Storm Born Excerpt
Coming August 5, 2008 from Kensington/Zebra Books!

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CHAPTER 1

I’d seen weirder things than a haunted shoe but not many.

The Nike Pegasus sat on the office’s desk, inoffensive, colored in shades of gray, white, and orange.  Some of the laces were loosened, and a bit of dirt clung around the soles.  It was the left shoe.

As for me, well…underneath my knee-length coat, I had a Glock 22 loaded with bullets carrying a higher-than-legal steel content.  A cartridge of silver ones rested in the coat’s pocket.  Two athames lay sheathed on my other hip, one silver-bladed and one iron.  Stuck into my belt near them was my wand, hand-carved oak and loaded with enough charmed gems to probably blow up the desk in the corner if I’d wanted to.

To say I felt overdressed was something of an understatement.

“So,” I said, keeping my voice as neutral as possible, “what makes you think your shoe is…uh, possessed?”

Brian Montgomery, later thirties with a receding hairline in serious denial, eyed the shoe nervously and moistened his lips.  “It always trips me up when I’m out running.  Every time.  And it’s always moving around.  I mean, I never actually see it, but…like, I’ll take them off near the door, then I come back and find this one under the bed or something.  And sometimes…sometimes I touch it, and it feels cold…really cold…like…”  He groped for similes and finally picked the tritest one.  “Like ice.”

I nodded and glanced back at the shoe, not saying anything.

“Look, Miss…Odile…or whatever.  I’m not crazy.  That shoe is haunted.  It’s evil.  You’ve gotta do something, okay?  I’ve got a marathon coming up, and until this started happening, these were my lucky shoes.  And they’re not cheap, you know.  They’re an investment.”

It sounded crazy to me--which was saying something--but there was no harm in checking, seeing as I was already out here.  I reached into my coat pocket, the one without ammunition, and pulled out my pendulum.  It was a simple one, a thin silver chain with a small quartz crystal hanging from it.

I laced the chain’s end through my fingers and held my flattened hand over the shoe, clearing my mind and letting the crystal hang freely.  A moment later, it began to slowly rotate of its own accord.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” I muttered, stuffing the pendulum back in my pocket.  There was something there.  I turned to Montgomery, attempting some sort of badass face because that was what customers always expected.  “It might be best if you stepped out of the room, sir.  For your own safety.”

That was only half-true.  Mostly I just found lingering clients annoying.  They asked stupid questions and could do stupider things, which actually put me at more risk than them.

He had no qualms about getting out of there.  As soon as the door closed, I found a jar of salt in my satchel and poured a large ring on the office’s floor.  I tossed the shoe into the middle of it and invoked the four cardinal directions with the silver athame.  Ostensibly the circle didn’t change, but I felt a slight flaring of power indicating it had sealed us in.

Trying not to yawn, I pulled out my wand and kept holding the silver athame.  It had taken four hours to drive to Las Cruces, and doing that on so little sleep had made the distance seem twice as long.  Sending some of my will into the wand, I tapped it against the shoe and spoke in a sing-song voice.

“Come out, come out, whoever you are.”

There was a moment’s silence, then a high-pitched male voice snapped, “Go away, bitch.”

Great.  A shoe with attitude.  “Why?  You got something better to do?”

“Better things to do than waste my time with a mortal.”

I smiled.  “Better things to do in a shoe?  Come on.  I mean, I’ve heard of slumming it, but don’t you think you’re kind of pushing the envelope here?  This shoe isn’t even new.  You could have done so much better.”

The voice kept its annoyed tone, not threatening but simply irritated at the interruption.  “I’m slumming it?  Do you think I don’t know who you are, Eugenie Markham?  Dark-Swan-Called-Odile.  A blood traitor.  A mongrel.  An assassin.  A murderer.”  He practically spit out the last word.  “You are alone among your kind and mine.  A bloodthirsty shadow.  You do anything for anyone who can pay you enough for it.  That makes you more than a mercenary.  That makes you a whore.”

I affected a bored stance.  I’d been called most of those names before.  Well, except for my own name.  That was new--and a little disconcerting.  Not that I’d let him know that.

“Are you done whining?  Because I don’t have time to listen while you stall.”

“Aren’t you being paid by the hour?” he asked nastily.

“I charge a flat fee.”

“Oh.”

I rolled my eyes and touched the wand to the shoe again.  This time, I thrust the full force of my will into it, drawing upon my own body’s physical stamina as well as some of the power of the world around me.  “No more games.  If you leave on your own, I won’t have to hurt you.  Come out.”

He couldn’t stand against that command and the power within it.  The shoe trembled, and smoke poured out of it.  Oh, Jesus.  I hoped the shoe didn’t get incinerated during this.  Montgomery wouldn’t be able to handle that.

