The Phoenix Chronicles Book #2


   A month ago I put a stake through the heart of the only man I’ve ever loved. Luckily, or not, depending on the day and my mood, that wasn’t enough to kill him.

   I found myself the leader of a band of seers and demon killers at the dawn of the Apocalypse. Turns out a lot of that Biblical prophecy crap is true.

   I consider it both strange and frightening that I was chosen to lead the final battle between the forces of good and evil. Until last month I’d been nothing more than a former cop turned bartender.

   Oh, and I was psychic. Always had been.

   Not that being psychic had done anything for me except lose me the only job I wanted—being a cop—and the only man too, the aforementioned extremely-hard-to-kill Jimmy Sanducci. It had also gotten my partner killed, something I had yet to get over despite his wife’s insistence that it hadn’t been my fault.

   In an attempt to pay a debt I could never truly pay, I’d taken a job as the first-shift bartender in a tavern owned by the widow, Megan Murphy. I also found myself best friends with the woman. I’m not quite sure how.

   After last month’s free-for-all of death and destruction, I’d come home to Milwaukee to try and figure out what to do next. Three-quarters of my doomsday soldiers were dead and the rest were in hiding. I had no way of finding them, no way of knowing who they even were unless I found Jimmy. That was proving more difficult than I’d thought.

   While I hung out and waited for the psychic flash that would make all things clear, I went back to work at Murphy’s. A girl had to eat and pay the mortgage. Amazingly, being the leader of the supernatural forces of sunshine—I’m kidding, we’re actually called the federation—didn’t pay jack shit.

   On the night all hell broke loose—again—I was working a double shift. The evening bartender had come down with a case of the “I’d rather be at Summerfest” blues, and I couldn’t walk out at the end of my scheduled hours and leave Megan alone to deal with the dinner rush.

   Not that there was much of one. Summerfest, Milwaukee’s famous music festival on the lake, drew most of the party crowd. A few off-duty cops drifted in now and then—they were the mainstay of Megan’s business—but in truth, Murphy’s was the emptiest I’d ever seen it. Which made it easy for the woman who appeared at dusk to draw my attention.

   She strolled in on dangerously high heels—tall and slim and dark. Her hair was up in a fancy twist I’d never have been able to manage, even if my own was longer than the nape of my neck. Her white suit made her bronze skin and the copper pendant revealed by the plunging neckline of her jacket gleam in the half-light.

   Megan took one look, rolled her eyes, and retreated to the kitchen. She had no patience for lawyers. Did anyone? This woman’s clothes, heels, carriage screamed “bloodsucker.” In my world, there was always great concern that the term was literal. I nearly laughed out loud when she ordered Cabernet.

   “With that suit?” I asked.

   Her lips curved; her perfectly plucked eyebrows lifted past the rims of her self-regulating sunglasses, which had yet to lighten even though she’d stepped indoors. I could see only the shadow of her eyes beyond the lenses. Brown, perhaps black. Definitely not blue like mine.

   The cheekbones and nose hinted at Native American blood somewhere in her past. Though she probably knew the origin of hers, I did not. Who I’d been before I’d become Elizabeth Phoenix was as much a mystery to me as the identity of my parents.

   “You think I’d spill a single drop?” she murmured in a smoky voice.

   How could something sound like smoke? I’d never understood that term. But as soon as she spoke, it suddenly became clear to me. She sounded like a gray, hot mist that could kill you.

   “You from around here?” I asked.

   Murphy’s, located in the middle of a residential area, wasn’t exactly a tourist attraction. The place was as old as the city and had been a tavern all of its life. Back in the day, fathers would finish their shifts at the factories, then stop by for a brew before heading home. They’d come in after dinner and watch the game, or retreat here if they’d fought with the wife or had enough of the screaming kids.

   Such establishments could be found all over Milwaukee, hell, all over Wisconsin. Bar, house, bar, house, house, house, another bar. In Friedenberg, where I lived, about twenty miles north of the city, there were five bars in the single mile square village.

   Walking more than a block for a beer? It just wasn’t done.

   “I’m from everywhere.”  The stranger sipped the wine.

   A bit clung to her lip. Gravity pulled it downward, the remaining moisture pooling into a droplet the shade of blood. Her tongue snaked out and captured the bead before it fell on the pristine white lapel of her suit. I had a bizarre flash of Snow White.

   “Or maybe it’s nowhere." She tilted her head. “You decide."

   I was starting to get uneasy. She might be beautiful, but she was weird. Not that we didn’t get weirdoes in the bar every day. But there was usually a cop or ten around.

