Chapter 1: Summer in the City

The thing about this city is that it offers all the good and bad of any major city in the southern United States. Citizens greeted strangers with warm smiles and welcoming words when they passed on the streets, sat on neighboring stools at the local dive bar, and asked for suggestions at local restaurants. People helped each other when natural disasters hit. Joyous singing of hopeful hymns drowned out the impatient and angry honking of horns as churchgoers passed plates filled with rich, buttery yeast rolls and cold, vinegary pasta salad at Sunday celebrations. Everyone was friendly, helpful, and polite–so long as no one moved to upset the balance of the antebellum plantation homes that sat behind stately oak alleys atop the hill, perched precariously atop the head of a rusting, hollow, white needle.

That was the Butcher’s Bend, South Carolina, people saw if they looked with the dulled, stunted eyes all humans are born with. And that city was certainly there. But those of us who see through the Veil saw a different side of this city. A vibrant symphony filled with both the harmonious cries of love and joy and with the dissonant and bitter weeping from fear, loss, and heartbreak. We knew that the Albinor family of White Wolf Roasters, the coffee shop next to James Roanoke State University, was a close-knit pack of werewolves who wanted to keep an eye on their pups while at school. The Eleven-to-Seven convenient store, open only during those hours of the night, sold all nine flavors of Blüdsip, a soda made of synthoflavin, or synthetic blood, that allowed vampires to eat without risking discovery. We understood that the reason Todd’s Tresses provided the best haircuts was because Todd was a perfectionist demon who spent his time in our world because he loved Broadway. And we recognized that all these beings–and others like them–shivered beneath the shadow that their discovery might alert the S-T’s who kept these truths secret from most humans. Usually with a body count.

And that’s where I entered the picture. I spent the afternoon sitting in the back room of my two-room office near the end of the hallway, with its flickering fluorescent lights on the second floor of the Oberon Center. Located just south of the Veiled Heights, where most of our supernatural residents lived, Hain Private Investigations provided general investigative services for all people–human and nonhuman–as well as special services for those non-humans who ran afoul of the S-T’s and other organizations who worked to keep things secret.

Destiny walked into my office and slid a brown manilla folder onto my desk next to the cheap plastic fan I bought when our air conditioner stopped working at the end of June. Sweat dripped from beneath her blonde ringlets as she fanned herself with an empty folder. I opened the folder and scanned the contents–invoices and bills–all paid, but all higher than usual. I sighed and sipped my black coffee. A sticky note on the inside reminded me that I had a meeting with Susan Delahoussaye in two hours and that the air conditioner repairman would arrive tomorrow at noon.

“Water, Sam. You should drink some,” she said.

I looked into her ice-blue eyes and smiled as sweat beaded on my forehead. “Thanks, Des,” I said. “Seems we’re in the black this month.”

“Just barely, Sam,” she said as she sat in the chair opposite mine. Her German accent tinted her speech as she continued, “The payout from that synthoflavin poisoning case helped us, but you can’t do any more pro bono work for at least a month.”

“Fuck,” I said as I brushed a wayward strand of brown hair behind my ear. Normally I wore my hair in victory rolls or a French twist, but thanks to the sweltering July heat and our broken air conditioner, I simplified my style and wore a high ponytail. Shaking my head, I asked, “Can we work out a payment plan for Susan? I saw in the Courier that her mother’s funeral is tomorrow, and I don’t want her to worry about another expense given the situation.”

Destiny grabbed a pen from my desk and scribbled some notes on the manila envelope she was using for a fan. She nodded. Then she said, “I can draw up that paperwork as long as the computer doesn’t crash. Sam, you remember…”

“That we need new equipment,” I interrupted. “Yeah, and thanks. I remember having midterms the week of Mom’s accident and how hard it was to focus on other things when I was both in shock and had to handle the arrangements.”

I snapped a pencil in my trembling fist as my eyes glassed over with tears. Destiny moved around the desk and wrapped her arm around my shoulder. As I cried into my hands, she gently said, “I know you still miss her, and I realize it’s hard to lose someone you love–especially as close as you and your mom were. Hell, she was like a second mom to me when we met in college. The Anime Club loved having sleepover viewings at your house. We all loved her.”

I nodded and clutched her hand, saying, “And all of you came to her funeral. Hell, your family even flew over from Hanau. I couldn’t have asked for better support.”

“You’re family, Sam,” Destiny said. “Why do you think Dad insists you come work for him?”

