Marnie Baranuik is confident that her new psychic detective agency will be a great success, and she has eight million business cards to prove it. But before the paint even dries on her open for business sign, she’s summoned to face the Demon King Asmodeus in His own playground, the revenant court, home of the undead nobility, to participate in a conclave of the most powerful immortals on Earth.
Orc prophets have forewarned her that danger is looming in the far north. In her most ambitious adventure yet, Marnie must harness her powers, gather trusted friends to wade into battle, and complete an international treasure hunt that would make Indiana Jones break into a cold sweat, before raising a new revenant house to rule from the Unhallowed Throne… and do it all without getting her heart or legs broken. Storms are brewing, threats are piling up, and the stakes are higher than ever, but Marnie is determined to dance with danger to the very end. There’s only one thing left to do: deal with it, Baranuik-Style.
Does anyone know if yetis like take-out? And when you’re on a date with a mummy, who picks up the check?
Excerpt: Chapter 1
“Remind me why we’re doing this? On a Friday night? The day after Christmas? With no pizza? And no beer?” Golden asked, standing on her tiptoes so her paint roller would reach the edging along the high ceiling.
“Nope,” I said, turning my binoculars out the frosty office window to peer at the silver Volvo shining beneath the streetlight across the street, commercial-grade parking job and all. No real people parked like that. They’d even got the five-spoked wheels perfectly aligned. The leather of my old tan gloves creaked as I fiddled, adjusting the focus, as if the frogs embroidered on the cuff were getting quietly jiggy; they provided a touch-psychic like me a valuable barrier between my psychometrically sensitive hands and the unfamiliar items in Mark Batten’s new house, any one of which could send me reeling with unwanted visions. Thin and supple though they were, they didn’t do anything to diminish my innate klutz tendencies, and I over-corrected back and forth a bunch of times before I could see my target clearly.
“We’re here because of you,” she said. “You can’t say no to Batten.”
“I can so,” I murmured, tempted to believe my own words. I tried to imagine Batten asking me to do something to which I’d say no, but since he’s a sexy jerk, I nearly sprained my brain before giving up. “I didn’t have to say no; he didn’t ask.”
“You offered? You?” She paused in the process of dipping her roller in the tray, blowing her bangs out of her face with an upward puff of breath, then swiping at them with the back of her unoccupied hand. “But that’s a nice thing to do. You don’t do nice. You do sneaky, or kooky, or clumsy, or awkwardly slutty, or exploding, or – ”
“I’ll throw another zombie spider at your melon if you don’t shut your wang-hole. I do the occasional nice thing when I think I’m going to get something out of it,” I reminded her primly.
She aimed the roller at me, and the plastic drop cloth rustled under her feet. “He’s not even here helping.”
“He’s out of town on a case.” In fact, Mark “Kill-Notch” Batten was not just out of town, but out of the country, somewhere in Bolivia; his new independent work as an international vampire hunter, unhindered by his old FBI rules, took him to far-flung places tracking monsters that had chosen not to play by the rules. I didn’t like to think about him adding to the collection of tattoos on his right pectoral with fresh black hashmarks, one for each revenant kill, but I did like to think of him chasing down other types of baddies, and I assumed, with unrepentant sexual immaturity, that he did so buck-ass naked, his bronze tan slick with sweat and his big muscles glistening in the sun. Meowsa.
“You’re thinking about him naked again,” Golden said with a sigh.
It was bad enough that my brother Wes was legitimately telepathic; having mundane-as-fuck Heather Golden peg me like that was intolerable, even if I was totally obviously ogling Batten’s ass in my mind. I had to change the subject, fast. “Nu-unh,” I lied, as tonight’s prey came into sight. “I’m checking out this dweeb.” White kid. Early twenties. Shirt. Tie. Clean shave. Bright smile at the Mustang pulling in his driveway.
