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The Light Who Shines

Summary

This is an excerpt of Chapters 1 - 10 from The Light Who Shines. The rest of the book is available on Amazon.

Teaser

     When Supernatural Investigation Bureau agent Bluebell Kildare (a.k.a. Blue) arrives at the scene of the crime it's obvious the grotesquely damaged body of the deceased teenage boy was caused by far more than a simple hit and run. Using her innate sixth sense, she uncovers a powerful magical artifact nearby. She soon discovers it acts as a key to an ancient Grimiore that was instrumental in the creation of the Vampire breed and still holds the power to unravel the boundaries between Earth and the Plane of Fire.

      Blue and her clever wolf Varg follow a trail that starts at the Cock and Bull Tap and leads all through the town of Crimson Hollow. Between being sidelined by a stalker who sticks to the shadows, and chasing a suspect who vanishes in thin air, the case is getting complicated. If that isn't enough, Dark Vampire activity hits a record high and hate crimes are increasing. However, it's her growing feelings for Jack Tanner, her magnetic Daylight Vampire boss, that just might undo her.

       While Blue searches for clues to nail the perpetrator, it seems someone else is conducting a search of their own. Who will find whom first?

     Danger lurks in every corner and Blue needs all her focus in this increasingly dangerous game or she risks ending up the next victim.

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About This Story

Rated R for Mature Content:  Sex, Violence  |  Recommended for 17+ yrs
Genre:  Urban Fantasy
Content Tags:  Vampire  |  Romance  |  Murder  |  Mystery  |  Detective  |  Wolf  |  Magic  |  Strong Heroine 

     The story is placed in our world with an alternate history in contemporary times where three different breeds of humans exist: regular humans as you and I know them, magically Gifted humans, and Vampires (Dark and Light). The culture is strife with tension as these three breeds deal with a bloody history and lingering hate. The heroine is a paranormal inspector named Bluebell Kildare (a.k.a. Blue) who was born with the gift of being a sensitive. As the story moves forward, she learns there is more to her power then she originally thought.

     The story starts out at the scene of the crime where a teenage boy was found horrifically tortured and murdered. The plot follows the investigation of that crime and unfolds from the alternating first person perspectives of the heroine (Bluebell Kildare) and hero (Blue’s boss, Jack Tanner).

     There are a few explicit sex scenes and some detailed descriptions of violence, but the story is not at all a horror or a psychological thriller. It is more of a detective/action/adventure book with paranormal characters. The story is infused with some sexual tension and a good dollop of romance. I consider it equivalent to an R-rated movie.

     There are some deeper aspects to this story as the characters begin to explore the nature of good and evil. The main societal conflict present in this world is prejudice and hate, and it is in fact the primary underlying theme for the book. While the typical prejudices we see in our reality don't exist in this world, the author has flipped the lens of prejudice to focus on the three different breeds of humans. The characters are forced to deal with the prejudices that permeate their society on both a professional and a personal level, in an environment where hate seems on the knife's edge of destroying their dearly bought peace.

Prologue

Shaina: Winter, Year 1, Red Ages

I wake to the sound of pounding on the door and Mor’s voice yelling “Shaina! Shaina!”

Sorcha wakes up crying as I rush to open the door. A bloodcurdling scream tears through the night, destroying any illusions of a peaceful return to slumber. When I swing open the door with trembling hands, I see anguish in Mor’s eyes. The words that tumble from her mouth bring to the fore all the fears I’d been trying to suppress this winter.

“Shaina, Conor was found dead, killed by the bloodsuckers. Grainne and Aongus are calling you a Witch and are gathering the town folks to burn you as one! Quickly! We must run!”

I start gathering my things together, but Mor yells, “There is no time! Grab the bairn. We must go now!”

Sorcha is wailing now. Tears streak her little cheeks as she grips her blanket tightly in her tiny fists. I grab my plaid and wrap it around us both as I follow Mor outside.

“You must quiet her!” Mor whispers.

I try to comfort Sorcha in a hushed voice. “Shh, Sorcha, you must be quiet. Shhhh.”

Sorcha pays no heed and cries all the louder as she clutches me with her little fingers.

I hear the voices of the villagers coming now, yelling and screaming. “Burn the Witch! It was her husband who brought this upon us!”

Aongus’ voice rises above the rest. “Let her die too! Why should she be spared?”

Mor leads me past the blacksmith’s shop, behind Fergus’ cottage, toward the forest. I see their torches at my cottage now. A voice yells, “They are gone!” and the villagers continue to chant, “Burn the Witch! Burn the Witch!”

I cast through my mind wildly now, seeking out a remembrance of a place to hide. My mind comes up empty, just as it did all winter when I feared a night such as this would come. I should have braved the cold and gone to the sea caves where the dragon tribe dwells despite the perilous winter journey.

Just then, Sorcha lets out a loud bawl, and I hear Grainne yell, “She is over there!”

Mor and I run around Fergus’ cottage and make for the edge of the woods. The throng is following us quickly with the younger men in the lead. The woods are just up ahead—if only we could lose them in the woods! If only Sorcha would stop crying!

We reach heavy brush, and I hear the thunder of feet behind me. Just at the edge of the woods, my foot catches on a tree root and I tumble to the ground. As I land on the hard dirt, I twist to protect Sorcha from being crushed by my weight, and pain shoots up my leg. Fear strikes my heart as I realize I have a choice to make.

“Mor!” I yell.

Mor glances over her shoulder and sees me on the ground. I try to stand, but my knee gives way. I can see the torches through the dark coming swiftly closer.

“Mor, take Sorcha. It is too late. Run. Keep her safe!”

Mor stands there, petrified. She looks at me, she looks at the woods in front of her, and she looks at the torches that are almost upon us. I thrust Sorcha out while warm, wet tears stream down my cheeks and fall unheeded onto the snow. “Take the bairn! It’s me they want!”

Mor grabs Sorcha and my arms, bereft of their lovely burden, fall uselessly at my sides. I stare hungrily after Sorcha for one last moment, and just as Mor and Sorcha disappear in the dark of the woods, the torches are upon me. First the young men arrive, their faces ugly with rage. I know each of them, grew up with them, broke bread with them, bartered with them, sang with them, but it matters not. It is their fear that drives them this night, and no proclamations of innocence or fond memories will help me now.

Niall grabs my arms and starts dragging me into the throng. I try to gain footing, but my right leg will bear no weight. Tadgh grabs my other arm, and together they drag me to the center of town. The mob crowds around, cursing me, throwing sticks at me as I’m roughly tied to a large ash tree. The faces of my friends and my neighbors swirl around me in angry confusion with rays of moonlight shining on a gaunt cheek here and a slashing brow there. The bindings are pulled tight, cutting into my wrists and ankles as I struggle, but I know it is useless. It has been useless for a long time. It has been useless since the day Torloch made his pact with the devil’s handmaiden, Lilith. It has been useless since the day Torloch took my wee baby boy away and returned home without him but with his blood on his hands. It has been useless since Torloch became a bloodsucking monster and spread his disease through the village.

I look out at the faces of the crowd, and I see anger and fear. I see despair. It is a mercy they have let me live this long. I curse myself again for not leaving earlier despite the biting cold of winter. I hear one voice among the bloodthirsty yell, “Give her a Witch’s trial!”

Another voice responds, “We will give her a trial of fire. If she is innocent, let her be saved!”

Bundles of dry oak twigs and sticks are piled at my feet. Oak, the tree of strength. I wonder if the oak will give me strength in the last of my dying moments. I think of Sorcha, the twin of my poor baby boy. I hope only that Mor got her away safely and at least one of our family will be spared.

Grainne walks right up to me and spits in my face. “You filthy Witch,” she snarls. “Your monster husband and his kind killed my son. Shredded his neck.” Tears run down her dirt-smudged face. “We are going to watch you burn for what you done!”

Una, who lost her husband to Torloch, grabs a torch and sets the wood at my feet on fire. The firelight reflects off her savage face, and I see months of grief and seething anger in the depths of her wild eyes. There is no mercy here.

I can feel the heat rising, and it burns. I look out at their faces, and even through my fear, I feel their sorrow and their rage. I feel it in me as well. That has always been my curse: to feel others as myself. Their rage now feeds mine. The flames lick my ankles, and the smoke fills my eyes.

I look up at the night sky and feel my fury overflow. Months of rage at Torloch, who took the life of our son to try to save himself. But more rage at Lilith, who made him an empty promise and turned him into a monster for the price of our child. Tears stream down my face as I recall my own black pit of grief at losing my lovely little boy. I feel the grief and pain of everyone on this dark night.

I smell the smoke from the ash tree I am tied to mingling with the oak kindling about my body. My childhood learnings flit through my mind even in my last hour. While oak gives strength, ash is the bridge between Earth and other worlds. Good! Let it make a bridge to the Plane of Fire for me so that I might reach Lilith and pay her back in kind.

I shout to the blackness of the sky above me. I call to the dark with all the rage of my soul. “Lilith, I call on you to hear me. By my blood, you will be destroyed! A light will come. A light that shines through your evil. A light that calls you to answer for your deeds. A light that binds you as I am bound and burns you as I burn. A light that rips you asunder and destroys your darkness.”

The pain is so great. The flames sear my legs now. I can’t help but twitch and scream and convulse, though I know there is no escape. I writhe, trying to get away from the fire, but it just grows and grows as my calves blister and melt. A part of my mind wishes the fire where higher so this pain would end more quickly. The only escape now is death, and it fast approaches. The smoke is so heavy that I cough as I scream. The fire has reached my waist now, and it envelops me in its excruciating embrace. I see the horrific faces of the mob, distorted and cast in red from the fire that consumes me.

I scream with all the strength that I have, willing my voice to carry through the between spaces. “Lilith, hear me! I call to you! By my blood, you will pay for what you have done!” I cough and hack, unable to get a breath of air. I thrash my head as the tongues of fire lick ever higher, melting my flesh, binding me to the holy ash tree as though we are one. The pain is so great now that I know nothing but the feel of it engulfing me. It seems to be all that was before me and all that will ever come after. I’m being eaten alive by the ravenous fire. The agony and the rage are the whole of who I am now.

I think one last thought, unable to even catch enough breath to scream it, unable even to work my mouth to speak it as the flames lick my chin. My dying thought sears into my soul and lifts with me to the Plane of Light. “Lilith, by my blood you will be destroyed!”

Chapter 01 Double Depravity

Bluebell Kildare: May 26, 2022, Red Ages

The boy is stark naked, and dried blood streaks extend from the crushed area of his forehead down to the hollows of his eyes where it pools like small, bloody twin lakes. The lines of his ribs stick out so much I could climb them like a ladder. A stark white shaft of bone sticks out from his leg, gleaming against the bloody rupture on his thigh. A pattern of crimson, crossed lines decorates his crushed left hip. His skin is dirty and he stinks like crazy, but not from death. Not yet. More like a latrine.

Under his layer of grime is a layer of bruising, both fresh and old. His feet and toes are black. How he was able to stand on them, I can’t imagine, as it looks and smells as though they are rotting. Calluses surround his ankles and wrists. I think he must have been tied up. Another pool of blood spills from under his head, spreading wide on the asphalt road. He looks to be sixteen to eighteen years old with the slightest bits of young facial hair growing about his chin. His body sprawls out on the street with his limbs twisted at awkward angles around him.

I’m going to catch the person who did this. I want to tear his heart out with my bare hands and squeeze it into a bloody pulp.

My fantasy of mushy heart muscle squeezing through my fingers as blood drips to the ground is unsatisfactorily interrupted. Dr. Nathan Perlman leans over the boy’s hand with a pair of tweezers and carefully plucks out a piece of dark red thread snagged on a fingernail. It gets tucked away safely in a clear plastic evidence bag for future analysis. Realizing that my hands are still fisted from my little fantasy, I release them and try not to look like the vengeful murderer I momentarily wish I were.

Nathan looks up at me and says, “I’m ready to move the body. Can you step back?”

“Sure.” I remove myself from the body, giving room for the Medical Examiner and his assistant to hoist the body onto the gurney.

While the men are in mid-lift, I take the opportunity to examine the boy’s underside. With one hand squashing my hat to my head, I lean over until my hair drags on the asphalt. “Holy Plane of Fire!”

Nathan’s assistant stumbles at my exclamation and drops the boy’s leg.

Nathan’s fury overflows. “Holy shit, Patrick! Hasn’t this boy been through enough?”

Four hands jostle the body until they manage to get it on the gurney.

Nathan’s foul mood and abuse of Patrick is unusual. His typically jovial face is soured, and his smile lines twist in the wrong direction. My chest tightens at the pained look on Patrick’s face. My heart goes out to both of them, really. I can feel the anger and pain rolling off Nathan. Patrick is feeling empathy for the boy and anxiety at having made a mistake on the job. I try to push their pains aside as I have to focus on the matter at hand, and dealing with my own emotions is enough. Luckily I can’t feel everyone’s emotions all the time, just the stronger ones—unless I open up my sixth sense, that is. Then I can feel it all.

When the body is safely enshrouded in clean white linen, I turn to Nathan. “Did you see the lacerations on his back?”

Nathan grimaces. “I hate to see shit like this.”

I agree, and my heart squeezing fantasy transforms into daydreams of watching the perpetrator’s flesh slowly disintegrate in a vat of acid. Propping my hands on jean-clad hips, I observe Nathan and Patrick load the destroyed body into the hearse.

Senior Detective Tony Gambino, who stands on the sidewalk next to the street where the body was found, is spilling over with anger and determination. I can feel so many emotions at a murder scene where the angst runs high. However, the job at hand requires that I focus on the victim’s emotions.

“Gambino, can you give me a minute? I have some questions, but I need to take some time here first.” Why can’t someone hanging around here just feel guilty? My job would be so much easier.

Gambino nods his assent, and I admire how despite his abundant emotion he looks the epitome of calm concentration.

I circle the taped off crime scene, stopping here and there, closing my eyes, feeling with my sixth sense for lingering signs of magic or strong emotion. A biting breeze blows by, sending a chill up my spine. The air, independent of the breeze, is awash with emotion. Coming directly from where the body had lain, a strong, sharp pulse of pain mixed with duller threads of anguish hits me. My pulse escalates and my heart stammers as the pain and torment submerge me. I seek solace in slow, deep breaths, reminding myself that this pain doesn’t belong to me.

Another emotion tickles my consciousness a few steps from the body. It’s a small sliver of emotion, which indicates that it only lasted a small moment of time, but it’s intense. Confusion? No—it’s surprise. I walk into the cloud of surprise only to be hit by another emotion. My feet are positioned exactly where the shards of glass were scattered when it hits me. The fine hairs on the back of my neck rise as I am pummeled by a blast of shock and horror in one small space. This emotion is incongruent with the first because it comes with a different signature, a different resonance left in the air. There were definitely two parties here.

My feet carry me down the street a few steps and the emotions shift back to the first signature. I do not own these emotions, but I certainly enjoy them. I sense liberation and triumph! Not the usual feelings one would expect to be haunting the body of a severely tortured young man. I sense something else warring with the feelings of liberation and triumph. It’s a deep, primordial fear, the feeling of being prey. This boy was hunted or chased, or perhaps he was hiding from something terrible.

I stand still and further ratchet down my normal senses, turning them almost completely off so I can feel more fully with my sixth sense, searching for any hint of magic. Emotions wash over me freely. Reaching past them, I search for something deeper and more elemental.

Something is coming from where the boy’s body had lain. It’s nothing more than a light tingling in the air, low to the ground, but I can feel that it has great significance. Moving closer to stand outside the outline of the body, I crouch down and fan my hands through the air close to the ground. A slight buzz zips through my hands, telling me the boy had a magical gift. The magic is clear, but its purpose is vague. It’s something basic yet powerful, but the reverberations don’t speak to a specific gift. I sift my fingers through the prickly air. I can’t feel that any magic was used, but rather just that magic had been there in the boy. Damn it! It’s too elusive, and I don’t have much to go on.

I stand and open myself up to the world again. Gambino stands well outside the perimeter of my work area wearing a quiet, thoughtful expression. His fellow officer’s face is full of wonder. Gifted sensitive work must be new to him. Well, at least it’s curiosity and not fear that radiates from his expression. I shake off the lingering emotions and try to collect myself as I move toward them.

Most detectives work to blend in with the everyday pedestrian, but Gambino is most at home dressed in a suit and tie with gleaming dress shoes. With his suave Italian looks, he wears it well. However, it only takes drink or anger to bring out the Irish side of his heritage, causing him to turn a signature shade of cherry red. Right now bright red spots highlight his cheeks, announcing his controlled anger to those who know him well. I know him well enough, but his freckled and fresh-faced companion is new to me.

As I approach, Gambino gestures to a man in the crime scene clean-up van. Two men unload industrial-sized power washers and vacuum equipment, obviously preparing for an inefficient bout of manual labor.

“You know, Gambino, any one of a number of magic potions, powders, or spells would do the job more effectively,” I say.

Gambino grunts. “Humph. You know the precinct isn’t ready to use magic craft like that. You can’t change the world in a day, but I’m working on them.”

A familiar exasperation washes over me. It’s the twenty-first century of the Red Ages, and the Gifted have helped keep the Norms safe from Dark Vampires since year one, but still they will not get over their fear and hatred of us. It’s an old, festering wound that I try to ignore. I turn my mind back to the situation at hand.

“Okay, I’ve gotten what I can. What do you have?”

Gambino inclines his head toward his companion. “Officer Warren was exiting the Cock and Bull Tap with some guys from the force when they heard tires squeal. They saw the body when they turned the corner." Gambino indicates the corner where the Cock and Bull Tap makes its home.

I address Officer Warren. “Did you see anyone or see a car?”

Officer Warren stands at attention, eager to divulge any detail that might be required from him. “No, Ma’am. We thought someone was just driving like an idiot when we heard the tires squeal. We didn’t hear anything else. We actually didn’t see the body right away when we turned the corner because of those shrubs right there.” His sweeping hand takes in three medium-sized bottlebrush buckeye shrubs that grow a few feet up from where the body had lain, positioned between the sidewalk and the street. The dense foliage could easily have hidden a body from view.

“It couldn’t have taken more than a minute and a half for us to pass the shrubs and see him lying there. He was already dead, Ma’am. I ran to him right away and checked. No heartbeat, no breathing. The car was long gone.”

“Did anyone move the body?”