I nodded. Destiny’s father, Werther Grimm, was a good and honorable man. As the leader of the Veiled Knights of Wilhelm and Jakob, the “Grimms,” as those who learned of them called them, are Germany and Austria’s equivalent of the S-T’s. They have the same mandate to guard the secret of the Veil that prevents most humans from seeing one simple but terrifying truth. We share our world with the peoples and creatures of folklore. And their body counts tend to be higher than similar organizations, rivaling that of Ireland’s Duilearga. Destiny walked away from the family business after her first case. And together, we built this little business from a desire to help people–human and supernatural–and keep everyone safe and alive in the process.

“I know.” The words choked through my throat as tears fell. “And I love your parents. I just–I just wish she were still here. I’d give anything to speak to her again.”

Destiny rose with a sigh, saying, “I’m going to go draw up the paperwork, and you drink some water. All that coffee will dehydrate you, Sam. Is Susan coming here for your meeting?”

I shook my head while dabbing the tears from my eyes. “No,” I said. “I’m driving to her place in Harmony Park.”

She nodded and said, “Well, be careful. We’ve had a lot of rain lately, and you need to have your brakes looked at.”

Thunder echoed across the night sky as gray clouds wrapped their thin fingers around July’s full moon. A cool north breeze pushed through the air. An owl dove from her perch in a strong and stately oak tree, snatching a field mouse for her first meal of the night. At the base of the Stubai Alps in Austria’s Tyrol state, the bells in the tower of St. Rita of Cascia Catholic Church tolled midnight for the residents of the small town of Karnsburg. Two police officers watched as young people danced in the town square as the DJ from Klub Abweichend spun his pulsing electronic rhythms as the second night of the Summer Sweat Festival continued until sunrise.

About an hour’s drive south of Karnsburg, high in the Alps, stood the gray and black stone keep of Castle Karnstein. Beyond the keep and at the center of the rear courtyard’s hedge maze, Countess Carmilla Karnstein, her skin as pale as moonlight, stood by the fountain, painting the nocturnal sky. Above average in height and slender, this woman who appeared no older than twenty-two wore a black skirt suit with burgundy pinstripes. She wore her long black hair in a severe bun. Her plum lips matched the hue of the 1827 Sanguinovese she sipped from a crystal glass.

As her wrist flicked the last stroke, she set her watercolor palette on the edge of the fountain before sitting on the bench beside it. A statue depicting a badger slaying a dragon stood at the fountain’s center, water spouting from the dragon’s wounds. She sipped her wine and stared into the darkness. A sigh escaped her lips. As she drained her glass, an older man with a white tonsure and thick mustache approached. He wore a navy suit with polished burgundy shoes. She offered a weak smile as he bowed.

“My Countess,” he said in a Saxon baritone. “I realize the night is young, but you will have to wake before sunset for your meeting with the branch heads of the Mortal Investments Division.”

She nodded. She refilled her glass and said, “I know, Martin. I will return to my chamber by two o’clock. I just…”

Her voice trailed as her gaze returned to the sky. Martin nodded. He collected the empty wine bottle and said, “Eighteen twenty-seven. It has been nearly two centuries, my Countess. Why do you not descend and join the celebrating throng?”

Carmilla shook her head. Her eyes searched the wineglass as if it were a scrying pool. “If only drink had the mystical properties mortals so often ascribe to it.” She sighed and then, in a mournful whisper, said, “I cannot be trusted around them. What if I lose control again? The world has changed.”

“And you have matured since that accident,” Martin replied. He sat on the edge of the fountain near her, but not beside her. He sighed and softened his gaze, adding, “You are lonely, my Countess. You made a mistake that we all make at one point or another in our immortalities when we drink too much from a mortal. But you do not have to drink to make friends or to find a lover.”

Carmilla’s eyes welled with crimson tears as she remembered when word reached the castle by way of an angry village mob. “I was careful,” she thought, “or so I thought. I swear Annalena was alive when I left. I drank deeply, but I was so sure I had not committed a fledgling’s error. And then my sister’s death, the town’s destruction, and the honor lost to my clan. All of these horrors occurred because I was foolish and reckless.”

“You do not need to feed to take a lover or to make friends,” Martin repeated. He placed his rough hand gently on her shoulder before he said, “I realize that you have been lonely, and I see how strong you have become since your return to us from your exile. And I know that I am not alone in believing that you deserve happiness. You have learned from your mistake; you will not make it again. Oh, and do drink some water, my Countess. The Sanguinovese does not provide all the nutrition you need.”

