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Release Day with David Green's Nick Holleran Series




Double release day for David Green's Nick Holleran Series.


This series is the perfect blend of Supernatural and the Dresden Files. This dark private detective, urban fantasy series hits all the notes with otherworldly lore and a deeply flawed main character with a knack for getting into trouble.


You will love this series and now is the perfect time to dive right into it. Each book in the series, including the special edition books one and two, are only .99 each!



Here is a sneak peek of the first few chapters of the Prequel "The Darkness in the Pines"


PROLOGUE

CATCHING UP

You might say my life changed the day I died, and forgive me if you’ve heard this part of the tale before, but humor me, would you? I’m a dead man walking after all, and I think I’ve earned a little patience when I spout on about my problems.

Can’t say I saw it coming, my death, but the end comes for us all, right? Not how I’d imagined it, lying in a dirty alleyway with three gaping holes in my chest, but what other full stop stops a PI in their tracks? I went from bleeding rivers in the gutter to floating above my body in the slow blink of an eye. Draped in a warm, bright light. Confusion and regret shot through my consciousness as I watched my white shirt bloom with crimson and tears leaking from my own unseeing, glazed over eyes.

Watching yourself die? Don’t recommend it.

Regret only grew when a woman—a complete stranger—raced to my side, her long, cashmere coat wicking filth from the floor of the alley. I watched, helpless, as she shrugged off that fancy coat and pressed it to the wounds, holding the blood inside that sack of meat and bones. Her dark eyes stayed focused, despite the panic.

Her voice called to me, told me to hold on.

Right then, I didn’t think I wanted to. Hold on, that is. Death called, and I answered. Hence the regret.

The light around me grew brighter, warmer. No words whispered in my ears, but I understood. Heaven pulled me outta the gutter. Me? Never thought I’d be the type. Wouldn’t exactly say I believed in the great ever after, and I enjoyed my share of vices. Go figure, the Lord works in mysterious ways et cetera, et cetera.

My meat sack had other ideas, the fading puppet of flesh, bone, sinew and blood wanted to live. It pulled at me as the woman staunched the bleeding and turned to dial 911. She wouldn’t let me die without a fight and I hovered there, between life and death. I didn’t want to go back to that broken shell, to the life I’d left behind, but I couldn’t move on. She wouldn’t let me. Hell, I wouldn’t let me, not when I really thought about it and a sliver of cold spoiled the all-enveloping warmth. Give in? Nah, ain’t my style. I refused to lie down among the trash and float away.

The light sang to me still, even with the growing cold. Caressed me, tempted me…right up until it didn’t. The paramedics arrived in record time, and coaxed my body back to life. They coaxed me back into my body. The woman kept me alive long enough to save me. A miracle, they told her.

I’m not so sure. Before I faded into living unconsciousness, relief spread in my ruined chest. But the regret didn’t leave. When the fuck does regret stop gnawing so easily? Never, and mine only grew.

What happens to a man once he knows Heaven exists, and that he missed out? That, if it hadn’t been for the kindness of strangers and skill of healthcare professionals, he could’ve gone to that bright and beautiful afterlife and left all this behind? And let me tell you, those thoughts, those ideas, those regrets only grow with every bad fucking day, and I’ve had my share since. Because life ain’t what I thought it was. The world ain’t.

The day I left the hospital—after operations, rehabilitation, and a bill I’ll be paying the rest of my second life—I discovered Hell exists too.

We’re living there. I don’t say that figuratively either, Earth is literally Hell, minus the constant fire and brimstone, though I reckon you’d find some easy enough.

Heaven and Hell. Both real. Who knew? Plenty will say they did, but never like this. God’s domain is up above, but the Underworld sure as shit ain’t beneath us. It surrounds us. Spirits and demons. Monsters and nephilim. Fae and gnarly artifacts. Everything you ever read about or saw on the silver or small screen is real, though not in the way you might expect.

Except for werewolves. Those hairy assholes are purely fictional.

Once I got used to life in this fresh reality, if you can ever get ‘used’ to realizing you’re living in this god forsaken hell hole—again, literally—I started taking cases again. What can I say, old habits die hard. Sue me. Once a P.I., always a P.I. This tale I’m about to tell you is one of them, back from the early days when the flesh behind my ears was painfully wet, and I thought, like a goddamn fool, that I had a handle on this place.

You see, I needed to work. Still had bills, Hell doesn’t ease up any once you know, everything down here still has a price. But I had to gain some control over my situation, too. Shit, over myself. What else could I do? Become a psychic? The thought did occur, more than once. But taking people for a ride? Exploiting them? Probably breaks a commandment, right?

What’s more, I wanted to know. Needed to find a reason as to why. Still do. I needed to find out what the… ahem… Hell is going on with this place, why we’re all stuck down here, the living, dead and everything else, and I wanted to keep my nose clean.

Heaven exists, and I want to make sure I got a place there when I punch out. Let me tell you, I’m not spending my entire existence in Hell. No way, no how. Some of the ghosts down here don’t see anything but the loops they’re stuck in, they ain’t what we call Aware, but I would be, and if I have to spend every moment of my existence until Armageddon in Hell, you can bet your ass I’ll complain about it with every non-breath my specter don’t breathe.

Anyway, yeah, I worked a lot of cases before the ones you already heard about; the Wheelers, Diana Charles and that sick business surrounding her, but here’s one from the early days that sticks in the memory, and it don’t start with me covered in glory. Back in those days, I never really was, no matter if I thought so.

Whiskey Pete’s… A name I can never think about without shivering, without glancing over my shoulder in case someone’s watching me.

Hey, this is Hell after all. Can’t rule it out…

CHAPTER ONE

WELCOME TO HELL

JANUARY, 2020: FOUR YEARS BEFORE DEAD MAN WALKING AND THE DEVIL WALKS IN BLOOD

I’m sitting at my usual table in the Styx’s basement floor, the place where the magic happens. The place where those who See come.

And the rest. By rest, I mean the dead, the demonic, the angelic, and anything in between. Don’t believe me? Right now, while I’m waiting to meet a client, deciding to take my business outta the office for a change, I’m watching the Styx’s owner, Ruby, hold court to a group of Puca. Heard of those guys? Fantastical creatures from Celtic mythology, said to be bringers of good and bad omens in equal share, ‘cos you better believe the little bastards love balance.

In reality, they just love their fucking drink. For short asses, they can really drink, too. Ruby sighs when the group of five yell out their new order, and she scoots to grab five full bottles of Jameson. That’s whisky with an ‘e’, the Puca tell anyone who’ll listen, and I should know, my old man being Irish and all. Or was. He’s down here too. Somewhere. Ain’t been back to my old town to check, and I don’t plan on it, neither. In a place where the dead walk, at least I can kill the past.

Anyway.

“No trouble tonight, Nick.” Ruby jabs a finger at me as she heads back to the bar, the pack of Puca already chugging their bottles.

“Who? Me?” I ask, raising my eyebrows.

Ruby pauses, hands on hips. “Yes, you. I like you, honey, and I’ve enjoyed talking to you these last months since I found you… But you attract trouble. Last time you were here—”

“Hey, that wasn’t my fault, Rubes!” I protest, spreading my hands. “How was I supposed to know Camazotz don’t like being stared at in the eyes?”