   Sure, I’d once been a cop, but I wasn’t anymore. And pretty much everyone, even Megan, frowned on bartenders pulling a gun on the clientele. Of course, if she wasn't human—

   My fingers stroked the solid silver knife I hid beneath my ugly green uniform vest as I waited for some kind of sign.

   The woman reached again for her wine. Contrary to her earlier assertion, she knocked it over. The ruby-red liquid sloshed across the bar, pooling at the edge before dripping onto the floor.

   I should have been diving for a towel; instead I found myself fascinated by the shimmering puddle, which reflected the dim lights and the face of the woman. The shiny dark surface leached the color from everything, not that there’d been all that much color to her in the first place. Black hair, white suit, light brown skin.

   Slowly I lifted my gaze. The glasses had cleared. I could see her eyes. I’d seen them before—in the face of a woman of smoke who’d been conjured from a bonfire in the New Mexico desert. No wonder she hid them behind dark lenses. Those eyes would scare the pants off of anyone who looked directly into them. I was surprised I hadn’t been turned to stone. They held eons of hate, centuries of evil, millennia of joy in the act of murder with a dash of madness on the side.

   I drew my knife, threw it—I ought to be able to hit her in such close quarters—but she snatched the weapon out of the air with freakishly fast fingers.

   “Shit,” I said.

   Smirking, she returned the knife—straight at my head. I ducked, and the thing stuck in the wall behind me with a thunk and a boing worthy of any cartoon soundtrack.

   I straightened, meaning to grab the weapon and leap over the bar. I had supernatural speed and strength of my own. But the instant my head cleared wood, she grabbed me by the neck and hauled me across, breaking bottles, knocking glasses everywhere.

   “Liz?” Megan called.

   I opened my mouth to shout, “Run!” and choked instead as the woman squeezed.

   She lifted her gaze to where Megan must surely be. I wanted to say, “Don’t look at her,” but speech was as beyond me as breathing.

   I heard a whoosh and then a thud, like a body sliding down a wall to collapse on the floor. Had the woman of smoke killed Megan with a single glance? I wouldn’t put it past her.

   I pulled at her hands, tugged on her fingers, managed to loosen her hold enough by breaking a few to gulp several quick breaths.

   What had happened? The woman of smoke was obviously a minion of evil out to kill me. Being the leader of the light, in a battle with the demon horde, seemed to have put a great big, invisible target on my back.

   However, the other times I’d always had a warning—what I called a ghost whisper. The voice of the woman who’d raised me, Ruthie Kane—whose death had set this whole mess in motion—would tell me what kind of creature I was facing. Even if I didn’t know how to kill it—and considering that I’d been dropped into this job with no training, that was usually the case—I still preferred advance notice of impending bloody death rather than having bloody death sprung upon me.

   I tried to think. It was amazingly hard without oxygen.

   The woman of smoke had grabbed my silver knife, and her fingers hadn’t sprung out in a rash. Not a shape-shifter, or at least not a common one such as a werewolf. When you mix silver and werewolves, you usually wind up with ashes.

   Her strength hinted at vampire, though most of those would just tear out my throat and have a nice, relaxing bath in my blood. Still—

   I let go of her arm and tore open my uniform so that Ruthie’s silver crucifix spilled free. Vampires tended to flip when they saw the icon, not because of the shape, or the silver, but because of the blessing upon it. She didn’t even blink. I pressed it to her wrist anyway.

   Nothing. Not a vampire.

   She stilled. The pressure on my throat eased; the black spots cleared from in front of my eyes. She stared at my chest and not with the fascinated expression I often got after opening my shirt. If I did say so myself, my breasts weren’t bad. However, I’d never had a woman this interested in them. I didn’t like it any more than I liked her.

   “Where did you get that?” Her eyes sparked; I could have sworn I saw flames leap in the center of all that black.

   “Th-the crucifix is—”

   “A crucifix can’t stop me.”  She yanked it from my neck, tossing the treasured memento aside.

   “Hey!” I tore her amulet off the same way.

   The very air seemed to still, yet my hair stirred in an impossible wind.

   Dreadful One, Ruthie whispered at last. Naye’i.

   A Naye’i was a Navajo spirit. I’d heard of them before. Several puzzle pieces suddenly fit together with a nearly audible click.

   The woman of smoke backed away, staring at the stone I had recently strung on its own chain rather than continuing to let it share Ruthie’s.

   “You don’t like my turquoise.”

   Her gaze lifted from the necklace to my face. All I could see between the narrowed lids was a blaze of orange flame. “That isn’t yours.”

   “I know someone who’d say differently.” My hand inched toward the blue-green gem. “The someone who gave it to me. I think you call him ‘son’.”

   As soon as my fingers closed around it, the turquoise went white hot, and the Naye’i snarled like the demon she was, then turned to smoke and disappeared.