One Grave at a Time, Page 1Jeaniene Frost
One Grave at a Time
A Night Huntress Novel
For my grandmother, Kathleen.
Though you are no longer with us,
you are no less loved.
An Excerpt from "Home for the Holidays"
About the Author
By Jeaniene Frost
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About the Publisher
The Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches, is a real book written by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger (though some scholars suggest Sprenger’s contribution was more ceremonial than authorial). For the purposes of my plot, however, I chose to credit the creation of the Malleus Maleficarum to only one author, Heinrich Kramer. Jacob Sprenger, you got off lucky this time.
Lasting Peace Cemetery
“Donald Bartholomew Williams, get your ass back here now!”
My bellow still hung in the air when movement drew my gaze to the right. Just behind a headstone shaped like a small, weeping angel stood my uncle. Don stared at me as he tugged on his eyebrow in a way that expressed his discomfort more eloquently than a litany of words. In his suit and tie, gray hair combed back in its usual impeccable style, Don would look like your average middle-aged businessman to anyone observing him, except for one thing. You had to be undead or a psychic to be able to see him.
Don Williams, former head of a covert branch of Homeland Security that guarded the public against rogue supernatural creatures, had died ten days ago. Yet there he stood. A ghost.
I’d sobbed at his bedside when that fatal heart attack struck, seen to his cremation afterward, been like a zombie at his wake, and even brought his ashes back to my home so I could keep him near me. Little did I know how near to me Don had actually been, considering all those times I’d thought I caught sight of him out of the corner of my eye. I’d chalked up those brief glimpses of my uncle to nothing more than grief-induced mirages until five minutes ago, when I realized my husband, Bones, could see him, too. Even though we were in the middle of a cemetery that still had bodies strewn about from a recent battle, and I had silver bullets burning inside me like agonizing little bonfires, all I could focus on was that Don hadn’t wanted me to know that he was still grave-side up.
My uncle looked none too pleased that I’d discovered his secret. Part of me wanted to throw my arms around him while another part wanted to shake him until his teeth rattled. He should have told me, not skulked in the background playing a phantomish version of peekaboo! Of course, despite my dual urges, I could neither shake nor hug Don now. My hands would slip right through his newly diaphanous form, and likewise, my uncle couldn’t touch anything—or anyone—corporeal anymore. So all I could do was stare at him, battling confusion, joy, and disbelief combined with some irritation at his deception.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” I finally asked.
His gray gaze flicked a few feet beyond me. I didn’t need to turn around to know that Bones had come up behind me. Since he’d changed me from a half-breed into a full vampire, I could feel Bones like our auras were supernaturally intertwined. Which they were, I supposed. I still didn’t know everything about what made up the connection between vampires and their sires. All I knew was that it existed, and it was powerful. Unless he shielded himself, I could sense Bones’s feelings as though they were a continuous stream threaded into my psyche.
That’s how I knew Bones was a lot more in control than I was. His initial shock at discovering Don as a ghost had given way to guarded contemplation. I, on the other hand, still felt like my emotions were in a whirlwind. Bones drew even with me, his dark brown gaze on my uncle.
“You see that she is safe,” Bones stated, an English accent coloring his words. “We stopped Apollyon, so ghouls and vampires are at peace once more. You can go in peace. All is well.”
Understanding bloomed along with a spurt of heart-wrenching emotion. Was that why my uncle hadn’t “crossed over” like he should have? Probably. Don was even more of a control freak than I was, and though he’d rejected my repeated offers to cure his cancer by becoming a vampire, maybe he’d been too worried about the brewing undead hostilities to let go entirely when he died. I’d seen at least one ghost stay on long enough to ensure the safety of a loved one. Making sure I’d survived this battle and protected humanity by preventing a clash between vampires and ghouls was no doubt the anchor that had held Don here, but now, like Bones said, he could go.
I blinked past the sudden moisture in my gaze. “He’s right,” I said, my voice rasping. “I’ll always love and miss you, but you’re . . . you’ve got somewhere else to be now, don’t you?”
My uncle gazed at both of us, his expression somber. Even though he didn’t have actual lungs anymore, it sounded like he let out a slow, relieved breath.
“Goodbye, Cat,” he said, the first words he’d spoken to me since the day he died. Then the air around him became hazy, blurring his features and obscuring his outline. I reached for Bones’s hand, feeling his strong fingers curling around mine with a comforting squeeze. At least Don wasn’t in pain like the last time I’d had to say goodbye to him. I tried to smile as my uncle’s image faded entirely, but grief hit me in a fresh wave. Knowing he was going on to where he belonged didn’t mean the ache of losing him went away.
