Daybreak over Hollow’s Row offers less clarity in the light. The town remains in an obscure shadow, its deeper truths hidden beneath a veil of murky marsh waters and masked faces.
The fire in the pit burned out after Kallum vanished into the night. I awoke to a cold and empty room, my body strangely rested and recovered after a short but intense sleep that I haven’t allowed myself to succumb to since before the accident.
The predominantly rational part of me attributes this to the drug I was dosed with—yet a truth I can no longer deny challenges that assertion. There’s another part of me that was unlocked last night with Kallum, a side where the deepest, darkest thoughts and desires were thrust into the light.
Letting go, losing myself to him…the surrender to not only trust him with my body but my mind, I’m changed. Irrevocably.
There’s not a place on my body that hasn’t suffered an injury to some degree. Bruised skin and muscles, cuts and scrapes—and most of the damage I welcomed from Kallum’s touch.
Which of his touches first set this course in motion? Was it the graze of his hand against mine in the courtroom? When his hand circled my wrist at the visitation table? Or is there another moment in time still locked away where the hellfire of his touch branded me as his.
The butterfly effect claims that one small, seemingly insignificant change can work as a catalyst for extreme outcomes. But the result is only possible if the starting conditions are sensitive enough to affect that change.
My starting conditions were more than fragile, presenting the perfect catalyst for a man of chaos to disrupt my course.
I may never unearth the full truth of the night Kallum believes we first collided. One of the questions afflicting me now is whether or not I can accept this.
As I try to peer through the stained-glass window of the library, I tuck the corner of the blanket beneath my arm, then touch the coarse threads stitched into my scar tissue, the only proof last night was real. Every article that bore any proof has disappeared, just as he did.
Kallum is the expert in his field. He’s an expert at many things, in fact. But his needlework skills for mending wounds is rather lacking.
No one person can be perfect in every area, no matter their level of perfectionism.
I continue to probe the unsightly crossed stitches on my arm, my mind following a trail of thought as I contend with a number of realities still to come.
A loud noise reverberates through the mansion announcing the arrival of federal agents before they infiltrate the library. I’m approached by one of the agents seemingly in charge, questioned on my condition, and urged to answer a barrage of questions.
By the time Agent Hernandez enters the library through a corridor behind the inlaid bookcase, I’m prepared to confront at least one of those realities.
“Dr. St. James, are you all right?” Hernandez asks, his features bracketed by deep lines, highlighting his lack of sleep and stressed state. His gaze drops to my neck, where faint red stripes from Kallum’s belt mark my skin.
Before I present an answer, Hernandez turns toward the questioning agent and says, “She’s to receive medical attention before undergoing any interviews.”
I hike an eyebrow at his authoritative tone. The other agent only nods once before he begins directing a team to sweep the library.
I draw the worn blanket higher as I watch a line of special agents emerge from the hidden corridor behind the bookcase. Apparently, there is more than one access point to the mine shaft.
“I’m all right,” I assure Hernandez. “Devyn Childs is the perpetrator.”
I say her name quickly, like tearing off a Band-Aid, or ripping out my stitches all at once.
He nods with certainty. “The task force is aware of that.”
My heart knocks heavily against my breastplate as confusion draws my features together. The bookcase pushes open farther, and more agents file into the library, weapons drawn. They’re dressed in tactical gear, and one of them speaks into an earpiece. “Five more recovered, sir.”
“What’s happening?” I demand.
Agent Hernandez ushers me to a private corner of the library, where he removes his FBI jacket and drapes it over my shoulders.
I draw the jacket around me over the blanket. “Thank you.”
“I’ll have clothes brought in for you.” He retrieves his phone and sends a text message.
“Would it be out of the realm of possibility to get a coffee?”
His mouth twitches like he might smile. “I can probably make that happen.”
“Thanks. How did you find me?” I ask.
He touches the earpiece in his ear and looks away. “Dr. St. James is recovered.” After a beat, he replies, “Yes, ma’am. I’ll bring her in.”
He drives a hand through his disheveled hair. Then, taking in my body wrapped in a blanket, he says, “When I couldn’t reach you, I had your cell phone traced. The last pinged location was right near the diner. I located it behind the HRPD building.”
