Authors: Hannah Jayne
I heard a low growl behind me. ChaCha immediately stiffened, the hair along the back of her neck bristling. She bared her teeth, but stayed silent.
I heard the crackle of leaves behind me and then that deep, low growl again. My heart started to beat a tiny bit faster and I tightened my grip on my dog as I slowly turned around.
I had never seen eyes like that before. Black, as though the iris covered everything. Flat, but focused, as though there were one thing—and one thing only—on his mind. The dog’s black lips curled up, exposing incisors that looked as sharp as any vampire’s and he growled again. Only this time, it seemed to come in stereo.
In a split second, I heard another bark, another snarl.
A pack of dogs?
I started running, my thighs burning, the hand that held ChaCha soaking from my sweaty palm. I glanced back.
One dog. One thick, well-muscled body. Red-black fur stretched across a back that seemed as wide as a horse. Snarling, snapping jaws just at my waist—at my hip, at my flailing right hand.
One dog. Three heads . . .
UNDER THE GUN
UNDER A SPELL
UNDER THE FINAL MOON
(with Alexandra Ivy,
Nina Bangs and Dianne Duvall)
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
I could feel the cold stripe of fear going up my spine—like icy fingers walking slowly up vertebra after vertebra.
“Is she dead?” The voice was a faint whisper, but it throbbed through my head, singeing the ache that was already there.
“Maybe we should go.”
I hoped that they would. I prayed that they would. I remained as still as possible, breath barely trembling through my body, willing my heart to thrum silently because I knew that vampires could hear everything. Every little whisper, every little thought.
Please go, please go
, I pleaded silently.
And then the icy breath was at my ear. “Sophie!”
Now the voice was incredibly loud and I jumped straight up until the tops of my thighs mashed against the underside of my desk. I missed the chair coming back down and flopped unceremoniously onto my ass.
“What do you want?” I glowered, rubbing my tailbone and seeing Nina and Kale through narrowed dagger eyes.
“Were you asleep?” asked Kale, the Underworld Detection Agency receptionist with a newly pink pageboy haircut, cocking her head so that her hair brushed against her cheek.
I pressed the pads of my fingertips against my temples, making small circles. My head kept aching.
“I was trying to. I have a headache.”
Nina rolled her eyes and hopped up onto the corner of my desk, her tiny butt and weightless body not making a sound. “Are you still trying to claim PTSD for the whole back-to-school thing? Get over it. You closed up the Hell mouth or whatever, and never even had to wear the school uniform.”
“What do you guys want?”
Nina whipped out a nail file from I-don’t-know-where and began working on her right hand. She blew a bubble from the wad of gum she was chewing. After twelve years with Nina LaShay as my coworker, roommate, and best friend, I’ll never get comfortable seeing a vampire blow purple Hubba Bubba bubbles through blade-sharp incisors. It just looks
“I’m hiding out from Vlad. He’s got an all-fangs-on-deck VERM meeting and I have much better things to do than sit in a stuffy conference room with a bunch of dead guys talking about ascots and their graveyard dirt and glory days.”
I grinned despite the nap interruption. The Vampire Empowerment and Restoration Movement (or VERM, for short), was Vlad’s baby. Vlad, Nina’s sixteen-slash-hundred-and-thirteen-year-old nephew, my boss, Kale’s paramour, and the roommate who would never leave, pushed the movement, which sought to restore vampires back to their broody, Count Dracula countenance and insisted its adherents wear fashions that Nina couldn’t abide. She was a member by virtue of being a vampire and being Vlad’s aunt, but she studiously avoided their meetings.
“And I came in to tell you that Sampson wants to see you,” Kale said, swishing her hair from side to side.
Kale might be a teenager with hot-pink hair and a stomach-churning crush on a brooding vampire with a penchant for draconian clothing, but she is also strong. Supernaturally so. While some nineteen-year-olds dabble in Wicca and black eyeliner, Kale likes to keep things fresh with frilly skirts, cotton-candy-colored hair, and an inner power so tremendous she can blow the doors off metal lockers with a swish of her hand. She is under the tutelage of our other resident witch, Lorraine, who can conjure up anything from Tom Cruise to Tupperware. The latter because in her cauldron-free time she’s the number-one Tupperware salesperson in the whole of Santa Clara County.
But, I digress.
While Kale looked at me earnestly, her pierced dimples twinkling, my heart lodged itself in my throat. A meeting with Pete Sampson, hometown werewolf and head of the Underworld Detection Agency, could only mean one of two things: I was fired, or yet another mysterious, gory, and seemingly supernatural murder had happened within San Francisco’s seven square miles.
