Friends call me Tash. The world calls me loser.
No one knows I possess a deadly magic.
It was supposed to be a simple surveillance job, just like the zillion others I had run for my tough-guy benefactor, Tobias. An hour into it, I’m sitting with a dead body after barely surviving a warlock’s rampage.
I thought things couldn’t get any worse, but what did I know? Running point for Tobias or being witness to a murder was the least of my worries. Now I’ve been blackmailed into working with sexy paranormal cop Ian, and I must help him find what the warlock is up to before he destroys whatever is left of our world.
Piece of cake, right? Sure, if you ignored the dark magic I was born with. I just might save the world from a warlock’s evil plans, but can I save it from the darkness that lies within me?
I didn’t hear Red’s growl until its wheels crunched the pebbles right outside the shop entrance. There was no mistaking the sound that engine made, yet my right hand reached for the shotgun Lara kept below the counter. Instinct, I guess.
A door slammed. Then another creaked open. In came the trouble I’d been hoping to avoid.
“Hello,” he said from the door, shaking off drops of moisture that clung to his leather jacket. He parted the right side of his jacket just enough for the badge to show. “Detective Fischer, Ridgeview PD. We met at Justice Long’s house.”
I moved my hand away from the shotgun and flashed a half-smile. “Hello.”
“How are you doing?” “How did you know to find me at this address?” He smirked but didn’t reply. Instead, he scanned the shop—left to right, front to back. And I was hit by this intense—disgusting rather—need to tousle those dark locks that swooped over his forehead. Yeah, I was utterly flabbergasted by my bizarre yearning and sickened by my sudden lack of self-respect.
“You’re having quite an evening, aren’t you?” he said on reaching the counter. I noted his eyes were a bluish shade of gray. They made me want to stare into them. And keep on staring.
Dammit, Tash! Get a grip on yourself. “Did you have something specific to ask me, Detective
Fischer?” I threw out a snippy question knowing well it was a risky tack to follow given my background and the number of lies I’d fed Semps. But at that moment I was more weirded out by the reaction I was having to Fischer than anything else. And I was desperate and determined to cut through the crap of infatuation . . . or lust. “Or are you on the lookout for some lucky bamboo for your house?”
He threw an amused look at me. I returned a cold stare. “How long have you been stalking Justice Long?” How the hell did he know? I had to scoff, louder than what would have come naturally.
“What? Stalking who?” Fischer didn’t reply. He thumped the stone-encircled water feature opposite the counter a few times and then leaned on the largest boulder. I wished it would fall apart and Fischer’s smug ass would find itself in the water. No such luck. The fountain was Dad’s handiwork after all, and his workmanship was always perfect. So Fischer rested comfortably and stably while jumping on to his next question.
“Who do you work for? Tobias McLellan or Big Jo?” He paused, but not long enough for me to answer. I didn’t think he was even expecting me to answer. “I think you belong to Tobias.”
Belong? Hell, I belonged to no one but myself. “Tobias?” I arched an eyebrow and feigned innocence. “Who’s that?”
He looked at me, his eyes narrow and his jaw tight. The glint in his eye passed shortly and I thought I’d given him the slip.
“Does your sister know you work for Tobias?” I was wrong. The slip was just a daydream. I wasn’t one to give in so easily. I crossed my arms
before retorting. “I don’t know why you keep bringing up this Tobias character. And I’d rather you didn’t drag my sister into this.”
He chuckled. The playful sound clawed its way into my ears and scratched at my abundant ego. I bit the inside of my cheek and held on to every irreverent remark that came flooding through my mind.
“Okay, let’s take a step back,” he said, raising his arms. I was all for taking a step—or ten—back. Had he not been a cop, I’d have thrown his ass out of the shop way back when. “I’m not here to harass you. Although if Semps found out half of your statement was lies, he’d be quite offended.”
Fischer sure liked to blackmail. First he brought up my sister, and now Semps. I gritted my teeth, sucked in some damp air, and let quiet moments trickle past. To think a few minutes ago I was lusting after him. Utterly disgusting!
“I came here for the truth,” he said when I didn’t reply, shrugging nonchalantly. “Need to know what went down at Long’s house.”
I couldn’t stop an eye roll. “But I already told Semps everything I know.”
“No, you didn’t, Natasha.” His voice was hard and sharp. “You didn’t tell him about Tobias, or about the boy who was with you tonight, or what exactly happened when you faced Kevain Nightwing.” “Kevain Nightwing?” “The man who broke into the justice’s house. The man you hit with your baton. The man who killed Frank Otters.” My mind jotted a few quick notes. Victim: Flashlight Guy a.k.a Frank Otters. Perp: the guy in the long cloak who did something weird that knocked down both Ryan and me a.k.a Kevain Nightwing.
