Death Knell – Hailey Edwards

Balmy air slid over my skin, the tickle that of mosquito legs as they made their selection from the buffet that was my bare thigh. The buzzing drone pulled me from sleep as I swatted at my ear. The air conditioner I installed yesterday with help from Miller hummed in its mount over the bed, but my private Antarctica had turned downright Floridian thanks to the door a nighttime visitor had left open. Sunlight pierced the backs of my eyelids and erased the muzziness from sleep. I almost knocked over the precarious stack of romance novels cluttering my nightstand when I reached for the bottle I had shoved to the farthest edge to make room for more books. As I sipped the lukewarm water, my vision cleared, and once I identified the culprit, I huffed out a laugh. A dragon tail wrapped my ankle four times, its sliver-white scales iridescent in the dawn. The slender tip tickled the arch in my foot when I moved, and its scales fanned when I traced a scallop with my fingertip. The sleek length hung off the end of the king-size bed, snaked across the floor, then slithered out of sight. I swung my legs over the side of the mattress and stretched until my spine popped like bubble wrap under a zealous thumb, then followed the serpentine path winding before me. Beyond the threshold, sprawled across the deck, the rest of the dragon lazed in dappled light the way a housecat might bask in a sunny rectangle on the carpet. With one crimson eye slitted, he watched my approach, the edge of his lips curling to expose knifelike teeth in sharp amusement. An inquiring noise rose in the dragon’s throat, a polite inquiry about how well I had slept. “You do realize—” I yawned wide, jaw cracking, “—I can’t afford to air condition the entire swamp.” I regretted the words as soon as I tasted them.

They savored of Aunt Nancy. They called to mind a bright red door on a tidy cottage that now sat empty. They reminded me of a beanpole of a woman with dark skin and warm, brown eyes. “We’re air conditioning the whole neighborhood standing here like this.” Never again would she fuss about cooling costs, and that was Famine’s fault, and War’s fault, and mine. The dragon, catching the drift of my thoughts, lifted his closest wing in an invitation to join him. Affection was so much easier between us this way. I understood the dragon better than the man he sometimes pretended to be. A firm yank on my ankle brought me stumbling closer and put me in range of his membranous wings. The heavy wrist nearest me smacked against the backs of my knees, and my legs crumpled.

He caught me in a clawed hand then lowered me gently onto the planks by his side. The treacherous wing lifted again, and this time the dragon arched the ridged line above his eye in a silent dare. “Bully,” I groused, reclining against his sun-warmed hide. I pretended not to love the silken drape of his wing across my shoulders, or its comforting weight, but I did, and I doubted he was fooled. “I’m still mad at you.” I plucked at the tank top Portia had loaned me to sleep in after I accepted the hard truth that no AC in the bunkhouse meant no long-sleeve pajamas for me. “You woke me up early on the last day of my vacation.” Vacation was not the right word, but we all pretended it fit anyway. His massive paw flexed against the wood, lightly scratching, a cat sharpening his claws. “You could have just asked.

” We had played this game before, almost every morning for the past week. “You do have a voice.” Judders along his side alerted me to the fact the dragon was laughing at me. “I swear to God, I will end you if you try any funny business.” I gripped his wing joint at the wrist and swung onto his back, digging in my heels to keep my seat while reaching up and scratching behind the rounded tabs of his ears and the fringe of mane that itched worse in this humidity. “I mean it this time.” “That’s what you said last time,” Santiago drawled from the murky water. “And the time before that.” The urge to cover my arms prickled in my palms, but Santiago was coterie. That meant, even if he didn’t like me much, he was safe.

Still, old habits died hard, and exposing the intricate rose-gold lines banding me from wrist to shoulder required a courage I had never tested before coming to live at the bunkhouse with the others. The sight comforted them, connected us, but it had alienated me from other humans. Humans. As if I wasn’t one any longer. As if I ever had been. “I expected him to go up.” I glowered at Santiago while raking my fingers through silky fur. “Not down.” “The first time maybe,” he allowed. “What about all the rest?” The dragon perked his ears for my answer, but I wasn’t about to admit the light that sparked in Cole’s eyes when he suckered me onto his back then dove into the swamp was worth picking duckweed out of my teeth every single time.

