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


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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

The advantage to seeing a police interrogation room on TV rather than in real life was that you didn’t have to deal with the smell. My nose was telling me in no uncertain terms that this particular room had recently held a suspect who had serious personal hygiene issues—and had sat in the chair where I was now sitting. Though with the right leg of my jeans sopping wet with whiskey, I was in no position to cast stones.

The buzz of the double-strip fluorescent light directly over the lone table and two chairs was giving me a headache. It had to be some kind of pre-interrogation softening-up technique. Eventually suspects would probably admit to anything just to get out of here.
Right now, I’d settle for a change of clothes, or at least jeans.

I knew my rights. I didn’t have to answer a single question without a lawyer present. Yet there were only two chairs in the room: one for the suspect, and one for the detective. It was like they wanted you to think, “No chair for a lawyer, so no lawyer for you.”
Ian and I had been separated from the get-go. We’d been brought to the First Precinct in separate cars, and not allowed to talk to each other from the moment we’d been cuffed. Ian had been on the phone with SPI when we’d been arrested. Hopefully, they’d send a lawyer. Ian had been with SPI long enough to warrant legal assistance. I’d been there only a few months. I probably warranted being fired and booted to the nearest curb, seer or no seer.

While no one at SPI had ever specifically told me not to hunt Bavarian nachtgnomes on the side, I knew they’d frown on anything that resulted in one of their agents sitting in a NYPD interrogation room. Getting arrested while doing a little freelance work for a friend risked exposure, and exposure of the supernatural was one of the very things SPI had been established to prevent. What I had done tonight—and by association, Ian—wasn’t the problem. Getting caught was. In SPI’s opinion, the resulting risk of exposure was the same as if we’d being caught running naked at high noon through Times Square in front of a church tour group from Alabama.

Ian and I had been seen, caught, and brought in for questioning by the mortal authorities in connection to a gory murder that had been perpetrated by something that in no way, shape, or form could have been human.

We hadn’t been charged with murder, but when the police get an anonymous call about a murder, and the officers dispatched to the scene find two armed people in the same room with a shredded third person, questioning was a given. The cops had to have arrived almost while the murder was happening. In my mind, that meant someone knew there was going to be a murder and wanted to make sure that the police all but walked in on it.

In my TV viewing experience, detectives either stood for the small talk then sat in the chair across from the suspect for the questions they really needed answers to, or stood and walked around behind the suspect the entire time trying to throw them off balance. This guy looked like a sitter, not a pacer. Good. I was in no mood to spend however long I’d be here swiveling my head around like Linda Blair to keep track of the guy.

Detective Burton had introduced himself as soon as he’d come into the room and shut the door behind him. Polite, yet businesslike, he looked more like an accountant than a detective. He was on the short side with practical black-framed glasses, yet his dark eyes were sharp behind those lenses. People probably tended to underestimate him. I was determined not to be one of those people. I couldn’t see a third-string junior detective being assigned to question a suspect (or whatever they thought I was) in a murder where the victim probably had to be shoveled into a body bag. At the moment, he was making a show of reviewing what he apparently wanted me to believe was incriminating paperwork in a manila folder.

While I didn’t have to talk without a lawyer, I wanted to know who had called the police to report a murder that hadn’t happened yet. The trick was to find out if the police knew anything I didn’t while saying as little as possible, thus avoiding having my potentially soon-to-be-unemployed butt being kicked to the aforementioned curb.

Ian and I had been up those stairs within seconds of the slaughter. Two minutes later, the police had arrived. The math didn’t even begin to add up. I would’ve said that I smelled a setup, except no one knew I was going to be in Ollie’s shop except Ollie, Ian, and Sam. Maybe Ollie had gotten talkative to someone else, perhaps to the guy with the bug tattoo. Why bug tat guy had been in Ollie’s office, how he had gotten in, and why a monster had spread him all over the place like strawberry jelly then taken a couple of body parts for souvenirs, were more questions that needed answering.

Detective Burton closed the folder, lightly tossed it onto the table, and leaned back against the wall with the two-way glass, casually crossing his arms over his chest.

“Ms. Fraser, do you honestly expect me to believe that you and Mr. Byrne were in Barrington Galleries attempting to capture a rat?”
A cut-to-the-chase kind of guy. Good. I might get out of here before the buzzing light made me homicidal.

When dealing with small supernatural critters, the go-to answer for New York’s SPI field agents was “big rats.” Agency rule number one was to stick to the truth as much as possible.

“That’s what Ollie told me it was,” I said, sitting back and resisting the temptation to cross my own arms. Keep the body language non-defensive and not guilty. “That’s what we were looking for. Due to someone being murdered upstairs, we didn’t get to catch it. Though hopefully it ran out the front door when your boys left it standing wide open.”

Detective Burton’s sharp eyes narrowed.

Way to go, Mac. You probably just added an extra half hour to your fluorescent buzz torture. What happened to saying as little as possible?

“We have been trying to contact Mr. Barrington-Smythe to corroborate your statement, and to inform him of the crime that occurred on his property. However, we have yet to locate him. You wouldn’t happen to know where he is, would you?”

“No.”

I’d have put up with an entire night of a buzzing light if it meant getting Ollie alone for a very meaningful chat. I didn’t believe he’d known that his office was going to be redecorated with human body parts while I was gnome hunting downstairs. However, I knew that Ollie dealt with some unscrupulous people. Oliver Barrington-Smythe’s double-barreled surname was real enough, at least as real as Humphrey Collington or the five other aliases I knew about. And I’d bet my right to an attorney that Ollie could put a name to the hand with the bug tattoo.

“The officers on the scene reported that you and Mr. Byrne were found wearing state-of-the-art night vision goggles,” Detective Burton said. “And you had three bottles of Jack Daniels with you. One bottle was found empty, the other empty and then shattered as if it had been thrown, and the third remained in the bag which was found on your person. Explain the high-tech gear and the whiskey.”

Ian and I had both been given breathalyzers when we were brought in and hadn’t blown a thing, so the obvious explanation of a whiskey-induced, NVG-enhanced party for two wouldn’t work. I didn’t have to answer, but these were questions I actually had answers for. I wasn’t guilty of anything, and a little cooperation might go a long way—or at least get me out of here faster.

“Part of a bottle was for the rat,” I said. “My grandma told me that rats like the smell of whiskey; must be the grain. The other two were for my New Year’s Eve party Saturday night. And rats don’t like light, hence the goggles.”

“And the bottles were broken how?”

“I tripped. It was my first time using night vision goggles.”

