The country–western bar rocked on its pilings with music and conversation, laughter and line dances – and an obscene number of ten–gallon hats – all competing with the glint of the club’s lights to obscure my sightline. It didn’t matter. The scent of the Shadow alone was enough to alert me to her presence. Even the sweaty masses, with their perfumes and deodorants and soaps, could do nothing to mask the pungent rot of a demon masquerading as a human being.
A cigarette flared on the lips of a man to my left as I slipped smoothly across the straw–strewn dance floor, squeezing the grip on my crossbow through the open zipper of my designer clutch. Raucous laughter erupted ahead and to my right as bellies filled with the Jell–O shots that would eventually be blamed for this night’s folly. The band rocked hard in front of a plate–glass window suspended beneath a slanted rooftop, and the lights of the Las Vegas Strip sparkled enticingly in the distance.
My awareness of all this was cursory. Acridness was building in the back of my throat, and the tang of soured skin made me wince as I neared the bathroom door, but I held my breath once there, stilled my movements, and steeled myself for battle. Regan – Shadow agent, astrological Cancer of our enemy Zodiac troop, and would–be rival for my true love’s affections – possessed hearing so sharp she could make out wings beating in the air. She could taste unbridled emotion as if sipping from a cup, and given the chance, she could scent me too.
My nostrils flared as I breathed in deeply, and it was there …the petal–soft top note of singed roses powdering the air, just shy of cloying. The heart note like milk so recently gone sour a dulled palate wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
The base note of slick, hot vomit.
With aching slowness I gripped my conduit in front of me, slipped off my kitten heels, then lowered my chin and widened my stance.
You are the Kairos, the fulcrum upon which hinges the paranormal battle between good and evil. Your every action is loaded with meaning, charged with energy, and linked to your legacy.
My troop leader’s reminder fired like a rocket through my mind, and I shot back a mental rejoinder as I kicked open the door with a splintering crack.
How’s this for action?
But the sitting area was empty, and I immediately sidestepped my way to the cluster of stalls, stopping short when something sharp and unnaturally shiny caught my attention. An ice pick lay angled across the vanity, projecting homicidal intent as clearly as a chalk outline. I recognized it as Regan’s conduit, her paranormal weapon, the only thing that could truly destroy one of us. A blow from an enemy’s conduit would slay you, and a conduit turned against its own controller would erase their existence so completely they were scrubbed from supernatural history. Not even a footnote left to speak to their existence. And Regan’s was lying right there in the open.
Stupid bitch. I took a step toward it.
“I wouldn’t, if I were you.”
I whirled toward the stalls in time to watch a slim, delicate, and deadly hand appear. It held one of the tiny, teasing devices I’d found littering my ex’s modest tract home. It was the reason I’d come here to kill.
Lowering my own conduit, I stepped down. One mean twitch of her thumb and a man would be blown to bits just outside these doors. My man.
“Come on, superhero,” Regan taunted, coming into full view. “Show me your scariest super–face.”
Though expected, Regan’s appearance always startled me. Her dark bob was exactly chin length, as if she’d measured it with a ruler while cutting it, and hadn’t let it grow a centimeter since. Her build was more compact than when we’d first met, but then mine used to be as well, and that’s what jolted me. That’s who she’d been designed to imitate. Me. Before I’d been turned into a white–hot, slick–curved, brick–house blonde.
“Where is it?” My voice had turned unnaturally raspy for a woman. It happened when I was extremely pissed.
“His watch.” She shrugged, watching me carefully, eyes lingering on my bare feet. “I told him I could get a great deal on a TAG Heuer. He loves it.”
She sauntered across the powder room to perch herself on a stool designed like a mini–sawhorse, still holding the detonator aloft. I smirked as, one–handed, she began putting on lipstick in a shade I used to favor. Cute. She’d taken the blueprint of my former features – the way I wore my hair, the skin tone and eyes – twisting the details in small ways to make them her own. The clothes she wore were still conservative, if a tad tighter than mine had been, and her jewelry was more dramatic, playing off deceptively delicate features.
Regan’s beauty regimen, and her near–pathological need to test me, had her slyly setting the detonator down and whipping out a simple black compact. Not trusting that this too wasn’t a detonator in disguise, I only watched as she used a cut sponge to reapply cover–up to a scar below her left ear. I wasn’t privy to how she’d gotten that one, but I knew Vanessa had nearly caught her three weeks ago with her hinge–bladed fan, and sure enough, Regan lifted her shirt to reveal the still–angry scores above her waist.
Unlike wounds from mortal weapons, conduits always left scars … again, if we survived them at all. Ordinarily one had to work to conceal the raised scars, but this concealer went on smoothly and the scar vanished, leaving her belly flawless in its mirrored reflection. Whoever had mixed the compound, I admitted grudgingly, had known what they were doing.
