Elly grew up training to kill things that go bump in the night, so she’s still getting used to working alongside them. While she’s learned to trust the eclectic group of vampires, Renfields, and succubi at Night Owls bookstore, her new job guarding Boston’s most powerful vampire has her on edge—especially when she realizes something strange is going on with her employer, something even deadlier than usual…
Cavale isn’t thrilled that his sister works for vampires, but he’s determined to repair their relationship, and that means trusting her choices—until Elly’s job lands all of the Night Owls in deep trouble with a vengeful necromancer. And even their collective paranormal skills might not be enough to keep them from becoming part of the necromancer’s undead army…
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ELLY DREAMS OF heartbeats. Slow and steady ones, the kind you count in the dark to help you sleep; fluttery rabbitlike ones, thready and fearful, the kind that something nasty might hear, and track you to your hiding place. She dreams of the way Justin watches the pulse in her throat sometimes, before he remembers himself and looks away.
Then there are the dreams where the heartbeats are as loud as footsteps, become footsteps, and those are the worst. They always end up the same dream: the one where she runs away, pulse pounding in time with her feet as she flees from the Creeps.
The dream where, several stories above, those jackal-headed monsters catch Father Value and beat him nearly to death, then let the fall finish the job. She tries to find him, willing herself to turn around, take that stairwell, get up there and help, but her body never obeys. She runs through mazes of poorly lit corridors, accompanied only by the slamming of her feet and her hammering heart, expecting to find a Creep around every corner, rotten meat on its breath as it laughs at her, laughs and laughs and laughs, while above, Father Value screams.
Sometimes she can pull herself out of it, shouting loud enough to wake Cavale when she claws her way to consciousness. Other times, like now, she’s trapped in those endless hallways with the blood in her ears going bam bam bam.
Bam bam BAMBAMBAM.
And a voice calling, “Is anyone home? Hello?”
No, wait. That’s not how this goes.
It was enough to yank her out of the dream, past grogginess to fully awake, just the way Father Value had taught them.
The clock read three thirty as she rolled out of bed and slipped toward the front of the house, mentally scrolling down the list of who it might be. She’d been asleep since coming home from Sunny and Lia’s around noon. Cavale wouldn’t be home from his day job for another couple hours. Val and Justin were basically cordwood until sunset, and Chaz probably had bookstore things to do. Plus, they all had keys, and none of them sounded like a ten-year-old girl.
The knocking grew even more insistent. Every few seconds the doorknob rattled as the kid outside gave it a try. Poor thing can’t know Cavale has half a dozen locks installed.
It was the nature of the neighborhood. He’d been able to buy the house for a song because no one lived here unless they had to, really. Crow’s Neck might have been a booming suburban haven fifty years ago, but these days it was a nearly dead sprawl. Doors left unlocked were an invitation for mischief, theft, or squatters.
Cavale’s residence being the spooky old house on the hill meant the local kids usually left them alone. They had the occasional ring-and-run—especially at Halloween, when going up to the witch’s door meant you were the bravest on the block—but Cavale said no one ever came around for boring things like selling magazines or candy bars for school fund-raisers. They were too afraid he’d scoop them up and bake them into a pie, or put a hex on them, or whatever witches were supposed to do to children these days.
Which meant when Elly finally undid the last of the locks and cracked open the door, the Girl Scout uniform tripped her up. From the khaki vest with Troop 305 sewn on the right, Elly had her pegged as a middle-schooler. It was the color she’d worn during her own brief stint in scouting; Cavale had helped her cajole Father Value into letting her join, pooled his allowance with hers to get her a hand-me-down uniform, and gone with her to argue for a full refund at the thrift store when Elly was kicked out of the troop two weeks later for frightening the other girls with her stories.
This kid wasn’t here to sell cookies. The way she snatched her hand back, Elly must have caught her going for another try at the doorknob. Her fingers trembled as, deprived of their target, they sought out and fiddled with the bright blue beads at the ends of her many tiny braids. She looked up at Elly with wide, red-rimmed eyes and kept peeking back over her shoulder as if she were being followed.
“Please help me,” she said. “Someone’s in my house.”
Shit. Any number of possibilities had flashed through Elly’s mind on seeing the girl’s fear, most of them having to do with bullies giving chase. A month ago, the sight of a frightened little girl would have had her thinking monsters and reaching for Silver and Pointy, but she didn’t bother marveling at how . . . mundane she’d grown. Burglars were just as real a threat as Creeps.
She opened the door the rest of the way and made room for the girl to get past her. “Come on in, and we’ll call the police.”
The girl’s eyes bulged as she peered behind Elly. Nothing scarier there than bunches of drying herbs—Cavale never did spellwork where anyone could see on a cursory glance—but any gander into the hallway would probably get the kid tons of mileage with her friends once she’d recovered from today’s real-life fright. She shook her head, though, and stayed where she was. “They won’t come. Not before my mother gets home.”
She wasn’t wrong. This section of town was low-priority unless there were gunshots involved, and even then the police were slow to respond. Elly backed up another step. “Here’s what we can do, then. Where’s your house?”
The girl pointed partway down the hill, to a one-story ranch with peeling green paint.
“Okay. We’ll call the police anyway. It’s worth a try. We can sit in the parlor and watch out the window. When your mom comes home, if the police haven’t come yet, we’ll go out and stop her before she goes inside. How’s that sound? We can have some, uh.” She’d been too damned busy these last few days to do any grocery shopping, and Cavale was useless at it. “Cereal, maybe, if the milk’s any good.”
Another head shake. “It won’t matter. Calling them or waiting for my mom.” She muttered something else, too low to hear.
“What was that?”