“You know this Kevain Nightwing guy?” Fischer shook his head. “No. We don’t even know what he looks like. But this is the third homicide case I’ve had with clear evidence pointing to him.”
“Who is he? A serial burglar?” Fischer let out a long chuckle. “All burglars are serial, aren’t they? Yeah, he is a burglar, but not just any burglar.”
My brows inched upward. Fischer seemed to hesitate. “He is . . . what we call a warlock.” Words crumbled and died in my throat. A warlock? Sure, I’d seen the guy’s hand glow, but I had chalked it up to my tired eyes and my overexcited nerves. I had to find a reasonable explanation. Warlocks weren’t reasonable, like at all. Their place was in fantasy stories, not in the real world.
I studied Fischer’s face—didn’t seem like he was joking. What then? Was he high? Or could he be mentally ill?
Since the Scourge, mental illness had spiked like nobody’s business. Half of the world’s current population was suspected to have some kind of instability. Most kept it hidden. Until they snapped and fell apart in some spectacular show of violence. Perhaps Fischer was one such specimen.
Even though my gaze held Fischer’s steadily, I let my finger graze the trigger of the shotgun under the counter. I couldn’t let my guard down entirely around a possible loon. Admittedly, I was in a dicey situation, I worked for Tobias and had just lied through my teeth to another of the PD. Fischer had me there. But that didn’t mean I had to trust the guy. That didn’t mean I could ignore the adrenaline coursing up my back and every cell in my body
Still, I also couldn’t just wave a gun at him. He was a cop—armed and trained to kill. So I waited, nails gouging into my palms deep enough to draw blood, for some explanation.
“You have every excuse to think I’m crazy,” Fischer said, with a lopsided smile that was almost tired. In that second and for the first time since I’d met him, his smug façade fell away. I don’t know why, but my heart twitched. Thankfully, he missed my adoring look. Deep in thought, his gaze fixed on our nursery’s prize specimen—a silver- tipped Ficus—that graced a corner of our shop, Fischer continued, “But, unfortunately, I’m not. The man who killed Frank Otters isn’t an ordinary guy. He’s virtually from a different world.”
I didn’t know what to say. It was one of those rare times in my life when I couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Take your hand away from that gun, Natasha,” he said calmly. How he knew about the gun I had no idea. Experience probably. Fischer kept speaking. “Believe me. I’m not here to hurt you. But Kevain Nightwing will, if you don’t listen to me.”
I moved my hand away, just an inch or two. My head was this jumbled mess of thoughts, none of which made sense. I had to beat some logic out of them, quickly. I breathed, long and deep, recalling the pranayama Dad had taught me. It helped.
“Why would Kevain Nightwing hurt me?” “Because no one who has seen him has lived to talk about him. Except you.” He paused a second, as if weighing his next words. “Frankly, I’m surprised.”
His words, so casual and plain, sort of exploded in my brain. I could almost hear the gears in my head churning
frantically, making conclusions, sending signals to the rest of my body. The worn-out tank top I was wearing suddenly felt clingy. I wanted to think it was the dampness from the evening’s rain, but I knew all too well it was fear.
“Natasha,” Fischer called. “Why don’t you sit down?” I had more important stuff to do than sit down. Ryan! He had seen Kevain Nightwing also. If what Fischer just said was true, then Ryan was in danger. I had to warn the boy. But there was another thought that came at me at a thousand miles an hour.
“You said this was the third case with Kevain Nightwing? How do you know for sure if no one lived to tell you about him?”
“Other evidence pointed to it. But all the witnesses were dead.”
“What evidence?” “Can’t tell you that. Yet.” “Yet?” He tilted his head and sighed as if he didn’t like what he was about to do or say.
“I came here to ask you for help,” he said. His eyes flitted from my face to the computer, across the countertop, and back to my face.
Clearly, Detective Fischer wasn’t used to asking for help. Intimidation was what he was good at; I’d practically seen him glow when he tried to push me around by bringing up Lara and Semps. I was enjoying the new sight, watching his face twist in discomfort as he forced himself to plead. As much fun as it was, I goaded myself to move one. Now was not the time to indulge in an unmannerly power trip. That could wait. Now I had Ryan to call. But there was a bigger question: what kind of help did Fischer need?
“You want me to describe this Kevain Nightwing guy? Tell you more about how things went down?”
He ran a hand through his hair and shook his head. “That . . . and more. You don’t understand. You can do more to stop Nightwing.”
I really didn’t understand shit and it was hardly my fault. Detective Fischer wasn’t really forthcoming.
