A Case File From: The Grave Report
Copyright R.R. Virdi 2017
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
To Tribe, for always having my back and helping me overcome the hardest things in life.
Thank you to my wonderful editing team: Michelle Dunbar, Cayleigh Stickler, and Aaron Fernandez. You all really helped shape this novel up. Much love and thanks to Abby for the final polish on this.
Waking up in someone else’s dead body isn’t for chumps.
I exhaled water. Bubbles formed in front of me, and the world blurred like my eyes were smeared with dark jelly. My heart beat a drum solo. It took me a moment to realize what was happening. Panic set in, and I couldn’t draw breath. I thrashed on instinct, but the binding around my wrists and ankles kept me from moving any direction but down.
I shut my eyes and ignored my body’s desperate urges. My lungs felt like balloons close to bursting, and a huff of air filtered out of my nostrils as the pressure in my chest built.
Thinking is hard when you’re low on oxygen. My mind raced, dredging up any useful information from my prior cases. Clarity came seconds later followed by a solution. I needed to resituate my body.
My hands were bound behind my back, so I tucked my knees to my chest. Another plume of bubbles left my nostrils. My arms came under and upwards as I brought them in front of me. I cupped my hands together, facing them downwards. My legs kicked like pistons. My hands followed. The act propelled me up. It wasn’t enough. I repeated the action.
A murky film of water swayed above me. It was like looking at plastic wrap splashed in motor oil. I pumped my legs and paddled like a dog. There was a moment of resistance as I reached the surface. The water fought to pull me under. I exhaled fully and kicked one last time.
I broke the surface. Air rushed to fill the vacuum in my lungs, but relief was short-lived. An invisible cord tugged around my waist and legs. I leaned back and took another breath. Staying afloat was easy. Finding and getting to shore was another matter.
I shut my eyes, giving thanks I’d once inhabited the body of a Navy Seal. Drownproofing came with the skill set I managed to retain in my memories. I shifted my torso and pulled with my shoulders. My body rolled. I opened my eyes and was rewarded with a pier hemmed in sapphire lights. A shore, more rock than sand, hugged its right.
Good enough for me.
I inhaled again before lowering my head. My body sank below the surface and I scrunched like an inchworm. The tugging returned, threatening to pull me below. I kicked behind me and undulated like a dolphin. Several yards had passed before I broke through the surface again. I repeated the process. My body rolled, and the water slipped below my back as I drifted.
The sky greeted me as an unmarred canvas of black. I didn’t have time to stargaze. With another twist, I was back underwater. I undulated and swam as best as my predicament allowed. A fire built in my body and my muscles felt like they were lined with lead. I ignored it.
The depth decreased. I struggled to find balance as my feet skidded against a floor of loose sand. Wading through the shallow water was a chore with my ankles fastened together.
A flash of color at the edge of my vision prompted me to look up.
A young woman came to a stop twenty feet from the shoreline. She was a walking advertisement for a jogging catalog, from her athletic apparel to her appearance. Her eyes widened, and her mouth moved without words.
I doubled over, placing my palms on my knees. “Nice night for a swim.”
She stared at my wrists.
“Oh, these?” I held up my hands. The silver tape took on an eerie blue tinge under the nearby pier lights. “It was a really kinky swim?”
Her head shook before she turned and ran off in the opposite direction.
“Oh, good. Now I can collapse in peace.” I lowered myself to the rocky bed and rested my head on a large stone. It was nice.
I stared at the sky. If there were any stars, they were drowned out by swatches of warm gold and cool silvery lights coming from the concrete monoliths behind the poor excuse of a beach. A laser-like red light blazed in the corner of my vision, and I turned to the source.
A neon sign looped over a section of the pier. I recognized it and smiled. New York had a heck of a way of welcoming me back. My smile slipped as I thought of my recent cases in the state.
Cases. Right, work. The train of thought galvanized me. Stones prodded and scraped against my clothes as I rolled over. A breeze wafted by. My muscles tightened and shuddered. I gave silent thanks for the agreeable temperature. Hypothermia isn’t fun.
My fingers brushed over small rocks, and I hissed as my thumb trailed over a sharp edge. It was a task, fumbling with the rock and my quivering muscles, but I managed to get a grip on it. I thumbed the stone over and lined its edge against the bindings.
The thing with duct tape is the more you apply, the more it acts like a single piece. It’s strong. It’s also easier to break than several loose layers of the stuff. My shoulders strained as I pulled my hands away from each other. The tape resisted but stretched a bit. I pulled again. A breath of exertion left my lungs. Satisfied that I had stretched it as much as I could, I brought the sharp rock to it and filed. The tape’s edge bowed and flitted away from the rock, but it refused to tear.
I released a string of obscenities and kept at it. A millimeter-long notch appeared on one side. It wasn’t much to work with. I scored another incision on the side closest to my body. The edge cut deeper until it only served to bend and twist the tape rather than tear it. I discarded the rock and pulled my knees to my chest. My arms went around them, and I jerked my wrists towards my center. The tape impacted my knees, refusing to let my hands come any closer. The compromised bindings gave and tore free. I peeled the scraps from my skin, wincing as the adhesives pulled at me.
Freeing my legs was easier. I took the point of the rock and jabbed like a savage until the tape was peppered with holes. The stone cut through shredded restraints.
“Okay, that sucked.” I rubbed the side of my head and shut my eyes. “Focus. Find a church. Find Church. Punch him in the nose.” I nodded and pushed myself to my feet. Stone shifted beneath me as I stepped towards the sandy portion of the shore. The grains, coupled with my wet weight, didn’t make things easy. I shambled towards the boardwalk, ignoring the odd stares from passersby. Water splotched and darkened the wooden planks beneath me. I debated stripping on the pier to wring out my clothes but pushed the idea from my mind.
Public stripping is frowned upon.
Instead, I put my hands to my chest and brushed my body. Feeling yourself up is slightly less offensive. I patted down my pants.
Nothing in my clothes.
I spat over a railing. “Shit.” No clues to work with. His clothing wasn’t much good. A simple shirt and jeans never are. The shoes were low-grade sneakers that seemed more for show than use. I leaned against the guardrail and sighed.
All I had to work with was that he had drowned. I ruled out aquatic monsters. He wasn’t out for a routine swim. Not at night. Not with his limbs bound. Something brought him to the water. Pressure built simultaneously within my chest and skull. I concentrated the feeling in the base of my fist as I slammed my hand against the railing.
I turned and marched towards the street. Unseen fingers trailed against the back of my neck. The skin around my shoulders prickled like waves of static coursed over them. People get an odd sensation when they’re being watched. You just know. And there’s an art to spotting who’s got their eye on you.
My pace quickened. I crossed the street and homed in on a path that ran between a pair of buildings. It was narrow and out of sight. A good start. My brisk walk turned into a light jog, and I cut through another street.
A car horn sounded, followed by colorful profanity. If I had the time to stop, I would’ve given him a one-finger salute for his creativity.
Old brick walls surrounded me as I slipped into the alley. The buildings on either side had definitely seen better days. Much of the masonry was pitted, with the occasional fist-sized chunk missing. My pace slowed and I winced. A second later, I released a raucous noise, more through my nose than my mouth. I looked over my shoulder through the feigned sneeze.
It wasn’t the subtlest thing.
