A Preternatural PNW short story
Olivia R. Burton
The Preternatural Pacific Northwest is a world just like our own—except for the hidden fairies, werewolves, vampires, and humans who can wield magic. The Empathy in the PPNW series follows Gwen Arthur, a cowardly, gluttonous empath who can’t seem to help getting caught up in preternatural chaos. All she wants in life is a never-ending supply of cupcakes, but instead she keeps finding herself face to face with creatures that might eat her alive. Learn more at
Gut Feeling takes place after Cold Feet, the third novel in the Empathy in the PPNW series.
© 2017 Olivia R. Burton. All Rights Reserved
I did Mel the courtesy of giving a single knock before barging into his office, but it didn’t stop me from accidentally walking in on him making out with a woman who could have been my grandmother’s older friend.
I let out a flat wail of embarrassed surprise and turned in circles, my brain suddenly unable to function enough to get me out of this mess. Had I really stood long enough to let the door shut behind me, or was I just too shocked by seeing a thirty-five-year-old werewolf with his tongue down the throat of a slim Mrs. Claus-wannabe?
Mel looks like a dark haired, light-eyed Greek god got scrambled together with a sexy superhero and dumped into the mold of a overachieving Olympian; he could have any woman and yet, here he was fooling around with a lady who had probably been alive during WWII.
It was more than a little shocking.
“Uhhh,” I complained, flailing my hands at the closed door as if that would tell me what to do to get it open. I should have known; I’ve opened tons of doors in my life, but somehow this one vexed me.
“Gwen,” Mel said from behind me, his voice calm with a touch of amusement. “You’re in the way.”
“I’m—” I started, turning to find him looming over me, his arm tucked slightly back and behind the woman’s shoulders. She smiled at me, completely unbothered by my confusion and I smiled back, awkwardly no doubt. “Sure. Yeah.”
Mel pushed me out of the way, turning all his attention back to his senior sweetheart, hugged her close enough to whisper something sultry in her ear, and then sent her on her way. I watched her go, sure the only reason I couldn’t feel her hormones react his words was that Mel’s emotions fry every last psychic nerve ending I have. Mel’s scorching emotions render my empathy useless except where he’s concerned.
To my surprise—though, I had no real right to be surprised, considering how well I know Mel—he was burning with lust. Sure, he always has an undercurrent of lust running through whatever else he’s feeling, and I’m never happy to sense it. But, this was still fresh, as if she were a twenty-something bombshell prancing around his office in lingerie. This lady was more likely to give small children a penny and tell them not to spend it all in one place than to prance anywhere, and yet Mel saw her as equally as sexy.
She giggled, the sound that of a much younger woman, ran her hand down his arm to briefly squeeze his hand, and then disappeared through the doorway without a single thought to the chubby brunette standing agog inside her sprightly suitor’s office. I shut my mouth and leaned out to watch her go. She had a spring in her step, despite her age, a glow catching her white hair every time she passed under one of the recessed lights between Mel’s corner office and the elevators.
“That… was…” I trailed off, unsure what to say. Mel grabbed my arm, making me hiss at his proximity, and tugged me all the way into his office, shutting the door behind him. Rubbing my stinging arm, I glanced around the waiting room outside his actual office, relieved his assistant Betty wasn’t there to give me the hairy eyeball.
She was another old lady who would have preferred not to give me the time of day. Apparently I’m just generally off-putting to anyone above the age of seventy.
“You seem surprised,” Mel said, heading into his office and grabbing for the many things that I hadn’t previously noticed were usually on his desk, but had somehow been strewn about the floor.
“Oh jeez,” I grumbled, hoping that didn’t mean what I thought it meant.
“What?” Mel asked innocently, though he threw me a wink before setting the inbox back at the corner of his desk. It never actually had anything in it, so I was assuming it was just for looks, aimed at giving anyone there to hire the P.I. the whole experience they were hoping for.
Hell, Mel had a Maltese falcon statue on the shelf full of leather-bound books behind his desk. He likes authenticity, at least where his gumshoe gig is concerned.
“She’s old enough to be your grandmother, Mel.”
“I know,” he said, his voice deepening in a pleased and satisfied way I hadn’t heard for a few months. “It’s an entirely different experience making love to a woman with dentures.”
I squinted, wrinkling my nose and hoping with all my might that also didn’t mean what I thought he meant. Letting me know it did, he waggled his brows before finishing placing things back on his desk as they’d been.
“What?” he asked innocently. “Don’t you want to still have an active and satisfying sex life in fifty years?”
“Not if you’re involved.”
“Liar,” Mel said casually, dropping into his seat and pulling open the drawer to his left. “I need your help.”
“You need help in general,” I said, closing in, still absently rubbing my skin where he’d touched me. I shouldn’t have agreed to visit, especially not as a waste of my lunch break, but Mel had insisted it was important and somewhere along the way he and I had become proper friends.
