“I don't need this today,” Adam muttered. He cocked his jaw while he regarded her. “For the record”âhe gestured to her backpackâ“do you need a little notepad to write this down?”
“I think I can remember,” Layla answered, narrowing her gaze as the zaps in her brain got faster. If he wanted her to take notes, he wasn't likely to feed her to the wraiths today. Just give her the official line and then the boot.
She wasn't about to let him off that easy. Not the man who'd released a pandemic on the world.
How to pin him?
“As our press release clearly states,” Thorne began, “Segue researches wraiths and other paranormal phenomena. We have the cooperation and backing of the United States government, as well as formal agreements with seven other countries. We are a target for wraith attacks, as any intelligent person in the know might surmise.” He smiled slightly. “Now, once again, why would you roam the private propertyâin a wild, wooded area, no lessâof an institution dedicated to eradicating wraiths?”
“I was drawn by the building's beautiful architecture and fascinating history,” she answered as the wheels turned in her head.
Where to start?
“I'm trying to save your life here.”
Layla gave Thorne another smile. “I can take care of myself, thank you.”
“All evidence to the conâ”
“What was The Segue Institute's
mission?” she interrupted. She didn't expect him to fess up to the calamity of the wraith disease and give her the data to show the world, but maybe she could make a little headway, a small dent in his smug reserve.
Thorne blinked his confusion. “I'm sorry?”
“When you paid a whopping ninety-six million to found Segue nearly eight years ago, what did you plan to do with the place? Do you have a mission statement from that period?”
He frowned. “What are you getting at?”
“The time line established by the World Health Organization places the first cases of the wraith disease at seven,
, years ago.” Layla watched Thorne's face subtly harden. Hit a nerve there. She pinched. “Segue's formation predates the WHO's wraith disease time line. So what were the good scientists at Segue up to during the year before the outbreak?”
Thorne shook his head. “The WHO's time line is off by several years. The wraiths were already firmly entrenched by the time I started Segue. Segue's primary mission has always been to research wraiths.”
Layla cleared her voice delicately. This part was fun. “But you just said that you are working in
with the U.S. and international governments. Why wouldn't you give the WHO the most accurate information? Presumably others are doing their own research, and identifying ground zero for the wraith outbreak would be critical to those efforts. Why would you, in fact, hamper them?”
Thorne's lips parted but no sound came out.
Gotcha. And so easy. Damn, she was good.
“What you don't know is a lot,” Thorne said, standing. “I hope you don't publish that nonsense and feed public hysteria. People are scared enough.” To the closed door he called, “Kev!”
As if she didn't know the mood of the people, with monsters on their doorsteps, their children at risk. Her story was for them. “I'm here to learn.”
“I have neither the time nor the patience to educate you,” he returned.
The guard was back. Interview over. She could sit there like a dumb rock or meet Thorne at eye level.
“This way, ma'am,” Kev said.
Thorne's eyes were cold gray. Last chance. “When you experiment on wraiths, do you consider them to be human test subjects or something else? What protocols do you follow? I'd like to see the wraiths you have here in captivity.”
“If you want to see a wraith, Ms. Mathews, you will surely meet one, up close and personal. One last time: I advise you to stop looking.”
Which was how Layla found herself on a small Segue plane headed back to New York. They must have known she'd been hunkered down in the woods for a while. Someone from Segue had had the time to go to the inn in Middleton, pack her bag, and have it by her seat when she boarded. With her camera.
Layla pressed the power button and queued the saved images. Of which there were none.
Not so thoughtful. She turned the camera off and stuffed it in her backpack.
Seated across from her was a young woman in a mood more foul than her own. The woman was in her midtwenties and was very pretty in spite of dull black hair with too long blunt bangs over hazel eyes. Her gaze was heavy and angry.
The woman responded to no verbal overturesâ
How are you connected to Segue? Do you know the Thornes? Have there been local wraith attacks?
âso Layla finally rested her head back to enjoy the incessant, teeth-grating
between her ears.
At dusk they landed at a private airstrip somewhere in Jersey. A cab was waiting to take Layla into the city. Thoughtful again. Segue's heavy boot would take her all the way back to her apartment.
She was just getting in the vehicle, shivering in the gusty, frigid November evening air, when she felt a poke on her shoulder. She turned to find the creepy-moody woman from the plane, her features stark, eyes vivid in the diffused evening light. The contrast punched the woman out of reality, made her gleam with some kind of strange soul aura.
