Atlanta: it's the promised city for the off-worlders, foreigners from the alternate dimensions of heaven-like Elysia and hell-like Charbydon. Some bring good works and miracles. And some bring unimaginable evil....
Charlie Madigan is a divorced mother of one, and a kick-ass cop trained to take down the toughest human and off-world criminals. She's recently returned from the dead after a brutal attack, an unexplained revival that has left her plagued by ruthless nightmares and random outbursts of strength that make doing her job for Atlanta P.D.'s Integration Task Force even harder. Since the Revelation, the criminal element in Underground Atlanta has grown, leaving Charlie and her partner Hank to keep the chaos to a dull roar. But now an insidious new danger is descending on her city with terrifying speed, threatening innocent lives: a deadly, off-world narcotic known as ash. Charlie is determined to uncover the source of ash before it targets another victim -- but can she protect those she loves from a force more powerful than heaven and hell combined?
Gay debuts with this captivating urban fantasy. Thirteen years ago, mankind officially recognized the existence of paradisiacal Elysia and hellish Charbydon, and the multitude of mythical beings inhabiting them. Now Atlanta is a crossroads for all sorts of creatures, and the Integration Task Force keeps tabs on them all. Recently resurrected single mom Charlie Madigan juggles her personal life with her career as an ITF officer, searching for the source of a deadly narcotic called ash. When her family and friends are caught in the middle of her investigation, Charlie discovers powers she never knew, and a destiny that could destroy the entire world. How far will she go to save her child and her city? Intricate world-building and richly complex characters mix with a fast-paced plot to create a standout start to a new series. (Dec.)
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1 . Good read
Posted December 22, 2009 by Booklover003 , ChicagoLooking forward to more books.
November 23, 2009
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Excerpt from The Better Part of Darkness by Kelly Gay
"You told a two-thousand-year-old oracle to prove it." Hank kept pace beside me, nursing his bloody nose with a handful of fast-food napkins I'd pulled from the glove box earlier. "I mean, do you ever think before the words spew out of your mouth, Charlie?"
"Yeah, all the time." I jogged up the four brick steps. "If Alessandra didn't have to act like a knowit-all, then I wouldn't have to say things to her."
"She is a know-it-all!"
A tired huff escaped me as I opened the front door to Hope Ridge School for Girls and fixed Hank with a deadpan look. "You've been whining ever since we left."
He swept past me, riding high on his martyrdom. "I'm not whining, I'm complaining. About you. And your incredible talent for pissing off people way more powerful than yourself."
I was exhausted from another sleepless night, and Hank's bitching grated on my last nerve. "Well, what do you want me to say, Hank?"
We strode at a fast clip down the empty hallway, passing Emma's homeroom door. Hope Ridge was my daughter's school. I'd been there hundreds of times in the last four years. But never like this.
Granted, the call that went over the wire was for paramedics, not ITF. The only reason we'd come was to make sure everything was okay. Otherwise we'd be over at Thumbs Up having a late breakfast.
"How about I'm sorry," Hank was saying. "Sorry, Hank, for always getting you punched, kicked, cursed out, et cetera, et cetera..." He dabbed at his nose a few times. The bleeding had finally stopped. "I don't know why they always hit me when you're the one who -- "
Two school security guards blocked the restroom door. Hank had the good sense to end the conversation as we approached.
"She's in there," one of them said, holding the door open.
I nodded my thanks, stepped inside, and immediately froze. My lungs deflated on a stunned exhale. "Shit."
Hank let the door close behind us, gave a quick once-over of the victim on the floor, and then studied my shocked face. "What? You know this girl?"
I stared down at the female body curled into a fetal position, one hand under her cheek, as though she'd simply decided to lie down on the ugly green-and-white tiled floor of the girls' bathroom and take a nap.
Numbness and disbelief stole over me. I blinked hard, wanting to erase what I was seeing, wanting to go back to this morning and somehow change the course of events that had led to this.
I didn't answer. My voice wouldn't come.
Hank knelt by the right shoulder of the girl, rested one arm casually across his thigh, and stared up at me. Annoyed wrinkles creased the corners of his mouth. Nothing unusual. Hank looked at me like that all the time.
"Hello? Earth to Madigan. What the hell's with you today?"
