ASHES TO ASHES CHAPTERS 1-3

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Kissing should be the last thing you think about on the way to a crime scene, but for some reason, I could think of little else. Detective Adam Grayson and I hadn’t discussed what had taken place last night. What was there to say? We’d come close to bopping like bunnies, but I’d backed out at the last minute. I’m good at that. Just ask anyone.

Okay, I admit I was scared. Somehow, he’d gotten under my skin and I knew that if I had stuck around there would have been more than sex happening. Adam didn’t seem like a one-night-stand kind of guy. He seemed like the kind of guy you could count on to be there in the morning. The kind of guy who’d want a relationship afterwards.

I didn’t do relationships. Relationships made you vulnerable. Left you open to being hurt. I couldn’t survive that kind of pain again. The fact that I’d come close to breaking my dating rules for him spoke volumes.

The sun caressed the treetops, leaving light freckles on the gray sidewalks. The cars parked in the driveways blurred before my eyes, their colors a swirl of mismatched paint as we passed several miniature ranch homes before reaching our destination.

A white van with fat blue letters scrolled on the side of it sat parked beneath a bushy-headed oak with thick-knotted branches. I caught the word cleanup, before spotting something far more disturbing—Stephen Reynolds’s car rolling to a stop behind the van. We swung into the Hawkins’ driveway.

“What is he doing here?” I said more to myself than to Adam. I craned my neck to see, and watched Stephen step out of the Nova.

“Isn’t that your boyfriend, Alexa?” Adam asked.

“Ex, remember? But you already knew that or you wouldn’t have tried to seduce me last night.” With one look, I dared Adam to refute my claim.

His lips twitched. “How do you know that I’m so noble? I wasn’t exactly following police procedure last night.”

I smirked. “Call it a hunch.”

“Smart girl.” His smile slowly faded and his expression turned serious. “I want to thank you for putting a stop to last night. I shouldn’t have—it was wrong. Thanks.”

Not exactly what I’d hoped to hear from him, but I’d take what I could get. “You’re welcome.”

He reached for my hand. “You were right to put the brakes on. It’s better if we wait until the cases are closed.”

I nodded in agreement because I couldn’t think of what else to say. It was the right thing to do. Logically, I knew that, but logic wouldn’t keep me warm at night.

He glanced past me out the window. “I suppose we should go find out what he wants, since the scene is still off limits. The cleanup crew won’t be allowed in until tomorrow.”

“How do you know?”

His eyes twinkled. “I haven’t signed the sheet, giving them permission to enter.”

“Good reason.”

He laughed. “I thought so.”

I jumped out of Adam’s car the second it rolled to a stop. Stephen stood on the other side of the crime scene tape. “What are you doing here?” I asked.

“Good to see you too, Lex,” he said, before catching a glimpse of Adam. Stephen’s smile turned brittle. “What is he doing here? You should be tired of him by now.”

“Cop, remember?”

Stephen shrugged as if that bit of information was irrelevant.

My hands rested on my hips. “Now I’m going to ask you again. What are you doing here?”

Stephen glanced over his shoulder toward the cleanup van and nodded at the two men inside. One read a Sports Illustrated, while the other chatted on a cell-phone and munched potato chips. Neither looked bright enough to open the van doors without help.

“Friends of yours?” I asked.

He pointed to the guy scarfing down chips. “The one on the left is my buddy, Brad. He’s going to let me in to investigate, once they finish cleaning up.”

I grabbed Stephen by the forearms. “Listen, you have to let this one go. This isn’t like a normal investigation. People are dying.”

He pulled out of my grip. “Of course they are. That’s why I followed you.”

“This isn’t a joke, Stephen.”

“I know.” He tugged at his sleeves. “I told Finn that you have been holding out on us. The murders have been all over the news. You’vebeen all over the news. I knew there was no way you’d be anywhere near these crime scenes if there wasn’t a major haunt taking place. Unless, you’ve suddenly gone psycho and killed all those people.” He eyed me, trying the possibility on for size. “Nah.” Stephen laughed. “You may be a supreme bitch, but you aren’t a murderer.”

“Thanks.” I grimaced. “I appreciate the vote of confidence.”

He grinned, a lopsided flash of teeth that at one point in time I would’ve found cute. Not anymore. I recognized it for what it was, a seductively casual way to manipulate. Stephen wore black pants and a loose gray shirt that opened at the collar, exposing his throat and pale skin. His blond hair blew into his eyes and he swept it aside in a practiced move that used to set my heart aflutter.

I was shocked once more to realize that I felt nothing but sorry for him. Not even a hint of the emotion that had bonded us so many months ago remained. Pity. At one time, he’d been a really good friend. But now, that was gone, too. Even so, I couldn’t just let him walk into a dangerous situation without warning him.

“You need to listen to me and listen carefully. This has nothing to do with us,” I said.

He scowled. “By us, do you mean you and I or are you referring to you and the cop?”

“I don’t have time for your jealous nonsense. I have to go into that house now. Do yourself a favor and stay the hell away from the Changs’ and the Hawkins’s homes until the police wrap up their investigation.”

