The Randi Sanderson Series, Book 2
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War is brewing. One rogue outfit inspires fear in both Heaven and Hell alike. The Shade. A group of half-angel, half-demon malcontents bent on domination over the middle. But first, they’ll have to deal with Jacksonville’s lead detective, Randi Sanderson.
A hybrid herself, Randi distanced herself from the magical world, content to live and work among humans. However, after she barely managed to save her own son from the grip of Shade operatives, she’s prepared to dive back into the supernatural underbelly — and tear it apart.
Hell’s no place for a kid, but without safer alternatives, Randi lets her father take her son into hiding while she deals with the Shade threat to her family. Rage fuels her vengeance, but it’s gotten her into trouble before. Helping keep her cool, partner Cash Bennett, a fallen angel, provides a healing touch to sooth her tumultuous anger.
Together, they face growing upheaval in Jacksonville’s paranormal community. Another murder bears the tell-tale signs of Shade interference. A young man is beaten to death. His twin sister barely survives, and what’s left of her psyche is fractured by a malicious, infernal magic, causing her to act out. When she runs, Randi and Cash race against time to uncover a Shade plot that seems to grow in scope at every turn.
Corruption, spies, assassins, and tight-lipped witnesses plague their investigation, but Randi and Cash face off against all comers. As Cash helps Randi tap into her angelic abilities, their partnership blossoms, as well as a simmering romance threatening to boil over — much to the chagrin of a distant observer poised to return…
Tardiness isn’t in my nature, but when your son’s in Hell, you let a few things slip. Besides, with a partner as diligent and punctual as Cash Bennett, I could afford to be late. It’s not like a dead body’s going to flee the scene, anyway. Although, with all I’d encountered lately, such assurances seemed less guaranteed.
Nevertheless, I let my call with Dad and Logan run long, soaking up what little contact I had with my son while he was hiding out. His absence felt like a hole through the center of me, widening each day he remained in Hell. Which scared me. The last time I felt an emptiness like that was after Logan’s father, Kalon, died. The pain curdled into rage, which burst forth violently in a weeks-long hunt for vengeance. Despite the bloodshed, all I’d managed to do was carve a deadly path through the supernatural underbelly of Jacksonville, Florida. I left a lot of bodies in my wake, but my husband’s killer escaped my bloodthirsty rampage.
I needed to keep myself in check.
If that meant showing up last to the crime scene so I could fit in a few extra minutes with my son, so be it.
The only functional method of communication between Hell and Earth is scrying. Cell service in the below never really panned out the way it did for Heaven. Too much interference, what with the miles of crust in the way. I dusted off the old scrying bowl, stored in the back of our occult closet, as we liked to call it, and performed the ritual. I filled the shallow basin of the onyx bowl, pricked my fingertip, and squeezed the requisite drops of blood into the water.
The Vecto Sonus laid open on the kitchen table beside the scrying bowl, basically a demonic phonebook. I read from it while peering into the water, watching as ripples spread from a dozen points, generating concentric circles that clashed in a mesmerizing display. Suddenly, the ridges smoothed across the surface and the image of a gothic-styled bedroom appeared. A black, four-poster bed rested on the right side with red, gossamer drapes enclosing it. Against the far wall stood a tall, black wardrobe, presently opened with Logan’s clothes spilling out. A mirror broadcast my image on the other end like in Snow White, a comparison my father couldn’t help derive jokes from until well after it was wrung dry.
He was first to answer, entering through the door to his conjoined room. “Well, good morning, Mirror Mirror, come to inform me I’m the fairest of them all?”
I gave him a look. “It’s nighttime, first of all.”
“Well, we don’t get much sunshine by which to tell the hour, sweetpea.”
“Second of all, why isn’t my son in view?”
There was the whooshing sound of a flushing toilet and then Logan emerged from the left. “Hey, Mom.”
Dad put an arm around his grandson. “When I told you I’d keep my eye on him, I think there were some implied exceptions.”
I smiled. “Alright, fair enough. How are you, Logan?”
Logan beamed. “Great!”
I felt my brow furrow in consternation. “I don’t know how I feel about that enthusiasm, buddy. You’re in Hell, after all.”
His face lit up. “I know, it’s awesome!”
I shot Dad a worrisome look. “What’s so awesome about Hell, Logan?” Granted, I’d never been, but I knew enough to be unsettled by my child’s excited response.
“The demons here are really friendly, they put on these crazy shows with all these pyrotechnics—”
“He’s not talking about the punishment of souls, is he?” I asked Dad.