“I said, they can’t see him.” She balled her fists and stared a challenge at Elly. Now that she’d said it aloud, the words came in a rush. “Grown-ups can’t see him, but he’s been there all week, and he’s getting mad. My friend Leila said that guy you live with is a ghost hunter or something, and maybe you are too. So I need to hire you.” She reached into her uniform pocket and pulled out a paper-clipped stack of one-dollar bills. “I can make the rest up to you. Like a payment plan. Or I can do chores for you, mow your lawn or something. Shovel snow when winter comes.” She cast a significant glance at the tangled, overgrown mess that was Cavale’s front yard. As she talked, Elly watched some of her fear melt away, to be replaced by determination.
For the second time in as many minutes, Elly found herself tripped up. So it’s monsters after all? She was still getting used to interacting with people on a regular basis—people who weren’t Father Value, people who were blissfully unaware of how real beasties and ghoulies were—so she’d have to tread carefully until she was sure. Freaking out an already freaked-out kid would go all kinds of wrong. “Can . . . can your friend Leila see him?”
The girl tsked, and stopped just short of rolling her eyes. “Of course she can. She says kids are more sensitive to these things. They said so on that ghost hunting show. And now she won’t come over my house again until he’s gone.”
“You said he’s mad. Did he hurt someone?”
“No. Not yet. But he’s knocking things over and I get blamed. Mom says I’m acting out.” This time she didn’t stop the eye roll.
Elly raked a hand through her hair, thinking. “What does he look like?”
“I don’t know. Dead? Maybe he’s my dad’s age? Or was when he died? He’s a white guy with long hair, and he has a big hole in his chest. Sometimes it bleeds. I guess he must’ve been shot.”
Yeah, the kid was right—the police weren’t going to be any help on this one. “Do his clothes look old-fashioned?”
“No. He’s got a concert tee shirt on. One of those ones with the tour dates? When it’s not all bloody you can see it’s from last year.”
“How long have you guys lived in that house? Have your mom or dad done any kind of landscaping or something? Renovating the basement?” If he was newly dead, maybe he’d been killed there before they moved in, or someone had hidden the body on the property and the family had disturbed the grave.
But the girl said, “Since I was five, so like seven years?” and Elly’s theory went splat.
To hell with theories. The methods don’t change much between one cause of a haunting and another. It might be easier to put a ghost to rest if all you needed to do was give their bones a proper burial, but you didn’t always have the bones to work with. A couple weeks back, they’d laid a wraith to rest with nothing more than some personal effects and a poem. Improvisation is the best tool in your box, Father Value liked to say, and that was how Elly lived. “All right. Let me grab a few things and we’ll see what we can do.”
The girl let out a huge sigh of relief; her shoulders lost their scrunch. She held out the clipped stack of ones, but Elly waved it off.
“When we’re done, you owe me a box of cookies.” One more aspect of that whole polite-society thing dawned on her. “Hey, uh, you got a name?”
A pause. She fingered a badge on her beige sash, with the word safety embroidered on it in bright green. Somewhere along the way, this girl had learned that first tenet of Stranger Danger: don’t tell them your name. On top of that, maybe Best Friend and Supernatural Expert Leila had told her precautionary tales about giving witches your true name. Whatever the cause of the internal struggle, it lasted only a few seconds. “Cinda,” the girl said.
“Nice to meet you, Cinda. I’m Elly.”
Cinda stayed on the porch while Elly ducked into the house to collect her tools. She was a brave kid; Elly gave her major points for keeping calm with a pissed-off ghost at home. That didn’t mean she was quite ready for a trip through the spooky witch house. That was probably for the better—Cavale had left a stack of books on the couch, most of them open to pages that were varying degrees of disturbing if you didn’t live a life steeped in magic.
Elly’s eye fell on one particular spread, depicting a demon eating a woman’s heart. Okay, maybe even if you did.
She took a ketchup bottle filled with holy water, a pair of smudge sticks, a vial of lavender oil, a handful of crystals, a few other odds and ends, and shoved them into a plastic shopping bag. She debated strapping the silver spike to her wrist but decided against it—if Mom came home and found a strange woman doing all sorts of woo-woo shit in her house, with her sixth-grade daughter watching, well, Elly’d be in enough trouble. Best not to be armed, too.
Besides, silver didn’t do much of anything to ghosts and wraiths, whichever this might be.
Cinda leaned on the railing, staring down the hill at her house as Elly came outside. She eyed the plastic bag, clearly disappointed. “Is that, uh, your kit?”
“In a bag from Food Stop.”
“What are you going to do, throw a can of soup at it?”
“If that’s what it takes.” She held the bag open so Cinda could see what was inside. “If I walk down the street with a bag covered in runes, or some ancient carved box, anyone who sees will be curious, won’t they?”
“I . . . guess?”
“This draws less attention. You don’t want people knocking while I’m down in your basement getting rid of a ghost, now, do you?”
“No, I guess not.” Cinda’s mouth twisted in a bitter line. “No one really bothers with anyone else, anyway, though. It’s not that kind of neighborhood.”
Elly had no response to that—Cinda was right. The girl shrugged and led her down the hill.
* * *
HOUSES IN GENERAL were a new concept for Elly, “normal” houses even more so. Father Value would find an apartment for them to squat in from time to time, but they rarely had furniture beyond pallet beds and secondhand tables and chairs. No pictures on the walls, no magnets on the fridge—if the places even had a fridge.
She’d mostly gotten used to Cavale’s house; the biggest shock these days was that he still seemed to want her in it. The furniture was secondhand, refurbished to the best of Cavale’s ability. Some nights she’d come home to find him asleep on the couch, book spread across his chest. Of course, the book was often some obscure occult tome he’d taken from Val’s collection at the bookstore, Night Owls, but it was almost, almost an image from a normal life.
Val’s house was the next step up, on a pretty, tree-lined street in quaint, sleepy Edgewood, not a paint peel anywhere on the outside. Inside, you’d even think it was the home of a businesswoman doing moderately well for herself: furniture being slowly upgraded from the original cheap discount-store stuff to the real thing. (The bookcases must have been the first to get replaced, Elly suspected. Not a piece of particleboard in sight, there.) It looked normal until you realized there was no food in the cupboards, never a dish in the drainer, and the only time there might be food in the fridge was when Chaz had come over, ordered dinner for himself, and forgotten to bring home his leftovers.
