Trigger

Micheline Helsing is a tetrachromat – a girl who sees the auras of the undead in a prismatic spectrum. Now she’s facing one of her most challenging ghost hunts ever. Lock, stock, and lens, she’s in for one hell of a ride.

OCTOBER

 

My father only pulled me out of school for one reason: to hunt down the dead. So, when he showed up at the door of my firearms class, beckoning to me, I got up from my seat without a word.

Chairs scraped against the floor as the other students rose. Everyone stood at attention and thumped their right fists over their hearts, our teacher included. Saluting. Like all of the Helsing Corps’ commanders in chief, Dad won the respect of his reapers and cadets through his killer instinct and the novel’s worth of scar stories carved into his skin. As for me, my father gave me purpose, direction. Zeal.

Hunting the undead gave us Helsings reason to live.

“You too, McCoy,” Dad said to my best friend and training partner, Ryder. “As for the rest of you, at ease.” Students folded into their chairs, sitting straight and sharp as razors. Showing off for my father, of course. Not more than thirty seconds before, the slackers were dozing through a lecture on the Colt M1911 handgun.

Grabbing our backpacks, Ryder and I headed to the front of the classroom. I wondered if he sensed our classmates’ gazes at his back as keenly as I did. Probably not—Ryder was better liked than me and had more tolerance for suck-ups. Which is to say, more than my zero.

The two of us were a study in extreme contrasts: At sixteen, Ryder stood six-foot-one, whereas I barely topped five-three. The other students called us Yin and Yang behind our backs, thanks to our coloring—he was dusky, like he’d slathered himself in his native Australian sun; I was pale, having inherited my mother’s platinum-blond hair, bleached-bone skin, and her brilliant tetrachromatic blue eyes.

The things we shared? My father’s favor. A passion for triggers and lead. ISTJ Myers-Briggs profiles. And George Romero zombie movies.

“Wahlberg,” Dad said to our instructor, “these two won’t be returning to class tonight. Inform the attendance office.”

“Yes, sir.”

Dad hustled Ryder and me into the hallway. To my surprise, six of my father’s black-jacketed Harker Elite guards waited outside—reapers trained to crew with and protect Helsing family members in the field. The men saluted me with murmurs of “Miss Helsing.” My self-consciousness over being pulled out of class slipped back; a large Harker presence meant Dad wasn’t taking Ryder and me out for a practice hunt.

We’re going after a reaper-killer. The thought corseted my breath like a Kevlar vest and sliced my nerves to threads. “What’s going on?” I asked, looking at Dad, forgetting to slap the obligatory “sir” on at the end. “There are too many Harkers here for a simple training mission.”

Dad’s gaze slid away and tacked itself to a point beyond my shoulder. “This isn’t a training mission, Micheline.” The Harkers shifted their weight and refused to meet my eyes, tombstone stoic.

I glanced at Ryder, who told me he shared my conclusion with nothing more than his clenched, tendon-corded fists. All cadets started hunting necrotic monsters in their fourth year, but never anything tough enough to shock our best reapers into silence. I’d taken down a handful of necros in the field—all of them slow, stupid, and none of them killers.

“Who’s dead?” Ryder asked, his trap muscles bunching.

“We’ll see.” Dad started down the hall, his people turning to accompany him. “Let’s move out—Lieutenant Carroll will brief us once we reach the dead zone.”

“You know I’m supposed to hunt with Mom tonight, right?” I called to Dad’s back. My voice skidded off the hallway’s matte-black lockers, echoing. “She’ll be pissed if I don’t show up for the exorcism at the Orpheum.”

My words didn’t even slow my father’s stride.

“Dad?”

“Forget it.”

“But Mom—”

“Can wait.” He turned on his heel, staring me down. “You’re the sharpest shot of our tetros, and we’re not making another mistake with this monster.”

Another mistake?

“I need your eyes tonight, Micheline,” Dad said.

All necrotic creatures emitted a spectral glow—a phenomenon known as ghostlight in layman’s terms. Thanks to a fourth color receptor in our retinas, women born with a genetic mutation called tetrachromacy saw the ghostlight radiating from the undead. I’d inherited tetrachromacy from my mother, and my eyes gave me an edge against the monsters in the darkness, as well as the ability to see and therefore exorcise ghosts.

Most tetros were exorcists, women who trapped the spectral dead in silver mirrors. Thanks to my dual training as a reaper and an exorcist, I preferred to play offense and did my exorcisms on film with an analog SLR camera. I was the most comfortable of our tetros with the concept of point-and-shoot, so whenever my father needed eyes to see through shadows—or shoot through them—he chose mine.

But ghosts could be just as dangerous as the monsters. Mom needed me, too.

“Would you prefer I find someone else?” Dad lifted a brow.

My trigger finger twitched. Every breath was a test with my father—he wanted proof I deserved to inherit his place in the corps over my younger brothers.

“Never,” I said. The corners of Dad’s eyes crinkled in an almost-smile, one that didn’t touch his lips. His smiles rarely did.

Game on, Dad.

 

 

The storm water tunnels under San Francisco sprawled for miles, labyrinthine: a crypt for rats’ bones and strange, underworldly art. Paint rotted off the ceiling in fungal layers, reaching for us with twitching fingers. Broken boards, empty cans of spray paint, and cloudy bottles littered the ground. The place smelled of musty water and crumbling earth. Cobwebs netted my nose and mouth. The walls still sweated from the morning’s storm, and I tried not to think about how the water line had risen six freaking inches above the crown of my head.

“They’re in here, sir.” Lieutenant Carroll led us into a large retention room guarded by several silent reapers. Even the dogs sat subdued, their ears turning like miniature satellite dishes to catch sounds I couldn’t hear.

The place looked like a battleground: cherry-black bloodstains marbled the concrete, sucking at my boots. Spent cartridges littered the ground like mercenary confetti. Worst of all, three bodies lay on the floor, scabbed over with plastic tarps.

