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Excerpt

IN BAD SPIRITS - September 2013

ONE

Dark, Not Dawn

 

It felt good to be free for the first time in months.

Nearly bursting with the joy of seeing Jonah again, the woman had only wished to surprise him, to go outside and peek into the family room window of the snow-feathered colonial-style brick house, seeing what he was doing before she revealed that she was out early.

Surprise!

Oh, she could just picture the look on his face when she said it. He would smile at her, making her feel as if she were the only woman in the world. He would forget about all else but her until it was time for her to go away once again.

Perhaps, this time, he would even ask her to stay. Would he be ready to give over all of his heart to her, the woman who loved him more than anyone else ever could?

She trembled with anticipation as snowflakes drifted round her. She moved even closer to the window as she watched the man she adored, with his dark hair that curled up at the ends near his sweater collar, his devil-may-care blue eyes, the slight, ruddy patches of color that flushed his cheeks, the rakish smile that never failed to thrill her.

Despite the biting, winter night sky that surrounded her, she didn’t feel anything but him.

The want of him. The need of him.

Yet, bit by bit, more details inside the family room eventually came into fuzzy focus: him sitting by a flame-warmed fireplace and a Christmas tree, banked by other people, including two elderly folk she didn’t know and two younger ones she did, though she didn’t care to look too hard at the latter. Then there were the spirits who were also no doubt present, knowing the monster-fighting company Jonah kept—Costin and Breisi.

Still, the only person the woman truly saw was Jonah. And as she pressed herself to a corner of the glass, she could hear, so very faintly, the holiday tale he was telling in a loud, boisterous voice that made the group laugh.

As far as she could gather, it was a scary story, and a vague memory of people in Victorian England who told ghost tales on Christmas Eve came to her. It used to be a most frightening night, this one. Were Jonah and his friends reviving that tradition?

It would bloody well suit a group of monster hunters.

When everyone applauded at the end of Jonah’s story, he glanced round, his gaze lingering on one member of the group in particular, as if to see if she was pleased, as well.

The woman who loved him bristled at the sight of him gazing longingly at Dawn Madison.

When Dawn didn’t return his attention, he looked at the floor, his jaw tightening as she obliviously got out of her chair, smiling and collecting the mugs from the elderly couple sitting next to her, then left the room.

Dawn, the hunter. Dawn, the object of Jonah’s misguided fascination.

The woman had known he had false feelings for Dawn. But she had believed with all her heart that they would fade over time....

After a few moments, Jonah rose from his seat, too, exiting the room. The woman outside tracked him by moving from this window to the next, where a buttery light spilled from the kitchen.

The woman outside waited. Watched.

Dawn filled the mugs with warmed egg nog from the microwave, and when she saw Jonah, she ignored him, heading for the opposite exit with the libations in hand.

When Jonah stepped in front of her, blocking her way, Dawn halted.

The woman outside saw the mistletoe that was hanging over them, and something like fury, edged with frustration, ripped through her like claws of ice.

She could hear their muffled words as she pressed herself to a corner of the cold glass.

“Very funny, Jonah,” Dawn said levelly.

He glanced up at the mistletoe. “‘Tis the season, Dawn. Tradition says you’ve gotta give it up for me.”

Outside, the woman pulled back, as if slapped.

But she pressed back against the window, needing to hear. Surely Jonah wasn’t serious. They were meant to be together, and Jonah knew that. So why had he asked Dawn for a kiss under the mistletoe?

A smile tilted his mouth. “Come on. Just a little kiss.”

Dawn gripped the mug handles. “You’re not Costin.”

At the mention of the boss’s name—Costin, the spirit who often used Jonah’s body when he needed corporeal form—Jonah raised his hands and let Dawn pass him by. A mild surrender.

Even he knew that no one crossed Costin. Not even the woman who was watching with her heart breaking.

As Dawn walked by the window, it was all the woman could do to stop from slamming into it, scaring the bitch. She wanted to lash out at Dawn. Jonah wanted her and it hurt.

Yet, if the woman outside dared to harm even a hair on Dawn’s brunette head...

There’d surely be punishment.

She was so upset at what she’d just seen that the woman couldn’t even move from her spot at the window. She was too frozen.