Burton raised an eyebrow. “The broken bottles were found in different sections of the shop. So you’re saying you tripped twice?”

“I threw the second bottle at the wall because the rat was climbing up it. I don’t like rats.”

“There was more glass found by the door from a broken jar containing a”—Burton flipped open the manila folder and read with distaste—”monkey brain, according to the jar’s label.”

My frozen, open-mouthed grimace wasn’t an act. I remembered the wet, squishy plop hitting the floor by my feet after the nachtgnome had chucked that jar at me. “I could have stepped on a monkey brain?”

Ollie only carried stuff he knew he could sell. I didn’t know what disturbed me more: a monster on the loose that could tear off arms and legs, or some wacked-out collector scurrying around the city shopping for just the right monkey brain to go on his mantle.
“Odd thing though,” the detective continued, sitting down across from me at the table. “Whatever liquid was in the jar shorted out the alarm keypad. So the jar couldn’t have been broken before you arrived as you said in your statement, since you claim that you deactivated the security system using the code that Mr. Barrington-Smythe gave you.”

I sighed and slouched in my chair. “Listen. I don’t know anything about security systems. Ollie gave me the code and I used it. That’s all. I have no idea what the alarm and the monkey brain did or didn’t do before I got there.”

Detective Burton leaned forward, elbows on the table, hands folded. “Ms. Fraser, I don’t believe a word you’ve said. But as a former reporter at one of our city’s least reputable tabloids, no doubt you’re more than capable of fabricating what you need to fill in the gaps.” He inclined his head toward the manila folder. “I see that you’re presently employed by Saga Partners Investments. That’s quite a move from a tabloid reporter. Exactly what do you do there?”

Saga was just one of the business fronts for SPI. Located off Waverly Place near Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, , Saga was an actual, working private securities firm, whose clients included SPI agents and employees. Saga had a few clairvoyants on staff, so our 401k accounts were in really good shape.

Having worked at a sleazy tabloid didn’t make me sleazy. I was tired, I smelled like a still, and I wanted to go home. I sat up straighter and looked Burton in the eye. “I’m an investigator. I do background checks on the smaller companies we recommend, or don’t recommend, to our clients.”

Burton nodded absently. “And how do you explain this?”

He tossed a ziplock bag tagged for evidence. Inside was a small, blood-spattered photo.

Of me.

I just stared at it. I blinked and looked again. It was still me and still bloody.

In the photo, I was wearing the green sweater my grandma had knitted me for Christmas. I had a cookie in each hand, and was eating one of them. I wasn’t doing that great a job of it, judging from the powdered sugar I was wearing in addition to the sweater. I’d worn it to work for the first time yesterday. Judy from HR had baked and brought cookies.

Someone at SPI had taken that photo. At SPI headquarters.

“It was found in the coat pocket of our John Doe,” Burton said. I’d heard the expression about your blood running cold, and at that moment, I knew exactly what it felt like. A photo of me was taken yesterday at the super secret—and supposedly secure—SPI headquarters and was found tonight on a dead man whom I’d never seen before. Who took the picture and why? At least at my old tabloid job, I knew who wanted to stab me in the back—everybody. I hadn’t been at SPI long enough to have pissed anyone off that bad, at least I’d like to think so. At SPI, the stabbing could be literal and it could be anyone.

“I want a name, Ms. Fraser.”

“So would I,” I heard myself say.

“It’s a stretch to classify as a coincidence you being at a murder scene where the victim was carrying a photo of you, don’t you think?”

I didn’t respond because I was officially beyond words. At that moment, I knew I really needed a lawyer. The sight of the photo combined with the smell of my own clothes and the chair I’d been sitting in made me feel more than a little queasy.
There was a knock at the door—as the door was being opened.

“Miss Fraser will not be answering any more questions, Detective Burton.”

I knew that cool, lightly accented voice, and I didn’t need to turn around for confirmation.

Alain Moreau, SPI lawyer.

Speak of the devil.

Most people would be glad to see a high-powered lawyer arrive to save the day. The day might be saved, but I wasn’t, at least not for long.

Alain Moreau wasn’t just any agency lawyer; he was SPI’s chief legal counsel, right-hand man to Vivienne Sagadraco, the boss lady herself. Here he was at oh-dark-thirty elegantly attired in a black suit that probably cost more than I’d make this year; that is, if I still had a job come sunrise. It set off his always meticulously cut white blond hair, pale skin, and light blue eyes to perfection. I’d always thought he looked like Anderson Cooper, minus the giggling and sense of humor. Most people couldn’t carry off that look in the middle of the night, but Alain Moreau wasn’t most people. The night was the middle of his business day.
Alain Moreau was a vampire.

I was sure that plenty of people at SPI had been tempted to make the bloodsucking lawyer joke. An ill-timed vampire lawyer reference to my former editor was what had made me the target of his creepy attentions. So I, like everyone else at SPI, kept any joke urges to myself.

I’d been brought in to the First Precinct for questioning in relation to a gruesome murder.

Now I was really in trouble.

I’d rather have told Detective Burton the absolute and unvarnished truth and risked getting locked up for a full psych evaluation than have Alain Moreau here. Moreau meant that Vivienne Sagadraco had a personal interest in what had happened tonight—and in her two agents who had been there when it’d happened.

“Miss Fraser, if you will come with me.” Moreau’s tone betrayed no emotion whatsoever.

No part of this turn of events could be called good.

Burton stood. “I’m not finished questioning . . .”

“Yes, Detective Burton, you are. Miss Fraser has told you all that she knows. I have spoken with your captain and filled out the necessary paperwork. Miss Fraser and Mr. Byrne will be leaving with me.”

Ian Byrne wasn’t happy.

News flash. None of us in the agency SUV were happy. Not only was I not happy, I was downright terrified.

Alain Moreau sat up front with the driver. He was facing ahead, his eyes on the frozen tundra that was Lower Manhattan, his thoughts probably on the fastest way to terminate my employment and where to scrounge up a new seer on short notice. He hadn’t said a word since we’d left the police station. I didn’t know what he was thinking. Maybe he felt that it was just more efficient to ask his questions once we were in the boss’s office. Maybe Moreau didn’t like repeating himself. Probably he was just too pissed to talk.
Unlike the rest of us, the uniformed driver might not have had a bad night, but I couldn’t see his face from where I was sitting, and he hadn’t so much as glanced in the rearview mirror. Not that I could have seen his eyes anyway. He was wearing sunglasses. According to the blue-lit digital clock on the SUV’s dash, it was nearly two o’clock in the morning. Who—or what—wore sunglasses at two o’clock in the morning? Not that I really wanted to know or find out.