“Which one?” Dad asked. Lieutenant Carroll pointed to the body on the right. Dad crouched, his boots squelching in the tarry, clotting puddle on the ground. Light from our crew’s flashlights brushed up against Dad’s broad shoulders, the guns at his sides, then scrambled away as if it found the very texture of Leonard Helsing frightening.

Dad pulled the tarp away and clenched his jaw so hard, I thought the tendons in his temples might snap. I recognized the corpse’s strong features and silver-shot ebony curls, too; and there was no mistaking the Harker cross tattooed on his right arm, the one awarded to reapers for saving a Helsing’s life.

It couldn’t be him, no—he was too good, too strong.

“Captain Delgado,” Ryder said. Anyone else would’ve missed the quaver in his voice; not me. It lay beneath layers of self-control and training, but I couldn’t mistake it: A tiny reverberation on that last exhaled o, slight but no less heartfelt for its size.

“Oh, no,” I said, those simple words holding all the grief I could express in front of my father and his crew. A Helsing’s heart was a dam—it didn’t matter that I’d grown up with Delgado around, or that he’d been captain of my father’s Harker Elite for a decade. It didn’t matter that Delgado’s two kids were sophomores in the academy, like me. Luis and Gabriela were still in class, thinking nothing was wrong with their world. Someday, I might be in their shoes, listening to a lecture on corps history while Dad lay dead on a tunnel floor somewhere. A tremor wormed up from the soles of my feet and bit into my heart. Almost every commander in chief of the Helsing Corps died in the field. Someday, Dad’s number would come up.

Not today.

“How did this happen?” I walked forward, my gaze stuck to the triangle-shaped wounds in Delgado’s chest.

“Three scissorclaws took advantage of a tunnel intersection and surprised us,” Carroll said. A finger of cold air slid under my collar and traced my spine—scissorclaw. “Smarter than any I’ve seen before. We killed two”—he motioned to a pair of body-bagged lumps in the corner, ones too big to be human anymore. Red biohazard symbols were stamped on the bags beside the Helsing H insignia. “The last one—the big one—is responsible for the captain. Never seen one so smart. The goddamn thing set traps for us.”

I glanced at Ryder: One corner of his lips twitched, his nostrils flared, and his breath hitched, all products of the same morbid adrenaline rush that swept my own veins. Fight or flight. We reapers preferred fight.

Dad rose and cleared his throat, as if emptying out any emotion. “Johnson, Nunes, get the bodies back to Dr. Stoker at HQ and keep this quiet. I will inform the families personally. As for the rest of you, I want this monster dead by dawn.”

“Sir.” Our voices echoed in the tunnels.

“Micheline and I will take point—she’ll spot the necro before any of you.” Dad rose and turned to the canine handlers. “Give her one of the dogs.”

The men exchanged glances. “They won’t obey a different handler, sir; these dogs are—”

“Do it,” Dad said, his tone sharp. One handler handed me the leash to a black German Shepherd named Brutus. The dog wore a stab-proof vest over his sides and chest; his withers were marked with the same insignia tattooed on everything belonging to Helsing, including its reapers. Brutus even had a lamp strapped to his head.

I threaded my left hand through the leash’s loop and wrapped it tight around my wrist. I’d need my right hand for the Colt at my hip.

The handler knelt down, offering Brutus a bloody cloth with the necro’s scent. The man’s lips were pursed tight, almost white. When he didn’t make eye contact with me, I figured he didn’t approve of the order but had enough sense not to disobey.

I glanced up at Dad. “Ready?”

He nodded, stripping the rifle off his shoulder and pumping a cartridge into its chamber.

“Brutus, such,” I said. Track—all our working dogs were trained with German commands.

The dog leapt forward, tail wagging, the only cheerful member of our crew. Everyone else was sober with the blood of our dead on our boots; steely with fingers on feather-light triggers; silent with the stress of stalking a killer.

Dad walked on my right side, his rifle tucked against his shoulder, Helsing ink visible on his hand. Our reapers had the Helsing insignia tattooed under their left index knuckle, but Dad’s was outlined in a paper-thin red line. That line meant commander. The buck stops here. Boss. My lack of one meant expectations, scrutiny, and most importantly, heiress presumptive. If I failed to pass muster, one of my younger brothers would inherit the corps instead.

I didn’t intend to let that happen; I was the eldest. Leading the corps was my responsibility, and like the generations of Helsings who’d come before me, reaping the dead was my life.

Brutus led us into a warren of tunnels, tugging me through turns and corridors, his nose to the ground. Ryder had my back, and the rest of the Harkers moved single file behind him. Only the occasional boot scuff or whispered word betrayed our presence; the dogs even wore rubber caps on their toenails to keep them quiet. Sound would echo for miles in every direction down here, and who knew whose—or what’s—ears those echoes might reach?

Some of the storm drains opened into large, crumbling rooms; others were intersections. Our flashlights brushed bits of rebar sticking out from the compound fractures in the walls. Sounds filtered down from the street: the rumbles of cars passing, horns honking, people shouting, laughing. Only a few feet of concrete and asphalt separated our dank, dark world from theirs, but it might as well have been miles. Help wasn’t close. The party depended on me to spot the monster before it spotted us; the thought settled between my shoulder blades like a lead weight.

Brutus stopped, ears pricked forward, body trembling. Dad held up a closed fist, signaling to the crew to halt. Silence gummed up the air; only the murmurs from the street and the incessant tap-tap-tap of dripping water crept through the walls.

Brutus made no move.

Dad and I exchanged a glance. He dropped his fist.

I clicked my tongue at Brutus. He started forward. A few steps later, the dog paused again and listened, then whimpered low, flattening his ears to his skull. A healthy Helsing dog whimpered for one reason: they heard someone screaming. Someone crying. Someone dying.

Tension laced my muscles. Ryder swore softly, and the sound of his voice punched through my nerve. I reached down and unholstered my Colt. The solid feel of a gun grip in my hand calmed the frantic pounding of my heart.

