Reece Fernandez didn’t come to this town to finish high school. He hadn’t planned to stay. Changed against his will into a harbinger of death many years before, Reece has only known a nomadic existence, chasing disasters where mass death occurs and feeding on the energy. But after meeting his new neighbor, he can’t imagine leaving.
Angie Dovage changes everything. Feelings he thought had died complicate his predictable but gruesome existence, making him want to share his secrets with her. Making him yearn for a different life. Reece is desperate to protect Angie from an impending natural disaster that will decimate her town, and from a sinister creature who sees her as the key to breaking his own tortured curse.
But one hard lesson Reece has learned: becoming a harbinger of death was easer than unbecoming one…
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
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
When I'm tired, I sleep. When I'm hungry, I eat. I feel pain and heal as slowly as any human. As years pass, I age. On paper, I could be a normal boy. At first glance, I could pass for one of you.
But nothing about me is normal.
I'm a harbinger of death. Food isn't the only thing I need to survive. That other need is the reason I'm going out tonight. And then there's my hot, artsy neighbor, Angie Dovage. I'd love to get her off my mind. But that isn't happening until my group and I fly out of this town. Even now, riding in a car with Cody Knox, a new friend and fellow hockey fan, I can't get that girl out of my head.
I listen with as much patience as I can muster as Cody starts in on how he'd like to ask out Ava Chen but is convinced she'll never say yes. She likes guys smarter than he is, he says. She doesn't like guys who play sports. I nod at that. It's a problem I identify with. Angie doesn't seem the slightest bit interested in sports or the people who play them. I wish I played the bass guitar. Maybe, if I were a musician, she'd be able to overlook my ... eccentricities. Not that she should. Even if we got along great, I won't be in Cadence long enough for a relationship to go anywhere.
My fingernails scratch at my coat's arm seam. This ride feels like it's taking forever.
"Hey, Reece," Cody says. "Did you leave a girlfriend in your last school?"
I shrug with a smirk and a snort. "No one girl in particular," is my lazy reply. The truth is there was no one at all, but of course, I think of Angie: survivor. Secret musician. Girl of the bright, sad eyes that look like they don't trust what they see.
Girl I can't stop thinking about.
My ribs squeeze tight around my lungs. The closer we get to town, the stronger the urge to get out of the car. I can't tell if it's the curse or the girl that's making me so unsettled.
Maybe if I can get the curse's gnawing ache under control, I'll get this ache for her under control. Not once during any of my abbreviated lifetimes have I had feelings for a girl like I do for Angie. Like me, she's lived through horrors. To say I was shocked to see Angie when we settled in the town of Cadence is an understatement. I never expected our paths would cross again. She doesn't remember our childhood friendship, but I liked her when I was a little boy, and I like her now. In the scant weeks I've been here, high school has become a complex beast. This must be what it's like for normal kids and their normal who-likes-who? problems. Angie's so far out of my orbit, just thinking about her the way I do is an exercise in futility. I'd stop if I could. I'd leave if I could. Well, I can. I still might.
After what feels like an eternity, Cody pulls into the Walmart parking lot. "Thanks for this," I say to him. "I won't have my car for a few more days."
Cody nods. "No problem, man. Why didn't you drive it here when you moved?"
I smile, itching to get out of this car, which smells like cheese and the open stick of deodorant rolling around under my feet. Cody's a sensible guy. He wouldn't believe the truth, that I flew here in the form of a big, red-eyed crow. Fortunately, I have answers ready for these types of questions. "It's a classic car," I say, which is the truth. "I don't like putting too many miles on her."
If he were into cars, he'd ask what type of car it is, but Cody isn't, so he doesn't. He's into hockey, and he's into Ava Chen. Cody and I part ways in the parking lot. I tell him I got a text from my "mom" that she's going to pick me up in town. Lucia's not my mom. She just gets to play one during our brief stay in Cadence.
He drives away, and I pull in a long, shaky breath. It's in the air — that sweet, delicious stench that calls to me. Death. It's the real reason I came to town. An itching on the back of my neck tells me someone will die tonight. I start walking in the direction my instincts pull me. I'm getting closer. I can tell by the sweat on my palms and the tightness in my throat. It's like being pulled by an invisible string, toward the thing the curse demands. If I move quickly enough, I will get there just before it happens. Not to stop it, of course. Never that. But to feed off it. It's not much. Just a dribble of water to a thirsty desert traveler. If I get there in time, the energy will be perfectly fresh.
However, what I'm doing tonight isn't without risks. Before I left the house tonight, Fiona stopped me in the kitchen to remind me of that.
"Don't do anything rash." Her six-year-old voice clashed with the wisdom of her much older soul. Her small hand braced the door closed. "This town is small. Not small enough for everyone to know everyone, but small enough that we stand out as newcomers."
I plucked her hand off the door and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "I promise I won't," I said. "I'm just ..."
"Depleted. I get it. But don't get yourself killed." Her feet shifted on the gleaming hardwood floor. "You'll reincarnate younger than me, and I like you better in the big brother role."