“You could ask your pal Harry for a start,” Ruby counters, and she’s right. Harry and his wife Maeve are Truthers. Folk who know all about Hell and have done all their lives, pretty much. Truthers are folk who usually pass their knowledge on through their families. To add to that, he can See like I can, and she’s a ghost. Ain’t hindered their marriage, though. They’ve been together for decades through life and death. A benefit of Hell, I guess. Ruby clicks her fingers under my nose, snatching my attention from where it wandered. “Plus, Camazotz have horns, wings, and massive claws. You think you’d be a little more circumspect around them.”

Ruby would mention Harry and Maeve. She’s the one who introduced us, and I ain’t stopped being thankful for that.

“Well, fuck me for being shocked at seeing one taking a load off at the bar, Rubes,” I mutter, then grin at her, my smile all lopsided and charming-like. That’s what I tell myself when I try it out in the mirror, anyway. “Look, I’m just here to mediate for a client. That’s all.”

Ruby barks out a laugh filled with such disbelief it actually wounds me. “Mediate? You? Couldn’t you have done it somewhere else? I mean it, I don’t want any trouble.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.” Honestly. “Look, I’m trying to make a living here, and it ain’t easy for someone new to Hell.”

“Alright, alright. I get it.” Ruby holds up a hand. “Seen lots of folk like you, doing what I do, reaching out to those just able to See when I hear about them in Haven. I know it takes some getting used to, so I have to give you credit for keeping up with the old P.I. work. People need the help. I’m just saying, if this doesn’t work out, I could always do with a new set of hands behind the bar, and you’re certainly pretty enough when you aren’t grinning like a fool.”

I fix her with my hardest stare, but I can’t keep the smile from forming on my lips. “I’ll bear it in mind.”

She waltzes away, nodding and waving at her other customers, both living or otherwise. Met Ruby a while back. Well, more accurately, she reached out to me after my trip down an alleyway to meet the muzzle of Dean Wheeler’s gun and I started asking questions about my new take on reality. Scratching at the scars on my chest under my shirt, I smile as she laughs at a joke from Jim, a skinwalker, who right now is in his animal form, standing on his hindlegs while wearing a full tweed suit.

That took a lot of fucking getting used to, I’ll tell you that. Thank fuck Jim didn’t take exception at a few stares his way. And by few, I mean a lot.

Anyway, Ruby’s over sixty now, and has Seen since she was a girl. She runs the Styx, a normal enough bar for the goths upstairs but for those down here in the basement? It’s a hub of information and a place of operations for her, and a joint for folk like me and the denizens of Hell to kick back and forget our worries. Years back, Rubes made it her task to find anyone new to this plane of existence in the Haven area, and she’s good people. Really good fucking people.

So that’s why the Styx gets all sorts of clientele. You got people like me, folk who lived their, in my case, almost forty years without blinking an eye at the real world we lived in, who died for reasons folk die for, only to come back. Then you got folk who’ve been brought up with knowledge, folk like Harry, who grew up in a Truther family. He died himself, of course, only to get a second chance, but he had the truth of it all before that. Hence the name.

Then you’ve got ghosts. These come in two types, generally. Aware and Unaware. Simple, right? They do function exactly as you’d expect, too. Aware types see the world around them, can interact with others of Hell, sometimes the living too, though they ain’t really all that interested. Some of them are, and they’re Malevolents. Nasty fuckers that need putting down. Back to the Unaware, though. These poor sonsofbitches I feel sorry for. They don’t know they’re dead. These damned souls just relive flickers of their lives, usually the ends of it, endlessly on loop for eternity. Harry says some can spring Awareness, but most don’t if they haven’t before getting stuck on repeat. Then there’s a whole bunch who just stand in silence. Or drift. Whatever takes their fancy. They don’t talk, and they don’t react, no matter how hard I try. There’s one in my office, and I gave up trying to talk to her a few months back.

These ghosts all have one thing in common, though. They’re sinners, and they ain’t got a place in Heaven. They’re stuck in Hell unless they turn Malevolent and someone like me has to Expunge them. That’s a technical term for ‘using a badass Hell-created relic called an Expunger to unravel their being from reality’.

Alongside them in Hell, there’s everything else. Nephilim, demons, Puca, the Loch Ness Monster, Mothman, fae… Basically, if you’ve read about it, it exists. Except for werewolves. So Harry and Meave say, anyway.

Why? Beats me. No one seems to know. Have we always lived in Hell, cast out from Heaven to stare up at the unseen gates from below? Humans slumming it beside the dead, fantastic, weird, and gnarly, blissfully blind to it all? Again, no idea, but I aim to find out. But, even in Hell, there’s bills to pay, so I gotta work. All the while keeping my nose clean, so I got a ticket out of here when the time comes.

Now I know Heaven’s real, I’d like to go there when I shed my mortal fucking coil. I’ve seen the alternative.

“Nick Holleran?” A shadow crosses my table at the same time as the nervy voice pulls me from my thoughts. “The Paranormal Investigator?”

“Haven’s one and only,” I reply, leaning back in my chair and grinning. “You must be Austin Phillips. I’ll have another bourbon. No ice.”

“This time of day?” Austin replies, frowning around at the bar, eyes lingering on the Puca.

“Isn’t any hour Happy Hour?”

Austin turns and calls an order over to Ruby before dropping into his seat. “Never been here before. Or any place like it.”

“Yeah?” I raise an eyebrow. “How come? You new to all this?”

“No, it’s not that. I live in Los Angeles.”

“L.A. to Haven? Quite a step down, hoss. Oregon cold enough for ya this time of year?”

“Plenty cold. Anyway, it’s not like I planned it, Holleran,” Austin mutters. “I got a little in over my head.”

Ruby places my bourbon on the table and slides it over, then, with a smile, gives Austin a cappuccino.

“Ah yes, your problem,” I reply, taking a sip and folding my arms. “I’m all ears. Tell me about this little disagreement you have. To be honest buddy, I wasn’t gonna take your job. I like specifics, but then with the money you’re offering…”

“Figured you needed it seeing as you won’t return calls.”

“Look, cell and landline rates ain’t cheap in Haven, pal,” I snap, all defensive-like. “And I don’t exactly have folk battering down my office door offering me work.”

“I didn’t mean any offense.” Austin takes a sip from his cappuccino, the foam sticking to his dark beard. I study him for a moment. The fella’s handsome enough, around thirty-five, but anxiety’s eating away at him. It makes his hands shake, causes his red-ringed eyes to dart around. Puts sweat on his brow. There’s hope in those eyes, though. He’s come to me to fix his problems. “You got the first half, right?”

“Yeah.” I rest my elbow on the table, pointing at him like I’m Harrison Ford. “You said I’d get the rest when we meet.”

Austin nods, fumbling in his pocket for his cell, extra careful not to touch something else in there. Interesting. I pick up on these kinds of things; before I entered the Paranormal Investigator racket, I made a living keeping my investigations private, if you catch my drift.

“Six-hundred dollars,” Austin mutters, thumbing into his cell. “And I won’t charge you for the bourbon.”

He’s about to hit send, I raise my hand. “Wait. I ain’t taking all your money without finding out what you want from me first. Just making sure you were gonna pay and not stiff me. What’s the problem, hoss?”

Austin glances up, meeting my eyes, and places the cell down. “What do you know about Djinn?”

“Djinn?” The word comes out as a half laugh. “Like the genie from Aladdin? Big, blue, and Robin Williams?”

Austin scowls. “Your website says you know all about these things? You said on the phone you have experience in all of the denizens of Hell! I wired you six hundred large just to meet with you!”

