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Hope Drowned

(Deadly Earth Book 1)

 

Chapter One

 

“Don’t fall in.”

Though sarcastic, the unexpected voice behind her caused Rena to jump and spin. The creak of wood was ominously absent as one foot stepped backward onto… air. A second wave of adrenaline chased the first in a sickening moment of dread as she teetered on the edge of the pier. The startled gasp turned into a scream that lodged in her throat.

She was going to fall in.

The ocean was going to claim her this time.

Suddenly, a hand reached out and grabbed the front of her t-shirt, halting her fall. Her fingernails dug desperately into the tensed muscles of a forearm. Rena’s panicked gaze locked on that of a dark-haired boy to avoid looking down at the innocently undulating surface of her nemesis. The sound of the gentle lap of water against the pier struts and the old half-submerged pier below was enough to fuel her anxiety.

Switching to the role of Hero, the boy tugged her back upright and pulled her a step further from the treacherous edge. Evidently a gentleman, her savior also took a step back so she still had space. With both feet firmly planted, Rena swallowed her fear and finally let out the breath she’d sucked in when he’d startled her. It was shaky and her eyes fluttered closed in relief.

That had been far too close.

The tension on her shirt disappeared, replaced by a warm palm smoothing it back down over her stomach. Rena’s breath hitched, her eyes shot open and she finally saw what she hadn’t noticed before: his irises were blue. A deep, rich blue.

Ocean blue.

“You okay? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” he misinterpreted her shudder, speaking gently, in a voice similar to the one her best friend Kayna reserved for her baby brothers—when she wasn’t sick of babysitting them.

Surprisingly the deep timbre did calm her. It was certainly preferable washing over her than the saltwater would have been. Besides, it wasn’t his fault she had let herself be lured so close to the edge. The sea-breeze cooled her stomach as he moved his hand to catch a few strands of green that blew across her face. He rubbed her hair between his fingers, eying the color curiously.

She was used to that.

When she pulled back a bit, he tucked it behind her ear, lingering there. The ghost touch caused tingles to erupt all over. Her pulse shot up again.

She wasn’t used to that.

No one touched her, not since Grandpa first offered her a hug at the hospital and she’d had an embarrassing panic attack, rudely clawing her way out of his trapping embrace.

Part of the PTSD, They said. She’d welcome touch again, They said. The nightmares would fade, They said. She’d speak again after a few months, They said.

They.

They, in the white coats who called her Jane and questioned ceaselessly. Who shone lights in her eyes and poked her with needles. Who handed her small cups of unidentified pills. Supposed medical professionals, claiming to just want to improve her health. But it made her feel like a lab rat.

They, who seemed to know more about her than she knew herself. She didn’t even remember the accident. They told her about that too.

She’d been found on the muddy shore of the inlet, They said. The car had gone over the bridge the night before, They said. Her parents had died on impact, They said. The water that flooded her mind at night was a part of a memory, They said. She’d remember all of it someday, They said.

But They didn’t know how the memories always ended. Nightmares, Rena corrected herself, unconvincingly. Not memories.

“Hey. It’s okay. I wouldn’t have let you drown,” the boy promised, again misreading her discomfort, as if drowning were her fear.

She shut her eyes as guilt churned her stomach, simultaneously urging her to take a step backward into the water and to run far away.

“It’s okay,” he repeated softly. His voice sounded closer and she opened her lids to find his blue eyes filling her vision as he looked back and forth between hers, concerned.

It was too familiar. Her imagination unwittingly pulled up the nightmare.

Instead of the boy’s strong jaw, clean-shaven cheeks and mess of brown hair, she was staring at identically-colored eyes wide with terror and set in an older face, weathered and wrinkled like leather. A full dark beard framed the mouth that opened and closed in a fruitless search for oxygen...

Fingers letting go of the locket, her nails scraped uselessly at the skin on her wrist at the snap of the elastic band she usually kept there missing, but the pinch did its job dislodging the vision. She shook her head to fully remove the image, like it was an Etch-A-Sketch, until the eyes were again framed by a face around her age. The motion grazed her cheek against the fingers he still had stretched out near her ear.

And that was the final drop in the bucket.

Rena ducked under his arm and sprinted off the creaking pier blindly, the slap of her sneakers on the wooden planks turning into the crunch of sand and finally the gentle rustle of forest debris as the path began to incline. Skidding behind a large pine, she pressed her back up against the rough bark, breathing hard, then smacked her head against its trunk.

Nonetheless, as though she’d pressed play on a paused film, the rest of the nightmare unfurled regardless of how tight she scrunched her face. Her nails now dug into wood, though she didn’t feel the rough texture…

Instead, she felt the sandpaper scratch of a man’s beard against her palm as she gazed into blue eyes, the pupils so wide they almost concealed the irises. Her other hand gripped the chain of his necklace just above the collar of his button-up shirt. Its hem teased her bare legs, which were wound tightly around his waist, anchoring him to her while his hands, gripping her shoulders, tried to pry her off of him. She watched wistfully as a few last anemic bubbles slipped from his mouth and surged upward like his soul searching for the surface. She had long quelled that desire.

Then he involuntarily inhaled.

Drowning was never quick. Raw terror, hysteria, and lastly surrender flashed through his eyes replacing the pleading, though they didn’t once veer from hers. Their focus withered and became vacant, the blue alluring depth shallowing into puddles. His arms went limp, letting go to drift around their interlocked bodies like seaweed. His jaw went slack, mouth agape, like a fish washed ashore...

No.

Another head-butt against the tree caused pieces of bark to rain past her face, joining the cascade of tears trickling down her cheeks. She gulped back bile and shoved it all away. Her mind tried to press a solid lid of denial on her mental box, leaking guilt and disgust, inside of which was nestled the thought that her father died in her embrace.

No.

She hadn’t killed him. He’d died on impact with the guardrail, They said, before the car had even gone over into the water. Even if the vision was real, it would have been self-preservation to cling to her parent in a moment of panic. That’s what Dr Spelmann would assure her if she had ever told him the truth during their sessions.

Gods, she was messed up.

And she’d been so close to going in again, thanks to that guy’s sudden and unwelcome appearance. Her stomach gave another tumble. It was as though the water lusted after her, like she hadn’t meant to escape the accident, or maybe it was just her subconscious suggesting a suitable punishment, a way to end the niggling feeling that the nightmares were real—she was a murderer.

Only a few more months, then Rena could move inland, away from her trigger. That was the only thing that kept her crawling into bed at night knowing what was awaiting her in sleep. She needed to stay away from the temptation of the shore for just for a few more months.

Angry with herself for succumbing to its lure again, she palmed the tears off her cheeks with renewed vigor and shoved away from the tree—

—smacking face-first into a very warm and very solid someone.

Shrimp! Grandpa’s favorite cuss-replacement was on the tip of her tongue. The clean, spicy deodorant that filled her now-aching nose was enough of a giveaway, but her suspicion was confirmed when she stumbled back and blinked at the white t-shirt. She looked up from chest to chin and higher, catching the blue gaze.

“Are you okay?” Sound was muffled by the blood pounding in her ears, but she was able to read his lips as they moved.

Was she okay? She was a danger! He should be thankful he was okay. What if they’d both tumbled in the water? Would he have become her second victim? His intentions seemed honorable, but she needed to get away from him and keep him away from her.

Averting her gaze to avoid picturing his mouth opening and closing like that underwater, she noticed his nose was slightly small for his face and up-sloped—not one of those long noses people were always either pitying or sneering down at her with. Grandpa would frown on her next move even more than cursing, but she was sure it’d be effective.

The boy probably could’ve blocked it. Certainly he was strong enough to stop her swing, but surprise was her advantage as Coach always reminded her.

His head snapped back as her fist met with his perky, little nose.

Then she pushed off the tree and darted around where he stood groaning, hands cupping his face, and sprinted away from him and away from the ocean, as if she could outrun her nightmares.

 
 

Trust Burned

(Deadly Earth Book 2)

 

 

WARNING: spoilers if you haven't read book 1 

 

Chapter One

 

"Tag, you're it."
The sing-song voice sounded more appropriate from her little sister, several years prior, than it did coming out of the copper-coated lips of the statuesque face staring down at her. Frankly, it was hard to tell if the slightly parted lips even moved on the frozen face of the statuesque ballerina, posed with arms curled as though hugging a beach ball, one foot balancing on the worn milk crate, the other on her knee in a poor approximation of a static pirouette. Coated in paint, from the bun balanced on her tilted head to the gaudy foil-like tutu spread around her thin hips, the ballerina looked just like a life-size music box doll.
What some of the people who’d dropped coins on the cobblestones at her feet didn’t know? She was, essentially. It was an android.
The full-size models were being tested in the jobs least likely to be visually obvious. The public needed to ease into the idea; most were fearful of a ‘robot take-over’--that they might become the servants. 
Maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. Regardless, they were primitive still. Something capable of mutinying was years off, as far as technological progress went, no matter how the media phrased the Instituter’s advances for the biggest splash. Not that her research wasn’t complex—hadn’t been complex. It wasn’t really her research anymore. And any plans for a literal splash with any of the models had been dashed along with Henley Bickford’s career aspirations, and life as she knew it, less than a week ago.
If not for the sudden dilation of pupils, the ballerina might have been a superb street performer, triggered to dance at regular intervals only when the performance was watched. However, the words weren’t hers. The ballerina was oblivious to what had just escaped her mouth. BTI was in complete control, zooming the cameras in on Henley’s face.
"Gotcha," a deep voice taunted from behind like this was a game between children. It seemed like it, facing a juggling green-wigged clown, his wide red, smiling mouth and happy, diamond-bordered eyes an eerie contrast to the veiled threat.
"Peekaboo!" The bag-pipe player on the unicycle with the pipe clenched between his teeth simultaneously blew bubbles bigger than his head into the air while wheeling back and forth on the cobblestones, teetering his arms for balance. It was a feat of engineering, admittedly.
Henley involuntarily jerked back into the ballerina. Proving that it could indeed be triggered to move and had the poise of whom she impersonated, the doll barely wobbled before shifting to both feet on her pedestal, toes pointed apart, maintaining character.
The clown ambled over in an awkward gait that was accepted as part of his act, the grin pulling disconcertingly at his make-up. His balls continued their aerial cycle with precision.  
"All right, miss?" A man from the clown’s audience followed, the concern that distorted his paint-free face less severe, more curious. 
She didn’t want his attention either. A deep, hollow feeling, combined with alarm, darted like panicked fish through her veins and prevented her from responding. This man couldn’t help; he was making the situation worse. More of the clown’s audience drifted over as if they’d found a new street performer to entertain them.
Her supervisors were clearly entertained, watching through the eyes of their—her—creations. 
She shut her eyes against the worried gazes. Three weren’t genuine—a programmed response—while the others—the human response—needed to be diverted. They would be collateral damage if they got between. And the one person who should be concerned, Buster Acton, had run off. 
They didn’t really have an established friendship before, more of a regular acquaintance in the waiting room of their respective weekly mentor meetings. However, their agreement to coordinate an escape from that hell-hole of a so-called institution of higher learning lent the understanding that they would assist each other throughout the entire process, not just in getting off-campus. We each had our reasons for breaking out, but that was cold even for The Bus. Honestly, it had surprised her that he was capable of running at all. That said, the loner had already astounded her when they’d met, as planned, in the dead of night with another student who brought her research experiment along. Henley could understand the unwillingness to leave all that work behind. Truthfully, she had taken a prototype of her own project with her, too.
Feeling the ballerina’s shins move against her back in warning, Henley spun on her heel, whipping the kind man in the face with long mousy-blond hair, darted under the ballerina’s rounded grasping arms, and sprinted across the cobblestones. 
The harbor was the best place to hide. Ironically, the recent storm ravage made it a safer place, at least for Henley. Water—the natural enemy of technology—was a friend at the moment. Though its company would be a minor comfort as Hen ran for her life.

