Mortal Ties (World of the Lupi #9) : chap 1

ONE

LILY Yu hadn’t planned to visit the graveyard at sunset. It just worked out that way.

Mount Hope’s main gates closed at three thirty, but the pedestrian gates stayed open. People liked to stop by after work, the guy at the cemetery’s office had said, especially on the deceased’s birthday or other important dates. No parking available at this hour, though, except for what you could grab along the street.

Lily pulled her government Ford to the curb and checked her rearview mirror. The white Toyota that had been following her drew close, then cruised on by. She would wait. No point in making them anxious by getting out before they could park. It was bad enough she brought them here when the light was going.

Not that they would be spooked by the setting sun, no more than she was. The dead weren’t scary. It was the living you had to watch out for.

While the Toyota hunted for a parking place, Lily transferred her penlight from her purse to her pocket. The day was slipping down toward dusk, and twilight’s a tricky bugger. In the daytime you know where you are and can see where you’re going. At night you know you can’t see, not without help—electric help, most likely, from the city, a flashlight, whatever. You know, so you take precautions.

Twilight blurs the edges. In the shadow time, it’s easy to mistake what you see, to step wrong, thinking there’s light enough to keep going. Back when she worked homicide, Lily had arrested people who went that one terrible step too far, confused by a personal twilight of drugs or emotion. People who never set out to be killers.

But some take that step on purpose. Some damn well know where the lines are and cross them deliberately. Like the bastard whose hearing she’d testified at today.

Goddamn copycats.

The Toyota backed itself into a spot between an SUV and a pickup halfway up the block. Lily grabbed her purse, checked for cars, and climbed out of her Ford. Traffic was sparse enough she could cross right away, so she did. By the time she reached the cemetery side of the street, two men had gotten out of the Toyota.

One was slim and pale, with a round face and glasses. He looked like he ought to have a pocket protector tucked away somewhere. The other was a head taller, eighty pounds heavier, and looked like he ought to have a couple of tattoos and a rap sheet. Geek Guy wore a cheap sports shirt. Tough Guy wore a black T-shirt. Both wore jeans, athletic shoes, and sports jackets.

Lily wore a jacket, too, and for the same reason. It might be a few days short of January, but this was San Diego. The air was crisp, not cold. But people get upset if you walk around with your shoulder harness showing.

The men crossed the street between a dark sedan and a delivery truck. Geek Guy made a quick gesture with one hand. Tough Guy set off through the gate at an easy lope. Lily followed Tough Guy—also known as Mike—and was in turn followed.

They hadn’t been tailed here, but it was just barely possible their enemies knew she planned to come and had someone waiting. Highly unlikely, but possible. A month ago she’d picked up a map of the cemetery. Theoretically, Friar could have somehow learned about that and kept the place staked out ever since.

Or so Scott had said when she told him she was coming here. Lily considered this one of the safest things she’d done lately. Friar’s organization had been badly damaged in October when he’d managed to get a lot of people killed and had seen his long-laid plans blow up in his face. She doubted he had the resources to keep a sniper in place 24/7 for a month. She doubted even more that he had any idea she’d picked up that map in the first place.

He did, however, have one resource they could neither predict nor evaluate in any meaningful way, so she could be wrong. If so, well, she had backup.

Sometimes it really is all in the name.

For months she’d struggled with the need for bodyguards. No—be honest, she told herself as she set off down a narrow road that twisted through the cemetery, heading generally where she needed to go. She’d hated it. She’d hated dragging guards everywhere, hated the loss of privacy…hated, most of all, that one of them had given his life for her. The need for them was real, but her acceptance of the necessity had been a grim thing, testy and prone to muttering.

Last week Rule had shaken his head at her mutters and said, “I don’t get it. Didn’t you ever call for backup when you were a regular cop? That didn’t make you crazy.”

“Backup,” she’d repeated slowly. Then said it again as a weight shifted, not disappearing but settling into a more comfortable place, like slipping on her bra or shoulder holster. “Backup, not guards. They’re my mobile backup.”

Trailed by half of her mobile backup—Geek Guy, aka Scott White, who was a lot more interested in guns and knives than computers—Lily left the road for the soft grass, moving between the resting places of the dead.

