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By Courtney Alameda
MacmillanCopyright © 2015 Courtney Alameda
All rights reserved.
THURSDAY, 10:44 P.M.
Call it reaper's insomnia, but the dead wouldn't let me sleep at night. Every time the sun went down, I swore I sensed them stirring, starving.
Tonight was no different. As the boys and I pulled up to St. Mary's Hospital, the scene seized and held my nerves at knifepoint. The hospital's power? Out. Patients spilled into the streets—some barefoot, and blanket clad; others clutching IV stands for support. They gaped at our Humvee, shying back from the glare of our emergency lights. No doubt they'd recognized the decals on our vehicles—the famous H formed by interlocking crosses—and knew who we were. Or more specifically, what we meant:
The Helsing Corps only showed up when someone didn't stay dead.
People jabbed fingers in our direction, questioning the nurses and security guards. Best they couldn't see the staccato flash of ghostlight in the fourth-story windows, or for that matter, the spatters that light silhouetted on the glass. If these people saw the place the way I did, knew what I knew about ghostlight and death, they'd riot and run.
"Get out of the road," Ryder said, laying on the horn. The crowd startled, pressed so close we could hardly turn onto Stanyan Street. "The place is a bloody mess. If the brass figures out there's casualties in the building, Micheline, it's your arse and mine." Cadets weren't supposed to take on hunts with a body count without professional backup.
"We don't have time to wait for another crew to show," I said. The closest tetrachromat crew was tied up in Walnut Creek with a poltergeist. Estimated time of arrival, one hour. I took stock of the twitchy bodies and gaunt faces outside, then drew a deep breath. "We'll be fine."
"Being fine isn't the point."
"No, but I can't guarantee the entity will stay in the building until Cruz's people can get here." I reached into my camera bag and took out a quartz telephoto lens, my equivalent of a sniper rifle. "Three of Father Marlowe's exorcists are dead, Ry. Someone's got to take this thing out."
"Sounds like Marlowe's problem to me."
"If it's dead and mobile, it's our problem." I clicked my lens into place. As a descendant of Abraham Van Helsing, I'd inherited a legacy—more like a psychotic sense of noblesse oblige—which meant I had a responsibility to protect people from the undead. Dad would throw a fit when he learned our crew took on a killer without assistance, but screw it, I wasn't going to abandon Marlowe's people to a rampaging ghost.
When Ryder didn't respond, I smirked and said, "You hate that I'm right, don't you?"
"No, I hate that you're as stubborn as your old man." His Aussie accent flared, just as it always did when I'd gotten the better of him.
"If I weren't stubborn I wouldn't be a Helsing, now would I, mate?" I butchered his accent but grinned anyway—we'd been friends for years and I still couldn't fake it.
"Got that right." He jounced his shoulders and eased up on the steering wheel, hands unclenching. Good. I needed him loose. Even if he couldn't help me trap a ghost on film, he was a steadying presence, another beating heart beside mine. Ghosts had no rules of engagement when it came to a fight and they didn't play nice. Sometimes they'd climb into an available corpse and come after me with tooth and nail, rusty knives or bricks—pick your poison. As a somatic reaper, Ryder specialized in monsters with rot and bones. He and the other boys on our reaping crew made sure I didn't go home in a body bag.
No matter how good Ryder was with a gun, he was useless against a ghost. Ghosts weren't visible to the unaided eye; they were blurry spots seen in peripheral vision, vestigial shadows blending into the darkness. Normal human beings couldn't tell the difference between a trick of the light and an actual ghost—it took a pair of tetro eyes to do that. Eyes like mine.
A tetrachromat saw a ghost haloed in violet light, an ability granted by the presence of a fourth color receptor in the retina. That fourth cone allowed me to see the spiritual auras of the undead—called ghostlight—in an explosion of color and luminescence. In short, I saw dead people in Technicolor. To my eyes, zombies glimmered like red dying stars. Their smarter, stronger paranecrotic cousins emitted a pus-colored yellow or orange light, monsters like Glasgow girls or scythewalkers. Clever hypernecrotics like scissorclaws glowed in greens and icy blues. And while I'd never seen a vampire—they were mostly extinct—I'd heard cobalt ghostlight ran through their veins.