Bones waited several moments after Don vanished before turning to me.
“Kitten, I know it’s wretched timing, but we still have things we must do. Like getting those bullets out of you, removing the bodies—”
“Oh shit,” I whispered.
Don appeared behind Bones while he was talking. A fierce scowl darkened my uncle’s features, and he waved his arms in an uncharacteristic display of emotional excess.
“Does anyone want to explain why the hell I can’t seem to leave?”
I crumpled up the invoice in front of me, not throwing it away only because it wasn’t the minister’s fault that burying Don’s ashes in hallowed ground didn’t do jack toward sending my uncle to the Great Beyond. We’d now tried everything that our friends—alive, undead, or otherwise—had suggested to get my uncle to cross from this plane
to the next one. None of it worked, as evidenced by Don pacing next to me, his feet not quite touching the floor.
His frustration was understandable. When you died, unless that was just a precursor to changing into a vampire or ghoul, you rather expected not to be stuck on earth anymore. Yeah, I’d been around ghosts before—a lot lately—but considering the number of people who died compared to the number of ghosts that existed, the odds of getting your Casper on were less than one percent. Yet my uncle seemed to be stuck in this rare between-worlds stasis whether he liked it or not. For someone who had been almost Machiavellian in his ability to manipulate circumstances, his current helplessness had to rankle that much more.
“We’ll try something else,” I offered, mustering up a false smile. “Hey, you’re a pro at overcoming insurmountable odds. You managed to keep Americans from finding out about the supernatural world despite complications like cell phone video, the Internet, and YouTube. You’ll find a way to move on.”
My attempt at cheerfulness only earned me a baleful look. “Fabian never found a way to cross over,” Don muttered, a swipe of his hand indicating my ghostly friend who lurked just outside my office. “Neither did any of the countless others who’ve found their way to you since you’ve become a spook magnet.”
I winced, but he was right. I’d thought being born as the offspring of a vampire and a human was the height of improbability, but that only showed my lack of faith in Fate’s twisted sense of humor. My turning into a full vampire put me firmly in first place as the World’s Weirdest Person. I didn’t feed off human blood like every other vampire. No, I needed undead blood to survive instead, and I absorbed more than nourishment from it. I also—temporarily—absorbed whatever special abilities the owner of that blood contained. Drinking from a ghoul who just happened to have incredible ties to the grave had made me irresistible to any ghost who happened to be in the same area code as me. Privately, I worried that my new, borrowed abilities might be one of the reasons Don couldn’t cross over yet. I’m sure the thought had occurred to him, too, hence his grumpier-than-usual attitude with me.
“Ask them to keep it down, Kitten,” Bones muttered when he came in the room. “Can’t hear myself bloomin’ think.”
I raised my voice to be sure that it carried not just around the house, but the porch and backyard, too.
“Please, guys, a little softer with the chatter?”
Dozens of conversations instantly become muted even though I’d made it a request instead of an order. I was still uncomfortable with how my new, unwanted ability meant that ghosts had to obey whatever I commanded. I didn’t want that kind of power over anyone, so I was very careful in how I phrased my communications with the spectral dead. Especially my uncle. How things have changed, I mused. For years when I worked as one of Don’s team of elite soldiers, I’d chafed at having to follow his orders. Now he’d have to follow mine, if I chose, something I’d longed for back then—and couldn’t wait to get rid of now.
Bones sank into the chair nearest me. His lean, muscled frame exuded a heady mixture of sexiness and coiled energy even though he sat in a casual sprawl, one bare foot propped against my thigh. His dark hair was damp from his recent shower, making his short curls cling even tighter to his head. A stray bead of water lazily trailed down his neck toward the hard grooves in his chest, making me moisten my lips at my sudden urge to trace its path with my tongue.
If we were alone, I wouldn’t have needed to suppress that urge. Bones would be all too willing to indulge in some afternoon delight. His sex drive was as legendary as his dangerousness, but with two ghosts watching us, my tongue explorations would have to wait until later.
“If more noisy ghosties keep showing up, I’m going to plant garlic and weed ’round the entire house,” Bones stated in a conversational tone.
My uncle glowered at him, knowing that both those items in large quantities would repel most ghosts. “Not until I’m where I should be.”
I coughed, something I didn’t need to do since breathing became optional for me.