Carmilla drained the glass of the last of the bottle’s blood wine. She handed him her empty glass and sauntered toward the castle’s keep. Without looking back, she said, “You are correct about one thing, Martin. With an early rise tomorrow, I should retire early this evening.”

Countess Carmilla Karnstein, like all vampires of a certain age, slept dreamlessly. The wooden robin emerged from his home in the antique cuckoo clock in her bedroom, singing Edelweiss. At precisely two o’clock in the afternoon, Martin entered with a silver tray containing a crystal glass of blood thinned with a dram of brandy. He pulled back the burgundy curtain on the mahogany canopy bed and saw Carmilla’s form, sprawled in death-sleep beneath the burgundy satin sheet. Martin set the tray atop the nightstand. He sighed and shook his head.

“My Countess,” he said in a firm, deep voice, “you need to wake for your five o’clock meeting.”

No response. Martin rolled his eyes. Carmilla’s sleeping habits had not changed since she was a child. Martin walked to her mahogany wardrobe and selected her lace-trimmed burgundy dressing gown. Returning to the side of her bed, he shook her left shoulder and repeated his request that she awaken. He shook her a few more times, and then a whimpering whine escaped Carmilla’s pale lips. Martin snorted.

“But it’s so early, Martin,” Carmilla whined. “I become so weak when the sun is out. Can’t I have at least another hour?”

“My Countess,” Martin said in an even tone, “experience has taught me that your waking routine will take multiple hours, and given that you have a meeting in three hours, I have allowed you to sleep as late as possible. Your first meal is on the nightstand. I added the apple brandy as you requested. Drink, draw yourself a bath, and ready yourself.”

Carmilla grumbled. Her fingers caught on the tangled knots as she ran them through her lustrous black hair. She winced. With a dramatic sigh, she rose from her bed, covered her pale skin in the soft burgundy velvet of the dressing gown, and, with another sigh, said, “Very well.”

She drained the glass and returned it to the tray. Martin bowed, picked up the tray, and left the room. Carmilla walked into the adjoining bathroom. She hung her dressing gown on the hook hanging from the door and drew a hot bath in the massive black marble bathtub. Knowing she had no time to wash and dry her hair, she tied her hair in a bun. A satisfied moan slipped through her smiling lips as she sank into the scalding water. She finished her bath, brushed and styled her hair in a more formal bun, and dressed for her meeting.

Dressed in a black pencil skirt suit with burgundy pinstripes, Carmilla descended the stone stairs of her castle to her office on the second floor. Once the castle’s war room, Carmilla converted it into an office when she ascended to the position of Matriarch of the Karnstein-Bertholt clan. She sat in the leather-cushioned chair behind her green and gray marble-topped mahogany desk. She powered on her computer.

Martin entered and presented her with a silver tray containing a black mug and a plate of toast points topped with whipped goat cheese and prosciutto. Contrary to what many believed, vampires possessed the ability to eat and digest food. They received no nutritional benefits from food consumption, and most received minimal sensory pleasure from eating. Carmilla ate a light meal and drank from a mug when she interacted with those unaware of her vampiric nature. Martin quickly cleaned the computer’s monitor, bowed, and left the office.

After the initial greetings and general discussion of the Mortal Investments Division’s general holdings and strategy, Carmilla sipped the blood in her mug and said, “Ladies and Gentleman, you have done exceptional work this past quarter, but I propose a new strategy. In addition to our current work, I would like us to reach out to university students, offering not only online trading without fees but also broker advice and assistance that is free for the first two months. After that, we only charge them for broker assistance if they request a meeting.”

“Countess Karnstein,” a brown-haired, green-eyed man in his mid-thirties replied, “I commend your desire to help all people become financially independent and successful. I think we all do. However, you seem to forget that money is a finite resource both for individuals and for this company. While our net profit margin continues rising, its rate has slowed noticeably since we implemented your directive to offer a quick, free liquidation option to those fleeing domestic violence. While we are in no immediate danger, should we gain too many small-scale investors, we may dip below the industry mean within six or seven years.”

