Secret Santa
Page 17

 Sierra Dean

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I didn’t waste time unsheathing the katana. I simply swung it backwards and hoped like hell I was right about the fae’s position. The wet smooshing sound of a skull fracture and the tongue retracting from my head told me my aim was true. I rolled to the right, and the limp weight of the fae fell off me in the opposite direction.
Holden had broken the lock free on the door where I’d seen the boy’s face earlier, and was hunched in the opening. There were whimpers, but his tone was soothing. I’d never prayed for Holden to enthrall anyone, but I hoped to God he could help these kids forget what they’d gone through down here.
“Ewww beeshhh.” The monster was slurring worse than before, and when I turned back to look at it, the damage I’d done was evident. Thick black blood seeped down its face and coated its teeth with a dark veneer. All that mess and it still managed to call me a bitch.
I unsheathed my katana and dropped the shiny black casing to the ground, then got a toe under my knife and kicked it up so I had a weapon in each hand. The creature snarled at me, spattering its dark blood across my neck and chest.
From the corner of my eye I saw Holden emerge from the hidey-hole with his arms around the two younger teens, while two others tucked themselves behind him. There were only three teens reported missing, according to Mercedes, and I realized with a happy shock that the extra captive was Nolan’s missing shifter.
But someone was still absent.
My heart stilled and my pulse slowed to a near stop as the pressure of grief swelled through me. Then Penny came out of the hole in the wall, hesitant to emerge the whole way until she saw Holden with the other teenagers and darted out to stand behind him. She’d been crying and her dark hair was a mess, but she appeared unharmed. The kids got one look at the fae and the younger ones began to cry. I couldn’t blame them. He’d been scary enough when wearing his human suit, now he was a walking nightmare.
“Take care of them,” I pleaded to Holden.
“Miiiine,” the fae screamed, hurling itself at them with a shocking fervor.
Holden spun around to block the kidnapped youths, leaving his back exposed. I dropped the knife and grabbed the fae by the neck, yanking it out of a midair strike the vampire couldn’t have defended against with his arms around the teens. If I hadn’t pulled the fae down, Holden would have let the thing jump on his back rather than let go of the kids. He could talk all he wanted about not caring if teens lived or died and the cycle-of-life bullshit he’d given me earlier, but I knew his true nature the moment he turned the captives away from the fae and left himself defenseless.
I threw the creature into the floor and heard teeth breaking against stone. It was still muttering curses, but it wasn’t saying anything I understood. The tone was clear, though.
“Yeah, well, fuck you too.”
With both hands wrapped around the handle of my katana, I drove the blade into the back of the monster’s neck, right where it had bitten into the base of my own skull. I twisted the sword until the final pop of separating bones echoed through the chamber and the rattle of the fae’s last breath crossed its lips.
Jerking the blade free, I looked back to Holden and the five freed captives huddled behind him. With a fine spray of black blood on my skin and hair and a blood-slicked sword in my hand, I couldn’t have looked like the hero they’d been expecting. Five sets of wide eyes were locked on me, showing shock but also gratitude.
“It’s going to be okay,” I promised.
Penny skirted around Holden and walked up to me, crouching at my feet to retrieve my fallen knife. She stood and fixed me with a steely gaze, the blade looking frightening and comfortable in her hand before she handed it back to me.
“Can we go home?” she asked.
I slid the knife back into its place on my thigh and collected the sheath for my sword, then hugged the girl to my side. I was afraid if I looked away for a second she’d cease to exist.
“Yeah, kiddo. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Chapter Fourteen
The highlight of my Christmas night was discovering how to make the lights on the tree blink on and off.
I’d made a nest of blankets on the couch and had a tower of classic holiday DVDs stacked next to the television. If the ornaments and tree weren’t here, it would be a traditional Christmas at Chez McQueen.
In an attempt to let the Alvarez family mend after their horrific Christmas Eve, I’d opted out of participating in their Christmas Day festivities so they could be together without any intrusions. When I’d brought Penny back the previous night, I thought Grace Alvarez might hug me to death. The group love-fest I’d been in the middle of led me to believe I’d still be welcome there even if I didn’t come by to unwrap gifts.
But it might have been hard for Desmond to explain to his mother why I couldn’t show up until sundown.