I wipe the grin off my mug and raise my palms, trying to placate the guy. I got a history at rubbing folk up the wrong way even if I don’t mean to. A Djinn, though… People have accused me of all sorts throughout my life, and most crimes leveled against me have been plain wrong. Insultingly so, in some cases. However, more than once, I’ve been called sloppy, and those folk ain’t wrong. To say I’ve boned up about my new existence aside from coming to terms with the surface-level shit would be a lie. Studying ain’t ever been my strong point, and dying for a little while hasn’t changed that. Well, I seem to be getting on just dandy so far. Why change the habit of a lifetime? I learn better from doing, and I’ve been around the block more than once since reawakening in Hell.

“Djinn,” I say, once Austin’s scowl fades away. “Sure. Yeah, I know about them. Anything you read about is real in Hell, right? So they’re real, and I heard some talk about them every now and then. Can be nasty if you ain’t careful.”

“That’s what they say…” Austin replies, but doubts filling his voice now. Look, even though I’m not a researcher, I can read people pretty well. Don’t need to study for that.

Leaning forward, I try to set him at ease. “Three wishes, just like in the books, but these monsters ain’t blue as the Disney movie will have you believe. Like anything down here, there’s the fiction, and there’s the reality. A Djinn’s an entity you gotta treat with fucking care.”

Another of my strong points? Flying by the seat of my pants. But, like I said, I’ve picked up enough. Harry’s dealt with a Djinn before, and he lived to tell me all about it.

“Yeah, yeah.” Austin’s fingers head towards that pocket again, but he snatches ‘em back. “Wish I’d known that before I came across Drakma.”

“Drakma?”

“The Djinn.”

“Sounds like a Djinn’s name, sure.” I nod. “So, this disagreement between you and Drakma. What’s it about? He didn’t live up to his end of the bargain?”

Austin winces. “I wish. He’s taken my wishes a little too literally.”

I fold my arms, trying to keep the smile from my face. This should be good. “Go on.”

“It started off well enough. Drakma’s vessel came into my possession. I hadn’t been looking for a Djinn in particular, just trying to make sense of all this.” Austin waves a hand and I nod, sympathetic. “It’s been a hell of a ride, you know. Since I could See.”

“How long’s it been?” I ask, lighting up a cigarette and offering him one. Rubes don’t mind us smoking down here, and the dead ain’t gonna complain.

He takes a stick from me, and I light it. “Ten years. I traveled around the States, searched the Internet, libraries, anything. Looking for anything to help me. It’s how I came across Drakma.”

“When?”

“A few days ago.”

“A few days?” I take a sip of my bourbon. “You contacted me yesterday, slick. Matters went south so quick?”

Austin gives a glum nod. “I made my wishes. Couldn’t believe my luck at first. Wishing for immortality crossed my mind, but what’s the point? I cheated on both my ex-wives, so I’m not getting out of here. When I’m dead, I’m in Hell, anyway.”

“Right. Probably spring Awareness pretty quickly too, knowing what you do,” I say. Adultery is a sin, no doubt about that. From the dead I’ve talked to, there’s folk stuck down here for far less than that. Also, it ain’t none of my business, so I don’t linger on it. “So what did you wish for?”

“Money, of course.” Austin shakes his head. “‘A constant supply of money,’ I said. Those exact words.”

“Guessing that’s a lot, hoss.” I smile, eyeing his fingers as they twitch for his pocket. Is Drakma’s lamp in there? Small fucking lamp, if so.

“You wouldn’t believe it. Within two minutes I got a call from my accountant, saying an anonymous wire had come through to my account. Millions. Then I received a call from my lawyer saying some aunt I didn’t even know I had just died and left me her fortune and estate. More millions. I laughed at first, giddy, and made my second wish before giving it enough time. Because…”

He trails off and sucks on his teeth, eyes shining with unshed tears.

“Because?” I prompt. Kinda glad I didn’t take the rest of the guy’s dollars already. At first, I refused on principle. Half now, the rest when the job’s done, and only then, even if I did wanna know he was good for it. Been burned before. But this sudden windfall’s just causing Austin pain, and I don’t wanna contribute to that. Another six hundred dollars is a lot to me, but it ain’t squat to him, and that hurts the sorry sonofabitch.

“Because I received more calls. People I did know died without warning, way before their time. My parents. My ex-wives. My… My current wife. Business partners. Friends. They kept dying and leaving me everything. The calls are still coming, Holleran. More people in my life have died in the last few days than in the rest of my entire life!”

Fuck.

I let the silence hold a little. Even the Puca’s revelry’s muted now. It’s like the Styx exists just for Austin to pour his miserable heart out to me.

“What did you ask for next? Before you realized these deals ain’t kosher,” I ask finally, judging the times right after Austin sniffs and wipes at his eyes.

He makes an angry sound at the back of his throat. “I asked for the biggest house in the United States of America.”

My eyebrows draw down before I can stop ‘em. “What’s so wrong with that?”

“Holleran, the Djinn takes things utterly literally. It isn’t enough to just transform my home, which was pretty large to begin with, into the biggest mansion in the States. It keeps growing! It won’t stop! I kept finding new rooms every time I turned around! It took me hours to find a way outside!”

If I didn’t have the gut feeling this tale’s getting worse, I’d laugh. But I don’t. Austin’s suffering, and it ain’t pretty on the eyes or ears.

“You made your third wish before the ever-expanding house and litany of dead friends and relatives, didn’t you?”

Austin bows so low his forehead almost smacks against the table.

“You like soccer, Holleran?” he mutters.

“Sure. Go Timbers. Why?”

“The L.A. Galaxy are my team. They’re playing today, early afternoon kick-off. I asked for money. Wished for the biggest house anyone could dream of.” He looks up, watery eyes drilling into mine. “I didn’t know what to ask for. What to say! It just popped into my head, and before I knew it, the words came out. I asked for my team to win.”

A Djinn’s last wish squandered on a fucking soccer result. But that don’t sound so bad.

“Like Ray in Ghostbusters,” I murmur, nodding. “The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Just popped out, sure. But what’s the rub?”

Austin scowls at me, and I wince. It sounded more profound in my head. Look, he’s the guy who wished for a soccer result to go his way. Why not baseball?

“I said these exact words: ‘Jeez, I wish the Galaxy win on Saturday. Then I can die a happy man’.” Austin prods at the table with a thick forefinger, punctuating each word. “Then. I. Can. Die. A. Happy. Man.”

Death by soccer. Brutal.

I signal to Ruby with two fingers, ordering a couple of bourbons. Austin needs it. She brings them over pronto as we sit in silence, me considering what he’s told me. I listen when Harry tells one of his stories. You know, when we’re sitting in his study, all cozy-like, and what he told me about Djinn stuck more than I realized. But even though the mantra is ‘everything exists in Hell’, I always find it a little hard to believe until I’m confronted with the next fantastical and usually horrific, unbelievable entity. Saying that, I remember one factoid about Djinn clearly. Their wishes are unbreakable. Carrying them out nourishes them, and they don’t get to feast often, so they won’t break their word, either.

I sigh. Just don’t see a way out of this for Austin.

“So, you came to me,” I say instead.

“I found your name on the Internet. Called you until you finally answered as I was looking for a way out of my house.”

“L.A. Galaxy still playing?”

Austin checks his cell, the blood draining from his face. “They’ve got five minutes left, and they’re winning seven to nothing. Seven to fucking nothing.”

