“T his is the place,” I said, shielding my eyes from the morning sunlight.
I might have lost access to the Homeland Security’s database thanks to Madigan’s new position as boss, but a lot of the information that led us here was all a matter of public record if you were willing to pay a fee. A little hacking into the Sioux City Police Department database provided the rest. In the past two months, approximately 106 households in the Sioux City metro area had reported burglaries. That was a big number if we were doing door‑to‑door searches, but out of those, only thirty‑eight were reported by women living alone. Filter that further by women between the ages of eighteen and forty‑five living alone where the burglary resulted in the injury or death to a pet, and that number dropped to one.
If we were right about the connection between dead pets and Kramer, we’d found one of the remaining two women less than six hours after Francine told us her story. Maybe this new woman could give us information that could lead to Kramer’s final intended victim. Then we could start the really hard part: building another trap for Kramer that we could lure the ghost into. We had all the materials. We just needed a new place with a freshwater stream to set them up in.
But we had to do all this without Madigan finding us and screwing everything up again. On the principle that I’d vowed to stay optimistic, I wasn’t about to calculate our odds.
One thing was already in our favor: Someone with a heartbeat was in Lisa Velasquez’s home. I glanced at the clock in the car–10:17 A.M., miserably early for vampires but past the time most people had to be at work. Maybe Lisa had taken the day off. Maybe she worked second shift.
Or maybe she was being so tormented by a ghost that she’d gotten fired from her job for bizarre behavior and frequent absences, just like Francine had.
“We should’ve brought the cat,” Bones muttered, eyeing the one‑story house where Lisa lived. If we were right, Kramer could be lurking in there, just waiting for us to cross the threshold.
“Helsing’s almost been killed a couple times. I’m not risking it, especially when we’re pretty sure those past attempts were deliberate, and we only get a two‑second warning hiss before Kramer whales on me anyway.”
“His attacking you first the past three out of four times is what concerns me,” Bones replied, an edge to his tone.
“What can I say?” Wry smile. “I’m irresistible.”
Bones shot me a look that said my humor was wasted on this subject, handing me two glasses full of already smoldering sage. Then he took two more for himself, leaving the other two lit containers in the car. Both of us had more sage in our coats, plus the prerequisite lighters, but this time, we weren’t waiting to flame up. Sure, we’d look a little strange to whoever opened the door, but that was the least of our concerns.
“Hear anything interesting?” I murmured, as we walked to the door. I had my mental shields lowered as much as possible without the voices overwhelming me, but I wasn’t as good at filtering through unfamiliar ones yet, and Lisa lived in a subdivision bordering a busy business district.
He closed his eyes, his power flaring for an instant. “Whoever’s in there is asleep,” he stated.
That made this easier. I glanced around, didn’t notice any neighbors watching us, then marched up to the closest window, peering inside. No such luck, the drapes were drawn. I tried the next window. Same thing. Bones picked up on my intention and circled around the back of the house.
“Here,” he called out after a moment.
From his tone, he’d struck pay dirt. In the few seconds it took me to get to where he was, Bones had the sliding glass door open. Either he’d used his mind to unlock it or leaned in and pulled up at the right angle; either would’ve taken about the same amount of time.
I followed him inside, mouth tightening at the destruction inside that Lisa had tried to conceal with her tightly drawn drapes. Bones followed the steady sounds of a heartbeat to Lisa’s bedroom, which again looked so similar to what Kramer had done at Francine’s that we didn’t need to wake Lisa and question her to get our confirmation. Besides, speed was of the essence.
Bones put down the burning sage to place his hand over the sleeping woman’s mouth, stifling her instant scream as that jolted her into awareness. I felt guilty about the sudden frantic race of her pulse and the terror that spiked across her mind, but by the time Bones finished telling her we were taking her somewhere safe, and we wouldn’t hurt her, her heart rate had slowed to almost a normal rhythm, and her thoughts mirrored the suggestions he’d implanted with his gaze.
When he picked her up and the covers fell back, I saw she was wearing a nightgown that was so ripped, more flesh was revealed than covered. Bastard, I silently swore at Kramer, shrugging off my coat.
“No,” Bones said, voice low but sharp. “She can wear mine, but you’re keeping that sage close.”
Arguing with him would only take more time, and Kramer could show up at any moment. Bones doffed his coat, handing it to Lisa. She put it on, still mechanically obedient thanks to the power in his gaze. I hated the necessity of highjacking her will, but at that moment, her immediate compliance was in her very best interest.
I handed Bones a few extra packets of sage and a couple lighters that he put into his pants pockets before picking up the lit containers again.
“Straight to the car, Lisa,” he instructed her, gaze warily flicking around as we walked from her bedroom to the front door. I was braced the whole way, expecting one of the broken pieces of furniture or dishes suddenly to levitate and slam into us, but nothing happened.
We opened the front door and all my muscles tightened again, waiting for it to fling back and bash into us, yet only the bright sunlight waited on the other side. The car looked untouched, twin lanterns of sage still burning in the front cup holders and filling the interior with a light veil of smoke.