Ian sat next to me, his profile in shadow, illuminated only when we passed a streetlight. “What did you tell them?”

I slouched back into my own little patch of dark. “We were hunting a rat, whiskey was bait, NVGs because rats like the dark, I didn’t know the dead guy . . .”

“And?”

I really didn’t want to have the rest of this conversation, but this wasn’t one of those problems you could ignore and it’d go away. Ignoring it was liable to get me killed—or worse, fired. If I hadn’t offered to help Ollie with his nachtgnome problem, none of this would have happened. Well, the murder still would have happened, but we wouldn’t have been there to hear it and then get caught in the aftermath.

“The dead guy might have known me,” I said.

Silence from Ian, though I knew that was temporary. And even deeper silence from the vampire lawyer in the passenger’s seat.
I told Ian about the bloody photo and made sure Moreau heard every word. This was one story I didn’t want to tell again.

“Are you sure the photo was taken at SPI?” Ian asked.

“It was the only place where I was eating cookies.” I didn’t like what it said about me that most of the time when someone aimed a camera at me, I was eating.

“Who had the camera or phone?”

“No one that I could see.”

“Then who was standing close enough to get that shot?”

“A lot of people. Like I said, there were cookies.”

“What time was it when you ate two cookies?”

“Uh . . . actually that should probably be which time was it. I ate two cookies at the same time more than once. They were really good—but they were small,” I hurried to add.

“How many times?” Ian repeated.

“Three . . . or four. Yesterday was a slow day.”

Moreau let a small sigh escape.

Way to make a good impression on the boss lady’s right-hand man, Mac. Tonight you freelanced, got arrested and interrogated, and now Moreau probably thinks you spend more time eating than working.

“I’ll have security pull the break room and adjacent hallway footage for the entire day,” Moreau told us. His disturbingly pale blue eyes met mine in the rearview mirror. I guess that thing about vampires and mirrors wasn’t true; I could see his disapproving expression just fine.

Unfortunately, the identity of the amateur paparazzi at SPI wasn’t the end of my stalker worries.

I closed my eyes for a moment. Come on, Mac. Spill it. “And I’m pretty sure someone else is following me, too. Then again, make that two someones.” I watched Ian’s face. “And one of them knew you.”

I told them about the homeless man and the yuppie vampire.

Ian was incredulous. “Why didn’t you tell me when we—”

“Because you would have pulled the plug on my nachtgnome hunt at Ollie’s.” I didn’t mean to snap, but I didn’t try to stop myself, either. It was probably due more to emotion overload than anything else. I’d been shaking in my boots since I’d stepped into Ollie’s office, and my night had yet to get any better. “I promised to help him, and I was raised to do what I promise. It wasn’t like either one of these guys followed me to Ollie’s.”

Ian gave me a suspicious frown. “That you know of.”

“Yes. That I know of. I checked behind, beside, in front, and above me the entire way there. And to be extra-super paranoid, I walked around sewer grates so nothing could grab my ankles.”

Ian was watching me steadily. “Exactly what did the man say?”

“Give my regards to your partner.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“What was his tone? Any inflections? Did he have an accent?”

“He had a silky voice. Kind of slimy, actually. Smug.” I thought for a moment. “No accent that I could tell.”

“Everyone has an accent.”

“If he had one, I don’t know what it was.”

“And you could only see the bottom half of his face?”

“Right. The—”

“How about his hands?”

“Gloves. I think.”

“You think?”

What little composure I had left went bye-bye. I felt like I was being interrogated all over again, this time by my own partner. “The first time he was sitting on the sidewalk in the dark. I couldn’t see his hands. The second time, I had a freakin’ vampire at my back.” I froze. Oh shit. “No offense, Mr. Moreau,” I quickly added.

“None taken, Agent Fraser. During the course of my lengthy life, I have been called many things, but “freakin'” has never been one of them. I’ll consider it a novelty.”

Ian raked a hand through his dark hair and exhaled slowly. The tension level went down by a couple of notches. “I’m sorry I snapped.”

If he could make the effort, so could I. “Me, too.” I swallowed on a dry throat. “It’s been a shitty night.”

“Agreed.”

“About the guy’s face,” I said. “He had . . .” I hesitated. I had no idea how to describe what I’d seen. “He had more than one, if that makes any sense. They were like images, layered one on top of the other.”

That got everyone’s attention. Even the driver’s sunglass-covered eyes gave me a quick glance in the rearview mirror.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” I said.

“You’re sure it wasn’t an aura from a veil?” Moreau asked.

“Positive.”

“Were all the faces human?”

I thought back to the funhouse mirror images that I’d seen. “The top few layers were. The others weren’t as clear.”

“How many were there?” Ian asked quietly.

“Too many to count. I’m sorry I can’t give any more detail than—”

“That’s okay.” My partner’s expression seemed to soften. Maybe it was just a trick of the shadows between the streetlights. “You can only see what you see.”

I hesitated. “Do you know him?”

“No.” Ian gazed out the window, his eyes narrowing in concentration. His thoughts were his own, and he seemed determined to keep them that way.

I slumped back in my seat, dropped my head into my hands, and closed my eyes for a blissful three seconds.

I raised my head. “So does anyone know who the vampire might be?”

“I don’t know of any such individual personally,” Moreau replied. “However, I am on good terms with the mistress of the Wall Street coven. I will make inquiries until I locate him.”

“What about a man with multiple faces capable of scaring a vampire clear across the street?”

Alain Moreau almost smiled. “I especially look forward to meeting him.”

< Back to Chapter 1 | Go to Chapter 3 >

While New York was the city that never sleeps, sometimes it at least closed one eye. It was the middle of the night and absurdly below freezing. The only people out driving were those who had to be, or people who were crazy enough to want to.

The driver pulled into a private parking garage on West Third Street a block from Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, and began spiraling down to the lowest level. The garage was dimly lit, yet the driver kept his sunglasses on and seemed to have no trouble seeing where he was going. I chose to ignore anything that implied, concentrating instead on my fear of being squashed.

Let’s just say I was prone to claustrophobia. Once we got to the bottom level, there couldn’t have been more than a few inches of clearance between the top of the SUV and the concrete slab above it.

The driver pulled into a parking space near the back of the garage between a pair of concrete columns, turned off the engine, flipped open a small panel on the SUV’s dash, and pressed a button. Almost immediately, the car began to sink, the only sound the low rumble of some serious hydraulics hidden in the columns and in the wall in front of us. I had been taken to SPI this way once before. I didn’t like it then, and I didn’t like it any better now. But when you had four people in a company SUV, there were only so many ways you could get to headquarters.