“Isn’t Ben even a little curious as to why his sweet ‘Rose’ has so many scars?” I asked acerbically. Now that my immediate plans for murder, mayhem, and revenge had been foiled, I decided to keep her talking until I came up with a plan B.
“Benny–Boy sees what I want him to,” she retorted, perching herself on the counter, feet on the sawhorse as she dabbed at her right calf. “You should get your lab rats to engineer a compound like this. Isn’t it wonderful? Close to your coloring too.”
I narrowed my eyes. It was exactly my coloring. The Shadow surgeon who’d turned her into a younger, stinkier version of the old me hadn’t skipped any corners.
“So, am I doing a good approximation of you, Archer?” Since we were alone, she used my title – my sign on the western Zodiac – openly.
“Please. You’re merely poaching.” I said, mindful of the device next to her as I watched her apply the makeup. It would be useful to have some of that for the mark on my chest. My glyph had burned me from the inside when I’d been captured in an underground cavern last month, and it still hadn’t quite faded. Regan had been responsible for that Kodak moment too. “Hurt him and I’ll finish the lobotomy your mother so clearly fucked up.”
Regan stiffened; star signs and conduits were passed down via the matriarchal line. Regan’s mother, Brynn DuPree, had indeed been fond of performing psychosurgery on known enemies with her ice pick … with an emphasis on the psycho. But, after a moment, Regan just continued smoothing on the concealer. “I can’t hurt Ben any more than you already have.”
Liar, liar. “Let me put it this way, then. If he even comes down with a cold, I’ll punch so many holes through your body it won’t hold embalming fluid.”
This time she paused in her dabbing, tilting her head my way. “But then Benny–Boy would be suspicious, wouldn’t he?” A theatrical sigh. “Not to mention brokenhearted.”
“You flatter yourself.”
“And you kid yourself.” Her voice was harder now, lower and rasping like mine. She snapped her compact shut and dropped it on the counter, then picked up the detonator again, flipping it lazily in her hand. “You’re going to lose him. It’s only a matter of time.”
“Is this where I get to say, ‘To you and what army’?”
“You know what army. After all, you’re a member.”
I shook my head. “I’m only half Shadow.”
“And I bet that wakes you up at night,” she said, pushing off from the counter to stand. I couldn’t let her at my back, so I turned and we squared against each other in the center of the room. “It’s what drives you from your bed in the morning, and makes you want to carve your presence in this world. You want to step up and be someone. Leave a mark so that future generations remember your name.”
She ascribed the ambitions to me, but the detail made me think she was talking about herself. Interesting. “I hate to tell you this, sweetie, but they’re already going to remember my name.”
“You sound like your father.”
“– call him that, I know.” She rolled her eyes. “Get over it already. I’ve seen you in action, Joanna. I see the brutality that lives in your eyes when you look at me. You can’t tell me you’ve never had a baser impulse. That you’ve never laughed when someone else took a tumble. Wished a person who blew by you in the fast lane would overcorrect an inch. Or that you’ve never seen a pedestrian on Las Vegas Boulevard and just wanted to swerve?” I opened my mouth to say, No, I hadn’t, but she cut me off by holding up a hand. “I know you, and I don’t just mean who you are beneath the gloss and the polish and the tits. I know you.”
She knew my weaknesses, at least. It was how she’d tricked me before. But …
“If you really knew me, you’d walk away from Ben now.”
“And speaking of,” she sang, clasping her hands together like a schoolgirl, “You should check out some of his e–journals. Such a good record keeper, our little aspiring writer. There’s some interesting reading there.” She studied my carefully blank look, and laughed when the silence grew long. “Oh yes, I know you’ve bugged his computer. But if you’d read those entries I doubt you’d be here. They’re part confessional, part penitence. You might be particularly interested in his actions involving a dead drug lord last summer in an urban cage known as Dog Run.”
Even the magic of overpriced makeup must not have been enough to hide my face draining of color, because Regan’s grin widened like it’d been cleaved.
“Or the fate of a young boy named Charles Tracy. Remember him?”
I hadn’t heard that name in years. Tracy had been a schoolyard bully who’d specialized in wedgies for the younger boys and used pudgy fingers to feel up any unfortunate girl in a skirt. Ben and I had ganged up on him at school, using the power of persuasion and our fists to make him stop. He’d dropped out of school altogether in junior high, and I hadn’t thought of him since.
“I’m not interested in the lies you’ve planted in his journals,” I told her shortly. She might have an advantage over me but she had no right to touch on my past. “Or some fabricated story about a kid I haven’t seen in over a decade.”
“Aw, how sweet. Defending your one true love. Bad habits really are hard to break.”
The need to amputate her smile welled, and I took a step forward before I could stop it. “You mean bad habits like planting bombs around my lover’s house … ones you’re going to remove before anyone even thinks of making them go bang.”