I grinned. "But if I die, you get to drive the Mustang in a few years." It would be sick and morbid to joke about dying if we didn't do it so frequently. Or if it actually stuck. When we die, we get put right back as a younger version of ourselves. "You know you're the only one I let drive it."
She stuck out her tongue. "I hate stick shift."
I laughed. "Don't worry. I have no intention of dying tonight." From the driveway, Cody announced his arrival with a horn honk and the rough pounding of heavy metal music. I leaned down and kissed the top of Fiona's head, or rather, her multitude of metal barrettes, clipping back her cornrows, then pulled open the door. "I like playing the big brother role, too. Gotta go."
She paused, as if seized by a sudden thought. "Reece. Are you going to see the neighbor girl?"
I froze, hand clamped on the doorframe. My body went taut. "No."
Fiona sighed. "I'm sorry, Reece. I shouldn't have asked that." She shook her head. "Be careful, okay?"
"I will." My voice sounded rough to my own ears. "Don't worry."
But Fiona worries, just as I worry about her. In our group of thirteen harbingers, she and I are closest with each other. At different times, we're each other's sibling, teacher, friend, mentor. She's also unerringly right most of the time, which makes her a little annoying sometimes. She's right this time, too. We're all here for a big disaster. An event that will cause many deaths and fill us with sustaining death energy for a few more months. But one of those deaths could be Angie's. I need to get prepared for that, because there's nothing I can do to prevent it.
For now, there's nothing to do but wait. Sometimes that wait is unbearable. Like now, with my hands shaking and my teeth gritted and this emptiness starting to bore a hole through my brain, my gut, whatever is left of my soul. The closer I get to where I'm going, the more intense the need to feed gets. The less human I feel.
As I walk, my instincts pick up on the fact that someone is following me. I sniff the air, but I'm upwind from whoever it is. We have a good sense of smell, well, for some things. I catch a slight whiff of the beekeeper's unique honey scent. It must be Rafette, the beekeeper who follows my group. Usually, he's nothing to worry about. However, Rafette's been stinging a frightening number of people in Cadence. More than usual. He's also done something no one's seen him do before: talked to a human. Not just any human — Angie.
The streets get darker. The pretty shops and cafés give way to empty storefronts. The scent of death pulls me toward boarded windows, buildings that had their heyday fifty years ago. A skinny cat watches me from the roof of an abandoned car sitting in an overgrown lot. The street sign reads Dredge St. Ahead, another sign reads Mountain View Gardens. It's an apartment complex that has seen better days.
The pull of death is strong.
This place is run down. The overflowing dumpster stinks, and cigarette butts lay strewn all over the sidewalk. Metal grating covers the windows on the lower levels. My senses are on alert. Whatever's going to happen here could be violent. It could be heartbreaking. Someone's going to die, in one manner or another. I prefer to get in, get the energy, and get out without being seen or killed myself. It sounds callous because it is. My group and I — we're not in the search and rescue business. Our curse forces us to travel from location to location as a murder of crows, scenting out impending death. We feed on it. We continue to exist. Let me tell you, it's not fun to have a supernatural curse struck on you. There's nothing romantic about it. We are not immortal. We bleed and suffer and die like everyone else.
The smell of death pulls me not toward the apartment building itself, but to the parking lot in the rear of the complex. There are a handful of parked cars, but this section, which is farthest from any entrance, is deserted. A dented guardrail lies just past the parking lot. On the other side lies the highway, whizzing with commuter traffic. This is where my instincts tell me I should be, so I stand on the curb and wait. Most of my life is spent waiting.
I glance back and spot a slim man in a square-shouldered coat and a wool cap hanging back in the shadows of one of the buildings. I didn't have great eyesight in my human life, and it didn't improve with the curse. Honestly, that doesn't look like Rafette standing over there. For one thing, this guy looks shorter. And he looks cold. Beekeepers don't feel cold. Or anything, as far as I know. However, I caught a whiff of his honey scent earlier, so I'm pretty sure it's him, lurking around. I consider going over there and flushing him out when, suddenly, tires screech and a car careens off the highway. I forget about Rafette. I forget about everything except for this. The reason I'm here. The only reason I go anywhere.
The car smashes into the guardrail and flips over it. It lands in the parking lot on its roof. No cries come from inside the car, and I release a breath. Even after all this time, it's unpleasant to hear the cries of the dying. To hear them and not be allowed to help. It violates the rules of our curse, according to commonly held belief among harbingers. It will result in retaliation by the ancient ones. We're not rescuers. We're not angels.
I push off the railing and walk to the ruined car, to the ruined person inside. Death energy seeps from the vehicle. The unique life current circulating through the man's body — suddenly cut free — is mine for the taking. It won't be enough to slake the increasing need inside me, but it's fresh and pungent, like rust on the tongue. It's inexplicably appealing. Saliva floods my mouth, even though — thankfully — I won't be eating anything here. The curse hasn't reduced us to flesh-eaters. At least not yet. We absorb the energy through the skin, like sunlight. Like oxygen, and just as vital.
