Lisa Shearin, National Bestselling Author

Sample Chapters – The Grendel Affair

grendel-affair-sample-chapter

The Grendel Affair
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4

The Grendel Affair
Chapter 1

Most people grabbed a coffee on the way to work. I was clinking my way to the liquor store checkout with three bottles of Jack Daniels. One bottle would probably get the job done, but I snagged an extra pair for insurance. There was no way in hell I was doing this twice.

The clerk’s eyes went from the bottles to me and back again before scanning them into the register.

“For the morning staff meeting,” I said. “Gets the week off right.”

The man gave me an I-just-work-here grunt. “Need a bag?”

“Got it covered.”

I started loading bottles into the messenger bag slung across my chest, winding an old towel I’d brought with me around and between them, careful to keep the bottles away from the borrowed thermal night vision goggles that were almost as critical as the booze for tonight’s job. I wasn’t far from where I was going, but I was trying to avoid any icy sidewalk accidents on the way there.

It was two days until New Year’s Eve. The temperatures hadn’t risen above freezing the entire week, and since we had gotten an extra half foot of the white stuff last night, it felt at least ten degrees colder than it actually was. Though when you added in a wind that was cold enough to give an icicle frostbite, a couple of degrees one way or another didn’t make a hill of beans worth of difference.

The liquor store was a block from the subway station, and it was only two more blocks from there to Ollie’s, so I walked and slipped and clinked. A man sitting propped against the outside of the liquor store heard that telltale sound and looked at me like he was a Lab and I’d just bounced a tennis ball. He started to get up, staggering as he did so. I pushed back my coat, giving him a good look at my gun. I wasn’t big, but my gun was.

It was also a fake.

I’d learned real quick that there was a big difference between owning, carrying, and shooting guns in the big city and doing the same back home. There were lots of rules that the NYPD got real bent out of shape about if you messed with. As a result, my new employer had yet to deem me qualified for a company-issued gun, so I’d bought myself one of those water pistols that looked exactly like a 9mm. If the sight of it wasn’t enough of a deterrent, I’d loaded it with tequila. Aim for the eyes then run like hell. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

The man looked at me for a second or two, his eyes shadowed under a tattered hat, and apparently decided that while a small blonde sporting a ponytail wasn’t scary, the gun told him the risk probably wouldn’t be worth it. He actually smiled at me through a couple of days’ worth of dark stubble as he sat back down. Good. Strange, but good. I really didn’t want to start my evening by squirting a homeless man.

I’m Makenna Fraser. I’m from a place called Weird Sisters, a small town in the far western point of North Carolina that doesn’t show up on Google Earth, was named in reference to the three witches in Macbeth, and where the first word of the town name perfectly describes most of its citizens. I’ll be the first to admit that includes me. I’m not what most people would call normal, never have been, never will be, and I’m fine with that.

Weird Sisters had been settled by the kind of people that normal people didn’t want to have living next door. Most times, they couldn’t put their reasons into words; it was more of a feeling than anything else. Other folks could put words to what they felt while in town just fine. Heebie-jeebies, the creeps, or just plain spooked. Outsiders passing through town instinctively knew whether they belonged there, or if they ought to just keep going.

Weird Sisters was said to be located on a ley line that supposedly magnified psychic and paranormal energies. I didn’t know if there was anything to that or not, but something attracted people—and non-people—to stop and stay here. Quite a few of our townsfolk didn’t exactly qualify as human.

They looked human enough, and sounded like regular folks, but make no mistake—they were something else entirely.

Creatures from myth and legend are real.

Members of my family could see them for what they really were. We were what my Grandma Fraser called seers. We could see through any veil, ward, shield, or spell any supernatural could come up with as a disguise. Some used magic; most didn’t. Veils were a survival mechanism, much like how a chameleon changed its colors to blend in with its surroundings to protect itself from predators. Or how predators looked perfectly harmless until something—or someone—they wanted to eat wandered by.

Down through the years, my family has taken it on themselves to protect the prey from the predators. Since the town’s founding in 1786, there’s been a Fraser as marshal, then sheriff, and now police chief. I chose my own way to expose the truth. Supernaturals didn’t have the market cornered on predatory behavior. As a little girl, I dreamed of becoming an investigative reporter for our local paper.

But with the coming of the New Age movement, our main street became lined with shops, cafés, and tea rooms populated with psychics, mediums, crystal healers, tarot and palm readers, clairvoyants, and way too much more. Between that, the influx of tourists from Asheville, and the advent of the Internet, it didn’t take long for our newspaper and its website to become just another way to market the town. And when I came back home with my shiny new degree in journalism, I realized that in a town with more than its fair share of psychics (some of whom were the real thing), unsolved crimes were few and far between.

