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KISS ME DEADLY (NICKEL CITY NECROMANCER BOOK #1)

CHAPTER ONE

The scalpel narrowly missed my right eye.

Look. I know it’s not exactly “professional” to shriek like a banshee while I’m on a freelance gig. But I can’t think of anything more revolting than getting my eyeball skewered on a sharp metal object. That’s some gore-fest horror movie crap, and I’m not here for it. The thought alone gave me one of those full body shivers.

Or it would. I mean, in theory.

You might say I was a bit distracted at the moment. The scalpel’s one thing, but the unhinged ghost who threw it at me was another problem entirely. While ironic, this isn’t how I pictured myself getting evicted from this mortal coil. Killed in the bowels of the Erie County Medical Examiner’s building. But I guess the chances of someone like me being murdered by a ghost were higher than the average human.

If this job went sideways—and statistically speaking, luck and I were not even casual acquaintances—the grisly details of my untimely demise would be splashed across the morning newscast while Western New Yorkers sipped their coffee and shoveled runny eggs into their mouths.

Local Necromancer Brutally Stabbed in Bizarre Incident Overnight.

Maybe they’d ditch the necromancer part. Don’t want to scare the kids.

And my mother would never hear the end of it. At least I’d have the satisfaction of watching her silent descent into complete and total humiliation before she hit me with an eternity of “I told you so, Seraphina.” Not that I’d actually spend my precious afterlife haunting her. Hard pass.

My rear end met the dingy linoleum, tailbone stinging. With more sharp projectiles flying overhead, I dropped into an army crawl to grab a metal tray that had crashed to the floor. The dueling scents of industrial cleaner and disinfectant and antiseptics slithered into my nose. I had to get close to our phantom assailant to diffuse the situation, and unfortunately that put me in the direct path of her gross misuse of county medical equipment. Once she ran out of things to throw, who knew what her next plan of attack would be?

I could bet that I’d be the nearest projectile. That’s typically how it went down. Scars to prove it.

Something deflected off the tray in front of my face, ringing like a crowbar falling onto rough pavement. “Rhys! What’s her name?”

Rhys, one of the city’s forensic pathologists, huddled behind an autopsy table to avoid his own weaponized medical instruments. He never gave a damn about my lack of professionalism, anyway. The eighties radio station pumping through the wireless speaker in the corner of the room, turned up to a volume that would only be acceptable to the dead, pretty much said it all.

And, for the record, he’d screamed more than I did.

“Hannah,” Rhys shouted over the chorus to Toto’s “Africa” and the tinny clanging of metal. The table hid most of his broad hockey goaltender’s frame. The bulk of his shoulders and dark curls were the only parts of him I could see beyond the brushed steel. “Hannah—something, I don’t know, I don’t remember her last name. I did her autopsy yesterday.”

I curled into the metal tray, hoping it would help shield my entire body Captain America-style. The average person would call me petite, which was a fair assessment physically, considering I barely clung to five feet of height accumulated over twenty four years. A fragile word for someone who once sprinted through a plate glass window on purpose. I hated the way people would say it, though. Like it was a deficiency, a weakness.

Not much of a weakness right now.

If I wanted to live to see at least another ten minutes, I had to find a way to calm her down. Or at least wear her out until she drained all of the energy in the room and didn’t have enough left to kill us. The fluorescent lights had gone haywire, stuttering as sucked the life out of them. Static broke up the ‘80s synth pop, mangling its cheery beat.

“How long has she—” A hefty, plastic spray bottle filled with some unidentified chemical sloshed when it hit the painted cinderblock wall above me. I ducked, tipping the tray upward just in time, and it thumped off the shield protecting my head to roll away toward Rhys. The spray nozzle cracked upon impact, leaking bright blue fluid onto the tiles. “How long has she been dead?”

I hesitated, tone softening until it dropped to a whisper on the last word. A topic best avoided, if possible. Most would rather not hear it.

“A week.” Rhys’ voice cracked when he yelled. 

“That’s it?” I scooted back, pushing the balls of my feet on the scuffed, yellowed linoleum until my spine pressed against the cinderblocks. “Are you sure?”

