Trail of Dead: Chapter 1

Prologue

The call had come anonymously from one of the witches, not their new leader, Kirsten. That was unusual, which aroused the cleaner’s interest, and on a whim she decided not to call Kirsten herself until she’d arrived at the crime scene.

She followed the directions to a building on Olympic in East LA, a small, dingy theater that had been closed for years. The building exterior—including the weathered For Sale sign out front—was covered in graffiti, and the decorative climbing vines now seemed to be swallowing the structure whole, like a snake devouring a mouse. Squinting against the dim street lighting, she spotted the side door and parked right in front. She pushed aside a stray vine and pulled on the door handle.

It opened straight into the main theater, to an aisle alongside the shabby seating that ran all the way to the stage. The only light came from the few remaining emergency bulbs that lined both aisles. The cleaner immediately saw that witches had been using this building for a while—spell-casting paraphernalia was scattered throughout the seating area. She picked her way past burned-out candles, crumpled paper, pencil nubs, and piles of chalk dust, down the aisle toward the raised stage, which was the darkest area of the room. Squinting against the gloom, the cleaner reached into her large canvas bag and pulled out a heavy-duty flashlight. She switched it on, following the beam up the little set of stairs leading up to the stage itself.

She saw the pentacle right away. One of the witches had spray-painted it directly onto the stage floor, and the white paint looked scuffed and worn around the edges. Whatever they’d been doing here, this wasn’t the first time. The cleaner’s flashlight caught a smear of red, standing out against the white of the pentacle, and she crouched down and touched one gloved finger to the stain. Blood. She followed the direction of the smear a few feet, expecting a body, but instead her flashlight caught a big pile of…something. Dirt? Clay? The pile was the size of a kitchen stove, and as the cleaner stared at it, the dirt…trembled. She gasped, but in surprise rather than fear, and bent closer.

“Help me.

Startled, the cleaner whirled and zigzagged her flashlight beam around the stage, alighting on a pile of ancient books, the tiny corpse of a long-dead dove—and something else. Minding the blood smear, she stepped forward.

Help me.” The voice was plaintive and forlorn, begging. The flashlight found a pile of charred clothes. The cleaner crossed the stage carefully, keeping on one side of the blood smears, and approached. It took her a long moment to realize that the clothes were moving slightly, and then longer to understand that they weren’t just a pile of burned clothes, but an entire burned person who was still managing to breathe.

She crouched down. The woman—the witch—was small and twisted, her right leg bent in an awkward direction. The cleaner ignored this and played the flashlight around the woman’s exposed skin. What was left of it. A long section of her skin, from chin to hip, was black and flaking. The top part of her face was untouched, and her hazel eyes were fixed on the cleaner, pleading.

“This is third degree, maybe fourth,” the cleaner observed calmly, looking closely at the witch’s stomach. She moved the light back to the woman’s face. “You’re going to die.”

“No,” the woman whispered, tears sliding from the corners of her eyes down into her glossy hair. She spoke without moving her chin, but the cleaner could understand. “You have to help me.”

The cleaner cocked her head back in the direction of the blood smear, toward the pile of dirt. “Is that what I think it is?”

Something new flashed in the burned woman’s eyes. Pride. “Yes.”

“Interesting,” the cleaner said thoughtfully. “A rare specialty. It absorbed most of the impact?”

“Yes.”

“You must have been trying for something big.” The cleaner stood up, brushing off her pants. “But you’re still going to die.”

“Take me…”

“Where, to the hospital?” The cleaner chuckled down at the desperate woman. “They’ll give you the good drugs, true, but the journey there will be agonizing, and if that’s third degree you shouldn’t be in too much pain right now.” She glanced around. “If you want, I could find something heavy, put you out of your misery…”

She took a few steps back, playing the flashlight beam around the stage. Sometimes the spells required a knife…Before she’d made it more than a few steps, though, she heard the voice whisper at her back. “I have money.”

The cleaner froze and turned slowly back toward the burned witch, raising an eyebrow. “How much money?”

“Old money,” the witch said simply. “And I know a healer. Get me there.”

The cleaner looked at the burned witch for a long moment, weighing her options and enjoying the woman’s panicked stare. Finally, she gave an elegant little shrug. Why not? “Perhaps we can work something out,” Olivia said.

 

Chapter 1

“Miss? He sent another drink.”

The flight attendant gave me a somewhat disapproving look as she set out a little square napkin and topped it with my second plastic flute of champagne. “Just so you know?” she whispered, leaning over so her age-dappled cleavage surged toward my face. “He’s wearing a wedding ring.”

“Oh, we’re not together,” I said lamely. “He’s my…uncle.”

