You might think that after a visit from my dead grandmother, a run-in with my dead
sister, and a rent-controlled apartment shared with an undead vampire fashionista,
a visit from the undead wouldn’t be so unexpected.
But you’d be wrong.
Which was why I was frowning while he stood in my doorway looking remarkably comfortable,
without the faintest glow of otherworldly aura or the oozing, fetid sores I had come
to expect on those who returned from the dead.
He said my name and my hackles went up; I was all at once intrigued, delighted, and
I opened my mouth and then closed it again, willing the words that tumbled through
my brain to form some coherent, cohesive thought, something great and all-encompassing
enough to explain what I was feeling.
“I see dead people,” I mumbled.
Without conscious thought, I snapped my arm back and slammed the door shut. I ran
backward into my apartment, falling over the arm of the couch and landing with a thump
on the pillows, ending in an inelegant heap on the carpet. My puppy, ChaCha, trotted
over to me, sniffed, and walked away.
It’s happening, it’s happening, it’s happening....
I was shaking, the mantra rolling through my head as I curled in on my chest, rocking
gently. I’d known it was only a matter of time before I developed some sort of mystical
powers—red hair and an insatiable appetite for chocolate or anything in a take-out
box couldn’t be the only things I’d inherited from my mother and grandmother who both
had been powerful mystics with the ability to tell the future.
“I’m getting my powers.” I licked my lips, terror and joy bounding through me.
That was it.
was my power.
“I see dead people.”
I felt the words in my mouth, the exhilaration of finally belonging, and finally feeling
a connection to my paranormal family and office mates chipping away at the terror
that sat like an iceberg at the bottom of my gut.
The jiggling of the ancient hardware on my front door brought me crashing back to
the reality of the doorknob turning in front of me. I stared at it as it moved horror-movie
slow and my blood pounded in my ears. The person on the other side of the door knocked
again. This time it was a quick warning rap, and when he pressed the door open, the
air that I had gulped in a greedy, terrified frenzy whooshed out.
“What are you doing here?”
He grinned. “I thought you’d be happier to see me.”
I rolled over onto my back and pushed myself up, my eyes still trained on the man—
—who stood in my foyer, smile wide, welcoming, and corporeal looking.
“Mr. Sampson?” His name was a breathy whisper that made my bottom lip quiver. “You
need me to help you cross over,” I said.
I took a tentative step toward the man whom I had known so well—who had been more
like a trusted confidante than a boss to me for so many years, who had given me my
start at the Underworld Detection Agency. The man whom I had watched being tortured
until he finally disappeared, news of his death reaching me months later.
I reached out in front of me, fingers shaking and outstretched, willing myself to
touch him, knowing that all I would feel would be a cold burst of nothingness of the
displaced molecules that should have been a living, breathing human form.
I stuck my index finger in his right nostril, my thumb brushing his bottom lip.
“Sophie! What the hell?” he snapped.
My hand recoiled back in near-boogered terror. “Oh my God! Mr. Sampson! You’re alive!”
My heart slammed against my rib cage and every fiber of my being seemed to expand
with joy. I crushed myself against Pete Sampson, feeling his wonderful heart thudding
against my chest, relishing the human feeling of his tender, warm skin against my
He shrugged me off—gently—and held me at arm’s length. “You look wonderful.”
“You’re alive.... You’re alive.” I mumbled it dumbly again and again until my eyes
could focus on the stiff reality under my fingers. I massaged Mr. Sampson’s arms,
feeling the ropey muscles flinch underneath his soft flannel shirt, my fingertips
working down his forearms until I found his bare skin, his pulse point. I paused,
“You’re not dead at all. You’re really, really alive.”
A smile cut across Sampson’s face—a smile that went up to his milk-chocolate eyes
that crinkled at the corners and warmed me from tip to tail. I stiffened, shook his
hands off, and slapped him across his chest, anger and betrayal walloping me.
“How are you alive? You’re dead. You
dead! I mourned for you! And Alex,” I huffed, a sob choking in my throat, “and Will.”
