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"This had better not take long." I held onto my new husband's arm, nervously smoothing the white taffeta of my knee-length wedding dress as our elevator made the slow descent toward Earth, aka level one, where supposedly we were needed for a major ghosting emergency. Of all the days we had to get called into work.
When my husband brought my hand to his lips, sin in his bright blue eyes making my knees go weak, my irritation was momentarily forgotten.
"Have I mentioned how beautiful you look?" he asked with a mischievous smile that promised a very fun honeymoon.
I bit my lip, leaning into him while I toyed with his tie. "Maybe, but you can mention it again."
My grim reaper groom looked so dashing in a turn-of-the-century suit. Sideburns and wavy chestnut hair complimented his classic look. He was like a tall, frosty bottle of sexy sarsaparilla, and I couldn't wait to take a long drink. We had literally tied the knot only a few minutes ago, making me Mrs. Aedan O'Connor, the luckiest girl in all of Purgatory, though I was anxious to get back to our wedding celebration. We hadn't even cut into the cake yet — chocolate with raspberry filling and buttercream frosting, and a cute little grim reaper and fallen angel on top.
"It must be really bad if all ghosters have to report." Melanie, Sargent Santiago Sanchez's girlfriend and former demoness, looked ready to pass out as she swayed against Sarge while holding tightly to his hand. Her shimmery '80's bridesmaid dress with puffy sleeves and poufy Aquanet hair made her look like a retro prom queen. "Did they say what it was?" she asked Sarge, looking up at him with eyes heavily painted with blue eyeshadow and thick black liner.
I froze at Sarge's expression. All the color had drained from his normally tanned face. He swallowed hard. "I couldn't hear with all the screaming."
Sarge was an experienced combat veteran who'd died in Afghanistan. The fact that he looked like he'd just stepped in a giant crap sandwich didn't bode well for us.
"Basil!" I spun around, narrowing my eyes at my potty-mouth friend. Basil rarely made sense. Usually, she was rambling about aliens and flies while inhaling her leafy-green pain meds.
Basil stared straight ahead, mesmerized by the blinking buttons on the elevator and twisting a lock of scraggly, white hair around her finger. "Not even the aliens can help us now," she mumbled.
Our oldest ghoster, Crow, who'd died sometime during the Civil War, stood as still as a statue by Basil's side. The whites of his eyes stood out against his leathery, ebony skin. He stared at the doors as if the very hounds of hell were waiting on the other side. This was so not good.
I shot Aedan a nervous look, and he reassuringly squeezed my hand. "Relax, sweetheart." He opened the flap on his jacket, revealing his retractable scythe, a smooth black object that was no bigger than a cellphone. "We've survived hell three times. We can get through this. Just stay behind me," he said with a wink.
"Damn right I'm staying behind you," I grumbled, examining my French tips. "I spent a lot of credits on this manicure." No sense in ruining my nails blasting demons when Aedan could chop off their heads. But there shouldn't have been any demons on Earth anyway. The only demons who had access were those on the top level of Hell, and I'd zapped their gatekeeper down several levels when he'd tried to start the apocalypse. Without the gatekeeper, demons couldn't leave hell. So why was there a ghosting emergency?
We sucked in a collective breath when the elevator stopped at level one, aka Earth, aka the dimension where I'd spent the first twenty-nine years of my existence until my untimely death by faulty blow-dryer.
I squeezed Aedan's hand tighter as the silver doors squeaked open, and then I just about crapped my panties.
Our elevator had dropped us off smack in the middle of what could have only been described as an undead battlefield. We were in an old cemetery shrouded in a thin mist and faintly illuminated by moonlight. Gravesites had been unearthed and tombstones turned to rubble while grims and ghosters decapitated demonic creatures that came at them from all sides. And was it just me, or was it uncommonly hot for early spring in Seattle?
Margo Styles, a ghoster on the elite Alpha Squad, who looked like a Barbie and screamed like a banshee, shoved a big-ass machete into my arms. "Arm yourself." She drew in a deep breath before driving a hatchet into some pale creature's skull.
My stomach roiled when his brain exploded in a fountain of green ooze, splattering Margo's face. I wasn't crazy about Margo, and I'd wanted to dump a plate of caviar over her snooty head a time or two, but I wouldn't wish a mouthful of demon sludge on my worst enemy.
Aedan pushed me behind him, slicing off a demon's head before I had a chance to blink. The rest of the ghosters on my squad somehow found weapons and were joining in the action. I spun in a slow circle, nearly dropping the heavy machete on my foot. I could barely lift it. How the hell was I supposed to cut off heads with it? All while wearing a wedding gown and heels.
I ducked under Aedan's arm as he decapitated a demon with spikes coming out of his skull. "Margo, what is happening?" I hollered, unable to keep the shrill rattle out of my voice.
"I don't know," she said between grunts, driving her blade into a scaly creature's torso, "but all hell's broke loose."
A tall shadow fell over us, and I peered up at the commander of the ghosting squadrons. Shadow, a formidable ghoster, was made even creepier by me knowing he'd once been controlled by a powerful demon.