My name’s Marnie Baranuik, and being nosy comes with the territory. I’ve worked as a forensic psychic for both Gold-Drake & Cross and the FBI’s Preternatural Crimes Unit. But now, I was flying solo, opening my own psychic detective agency. How I was going to manage as a business owner was anyone’s guess. Since I could pick my own cases, I expected a lot less ghoul scum and fewer opportunities for being chased around in my underpants by zombie Labradoodles. Blowing away human zombies with Diet Dr. Pepper, propane canisters, and kitty litter was still totally on the table, though. I was, I reminded myself, a badass. Now, I just happened to be a badass with tax paperwork. Oh, Goddess, I was turning into an adult. Abort, abort!
“Besides, it’s our office,” I continued. “I’ll be using it, too. I just volunteered us to paint while he’s gone, that’s all.”
“That’s awfully domestic. You hit your head on the refrigerator door the other night?”
“Whoa, slow your roll, troll,” I said. “I’m not helping him pick out fucking curtains.”
“You’re not painting, either,” she said. “I am.”
Point: Golden. “I will, I will,” I promised, “but Volvo Boy’s bugging me.”
She put her roller down and stepped over the mess, weaving through sheet-covered furniture to cross the room. The office was in the front of Batten’s house, a cute two-bedroom-one-bath with a fenced back yard, compact and cozy, perfect for one guy. I hadn’t thought any further than sharing an office, because the idea of pursuing anything domestic with Kill-Notch made me queasy. Didn’t I already have a serious domestic arrangement with Harry? Can you have more than one of those? Come to think of it, I doubted I’d ever seen Batten cook; he’d always come over to my place, where Harry did the cooking, and filched the beer I bought specifically because I knew he liked it.
Batten and I had been on exactly one date. It had started with dinner and a discussion of what movie we might see, and ended in a giant fight about robots followed by vigorous, can’t-make-it-as-far-as-the-bedroom sex on his kitchen floor, sex that had left us both speechless and smelling like lust and linoleum polish. And if I’d hit my head on the refrigerator in the middle of it, I wasn’t about to tell Golden.
Two days of stunned silence followed, during which Harry wrestled with the shift in attention, focus, and power by being an absolute prince. My Cold Company’s unperturbed reaction was more disquieting than if he’d blown a fuse, but I was dreading any sort of candid confrontation about it. If I was being honest, I was more afraid he’d say it was fine; I’d learned from Harry’s combat butler, Mr. Merritt, that my Grandma Vi had had many suitors while she was living as Harry’s previous DaySitter. Was Harry a Bond-boffing voyeur? I wondered. Bad enough that Asmodeus gets his jollies when I get lucky, but my Harry, too? I pondered the uneasy mixture of trepidation and sexiness into which that might coagulate.
My intermittently torrid and annoying chemistry with Batten wasn’t news to Golden. She was my only girlfriend in the whole country, the only person who could drag my ass to Claire’s Early Bird for coffee, girl talk, and various forms of sugar and grease. She’d settled nicely into her role as my dirty-secrets confidante, sensing my preference for shallow jabs over deep connections, stowing neither her sharp wit nor her blunt attitude. Now, she leaned over my shoulder and squinted through the window at the blond boy standing in the snow across the street. She always smelled like lily of the valley, an old lady’s perfume turned warm and classic by her skin chemistry; it was a scent I was still getting used to. In the field of new relationships, Batten wasn’t the only person dropping their guard, showing me the chinks in their armor, and inching closer to my battlements. My people skills weren’t good enough for me to drop all my defenses yet, but I was trying.
“Just some punk dealing,” was Golden’s assessment, watching the exchange between the young man and his visitors with cool detachment; though my secondary Talent woke to offer me empathic glimpses of her emotional state, it didn’t take a psychic to gather she was unimpressed.
I felt a smirk curl onto my lips. “The most notorious vampire hunter in the nation, currently contracted by the Bolivian government to hunt a Hagenbeck’s werewolf in the Andes, Mr. Ex-FBI Badass, is living across the street from a drug dealer?”
“He’ll stop dealing when his mom runs out of pills.”
“This is America,” I chided, aghast. “Moms don’t run out of pills.”