Dad shifted the rifle’s butt on his shoulder. “We’re close if the dog can hear—”

Without warning, Brutus whimpered and burst into a run, dragging me forward. The tunnel became a frenzy of bouncing sound and light. The dog outweighed me, big as a wolf, and his leash jerked noose-tight around my wrist.

“Brutus, fuss!” I shouted, silence be damned. Heel. Whenever I tried to dig my heels in, his force almost toppled me over. His leash ground into my wrist bones.

“Micheline!” Dad shouted. “Heads up!”

My brain registered the concrete wall. Then the knee-high drainage pipe sticking out of it.

“Brutus!”

Ignoring me, the dog leapt into the pipe. I dropped to the ground, slamming down on my right knee and grunting. My weight wasn’t enough—Brutus jerked me forward, pulling me onto my stomach and straight into the pipe. My right shoulder banged into the pipe’s lip, shocking my arm and spine with pain. The dog kicked mud and water in my face. My shoulders scraped against the pipe’s concrete throat. Rocks clawed under my shirt and bit into my skin.

“Brutus,” I shouted. “Nein!

Before I could get him under control, we burst out of the pipe and onto a thin concrete walkway. Brutus halted and sniffed the ground, his headlamp throwing light all over the room.

“You stupid dog,” I muttered, wiping the muck off my face. Pushing into a crouch, I turned on my Colt’s barrel-mounted flashlight. I found myself in a wide tunnel with a water channel sandwiched between two walkways. The channel ended in sluice grates on one side, darkness on the other. Large, round pillars supported the room’s ceiling. The place smelled briny as seawater, so we must’ve been near the bay. And here, even my ears picked up a faint keening, sobs carried by the darkness and wet walls.

Brutus’s headlamp hit a large sack suspended from the ceiling. No, not a sack—a body. He hung upside down by his ankles, bleeding from a puncture wound in his distended gut. His blood drip-drip-dripped off the ends of his fingers, hitting water below him like a macabre chime. An acid-orange uniform marked him as a public works employee. Blood bubbled at the corner of the man’s mouth, small blisters that expanded with his breath.

He’s still alive.

Brutus barked, the echoes ricocheting off the water and the walls.

“Quiet!” I hissed at the dog. Brutus put his ears back and paced along the water’s edge.

My earbud comm chirped. “Micheline, are you okay?” Dad asked. Flashlights shined down the pipe, hitting me square in the face and killing my night vision. Their circumferences looked smaller than they should have, and I wondered how far the dog dragged me from the crew.

I touched my comm. “I’m okay,” I said, embarrassed by how much my voice shook. “I’ve found another victim.”

“Alive or dead?” Dad asked. “Reaper or civilian?”

“Civvy,” I said. “He’s alive, barely—he’s bleeding out fast, and the wounds match Delgado’s.”

Dad cursed. “Can you help him?”

“Maybe,” I said, looking at the river of sewage running beneath him. “But I have to get him down first. He’s suspended over the water channel, hanging from the ceiling.”

Several seconds of radio silence passed, punctuated by Brutus’s whimpery barks.

“We can’t come in after you; the pipe’s too narrow,” Dad said. Apparently, the pipe wasn’t wide enough to admit broad shoulders and reapers’ gear packs—but crazy half-wolves and teenage girls, sure. “I want you to regroup ASAP. And shut that dog up; he’s going to draw hungry mouths.”

“What about the vic—”

“He’s as good as dead, Micheline. Grab the dog and regroup now.”

“But—”

“We’ll get a med team down here. Best we can do.”

No arguing with him. “Yes, sir,” I said, giving Brutus’s leash a sharp tug. He didn’t acknowledge me, just continued to bark at the corpse.

“Brutus,” I hissed through my teeth.

When the dog didn’t come, I disentangled my wrist from his leash and held it loosely. I jogged over to him, keeping my footfalls quiet and on toe.

I didn’t see the snare until it closed around my right ankle, yanking my feet out from under me. The man’s body plummeted into the water with a splash. My head hit the floor, and my world tilted, then blackened for a second as the blood in my body rushed to my head.

My gun clattered to the ground, echoing like the rat-a-tat of a snare drum. I dangled a few feet in the air, swinging like a human pendulum, blinking the darkness out of my eyes. Once the initial confusion passed, panic seized me: My breath sawed into my throat, raw and serrated. Pain stabbed into the side of my head. I scrabbled at the air, trying to reach my gun, but my fingertips cleared the floor by three feet. Above me, I could barely make out the crude shapes of pulleys and rope—a makeshift trip-wire trap.

I should have seen this coming, I screamed at myself, swiping for the ground again. I should’ve known it the minute I saw the victim!

“Micheline?” Dad asked. “What’s taking so long? What’s your status?”

I put shaking fingers on my comm. “Upside down. The victim was a counterweight—oh, God, he’s underwater now.” No bubbles rose to the water’s surface. I’d as good as killed him with my stupidity.

“You’re in a necro trap?” Dad’s tone could’ve scraped off skin.

“Ten-four.”

“Goddammit, Micheline,” Dad said. Those words would’ve hurt if I weren’t frantic to get down. Then: “McCoy, what do you think you’re doing?”

Voices floated down the pipe, too indistinct for me to pick apart their words. A flashlight’s beam shot through the darkness, and my comm crackled. “Hang tight, Micheline.”

Ryder.

“No pun intended, right?” I asked, trembling. If roles were reversed and Ryder’s life hung in the balance, I’d come for him. I just wished he were the damsel in distress, not me.

Brutus growled. I froze. A growl meant one thing: Something’s coming.

I faced the pipe; the water was on my right hand, a wall on my left, and the dog stood beneath me, ears pricked forward, hackles raised. I glanced up and swore I saw the necro’s ghostlight splashing on the walls, moving from pillar to pillar. Deep blue ghostlight.

Scissorclaw light.

