Last #Free Chapter from Shadow Reaper. Move Over Charley Daniels!

 

Summer is Flying By

I’m looking forward to fall when hopefully the hordes who’ve descended on the Eastern Sierra go home. So many of my updates have been gloom and doom here of late. I’ve decided to follow my own advice and take a look at the “glass half full” perspective today.

It’s harder than it might seem on the surface since I’ve now been staring at the monitor for a couple of minutes wondering what I can write that isn’t hopelessly sappy.

California’s system puts counties with high C-19 case counts on a statewide watch list. So long as that county remains on the watch list (and it’s appearing counties who are on the list will stay there in perpetuity since the state’s data tracking system broke down) schools can’t provide in person instruction. Everything has a silver lining, however.

My son and daughter-in-law are both teachers, and I’m relieved beyond words they can do their teaching from home. My daughter is thriving since real estate is still selling like mad. She’s a licensed agent, but she functions as a “closer.” She manages all the paperwork for real estate sales for multiple offices, a job she’s always done from home. What with all the inspection requirements, title search issues, and bank constraints her job has become increasingly more complex over time.

I’m grateful for my own stay-at-home job. I can lose myself in the fantasy worlds that I create. One of the newer developments I’m excited about is audio “skins” have been improving to the point that producing audiobooks will soon become much more affordable. The “skins” use artificial intelligence to turn text into words. For a lot while, they sounded tinny and robotic. Not anymore.

When I started commissioning audio, it wasn’t all that expensive. I could actually make my production costs back in a few months. Then two things happened. Narrators decided they needed more money, and Audible made many changes that poked big holes in my income stream. Some of you may recall when you could add an audiobook for 1.99 when you bought an e-book. Well, that changed overnight to 7.99, which is a pretty big step up.

Where 1.99 was a no-brainer, 7.99 was a showstopper for a lot of people. Luckily, Audible now has a lot of competition. My audiobooks are available on over 30 platforms, and it’s made audio viable enough for me to consider turning another series into audiobooks. I’m going to give it a few months, though, and wait to see how the new technology plays out.

I just got my last book for 2020 up for preorder. Midnight Court was the second of my Magick and Misfits series. Once I get the first chapter of Court of the Fallen written along with a book description, Midnight Court will be back from my editor, and I can get the final version uploaded across vendor sites. Those of you who read my books know I always include a chapter for the next book at the end of the current one.

I have ideas for the next series. It will have either dragons or wolves. Maybe both. My fond hope is all of you are doing well. Or as well as can be expected. This is a good time to appreciate your immediate family, the ones in your stay-at-home bubbles.

Thank all of you who’ve taken the time to send me emails. I so much appreciate hearing from all of you.

Last #FREE chapter from Shadow Reaper. I hope you've enjoyed this peek into the Gatekeeper world. If you have thoughts about a series you'd like me to showcase next, shoot me an email.
Keep in mind these chapters are copyrighted and may not be redistributed in any fashion without permission from me.
Here's the fifth chapter. The first four were in previous newsletter. Here's a link  to Chapter One, and another link to Chapter Two in case you missed them. And here's a link to Chapter Three. And another link to Chapter Four.
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Chapter Five, Cait