I decided it was time for me to leave for good.

I came to New York with the dream of running with the big dogs at the New York Times, or even sticking close to my hometown roots and writing for the Weird News section at the Huffington Post. But all I could get was a job at a seedy tabloid called the Informer, where only stories like “Donald Trump is a werewolf love child” had any hope of making it to the front page. If a story was the truth, great; if not, lies worked just fine. The majority of our gullible readership thought everything we printed was the gospel truth anyway. That particular headline had been an obvious lie—at least it’d been obvious to me. No self-respecting werewolf would have hair like that. But my stories had been the truth and had the dubious distinction of having been on the front page more than once, which had been good for keeping food in the fridge, but bad for my professional pride.

I could write about the weird and the spooky because I could see it. Implying that a mob boss on trial was less than human didn’t make anyone bat an eye. Making the mistake of telling my now ex-editor that said mobster had horns and a tail, and that his lawyer was a literal bloodsucker had made me the darling of his black, profit-loving heart.

As luck would have it, that same story had also put me squarely in my new employer’s sights. By that point, any job that’d let me regain my self-respect was a job that I’d gladly take—even if it took me back into family business. When SPI recognized me for what I was and made me an offer, I’d literally skipped to my editor’s office to resign.

Now I work for Supernatural Protection & Investigations, also known as SPI. They battle the supernatural bad guys of myth and legend, and those who would unleash them.

My family was thrilled to hear about my new job.

And I realized I couldn’t run away from who and what I was.

Most supernaturals come here wanting the same things as the rest of us: a good job, nice house, 2.5 kids, and a dog. The others? Well, their powers are stronger here, their greed is bigger, and any treaties or bindings that might have made them behave back home don’t mean squat here. They don’t just want their slice of the American Dream; they want the whole pie, and they don’t care what they have to do, who they have to kill, or how many city blocks they have to level to get what they want.

SPI’s mission is twofold: keep the world safe for supernaturals and humans alike, and cover up the truth. Because when it comes to supernaturals, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson: people can’t handle the truth. SPI has offices worldwide, and their agents are recruited from various alphabet agencies, top police forces, and military special ops, and are supported by the sharpest scientific and academic minds.

Then there’s me.

My job as the seer for the New York office is to point out the supernatural bad guys, then step aside so the aforementioned commando-ninja-badass monster fighters can take them into custody—or if necessary, take them out. Doing my part to help keep the world safe is gratifying work, with regular pay, and my job description includes three of the most beautiful words in the English language: full medical coverage. If Bigfoot was on the rampage hurting innocent campers, I’d hunt him with a butterfly net if it meant having a dental plan.

But the bottom line was that I liked my job. Since starting at SPI, New York wasn’t just the place where I lived; now it was home, a home that seemed to have supernaturals around every corner, kinds I’d never seen before, sitting at tables in every sidewalk café, and sharing every subway car with me. You’d be surprised at how many supernaturals lived in New York—then again, maybe you wouldn’t. Perhaps that was why they liked it here; they were just another face in the crowd.

When I’d first arrived in the city, I discovered that New York supernaturals were even better than the ones back home at disguising what they were and fitting in with their human neighbors. But I could see them, and they could see me seeing them. I’d give them a little smile and a nod whenever that happened, to let them know that I was cool with what they were. After an initial moment of surprise, more often than not, they’d smile back.

Yes, I’d traded the scent of mountain laurel for diesel fumes, and a ley line running under the mountains for a subway line running under the city, but New York had an energy all its own. I could see why it was called the city that never sleeps—it didn’t want to miss one thing. And neither did I.

I loved New York.

A blast of wind that must have come straight from the North Pole brought my wandering mind back to where it belonged—keeping me from busting my ass on a icy street in SoHo. We got plenty of snow back home; it was pretty coming down and pretty when it landed. When I’d stand in the woods on the side of the mountain, it was as if the whole world came to a stop to watch in complete and awe-struck silence.

There wasn’t nothing quiet about New York.

A man was walking toward me on the sidewalk. Only then did I notice that we were the only people I could see. That was beyond odd for SoHo, regardless of the time. Maybe everyone else had more sense than we did, and was at home and staying warm on a subfreezing night. The snow on the sidewalk was packed down and slick. I didn’t want to risk falling, so I started to step aside and let the guy pass.

He beat me to it. Chivalry wasn’t dead.

But the man was.

Though technically and clinically, he was undead.

Vampires were off limits to me in my job. It didn’t take a seer’s skill to recognize a vamp, and my seer’s skill wouldn’t do squat to protect me from one. Most monsters would eat almost anything. Vampires fed on one thing and one thing only—human blood. I was human, and I had blood. The guy who had my job before me had gone and gotten himself exsanguinated in an on-the-job mishap involving a school of giant North American sewer leeches. I wasn’t going to meet a similar end on an icy sidewalk in SoHo.

