This story takes place just before Broken Soul. In it, you’ll meet Nell, who will be getting her own series! The first book, BLOOD OF THE EARTH will be published in August 2016.
As I keyed in my e-mail, I kept half an eye on the girl, my mind working on the scent memory. The word came to me slowly, the Tsalagi syllables sounding in my mind, whispery and slow. Yi-ne-hi. Or maybe yv-wi tsv-di. Or a-ma-yi-ne-hi. Fairies, dwarves, the little people, or in her case, maybe wood nymphs would be closer. Mixed with human. Mostly human. Fairies in Cherokee folklore weren’t evil, just private and elusive, and sometimes tricksters, but this girl didn’t look tricky. Just wary. But the magic was woodsy, like the fey, the little folk. In American tribal lore, only the Cherokee had fairies and little people, possibly from the British who intermarried among them for so many centuries.
When it looked as though she’d be there awhile, I did a quick search for places to buy personal things I hadn’t brought, like ammo, new underwear, and combat boots. I also found several barbecue restaurants. I had eaten on the run since my lunch in Asheville at Seven Sassy Sisters’ Café, and I needed a good, meaty meal.
Just before two p.m. the girl finished with her research. I closed down my browser and watched her leave the room, then quickly took my place at her computer and looked into the Internet search history. It was an invasion of privacy, but I was intrigued. Nell had spent a lot of time on just four sites, one on a legal case against a polygamist cult out West, one on a site where unusual herbs could be ordered in dried or seed form, one on herbal antibiotics, and one on Greek history, specifically the god Apollo and how similar stories were prevalent in many ancient people’s mythology. I logged off and left the library, following Nell’s scent trail.
She had lingered at the checkout desk and left through the main doors, turning onto Walnut, crossing the street to walk on the far side, away from the unattended police unit parked on the street in designated parking. Then she had crossed back over the street and into the tiny parklike area, where she stood with her back against a tree. Watching for me.
“Busted,” I murmured, pulling my cell. I hit a button, then set it in my T-shirt pocket, where it stuck up above the fabric, videoing everything as I cautiously approached her.
Nell gave me half a smile and slid her hand from behind her. She was holding a small snub-nosed .32. “So busted,” she said back. She had heard me, which was really strange. Even witches didn’t have preternatural hearing. “I don’t want to shoot you, but I will,” she said, a faint east Tennessee twang in her words. “Then toss you in the back of my truck, cover you with a tarp, drive slowly out of the city and into the woods, and bury you.”
“You do that a lot?” I asked.
She smiled, and I had the uncanny feeling that she had, indeed, disposed of bodies before. This girl—this woman—was way more than she seemed. Way more than her scant records had indicated. “Who are you?” she asked, sliding the weapon back beside her leg.
“Jane Yellowrock. I’m—”
“The vampire hunter whore who has sex with the vampire Leo Pellissier in New Orleans.” She pronounced it Pely-ser, but I wasn’t going to correct her pronunciation.
“I don’t sleep with fangheads,” I said, unexpectedly stung by the whore accusation. “I do take their money when the hunt is justified, and I do provide security when they pay for it.”
“So. Just a whore of a different kind.”
And that made me mad. I took a step closer and she lifted the weapon again, a hard twist to her lips. “Remember that burial in a remote place.”
“I remember. So let’s talk about the philosophy of whoredom. All people provide services for money. You look like a farmer. You sell jelly and honey and preserves and fresh tomatoes and eggs and veggies to the tourists?” She gave me a scant nod, her long hair moving beside her narrow face. “What does that make you?” I asked. “A vegetable whore?”
She giggled through her nose. The sound was so unexpected that she stopped midgiggle, her eyes going wide. It looked as though Nell Ingram had forgotten how her laugh sounded. Which had to suck.
“I’m here to find a missing Mithran,” I said. “What you call a vampire. She disappeared with the leader of the God’s Cloud of Glory Church, a man who calls himself Colonel Ernest Jackson. He walked her to his car and drove off with her. This was four, no, five, nights ago. No one has heard from her since.”
