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Madison wants to be ordinary. Instead, she can see souls. Honestly, it’s kind of gross. Not everyone’s metaphysical essence glows sparkly white. Most people carry around a lot of smut. Which is why Madison doesn’t use her soul sight often—until she witnesses something she can’t ignore: dark creatures hungrily gnawing on the souls of oblivious normal folks. No one else can see these creatures. No one else can fight them. It’s up to Madison to save the souls of the people in her city. If only she knew what she was doing... A Fistful of Evil is a fresh urban fantasy for fans of Darynda Jones and Jim Butcher. You won’t want to miss this wildly imaginative story packed full of supernatural horrors, kick-butt action, and laugh-out-loud moments. Grab your copy today! “This story will have you captivated from start to finish” (Sassy Book Lovers★★★★★) SERIES READING ORDER A Fistful of Evil A Fistful of Fire A Fistful of Flirtation (a newsletter bonus novelette) A Fistful of Frost
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About A Fistful of Evil
1. Don’t Follow Me: I’m Lost, Too
2. I Didn’t Sell My Soul, but I Did Hammer Out a Rent-to-Own Deal
3. I Brake for Firemen
4. Cleverly Disguised as a Responsible Adult Since 2007
5. Welcome to the Dark Side. Are You Surprised We Lied about the Cookies?
6. If Found, Please Return Me to Reality
7. I ♥ My Cat
8. Got Toys?
9. All Your Base Are Belong to Us
10. Earth First; We’ll Log the Other Planets Later
11. Keep Calm and Carry On
12. Honk if You’re Hot and Horny
13. Have You Hugged Your Dog Today?
14. Stop, Drop, and Roll Doesn’t Work in Hell
15. Guns Don’t Kill People; Bullets Do
16. Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Body
17. Spay and Neuter Animal Abusers
18. Don’t Worry: There’s Enough of Me for Everyone
19. Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History
Note to Readers
Also by Rebecca Chastain
Sneak Peek: A Fistful of Fire
About the Author
Madison Fox just learned that her ability to see souls is more than a sight: It’s a weapon for fighting evil. The only problem is she doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing.
On the positive side, her money problems are over, she’s possibly discovered her purpose in life, and her coworker is smoking hot. On the negative side, evil creatures now actively hunt her, and deadly experiences are becoming the norm.
When she thinks it couldn’t get worse, a powerful evil sets up shop at a local hotel’s video game convention, and it’s got its eye on more than the gaming geeks—it’s hungry for Madison’s soul. Madison needs to become an expert illuminant enforcer overnight to save her job, her region . . . and her life.
A Fistful of Evil is a fresh new adult urban fantasy from the author of the well-loved Gargoyle Guardian Chronicles. For a wildly imaginative story packed full of supernatural horrors, kick-butt action, and laugh-out-loud moments, you won’t want to miss this series starter.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, dialogue, places, and incidents either are drawn from the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, locales, or events is entirely coincidental. Any resemblance to an actual cat is 100 percent intentional and approved by Mack Fu, who shamelessly insisted on being immortalized in the pages of this novel.
Copyright © 2014 by Rebecca Chastain
Excerpt from A Fistful of Fire copyright © by Rebecca Chastain
Cover design by Yocla Designs
Author photograph by Cody Watson
All rights reserved. In accordance with the US Copyright Act of 1976, scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without permission of the author constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. If you would like to use material from this book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained from the publisher. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights.
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Mind Your Muse Books
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Rocklin, CA 95677
To Cody, whose support and encouragement makes all things possible, all dreams achievable.
The interview was a catastrophe. It started out fine—better than fine. Kyle, the sales manager for the bumper sticker company Illumination Studios, met me in the warm confines of a nearby Starbucks, purchased me a grande green tea, and selected a table in the corner, away from the door and the cold blast of November air every customer brought in with them. Soft music, cappuccino-machine clacks and whirs, and the murmur of conversation created a cocoon of privacy.
I handed Kyle a copy of my résumé, determined to prove myself to be the mandatory employee for the boring junior sales associate position. I wasn’t particularly qualified and I would normally have rather ripped off hangnails than perform cold calls—which is what I strongly suspected the position entailed—but four weeks of unemployment, seven failed interviews, and escalating credit card bills proved very strong motivators.
Strong enough for me to ignore the desperate reason I’d applied for the job in the first place. Never trust your soul-sight, I told myself for the thousandth time. But my imminent eviction trumped mistrust of my bizarre, mutant vision.
Kyle dropped my résumé to the table without glancing at it. He scrutinized me over the top of his dry cappuccino. Kyle exuded salesman, from his maroon button-up shirt and khaki trousers to his thinning brown hair with its frosted tips. His face was pinched, as if someone had pressed his baby flesh between their hands and pulled, extending his nose and pulling his lips and eyes in tight. He couldn’t have been much older than me, despite the sullen brackets around his mouth and deep grooves between his eyebrows. Maybe his expression fell into disapproving lines naturally.
