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Devils playground, p.5
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       Devil's Playground, p.5

           Gena D. Lutz
 
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  “Something isn’t right. You think this punk is no good, maybe even evil.” Rafe’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “This means he may be a danger to you. No way am I going to bring him near you. I’d much rather kill him on sight.”

  With a charming smile, I explained, “My suspicions aren’t truths. Besides, how can anyone harm me with you around to watch over me?”

  He thought about it for a second, and then his shoulders relaxed a bit.

  “I’m not taking my eyes off that fucker. And he stands right next to me the entire time you’re talking to him, just in case your gut feeling is on the money.”

  “I can live with that,” I said.

  He grunted his agreement before turning to leave.

  “Oh, shoot!” I said.

  “What?” Darcy asked.

  Her eyes were glued to Rafe’s retreating backside.

  “I forgot my phone behind the bar, and I need to get in touch with Rush.” I scraped both hands over my face. “And I need to drop off a rental agreement by 6:00 tonight, or I’m going to lose an apartment I really, really want.”

  “Oh. It’s 5:00 now, so you still have time,” she said.

  “How do you know what time it is?”

  Darcy laughed and pointed to a big round clock that was bolted to the wall. The timepiece was encased in a mesh cage, so it wouldn’t be damaged by any of the hazards that came with being in a supes bar. Time was important to vampires, especially in a light-tight establishment, where they couldn’t tell if it was night or day.

  “I’m a ghost, Kris. I’m not blind.”

  Chapter Six

  I penned a looped flourish to the end of my signature.

  “There, now you’re all filled out,” I said, proud of myself.

  I glanced at my phone and thought that if I hurried, I could still drop the rental application off, before the manager closed his doors for the day. I walked behind the bar and replaced the pen in the cup where my cell phone used to be.

  Now, if only the sun would hurry up and go down enough for Rafe to move around in it comfortably, we could get out of here.

  “Do you think Slone gave your boyfriend the correct address?” Darcy asked.

  She was hovering over the beer coolers and not doing much else other than shadowing me.

  “Judging by how pissed off she was when Rafe insisted she tell him where Josh was, yeah, I’d imagine she did. And Rafe is not my boyfriend.”

  “Oh.” She gave me a sly smile. “So he’s single?”

  I shook my head at her, and at the same time, my cell phone beeped.

  Darcy’s eyes perked up, as she said, “That could be him now.”

  “Rafe doesn’t have a cell phone. Plus, he’s in his room, getting dressed.”

  With wide eyes, Darcy blinked out of the room. I suspected that Rafe was about to have company—a pervy ghost visitor.

  Speaking of boyfriends, on the screen, I read a quick message from Rush.

  See you soon.

  I fussed my fingers over the letters on the screen, trying to figure out what to reply.

  I settled with… There’s trouble. Can I meet you at your place tonight?

  Seconds later, the phone began to ring. I should have known Rush wouldn’t text back, but would call, after what I’d sent him.

  Rush’s concerned voice echoed out, “Kris, what’s wrong?”

  “What isn’t wrong? A woman’s body was dumped behind Devil’s Playground today. Oh, and there’s also the fact that the victim’s ghost is haunting me.”

  “Fuck. I suppose this means you’re going to help her? Is there anything I can say or do to change your mind?”

  “No, I’m sorry, but I need to help her… Darcy, that is. And besides, the devil himself hired me to find the person responsible for dumping the body. So there’s that, too.”

  A vexed whisper slipped from the phone: “For the record, I’m completely against this. But I know there is no stopping you, once you’ve made up your mind about something. Promise me that you won’t do anything stupid, that you’ll be careful.”

  Rush knew me so well. But I did plan on being very cautious. It was the only way to be on a hunt for murderers. To be honest, I really, truly wanted to say, ‘screw everything,’ and run from that Hell-mouth of a bar and into Rush’s strong embrace—my safe haven. But responsibility had a name, and it was Bitch, and I needed to learn how to handle everything that came along with dealing with her on my own.