The light in the hospital's windows burned violet-white, brighter than any I'd seen before. Whatever haunted the fourth floor wouldn't go down by the bullet, but by the lens.
Two cops approached our vehicle, their uniforms torn, bloodstained. One wore a cap of gauze on his head, a bandage covering one eye. The other looked like he'd played chicken with a brick wall and lost, his cheek marbled with fresh bruises and abrasions. Marlowe mentioned casualties, but he hadn't told me so many civilians were hurt.
As Ryder rolled down his window, I craned my neck to gaze at the hospital's fourth story, waiting to see another ripple of ghostlight. The windows gleamed like obsidian, two shades darker than any floor above or below them. Dread pricked my shoulders and sewed itself under my skin. Could I risk the boys' lives in good conscience, knowing Marlowe's exorcists died in there?
"It's about time." The taller officer shined his Maglite into the Humvee's cab. The relief on his face turned jagged, his brows shooting high. "Wait, you're just kids. We're under attack in there"—he gestured at the hospital—"and Helsing sends us a bunch of academy brats?"
"We weren't dispatched from Helsing," I said. Helsing was the Bay's chief line of defense, but St. Mary's was a Catholic hospital, so Marlowe responded first tonight. His offices were up the street at St. Ignatius's Cathedral. "Father Marlowe called us in."
"Unofficial business, mate." Ryder flashed the Helsing cross tattooed on the back of his fist before jerking his thumb aft. "The brats in the back truck are with us, too."
The cop looked at Ryder's tat, then aimed his beam at the back of my hand. The black Helsing tattoo meant reaper, an insignia every Helsing Corps member wore, regardless of function or rank. My cross had a crimson outline, a bloodied gully between my reaper's ink and pale skin. Only two reapers in the corps wore that thin red line.
The officer's flashlight sliced into my eyes, sharp as a blade. "Hey, you're—"
"Watch it." I blocked the light with my hand, blinking the afterimage away. My pupils would take fifteen minutes to dilate again, though the worst effects would wear off in seconds.
The officer lowered his flashlight. "You kids can't go in there, especially you, Miss Helsing. We've got DOAs inside, people we can't even reach—"
"That's why we're going in." Well, not we. Me. Dead on arrival—DOA—confirmed Marlowe's report, and the officers' injuries made up my mind. I couldn't expose the boys to a monster they weren't equipped to reap. Ditching them would mean breaking another one of Dad's rules—no reaper hunts alone—but I'd never hold a rule higher than a human life. Not over my crew's lives, not over civilian lives.
The second officer shined his flashlight on the Humvee behind ours. "Thought you kids were supposed to have some kind of adult supervision?"
"The backup's busy. Clear the road," Ryder said.
Ryder didn't wait for the cop to finish. He rolled up his window, muttering several fierce (read that: unrepeatable) words under his breath. Growing up in Australia taught him a lot of skills, but swearing was an art form Down Under and Ryder was an overachiever. "Even the bloody cops know we're supposed to wait for backup." He revved the engine, startling the crowd into motion.
"You're welcome to wait for Montgomery's team." My words earned me a rock-solid, 100-proof Ryder McCoy glare, which flipped and pinned my stomach faster than a freestyle suplex. It wasn't fair to make him choose between me and Helsing's operational standards, because I knew in my head, bones, and heart he'd pick me over his precious rules. No contest. His eyes said as much, even if his words wouldn't.
I felt a little manipulative but not at all guilty.
The Humvee crawled up to the hospital's doors. The pulse from our emergency lights reddened the building's facade. I toyed with my camera's aperture rings, trying to loosen the snarl of nerves in my gut. Dad said this part never got easier, the conscious choice to face the dead. Tonight, I'd do it alone. I just needed an opening, one second to slip through Ryder's fingers and disappear into the crowd.