“How many years’ experience do you have, Madison?” Kyle asked.
“Specifically in the bumper sticker business, none, but I believe my time at Catchall Advertising will—”
“I don’t care about the bumper sticker crap. I care about your experience in the field.”
My weirdo radar, dulled by the overpowering mix of desperation and determination, flickered to life.
“I honed my sales skills while working as a saleswoman at Sundage Cars. My experience there taught me how to connect with people from all walks of life.” Though it hadn’t taught me how to sell a car. In the six months of my employment as a used-car saleswoman, I sold a grand total of zero cars, which is why David Sundage, my cousin-in-law and owner of Sundage Cars, had fired me at the beginning of September. But I wasn’t going to concern Kyle with that minor detail.
Kyle set his cappuccino down on the table and leaned back in his chair. “How old are you?” he asked.
“I’m not sure I understand the relevance—”
“What regions have you worked in before this?”
Regions? “I’ve worked mainly in Roseville since I—”
“With who? Not with Brad or Isabel.” Kyle leaned forward, his dark eyes intense.
Who? I eased my tea to the table and ran my palms down the sides of my black knee-length skirt, telling myself it was only nerves that were making Kyle seem so volatile.
“Um, most recently with David Sundage,” I said.
“Where are his headquarters?”
Headquarters? What is this, the FBI? Hadn’t he bothered to read my résumé?
“Down Douglas,” I answered, pointing vaguely west toward Douglas Boulevard and the car lot.
“Also in Roseville, at Catchall—”
“Look, we can both stop playing this game. I don’t care about what jobs you’ve had to take between IE positions.” Kyle deflated into his chair with a gusty sigh. “To be honest, you’re the only qualified person to apply for the job—my job. I’ve been ready to transfer for months now, so I’m not going to make this interview hard on you. I want you to take this job as much as you want it. I just need to make this interview look good so Brad signs my walking papers, okay?”
I nodded and tried to look like I understood more than the English words he used. I didn’t know what he meant by “IE positions,” and I knew I wasn’t qualified for his sales manager position. I wasn’t even qualified to be a junior sales associate, but who was I to argue? Managers probably didn’t have to make cold calls, which automatically made the job more appealing. Plus, a management position would pay better, and I was pretty sure I could fake it until I got caught up on my bills. By then, I could find a more suitable job. Something more Indiana Jones and less Bridget Jones.
“Okay, let me make this perfectly clear,” Kyle continued. “Which wardens have you worked with?”
“Wardens?” As in prison?
Kyle leaned forward, placing his hands on the table. “What’s the largest evil you’ve ever tackled? A wraith? A pissed-off dryad?”
I cast a quick glance around for a candid camera, noting the nearest exit in case I needed to make a run for it. I’d been nervous on interviews before, but never because of a mentally unstable interviewer. Was that why Kyle had insisted we meet away from the company office? Did he even work for Illumination Studios?
I eased my hand through the strap of my purse and slid it onto my shoulder, careful not to make any sudden movements that might spook the deranged man. “I don’t think I’m the right person for the job, after all,” I said, and pushed away from the table.
This is why I never used my soul-sight, never followed its false leads. I shouldn’t have made an exception for this job. To the marrow of my bones, I knew soul-sight was untrustworthy.
“Hang on, Madison,” Kyle said, grabbing my arm as I started to stand. I froze. “You’re definitely the right person for the job. You’re the first enforcer to walk through that door in nearly two weeks.”
“I don’t even know what that means. I’m going to save us both some time and leave now.” I tugged to free my arm.
“Holy crap! You’re a rogue.” Kyle jerked away from me, shaking his hand like I’d given him cooties. Unbalanced, I fell back into my chair.
“That explains your age,” Kyle said, speaking more to himself than me. “And your job history. You haven’t been playing games with me . . .”
I stood again as he trailed off, and his gaze snapped to focus on my face. “It was nice to meet you,” I said by rote. “Good luck with—”
“One question.” Kyle stood, cutting off my escape. He towered over my five-foot-ten frame by a good eight inches. Despite his wiry build, the odds weren’t in my favor that I could knock him down before he could grab me.
Taking a deep breath, and reminding myself that I was in a safe public place filled with people, I said, “Okay. One more.”
“Did you apply because you thought you could pretend to be qualified for a sales position or because the ad glowed?”
My breath caught. The fact that the job description in the “Help Wanted” section had glowed in soul-sight had been an inexplicable anomaly. Dead, mashed pulp couldn’t glow. It wasn’t alive. It didn’t have a soul. But hearing that Kyle knew about the glow set my arm hairs on end. No one knew about soul-sight except my best friend, and that was only because I’d told her. Soul-sight was my own personal aberration.
Seeing my hesitation, Kyle plowed on.