Before we’d gotten to the Alvarez house, Holden had helped the kidnapped teens forget the worst of their trauma while I’d called Mercedes. When the police met us on the front steps of Desmond’s childhood home, I could tell Tyler was itching for an excuse to blame the whole thing on me, but I’d cleaned up by that point and put my nice white sweater back on. Without a sword in hand, I looked downright innocent. We explained how Penny had gone missing, which was easy to confirm with the local police, and I told him we followed a hunch. Then we lied our faces off about where we’d found the missing youths and claimed to have no idea who took them. We’d burned the fae’s body and replaced the grave covering his hole. The nightmare was over, but for the cops the mystery was unsolved.
The case was no longer my problem, but I’d let Nolan fill me in on a few more details over the phone earlier in the evening. We’d been curious about why the fae targeted shifters, and Nolan had made some headway with an answer. Turns out shifters have hypersensitive amygdalas. The trait was especially acute during puberty as it allowed them to better adjust to the heightened stress and emotions of becoming active shapeshifters. It made sense that those predisposed to the change would have built-in coping mechanisms to make it easier on them. Who knew a monster would want to take advantage of something so unique?
It sort of made sense, in a twisted way, why the fae was keeping the youngest of the teens alive. It was making them into its version of dessert, by keeping those with the most active fear centers captive and letting them build their fear into a frenzy. That same logic explained why it was willing to risk capture by displaying the body parts so publicly. Fear spread like wildfire in a city like New York, and terror was this thing’s bread and butter. To create panic on a city-wide level meant all of Manhattan became a buffet fit for a fae.
The plan was demented but clever.
With the worst of the crisis behind me and Nolan properly lauded for all his hard work, my night would consist of It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. Anything black and white with a clear-cut happy ending.
I found some powdered instant hot chocolate in the cupboard and couldn’t resist making some to accompany my solo movie night. As I mixed up the cocoa into the boiled milk I realized how little I knew about hot beverages that weren’t coffee. Clumps of chocolaty dust refused to be broken down, and I was too enchanted by the tiny fake marshmallows to fight too hard with mixing the drink.
I sipped the concoction, and it tasted like liquid sugar. Not being a hot-chocolate connoisseur, I assumed that was appropriate and took the steaming mug out of the kitchen and into the living room where the flickering tree lights made it look like a disco.
When I sat on the loveseat, I screamed and sloshed hot chocolate all over myself.
My redheaded spirit guide sat beside me, glowing like a lightning bug, and I swear to God she was smiling. I hadn’t seen the ghost of Ashley Parsons since the night she pointed towards Long Island and in her wordless way had told me to go east, young assassin.
I set the coffee mug on the floor and returned to the kitchen to get a wet dishtowel to wipe the hot, sticky liquid off my arms. She was still waiting on the loveseat when I came back.
“So, which are you?”
The girl cocked her head to the side and looked confused, but as before she said nothing.
“Ghost of Christmas past, present or future,” I clarified.
There was no mistaking the upward turn of her mouth this time. In the blinking lights of the Christmas tree her tiara looked extra glittery. She rose and floated up to me, reaching out her hand with the opaque palm facing up. I didn’t think I could touch her, but I tried to take hold of the offered hand. My fingers slid right through the space, but the air where I’d tried to touch her was colder than the temperature around us. The ghost frowned and dropped her arm to her side, then drifted by me and gave a look back before she passed through my front door.
I hesitated but ultimately curiosity ruled over any qualms I might have. As long as she didn’t want me to climb any fire escapes I was willing to see what she wanted. After pulling on a pair of slipper-boots, I ran out into the hall and followed the girl into the street.
She was waiting at the top of my steps with her face angled up to the dark sky. I was so busy looking down the block it took me a second to realize why she had brought me outside.
The first snowflake landed on my cheek, then more joined it, sticking to my eyelashes and melting on my lips. The big fluffy flakes were tumbling down, illuminated like dust motes in the yellow glow of the streetlights. I smiled and tilted my head back, sticking my tongue out and catching the small, cold clusters in my mouth, where they dissolved like sugar.
All the anxiety, pain and frustration of the last week melted away with each flake that wet my skin.
“Thank—” I began to express my gratitude to the ghost, but when I looked beside me she was gone.
I held out my hand palm up, and the cool brush of the snow felt like the girl’s ghostly touch.
“Thank you,” I finished and closed my eyes, turning my face back to the sky.
“Whatcha looking at?”
I opened one eye and tilted my head sideways. Had I not recognized the voice I’d have sprung into a defensive pose, but Brigit had a distinctive cheerfulness that was impossible to fake. She was holding a stack of parcels wrapped in metallic paper and wore a fuzzy fuchsia beret. Her smile could have lit up the street.