Hatred is a bitter, damaging emotion. It winds itself through the blood, infecting its host and driving it forward without any reason. Its view is jaundiced and it skews even the clearest of eyesights.
Sacrifice is noble and tender. It’s the action of a host who values others above himself Sacrifice is bought through love and decency. It is truly heroic.
Vengeance is an act of violence. It allows those who have been wronged to take back some of what was lost to them. Unlike sacrifice, it gives back to the one who practices it.
Love is deceitful and sublime. In its truest form, it brings out the best in all beings. At its worst, it’s a tool used to manipulate and ruin anyone who is stupid enough to hold it.
Don’t be stupid.
Sacrifice is for the weak. Hatred corrupts. Love destroys. Vengeance is the gift of the strong.
Move forward, not with hatred, not with love.
Move forward with purpose.
Take back what was stolen. Make those who laughed at your pain pay. Not with hatred, but with calm, cold rationale.
Hatred is your enemy. Vengeance is your friend. Hold it close and let it loose.
May the gods have mercy on those who have wronged me because I will have no mercy for them.
Xypher paused as he read the words he’d written on the floor of his cell in his own blood centuries ago. Dull and faded, they were a reminder to him of what had brought him to this time and place.
They were a sacred vow to himself
Closing his eyes, he spread his hand out and the words dissolved into a mist that lifted from the floor only to reassemble down his left arm. Symbol by symbol, word by word, the characters, still bloodied, cut themselves into his skin. He hissed at the burn of them engraving themselves into his flesh. That pain succored him. It strengthened him.
Soon he would be free for one month. One month to track and to kill. The one he’d sacrificed himself for would pay and if he earned his reprieve in the process . . . Good.
If he didn’t. . .
Well, vengeance sometimes deserved a good sacrifice. At least this time, he’d die knowing no one was laughing at him anymore.
"Have you ever wanted to put your head in a blender and turn on the liquefy switch?"
Simone Dubois frowned then laughed at Tate Bennett, the parish coroner for New Orleans, as he took a seat at the dark wood table, across from her. As always, Tate was impeccably dressed in a white button-down shirt and black slacks. His skin was dark and flawless, a gift from his Creole and Haitian heritage. With sharp, sculpted features, he was extremely good-looking and those dark eyes of his never missed a detail.
His impeccable attire was a sharp contrast to her faded jeans, navy sweater and riotous mop of dark brown curls that would never obey any style Simone attempted to beat them into. The only feature she had that she considered even remotely interesting were her hazel brown eyes that turned gold whenever the sun hit them.
She wiped her mouth on her napkin. "Honestly … I can’t say that I have. But there have been a few other heads I’d like to do that to. Why?"
He chopped a folder in front of her. "How many serial killers can one city have?"
"I’m not up on those stats. Depends on the city I suppose. Are you telling me we have another one here?"
He unwrapped his silverware and placed his napkin on his lap. "I don’t know. Couple of weird minders have come through my office over the last two weeks, Seemingly unrelated."
Those two words were loaded with meaning. "But…"
"But I have a gut feeling on this and it’s not the oh-look-it’s-a-bright-shiny-world kind."
Simone took a sip of her soda before she opened the file and grimaced at the grisly crime scene photos. As always, they were gory and detailed. "I just love the gifts you bring me for lunch. Other gills get diamonds. Me? I get mayhem and blood-and all before noon. Thanks, Tate."
He leaned over and stole a French fry from her plate. "Don’t worry, boo, I’m buying. Besides, you’re the only woman I know I can meet for lunch and talk business with. Everyone else gets squeamish."
She looked up. "You know, I’m not sure that’s much of a compliment."
"Trust me, it is. If LaShonda ever comes to her senses and leaves me, you’re the next Mrs. Tate."
"Again, not flattering to either of us. Should I tell LaShonda what her hubby thinks of her?" she teased.
"Please don’t. She might poison my cush-cush … or worse, beat my tush-tush."
Simone laughed again. "Don’t worry, I’d make sure and bring her to justice for it."
"I’m sure you would." He paused to order a shrimp po’boy and fries from the waitress.
Simone continued to look at the photos while he spoke to the young Goth woman who was taking his order.
Yeah, these pictures were pretty gruesome. But then these types of photos usually were. How she hated that the world was filled with people capable of doing such horrific things to others. What people could do to each other was bad enough. What the other, nonhuman inhabitants could do was a whole other nightmare. Literally.
And she was more than just a little acquainted with both lands of monsters.
The waitress headed back toward the kitchen.
Tate leaned closer. "You getting any vibes from the other side?"
She shook her head. "You know it doesn’t work that way, T. I have to be touching the body or something that belonged to the victim. Photos only give me a paper cut . . . and the willies," Shivering in sympathy for the way the poor woman had died, she closed the file and slid it back toward him.
"Want to come to the morgue with me after lunch?"
She arched one brow at his offer. "I shudder at the thought of the pickup line you must have used the night you met LaShonda. Come with me, baby, and see my collection of stiffs."
He laughed. "God, I love your sense of humor."
Too bad a married man was one of the very few people who actually got her offbeat humor. The only other person to really appreciate it was a teenaged ghost who’d been haunting her since she was ten years old.
Jesse was seated to her right, but only Simons knew that. No one else could see or hear him-oh, lucky her. Especially since Jesse was locked in a late 1980s time warp. Case in point, he was wearing a light blue blazer reminiscent of Don Johnson from Miami Vice with a curly black pompadour courtesy of Jon Cryer from the movie Pretty in Pink. Jesse was a huge John Hughes fan who made her watch way too many reruns, He completed his offbeat outfit with a skinny white keyboard satin tie and matching white checkerboard Vans.