The Piper Seneca was long since returned to her cozy hangar. Death and I had retreated to the Quonset hut where I dragged sleeping bags out of a chest and arranged them on the floor. Death might not require sleep, but I did. It was obvious I wasn’t going to return to my houseboat anytime soon. I had questions, lots of them, but I wasn’t in any kind of shape to absorb information.
As soon as I hung the Seneca’s keys back on the board, I made a pillow from my leather flight jacket and arranged my body over one of the sleeping bags. I considered taking off my boots, but given how yesterday had gone, I might have to move quickly.
I left them on and shut my eyes. Death crouched next to me and placed two fingers on my forehead. Before I could ask what she was up to, I fell into blackness.
When my eyes fluttered open, the muted light of afternoon shone through my single window. It faces west, so on days when the sun shows up, its fading rays illuminate my office. Kinda pretty if you ignore the dust bunnies winking from every corner.
Death sat in my chair, typing at my keyboard. I swallowed surprise she was conversant enough with electronics to use them, but keeping up with the modern world was a prerequisite for understanding it. I must have groaned as I rolled to a sit because Death left off whatever she was doing and spun the chair until she faced me.
“Feeling better?” She arched a gray brow. She’d braided her long hair out of the way while I was sleeping.
I nodded. “Lots.” Everything came rushing back. “The Sidhe. He’s not back yet, huh?”
“Nay, but we shall be seeing him soon. My Reaper from that area reported in.”
I crossed my legs beneath me. “And?”
“I believe I’ll let Liam tell us his version of that particular bit of reality.” Before I could protest, she hurried on, “If you’re hungry, we could order something.”
My stomach growled at the thought of food; my mouth flooded with saliva. Had it been that long since I’d had more than an energy bar? Yes. Breakfast yesterday was only a distant memory.
“I thought so.” She smiled, and I did a doubletake. Smiling and Death were not cozy bedfellows. “I took the liberty of ordering for us. Should be here soon. It’s nearly time for the evening meal.”
“Thank you.” I unfolded my legs and stood. After a quick trip through my small bathroom where I washed my filthy hands and face, I felt ready to float a question or two. I had no expectations Death would answer me. I’ve been one of her Reapers forever, but we’ve never been friends.
Friends presumes some level of equality between people, and we’ve never had anything like that. She creates assignments. I accept them. Turning them down has never been an option. In truth, until she dumped Vamps in my lap, it never occurred to me to complain. About anything.
I accepted being a Reaper once I discovered the dead flocked to me. I was still a young child then, so it was an easier mouthful to swallow and digest. Children believe in magic, or the possibility of supernatural phenomena. It’s only as they grow up that cultures drum it out of them.
Hell, the era I came from, everyone believed in magic.
I ran soap and water over my hands one more time. When I dried them on a paper towel, they didn’t leave dirty tracks. Ready as I was likely to be, I let myself out of the john and walked to my desk. Meanwhile, food had arrived, and Death handed me a crinkly paper sack that smelled amazing. French fries and some kind of sandwich, maybe a burger.
I dragged the second chair over and sat. 
“Go ahead and eat,” Death urged.
I eyed the second paper bag. “Aren’t you hungry?”
“Not in the same way you are. I don’t require food. If you finish yours and have had sufficient, then I’ll eat mine. Otherwise, you can have it.”
Gratitude tightened my throat. “I’m sure this will be fine. Go ahead and enjoy yours. I’d appreciate the company.” Reaching into the sack, I stuffed a few French fries into my mouth and then unwrapped what turned out to be a chicken burger. It was incredibly yummy. Death and I ate in silence until the only thing left was wrappers.
I got up and pulled a Coke from my small refrigerator. “Want one?”
“Sure.”
I tossed the can Death’s way; she caught it on the fly. Dusk was ceding to night, and Liam still wasn’t back.
“Do you have any idea when the Sidhe will return?” I wiped my mouth and fingers on a napkin before cracking the tab on my soda.
“Soon.”
I took a slug of Coke. The caffeine-sugar mix headed straight for my bloodstream in a welcome rush. “Why’d you assign me Vampires?” I blurted. No reason to waltz around things. Either she’d tell me. Or not.
Death leveled her silver-gray eyes at me, the ever-shifting imagery as unsettling as ever. “Because you’d take it seriously.”
I waited, hoping for more, and not getting anything. “Um, I get it that Jake was kind of a deadbeat, but how about the others?”
“What others?”
I frowned. Was Death being purposefully obtuse. “Hasn’t there always been one of us assigned to Vampires?”
“Not always,” she replied carefully.
If she’d been anyone except Death, I’d have crooked two fingers her way and told her to stop dancing around the point.
“You’ve been alive for quite a while,” she said. “What do you remember?”