In a flash, I wrapped my free leg around the rope, then used my core to reach up and grab my calves. The trap’s noose circled my ankle and might’ve broken it if not for the thick leather boots protecting the joint. Wincing, I fumbled for the multi-tool in my ammo pouch—an old Leatherman with a tiny-toothed saw. I skipped my hunting knife, not wanting to fall with it in hand.

Brutus growled again. A sibilant, low hiss layered itself over the slosh of water. I flicked open the saw and laid its teeth against the rope, my muscles aching, my heart screaming against my ribs. Palms sweating. The rope slit easy, filaments snapping under my saw, unraveling in my hand.

This will hurt like a mother—

The rope snapped. My stomach lurched in free fall, weightless, before my back slammed into the walkway below me. The hit knocked my senses and comm loose.

The necro shrieked, a high note played on rotting violin strings.

Gun. I scrambled to all fours as Brutus leapt in front of me, head down, his growl throttling. A blur of blue ghostlight set fire to my peripheral vision. Lunging forward, I wrapped my hand around my gun’s grip, rolled onto my back, and leveled my gun at the monster’s chest.

I’d seen scissorclaws in diagrams and on autopsy tables, flat and dead—but terror gored me in the chest as the nightmare ran toward me, all rippling muscle and claws shaped like open shears. Every second stretched out too long—the necro’s maw split open in another roar, teeth sticking like pikes from its gums, its tongue lashing out like a whip. Huge tusks protected the necro’s jaw, and I couldn’t tell where the monster’s neck ended and its head began. It’s too big, I told myself as my finger tightened around the trigger. It’s too damn big to kill with a .45!

The necro knocked Brutus aside with one swipe of its massive claws, so hard the dog hit the tunnel wall.

I pulled the trigger. The gunshot deafened, bullet slamming into the scissorclaw’s chest. My ears rang as I fired a second time. Undaunted, the necro thrust one set of blood-blackened claws at me. I threw myself to the side, dodging dismemberment; the necro’s claws screeched on the concrete. The monster slashed sideways, nearly nicking my jugular—I rolled and trained my sights on its torso.

Before I could pull the trigger again, rifle fire erupted. The scissorclaw’s shoulder split open under fire, spattering blood all over me, exposing its sinew and bone. With a shriek, the necro swung the claws of the opposite arm around, ready to disembowel me. I fired, but the bullet didn’t stop the claws’ trajectory toward my gut.

With a snarl, Brutus leapt and sank his teeth into the necro’s arm. His weight threw the scissorclaw off balance. When the creature tried to shake Brutus off, I lowered my sights and fired a bullet into the necro’s knee to avoid hitting the dog.

Shrieking, the necro shucked off Brutus and dove into the channel. The silty water swallowed the necro’s ghostlight.

“C’mon, Micheline!” Ryder shouted, his voice distorted by the ringing in my ears.

Pushing to my feet, I whistled for Brutus and ran. The dog sprinted after me, his headlamp throwing light all over the room. Upon reaching Ryder, I grabbed Brutus by his vest and guided him into the pipe.

“Call the bloody dog,” Ryder said into his comm. Brutus took off running as his name bounced down the pipe. Ryder cocked his head and listened, then said, “We’re fine. Coming back your way now.”

Bubbles rose to the water’s surface. Large bubbles. A man’s dismembered hand bobbed up, streaking the water red. Ryder and I backed up a step. “Go,” he said, keeping his rifle trained on the water. “I’m right behind you.”

Fight or flight

Now we chose flight.

 

JANUARY

 

The media dubbed the necro the “Embarcadero Scissorclaw,” after the street that bordered the city’s many wharves. The necro snatched its earliest victims from the area, before Helsing caught wise and shut the waterfront down. Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 became ghost towns, visited only by police officers and Helsing reapers in riot gear.

By night, Dad and I patrolled the city’s drains, sewers, and tunnels, aided by hundreds of heavily armed reapers. Dad summoned our best trackers from all over the country—still, our scissorclaw had endless places to hide. We found a lot of monsters in the tunnels; ran into traps that dismembered, traps that killed; and stumbled over claw-gored corpses, with no sighting of the monster we tracked.

Weeks passed. Then months. After the new year, Dad offered a six-figure reward to the reaper who brought him the Embarcadero’s head. But with every dawn, we came home empty-handed and hollow-hearted. The body count piled higher, night after night. My father’s frustration turned to fury, then mania, then a kind of grim, stoic silence that signaled his desperation.

He devoted his every waking moment to taking that monster down . . . and every one of mine, too.

One frosty evening, as I geared up to head back into the tunnels with Dad, my parents’ raised voices thudded against my bedroom floor. I frowned. Mom and Dad never fought—my father might be as stubborn as they come, tenacity running thick in Helsing veins—but he denied my mother nothing.

Well, almost nothing.

Slipping from my bedroom, I headed down the hall, careful to keep my footsteps from echoing through the floor. The hall stairs tried to creak underfoot, but I skipped the loudest steps and eased over the others, slinking onto the first floor. On the other side of the darkened hall, my brothers cut small silhouettes in the family room, their eyes cartoonish and large. I waved them away.

Dad’s study sat just off the front room. Stepping through the hall, I hung on the room’s edge, listening:

“Your hunts are always more important, aren’t they, Len?” Mom’s voice punched past the study door.

Dad cleared his throat. “This isn’t a permanent arrangement—”

“It’s been a three-month-long arrangement,” Mom snapped. “Do you realize it’s been so long since she’s worked on her exorcism technique, she’s falling behind her tetro classmates?”

I narrowed my eyes. Like the other tetros could even keep up with me in the first place, cowering behind their mirrors like they did. Since the end of October, I’d gone out hunting with my father every night of the week, leaving little time for anything else, especially exorcisms. But if Dad could hunt seven days a week, I had to prove I could do it, too.

“The other tetro girls aren’t being groomed to lead the corps.” The coldness in my father’s voice chilled the room. “Nor does the responsibility to protect this city rest on their shoulders.”