“You know the floods out east?”
“Yeah,” I said, sobering a bit. Autumn in Seattle was, of course, usually pretty rainy, but usually it’s a light drizzle, enough to get you splashed by cars driving through puddles, but not enough to do a ton of damage. This year had been especially bad, though, and smaller towns through the Pacific Northwest had been suffering.
“Lots of people missing, as you know, and I’ve been hired to find one of them.”
Mel shrugged, handing me the file he’d pulled out of his drawer.
“For now. A wealthy family based in Seattle says their son’s been seeing some girl they don’t exactly approve of, another teenager he met on,” he pitched his voice as if mocking someone especially out of touch with the modern times, “‘one of those dating things, the apps you flip side to side,’ and ran off with her before they could stop him. They tracked his phone east right before the flooding started and now they can’t get ahold of the kid. Plus, the phone’s gone dead or been turned off, something. They want me to track him down and haul him home.”
“And you want me to cheer you on?” I asked, closing the bare-bones file and setting it back on his desk. “From the dry and distant-from-you safety of my office?”
“I want to split the fee with you to come help me find him.”
“What good am I gonna be?”
“A question for the ages,” Mel said offhandedly, before pressing on. “You wouldn’t be the first empath to help in locating disaster victims. You probably won’t even be the only one out there.”
“So hire one of them.”
“You’re easier,” Mel said with a wink, making me regret the fact that we’d ever slept together. Well, I’d already regretted it, as giving in to Mel’s charms had been nothing more than a disappointing bait and switch. “And, if the fee doesn’t entice you, I can pay you in cupcakes.”
“Sarah’s cupcakes?” I perked up, eager for the perfect sweets his sister-in-law had whipped up for me near the end of summer. “You still owe me some from last time, you know. You can’t just give me those as payment for this. I will count them!”
“So you’ll do it?”
“Ugh,” I groaned, knowing he had me. I’m not a total jerk, at least not all the time, and at least not when kids are missing. “Sure, when are you leaving?”
“Soon as possible. I’ll text Chloe about clearing your schedule.”
“I’m actually free the rest of the today and tomorrow. My Tuesday morning rescheduled so she could attend her kid’s Dia De Los Muertos party at school, and Tuesday afternoons are usually reserved for new clients, but I don’t have any today.”
“Excellent. Then you go home and pack an overnight bag and we’ll leave when you’re ready.”
“The sooner we get this kid found, the better. I’ve got his last known GPS, as well as the name of the girl he was going to see. With any luck we can haul him back by tomorrow afternoon and you won’t even miss dessert.”
“You mean dinner?”
“I know you better than that.”
“You swear you’ll bring me cupcakes?”
“I’ll pay you however you want, beautiful.”
“Cupcakes,” I said firmly, ignoring his come-on. “At least a dozen. Plus the ones you owe me. You swear?”
“Would I lie to you?”
“You told me you were good in bed, so yes.”
Mel scowled and I laughed, waving goodbye and fleeing his office before my skin caught fire and sloughed right off my bones.
“Why did I agree to this?” I managed to get out through madly chattering teeth and frozen lips.
“Because I offered to pay you in sex,” Mel said, unbothered by the cold, even though his pea coat was much too thin for the late night chill.
“Oh right,” I said as through he’d stayed silent. “Because I’m a level eighty-seven masochist.”
“You should have told me you like to be spanked,” Mel mused, stepping over a gravestone. “I’ll keep that in mind for next time.”
“Blech,” I spat, figuring his suggestion deserved nothing more than a childish sound of disgust. I pressed on, figuring changing the subject was a good way to avoid encouraging him. “I refuse to believe that the kids are here, no matter what their parents say.”
“They’re eighteen and it’s Halloween. They’re idiots.”
“Okay, yes, I get that, but it’s soggy and sloppy and I’m pretty sure most of the graves here had been around for longer than Seattle’s been a city. It’s not exactly sexy out here.”
“When you’re that young, ambiance doesn’t really play into it,” Mel said. I eyeballed him, considering that, hormonally, he was still basically a stupid teenager. Hell, emotionally he was still one, too.
“You’d know better than me,” I said, giving in. I lifted my gloved hands to my mouth, heaved hot air into my cupped palms, hoping that would help my icy fingers thaw.
“Besides, didn’t you ever fool around in a graveyard just for the carnal thrill of it when you were in the throes of puberty?” Mel asked wistfully. I snorted, remembering the humiliating pictures I’d seen of him as a teenager when I’d helped him on another case.
“No, and I bet you never did, either.”
“Shut up,” Mel spat, suddenly grumpy. I cackled, elbowing him ruthlessly in the ribs, enjoying the feeling of finally getting his goat.
“If they’re not here, we’ll check the other cemetery,” Mel said after a moment, his tone stiff and slightly irate. “And if they’re not there, we’ll hit the hotel, get some rest, and go back to it next month.”