Back in my court, eh? I took another slurp from my Coke. When I set it down, I said, “I recall two Reapers before Jake who dealt with Vampires, but it wasn’t an exclusive assignment.”
She nodded and folded long-fingered hands in her lap. “Correct.”
The implications were obvious. “Vampires have—?” Had what? Spread? Increased their numbers? Become more aggressive?
“All of the above,” Death said, a rough note in her deep voice. “But we covered that ground when I offered up their history.”
So we had. Clear enough she enjoyed full access to my thoughts. “How does that work, anyway?” I asked.
“Which thing?” She narrowed her eyes my way.
“Your connection with Reapers.”
“At any given moment, I know where all of you are, what you’re doing, and what you’re thinking.”
My eyes probably widened at the unexpected disclosure. I’d assumed she could zero in on each of us as she chose, but to process information from what was likely hundreds of us on a continual basis was impressive. No wonder my computer hadn’t posed problems for her.
Her brain was like an information superhighway managing incoming bits of data without any RAM-limitations standing in her way.
“How many of us are there?” I stammered.
She shrugged. “Enough to do the job, but Jake did leave us one short.”
I killed what was left of the soda and gathered up the remains of our meal, carrying everything outside to the recycling bins. My lips curved in a wry smile. Nice that the airstrip had made a small ecological commitment. Nothing was worse than airplanes. They had a far bigger carbon impact than cars, and that was saying a lot.
As if to mock me, several big passenger jets swooshed over my head, probably on their way to or from the nearby international airport. Too bad the Humans Rule fuckers couldn’t take on a project that actually meant something, instead of hassling those like me.
I was on my way back inside when the distinctive smell of Sidhe power smacked me head-on. Finally. Liam was back. Once we’d heard him out, I could get back to things and…
Yeah, right. The only things I’d be getting back to were Vampires. I raked my gaze over my Quonset hut with its Carrick Sky Sports sign. I had a feeling my aeronautics business wasn’t long for this world. Death had been entirely forthcoming about Vampire history. What she hadn’t said was one word about releasing me from my current assignment.
Nope. She was definitely grooming me. Hence the meal and standing by while I basically passed out, courtesy of a push from her magic. It was what she’d been doing when she touched my forehead: spelling me to sleep.
I gave it a couple more minutes and strolled inside, leaving the door propped open to encourage the cool night air to enter. It smelled sweet, a good counterpart to oil, grease, and electronics.
Liam was, indeed, back. He’d lost the polished aspect from earlier. Hair fell around his shoulders. His face was streaked with grime and blood, but beyond that, his expression could have carved glass. Before he’d looked beautiful. The basic lines were still there. Of course they were, but this time his character overshadowed his physical traits. Something had happened, and it had shaken him deeply.
He was bowing before Death, a full, from-the-waist affair. “My sincere apologies,” he said before he straightened. “While I figured out Hollis hadn’t talked with you before I left here, our problems run deeper than that.”
“Do tell.” Death’s tone was silk and vinegar.
I made my way around Liam and stood next to where Death still sat in my saggy office chair. He nodded tersely in my direction. “Thank all the gods you didn’t come with me.”
I cast him a pointed look from beneath lowered brows. “Even if Death hadn’t shown up, I still wouldn’t have accompanied you.” I kept my tone even but wanted to make certain he wasn’t under any illusions about his power to manipulate me. “I take my orders from Death, not the Sidhe.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, sweetie.” Death touched my leg briefly before getting to her feet. “Go on,” she urged, aiming her words at Liam.
A muscle twitched along his jawline. “No simple way to say this. I am ashamed of my kinsman, but Hollis dealt with someone—perhaps Vampires or perhaps whoever is in charge of them. His goal was to trap Cait.”
Liam’s eyes—more green than copper—bored into me. “If you’d come along with me, you’d have run dead into a Vampire attack. In broad daylight, no less.”
“They shouldn’t be functional in the daytime,” I muttered and kicked my shoulders straighter. “Why are you so certain I’d have lost? You appear to have survived.”
He had the grace to look away. Patches of color formed on his whiskered cheeks.
“Let me make certain I have this straight,” Death spoke up. “Your kinsman, Hollis, instructed you to drop my Reaper into the midst of a Vampire attack.”
Liam nodded. “Aye. Once we dispatched enough Vamps the others hightailed it out of there, something didn’t feel right to me, so I dug into Hollis’s mind. I was quick about it, or he’d have warded himself against me.”
“Who hired him?” Death inserted spaces between the words.
“I don’t know. The rest of the Sidhe are grilling him, but at the point I left, it wasn’t looking promising.” Liam’s face twisted with what might have been embarrassment, foreign territory for most Sidhe.
