Sometimes monsters like to pretend to be humans dressing up as monsters…
After a major goof turned their last mission into chaos, Hidden Government chaser Kam and her friends must hunt and recapture a crapton of souls. Seventeen, to be precise. But by the time they chase down the first one—a goblin en route back home to Oklahoma—a banshee ups and gets assassinated, leaving their progress at exactly negative one.
The connection between Kam’s goblin and her banshee? A cosplay club, natch. Because sometimes monsters like to pretend to be humans dressing up as monsters.
As the body count rises and the Hidden cosplayers point fingers at each other, it’s up to Kam and her team to stop the insanity. One costumed faction has a secret they’re not sharing—even with each other—and if the bad seed isn’t found soon, the others are likely to be murdered…or worse.
This book is approximately 65,000 words
And don’t miss To Catch a Stolen Soul, available now from R.L. Naquin and Carina Press!
Carina Press acknowledges the editorial services of Rhonda Edits, LLC
About the Author
She believes in pixie dust, the power of love, good cheese, lucky socks and putting things off until the last minute. Her home is Disneyland, despite her current location in Kansas. Rachel has one husband, two grown kids and a crazy-catlady starter kit.
Come hang out: Twitter: @RLNaquin Facebook: /RLNaquin www.rlnaquin.com
Read an Excerpt
Pulling the soul of a deceased banshee out of its body should have been a simple job. In hindsight, I probably should have paid better attention in reaper training class. But I'd been a soul chaser for quite a while, so I didn't think there'd be much difference. Chasers caught the souls that escaped from dead bodies. Reapers pulled out the souls that were stuck in their dead bodies. What was there to learn?
Also in hindsight, I probably shouldn't have let Tahm do the job as his first reaper pull. And I shouldn't have distracted him while he did it.
We'd been on the trail of a goblin soul we'd lost back in Kansas. I'd smashed a reaper's soul stone in order to wrestle it away from a merman with a grudge. My job was to collect souls. That day I'd released seventeen of them. They'd scattered to the winds, and now we had to go find them all.
Nothing like a little job security to keep a girl in shoes and purses.
Back at Headquarters, I'd had to admit to my huge mistake. Instead of firing me from my freelance gig, my boss had given me a full-time job. And Ash and Tahm as my team. We'd all had to go through reaper training, and the two of them had some chaser training, and we were off on the road to clean up my mess six weeks later.
We'd backtracked the goblin to Oklahoma. There wasn't much to go on other than the original location where the soul had been picked up by one of the government's best reapers, Pete. Pete was also dead and currently refusing to vacate my own soul stone. So far, no word on why from Pete himself. He was a tiny shooting star blinking in the darkness of my pendant.
So, Poor Dead Pete was no help, despite his having been there when she'd died.
The only information we had from Headquarters was that we were looking for a goblin named Felicia who was originally reaped outside a hardware store near the expressway.
My newly acquired sister djinn, Ash, searched the internet for hardware stores in Broken Arrow, and we thought we knew which one fit the description. But before we could get there, we received an alert from Headquarters for a new pickup in the area, outside the mall.
I ignored our off-ramp and kept driving north on the expressway. "How far to the new exit?" Ash zoomed in on her phone screen to check the map. "We're about fifteen minutes out. Take 51 south when you get to it."
Tahm grunted from his seat on the other side of Ash. "Tulsa is a big city. Isn't there a local reaper who should be doing this pickup?"
Tahm, also a djinn, was my brother's best friend, my betrothed, the love of my life, practically a stranger and the man I'd run away from to avoid marrying almost a hundred years ago. Our relationship was ... complicated.
He'd recently tracked me down and swore he was only there to get to know me, not pressure me into following through with the marriage our parents had arranged.
I'd have made a run for it if my boss hadn't put Tahm on the team as my trainee.
I checked my rearview mirror, signaled and changed into the right lane. "Probably. But if we're closer or he's busy, HQ will always send us."
His tone was curt. "Seems like we'd be able to collect the escaped souls a lot quicker if we didn't get sidetracked."
Ash dropped her hand into her lap and turned her velvet-blue eyes toward Tahm. "What's your hurry? It's not like we're retiring after we're done. Just go with it, for Pete's sake."
The scarab beetle pendant under my tee shirt buzzed and grew warm. Apparently, Poor Dead Pete didn't like his name being invoked. Or maybe he did. He wasn't the best communicator.
I exited where Ash had instructed. "Now what?"
"Take the east 61st Street exit and turn right." She fiddled with her phone as she spoke.
Tahm sat with his arms across his chest and stared silently out the window. He wasn't being emo, exactly. I knew what his problem was. He was nervous. At the last pickup we'd made, I'd told him he'd had all the trainee experience he could get watching me make the pulls. The next body was his.
He hadn't said as much, but I was fairly certain he was scared. He didn't want to make the pickup because he didn't want to take the soul from the body himself. I totally understood. My first had only been a few weeks ago. Things could go wrong. Pull too hard, and the soul could shoot out and fly free. Pull too softly, and it could get wedged in a half-in, half-out state that would have us bent over a dead body for hours trying to extricate the tangled soul from its deceased host.