Officer Warner’s mouth tightens at the perceived slight to his professionalism. “No, Ma’am!”

I nix my next question, switching it to accommodate his pride. “Do you remember anything else?”

We seem to be on smoother ground with his next reply. “No, Ma’am. Besides that, it was quiet. No cars or pedestrians were on the street. This is the end of the Warehouse District, and there isn’t much between here and the river except the cemetery. Most first shift workers around here get off at three o’clock, and either they head over to the Tap for a drink or they head straight home. It was approximately 3:47 when we left the tap, and we found the boy at approximately 3:49.”

My lips twitch in a smile at the fact that Officer Warren knew exactly what time it was. My guess is that he’s never anything even close to approximate. “Thanks, Officer Warren. You’ve been very helpful."

Gambino turns his intelligent gaze to Warren. “Thanks for staying, Officer. That’s all I need right now. Let me know if anything, anything at all, comes to mind.”

Officer Warren dips his head slightly in deference as he accepts his dismissal. “I sure will, Detective Gambino.”

As he leaves, I see the forensic guys take down the tape and start closing up shop. I throw Gambino a look. “Did your guys find anything?”

Gambino’s eyes shift over to the team before shrugging his reply. “Some paint chips, some glass. Nothing much. Hopefully we have enough to identify the car. The boy was pretty young, I doubt even eighteen. I hope he’s on our missing persons list and we can identify him easily.”

I hope so too. “I’ll stop by tomorrow after I visit the Medical Examiner to check out his findings.”

Just then, my chimerator tightens, so I flip open the lid and see Jack’s countenance reflected in the dark, glossy surface of the black pearl. “It’s my boss,” I tell Gambino.

Gambino’s eyes flick down to my ring, but unlike most Norms, he doesn’t flinch at my use of it. A chimerator is an enchanted ring that projects the image and voice of a person trying to contact you. It also generally gives Norms the heebie-jeebies.

A smile ghosts over Gambino’s lips. “Well, I’m heading out. We’ll talk tomorrow.”

As I watch Gambino walk to his car, I say “Hola” into my chimerator, trying to sound casual. My boss, Jack Tanner, is quite possibly the sexiest man alive. He exudes danger in a quiet, stealthy sort of way. I often think I should be frightened of him—quite possibly because he’s a very old and incredibly strong Vampire. But I can’t seem to muster any fear for him, even when he’s in an obvious rage. That only makes me question my sanity. It’s a constant struggle to actually feel casual, so I usually end up settling for sounding casual.

“Hi, Blue. So what’s happening?” Jack asks.

Jack is not one for small talk, so I give him a quick rundown. “Well, an older teen boy, approximately sixteen to eighteen years old, was apparently hit by a car. Some off-duty officers were just leaving a tavern and heard tires squeal before they came upon the scene. The car was gone and the boy was dead when they reached the body less than two minutes later. Forensics picked up paint chips and glass at the scene, and the deceased has a large impact injury on his hip. The scene is located behind the Cock and Bull Tap at the intersection of the alley behind it and River Road. No other evidence was found, and no one else appeared on the street at the time of the incident. Unfortunately, I didn’t sense any magic used at the site in the perpetration of the crime.”

Jack asks, “So a standard hit and run?” He pauses a moment. “Wait, Blue, how did you see an impact injury on his hip?”

I scuff my boots on the sidewalk. “I wondered if you would catch that. This is no standard hit and run. Before this boy was killed it appears he was stripped, starved, beaten, tied up, and left to stand in his own excrement.”

“Jesus Christ,” Jack mutters.

“What’s worse is that he felt free. I got the impression of a feeling of triumph before he died. He thought he had won. And then he got hit by the damn car and his brain was bashed in.”

“For Christ’s sake,” Jack says. His swearing is an unusual development. In fact, there seems to be an exceptional level of swearing with this case thus far.

“I’m worried because this looks like a standard hit and run as far as the death goes, and no magic was used at the scene of the death. But that boy had a magical gift of some sort, and he was tortured, so I want this case. We are not going to let the boys in blue keep it for themselves.” I say this last part with a level of confidence I do not feel.

“Who’s working it from the precinct side?”

“Senior Detective Tony Gambino.”

“It will be fine then,” Jack assures me. ”Gambino doesn’t seem to mind working with SIB. I’ll file the paperwork.”

“Thanks.” I breathe a big sigh of relief, just now realizing how afraid I had been of losing the case on a technicality. The Supernatural Homicide Investigation Unit has limited jurisdiction, only working cases where one of the supernatural breeds was involved to a significant extent. We pick up cases in which death is caused by a Vampire or someone magically Gifted. Supernatural homicide hate crimes fall into our ballpark, and unfortunately, there are far too many of those happening lately. We also get involved if the death occurs due to motive relating to magical gifts or blood theft. Just a standard hit and run of a Vampire or the magically Gifted would not get us involved in a case since that’s all regular work the police could do. In this case, the death looked like a simple hit and run, but cases of torture to a magically Gifted individual have a statistically high chance of relating to the magical gift.

Jack voices a warning that brooks no argument: “Keep me updated on this one. I want daily reports. Whoever you’re dealing with is a real gentleman.” He practically spits that last bit of sarcasm out, and then his face fades from the surface of my chimerator.

I snap the lid closed and hook my thumb into my jean pocket while I take another look around. All the police are gone. The sun is dropping lower on the horizon, and I have to shield my eyes to look west. Across the street sits a beige, corrugated steel warehouse with two tall loading docks and a discreet office door. Next to it is a plain gray stucco warehouse with three steel loading docks and bright blue awnings over the office door and windows. I look northward, and more of the same nondescript warehouses line the street. Southward lies a stretch of unused land, and past that the street ends at Red Wood Cemetery and Half Moon River.

I look down at the faint stain of blood that remains on the asphalt. The subtle remnants invite me to reexamine the area with my sixth sense. With the crime scene tape gone, I decide it’s best to work from the sidewalk; otherwise, I just might end up joining the poor boy on one of Nathan’s tables. It’s never a bright idea to stand on the street while disengaging from your five senses. My sixth sense is always active, but I only catch subtle impressions of strong emotions or magic until I shut off my other senses. I can also sense souls, but it appears this boy’s soul has already passed on.

I close my eyes, pulling my awareness in and tucking it neatly away. I focus on my sixth sense, letting it grow and take the lead.

With my sixth sense fully engaged, I open my eyes again and scan the area for any magic or emotions that may linger. My eyesight is dimmed, and I see the world in a different way. What normally appears in vivid color dims to muddy shades of gray. And what I normally miss stands out in stark contrast. I think of the feelings I track as visible scents since what I see is an element that lingers in the air without distinct form. Magic feels like vibrations in the air similar to ripples through a pond.

My interpretation of souls usually comes in the form of colors and more solid characteristics that define the essence of their beings. Deeper than even personality, it is more a sense of someone’s fundamental nature that is greater than who they are in this lifetime.

I scan the street where the body had lain, looking for something previously unseen. Proceeding at an excruciatingly slow pace, I wrap my awareness around every inch of space in the vicinity. After a few minutes, I notice a faint trill of what seems like static electricity tickling the air around the bushes behind me. Like an eagle moving in for the kill, I turn and center all my focus on the depths of the greenery. A deep, thrumming magic comes from the middle of the closest bush, something extremely subtle and very old. I try to focus in, but whatever it is… it’s well hidden.

My full awareness springs to life again when I reengage my regular senses. Peering curiously at the bush, I wonder what secret it holds. I kneel and part the branches to view the shady center. When nothing is immediately obvious, I give the branches a good shake.

A glint of early evening light reflects off a metal object deep within the bush. With a fresh pair of gloves from my pack and an evidence bag at the ready, I push my arms into the bush up to my elbows and slowly feel around until my fingers run into something flat, hard, and circular. When I pull my hand out, a large, gold amulet is clenched between my slick latex-gloved fingers.

After carefully dropping the amulet in the bag and sealing it closed, I begin to examine it through the clear plastic. Its face is smooth and decorated with a beveled jade triangle. The triangle has an eye-shaped cutout in the center with a circular hole that goes all the way through the pendant. A pattern of irregular ridges and grooves radiates out from the hole like rays of sunshine. Each ridge has a series of tiny, white beads dotting its edge at irregular intervals. A plain golden chain is threaded through the pendant, and it holds the greatest treasure of all: a small, dark red thread caught up in the clasp—a thread of exactly the same color red as the thread that had been snagged on the boy’s nail. The boy was naked, so where did this thread come from—or rather whom did this thread come from?

I put the evidence bag in my pack, heft it to my shoulders over my black leather vest, and hurry toward the Cock and Bull Tap.

Chapter 02 Slipped at the Cock and Bull Tap

Bluebell Kildare: May 26, 2022, Red Ages

The Cock and Bull Tap, otherwise known as The Cock and Bull Inn and Guest House by those with very long memories, sits on what used to be the main path out of Crimson Hollow. Of old, those passing over the Smoky Mountains by carriage would stay in the inn the night before their trip or seek its comforting embrace on the first day of their return. That old path has long been paved over, and Cock and Bull’s days of being an inn all but forgotten by most Crimson Hollow residents. The distinguished stone building sits behind a deep corner yard with its back against the alley. Between two tall posts hangs a huge, gleaming white sign painted with a red rooster and a blue bull in vivid, sweeping brushstrokes to welcome patrons. Leaded glass sidelights flank the heavy carved and paneled front door. I wrap my hand around one of the ornate iron handles and heave the door open.

Firefly lanterns cast a soft glow on the tavern’s interior. The tiny flakes of quartz set alight by magic swirl rapidly inside the lanterns, glowing and twinkling. The gentle light reflects off the heavily oiled and waxed oak furniture. Scanning the crowd, I see mostly hard-working men still dressed in their work uniforms or jeans and flannels. Most are gathered in small groups at the long trestle tables, but a few lonely souls sit in isolation on stools facing the bar.

Dozens of pairs of eyes pierce my back as I move my long-limbed body toward the bar. I feel a few waves of lust flowing toward me from the bar patrons like a crimson breeze, but even more waves are filled with the dark and heavy emotions of disgust and hate and the sharpness of fear. Someone murmurs “Aberrant” under his breath, referring to my being Gifted. My back stiffens at the insult.

You can only tell when a person is Gifted if their mark shows. My mark is twofold. I have unnaturally blue eyes that could conceivably pass for simply extra vivid, but the streak of blue running through my hair is unmistakable. I don’t have time to defend my pride today, so I just keep my chin up and proceed with strong strides.

When I arrive at the empty side of the bar, I make sure my Glock is visible to any onlookers by pushing my vest back as I retrieve my ID. A low murmur rolls through the crowd, telling me the gun is noticed. Good.

The bartender approaches, and I present my ID, which reads “Supernatural Investigation Bureau (SIB), Homicide Unit, Inspector Bluebell Kildare.” He extends his large hand and introduces himself. “Hello, Inspector Kildare. I’m Steve Jamison. That’s really awful, what happened to that boy out there. Some of the guys here told me what they saw on their way in. I’m happy to help anyway I can.”

Well, he’s congenial enough, and fortunately he doesn’t seem to be a breedist. Steve stands medium height with a stocky physique and a kind face. He’s built well enough to keep people in line and seems empathetic enough to listen to their sorrows. I take all this in while his warm hand envelops mine in a firm handshake.

“Thanks, Steve. I’d like to ask a few questions. It should just take a moment.”

Steve tosses his bar rag in a pail behind the counter and turns his earnest face and ready ears to me. Taking the cue, I start drilling into my list of questions. “Now, the incident occurred at 3:47 p.m. Do you recall anyone leaving the bar shortly before then?”

Steve considers a minute and then shakes his head. “Not that I recall. The first shift around here ends at three o’clock. Most of the crowd is just coming in around then, and the place fills up pretty fast. Some of the police officers who have really early shifts show up around two o’clock and usually only have a drink or two before heading home. The officers who found him were the first to leave today. We do have a few lushes who come in with the early lunch crowd, but they make themselves scarce before the police officers start arriving.”

My eyes skim over the room, searching for a point of reference. I spy the perfect thing on a shelf behind the bar. Pointing at a hand-carved and painted rooster, I ask, “Did you see anyone in here today wearing an article of clothing that just about matched that color red?”

Steve’s gaze finds the rooster with a surprised look. “Yeah, I sure did! There was an older guy wearing a red cloak. He left out the side door just before you came in.”

My head snaps back to Steve as his casual words register. Blast it! A potential murder suspect was inside the bar while we were processing the body just outside!

I snatch up my ID and run out the side door with my pack jostling on my back. One sweeping look across the parking lot tells me none of the cars looks occupied. I hope the man is still nearby. Flipping open my phone, I dial Gambino. He answers on the first ring.

Hoping he is still close by, I say “Gambino, a man wearing a cloak that could match the thread found in the boy’s fingernail was seen leaving the Cock and Bull Tap a few minutes ago. I’m searching the vicinity right now.”

Gambino doesn’t miss a beat. “On my way.”

Holstering my phone and unholstering my Glock in one smooth motion, I step out to the street. It looks still with nothing to indicate which direction I should take. I follow my gut and run to the right, set on checking out the entire block anyway. At the first intersection, I check all directions but see nothing. I round the corner and run down toward the end of that side of the block with my boots clicking loudly on the sidewalk with each step. Cripes! I need rubber sole boots if I am ever going to sneak up on someone!

When I’m almost to the second corner, my eye catches a flash of red disappearing behind a warehouse to my right. I cut across the lawn and run between two warehouses toward the center of the block. Just before passing beyond the shelter of the warehouses on either side, I stop. Peering behind them as much as possible, I assess my options. The warehouse on my right has stacks of empty pallets in the shipping yard. The warehouse on my left has an empty yard with only one large, stationary eighteen wheeler. Regardless of which side he’s on, it’s clear I will be wide open and an easy target while trying to reach either the truck or the pallets. I pull out my sixth sense, looking for a trace of a soul to guide me, but I feel nothing. Shoot! Where’s a little help when a girl needs it?

With my gun pointed ahead, I rush around the corner to the right. I place my back to the warehouse, feeling the rough bricks scrape my back through my thin shirt and vest. My thrashing heart feels ready to burst in my chest. I strain my eyes, looking for the smallest movement. My sixth sense is still at high alert, and I feel a slight tug from the left. Turning in that direction, I notice a little spot of red under the truck. As soon as I swing my gun toward it, a loud noise blasts my eardrums. Boom! Boom! Chips of brick fly around me as two bullets narrowly miss my head.

I aim my gun at the red spot and shoot as I rush to the first stack of pallets opposite the truck. When I’m halfway there, I hear return fire. Boom! Boom! Boom! Three shots echo off the buildings. I dive through the air as the bullets fly around me. Curling into a ball, I land, rolling head over foot, but my backpack brings me to a quick stop. Just barely behind the pallets, I jump up and sideways to take cover. Holy smokes, that was close!

Ignoring my scratches and bruises, I peer around the right side of the pallet stack. I want to get this guy so bad I can taste it. From this angle, I can see more of the deep red cloak peeking out from behind the rear tires of the truck. I crouch and try to identify the shooter, but all I can see is the truck’s shadow and the red fabric.

I fire two more shots under the truck. One bullet ricochets off the bumper, and the other tears a hole in one tire close to the spot of red. A sharp hiss fills the air, and the truck sinks slightly.

I pull several pallets off the top of the pile I’m hiding behind and position them on their sides in front of me to afford better protection. I aim my gun under the truck and shout, “Supernatural Investigation Bureau! Come out with your hands up!”

Three shots whizz toward me, tearing up the pallets with splinters of coarse wood flying in all directions. I crouch down again, ready to aim carefully this time, but as I peer across the space to the truck, I see Gambino coming from behind the truck with two officers following him. I quickly shoot two more tires on the right side of the truck, and the hisses tell me I aimed true. Unfortunately, the semi has eighteen wheels, so three flat tires lack the desired effect.

Gambino has his gun unholstered and aimed at the red spot. Hoping to distract the perpetrator, I fire some shots wide into the ground to the right of the truck. The man returns one oddly wild shot back at me. It misses the pallet stack entirely. I aim for two more tires toward the rear, thinking that if I can get the back of the truck lowered, the man will be crushed or at least trapped.

Gambino yells, “Come out with your hands up!”

I watch the spot of red cloth as Gambino gets closer. Peering through my gun sight, I aim for another tire, but all of the remaining tires are behind the ones I’ve already shot. Gambino will have to finish the job. Right now he’s even with the front set of tires, but obviously he cannot crouch down to reach the man or he might come back up with a face full of bullets. If the man wanted to, he could easily shoot Gambino’s foot.

After waiting a few tense seconds for the shooter to willingly surrender, Gambino gestures his men forward and they move in closer. Ignoring the wheels now, I fire two more carefully aimed shots, and I’m rewarded by the man’s scream of surprise and agony. Gambino takes the opportunity to dive under the truck, and at the same time I see the spot of red disappear.

I hear Gambino yell, “What in the Plane of Fire? He’s gone!”

His companions surround the truck from both directions. One of them checks in the back of the truck and another checks underneath, but both apparently find the area empty as well. Gambino climbs up the truck between the cab and trailer to inspect the top. I don’t know how he thinks the man could have gotten up there. As he looks in the cab, another futile move, I begin to walk toward the scene, my gun still at the ready. I check the top of the warehouse and quickly sweep the entire area with my sixth sense, but I find nothing. Gambino gets out of the cab and holsters his gun.

“What happened?” I ask when I reach Gambino.

Gambino blows out a deep breath and looks at the truck. Then he shakes his head. “I know you hit him. He screamed, and I dove under the truck, but there was nothing there. It was just empty, not even a drop of blood! It’s like he was a ghost.” Gambino says this last bit while raising an eyebrow.

I sigh. Sometimes Norms just can’t handle things they can’t rationalize. “Maybe it was like a ghost,” I respond, “but ghosts can’t actually fire bullets, and I assure you those bullets were real.”

“Did you get a look at him?”

I frown. “Unfortunately not. All I saw was a glimpse of red cloak trailing behind him as he ran between the warehouses. He must have dived under the truck, but I guessed he was behind the pallets, so I went that way.” After I give Gambino the rest of the details, he and his men continue to search the neighborhood just in case the man reappears. I hoof it back to the Cock and Bull Tap to finish my conversation with my friend Steve.