The smoke bellowed out, coalescing into a large, dark form about two feet taller than me.  With all his wisecracks, I’d sort of expected a saucy version of one of Santa’s elves.  Instead, the being before me had the upper body of a well muscled man while his lower portion resembled a small cyclone.  The smoke solidified into leathery gray-black skin, and I had only a moment to act as I assessed this new development.  I swapped the wand for the gun, ejecting the clip as I pulled it out.  By then, he was lunging for me, and I had to roll out of his way, confined by the circle’s boundaries.

A keres.  A male keres--most unusual.  I’d anticipated something fey, which required silver bullets; or a spectre, which required no bullets.  Keres were ancient death spirits originally confined to canopic jars.  When the jars wore down over time, keres tended to seek out new homes.  There weren’t too many of them left in this world, and soon, there’d be one less.

He bore down on me, and I took a nice chunk out of him with the silver blade.  I used my right hand, the one I wore an onyx and obsidian bracelet on.  Those stones alone would take a toll on a death spirit like him without the blade’s help.  Sure enough, he hissed in pain and hesitated a moment.  I used that delay, scrambling to load the silver cartridge.

I didn’t quite make it because soon he was on me again.  He hit me with one of those massive arms, slamming me against the walls of the circle.  They might be invisible, but they felt as solid as bricks.  One of the downsides of trapping a spirit in a circle was that I got trapped too.  My head and left shoulder took the brunt of that impact, and pain shot through me in small starbursts.  He seemed pretty pleased with himself over this, as over-confident villains so often are.

“You’re as strong as they say, but you were a fool to try to cast me out.  You should have left me in peace.”  His voice was deeper now, almost gravelly.

I shook my head, both to disagree and get rid of the dizziness.  “It isn’t your shoe.”

I still couldn’t swap that goddamned cartridge.  Not with him ready to attack again, not with both hands full.  Yet I couldn’t risk dropping either weapon.

He reached for me, and I cut him again.  The wounds were small, but the athame was like poison.  It would wear him down over time--if I could stay alive that long.  I moved to strike at him once more, but he anticipated me and seized hold of my wrist.  He squeezed it, bending it in an unnatural position and forcing me to drop the athame and cry out.  I hoped he hadn’t broken any bones.  Smug, he grabbed me by the shoulders with both hands and lifted me up so that I hung face to face with him.  His eyes were yellow with slits for pupils, much like some sort of snake’s.  His breath was hot and reeked of decay as he spoke.

“You are small, Eugenie Markham, but you are lovely and your flesh is warm.  Perhaps I should beat the rush and take you myself.  I’d enjoy hearing you scream beneath me.”

Ew.  Had that thing just propositioned me?  And there was my name again.  How in the world did he know that?  None of them knew that.  I was only Odile to them, named after the dark swan in Swan Lake, a name coined by my stepfather because of the form my spirit preferred to travel in while visiting the Otherworld.  The name--though not particularly terrifying--had stuck, though I doubted any of the creatures I fought knew the reference.  They didn’t really get out to the ballet much.

The keres had my upper arms pinned--I would have bruises tomorrow--but my hands and forearms were free.  He was so sure of himself, so overly arrogant and confident, that he paid no attention to my struggling hands.  He probably just perceived the motion as a futile effort to free myself.  In seconds, I had the clip out and in the gun.  I managed one clumsy shot and he dropped me--not gently.  I stumbled to regain my balance again.  Bullets probably couldn’t kill him, but a silver one in the center of his chest would certainly hurt.

He stumbled back, half-surprised, and I wondered if he’d ever even encountered a gun before. It fired again, then again and again and again.  The reports were loud; hopefully Montgomery wouldn’t do something foolish and come running in.  The keres roared in outrage and pain, each shot making him stagger backward until he was all the way against the circle’s boundary.  I advanced on him, retrieved athame flashing in my hand.  In a few quick motions, I carved the death symbol on the part of his chest that wasn’t bloodied from bullets.  An electric charge immediately ran through the air of the circle.  Hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and I could smell ozone, like just before a storm.

He screamed and leapt forward, renewed by rage or adrenaline or whatever else these creatures ran on.  But it was too late for him.  He was marked and wounded.  I was ready.  In another mood, I might have simply banished him to the Otherworld; I tried not to kill if I didn’t have to.  But that sexual suggestion had just been out of line.  I was pissed off now.  He’d go to the world of death, straight to Persephone’s gate.

I fired again to slow him, my aim a bit off with the left hand but still good enough to hit him.  I had already traded the athame for the wand.  This time, I didn’t draw on the power from this plane.  With well-practiced ease, I let part of my consciousness slip this world.  In moments, I reached the crossroads to the Otherworld.  That was an easy transition; I did it all the time.  The next crossover was a little harder, especially with me being weakened from the fight, but still nothing I couldn’t do automatically.  I kept my own spirit well outside of the land of death, but I touched it and sent that connection through the wand.  It sucked him in, and his face twisted with fear.

