(March 5, 2013)
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Chance was gone; he’d sacrificed himself so Shannon and I could escape Sheol. But we’d succeeded in raising him on Shan’s spirit radio, which meant his soul wasn’t wholly destroyed by the demon gate…
Once Corine Solomon only had the touch—the ability to read an object’s past by handling it. Then she inherited her mother’s magick, and that ended up being a hell of a burden. But if Corine can wrestle a demon queen and win, she can bring back her lover Chance after he’s made the ultimate sacrifice. Can’t she? All Corine knows is that she can’t leave Chance behind if there’s anything she can do about it.
But the clock is ticking—and she still has to deal with debt-collecting demons and a maniacal archangel who’s running a recruitment drive. The stakes have never been so high…and this time it’s truly Corine’s last chance to save the love of her life.
Excerpt: Agave Kiss
The first taste is free.
We had been in London for a week when my cell phone rang, an early call. My best friend, Shannon, had just talked to her boyfriend, Jesse, the night before, so it probably wasn’t him. It might be Tia, I supposed, concerned that I needed more money, but she had already wired me plenty.
I didn’t blame my teacher for being worried; it wasn’t every day that a pupil went to Sheol to rescue a friend, staged a minor coup, lost her lover, and then returned via demon gate to a different continent. The journey started on a remote mountaintop in Mexico and ended in a London alley. For obvious reasons, I was struggling to find a way for us to get home. Official channels were out, as the U.K. would ask too many questions about how we’d arrived without passports. A fresh headache throbbed, a vise around the back of my skull.
My gifts were complicated. Once, I only had the touch, which permitted me to read charged objects; they could tell me secrets people didn’t want me to know. Then I gained my mother’s witchy skill, but I burned her white magick out in Sheol, channeling demon energy at a ferocious rate. I could probably still read objects, and the demon magick lingered, an echo of the demon queen’s possession in Sheol. If I had any choice, I wouldn’t use that again. To make matters worse, the trouble probably hadn’t ended with my exit. Demons had long memories, and I still owed a debt to Sibella, the Luren Knight. With my luck, she would hunt me down.
The phone rang for the fourth time. My dog, Butch, nudged me. He was curled up on the bed beside me, and he looked worried as only a Chihuahua could.
“Hello.” I didn’t want to talk to anyone, but our friends in Texas were worried, wondering when we’d hop a plane. That depended on a number of factors.
“Are you all right?” Booke asked.
No, I thought. I never will be again.
The love of my life, Chance, was gone; he’d sacrificed himself so Shannon and I could escape Sheol. Shortly after our crossing, we’d raised him on Shan’s spirit radio, which meant his soul hadn’t been destroyed by the demon gate, but . . . Shan’s gift permitted her to talk to the dead. So he wasn’t here anymore.
It was hard for me to think beyond my own pain, imagine what the future might hold. But for Shannon, I had to get things straightened out. Life went on whether I wanted it to or not.
“Fine,” I managed.
“I’m sorry if this is a bad time.”
“It’s not. Why?”
“I thought it might be because I haven’t been able to find you. Not online. Not on your cell. Not even in dreams. Where did you go that I couldn’t touch your dreams?” He sounded terse. Worried, even. Which wasn’t like him.
The Booke I knew was an unflappable scholar, better suited for research than human relationships. There was doubtless a reason. Maybe I’d learn why, at long last. Any other time, my curiosity would be piqued beyond bearing.
“I’d rather not talk about it.” My secrets matched his, though I hoped his didn’t come with such awful, aching depth. “You were looking for me, I take it?”
He inhaled sharply, his distress plain. It might be tough for him to ask for a hand, but I needed the distraction, so I waited for Booke’s request.
“I need your help rather desperately, Corine.”
Mentally, I was already packing my bag; I didn’t have as far to go as he imagined. “I’m listening.”
“It’s a bit complex to get into long distance. Can you come? I’ll pay for the ticket. I know it’s asking a lot—”
“I’m in London,” I cut in, hoping that would stem the apologetic tide.
The pause said I’d surprised him. I imagined he was weighing whether to ask what I was doing there, but in the end, he opted not to pry. He had been guarding his own secrets so long that it probably felt awkward to poke at someone else’s. And it wasn’t that I’d refuse to tell him; I just wasn’t ready, particularly over the phone.
“You already know I live in Stoke . . . it’s not far on the train.”
“Give me your address.”
He did, and I scrawled it on the cheap pad of paper provided by the economy hotel where Shannon and I had been staying. I hadn’t been looking forward to living here for an extended period anyway. The amenities were basic, at best.
“I suspect the cottage will strike you as a tad ramshackle, but inside it’s not as bad as it looks. I’ll leave the door unlocked, so just come straight in.”