I sniffed. “And I’m the Vessel. . . .” Tears flooded over my cheeks, dripped from
my chin as I hiccupped and quaked. “Will’s my Guardian.”
Sympathy, with just the slightest tinge of amusement, flitted across Mr. Sampson’s
face as he took me by the wrist and offered me a stiffly starched hankie. I held it
in my hand, my fingers working the burgundy stitching—the letters P and S embroidered
elegantly against the white cloth.
“You look so different,” I whispered.
The Mr. Sampson whom I had known was always freshly shaven and dressed impeccably
in tailored suits that highlighted his powerful build. He kept his sandy brown hair
close-cropped and slicked back. This man sported a three-day beard peppered with gray
stubble and looked unkempt and disheveled in a wrinkled flannel shirt that was unbuttoned
over a plain white T-shirt. His hair was beginning to thin, but still slightly shaggy.
He wore a pair of jeans that were a combination of broken-in and over-worn, but as
I held the handkerchief to my nose I smelled the faint scent of the Mr. Sampson I
used to know—a scent that was spicy, familiar, with just the slightest hint of salt
Sampson pulled me to the couch and I sat down next to him, leaving just enough space
to let him know that despite his heavenly return from death, all was not forgiven.
“What happened to you?” I managed to say.
It was then that I noticed the easy laugh lines that had sat like commas on either
side of Sampson’s mouth were hard etched now; it was only then that I noticed the
latticework of worry lines between his eyes, the thick frown line that cut across
his dark brow. A thin streak of gray sprouted at his hairline, peppering his too-long
hair with a washed-out sheen.
“I’m sorry I never contacted you.” Sampson shook his head and stared at his hands
in his lap. “I wanted to; the last thing I wanted was to have you—you and everyone
else at the UDA—worry about me. But if you knew I was alive, that’s what would have
happened. You would have worried.”
He offered me what I assumed was supposed to be his appeasing smile, but it only served
to stir up a hot seed of anger in my belly.
“You could have let us decide whether or not we worried about you,” I spat. “I thought
that the chief killed you. That’s what Alex said—”
I stopped, the words going heavy and bitter in my mouth.
Alex was the fallen angel who had the annoying habit of popping into my life at inopportune
moments (think bathtub) and the even more annoying habit of making my knees weak and
my nether regions wanting, bathtub or no. He was fallen, but good; wickedly sexy,
And now I knew that he had spent the last year lying to me about one of the most important
people—and the most intensely painful situations—in my life.
I felt my eyes narrow, and knew that I was holding my mouth in a hard snarl. “Did
Alex know? Did he know this whole time?”
Sampson pushed himself off the couch, avoiding my gaze. “Sophie, Alex—”
I launched myself up then, too, hands on hips. “Alex knew this whole time, didn’t
“Not the whole time, Sophie. I had to hide. I had to make it look like I was dead
or they would keep coming after me and no one at the Agency would be safe. I wasn’t
going to do that to the Underworld, Sophie. I needed to know when it would be safe
to come back again. And the only way I could do that—the only way I could do that
and still even have the slightest hope of coming back—was to have eyes out here.”
“He helped me, Sophie.”
I thought of Alex, of his ice-blue eyes and that cocky half smile, of the two-inch
scars above each shoulder blade that had grown silvery with age after years of wandering
the earth without his wings.
Alex may have been fallen, but he swore he was determined to do good, to one day be
restored back to grace. He had been my protector, my lover, my friend.
And he had been lying to me.
“Does he know you’re back now?” I wanted to know.
“No.” The stern look in Sampson’s eyes convinced me he was telling the truth. “And
you can’t tell him. You can’t tell anyone I’m here. You can’t tell anyone I’m alive.”
I swallowed hard, the weight of knowing crushing against my chest, squeezing out the
air. “No one?”
Sampson shook his head. “You have to promise me.”
