Lisa Shearin, National Bestselling Author

Sample Chapters – The Brimstone Deception

The Brimstone Deception

The Brimstone Deception
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4

I wasn’t sure this qualified as a first date.

Yes, I was having lunch with one of the richest and most eligible bachelors not only of Manhattan, but also another dimension. We were in a trendy, new restaurant in Tribeca, with a celebrity chef in the kitchen. Two nights ago, I’d played a big part—along with said inter-dimensional bachelor—in saving the lives of the supernatural citizens of the tristate area.

That was three causes for celebration: hot guy, great food, still alive. Yea, me.

The fly in my fancy soup du jour, so to speak, was two-fold.

First, on the other side of the restaurant, and unfortunately with a clear view of our table, was my partner, Ian Byrne. My name is Makenna Fraser. Ian and I worked together at a worldwide organization fighting the forces of supernatural evil. Ian thought that my date, Rake Danescu, deserved a spot near the top of our most wanted list.

Second, I was still considered a newbie and my partner was the protective type. Actually, that was part of his job. Protecting me, that is. Right now those protective urges were getting on my last nerve. I’d had more than one near death experience during the last few days, and was way overdue for some R&R. Having Ian only taking his eyes off of me long enough to stare crosshairs onto Rake’s forehead was taking the rest right out of my relaxation. We’d recently decided that a healthy mentor/mentee relationship shouldn’t also be a romantic relationship. I had to admit that took a lot of the tension—sexual and otherwise—out of our workday, which was good for focusing on the bad guys and not my partner’s mighty fine backside. But right now, Ian was putting plenty of tension right back in. I don’t think he was jealous—at least I didn’t think he was. I think he was being protective over his still relatively new partner.

“I knew you were reluctant to accept my invitation,” Rake murmured, “but I assure you a bodyguard wasn’t necessary.”

I sighed. “I didn’t tell him.” It was a coincidence that we were all here at the same time. A really unpleasant and awkward coincidence.

Rake smiled slowly. “You didn’t tell him? Oh, I like this devious side of you.”

“I’m not being devious. My personal life isn’t anyone’s business but my own.”

“I don’t think he agrees with you.”

“Doesn’t appear that way, does it?”

Rake looked around a waiter to see who my partner was having lunch with, and to provoke Ian even more, he made a leisurely show of appreciating the view. I thought I heard Ian growl all the way from our table. Kylie gave Rake a smile and finger wave.

They knew each other.

Of course they did. They were both breathtakingly beautiful supernaturals.

Rake Danescu was a goblin. Kylie O’Hara was a dryad.

Kylie was a friend and coworker. Different department, same secret organization.

Interspecies dating wasn’t frowned on by most supernaturals. Heck, dryads didn’t have much of a choice. All dryads were female, and they all came from trees, so their intraspecies dating pool was more of a puddle. Unless they were lesbians or had a thing for botanicals, dryads had to hunt elsewhere when looking for love. Kylie had dark hair, green eyes, was five foot nothing, and like her sisters down through history, could probably get any man she wanted with the crook of one dainty digit.

Ian had had a crush on Kylie since she started at SPI. Though “crush” sounded like something out of high school. Let’s say he admired her from afar, because getting close would violate one of the personal rules my stoic partner wouldn’t allow himself to break—no workplace romance. I’d told him numerous times to just ask her out already. But in the end, it wasn’t my doing that resulted in them being here together, it was the same near-death experience that had gotten me here with Rake. When Death does heavy breathing on the back of your neck, you reexamine your life. My partner decided that life was too uncertain to throw away potential happiness.

I smiled. The rule of “no workplace romance” was presently being bent until it squealed in Café Mina’s corner booth. I wondered which of his “thou shalt nots” my partner would take out for a reexamining look-see next.

“Kylie O’Hara, a lovely girl,” Rake said. “Though I always thought she had more discerning taste.”

I gave him a look.

“What?” The goblin was all innocence, which was no mean feat for any goblin, let alone Rake.

“You know very well what. Ian doesn’t trust you as far as he can throw you.” I stopped and thought a moment. “Actually less than that. Night before last, the two of you were at each other’s throats, and now here you are having lunch with his partner and making goo-goo eyes at his date.”

“Goo-goo? That must be a droll, human term that I’m unfamiliar with. But if its meaning bears any resemblance to how it sounds, I assure you I have never made ‘goo-goo eyes’ in my life.”

“It sounded better than undressing her with your eyes.”

Rake lowered his voice to a soft rumble. “Do I detect a hint of jealousy?”

“In your dreams.”

“You and Miss O’Hara battling, with me as the prize for the winner. . .” His dark eyes turned from teasing to full smolder. “That would be a dream worth remembering. I assure you, dearest Makenna, you are the only woman I am interested in undressing.”

I took my napkin out of my lap and calmly placed it on the table.

“Are you required to check in with Agent Byrne every hour?” Rake asked, as I scooted my chair back to stand.

I didn’t even need to glance at him to know he was smiling and enjoying himself immensely. But I did need to look at him to make sure he completely understood what I was about to say.

“You know I don’t. Now wipe that grin off your face.”

He actually batted his eyelashes at me. “What grin?”

“The grin that’s telling Ian, ‘I’m up to no good with your partner, and there’s nothing you can do about it.’ Cause I can guarantee you he will do something about it. Then I’ll have to do something about the two of you, and no one here wants to see that.”