The elevator stopped with a disconcerting jerk, and a pair of steel doors ground open in front of us, opening into one of the city’s many abandoned subway tunnels. In this particular tunnel, the tracks had been removed, and the ground smoothed and paved. The driver pulled out of the elevator and turned down the former subway tunnel as if it were just another street. After about half a mile, we came to what looked like a dead end. At SPI, things and people were rarely what they appeared to be. Moreau pushed another button on the dash, and what looked like a wall of rock and construction debris lifted, revealing another parking garage with seven black SUVs identical to the one we were in, two troop transport trucks, and a limo. All of the SUVs had sunroofs that weren’t for admiring the view. They were for those occasions when our teams needed quick access to the big guns—and to get them back out of sight with equal speed. The NYPD frowned on rocket-powered grenade launchers or belt-fed machine guns being used in the five boroughs. I was glad to say that my presence hadn’t been needed on any of those missions.

I much preferred the entrance I used on a daily basis. I’d go into Saga Partners Investments through the front door, walk through the office into the back room, open the door to the cleaning supply closet and step inside. All I had to do was put my hand up to the hand scanner, and that closet became a pine-scented elevator down to SPI headquarters. A pleasant scent, minimal claustrophobia, and the elevator opened near the break room with its life-giving coffee and occasional cookies. What’s not to love?

Me, Ian, and Moreau got out of the SUV, but the driver stayed. Maybe he had more wayward agents to pick up at another police station. Moreau held his hand in front of what looked like a sheer concrete wall. There was an approving beep and a door-sized portion of the wall smoothly swung open. A short access tunnel and another hand-scan-activated door later, we were in what we called the bull pen.

SPI’s New York headquarters complex was located directly beneath Washington Square Park, and it was nearly as large as the park itself. Just the bull pen area was ringed with five stories of steel catwalks connecting offices, labs, and conference rooms. The main floor was filled with desks, computers, people, and not-people. We ran three shifts a day, and operated 24/7/365. Not surprisingly, the largest shift was on duty right now—the graveyard shift. Even supernatural baddies that weren’t nocturnal tended to do their thing at night. Humans were essentially the same, but without the fangs, claws, and paranormally bad attitudes.
I’d been introduced to Vivienne Sagadraco, the founder and CEO of SPI, at my final interview before being hired. Maybe she met with every new employee, or perhaps being the only seer in the New York office had earned me the special treatment. I’d heard that longtime agents referred to her as the dragon lady. I was slow on the uptake, so until I was face-to-uh-face with Vivienne Sagadraco, I didn’t realize that was meant literally.

My boss was a dragon.

She could morph in and out of human form; but as a seer, I got a clear view of what she really was.

I’d figured the meeting had been set up as a final test. At the tabloid, I’d interviewed some scary people, though at least most of them had been human. What had kept me from running out of the room screaming during my final SPI interview had been the utterly surreal setting and situation—that, and I really wanted the job. That single fact was not only motivational, but had effectively put the brakes on any potential hysterics. I think I might have even smiled at my new boss.

So money and a chance to regain my professional self-respect had motivated me to sit and have a proper high tea with a proper—if scaly—British dragon.

To a normal person, Vivienne Sagadraco appeared to be an attractive and vital woman in her late sixties. My seer vision revealed a dragon with peacock blue and green iridescent scales, seated in a throne-like chair across from me, having just served me tea from an ornate silver tea service, now improbably holding a dainty tea cup and saucer in her long, taloned fingers. A pair of sleek wings were folded like long shadows against her back. Definitely surreal. All that was missing was a nervous rabbit in a waistcoat running through the oak-paneled office with a giant watch freaking out about the time. Vivienne Sagadraco in her human form wasn’t much taller than I was. However, a faintly glowing aura surrounded her, telling me that in reality the creature before me was much larger than she appeared.

I’d decided right then that I could go through the rest of my career at SPI perfectly happy not knowing exactly how large of a dragon Vivienne Sagadraco actually was. It was bad enough that during our interview my future boss’s glittering eyes had looked at me much the same way as I had the finger sandwiches. After what I’d done tonight, the boss might decide that her initial impulse was correct, and that I’d make a better snack than agent.

Being escorted to the boss’s office by her right-hand legal eagle/vampire meant that what Ian and I had stepped in tonight wasn’t just another crime scene with a monster perp.

We took an elevator up to the fifth floor and the executive suite. As Moreau escorted us into her office, Vivienne Sagadraco was standing with her back to us in front of a two-way glass wall—which bore an unsettling resemblance to an interrogation room’s—gazing down into the bull pen. It was about two hours until sunrise, yet her tailored gray suit looked as crisp as it would have at the start of the business day, and her short, silver hair was perfectly styled. Vivienne Sagadraco wasn’t nocturnal and she didn’t live at headquarters, though rumor had it she kept a small apartment here for emergencies. Home was a penthouse overlooking Central Park West. Dragons liked to be able to survey their domain. So if this wasn’t an emergency, that meant she’d made a special trip here just for us on a night with a sub-zero windchill.

I shot a quick glance at Ian. He didn’t look like he felt special or flattered, either. Then again, Ian always had any and all of his feelings securely locked up. The man of steel and stone.

Vivienne Sagadraco spoke without turning. Good morning, Agents Byrne and Fraser.” Her British accent was cool and smooth, rather reminding me of Judi Dench’s M about to give James Bond some really bad news. Please be seated.”

We hung our coats on the brass coat rack by the door, then did as told. I perched on the edge of the chair with the only part of my jeans that hadn’t been soaked in whiskey. They were relatively dry now, but the smell was still there. Moreau remained standing by the door.

I will not waste any of our time,” she told us, since so little remains of it. Last night the mutilated body of a goblin noble was discovered in Chinatown. Kanil Ghevari was one of our own, and was a strong advocate with his people for keeping the supernatural realm hidden from the general population. Certain elements of his murder bear disturbing similarities to the incident at Barrington Galleries earlier tonight.”

Detective Burton had homed in on me and Ollie, but only in connection with tonight’s murder. Chinatown was close enough to the First Precinct, so why hadn’t Burton grilled me about where I was last night?

We have his remains here,” Sagadraco said, as if she could read my mind. The human authorities do not know of Kanil’s murder, nor can they know.”

After his death,” Ian told me, any spells Kanil had been using to pass for human would’ve faded; within an hour, they would’ve been completely gone.”