Stephen’s eyes narrowed and I saw a newfound determination in his expression that frightened me. “I never realized you were so territorial about your investigations. I’ll have to let Finn know,” he said. “No wonder the team never found anything on the nights that you were with us. You probably rigged our equipment or tampered with the evidence.”

I rolled my eyes. “There was no evidence, Sherlock.”

“You expect me to take your word for it after all the lies you’ve told us?”

I showed remarkable restraint as I shoved my hands into my pockets to keep from punching him in the face. “Are you even listening to yourself?”

He stepped closer. “Truth hurts. Doesn’t it?”

My voice softened, pleading for him to believe me. “I mean it, Stephen. I’m not kidding when I say that these locations are dangerous. I’ve never encountered anything like these haunts,” I said. “I’m scared. And you know if I’m scared, they are bad.”

Stephen stared at me for so long I almost thought that he hadn’t heard me. I had no idea what he was looking for in my expression, but he must have found it. Reluctantly, he nodded. “Fine. If it means that much to you, I will investigate somewhere else.”

“Thank you.” I brushed his arm.

His quick surrender made me nervous. Stephen never gave up that easy. I once saw him argue with Finn until three in the morning over the font setting in the Paranormal Friends Society’s newsletter. Not because it mattered, but because he didn’t want to lose the argument. In the end, Finn gave up and let Stephen have his way.

“This is important,” I reiterated.

“I said I’d investigate elsewhere and I will. I hope you know that I wouldn’t do this for just anyone,” he said.

I watched his expression, trying to discern if he was lying to me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell, so I let it slide. “I appreciate it,” I said reluctantly.

He stepped closer, crowding my personal space. “Do you mean that, Lex? Are you really grateful that I’m going to stay out of your way?”

Suspicion tickled my gut. “Yes,” I answered cautiously.

He gave me a knowing smile. “I can think of a few ways that you can prove it.” He reached out to touch me.

I sidestepped to avoid his hand. “Not happening,” I said.

Stephen suddenly straightened. “Have it your way.” He glanced over my head and his body tensed. “I think your new boyfriend wants you.”

My retort was immediate. “He’s not my—”

Stephen held up his hand. “Save it, Lex. I’ve seen how he looks at you. If you aren’t sleeping with him already, you will be soon.”

I didn’t answer him. What could I say? Well, yes. You’re right. We almost had sex last night. I didn’t think that Stephen would appreciate that level of honesty. Besides, I really wanted him to stay away from this house and the others. That wouldn’t happen, if I pricked his ego.

“Got to go.” I walked over to Adam, who’d been casually watching us.

When I got close, he put his arm around me and pulled me against his chest. Shocked by the public display of affection, I looked into his face, but he wasn’t staring at me. Adam’s gaze was locked on the sidewalk, where I’d left Stephen.

Men.I rolled my eyes, then pulled out of his grasp.

“Really? Try beating your chest next time. I hear it works well for primates.” I shook my head and left them to their silent face-off.

Finding out anything else about the Hawkins family murders had been wishful thinking on our part. Crime scene investigators had bagged and tagged anything of relevance, leaving only empty spaces behind. Blood still stained the walls, floor, and ceiling in the kitchen, and would continue to do so until the cleaning crew gained access. Someone had removed the chalkboard, for which I was grateful. I didn’t want to see the message again.

I hadn’t spotted the Shade or Huli Jing. Although I wasn’t altogether convinced that I’d seen her here in the first place.

An Amber alert had been issued for Ryan Hawkins. No vehicle was mentioned in the broadcasts, only a detailed description of Ryan. As much as I wanted to believe that he’d somehow escaped the brutal attack, I knew that was unlikely.

This mess made the Manson family’s work look amateurish. No human had created this devastation. I tried not to think of the seven kinds of hell Ryan must’ve gone through if it killed him last and took his body with it. I didn’t even want to consider the possibility it was keeping him breathing, like some kind of living trophy.

Why would it leave me alone and take Ryan? What made me so special? I shivered. Therapists called what I felt survivor’s guilt. It happened sometimes when a person survived something horrific, but the people around them died. The only thing I agreed with them on was the guilt part. I had it in spades.

“You about ready to go?” Adam asked.

“Yes.” I looked around the room one last time. “There’s nothing left here.”

Adam walked out of the kitchen and I trailed behind.

I stepped into the living room, seeing it again as it used to be. Mr. and Mrs. Hawkins would’ve been seated on the couch, their backs resting against the blue afghan. Mr. Hawkins would’ve been reading the paper, while Mrs. Hawkins crocheted. The Ryan that I knew would’ve been on the floor, playing with his Thomas the Train.

A lump formed in my throat and I looked away. “Do you think there’s a chance he’s still alive?” I asked.

There was a moment of silence, then a quiet sigh. “No. Even if he survived his parents’ attack, I doubt the killer would let him live past a few hours of amusement.”

I winced. I couldn’t help it. I pictured Ryan tied to a string like Mr. Wiggle’s toy.

“I’m going to take a quick look around the backyard. Do you want to wait here or come with me?” Adam asked.

The house was quiet. A few minutes alone would give me time to reflect and come up with a strategy. “I think I’ll stay here.”

