Cafe Maspero

New Orleans

February 2008

"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.

"Of course I do. But save the voice for a haunting."

"I would if anyone else could hear me. Have you any idea how annoying that is? No, 'cause everyone hears you when you talk." He stood up and danced in the corner. "Hey, people!" he shouted. "See the freaky ghost dance," He flapped his arms around and shook his booty. "I'm bad, I'm bad, I'm bad." He stopped and looked around at the people who went on about their business, oblivious to his offbeat antics. "See. Sucks."

She passed a dry look to Jesse, who held his hands up in surrender. There were times when he was a strange cross between a nagging mother and a wife combined with a lunatic brother.

She focused her attention on Tate. "Anyway, back to the decedent. . . do the police have any leads?"

Tate shook his head. "She was found in an alley down in the Warehouse District. Her throat was lacerated with something clawlike. Too large to be animal and too jagged to be individual knife marks."

"Definitely not a Daimon attack then." Daimons were a particular breed of vampire who called New Orleans home . . . and unlike many of the others who made ambitious blood-sucking claims, these guys were real and they were deadly predators with highly developed supernatural powers. As medical examiners, she and Tate were used to seeing their handiwork come through their offices.

Her acceptance and willingness to help cover the Daimons' tracks was what kept her close to Tate. They weren't protecting the Daimons, they were keeping the rest of humanity safe by not informing them of what was really out there ready to take them down. If mankind were ever to know, they would freak out and kill innocent people, too.

The bad thing was that even though the Daimons drank blood, they didn't feed on it. They fed on actual human souls. Lucidly a single human soul could keep them fed for a long time, so as a rule, they weren't out limiting victims every night.

If you could call that lucky. Which Simone did, and that more than anything said just how weird her life was.

Anytime the Daimons left their holes, the Dark-Hunters Tate worked for would seek them out, hoping to stop them from killing more people. A bonus to the Daimons' deaths was mat it also freed the human souls they'd eaten so that their victims could go on to the afterlife.

Tate swabbed his fry in ketchup, "Definitely not Daimon," he repeated. "She was drained of all her blood, and since none was found at the crime scene, we assume she died somewhere else and was dumped in the alley. You sure you can't summon her from the grave and ask her what happened?"

"That would be a voodoo priestess, Tate. The decedents come to me, not the other way around,"

He stifled a look of disappointment. "We need to find the body ASAP. Her parents are on their way down from Wichita and I don't want to tell them that their little girl went AWOL from the examining table."

"Did you get anything from Nialls?"

Tate scoffed. "Nothing coherent. As you can imagine, he was a bit hysterical. All he'd say was that she smiled at him on her way out the door."

"So you don't know if she was a zombie then?"

"Thankfully, I've never seen a zombie. Much other weird shit on the job, but not that. Have you?"

"No. However, I've learned to not question things like that. If there's a legend, then there's something real behind it."

He saluted her with his drink.

"What about your Squire contacts? Have they anything to offer on this?"

Tate shook his head. "None of them know anything more about the dead walking around than you or I. Daimons don't make the dead rise. They make the living fall."

Simone looked at Jesse. "You have any suggestions?"

"Only that I wish my body were still walking around. It would make my undeath easier to bear."

"Thanks for the nonhelp, Jess. You're such a doll,"

Simone didn't speak much more as they finished lunch, then headed to the morgue. Jesse opted to stay outside while she followed Tate into the crypt. Honestly, she couldn't blame Jesse for his feelings. She didn't like hanging out with the dead, either, Jesse notwithstanding. The only reason she did what she did was to help the victims and their families. Having seen her own mother and brother gunned down before her, the last thing she wanted was to stand by and let someone else's killer go nee.

It was why she worked cases for the city pro bono and why she spent her life training the next generation of medical examiners at Tulane. She figured she could do more good by training other MEs to be conscientious than she could working on mundane cases. The more people who did their jobs right, the fewer criminals who would go free to slaughter again.

That philosophy was also what kept her single. Most men didn't appreciate dating a woman who was handy with both a scalpel and a shovel.