“On the contrary, everyone here would love to see that, myself included. And now you’ve piqued my curiosity. We goblins are rather like your domestic cats in that regard. Once aroused, our curiosity must be satisfied.” The gleam in his dark eyes said that satisfying his arousal in regard to me had nothing to do with curiosity.

That was Ian’s problem.

Tall, dark, sleek, and seemingly made for sex, goblins had a reputation for . . . let’s just say they had a reputation. A well-deserved one. Add to that Rake being the owner of Bacchanalia, Manhattan’s most exclusive sex club, Ian’s concerns were justified, as Rake hadn’t even tried to hide his interest in me. In fact, I think Rake had turned teasing me and antagonizing Ian about teasing me into his newest hobby.

I pushed my chair back and stood. Rake, playing at being the perfect gentleman, stood with me.

Ian needed to understand that I was a big girl and as such was totally aware of who Rake was and what he wanted. And he wasn’t getting any of it until when—or if—I decided I wanted it, too. Not that it was any of Ian’s business, which was another thing he needed to get through his head.

“I’ll be back in a minute.”

Rake smiled fully as he took his seat. Anyone watching saw an unwholesomely handsome man giving his date a dazzling smile. I saw all of that plus a pair of fangs. I was a seer. It was a rare ability that enabled me to see through wards, spells, shields, and glamours that supernaturals used to disguise themselves from the humans around them. Only about half the people in Café Mina were human; the rest were a mix of supernatural races.

So I knew exactly what Rake Danescu was in more ways than one.

“I shall eagerly await your return,” Rake all but purred.

I sighed. “Yeah.”

I started across the restaurant, to the accompaniment of Rake’s low chuckle.

Ian’s date glanced up from her menu with a quick grin that in the language of girlfriends everywhere said: “I’m so happy for you!” Or if expressed in a single sound—”squee!”

Ian was not happy—for me or anyone else—and he most certainly was not fighting back an urge to squee. The only urges Ian was fighting were violent ones, and he didn’t appear to be fighting very hard.

“Stop it,” I told him.

Two words. One directive. I didn’t believe in beating around the bush.

“I haven’t done anything,” he said. The “yet” was unspoken.

“Neither has Rake.”

“He wants to.”

I resisted rolling my eyes. “So does every other red-blooded man with any woman they’re attracted to.” I left “yourself included” unsaid. I paused. Goblins had red blood, didn’t they? For the sake of my argument I’d go with yes.

“Every other red-blooded man hasn’t enthralled you,” Ian noted.

Kylie did a combo groan and face palm.

“Enthralled? I’d ask you to please tell me you’re kidding, but I know you’re not.”

“Rake Danescu is a dark mage, one of the best.”

“And I’m a hick from the North Carolina mountains ripe for the pickin’.”

“I did not say that.”

“Oh yes, you did.”

My first night on the job, Rake had magicked himself a look inside my mind. It hadn’t been personal, merely business. Okay, maybe it had been a little personal. From what I understood, it’d be easier the next time. I’d been with SPI for well over a year now, and Rake hadn’t tried it again.

The combativeness went out of Ian. “Mac, I’m simply worried that—”

A man screamed.

An immaculately groomed guy in a really nice suit who’d just come back from the men’s room was staring in total and complete horror at his waiter. The guy was human; his waiter was not.

I could see that. The man shouldn’t have been able to.

The two other suit-clad men across the table from him were staring at this guy like he’d lost his mind. They looked like a trio out for a business lunch. The screaming guy had a tablet on the table next to him. Yep, business lunch. If those were his clients, the screamer wasn’t making a good impression.

Everyone else in the restaurant saw the waiter as what he wanted them to see—a hot-beyond-belief, twenty-something, out-of-work actor waiting tables to pay the rent. I saw what he really was—an incubus.

Somehow the businessman, who’d now progressed from screaming to babbling, saw what I was seeing.

The incubus’s features were vaguely humanoid, but more closely resembled a creature out of a bad 1950s horror movie with translucent skin and a slit suction cup for lips.

The man stood so quickly his thighs hit the table, nearly knocking it over on the two men with him, who scooted back to keep from taking soup in the lap. One guy wasn’t so lucky with his drink, shouting a word people generally tried not to say at a polite business lunch, as he grabbed a napkin and blotted the front of his pants.

The hysterically babbling man didn’t notice.

I noticed his right hand was clenching a steak knife.

“He can see them,” I whispered quickly to Ian.

Ian didn’t answer. He didn’t need to. He knew what I meant.

The man spun, taking in the supernaturals all around him, both diners and restaurant staff.

Then he spotted the one closest to him.

Rake.

Oh no.

Before Ian could stop me, I sprinted the short distance back to our table, stopping in front of Rake, trying to block the man’s view. Fat lot of good that did. Rake was a head taller than me, and if you didn’t count his hands, from the neck up was everything that said “goblin” to anyone who could see past Rake’s human glamour. To me, and any other supernatural or enlightened human with a pulse who could see past that glamour, Rake was gorgeous. But I could see where silvery skin, pointed ears, and fangs could be disconcerting.

The man’s eyes widened in disbelief. “What . . . what are you?”