 

Love Deserted
(Deadly Earth Book 3)

 

 

WARNING: spoilers if you haven't read books 1 & 2

 


Chapter 1

"I refuse to hold the pee pan." The girl known as Jennifer Tate wrinkled her nose, staring with disgust at the old man lying on his side in the bed. He was half-comatose, his eyes heavy lidded, drool leaking onto the lumpy pillow to form a muddy puddle, mixing with the dust that blew in through the open window. The breeze was weak, hot, and dry, but its limp pushes helped to dissipate the gag-worthy, stale odors emanating her ancient, incapacitated, ill host. Like piss.

A snort was the response from the only other youthful guest in the house. Reed was braced close to the escape, that selfish jerk, leaning on the door jamb with arms crossed and brows raised, purposely ignoring the old man's increasingly frantic downward-pointing gesture. Reed's expectant stare was on her. "You wanna just leave him to rot in his own excretions?"

She treated his sarcasm like a rhetorical question, ignoring it as much as she wished she could ignore Reed. Currently, Reed was her only companion who didn't require help to stand... or urinate. They'd met just a few days ago when she woke up in the back of his jeep after a bad car accident and jumped out--while the Jeep was in motion--and then wrestled him before she learned he wasn't the enemy. She'd won. And had no remorse. Her retaliation with a perfect water bottle-to-groin hit was justified; the car accident was a direct result of the fact she was attempting to flee after his and his brother's surprise appearance at the motel in which she and some other BSTU escapees were hiding.

Turned out he wasn't with Boston Technical university, and fortunately for her, he could take care of his own bladder needs. That didn't make him a whole lot better than the old guy in her book. The old guy had a valid excuse for being a useless deadbeat.

That wasn't entirely true. Reed was their source of food, having incidentally brought some delicious protein powder in the Jeep that broke down outside this family's farm.

"It's your turn. I get dumping duties. Or did you not want equality for women?" Reed retorted.

The bell rang with another tinkle even though she was right in front of Tio's frail form. It was possible he couldn't see well; Mrs. Juarez, his aged niece, had cataracts thick enough to block all but light, which was why she wasn't an option on whom to pawn this gruesome job.

Even if she somehow didn't possess a human amount of decency to care for her elders, especially the invalid, she owed the old man. It was his house--well, his and his niece's and her daughter's--that they were holed up in. Unfortunately, they didn't luck out on choosing a farm with any provisions left. All in all, she had nothing with which to argue her way of of the chore.

Her scathing glare glanced right off Reed's ego, his grin frustratingly self-satisfied. "Oh, if it's a dump, you're definitely getting all the duties. I'm out." The bell had only rang once, meaning number one, but Mrs. Juarez's Tio had been around since before the seas had risen high enough to flood the country, dividing it down the middle; he couldn't always control his bowels or be cognizant of when they needed emptying.

"Doody." Reed chuckled like a pre-pubescent teen.

She cast him a disdainful look.

"Jen," he countered in mock surprise, "are you conceding that this is something you can't do?"

"It's not a matter of can't, but shouldn't. He's a dude. I don't know how it all ...works; it doesn't make sense for me to do it. It's inappropriate." Her nose lifted.

Reed snorted. "I do not believe you've never seen one before. If that's true, I'd be more than happy to be the first--"

"And as I've said before--" Her eyes rolled. "--I'm happy to use you to see how much a diet of protein shakes has deteriorated my bite force. I'm guessing not much... when I'm motivated." She gnashed her teeth at him and he cringed. "Can't you just take him outside?" She fluttered her long lashes, drawing her linked fingers up underneath her chin, an ass-kissing smile hiding said teeth from view. "Please? I'm sure a big, strong man like you could easily carry him down the stairs for little ol' me."

His head shook. "You have no morals. I thought you said you were a feminist."

Her arms dropped and she shrugged. "I know when to use chivalry to my advantage. It's more about partnership." Her doe eyes widened in invitation. "We can be a team."

"We are. We take turns. I wouldn't dare try to take your independence away from you by dominating. Women can do everything better than men, right? That's what you said to me when Henley tried to woo the Juarez's into letting us stay here?"

"Except pee outside." She pouted. "And they did let us stay."

He shook his head. "Thanks to me, not Henley. Saving the day as always. Maybe you should try peeing outside. I'm simultaneously watering and fertilizing the little plot that still somehow produces vegetables."

Her voice raised to speak over the renewed vigorous bell ringing. "Yeah, so you should take him and double those efforts."

"If you don't hurry, it's going to be clean-up duty instead," Reed warned over the grumbling, eye darting away from her to observe Tio's urgency.

Jen snatched the bell from Tio's gnarled grip, replacing it on the nightstand. The homemade quilt was tossed off him without ado. Hell, he wouldn't catch cold in this weather, and he was already sick anyway. She crouched to pull the pan from under the bed--a literal cooking pan since the crumbling farmhouse was no hospital and they had no way to get to one to acquire necessary supplies. If they could get to a medical center, this vegetable of a human wouldn't be her problem. Jen unceremoniously shoved up his nightgown, hesitated, and then turned her head aside while unfolding the thick cloth they'd placed over his... bits in case of leakage. Hork.

"You're gonna have to look or else he's gonna miss. And I remind you, we don't have enough water left for a bath."

She flung Reed an eyeful, wishing she could shoot lasers like the BSTU drones that had chased them through the cornfields outside. She'd decimated them with a baseball bat. Tempting.

She took a noxious breath, steeling her desire to upchuck, and faced the horror head-on. She couldn't prevent the look of revulsion from contorting her face as she used a pair of barbecue tongs she'd found in the kitchen to maneuver things into place.

"Ahora, Tio."

After her loudly spoken alert, his stream came immediately but weakly, in short spurts that trickled into the pot with an echo.

She gagged and turned away again, catching Reed's smirk. "Told you I don't have a great gag reflex," she snapped, waspishly, taking out her frustration over their situation on him. Being trapped at this run-down, middle-of-nowhere farmhouse just sitting, helplessly waiting for someone to come back for them was quite the adjustment after holding a position of power.

That's where it was helpful that Reed was her inmate partner. He could take her verbal abuse without offense. If Sirena had stayed instead, the onslaught from the mouth of the girl who was Sirena's supposed friend and creator from BSTU would have been driven the superhuman to tears. Jen's hostility just riled Reed into upping his smarmy charm.

"And I told you, I'm willing to help you work on that. In fact, you're already in position."

Well, Jen was more than capable of challenging his quips with biting remarks of her own. "I'm not sure it'd be substantial enough to induce my gag reflex given how much you compensate with your jeep and your ego." The banter was kind of fun, she had to admit. Their bodies may have been wasting away, but their brains were finding sufficient stimulation.

She adjusted the pan, her arm getting tired of holding it at such a high angle. The urine releases were getting more sporadic. She hoped the slowing inferred that Tio was almost done.

"You leave my baby out of this! She's my precious. And you know there's only one way to find out if I speak the truth or not."

She swiveled her eyes up, unimpressed, to see his eyebrows dancing up and down. "I doubt you ev--"

Without warning, Tio wheezed and started coughing. The result was sharp, violent jet of lukewarm yellow liquid with each hack that ricocheted right off the bottom of the little pot ...and directly into her mouth.

Both men got a live display of her sensitive gag reflex as she sputtered, spat and heaved onto the worn wooden floor over the sound of Reed guffawing. The pot fell from her hands with a clang and gush of even more fluid that splashed onto her bare legs. Her stomach was empty so her hurls did not add to the mess. Desperately, she scrubbed at her tongue with her sleeve, dirt and grit joining the acrid warmth coating her tongue.

Great guffaws joined all the racket of Tio's coughing and her hacking. "Who'd have thought Jennifer Tate, the legacy BTSU genetics scientist who made a human in a lab would be so squeamish. Guess you are a girl, after all," Reed goaded.

She pushed to a stand, still spitting onto the floor, turned and stormed around the bed to find some saltwater with which to rinse--anything was better than that.

Passing Reed, who was doubled over, laughing hysterically, she lashed out acidly. "Your turn. I'm not a swallower."

He should be glad that sentence was what her venom spewed in response, instead of the truth that had risen with the bile up her throat. Jennifer Tate might have been comfortable with bodily fluids, having assembled in a Petri dish the next generation of human, or rather superhuman, of which Sirena was the first.

But Valerie Acton, posing in Jen's place, was most definitely not.

And she was certain Reed wouldn't be so flirtatious let alone keeping her company if he knew the truth. He'd be long gone, no matter how closely death lingered on the outskirts of the farm if he was aware that his recently killed ex-girlfriend, who he knew as Valerie Acton was actually the real Jennifer Tate.

 

FISH(Y) OUT OF WATER

(An adult suspense/thriller standalone)

Chapter One - Belly Up

The fish was dead.

Suzanna Kane first cursed the movers’ careless transportation then the fish’s suicidal tendencies—which was unfair, given its three-second memory and thus unlikelihood to be depressed—and finally, karma. But the guilt and despondency remained. It was lying on the counter, one eye staring up, in a pool of blood—no, water, it was water—so she couldn’t even tell herself it was asleep this time. There was no point putting it back in the bowl and pretending all was fine until she had time to give it a proper burial after her first day at the new job; it was cold in this city. Even if she had better upper body strength or owned a shovel, she couldn't penetrate that frozen ground. And she didn’t really want to introduce herself to the downstairs tenant while digging a grave in the wintry pre-dawn darkness in what the lease clearly denoted was technically their yard—Zanna got the parking spot out front.

Poor little guy. It didn’t even have a name, yet.

With the help of the second, unused pair of chopsticks from last night’s unhealthy take-away, the fish was back in water: the toilet. Even the irony was dispiriting.

Zanna whispered a few words aloud to herself in its memory, mostly about the progress it had made when she trained it to swim through hoops, thanks to that book she’d found on sale at the mall when she wasn’t even supposed to allow herself in a bookstore.

“What was that?” Her mother’s voice reminded Zanna that she had yet to answer the hanging question she’d abandoned upon finding her horrific discovery. No matter that the calendar indicated moving day had been a Monday, it felt like a serious case of Monday mourning.

“Nothing, I wasn’t talking to you,” she said into the phone.

“Who else—?”

“Mom,” Zanna cut off the nosing into her private life, mostly because it was both ridiculous and depressing—as if she’d find a guy after one night in her new city, let alone be the kind of girl to invite him over after the first date. “Pen was a college student when she lived here,” Zanna answered the previous question, referring to the outgoing Kane sister who had managed to get pick-pocketed several years previously, probably while intoxicated.

“Exactly! Penelope was on a campus with a resident assistant to watch over her and those blue light protection boxes everywhere. And still—.”

Zanna sighed. “Unlike Pen was then, I’m a fully functioning adult who can take care of myself—even better than any RA, who I’ll remind you are also college-aged.” She didn’t mention that her freshman college RA had been her roommate’s dealer.

She also avoided mentioning that she couldn’t seem to keep the least demanding pet possible alive, so caring for herself seemed a little iffy.

A piece of toilet paper floated down to cover the fish’s body like a sheet. Then Zanna flushed, wincing as the little blue fins chased the white square down into the abyss with a loud gurgling noise. She really needed to get the plumber over. It sounded like the toilet was choking. Maybe it had a distaste for fish—something Zanna could relate to. Except sushi. Sushi was delicious. Immediately, she internally apologized to Neptune or Poseidon or whichever god watched over fish souls for her insensitivity.

“Suzanna Iris Kane, are you on the phone with me while using the bathroom?”