I did a mental shake to regain my clarity. Didn't help much. I knew what I had to do. Investigate. Gather information. But I couldn't remember how to begin. Nothing had hit so close to home before. Hank's big form made the teenage girl on the floor look so small, so childlike...so innocent.
"Wait a second," he said as it dawned on him, "October tenth. Your favorite day of the year. How could I forget? An entire day of you being loopy as hell." He sighed and raised his perfect face to the ceiling. "What did I do to deserve this?"
"Uh, you invaded my world, my city, my life. How's that for starters?" I shot him my trademark smile -- cynical and slightly twisted.
Yeah, October tenth was my favorite freaking day of the year. The thirteenth anniversary. The day heaven and hell came out of the closet. Literally.
It wasn't a day one tended to forget.
"Yeah," I answered automatically.
I had to regain control of myself. I was good at my job and now it meant more than ever because I knew this girl. I'd practically watched her grow up. I'd just seen her this morning, for God's sake.
"Yeah, I know her. Don't you recognize her?" My voice didn't break, but my heart hurt like a sonofabitch. "Amanda Mott. She's" -- I swallowed -- "was Emma's friend and babysitter. Big sister, really..."
Hank gave a solemn nod. "Thus the 'shit' comment."
"Thus the 'shit' comment."
"She have any illnesses you know of ? Depression? Unstable?"
"No, nothing like that. She's a good kid, Hank."
His troubled sigh echoed in the sterile bathroom. I watched him turn his attention back to Amanda's body, leaning closer -- too close.
I knelt down. "Jesus, Hank, are you sniffing her?"
Blue topaz eyes met mine, and he hit me with a full-on grin. Sometimes, when he did that, it stole my breath for a split second. He dragged his fingers through thick, wavy hair the color of sunshine on gold and then frowned. "You don't smell that?"
I leaned closer and sniffed. "Uh, no."
"Figures," he muttered. "You people are so out of touch."
Oh, did I mention? Hank wasn't human.
All part of the policy. Integrate. Work together. Build relationships. Hank and I have been partners for three years now, both assigned to the ITF -- Integration Task Force -- which has pretty much taken over the policing and monitoring of all immigrant beings...whether from here or somewhere else.
No one had been happy about being assigned to work with an off-world partner. In fact, there wasn't a law enforcement officer out there who'd been comfortable with the new assignments. But we soon saw the necessity. With the influx of any alien, illegal or otherwise, crime rose. Better to have the insider knowledge to deal with it.
Hank was a siren. Particularly useful in police work. Criminals, suspects, witnesses -- they all wanted to tell the truth just to please him. All he had to do was take off his voice modifier. Developed by Mott Technologies and made of thick iridescent metal with two balls at the ends, similar to a Celtic torc, the voice-mod adjusted Hank's supernaturally alluring voice into something we mere mortals could handle without embarrassing ourselves. And it wasn't justwomen. Men, kids, babies, animals, you name it. Any living creature was drawn to Hank like he was the village piper. I liked to call him the village idiot, but, hey, that's just me.
Hank's expression became serious, his frown deepening. He reached out and put two fingers on the side of Amanda's neck and then closed his eyes. I waited, knowing not to interrupt. Hank was right, for the most part. Humans were more out of touch in the psychic sense, though ITF had begun hiring any psychically-inclined officer they could get their hands on. Off-worlders, however, were blessed with an overabundance of senses.
"You gotta be kidding me." He removed his fingers and gave me a frank look. "She's not dead."
"She's not dead."
Immediately I felt for her pulse. Nothing. "I swear to God, Hank, I'll put a bullet in your belly and send you back to Elysia if you're messing with me." And I'd done it once before, so he knew to take me seriously.
"Jeez, Charlie, give me some credit will you? I wouldn't kid you about this."
Emma loved Amanda like any devoted little sister would. She also adored Hank. And I knew that if this affected her, then Hank wouldn't mess with me on something so personal.
I stared at my partner over Amanda's body for a hard second, then shot to my feet and radioed the paramedics with the news as Hank began walking slowly down the row of stalls, searching each one for clues as to what might've caused Amanda to drop into a death-like sleep on the cold, dirty floor during third period Algebra.