A single figure stood out. He waited at the end of the last street I had crossed before making my way into the alley. The lonesome figure was the walking embodiment of a motorcycle fetish with an armored black jacket and matching gloves. I wish the hardened apparel ended there.
For whatever reason, he decided to keep the dark helmet on. Most people would feel it was a stretch to assume someone in a helmet was staring at them. It’s not that much of a leap when the street was empty save for us. I picked up my pace and headed for the corner.
I rounded it, coming into a parking lot with enough room for a dozen cars. One of those weak, sheet metal garage doors filled most of the wall to my right. I flattened myself against the wall and waited.
I was tempted to chalk it up to paranoia. But in my world, paranoia is a survival trait.
The sound of boots on concrete filled my ears. A thin smile spread across my lips. Graves wins again. Although I wished I were wrong. My muscles felt like quivering strings waiting to go taut.
An armored glove broke past the corner. I surged forwards, grabbing him by the collar. The surprise and my momentum made it easy to drive him into the opposite wall. There was a plastic crack from the back of his helmet as it ricocheted off the brick.
“Why are you following me?” My fists balled around the collar of his coat.
There was no sluggishness in his movements. He was completely unfazed after having his noggin thrust against a wall. His hands blurred faster than I could keep up with. With a series of quick, coordinated movements, he broke my grip and seized the front of my shirt. The material squelched, releasing a spurt of water on his clothing.
I gave him a weak smile. “You’re not here for the wet t-shirt contest, are you?” I gave the shirt a gentle tug. “I think I win.” My smile slipped as he pivoted, putting his hips against mine. The world looked like I was on an amusement park ride. It tilted sideways and inverted. The helmeted freak grew farther away as I sailed through the air.
My ride was cut short by Newton’s law. The opposite force came in the way of groaning metal. The broad of my back felt like I’d volunteered to be a piñata. The flimsy garage door warped behind me. My shoulders took most of the impact as I crumbled to the ground.
Fuck you, Newton.
The assailant was atop me in a second. I shifted my body, scissored my legs around his, and twisted sharply. He wobbled and I pulled my legs towards me to upset his balance. The asshole crashed into the damaged door. I used the momentary lull to scramble to my feet.
He was faster on the recovery, snapping out with the back of his fist. The blow caught me on the underside of my chin. My vision flared and everything seesawed. One of these days I’m going to learn to stay down.
“Do I owe you money?”
His fist lashed out against a section of nearby brick, which shattered like it was cheap clay.
I blinked. At least I knew I wasn’t dealing with a vanilla mortal. Having my ass kicked might as well have been an enlightening experience. I arched a brow and took a cautionary step back. “You got a name, pal?”
“How do you spell that?”
My mystery attacker hunched, bringing his arms in tight. Great, he knew how to keep his body protected. This wasn’t his first rodeo.
It wasn’t mine either.
I turned to my side, narrowing my profile. “Bring it, asshole!”
He did. Helmet Head closed the distance between us in a fraction of a second. His shoulder turned towards me, and I knew what would follow. A fist arced towards the center of my face.
I stepped towards him and threw an arm over his collar. My fingers dug into the leather jacket as his blow missed. With my free hand, I clenched his belt line. All it took was a sharp twist of my torso and a bit of effort. His feet left the ground, and I took him down. I landed atop him, working to straddle his arms. The leverage of my position was an added boon, and I used it.
My palm crashed into his visor. Plastic vibrated and flexed, but remained intact. The second strike sent a series of hairline cracks running through a corner. I followed up with a third blow. The visor shattered. My fingers hooked around the opening, and I wrenched. The helmet slipped off. I understood why he had chosen to keep it on.
The freak squirmed beneath me and bared his teeth. Four fangs stood out. Shoulder-length hair spilled onto the concrete. The locks were strands of polished pearls caught in the nearby flickering streetlight, seeming to glow. A Night Runner. Ashen Elves.
The bastard younger brothers of the Svartals, a race of dark elves.
My hand slid against the side of his face, past his tapered ears. I seized a fistful of his hair and pulled.
The elf’s citrine eyes narrowed. Heat built within them.
I grabbed him with my other hand and hauled him up. “Why are you following me?”
“Stay out of affairs that don’t concern you.” He bared his fangs at me.
“You followed me.” I released my hold and snapped a fist towards his face. His lips folded back against his teeth and split. Blood welled at the edge of his mouth. It took on an odd sheen atop his ashen gray skin. “Give me a straight answer.” I twisted and used my position to drive a second blow to his skull. My fist tightened for a third strike when the elf pulled away from me.
His knees rocketed into my back. He shimmied until he was free of my pin. The Night Runner’s knees pulled back to his chest. They fired like pistons, driving his heels into my chest.
The world rolled and my eyes followed suit. They fixed on the sight of concrete. I got a better look at it than I wanted a second later. It felt like I’d taken a sledgehammer to my torso and skull. I shook my head and placed my palms on the ground. The world teetered as I got to my feet. “Round…whatever we’re on?”
The Night Runner cocked his head to the side.
I scowled. “Just come here so I can kick your ass.”
He smirked. “Is that what is happening?”
“Can you, for one second, not be a total tool and give me a straight answer?”
He blinked and looked away for a second. “I was sent to warn you not to become embroiled in your mistress’s entanglements.”
“Whoziwhat? Mistress?” I held up my hands in a gesture of placation. “Look, I think you’ve got the wrong guy. Hell, so do I. I’m just borrowing this body for a while. A short while, I hope. I don’t have a mistress, I think?”
He spat and looked at me like I was an idiot. “You are a fool.”
Way to make it personal. “Yeah? And you’re a dick-bottle.”
His face lost all expression. It took him several moments to recover. “Relinquish your position as her emissary, and you will live.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that. It’s hard when you have no clue what the freak is referring to. “Yeah, sure. Now beat it before I beat you.”
His lips spread into a thin smile.
He blurred into motion faster than before.
I hunched close and threw a blind punch, hoping to connect.
His shoulder buried itself in my gut. He didn’t slow his momentum and drove me back.
Metal crunched. So did I, leaving a Vincent Graves-sized indent in the garage door. It was taking “making an impact” to a literal level.
The elf pulled himself away and dusted his hands. “Stay out of the matter. Next time I won’t go so easy on you, and it won’t just be a warning.” He turned and raced out of sight.
I pressed a hand to my chest. A series of coughs racked my body. “Good…talk.” My head thunked against the door, and I shut my eyes. “And I just got this body. Church is going to be ticked.” My rest could wait. I had a case to start.
It felt like firecrackers went off inside my chest and back as I got to my feet. I pushed the strange encounter from my mind. It was a problem for another time. I shoved my hands into my pockets and left the alley. Finding the nearest place of worship wouldn’t take long.
The static buzz over my neck and shoulders returned. Someone was watching me—still. I cast a glance over my shoulder but saw nothing. I ruled the Night Runner out. He had made his point—painfully. I guess I had attracted another party’s interest.
This was going to be a long walk.
Moving through the streets of Queens isn’t difficult on its own, but when you’re forced to rubberneck and take odd paths, it adds up. I veered down an ill-maintained sidewalk. The cracked concrete looked like a dumping ground for adolescent trash. Torn pages from adult magazines and fast food wrappers whisked down the street with the breeze.
Nobody followed me, but the feeling I was being stalked lingered, refusing to let go.
