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My heart was still thundering with adrenaline as I pulled my wooden chopstick out of the dead vampire’s heart. I eyed the makeshift weapon with apprehension, realization dawning that no amount of dish soap would be enough for me to eat with it.
“Great. Now I’ll have to eat dinner with a fork!” I glared at my dead attacker, a middle-aged man in a disheveled, bloodstained suit. I dropped the chopstick to the ground, then crouched and shoved at one hundred and ninety pounds of literal dead weight. Thank god I hadn’t worn a skirt today.
“Get…under…there!” I huffed, pushing him inch by inch under my SUV. A pillar hid part of my car, which would hopefully also hide the vampire until I called in a disposal team. All I needed was my nosiest neighbor, Doris, seeing a dead body and flipping out. Although, it would give me a reason to sedate her…
With one last herculean effort, I got the vamp underneath the vehicle. I leaned my right side against my truck, gripping my left shoulder, which was more metal than bone. It throbbed with each breath, reminding me it was going to take time to get back into the swing of things. Today had been my first day back in four months, and it could not have gone worse.
I took a step toward the passenger door and nearly faceplanted when my shoe’s heel broke off. “Dammit!” I caught myself on the handle and closed my eyes, taking a deep breath. It did nothing to calm me down. Careful to keep the vampire goo away from my takeout, I nabbed the bag and limped toward my apartment building.
Home, haunted home.
I burst through the front door, choosing to ignore the group of ghosts trying to hang a “Congratulations, Mina!” banner in the common area. Startled, they broke their concentration. The fabric drifted through them to the floor. Very apropos, seeing how I didn’t get the promotion they were so eager to celebrate.
“Mina! What happened?” Dani, the mother figure of the group, called.
“Stray vamp,” I muttered, leaning on the handrail as I limped up the stairs to my second-floor dwelling.
My plans to mope alone with a glass of wine were drowned out by the unmistakable sound of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” echoing down the hallway. Ghosts were such assholes. I jammed the key into my lock and flung my door open. “My dudes!” I yelled over the noise as I walked in, dropping my take-out on the counter and kicking my shoes toward the garbage can. “What did I say about reenacting Titanic at full volume?”
My ghost roommate Sebastian and his best friend Reggie were standing on my curbside-acquired green plaid couch, pretending they were on the bow of a doomed ship. Reggie had tied his sweater backward around his waist (to make it look like a dress) while Sebastian stood behind him. Reggie was Guatemalan-American, with dark hair and tawny skin, and Sebastian could almost pass for a young Leonardo DiCaprio. After he froze to death.
Sebastian’s eyes grew wide. “Mina! You’ve arrived early!”
I muted the music streaming from the television and crossed my arms. “Seriously? You trying to get me another noise complaint? If I get a third one, you know Doris will try and get me evicted, and I swear I will move far enough away so you two couldn’t see each other as punishment.”
Sebastian smirked at me. “You would do no such thing. We are delightful.”
Reggie groaned. “It’s just getting good!”
“Oh, so you haven’t gotten to the part where you take the cushions off the couch to make a door?”
Sebastian pushed Reggie, who crashed through the coffee table with the force of a shadow, then popped back up with his hands on his hips. “Rude.”
Sebastian stepped down with a smirk, smoothing his shirt. “We’re intelligent enough to share the door.”
Reggie grabbed Sebastian’s forearms. “I’ll never let you go, Seb.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Host a ghost agent, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.” It’s not that I didn’t love Titanic—back in the nineties—it’s just that they’d been doing this three times a week for the last three hundred and forty-eight days. “You both would’ve died anyway!” I called over my shoulder as I trudged toward the kitchen while pulling off my now-ruined button up, leaving me in a ripped tank.
I balled up my shirt and threw it into the nearly overflowing trash can. An open-concept apartment was nicer on paper than reality. I couldn’t hide my dirty dishes behind a wall if there was no wall.
Sebastian clicked off the TV and straightened his cravat. He had broken his neck in a drunken carriage-racing accident on the way home from a ball and was forever doomed to wear his Regency-era evening attire. “I’m a duke with a large inheritance. I would’ve survived,” he called after me in his posh British accent. His arrogance was impressive for a guy who had died over a century ago and had no more substance than a benzodiazepine hallucination.