Golden preformed a very feminine move, an effortless sweep that brushed escaped locks of strawberry blonde hair back over her shoulder where the rest of her ponytail laid; I couldn’t have matched the move without teetering over. Then she flipped me off. It was odd seeing her in garage-grey coveralls and black Converse sneakers with little skulls on them. Agent Heather Golden usually wore navy suits and crisp white shirts buttoned to the neck when working at the Boulder branch of the PCU, where I had worked, too, until recently. When we went out for coffee together, she still looked pretty professional, skipping the suit jacket but keeping everything else dry-clean-only. I knew from past adventures that her toenails were likely painted black. They might even have red stick-ons in the shape of little drops of blood. Golden had a fun streak that predated her work with the PCU. I was determined to drag it into the light so it could breathe a little.
She caught me staring up at her and made a face, crossing her eyes and sticking out her tongue. “Adorable, right?” she asked. “So, do you figure Batten moved to Ten Springs to be closer to you?”
I choked on my surprise and horror, and blurted, “No!” Then I went back to a safe subject, returning to hiding my face behind the binoculars; I swung them back to the street. “Look at this twerp.”
Golden would not be distracted. “Why else would any sensible single man move to this godforsaken ass-crack of a town?”
“Sensible?” I snorted. “Batten?”
I could hear the smug smile in her voice. “Why would he add long and treacherous commutes to his life?”
“If he didn’t like treacherous, he wouldn’t be dating me,” I pointed out.
“Fair point. Why would he add a long commute?”
“If you had that Bugatti, wouldn’t you want to drive it? Besides, he said he wanted to find peace and quiet,” I said, slowly, like I was explaining to a Cocker Spaniel how not to pee on my shoe.
“He couldn’t find peace and quiet in Boulder?” she asked doubtfully.
“Can’t get much quieter than Ten Springs, population five hundred and forty,” I pointed out.
“Five hundred forty-one,” she amended. The smugness in her voice had thickened, and I Felt her wary approval; she hadn’t always understood Batten chasing my skirt, but her opinion on the matter had changed, and she was currently rolling with it, happy to have something to tease me about.
Point: Golden. “Look at this dickazoid. Whoever heard of a drug dealer wearing a tie?” I asked, not exactly feigning my outrage, but trying to ham it up and change the subject.
“You’re Canadian. Deal with it Canuck-style.”
“That’s what I’ll do,” I agreed. “I’ll write him a sternly-worded letter. Dear Drug Dealer: You’re doing it wrong, eh? Sorry. Sincerely, Anonymous. P.S. Here’s some maple syrup.”
“Things are changing, Marnie-Jean,” she said. Nobody had called me Marnie-Jean except my mother until Golden found out what the J stood for. She rolled paint onto the walls, wide chocolate stripes of paint over the original, boring beige.
“The sissification of punkdom?”
“We’re all heartbroken about it,” she said solemnly. “Especially Henry Rollins.”
“I like my crooks like I like my coffee: strong, smelly, and liable to choke me.” I considered the boy who waved politely at his customers as they drove away; he held up his hand and just curled his fingertips down. Once, twice. A cute little finger-wave.
“Stop obsessing,” Golden said, “and help me paint your boyfriend’s walls.”
“He’s not my… for fuck’s sake, this crook drives a fucking Volvo.” I clutched the binoculars tighter. “No, don’t you do it. Don’t… Ohhhhhh, bitch.”
“What’s he doing? Helping an old lady cross the street?”
“He saw me. He gave me one of his cute waves.”
“You’re going to get shot in the face,” Golden predicted, doing precisely nothing to stop it.
“He went inside and opened the curtains in his living room.”
“Maybe he thinks you wanna jump his bones. Gonna put on a strip show for ya. You’re the one ogling him through binoculars like the world’s most boring stalker.”
“He took his shirt off. Aaaaaand now he’s doing yoga in his front window. Like a dick.” I shook my head, but could not take my eyes off the wiry little jerk doing inversion poses in what I assumed were Gap for Kids chinos.