Whoever was trailing me was good.
I sped up and rounded the corner, doubling my pace until it became a jog. A cathedral came into view. It was a simple thing of brick, capped with a white tower. Much of the color had faded with age and the elements. I paused at the double doors and glanced over my shoulder one last time.
The pressure in my jaw built as my teeth ground. I cupped a hand to the side of my face. “You suck salty moose wang!”
There was no reply.
I scowled and pushed my way inside. The interior was the opposite of its outside. Beautifully crafted pews of dark cherry filled the floor. Columns of white wrapped with intricate filigrees of brass. The ceiling was painted to resemble a velvet sky strung with stars. It could’ve been pulled from a night in the African savannah.
I moved towards the front, keeping my eyes open for anyone else. The place seemed deserted. I whistled. “Candy-gram for blonde and geekily handsome!”
Someone cleared their throat, prompting me to turn.
He sat several pews back with his legs crossed. The man was a dead ringer of what I’d called out for. Church’s looks were the definition of geek chic. He eyed me and arched a brow.
“Uh, I woke up underwater—with my hands tied, by the way. Thanks for that.”
“I don’t choose the circumstances, Vincent. You know this.”
“I have the feeling you have a lot more control than you’re letting on, Blondilocks.” I eyed him hard.
He sighed and pulled his designer glasses from his face. The dark frames stood out against his wavy, shoulder-length hair. Church pulled a cloth from his pocket and polished the lens without taking his eyes off me. It was like gazing into frozen azure waters. A heck of a stare.
I fought not to blink.
The edges of his mouth quirked like he was fighting not to smile. “Have you changed your mind about punching me?”
I blinked. “The feeling’s coming back.” My fingers dug into my palm as my fist tightened.
Church took note and eyed me. “Violence isn’t always the answer.”
I snorted. “Tell that to the freak who jumped me on my way over here.”
He thumbed shut the journal on his lap and clasped his hands over it. “I’m not surprised.”
“Really? I am. I just got this meat suit.” I hooked a thumb to my chest. “How am I already pissing people off?”
Church folded his lips and stood. “Vincent, I am always surprised by your ability to irritate others. In that regard, you have no equal. I’m sure you found a way.” His eyes shone with amusement.
“Thanks. I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Please don’t. I’m not trying to encourage you.”
I rubbed the back of my neck and looked past Church. Two journals sat on the pew; a rich burgundy atop a saddle brown. They belonged to me. One helped me keep my memories straight between all the body bouncing I do. The other was a compendium of every bit of mythological lore I’d come across over my cases. It was the only real tool I had. I nodded at them.
Church inclined his head and fetched both. He presented them to me like they were a gift. “Wait here.” He moved towards the altar.
“Um, okay.” I stood rooted to the spot and blinked. That was new.
Church vanished from sight and returned just as quickly. He carried a set of folded clothing atop his hands.
“Aw, shucks, you shouldn’t have. I’m only drenched.” I placed my journals on a nearby pew.
He raised a brow. “Technically, you are damp. Most of the water dried during your trek here.” Church placed the clothing on a pew next to me.
I scowled and snatched up what looked like a perfect replica of the clothes I wore. Well, they were dry at least. I hooked my index finger within the collar of my shirt and pulled. Fabric stretched. Strings tore the next second sending buttons bouncing onto the floor. I tossed the shirt aside with a callous flick of my wrist. My pants fell to my feet after I kicked off my shoes.
Church’s eyes went wide, and he turned away. “Vincent, I don’t think it’s wholly appropriate to strip in a place…” He gestured to our surroundings.
I waved a dismissive hand. “Whatever. It’s not my body. Don’t suppose you can tell me what killed this stiff and save me some time?”
Church’s back was fully to me now. “You know I can’t.”
I pulled off the guy’s briefs and slipped into the new clothes mechanically. My muscles loosened in response to the first touch of the shirt around my chest. It was like it had come out of the dryer. The pants were the same. “Toasty. Thanks.”
“Of course.” Church tilted his head.
“You can look, dude. I’m dressed enough.” I pulled on the socks and slid into the replacement sneakers.
He turned and faced me. “You have questions on your mind.”
“Yeah, I do. I’ve got a feelin’ you know what I’m going to ask.”
Church nodded. “Ask anyway.”
“I’ll ask the ones that matter, how’s that? I know how you’ll answer the others.”
He gave me a paper-thin smile.
“How is Lizzie?”
“She is doing well in the care of her grandmother. Elizabeth still thinks about you, Vincent. You had quite the effect on her.”
“You saved her and her sister. She’s at home with someone who cares about her because of you.”
I grinned. It was good to hear. Lizzie was a little girl I’d met on one of my cases. Pretty normal, except for the fact she had the peculiar ability to see and speak to ghosts. Kids, right? They’re weird.
Church cleared his throat. “That’s not the only question on your mind.”
I shook my head. My throat seemed too tight, refusing to let me voice my question. “How’s Ortiz?”
He brushed a lock of hair away from his eyes.
He remained silent and looked away.
“How’s Ortiz?” My heart felt like I’d gone another round with the Night Runner.
“I can’t answer that.” His voice sounded like he had swallowed a handful of sawdust. I could hear the desire mixed in with restraint. He wanted to tell me.
I arched a brow. “Let me guess: These weird rules—the ones you can’t tell me about—are keeping you from answering?”
“Your boss is an ass, no offense.”
Church blinked, and his face twisted like he was caught between wanting to laugh and remaining poised. “Vincent”—his lips twitched—“I don’t think you can say that and mean it without offense.”
He held out his hand. “We’ve spent enough time talking. You have work to do.”
I sighed. “Thanks, Mom.” I pulled on the cuff of my shirt, rolling the sleeve back to my elbow.
Church grabbed my forearm. The man had a hydraulic grip. Heat radiated over the inner part of my arm and intensified. It felt like I had touched my skin to a stove.
I shut my eyes. My teeth slid over each other as I grimaced through the pain. It went quickly. “Ow.”
Church removed his hand.
There was a patch of reddened skin. A black number fifty-seven sat in the middle. The magical tattoo would decrease in number by the hour until I found the thing responsible for murdering the previous owner of the body I inhabited. I glanced at it, then Church. “Feeling generous?”
“You’ll need the time.” He paused, and his mouth pulled to one corner. “And luck.”
The desire to bury my fist in his face returned. But I’m a mature adult. I reined it in and gave him the finger.
I gave him a look. “Don’t suppose you could give me something to go on here? Not even a teensy clue?”
“Give me something work with, Church.”
“I did.” He pointed to the journals, then my tattoo. “And time is passing.”
I bent at my waist and looked down as I recovered my journals. “Fine.” When I looked up, Church had vanished. I exhaled through my nose. “Yeah, you’re a regular Harry Blackstone, congrats.” The smaller burgundy journal slipped from atop the stack. Its corner struck my palm as I fumbled for it. The collection of memories hit the ground at an angle. A plastic card slipped out.
I bent and scooped up the journal and card. A picture of a man that could have been used on a Korean travel brochure stared back at me. Cognac eyes and tousled black hair with a hint of a tan. Good lookin’ guy. I smiled at the driver’s license and held it towards the ceiling. “Smartass.” I had a feeling Church heard me wherever he was. The man always seemed to know.
