Former film student Fortitude Scott is finally gainfully employed. Unfortunately, said employment happens to be with a group of sociopathic vampires—his family. And as much as Fort is loath to get too deep into the family business, when his brother, Chivalry, is temporarily unable to run the territory, it’s up to Fort to keep things under control.
So when the leader of a powerful faction of shifters turns up murdered, Fort finds himself tracking down a killer while navigating dangerous rivalries, longtime grudges, and hidden agendas. Even with the help of his foxy kitsune sidekick, Suzume, he’ll need to pull out all the stops to hunt for the paranormal assassin.
But as he calls on fairies, witches, and ghouls for help, he discovers that the problem is much bigger than a single dead werebear. The supernatural community is preparing for a massive shift in power within the Scott family leadership—and Fort has landed right in the middle of the gathering storm.…
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PRAISE FOR THE GENERATION V NOVELS
Also by M. L. Brennan
For my mother and my father.
The sun was low and weak as I walked with my brother and sister through the Common Burying Ground. It was late afternoon in November, and the gray clouds in the sky seemed uncertain about whether they would wholly commit to a full rainstorm or just continue looking atmospheric. The three of us were dressed completely in black, and we would’ve looked at home in most cemeteries, except that the Common Burying Ground had been declared at capacity before the Nazis invaded Poland. It had been the place of choice for Newport’s dead since the sixteen hundreds, and even after its official closure it continued to attract a small but steady stream of history enthusiasts, armed with cameras and guidebooks. Lacking these signature items, our mournful little trio must’ve looked more than a little creepy.
Since we were vampires, it might’ve been assumed that a cemetery was a natural place for us to visit. In fact, the opposite was true—we visited here only when there was no other option. Today was one of those days. Bhumika, my brother Chivalry’s wife, had died two weeks ago, finally losing her long battle with the illness that had been slowly killing her since the day she and my brother married. I’d spent long, emotionally exhausting days with him, slowly clearing her belongings out of the suite of rooms that they had shared—deciding what would go to her friends, what would go to charity, and which few items Chivalry couldn’t bear parting with. Those pieces (a half-empty bottle of her shampoo, the embroidered gold sari that she’d worn for their wedding, a forgotten to-do list written in her looping handwriting, and more) had been carefully tucked into an elaborately carved and cedar-lined chest that had been taken into the attic for safekeeping.
We’d held Bhumika’s memorial service yesterday in the grand ballroom of my mother’s mansion—beautifully catered, tastefully decorated, well lubricated with wine, and attended by everyone who had known Bhumika, along with several hundred people who hadn’t. Chivalry had taken his yacht out alone this morning to spread Bhumika’s ashes over Narragansett Bay, and now we were attending to the last sad detail—heading out to view Bhumika’s memento mori.
Chivalry was moving slowly, his expression racked with grief. His usually impeccably groomed dark-brown hair looked like he’d run a hand through it this morning and decided that was good enough, and the shirttail on his frighteningly expensive bespoken suit was untucked. The air was cold enough that I was keeping my hands shoved deeply into my pockets, but Chivalry had left his coat behind in the car and seemed unaware of the temperature.
No one looking at him would believe that Bhumika was the nineteenth wife that he’d buried.
Or that his need for Bhumika’s blood had been what had wrecked her body and finally sent all of her major organs into a cascade of failure that even the best doctors at the finest hospital in our territory couldn’t stop. Both my brother’s complete adoration of his wife and the painful grief he’d experienced since her death were apparent to anyone who looked at him. Bhumika was the fourth wife that I’d watched him bury, but even I couldn’t claim that his feelings weren’t real, though how he was capable of loving his wives so deeply and totally even while he drank their blood and killed them one drop at a time was utterly beyond my powers of comprehension.
To my left was the other person who couldn’t understand Chivalry, though she came at it from the opposite direction. Prudence was our sister, a full century older than Chivalry. She had gone on record as recently as dinner last night that she was “getting sick of all this fuss over another dead woman.” It had been classic Prudence, and I had expected her to skip out on today’s ritual, yet I’d been the only one surprised when she had appeared at the arranged time, decked out in a black Versace dress and a jet necklace. Even her crutches were made of black fiberglass with matching velvet armrests, which she must’ve had to special-order for the occasion.
With Chivalry moving like a sleepwalker, Prudence was having no trouble keeping up with us, even with her injury. A month ago, she had tried to kill my last remaining host parent, Henry, and push my transition into its conclusion. It would’ve made me a full vampire, with physical repercussions that I was still not completely clear on, but which I’d spent my entire adulthood fighting against. In her murder attempt, she’d broken one of our mother’s direct orders, and the two of them had physically clashed. During the fight, Prudence’s left leg had been horribly broken at the thigh. Vampires are very long in reaching our physical maturity—my sister was more than two centuries old, looked like a healthy professional woman in her early forties, and was only just approaching vampire adulthood. Our abilities mature as we do—if I’d suffered an injury like Prudence’s, my cast would’ve come off a few weeks earlier than a normal human’s. At Prudence’s age, a few days of bed rest, a week of wearing a leg brace and taking it easy, and she would’ve been back to normal. But my mother had felt that punishment had been in order for Prudence’s disobedience, and she had been rebreaking my sister’s leg in the same spot every three days for the last month.
Now my sister was hopping along beside us on the uneven ground of the Common Burying Ground, her gleaming black crutches looking almost like an extension of her long black wool coat with its luxurious sable-lined collar and cuffs. A dainty black hat concealed her bright red hair—Prudence was a product of an era that would never have dreamed of entering a graveyard without the correct haberdashery. There was a small bit of veiling, but not enough to conceal the ice in her blue eyes every time I looked over and started to ask if she wanted a little help. On multiple attempts, her expression of barely leashed violence had made my throat dry up halfway through each offer.
The dissolution of our brief partnership had left her feeling angry and betrayed, but despite her terrifying glares, I had caught her staring at me a few times over the last several weeks with an expression that I found much more concerning—curiosity. And a terrible sense of patience. She also hadn’t stopped talking to me, which, given recent events, seemed a bit ominous.