“This is not your world,” I said in a low voice, feeling the power burn through me and around me.  “This is not your world, and I cast you from out.  I send you to the black gate, to the lands of death where you can either be reborn or fade to oblivion or burn in the flames of hell.  I really don’t give a shit.  Go.”

He screamed, but the magic caught him.  There was a trembling in the air, a build-up of pressure, and then it ended abruptly, like a deflated balloon.  The keres was gone too, leaving only a shower of gray sparkles that soon faded to nothing.

Silence.  I sank to my knees, exhaling deeply.  My eyes closed a moment, as my body relaxed and my consciousness returned to this world.  I was exhausted but exultant too.  Killing him had felt good.  Heady, even.  He’d gotten what he deserved, and I had been the one to deal it out.

Minutes later, some of my strength returned.  I stood and opened the circle, suddenly feeling stifled by it.  I put my tools and weapons away and went to find Montgomery.

“Your shoe’s been exorcised,” I told him flatly.  “I killed the ghost.”  No point in explaining the difference between a keres and a true ghost; he wouldn’t understand.

He entered the room with slow steps, picking up the shoe gingerly.  “I heard gun shots.  How do you use bullets on a ghost?”

I shrugged.  It hurt from where the keres had slammed my shoulder to the wall.  “It was a strong ghost.”

He cradled the shoe like one might a child and then glanced down with disapproval.  “There’s blood on the carpet.”

“Read the paperwork you signed.  I assume no responsibility for damage incurred to personal property.”

With a few grumbles, he paid up--in cash--and I left.  Really, though, he was so stoked about the shoe, I probably could have decimated the office.

In my car, I dug out a Milky Way from the stash in my glove box.  Battles like that required immediate sugar and calories.  As I practically shoved the candy bar in my mouth, I turned on my cell phone.  I had a missed call from Lara.

Once I’d consumed a second bar and was on I-10 back to Tucson, I dialed her back.

“Yo,” I said.

“Hey.  Did you finish the Montgomery job?”

“Yup.”

“Was the shoe really possessed?”

“Yup.”

“Huh.  Who knew?  That’s kind of funny too.  Like, you know, lost souls and soles in shoes…”

“Bad, very bad,” I chastised.  Lara might be a good secretary, but there was only so much I could be expected to put up with.  “So what’s up?  Or were you just checking in?”

“No.  I just got a weird job offer.  Some guy--well, honestly, I thought he sounded kind of skitzo.  But he claims his sister was abducted by fairies, er, gentry.  He wants you to go get her.”

I fell silent at that, staring at the highway and clear blue sky ahead without consciously seeing either one.  Some objective part of me attempted to process what she had just said.  I didn’t get that kind of request very often.  Okay, never.  A retrieval like that required me to cross over physically into the Otherworld.  “I don’t really do that.”

“That’s what I told him.”  But there was uncertainty in Lara’s voice.

“Okay.  What aren’t you telling me?”

“Nothing, I guess.  I don’t know.  It’s just…he said she’s been gone almost a year and a half now.  She was fourteen when she disappeared.”

My stomach sank a little at that.  God.  What an awful fate for someone so young.  It made the keres’ lewd comments to me downright trivial.

“He sounded pretty frantic.”

“Does he have proof she was actually taken?”

“I don’t know.  He wouldn’t get into it.  He was kind of paranoid.  Seemed to think his phone was being tapped.”

I laughed at that.  “By who?  The gentry?”  ‘Gentry’ was what I called the beings that most of western culture referred to as fairies or sidhe.  They looked just like humans but embraced magic instead of technology.  They found ‘fairy’ a derogatory term, so I respected that--sort of--by using the term old English peasants used to use.  Gentry.  Good folk.  Good neighbors.  A questionable designation, at best.  The gentry actually preferred the term ‘shining ones,’ but that was just silly.  I wouldn’t give them that much credit.

“I don’t know,” Lara told me.  “Like I said, he seemed a little skitzo.”

Silence fell as I held onto the phone and passed a car driving 45 in the left lane.

“Eugenie!  You aren’t really thinking of doing this.”

“Fourteen, huh?”

“You always said that was dangerous.”

“Adolescence?”

“Stop it.  You know what I mean.  Crossing over.”

“Yeah.  I know what you mean.”

It was dangerous--super dangerous.  Traveling in spirit form could still get you killed, but your odds of fleeing back to your earth-bound body were better.  Take your own body over, and all the rules changed.

“This is crazy.”

“Set it up,” I told her.  “It can’t hurt to talk to him.”