“Real funny,” I said.
“I’m as hilarious as I am proficient at the art of lovemaking.”
“Shut up,” I said, both because he was being a dumbass and because my empathy had picked up something off in the distance.
“You can’t deny—”
“I said shut up,” I repeated, stopping, turning my attention toward whatever was vibrating at the edge of my consciousness. Sadness, maybe.
Mel, recognizing my distraction, straightened up, peering out in the direction I was looking. After a few moments, he patted my shoulder and took off at a jog. I didn’t want to follow him, seeing as how the cemetery had so far been a mushy, mucky, freezing, poorly lit hazard and jogging between barely visible gravestones seemed like the perfect way to get myself a face full of mud.
But, Mel had asked me to help and, at the very least, I should make sure the person he was chasing after was the right kid and not some other dimwitted teen trying to be cool by facing his fears in a cemetery on All Hallows Eve.
“Wait,” I called half-heartedly, taking off after Mel, knowing I couldn’t match his preternatural agility or speed.
The kid—I was assuming it was a kid based on the scrawny build and bitterness chewing greedily at the edge of my empathy—looked up as Mel closed in, shock and worry tearing through his emotions. I winced, stumbled into a headstone at just the right angle to send an electric current of pain from my hip down to my knee, and swore under my breath. Mel was going to owe me so many cupcakes for this.
“Jared?” Mel called, repeating himself as the kid jolted and took off in the opposite direction. “Jared! Dammit, kid—Jesus.”
Mel skidded to a halt, letting the kid run off at a clumsy clip. I approached, confused at his sudden lack of determination, and nearly lost my footing as I slowed.
“Shit, shit,” I grumbled, grabbing Mel’s arm for support, glad I’d forced him to wear the magical necklace that blocked his emotions from me. I was probably going to need him to steady me more than just this once and not having my flesh burst into flames at his proximity would come in handy. Though, maybe the warmth of his feelings might have overcome the cold spray of drizzle coating my bare skin and evened my temperature out some. “You’re not chasing the kid?”
“I…” Mel trailed off, sighed woefully, and then crouched down slowly once he was sure I was upright on my own. I squinted in the dark, trying to see what he was investigating, and then yelped when I realized it was a corpse.
“Shit!” I yelped, trying to jump back, managing instead to land on my ass in the mud. “Fuck!”
“She’s gone,” Mel said quietly, shaking his head. “I wonder what happened.”
“Maybe he happened and that’s why he was running,” I said, making my way to my feet, keening a bit at the feeling of my jeans filling with mud. The weight of my jacket had doubled, the entire back half of me now caked in squelching grave dirt.
“I didn’t get the sense from what his parents said that he was dangerous,” Mel murmured, slipping his hand under the girl’s neck and another under the base of her spine. “We should get her to her parents.”
“You should call the police,” I corrected, putting my hand on his shoulder. Against my cowardly judgment, I pulled out my phone, flicked on the flashlight, and aimed it at the dead girl, wincing at the sight of her. “They should take pictures of the scene or whatever it is they do.”
“Oh,” Mel stuttered, slipping his hands out from under her. “Right. I didn’t—I didn’t think. Dammit.”
“We should find the kid, too,” I suggested, taking another step back from the dead girl, forever unnerved at the sight of a human being that had no emotions for me to read. I’d been sensing people for my entire life and looking at the face of a person without any emotions to back it up never failed to make me deeply uncomfortable. “If he didn’t do this, whoever did might still be—”
Without warning, without logic, and without the usual explosion of rage that generally comes before one person attacks another, the girl on the ground yowled, her bruised eyelids flying open as she reached toward Mel with both hands and lunged for his throat.
“What the hell?” Mel said, even as her hands closed around his neck and squeezed. I shrieked and within a moment was back on my ass in the mud, my phone missing from my gloved hand. I managed to scramble back a bit, but a headstone thwarted my escape and I was forced to fight the slick grass as I tried to get up and away.
“It’s okay,” Mel said, unbothered by her assault, speaking to her as if she’d woken calmly, like Sleeping Beauty after a kiss. “We’re not here to hurt you.”
“She’s dead, Mel!” I said, shocked he couldn’t tell. He was a werewolf with super senses and more experience with the preternatural side of the world than I had; he should not have been the one trying to talk a zombie out of eating his face.
“That’s what I thought,” Mel said, rather calmly, before palming her face and pushing her back down to the earth. Clasping both her wrists in his hand, he forced her hands away from his throat. I watched her scraping nails pass over his skin like he was made of steel and the sight froze me. I knew from experience Mel was tough, but the force of her manicured claws digging into his throat was doing absolutely nothing.
“Damn,” I mumbled, finally steadying myself upright and leaning against the stone in front of me.
“We have to get to the kid. What if she’s not the only zombie?”
