The house’s layout had been designed for tours rather than living, so the second floor was a maze of rooms and attractions. I stood stupefied, looking at what was laid out before me. There was a crumbling drywall framework, which I could see through to more walls beyond. I felt like a mouse in a laboratory maze. I stepped through the first doorway, ducking under the broken wall into a high-ceilinged room lined with mirrors.
About a hundred of me swore along in unison. Adjusting my shooting grip, I pressed my back to the closest wall and scooted along, shadowed by my consortium of doppelgangers as we searched for the right exit into the next room of this house of horrors.
Up here, away from the smoke machine, the smell of blood was strong, but there was a stale quality to it. Not long aged, it also wasn’t brand new. I didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing, but I chose to hope it was the former.
I followed the mirrored walls, bumping into adjacent mirrors several times. As I moved, I avoided looking at my own alarmed expression. It was hard to pretend you weren’t afraid when thirty-six horrified reflections of you were staring back.
A black square with no reflection on it appeared, and I gratefully stepped through into the space waiting beyond. Into a graveyard.
At first I thought I was mistaken. The ground underfoot was real dirt, and there were a dozen graves laid out before me, each one looking frightfully fresh. Even the smell in the air was of fresh earth and night wind.
Once I touched the nearest surface it was obvious the walls were only painted to look like a nighttime sky and the headstones were just well-decorated Styrofoam. I nudged one over with my foot, and it flopped backwards without any resistance. No angry dead rose up to avenge the desecration. I knelt and brushed the dirt back from the mound just to be sure no one was buried underneath. All it revealed was a shipping barrel cut in half with nothing under it.
I sat back on my heels and looked around the room, wishing it would tell me something. I needed a clue as to where I was supposed to be searching.
From downstairs came a riotous crashing noise and the sound of a male voice screaming in pain.
I skidded back into the mirror room, not wanting to risk moving forward when I knew going backwards would at least take me somewhere familiar. My shoulder collided into one of the mirrored walls with staggering force and shards of sharp glass rained down on me, speckling my skin with an array of new cuts. Still I moved forward, with more care now but with no less haste.
I reached the main hall and wasted no time with the stairs. I vaulted over the banister, landing at the foot of the stairs with a loud thud, buried instantly by the newly restored fake smoke. When I got to my feet, I was facing the room with the prop coffin in it.
Only now the coffin was open.
“We’re glad you could make it,” a masculine voice announced from a few feet behind me.
I’d been so preoccupied in hoping to find someone, I hadn’t been paying attention for people trying to find me. I turned around slowly and saw Jameson holding Nolan by the neck in a sleeper hold while the boy kicked at the floor, fighting against the wave of unconsciousness threatening to take him over. Nolan was looking at me wide-eyed, but my sight was all on Jameson.
“I came here to help you,” I said, my voice loaded with the hurt of his betrayal.
Nolan passed out, and Jameson dropped his body to the floor.
“Oh, you will help us, Secret. You have no idea how much you’ll help.”
I saw the wrought-iron fire poker in his other hand a moment before he swung. And then for the first time in my life I got to find out what it felt like to be bashed in the skull with one.
“This seems like a silly way to spend your last moments,” Brigit said, ever cheerful.
We were lying next to a pool, our skin warmed by the glow of the midday sun while a very handsome young man delivered us mimosas. I’d never had a mimosa before.
“If I make it through this, please make sure I try one of these,” I requested.
Brigit laughed, sipping her own drink and adjusting her oversize sunglasses. Her toenails were painted bright pink to match her bikini. I wore black. I looked out at the blue, blue water, enjoying the way sunlight reflecting off it was so glaring in certain places I couldn’t look directly at it.
“You’ll be fine,” she said.
“That’s what I told Desmond.”
“That boy.” Brigit whistled appreciatively. “You hit some sort of beefcake jackpot there.”
I nestled back into the chair, enjoying the warmth of the sun on my face. “I don’t think anyone has used the phrase beefcake outside of a 1978 Harlequin romance novel, Bri.”
“Beefcake, beefcake, beefcake,” she chanted.
We both sipped our drinks leisurely. My dreams had quite the euphoric quality to them lately. Either I was spending time naked in bed with good-looking men, or I got to sunbathe. Of the two, I think I liked this one best. As Brigit pointed out, I got to spend naked time with hot men in real life.
