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Murmur, Page 1

Olivia R. Burton


  Copyright© 2017 Olivia R. Burton

  ISBN: 978-1-77339-432-9

  Cover Artist: Jay Aheer

  Editor: Karyn White


  WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.

  This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


  A Preternatural PNW Novel, 4

  Olivia R. Burton

  Copyright © 2017

  Veruca could have sworn she’d left Finn in the car outside the small-town convenience store, but now that’s she’d come back with snacks and drinks, he was nowhere to be found.

  It didn’t surprise her, really. Her sexy, blue-eyed Irishman wasn’t that reliable on his best day, and today was just supposed to be a leisurely drive toward nowhere in particular. It was something they enjoyed every so often, though Finn did occasionally clutch his seat a little too hard when Veruca took sharp, coastal turns. They’d headed east, away from the coast, though, so her driving couldn’t have been blamed for his disappearance.

  She sighed, tossed the snacks into the passenger seat, locked up the car, and headed toward the small city center they’d passed on the way in. Finn had probably seen a wild hare or a good-looking old lady or even just a happy dog and wandered off. It wasn’t the first time he’d misplaced himself chasing tail. Veruca figured she’d find him in the park hovering over some octogenarian or golden retriever who was just happy to have his attention.

  The town was nice, cozy, and vibrant, with flowers and cottages, intimate stores with the registers so close to the door you had to give a hearty hello to the proprietor as you entered. Veruca appreciated the close-knit feel of community, though it wouldn’t have been a place she’d have wanted to stay permanently. She liked her privacy, if only because small towns weren’t known for their tolerance, and if anyone around had found out she worked directly for the Prince of Hell and that Finn could raise the dead, they might have tried to run both of them right off their turf.

  She made it to the center of the main park, looking around at the lush, summer foliage, hoping to spot Finn’s lanky form and soft black hair, but had no such luck. He wasn’t running free at the dog park she’d passed, hadn’t hustled up to charm the pack of elderly lady speed-walkers making their way around the small lake, and wasn’t chatting up the twenty-something running the bicycle-powered ice cream cart. At a loss, Veruca sighed, took a seat on a sun-warmed bench at the edge of the trail, and closed her dark eyes.

  Finn had been nothing but trouble since they’d met, causing her more injuries and inconvenience than all of the decades in which she’d been collecting souls bound for the underworld. She considered his presence a gift, even despite all that, and found that she’d fallen in deeper love with him than with anyone else. He was a constant source of happiness, surprise, laughter, and excitement.

  Since that excitement had come in the form of losing track of him more than once, she’d used her power over souls to exchange a little portion of his with a little portion of hers. They’d be connected for life, always being able to sense one another and find one another, no matter how thick the fog of life may have gotten.

  Knowing his location was a simple thing, once she concentrated, following the magical golden thread that linked the two of them across any distance. It wasn’t tangible, probably wasn’t really perceptible to anyone, maybe not even to another soul-reading Reaper, but it was how she had come to think of their connection. Finn’s soul, through the chaos that was the town full of people, animals, insects, and invisible, magical creatures that didn’t show themselves to the human world, hummed quietly at the far edge of the park, within a group of other souls, all of them human.

  Human, but tainted, Veruca realized, popping to her feet before she had even opened her eyes.

  Finn wasn’t that far, she knew. If she just pushed herself, jogging through the rest of the park, she could make it to him before he was taken too far, assuming he was being taken at all. She didn’t really have any reason to assume Finn was in danger, though her entire history with him was probably enough to suggest such a thing. If yet another powerful woman from his past had discovered his whereabouts there was a good chance she was going to show up, nab Finn, and steal off into the night.

  Or mid-afternoon as the case may be.

  Pushing herself wasn’t difficult, as Veruca had the time and money to keep herself in excellent shape, and she made it to the far parking lot just as Finn was being trussed up like a rodeo calf and shoved into the back of a mini-van. The thing looked like it had seen its share of soccer games and track meets, which made the whole situation even more ridiculous. Veruca could see the surprise in Finn’s eyes for just a split second before his face was covered by a hood. Then the van door slid shut, just barely missing his left ankle.

  “Shit,” Veruca swore, picking up speed just as the van did the same, swerving around a woman and her poodle as they tried to cross the parking lot. “Shit!”

  Knowing it wouldn’t stop them, but doing it anyway, Veruca hurled herself into a full on run, hoping she could at least catch sight of the license plate for long enough to memorize it before it got out of sight. She could track Finn via their connection, sure, but she hadn’t gotten to be a well-known Reaper by being lazy about research. Being able to look up who or what had Finn before busting in to rescue his skinny butt would come in handy, and she knew from experience she’d need every advantage if she was going to get him back in one piece.

  The van sped away too fast for her to get a picture, but she managed a make, model, and the first three digits on the plate. Swearing under her breath in Spanish as she gave up the chase, she unlocked her phone, noted down what she’d seen, and stuffed the thing back in her purse.