Nell’s face paled beneath her tan in what looked like shock. “Then she’s dead,” she said baldly. “Or been passed around so much she wants to be dead.”
I lifted my head. “I’m going in after her. I need your help.”
Nell lifted the .32 again and backed slowly to her truck, opened the door, checked the interior with a swift rake of her eyes, and climbed in. She switched the gun to a left-hand grip, which looked rock solid, the weapon still aimed at my midsection, as though she practiced with both hands, for, well, for moments like now. She started the truck and backed slowly out of the parking spot and pulled down the road. I smelled fear on the air. Nell Ingram was terrified.
I didn’t move, just watched her go. Then I pulled my cell and asked, “You got that?”
“I got it,” Alex said. “I want to marry her. There’s nothing so sexy as a woman who knows how to use a gun, and can hold off a skinwalker with a hard look and a, what was that? A thirty-eight?”
My mouth twisted in grim humor. “Worse. A thirty-two.”
“She took you with a thirty-two?” he said, appalled and laughing all at once. “I am totally in love.”
“Shut up, Alex. I’m going to follow her home.”
“Copy that. Restore the cell to video when you get there so we have a record.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” I closed the cell’s Kevlar-protected cover and straddled Fang. I turned the key that started the bike, which was one reason why I wouldn’t buy it. Key starts were totally wussy. I rode a Harley, and a real Harley had that kick start. That’s all there was to it. Not that my opinion was shared by many, but it was mine and I was sticking to it.
Long miles of city driving and then country roads followed. I stayed out of her rearview, following by scent patterns and dead reckoning. All the way to Nell Ingram’s farm.
I turned off the curving road that switchbacked up the low mountain, or high hill, into the one-lane entrance of a dirt drive, and over a narrow bridge spanning a deep ditch sculpted to carry runoff. The mailbox had no name, only a number, 196, Nell’s address on her tax records. I keyed off the bike, rolling Fang behind a tree, where it would be hard to see from the road. The driveway angled back down and curved out of sight through trees that looked as though they had somehow escaped the mass deforestation of the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds. The trees were colossal. Healthy. Some trees were bigger than three people could have wrapped their arms around. Farther down the drive and up the hill were even bigger trees. The leaf canopies merged high overhead, blocking out the sunlight and creating deep shadows that seemed to crawl across the ground as sunlight tried to filter through, just enough to make a bower for ferns and mosses and shade-loving plants. High overhead, the leaves rustled in a breeze I didn’t feel, standing so far below.
I had no idea why, but goose bumps rose on my arms and traveled down my legs, in a sensation like someone walking over my grave, a saying used by one of my housemothers at the Christian children’s home where I was raised. Creepy but not for any obvious reason. Standing behind the tree, I turned slowly around, taking in the hillside with all my senses. On the breeze I smelled rabbit, deer, turkey, dozens of bird varieties, black bear, early berries, late spring flowers, green tomatoes, herbs, okra-buds, and bean plants, plants I remembered from the farm at the children’s home and from Molly’s garden. But there was that slightly different something on the breeze that made my unease increase. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. For no reason at all.
I had no cell signal, but I texted Alex to look at every sat map he could find and study the land and the mountain, a message that might get to him now, but would certainly reach him the next time I was near a tower. I had a feeling that there was something hidden here, like a place of power, a terminal line, or some place that was holy to the tribal Americans. Some place I should see while I was here, though that was outside of my job.
In the distance, the sound of Nell’s truck went silent, leaving the air still and . . . and empty. No motors, no traffic, nothing sounded as the roar of the truck faded. I could have been transported back a hundred years or more. No cars, tractors, no airplanes overhead. As the silence deepened, birds began to call, a turkey buzzard soared on rising thermals. Dogs barked somewhere close, the happy welcoming sound of well-loved pets. I liked this place. My Beast liked this place.
Want to shift and hunt, she thought at me. Many deer are here, big and strong and fast.