“Were a duke!” I reminded him. “Your great-great-great nephew is now the duke.”
Reggie laughed. “She got you, amigo.”
I needed an entire bottle of wine. Or a new apartment building. There were way too many ghosts here, and especially in this apartment. “I’m getting tipsy and watching Netflix tonight. If you don’t like it, go to Reggie’s.” Reggie lived with his divorced, older (living) brother, who also worked for SHAP.
“No se puede. Lola is staying the week and you know she’s afraid of ghosts,” Reggie explained. “She tried to perform an exorcism last time, my own sobrina!” He shook his head in disbelief.
“Oooh, an exorcism! That sounds lovely,” I shot back. “Think your niece’ll let me help?”
Sebastian gasped. “After all I have done for you, a simple tradeswoman? We wouldn’t even be acquainted had we met when I was alive.”
I snorted. “If only. And you need to get over this duke thing. You still expect staff to clean the apartment.” Sebastian pretended he couldn’t do much more than push buttons and flip switches as if he were a baby ghost, though I’d seen him refold my entire linen closet because he was bored. Useless housemate.
“I provide encouragement while you labor.”
“You provide migraines.” I finished washing the goo from my hands, then grabbed a paper towel and wiped the sweat and blood off the back of my neck and forehead. After tossing a bag of frozen vegetables on my shoulder, I pulled the cork out of my open bottle of wine, not bothering with a glass. A half dozen ghosts standing in a pyramid greeted my return to the living room.
“No,” I told them. “Whatever this is, no.”
Reggie made a cutting motion across his neck at the group, then sat on the couch with an innocent face when they disappeared.
Sebastian’s eyes narrowed. “Why are you in such a foul temperament? I thought you were getting promoted to a desk job today.”
“Regional director is not a ‘desk job.’ It’s a necessary step if I want to take over when Dad retires.” Sure, it meant more time at my desk and less time kicking ass, but regional director, or RD, meant being in charge of all the agents and their missions in southeast Michigan.
If I snagged the promotion before my thirtieth birthday this November, I’d be the youngest agent ever to receive the honor. One step closer to everything I’d been working toward my entire life. I wanted to be the first female Territory Director at SHAP, and it was only three more promotions away. Well, four now.
I had already been the youngest active agent in history, starting my career at fifteen. While most of my friends were bagging groceries or making pizzas, I was hunting down dangerous supernatural creatures. I was basically Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but without the end of the world and falling in love with morally ambiguous vampires. This probably explained why my only friends were ghosts or coworkers. It was easier—no one to worry when I didn’t come home.
SHAP, or Supernatural-Human Accountability Partnership, was the company that kept humans and supernaturals from killing each other by utilizing a series of strict agreements. Or they tried to, anyway. I kinda broke one of those agreements about ten minutes ago.
“Is the blood part of a hazing ritual?” Reggie leaned in, trying to wipe blood out of my blond hair. My head went right through his hand, leaving me chilled. “Mierda. I keep forgetting.” Reggie had only died a year ago and was still learning his ghost ropes, so to speak. If he kept trying, unlike Sebastian, he’d be able to open and close doors by December.
I rubbed at my forehead. “Never stops being weird.”
Sebastian crossed his arms, as if he were my older brother about to go to bat for me. “Where’s the blood from, Mina?”
“Small scuffle with a vampire.” I needed to talk to the complex about more security. This was the second attack in as many months, and for what I paid in rent for this tiny scrap of a place, I should have my own personal security guard. Of course, I’d probably be a better protector than whoever they hired, injured shoulder or not.
I slumped into an admittedly hideous scratchy orange armchair and propped my feet on the coffee table. Sebastian hated when I disrespected my furniture, but I’d gotten it at a garage sale for five bucks. It wasn’t some heirloom piece that had been in my family for eight generations.
“I didn’t get the promotion today, but whatever… How was your day? Haunt anyone to death?” My voice caught on the last word, my eyes stinging. I blinked hard. I didn’t cry. Emotions made me drop my guard, which would get me killed.
Reggie winced. “I better go call off the flash ghost mob. Nos vemos mas tarde.” See you later. He disappeared.
Sebastian sat on the arm of my chair. “Love, what happened?”