“Three decades as a rogue has got to be a new record. I’m not sure why you chose to come out of hiding, but I’m not letting you get away now, not when I’m this close”—he pinched his forefinger and thumb together—“to escaping this puny region for some real action.”
“I haven’t been hiding. I think you’re mistaken—”
“Come on. We both know you’re not qualified for a sales position even if it did exist,” Kyle said, flicking my résumé. The crisp white paper skittered off the table to the floor. “But if you could see the glow, you are qualified to be an enforcer. Hmm, let’s see, how to explain this to a thirty-year-old rogue?”
“I’m twenty-five,” I corrected softly, wondering why I was still standing there, why I hadn’t stepped around Kyle and walked out the door.
“You have the ability to see the world differently than this ‘real world,’ right? Black and white? Plants and animals glow all pretty and clean. People look like they’re wearing snowy-weather camouflage. Is this ringing any bells?”
There was definitely a ringing in my ears. He’d just described soul-sight. My knees wobbled and I sank disjointedly into my chair.
Kyle sat across from me, shaking his head with amazement. “I can’t believe you’ve maintained a rogue status for so long. I mean, I understand the appeal of not having a boss, but you’re also not on anyone’s payroll. Why not become a real enforcer and get paid for it?”
Paid to use soul-sight? Has he infected me with his insanity?
“Trust me, this region’s not hard at all. It’s a good place to cut your teeth, but it gets monotonous real fast. Still, let’s see what you’ve got. Tell me what you see here.”
“A coffee shop,” I said, not quite willing to believe he and I were talking about the same thing.
“Fine. I’ll go first.” He twitched his long, pointy nose and grinned at me. “You’ve got great color. Very pure. Which is how I knew you were an enforcer. No atrum in sight.”
I shifted in my chair, irrationally pulling my suit jacket tighter to cover myself, but Kyle had already turned away.
“Now, that guy behind the counter, he’s not the honest type. Look at the way atrum coats his fingertips and wrists. Disgusting.”
Kyle grinned at me. I tried to remember to breathe. He was truly talking about soul-sight. I wasn’t the only person with the ability. All brain activity got jammed up between that thought and his statement that people—he—got paid to use soul-sight. Once I could formulate a complete thought, I was going to have a lot of questions.
“Go ahead, look around in Primordium. I’m going to see if I can attract us a little fun,” Kyle said.
For the first time in ten years, I intentionally blinked to soul-sight in public.
I gripped the edges of the table for support against the wave of dizziness that broadsided me whenever I switched between visions; then I purposely examined my surroundings. The coffee shop was slate gray, all color nonexistent in this vision. From the floor (which I knew was tiled white) to the wooden tables to the chrome espresso machine, every inanimate object was shades of charcoal. The overhead lighting didn’t exist in soul-sight—in Primordium, I corrected myself. Shadows didn’t exist in Primordium, either, not traditional light-created shadows. Something worked in this vision to give depth to objects, but trying to focus on it was a recipe for a migraine. The only bright spots in the room were the people.
I forced myself to examine the man behind the cash register to verify Kyle’s description, fighting against soul-sight-avoidance instincts honed over the last ten years. My fingers tightened on the table. The barista’s fingertips and wrists were smeared black, like he’d had a run-in with a dirty chimney. The rest of his arms were pale gray, as was his face. I knew from experience, those dark patches represented some immoral choices and actions. Light gray was normal for a human; black was pure evil. Only animals and plants were pure white in Primordium. The barista’s smudged wrists meant he’d made some bad choices, but I couldn’t tell what. That was only one of the flaws of soul-sight.
The only person’s soul I’d ever seen that was as pure as an animal’s was my own. Since I was far from perfect, I figured I couldn’t see my own flaws. That was fine by me. Seeing my soul felt like looking inside myself, and it was a sure way to induce stomach-churning vertigo.
I swiveled my head to look at my companion, fully expecting him to look like a variation of every other human I’d ever seen.
Kyle, the plain-looking salesman, glowed brighter than most searchlights. I lifted my hand to shield my eyes, but it was as impractical as shining a flashlight in my eyes to shield them from the brightness of the sun.
“Aha! There are a few curious imps. Figured there would be with the traffic in here,” Kyle said. He was too bright to see his facial features, almost too bright to see a solid outline. When he talked, I couldn’t tell if his lips moved. It was one of the creepiest things I’d ever seen.
I had a thousand questions for this man—why had we never met before? Why did he refer to me as a rogue? Could he please dim himself?—but what came out was, “A curious what?”
“Imp.” His glowing head swiveled toward me. “You have killed evil creatures before, right?”
I shook my head. “What evil creatures?”
“Amazing. Truly amazing. It’s like you’ve been hiding under a rock, invisible to both sides.” He shook his head in wonder. “You’ve not imploded a single imp? Not even a small one?”
“Maybe I have,” I said, belatedly offended and not sure why. “What do they look like?”
