New Orleans, Louisiana
September 18, 2014
“You know, Selena, there’s a fine line between important to me, and dead to me. And you’re currently stomping all over it.”
Standing in the hallway, next to a stack of boxes, Selena Laurens laughed at her cousin’s surly tone. “That’s all right, Jo- Jo. Just remember with our Cajun- Romani blood, even if I’m dead to you, in either realm, you’ll still be able to hear me. I will haunt you forever.”
Josette Landry cringed at a childhood nickname that had always made her feel like a yappy Pomeranian. Normally, she’d correct Selena’s usage, but at this point, she was too tired and soul- sick to bother. “Look, the only thing I want to summon right now is a trip to Baskin- Robbins. So unless you’ve got a quart of creamy goodness in your purse, stop talking and start driving.” Jo gently tugged Selena toward the door and ignored the bells that jingled from the hem of Selena’s silver and purple broomstick skirt. A self- proclaimed fortune- teller, her cousin bought into the weirdness of their gypsy heritage lock, stock, and both flaming barrels.
Jo paused as she swept a glance from the top of Selena’s long, curly brown hair, white peasant blouse, and loud, statement moon necklace to her Birkenstock sandals.
Take that back. Selena didn’t buy into it, she rolled around in the bad ste reo type like a happy piglet in a mud factory.
Selena snorted. “Drowning your problems in Rock ’n Pop Swirl sherbet isn’t going to solve anything.”
“Forget sherbet. This day calls for Strawberry Cheesecake with fudge sauce . . . triple scoops. Now mush!”
“You’ll hate yourself in the morning.”
“I hate myself right now. At least let me hate my life with the happy memory of yummy, frozen happiness in my bulging belly.”
“Fine,” Selena groused. “I’ll even pay for it.”
“Of course you will.” Jo pulled her tattered messenger bag over her shoulder. “I’m broke.”
Selena snorted again as she dug her huge, fluffy key ring out of her hippie wicker handbag. “You’re not right, are you?”
“I’m genetically linked to your branch of the family. Of course I’m not all right. I’ll never be all right.”
Shaking her head, Selena waited while Jo locked her apartment door, though why she bothered, she had no idea. The only thing of value was her three dogs. And if the burglars were toting Beggin’ Strips, they’d happily abandon her without a fight. Evil drooling canine snots.
Jo caught a glimpse of the boxes she’d been packing through the window and winced. If her lifelong run of bad luck didn’t change soon, she would be out on the street and she’d be forced to turn her beloved dogs over to a shelter.
Or worse, her older sister.
How could it have come to this? This was not supposed to be her life. She’d never been irresponsible. While other kids went out drinking and partying, she’d stayed home and studied hard. Graduated at the top of her class. She’d scrimped and saved, and had lost her entire nest egg on lawyer fees when she’d divorced her husband for refusing to work. The reason being that if Barry Riggio was working, he wouldn’t have time to screw other women in their bed, while Jo slaved away at two jobs to support them!
Yeah. She’d never felt more betrayed or hurt. I won’t ever trust another man again.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, corporate downsizing had cost her her day job, and she’d lost her night job six weeks ago after the factory had burned down from a freak electrical fire. Overwhelmed by the failure of her life and ambitions, Jo turned toward the street and headed for the curb where Selena’s Jeep was parked. If only Selena’s husband and his law firm handled divorces, it might have saved her something. But Bill’s specialty was corporate and criminal law, not family law. And while his attorney friend had given her a discounted rate, it’d still taken every dime of her savings to offload the cheating freeloader.
“What am I going to do, Lainie?”
Selena opened the car door for her. “Breathe, honey. This too shall pass. In the meantime I can—”
“I will not take a loan from you. Ever!”
“Will you take a job?”
Jo waited until Selena got into the Jeep on the other side before she responded. “I can’t read tea leaves or palms. And if you put me in your store, be warned, I’m not sure I can leash my sarcasm.”
“Yeah, I know you and retail are a bad combination. Your uncle Jacob is still railing at family get- togethers about the one day you spent working in his garage.”
“Don’t be so melodramatic . . . I only worked there for two hours before Aunt Paulina gave me the heave- ho.”
Selena burst out laughing. “My point exactly. Anyway, as I value my customer base and respect them highly, I have no intention of putting you behind a counter where you’ll singlehandedly drive my business into the gutter. What I have for you, Ms. Snark ’Ems, is to do what you do best. Work as a camerawoman.”