                “No. Yes. Not really. I’m trying to get ready for work. Look, Mom. I’m sorry I didn’t call last night when I arrived,” she apologized dutifully in rote, “but I got in late and was tired after the drive and waiting for the movers to unpack all my stuff.” The Murderous Movers is what they should be called instead of Marvelous.

Her homemade horseshoe-crab clock plinked from the living room, another possession coughing out a warning from too many times packed and unpacked and repacked, though her summer-camp-crafting skills could be to blame. Dammit, she was going to be late on her first day.

Late like the fish.

Rushing, Zanna left her puns in the bathroom and found the simple black skirt, sensible turquoise shirt (plain bright colors was as subdued as most of her wardrobe got), shiny black heels, and jacket she’d laid out the night before on a stack of boxes next to the only thing fully unpacked and set up: her large yellow bed. She thanked God or maybe Narcissus for her vain over-planning.

Dropping her phone on another box, uncaring if her mother was speaking, she dressed, not bothering to unbutton and re-button the blouse—that would take too long. “Okay, Mom, I have to go. I’ll call you after work,” she shouted in the phone’s direction through the fabric. Her head popped through the collar, mussing up the already anti-gravity hairstyle her pillow had artfully crafted for her.

She caught the end of her mother’s response. “—great day at work, honey. You know your father and I are so proud of you for getting this prestigious position.”

Zanna rolled her eyes and restrained the urge to repeat the it’s-just-an-assistant-editor-of-a-small-publishing-firm drone. She should be grateful; it was the only call-back she got when she desperately posted her resume to the National Editors of America job-search page after far-too-many (which was any number greater than zero) months back at home.

Plan: Adult Life was in action.

“Thanks, Mom. Bye.”

As she hurried past the closet, her kitten heels clicked on the hardwood floors. She darted back into the bathroom, almost spraining an ankle in the heels, and dragged her chipped and bitten nails through her curls, getting caught in tangles. The dark strands closing in on her vision were forcibly contained in a large claw clip. Zanna managed to scoop up all her moisturizer, foundation, eye-liner and mascara in one hand while using the other to methodically open and apply each in a semi-decent manner. This was probably the longest part of her routine. She never left the house without her mask as Pen called it.

Zanna took a deep breath, the dang button-up pulling between her breasts so it gaped—too late to change now. She gazed one long moment into her freshly outlined green eyes and smiled. Her naturally red lips drooped into a frown as she fretted momentarily at the reflection, vowing to remove all mirrors as her next project in claiming the gloomy second-story apartment as her own, and left.

She skidded into the living room, around the counter in the kitchen, grabbed her bag and keys, and dashed out, slamming the door behind her, then u-turning to recover her phone from the box in the bedroom before locking up. Moving at a pace mastered from years of practice, she suddenly remembered breakfast and dug a smashed granola bar from the depths of her purse. Thank goodness she didn’t like coffee; that’d slow her down. Zanna zipped down the stairs, leaping the last few, and clopped without incident down the porch steps, and threw herself into the little old silver car parked at the curb.

Crap… Where was she going?

Rifling in her purse under more granola bars, mints, cell phone, wallet, and a book—just in case—she found the sticky note and turned her car on. In a lull in traffic, she pulled out, and immediately her foot slid off the gas. She leaned down to slip her shoe off and tossed it onto the passenger seat just in time to brake in the morning commute jam.

A first day was supposed to be fresh and exciting like starting a new grade at school—all 18 of them, in her career—but it wasn’t looking promising. Optimism had to be yanked to the forefront when you woke up confused about whose apartment you were in—something with which her college roommate was more familiar—and found a pet had drowned in the night.

Could fish drown?

No. She forced an exuberant smile, creeping out the driver in the car sitting next to her. This was her chance to start a real adult life. Maybe losing her old beta fish was a symbol to start anew. Yeah, that was it. A dead fish was certainly a good omen.

 

ONE LOAN SOUL

(Loan Soul #1, dark paranormal urban fantasy) 

CHAPTER ONE

Today's possession sucks almost as much as dying does. I don’t show it, of course, sitting primly in front of the massive mahogany desk, blissfully basking in all of the compliments being bestowed upon me. I am, however, grateful the desk prevents my host’s spit-tastic boss from also bestowing his saliva upon me as he waxes on about upholding company values.

I always revel in the praise even if I’m not the precise soul for whom it’s intended. I take what I can get in these brief reprieves from Hell, even putting up with being a guy for a short time. A bird with a worm is worth two in the bush.

In my ninety-nine jaunts back to Earth since my death, I have quickly learned that manspreading is totally justified. I’d apologize for my feministic sneering at the male passengers sitting with splayed legs on the BART … if that were my worst sin.

With a murder on my eternal rap sheet, being rude on the subway is a duck in the ocean — barely a ripple. Which is why I’m a perfect angel, so to speak, of a substitute soul in my afterlife.

“… contract will be sure to elevate the value of our stock shares, encouraging invaluable investors to … invest in our novel synergistic business solutions.” He’s no wordsmith, but I’ll take the extra feather on my mantle. “It won’t be long before the company appreciates, dividends soar, and expansion is in the cards. I could oversee a branch downtown.”

I nod my head to conceal the fact that I almost just puked in my mouth at all the MBA jargon. My double chin makes that a difficult feat. It might even be a triple or one of those ones that just kind of connects mouth to chest, skipping the actual neck part; I was injected into Wallace Brown’s casing as soon as he sat down in this pompous man’s office, I think, so I’ve had no chance to find a mirror to admire my current self. Based on the ballooning stomach stretching the threadbare suit, I’m not sure I want to.

“Wise of you to listen to my advice and pursue this direction,” the man trumpets.

Come to think of it, some of these backhanded compliments are not even owed to Wallace Brown, who’s paying off part of his loan in my new home realm. The magical life boost I get to witness from this tiny chair is all thanks to the Big Guy with the pitchfork with whom Wallace Brown is currently having a grand old time. Neither my possessed casing nor I, Darcie Rose, signed the client noteworthy enough to inflate the balloon of a head belonging to this toad costumed in a suit. A suit that is far more expensive than the one my casing is wearing.

Yet, I smile because I do deserve some acknowledgment for my hard work. I’m the numero uno damned — literally — worker in Hell’s Souls On Loan Exchange (SOLE) Program. And there’s no chance in… well, my home as of the last year and forever more that my boss will offer me thanks. That’s not really the Devil’s shtick.

He may seem great. I mean, offering loans for those who aren’t willing to go all out to the selling-my-soul-to-the-Devil level … that seems pretty reasonable. People still get an invaluable life boost, though bite-sized — fortune favors the sold, after all — and He still gets … whatever He gets from them. I’m not asking Him what that is … or how He manifests his promises.

For one, you do not question the head honcho of the Overworld as I like to call it.

The name makes it just a tad less depressing, and frankly, I’m not convinced his realm isn’t up — somewhere in space or a parallel dimension. I’m no rocket scientist, just a deceased taxidermist.

And two, I’m not sure I want to know. I remain in blissfully ignorant since I never took out a loan while I was alive. My loss. Quite explicitly.

No, I work hard at my job because then Nix gives me the good sub stints. This one, while being uncomfortable and boring, isn’t as bad as some of my first ones. In fact, although my afterlife is destined for eternity in Hell, I think I benefit the most from these deals, not the Devil nor souls like Wallace Brown. I savor the short respite from the realm of the mopey and unsurprisingly morbid, and in addition, I get to be the lucky goose luxuriating in my boss’s omnipotent manipulation.

But really, I’m ready for the next sinner. I can feel sweat droplets snaking down the crevasse of my substantial behind. And this cheap suit itches.

I get a thumbs up, which, based on the meticulous desk and the clear compensating size of it, is a high accolade from this uptight narcissist. He looks the type to offer his wife a pat on the shoulder in gratitude after a tousle in the love shack, the kind who only relents to such uncouth activities after loosening up post-work with a single glass of aged scotch. He probably even keeps his socks on.

“Good job —” The man’s mouth pulls down at the sides as he tries to summon my casing’s name from the paper shredder in his mind.

I don’t offer any clues, just smile patiently and subtly scratch a thigh, hiking up the already too-short trousers.

The man pulls up a second thumb to fill the awkward silence, replacing the gap where a name should be. Wow, a double wield. I resist clasping a hand to my heart and tearing up.

Yesterday, I finally got to possess an actress in that ultimate moment she won an award, and conjuring those tears had been an exciting challenge. The amount of graciousness I spewed without feeling had probably been about as heartfelt as the actress’s would have been and as over-the-top. I thought I’d played the part so well that the award really should have been for me. I am the best in Hell for a reason.

Conjuring up my award-winning acting skills, I begin my pitch while the man is momentarily quiet, watching as the thumbs slowly lower along with his eyebrows. This is a less fun character to portray, but the challenge is tougher. I squirm in my seat as I talk fast, creaking the chair’s joints. I have to pee — probably Wallace Brown’s pre-meeting nerves. Although I’ve had to do it on longer jobs, it’s a bodily function I try to avoid as a guy. That task is outside my field house.

Finally, we reach an agreement, and I stand, offering a fawning “Thank you. You won’t regret this, sir” to remove the tension that filled the room with my negotiating. We do that manly over-tight knuckle-gripping handshake, and I escort myself back into anonymity, leaving the glass fishbowl as a stressed secretary rushes to respond to a bellow.

Waddling back into the massive cubicle cluster where the nobodies spend too many hours of their short lives toiling at menial and inconsequential chores, I scout the open area for a restroom. Thank Go — Hell I never had an office job; I’d mostly lived my snipped life to its fullest … at least, I thought so until those last five minutes or so.

Spying a sign, I toddle in that direction. This casing is getting the super deluxe service. The best acting, the Darcie Rose touch of a promotion on top of the Devil’s Deal that landed him an important client and saved his job along with a much-resented bladder emptying. It’s not a unisex single room either. I should get a promotion myself.

Satisfied customers mean repeat customers that toad would confirm. But Luci is not one on whom to try a promotion pitch. I’ve never met him and hope that fact never changes.

That is my ultimate reason for being the perfect employee. I avoid getting fired, which in Hell is the toastier meaning of that word, dropping down the circles, to use Dante’s tangible description of the realm’s hierarchy.

Thankfully, the men’s restroom is empty, so I’m able to accomplish my mission without anyone noticing my gagging. Making my way back, I identify the only empty desk, and I slump down in the swiveling office chair in front of a decrepit monitor that displays way too much math for my taste, even if Beelzebub’s mumbo jumbo magic gives me all of the skills needed to accurately depict my role. I wedge my wide derriere between the rickety armrests. If I’m still in this body by the end of the day, I vow to take it for a run.

I haven’t exercised since my death. There’s no need. My soul stays exactly as it was when I passed, and I admit I’ve lost the joy for exercise since it prompts memories of the days my fiancé and I were gym rats together.

Shoving that errant out-of-character thought into the grave it crawled from, I debate calling Wallace Brown’s wife. She’s going to be so grateful. I foretell that Wallace Brown is getting an additional reward from this deal in the form of couple’s time, too. I mean the kind of grateful that commences with putting the kids to bed early and switching the granny panties for the single piece lingerie at the bottom of the drawer. Maybe they’ll even splurge in anticipation of his higher paycheck to go out.

You know what? I am even going to get this guy home on time for once. Though, it’d be great if I’m not there for the grateful part. Peeing is weird enough as a guy. Anything else —

Slurp.

 

 

X X X X

 

That familiar sucking sensation that feels almost like the urge to vomit lurches me sideways from my casing, leaving it to stare off into space for a few seconds while the trade happens.

Whirling through colors and lights and sounds that had at first overwhelmed me like being drunk on a roller coaster in an IMAX theater after eating fried butter, which is a real thing on Earth and not a torture device from Hell, and wearing a kaleidoscope instead of 3-D glasses all at once now feel like a typical commute home.