“It’s your responsibility, not Micheline’s,” Mom snapped. “She’s fifteen years old, for heaven’s sake!”

Something screeched inside the office, maybe a chair against the floor. “I don’t care how old she is,” Dad said. “She’s a Helsing. And since she failed to kill the scissorclaw in the tunnels, she’ll hunt with me every night until we destroy the monster.”

A flush rose through my chest and burned in my cheeks. Is that what he really thinks . . . that I failed? He’d never given me any reason to believe he was disappointed in me, not one word, not one look. At least I’d survived the encounter. Not everyone could claim so much, including Dad’s best captain.

Delgado. I closed my eyes, and memories of the aftermath of his death slid past like film frames:

Gabriela crying in the girls’ bathroom, mascara-black tears sliding between her fingers.

Luis sitting in Dad’s office with a bloody nose and black eye, the badges from a locker-room fight.

Gabriela’s mouth set in a hard line, hunting with the squads in the storm drains.

Luis’s shoulders heaving during the funeral.

Remorse resonated through my chest, echoing in my fingertips and toes. Losing a parent had to be the worst hard thing.

“You expect too much of her,” Mom said, almost too quietly to hear.

“No more than my father expected of me,” Dad said.

The study’s doorknob turned with a click. I stepped into the front room and dropped behind one of the couches, tucking myself into a pocket of shadows.

“I don’t think that’s true, Len.” The door creaked. A wedge of light fell into the room, hitting the wall above my head. “Mark my words, if Micheline doesn’t train to exorcise ghosts the way she trains to reap, someday she’ll meet a ghost she can’t stop.”

“You’ll have her back soon, Alexa,” Dad said. “As soon as this business with the Embarcadero is done.”

The door closed, latch catching. “It’s too late; she’s already chosen her side,” Mom said, too quietly to be heard by anyone but me. Only one set of footsteps padded over the carpet. I held my breath until she turned into the hall and opened the basement door, stepping into the darkness beyond. Mom didn’t bother to turn the lights on.

She’s already chosen her side. Her words echoed in my head. All I wanted to do was reassure her: of course I wanted to hunt with her, exorcise with her, learn from her. Hunting the dead in any form—corporeal or spiritual—was what they’d raised me to do, all I knew and all I wanted. Mom had to realize I was the only cadet in the corps learning to reap necros and exorcise ghosts simultaneously, and that I hadn’t chosen my father over her, not even close.

Or had I? I glanced down at the Helsing cross tattooed on the back of my hand, rubbing it with my thumb. What wouldn’t I do to inherit that thin red line? What wouldn’t I sacrifice for the corps?

One thing for sure: my relationship with my mother.

Waiting a few seconds to make sure my father didn’t emerge, I tiptoed across the hall. My brothers had disappeared into the family room, so no one saw me sidle past the basement door. Ambient light trickled into the room and coated the top of the spiral staircase. She’d left the lights off—many reapers felt more comfortable in the darkness, tetros especially.

I stepped inside. Whispers coiled in the darkness, sickling under my skin. Blood chilling, I cocked my head and listened but couldn’t distinguish the voices, nor the words being said.

“Mom?” I called quietly. Silence fell with a thud. She didn’t answer. I hurried down the stairs, not caring how much noise I made. “Is everything okay?”

Mom stood in the midst of her antimirror gallery, hands shaking. A can of rubber mirror sealant rocked on the floor beside her foot, undeterred by friction and natural forces. Antimirrors surrounded her on three sides, their panes dark as matte black space; the mirrors acted as portals to the territory between life and death, a place we called the Obscura. They allowed tetros to peer into that derelict sphere and speak to the spirits who lingered, the ones looking for cracks in the mirror glass and the energy to crawl back into the living world. The malcontented ones, the dangerous ones. The ones we exorcists banished from the living world.

One mirror bore a black slash of mirror sealant, as if Mom meant to silence whomever lurked on the other side.

“Mom?” I asked.

The can of sealant stilled. A whisper snuck from one of the mirrors, a breath of air tickling past my ear; I spun, but the mirrors stood empty. Silent. I rubbed gooseflesh off my arms, trying to shuck off the feeling of being watched. “You okay?” I asked, turning my attention from the mirrors.

“How much of that did you hear?” Her voice had a serrated edge, as though she forced her words around a half-swallowed sob.

Do you mean the whispers, or . . . “The fight with Dad?”

Mom nodded.

“Enough. I’m sorry,” I said, realizing I didn’t feel guilty for snooping at all, but rather for being the object of my parents’ fight. “Do you really think I’m falling behind my tetro classmates?”

Her pause lasted a heartbeat too long. When she turned, her eyes picked up the wan light from the hall. They looked cold as cracked ice, her irises the color of blue lips and new bruises. Her gaze struck me as wounded, and I wonder who hurt her more: me or my father.

“Yes,” she said softly. “But your father’s right; he needs your help to find the monster and he’s safer with you to be his eyes. Our work can wait till the scissorclaw is dead.”

“You know I can exorcise anything,” I said. “Right?”

Not anything,” Mom said, unsheathing steel in her tone. “You haven’t seen half of what the Obscura can throw at you, Micheline.”

“Then show me.”

She turned back to her mirrors, her pale hair snapping behind her like a banner of war. “Difficult to do when you spend all your time with your father.”

“Why are you so angry with me?” I asked.

“Not with you, specifically. With the situation,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. “When Ethan was born, I thought you would be mine, that your father would focus on grooming your brother for leadership. I thought you would inherit my legacy, since you inherited my ability.”

“I can do both—”

“No,” Mom said, shaking her head. “You cannot expect to lead Helsing and chair the International Council on Tetrachromatic Affairs. Which, I might remind you, is a position the women in my family have held for generations.”

My family. Not our family.

“I can and will do both,” I said. “I’m not doubling up on courses and working my ass off now to throw one of my parents’ legacies away.”