“I’ll see you later today,” I said, and then rang off.
Maybe it was just as well we had a side trip, as I needed time to pull together our exit strategy. Our cooked passports would pass cursory inspections for national rail travel, but if we tried to leave the country, and they scanned them, well, that would be a problem, one that required a solution, and I was working on it.
Though I tried to stay out of the system, I had no outstanding warrants. I’d been questioned a few times over the course of my work with Chance, but mostly I had enemies I’d pissed off by discovering the very bad thing they’d done. Many of those people were in prison, but caution had become second nature; I worried about people finding me who shouldn’t, flagged by governmental forms.
“Who was it?” Shannon asked, as I started packing.
“Booke. I think he’s in trouble.”
She straightened from her lounge on the twin bed, covered in a rumpled black and white spread. “What’s going on?”
“He didn’t tell me.”
“You sure you’re up to working?” As she hadn’t put on her Lolita makeup yet, I could see the faint worry creasing her brows.
I thought about that as I packed my few belongings. “No, but the alternative is sitting here, staring at the walls. I don’t think that will help my state of mind.”
Shan made an openhanded gesture that I took for agreement; then she gathered up her stuff too. Neither of us had much, so it didn’t take long. I shouldered my purse with Butch inside it, then picked up my backpack. Booke needed my help, and as many times as he’d saved my ass, I owed him.
It didn’t take long to check out, as we had been renting day by day; fortunately the hotel was booked light enough to accommodate this laissez-faire strategy. On the street, it was cool and damp, not quite raining.
I liked the ready access to public transportation here, however. We made our way to the tube, and with minimal effort got a train to Stoke. They ran regularly, faster than driving, according to Shan’s Internet search. In short order, we settled into the car along with the other passengers. Some looked like commuters; others were sightseeing, based on their luggage and camera addiction. Shan settled in the window seat, which left me on the aisle. The car was three-quarters full. I said little as we pulled out of the station. Butch stayed hidden in my bag as we hadn’t checked the pet policy before we traveled. But it was a short trip, so he could nap for that long.
“You want me to find somebody to pick us up?” She pulled up Booke’s address on her smart phone, mapping it online.
I leaned over to scrutinize the distance. “That would be good. Looks like it’s not in town.”
Shan was already searching. “So a car service, not a taxi.”
The girl was remarkably efficient at finding information on her cell, and after a few moments of clicking, then one call, she arranged a ride for us. “See, Corine, technology is your friend.”
Because it was Shan, I dredged up a smile, even though my throat was always, always tight, as if the tears could start up at any minute. Sometimes it was hard to look at her, knowing I’d brought Chance with me, then he died saving her. It was supposed to be me, I thought in the heaviest despair. The sensation didn’t dissipate. Instead with it rose a profound nausea, possibly caused by the movement of the train.
I barely made it to the lavatory before emptying my stomach. Three more heaves and I had nothing left. Great. Though I’d never heard of grief making somebody physically ill, there was a first time for everything, right? Unsteadily, I pushed upright, then rinsed my mouth repeatedly. Washing my face and hands didn’t seem like enough so I used antibacterial gel when I got back to my seat.
“Everything all right?” Shan asked, her gaze skimming my face.
“Just not feeling well.” In so many ways. “I’ll get over it.”
“Do you want something to eat or drink?”
“God, no. After I catch a nap, I’ll be fine.” Listless, I turned my head against the window, saw nothing of the countryside, and willed myself to sleep.
I woke to Shan’s hand on my shoulder. “We’re here. Feeling any better?”
“I think so.” Blearily, I followed her to disembark.
We had no baggage to collect, so we moved quickly through the crowd of milling passengers. The train station was busy with people collecting friends and relatives, tourists poring over maps to figure out the way to their hotels, commuters striding with bold confidence.
A few paces on, the driver was waiting for us with a small sign. He was around forty with a crop of ginger hair and a generous sprinkling of freckles.
Shan nudged me. “Is it weird that I feel shiny over that placard?”
“No. It’s a first for me too. Very VIP.” I managed a smile.
He wasn’t wearing a uniform, but there was no question we were the Cheney party. At our approach, the driver reached for my backpack, but I shook my head. “I’m fine, thanks. Just lead the way.”
“As you like, miss. The car’s parked over here.” He led us out to a gray sedan and opened the door for us.
I climbed in, Shannon after me. As we settled, he checked the address. “You’ve rented the ghost cottage, then? I didn’t know it was to let.”
Raising a brow, I exchanged a silent look with Shan, before replying cautiously, “It should be an adventure.”
The driver cast us a look as he pulled into the stream of traffic. I’d never get used to driving on that side. “The place is quite isolated. Are you sure it’s habitable?”
“We’re used to roughing it,” Shan said, hefting her backpack.