The soul of Wallace Brown, identical to his casing, slides past me, and I tip an invisible hat at him. Enjoy the better standing, buddy. You’re most welcome. Stop working overtime, and take up Jazzercise or something, I urge silently. He doesn’t smile back. They never do, solidifying my intentions to never ask what Luci wins from His bargains. It’s probably a blessing that they never remember the event or Luci’s reality upon their return.

Then, I’m squelched into existence in sweltering humidity on a rocky ground that never fails to scrape up my hands each time. Graceful landings are not an option here. That sound of materialization reminds me yet again of the splatter of animal organs dumping onto my work table in my past life — or, I guess, life is enough of a descriptor without needing to add “past”.

“You owe me,” I tell Nix who is slouched over his counter, sorting files as he does pretty much constantly.

“All clean?” he asks without lifting his eyes, ignoring my demand.

“Do you know me?” I push to my feet and wipe the blood on my jean shorts.

He lifts his chin, empty eyes watching me patiently.

I roll mine. “Clean as pie.” I try not to shudder, remembering that long, long night after I’d first started and slipped up, saying hello to someone I’d known formerly, when I was alive. Since it was only a hello — no damage control needed, thus not requiring the Devil’s SOLE managers to involve Him — I was just docked a few points.

But when those points indicate your rank in the circles of Hell, I’d been eager to jump back in and redeem myself. It had been a tense time, waiting for a new stint opportunity to arise. Most deals are signed at night when people are lying in bed, ruminating on their life and lamenting What Could Be, but that time had been as empty as a college library on a Friday.

Jobs are dwindling, Nix confided to me when one finally came, and I almost peed myself with relief while sprinting to his desk. It can’t be that people are becoming more righteous — puritans are long since extinct, and the internet makes it so easy to become envious of what others have. I deduced it was more a case of increasing intensity of naughtiness; many are going for the gold, making a deal for the full-scale soul sale rather than the lowly loan.

Little do they realize that they won’t get to enjoy their side of the deal for long; the Devil always collects on His deals, and you have to read the fine print to know it’s always right after the moment of ascent. The Devil writes the details.

Nix shakes his head. “You never get your idioms right,” he mutters, almost repeating my old taxidermy mentor’s complaint to a P.

I continue magnanimously since he demanded I elaborate, and I strive for perfection always. “Neither rule was broken. Our end of the deal went off without a glitch, and in fact —” I lean forward conspiratorially. “— I worked in a raise and promotion in addition to the business contract. So, you’re welcome for the excellent service. As per usual. Wallace Brown might even be willing to sign another contract after the night he’s going to have,” I confide, waggling my eyebrows sagely.

Nix doesn’t respond to my premonition. He’s back to flipping through papers. “Get the paperwork back to me ASAP.” He dips his head briefly, indicating a binder-clipped stack that looks impossibly thick, comparable to some kind of manual or terms and conditions. Unfortunately, this one I do have to read completely and fill out if I want to stay in the program and, more importantly, in Nix’s favor.

“ASAP?” My eyes widen, and I give a few frog hops of glee, clapping my hands together. My purple-tipped hair flounces around with the movement. If I’d been so fortunate as to die with my hat on, I could keep the dark brown waves out of my face. Of course, if I’d been lucky at all, I wouldn’t be in Hell … or have died at age twenty-nine. Never even made it to my thirties. Tsk. “You’ve got something for me?” I stop and shift my hands to my hips. “This one better actually be a good one.”

With how much I detest being in Hell, which means it’s succeeding in its intention, I’m overjoyed to shrink those once in a new moon occurrences when I’m between stints. On those rare occasions, I can be found mimicking a lawn gnome, perched cross legged below the massive sign that might otherwise be found in a sports arena, waiting for a name and duration to flicker onto the screen in neon orange letters so I can sprint to Nix and claim it first.

“As soon as possible.”

“I know what ASAP stands for.” I grin. “It’s a long one, isn’t it? A few days? A week?” I ask hungrily. “I’ll get to sleep! In a real bed with an actual, soft mattress. I know, I know.” I hold up a palm. “I don’t need it anymore. But sleeping is so restful.” My voice slips to a longing coo. Dreams are another great way to mentally escape my predicament. I point a finger at him. “But not another dude. Promise me.”

He doesn’t. He simply slides the papers closer to the edge of the counter with a single fingertip.

I snatch them before they fall, slicing my thumb on the edge. Paper cuts are a donut a dozen up here. They heal instantly, forming a fresh surface to be damaged repeatedly. But they sting like a —

“Time is ticking,” is all my handler says.

It’s not. Time is not measured, being somewhat fluid — mostly lethargic — down here.

Regardless, I turn and blow that Popsicle stand like the wind.

 

TWO SOLD MATES

(Loan Soul #2, dark paranormal urban fantasy) 

WARNING: spoilers if you haven't read book 1 

CHAPTER ONE

 

“Excuse me, sir. Do you have a minute to talk about—” The door slams in my face, rattling the panes in the windows over the hedges on either sides of me, threatening the collapse of the old bungalow-style home. It reminds me of one of the better places I lived in my foster years. 
A crisp autumn breeze carries dark chortling from the open window of the car parked at the curb behind me. I push my trilby down on my head. Nevertheless my chilled ears remain exposed to the sound.
Gritting my teeth, I knock again, noticing that some of the Oreo debris and dark eye shadow has worn off my fingers even though I wasn’t allowed to shower. That’s helpful. I’m no longer trying to convince anyone that I’m a zombie who dug herself from the grave.
It’s better if they don’t know that.
I plaster a genial smile on my face when the door creaks open, and a round scowling face peeks out. My target speaks before I can begin my pitch a second time. “No, I do not want your book or to sign up for your …  program or whatever.”
I snort. “I don’t have a book. You’re lucky I’m wearing pants. Unless,” I add reasonably, “you’re thinking of signing the book of the Devil? In which case, I accept on his behalf. That would make this so much easier. Can I interest you in a loan perhaps?” I offer pleasantly. “In fact, that is my program. However, I’m afraid Luci won’t let you sign up quite yet.”
The laughter is replaced by grumbling. I’m not supposed to talk about this stuff. I don’t really care. I’ve had a rough few days. My partner can just do his finger snap thing and erase memories. We’re going to have to get blunt with this conversation anyway. You can’t just stroll up to someone you’re not supposed to know and say, “Hey, we need you to agree to surgically remove your plastic surgery implants,” without explanation and expect them to comply. 
The man’s caterpillar eyebrows have lowered, and he’s staring at me like I’m a crazy person. Yoke’s on him. He’s the one who doesn’t know the secrets of the realms, including just how real Hell is. Lucky Devil. “What is this, some kind of sadistic demon-summoning cult? I thought you were going to want to talk about our Lord Savior.”
My face crunches up in rejection. I’m far from being pro-demon. The one currently acting as my partner in anti-crime is … as you might expect as far as company goes, and I resent him because he represents my fall and chain from grace. “Ah.” I nod. “I can talk about my Lord if you’d like. He could be considered a savior, depending on how pessimistic you are. I think most find him to be the tit to the tat of the one you’re referring to though. Ironically, if you want to prolong your time before meeting him, as is my goal in … existence, you’ll let me in so we can chat. Please,” I tack on.
“Wait. I remember you.” His eyes widen in panic. “I didn’t say anything about what I saw! I won’t!” I jerk back to save my nose, nearly toppling off the concrete step. I am not keen on needing a rhinoplasty. I’ve got a bigger drip on my shoulder about plastic surgery than demons. The plastic green Christmas wreath sways back and forth. Either this family doesn’t uphold the rule about waiting to decorate until after Thanksgiving, or they’re eleven months late in taking last year’s decorations down. Given the Easter egg on the faded flag dancing next to the door, the latter is promising.
Spinning toward the street, I shoot daggers at Vin. His malicious grin made my knees crawl at first. After a several hundred miles on a road trip worse than a highway to Hell, I couldn’t give a flying hoot about his attitude.
Hearing the hinges squeak again, I quickly spin around, my sleek red hair slapping me across the face. I peel a few strands out of the way and offer an inviting grin. I’m not sure the effect is as sweet as it was when my soul was in my own body. The pillowy lips on this casing contort the welcoming look into that of a gaping fish.
”And get your damned dog out of my flower bed!”
My expression sours when he shuts me out again. There’s no call for taking the adjective “damned” in vain like that. 
“Dash,” I call as I trudge toward the gleaming Porche, which is starkly out of place in this neighborhood. “It’s a fox, not a dog,” I mutter like a petulant teen. Dash frolics over, tongue lolling. His paws are as dirty as my fingers. Blue pushes up my hat, and I yank it back down, trapping her beneath. “You, stay. A lizard is a little more conspicuous.”
We reach the car, and I yank open the door, letting Dash scramble in, before I drop into the leather bucket seat.
“No. Down. He is unclean.”
“Should have left those sneakers on you, huh, foxy guy? If someone would let us shower …” I let the pointed remark hang and remove Dash from Vin’s lap, settling him on mine. “Come to me, buddy. The big bad demon is not really a dog person. He’s not really a person at all. The Devil’s right-hand man, stuck having to find entertainment by watching a famous actress piloted by his boss’s best soul sub get rejected by a middle-aged Mexican janitor.” Dash turns a circle and sits down so he can stare at me with one painted marble eye, an empty socket on the other side. “I know he likes to see me fail, but —”
“I am not intending for you to ‘fail’,”
“But!” I continue over Vin, still speaking directly to Dash instead of my incorrigible companion, who seems to be riveted by my tirade. In reality, he has no idea what I’m saying; the bullet hole in his ear probably doesn’t help. “If he considered that the quicker I sort out the mess Leland left me in, the quicker he can consider my punishment paid and be rid of me.” I scruffle Dash’s furry cheeks.
In my periphery, Vin sits silently, eyes narrowed my direction. It’s fairly easy to remember that my ex-fiance’s soul is no longer in that delectable body when he gives me such emphatic impassive disdain. The casing’s predecessor adored me; I was Leland’s Parfait. I am perfect, even in the afterlife. This isn’t a failure. It’s a lesson in sharing success with others. Vin just needs to see that. We are a team.
Finally, the demon in the driver’s seat sighs and gets out of the car, walking around the hood and up the concrete path. I lift off my hat in silent acknowledgment of my win. Blue takes advantage, scampering down my hair and onto Dash’s head.
I absently pat her on the head while I watch Vin take overlarge steps over and around the weeds and litter on the walkway. He must be delighted his casing is sporting pristine tailored suit pants and pressed shirts. “He must’ve been a carefree joy when he was alive.” Dash utters a yip of agreement. If Vin gets this one, I’m going to blame it on my outfit and the make up. Without permission to shower and change, I’m left in an intentionally dirty pair of jean shorts over thigh-highs and boots. The men’s blazer doesn’t quite conceal the corset that hikes up my balloon chest. Leland has a runner or rower’s musculature. For some men, my appearance would be a perk. For Clive Lopez, it’s despicable. If I were alive and walking around in my own Darcie Rose body of some kind of hispanic origin, he might be more inclined to converse.
There’s also the matter of Vin having the body of Clive’s boss. I think most wouldn’t slam the door on their employer showing up at your home address, if for nothing else than out of curiosity. It’s not fair that he has such an advantage over me. But it’s not unexpected. Being condemned to Hell, the cookie rarely rolls in my direction — no matter which realm I’m in at the moment.
Vin knocks right in the middle of the wreath and waits several moments before a crack appears. He doesn’t move or flinch during that time. Any nosy neighbors observing him too closely would notice how … unsettling he is. I need to teach him how to be more … human. I am beginning to suspect he has been dead longer than me — a lot longer. “Maybe he isn’t homo sapiens. What do you think? Neanderthal?” I ask my volpine and reptilian sidekicks.
The opening widens all the way. Clive and Vin talk for a moment, and then Vin is gestured inside. He doesn’t enter right away, though. One finger points to indicate me sequestered in the car. Leland’s janitor hesitates for a moment and finally nods. Vin turns to lord his triumph over me.
I sigh. “He’s going to be even more insufferable than before.” I get out of the car and offer a “Stay” to the fox and lizard. We have enough explaining to do; no need to add my unprecedented necromancy. Reanimated taxidermy corpses at that close of a proximity wouldn’t slide outside the radar. Dash loops around to the driver’s seat and plops his butt down, his front paws adding muck to the leather. “Good boy!”
“I loosened him for you,” I claim as I pass Vin, ignoring Clive’s unwelcoming glare.