My panicking brain told me what not to do: don’t look him in the eye, don’t act like prey. I knew what I wanted to do—run. But my brain was so busy telling me what not to do that it couldn’t send the move-your-ass memo to my feet.

So I just stood there like a chipmunk cornered by a rattlesnake. I was shaking so hard, the liquor bottles were clinking together in my bag. If I ran, I’d probably just slip and fall like some B horror-movie actress. On the upside, if that happened, I’d probably die of embarrassment before he got his fangs into me.

The vampire resumed his slow approach. Anyone watching would think he was being careful walking on the ice. I knew he was playing with me, his dark eyes glittering like I was a hot toddy made just for him.

My hand fumbled under my coat for my gun, and I was kicking myself for not buying a second squirt gun for holy water. The vamp smiled, showing me fangs that were way too bright to be natural. Someone had gotten one or five whitening treatments too many. He was also wearing a fancy suit with no coat, though it wasn’t like vampires had to worry about freezing to death. The strap of a laptop case was slung over one shoulder.

Aw jeez. Death by yuppie vampire.

That ain’t gonna happen. I got my hand on my gun. A squirt in the eye with tequila might at least buy me enough time to get back in the liquor store. It might not stop him from draining me dry, but at least there’d be witnesses while it happened.
The vamp graciously inclined his head. “Miss Fraser.”

I froze and my fingers went numb on the butt of my gun. I knew a handful of vampires by name, only one lived in New York, and this guy wasn’t him. What were the chances that a fancy-suited, laptop-toting vamp who knew my name just happened to be walking where I was walking on a night when no one with a lick of sense was outside?

Next to nil.

Faster than I could react, the vamp closed the distance between us and grabbed my hand, his bloodless fingers sliding past my gloves and up under my coat, his grip a paralyzing cold around my bare wrist. I opened my mouth, trying to scream, when the yuppie vamp’s gaze darted over my shoulder and behind me. Now it was his turn to shake in his shoes, though I was sure his had to be much nicer than mine. I didn’t want to risk taking my eyes off the vampire, but if there was something worse behind me, I needed to know about it.

The only other person on the street two minutes ago had been the homeless man. If the vampire couldn’t get me, the homeless man would be easy pickings—that is, if the whatever-was-behind-me hadn’t already gotten him. I didn’t want either to happen.

I turned around.

I’d been surprised by a lot of things since starting at SPI, but this was near the top of the list.

The homeless man was the only person—living or otherwise—that I could see, and he might have been homeless, but right now, he looked far from helpless. He stood with no staggering this time; his movements smooth and predatory. Regardless of the battered coat and hat, if he had been a supernatural, I would have been able to see at least an aura of his true form. Yet, his face—or at least the bottom half that I could see—now revealed much more. Faint impressions of multiple faces, each different from the one before, were layered one upon another, stretching back into the distance, like looking into a wall of funhouse mirrors. My instincts told me that they had all been real enough at one point in time or another.

The vampire must have known or sensed something more about the creature that I couldn’t. His expression went from thinking he’d found dinner, to wondering if he was dinner, as he actually jumped back and landed on his ass in the gutter then crab-crawled backward, desperate to get away. So desperate that he didn’t hear or care that his pants caught on something in the street, ripping them when he scrambled to his feet. The vamp’s fancy shoes found traction, and he ran across the street, slipping and sliding, half the ass torn out of his pants, showing the world one red-satin-boxers–covered cheek. I dimly wondered if there was a Santa on the front, or maybe Rudolph.

“Give my regards to your partner,” said a silky voice from behind me.

I sucked in my breath and spun back toward the homeless man—or whatever he was.

Gone. As in no trace that he’d ever been there.

A real person couldn’t have vanished that quickly. My seer vision wasn’t something I could turn on and off. The man had been just that—a man. Maybe. Perhaps a man who had lived a lot of lives. That wasn’t cause to freak out, but the little hairs on the back of my neck were telling me otherwise.

Give my regards to your partner.

My partner, Ian Byrne, had been a SPI agent for the past three years. For the five years before that, he’d been with the NYPD, and the prior seven had been in the military doing things that no one else at SPI knew about; and believe me, I’d snooped around. That information wasn’t around to be had.

I stood there, unmoving, my quick breaths visible as tiny puffs of steam in the sub-freezing air. I was alone on the street. That is until the next monster who knew my name or my partner showed up. I clutched my messenger bag to my chest, and got the hell out of there. Fast.

My destination tonight was Barrington Galleries, a glorified pawn shop on the edge of SoHo. The owner, Oliver Barrington-Smythe, called it a collection of antiquities, artifacts, and curiosities.