“Are you ghost hunters? Will you be doing EVPs?” It seemed like an odd logical leap until I remembered the reality shows devoted to that pursuit. Maybe it was mainstream enough these days that this became the natural assumption.
It seemed safer to play along. “Strictly on an amateur basis.”
He turned down a busy street with the confidence of one who had lived someplace his whole life. “Have you ever found anything spooky?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” Shannon’s grin took the sting out of the rebuff.
“What’s the legend behind the ghost cottage?” I asked.
“You didn’t research it before coming all this way?” He sounded surprised.
A valid question, but I covered. “Of course. But I’d like to hear how local stories differ from what’s online.”
“Oh, good point. The story starts back in the early nineteen hundreds. The man who lived there was odd. Reclusive. People whispered all kinds of things about him . . . that he was a murderer, a wizard who practiced the dark arts.” The driver’s tone became self-deprecating, as if he was embarrassed to repeat such rubbish.
“What happened to him?” Shan asked.
“Nobody knows. He simply vanished one day. People say he disappeared on the day Aleister Crowley died, but I suspect they’ve embellished the story.”
I thought about that. The mysterious, vanishing mage must’ve had heirs. “Since then, what’s become of the property?”
“No relatives were found, so I hear. The land was auctioned, and it’s been bought and sold half a dozen times since. People can’t seem to live there. The last owner tried to renovate, turn it into a bed-and-breakfast, but eventually she went back to Ireland in tears. Nobody from town will step foot inside the place, not to clean or keep watch, not for love or money.”
“That’s super creepy,” Shan said.
Belatedly, I realized he had been waiting for some response to his recitation. He nodded, as if gratified by Shan’s reaction. I didn’t know what to make of his account, but local lore wouldn’t stop me from seeing about Booke.
“I suppose the owner’s trying a turnkey business to recoup her investment?” He was definitely fishing, probably so he could report his findings at the pub later.
“Who could blame her?” I murmured with a friendly smile. “It can’t have been easy abandoning her dream of a bed-and-breakfast.”
“No indeed,” the driver agreed.
Shannon and I made noncommittal noises, encouraging him to point out attractions that might be of interest, if we got a chance to explore the city at all. I didn’t think that was too likely, given my track record. The drive took us through town, which was probably charming, but I was too numb to appreciate such things—and out the other side, where the tighter streets gave way to country roads. Shannon watched the scenery with a permanent smile in place; like me, she had grown up in Kilmer, which meant she had never been anywhere. Chance had taken me to Europe once in celebration of solving a particularly difficult case, but that meant I saw echoes of him here. He haunted me.
The driver’s store of small talk dwindled the further we went from the city limits, and as we turned toward the countryside, he focused on driving. No more polite chat. He seemed tense too, as if he regretted agreeing to convey us out to the ghost cottage. I didn’t mind the silence, as it gave me a chance to evaluate what, if anything, I knew about Ian Booke. It wasn’t much. I didn’t have any idea of his age or appearance; at this point, I could only be sure that he was male and English. And he lived in a place the locals called the ghost cottage.
Which they believe to be vacant.
After half an hour in the car, the driver turned down a rocky, rutted lane, overgrown with tall grass. Seeing the route, I understood why he’d questioned our destination; it didn’t look like anyone had passed this way in a long time. With darkness falling, the terrain became even eerier. Trees gained claws, and the ripple of the wind through the leaves seemed ominous.
“A tad ramshackle” is quite the understatement.
Shan slipped her hand into mine as if she sensed my courage needed bolstering. I gripped tightly as Butch whined. This little dog had saved my bacon more than once . . . and if he sensed trouble, then it was definitely on the way. But then, I had known as much already from Booke’s tangible fear during our phone call; he wasn’t the sort of man who cried wolf. Whatever his personal problems, he’d never shared them before, never asked for help.
The road was barely passable for a normal vehicle, with steep drainage ditches on either side; it would be impossible to pass if another car met us head-on. The possibility of a collision sent a chill through me, burying my less mundane fears. Two pale, freckled hands gripped the steering wheel as the driver peered into the darkness, made more opaque by the brightness of our headlights. The shadows didn’t feel like they came from a normal sunset—no, it was more like we’d passed some barrier that kept the light at bay. Ahead lay a weathered stone bridge, worn from years of exposure to wind and rain; it didn’t look as if anybody maintained it.
Abruptly, the driver stopped the car. “This is as far as I’ll take you. If you peer hard, you can see the cottage from here.”
Yes, there it is.