 

XXXX


An hour later, I’m delighted to see the animals haven’t left the open-top car. The flower bed looks as disturbed as it was before we entered.
“I’ll fax your files over to the practice as soon as you let me know which you choose. Thanks again,” Vin thanks behind me. “I’m sorry I can’t perform the surgery myself.” The snick of the door latch is a lot more gentle this time.
Vin falls into step beside me and emits a gloating aura. “Why didn’t we just do that in the first place? The janitor at Leland’s office was always going to be more responsive to his boss and an actual doctor telling him to remove his implants than one of Leland’s patients. Especially one whose ass he stared at once by accident.”
“You stared at Ginger’s buttocks,” Vin corrects.
“Yeah, while I was possessing him,” I retort. “Since got returned to his casing in that lickety split moment, he was still — Why am I telling you this? You know the system better than me. You work for my boss’s boss. My boss’s boss’s boss? I don’t know how many it is. The top guy in Hell.” I jump over the car door to settle in the paw print-free passenger seat. “I’m just saying that I think this should be our tactic for the rest of our targets.”
“You are suggesting that I do all the work to complete your sentence?” Vin opens his door. “Shoo.” He waves hands with loose wrists at Dash and Blue, who read his negativity and clamber over to my side of the car, perching on my thighs. The fur keeps me warm, though Dash lacks body heat to share. I place Blue in my cleavage where she’s safest. I’m her heat lamp. 
“I did most of the explaining! We really need to work on your interpersonal skills.” 
Vin doesn’t get in the car, and my glance over reveals him staring at the seat with distaste. I huff and yank the sleeve of Leland’s blazer over the heel of my hand, using the fabric to wipe the spot clean. “Thine throne hath been cleansed and is now suitable for thine majesty’s tush,” I intone with a dramatic flourish of my hand. “I think you’re more deserving of a porcelain throne,” I add under my breath.
“Is that another idiom? Leland’s memories inform me that you often get those wrong.”
“You have access to Leland’s memories?” I exclaim, turning on him. “So you know the identities of all the affected patients? The details of their surgeries? How to undo them?” He knows why Leland cheated on me? My curiosity perks up its head like Dash registering the sudden intensity in my posture and voice. “Why are we searching around for each of them and then sending them to alternate doctors?”
“No.” Vin delicately places his butt on the seat and closes the door, shifting behind the wheel. 
“But you just said —”
“Due to the … urgent nature required of my overtake of this form, the transfer of memories was incomplete.”
“How do you know about my mixing up sayings then?” I’m eternally twenty-nine, but Vin really brings out the sixteen year-old in me.
“It was incomplete, but I was provided what information was in his file.”
I huff. “Of course you were. Unlike me. I wouldn’t be in this hiccup if Nix hadn’t sent me to Earth with a blank file.” I gesture at myself. “I only just found out my host’s name isn’t Ginger at all. That’s just a pseudonym for the movie credits! And her real name is unpronounceable,” I grumble.
“Aoife Ferreira,” my partner answers smoothly. 
“So, all those memories are gone?”
“No. The soul retains them; a soul collector will uploaded them to his file in an atypical manner within the Land of the Dead.”
I slump further in my seat, staring at the empty residential road through the windshield. “A soul collector. So you’re telling me you’re a zombie, walking around in an abandoned casing. And yet you have such disdain for Dash, who is in exactly the same situation.” I metaphorically fling out the window the spike in my heart at the suggestion that Leland can’t come back to his body, that his being sent to Hell was final. 
“I am unlike the vulpes.” Vin is offended. Dash is the one who should object to the comparison. “I was able to take over before the body was fully shut down, but not before the brain was wiped clean.”
I gape at him. “And you didn’t think that might be useful information?” My pitch is reaching dog hearing pitches.
A glimmer of a candle flame hope that refuses to be extinguished points out that the casing wasn’t destroyed as is normal with a decommission. I won’t let go of my plan to get Leland back out. He didn’t intend to interfere with the laws of nature. He just … missed me. I concede that the way he showed it was … unusual. Digging up my body from the grave in the dead of night, extracting fat from it, and then using that in his plastic surgery augmentations is, however, a compliment … of sorts. He told me just last night that he did it because one else can be as perfect as I was before my untimely death. 
I’m inclined to agree.
Subtracting that revelation would sink my opinion of the cheating jerk to its former levels of unadulterated loathing. Right now, it’s hovering around unhindered hatred with a dollop of reluctant understanding. My feelings toward my ex are as uncertain as the probability that I’m able to break him out of Luci’s jail. 
Vin merely blinks at me. “It was my intention to impart your punishment and return to my regular duties. It was your modification request that has forced us to remain on Earth and correct the issue raised by your fiance.”
“Ex-fiance,” I emphasize. “And I forced you only. I don’t have a choice. I’m kinda trapped here, remember? That is the issue, which is what we should be focusing on instead of arguing.” I toss my hair over my shoulder. “I know a few more names before we need to figure out how to track however many other infected patients are roaming around with bits of my casing in them. We’ll cross that ditch when we get to it. Let’s just go.”
The car doesn’t start. I wave a hand. “Hello. You in there? Did you decide Hell is better than hanging with me?”
“I am waiting to be told our next destination.”
“See? I’m an equal partner here. You rely on me. It’s Hawaii.” I grin evilly. “Looks like you have to get on a plane after all.”
He ignores my jibe. “Where in Hawaii?” 
I grumble and take out Ginger’s cell phone from her giant purse. “I don’t know. I’m not the one with any amount of knowledge here.”
“I doubt a doctor knows his patients addresses.”
I dislike his logicality. Clive inches into my periphery, squinting at the car, probably wondering why we’re still sitting outside his house like we’re on a stake-out. “Uh oh. I don’t think Clive is happy that his boss knows his address either.” I pull up the map app. 
Vin starts the car. He’s incentivized by disapproval. Interesting. I need to rethink my career plan to work my way up the ranks in Hell’s working system.
“We’re in luck. Looks like there’s a bar down the street where you can call Leland’s secretary for the next target’s address. And two stars, according to reviews! My favorite: a dive bar. We’ve hit the Leprechaun pot.” I laugh at my own statement and slap Vin on the arm to share in the amusement. “Luck! Like we have luck when we’re condemned to Hell.”
He doesn’t smile. “Which way is the bar?”
My laugh peters out. “We really need to work on your social skills. Down the street and to the right. I might need to grab a drink while we’re there. Or two.” 
Vin pulls away from the curb. I wave at Clive who flings up his hands and turns to back into his house. Dash promptly sticks his head over the top of the door. I hold onto his little body, making sure he doesn’t lean too far out and lose the second eye or rip off what’s left of the ear destroyed by a bullet. I turn on the radio as Vin shifts gears. 
He turns it back off.
“Maybe we should get you a drink, Vin.”
“It’s Demon Marvin.” Vin pulls out onto the street. “I will not drink and drive.”
“Of course not, Demon Marvin. Demons clearly don’t know how to have fun. Shouldn’t you be an expert at sinning? How’d you end up in Hell in the first place? Turn right here.”
He makes the turn.
“Wait a second. How do you know how to drive? You’re definitely older than the invention of cars. Was that in the file?”
He smiles without teeth and hits the accelerator.
“We’re all going to die,” I moan. “Again.”

 

THREE BROKE SOULS

(Loan Soul #3, dark paranormal urban fantasy) 

WARNING: definite spoilers immediately if you haven't read book 2 

CHAPTER ONE

Demon Darcie Rose. Darcie Rose, Demon. Rose, Demon Darcie Rose. Demon Darcie Rose the Deceased. Hellspawn Darcie Rose, the Demon.

I scratch them all out with the crayon I stole from the kid at the table we passed on the way to the bar. The napkin rips. I crumple it up and toss it onto my plate. The ketchup immediately mars the streaks of green crayon slashed across the white. “Looks like Christmas came early.” I tilt my head. “Or blood.”

“Sorry, I’m back.”

Yep, the latter.

I spin on my stool to consider the gorgeous body before me. I ogled its perfection for years while I was alive. It’s even more gorgeous in the afterlife. I could almost believe that I was sent to Heaven to have won the opportunity to look into those penetrating hazel eyes again, notice the dimple in a high cheek when those full pink lips smile at me, scan the sculpted gym-honed physique in nicely pressed slacks and a button-up with the sleeves rolled up.

“I haven’t used a bathroom in a while. Took a while to remember how it all worked.”

I sigh and swivel the rest of the way around to face my macabre plate instead. “You know, Silas, you’re really making me question my decision here.”

“What?” he grouses in that smooth chocolate voice. “You’ve been back to Earth many times. I’ve been in Hell since we died … all alone.”

“Since you died,” I correct. “I died before you. Do not put a ‘we’ in there like you and I are a unit. I chose to avoid all that love triangle drama when I selected you — or I guess, love quadrangle drama. Don’t you dare add another side to that polygon, or I’ll send you right back to Hell and bring someone else down here.” I raise my snapping fingers in warning.

It’s a mediocre threat at best. I know he doesn’t want to go back to the Overworld, not because it’s terrible there — because it isn’t. At least, not on the level Silas and I inhabit together as forced roommates, where mild irritations fueling a slow burn of torture are more the style for us low-key sinners. He’s just reveling in time spent with me, something I withheld from him accidentally-on-purpose in the last year while I took as many trips back to Earth as the Devil would allow me. I had many reasons for being a part of His Souls On Loan Exchange program. SOLE has been a way for me to cling to life in addition to escaping from purgatory, which, for me, includes Silas. Until I lost my mind and decided to bring him to me.

“But Doc ...” I can picture him shifting his weight from foot to foot, staring at the back of my head. “We’re partners.”

I grab Ginger’s designer purse from the hook under the bar and stand up to don Leland’s old blazer, warm from my synthetically enlarged bum. Pressing down on my trilby to ensure it doesn’t get blown off by the coastal breeze when we step outside serves a second purpose: ensuring Blue doesn’t topple off when I start walking. No need to startle diners with a blue-purple zombie taxidermied lizard this early in the morning. I’ve got enough to deal with.

I face Silas, who looks like Leland since Silas’s soul is hidden within the confines of my ex-fiancé’s body. It’s easy to forget it’s not Leland now — just his reused casing — when his irises are their usual arresting color; while Vin possessed Leland’s casing, their demonic red glow was a constant reminder of who was — and wasn’t — at home.

“It’s Darcie Rose.” I decide to drop the demon thing since it’s too new to feel comfortable belonging in my title. “Not Doc. Just Darcie.” And demanding Silas call me Demon Darcie would make me hypocritical since I hate Vin’s insistence that I address him as Demon Marvin — at least when we first started working together on my last mission. By the end, Vin and I, we’d gotten along. We’d been partners. We’d succeeded.

Well, we succeeded to the extent that I’m no longer tied to Earth. I can go back to Hell at any point, especially with my newly bestowed demonic powers that enable me to call up portals between Earth and the Realm of the Dead. I won’t. I don’t plan to show my soul up there before I’ve accomplished the task set for me by Luci Himself. Honestly, I’m not too eager to see anyone else in Hell either.