Was this what he did when she was away? Cheat on her?

There’d been so many times the woman had heard him assuage her with pretty words, and it was hard to believe he would betray her like this. Words such as “Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t want Dawn. She’s Costin’s. Besides, you know I love you because of everything you’ve done for us—all the fights you fought, all the battles you helped us win. But you also know that I can’t always be with you. I need time to get my act together.”

“But someday...?” she would always say.

He would only smile sadly, as if wondering why she wanted anything to do with him. A part of her thought that he might be trying to push her away, allowing her to make the decision to leave him.

Yet, she loved him too much to give him up. Ever.

But she wouldn’t stand for betrayal, either.

The woman moved away from the house, knowing no one had seen her out here. Light snow began to fall, and it made her feel damp and cold inside.

Why couldn’t Jonah see how much she loved him?

She had waited for so long, dormant, patient, counting down the moments until she would be free to come to him again, making him see that she was the only one who could ever make him happy.

There was a growing heat in her core, and it made her forget the snow.

All this time, Jonah had been under the mistletoe, clearly gathering his pride, gripping the doorframe. And, when he tightened his jaw again and then left the room, the woman knew that Dawn’s rejection had gotten to him.

She followed Jonah with her steady gaze, wondering if she should find her way inside to tell him what she’d seen, what he’d done when he thought she wasn’t watching.

But he took her off guard a few moments later by coming outside to the driveway in a black winter jacket, cuffing the fresh snow from the windshield of a gray pickup, then getting into the truck and turning on the engine.

What was he doing now?

He never knew that she hitched a ride in the back of his truck, staying hidden as he traveled down the long, white-banked driveway, the vehicle then winding over a desolate stretch of road. Gnarled oak trees flew past as he turned onto a bigger, straighter stretch.

Soon, they were in the midst of a small town she had never seen before, heading into a shopping center near a budget motel, a movie theater, a grocery mart, and a place lit by a subtle neon sign.

Fogerty’s Sports Bar.

After Jonah pulled into a parking place, she didn’t move from the back of his truck. She was still numb from seeing him go against all the sweet words he’d ever whispered to her during their times together.

Surely she had been mistaken back at the house. She was overreacting. He had merely been jesting with Dawn, wasn’t that right? Didn’t everyone play Mistletoe Kisses during the holidays?

When a man in a knit cap opened the door to enter the bar, she slid in behind him. She would make her presence known to Jonah, and they would go somewhere to work this out. Everything would be lovely between them again.

It didn’t take her long to lock in on him in a seat at the bar under a few TVs that played football game highlights. A collection of Christmas Eve rejects had gathered, sipping beers, finding comfort in their whisky shots and each other.

Just as she was about to go to him, he struck up a conversation with the female barkeep. It was as if...

As if he was flirting with her now.

She waited by the door, unnoticed, just as invisible to everyone else as she was to the man who belonged to her and her alone.

Every time he talked to a woman, she flinched. Every time he smiled at one, her frustration simmered, growing into something more. But she never moved from her corner.

She stayed cold. Colder than she had ever thought possible.

An hour later, Jonah had become chummy with a friend of the barkeep, as well, and soon, they all left the tavern together.

This couldn’t be happening. Not her Jonah. He seemed as if he didn’t remember anything he felt for her.

From her corner, she watched him leave with his female companions. She slid out the closing door well behind him, slipping into the back of his truck again, hitching another stealth ride, this time to a small brick house on a suburban street.

She didn’t go inside the door with them, lingering outside instead, waiting, watching for him to come out of the house. Knowing what he was doing with those whores inside.

Light snow fluttered against her, ice-hot.

Hurt. She hurt so terribly.

She wanted him to feel hurt, disappointment, sadness, too, so he would never do this to her again. Ever.

When he finally came out of the house, she rode with him again as he brought the truck back to the two-story, double-winged home where he had started off the night.

Now, as he went inside, she trailed him, falling back so he wouldn’t sense her or smell her perfume. He went to the kitchen, fixed himself a sandwich, then tore into it like a starved man.

When she left him in the kitchen, she moved like a ghost in a horror story, going to the wing where she knew Jonah was staying on his own, clearly away from the other guests she had seen earlier by the Christmas tree. Jonah liked to isolate himself from the others because he enjoyed his privacy too much.