It was actually a relief when we reached the mausoleum.
Tucked away in one of the many quiet corners of the Common Burying Ground’s thirty-one acres, it rose up unexpectedly from the surrounding sea of weathered and broken slate gravestones. It was built out of granite blocks, with a tiered roof that had been topped off with a large urn sculpted from bronze that had long since gone green from oxidation. The door to the mausoleum was the same heavy black iron as the incredible front entryway to my mother’s mansion, worked over with the image of an angel kneeling under a willow tree, and our family name of Scott was carved above the doorway. Unlike everything else in the Common Burying Ground, the mausoleum showed the clear signs of constant care and maintenance, and when Chivalry slid the large iron key into the door’s lock, it opened soundlessly.
We filed inside. There was a single carved marble bench decorated with the repeated pattern of the urn, the willow, and the angel. The floor was an alternating pattern of black and white marble, and the three non-door walls were white marble, with bands of black at the floor and ceiling. Thin, concealed skylights in the roof let bands of the dusk light in, enough to see by without having to resort to flashlights. Workers had been here recently, making everything ready for our visit—the air wasn’t stale, though I did catch a few whiffs of Febreze.
On the walls was what we’d come to see. Nineteen names were carved into the marble—a woman’s first name, then beneath that, the years of her marriage to my brother, then a small border engraving. Chivalry went straight to the newest addition and traced the letters of Bhumika’s name with just the tips of his fingers while Prudence and I hung back. Now that we were no longer moving, I noticed my sister’s subtle movements as she slid her BlackBerry out of her pocket to discreetly check her messages.
I couldn’t help letting my eyes drift around the walls, noting all of the names. There were the women I’d met—Linda, Carmela, and Odette (though my memories of her were very hazy). Then there were all the others, and eventually I traced them back to the first: Mabel, 1886–1890, with a border of ivy and musical notes. The sight of that long-dead woman’s name made me shudder. As the first, had she been unaware of what her fate would be? Had Chivalry? Even with nineteen names, there was a huge amount of white space. How many names had these walls been built to accommodate?
Despite the cold air, I could feel myself starting to sweat. The knowledge that a mausoleum like this might be in my own future made me shudder. Those walls suddenly seemed tighter than they’d been a moment ago, and I knew that I had to get out. But just as the thought crossed my mind, Prudence’s hand was suddenly wrapped around my left arm and squeezing like a vise. I met her eyes, surprised, and watched as she very slowly and deliberately shook her head. Then she darted her eyes over to the marble bench and lifted her eyebrows.
The message was clear—there was no bailing. Prudence and I settled ourselves awkwardly onto the bench and sat. Chivalry’s attention never shifted from Bhumika’s name, even as the light from the skylights slowly got weaker and weaker, tinged now with the oranges and purples of what must’ve been a very good sunset. An hour passed. Eventually Prudence gave up and pulled her BlackBerry completely out of her pocket. The tapping of the keys as she texted was the only sound in the mausoleum.
Marble is not known for its ergonomic qualities, and November in New England is not conducive to sitting outdoors in one place for a long time. My face was completely numb from the cold, though not quite as numb as my ass, when Chivalry finally turned away from Bhumika’s marker.
Apparently that had been some kind of signal, because Prudence slid the BlackBerry smoothly back into her coat pocket and said, almost concealing her boredom, “The mason did a lovely job, brother.”
Chivalry nodded, an almost spastic jerk of agreement.
My sister’s elbow dug hard into my side, and I jumped slightly. This was my cue. “Everything looks so clean,” I noted.
Again, Chivalry nodded, but just slightly more smoothly. Prudence and I took our places bracketing Chivalry, and we began the slow walk back to the car, the two of us filling the air with banal comments. The sun had completely set, and any starlight was hidden behind the cloud cover. Before my transition began, just a half year ago, I would’ve been unable to navigate my way through the cemetery without tripping over at least one of the smaller headstones that sometimes hid under patches of longer grass, but my eyesight was much sharper now, and we all made our way smoothly back to the car. Had it not been for Prudence’s crutches, we might even have been described as stately—since I was usually the one who spoiled the family’s more photogenic moments, I couldn’t help but feel a small twinge of vindictive satisfaction in Prudence’s temporary lack of grace.
Halfway to the car, Chivalry began responding to our comments, his voice hoarse and raspy. He and Prudence struck up a conversation about a headstone that we passed—apparently its owner had been known for particularly wild parties back during the Gilded Age, and I knew that Chivalry’s time mourning Bhumika had come to an end. From this point on, he would be searching for a new wife, and before a month was over, we’d be celebrating a wedding.
In all prior instances, I’d had the luxury of distancing myself from the process, physically and emotionally, and in feeling appalled at Chivalry’s callousness. But I’d taken on my brother’s job of policing my mother’s territory during the last month, when everyone knew that Bhumika wouldn’t last much longer, and I’d agreed to continue with those duties for another few months while Chivalry was (to use my mother’s term) “occupied.” There was no way to separate myself from what was happening in my brother’s life, or for me to assure myself that I had no part in his selection of a new bridal victim.
But as we walked (and Prudence hopped), I also noticed something different about Chivalry that had been concealed by his overt grief. Even as he sounded more and more like his old self, there was something about him that was making me edgy. His movements were too quick, his eyes in the darkness too bright, and something in his voice was making the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I’d never forgotten what my brother was, but he’d always been the most gentle and approachable one in the family, and this was disturbing on a very deep level.
As we neared the car, Chivalry stepped forward to take charge, and I caught Prudence’s sleeve under the pretext of helping her with her crutches. My brother was so thoroughly creeping me out that I was willing to talk to Prudence. It was one of those moments that left me alert for unidentified aerial porcine objects.
“Something’s wrong with Chivalry,” I whispered to her.