“Logan’s made friends with some imps with a penchant for showmanship.”
“I can’t even begin to imagine.”
“You gotta come see for yourself, Mom,” said Logan.
“Uh, maybe someday,” I said, without much intention of following through. I had little interest in Hell, or Heaven for that matter. I planned to cling to the middle for as long as possible, maybe haunt successive generations of Sandersons as a ghost after I died. Of course, first I needed to secure a future for my son so I might have successive generations. I didn’t want him returning to the middle until I settled a score with a certain rogue faction. The Shade. Though it appeared Logan suffered no lingering trauma from his kidnapping, the sense of helplessness I felt was not as easily forgotten. With my son so far away, my anxiety held steady at a heightened volume, a persistent background noise to all my thoughts. “Just make sure he doesn’t get too chummy with anybody down there,” I told Dad. “Plenty of souls down there he shouldn’t be exposed to. I don’t want that kind of darkness rubbing off on him.”
Dad ruffled Logan’s hair. “He’s seen plenty darkness on the middle already. At least here it’s contextualized. He should know a little of what’s out there, given some of it’s hunting him.”
Logan put on a brave face, but a look in his eye betrayed his fear. Perhaps Dad couldn’t recognize it, but I was his mother. Mothers see all sorts of tells in their children, even when the child doesn’t quite recognize the emotion themselves. Such was the case in Logan, the reality of danger not quite metabolized. He may have escaped unscarred by that warehouse skirmish, but he was starting to understand the size of the world he inhabited, and the unenviable position he occupied near its center. For no other reason than the combined lineage of his parents, Logan found himself in the crosshairs of a violent and powerful cult bent on using his unique powers toward unknown, but assuredly wicked ends. Guilt weighed heavily on me, some of which I forked onto his dead father’s plate for leaving us. If only Kalon were still here…
But he wasn’t. And I had to protect my son. I was prepared to do so by any means necessary. And the sooner the better, so I could return Logan to his normal life here in Jax.
A thousand flecks of golden light shimmered into existence from the pocket of air beside me, coalescing into a fair-skinned brunette dressed in white robes who draped one arm across my shoulders. “Speaking with your son, dear?” Mom asked.
I pinched the material of her robes between thumb and index. “Meeting with the higher ups?”
She sighed. “You know how they are, a bunch of traditionalists.” She pulled a seat up beside me and gazed into the bowl, greeting her husband and grandson with her typical effusive warmth.
“You can take over for me, actually,” I said, making to stand.
“You sure? We can both squeeze in, surely.”
“A body was found on the southwest side, off the 23. I’ve actually got to get going.”
“Oh, that’s a shame.”
I stuck my head over the bowl and pointed at Logan. “Behave yourself, alright? Just because you see demons acting a certain way down there doesn’t mean you can.”
Logan groaned in typical pre-teen fashion, then complied grudgingly. “Alright.”
I smiled. “I love you.”
“Love you, too.”
I kissed my mother on the cheek, snagged my gun and badge, then slipped out the front door.
I made my way across Jax, catching sight of the floodlights from the highway, a bright splotch in the middle of all that dark. The body lay in a field off New World Way, behind the large Bridgestone Distribution Center whose gray wall stood ominous in the black of night. I pulled off the main road, the car jostling as its tires rolled over patches of dead grass thinly covering the dusty earth. I parked as near as I could, a cluster of police vehicles packed in around the site.
The circus was well underway. A host of uniformed officers crowded around the scene like a flock of pigeons descended on a half-eaten sandwich. The sandwich in question this evening was the body of a young male victim, mid-twenties, beaten past the point of identification. As I ducked beneath the police tape and approached the body, I saw his face was nothing more than a collection of welts, purple softballs blooming from his cheeks and forehead with bloody rivulets for stitching. He laid on the ground, limbs splayed haphazardly around him, knees and elbows bent at grotesque angles. He was shirtless, exposing yet more bruises and cuts discoloring his chest and stomach. A pair of gray sweatpants made him half-decent, still a far cry from dignified. As my eyes scanned the ground, I noticed blood splatter dotting the weeds and the soil.
But there would be more yet to see through the lens of magic.
Or so I presumed. Yet, when I extended the slender limbs of my invisible angelic senses and padded them around the space, they returned nothing. Not again. I sniffed the air for remnants of magic, attuned to the scents of paranormals. The night filled only with the collected musk of a couple dozen police officers, laced faintly with the distant trees. Oh wait, there’s something else. The saccharine aroma of a nearby angel preceded Cash as he appeared beside me. “Took you a minute to get over here, huh?”