Books about modern warfare littered an end table in his room. Cable-knit sweaters slumped on the carpet, and they smelled of him when she pressed herself against them. And when she went to his bed...

She took a moment to spread herself over the mattress, where she could feel the indentation of where he’d lain. She thought of those two bar girls, thought of him and Dawn beneath the mistletoe.

Dawn. Had her rejection hurt Jonah enough for him to go to those two whores? Was all this her fault?

Fury boiled in her. So did helplessness. Yet, there could be no retaliation against Jonah and Dawn—not if she didn’t want Costin’s wrath.

But someone had to hurt as much as she did.

Who, though?

She screamed in frustration, crashing into his bed, tearing through it. She did the same with his books, his clothing. When she had finished, she rushed to the hall, still ripped by his betrayal.

She went into the adjacent bathroom, its counters holding his razor, his shaving cream.

Coming up to the mirror—a looking glass that didn’t even show her who she was anymore—she pressed against the shaving cream’s nozzle, sending the stuff all over the counter.

Then she smudged it over the glass, preparing to give Jonah a message by exerting pressure against the mirror to form six little words.

WHO WILL BE HURT NEXT, JONAH?

She left the purposely cryptic phrase for him to figure out, then rushed out of the house, intending to show him that pain could go both ways.


TWO

The Fight Before Christmas

 

Dawn was in the master suite, waiting outside the bathroom for her dad to finish getting ready for bed, when she thought she heard a crash somewhere in the house.

On instant alert, she glanced over her shoulder, through the open doorway and into the dim hall. She reached under the bottom of her thick sweater, where she kept a holstered, silver bullet-loaded revolver hidden at her hip. Then she waited.

The sound had been something distant, as if a slam was traveling through the air. Was it trouble? Because her kind of trouble usually started with something little, then got way bigger.

But when she didn’t hear anything else, she faced front again, wrapping her arms over her chest and shaking her head.

Jumpy much?

Um, yeah. That’s exactly what she’d been these past couple of months, since the Meratoliages had temporarily driven her and what remained of her former vamp-hunting team out of San Diego.

Moving was only a safety precaution, Costin had told her, but she wondered if they’d ever be able to go back to their house on the beach again, the place where the team had once convinced themselves that their hunting days were in the past and they could live a halfway normal life.

Thanks to the Meratoliages, that seemed real unlikely now. Normal people didn’t have to deal with cultish families who came out of nowhere and tried to capture Dawn for sacrificial rituals. Yup, normal probably wouldn’t be in the cards from this point on.

Nonetheless, she made herself relax so she could be... Well, as much of a regular person as possible, at least for the holidays.

This house in the Kentucky country they’d rented sure seemed normal enough. Cozy, even. Although her dad’s suite wasn’t as decked out with the knick-knacks from antique barns and Chippendale-style furniture as the rest of this place, it had a patchwork quilt and low-lighting from a Tiffany lamp that soothed the room. The suite had even boasted idyllic pictures of barns and fields before the team had taken them down from the walls in favor of putting up a single, special painting that belonged to Frank.

It hung across from his bed, showing a laboratory with a sky-blue ceiling, a table strewn with beakers, and an old fashioned alarm clock on an end table next to a sparse bed.

Breisi’s home portrait, Dawn thought. It was the place where the Friend spirit rested and rooted and gained as much strength as a sapped soul could.

But Breisi wasn’t in the portrait right now. Her invisible, jasmine-scented essence hovered near the curtained window, welcoming Frank as he opened the bathroom door and shuffled across the floor with the aid of a cane, his body bent, his limbs thin, his skin wan and wrinkled.

Not even fifty years old and this was what he looked like, thanks to a demon who’d once attacked him. A real, true bitch.

Although Dawn couldn’t see Breisi, she knew that Frank’s spirit girlfriend was helping him into his bed as best as she could. She’d been just as drained by that demon woman, too, her life force nearly sucked out of her as much as Frank’s had been.