She made a low, interested noise in her throat, and suddenly my chin was snagged in her gloved fingers and wrenched low enough that the two of us were eye to eye. “Ah, the wonders of transition,” she murmured, her face filled with an avaricious excitement that made me regret my newly sharpened vision. Her voice dropped further, becoming more intense. “You are seeing more, Fortitude, sensing more.” Her fingers dug in tighter, her nails pricking me through the silk of her gloves. I was starting to regret my question. “Chivalry has not fed since Bhumika’s death, and will not feed until he selects his new bride.” She pulled us even closer, until her wide, disturbing eyes were all I saw, and I felt the heat of her breath on my face. “Watch his actions closely, little brother. Perhaps you will learn to avoid his foolish and sentimental example.” Then her eyes narrowed, and I found myself released so abruptly that I almost staggered. My hand shot up to touch my chin, and I was surprised not to find blood. My sister never broke our eye contact, and gave a low snort. “Or not. Knowing you, you will simply find a way to expand upon our brother’s ridiculousness.”
Chivalry saved me from the awkwardness of lacking a sufficiently withering response by rolling down the window of the car and asking in annoyance why we were still standing out in the cold. The moment was broken, and Prudence returned to her usual state of grumpiness as I helped her maneuver her immobilized leg and crutches into the backseat.
We were loaded into my mother’s Rolls-Royce, along with her driver, and there was no conversation as the car backed cautiously out of the Common Burying Ground, onto the aptly named Farewell Street, and turned toward my mother’s mansion on Ocean Drive. In my lifetime, she’d never come to any of these visits to Chivalry’s mausoleum. It wasn’t from (or, rather, not entirely from) lack of interest—while I walked under the sun at any time of day, Chivalry required a Panama hat, dark glasses, and preferably some kind of awning during the hours around high noon. Prudence was finding sunlight steadily more problematic, coming outside only when the sun was at its weakest or on cloudy days. But our mother dated back to medieval times, and she lived her days in a suite of rooms that had been built without windows. It had probably been a century or more since she had been capable of even a short stroll on an overcast winter day.
In the summer, downtown Newport is stuffed with cars and meandering tourists. Just getting from the Claiborne Pell Bridge to my mother’s doorstep can take thirty minutes of bumper-to-bumper traffic. But as the daylight shortens, the temperatures drop, and the winter storms that roll through the Atlantic brush up against Newport and allow its inhabitants to experience the delight of near-sideways rainstorms, the summer visitors flee and the population plummets. The boutiques either switch to their winter hours or close their doors completely until May, the parking meters are covered over, lines shorten, and service gets better. Best of all, the drive to my mother’s mansion becomes less than ten minutes.
After shedding our coats in the main foyer, we filed into the dining room, where my mother was already seated, dressed in a neat black pants suit, its inherent frumpiness adding to her little-old-lady veneer—an illusion usually only broken when my mother smiled and revealed a pair of gleaming incisors that would not look out of place on a tiger. As we each took our seats, my mother extended one thin, deceptively fragile hand to Chivalry.
“My poor boy,” she said. “I know how very fond you were of Bhumika.”
Madeline’s tone would’ve been perfectly appropriate—if Bhumika had been a hamster.
Chivalry thanked Madeline in a low voice, and with a satisfied nod, she reached down and rang the small silver bell that sat next to her wineglass. A moment later the room was filled with people as Madeline’s scrupulously trained staff descended on us with dinner. I glanced down at my plate and stifled a sigh. Maple-glazed ham, smelling delicious. I aimed my fork toward the potatoes and hoped that between that and my side of asparagus I would be able to fill up. My family’s approach to my vegetarianism had been to assume that if offered enough succulent temptations, I would eventually buckle under.
Across from me, Prudence ate one careful spoonful of the delicate soup in front of her, then put her cutlery down decisively.
“Mother,” she started, but her eyes were fixed on Chivalry, who was stirring his spoon through his own bowl of stew and eyeing my portion of gleaming ham steak with a very uncharacteristic interest that was making me feel uncomfortable. “I was thinking it might cheer us all up if I invited a few people from work down for dinner tomorrow.”
I managed to tear my eyes away from my brother long enough to look over at Madeline, but she was also watching Chivalry closely, even as she answered Prudence. “Oh, what a lovely idea, darling. I do so enjoy meeting bright young things.”
I choked on a sip of water, but not from my mother’s comment, though that was weird enough. My mother had very regular visitors and dinner parties, but her interests were entirely political, while my sister’s guests, if they were indeed only her coworkers, would just be a group of stockbrokers and money managers. What shocked me was the sight of my brother’s fork snaking toward the ham on my plate. I glanced over—Chivalry’s eyes were fixed and gleaming. Awkwardly, I nudged my plate closer to him, but my movement seemed to bring him out of his reverie with a jolt. He cleared his throat loudly, took a large spoonful of his stew, and then said with complete aplomb, “If you want to, Prudence, go right ahead. Though I’m not sure how fifteen conversations about how the Brazilian real is stacking up against the dollar will particularly perk things up.”
That at least sounded like my brother, and though I watched him closely, his behavior remained normal for the rest of the meal. I wondered if ham steak–coveting was a normal stage of his grieving process—when Linda, his spouse before Bhumika, had died, I was in college and had left immediately after the memorial service.
Chivalry excused himself immediately after dinner, but he leaned down and gave my shoulder a fraternal squeeze on his way out—his way, I knew, of apologizing for whatever the attempted ham snatching had been about. When he left the room, I looked across the table at Madeline, hoping for an explanation, but she simply fussed with her wineglass. I slanted an inquiring look at Prudence, who was patting her mouth with a napkin.
“What was that about?” I asked.
Prudence arched her eyebrows. “I can’t have people over?”
“You know what I mean,” I said, irritated. “The ham.”
She sniffed, radiating disapproval. “Yes, irritating, isn’t it? I told you that Chivalry won’t feed until he finds a new wife.” She waved her napkin at me, a weird white counterpoint to her black ensemble. “Now you’re starting to see why that behavior is so utterly ridiculous.”
“Not feeding makes you want ham?”