I called it a store full of spooky shit that only even spookier people would want. Most of Ollie’s merchandise looked like it’d been dug up, either from the ground, a crypt, a basement, or a psycho’s imagination. Among the stuff for sale that packed Ollie’s place floor to ceiling were Victorian exorcism and vampire hunter kits, squishy things preserved in jars, dried things not in jars, funeral portraits, voodoo paraphernalia, and a sarcophagus that stood next to the counter with an actual, honest-to-God mummy inside. Well, there was until one of Ollie’s saner customers literally caught wind of the occupant and alerted the city health department. So now the mummy was a well-wrapped mannequin.

Ollie’s present problem was a stowaway in his latest shipment from Germany. He had a Bavarian nachtgnome running loose in his shop. Ollie liked money, and the green stuff would stop coming in real quick if word got around that something with fangs and an appetite for exposed body parts was loose in his shop.

That was where I came in. This wasn’t an official assignment; nachtgnomes didn’t register on SPI’s radar, unless there were a couple hundred of the little critters overrunning Grand Central Terminal at rush hour. This was a favor for a friend—and my best information source for supernatural activity in the city. As a former reporter, I knew the importance of a good snitch. I’d only been working for SPI a few months, but I’d been introduced to Ollie during my first week. A big part of being a seer was knowing where to look for the bad guys. Any flake in town with supernatural connections or leanings was drawn to Ollie’s place like a kid to a candy store.

Oliver Barrington-Smythe was short, beady-eyed, balding, and resented being all of the above, so it came as no surprise that Ollie rubbed most people the wrong way. I definitely wasn’t most people, and liked the borderline rude little guy. I liked his accent, and he liked mine. We’d hit it off—once I’d made him understand in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t a hillbilly—and he kept me in the know. To keep that gossip wheel greased and the goodwill coming, I was going to use a fifth of Jack to lure a Bavarian nachtgnome out of hiding and into a cage.

I’d never actually seen one before, but I’d studied the company manual. Nachtgnomes were short, shy, and wasted after one drink. Kind of reminded me of my last date. I’d had an easier time finding monsters in New York than a nice guy to spend time with. Ollie had promised to leave an iron cage to scoot the little guy into until morning. My job was just to catch it; Ollie had made other arrangements for getting it out of his shop. And no, I hadn’t asked what those arrangements were, because I really didn’t want to know. Though I suspected the population of the New Jersey marshes was about to increase by one. I’d learned in training that it was one of the more popular spots with the local criminals for getting rid of a dead body—or a disagreeable supernatural critter. On second thought, Ollie might not know that according to the manual, nachtgnomes could reproduce all by their lonesome. Maybe I should leave him a note.

At anywhere from a foot to eighteen inches tall, a full-grown nachtgnome would be big enough to drink right from the bottle. And as their name indicated, nachtgnomes were nocturnal, hence the NVGs. I’d learned how to use them in one of my training classes, so I saw no reason why I shouldn’t take advantage of Ollie’s gnome problem to get some practical application of my newly gained classroom knowledge.

I’d brought an old pair of plastic Scooby-Doo cups I’d dug out of the back of my kitchen cabinets. Needless to say, I wasn’t going to be using them again after tonight. I bought two instead of one because I wanted the gnome to drink enough to make it catchable the first time. I’d fill up both cups and leave the rest of the bottle. First call should be last call.

I was about half a block from Ollie’s place, and had been looking over my shoulder almost constantly, when a tall, shadowy figure stepped out of the shop’s recessed doorway.

Aw crap.

At least I knew who the shadow belonged to, but I also knew that I’d been busted. Though right now, after what had already happened to me tonight, I was kind of relieved. Almost.

There was no mistaking Ian Byrne’s silhouette of relaxed readiness. If I’d been someone up to no-good, I’d have given serious thought to crossing the street right then, or better yet, turning and running like hell. Actually, who was I kidding? Those thoughts had just crossed my mind. Considering his professional background, Ian Byrne’s “Don’t even think about it; I can kick your ass from here” stance came naturally. The impression was strengthened by the fact that Ian was at least a head taller than me.

The powers that be at SPI had assigned him as my partner, though I think he saw himself as more of a combination of babysitter and bodyguard. One, I was a newbie; and two, I was a seer. Seers were rare enough that the New York office only had one in their employ at any given time. As a result, SPI felt the need to protect (and hopefully help preserve) their newest personnel investment. As much as I liked having my SPI-provided medical insurance, I tried not to think that I might actually need it.

Ian Byrne had never said it, but I knew he resented being assigned to me. And I would have liked him well enough, except I had no desire to be around people who didn’t want to be around me. He was constantly watching me, like he was just waiting for me to screw up.