Ian stepped up like the former cop he was, his voice low and calm. “Sir, I need you to put down the knife.”

The man quickly turned and saw the reassuringly human Ian.

“Do you see them?” His words came in a rush. “Can—”

“I see that you have a weapon, and you need to put it on the table next to you and step away.”

Kylie was on her phone, no doubt calling headquarters.

The man spotted a couple sitting at the table behind us. Kelpies. Everyone else saw a nice, middle-age couple. He saw vaguely human creatures with green skin, gills, and a mouthful of sharp teeth.

“Monsters!” he shrieked.

He staggered back, stumbling and catching himself on a Bananas Foster serving cart. He stayed upright, the cart didn’t. Flames ignited the closest tablecloth, and were fed by the spilled rum.

People screamed, shouted, and ran for the exits as the sprinkler system went off.

I heard a siren outside. Someone must have already called the police. Now we needed the fire department, too.

Rake stepped up close behind me, his lips at my ear. “I promised you’d never be bored on a date with me.”

“This wasn’t what I had in mind.”

All signs of playful were gone. “Neither did I.”

With his hand at the small of my back, Rake steered me toward the restaurant’s kitchen, away from the fire and the crowd surging toward the front doors. In a panic, people tended to go with the obvious, even if it wasn’t the closest or safest. Leave it to Rake to know the back way out of a building he’d never been in before.

Ian and Kylie were right behind us.

I turned my head toward Ian. “Where—”

“He dropped the knife and ran out the front,” Ian told me. “First one out. Right into the waiting arms of my former brothers in blue.”

“In addition to his freedom,” Kylie said, “I think it’s safe to say he just lost his clients and the account.”

Go to Chapter 2

Goblins, elves, vampires, werewolves, fairies, trolls, dwarves, and anything else you’ve read about in fairy tales or your favorite fantasy novel series.

They’re all real.

It used to be known, confirmed, and accepted fact that all of those and more existed. Then humans went and got themselves civilized and educated. The smarter humans thought they were, and the more they thought they knew, the less they believed in things that went bump in the night.

Their disbelief didn’t make any of those things any less real—or deadly.

In a world where supernaturals lived alongside humans, what you couldn’t see could kill you. Some of them could even bring you back from the dead and kill you again.

Magic exists, monsters are real, and fighting the forces of evil is a full-time job. At least there’s hazard pay.

Humans, being human, merely thought up more explanations for what monsters were, and excuses for what they couldn’t possibly be.

To tell you the truth, our job was a lot easier when John and Suzy Q. Public didn’t know they were lucky to make it to the office every morning without getting pecked to pieces. Though that was only during the Werepigeon Infestation of 2003. Before my time, but definitely one for the agency history books.

New Yorkers pride themselves on not even batting an eye when they walked past the weird, the wacky, and the otherworldly.

I’ve got news; if they saw someone change into a werewolf right in front of them, their blasé would go bye-bye, probably along with the contents of their bladder. Heck, the sound effects alone—bones popping, sinews stretching, muzzle elongating, and sprouting fangs—would be enough to send them screaming into the night.

We battle the creatures of the night and keep humans in the dark.

We’re the agents of Supernatural Protection and Investigations. SPI is a worldwide organization, but New York is the U.S. and world headquarters.

There are two New Yorks. As if there isn’t enough traffic in one.

There’s the New York that millions of people see, hear, touch, smell, and in the summer when the wind’s right and the garbage barges are ripe—taste.

I was one of the agency’s five seers. Since the beginning of crime, some bad guys—human or otherwise—have depended on disguises to elude capture. While humans were limited to wigs, makeup, and the ever popular but terribly ineffective sunglasses, supernaturals could tap into their magic or buy an amulet that would enable them to alter their appearance, or even hide their entire body with a cloaking spell.

It didn’t matter what they used, or how good it was, I could see right through any and all of it.

So seers were downright handy in an organization like SPI.

I pointed out the bad guys, and our agents or commando teams brought them in.

Ian was our top agent.

Kylie was our director of media and public relations.

And Rake pretty much had a permanent spot on our suspects list.

Right now the four of us were sharing a booth in a coffee shop around the corner from the restaurant. The police had taken it as their interviewing room since Café Mina was presently a smoke-filled ruin. One of the cops had recognized Ian from their time together in the NYPD, and one of the staff had told them that Ian had tried to disarm the hallucinating crazy guy. Since the three of us were with him, they wanted our statements as well.

Lucky us.

Ian and Rake had declared an unspoken temporary truce. I knew it wasn’t due to any newfound camaraderie, but that it wouldn’t go over well to beat the crap out of each other in front of the cops. For the moment, they could pretend to make nice.

The officer who’d taken our statements was an elf. He knew who we were and who we worked for—or at least he knew who Ian and Kylie were, and everyone knew who Rake was. The elf couldn’t see through Rake’s glamour, but he knew what Rake’s human glamour looked like. The elf didn’t know me from Adam’s housecat, and I was fine with that. It’s never been a goal of mine to be recognized on sight by the police force of any city.

From what the guy had been screaming while being taken into custody, it was apparent that he could see the supernaturals in the restaurant with him for what they really were. The young elven officer knew that but he couldn’t exactly put that in his report. I felt bad for him, but in a place like New York which had a huge supernatural population, being able to work a case while keeping the city’s biggest secret was a required talent. If he couldn’t juggle, he’d better learn fast.