Adam tugged my arm, pulling me around to face him. “You sure?” He stroked my arm soothingly.

I nodded. “Go on. The sooner you get that done, the sooner we can get out of here.”

He squeezed my shoulder as he passed. In his absence the silence I’d found comfort in moments ago turned sinister. I took a step toward the front door and saw a dark head pop up like a shark’s fin on the other side of the couch.

I did a double take. The dark head was still there, cruising silently along the back of the couch, positioning itself between me and escape. My senses went on high alert. I tried to breathe, but my chest constricted.

Huli Jing stepped out from behind the furniture and smiled. My three-foot-tall nightmare had returned, looking fresh-faced and innocent as she stood near the front door. The frightening mask no longer fooled me.

Her dark eyes were back, but I knew the flames weren’t far behind. The hair on my neck and arms rose with the static charge she produced. I reached into my pocket and felt emptiness, forgetting for a moment that I didn’t have any of my equipment with me. I took a side step, judging the distance to the door. I didn’t dare take my eyes off her. There was no way I’d make it before she reached me.

The burn on my shoulder began to throb and ache. I gripped it, breathing through the pain. “What are you doing here?”

She cocked her head and scowled, but didn’t answer. I don’t know why I expected her to. She hadn’t the last time we met. Did she like to come back to the scene of her crimes? Admire her handiwork? Or just to taunt me? I thought about the message on the board in the kitchen. Was she working with the Shade that killed my family? Were they some kind of murderous tag team?

That was a horrifying thought.

I began a slow retreat toward the kitchen where the back door was located. None of this made any sense. I was missing something and I had no idea what. Huli mirrored my steps, slowly closing the distance between us.

I chanced a glance over my shoulder to see how far away the kitchen was and if I could make it before she reached me. My eyes strayed to the picture window on the far wall. I’d go through the glass if I had to. The temperature began to drop. My body quaked, but it had nothing to do with the cold.

“What did you do with the boy?” I asked. “Where is Ryan?”

That question seemed to give her pause. A small frown dimpled her brow. Her eyes darkened, then flickered. Was that concern or surprise? I couldn’t be sure. Did she even feel emotions? I’d seen her cry, but that had been an act. In the next instant, I didn’t care because pressure crushed down upon me.

“You bitch,” I shouted as I grabbed my head and doubled over in pain. “You fucking demon bitch. I’m going to kill you.”

“You shouldn’t be here,” she said, using the voice of a child. “They’re gone. There’s nothing left for you to consume.”

I folded in on myself in an attempt to escape the pain. “They who?” What did she mean by consume?

Before she could answer, the door flew open behind me. “Alexa, are you all right?” Adam rushed forward.

With great effort, I twisted to one side. “Adam, run! Get out of here before she gets you.”

He stopped abruptly with an odd expression upon his face. “Before who gets me?”

I pointed at Huli. “Her.”

She grinned. Her amused macabre expression sent shivers along my spine. “He can’t see me.”

Adam glanced around frantically. “I don’t see anyone.”

My hand shook as I pointed to where she’d stood. “She’s right there.” Oh God, was I the only one who could see her?

“The room is empty,” he said. “We’re the only ones here, Lex.”

Huli grinned at me one last time, then disappeared.

A moment later, the temperature returned to normal. I released my head and straightened, the pain a fading memory. Cautiously, I approached the couch and looked behind it. Nothing. “Where did she go?” My search turned frantic as I scoured the living room.

“You want to tell me what’s going on?” he asked. Adam moved closer and gripped my shoulders to stop me. “There’s nothing here, Alexa.”

I growled in frustration “I know that, Adam. I can see.”

His hands slid up to my shoulders, where he began to massage the tension knotting my neck. “Then why did you tell me to run?”

“Because I thought...I thought... ” I rubbed my temples. “Forget it. I think I’m just tired. My mind is playing tricks on me. I’m seeing things that aren’t there.”

“Like Huli Jing?”

I tried to smile, but it came out like more of a grimace. “Yeah, like her.”

“Wait here.” Adam searched the whole house. I wasn’t sure if he’d done it for my benefit or for his. When he returned he said, “The house is definitely empty.”

Why hadn’t Adam been able to see her when he came into the room? It wasn’t like she was hiding. “It was probably just my imagination. I haven’t been sleeping well.” It was a lie and we both knew it, but Adam was kind enough not to call me on it.

Was I the only one who could see Huli Jing? No. I shook my head. Mrs. Chang had seen her, too. And now she was dead. Was Huli some kind of portent of death? Was that what awaited me? Or only the people close to me? It didn’t matter. I wasn’t the type to sit around and wait. If I was going to die, then I’d die hunting.

 

CHAPTER TWO

                                                

 “Tell me what you know about Solomon’s Seals.”

I could tell by Adam’s pained expression that he’d hoped I’d forgotten about Finn Logan’s suggestion to use the seals to catch the rampaging Shade.

“What I know is that you shouldn’t mess with magic,” he said. “It’s dangerous. Now let me take you home. I’m sure Shaggy would appreciate the company.”