Kyle laughed loud enough to draw several stares. “No shit. A rogue with zero experience.” He chuckled again. “The best Brad can attract to his puny region is an untrained nobody with no clue. I’d love to see his face when—” He raised his hand to forestall my next question. “Never mind. You’ve got the ability; you’re trainable. Brad won’t turn you away, not when he’s so desperate for an IE. Ah, that stands for illuminant enforcer, which is the job I’m leaving to you. So let me give you your first demonstration of what a true enforcer does. Watch carefully.”
I tore my eyes from his shining aura. There was no after-image like with real light, which was a good thing, because I’d have been blind for a half hour after staring so hard. Logic said the bright light of Kyle should have cast shadows all over the room, but in this strange sight, logic didn’t apply.
I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to look, so I scanned other customers.
The coffee shop was busy but not full, with groups of two and three people scattered around the free-floating tables—mostly college students or businesspeople escaping the office. People firmly rooted in reality, not looking at dirty souls and talking about illumi-something enforcers and Primordium.
I focused on the group of four people to my right. Like everyone else in the room, they had gray dollops peeking through the V-necks of their shirts and flecks of black soot defiling their hands and wrists. I could see their features faintly through their bodies’ natural light, and I flushed with embarrassment when all four turned to stare back at me. I rarely let myself use my soul-sight around people; despite my discomfort, it was heady to use it so blatantly now. Of course, to them it just looked like I was staring rudely.
“Do you see the imps?”
I swiveled back to Kyle and blinked against his brightness. Unobtrusively, I leaned against the table while the world spun back into color.
“They’re the smallest of the evil creatures, little blobs of pure evil. Hardly enough brain matter to function. Just enough to recognize food and attack it.”
Not good. This is so not good. I wished I were back at home with my cat, Mr. Bond, and a good book or a TV show. Something ordinary. I did not want to be talking with the only other known person with soul-sight who kept insisting there were evil creatures visible to only us. I felt like a character in a horror movie right before they slowly turn around and come face-to-face with a monster. Seeing evil on people’s souls was bad enough. I didn’t want to see—let alone come into contact with—something purely evil.
And yet, how could I not look?
I blinked, carefully focusing away from Kyle first.
I scanned the room again. Baristas. Customers. Books and CDs. Coffee bags. “What am I looking for?” Kyle didn’t answer me. Movement under the nearest table caught my attention. An inky black chinchilla-like blob sat on the table’s base, its glowing eyes watching me.
“What the hell is that?” Anything with life was always a version of white. Even the sullied souls of the sadistic still glowed with light undertones. Nothing living was all black—it was life that made everything glow. Furthermore, animals were never tainted by ambiguous moral choices like humans; animals were always white. The tiny fluff ball of blackness was darker than the inanimate objects around it. It was black—solid black. Impossibly black. Either there were varying degrees of life I’d never encountered and this was the zombie equivalent of life, or this creature—this pile of dust with bright eyes—was pure evil.
“Madison, meet your first imps,” Kyle said.
The imp cocked its head at me, clearly curious. Curious meant it could think. Curious meant it was trying to puzzle me out. A thinking evil creature was interested in me. Abandoning my job hunt and moving back in with my parents suddenly seemed like a great idea.
The imp hopped toward me.
I lurched to my feet, sending my chair careening into the people behind me. Scrambling around the table, I put distance between myself and the creature. Its eyes tracked me. It hopped out from under the table until it was less than two feet away from me. I tensed to flee.
Kyle waved his radiant hand in front of the imp the way a matador waves a cape for a bull. Like a bull, the imp charged. I squealed. The imp disappeared.
He’d said imps, right? With an s? I spun around, looking for more.
I spied three behind Kyle’s chair. Like the first one, the dark creatures were fixated on him. In a group they lunged. I jumped back, tripping over a chair. Windmilling my arms, I fought for balance while trying to keep the evil creatures in my sight, but gravity won. In a cacophony of wood and metal and flesh, I crashed to the floor. When I looked back at Kyle, the imps were gone.
“Miss? Are you okay?”
Reality popped like my ears had just unplugged. I blinked. The world swam. I rolled to my side. From my position on the gritty floor, I could see a circle of black-clad feet, and more approaching. Baristas. Everyone in the coffee shop had gone deafeningly quiet, making the cheerful jazz sound like it was blaring. I realized three things simultaneously: (1) everyone—from the patrons to the dishwasher—was staring at me; (2) I must look like I had gone absolutely, start-raving mad; and (3) my skirt was hiked up to my hips. Shit. Can you die from embarrassment? Please?
I untangled myself from the rungs of the chair I’d tripped over; stood faster than I should have, assisted by the adrenaline of embarrassment; and yanked my skirt down so that it covered me to my knees. I patted at my hair, pulling a bit of muffin out of a clump and wiping my hand on a napkin. And I assured everyone that I was fine, convincing no one.