When the vamp is safe, I thought back.
She sniffed and I was pretty sure it was meant to be sarcastic. Vampires are good hunters.
I thought about that for a moment. They were, weren’t they? So what was Heyda hunting for when she let herself be taken prisoner without a fight? Or . . . what was she protecting? Or whom? I texted that question to Alex too.
The wind changed and I smelled a human. Male. Wearing cologne to cover up the day’s sweat. He wasn’t close and so I closed my eyes, letting the wind tell me where he was.
The topo maps of Nell’s property showed a ridge of rock on the other side of the road, just beyond her land. A likely hiding place for a deer hunter, except the season was wrong and only an idiot hunter would wear cologne that his prey could smell. Unless his prey was Nell.
Slipping into the trees, I moved into the deep shadows. It felt stupid, but the woods seemed to welcome me, until, as I moved away from Nell’s property, the trees became smaller, younger, maybe thirty or forty years old, and the feeling disappeared.
I’m not as silent when walking in human form as I am when walking in my four-footed Beast form but I got close enough for my phone to manage a few photos. A man in camo was sitting in a deer stand, but he wasn’t holding a rifle. He was holding binoculars, and he was aiming them down Nell’s drive. Watching Nell’s house. The deer stand was off Nell’s property, near the juncture where her land met the church’s property and two other parcels of land. Was he protecting her? I had a feeling not, but I’d been wrong before. Weird stuff happened all the time. I moved closer through the brush, placing my feet silently among the leaves left from the previous autumn. I got a better scent, a head and lung full of the man and his feelings, emotions that emanated from his pores. Beneath the cologne, he smelled sweaty, angry, and something else, something I couldn’t quite name. I drew in the air again and this time the pheromones and scent chemicals found their way into my brain. If vicious had an odor, this was it. And possessive. That too.
I sent a third text to the Kid asking who owned the adjoining parcels of land, and to see if he could get driver’s license photos of the owners and their kids. Satisfied that I had done all I could for now, short of assaulting and then interrogating the spy, I eased away, back to Nell’s driveway and down the two-rut gravel lane, keeping to the shadows and angling in on the tree line.
As I walked, I felt the faintest of tingles through my boot soles, a magic permeating the ground. It came in waves, like the ocean onto the shore at low tide, a surge, rising and falling away. I figured only a witch or someone like me could sense it, but it was there, a low thrum of power and scent. It got stronger as I neared the opening in the trees ahead, a low rolling yard of maybe three acres.
The house was in the center of the acreage, set at an angle to the drive, showing the front and one side, and providing a glimpse of the rear corner. It was a ranch-style post-and-beam construction with wide-plank siding painted a fading green, white trim on the window and door frames, and dormers in the high-pitched front roof. It had a long front porch with rockers and a swing, the chain rusted. The house had been situated to take advantage of the view, the undulating hills and the distant vista of city buildings. The back porch was screened and narrow.
The acre-sized garden at the side of the house was fenced with chicken wire to keep out the rabbits and the deer. Even this early in the growing season, there were plants standing tall, flowering, and promising bounty. The lawn had been recently cut, the grass thick and green. I turned on my cell to record video again.
Three dogs announced me, barking like fools, according to Beast, but I had a feeling that Nell had known I was on her land anyway. I was still fifty feet from the house when she stepped from the front door, a shotgun aimed my way. “If it ain’t Miss Busted.” She sounded a lot more poised than most twenty-two-year-old women.
Her dogs caught my scent. As one, their tails dropped and they spread out from her feet, a semicircle of intent and threat. I could hear them growling, that low throaty sound that said I was about to be attacked.
“Yeah,” I said, holding my hands out to the side to show I wasn’t holding weapons. “Sorry to intrude.”
I thought about that. She was right. I wasn’t sorry to intrude. I’d done it on purpose. “You know you got a guy in a deer stand up the hill”—I thumbed the direction—“watching your place?”