“There could be more?” I demanded, my grip on the worn marble the only thing keeping me upright.
“We’re in a cemetery; you think there’s only one zombie?” He flashed a grin and I hated him a little more than I thought was possible. “It’s Halloween. Get into the spirit!”
The dead girl gnashed her teeth at Mel, fighting to chomp into the hand that was holding her skull against the earth.
“She’s on top of it,” Mel said absently, before letting go of her hands so he could untie the belt around her waist. She continue to scrape at his flesh and bite the air wildly, even as he wrapped the tie around her wrists and ankles and trussed her up like a rodeo calf. “Come on.”
“Are we leaving? Let’s leave,” I said breathily. Without a thought to his nice, expensive coat, Mel wrapped an arm around my shoulders, steadying me as he led me deeper into the cemetery. “This isn’t leaving!”
“I told you, we need to find the kid.”
“You find the kid, I’m gonna go!”
“You agreed to help and now all you’re doing is complaining. I may not give you any cupcakes at all after this.”
“I thought you didn’t want to be paid in sex,” Mel said with a wink, still hustling me through the darkness. “But I’m flexible.”
“No! Shut up! Goddammit!” I stammered, fighting against his iron grip, outraged that he wasn’t letting me go. Never mind that I’d lost track of what way was out, that it was so dark I probably would have run smack into the side of a mausoleum, and that my fingers and toes were completely numb. I wasn’t in charge of my faculties at the moment, and that was leaving me vulnerable to Mel’s guiding hands and my own panic.
“I’ll keep you safe,” Mel said, before rocking to a halt. “Hopefully.”
“Hopefully?” I demanded as a spear of lighting cracked open the sky, throwing blinding white light jaggedly across the forms of ten or fifteen ragged, mud-covered zombies shambling toward us. “Hopefully!” I squeaked, twisting in Mel’s grip. Darkness fell again, but only after I’d caught a glimpse of the other group of advancing undead who had followed us deeper into the cemetery.
“Your optimism is touching,” Mel said, before slipping a hand under my hips and hefting me into his arms. “This way.”
I keened in answer, burying my face against his chest and clinging to him as he took off to the left. We were only in motion for a few seconds before Mel grunted, twisted, and slammed the side of his body against a door that splintered and flew inward at the impact.
“Not ideal,” Mel mumbled, before dumping me unceremoniously into a pile of plastic bags of fertilizer. “But it’ll keep you out of the rain.”
“I’m not worried about getting wet!” I argued, hopping to my feet simply because sitting down made me feel less prepared. I’m a chubby therapist who’d rather watch reality TV than go to the gym; standing up wasn’t going to make me any more able to fight off a horde of undead, but being on my feet made me feel better at least.
“I’ve got to find the kid and make sure he’s safe.”
“From here? You’re going to find him from here?” I asked hopefully, grabbing his arm and squeezing. As if Mel can’t lift a car with one pinky, and my feeble, frozen fingers would have any chance at keeping him there. “You’re going to scan the horizon with your super werewolf eyes and find the kid from here, with me?”
“No,” Mel said casually, eyeing my grip on his arm, a small smirk on his full lips. “You’re holding me pretty hard.”
“I need you, Mel!” I said without thinking, hoping I could convince him to stay there in the shed and act as my shield against whatever might wobble moaning through the slightly busted door and attack me.
“I knew it,” Mel said, shifting to wrap an arm around my waist and yank me close. His mouth was on mine before I knew what was happening and I barely had time to register the fact that his lips felt scalding compared to the frozen air before his tongue was in my mouth and—for some reason I’ll never be able to explain—I was kissing him back.
Maybe it was desperation, fear, terror, and general brainless stupidity in the face of certain death, but I reached up, grasping at his damp hair with my chilled hands, yanking him down to me and kissing him back as if it was the only thing that might save me. I had no conscious thought in that moment; it was just a nice swerve away from the crazy reality of the situation and into a fantasy world in which my worst problem in life was Mel insisting that the sex we’d had a few months ago had been decent.
This was decent, I decided, my brain frying at the lust that seared through me. Better than decent, actually. Mel was a damn good kisser, his hands roaming my body in a passionate but not overly invasive way, his passion coming through in how he pressed into me and held me close. If I wasn’t careful—and when am I ever?—I was going to end up having disappointing sex with Mel all over again, right there on the frozen floor of a graveyard tool shed.
“Um,” I managed between bruising kisses. I let it go just a little bit longer. There were no zombies beating down the door at the moment, things would probably be fine. A minute or a year or maybe just a few seconds later, Mel pulled away, easing me out of his grip and standing tall above me, grinning down at me in the dim darkness. I could only see part of his expression lit by the single, weak nightlight plugged in by the door, but he looked pretty pleased with himself.
“In case you never see me again.”
“What?” I cried, still stupid. “Why wouldn’t I see you again?”