That would have been a big surprise for someone down at the city morgue.

Kanil was the sole voice of reason with the radicals among their aristocracy,” Sagadraco said. They are rapidly growing weary of concealing themselves from humans. He will be sorely missed.” Her steely blue eyes took in both of us in turn. Tell me precisely what happened this evening. Leave nothing out.”

We did. I started with Ollie asking me to catch the nachtgnome, included the run-in with the vampire and the multi-faced man who scared him away, and topped it off with the picture of me having been found on the dead man—a photo taken at SPI. Ian filled in his involvement as it came up.

Sagadraco scowled, then glanced past us at Moreau.

I will locate the vampire and the man outside the liquor store,” he said.

She nodded once.

And I will know the identity of the photographer before dawn,” Moreau promised.

Notify me as soon as you do.”

Of course, ma’am. Permission to begin now.”

Granted.”

The door opened and closed, leaving us alone with Vivienne Sagadraco.

Now her full attention was on me. Did you capture it?”

Ma’am?”

The nachtgnome, Agent Fraser. Did you capture it?”

No, ma’am.”

I heard a distinctly draconic sniff of amusement. Unfortunate.”

Yes, ma’am, it was.”

And this was after it had consumed two bottles of whiskey.” She almost sounded impressed. It must have been a large specimen.”
And a mean drunk,” Ian added.

She almost smiled. Agent Fraser, when we are finished here, please avail yourself of our shower facilities and a change of clothes.”
There was nothing I’d like more. Thank you, ma’am.”

Her smile vanished. Our source in the city medical examiner’s office reported that there was a winged scarab tattoo on the dead man’s palm.”

There was also a large, bloody handprint on the window frame,” I said.

How large?”

At least five times the size of Ian’s . . . uh, I mean Agent Byrne’s.”

Sagadraco nodded in acknowledgement as if that information wasn’t news to her.

Two units arrived within minutes,” Ian said. Someone knew there was going to be a murder, and called it in to make sure the police would arrive immediately after. I didn’t detect any surveillance around the shop, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t there.”

I’d told Ollie that I’d be there around ten o’clock,” I said. Between the vampire and the icy sidewalks, I got there closer to ten twenty.”

Given the photo of her found in the victim’s pocket, there is a chance that all this could have been a setup for Agent Fraser.” Ian continued, Though I don’t know what the motive could have been. More likely would be that the caller wanted the police to find the body quickly; maybe even get a glimpse of the thing that did it. Though if they’d gotten themselves glimpsed, that thing would have probably added two more heads and arms to its collection.”

Both possibilities strongly suggested that the caller wanted the human authorities to discover an inhuman murder scene—and me. Combine that with the murder last night of a known and vocal advocate of keeping supernaturals secret from humans . . .

Could this just have been an attempt to draw unwanted attention to SPI?” I ventured.

Among other things,” Sagadraco said.

Did our lab people find anything with Kanil’s body that’d give us a clue as to what we’re dealing with?” Ian asked.

There were claw marks on his right shoulder consistent with a creature large and strong enough to tear an arm from its socket. The arm removal was done pre-mortem, yet there was very little blood found at the scene. The arm was not found with Kanil’s body.” She crossed the room to her desk and picked up a clear evidence bag like the one my bloody photo had been in. However, this was.” She gave it to Ian.

I leaned forward to get a better look. It was big enough that I didn’t really need to, but morbid fascination got the better of me. The object was black, curved, narrowed to a fine point, and was at least five inches long.

It looks like a claw,” I said.

That is precisely what it is, Agent Fraser. It was found caught on a rib adjacent to Kanil’s heart.”

My mouth went dry. The thing that belonged to was on the other side of Ollie’s office door?”

We have every reason to believe so. And our examination of Kanil’s remains confirms that all of his wounds—with the exception of the decapitation—were inflicted before he died.” Sagadraco’s eyes narrowed and a low rumbling briefly vibrated the air around me. I froze as I realized that Vivienne Sagadraco had just growled. Ian only saw and heard the human version; I got the full dragon experience in surround sound.

There were five puncture wounds on Kanil’s chest,” she continued as if nothing had happened. Our own medical examiner reported that they were indicative of a large clawed hand restraining him—also pre-mortem. She believes that Kanil’s attacker tore off his arm, then held him down until he bled out.”

There was dead silence.

Sagadraco scowled. Measurements taken from the claw placement on Kanil’s chest and the downward angle of the gash at the . . . amputation site on his right shoulder suggest a heavily muscled creature at least three meters tall.”

Ian sat perfectly still. A nine footer?”

Probably closer to ten.”

The man in Ollie’s office was torn limb from limb in less than a minute,” I said. And his head was taken as well as his right arm.”
The attack tonight displayed animal savagery. Kanil’s murder was more the work of a sadist. I received a letter this evening from an individual who is claiming credit for bringing the creatures to New York.”

Creatures?” I blurted. Plural?”

Two, to be precise.” Sagadraco took a piece of paper from her desk and handed it to me. The letter was delivered to me at home earlier this evening. I took the usual precautions before opening it, and deemed it not to be dangerous.” She scowled. I was mistaken. Immediately after I read it, both the letter and the envelope it was in burst into flames. I wrote down the vital portions before it vanished from my memory.”

Ian leaned over to read with me.

I will cure humans once and for all of the absurd notion that they are, or ever have been, at the top of this world’s food chain. To truly believe, they must see it for themselves. Their own literature abounds with predators that hunt them in the night. I have introduced two of them to this island teeming with prey.

I am certain that you will extend every courtesy to my guests as they sample the delights that this fair city has to offer—especially during the revelry that bids farewell to the old year, and will welcome what promises to be the beginning of an enlightened new age.

That was about as clear as mud.

Sagadraco perched on the edge of her desk. The letter was unsigned, but the envelope had a wax seal—stamped with a scarab.”
I looked up from the letter. Like the dead man in Ollie’s office.”

Exactly.”

That made no sense. But wouldn’t that mean that the dead guy worked for whoever wrote the letter? Who claims to be in control of the monsters?”

It temporarily confuses matters,” Sagadraco admitted, but I suspect there was a reason. Dr. Evans has theorized that the derisive reference to humans and the mention of ‘their own literature’ indicates that our adversary either isn’t human, or believes him- or herself to be vastly superior, holding all others in contempt. Or both.”

Dr. Evans?” I asked.

