Monica Blackship hunts down creatures that shouldn't exist. Stephanie Adams has the power to shape nocturnal visions. And if it's weird, Jase Davis is on it. They're all members of the Crew, an international consortium devoted to explaining the unexplainable. In this enthralling trilogy, these intrepid investigators face a daunting array of paranormal dangers, from deadly cryptids to dream thieves. They're ready for ghosts, monsters and other strange phenomena. But is their greatest challenge distinguishing reality from fantasy, or separating work from pleasure?
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Monica Blackship woke with a gasp, her hands slashing at the air in front of her before she realized she wasn't in the cave but in her own bed. Alone, thank God. Though in the next moment as the sob wrenched out of her throat, she desperately wished she had someone to cling to.
Brad was gone. A whole month, by now. She didn't blame him, not really. He'd stayed longer than she would have if the situation were reversed. But that was the kind of man he was. The good guy, the hero. He'd tried to save her, but she was past saving. It had been too much for him, in the end.
Still, the bed was vast and empty without him, and though she wasn't afraid of darkness, it was so much easier to bear with someone else beside her. She gave in to tears. They leaked from the corners of her eyes and slid down to fill her ears, which was annoying as hell and effectively stopped her from totally surrendering to the indulgence of her misery.
She wouldn't be able to sleep again. The dream always meant the end of the night for her, no matter what time it occurred. Monica rolled to look at the clock, relieved to see that at least it would be morning soon. She wouldn't have chosen to be awake at this hour, but at least she could get up without feeling as though the entire night had been wasted. She could maybe even be a little productiveshe'd pay for it later in the day when she couldn't keep her eyes open, but there was nothing to be done about it now.
She swung her legs over the edge of the bed, unable to stop herself, as always, from hesitating just that little bit as her feet hit the floor. Monsters were real, though she'd never encountered one that lived under the bed. It never stopped her from imagining the bite of talons severing her Achilles tendon, of writhing tentacles dragging her under the bed. She settled her feet firmly onto the hardwood planks and used her toes to find the soft edges of the braided rag rug her grandmother had given her.
She didn't turn on the lamp. She knew her way to the bathroom without it, and she'd learned long ago that anything that was afraid of the light was small enough to be dealt with in the dark. Monica shucked off her pajamas and turned on the shower, giving it a few minutes to get hot while she brushed her teeth to clear away the final sour taste of her nightmare. Once under the scalding spray, she pressed her hands to the tile wall. Willing away the bad dreams. Willing away the loneliness.
Monica had already learned there was only one surefire way to push the thoughts away. A good, hard old-fashioned hair-pulling, ass-slapping fuckfest. Brad had not quite been the man to give it to hereven after nearly four months of steady dating, he'd often been too timid with her. Afraid of hurting her. He'd wanted candlelight dinners, stuff like that. Monica had been honest with him from the startshe wasn't looking for that. At first he'd been happy to fuck her in the middle of the night when she woke up, sweating and gasping, reaching for him, but then things had changed.
"There's more to me than being your cock on command," Brad had complained.
Monica hadn't tried to dissuade him from the notion that was how she thought of him. Yes, Brad made a stellar cup of coffee and remembered to put the toilet-seat lid down, and yes, he knew how to match his belt to his shoes. For a lot of women he'd have been a perfect boyfriend, but she was so far from being any kind of perfect anything it would've been unfair of her to try to convince him to stay. Even if it did mean now she stood in a steaming-hot shower with her own fingers sliding between her thighs so she could find some sort of release. Some way to wipe away the horror that crept so regularly into her dreams.
Her fingertips stroked, moving faster. There was nothing of romance in this. Nothing of love. She knew her body well enough to push it into pleasure fast and hard and sharp, just the way she wanted it. Ecstasy spiraled upward, urging her to cry out. Shuddering, Monica climaxed. The pleasure didn't linger. In another few seconds she was simply shivering under the spatter of water, feeling empty inside.
At least the dream had been pushed away.
Dripping, Monica wrapped her hair in a towel and then grabbed another to use on her body. She caught a flash of her reflection in the mirror. You couldn't miss the scars, several long slashes sweeping over her belly. She could look at them impassively now. She put her hand over them, aligning her fingers with the marks. The official report had been a bear attack. The wounds didn't match anything familiar or animal; she'd spent a few nights in the psych ward before giving up her insistence that she hadn't been hurt by a bear. A beast had torn her open, but Monica had done her own work on her wrists and that sort of thing had a tendency to make people give you the side eye about everything else.