I decided not to press the subject. Adam had gone above and beyond, for someone I didn’t even date. Far more than I deserved, to tell the truth. Yeah, I knew part of it was just him doing his job, but I wanted to think that he cared at least a little. Besides, if I wanted answers, I needed to go to the source—Finn.

Adam dropped me off at my house. He’d told me to lay low until he got back from the precinct. I figured that was the least I could do, considering all the trouble I’d given him. The message light on my voicemail was blinking, when I stepped through the door. I gave Shaggy’s furry head a quick pat, which earned me a tail wag, then hit the play button and strolled into the kitchen.

“Alexa, this is Gloria Jean Manson. The exorcism that you performed the other day didn’t work. Mr. Wiggles is back and seems more agitated than normal. Could you please phone me when you get in? I’m afraid he’s going to hurt Mrs. Peabody.”

I listened to the dial tone for a few seconds, trying to come up with a way to gently let Gloria down. I couldn’t have her getting hurt by this haunt, but in no way could I kill a spectral dog.

The phone rang, interrupting my inner debate. This time it was Adam. “I wanted to make sure that you were okay.”

I hesitated, then answered, “I am.”

“What’s wrong? You haven’t seen Huli Jing again. Have you?” There were phones ringing in the background and I could hear papers being shuffled.

“No, nothing like that. I got another call from Gloria. She’s still having problems with her gho—drywall.”

Adam chuckled. “You can drop the act. I’m not going to bust you for ghost-hunting without a license.”

I bit my lip. “Thanks.”

The tapping of computer keys came over the line. Slow and methodical, definitely the two-finger method. “What are you going to do?” Adam asked. I could almost picture him searching out the keys as we talked.

My grip on the phone tightened. “I may take a ride out there and see if I can scare it into silence for a while.”

He paused. “I thought you never had a problem killing ghosts.”

My hesitation was palpable. “I don’t, but this is different.”

“How?” he asked, genuine curiosity in his voice.

I sighed and ran a hand through my short blond hair. “It just is.”

“Hang on a sec.” His hand slid over the receiver. I heard muffled voices, but not much conversation. “Sorry about that,” he said a minute later.

“No problem.”

The voices around him were louder now, chaotically fighting for purchase to be heard over the din. “Listen, I have to get off here. Are you sure that you’re going to be okay?” he asked. “I shouldn’t be long, a few hours at the most.”

I smiled, letting warmth and confidence sink into my voice before answering. “I’ll be fine. It won’t take long. Besides, I need to get back and do more research. There has to be something I missed on my client list.”

“Be careful,” he said, his voice suddenly serious.

“I will.” I disconnected the call, then phoned Gloria. She picked up on the first ring.

She sounded out of breath like she’d been running around the house. “Alexa, thank goodness it’s you.”

My senses prickled. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, but I’m not sure Mrs. Peabody will be. Mr. Wiggles has been dive-bombing her for the past five hours. She’s peed so many times she doesn’t have any urine left. The poor thing is huddled in the corner now and won’t stop shaking. Every time I move to comfort her, Mr. Wiggles nips at my ankles.”

“I’ll be right over.” I hung up and walked into the kitchen. It had been a long time since I’d tried to trap a ghost by using salt. Mainly because it rarely worked and didn’t actually get them out of the house. I was hoping that Gloria had an extra room that we could drive Mr. Wiggles into temporarily. At least that way, he’d stop terrorizing her and Mrs. Peabody long enough for them to get some rest.

With kosher salt on hand, I drove to Topanga Canyon. Gloria hadn’t been exaggerating. Mrs. Peabody looked like she was about to have a doggy nervous breakdown. Her white fluff was matted to her body and her watery eyes bugged out of her head, making her look like a half-drowned, long-haired squirrel. Gloria was still in her pajamas and her pink hair was in disarray.

“I apologize for my less than acceptable appearance.” She worried the edges of her pink and yellow floral silk top, then rubbed her sweaty palms against the matching bottoms. The movement pulled at her pants leg, revealing a pair of fuzzy pink pig slippers and several red welts on her ankles. “I’m afraid it’s been a rough day,” she said. “I really don’t know what has gotten into Mr. Wiggles. He’s never behaved this badly.”

The temperature in the home was fairly normal, hovering around seventy degrees, but the feel had changed. As I looked around, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was different. It wasn’t so much negative as anticipatory. Waiting. But for what? “Gloria, do you have an extra room that you don’t use?”

She thought about it for a moment. “I rarely go into the guest bathroom.”

“Is it small?”

She nodded.

Thank goodness.

“How many doorways does it have?”

She frowned. “One. Why do you ask?”

“Since I’m having trouble vanquishing Mister—your old dog, I thought the next best thing may be to trap him in a room for a while.”

Gloria opened her mouth to say something, but I cut her off before she could speak. “At least until I can come up with a way to permanently remove him.”

“Oh my.” She pressed a hand to her chest, her expression pensive. “I suppose that will have to do. As long as he doesn’t have to stay up there for very long. Mr. Wiggles never liked being alone.”

“No,” I lied. “He won’t have to stay there for long.” I’d eventually get someone else to come in and finish the job, but it might take a month or two. That thought didn’t do much to ease my conscience.

