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The Mark of Kane Excerpt

Excerpt:

Chapter 1

Death.

I released the air from my lungs through my nose in a slow, steady stream as I tried to decipher the layer beneath the reek of smoke and gasoline.

Humans, obvious and milling about, though this was my first job investigating a human death.

Demon, accounted for to my right, shuffling his size 15 Italian leather loafers on the blacktop.

Dark magic. The strong, acidic presence barely concealed and the contact harsh enough to burn the hair in my nostrils. Sorcerer.

Each essence detectable around the briquette char of the corpse. My unique skills were a blessing and a curse, disgusting on the worst of days. But there’s no ignoring a talent that keeps me alive.

The very reason I stood here, at two in the morning, watching the flash pops as photographers raced to catch the morning editions and the five-thirty a.m. cable news. Yellow police tape roped off a large segment of the Razorback’s high school parking lot and the rear access to their gym. Reporters edged along the tape and a chain link fence to get a clear shot of the officer on the scene and the pathetic smoking remains of what vaguely resembled a Toyota Prius.

I fingered my press card inside the pocket of my bomber jacket sandwiched by a rubber band to my PI license, my blood and organ donor card, a UCLA staff card, and other credentials needed to buy me quick access. All bore the name, Thaddeus Kane. I palmed my camera and moved closer to the brick edge of the building for a better view.

Four hours ago the Razorbacks’ quarterback had thrown a thirty-five yard spiral to his receiver, Stan Markowski. The catch bought the Razorbacks the yardage for a first down and put them within striking distance of the touchdown they needed to tie the game. Six plays later, Stan caught the winning ball and clinched the game to rank his team for an end-of-season match for the state championship. Every reason for an eighteen-year-old senior to celebrate.

Instead, his crispy remains were curled inside the burnt shell of his hybrid, within spitting distance of the gymnasium door. Not to mention a fire hydrant.

“You’re sure about this because why, TK?”

I didn’t answer Chaz or look at the demon, but gestured with my head to the car.

He sidled away from me. Avoiding the photographers, he walked behind the ambulance and faded from his human shell into elemental vapor. He reappeared seconds later as only a faint shimmer at the door of Markowski’s car. He squeezed around the loitering police, avoided the paramedics, and circumvented the stretcher waiting on the police photographer to finish his final shots.

At six foot five and with two hundred and sixty pounds of dense, hard muscle, Chaz’s human shell carried a footprint too large to camouflage. On the plus side, his demon form moved soundlessly and blended without color, invisible with his surroundings in shadow or light.

Almost.

I could make out his spring-green leather-and-bone form. Sorcerers would sense his demonic vibration. Humans would look right through him with only a confused inkling of déjà vu. His invisibility, a handy skill I didn’t possess.

A quick scan of the crowd allowed me to check again for the odd scent I’d isolated earlier.

Chaz’s risk—minimal.

The threat from the original assembly was negligible. Twenty people give or take, between the rescue personnel, photographers, and a few gawkers drawn by the sirens and police lights. But the number of human spectators had doubled in the last half hour. Hiding on the outskirts would be easy.

I inhaled again, culling for potential menace to guard Chaz’s back as I categorized the composition of the newer bystanders.

The smell of human blood, sweat, and artificial fragrances saturated the air. No useful information there. No demon besides Chaz stood out, but scents vary. Clan type, demon appetite, and the ability to mask are all more difficult to pinpoint in large gatherings. Just because I couldn’t detect anything didn’t mean the sorcerers who had toasted Markowski wouldn’t return and make a quick play to trap Chaz.

After returning a nod to a perky blonde female paramedic, I continued surveillance. Losing my demon sidekick wouldn’t go over well with the boss. He would take more than a pound of my flesh in retaliation.

I shook my head. Unfortunately, it didn’t dislodge any new insights. Layered beneath all the other scents at the scene was one completely unfamiliar to me. One, or perhaps a subtle combination, that didn’t trigger any of the stored memories in my senses.

Dangerous.

The oddball scent was why I’d pushed Chaz to perform up-close duty with Markowski’s corpse. He’d try for smell, but my ability was better. I wouldn’t challenge him on it, but our boss, Shalim, was intimately aware of the depth of my skills.

My unique sense of detection had saved Shalim’s royal ass. An ass he valued above any other. The only reason Shalim’s clan tolerated my human-demon carcass. However, Chaz had skills, too.

The reason we’d been sent together to check out the ripple this murder had provoked in the underworld.