  “I promise. And I’ll call you if I need anything.”

  His voice deepened, as he said, “What the hell am I going to do with you? You drive me mad, woman.”

  I gave him a sexy as sin smile, knowing damn well that he’d be able to hear a warm hint of it in my words, as I spoke.

  “I’ll put you out of your misery soon enough, lover.”

  The growl he let out was low, and my body awoke to it; my nipples instantly tightened. It seemed that my sensual teasing had backfired on me.

  “Do whatever you have to. Just get it done and be careful about it. Then you, my feisty she-devil, are mine to do with as I will.”

  Erotic images assaulted me. His playful fingertips, trailing across my warm, almost hot, skin.... I could somehow taste him on my tongue, as I imagined licking a glistening path up his thigh, paying close attention to the flesh there, by tracing each curve of hardened muscle. His large hand reached to cup my heaving breast, the pad of his thumb sweeping across my nipple, remaining long enough to bring it to a fevered peak. My hand dropped and brushed across my belly at the exact moment I pictured the way his manhood swelled impossibly hard, as he readied my body for conquering.

  “Kris?” Rush whispered.

  Begrudgingly, my eyes opened, and I swallowed a moan.

  “Umm, what was that?”

  “Come over later, and you’ll find out.”

  The answer to that was a no brainer.

  “Okay.”

  I could barely move my fingers enough to hang up the phone. A rolled purr lingered in my ear, as he said his farewell. Somehow, I found the end button and pushed it right before Rafe entered the room.

  “I’m ready whenever you are.” Then he gave me a second look. “You doing okay? You look a bit flushed.”

  Darcy popped back into the room, as well, the little voyeur.

  I nodded and waved him off. Pushing through my lust-fogged brain and shaking off the tingles in my limbs, I narrowed my eyes on Darcy.

  “Did you enjoy the show?”

  I caught a blush, along with a guilt-laden look, right before she flashed back out.

  I grabbed my things, folded my rental application, and stuffed the paper into the inside pocket of my purse.

  “I need to make one quick stop.”

  Rafe helped me on with my jacket, as he said, “Sure thing. Can I drive the motorcycle?”

  I gave him an unamused frown.

  “Never ask if you can drive my baby again.”

  “I’m not making any promises, Kris.”

  “Suit yourself, but asking will do you no good.”

  As I walked out of the door, I looked over my shoulder, to where Rafe was following me, and said, “Oh, and just so you know, ghosts can be anywhere at any time, and you have an admirer, my friend. So keep your dangly bits covered if you’re the shy type, because she’s a peeper.”

  Rafe’s eyes widened, and both hands shot below his belt to cover his groin area, as he looked around the room.

  “Thanks for the heads up.”

  Darcy’s bratty voice came out of nowhere, saying, “Spoilsport.”

  ***

  We reached the apartment manager’s office ten minutes late, but we found a convenient drop-box in the door. I slipped the application inside. It would have been nice if Mr. Riley had told me about the night drop, before I had committed several traffic violations to get there on time.

  I shook my head, as I thought, The things I’d do for a really great, spirit free, apartment….

 
Not long after that, I pulled up next to the curb in front of Josh’s house.

  I yanked the helmet off my head and finger-combed my long bangs out of my eyes.

  “Are you ready for this?”

  Rafe nodded, before jumping off the back of the bike. His boots landed without sound on the asphalt. His ability to sprout wings and fly probably accounted for the vampire’s flawless landing. He had plenty of practice.

  “Am I going in fangs bared, or do I have to be nice?” he asked.

  I strapped my helmet securely to the bike’s leather seat.

  “Let’s just find out if he’s here first. After that, we’ll play it by ear.”

  “That sounds good to me.”

  The labored, uneven beat of a car engine, popping in misfire, echoed in my ear. A few seconds later, the grinding of a garage door winding its way open sounded from the side of Josh’s house.

  “It looks like we got here just in time,” I said, as a rusted-out tin can of a car passed us by and then turned into the driveway, to pull inside the open garage.

