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Excerpt for Remembrance by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Remembrance

Heart Lines Series #1

©2017 Heather Hildenbrand

Smashwords Edition

All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written consent of the publisher.



This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are a product of the authors’ imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, either living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.



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Prologue


Alex





Belladonna tasted nothing like I expected. I spat a mouthful of blackened roots onto the floor of the hut as a soft cackle broke the silence. Sweat trickled down the back of my neck and spine, soaking into the damp waistline of my ratty shorts. I scowled at the old woman standing over me, her dark presence obliterating what little light trickled in from the upper flap of her roughly crafted Amazonian home.

“Tastes like shit,” I muttered.

“Poison not yummy,” she said, her wide smile more gums than teeth.

My stomach rolled as the poison residue inside my mouth worked its way into my bloodstream. I clutched at my abs. “I think I’m going to be sick.”

“You throw up, you no get result,” she warned, her stale breath washing over me like a dry blanket in the humid space.

I fought the urge to vomit. To shove her back. To leap from the hut and get some space, put some distance between the crazy, old medicine lady and myself. I couldn’t do any of that. Not until I found a way to stop what was happening to me.

But so far, no matter what I’d tried, I hadn’t succeeded in curing myself.

The woman backed away and sat on the thin mattress that was really no more than a pile of dirty blankets and thinly stuffed pillows. The whole place smelled like B.O. She folded her hands in her lap and simply watched me. I guess that’s what you did when you didn’t have pesky distractions like television and internet. And other human interaction. Not even her own tribe would socialize with her. Which explained finding her hut all the way up on the jungly hillside almost half a mile from the others.

I braced myself on the tiny stool, waiting for the poison to do its worst. Wanting it to. I was willing to go through pretty much anything to save my own life at this point. Hence my three-day hike into the jungle to visit Griska, the medicine woman whose tinctures had cured malaria, cancer, and heartbreak, according to the village locals and the obscure posting I’d found on the web.

But apparently, for Alex Channing, victim of a rabid werewolf bite—for the second time—Griska was useless. As were the dozen other things I’d tried already. My shoulder still burned and dripped a bloody ooze as if to prove my failures.

Dying a slow death was the best I could hope for. On a sigh, I sank back and waited for the poison.

Five minutes later, I hadn’t broken out in hives or a fever. The venom in my veins had done it again. Every attempt I made was burned away by it.

Disappointment stabbed at me and I shoved to my feet. Griska blinked and rose to follow me out. “We try again?” she asked.

I shook my head and turned back, debating the sanity of starting my three-day return hike in the middle of the day. But I couldn’t stand the thought of remaining at the scene of my latest failure any longer.

“No, once was enough, thanks,” I said.

I was being rude. I couldn’t bring myself to care enough to stop. I pressed the required bills into her hands and, while she counted them, I turned and marched into the jungle. It swallowed me up before she could reply.

Fear gnawed at the edges of my resolve as I trudged back to the South American airport. I was going home empty-handed. Again. Western Medicine had already failed me. Even Hunter medicine, experts at Werewolf anti-venom, hadn’t been able to tell me how to stop the progression of my disease. Or exactly what sort of disease it was.

I’d taken a leave of absence three months ago and done my own research. I had contacts. People in dark places with connections to an underground that had access to old magic. The stuff no one believed in anymore. Turns out they weren’t wrong. None of it had worked.

To top it off, my condition had worsened since then and now, I couldn’t afford to go back to work. They’d retire me for sure in the shape I was in. I had to find a cure.

My list only had one option left.

Edie’s suggestion. Everyone else I knew had already told me that option was useless. Magic—that kind anyway—had died out a century ago, they all said. But they all failed to realize the only alternative I had left was to go sit on a porch swing somewhere and just wait for the damned Grim Reaper to show. Not my style.

None of them understood what it felt like waking up every day and wondering if it would be your last.

Dying sucked. Dying twice sucked even more. I’d already come close once so I could hardly expect the same sympathy now that it was happening a second time.

I made my way over a fallen tree and trekked onward, headed for the airport and then, ultimately, California. I’d already done my homework. I knew where to go next. The question was whether or not it was too late. If magic was really dead, so was I.




Chapter One


Sam





Creeper Alley was a dead zone tonight. Between the fog, the lunar cycle, and the fact that most witches in Half Moon Bay were also PTA moms, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find the place deserted after eight o’clock on a weeknight. But even knowing that, unease skittered down my spine as I turned the corner and made my way down the narrow alleyway.

I shivered, more from nerves than chill thanks to the balmy sixty-five degree temperature of northern California. My boots clicked and echoed against the pavement, making me wish I’d worn moccasins instead. Or maybe an invisibility cloak—not that I had one. Although, Mirabelle, my boss might. I wouldn’t put anything past her. Not that I wanted any part of the actual magic. I was just the delivery girl.

My phone buzzed in my hands as I passed Jane Jingle’s year-round Christmas store. Which also doubled as a fortune-telling hot spot for those in the know. How either one of those things paid her bills was the real magic and mystery, if you asked me. My phone buzzed a second time and I read two texts from Brittany, my roommate.

Borrowing your hooker skirt.

And your hooker boots. Don’t wait up.

Brittany and I had been forced into a dorm room our freshman year at Coastal California University. Despite the fact that she was basically the girl I used to be but now loathed, we’d somehow made it work. This year, thanks to me getting a job and her dad’s “allowance” check each month, we could just barely afford to live off campus in a tiny two-bedroom apartment. Brittany had plenty of money and time to shop, but raiding my closet was her favorite thing to do when I wasn’t home. Which was always. And it wasn’t like I wore half of that stuff anymore.