She shrugged and pretended to study her nails. They were polished, but clear, as I’d have worn them. Another visual cue for Ben’s subconscious to latch on to.
“Those bombs,” she said evenly, “are less destructive than the anger and betrayal you planted by abandoning him twice. Do you have any idea how easy it’s been to water that particular emotional seed? As much fun as my mother said it could be.”
And Brynn DuPree had been a model Shadow agent.
“All it would take is one visit from me in my old skin, and you’d be nothing but a distant memory.” Over Regan’s shoulder I saw my reflection take another menacing step forward. It looked like someone else altogether; Olivia’s bright, bouncy features had sharpened like they’d been whittled into angry points, the butter–soft flesh a delicate cocoon for the skeletal darkness threatening to burst forth. Welcome to my fucked–up dual existence.
“Maybe.” She shrugged but it was jagged. She was fighting not to inch backward. “But then I’d have to spill your little secret.”
“You mean reveal my Olivia identity to Ben? Or to the Tulpa?” I scoffed, though I knew the leader of the Shadow organization would offer a hefty reward to anyone who could do just that. “It’s an empty threat, and you know it. You’re too fond of the power and options that knowledge gives you.”
“I take a certain pleasure from it, true.” And she did step back, back and around to observe me again through the lasso–fringed mirror. “But I’m weary of glancing over my shoulder every time I visit the restroom. I want you to back off for good, and stop planting those fucking listening devices all around his house, or else Ben is going to learn of yet another secret his erstwhile ex has kept from him all these years.” And then she mouthed a single, shocking word at me through the glass.
It changed everything. I’d have been less surprised if the floor had dropped from beneath me. Only one person could’ve given Regan that name, but I thought I’d killed him before he told anyone about my daughter. Ben’s daughter.
Enjoying my reaction, Regan smiled. “Back off now, and I won’t tell the Tulpa he has a granddaughter either. One that is of the Light.” She laughed at the irony in her hoarded secret. The leader of the Shadows, a grandsire to a child of the Light. A leader, I knew, who’d kill my daughter all the more quickly because of it.
“Oh, your expression is priceless!” She laughed gaily, a sound like tiny bells chiming in the spring winds, before pretending to sober. “Though you should check it. I doubt your sister ever wore such a serious expression.”
I pulled my gaze from her if only to hide the tumult inside, but looking at my image confirmed she was right. Olivia’s eyes had always been bright blue – open, smiling, and trusting. Mine were light enough to look honeyed in the right light, a soft shade of brown Regan had very nearly duplicated, but they’d always deepened when I was angry. Right now they were flashing like polished jet in an expression that was as petrified and bright as the diamonds at my ears and fists. The earrings had been a gift from Xavier Archer, Olivia’s father, and the man I once thought was also mine. But the eyes were from my real father, the Shadow leader, the being who either wanted me to belong to him or wanted me dead.
I waited to speak until I was steady enough to control my voice. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Well, I don’t know little Ashlyn’s adopted surname, or where she ended up all those years ago, but it shouldn’t take too long to find out. And even if it does, I don’t mind waiting for the onset of her second life cycle.” I opened my mouth, but she held up the hand with the detonator and shook her head. “Uh–uh–uh. Remember, I’m watching you too. And right now I’m going to watch you walk away with your tail tucked, while I enjoy a romantic two–step with your boyfriend.”
I knew I was losing the battle for self–control when Regan’s delicate nostrils widened, a sign that my natural pheromones were flaring, but I couldn’t help it. My options were swiftly disappearing. Regan watched my face, drinking in the emotions she caught passing there, and as if thirsting for more, she leaned forward on the counter, gaze piercing mine through the mirror. “It’s a conundrum, isn’t it? Continue stalking us, and you risk pissing me off so much I may snap and take it out on your childhood crush. Stop, and he might outlive his usefulness. Nothing to keep me from killing him … or making him wish he was dead.”
I was clenching my jaw so tight my teeth ached.
“But, no. I’m not entirely without needs of my own, so I think I’ll fuck him first.” She tilted her head, and her pretty smile widened. “I’ll make sure those listening devices are working properly so you can get off too.”
I reached for her with a speed that still surprised me. Regan yelped, whirling and dodging as her glyph smoked hot on her chest, the realization she’d pushed too far stark on her face.
My face, I corrected mentally, and plowed a fist into it.
We were two opposing agents in our prime, and the fight was evenly matched, though it’d be a blur to mortal eyes, which is why the woman entering the restroom didn’t register our presence until a stool crashed through the wall behind her, imbedded there like an oversized thumbtack. She also had to be severely inebriated. She stood in place, staring at the stool as the whistling and howling of wind – our blows and battle cries in flight – accompanied a blur of motion so fast, it was like a dust devil had landed inside. I rushed Regan, continuing forward when I should’ve stopped, launching up her body like it was a climbing wall to send a knee flying into her skull. She face–planted into the mirror she’d been sneering into only moments before, which gave me time to reach the mortal’s side, gently pick her up, and deposit her back outside the restroom. Regan wouldn’t hesitate to use her life as leverage, and I couldn’t give the bitch an opportunity to harm anyone else.