A web of anxiety spools around me, and I breathe through the tightness in my chest.
He continues, “As you were missing, I had to search your device—”
“It’s fine,” I say, knowing what he’s about to reveal.
His face hardens. “The last accessed app held a partial recording of a conversation with Childs. I forwarded a small clip of that to the task force,” Hernandez says, confirming my assumption. “She was placed as a person of interest, and an APB was issued on her, as well as you. But as of an hour ago, an arrest warrant has been issued on her.”
I avert my gaze from the agent. There were things said in that conversation—personal things—that I didn’t want others to hear. Once I realized I’d been drugged, however, I did have the foresight and capacity to start recording Devyn, in the event I didn’t make it back.
Hernandez touches my shoulder, drawing my attention to the concern etched on his face. “Halen, what happened to you out there?”
“She didn’t hurt me,” I say, trying to school my facial expressions.
“You have stitches,” he says, tone pitched low. “You’re obviously hurt. I see the injuries—”
“She released me. She let me go.” The lie falls easily from my lips.
You lie so pretty.
By the deep groove notched between his brows, I can see he’s not entirely convinced, but the urgency of the situation around us allows the conversation to end here. Agents are bagging everything in sight, turning over the library in search of hidden access points and Devyn.
“All right. Okay,” Hernandez concedes. “But they are going to want answers, Halen.”
They. Alister, he means. My stomach roils at the thought of being interrogated by him. “Right. I know. I can handle it.”
An EMT arrives with clothes in-hand, and I accept the clean jogging pants and sweatshirt gratefully. She insists on looking my injuries over, refusing to allow me to get dressed in the bathroom alone until I’ve done so. I’m treated with a disinfectant cream for the stitches.
“Did you do this yourself?” the EMT asks me, eyebrows winged up as she applies the cream to the black thread.
I glance at the wound. “Doesn’t it look like it?”
She smirks, graciously dismissing my glib tone. I’ve learned a lot from my time spent with Kallum, like how to answer questions without actually answering them.
“You need to get this treated and sutured properly,” she instructs me.
When I return to the library, I hand the jacket to Hernandez and am rewarded with a thermal of coffee.
“Bless you,” I tell him, uncapping the mug.
“It’s salvation right now.” I drink a few sips, my system welcoming the caffeine. Then, as I recap the thermal, I brace myself for another hard truth. “Why was the priority upgraded on Devyn?”
His brown eyes meet mine with a measure of caution. “One of the victims was recovered in downtown a little over an hour ago,” he says. “He was found wandering Main Street, naked, apparently in shock or under the influence of some substance. After he was taken in, a unit used hounds to track his scent to the mine.” He nods toward the bookcase, releasing a breath. “I’ve never seen anything like what’s down there. There’s a whole underground habitat or some shit.”
I mentally try to connect the pieces of last night with what Hernandez is saying now. I willingly let Devyn take me in the hopes I could somehow help the victims. I’m not sure that’s the outcome, but at least some might get that help.
“And more were found?” As he regards me curiously, I add, “One of the agents said five more were recovered. I’m assuming he was referring to the…victims.” I’m having a difficult time using that word to describe them, the disturbing image of the people I saw last night clashing with that terminology.
Hernandez confirms there have been six of the thirty-two missing locals found. All have been detained at a sequestered wing of the local hospital to undergo medical tests, treatment, and psychological evaluation.
“I should get you back to the hotel,” Hernandez says, turning to lead me through the warren of agents and forensic analysts. “I’ll give you some time to freshen up if needed before I have to bring you in.”
As I follow him out of the library, I ask the obvious question. “Where’s Kallum?”
He doesn’t look back. “Uh… With his lawyer,” he says, distracted by a text on his phone screen. “Trying to get released from holding.”
I detect an edge of strain in his tone, and my inner alarm sounds. Since the moment Agent Hernandez entered the library, I’ve sensed his anxiety. This is a very tense and anxious situation unfolding, yes—but there’s something he’s holding back.
“How are the locals responding to the news of Devyn?” I ask him. She’s one of them, a local. A friend, part of the system that protects them. Feelings of betrayal often present as denial at first, and then anger. Things around Hollow’s Row may become more volatile.