I took out the ES and turned it on the lowest setting. I put the salt container in my pocket, then grabbed my infrared camera. It didn’t take long to spot the dog. He was running back and forth and jumping all over the place. I’d never seen a Shade do that. Maybe it was a dog thing. He kept looking out the windows and appeared to be barking, although I couldn’t hear a thing.

I glanced outside, but didn’t immediately see anything. I turned back to Gloria. “Are you sure you didn’t do anything different?”

“Positive. He’s been like this ever since you left.”

I supposed that could explain it, but even as the thought crossed my mind I didn’t quite believe it. Something had upset the dog. Something outside of the house. I raised the camera and aimed the viewer out the window and slowly panned from left to right. The sun made it impossible to distinguish hot spots.

I pointed the camera back at the dog. He was still watching out the window, not paying a bit of attention to me. “There’s nothing there, buddy,” I said. He cocked his head and looked over his shoulder at me, his tail wagging much like Shaggy’s.

Sometimes I really hated my job. I pressed the button on the electronic scrambler and watched his image quiver, then start to fade. Had I just killed him? I looked around frantically. It took me a second to find him again. He’d moved about five feet behind me and looked perfectly normal for a dead dog. Relief flooded me. That was close.

“Get going.” I shooed him up the stairs and pressed the button again.

The dog took off like a shot. With the infrared camera, I followed hot on his doggy heels. An hour later, I’d managed to herd him into the guest bathroom. I spread the kosher salt in front of the doorway, before he could dart out. I backed up and waited, watching him.

He sat a moment, his tongue lolling out of his mouth, then ran for what he thought was freedom. The second he hit the doorway, the dog bounced back, landing on his butt. He tilted his head from side to side, then tried it again only to achieve the same result. He barked soundlessly at the barrier.

The salt was working. But for how long was anyone’s guess. The third time Mr. Wiggles approached slowly and sniffed at the door.

I didn’t know if dead dogs could still smell things on this plane of existence. If they could, he’d just realized that there was something there. The dog didn’t try to break the barrier again. Instead, he walked deeper into the room and curled up on the rug in front of the shower.

“Good boy.”

That would at least keep him out of Gloria’s pink hair for a while. Maybe even allow Mrs. Peabody to calm down. It was the best I could do. I walked back down the stairs and found Gloria holding a trembling Mrs. Peabody.

She stroked the terrified dog. “Is it done?” she asked.

“Yes, for now. He won’t be able to get out of the bathroom unless someone removes the salt. I know it’s only temporary. I will do some more reading and see if I can find a permanent solution.”

The dog shook violently, nearly propelling her tiny body out of Gloria’s grasp. “Well, at least you’ve saved Mrs. Peabody. I don’t think she could’ve taken much more, the poor dear. Just look at her.”

“She’s in pretty bad shape, but I’m sure she’ll recover quickly. Dogs are like kids, they bounce back fast.”

Gloria shook her head. “I don’t know. I’m afraid that she might have a heart attack. I’ve already phoned the vet. He’s prescribed a mild sedative. Said if that doesn’t work, I’m to bring her in tomorrow and he’d recommend a counselor.”

I blinked in surprise. “For you or Mrs. Peabody?”

Gloria arched a pink brow and sniffed. “At least you haven’t lost your sense of humor, dear.”

I knew some people were gaga over their pets. And I freely admit that I’ve done some humiliating things to poor Shaggy, but I never once thought about putting him in therapy. Not even after the cone of shame situation.

 Gloria patted the dog’s head. “Mrs. Peabody can’t help it if she has delicate sensibilities.”

I just smiled. What else could I do? “I’d better get going. I have some research to do and my roses aren’t going to prune themselves.” I let her believe that the research was for her haunted terripoo, and then left.

When I pulled into my driveway, I noticed that Adam still wasn’t home. Part of me was disappointed, while the other half reminded me not to get too attached. He wouldn’t be around forever.

I took Shaggy out for a run, then went into my garden and pruned roses. Sweat dripped down my face, trickling between my shoulder blades. I worked until my fingers ached, allowing my thoughts to wander, but I was no closer to understanding what was happening and why.

Frustrated, I pulled off my gardening gloves and dropped them by the back door as I entered the kitchen. I fed Shaggy and put some chicken noodle soup on, then took a quick shower.

I perused my client records while I ate. I needed to determine if there were any other similarities between my slain clients that everyone, including me, had missed. Pulling out my notes for each case, I scanned the pages. I made a mental note to print from here on out. Not even pharmacists would be able to decipher my scribbles.

The Changs’ folder sat next to the Hawkins case, so it would be easier to peruse. Nothing immediately popped out. Neither family was into the occult. There’d been no altars found or haunted items discovered.

Unlike the Changs’ haunt, the Hawkinses hadn’t experienced routine poltergeist activity. They’d spotted a translucent figure on two occasions and experienced cold spots. Scary, yes. Dangerous, not normally. It had only taken me thirty minutes to dispatch the Shade in the Hawkins’s home. That had been two years ago. A follow-up call a week after the initial cleansing showed no new activity. To my knowledge, that hadn’t changed. 