“The gentleman began behaving strangely after coming out of the men’s room,” Rake said.

We all looked at him.

“While you were arguing,” he added with an amiable smile, looking right at Ian, “I was observing.”

“Arguing?” the elf cop asked Ian.

“A personal matter, officer.”

Ian’s face was a perfect mask of neutrality; however, from Rake’s pained hiss, Ian had just introduced the heel of his boot to the top of Rake’s foot. Then Ian grunted as Kylie did the same to him, except with a stiletto heel.

I rolled my eyes.

“So you’re implying that the may have taken a drug?” the officer asked.

“Well, he wasn’t screaming about monsters before he went to the head,” drawled a familiar voice from behind me.

Our day was finally looking up.

Lieutenant Frederick Ash was a detective with the NYPD’s drug enforcement unit and, like the elven officer, was clued in to SPI and the supernatural community. Unlike the young elf, Fred was an elf/human hybrid. While he had enough elven blood running through his veins to use minor magic, his physical appearance lacked the jewel-tone eyes, pale skin, and pointed ears that marked the elven race, so no glamour was needed.

Fred was plain spoken and said it like he saw it.

I liked him.

I liked it even better that he was here.

Ian liked it enough that he and Fred did the bro-hug thing. Though they’d worked closely together during Ian’s time with the NYPD, and his leaving the force to come work for SPI hadn’t weakened that bond. Not to mention, it helped us to have people inside the NYPD, and the reverse was true for them. A lot of crime in the city crossed the human/supernatural barrier, which sometimes wasn’t so much a barrier as a chalk outline on a sidewalk.

Kylie’s eyes went to the street outside. I turned to look.

Oh crap.

Two news trucks complete with satellite dishes. For now it was probably to cover the destruction of the city’s newest trendy restaurant, but all it would take would be talking to any of the patrons, most of which would love to be on TV, to root out the cause of the fire. A previously upstanding businessman suddenly seeing monsters, who was probably cooling his heels in a padded observation room by now, would spark the sensation and ratings seeker that was in the heart of every TV journalist.

“Officer, do you have any more questions for me?” Kylie asked.

“No, ma’am.”

She nodded in the direction of the news trucks. “Then if you all would excuse me, it’s time I went to work.”

She scooted out of the booth and headed for the door, heels clicking on the tile with sharp purpose.

Media and Public Relations SPI’s largest and sometimes most critical department. Kylie and her team were hands-down the best at what they did—neutralizing a supernatural exposure problem before it became a publically visible crisis. In addition, Kylie’s “secret identity” was a world-renown debunker of the supernatural, and the ultimate mistress of misinformation. She put herself front and center on TV and radio talk shows, and was accepted by respected journalists as an expert on the exposé.

Kylie was the best at spinning a supernatural news story the way she—and SPI—needed it to go.

Fred jerked his head in the direction of a back table. “A word with you, Ian?”

“Sure.”

The boys went off to chat, leaving me and Rake alone.

An immaculately groomed man with a microphone and cameraman in tow met Kylie at the door. Though “met” was a little mild. “Ambushed” was a more accurate description.

There could’ve been hurricane-force winds out there and not one hair on Baxter Clayton’s head would’ve moved.

Baxter was an investigative reporter for a local TV station and an all-round asshat. I didn’t envy Kylie her job right now. Actually, I’d never envied Kylie’s job. I was a horrible liar and even worse at hiding how I felt when around people I didn’t like, and Baxter Clayton definitely qualified.

Rake swore.

“What?”

“Baxter Clayton.”

“Yeah, I don’t like him, either. I don’t think anyone does. That’s probably why they keep him around. The guy everyone loves to hate. Hate equals high ratings.”

“He hasn’t been trying to get you on camera for a story on New York’s upperclass sex industry,” Rake muttered.

I bit back a snort.

“It’s not funny.”

Baxter Clayton was in earnest conversation with a professionally poised and smiling Kylie.

“It looks like Kylie’s taking one for the team then. You owe her.”

“Yes, Miss O’Hara will have my eternal gratitude if I can get out of here without being seen.”

Rake was ruffled. It was a rare sight, so I was going to enjoy it while it lasted. “You do a lot of ducking out back doors, don’t you?” I asked with a smile.

“Enough that I’ve become quite adept at it.”

With that, he scooped my hand off the table and brought it to his lips.

His voice softened. “And by the way, this lunch didn’t count. A maniac setting fire to the table next to ours doesn’t qualify as a successful date.”

“Define successful,” I managed.

The goblin gently turned my hand and placed a lingering kiss on the palm, sending a tingle of sensation to other places.

“No dinner,” I said, trying for firm and uncompromising—and probably failing miserably.

Rake’s eyes glittered. “Breakfast then?”

“You don’t give up, do you?”

“Not anytime soon.”

“How about another lunch?” I suggested.

“How about tomorrow?”

“I’ll check and get back to you.”

“If you don’t, I will.”

Giving the back of my fingers a parting brush of his lips, Rake quickly escaped out the back door.

I snuck a glance over at Ian and Fred. Thankfully, my partner had his back to me.

Fred did not.

From the sly wink he just gave me, I’d say he saw Rake’s Cyrano de Bergerac exit. Then he gestured me over to join them.