Hannah-something seemed freakishly strong for someone who’d only vacated her body a week ago. It took some time for spirits to learn the ropes and figure out the quickest way to terrorize us unsuspecting mortals. And, best case scenario, influencing the physical realm took months of practice.

This girl had already hit berserker mode. Then again, I’d summon enough wrath to fling anything within my reach if I’d been freshly departed at her age. Blind, violent anger was easy if it was all you had. She was young, even younger than me. Probably not even legally old enough to drink yet. Wearing what she’d died in: Jeans ripped at the knees and a flannel button-down; a pair of dirty, rock salt-stained Vans. Wild-eyed, smeared mascara weeping smoky trails down her face.

What had happened to this poor girl?

Rhys grunted. “My credentials are in my office, if you’d like to see them. If you’re not busy.”

Behind the metal tray, I rolled my eyes and declined to comment. His sense of humor, though, did not go unappreciated. Typical Rhys. “Was it homicide? Suicide?”

“Don’t know,” he answered, straining over the music. Hannah-something must’ve been fond of eighties Top 40 hits, otherwise the wireless speaker would’ve fallen silent by now. If I had to choose a soundtrack to die by, I would’ve gone with mid-aughts emo rock. But Rhys’ abiding love of everything eighties infiltrated his workspace. I’d never heard him listen to anything else down here. “We’re still trying to piece the details together. It’s an active investigation.”

Rhys had called me in a panic just as I was heading out on another job for a paying client. Imagine, if you will, a six-foot-something former minor league goalie screaming into his phone to me, his tiny, necromancer/occasional ghostbusting friend while his autopsy room tried to kill him.

The man has a medical degree.

He witnessed some of the worst shit to pay his bills.

Well, so did I. Solidarity!

It took me five minutes to figure out what all of his breathless screeching had been about, but by then I’d already changed course. He knew I’d drop everything for him at a moment’s notice. No questions asked. Ever. He’d do the same for me.

Morgues attracted spirits; it was just the nature of the business. You couldn’t keep bodies lying around like that and expect every lost soul to rest in peace. Confused and listless, they bounced from one location to the next, looking for a soft place to land. This wasn’t Rhys’ first paranormal rodeo, but it was his most intense haunting since I’d known him. He called me to remove the pesky ones overstaying their welcome—messing with the lights when there was no one else there, stealing his stuff and moving it around. Disembodied footsteps and voices and whistling that echoed into the empty halls. Nothing I haven’t heard of before.

The late night text messages took on a familiar tone. Sera, I have a problem. Sera, I’ve gained an annoying roommate please for the love of my sanity help me before I rage quit.

He was lucky none of them ever followed him out of here.

Spectral fits of homicidal rage weren’t uncommon. The new ones and the ancient ones you had to watch out for—sudden deaths, souls who languished for too long in their own purgatory. Murder sometimes happened as a byproduct of the energy they expelled. Few of them could take corporeal form and beat you senseless with their own fists.

But damn, they tried their hardest sometimes.

I hoped that if I did end up as a human dartboard, it would look like a murder tableau ripped from an episode of Hannibal. You know…artsy, with a hint of gory pretentiousness.

I deserved to go out in style. Wouldn’t mind haunting Hugh Dancy, either.

Ellie would never forgive me for thinking that.

Hannah-something cut into the chorus of “Africa” with a steady quake that grew until it touched every corner of the room. Drawers banging open and shut, bottles, vials, jars of whatever teetering toward the edges of counters. A few smashed against the tiles, bits of glass shining like scattered raindrops under a passing streetlight.

She finally killed the overhead fluorescents. Only then did it hit me that a persistent rattle came from the refrigerator doors. And what I most certainly did not need right now, at this very moment, was for her to start waking the dead.

That was my job.

She ripped the tray from my fingers and it did a raucous cartwheel, sliding far out of my reach against some cabinets.

All right. Point made.

I pushed myself off the floor with the heels of my hands and made myself as small as possible, the cold cement wall reaching through my denim jacket. Hannah let out a distressed wail—the kind Rhys had probably been hearing, somehow, over the blast of his radio before she’d leveled up. Now, she wavered in and out like someone kept playing with the opacity dial. Determined to make sure her anger was not only seen but felt.