Ian stepped out to where he knew I could clearly see and identify his tall, dark, and dangerous self. As I got closer, I could see that his arms were crossed in front of his chest. Yep, someone was most definitely not amused by my show of professional initiative this evening. I thought it might be a good idea to keep my two earlier encounters to myself, at least until I’d finished what I’d come here to do.

I hadn’t told Ian about my favor to Ollie, because I knew he had plans tonight, plans that didn’t involve playing bartender to a nachtgnome. The only people who knew I was here were Ollie and Sam, SPI’s armorer, the man responsible for the borrowed thermal NVGs. I’d tried to check out a gun as well, but that didn’t fly with Sam. Apparently, he liked job security and health insurance, too.

Ian was also my shooting instructor for the still-to-be-issued company gun. Normally SPI didn’t issue guns to their seers, but since my predecessor’s exsanguination and subsequent departure to the great beyond, they’d adjusted the company policy. I’d been born and raised in a town where cough syrup meant moonshine and honey, and guns and hunting had been a big part of my upbringing. I mean, how many girls got a hand-me-down muscle car and a shotgun for their sixteenth birthday? I still wanted to kick myself for not hanging on to the 1970 Pontiac LeMans, but I still had the shotgun. I could shoot just fine. However, I was used to shooting beer cans off the back of an old washing machine, or at things that ran away from me that I intended to eat—not things that ran toward me with the intent of eating me.

I’d found that to be a significant difference.

I stopped. The bottles clinked.

His mouth was hard and unsmiling. “Agent Fraser.”

“Agent Byrne.”

“That’s quite the traveling party you’ve got there,” he said.

Back home, in my younger days, I’d been busted by our local sheriff for underage drinking, and it had only made it worse that she was my aunt. This felt exactly the same. Though I reminded myself that Ian Byrne was only a couple of years older than I was, and he could only make me feel like a delinquent teenager if I let him.

I wasn’t going to let him. I wasn’t doing anything wrong.

“Told you I was fun,” I said.

Ian had what looked like a small camera bag slung over one shoulder. I looked closer. Nope, not a camera. NVGs. In a case identical to the one in my messenger bag. Apparently I hadn’t been the only one signing out gear.

“Looks like Sam ratted on me,” I said.

“I asked. He told. I’m not about to let you try to catch a nachtgnome by yourself.”

“Excuse me? Try to catch?”

“They’re mean.”

I snorted. “They get drunk from a couple shots of booze.”

“Then they’re mean drunks.”

It was too cold to stand out in the street and argue with him. “I didn’t tell you because Ollie needed this done tonight, and you had a date.” I grinned. “Or is this business before pleasure? Come here and bag a gnome; go there and bag a . . .”

“Lawyer.”

Oh.

“I happen to like smart women,” he continued.

There were only six words in that sentence; but to me, every last one of them felt like he was saying that he didn’t consider me to be smart and he didn’t like me. I squashed that line of thought. It seemed that every time I got around Ian Byrne, paranoia became my new best friend.

After a couple seconds of awkward silence, Ian jerked his head toward the door. “So what kind of liquor did you get for Shorty in there?”

“Three-fifths of Jack.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“Accidents happen,” I said. “I got some insurance.”

I stepped past Ian and started working on Ollie’s locks. He’d given me the keys and the code to deactivate the alarm system. Ollie had three dead bolts, each with a different key on what looked like a glass door with a wooden frame. Anyone trying to break in would be in for a surprise. The wood was steel and the glass was bulletproof.

I had to give the door a bit of hip action to get it open. A bell rang. I looked up. Ollie had one attached to the top of the door. Crap. So much for stealth.

“It’s your party,” Ian said. “After you.”

A round red light at the top of the alarm system keypad started flashing. I had ten seconds before flashing turned to banshee shrieking. I fumbled the piece of paper out of my pocket that I’d scribbled the numbers on, entered the deactivation code, and the red light went out.

Ollie had never had a break-in. No surprise there. Anyone looking to score something to steal had always given Ollie’s shop a wide berth. One, the place was spooky enough in the daytime; and two, when they went to fence what they’d stolen, the only person who’d buy stuff that bizarre was Ollie, which kind of defeated the purpose and the effort.

I closed the door behind us, successfully got the NVGs on and focused, and did a slow scan of the shop.

Nada.

Which meant absolutely nothing. From what I’d been taught in my classes, nachtgnomes tended to stay hidden—unless you made it interesting for them, either with whiskey or exposed skin. All my pieces and parts were covered and going to stay that way. I’d brought booze to this party, not snacks.

The gnome had to know we were here. Aside from the bell, it was virtually impossible to take more than three steps in Ollie’s place without bumping into something. My goggles were to ensure that I didn’t bump into anything that bit.