Tate opened a door in the middle of the crypt vault and pulled out an empty drawer. "She was stored in here."

"Do you have any of her personal items?" "Let me get them."

Simone closed the drawer and turned slightly as she felt a presence behind her. It was a young woman around the age of twenty-four. Her brown hair was mussed and she looked a bit confused. It was a natural state for many of the newly deceased.

"Can I help you?" Simone asked the girl. "Where am I?"

Simone hesitated. She never liked being the one to tell another that they were no longer alive. "What's the last thing you remember?"

"I was walking home from work."

That was a good start. If Simone could help the woman remember more details of her life right before it ended, then she illicit remember her death, too, "What's your name, sweetie?"

"Gloria Thieradeaux."

A chill went down her spine as Simone recognized her from the photos. This was the woman whose body had risen up and walked out of the morgue.

Merde.

The ghost looked about the room. "Why am I here?"

"I'm not sure." Any more than she was sure how her body had reanimated itself

"Why can't I touch anything?" The agony in her voice made tears of sympathy well in Simone's eyes.

There was no avoiding the answer and no way to make it kind or gentle on the poor thing. "I'm afraid you're dead."

Gloria shook her head. "No. I just need to get home." She frowned as she looked around the room as if trying to identify something. "But I can't remember where I live. Do I know you?"

Simone paused. Something wasn't right. It was normal for a new ghost to be slightly disoriented, but Gloria was more than that. It was like a part of her was missing . . .

"Jesse!" Simone called. "I know you hate it in here, but I really, really need you."

He manifested right beside her. "Yeah, boss?"

She indicated Gloria with a tilt of her chin. "She doesn't know where she lives."

His scowl was fierce. "Do you remember when they killed you?" "Jesse," she said under her breath, "a little tact, please."

Ignoring her, Gloria shook her head. "I don't feel dead. Are you sure I died?"

Simone passed her hand through the woman's abdomen. "Either that. Princess Leia, or you're a hologram."

Gloria stared at her in a cross between horror and disbelief. "How did you do that?"

Jesse answered for her. "We have no body. All we have is our essence and consciousness."

Gloria staggered back as if overwhelmed. "I don't understand. How can you die and not know it?"

Jesse shrugged. "It happens. Not common, mind you. Most people know when they die, but every now and again, someone gets trapped on this plane without realizing they're dead."

Gloria shook her head in denial. "I can't be dead. I have finals."

"The Reaper waits for no one, babe," Jesse said glibly. "Believe me, I have firsthand experience there. It's a pisser, but reality for us nonetheless."

"What's going on?"

Simone turned at Tate's worried voice. He was standing behind her with a manila envelope in his hand.

"I found Gloria."

"Good, where is she?"

Simone glanced to where Jesse and Gloria stood side by side. "Well, her ghost is right in front of me. Unfortunately, she has no more clue about her body's whereabouts than we do."

Tate let out a frustrated breath. "How can that be? I mean, really, shouldn't the ghost have like a homing beacon on its body or something?"

"It would make sense. But unfortunately, the two parts separate and the spirit never wanders back to the body . . . at least not to my knowledge." Simone looked at Jesse, who nodded his head in agreement.

Tate held the envelope out to her. "So where does that leave us?"

"With one hell of a mystery." Simone took the envelope from his hands and reached inside to touch a necklace that must have belonged to Gloria. Closing her eyes, she tried to get some sense of the time and place where Gloria had passed.

Nothing happened.

She couldn't even get an emotion from it, which was highly unusual for her. Since she'd been five years old, Simone had been able to glean emotions that were attached to objects as soon as she touched them.

She dropped it back into the envelope. "I suggest you call your Squire buddies and get them started on a limit for her body while Jesse and I try to help her remember something that might lead us to its whereabouts."

"I'll see what I can do." Simone turned to Jesse.

"I hear you," he said before she could speak. "We're going to scout the alley where she was found for a clue."

"Exactly."

Tate paused in front of the door with a frown. "Exactly what?"

"Jesse and I are going to the Warehouse District. I'll let you know if we find anything."

"Please do." Tate held the door open so that she and her "companions" could leave.