A peculiar sting along my spine, the sensation of eyes on the point where the two halves of the rose-gold rukav joined at my nape, had me ready to shout a warning to Santiago. Only our uninvited guest wasn’t my sister, War, but my new partner, Adam Wu. Instinct warned me to hold still, even if it meant exposing the full design spreading over my shoulders and across my back to him. Golden-brown eyes steeped in eternal knowledge stared at me across a pier that felt too small all of a sudden. The black hair he kept trimmed in an undercut was slicked back with the same precision that defined him. Built tall and lean, he made his simple black suit look good. The clean lines and quality fabric whispered rather than screamed money so long as you didn’t notice the shoes, the watch, or the belt. His predatory elegance as he crossed the dock made me wonder at how humans ever imagined him to be one of them. Water rippled on my periphery as Santiago made his exit. Chicken.

Wu couldn’t still be pissed about that trip to New York. Probably. Maybe. “The picture of domestic bliss.” His sardonic grin drew my attention to the fullness of his upper lip, and its redness. Plucking it was a nervous habit of his, and I had zero intentions of cluing him in to his one damning tell. “How charming.” “Wu,” I said, and damn if I didn’t sound a little bit glad to see him. “I didn’t expect you until tomorrow.” “There’s been an incident.

” His gaze slid down my arms in an intimate caress. “Your vacation is over.” Again, the urge to cover myself sent fine tremors racing down my arms, but I squared my shoulders and faced him head-on, refusing to show weakness. A warning rumble poured through the air between us as the dragon grasped what the fascination in Wu’s eyes meant. He bared fangs longer than my hand and hissed, his pink tongue ribboning between his teeth. Unspooling his tail from my ankle, he cracked the stinging tip against the dock a half inch from the toe of Wu’s fancy shoes, daring him to step closer. “Control him,” Wu said, sounding bored, though I noticed he didn’t move, “or I will.” Cold blossomed in my heart, each beat pumping icy rage through my bloodstream. “You can try.” “Perhaps one day,” he countered, like this was a negotiation, “but not today.

” A tickle down my arm spooked me, and I almost toppled off the dragon when I twisted away from the unexpected contact. Above me, a boxy tom with midnight fur dangled a gray shawl from his jaws. The muted color reminded me of the downy fur on the baby field mice Thom brought me yesterday. For breakfast. Murmuring my thanks as he cocooned me, I swung my leg over the dragon’s side and slid until my feet hit the wood. A heartbeat, half that, and Cole stood beside me dressed in his White Horse uniform. Murder glinted in his eyes where they fixed on Wu’s vulnerable neck, and his lip quivered, his throat working like he already tasted hot blood pouring down his parched throat. “Who are you to look upon her?” “I apologize,” Wu said, not sounding contrite in the least. “I overstepped.” Cole trembled with barely leashed fury.

“The rukav is for our eyes only.” Our, he said. But what I heard was mine. “Let it go.” I fit my palm between the slabs of his muscular shoulder blades. “There’s no harm done.” Chest heaving, Cole turned his back on Wu, a deliberate insult, and captured my hand in his. He lowered his head until he buried his nose behind my ear. He filled his lungs, and his shoulders eased a fraction. His soft lips caressed my skin when he growled, low and possessive, “Show no one your markings.

” The coterie was an extension of me, of us, and I understood he wasn’t excluding them but outsiders. “You don’t have to tell me twice.” But I kind of wished he would if it meant keeping his mouth on me. This much, at least, had changed between us during my time at the bunkhouse. His knowing I wanted to be his while not making demands that he be mine in return was soothing a broken thing in him that needed to heal before we could be more than simmering potential. I could wait for him. I would wait. For as long as it took. Forever if we had that long. “We have company,” I murmured with reluctance.

“Wu is not company,” he countered, straightening. “He’s a nuisance.” “Play nice.” I drummed my fingers on his left pectoral, right over his heart. “We need him.” “All I need is . ” His teeth clacked together, biting off the sentiment with a vicious snarl he aimed inward. “You’re right.” His fingers uncurled from mine. “We do.

” Head down, he eased from under the weight of my palm. “For now.” Ignoring the raw ache when he withdrew, I trained my gaze on Wu, knowing he had heard every word and noted how Cole’s swift urge to possess had dwindled to regret for wanting in the first place. Facing him was harder than it should have been after that. “Have a seat.” A wrought iron table and chair set anchored the far end of the pier, its heft meant to accommodate Cole. Wu and I sat. Cole positioned himself behind me, his right hand on my right shoulder. His gentle caress sought out the raised grooves beneath my skin before settling inside the gold-rimmed aureoles as if each ring had been fitted to his fingertips. The significance was lost on me, but Wu hid his clenched fists in his lap.

