The bigger they are, the harder they maul.
Immortal not-ghost Wes Cooper and his vampire partner, Hudson Rojas, have it all—rewarding private investigation work, great friends and, most important, a love that’s endured. But ever since Wes sent a demon screaming back to the beyond, his abilities have grown overpowering and overwhelming. He’s hiding the fact that he’s losing control the best he can, but it’s hard to keep anything a secret for long when your partner’s a former cop…and especially when your partner’s a former cop who wants to move in together.
When all hell literally breaks loose in Toronto and superstrength ghosts are unleashed on Wes and his friends, he and Hudson are thrown into a case unlike any they’ve seen before. To save the city, Wes needs to harness his new power…and find some answers. But when he gets them, the solution to fix it all could mean losing everything.
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I bounced the light rubber ball off the ceiling as I lay stretched out on the couch in the employee area of Caballero Investigations. The key was to toss the ball gently, so it didn’t make any indentations in the drywall. Hudson would have kittens if he knew I was amusing myself like this, but these days I needed to fidget. Besides, what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.
I was telling myself that a lot lately.
“Golem?” My best friend, Lexi Aster, sat cross-legged on my desk, since it was closest to the employee area, her grimoire—a Five Star student notebook—open and balanced on her knees. She’d traded her microbraids for a shorter, natural’do a couple of months back, and the look suited her.
It was a Thursday evening, and our doors were officially open for another four hours—until midnight. Hudson and Iskander were out doing the investigator thing—because Hudson’s shift was only halfway through and Iskander, who started at noon, didn’t know what “quitting time” meant—and the rest of us were holding down the fort.
Such as it was.
I thought about Lexi’s quiz item for the span of two ball tosses, then shook my head. “Pass.”
Evan Fournier, Hudson’s apprentice and baby vampire, and another close friend of mine, shifted on his chair. Not out of discomfort, I knew, but because he freaking loved this game. Evan was all sparkly-eyed over the paranormal and eager to learn everything. Me, on the other hand?
“Okay, so, a golem is basically an animated statue,” Evan started. His once pure-blue eyes had slid more toward gray over the past months as his new nature settled in. They sported a permanent gold ring around the iris now. “It can be made out of mud or clay, and have a humanoid form or not. None of them can speak, and they are under the control of the person who created them.”
“Judaism, though there have been stories of non-Jewish witches attempting to create their own. That rarely ends well.”
Lexi nodded in approval. “Very good. What’s the score now?”
Evan blushed. “I, uh—”
“Evan twelve, me one,” I supplied, looking back at the ceiling.
“I thought you said you read the book, Wes.”
“I did.” Sort of. Lexi’s reference tome on paranormal creatures from around the world was dry as hell, so I’d skimmed some pages. Or—sections.
All right, I skipped a bunch of chapters. Sue me.
Drilling paranormal knowledge into our heads was necessary—there were a lot of bad things out there, and knowing their weaknesses was definitely a good thing. It was just so damned boring.
“Okay, next one.” Lexi’s fuchsia nail trailed down the page of her grimoire. “Oh, here you go: Cernunnos.”
“Oh, that’s Celtic,” Evan said. “Um…he’s the god of fertility, life, wealth, animals—pretty much everything.”
“Underworld.” The word slipped past my lips without permission. I didn’t look at either Lexi or Evan but concentrated on connecting my bouncy ball with the ceiling. Nice and easy.
“Right, the underworld. Other gods associated with it?”
Did she really go there? Really?
“Batara Kala,” I bit out. “Bhaironji. Charun. Gugalanna. Hades. Jabru. Kanaloa.” My ball tosses were turning into throws. Hard ones. Each connection with the ceiling punctuated a name of another underworld deity. “Llao. Mantus. Ningishzida. Motherfucking Osiris.”
With the last name, the ball went through the ceiling drywall. Pieces and dust scattered across the couch and the floor, and all over my face. I closed my eyes and swiped a hand over my nose and mouth, dislodging the debris so I could breathe.
I was sucking in air like I’d run a five-k.
“Wes?” Lexi’s voice was tentative.
“Off-limits,” I managed, my voice strangled by anger. It wasn’t her I was angry at—not really. Or maybe I was, partially. How could she bring that subject up? After a demon had made me use the Crown of Osiris to try to make its stolen body immortal so it could stay in the living plane? After I’d watched the demon shoot my no-longer-ex, Hudson? After…after it had changed me.
Not that anyone knew about that.