“The other part of my message,” Liam plowed on, “is we will accept your deal. We will provide Sidhe for five years in exchange for Cait’s assistance.”
Death clasped her hands behind her and paced in a rough ellipse. When she came to a halt, she stood nose-to-nose with Liam. “You told me the truth, something I already knew from Maxwell.”
“Who’s he?” Liam asked, followed by, “Never mind. Must be the Reaper who showed up collecting souls from the fallen mortals.”
My ears perked up. We Reapers all knew one another. Not well, of course. But we do recognize one another’s names. Maxwell was a bit on the stuffy side. I’d always chalked it up to him never leaving the Old Country. 
“You didn’t mention that part.” I aimed my words at Liam.
He nodded slowly. “You’re correct. I left it out in the interest of expediency. Vampires mowed through at least twenty humans before we stopped them.”
“How’d you intervene ?” I asked.
“How else? We beheaded them with magical blades imbued with silver and iron.”
Death frowned. “Maxwell didn’t reveal that part. How it is you’re not injured.”
“I was,” Liam told her. “Sidhe magic is useful for more than deception.” He fisted a hand and punched the air, clearly still bitter.
“Given what’s happened,” Death said, “my offer is no longer viable.”
“I understand,” Liam replied. “I wouldn’t want to work with us, either. Who knows if others have been corrupted, and—”
“Silence,” Death thundered in her outdoor voice. One that made my ears hurt. “We are going to the Sidhe stronghold. I would talk with Hollis.”
I glanced from her to Liam and back again. “Fine for you,” I muttered. “I don’t teleport.”
“No, but I can bring you with me,” Death said.
I looked around at my rather barren office. If I left, when would I return? Would I return at all was a better question, and it made me uncomfortable. I’d carved out a life for myself. None of us Reaped fulltime. It was a side occupation. If I stopped paying hangar rent, what would happen to my airplanes? How about my houseboat? I owned it, but the slip was a monthly rental as well.
Death turned and dropped a hand on my shoulder. My head snapped up, and she snared me with her strange eyes. “You can say no.”
“If I do?”
She shrugged. “Nothing changes. You cozy up with your airplanes and keep on Reaping. I enjoyed my ride in your aircraft enough, I might stop nagging you to give up flying.”
“Vampires?” I sought clarification, hoping to hell she’d dump them on someone else.
“They’d still be your responsibility. I said nothing changes. Usually, you’re quicker on the uptake than that.”
I cringed under her censure. No shit, nothing had changed. We may have shared a meal. She might have watched over me while I slept, but I still reported to her. I felt the full force of her attention. And Liam’s.
“Can’t take the pressure. I’m going for a walk. Be back in ten with an answer.” Before either of them could toss arguments or inducements on the table, I snatched up my leather jacket and strode out the door.
Good thing I’d left my boots on. It saved me from an awkward few minutes pulling them on and lacing them up. Slipping my arms into my fur-lined flight jacket, I zipped it to the chin. It never gets terribly chilly in the Pacific Northwest, but my soul was freezing.
It would be so much simpler if I could leverage teleport magic. That way, I could leave for a short time and return just as quickly. If I ended up in Ireland, my only option to return home would be a commercial flight. Or Death or Liam taking pity on me.
I wasn’t at all certain about him. Death and I were linked. He and I weren’t, so whether his magic would extend to ferrying me via journey spells was a big unknown.
Fuck. My entire life was feeling like a big unknown.
Breath steamed through my teeth, and I’d balled my hands into fists so hard my nails chopped into my palms. I forced myself to unfurl them and got a handle on my breathing. My heart beat so hard, I was surprised it didn’t make a leap out my mouth.
I felt like screaming, but I was being an idiot. And a weak, selfish, immature one at that. I’d done better controlling myself at fifteen than I was right this minute. No one owed me shit. Least of all Death. From her perspective, being one of her Reapers was a huge honor.
In the grand scheme of everything, my planes and my business weren’t important. Years would pass. The planes would end up in a boneyard. I’d move on to another business, maybe one I liked better, but I doubted it. Regardless, I would continue, emphasis on the I part. The trappings I surrounded myself with were transitory.
My rapid pace had slowed.
Balanced against the specter of Vampires who’d found a way to walk in daylight, my anguish at maybe losing my pet airplanes paled to insignificance. The other problem I hadn’t done more than pay lip service to was Humans Rule. They needed to be dismantled before they did more damage than they’d already done to those with magic.
Those like me.
Didn’t matter if they were under the unfortunate illusion supernatural phenomena were a threat. We could make it a far bigger threat if they didn’t back down. A bitter taste coated my tongue. A few more incidents like today’s slaughter in Ireland, and Humans Rule would become far more aggressive. I remembered mobs from earlier times. Innocents always bore the brunt of their mass hysteria.