She touched those marks, too. The one on the right was precise. The one on the left, ragged. Four inches long, lengthwise, not across. She'd been serious about wanting to die.
"But not anymore," she whispered to herself, just to be sure the face in the mirror was really hers.
She would put on some comfy clothes and make herself some coffee and eggs and toast, she decided firmly. She would not text Brad to see if they could get togetherhe'd made noises about the two of them staying "friends," but she knew well enough how that would work. As in, it wouldn't.
She'd barely started the eggs frying when her phone rang. At this hour it could only be Vadim, which could only mean one thing. Monica thumbed the screen of her phone, not bothering with a hello.
"This is the job," Vadim said without a greeting of his own, and suddenly Monica wasn't sleepy any longer.
* * *
Jordan Leone had no patience for rich fucks who thought a hefty bank account equaled free rein to buy and sell any other creature's life. Paul DiNero wasn't usually that sort. The guy genuinely cared for his animals, though his hard-on for the exotics meant he had quite a number of pets that weren't the cuddly kind. It was how the guy acquired the animals that lit a slow fire under Jordan's skin.
DiNero wanted what he wanted and he had the money to get it, even when legal channels failed him. Maybe especially when that happened, since that was often the only way he could procure the pets he wanted. He had contacts all over the world, from legitimate and licensed breeders to poachers to other collectors who were looking to sell off their animals or their offspring. Sure, the guy had a bunch of documentation proving his backyard menagerie was a private zoo used for "educational" purposes, but the fact was, DiNero's collection was for his own private pleasure and nothing else, and when he wanted something, that meant he was willing to put up with the sort of arrogant douche bags Jordan hated.
Today it was some guy with a weird accent that sounded French but wasn't. His greasy black mustache glistened from the bison burger he'd scarfed down while sitting on DiNero's terrace. His beady eyes narrowed while his mouth stretched into a grin Jordan wouldn't have trusted on a great white. He waved a languid hand.
"The price," he said, "is nonnegotiable."
"You understand I'll need to have my man here give the animal a full health check," DiNero warned, though he didn't look concerned. He'd dealt with this dick-blister before.
Jordan hadn't eaten a burger, even though the smell of it had flooded his mouth with greedy, ravenous saliva. His stomach clenched, not so much in physical hunger as in simple longing. He'd restricted his meat eating for over fifteen years, and though his vegetarian diet was self-imposed, he'd never quite managed to convince his body he wasn't missing out. He took a long drink of his beer instead, savoring the hoppy flavor.
"Of course, of course. I wouldn't have it any other way. Not for one of my best customers." The guy, whose name was something like Algiers or Algernon or maybe it was Addison, flicked his gaze at Jordan and gave him another smarmy smile.
DiNero nodded at Jordan and bit into his own burger. Juice squirted. Jordan had to look away.
"Go make sure my new girl is healthy, Jordan, while Mr. Efforteson and I chat about some things," DiNero said.
It was a dismissal, but Jordan didn't mind. With barely a nod at Efforteson, he headed for the stone stairs off the terrace, toward the driveway and the truck parked there. Unmarked, without even ventilation, the inside would be pitch-black and stinking of frightened animals, but Jordan had seen worse conditions. Sometimes when he'd had to travel to pick up a new pet, the sights he'd witnessed were so horrible they'd left him shaking and furious. Violent.
With a nod at the armed bodyguard, Jordan yanked on the truck's rolling door in the back and hopped into the bed. Inside were rows of cages, all empty but for the one at the back. In it, a cowering female silver Russian fox yipped and rolled her eyes as he approached. He soothed her with a low murmur and put out a hand for her to sniff, his fingers against the bars of the cage. The foxes had been bred for generations in Russia as an experiment at domestication, and now the animals were more like dogs than their ancestors had been. They'd gained in popularity as exotic pets, expensive and limited in where they could be legally kept, rare only because of how difficult it could be to acquire one. This pretty girl was a replacement for one DiNero had lost.
"Hey there, pretty girl. Sweet girl," Jordan soothed, settling close to the cage so the fox could get used to him. "I won't let anything happen to you."