I may have succeeded in my goal, but I lost a lot of people on that mission, Vin included: friends, loved ones. And because I’m afraid to face any of them and their associated drama, I gained Silas … a man who thinks it’s cute to give me a nickname based on my initials — D.R. — which were printed on the sign of the taxidermy shop I owned. He doesn’t realize it rankles since I never did finish my M.D. That’s how I know Silas in the lightest possible sense. He was employed at my shop as my —

“Assistant,” I remind him aloud. He doesn’t need to know Luci’s phrasing. “You are my assistant. Always were, always will be. Not partner.” No matter if — when we succeed at this mission — there’s zero chance our relationship will evolve along the way like mine and Vin’s. Unless you count the crash-and-burn-in-the-fires-of-Hell part at the end.

I turn toward the diner door and begin walking, knowing he’ll tag behind like a besotted puppy. “If you want to be called Assistant Silas, that’s your choice. But I’m warning you now, I don’t like long names. I’ll probably shorten it.”

Vin pops to mind again. I bury him back in his grave.

I can practically hear him think it over. “My mom used to call me Si. I don’t usually like when other people call me that, but you can if you want to.”

I grimace, pausing to look at him over my shoulder. “Wow, equating me with your mom? Romantic. Thanks, Ass.”

His mouth flips direction, curving down.

I grin. “I warned you. Assistant is just too long. I don’t want to have to focus on you for long enough to say the whole three syllables.” I turn on my heel and waltz out the door. “Come along, Ass. We’ve a long way to go, and I want to get this over with and you back in Hell before Thanksgiving.”

It’s my second-to-least favorite holiday — after Halloween, for obvious reasons. Days fixated on family time tend to be a touchy subject for us foster-home kids. That’s how Larkynn and I became friends in med school; we clung to each other when everyone left town that first semester, chowing down on Chinese dumplings and watching eighties work-out videos together.

I’m sad to have lost that — and not because of death. My relationship with her since that time has been tumultuous at best. We were best friends until those last few moments of my life when I wanted her dead — fleetingly — and then doubly hated her when I died too. Then, triply hated her when I found out she survived after all. Some of my negative feelings are my own fault. I’d jumped to the wrong conclusions that fateful Halloween night. She wasn’t throwing herself at my fiancé on our anniversary. In fact, she was a dead girl standing before I launched myself at her … just taking the slow route under the grinding pestle of cancer.

Messier than a pig’s den, my afterlife is turning out to be. I bury her deep in the back of my cold, unbeating heart as well.

I tip my head back slightly — wary of upending my hat. The sun is just breaking through the morning fog, sending it in swirling puffs that are visibly dissipating before my eyes, evaporating the morning dew. The warmth doesn’t penetrate my celebrity casing to my bitter soul though. A group of bikers is congregated around one of their motorcycles.

“Hey!”  I shout. I head straight for them.

“Doc — Darcie, wait.”

That sick, clingy part of me that won’t let go of Earth doesn’t hate the nickname in Leland’s smooth voice calling out for me from behind. Nonetheless, I appreciate that he caught himself. His obedience is one reason I chose him when the Devil looked me in the eye — eerily through the black marble orbs of my lizard — and told me to choose one soul to bring back from Hell to assist me. The part He didn’t mention was that the only way to avoid dislodging living souls from their casings was to direct Silas into an empty one, which Vin had just vacated. Still, it’s favorable over the alternative; Larkynn had left her casing just moments before, but the cancer made it inviable for possession. I don’t think I could mesh Silas with a hot, slender blond exterior.

“Hey,” I call a second time as I approach the gaggle — or is it a murder? — of burly men who all look up at me. “He behave?”

The men part, allowing one, a dark-skinned behemoth with a shaved and tattooed scalp, to approach. “Perfect angel,” he informs me, breaking into a grin and passing me the end of a leash.

“Thanks, Dre.” I crouch to scratch my undead fox under the chin.

Dash’s one fake eye, a marble that I painted to match the real ones I removed, closes in delight. I never finished the taxidermy process, so the other socket is empty.

“Oi.” Another massive man in leather chaps and vest bends his knees until he’s balanced on the balls of his metal-spiked boots next to me. “I helped. Didn’t I?” Slipknot coos in a baby voice.

Dash transfers his attention, brush wagging happily at the full circle of adoration surrounding him.

“Watch it.” I squint, barely avoiding being impaled by Slipknot’s blue Mohawk as he leans in to receive a few licks on the cheek. “At least some of us should have both our eyes.”

He cocks a brow up at me, all the while doting on the vulpes. “Eh. Not sure you need them. You’re not driving.”

“Oh, come on,” I whine. “You said I could have a turn.”

“Once we’re outside of the city,” he delineates clearly. He stands, just to intimidate me with his height and bulk, I think. In Ginger Ferreira’s casing, blessed with half-Brazilian model genes, I’m not short. But around these guys, it feels like the Irish half is more dominant. “We’re in the Sunset District,” I moan. “Outer Sunset. That’s basically outside San Francisco.”

Silas arrives, barring me in with his borrowed over-six-foot frame. I’m a mouse among men. “What’s going on?”

Slipknot crosses his arms. “Once we’re outside of the city.”

I let out a groan, and Dre and a few of the others laugh.

“My Angel is precious,” Slipknot defends his decision. “I’m not taking chances with you behind the handlebars in city traffic.”

“Then let’s get this herd on the road. Are we all set?” I gesture at the gas station next door to the diner where they had been refueling while I paid everyone’s tab and waited on Silas to figure out his anatomy and biological urges.

“Good to go,” Dre responds. “Right, crew?” A chorus of enthusiastic whoops and yesses reply, followed by the staggered lion roars of eager engines.

“It’s show on the road,” Daniel quips, appearing as Dre moves toward his Baby Girl.

“Have you found anything out?” I ask him, ignoring his comment.

“No —” he starts.

I cut him off with another groan. “You’re my assistant. You’re supposed to plan my day for me.”

“I thought I was your ass—”

I give Silas a sharp silencing look. He might be new to the team, and I should give him some slack, but when the punishment for letting living humans, like our biker friends and Daniel, know about demons and soul possessions leads to dropping a few circles in Hell — at the very least — he needs to get with the wagon fast. I cannot afford mistakes with Luci watching me.

I don’t know if He’s actually watching me now. He said He’d check in on my progress. I press my hat tighter on my head, hiding from Blue’s unnerving stare just in case. I do not need that feeling of scrutiny to remind me what’s at stake.

“Ass, yep. You are indeed an ass. Daniel can be asshole-like, especially when he hasn’t done the one thing I asked him to —”

“You didn’t let me finish,” Daniel accuses with a huff. “No,” he tries again, “I didn’t. But Chastity did.” He steps back, allowing me to see one of the bikers I haven’t really met yet, standing next to his ride, is staring at his phone.

“Chastity,” I repeat, staring at the man who looks no different from the rest of them in his leather jacket with “Flying Angels” embroidered across the back, the letters adorned with a halo, rose, and wings. This guy is identifiable by his mullet. Even I know that’s a fashion faux-pas … without needing a wince from Caliré.

I sent her home on Ginger’s jet, much to Daniel’s dismay. I’m not sure if he and she had a thing going on or if he just enjoyed the scenery. He was also pretty upset he wasn’t allowed to join her on the faster and more luxurious form of transportation. If he only knew how much I’ve left to him in Ginger’s will, he wouldn’t complain so much about having to actually do work for me. It is his job.

“Chastity is a police officer.” Daniel leans closer, cupping a hand to his cheek and speaking out of the side of his mouth. “A real one. Not a stripper.”

“Noted.” I don’t want to imagine the awkwardness that went down when Daniel worked out that misunderstanding.

“He contacted a buddy of his who transferred upstate a few years ago.”

I perk up. “And? Does he have access to the file?” We might be getting somewhere, and we’re only on day one. This might be a quick fix after all. Silas shouldn’t get comfortable. I’ll certainly miss the hotel beds … and ability to sleep.

Daniel shrugs. “He said that his buddy would look into it. Chastity wants to head there now.”

I grin. “Well, let’s go then! What precinct is his buddy at? Outside the city?” I rub my hands together.

“No, in San Fran somewhere. Chastity,” Slipknot calls, missing my pout, which is a shame. It’s a good one since this casing has super plumped lips, thanks to Leland’s coveted plastic surgery talent.

Chastity looks up. Oh. He has a goatee too. Unfortunate. No wonder a lot of people don’t take the police seriously.

“You know where we’re heading?” Daniel asks the guy who I also would’ve guessed was a stripper — in the 80s.

A thumb sticks into the air.

“Great. You lead.” Slipknot catches on to our discussion then projects his voice to all the men straddling their shiny bikes. “Chas is leading. All in formation. Let’s fly, Angels.”

“I thought the bike was the angel,” I goad dryly.

Slipknot grins at me as he mounts and pats the back of the seat. Daniel clambers on with Dre — his choice. Slipknot was hoping Daniel would be the one wrapping arms around his waist. Daniel wasn’t so keen.

Silas gives me a beseeching look. I jab my finger, and he dutifully joins a third man — Nip, whose nickname origin will remain a mystery, thank you.

Slipknot passes me a helmet, and I reluctantly tuck my hat and Blue in one side bag and Dash into the other, checking that his harness is clipped into the latch that affixes the bag to the bike. He has a canine habit of sticking his nose in the wind. He wouldn’t die if he leaned too far out since he’s already technically dead and stuffed. It’s a kindness for the others, who would not appreciate seeing his head knocked off. And I’d rather not have to sew it back on, particularly as I don’t have access to my shop in this casing.

Silas pivots his head to point the opaque visor toward me, also pressed up against Nip’s back. That body in that get-up on the Harley … Well. Leland is pretty renowned for being soft on the eyes — it’s a selling point for a career in beautification. The soul within ruins the moment, which is probably a good reminder, by giving me an awkward okay symbol with thumb and index finger joined and the other three fingers extended. He’s forced to quickly return his grip to Nip’s sides when they take off abruptly. I roll my eyes. I need another leash to prevent Silas from falling off.

I fling a leg over the bike seat, sliding up against Slipknot. My arms barely reach around his leather-clad ribs.

“We’re all angels here,” he says over his shoulder.

“Fallen angels, maybe,” I mutter as Slipknot kick-starts Angel. Vibrations slither up my body through bones to the tips of the thin hairs on the back of my neck. He revs the engine, which sends a thrill through me. I plant my cheek against the Flying Angels logo and tighten my hug. “We’re all Hell-bound sooner or later.”

Me? I’m hoping for sooner.

 

FOUR POOR SOULS

(Loan Soul #4, dark paranormal urban fantasy) 

WARNING: definite spoilers immediately if you haven't read book 2 

CHAPTER ONE

Larkynn

Larkynn Bern is dead. And yet …

She isn’t. Not quite. Not fully.

She doesn’t know how she isn’t dead. Well, she knows how. She can hear the beeping, the whooshing, the dripping of machines and regulators. She knows her ears work and that what they perceive signals her greatest fear — that she’s trapped in a hospital, body decaying in a slow deterioration, pleading to be let go and heard by no one.

She knows little else.

She doesn’t know what hospital she’s in. This place is not like before. No constricting cuffs and soothing nurses with quick pricks of calming medication that immobilize by way of oblivion.

It’s like what she anticipated when they said the C-word but never experienced — the hallways of shuffling zombies with pale skin, sunken eyes, and shaved heads. And she’d be one of those cancer patients.

But she knows she avoided that eventuality.

Right?

She made a deal with the Devil, begged for death, and to her surprise, he’d answered. He’d come with his fire-red eyes to collect her before her body began to fail. Though her mind went first. That she knows.

And doesn’t know. Because her mind has become an unreliable narrator.