I would much prefer the former.
I’d like to say Sampson called on me because I could sniff out bad guys like a mouse sniffs out cheese, but that wouldn’t be quite right. I find the bad guys all right, but usually just seconds before they try to bleed me dry, blow me up, or stake me through the heart. That last one is particularly bad since I am not a vampire. Or a werewolf. I’m just me, Sophie Lawson, sole breather in the Underworld Detection Agency, runner of the Fallen Angels Division, Sub-Par Napper.
“Do you know what he wants?” I asked, looking from Nina to Kale.
Kale just shrugged, but Nina looked over her shoulder at me, her ink-black hair falling over her slim shoulders. “Someone’s probably dead again.”
Nina LaShay: not one for pep talks.
Though the Underworld Detection Agency had a fairly decent record of “Days Without a Workplace Accident,” our clients never fared as well—which isn’t actually as bad as it sounds. Since most of our clients were dead already, second time round was par for the course. But, while we were the number-one agency for afterlife insurance, general demon protection, and keeping all the things with extra eyes, teeth, or horns on the down low, we were also number one with the repetitive paperwork.
I got carpal tunnel syndrome just thinking about it.
I headed down the hall toward Sampson’s office, holding my breath as I passed the break room, where the VERM meeting was in full swing. Though our bylaws clearly state that vampire employees are not to eat, taste, or kill me, you know there’s always one nutter holding a grudge and that the rule had to come from someone not abiding by it. No one looked up as I passed, and I sported a seconds-long inner grin until I almost ran headlong into a sweet, sparkly little pixie who made a cut-throat motion when I glanced up at her.
Pixies can be total bitches.
I went to make my usual shimmy around the hole in the floor where a senile wizard had blown himself up—like everyone else, the UDA was low on funds so the hole was last on the fix-it list—but stopped dead, my mouth dropping open.
There was actually a piece of caution tape up, slung on a couple of folding chairs to make a work zone. A guy in a hard hat was up to his knees in the hole, diligently sawing away at one jagged edge.
He looked up and I could see from his gaunt, slightly green face and the hard cleft in his pointed chin that he was a goblin. From what I’d heard, they were brilliant at precision work.
“We’re fixing the hole,” he told me, his gray-green eyes widening as he took me in. I flushed, sudden embarrassment burning the tops of my ears and, I was certain, turning my pale skin an unattractive lobster red.
“So it’s true.” The goblin pushed back his hard hat and scratched at the little tuft of hair on his head. “The San Francisco branch really does have a breather on staff.”
The Underworld Detection Agency is like the clearinghouse for everything that goes bump in the night or bursts into flames during the day. We service everyone from Abatwas (teeny, tiny little adorable things that could unhinge their jaws and swallow you whole) to zombies (who most often leave a hunk of their jaw while trying to eat a Twix in the lunchroom).
We don’t, however, serve humans. As a matter of fact, the Underworld Detection Agency—and all of its clients—are relatively unknown to the human world. I know what you’re thinking—how do people miss a three-foot-tall troll walking down Market Street? The answer is a thin, mystical veil that prevents humans from registering what they see. You see little person; I see troll. You see homeless guy pushing a shopping cart full of cans; I see zombie pushing a shopping cart full of collectable zombie body parts (seriously, they drop stuff
So what makes me so different? I can see through the veil. And in case you’re thinking I’m some medium or Carol Ann or ghost whisperer, let me tell you that I am not. I’m a one-hundred-percent normal breather who is immune to magic: I can’t do it; it can’t be done to me.
Okay, so maybe I’m only ninety-nine percent normal.
I steeled myself as I approached Pete Sampson’s office and knocked on the door’s frame before popping it open.
“Ah, Sophie!” Sampson looked up when I walked in. He grinned widely, tugging at the collar of his button-down shirt. He was a werewolf, but only after business hours. And he was incredibly responsible about it, too, which was why there was a set of industrial-strength shackles double bolted to the wall behind the credenza. But right now he was regular old Sampson, close-cropped, blond hair, sparkling eyes that crinkled at the sides when he smiled, pristine dark suit.
I sat down with a nervous smile pasted on my face.
I nodded, fairly certain that if I opened my mouth the words
who’s dead now?
would come springing out.