Oh boy.

“I was just telling your partner what your knife-wielding businessman had likely snorted.”

“So it was a drug,” I said.

Fred nodded. “A new one. High-end designer.”

Ian glanced back at the now empty booth.

“Rake had to leave,” I told him before he could ask any questions that I’d completely blow answering.

Fred, bless him, didn’t say a word.

Kylie wasn’t the only one who’d taken one for the team. It looked like I might owe Fred one, too.

“I was telling Ian that from what I’ve heard about Brimstone, your boy was one of the latest customers.”

“Brimstone?”

Fred shrugged. “That’s what they’re calling it. It can be smoked or snorted. We haven’t gotten our hands on any yet for the lab to play with, and the latest customer didn’t have any more on him. One of our sources told us it’s lava colored. We’re assuming that’s the source of the name. And from the reactions of the three people who’ve taken it while in public . . .” Fred lowered his voice. “One of the side-effects is that they can see supernaturals.”

“Through glamours.” I said, likewise keeping my voice down.

“Through anything.”

Glamours, shields, wards, and cloaks.

“Well, there goes my job security,” I said.

“Hardly,” Fred replied. “The humans who’ve gotten hold of the stuff freak out like you just saw.”

“How about supernaturals?” Ian asked.

“Unknown. We’ve had no reports of a supernatural under the influence of Brimstone. We didn’t find out about the stuff until a couple days ago. But if supernaturals were taking it, they wouldn’t exactly scream about seeing monsters.”

“How long do the effects last?” Ian asked.

“They start to come down after a couple of hours.” He paused. “Good part is that they don’t remember what they saw, just that it was the mother of all bad trips.”

“Great,” I said. “At least if they got the crap scared out of them, they won’t be lining up to buy more.”

“Wish people had that much sense,” Fred said. “When I heard we might have another customer, I wanted to get some fresh eyewitness accounts.” He grinned. “Imagine my surprise to find you two among the witnesses.”

“It wasn’t exactly how we intended our lunch hour to go,” I said.

“I got that impression.” His blue eyes twinkled.

Fred didn’t need to elaborate. Ian and Fred were beer and steak kinds of guys. Café Mina was hardly where either one would go—or could afford to go—to grab a quick bite for lunch. Fred simply eyed Ian’s sports jacket and tie, glanced out at Kylie, grinned, and gave my partner a congratulatory smack on the shoulder.

Detective Fred Ash. Master of deduction and masculine non-verbal communication.

“Know where the supply is coming from?” Ian asked. My partner was the master at ignoring questions, direct or implied.

“That’s the reason I’m glad to run into you two here,” Fred replied. “We’ll continue to investigate, but let’s just say we’ll only be able to get so far.”

Ian swore mildly, like a man who knew he wasn’t going to have time for fancy lunches anytime soon.

Fred nodded. “Yeah. I’d bet my next paycheck that Brimstone came from out of town.”

Chapter 1 | Go to Chapter 3 >

 

When you worked for SPI or were clued in to the supernatural world, “out of town” didn’t mean Hoboken.

A supernatural criminal entrepreneur was cutting him or herself a slice of New York’s drug dealing pie. The highly profitable, upper crust part. That wasn’t going to make the city’s established drug lords and ladies very happy. And when they weren’t happy, and that much money was involved, blood would start flowing.

We just didn’t expect it to get that nasty this fast.

What lunch I’d managed to eat hadn’t even had a chance to settle before we got the call.

The goblin manager of an upscale apartment building had received a tenant complaint of heat and a really bad smell coming from the apartment next door. Suspecting a fire of some sort, he’d quickly knocked, and when no one answered, he used his master key to open the door.

He saw what was inside and promptly closed it.

He then called SPI, not the NYPD.

There was a dead body, it was a supernatural, and the stink was sulfur.

Sulfur could mean one of two things: demons or a black–magic spawned portal. Or both. None of the above signaled fun times ahead for us.

Sulfur was another name for brimstone.

Coincidence?

I wasn’t gonna hold my breath on that one. Especially when we learned who the dearly departed was.

Sar Gedeon.

Elf, exiled aristocrat, and drug lord. Who was most definitely from out of town, just like the new designer drug.

The apartment building was only two blocks from Café Mina.

We were there within minutes.

Normally Ian and I weren’t part of an initial response team unless the investigation required the services of a seer, but we were the closest agents. Our job was to secure the scene from mortal authorities until SPI’s crime scene investigators could get there.

Like humans, supernaturals died every day in New York, and everywhere else for that matter. There was a problem when supernatural deaths involved a crime. Crime meant police, and police meant the potential for exposure.

Literally.

Supernaturals who didn’t look human needed a glamour to disguise themselves. Any glamour, regardless of the power of the spells that held it in place, faded within one hour after death. In a murder investigation, that meant that the victim would go through a quick and rather startling transformation, either before the police arrived or while they—and the body—were still on the scene. Those were the tough ones.

Each major city had its own supernatural medical examiner’s office that reported suspicious deaths to the regional SPI office.

Supernatural families also notified SPI in the case of any unusual deaths, and our investigators and medical examiners responded. Humans have local morticians/funeral homes, and so do supernaturals. Each race has cultural or religious beliefs that dictated what was done with a body after death—without attracting the attention of mortal authorities. But when supernaturals made themselves a part of human society—or were inconsiderate enough to get themselves murdered in public—things could get dicey.