Jo perked up immediately. “Oh? Really?”
Selena nodded as she navigated through traffi c. “There’s only one small catch.”
“Ah, gah, I knew it! It’s for a porn site, isn’t it?”
“No!” Selena screwed her face up, then appeared to consider it. “Although, knowing you, you’d probably prefer the porn over this assignment.”
A sick feeling settled in Jo’s stomach as she realized it had to be something paranormal, and dumber than dumb’s widow’s doorknob. “What?”
“I have some friends . . .”
“No! I’ve met your friends. I’d rather work at Tabitha’s triple- X-rated store, sorting glittered pasties and edible thongs.”
“I can arrange that, too. Just remember, you have to learn the difference between K-Y and—”
“Stop! Right there! I don’t want to know about your sister’s depravity. I’m still scarred from the story she told of finding someone’s dentures in the back thong drawer.”
“You’re such a prude.”
“Me and Amanda. The sole bastions of nonlunacy in along line of certifiable nutsos.”
Selena paused at a light to glare at her. “Do you want me to tell you about the job or not?”
“Fine,” Jo conceded reluctantly. “I’ll listen, and at least I can jump out of the car from here and walk back.”
Selena snorted. “My friends are trying to get their own cable show.”
Jo suddenly regretted her snottiness. “That actually sounds promising. What kind of show?”
“Hell’s Calling. The Women of Demonology and Possession.”
“Hello, detour back to the No-way-in-hell-will-I-do-this exit ramp.”
“Fine.” Selena turned left. “Just out of curiosity, I know it’s been almost fi ve months, but have you told your parents yet about the divorce, and your foreclosure notice?”
“I hate you, Selena.”
“No, you don’t. You love me with the passion of a thousand paparazzi after an Emma Stone exclusive.”
Jo blew her cousin a raspberry. “You keep believing those lies.”
“Not lies. I’m psychic. I know.”
Amused and disgusted, Jo rolled her eyes. As much as she hated to admit it, Selena was right. She loved and adored her quacky older cousin more than anything. Lunacy and all. “How much does this job pay? And when would they want me to start?”
“If they could find a reliable, unflappable cameraperson, they’d start tomorrow. But everyone they’ve brought onsite has fled screaming in fifteen minutes or less.”
Wow, that was impressive. Even for Selena’s group of special weirdos. “Are they that hard to work with?”
“No. They’re actually quite lovely. . . . The place they’re investigating is that haunted.”
This time, Jo gave in and burst out laughing. “You’re not serious?”
“And where are they investigating? The LaLaurie mansion?”
Selena shook her head. “Karma’s house.”
It figured. In their long familial line of peculiar characters and those willing to believe in fl ying fairies, alien possessions, and Santa Claus, Karma Devereaux was Queen Lunatica . . . the woman had even nicknamed her own son E.T. and the kid’s real name was Ian.
“Lainie, if I roll my eyes any farther back in my head, I’ll probably swallow them.”
Selena reached over and playfully Gibbs-slapped her.
“You needed it. Besides, that cynicism will serve us well. We need someone who doesn’t spook onsite with the camera.”
“Yes, well, having survived many a sleepover and family reunion with you bunch of loons, I’m immune to most anything. Aunt Xilla not included.”
“Good. I’ll call everyone and tell them to be at Karma’s by eleven tomorrow. Will that work for you?”
“Maybe.” Jo narrowed her gaze on Selena as she pulled up to Baskin-Robbins. “You still haven’t told me how much I’ll make for this misbegotten journey to the Armpit of Hades, AKA Karma’s.”
“Three hundred and fifty a day, plus meals.”
Jo gaped. “You’re joshing me.”
“Nope. That’s what we’ve had to go up to, to entice anyone to the job. But we have yet to pay anyone more than twenty bucks for their fifteen-minute appearance, and most have told us to keep our money because they’re afraid it’s cursed or haunted, too.”
Jo scoffed at the paranoia. “What a bunch of superstitious pansies. . . .” But that might be a good thing for her. “You think I can get four hundred a day?”
“At this point? Probably.” Selena reached for her phone.
“I’ll text Mama Lisa and find out.”
“All right. You get me that, and you have a fearless photographer, camerawoman, gofer, janitor . . . what ever.”
“Would you be willing to spend the night there, too?”
“No,” Jo said emphatically.
Selena looked up from the phone with an arched brow. “I thought you weren’t afraid.”