“Here,” Mel said instead of answering, and then shoved a pair of hedge clippers into my hands. “I’ll be back.”
“Back! You can’t come back! I mean,” I said, shaking my head rapidly as if I could dislodge any and all desire for Mel with that alone. “You can’t leave! Stay! Then you don’t have to come back!”
“We can pick up where we left off when I’m back, what do you say?” Mel asked, not waiting for me to stammer out an answer. He fled out into the drizzle, yanking the half-busted door shut behind him. He managed to wedge it in the frame to keep it from just falling right off its only hinge, but he did it so fast I almost missed it.
And just like that, I was alone in a shed in a cemetery on a rainy Halloween night.
I dropped my gaze to the shears in my hand, suddenly filled with impotent rage. Mel had handed me the stupid things as if they would help me survive when a mess of zombies—what is the group noun for zombies, anyway? Maybe I could look it up once I died and was sent to Hell for failing to save a teenaged girl from being turned into a rotting cannibal—burst through the shed door to murder and eat me.
Throwing the shears to the ground, I hopped over to the skinny window, peering through in an attempt to figure out where Mel had disappeared to. The darkness and rain prevented me from seeing much more than gray lumps in front of charcoal bumps against a backdrop of slate.
Basically, I couldn’t see shit.
I swore to myself several times, still raking my gaze over the cemetery outside, hoping I could locate Mel and that doing so would show me that he’d grabbed the kid and was on his way to grab me too. Normally I don’t want Mel’s grubby paws anywhere near me, but he was the zombie killer, and that made him infinitely less annoying to me than usual in that moment.
The goodbye kiss had nothing to do with my feelings about him grabbing me, shut up.
Lightning flashed again, washing out the fifty shades of gray that reigned in darkness and showing me long lines of rain spearing toward the earth and, to my surprise, into the bodies of at least half a dozen unmoving, mud-drenched zombies. Mel had apparently been busy before moving on, and I let out a long groan of relief at the idea that I was no longer mere feet from being ripped apart by decaying fingers.
A profile lurched into view just outside the window as the light died away and I screeched, jumping back, hitting my already bruised butt on the concrete. A puff of dirt and dust clouded, making me swear and cough madly. The shape outside stopped moving, the mangled shadow of it only barely recognizable as human. Realizing my hysterics were probably calling attention right to me, I clamped my hands over my mouth, gagging a little as I accidentally got a tongue full of mud and dust. Not even daring to spit, I sat frozen, eyes wide as I stared in terror at the thing outside the window.
When the shadow shifted, the zombie turning its head toward me, I yowled, calling for Mel and grabbing wildly for the shears he’d left me.
I still didn’t know what I’d do with them, but they were a weapon and that seemed like a good thing.
Mel didn’t answer or magically appear or astral project to my side to give me tips on how to fight the undead, which left me with only one chance at safety as far as I was concerned: flee screeching into the night.
Scrabbling to my feet, I rushed the door, figuring I would bust through it as Mel had done. He’d broken it, after all, it shouldn’t take much for me to do the same. I may not be strong, but I was caked in several pounds of mud and I’m no slouch in the weight department on my best day. I could probably plow through with no trouble.
Truthfully there wasn’t a lot of thought going into my plan, I was just acting on fear and instinct.
I hit the door with my shoulder, felt the impact all the way through my skeleton, and lost my footing immediately. The door had done what I wanted it to do, toppling crookedly through the frame and slamming to the ground, nearly tripping me as it became a teeter-totter with a corpse as the fulcrum.
I grunted as I hit the cement outside, flailing my arms and losing my grip on the shears as I fought to stay upright. Miraculously I didn’t end up face-first in the mud, and within a few more steps I was on my way, tearing through the cemetery in what I hoped was the same direction Mel had gone.
I turned as much as I dared, found the zombie shambling after me at a snail’s pace, his arms up and out as if it were contractually obligated for all undead. I laughed foolishly and shrilly into the chilly air, swallowing the mouthful of rain I got, and turned all my attention toward running for my life.
I had literally no idea where Mel had gone and no way to track him down. He was a blind spot to my empathy and, unless I got lucky and stumbled on the kid he was looking for, I was no longer in a position for Mel to find me. Running, I realized then, had been the most boneheaded move I could have made in the moment.
Slowing, scanning the area to make sure I was alone, I realized I’d come to the edge of a worn but still intact stairway that led in three perpendicular sections down to another area of the cemetery set at the base of a steep hill. Grasping the railing and leaning against it as I caught my breath, I squinted against the rain, scanning the area.
I saw no sign of Mel or the kid and wasn’t really sure if Mel and I had come across this staircase on our earlier walk. For all I knew, I’d somehow run into an entirely different cemetery. Or, hell, a different dimension. Maybe none of this was real and Mel and I had passed through an unseen portal straight into Zombieland.