But was tonight really the time to be thinking about dark forces? Not really. Sure, Dawn and her family and team had sat in the living room and told ghost stories to each other after dinner—silly stuff that they’d made up about goofy spirits, things spooked up by a nip or two of the egg nog Grandma had whipped up. So Dawn shoved all thoughts of that demon bitch out of her head before they could genuinely get to her.

And it really didn’t help that the demon had been her mom, Eva.

Instead, Dawn focused on Frank as he sighed wearily while lying down in his bed. Breisi pushed a sheet over him, tucking him in.

At the pitiful sight of her desiccated father, a hollow sensation darkened Dawn, but she tolerated the weight of her soul stain—the constant reminder that she’d once been a vampire who’d gone mortal, her spirit returned to her in a dirtier state.

She had something much worse on the other side of her, though—the most awful souvenir from hunting ever. The dragon. The ultimate master who’d been absorbed into her body after she thought she’d slain him.

For some reason, the dragon was silent right now in the peace of her dad’s bedtime. Then again, the monster seemed to get that way every Christmas season. Dawn would’ve been thankful for that if she didn’t suspect that the reprieve was only because the dragon was in there watching, waiting for the right moment to creep up on her soul stain, feeding on its emotional darkness and making him strong enough to take her over one day.

“You okay, Dawn?”

Frank hadn’t fallen asleep yet, and he was looking at her with a furrowed brow, his eyes shadowed. His hair moved, but it was only because Breisi was stroking it.

“Feeling great,” she said, grinning. But her voice was scratched as hell.

Would he live to see another holiday roll around?

Chances were bad. Around Thanksgiving, he’d taken a turn for the worse, and not even Costin knew how to cure him. That’s one of the reasons they’d specifically chosen to come to Danville, Kentucky, where his parents were living now and he could see them again.

Where the snow seemed so anesthetic as it lay on the ground, shimmering under the moon every night, a white, not-so-bright Christmas.

Breisi’s spirit voice was wispy. “Don’t be sad, Dawn.”

Dawn summoned an expression that hopefully conveyed, “Sad? Who me?” But how could she help it when her dad was on his last legs? How could she just sit here and watch as the same thing happened to his girlfriend, too—a spirit woman who’d become much more like a mom to Dawn than Eva had ever been?

The only positive spin Dawn could put on everything was that, when Frank did pass on, Breisi would go with him, and they’d both hopefully end up together. As a vamp-fighting spirit Friend, Breisi had been promised an eternal state of grace when she’d signed on with Costin to hunt the dragon’s line of vampires, and Frank had been repenting his sins ever since he’d become human again, after being a vampire and having his master destroyed. His soul stain hadn’t been an issue as Dawn’s had—and his soul stain never made him wonder if he was going to a sub-purgatory, away from the nicer hunters.

“I gotta agree with Breisi,” Frank said, trying to seem all jolly, but he wasn’t even half the scamp he used to be. “Be happy, Dawn. You don’t want to give that goddamned dragon any reason to be attracted to your soul stain.”

At the word “goddamned,” Dawn almost expected to feel the dragon cringe in her, and she shifted, uncomfortable. Vampires generally didn’t like references to holy things, and the dragon had been the biggest vamp of them all. Hell, he was Vlad Tepes, and every evil tale about him had been true.

And then some.

The creep stayed dormant, though. Maybe Santa had brought her gift early.

Frank broke into a fit of coughing, and it was so jarring that Dawn gritted her teeth. Breisi stayed by him, stroking his hair as he closed his eyes.

Her chest tight, she wandered to the foot of his bed. “You have to admit, my attitude’s been much brighter lately, after we got away from the Meratoliages.”

Breisi’s laugh was like wind chimes. “You’ve had an adjustment. I’ll give you that.”

Dawn gave her a mock-chiding look. “If I seem like I’m out of sorts tonight, it’s just because I don’t like being on the run.” She didn’t look at Frank, making it way too obvious she was sad about him, too. “It pisses me off that the Meratoliages have us hopping around like bunnies. This is the second house we’ve rented in two months, and these moves aren’t doing Frank any good.”

“A couple months ago,” Breisi said in her disembodied voice, “you were talking to the others about being a sitting duck when the Meratoliages were after you. Would you rather be hopping away from them or sitting and waiting for them to find you again?”