Hard to argue with Humans Rule’s reasoning, though. Some supernaturals were a bona fide threat to them. It was why they needed the rest of us to step in…
A wisp of rot made my nostrils flare. When I looked up, I’d just passed a bank of rubbish bins. Whew. They were supposed to smell like that. I had no idea how much time had passed, but I should turn around, head back to the Quonset hut. My dash into the night had helped, and I’d mostly made up my mind.
I’d go to the Sidhe stronghold with Death. And Liam. Maybe Irish Vampires weren’t aware of the tricks I’d come up with to lure them over the veil. Even if they were, Death was still stronger than they were. I’d deal with the fallout to Carrick Sky Sports after I returned.
If I had to start over, well I’ve done that more times than I can count. Once more won’t make any difference. The rotten smell grew stronger. Not the dumpsters, after all. I recognized grave stench and dialed in my psychic view, the ability that allows me to view shades. The blue-black of night faded to crumbled gray as the boundary between Earth and the realm of the dead came into view.
Not sure why I expected to see a bevy of rebel ghosts, ones who’d refused to leave. What kind of Pollyanna world do I live in? Ghosts are a nuisance, but when wind howled around me, I understood I’d been snared.
And not by ghosts.
Infuriated by their earlier rout, Vampires crawled out of hidey-holes until they surrounded me, fangs gleaming in the half-light of the nether world. “Shoo.” I made flapping motions. “It’s night. Go feed from something.”
“Did Death fire you?” a blond Vamp, who looked as if he’d been about ten when he died, jeered.
“In a manner of speaking.” I held my breath. Would they believe me? The only interest they had in me was because I was assigned to push them beyond Earth’s barrier.
And make certain they never returned.
My guts twisted with apprehension. Where had this batch come from? I was obviously their target. My precipitous dash into the night hadn’t been one of my brightest ideas. I opened my channel to Death but then slammed it shut. I’d be damned if I yelped for assistance at the first sign of trouble.
“What do you want?” I folded my arms under my breasts and enhanced the lumens on my Reaper magic. My entourage developed a sickly green glow.
“You. Who else?” A Marilyn Monroe-clone replied.
“Why?” Maybe I’d learn something. At the least, I’d buy time to maybe find a way out of my predicament.
“Join us,” a man with smooth dark hair exhorted. If he hadn’t smelled so bad, he might have had a chance of capturing my attention. Vamps left pretty behind long ago. They’re all gorgeous. It’s how they lure they victims. Not sure why humans aren’t repelled by their stench.
“Afraid my dance card is full,” I quipped.
He glided toward me and gripped my arm. I twisted away. He wasn’t very strong. Was this batch some of the ones I’d chased toward Hell? Unfortunately, the direction I feinted tossed me squarely into two others. I fell through their insubstantial bodies.
It gave me all the information I needed. These Vamps had passed into some weird limbo. No longer corporeal, they hadn’t yet been shepherded to Hell. This had to be some kind of forward guard, deployed to keep me busy. I wasn’t about to wait for the main event to show up. 
“It’s been great.” I offered a mock salute and sprinted through the mass of Vampire shades. Places my body brushed against them made me feel unclean, as if I’d touched something revolting.
Light from the Quonset hut split the night. Damn it anyway. It was farther away than I’d expected. I must have walked for way more than the few minutes I planned to be out here.
No longer battling false pride, I yelled for Death and Liam.
They shot out of the door like gazelles. One minute they were framed in the doorway, the next they flanked me, and I quit running. The ghost Vamps had tried to cull me from the herd. They’d failed.
“I’ll come with you,” I gasped around lungs laboring to get enough air to breathe and talk. As an afterthought, I jettisoned my psychic view, and the world jolted back to the way night is supposed to look.
Death didn’t question me. Neither did Liam. Good thing. What would I have said? Vampires are out to get me, and I don’t want you to leave me here alone? It was the truth, but it shamed me. I’d been alone for hundreds of years. And I’d be alone again.
But not while I was a walking, open-invitation for Vampires to capture and turn me.
“Do you have to lock anything up?” Liam was asking.
I nodded and jogged ahead, all business. No reason to linger. I gathered my shoulder bag and locked both hangar and office. After turning the window sign to “Closed,” I altered my magic so Death’s travel spell would include me. This wasn’t my first time teleporting.
“Any chance I could learn to do this without your help?” I mumbled.
“Maybe. If you ask nicely.”
“I just did.”
“Mmph. Quiet. I have to pay attention, or we could end up at the North Pole,” she told me.
Privately, I thought it wasn’t such a bad locale. At least there weren’t any Vampires there.
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Want more? Check the book out right hereShadow Reaper is available everywhere e-books are sold.