I felt myself nod, mute, while the wheels spun in my head. Finally, “If you don’t
want anyone to know you’re alive, why’d you come back from—where were you?”
Sampson cocked his head. “Everywhere. Nowhere. After that night—”
An involuntary shudder wracked my body. The memory of being chained with Sampson in
an underground basement while a madman sharpened the sword he was going to use to
pierce my flesh was still as cold and as fresh in my mind as it was a year ago. Sampson
slid a comforting arm across my shoulders and I slumped against him, my body relying
on muscle memory because my brain was still calculating, figuring, trying to make
sense of Pete Sampson, alive, in my living room.
“I was rescued—or so I thought—from that damn little kennel.”
Sampson clapped a hand over his chin and rubbed where the salt-and-pepper stubble
littered the firm set of his clenched jaw. He looked at me and I could see the smallest
flitter of embarrassment cross his face; his shoulders seemed to sag under the weight,
under the memory of being chained, being beaten—being treated like an animal by a
man whom he had once considered a friend.
“There were people—they said they knew about the Underworld. I didn’t have a choice.
I got in the car and immediately passed out. I must have been drugged. Then I was
crated, moved. I woke up in a shipping yard, somewhere. I knew it was woodsy, or forested,
but that’s all I knew. Nothing was familiar.”
“They dropped you in the woods? In the middle of nowhere? That’s awful!”
Sampson wagged his head, the hand that was stroking his chin now raking across his
ragged curls and over eyes that were tired, heavy. “I was starving, naked, in the
middle of nowhere, and by the time I fully came to, so did they.”
I gulped, the sour state of my own saliva catching in my throat. “Who were they?”
“The werewolf hunters.” He licked his lips. “Trackers. It’s an ancient calling. .
I nodded. “I know what trackers are, Sampson.”
I knew all too well. It had only been a couple of weeks since Will—Will, the man charged
with keeping me and all my Vessel of Souls–filled self safe—had had a run-in with
Xian and Feng Du, Werewolf Hunters. And although werewolf hunters sound incredibly
elegant and Van Helsing-esque, you should know that werewolf hunters have come out
of the silver-bullet-forging days of ancient, dusty castles and now taken up residence
in more urban environments—like in the back of a retro delicatessen in San Francisco’s
You should also know that werewolves are not the drooling, shirtless mongrels changing
each time the moon becomes full that modern cinema would like us to believe. First
of all, it’s not just the moon that brings on the hairy changes in werewolves. If
it was, I might have never gotten my first job at the Underworld Detection Agency
under Pete Sampson. What edged out the other applicants—a fairly well-put-together
zombie woman with melon-shaped boobs and a vampire so newly formed that his fangs
were still short—was my ability to chain up a grown man in thirty-four seconds flat.
That grown man was Pete Sampson.
I licked my lips, choosing my words carefully. “So why now? Why did you come back
Sampson swallowed slowly, his eyes flicking quickly over mine, then working hard to
avoid my questioning stare.
“Hey, who’s this?” He patted ChaCha, who popped up on her popsicle-stick back legs
and danced around like the ferocious three-pound ball of fur that she was. I snatched
her from under his hand and held her to me.
“Why now?” I asked again.
“I couldn’t run anymore.” Sampson’s lips were set in a hard, thin line. “I would have
to spend my whole life running. The trackers weren’t—aren’t—going to back down.”
“How do you know that?”
“They sent me a message.”
He paused and I sucked in an anxious breath.
“There was a den—about six of us, werewolves that had been driven from our previous
lives. We were living off the grid in a nothing town north of Anchorage. The townspeople
were good to us, didn’t ask questions, but”—he cocked his head—“they knew.”
I put ChaCha down, hugged my elbows. “What happened?”
“A few of us went out, decided to check in with one of the satellite UDA offices.
When we got back”—Sampson swallowed slowly, his Adam’s apple bobbing with the effort—“the
whole den had been slaughtered.”
Sampson nodded. “They didn’t stop there. The town had been ravaged, too.”