First, it was the memory lapse during which she apparently committed Grand Theft Auto, was part of a police chase, and wound up in jail. Well, it wasn’t a lapse so much as a memory wander. Her mind had taken her to Hell — a ridiculous notion as if purgatory is a vacation destination.

As if in penance for creating that experience, her mind followed that up with peace. The second time her mind had deceived her, it filled those final moments with visions of her best friends, one dead — who she’d seen die — and one living. An impossible reconciliation.

So, were they not final moments?

The tumor that manipulates her mind tells her she is a vegetable. The automatic timers and drugs keep her body alive, her mind trapped in this endless torture that’s worse than the Hell she imagined — the Hell she knows? The Hell she’s in… or will be in when she dies for what she did to her friends.

Larkynn strives to know, to scream out for answers.

But with an unwelcome pluralization fracturing her mind from her body, she knows she can’t.

She also knows that it isn’t her body.

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 Darcie

 

“This place is the stuff of nightmares.”

A pair of red eyes peers around the end of a heavyset and ornately carved, rosewood bookshelf that extends into the inky black starless sky and beyond. The other end stretches across the volcanic terrain into eternity as far as I can tell. The warped shelves aren’t stuffed to overflowing with books, though that too can be a nightmare if you’ve ever been in a disrespected school library — especially the ancient history section. No, this library, of a Hellish sort, fittingly — though unsolicited — holds only individual pieces of paper of all different colors, sizes, degrees of damage, orientations, and materials. Trillions of them. No — whatever is more than trillions. Trillion times a trillion. And as far as I can tell, there is no Dewey Decimal labeling System with which anyone classifies the organization of these … files.

“This is Hell, Darcie. Everywhere is the stuff of nightmares,” the demon replies without sympathy, leaving me to my horrified gawking, to continue browsing the thin edges of the pages as if he can see invisible spines with clearly marked titles.

He’s not wrong. Still. “What kind of negligent, uncaring, disrespectful librarians work here? They should be fired.” And in Hell, that means something quite different than Earth, so them’s some strong words.

I have no remorse for that wish; it’s not out of character for a soul condemned to Hell to will ill upon others. And I work hard at my job. They should do the same; they’ve got all of forever to master it. And I can assure them that pleasing the boss of the Overworld is worth more than a Christmas bonus.

“File a complaint,” he dismisses absently.

I scoff at the ridiculousness of the notion, trailing after him to stand at the head of the aisle he’s walking down. “And have it disregarded and stuffed somewhere here to be lost in the trees? Effective. It’d be as invisible as the information we’re looking for.”

He spares a moment to give my hypothetical musing attention. “I believe the saying is lost in the weeds.”

I stick out my tongue, unlike the twenty-six-year-old I look to be. Preserving my dignity, Vin is focused on our task and misses my immature gesture entirely.

He draws out my inner child though I’ve existed for twenty-seven years, going on twenty-eight. I’ll always appear to be the age at which I died. Hell enjoys trapping its captives in a weird stasis so they can harp on their end and never experience what could’ve been.

Should I say I’m twenty-six or twenty-seven? Does Vin self-identify by the age he looks? Or the combination of his life and afterlife? I think the answer is neither. He won’t tell me how long he’s been a resident of Hell. He might not measure that duration anymore. The same way Leland’s mother has had a lot of thirtieth birthday parties.

I consider Vin as he crouches lithely in his black slacks and pushes rolled-up sleeves higher on his thick arms. One hand strokes his short, dark beard, causing the exposed muscles in his forearm to flex. I’d bet my portal tolls — since life is something already lost in a previous pot — that he’s several millennia more ancient than I am. But I’d place him around thirty-four when he passed, not much older than me.

Not that I can use those tolls again since we’re still waiting on the results of our first roll-placing bet.

Will I lose the exact count when I’ve been here as long as he has?

I distract myself to stop thinking about that ceaseless, yawning eternity. “Were you there when they invented fire?” I ask conversationally. “Is that why you’re so brusque? Communication was mostly grunts and drawings of buffalo on cave walls? Oh! That’s why you don’t like Dash. It all makes sense. Animals were just food for you — or competition if they were an apex predator. I don’t think my history teacher ever mentioned cavemen having pets.” I tap my chin in thought.

Vin’s brows nearly meet that section of dark hair that falls over his widow’s peak onto his forehead. He says nothing, pinning me with his gaze until I begin to fidget, playing with the purple tips of my brown waves. Once he relieves me of his visual hold, I let out a breath taken out of instinct.

Even after a year and a half, I haven’t kicked the habit of inhaling and exhaling. However, that one wasn’t instinct.

Unholy heck, Demon Marvin Buell scares the un-living wits out of me. And he likes me. I don’t want to be on his dislike list — or worse since he is, after all, the Devil’s enforcer. I make a mental note not to push him too hard on the age jokes—or let his distaste for my sidekick grow into anything more severe.

In a moment of panic, I search around for him, noticing the lack of scuffling noise that had indicated he was enjoying his hobby of pouncing on threads I pull from my ripped fishnets and dangle like a worm. “Dash? Dash!” I turn in a circle. “I swear if he wasn’t already dead, curiosity would get him,” I mutter.

“Or a demon,” Vin retorts mildly.

I glare. “If any demon, especially you, lays his — or her finger on my fox…”

I step around him, peering down the aisle that peters out into nothingness, reaching far past where my eyes can discern. And I had been 20/20 when I died. There might be a speck at the end. I close my eyes and imagine a leash in front of me, a physical depiction of the link of owner-and-pet — okay, necromancer-and-zombie loyalty. It solidifies in my mind, and I give it a hearty tug. I discern a faint yip and nod satisfactorily to myself. He’ll come back. He always does. The link binds us, for whatever reason, across realms and death.

“You’ll what?”

“Huh?” I blink at Vin.

His head is cocked at me expectantly. “You’ll what? If any demon lays his or her finger on your fox, you’ll what?” There’s a little intrigue in the sparkle burning in his scarlet irises.

I’ve got nothing. It was an empty threat. What can you use as punishment on a demon — a more senior and practiced demon? Not much. Luci is really the only one scarier than that. No way in… this realm am I tattling to Luci. I’ve had more than enough chats with him to last an afterlifetime. And truthfully, “enough chats” is zero.

The second scariest demon I know of has a smile building on his face. On other demons, I could sic Luci’s righter of wrongs. There’s nothing stopping Vin, though, except our boss and his amazingly moral—for a demon—conscience. Theoretically, he’s been in Hell for millennia, so torture is out. Except…

My eyes narrow. “Or I’ll make him do something he hates.”

“Or her.” His grin spreads. “You wouldn’t dare.”

I shrug and sway past him, looking over my shoulder with an eyelash bat. “Someone has to petsit while I’m on my next job.”

His head shakes. “You know that contradicts the whole don’t-touch-my-fox thing, right?”

“Yeah, but this way, it’s on my terms. I like that better. Get him, Dash!” I call, watching the galloping Vulpes make his few final bounds before launching himself at my partner and … friend.

Who knew you could make friends in Hell? With a demon, no less? I guess that makes me doubly deserving of damnation, finding kinship and a reason to smile in the Realm of the Dead.

But Earth hadn’t been much of a Turkish delight for me, at least while I was alive. There’d been some glimmers, but they’d been fleeting. Premature death doesn’t help.

Giggling, I join in the wrestling fray, also pouncing on the mulish demon and snuggling the furry one-eyed fox. “Oh, I dare,” I quip, giggling and rolling on top of his satin, buttoned vest to join Dash who is slathering Vin’s chin with his tongue. My hat falls off, smacking him in the face and making me laugh harder. “What are you going to do about it? You’re only the personal assistant to the Lord of the Dead,” I gibe.

When Vin rolls again, pinning me below him and catching my wrists against the floor to keep them off him, my laughter dies. I stare into the infernos of his irises, the sticky humid and lukewarm air feeling more like the fire and brimstone of lore. Dash frolics around us in sustained merriment, oblivious in his mirth to the shift in the mood.

“I dare you,” Vin says in a gravelly bass, “to leave him with me while you’re gone.”

I swallow. “Maybe I will. And I’ll stay away for ages next time. Weeks. With a bed and sleep,” I flaunt.

His beard twitches. “Sloth.”

“It’s a lot softer than this.” I squirm a bit under him. I’m not ashamed of my love for the Seven Deadly Sins, and this is only my latest attempt to encourage him to also imbibe. I tilt my head, seeking some sign that he’s also thinking of another sin that can be relished with a bed.

“You don’t have to go,” he says after a long moment in a soft voice. “That’s no longer your job. You’re a demon now too — which means you also can’t lay a finger on your fox. You know he’s dead, right? Laying a finger on him doesn’t accomplish much. My powers do not require touching.”

I kind of think some of his powers do. Above my head, Dash is pawing at papers on a shelf, finding them more interesting than us now.

“He’s dead?” I gasp dramatically. Shrugging scrapes my scapula on the volcanic rock. “I like subbing. I joined SOLE, not because it was all that was available to me at my standing in the circles of immorality but because I like helping souls obtain their desires… or at least a loan’s worth. It’s fun getting to try on all those casings and lifestyles.”

“Have you not gotten enough of that?” He’s referring to those few months, about a year into my employment by the Soles On Loan Exchange program, when I got stuck body-hopping involuntarily due to a glitch my ex-fiancé semi-unintentionally orchestrated.

“Some of that was fun.” …when Vin joined me Earthside to punish me and I convinced him to join the adventure with me as my partner to solve the mystery causing my whirlwind tour.

He smirks knowingly. “The compliments.”

I blush. I’d confided that truth in him. “That’s just human nature to like to be complimented, to win and succeed, to get accolades and awards.”

He leans down, chest pressing against mine. “I can give you compliments. For example, I find you much less annoying when I win.”

“You haven’t won.”

Vin motions with his eyes to our relative positions of dominance and submission.

I roll my eyes, but he has given me real compliments in the past. I don’t know what landed him in Hell — though I’ve never gotten confirmation that anywhere else exists for the dead. Nix told me there is no Heaven; everyone makes a deal in the end. Considering that my SOLE handler turned out to be a raving vengeful lunatic, literally Hell-bent on kicking off a Hell-on-Earth zombie apocalypse, I no longer trust his word.

“Maybe,” I tease, “yours aren’t as good as the ones Luci arranges for the souls he borrows.” I’m lying. Those compliments are earned by the souls I sub for; Vin’s are given freely without bargain to me — Darcie Rose.

He growls playfully, and I know he’s debating berating me again for calling our boss by my nickname for him.

“Aren’t we supposed to be doing something here?” I ask suggestively.

He pulls back, eyes roving around my face, then nods once and climbs off me, offering a hand.

I frown. But then I wince, reproach nagging at me. Larkynn. We’re here to figure out what happened to Larkynn. That’s the other reason I won’t skip out on my work.

She’s out there somewhere. And I’ll hop all over Earth until I find her. Even scour these Devil-forsaken unsorted shelves for evidence of a portal she may have been snatched away in. I’d like to blame Nix, but she remained missing when we rescued all the souls that he stole from me. Something else was amiss.

I stand up and don the hat Vin has somehow acquired for me though I know of no way to change appearances up here; everything stays constant. My arm catches on several sheaths and a dozen papers. Blood splashes bright red on the pages before my skin heals, ready for the next round of torture. Somehow the files don’t appear any dirtier than before.

“Okay, so if we have useless librarians, I’ll assume we’re on our own here. Where do we start?” I ask Vin, perusing the vast collection with a sense of overwhelming foreboding at the impossibility of this errand.

He grins at me. “At the beginning.”

“I was worried you might say that.”

Detective demon Darcie Rose is on the case. And might still be until the end of time.

Hang on, Larkynn, wherever you are.