He shakes his head. “I’m not sure,” he replies as he meets another special agent in front of a black SUV and accepts the keys, confirming his vehicle was left at the entrance to the killing fields when the search began.
As Hernandez hasn’t mentioned the stolen carving knife sealed in an evidence bag being discovered in his SUV, I feel safe in trusting it’s still there. I’m torn between my feelings of relief and guilt over that fact. What I don’t feel is wrong for having stolen the weapon Devyn tried to use to frame Kallum. Yet even doing what we inherently believe is right still causes a cognitive dissonance that results in pain.
Kallum said villains have a motive, and that motive is a virtuous one. At least, in the mind of the villain, that reason feels virtuous. What I believe is that there’s a motive for all acts, whether good or bad. I believe Devyn has her own reason.
There is an answer there, one that delves to the heart of the matter.
I see her through the darkness, her eyes flashing with firelight, as our gazes connected in that last moment.
I came here to find the lost people of this town.
What I saw in Devyn’s eyes in that single second reaffirmed my own motive.
Devyn is the lost person I was meant to find.
As the SUV winds through the narrow streets of downtown, bringing us closer to town square, out of habit I search for my phone, only to mutter a curse.
Hernandez glances over at me. Then he reaches into his blazer and produces a device. “Here,” he says, handing me the phone.
Surprised and a little wary, I stare across the interior at him before I accept my phone. “Apparently, I’m a bad influence on you, agent. Subverting procedures?”
“A lot has happened in a short time,” he says, relinquishing a tense breath. “There’s been some changes with the higher ups, and until I know exactly who I’m reporting to, there’s no reason to confiscate your device. What’s said on that recording is private to you, and it’s your choice who knows.”
I clutch the phone, offering him an appreciative smile. Earlier, he said he’d sent a clip to the task force. Hernandez selectively sent a section of the conversation which kept the details of Alister’s attack on me private. “Thank you.”
He nods once, clearing his throat to diffuse the sentiment.
I shift in the passenger seat, and the scratchy material of the sweatshirt rubs over the stitches, snagging on the cotton to isolate my thoughts. I touch my arm, feeling the sloppy needlework of the stitches through the sleeve.
Before we reach our destination, I angle myself toward the agent. “Hernandez,” I say, my tone serious.
He briefly glances over at me. “Gael,” he says, offering his first name.
I smile wanly. “Gael, there’s something amiss here.”
He makes a sound of amusement. “Yeah, there’s a lot amiss here.”
“The locals shouldn’t be working the case. In fact, I think—”
“That Childs isn’t acting alone,” he says, reasoning.
“Yes,” I say simply. “And if I remain on this case, I think we should keep our theories to ourselves for now.”
Devyn couldn’t have done everything on her own. She had to have had someone on the inside helping her. There was too much to access, to monitor and alter in the forensics department, for any one person to oversee.
Then there was over thirty people with semi-to-serious procedures—removal of eyes; partially severed tongues—who needed medical observation. The person who dissected the eyes, who removed the tongues, they’d have to have some kind of medical training and experience. They’d need access to blood clotting agents. Possibly pain medication, more than the wine of their god and ecstasy tinctures for their rituals.
There’s the why Devyn is doing this that needs answered, but also the how.
There is someone else involved.
“Yeah, I agree,” the agent says, not offering anything further as he focuses on the road ahead.
I stare down at my phone, running my thumb over the crack webbing the corner. I light the screen and tap my email icon, feeling oddly out of touch with reality and needing some semblance of my routine.
The email at the top of my app doesn’t offer any solace. I click on the message from Dr. Torres and scan the letter, reading the last sentence of the short missive twice:
There is something imperative you need to know about your charge, Dr. St. James. Contact me right away.
I exhale a breath and dim the screen. “How does he even have access to the Internet,” I mutter to myself. The last I’d heard about the head psychiatrist of the Briar institution, Dr. Torres had been remanded to his own mental hospital after suffering a psychotic episode.
Staring at the darkened phone screen, I feel a sliver of apprehensive curiosity rise up, but I tamp it down just as quickly. Doubt is a dangerous emotion. Whatever Dr. Torres needs to make me aware of about Kallum, it will have to wait. There are only so many delusional people I have time for on my roster today.