I sighed. The cheerleader with the social life struck again. That used to be my description back in high school. Not anymore.

I returned to my lock screen, finger hovering over the emergency call button, and kept walking, faster now. In my other hand, I clutched tightly to the brown paper bag that contained tonight’s delivery.

Almost there…

Movement at my ankle startled me and I jumped back, barely swallowing the scream that died once I recognized my companion. A black cat with the patchiest white patterns around her paws I’d ever seen was making loops around my ankles.

“Dammit, Granny,” I muttered.

Granny, the cat, walked close beside me, and for reasons that would sound insane aloud, I was glad she’d followed me tonight. It meant I wasn’t out here alone. Not really. Although, I had a feeling things were bad if I was relying on a cat for company.

“Evening, Samantha.”

The sound of a male voice startled me and I faltered, gritting my teeth as I spotted Bernard tipping his trademark flat cap at me as he passed. Bernard, otherwise known as the resident “nice guy” and friend to all store owners of Creeper Alley, was the least scary guy I’d ever met. Which was why my heart rate was only at Defcon level three instead of five.

“Evening, Bernard,” I returned, forcing a smile. Bernard was one of the few men who didn’t panic me on sight. Still … it was dark. And we were alone. “What brings you out here?”

“With Kiwi gone, Dave’s hosting the group meditation circle,” he said. “We were going to have it here but…” He cast a glance toward the end of the alley where I was headed, and said, “We’ve moved it to the house for privacy.”

“I see,” I said even though I didn’t.

Bernard lowered his voice. “Not everyone felt comfortable going sky clad in the store.”

“Weird,” I muttered, barely containing an eye roll. Dave’s store was a glass-front shop that sold fish and other small pets. I wouldn’t want to get naked in there either.

“I’m headed over now. You want to come?”

“Sorry. Duty calls,” I said, holding up the paper bag.

He frowned. “I’m surprised Mirabelle has you making deliveries this late—and on a night such as this one.”

I shrugged, noting his glance upward at a moonless sky. “Magic never sleeps. Isn’t that what they say?”

He smiled. “Don’t believe I’ve heard that one.”

“How about Indra never sleeps.”

He chuckled. “Now that one I believe. You be sure to get home as soon as your delivery’s finished. No sense in tempting the fates. Mercury’s in retrograde, you know.”

“No sense,” I agreed sagely. And although I didn’t give two rats’ asses whether Mercury was in retrograde or centigrade or anywhere else, I pretended I did. I’d learned a long time ago not to debate these things—or worse, let them know I didn’t care. “Well, good night,” I said, waving as Bernard headed up the street.

I forced a long, deep breath to normalize my pulse as best I could and then power-walked to Indra’s. Hers was last on the block and the only store that wasn’t pretending to be something else. I guess if you made it this far from the touristy part of town, you knew what you were looking for.

A small bell chimed from nowhere and everywhere as I entered, although no bell was visible. Several times over the past few months, the sound had changed. Tonight, it was new again. I inhaled, letting the door click shut, and caught a musky, heavy scent in the air. Definitely sandalwood but something else too.

My nose twitched but I refused to sneeze.

I did a quick scan of the front room. Statues of Buddha heads and Greek gods filled this room. Tall, stone things that ranged from gothic to contemporary to ornate. I had no idea where she imported them from, but they smelled old.

Meow.

Granny brushed against my leg and I patted her head before wandering farther. I hadn’t even seen her dart inside before I closed the door. That cat was good.

“Indra?” I called.

No answer.

Indra’s store layout was different than the others. Carved out of the back crescent of the alleyway, it twisted and turned into three or four showrooms that all wound around to a reading room. I’d never seen any customers take her up on it, but then I didn’t venture back this far. Usually, Indra met me at the front so I rarely made it past the Wicca book section. Her store was the only other one in town that was even remotely like Oracle, where I worked. Indra’s had more variety and more … creep-factor. Oracle was what Mirabelle had dubbed “mainstream.” I liked that it didn’t give me goose bumps like this one did.

Indra’s store was named after her. One simple, nondescript word. She did “a little of this and a little of that” according to the other shop-owners and various peculiar practitioners in town. Indra herself had never offered up a specific term for what she was or the services she provided.

Cagey. I was going with cagey.

Tentatively, I made my way around the shelving and up the main aisle. The front desk area was empty. No Indra. I kept walking past a display of singing bowls and lapis lazuli prayer beads. The other showrooms were also empty. No customers. No Indra. No sound.

I walked past a wall full of jars labeled things like “snake root.”

My unease stepped up a notch. Retrograde aside, I hated this part of the job on any day of the week. Fleshing out creepy characters after dark was not helping my tendencies for irrational fear and panic. Mirabelle needed to hire someone else for deliveries. Maybe Bernard was available. I was a cashier, dammit. I sold sage and helped tourists look up things like Iowasca ceremonies on the internet.

As if to prove I was a coward, Granny led the way, fearless, with her tail high and pointed as she disappeared around a display of essential oils that I’d never actually heard of. Corn mint? Was that a thing?

My phone beeped with a text and I let out a chirp that was one frayed nerve from a scream. I checked it and rolled my eyes. Aunt Kiwi. She’d just landed in Guam, her birthplace, for her two-month stay with our extended family. I gritted my teeth and kept walking.

Up ahead, dancing light reflected off the wall, and I stopped short as I rounded the corner of the last showroom.

Candles had been lit and set out in a large circle around the floor. The table that usually sat in the center was gone, replaced by a Pentagram shape that looked painted on with what I was going to call nail polish.

How had I never noticed that weirdness? Oh yeah, I never came this far inside. Rule number one of being Sam Knight: don’t go inside strange shops run by ethereal-looking goddess-women.