Her target lay in the newest part of the cemetery. Mount Hope was old for this side of the country, an accumulation of graveyards the city had assumed responsibility for over the years, with lots of established trees and old-fashioned headstones. Here, though, it was what they called garden-style, with neatly trimmed grass and markers set flat into the ground, each with a little holder for flowers.

The grass was damp and springy and perfumed the air. In other parts of the country, people associated the smell of freshly cut grass with summer. It evoked winter for Lily. That’s when the rains came, when grass grew lush and green and was in need of cutting. This year December had been unusually wet, bestowing nearly five inches of rain on them. Lily walked on soft grass between the graves of people she’d never known, heading for the one she had.

She hadn’t brought flowers. It would be tacky to bring flowers to the grave of a woman you’d killed. Especially when you didn’t regret it.

Lily counted rows, turned, and counted graves. She didn’t see Mike nearby, but she hadn’t expected to. Lupi were good at tucking themselves away where you couldn’t spot them.

And there it was. Lily stopped.

She hadn’t brought flowers, but someone had.

Not an expensive bouquet. More like the kind you pick up at the grocery store, with a few dyed carnations supplemented by baby’s breath. Pink and red carnations, in this case. There was an inch of water in the glass cylinder holding the bouquet.

Was this the right grave? Maybe she’d lost count. She knelt by the headstone laid flat into the ground, frowned at its unexpected decoration, then used her penlight to read the inscription on the plaque.

HELEN ANNABELLE WHITEHEAD

When Lily killed Helen a year ago last month, she hadn’t known the woman’s last name. She hadn’t known much about her at all, save for a few vital facts. Helen had lived up to the common wisdom about telepaths—she’d been batwing crazy. She’d tortured and she’d killed; she’d tried to open a hellgate; she’d intended to feed Lily’s lover to the Old One she served. She’d also been doing her damnedest to kill Lily just before Lily put a stop to that and the rest of the woman’s plans.

So…no regrets, no. Lily had done what she had to do. And Helen hadn’t had a spouse, lover, or any living family, so Lily didn’t even carry the burden of having brought grief to those who might have loved the woman.

Yet here she was. She wasn’t sure why. In some murky, underneath way it was connected to what she’d done yesterday, when she and Rule had stood in line for a ridiculous amount of time at the County Clerk’s office. They’d left with a marriage license good for the next ninety days.

The wedding was in March—two months, one week, and two days away.

Yesterday had been the immediate catalyst for this visit, but the decision to come here had grown up organically in Lily’s mind over the last several months. She’d found out where Helen was back in June, but hadn’t come. Last month she’d swung by Mount Hope’s office and gotten directions and the map, but hadn’t gone to Helen’s grave. She hadn’t been ready.

Ready for what? She wasn’t sure. She was here, and she still wasn’t sure why.

Mount Hope had been San Diego’s municipal cemetery for about a hundred and fifty years. Raymond Chandler was buried here. So was Alta Hulett, America’s first female attorney, and the guy who established Balboa Park, and a lot of veterans. So was Ah Quin, who was remembered as one the city’s founding fathers…at least by its Chinese residents. And so were those who’d been buried at the county’s expense, though budget cuts meant the county was likely to cremate, not plant, these days.

Helen had died a virgin, a killer, and intestate, but taxpayers hadn’t had to pick up the tab for disposing of her mortal remains. The trustee appointed by a judge had seen to that, paying for it out of her estate.

Turned out Helen had socked away well over a quarter million. Telepaths had an inside track on conning people, didn’t they? If they could shut out the voices in their heads enough to function, that is—which Helen had been able to do, thanks to the Old One she served. That’s how she’d met her protégé, Patrick Harlowe…who’d also died badly, but not at Lily’s hands. Cullen Seabourne had done the honors there.

But Lily had killed again since then. Helen was her first, but killing and war went together, didn’t they? Even if most of the country didn’t know they were at war, the lupi did. Lily did. And so did her boss, head of the FBI’s Unit Twelve…head, too, of the far less official Shadow Unit.

In the run-up to the war, Lily had killed demons, helped a wraith reach true death, and ushered a supposed immortal through that small, dark door. This last September she’d tried and failed to kill a sidhe lord. And in October, just before the first open battle of the war, she’d shot a man. Double-tapped him.