I was treated to a very evocative eye roll. “Sometimes there’s just no talking with you, Fort. But on that note, when was the last time you fed?”
I glanced over at my mother, still swirling the last of her wine in its glass. Until my transition was completed, my blood needs were met by my mother. For years I’d fed every few months, as far apart as I could push it, but I’d given in to the requirements of my changing physiology, and now I usually fed every other week. And while I wasn’t a big fan of taking my sister’s advice, Chivalry’s weird dinner behavior had unsettled me. “Mother?” I asked. “I actually am a bit, you know . . . due.”
Madeline looked up from her glass, and I was struck by how very tired she looked. She’d always looked ancient (even for a vampire, six hundred plus years don’t rest lightly), but tonight the skin of her face seemed to hang from her bones. The blue eyes that were the model for Prudence’s were bloodshot. For a moment she looked confused, and I could see her eyes narrow as she mentally counted back the days to when she had last fed me. The answer she found clearly surprised her, and her feathery white eyebrows shot up. “Oh, my darling, how careless of me,” she said. Then she paused, and asked, almost tentatively, “I’m a bit under the weather tonight, precious. Would it be very difficult for you to wait a day or two?”
My jaw didn’t quite drop, but it definitely wanted to. In my life, my mother had nagged and enticed me to feed, and often despaired over my avoidance of it, but she had never once asked me to wait. “Uh, sure. Sure, it’s no problem.” My mouth moved through the social protocol, but I couldn’t help darting a look toward my sister, but Prudence wouldn’t look at me. She was staring at our mother, and despite the studied blankness of her expression, there was a look in her eyes that on anyone less sociopathic I would’ve called . . . worried.
My mother blinked owlishly behind the oversize glasses that she didn’t need for her eyesight but liked to wear for effect. “Unless you’re very hungry, darling?”
“No, no I’m fine,” I assured her, feeling slightly better. “I’m not even noticing it.” Which was the truth—I’d gotten into the habit of feeding every second week, but I didn’t feel that uncomfortable sense of hunger that I remembered from the times when I’d avoided feeding for months longer than I should’ve. Madeline looked relieved, but when I glanced back to Prudence, she was now fiddling with her bracelet and maintaining a look of polite social boredom.
“I was just going to check in with the secretary and then head out,” I told my mother, pushing my chair back.
Madeline smiled then, widely enough to display her long fangs, and her eyes brightened. “Ah, what a good little worker. Your brother is lucky indeed that he has you to carry the dull minutiae of business while he is indisposed.” She eyed my sister and added pointedly, “Someone who can be trusted to follow directions.”
Ah, doublespeak, hidden messages, and awkward- ness—Mother was clearly a little tired, but otherwise in fine form. Before Prudence could respond, I babbled my good-byes and fled the dining room.
Vampires were an Old World import to the Americas. My mother was the first to make the trip, crossing from England in 1662 and establishing a wide territory that included all of New England, most of New York state, a slice of New Jersey, and a healthy helping of eastern Canada. She’d been a vampire in her prime back then and had carved out her lands with almost traditional colonial zeal—anyone or anything that objected to her preeminent status had been very messily slaughtered. After almost a century of these activities, she had exterminated, driven out, or made treaties with all the occupants, and settled down to start a family.
The supernatural species hid among the human populations—humans outnumbered us by a thousand to one, and technology plus an unbeatable superiority of numbers was not a fight that any sane individual wanted to get into. There were plenty of the less sane among us, but even they were strong-armed to toe the party line on this one. There were species that had tried to withdraw completely beyond human communities; that was not only difficult, but it also meant withdrawing from some of the basic necessities of life—like high-speed Internet access. Most of us could pass for human, and plenty of species had developed symbiotic or outright parasitic relationships with humans.
Despite the passage of centuries and the establishment of an American constitution, my mother’s method of rule remained entirely feudal. Nonhumans who wanted to either visit or live in my mother’s territory had to petition for entry and then negotiate the terms that they would live by. Madeline was a very big fan of tithing—almost all of the groups in our territory paid a percentage of their earnings to my mother. They also had to avoid conflicts with other nonhuman species in the area and cover any of their supernatural tracks that might otherwise bring unwelcome attention.
As she’d gotten older, Madeline had passed the business of keeping her territory running smoothly to her children. My sister was a natural-born enforcer, striking terror into the hearts of generations of my mother’s subjects, but the tasks that involved more subtlety than “kill and terrorize” fell to Chivalry. And as with all thoughtful men of business, that meant that he delegated as much of the mountain of paperwork as possible to his staff.
My brother’s office was on the first floor, but tucked toward the back of the house, far away from the glamorous public areas. It was large, and decorated in an almost stereotypically turn-of-the-century gentleman’s style. Cluttered bookshelves marched to the ceiling, paintings of yachts, dogs, and horses decorated all available open space on the wood-paneled walls, massive brocade curtains festooned the windows, and a massive oiled mahogany desk dominated the room. But for all the show, it was a functional office—those books were the old bound tithing records. The filing cabinets might have been wood-veneered, but any accounting actuary opening the drawer would see the rows of regimented files and feel right at home. My brother’s desk was old and big enough to merit its own zip code, but the computer on it was upgraded every other year. The next room (apparently the old music room) had been carved up several years ago to make a support office that had the desks, phones, and equipment for his secretary and two accountants—all human. The accountants spent their days balancing the books, sending the tithing bills, and making sure that not a single penny that the Scotts could claim slid through the cracks. It was slightly shady work, but nothing that any good mobster accountant wouldn’t be used to. The secretary, on the other hand, had a very different job.
Loren Noka was working at my brother’s desk when I walked into the room. A statuesque woman in her late forties whose Native American heritage was clearly advertised in her high cheekbones and dark hair, she greeted me with a sober nod. Loren had taken the job of Chivalry’s secretary when her father, Irving, retired after almost fifty years of service. Now she spent her day answering calls and organizing e-mails that came in from the inhabitants of my mother’s territory, as well as scanning newspapers and local blogs for any hints of misbehavior or possible supernatural exposure.