Carmilla muted her microphone and growled. Her eyes narrowed. She said, “I am aware of how money functions, Mr. Becker. I am also aware that many consumers form lifelong preferences early in their lives. While most children give no thought to financial investments, young adults might. And so, if we can reach them as they begin their adulthood, my belief is that a positive experience may convince them to transition from small-scale investors to medium-or-large-scale investors, depending upon their needs. Our short-term profit margins may dip, but, if my analogical reasoning is correct, we may see a greater return within a decade.”

The meeting ended after two hours of intense debate and discussion. As the meeting ended, Martin returned with a bottle of 1872 Sanguinovese and a crystal wineglass. He filled the glass to the brim. She drained the glass, and her shoulders fell as the tension left them.

“Thank you, Martin,” she said.

He smiled and nodded. “I heard the frustration in your voice as I dusted your drawing room. You remained firm, as is fitting for a matriarch.”

She smiled and snorted. “I am nearly ten times their ages, Martin. And yet, they treat me…”

“As if you are the age you physically resemble,” he interjected. “The supernatural extension of youthful appearance may be attractive to many mortals, but those who do not have such a romanticized vision of our life and ways recognize how it extends other inconveniences.”

She nodded. “Little has changed in the world of men in the past two centuries. The sun still has not set. Perhaps I will spend the night reading.”

Martin nodded. “Or,” he offered, “you might spend the evening in Samael’s speakeasy. Perhaps an evening where you are free to be yourself would help reinvigorate you.”

The summer sunset offered no respite from the sweltering heat of the day. Cassie Waters, her red hair pulled in a ponytail that brushed against the shoulder seam of her charcoal blazer, stepped from her Arctic White Honda CR-V as she pulled into the driveway of her home at the corner of Garnier and Shipton. Her parents gifted her this house, her great-grandmother’s lavender, three-story Victorian. A pile of broken bricks and splintered lumber rested on the northern side. Cassie balanced ten grocery-laden plastic bags on her arms, held her purse in her teeth, and walked to the door. She set the bags on her doorstep and exhaled.

Cassie fished her keys from her purse and unlocked the door. She draped her purse strap over her neck, hefted the bags onto her arms, and opened the door. A small disc of green wax rolled over the threshold. It stopped upon reaching her foot. Cassie rolled her eyes and growled. She stepped over the disc and into her home. She walked into the kitchen with its yellow walls and set the bags on her island amidst the plethora of wallpaper samples and furniture catalogs.

She put away her groceries and started preparing her supper. She lined her vegetables behind her cutting board. As she diced a yellow onion, her eyes blinked and watered. Floorboards creaked. A common occurrence in an old house. After she thinly sliced two red bell peppers, footsteps echoed from the foyer. Cassie froze. She inhaled deeply and held her breath. Her knuckles whitened as she choked on the chef’s knife. Her eyes scanned the room. The footsteps fell silent. She exhaled.

Dad says it’s just the house settling. It’s nothing.

A metallic thud reverberated through the air. Cassie screamed. Blood pumped through her veins, and her breathing became quick and shallow. She pointed the knife forward and spun about the kitchen, her eyes focusing on each entrance and window. The air conditioner kicked on. Cassie exhaled, allowing her muscles to relax. She shook her head and scratched the back of her neck. She resumed supper preparations.

After eating, she grabbed a bottle of Chardonnay from the refrigerator and a stemless glass, plopped on her chestnut leather sofa, and started Netflix. She passed over Criminal Minds and Unsolved Mysteries, settling on Cutthroat Kitchen. The wine and Alton Brown’s sadistic culinary challenges relaxed her mind after her long day at work. Three episodes into her binge session, her ears detected mumbling. She tensed and breathed deeply. As Alton Brown described the third round’s challenge, lasagna, the mumbling stopped. Cassie yawned.

“I don’t have time for this,” Cassie said. “I’ve got a meeting with a big client tomorrow morning. Things need to go well. This could make or break my career.”

Cassie exhaled and ran fingers through her red hair. She shook her head as the episode finished. With a dismissive wave, she left the glass and wine bottle on her coffee table as she rose and walked toward the stairs. Her bedroom was on the second floor, and the antique four-poster bed was one of the few pieces of furniture Cassie planned to keep as she and her father continued renovating and remodeling. Another yawn escaped her lips. She returned her blazer to its hanger, and she dumped her blouse and skirt in the plastic hamper by her closet door. She lowered the ceiling fan’s speed and crawled into bed.