I tucked the journals under an arm and turned my attention to the piece of plastic. My index finger bounced off the card as my fingernail struck the section with his information. I burned the name and address into the back of my mind. “Let’s go find out who you really are, Mr. Kim. And…what the hell offed you.”
The walk to Daniel Kim’s apartment complex took longer than I’d have liked. I had taken the longest route I could. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my unseen tail nipped at my heels the entire trip. It felt like a pair of screws had drilled their way through the back of my skull. Whoever was keeping tabs on me was good, and annoying. Their presence had cost me.
I’d lost an hour. Fifty-six left.
The apartment complex was unremarkable. Three stories of brick with windows trimmed in white paneling. Sturdy and, by the looks of things, affordable. I walked up three concrete steps and stopped at the door. The glass was clean enough to offer me a hint of a reflection. It wasn’t much, but with the street lamps behind me, it gave me a decent view over my shoulder.
Nobody sensible would roam the streets this time of night. The only thing that passed by was a 90s sedan with dimmed headlights that barely illuminated ten feet before it. Still, the unshakable feeling someone was watching didn’t subside.
Dull pressure radiated around my gums as my teeth ground. My fingers dug into the meat of my palm. I balled my fist tighter before releasing the tension. A series of gentle breaths through my nose and I was calm. I raised a fist over my head, hoping my stalker would see it. A smile spread across my face as I extended a single finger.
They got the message.
I pulled the door open and stepped inside. The white tile was in serious need of polishing. I crossed over to the carpeted staircase and stopped. A burgundy plaque, with tenant names and apartment numbers, hung on the wall. My finger trailed across the list horizontally until I found what I was looking for. I stayed an extra minute to commit the names of his neighbors to memory. It’s hard working a case when you’re stumbling over who’s who.
Nodding to myself, I grabbed the railing and hurtled up the stairs to the second floor. I passed doors the color of rustic oak as I searched for Daniel’s apartment. I found it halfway down the hall. My lips folded under my teeth as a realization hit me.
“Urfle, murfle, gruhl.” The base of my fist ricocheted off the wooden door. It vibrated where I had struck it. It did little good to open it. I nursed the temptation to drive my heel into the spot just above the doorknob. If I did it right, I could force the sucker open. I resisted the urge. It didn’t seem like a good idea starting off my case by damaging the victim’s home and pissing off the building’s superintendent.
A click sounded behind me. I turned to the source. The door opposite pulled back, and a young, dark-skinned male blinked at me, then at the door.
“Locked out, Daniel?” He scratched the side of his head and offered me a lopsided smile.
The scrawny kid recoiled. He looked like he was in his mid-twenties and the definition of an information technology geek. The guy had a shaved head, and his rectangular glasses sat askew on the bridge of his nose. The only thing he had going for him was his height, standing a little over six feet.
I raised a hand as a way of apology. “Yeah, sorry, rough night.”
He looked me over and nodded. “Sounds like it if you’re coming in this late. Working overtime at the gallery?” He arched a brow.
I nodded. It was a nice bit of information I wouldn’t need to fish for, and it made sense. Long Island City was home to a fair bunch of artists. I didn’t know how it was useful, yet. At least I had another stop after I checked out his place. As soon as I figured out how to get into it. I let one of my hands rest on the knob.
A disorienting wave rolled through my brain. It was like syrup crashed down and congealed within my skull.
Daniel’s foot bounced off the door and he swore. He jostled the knob in frustration. His hands burrowed into his pockets, fishing for a key he didn’t have. He placed his back against the door and crossed his legs. The man shut his eyes and thought for a moment.
The vision snapped out of clarity only to be replaced by another. I watched Daniel cross over the concrete roof to an ill-maintained looking ventilation system. His fingers closed around the poorly fastened grate, and he pried it loose. Daniel ran a hand over the side. Something rippled against his fingertips and clung to the skin. It felt like tape. One of his fingers came across a sliver of metal that was cool to the touch. He closed his hand around it and pulled.
The memory faded, and I blinked several times as I readjusted.
My neighbor eyed me sideways. “You…okay, Daniel? You look like you’ve had a four-oh-four error in your head.”
I blinked again.
“You know, error, broken page?”
“Like your mind went blank—crashed.”
“Oh.” I nodded. “Yeah, sorry. I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
He nodded to himself. “Fair enough. You want me to call the super and see if he can get you into your place?”
I shook my head. “No, thanks. I’ve got it. I know where I left my key.” I took a step towards the stairs.
“Wait. You coming to movie night tomorrow, or, um, I guess tonight—shit. What time is it?”
I stopped. “Movie night?”
“Yeah, you know, at Ashton’s place?” He pointed to a door several apartments down from mine. “The gang gets together, and we watch a movie…like the name suggests.”
I bowed my head. “Sure, yeah, um, count me in.”
He looked at me like I was strange then yawned. “Cool, cool.”
“Sorry for waking you.” I turned to move towards the staircase.
“No worries, was already up troubleshooting stuff for clients. Perks of the home IT gig.”
I ignored him and raced forwards. My legs hammered over the stairs as I made my way to the roof. I flung open the door and rushed to the grate. My journals came to rest near the ventilation shaft as I placed them down. I closed my fingers around the edges like Daniel had, and pulled. The grate resisted. Rolling my shoulders, I placed my heels against on framework and leaned back. The metal pulled free. My hand slid against the inside.
The same coolness filled the tips of my fingers as I brushed the key. I gripped and wrenched it free. Ribbons of clear tape tagged along.
Daniel may have been absentminded if he needed a spare, but he was clever enough to hide it well. I pursed my lips and hoped he wasn’t too clever. It could have been a contributing factor to his death.
I discarded the tape and stuffed the key into my pocket. The grate fought me as I tried to realign it on its brackets. I managed to get it to stay in place, albeit a bit crooked. A quick look around reassured me no one was nearby. My foot lashed out. Weak metal groaned as the grate warped and fell into alignment. It’d be a pain to remove in the future, but it wasn’t like Daniel was going to use it again.
The thought sent a numbing cement through my gut that solidified behind my navel. It’s something that never fails to get you. The idea that I’m running around in what used to be someone else’s body. Someone who had a life, one taken by the paranormal. Like mine had been. All I could do was gank whatever killed them and offer that person some semblance of justice. Or vengeance.
My fingernails dug deep into my palm. The feeling pulled me from my train of thought. I recovered my journals and moved towards the door, shutting it without looking as I headed down the stairs.
I approached his door and unlocked it. My hand closed around the knob, and I took a breath before opening it. The muscles along my spine tensed.
Daniel’s body may have ended up in the water, but when it comes to the paranormal, nothing is that simple.
I pushed the door open and surged inside. I expected a fight. Instead, I walked into what looked like the aftermath of one.
Daniel’s apartment looked like he’d left his windows open during a tornado. A bleak, gray velour sofa lay on its back in the middle of the room. A cheap lamp sat next to it, the cord ripped from a nearby socket. Its shade lay flattened under a small stand. A variety of art-related books littered the place.
I let out a low whistle as I flung the door shut. The television was barely hanging on the wall from its mount; only one of the brackets remained intact at a corner. I stepped over various utensils, art supplies, and a broken laptop.
Something had definitely targeted Daniel here before deciding he needed to work on his breaststroke.