I lifted my hands and let them fall against my lap, staring at the bright red scratches across my pale skin, remnants from the fight. I didn’t want to put the moment into words. It was a level of mortification I didn’t need to relive.
The conference room had been so hot and the number of people who’d gathered to welcome me back to work after my short-term disability had been overwhelming. My partner Jake had stood by my side, ever the supportive best friend. Sure, moving to RD would mean breaking up our duo, but this had been my dream since I was a shy twelve-year-old watching her father become the leader of the United States branch of SHAP. I wanted him to look at me with the same pride I felt for him.
It was in my blood, and we had all known what was coming; the sheet cake (even though I hated cake; pie was far superior) in the break room that read “Congratulations, Mina!” was the final touch. It wasn’t nepotism. I was really that fucking great at my job. When Dad—Director of United States Operations—stood to make his welcome back speech, everyone waited with their hands on their water glasses to make a toast.
The toast never came.
When I cornered him in his office afterward, he had simply said, “Last mission was too reckless.”
“I did what I had to do to catch the bastard!” Catching a serial killer wizard who had been operating for decades had made the accident that destroyed my shoulder worth it. A high-speed chase during an ice storm wasn’t ideal, but I had forced him into the concrete barrier before I rolled my truck. As they loaded me into the ambulance, I’d stayed conscious long enough to see him locked into a transport van.
Sure, I had almost died in the process, but it was the biggest win of my career. I had earned that promotion.
My dad just looked up at me over his reading glasses and said, “Reckless. Prove your responsibility next case.”
Sebastian murmured my name, pulling me out of my spiraling memory. I swallowed hard against the lump in my throat. “Gotta do another case.”
He stared at me for a long moment and tilted his head. “Are you prepared for that?”
I frowned. “What do you mean? I’m done ‘convalescing.’”
“Dancing with death changes a person. It’s acceptable to not want to partake in another mission so soon.”
I waved him off. “I’m fine and no, I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Tell me about your day?”
“Well, I had to do something to distract myself from this atrocious decorating.” He grimaced while looking around. “My casket was more appealing, and it was cast iron.” A laugh snuck up on me. SHAP had assigned Sebastian to this neighborhood two years ago and in a moment of weakness, I had agreed to his residency. He had yet to stop complaining that my place wasn’t up to his standards.
Ghosts were something not even SHAP could explain—either why they appeared or why only some people could see them—but the general consensus was they were leftover energy from a human’s life that didn’t dissipate. Or maybe they just had unfinished business and couldn’t cross over until it was resolved. Only about half of SHAP employees could communicate with ghosts, but it was a requirement for all field agents and upper management. Ghosts were extremely tuned in to the space around them and an asset to any agent. Which is why I put up with this one.
“And, I had quite the day,” he continued. “I dueled with a pair of demons trying to invade the Andrews’ place. You should have a talk with them about their hobbies. Last month, I had to deal with a bushel of poltergeists, which was just preposterous.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose. “I’m going to drop off groceries later this week. I’ll make sure to have a chat.” Last time, Amber Andrews had been “accidentally” crocheting summoning spells into her sweaters. Accidentally, my ass. Amber may look like a grandma from a made-for-TV movie, but there was a sharpness behind her watery eyes and wrinkly smile.
Applechester, Michigan, was a supernatural hotspot, which included the Countryside Village apartment complex. Resurrected from an old hotel that had been turned into a hospital during the 1918 influenza pandemic, these walls held as many secrets as my old journal. While the gray paint, wood floors, and ornate staircase suggested a safe and cozy environment, I practically had a second job trying to keep the demons, wendigos, and vampires from sneaking in.
Many of my neighbors worked for SHAP, human and supernatural alike. While most humans outside of the town limits didn’t know supernaturals existed, everyone here just rolled with the unexplained events.
“Did you report the attack yet?” Sebastian asked.
I took a sip of wine. “Nope.” I had no desire to report it. Zero. Zilch.
He crossed his arms. “In my opinion—”
“Which, you’ll notice, I didn’t ask for—”
“It falls under your employment agreement to report any and all vampire attacks. Pray tell, how did you dispose of the…carcass?” He said the word as if it offended him.
“It’s in my garage. Shoved him under my car.”
He grimaced. “It’s July. Remember the zombies?”