A mundane dream formed in Cassie’s mind. Wearing blue and gray athletic wear, she jogged the walking path in the park across the street from her house, colloquially named Joan D’Parc. For a sunny Saturday morning in the summer, the park remained mostly empty. A few other joggers and a few elderly walkers made their laps on the path as two youth soccer teams practiced. Sweat drenched her skin as the sun bludgeoned who were outdoors.

She stopped at a water fountain for a drink. Her chest heaved, and her heart thundered. She saw a dark figure, short and shadow-black. She blinked. It vanished. Her breathing and heart rate raced each other as her eyes darted from side to side. She returned to the track and heard footsteps behind her. She spun around. Only an elderly man in a white tank top, blue shorts, and a red sweatband approached at a leisurely pace. A guttural growl rattled her ears.

Cassie raced along the track. Thunderous footsteps followed her. Her breaths became shallow bursts. She darted around the other joggers and walkers. Her heart pounded in a manner reminiscent of a cartoon. The growl returned, lower, grittier, and hungrier than before. Cassie glanced over her shoulder. Nothing. She pushed herself to her limit. The growl blew hot, dry air into her ear. The hair on the back of her neck stood and trembled.

Cassie pushed through the runner’s stitch developing in her side. Its piercing pain shot through her. Her jaw slacked open, and she breathed through her mouth. The growling hovered behind her. A darkness, heavy and unkind, loomed. Cassie screamed; her right hamstring tightened and then twisted. She stumbled. A sharp pain scratched across her back.

Cassie screamed. Her body shot awake. She rubbed her right shoulder blade; it was warm and wet. She switched on the bedside lamp. The green wax disc sat beside the lamp. Blood. She scanned the room. Her heart bounded. Heaving breaths escaped her mouth. Cassie sighed and rubbed the back of her neck.

“What am I supposed to do? This shit sucks.”

She cleaned herself up, dressed the three scratch marks on her back, and returned to sleep.

Julys in Butcher’s Bend sweltered like a closed kitchen where someone left the oven on and its door opened. The recent rains worsened things, keeping the air thick with a moist fog that clung to skin and clothing. For the first time in two weeks, today had been sunny and rainless. Cars honked their horns as the drivers sat in traffic during the afternoon rush home. As the heat fueled the traffic jam-induced rage of those who wanted to return home to either family or solitude, Sam spun her chair away from the window and faced the cold breeze blowing from the vent connecting to the recently fixed air conditioning unit for the two-room office space she rented in the Oberon Center on the corner of Willow and Yew. Her coffee cup was empty.

Destiny popped her head through the office door, her chin-length blonde ringlets bouncing as she said, “Full Moon Special’s here for you, Sam. She’s scared and confused, so be gentler than you were with the Mathers girl.”

Sam rolled her eyes. Amanda Mathers asked for help two months ago. She was a junior at Jim Roanoke State College, and she had staked an innocent vampire fledgling who was a former girlfriend with whom she seemed to have rekindled a relationship. A string of deaths blamed on photosensitive anemia had plagued the campus, and circumstantial evidence pointed to her ex. For humans, that evidence wouldn’t have been enough to secure an arrest warrant, but with vampires and other Non-Human Mythics, as the United States government called the folkloric beings with whom humans shared a world, the special courts often demanded execution or imposed torpor, basically a life sentence of perpetual hunger, to keep the public safe and ignorant of the true nature of reality. Amanda Mathers came from a family of monster hunters who remained independent after most became government employees in 2015. She should have known better, and Sam had lectured her on that fact.

“Alright, Des, be there in a second,” Sam said, touching up her Victory Red lipstick.

She grabbed her empty “With all the coffee I drink, I still can’t function straight” mug and followed Destiny into the main room. With a smile, she greeted the young woman who sat in the chair in front of the main desk. She looked barely out of college, only a few years younger than Sam was. Sam walked to the coffeepot and refilled her mug with the hot, black liquid. As Destiny sat behind her IKEA Mälm desk that they put together when they started this endeavor four years ago, Sam sat on its corner. The fluorescent lights flickered.

“So, Cassie,” Sam said, grabbing a legal pad and Destiny’s Sailor Mercury ballpoint pen, “what’s going on?”

Cassie Waters, a sporty, slender redhead with skin as pale as Sam’s blinked as she fidgeted with her blue and gray Lululemon athletic wear. She scratched the back of her neck and said, “I’m sorry. I’m still taking this in. When I told Mrs. Johnson what was going on and she said that you could help, I just assumed that Sam Hain was a man.” She extended her hands and added, “Not that this is wrong. It actually makes telling you everything easier. It’s just a lot to take in.”