  We strolled in tandem across the front yard, with its brown patches of neglected grass; the sorry excuse for a lawn was void of anything resembling life.

  After kicking aside several empty beer cans and hopping over a pile of forgotten newspaper bundles, I rapped my knuckles on Josh’s door. A few seconds passed, and then he answered it, clenching his wallet between his teeth and holding a plastic grocery bag in one hand.

  “What do you want?” Josh’s question came out garbled.

  His eyes opened wide at the sight of me, and they bulged even wider at the sight of Rafe, who towered like a mountain at my back. The wallet fell to the carpet. Immediately, he bent over to retrieve it.

  “Is Slone with you?” With a hopeful glance, he leaned forward, searching the space behind us, but his features fell, when he realized that Slone was not there. “Oh… Umm, let me just… please, please, come in. Excuse the mess. I wasn’t expecting company today.”

  Josh’s invitation still rang in my ears, as I walked over the threshold and into a small sparsely decorated living room. With the invitation granted to both my vampire and me, Rafe would be able to enter, as well.

  I grimaced at the dirty brown carpet that covered the space in a sea of filth, which reminded me of the unkempt lawn out front. Only a few pieces of furniture occupied the room. A ripped and stained sofa was pushed up against the wall, and a green milk crate was turned upside down, littered with old Chinese takeout cartons and days-old pizza, with cigarette butts squashed out in the molded cheese. There was also an old-fashioned console television set that sat on the floor in the corner, with foil wrapped around its bunny-eared antenna.

  The smell, oh my God, the smell was awful. It reminded me of an odor that belonged in an abandoned building or lingered over carnival grounds after closing time. How anyone could choose to live in that kind of crud was mindboggling.

  With a shake of my head, I walked even farther into the room. Rafe, who was obviously not bothered by the wicked stench or the mess, walked past me and stood next to the front window.

  Josh gave a humorless laugh, closed the door, and asked, “So what brings you to my doorstep? Good news, I hope.”

  The hollow sound to his voice, paired with his outward mannerisms, registered odd. Stiff shoulders, a slight tilt at the corner of his mouth, and the way he kept looking at Rafe out of the corner of his eye…. In my opinion, Josh should have been a bit more nervous, but instead, he seemed to be studying us, meticulously calculating our every move.

  “I just need to go over a few things about the murder with you. We were rushed the last time we spoke, and some facts are still unclear to me. Do you mind?”

  Josh leaned against the wall next to the door, and said, “I’ve got someplace to be soon, but I suppose a couple questions won’t hurt if you make it quick.” He walked over to stand in front of the couch. When he got there, he grabbed his cell phone off the crate. “Slone should be calling any second.”

  “I’ll try to make this as quick and painless as possible.”

  He chuckled.

  “Much appreciated.”

  A smile spread across my face.

  “I aim to please,” I said sarcastically. After a slight hesitation, I continued. “At any point, when you were around the bad guys, did you happen to overhear anyone use the term Handler?”

  Josh’s eyes shot wide and then, in an instant, his features calmed. It happened so fast that I was surprised I’d caught the gesture at all.

  “I only know what I told you before; I’m just as much a victim in this as that dead lady.”

  For some reason, Josh referring to Darcy as that dead lady pissed me off. Rafe sensed my building rage and walked away from the window to stand next to me.

  “It’s not nice to speak ill of the dead,” Rafe warned.

  Josh’s shoulders slouched forward—the movement seeming forced—before he dropped his gaze to the floor and said, “You’re absolutely right. Sorry about that.”

  There was a terrifying emptiness in that gaze, before he redirected it.

  Who, or what, the hell am I dealing with?

  My heart beat fast, the rage in me not satisfied that the guy was truly who he claimed to be. My honed survival instincts were screaming at me, warning me that something was wrong with him. I reached over and grazed my pinky finger across Rafe’s forearm. He knew the slight signal for what it was, his turn up at bat.