“Doesn’t Harry do yoga? Don’t you do yoga?”
We both did, but admitting that wouldn’t support my irritation in this case. Golden passed behind me to look out the window and steal my Dr. Pepper. I would have slugged her if it had been a cup of espresso, but my new machine hadn’t come in, so I was stuck with soft drinks, and she was welcome to them.
I dipped my own roller and started on an untouched wall. In the mixed light from the ceiling fan and the camping lantern we brought to brighten up the corners, the velvety brown paint looked like a delicious blend of rich coffee and dark chocolate. I hadn’t covered more than a quarter of it before I felt Harry approaching. Well before Heather or I could have heard the purring rumble of the Kawasaki come down the street, the Bond sending a pleasant thrum of anticipation through my belly, a vibration more metaphysical than biological, designed to awaken a DaySitter’s senses in preparation for their companion’s presence. I knew he felt me, too; like two machines checking one another’s distance and readiness, Harry and I pinged each other, striking metaphorical bells and whistles, and in response, dark urges rolled to life in my veins. It felt like hope, like the night was rife with endless possibilities, like I had sprouted wings and could take a swan dive off the roof without fear. His hopes, his endless possibilities, his reckless excitement, true; I got a mere sampling of his high. The creature who owned me cruised down my boyfriend’s street, an English revenant approaching a vampire hunter’s abode with a monster’s smile hidden beneath a vicuna scarf.
“This guy must travel with Cirque du Soleil,” Golden continued. “I can’t even imag—” She dropped to a crouch, still clutching the binoculars, and the Blue Sense roared open to blast me with an interesting one-two punch: alarm, followed by vigilance.
“Did he catch you ogling him?” I asked, but my humor failed, and I dropped the roller and got down on hands and knees to crawl to her position. “What’s wrong?”
“Harry’s here,” she whispered.
I relaxed with a smirk. “Duh. It’s after dusk, and he knows where I am,” I reassured her. It’s not like I could hide from him if I tried. “It’s absolutely fine.”
That was a minor exaggeration; my relationship with Mark Batten had always been a nettle in my Cold Company’s backside, but one he was tolerating better these days. I often felt a wary concern through our Bond from my companion when the subject of Batten came up, but it was tempered with curiosity, and an eagerness that I didn’t quite understand. Harry continued to dote on me while holding ground in a wait-and-see place. What he was waiting for was anyone’s guess.
For my part, I waited until Golden returned to her painting before swiping my roller again. “So why is he here tonight?” she asked.
“He’ll say he’s coming to help,” I guessed, “but what he’ll actually do is snoop around and make disparaging remarks about the state of Batten’s wardrobe.”
“Care to make a wager?” Golden suggested. “I’m betting because I’m here, he’ll take over the painting. You know, rescue the damsels in distress from the dragon that is this job.”
I smiled; I could see why she’d think that. Saying Harry was a little old-fashioned was like saying the Pope was kinda religious. That being the case, I couldn’t imagine my Cold Company doing manual labor that risked getting paint on his Anderson & Sheppard trousers, not for Golden, not for me, and certainly not for Batten.
“You’re on. Next check at Claire’s?” We shook on it, and I tried to remember what the most decadent thing on the menu was. I think it was a chocolate croissant with maple filling. Maybe I’d get two, just to rub it in.
When Harry did come wading through the maze of haphazardly-stacked cardboard boxes, wearing the high collar of his bespoke navy pea coat popped against the inclement weather, the temperature of the room began to sink; revenants carry a chill with them like an immutable cloak, and some mortals get an involuntary shiver crossing paths with the undead. His touch of the grave felt familiar and, oddly, my half of the office began to feel temporary, like my arrangement sharing office space at Batten’s was a short-term deal. Then again, to my Cold Company, Lord Guy Harrick Dreppenstedt, just weeks into his four hundred and fortieth year, most anything would seem short-term. Harry was waggling my cell phone at me urgently; I’d left it in my purse at the front door and hadn’t heard it ring.