I got into the backseat with Lisa, rolling down the window enough that she wouldn’t choke from the haze but not too much that all the ghost‑repelling smoke escaped. Then Bones peeled out of the neighborhood fast enough to cause a couple homeowners to peer after us as we sped by, and still, no sign of Kramer.
My relief was mixed with suspicion. “Do you think he’s off somewhere else at the moment? Or that he’s letting us get away unscathed because he wants us to lead him right to Francine?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Bones said, glancing back at me. “We’re not driving straight back to the town house.”
“No?” That was news to me.
His mouth quirked. “No, which is why you’re going to turn the brights on in your gaze and tell her to remain really calm, else in another ten minutes, she’ll scream our bloody ears off.”
W e left the car at the end of a cornfield, and Bones flew us the rest of the way with the explanation that ghosts couldn’t follow after about the half‑mile height marker. Now that he mentioned it, I realized Fabian and every other ghost I’d seen had always kept pretty close to buildings or the ground when they traveled, unless they were hitchhiking on an airplane or something similar. Bones had us as high as Lisa could take without it being too cold or oxygen depleted. At that height, it would be harder to spot us against the clear morning sky, but Bones had packed a light blue sheet that we wrapped around us for even better camouflage. Maybe when I got more used to flying, I’d treat it with the same thoroughness he did, but for now, I was still doing well if I didn’t crash when I landed.
Once we got Lisa settled and explained all about Kramer, her story turned out to be eerily similar to Francine’s. She was divorced, no siblings, and while her father was still alive, he was in poor health in a nursing home. She’d also had a recent string of bad luck, like losing her well‑paying job several months ago because of company downsizing and her house going into the early stages of foreclosure. Working two part‑time jobs hadn’t been enough to pay her mortgage, and working at all cut off her unemployment. Add in a botched robbery where her cat was killed, and Lisa’s friends thought her claims of something invisible attacking her at home were a clear case of stress manifesting in the form of paranoid delusions.
Lisa seemed glad to meet Francine even though she was sickened to hear that the appartition who’d tormented her was doing the same thing to other women. Still, I understood why it was a relief for Lisa to meet someone who not only believed her but who knew exactly what she’d been through.
The same went for Francine. All the empathy Bones and I could give wasn’t the same as what Francine got when she spoke to Lisa. They were survivors of a battle that we could try to imagine but hadn’t lived through like they had, so our understanding was limited.
After we’d answered all her questions, Bones went next door to update the rest of our group, and I escorted Lisa upstairs to Francine’s room, where there was another bed and a clean outfit waiting for her. Later, I’d order both of them some new clothes, but for now, I left them alone. Francine had only slept a few hours, and Lisa looked like she needed a nice long rest, too. I didn’t imagine either of them had had a decent sleep since Kramer targeted them, but with sage burning on their nightstands, two pets capable of sounding a warning, and two vampires here to protect them–plus two more nearby–they were as safe as they were going to get.
Tyler wandered into the kitchen, wearing a pair of sweatpants and a sleeveless shirt. From the faint creases on his cheek, he’d just rolled out of bed. Since staying with us the past few weeks, Tyler’s schedule of when he was awake and when he slept had drastically altered.
“M’n,” he mumbled, though it was after two o’clock in the afternoon. “Want some coffee?”
I drank it with him to be sociable, but I’d never liked the stuff even before Bones’s blood became my beverage of choice.
“Not this time. We haven’t been to bed since yesterday morning, so we’re about to catch a few hours’ sleep. Oh, and we have a new guest.”
A wide grin slid across his face. “You found another of the women already?”
Tyler had fallen asleep before we got Lisa’s information, and instead of waking him when we left, we’d just had my mother come to watch over him and Francine. I grinned back, feeling more lighthearted than I had in a while.
“Her name is Lisa, and she’s upstairs with Francine.”
Tyler stuck his fist out, and I touched it with mine. “Nice work, kitty cat.”
“I didn’t do it alone,” I protested, but I was pleased by the compliment.
At last, we were making headway. Elisabeth and Fabian were still trying to track Kramer to determine who the final target was, but in the meantime, we didn’t have to sit on our hands and watch the days ominously count down on the calendar. Police reports weren’t the only way we could search for the last woman. We could check recent burials in pet cemeteries, veterinary offices, animal cremation companies, hell, even county records of rabies vaccinations to help narrow down our list. Somewhere in that mix had to be a trail leading to her.
Upstairs, Dexter let out a half whine, half bark. From somewhere else in the town house, Helsing meowed. Tyler and I both tensed. I yanked some sage from my pants pockets and had it lit before Bones came bursting back into the town house.
“Where is he?” he demanded, holding a handful of burning sage aloft.
“I don’t know,” I whispered, charging up the stairs to Francine and Lisa’s room. God, what if Kramer was in there now, hurting those women after I’d just told them they were finally safe!
“Cat!” a male voice called from outside the town house.
I froze in the act of flinging open their bedroom door. I knew that voice, and while it belonged to a ghost, it wasn’t any of the ones I’d expected.
A door’s banging open only punctuated the effect of Spade’s words. “Cat, your uncle’s in the yard.”