That man had just shot a fellow FBI agent—a lying, treacherous bastard of an agent, but at that point he’d been on Lily’s side. There had been other lives on the line: four lupi, another FBI agent, and the twenty-two people the bad guys intended to slaughter. Lily had sited on the shooter’s head—his body had been blocked by the van he’d driven—and squeezed off two quick shots. She’d killed him cold, not hot, killed him to stop him from killing others.

That was training. Most cops never had to use their weapons, but when you took up the badge you knew you might be called on to take a life. Lily had never doubted she could. Not since she was nine, anyway. The man who’d raped and killed her friend while she watched, tied up and waiting for him to do the same to her, had been arrested and tried and convicted. He’d gone to prison for life, which was all the vengeance she was supposed to want.

But for months afterward, she’d dreamed of murder.

Lily had always known she entered the police force to stop the monsters. She was beginning to understand the other reason she’d needed that bureaucratic harness.

“Goddamn morbid sort of thing to do, isn’t it?” said a gravelly voice. “Hanging out at the grave of someone you killed.”

Lily jolted, then twisted to scowl at the intruder. “Oh, hell. I thought you were gone.”

“Guess you were wrong.” The man standing disrespectfully atop a nearby grave wore a dark suit with a wrinkled white shirt and a plain tie. He was on the skinny side of lean, with his dark, thinning hair combed straight back from a broad forehead, and he was pale. Pale as in white. Also slightly see-through.

Al Drummond. Her very own personal haunt.

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WHAT had she ever done to deserve this? Lily ran both hands through her hair. “Go away.”

“Ah…Lily?” Scott said.

Scott, of course, hadn’t seen or heard anything, except for her talking to empty air. “It’s Drummond, dropping in again for a visit.” Al Drummond, former FBI Special Agent…the lying, treacherous bastard who’d been shot by the man Lily had killed last month. Scott knew about him.

The dead might not scare her, but they could be damned annoying. “If you’re here to give me more of your pearls of wisdom—”

“No. At least…” He paused uncertainly. “I don’t think so.”

Drummond had been many things in life. Uncertain wasn’t one of them. The novelty of it interrupted her more thoroughly than his words, stirring an unwanted curiosity. “What, then?”

“I don’t know.” He crossed his arms, scowling. “You think I picked you to fix on? You think this is my idea of a great way to spend eternity—popping in to watch you brush your goddamn teeth? What the hell are you doing here, anyway?”

Lily stood. Whatever she’d hoped for today, it wasn’t happening now. Not with Drummond hanging around. “In what way can that be considered any of your business?”

“Just curious. It makes things easier for me, but somehow I don’t think that’s why you came.”

“What do you mean, it makes it easier for you?”

“Easier for me to show up. Places like this, the veil is thin.”

Amusement jabbed at her, half funny and half painful. “I wish Mullins could hear you talking about ‘the veil’ like some TV psychic.”

He snorted. “That would chap his ass, wouldn’t it? You like to hang out at the graves of people you’ve killed?”

“How do you know whose grave this is?”

“I can read.”

“And you know who Helen was.”

“Did you think I didn’t do any digging before I set out to get you?”

Drummond might have gone spectacularly wrong, but he’d been a good agent before that—savvy, smart, and thorough. Of course he knew who Helen was, knew that Lily had killed her. God only knew what else he’d dug up about her. “Go away.”

“Don’t get all huffy. I’ve got a proposition.”

“Does it involve you leaving me alone?”

“And where the hell would I go?”

“How should I know? Obviously you don’t have to hang around me every minute. You were gone for over a month.”

“A month?” That rattled him. “I was…I think I was sleeping. But not the whole time. I was at the courthouse with you just now when—”

She scowled. “I didn’t see you.” Supposedly Drummond couldn’t see or hear the world without manifesting, at least to the drifting-white-mist stage.

“You didn’t look up, and I was…” His mouth kept moving, but all she heard was silence. He stopped, scowled, and tried again. Midway through, his mouthed words became speech again. “…show up all the way in some places. And talking is goddamn hard, too, so stop interrupting.”

“You’re not really talking, you know. No movement of air, which is why no one else hears you.” It had to be some kind of mindspeech, however much it sounded like regular speech to her.

He snorted. “Like I hadn’t figured that out. Listen, I think I know what I’m supposed to do. Why I didn’t just die or go to hell or whatever.” His eyes burned with intensity. “I’m supposed to be your partner.”