Our staff criminal psychologist,” Sagadraco replied. He believes that this individual will communicate again with us very soon; the megalomania evident in the letter will not allow them to remain silent for long.” Her eyes glittered. We will not wait for the next communication; and we will do everything in our power to prevent these monsters from killing again. I have our researchers compiling a list of creatures featured in literature capable of tearing off a man’s head and limbs. And our contacts in the city medical examiner’s office will let us know if anything was found with tonight’s victim that may assist us.”

I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t had a clear look at the scarab tattoo. I’d had to move something out of the way first—something I’d stuck in my coat pocket.

I jumped up and almost ran across the office to the coat rack. I think I can help. That is, if the police didn’t take it when they searched me.” I fumbled around in my right pocket until I found the wadded up Kleenex with the hair. Now that I knew what it probably belonged to, I extracted it with two fingers, not really wanting to touch it at all. If the police had come across it, they’d left it right where they found it. I didn’t blame them in the least.

I don’t think you want to handle this,” I told the boss, or have it on your desk. Do you have a piece of paper I could put it on?”
Vivienne Sagadraco pulled a sheet of paper out of the printer behind her desk. I quickly put the hair and Kleenex on top, glad to get rid of it.

Ian came over as the boss took a pencil and peeled back the tissue, exposing the hair.

It looks like a big dreadlock,” Ian said, made of wire.”

It’s softer than it looks,” I told him, though not by much.”

Where did you find this?” Sagadraco asked me.

Clutched in the hand of the man killed in Ollie’s office. The hair was wrapped around two of his fingers. I was thinking he might have pulled it out of the monster during the struggle.” I paused uneasily. Or what there was of it. I had to move it to get a good look at the tattoo.”

Ian scowled. After I’d told you not to touch anything.”

I flashed him a smile. Nope, I did it before. And with the cops barging in seconds later, it’s a good thing I did.”

This time.”

Sagadraco leaned in closer to study the hair, close enough that the snout of her dragon aura hovered directly above it. When it came to sensitive schnozes, dragons ranked right up there with werewolves. She sniffed almost delicately, taking in its scent, then her human face twisted in disgust.

I’ll send the sample down to the lab for analysis,” she said, but I think we can safely deduce that it came from the creature that attacked our John Doe. Its scent is . . . most potent and distinctive.”

Ian put the letter back on Sagadraco’s desk. Kanil was killed last night. John Doe tonight. From the contents of that letter, he—or she—has something extra special planned for New Year’s Eve.”

Do you remember the siren infestation during Fleet Week two years ago, Agent Byrne?”

Ian went back to his chair and sat. Yes, ma’am. That was a tough one to cover up. Though it helped that a lot of those sailors were drunk.”

Yes. It did. Unfortunately, three days from now, the television cameras and the world’s communication technology will be intensely focused on this city.”

New Year’s Eve in Times Square.

Oh hell.

In less than forty-eight hours, New York would play host to the world’s largest and loudest party. A million people there and billions more watching. I’d moved to New York in November of last year. I’d made a couple of friends by New Year’s, and they said that everyone should do the Times Square New Year’s Eve thing at least once. So I’d gone, and had subsequently filed the experience under never do that again.” I liked people, but I didn’t like being in the middle of that many people. I couldn’t imagine a pair of ten-foot monsters rampaging through that crowd. What the monsters didn’t kill, the resulting panic and stampede could.

It would be the perfect coming-out party for a pair of monsters—and the undisputed end of hiding the supernatural from the world’s population.

Ma’am, I know this goes probably against agency policy,” I ventured, but shouldn’t we notify someone? Like the army, navy, air force, and marines?”

And tell them what? That a pair of literary monsters have been loosed on the city and will slaughter dozens, possibly hundreds packed together the way they will be in Times Square, during the night when the world’s eyes are upon us? Which authority do you think will believe such a scenario, Agent Fraser?”

My silence was her answer.

Precisely. Even if they believed that there was a threat, they aren’t qualified to locate these creatures—or to deal with the one who released them. We are qualified and we will deal with those responsible. Whoever is behind this is probably providing another type of concealment for them. A veil of some kind would be most likely. A person who is powerful enough to control such creatures has more than enough talent in the magical arts to conceal them from the view of our agents.”
Monsters concealed from view. It sounded like I was about to be drafted. It made me question just how important a 401k was to me. I didn’t have a choice though.

“But first, I require your and Agent Byrne’s assistance in an even more pressing matter. We must discover the mastermind’s identity and location with the utmost speed. At the moment our only link to this person is the man who was killed in Oliver Barrington-Smythe’s office—a person who had a photo of you that had been taken in a supposedly secure location. That detail does not make me happy. This man had your photo and was in that office for a reason. I want to know what that reason was, and I want to know if Mr. Barrington-Smythe has any connection to the murder of one of my people.” Her eyes narrowed. “He is your source, Agent Fraser. Find him. If we know that there is a connection between the two of you, so does our adversary. You must find Barrington-Smythe first and discover what he knows. And if you cannot obtain that information from him”—she smiled in a baring of teeth—”bring him to me. Dismissed.”

< Back to Chapter 2 | Go to Chapter 4 >


A hot shower and an even hotter cup of coffee didn’t change how I felt about having to find two monsters capable of tearing a man to pieces. I was only marginally less enthused about having to hunt Ollie to the ends of the earth—or at least the five boroughs.

I got dressed, wolfed down a stale doughnut in the break room, snagged another doughnut and cup of coffee to take with me, and met Ian in the bull pen.

It was a little before six in the morning according to the clock labeled “New York” on the bull pen wall. We had clocks for every other major city and time zone around the world. If you were tracking a monster that got up when the sun went down, I could see why it’d be a good idea to know exactly what time it was. Here in headquarters, it was time for the shift change; yet there was no shifting or changing going on. No one was going anywhere. I had a feeling the next few days were going to be all hands on deck.
Ian and Yasha Kazakov were intent on a bank of computer screens in the corner of the room.

Yasha was one of SPI’s drivers and trackers. In a city where at any given time there were more supernatural baddies than available parking spaces, having a reliable drop-off and pick-up guy was a necessity. Even better was one who had no problem with turning a rampaging monster into a hood ornament. And should a simple collar turn into a cluster, Yasha was always more than happy to take the fight beyond the driver’s seat—especially during the full moon.

Yasha Kasakov was a werewolf.

Even if a person was using a spell to mask their true identity, my seer vision gave me a sneak peek of what they had going on supernatural-wise. In Yasha’s case, it was like a large, furry, red-haired aura. I had seen a few werewolves before coming to New York, so it wasn’t that much of a shock. The majority of werewolves had more control than people gave them credit for. At ninety-six years old, Yasha had had plenty of time to practice. There were two werewolf packs: one in Manhattan and another in the outer boroughs. Yasha wasn’t a member of either one. He considered SPI his pack.