“Yeah, that would be my luck,” I yelled into the rain, frustrated and shivering. I couldn’t stay out in the cold, if only because I’d freeze to death. Though, at least my ghost would have the satisfaction of watching a horde of zombies chip their rotten teeth on my frozen corpse. “Stupid zombie—oh god!”
Somehow I’d missed the presence of one of the dumb assholes I’d been yelling about, but he hadn’t missed me.
Looming into view, the zombie groaned, its hands grasping for my jacket as I stumbled down two steps, still clinging to the railing for dear life. He advanced a step and I danced backward another few, turning to make sure there weren’t more corpses waiting for me at the bottom like the worst prom dates imaginable. The zombie moaned in challenge, lifting his leg to take a step toward me. Lucky for me, zombies apparently don’t understand stairs.
They do, however, excel at physical comedy.
It was clear that whatever motor skills he had in his brain had expected his lifted foot to meet the floor much sooner than it did, but despite that, there was no sound of surprise, no cry of shock. The zombie just pratfell forward, arms crumpling against his chest like paper cups when he smacked face first into the drenched and mossy stairs.
Bones cracked and flesh squelched, turning my stomach on its head and making me convulse. Fighting the tremor of revulsion, I stood as still as I could manage, watching the zombie, terrified it was going to get right back up and come after me again. When its arm twitched, I squealed, twisting to the side and jamming my heel against the back of the zombie’s neck. By luck only, it had landed bridged between two steps, and my foot sank into that gap, pushing the putrid spine right along with it.
The zombie’s neck splintered, snapping like a wishbone, the feel of it echoing through the sole of my foot all the way into the back of my throat.
I got only a split second of relief before my brain caught up to the situation and disgust swamped through me again. I twisted away, glad in a way that my clothing was beyond saving, and vomited over the railing into the dirt. All in all, it was a waste of two Twinkies and a handful of miniature candy bars that I’d grabbed out of the freebie bowl at the counter at the hotel.
I stayed folded over the metal bar, gagging and heaving like it was the railing of a ship and the only thing keeping me from pitching head-first into the sea below. Groaning, sobbing, hating life, I spat out as much of the vomit taste as I could manage, took a ragged breath, and unfolded to stand as tall as I could manage. It was tough, what with the shame, horror, and twenty pounds of mud weighing me down, but I did my best.
Looking around at my options—but refusing to look at the twice-dead guy on the stairs—I sighed through chattering teeth and decided that I really had no choice but to go right back where I’d come from. At least the shed might hold some key as to how the hell I was supposed to get out of the graveyard. I didn’t recognize anything off to my right, so there was little chance I’d find my way to somewhere safe going that way.
Plus, if I did manage to find the shed, maybe I could hole up inside again and at least get out of the rain. I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore, even with the heavy gloves, and my supposedly rain-proof boots had gone all squelchy inside. I was going to lose all of my digits if I stayed outside with the zombies any longer—and probably not even to their snapping jaws.
“I don’t even want to think which would be worse,” I mumbled to myself, before heading back the way I’d come.
I wrapped my arms around myself, trying in vain to keep myself warm, and hustled as fast as I dared in the darkness. No other zombies popped up to eat my face, so I considered that perhaps it was finally time for me to start achieving some small victories. Mel was still nowhere to be found, but the rain was coming down hard enough that I couldn’t see much anyway, so he could have been five feet to my right, waving both middle fingers my way and I wouldn’t have known.
Realizing that my vision wasn’t going to keep me safe, I sighed, swallowed my nerves, and strained my hearing, hoping that, at the very least, any approaching zombies would have the decency to moan threateningly before appearing out of nowhere.
“Shit, shit, shit,” I hissed,
“I command you to stop!”
I froze, not because the awkward, broken voice off to my left had commanded it, but more because it was so unexpected to hear a voice other than my own at that point, I wasn’t sure I’d heard it at all.
Plus, who talks like that?
“You what?” I demanded, squinting through the rain, trying to locate the speaker.
“Foe!” The voice announced again, as I spotted the damn kid we’d been chasing, standing there beneath an ancient tree, pointing menacingly at me with one of his mud-covered hands. He was probably freezing in his ripped denim jacket and baggy jeans, but he hid it well, clenching his jaw as he stared me down.
“Jared?” I asked.
“Silence!” he spat back, stepping forward as frustrated rage exploded jaggedly out of him to thud against my front as if I’d been pelted with golf balls thrown by a dozen toddlers. It didn’t hurt, exactly, but the multiple impacts to my chest, throat, and cheek were disorienting. “Do not address me without permission! I am the Lich King and must be obeyed.”
“The leech king?” I demanded, totally lost. What the hell was this kid’s damage? Had I been this stupid at eighteen? Probably. “We’re here to take you home, to make sure—”
“LICH!” The kid corrected, his arm falling as he stomped his foot and then closed in. “I said lich! Like zombie!”
