Dead Spots: Chapter 1
At 2:00 a.m., Eli’s ceiling fan made a sluggish whug-whug-whug noise and stopped moving. I know, because I was staring at it.
It had been an unusually warm September in Los Angeles, and the temperature in Eli’s bedroom had to be pushing eighty. I threw off the sheets and muttered something along the lines of “stupid fan,” which made Eli stir beside me, rolling over and throwing an arm across my waist. He smelled like the sea, from surfing, and in the weak light from the streetlamps outside the window, his deep tan glowed against my pale skin. He nuzzled into my hair, and I was saved from having to awkwardly disentangle when my cell phone started playing a muted rendition of “Black Magic Woman.” Work. Thank God. I gently lifted Eli’s arm and rolled out of the bed, hurrying over to my jeans, which had somehow gotten thrown over the mirror on top of his dresser. Huh. Luckily, my cell phone had clung to the pocket, and I grabbed it and flipped it open. Yes, my phone still flips. It is also not smart.
Kirsten’s voice was cheerful and apologetic, as usual, directing me to a vacant house in Calabasas where a young realtor and her two friends had been playing with love spells. I picked up the men’s wallet I keep in my front pocket and pulled on the jeans and purple top I’d worn to the bar. Then I grabbed my keys and my knee-high boots and tiptoed out. I didn’t leave a note. He would figure it out when I got to the door, anyway.
Whenever I’m not around, Eli has to go back to being a werewolf.
I hadn’t felt drunk when I followed Eli’s pickup truck back to his place, but it still took me a few tries to find my van, which I guess is what happens when you drive after two glasses of whiskey. On the way to Calabasas, I used the stoplights to put on my boots and pull back the tangled mass of my long near-black hair. Even in LA, the streets were nearly deserted, and I had that creepy sensation that city people get when there’s no one around, like maybe everyone else in the world has died or left without your knowledge. Before I had to go too far into that pleasant line of thinking, though, the lady in my GPS announced that I’d arrived at my destination.
I pulled into the driveway of a raincloud-gray McMansion, and the witches—I use that term loosely—opened the garage door and waved for me to pull the van right in. They were nearly identical: all blonde, all scared, and all wearing some slight variation of light sleeveless sweaters and what my mother used to call slacks. I would not have been able to pick them out of a lineup.
“Ms. Bernard?” said the blonde on the right, stepping forward. “I’m Sarah-Ann Harris. Thank you so much for coming.”
“Not a problem,” I said briskly. I slid open the van’s side door and grabbed my work duffel. “Tell me what’s happening.”
Sarah-Ann Harris glanced at her two friends, who looked away. “Um, well, we were trying this spell, you know, because Hillary’s boyfriend keeps cheating, and we wanted him to fall in love with her alone for forever?” She headed into the house, walking backward like a tour guide, and I followed her, with the generic blondes trailing behind us like a limp parade. Because they’re such a diverse collection of talents, I never know what I’m going to get on any given witch case, but the silent line of expensive highlights was a little unnerving. “There was this sacrifice part—”
“Chicken or dove?” I interrupted.
“Um, dove. But then we couldn’t go through with killing it because Ashley’s in PETA.” she babbled. Hillary and Ashley? Seriously? Worst witch names ever.
“And we were gonna just set it free, and then something happened…”
We rounded a corner, entering a spacious dining/living area with no furniture. I eyed the polished hardwood floors first and decided I didn’t need to bother with surgical booties. At the far end, glass double doors opened onto a three-seasons porch where I could see candles and books spread on the floor. As we came closer, I spotted a panicked little gray dove hopping frantically about in the doorway, and it took me a second to figure out what the big deal was. “Is its head on backward?” That was a new one, even for me.
“Yeah, um, I’m not sure what happened. We think maybe the pages got stuck in the spell book? And we did some kind of healing spell instead, only it didn’t heal?” Sarah-Ann said. “So, like, if you go near it, the dove’s head will go back, right?” She looked like she was about to cry. God.
“No,” I said grimly. I strode across the room, my boot heels striking the polished wooden floors like a timpani drum, dropped my bag, and bent down to pick up the terrified little thing. It cuddled into my chest for a moment, looking at my face with its backward-facing eyes. I took a deep breath and snapped its neck with my other hand. Ick. But at least its head was now facing the correct direction. When I looked up, Sarah-Ann and the clones were staring at me like I’d just stabbed a preschooler.
“But,” Sarah-Ann said in the reasonable, patronizing voice of a woman who’s used to getting the window booth, “we called for you. Kirsten said to call when something went wrong, and we did.”
