Nightshades

Alex McKenna is the new Special Agent in Charge of the Chicago office of the Bureau of Paranormal Investigations—the division tasked with investigating crimes involving shades.

Or vampires, as they’re more widely known.

Children have been going missing, and agents are routinely being slaughtered. It’s up to McKenna, and some unlikely allies, to get to the bottom of the problem, and find the kids before it’s too late.

Nightshades is a new gritty urban fantasy from Melissa F. Olson—available July 19th from Tor.com Publishing!

 

 

Prologue

Heavenly, Illinois, 30 miles outside Chicago
Wednesday night

Out of the corner of his eye, Special Agent Gabriel Ruiz watched his new partner with serious trepidation. Stakeouts were never much fun, but being trapped in a hot sedan with a grown man who kept releasing little-girl sneezes was enough to make Ruiz give serious consideration to fed-on-fed violence.

He and Creadin were parked on a poorly lit dirt road on the outskirts of Heavenly, IL, a useless little town with a cannery, a bar, and a pathetic pharmacy that did triple-duty as the local post office and convenience store. They were situated on Main Street, facing the pharmacy, and as far as Ruiz could tell its main trade was selling cigarettes to teenagers working the cannery during the summer. He had already made a mental note not to buy any canned goods from that label. The store had closed at eight, and anyone left inside had simply wandered next door to the town’s only bar, a dive called Benders.

Creadin unleashed another bout of darling “ah-choos”—there were always three in a row; it was goddamned precious—and shrugged helplessly, scrubbing his face with one palm like he was polishing his cheekbones. “Allergies,” he mumbled. “You gotta napkin or something in here?”

Ruiz shook his head in disgust. It better be allergies, he thought. He was not going to get sick because he got stuck in a car with one of the idiot newbies. “Use your sleeve, kid,” he grumbled, keeping his eyes on the street. Granted, Creadin was in his midthirties, not even a decade younger than Ruiz, but he’d joined the Chicago branch just three weeks earlier. Another fuckup transferring in from Counterterrorism. Between the recent killings and the agents who quit out of fear, half the office was new. Ruiz, on the other hand, had been with the division since the day it opened.

He glared straight ahead, at their targets: a pack of teenagers standing on the sidewalk in front of the bar. The place definitely served beer to underage kids, and now several of them were standing in a loose circle outside the bar, enjoying the cooling night air. The temperature that day had reached ninety-seven, with seventy percent humidity, and the air was only now starting to feel breathable. The kids were chatting and laughing, flirting, stumbling a little, milking any excuse to lean on each other. They’d been doing it for over an hour now, and showed no signs of packing it in. None of them seemed the least bit concerned about the fact that adolescents in the area had recently disappeared into thin air.

Next to him, Creadin reached into the backseat and picked up the case file again, flipping it open and squinting at it in the dim light from the street. They had both been through the damn thing a dozen times already, but Creadin was compulsive about it by now, paging through the file the way some people might jiggle a knee or crack their knuckles. Six teens—that they knew of—had gone missing from three towns in this county, including Heavenly, in the last four months. Their division of the FBI, the newly created Bureau of Preternatural Investigations, had been called in after the third kid was attacked, when the local cops had actually managed to come up with a body: a seventeen-year-old girl named Bobbi Klay, who had bled out at the wrists. That itself wasn’t enough to prove she’d been killed by a shade, but there were other signs: The body had multiple slices over major arteries, for example, and was wiped and moved after death. She’d obviously fought tooth and nail, judging by the defensive wounds on her hands and arms, but weakly, as if she’d lost a lot of blood before it occurred to her to protest. The pathologist who’d conducted the autopsy, Jessica Reyes, had suggested a shade attack.

That was when the BPI first stepped in, and right about when everything started going to hell. Three more kids had gone missing in the weeks after the BPI joined the investigation, and then four different agents suddenly disappeared. It was an enormous blow to the tiny and unproven BPI. Unlike the rest of the Bureau, the supernatural division was organized into small teams of six agents, including a Senior Agent in Charge. There were only two pods on the East Coast and one in Chicago, but there was talk of opening another branch in Los Angeles, if Director Greene could get the funding. Losing four agents from the Chicago pod meant losing a large percentage of the entire BPI division, which made everyone look even worse.

Public perception was a whole other problem: In the months since the BPI’s formation, all three pods had exhibited a nearly pathological lack of progress—hard proof that Greene could wave in front of Congress. Oh, they had discovered a number of alleged shades, both in Washington and here in the Chicago area, but every time the BPI found a trail it abruptly terminated. These people—these things, in Ruiz’s opinion—could just fucking vanish, something that was otherwise impossible in the technological age. It was like playing goddamn Whac-a-Mole with murderers. No one had captured a shade, dead or alive, since Ambrose.