“Hello, Samantha.”

I whirled.

Indra stood in the archway leading to showroom two, blocking me from the rest of the store. And, more importantly, the exit. Her long chestnut hair was braided to the side, revealing a black strapless gown with a sinfully low-cut bodice. She had a perfect hour-glass shape and a sultry slouch that you couldn’t teach. She was beautiful, and young enough that I wondered every time I saw her how she had her own place.

Although, it was hard to guess her age when you looked right at her. Her features were confusing. Like you couldn’t quite remember what you’d seen when you looked away.

She was the only other person I was friendly with besides Mirabelle. Possibly because she’d lent me a tampon the first time I’d come here three months ago, and a girl doesn’t forget a thing like that.

“You look hot,” I said, offering a smile as I gave her dress another once-over.

Two years ago, I would have killed for a dress like that—and someone to take it off me later. Now, I couldn’t imagine wanting to stand out like that. I shoved the thought aside and focused on Indra.

“What’s the occasion? Hot date with the underworld?” I gestured to the setup behind me with the candles.

Indra laughed and came forward to take the bag of supplies I’d brought. “Something like that,” she said. “Sorry for calling you out so late. I totally forgot to order everything ahead.”

I shrugged. “A girl’s gotta get her exercise somehow.”

She opened the bag, stuck her nose inside, and inhaled. “I appreciate it. Any trouble out there?” The question was innocuous enough, but Indra knew me—and we both knew it was a valid inquiry.

“Nah. All the PTA parents are home by now. Bernard says hello.”

Indra’s brows rose. “Bernard was still hanging around?”

“Just leaving Dave’s store as I came in. It’s fine,” I said, taking in her worried frown. God, she even frowned beautifully. It wasn’t fair. “He’s harmless. Seriously. It’s not an issue.”

“I still don’t know how you don’t freak out around him,” she said, shaking her head and sort of gliding into the center of her circle. She set the bag down and crouched beside it, removing the various jars, candles, and dried flowers I’d brought her. “Every other male on the planet freaks you out. But not him. Yet, he gives me the creeps.”

“Well, when you walk around looking like that,” I said, gesturing to her not-quite-spilling-out cleavage, “you’re bound to get a different vibe from men than I do.”

Indra looked up and smirked. “You don’t give yourself enough credit.”

“Oh, I know what these jeans do for me,” I said on a laugh. “And it’s not the same thing that dress is doing for you.”

“Strange.” Indra picked up one of the jars and peered at it closely. “I ordered this dead.”

“The spider?” I said, stepping closer and spotting, sure enough, a very alive eight-legged spider moving around the closed jar. “I swear it was dead when I put it in the bag.”

“Interesting.” Indra glanced up at me and then set the spider aside.

“I can go back and get another one,” I said, fully aware of the resignation in my tone.

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it,” she said and I cringed thinking about what that meant.

Somewhere, an invisible clock began to chime the hour. I looked around but, just like the bell at the front door, couldn’t quite figure out which direction it was coming from. Granny slid around my ankles, mewling loudly over the sound of the chimes.

When it fell silent, Indra rose, eyeing me. Like a switch had been flipped, her entire demeanor changed. She cleared her throat, her expression shuttering to a cold sort of blankness. Granny only mewled louder and butted against my leg even harder.

“It’s time,” Indra said as if it were the answer to a question I’d just asked. Then she smiled, baring her teeth.

“Uh.” I swallowed.

She took a step forward, even her body language suddenly different. I shivered and took a step back.

“Right. Time for me to head out,” I said cheerily—as if she hadn’t just become Nancy from The Craft.

I turned and bolted without waiting for her answer, Granny close on my heels. Mirabelle’s friends were the weirdest people ever. Also, I needed a new job.






Chapter Two


Alex





I slung my bag higher on my shoulder and re-read the address in the text message, comparing it to the house number I was currently parked in front of. I squinted against the dying daylight; sure as shit, the numbers matched. This was it. I cut the engine and left the keys in the visor. Terminal or not, my senses were still good, and something told me this old Victorian boasted a pretty safe—and completely human—neighborhood. My old truck would be fine.

Aged but well-kept, the house was two-story with a sharp slant on the roof that suggested more of a loft than a full second floor. The yard was mowed, the weeds trimmed, and the mailbox freshly painted. There was even an old rocking chair tucked into the alcove on the porch complete with what looked like a knitted cushion on the seat. If I didn’t know any better, I would have guessed some old retiree lived inside.

But my intel was good. And the only person living here was more likely to stab something with a knitting needle than actually knit anything. Still, I was already impressed. This guy was clearly good at blending in. Even so, habits were ingrained. I took a big inhale just to be sure as I made my way to the front door to check for myself. Yep, no fur beasts on my radar. Good. One less thing to worry about. At least the house was secure.

Hopefully, my new roomie would be solid. Or at the very least, anti-social and not interested in asking a lot of questions. That was my type. Always had been—even before I’d gotten sick and opted for not telling the powers-that-be about it.

I climbed the two steps and knocked, listening for footsteps, but there was no sound from inside. I dropped my bag to the worn porch planks at my feet and blew out a breath, debating my next steps. I really needed this guy to be home so I could get into a room with a bed and crash out.

Hopefully tonight, I’d be too tired to dream. I was getting pretty sick of the same recurring image: a strange woman in black who kept watching me and petting an angry-looking hawk on her arm.

I had a feeling my current level of exhaustion was going to win out. That red-eye from my layover in Mexico City was seriously catching up to me right about now. Either that or the venom was doing its dirtiest. I’d been more and more fatigued lately.