She started down the white. Spartan hallway. "Hey, Simone?"

She looked back at Tate who was about to head in the opposite direction. "Yes?"

"Be careful."

Those words warmed her. Tate and LaShonda were the only people in the world who would miss her if anything were to happen to her. "I'm always careful, boo. You know that."

He inclined his head to her. "Just the same, keep your stun gun loaded and call me as soon as you're done. I don't want to get another call to that alley. I've buried enough people I love. I don't want to do it again."

She smiled at his concern. "It's an alley, Tate. There are a million of them in this city. I'll be fine."

He nodded at her before he headed toward his office.

Simone took a second as that weird feeling came over her again. She'd never understood those odd sensations. But one thing she remembered clearly . . . the first time she'd had it.

"I'll be right back, baby. You wait in the car and don't move." Those were the last words her mother had said to her before she took her brother into the store.

And died.

Simone flinched as unbridled grief tore through her. In one instant, everything can change. It was the mantra she lived her life by and a lesson she'd learned all too well when she was only ten years old.

Never take anyone or anything for granted.

In one blink, life altered and sometimes all you could do was hang on as; tightly as; possible while it did its best to sling you off.

Trying not to think about that, she headed down the hall, toward the door that led to the parking lot.

Kalosis (the Atlantean Hell Realm)

Stryker walked down the dark hallway that led from his bedroom to the throne room where he held court over his Daimon army. There shouldn't be anyone in it this time of day . . .

Or night. Whichever it was. Let's face it, here in hell it didn't really matter.

In Kalosis, it was always dark since any amount of daylight was fatal to his people. That had been a curse from his father, Apollo, who in the midst of a hissy fit had condemned everyone of the Apollite race that Apollo had created to be banished from the sun.

And to die painfully at age twenty-seven. The only way an Apollite could survive past his or her twenty-seventh birthday was to take a human soul into their body. From that moment on, the Apollite mutated into a Daimon-a demonlike creature who had to continue to swallow human souls in order to stay alive.

Sure it was a crappy, cold existence, but it was so much better than the alternative.

Besides, Stryker had survived eleven thousand years as a Daimon-their existence was definitely not without its benefits. And its rewards.

Highly entertained by the thought, he paused in the entrance of his throne room as he caught sight of his sister, Satara, surrounded by a reddish haze while she sat perched on his throne. Her hair was black-something she seldom chose as a color. She mumbled words in ancient Greek as she swayed to a silent song.

Yeah . . .

He cleared his throat, but she ignored him. Unamused by her actions, he crossed his arms over his chest and closed the distance between them.

What she was chanting amused him even less than her ignoring him. "Why are you summoning a demon?"

One eye, bloodied, opened to pin him with a feral stare. "I'm not summoning. I'm controlling."

He cocked a single brow. "Really? And who has you so angry that you're sending a demon for them?"

"What do you care?" She closed her eye and continued her chant.

If they'd had a loving relationship, Stryker might have left her to it. But he was far from a loving brother and she was ever his bane. Snapping his fingers, he made the light in the hall blinding. "If you want to kill someone, I know a few gallu demons who are dying to eat."

She let out a shrill scream before she opened her eyes and stood up from his throne, "Like they'd do anything I ask. You're an idiot for allowing the gallu to stay here. It's the same as sleeping with a pack of feral wolves at your feet. Sooner or later, they will attack and you'll be dead."

As if he were afraid of some Sumerian castoffs. "Kessar and crew don't frighten me." His sister's insatiable ambition did. There was nothing she wouldn't do to get what she wanted and he knew it. "Who Are you after?"

"Hades let that bastard Xypher out of his hole."

The name was vaguely familiar, but for his life, he couldn't remember who it was. "Xypher?"

Satara rolled her eyes. "Oh, how could you forget him? He was the first Dream-Hunter I coaxed away from his duties and turned."

Stryker shook his head as he remembered the god who'd been a handful the instant he started sniffing around Satara's heels. It'd taken a number of gods to run the bastard down and kill him. "Speaking of wolves at your throat. Did I not warn you about him?"