That, and when you noticed the blackout curtains hanging on all the upstairs windows so Val and Justin didn’t have to sleep on the cold, packed dirt floor of the basement.
Sunny and Lia pulled it off the best: beautiful home, happy, well-to-do couple, and home-cooked meals every Sunday if anyone wanted to come by. Except they were succubi, and Elly knew it, and that made her less twitchy than if it were someone normal when she sat at their kitchen table and tore into a piece of roasted chicken.
Cinda’s house, then, set Elly’s nerves jangling. They entered through the side door into a cluttered kitchen. Most of the surfaces had things on them: mail piled on the counter, last night’s dishes in the sink, schoolbooks and craft projects littering the table. Every inch of the fridge was covered—report cards, photos, the week’s school lunch schedule clipped from the newspaper. Elly paused to look at a picture of Cinda and her parents. The Christmas tree loomed in the background. Mom and Dad waved at the camera. At first glance, Cinda seemed to be scowling, but on closer inspection she seemed to be fighting back a grin herself.
“They insisted on wearing those stupid matching snowman sweaters,” she said, coming up behind Elly. Even now, she seemed stuck between grown-ups, ugh and smiling at her parents’ goofiness. Elly had absolutely no context for it. Father Value had never owned anything remotely like a snowman sweater, and certainly never made her and Cavale pause for embarrassing family portraits.
From below them came a thud that made the dishes rattle, saving Elly from having to come up with a response. Oh thank God. “Where’s the cellar door?”
The ghost in the basement was the only thing here she truly understood.
While Cinda slid open the barrel bolt, Elly took out the vial of lavender oil. A long time gone, the Brotherhood would have burned dried lavender flowers and rubbed sigils onto their faces with the ashes. Elly found it much more convenient to go to a craft store and buy essential oils from the potpourri aisle. She thumbed a streak of it above each eye, fished her crystals and holy water from the Food Stop bag, then nodded to Cinda to crack the door.
Sometime back in the eighties, the downstairs had been finished and turned into an entertainment room. Cinda’s family had brightened up the wood paneling with colorful posters, but the dark walls beneath made it slightly claustrophobic anyway. An overstuffed couch dominated the far side of the space, facing a TV with a game system hooked up to it. Bookshelves overflowing with books and board games and baskets of art supplies covered one wall. Beside the couch, bent to get his fingers underneath for another lift-and-drop, was Cinda’s ghost.
Elly hmmphed from the stairs. “Slamming furniture around and blaming it on a Girl Scout. That’s where you’re going with this afterlife thing? Really?”
He looked up at her, surprised, and stepped back from the couch like a kid caught contemplating the theft of a candy bar.
“Yeah, I can see you. Can you talk?”
He opened his mouth, but the only sound he made was a staticky hiss. It reminded Elly of a radio stuck between stations; if there were words buried within, she couldn’t make them out. The problem with ghosts was, they were never consistent. Some of them would jaw your ear off if you let them. Others stuck with the more traditional wailing and rattling of chains. What they could do depended on how they’d been called from beyond the grave. The ones who wanted to communicate and couldn’t? They tended to get pissed.
Like this guy.
He squared his shoulders and advanced on her, skirting the couch on his way past.
Still moving like he’s alive. Doesn’t know all the neat tricks he can do yet. “Don’t you want to try knocking once for yes, twice for no first?”
“I tried asking him that,” said Cinda from way too close. “It makes him upset.”
Elly bit back a curse. Without turning to look at the kid, she reached out and gave her a shove. “Get upstairs. Close the door behind you and lock it.” A sharp intake of breath from Cinda, the kind you took before spouting off an argument. Elly recognized it because she was occasionally guilty of it herself. “Go.”
There was enough snap in her voice that Cinda listened. Her footsteps pounded up the stairs; the door slammed a second later.
“And pour a line of salt along the threshold!” Elly yelled.
The ghost hadn’t stopped coming. He was halfway across the long, narrow room, taking his time getting to her. He’d been in his mid- to late thirties when he died, assuming the manifestation matched his age. If it weren’t for the pallor, Elly might even have called him handsome. Long, dark red hair hung loose, down past his shoulders. It got ugly from there: The tee shirt, emblazoned with the name of a local band, had a jagged hole just above the heart. Pale skin peeked through. Elly couldn’t help but watch as a smooth, unblemished patch of his pectoral blasted outward, tatters of skin peeling back like flower petals.
Or like a bullet exiting.
Shot in the back, she thought. The wound began to bleed, fluid so dark red it was nearly black spilling forth in pulses, soaking the front of the tee shirt.
Elly stepped out into the room, keeping her back to the wall and circling away from the ghost. She could end it violently if she had to, but better if she could get him to go peacefully. Besides, something wasn’t adding up about this, and she wanted answers before dispatching him back to the grave.
She didn’t have much time to contemplate. One second he was a good five paces away; the next he was up in her face. Did he just figure out a new trick, or was he holding out on me before? Either way, he had the creepy teleportation thing down.
“Easy, now,” she said, but he wasn’t interested in talking. He let out another hiss of static and shoved her against the wall. New trick number two. The poster behind her tore with the impact as he pushed her higher. His face wasn’t so handsome now, the pallor slipping toward rot, blood gathering at the creases of his eyes like tears. Dirt was caked beneath his fingernails, and as he drew back for a slap, she saw that a couple of them were peeled back like he’d tried to drag his way along a hard surface.
He’d likely died frightened. Probably still was, even. Doesn’t mean I have to let him smack me around.
She thrashed in his grip, kicking and flailing until she jarred herself loose. The ghost might not have consciously realized he could spend most of his time all see-through and, well, ghosty, but he flickered out for a heartbeat, incorporeal.