I drain my second bourbon. Happy hour, right? “Let me talk to Drakma.”

Austin nods, and I lean forward as he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a gold-colored burner cell. Austin places it flat on the table, then notices my clearly confused look. “I expected a lamp, too.”

Instead of rubbing the thing, Austin types in four numbers. Eight, four, two, one. Simple. And just like that, a third figure’s sitting at our table.

Imagine Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, but with violet eyes, lime-green skin and you’ll have Drakma. Dressed in a pin-striped gray suit, he’s even chewing on a fucking tooth pick. He’s like Gordon Gecko, Tommy DeVito and the Green Goblin mashed into one.

“How are the Galaxy doing, kid?” Drakma asks, grinning at Austin before pulling a pocket watch from his waistcoat and checking it. “Almost over by my count, and I don’t often count wrong.”

He even sounds like Joe Pesci. Robin Williams in Aladdin this is not.

“They’re up seven… No, eight to nothing,” Austin mutters. “You made the win a clear one.”

“Well, you wanted to be happy, son.” Drakma’s violet eyes sparkle. “Didn’t want to leave you hanging for a stoppage-time winner. Who’s your friend?”

“Nick Holleran,” I say. “Paranormal Investigator.”

“You looking for wishes, kid? There’s going to be three going in oh…” He checks the pocket watch again. “Two minutes plus added time, but there isn’t going to be much of that.” He chuckles while Austin slides into his seat. “No point in delaying the inevitable, eh?”

“I ain’t looking for wishes, you sonofabitch,” I growl, jabbing a finger in his face. “I’m here so you don’t kill this poor bastard.”

Drakma spreads his hands, nonplussed at my aggression. “He wished for his team to win, then said he’d die happy. It’s what he wanted. Words are important, Nick. You humans should pay more attention to what you’re saying. It’s none of my business but Hell would be a happier place for everyone if your kind did.”

Hell would be a happier place? Jesus.

“You think he wanted to die after getting all the money in the fucking universe and an ever-increasing house?” Actually, that last one does sound suicide provoking. “What I’m trying to say is, do you really think he wished you’d kill him after L.A. fucking Galaxy won a soccer match?”

Drakma grins, revealing yellow, pointed teeth. “It doesn’t matter what I think, kid. Wishes, words, and fulfilling contracts. It’s what I deal in. That’s all I care about.”

I glance at Austin, who looks like he’s accepted his fate. No hope in his eyes now. Well, I fucking ain’t giving up!

“Look, you can’t just—”

Drakma’s hand slapping against the table cuts me off. “This is nothing to do with you, Nick. Nothing. You can’t do anything about it. In thirty seconds, Austin’s team will win, and he will die happy. That’s the long and short of it.” He turns to Austin. “I’d ask if you have any final wishes, but that’s against the rules, kid.”

I glare at the smiling Djinn, but the word ‘rules’ flashes in neon inside my skull.

“Thanks for trying, Holleran,” Austin mumbles, grabbing his cell. “I’ll wire you the six hundred before I—”

“Wait!” I yell, shooting to my feet. “Does he look fucking happy, Drakma? He’s miserable. You can’t kill him. It’s against your rules.”

“Stay out of this, human,” Drakma hisses.

“Thought you said rules are important? You saying you ain’t above bending them a little? He said he can die happy, that’s important.”

The Djinn scowls, then glares at me but says nothing more. I turn to Austin.

“Are you happy?” I ask quietly.

He stares at me, tears in his eyes. Hope returned. “No.”

“Is the game over?”

He checks his cell, hand trembling. “Yes.”

“Guess all wishes don’t come true, huh?” I say, dropping into my chair, then point at the golden burner cell. “Get the fuck back in there, Drakma, and you won’t be coming out any time soon, so get real cozy, pal.”

Drakma’s got me pinned with his violet glare, a green finger tapping on the table, and then he smiles. It takes its time spreading across his face, curving his wide mouth up so the corners are almost touching the bottoms of his eyes.

Then he clicks his fingers.

The Djinn disappears, the golden cell vibrating once then falling silent. Across from me, Austin exhales, his breath all shaky, and his face breaks into a wide grin. But I ain’t smiling. I saw Drakma’s face. This ain’t—

“Nick!” Austin whoops. “Thank Christ. Man, you did it! I’m so happy I—”

“No, don’t fucking say it!” I snarl, lunging at the cell. Not sure why, but it’s just a reaction. It just sits there, no lights, no vibration.

But Austin’s fallen quiet. Too quiet. I stare up at him from under my brows. He’s sitting there, weirdly relaxed, eyes unfocused, and a smile tugs at his lips.

He said he was happy. L.A. fucking Galaxy won. Part one of the deal fulfilled. Part two? Austin dying happy…

He falls backwards, his chair tipping over, and his body crashes to the floor. I don’t need to look at him to know he’s already dead. His spirit’s already looming over his corpse, not yet Aware, but all washed out of color and almost gray as they are.

Before I can even blink, let alone get up and give Austin’s corpse the once over, just in case, Drakma’s back in his seat, staring at me. The Djinn licks his lips and pats his stomach.

“This is cheating!” My hand falls to the Ruger at my hip, but it won’t do shit against the Djinn. The bullets ain’t doused in holy water, and that would only sting. Like a fool, I didn’t bring an Expunger. “You fucking cheated.”

“Cheating? This is Hell, it’s filled with sinners,” the Djinn replies, then shakes his head. “But I didn’t cheat, my friend. My job was done, and I left, back to my home. But when happiness bloomed in Austin’s heart…Well. Rules are rules.”

“You left only so you could trick him,” I insist. Desperate. But what am I gonna do, wish Austin back to life? Everyone knows that ain’t possible, and his ghost is already standing listless beside us. “I saw the smile on your fucking face, Djinn!”

“A smile of satisfaction for a job well done.” Drakma shrugs. “And you can’t prove otherwise.”

“You sonofabitch,” I spit at Drakma. “Why? Couldn’t you just let him live?”

The Djinn trembles, grinning, then licks his lips again before smoothing his suit. “Rules, Nick. Rules. That’s how Hell works.”

“That’s it? You’ll kill over a set of dumb rules?”

“I didn’t kill anyone. Austin wished it. You heard his words verbatim.” Drakma tilts his head to the side, then folds his arms. “Kid, I’m going to give you some advice, free of charge. I can see you’re new to all this. You’re in Hell. If you want to rumble with the worst of it, you have to get wise. You came here, thinking you could convince me, or trick me. All you did was delay the inevitable. If you knew anything about Hell, you’d have come here, took that schmoe’s dollars, told him to enjoy his last few minutes of life, and left. Nick, half-assing it in Hell is only going to get you so far.”

He gets to his feet, turning to nod at Ruby, whose face is almost as pink as her hair. “Sorry about the mess, my girl.”

I point at his golden burner. “You think anyone’s gonna use that? You’ve gotta go back inside. We’ll keep it here, in a safe, and never touch it again. We won’t even fucking think about it.”

Drakma smiles. “Someday, a human will. It’s in your nature. Perhaps not tomorrow, or next year, but someday. They always do, and I’m patient. However, I couldn’t tempt you, could I? Now you know to be careful.”

My eyes flick toward Austin’s shade. “Is it true that you can’t bring folk back from the dead?”

Drakma raises an eyebrow. “It’s true.”

“Then no,” I growl. “Fuck off.”