Without warning, the front door opened and an olive-skinned guy with dark dreads smiled at me. “Bro, you’re Alex Channing,” he said as if he’d just cracked the code to an important secret. His feet were bare and apparently he had experience with stealth because I hadn’t sensed him coming at all. I blinked and he added, “Your reputation precedes you.”

“Right. You must be RJ.” I offered my hand, studying him, sizing him up.

“Raymond Duluth,” he confirmed. “Everyone calls me RJ.” He shook my hand and then used it to pull me inside before letting go again. “Come on in, man. Glad you made it.”

I doubled back, grabbed my bag, and followed him in, unsure if I’d done the right thing in letting Edie call in this favor. But I’d needed a place off CHAS’s record and supposedly RJ hadn’t minded taking in a stray while he was undercover. His email had said he was gone a lot. Which worked well for me since I didn’t want to share too much about why I’d come. I wasn’t looking for a bud.

But now here he was, all friendly and smiling and obviously hoping we’d be friends. I trusted Edie Godfrey. But I didn’t know this guy. And I didn’t want to.

“So, I rented the place from a holding company. I mean, CHAS put it together but I’ve never done business with the owner. All digital, you know,” he explained, gesturing to the open living room separated from the kitchen and eat-in dining area by a narrow foyer that led upstairs. “But it’s pretty straight up. Good repair, nothing really broken. The floor and stairs creak a little, but otherwise she’s solid.” He rapped his knuckles on the wall and turned to me, eyes wide as if looking for some sort of approval. “What do you think?”

“Where’s my room?” I asked.

“Sure, man, this way.” If I offended him, he was a pro at hiding it. But I had to let him know we were not here for sleepovers and pillow fights. It was better this way—for everyone. I mean, I didn’t even know if I’d wake up tomorrow. These days, keeping the circle of friends to a minimum was best for all parties. Whether they knew why or not.

I followed him up the creaking stairs and found I’d guessed right. It was split in half with two bedrooms taking up the entire floor. I spotted a surf board leaning against the wall beside the room on the right. RJ led me to the left.

Loft-style, low ceilings slanted downward, creating a cozy and dimly lit space. I could sleep anywhere—and I had. This would be one of my nicer setups. And for that, I mustered what was left of my manners and gratitude.

I tossed my bag onto the chair by the door and took in the stained cherry floors and the antique, high-gloss dresser and nightstand. The bed was a simple frame, but it came already made so I was happy.

“Thanks, man, this looks great,” I said, meaning it.

RJ rubbed his hands together. “Sweet. Kitchen downstairs is stocked. Coffee with the works. Cereal. I don’t cook much except breakfast food, but you’re welcome to whatever I’ve got. CHAS is footing the bill on utilities so we’re all good there. Towels are in the closet.” He turned back to point at a narrow door at the top of the stairs. “Any idea how long you’re here for?”

“As long as it takes,” I said. Cryptic, I knew, but I just couldn’t with this guy. He was too damned friendly.

“Of course. The place is yours as long as you need, man. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do.”

“Thanks. I’m coming off a thirty-six-hour trip so I’m going to crash out.”

“I’ll let you get to it then.” He started out and then stopped, hand on the knob. “Listen, I’m not trying to fangirl you or anything, but you’re a legend. That cleanup you did down in St. Pete last year with the hostage situation … not too shabby.”

“Thanks, man. Edie says you made team leader your second year out of Portland Academy. And I hear you’re running a single man undercover job. Not bad yourself,” I said. Partly because I meant it and partly because reciprocation seemed like the best way to cut this off and let me get some sleep.

“Thanks. Yeah, I do okay. Listen, if you need anything, I have a full armory here.” He stomped his bare foot lightly and it took me a moment to fully comprehend.

“In the floor?”

“Second step from the top. Metal, wood, you name it. Everything’s there,” he said with a half-grin. “Anyway, I’ll let you get some shut-eye.” He swung the door shut, and I heard a final, “Later,” before I was left alone, still trying to wrap my head around the fact that this unassuming surfer-kid had installed a full armory underneath the second floor of his rental house.

I’d definitely have to check it out later. For now, sleep was calling me and there wasn’t much left I could do to resist. In fact, my insides were starting to ache and burn from the venom and my own inability to rest when I should. It only ever got this bad when I pushed too hard. Time to fix that—for now.

I pulled my shirt off and rubbed at the sore spot on my shoulder that was still healing from the incision I’d allowed in Peru. My last stop before eating that Belladonna had involved a bit more blood than Griska’s method. And just as much failure. Maybe more.

It had taken me almost nine days to heal enough to walk out of the ruins where the shaman had cut me up and let me bleed out in the sun for a day. He’d chanted and sung in some weird-ass language, praying to the jungle gods for my soul, but none of it had mattered.

I was still sick. Still dying. And still lying to my chain of command about it. So was Edie for that matter. I needed answers soon. Or I’d have to tell them the truth. And I’d rather cut myself and bleed out all over again than admit I could no longer do my job.

I ruffled through my bag and found what I was looking for, grabbing the dropper of herbs and stuffing it inside the pillowcase before tossing everything else onto the floor and kicking out of my boots. My phone had just enough battery life to send a quick text:

Made it to RJ’s. More news after I sleep.

With the message sent, I grabbed the single wooden stake I kept in my boot and tucked that under my pillow before stripping off my pants, right down to my bare ass. I didn’t have the luxury of clean underwear after six weeks of globe-trotting. And I just didn’t have it in me to wait for a shower.

I slid underneath the blankets, melting against the sheets in gratitude to whatever foreign entity had constructed such smooth fabric. My aching muscles and mottled flesh sighed in relief. Half Moon Bay was the last stop on my supernatural wish list, but it didn’t have to be all bad. No matter what happened next, I was done sleeping on the damned ground for a while and that felt good.

