"A pleasingly original contribution to the paranormal-romance genre.” —Kirkus Reviews
A simple but forgotten truth: Where harbingers of death appear, the morgues will soon be full.
Angie Dovage can tell there’s more to Reece Fernandez than just the tall, brooding athlete who has her classmates swooning, but she can’t imagine his presence signals a tragedy that will devastate her small town. When something supernatural tries to attack her, Angie is thrown into a battle between good and evil she never saw coming. Right in the center of it is Reece—and he’s not human.
What's more, she knows something most don't. That the secrets her town holds could kill them all. But that’s only half as dangerous as falling in love with a harbinger of death.
Each book in the Black Bird of the Gallows series is STANDALONE:
* Cleaner of Bones (Prequel)
* Black Bird of the Gallows
* Keeper of the Bees
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the boy and the bees
Somewhere in this house is a set of binoculars. I wish I could say I want them for nosebleed seats at a concert. Or for bird-watching. Either of those activities would be more respectable than what I'm doing this morning, which is peering out the window, trying to check out the new neighbors. Trying, because the crows perched in the cold, bare trees separating our houses are impeding my snooping efforts.
An adult female voice filters through the woods, directing the location of a leather sofa, asking to please be very careful with that painting. Through the screen of birds, I glimpse a woman directing a battalion of brawny movers. Even from a distance, she makes an impression, with long black hair and buff cashmere, but I completely forget about her the instant a boy with a backpack comes outside. He's tall, about my age, and moves with a smooth, confident stride. From a distance, he's seriously cute, and I suspect the view is even better up close. Nice shoulders. Something vaguely familiar about the tilt of his head.
I shift for a better view and watch the woman give the boy a quick hug. He kisses her cheek and then starts down the driveway, out of sight. Not for long, I hope. Maybe he's walking to the bus stop where I am headed shortly. Curiosity sends a flutter through my belly. What's he like? Is he nice, or will I be stuck living next door to a jerk? You couldn't tell these things by watching a boy walk. They only come out when he opens his mouth and words come out. Cute or not, I'll be reserving judgment on New Boy. I finish off my glass of orange juice and turn at the sound of footsteps.
"Morning, Angie." My dad strides into the kitchen, followed closely by our dog, Roger. Dad is decked out for their morning run in designer sweatpants and one of his tight running shirts in a retina-piercing shade of highlighter yellow. Still, he manages to look dapper and sophisticated, even first thing in the morning and, well, in that shirt. Roger's eyes are glued to my dad, as if the powers of his dog mind will make Dad pick up the leash faster. "What are you doing?" Dad asks.
"Watching the new neighbors move in," I reply. "Where are the binoculars?" Dad joins me at the window. "In my bottom desk drawer."
Eh. I'm not running upstairs for them. Especially now that the boy's gone.
He shifts, tries to angle for a better view. "Binoculars won't do you any good with all those crows in the way."
"I know it," I mutter. "So who are these people, anyway?"
"Fernandez, I think their name is," Dad says. "I ran into the realtor a few days ago. She gave me the lowdown of the sale." He scratches his freshly shaved cheek and squints harder. "The lady is from Spain. Bunch of kids. No Mr. Fernandez," he adds. "Probably a good thing, considering what happened with Mr. Ortley. Sick bastard."
What happened with Mr. Ortley is still a matter of distress to the neighborhood and our entire small, southwestern Pennsylvania town. It's not every day a man returns home from a business trip and kills his family and then himself.
Although they kept to themselves, the Ortleys were our next-door neighbors, and we saw it all when the police arrived and the bodies were removed. The local news media didn't linger on the incident — just a rich businessman who snapped. But the sprawling, Tudor-style home seems to hold on to the grisly events that happened there. At least a dozen hopeful realtors had planted signs in front of the house over the past year and a half as weeds grew up around the three-car garage. Even priced rock-bottom cheap, no one wanted to live in that house. Potential buyers looked but left quickly. Some wouldn't even go inside.
I don't believe in ghosts or hauntings or any of that, but even I have to agree that the house makes me twitchy. It's as if some creepy melancholy had soaked into the bones of it, making it unnerving to be near. But maybe that would change with new owners.
Roger wags his thick yellow tail and lets out an impatient whine. It's past morning run time, and he doesn't care for a delay in his favorite part of the day.
My dad rubs a hand over the dog's blocky head. Our big, happy yellow lab wasn't always ours. He'd belonged to the Ortleys. After their passing, Dad had offered to take Roger, and the police were only too happy to turn the orphaned dog over to the neighbor and his kid rather than call animal control. It was one less hideous thing they had to do that day. And so, Roger became ours.
Dad takes out a pitcher of lumpy, green liquid from the fridge. It smells faintly of parsley and strongly of garlic, but he pours a healthy glass and downs half of it in one chug. To his credit, he winces only a little. I don't understand why he does this to himself.