That was the situation we were dealing with now.

__________________

Ian discreetly showed his badge to the doorman at The Murwood.

The man glanced down at the ID and at Ian’s face without moving anything except a pair of cool gray eyes. He wore the double-breasted, quasi-military style of long coat and hat that seemed to be the uniform of doormen at upper-crusty apartment and condo buildings citywide. His bearing said ex-military or police loud and clear. Then his face took on the neutral and faraway expression that signaled someone was speaking to him on his Bluetooth earpiece. Either that, or he was having an out-of-body experience.

“Mr. Nadisu is expecting you.” Not taking his eyes off either us or anyone else on the street nearby—which was a nifty trick—he reached back and opened the door for us.

The lobby of my apartment building was more of a foyer with mailboxes against one wall. It was almost impossible to squeeze part anyone checking their mail without way too much intimate contact with someone whose name you didn’t know.

At least a dozen of my lobbies would have fit in The Murwood’s.

The goblin who met us there looked like his day was going worse than ours.

Goblins liked being in control of themselves and everyone and everything around them. You’d never see a goblin frazzled, at least not in public, and definitely not in front of strangers. This guy was frazzled. He wanted to be cool and collected, but today just wasn’t his day to get what he wanted.

As Ian and I could attest, there was a lot of that going around.

There was no one else in the posh lobby, but Ian still kept his voice down as he introduced us, even though Jesin Nadisu knew who we were. Official protocol had to be observed.

Anyone else, Ian included, would see a human man in his mid-thirties, impeccably dressed in a suit that probably made him fit right in with the building’s wealthy tenants. He wouldn’t want to offend his tenants’ sensibilities by wearing anything that came off the rack. Other than that, there wasn’t anything that made him particularly noticeable.

Brown hair, brown eyes, medium height. Like his suit, Jesin Nadisu had gone out of his way to blend in.

With my seer vision, I saw a surprisingly young and unsurprisingly handsome goblin in his early twenties (or whatever the goblin age equivalent was) with sleek, shoulder-length, blue-black hair pulled back in a tight ponytail at the nape of his neck, with large dark eyes. Elves and goblins aged slower than humans, and did a better job of it while they did; no plastic surgery or Botox shots needed.

The goblin gestured. “This way, please.”

We took one of the elevators to the seventh floor.

“How long has Mr. Gedeon lived in the apartment?” Ian asked.

“Mr. Gedeon owns . . . owned the apartment,” the goblin said, “but he didn’t live there. He visited once or sometimes twice a week. He kept the place for a lady friend.”

“The name of the tenant?” Ian asked.

“Mara Lorenz. She went out of town two days ago.”

“Then why was Mr. Gedeon here?”

Jesin Nadisu professional reserve cracked and he smiled slightly. “The same reason he was always here. To get away from his wife.”

When we got to the seventh floor, the stench of sulfur smacked us all in the face.

The goblin unlocked the apartment door, but made no move to open it.

I didn’t blame him. He’d been there, done that, got the trauma.

Ian broke the silence. “Mr. Nadisu, I need you to return to the lobby and wait for our lab team.”

The goblin nodded with no small measure of relief and turned toward the elevator.

“And don’t let anyone in unless they live in the building or are from Sarkowski Plumbing,” my partner added. “They’re our lab team.”

“I wouldn’t anyway. This is a secure building.” The young goblin winced. “At least it was.” He swallowed in an audible gulp. “And on my watch.” He paused. “Would your non-admittance request include any of Mr. Gedeon’s business associates?”

“It would. And do not discuss what you have seen with anyone.”

“My discretion and that of The Murwood is assured for all of our tenants.”

“Good. Keep it that way.”

I noticed he never said he wouldn’t tell anyone, just that his discretion was assured. With goblins, you had to watch for the small print. Many of the top lawyers in the city were goblins—and more than a few of the politicians. I was sure Ian had noticed’ he chose not to try to wrangle a promise out of him. A goblin could find ways to get around those, too.

But I still felt sorry for him. Contrary to what Ian had told him, he’d have to tell the owner of the building what had happened. I was sure we could count on their discretion as well. No landlord wanted to spread around that a murder had occurred in one of their buildings.

“Have any of the other tenants been asking questions?” Ian asked.

“No, just from the apartment one floor below, and the couple next door. They’ve since left for a luncheon engagement. I’ve called and told them that I’ve looked into it, and there’s no cause for concern.”

Goblins could spin a lie as easily as breathing. Like I said, they were great lawyers and politicians.

In my book, your next door neighbor getting himself murdered was plenty cause for concern. Though if Sar Gedeon had been specifically targeted—considering what he did for a living, that scenario was highly likely—there really wasn’t any need for the neighbors to worry for their own safety, that is unless they stuck their noses where they didn’t belong and the killer got wind of it. So, when you looked at it like that the manager’s lie might have saved their lives. See? He lied and it was for their own good. It was all in how you spun it.

As soon as the elevator doors closed, Ian drew his gun which was loaded with silver-infused hollowpoints.

“Stay here,” he told me.

“I can do that.”

Not only could I do that, I was glad to do that. Running underneath the sulfur stink was an odor I could only describe as burnt beef brisket. I wasn’t a math wiz, but the smell of burnt meat coming from a room with a dead body? Those added up to a cause of death I was in no hurry to confirm for myself.