“It’s important to know—”
“Why?” I demanded, shoving myself up to a sitting position. “Gods aren’t real. They’re legends, nothing more. It’s a dumbass move to waste time on them. Focus on shit we might actually run into in our lives.”
“Gods are real.” She slapped the grimoire shut and hopped off the desk. “Let me get the broom.”
Evan eyed the ceiling. “Hudson’s gonna be pissed.”
My temper flared, pushing hard against my restraint. God, if they stayed, I was going to say something I’d regret. Or worse—they’d witness something I didn’t want them to see. “Out. Both of you.”
Evan’s face crumpled. Every emotion the kid had played across his features like they were a movie screen, and normally I found it endearing. Right now, it was another twist of my fraying nerves.
“Go get a coffee. I’ll clean up.”
Lexi bit her lower lip and looked at me like I was a puzzle she had to solve. “Wes—”
“Fucking go,” I growled.
She slapped the broom into my palm. “Fine. Evan, we’ll let Wes have his hissy fit in peace.”
“Sorry,” Evan said quietly, then followed Lexi out of the office.
And didn’t that layer another level of anger on me? Anger at myself this time, because Evan didn’t deserve to bear any of my temper.
“Fuck!” I threw the broom across the floor. It clattered against the laminate flooring we’d installed after buying the fixer-upper house and converting it into office space.
My last nerve was about to snap.
I marched into the tiny bathroom and closed the door, not bothering to turn on the light. Darkness was good.
With a whimper, I let go. My magic burst out of the too-small mental container I forced it into—the container that used to be perfectly sized. Now it was filled to overflowing all the time, straining and pushing and demanding I acknowledge it. Demanding I use it. But I didn’t need this much magic. I didn’t want it.
It didn’t care.
I slouched forward as relief slammed through me. My muscles relaxed, and warmth flowed through my veins. Letting my magic out felt almost like an orgasm—or maybe it was more like the afterglow, when everything was loose and relaxed and your brain was high on endorphins. I reluctantly lifted my head to gaze at the mirror and scowled at the pastel blue light emanating from my skin.
A radiance lit my pale skin from within, making it seem as though I had strips of LED lights glowing in my veins. My hair, short on the sides, styled smoothly from a side part on top, and dark blond in normal light, took on a bluish sheen so it looked—weirdly—almost green. But my eyes were the worst. I’d gotten used to how Hudson’s and Evan’s vampire side showed in their glowing eyes. It had come to mean protection or passion or some other high emotion that let me know that the two men closest to me felt things strongly. I found that reassuring. Mine, though? They glowed with the cold white-blue light of the depths of winter. There was no warmth in them, only the chill of power I didn’t fucking want.
Power I hadn’t told anyone about.
I let my head droop so my forehead was almost touching the vanity counter. I’d meant to tell everyone right after our big showdown with the demon. But Hudson had been so excited about his retirement from the Toronto PD and setting up our PI firm. And Lexi had been exhausted from the stress of being kidnapped and using her magic to erase electronic evidence of our involvement at the scene so the cops didn’t ask too many questions. Then we needed to be there for Evan and his reaction to killing the demon, which was way more important than my gaining a little bit of extra power. Then Hudson was working with Iskander after Isk got out of the hospital, not fully recovered from the vampire attack that had nearly stolen his ability to speak but wanting to get back to work and as eager as Hudson was to open up a joint firm.
Basically, every time I thought about sharing what had happened, something came up, something that made it easy for me to put it off for another day, another week, another month. And suddenly, months had passed and I hadn’t said anything, and now I felt like I couldn’t. It’d been too long and bringing it up now…it wouldn’t serve any purpose. I was dealing. It didn’t affect my life.
Except I wasn’t. And it did. But I was scared. I wasn’t sure what the crown had done to me, but it couldn’t have been good. Not with how I had to release my magic every now and again. But as long as I didn’t know, I could…I don’t know, pretend. Not face it. Hide, which I was a champ at doing. Beyond those worries, anxiety filled me at the idea of my friends—and Hudson—reacting poorly. I didn’t want them—and him—to look at me differently. I didn’t want them to back away. I didn’t want them to fear me.
It was easier—better—to keep my mouth shut.
The bell over the front door jangled hard. “Wes!” Evan shouted.
I scrambled to shove my magic back into its little box, and the bathroom grew dark again.
I opened the door and saw Evan, his fangs partially down and his eyes almost-but-not-quite glowing. “What the hell—”
“There’s weird shit happening at the café.” He grabbed my arm and tugged. “We have to help Lexi!”