But now, thirty miles south of Chicago, the pattern had finally changed. The shades in question had to know the BPI was onto them, but they’d made no effort to back off. In fact, they’d only pushed harder, taken more kids, which went against every method they’d previously established. The Chicago SAC, Peralty, was so pissed he’d actually come out himself tonight, to run point out of the unmarked van two blocks over. It was a ballsy move, but also rather stupid, in Ruiz’s opinion: The boss rarely made appearances in the field, and as a result everyone was discombobulated tonight.

As if Peralty could sense his disloyal thoughts, Ruiz’s little Bluetooth earpiece beeped.

“Ruiz. Update.” Peralty’s voice was brusque, but Ruiz knew that was just to hide his anxiety. They had to find someone tonight, goddamn it. Too many people had died.

Ruiz lifted the radio. “More of the same, sir… Wait—” As he watched, the kids began to break apart into groups. Finally. “They’re splitting up now. Two couples are heading our way, and there’s a group of three going west.”

“Stay with the couples,” Peralty instructed. “I’ll send Hill and Ozmanski after the group.”

“Yes, sir. Ruiz out.” Ruiz started the sedan, while beside him Creadin let out one more round of cutesy sneezes before he flipped the file closed and fastened his seatbelt. They didn’t speak, both too focused on the teenagers. Heavenly had plenty of streetlights, but unlike major cities, which gave off light from security doors and late-night businesses everywhere, in this Podunk town the street lamps were the only line of defense against the dark. As the kids walked from one pool of light into the next, there was always a quick moment where they were nearly invisible. It set Ruiz’s teeth on edge.

He waited until the four kids had stumbled almost to the end of the block before he put the car in drive, creeping along the streets. When he was fifty feet behind them he pulled over again, waiting. In Chicago his behavior would have looked suspicious as hell, but the speed limit in downtown Heavenly was only twenty miles per hour. Everyone skulked around. And the kids were too caught up in their flirty conversations to pay any attention.

Ruiz followed the same procedure—letting them get ahead, skulking forward, pulling over—for two more blocks, and then the couples broke apart. Two of them stumbled up the sidewalk toward a dirt-brown Victorian residence with one light still on. They had their hands in each other’s back pockets, laughing and intimate at the same time. They were obviously about two minutes away from getting naked. Ruiz grunted in disgust. Where were their goddamn parents? Didn’t anyone in this town care that kids were disappearing?

Still, neither of them were shades, judging by the familiar body language and the certainty in their movements. These two had been dating awhile, and shades didn’t do that, didn’t get to know their victims first. Ruiz took his foot off the brake and continued after the remaining couple, with Creadin tense beside him.

The second couple—a short, muscled boy and a gangly girl three inches taller than him—chatted amiably as they walked, but they weren’t touching. “Just friends, you think?” Creadin suggested.

“Or new acquaintances,” Ruiz said grimly.

The guy suddenly turned and glanced over his shoulder, frowning at the unmarked BPI car. Then he gestured for the girl to turn a corner, walking the wrong way down a one-way street. “Fuck,” Ruiz muttered, feeling the buzz of sudden adrenaline. “Where does that road go?” He had a rough understanding of the town’s layout, but Creadin was the one who’d studied the maps.

“Couple of houses, an intersection, then it dumps into the cornfield.” Like every other street in this godforsaken town. “Follow on foot?” the younger man asked.

“Yeah. Leave the jackets.” Both men shucked their BPI Windbreakers, a relief in the hot air. Underneath, they were dressed in slacks and polo shirts, casual enough to blend in, at least at first glance. Ruiz reached into the backseat for a prop: a brown glass bottle in a paper bag. Empty, of course. “Let’s go.”

The two of them jogged through the steamy night to the corner where the kids had disappeared, and then slowed to an amble, beginning a conversation about the Cubs’ new pitcher. Up ahead, Ruiz could just make out the figures of the two kids, still walking along, popping in and out of the light from the street lamps on Euclid. He felt the familiar tension of battle focus, and was so engaged with looking relaxed and maintaining the fake conversation that he almost jumped when the Bluetooth beeped again. Peralty’s voice was suddenly shouting in his ear, “All units to the cornfield off . . . Euclid and Water Street!”

A block ahead of them. He and Creadin exchanged a quick glance and began to run forward. He looked ahead, at the kids, but they had vanished.

The bottle in its brown bag slipped from his fingers, but he was moving too fast to even hear it break. Creadin was faster than him, and Ruiz put on a burst of speed, trying to keep up. Despite his efforts Creadin was soon twenty feet ahead of him, across the street to the field of nine-foot-tall cornstalks. “There!” Creadin shouted, pointing to a hole where several stalks had been broken off. “They went this way!”