The second Elly felt him lose tangibility, she dropped to a crouch and rolled. When she came up to the balls of her feet, she scuttled around behind him.
As soon as she’d gotten a look at the room, she’d assessed everything in it for its potential as weapon or cover. Books as projectiles, video game guitar as club, plenty of breakables if she needed a sharp object. Give her ten seconds and Elly could make this room into a battlefield, hopefully one that gave her the advantage.
But no way in hell would Cinda be able to explain that to her mother, so Elly had to play it clean. That meant staying close and ending it quickly.
The ghost spun, expecting Elly to have straightened. She stayed low instead, driving forward and bulling into him with her shoulder. The wall shuddered as he crashed into it, that damn print tearing, the abuse too much. Elly got a noseful of him: blood and grave dirt, the faint ozone smell she’d come to associate with hauntings. He battered at her, fists pounding at her back, cuffing her upside the head. She didn’t think he’d been in many fights while he was alive.
She kept him pinned as best she could, one hand flailing for her pocket. She’d shoved a handful of obsidian dust in there while putting her kit together, and brought it out now. Tiny shards dug into her skin as she shoved herself backward and down, executing a mangled sort of reverse somersault to give herself some distance. She’d never been a graceful fighter, but efficient? That was what mattered.
He was flickering again now, uncertain. Elly pitied him, but there simply wasn’t time for her to soothe an angry ghost; that could take days, let alone hours. Hell, Cavale had one customer he’d been working with for years.
The quick and dirty way, then.
The obsidian dust looked like beach sand in her palm. The overhead track lighting caught its facets, made them glitter. Elly danced in close and blew a puff of it at the ghost.
He threw his arms up to block, old living instinct kicking in. There was something written on his forearm, a sigil scrawled in black marker. It looked . . . new. Fresh.
It wasn’t one Elly recognized, but she was pretty sure it wasn’t just an ill-advised tattoo. “Someone’s tagged you,” she said.
Another one of those staticky hisses. He clawed at his face, dragging bloody furrows down his cheeks. His thrashing now had nothing to do with Elly; he didn’t so much as swipe at her as he staggered past, hiss-howling in agony.
But obsidian dust shouldn’t hurt.
It was a cleanser, a purifier, like all the other tools she’d brought.
The dust should have stopped him and calmed him, given her time to light the smudge sticks and send him on his way. This . . . You’d have thought she’d hit him with acid.
Books and games cascaded to the floor as he careened off the shelves. The flickering came more rapidly—some of his flails knocked things over; other times his hands passed through whatever he tried to send flying. The wound in his chest seeped faster, leaving a spoor trail along the stick-on laminate tiles. Elly took up a smudge stick and sparked her lighter. The thick scent of lavender and sage filled the air as the dried herbs caught.
She picked up the ketchup bottle filled with holy water and crept toward the ghost. He’d stumbled into a corner, near the door that would lead to the bulkhead and outside. If he saw her coming, he paid no heed. Pieces of obsidian dust stuck to his face, held there by his own blood.
“I’m sorry,” Elly said as she squeezed out a curve of holy water, trapping him against the walls. “I don’t know what’s wrong.” Two brightly colored cereal bowls had been left on an end table, the potato chip crumbs inside the evidence of Cinda’s and Leila’s last afternoon snack. Elly snatched them up and shook them out. She lit the second smudge stick off the first and set them down in the bowls to either side of the ghost’s new prison.
He slammed himself from one wall to the other and back again. Wisps of smoke drifted off his forearm, where the sigil had gone from ink black to molten red.
“I grant thee rest,” Elly intoned, her voice steady despite the strange spectacle before her. She squirted another line of holy water and waved the smoke from the smudge sticks toward him. “I grant thee forgiveness. I grant thee closure.”
He backed into the corner and slid down the wall, leaving a streak of blood like a paint smear.
“Your debts are paid. Your journey ended.” She held up a piece of white string, snapped it. “What tied you to this earth binds you no longer.”
He threw his head back and screamed. An actual human scream this time, not the hiss of an untuned radio. When it ended, he turned his arm to show Elly: the sigil was gone.
“What bound you?” she asked, then thought of the better question: “Who did it?”
But Elly was good at what she did. Damned good. Even as he held the arm up, he was fading, fading, gone.
She stood alone in the semitrashed basement in a spreading puddle of holy water, ringed by smoke. Mission accomplished and all, but I could have used another few seconds. Damn it.
The creak of the door upstairs. “Elly?”
“I thought I told you to sit tight.”
“It got quiet,” said Cinda, ignoring the question. “Is he gone?”
“Yeah, he is. You can come down now.”
Cinda gasped when she got to the bottom of the stairs, but not at the state of the room. Instead, she pointed at Elly herself. “You’re . . . That’s . . . That’s a lot of blood. Are you okay?”
Elly glanced down at herself and saw the mess for the first time. “It’s his, not mine. He got a little, uh. Leaky.”
Now Cinda took in the room, including the trail the ghost had left. She paled. “I don’t think I can clean all that up before my mom gets home.”
“It’ll go away,” said Elly. “It’s ectoplasm.”
“Like from that movie? With the slime ghost?”
“Yeah. Well. The term’s a lot older, but yeah.” The kid probably didn’t want a lecture on ghost hunting in the eighteen forties right then. “If we let those burn awhile”—she gestured to the smudge sticks behind her—“they’ll clear it up. Sort of like sunlight killing mold.”
Cinda bit her lip. “Will it be gone before my mom gets home? In like an hour?”
“Enough of the way that she won’t notice it, at least. Let’s pick up the stuff she will see.” Really, Elly wanted to bolt. To gather her things, get out of here, and go look up that sigil. Someone had raised that ghost, and whoever did it had been fighting her attempt at exorcism. She wanted to know why, and who.