"Oh shut up."

Stryker rudely moved her aside so that he could take his seat on the throne. "You know, little sister, I'd be playing nice right now if I were you. After all, you're the one in hiding ... in my house."

"I'm not in hiding."

"No? Then why are you here? Shouldn't you be on Olympus at the beck and call of Auntie Artemis?"

The fury in her eyes told him he'd struck a chord. Good. He lived to piss off people.

"Xypher has to be stopped. He will kill me if he has a chance."

"You think? You coaxed the man from his cushy god-life, caused him to be limited and then killed and tortured for eternity. I can't imagine why he's not bringing you roses and lasses."

She curled her lip at him. "Well, at least I didn't slit open the throat of

my own son."

Stryker thrust his hand out and brought her into his grasp with his demigod powers. He tightened his hold on her throat until her eyes bulged and he felt her larynx start to crush. "Xypher isn't the only man you should be afraid of." He shoved her away from him.

Satara caught herself and choked while she glared furiously. "I've given everything to you, Strykerius. I've spied for you and told you things no one else would. Now I ask for a modicum of protection and what do you do? Threaten me. Fine. I'll leave, and when Xypher kills me, I hope you'll think back on this and remember that you're the only reason you're alone in this world."

Stryker rubbed his brow, grateful he couldn't get a headache from her whiny tirade, "Oh, stop the dramatics. I've never been one for the theater. You're welcome to hide out here and release as many demons into the human world as you like, But before you completely annihilate my food source, might I offer a suggestion to you?"

"What?"

Stryker manifested a set of golden bracelets in his hand-one of three pairs that had been uncovered just two years ago. One of his generals had found them and brought them to him, not knowing what they were.

But Stryker knew, and he was reserving one pair for a very special "friend."

He held the bracelets out to her.

Taking them, she grimaced as if they were made of coal and not Atlantean gold. "What do I do with these?"

He sighed in weariness. There were times when she was brilliant and other times when he had to lead her about as if she had the intellect of a five-year-old goat. "How do you kill a god?"

"You strip his powers."

He nodded approvingly. "If you can't do that?"

"You seduce a Chthonian and tell them that the god attacked you then laugh while the Chthonian sucks the life out of him. But I don't have time for that. Xypher is one step away from storming his way down here and killing me."

Stryker growled at her in irritation. "Stop thinking like a whore for a minute. The best way to take out an enemy is to attack his weakest point."

She put her hands on her hips. The bracelets dangled precariously from her right hand as if they were cheap knockoffs and not worth more than a human kingdom ... or her life. "He doesn't have one."

Stryker narrowed his eyes on the bracelets. "You put one of those on him and he will."

Finally interested in what he'd put in her hands, she inspected them. "What are you saying?"

"What I'm saying, Themis, is those little gold bracelets in your hands are his Achilles' heel. Pass those along to one of my Spathi Daimons and have him secure one to Xypher and the other to a mortal and all your troubles are over."

She smiled as she finally Understood the significance of the bracelets. "They bind them . . . Kill the mortal and Xypher dies."

He inclined his head to her. "Even better than that, if the mortal gets more than twenty feet from him, the human dies . . . and so does he."

She laughed evilly before she approached his throne and kissed him on his cheek. "I knew I loved you for a reason."

Stryker wasn't stupid enough to believe that for even a moment. His sister was incapable of loving anyone except herself. But he'd won her over as an ally for a few days more.

Satara tossed one bracelet up and caught it in her hands. "I can't wait to see his face when he learns what these are." Then she vanished before Stryker could give her one more piece of advice.

"Choose your human wisely." The last thing she needed was to find one who actually knew how to fight them.

By the time Simone finished teaching her afternoon class and reached the alley, it was nearing dusk. There was an unseasonable biting chll to the breeze as she got out of her white Honda and stepped up on the curb. She pulled the collar of her wool coat up higher on her neck and shivered. She never liked approaching crime scenes, especially after they'd been cleared. Right now, there was nothing to mark this as a place of violence. It looked like all the other alleys in town.

That was what disturbed her most.