Older werewolves could change when they wanted to, but all werewolves, regardless of age, changed on the night of the full moon. Werewolves at SPI automatically got three days a month off: the day before, the day of, and the day after a full moon. Though some missions went better and got resolved faster when you had an irate werewolf on your team. Most supernatural baddies surrendered on the spot to keep from having a full-moon–crazed werewolf, who could do zero to sixty in six strides, turned loose on them.

But on those occasions when the moon was full, a werewolf agent was needed, and chances were high that the public might accidentally get a glimpse, SPI’s Research and Development department had come up with a disguise for “that time of the month.” Mood swings, cravings, anger, and irritability—trust me, you ain’t seen cranky until you’ve seen a werewolf trying to force down their natural inclinations during a full moon.

I didn’t understand how it worked, but it involved a little science, a lot of magic, and worked on the same principle as a goblin being able to walk down Broadway while looking just as human as anyone else.

The disguise R&D settled on? A German Shepherd. Readily accepted the world over as police and military dogs. Pair a K-9 with a SPI commando in a flak vest or body armor, and your average New Yorker wouldn’t bat an eye.

Yasha glanced up, saw me, smiled, and waved me over. The big Russian was wearing his usual uniform of fatigues, combat boots, and a T-shirt. Today’s T-shirt phrase of the day was: “In case of emergency, lift shirt, pull .44.”

I liked Yasha.

All eyes were focused on a bank of six screens. Two of the images appeared to be from street cameras like the ones the city used to keep an eye on traffic at major intersections.

Kenji Hayashi was SPI’s resident tech geek. He was also an elf. I didn’t know if he was half elf/half Japanese human or all Japanese elf. Heck, I didn’t even know Japan had elves, and I didn’t know Kenji well enough yet to ask. Some supernaturals could be even more sensitive and PC about those things than humans. Multi-cultural was one thing. But multi-species? Not sticking my foot in my mouth would be next to impossible, so I had kept it shut on that topic.

What I knew for sure was that if information was buried deeper than a politician’s past or encrypted six ways from Sunday, Kenji was the go-to guy to dig it out and make it sing.

During his in-office hours, he was surrounded by computer screens directing teams of monster-hunting agents. He did exactly the same thing in his off-duty time, only then it was called gaming. Not being a gaming, anime, or comic aficionado, I didn’t recognize most of the figures and toys on every exposed surface in Kenji’s workspace, but there were two that I did—a foot-tall Godzilla complete with glowing red eyes, gripping a headless Jar Jar Binks action figure. The head was in Godzilla’s mouth. It was my favorite.

There was one toy that both Kenji and I had at our desks, as did everyone else on SPI’s company paintball team—a semiautomatic paintball rifle. It was a company-approved and encouraged activity because paintballs could be easily switched out for balls filled with holy water, which I’d heard had come in handy on more than one mission.

“Hacking into the city’s cameras again, Kenji?” I asked.

His lips quirked in a quick grin, his eyes never moving from the computer screen where he was scrolling through a black-and-white video recording. “Only when they’re showing TV worth watching.”

I moved in closer. “What’s on tonight?”

“What we heard, but didn’t see,” Ian said.

“Huh?”

“We have a camera mounted on the roof of the building across the alley from Ollie’s office,” Kenji said.

I blinked. “You watch Ollie’s office?”

“Occasionally watching but always recording,” Kenji said. “Ollie knows several interesting people, and we like to know when they visit.”

“The dead guy was one of them?”

“Never seen him before. But don’t blink; you’re about to see more of him than you ever wanted to.”

I’d seen it once and I didn’t want to see it again.

“About ten twenty’s when it got interesting,” Kenji’s eyes stayed on the counter. “There it is.”

The camera was aimed at a darkened window. Someone opened the door, flipped on the lights, and closed the door behind them. My heart beat like a hammer in my chest. I hadn’t seen the man’s face before, but I’d seen most of the rest of him. It was definitely Ollie’s office. Who else would have a pair of shrunken heads tied by their hair and hanging on the back of the door? The soon-to-be corpse sat at Ollie’s desk and booted up his computer.

Yasha was looking at the doughnut in my hand. “You going to eat that?”

I handed it to him. “Not anymore.”

“Ian, the question you asked? Here’s the answer.” Kenji indicated the two screens on either side of the one showing Ollie’s office.

“That’s the front door of Ollie’s place, and that’s the back. I went through the tapes for the past twelve hours. Our man didn’t come in either one.”

“The only way to Ollie’s office from inside the shop is the stairs we’d used,” I said. “From the outside, there’s just the fire escape.”

“Does Ollie have a basement?” Ian asked.

“I don’t know.”

“The bar at end of block was speakeasy in twenties,” Yasha said. “Trapdoor in basement leads to tunnels that go to East River. Great for smuggling illegal . . .”

“Hooch,” Kenji said helpfully, never taking his eyes off the screen.

Yasha grinned. “Hooch. Smuggling hooch. Likely Ollie has same.”

Ian nodded, rolled a chair over and sat. “Can you get more detail on his face before . . .”

“He doesn’t have a head anymore? Probably.” The elf’s fingers sped over the keys, and the man’s face was magnified, the pixels increasing in size along with it. Then he did something too fast to follow with the mouse and a few clicks later, the resolution sharpened, and we had a clear image of the man’s face.

Ian leaned in closer. “Got enough to run through facial recognition?”

“Oh yeah.” Kenji dragged the image to the screen above and the software started doing its thing. It flew through what had to be thousands of photos—and surprisingly more than a few sketches.

“Why are some of them only sketches?” I asked.

“Not all of the beings in our files can be photographed.”

That wasn’t a warm and fuzzy thought.

A few minutes later the computer stopped on a photograph.

“Lady and gentlemen,” Kenji murmured, “we have a match.”

It looked like a passport photo. Blond, square-jawed, nice smile. Wherever his head was, I’d bet it wasn’t smiling now. Text rapidly filled in the other side of the screen.

Dr. Adam Falke, Ph.D.
Born: November 16, 1963 in Roskilde, Denmark
Education: University of Copenhagen—Bachelor of Arts, Nordic Mythology & History, 1984; Master of Arts, Archaeology, 1986; Ph.D., Archaeology & Antiquities, 1988
Conservator, Arnamagnaean Institute, University of Copenhagen, 1989-1991
Associate Professor of History, University of Copenhagen, Department of Scandinavian Studies 1991-2002
Private antiquities broker 2003-present
Last known place of residence: London, United Kingdom

“Academic,” Yasha said. “A lot of good education in that head. Though that was before”—the Russian make a slashing motion across his throat.