Still cursing to myself for being a minute too late, I reenter the bar and approach Steve. He’s frowning at my obvious disappointment. “We heard gunfire, but it doesn’t look like you got him. Did anyone get hit?”

I shake my head. “The suspect probably got one superficial wound, but he got away from us. So have you ever seen him here before?”

Steve absently wipes down the bar as he answers, “Nope. I’ve never seen him before. We don’t usually get his kind here. This is a working man’s bar, and he was dressed in fancy trousers and a white dress shirt with a tie. He didn’t even order a drink. I saw him snap open his phone and head into the bathroom. I assumed he was just looking for a quiet place to make a call. He left out the side door, and you walked in the front door right after.” Steve pauses to frown for a moment before adding, “I don’t think he saw you coming. I think it was just poor timing.”

I put my palms on the bar. “What did he look like? Did he have any distinguishing features or marks?”

Steve puts his thumb under his chin and thinks for a minute. “He was on the tall side, about six foot. He had a full beard and mustache, neatly trimmed. His face was narrow with a long, prominent nose.”

“What color were his eyes and hair?”

Steve shifts his weight and frowns. “I can’t say about his hair. He was wearing the hood on his cloak so I’m not sure I saw his hair. But his beard was a very dark brown, maybe black, with some gray in it. His eyebrows were the same and real heavy, you know. His eyes were either a dark brown or a black. I’m guessing he was fortyish or early fifties.” Steve glances at the firefly lanterns. “The lights are pretty low in here.”

I agree with Steve that the ambiance is an issue and hand him my card. “If you remember anything else, please give me a call.”

Steve says sincerely, “I sure will. Good luck with this.”

I thank Steve and leave, feeling the lust, fear, and hatred of dozens of strangers follow me out the door.

Chapter 03 The Wild Garden Grows

Bluebell Kildare: May 26, 2022, Red Ages

I can’t believe the perp got away twice! I adjust the heat in the car to ward off the evening chill, and my stomach grumbles. It’s been a long day, and I’m too exhausted to cook. The Paco’s Loco Tacos sign on my right lures me in. Not for the first time, I wonder if the tacos are crazy, if Paco is crazy, or if we are crazy for buying them. Well, I personally think a touch of crazy is just one of the spices of life.

My car seems to have a life of its own when I pull up to Maud’s house. I hadn’t even consciously decided to come here, but today just royally sucked, and Maud is my touchstone. The neighborhood is pretty with its modest yet well-kept homes and old-growth trees lining the street. A covered front porch sweeps across Maud’s small yellow Cape Cod, offering cool shade and ample breeze in the warm mountain afternoons. Her backyard is contained in a whitewash picket fence. I say contained because it is a tangled, wild land with flowering shrubs overhanging the fence, and wildflowers, grasses, and weeds peaking between the pickets. Snarled, riotous, and overtaken with native species, her backyard looks about to leap the fence and merge with the rest of the great outdoors.

It used to be a wonderland back there until Maud’s husband, William, died two years ago. A glow stone foot path twined around a turtle pond, a bulb garden, and a vegetable patch, all interspersed with beautiful flowering plants and culminating in a wooden bench hanging from an arbor shaded with flowering vines. William built the swing by hand for Maud for their last anniversary. I don’t think Maud has tended the back garden once in these last two years. But the front yard is neat as a pin with a bright bed of mixed zinnia lining the walk this year. I love the zinnia because they match Maud’s personality—and her hair.

Maud opens the door, true to form in all her wild colored glory. Her hair is bright fuchsia today, cut shoulder length and piled in a bouffant style. It lies around her tiny face like a fluffy, pink cotton candy cloud. She’s wearing a sage green linen tunic and pant set with three long necklaces in a medley of pink crystal. Maud has large, green eyes framed in smile lines and a wide, vivacious grin. She is petite and thin but wiry and full of energy. Today she has a little glint of pink in her cheeks and a healthy glow.

I smile and hug her with one arm while handing her the tacos with the other. Maud is my dearest friend. We really are like family to each other, now more than ever since William passed. Maud used to visit the orphanage where I grew up to read to us children every day. The joy her arrival at the orphanage inspired in me knew no bounds. More memories, unbidden and unwanted, take hold of my mind. Painful memories: cruel taunts, violence, unending loneliness. I force these memories away and focus on Maud instead. She has always been a bright spot in my days.

Once when I was little, in my naïveté, I asked Maud if she would be my mom. She said she would love to, but she couldn’t on account of William. He believed that his job was too dangerous for him to be a father. I didn’t really understand it then, and I don’t really understand it now. It seems a huge waste because Maud so wanted a child and I so wanted a mother, but I guess we sort of have each other anyway. I can’t really hate William too much because it was his reference letter that helped me get my job just before he passed. I try to let those bitter feelings slip away. Maud was there every afternoon for me while I was growing up, and now I try to visit her as much as I can since William is gone. Maud and me, we are quite a pair.

“Blue, come on in!” Maud ushers me into the kitchen. “Do you want some iced tea?”

“I’d love some.” I swing my pack down onto the floor by the kitchen table. This spot gives the best view of the backyard jungle through the sliding glass doors.

As Maud pours a beverage out of her curvy glass pitcher, she informs me, “It has raspberries today with a touch of lemon.”

“Mmm,” I murmur when I taste it. “It’s delicious.” Maud never offers much to eat, thank goodness. Cooking is not in her wheelhouse, but she sure knows her southern beverages.

Maud sets the table and opens up the bag of Paco’s Loco Tacos. I could just refer to them as tacos, but the name is too fun, so I always say the whole thing in my head. Maud finally settles down at the table across from me and asks, “So, how has your day been?”

Telling her about the shootout will only scare her. I blow out a deep sigh. “I got a new case today, and when I entered a bar to question someone, I was called an Aberrant. Then on my drive back this way, I passed a crowd of people downtown with signs protesting “Aberrations” and ”bloodsuckers.” What do they expect us to do? Are they trying to rile the masses to burn us as Witches like they did before the Red Ages? Have humans always been this prejudiced against the Gifted?”

Wow, I had no idea I had all that bottled up in me. Maybe I need something stronger than tea!

Maud looks sad. “Maybe you need some liquor in that tea?”

I burst out laughing while in the middle of a sip of tea, and it turns into a graceless coughing episode. Maud slaps my back until my throat clears. “I was just thinking that! But no, I’m fine.” Maybe one day I’ll tell her that slapping someone’s back while they cough actually makes it worse. Really, I’ll probably never tell her that.

Maud looks at me with a face dressed in sadness. “When I was a young girl, it was pretty much as it is now, only maybe not quite so bad. I think the Dilectus Deo are stirring the pot for a lot of folks. Some Norms just have a lot of gall. They use firefly lanterns when they need to see in the dark, and herbal potions and charms have long proven superior to medication, but they somehow think they are better than the Gifted. They don’t hesitate to accept a Vampire into the army, but goodness knows one will never be promoted up the ranks. It is fear, Blue. Even after the Gifted helped protect us during the worst of the Red Ages and the Daylight Vampires eventually saved our butts, many of us Norms are just plain old afraid of any being who is stronger than we are.”

I take another careful sip of tea and ponder this while watching the beads of condensation roll down my glass. Maud is a Norm, but William had been Gifted. They had been a mixed breed couple, so she certainly understands prejudice. The eternal wave of hate just never stops.

Finally I say what’s really bothering me, choosing my words carefully. “Maud, you would not believe this poor boy’s body we found. He was Gifted. I can’t give you details, but someone did terrible things to him. I’m hoping I don’t find out this was a hate crime.”

“Ugh,” Maud grunts, throwing her hands up in the air. “You are just like William, spending your days mired in the horrors of man.” She shakes her finger at me. “Just keep in mind that you see only the worst. There are many good, loving people moving about their lives peacefully that you never run into.”

“I know. Those are the people I’m protecting when I find these murderous idiots. I do it with them in mind.”

“Yes,” Maud says as she glances at her patio door, “and speaking of idiots, I need to tell you about my neighbor Harry Pickets.”

“Harry? Isn’t he the widower who lives right across your backyard?”

“He sure is,” Maud confirms as she stands up and glances out her sliding glass doors again before pacing around her little kitchen. The color on her cheeks heightens, making it obvious this is the reason for her healthy glow.

Maud alternates between opening her mouth to talk and pinching it closed, all while her eyes shine vibrantly. Finally, the words start spilling out. “Yesterday, out of nowhere, I hear a knock on the door. I had just come home from the salon, you know, and I wasn’t expecting visitors.”

I interject, “Your hair looks lovely today, by the way.”

Maud absently pats her hair as she paces. “Thank you, dear. Anyway, there is this man standing on the porch smiling at me with a wheelbarrow full of gardening tools behind him. I asked him if I could help him. I figured he was a neighbor needing to borrow a tool. He said that he worked for Harry. He told me that Harry sent him over to see if I wanted some work done in my garden!” She throws her arms up in exasperation. “Can you believe that? How insulting. As if I couldn’t manage my own garden if I’d a mind to.”

Maud is nearly rustling up a whirlwind in the kitchen now with the rate of her pacing, and I am enthralled by the drama.

“So what did you say?”

Maud stops and pivots toward me as she covers her mouth as though she’s afraid to say. “I was honestly speechless for a moment. Then I told him very sweetly that I appreciated the offer, but I didn’t need his help. I asked him if he could give something to Harry for me to express my gratitude. He said sure. So I gave him my beautician’s card and my coupon for fifty percent off the next haircut.”

I puzzle on this for a minute. “But Maud, Harry is bald, isn’t he?”

Maud smiles her wide, mischievous smile. “Exactly!”

An image rises to my mind of Harry standing at his front door, scratching his bald head with one hand and staring uncertainly at the haircut coupon he holds in the other. “Hairless Harry Pickets,” I chuckle. Maud laughs along with me. She laughs so hard she snorts. Then we both laugh until our faces hurt and I’m afraid I might pee my pants.

“Oh Maud,” I say. “You are a jewel, and you shine even brighter than your hair.”

Maud beams as she fluffs her hair. Then she pats my hand before finally opening one of Paco’s Loco Tacos.

Chapter 04 Hidden Treasures

Bluebell Kildare: May 26, 2022, Red Ages

I slip as quietly as I can through the bell tower door. The stone stairwell would be completely dark if not for the tall, narrow windows decorating each landing. I start the six-floor ascent to my familiar childhood hideout. The absent railing makes the winding stairway treacherous in the dim light. I trail my finger along the stone walls, enjoying the rough bumps and grooves as I move steadily upward. On the last landing, I climb a set of slim, wooden ladder rungs until my head bumps against a solid object. Shoving the hatch upward, I boost myself onto the wooden floor and stand to look around. The bell room has a stone half wall topped with four arches in keystone construction, letting in the cool air and the beautiful night sky. The roof is made of heavy oak timbers reaching up further to steeple heights. An elaborate brass bell works hangs from the timbers with the grand bell hanging in the center and extending down so that passersby can see it through the arches.

I set my pack down by the south wall and plop on the floor next to it. The corner is in deep shadow, so my fingers work blindly, counting the stones in the wall from the corner. One, two up from the floor and one, two, three to the right. I wedge my fingers around the stone and gently shimmy it out. It’s more difficult than I remember now that I’ve grown and my fingers are larger. I deposit the amulet in an empty crevice behind the stone just to the right of the one I removed and replace the stone carefully. Even if someone were to remove the loose stone, they would not immediately see the evidence bag.

I stand and heft the pack to my shoulder, then take a moment to enjoy the peace of the evening. The stars are out tonight, though somewhat faded by the light pollution of the city. The city lights are sprinkled all around, concentrating in downtown Crimson Hollow. The lights spread out and up the mountains on all sides and dip down, disappearing between Black Mountain and Thunderhead Mountain in Shroud Valley. I can see the parapet surrounding the tar and pebble roof of the building I live in next door. There are lights on in my friend Alexis’ apartment, but my windows are dark. Large, winged gargoyles decorate each corner of the roof as though standing guard against some unseen enemy. I take a couple of deep breaths of cool evening air, letting the stress of the day flow out, and head back downstairs.

When I reach the bottom landing, I gingerly open the door leading back into the church. No matter, though, because Father O’Brennen catches me anyway.

“There you are, Bluebell! I thought I heard a mouse in my bell tower!”

“You could hear me?”

Father O’Brennen chuckles. “No, I saw you slip through the door on your way up.”

“Oh.” I smile. “I didn’t want to disturb you.”

I’ve known Father O’Brennen since my orphanage days. We used to come here on Sundays for church. I’ve never been very religious, so I would always sneak away from the housemothers before the sermon and spend the hour in the bell tower, pretending it was my very own home.

“You’re not disturbing me at all,” Father O’Brennen says. “Why don’t you join me? I was just getting a snack in the kitchen. You can tell me how your apartment is doing.”

The building next door is a defunct school belonging to the church. It’s mostly used for storage space now, except for the top floor where the nuns’ living quarters used to be. Some renovations have been done to make it suitable for a few modern apartments. When I was of age and ready to move out of the orphanage, Father O’Brennen offered one of the apartments to me and let me live there rent-free until I found my first job.

Well, I suppose, there is no polite way to get out of a conversation with Father O’Brennen, so I decide to make the most of it. I need some answers from him anyway. “Do you happen to have any cookies left over from the church ladies?”

Father O’Brennen chuckles again. “That’s exactly what I was after myself.”

We walk down the hall to the roomy kitchen. It has beige tile counters, dark oak cabinets, and a slate floor. It’s lit by electricity as this is holy ground, so no magic works here. Father O’Brennen pulls two glasses out of the cabinet and fills them with milk from a pretty glass decanter. Then he fills two plates with fresh gingersnaps, bringing the container of cookies with him. I arrange the plates and the milk on the beige tile counter outfitted with stools for impromptu meals. I feel as though we’re sneaking a forbidden midnight snack.

Father O’Brennen stands medium height with deep-set, dark gray eyes. His salt and pepper hair is mostly salt now, and he has a shiny spot on the top of his head that I can only see when he leans forward. He’s quick to laugh but otherwise has a quiet, wise look about him. I do like Father O’Brennen, and he has always been particularly kind to me. I’m just not a fan of God since he has never gone out of his way to make my life easy. So I usually avoid the kind of deep conversation with Father O’Brennen that I’m about to embark on. However, I am twenty-three now, and it’s high time I get some answers about my family.

“How’s your apartment doing?” Father O’Brennen asks.

“It’s fine. It kept me warm all winter and I expect it will keep me warm all summer as well,” I say with a grin.

Father O’Brennen leans back and laughs a deep, throaty laugh. “Well, that’s what the terrace is for.”

I pause for a moment and crunch on a gingersnap, thinking of how best to approach the topic of my family with him. Then I ask, “Father, I think you told me once that you knew both of my parents, didn’t you?”

“I did, certainly. They were wonderful people.”

“You were also the one who brought me to the orphanage.”

Father O’Brennen nods in confirmation.

“Well, the housemothers told me my parents were killed by Dark Vampires. Several of the children were orphaned in the same manner, so it wasn’t unusual. But none of the other children still had family alive. I know this because the mothers told them. But when I tried to ask about my grandparents, they told me that it was a story best left till I was older. Every time I tried, they shut me down. Well, I’m twenty-three now. I’ve been on my own for five years. For the last two years I’ve been capturing murderers for a living. So I think I’m old enough to know now, and I’m asking you this time.”

Father O’Brennen, sober-faced now, heaves a great sigh. “I guess you are old enough.”

“Are my grandparents still alive?”

Father O’Brennen nods with a sad look and the strong feeling of empathy flowing from him. “Yes, as far as I know. They used to be parishioners of mine, but they haven’t been for quite some time now. The last I heard they were all still living, but that was many years past.”

I wince at this news even though it’s what I expected. I look to the side to blink back the tears. It is not that I was alone in the world; it is that I was unwanted. I let the cold reality seep into me. I ask through the thickening of my throat, “Do you know why they didn’t take me in when my parents died?”

Father O’Brennen sighs again and speaks sadly. “Your grandparents were very devout people, but… they were afraid of the Gifted. When your mother’s gift started to show, her parents, due to the nature of her gift, felt it was unholy, and they disowned her. Your father asked his parents to help, and in the course of doing so, he revealed that he himself was Gifted. His parents threw him out as well. I tried to counsel your grandparents that God doesn’t hate, and he loves all his children. But they saw the gifts as an unholy thing and an affront to God.”

My sadness turns to anger at the cruelty of my grandparents. “So both my parents were made homeless when they were just teenagers?”

He nods before elaborating. “Your parents clung together during this hard time, and a very strong love grew between them. I married them myself as soon as they were of age. After your parents died, I approached both sets of your grandparents to ask them if they would take you in. Your grandmother on your mother’s side seemed willing to relent. She did grieve for your mother. But your grandfather, her husband, would not. When I went to talk to your father’s parents, I knew by the way they talked about your parents, who hadn’t even been buried yet, that it would be wrong for me to allow you to stay in that house. I’m afraid you would have come to great harm.

“After that, neither set of your grandparents came to the church anymore. They knew in no uncertain terms that I felt their choices were wrong. I’m afraid to say that I don’t think either set of your grandparents ever came to repent over their deeds, except perhaps your maternal grandmother.”

At these words, I feel a rush of rage at those faceless people for rejecting me and my parents over their antiquated beliefs. Then I think about how my parents must have felt to have known their love and then lost it.

I ask, “What were my parents’ gifts?”

Father O’Brennen gets up and pours me some more milk, obviously needing the time to consider his words. “Well,” he says, “your mother was able to see ghosts, the souls of those who have died but have not yet passed on. She could see them when they were passing or if they lingered. She was a very religious woman, your mother. I would have thought that because of the behavior of her parents, she would have cast the Church aside, but even as her gift separated her from her parents, it strengthened her connection with God. She couldn’t deny what she saw with her own eyes. She saw souls passing to the Plane of Light and occasionally in the other direction.” Father O’Brennen looks down at the floor with that last statement.

This shocks me. “She saw souls going to the Plane of Fire?” I realize my mouth is gaping again.

“Yes. She said she could, and I believe her. Now, your father was a Gifted Healer. He could direct his energy to heal the flesh. Whenever there was a patient who was particularly sick and your father thought they might not make it, your mother would go with him. She said it was so she could be sure their soul made it safely to the other side.”

The debate the prejudiced Norms always use is that if gifts were from God, magic would be able to exist on holy ground. Since it can’t, they believe that it must be evil. “So, what do you think of Gifted people, Father? Do you think the gifts are from God or that they’re evil?”