“Hello, Ms. Noka. You’re working very late tonight.” Chivalry referred to her as “Loren,” but since he’d known her since she was in diapers, I suppose he had the right. To me, Ms. Noka had always had a very kind of Alfred from Batman demeanor. She knew a lot of secrets, would never tell a single one, was capable of a look of single icy superiority that would make a transgressor feel like an ant, and I was fairly certain that if I asked her, she would be able to construct a fully functional Batmobile.
“Just making one last check of the news sites before I call it an evening,” she said with a polite smile. With Chivalry in mourning, her workload had doubled overnight, but she somehow never indicated that she was stressed. The only thing about her that looked even slightly stressed was her royal purple pants suit as she stood up, but the fabric that was fighting to contain her curved and zaftig figure was probably held together by Loren Noka’s sheer strength of will—or she’d found some sort of experimental military superfabric with enhanced tensile strength.
“Is that for me?” I asked, nodding at the single file still sitting in the in-box on Chivalry’s desk, a stark contrast to the orderly but impressive pile organized in the adjoining out-box.
“Yes.” She reached over and handed it to me. “I would’ve called, but Mrs. Scott told me that you were coming back for dinner.”
The file’s weight was substantial, and I didn’t try to conceal my surprise. “Feels problematic.”
“No, nothing like that. I just got a message that the rusalka needs a meeting, and since I don’t think you’d ever met her before, I pulled the entire file for you to look over.”
After twenty-six years of ignoring anything supernatural (including myself), I’d been playing a desperate game of catch-up, particularly in the past month, where I’d suddenly found myself my mother’s official delegate and Ms. Noka’s boss. There had been quite a lot to learn, and I flipped open the file to its first page in the hope of refreshing my memory on this one—then immediately slapped it shut again. “Chivalry mentioned her once. How exactly does that one place a phone call to you?”
“One of her neighbors placed it at her request. Will you go up soon?”
“Might as well go tomorrow,” I said, unable to muster much enthusiasm. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. “It’s only up in Massachusetts.”
Ms. Noka gave me her Mona Lisa smile. “Remember to pick up the bait. There’s a note in there, but Mr. Scott always found duck gizzard the most effective. Especially in this weather, when you don’t have to wait a while.”
“I do read the whole file,” I noted, slightly defensively. At least, I did now. On my first fully commissioned task for the family, my friend and designated partner, Suzume, and I had driven up to Maine to deal with a group of selkies who were purportedly running a local protection scheme and sinking the boats of fishermen who wouldn’t pay in. It had actually been a bit more complicated than that, and I’d made the classic rookie mistake of not reading all of Ms. Noka’s carefully collected background information before we’d headed up. While it had turned out well in the end, there had been an uncomfortable incident where I’d been pushed off a dock by a toddler and Suze had punched a seal in the face. A teenager had filmed the whole thing on his phone, and there had been an awkward period where we’d thought that the video would not only go viral, but that Suze would be formally charged with endangering the local wildlife.
With the file tucked under my arm for later examination, we exchanged good-byes. I left the house without seeing any of my family again, but the knowledge that always pulsed in the back of my brain put them all on the second floor, probably in their individual rooms.
My battered Ford Fiesta sat beside my family’s row of gleaming cars like a squat mushroom invading a cultured garden. It took two tries for the engine to turn over, and I rubbed my hands briskly together to encourage the circulation as I waited for the sluggish heating system to warm up. I could see my breath in the air as I pulled out my phone and punched Suzume’s phone number in from memory and listened to it ring. We’d been in a strange holding pattern for the last month since I’d confessed my feelings to her. On the one hand, our friendship had continued unabated, and she was my regular partner on all my official trips and investigations around the territory. But at the same time, the question of what her answer was going to be was hanging between us.
Suze didn’t pick up, and I left a message outlining the basics of tomorrow’s task. When I’d agreed to work officially for my family, Chivalry and I had negotiated a basic salary. It had been a hotly contested discussion, with Chivalry arguing high and me arguing very low. I’d supported myself on minimum-wage jobs since I had graduated college, and while I was not a particular fan of the lifestyle that it had necessitated, I was also very wary about the possibility of my family buying my loyalties. We’d finally settled on an hourly wage for all tasks that was just a bit higher than what I would normally be earning in the open market of crappy jobs. Suzume had had no such ethical quibbles, and for her involvement with me, she was charging a very comfortable retaining fee.
I finished the message and ended the call, wondering what she was up to. With Suzume, there was always a long list of possibilities—anything from beating up problem clients for her family’s escort service to scampering around the woods in her natural fox form, with any number of activities in between. Since our visit to the selkies, most of our tasks had been relatively simple—investigations of why some tithes were low (the economic downturn was equally hard on supernatural-run businesses, as it turned out), a few territory disputes, some snooping into suspicious deaths that had uniformly turned out to have entirely human causes. Yet even though our job didn’t always have much interest to it, she’d remained committed.
Of course, she was still a kitsune, and was entirely capable of creating her own fun. I’d flipped down the sun visor on my drive down this morning and had discovered that some unnamed prankster (definitely Suze) had glued two small craft-baskety googly eyes to it, so now it appeared that the visor had eyes and was watching me.
It was lucky that there wasn’t any traffic on the road back to my apartment in Providence, since the Fiesta’s heater never managed to dispel any air that I would’ve characterized as warmer than “somewhat cool.” Since the Fiesta had spent the entire summer with inoperable air-conditioning, I couldn’t help but feel moderately annoyed that it was apparently capable of disgorging cool air, but only in the completely wrong season. By the time I got home, I hustled quickly to get into the apartment, sighing in relief when I got into the stairway with its comparatively warmer temperatures. I’d bought my funeral suit and formal jacket new for the occasion—since my transition had begun, I’d put on enough muscle to go up four suit sizes, which had necessitated a shopping trip. After much hunting, I’d managed to find clothing that wouldn’t shatter my budget or sear my brother’s eyeballs on such a sad day. My suit had started its life in a very exclusive store window, until the store owners apparently realized that not many men were willing to strut their stuff in lime green. It had made its way down to the discount warehouse, where I’d bought it, and then I spent a rather interesting afternoon with Suzume figuring out how to dye it black in my apartment’s bathtub. The suit actually had a decent lining to it, but at a certain point in Rhode Island, typically around Halloween, it becomes preferable to just never leave the house if you aren’t wearing a heavy-knit sweater and the downiest of down parkas.