But Justin had been trying to instill some degree of social skills in her, and if she bailed on Cinda now, she had a feeling he’d be disappointed when she recounted the story later. Plus, the kid was all right in Elly’s book. She’d done as she was told—mostly—and kept a cooler head than most people would have when faced with a haunting.
So she stayed.
CHAZ BOTH WAS and wasn’t a fan of October in New England.
About midway through the month, the weather got squirrelly as fuck—crisp fall days bookended by raw, cold, and rainy on one side and summery surges on the other. Not that his apartment was ever what you might call orderly, but the piles of clothes on his bedroom floor (what Val had once referred to as his floordrobe) had to serve three seasons at once.
There usually came a week when the temperature took its final dive, where you couldn’t just throw an extra blanket on the bed and ignore the chill any longer. When you had to grit your teeth and turn up the thermostat, and brace yourself for next month’s heating bill. Some years it held off until November, but Chaz was pretty sure this year, wearing shorts at Halloween meant you’d be risking frostbite on your bits.
He wasn’t one for leaf-peeping. He resented how the stores broke out their holiday decorations before trick-or-treaters’ candy-overload stomachaches faded. In fact, he’d long ago imposed the “Not one fucking jingle bell until Black Friday” rule at Night Owls.
The good thing about October, though, the best thing, was how sunset crept earlier and earlier every day. Sure, it’d been doing that since late June and all, but October was when it really got obvious. Night stole in, leaching away the illusion of summer, and that meant Val was around a lot more. Vampires rose when the daystar set, after all.
So his reasons for digging October were pretty selfish, and screw anyone who had a problem with that: Chaz got to see more of his best friend.
His best friend, his boss, and oh, also his master, though she curled her lip at the term. These days, if one were counting, he technically served two masters, though he had no intention of ever taking actual orders from Justin.
It had been easier, they’d decided after Justin’s turning a month ago, to let him stay with Val while he got used to his fangs.
And figured out what, exactly, the fuck he ought to tell his parents. Mom, Dad, I’m a vampire was right out: they’d either have him committed or donate him to science.
It wasn’t at the crisis stage yet, at least. The kid had a bit of breathing room: Thanksgiving break was a month away, and Justin had stayed on campus for it last year rather than flying home to Oregon. He could probably stay again this year, recycling the excuse that Night Owls needed him to work on Black Friday. The real reason, back then, was that his girlfriend lived on this coast and they’d been in that clingy-cute stage. He’d stuck around in the Ocean State so he could spend his long weekend necking.
The girlfriend was long gone, left him for jockier pastures last spring, but, well. He’ll still be doing some necking on Turkey Day, just a different kind. Chaz snorted to himself and checked the time. Another couple hours or so before Val would be around for him to share that particular groaner.
For now, he was alone in the Night Owls back room, sorting through bills and paperwork. The last of the repair invoices from last month had come in, and what insurance wouldn’t cover, Night Owls’ coffers miraculously could. Well, maybe it wasn’t entirely a miracle: once the news got out that a bunch of thugs had wrought havoc on the store, business had picked up. People from Edgewood and surrounding towns came in to show their support, spending money and rubbernecking and clucking their tongues at the senseless destruction. Of course, they thought the smashed front window and trashed state of the store was a case of vandalism, not a night of supernatural violence, but hey. People were reading.
They also had a bit of unexpected cash flow from the Clearwater estate. Henry and Helen had left clear instructions in their will about their library, and in it, Night Owls was named as the official broker for the massive collection of books. Many of them had been earmarked for Edgewood College’s English department. The rest, Chaz and Val had been working through bit by bit, inventorying, sorting, pricing, reselling.
The books in the first-floor library, that was.
The upstairs library, with its floor-to-ceiling stacks of old occult books, was a matter of more . . . creative handling. Two things worked in Val and Chaz’ favor: Henry had no family, and Helen’s was mostly on the other side of the country. What few relatives had flown out for the funeral hadn’t stuck around for a stroll through the house, not while Henry’s and Helen’s blood still soaked the carpets. While lawyers and appraisers and God only knew who else had been through the house once the crime scene investigation had finished, their interests had trended toward Helen’s jewelry (worth some serious cash) and Henry’s poor attempt at a coin collection (nothing in it worth more than twenty or thirty bucks, if your buyer was generous).
Val had told the lawyerly types from the start that the second-floor library was off-limits. Only once had two of them grown curious enough about the room while Chaz was there working, but they were that brand of New England polite that meant they didn’t try barging past him, just asked nosy questions and tried some good old-fashioned neck craning. He’d taken their business cards, promised Val would be in touch, and run some quick-and-dirty web searches to find their home addresses.
She’d been in touch, all right, though they wouldn’t remember it. The few times Chaz had seen them at the house again, they’d walked past the door to the second-floor library without even a cursory peek. It was almost as if they didn’t see the room at all. Val had probably Commanded them not to.
The books that weren’t quite right for the college, but not useful enough to be squirreled to Val’s or Cavale’s for safekeeping, were sold to collectors through Night Owls. A decent percentage of the sale went to the bookstore, but the majority of the proceeds went into a scholarship fund for Edgewood students the Clearwaters had established in their will.
Soon enough, all the paperwork would be done, i’s dotted, t’s crossed, and they’d have to pack up and move any books still unsorted from the house to the store. Or, more likely, to Val’s house. Night Owls’ back room was decent-sized, but not could-house-a-couple-decades’-worth-of-rare-books big. For now, though, morbid as it was in that house, in that room where the Clearwaters and Elly had made their stand against the Jackals, it brought a sort of closure. More for Val and Justin, who’d known Henry and Helen the best, but for Chaz, too. Much as the old man had spent the last few years hinting that Chaz was secretly a werewolf, he’d liked the old fucker. It helped that Helen had sent a constant stream of baked goods to the store, and Chaz got to eat Val’s share.