“Mmm-hmm.” She gave me one more condemning glare and turned on her sensible heel, back up the aisle to her post.

I sighed and picked up the champagne, trying to ignore my seatmates, a middle-aged couple who stared at me with identical “what am I missing” expressions. We were on our way to Los Angeles, so they probably figured I was an actress or something. I wasn’t about to correct them—after all, I couldn’t exactly explain that the werewolf in first class wasn’t interested in dating me, or even getting his membership card in the mile-high club. He was just delighted to have me aboard, simple as that.

Well, maybe not quite that simple. The guy was relieved—literally. Ordinarily, the magic that infects werewolves never lets them really relax: the wolf part itches away at their psyches, making most werewolves restless and quick-tempered, especially in a small, enclosed area like an airplane…unless they’re around me. I’m a null, one of the very rare humans who neutralizes all the magic in a given area—which means that as long as they stay within around ten feet of me, vampires and werewolves become human again. Witches aren’t able to channel any magic. The werewolf in first class was just grateful to get some peace on the five-hour flight from New York to LA. He probably didn’t realize he was making me look like a bit of a whore.

When we finally got off the plane at LAX, I kept my head down and avoided eye contact with the other passengers as the herd moved en masse toward baggage claim. It was late, especially for those of us still on East Coast time, and we were all staggering zombie-style through the terminal, which was decorated with cheerful red-and-green-tinsel garlands. The touristy shops in Terminal 4 informed us, with festively threatening signs, that there were only seven more shopping days until Christmas.

I hadn’t checked a bag, which allowed me to break away from most of the group and head straight for the exit. I felt sort of a tug as the werewolf left my radius. He felt it too, and stopped his migration, pivoting to face me. He turned out to be a white-haired black guy, which probably explained why the uncle thing hadn’t worked. He looked like he was in his fifties, but the wolves age slower than humans do, so he may have actually been much older. I stood still for a second, unsure if I should go talk to him, but he just gave me a polite smile and a nod and was on his way again. I shrugged to myself. You’re welcome, I guess.

I had almost made my escape into the night when I heard my name. “Scarlett?” I lifted my eyes to see Detective Jesse Cruz leaning against a concrete pillar near the sliding doors. I froze, a mixture of happiness and anxiety further polluting my tired brain. Cruz worked with LA’s Southwest Homicide Division, and it didn’t look like he’d come just in case I needed a ride home. When our eyes met, he pushed off and took the few steps toward me.

“Who did she kill?” I said immediately. “Her doctor? One of her friends?”

A couple of my fellow passengers glanced at me, and I was suddenly very aware of the tinny rendition of “Jingle Bells” playing on the overhead speaker. Oops. Jesse took my carry-on in one hand and my arm in the other and led me toward the automatic doors. “It’s not Olivia,” he said quietly. “I’ve been watching for the names on your list, but there’s been no movement.”

The cool LA night hit my face like a splash of water. There might have been snow in New York, but even at this hour LA was a balmy fifty degrees. “Oh,” I said lamely, oddly deflated. I didn’t want anyone else to get hurt, but I was sick of waiting for Olivia to come for me.

Once upon a time, Olivia had been my mentor. She was also a null, and had persuaded me to get involved in the Old World in the first place. It took me a long time to find out that she had done some terrible things, and by the time I did she was dying of cancer. Somehow, though, Olivia found a way to turn herself into a vampire—and then had made a couple of terrifying appearances back in my life. But no one had heard anything from her since September, though Jesse kept an eye out within the police department.

“If you’re not here because of Olivia, why are you here?” I asked. “And how did you know when I’d be back?”

“Molly gave me your itinerary,” he said shortly, without looking at me. “I need to show you something.”

“It’s almost midnight.”

“This can’t wait.”

Without another word, Jesse opened the sedan door for me, and I actually saw his hand twitch up for a second, as though he was about to guide my head into the car, perp-style, but he managed to suppress it. When we were situated on the on-ramp for the 405 North, I looked over at him, trying to adjust to the sudden turn of my night. A couple of months earlier, I had helped Jesse solve a murder case that connected back to the supernatural world, which calls itself the Old World. Afterward Jesse had made it known that he was interested in being, as the kids say, more than friends, but we’d gone on just one date that ended in enough of a disaster that I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be trapped in a car with him. And he definitely didn’t seem thrilled to be trapped in a car with me.

“So where are we going?” I finally asked.

“Crime scene.”

That got my attention. “What do you mean? A murder?”