"Okay, okay. We're going," he says to Roger, whose whines are now accompanied by a tap dance on the hardwood floors.
"You could try eating normal food." I grin and put my breakfast dishes in the sink. "Lots of people do it. You might like it."
"Working with doctors, you learn what 'normal food' does to the body. No thanks." This is the way all these conversations end. My dad sells medical equipment to hospitals, clinics, and doctors' offices, so he knows all the ways people can die. His job is to sell equipment intended to keep them alive. The result is, he's all in on the "prevention" end of things. I can say with authority, it's not easy being the offspring of a health fanatic. Last year, everything he — make that, we — ate was gluten-free. The currently banned food item is dairy. Living without pizza is miserable, but the milk thing is near unbearable. I dream about eating ice cream.
"I'll see you tonight, Dad," I say.
He points to his cheek. I give him a kiss and scoop my backpack off the counter. Weird food aside, living with my dad isn't a hardship. I could have been dumped on a far worse doorstep five years ago.
I pull on wooly, fingerless gloves and head out to catch the bus. Yes, the bus. For the record, I have a car — a ten-year-old Civic. It's so generic, it's virtually invisible, but I don't drive it to school. There's a cool, quirky explanation I hand out readily: I can do homework or study or fold paper cranes while riding. I tell people it's like having your own personal chauffeur. But the darker answer is, I worry obsessively about leaving my car unattended in the lot all day. Anyone could break in, steal it, or just do something to it. And yes, I'm familiar with the word "paranoia." I come by it legitimately. A big chunk of my childhood was spent in an old VW van that was broken into all. The. Time. Occasionally, while my mom and I were sleeping in it.
So I ride the bus. Aside from the part about standing on the corner in bad weather, it's not a terrible way to start the day. I walk gingerly down our very long, very steep driveway, crunching on the mix of salt and ice. Mount Franklin Estates, otherwise known as my neighborhood, was built into the side of Mount Franklin itself, in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. As far as mountains go, Franklin is less of a "mount" and more of a pretty, wooded hill with some expensive houses on it. Still, the roads can be steep and, because I shun practical footwear in favor of aesthetics, I have to watch my step.
The bus will arrive in eight minutes. Mrs. Pierce is as exact as an atomic clock. I pick up the pace when I hit the sidewalk, which is scraped right to the concrete and gritty with sand. Sure enough, the house next door is bustling with activity. The forlorn For Sale sign is gone and a champagne Lexus SUV sits next to the moving truck.
I pass big, gracious trees, driveways twisting off toward large homes, until the bus stop comes into view. I slow down. I've had the corner to myself since sophomore year, so it's jarring to see two boys standing there. One is backpack boy — my new neighbor — and a quick glance confirms that he is, indeed, binocular worthy. The other guy is ... I can't tell. At first, I think there's something wrong with my eyes. He looks a little blurred, like I'm viewing him through a smeared lens. His lack of a bag of some sort tells me he's not waiting for the school bus. Also, his attire — wool cap and puffy coat — is ordinary enough, but not high school-style. He holds himself in the way one would if he were about to bolt. Even from a distance, something about him sets off my finely tuned creep meter.
It's obvious that backpack boy and creepy guy are not friends, although they appear to know each other. There's tension in their stances, underlying the hum of their low-pitched voices — it's like they're squaring off. I slow my pace and look for something to duck behind, but their heads turn toward me at the same time. I falter, feeling like an intruder. Silly, considering this is public space.
Puffy Jacket takes a step backward. Closer up, he comes into clear focus, and I can see he's young — twenties, with a hooked nose and thin lips that turn down at my approach. The inexplicable scent of warm honey cuts through the late February chill. It should be a pleasant smell, but there's a sharpness to the aroma that makes the hair on my neck stand up.
I feel Backpack Boy's gaze on me. I'm still trying to gauge the other guy when, impossibly, his face changes. Not his expression — his actual face. Instead of a hooked nose and thin lips, wizened eyes peer back at me. His nose is small, almost feminine, and a mustache scruffs his upper lip. His gaze turns to mine with a cold intensity that makes my footing falter. He pulls his lips back over clenched teeth in what is perhaps meant to be a smile, but it's just not. My heart rate picks up. I drop my gaze, disturbed by what looked like hunger and menace and an unnatural familiarity in that strange guy's face. Caution escalates to the first prickles of actual fear.
It's okay. Don't freak. Mrs. Pierce will be here in a few minutes, and that baseball bat she keeps next to her seat is not for an impromptu game.
Puffy Jacket turns away. He mutters something to Backpack Boy and starts off down the street in the opposite direction.
Relief — that he's leaving, that I don't have to look at him anymore — eases my racing pulse, but already, I'm doubting what I saw. That couldn't have been real. I mean, it's impossible for a person's face to take on a whole different set of features without a ton of plastic surgery. There's a better explanation — deceptive lighting. Sleep deprivation. Too much sugary cereal.
Yeah. One of those things.