Either this woman was
normal, or Layla needed to go back on her meds. No more putting it off.
The visions had plagued Layla all her life, usually occurring at the worst moments when she'd have to strain to ignore whatever hallucinations popped up in order to look normal herself. They seemed so real. Ultrareal. Like now. This weird woman was surrounded by pulsing black light. The aura was part of the impression, but Layla could feel it as well, as a pressure on her chest.
Layla squeezed her eyes shut. Two times in one day. This was really bad.
“You pissed off Adam, right?” the woman asked.
Layla opened her eyes. The soul-glow was gone, thank God, so she answered, “I sure did.”
“And you want to find out how the wraiths got started, right?” The woman had been on the Segue Express; it followed that she knew about Segue's work.
Layla straightened fully. “Yes.”
The woman glanced over her shoulder, back toward the small airport, nervous. “The public doesn't know anything. I mean
And why the fuck not? Because Adam-fucking-Thorne says so.”
“What doesn't the public know?” Layla wasn't cold at all now.
“And what burns me is that I actually helped that man once. Him and his wife. And now he's got my sister under lock and key.”
This got better and better. “Is she a wraith?”
“Abigail?” The woman looked at her, hesitating as if Layla were stupid or crazy. “No. She's sick. Adam's got doctors all over her. And last week some Navajo medicine man.”
Layla tried to get her back on track. “What doesn't he want the public to know?”
But the woman ignored her question. “Try the docks. I think he's there.”
“Adam?” He was in landlocked West Virginia. “Which docks? Where?”
The woman smiled bitterly. “No. The one who started everything.”
“Started what? How?”
“And if you live long enough to break this story, you put my name in your article. I want that controlling bastard to know.”
The bastard had to be Adam. “Which docks? Who started it?”
“I want him to see my name in black-and-white. Zoe Maldano. If you survive”âZoe laughed thereâ“you tell the world how this happened, and you put my name in your article.”
“Yeah, sure, but . . .” Zoe was already striding toward another car, sleek with Thorne money. She slammed the shiny door shut and was taillights before Layla came out of her surprise.
Docks. Adam or someone else was there. And they had information on how all thisâthe wraith disease?âstarted.
Layla's head was spinning. She had to get home. Get on her computer. Find out who Zoe Maldano and her sister were, and if there were any links between Thorne or Segue to some docks. The vague reference
would probably need a whiteboard of its own.
The taxi dropped her at her walk-up in the East Village. She tried not to look at Tyler's boxes as she entered her apartment. Maybe it wouldn't hurt so bad if he'd pick up the last of his stuff. Three weeks and the boxes still blocked the door. He hadn't wanted his ring back either. Hadn't even tried to understand what she herself couldn't explain. Three weeks, and she was still so sorry.
Layla dropped her backpack on a box and shuffled into the living room. If she recalled correctly, there was no food in the fridgeâTyler had done the grocery thingâand she was too tired to wait for delivery.
The dining tableâcumâdesk was covered with her notes, the adjacent wall tagged with photos of possible wraith sightings. At the center was the blurry image of Talia Thorne. Talia, whom she'd give anything to interview up close and in person.
Still, two leads in one day: a several-year shift in the wraith disease time line and a motivated informant. Layla smiled. She'd do her research and connect the dots. Then Adam Thorne wouldn't be able to boot her anywhere. Nope. He'd be forced to answer some real questions, and his wife, Talia, would finally have to come out of her shadows and face the light.
Layla gripped her head. Phantom sounds. Visions. She just hoped she could keep her head on straight long enough to tell the story.
The hellgate shook on its posts with a loud, metallic bone rattle that filled Shadowman's mind until he was near mad with the sound. He let the hammer fall from his hand, its impact with the floor mute. All world noise was silenced, overcome by the hideous clanging of the gate.
morphed, deepening in meaning with new vowels and consonants, and became intelligible, commanding,
The words carried a compulsion that slid cold and coercive into his thoughts, urging him to step forward. To put his blistered palm to the handle. To test the resistance of the mechanism with the weight of his hand.
After the labor of the gate, opening the doorway would be so easy. There would be a strange pleasure, a dark
in answering that call: Make a thing; use the thing. Simple.
But Shadowman turned his face away. When he crossed that cursed threshold, he had to be a seethe of intent. He'd enter Hell as fae Death, with Shadow at his back.
