants pajama bottoms out to walk the dog, it had been a long time since anyone had mistaken me for anything more than a fashionably misguided adult.
"You're not going in as a student. You're going in as a teacher. A substitute."
I felt as though all the blood in my body had drained out onto the brand-new industrial-grade carpet. Because the only thing worse than being a high school student is being a high school substitute teacher.
My left eye started to twitch. "A substitute teacher?"
My mind flooded with thumbtacks on desk chairs and Saran Wrap over the toilets in the teacher's lounge. Suddenly, I longed for my cozy Underworld Detection Agency job, where no one touched my wedged-between-two-blood-bags bologna sandwich and a bitchy band of ill-tempered pixies roamed the halls.
"A substitute teacher," I repeated, "who saves the world?"
Sampson's shrug was one of those "Hey, pal, take one for the team" kind of shrugs and I felt anger simmering in my gut.
"You can 'teach'"—he made air quotes that made me nauseous—"any class you'd like. Provided it's in the approved curriculum. And not already assigned."
I felt my lip curl into an annoyed snarl when Sampson shot me a sparkly-eyed smile as if being given the choice between teaching freshman algebra or senior anatomy was a tremendous perk.
"If this high school isn't about to slide into the depths of hell or in the process of being overrun by an army of undead mean girls, I'm going to need a raise. A significant one," I said, my voice low. "And a vacation."
Sampson nodded, but didn't say anything.
"So," I said, my eyebrows raised, "why is this so dire?"
"Do you remember last year when a body was found on the Mercy High campus?" Sampson asked.
My tongue went heavy in my mouth. Though I was well-used to the walking undead and the newly staked, the death of a young kid—a breather who would stay dead—made my skin prick painfully. I nodded.
"That's what this is about?
Sampson didn't answer me.
"Her name was Cathy Ledwith, right?"
It had been all over the papers—a local student mysteriously vanishing from an exclusive—and, before that day, safe—high school campus. A week later, her body was discovered dumped near Fort Cronkhite, an old military installation on the Marin side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Though the story was told and retold—in the Chronicle, the Guardian—and the Mercy High School campus was overrun with reporters for the better part of a semester, there weren't a lot of details in the case. Or at least not a lot were leaked to the press.
"That murder was never solved," Sampson said, as he slid the file folder over to me.
"Didn't someone confess? Some guy in jail? He was a tweaker, said something about trying to sacrifice her." The thought shot white-hot fire down my spine, but I tried my best to push past it. "I still don't see what this has to do with the high school. Or with me having to go into it. I followed the case pretty closely"—I was somewhat of a Court TV or pretty much anything-TV junkie—"and I don't remember any tie-back. I mean, the girl was found in Marin."
"She was dumped in one of the tunnels at Battery Townsley."
I shuddered. "People go through there all the time."
"It was a hiker that found her. Her killer obviously wasn't concerned about keeping Cathy's body a secret."
I winced at the mention of Cathy's "body."
"I still don't understand what this has to do with us—with the Underworld. Everything about it screams human. Cathy was human—someone even recognized a van, right? Very few of our clients drive vans."
Sampson gestured to the folders and I swallowed slowly, then looked down at them. Directly in front of me was a black and white photo of a smiling teenager—all perfect teeth and glossy hair—and it made my stomach roil even more. My high school picture was braces doing their darnedest to hold back a mouthful of Chiclet teeth and hair that shot straight out, prompting my classmates to announce that my styling tools were a fork and an electrical socket. I yanked my hand back when I realized I was subconsciously patting my semi-smoothed adult hair.
"What? The prom queen—?" I stopped and sucked in a sharp breath when my eyes caught the headline plastered over the photo: Mercy High Student Missing.
I scanned quickly.
Mercy High School student Alyssa Rand disappeared Monday afternoon. Erica Rand, Alyssa's mother, said that she last saw her daughter when she boarded the number 57 bus for Mercy as she always did; teachers confirmed that Alyssa attended her classes through the lunch period, but she did not show up for afternoon classes. Police are taking student statements and a conservative approach, unsure yet whether to classify Alyssa as a runaway or an abductee.
I looked up, frowning. "I don't understand. I mean, it's horrible, but we don't even know if she's really missing."
"She is, Sophie."
Sampson pressed his lips together and sighed, his shoulders falling in that way that let me know that he wasn't telling me everything. "There has been talk of a coven on campus."
Relief washed over me and I sort of chuckled. "Sampson, every high school has a coven on campus! It's called disgruntled teenage girls with black dye jobs and too much angsty time on their hands pretending to read tea leaves and shoot you the evil eye." I waved the article in my hand. "I don't see how one has to do with the other."
"When Cathy Ledwith was found last year, she was in the center of a chalked pentagram. Black candles at the points."
I licked my suddenly dry lips. "They didn't mention that in the paper or on the news." There was a beat of silence where Sampson held my eye; finally, I rolled mine with a soft of snorting laugh. "Wait—they think it was witchcraft? Have you seen The Craft? Teen Witch? Pentagrams and candles is Freak Out Your Parents With Wicca 101. The killer probably found the pentagram left over from some kids calling up the spirit of Heath Ledger and dumped the body. Convenient, unfortunate, but convenient."
"The police considered that, but she had an incantation carved into her flesh."
I blinked. "Carved?"
"I consulted both Kale and Lorraine."
I sucked in a breath, willing Sampson to stop talking. Kale and Lorraine are the Underworld Detection Agency's resident witches. Kale had recently been run over by a car but spent her downtime controlling the elements, and Lorraine was the most powerful Gestalt witch the Green Order had seen in decades. She was also a top Tupperware saleslady, and if anyone knew a true incantation—or, for Lorraine, how to burp a lid— it was these ladies.