I take a long swig of coffee, and as I hold the thermal in my palms, savoring the warmth of the mug, a sudden memory from last night flashes across my vision.
“Shit.” I touch my forehead. “Tabitha. The waitress from the diner.” I look at Hernandez. “She’s the one who handed me the coffee. It was laced with something. She might not be involved directly…but she needs to be questioned.”
My insides buzz at the thought the waitress could know how to locate Devyn.
Hernandez is already pulling out his phone. “I’ll have her picked up for questioning.” But he halts, sending me a guarded look. “Unless we should question her ourselves.”
Taking a moment to think, I glance out the window at the town. I push the tangled layers of my hair over my shoulder, my fingers brushing the sensitized marks from the leather along my neck. “I want to be in on the search for Devyn,” I say, admitting the truth. I want to search for her myself. “My expertise in behavior will be needed if she’s apprehended in a similar state as the victim in town.”
His silence pulls on the threads of unease banding tightly around my chest.
“But I don’t want to get you or anyone else reprimanded for my choices, Agent Hernandez. I also really don’t want to go through Agent Alister for approval.” I expel a lengthy breath. “However, I don’t have a choice in the matter. So, go ahead and make the call to him.”
Saying Alister’s name and the word choice in the same sentence raises my blood pressure. Once I speak with Charles Crosby, I’ll deal with what happens next.
As the agent halts at a stop sign, he turns darkened eyes on me. “You’ll have no issue remaining on the case,” Hernandez assures me. “Alister is no longer in charge of the task force.”
“Agent, tell me what’s going on,” I demand.
The SUV lurches forward, and Hernandez says, “There’s another crime scene.”
Gravity falls away, leaving me suspended in a violent heartbeat.
“Take me there.”
Yellow crime-scene tape marks the perimeter of the park in central downtown. The small wooden bridge where Kallum kissed me and swore to never let me go stretches across a winding stream that feeds into a marshland creek. A band of caution tape wraps a gothic-style post clock positioned at the front of the urban square, and a Do Not Enter sign hangs below the clock face, designating the site as a crime scene.
The bright-green terrain of the park clashes with the dark energy buzzing in the air. For the first time in days, the sun peeks past storm clouds only to illuminate the macabre underbelly of this quaint town.
Agent Hernandez allows me to borrow his FBI lanyard to grant me access to the scene. At this point, neither one of us are concerned with protocol or being reprimanded for subverting procedure.
As we near the main attraction in the center of the common, my breath hitches at the chilling sight of a decapitated male victim strung between the trunks of two ancient and gnarled black willow trees, the head resting at the feet.
The trees themselves sit off to the right of the bridge near the stream. The willowy limbs have been swept aside to display the victim. I recognize the woven, webbed technique where the wrists have been secured.
A moth caught in a web.
Where’s the spider?
I stop a short distance away to take in the full grisly exhibition. Every horrific detail captured in replica to the Harbinger crime scenes, except for one gruesome deviation.
The skin and muscle of the victim’s face has been flayed away from the bone to reveal the skull. What remains is a gross and extreme depiction of the death’s-head hawkmoth.
I stare into the empty eye sockets of the skull, my heart tearing a wild path through my rib cage as Agent Hernandez moves in beside me.
“Who identified the body?” I ask, my voice unrecognizable to my own ears.
“Special Agent Rana,” Hernandez answers. “DNA testing still needs to be conducted for conclusive identification, but I’d say it’s pretty damn conclusive as of right now.” The agent averts his gaze, unable to stare at the mutilation for long. “His FBI badge was on his person, and a tribal band tattoo on his bicep was identified.”
I nod slowly, absorbing his words along with the gory scene. The standard black suit could be any black suit, but the pale-blue tie hung loosely around the sliced neck is the same one Alister wore yesterday. Only now it’s stained in blood.
“Agent Rana has been temporarily placed in charge of the task force,” Hernandez continues, nodding toward a woman with dark hair and suit near the scene. “I figured… I thought this would be a bit too much after everything you’ve gone through.”
“Don’t think for me,” I snap.
He bows his head and runs a hand over his mouth, nodding. “Yeah, you’re right.”
I fold my arms over my chest. “I didn’t mean it to come out that harshly.”
“This is a harsh situation,” he reasons.