I was here for answers. For some cure or magical solution to the fact that I was slowly dying of a condition that had been incurable since the beginning of time. A small voice in the back of my head whispered it was no use. Nothing else had worked and this wouldn’t either. Screw that, I thought as I drifted off. I wasn’t dead yet. And I wasn’t going down without a fight.


Chapter Three


Sam





Seventeen cats stared up at me from the hemp rug and it was all I could do not to sob down at them. Even accounting for PMS and the strange PTSD-like life I was living, I still couldn’t explain my current urge to wail over the small army of yellow-eyed felines in this particular moment.

Or why there was so damn many of them.

They hadn’t been here yesterday. And I could only hope they wouldn’t be here tomorrow either. Oracle Herbs & Crystals was not zoned for this. And caring for what amounted to—in cat speak—approximately five hundred lives was not in my job description as sales associate.

Sales associate. Hah. I was a lot more than that and Mirabelle knew it. She’d even offered me the official title of manager after my strange run-in with Indra during the new moon two days ago. I’d turned her down—too afraid of screwing it up with my crying jags and random freak-outs to accept the responsibility.

All I needed was to lose my shit in front of one of the regulars and I’d never be able to show face here again, which was saying something when your regulars were the town peculiars. In reality, they were witches, Wiccans, shamans, and medicine women who, during the day, ran perfectly respectable businesses like Christmas stores and pet shops in Creeper Alley—but peculiars sounded way more fun.

Just thinking about how normal I was compared to Oracle’s clients dried my unshed tears and the moment of odd emotional overwhelm passed. It always did. And it always came back again. I was a walking basket case these days. Which was exactly why I’d chosen to live on the very opposite coast from my friends and family, and, on top of that, to work at a store like this one. No one expected you to be normal when you worked for a psychic shaman lady.

My only family nearby was my Aunt Kiwi. When she wasn’t visiting her second home in Guam, she was just as weird as Mirabelle. The upside was that her weird could handle mine. I’d moved in with her the moment I’d graduated high school. By the end of that first summer, I’d ended up enrolled at CCU and six months later, I’d moved out and begun working at Oracle through her prodding that I attempt some sort of life for myself.

It didn’t matter that I was weird or different or a shell of my former self. In fact, Kiwi seemed fascinated by it and determined to help. She’d even taken me to a hypnotherapist who regressed me and pronounced my memory “broken.” According to her, I’d forgotten something important and apparently repressed it so deeply, it was even gone from my subconscious. Kiwi had only become more determined after that, but I never went back.

Actually, she wanted me to dabble in what she referred to tongue-in-cheek as magic. But magic, along with everything else under the sun, scared the shit out of me. I was perfectly content with selling moonstone and lavender essential oils to hippie tourists.

“Mirabelle! The freaking cats are multiplying again!” I yelled, doing a two-step and then a long jump to clear the last of the mewling kitties.

I stumbled on the edge of the rug and barely caught myself from falling, leaning heavily against the doorframe of the back office. A strand of the beaded curtain smacked me in the eyelash. I winced and eyed Mirabelle, my boss, the shaman lady herself.

“The cats—” I began again, but Mirabelle just waved a weathered hand in dismissal.

“They’re getting picked up tonight. Don’t worry about it,” she said, her brown hair streaked with gray blowing in the breeze from the fan mounted on her worktable. Even in the chilly winter months of Half Moon Bay, California, Mirabelle still ran her desktop fan. She claimed the white noise drowned out the spirits. I suspected a bad case of menopause.

Today, Mirabelle wore half a dozen sets of beads around her neck and both wrists. They somehow matched without matching the dark blue and green tie-dye slip dress that clung tight to her rounded hips. Although not as tight as the pink leggings underneath.

Never married. No children of her own. She was the cliché psychic Madame from the movies. A train wreck when it came to fashion and pop culture. The most hair-brained person I’d ever met. Overwhelmingly compassionate. Annoyingly insightful. And she was also my boss.

“Well, in the meantime, they seem hungry,” I pointed out over the sound of the mewling coming from the short hallway behind me.

Mirabelle frowned like she hadn’t ever considered the possibility of living things needing sustenance.

“Hmm. Do we have anything in the break room fridge?” she asked.

“Just an expired bowl of tahini, which I threw away.” I gave her a look that dared her to ask me to feed expired tahini to felines. She frowned deeper.

She went back to measuring the various ingredients spread out over her workspace. I didn’t have to ask what she was doing.

Homemade tinctures. It was one of her specialties, and although it had taken me a few months to admit, they worked. Eleuthero was my favorite. I was practically drinking it like water these days. Mirabelle kept crediting it for the decrease in the number of panic attacks I’d had in the past few months. I credited that more to the decrease in the number of male clients I was forced to interact with when my last panic attack had been public during a delivery. But the herbal tincture did make me feel more relaxed and focused. Unfortunately, none of that added up to answers—the other thing Mirabelle had promised to help with and the main reason I stuck with this weird-ass job.

In her other life, Mirabelle had been a therapist.

“Well … order a pizza then,” she said and waved a hand as if that settled it before returning to the tiny bottles littering her work space.

Mirabelle squinted at the labels and began making notes in her ledger and I knew she’d already moved on from this conversation.

I shook my head and headed back to the waiting cats. I found them huddled by the register, most of them still on the woven rug. I eyed them, still a little weirded out that they weren’t even trying to move away from each other or explore. Mirabelle loved fostering animals for the shelter her friend owned but she always got the weirdest animals. Cats weren’t supposed to like each other this much.