How could I be fine? I’d just learned that I wasn’t the only person with soul-sight—or the ability to see in Primordium. Worse, there were evil creatures that lived alongside us, visible only in Primordium. Creatures that gazed upon me and Kyle with the same loving look I reserved for triple chocolate fudge cake. Somehow Kyle had made them disappear, but for all I could tell, it was magic, because how did you use a sight to make something vanish? I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t just seen it. It was the equivalent of a person using their normal sight to move an object; it just didn’t happen.
Only it had.
There was more to soul-sight than judging people’s souls. Something proactive. Something that involved sentient evil fluff balls. My mind stuttered over the next logical thought: Did I want to know more about it?
Kyle assured everyone that I was fine, that I’d seen a spider and had been frightened, and they believed him. The employees went back to work and the patrons pretended to ignore us once more, though they cast frequent nervous glances at me—and a few at the floor in search of the mysterious spider.
I righted my chair and sat. Sitting meant I was less visible to everyone’s curious eyes.
“No,” I said softly, then more resolutely. “No, I don’t think I’m interested in becoming an illumination enforcer after—”
“Illuminant enforcer,” Kyle corrected.
“Right. Well. I’m clearly not cut out to do this. You said that was the smallest, ah, evil creature, right?”
“Yes, but you saw how easily it was killed.”
I thought he’d made it disappear. No. He’d killed it. Fabulous. “It may have been easy for you, but I don’t have what it takes—”
“Nonsense. I’m leaving you a spotless region. You simply need to practice . . . while you get paid.”
“It is imperative that you assume the role as the region’s IE. The position cannot be vacant. Illumination Studios needs you. Otherwise, the region will succumb to evil.”
The absurdity of the situation was catching up with me. I leaned back in the chair and crossed my arms. “You’re saying that I need to take this job, and if I don’t, the world is doomed.”
“Hardly doomed. There are other people with the ability to use lux lucis; it would just take time to find them. In the meantime, you and everyone else in Roseville would be helpless fodder for unchecked evil.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t think I’m ready for that kind of responsibility.” Translation: I’m not sure I believe this isn’t a delusional dream. I wasn’t even going to bother to ask what lux lucis was.
Kyle dusted his hands, shrugging his shoulders in good-natured defeat. “Fine. You are free to leave, but just so you know, once the darkness has noticed you, it doesn’t forget. You’ve been coasting up until now, with no region to protect and no need to engage the enemy. But today you did. Tell me, did the imps seem interested in you?”
There was no menace in the question, but his eyes were knowing. I thought of the imp’s glowing stare as it crept closer, head cocked to the side in curiosity, and I shivered.
“You killed all the imps who saw me,” I reasoned, standing and glancing eagerly toward the door, my ticket back to reality.
“I killed all the ones who saw you today. You have the soul of an enforcer, which is very attractive to evil. You’ve survived this long with no formal training only because I’m incredibly good at keeping my region clean. And you’ve been lucky. I don’t expect you’re going to make it much longer. Despite their diminutive size and strength, imps are dangerous. They’re the messengers and lackeys of more powerful dark creatures. If they see someone who interests them, they’ll be sure to report it.”
“Report it?” I sat down heavily. I pictured a large “mommy” imp the size of an elephant, able to leap small buildings to attack to me.
“Just as our side has a hierarchy of . . . people with different and stronger abilities, so, too, does their side. They’re not fond of enforcers, with good reason: You can destroy them.”
I let that absorb. “Are you telling me my life’s in danger?” Was I actually believing all this? The answer, unfortunately, was yes.
“Maybe not yet, but it will be soon. Unless you protect yourself.”
I’d been successful over the years in convincing myself that I chose not to use soul-sight because I wanted to be normal, or at least not be a metaphysical Peeping Tom. Confronted with the possibility of actively using soul-sight, I could no longer pretend what I felt was anything but fear. It was an ugly truth, and one I didn’t want to scrutinize. Especially now that I had a bigger problem.
Kyle must have seen me weakening, and he pressed his point. “You might as well get paid while you learn, right?”
I didn’t know if following Kyle back to the office of Illumination Studios was one of the smartest or stupidest things I’d ever done. The final straw that convinced me to take the job—if only until I could figure out how to eradicate my soul-sight, which looked like the only conceivable long-term option—was seeing the sleek two-door Mercedes Kyle drove. I liked everything that implied about my future salary and very little about what it said about my priorities.
Illumination Studios was located among the plethora of two-story, two-tone beige office buildings that had spawned across the Roseville landscape in the early nineties. It came complete with traditional blue-tinted windows that worked like mirrors in the day and turned the building into a fishbowl at night. I discreetly checked my reflection as I walked toward the lobby doors where Kyle waited. I’d brushed the majority of grit from my black skirt during the drive to the office and had done a decent job fixing my shoulder-length walnut brown hair, readjusting the clip that held the top half back from my face.