Oh yeah, that settled my stomach. I set my coffee down, too.

“He hadn’t been an academic for nearly ten years,” Ian said. “He’d spent the time since then as a private broker. That could cover up a lot of shady dealings.”

Kenji clicked more keys. “I’ll send it up to Bob and Rob in Research; if there’s dirt, they’ll dig it up.”

“Better copy the boss lady,” Ian said.

“Already done. I’m too pretty to be the breakfast special.”

“Whoever sent her the letter that went poof would be way ahead of you on the menu,” I told him.

Kenji arched one dark eyebrow. “Poof?” Minus the funky haircut, he looked disturbingly like a young version of the Mr. Spock candy jar he kept filled with wasabi-covered peas.

“Incendiary,” Ian clarified. “Delivered to her home.”

Yasha muttered something under his breath in Russian. I didn’t understand the words, but they sounded impressed.

“He must be a major talent with an equally major death wish,” Kenji noted.

I just stood there being confused. Ian noticed, and surprisingly, explained it to me.

“Sending an incendiary note to Vivienne Sagadraco took balls and then some,” he said.

“Sending one that could elude her detection took scary skill. And sending it to her at home was just nuts.”

“So . . . the guy with the scarab tattoo and without a head was working for a magically talented nutcase.”

“Or he could have been freelancing on the side and his boss took offense,” Ian said. He gave me a sidelong glance. “Like somebody else I know.”

“Not gonna let me forget that, are you?”

He jerked his head toward the screen. “Considering what happened to that guy, should I?”

“No, I don’t believe you should.”

Kenji turned his chair so we’d all have a front row seat for what was about to happen, then he leaned back, removed the top of Spock’s head, and started popping wasabi peas like he was eating popcorn at a movie.

“Regardless,” he said, “Ollie had information on his computer that Dr. Falke—or whoever he was working for—wanted in a bad way.”
“Can you hack into Ollie’s computer?” I asked.

Kenji stopped popping and just looked at me.

“Sorry. Let me rephrase that. Have you hacked into Ollie’s computer?”

“Yes. Nothing even remotely interesting. Whatever this guy was looking for, Ollie didn’t keep it on a computer, or at least not that one.”

Yet another reason to pull Ollie out from the rock he’d crawled under.

On the screen, Falke stopped clicking keys and started listening. On the opposite screen, the camera focused on the front door showed me and Ian coming into the shop. Falke had heard the bell ring above the door. The camera captured video only, so while we couldn’t hear the word he spat, we saw it just fine. He listened for a moment longer, then having apparently determined that we weren’t coming upstairs, he went back to what he’d been looking for, but did it a lot faster.

Seven and a half minutes had passed according to the clock in the corner of the screen when a huge shadow fell over the man.

The creature had been in the office the entire time.

I’d been in Ollie’s office before tonight. It didn’t even have a closet, so there’d been nowhere for the thing to hide. Dr. Falke had been nervous enough when he’d heard us, but apparently he hadn’t heard a ten-foot-tall monster so much as breathe before it started killing him.

“I didn’t know veils could hide sound,” I said in a small voice.

A single muscle twitched along Ian’s jaw. “Apparently this one can.”

Yasha spat a single word in Russian. I didn’t need a translation for that one.

Dr. Falke must have heard the floorboards creak when we did. The screams started right after that—when the poor man had seen what was about to kill him. The screams were silent in the video, but we’d gotten to hear it at full volume and in person.

Now I was grateful the camera didn’t record sound. I’d heard it once, and it’d probably be the soundtrack for my nightmares until something even scarier came along. The camera’s field of vision was only what was directly in front of the window. Ollie’s office wasn’t all that large, so even if Falke had had a chance to run, there’d been nowhere to go, and in a matter of seconds, blood spattered in a sheet across the window, and even Kenji stopped eating.

The monster was too fast—for Falke and the camera. It was almost like the thing knew it was being filmed and stayed just out of sight. When the slaughter stopped, the only movement visible through the bloody window was the overhead light swinging back and forth.

A massive shadow loomed over the office door. The monster was standing just out of our view. Waiting.

It had heard us running up the stairs.

I instinctively froze. I knew I was watching a recording, but that didn’t stop my survival instinct from telling me not to move or even breathe. Knowing that thing had been on the other side of the door from us was entirely different from actually watching it. My knees felt a little weak and I found a chair and all but fell into it.

The monster made its escape out the window, easily leaping down into the alley two stories below, too quick for the camera to catch anything other than a blurry shadow. Suddenly something dark passed across the lens of the camera mounted on the roof of the building across the alley from Ollie’s office.

“Now this is the scary part,” Kenji said.

The camera automatically refocused. Filling the screen was an eye divided by a vertical slit pupil. The eye narrowed, and a blink of that monster eye later, the screen went blank.

I just stared. “The second monster.”

“Safe bet,” Kenji said. “I wouldn’t want to run into either one in a dark alley.”

“Kanil already did,” Ian muttered.

“My guess is that whatever it was ripped the camera out,” Kenji said. “We’ll need to fix that.” More clicking. “I’ll get the job req started.”

I blew out my breath. “Crap. Time to go find Ollie.”

Ian nodded. “The sooner, the better.”

“I am your driver,” Yasha told Ian. “Dragon lady wants you to have both hands free.”

“What for?” I asked.

“Keeping you alive,” Ian said. “Whoever sent the boss that letter could have sent that thing to kill Adam Falke, or it could have been acting on its own. Either way, I think she’s right—our mastermind can’t risk those two things being found before New Year’s Eve. Kanil Ghevari was sharp; I can’t imagine anything that could’ve come up on him without him knowing. And you saw what it did just now. It’s got veils stronger than anything I’ve ever heard of.” Ian stood and instinctively checked to make sure his gun and knife were where they were supposed to be. I suspected he had more. My partner looked down at me, his dark green eyes unreadable. “Only one person here can see through those veils.”

I knew what that meant. “That would be me..”

“Unfortunately, yes. And the worst you’ve had to deal with so far has been a gang of horny leprechauns.” He reached for his coat. “We need to go.”

I stood. “I have some ideas about where Ollie might be.”

“Good. But we’re making a pit stop first.”

“Where?”

His scowl told me he didn’t like what he was about to say.

“To see Sam and get you a real gun.”

Back to Chapter 3

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