I climbed the three flights of stairs that led from the ground-floor boutique lingerie store, past Mrs. Bandyopadyay’s, and ended at the two-bedroom apartment that I shared at the top with my latest roommate, Dan Tabak. We’d only lived together for a month, though so far he’d managed to pay his half of the rent on time and not make any particular messes. But with any shared living situation, there would always be compromises—as I scrabbled in my pocket for the keys, I could hear the melodious (and now far-too-familiar) tones of Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice.
Inside was a typical Sunday tableau—Dan was sitting on the sofa, a wide assortment of thick law textbooks spread out on the battered coffee table in front of him, along with half a dozen completely stuffed notebooks, and his dreaded flash-card-making supplies. Dan was a second-year law student at Johnson and Wales University, and if I’d ever had even the slightest shred of interest in getting a law degree, seeing Dan in action would’ve crushed it. In the rare moments when Dan wasn’t in class, or in a study group, or studying on his own, he was making flash cards as a study aid. It seemed like a horrible and endless process to me, but then again, I’d called higher education a success after getting a bachelor’s degree in film theory—an accomplishment that had involved not a single flash card, and a number of actually good films.
I collapsed into our armchair and looked over at the TV screen. A hellacious storm was whipping through the palm trees on a tropical island while Benedict Cumberbatch gave a stately narration. Dan liked to run epic BBC nature documentaries as background when he was making flash cards or organizing the day’s class notes. He claimed that documentaries like Wild Pacific had narrators whose voices were very soothing. I’d seen his DVDs of Sherlock, though, and had suspicions that Dan simply had a crush on Benedict Cumberbatch, but it seemed a little hypocritical to throw stones. After all, I’d seen a lot of shitty movies simply because Amy Adams was starring in them.
“Hey,” Dan greeted me, not looking up from his text. I glanced at the title, Corporations, and shuddered. “How’d it all go?”
“How do these things ever go? Mostly it just went, and at least now it’s over.” I reached down and pulled off my shoes, sighing in relief. Dress shoes were not made with all-day comfort in mind.
“Is it true that you guys go through this every five years?” Dan looked up from his book and raised his dark eyebrows inquisitively.
I shrugged awkwardly. We were really just still in the figuring-each-other-out phase of rooming. But unlike all of my previous roommates, Dan wasn’t human. I was still getting used to living with someone who not only knew about vampires and the supernatural, but who actually heard regular gossip about my family. “Usually a little longer than that, but sometimes less,” I replied, trying to be polite but really not wanting to keep talking about the subject.
Dan let it drop. “Did you eat? I made too much, so there are still some leftovers in the pot.”
I eyed him suspiciously. “Was it one of those meals?” Dan was a ghoul, which meant that a certain amount of his intake had to be human organs in order for him to maintain his health. The ghouls in my mother’s territory had all originated in Turkey and had acclimated well to America, most of them finding an easy source for their dietary needs by opening funeral homes or working in hospital sanitation. It had made me extremely cautious around Dan’s cooking, though, and we’d had to have a few pretty serious conversations about dish cleanup, prompt post-preparation trash disposal, and the labeling of leftovers.
“Just the shepherd’s pie. The sweet potatoes are safe.” Dan snorted. “I can’t believe that you’re so squeamish about these things. It’s not like I interrogate you about every beverage you store in the fridge.”
“Really? What the hell was that soda discussion last week about, then?”
“You know my feelings about high-fructose corn syrup.” Dan narrowed his eyes, and a very stubborn and lawyery look crossed his handsome face.
I shook my head, unwilling to reengage on this particular issue, even if it meant that I had to abide by Dan’s new list of sodas that were banned in the apartment. I was also not entirely full after my partial dinner at my mother’s, so I got up to investigate the sweet potatoes. There was still a full serving in the pot, looking extremely inviting, so I spooned it into a small dish. I carefully avoided looking at the partially empty casserole dish. Since Dan had moved in, I’d learned to my horror about how many sins dishes like shepherd’s pie and meat loaf could conceal. I put the now-empty pot in the sink and turned on the faucet, automatically stepping back to avoid the incipient spreading puddle that had been this sink’s hallmark for many months. To my surprise, everything remained dry, and the faucet even managed to avoid its usual cantankerous sputter. For a moment, I wondered whether my landlord had finally, for the first time in all the years I’d lived there, responded to a repair request. But that seemed like the kind of out-of-character behavior usually only present in body snatching and encroaching brain tumors, and the last time I’d seen Mr. Jennings, he’d seemed completely normal.
“Dan,” I called over my shoulder, “did Jaison fix the sink?” Despite my extreme dislike of Dan’s meat products and my unwelcome exposure to so many viewings of nature documentaries, he had come with one very big mark in his favor—his boyfriend, Jaison, who was a general contractor. Since Dan had moved in, Jaison had fixed the broken window in his room, adjusted the iffy thermostat on the living room radiator, and even figured out why the pipes in the bathroom made such a racket whenever anyone showered. (He hadn’t been able to fix that pipe problem, since it would’ve involved completely opening up the walls, but it was nice to have a diagnosis.)
“He swung by with the parts early this afternoon. Said that it was driving him nuts,” Dan said, not looking up.
I was distinctly impressed. “He came by on a Sunday and fixed our sink, without you even asking? You can never break up with this man.” And clearly, short of Dan setting fire to the curtains, I could never ditch him as a roommate.