Sampson went immediately business-y. “So I was going over your third-quarter performance review and I have to say—”
I felt my spine go immediately rigid. Vlad was my boss at the office, but I screamed at him to pick up his socks at home. He may have been one hundred and thirteen chronologically, but he would always be a sloppy, leaves-crap-all-over-the-house, sixteen-year-old boy in looks and at heart (if he had one). Weren’t teens revenge seekers?
“Uh, sir, about that,” I said, toeing a line in the carpet. “I can explain.”
I couldn’t, but I was just trying to buy some time.
Sampson’s dark brows went up. “Explain? I was just going to say that I am really impressed with your progress. Not just in the community, but in the office, and personally as well.”
I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding, and every bone in my body seemed to turn to liquid. “Really?” I grinned.
Now, most bosses wouldn’t wrap “personal growth” up into the employee ball of wax, but Sampson and I went way back. Not in years so much as in near-death experiences, but one was very much like the other and I had come to think of Pete Sampson as a father, since mine was an absentee dick.
“Of course. You’ve worked on cases diligently and successfully. You’ve got glowing reviews from two of your clients, which is especially good because—”
“I know.” I wrinkled my nose. “Because most of our clients give me a wide berth, thinking that I bring death and destruction to creatures of the Underworld.”
I’d had a very hard time convincing my previous clients that I didn’t bring death so much as it followed me around, like I had some sort of hell-fury GPS tracker shoved in my gut. It took a bit of a toll on my client list—especially when my clients kept dying.
“So, taking all that into account, I’d like to congratulate you on another successful year here at the Underworld Detection Agency.”
I gaped. “That’s it?” The words tumbled out of my mouth before my brain had a chance to examine them or reel them back in.
Sampson’s eyebrows went up. “Uh . . .”
“No, no!” I jumped up. “I didn’t mean that like, ‘That’s it? How about a raise?’ I meant,
You know, every other time you’ve called me in here someone was dead or I ended up back in high school. Which was kind of like dying a little myself.” I felt the trembling terror of mean girls in pleated plaid skirts wash over me, and I snapped the bad-memory rubber band I kept around my left wrist.
Sampson shot me a relaxed smile. “That’s true. Why don’t you take the rest of the day off since I terrified you, and I’ll see what I can do about that raise?”
I was stunned. “Really? Really, Sampson?”
“Yeah, take a long weekend. You deserve it.”
No sea of death, murder weapons, or crazed schoolgirls
a long weekend? My eyes went to the ceiling.
“What are you doing?” Sampson wanted to know.
“This can’t be right,” I told him. “I’m looking for the piano that’s going to fall on my head.”
When none did, I grabbed my shoulder bag, said something that may have sounded like, “See you Monday, suckas!” and hopped into the elevator. As the Underworld Detection Agency is a cool thirty-five stories
the San Francisco Police Department, I used the long ride up to mop my red hair from “business chic” into “reality-TV marathon ponytail,” and shrugged out of my suit jacket. I was halfway to couch bound when the elevator doors slid open at the police station vestibule, to perfectly frame Alex Grace.
Alex Grace—fallen angel, delicious earthbound detective—the man I had an on-again, off-again, more-off-than-on-or-something-in-between relationship with over the last few (mortal) years. We had moved past that awkward, bumbling, he-caught-mein-my-panties stage of our relationship and into a more mature, open, adult one.
But I tended to have a habit of crashing us back down to bumbling and awkward every spare chance I got.
“Alex!” I said, trying to keep my cool as every synapse in my head shot urgent and improbable messages:
Kiss him! Tear his clothes off! Maniacally mash the
button and hide under your desk!
Alex had his hands on his hips, his police badge winking on his belt, his leather holster nestled up agat the firm plane of his are-you-kidding-me chest. His shoulders looked even broader, even more well muscled if that were possible, making his square jaw look that much more chiseled. His lips—full, blush-pink lips that I had pressed mine against more than once—were set in a hard, thin line. His ice-blue eyes were sharp.
“We need to talk.”
While normally those words would make me swoon and rethink today’s lingerie choices (white cotton panties dotted with pastel pink hearts; no-nonsense—and no cleavage—beige bra), the set of his jaw let me know that this wouldn’t be a tea-and-cookies kind of chat.
My stomach flopped in on itself.
“And a kind hello to you, too.”
Alex led me to his office, one hand clamped around my elbow as if I might dart away or steal something at any moment. It was awkward and annoying, but I guess he had just cause: I may have pilfered a cup of coffee, a jelly donut, or a piece of pivotal evidence in an open investigation once or twice.
I sat down in the hard plastic visitor’s chair, and he sat behind his desk in his I’m-the-boss chair, arms crossed, eyes holding mine.