“The Orc Quarter is on fire, love,” he informed me without the preamble of a greeting. His posh British accent was crisply summoning, and laced with immortal power that likely set Golden’s goose bumps flaring. I couldn’t have ignored his voice if I tried. Few humans could, but certainly not his DaySitter. “The fire chief would like you to pop over and take a peek.”
Normally I’d have said something cheeky, but the words “Orc Quarter” stomped my wit. I felt my brow knit. “I’m sorry, the what?”
“The Orc Quarter in Schenectady.”
“Schenectady,” I said, seeking clarification, “New York?”
“Just the place, yes.”
“Has an Orc Quarter?”
“Well, I assume they must have, ducky, if the Schenectady Fire Department is ringing you up to attend to it,” he chided, then tried to hand me the phone. When I scowled at it, he clucked his tongue.
“See, this is exactly why I stopped working for the feds and went freelance, so I can tell people who call me on Boxing Day with flaming orc problems to hop up their own ass,” I said. “Besides, there are two preternatural biology labs in Manhattan and a branch office for Gold-Drake & Cross. Why do they want me?”
“One wonders,” he agreed. “Shall I inquire?” I rolled my eyes; Harry mistook this as a request, and spoke into the phone. “Might one inquire as to why you are requesting the presence of Ms. Baranuik of all people, Chief Fitchett?”
I sighed, took my Dr. Pepper back from Golden, and downed it, wishing there was more. I had a feeling I was going to need it.
Harry relayed, “Mister Fitchett says the Schenectady police have one resident in custody that is refusing to talk to anyone but the Litenvecht Späckkenhuggar.”
I waited for the rest of it. When there wasn’t any more, I prompted, “And?”
“Apparently, my pet, that would be you.”
“I’m the Licken-Vicken Spackle-Smuggler?” I pointed at my chest with a gloved finger.
“What the hell is a Lite-Bright Spunk-Shucker?”
“Since the Orc language is a largely borrowed tongue, and they originate in the area now known as Sweden, I’m going to translate the phrase roughly as either ‘small killer whale’ or ‘Little Orc-Killer.’”
My jaw dropped. “But I’m not the little orc killer. Or a big orc killer. I’ve never met an orc, much less killed one. Unless they mean I’m little, which, I guess is true. But still, that’s some bullshit.”
“This I know,” Harry replied patiently. He continued to waggle the phone at my face.
“I’ve never even seen an orc, except for blurry videos and a preserved fetus in an UnBio lab.”
“This does not surprise me in the least. Nevertheless, they would like you on-site as soon as possible, and when you’re done with that, the Schenectady police have an orc in custody with whom you are to have what I hope should be an illuminating conversation.” When I made no move to take the phone from his outstretched hand, he noted, “My heavens, but your entrepreneurial spirit certainly does leave something to be desired.”
I had started my own business as a private psychic detective, hanging my digital shingle online just the day before – a Yuletide present to myself, in a way – and until Harry had shoved the phone in my face, I wasn’t aware my number was even listed on the site yet. I was tempted to answer with, “How’d you finger my digits?” but that might not be good customer service.
“Harry, you are the worst secretary ever.”
He nodded his head in assent, but I could feel the mirth swirling through our Bond, so I pursed my lips and flipped him and Golden, who was trying to muffle some unprofessional laughter behind one fist, off.
I listened for sounds of drooling or panting or chewing on the other end, and when I heard no such monster noises, I sighed and cleared my throat. “Bare Hand Services, how may I help you this evening?”
About the Author:
AJ Aalto is an unrepentant liar and a writer of blathering nonsense offset by factual gore. When not working on her horror novels, you can find her singing old Monty Python songs in the shower, eavesdropping on perfect strangers, stalking her eye doctor, or failing at one of her many fruitless hobbies. Generally a fan of anyone with a passion for the ridiculous, she has a particular weak spot for smug, pseudointellectual a**holes and narcissistic jerks; readers will find her work littered with dark, imperfect creatures and flawed monsters.
AJ cannot say no to a Snickers bar, and has been known to swallow her gum.
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