  “You okay?”

  Veruca whirled on the woman behind her, knowing she wouldn’t have been shocked to find her so close if she hadn’t been so focused on Finn and the getaway vehicle.

  “Yeah, are you?” Veruca looked down at the poodle, noting absently that, while her official name was Greta, Baby had been more lovingly knit into the tapestry of her soul. It was a touching picture, Veruca thought, enjoying the sweetness of the human-pet bond, even despite the situation. “I saw that jackass almost hit you.”

  “Yeah, Greta here saved my bacon,” the woman said, shaking her head as if she couldn’t believe it. “I was tugging her, but she wouldn’t let me cross. I think I got part of the plate, but it was going so fast, I only managed the last few numbers. I doubt the cops can do anything at any rate.”

  “Can I have the numbers?” Veruca asked, thanking her lucky stars for Baby and her owner’s not-so-keen observational skills. “Maybe if we both file a complaint they’ll be more likely to check things out.”

  “Oh, good idea,” the woman said. “You got a notepad or anything?”


  Getting the address had been simple enough, considering the connections Veruca had across the human world and beyond. Belial had made sure his top agents would never be stymied in soul collecting by someone under contract running scared. The address led her to an unassuming home in an unassuming neighborhood, but the owner of the van wasn’t there and Veruca could see from the lack of souls that no one else was either.

  Parking her car down the street, she jogged up, slipped in through the side gate and pulled out a lock-picking set Finn had given her for thei
r one-year anniversary, hoping the skills he’d attempted to teach her had stuck. Most of their lessons had ended in him unlocking her bra and her unlocking his pants, but surely something useful had stuck.

  Doing a little recon to see if the inside of the house boasted any surveillance cameras or alarm panels, she grinned when nothing showed itself. Not that she wouldn’t have been able to handle a little B&E charge, but causing the police to show up and detain her from finding Finn wasn’t on her To-Do list.

  It surprised her a little when the door to the garage clicked open on her first try, and she pushed inside, shutting it silently behind her. The garage yielded nothing helpful, so she looked around, found the door to the house unlocked, and let herself in.

  Things got interesting real fast, and she had to stop just inside the doorway to really look around at what she was seeing.

  It should have looked like a normal, suburban family home, with a bowl of fruit on the kitchen counter, a basket of laundry on the couch, and a fridge full of mail and family notes. It had all that, as well as a sheen of dust on the television, month-old dates on the bills on the freezer, and a dining room wall that had been covered in demonic art, scraps of scribbled gibberish, and a table littered in occult books.

  “Well,” Veruca said with a sigh. “This isn’t what one wishes to find when investigating a kidnapper.”

  She picked through the books, scanning covers, pleased to see that half the books were garbage written by plain humans who knew nothing of the true occult. The others had tidbits of information that either came close to legitimate or were outright correct, and Veruca wondered why they’d been allowed to put such information out into the world.

  Thinking she’d have to ask Belial about it some time, she shut the one that had been at the bottom of the stack and moved on to look through the rest of the papers hoping for a clue as to where the person or people who’d lived in the house had gone. The dust and the rottenness of the apples on the counter led her to believe they’d left a while ago, but there didn’t seem to be any sign of where they’d gone.

  Further perusal of the information spread across the wall, however, did yield something useful.

  “Hijoeputa,” she swore with a shake of her head. “Are you idiots serious?”


  “Veruca, how nice to hear from you. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

  “I need some information,” Veruca sighed into the phone. “Finn’s been taken.”

  “Finn?” Belial asked, sarcasm searing through his voice. “That fine, responsible young man? I can’t imagine a more unlikely scenario.”

  Veruca only grumbled, knowing he was teasing, but also being reminded that her reputation since she’d taken up with Finn had been slightly changed. It wasn’t entirely for the worse, of course. There were those who were aware of Finn’s troubles staying safe, but at least they’d also heard of Veruca’s tenacity and ruthlessness in getting him back.

  “It’s not really his fault this time,” she said after a moment, knowing that may not even be completely true. Who could know what Finn had said to attract the attention of demon worshippers in a small town? “We stopped for snacks, and Finn disappeared while I was in the store. I tracked him across a park and found him being tied up and stuffed into the back of some minivan.”

  “Father of a past conquest caught up to him?” Belial asked, a smirk in his tone.

  “Demon worshippers interested in human sacrifice.”

  “Depending on the father, the situations could be very similar.”

  Veruca sighed again, leaning her head back against the seat. “No one’s been at the house—I tracked the van to its owner—for some time, and I found no sign of where they’ve gone to, but my guess is somewhere no one will notice candles, black robes, screaming, and chanting. I’m hoping you can put me in touch with the demon.”

  “Hoping to turn the tables on the kidnappers?”

  “No, I can track Finn on my own, but once I get there it would be nice to have someone more impressive than I to explain to them—however harshly is necessary—that demon worshipping is no summer hobby.”