 

Mortal Scream
(Harbingers of Death #1, co-written by LeAnn Mason, NA urban fantasy/paranormal romance) 

CHAPTER ONE
 

The scream tore out of my throat like acid, scratching from deep in my belly and ricocheting off the walls of the alley. And it wouldn’t stop. My hands shook as I stared at them in horror. Blood smeared across my pale skin, cooling quickly in the night air.

“Oh my God!”

The appalled exclamation snuck into my ears while my depleted lungs sucked in a much-needed breath for another round of caterwauling. My attention switched from my hands to the man who’d shouted while another scream wrenched free from my protesting lungs. He was staring from the end of the alleyway, and he wasn’t alone. My eyes widened. I had a full audience. Behind him, a woman covered her mouth with both hands before lowering them with urgency to grab her child’s head and press his face into her stomach. From the wide stretch of her gaping mouth, I suspected she was also shrieking.

But I was using my outdoor voice and could only hear myself.

My father's voice was loud and clear in my head though, never failing to reiterate his lessons from my childhood. If you’re in trouble, making a lot of noise is an excellent way to attract attention. If stealth is the goal, noise is a great way to get into trouble.

This was definitely the latter even if I couldn't remember how the situation came to be.

The man pointed an accusatory finger in my direction, and the woman pulled out a phone with her free hand, pressing it to her ear as hard as she had crushed the child to her side. When I stood, their eyes unanimously zeroed in on my right hand.

The knife. I was still clutching the butcher’s knife I’d wrenched from the man’s stomach. It wasn’t medically advised to remove anything lodged in the abdomen, which can stem blood loss, but the victim had already pulled it part-way out himself. For some strange reason, I thought I should help.

I dropped the blade. It must have made a noise as it hit the pavement, but my prolonged screams overrode the clatter. Kicking it with my boot, I watched it slide under a dumpster from the corner of my eye.

If you think it’s dangerous to run with scissors, try it with a knife. Or better yet, don’t. Another lesson poked to the fore of my mind: Always secure your weapons before moving to minimize the risk of them being turned back on you.

Then I turned and sprinted away from my audience, down the dark alley. The same direction the actual murderer had gone, stumbling on detritus and wailing away.

Onlookers arrived in that direction to box me in, summoned by my involuntary call. Skidding to a stop next to another dumpster, I eyed it and the brick facade it butted, questioning my ability to reach the fire escape above it. I glanced left and right at the growing crowd barricading my ground-level escape options.

If you’re going to attempt something risky, make sure you have a back-up plan. Failure is never an option.

I didn’t have that. Or anyone to appear miraculously and offer one up.

Up it is.

Scrambling up the dumpster, I choked on the rank stench emanating from within as I inhaled raggedly. Slipping on some unidentifiable sludge nearly sent me toppling into the pile of oozing black trash bags spilling like tar around the bin. The resultant gagging broke my shrieks into sharp bursting screams between heaves. I stumbled over to the middle of the single closed lid, my boots bending the plastic precariously.

Thank the gods, I’d wrinkled my nose at wedge heels and fishnet stockings. Acrobatics would have been complicated by the fashion. What they’d have given me in terms of a few extra inches in height would have been negated by the hindrance of actually moving in the brick-like shoes. At that moment, I appreciated my parents’ push for function over fashion. My newly inflated sense of self-congratulation and my abating screams—due to hoarseness, not active choice—lured me into thinking I might just escape unscathed.

The last few times, it had taken a minute or two for my screams to quiet. But this time, my involuntary reaction had lasted longer than the previous four … or was it five? Long enough that I’d witnessed the man take his last gurgling breath, and his blood had seeped into the knees of my pants as I knelt over him, applying pressure on his wound. Long enough that I’d been observed at the scene.

If you stumble upon a crime scene, dial 9-1-1 then distance yourself immediately.

I had done neither. My reaction to death was getting worse. It had been so all-consuming this time that I’d been incapable of calling for help coherently. It must have been scrambling my other faculties as well. That was my only excuse for touching a murder weapon.

If you forego that step, the first thing you should do is memorize the name of the best criminal lawyer in town.

At least I had my dad with me in my time of need. Nevermind that it was only as a remembered figment of my imagination and barely consciously noticed over my incessant wailing.

“Police! Stop right there!”

My stomach dropped to my toes, my mouth finally shutting as the shit truly hit the fan. The police had arrived. And as anticipated, I had more of their focus than the assaulted man, whose death meant he no longer benefited from their attention. The real culprit was long gone from their view, having had plenty of time to distance himself with the victim’s wallet.

Running wouldn’t help me convince them of my innocence, but ‘don’t get caught’ was the most important lesson my parents had ingrained in me. I’d outrun the cops last time, but they hadn’t even seen me then. My time to escape had been diminishing since the first death I’d been weirdly compelled to witness, about a year ago.

My being present had helped none of them. I’d simply borne witness to their demise. And look at the shit it had gotten me into now. It wasn’t helping me either. Being a fleeting, unnoticed presence in each city I traveled to was kind of the name of the game in my life. Like a ghost.

And I was failing.

Bending my knees deep, I tipped my head back, swung my arms, and leaped for the lowest rung of the fire escape ladder. The lid of the dumpster caved beneath me with a crash and didn’t reach the height I expected, well, hoped. My fingertips barely wrapped around the cold metal, my weight and momentum tearing me from the idea of safety.

Shit!

Dread flared as my bloody fingers slipped, and I hitched the compromised digits, straining for a solid grip. Adrenaline made my heart pound. Legs flailing, I swung my body to get momentum then flung a hand up toward the next rung. Since I’d lost my parents, I hadn’t really done a great job of keeping up my training habits.

This would teach me to stop skipping gym days.

“Get down here! In the name of the law,” a booming baritone ordered, brooking no arguments.

Except, that idea didn’t really appeal to me.

My means of escape didn’t agree.

Without warning, the ladder latch released under my weight. The sliding mechanism engaged, sending the ladder, and me, plummeting toward the ground. My scream of surprise was barely audible, my vocal cords too raw to give it volume.

I slammed into the soft body of a policeman who seemed to have followed my attempt, sending both of us crashing into the crumpled lid of the dumpster and into the decomposing garbage. Groaning in pain, I rolled my head, trying to get my bearings, the violet tips of my silvery hair splaying across my face. I was going to be so bruised tomorrow, but I couldn't dwell on the fun colors my too-pale skin would display. I needed to get out of town and, preferably, the state, to outrun reaching hands.

Enforcement agencies are limited to certain jurisdictions, and cutting through the red tape takes time. Bureaucracy is a friend of the fugitive.

Before I could even roll from my spread-eagle pose, another scream crawled up my throat, my expression likely matching the dead man’s. It never made it out of my chest as the ladder followed my descent, clanging against my skull. Everything went black.

 

Thirst for Vengeance
The Exiled Fae of Texas #0.5, NA urban fantasy) 

CHAPTER ONE
 

Landing gently on the roof, Gwrach y Rhibyn folded her membranous leather wings, which spanned nearly the entire width of the quaint bungalow. She tucked a greasy strand of thin black hair behind a hunched shoulder with gnarled claws and let out a low, keening moan toward the moon. 

She could scent the child on the faint breeze passing through the valleys. It wasn’t as delectable as the sharp tang of blood sliding luxuriously down her throat, but the musk of human was like an appetizer, taunting her with the succulent nectar that was to come. Fresh saliva pooled in her mouth and dripped unheeded down pointed, slender, onyx fangs. 

“Too long,” she rasped to herself. “Too long. So thirsty.” 

Weak, the being that some humans called a vampire stumbled toward the edge of the roof above the child’s bedroom from memory. Her bare-footed steps were louder than usual on the clay tiles. The house frame creaked beneath her slight weight, belying its age. Likely, it was younger than the terrifying creature of the night crawling toward the corner above the child’s bedroom. She’d waited too long between feedings. 

The child would sleep soundly, undisturbed by the bumps in the night; a deep sleeper, the human never once awoke during the vampire’s visits. The child had a unique flavor that Gwrach y Rhibyn could not resist. Her favorite source had dominated her thoughts that night when the hag finally succumbed to her thirst. 

Dragging her emaciated body from a starved stupor, she’d emerged from her hidden river cove high in the Welsh forests ready to hunt for blood. It was almost less safe to have waited, because now her attention was scattered and blurry from deficiency. She would not notice if anyone snuck up on her, so focused was she on her own target. 

Twitching a glance over her shoulder, the vampire scanned the dark of the residential street in the sparsely populated town up. Only the trees moved, swaying slightly in the wind. Moonlight played on the shadowed leaves as they danced, generating a shushing sound like rushing water.

Her stomach clenched painfully, long past the point of growling, and Gwrach y Rhibyn dug her claws into her midsection until warm blood flowed dark over pale, nearly translucent skin. The aroma, less sweet than that of any child or even adult human, snaked into flared nostrils. Her lust for blood went berserk, escalating her desire into an uncontrollable craze. 

Grimacing, she urgently dropped to a crouch, wrapping her nails instead around the lip of the roof, feet spanning the apex. Sliding onto her stomach, Gwrach y Rhibyn snapped her wings out again, letting the sharp talon at the curve of each black appendage hook between roofing tiles, then she slid over the edge. Lowering her upper body, her hair dripped like black wax ahead of her descent. Her own blood rushed to her head, dizzying her for a moment. After a few breaths that incentivized her further with the lure of the child, she stretched her wings until her view lowered past the top frame of the window. 

The hag’s ragged breath caught as she took in the lump curled in the bed. So small. So innocent. So delectable. She could almost taste the lifeblood already, warm and heady. Another hunger pang stabbed through her belly, and a wanton moan slipped from her thin lips.

The child tossed and turned.

The monster in the window watched and waited until her prey was still for several minutes before stretching out her narrow arms and pulling up the window. She knew just when to pause and ease it over a particularly creaky segment. When it was no wider than a foot, she slithered inside, her wings tucking tight to her skeletal body to fit through the narrow opening. 

Bent low, Gwrach y Rhibyn felt a gust of wind skim across the top of her hair, fresh air flicking around the otherwise stale scene. Keeping to the shadows, she circumvented the spotlight of the moonbeam. The lock clicked in the bedroom door with a quick turn of her wrist, then the hag crept toward the bed. Her crooked back slid up the wall beside the bed as she rose, her gaze on his peaceful form. A different ache burned her core. 

Age-old grief gripped her heart. Her baby. Her child. Ripped from her. “Too early, too early,” she whispered. A shaking hand stretched out, barely visible in the gloom, and her palm gently brushed the child’s rosey cheek, plump and warm beneath her fingers. Gwrach y Rhibyn’s breath skittered out in a rush. 

The child stirred again.

Bending low over the child’s chubby form, she inhaled talcum powder and lavender soap. A drip of saliva plopped on the blanket tucked up under the child’s chin. Gwrach y Rhibyn pulled it down to expose the girl’s neck and fixated on the pulsing artery. There was no evidence there of past visits, the punctures long since healed.

“Too long,” she murmured.

A frown marred the child’s face, and Gwrach y Rhibyn paused until the girl settled once more. Then, she dipped and opened her jaws wide, the full row of thin black teeth poised over the rosey skin. 

Quickly, she pierced the flesh and the divine taste flooded her mouth, cascading down her parched throat. She moaned again, sucking hard, gulping back thick swallows of rich blood. The child had fully revived after her last encounter with the hag.

A tap on the window snapped Gwrach y Rhibyn’s awareness away from her meal. 

Whipping her head around, huddled over the girl protectively, teeth displayed in threat, the vampire stared at a pair of large green eyes, sharp white teeth, and gleaming silver hair. The hag inhaled hard in a hiss that expressed annoyance, and the scent that filtered through the open window confirmed the identity of the voyeur. Gwrach y Rhibyn snarled softly.

“Tylwyth Teg,” she growled. Another fae. The appearance told her this was an elf. Here. Trying to take her source. 

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