Ian opened the door and slipped into the apartment.

I had the smell of sulfur and burnt flesh to keep me company while I waited in the hall. I didn’t know which one was worse; but since they were both here, I didn’t have to choose. Lucky me.

I was familiar with the smell of brimstone. I’d gotten a snootful of the stuff only once before, and that was one time too many.

My SPI training had included a class in what was generously called “Aroma Identification.” When tracking a supernatural suspect, let’s just say that sometimes visual contact didn’t come first.

One of the aromas covered in class was brimstone. Our instructor kept samples in air-tight containers of substances we needed to immediately know when we caught a whiff of it.

Brimstone was the biggie.

Its presence at a crime scene or while in pursuit of a suspect could indicate several things, but the two main ones that set my survival instinct to twitching were demons and black magic-spawned portals.

Neither were things you wanted catching you by surprise.

Two minutes and no shots fired later, Ian opened the door and I stepped in just far enough for him to close the door behind me.

Chapter 2 | Go to Chapter 4 >

When a supernatural dies, any glamour they might have been using to disguise their true appearance fades within the first hour after death. A supernatural creature manifesting on a slab in the city morgue in front of a screaming technician was one of those awkward moments it was part of our job to prevent. Believe me, you haven’t seen a murder scene until you’ve busted into a room after a grendel had had ten seconds to rip arms, legs, and head off some poor sot, and dangle his intestines from an overhead light fixture like a party streamer.

I’d thought that had to be the apex of disgusting and as far as the ick meter went.

I was wrong. What the building manager had found beyond that apartment door jumped right over awkward and landed smack dab on bizarre.

Sar Gedeon had gotten away from his wife. Too bad he hadn’t had similar success with his murderer.

And it was most definitely a murder.

The dead elf was shirtless, as if the killer wanted to show off his work. Though at least the he still had his pants on. His killer had apparently decided to confine his work to above the waist.

Gedeon’s hands were clenched into claws, and the palms and insides of the fingers had been burnt black. So much for the source of the burnt brisket smell. The other burnt body part was the skin over and around the breastbone. It had been branded with a single hoof print. Though considering the presence of the sulfur smell, I figured we weren’t dealing with a homicidal cow.

The brand was either a signature by the demon that had done the burning, or the way it had held down the elf while it—or a partner in crime—had caused what looked to me, a non-medical professional, as the cause likely of death.

A gaping hole in Sar Gedeon’s chest.

Ian approached the body, careful not to step on any stain or splatter, squatted down next to the chest and looked inside.

His brow creased. “That’s interesting.”

Only a man who’d spent five years as a homicide detective in the NYPD and the seven years before that doing something in the military that he wouldn’t (or couldn’t) talk about, would describe the inside of a man’s open chest as “interesting.” Made me wonder what it’d take to make my partner regret eating lunch, which made me know I didn’t want to find out.

However, being the curious type, I found Ian’s description irresistible.

I went to where Ian squatted, leaned over his shoulder, and took a peek.

And regretted it.

Curiosity wouldn’t kill a cat, but getting a gander of this could make it hork up one heck of a hairball. Right now, I was about to do something similar.

I heard our folks who dealt with bodies as part of their jobs carried a little jar of Vicks with them. Constantly. On duty or off. With SPI, you never knew when off-duty could turn to very much on-duty.

Back in North Carolina’s pollen-filled spring and fall seasons, Vicks was my best friend. Some nights I was so stuffy I couldn’t get to sleep without a swipe of that wondrous eucalyptus-scented goop under my nose. Since coming to New York, my allergies were gone. My Vicks was buried in the dark recesses of the cabinet under my bathroom sink. When I got home, I was going spelunking.

I already carried Dramamine and Tums. Now I was adding Vicks. I’d only been on the job a year and I was already carrying around my own starter pharmacy.

Ian had his phone out. The pick up on the other end was quick. Ian’s communication was even faster. “We’ve got a demon, Class Five or higher.”

That’d send the folks at headquarters scrambling. Classes of demons went up to twelve. In my opinion, five was bad enough. Anything higher wasn’t known for having a light enough touch to leave a brand. We wouldn’t have found a hole in the victim’s chest; we’d have found a hole where the vic had been squashed into the floor.

Not all demons had cloven hooves, but no other supernatural did—except for satyrs and minotaurs—and neither one of those could radiate heat through their bodies to burn hands and brand a chest.

“You’re sure it wasn’t a branding iron?” I didn’t think it was, but it never hurt to hope.

“The burns on Gedeon’s hands weren’t made by grabbing a branding iron,” Ian said. “The fingers are spread the same width apart and the fingers burned in the same places. Our vic was grabbing a demon’s leg. The span his hands indicates a larger demon, at least Class Five. The cloven hoof was holding him down while the demon’s partner cut his chest open and ripped his heart out.”

My lip curled. “That looks a bit jagged for a knife. Maybe a claw?”

Ian looked closer at the inside of the elf’s ruined chest. “A possibility. Good catch.”

My lip twisted further. “Thanks.”

“Do you see any other evidence to support that?”

Only my partner would turn a gruesome murder scene into a popquiz.