I moved around with caution, partly out of respect. As I stepped further inside, I shut my eyes and nearly pinched my nose shut. Someone had gone overboard with the pine freshener. It was thick enough to gag a person. I could almost taste it.
I pulled the shirt collar over my nose as I moved towards the open kitchen in the far corner. Nothing stood out enough to jog my knowledge of the paranormal. The disarray looked like a burglary gone wrong rather than anything involving a monster. I scanned the room one last time before moving on.
The small bathroom on the other side appeared untouched. Two doors remained. One ahead, and one to my right. Both were shut.
If anything was lurking around his place, those would be the last places for them to hide. Opening the wrong door would signal them and lead me into a world of trouble.
Everything you do leads to trouble. I frowned. It was true however.
I held my breath and placed a hand on the doorknob to my right. Please let room number one be free of nasties. In one swift movement, I turned the knob, leaned in with my shoulder and barreled through. I stopped as suddenly as I’d started. My arms went to my side, spinning like pinwheels to help keep me from tumbling over.
The room was fashioned into an artist’s workspace. Supplies littered the floor in groupings that made no sense to me. An easel to the far right boasted an unfinished drawing done in charcoal pencil. Streetlights filtered through the window and cast an eerie amber glow over the work. My fingers trailed over the webbing of a short hammock strung across the left wall.
A closed portfolio, larger than any suitcase I’d ever seen, sat under the hammock. A simple table stood crammed against the far wall. Countless other supplies littered its surface, ranging from pencils to brushes and pastels. Despite the mess, the room seemed like nobody but Daniel had ransacked it.
I ignored the mess and approached the easel. The closer I looked at it, the stranger the image appeared. It was a disorienting blur of shapes. An unfinished man tightly held a woman of fierce beauty. Hair fell past her shoulders, and she had full lips. Like the man, the rest of her detail was lacking. A figure hung around the corner of a street that vaguely resembled the road outside. The stranger had a shock of frizzy, thick hair that stood out as the most prominent detail.
My eyes trailed over the piece, fixating on the image above the people. It dominated the remaining space. A pair of orbs—the only color on the canvas—contrasted the monochromatic work. Violent red anything is never a good sign. There was no face to frame what looked like eyes, and a series of lines spread out from them. They connected at the edges and littered the inside of the odd, jagged shapes on either end. It looked like spines and a membrane.
I blinked and bit my lip. I couldn’t recall any creature with those traits. My heart sped up as I stepped closer. It was probably taboo, but I reached for the corner and tugged on the piece. It fought back, flexing and folding as I pulled on it. I gave it another yank, and the sound of tearing paper filled my ears. The drawing pad was blank underneath.
I flipped open the journal containing my collection of mythological lore and folded the piece of art into it. This likely wasn’t the only piece of art on the pad. I followed the hunch and slipped an index finger under the paper folded over the top of the easel. With a simple flick, I sent the next work tumbling towards me.
“Well, damn.” Something was clearly nipping at Daniel’s heels before he passed. It was detailed work of something that looked like an old-fashioned drawing of a devil crossed with a bat. I blinked, not knowing what to make of it. The next page left me just as clueless. A work of all black streaked with gray lines. It looked like massive wings. A pair of white eyes hovered between them. It was a stylized piece, whatever it was.
Great, looks like Daniel was haunted by freakin’ Batman.
“Third time’s the charm.” I reached out and flipped over the next sheet. Hideous was an understatement. The thing looked like a cross between a gibbon and a bat. A claw-like hand covered in fur reached out from the page to give the illusion it would grab me. I shook my head then paused. Something caught my eye within the work. There were lines—faint—within the monster.
Another face. One with a shock of thick, frizzy hair. I squinted and leaned closer, making out a speckle of dots on either side. The rest of drawing was difficult to make out.
None of this made any sense. I tore the other sheets free and stuffed them into my journal. I’d go over them later.
I backpedaled until I reached the door, turning and giving the room one last look. There wasn’t anything else to take away from it. No one said my cases were easy. I sighed and shut the door. Only Daniel’s bedroom remained.
I covered the distance in a couple of long strides. The door was cracked open just enough for me to slip my pinky into the space. I gave it a gentle push. Daniel’s bedroom was a stark contrast to the rest of his home. Simple, orderly, and clean. Every mother’s dream.
My eyes trailed over the room from left to right. The dresser and small television were coated in a thin layer of dust. More artwork dotted the walls. They were professional and held within slender, black frames. A warm heat, like fresh-out-of-the-laundry clothes, flared in my chest. Daniel favored those pieces. One caught my eye.
It was rough in comparison, but not bad by any means. A man and woman with their backs turned to the viewer. They held hands over what looked like the roof of Daniel’s apartment. The scenery seemed a tad too fantastical, from the pink and vermilion-tinged sky, to the white clouds that seemed to carry a hint of turquoise. It was almost too colorful.
A lance of pain shot through my skull. A streak of light followed, and my vision blurred. Something tugged at my heart at seeing that piece, like it was strung with invisible weights threatening to pull it to the floor. The back of my throat dried. Whoever it belonged to must have been close to Daniel. I felt like I’d been hit by an emotional freight truck. I shook my head clear and separated Daniel’s thoughts and feelings from my own.
Focusing on the case was my best bet to keep my borrowed head in check. I shut my eyes and inhaled. Something tickled my nostrils. I blinked and took a step back. The smell was of burnt oranges. I looked at the floor and a hint of Daniel’s face stared back at me in reflection. It was some wood polish to give off that shine and odor. I cleared my throat and pushed the smell from my mind. My attention turned to the bed.
It was the only thing out of order. The sheets looked like he had suffered through one hell of a nightmare under them. I stepped closer and gravitated towards sections of the sheets that were darker than the others. Burnt citrus wasn’t the only odor in the room. Sweat—barely noticeable, but it was there. I shut my eyes tight and balled my fists. Things weren’t adding up.
The drawings pointed to a slew of different figures; some looked like combinations of animals. Daniel’s home had been ransacked. That was a clear sign of…something. He ended up in a fatal underwater routine. Something kept him from his eight hours of beauty sleep. And he had poor taste in floor polish.
My fist tightened until my knuckles ached. I took another series of breaths. “Calm down. Take it slow. Take it all in.” I repeated the mantra until the muscles in my hand loosened. My gaze fell over the nightstand.
I made my way over to it and fumbled under the lampshade for the switch. Weak light flickered into life and gave me a better view. I pulled open the first drawer. It was like looking inside a recycling bin filled with paper. Various letters and envelopes lay atop one another without any organization. I sifted through them. A few of them smelled like cheap perfume, the sort that was more of a chemical assault than anything pleasing. I ignored them.
Most of the papers were notices of late payments. I thumbed through them until they were replaced by utility bills and statements. His art gallery’s income had taken a sudden turn-around to do well.
I had seen shifts of fortune like this before. Someone’s luck and finances going from dismal to successful, like a wish come true. Only, that wish had a price.
They always do.
I rummaged through the letters until I found one with the information I needed. The address was another long walk away. I frowned. If this kept up, my timeline would dwindle to nothing simply from walking.
Note to self: Ask Church for a car. If Daddy doesn’t buy you one for your birthday, steal one.
Keys, you idiot!
I pressed my hips against the drawer and shoved it shut. The act of thinking about Daniel’s belongings triggered another flash. A painless one, thankfully.