So why had it started again?

The randomness of the attack ate at me. Had Ryan inadvertently drawn something to him? Doubtful. But he was the right age. Shades loved the young because they could see them and interact. Why hadn’t we found his body? Shouldn’t it have been there with his parents?

My notes told me no one owned a Talking board. The Changs didn’t even have children, so why had they been killed? Were their deaths in any way related to the Hawkins’s murders, other than being my clients? Or was that a fluke?

I wasn’t sure anymore. I certainly hadn’t seen Huli Jing the night my parents died. I would’ve remembered. Yet it was no coincidence that the bodies were piling up and I was at the center of the maelstrom.

As much as I hated to admit it, I decided it was time to call my other clients and check on them. If they were experiencing new activity, I’d warn them to leave their homes immediately.

By the time I made the sixth call, I knew I had a problem. I’d received two hang-ups and one lawsuit threat. The other two had sounded cheerful until I told them my name. They promptly claimed that I had the wrong number and disconnected the call. Word had obviously gotten around, thanks to all the unwanted media coverage.

I pushed the soup aside and kept dialing.

The final call was the most disturbing of all. I had phoned the Wendel family. The wife’s cousin had answered. She informed me that the Wendels had been killed a year ago in a freak accident. I hung up and put a question mark next to their name.

I knew it was possible that the Wendels had died without supernatural help, but I didn’t think it was probable. That meant that the first death had occurred long before this pattern emerged. Possibly much longer, since I hadn’t been able to reach everyone.

How long had my clients been dying without me knowing about it?

I stared at the list, noting the number of spaces between the Hawkins’s case and the Wendels’. There were seven. I then counted the number of spaces between the Wendels and the Changs. There were six.

Seven. Six.

Seven. Six.

My heart began to pound in my chest. It couldn’t be that simple, could it? I counted seven more spaces and my fingers landed upon Maria and Jose Gonzalez. There was a chance that all this was unrelated. But there was also the possibility that this was a pattern. A very familiarpattern. The same one that had come up on my Talking board all those years ago.

I couldn’t risk the Gonzalez’s lives, no matter how slim the chance. I’d rather have them kick me out or call the police to arrest me than to ignore my gut and have them end up dead.

I dialed their number, but there was no answer. They could be out. It was a beautiful day. Just because they did not answer didn’t mean anything bad had happened. They could be at the park or the zoo or at work, I thought, ignoring the panic rising inside of me. Maybe they were out of town. Would that protect them? I didn’t know. No matter where they were, I needed to find them. Needed to be sure they were okay.

I gathered all my equipment, shoving my EMP and ES into my pocket, and headed out the door. It would take me at least an hour to reach West El Segundo Boulevard in Hawthorne, one of the many suburbs in L.A. If this thing was after all my clients, I didn’t have a minute to spare.

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

The children were playing. Loud sounds of laughter battled the television for attention. The woman was in the kitchen cooking, while the man watched a pigskin being tossed around on the screen.

It waited patiently in the corner, looking for the perfect opportunity to strike. The man might abate its hunger, but not for as long as the children. Their young souls glistened like gold in their brown eyes. Tempting even the most patient.

It listened to their chatter. Watched to see if their dulled senses would flare to life. And still it felt nothing.

Nothing but the ever-present hunger that told it when to feed, so that it may live.

It was about to swoop in for the two tiny morsels, when it sensed the other moving swiftly toward its prey. It raced forward, determined to stop its enemy this time, but it was too late. The other arrived first. Again.

Anger filled it as the cold one swept the children’s souls away and removed their bodies right before its eyes. The man hadn’t even noticed when the laughter stopped. Nor had he felt the ensuing cold. But he did notice the burning pain that came from having your essence sucked out through your chest. And he did hear his wife calling his name a second before his neck snapped and the world he had so carefully built faded away.

I jerked and my forehead smacked the steering wheel. Wincing, I rubbed at the small knot that had started to form. My body felt weighted and groggy like I’d taken a long, deep nap. But for some reason I couldn’t remember falling asleep. I scrubbed a hand over my face and looked outside, expecting to see my house.

It wasn’t there.

Neither was my driveway.

I rubbed my eyes and looked again, but I was still parked on an unfamiliar street in a neighborhood I didn’t recognize. Where was I? I couldn’t remember starting the truck, much less driving. I concentrated, but couldn’t recall much of anything beyond grabbing my keys…and the dream. No, not a dream. Another nightmare. I searched for a street name or number.

It scared me that I didn’t know where I was or how I’d gotten here.

Most people were at work at this hour. My gaze landed on the nearest house. There was nothing special about its nondescript white siding. It looked much like the others. I was about to dismiss it, when my eyes locked onto the crisp black letters above the front door.

Bienvenido a Casa Gonzalez.

There were a lot of Gonzalezes in the greater Los Angeles area. The odds were that I was sitting outside a stranger’s home. But even as the thought crossed my mind, I knew this family had been one of my clients. One of the clients I’d checked on, but had been unable to contact.