“There’s . . . something in you that thwarted him tonight. Some sort of magic,” he said. Completely ignoring my gaping mouth and my golf-ball sized eyes, he went on. “Otherwise, there’d be two more bodies next to Otter’s.”
My fingers scribbled lines on the worn-out counter as I drew in another long breath.
“You stopped Kevain Nightwing and I need to find out how,” Fischer said.
He crossed his arms when I didn’t reply. I didn’t intend to keep him hanging, but . . . what do you say to a man who declares you have some sort of magic in you? I’d handled all kinds of lines from boys and men. But this? I was stumped.
“I hope you’ll help.” “I still don’t understand—” “I’ll explain. I’ll tell you everything. And . . . I’ll also get your records wiped.”
Now that was an offer worth considering. Not that I needed that big a bribe. I was already plenty worried, and intrigued enough about this Nightwing character to agree to help. But Fischer didn’t need to know all that. Besides, I kind of liked seeing him desperate.
I gave him a thoughtful nod. “Okay.” “Deal?” Ryan! Yes, my mind did its coping thing and rushed off on a tangent. It was an important tangent, though. I needed
to warn Ryan about Kevain Nightwing.
“I have to call someone first,” I told Fischer. “Right away.” He shrugged. “Take your time. I’m not going anywhere.”
His was a casual statement. But for some stupid, disturbing reason, my heart did a flip.
Really, Tash? Again? As I punched in Ryan’s number on the shop phone, I made a mental note: keep a close eye on that unpredictable airhead inside me.
Fischer and I sat across the kitchen table and furtively studied each other as the coffee brewed. Have to admit, it bothered me like heck that I had invited him into the house. How long had I known him? Thirty minutes tops! Yet, who knows why, I had taken a leap of faith. More like a leap of stupidity, I corrected myself.
Then I had to keep regretting my decision, of course. What fun would it be if I didn’t? Fischer was a cop, no doubt about that. But everyone knew not all cops were straight. Semps had seemed uncomfortable around him, yet I let him into the house in the dead of night. Could I have been any more gullible?
What was worse, I didn’t even have a weapon on me. My gun was with Ryan, my baton in police evidence, and Lara’s shotgun tucked away under the counter outside. The thought that I might have made the biggest mistake ever made me twitch and shift and scratch my head. A lot.
Fischer was cool as a cucumber. He had waited until I called Tobias and made sure Ryan was all right. Then he
convinced me to lock the gates and got himself invited into the kitchen. He had to be proud of himself; he was right where he wanted to be. I, on the other hand, had played into his expert hands.
“The coffee should be done by now,” I said and walked over to the counter. It was far from done, but being near a scalding pot of coffee that could be used in more ways than one brought me some comfort. That and knowing I was trying my best to rectify the situation I had created.
“Why Ponderosa? Why don’t you live here with your brother and sister?” Fischer asked, slinging his arm over the back of his chair. Talk about not respecting boundaries. “You couldn’t have a boyfriend?” he added.
“My business and . . . my business,” I snapped. Just because I’d agreed to help him with the Kevain Nightwing guy didn’t mean he was my shrink. Who did Fischer think he was dealing with? And what did he mean by I couldn’t have a boyfriend? I sure as hell could. Anytime I wanted. If I wanted.
“Touchy, are we?” My fists clenched and I was about to retort, but I clamped my mouth shut before the words escaped. This was bait. I knew better than to show him my buttons.
“Coffee’s ready,” I announced, busying myself with pouring it into two oversized mugs. Telling me all about this warlock dude was going to take time, I figured. I sauntered back to the table, two filled mugs in hand, trying hard to ignore that stare he kept on my face.
“Tell me about Kevain Nightwing,” I said, sliding into my chair and pushing a mug toward Fischer. Yeah, I had to keep him strictly focused on business. Everything else was off limits.
“Before I get to that, you need to see something,”
Fischer said. He slipped a hand into his jacket and I stiffened, my fingers curling around my coffee mug. He simply extracted a wallet and flipped it open to flash his ID. Detective Ian J. Fischer, it said below the photo of a Fischer from a couple of years ago at least. His face had a distinct sweetness in it back then and the eye-catching good looks were in even greater force. It took me a while to peel my eyes off his photo and note what Fischer was pointing at.
“Ridgeview PD, Paranormal Crimes Unit,” I read out the line he was tapping, letting the words settle into my hyperactive brain. “Paranormal crimes? Is this for real? There’s a paranormal unit now?”
He slapped the wallet closed and slipped it back into his pocket. “Yes to all your questions,” he said before taking a long sip of his coffee. “The point is . . . I am real. I’m not a lunatic. And I’m not here to hurt you in any way.” Well, all that remained to be seen. Especially the last bit.