Drakma smiles, then nods his head at the Puca. “Guess what they say about them is true. They bring fortunes of both good and ill, Nick.”

“How so, you sonofabitch?”

Drakma leans on the table, his nose almost touching mine. “You didn’t get paid, but you’re smart enough not to bargain with me!”

The Djinn disappears, the cell housing him vibrating once.

“Get that away from here,” I say as Ruby rushes over. “Don’t dial it. Don’t think about it. Right?”

“Sure, Nick, sure.” She glances at Austin’s corpse, then at his shade standing confused over it. “Jesus Christ.”

I get to my feet. “Do you need help with that?”

“No. Just… Go home, Nick. Get some rest. And I’m sorry. This wasn’t your fault. I heard everything. Honey, you did your best.”

My best. My best wasn’t close to being good enough.

“Don’t be sorry for me,” I say, nodding at Austin. “Be sorry for him. For me, it’s just another day in Hell.”

Throwing my trench coat over my shoulders, I head up the stairs, back into Haven, out into Hell, the Djinn’s words of advice ringing in my ears, the lingering hope in Austin’s eyes fixed in my mind.

‘You’re in Hell. If you want to rumble with the worst of it, you have to get wise… Half-assing it is only going to get you so far.’

The bastard’s right. Walking through the living, dead, and otherwise on the cold sidewalk, I know Drakma’s right. And he ain’t the only one to say it to me. Harry and Meave have said it plenty. Ruby, too.

When am I gonna learn?

CHAPTER TWO

A COMPLICATED EXISTENCE

A WEEK LATER…

“Route Thirteen?” I ask, screwing up my face. “The one running through North Carolina? That’s a little outta my wheelhouse, kid.”

My life’s complicated enough—in fact, it’s a downright sonofabitch—without driving to the other side of the country. Right now, I’m lousy company on the road, especially seeing as that company’s my own. Thing is, the business at the Styx has been weighing heavy on my mind this last week. Might say I ain’t been my sunny self. Plus, cases have been few and far between since Austin checked out.

“Naw,” the kid replies. “There’s another one, closer to home. It ain’t on any map, but if you search for it, you’ll find it.”

“Right,” I say, racking my head for the kid’s name. He told me when he collared me on the steps leading to my office when I came out for some air. “A mystical route no one knows about. Sounds fucking ideal. Wait a minute while I get my shit together and I’ll head out now.”

Hope he understands sarcasm, I speak it like it’s my natural tongue.

He’s got different colored eyes, the kid—one green, the other blue—can’t remember the name for it. Details escape me a little since my reawakening, they didn’t before, and… Well, let’s just say not having a grasp of the finer points of life ain’t ideal in my line of work, and it’s started biting me on the ass. Hard. Anyway, the kid; he ain’t that young, despite me calling him a ‘kid’. I’d guess mid-twenties, but I’ve been wrong before. Man, so very wrong.

I rub at the three scars under my black t-shirt. They still ache, every damn day. Itch something awful, too. Doc says it’s just my imagination.

What would he know? He ain’t been shot before. I asked.

Anyway, the kid. What’s his name? Rhymes with f—Huck! That’s it.

I hear the phone in my office ring upstairs. Great. Busy day, makes a change. God knows I need the money, but why’s everyone trying to reach me at the same time? Phone hasn’t rung for days, and now, as soon as this Huck here approaches me about a place no one’s ever heard of, saying he’s heard about my name and what I do on the Internet—not the first fella to say that in the last ten or so days—and he needs my help, it’s hopping off the hook like it’s taking part in a televised charity drive. And I can’t answer it.

Figures.

“So where’s this uncharted Route Thirteen, kid?” I say, rubbing at the back of my neck instead of at my scars. Better that way. “Enlighten me.”

He bristles when I call him kid. Every goddamn time, but he’s trying to be polite. He needs my help, so doesn’t wanna bite my head off. Look, getting him riled amuses me and I get little in the way of laughs these days.

“Idaho,” he bites out.

“Huh.” I study his face. I’ve seen plenty of folk spooked, for want of a better term, and the Lord above knows I need a fucking better term right now, especially with the streets around these parts filled with gray, washed-out spirits. Anyway, this guy’s shitting bricks. Let’s go with that. “Think I’d have heard of it. Done a lot of work there, being our neighboring state and all, and I’ve spent plenty of time staring at maps while lost in the middle of fucking nowhere, Huck. It’s a hobby of mine.”

“Work?” he asks, an eager light in his odd stare. “Like…paranormal shit?”

I sigh. My scars itch at me again, no way is this my imagination, they fucking itch, and I glance down the street. A washed-out looking old-timer—all grays and dirty whites—watches. But he doesn’t see us. He stands there every day, morning, noon and night, for the last year since I left the hospital. Staring just like he did the first time I stood on this sidewalk, glancing wildly around me, thinking I’d lost my goddamn mind.

Sometimes, I wish I had. Insane would be tons more fun than the reality.

“No,” I mutter, “before that.”

He takes a step closer to me.

“Before you could See?” he whispers, glancing from side-to-side.

I nod. Upstairs, the phone’s ringing stops. Not missing a beat, my cell vibrates in my jeans pocket. Yeah, jeans. No suit and tie for me, I ain’t sitting behind no desk in an office all day. Listen, I work for myself, I can dress however the hell I want, even if I’m pushing forty and wearing a black-tee and converse. Sue me. Even in this weather, but I ain’t ever paid much mind to the cold, even if mine and Huck’s breath’s fogging up the biting mid-winter Oregan air.

I ignore the cell. It can wait, just like the phone upstairs. Not my fault I’m Mr. Fucking Popular all of a sudden. Patience is a virtue, and in Hell, you need to grab a hold of every single virtue your sweaty little mitts can paw at. Huck’s caught my interest, and my time, for now, is his.

“You’ve done your homework,” I say instead, raising an eyebrow. “What do you know about me?”

Kid gives me the side-eye again, like he fears someone overhearing him. Glancing over his shoulder, I suppress a smile. If only he knew.

“Like I said, I looked you up on the Internet, found out a few things, you know? Saw that you’re a paranormal PI,” he says in a rush. The words just tumble out on top of one another. The relief of just speaking sending adrenaline rushing about his body. I know it well. “That you changed gears to the supernatural about a year ago, after you got mugged in some alley and left for dead. Is that when it happened?”

The cell stops, and the phone upstairs rings again. My eyes flick over his shoulder. I wonder if he knows? Gotta feel something, right? A chill he can’t shake. Sensation of being watched…

“Yeah,” I say, thinking of no reason to deny his research. “It’s like this. I died, Huck. Then I came back and let me tell you, everything you’ve heard about? Heaven, Hell, God, demons, vampires, ghosts—shit, Bigfoot himself, for all I know—all real. Except for one massive difference they don’t teach you in elementary or Sunday school.”

I take a cigarette outta my jacket pocket, take my sweet time lighting it. I ain’t above milking a moment.

“What?” Huck asks. He’s eager, leaning forward. I blink the fantastical thoughts on Huck’s feelings away and focus on the moment, on my performance. Maybe I shoulda taken up acting.