  Chapter Seven

  Rafe stared at Josh with eyes void of any emotion and as still and deadly as black ice. It was as if all signs of humanity had been snuffed out of them, and what was left was pure predator—vampire. He moved so quickly that all I could see of him was a blur. Then he had Josh in a vicelike grip, a chokehold that could easily pop his head clear from his neck if more pressure was applied. The thought of that man’s death didn’t bother me like it should have. All life was precious to me; I needed to know why his wasn’t.

  My leg shot out, and I kicked over the green crate that separated us. Spoiled food exploded everywhere. The asshole barely flinched. I got in his face.

  “Not so close, Kris,” Rafe rumbled.

  “I’m fine,” I growled back.

  “I know you were Darcy’s Handler. And if you don’t tell me who you’re working for this instant, I’ll make Rafe’s day and let him finish you off.”

  A thin shroud of smoke slipped across Josh’s eyes, and tiny beads of sweat prickled at his hairline.

  Something about that, the entire scene, nagged at me strongly. The unkempt lawn, the house, which was obviously lived in but still looked abandoned…. The last time I’d felt a hunch like that, a rolling in my gut that wasn’t quite the same as a vampire warning but similar, was when I encountered a phantom for the first time in my family’s awakening chamber at the Center.

  I received a crash course in Phantom 101 that night and learned what they were—a very nasty body-jacking parasite that was just as strong as, and even more vicious in nature than, a vampire. Phantoms, who were ancient ghosts turned hostile and bitter, could take over humans’ bodies at will and possess them so completely that the infected humans they inhabited were rendered powerless over their own actions, passengers and spectators trapped inside of their own flesh.

  I battled the queen of those ghastly beings recently, barely escaping her realm with my life. And somehow, I ended up saving my grandmother in the process. Or more accurately, Lily was the one who saved me, with her vast knowledge of those creatures. After unleashing her vampires and ghouls upon us, the queen of the phantoms, Camille, and her servant, Wolf, had escaped.

  The situation had just become trickier. If the phantom figured out that I was onto him, he could dematerialize out of the room. Getting my hands on him was a necessity. With flesh to flesh contact, he’d be trapped, and I could use my power to burn the squatting toad right out of its host.

  I thought about what Rush had said to me that night in the awakening ch
amber: “He’s scared of you.” He’d been referring to the phantom, after I’d almost singed him out of existence with my power, which was something I’d stumbled upon by accident. But I knew how to use that deadly reserve. I reached out to touch Josh’s arm, but Rafe spoiled my plan by pulling them both back away from me.

  “Kris, I’ve got this,” Rafe said.

  I needed to defuse the tension in the room and make the phantom think he was still undetected.

  “It’s okay, Rafe. I think I might’ve jumped the gun here. This man obviously knows nothing.” I shook my head and then continued, “I needed answers so badly that I think I wanted him to be guilty.”

  The speech seemed to relax Josh. Rafe raised a brow and gave me a look that said, What the hell? But he kept quiet. He trusted me enough to see where I was going with the change in tactics. Rafe released Josh from the tight chokehold and took a step back.

  “Thank you,” Josh said, rubbing the red marks on his neck. He sidestepped away from Rafe and then walked clear around me, before opening the door. “I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but you’ve overstayed your welcome, and as you said yourself, I can be of no help to you.”

  I reached a hand out to Josh. He seemed impatient but reluctantly shook it.

  “Thanks for stopping by. Sorry I couldn’t help you guys,” he said.

  My hand flashed white.

  “Believe me, you’ve been extremely helpful.”

  Josh stiffened, his eyes going wide in shock. He leaned back, feet scrambling for purchase, and tried with all his might to jerk his hand free from mine. I reinforced my grip by slamming my other hand over our joined ones. And once my magic started to pour through me and into him, he was welded to me like red hot metal. He could not escape.

  My body pulsed with heat, which was warm and soothing, a comforting blanket. I reveled in it, each beat, a welcomed sensation. I watched, as the phantom tried to escape his host in a thin sheet of fog.

 
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