"Don't get out yet, I don't want to lose you." Ryder unbuckled his seat belt. Pressing the button on the comm unit hooked around his ear, he said, "Jude, Ollie? You ready?"
"Hold on, we've got a problem," Oliver said. Ryder's gaze flashed to the rearview mirror, his comm blinking blue. We kept our comms on anytime we left Angel Island—another one of Dad's rules.
"What's that?" Ryder asked.
"The hospital's security cameras went down with the power outage," Oliver said. "We go in there, and we're going in blind."
"Good hell," Ryder muttered.
I glanced through the back window, spotting Jude Drake at the wheel, mid-yawn. For growing up so posh, the guy had no manners and even less chivalry, but his laissez-faire approach to everything from reaping to girls played in my favor tonight. We'd been eating lunch at a deli in North Beach when I'd gotten Marlowe's panicked call, and Jude said let's go before I hung up.
If I wanted to do something that wasn't quite legit, Jude was game. Break into Dad's office to clean up our personnel dossiers? Done. Switch out the orchestra's music at the Christmas ball and pay off the conductor so they'd play "Stairway to Heaven"? Of course. Help me escape the penthouse to shoot cans under the Golden Gate Bridge at dawn? Hells yeah.
Oliver Stoker rode shotgun, his fine, aristocratic features lit by the glow of his tablet computer. Born three months and ten days apart, Oliver and I would be together from cradle to coffin, just like our fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers had been. The Helsings and Stokers had more than a hundred years of history together, two of the great reaper families who allied in the year of 1893 against Dracula's threat. Van Helsing led the charge against the vampire, and Bram Stoker collected and edited the crew's letters, memorandums, and diary entries. Their camaraderie echoed through the generations and bound Oliver and me together the way our fathers were bound together—in bonds of unshakable friendship.
The Helsings remained the hunters, the Stokers the historians. Nowadays, my family's role extended to the executive leadership, the day-to-day administration, and training of the corps. The Stokers kept our reapers alive via research and development in weaponry, equipment, and medicine—a burden once shared by the Seward family, may they rest in peace.
Oliver and I designed my camera's technology together, after he'd taken apart an old Nikon and realized it had a tiny mirror inside. We nearly wound up dead the first time we tried to exorcise a ghost—the average glass lens worked as an insulator against their electrical energy. Every once in a while, I'd catch Oliver looking at one of my quartz lenses and chuckling, remembering.
"It's a hospital, Ollie," Ryder said. "They've got to have emergency generators."
Oliver placed a finger on his comm. "Their servers are down, so I can't access their network to check on the building's status. The breakers are likely blown."
If the entity consumed enough power to surge the breakers, no wonder Marlowe's men hadn't survived. Ghosts were charged, electrical beings that absorbed energy from the space around them. Weak ones were shivery spots and a prickle against the skin; strong ones were surging storms. It took an incredible amount of energy for a ghost to open a portal into the living world—or in some cases, luck. Once a ghost existed on this plane, it had to consume enough energy to maintain its presence here. With the breakers blown in a six-story building, the ghost upstairs could probably bench-press our Humvee by now. Or maybe rip it in half.
"Can we connect their security systems to the generators mounted on the Humvees?" Ryder asked.
Oliver's brows rose. After a moment, he came back on: "Logistically, no. I need to restore power to their servers on the sixth floor—"
Thank God for logistics. I wanted the boys blind to my movements.
"—But I'm running the GPS and radar diagnostic on the hospital now," Oliver continued. "The satellite scan is being blocked by an electrical disturbance inside the building."
So the boys wouldn't be able to track me via the security cameras or GPS. Perfect. I didn't need Oliver's technology and toys to track a ghost. My eyes worked better than any GPS unit.
A shadow shifted in one windowpane. A coal-colored figure disappeared from sight. I narrowed my eyes, wondering if I'd been mistaken. Nobody could have survived up there, unless ...
Unless the person standing in the window wasn't alive.
My heart kicked. Ryder was looking out his driver's side window, giving instructions to Oliver. Now.