“Language, Micheline.” Mom chuckled and shook her head. “You’re so Helsing stubborn, I could just—”

Somewhere in the mirrors, something snickered. Mom tensed, turning slightly, her gaze locked on the mirror she’d slashed with sealant.

I followed her gaze, checking the mirrors one by one. Nothing moved inside them, but I still felt a sharp prickle, the one my gut used to warn my brain of danger and mayhem and monsters. “Was someone down here with you?” I asked. “I heard whispers.”

Her index finger twitched. “I thought I saw someone familiar in there,” she said, staring down the mirror as if it was some sort of contest. “But nobody’s here but me.”

“Us,” I insisted.

“Yes, us,” she said, sighing. She turned and closed the distance between us, then tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. She smiled gently. “Come, shutterfly, you have a monster to hunt. Best not to keep your father waiting.”

I watched the mirrors as she ascended the stairs. When something rustled in the darkness beyond the glass, she called out, “Micheline?”

I turned my back on the shadows to follow her.

 

MARCH

 

“Guard duty,” Jude huffed, leaning against the wall and scowling. “We’re the most important cadets in the academy and they’re making us play rent-a-cop out here.

“Your position doesn’t exclude you from the rotations, lazy,” I said. The academy cadets took turns guarding the piers along The Embarcadero during the day. Good practice, Dad said. And you kids don’t need so much sleep. Our reaping crew had been assigned to Pier 39 today. Jude and I took positions near the entrance while Ryder and Oliver Stoker—the fourth and final member of our crew—secured the place for the umpteenth time today.

I adjusted the M16 strap on my shoulder, scanning the pier. The day started to die; in another hour or so, the pros would show up to relieve us for the night. Fog billowed between the vacant shops, so thick it dropped visibility to less than fifty feet and emptied the city of sound. Fog in San Francisco could swallow the city in minutes, even on a low breeze. The stuff turned to dewy scales on my cheeks, and the wind tumbled in Jude’s loose curls.

“The necro’s still killing people,” I said. “It’s possible the monster moves during the day, under the cover of fog like this.”

“More possible this thing’s a pain in the ass,” Jude muttered. I let the comment slide—sarcasm was Jude’s native language, though he spoke derision and contempt fluently, too. Still, you wouldn’t find a more loyal cadet in the corps, so long as you weren’t dating him. We’d become friends by default, being heirs and all—Jude was the nephew of Damian Drake, leader of Helsing’s Special Ops.

We stayed friends because I tolerated most of Jude’s bullshit. But he shoveled a hell of a lot of it, sometimes.

“It’s out there,” I said. “Somewhere.”

“Well, of course it’s out there,” Jude said, motioning to the city with his hand. “It’s just not anywhere near here, Princess.”

I wrinkled my nose at the nickname, but his words got the cogs in my head turning. She failed to kill the monster in the tunnels, Dad had said. Well, I wouldn’t fail a second time, given the chance . . . even if I had to make that chance.

Shouldering my M16’s strap, I started toward the other end of the pier. “Then we should lure it here.”

“What? How?” Jude asked, his voice chasing me down the fog-bound pier.

I touched my comm and asked, “You guys got any rope?”

“Back in the truck, yeah,” Ryder responded, his voice raspy through the comms. “Why?”

I grinned. “Because I have a stupid idea.”

 

Ten minutes later, I climbed up on the pier’s wooden balustrade with Ryder’s rope tied around my ankle, a Colt secured at my hip, and a hunting knife strapped to the small of my back. The gray-green bay water sloshed against the pier’s big concrete pillars—choppy, white-tipped, and frosted with fog. My plan hinged on our scissorclaw’s relative intelligence . . . and its insatiable hunger.

“Don’t do this, Micheline,” Ryder said as Oliver checked the knots in my rope. “The brass doesn’t like us baiting targets.”

“Yeah, why are you dangling yourself over the bay like a piece of necro-tail?” Jude asked, leaning into the railing and looking down at the water below. He made a face. “Scissorclaws don’t swim.”

“This one does,” I said, double- and triple-checking my holster’s safety strap. Can’t drop my gun again. “If it hides in the tunnels during the day, it gets out through the bay at night. Hopefully, it’ll recognize the scent of my blood in the water.”

“You know what else recognizes blood in water?” Jude said. “Sharks. There’s great whites in the bay and you’re bite-sized, Princess—”

“Christ, mate, will you shut up?” Ryder asked.

Jude smirked and punched Ryder in the shoulder. “Nervous, loverboy?”

“Can it,” Ryder said.

Oliver rolled his eyes and gave my rope a final tug. “Be careful with the depth of the laceration, Micheline. You’ll be losing more blood than normal in your position.”

With a nod, I turned and eased over the balustrade, planting the soles of my feet against the boards.

“You’re sure about this?” Oliver asked.

“Positive,” I said.

“Only fools are positive,” Jude said.

“Just do it,” I said. Ryder and Oliver grabbed the rope, and carefully, I let go of the balustrade and allowed them to lower me upside down over the water. Blood rushed to my head, making spots dance across my vision for a few moments. The water swelled and slipped just a few feet below me, and I wrapped my free ankle around my bound one for balance. Memories from the first hunt rushed me: The man’s corpse hitting the water below with a splash; Brutus barking; the scissorclaw’s blue ghostlight splashing on the walls; its claws tearing past my body in a near miss. This time would be different—this time, I’d be ready.

One by one, the boys slipped away from the balustrade. Ryder lingered so long, frowning, I had to shoo him away. We’d chosen my position strategically: I needed to look injured and vulnerable but give the boys a clear shot from several hidden vantage points. Oliver and Jude would be sniping, while Ryder tucked away close by, just in case things went south. I’d draw my gun if I spotted the necro, signaling the boys.

Here goes nothing. I unsheathed the knife at my back, placed it against the palm of my left hand, and took a deep breath. We have to kill this thing, I told myself, feeling the blade’s icy edge against my skin.

Do it.