I crouched next to Amanda, wanting so badly to tuck the loose strands of white-blonde hair behind her ear. But I didn't dare. God, please don't let this be what I think it is.
As we waited for the paramedics, I used the time to scan her body, searching over the Black Watch plaid skirt, the knee-high white socks, the chunky black Mary Janes, and the white blouse. It was the same uniform Emma had worn to school, the same one she wore every day. Nothing seemed out of place, except for Amanda herself. She looked peaceful, happy even.
The medical examiner entered the bathroom with her hard, shiny black case and equally shiny black bob, which curved under a small oval face, determined red lips, and dark Asian eyes. She'd gotten another new pair of glasses and they framed her eyes perfectly, as did the other twenty-odd pairs she owned. Liz bought designer eyeglasses like some women bought expensive shoes. "Hey, Madigan." She shut the door behind her. "How is it you can afford to send your kid to a swanky place like this?"
I was going to kill Hank. The blabbermouth.
I stood and moved aside. "It's called child support. Automatic draft is a wondrous thing."
"Ah, that would explain it." She set down her case, opened it, and withdrew a small pair of latex gloves, which she put on with a loud snap. Then she knelt next to Amanda to check her pulse and listen to her heartbeat. "Heard over the radio you have a live one here." She sighed, preferring to analyze the dead over the living. "Not exactly my specialty but...How old is she?"
"Sixteen," I answered quietly, allowing Liz to be the brilliant medical examiner that she was. Of course it didn't hurt that she was also a kick-ass necromancer. Usually, what the dead couldn't tell us from our investigation, they could tell Liz. But we always tried to solve a case ourselves. It took a massive amount of energy and life force to raise the dead. And if Liz did it for every John Doe who rolled through the door, she would've lost her own life a long time ago. After a long moment, she removed the earpieces to the stethoscope.
"Anything?" I asked.
"Heartbeat is so damn faint and slow you can hardly hear it with the stethoscope. At this rate, she should be going into cardiac arrest. Looks like all the others."
I glanced impatiently at the door. Where the hell were the medics?
Still hopeful, Liz examined Amanda's skull. "There appears to be no external damage to her body at all. Maybe an aneurysm, or..." She lifted Amanda's eyelid, and we both gasped even though we'd seen this a dozen times in the last week.
I knelt down. "Damn."
A cloudy white film glazed over Amanda's eye. Goose bumps crept up my arms and legs, a sign of foreboding that left me downright cold. The Pine-Sol scent of the room was starting to give me a headache.
"Looks like ash has just moved uptown," Liz said on a resigned breath.
Hank dropped to his haunches next to me and took in this new information. A steel curtain slid over his features. Hank always showed his emotions. And with the realization of what we were seeing, ash making its way from Underground Atlanta into a midtown private school, Hank should've been cursing or hitting something by now. I studied him intently and didn't miss the telltale flex of his jaw before he stood. Yeah, something was definitely up.
"Mom! Mom, what's going on?" Emma's terrified voice echoed from the hallway.
Motherhood and work. Usually I had no trouble keeping the two separated, but this time the lines were seriously blurred. "Damn it." I closed my eyes for a second, hating that they had crossed, hating that they'd even come close. I drew in a deep breath and switched gears from detective to mom. "Hold on a sec," I told Hank and Liz and then walked calmly into the hallway, mentally preparing myself.
Seeing her standing there in her uniform, all tall and thin, approaching twelve way too fast, it suddenly hit me how much Emma had grown in the last year. A rush of sad realization squeezed my chest. Time was racing by where my daughter was concerned. She pressed against the police tape, which had gone up while we were inside, and pushed against the school security officer. He held her back with a hand on her shoulder. My hand went to the service weapon on my hip. An automatic gesture. I didn't intend to use it, but the guy had better get his paws off my kid.
"Hey." I placed my hand on his left shoulder, probably harder than I should have. "I got it."
He hesitated. He might be the big guy here at school, but he knew not to mess with an ITF agent. Our training and selection process had become legendary. Not many people could look a hellhound in the eye and know how to defeat it. We'd been trained to face every being and beast from both worlds, and we all had the scars and nightmares to prove it.
"Ma'am." He nodded, stepping back.