I stepped around them and back to the counter, hopping back up on my stool and scrolling through my phone contacts for Roccio’s, the nearest pizza delivery place. Something red and white caught my eye and I darted a glance to the window, expecting some brightly colored calico that had broken off from the pack. There was nothing there.

Beyond the pane of glass, it was bright and sunny outside but the shadows off the dark brick on the building next door were long. I stared carefully, my heart pounding until I could feel it in my ears.

I held my breath, watching.

Nothing moved. No one was there.

I let the breath leak out of my lungs slowly. No sound came with it and when the oxygen was gone, I sucked in again and turned deliberately away from the window’s limited view of the empty street. This wasn’t the first time I’d sensed something out there only to find nothing when I turned my head. It wasn’t even the first time today.

I considered calling my aunt, Kiwi, but then chucked the idea when I remembered she was in Guam. Besides, even if she were here in California, it was Tuesday afternoon and that normally meant sister wailing.

Kiwi was a true California hippie who’d fully embraced our slightly diluted (she was half, I was one-fourth) Chamorro bloodlines.

Once a week, she got together with her Native American friends here in California and did this weird wailing meditation where they grieved for the pain of the world. I’d gone with her several times when I’d lived with her, but it had been a little much for my sensitive emotional state. Aunt Kiwi loved it, though. Said it helped her stay happy the rest of the time. I’d smiled a lot and kept my mouth shut. Aunt Kiwi did some weird shit in her free time—and coming from me, that was saying something.

After the last two years, I wasn’t one to judge.

Thinking of it now, my chest ached at the reminder of all my life had become. Scared, quiet, and unsure—I was nothing like I’d once been. I just wish I knew why.

From the floor, a mewling broke me out of my darkening thoughts. I looked down and found a familiar black cat pawing at my feet and rubbing against my legs.

“Granny,” I said, acknowledging the only cat of the bunch that was a staple here at Oracle.

Granny meowed at me, acknowledging me back.

“I’m going to order pizza,” I said. “Do you want anything on it?”

Granny meowed again and then lifted her chin, stalking away and slipping between racks headed for the window seat Mirabelle had installed for her.

“Anchovies it is,” I said.

I watched Granny until she’d settled herself in her usual spot, and it slowly hit me I’d just had a full-on conversation with a feline about pizza toppings. And to think this wasn’t even my weirdest day at Oracle.


Chapter Four


Alex





A whirring sound pulled me toward consciousness. Sleep tugged at me, trying to draw me back under for another few hours. I had no idea how long I’d been out, but it didn’t feel like enough. I sighed and sank farther into the pillow, giving up. My eyelids were just too heavy…

My phone buzzed with an incoming call, sliding across the surface of the nightstand with the force of the vibration. Without opening my eyes, my hand shot out and I caught it just as it fell.

“Yeah,” I said, too groggy and heavy-lidded to look at the screen.

“Alex. It’s Edie.”

My eyes opened and I willed my thoughts to clear. “Edie. What’s up?”

“Just had a minute. Wanted to check in. What’s it looking like up there?”

I sat up and rubbed my face. “Not sure yet. Got in late and crashed. I texted you,” I said.

There was a brief silence and then, “Alex, it’s been over twenty-four hours since you sent that text.”

“What?” I yanked my phone away from my ear to check the date and time. But it didn’t help. I’d crossed so many time zones this past week, I barely knew where I was anymore. “Shit,” I muttered.

“Is it getting worse?” Edie asked, and I could just hear the slight tremor in her voice. “I thought you said that witch doctor gave you some herbal thing?”

“He did. It’s just jet lag,” I assured her. And even if it wasn’t I would never admit it to her. The last thing I wanted was to worry her. I wasn’t positive the herbs were doing anything worthwhile, but I took them anyway so I could say I did. “I’ll head over after a shower,” I added, making a face as I looked down at myself. I would absolutely have to wash these sheets before I slept in them again. It already smelled like the damn Amazon in here.

“And RJ? Did you get set up with him?” she asked.

“Yeah, he’s a real people person,” I muttered.

“He’s willing to stay off book,” she said sternly, and I sighed at the lecture I already knew was coming. Once Edie had a point to make, there was no stopping her from making it. Usually, I appreciated that about her. Except for when it was directed at me. “He could have reported you,” she added.

“I know.”

“It would have helped him get reimbursed for the extra cost of a house guest at the very least. He took you in without filing the paperwork and without mentioning it to his superiors. A serious offense, especially while he’s on a solo assignment,” she reminded me.

“I know,” I said again.

“Not to mention he isn’t asking any questions about what you’re doing there—”

“I know, Edie.”

Edie went quiet.

I blew out a breath, hating how she could make me feel bad without saying a damned word.

“Sorry,” I said quietly.

Edie Godfrey was one of two people I’d ever actually apologized to. She was more like a mother or grandmother than a boss. She was also the only one in my life who actually knew how sick I was.

“Has anyone asked about me?” I asked, needing to change the subject before things got too touchy-feely.

“Kane asked why your LOA is stretching so long. Tara told him to mind his own business and then she asked me where you’re spending your time,” she said.

I frowned. Once upon a time, her name would have caused me to jump, or at least ask, “How high?” but these days, it slid right over me without causing a stir. That name—and the person it belonged to—had taught me a lot about myself. “Why does she care?” I asked.

“She knows you don’t have family. Or friends,” Edie said. “They all do. I think she’s confused about where you’d go and why you’d bother to take time off to go anywhere. You’ve never taken a vacation before,” she reminded me.

I tensed because she was right.

“Don’t worry,” she said when I didn’t respond. “I’m covering for you. I told them all you’re at my place in Hawaii.”

“Edie, that won’t work for very long,” I warned her.