Forensic techs swarm around Alister’s body, documenting the mutilation, cataloguing details. Out of habit, I search the scene, expecting to find Devyn. An ill feeling coats my stomach, and I blink several times to clear the lingering haze in my vision.
From this vantage point, I can make out a fracture to the bridge of the nasal bone on the victim’s skull. Alister’s skull, I internally correct myself. Where are the eyes, the flesh?
A sickness grips my insides at the thought this was a countermeasure to dispose of the scratch marks made by my fingernails.
I take a step in the direction of the body, and the agent captures my arm. “Wait. Take these,” he says, then slips a pair of latex gloves in my hand.
“Thanks.” I slide the gloves into place as I walk deliberately toward the man who attacked me only the night before. Every cell in my body vibrates, my teeth ache at the chill infecting my bones.
A vise-like grip twists my viscera as I reach the edge of the scene. I’m not sure what I’m looking for until my gaze lands on it, forcing me closer despite the blaring warning that rushes blood to my ears in a deafening roar.
With an aching breath trapped in my lungs, I stare, unblinking, at the deeply scored mark in the forehead of the skull. I recognize the alchemic symbol of a triangle within a circle.
The philosopher’s stone.
A heavy drumbeat rises up from the abyss of my mind to mute the chaos around me, and I can’t look away from the symbol. I can feel him so close. Beneath my skin, inside my marrow. His heated words whisper in my ear:
I’ll always be that man, Halen. The one who will spill blood for you.
Last night, as I wiped blood from his face—blood I now realize wasn’t his—I told Kallum I wanted Alister to pay, to suffer. I said I wanted him dead.
Kallum threatened to carve his initials in Alister’s bones if he ever touched me again.
And he made good on his vow.
Despite the scene being deliberately devised to imitate a serial killer, the philosopher’s stone might as well be Kallum’s fucking initials.
“He’s insane,” I whisper to myself. “He’s really, actually certifiably insane.”
A shock of awareness hits hard, my head sways with the effect. I brace my palm on the tree, and Hernandez helps guide me aside when Agent Rana orders him to remove me from the scene.
“Come on,” Hernandez says, urging me farther away. “I’ll take you to the hotel.”
“I’m fine,” I say, steeling my tone with conviction as I steady myself. I hold up a hand, then glance at the bridge. “Has the medical examiner identified the time of death?”
“Halen, we can look into that information later.”
“I need this now,” I tell him, desperation leaking into my resolve.
Hernandez huffs an impatient breath. “No definitive TOD yet, no,” he confirms. “Here’s all we know. Surveillance at the police station was wiped. Assumption is that Childs, or an accomplice like another Landry, did so to cover their tracks after taking the incriminating evidence. The knife in the lab was taken. Possibly right before you were abducted by Childs.”
Me. I’m the accomplice.
“Theory is right now that Alister got in the way. He was the only one at the department…while all units were out…”
“Looking for me,” I say, filling in the pause.
“And Childs,” he says. “This is the job, Halen. We all know the risk. But working theory is that the Harbinger and Childs are in on this together, that either of them could’ve done this.” He nods toward the body, disgust evident in his hard features.
“That’s absurd,” I hear myself say.
He releases a sardonic laugh. “Absurd fits this town well. There’s no footage of Alister leaving the department,” Hernandez says, and a micro-flash of uncertainty registers on his face before he conceals his expression. “Right now, all the footage around town is being pulled to comb through, to look for this fucking Harbinger psycho.”
A cold sweat blankets my skin, and suddenly the sweatshirt is too thick. The neckband too constricting along my throat. My forearm flares with a prickling sensation, as if my nerve endings have come alive. I rub at the sleeve with the destructive urge to tear the stitches out and remove his brand from my flesh.
Kallum destroyed the evidence at the mansion when he burned it all. The only article of clothing he wore, his jeans, he made sure were rinsed clean to corrupt the DNA…blood that washed between our bodies as I touched him, kissed him.
Made love to him.
I’m sleeping with a deranged killer.
And ultimately, this is my punishment.
This is what I deserve. He is what I deserve. I had a beautiful life, with a wonderful man and a decorated nursery, before it was torn away in one vicious mugging. Life, the cruel thief.
Now I’m a killer’s plaything. I am his obsession.