At long last, he allowed his weary corporeal body to shred. The atoms of his bone and flesh evaporated into clinging smoke that hovered, man-shaped, in the air, and then dispersed into the deepest corners of the warehouse. His consciousness opened and spread with the loss of his body. It was a relief not to bear the burden of that mass. Mass, the substance and magic of mortality, was difficult to manage for a fae, even one as canny as Death.
In his native Twilight, strength would have come quickly, but he could not leave a passage such as the gate untended. Some weak mortal would find and open it. Instead, he was forced to wait, impatient, as silky layers of Shadow reached through the variegated patches of light and dark, cast by the fire, to cloak him in power again.
He could hear the roar of the fire echoing within the empty warehouse space, the mournful bellow of a ship on the river beyond the docks, and the soft pats of a trio of footsteps moving down the street, the bearers' heartbeats an overlapping, near-tribal drumming of life. The gate's
was reduced to an insidious whisper in his mind.
Yes, insidious and perilous. Damnation was infested with devils, twisted souls of those who'd spurned life and love and hope for evil and destruction and pain. Once cut from mortality and delivered to the Hereafter, they existed in agony, suffering eternity by torturing each other.
Soon, Kathleen. I will rescue you.
The heartbeats quickened when they neared the warehouse. The atmosphere became tinged with burgeoning mortal fear. The unease rapidly escalated to terror.
Shadowman cast his attention outward, away from the gate, beyond the walls of the warehouse, to find a young woman pursued on the street by two swarthy thugs. The lust coming off the men reeked like rotted fruit. The woman held her keys like spikes through the fingers in her fisted hand. Her fear pervaded the area like a wild, living thing.
the gate called in his mind. Death ignored it and observed the woman.
What could have possibly driven her to wander this street, amidst the industry and violence of the docks?
Calloused by eons of experience, he watched as she picked up speed. Death could sense the threads of her life glowing in the ether around her, drawing her toward her final destiny. The lines formed a strange map, forces urging her this way and that, subtle tugs that drew the pattern of her existence to intersect at this point, at this moment.
Why here? Why now? Irrelevant.
A shimmer of dark faelight broke over the dun of the street, visible only to him. A glittering sleeve, a sweep of glossy gold fae hair, the twinkle of madness in an eye. Moira. Fate leered toward him, girlish and laughing. Moira had three faces, but she preferred the young one best. She leaned with her sharp scissors toward the woman's lifeline. Death caught the glint of the silvery blade as the mortal's lifeline was cut, her thread in the tapestry of the world at its ragged end.
It happened to everyone.
The woman must have sensed it herself. She cast her eyes up to the sky, praying no doubt, and strained for breath. Moira had already departed from the world, her work done. The woman, of course, had sought a higher power. Her gaze arced from God to over her shoulder, her mouth parting as she met the hot eyes of her pursuers.
Would she stumble and fall, as so many others had throughout the centuries?
No. The woman leaned into a run. A hopeless flight.
Death marveled as she gathered her terror to her and bore down on it as she ran. Curious that a spirit should burn so bright when closest to death.
Kathleen's had as well. Bright and bold enough to pierce Shadow.
But, like Kathleen, this woman would die. She had to. Moira had cut the thread of her life. It could not be undone.
One of the men, dim by comparison, reached out to grab her jacket.
The woman spun and planted her spiked fist in his face.
Good girl. Fight your Fate, then. Cross in a blaze of glory.
The man reeled back, one hand going to his bloody cheek, the other still clutching her sleeve. The men's lust was threaded with a heat for murder, like a sticky tar to stain the soul.
She peeled out of her jacket as the first man grabbed her flying hair, jerking her suddenly back. She raised that spiked fist again as she shifted her weight. He stopped her at her wrist, and Death grinned in appreciation as her shift of weight moved into a vicious knee to his groin.
She managed four steps before the other man struck her at the back of her neck. She fell, skinning her palms and chin on the pavement. He grabbed her by the ankle, dragged her back to them, and heaved her up by the waist of her pants. Though she kicked and bucked, he pinned her arms with one of his.
From her gut she screamed, a sound that ripped through the atmosphere of the deserted street. The man put a fat palm over her mouth and nose.
Was Kathleen fighting this hard in Hell? Did her spirit still burn bright, or had she dimmed with hopelessness?
The men looked this way and that for a place to enjoy their prey. One tried the door of the warehouse. He kicked at the knob, breaking the lock and splintering the frame.