A shiver tracked through me as I climbed out of my truck and walked to the front door. No one answered when I rang the doorbell. I glanced at the sedan and SUV in the driveway, then pounded on the door. If I hadn’t been listening so intently, I wouldn’t have heard the muffled scream. I rushed around the back, while dialing 911 on my cell- phone. I dodged the swing set and toys lying in the yard and raced to the sliding door.

It was locked.

Cupping my hands to the side of my face, I peered inside. I could see Maria Gonzalez leaning against a wall in the living room, clutching her husband, Jose. There was blood down the front of him. And he wasn’t moving.

“Shit!” I looked around and found a rock in the flowerbed, then hurled it at the sliding glass door. It shattered, but didn’t break. Damn tempered glass. I kicked as hard as I could, knocking a hole in it. The space wasn’t big, but I managed to squeeze through.

“It’s okay, Maria. I’m coming.” She didn’t look at me, didn’t even acknowledge the sound of glass breaking. Shock had already set in. “I’ve called the police. Help is on the way.”

Maria shook her head and rocked Jose like a frightened child clutching a ragdoll. “It’s too late. It’s too late,” she said, her eyes growing wide with fright. “Madre de Dios, Mother of God, el Diablo es aquí. The devil is here.”

The hair on the back of my neck stood on end and my eyes began to water. My flight or fight response demanded that I get the hell out of there. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. These were my clients. I was the reason the devil was at their door.

Bypassing the scrambler in my pocket, I stepped deeper into the room and reached for my homemade EMP device. I didn’t think. Couldn’t think. My body was operating on instinct. I pressed the button, sending out an electromagnetic pulse wave through the house.

A shadow moved up the wall and over the ceiling, staining it with a milky residue. The unnatural movement caught my attention. Shades hated EMP’s because they took away their food source. You can’t draw energy from dead equipment. The shadow moved again. Was this a Shade or a shadow man?

Shadow men weren’t normally affected by my EMP. No one knew for sure what shadow men were, so they garnered their own category in ghost-hunting circles. The electronic scrambler had always worked better on them. This one seemed different, so I held the button down on the EMP.

The shadow shimmered like sunlight on a pond, then disappeared.

Relief hit me and I slumped against the picture-lined wall. We’d won. I couldn’t believe it. It took me a beat to realize that Maria was still staring at something across the room. Something that held her undivided attention. She hadn’t even seen the shadow. I followed her line of sight.

Ryan Hawkins stood in the middle of the floor, scratches covering every patch of bare skin. He wore blue jeans and a brown T-shirt and had a strange blue-green hat with yellow trim propped haphazardly on his dark head as an afterthought.

Mud caked his face and hands, darkening his fingernails. It was as if he’d dug himself out of a fresh grave. The thought chilled me. A mushroom sprouted from one of his pants pockets and ants crawled over his small bare feet, ducking between his toes, then scurrying back out. He smelled like dirt and rot. A pungent odor that had my gag reflex working overtime.

Ryan had been taken from one of my previous clients. Clients who’d been found dead, murdered in their homes by a Shade I’d tried to vanquish. An Amber Alert had been issued for him, but the cops had assumed the worst. What was he doing here? How had he gotten to the Gonzalez home of all places?

For a moment all I could do was stare. I was so shocked to see him alive that I forgot all about the horror around me, forgot about everything. “Maria, what is Ryan doing here?” My gaze remained transfixed on the missing child. He shouldn’t be here. He didn’t belong.

Ryan didn’t look at me. He continued to stare at Maria. She whimpered and clutched Jose tighter. “He is Diablo. The devil, I say. Keep him away. He cannot have Jose.” She crossed herself and began to rock harder. Tears streamed down her rounded face, streaking her cinnamon-colored cheeks.

Pleas for God and her mother grew toward a crescendo. She gripped Jose and fingered the cross around her neck. I couldn’t listen any longer. Her cries ripped at my heart.

“I won’t let him take Jose.” I inched closer. I needed to get between them. The movement finally seemed to get Ryan’s attention.

It was only when he looked directly at me, showing me the endless black pits that served as his eyes, that I realized I wasn’t staring at Ryan Hawkins at all. I was looking at a creature much like Huli Jing, the demon who’d put me through a door a few days ago and branded my skin with her handprint.

Fear grasped me and refused to let go. My limbs shook as I prepared to defend Maria Gonzalez. “What have you done with Ryan?” I asked the creature masquerading as a child. I couldn’t imagine the torment the child had gone through when confronted by this abomination.

“He is out of your reach,” his voice rasped like he’d been gargling rocks.

What did he mean by that? “Where is he?”

If Ryan was still alive, I needed to find him, get him to safety. It would take years of counseling to get him past this ordeal.

“Gone!” it hissed.

I flinched at the ferocity of that single word. “Gone where?”

His gray face became mottled. “I do not have time for these questions.”

“Can you at least tell me your name?” I took another step toward Maria.

There was an air of disapproval emanating from him, like I’d somehow insulted him by asking his name, but I wasn’t about to call him Ryan. This wasn’t Ryan.

“I am known by many names, but most Beings here call me Kayeri.” He waited for some kind of reaction.

It didn’t come. His name meant nothingto me.