I understood her loud and clear.

Reaching into my left jeans pocket, I pulled out a chunk of iron that fit neatly into the middle of my palm and closed my fist around it. If she wanted to use me as a projectile, this would at least make her think twice. The warmth of my skin seeped into the chilly iron talisman, knuckles blanching. My other hand dangled at my side, fingertips absently skirting the pearl hilt of the dagger nestled in the holster strapped to my thigh. One deep breath and I pushed off the wall, a cardboard box of disposable gloves she’d dislodged from somewhere ricocheting off my arm.

“Hey! Look, I know you’re pissed off about whatever got you here, and that’s okay. Really. You don’t have to convince me. No one in this room is going blame you for being angry, Hannah. Death is the last thing you deserve at your age, and I’m sorry this happened to you.” 

Rhys peered around the corner of the autopsy table, the laminated ID badge clipped to his shirt pocket skittering across metal.

“But we’re not gonna get very far if you keep throwing a supernatural tantrum.” My thumb found the raw iron, worrying circles around its bumpy surface. The edge of my nail caught the grooves at its center. Protective symbols carved by a necromancer a lot wiser and more experienced than me. “I want to help you. And this?” I gestured with one hand at the mess she’d made. “This doesn’t make my job any easier. Let’s have an adult conversation. We can do that, can’t we? Dial back the rage for a second and tell me who hurt you.”

Even though she kept flickering like a lightbulb about to burn out, her eyes were distant and cold. A tremble worked through her dry, cracked bottom lip. 

“That’s what this is about, isn’t it?” I hedged. The drawers and fridges continued to clang, more fragile glass containers nudged across the floor to burst. “You wanted attention, and now you’ve got mine. Someone hurt you, someone…killed you, didn’t they? I know the details might be hazy up there and you’re confused and you’re scared out of your mind. But it doesn’t have to be like this, Hannah. I can give you a second chance if you let me. I want to help you.”

Once Hannah’s fingers curled into tight fists and her gaze wandered far away from me, I knew there wasn’t any hope left. Repeating her name hadn’t made her reconnect to whatever humanity she still had. She’d stewed in her own fury for too long; she’d carried too much of it with her for me to break through. No reasoning. No careful negotiations. No amount of empathy would help.

Even if it wasn’t my fault, it sure felt like it.

Losing a soul sucks royally, but sometimes they just refuse the hand you’re offering them.

“Please,” I told her, voice feather-light. “We can catch the scumbag who did this to you. We can…” I swallowed hard as the words got tangled up in my throat. Murder victims always have a special way of punching me in the feelings, a sharp uppercut right where it hurts the most. “We can make this right, work together. It’s not too late. Please. You’ve got to have family out there who mi—”

Something icy and solid walloped the side of my face, and for a terrifying moment I thought my corpses-as-weapons scenario had come true. But it’d only been the tray back to fight another round, coming in hot for the knockout.

A corner sliced my face open and I felt warm blood oozing down the swell of my cheekbone while stars pirouetted across the backs of my eyelids. The force of the blow knocked me back a few steps, the talisman falling from my grip to the linoleum with a heavy, metallic thump. Whatever she’d thrown next—and maybe it’d been me, but I’d just gotten my bell rung in the most humiliating matchup ever—dropped me on my ass again. I might’ve gone down swearing, I don’t know. Nothing too explicit. My whack job parents made sure to leave me with the traumatizing habit of keeping those dirty cuss words from rolling off my tongue too easily.

Hannah’s mastery of the whole spirit-powers thing was frightening, yet impressive.

Score another bruise for my poor abused tailbone. My back cracked as it hit the door of a refrigerator.

At least she hadn’t put me in one of them yet.

Ha. Always a silver lining, Seraphina.

There was screaming then. A hoarse panic that shot through the whole room. Not Hannah, who I found through the veil of long, messy copper hair in front of my face. I winced as a few strands teased the gash on my cheek.

She moved like grainy film on an old projector, flittering in the dark, dimming until she appeared on top of the autopsy table—floating above it, if we want to get technical. Of course, Rhys didn’t see the ghost hovering above his autopsy table, which made it more horrifying once the hose coiled near the drain took on a life of its own and seized his neck.