I crouched in front of my duffel and retrieved a ziplock baggie the size of a shoebox, talking as I worked. “Ongoing spells undo themselves around me, and you couldn’t perform any kind of magic within about ten feet of me. But the dove wasn’t really under a spell anymore, it was physically changed.” With the little body secured in the ziplock and the ziplock stowed in my bag, I turned back to the women, handing each of them one of Kirsten’s cards. “Sarah-Ann, I know you have this number, but here it is again, just in case. Kirsten will be expecting each of you to call her tomorrow morning to discuss what happened tonight. If she asks her questions and is satisfied with your answers, that’ll be the end of the matter. Do not make her track you down.”
They each nodded at me, frightened, and I took another deep breath, trying to stay professional. “Now, will there be anything else? Do you guys need help clearing up your spell materials?” They shook their heads in unison, still looking stunned, and I gave them a nod in return. “Then I’ll see myself out. Have a good evening.” I turned on my heel and marched out to the van, putting the little dead bird in the freezer compartment in the back. In the morning, I’d take it to Artie, my furnace guy. If it had been a human body, I’d have gone right away, but a dead dove wasn’t worth sneaking onto his property at 3:00 a.m.
Back in the van, I leaned my head against the steering wheel for a second. It irritated me that they had expected me to fix the dove, or maybe it just irritated me that I couldn’t. I’m a null, which means I can cancel out magic within a radius, but I have limits, too. As I sat up and turned the ignition, my cell phone rang again, and I checked the caller ID. Dashiell. Great. A vampire was just what my night needed. I flipped it open. “Bernard.”
“Scarlett,” Dashiell began, drawing out the a as usual. “There is a situation in La Brea Park. I will meet you at the entrance in fifteen minutes.”
“Uh, okay. I’m in Calabasas now, on a Kirsten case, but I’ll be there as fast—” I realized that I was talking to myself and shut the phone, glancing at the clock. Shit. Even with no traffic on the freeway, there was no way I could get to the entrance of La Brea Park in fifteen minutes; it was impossible. And Dashiell was coming himself, in person? He might be the most powerful creature in Los Angeles, but like most vampires, Dashiell stays the hell away from me if at all possible, not wanting to age even a few minutes.
It had to be really bad.
I briefly considered speeding, but only in that way you think about something you know you’ll never do. That’s one of the rules: don’t get pulled over. My van is checked weekly to make sure all the lights are working and the gas and oil tanks are filled, and it undergoes a full inspection and detailing twice a year. If the cops pulled me over right now, all they would find was a dead dove, but even that would be bad. I had no idea whether they’d be able to figure out that I’d broken its neck backward, but even something small like that could get the rumor snowball rolling, or at best, tarnish my reputation with the supernatural community. In my business, there’s no such thing as an overreaction.
I drove south on the 405 highway as fast as I dared, three miles over the speed limit, but I was still another fifteen minutes late to meet Dashiell. La Brea Park closes at sunset, so the actual entrance driving to get into the park was chained and locked. As I pulled up to the gate, he materialized out of the shadows, a fortyish-looking vampire in impeccable black pants and a deep-green cashmere T-shirt. His dark-brown hair was a little mussed, and his blandly handsome face looked dangerously angry. I was definitely in trouble.
I parked the van at the curb and rolled my window down, turning the engine off. Dash took a few steps toward me, but stayed well out of my ten-foot radius.
“You are late,” he stage-whispered. “Our situation has grown more complicated.”
No point in groveling. “I’m sorry. Tell me what’s happening.”
“I got a text message from a private number and came to see for myself,” he said shortly. “There are three bodies ahead; they have been torn apart. There is blood, so I do not think it was the vampires. Perhaps one of Will’s people.” Vampires, as a rule, don’t waste blood. Will is the head of the local werewolf pack. The werewolves in Los Angeles occasionally run around in the parks that close at sunset. LA is one of the rare cities where the Old World creatures share territory more or less in peace, though, when push comes to shove, Dashiell is in charge. Witches and werewolves aren’t immortal, after all. It’s an uneasy peace, darkened by preceding centuries of tension, and it works best when everyone sticks to their own kind. Usually the vampires take care of vampire business, and the wolves take care of wolf business, but there is some overlap, especially when the perpetrator is unknown.
“What’s the complication?”
“A jogger ran through here two minutes ago, and she saw the bodies. You have only a few minutes before the police arrive.” He pointed toward a nearby clump of trees. “Go. And just like that, he vanished.
I grabbed my duffel and sprinted toward the trees, fumbling to pull out a flashlight as I went. In cases where there’s a time crunch, you have to prioritize, and priority one would be the bodies. There would still be evidence without bodies, but the police couldn’t do much with a few bloodstains outdoors in a public park. I raced through the trees, trying to avoid roots and rocks, and stopped dead a quarter mile in, where I found a small clearing that had been painted red.