I turned to my daughter, lowering my voice. "What are you doing out of class?" I had to show my confident side, let her know everything would be all right. But my heart pounded. She was highly intuitive and knew me better than anyone. I reached out to smooth the wavy brown bangs behind her ear. She always wore a ponytail to school -- couldn't convince her to do anything different.
She did a quick wave with her wooden bathroom pass. "Mom," she began in an I'm-not-a-stupid-kid-I-know-what's-going-on tone, "they told us to stay in class, that something happened with a student, but I saw you and Hank from the window and said I had to go." She leaned close, her big brown eyes turning wide and glassy. "Amanda was supposed to be my lab buddy today, but she never showed." Her nostrils flared and tears rose to the surface. "It's not her, is it?"
I opened my mouth to answer at the same moment the paramedics burst through the front door and raced down the hall. Great. I turned back to her. Two lines of tears trailed down her cheeks. Her bottom lip trembled, tugging hard on my protective instincts.
"Oh, God. I knew it!" There was a hint of accusation in her tone, as though I somehow had control over what had happened.
"Oh, baby." I pulled her close, hugging her tight and smoothing back her hair, breathing in the familiar scent of Cherry Blast shampoo. She was too young to know this kind of worry and fear. But Emma was a strong kid. She'd had to fly by the seat of her pants right along with me when I became a mother at nineteen, and she'd handled that learning curve like a champ. And she'd been able to get through the divorce with way more strength and understanding than me.
We'd get through this. And I damned sure as hell was going to find out who was flooding the city with ash. The optimistic part of me wanted to believe there was another explanation for Amanda's condition, that somehow it was just a medical issue. But I knew it was a silly hope. No medical problems I knew of turned your eyes into something out of The Exorcist. How in the hell had it spread so quickly?
"It'll be all right, kiddo." I leaned back and gazed down at her, giving her my most reassuring smile. She was the one innocent, good thing in my world. And I intended to keep it that way. "Amanda will make it, you'll see. She's not hurt, not bleeding; she's just asleep and we can't figure out why."
I kissed her forehead, pausing there for a moment to breathe in her scent again. No one else could give me that kind of immediate peace. She grounded me, kept me always looking forward and never back. Kept me from lingering too long on all the evil things I'd witnessed over my career and in my past. I straightened and drew in a deep, cleansing breath, then looked her straight in the eye. "But we'll fix this, I promise. Okay?"
Her mouth dropped open. One hand went to her hip. "Okay? That's it? Okay? Like I'm eight years old or something? " Her chin lifted a notch, and her eyes glinted in opposition. "It's not okay. I want to see her."
"You know I couldn't let you, even if I wanted to, which I don't."
"Well, I'm not leaving," she said, "until I see her." Attitude poured off her in maddening waves that, in any other circumstance, would've riled me. But the challenging stance and the belligerent cock to her head couldn't hide her fear. She was like a wounded puppy -- scared to death, too small to defend itself, yet baring its teeth anyway.
I took her shoulders and turned her around to face the way she'd come. "There's not a thing you can do right now. Let me do my job, okay? We'll talk tonight."
Her chin didn't drop, but her tone did. "Fine."
I watched her shuffle down the hall, wanting nothing more than to run to her and give her one more hug, but I couldn't. I had to make good on my promise. She stopped at her classroom door and glanced back at me, the uniform reminding me of the first time she wore it in third grade. So young then. So young now. Even from that distance, I saw her vulnerable look and the deep sigh that escaped her lips.
"She's hurting," Hank observed quietly, coming to stand beside me as Emma went inside her classroom.
"Yeah, I don't need super senses to figure that out." I marched away from him, down the hall in the opposite direction, needing some air before I totally lost it.
Usually on cases, I had no trouble remaining distant and methodical. Don't get close, and you don't lose your objectivity. And you don't get yourself beaten to death running down a back alley after a pissed-off ghoul before your partner gets there to back you up. I'd learned my lesson. And I hadn't made a mistake like that again.
I couldn't make one now.
The unmistakable scent of autumn, of changing leaves and cool soil, rode on a leisurely breeze, helping to calm my emotions as I stepped into the courtyard where the kids often ate lunch on nice days like this.