"They both confirmed that the incantation was legitimate. The killer also drained her blood." Even Sampson winced and my heart seemed to fold over on itself. I chewed the inside of my cheek and found myself praying that all of that had been done postmortem.
Sampson went on. "From the looks of it, Cathy Ledwith's killer was trying to summon a demon—and not a good one. This isn't just over-the-counter witchcraft."
"Oh." The word came out small and hollow, dying in the cavernous room.
"As I mentioned, Cathy's body was found seven days after she went missing. It was obvious that her attacker wanted—or needed—her to be found on that day."
"I don't understand. How do you—why—how do they know that?"
"According to the police report, an anonymous call came in at 7:07 that morning."
"Seven-oh-seven on the seventh day?"
"Of the seventh month."
I frowned, resting my chin in my hands. "Maybe her killer is just OCD. Did anyone explore that angle?"
It was silly, but I knew the significance of sevens—and I knew the demon Cathy's murderer was calling.
"Seven is divine. Seven-seven-seven is—"
"Satan." The word took up all the space in the room and I found it hard to breathe.
Everyone knows 6-6-6 as the devil's "call" sign—or they think they do. And while it does have true significance—mostly in movies, fiction, and speed metal songs—it is more like a pop-culture high-five to the Prince of Darkness. The trio of sevens is the summoner.
My heart was throbbing in my throat. I knew the answer, but still had to ask. "Do they think the other girl—"
"Alyssa, do they think she—that she may have been abducted by the same person?"
Sampson's hulking silence was answer enough.
Something tightened in my chest, and Sampson, his enormous cherry wood desk and his entire office seemed to spin, then fish-eye in front of me. I gripped the sides of my chair and steadied myself.
"We want you to go into Mercy and see what you can find out about this so-called coven."
"Are they even rela—"
Sampson held up a hand, effectively silencing me. "They're related, Sophie. There's no question. Students who knew Cathy confided that she had, in fact, been bullied by a group of other students. Haven't heard the same about Alyssa but it's a good possibility."
A memory wedged in my mind and I was fifteen again, awkward, terrorized, cornered in a Mercy High bathroom by a selection of mean girls with Aqua Net hair and slouchy socks. I could feel the sweat prick on my skin again, the nauseous way my stomach rolled.
"The police—aren't they working on this?"
Sampson nodded slowly, then laced his fingers together in front of him. "They are."
"They don't have a whole lot to go on, either. But that's not what we're concerned about."
"We're concerned about potential witches."
"I can't help but believe there is a supernatural element in this case, Sophie. The carving, the state of the body. The police aren't going to look at things like that. If there is a new coven brewing ..." Sampson let his words trail off, his dark eyes flicking over me.
"I don't get it, Sampson. If there were a coven—a coven full of real witches, wouldn't we know about it? I mean, it's kind of what we do." I pointed to the plaque behind Sampson's head. "It's right there in the name, Underworld Detection Agency."
The stern way Sampson's brows snapped together as he crossed his arms in front of his chest let me know that he wasn't enjoying my light banter-slash-attempt to do anything other than this assignment.
"Yes, Sophie, I know the name of the agency. But witches are among our least adherent of clients."
I felt my mouth drop open. "Really?"
"Check the books. We don't have a lot."
"I thought that's because there aren't a lot."
"There are thousands. Likely hundreds of thousands in California. We've got Wiccan factions, a group of Druids up by Humboldt."
"And what? They don't consider themselves 'Underworldy'?"
Sampson blew out a sigh and nodded his head. "Something like that. If there is a new coven in town—even if it's an old, under-the-radar one—we likely wouldn't have known."
"So really, I have to go out to Mercy and see what I can detect?"
Sampson smiled and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Yup, detect. It's right there in our name."
I rolled my eyes and pushed myself out of my chair. "Okay. I'm going to run upstairs and get the briefing from the police department. Kind of nice, I guess. They work on the physical, we pick up the metaphysical." I nodded again. "Kind of like a Batman-and-Robin kind of thing."
Sampson stood. "No, not like that all. We're strictly working our angle on this. We're not trying to find the girl, we're trying to find the coven."
A bolt of something shot through me. "So my job is to stand by and look for flying brooms and eye of newt while a girl is missing?"
"The police are going to find Alyssa. They're going to find Cathy's killer. Our job is to make sure that if there is a coven involved, if anything has actually been summoned—or anyone is looking for girls to use as future sacrifices—we stop it. We're doing this on our own. Do you understand that, Sophie?"
I crossed my arms in front of my chest and studied the office supplies on Sampson's desk.
"Let the police do their job. You need to keep your nose out of the physical part of this case."
Sampson eyed me and I broke his gaze, finding myself touching my fingertips to the tip of my nose. I didn't stick my nose into things.
For me, it was pretty much a full-body kind of stick.
"I need your word, Sophie."
"Okay, fine. You have my word." Even as I nodded my agreement, my mind was racing: check evidence. Read autopsy reports. Wear black. Break into something. I wasn't exactly lying to Sampson; I was simply covering all my supernatural bases. You'd be surprised how often a banshee shows up in a file folder.
I walked out of Sampson's office feeling as though I had just sealed my fate. Each step back toward my office made my stomach sink lower, even as I edged around the hole in the linoleum where a wizard had blown himself up (eons ago—was anyone ever going to get around to that?). I was about to hightail it into the ladies' room when I realized that part of the reason for the upswing in my stomach acids—and nausea—was standing on a chair, legs akimbo, facing me off in the hallway. I immediately started breathing through my mouth.
Excerpted from UNDER A SPELL by HANNAH JAYNE. Copyright © 2013 by Hannah Schwartz. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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