"Shadow," I cried. "Please tell me what's happening."
"Delta squad." He frowned at me, waving to Sarge and Aedan. "You take the west end. Whatever you do, do not let them leave the cemetery." He handed Sarge and Aedan walkie-talkies.
So like a man to talk over the woman, but now wasn't the time to get into a sexism debate. I reminded myself Shadow had died 150 years ago, back when women were still swooning from tight corsets and battery-operated dildos hadn't been invented yet, so we kind of had to take shit from men.
I shrieked when a demon head catapulted past me, spewing blood all over my wedding gown. Dammit! Now I was pissed! I dropped the machete and yanked a blade out of a demon's back, shook off the blood, and marched alongside my husband. So much for my white wedding. Guess that was my karma for trying to pass as a virgin.
Energy tickled my palms, and I flexed my fingers, feeling my wind power strengthening. I was able to channel wind on level one, and not the kind I experienced after my grandma's three-bean chili, but a powerful gale that could knock people over. I looked at my team. No surprise they'd taken on their ghosting forms. Basil was a wicked apparition, partly see-through and fully creepy, her hands and feet obscured in misty shreds, as if they'd been caught in a paranormal paper shredder. Crow had transformed into a giant black crowzilla, part man and part "what-the-fuck-is-that-thing?" Melanie had an orange glow, but Sarge and Aedan looked pretty much the same. They didn't need any special powers or transformations. They were bad-ass enough. Aedan only took on his grim reaper form when he went to Hell, transforming into a skeletal creature with skin that looked like dried jerky. Needless to say, he was far from appealing, but I loved him anyway.
The fog grew thicker, obscuring the bloody brawl behind us. I heard a frantic call over Sarge's walkie-talkie. "Beta to Alpha. There's been a breach."
"Damn!" Sarge pulled Melanie closer. "Fan out." He pointed for Aedan and me to go right and Crow and Basil to cut left. Aedan held his scythe at the ready. His blue eyes darkened to a deep indigo. "Stay close to me."
I eagerly nodded. As if I'd go on a stroll through a demon-infested cemetery without my grim reaper husband.
The mist was getting so thick now, I could barely see five feet in front of us. I raised my hands, channeling my wind, and blew the mist. Most of it swirled around us, but enough scattered so we could make out several unearthed graves. Had the demons desecrated these sites?
"Ouch!" My heel twisted, and I lurched forward, grabbing Aedan for support and nearly falling face-first into a gaping hole with an open, empty casket.
Aedan steadied me with a hand on my elbow. "Are you all right, sweetheart?"
I slipped off my shoe, pouting when I saw a crack in the heel. "My shoe!" First my gown and now my beautiful, shiny red pumps, given to me by my dear grandmother, were ruined. I didn't think our wedding day could get any worse, except, of course, if we were butchered by demons.
I slipped off the other shoe, sighing when the soft, damp grass soothed my sore feet. I hadn't realized how badly my feet had been cramping. I handed my heels to Aedan. "Can you stuff these in your pockets?"
"Of course." He leaned his bloody scythe against a tombstone and stuffed a heel in each of his jacket pockets. "Can you walk without them?"
"I've walked barefoot through Hell." I laughed. "I think I can handle it."
I jerked back, grabbing Aedan's arm when a hand shot out from behind a tombstone and a man pulled himself up and sat on the edge of the stone, moaning into his palms. His sallow skin nearly matched the light gray color of his three-piece suit. His pants were ripped at the knees, and he was only wearing one shoe, but what was most striking about the man was that his head was caved in on one side. How was he still alive? He didn't strike me as a demon. He was too — for lack of a better word — corpsy.
"Uh, Aedan,?" I whispered. "What is that?"
The man glanced up at us, or maybe through us. He had a vacant look in his one good eye. A long trail of drool hung from his lip.
"Hungry," the man said, stumbling off the tombstone and walking toward us.
"Sir," Aedan asked, "Are you lost?"
"Or dead?" I added, swallowing bile, taking another step back as the man slowly advanced, dragging a leg behind him.
"He sees us," Aedan said, "which means he's dead. The grims are fighting demons. Probably why nobody's come for him." Aedan picked up his scythe, and we both took a big step back.
"Hungry," the man said again, lunging toward us.
I shrieked, jumping aside as the man tumbled into an open gravesite.
"Hungry," he cried from the hole.
I squeezed Aedan's arm, unable to quell my shaking limbs. "I don't remember being that hungry after I died."
Something wasn't right.
Aedan scratched the back of his head. "No telling how long he's been wandering the first dimension."
My hand flew to my throat when the man's feeble cries echoed from the hole. "Oh, Aedan. We have to help him."
Aedan frowned. "You're right. We need to get him out of here before a demon finds him."
We cautiously walked over to the gravesite and peered down at the man, who was lying face-down in a coffin.
"Sir," I called. "Is there anything we can do to help you?"
He rolled onto his back and looked at me with one pitiful puppy eye. "Hungry."
I bit my lip, sharing a nervous glance with Aedan.