I followed the vision and sank to my knees. My index finger hooked around the handle, and I pulled on the lowest drawer. It opened. I found a wallet made from black faux leather and one of those overly expensive smartphones. A ring of keys sat next to the wallet. Bright colors caught my eye. Each of the keys had a thumbnail-sized strip of electrical tape stuck to it. A stack of art-related magazines served as a bed for the items on top.
I pursed my lips as I snatched the items. The tape was a good way to keep track of what key did what. I flipped the wallet open, sliding his license into a flap. The cell phone was a good place to dig.
I gave it a sideways look. Technology and I don’t always get along. I pressed my thumb to the only visible button. The screen flared to life and prompted me for a password.
“Fuck.” Somehow, I didn’t think Daniel’s phone would unlock from profanity. I shut my eyes and tried to clear my mind.
The subconscious is an amazing thing. Sometimes you simply need to turn everything off and just trust yourself. If only it were that easy.
I tapped the screen without thought, hoping Daniel’s body memorized the repetitive action of keying it in. No luck. My grip tightened, and I felt the plastic and aluminum shell threaten to warp. I sighed and loosened my hold. One last try couldn’t hurt. My index finger bounced over the screen.
A warning message appeared, alerting me that if I kept it up, I’d be locked out.
I glared at the phone and wondered if it would unlock after impacting a brick wall. A growl escaped my throat, and I stuffed the phone into one of my pockets. The wallet followed along with the keys.
“Man, I hope one of these is to a car.” I clung to them and headed to leave, pausing near the door. A thin coat-rack stood there; a lone windbreaker hung from it. I snatched it up, slipping into it. It had mesh pockets large enough to stow my journals. I did so and left the room.
There was no point in cleaning up Daniel’s home on the way out. The dead don’t care much for how their place looks. I lowered my head, giving the apartment a final look. “I dunno if you can hear me where you are, Daniel, but I’m going to gank this sucker.” I looked up to the ceiling, hoping my words reached him and stepped out of his apartment. The door thudded shut.
I headed down the hall and the stairs. The keys jingled as I bounced them in my palm. As I neared the exit of the complex, I grumbled to myself. No memory passed through my noggin of Daniel owning a car. My teeth ground. I opened the door and scanned the street. None of the vehicles lining the curb triggered a thought in my host body.
“Figures.” My shoulders sank as I sighed. “Guess I’m hoofing it.”
I recalled the address to his studio. An electric charge went through the muscles in my back causing me to shake. The last time I had visited someone’s workplace in New York, I had ended up in a fight with one heck of a monster.
I hit the street hard. A single thought crossed my mind as my feet pounded against concrete.
I really hope there’s no monster lurking around your studio, pal.
The darkness persisted. I had hoped things would brighten up as I trekked to Mr. Kim’s art studio. Monsters have a fondness for skulking around at night. Go figure.
There was no point in keeping a lookout for my mystery stalker. I knew they were out there. And they knew I knew. I got the feeling they wanted me to know I was being watched.
I hate being the mouse.
Instinct is a wonderful thing. We all have it and need to trust it more. Mine has sharpened to something uncanny over my cases. The muscles in my body contracted like I had been dumped in ice water. I let impulse take hold and spun.
A hand pressed against my chest. The attacker drove me into a wall. The streets of Queens blurred and shook. I tried to clear my shaky vision but was cut short as fingers dug into the meat of my neck.
“Hurgkh!” My feet left the ground, and my eyesight worsened. I batted at the arm. It was like being suspended from machinery. Nothing budged.
“I warned you, mortal.”
It took me a moment to pin the voice. Goody. The douche-trumpet from earlier. “Gleckh?” The grip loosened, and I sucked in as many ragged breaths as I could. I glared into the Night Runner’s yellow eyes. “And I told you, what the fuck, man?”
The creature blinked. “There is only one place to represent her interests. Step down. That place belongs to me.” A dangerous light gleamed in his eyes. He shifted his grip. His hand cupped my lower jaw, sending a fire through my bones and teeth. The vertebrae in my neck screamed as he lifted me higher.
I sputtered something incoherent.
He squinted and lowered me. His grip moved to the front of my clothing, rumpling the shirt. “What did you say?”
I grinned and looked down at Daniel’s ruined shirt collar. “I just put this on.”
The Night Runner’s eyes widened.
My head snapped forwards. There was a wet crunch like someone striking a piece of fruit with a baseball bat.
The Night Runner recoiled. He blinked several times, and his hand hovered a fraction from his nose. He didn’t seem keen on touching it. Blood trickled and congealed with mucus along his upper lip. His hand shook.
I couldn’t tell if it was with anger or the pain. Hopefully both.
The Night Runner’s eyes ballooned. “You broke my nose?”
My grin widened. “Keep it up, and I’ll break more than…” I trailed off as the creature reached to its side.
Something scraped like glass against stone. A curved blade fashioned from a clear, crystalline material came into view. It was the length of the average man’s hand. The weapon didn’t give him much of a reach advantage. It wouldn’t need to. The blade looked sharp enough to serve up a side of Fillet-O-Graves.
I wasn’t keen on that dish. I gulped and raised my hands in an effort to calm him down. “Okay, things seem to have escalated. You jumped me from behind in the dark. You wrapped your hands around my throat. I broke your nose. It got really kinky-violent fast. Maybe we need a safe word? Or, we could film this next time and send it out—make some dough?”
The Night Runner’s eyes flattened into slits. “You are the most infuriating being I have ever come across.”
I blinked and gave him an oblique stare. “Are you…coming onto me?”
The Ashen Elf threw his head back and let out a roar that was sure to rouse people in the nearby buildings. He charged, sending the blade through a dizzying flourish.
I bristled as cold adrenaline wracked my heart. My back was up against a wall—literally. The tip of the blade hurtled towards my left eye. I dropped to my knees and reached out with my arms. Brick crumbled as the blade passed through without any signs of the weapon weakening.
Holy shit. I made a mental note not to let that thing nick any part of me.
My arms closed around the back of the Night Runner’s legs. I pulled.
His momentum, coupled with my maneuver, drove him into the wall. He released a pained cry over a familiar sounding squelch.
Kissing a wall like that couldn’t have been good for his damaged nose. I didn’t get a second to enjoy it. My muscles tensed and I pushed off my heels. I tumbled to the side as the elf’s knee struck the wall. Another shower of bricks rained to the ground. I blinked and rubbed a hand to the side of my head. That could have been my skull.
The Night Runner wasted no time. He pulled his leg back and stormed over to me.
I need to stop fighting out of my weight class. I don’t have many advantages against the supernatural. I’m stronger than the average person, and I don’t tire as easily. That doesn’t count for much against things that can bench press a Smart car. Other than that, all I have is my supernatural ability to recover from injuries within a frighteningly short time. I’m a paranormal punching bag. One that can fight back, courtesy of the skills I’ve remembered from all the bodies I’ve inhabited.
My feet kicked against the ground as I scuttled my ass away from the elf. I placed my palms on the sidewalk and pushed. The action sent me halfway to my feet as I fought to balance myself.
The Night Runner double-stepped forwards and twisted. His left hand arced out. The knife carried a glint of the streetlamp’s light along its edge.
I stepped into the blow and bent my arms up at a ninety-degree angle. The inside of his forearm crashed against both of mine. I winced as the force shot through my arms. My muscles quivered as I held the block. I held my ground and gritted through the pain.