I leapt to my feet, beaten-up brown hiking boots scuffing the tile with a piercing squeak. “Rhys!”

The hose constricted his throat while Hannah floated over him, the poster girl for misplaced revenge. Rhys grasped at the hose, red-faced, a vein in his temple bulging. The sound of his wheezing, choking, gurgling breaths drove me toward her.

“Leave him alone!” I finally brandished the dagger, the rose gold filigree illuminated by the pale glow coming from our insolent ghost. “What we aren’t going to do is take out our anger on people who don’t deserve it. Take your ghoulish paws off him, Hannah. Look at you—you’re running out of energy. You’re really gonna waste it on murder? Make better choices with your afterlife. You can be smarter than that.”

The hose tightened, and Rhys’ face shifted from beet red to bruised purple.

My words meant nothing to her. Not even the luxury of going in one ear and out the other, just straight to hateful silent treatment.

“It didn’t have to end like this.” I shouted to be heard over the banging drawers and cabinets. “I’m sorry I couldn’t help you. Can’t say I didn’t give you plenty of chances. Now I’ve got to kick you out of here the hard way, because you’re about to kill my friend. And that puts you on my shit list.”

So much for the self-censorship. Somewhere, my mother is clutching her pearls.

I lunged at her, dagger slicing through the air—no iron in this blade, just polished rose gold; one of the very few luxuries I owned in life. Didn’t need it to repel the dead, but to send them packing toward that bright, warm light. Sometimes they needed a little friendly shove to free their soul.

The blade caught Hannah’s spirit form, layers of necromantic spells infused in the rose gold slicing through realms to stop her. Probably one of the most useful tricks in my limited cache. The connection between her and the hose she was using as a murder weapon severed instantly. Rhys, gasping for breath, fell forward on his hands and knees, his forehead pressed to the cool tiles. Hannah’s sudden eviction from the spirit realm was painless. Her ghost disintegrated around the blade, glowy spectral particles drifting away like grains of sand.

A burst of eardrum-bursting static interrupted the final strains of “Africa,” the grand finale to Hannah’s exit. Nothing like a blast of Toto to make your heart slam full-tilt into your ribs.

I rushed to get to Rhys’ side. My boot skidded on the spilled mystery chemical, but I managed to recover without killing myself. Rhys coughed as he stood up, massaging the tender hollow of his throat where the hose had drawn a raw, splotchy line.

“Cut that one awfully close.”

“Little bit.” I tucked the dagger securely in my thigh holster, wincing after the excruciating image of falling on top of it had disappeared. I’d come out of this with a few scrapes and bruises; a mishap like that would’ve been a complete embarrassment. “Sorry. I only do this as a last resort. Not the kind of thing that brings me any joy.”

Rhys bumped my fist lazily with his. “You did what you had to. Good game, Mason.” He scratched at one bearded cheek, russet, soulful eyes lingering on the dagger. He nodded toward it. “Thought that was a vampire hunting knife.”

I flashed a toothy grin and gave the hilt an appreciative pat. “All-purpose blade, baby.” My brow knit together, the smile fading from my lips until they formed a tight line. He could’ve very easily been the headline on the morning news, though I’d never let him stay dead. He and I both knew that. “You gonna be okay, big guy?”

He rubbed absently at his neck. “Pfft, this this nothing. Just add ghost strangulation to the running tally of concussions, broken bones, lacerations, and…whatever else, I don’t goddamn know.” The man was covered in scars. We traded stories on the regular, and even outside of his hockey injuries, Rhys had been a wild child. “A weird badge of honor, but I’ll take it over joining them any day.”

You and me both. 

“And you thought this job would be safer than hockey.”

He let out another weak, wheezy cough, then cleared his throat. “I owe you one.”

I clapped him on the side of his back, holding his gaze a moment longer. “You never owe me anything, Rhys,” I said, and I meant it. He’d done enough for me and Ellie. More than anybody ever had, more than I could repay in a lifetime. “Never did get the chance to ask—what was the cause of death?”

He ducked away from me to turn the lights on and cut off a killer guitar solo with a tap of his thumb against his phone’s screen. A buzzing hum brought the fluorescents back online, clinical greenish-yellow light splashed across the flaking cinderblocks.