Sam smiled warmly at the young woman. She was not the first who responded to shock that the private investigator they sought to help with their case was a young woman named Samantha Hain. Most expected someone who looked like Columbo or Kolchak. Instead, they found a porcelain-skinned brunette with brown eyes and a nose that was too wide for her own tastes; about twenty extra pounds that occasionally shifted into the right places, as she described herself; and a fashion sense that blended classic pinups with The Queen’s Gambit.

“Trust me,” Sam chuckled and shook her head, saying, “you’re not the first. And if it weren’t for cases like yours, I would probably have Samantha painted on my door and embossed on my cards.” She shrugged and added, “And to clear this up first, I was born on a stormy, full moon night on the thirty-first of October. My father thought he was funnier than he actually is.”

And it helped with advertising for cases like Cassie’s that always came on a full moon. Cassie struck Sam as someone who did not know that she shared a world with all the creatures of myth and folklore. A mystical energy field that occultists called The Veil helped these beings hide in plain sight either by not being found or by appearing human if they could not shape shift or disguise themselves in some other way. In the old days, various groups of hunters stalked these creatures when they interacted with humans, assuming these interactions were always predatory. These hunter groups eventually merged into the Guild of Veil Watchers, devoted to keeping the secret truth of the world hidden from most people—even if it meant killing humans and non-humans who broke the secret.

That was where Sam came in. People on both sides of the Veil sought her to help them when trouble started because she worked to keep everyone alive. Vampires, selkies, werewolves, the Jinn, and whatever else humans came across were people too. They had families, jobs, passions, anxieties, and nightmares. If you pricked them, they bled. If you poisoned them, they died—sometimes. And unlike the Watchers and the special courts, Sam treated them like people.

“Oh wow,” Cassie exclaimed. “Mrs. Johnson never mentioned that, but I can see that as being helpful but annoying.”

I nodded but cocked my head, “Mrs. Johnson?” Sam turned to Destiny and said, “Des, what Johnsons have we helped?”

“Neighbors, Sam,” Destiny said as she clicked her mouse, causing her computer to lurch and sputter. “Miss Waters lives next door to Janus and Maria.”

“Oh, that explains it.” Turning back to Cassie, Sam said, “You couldn’t ask for better neighbors than Janus and Maria. And if you become sick, she’ll know, and she’ll bring you the most amazing chicken noodle soup you’ll ever have. Just buy yourself some blackout curtains before October. Their holiday displays can be blinding.”

The three of them laughed. Cassie took a deep breath and said, “I finished college a year ago, moved back home with my parents, and worked hard to save up money for a place. On my birthday this year, my parents gifted me the deed to my great grandmother’s house, which is the lavender Victorian next to the Johnsons. They even helped me move in and threw a barbecue to welcome me to the neighborhood.”

She produced her cell phone and flipped through her pictures of an oddly shaped green glass bottle filled with what looked like a wax disc, string, rotten herbs, and some residue from something Sam could not identify. A stopper resembling the face of a bearded man emerged from the neck. “While my dad and I renovated the ground floor,” she continued, “I found this bottle hidden in the back of the fireplace. I asked dad what it was, and he said it was trash and threw it outside. The glass shattered on a pile of broken bricks and ended up getting thrown away.”

“Okay,” Sam said, taking notes on her story. “I’m curious about that bottle’s contents, but I doubt you’re asking me to recover the bottle. So, what’s up?”

“Yeah, I know,” Cassie said as her eyes dropped to avoid Sam’s gaze. She ran her fingers through her hair and exhaled slowly. “Well, after that, weird stuff started happening. I’d hear mumbling that sounded like a voice coming from a different floor, but I couldn’t find anyone. After a few weeks, I started seeing this shadowy figure in my dreams. I mean, the dreams would be normal life stuff–including, well, making love to my boyfriend–that started turning violent and dark and scary. But only when I saw this shadow figure.”

“During these transformed dreams,” Sam said, “did you know you were dreaming? Did you feel you were awake but unable to move or speak?”

Her eyes looked at the ceiling, and Sam noticed her tongue push rhythmically at her cheeks. Her face looked confused as she asked, “Does anyone really know they’re dreaming during a dream? I mean, it felt real, but when I woke up, all was normal. I mean, I was sweating and scared.”