Father O’Brennen looks at me kindly and asks, “Has anyone ever told you the story about your birth?”

I shake my head no, feeling as though something momentous is about to be revealed.

Father O’Brennen takes a deep breath and looks me directly in the eyes as if to give me strength and says, “Bluebell Kildare, you were stillborn, born with the umbilical cord wrapped around your neck. You were as blue as a bluebell, so I’ve been told. The midwife pronounced you dead and handed you to your mother. Your mother cried and said she could see your soul in the room.

“Your father rejected your death. He grabbed you from your mother and performed infant CPR on you. He sent healing energy into you through his hands. Your mother cried for you and called you, trying to get you to come back. She said that your soul drifted back into your body just a moment before you opened your lungs on your own and wailed.”

Father O’Brennen pauses for a moment then says, “You know, even Healers are not supposed to be able to breathe life back into the dead. I don’t know if it was your mother calling for you or your father’s healing that brought you back. Perhaps it was a combination of both.”

I did know that Healers weren’t supposed to be able to bring life back to the dead. I’m flabbergasted and can’t seem to speak due to the thoughts racing through my head. I was dead and brought back to life! My parents obviously loved me to reject my death so strongly. That thought is a treasure I will always hold on to. I fold my hands on the counter, drop my forehead to my hands, and close my eyes. I let that thought settle. My parents really loved me. My parents truly loved me! After a minute of letting that soak in, I lift my head again and wait for the rest of the story.

Father O’Brennen says, “Now, I wasn’t in that room, and even if I had been, I wouldn’t have seen your soul drifting toward the Plane of Light and then reversing direction. Nor would I have seen healing magic flow through your father’s hands into your body, restoring your life. But you were dead, and now you are alive. That I would have seen. When your grandparents heard about this, they assumed it was greater evidence of the evil nature of gifts. But I don’t believe that a soul would be excused from the Plane of Light without our Father’s permission. I believe all gifts are from God, and I must assume that he approved of the use of your parents’ gifts on that day.”

Father O’Brennen pauses for a moment and offers me some more cookies. I take them, mostly to keep myself busy while my brain processes all of this. This is more information than I’d ever heard about my parents, and I treasure every word.

Then Father O’Brennen says, “That’s not the only reason why I feel gifts can be used with the blessing of God. What have you been told about the day your parents died?”

I stand up, stretch, and walk to the window. I tell him, and my own words seem to echo hollowly in the kitchen as if in accord with the loneliness I feel inside. “I was told that a group of Dark Vampires came upon them in an alley when they were on their way home. I was told that they were killed in bloodlust.”

“Yes, that is true, but that is not the whole tale.”

I lean my back against the window and bow my head, unable to watch Father O’Brennen tell this story anymore because the emotions I feel are already too intense. “I’d like to know what you know.”

Father O’Brennen asks, “Did you know you were with them that day?”

“No,” I murmur. I’m almost beyond surprise at this point. I suppose I might be in a bit of shock.

He continues with his tale—my tale, really. “You were barely three years old and wrapped in a carrier on your mother’s back. It was very cold that night, so she had thrown a blanket over your head. Your father had been caring for an elderly woman, and because of her age, your mother accompanied him. So there you all were, walking home late at night through an alley. When the Dark Vampires attacked your parents, they pushed your parents against some buildings in the alley. Your mother landed in a corner where two buildings joined, so you were protected from the impact. Your parents were dead in seconds, but the corner you were wedged in kept you out of sight for a moment. A Daylight Vampire who was hunting these Dark Vampires that night came upon the alley just as the Dark Vampires were feeding on your parents. You started crying, and one of the Dark Vampires stopped his feeding, pulled your mother away from the corner, and uncovered you.

“The Daylight Vampire had just approached and was about to intercede when the entire alley filled with a bright light. The Dark Vampires shrunk from the light, and their skin sizzled and burned black as though touched by the sun. They tried to run away, but the one who had killed your mother was too close to the light and instantly turned to ash. The Daylight Vampire picked you up and brought you to me.”

Father O’Brennen pauses for a moment and then drops the real bomb. “He told me that the bright light that drove the Dark Vampires off and killed one of them was emanating from inside of you.”

I am astounded. I peer at him sharply to assess his truthfulness before remembering who he is. The tale is just so outrageous that I can hardly believe it.

He forges on. “The light coming from you burnt the Dark Vampires like they burn when they touch holy ground or when they’re exposed to the sun. When Daylight Vampires give into bloodlust and become Dark Vampires, Lilith calls their soul to her, and their bodies are simply unholy shells of who they were. Lilith operates them like puppets filled with the endless need for blood and death. Since all good is gone from them and only evil remains, they cannot stand the touch of that which is pure, good, and holy. Your gift forced them back and even killed one of them. So I believe that your gift must be a gift from God.”

“You think my aura holds my gift? And that’s what hurt and killed the Dark Vampires?”

Father O’Brennen says, “I don’t believe that an aura is just some miscellaneous light wavering on the outside of your skin, Bluebell. I believe that an aura is the part of your soul that extends beyond the boundaries of your skin. I believe the light from your soul hurt and killed them.”

I stand now and pace the kitchen in front of the window. So many thoughts are swirling in my mind. “But what of this Daylight Vampire who saved me? He wasn’t burned. So then it follows that Daylight Vampires aren’t evil, right?”

Father O’Brennen answers as though he has pondered this very question for untold hours. “My heart tells me no. I believe that Lilith has her mark on Daylight Vampires to entice them to do evil and give into their bloodlust. I don’t think that the Father will allow her to truly claim them until they actually do evil. Like all creatures that still have souls, they have the will to choose. It’s more difficult for them, and it takes more willpower, certainly. They can drink blood from people in a humane way by keeping their bloodlust under control and getting consent. I don’t believe it is a sin when the blood is freely given. After all, they require sustenance just as you and I do. It’s when they give into their bloodlust by killing during the process that they do evil. When they do give in to their bloodlust, they are choosing their path, just like you can choose your path and you could do evil or I could do evil.”

I respond heatedly, “Well, it’s clearly unfair that they can’t die without Lilith claiming them. They have no chance to go to the Plane of Light. Their only choices are to live here endlessly, denying their bloodlust, or to give in and go to the Plane of Fire. They have to be good for so much longer than we do with so much greater temptation!”

Father O’Brennen affirms my feelings. “I know,” he says. “I don’t have all the answers, Bluebell. I wish I did. Just remember that as long as Daylight Vampires are able to walk in the sun, they’re defying Lilith’s enticement, so in my opinion, all Daylight Vampires are to be respected in that regard.”

Just when I feel good and angry at Father O’Brennen again for representing a God who gives inequitable graces, he goes and says something that makes me see him as human and fallible and wise all at the same time. I feel shame for my outburst now, and I think about what he said as I help him clean up our plates.

As I bid him goodnight, I swallow back the heavy emotion I feel thickening my voice and glistening in my eyes. “Thank you, Father O’Brennen. Tonight you gave me more knowledge about my parents and my own history than I’ve ever had before.” He smiles at me and grips my forearms in a warm embrace. I turn and walk the short way home.

Chapter 05 Of Smoke and Shadow

Bluebell Kildare: May 27, 2022, Red Ages

I draw back the lilac shower curtain that surrounds my clawfoot tub and step out onto yesterday’s towel. Nuns aren’t exactly big on vanity, so I’m grateful they installed a mirror when they renovated the space. I take the corner of the towel I’m wearing and wipe the fog off the gold baroque mirror to brush my teeth. My teeth are smallish and straight, and I like to keep them a nice, bright white. My face is framed with dark brown hair that looks black when damp except for the one-inch wide blue lock that hangs from my forehead. It’s a pale blue, almost like a tinted white. When I was young, I tried to dye it dark brown like the rest of my hair, but the color wouldn’t take. It remained stubbornly blue. Sigh. At least it matches my eyes.

My eyes are vivid blue, the color of bluebells, or so I’ve been told. I always thought that was why I was named Bluebell, not because I turned blue when I died at birth.

As I assess my reflection, the bathroom light flashes on and off and on again. I hear a roll of thunder and wonder if the apartment will lose power today. A good storm is brewing. I shake off my ruefulness and decide to stick with the original story of my name. I glance at the birthmark on my shoulder in the mirror and release a deep sigh as I turn away. On my way to the bedroom, I peek out at the terrace and see an ominously dark sky dropping sheets of rain. Well, it’s going to be a dreary day.

I enter my bedroom to dress. Calling it a “room” is perhaps giving it grander airs than it deserves. It’s more of a three-walled nook or an alcove for the bed. Sheer curtains do their best to separate it from the living room. It does have a nice, long closet running the length of one wall, which I barely fill with my meager wardrobe. My apartment is small, but it’s decorated nicely in bright jewel tones, and it’s my first real home.

Sitting on the edge of the comforter, I start rubbing a mixture of coconut oil, lavender, and mint on my skin. I rarely wear make-up, so this is the whole of my beauty routine. My phone, which is still sitting on my nightstand, interrupts my calm with an annoying ring. I give it the evil eye, but it ignores me completely and keeps on ringing. I answer it begrudgingly with my oil-free left hand.

“Hello?”

“Blue? This is Jack.” His deep voice washes through me with all the richness of a fine brandy.

“Jack, I know it’s you, on account of the fact that the phone says ‘Jack’ when you call. Plus now that I’ve been working for you for two years, I can finally remember the sound of your voice,” I tease.

How nice of him to use the phone instead of the chimerator at this hour of the morning. Then again, maybe he thinks I look hideous before I’ve readied for work.

“Blue,” Jack growls in warning, his voice becoming impossibly deeper, making my insides thrill at the tone.

“Sorry,” I apologize, trying to suppress the image of his strong body from rising in my mind, “but you called me early. What can I help you with?” I suddenly notice that my right hand has begun to sensually massage the oil into my thigh. I shake my hand as if to erase the action. Bad hand! Oil and the sound of Jack’s voice do not mix.

“The M.E. is ready to give his preliminary report,” Jack says.

Suddenly my mood is brighter and I’m able to focus. “Great! I’ll head down there first thing. Actually, I’m glad you called. After the forensics team left yesterday, I found a piece of evidence at the scene. It’s an amulet with some sort of magical capabilities. I’ll hand it over to Gambino as soon as I can. The amulet has a piece of dark red thread caught in the clasp that matches a thread snagged on the boy’s fingernail. I checked with the bartender at the Cock and Bull Tap, and a guy wearing a cloak of the same color had just left as I entered.”

Jack says, “Really?”

“Really, and that is not all.” I relate to Jack the events that followed after I left the bar, and to say he is unhappy would be a gross understatement. As I finish the tale, Jack’s voice is thunderous.

“Why didn’t you send an alert to me? Why am I only finding out about this now?”

“Jack, you didn’t know any of the details of the case, and I knew Gambino couldn’t have gotten far. He was only gone five minutes.”

Jack orders, “Next time, send an alert! Absolutely no excuses! Your safety is my responsibility, not Gambino’s!”

I give Jack the only response I can possibly give. “Yes, Jack.”

Jack is not finished yet. “Let me say this in a way that is absolutely clear. Anytime, ever, that you are shot at, the moment that you have cover, if not before, you must push the alert on your chimerator. Is that clear?”

I swallow dryly. I know he’s right. “Yes, Jack,” I repeat.

“Okay,” Jack says gruffly. “See what the M.E. has to say, and we’ll speak when you get into the office.” He hangs up abruptly.

He really should learn how to properly end a call, but this is probably not the time to tell him so.

I finish my modest beauty routine, comb my hair, and rifle through my dresser for some fresh underwear. I select a pair of bright fuchsia, French cut panties and a matching push-up bra, both decorated with tiny, black satin bows. I look at myself in the mirror and approve. My body is slim and long with modest curves, but curves enough. Maybe one day someone besides me will appreciate my lingerie. I frown at this thought as I hide my treasures with dark blue, straight leg jeans and a crew neck tee with a gray tone camouflage pattern. My outfit is finished off with boots, a black leather underbust vest, my gray pageboy cap, and, of course, my Glock and holster. My work clothes are dismally boring with the only exciting part remaining my secret.

I grab an umbrella and bolt out the door. My boot heels click down three flights of stairs, reminding me I need to replace them with rubber soles. As I reach the marble tiled entryway, I’m stalled by a yellow sign blocking the door. “Caution! Wet paint,” it warns. Shoot, I have no time for this. I fly down the hall and out the back alley door.

Not more than a few steps into the alley, I feel a presence behind me. As I whip my head around, I feel an iron clasp on my arm. I’m jerked backwards into the chest of a man. I catch just a glimpse of a black mask with two narrow eyeholes.

I jerk my body forward in protest with my other hand reaching in back for my gun. A man’s voice scornfully laughs “too late” as he tosses my gun on the ground in front of me.

I push violently backwards, then quickly pull forward, trying to break free from his grasp, but the cold edge of a blade at my neck stops me.

“Be very still and very quiet, or I might enjoy myself too much,” a voice hisses in my ear.

I immediately still my body, but my mind is racing. His left arm tightens across my chest like an iron band, keeping my arms still at my sides. Rain pours down on us, but I hardly feel it. I glance to the left and see he’s pulled me back into a corner so we can’t be seen from the street. To the right is the long alley, blocked on either side by a tall row of brick buildings. That way lies disaster. If I am to get free, I must go left toward the street.

I quickly assess my options. With my gun lying useless on the ground and my arms restrained, I have only my mind and my gift to aid me.

I push out my sixth sense and physically flinch away as I feel the evilness of his soul, but the sharp prick of the knife slicing into the skin of my neck stops my forward movement. A small stream of blood trickles down my neck, intermingling with the rain. Lightning flashes, followed by the low rumble of thunder. I can feel that the man is high with excitement, enjoying his power over me.

I whisper, “You don’t want to do this. I am a Homicide Inspector with the Supernatural Investigation Bureau. If you harm me, trust me, you will be hunted down.”

I feel for his response, but the fear and surprise that I expect to rise up in him are woefully missing. He knows with certainty exactly who I am. My dread increases. This is no random attack.

He chuckles. “Oh yes, I want to do this very bad, in fact, but you know what they say: business before pleasure.” The sick, seductive tone of his voice makes me cringe. He digs his fingers into my arm and demands, “Yesterday you investigated the scene of a crime. Tell me what you found, and then I’ll let you go.”

Those are his words, but the malice I feel from him belies those words. He has no intention of letting me go.

He presses the edge of the knife in a little harder. I feel my heart stutter as visions of his gruesome work on the boy’s body rise in my mind. I know exactly what he is capable of. I blink to flush away the vision, and out of the corner of my eye I see a flicker of movement in the shadows of the alley. Does he have a cohort? Or is it someone who might help me? Best to keep talking until the hidden is revealed.

I know the man is referring to the amulet, so I purposely avoid giving him this information. I whisper, “We found the body of a boy who had been hit by a car and damaged severely. Was that your handiwork?”

A sneering voice responds, “Yes, you are a genius. So clever...”

I see shifting in the shadows along the buildings closer to me now. Whoever is there is trying to stay hidden, and the overcast sky is helping. If the man gets distracted, I could grab hold of his knife arm and twist it or get out of his grasp and run. I could wrench away and use my umbrella as a weapon. I feel my hands trembling at my sides with the force of my desire to fight. It’s almost unbearable to just stand here waiting at the mercy of a man who has none.

I need to discern if the third party in this alley is friend or foe. I push my senses out, trying to penetrate the gloomy alley in the direction of the flitting shadow. I feel a wild, predatory rage coming from that direction. It feels both savage and extremely focused. Suddenly, I’m unsure of an imminent rescue and wonder if something more dangerous comes that way. I could alert my abductor to the danger and perhaps get free, or I could bide my time and hope to get away when the distraction arrives. Beads of sweat form around my hairline, blending with the rain as I war with my options.

The masked man digs his nails cruelly into my arm, and I realize I missed something he just said. He repeats himself. “What of the amulet?”

I lie, “I didn’t find an amulet.”

He hisses and jerks me farther back into the corner. “I don’t believe you.”

Just then, I see the shadow separate from the side of the building and shoot into the air right at us. The masked man sees it as well, and his grip on my arms relaxes. I feel the knife blade back away from my neck just a smidge. I lift my left hand to grab on to his forearm, pushing with all my might to further the distance between my skin and the knife blade while swinging my right arm back and ramming the metal point of my umbrella into what I hope is his gut. Letting go of the umbrella, I bring my right arm up to push his knife away. I feel him recoil from the umbrella impact. I twist my body away, gripping his forearm with both hands, then let go and spin out of reach.

Time seems to move in slow motion, and the creature from the shadows appears suspended in the air over us. I see long claws and huge, gleaming fangs in a gaping, hungry mouth. The masked man brings the knife up to defend himself against the new threat. I see the glowing green eyes of the creature and hear a vicious snarl as its fangs wrap around the man’s knife arm.

I am all but forgotten, so I turn, running toward my gun on the opposite side of the alley. When it’s safely in my hand, I pivot, turning it on the man–only he seems to have disappeared into thin air, leaving the creature to snap and snarl savagely at the empty space where he had been. Now that the creature has four clawed paws on the ground, I see that he is in fact an enormous gray wolf, and blood is seeping out of his side.

I can’t believe I was just saved by a wolf! He seems to sense me watching and lifts his keen eyes to me. I curse my stupidity for staying around and aim my Glock at him instead. I start backing up slowly toward the street again, not wanting to shoot, but the wolf starts running toward me at full speed. I should shoot him, really, I should. He just ripped into a man’s arm—but he also saved my life.

My hands, aiming the gun straight ahead at the wolf, shake at the force of my indecision. Before I can make up my mind, the wolf has already reached me. He slows his pace, circling around me, sniffing and yipping quietly. Then he puts his forepaws and head down right in front of me and sticks his rump in the air, wagging his tail as though he wants to play.

Rain still pours down on us and water is running in rivulets through my hair, but I pay no attention. He is huge! And beautiful! When he stands again, I’m amazed that the top of his withers reach my waist. His coat is long and thick, fading from a charcoal color on his back and nose to silver around his flank. He has touches of brown throughout his coat and around his eyes, which have now changed from a glowing green to a pale, icy blue.