“I was speaking with my son.” Cash knew of Logan’s whereabouts, the only person outside the family to be entrusted with that information.
“Fair excuse,” he said. “How’s Logan doing?”
I sighed. “He loves Hell.”
Cash snickered. “Boys will be boys, I suppose. Hell has a naughty sort of allure. I imagine there’s neat magic to observe, alongside its main function.”
“Yeah, it’s the latter that displeases me when I think of my son palling around with demons. I don’t want him exposed to that.”
Cash nodded toward the body. “Plenty on the middle to spoil his innocence.”
“Yeah, but when he’s here—” A forensics field agent crouched near the body to photograph the scuffed knuckles of the deceased. She came too close to continue our conversation, so I shut my trap before exposing our supernatural identities to a human. Though, had she heard, she would most likely have thought us crazy. Wouldn’t you? “So, what’ve we got?”
“You’re looking at it, pretty much,” Cash replied. “One victim deceased, a second, badly wounded, carted off to the ICU.”
“A second victim?”
Cash nodded. “Beaten like this one here, but conscious when paramedics arrived. They tried speaking with her, but only managed to get her name, Kristy. She also asked if her twin was okay. She looked to be about the same age, with similar features, so it could be they were indeed twin siblings. But without IDs, we can’t know for certain.”
“We’ll give her the night and see if she’s responsive in the morning. Was anything found on either of them?”
Cash shook his head. “Nothing but their clothes, which appear to be unwashed. The girl wore a tank top and sweatpants the same color as her supposed brother.”
I crossed my arms. “Vagrants?”
“One possible theory.”
“But you don’t buy into it.”
He looked back at me and I saw my suspicions mirrored in his eyes. “A witness called it in. She’s been a little cagey, but it’s nothing for the Randi Sanderson charm treatment.”
“Oh yeah, bucketloads of charm here.”
Cash grinned, then turned to lead me away from the epicenter of activity toward a police cruiser parked beyond the edge of all the commotion. There stood a woman wrapped in a wool blanket, likely borrowed from paramedics, with wide eyes in a ghost-white face. An officer kept her company, though his presence appeared to comfort her little. She’d seen something, and whatever it was rattled her. I suspected it involved magic, judging by the pitch of her fear, ringing like chimes in a hurricane as I listened for it with angelic sensitivity.
When we crossed underneath the police tape, Cash turned to me and said, “No soul traces at the scene.”
“Vampire scent turned up nil. You thinking what I’m thinking?”
He looked at me. He didn’t have to say it. Shade. It was on both our minds, I didn’t have to read his to know. Just like the case that earned us a spot on their s-list, poor Catherine Jacobs, the crime scene was scrubbed clean of magic evidence. This latest murder followed weeks of relative quiet, in which I spent fruitlessly hunting for Shade operatives. Not even staking out Stone Tower proved worthwhile. The bossman himself, Tabas Stone, was nowhere to be seen, nor was his secretary-slash-goon Douglas Roj. Without an available target for my vengeful anger, I coiled it within myself, adding a small dose with every passing day.
The death of a young man shouldn’t have given me any joy, but that coiled anger sensed an opportunity for imminent expression as the murder brought me closer to my enemy. Like a rabid wolf baring its teeth, I could feel something vicious growling inside me. How much longer it would submit to its caging was uncertain.
The witness stood alongside the cruiser, a short, round woman, shivering inside the blanket. She clutched it tightly around herself while her eyes remained fixed on the brightly lit spot of field where the body lay. With a gentle tone, I introduced ourselves. “Hi, my name’s Randi Sanderson, and this is my partner, Cash Bennett. We’re detectives with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Department.”
It took a moment, but her eyes finally snapped to mine. “I’m Evelyn,” she replied in a quavering voice. “Evelyn Harper.”
“Nice to meet you,” said Cash, reaching forth his hand. Evelyn glanced at it, then reluctantly extended her arm from her blanket cocoon to shake it. A sly touch of his calming magic eased some of the tension from Evelyn, enough so that she could stop shivering, at least. Not so much she might swoon, however. Which was a risk I discovered from personal experience. It was a potent mix; tall, fit, and handsome with the ability to replicate the sensation of a hundred massaging jacuzzi jets with the simple touch of his fingertips. As his hand left Evelyn’s, he asked, “What did you see tonight?”
Her eyes passed nervously between us. “I-I…” she stammered. Her mouth opened, then shut. Her eyes fell to the ground where her left shoe brushed idly against her right. “I just saw the two people out there in the field is all. So I called 911.”