“Hell ain’t below us, Huck,” I reply, blowing smoke into his face. I can be a dick too, when I’m in the mood. Think it’s my right, knowing what I do. “We’re living in it. They’re all around us. I’m learning the ropes still, but I’ve learned a lot, and here’s what I’ve picked up. Some of the souls, creatures, whatever you wanna call ‘em, are benign. Shit, a whole lot of the sorry sons of bitches don’t even seem Aware at all. But the others are, and the things they’re capable of…” I shake my head, nice and slow, blow out another mouthful of silver silk. Gimme that Oscar. “Serial killers. Cults. Unexplained wackness that curdles your stomach. The itch between your shoulder blades telling you you’re being followed, that you’re in deep fucking shit and you gotta run… War, pestilence, dark prophecies. All those terrible things you can think of, the awfulness you hear about on the news, on the Internet. In your dreams. That’s the ones down here that don’t like sharing their space with anyone. That wanna kill, wanna feed, wanna sow destruction and mayhem. And there’s a lot of ‘em, kid. These ones are Aware and Malevolent, meaning they’re ghosts who know their situation and ain’t happy, or they’re creatures stuck down here for eternity since creation, and they can affect humans like me or you with just a thought, with a little nudge. And believe me, Huck, there’s worse than them down here. Much worse.” I look left and right, then focus on his wide, staring eyes. “So, why’d you come looking for me?”

Huck’s turned as white as a… Well, you know, not gonna spell it out. From the deep breaths he sucks into his lungs, I reckon he’s just about holding back big ugly tears, and it’s practiced, like he’s stood on the verge of ‘em for some time. The pang of sympathy welling in my chest proves I’m still human, and I’m grateful for it, truth be told. I glance over his shoulder again, and my intuition tells me the kid’s either fucked up bad, or running from something awful. Good chance of both, if my gut’s telling it to me straight. We’ve all been there.

“You may not believe me about the old Route Thirteen, Holleran, but it’s real. There’s a place there, an old motel called Whiskey Pete’s, like something ripped from a fucking time-warp. It’s out between a town called Chevron and a place called Devil’s Ladder. My buddy and me, Jasper, well, we have a YouTube channel, Darkfront. You know, for ghost hunting? It’s kinda famous. I don’t have to explain it to you, I’m sure you’ve seen it.”

I nod and try not to laugh at the name. Sounds like a name an edgelord would come up with. I’ve never heard of it, and I stream a lot, but I don’t burst his bubble. That’d just be cruel, and Huck’s rambling, building up to something. He looks more boyish than before, and I reckon the kid’s just a teenager. This time, I’m sickened by the pang of sympathy I feel for him, but I can’t help it. Even though he pretends he ain’t, he is just a kid, and if he’s looking to hire me, he’s found himself up shit’s creek, and no teenager deserves that. Hell, most adults don’t.

“We were out there in November after my buddy heard some things about it. Don’t know where or how, but he did, so we checked it out.” I smell bullshit here. Going out to this Whiskey Pete’s was Huck’s idea, ‘cos bullshit and guilt have an eerily similar stench and mixing them creates a potent hum. Just like now. Huck pauses, swallows, then nods and carries on. “Well, Jasper didn’t make it. They fucking killed him. Sliced him up! The people there…” Huck shudders, shakes his head. Look, details are preferred in this line of work, but I can tell when I’m not getting any. “That place, Holleran, it gave me a feeling the entire time. Like, a pressure in the back of my head, it made my stomach turn. It always happened whenever we came across somewhere actually haunted. For real, not just an act for the show, it’s why we got such kudos for our authenticity, right? But I can’t shake the feeling, not since Whiskey Pete’s. Didn’t think anyone would believe me, but Jasper looked you up before he … before he…”

A catch in the throat, and the tears finally flow. Without thinking, I grip his shoulder and give him a smile. I’m uncomfortable right away, public shows of affection and me aren’t on the best of terms, but I hold on and peer into his eyes. The blue and green stare back, and I nod. He’s not like me. The kid wasn’t killed and came back to life after seeing Heaven’s light, and he ain’t one of the sorry sacks of shit who are born that way. He can’t see the truth like I can, but he can sense it. Another kind of natural ‘gift’ some would say, though not me.

Not by a long shot.

“What else aren’t you telling me, kid?” I ask. “Something else happened, didn’t it? Maybe at this Whiskey Pete’s, maybe some time before, but real close to it. Maybe it made you go out there in the first place, even though you knew you shouldn’t, and it kept you searching there long after your gut told you to high-tail it and never look back.”

A fat tear trickles down Huck’s cheek. I cough, let go, and look away. Look, I ain’t macho or anything. All that alpha male bullshit reminds me too much of the old man, and it ain’t for me. Emotion is fine and dandy. Healthy, you might say. But this kid is one breakdown away from curling up in a gutter and wailing, and I don’t wanna be responsible for that. I’d do a lousy fucking job at consoling him.

“My brother,” he whispers. “My twin, Mark. He died, and it’s my fault. And Jasper… I just left him there at Whiskey Pete’s. I ran, Holleran, I don’t know if I could have helped at all, if I could have done anything except die, but I didn’t even try. Same as my brother… He tried to get a hold of me, before he… Killed himself. I brushed him off. Brushed him off like he didn’t matter… Going to Whiskey Pete’s was my way of running away from not… from not… being…”

I look behind him and nod, mind made up. The kid’s telling the truth. In the meantime, my office phone and cell have taken turns trying to snatch my attention, like a technological synchronized swim. They ain’t missed a beat, one stops and the other starts.

“What’s your cell?” I say, pulling out my phone.

I’ve a bunch of missed calls from a number I don’t recognize and one I do. Rosa Riberio. The woman who kept me alive when three bullets to the chest left there by Dean Wheeler, local crime boss and notorious sleazebag, tried their damned hardest to kill me.

“You’re taking the case?” Huck asks, breaking into a grin despite his wet cheeks.

“I’ll check it out, is all I’m saying,” I reply, handing him my cell so he can punch in the digits. “I’ve got some clients in Haven first. If I’ve time, I’ll dig into Route Thirteen, Idaho. But I ain’t cheap, Huck. Flat fee up front, expenses and the works after. You hear me?”

“Thank you,” Huck says, looking up into the sky. Light Oregon rain drizzles down on us. A break from the frost and snow. “Didn’t think you’d believe me.”

“Kid, I just wanted to see if you’d tell me the truth. I knew from the moment we met you were into something deep.”

“What? How?”

I spin him around. They’re watching us, and I’m pretty sure the two of them are Aware or close to it, but they got no interest in me. I’m guessing the one with the scowl is Jasper. He’s got the look of a spirit with an ax to grind, but ain’t the violent type. He just wants to see Huck make up for his mistakes, maybe help him, too. The other one is the image of the kid, eyes sad, mouth downturned, which makes him the twin. Two ghosts following one teenage boy around. The deaths he’s responsible for, or at least that’s how he feels. Reckon the shades think it, too.

“That nagging sensation you’re getting? You’ve got two spirits on your tail. They ain’t doing anything. Yet. The recently deceased just linger if they don’t have a ticket for Heaven, or if they’ve other business. At first, they’re tethered to a location, or a person. These two? They’re fixed on you. Maybe you reaching out to me is their unfinished business, maybe it ain’t, but kid? Take my advice. Make your peace with how they wound up. Or they’ll haunt you till the end of your days, if they’re here or not.” Advice I really should follow myself. I point at him for added effect, like I’m Han Solo. “I’ll be in touch for my money, so don’t leave town, you hear? Check out a place called the Styx, ask for Ruby. She’ll find you somewhere cheap to stay where nothing will try to murder you. Ah, maybe don’t mention me, though.”