“You let me worry about that. You just get the answers you need and get better. We need our best Hunter for what we’re dealing with here.”

I knew she was only trying to relieve my stress and encourage me, but the reminder that I’d bailed when the Hunter community needed me most ate at me almost as much as my deteriorating physical state. “Thanks, Edie. For all of it.”

“You don’t have to thank me, Alex. After everything we’ve been through, you’re my family. I do whatever it takes for family. You have the address I gave you?”

“Yeah, I’ll check it out today,” I said, staring numbly at the blanket.

“Good. Keep me posted. If you need any resources, I’ve spoken to RJ about the back channels to use.”

“Will do,” I said.

“And, Alex? Be nice.”

I snorted and she hung up before I could reply. Just as well. We both knew I wouldn’t make any promises.


Chapter Five


Sam





My mother used to say that when something was easy, it was like a walk in the park. I wonder what she’d say if she knew walking through the park was literally one of the hardest things I did these days. I probably would have never kept coming here if it weren’t for Harold. Or Mirabelle. Or both. But Mirabelle had led me to Harold, and now, it was like a personal challenge: survive the park a couple of times a week and pretend that indicated improvement in my condition.

Ahead, the pedestrian sign turned to “walk” and I hurried across the intersection and onto the sidewalk lined in landscaped hedges that marked the west entrance of the city park. Across the lawn, inside the fenced doggie park, a guy threw a Frisbee to his dog and I forced myself to ignore them just so I wouldn’t turn back.

This was what life had come to.

My phone buzzed in my pocket, drawing curious glances from a woman jogging by while her toddler ate Cheerios from her stroller. I glanced quickly at the number and then silenced it, feeling sick at the idea of talking to the person on the other end.

Mason Harding.

My ex.

I ducked my head as I passed by two gray-haired women with sweatbands on each wrist and ankle. They smiled as they power-walked past me on the wide sidewalk that wound around Half Moon Park. I sort of grimace-smiled back—even though I kept my eyes glued to the ground.

My phone buzzed again signaling a voicemail. I didn’t bother listening to it. I could practically hear Mason’s voice in my head anyway. Wondering what I was doing, why I hadn’t called him back. Again. You’d think after almost a year of almost no returned calls the guy would take the hint. But no. He kept calling. And I kept ignoring.

We’d spoken a handful of times and emailed a few more, but Mason was a reminder from my past that haunted me. The old Samantha Knight had found his mysterious and ego-driven personality fun and intriguing. A playful challenge. The old Samantha Knight was all of those things herself.

But this new Sam just felt nervous and scared—and for some reason Mason set me off and just made it worse. So I tucked my phone back inside my jacket and made my way along the sidewalk to my usual bench. It was peeling green paint—a contrast to the others only because their paint was still impeccable. Like somehow this bench had seen more. And despite all it must have seen and heard, I felt almost normal when I sat on it and pulled my hood lower. Like just another park patron.

Half Moon Park was a quiet slice of outdoors on the corner of town. It didn’t have playgrounds, which meant it also didn’t have noisy kids spoiling the tranquility. It was made up of manicured grass and trimmed hedges and retirees getting their daily intake of oxygen combined with a brisk walk. Flowers bloomed nine months out of the year up here, and if you were quiet enough, you could just hear the wind running through the redwoods farther up the mountain.

I sat here a lot. And I loved the sound of the wind.

The sound of a steadily approaching creaky-wheeled cart made my lips curve even before I spotted him rounding the bend.

“Busy today,” said a grouchy voice.

I smiled at the man approaching. “Hello, Harold,” I said.

He shoved his wheeled cart into the grass so it wouldn’t roll and looked over at me, tipping an imaginary hat as he sat. “How’s the world treating you this morning?” he asked, patting his pants, which were paint-splattered and a little dirty at the knees.

“It’s treating me,” I said, relaxing.

He nodded like my answer was exactly right, and we lapsed into silence.

If I was forced to admit it, Harold was probably my best friend these days. Mostly because he didn’t talk too much or ask me things that I didn’t want to explain. But also because of the snacks.

“Here,” he said after several long moments of silence. “Try these.”

I held out my hand without even asking. After months of perfecting our routine, I knew better than to ask anymore. He wasn’t going to tell me until after I’d eaten whatever this was—sometimes not even then.

He dumped several small pieces of something onto my palm. I tried reading the box but it was written in another language. Russian, maybe?

I regarded the candy and then Harold with curiosity. He smiled back at me, brown eyes gleaming. You would think a badly dressed man in a park pushing a creaky cart that sold overpriced bottled water and sometimes pot would freak a girl out. Nope. Harold was the least scary thing in my life currently. Although his acquisitions for Mirabelle—and the unexplainable way he always knew where to find weird items—were sometimes unsettling. But I tried not to think about that.

I ate the candy in one bite.

The taste washed over my tongue and I tilted my head, concentrating on it before commenting. This was our routine. Like a park-side episode of Master Chef. “Hmm, tastes a little tangy and sweet,” I said around a mouthful of something gummy. “Like Swedish Fish.”

I swallowed.

Harold shook his head like I was some kind of prodigy genius. “How did you know?” he asked.

“Am I right?” I asked, my jaw falling open. Almost a year now of this and I’d never been right.

“Close. Russian sardines. Candied,” he explained and I was reminded yet again why I never asked before I ate the stuff.

My stomach rolled, but I swallowed hard and forced a cheerful expression. “Mmmm,” I said, nodding.

Harold laughed evilly.

I opened my mouth, ready to tell him how weird his little hobby really was. Or demand to finally know how in the heck he came up with something different every time I saw him—it’s not like he’d had time to go to Russia and back since Tuesday. But before I could logic any of that out, something in the trees over his shoulder moved and my blood froze.