The Night Runner snarled and reached out with his other hand.
I spread my arms wide, twisting to snake them around the one he’d used to strike me. My right forearm buried itself in the crook of his elbow. I used my other hand to grab the base of his wrist and wrench.
The Night Runner’s free hand clenched the waistline of my pants. He tugged.
My body shifted, but I used his mass against him. I pulled back against his arm, angling him towards me. It became a contest of strength and experience. The freak had the strength. I hoped he didn’t have the experience.
He released his grip on my beltline and reeled his hand back.
I tensed and leaned away as much as I could.
His fist rocketed out at a sharp angle.
A dull throb filled my side just below the ribs. The force caused the soles of my shoes to grate against the ground. I hadn’t pulled away from the blow as much as I would’ve liked. At least he didn’t hit my ribs. The force could have cracked a few.
I grimaced and maintained my grip on his arm. Letting go wasn’t an option. Not unless I wanted to be sliced into lunch meat. I leaned in, using my weight to bend his arm towards him. “Don’t you think things have gotten a bit personal now?”
The Night Runner’s lips peeled back. He flashed me a smile that was more fang than tooth. The freak pulled his free hand back.
I knew what would follow and capitalized on the brief moment between. The muscles in my legs tensed as I took a step forwards. My momentum drove the elf back a step.
He winced and refused to give ground. Instead, he arched back, bending in a manner reserved for acrobats.
I pushed harder, hoping his back had a limit. The elf’s upper body was near horizontal. That took freakish strength and flexibility that I could never hope for. So, I decided to fight dirty. I balled my hand and snapped my arm out, connecting with the creature’s throat.
His eyes widened before they shut tight. He pawed at his throat, gagging from the strike.
I pulled away and jabbed again. The blow rocked the elf’s head back. I smiled as he let loose another scream. There’s only so many times you can strike a broken nose before the pain overwhelms the person—or, in this case, elf. The back of my hand dragged against his clothing. Streaks of blood trailed behind. Elf blood is icky.
The Night Runner reached out to touch his nose again, stopping short of making contact. Moisture welled at the corners of his eyes.
I seized the moment and bore down on his other arm. The tip of the knife slipped through the jacket like it was made of wet paper. I twisted my hips and turned the knife. It sank into the meat of his shoulder.
The cry he let out would definitely have people dialing the cops. I needed to finish this—fast.
There’s a certain point where pain galvanizes someone into levels of amazing strength and reactions. This was that point. The Night Runner’s uninjured arm hooked around my side. His hand gripped a part of my shirt and he wrenched.
My hands broke free of the blade and my feet left the ground. The world slid sideways until it stopped with an impact that I’m sure my future bodies would feel. I spun to face the Night Runner more from instinct than anything else. The back of his fist blurred into view. My vision flared. It felt like I had caught a fastball with my mouth. The taste of salt and iron brushed over the tip of my tongue. My vision cleared in time for me to witness the Night Runner ripping the blade from his shoulder.
There was a wild look in his eyes. Something past anger; he looked deranged. The elf’s mouth spread into a macabre smile.
Shit. I’m going to be killed by a Legolas reject.
Something primal triggered in the back of my mind. Ah, hell. I charged. My shoulder crashed into his chest. The edge of the blade dragged against the side of my shirt. It felt like a blowtorch as fine as a scalpel had raked my bicep. My impact drove the Night Runner to the ground and I followed him down. I used my position to drive my forearm into the crown of his skull.
His eyes lost focus for a moment.
The side of my torso felt like it couldn’t twist any further. I shifted and sent my fist into the side of his skull.
The Night Runner bucked.
I leaned in, pressing down to pin him.
He lashed out with a fist.
The lower half of my jaw felt like it had dislocated. I reeled enough for the elf to shove me to the ground.
“Why…won’t you…die?” His chest heaved, and he looked like he was reaching his limit.
I blinked to clear the stars as my head lolled. “I’m not allowed to yet!”
The elf’s face lost all expression. He pressed a hand to his bleeding shoulder and grimaced a second later. “This isn’t over, fool.”
He had to take a dig at me, even after having his ass kicked. Some people just can’t be professional.
The Night Runner slashed the air with his first two fingers extended. A thread of light the color of candle smoke parted the air. It was like watching a stopper being pulled from a bathtub. The surrounding colors bent and warped, siphoning into the funnel.
It was a Way. A link to the world of the paranormal.
The Night Runner gave me one last look and spat at the ground. Guess he didn’t think much of me. He turned and dove through the opening. It snapped shut with a plume of smoke shooting out from both sides.
I let my head fall against the wall behind me. “Yeah, you better run.” My brain felt like it was tumbling. So did my eyes. I rolled my tongue around the inside of my cheeks. Saliva mixed with blood. I turned and spat.
Lights radiated from some of the windows atop the buildings nearby. Our fight had drawn some attention.
I sighed and clawed at the wall to haul myself up. A tongue of grease chilled to arctic temperatures made its way down my back. I shuddered and broke into a brisk walk, hoping it would push the feeling from my mind. It didn’t.
I crossed the next street as fast I could, putting the block behind me. Rounding the corner didn’t do much to get rid of the chilling sensation. I felt like I was in a paranormal game show. My other tail had watched that throwdown. Someone was sizing me up. I just wish I knew what for.
My pace doubled as I tried to put distance between the fight scene and myself. The next streetlight offered me a place for a much-needed stop. I turned my forearm and took a peek.
Another hour lost. Fifty-five wasn’t a lot of time. More than I’ve had on some, but this case was particularly irritating. Outside parties were involved and kept me from making progress. My jaw ached as I clenched my teeth. Getting frustrated wasn’t going to do me any good. I cast a look over my shoulder to let my tail know I hadn’t forgotten about them.
Nothing stood out, but I’d expected that. I turned and broke into a run. Even with all the energy I had expended during the fight, I could push on. My bodies recover fast. I pushed the stinging cut from my mind and did the same for the split corner of my lip. The throbbing jaw was harder, but I buried its pain as well. They would all heal in a short time.
Running absorbed more than my energy. It swallowed my errant thoughts. I needed the clarity it offered as the streets passed by. The muscles along my torso and hips ached occasionally. I shut my eyes during those fleeting moments until the pain dissipated. It was a tedious process. I focused through it until a gentle tug pulled at my heart and the pit of my stomach.
My pace slowed to a crawl. The side of the building was draped in a massive banner that covered all three stories. Gray and black lettering made things clear. It was Daniel’s gallery. I smiled and rushed towards the front.
It was the same unassuming brick that comprised so many of the buildings in Queens. The only difference was that the gallery seemed to have gotten a touch-up on the surface. A rich burgundy tinged each of the bricks. Arched stained glass windows ran along the floors above the ground level.
“Fancy.” I moved to the door and fumbled through the ring of keys. The first key refused to fit. I thumbed through to the next. No memory from Daniel triggered. Guess struggling with keys isn’t important enough to warrant help. The next key clicked to the base. I exhaled and made a silent prayer. I turned it and was rewarded with the sound of a bolt unlocking.
I pulled the door open and slipped inside. The second the door shut, I paused and turned around. My lips folded back as I frowned. I’d been getting jumped far too often on this case. And, notably, by the same ashy-skinned asshole. I locked the door and gave it a tug to confirm that it was shut. It wouldn’t do much. Not when windows, just as large as the door, ran along the side of the ground floor.