A sidelong glance at Cash revealed his mutual skepticism. “Evelyn,” I said. She sheepishly raised her head. With a clear view of her eyes, I had an easier time entering her thoughts. Made weak by fear, she offered no resistance, the tunnel into her mind like a waterslide practically inviting me in. Suddenly floating in the sea of Evelyn’s thoughts, I treaded the waters of recent history, encountering the motions of her daily routine. I watched over Evelyn’s shoulder as she readied herself for the day, still blissfully ignorant of the paranormal at the bleary-eyed hour of 7 AM. She attended work at the distribution center, where she performed her tasks mindlessly, by rote. I saw the clipboard in her hands, the paper with its indecipherable text written in the language of her profession, the utterly uninteresting industry of tire sales. I sensed her focus drifting away from her job, encumbered by the unsolicited advances of her male co-workers. I felt her lack of enthusiasm, the insidious depression creeping into her life as the years hastened their passage, like a calendar caught in a windstorm.
Then, finally, I arrived at the moment of import, as Evelyn left the facility late in the evening, the last of its workforce to do so. As she crossed the parking lot, the asphalt lit dimly by flickering lights dangling high overhead, she noticed a flash of something in the field to her right. She paused, turning her head to squint into the darkness. At first, she dismissed it as a trick of her sluggish brain eager for a meal then sleep. But then it happened again. Turned to face the darkness, she saw a peculiar scene. A host of figures clustered together, their bodies in such frenetic motion that it was difficult to understand precisely what was happening. The only way she could see any of it at all was because of a strange light source in the middle of this ruckus. Squinting, she struggled to ascertain what it was. Is that…is that a fireball?
Except it didn’t flicker in and out of existence, as she might expect from a sudden burst of flame. No, this ball of orange light swung back and forth, and when she scrutinized the image, appeared to be surrounding a fist.
Then things became much clearer. Not only was there a fist wreathed in flame, but there were also strikes of lightning, bizarre shields made from light, and at the center of all this mayhem, two helpless individuals fighting against the onslaught of magic-bearing attackers.
Evelyn watched as the two figures receiving this otherworldly beatdown dropped to the ground. The smaller of the two fell onto their face, while the other dropped to their knees. In defiance of this vicious assault, the second figure appeared to raise fists. They were incapable of swinging them, but nonetheless refusing to cede victory. This act only incurred several more strikes, delivered by the largest of the attackers, a silhouette of frightening dimensions. With his fiery knuckles, he socked the kneeling figure, each punch twisting the person’s head back and forth with dizzying speed.
Finally, the second victim collapsed and Evelyn, fearing for her own life, scurried behind the pole of a lamppost and retrieved her cell phone, pressing the digits 9-1-1.
It was all her memory offered, the rest of it jumbled by terror. I could feel the presence of her fear already contaminating the imagery. Such is the fickle nature of the mind, always twisting the world around its own perverse vision. Evelyn would be forever marred by the event — that is, if it wasn’t altered in her thoughts. Thankfully, I knew a thing or two about altering memories. My growing skillset had been tested on Amber, the lab tech at our police station, with great success. For a whole week, I had her convinced a severed head was an innocent doll so I could have her analyze the noggin for evidence. If I could manage that, I felt confident I could resolve this inconceivable experience for Evelyn.
Like a special effects wizard, I fixed the scene such that magic’s use was erased, leaving only a band of thugs visiting the beating of a lifetime on a pair of unfortunate victims. With delicate fingers, I plucked the fireballs and lightshields out of their hands, dropped in a couple flashlights, and voila. Another Randi Sanderson masterpiece was etched into Evelyn’s memory.
I returned from her mind to watch her facial expressions carefully, acutely aware of its subtle nuances. Her brow furrowed while her eyes blinked, and for a moment I worried the revisions wouldn’t take, like a transplanted organ rejected by its new host. But then she leaned against the police cruiser and I could feel the acceptance of her new memory. She seemed to be more pleased with a rational explanation, something easier to digest.
I gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “Thank you for your time,” I told her. “You’ve been a great help.”
“Of course,” I said with a wink.
As Cash and I turned back to the crime scene, I glared past the lights and the cops and forensics specialists gathering their evidence. In the dark backdrop, a host of trees swayed in a night breeze. “Back there,” I said, “in the forest. I think there’s an old bunker, used back in the day to store nuclear weapons.”
Cash nodded. “I remember. It was abandoned in the eighties, right?”
“I want to check it out.” Call it vampiric senses, angelic precognition, woman’s intuition — I had a detective’s hunch I needed to satisfy.