I turn and start toward the bridge. Agent Hernandez tries to halt me, and I say, “I just…need a minute.”
When I reach the bank of the stream, I sink to my knees and whip the gloves off my hands. The air has no temperature, my lungs numb as I drag in breaths to calm my rampaging heart, my blood rushing too fast through my arteries.
I submerge my hands in the stream, seeking the cool water to further calm the fire flashing my skin. As I bring my palms up to splash my face, I stop, my breath hung on an exhale that will never come.
The morning sun glints off of a tiny golden object nestled in the stream bank. I shake off my wet hands and wipe a palm down my pants, then grab a discarded glove before I scoop the object out of the silt, turning it over to inspect.
Pinched between the latex and my fingers is a gold cufflink.
The drumbeat strikes with a thunderous boom, crashing through me with violent force. A blaze engulfs my chest, the fire searing around the edges of my darkening vision. I tunnel through a wormhole in time, all gravity lost.
I grip the object in my fist and seal my eyes closed against the imagery invading my mind, trying to close off the link—but it rushes like a tidal wave.
The Cambridge crime scene layers my vision like a thin veil—and I reach out and tear right through it to the memories flashing in luminous brilliance, dispelling the shroud around my mind.
White noise infects my eardrums as the beat of the drum intensifies, so overpowering I’m shaking, gasping for air to fill my burning organs.
The mental assault batters in merciless force, unrelenting.
And the dam breaks.
The grainy picture that has been plaguing me since the ritual with Kallum sharpens, coming into perfect focus. The bright edges of the initials engraved on a gold cufflink vibrate against my retinas, branding into the backs of my eyelids.
My eyes snap open.
And then with a deluge, every latent memory held at bay floods at once. I flatten my palm to the grass, drawing in breaths, a crazed laugh tumbling from my mouth around each inhale.
I push onto my feet, energy surging my veins like a pure hit of adrenaline injected straight into my heart.
My gaze sweeps the gathered gawkers formed beyond the caution tape, landing on Charles Crosby near the post clock first, then next, on the striking man sheathed in an all-black suit.
As I find Kallum amid the crowd, his eyes find me.
I hear his whispered words from the night we collided for the first time: Breathe.
I take off toward Agent Hernandez where he’s conversing with the agent in charge. I hold up the cufflink. “I think this belongs on that bastard’s suit,” I say, dropping the object in his upturned, gloved palm.
His features draw together in a mix of confusion and concern. “Hey, are you okay—?”
“Yes,” I say, bringing my hair over my shoulders the way Kallum likes it. “Never fucking better.”
Agent Rana steps in front of me. “Dr. St. James, I do need you to make a statement. The task force requires a complete account of the events of last night. I’m asking you to come with me right now.”
I meet her dark eyes, an eyebrow arched. “Am I in trouble?”
Her pretty features give nothing away. “Why would you think you’d be in trouble?”
I offer a disappointed grimace at her obvious tactic.
Her mouth purses in a thin line. “Not at this time,” she answers.
“Good. Then just as soon as I’m done being completely inappropriate with the expert consultant, I’ll come in to make a statement.” Seeing as I was hired by the locals at Devyn’s request, it’s doubtful the locals or the feds want me to remain on the case.
I then step around her, starting in the direction of Kallum, my steps sure for the first time in months.
I’ve always said: question everything.
Look beyond what you can see and touch, even reason. And somehow, I lost sight of that.
There’s always been another explanation for why the Harbinger killings stopped six months ago when Kallum was incarcerated. One that no one would think to question, the evidence hidden so perfectly right out in the open.
When the newest Harbinger crime scene was reported in Hollow’s Row, Kallum never suspected anyone other than the Overman suspect. That’s because he knew the Harbinger killer couldn’t be here in this town.
Kallum knew this…because the Harbinger killer is dead.
As I weave a path through the gathered crowd outside the crime-scene perimeter, I pass media crews, and a live report from one of the journalists reaches my ears:
“At this time, it’s alleged that Special Agent Wren Alister has become the latest victim of the infamous Harbinger killer. The killer has advanced his technique. No longer satisfied with portraying a skull on his victims, the killer has devolved to a more gruesome depiction of the moth, removing the flesh to reveal the victim’s skull in the likeness of the death’s-head hawkmoth…”
As I near Kallum, his lawyer turns to address me, and Kallum nearly growls, “Leave.”