“What the hell—Look, kid, we’re here because your parents sent us. They’re worried about you and now with the dead girl and the zombies, so am I.”
“Foolish mortal! You must—”
“Jesus,” I sighed, closing in, figuring I could just grab him by his ear and drag him off to the shed with me. He was taller than me, but scrawny and young; I had just snapped the neck of a zombie with my big toe. I figured I could take him. “Stop with the World of Warcraft bullshit. Let’s just go—”
About the time I reached out toward him, aiming to grab any part of him I could conceivably use to steer him to safety, the stupid dipshit pulled out a knife, slicing wildly at my hand and managing to nick a line from my middle pinky knuckle down to the meaty part of my thumb, even through my glove. I recoiled more out of instinct than pain; I was too numb to feel much.
“Gwen!” I heard Mel call from the distance, and I turned, trying to figure out what had been keeping him. Had he been watching this prick the whole time?
He had, I realized, but his lack of participating in our little chat wasn’t really his fault. More lightning illuminated a dozen, muddy zombies in all stages of decomposition clinging to his muscular form, holding him in place against an ancient tree, each and every one of them trying their damnedest to chew through his flesh to get to his meaty insides. He’d lost his jacket at some point and the rain had molded his thin t-shirt to his broad chest, showing off every contour he had.
It wasn’t a bad look, though I could have done without the undead blocking most of my view.
“Jared, let her go before you do something you regret!”
“I regret nothing!” The kid screamed back, his voice squeaking slightly as if he’d just turned fourteen rather than eighteen. Shaking his floppy hair out of his eyes, he pointed the knife toward Mel. “You can tell my parents to shove their college and trust fund and all their cars!”
He paused, silence reigning as I held my nicked hand close and wondered what this idiot had planned for the two of us.
“No, I’ve changed my mind,” he said, as smug self-satisfaction swamped out of him to curdle in the back of my throat like chunky, expired milk. I heaved again, almost losing anything left in my gut. “You tell them I’m coming home, and that I’m bringing my knew friends.”
“I’m afraid you’re not,” called a newcomer. Both Jared and I jerked our heads toward the stranger. I couldn’t see much other than a general shape, but the voice was definitely female, and the small form beneath the heavy hooded jacket reflected that. She moved casually, her feelings leaning in the direction of annoyed, but not quite reaching it. She didn’t think much of this kid, from what I could tell, and she certainly wasn’t scared of him. “You’ve been a bad buy, Jared Evan Jameson, and now you must be pay.”
Shadows all around shifted, making me jump, shocking me into a yelp even before I realized that they hadn’t just been rogue pockets of darkness, but more zombies approaching from all sides. Now, though, they were just corpses, heaped together on the ground as the hooded figure approached decisively.
“No!” Jared yelled, looking around at the zombies, stomping his foot impotently. “Get up! I order you to—”
Without hesitation or fanfare, the woman closed in on Jared, socking him across the cheek hard enough that he crumpled too, still as the dead once he hit the ground. Ignoring me, the woman bent over the kid, shuffling for a few moments before I saw the glint of metal and heard the crick of handcuffs tightening. Yanking a hood over the kid’s head, she got to her feet, keeping her back to me.
“Take the empath, werewolf, and go,” she said as Mel jogged up next to me, startling me again. “This is no longer your concern.”
“You can’t—” Mel began. She turned slightly, not enough that we could see her face, but enough to shut Mel up.
“I urge you to listen. We have agents who will see to the murdered girl and to this one’s parents. Be on your way before you risk the wrath of all Hell itself.”
“We should go, Mel,” I squeaked, feeling the intensity in her honesty and stumbling back. “We should go now.”
Mel was still, quiet, frustrated at the situation, but something in him could sense her authority as well. Without a word, he wrapped an arm around my shoulder and steered me away. I looked back briefly, curious despite my fear of her, trying to discern what she was doing, but saw only shadows.
Mel was shirtless as he opened his hotel room door to me, but I was too exhausted to care. It was nearly four and I hadn’t slept more than as many winks since we’d gotten back there and split up into our own rooms. To my surprise, Mel didn’t say anything lascivious or inviting, just stepped to the side to allow me to come in.
His bed was thrashed, covers untucked, pillows everywhere, and I wondered if he’d been having just as hard a time sleeping as I had.
“Can I sleep in here?” I asked, glad that he’d left the bathroom light on to illuminate the room out of total blackness.
“I’ll take the couch,” Mel said, surprising me again.
“Man,” I said, shaking my head and moving toward the mess of linen. “You should get attacked by zombies more often. It makes you a real nice dude.”
“I’m always a nice dude,” Mel said, following me and grabbing for one of the pillows. “You’re just too much of a jackass to notice.”
“You’re still wearing the necklace,” I said offhandedly as he moved toward the couch.
“Your room’s close, I didn’t want to ruin your night.”