The Cataclysm series will be complete very soon. Broken Line is coming in early September.
Harsh Line is still just 2.99 and will remain at that price until the whole series has been released.
I loved my Vampire heroes and heroines so much, this won't be my only Vampire series. Here's an excerpt from Harsh Line: Gentle reminder: copyrighted material and all that good stuff.

Chapter One, Ariana
“You shorted me again.” Standing straight, I locked gazes with the liquor distributor for my nightclub.
“You’ve miscounted…ma’am.” Defiance fairly dripped from the burly driver as he dared me to contradict him. Greasy black hair was stuffed beneath a dirty baseball cap. He had dark eyes, a million wrinkles, and a beer gut hanging over his too-tight jeans.
Ha! I could rip him limb from limb with one hand tied behind my back, but no reason to let him know that. “Shall we count them together?” I adopted my best dumb-female mien. Not easy because it was so not me.
“Maybe some other time.” He thrust an invoice at me with a pen clipped to the board beneath it. “Running late.”
“I’ll just bet you are. Look, Roger. Either we count them, or you can take the whole mess back to your truck. And I’ll find another distributor.”
A shocked look bloomed on his beefy face. Red splotches marked both stubble-coated cheeks. About six feet two, he was the same height as me, but he outweighed me by a good hundred pounds. “I don’t have time to do that, either,” he sputtered. “You’d better sign off on the fucking shipment.”
I waited, but he stopped shy of tacking “bitch” onto the end of his statement.
I glanced at the invoice, snatched up the pen, and scratched corrections onto the sheet. I wrote in a new total, signed it, and handed it back to him. “There you go, bud.”
“But—but you can’t just write down any amount you want.”
I shrugged. “Just did.” I crossed my arms beneath my breasts and shook strands of black hair out of my face. “Two choices, Rog. Accept my figures—and I did count the boxes as you carted them in here. Or take everything back to your truck.”
“I didn’t see you count nothing.”
“Yeah well, I did. You shorted me the last two times, and I don’t trust you.”
He stared at me, mouth opening and closing like a gutted fish as his pea-sized brain absorbed he’d have to come up with the difference for the cases he’d clearly sold to some black market trader.
“What’s it going to be?” I pressed. “I’m a busy woman. A while back, you said you didn’t have time to count the cases, so presumably you have a schedule as well.”
He turned on his heel and stalked out of my back room. It opens onto an alley, and I pulled the heavy, wooden door shut, dropping an aluminum bar into place to secure it.
Breath hissed from between my clenched teeth. I’d stayed out of the slice of daylight cutting through my open door, but my skin still had a burned feeling. I’m a Vampire. One of the old ones, so daylight isn’t the scourge for me it is for the newer batch, but it’s still not pleasant. 
I can go outside during the daytime, but I view it as a last resort.
Being my usual, methodical self, I recounted the cases of booze. I’d been right on with my tallies. Five hundred and twenty-three bucks of my order was missing. Either the bastard driver was skimming off the top, or the liquor distributing company was purposefully shorting me. Regardless, I’d give the distributor—Northwest Spirits—a call to alert them.
My money was on Roger, not the huge distributor. Northwest Spirits had a reputation to uphold.
A low growl wafted from the corner of the stockroom where I parked my Harley. Except it only looked like a motorcycle. I covered the distance from the door to the corner and asked, “What do you think?”
“Ripping his fat throat out is too good for him.”
I tossed a leg over the bike and settled onto the plush leather seat. “It may come to that,” I muttered.
Beneath me, the motorcycle illusion shimmered and shifted until I was astride Conan, a shapeshifting dire wolf I’ve been hanging around with for the past 500 years or so. He snarled, but I didn’t take him seriously. I did dismount, though. He’s good with me on his back when he’s masquerading as a bike, or at least he tolerates me.
It’s the only time, though.
I walked around until I faced him and buried my fingers in his lush black-and-silver pelt. Amber eyes regarded me with their usual inscrutable lupine expression. As if I were prey. Or could be.
Back in the day, we used to hunt together. I got the blood. He got everything else. Not that we’d given up hunting, but we had to be far more discreet. He laid his muzzle on my shoulder; I scratched his ears.
“We should leave.” Capable of speech in wolf form, his words came out garbled, but understandable.
“Where would we go?” He and I had had this conversation before. Many times.
A frustrated growl rumbled from his throat. I let go of him, walked to a chest freezer, and pull out a cow’s leg bone with a good bit of meat still clinging to it.
“Buying me off?” Bitterness lined Conan’s question, but he snatched up the treat and proceeded to annihilate it. Powerful jaws crunched through bone as if it were made of cardboard.
I left him to it and trotted out of the storage room and into the huge main section of Ascent, a nightclub I own. Buying it might not have been one of my better ideas, but it was my baby. Win, lose, or draw. Unlike some bars, we didn’t open until seven in the evening. I had zero interest in pandering to stone-cold alkies, the ones who substituted booze for breakfast.
Besides, being open when it was light out held obvious problems for me.