I ain’t been back there since last week. Not that Rubes blamed me, but I don’t wanna bring her more trouble.

Tears stream down the kid’s face as he reaches out with feeble fingers towards the literal spirits of his past. I give him a last pat on the shoulder and race up the stairs to my office, hoping I’ve done the right thing. Huck seems a decent sort, and God knows we all make mistakes. It’s better he knows the truth, but I don’t like telling it if I can help it.

Found out many reasons to keep it all to myself the hard way.

My office overlooks the sidewalk, and the phone’s ringing again. If it ain’t Rosa trying to get hold of me on that when I answer, I’ll call her as soon as I’m done, and it’s with regret I have to make myself promise that I will. We ain’t really talked for a while, and our relationship, like my life, is complicated.

I like her. A lot. She saved my life, too. Problem is, doing so kept me from Heaven, and revealed the Hell surrounding me. Not her fault, and much of the time, I’m grateful. Just as often though…

Like I said, it’s complicated. Because of her, I ain’t in Heaven. Because of her, I know I’m in Hell. But because of her, I’ve got breath in my lungs. Anyway, that’s all beside the point. Even though my complicated feelings for her changed from wanting to be her friend into something else, she’s had a boyfriend ever since I knew her, and I respect that. Greg’s his name. Nice guy, too. Thing is, Rosa’s boyfriend is now her ex, and our friendly coffee meetups took on a different edge ever since.

Hence me not really talking to her for a while. What can I say? I’m a sucker for inspecting every goddamned tooth in a gift horse’s mouth.

I crash through my office door, intent on grabbing the phone. I lied to Huck; I don’t have other clients and money’s tight, too tight to mention. There ain’t much belief in Haven’s one and only Paranormal Investigator at the moment. Dollars are hard to come by, so much so, I don’t enjoy calling people back unless I have to, and the flyers I had printed ate too large a hole in my bank balance and have resulted in nothing but crank calls and abuse.

Shit, maybe this is another one of those… But I can’t risk not answering. I fucking need the money. The six hundred dollars I got from Austin’s already gone, and he didn’t wire me the second half before he checked out.

There’s a check tucked away in my desk, but I don’t want to cash it unless I’m desperate, and I mean really fucking desperate. In fact, I don’t even want to think about it. It’s blood money, and the blood belongs to me. A pay off from people I did a little work for, and I say people, but I really mean rat fuck bastards. Rat fuck bastards grateful I didn’t mention the name ‘Dean Wheeler’ when the cops interviewed me in my hospital bed when I could speak after surgery, asking who filled me with lead.

Drank the fucking whisky they sent, though, and threw the flowers in the garbage.

“Holleran,” I bark down the receiver, a little out of breath. Look, like I said, I’m pushing forty, I’ve three bullet wounds in my chest, and I’m a little too fond of the smokes. “What can I get ya?”

A pause, before a deep male voice, one I recognize, asks, “Nick Holleran? The private detective?”

“Don’t do that anymore, Davey.”

Scowling, I twist the phone wire across my desk and drop into my seat. I regret it, because now my attention’s drawn to the corner of the room, a place I usually try my damndest to avoid staring at.

See, like I said, this office is a shared space, even though I try to forget it.

Suppressing a shudder, I swivel in my seat and glance through my window. Huck’s climbing into his car. The two ghosts are already sitting in the backseat. Funny how they do that. Beats floating behind the rear bumper, I guess.

Davey Teague, Editor-in-Chief of Haven’s most prominent tabloid rag ain’t answered my retort, so I guess it’s down to me to add a little more.

“At least, I don’t investigate the kinds of cases that would interest the editor of the Haven Chronicle,” I say, in way of an exclamation point at the end of my last remark.

“You want to hear about the case before you turn me down, Holleran?”

“If the price is right, I’ll listen to you read the Kama Sutra, slick.”

“Money’s not an issue.”

My fingers drum against the stubble on my cheeks. ‘Money’s not an issue’. Music to my ears, but maybe I can drive up the price. A bit of work that isn’t of the supernatural flavor appeals, so long as it doesn’t involve the mob. My scars itch thinking about that. The cigarette I lit on the sidewalk’s almost down to the filter, so I take a drag before stubbing it out. A deep one.

“What’s the skinny?”

A sigh of relief blows down the receiver. I used to hear that a lot, back in the day. Now whenever anyone talks to me about work, I hear fear or skepticism. Sometimes both at the same time. “Reporter of mine went missing back in July 2019.”

“Go to the police. They like that sort of thing.”

“Didn’t happen in this state, Holleran. They were heading to Idaho.”

I glance out of the window. Huck’s finally pulled into the street. What are the chances that Idaho of all places has become a hotbed of activity? Idaho!

“Huh…” I say, then shrug. “FBI, then?”

“They said they’d look into it. Five months ago.”

“And?”

“They came back with nothing.”

I lean forward while trying to avoid looking in the corner of my office. “Davey, I fail to see what I can do here. If the FBI can’t help, how can I?”

A beat.

“It’s not like they can’t help, Holleran,” he says, voice hoarse. “They won’t. They’re saying they’ve got records of my missing reporter leaving the country, back in July.”

“So she ran away,” I laugh. “Didn’t think you were that bad to work for, hoss.”

Another beat.

“I wanted to believe it. Zia’s had a rough life. Maybe she found something new. Only, it wasn’t just her. A junior reporter went with her, Dylon Myers. The FBI found his passport used, too. I figured that was case closed. Maybe they eloped. Couldn’t have pictured it myself, but whatever, they’re young, and we all did dumb stuff even though I thought Zia would have been level with me. Then, this morning, I received something in the mail. A postcard.”

“Nice.” A wrinkle in the story. I love a goddamn wrinkle. “Anyone you know?”

“Yeah,” Davey replies. “Zia Bennett. She used to wear this t-shirt, of a place she could never find, one her adoptive parents found her wrapped in when she was a baby. You know what the t-shirt said?”

My blood runs cold. I know what he’s going to say. Without thinking, I blurt it down the receiver and regret having a voice instantly. One day, I’ll learn how to keep my mouth shut.

“Whiskey Pete’s.”

A stretch of stunned silence.

“You’ve heard of it.”

It isn’t a question. I’m experienced enough to notice a statement of fact when I hear one.

“Just this morning. Lemme guess, the postcard’s from the same place.”

“Yeah.” Davey Teague replies with a low chuckle, devoid of humor. “Holleran, the postcard had your name on it. That’s it. Nothing else. Listen, I’m desperate. Zia isn’t just another reporter to me, and I approved this investigation she wanted to do even though my gut told me not to. If I’d said no, put her on something else? Not to mention Dylon, the poor bastard. Now, I think it’s time you drop the wise-guy act and come see me. Else, this piece of evidence goes to the FBI, and I’ll tip off the local PD that you’re wanted for kidnapping. How does that sound?”

“Sounds like I’ll arrive at the Haven Chronicle within the hour.”

Davey Teague ain’t leaving me with much of a choice, is he?

The phone clicks, and a dead line hums from the other side, boring into my brain. Even still, I leave it off the hook, and let the monotonous sound drone on. I don’t feel like taking any more calls today. Like always, even though I’ve tried my damndest, my eyes are drawn to the fucking space where the walls meet, and the figure I do my best to avoid.