I could practically see her biting her lip to hold back protests.  But, at the end of the day, I was the one who signed her paychecks, and she respected that.  After a few moments, she filled the silence with info about a few other jobs and then drifted on to more casual topics: some sale at the mall, a mysterious scratch on her car…

Something about Lara’s cheery gossip always made me smile, but it also disturbed me that most of my social contact came via someone I never actually saw.  The majority of my face-to-face interactions came from spirits and gentry lately.

It was after dinnertime when I arrived home, and my housemate Tim appeared to be out for the night, probably at a poetry reading.  Despite a Polish background, genes had inexplicably given him a strong Native American appearance.  In fact, he looked more Indian than some of the locals.  Deciding this was his claim to fame, Tim had grown his hair out and taken on the name ‘Timothy Red Horse.’  He made his living by reading faux-Native poetry at local dives and wooing naïve tourist women by using expressions like, ‘my people’ and ‘the Great Spirit’ a lot.  It was despicable to say the least, but it got him laid pretty often.  What it did not do was bring in a lot of money, so I’d let him live with me in exchange for housework and cleaning.  It was a pretty good deal as far as I was concerned.  After battling the undead all day, scrubbing the bathtub just seemed like asking too much.

Scrubbing my athames, unfortunately, was a task I had to do myself.  Keres blood could stain.

I ate dinner afterwards, then stripped and sat in my sauna for a long time.  I liked a lot of things about my little house out in the foothills, but the sauna was one of my favorites.  It might seem kind of pointless in the desert, but Arizona had mostly dry heat, and I liked the feel of humidity and moisture on my skin.  I leaned back against the wooden wall, enjoying the sensation of sweating out the stress.  My body ached--some parts more fiercely than others--and the heat let some of the muscles loosen up.

The solitude also soothed me.  Pathetic as it was, I probably had no one to blame for my lack of sociability except myself.  I spent a lot of time alone and didn’t mind.  When my stepfather Roland had first trained me as a shaman, he’d told me that in a lot of cultures, shamans essentially lived outside of normal society.  The idea had seemed crazy to me at the time, being in junior high, but it made more sense now that I was older.

I wasn’t a complete socialphobe, but I found I often had a hard time interacting with other people.  Talking in front of groups was murder.  Even talking one on one had its issues.  I had no pets or children to ramble on about, and I couldn’t exactly talk about things like the incident in Las Cruces.  Yeah, I had kind of a long day.  Drove four hours, fought an ancient minion of evil.  After a few bullets and knife wounds, I obliterated him and sent him on to the world of death.  God, I swear I’m not getting paid enough for this crap, you know?  Cue polite laughter.

When I left the sauna, I had another message from Lara telling me the appointment with the distraught brother had been arranged for tomorrow.  I made a note in my day planner, took a shower, and retired to my room where I threw on black silk pajamas.  For whatever reason, nice pajamas were the one indulgence I allowed myself in an otherwise dirty and bloody lifestyle.  Tonight’s selection had a cami top that showed serious cleavage, had anyone been there to see it.  I always wore a ratty robe around Tim.

Sitting at my desk, I emptied out a new jigsaw puzzle I’d just bought.  It depicted a kitten on its back clutching a ball of yarn.  My love of puzzles ranked up there with the pajama thing for weirdness, but they eased my mind.  Maybe it was the fact that they were so tangible.  You could hold the pieces in your hand and make them fit together, as opposed to the insubstantial stuff I usually worked with.

While my hands moved the pieces around, I kept trying to shake the knowledge that the keres had known my name.  What did that mean?  I’d made a lot of enemies in the Otherworld.  I didn’t like the thought of them being able to track me personally.  I preferred to stay Odile.  Anonymous.  Safe.  Probably not much point worrying about it, I supposed.  The keres was dead.  He wouldn’t be telling any tales.

Two hours later, I finished the puzzle and admired it.  The kitten had brown tabby fur, its eyes an almost azure blue.  The yarn was red.  I took out my digital camera, snapped a picture, and then broke up the puzzle, dumping it back into its box.  Easy come, easy go.

Yawning, I slipped into bed.  Tim had done laundry today; the sheets felt crisp and clean.  Nothing like that new sheets smell.  Despite my exhaustion, however, I couldn’t fall asleep.  It was one of life’s ironies.  While awake, I could slide into a trance with the snap of a finger.  My spirit could leave my body and travel other worlds.  Yet, for whatever reason, sleep was more elusive.  Doctors had recommended a number of sedatives, but I hated to use them.  Drugs and alcohol bound the spirit to this world, and while I did indulge occasionally, I generally liked being ready to slip over in a moment’s notice.

Tonight I suspected my insomnia had something to do with a teenage girl…  But no.  I couldn’t think about that not yet.  Not until I spoke with the brother.

Sighing, needing something else to ponder, I rolled over and stared at my ceiling, at the plastic glow-in-the-dark stars.  I started counting them, as I had so many other restless nights.  There were exactly thirty-three of them, just like last time.  Still, it never hurt to check.