I grabbed my camera's monopod off the backseat, kicked my door open, and leapt out as Ryder shouted at my back. I slid into the crowd.
THURSDAY, 10:58 P.M.
Ryder's voice burst through my comm: "Micheline!"
I sliced between a nurse and her patient, nearly tripping into the doctor behind them. People shouted at me. I spun left, not breaking my pace. The people packed so close it was like trying to run through a mosh pit.
"What's wrong?" Oliver asked.
"She jumped out of the damn truck," Ryder said. "Get back here, Micheline." His voice thundered through my body, and I knew he meant don't you go in without me. The short note of desperation in his tone hooked my heart and nearly pulled me back—it wasn't an emotion I'd ever heard from him. I ignored it, as the boys would need to search three empty floors before they found me on the fourth. They would be safe, or as safe as reapers could be.
"Just do us a favor—don't die," Jude said. "Our asses are on the line if something happens to you, Princess." He knew I hated the nickname on both pride and principle.
I settled into a jog and wove between people. "Ten bucks says I have the ghost exorcised before you can find me."
"Not funny," Ryder said. Well, humor was a superfluous talent in a family bred for killer instincts and courage.
"Make it fifty and you've got a deal," Jude said.
"Fifty it is." I glanced right, left, and realized I'd come to the hospital's eastern edge. Shrader Street and its blocky, vomit-colored Victorians stood dead ahead. To my right, patients and orderlies pushed out of the fire escape. Fighting my way past the evacuees, I pressed into the building, dodging people's shoulders and elbows. I hated being short. There were nights I wouldn't mind standing six foot three and broad shouldered, like Ryder. Tonight made the list.
The stairwell's windows shed enough light to see by. People moved aside as I headed up, warning me with quiet calls of "Miss?" I rounded the first landing without answering them. The Helsing emblem stitched on my left breast should've quieted their concerns.
"Track her comm position, Ollie," Ryder said. Watery voices echoed in the background, which meant Ryder hunted me in the crowd.
"I need a minute," Oliver said. "The GPS isn't cooperating."
"Get it cooperating."
Sorry, boys, you'll have to find me the old-fashioned way. I clicked my comm off, sidling past an orderly carrying a young patient downstairs. The girl couldn't have been much older than eight and wore a knit cap on her head. If I didn't want her to spend a night in the cold, I had to stop the entity. These people deserved their safety.
Focus. The boys would canvass the first couple floors in minutes—three if they broke the rules and split up, nine if they didn't, and Ryder wouldn't ignore code twice. With luck, the rescue workers and survivors wouldn't be certain which floor the entity haunted. So I ran, skidding around the third landing and leaping up the stairs two by two. Nine minutes. With luck.
Excerpted from Shutter by Courtney Alameda. Copyright © 2015 Courtney Alameda. Excerpted by permission of Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Thursday, 10:44 P.M.,
Thursday, 10:58 P.M.,
Thursday, 11:25 P.M.,
Friday, 12:50 A.M.,
Friday, 3:42 A.M.,
Friday, 4:55 A.M.,
Friday, 12:31 P.M.,
Friday, 4:40 P.M.,
Friday, 6:38 P.M.,
Friday, 8:02 P.M.,
Friday, 9:35 P.M.,
Friday, 10:49 P.M.,
Saturday, 12:02 A.M.,
Saturday, 2:18 A.M.,
Saturday, 3:02 A.M.,
Saturday, 3:48 A.M.,
Saturday, 5:53 A.M.,
Saturday, 5:16 P.M.,
Saturday, 6:22 P.M.,
Saturday, 9:07 P.M.,
Sunday, 12:02 A.M.,
Sunday, 2:17 A.M.,
Sunday, 3:35 A.M.,
Sunday, 6:10 A.M.,
Sunday, 5:17 P.M.,
Sunday, 7:15 P.M.,
Sunday, 8:22 P.M.,
Sunday, 8:30 P.M.,
Obscura, -1:30 Hours,
Obscura, -0:43 Hours,
Obscura, -0:18 Hours,
Ten Days Later,