I cringed. Three zombies had stolen a Cadillac last summer to go on a joyride, hit a pothole, and—zombies being very fragile creatures—lost control of the car when the driver’s arms fell off. They crashed into a tree and rotted for four days before someone reported it. I could still remember the smell.
I groaned. Fucking vampire. Sebastian was right though. It was still eighty-nine and humid even with night approaching. Last thing I needed was the dead vampire smell to seep into my new truck.
This was going to be the cherry on top of the shit evening ice cream sundae.
List of things I hated, in order:
- Giving Jim Summers bad news
Giving Dad bad news was not for the faint of heart. I’d had men twice my age beg me to give him a message. Newsflash: he didn’t like hearing it from me, either. “Can’t you report it for me? Isn’t that your job?”
“I only make reports on demons, fairies, and other spirits,” he said, as if I didn’t know. God forbid he do me a solid. “Do you want to explain to your neighbors why the garage smells like a dead pheasant left in the sun for a fortnight?”
“If you report it, I’ll let you watch Titanic as many times as you want this week.”
He adjusted his cravat. “If I become so desperate, Mina, I’ll simply meander next door for my entertainment. My tether stretches ten miles, and Dr. Brady in 4B works evenings.”
When a house ghost was assigned a base residence, their essence was tied to an object from their past that SHAP encased in an unbreakable box for safe keeping. The relic allowed the ghost to be tethered to earth, instead of floating off into the ether, or wherever they went. Sebastian’s was, unsurprisingly, his flask. He (and his flask) had been found at an estate sale out in Boston about five years ago, having come to America by some collector.
“I hate you.” But I grabbed my phone from the pocket and pressed my top contact. Please go to voicemail. Please go to voicemail.
“Summers.” No greeting, of course. What did I expect? He only ever answered his phone by identifying himself.
“Hi…Dad.” His response was loaded—judging silence. I looked at Sebastian, who motioned for me to get on with it. “Got a vampire situation. At my place. Well, more precisely my garage.”
I went into a quick recap: It approached from behind. I killed him with the chopstick from my takeout, left him under my car. “I checked for an identification device but couldn’t find one.”
All potentially harmful supernatural species residing within cities were required to have identification devices, a peace offering from the supernaturals after a coven of witches had completely decimated a town during a spell gone wrong. It had been the most human lives lost to a single supernatural incident in the last century. To find a vampire attacking within city limits, potentially without a device, was a serious issue. Hopefully they’d discover one during the autopsy.
Wow. He really did care. “None sustained.” Lie. My shoulder was throbbing, and I had vampire goo in my hair.
The gelatinized substance was typically only found in very fresh vampires; the older ones at least had the decency to keep themselves self-contained upon permanent deanimation (or super permanent death). If I was really lucky, they’d be ancient, burst into ash, and disappear on the breeze. Sadly, I rarely got to kill the old-ass ones, as most were “too civilized” to drink directly from humans anymore, and preferred reusable blood bottles. Environmentally friendly vegetarian vampires were all the rage.
“Protocol is capture alive,” he reprimanded.
I sucked in a steadying breath. “I know you’d prefer them alive, but I was too busy trying not to die to be super gentle.”
“Roger.” He hung up.
I stared down at the phone, somehow expecting it to explain his plan. Not that I needed it. He’d send some agents over for cleanup and investigation, then send me an email confirming the details of my report. We’d continue like this until my birthday, when he’d utter two words to me instead of only one.
I tossed my phone on the coffee table and stood. “I need to shower before the troops get here.”
Sebastian smiled, a rakish grin that once had likely made every debutant in a ballroom swoon. “Do you desire company?”
“Why are you hitting on me?”
He shrugged one shoulder. “Flirting with you is one of the few pleasures I have left.”
I laughed. “I’m bisexual, not spectrosexual.” I gave him a once-over. “How would that work anyway? You’re not exactly…” I waved my hand.
“Corporeal.” I shook my head. “You’ve got twenty minutes to Celine it up. Keep the volume down.”
“What will you do if I disobey? Punish me? That, my dear, is not a deterrent.”
“Exorcism!” I called back over my shoulder, then paused. “Wait…hold up. You planned a ghost flash mob?”
Sebastian just winked.
End of Excerpt