"I don’t want to go to the morgue, Simone," Jesse said from between clenched teeth. "I don’t like it there,"
She could certainly understand that sentiment. It was her favorite spot to visit right after the proctologist’s office.
She gave Jesse a pitying look, but they both knew that she’d have no choice except to go. There was nothing she wouldn’t do to bring a killer to justice and that included hanging out in the creepy city morgue instead of her lab at Tulane.
"So what’s the strangest part about these murders?" she asked, trying to distract Jesse from repeating a tirade she was more than familiar with. Besides, he could go home without her-he just didn’t like being in the house when she wasn’t there.
Jesse could be a very needy ghost sometimes.
Tate stole another fry before he answered. "The fact that Ms. Gloria here got up and walked off her examining table."
Simone choked on the Coke she was drinking. "Excuse me?"
"You heard right. Nialls is now in a straitjacket because of it. He freaked out so badly we had to call the psych ward for him."
She coughed twice to clear her throat before she spoke again. "The victim was in a coma?"
"The victim was dead as a doornail. As you saw from the photos, her tin oat had been ripped out and Nialls had just opened up her chest for the autopsy. Her heart was in his hands when she started breathing."
"Uh-huh . . ."It was the only response she could manage for a moment. "And she got up and walked off. . ."
He nodded glumly. "Welcome to my world. Oh, wait, welcome to your world. Yours is even more bizarre than mine. At least I don’t live with a ghost who has his own bedroom in my house." He glanced around the table, then lowered his voice. "Is Jesse here?"
Simone inclined her head in the direction of where her friend was seated and staling at them with a stem frown.
"Please explain to me how she got up while he was holding her heart," she said slowly.
"That’s what I want you to tell me. See, I deal with . . . well, most days, bizarre paranormal crap. You are Queen Weird. I need the queen on this before I have to start hiring a new staff of medical examiners who don’t freak out when the dead move off their tables. You know where I can find some of these unusual people? I know you hang out with them."
"Thanks, Tate. I always look forward to these ego-bolstering pep talks of ours."
"Yes, but at least you know I love you."
"Like a hole in your shoe."
He laughed. "Not true. You are the best damned medical examiner I’ve ever seen and you know that. If I could get you away from Tulane and hire your butt for the city, I’d do it in a heartbeat. The fact that you’re the only one I can talk to about paranormal deaths is a major bonus to me. Anyone else would have me in a room next to Nialls."
Simone reached for her pickle. "True. I’m also told they have incredible drugs to help curb those hallucinations."
"Then sign me up, I could definitely use them."
So could she, but that was another story. Then again, her entire life was bizarre enough to be considered one massive hallucination.
If only it were.
Simone paused as she got that weird feeling in her gut again. She glanced about the dark restaurant, then out the window to the left of her that showed the traffic on Decatur Street. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary, but still the sensation persisted.
"Is something wrong?" Jesse asked.
"I’ve got that feeling again."
Tate scowled. "What feeling?"
Her face heated at his question, "I was actually talking to Jesse. But for the last couple of weeks I’ve had this bizarre sensation that something is watching me."
"You mean someone, right?"
She shook her head. "I know it sounds crazy-"
"I just had a body wall; off the table mid-autopsy and you think your story is nuts? Yeah, boo …"
That was what she liked most about Tate. He made her feel almost normal. Not to mention he was the only person besides her who knew about Jesse. Of course she was also the only person outside of a small handful who knew Tate was a Squire for the Dark-Hunters-a group of immortal warriors who limited down and executed the vampiric Daimons who preyed on human souls.
Yeah, her life was anything but normal.
So why should she even be concerned about the fact that she felt as if something evil were watching her? It probably was. And unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the first time. She only wanted to make sure it wasn’t the last one.
"Do you know where it’s coming from?" Jesse asked.
"No. I can’t pinpoint it. All I know is that it’s making my skin crawl."
Tate leaned back in his chair to stare at her. "I really wish I could hear Jesse. It’s so disconcerting when you two talk. Makes me wonder if he’s not sitting there, mocking me."
She smiled. "Jesse only makes fun of me."
"That’s not true."
She looked at Jesse. "Yes it is."
"No it’s not," Tate inserted.
Simone frowned at him. "Do you even know what you’re arguing?"
"Not really. It just seemed natural to add that."
She laughed. "How I ever got mixed up with the two of you, I’ll never know." But that wasn’t true. Jesse had come to her during the darkest hour of her life and he’d been with her ever since.
Tate . . . he’d been there when she’d come the closest she’d ever been to catching her mother’s and brother’s killer. Unfortunately, her hunch hadn’t panned out and the evidence she thought would give them a clue to her mother’s murderer had been too tainted to use. Even so, Tate had fought for her tooth and nail even though he hadn’t known her at the time. That meant more to her than anything and they’d been friends ever since.
There was nothing she wouldn’t do for him and he knew it.
Tate, LaShonda, and Jesse were the only family she had.
He leaned back and waited for the waitress to put his plate on the table and leave before he spoke again. "Are you sure it’s not one of the ghosts you see eyeballing you?"
She shook her head. "No. They’re never this subtle. They usually pop in, like ‘yo, she-bitch, do my bidding.’ This . . . this is something else."
"Evil is coming for you," Jesse said in a grim, echoing voice.
Simone narrowed her eyes on him. "I hate it when you do that."
Tate pulled back as if he were offended. "What’d I do?"
She smiled at him. "Not you. Jesse. He’s using his ghost voice on me. It’s extremely unnerving."
"Yes, but you still love me." Jesse winked at her.