He didn’t answer me, which wasn’t like him. Why was he taking me to a crime scene? And why the snappishness? At this point I probably should have just kept my mouth shut and let it play out, but I’m not known for my subtlety. Or my manners. “Dude. Have I done something to piss you off in the five minutes I’ve been back in the state?”

The line of his mouth quivered into a frown. I may have forgotten to mention that even in a town full of movie stars, Jesse is alarmingly gorgeous, with dark Latino good looks on a muscled frame. He makes those perpetually topless Abercrombie & Fitch guys look like homely wannabes.

I had been at least half kidding, but he took the question seriously. “I’m not sure, but I think so.”

Great. His tone said don’t ask, and for once, I listened to my inner Dr. Phil and didn’t. I was just too tired for this. Instead, I just stared out at the city lights. Some of the towers were lit up with red and green lights for the holidays. Presumably, someone from the Old World had been killed, though I didn’t know why Jesse would necessarily call me in for that. I make my living working for the three heads of the LA Old World community—the witches, the vampires, and the werewolves—cleaning up supernatural crime scenes before the police can get there. If a vampire spills blood somewhere, or a werewolf accidentally murders a neighbor’s chickens, I get called in to hide all the evidence. I almost always make it in time, and Dashiell, the city’s master vampire, pulls strings to cover it up if I can’t.

The system works because, despite being the second-largest city in the country, Los Angeles has just never had much of a supernatural population. The wolves don’t like being two hours of unpredictable traffic away from good natural areas, and most of the out-of-state vampires I’ve met think living in LA is…tacky. Basically, most of the Old World’s attitude about LA is sort of the equivalent of most of the humans’ attitude about, say, Boise: sure, it’s there, but who the hell cares?

So yeah, I’d helped Jesse on a case before, but I still couldn’t figure out why he was bringing me to a crime scene now: If he was already officially on the case, then the police knew about it, so what would be the point in bringing me in? It was now up to Dashiell to pull some strings with the higher-ups. I gave up on trying to logic it out and settled for yawning and resting my head against the cool glass of the window.

I dozed off after Jesse got on the 101 on-ramp, but snapped awake when the car finally stopped. Blinking, I peered in the direction of the nearest major street: Ventura Boulevard. We were in Studio City. Jesse was out of the car before I had my seat belt undone, so I had to scramble to catch up as he strode toward the front door of a dingy stucco apartment building. A half-assed attempt had been made to throw Christmas lights on the tree-shaped shrub next to the front door. It probably would have looked better if they had forgone the Christmas lights entirely.

Jesse ushered me into a little vestibule with beige paint and a couple of neglected-looking potted plants. No lights for them. He made a beeline for the call box, stabbing the button for apartment 313 with an index finger. He identified himself to the female voice on the other end and marched us through the buzzing interior door—all without saying a word to me. I clenched my jaw. Fine. I was too tired and travel-worn to try to apologize for whatever it was I had allegedly done to piss him off. If Jesse wanted to play the quiet game, I could hold my own.

He led me up two flights of stairs, down a very long, very beige hallway, and to the last door on the right, the only one with a cheerful welcome mat and a plastic wreath adorning the door. Jesse rang the bell and held his badge up to the peephole.

After a moment, the door creaked open a few inches and two large, red-rimmed brown eyes appeared in the space. The girl was maybe a couple of years younger than me, college aged, with gorgeous dark-brown skin. She had a crumpled washcloth in her visible hand and that wrung-out look of someone who’s been crying for hours.

“Ms. Jackson?” Jesse asked. “I’m sorry for the late hour, but I did want to have the specialist here as quickly as possible.”

Her voice was soft and grave, with a slight Southern accent. “Of course, please come in.” The door swung all the way open, and she stepped back to let us in. I looked around. The apartment was very small, but the space had been used with efficiency and color in mind. It had a whole Urban Outfitters dorm room kind of feel to it. Not exactly my thing, but not terrible, either.

Cruz made the introductions. “Jubilee Jackson, this is Scarlett Bernard. Scarlett is the crime-scene specialist I told you about.”

“Uh, hi,” I said. She was plump, but in a natural, self-confident way. She wore a summery yellow top with dark-green pajama pants and those long, stripy wool slippers that go halfway to your knee. She held out a hand, which I shook, and then I glanced over to Cruz, waiting for my next cue.

“Could we have a moment alone in the room, please, Ms. Jackson?” he asked.

“Of course,” she said, waving her hands absently toward a hall. “I need to call Erin’s mom back, anyway. They’re flying in later this morning.” She sniffled, dabbing at her nose with the washcloth.

I followed the two of them through the entryway and down a long hall, completely bewildered. Jubilee stopped in front of a door. “I haven’t touched anything, like you said,” she told Jesse, her worried eyes lingering puppy-style on his face. “I’ll just be in my room if you need me.” She nodded to the door across the hall.