“The lack of blood and dark edging around the entry wound suggests cauterization.” I managed a swallow, though it was more of a gulp to keep from gagging. “And what blood is there is blackened.” I gulped again, any attempt at cool and casual be damned. “Like it was heated.”

Ian nodded approvingly. “Nice.”

None of this was nice. . . Not sight, or smell, or an oily feel on my skin from the brimstone and burnt flesh.

It’d take me a while before I’d be able to eat barbeque again. And for a Southern girl, that was a crime in itself.

The NYPD knew Sar Gedeon as a human drug lord. If they’d come in here now, they would have found him dead, sporting Spock ears, a cauterized hole in his torso, no heart, and a hoof print branded into his chest. I’d like to be a fly on the wall for that investigation.

“So what would your precinct buddies have to say about this one?” I asked, putting a couple steps distance between me and the elf brisket.

“From a human viewpoint, we’ve got cosplay with the ears, possible devil worship with the brand, and apparent human sacrifice. This case would drive them crazy, but they’d love the challenge. I never thought I’d say anything like this, but knowing elves and demons are real can certainly simplify an investigation.” One side of his mouth quirked in a quick grin. “Makes me damned glad I came over to the dark side.”

I nodded. “And we have cookies.”

“The locked door and no sign of entrance or exit would have thrown them for a loop. We know that brimstone could very well be from the leftovers of a gate. Demons aren’t exactly known for walking in through the front door. With a gate, they’re in, rip out a heart, they’re out. Nice and neat.”

I wasn’t seeing anything nice or neat.

“Why would a Class Five demon kill a drug lord?” I asked. “Would one of his business rivals hire demons for a professional hit?”

“Never heard of demons hiring out their services.” Ian paused. “Unless the guy doing the hiring was interested in offering his soul for the low, low price of one murder.”

I raised one brow.

“Demons don’t accept cash,” Ian explained.

“Not even credit cards? With the interest rates some of those things have, I wouldn’t be surprised to find Satan himself in the big office.” Then I remembered about the heat the other tenants had complained about. It felt fine in here to me. “So was the heat coming from the body or the demon?”

Ian shook his head. “Neither. It would have been from the portal the demon used to get in.”

“That makes sense. That Jesin Nadisu guy seems to be on the ball. I couldn’t see him missing a pair of demons strolling through his lobby.”

“The area near the wall around the corner felt warmer,” Ian told me. “Since there aren’t any vents nearby, that’d be the most likely portal location.”

I went to take a look.

Unless a portal was standing open it couldn’t be seen. If Ian hadn’t seen the portal that meant it was closed. Closed equaled safe. A portal could only be used by the being that created it, or someone the creator had keyed to that specific portal. It was security at its finest. It also meant I didn’t have to worry about a demon jumping out at me.

I stepped into a short hallway. . .

And simply stared.

The wall was glowing. Orange. Not the entire wall, just a section, a seam running from the floor to a few feet from the ceiling. The seam was closed, but that didn’t keep the glow from spilling onto the hardwood floor at my feet.

The light didn’t come from the wall itself. It came from what lay beyond, and I didn’t mean in the next room.

It was the portal, complete with sulfuric heat coming from it in waves.

A shadow from the other side eclipsed the light.

I took a step back, eyes locked on the opening.

There was something just on the other side.

Watching me.

It knew I could see it and the portal.

Terror put my gun in my hand, even though I knew that whatever was on the other side would laugh at my puny mortal weapon. I slowly backed away, my gun held low in a two-handed grip, trying to stop my hands from shaking.

My terror made it past my lips with one word.

“Ian.” I could barely hear myself.

No response from the front room.

I swallowed hard and tried again.

“Ian.”

An instant later, Ian was beside me, gun drawn.

The shadow retreated.

Ian looked where I was looking, body tense and ready for anything.

He saw nothing.

“Mac, we’re looking at a wall.”

“And it’s not all there.”

My partner looked like he was thinking the same thing about me.

“There’s a big glowing gash down the middle,” I said.

“Describe it.” His voice immediately went tight with apprehension.

Now we were getting somewhere.

“It’s a gash in the middle of the wall,” I told him, trying to be the analytical professional I was supposed to be. “It starts at the floor and goes up about six feet. The gash is closed, so it’s more like a seam, and where it comes together is . . .” I made a face. “Squishy. Like glowing orange Jello.”

“Orange?”

“Jello.”

“And you can see it.”

“I could also see the shadow of a thing on the other side.”

“The other side?” Ian adjusted the hold on his gun.

I suddenly needed a place to sit down, but I’d only be doing that after I ran all the way down to the lobby, probably to the accompaniment of my own screams.

“Uh-huh. But I can’t see portals.”

“That appears to no longer be the case.”

I took another step back. “How?”

“Don’t know.”

We both looked at the wall: me at the portal, Ian at where I’d told him the portal was.

“I take it the color means something?” I asked.

“Oh, yes.”

Ian had his phone out again, eyes still on the wall as if he expected something to jump out of it at any second. That made both of us.

I waited for someone at headquarters to pick up. I had no doubt Ian was calling headquarters again, just as I had no doubt that orange wasn’t a good color for a portal.

Sulfur stink plus hoof print brand equaled a portal that in all likelihood went to a place I had no desire to go.

And something in that undesirable place had seen me see it.

Oh crap.

Back to Chapter 3

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