I sliced my palm open, deep enough to get blood dripping off my fingertips. Wincing, I sheathed my knife and let my hand hang down. When my blood struck the water, it turned black. Plip, plip, plip. My pulse went pound, pound, pound inside the wound. I let my body hang like dead weight, but kept my senses sharp. If I brought the Embarcadero down, my succession would be assured. Guaranteed, even. And I would be famous for more than my last name.

Ten minutes passed. C’mon, you big bastard. I’m the girl who got away, and you’ve got to be hungry by now. Twenty. Darkness eddied through the fog.

“We’re running out of time,” Oliver said into the comms. “The pro crews are going to be here in fifteen minutes. Do you see anything, Micheline?”

I shook my head slowly, knowing Oliver would see.

“This is stupid, guys,” Jude said, but the words were hardly out of his mouth when a shard of blue ghostlight caught my eye, rippling up from underwater. I put my good hand on the butt of my gun, wondering if my eyes played tricks on me.

“Micheline?” Oliver asked.

A second flash of light rose through the water. I yanked my gun from its holster and flicked the safety off, every muscle in my body tensing.

“It better not be a sea lion,” Jude muttered, his rifle clicking in the background. “‘Cause PETA’s going to be all over our asses if we shoot—”

“Shut up, mate,” Ryder said.

I relaxed my gaze, waiting for the smallest movement, waiting for the necro to betray itself. The water bulged, pushing a ribbon of flotsam and jetsam beneath me. The foam lit up blue; my breath caught.

There you are, you bastard.

The scissorclaw burst from the water, claws spread, right into my sights. I fired, my bullet striking the necro’s left cheek. With a snarl, it turned aside and dove back into the water, its black-lit form racing under the surface.

I fumbled for my comm with my injured hand. “Get me out!” I half shrieked, keeping my gun trained on the water.

“Hold on!” Ryder shouted. The rope heaved me higher, fast. I swung wild and spun, barely aware of Jude at the balustrade, pointing his rifle down at the water. Just as Ryder and Oliver pulled me over the railing, the scissorclaw leapt from the water, bounded off one of the pier’s pillars, and smashed into the boardwalk behind us.

“Shit!” Jude pivoted and opened fire, his bullets slamming into the scissorclaw’s shoulder. Shrieking, black blood bursting, the monster surged down the pier and into the fog. Its ghostlight turned the mist into turbulent blue storm clouds lit from the inside.

“C’mon!” I took off running, knowing we had to keep a visual on the monster. It sprang up to one of the pier’s second-story bridges, shattering the railings. Bits of broken wood rained down. I took potshots at it as it ran along the upper walkway.

“Micheline, it’ll outrun us,” Oliver shouted into the comm.

I touched my comm: “Only on foot!” I pulled the trigger, my bullet shattering a window behind the monster, dammit. “It’s on the east side of the pier, headed for the pier’s garages.”

“We’ll head it off,” Ryder said.

Sprinting past the last of the shops, I watched the scissorclaw break out onto the suspended walkway between the pier attractions and the parking garage. I fired, missed, but a volley of rifle fire exploded over the pier. A few steps more, and I spotted Ryder and Oliver on the west side of the walkway—Oliver firing on the necro, Ryder sprinting for the motorcycle parked in the street by our Humvees.

A few bullets hit home—black blood hit the pavement with little wet plops. With a snarl, the creature scrambled off the catwalk, landing in the street below and behind the cover of several parked vehicles. It tore south, the fog frothing in its wake, headed toward the pier buildings.

Ryder’s motorcycle growled, thrumming deep and low. He pulled up beside me. Without a word, I grabbed his shoulder and kicked my leg over the bike’s back seat. I clung to him with one arm and my thighs, gripping my gun in my right hand; I couldn’t think about the pain in my left.

“Don’t lose it!” I shouted. Ryder hit the throttle so hard, our back tire spun before it found purchase on the pavement. We shot forward, the force shoving my guts into my spine and snapping my head back. Up ahead, the scissorclaw sliced through the fog, zero-to-sixty fast. We screamed past the pier warehouses in pursuit, the street empty thanks to the barricades that cordoned off this section of the city.

“How many bullets do you have left?” Ryder shouted over the wind.

“Six,” I shouted back. There was no using his two-handed rifle while riding double on a motorcycle, so the Colt would have to do.

“Dammit,” he said, which translated roughly as Not enough.

We were gaining, the Bay Bridge coming into focus through the fog. The scissorclaw ducked toward a warehouse. I switched my Colt to my left hand and fired. The recoil hitting my injured palm like a butcher knife, my aim wavering. Five. The creature screeched, leaping straight at the building’s wall and bounding off, changing directions fast as an Olympic swimmer. It streaked past us, heading down Folsom Street.

Ryder jerked the handlebars, letting the bike slide into the turn. Righting us, he cranked the throttle and sent us flying down Folsom in pursuit. The scissorclaw charged straight for the chain link barricades set half a mile down the street. Several cadets patrolled the outer perimeter, black ghosts in the fog, armed with M16s. They protected the civilians stuck in rush hour, the pedestrians. The innocent.

Shouts went up seconds before the scissorclaw smashed into the chain link fence. With a metallic groan, the fence collapsed, trapping the cadets underneath. Breaking them, from the shouts and shrieks. The scissorclaw plowed into the pedestrians, clearing the sidewalk with a savage whip of its tail. Screams colored my world red, made my heart pump harder in my chest. Tires shrieked, and people scrambled out of the monster’s way and right into my sights.

I didn’t have a clear shot. “Get closer!” Switching to my good hand, I fired a shot over the creature’s head to scare it into the street. Four.

“Hold on!” Ryder shouted, just before the bike rumbled over the chain link fence. We hung left, chasing the scissorclaw into the eastbound lanes.

I lifted my gun, realizing I had to bring the necro down without shooting anyone living.

I had four bullets. Four puny .45 caliber bullets.

Shit.