I’d picked out the abnormal scent. My magic stopped there. Time for Chaz to check the abnormality against his several-hundred-year-old register. I watched him swipe his long, chartreuse tongue for a taste of the residual on Stan’s charcoal cheekbone and bit back the urge to lose my dinner. A sharp twitch jerked his body, the reactive shudder of a wet dog’s shake, before he glanced over his shoulder at me. The snide twist of his lips when he turned and signaled “no” didn’t bode well. Not human. Not demon. No classification for the boy and Chaz was pissed.

Too bad.

I did my fair share of grunt jobs for the clan. I drew a line at licking shit. I could smell the dead body from here. Thankfully, taste didn’t process for me like it did for Chaz.

Without a word he disappeared, refusing to stick his neck out for more than his 50 percent. A live human would have interested the emotional succubus in him; a dead one didn’t merit his time. He’d give the initial report to Shalim, leaving me to work through the details over Markowski’s death, as well as confirm a sorcerer involvement, rule out any clan losses due to demonic summons, and negate future threats. It fell to me to exterminate the sorcerer if possible. The steps demanded I gain some clear reason for Markowski’s selection as a target.

And there was my problem.

Stan Markowski wasn’t a demon. He definitely wasn’t human and the reek of sorcerer, hanging like a suffocating fog, earmarked this act as sacrificial magic.

Whatever Stan was, what happened here had been a rush job. Less than four hours separated the end of the football game from Stan’s full incineration, running a high risk of human witnesses. An unacceptable risk of exposure, even for sorcerers.

This death appeared to pose no direct connection or threat to Shalim’s clan, my clan.

Yet, in my experience, sorcerers only focused on advancing their own power, making everything in their path expendable — human, and demon alike. This youth, innocent and powerless, shouldn’t have appealed to a sorcerer’s aims. His victimization by black magic placed him, by default, on my team. I added to my growing list of questions to identify why he’d been targeted, like my fellow summoned demons. Whether Chaz or Shalim agreed was a different issue.

Additionally troubling was the physical scent coupled with the essence, which clung to the dead boy’s body.

The breeze carried a light, sweet, caramel-layered fragrance, another marker elevating Stan’s status above the human he resembled. In the air currents, the decay of the body drifted to me. Something not right there either. I closed my eyes and worked through the layers.

Complex. Normally, I could break down a scent. When someone wears a bearskin coat, I can smell the bear; tell its age at death, its sex. I also smell the bear’s last meal.

Yeah, it’s gross from my standpoint, too. Yet like fingerprints, the layers are unique.

Woven in with Stan’s essence was his body’s condition, a wealth of degenerative decay and lack of strong fresh blood. Neither was the result of his roasting and neither worked for a boy his age. A man of ninety? Maybe. Eighteen and fit? Not so much.

I hung out for a few more minutes. Watched the spectacle of police and media canvass the school grounds and search for answers or evidence of what caused Stan Markowski to explode in his car. Alone. Hours after the rest of the team had gone home.

They wouldn’t find anything. The Consortium of sorcerers never leaves traces of their crimes.

***

I pocketed the keys of my Suzuki GSX-R 600 and headed for a stool at the bar. Paco & Pablo’s was packed tonight, even given the after-midnight clientele.

From a seat next to Chaz, I waved three fingers to the late-shift bartender. He slid three shot glasses of Macallan’s twelve-year-old my way and continued his conversation with an animated redhead.

“Got the taste out yet?” I said, deliberately provoking a too-quiet Chaz.

“Screw you, TK.”

I bit back a laugh. He’d been hanging out around humans too long, picking up bad lingo.

A quick look over the bar and adjoining restaurant confirmed the after-dinner crowd had shipped out. The wax-coated checkered tablecloths and family clusters were gone, replaced with easy-clean naked wooden tabletops and bar hoppers well into multiple rounds of drinks.

The humans were loaded with alcohol, pheromones, and expectations. The demon contingent passed their time sucking in the emotional high of sexual advances, desperation, and aggression.

Demons, the emotional succubae at least, thrive on any swell in the emotional atmosphere, from one-night stands to a voyeuristic seat at a relationship on the skids. The blood demons, gathered in the darker corners, were banking on an early-hour bar fight or a little gang skirmish. Each focused on their need, but both dependent on opportunity for a good feed. Luckily there was enough fluctuation in the human mental state within L.A. to keep the average demon fed and entertained for centuries.