It was so ludicrous she had to laugh. “Yeah, that’ll happen.” She collected Scott with a glance and started for the road. Drummond tried to grab her arm. His hand passed right through her, of course, so after a disgusted grimace he kept pace beside her. At least that’s what it looked like—as if he were walking, his feet pushing against the ground the way hers did.

“Look, I get that you don’t like me,” he said. “So what? I’ve worked with a lot of assholes. If it gets the job done, you live with it.”

“You’re a little limited in what you can do right now.”

“Maybe, but I can do things you can’t. Anywhere within about three hundred feet of you, I can check things out. Check things out on either side. For example, there are three ghosts here—pretty tattered, not much for conversation, but they’re here. And on your side of things, I know where your wolf man is. He’s hunkered down right over there.” He stretched out an arm to point at a dip in the ground.

One finger on that hand glowed faintly from the wedding ring he still wore. It caught her attention, that ring. Unconsciously she rubbed her thumb over the ring she wore—an engagement ring, not a wedding ring, but the same sort of token. Rule’s ring.

She looked away. “His name is Mike.”

“Whatever. The point is, I can help.”

They’d reached the narrow road that wound among the graves. She stopped. “And you think I should trust you.”

“I dealt straight with you. Once I saw what they were doing, I dealt straight with you.”

True. He’d risked his life to rescue twenty-two homeless people, then given it to save a friend. And after he died, he’d found the death-magic amulet so they could destroy it.

But first he’d betrayed the Bureau, nearly killed Lily’s boss, conspired in the murder of a U.S. senator, and damn near ended Lily’s career along the way.

Lily studied him a moment, then took out her phone.

He frowned. “Who are you calling?”

“A friend. She hears dead people all the time.” Lily had only chatted with one dead guy. This one. As for the big, fat “why” of this screwed-up situation…well, the expert she was about to consult used the analogy of a house. Most people didn’t see or hear the dead because their houses lacked windows and had only one door—a tightly locked, one-way affair. That door didn’t open until the person died. Because Lily had died once, her door didn’t lock anymore. It was a tiny bit ajar. Mostly that didn’t matter, but she’d been present at Drummond’s death, and somehow that had allowed their energies to get tangled up together.

At least that was the theory. It didn’t explain everything. Lily had been present when a lot of people died that day, including the man she’d shot. None of the rest of them had taken to tagging along with her.

She scrolled down to “Etorri” in her contacts list and selected “Rhej.”

The Rhejes were the clans’ wise women, or maybe historians or quasi-priestesses. They were all Gifted…and the Etorri Rhej’s Gift was mediumship. Lily had never heard the woman’s name because the Rhejes weren’t called by their names, but last month she’d given in to curiosity. Rhejes didn’t actually hide their names and Lily had the woman’s phone number, so it hadn’t been hard. The name of the Etorri Rhej was Anne. Anne Murdock.

Anne answered right away. Lily apologized for disturbing her, then said, “He’s back.”

“That ghost?” Anne was clearly surprised. “What was his name—Hammond?”

“Drummond. He just showed up again. He’s glaring at me right now.”

“He still seems coherent?”

“In the sense you used the word, yeah.”

Anne made a little huff of frustration. “I wish I could talk to him. I haven’t met a fully coherent ghost since I was seven, and she left soon after my mother spoke with her.”

Lily knew what Anne meant by “coherent,” because they’d talked soon after Drummond showed up. Most ghosts were more of a habit than a person—some ingrained action or fear or moment that played itself out over and over, a ripple cast by the soul’s departure rather than the soul itself. Others seemed like real people, able to interact, but in a limited way. They often didn’t make a lot of sense to those few of the living who could see and hear them.

But there were a few rare exceptions. Fully coherent ghosts, the Etorri Rhej called them, and the experts didn’t agree on what they were, how they came to be, or much of anything else, except that they were different from the rest. A coherent ghost seemed to be the whole person. He or she remained aware of the living world, seemed to perceive it through the same senses as the living, and used language the way the living do. Coherent ghosts were like the rest in one way, however. They were tied to something—a place or an object or, very rarely, a person.

How had Lily gotten so lucky? “He says he’s tied to me, but he was gone for over a month.”

“I’m afraid I can’t explain that.”

“Neither could he. He also says he thinks he’s supposed to be my partner.”

“Are you asking for advice?”

© 2016 Suck_Everything

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