My hands balled into fists on my lap and I squeezed them tight out of nervous habit. Not here. Not today with the sun shining and this moment so normal-feeling.

Dammit.

I purposely dragged my gaze back to Harold, but he’d turned his attention to his cart, probably looking for another gross candy choice to try on me. His tie-dyed shirt stretched as he twisted around and leaned over to fiddle with a loose handle.

I looked back at the woods, certain I’d see something this time. Certain something was out there seeing me. But there was nothing. Only trees. Hiking trails offered shade to the power walkers but today was breezy so no one was bothering. The trails—the trees—were empty. Unlike my imagination.

I sighed, irritated with my broken brain, and turned back to Harold. The feeling of being watched continued. But that was nothing new. “Have you ever actually been to Russia?” I asked for something to say.

“Do foxes have tails?” Harold shot back like this riddle was somehow key to his life story. And it probably was.

At least it distracted me from my invisible stalker. My brows crinkled. “Uh, yes?”

“Well then sure,” he said and I gave up trying to understand. Harold was a Rubik’s Cube. A psychedelic square that only made sense when you looked at it from a certain angle.

My phone rang again, a vibrational buzzing coming from my pocket. I slid it free and rolled my eyes. No danger here. Only irritation. “Hello?” I asked dully.

“Sam, it’s Britt,” came the sing-song voice of my roommate.

“I know,” I said. “What do you need?”

A gasp. “I am offended you think I only call when I need something.”

“I only think that because you only call when you need something,” I said.

There was a pause and then, “Fine. Can I borrow your brown boots for tonight’s game?”

I shook my head, surprised she’d bothered to ask permission this time. “Don’t get them muddy,” I said.

She squealed a thank you that had me yanking the phone away from my eardrum followed by a half-assed promise to stay out of the mud and hung up.

Harold raised his left brow. “Caffeine addiction?” he asked gravely—as if it were somehow on par with heroine or meth.

“Worse. Cheerleader,” I said, grimacing because I knew all too well.

Harold grunted and then turned away to help a customer. He sold two bottles of water and a packet of trail mix to an old woman who promptly began feeding it all to the dog in her purse who was also, inexplicably, on a leash.

“Pumpkin pie here just loves sunflower seeds,” she said brightly.

Harold nodded and popped a sketchy-looking brownie into his mouth. “Sunflower seeds sprout buds of truth in our tummies,” he said around the food and the woman sagely agreed.

I watched the whole thing fully convinced Harold and Mirabelle would make an excellent couple.

California was so weird.



Half an hour later, I waved goodbye to Harold, who had already guaranteed to deliver Mirabelle’s requested order of coptis—whatever the hell that was—and hoofed it to Oracle. I had the late shift tonight, which always sucked to walk home from. I’d never been afraid of the dark as a kid but now … it made my chest tight just thinking about it.

Usually, I took a cab even though it was less than a mile back to my dorm. Aunt Kiwi had talked about buying something new and giving me her Beetle, but it hadn’t happened yet. Mom probably would have bought me something if I’d asked but that would have required her coming here to do so. Or worse, Dad. Neither of them had any idea how bad things had gotten. Last time I’d seen them had been at Aunt Kiwi’s for New Year’s—and even then, surrounded by family and the familiar, I’d barely held it together. In the last ten months, things had gotten progressively worse—not better.

If they knew who I was now … well, I didn’t want that so I kept quiet and walked everywhere. Campus wasn’t huge and my apartment wasn’t far so it worked.

Traffic on the main strip was slow this late in the afternoon. Everyone who could go home had done so. Several cars were parallel parked curbside as I made my way up Skye Avenue, the main drag for shopping. Up ahead, Oracle came into view and I relaxed at seeing the finish line.

God, even in daylight I was a hot mess. Get your shit together, Sam.

When I’d almost reached Oracle’s building strip, leaves rustled and it took me a moment to realize there weren’t enough leaves to rustle here. My head whipped toward it. The hill sloped upward until it leveled off again with just enough room for Walnut Grove Lane to wind like a ribbon along the terraced terrain. Trees lined the narrow road that led to redwood country. Not many, but enough. And inside them—shadows moved.

My breath caught.

After literally years’ worth of feeling watched, of catching a shape in my peripheral only to turn and see nothing, this was the closest I’d come to actually seeing something out there watching me. I squinted, trying to make out a shape. My heart thudded. My ears roared with the adrenaline coursing through my blood. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move.

My hands fisted.

A car horn blared, sending me blinking and stumbling out of the way as the vehicle careened past me and around the sharp corner. When had I walked into the street? I looked back at the hillside and found only patchy sunlight. No shadows. At least, none that moved.

A light breeze tickled the ends of my dark hair, sending it dancing around my shoulders. My palm itched with something soft and I finally opened my hand. A tuft of light gray hair caught the wind and blew away before I could catch or really inspect it. I could only stare as it blew across the road like tumbleweed.

What the actual hell?

That was no tumbleweed. It was a ball of fur. A wad of dog hair had just manifested in my hand. That was new.

Holy effing hairball, I was officially crazy.



Chapter Six


Sam






The bell over the front door dinged as I stumbled inside the store. Granny looked up from her spot in front of the window with eyes that said she hadn’t missed the insanity that was my life five minutes ago outside on the street. She yawned, unimpressed by the crazy—or used to it—and hopped down, sauntering off.

“Mirabelle,” I called out, winding through the tall towers of shelving toward the register in the back of the room. Why Mirabelle decided to set this place up with a blind spot from the door to the register was beyond me. Feng Shui was not her strong suit apparently.


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