“So we got nothing.” Chaz turned his gaze toward me, not bothering to conceal the flicker of jade flame and ice that dominated his eyes in lieu of pupil and iris. The eyes, distinctly demon, revealed for a second in public, but he kept them fixed on me. The rest of his alter ego: dark mocha skin, shining, shaved head, and muscles capable of hoisting pallets of cinder blocks, looked classically human in a pressed black silk shirt and khakis.

I tossed down my drink and shrugged with a casualness I didn’t feel. “At least it wasn’t one of the clan.”

“That’s your luck, not mine. I could be next. Shalim would let it slide if we hadn’t missed an opportunity to track the wizard. For you, last night was just an inconvenience.” Cynicism rolled from his words in a thick ooze.

All wizards were sorcerers to Chaz. All humans were a sexual food source, black and white, good and evil. Chaz acknowledged no distinctions of gray. Because of my mixed heritage, I’d been low on his original list for investigative partners, though we’d ironed out an effective working relationship over the last ten years. I used my skills to keep him safe, and he allowed me to work with him. Time had gifted me with tolerance and insight. Enough to let me know he was anxious and itchy. I was pretty certain it wasn’t over the assignment.

“More than inconvenient.” I worked to keep my voice low. “Definitely too late for the kid who died. You under the illusion I’d plan something like that?” Four times in the last few weeks we’d followed the leads. Each time we’d arrived too late for two fellow demons, one homeless guy, and now Markowski. Not that Chaz wanted to save anyone. He wanted recognition with Shalim. Not morality points.

His quick recrimination touched a sore spot with me. After days of no new leads, irritation dug a little deeper than normal with me as well.

I took the second shot of scotch, but rolled the glass between my fingers, waiting a moment to savor the strong bite around the edges of my tongue. I don’t get drunk, perhaps a gift of my DNA. Sometimes not such a gift. “So what’s the gain for taking out one of the top high school receivers in the state? Where exactly does that fall into a sorcerer’s purview?”

“Hell, if I know.” The misery slid from Chaz’s face, quickly replaced by a calculated, malevolent grin. His eyes reverted to milk chocolate. The intensity warned me he was about to get more annoying. “Hear the kid was supposed to get a scholarship from USC. Guess the sorcerer’s are messing with your innocents.”

I tapped the fingers of my right hand in a measured staccato on the lacquered bar top and avoided a look at Chaz’s eyes because—hell, there wasn’t anything there anyway. Trying to jerk my chain wasn’t going to provoke me. He knew better than to try to feed off of me.

He leaned closer, “So, TK, guess it’s now personal for you, too.”

Not bothering to turn my head, I met his gaze in the mirror behind the bar. “Don’t be a shit. It’s always been personal.”

Chaz shrugged and gripped the bottle of his Irish Red Ale with both hands.

His response, his sullenness, spawned a nasty new suspicion. “If Shalim feels I’m holding out on him he can—”

Hands up in defense, Chaz’s eyes narrowed. “Hey, I didn’t say anything about Shalim.” He shook his head and broke eye contact first. Turning back to his beer, he glanced down the bar’s counter. “You know how it is.”

“Yeah, anything to get a rise. Would’ve thought you had fed well enough last night at the crime scene. Dead kid left plenty of fear and depression to suck from the bystanders.”

“That crowd? Not as much fear or regret as you’d think. And a dead human’s not food for my soul.” A snide chuckle erupted and he patted his chest, “Oh, yeah. No soul.” He gave a soft snort. “I’d rather feed on sex than death any day.”

Who wouldn’t?

“Pissing you off will have to fill in the gap.” The corner of his mouth lifted before he pulled a long draw on his beer.

“Being a jerk will only get you killed faster.” I shook my head and tilted back to swallow the last shot. I kept my eyes closed for a second, one hand flexed on the bar, body still. I reined in the fiery vibration sizzling up my spine and the taste of burned rubber invading my mouth that had nothing to do with the whiskey. Muscles tensed, I focused and broadened my search of scent, sensation, and sound.

I opened my eyes and squinted at the reflection of the patrons in the mirror, gravitating toward the pool table in the rear corner of the room. Three men and two women edged around that table. I focused on each one. Light green haze revolved around the first two men and both women, a dusky haze, not vibrant or illuminating, but typical for the amount of inebriation at this hour.

Chaz tensed beside me. From the corner of my eye, I caught his furtive glance over his shoulder to the right, to the left, and then back to me.

“What is it, man?” He looked around again, “where?”