“Keep guard,” I told the woman, and waited for her dazed nod before the door swung shut. I turned around …
And had my stomach caved in by a driving skull. My ribs wrapped around my spine and the door splintered behind me so the yelp from the other side seeped through the cracks, but I was too busy learning to breathe again to worry about spillover into the mortal world. I was also pretty concerned about the ice pick arching toward the large artery in my neck.
“Fuck,” I breathed, my glyph lighting in response to her conduit. Regan smiled.
Leaving my aching ribs exposed, I crisscrossed my arms against her weapon hand, and paid for it with a knee in my gut. My breath whooshed from me again, but I latched on to lift her wrists, reared back, and head–butted her. Twice.
Her arms went slack, my fingers scrambled; her hands wobbled, mine tightened and the ice pick popped into the air like a champagne cork. One final swipe on my part sent it skittering across the sitting room and under the line of stalls. We both growled snaking sounds of fury and frustration, and redirected our assault.
An admittedly lucky left jab had Regan backpedaling, and I was back on her in two strides, a low kick connecting with her thigh, causing the muscles to contract in the mother of all charley horses. It was a tide–turning injury, and we both knew it. Regan’s retreat was so fast, she looked like a spider scuttling away on too few limbs. I was just as fast, and had her … until sound erupted like a flash flood, waves of it careening over us both. We doubled over where we stood, hands pressed to the sides of our heads in a humorless parody of Munch’s The Scream.
I tried to focus on Regan, but the narrow canals of my ears were closing up on me, like the cabin of a plane suddenly losing pressure. I cried out in pain, in silence, knowing what this was. This was stark elemental chaos, atoms and molecules compressed beyond anything this reality could hold, and the explosion of sound was as magnificent as an asteroid collision in space.
Except this sound wasn’t set to a frequency in a galaxy far, far away. It was in a Las Vegas bathroom, next to me, all around me. In me. Someone – someone strong – was fucking with the vibration of matter.
I tensed in anticipation of the final concussion. Paranormal turmoil operated on a different wavelength than normal matter, its pulse detectable only by those equipped to hear it. So it was a good thing no one entered the bathroom just then, because Regan and I would have looked mighty strange writhing in the perceived silence. But instead of winnowing away like regular sound waves, the tremor swelled, similar to the bubbles blooming over the heads of comic book characters, and not by coincidence. Those who were supernatural could sense the forming of that bubble, the crest between the waves making up the vibration, the enormous size of its pressurized core.
And this was a big motherfucker.
A high–pitched whine wheeled through the air, refusing to be absorbed before oxygen dropped from the room, the city, and then the earth. Then the accompanying pop ruptured the void, ricocheting off my eardrums like a puncturing jab, and the collapsing vacuum ate my scream.
There was nothing but a low–grade buzzing for a good thirty seconds. I used the blissful silence to regain my equilibrium, trusting Regan was doing the same. My hearing returned on a single note, like the pluck of an untuned guitar string, and marked the ebb of the invisible tsunami of sound. It receded degree by degree, and when it was finally gone Regan and I both straightened. Breathing hard, staring at each other across a distance of no more than a jab, we inhaled deeply.
The air was chalky and static, and sapped the moisture from my tongue as I tried to taste the highs and furrows created on the shocked air. Scent was equally obliterated, at least for a few seconds more, and then a sour putridity crept into the room. Regan’s tensed shoulders dropped, and she found her smile again.
“What? Did you think we’d never fight back?”
The statement, and the stench, made it clear one of Regan’s allies had done this. Somehow he, she, or they had punched a hole through the plane between realities, and it was my job – mine and my troop’s – to fix it before the human element noticed. However, that wasn’t what had my response catching in my throat.
It was clear from her words that Regan thought the recent series of vibrational outbursts had been caused by the agents of Light. They hadn’t – and we hadn’t been able to detect a source on the damaged air – but I wasn’t about to tell her that. And I needed to go. This explosion was bigger than anything Regan threatened to make.
“No more bombs,” I told her. “Or I’ll send you to a place where hellfire feels like a spa treatment.”
“And I’ll bring Ben along as my cabana boy.”
She surprised me then by retrieving her conduit and leaving first, without another word, but as I surveyed the shattered mirrors, the upended furniture, and the holes in the walls and door, my eyes fell on something tiny and girly and black. I picked up her compact, flipping it in my palm before pocketing it.
Then I left to find out what exactly was ripping at the fabric of our world.