“Wait,” I said, grabbing his arm. He did as I said, pausing silently, not questioning my order. I considered the situation, tried to decide if I really wanted to risk what I was about to say. “The bed’s big enough for two.”
Mel simply lifted a brow, his lips quirking slightly. I rolled my eyes.
“No funny business. This is strictly to sleep. Then I go back to my room and change there and then you take me home and give me a hundred cupcakes and then you leave and I eat every one of those cupcakes.”
“Sure,” Mel said, though his tone left alternatives on the table, letting me know I could pick up any one of them should I decide. I planned to leave every one alone, ignoring them until they gathered so much dust you couldn’t even see them anymore.
“Who was that, you think?” I asked as we settled in, me under the covers, Mel stretched out above the blanket, one arm tucked under his head.
“I didn’t get a name, did you?”
“I mean, she came out of nowhere, socked the kid in the nose, and sent us scurrying away like mice. She’s got to be someone special.”
“Excuse you,” Mel corrected, sounding miffed. “I did not scurry. You wanted to leave because you were scared. I was only thinking of you.”
“Sure. So the invocation of Hell did nothing to persuade you?”
Mel was quiet, and I glanced over at him in the low light. After a moment he scowled.
“I don’t even know if Hell is a thing. I just know that she took the zombies down and the kid and all while wearing a snazzy, sexy raincoat. I figured it was a good idea to take her seriously.”
“You’re sure it was her who dealt with the undead?”
“It certainly wasn’t the jester of Azaroth, back there. That kid seemed pretty intent on making his rotting horde eat us both up. No way he was letting that sort of power go.”
“Wait,” I said, as if it had just occurred to me. “Jared was controlling the zombies? I thought he was just fucking with me!”
“Pretty sure he wasn’t. I found him after I left you in the shed—which, by the way, why the hell did you run off and leave the weapon I gave you behind?”
“Uhhh,” I said, unable to defend myself. Mel shifted onto his side to look at me in the dark. He had the advantage, as the light was at his back and I couldn’t see much of his face.
“They shears were just lying there in the mud. What, did you throw them at a zombie and just run off screaming?”
“Basically,” I admitted with a shrug.
Mel snorted, chuckled at my incompetence, and then pressed on. Once again, his gentlemanly behavior left me confused, but I’d had a crappy night and wasn’t going to argue.
“I found the kid, but when I tried to talk him down, he started spouting nonsense at me, and then I was covered in zombies. They looked pretty fresh, too. I think they were actually some of the people lost in the floods, but I guess we may not ever know. I doubt the Hell Queen’s gonna write us a nice letter on flaming stationary, explaining what happened after we left. Anyway, I was able to fight a bunch of them off, but after a bit, he got distracted and disappeared. The zombies had a pretty good—heh.” Mel sniggered to himself, before continuing. “They had a death grip on me and I really had no choice but to go where they wanted. Next thing I knew, there you were. How’s your hand, by the way?”
“Not bad. The glove caught most of it. It’ll sting and I’ll have to hold my fork in my left hand for awhile, but I’ll survive. I wonder if Jared was so lucky.”
“I wouldn’t count on it, but if the email I got from his parents today is any indication, it doesn’t matter.”
“They apparently got news of his arrest for the murder of Tanya. They thanked me for my help, promised me that they’d pay me for my trouble, and asked me to keep my involvement quiet.” He sighed, aggrieved. “White people.”
“Mel, you’re white.”
“I mean, rich white pe—I mean, like, people-people. I’m not a person.”
“Says the guy who gets real touchy when I compare him to a dog.”
“Shut up and go to sleep,” Mel said, rolling back onto his back.
I snorted, breaking out into a fit of giggles, my shoulders relaxing for the first time in several hours. It wasn’t long before I did as he said, slipping into unconsciousness and finding none of the nightmares that had been plaguing me since we’d left the cemetery.
About the Author
Olivia R. Burton lives just outside of Seattle with a clowder of cats and a stink of litter boxes. She likes to watch cheesy action movies, take long walks, eat vegan food, and make up group nouns for things that don’t already have them (like a spootle of Ruperts or a stink of litter boxes). You can follow her tweets at @OliviaRBurton or find more information at http://www.OliviaRBurton.com.
Despite how things went last time Gwen helped Mel on a case, she gives into the bribe he offers and agrees to let him drag her through miles of gravestones and gobs of mud on a freezing, stormy night. It's not for nothing, at least: Mel's been hired by a rich couple to locate their stubborn kid and drag him home, even if he kicks and screams the whole way. Mel's a werewolf, after all; he can handle a steel-toe to the gut if it comes to that. It's only after Gwen's fingers are numb and her patience is strained that she realizes Mel may not be the only dangerous creature out there among the tombstones. A cemetery, a necromancer, and the promise of a boatload of cupcakes: Gwen Arthur's about to have a very interesting Halloween.