Crosby glares at his client, but dutifully takes out his phone and walks away, leaving us standing before each other, only a few feet setting us apart.
“Kiss me,” I order him.
Kallum tilts his head, gaze narrowed in question. Yet he eats the distance between us and grabs me by the nape, crushing his mouth to mine.
I melt into him, savoring the taste of his demand, before I break away. The sharp slap of my palm meeting his face rings out to draw attention.
Head canted to the side, Kallum’s mouth curls into a wicked smile. Using his thumb, he wipes the bead of blood from his lip as he turns back my way.
“Now,” I say, releasing a shaky breath, “when asked where you got that bruise, advise your lawyer to say it’s from when I struck you yesterday for trying the same shit.”
Then I push up onto my toes and wrap my arms around his neck, forcefully pulling him down to me. I kiss him hard, full of yearning, tasting the hint of blood as liquid fire pours into my veins. There’s only a moment of hesitancy before he matches the urgency of my kiss.
Kallum lifts his head to stare down at me, looking deep into my eyes. “And when asked about this right now?” he says, a taunt layered beneath his guttural tone.
I lick my lips. “Now… Now I’ve changed my mind.”
A heated ember ignites behind his dark gaze, and he strokes his thumb across my jaw. “There you are, sweetness,” he says, his rough voice abrasively striking over my skin like flint to spark a flame.
“I remember,” I say. “I remember everything.”
Taking my face between his slashed palms, Kallum angles my head back farther, sealing his mouth over mine in a devastating kiss. I taste blood and carnage and passion; I taste him, the man who kept my secret. Who was incarcerated for me, and who continues to keep my secret, to protect me.
As he pulls away a fraction, his captivating gaze sweeps over my features, my skin crackling beneath his electrifying touch. “Mine,” he whispers across my lips.
A shiver encases my body as I blink up at him, my vision crystal clear, the dull heartache always present in the center of my chest alleviated by his desire. “That’s your masterpiece,” I say, referring to the flayed agent displayed in the scene behind us.
He kisses my lips tenderly before he smiles down at me. “What can I say. You inspire me, my dark muse.”
“I am yours, Kallum. Truly,” I say, knowing that when the time comes, I’ll have to again break the rules to protect us. But it’s what I owe him.
Faith consists in believing what reason cannot.
Voltaire’s verse comes to me as truth. Arms linked around Kallum’s neck, I trace a finger over my forearm, feeling the wound, the scar, the ink, the stitches. The layers of a life of tragedy and pain.
The night I first met Kallum Locke, he was witness to a violence born within me, one it’s taken until now to finally reconcile, to accept.
When you fight monsters, you risk becoming one yourself.
But it takes a monster to hunt monsters.
That night, I took a life. I snuffed out that life with a vengeance that had infected me from the darkest moment of my existence. And when my mind fractured, and I couldn’t cope with my reality, a professor of philosophy and a practitioner of the dark arts promised he could help me forget.
Kallum lowers my arms and threads his fingers through mine. “There’s a conspiracy floating around that the priestess and the Harbinger are working together.”
His use of the word conspiracy strikes a chord inside me, and I know what comes next. “We have to find Devyn.”
A striking smile slants his mouth at my inclusive we. “I’m always at your command, sweet Halen.”
The personification of my profound grief came to me in the form of a beautiful devil with clashing blue-and-green eyes and a smoldering, disarming smile.
I summoned this daemon. I asked him to cast out my grief and pain, to shelter my darkness, to siphon away my shame. To make me abstract. So abstract I no longer recognized myself.
And he’s patiently waited for the fracture to mend.
We are the high and low notes, a madness and genius that fosters harmony. Alchemy and magick, or logic and psychology. The answer to the question is less important than the fusion which creates something darkly beautiful that belongs only to us.
With Kallum, I can face my trauma with a healing peace…or a tire iron.
Alister was a monster, and if Kallum had not destroyed him, I would have. I can no more judge him for his monstrous act than I can blame the woman inside me for hers six months ago.
I killed the Harbinger.
And I would kill him all over again.