His expression turned thunderous as anger threaded through his tiny body. “I’m surprised that you do not recognize me, Gosling,” he snarled.

I’d heard that term before. Huli had used it. Was this her? The last time I’d seen her, she’d been a five to seven year old Asian girl. Could demons change sex? I thought about asking, but took one look at his expression and changed my mind.

“Should I recognize you?” I asked, taking a long hard look at him. “As far as I know, we haven’t met. I don’t even know what you are.” But I could guess.

The fake Ryan frowned in what looked to be confusion, then his expression slowly cleared. I half expected him to call me a liar. But I wasn’t lying. I really didn’t know what I was dealing with.

“No matter.” Kayeri shook his head. “Though rare, these things happen. You will not obstruct me from completing my duty.”

We’d see about that, I thought.

Maria cried out and tightened her chokehold on Jose. If he weren’t already dead, he would be now. No way could he breathe with that death grip around his neck.

It took supreme effort, but I managed to keep my voice steady. “What duty? Why are you here? These people haven’t done anything to you.” Could you reason with a demon? I didn’t know, but I was willing to give anything a shot.

He glared at me. “It is you who should not be here, Gosling. The souls are all gone, except for hers.” He pointed at Maria. “I will not let you have it. ’Tis mine.”

What did it mean by the souls were all gone? And why was he worried about me getting them? I didn’t want anyone’s soul. And I certainly hadn’t come to get Maria’s soul, but I wasn’t about to let a demon have it either. The thought went against everything I’d ever read.

“I can assure you that I’m here to save Maria—from you.”

“You lie!” he bellowed and took an intimidating step forward. The windows shook, threatening to shatter.

Despite his diminutive size, I stepped back. “I do not,” I croaked.

He glared venomously.

“Not about this, I don’t,” I amended.

Before I could ask more questions he said, “Enough talk.”

I crept closer to the Gonzalezes. A siren wailed in the distance. Help was almost here. I just had to keep Ryan/Kayeri busy until they arrived. It was the only way Maria would survive.

He took another menacing step. Pretty impressive display for a dead seven-year-old kid.

“You can’t have her, demon. That is what you are, isn’t it?” I squared off to face him. Not the brightest of ideas, but I had little choice. “Leave now and I won’t hurt you.” The bluff came out confident. I just had to pray he wouldn’t call me on it.

My grip tightened on the EMP and ES. I hoped that combined they’d actually do some damage or at least distract him until help arrived. I didn’t need another handprint burned into me. The one I had already clashed with the birthmark on my hip.

Ryan threw his head back and laughed. “You cannot hurt me with mortal weapons, Gosling.”

That’s what I was afraid of, since my equipment had only left scratches on Huli Jing, but I couldn’t back down now. Our lives were on the line. “Let’s test that theory.” I cranked the EMP dial to ten, holding my thumb above the button, all but daring him to come closer.

His gaze grew even colder and the windows began to frost. My breath formed white clouds before my face. “Press that and you’ll be sorry,” he snarled.

“I already am,” I said. “But I’m not half as sorry as you’re going to be, if you don’t get out of here.” It was an empty threat. I was pretty sure he knew it, too, but Kayeri hadn’t moved. “I’m surprised a demon is afraid of a little EMP device,” I taunted, purposely trying to piss him off so his attention stayed on me and not Maria. I shouldn’t have worried.

Flames rose behind his eyelids.

I’d been anticipating that, but not the overwhelming fear that followed. My bowels threatened to empty and I could barely swallow.

He raised his tiny hands. “Some goslings insist on learning the hard way. Next time I won’t be so lenient.”

Pressure in the room began to build. I had to clear my ears just to equalize them. Maria’s wails continued. Her brown eyes were open, but there was no one home.

I gritted my teeth against the pain and said, “Stop it, you’re hurting her.”

“The damage to her has already been done,” he said. “I’m here to alleviate her suffering.”

I snorted. “Somehow I doubt that.”

Mentally, Maria had gone somewhere else. Trouble was, I needed her with me when it came time to run.

“Stay with me, Maria. Help is coming.” I searched frantically for an escape route. The closest exit was the one I’d created through the sliding door. It wasn’t big enough for both of us.

“She’s mine now,” Kayeri said.

I pressed the EMP button and the ES. “Over my dead body.”

“As you wish,” he said.

A second later something invisible hit me. Hard. As if I’d caught the backdraft from an explosion, I was lifted off my feet and propelled into the kitchen. I crashed into the center island. My lungs deflated as I hit the wood and marble, leaving me gasping for air. I heard bones crack and pain shot through my shoulder. A wave of nausea followed. I had to swallow repeatedly to keep from throwing up.

Maria screamed long and loud. So did Ryan. Blood trickled out of my ears and onto the floor. That couldn’t be good. My eyes lost focus. The screams abruptly cut off. A burping gurgle followed, then silence returned.

“Maria.” I croaked, my voice barely above a whisper.

I tried to see into the other room, but my head refused to turn and my vision wasn’t cooperating. I lay there in helpless disarray, twitching from the aftershocks reverberating through my body. My lids grew heavy. I couldn’t seem to keep them open. The room dimmed, then I saw nothing at all.

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