With a giant leap, the necro bounded over a sedan and smashed into the windshield of an SUV, forcing the vehicle to careen into the path of an electric bus. The bus slammed into the SUV with a crack of metal and glass, groaning on its tracks, power cables snapping like rubber bands. One swung wide, whistling as it whipped overhead. The bus tipped into the street. Horns blared, glass shattered. Bystanders screamed. The necro rode the destruction for several yards, then leapt into eastbound traffic.

Ryder ducked after it, riding the lane line and slicing between two cars. The wind streaming off their sides grabbed at me, trying to pull me off the bike. My heart pounded, burning rubber against my ribs. The wind sliced across my face, whipped up by cars passing us at speeds that could turn Ryder and me into splatters on their grills and windshields. I gripped Ryder harder. No chance to puss out now; we have to take this thing down.

We tore past two blocks, then three, keeping the scissorclaw in our sight as we wove through traffic, tore past red lights and the sadistic grins of oncoming cars, gaining inches rather than yards. Vehicles dodged us, or tried to, hitting the median, light poles, and each other. Cars snarled up the lanes. Then I spotted signs for the Bay Bridge, which would be a dangerous place to play chicken on the back of a motorcycle with a necro.

“Ryder, the bridge!” I shouted, leveling my gun at the creature.

“I know!” he shouted back.

The necro charged up the onramp, finally clear in my crosshairs. I fired, the bullet clipping the monster’s hip. Three. It stumbled but didn’t go down, leaping onto a semi truck and jamming its claws into the trailer’s flank. After climbing to the top, it turned and hissed at us as the semi disappeared around the bridge’s bend.

The bike bucked as we hit the ramp. My stomach bottomed out as Ryder took the ramp’s hairpin turn at too many miles an hour, the bike forming a sharp angle with the ground. As we leveled with the bridge, we faced five lanes of traffic, fog billowing over the deck so thick, you’d think the whole bay was made of spewing dry ice.

Twenty yards ahead, the scissorclaw rode the semi’s trailer. Ryder closed the gap between the truck and our bike while I hooked my sights on the necro, trying not to think about what a motorcycle crash at 85 miles an hour would do to my skull. Couldn’t go there. I had a monster to kill.

I gripped the bike with my legs as we dove forward, car horns blaring their obscenities at us. We missed a Jeep by inches, so close the end of my ponytail whipped the vehicle’s side mirror. The thwack resounded in my head, throwing my aim off. From this angle, I could hardly see the scissorclaw—the closer we got, the more the trailer obscured the creature. It wasn’t dead stupid—it hunched over, claws sunk into the trailer top, making itself a small target.

“Take it down,” Ryder shouted over the wind. “It’s got nowhere to run!”

The Bay Bridge stretched from San Francisco to Oakland, covering about eight miles of open water. I couldn’t let the monster step foot in Oakland or give it any options for escape.

So I had a crazy, lunatic, totally shitbox idea.

“Pull even and keep her steady!” Anchoring my bloody left fist in Ryder’s shirt, I stood on the bike’s passenger footrests and gripped his ribcage with my knees, rooting myself to him. The wind tried to tear me down. Unquestioning, Ryder accelerated until we rode even with the truck’s trailer.

I lined up my sights with the scissorclaw’s head—

Steeled my shooting arm against the wind,

And my own body against the recoil.

I pulled the trigger. The bullet glanced off the scissorclaw’s skull. Two, dammit. The creature roared, shaking its head, then scrambled down the front of the semi truck and leaped off the hood, gazelle-smooth. The trucker overcompensated, turning his wheel hard to the left and making all eighteen of his wheels shriek. The truck jackknifed, trailer tipping. Ryder dodged the cab, shooting past as the entire bridge shook and metal screamed.

The scissorclaw sliced between cars, sleek as shadow. Up ahead, the mouth of the Yerba Buena Island tunnel came into view out of the fog. Four miles left.

“Duck!” Ryder shouted. As the wind tore over me, I chanced a glance backward, realizing I’d been seconds away from smashing my skull into a U-Haul’s side mirror. When I looked forward, we were two car lengths behind the scissorclaw. Twenty feet, max.

My next bullet went wild. I gritted my teeth. One last shot.

Brake lights fired up. Traffic slowed. Screeching, the scissorclaw leapt up atop a town car, smashing the roof in. The driver lost control of the vehicle, careening into the cars both behind and left. The back car hit so hard, it forced the town car into a roll.

Ryder dodged left to avoid the accident. The other cars around us slammed their brakes, turning the entire bridge into a shrieking, screaming, blaring tunnel of sound. We swept past the necro, but Ryder hit the brakes, skidding and turning the bike 180 degrees, facing down a mountain of twisted metal and flames that snapped like wolves’ jaws. For one crystalline moment, everything froze: traffic, the bike, my heart.

The scissorclaw’s leg was trapped between two cars. My breath caught in my chest. My sights lined up with the back of its neck, the trigger too light, the recoil pounding my palm, the gunshot deafening.

The necro went rigid for a full second, then collapsed over the chassis of an overturned pickup, the animation draining from its body. I dropped my gun to the ground, muscles quivering, system so jacked up on adrenaline and pain, I thought I’d shake to pieces.

I’d done the impossible. The deathblow belonged to me. I waited to feel the rush of elation, a blush of pride; but as the day wasted down to darkness, all I saw was the wreckage and death the scissorclaw left in its wake.

And in the distance, sirens wailed.

 

Three days later, I stared at a black ceiling, waiting for the tattoo artist to mix up a vial of cochineal ink. Dad stood in the corner, the smile in his eyes not quite reaching his lips. Mom waited in the foyer, unable to deal with tattoo parlor needles inside my flesh and staining my blood. Tonight, Mom and I would go hunting together. Tonight, I would remind her that I was her daughter, too.

But when the needle pierced the flesh of my hand, I knew for sure—

I was chosen.

I was Helsing.

 

“Trigger” copyright © 2015 by Courtney Alameda

Art copyright © 2015 by Dominick Saponaro

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