I crouch down next to the smashed driver's-side window. The airbag opened, but the occupant — a middle-aged man — is clearly deceased, crumpled like a bag of chips against the roof of the car. This would have been a survivable crash if he'd worn his seatbelt. Blood flows freely from a wound I can't see from this angle. The reek of whiskey burns through the intoxicating smell of death. No big mystery why this man lost control of his car.
I take out my phone and call 911. If I don't do it now, I may forget. I tell the operator what I saw and where I am. First responders have been notified, she says, then asks for my name. That's my signal — I summon a panicked voice and tell her that I need to get home. I disconnect and power off my phone. There. Done. Now I can do what I came here to do.
I know it when my eyes turn red-black. Everything goes a few shades darker, like wearing invisible sunglasses. I never understood the point of this detail of the curse. It certainly doesn't help anything, having my vision further impeded. The curse takes over, shifting something inside my body, making me aware that I don't have ownership of it. The man's life force flows from his dead cells and filters into my skin, my insides, which quiver with an unnatural gratification. I wonder, vaguely, if this man is one of Rafette's victims — one of those he stung with a bee. I reach inside to see if I can find the telltale mark. Stings from these bees look different from those of typical bees. They're red, livid welts with white striations coming from them. The bees sting wherever they find exposed flesh. I can't see much of this man, but maybe his neck ...
I tilt the man's limp head, but there's no mark of a sting. Touching the dead gives me another push of death energy. My cursed body absorbs it greedily, taking it in and filling my nerve endings with a brief, zinging rush. It feels so good it's shameful. I push back the urge to change to my crow form. The crow always wants to take over after a feeding, no matter how small.
The sound of feet on gravel behind me doesn't register at first. I'm not at my most attentive. I can't concentrate. Everything focuses on the energy, at the expense of all else. I draw back as the rush subsides. If this man was stung, I see no evidence of it. Not that I looked terribly hard. Not that it matters, when it comes down to it. My hand comes away covered in blood. Well, that's inconvenient. There's no place to clean it off around here.
"Reece," says a small, choked voice.
That voice ...
No. Please, no. Disbelief and denial twist my gut as I slowly, slowly look up.CHAPTER 2
It's her. Next to me. Her, staring at me like I've murdered this man — which I didn't. Does she think I did? Her gaze locks on mine, and she leans forward as if ...
Damn! I duck my head and let my hair fall in my eyes, which are undoubtedly a gruesome, dark red. I can't let her see that. It's horrible, even to me.
"Angie?" When I find my voice, I can't keep the frustration out of it. I'm furious at myself for not realizing she was the one following me. That hunched figure was Angie all along, but I did smell honey, so Rafette must also be around here somewhere. Anything could have happened out here tonight. A gas line could have exploded. A gunfight. A random bolt of lightning. There are so many ways to die. She could have easily followed me to her death.
"Did you call 911?" she demands, pointing to my phone.
I nod. "Not that it matters for this guy. What are you doing here?" I must get myself under control. I squeeze my lids shut, willing them back to normal. When I open my eyes, the dark glaze I was seeing through is lighter. I can only hope it's gone when she gets a good look at me.
She moves closer, but her attention shifts from me to the man in the car. Dread twists my stomach. Seeing a dead body would disturb her, since — hopefully — she hasn't seen as many of them as I have. I hold up a hand, remembering with a jolt that it's covered with blood. Not what I intended. "No, Angie," I say as gently as possible. "No closer."
Her face hardens. Now she's getting pissed, which is fine. Get mad at me, Angie. Step away from the car. But no. Her jaw jerks up, and her shoulders square, and barring physically manhandling her — which I won't do — I can't stop her from doing what she's determined to do, pointless as it may be.
"Let me help." She pushes me aside and goes to the car door. She keeps her gaze away from the man and pulls at the door handle. "I want to help."
Anyone can see the doorframe is bent. It's not going to open. Still, she braces with a foot and pulls hard. I give her space, even though I fold my arms to prevent myself from scooping her up and swooping her away from here like a Superman wannabe. I may be able to fly, sort of, but I'm not the Man of Steel. I'm as easily breakable as she is.
"Help me, damn it!" she bellows at me.
"Angie, stop," I finally say. "Just ... stop."
The high whine of a siren cuts through the crisp night air. It's in the distance but coming closer. Coming here.
She lets go of the door handle. She looks inside.
I've spent many years as a harbinger, so take that into consideration before you judge me. The look on Angie's face takes my breath away. She doesn't lurch backward in disgust or, more commonly (and irrationally), fear. Instead, she goes very still. I can't interpret the expression on her face. It could be sadness, but if it is, it's of the complicated variety, mixed with experiences I can only guess at. My throat goes dry. Pure, uncut vulnerability slices through me with such force it threatens to buckle my knees. Angie doesn't know that she's looking at a wide-open slice of what I am. This is my reality, and it's unsettling how important it is to me that she's taking in this scene without falling into hysterics. How her reaction right now fills me with an elation that makes me feel like she could accept me. At the very least, maybe she could understand me.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cleaner of Bones"
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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