Gloria's life had ended abruptly right here and only Gloria and her family would ever know it. Hundreds of people would wall; right past this spot without being aware of the fact that one young woman had been dumped here like so much rubbish. The thought of it made her livid and it reminded her of her own mother.

Simone flinched.

"You okay?" Jesse asked.

"Yeah. Bad chicken at lunch."

"You ate a ham and cheese sandwich."

"Oh, shush, smarty-pants. Stop being so attentive." She reached into her purse and pulled out a pair of latex gloves just in case she might find something. It would also protect her from any stray genus that might be lingering. That was one thing she continually limped on with her students. Any clothes worn to a crime scene should be tie ate d as biohazard. In the last few years she'd brought home more contagion than she even wanted to think about and that alone made her glad she lived alone. The last thing she wanted was to make a significant other ill.

She opened her trunk and tossed her purse inside before she pulled out her ME toolbox that contained everything she'd need to preserve any evidence that might have been overlooked by the police.

Gloria cocked her head as she stared into the alley.

Simone's stomach tightened in sympathy. "You remember something?"

"There was a weird growling ..." Her voice was quiet. Distant.

"Growling?"

Gloria nodded. "It was deep and feral, but not really like an animal."

"Was it like this?" Jesse made an inhuman ghost noise.

Gloria scowled at him. "That sounds like Darth Vader choking on a chicken bone. No."

He passed an indignant glare to Simone as she burst out laughing. "Well, it did."

"Fine, see if I help anymore."

Simone shook her head at him before she pulled out her flashlight and headed to the area where she'd seen the body photographed. There were buildings on three sides and a glitter in the center. The walkway all around was broken up. Typical alley with a lot of sheet traffic around it. Not to mention, anyone in the buildings could easily look out the window and see right where they were standing.

It made her wonder if there'd been a witness who'd seen the killer . .

She glanced over to where Jesse was doing the Michael Jackson Moonwalk while he surveyed the alley and street. All the boy needed was a red leather jacket with gold studs and a sequined glove.

"Excuse me, Mr. Thriller or Beat It or whatever video you're sadly reliving ... Is it just me or is this area way too exposed for this to be a Daimon attack?"

After giving her a hate fill glare, Jesse agreed, "There's too much movement around here and they wouldn't have minded a little blood on the ground. Them bastards are sloppy eaters."

"Yeah, that's what I'm dunking, too. I believe Tate had it right when he said she died somewhere else. But the claw marks on her neck . . . that's not human. If not a Daimon, what killed her?"

"Excuse me, people," Gloria snapped. "I happen to be standing right here. Do you mind?"

Simone cringed at her insensitivity. Normally she was much more care fill around her spirits. "Sorry."

Jesse approached Gloria. "But you remember being here, right?"

Gloria nodded. "I heard the noise and then tried to cross the street to get away from it."

"Good," Simone prompted. "You remember anything else?"

Gloria shook her head. "I really don't think I'm dead. I mean, I know you went through me with your hand earlier, but I remember this movie I saw with Reese Witherspoon-"

"Just like Heaven," Simone supplied.

"Yeah, that was it. Even one thought Reese was a ghost, but she was just in a coma. Maybe that's me."

Simone really wished that were the case. She looked at Jesse, hoping he could help her make Gloria comprehend that this was final and there wasn't any coming back from it no matter how much they all wished otherwise.

He gave Gloria an understanding smile. "I know how you feel. That disbelief that keeps telling you it's a dream, but you have to face the fact that you're not in a coma."

Simone sighed as she skimmed the empty alley. There was only a piece of paper and a crushed Starbucks cup. Nothing else.

"I really don't see anything helpful," she said to the ghosts. "The police must have gotten everything. Let's head back to Tate and see what his people have unearthed."

As she took a step toward her car, she heard a tsking sound behind them that sent chills over her. No one had been there before . . .

"Surely you don't want to be leaving us so soon. After all, we just got here . . . and we're looking for a good bite to eat."

Simone tinned her flashlight on the man speaking. Collection, it wasn't a man. It was a Daimon. And he wasn't alone.



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