I went to work tumbling chairs back onto the floor from where the cleaning crew had balanced them on tables and thought about Conan. By virtue of a rare genetic mishap—and intervention from a gifted mage—he’d become an extraordinary type of shapeshifter, capable of any form he wanted to adopt.
The genetic part was supposition on my part, mostly because Conan was one of a kind. I’ve lived a long time, and I’ve never seen another supernatural creature anything like him.
I came across the wolf when he was a gangly puppy. Hiding at the bottom of a shallow well in a small village in the Carpathian Mountains, he’d been in bad shape. My heart had gone out to the scrawny pup. Vampires don’t keep pets, except as a blood source, but something about Conan drew me. Magic ran strong in him, and I couldn’t walk away from his plight.
For the first few months, his survival had been nip and tuck. I’d had to keep all the other Vamps away from him, for one thing. And then, I’d had to locate a Sorcerer who understood the small wolf’s brand of power. The Sorcerer hadn’t wanted to work with me, but I can be persistent.
Vampires are gifted with persuasion, or we’d have faded out of sight long ago. I gave the Sorcerer my word I wouldn’t harm him, and I didn’t. Long story short, the wolf and I have been together ever since. Not because of magic, but because of loyalty to each other.
Saving someone’s life creates a solemn bond, especially for me since ending lives is more my style. Or it used to be. Now I sneak blood from slaughterhouses—and the occasional morgue. It’s not any more appealing to me than that frozen bone was to Conan, but we have one another to bitch to.
Misery loves company.
We do still hunt from time to time. Fresh animal blood beats dead human blood every time.
He’s been bringing up leaving more and more often, but everywhere except maybe the north and south poles are war zones. I suppose we could get by in a frozen wasteland, but it would be lonely—and cold.
The wolf had dreamed up turning into a motorcycle as cover. When it looks like I’m riding it, I’m really riding him. He’s damned fast, and creates realistic motor sounds. He’s never admitted this, but I think he has fun with that illusion. It gets him out into the world with me. 
Even though he could craft a human form, he never has.
I stood back and surveyed my club with its scarred wooden floor, round tables, and staunchly made chairs. After a few brawls where customers had broken cheaper seats, I’d spent the money for ones resistant to damage. Several large windows ran the length of the nightclub. A raised dais near the back hosted occasional live music.
Unlike many establishments, I served everyone. Ascent was a place no one talked about what they were. A spot where humans and magic-wielders established d├ętente. I have very good ears—it’s part of my Vampire magic. At the first hint of trouble, I make certain the parties take it outside.
A key slotted into the front door lock, and Ruby Brighton hustled inside, relocking the door behind her. “Hiya, boss,” she called cheerily and headed for the bar.
“Hiya back.” I waved.
Ruby’s rainbow hair hung to shoulder level. Today it was red, blue, and violet. The violet matched her eyes. Ruby was Fae, and hundreds of years old. Like so many ancient beings, she looked about thirty-five. Today she was garbed in her usual black slacks, white shirt, and leather vest. She far preferred bare feet, but I insisted she wear shoes. Fae blood is…unpredictable, and the bar floor often has bits of broken glass.
If someone pissed her off, her blood might shape itself into a weapon. Shoes were a simple solution.
Everyone who works for me has some variety of magic. I’ve tried mortal employees, but they’re too damned fragile. Always one excuse or another for why they can’t do something.
“We’re out of port and scotch. Did the shipment come?” Ruby quirked a black brow my way.
“Yeah. Fuckers shorted us again. This time, I spoke up.”
“Really?” She blew out a noisy breath. “How’d that go?”
“Predictably. Roger played dumb. I scribbled in the number of crates he delivered, initialed it, and wrote in the amount I actually owe.”
“Mmph. You planning to call the company?”
“I am, indeed.”
“Who else is working tonight?” she asked.
I smothered a sigh. Immortals had their own set of challenges as employees. Some didn’t get along very well with others. It made crafting the schedule an ongoing dilemma. Of course, most magical beings loath Vampires. Somehow, I’d managed to move past that with my staff. The ones who couldn’t suck it up were long gone.
I rattled off a spate of names. Ascent is a big place. We can seat a couple hundred, and we’re often full. Full enough to keep three bartenders, a few circulating waitresses, and a bouncer busy.
I’d just turned around, intent on helping Ruby haul liquor crates from the storeroom to behind the bar when the fine hairs on the back of my neck quivered. “Did you feel that?”
Ruby slitted her eyes. I both felt and saw power shimmer around her, turning the air a delicate silver. Fae magic smells like wildflowers soaked in Irish whiskey, alluring as hell.
“Crap,” she cried, dove across the room, and threw her body over mine. We crashed to the floor the same moment as the biggest of half a dozen windows exploded, shattering and littering my freshly mopped floor with a million bits of glass.
Fuck. Please let this be a random event and not my bar specifically targeted because someone figured out what I am.
“Let me up.” I struggled beneath Ruby, but she’s as strong as I am.
“Not yet,” she said.
“But we have to go after whoever did this.”
