Book 1 of Preternatural Affairs
A brutal murder.
There are scratches on Cèsar Hawke’s arms, a discharged Glock on his coffee table, and a dead woman in his bathtub. Yeah, maybe he brought the waitress home for some fun — he was too drunk to remember it — but he knows for a fact that he didn’t kill her. He’s an agent with the Office of Preternatural Affairs. He doesn’t hurt people. He saves them.
The cops disagree. Now Cèsar is running.
The search for a shaman.
Isobel Stonecrow speaks with the dead…for the right price. She brings closure to the bereaved and heals broken hearts. But when she resurrects someone for the wrong client, she ends up on the OPA’s most wanted list.
One risky solution.
Tracking down Isobel is the last case assigned to Cèsar before he bolts. If he finds her, he can prove that he didn’t kill that waitress. He can clear his name, get his job back, and bring justice to the victim.
She’s just one witch. Cèsar has bagged a dozen witches before.
How hard can one more be?
Hell of a night.
It was my first thought when I peeled my eyelids open—an immediate precursor to “everything hurts” and “screw tequila, I’m never drinking alcohol again.” My mouth was dry like I’d licked that brown apartment carpeting that every sadistic landlord inflicts on his tenants, including mine. My muscles were petrified into knots.
Somehow, I stretched my legs out, flexed my toes, twisted my hips. My spine popped a few times. My body creaked.
And something jangled.
Would you look at that? A pair of open handcuffs dangled from my headboard. The key glistened on the bedside table, reflecting a sunbeam right into my aching eyeballs. I didn’t make a habit of decorating my bedroom with my work equipment, so I assumed that recreational use of my cuffs meant I had company. The best kind of company.
I swatted it with a finger and grinned at the clatter of chains.
My eyes traveled from the cuffs to my arm. Four bloody scratches spanned the space between wrist and elbow.
I’ve handled enough crime scenes to recognize fingernail marks. And I’ve been with enough women to know that some wildcats like it like that.
Yeah, definitely a hell of a night.
Too bad I couldn’t remember it.
Grabbing at the scraps of memory made them float away faster. I thought I remembered a beautiful woman with beautiful curves and the kind of throaty giggle that would make me instantly hard. I had half a stalk just trying to remember her.
I sat up, checked the clock. I was late for work. Twenty minutes late, in fact. Should have woken up hours ago, showered, put on my monkey suit, gone into the office. No way I would be in before lunch now. Talk about an instant boner-killer.
Standing hurt in all the bad ways. My throbbing skull made my nuts shrivel into my body. Worst hangover I’ve ever had? Probably. There wasn’t much competition. I wasn’t a drinking guy. If I’d been partying this hard last night, she must have been really worth it.
Where was she, anyway?
I was alone in my bedroom. The open windows cast unforgiving beams of yellow light on the wall, cut into slices by my mini-blinds. The curtains were open. The neighborhood must have gotten a pretty good show.
But there was no woman in sight—no souvenirs but a misused pair of cuffs and a back ache.
Out of habit, I opened my side drawer and grabbed a poultice that I’d prepared last full moon. Only two of them left. I’d need to do another ritual soon. I popped one into my mouth, chewed the grave dirt and oak, felt my muscles warm with magic. I grimaced as I swallowed. It was about as pleasant as drinking the clumps at the bottom of a protein shake.
I scratched a few unflattering itches as I snagged a suit out of my closet. Looked like I needed to steam out the wrinkles while I showered. Always did. I wasn’t good at getting my clothes out of the drier in time, and government work didn’t pay well enough to justify the dry cleaner’s.
I hung it over my arm and dismantled the wards on my bedroom door with a wave of my hand. Or at least, I tried to dismantle the wards, but they weren’t active. I must have forgotten to turn them on during my drunken haze.
As soon as I stepped out and saw the rest of my apartment, I gave a low whistle.
My kitchen was a wreck. The contents of the counters had been dumped on the linoleum. The toaster and microwave were unplugged and upside down on top of each other like they were the ones having a hot tryst. My jar of dried beans had shattered and spilled its guts all the way into the living room. The Blurays were everywhere. Oh man, even my eight-track collection had been screwed up.
There were stains on my couch and I didn’t want to know what they were. Lubricant or bodily fluids or whatever. The damn thing was from IKEA anyway. I would just toss it and get another one.
Again, I tried to remember the night before, and failed.
“Hope you were worth it,” I muttered, mentally tallying the cost of restoring my collections.
Fortunately, my fire safe was untouched, and my badge for work and wallet were still on the bookshelf. I took a quick inventory of the contents. Cash, driver’s license, genuine counterfeit FBI identification, unmarked key card, St. Benedict’s medallion. Everything in its proper place.
My apartment had been turned upside down by a mysterious woman, but at least she had been honest about it.
Something out of place caught my eye. Not something that had gone missing, but something that didn’t belong to me.
I was already right in front of the bathroom when I saw the gun on my coffee table, so the unpleasant shock of possessing a firearm I didn’t recognize was interrupted by another kind of shock.
The floor in front of the bathroom door squished. I stepped back and lifted a foot to see what I’d touched.
It was red. It was slick. It smelled like a slab of rare steak.
It definitely wasn’t lubricant.
Once I realized that I smelled meat, I smelled more of it. It was thick in my sinuses. I wasn’t just nauseous because of the stiff neck and the hangover; I was nauseous because I smelled something dead.
In my apartment.
Funny how much faster I could move once I’d stepped in a puddle of blood.
I slipped back into the living room, dropped my suit on the chair, grabbed the Louisville Slugger from where it was propped on the wall. Everything was so much brighter and clearer than it had been a few seconds ago. My heart was hammering and every beat was a shot of adrenaline.
As I curled my fists around the bat, my peripheral vision seemed like it widened. The whole world was quiet. The air conditioning clicked on and cool air whispered against my ankles.
The apartment narrowed to the bathroom door as I approached. I didn’t hear anything moving on the other side.
I opened it.
The blood in the carpet was the end of a smear that crossed the linoleum and terminated at the other end of my bathroom—which, until that second, had been my favorite room in the apartment. The toilet and counter and fluorescent lights were standard Home Depot cheapies, but the bathtub was not. It was one of those big corner tubs with the jets that feel like sin after a hard workout at the gym. I’m enough of a man to admit to loving a hot bath. Sometimes even with bubbles and fizzy salts.
And there was the woman that gave me such a wild ride. Legs like a colt. Firm, perky breasts. The kind of pouty lips my eldest brother, Domingo, used to call “beejay mouth” until I punched him hard enough to shut his stupid face.
The mystery woman was real pretty. I knew her name—I was sure I knew her name. For sure, she worked at The Olive Pit, a favorite bar for my office. It was where we relaxed on Fridays at six o’clock and held retirement parties and the annual Christmas gift exchange.
This waitress had laughed at me the first time I asked for her name, and the second time, and the third, but eventually I wised up and just took a look at the schedule in the kitchen. I couldn’t remember making love to those long legs and perfect breasts but I remembered her ridiculously feminine handwriting.
Erin. Her name was Erin, punctuated with a smiley face encircled by a heart.
She was dead in my bathtub.
Hell of a night.