A yowl shot my attention up to the mossy-green umbrella, my contribution to the patio set, and I glared as Thom perched on the decorative pineapple finial, casting his cat-shaped shadow over Wu’s face. “So, Wu.” I eyed the wobbling umbrella with apprehension. “What brings you all the way out here?” “A corpse washed up in Vicksburg.” “Okay.” I crossed my legs and leaned back in my chair, mentally adding purchasing seat cushions to my to-do list. The metal was digging into my tailbone. “Charun?” “No.” He mirrored my position. “Human.

” “Okay,” I said again, eager for him to get to the point. “What does that have to do with anything?” Bodies washed up on shores all the time. The NSB wouldn’t care about one more without good reason. “The corpse was still twitching.” “You mean the person.” A frown tightened my brow. “The person was still twitching.” “No, it wasn’t alive.” And that, my friends, was the sound of the other shoe dropping. Or was it? War had burned me once with her games already, but I couldn’t afford to ignore events that might be portents of Death breaching.

One last player on the board was all it took to kick start this round of Armageddon, and I aimed to win. Cole trailed a scarred knuckle down my nape, the gesture absentminded, until he snagged a sweaty curl he wrapped around his finger. “Is this the first?” “No.” Wu forced his hands flat on his thighs. “The first in our jurisdiction, yes.” “This couldn’t wait until morning?” I smashed a mosquito on my wrist above the heavy leather bracelet I wore, the one Cole had given to me. “You couldn’t have called first?” “I was in the neighborhood.” “Who were you visiting?” I snorted. “The frogs or the gators?” “Perhaps I missed you.” He squinted into the sun, making it impossible to read his expression.

“It’s been seven days, and you haven’t texted once.” Unable to decide if he meant it, I dithered on my response until Cole stepped in to fill the silence. “She’s been in mourning.” His palm wrapped my nape. “She needed time to heal.” Heal implied the festering wound in my chest where I preserved the memories of Aunt Nancy and Uncle Harold could be flushed clean with a squirt of peroxide, slathered over with antibiotic ointment, and bandaged until scar tissue formed. Maybe, for someone else, that might have been possible. For me? Not so much. I picked the scabs, relished the sting, and refreshed my blood vow to avenge them whatever the cost. “You did too,” I reminded Wu.

“Famine almost killed you.” A negligent shrug rolled through his shoulders. “Hazards of the job.” “You look much better than the last time I saw you.” A flush kissed my cheeks when I remembered that damn teddy bear and its assless chaps snuggled up against his side when I visited his room at the charun medical facility. “The break was good for both of us.” The slow grin spreading across his face told me he had clued in to what I was thinking, and he chuckled. Cole shifted his weight, sensing the undercurrents in our conversation but unsure what had caused the ripples that left me smelling embarrassed and Wu looking smug. The coterie was aware I had visited Wu after sitting with my dad, who was being kept in a medically induced coma while they purged the toxic cocktail of charun venom Famine had been dosing him with since the night War took him captive. But I might have glossed over the BDSM plush the florist sent in place of the giant rubber ducky I had ordered to keep the peace.

“What brought you out here?” I set our conversation back on its tracks. “Specifically?” Wu cut his eyes in the direction of the bedroom I was borrowing. From Cole. A sleek garment bag with a designer label hung from a rusted nail. How it got there, I had no clue. His hands had been empty when I greeted him. Or so I’d thought. But I had been otherwise occupied when he arrived. Maybe Wu had been watching us for longer than he let on. “I brought your new uniform.

” A knot formed in my throat at the reminder I would never wear my Canton Police Department uniform again, and I couldn’t swallow past it. “Not more spandex, I hope.” His thumb smoothed the upper arch of his lip. “Not this time.” “Hmm.” Curious as a cat, I stalked over to inspect his offering. The zipper parted beneath my hand, and I thumbed through the hangers one by one. The bag held one outfit in triplicate. I almost laughed. “Wow.

We really are the men in black. Only with demons instead of aliens.” I thought about the fact the charun came from other terrenes, other worlds. “Or maybe not.” The contents included three tailored pairs of black slacks and three fitted blazers to match them. Three black leather belts hung down in front of three pressed shirts, the bright white offering the only pop of color to my new wardrobe. “Check under the bag,” Wu instructed in a tone that screamed but wait—there’s more! A box emblazoned with Lucchese winked up at me. Without cracking it open, I guessed it contained supple leather boots that fit the theme. “What?” I shook the box. “Only one pair?” Ignoring my snark, he flicked his wrist again.