“Not afraid of ghosts or demons. I’m terrifi ed of Karma. No offense, your sister’s crazy.”
“Yes, she is. Honestly, she scares me, too.” Selena’s smile widened. “Mama Lisa agrees to your price. She said that if you’ll actually make it through three days of fi lming, there’s a thousand- dollar bonus for you.”
Jo was almost ecstatic. Until the reality fairy came and slapped her. Suddenly terrified, she started searching the sky above them.
“What’s that look mean?” Selena asked as she, too, searched the heavens.
“Things are going too good.” She slid her gaze back to her cousin. “I’m waiting for lightning to strike me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s a perfectly sunny day.”
“Yeah, and hell’s just a hot tub. I’m telling you, Lainie, something real bad’s going to happen. I know it.”
’Cause from the moment of her first breath, she’d been cursed. And nothing ever worked out for her.
Karma Devereaux sighed heavily as she heard her son’s call from the hallway upstairs. She stepped out of her living room to look up at the landing. “I’m a little busy, Boo. What do you need?”
As her twelve-year-old leaned over the balustrade to look down at her, his dark curls were a mess around his head as if he’d been out in a wind. Something strange, since it’d been a warm day with little breeze. “You know this freaky- creepy weird vase up here that has that moon rune writing on it? The one you told me to never touch?”
The blood left her face. “You didn’t touch it, did you?”
“Nope. But Rug made another break for freedom and when I cornered him in the room I’m not supposed to be in, I saw it on the fl oor, broken. And I swear to all that is holy, neither me nor the hamster did it. It looks like it’s been done.”
Terrified for her son, Karma ran up the stairs as fast as she could. “Did you touch anything?”
E.T. held up the hamster cuddled in his hands. “Just Rug.”
“Put him in his cage.” She waited for her son to leave before she entered the room cautiously. Dread consumed her, and as soon as she saw the broken vase, she knew why. That hadn’t fallen on the floor and broken by accident.
Something had caused it to shatter.
And that explained why there’d been so much activity in her house lately. Why everyone new ran screaming for the door.
One of the oldest, deadliest beings in the universe had been set loose.
Sick to her stomach, she pulled her phone from her pocket and dialed the number of last resort.
Zeke answered on the first ring. “Pest Control by Zeke Jacobson. What’s eating your soul today?”
“You’re really not funny.”
He ignored her droll tone. “Karma? That you?”
“Yeah. We got a problem, buddy, and I need the cavalry.”
“What’d you do now?”
“I swear I didn’t do this. I’m really not sure how this happened, but . . . Valac escaped.”
“Please tell me that when you say that, you mean he’s slamming at your doors and wants out to play. Not that he’s out, out, as in out.”
“He gone. High-tailed. Skedaddled. I didn’t even know he’d broken loose. No idea when he took off.”
“Was he summoned?”
She toed at the vase. “Yeah,” she breathed. “But how did they get to him past my protection?”
“No idea. But they had to be strong and fierce in their own right. Given that, I’ve got to call out the heavy artillery.”
“You are the heavy artillery, Zeke. Isn’t that the whole point of a Necrodemian? You kill the big evil.”
“Yes and no. There are roughly one hundred known demons who are beyond our abilities to battle and kill. Those who have origins so powerful and old that they have been sealed away and are supposed to stay there. For this level of demon, we need nuclear-devastation capabilities. Only one of his ilk can battle him and put him back in his bottle without dying in the process.”
“Wait. You’re not proposing we summon a stronger, more evil demon to capture him?”
Zeke was about to draw Thorn into a horrific mess. More than anyone, Karma knew what a bad idea that was. The last thing Thorn needed was temptation. Everyday, he was slipping toward the realm of his father, she could feel it every time they talked. But Zeke was right. What choice did they have?
“Yeah, we don’t call the Hellchasers out often. They’re like rabid dogs, and we’re usually fighting them as well as the gruesomes. However, it’s the only option in this case. Unless you want Valac free to roam, and I don’t think that’s a good idea, especially with Halloween coming. Just hang tight, and I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Karma hung up the phone as she scanned the room where she ware housed and cleansed some of the scariest relics and items in the paranormal realm. She’d never wanted to keep Valac, but when her sister Tiyana had died, she’d inherited his guardianship. Tiyana had made her promise that should anything happen to her, Karma wouldn’t entrust his container to anyone else. Not for any reason.
Now . . .
Please don’t let this be the worst mistake of my life.