I reach out slowly with my left hand. He sniffs at the proffered hand, then puts his head under it like he wants to be petted. I comply and slowly scratch him about the ears as I slide my Glock smoothly back into its holster.

The two of us are drenched in rain, standing in the alley, greeting each other. What a strange life I lead! After a moment, when I think he’s used to me, I gently feel deep down in his neck fur for a collar. His fur is so thick that I can’t be sure, but I don’t think he has one. He appears to have traveled a long and difficult road and looks too dirty and skinny to be a pet anyway. I squat down to examine the gash on his side, but the blood and rain obscure the wound.

“What am I going to do with you, shadow-walker?”

He looks up at me with questioning eyes.

I put my hand on my hip and say, “You had better come with me.”

He walks by my side on the way to the car, seemingly oblivious to his wound, and waits patiently while I pop the trunk. I pull out a blanket and arrange it over the back seat. When all is set, I wave the wolf in. He immediately hops in the back seat of my car like he’s been doing it all of his days. He takes up the entire back seat when he lies down.

I slide into the driver’s seat and immediately wrinkle my nose at the stench of wet, dirty animal. Reaching over, I spring the latch on the glove box and pull out a granola bar to feed him. I think he eats it, though it’s really hard to tell because it disappears so quickly. He certainly didn’t taste it, and there was absolutely no chewing action going on. I think that maybe a bath, medical care, and food are in order. I definitely prefer my wolves well fed.

Chapter 06 Herbal Etcetera

Bluebell Kildare: May 27, 2022, Red Ages

I pull my car to a stop in front of the shop my neighbor Alexis owns. It’s located in the middle of Dunnwell Street, a thriving business community in our neighborhood. The storefronts are well kept and have old quality craftsmanship in their design. Alexis Demetriou’s storefront is intricately paneled and painted in sage green, burgundy, and cream. Whimsical stenciling on her large front windows announces “Herbal Enchantments” with smaller print below that says “Amulets, potions, charms, etcetera.” I’m here for the etcetera.

I let the wolf out and look at him closely. He looks smaller now, just about the size of a large dog. I shake my head. I must be going mad! My state of panic surely played tricks on my mind.

As I walk in with the wolf pushing in front of me, the door chimes merrily announce our arrival. Alexis has her back turned toward the door as she places little bottles of potions on a shelf. She’s wearing a neatly pressed, pale blue pantsuit that makes her dark chocolate curls stand out beautifully.

The store is filled with bottles of all shapes and colors with neatly printed labels. The colored glass sparkles even in the dim light filtering through the clouds and the large storefront windows. Aside from the shelves of potions, there are walls of charms and several amulet trees. The place is in pristine and orderly condition. I don’t blame the place at all. I wouldn’t get out of line either if I were Alexis’ store.

Alexis is tall and fit, but curvy in a generous way—as opposed to me, who is curvy in a barely noticeable way. I like to think that her generous bosom reflects her generous personality. She has brown skin, large brown eyes, and beautifully thick hair. She also has a lot of sass. It seems like when she’s not pointing her finger, she’s crossing her arms or putting her hands on her hips or raising her eyebrows. And look out if she starts shaking her head at you.

Alexis turns around and her eyes widen, showing an extraordinary amount of eyeball, but in a good way. “Great Demon of the Abyss!” she exclaims. “You have a wolf with you!”

She rushes forward, but a few paces away from him she seems to remember he is a wolf. She stops and offers her hand slowly. He sniffs her hand, giving it a perfunctory lick. Then he starts casing the shop, sniffing fervently at the abundance of scented goods.

I spit out in one breath, “I was attacked in an alley behind our building this morning—a man from a case I’m working on, but don’t worry, I’m fine. This wolf appeared out of nowhere and tore into him like an avenging angel. The guy disappeared and got away. I don’t think he’s dangerous unless he’s threatened.” I pause for breath.

Alexis puts her hands on her hips, clearly outraged. “What do you mean you don’t think he’s dangerous? He jumped you in the alley, and you have dried blood on your neck!”

I widen my eyes and grab my neck. “Shoot, I forgot about that! But I meant I don’t think the wolf is dangerous. I’m going to keep him. The man is definitely dangerous. The wolf got cut by him, and he is in far worse condition than I am.”

Alexis’ eyes flit to the wolf and then back to me. Then she immediately springs to action, her healing nature taking over.

She squats down and informs the wolf, “Now, I’m going to touch you gently by your wound, and you are going to remain calm and stay still.”

She tentatively parts the bloody hair on his left flank, and he abides by her orders, standing still through her ministrations. I watch carefully for signs of aggression but see none.

Alexis looks up at me, and I can feel her relief as she says, “Thankfully it is not that bad. His fur protected him a good deal, and the rain seems to have helped. It looks like the knife nicked some surface blood vessels, but the wound isn’t deep.”

Then she looks at the wolf and starts cooing, “You poor thing, you look so starved! Let’s get you something to eat and take care of that cut.”

This is not an unexpected response. Alexis does two things very well. She can cook up herbal potions like no one’s business, and she also does her best to feed everyone in sight. I personally agree that feeding him before taking care of the injury is a wise idea.

Alexis leads us to a back room equipped with a small commercial kitchen decorated in a mix of stainless steel and country charm. She does most of her potion mixing in this comfortable and efficient space. Alexis’ assistant, Penelope, is busy ladling some mixture into bottles with a funnel. She turns to say something to Alexis and immediately drops the ladle back into the pot with a plop when she sees the wolf.

Alexis smiles and says, “Penelope, we have a patient today. Do you want to mind the front while I take care of him back here?”

Penelope is a pretty, young girl with rosy cheeks and curly hair that frequently escapes her bun. She is usually hardworking but a little silly. Right now I think the term slack-jawed most adequately describes her as she stares, mouth agape, at the wolf. The wolf, in return, is utterly ignoring her. Eventually Alexis’ words seem to penetrate Penelope’s temporarily addled brain because she wrings her apron in her hands and promptly runs up front.

I hop up on the edge of the butcher block island as Alexis starts pulling things from the cabinets. She opens a purple bottle and pours a green substance on some gauze pads. Handing them to me, she instructs, “Dab this around your injury while I care for the wolf. What are you going to call him, anyway? ”She turns her back to me and starts pulling things from the fridge.

I consider her question for a minute before replying, “Well, the only real memory I have of my mother is of her telling me a bedtime story about a wolf. It’s hazy, only a wisp of a memory really, but I think she called the wolf Varg. So that’s his name.”

Alexis turns around to look at me as I tell her that story. Her eyes go soft and warm. Then she turns around again and starts briskly heating things in stainless steel pots on the red porcelain stove. “Varg is the perfect name,” she says.

“So, do you have any remedies for fleas and worms handy as well? I think he’s been traveling a long way without any care. I also need a strong soap for his coat.”

Alexis looks up thoughtfully. “I usually don’t sell veterinary supplies out of the store. I do make them, but I make them in batches when I get requests. I’ll have to make some from scratch.”

“Do you mind? I’ll pay you, of course.”

“I don’t mind. In fact, I insist. But it’s going to take a little time.” She turns to me with narrowed eyes. “And I’m not going to let him go wandering around town with you when he’s full of potions. Even though they’re natural, they do take a lot out of a body. He’s hurt, and he’s going to need protection against viruses and diseases as well. We don’t know where he has been, but here in the city with the dog population, he’s at risk. And good Lord!“ She sniffs. “He needs a bath.” Alexis finishes this with a nod like it is all decided now.

She turns back to the stove and handles the long wooden spoon like a master while I hop down to rummage through her cabinets. I locate a large, green glass bowl, fill it with cold water, and set it on the brick floor. Varg starts lapping the water up with a terrific thirst but stops as soon as Alexis puts down another huge glass bowl filled with rice, ground beef, and garlic.

“Wow! Just wow!” I say as we watch him move over to that bowl and devour it like it’s nothing.

Alexis crosses her arms and says, “Yeah. He’d better stay with me today. I’ll get him in shape.”

I give Alexis a big smile. “Thanks so much. I’ve got a new case, so I’ll be running around all day. I’m so glad he doesn’t have to wait for the end of the day to get fixed up.”

“Of course he shouldn’t wait with that injury. Now, don’t worry about him. I’ll see you when you get off work. If the shop is closed, you know where to find me.”

Then she wets a paper towel and leans over me to dab at my neck. “There, you’re all clean now.”

I hug her and affect a serious tone. “Now I owe you one. If anyone ever murders you, remember, I’m the one you should call.”

Alexis laughs and pushes me toward the swinging door. “Go, get, scoot!”

I start to leave with a smile on my lips. Then I remember something, so I spin around. “Hey Alexis, I have one more question. If you wanted to learn more about a certain magical artifact, where would you go?”

“Easy. The Dragomir Magical Artifact Shop. Make sure you speak with the owner.”

“Thanks again!” I shout, running out the door on my way to the Medical Examiner’s office.

Chapter 07 Evidence of Anguish

Bluebell Kildare: May 27, 2022, Red Ages

I think to myself how ugly the new Medical Examiner’s building is as I eat up the sidewalk on the way in. It rises out of the mountainside as a cement and steel square oddity in disaccord with the rustic countryside. Hopefully it was gentle on the taxpayers’ pocketbooks because it certainly isn’t an asset to our architecture.

By now the rain has stopped, and a steady, cooling breeze blows my straight brown hair across my face. I tuck it behind my ear as I enter the building.

Inside, the receptionist accepts my ID and gives her reluctant assent for me to proceed to the autopsy room. I gather by the way her mouth sours upon sight of me that she doesn’t care for my kind. I don’t care for her kind either—the breedist kind.

Pushing past the steel door, I enter the heart of the operation. Dr. Nathan Perlman, with a two-day shadow on his chin and a clipboard in his hand, is standing over a body. He looks up, and I see his affable smile is a bit forced today. He looks tired and worn but tries to put up a cheerful front. “Good morning, Bluebell. I was expecting you.”

He covers the body on his table with a white sheet and pushes it through a cooler door while whistling. I think the whistling is for his benefit more than mine. He pulls out another table and maneuvers it toward the examining area. “This is our boy.”

“Well, I’m afraid to ask what you’ve found.”

Nathan nods solemnly. “The only good thing about telling you what I’m about to is that I know you’re going to find the person who did this. That thought has been my saving grace today.”

I say softly and firmly, meaning it from the bottom of my soul, “I promise, Nathan. I will do my very best.”

Nathan nods and pulls back the sheet. He picks up another clipboard and starts his report. “This is a summary of my preliminary findings. The cause of death appears to be due to blunt force head trauma caused by a vehicular collision.” Nathan points to an area on the front of the boy’s skull. “The frontal bone was crushed on impact, causing fracture contusions on his brain, massive hemorrhage, and immediate death. Fragments of glass were found in the wound area.”

Nathan points to the back of the boy’s skull. “The occipital bone was also fractured, causing brain contusions and additional hemorrhage. Abrasions on this site of injury show fragments of asphalt embedded in the wound area.”

Nathan pulls the sheet down further and points to the boy’s hip. “His left pelvis is crushed, and his right pelvis has multiple fractures. This pattern of contusions here appears to be a car’s grill pattern.” He points to a crosshatch pattern of bloody stripes on the boy’s skin extending from his left hip down over his left thigh.

Nathan pulls the sheet down further still and points to the lower left leg where the bone protrudes. “His left tibia and his left fibula both have complete fractures and several incomplete fractures. The tibia on his right leg has one incomplete fracture. Green paint chips were found embedded in his thigh.”

Nathan pauses and looks at me. “All of these injuries and evidence so far indicate that his death was caused by impact with a passenger vehicle driving at moderate speeds. It appears the car hit him at a slight angle from the left. His leg was immediately broken by the bumper, and his hip and thigh hit the grill at an angle. His forehead hit the windshield, causing instantaneous death. At that time, I believe the driver put on his brakes, and the boy’s body was thrown back onto the asphalt where the road impacted his skull again and left the asphalt in the back of his head. His back side is also covered in contusions and is embedded with asphalt.”

I feel nausea and tension building in my stomach. It is not that what Nathan has told me and shown me so far is too much. I’ve been doing this for a while. It’s that I know there is still much more to come and it’s a lot to handle at once. I ask, “Can you give me just a minute?”

Nathan nods. “Sure. Take as much time as you need.” He gently covers the boy’s body again with the sheet.

I turn my back on the table and walk away. Keeping my back to the table, I start to pace briskly, but the sound of my heels clicking on the cold cement floor reverberates through the room and agitates me more. I halt, turn toward the opposite corner of the room, and close my eyes. I feel the tension built up in my body, and horror reels in the back of my mind, threatening to overcome me. I roll my neck and do some slow, deep breathing to contain it. When I finally restore some calm to my body, I return.

“Okay, Doc. I’m ready. What else do you have?”

Nathan mercifully keeps the sheet over the body for a bit longer and says, “During my internal examination, I found that the body is well hydrated, but the gall bladder is distended, and the stomach and intestines are empty. The total body weight is 112 pounds, and with a height of five eleven, that gives the deceased a BMI of 15.6. This information combined with his labs tells me that this boy was dangerously undernourished.”

“Can you tell how long he was without food?” I ask.

Nathan replies, “I can tell you that he did not have food recently, but it’s unclear if his malnourishment came from having no food at all for a shorter period or if he had inadequate food for a longer period. The amount of time a person can survive on little or no sustenance really depends on their starting weight and their basic metabolic rate. I can say that the extent of his other injuries prior to the collision would have increased his energy requirements significantly.”

“Okay,” I say, taking that in. I cross my arms over my chest as if I can shield myself from the information. “What else do you have?”

Nathan draws the sheet aside to reveal one hand and points at the boy’s wrist. “Both wrists are completely encircled in calluses about two inches wide. Bruising and contusions encircle the base of his hands.”

He points to the upper arm and shoulder. “Behind the shoulder, the teres major muscle is torn on both sides, and the ligament tissue connecting the long head of the triceps brachii muscle to the bone is torn. Both ankles show similar calluses and contusions at the top of the foot. The injuries and bruising on both the ankles and the wrists show all stages of healing, which means that the wounds were continuously afflicted over a period of time lasting at least two weeks.”

Holding my hand up for a pause, I probe, “Is it possible he was tied with a rope or handcuffed?”

Nathan’s face turns into a deep scowl. “If it was rope, I would have expected to see fibers embedded and a rash. The skin is clean as though it was metal encasing his hands and feet. But handcuffs are too narrow to provide the wide grooving and callusing I see here. These injuries are more consistent with having feet shackled and hands shackled over the head.”

Nathan moves to the end of the table and gently folds back the sheet that covers the boy’s feet and lower legs. A foul odor fills the air, making my stomach roil in protest. I reluctantly join Nathan at that side of the table.

Nathan points to the bottom of the boy’s feet, which are black, wrinkled, and covered in sores. “This boy had a condition commonly known as trench foot. This is evidenced by the wrinkled skin on the bottoms of his feet and the blisters and open sores on the bottoms and sides of his feet.”

He points to the black, rotting toe and says, “Fungal infection and gangrene had set in. This stage of trench foot lasts from two to six weeks. Additionally, I found evidence of human fecal matter and urine on the bottoms of his feet. Trench foot occurs when the foot is in damp and cold but not freezing conditions for an extended period of time.” Nathan steps back and covers the feet again.

Nathan sighs. “I have one last area of injury to show you.” He gently rolls the boy over on his side and lifts the sheet to show his back. I can see wounds and bruising extending from his waist to his neck. “First of all, he has a mark, a green circle on his lower back. I assume it’s a magic mark, but you are a better judge of that than I am. As you observed at the scene, this boy had lacerations and bruising covering his entire back. They’re in various stages of healing. Because the wounds are deeper in this area,” Nathan explains as he points to the boy’s mid-back where the skin is stripped away and muscle is exposed, “I can estimate that some of this healing took place over the course of three to four weeks. The forensic report will take some time, but I found fibers in these wounds that appeared to be made of some sort of leather. Preliminarily, I believe these injuries were sustained from a leather whip.”

I step back, turn away, and clasp my shaking hands as I’m filled with insurmountable rage. The sound of my blood pulsing through my body fills my ears with a wild rushing sound as my head buzzes. I try to regain some control, but the image of the boy is vivid in my mind. I see him starving, chained, and shackled in some cold, dark place. I see him being whipped day after day until his flesh peels away like the skin of an onion. With great effort, I push the image into a corner of my mind. I need to carry on. My job is to find the monster who did it. I will find him.

With my back still turned, I ask, “Anything else?”

Nathan answers, “No. But I did check for sexual assault and am at least relieved that there are no signs he had to endure that indignity as well.”

“Well, thank goodness for small miracles. Our perpetrator is a real saint, isn’t he?” Spinning around to face Nathan and the body again, I inquire, “Did you send the preliminary report over to Detective Gambino?”

Nathan smiles wryly. “Yes, about an hour ago. I included images and measurements of the grill pattern.”

I give Nathan a tip of my hat and a slight bow of gratitude. “Thank you so much, Nathan, for doing that which needs to be done. Please give me a call if you find anything else significant or when the pathology and forensic results come back.”

“I certainly will. But can I ask you a personal question?”

I nod my assent and Nathan asks, “Why do you insist on coming here for the preliminary results rather than just accepting my report? Wouldn’t it be easier to take in writing? I can see how much it affects you.”

I look Nathan directly in the eyes to divulge my logic. “There are two reasons. First, as you know, I’m a Sensitive. While I can’t feel anything from a body when the soul has left, by looking at it and hearing and seeing what happened, I can get a feel for the shape of the evilness that possessed the perpetrator. When I encounter a soul that has the feel of someone capable of that sort of evilness, I can sometimes see a potential match. My sense can’t be conclusive, but it can tell me if a person could possibly be the perpetrator. I can also rule people out. The second reason is that I need to feel the pain. That will drive me to find the perpetrator. I’ll turn back to remember today countless times when I am frustrated and at a loss, and because of today, I’ll keep on.”

Nathan looks at me with understanding dawning on his face, and I feel his empathy wafting toward me. “I can’t imagine what it is to feel the soul of a person who does things like this.”

I accept his empathy with a nod. Then I turn and walk out, remarking over my shoulder, “In case you’re wondering, you have a good soul, Nathan.” He has a very good soul.