As he’d said, I glimpsed our destination, nestled amid a thicket of thorns, across the dark arch of the bridge. I didn’t protest. His tone made it clear it would be a waste of breath. So I tipped him and slid out of the vehicle. My belly roiled, an echo of the upset from the train. The house did have a haunted, run-down air, justifying the stories that circulated about the place. Before we’d moved off more than two steps, the driver was already maneuvering the car in a slow five-point turn, being careful not to back into the ditch. I could pretend that was why he hadn’t wanted to come further—he didn’t want to get stuck—but that wasn’t the reason.
Shannon’s face was pale in the half-light, still unpainted from our hurried departure, and her cosmetic-free countenance offered stark contrast to the punky streaks in her black hair. “Shall we?” I asked her.
She squared her shoulders. “This idea seems worse all the time. But yeah, obviously. When have I ever let portents of doom discourage me?”
That time, my smile was real. “I knew you wouldn’t let me down.”
“Hey, you went to hell and back for me. The least I can do is check out a little ghost cottage.” In her tone, I heard awareness of what that rescue had cost me.
I didn’t want her to feel guilty, but a dark, uber-creepy road at night wasn’t the place for a heart-to-heart.
My head whirled with potential explanations. Maybe Booke was squatting here. But no. He’d told me once that he was stuck in Stoke; he couldn’t leave to help me even if he wanted to. Well, whatever the solution to this riddle, it lay inside the ivy-wreathed walls of the ghost cottage.
As we had been traveling a while, I set Butch down to do his business. “You can walk if you stay close.”
He responded with an affirmative yap. Since he held the title of world’s smartest Chihuahua, it was unlikely that he would go exploring in a place like this with night rolling in. I noted that Shan still hadn’t relinquished my hand, not that I blamed her. This place was spectacularly spooky. There were no normal night noises. No traffic. No signs of human habitation. Though it might be the time of year, I didn’t even hear birds or insects. It was like stepping into a dead realm, where you were cut off from all other life.
“This reminds me of Kilmer,” Shannon whispered.
Earlier in the week, I’d failed to access my mother’s magick, which meant I wasn’t a witch anymore, so it was no surprise when I couldn’t assess the place with my witch sight. That was the price ambitious witches paid; their power wasn’t compatible with the greedier pull of demon magick. I might be able to summon and bargain with demons, a power I didn’t want. I’d had enough of the creatures in Sheol, where I had learned they weren’t all good or evil, just like human beings. The realization weighed on me, but it didn’t make me want to get to know them better on the chance they were as honorable as Greydusk, the demon who helped me in the nether realm.
I sniffed the air. “I don’t detect the same hint of brimstone and decay, though.”
“I don’t think it’s demonic. It’s just . . . not right.” I could tell by her frustrated expression, that wasn’t what she wanted to say.
But I couldn’t pinpoint the precise word to describe what I was feeling either. It was a creeping sort of dread, like it could suck the life out of you, given sufficient time. If I let myself be dramatic, I’d call this limbo, a place where unmoored souls drifted in mournful silence. I didn’t articulate the idea out loud; there was no point. If the dead surrounded us, they’d make themselves known soon enough. Hell, they might announce themselves on Shan’s radio.
The mist deepened as I crept over the weed-choked stones. My shoes made little sound, just a rasp and scrape when I went from the rutted road to the bridge. I felt none too sure it would bear weight. I could imagine the masonry giving way, tumbling us down into the murky water below. Shan’s hand tightened on mine.
Somehow, we made it across the stonework onto the other side, where it felt colder. We shared a glance. Then Shan and I crossed the remaining distance to the front door. The ghost cottage radiated menace, as if the empty windowpanes were malevolent eyes; there were no lights inside. Cobwebs hung from the eaves, drifting in the chill breeze like the tattered pennants of a long-ago war. Here and there, bits of the outer wall had crumbled away, littering the yard like broken gravestones.
“I’ll lay odds if I turned on my radio, it would light up like the Fourth of July.”
I swallowed hard, unnerved by the prospect. Oh, I accepted the idea that the dead were all around us—and Shan could talk to them using said radio—but I had seldom sensed their presence so strongly. Her grip tightened on my hand as Butch nudged up against my shins, demanding to be picked up. Great, the atmosphere was affecting my dog too.
At least that means you’re not imagining it.
Obligingly, I scooped him up and tucked him into my purse, his safe space. He hid his head, like the bad stuff was about to commence right now. Shan spun in a slow circle, tracking the horizon, but there was only silence, and the thorn thicket, and then the darkness over distant fields dotted with quiet trees. The wind blew through the greenery surrounding us, and it whispered with a host of voices. Soft, sibilant, I couldn’t make out the words, but the tone raised the hair on the nape of my neck.
She stared at me, eyes wide. “Tell me you heard that. I’m too young to go batshit. I bet the asylums in the U.K. aren’t as posh as they could be.”
“I did,” I muttered. “And we’re not standing around to see what else happens. Time to get this party started.”