“By the time it would grow in, this power should be out of my system. The longest I wielded borrowed abilities was two months. It’s been almost that long since . . . well.”
It still wasn’t common knowledge that Marie Laveau, voodoo queen of New Orleans, was the reason I was now the equivalent of a ghostly den mother. It had been her blood I was forced to drink. Yeah, I understood later why she’d made me do it, but at the time, I’d been more than a little pissed.
“I knew a ghost who once took three weeks to cross over,” Fabian spoke up from the doorframe. At my grateful smile, he came all the way in. “I’m sure Cat will think of something that will help you make the journey,” he added with supreme confidence.
Bless Fabian. True friends came in all forms, even transparent ones.
Don wasn’t convinced. “I’ve been dead for over five weeks,” he replied shortly. “Did you know anyone who took that long to cross over?”
My cell rang, giving Fabian an excuse not to reply as I answered it. Good timing with the interruption, too, because from his expression, Don wouldn’t have liked Fabian’s answer.
I didn’t need to glance at the numbers to recognize Tate, my former first officer, just from that one syllable. He was probably calling to talk to Don, but as a ghost’s voice didn’t travel well through technology, I’d have to act as relay.
“Hey, what’s up?” I said, waving Don over while mouthing, It’s Tate.
“Can you come to the compound tonight?” Tate’s voice sounded odd. Too formal. “The team’s operations consultant would like to meet you.”
Operations consultant? “Since when do we have one of those?” I asked, forgetting that I hadn’t been part of the team’s “we” in a while.
“Since now,” Tate replied flatly.
I glanced at Bones but didn’t wait for his acquiescing shrug before answering. We didn’t have important plans, and my curiosity was piqued. “All right. I’ll see you in a couple hours.”
“Don’t come alone.”
Tate whispered the last part right before hanging up. My brows rose, more that he’d made the sentence inaudible to anyone without supernatural hearing than the words themselves.
Something else was clearly up. I knew he wasn’t asking me to bring Bones since Tate knew he always accompanied me on trips to my old workplace. Tate must mean someone else, and there was only person I could think of.
I turned to Don. “Feel like going on a field trip?”
From the air, the compound looked like a nondescript single-story building surrounded by a lot of wasted parking lot space. In reality, it was an old military nuclear fallout shelter that had four extensive sublevels underneath its deliberately plain exterior. Security was rigid here, as you’d expect for a secret government facility that policed the activities of the undead. Still, I was surprised when we had to hover for ten minutes before our chopper was given clearance to land. It was not like we were dropping in unexpectedly, for crying out loud.
Bones and I exited the chopper but were stopped by three helmeted guards when we attempted to go inside the roof’s double doors.
“ID,” the guard closest to us barked.
I laughed. “Good one, Cooper.”
The guards’ visors were so dark that I couldn’t see any of their features underneath, but they all had heartbeats, and Cooper was the only one of my old human friends who was smart-ass enough to attempt such a stunt.
“Identification,” the guard repeated, drawing the word out enough to determine that his voice was unfamiliar to me. Okay, not Cooper, and not a joke, either. The flanking guards tightened their grips ever so slightly on their automatic weapons.
“I don’t like this,” Don muttered, coming to float on my right. None of the guards even flinched in his direction, but of course, as humans, they couldn’t see him.
I didn’t like it, either, but it was obvious these guards were bent
on seeing our ID before letting us enter. I began to dig through my pocket, having learned the hard way to always carry a wallet even if I didn’t think I’d need it, but Bones just smiled at the trio.
“Want my identification?” he asked silkily. “Here it is.” Then his eyes changed to glowing emerald green while fangs slid out from his upper teeth, extending to their full length like mini ivory daggers.
“Let us pass, or we’ll leave, and you can explain to your boss that the visitors he expected had better things to do than have their time wasted.”
The guard who’d demanded our ID hesitated for a loaded moment, then stepped aside without another word. The twin fangs gleaming from Bones’s teeth retracted, and his eyes bled back to their normal dark brown color.
I put my wallet back in my pants. Guess I wasn’t going to need my driver’s license after all.
“Wise choice,” Bones commented. I brushed past the guards, with him following behind me, my uncle still muttering that he didn’t like this. No shit, I thought, but didn’t say it for more reasons than not wanting to appear like I was talking to myself. This was Don’s first trip back to the building he’d run for years and ultimately died in. Now he was returning in a supernatural form that most of his colleagues couldn’t even see. That had to be discomfiting in more ways than I could imagine.