  “You don’t want to call the police? They won’t believe the demon part, but they can make sure anyone involved is too busy holding tight to the soap in the shower to do any summoning or sacrificing.”

  “Finn hasn’t been gone for more than an hour, so I can’t report him missing. And even if I said I witnessed him being taken, I’d have a hard time explaining how to know where to find him. Scary demon with scary powers would be a little more immediately effective, don’t you think?”

  “True. Did you catch a name for which demon you need to borrow?”

  “I did, though it’s not someone I’ve heard of. I can assume from the name it’s an older one, hopefully one from your early days?”

  “Do your best with the pronunciation. I’m sure I can work it out.”

  “Kikimoya?” Veruca said, hazarding a guess based on the phonetic way she’d seen written on a few of the pages scattered about the dining room table.

  “That’s … correct,” Belial said, hesitation in his tone. Veruca’s heart seized a bit.

  “Why? What’s—the scribbled notes said the creature is related to wealth and prosperity.”

  “Not exactly,” Belial said, before breaking out into quiet laughter. “Kikimoya is … ah, she’s associated with dough, but not the kind I’m assuming your wayward kidnappers are thinking. She’s usually called in to broker deals associated with home and family life, but often she was brought in to help with sustenance in the past. Things associated with the hearth, baking bread, canning—the comfort of having food was a big issue once upon a time, as I’m sure you can imagine.”

  “So Finn’s been kidnapped in the pursuit of the perfect oatmeal chocolate chip cookie?” Veruca balked.

  Belial chuckled.

  “Well … I doubt they realized that’s who they’re aiming to impress. It’s likely the prosperity part they’ve latched onto. Depending on where they’re getting their information, who knows what’s been translated or passed around by word of mouth. She deals with more modern home issues these days. Out of control family life? Kiki can fix that, for a price. Look, she’s not usually busy. I’ll have her meet you, just tell me where and when.”

  “How the hell did these idiots get—never mind.” Veruca sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. “Finn’s about an hour away from me. I’ll get an exact location and pass it along. Sorry to have to bother you with this.”

  “Not at all,” Belial said. “At the very least you and your man are a constant source of entertainment.”


  Kiki was waiting where Veruca had specified, though she doubted anyone else pulling up to park along the side of the road knew there was an eight-foot tall demon in dark robes waiting in the waning sunlight. She was an impressive sight, even without taking into account the height, and Veruca could see that she hadn’t bothered to modernize her look at all, even though she probably could have.

  Some of the demons Veruca had dealt with had been made by Belial himself, blessed with powers as mere fae spawn, humans born with some sort of magic and later invited into the fold. Others seemed to be as old as Hell itself, inhuman as they came, usually lacking in social graces and insisting on difficult tasks and intense vetting before a human was allowed to stand in their presence.

  Kiki looked to be the latter, Veruca thought as she climbed out of the car.

  Her form was feminine, in as much as a scarecrow’s body could have gender. Her skin was rough, like hay bundled into the shape of a woman, with a long beak of a face and narrow slits for eyes at the sides of her head. The robes she wore were heavy, but tied tightly by a simple rope at her waist, and revealed bird-like talons for feet.

  She crossed the dirt to Veruca, nodding hello and speaking through her bundled-straw beak.

  “Good day. Belial said you’ve requested my help with some followers.” Her voice was pleasant, deep
but still womanly.

  “Yes, have you felt their call at all? Supposedly they believe you require some sort of sacrifice to be summoned.”

  Kiki waved her monstrous hand dismissively. “No such precautions are in place. My reputation is mishandled through much of the human world, though I admit some of that is my own design. Now, you’ve said you have an underling in danger?”

  “Yes—well, not an underling. My lover, Finn. They—I believe, according to the literature spread around the home of the person responsible for taking him—intend to sacrifice him in your honor.”

  “Unnecessary, though I can admire the effort involved. Shall we be on our way?”

  “Yes. They’re not too deep into the woods.”

  “Please, I will follow.”

  Perhaps being trailed through the crowded forest in falling dusk by a monstrous demon would be considered uncomfortable to some, but Veruca had been in much stranger situations. They moved easily, despite the terrain, and Veruca found she was glad she’d pulled up her thick, dark hair and changed out of her revealing sundress and into something practical. Finn would still be in loose pants and a t-shirt, but she had hope they’d have been stained by nothing more dire than dirt and forest grime.

  So help the people who aimed to make Finn bleed, Veruca thought, feeling her insides go hot at the mere idea.

  “They’re close,” Veruca said, pointing in the direction she could sense the group. Finn was a beacon among the other souls, his a shimmering gold net woven tightly around his heart. All but one of the others lacked the vibrancy of his essence, not only because of their distance from Veruca but because they had each made such poor choices in life. Many things could stain a soul, but in Veruca’s experience, nothing did so faster than a lack of compassion and eager decisions to treat others poorly.

  From the look of these people, they’d been a bundle of bad choices and rude comments.