My green eyes still looked a little wide around the edges and my hands trembled, but if I tucked one hand around the strap of my black purse and made the other stop fidgeting with my suit jacket, I could fake calm.
Kyle led the way across a tiled lobby and down a long carpeted hallway. We passed the doorways to a temp agency and a mortgage company, both bustling with quiet office energy behind tall cubicle walls. The hallway dead-ended at Illumination Studios, with double doors opening to the left into a modest lobby complete with the requisite tall receptionist desk and the company’s name spelled out in large, top-lit silver letters across the wall behind the desk. It looked like a normal office, not like the front of some mysterious evil-fighting organization.
“Good day, Sharon,” Kyle said, nodding a greeting at the high counter of the receptionist desk without pausing.
When I passed the desk, I spied the short lady seated behind it. Limp brown hair hung in sheets on either side of Sharon’s thin head, and the fluorescent lighting made pasty lines of her homely face. She tracked our progress past her workstation with only her flat brown eyes. Her body remained perfectly motionless and she did not return Kyle’s greeting or my overly bright, nervous smile.
The office was modest, with a wide hallway defined by beige and rose high-walled cubicles on the left and a glass-enshrouded unlit conference room on the right. At the end of the hallway was a bank of offices, their glass fronts closed off by mini-blinds. Kyle stopped in front of the middle office and knocked on the closed wooden door. I stood discreetly to the side and read the plastic name placard beside the door.
Even as I told myself it couldn’t be the Brad Pitt, I gleefully ran through several scenarios in which the hunky actor greeted me with a warm handshake, our conversation an easy flirtation followed by his insistence to introduce me to his younger, long-lost, even-more-handsome brother, or possibly his proclamation that I had a face that must be seen on the silver screen, or—
“I think you’ll be very pleased with Madison Fox,” Kyle said, interrupting my ludicrous fantasies. He held the door half open and remained in the doorway, filling the space so I couldn’t see around him. “She’s eager and capable. I feel confident handing the enforcer reins of the region over to her.”
Brad Pitt’s response was muffled by the glass between us. I edged forward to peer around Kyle, but the meat of his words registered, freezing me in place. Eager? Capable? Had we been at the same interview?
“Sure thing. Let me leave you to it,” Kyle said. He started to turn away from the office but then spun back as if he’d just remembered something. “Would you mind sending my approval off first, though? It’s— Well, if I can leave today, I’ll be able to get this flat in the Marina District I’ve had my eye on.” Another response from the unseen Brad Pitt. This one made Kyle grin. “Thanks! We should have drinks next time you’re in Frisco.”
Kyle turned and shook my hand. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Madison. I’m sure you’ll be up to speed in no time. Best of luck.”
I opened my mouth to point out that I was in no way capable or eager, but Kyle was already walking away.
He ducked into a cubicle, hoisted a messenger bag over his shoulder, and strode out of the office with a cheery wave in my direction and a farewell nod at Sharon. There was a touch of urgency behind his steps. In fact, it looked like Kyle was fleeing—in a controlled, businesslike manner, but fleeing nonetheless.
With dread pooling in my gut, I pivoted to face Brad Pitt’s doorway.
“Please, come in.”
I stepped into the office. My gaze went immediately to the man sitting in the guest chair near the door. If ever Brad Pitt had a dark-skinned, more attractive younger brother, this was him. My brain stumbled over itself to admire him—his broad shoulders and bare forearms, his perfectly rounded and smooth-shaven head, his roasted-almond skin and even darker eyes that swept over me with an almost tangible caress, his lips firm and sculpted, begging for a closer, physical inspection.
“As long as you’re not basing your decision on strength, this could work,” he said.
I had almost gathered my wits enough to introduce myself when he moved. He stood fluidly, and my eyebrows rose with him. He was over six feet tall, and a lot of that was leg. All of it was muscle.
He stalked out of the office with a single nod to me. I inhaled as he passed; he smelled delicious, like something I hadn’t known I’d been craving. I turned to watch his firm ass disappear.
He moves like danger, I thought. A small voice in my head scoffed at the idiotic description; the rest of me made nummy noises in agreement. Why is he leaving?
A throat cleared behind me. I spun, cheeks flaming, to notice for the first time the man seated at the desk. He stood and extended his hand across the clean surface to me. I rushed to pump Mr. Pitt’s hand.
His hand in mine was small and meaty, much like the rest of him. The top of his shiny balding head barely cleared my shoulders. What hair he had left was gray and clung around the edges of his blotchy white head like a fallen halo.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Fox. Please, have a seat,” he said with a smile that stretched red lips wide across a pasty face.
I sat in the chair Mr. Dark and Deadly had just vacated. It was still warm from his body and smelled delicious. None of which helped me concentrate on gnomelike Brad Pitt. Pretending that I wasn’t blushing bright enough to put Rudolph to shame and that I hadn’t been thinking about sex, I set my purse beside me and tried to exude confidence.