Chasing the loose souls — now that I was good at. I had a few years under my belt catching the strays and bringing them in. I could talk to them. Reason with them. It wasn't quite so clinical. The finesse required was all about being personable and had nothing to do with focus and concentration. I was a freaking delight. But nobody ever accused me of being focused or having great concentration.
Ooh! A butterfly!
In an attempt to take Tahm's mind off his nerves, I changed the subject. "Hey, Ash. How far are we from the Center of the Universe here?" One of my favorite things about being out on the road for work was getting to stop and see some of the crazy attractions in the towns we went through. I'd seen a pair of Elvis Presley's underwear, the World's Biggest Ball of Twine and The Museum of Hair just in the last few months.
"Good idea! Let me check." Ash was quiet a moment while she looked it up, pushing a strand of dark blond hair behind her ear. "Not far at all. After we grab the soul, we can head north and make a quick stop."
"Absolutely not." Tahm sat up straighter. "No extra stops. We have souls to catch. Now we're pulling as well as catching — which is a ridiculous waste of resources — and we need to move more quickly. The longer we dawdle, the farther out they get."
Ash snickered. "Dawdle."
I snorted and said it back to her. "Dawdle. Dawdle dawdle."
We burst into immature laughter at our teammate's expense.
"Oh, real mature, ladies." He returned to his curmudgeon position, arms folded across his chest. His dark complexion and deep brown eyes made him especially good at looking broody.
"Dawdle," I said under my breath.
Ash giggled, then covered her mouth to keep the laughter from spilling out.
I pulled the truck into the parking lot of a Toys "R" Us, and we all set aside our previous thoughts to scan the lot for a banshee.
"Is that her?" Ash pointed at a woman carrying a bag in one hand and a toddler resting on her hip.
I blinked at the seemingly human woman, attempting to strip away the disguise to see the Hidden creature beneath. She still appeared human. "Maybe. Doubtful, though." I thought about it for a moment. "Does anybody know what a banshee looks like?"
"Dead," Tahm said, pointing to a woman lying on the pavement not ten feet from where we were parked. "I think maybe we were a little late."
I felt the blood leave my face, and I flung open my door. "We should get moving then. We can't leave her stuck in there." I glanced around for a reason for this woman to be dead.
Tires squealed across the lot. I didn't see who made the noise. It was quite possible the two things were unrelated, but judging by the position of the woman on the ground, it was definitely a hit-and-run.
I squelched the urge to take off after the squealing vehicle to try and catch who'd done this. Much as I'd have liked to bring the killer to justice, it wasn't our job. We were here to pick up the soul that, due to the suddenness of death, was likely to be stuck inside the body. No more. No less.
The lot wasn't very busy, but there were still quite a few cars and several shoppers moving in and out of the store. So far, nobody seemed to care that a fellow consumer had been run over and left dead not far from them. People tended to live in their own heads, not seeing what they didn't expect to see. It was part of our job to be sure that continued to be true.
I signaled Ash, and she pulled out a salt shaker sealed in plastic. She peeled off the plastic and dumped the herbs inside in a circle around us and whispered some words in another language. Once the circle was complete, no one outside the circle could see us. It was temporary and would wear off in a few hours.
I returned my attention to the banshee at my feet. When I squinted the right way, her human disguise shifted, and I was able to answer the question we'd had earlier. Banshees looked like humans, only more corpselike. The dark hair that spread around her head on the pavement like melted pitch was actually sparse and stringy. Her facial features were delicate and would have been pretty if they didn't look like they'd been painted with bad zombie makeup.
It was a shame she was dead. I'd never met a banshee before, and she might have been a sweet person with a fun personality. She was, after all, in the parking lot of a toy store.
I bent and dangled my pendant over her, checking the black stone in the center for activity. The entire pen
dant pushed toward her, as if she had a magnet in her teeth. I straightened and nodded to my apprentice — Ash — and my trainee — Tahm. "She's definitely dead and she's definitely still in there."
Ash opened a book she'd been carrying and flipped through the pages. "I may have something here." Ever since training, Ash had been lugging around a copy of The Reaper Training Manual.
I loved her dearly, but her obsession with reading off bits of useless trivia or rules I was never going to follow had become old within the first two days she'd had it. I'd been hanging with all sorts of Hidden creatures on and off for a century. I'd chased dozens of souls. I knew what I was doing.
I ignored her and focused on Tahm. "You ready?" He didn't answer, but he did move toward the body. Tahm's soul stone was in a ring on his right hand, and while he stood looking at the body, he turned the ring around and around with the fingers of his left. "So ... I just hold it out?"
"You've seen me do it lots of times. You can do it." I patted his shoulder, then moved my hand away when my fingers brushed the hard muscle there. "It's like fishing. You've been fishing, right? Once you get a bite, pull it in gently so it doesn't snap the line and swim away."
Behind me, Ash read something out loud from her book, but I didn't hear what it was. Tahm was sweating and his eyes were wider than I liked. I was far more concerned that he'd bolt than I was about the soul we were collecting.
"I can do this." He squatted beside the body and held out his reaper-chaser ring. A bead of sweat rolled down the back of his neck. I wanted to blow on it or mop it away for him, but I held myself still.