Not like the other one, he thought with a hard swallow of anger. He'd fucking warned DiNero about fixing the barriers between the zoo and the bayou, but the man had been more concerned about keeping away nosy neighbors or thieves than anything else. Gators couldn't climb brick walls or smash them, either, but something had scaled the ten-foot wall. The barbed wire on the top had been torn and tossed aside like candy floss. This last time, the intruder had left behind a pen full of dead foxes.
Jordan opened the cage and the fox crept closer with a small yip. She'd clearly been socialized thoroughly, something DiNero wouldn't bother to do once he had her ensconced in the zoo. The fox had been bred as a house pet, but to DiNero she was an ornament.
"C'mere, little girl." Jordan stroked the soft fur, feeling for any obvious lumps or bumps. He gave her some cuddling time before scooping her up to take her outside. The bodyguard looked surprised, but Jordan ignored him to take the fox across the long expanse of soft green grass to the small bungalow he used as an office.
The fox yipped and buried her face against him when they went inside, but Jordan continued to soothe her with murmured words and gentle touches as he examined her. Her paws scrabbled on the steel tabletop, but she quieted when he gave a warning noise under his breath. She still trembled, but she wasn't trying to get away.
She looked good, at least as much as an animal could when it had been kept caged in the dark and improperly fed and watered for the past few days. But she was healthy, without any signs of abuse or genetic flaws as the result of inbreeding. Jordan finished the exam and slipped a treat from his pocket that the fox took eagerly. She butted her head against him, and he took her narrow face in his hands.
"Pretty girl," he said quietly. The fox licked his face.
Once she'd been put away in her own habitat, separated for now from the three surviving foxes for a quarantine period before he introduced them, Jordan made the rounds of the other habitats in this section. He'd spent long hours building most of them, re-creating different terrains or climates to provide the best possible housing for their inhabitants. The animals were under his care, and that meant their living conditions, too.
Veterinarian, handyman, lion tamer. That was his job here at DiNero's, and it was the best one he'd ever had. The man gave him a good salary and free room and board on the property in a tiny but cozy bungalow with full catering privileges from the main-house kitchen. Most important, DiNero usually left Jordan alone.
Until today, apparently. Jordan rounded the corner of a low stone wall meant to keep the prairie dogs from getting outDiNero loved prairie dogs and would often spend hours feeding them peanuts and watching them pop in and out of their holes. Today, though, he stood with his back to Jordan. Efforteson wasn't with him. DiNero's companion was a woman, her long dark hair the color of black cherries. It fell in soft waves to the middle of her back, and when she turned, eyes like a summer sky opened wide beneath dark arched brows.
"Jordan, come say hello to Ms. Blackship."
Reluctantly, Jordan came closer. DiNero had been married four times, no children unless you counted the third wife, who'd thrown tantrums like a three-year-old. Now the man claimed he would never get married again, which only meant that he brought around his one-night stands to impress them with his menagerie, and Jordan had to make nice and pretend to give a damn.
"Monica," the woman said as she gave him a firm, brief handshake.
"She's the Whattaya call it, honey?"
If the endearment raised her hackles, Monica Blackship didn't show it. She gave DiNero a flicking glance but then put her focus back on Jordan. "I'm a crypto-zoologist."
For one awful moment, Jordan thought maybe DiNero was trying to replace him. But then he understood, having heard the term somewhere. "A crypto."
"I research unusual or what some might consider legendary creatures," Monica replied calmly. "Bigfoot. That sort of thing."
"You think Bigfoot jumped our wall and killed our animals?" Jordan didn't even care what DiNero might think of him taking any small part of ownership. "That's ridiculous."
"Of course it is. By all accounts, the Sasquatch is a vegetarian," Monica said without so much as a quirk of her smile.
DiNero chuckled. "Just like you, Jordan."
Jordan scowled, crossing his arms. "Sasquatch also doesn't exist."
"That remains to be disproven, actually." Again, that calm, almost blank look without a hint of any expression. It made him want to do something to see if he could shake her up.
"Hasn't been proven," Jordan added.
DiNero gave him a look. "Something came over our walls, Jordan. And you said yourself it wasn't human."
"I didn't say it was Bigfoot, either!"
"That's what Ms. Blackship is here to help us figure out. She works with an organization that studies this sort of thing." DiNero, who could be a pain-in-the-ass wisecracker most of the time, looked serious. "You know animals, dude. You know this is some kind of animal that keeps doing this."