The third man, a sorcerer’s scout, emanated a low vibration of dissonance like someone beating old bedsprings with an iron skillet, tinny and rasping. I could feel the twang inside my bones all the way across the room. Draped around him in shreds of brash orange and dense black, his essence wafted in and out.

Sometimes I can see and hear as well as I can smell. Not that the impact is any easier on my system or in any way normal.

Tendrils, like thick molten vines, snared in constant motion around him, snaked out and wisped back. Bits at the end of the tendrils broke off and flitted through the room, here and there, skimming the edges of the human customers. After a few seconds, the broken bits disintegrated and fell diffused, to seep into the floor of the bar.

As the last bits dispersed amongst the customers, the scout handed off his pool cue and sneered, issuing some derogatory comment. He gathered his money from the table lip and patted his disgruntled opponent on his bristled cheek. Seemed no one could resist a cheap shot tonight.

The second man took a stance in front of his friend. The two ladies hung onto the poor loser’s arms and neck to keep him from launching himself in retaliation.

“TK.” Chaz hissed in my ear.

My empty glass raised, I deflected a wisp of the essence with a wave of my finger as it floated toward me.

“When he leaves, we follow.” I tracked the scout’s exit in the mirror. “Just follow. Nothing else. He’s on the hunt.”

Chaz frowned, but was silent. His eyes followed the activity at the pool table and the route of the man now departed from the bar.

I slipped several bills under the shot glass, slid off the bar stool and walked toward the door. Several demons looked interested in the potential for trouble. Chaz’s snarl discouraged them.

I headed for my bike, my demon partner on my tail. As the engine rumbled to life, I pivoted toward the warehouse district, where I could still make out remnants of the scout’s feelers flaking off in the night air. With so many people in the bar, I hadn’t been able to distinguish the scout’s underlying scent. Bound-demon or soulless-human, now only finding him mattered.

Chaz glimmered beside me. His body wavered and thinned, suspended in midair in a two-dimensional image of a six-point star the width of a sheaf of paper. With a quick twist and a hard snap, the demon applied himself to my neck as a tattoo.

I gave no outward sign of the intensity of current the connection delivered, though the charge seared along every nerve in my body. Not harmful but powerful. For demons, this process was no different than giving someone a taxi ride. The connection provided immunity and transport, a privilege of demon clan membership. The fact that I was part human only meant I needed to feign ignorance of the initial sensation. To show weakness flagged vulnerability, a thing I avoided at all costs among beings who fed on emotion. Even those beings who preferred their manna from pleasure.

We headed through the quiet streets, closing on the warehouse district as the few lights on the poles wavered in an erratic flicker. The sign, a good gauge of proximity to the sorcerer as power was hard to shield. The closer that scout got to his master, the more the sorcerer’s power interfered with nearby energy sources. The increased flickers signaled we were close.

Which was good, because I’d run out of road.

Ahead of me lay fencing, several metal prefabricated warehouses, large Semi storage trailers, and darkness. Beyond and out of sight were the L.A. harbor berths, evidenced by the dank smell of sea water and algae.

While most of the warehouses had surveillance lights around the roof perimeters to discourage vandals, there was plenty of darkness left. Not a hindrance tonight, instead a necessary cover because the acerbic, rank odor of sorcerer had rolled in thick.

Coupled with the copper tang of fresh blood.

Chaz detached himself from my neck. He uncoiled onto the damp asphalt at my side as I locked my bike.

“Take the outside length and find a way up to the roof,” I said.

He hesitated. “You sure we’re in the right place?”

The need to trust in my judgment grated on him. Unfortunately, demons couldn’t detect sorcerers. He had no choice but to follow my lead, and I didn’t have time to baby him. That he couldn’t seem to scent the fresh blood made me hesitate.

Then again, Chaz hadn’t been able to scent Markowski last night either, though last night’s remains hadn’t left much blood. This blood also held nothing of the sweet essence of the teenage football player.

I turned right and walked two steps. Darkness folded around me. It wasn’t the absence of light; more a blanket of ink flipped over my body and glued tight. I couldn’t make out my own feet or hands. The visual disorientation didn’t affect my spatial perception. The warehouse stairs were roughly twenty feet in front of me behind a shielded, well-warded entrance Chaz, or any other demon, couldn’t cross. I turned back, and exited from the pitch-black in front of him.

His eyes widened, but he didn’t wait for added confirmation. With quick nod and a tight-lipped grimace, he backed away to run the length of the building for alternate access—in the relative safety of the moonlit night.

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