“It’s getting downright fucking maudlin back here,” he muttered, shoving away from the desk. He was in a fairly decent mood. Sticking back here with his thoughts seemed a good way to drag it down. He headed out to the front of the store, where it was bright and peopled, and even though the register lackeys weren’t quite as good company as Val was, they were still decent kids.
Five steps down the aisle he wished he’d stayed holed up back there after all.
Two aisles over, head bent in intense scrutiny over a book, was Cavale.
About the only thing he and Cavale had in common was their intense mutual dislike. They’d worked together without coming to blows with the Jackals and Justin and all, but soon as that business was done, the two had gone right back to being oil and water. Upon their first meeting, Chaz had decided Cavale was a pretentious know-it-all with a side of batshit crazy thrown in, what with the warlockery. Chaz’ enmity had nothing at all to do with Cavale being better suited to be a Renfield than he was. Nothing. At. All.
Maybe he hasn’t seen me yet. Slowly as he could, Chaz edged backward, toward the safety of the back room. He must have looked like one of those old cartoons: mouse sneaking past the sleeping cat, talking animal avoiding the hunter or the cowboy or the alien, bookseller ducking his archrival.
But this archrival was a Hunter with a capital H, and while Bugs Bunny might be able to get the drop on Elmer Fudd, Cavale’s senses were actually, eerily, sharp. He glanced up before Chaz had even retreated two steps. That kid must have killer peripheral vision.
At first, Chaz hoped he could get out of it with one of those chin tilts, the kind that said “hey” without actually exchanging words, and they could just ignore each other. He gave it a try.
But no. Of course not. Cavale snagged a couple books off the shelf and headed his way. His movements had a grace about them, his height lending fluidity to his stride. Chaz remembered how he’d prowled around the store after the Jackals had fled, searching every corner to make sure none were hiding out. It was the same today, though as far as Chaz knew there was nothing scarier here than college students cramming for midterms.
Chaz put on his best helpful bookseller face and reminded himself that, colossal dick or no, Cavale might actually be a paying customer.
“Val’s not here,” Chaz said by way of greeting. He cut his gaze toward the recently restored window, where the street outside had turned the molten gold of an October sunset. “She has some stuff to do before she comes in, so, uh, probably won’t see her here for a couple hours at least.”
“That’s okay. I needed a book. You guys are on my way home.”
“Right, right, from that new age shop.” Cavale’s day job involved reading tarot cards and tea leaves for people who believed in that mind-body-spirit shit. Chaz had Opinions on that, involving the morality of duping housewives and grandmothers out of their pocket money; but then again, some of those same customers probably headed over here and bought books on Visualizing Your Way to a Better Life Without Actually Making Any Fucking Changes. And he sold those without batting an eye, so he really didn’t have the high ground on this one.
Cavale’s eyes narrowed as he braced for the insult. Did I telegraph it that much? Chaz waved it off; he’d been in too good a mood to start a pissing contest. “Anyway. Uh. Something I can help you with?”
There was a look that Elly got about her sometimes, as though at any second she might bolt. Her mouth and eyes tightened, her gaze cut to the exits, and you’d swear the only reason she remained in her chair was because she was afraid to make any sudden movements. Never before had Chaz seen Cavale get that look. He did now, though. His grip on the books tightened. The fight went out of his sky blue eyes, replaced by wariness.
Chaz glanced down at the books. “What, are you—” Buying porn, man? was what he’d been winding up with, even though Cavale had been standing in the wrong section for that. Then he saw the covers and the titles, and his inner asshole went and put itself in time-out.
Cooking for Beginners. 101 Easy Meals for Kitchen Newbies.
“. . . uh. Are you trying to pick?” It was a terrible save, and Chaz knew it. He’d heard the smarm fade from his own voice; no way in hell had Cavale missed it.
Cavale took a deep breath, like Elly did when they were in the middle of Sunday dinner at Sunny and Lia’s, the same calming maneuver that, presumably, kept her from shoving back from the table and hiding behind the couch for the rest of the night. Or going to the knife drawer and finding the perfect cutlery for stabbing us all. It was mean, and Chaz knew it, but sometimes Elly was like a half-feral cat. He forgot sometimes that Cavale had been raised by the same man, that they considered themselves brother and sister even though they weren’t siblings by blood.
To his credit, Cavale recovered faster than his sister did. “Yeah,” he said. “I figure maybe I ought to know something more than ‘dump can of soup in pot, heat.’”
“Shit, man, that’s an advanced technique right there. I eat my Chef Boyardee right from the can.”
It earned him the ghost of a smile, there then gone. “Elly deserves better, though. It was fine when it was just me, you know? But don’t think I haven’t noticed how all the leftovers end up coming home with us on Sundays.”
“Huh.” That was as close as Chaz would get to admitting he hadn’t noticed it, but that wasn’t a big surprise. Not only could Sunny and Lia outmother most bears; they could be damned discreet about it while they were doing it, too. He tapped the cover of Cooking for Beginners. “We sell a lot of that one to the kids moving into the student apartments. It actually forgives you for using frozen veggies and shit. The other one gets a little, uh. Snobby.”
Cavale put Cooking for Beginners atop the other. “Beginners it is, then. I’ll put the other one back.” He took a step back, paused. “Hey. Uh. Thanks.” The word had a weight to it, more than just thanks for the help. Could’ve meant a lot of things, but Chaz figured it was, quite likely, thanks for not being a shithead about this.
Chaz gave him what he hoped was a decent bro-nod. “Sure thing.”
He probably could have walked Cavale up to the register and told Kate to give him the friends-and-family discount, but that might seem outright friendly. He wasn’t quite ready to take that step.
* * *
VAL HAD BEEN up and about for half an hour before Justin came plodding down the stairs. He smoothed the corkscrews out of his dark hair with one hand, rubbed the sleep-sand out of his eyes with the other. Not for the first time, Val was struck by how his tawny irises caught the low light. A month ago, they’d been liquid brown.
A month ago, Justin had been human.