Chapter 08 The Dragomir

Bluebell Kildare: May 27, 2022, Red Ages

I decide to swing by the Dragomir Magical Artifact Shop before heading to the precinct. As I turn onto Windsor Avenue, I think about what Father O’Brennen told me last night. Is my aura the reason I’ve never encountered a Dark Vampire before? Even though most people go their whole lives without running into a Night-Crawler, I do work in the Supernatural Homicide Investigation Unit, so it seems that I should have by now. Ernesto is our resident Night-Crawler expert at the office and leads all the hunts. Still, there has been many a time that I’ve been called out for a homicide in the wee hours of the morning just to find out the call had been reported incorrectly and was actually a case of death by Dark Vampire.

And who was the Daylight Vampire who saved me? I didn’t think to ask Father O’Brennen his name. Is he still around? Is there more he can tell me about that night?

I stop my musings as the Dragomir Magical Artifact Shop comes into view. It‘s a corner store made of flagstone and favored with a rare parking lot of its own in back. I park and walk around to the front entrance.

No merry bells announce my arrival here. Solid oak shelves covered in a thick layer of dust fill the dimly lit store. The dust is so thick it seems to swirl around me, gathering in glittering pools and eddies that hang in the air.

I wave it away from my face and look at the shelves adorned with a wonderful assortment of magical items: scrying mirrors and a looking glass fountain to keep connected with loved ones, firefly lanterns to light your house, and glow stones to brighten your garden. One entire wall is devoted to glass-covered shelves stacked with aged books on every magical subject imaginable. Another bookcase is dedicated to gorgeous parquetry safe boxes. These special boxes are made of tiny geometric shaped veneer inlaid over interlocking pieces of wood. They require a magic word to open. When you close them, their wooden designs rearrange, disguising the opening. The next time you give the magic word, the box will open from another side.

As I take in my surroundings, a few rays of sunlight peek from behind the clouds and shine through the windows in bright streams, lighting up the whirlpools of dust that still fill the air. It makes me want to twirl around like a little girl. I immediately love this store, musty dust and all.

Behind the heavy oak counter, the clerk is studiously ignoring me as she reads a book. Her reading glasses have dropped to the tip of her nose, and a mess of wavy, brown hair has fallen about her face. I wait for her to look up, but she seems oblivious to my presence. I stand right in front of her to get her attention, but still she keeps her eyes pinned down on the book. I am obviously three feet in front of her, and yet she pretends I’m not here!

This is extremely vexing, and just as I’m about to say something rude, I notice a sign that says “Please ring bell for service.” Next to it sits a large brass bell. I ring the bell, and a high pitched sound reverberates throughout the room. I resist the urge to ring it five times in a row to annoy the clerk. Then, wonder of wonders, she lifts her glasses to peer at me through the lenses. How glorious it feels to be acknowledged!

Even more astonishing than the fact that she now realizes I am alive is the fact that her face lights up in a beatific smile that transforms her into a very arresting mature woman. With her face lifted up, her hair now looks like a riot of soft waves that frame a face dominated by deep-set, warm brown eyes that flicker with golden light.

“Hello,” I say a little uncertainly. She has definitely put me at sixes and sevens.

She answers with a deeply melodious voice, “Hello, what can I help you with today?” Her voice is so strange. It’s like ten voices speaking all at once, or like the strumming of a harp with notes overlapping one another. It is simply musical. I tilt my head as though to hear it better.

I suddenly realize she is sitting there waiting expectantly for me to answer. I try to pull myself together, remembering that I have a goal to accomplish here. “I’m looking for Mr. Dragomir,” I respond.

Her smile immediately turns chilly, and her voice sounds like a dozen angry people speaking to me from different directions. “Mr. Dragomir is not in.” Then she points her eyes toward her book again.

Darn, I lost her again. Beginning to catch on, I ask, “Are you Mrs. Dragomir?”

She looks up and says with great power, “I am the Dragomir.” I feel unaccountably humbled and apologize. “I am sorry, Dragomir, for my error. My friend Alexis from Herbal Enchantments referred me to you.”

Looking slightly mollified, but still a little snippy, she says, “Please call me Dragomira. Now, what can I help you with?”

“Excuse me for commenting on this, but your voice is the most remarkable voice I’ve ever heard.” Then I pull out my ID for her to see. “My name is Bluebell Kildare. I’m with the Supernatural Investigation Bureau. I was wondering if you could answer a few questions.”

Dragomira ignores my statement about her voice and my ID, looking unimpressed with both. “It depends on the nature of those questions.”

“I’m looking for information on a particular amulet. If you can give me a piece of paper, I’d like to make a sketch.”

Dragomira, still exuding a markedly severe demeanor, deigns to get off her stool to retrieve some paper and a pencil from a nearby drawer.

Undaunted, I sketch the amulet, drawing the triangle within the circle and the cutout in the shape of an eye. My sketch includes the hole in the center of the amulet and a depiction of the back that includes the ridging and beading.

As I sketch the amulet, Dragomira’s eyes become riveted, and I swear they start glowing amber. When I finish, she puts her hand up and her chorus of voices whispers, “One moment. This conversation requires no audience.”

She goes to the door of her shop, turns the heavy brass deadbolt, and places her “Closed” sign face out.

When she returns, I say, “I take it you know this amulet. Should I pull out my privacy charm?”

Dragomira laughs softly and says, “My dear, this shop is so well warded the Gods themselves would have trouble entering. Perhaps I know this amulet. Tell me, what it is made of?”

I look curiously around the shop, then point to the sketch and answer. “The amulet is gold. The triangle looks to be jade. The grooves on the back are gold, and the beading is some sort of white metal, perhaps white gold.”

“It’s platinum,” Dragomira says crisply. “Yes. I know of this amulet.”

“What can you tell me about it? Why would someone want it?”

Dragomira leans her arms on the counter, and her warm brown eyes betray her worry. She shivers. “Ah, Illustrissima! That is the question. What would someone want with the amulet? I am afraid of the answer.

“This amulet has two pieces. What you drew here is only one part. The triangle is made of jade, the stone of wisdom. Its significance here is that it’s part of a key used to unlock a book. The missing part, the center, is in the shape of an eye. The iris of the eye, carved with the circle of life, is made of sugelite, a purple stone, which issues dire warning.”

Dragomira jabs her long, elegant finger repeatedly at the center of the eye in the drawing as she speaks. “It warns of the end of humanity. In the center of the eye is a pupil made of amber, used for its properties of attraction, to help you find that which you seek with the book. The eye fits into the hole in the center and has grooves and beads of its own. The two pieces, when joined together, form the symbol for the All-Seeing Eye, which sees across planes and into the Underworld.”

When she finishes with her explanation, Dragomira assesses my reaction in a way that makes me feel somehow inadequate.

I forge ahead anyway. “What book does the key open?”

“Ah,” Dragomira says heavily. “You plunge right in, do you not? It opens the ancient Grimorium Cantionum SpiritualiumThe Spell Book of the Spirit and Soul. It is a book that contains the knowledge to call demons and spirits from other planes, including the Plane of Death. It is a very powerful book, and those who have possessed its knowledge have done massive damage to those who live in this world.”

I shift a little uneasily as this case seems much more dangerous and complex than I’d originally thought. “What sort of damage?”

Dragomira gestures toward a stool at the end of her counter. “I will tell you a story. Please sit down.”

I drag the stool over and take a seat, listening avidly as her hypnotic voice begins to weave a picture of ancient times.

“In ancient Ireland,” she begins, “a talented sorcerer’s apprentice somehow came to possess the Grimorium Cantionum Spiritualium. We now know this apprentice as Patersuco—“Father of the Vampires.” Patersuco was deathly ill from a blood sickness and desperate to save his own life. The learned now speculate that he suffered from leukemia, but that matters not to this story. Patersuco was a selfish and greedy man, so he sacrificed his first-born infant son and used the knowledge of the book to summon the greatest demon of the Plane of Fire, Lilith, second only to Lucifer.

“When Lilith arrived, Patersuco tried to bargain with her for immortality. Lilith asked what he would give her in return, and Patersuco said that the sacrifice of his son was his gift to her. Lilith laughed at him and said that sacrifice was nothing. She said the baby’s soul was innocent, so it went to the Plane of Light, and all she received from the sacrifice was a blood gift. She taunted him, telling him that rather than kill his son, he could have simply slit his flesh and dropped some blood on the altar. Patersuco’s sacrifice, she said, was only enough to buy her audience.”

Dragomira sees the shocked look on my face at the idea that a man had so easily sacrificed his own son. “This was just before the Red Ages, and the earth was still wild and untamed. Man also was wild and untamed. Human sacrifices were not uncommon, as wrong as they may be. But even then, sacrificing one’s own son was unheard of.”

I interject, “I also think Patersuco was foolish to think that Lilith would trade a mortal life for an immortal life. Isn’t it immortal souls that are collected on the Plane of Fire?”

Dragomira raises her eyebrows at this. “Excellent observation. Indeed, a mortal life has no value to Lilith. Nonetheless, Patersuco, in his foolishness and arrogance, was enraged that she made so little of his sacrifice—but he was determined to achieve his goal. So he then offered to give her his soul when he died. Lilith laughed at him again and said that he had killed an innocent in cold blood, his own living flesh, even, so his soul was already destined for the Plane of Fire when he died. She also pointed out that since he was asking for immortality, she would have to wait a long time for that prize.”

“Lilith sounds highly conniving. Apparently by sacrificing his son, he had given her his own immortal soul. But Lilith didn’t recognize this as part of his payment to her.”

Dragomira says, “She is second only to the Prince of Lies, the Prince of Thieves, the Master Bargain Maker. She is indeed skilled, and instead of taking his bargain, she offered him another.”

By now I’m sitting on the edge of my seat, waiting for Dragomira to spin the rest of the tale.

“She said that she would cure his blood disease, but it would require that he drink the blood of other humans to survive. She said to make this easier, she would make him desire blood. She would give him strength and resistance from disease, but he would always carry her mark. He would live a long life and be difficult to kill, but the only immortality she would grant him would be the same that all mortals achieve: through creating more of their kind. He could not conceive new life; he could, however, fill others with his blood, and they would carry the same gifts she had given him. But she gave him a warning. If he killed in bloodlust, his soul would immediately belong completely to her.”

Dragomira suddenly stands up and tilts her head as though listening to the ceiling. Then she closes her eyes and starts saying a string of words in an ancient-sounding language, painting patterns in the air with her hand. She seems to be in some sort of trance. I sit silently, unsure of how to respond.

Finally, after what seems like forever, she opens her eyes. “Excuse me for that,” she says. “I felt a disturbance in our wards. Someone was trying to enter uninvited. All is well now.” Then she sits back down and continues as though nothing had happened.

“Patersuco, unwise as he was, accepted this offer. Thus, Lilith created the first Vampire. All Vampires are descendents of those turned by Patersuco. All Vampires carry Lilith’s mark. All Vampires are doomed to the Plane of Fire. Because of this bargain, Lilith ensured that many more generations of souls would come to her.”

“So she really pretended to give Patersuco what he wanted, and in return she got over two thousand years of an ever-increasing number of souls. Patersuco offered a very cheap price for the boon he ended up giving her in return!”

“Exactly. He was a selfish, greedy man and a lousy bargainer. Lilith gave Patersuco the ability to create new beings, each of whom has the temptation of bloodlust, and eventually when they give into that bloodlust and kill, their souls go to her. When their souls go to the Plane of Fire, their flesh is left on Earth to continue to ravage humans, and ravage they do.

“The mark that she left on Patersuco was a dark smear on his soul, and every child that he created carries this mark. The mark ties the soul to Lilith, and when it’s finally released from the body, it returns to her like a homing pigeon. So, even if a Daylight Vampire never kills in bloodlust, their soul will join her in the end when they are finally killed by one of the permanent methods.”

I hold up my hand at this. “I understand how Patersuco could bargain away his soul, but how could he bargain away the souls of all of the people he turned? He didn’t have the right to them, and until they kill, they are still innocent.”

Dragomira raises her eyebrows. “I’d never thought to wonder. But you are correct. I’ve never heard of another story of someone giving away souls that do not belong to them. Perhaps when a person is turned into a Vampire, their soul is forfeited to their maker somehow. Not all attempted turnings work, you know, and some humans die. Perhaps those are cases in which the human will not relinquish ownership of their soul.”

I am dissatisfied by this response. It seems to me that if humans give up their souls at the time of turning, at least one Vampire would have mentioned it by now, but I keep my silence and let Dragomira finish the story.

She steps off her stool to stretch her back. Her entire back bends like a bow, her spine cracking fiercely as she moves. When she straightens, she glances out the windows with a flick of her eyes, then brings them back to me with solemnity.

“As you know, the birth of the Vampire brought on the Red Ages. Around 1500 R.A., Dark Vampires, those who had already killed in bloodlust and lost their sanity, almost wiped out all of humanity. It is said that in the time before the Great Pact, the very ground wept blood and the rivers flowed red. It wasn’t until humanity was at the brink of extinction that the Daylight Vampires, who were still rational, realized that once all humans were gone, they would perish as well. Without a blood supply, they would be forced to turn cannibalistic and would eventually wipe out their own breed. So the Daylight Vampires made a pact with humans to hunt Dark Vampires. People agreed to give blood donations to the Daylight Vampires, and the Daylight Vampires agreed not to feed without consent and to keep their own numbers under control. With this pact, people were once again able to live without the constant fear of being hunted, and a sense of balance was restored.”

I nod at this. “Yes. We learned that much in our ancient history lessons in school as that was the beginning of the Reconstruction Period. But we learned nothing of the book. So basically what you’re saying is that with this book, Patersuco was able to summon the demon Lilith from the Plane of Fire, and the result of his bargain with her nearly caused the extinction of all humanity on Earth. I assume that the other things this book teaches are also a double-edged sword. Do you know where the book is?”

Dragomira shakes her head emphatically. “Absolutely not. After the birth of Vampires, the leaders of each breed gathered and held council on what to do with the book. Some wanted it destroyed. Others wanted it saved. Some accounts say that attempts to destroy it failed. In the end, it was decided to lock the book and make it impossible to find. They designed the key and made it so that only with the key could the book be opened. The key was then separated into two pieces, and they hid all three items in separate places: the amulet, the eye, and the book.”

Trying to ignore my panic at the significance of what I hold in my possession, I inquire as nonchalantly as possible, “Does anyone know where the pieces of the key are?”

Dragomira looks askance at me and says, “I’ve researched the subject thoroughly and have never read an account of someone knowing where any of the three items are.”

What was the boy doing with the amulet, and where did he get it? I’m glad that it’s hidden on holy ground because magic and evil can’t penetrate there. I feel like I came here for answers and instead ended up with more questions. So many questions swirl around in my mind, and I can’t make sense of them. Instead of asking them, I simply say, ”Thank you, Dragomira. I really appreciate the information.”

Dragomira puts up her hand and says, “It is I who must thank you, Illustrissima. Thank you for listening to a favorite tale of mine. It is very rare that I get an audience these days. It is so rare, in fact, that I’d like to give you a gift.”

This surprises me. At what point did Dragomira turn from a woman who was arrogant and aloof to a woman giving me gifts?

“That’s not necessary at all,” I assure her.

Dragomira ignores me and lifts up her arm. She says a word in that ancient language again, and I see a metal object fly from another room straight at her hand. She catches it deftly and stabs it down into the wooden counter in front of me. It’s a gorgeous, gleaming knife with a sapphire and diamond encrusted hilt and a double-edged blade of about seven inches long. I had no intention of accepting a gift, but I find myself entranced by this knife. My eyes slip enviously over the blade and my hands twitch, longing to wrap around the hilt.

I look up at Dragomira in awe, and she says, “Its name is Curator, or Guardian in English.”

I say softly and regrettably, “I can’t take this. It’s clearly precious.”

Dragomira insists, “You must. These are dangerous times, Inspector Kildare. Just moments ago, someone was knocking on my wards looking for you.”

My eyes go wide. The masked man from this morning must still be after me! Of course he is—he didn’t get what he wanted. How foolish of me to think otherwise. My hand flies to my neck as I think of his blade there just hours before. Dragomira’s eyes flit to my neck as well, her eyes knowing but her mouth quiet. Without saying another word, I grasp the knife in my hand and pull it out of the wood.

Dragomira laughs softly and follows me to the door. As she unbolts it, she says, “Remember, his name is Guardian. Stay true, Illustrissima.”

I am left wondering why she keeps calling me Illustrissima and what it means as I hear the door softly close behind me.

Chapter 09 Every Day Enmity

Bluebell Kildare: May 27, 2022, Red Ages

I enter the precinct headquarters and step into the sallyport, awkwardly conscious of the knife tucked in my waistband. It’s not the fact that I have a knife that makes me feel uncomfortable, but rather it’s how improperly sheathed it is that I find shameful.

The officer at the front desk invites me past the sallyport and asks me to wait in the general station room while he calls Detective Gambino down. The room has scuffed, stark white walls and sterile gray linoleum floor tiles that could use repeated washings. Outdated metal desks pressed against each other give little privacy or work ambiance. A few officers writing reports and doing paperwork glance up at me in mild curiosity. I pace the open area by the doorway, anxious to finish at the precinct so I can get to my office. It’s already been a long and exhausting day.

As I wait, two officers walk in from the back. One officer, heavyset, with short, thin hair plastered in small wisps to his oily face, leers at me overtly. Lust rolls off him and fills me with disgust. I know the other one and have no love for him either. His name is Detective Dean Schmidt. He is tall and broad-shouldered with coarse blond hair. He’s built like an old athlete who has gone slightly soft in the middle. His hazel eyes are a bit too wide-set for his face, and his thin lips rest in a permanent sneer when he looks at me. He’s holding a box of Ma Farina cookies in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. Ma Farina is the best bakery in town. What a waste of cookies! He stops when he sees me and snarls with disgust, “What are you doing here, Aberrant?”

Internally I cringe a little. You would think I’d be used to the insults by now, but they still sting a bit. Instead of outwardly reacting, I use the skills I learned in the orphanage and put on a brave front. “What’s your problem, Schmidt?” I spit out Schmidt’s name like it’s a curse word.

“You’re my problem. I just arrested one of your kind, and I come here and there you are, another Aberrant, in my building.”

His buddy interjects as his lascivious stare rakes me up and down. “But she sure is hot. I wish they all looked like her.”

I ignore the buddy and say to Schmidt, “Listen, Slick. Why don’t you put your little snack down and go get Gambino for me. I don’t have time to listen to your prejudiced idiocy. I have a murder to solve.”