In the corner of my room stands a young girl, and I mean young in appearances only. She’s been there since I returned to the office, after my ‘death’ and reawakening. For all I know, she coulda stood there for decades, the dress she wears certainly shouts retro and not in a future-chic way. The girl doesn’t talk, doesn’t so much as twitch. Gave her a name, I mean, I had to, didn’t I? ‘Girl’ just ain’t gonna cut it, and ‘Dead Girl’ is even worse. Darcy, I call her. Wonder how close I am to the real thing? After a few weeks of shouting at her, trying to catch her attention, curiosity got the better of me. Heading over to her, I reached out, surprised as I ever have been in my two lives when my fingers sank into her shoulder, shivering at the cold spreading into my hand, and spun her around. Still have nightmares about what I saw. Empty sockets where eyes should have been, staring at me, gray blood covering her dark cheeks, her mouth hanging open in a fixed expression of soul-deep fear and bone wrenching agony. After falling on my ass, the ghost turned around, and she ain’t looked my way since.

Still, she’s someone to rubberduck with. Lord knows I need it, even if, most of the time, I try to pretend there’s no one in this office but me.

“Looks like I’m going to Idaho,” I say to her back. “Or leaving the fucking country. I hear New Zealand’s nice.”

The girl doesn’t reply. Why would she?

New Zealand… Would I need a visa? Probably. Don’t know anyone down there, but it’s still Hell. There’s ghosts, demons, creatures and the Lord only knows what on the other side of the planet just like there is in Haven. So Harry says, and why wouldn’t there be? America ain’t the center of the goddamn universe.

Sighing, I fire up my computer and start googling Idaho, Devil’s Ladder, Chevron and Whiskey Pete’s. Every name Huck and the EIC of the Haven Chronicle mentioned to me. Zia Bennett, Dylon Myers. Even goddamn Huck, Jasper, and Darkfront themselves. I’ve a little time before I meet Davey Teague and I want to prepare. The devil’s in the fucking details, right? Might as well attempt to mend my sloppy ways, especially now my name’s been thrown into the mix.

My cell vibrates and I almost fall out of my chair.

It’s Rosa.

Looks like I don’t have to break the promise I made myself to call her. She’s solved it for me.

“Hey, Nick,” she says, sunny voice making my stomach sink when I answer. She has that effect on me. I care for her, I do. Sometimes, I think there’s something there, ‘specially now, a chance for happiness. Then, when I look at her, I see her panicked face peering at me as she held the blood in my chest when my spirit sank back into my body, and I saw, for a flicker, the woman who’d saved my life up close and personal. We’ve talked about my conflicted feelings about it all, sometimes Rosa pulls it all out of me, other times it rushes out like a tidal wave of self-loathing and bullshit and that makes things—yeah, you guessed it—complicated.

But then, it was only, and strictly, as friends. Now?

Part of me resents her for it, even though I try to bury it deep down. She’s great. Better than great; she’s more than a schmuck like me deserves. Rosa’s smart. Strong. She’s a librarian, filled with facts, and she’s badass at Aikido. Seriously, I asked her to show me some moves once and she put me on my back without so much as a pause. And she’s got a fucking heart the size of the Pacific; she saved my life without a second thought, and I’ve seen her talk to the kids searching for books and the baristas at Red Eye Joe’s. But…let’s just say these mixed feelings get in the way and lately, whenever we’re making progress, moving in the right direction, I fuck things up. I do shit like not speak to her for a spell, or, as she says, I get all elusive and evasive.

Ruby tells me I need a therapist. So do Harry and Maeve.

A therapist. What am I gonna say? ‘Hey, everything in the bible you read about is true, and so much worse than you can believe, ‘cos we’re all slumming it in Lucifer’s backyard, and I see it all, and every time I think there’s a chance of some kind of happiness with the woman who saved me, who I have more than friendly feelings for, I remember her pulling me away from salvation, and I hate it as much as I hate myself for not being able to say how I feel and take a chance. Also, my parents were the worst people on Earth, sorry, Hell, so much so I ain’t been back to Portland in decades, and I drink and smoke too much. How are you?’

That’ll get me a one-way ticket to the psych ward before I can say I’m a Paranormal Investigator.

Say, a therapist for Hell, one who knows the skinny… That could make bank… Would it be any more dangerous than what I already do? Nah, don’t reckon I got the temperament for it. Even my own angst frustrates me, and I try my best to keep it under lock and key, I couldn’t deal with anyone spilling their guts to me even for $300 an hour.

Still… $300 an hour…

I put Rosa on speakerphone so I can continue my research. “Hey. How’s things?”

“Ah, you know, another day in Hell, huh?” Ah, yeah. Rosa knows. In a moment of weakness, I did spill my guts. To be fair to her, she took it like a champ, like she does with anything else, though she needed a bit of proof. Luckily, I had Harry and Maeve to offer it up to her. “Are we still on for tomorrow and coffee? It’s been a while,” Rosa asks, and just when I think my stomach can’t sink further, it does. Intrigue surrounding Whiskey Pete’s and the hotbed of activity that is rural fucking Idaho had blown our coffee date right outta my mind. “Looking forward to catching up with you, Mr. Ever Elusive.”

“Shit,” I mutter, and I can’t decide if I’m regretful or relieved to have this excuse. Like I said, I’m a schmuck. “Just caught a fresh case. Sounds like it’s gonna be a rough one, and I really can’t get out of it. Think I’ll be out of town for a spell. It’s taking me to Idaho.”

“Right,” she replies, but doesn’t hang up. That ain’t her way, no matter how many times I mess her around.

“Sorry,” I say, and I’m surprised that I mean it. Guess I wanted to see her after all. “Listen, there was this kid, and he was crying and…”

“Nick, there’s always a kid, or some guy wearing concrete shoes in the reservoir, or a woman with her throat cut, or a cult who has your name or a piece of your hair and you have to get it back before it’s too late. Didn’t you used to have a work-life balance before when you snooped around for the mob and other low-lifes?”

Anger rises, and I speak without thinking. “You think I want ghosts, demons and the rest of Hell on my ass, day-in, day-out? I didn’t ask for this. I could have been kicking back in Heaven right now, but I’m stuck here instead and they’re everywhere!”

Silence. I regret my words even before I finish snarling them. Like I said, one day, I’ll keep my fucking trap shut. But clearly not today.

“Sorry you feel like you’re stuck,” Rosa whispers. “I was just trying to help. Maybe you missed out on Heaven, but are you sure you’re not missing out on a real life? Just think about it, okay?”

She hangs up, and I fight the urge to bang my head against the desk. It’s a losing battle, but I’d deserve the pain, and the thud echoes through my silent office. My watering eyes drift to the girl in the corner, and I wonder what she makes of it all, if she can even hear me chasing away the only good thing in my life, time and time again.

“A trip to Whiskey Pete’s is just what the doctor ordered,” I say with a sigh, turning to the computer screen. “Work two cases at once, Huck and Davey Teague, earn two paychecks, get out of town, and try to stay out of an FBI holding cell. Guess I’ll try to make it up to Rosa when I come back. If I can this time. Shit, I fucking hope I can.” I sigh and shake my head at the girl’s back. “Kid, part of me wants to be her boyfriend, but I need to be a better fucking friend first.”

Huh. Leaning back into my chair, I smile. Progress. Fuck, I should say those exact words to Rosa, and I will… After I get back from Whiskey Pete’s.

I fish my notebook from my desk drawer and get to work.

Time’s ticking and, after failing to save Austin’s life, maybe this time I might do some good. God knows my soul needs it.




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