With a flex of power, Death compelled Shadow to slam the door and bar their entry.
If the hellgate could infiltrate
it rattledâthen the mortals would be utterly overwhelmed by it. And he was still too weak to fight an army of devils.
When the warehouse door didn't give, the men looked for an alternative. They spotted and quickly agreed upon an alley not far away.
The woman's heart beat as fast as a newborn child's,
, but her eyes were hard. Death could sense the clockwork of her brain, though he had no idea what she thought to do.
She had to know by now it was hopeless.
Hopeless. The word was poison. And today of all days, he could not permit its pollution within the three worlds, not when he fought its contamination himself.
He couldn't save the woman. She would die, if not by these devils in the making, then by some other means, and soon.
One of the men cursed as she bit his finger, and he slapped her face.
If Death had his scythe, he would have cut her quick. Ended this without her experiencing the indignity of the attack. But he would not touch that weapon again; it would keep him from Kathleen. And he was done with death.
The only thing left was to save her, though he would do her no favors by prolonging her demise. It would come, and there were forms that were worse than the one these men intended.
Still. This would take little effort. With cowards like these, almost none at all.
Shadowman cast his attention down the alley, where it terminated on the other side of the street. He found a heap of refuse topped with a length of metal. With a finger of Shadow, he nudged the piece to fall. It clattered on the ground.
The men stilled. The woman's shirt was up above her breasts, though an undergarment kept her nakedness from their eyes.
“Anyone there?” one of the men called.
Death answered by flicking Shadow toward a dank heap of cardboard.
“It's only a rat,” the other man said. But they both stared down the alley, eyes squinting for signs of movement.
Rats would be fitting. Death organized the darkness into a swell of vermin, a river of scrabbling claws and gleaming eyes, and then sent them coursing toward the men.
“Fuck!” one shouted, shrill, rearing back, and landed on his backside when the woman gave him a hard kick to his chest. Then he fled, swatting at the Shadows scampering over his body.
The other had already ducked out of the alley and was running down the street, glancing over his shoulder, with no care for his friend.
When both were gone, the woman slowly sat up, squinting into the dark.
A long moment passed, her fear and anger dissolving into an acute sense of isolation and vulnerability. She pulled her shirt down, drew her limbs in, and made a ball of her body, hands gripping her head. Visible shivers wracked her. Tears streamed down her face, and she wiped her nose with a knuckle.
She snorted at herself. “Ty was right. What the hell am I doing?”
Hell, indeed. The gate went
“I swear this story is going to kill me.”
She rested her head against the brick. Black smudges winged from her eyes.
It was time for the woman to go home. To see her loved ones. To make the most of the hours or days he'd won her with Shadow. The only other person for whom he'd held back Twilight had been Kathleen. How fitting that he should do it again on the eve of Kathleen's liberation.
The woman examined her skinned palms, then used the wall to stand. After stepping to the end of the alley, she peeked around the corner. Shadowman noticed her gaze drop to her discarded coat. A lick of anger had her straightening. She glanced both ways, then walked resolutely to the fallen material and picked it up. She retrieved her dropped keys as well, refashioning the spikes between the fingers of her shaking, fisted hand.
She couldn't possibly be thinking of continuing on, could she? Was she deranged?
But she seemed frozen in front of the building, eyeing the facade.
Perhaps the hellgate had her in its grip.
The woman put her free hand on the knob and tried the broken door, bitterly muttering, “Thanks for opening it for me, guys.”
Shadowman waved a hand and compelled darkness to hold it shut again.
But she effortlessly pushed the door open anyway.
Layla swallowed hard and opened the busted door. The cold knob soothed the skinned heat of her palm, but it didn't ease her fear-cramped stomach or get rid of the deep ick of the men's touch. That would take a long shower. Or ten.
At least she'd be able to hide in there if those assholes came back. Not smart about her gun, though, which was still in the woods somewhere around Segue. There had been no wraith attacks near the docks, but she hadn't considered normal violence, everyday predators. Not smart at all.
She dabbed at her chin. It wasn't bleeding, but it sure stung. And if those guys hoped she hadn't gotten a good look at their faces for a police report, they'd picked the wrong girl. Noticing details was her job. She could and would give a description down to the mole above one guy's unibrow and the tat on the other's hairy forearm.
The memory of his hand on her mouth made her nauseated. Common sense told her she shouldn't be there, especially not alone.
If I get through today alive, I promise to get therapy.