She rolled off me. “You’re not thinking. What were you planning? If you sink your fangs into someone’s neck, they’ll discover what you are.”
She didn’t have to say the rest. Ascent would be finished once it became public knowledge a Vampire owned it.
“All right, all right,” I groused. “But I’ll be damned if I cower on the floor like a ninny.”
Conan loped in from the storeroom, huge jaws snapping. Saliva spooled from his jowls.
“Ooooh. You’re so beautiful,” Ruby cried and tried to hug him.
He shook her off and glared at the busted window. “Who?” he growled.
“We don’t know, sweetie,” Ruby told him.
“Erm. Maybe we do,” I muttered. “I did a fine job pissing Roger off. Probably cost him a few hundred bucks. And maybe his job—once I’m done talking with his employer.”
Half of me had been expecting another blast until I looked around and saw the small boulder someone had chucked through the window. I got up and walked over to it. “Pretty low-tech,” I mumbled.
“Sounding more and more like Roger,” Ruby said. “The original low-tech dude.”
A quick glance at the clock over the bar told me it was five thirty. “I’m going to call Northwest Sprits,” I said, “and then I want to go for a little spin. You up for it?” I asked Conan.
“And if I’m not?” he growled.
“I’ll take the car.”
“With me in the back. You are not going alone.” The wolf shook himself from head to tail tip.
“If you’re coming anyway, I’d rather ride you.” Licking my lips, I grinned at him. “Maybe we can do a little hunting.”
“I hate mice,” he informed me loftily.
“How about a nice, fat sheep?” Ruby squatted next to him.
“Don’t,” I snapped. “You’ll get him all excited for nothing.”
Him and me both. I was hungry. I hadn’t fed for the last two days. Vampires don’t have to eat often, but we do need food occasionally. Blood from living creatures was so much better than the horrid crap I pilfered from a nearby slaughterhouse. I had to do a whole lot of fantasizing to get morgue leavings down without heaving them back up.
Conan whined. My stomach growled.
To divert myself, I dug my cell phone out of a pocket, scrolled through contacts, and called Northwest Spirits. It was late enough, I didn’t expect to do much more than leave a message, but the gal I usually order from picked up on the second ring.
We had a decent conversation. She at least sounded sympathetic. I offered to take pictures of today’s delivery to verify my side of things, but she told me it wouldn’t be necessary.
“Well?” Ruby asked after I hung up.
“I got the impression this wasn’t the first complaint they’ve fielded about Roger,” I told her.
“Interesting.”
Conan trotted to the door. His brand of power made a whistling noise and smelled like rain-wet rocks. I wasn’t surprised to see the Harley where the wolf had been. Silver and black, just like Conan, the bike glowed invitingly. Nothing like magic to dress something up.
“I’ll get the door,” Ruby offered. She patted the bike on her way past it. “Someday,” she said, clearly angling for a ride.
“Tell her only you,” the wolf said into my mind.
“I heard that, sweetie.” Ruby grinned. It made her look about sixteen with her hanks of parti-colored hair. “Can’t blame a gal for trying. I’ll get a leg up on clearing all that glass away.”
She raised her hands. Magic crackled from them, and the glass swirled upward, forming a column. Once it was all flowing the same direction, she cracked a portal, and the remains of the window vanished.
“Too bad replacing it isn’t that simple.” She made a wry face and cut the flow of magic still shimmering around her. “What do you want to do for tonight?”
“Plywood?”
“Works for me,” she said. “I’ll get the guys on it as soon as they come in.”
“We should have enough in the back from last time,” I told her.
Ruby let her glamour fade. For a moment, she looked ancient and furious with her red wings, pointed ears, and golden eyes with vertical pupils. “Mortals are scum.” She spat the words.
“Not all of them.” My words surprised me. Vampires don’t usually stick up for humans.
She sidestepped my palliative observation. “I say we replace all the glass with something that doesn’t break.”
“Go for it.”
“Really? Last time you said it would be too dark in here.”
I shrugged. “I’m a Vampire. Dark is where I live.”
I grabbed my full-face, metallic-blue helmet off its hook near the bar and straddled the Harley. Its faux engine was already purring. No keys for this bike. No fuel, either. Made it an ideal road companion. Nothing to lose, and no reason to stop. Ever.
“We’ll be back by opening time,” I told Ruby.
“No rush,” she called above the escalating roar of the Harley’s engine.
Like I said, Conan has a hell of a good time with his motorcycle imitation. He reminded me of a little boy going vroom-vroom-vroom as he slid a toy truck across the floor.
“Where are we going?” I switched to mind speech.
“Where else? Sheep hunting?”
Aw crap. “Um, Ruby was only kidding.”
We skidded out the door and made a hard right into the never-ending flood of traffic on Mercy Street. Horns blared. I hunched my shoulders and ignored them. Like I could control Conan even if I tried. The sun was down. Soon it would be full dark. My fangs wanted to drop, but I held them back.
A wild, feral part of me longed for ascendency. I was sick of adapting to the modern world. Fuck all of it. For once—for tonight—it could adapt to me.
An enthusiastic woof deep in my mind told me my wolf was with me 100 percent of the way.
*****
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Dru howls along with his squeak toys. It's so cute.
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