He’d adjusted fairly well to the whole “becoming a vampire” thing, partly out of necessity, she supposed. If he hadn’t accepted the offer when Elly suggested Val turn him, he’d have joined the ranks of the Jackals—and that would have lasted about as long as it took for Elly to stake him with her silver spike. Then he’d just have been dust.
He’d dropped most of his classes for the semester, since attending during the day was no longer an option. He’d kept the one night class that had already been on his schedule, and a couple of his professors—the ones in the English department who’d also known and loved Henry Clearwater—had agreed to let him complete his courses as independent studies. Not because they knew what he’d become, of course, but because they’d received a call from his counselor suggesting he was too grief-stricken to function at his full academic capacity just now.
Val had been particularly proud of those calls, as guilty as they made her feel—neither she nor Justin liked using the Clearwaters’ deaths as an excuse, but there weren’t many other ways to keep him matriculated without exposing his newfound immortality. Justin had asked about practicing Command with them, but she’d shot that one down. She suspected he was too newly made for the ability—somewhere between hypnotic suggestion and flat-out mind control—to have any real effect, but if she was wrong, the last thing any of them needed was him accidentally turning his professors’ brains to mush over the phone.
They’d moved most of his things from his dorm room to Val’s house, where he’d taken over one of her spare bedrooms. He hadn’t quite made himself at home yet, insisting he’d figure something out, get an apartment of his own as soon as he could. Val found it unlikely unless he hit the lottery, but it was sweet that he didn’t want her to think he was freeloading off her.
“Morning. Uh. Evening,” he said, shuffling into the kitchen. He opened the fridge and stared into it ponderously: an old habit dying hard. His choices amounted to lamb’s blood, lamb’s blood, or lamb’s blood, since Chaz’ leftover meatball sub wasn’t something Justin could digest anymore. He opted for the lamb’s blood, pouring it from its plastic deli tub into a pint glass. He made a face as he drank it down, and Val couldn’t blame him. Cold, dead blood would get you through, but that didn’t mean it was enjoyable. Like cram, he’d said to Elly once, before he gave up trying to get her to read Tolkien.
“How’d you sleep?”
Justin eyed her over his breakfast. “If I say ‘like the dead,’ are you going to throw something at me?”
Val groaned. “No, but I’ll tell Chaz he’s being a terrible influence on you.”
“Then I won’t get him in trouble. I slept fine. No dreams, no . . . anything, really. I closed my eyes when the sun came up, and next thing I knew I was awake sometime after it went down. That’s normal, right? I mean, for us?”
Val resisted the urge to pat his hand. “Yeah, it is. Most of us sleep like that. I can probably count on one hand the times I’ve dreamed since I was turned.” She didn’t know why that was, what changed between life and death that would affect the capacity to dream. Of the vampires Val had met, only a few of them dreamed regularly, and those ones . . . they were a little fucked-up, as Chaz would say.
He drained the rest of his glass in one long, grimacing gulp and asked, “What’s the plan for tonight?”
“Get your running shoes on,” she said. “We’re going out.”
Elly was in charge of most of Justin’s training—he’d asked Elly specifically to teach him to Hunt: how to track down the Jackals, how to kill them, how to survive the fight. She’d taken the request seriously. A couple nights a week, she would lead Justin out into the abandoned streets that made up half of Crow’s Neck, run him through drills, and teach him what she knew about the Creeps, as she and Cavale called the Jackals.
But Elly could only show him how to do things at human speed. There were things he needed to know about being a vampire, too, and since Val was his maker, it fell to her to teach him.
It wasn’t like she was friends with many other bloodsuckers, as a rule.
They walked along Edgewood’s darkened streets, leaves crunching under their feet. It was too early in the evening for them to run at full speed out here—too many students walking home from classes, too many cars cruising past. They could have run through backyards and woods and side streets to get where they were going, but Val took the opportunity to test Justin’s other senses instead. She asked him to sniff the air and tell her what he smelled. They strolled behind a group of Delta Mus, and Justin relayed their conversation to Val in hushed tones. They continued on this way past the college, out toward Edgewood’s outskirts, until they reached the graveyard.
It wasn’t the sprawling modern cemetery the Clearwaters had been buried in. That was on the other side of town. This one had last been used in the colonial days, and while Edgewood’s historical society came by once a month to pull weeds and mow the grass, it was by and large forgotten by the rest of the town’s residents. It got some traffic in the summer, when tourists came through to take gravestone rubbings of the few Revolutionary War soldiers buried here, or when genealogy buffs came seeking out their ancestors’ resting places. Tonight, though, it was empty. Justin announced its lack of lurkers as they stood at the gates; Val’s nose had told her the same a block ago.
“I thought this counted as consecrated ground,” he said, peering inside dubiously. “Chaz didn’t think the Creeps could follow us to the Clearwaters’ funeral, at least.”
“If someone’s specifically blessed a patch of ground, sure, but the whole cemetery? They generally don’t. And anything blessed in here has long worn away.”
Justin got that look on his face, the one that said he was trying to find the diplomatic way to ask a question.
“Spit it out.”
“Uh. He’s your Renfield. Shouldn’t he . . . know that sort of thing?”
“If it were two hundred years ago, maybe. He and I don’t spend a lot of time hanging out in graveyards discussing the rules. Besides,” she said, quirking a grin at him, “has it crossed your mind he might have just been talking out his ass to reassure you? It hadn’t been a good few days for you.” He stood there, gaping and processing that last, as she hopped to the top of the gates and dropped lightly down on the other side. “Come on. Let’s get started.”
He made the jump easily, only a little bit of scrambling when his confidence faltered toward the top of his arc. Then he was over, and Val guided him deeper within, away from the street.
They spent nearly an hour among the graves, Val running Justin through the moves Elly’d taught him, only faster. She led him blurring along the faint old walking paths, disappearing with a burst of speed, requiring him to find her by scent and sound alone. They tussled between stones adorned with winged skulls and strange angels, careful not to stagger into any and knock them over: control was as important as speed.