“Okay,” Sam interjected, scratching out the words “Alpdruck,” and “Old Hag,” before asking, “Did the only interaction beyond disembodied voices remain in your dreams? Were there any other physical manifestations like knocking, small objects being thrown, maybe touches?”

She blushed and looked down. Her left leg bounced, and she fidgeted with her collar. Her voice trembled with embarrassment as she replied, “That’s what I was afraid to tell anyone. I sound crazy because no one else has experienced this stuff. Sometimes I’ll feel someone poke me or scratch me. And there’ll be like claw marks on the back of my neck, my thighs, and my stomach. It happened night before last too. But there’s nothing around me. And sometimes,” she paused as her breathing became rapid and shallow, and her eyes glassed over. “And sometimes, I feel hands that aren’t there groping me.”

“And it only happens when you’re alone?” Sam asked.

She shook her head. “No,” she said. “All this happens when other people are around. My boyfriend says he heard something, but it sounded more like a dog barking than a voice. No one else has the dreams. Once, he saw claw marks appear on my back after I screamed in pain while I walked to the bathroom after sex. But no one else gets poked or scratched or groped. You can help me, right?”

Sam walked over and wrapped her arm around Cassie’s shoulder. This happened all too often when she handled mundane cases where women struggled to get free from and to prosecute abusive husbands, rapists, and boyfriends who raped or hit children. Her full moon cases evoked fear, but often fear that came from knowing the Watchers were about to descend and, likely, kill all parties involved. A primal, I-don’t-know-what’s-happening fear radiated from Cassie.

“Without a doubt,” Sam said. “I’m just trying to narrow down what I’m actually dealing with. And I’m still trying to figure out how you’re connecting that bottle to what’s going on. That might help me.”

She cocked an eyebrow, and then her eyes shot wide. “Oh,” she said. “I started finding this little wax disc that was in the bottle by my bed every morning I had one of these nightmares.”

Destiny and Sam shared a glance with raised right eyebrows. “Des, draw up a normal investigation contract,” Sam said. “And then head to my office and poke Jim for intel on the S-T’s.”

“On it, boss,” she said.

Destiny’s printer sputtered and whirred as the contract lurched into being. She handed Sam the contract and walked into the back office. Sam turned back to Cassie, whose left leg trembled as she saw the contract. Sam smiled and shook her head, saying, “This is just a standard contract for my investigation, outlining what I’m going to do and my standard fee—nothing up front but five hundred upon completion. Please tell me you have a high res pic of that wax disc.”

Cassie flipped through the photos on her phone and shook her head. “Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t think it would be anything, but I can run home and grab the actual disc for you. I don’t think I threw it out again.”

Sam smiled and nodded. “You go do that. I’ll be here late into the night. Then I want you to do two things. First, let me know if you have an encounter with this thing tonight. Second, since this is your great grandmother’s house, see if you can find her diary or something similar. If not, that’s fine. We’ll sign this contract when you return. Okay?”

Cassie agreed and left the office. Destiny returned from and said, “Jim hasn’t heard any movement from the S-T’s in our area. Seems they’re not investigating this one. That’s a relief.”

Sam nodded and sighed with relief. “Yeah,” she said. “I think the neighborhood might offer a bit of camouflage. Oh, I’m about to call Sal’s and order a Quattro and garlic knots while I wait for Cassie to come back with that wax disc. We getting root beer or are we splurging on a Pinot Noir?”

“Your call, but get a root beer for me,” Destiny said. “I’m meeting James for drinks tonight, and I want to be fresh.”

“Oh, that’s right,” Sam said. “You’ve got that blind date your mother found for you on eHarmony. Need me to hang out nearby in case you need a quick exit?”

Destiny shook her head. “As if dad hasn’t already run two background checks and dispatched an agent to investigate him for the past week. I’ll be fine. You could always hit Dorothy’s Friends for a drink and maybe to meet someone. I know you’ve been in a funk since Rebecca dumped you right after you finished the Mathers case.”

Sam sighed and looked out the window. “I don’t know, Des. Maybe tomorrow. I need to see if that clay disc means anything first.”

Destiny asked, “What do you think the issue is?”

“Not sure,” Sam sighed, shaking her head. “But that clay disc has to be the key. If she has an incident tonight, this creature has latched onto her. If I do, then it’s attached to the disc.”

Continue to Chapter 2

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