If I turned on the lights, we’d be able to see, but the nachtgnome would burrow his way into something dark and stay there. So the dark was to make him comfortable, and the Jack was to make him sociable. I scanned the area around the counter and froze. The mummy was registering red and orange—at least the head was. And the contents were . . . moving.

Sweet Mother of—

“Mice,” came Ian’s whisper at my left ear.

I damned near jumped out of my skin.

I shot him a glare that would have been a lot more effective if he could have seen my eyes, then something scurried over by a case of voodoo dolls, bare feet pitter-pattering like wet rubber on the wood floor. I had an immediate and overwhelming urge to jump on a chair, flap my hands, run in place, and squeal. I had to grit my teeth to keep from doing any and all of the above.

My thirsty customer had arrived.

It’s just a nachtgnome, Mac. Just one. A small one. And it’s probably more scared of you than you are creeped out by it. Get it drunk, get it caged, and go home.

There was a more or less clear area near the middle of the shop. Ollie had left the cage there, as promised. I quickly set up my nachtgnome bar—one cup at the cage door, another inside, and the bottle near the back. I sloshed some of the whiskey on the floor. I’d never poured Jack Daniels into Scooby-Doo cups while wearing night vision goggles. My shaky hands had nothing to do with it. Nachtgnomes loved whiskey; they just couldn’t hold it. The little guy should pass out after half a bottle, which was about what two Scooby cups held.

We didn’t have to wait for long.

I knew that Bavarian nachtgnomes didn’t look like that cute white-haired gnome with the British accent in the travel commercials, but this thing was closer to something out of Gremlins—and not the cuddly one. The drawing in my employee manual was accurate; however this specimen was larger than I expected. From the picture in the book, I knew that its skin was green, its wide ears rubbery, and its eyes yellow. From standing less than ten feet away, I knew that it had way too many fangs. Black claws curved on spindly hands and feet. No little blue jacket and pointed red hat for this thing; it was buck naked. The gnome had to use both hands to pick up the Scooby-Doo cups, but it tossed back both like it was doing shots of water. Then it snatched the bottle right out of the cage and did the same to it. It lowered the bottle and just stood there outside the cage door. Staring. At us. Its yellow eyes glittering with barely contained pissed-offness.

Uh-oh.

“I’d kind of hoped to take care of this quietly,” I muttered. The chances of that happening were vanishing faster than the Jack had.
“Looks like you can kiss that big tip good-bye,” Ian told me.

That comment deserved a response, but I kept my eyes on the critter, resisting the urge to look for the nearest chair, countertop, or exit.

The nachtgnome’s upper lip peeled back to reveal jagged teeth that were thankfully less than clear in the NVGs. However, I got an all too good look at the lip rippling with a low snarl. The snarl increased to a growl.

“Mean drunk,” was all that Ian said. The “Itoldyouso” was clearly implied.

“Okay, fine. You were the cop. How’d you arrest an uncooperative drunk?”

“Human drunks don’t have fangs, and they definitely can’t jump six feet straight up.”

I blinked under my goggles. “Six what?”

“They’re jumpers. You didn’t know that?”

“I read three feet, which was bad enough.”

“When they get to be that size, it’s six.” Ian blew his breath out in exasperation. “Hand me another bottle.”

Not taking my eyes from the gnome, I reached into my bag and pulled out a second bottle. Nowadays, I didn’t drink anything stronger than ginger ale—unless it was moonshine with honey for medicinal purposes. If I drank, I got dizzy, and if I got dizzy, I got sick. No one wanted to see that. But I was considering going medicinal on that third bottle—if we got out of here without any bites taken out of us.

Ian unscrewed the cap, set the bottle on the floor, and pushed it as far toward the gnome as he could without risking digit loss. “There you go, big guy. Time to go nighty-night.”

Ian moved back and the gnome stalked forward. He wrapped both hands around the neck of the bottle, swung it up to his thin-lipped mouth and chugged it. We should have jumped him then, but we were both mesmerized by the sight of a thing not much taller than the bottle it clutched in its hands—and it draining it dry.

Two bottles of Jack gone in as many minutes.

The nachtgnome slowly lowered the bottle and belched so loud I swear it rang crystal somewhere in the shop.
“Damn,” Ian said.

I blinked. “Ditto.”

In response, the gnome threw the empty bottle at our heads. We barely dove behind a display case of shrunken heads in time.
“Someone wants to stay up,” Ian noted.

“Someone should get shot,” I spat. I stopped and quickly pressed my lips together. I couldn’t see Ian’s hard green eyes, but I could sure feel them.

“Sam said you asked for a gun.” It wasn’t a statement; it was an accusation.

“And he didn’t give me one.”