I turned my face to the warm sunlight, letting my eyelids close. The voices on my radio drifted into the background along with the birds in the courtyard and the sound of cars on the side street beyond the high stone walls that surrounded the school grounds.
Just a moment's peace was all I was after, but as my mind drifted all I could think about was the irony. I busted my ass every day to afford the best and safest school for Emma, to pay for everything else myself and use Will's child support solely for her education.
Kindergarten through twelfth grade, Hope Ridge was one of the best private schools in Atlanta. And, despite all that, I couldn't protect her from the harsh realities of life. I knew what it was like to be a victim, and I knew what it was like to love a victim, to feel helpless and lost. Crime happened anywhere and in the safest places. It was inevitable. But, still, part of me had been convinced that if I worked hard enough, somehow my child would be exempt.
The mention of Amanda's name over the radio interrupted my thoughts. They were taking her to Grady Memorial Hospital. All her vital signs were normal except her heartbeat. She didn't appear to be worsening.
Ash had hit the market so fast, just in the last few weeks, that we still didn't know what we were dealing with. Chemically engineered? An airborne agent? An ingested substance from Elysia or Charbydon? There were so many mysterious things brought into the country with the influx of our new neighbors. I scrubbed my face with both hands, feeling overwhelmed. Protecting citizens was hard enough, and lately, as we mingled more and more with the offworlders, it felt as though we were patrolling blind.
At least I had Hank.
And he knew way more than he let on. I turned and headed back into the building, steeling my resolve. He'd spill his alien guts one way or another.
The soles of my black boots echoed in the empty space as I marched down the hall. Ahead, Hank was speaking to the school superintendent and Principal Anton. He pacified their fears. I could see it in their faces, the way they breathed relief and the gratitude they showed as they shook his hand.
Hank turned to me as I approached. I didn't halt my stride, just grabbed his thick bicep and propelled him down the hall with me.
"Whoa, I know you like to manhandle me and all, but this should probably wait until we're alone."
"Shut up, Hank."
I shoved open the front door, stepping out into the bright sunshine only to run into a large group of reporters. Perfect.
"Is it true the victim is Cassius Mott's daughter?"
"Is she like all the others? Is it ash?"
"Do you have any leads on what the drug is exactly?"
"Will you bring in a medium to help with the investigation?"
"Hey, aren't you that cop who died a few months back?"
Sometimes, I hated reporters. Especially the ones with memories like elephants.
"C'mon! Back off!" Hank flung out his arms, trying to shield me.
We pushed and elbowed our way to the car parked out front. I slipped behind the wheel and waited for Hank to get in. Once his door was shut, I drove around the corner and down one block where I stopped the car at the curb to question him.
He drew one leg in and propped his arm on the window ledge, obviously in tune with my meaning. "I was going to tell you before the whole Amanda thing...I talked to the ER doc from Grady. Some of the tests came back from the first rash of vics. It's definitely an off-world substance. Most likely in powder form since they found some residue in the nostrils and lungs of the two who didn't make it. The effects are almost instantaneous. The few who have woken up from the coma are dying. Once it leaves their system, their bodies begin to shut down." He sighed deeply, shaking his head and staring out the front windshield. "They're doing more tests. So far, no other cities have reported any cases, and security has been increased at all the off-world gates."
"So it started here in Atlanta. It came through our gate."
Figured. Many of the new crimes and problems stemmed from trafficking in off-world items. Spellmongers from Elysia and Charbydon had become a big problem, selling all kinds of illegal concoctions and substances. Soul bartering, a gigantic no-no, still occurred in dark alleys and private residences. And none of it would change unless we all suddenly became happy and content with ourselves and our lives. Fat chance of that. Any way to get a leg up, illegal or otherwise, was here to stay.
"We need to figure out where it's coming from. If it's leaking into other schools..." My voice broke. "You're a siren," I said, refocusing. "Nothing about this seems familiar, like anything you've come across before?" I was grasping at straws. We'd had an entire off-world team on this for the last week and no one seemed to know anything.
"The condition on the eyes. The guys at the station have considered it, but don't seem to think it's related. Could be a long shot..." Hank cleared his throat and I caught a split-second squirm. I turned in the seat, more curious than ever. He spared me a dry glance and then looked straight ahead. "The condition happens naturally when some Elysians get, you know, excited."