“Yeah, I’ll pass that one along,” Dan replied dryly. “I’ve got your half of the materials costs written down on a Post-it somewhere.” Then he tilted his head backward over the back of the couch to look at me. “Hey, can you put the last of the shepherd’s pie in the microwave for me? I think I’ll finish it off.”
“I’m not touching that thing, even with a spatula.” I put my bowl of sweet potatoes in the microwave and nuked it as Dan laughed incredulously at my statement and turned his attention back to the screen, where Benedict Cumberbatch was now discussing the coconut thief crab. My phone gave its incoming-text buzz, and I pulled it out. Suze was up for the trip to Massachusetts tomorrow. I smiled, texted back an acknowledgment, and then polished off the sweet potatoes in short order. A comfortable silence fell between me and Dan, though I found myself glancing over at him several times, wanting to ask a question that I had a strong feeling would be crossing a boundary. I wished I could ask him how he could date Jaison, who was a human with no knowledge of the supernatural world at all, and feel comfortable not only keeping such an enormous secret from him, but also eat three dinners a week that were made from humans. I wanted to know whether it was as easy as he made it look, or whether it was actually much, much harder, and he was just really good at keeping up a facade. I wondered what Dan thought of my brother’s relationships with his wives. Did he think Chivalry’s approach was sensible, or was he actually as appalled by it as I was by his shepherd’s pie?
I opened my mouth to ask the last one, then shut it quickly. I shouldn’t ask questions when I might not be ready for the answers, I reminded myself. And even though my half of the rent was paid up for another four months, and between the family work and some part-time floater work I’d picked up, I was more financially solvent than I’d been in the last five years, it was a good idea to maintain roommate harmony by not poking at sleeping dogs. I’d spent far too many months too recently with a sum net worth of less than fifty dollars to not be pleasantly enjoying being able to buy a new DVD or replace a worn-out piece of clothing without worrying about paying my bills. I was even managing to accrue a tidy sum that I hoped would help overhaul some of the Fiesta’s more-pressing issues—it would be nice, for instance, to experience a winter that didn’t require mittens while driving.
Leaving Dan to his Sisyphean flash-card construction, I headed to bed.
I found two very tiny googly eyes glued to the back of my toothbrush, and one single googly eye affixed to the cap of my toothpaste. I laughed at the sight, but then felt a low feeling of unease as I considered where Suze might be going with this one. I checked my room carefully for any more eyes before finally pulling up my heavy winter comforter and slowly falling asleep, the precise murmur of Benedict Cumberbatch’s narration still drifting through my bedroom wall.
* * *
Armed with a bag of assorted Munchkins from Dunkin’ Donuts and a coffee for each of us, I picked Suzume up from her house at ten the next morning. She was scampering out of her front door the moment I pulled into her driveway. The grin covering her face was nearly as brilliant as her neon green North Face parka. Suzume was very familiar with the Fiesta’s winter performance at this point, so she was wearing a heavy pair of blue corduroy pants, and her silky black hair was arranged in two jaunty pigtails that just showed under the bobble-topped fleece hat that matched her parka.
“Fuck is it cold in here!” she noted as she pitched her duffel bag into the backseat with a heavy metallic clunk that indicated that she was prepared for whatever we might encounter. “Fort, I’m not telling you that you should buy a new car—”
“I’m sure you aren’t, but somehow I think that is going to be the takeaway on this comment,” I noted.
She continued blithely over me. “No, I’d never question your automotive decisions. I’m just going to note how glad I am at this particular juncture that my reproductive organs naturally reside inside my body and don’t have to try to make the inward crawl that yours probably are attempting at this moment.”
I snorted, handing her coffee over as she pulled on a pair of gloves that she had apparently set aside just for the car ride. “Do you have all of that out of your system now, or am I going to hear variations on this theme for the whole drive?”
“I can make no promises,” Suze said, her beautiful almond-shaped eyes crinkling in humor.
Getting from Providence to the small town just outside Lowell, Massachusetts, where the rusalka lived required a cautious snaking around the edge of Boston. Even at ten o’clock on a Monday morning, the roads leading into Boston were stuffed with commuters, and we made our way carefully around and then up, neither of us having any intention of turning an hour-and-a-half drive into a three-hour Masshole-infested nightmare of bad driving and Red Sox bumper stickers.
Resting just below the border into New Hampshire, Lowell is one of the classic New England cities. Farming roots made way to an industrial boom, followed by the slow and painful collapse of the mill and textile industries. Despite a growing student population thanks to the Lowell branch of the University of Massachusetts, and a slow but helpful influx of several high-tech and biomedical companies, driving through downtown Lowell was still a stark and sad presentation of the bones of the town’s mighty past. Though some of the old factories had been turned into museums or apartment buildings, many still sat vacant.
We drove through Lowell, across the river, and then we were in the small adjoining town of Dracut. After a circuitous path through a labyrinth of tiny interconnecting roads, we finally pulled up to our destination—the small public boat launch to Long Pond. Possibly one of the least inventively named lakes in New England, it was sizable, its upper third quadrant crossing the line into New Hampshire. It was ringed on all sides by tiny capes and slouched houses that probably all dated back to the 1940s or earlier, all cheek by jowl on minuscule lots, the primary appeal of which was a tiny strip of sand and a wooden boat dock that someone’s grandfather had probably built over a few weekends back in the days when building permits were optional and a six-pack of beer was required. A few places stuck out—new construction where someone had bought up one of the old properties, razed it to the ground, and proceeded to shoehorn in a hideous McMansion that overwhelmed the tiny property and completely missed the point of lakeside living.
I parked the car and then grabbed the small deli bag that I’d picked up this morning. The parking area, which in the summer was probably stuffed to the point where cars parked on the grass, was completely vacant now, and the moment Suze and I got out of the car, an icy breeze whipping across the water gave us a clear reminder of why that was. Suze managed to restrain herself to a very speaking glance, and hauled a small blanket out of her duffel bag. It was wool, with a bright argyle pattern, the kind of thing that the elderly tuck around their knees during end-of-season games at Fenway Park.