Detective Schmidt moves his hand toward me like he is going to hit me and his box of cookies falls to the ground. The lid of the box comes open during the fall, and cookies roll around at his feet. One cookie rolls in circles, around and around, before spiraling to a stop.

I back up. Maybe being on the offensive was the wrong tactic.

Schmidt looks at his cookies, and his mood turns even blacker. I can’t blame him, really; those are some darn good cookies. He takes a step forward with his fist raised. I look around for help, and I see two wide-eyed officers staring at us with mouths agape. No help there!

I move to a defensive fighting stance. Schmidt is well-trained and much larger than I am, so I don’t stand a chance, but I am certainly not going to take his abuse lying down. I feel comforted that I have the knife, but no way am I going to be the first one to pull out a weapon.

Gambino’s voice suddenly cuts through the room in a tone that brooks no argument. “Stand down, Schmidt!” I feel an avalanche of protective rage from Gambino, and it warms me to know he feels that way about me.

Schmidt steps back.

Gambino says with a calm that is remarkably contrived, “Inspector Kildare does excellent work. She has solved more homicides in two years than you have in the last ten, Detective Schmidt. I expect you to treat her with respect when she comes to this office.”

Detective Schmidt’s mouth is closed in a white line of fury, and if looks could kill, I would be pierced with a million shards of glass at this moment.

Gambino looks at Schmidt’s buddy and says, “Officer Randall, she is not a piece of meat. Get your dick out of your hand and get back to work.”

Officer Randall turns bright red all the way up to his ears while I struggle to maintain a straight face at that remark.

Gambino turns to me. “Right this way, Inspector Kildare,” he says kindly but firmly.

As I follow him to his office with as much dignity as I can muster, Gambino shouts over his shoulder, “And pick up those damn cookies, Schmidt!”

”I’m sorry you had to deal with them,” Gambino says once we’re safely in his office. “There are a lot of good men on the force, but there are a few who fall short in certain areas. We’re working on it.”

I nod in acceptance of this apology. Prejudice is rampant these days. The Gifted are human, just like Norms. The only difference is that we have a gift, a magical power of some sort. Some, like Dragomira, are Gifted in spell casting. Others, like me, have a special strength in one specific area. Prior to the birth of Vampires, the Gifted were hunted down as Witches and burned. But once the Vampires were born, the Gifted often helped protect the Norms. It is due to this help that small pockets of humans were able to survive until the Great Pact between Daylight Vampires and humans was made. Since then, many of the Gifted have stayed in public service positions like mine.

Unfortunately, being that we are human, there are still those who are subject to selfishness and greed, and a percentage of us, just like humans, do immoral things. Being Gifted allows those of us who are so inclined to take greater advantage of Norms. Even when we don’t, many Norms are fearful simply because the Gifted are mysterious and unpredictable to them.

The Daylight Vampires, however, are generally well tolerated in society in general, except by some of the more extreme hate groups, because they keep the Dark Vampire population down. During the worst of the Red Ages, Daylight Vampires struck an agreement with humans. Each human, Gifted included, provides a pint of blood to the blood banks every three weeks, and in turn they do not hunt us. They also agreed to keep their populations down, and they police this rule strictly amongst themselves. Anyone who makes too many children is using up too much of the blood supply and is hunted down.

But there are many hate groups, particularly among those of orthodox religions, who would like to see all Vampires and Gifted wiped out. They say that if all Daylight Vampires were killed, then Dark Vampires would go extinct naturally and there would be no need for the Gifted. This is certainly true since all Dark Vampires start out as Daylight Vampires and don’t turn Dark until they kill in bloodlust. The requirement to give blood every three weeks is considered by many to be inconvenient, and this alone causes plenty of resentment.

Due to the nature of the prejudice that permeates our society, I am not new to hate rhetoric. Still, it hurts.

Doing my best to brush off the encounter, I ask Gambino, “What have you found out about our boy?”

Gambino opens a folder on his desk. “The boy was on our missing persons list. He was seventeen years old and was missing for twenty-eight days. The investigating officer thought he was a runaway, but the parents claimed there was no reason for him to run. We have already notified the parents, and they identified the body at the Medical Examiner’s this morning. The boy’s name was Jason O’Connell.”

I stand up and pace a little in Gambino’s tiny office. My blood is still high from the incident with Schmidt, and the office feels confining. I hardly take three strides before I have to turn. “Please don’t mind me,” I say to Gambino. “I just have to move a little. Continue, if you would.”

Gambino nods, obliging me. “The M.E. faxed over the grill pattern they found on the boy’s skin. We are searching for the model car it belongs to. They also have some paint chips found on his skin in forensics, and we found glass at the scene. Hopefully between these three pieces of evidence we’ll get a match on a car registered in the area.”

“Have you read the preliminary report from the M.E. yet?”

Gambino taps his folder. “Yes. I’d like to nail the asshole who did that to a seventeen-year-old boy. Our perp is a real sicko.”

“You and me both. Do you have any persons of interest?”

“Well,” Gambino pauses as though reluctant to reveal what he must. “There was some trouble in the family. The parents have been estranged for about four months. The mother is Gifted, and she hid it from her husband for almost twenty years. When Jason’s gift came to light and his father rejected it under no uncertain terms, his mother revealed her gift and stood by the boy. The father left the home when this happened. We’ve talked with both parents, and I don’t see any real evidence pointing to either of them, but maybe the father was so ashamed that he decided to off the boy.”

Gambino pauses for a moment and shakes his head. “I just don’t see a father who loved the boy for seventeen years, turning around and doing this kind of work on his own son.”

Gambino points to a photo of the boy’s back with the lash marks highlighted under a bright camera flash. It is a gory photo, but it’s not nearly as impactful as what I saw with my own eyes just hours before.

“He doesn’t seem like that type of man, and he has no history of violence,” Gambino continues. “But for now, that’s all we have.”

I offer, “Well, there might be something else going on.”

I reach into my pack, take out a small glass vial, and place it on the table. “This charm will prevent others from hearing what I’m about to say, and I need you to stop taking notes.”

Gambino looks at it curiously. “What’s in it? Sand?”

I laugh softly because it does look like sand. “It’s filled with dried, ground worms as they are one of the few creatures that can’t hear.”

Gambino makes a noise that clearly expresses his disgust.

I defend myself. “It could be made of octopus or squid, but they are way out of my price range. This is just as effective.”

I can see by his face that he is unsettled but accepting, so I go on with my news. “After your forensics team left, I did another search with my sixth sense and found an amulet in the bushes. After some research, I learned it’s an ancient piece with significant powers. I have it placed in an evidence bag and stored safely for now. What’s interesting is the piece of dark red thread caught in the clasp. Do you want us to keep it, or do you want to store it in the evidence locker?”

Gambino looks up. “That’s very interesting. The preliminary report from the M.E. said a red thread was snagged in the boy’s fingernail. I think I’d like to see it, so if you could bring it down, that would be excellent.”

I nod. “You can start taking notes again.”

When he lifts his pencil, I go on. “When I went back to the Cock and Bull Tap to question the bartender about the man in the red cloak, I got the following description: he’s in his forties or fifties, is about six feet tall and thin with a long nose. He has a neatly trimmed, full beard and mustache. His facial hair is dark brown to black and slightly graying. Eyes are also dark. Head hair could not be seen due to the cloak’s hood. He was well dressed in trousers, a white dress shirt, and a tie.”

When I stop speaking, Gambino stops taking notes. That is what I like about Gambino. He’s a professional with good attention to detail.

I step forward and ask, “Does that description match anyone in the family?”

Gambino says, “It doesn’t match the father, and no other men lived in the household.”

I pause to think for a moment. “Do you know what the boy’s gift was?”

Gambino leans back in his chair, stretching his legs out. “That was one of the strange things. Neither parent seemed to know. It makes sense from the father because he wanted nothing to do with the boy after finding out he was Gifted. But the boy’s mother stuck up for him, and I would have thought she would know. All she said was that the gift was kind of crazy and would interfere with other magic. That’s all she knew for sure.”

I try to give this information some context for Gambino. “Sometimes when a child has a gift, it takes a while for them to figure out how to work it. The gifts usually show themselves around puberty, so this boy may have just been a late bloomer, gift-wise. I myself struggled to understand my gift. Since a child’s gift is usually nothing like their parents’, even a Gifted parent can’t guide their child in understanding their own gift.”

Gambino’s eyes reveal a new understanding when I finish. Then he asks, “Do you have anything else?”

“Well, yes and no.” I fiddle with my hands as I say this next part. “This morning I was disarmed and held briefly at knife point while a masked man asked me about the amulet.”

At this Gambino stands up and curses. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!”

I feel his protective streak resurface, and I wait patiently for him to sit down and reassume his mask of calm. When he does, I go on.

“I didn’t see anything new or helpful beyond the description the bartender gave me, but the man could have fit that description. Obviously because he was masked I can’t identify him. I was able to get away, but by the time I reached my gun and turned around, he was gone. He did his disappearing act again.”

Gambino raps his fingers loudly on the desk. “The disappearing man,” he muses. “Is there anything else I should know about?”

I give him a wry smile. “No, not at this time. I do want to talk to the parents myself though. Can you send their information over to my office?”

“Sure. Let me see you out, then.”

I pick up my privacy charm, and Gambino escorts me back to the sallyport.

As I walk to my car, I notice that Officer Schmidt and his cohort are standing by a patrol car talking. They’re standing in profile and must be able to see me, but they make it a point to ignore me.

As I hop in my car, my chimerator pulls tight. I flip the lid and see Jack’s face reflected. I answer the call, “Hola.”

Jack growls, “Blue, I told you I wanted daily reports. Are you alright?”

“I’m just leaving the precinct. I’m on my way over.”

“Well, hurry up.” Jack disconnects.

Cripes! He really needs to learn some phone manners.

I turn on the ignition, and with my arm stretched out over the back of the passenger seat, I slowly back up. A crackling and popping noise followed by a slow hissing sound emits from my tires. Just my luck.

Heaving a huge sigh, I slide the transmission back into park and climb out of the car. Both rear tires are as flat as pancakes. I get down on my hands and knees to carefully feel around on the pavement under my back tires. Sure enough, I pull out a handful of sharp nails, all the same size and all shiny new as though fresh from the box. I shield my eyes with my hands and look into the sun toward the direction of Officer Schmidt and his accomplice. I can see they are both laughing and taking sidelong glances at me.

I kick my tire in frustration and look up at them again only to see they are still laughing. I could go over there and accuse them, but they would surely deny it. Men of the law would never do such a thing, of course. I could threaten to hex them! I wonder if they would believe that I’m capable of performing hexes. That would be funny but a bit childish. Unfortunately, I think my revenge will have to wait until an appropriate opportunity presents itself.

Leaning up against the side of the car, I flip the chimerator open again and say “Rubalia.” Rubalia is our office assistant extraordinaire. The chimerator works its magic, and a few seconds later, she answers.

“Rubalia speaking.”

“Rubalia, I’m at the precinct and I have two flat tires. Can you send a tow truck?”

Rubalia’s reflection shows her glasses slipping down the bridge of her nose as she peers over them. “Two flat tires! That is quite a coincidence.”

“It’s no coincidence, as you darn well know. Can you please tell Jack I’ve been held up and will be in as soon as I can?”

Rubalia purses her lips and furrows her brow. “Of course. I’ll get someone out to you right away.”

Chapter 10 The Office

Bluebell Kildare: May 27, 2022, Red Ages

Two hours and too much money later, I’m on my way to the office again. As I navigate downtown, I pass yet another group of protestors wearing yellow robes outside the Mayor’s office. I press my fingers to my forehead as though to ward off the headache they are about to give me. The Dilectus Deo, or Beloved of God, as it is translated, are a cult of Norms who believe all Vampires and Gifted should be eliminated and that ungifted and unturned humans are the true children of God. I personally think the Dilectus Deo are more frightening than even Dark Vampires. They appear to be peacefully protesting, but the signs they hold are anything but. One reads, “Kill the leeches.” Another reads, “Aberrations should be put down,” as though we are animals.

What really makes me mad is the mom out there with her daughter who can’t be more than eight years old, shaking a sign up and down that says, “Get the Aberrations out of my classroom!” It appears they start the hate training early. The kids who are taught to hate early rarely have enough strength to break away from a family culture of hatred. The girl has hardly any chance to develop an independent mind because she can see with what vehemence any objection or alternate thinking will be treated. I sigh deeply and keep driving.

When I arrive at work, I park my car and walk toward the Supernatural Investigation Bureau building. It rises up, a sleek glass and steel structure, three stories high. This is the central office for the entire Smoky Mountain region, though our unit focuses on the City of Crimson Hollow. Crimson Hollow is the capital of the region and spreads out over the most scenic, mountainous areas of the Smokies surrounded by smaller outlying suburbs. It’s divided by districts with each district covered by a different unit.

As I approach the building at a fast clip I see my reflection in the shiny glass. Maud’s saying that “good posture makes the woman” flits through my head when I notice that I’m walking with a straight back and my head held high. She would be happy to see that.

The air thickens and buzzes slightly around me as I walk through the wards just beyond the entrance. The entire building is ensconced in highly specialized wards, and only those who work here can walk straight through.

When I exit the elevator on the third floor, I follow the arrowed sign that reads “Homicides.” I am newly amused each time I read it, as it seems to invite me down the hall to be murdered.

As soon as I walk through our department door, the inviting reception area surrounds me with the comfort of home. I love this office and I’m so proud to be a part of it. The room glows with the warmth of oak furniture and dark brown leather upholstery. Fresh flowers on the tables and impressionist paintings on the walls bring color to the room while the sunlight filtering in through the floor-to-ceiling windows brings the whole setting to life.

I remember two years ago when I came here on my first day, the office seemed so professional and grown-up, and I felt like neither. I was sure that before long, my inadequacies would be revealed and Jack would send me packing. No one was more surprised than I when it turned out I was actually good at this job. It’s probably because I truly believe in what we do.

The goal of the Supernatural Investigation Bureau is to maintain interbreed peace and security. Our unit, of course, is a small but vital part of the machinery that makes that possible. We use our skills and our strengths to keep the peace and ensure the balance between the Norms, the Gifted, and the Daylight Vampires. We do this by bringing Dark Vampires to the sun, persecuting the Gifted and Daylight Vampires who commit homicide, and persecuting Norms who commit homicide against the Gifted or Daylight Vampires. The regular police are simply not equipped to deal with these crimes the way our strength and special powers allow us to deal with them.

Reigning queen over the reception area stands Rubalia, but she is far more than a receptionist. She is a brilliant research assistant, an office manager, and, I sometimes think, a goddess. Rubalia has deep brown skin and black shoulder length hair styled in big waves with flippy ends tipped in gold. She wears ruby red cat eye glasses trimmed in marcasite as her crown. Her robes are elegantly fitted skirt suits, and her weapons are dangerously sharp and high stilettos.

The gold tips in her hair are her magical mark, but I am unsure of what her gift is. Some gifts are very personal or simply frivolous, so it is considered rude to ask. It would be equivalent to men comparing phallus sizes in polite society. I speculate that her gift is to be creative, or to find information, or even to keep order. When my mind is being extremely wicked, I imagine that our uptight reception commander is really Gifted in pleasures of the flesh and lives a secretly lurid lifestyle when she leaves the office. Go Rubalia! Sometimes imagination is more fun than reality, anyway. In reality, she would probably slice and dice me with her stilettos if she had the faintest inkling of my imagination. Some things are best kept to one’s self.

Rubalia is extremely efficient, is highly professional in her work, and tells it like it is. She simply will not allow anyone to be disorderly in her space or in the processes relating to the office. She allows us to be messy in our own offices as is evidenced by our office mate Xavier Ramsey. But woe be unto us if we forget to pick up our messages or a document or if we don’t properly charm our papers blank when we’re done with them. If we miss an appointment, Rubalia is not shy about giving us a dressing down that we will not soon forget. This is a professional office and “by God” she is going to make sure we behave like professionals.

I now know that the real reason I succeeded at being a professional when I started was simply that Rubalia would not allow me to be otherwise. One day I should thank her for that. That is, if she will allow me.

Right now Rubalia is speaking with Ernesto Ramos-Delgado who is asking for a map of this week’s Dark Vampire sightings and incidents. Rubalia plots the sightings, and Ernesto uses the map to target his hunts. He’s primarily responsible for eliminating Vampires who kill while feeding, thus turning from Daylight Vampires into Dark Vampires.

Not only does Ernesto keep tabs on Daylight Vampires in our vicinity, but he also watches out for Dark Vampires who matriculate in from other areas. He calls on Jack for backup in more extreme cases. Jack is very old, even by Vampire standards, and thus very strong. Ernesto is also relatively old, and he is a skilled fighter in martial arts and swordplay. Of course he can use a gun too, but guns are useless against Vampires. He does use a compound crossbow that shoots oak stakes as an effective means to eliminate Dark Vampires.

Essentially Ernesto is an executioner—or an exterminator, depending on your outlook. By nature of the fact that a Daylight Vampire must kill in bloodlust in order to turn into a Dark Vampire, their very presence is a proclamation of guilt. Because of this, no trial is required, and they are free game to be killed by any. The only way a Dark Vampire can be killed is by an oak stake to the heart, Holy Water, exposure to the sun, or being thrown on holy ground. Even if you decapitate them, you had best throw Holy Water on them or hold them down until sun-up, otherwise their bodies will continue to crawl around searching for their heads. Finding their heads and placing them back on their necks will revive them, thus the name Night-Crawlers.

Basically, since they are pure evil, the only thing that really ends them is something purely holy. I am not sure why a wooden stake is purely holy. I should remember to ask Father O’Brennen.

When Ernesto finishes speaking to Rubalia, he turns to me and lifts up his arm, waving it down again in a graceful flourish while bowing low to me. I feel my face heat up in a blush. I’ve always wanted to respond to his bows with a curtsy of my own, but I don’t know how. It would be utterly embarrassing anyway. Right now I clutch on to my cumbersome backpack as an excuse.

“Good afternoon, Señorita Blue,” Ernesto says.

Ernesto must have been turned in his mid-fifties. He has light brown skin and short, dark hair with a sprinkling of gray. His elegant, swooping mustache is the perfect accent to his tall, lean form.

I smile at him and respond, “Good afternoon, Ernesto.”