“I imagine Kyle went over the particulars of the job, right?”
“Um, yes, the illuminant enforcer position.”
I opened my mouth to explain that Kyle had misled him in regards to my actual skills, but Mr. Pitt pushed a small stack of papers across his desk, saying, “This outlines the starting pay and benefits. We, of course, need you to begin work immediately.”
I glanced down at the top sheet and my mouth clicked shut. The starting pay was more than any of my previous salaries, and definitely more than I’d expected as a junior sales associate. It was more than enough to keep a roof over my head, my car in my possession, and expand my wardrobe substantially.
I knew I should give the job more thought, but if I were honest with myself, I’d already made my decision when I’d left the coffee shop with Kyle. I’d found people who knew what soul-sight was. If there was anyone who could teach me how to eliminate my unwanted ability, it was these people. Kyle had spoken of protecting myself, but the best protection I could think of was not having soul-sight. Without it, evil creatures wouldn’t be curious about me and I could lead a normal, oblivious life. And, yes, I’d happily get paid while I learned how to eradicate it.
“You’ll find that I’m very fair with my raises, but what you’ll be most interested in are the bonuses,” Mr. Pitt continued. “I understand the risks that you’ll take and the danger that you’ll be in. This salary covers the basics. Anything more dangerous gets you a bonus. It’s my form of hazard pay.”
My doubt, briefly squelched, rose to a fever pitch again. I drowned it with visions of paying rent and a promise to myself that I’d be free of soul-sight long before there was any call for hazardous, bonus-worthy work. “What are ‘the basics’?”
“Your daily duties. The basic cleansing of the region.”
“What qualifies as more dangerous?”
Mr. Pitt gave me a small smile. “Does this mean you’re interested?”
I was well aware that he hadn’t answered the question. He hadn’t answered either question, really—not to my understanding.
I should have been walking for the door by now. I should have thought the whole experience was some loony joke. I should have gone back to pretending that Primordium didn’t exist. Instead, I said, “Kyle already left. You need me. I need to pay rent. I’ll take the job if you can offer me a starting incentive.”
“Five thousand dollars, and you’ll start today.”
I reached across the table and shook Mr. Pitt’s hand. “Done.”
There was all the usual mundane paperwork to fill out and photocopy. It was so ordinary, it made my previous conversation with Kyle seem like a fanciful daydream.
“Is everyone here . . . ?” I trailed off. I didn’t even have the terminology to finish the question.
“Everyone here actively works for the CIA,” Mr. Pitt said with a froggy smile.
“Hang on, this is a CIA operation?” I was flabbergasted. Maybe I should start believing the Enquirer’s government-conspiracy stories about Area 51 and other bizarre “alien” encounters. If Uncle Sam knew about soul-sight—I mean, about Primordium—maybe there was some truth to those stories. After all, if the Enquirer had printed stories about imps, I wouldn’t have believed them—until today.
“We’re active members of the Collaborative Illumination Alliance,” Mr. Pitt said. His tone implied anyone who wasn’t a member wasn’t worth his time. “You’re the only enforcer in the office, but we all do our part to eradicate atrum and promote lux lucis. And, of course, we’re a bumper sticker company as well, and we make a small profit from it every year.”
“Will I be doing anything with the stickers?”
“Not unless we’re incredibly busy and need an extra hand, but that’s rare. Standard business hours here are nine to five, Monday through Friday, but enforcer hours are more free-form, as you know. I’ll let you judge how much you need to work once you get a feel for our region. Kyle had it down to about fifty hours a week. We’re a small region, but not an inactive one.”
This may have been the strangest, most bizarre, out-of-this-world job I’d ever had, but it was starting to sound like the best one I’d ever had, too. I was going to do something for the good of humanity, ridding the world of evil—literally. Plus, I was making good money with flexible hours. Best of all, there’d been no mention of used cars, coffee and dry-cleaning pickup, or photocopying and collating—all things I’d learned to loathe in my previous jobs. Maybe using my soul-sight for a few weeks would actually be fun.
“Rose will take you around the region.” Mr. Pitt walked me to his office door. “If you have any questions, ask Rose today or me tomorrow. Why don’t you show up here at nine tomorrow?”
I found myself nodding. I could do this. It was like any other job, just with a different skill set. A skill set I’d been born with. I should be more than qualified for anything tossed my way.
Feeling a surge of confidence, I followed Mr. Pitt into the heart of a clump of cubicles. Sitting amidst a tropical oasis of plants was a petite Latina. She was all curves and red lips, with long, straight, dark hair. The computer screen behind her was open to a celebrity-gossip Internet page.
“Rose, this is Madison Fox, our new IE,” Mr. Pitt said.
“So I gathered.”
Rose stood and delicately placed her hand in mine, removing it almost immediately, leaving me with a vague impression that we might have shaken hands, but her welcoming smile put me at ease.