“He ain’t on my land, so I don’t care. If he comes onto my land, I’ll shoot him. You are on my land. Give me one reason I shouldn’t shoot you and give you to my dogs.”
Her aim looked rock steady and I believed her. But I wondered how such a tiny thing was going to handle the kick of the shotgun. I had tried polite words, information relating to her security, both usually effective in dealing with humans, and Nell Ingram wasn’t interested, but all I had was honesty.
“I told you. Four nights ago, Colonel Ernest Jackson and his so-called church kidnapped a female vampire named Heyda Cohen. You think she’s being raped. I think she’s being drained of her blood too. I intend to get her back.”
Nell’s fear increased, a ripple of unease so strong I could see it prickle over her skin. I’d have been able to smell her reaction if the breeze had permitted. But other than that, Nell didn’t move, didn’t speak. Birds called. The dogs circled closer to me, showing teeth, snarling. I didn’t want to hurt the dogs, two of them old beagle mixes and the other an old bird dog, but I would if attacked. Nell whistled softly and the dogs instantly stopped moving, but they didn’t take their eyes off me.
I wondered what the man in the deer stand was thinking about the standoff. I felt an itch between my shoulder blades, as if he had a scope on me even now. After the silence had stretched out far too long, Nell said, “Going onto the church property is a stupid move, but you don’t look stupid. You also don’t look easy to kill.” She frowned, thinking things through. “What do you want from me?”
“Everything. I want to know everything you know and remember about the compound, the people in it, and their habits. I want to know how they got off the property when the cops had the accesses guarded. I want to know if there are caves leading onto the church land. Then I want access to the compound through your property for my men. And I want to be able to retreat through your property when we’re done. And anything else you might have to offer or suggest.”
Nell laughed, the sound as stuttered and clogged as before. “Don’t want much, do you?”
Honesty seemed to be working, so I pushed ahead with it. “I want lots of stuff. Most of which will put you in danger from the church.”
“Woman, I been in trouble from God’s Cloud of Glory and the colonel ever since I turned twelve and he tried to marry me. Anything you can do to piss him off will just make my day.”
She dropped the weapon as her words penetrated my brain. “Marry you? At twelve?”
“Yeah. He’s an old pervert. Come on in. I got coffee going and food in the slow cooker. Hope you like chicken and dumplings. I missed lunch and I’m starving.”
“I’m always hungry. But twelve?” Nell didn’t smile, but she did call off her dogs. That and an offer to feed me was a start.
F 7/18 OFF THE GRID (serialized) my blog, with blog tour info
M 7/18 Review + giveaway @ I Smell Sheep
T 7/19 Review + OFF THE GRID (serialized) @ Tome Tender
W 7/20 Review + giveaway @ Urban Fantasy Investigations; excerpt @ Book Junkiez
T 7/21 Review + giveaway @ Bad Bird Reads
F 7/22 OFF THE GRID (serialized) + giveaway @ Angel’s Guilty Pleasures
S 7/23 Review + giveaway @ The Reading Addict
S 7/24 OFF THE GRID (serialized) my blog, with blog tour info
M 7/25 Review + excerpt @ Gizmo’s Reviews
T 7/26 Review + excerpt @ Bea’s Book Nook
W 7/27 OFF THE GRID (serialized)+ giveaway @ Vampire Book Club
T 7/28 Review + giveaway @ The Book Nympho
F 7/29 OFF THE GRID (serialized)my blog, with blog tour info
S 7/30 Review + OFF THE GRID (serialized)@ Kings River Life
S 7/31 MY BLOG CHAPTER ONE OF BLOOD OF THE EARTH Put up on 7-8
M 8/1 Review + excerpt @ Books That Hook
T 8/2 OFF THE GRID (serialized)+ Q&A @ Slippery Words
W 8/3 Review + excerpt @ Will Read for Feels; review + giveaway @ Enchanted Alley
T 8/4 OFF THE GRID (serialized)+ giveaway @ Cover2Cover
F 8/5 Review + giveaway @ drey’s library