I feel Ernesto’s eyes sweep over me, then keenly focus on my neck for a moment. I breathe a sigh of relief when he chooses to ignore my injury, instead flashing me an easy smile as he walks away.

I drag my pack up to the counter in front of Rubalia’s desk and lean over it, hoping to keep the cut out of view. “Good afternoon, Rubalia. Are there any messages for me?”

Rubalia hands me a small stack and pins me with her eyes like I’m an errant teenager. “Good afternoon, Blue. Jack has been very agitated because you didn’t contact him today. Next time we would all appreciate you contacting him sooner. He’s responsible for everyone in the office, you know.”

I accept my comeuppance and apologize. “I’m sorry, Rubalia. It was a very busy day. I’ll try to do better in the future.”

Rubalia holds her mouth in a stern line and says, “Don’t try. Do.”

I nod with chagrin and walk straight back to Jack’s office, wondering what I’ll see when I arrive. I start to knock, but before my knuckles even touch the wood Jack calls for me to come in.

Jack sits with his arms flat on the desk, leaning forward while tapping a pencil against the wood top. I had expected anger, but I see warmth in his gaze as he takes me in. Jack is a good boss. He’s fair, and he gives good advice, but he lets each of us run our own investigations. He primarily acts as support and backup, but he does seem to pay extra attention to my work.

Realistically, I am physically the weakest of my comrades. My gender limits my physical strength, my gift isn’t helpful in a physical confrontation, I’m a non-Vampire, I’m relatively young, and I am inexperienced compared to everyone else.

Thankfully, Jack doesn’t hold me back at all; he just keeps tighter tabs on me than he does my counterparts. Sometimes I wish it were because he had feelings for me, but there are too many practical reasons for his overprotection to conclude that.

Jack Tanner is a dichotomy of a man. He wears impeccably tailored suits and mixes with the upper echelon with charm and ease, yet when in his comfort zone his manners can be rough and quite abrupt. While his attitude is often cool and distant, his nature is protective and his actions show he’s caring. He has incredible strength and speed and can be a warrior when needed. All in all, he’s an excellent man to have on your side and would make for a fearsome enemy.

I stand in the middle of the room, simply because I prefer standing to sitting, but with Jack’s gaze on me, I feel awkward. “I’m sorry I didn’t get into the office until just now. It has been a really busy day.”

Jack’s eyes look concerned, then I see his nostrils flare. He stands, and in the blink of an eye he is right next to me. I always find it disconcerting when he moves so fast, especially now because he’s standing a bit in my personal space. He slowly moves all around me, circling me like a jungle cat, clearly assessing me, close but not touching.

When he comes around to the front of me again, he asks in a low, growling voice that rolls through me, making my abdomen clench with an ache. “What happened today? Your neck is injured and you’re shaky.”

Jack is so close that I have to tilt my head back to see his eyes. It’s challenging to stand so close to him and not reveal how he affects me.

“What do you mean I’m shaky?” I ask, ignoring the more obvious question. I try not to notice the strong line of his jaw close enough to my lips that I could just lean in and lick it. I try to ignore the deep, musky scent of his skin that makes me want to inhale deeply. I fail on both counts.

He reaches his hand out to my arm but pauses torturously just a hairsbreadth from my skin. He drops his hand, instead saying, “Your aura is thicker today. Thicker and shaky.”

My mind wars with the urge to either touch him or to step away and remove temptation entirely, but instead I stand immobilized within easy reach.

“How do you know what my aura looks like?” I ask.

Jack shifts on his feet, lifts his hand toward me, and then drops it again. He mercifully returns to his desk, at human speed this time, and sits down. What would he have done if I had reached out for his hand and caressed it? Too late to find out, as the moment has passed.

Jack says, “I never told you? That’s my gift. I can see auras.”

“No. I didn’t know you had a gift, and I don’t see a mark. In fact, I didn’t know Vampires could even have gifts!”

I move to sit in the chair across from him. I was a little unsteady just now, and it seems safer in the chair.

Jack frowns. “We were human once, just like you, Blue. Some of us are Gifted.”

“Oh. I guess it was wrong of me not to consider that!” He’s piqued my curiosity now. “So, what does my aura look like?”

“Beau...” Jack cuts himself off. I swear he was about to say “beautiful.”

He continues. “It is a white light with a faint tint of blue. The tint is the same tone as your eyes, blue with a touch of violet, only much lighter. Hardly blue at all. Usually it’s only a hazy outline, but today the margins are much thicker. It comes out almost three inches, and it’s wavering like a flame.”

“Hmm. Well, it must be because I had a challenging day.” I tilt my head and squint at Jack. “So, Jack. You must be an expert on auras, since you are one of the few people who see them.”

Jack looks a little uncomfortable when I make this declaration, but he nods. “I do know more than most.”

“Well, have you ever heard of someone having an aura strong enough to scare Dark Vampires away?”

Jack suddenly starts coughing very hard, and his color turns a little gray just before he turns his head away. When the coughing subsides, he finally looks up at me and asks, “Where did you hear this?”

I try to sound nonchalant. “Oh, Father O’Brennen and I were talking, and he mentioned hearing that happened once.”

Jack is my boss, so I really don’t want to get into the whole died at birth, chased Dark Vampires away by the age of three, and was rescued by a mysterious Daylight Vampire thing. It seems a little heavy. What I want is for him to think of me as a capable professional.

Jack seems to have recovered from his spontaneous coughing fit and says, “As a matter of fact, I think there was one case that I recall, a long time ago. I would prefer not to go into the details, though.”

Then, in an obvious attempt to change the topic, he demands, “You’re injured. You have been avoiding telling me about it. I need to know what happened.”

I retort, “Like you are avoiding telling me about auras chasing Vampires away?”

Jack smiles smugly. “Yes. Exactly like that, except that you work for me. Tell me what happened.”

Jack leans back in his chair and his hair, which is full of dark gold curls, catches the sunlight from the window. He keeps it long enough so you can see the curls but not long enough for them to be ringlets. He has vivid green eyes and a disturbingly sexy five o’clock shadow. His broad shoulders look magnificent in his light gray suit. I’m not sure what make it is because I don’t shop in those stores myself, but it is clearly very elegant. His charcoal gray tie hangs loose, and his top shirt button is undone, both very uncharacteristic of him. I wonder if my late timing made him that upset or if it was something else. His eyelids droop lazily as he leans back in his chair, looking the picture of ease, but I’m not fooled. He’s watching me intently.

I take a deep breath, gathering the courage to tell him about the incident with the masked man. Since no out presents itself and I see no way to further delay, I fold my hands in my lap and say gently, “As I was leaving my apartment building today, a man grabbed me from behind in the alley, disarmed me, and held a knife to my throat.”

Jack doesn’t move a hair, but the air in the room immediately fills with a violent, thrumming energy. He, who is usually so hard to read, is pouring deathly rage into the room to such an extent it seems the very air is becoming pressurized to the point of explosion. Outwardly I see only that his eyes tighten at the corners and turn into two black, bottomless pits. His mouth is fuller, a sign his fangs have extended, though he keeps his lips tightly sealed. His absolute stillness feels indubitably more dangerous than a thousand men attacking with knives. Others might not notice anything wrong if they walked in this room at this moment, but with my gift, I feel it. I am almost overcome by it.

I lift my chin a degree and brave the threatening explosion. “The man was wearing a mask and had me from behind, so I can’t give a good description. From what I could tell, he was about six feet tall and thin, with an obvious beard beneath the mask. That matches the description from the bartender at the Cock and Bull Tap of the man wearing the red cloak. There was no red cloak today, though. He was wearing a gray cloak and dark pants with a white top. He was asking about the amulet, but I obviously didn’t tell him where it is.”

Jack moves his hands slightly, gripping the edge of his desk. Despite seeing his knuckles turn white and hearing the wooden desk groan beneath his fingertips, I finish the tale.

I drop my voice to a whisper, knowing full well he can hear me clearly but hoping to calm him slightly as I recount the entirety of the events. When I finish, Jack’s eyes are still black pools, but he has relaxed his hold on the desk. I see the intelligence has returned to his eyes, and they start to flicker as he internally calculates all the possibilities of what happened, what could have happened, and what might happen. I’m afraid of what his conclusions might be, but even this is preferable to the mindless black rage I saw in them a few moments ago.

Jack finally leans forward and appears to regain his voice. Through his clenched teeth he snarls, enunciating the key words, “You took an injured wolf that was about to kill a man…in your car with you?”

I’ve learned that when Jack is snapping like steel I need to remain strong like silk.

“Well, when you put it that way, it doesn’t sound so great. But it was really fine. I went straight for my Glock, but I didn’t need it.” I decide not to tell Jack that I couldn’t make myself pull the trigger. He doesn’t seem in the mood to hear it, and I’m not above omitting teeny tiny, irrelevant facts such as that.

“And where is this wolf now?” Jack inquires.

“He’s with my friend Alexis getting cleaned up, cared for, and fed.”

This seems to settle Jack down slightly, but still he probes, “And he showed no signs of aggression toward you or Alexis?”

“None whatsoever, I swear, nor toward her assistant. I’m sure his aggression was directed solely toward the man.”

Jack settles back a bit more.

I stand up again and start pacing. “So, as I was saying, I had to drop the wolf off at Alexis’ so this put me behind. Then I went straight to the Medical Examiner’s office.”

Jack nods his head and says, “We’ll get back to the masked man in a moment. But tell me, what did you find out from the M.E.?”

I hand Jack a copy of the preliminary report. Jack sits quietly for a few minutes, scanning through it. He flips through the pages, and I watch his face as it goes through several degrees of disgust and rage—not quite the degree of rage I saw just a few moments ago, but rage nonetheless. When he finally looks up, his mood is black.

“It was pretty bad,” I say.

Jack’s mouth presses in a tight line. “I see that it was.”

“Well, I also stopped by the Dragomir Magical Artifact Shop and got a little history on the amulet.”

Jack looks curious. “Did you speak with The Dragomir herself?”

I raise my eyebrow. “Yes. Do you know her?”

Jack’s lips twitch slightly, and I can see immediately that he does know her, perhaps personally. I feel more than a little angry about this and try to school my face from forming the scowl it wants to. I remind myself he is my boss, and even if he were interested in me, it would not be wise to pursue any type of relationship. He is also goodness knows how old, so I must seem terribly immature to him. He probably has some stunning Vampiress that I cannot possibly compete with keeping him company at home. This thought does not help with my scowling problem.

Jack says, “Yes. I’ve known her for some years. She’s an expert on certain topics.”

I scowl despite myself. I bet she is an expert on certain topics!

Jack gives me an assessing glance and asks, “How did your interview with her go?” I frown and contemplate how much to tell him. I stand and pace a little as I speak, feeling restless for some reason. “She gave me a hard time at first, but when I showed her a drawing of the amulet she was very forthcoming. She told me the amulet is part of a key. There are two parts: the amulet and an eye that fits in the center. The eye is missing from the piece I have. Both together serve as the key to the Grimorium Cantionum Spiritualium.”

Jack sits up straight. “The Spell Book of the Spirit and Soul?

I nod slightly, watching his reaction.

Jack demands, “And where do you have it stored?”

“I have it hidden in the wall of the bell room in St. Michael’s Church. I thought it best to stash it on holy ground.”

“That was a good choice,” Jack says. “So, did Dragomira tell you the history of the book?”

“Yes. How did you know about it, though? It sounds like it was kept pretty secret.”

Jack frowns and looks out the window, obviously considering what to tell me. “Years ago I did some research on the Birth of Vampires. That is actually how I met The Dragomir. I’ve never seen the book, of course; no one has. I’ve only read some of the history.”

Something has been bothering me about the story, and I bet Jack knows the answer. “How come this story isn’t well known? It was obviously pivotal in our history.”

Jack stands up and appears to be concentrating on something outside the window before he angles toward me. “The book itself is too powerful for many to know of. But to get to the root of your question, remember that it took some time for the Vampire population to grow and cover the globe. It wasn’t until about a third of the way through the Deconstruction Era of the Red Ages that knowledge of Vampires was widespread, and the incident with the book had long past. People just knew that Vampires were. The further civilization deconstructed, the harder communication and learning became. Then, of course, during the Bloody Era of the Red Ages, all humans were in hiding.”

Jack walks close to me, standing slightly in my body space again. His eyes implore me for something. “Even though I was turned during the Bloody Era of the Red Ages, I am not proud of who we were and what we did. I know that most Daylight Vampires feel the same. We are ashamed of how we treated humans and how we looked away as Dark Vampires destroyed your breeds.”

My mind reels. Jack has just dated himself to before the Reconstruction Era. That makes him over five hundred years old. Jack’s eyes search my face, and I can feel that he is seeking some sort of absolution from me, a person who had not even been born at that time.

“Jack,” I say, “you are only responsible for your own actions, and what you do today speaks to who you are now, not what your people did five hundred years ago. Civilization is such a thin veil over our savage selves, easily lifted by some for personal glorification. Look at the Dilectus Deo if you want an example of that. We fight to hold on to our moral values and maintain civility between breeds. Regardless of what your people did in the past, Daylight Vampires did make the peace pact with humans that brought on the Reconstruction Era. Today you keep us safe from Night-Crawlers, and today that is what matters.”

I can see his eyes lighten, and he steps back, leaning against the wall of windows behind him. Then he looks sharply at me. “So someone’s trying to get the book now. It is a very dangerous book, Blue. It could be an interbreed disaster if it gets into the wrong hands. It could destroy the peace we’ve fought for during the last five hundred years.”

“I know,” I say. “I also learned a few more things today, but before I get into that, I want to show you this.” I reach behind my back and pull out my knife.

Jack’s eyes light up. He holds out his hand and says, “May I?”

I give it to him hilt forward and watch him caress it with his thumb and his eyes. “It’s beautiful,” he says.

“Dragomira gave it to me. I wasn’t sure if I should take it. It’s obviously very valuable. However, after the incident this morning, I couldn’t say no.”

Jack looks up at me with a question in his eyes, then he seems to answer it for himself. You should keep it,” Jack says. “Do you have a sheath for it?”

I shake my head.

Jack takes it to his closet and steps inside with it. I can see some ammunition belts and swords hanging, but Jack’s broad back blocks most of my view. He rummages around a little, then closes the door. Turning back to me, he places the knife in a beautifully embossed black leather sheath. He hands it to me. “A weapon this special should be housed properly.”

I smile from ear to ear as I run my fingers over the exquisite craftsmanship.

Jack says, “Now, about the other things that you learned. Please tell me everything.” He is back to his feigned laziness again, crossing his legs gracefully as he leans against the window.

I oblige. “After the M.E.’s, I went to the precinct. The boy was on the missing persons list for twenty-eight days. His name is Jason O’Connell. He had a magical gift, but it is unclear what it was as he was just coming into power. His mother is Gifted as well, and she hid it from her husband for their entire marriage. When the boy came out, the mother came out as well, and the father split. He is obviously a person of interest, but Gambino isn’t feeling it.”

“You plan on questioning them?”

I pace a little, then come to a halt before the window. “Yes. I will do that first thing tomorrow. I should be in the office before noon.”

I pivot toward Jack as a thought comes to mind. “By the way, can I share openly with Gambino about the book?”

This must be an important question because Jack raps twice on the window behind him in his thoughtful way before answering. “I think we need to tell him a powerful and dangerous book is involved,” he says, “but I don’t think we need to give him details or the history. Furthermore, I don’t think you need to tell him where the amulet is. The fewer people who know, the better.”

I nod at this and contemplate it awhile. Jack seems to understand my pause, because he says, “Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to lie. It is sensitive information and we have a right—no, a responsibility—to keep it confidential. Tell him it falls under the category of privileged information.” I nod again, this time feeling a lot more comfortable.

Then Jack asks, “So, what are your theories on the murder so far?”

I start pacing again as I think for a moment. Many theories have run through my head, some more viable then others. “The boy was hit by the car at an angle. It seems to me if someone was purposely running him down it would most likely have been head-on, though not necessarily.

“It’s possible the murderer is not the same person who had the amulet and tortured the boy. I doubt it was the father, because what would the father who hated magic be doing with an amulet? Could the boy have gotten the amulet on his own? I don’t know. I think the amulet is the key to finding out what really happened. I’d like to know more about it.”

Jack says with hooded eyes, “Tomorrow I’m going to the Glenwood Charity Gala. They have a silent auction of magical artifacts. Everyone who is anyone in the magical community will be there, including the most knowledgeable of collectors. Why don’t you accompany me?”

“Isn’t that Gala to support the Green Tree Orphanage?”

Jack nods imperceptibly, and I wonder if he knows that I grew up at Green Tree.

“I don’t know,” I hedge, more than slightly embarrassed. “I’m not used to mixing with that crowd.”

Jack smiles warmly. “You’ll be fine. I’ll guide you in anything you need to know. The invitation is exclusive, and the timing is kept confidential, so please only share this information with those you trust. Dress in evening attire, and I’ll pick you up at eight.”

“Okay,” I say, because of course I do think it’s an excellent opportunity to meet a collector and gather more information on the amulet. After all, it is never wise to collect all your information from one source.

Jack becomes serious as he gestures to his guest chair. “Now sit down. We need to discuss the masked man in detail. First of all, why did you leave through the alley entrance rather than the front door?”

I sigh. “Because the front door had a wet paint sign on it. I assume he put it there to direct me to where he lay in wait. I should have been alert, but I was in a rush. Inexcusable, I know.”

Jack ignores my self-berating and says, “Well, a murderer obviously knows where you live, so we are going to have to keep an eye on your place. In fact, we could have a man there to try to catch him. Is there somewhere else you can stay for a while?”

I give Jack the evil eye, which I hope speaks louder than words, but just in case I vehemently insist, “No way am I going to cower down at someone else’s house. Nor are you putting a stranger in my place. If you want to have someone drive by, that is fine. But remember I can sense souls. The only reason I was surprised this time was because I was in a rush. I won’t make that mistake again.”

Jack looks dubious but says nothing further, so I stand up and excuse myself.

What does it say about me that on my way out, the question that is most unsettling and terrifying to me is what in the world am I going to wear to the freaking Gala?

Chapter 11 - 69

I hope you enjoyed the first 10 chapters. I provide them for free because I feel that if I cannot hook you into the story within the first 10 chapters then I do not deserve the sale. If I have hooked you, (and I truly hope I have!) you can purchase the entire 69 chapters with over 136,000 words, on Amazon.

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Lilo Abernathy