Given how used to “weird shit” we all were now, the near panic in Evan’s voice got my heart pumping. My magic nudged its container again, wanting out, but I refused to listen to it.
Whatever was going on, we’d handle it. Without the equivalent of a magical grenade launcher.
The Candra Café was one of those treasures you found only after you moved into a new neighborhood. Nothing stood out about it, especially in the winter, which kept it camouflaged from people passing through. But for those of us who were on Argyle Street every day, it was a necessity. Their coffee was always hot and fresh, their sandwiches were generous and cheap, and they had gulab jamun to die for.
As we approached, the sounds of chairs and tables crashing to the floor echoed out onto the street, paired with Lexi shouting. A small group of bystanders hovered near the door—and jerked back when a chair flew out the open doorway to shatter onto the sidewalk. More than one had their cell phone extended above their head, no doubt to try to video what was going on inside, but the café’s picture windows were obscured by foot-tall lettering, posters of local events, and partially drawn blinds.
I shoved through the crowd, Evan trailing behind, and ignored the few shouts of caution as we entered the restaurant. Lexi was backed into the far corner near the counter, waving her arms in a pantomime of throwing something. Suddenly a tiny, dark-purple thing shot across the room and slammed into the wall. Before I could identify what it was, it poofed into a hint of dust and smoke that smelled like…charcoal?
“They’re imps!” Lexi shouted as another three things emerged from the shadows of the hallway leading to the restrooms. They weren’t large—maybe the size of hefty housecats. A swipe of her arm sent them spinning back into the darkness.
“They’re what?” I yelled.
“Imps!” She made a disgusted, growly sound. “Just—hit them until they disappear!”
Something grabbed my pant leg. I looked down into a twisted face with giant bat ears and a snout like a rat’s. Instead of rodent-like teeth, the creature’s purple-black lips were pulled back in a snarl to reveal rows of sharp teeth—tiny, but jagged and deadly. Bony wings extended from its back. Purple-gray skin stretched taut between the bones, with raised bumps here and there. As I watched, one of the bumps burst, exuding a vile, sulfuric odor. With a shout, I shook my leg, but the damn thing held on.
Evan growled, grabbed the thing by the back of the neck, and rammed it into the wall. Like the earlier one, it snuffed out in a puff of dust.
I wanted to ask Lexi where they’d come from, why they were here, but more emerged from behind the counter and rushed us. The next few minutes blurred together as I pulled imps off Evan and he pulled them off me and we proceeded to send them back to wherever they’d come from. I didn’t count how many bodies disintegrated into puffs of smoke, but it felt like it was dozens.
Lexi swiped a hand over her forehead after she banished another imp. “There’s gotta be—” She sucked in a breath. “A portal, a crack, something.”
“To the otherplane?” That didn’t make sense. From Lexi’s teachings over the past few months—plus the books she loaned me—I had a better understanding of the otherplane in relation to everything else. There was the living plane, where life as we knew it existed. Surrounding the living plane was the otherplane, kind of like an ozone layer. It protected the living plane from the beyond and everything that existed in those realms. No one knew what the beyond was—it was what spirits passed into after death, but it was also where demons lived. The otherplane was an impenetrable cushion that those in the beyond could not breach—at least not without someone summoning them.
But imps didn’t live in the otherplane. I would know—I visited there often enough. The otherplane was empty, except for the occasional ghost stuck there on their way to the forever that awaited them.
So a portal to what? The beyond? That had to be what she was saying. “That’s not possible.”
“Says the man who fought a demon last spring.”
“A demon who was summoned and possessed a living body.” I kicked an imp into the wall, and noticed there was another wave approaching. Shit. “This isn’t the same!”
“No, I know.” Lexi’s hazel eyes were tired and serious. “This is worse.”
“Worse?” These things were annoying and—shit, ow—had sharp teeth, but I didn’t see how they were worse than a demon committing multiple murders with the intent to gather together a super powerful magical artifact so it could gain immortality and wreak havoc on the living plane without worrying its host body would decompose around it.
“Open portal,” Evan said. He sounded way less breathless than Lexi and me. One look told me why—he was in full-on vamp mode, eyes glowing gold, fangs extended, and hands sporting deadly claws. His words weren’t as crisp and clear as usual, since it was tough to talk around those pointy teeth. “With the demon that possessed Julia, whatever portal was opened to summon it had been long closed. So it was the only thing that came through.”
Oh. Oh crap. I got it. “So these imps are crawling through now, but in a few minutes…”
“It might not be only imps,” Lexi confirmed.
“What kinds of things are we talking about?”