Aedan handed me his scythe and held a hand down to him. "Come on out of there, and we can summon you an elevator to Purgatory."
The man sniffled and grabbed Aedan's hand. I cringed when I saw his brains were leaking out of his skull.
"Hungry," he cried again, and then bared yellowing teeth, hissing like a cat and trying to bite Aedan.
"Hey!" Aedan hollered, jerking backward and trying to shake out of the dead man's grip.
"What the hell!"
I blasted the guy with my wind, and he flew into the grave, dragging my husband with him and biting down on his wrist.
Aedan howled and kicked the man in the face. The guy's head broke off and toppled to the bottom of the casket, but his body was twitching like it had been electrocuted.
"He won't let me go!" Aedan cried.
"Here!" I tossed Aedan my blade, and he cut off the man's hand and jumped out of the casket. The guy's petrified fingers still clutched Aedan's arm.
Aedan's eyes were wide with panic. "Help me with this!" We peeled the fingers off Aedan's wrist. The hand fell to the ground, flopping around like a fish out of water.
"Let me see." I examined Aedan's bite and sucked in a sharp breath. Blood oozed from the wound. Awww, hell's bells. My dress was already ruined. I cringed and ripped off the outer layer of taffeta. I wrapped the material around Aedan's wound while warily eyeing the dead guy's hand. "What was that thing?" Aedan's mouth set in a grim line. "I think it was a zombie."
"A zombie?" I gasped. "I didn't know they were real."
Aedan frowned at the twitching hand before kicking it into the coffin. "Neither did I."
Well, shit. "Something tells me we're not making it to our honeymoon."
After Aedan radioed to the others to watch out for undead corpses, he sliced off the heads of three more zombies and one snake-like, slithering demon. I stuck to his side, using my wind to blow away mist or get rid of creatures. Where had they all come from? Lots of screaming and howling was heard over the static of the walkie-talkie. I just hoped the screams were from the demons and not our ghosters.
Sweat dripped off my face and rolled into my cleavage. I hadn't been this hot since my last foray into Hell. I had already tossed my veil, wishing I could slip out of my wedding dress, too. Aedan had discarded his coat and tie. We'd stuffed the removed clothing, along with my shoes, in a tree branch, hoping we could retrieve them later.
"Delta Team, do you read?" Shadow's urgent cry cut through the screams.
"We read you," Sarge said.
"We're picking up a lot of activity from a vault on the west end. I need you to check it out."
"Roger," Sarge answered and Aedan confirmed.
I fought the urge to roll my eyes. Shadow had sent us to the shittiest section of the cemetery, no doubt. We had the smallest ghosting team in the Supernatural Intervention Agency, yet we had the best track record of all the squads. We were also the only ghosting squad to survive not one but three trips to Hell. That also made us the most bad-ass ghosting unit, a title we proudly flaunted, maybe a little too much. Instead of recognition, our newly elevated status had only earned us more dangerous assignments, like this one. Especially like this one.
Crow and Basil hovered in a pine tree above us. Basil held a finger to her lips, her pale hair and white eyes glowing like a ghoul. Crow squawked and angled his beak toward a pulsating light in the distance.
"Aedan," I breathed, clutching his arm. "I don't like the looks of that."
Crow squawked again and flew from his perch, landing on a nearby branch. "Y'all stay here. I'll go see," he said in a much too human voice.
Melanie and Sarge cut through a narrow clearing and joined us as Crow took off, flying through the dense branches like a phantom spirit.
I scooted closer to Aedan, unable to ward off the chill that seeped into my bones when I looked at all the unearthed graves. Had the demons dug up every corpse? Ironic that we were far from the scariest things in the cemetery.
Crow flew back, landing on an old tombstone and squawking like a deranged chicken.
"What is it?" Sarge asked.
Crow's feathers shook, and it took me a moment to realize he wasn't posturing. He was scared. His black eyes narrowed as he angled his beak at the light behind us. "Demons everywhere and a dragon."
Huh? I nearly lost control of my bladder. The last serpents from hell we'd fought had been made of fire, and the one before that was a soul eater. If I had to go up against another dragon, I didn't think Hell had enough adult diapers to contain my trickle of terror.
There was a roar so deep and terrifying, I felt as if that dragon's call was a direct line to my nervous bladder — and who was I kidding? — to my explosive stomach. I did pee a little when a heavy black shadow passed over us.
Basil floated down beside me. "Whoa. This is some serious shit."
I was slightly annoyed by Basil's response, mostly because she was a psychic and hadn't seen this coming.
Sarge's eyes went wide. He turned on the walkie-talkie. "Alpha, be advised a dragon is heading in your direction. I repeat: a dragon is heading your way. Over."
"A what?" Shadow snapped, and then his scream cut through the static and nearly burst my eardrums.
Basil threw up her ghoulish hands. "Fuck me."
I turned to my husband, tugging on his sleeve. "Aedan, what does all this mean?"
Excerpted from "Dead and Delicious"
Copyright © 2017 Tara West.
Excerpted by permission of Shifting Sands Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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