“I’d rather they be dead. We still don’t know who survived on Samhain when they came after us.”

“They might be dead, for all we know.”

Optimism. But just because they hadn’t been able to find the Meratoliages’ bodies didn’t mean a damned thing.

Dawn didn’t feel bad for wishing them dead, either—not when the family that had guarded the dragon for generations had been ready and willing to rip Dracul right out of Dawn during their Samhain ritual.

Frank had been listening with a compassionate softness in his faded green eyes while he rested, and it pierced Dawn. She hadn’t seen much more than alcoholic fumes in his gaze while she’d been growing up, pretty much raising her single dad more than he’d raised her. Eva’s supposed death had screwed them both up pretty good...until they’d found out that she hadn’t been dead after all and she’d become a freakin’ vampire.

The rest was history: Frank had eventually become one, too, along with Dawn, but all of the Madisons had gone human again in the end, thanks to the deaths of their sub-lines’ masters.

Even so, it’d left its soul stain mark on all of them.

And now, in what Dawn couldn’t quite define as a happy ending, her dad thought he should see his parents one last time before he died.

On the bed, Breisi was still toying with Frank’s hair, but it actually looked as if a breeze was combing through his sparse gray strands. The great love of his life, Dawn thought. She had one of those, too—Costin, who was also a spirit. The Madisons definitely had a type.

She heard a shuffle in the hallway, just outside the door, but she knew this sound—it was her grandparents, their slippers heavy on the shag carpet. She could also catch the scent of Grandma’s perfume, and a memory whisked through Dawn: the smell of Chanel No. 5, Grandma hugging her and trying to hold back tears as Grandpa waited by a door, just before they drove away after another short visit. They hadn’t been on great terms with their loser son when Dawn was little. It was only now, after they’d retired to a little home in the country, where Grandpa had been born and raised, and after Frank had turned his life around, that they’d all come together.

Better late than never.

Dawn went into the hallway to intercept them so Breisi would have time to get back into her portrait.

“It’s not the best of nights for him,” she said, dragging the door closed behind her and keeping her voice low.

Grandma was dressed in the new plaid robe Dawn had given her earlier in the night, Grandpa in a matching set. She was rosy-cheeked, usually smiling, and about as delicate as one of the silver-plated, finely etched clocks in this house. Grandpa was broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, tall and a little stooped—the kind of senior citizen Frank should’ve been in another thirty years.

Grandma stared at the door, as if she could see her son beyond it. “I can’t believe cancer did this to him. I know it can get bad, but...”

“Frank’s accepted it. He even refuses to have a caregiver because he says he can handle himself.” Dawn hated lying about this “cancer,” but the team had agreed that lies were necessary. The truth was psychotic and unbelievable, anyway.

As Grampa gruffly cleared his throat, Grandma touched Dawn’s face in sympathy.

Dawn shrank back and Grandma peered at all the foundation on her fingertips.

Of course—the makeup. All the cosmetics that covered the black marks on the left side of her face and the acid scars on her neck. The blemishes looked like tribal tattoos from the wild Hollywood lifestyle she’d once led as a failed stunt woman, and she would never tell her grandparents that they were actually dark badges of soul-stain anger that had appeared on her skin every time she’d lost control of her temper and lashed out with a telekinetic rage that had killed and maimed so many when she’d been an active vampire hunter.

But, as for the right side of her face, where cosmetics couldn’t quite cover the splotches of red? There were no good excuses for those marks, which came courtesy of the dragon, whose blood had splashed Dawn’s skin and never faded.

Yup, altogether, she was a real beaut, with her father’s brown hair, her mother’s brown eyes, and enough purty facial patterns to put Darth Maul to shame.

Grandma recovered like a champ, smiling sweetly, then turning to open the door and walk into the room, where Breisi’s jasmine perfume still lingered.

“Just wanted to say goodnight before we turn in,” Grandpa said, acting happy in front of Frank.

Grandma was still smiling, but Dawn could see a sheen of melancholy in her eyes.

How did my son get older than we are? she must’ve been thinking.

“We’re glad you could stay over,” Dawn said to them, trying to lighten things up. “This is going to be the best Christmas ever.”

Was that her, sounding like Tiny Tim?