I figured there would be an alarm system that would trigger in the event something broke its way in. I could hope.
My vision struggled to adjust to the darkness. Flickering streetlights threw staccato bursts of weak light into my face. It wasn’t helping. I moved away from the front of the gallery and into the dark.
If ever there were a time and place for a nasty to ambush you…
I blinked at the realization that I was arguing with myself. It was that, or admit that I was unsettled. My heart lurched for an instant.
A piece of Daniel came to the rescue. The vision snapped through my mind. I placed my back against the nearest wall and stretched a hand out. My palm brushed along the smooth surface until something cold and hard stopped me. I inched across it with a finger until the surface changed. The feel of plastic is almost second nature to most people.
I grinned and ran my index finger against the rectangular switch. One corner rocked back. A row of panels illuminated the far side of the room; a bright light tinged with a hint of blue. My vision adjusted, and I thumbed the rest of the switches. The room came to life.
I let out a long whistle. The walls were a stark white, clearly chosen to make any piece stand out. Paintings raced along the wall. Each had a level of appeal that would catch someone’s eye. And their wallet.
An intricate piece of metalwork seemed to pull all of the light and attention to itself. It dominated the center of the room. Copper rods arced and balanced atop one another in gravity-defying positions. I couldn’t tell if it was art or an engineering feat.
Everything stood undisturbed, unlike Daniel’s apartment. I turned to scan the remainder of the room. A particular piece caught my eye, forcing me to stop. I blinked and leaned forwards.
It was a canvas of all white. I wouldn’t have noticed it if it weren’t for the black-trimmed edges. Most of it was the same shade as the wall. A beige tag hung from the corner. My eyes grew twice as large after I read the figure listed on it. I blinked twice. It didn’t help me understand the piece, but it made sure I wasn’t hallucinating.
I walked away from it realizing that art is confusing. So is its price.
Another fixture of metal pipe work sat in the far corner, fashioned from solid steel. A layer of rust—fake from appearance—splotched the surface of some of the piping.
The new hall was as dark as the previous room had been. Something like carpet resisted as my fingers trailed against the wall. I flipped the only switch available. Amethyst light flooded the room. It brought to life streaks of neon-like paint that danced across black boards on both sides of the hall. I took a moment to squint at the squiggles. My bones felt like they shifted on their own.
The squiggly art conjured up a series of bad memories. They weren’t from Daniel. I shut my eyes and buried that last case I had in New York. My shoulders tightened before relaxing. I shook my head and made my way out of the hall.
Repeating the process for the lights was tedious. You’d think modern buildings would have a more convenient setup. The new room was as untouched as the last. None of the art stood out. I gave it a detailed look-over anyway. Missing a possible clue was not an option.
I rotated in place, taking everything in. Though I was an art novice, it was easy to spot the changes in the styles of art hanging from the walls. Every artist has their unique touch and preferences. Daniel’s pieces stood out at the beginning of the first wall. They transitioned into pieces from another artist with a flair for monochromatic schemes. I blinked when the art simply stopped.
A twelve-foot section of the wall lay bare. I moved towards the wall, noting the supporting screws and brackets remained. Someone had their pieces taken down. I eyed the end of the wall. More artwork ran along from that point. I pursed my lips.
It looked like an individual’s work that had been removed. Someone might take that personally. And it was a good motive to want some payback. But if this were simply about human vengeance, I wouldn’t be involved.
Nobody said the paranormal made sense.
I made a mental note of the missing art and moved on to the next hall.
The sound of footsteps over tile is distinctive. Nearly everyone’s familiar with it. It’s ingrained in so many of us from years of field trips, visiting museums as children, as well as hospitals. Especially when it’s someone who’s on the hefty side.
I raced down the hall towards the source without bothering to flip the lights. The newcomer had done me the courtesy of turning them on in the next room.
My eyes reached owlish proportions when I saw him.
He turned to face me. His face could have been pulled from the catalogs of Thugs-R-Us. The man’s thickset head could have been used for demolishing buildings. He made professional strongmen look tiny. Both his beady eyes and his dark bowler cap seemed too small for his head. And someone needed to help him shop for new clothes. They looked like they were lifted from the 1920s, only that era didn’t cater to men of his size. The buttons of the tweed coat strained against his belly.
He opened his mouth and snarled.
I shuddered. He needed to visit his dentist—fast. Or star as a warning for gingivitis. Well, for the teeth that remained.
He jabbed a thick finger at me. “Who you?”
How do you respond to that? “Uh, your grammar tutor as well as your stylist. I do in-person consultations, and your outfit needs work.” I waggled my finger from his hat down to his shoes.
Kong the Giant blinked and squinted like he hadn’t understood a word I said. “What?”
He wasn’t a bright guy. I hooked a thumb to my chest. “I’m the owner of this here gallery.”
His eyes widened.
“So, wanna tell me what you’re doing here—scratch that.” I waved a hand. “How’d you get in?” Heck, I had to work my ass off just to find the place and get here in one piece. Not to mention fumbling through keys and finding all the lights.
His flabby face split into a wide, toothy grin. “I opened the back door. Secret door.”
My face lost all expression. “You mean like a fire escape? An emergency door? Something…that has a silent alarm?”
His face mirrored mine.
Well, shit. The genius ruined my plan to skulk around for clues. I couldn’t walk away from this empty-handed though. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“Looking for Little Spirit. Going to smash him. Prove I’m best.” His grin grew as he folded a massive fist within his other. The sound of his knuckles cracking was like listening to splintering wood.
I swallowed a gulp. Little Spirit? Smash him? That’s me! I gave him a weak smile and backpedaled. “Uh…good luck with the whole smash thing. Promise not to break anything, and I won’t have you arrested. I’m going to go now.” I gestured over my shoulder and turned.
He sniffed the air several times. His eyes narrowed and shone like he had just won a prize. “You smell wrong.” Lips peeled back like the smile a wolf gives before it jumps its prey. “Smell like wrong spirit—wrong body.”
I gulped louder.
“Little Spirit I’m here to smoosh.”
My brain turned to frozen pudding, and surge of cold electricity rolled down my spine to my toes. “You’re not human…are you?”
His grin widened into something grotesque. The air shimmered like there was a curtain of light and faint traces of particulate glitter. It fell a second later.
I sucked in a breath. Glamour. The magic used by the Fair Folk—faeries—to mask their true appearances. Not-so-fair in his case.
His mass doubled, which was saying something. The clothing vanished and was replaced by the sort of skin you’d find on a pachyderm. I wish his outfit stayed. It was outdated, but at least it covered the freak. He wore a mess of mismatched fabric tied together in a horrible loincloth.
Layers of freakish muscle were roped atop each other in his arms. It was just wrong. His eyes were larger and the sort of yellow that accompanies nail fungus.
I rubbernecked to take in my surroundings as fast as possible.
The monster gave me a smile that made it clear I was on the menu.
I remembered specifically asking for Daniel’s studio to be monster-free.
“Oh, I hate trolls.”
Like what you see? Yeah, you know you do. 😉 The book drops in a few more days. Be sure to tell everyone you know to nab book three of the Dragon Award-nominated urban fantasy thriller series!