“Did anyone else?”

“No . . . not exactly . . .”

“Mac.”

I drew my gun from my shoulder holster, but before I could open my mouth to explain, Ian had grabbed my wrist in some kind of mutant Vulcan death grip, my fingers went numb, and then Ian had my gun—all in about two blinks of an eye.

“Jeez, relax, will ya?” I tried to shake the feeling back into my hand. “It’s fake, a water gun—well, a water gun loaded with tequila.”

“What?”

I grinned. “Aim for the eyes then run like hell.”

“Do you know how many people get themselves shot by waving one of these things around?”
“I don’t wave it arou—”

He tucked my gun in the back of his jeans. “No guns.”

I looked around the corner. No gnome.

My free hand fumbled next to the door jam at where the light switch should have been. It wasn’t.

A growl was all the warning I got. I ducked as a jar of something shattered against the steel door frame where my head had just been. Something rancid soaked the alarm panel, and the jar’s contents landed with a wet plop right next to me. I didn’t look. No time, and certainly no desire.

I scanned the counters. Nothing. Just because I couldn’t see him didn’t mean I couldn’t feel him seeing me. Completely creepy. I clenched my hands into fists to keep them from doing that girly flapping thing.

“See him?” I asked.

“Not yet.” Ian was scanning above the shelves, a knife in his hand.
I had nothing.

I remembered that Ollie had a couple of sword canes in an elephant-leg umbrella stand next to the counter. I scurried over and snagged one. It was old, and the blade was rusty, but all I needed was what it still had—a pointy end. If that thing ran at me, tetanus would be the least of its problems.

Ian was focused on the ceiling. “Bingo.”

I looked up.

The nachtgnome was crouched on one of the big ceiling fan blades, balancing on the thing like a freaking surfboard, and grinning wide enough to show us all of his fangs.

I couldn’t believe it. “The little bastard thinks this is funny.” Even more unbelievable was that he was able to balance on anything after two bottles of whiskey, including his own two feet. I didn’t want to think about how he’d gotten up there, just like I didn’t have to think about what I did next.

This time I found the switch I was looking for.

Ian actually chuckled as the ceiling fan speed went from Lazy Susan to propeller in three seconds.

“Who said nachtgnome hunting can’t be fun?” I watched with satisfaction as the gnome clutched that fan blade with his arms and legs and hung on for dear life. “If I can’t get him drunk, I’ll take him dizzy.”

“And probably sick.”

I hadn’t considered that, but if that’s what it took, I could take a shower or three. Unlike Ian, I didn’t have any plans tonight.
The ceiling creaked and bowed over our heads enough to make the fan wobble off balance. The nachtgnome squealed and hugged the fan blade harder.

Ian and I looked from the ceiling to each other. In that blink of time, Ian’s hand now held his gun instead of a knife.
“What’s up there?” he asked.

“Just Ollie’s office.”

“And Ollie’s not here.”

“He said he wasn’t going to be.”

Ollie used to have a stock clerk who had been nearly three hundred pounds of solid muscle. I’d been down here in the shop before when this guy had been upstairs. He hadn’t made the ceiling bow, meaning who- or whatever was upstairs weighed over three hundred pounds.

A scream shattered the silence.

I didn’t think it was Ollie, but then I’d never heard him scream. The scream rose into a shriek of primal terror, a sound that a human throat shouldn’t be able to make.

A guttural roar overpowered the screams.

Ian ran to the stairs behind the counter. “Stay here,” he ordered.

No way. I liked Ollie. Sure, he sold creepy things, but I liked the little guy, and I wasn’t about to stand by while something big enough to shake the rafters and make that roar tore him apart.

The shriek ended in a raspy gurgle, and then the only sound was the moaning of an airsick nachtgnome.

I ran back to the switch and turned the fan off, then took the stairs two at a time behind Ian. The gnome was on his own. The city sewers could always use something else to keep down the not-mythical alligator population.

Working for SPI, I’d heard my share of screams. Some of them had come from me. When you ran around a corner and found yourself face-to-gaping-maul with something out of your worst nightmare, you would scream. Guaranteed. While you could hope it wasn’t a girly shriek, you didn’t get to decide how you screamed; the nightmare in front of you did.

Ian and I had reached the top of the stairs when a deep voice from behind the closed door gave a wet cough. Once. Twice. After the third cough I realized it was a raspy chuckle. The thing was laughing.

I death gripped my borrowed rusty sword.

There was the crash of breaking glass and what sounded like a muffled explosion that shook the landing beneath our feet.
It was getting away.

Part of me was completely fine with that, but apparently that part got outvoted, because there I was, right behind Ian when he kicked in the locked door.