Grandpa couldn’t take his eyes off Frank in the bed, and emotion strained his voice, even if he was obviously trying to disguise it with a dose of holiday cheer. “It’s the first time we’ve had the opportunity to wake up on Christmas morning with you two. There was no way we were gonna miss this family reunion.”

Grandma added, “We’re glad Jonah could join us, too.”

She’d said it with fondness. Jonah really had a way with the ladies, no matter what their age. Hell, maybe he’d get Grandma under the mistletoe next.

But he’d had to come along with them, seeing as Costin, who was just as much of a spirit as Breisi, used Jonah as his body when he needed to accomplish something that required hands or... Well, a body.

Grandma squeezed Dawn’s arm. “Is he already tucked in?”

Right. “Jonah wasn’t tired, so he went out for a nightcap. I thought I heard his truck pull into the drive not too long ago, though.” Not true—the few cameras they’d planted outside the house as security precautions against the Meratoliages had shown her his return, and that’s how she knew he was home.

Grandpa laughed. “Just listen to your Grandma. I think she wanted to tuck Jonah in, herself.”

“Marvin,” Grandma said, blushing a little.

Dawn refrained from rolling her eyes. If it were up to Grandma, Jonah wouldn’t be housed in the other wing, as far away as possible, yet still close enough to be on call for Costin. Not that Jonah had complained about the situation—he liked his privacy. Besides, after they’d invited the grandpeeps here for the holidays, there’d been no more rooms here on the west side of the house, where the cool people slept.

The gaiety of their banter didn’t last all that long, and Grandpa pulled two flower-upholstered chairs over to the bed, guiding Grandma into one and sitting in the other. Frank weakly turned his head toward them. Regret weighed in his gaze—about being the wayward son who’d only now reached out for his parents—and Dawn bit her lip.

She wouldn’t cry. Not even if it looked as if he was the dying father and they were his children. She just kept telling herself that he’d redeemed himself by hunting vampires, and he and Breisi would soon be totally at peace together.

God, what she’d give to see him have one happy Christmas in this dimension before he died.

She glanced at Breisi’s portrait, as if she could get a reaction from a painting. But all she saw was a petite woman with dark eyes and recently salted pepper-black hair, her once rosy-tan skin now wrinkled because of the Eva-demon.

Unable to stand the sadness surrounding her, Dawn went into the hall, toward the room she shared with Costin.

After she shut the door behind her, she sat on the bed, listening to the silence outside the curtained window. Earlier, some snow had fallen, and she wondered if it would be even colder than her soul stain right now.

On the right side of her body, the dragon remained unmoved, just like a snake in winter.

She closed her eyes as the comforting sound of the heater came on, blowing air but, eventually, she realized she wasn’t just hearing the heater—it was Costin, slipping through the vent and flowing down to her.

“Dawn...”

It was Costin’s deep voice, sending goose bumps over her arms, even if they were covered by the black, long sleeves of her sweater.

When she opened her eyes, she didn’t see him, but then again, she never did. She only felt him, her body reacting as it always did with waves of warmth and loopy sensation.

He used his essence to urge her up from the bed, and she realized that there’d been some urgency in his voice.

“Where’ve you been?” she asked, remembering how she thought that she’d heard something odd in the house earlier, when she’d been standing in Frank’s room. “Is something wrong?”

“No need to panic,” he said. “Come with me.”

She didn’t panic. Hunters didn’t survive long if they did that sort of thing, so before he could say anything more, she opened the door, feeling him whooshing past her into the hallway. As she followed him, she saw how the light from Frank’s room warmed the carpet outside of it.

They quietly headed in the opposite direction.

“I have already summoned Breisi out of her portrait to keep watch over Frank and your grandparents,” he said softly from above her.

Her voice was just as low. “How did you do that without them noticing?”

“Carefully, as always. Now, I don’t want you to be alarmed, but there is an...interesting sight you need to be aware of.”

His essence sped forward, and she broke into a jog. They moved through the common room that connected the wings, then the east wing itself, until they got to Jonah’s room.

Costin exerted pressure against the slightly open door.

As Dawn peeked inside, she could only gape, speechless…

 

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A noir-mystery-fantasy series by Chris Marie Green