Ruiz took one quick look around him, checking for an ambush, and when he looked back Creadin had disappeared into the corn.

“Fuck!” Ruiz screamed. Creadin wasn’t a rookie; he should have known better than to go in there ahead of him. Ruiz pulled his flashlight out of his pocket and plunged in after his partner with his weapon in his right hand. He didn’t even remember pulling the gun. He stopped just inside the cornfield, flashing the light in every direction, but there was no sign of Creadin. Just still stalks of corn that seemed to suck away the light.

He hit the Bluetooth. “Creadin! Get back here!” Silence. “Peralty?”

Ruiz heard shouting, not on the radio but way ahead of him in the corn, and he began to run, crashing through the dark cornfield with the gun muzzle pointed toward the ground and the flashlight held backward in his hand, so he could hold up one arm to shield his face. He did his best not to get hit by the heavy green ears that hung low on each cornstalk, but plenty of them banged into his shoulders and legs. The flashlight beam bounced in front of him, illuminating an aisle of dirt so narrow that Ruiz had to run at an angle, his wide-not-fat body tilted like a linebacker moving through an airplane.

“Where is everyone?” he shouted on the radio, just beginning to panic. The flashlight was serious—the latest model of 1,000 lumen CREE torch—but in the narrow space between rows it could only force out a small tunnel of bouncing light that had suddenly become Ruiz’s whole world. Someone said something on the radio, and Ruiz skidded to a halt, trying to hear. “What? Hello?” There was a gurgling sound, and with both hands full he pressed his shoulder against his ear, trying to make it out. All he heard was a little bit of strangled breathing, and then the line went silent again. “Hey!” Ruiz shouted, breathing hard. He wasn’t in terrible shape, but he wasn’t exactly a regular at the gym, either. “Creadin! Peralty!” Nothing. “Hill! Where are you?”

Way down near where his flashlight beam ended, Ruiz saw something—someone—dart across his line of vision, running perpendicular through the corn. “Hey!” he shouted, raising the gun, but there was no answer. Ruiz was suddenly, overwhelmingly aware of his own vulnerability here. He was standing in the middle of a goddamned cornfield holding a flashlight as bright as a lighthouse, and there was likely at least one shade out here with him.

Instinctively, Ruiz clicked the light off and went still. He listened hard, working to control his breathing. Up until now he’d heard the occasional muffled cry or rustle of corn, but suddenly it was silent all around him. The air smelled of soil and green things that had baked all day in late-summer heat. He couldn’t remember if he’d felt a breeze earlier today, but there sure as hell wasn’t one now. The darkness and heat were too heavy; it was choking the air out of everything.

When he absolutely couldn’t stand it any longer, he clicked on his flashlight. And screamed.

The shade was standing three feet in front of him, close enough to touch, peering at him through long, stringy blond hair that had a foot of pink at the bottom. Bright red blood dripped down her chin, and there was more blood streaked down her tank top and cutoff shorts. It matched the red of her irises and pupils. She only looked about eighteen, but she was holding something like a miniature machete, twirling it around in her right hand with the comfort of decades of practice. She smiled at him, a wide scarlet grin that sent urine running down Ruiz’s pants leg.

“Hello,” she chirped, like a cheerful clerk at a candy store. She raised a bloody hand and wiggled her fingers at him. “I’m Giselle. What’s your name?”

“I’m—” he began, and then raised his weapon and squeezed the trigger twice, hoping it would throw her off balance. But the shade just evaporated into the corn.

Her voice came from somewhere to his left. “You got a shot off. Very good!” His pistol swung wildly as he pointed it left and right, trying to find the source of the sound, but she was moving. Something rustled behind him, and he whipped around, gun up—only to see an empty row of corn. He faced the original direction again, terrified that she was about to pop out at him, but instead of shade claws he saw . . . a pile of something. It had been dropped about thirty feet down the row of corn. Had that been there before? He hadn’t looked past the woman. Ruiz stepped closer, pointing the light right at it, and realized he was looking at bodies. He spotted Hill’s short brunette haircut, and Creadin’s sightless eyes, and the horror swept over him.

“If you survive this,” came the conversational voice, from somewhere to his left, “please tell your people to leave us alone. They can’t stop what’s coming.” She was close now, only a few feet away, and Ruiz took one slow step backward as she began to crouch. Then some instinct alerted him, and he swung the flashlight beam just up in time to see her descending on him like an angel from hell.

Excerpted from Nightshades © Melissa F. Olson, 2016
This excerpt originally appeared on The Book Smugglers.

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