“Hellhounds, ghouls, demons, you name it.”
That did not sound like fun. At all. “Yeah. Let’s close it. Good idea.”
Lexi slammed another three imps into nothingness. “It’s kinda hard to concentrate when I’m being swarmed.”
Evan and I could make a small dent in the imps rushing us, but we couldn’t vanquish more than one or two at a time, unlike Lexi. And even then, about one in three of her attempts to fend off the creatures failed—I suspected because she was using her magic for personal gain, which made it unreliable. Unless I unleashed my magic…
I balked at the idea. My gut told me that would be like bringing a nuclear bomb to a gunfight. A flare of magic might get rid of the imps, but what if I hurt Evan and Lexi? What if there were more waves waiting to push through? How many times could I do that and succeed? No—it was best to let Lexi handle it. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t help.
As more imps swarmed from the back room, I fought them on autopilot and opened the mental box of magic a crack. Allowing only a thin thread to extend outward was so hard—the bulk of my magic thrust against my restraint, wanting out fully. A headache bloomed between my temples at the effort, but I ignored it. I directed the magic toward Lexi, softly, slowly, so she wouldn’t realize she was getting a boost. God, it would have been so much easier if I’d just told her—told everyone—about this, but even as I had the thought, even as I recognized the foolishness of keeping my secret, I knew that even after this fight was done I wouldn’t confess.
It had been too long. There’d be too many questions, and most of my answers were stupid, so no. Best to keep my mouth shut.
When my magic intertwined into Lexi’s, her demeanor changed. I don’t know if she was aware of it, but I saw it. Her tired, rounded shoulders straightened. Her casting movements went from lackluster to determined and strong. In moments, she’d cleared most of this wave of imps.
“Finally,” she said.
I jerked my chin at Evan and we moved to flank her. A few more imps trickled into the café, but we dispatched them easily. Lexi’s hands drew symbols in the air, symbols that glowed briefly to my vision. I couldn’t recall seeing that before, but then, I could count on one hand the number of times I’d seen Lexi cast serious, involved magic, and have fingers left over. Until last spring, that hadn’t been the type of life we led.
Thirty seconds passed without more imps. Then a whole minute. Two.
Lexi blew out a breath. “It’s closed—sort of.”
“Sort of?” Evan echoed.
“The best I could do was patch it.” She grimaced. “I hope it holds.”
I let a bit more magic flow into her, then cut it off before closing the box. I felt none the worse for wear after sharing some of my power—other than the headache from restraining it—which would be frightening if I let myself think about it.
So I didn’t.
A head of long, braided black hair slowly emerged from behind the counter, next to the cash register, followed by a pair of wide mahogany eyes. Bhavana, the café’s owner, looked around, skimming over the damage, before landing on us. “Is it over?” she asked, her voice shaky and her lilting accent thicker than I’d ever heard it.
“They’re gone,” Evan assured her with a gentle smile. He was back to looking human, which showed how far he’d come in the past few months. It used to take him a lot longer to put his vamp away.
“I—I—” She rose farther, gaining her feet, but she didn’t stop scanning her surroundings. “I heard scrabbling in the kitchen, and—I’ve never seen rats like that. Or that many. All swarming…” Fully standing now, she looked at me with a strange expression. Hopefulness? “They were rats, right?”
I shared a glance with Lexi, then turned back to Bhavana. In the distance, sirens wailed. “Yes, of course. Are you all right?”
She nodded. “I—yes. Rats should not act like that.”
Lexi stepped forward too, holding out a hand in encouragement. Bhavana took it and let Lexi lead her around the counter and toward the front entrance. “It was the cold snap,” she said. “It drove them into your café.”
“Rats like warmth,” Evan added.
“Yes—they do,” Bhavana said with conviction. “Indeed they do. Rats.”
She continued forward, her steps less than steady, and Lexi kept her balanced. Behind them, I took a minute to survey the damage to the café. Tables were overturned, as were chairs, and there was dust—imp remains—everywhere. Everything appeared to be fixable, but it would take some work to put to rights.
“You think she’ll convince herself it was rats?” Evan murmured.
“I don’t think her brain will give her a choice.”
“Fair enough.” He let out a sigh. “The health department is going to shut her down, isn’t it?”
“Shit, I hadn’t even thought of that.” I scrubbed a hand over my face. “It’s not fair she’s going to be punished for something that isn’t true.”
“Somehow I don’t think they’ll change their minds if we tell them it was imps and not rats that trashed it.”
“No,” I agreed. “But we’re investigators. So…let’s investigate.”