The lights were on. And plenty of light shining on the contents of that office was something I could have done without.
I took one step into the room and didn’t go any farther.

Scattered all over the office were pieces and parts of what may or may not have been Ollie just a few moments before. Blood sprayed the brick walls and ceiling. In the center of the floor, leaning against the desk was a headless and limbless torso, belly slashed open, the insides now on the outside, arms and legs torn from their sockets. One arm had been tossed in a corner with the legs. The second arm and the head were nowhere to be seen.

Bile rose in the back of my throat and it took everything I could muster to force it down. The mixed stench of blood, death, and disembowelment did things to my nose that my stomach was in no condition to handle. My sensory smorgasbord was topped off by what I could only describe as dead fish at low tide. The voice of reason in my head was reduced to incoherent jabbering, and the rest of my mind wasn’t far behind.

Ian ran over to the shattered window, and looked out, down, and then up.

I stayed put. “See him?” I swallowed with an audible gulp. “Or it?”

“It’s two stories down and the fire escape wasn’t lowered, and there’s at least ten feet of smooth brick to the roofline.”
Meaning that whatever did this could either survive a two-story jump or fly or both. None of the above was reassuring.

Ian had his phone in his hand and hit a speed-dial button. I knew he was calling the office. SPI had investigators and a full lab, as well as a cleanup team that could make Ollie’s office look like nothing had ever happened. I wished them luck getting rid of the stink.

“Is there enough here to have been Ollie?” Ian asked, waiting for someone on the other end to pick up.

The last thing I wanted to do was take a closer look, but fortunately it didn’t take much looking to know that the mess on the floor wasn’t, and had never been, Ollie. Ollie was almost as short as I was; there was too much here to have been him. Though with the head and one arm missing, I had no clue who it might have been.

“Not Ollie,” I said, trying without success to breathe only through my mouth.

Ian gave me a sharp nod of acknowledgment, then focused his attention on the person on the other end of the line.

The only remaining arm, the left one judging from the position of the thumb, was on the desk, palm up, dead fingers curled loosely around something dark. My curiosity got the best of me and I went in for a closer look, careful not to step on or in anything that might remotely be considered a body part. Wound around two of the fingers was a tangled piece of hair, almost like a dreadlock.

While interesting in its own gross way, what was really intriguing was what was on the man’s palm. I got a Kleenex out of my bag and used it to remove the hair, giving me a better look. In the center of the palm was a tattoo of a bug. It had an Egyptian look to it.

A scarab? Who the hell would have a scarab tattoo on their palm?

“Don’t touch anything,” Ian said from right behind me.

I jumped and bit back a yelp, instinctively shoving the Kleenex in my pocket.

Ian went back to talking on the phone, so showing him my discovery would have to wait. I picked my way over to the office’s one window. It’d been reduced to a gaping hole in the brick wall. Some of the bricks had even been knocked out.
“So much for what that muffled explosion was,” I murmured.

Whatever had ripped a man to shreds and destroyed a window and half the wall had done it all in less than ten seconds.
Blood covered the pieces of glass on the floor; there were probably more in the alley.

Then I saw it.

A partial handprint wrapped around a section of brick, made by a massive hand that had to have been at least five times the size of Ian’s.

“Police! Freeze!”

Two cops quickly moved into the room, guns drawn, a third guarded the doorway.

I hadn’t heard a thing, and apparently neither had Ian.

“This isn’t what it looks like,” I insisted as the cop twisted my wrist around behind my back and cuffed me. Before he did, I got a glimpse of his ears. He’d look human to everyone else, but I could see his upswept ears clear as day. A lot of elves found their way into the NYPD. For some reason, they had a thing for law and order.

“It never is,” the cop said, cuffing my other wrist.

Though I had to admit it did look bad: two people in an office with something that wasn’t a person anymore, one with two guns and a knife, the other with a rusty sword, and both with NVGs pushed up on their foreheads. If I’d been the cops, I’d have thought we were up to no-good.

“Look at me,” I told the cop. “I only come up to your neck. Do you honestly think I could have done this?” I jerked my head toward Ian. “And him? I mean, he’s all lean and buff, but to do this? Get real.”

“Thanks, Mac,” Ian said.

“Just being helpful.”

“Do you think you can stop being helpful until we get a lawyer?”

My right foot picked that moment to slip on the blood-covered broken glass. I lost my balance and fell against the brick wall, crushing the contents of my messenger bag—and breaking the last bottle of Jack Daniels.

As the cop pulled me to my feet, the whiskey ran down my leg and into my boot.

A chittering came from downstairs that could have only been nachtgnome laughter. As the cops took us down the stairs, I saw the gnome dart out the now open door and into the night. Now the damned thing decided to leave.

I hoped the sewer gators won.

Go to Chapter 2

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