The last thing I needed was for him to think I liked him, further complicating the mess I was in. And when had he slipped away from us and gotten a haircut? His black, wavy hair was neatly trimmed, as if he'd been to the barber yesterday.
A silvery substance nudged the banshee's lips open and headed for Tahm's ring.
"There you go." I grinned. "Not so hard, right?" Tahm tugged the ring, and the silver mist grew thicker and flowed faster. "No, it's really not. Wow. I thought it was going to be so difficult."
Ashley muttered something.
"Okay." I took a step back while Tahm continued to collect the banshee's soul, knowing he had it under control and would be finished in a few seconds. "Once we're done here, I think we should head into Tulsa to the Center of the Universe. It's this spot with bizarre acoustics that no one can explain."
Tahm shook his head. "Absolutely not. We're not here as tourists. We're here to re-collect that goblin, Felicia, and move on." His hand made a small shake, and the soul substance stopped flowing. "What's it doing?"
"It probably wants to go to The Center of the Universe with us, but you're ruining it." I scowled at him though he didn't see it. "Give it another tug to get it going."
Sometimes that happened. The flow slowed or stopped, then picked up again. It didn't seem like a big deal. If it actually got stuck, I'd jump in and help. But to be totally honest, I was more focused on changing the subject to the Center of the Universe so I'd stop thinking about the line of dark, closely trimmed stubble that followed Tahm's jawline than I was on what should have been a routine soul reap.
Some professional I turned out to be.
"Guys, is anybody listening to me?" Ashley stood behind me, her voice raised in annoyance.
"I hear you." I faced her and held my hands out. "You want to go to the Center of the Universe, right?" I gave Tahm a sympathetic head tip he didn't see. "Sorry, buddy. With the banshee, here, it's three to one. And I'm sure if I asked Poor Dead Pete, he'd want to go, too. You're way outnumbered."
Tahm grunted and gave a hard tug of his ring. The silver cloud pulled back harder, dislodging itself from his ring at the same moment it snapped out of the dead body. The cloud hovered for a moment in a shapeless mass, then reformed, taking the shape of the body at our feet.
Only, in her soul state, she was dressed as Harley Quinn. Which was weird, even to me. And I love dressing up.
Her pale skin shimmered, and her mouth made an O of surprise. She stared at us for a moment, then shrugged and spread her hands in front of her. Souls, in my experience, tended to be silent, but she mouthed what looked like Sorry.
And then she was gone.
"What the hell just happened?" I glared at Tahm, and he glared back. "Why didn't you get her?"
"I don't know. It should have worked. I swear, I did everything you said."
"No, Tahm. You didn't do everything I said, or we'd be getting in the truck and heading back to the hardware store to look for the goblin. Instead of seventeen runaway souls, now we have eighteen." I threw my hands in the air. Even in my irritated state, I knew I was being too hard on him, but I couldn't stop myself.
"Well, you distracted me."
"I thought you were almost done. You had her."
We glared at each other, nose to nose. He had a fleck of dirt on his cheek and, despite my anger, I had to fight the urge to wipe it off with my fingertips as an excuse to touch his face.
Ash stomped in between us, fuming. Her face was red and her eyes flicked with tiny flames. "If you'd both listened to me for once, I was trying to tell you." She held up the book she'd been carrying. "While you two were acting like you know everything, I was studying the manual. Banshees already know how to leave their bodies in life. It's how they cry someone's death. Once they're dead, they're high-risk runners." She slammed the book closed and gave us each the stink-eye. "You should have been working together, not discussing travel plans and arguing about them." She stomped off toward the truck and climbed in, slamming the door behind her.
"Teenagers, am I right?"
Tahm's face was stony. "Let's just go." He followed Ash into the truck, though at least he didn't slam the door.
I tried to make light of the tension, but the truth was, my team wasn't very team-like. Tahm wouldn't lighten up, Ash was filled with resentment for not having her own soul stone and I was trying too hard. Tahm was never going to see me as anything but his best friend's little sister and a huge responsibility keeping him from the life he wanted to live.
Maybe once Tahm realized I wasn't worth the effort, he'd forget his stubborn need to follow through with an engagement neither of us had asked for. It wasn't like he was going to wake up one morning and fall in love with me. Love was all on my side of the equation. And I'd far rather be alone than married to someone who saw me as a burden and a duty. Eventually, he'd give up and go home.
I took a deep breath, let it out and climbed into the driver's seat of my pickup truck. We had a job to do. Cohesive or not, this was my team, and I was in charge. I had to pull myself together.
Sirens sounded in the distance, warning me to skedaddle. Banshees looked human, even at an autopsy, so there was no reason to hide the body. The local OGRE (Oversight and General Rules Enforcement) squad would have received an alert similar to the one we had. They'd take over from the humans later. We'd be better off not being at the scene when they arrived.
I turned the key and put the truck in gear. "Ash, GPS me some pancakes. We need to have a family meeting and make a new plan."
Excerpted from "To Seize a Wayward Spirit"
Copyright © 2017 R.L. Naquin.
Excerpted by permission of Carina Press.
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