He got the drop on her, once, barreling into her and sending them both sprawling. When they stopped moving, Justin was on top, his hands forcing Val’s shoulders to the ground. “Ha,” he said, then, “Wait, shit. If I let go on either side . . .”
“. . . I’ll have an arm free, yeah. That’ll cost you an eye, at least. Do you want to try again?”
But he was looking away, focused on something behind her head. “Do you see that?”
She bent her head back as far as it could go, but all she managed to do was tangle more leaves into her unbound hair. “I’d look, but you sort of have me pinned.”
Over the last month, he’d grown markedly more self-assured, though whether that came from his newfound vampire abilities or Elly’s training, Val wasn’t sure. He walked straighter, moved less timidly.
One thing he hadn’t lost was the ability to turn crimson at a moment’s notice.
He clambered off her now, muttering apologies as he offered a hand up. Val took it and let him lead her over to see what he’d spotted.
They were near the far edge of the cemetery, where only the old cast-iron fence kept the woods from encroaching. The gravestones back here were weathered, some of them little more than stubs sticking out of the earth like uneven baby teeth. Most of the names and dates on these ones had been worn away by three centuries of New England weather. An undisturbed blanket of grass and moss covered the ground.
Except in one spot, where the earth was freshly turned.
They approached quietly, even though Val still didn’t smell anyone nearby. No one but she and Justin had been here for hours, at least, but it seemed suddenly disrespectful to tromp over to an open grave. As though we haven’t been using the place as a playground all night long.
“Did someone dig this guy up?” Justin bent and ran his fingers over the stone. The letters had mostly eroded, but he found the faint grooves after a moment. Webb, they read.
Val picked up a handful of dirt and let it fall through her fingers. “I don’t think so. The hole’s not big enough for someone trying to get to the coffin.” The hole was maybe two feet all around and looked more like something had exploded up out of the ground than dug down into it.
“Look there.” She pointed at the edge of the churned earth, where five long, raking lines led into the middle. “I think it’s supposed to look like Mr. or Mrs. Webb climbed out themselves.” She straightened and paced around the grave in a widening circle. “There.” She showed him a bony handprint pressed into the dirt, and some footprints beyond it.
Justin came to stand beside her, eyes wide. “Are you about to tell me this guy’s a zombie? Because Elly hasn’t taught me the first thing about fighting zombies.”
Val snickered. “No, since I’ve never met one. I’m pretty sure what we’re looking at here is someone’s idea of a hilarious prank. Doesn’t one of the fraternities scare the shit out of their pledges every Halloween?”
“Beta Epsilon, yeah.” Justin had rushed them, Val knew, but he never made it past the first couple of weeks. Justin didn’t talk about it, but by the growl in his voice, he was still pissed about whatever had happened. “Ugh, fuck those guys. Can we get out of here before they come back and finish setting up? They’ll probably want to put buckets of pigs’ blood in the trees or something.”
“All right,” said Val. “Let’s go.”
“When we get you feeding on real people, maybe I’ll let you bite one.”
He made an even more grossed-out face than when he’d been drinking the lambs’ blood. “Did you ever notice the smell when they come into Night Owls to buy their CliffsNotes? Those guys bathe in so much of that body spray shit it’s probably seeped into their bloodstreams by now. I’m not eating that.”
ELLY LAY ON her back on a plank spread across two ladders, painting runes of warding on the ceiling plaster with a toothpick. She’d found herself restless after leaving Cinda’s house, her mind abuzz with too many questions about the ghoul, who controlled him, how they were doing it. Runework calmed her, the more complex the better. It came to Cavale easy as breathing; Elly needed practice. So she’d driven into Edgewood, presumably to work on runes and calm her spinning mind. Not at all—at all!—for companionship.
The smell of chocolate chip cookies drifted in from the kitchen. They were being baked by a succubus, which didn’t move the needle on Elly’s strange-o-meter, but the succubus was making them specifically for her, which sent the needle well into the red. She wasn’t used to people doing nice things for her.
A clatter and a squeal almost made her botch the letter she was working on. Sunny ducked into the living room, and when Elly peered down at her from her plank, the short, dark-haired woman stood beneath, stretching up on her toes to offer a spoonful of pilfered cookie dough. The handle of another spoon protruded from Sunny’s mouth; she grinned around it.
“Raw cookie dough can kill you!” Lia called.
“Nah,” said Sunny. “I’m not human.” Or at least, that was what it sounded like. The spoon garbled her words a bit.
Lia poked her head through the doorway. Her blond hair was swept back in a bun, which was a good thing, the way she waved her dough-covered wooden spoon in admonishment. “You’re not, but Elly is.”
Elly reached for the spoonful of dough Sunny still held up to her. “I’ll take the risk.” The sweet combination of brown sugar and butter and chocolate chips exploded on her tongue, made her mmmm in appreciation.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Night Owls
“A fast, fun read that kept me turning the pages. Lauren M. Roy delivers a plot that zips, dialogue that zings, and a cast of characters you’ll cheer for to the very end. Thumbs up!”—Devon Monk, national bestselling author of Stone Cold
“Filled with great characters and action. Can’t wait to read the next one!”—Keri Arthur, New York Times bestselling author of Darkness Splintered
“Roy’s debut is an entertaining and exciting addition to the urban fantasy field…A good cast, believable interactions, and some vivid and brutal fight sequences.”—Publishers Weekly
“Vampires, a bookstore, and a battle over an ancient book—how could I not like Night Owls with that mixture?...A great start to a new series and one that urban fantasy fans should appreciate.”—Fresh Fiction
“A good read and lots of fun. It was action-packed, with an ending that I completely didn’t expect, and hints of more drama and mystery to come. Coupled with the humor and the interesting cast of characters (plus a bookstore!!), I know that I plan on coming back.”—All Things Urban Fantasy