Trail of Dead (Scarlett Bernard #2)(7)


by Melissa F. Olson

Hair of the Dog is on a little commercial stretch of West Pico, near a children’s bookstore and a dry cleaner’s. At this time of night, with even the bar closed, I got truly phenomenal parking. I climbed down from the pickup and trudged over to the bar entrance, trying not to notice how dark and silent the street felt. I pounded on the smoked glass door for a solid two minutes until I felt something enter my radius from the other side. I shivered. It’s always weird when I neutralize someone I can’t see.

For a null, having a supernatural creature step into your radius is kind of like having someone brush their hand against your hair without touching your head: you don’t feel it, but you feel that it’s happening, if that makes any sense. I can usually tell if the creature in question is a vampire, werewolf, or witch, and I get a general sense of how powerful they are. And most of them know that they’ve gotten close to me—the wolves lose their edginess and near invulnerability, and the vamps have to start breathing again, which often results in a series of amusing facial expressions. Witches, who always have the ability to channel magic but aren’t always using it, are the only ones who sometimes don’t realize they’ve entered my area.

The bolt on the door made a loud snick, and Eli tugged it open, gathering me into his arms so fast I was breathless. I smelled the sea in his dark-blond hair. He was wearing jeans and a ribbed tank that showed off the lean surfer’s muscles on his arms and chest. An annoying little voice that came from somewhere lower than my head went mmmmm. For just a second I let myself hug him back.

“Hey,” he said quietly, voice filled with relief. He released me and took my face in his hands, fingers curling in the loose strands of my hair.

“Hey, yourself,” I said, taking an uneasy step back. “I got your message. What happened?”

His face tightened a little. “Straight to business, then.” Tension rippled between us. Eli and I had slept together a few times, but then during the La Brea Park investigation, a witch had used Eli to power a locating spell to find me—which meant that in some magical, romantic way, he belonged to me. Naturally that completely freaked me out. Since then, whenever he tried to start a conversation that wasn’t directly related to the job, I tended to babble until I could run away. For the most part, he had stopped trying, and it seemed like our relationship got a little more businesslike every time we spoke. I wondered if I still “owned” him.

And if I wanted to.

The moment passed, and he held the door wide. “Well, come on in. There’s someone here who’d probably like to talk to you.” He bolted the door after I’d passed through, and I followed him through the little alcove into the main bar area. The whole place is pretty much one big room. There’s a square bar in the middle, Cheers-style, and a small hallway in the back that leads to Will’s office, bathrooms, and a janitor’s closet. The walls are covered top to bottom in kitschy dog stuff—pictures, old calendars, framed cartoons, and so on. Someone—probably Will’s assistant, Caroline—had gone around and scotch-taped little Santa hats on most of the puppies. I couldn’t help but smile at that. Then I saw the occupied barstool and felt a familiar hum of power enter my radius. One that had no business being in a werewolf bar after hours.

“Kirsten?”

She looked up blearily, and I almost reared back in surprise. Kirsten Harms-Dickerson is the most powerful magically talented human in Los Angeles, as far as I know, and the leader of the informal witches’ union. Usually she looks like a blonde Swedish angel and has always reminded me of Samantha on Bewitched. Tonight, though, there were circles under her eyes, and more fine, blonde hair had escaped her ponytail than hadn’t. She looked worse off than Jubilee Jackson. A pile of shredded cardboard coasters squatted on the bar in front of her, and she was working on tearing at a new one. “Hey, Scarlett.”

“What are you doing here?” I said. The different Old World groups don’t mix much—they have a few hundred years of tension that tends to get in the way of a good time—and of pretty much everyone I know, Kirsten has the most normal life. She has a day job and everything, which made her presence here more than a little out of the norm.

“Erin” was all she said, but it was enough for pieces to fall into place. The one thing that Dashiell, Will, and Kirsten all have in common is concern for their people’s safety.

“She was one of yours?” I asked, crossing the room to drop onto the stool next to her.

Kirsten nodded, keeping her red eyes focused on the coaster, which she’d folded over and over until it looked like a sliced pizza. She started pulling the slices apart. I was opening my mouth to start another question, but Eli raised his eyebrows meaningfully, telling me not to push it. Despite their inherent differences, he and Kirsten had developed sort of a mutual respect when they’d teamed up to save my life. “You want a drink?” he asked me, walking back behind the bar. I dropped onto a stool, hesitating, but finally shook my head. I needed to be clear.

“Not just now,” I said.

We sat there for a few minutes without talking. When the last coaster slice had been torn off and ripped in half again, Kirsten spoke. “Erin called me tonight from campus begging for help. We made plans to meet up at a coffee shop halfway between her school and my home, but Erin never came. After last fall I collected a few hairs from each of my witches in case someone targeted the Old World again. I did a locator spell, and another, and another. Erin…wasn’t anywhere.” She abandoned the coaster and leaned forward, burying her head in her arms.

Before I could ask, Eli explained. “Meaning she was dead. Or inside your radius, but you were out of town.”

I looked from one to the other. I’ve always suspected that Kirsten’s power comes from her inherent serenity—even when she was using combat magic against a serial killer last fall, her composure had never wavered. This was scary. I raised my eyebrows at Eli, who picked up the story.

“Kirsten went to the campus, and called me to go to her apartment,” he said quietly. “She thought…there was probably a crime scene to clean up somewhere.”

“Was there a body?”

He nodded. “I could smell it before I got off the elevator.”

I winced. Meat and blood smells can drive the werewolves kind of crazy, sometimes even forcing them to change. Eli’s tolerance is better than most (for some reason the inner wolf bothers him, but blood doesn’t bother his inner wolf, which just goes to show how much sense magic makes), which is why he’s able to do this job at all, but it must have been rough to be in that room. “Go on.”