I turn my attention to Backpack Boy, whose face has not appeared to change, thankfully. My head is still a little fuddled, and I get stuck staring at him. Worse, I find it impossible to get unstuck. He's got more than a nice walk. He's got a nice everything — high cheekbones, straight nose, and expressive eyes to go with a tall, athletic body that just screams I play all the sports. Not my type, but the only thing I know about my "type" is that it hasn't been any of the boys at Cadence High. Except for this new one, apparently. It's irritating, because I could do without a hot neighbor. An attractive boy living next door adds a pointless layer of nerves, like stress about wearing my ratty sweatpants to the mailbox, and I don't want to be tempted to spy on him with my dad's binoculars. It's an exercise in futility. A waste of perfectly good energy, as in my experience, the noisy boys who play the sports don't notice the quiet girls who play the music. And that's fine. I have no problem with the natural order of things. I have no idea what a girl like me, who spends most of her free time in the basement with laptops and sound mixing software, would talk about with a guy who throws balls and runs for fun.
An amused light sparks Backpack Boy's dark eyes, as if he had heard those last few thoughts. One hand is wrapped around the strap of his backpack, the other is tucked in the pocket of his black wool coat. He wears cargos with a lot of pockets and black Chucks. His hair is a floppy chestnut mess. "Hi. I'm Reece Fernandez." The cold morning has put a chilled flush to his cheeks. He nods in the general direction of our houses. "My family is moving in to number forty-one."
I scramble for something interesting to say. Maybe even something witty. "Yeah, I saw —" No! Do not admit you were peeping at him from your window. "The truck." I clear my throat and shove my fidgeting hands in my pockets. "Moving day. Exciting."
Reece squints in the direction of his new home, then turns to me. Our gazes stick and hold, and for a moment I wonder if I've seen these eyes before. And those are some nice eyes, even though ... wow, they aren't just dark, they're black from iris to pupil.
He blinks to the ground then laughs, but it sounds forced, like he's digging for an appropriate response. "Exciting is one word for it."
I nod and smile like we didn't just stare at each other for several strange whole seconds. "So, I'm Angie Dovage. My dad and I live next door to you. Number forty-three. I hope I didn't ..." Stare at you like a brain-hungry zombie. "Interrupt your conversation."
"You didn't." His lips quirk up at the edges. "Thanks for running him off."
"Do you know that guy?"
He shakes his head, shoulders hunching. "Some freak asking for money." Dark eyes shift to squint down the street. Not the body language of someone telling the truth. After having lived with a drug addict until the age of twelve, I know fiction when I hear it.
I glance down the street with a shiver. The guy in the puffy coat is gone. Just ... gone. He must have ducked off the street and into the woods, as there aren't any houses or side streets on that stretch. If that guy tries to break into any of the fancy homes here, he'll be greeted by a shrieking, top-of-the-line security system, but I don't like the thought of some "freak asking for money" lurking in the woods of my neighborhood.
If that's really what he is. I doubt it, but I won't press. The guy could be Reece's relative — a cousin with a drug problem — and I know all about that type of pain and humiliation.
As for the face-changing thing, it must have been my imagination. A trick of the light or something. People's faces are what they are. They don't change like that.
"My car won't be delivered for a few days. Once it arrives, I can give you a ride to school, if you like." His voice betrays traces of a New England accent when he says the word "car." It comes out sounding like cah. Kind of cute.
"I have a car," I say, surprised by the offer. "I just ... prefer the bus."
Reece's gaze moves over me. It's a general perusal of the curious, non-leering variety, but my cheeks warm. "You a junior?" he asks.
"Senior." Here we go. He's the one with the creepy friend or relation, but I'll be the weird one because I take the bus.
"Oh, right. I should have kn —" He cuts off, eyebrows lifting in the middle, like he can't find the right word. "I didn't mean —"
I have no idea why, but his momentary fluster charms me, and I smile at him. "It's no big deal."
It earns me a grin. "I think it's cool that you take the bus. Sort of like getting chauffeured around, you know?"
Aw hell, now I'm smiling at him too much. "That's kind of my thought, too." I clear my throat when the silence stretches past a few seconds. "So, where did you move from?"
"It's more like, where haven't I moved from," he replies with a flashing grin. "We've lived all over."
"I thought you were from up north," I say. "Your accent. It sounds like Massachusetts or something."
"Really?" He starts to say something else, but wherever our conversation was headed cuts off with a sudden incoming flap of black wings and rasping caws. I look up as a throng of crows swoops in low and fast.
"Get down!" I drop into a crouch and cage my arms over my head. A mass of feathers and beaks heads right for us. It's called self-preservation, a trait I assumed everyone possessed.
Not so. Reece Fernandez remains standing. I peek up and watch in horror as he closes his eyes and lifts his face to the mess of curved talons and flapping wings.
Excerpted from "Black Bird of the Gallows"
Copyright © 2017 Meg Kassel.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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