“Thanks, Ms. Jackson. We’ll let you know when we’re finished,” Jesse said, in the soothing “it’ll be okay” voice you use with broken people. He reached out to touch her arm, and she nodded trustingly. Jeez. I was glad that Jesse used his hotness powers for good.

When Jubilee’s door had closed, Jesse opened the door in front of us and flicked on a light switch. “Go ahead,” he said, tilting his head. “I want to hear your impressions.”

I should have been angry that he’d dragged me out here only to give me the silent treatment, but he was beginning to really freak me out. I straightened up and stepped forward, looking around the small bedroom. I saw the enormous bloodstain on the carpet right away, and glanced back at Jesse. His arms were folded in front of him, face expressionless. No help there. I squatted down for a closer look. The stain ran almost the length of the room, maybe five or six feet. It had to be at least a few hours old—I figured Jesse’s crime scene guys had come and gone already—but it still looked soaking wet. It was also much longer than it was wide—vaguely person shaped, I guess, but more like a snow angel than a chalk outline. I deal with blood all the time, but usually it’s just little spatters. The vampires, of course, don’t waste much blood, and the werewolves usually start healing before it gets this bad. The only other time I’d seen this much blood in one place was during the massacre in La Brea Park in September. I shuddered. Turning to look at Jesse, I spotted a framed picture on the wall of a young woman, twenty or so, smiling arm in arm with Jubilee. She had light-brown hair, an easy smile, and a hint of something secretive in her eyes. Erin, I presumed.

“Is this…Erin’s blood?”

“We think so. Blood type matches, though it’ll take a while for DNA.”

“Did your experts think…can she still be alive?” I asked, keeping my voice low.

“No. With that much blood loss, unless she’d basically been at the hospital…she’s dead.”

I sidestepped the pool and continued around the room. The girl who lived here was a student, judging from the textbooks that were stacked on the small bookshelf above the computer table and the backpack tossed against the wall just inside the doorway. All of her belongings also had this look like they’d been purchased separately over time. The curtain and bedspread were a matching purple-and-green pattern, but the desk and desk drawer were a different green that didn’t quite match. The desk lamp was from a completely different style…genre, I guess. I’d seen the same thing when my brother Jack was in college; it happens when you move a lot.

I turned in a circle, and finally figured out what was bothering me. The entire room was fairly neat, especially by my own low standards, but the half with the desk and the bed was slightly tousled. Books were stacked haphazardly on the shelf instead of lined up, and the pillow and covers were thrown across the bed, like someone had shaken them out without smoothing them down. In a hurry. That could have just been Erin’s style, except that the opposite half of the room was pristine.

And the window…Erin’s window was standing open, and had no screen or bars. When I stepped closer I realized why—the whole apartment building was like a big hollow box, with a little courtyard in the middle, containing a few picnic tables and a small spa pool. This window faced inward, with a straight thirty-foot drop to the courtyard below. Cool air drifted into the room, and I shivered in my wool peacoat, which had seemed too warm only a few minutes ago.

“We found the window screen floating in the spa,” Jesse’s voice said behind me. Reading my mind. I pulled my head in and turned around.

“Did your guys find anything else?”

He gave me a little not much shrug. “There was some gray dirt on the floor. The roommate says they were both pretty careful about tracking mud in, so we’ll try to match it to a pair of her shoes to see if it’s related.

I went back to the bloodstain and crouched down, automatically tucking the bottom of my jacket against my body so it wouldn’t drift into the blood. There was just something wrong with the bloodstain, and in spite of the hour and the travel and the cryptic detective beside me, I was getting interested. I ran through a grisly list of injuries in my head, things I’d seen or heard about: gunshot, stabbing, decapitation, dismemberment, throat cutting. Nothing seemed to fit. If Erin had died from straightforward blood loss—a stab wound, for example—there would be a smeared end where the body had lain, and then the rest of the stain would be circular, if the floor was even, or all misshapen and wispy on carpeting like Erin’s. If she’d died from a cut artery, there would be blood spray everywhere. This wasn’t right. I looked up at Jesse. “It’s too…neat.”

He nodded, and his voice had an edge. “Techs said the blood is nearly the same depth over the whole stain.”

Huh. “What causes that?”

“My crime-scene people had one theory, but only in a half joking kind of way, because it was so out there.”

I froze.

“They said it looked like she’d been crushed. Slowly.” He gave me a pointed look, and I finally understood why I was here. It wasn’t for my expert opinion. It was an accusation.

The crime scene had been cleaned. Professionally.

 

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