Rhys didn’t grace me with an answer until he’d grabbed a plastic broom with bristles that reminded me of Ellie’s bedhead. A frizzy, snarled bird’s nest. Completely untamable.

“You know I can’t tell you that.” With a resigned huff, he started to clean up the shards of glass, a melodic clink following every sweep of his ratty broom. “Goddamn, look at the mess she made…”

“And, as your trusted necromancer consultant-slash-informant, you know that I’d never tell a single living soul the sensitive details of any case. Silent as the grave and all that jazz. Come on, Rhys. What was Hannah-something’s deal? I could’ve brought her back.”

More rhythmic clinking and another sigh. “You can’t reason with someone like that, living or dead. Don’t take it personally. And don’t…don’t get all weird about it, either. I know you. As soon as you start fixating, you’ll feel guilty. Don’t do it. You can’t save everybody, Sera.”

“Thanks for the lecture, Dad.” I crossed my arms with a scratchy rustle of denim. “Seriously, though. It had to be something traumatic. New haunts…they don’t do that, Rhys. I mean, she could’ve torn apart my ribcage with her bare hands, figuratively speaking, if she’d had enough energy.”

The clinking finally ceased. Rhys leaned on the broom, one arm draped over the handle while the other worried at his neck. “I don’t know. It could’ve been murder, but we’re still collecting evidence.” He lowered his voice. “There were unknown toxins found in her blood. We’re still waiting on the full toxicology report.”

My throat went dry. “Vampire bite.”

Unknown toxins listed in a report almost always became shorthand for venom. Lethal in large doses, if you didn’t already succumb to the blood loss after a vampire sunk its fangs into your carotid. 

“No bite,” Rhys corrected. “She died with all her blood inside her.”

I swiped my tongue across my bottom lip. “That’s…something. I—yeah, I don’t know what to do with that. Obviously not my area of expertise.”

  He resumed sweeping, wearing a smug I told you so smirk until it was dispatched by a flash of sympathy. “Now some bloodsucker’s going to feast on it. Irony at its goddamned finest.”

So, Hannah had been a donor. With the laws governing how vampires fed—which were frankly pretty lax, if you ask me—they couldn’t take fresh blood straight from a human vein unless they had explicit consent, and definitely couldn’t kill to satisfy their hunger. The city issued special cards and graciously let them get their monthly intake at places like Rhys’ work. Whatever we didn’t use was fair game for their disgusting tastes. Infected, diseased, blood from corpses, or anything else the Red Cross deemed unfit. They lapped up every drop they could get.

Bloodsuckers couldn’t afford to be picky when the consequence for opening an unwilling mortal vein with their teeth was execution.

There were people like Hannah, though, who were living donors, who gave fresh, healthy blood for the vamps to dine on.

You wouldn’t find my name in that donor registry.

“Forget I asked.”

“Thought you would’ve pounced on that, Mason. No conclusive results so far, but it sure sounds like a bloodsucker to me. Unless there are other venomous nocturnal monsters in the city I should know about.”

“Nope.” I toed at a scuff mark on the tiles. “Besides, I don’t do that anymore.”

Rhys let the subject drop, and for the first time since I got here, a hush fell over the room. Except, of course, for the annoying buzz of the fluorescents.

 “Well.” I crossed to retrieve the iron talisman, dropping it back into my jeans pocket. “Now that this place is ghost-free, I’ll see myself out. I’d love to stay and help you clean up, but it looks like you’ve got it covered.”

Rhys glanced my way long enough so I could see his eye roll.

Anyway,” I sang, jabbing my thumb toward the exit. “Really late to meet another client. Gotta run. Enjoy the, uh, dulcet tones of Hall & Oates.”

Rhys’ dejected exhale made me feel just a tiny bit remorseful. We both worked the graveyard shift. For me, it happened to be in a literal sense. “Anything interesting on the schedule?”

Shrugging both shoulders, I walked backward to the door with my hands stuffed into the pockets of my denim jacket. “Digging up a grave, avoiding another arrest, raising the dead from their eternal slumber. The usual.”

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