“No, not that one.” A second box huddled behind the first as though designer labels intimidated it as much as they did me. “Hello, lovely.” The hard-shell plastic case gave away its contents. “You bought me a gun.” I lifted the case by the molded handle and flipped the tabs. “A Glock 19.” I lifted the gun out of the foam and tested its grip. “She’s a skosh smaller than my 22.” I had an emotional attachment to the 22 after carrying one for four years, but it had been department issue.

I didn’t miss the extra length or weight offhand, but a trip to the range would earn or lose my trust. “Concealed carry?” “That’s the idea,” he said dryly. “There’s a shoulder holster in the bottom of the garment bag.” “Do all new recruits get the same welcome package?” I appraised my haul. “Or am I special?” “You’re my partner.” He savored the word my like it was his favorite flavor. “You’re also cadre.” The reminder of my lineage sobered him and me both. “There’s no one like you on this terrene or any other, Luce Boudreau.” The sentiment, while sweet, was not what I wanted to hear.

“Kapoor mentioned an Otillian on the taskforce.” The lure of a charun from Otilla, like me, who might have answers to all my questions about where I came from, who I was to those people, was his favorite bait. “I have limited interactions with the taskforce,” he said, which neither confirmed nor denied the claim. I bit the inside of my cheek until I tasted blood to keep my questions bottled up for later. He was always more forthcoming when we were alone. Asking him around the coterie put Portia, Maggie, and me in danger of testosterone poisoning. “Do I get a company car,” I joked to prove I had moved on, “or do I drive the Bronco to work?” “I’ll pick you up this week. Your car hasn’t been delivered yet.” A splash alerted me to Santiago’s reemergence. He flattened his forearms on the pier and hauled himself out of the water.

He sat there dripping wet, feet in the swamp, and grinned at Wu. “What he means is they haven’t had time to install the surveillance they want placed on your vehicle.” Seeing no reason to deny what we all knew to be true, Wu shrugged. “That too.” “No one has mentioned where work actually is,” I pointed out. “Where do I report?” “To me,” Wu said, too smug for his own good. “Vicksburg is about an hour away.” Santiago reclined across the planks, crossed his ankles then linked his hands behind his head. “I assume you’ll have Luce home in time for dinner?” Predatory stillness swept through Cole and triggered a cascade of shivers down my spine, but it wasn’t a fear response. “It depends on our initial findings.

” Wu let his gaze linger on me. “We might spend a night in the city.” “That won’t be necessary,” I cut him off before Cole sprouted a tail and strangled Wu with it. “It’s close enough we can drive down again the next day if we have unanswered questions.” “Or we could all go,” Miller suggested as he clomped down the pier with bags of takeout strung down his arms. “It’s a short trip.” He glanced over his shoulder at Maggie—or Portia—who carried a tray of drinks. “They’re getting restless. Getting them away from Canton, even overnight, would help.” As always, my heart pinched when I set eyes on Portia, and it was her.

The swagger wasn’t Maggie’s graceful stride, and the cocked hip when she stopped was wrong too. Despite the fact I was looking at Maggie’s body, I saw no trace of my best friend in there. “Luce,” they whispered, voice breaking as Mags took the wheel. “Sorry,” I murmured, hating my guilt had dragged her to the surface. “I was just wondering if he’s right. Are you guys up for a road trip?” “Yes,” Maggie breathed. “We’re bored out of our minds.” Town was out of the question for them unless they pulled on a ballcap and shades then rode in the back of the SUVs behind darkly tinted windows. Maggie was still an open missing persons case for the FBI, which meant Portia had to remain scarce too unless we wanted to answer some tough questions. “You heard the lady,” I told Wu.

“Looks like we’re talking a family vacation to Vicksburg.” My new partner sighed, his weary resignation music to my ears. “I will allow this.” He stood, the heavy chair legs scraping, and crossed to me. “For you.” “Aww, shucks.” I beamed up at him. “Thanks, partner.” “You grasp the implications.” Gold sparkled in the depths of his brown eyes.

“Are you prepared?” To face the final cadre member? To face Death? “Yes.” Fingers twitching at my side, I recalled the glide of Uncle Harold’s blood, hot and slick, on my skin the night Famine blew her cover, and I blasted a hole through my uncle’s gut. “I am.” Death had already come at me, after all. I was eager to return the favor.

.

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