The dock that we walked down was bleached from years in the sun, but we both sat down cautiously on the spread blanket, well aware that generations of splinters probably remained to attack the unwary. While Suze wrangled the deli container, I pulled a long coil of fishing line out of my pocket, then took up the surprisingly difficult task of tying one end firmly to a raw duck gizzard. Neither the smell nor the temperature was helping, and I was well aware that the easiest route, a hook, would be a very bad idea. I finally succeeded, despite Suzume’s ongoing color commentary of the ordeal, and dropped the gizzard down into the lake. The water was clear enough that we could peer down and see our bait hanging there a few inches below the surface, suspended by my line and already the subject of intense scrutiny by some minnows and one fat sunfish.
We stared in complete silence for five minutes, watching the fish, until Suze finally pronounced grimly, “This is going to take all damn day.” She sent a dark-eyed glare my way, as if somehow this were my fault. “She needs to get a freaking cell phone like everyone else.”
“Pretty sure that phones don’t work that well underwater,” I noted.
“She could stash it in a beaver lodge when she wasn’t using it.”
“Beaver lodges now come with electrical plugs for charging purposes?”
Suze reached down and tugged the line, making the duck gizzard wobble in the water. “How exactly is this supposed to work?”
I’d read the entire file last night, but I was a little hazy on this myself. “I think she somehow smells it?” Suze looked unconvinced, and I defended the theory. “Hey, sharks can smell stuff underwater.”
Looking down critically to the gizzard, currently being nibbled at by fish, Suze said, “It’s a really big lake. Does she usually hang around this dock?”
“Um, I don’t think she has a preferred area.” I passed the deli container over to her. There were a half-dozen other pinkish-grayish blobs of meat still in it, with a matching (and extremely odorous) liquid collecting at the bottom. “Here, pour the gizzard juice out into the water. Maybe that will help.”
The day dragged on while we sat and waited, replacing the gizzard each time the little circling fish managed to completely nibble the bait off the line. For a short time the sun came out and we were warm enough to pull off our hats and gloves, but then the gray clouds rolled back in and the temperature dropped again. We talked while we waited, but they were intermittent conversations at best, since we were both actively scanning the water around us, looking for signs that the rusalka was approaching.
Two and a half hours into our vigil, a ripple in the water a hundred yards out caught my attention, and I nudged Suze with my elbow. We both eyed it carefully—between the lake’s beaver population and one slightly out-of-season loon, we’d had a lot of false alarms. But then the ripple appeared again, closer this time, and my heart began beating faster as I realized that there was a large mass moving under the water.
She broke the surface of the lake about ten feet from us, and her natural camouflage was good enough that if I hadn’t been specifically looking for her, I doubted that I would’ve spotted her. The rusalka was cautious, and the only thing visible was her face from forehead to cheekbone. Her skin was a dull and mottled collection of grays and dark blues that matched the surface of the water almost exactly, and her one visible eye was a hazy white. Then there was a blink, and I realized that what I’d seen was an outer eyelid. The eye now visible was a brilliant blue-green, like a freshly polished aquamarine, but it was a solid color, without a visible pupil or any white.
“You can come closer,” I called softly. “I’m Chivalry Scott’s brother, Fortitude, and I came to talk with you. I’ve brought my friend Suzume, a kitsune, so she can keep anyone from noticing you.”
I glanced quickly at Suze, who gave a small shrug. “Shouldn’t be hard,” she muttered. “It’s not like anyone would be expecting to see her.” All of the kitsune have a kind of magic that they refer to as fox tricks—they can hide things that are happening, or make people see only what they would expect to see, rather than what is actually there. I’d seen Suzume once hide a corpse in a way that would fool policemen, cameras, and even morticians—but that had been very difficult. She always told me that working within people’s expectations was the easiest to do.
The eye disappeared beneath the water with barely a ripple, but then a breath later, the rusalka fully surfaced right beside the dock, and it was all I could do to avoid a full jump-reaction. The file that Loren Noka had prepared for me had included a few drawings, but that was a very different thing from seeing the rusalka in all her glory.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Generation V Novels
“A funny, refreshing urban fantasy tale.… Geek-inspired humor and unexpectedly sympathetic characters (particularly the deadly Madeline) help make this a novel worth reading.”—Publishers Weekly
“Engrossing and endearingly quirky, with a creative and original vampire mythos, it’s a treat for any urban fantasy lover!”—New York Times bestselling author Karen Chance
“Full of vivid characters and terrific world building...A fun, fast-paced romp of a story that kept me glued to the pages to the very last word. Loved it! Bravo, M. L. Brennan, bravo!”—National bestselling author Devon Monk
“A strong debut with a lot of heart, with an interesting take on the vampire mythos…unexpectedly awesome.”—SF Signal
“A quirky, humorous new urban fantasy series… rife with mystery, suspense, and a cast of eccentric characters that will have you laughing and rolling your eyes at their antics. A clever mix of dark humor and seriousness.”—Smexy Books
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Another great addition to the series! I love Fort and Suzume! Warning: Violence and gore I enjoyed the growing relationship between Fort and Suzume. They trust each other more now and confide in one another. And joke of course. (I want a friend like Suzume!) I like how in each book we learn more about this world. Here we not only learned about the werebears, but also a little bit about the ghouls who run funereal homes and do autopsy’s. There was of course still plenty of family drama. I didn’t like Chivalry as much, but I feel like I understand Prudence better. (Yep she’s psycho) It was strange that Fort had the family behind him for once and all of their resources. (Which surprisingly didn’t help much) I didn’t think this mystery was as well done as the previous ones, but that could be because I figured it out right away. The ride to get there was still really fun. I just love these books! The fourth book, Dark Ascension will be published on August 4th 2015. I can’t wait! My Summary: While Chivalry is spending time with his dying wife, Fortitude’s been put in charge of the family business. Along with his new partner the Kitsune Suzume. It’s been mostly quiet for the first month he’s been in charge, but now the head werebear (don’t call them that) has been murdered and it’s up to Fort to investigate.