I’d never been able to bask in the sun before.
“Boss?” she said.
“Mmm?” I didn’t feel like correcting her, so I just rolled with it.
“Not that I’m complaining or anything, but is there a reason I’m here? I was in the middle of a shower and then, like, wham, I’m dreaming. I’m probably pretty pruney by now.” She assessed her fingers as if they would reflect what was happening to her body in the real world.
I’d pulled her into a dream? How was that possible? Dreamy thoughts ebbed and flowed through my mind, reminding me of something Holden had told me.
Of course! Brigit was my ward, like I was Holden’s. I had used my connection with her to reach out for help. My subconscious, as it turns out, is a freaking genius.
“Brigit.” I sat bolt upright in my chaise lounger, knocking my mimosa over.
“You need to tell Sig… I… He needs to know where I am.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m in Rhinebeck.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Weird, why would you go antiquing?”
“Brigit…” I warned.
“What should I tell him?”
“If Desmond did his job, you shouldn’t have to tell him anything else.”
“Secret, that’s sort of a weird message.”
“Tell him I have his answers,” I lied.
The sun seemed to grow brighter, and the reflection of it on the water became unbearable. I looked away only to find my vision had been whited out by the brilliance of the sun.
“Tell him I tried.”
Then the intensity of the light blotted everything else out.
Someone slapped me.
The pain in my head was still real outside the dream, and when I tried to open my eyes, only one of them would comply. Any attempts to open the second resulted in a jackhammer annihilating the left side of my skull. I licked my lips and tasted copper. Blood.
I made to lift my hands to investigate the source of the blood but found they were bound behind my back and neither one of them was holding my gun. My fingers brushed against skin, and a little further touching told me another pair of hands was bound with mine.
Well this just kept getting better.
When I lifted my head, something cracked in my neck, but it was nothing pivotal. In fact, a great release of endorphins followed the pop. Through my one good eye I could see Jameson standing a foot or two away from me.
“Good. I didn’t kill you,” he said with a nod.
I spit a mouthful of blood onto the floor and let my head loll backwards so I was staring at the ceiling. Spider-web patterns of light exploded across my vision and an achy throbbing sound pulsed in my ears, but I could at least see who was in the chair behind me.
“Nolan,” I croaked. “Nolan, are you okay?”
The boy was still out cold, his head flopped to one side like his neck contained no bones. But he was breathing, so for the time being I could assume he was all right. My head rolled to the side of its own volition, and I found myself looking out a large picture window.
In the tree outside, a barn owl glared at me.
I let out a small yip of joy, though to anyone present it probably sounded like pain.
Jameson came over to me and pulled my head upright by my hair, narrowly avoiding my attack when I tried to bite his arm open with my still-exposed fangs. He yanked his arm away, then grabbed my face in one of his large, rough hands. He shoved my upper lip up on both sides and gave a long whistle.
I snarled at him but ended up choking back more of my own blood.
Near my chair was an old, tall brass lamp. I’d only have one chance to execute this plan properly, so I had to believe my rudimentary grasp of physics was enough. I swung the weight of my body to one side, jerking my face out of Jameson’s hand, and then when he moved to grab at me again I tipped the chairs the opposite way, dragging Nolan’s body weight as well as my own to the tipping point.
The chairs tumbled over and the back panel of one broke, but our bonds still held firm. Freedom hadn’t been the point, however. The brass lamp wobbled, and I watched it with one eye wide. It teetered violently, and then it too tumbled. Its fall was much more spectacular because it fell into the big window, creating a triumphant crash. The window wasn’t destroyed, but a large panel of it was now missing.
The owl blinked at me and I blinked back, but given how screwed up my face was it probably looked like I was winking at it.
Jameson pulled our chairs back up with one tug and glared at me.
“You’re supposed to behave,” he snapped.
I laughed. “Whoever told you that either never met me or thought you’d be stupid enough to believe it.”
He looked flummoxed and repeated, “You’re supposed to behave.”
I spit more blood out, then touched my fangs with the tip of my tongue to make sure neither was loose. My human teeth I could get caps for. Vampire fangs don’t regrow if you lose them, and I wasn’t in a position to lose my only built-in weapon. They both felt secure, so at least that wasn’t the source of the blood.