“Will you get her settled in and then show her the boundaries?” Mr. Pitt asked. “She needs to be up and running tomorrow.”
“Certainly, boss. Let me shut down.”
Mr. Pitt scuttled back to his office while she closed ten different Internet windows and shut off her computer. I watched him over the tops of Rose’s cubicle, then peered into the vacant adjoining cubicles.
“Oh, those are Joy’s and Will’s. They should be in tomorrow.” Rose’s voice was high and a little nasally, but not off-putting. “Did Brad give you the office tour?”
“There’s not much to it. Here’s where all us grunt employees work.” She winked. “You’ve seen Brad’s office.” She pointed at two cubicles standing alone on the right side of the hall. “The one on the left is yours. Or it will be, once we clean out all of Kyle’s extraneous office leavings. The other one is used by the optivus aegis when he’s in town.”
Rose gave me a curious look. “Optivus aegis. You know, the head honcho enforcer for half the state.” When she saw my blank expression, she continued. “I guess every region’s got their own name for the position. We call it optivus aegis, and when Niko’s working in this area, that’s his home base. But he’s only here when we’ve got some baddies too big for our britches.”
I tried to look like I was following along.
“Something tells me we’ll see him around here soon,” Rose said. She pointed toward the bank of offices along the back. “The office to the left of Brad’s is for visiting dignitaries.”
I didn’t even ask.
“The one on the right is for our accountant. She’s a part-timer. The skinny door on the far left leads to our break room; it’s small, but it has a microwave and a fridge. The door on the far right leads out the back. Let’s go out the front.”
Sharon watched us leave, her dour look apparently the only expression in her repertoire. It was eerie the way she didn’t blink or so much as twitch a finger, only tracked us with her eyes.
Rose held her fingers to her lips when we were around the corner in the public hallway. She was shorter than me by almost a head, even with her red-leather, three-inch-heeled boots. When we exited the lobby, she turned to me.
“Be nice to Sharon. Always. You don’t want to get on her bad side.”
“That was her good side?”
“Yep. You drive. My beast sucks down the gas.” Rose patted the chrome bumper of a large yellow Hummer as we walked by.
“Where are we headed?” I asked once we were settled in my Civic.
“Let’s go out Douglas to the freeway. Hand me your phone and I’ll input everyone’s numbers while we drive.”
“Ah . . .” I cast her a quick glance. “I don’t have a cell phone. That’s not going to be a problem, is it?”
“Do you have bad credit?”
“No.” I frowned at her.
“Are you a technophobe?”
“Would I know if I was?”
“What reason could you possibly have for not having a cell phone?”
Confessing that I didn’t have anyone I felt I needed to be in constant contact with (read: boyfriend) seemed rather lame.
“Money’s been tight.”
“Time to let loose.”
“We’d better stop by my bank first,” I said, picturing my two-digit account balance and then, much more happily, the signing bonus check Mr. Pitt had handed me minutes earlier.
As I drove, it occurred to me that I wasn’t going to have to avoid my parents’ calls any longer—my previous mature plan. My parents’ well-meaning monetary offers, partially suppressed concerns, and unsolicited advice while I was unemployed made me feel guilty—guilty that I hadn’t followed in their footsteps, launching a successful career right out of college, and guilty that they still felt they needed to be my financial crutch. Plus, with all their free time now that they were both retired, they were geared up to take on my life as their next fix-it project. The thought made me shudder.
Now that I had a job and money in my bank account, I could confidently assure them I didn’t need their support or their master plan for my future. I simply couldn’t tell them what the job was.
Maybe this needed a little more thought.
Forty minutes later, I’d deposited my check and was the proud owner of the prettiest phone I’d ever seen. It was sleek, had a screen half the size of my laptop, and the frame was a flashy metallic green. I was in love.
I really wanted to call a bunch of people, or at least my best friend Bridget, and be properly welcomed to the twenty-first century, but Rose and I still had to tour the realm of my new employment.
“We’ll get that modified soon,” Rose said as we settled back in my Honda. She used her chin to gesture at my pretty phone. I petted it discreetly to soothe its hurt feelings at being so rudely referenced. You need a name, my pretty, I thought to my phone. Sally? Simone? Silly Pants? Oh no, wait: That’s me.
“Sure. We’ve got a guy who can load standard enforcer apps. Don’t worry about it. Let me program a few numbers you’ll need during emergencies.”
Just like that, my bubble popped. I kept forgetting about the whole fighting-evil part of my job. If Kyle said I could do it, then I can. I just have to believe, I thought as I handed her my phone and started the car. I wasn’t reassured that my mental pep talk sounded like it had been copied from the script of a Disney cartoon.
“Don’t worry, honey. You’ll do fine,” Rose said. “Head toward I-80 on Douglas. This boulevard is the dividing line of our region. Everything south of it is not our problem.”
“Oh. I live over there.” I pointed back toward my apartment complex on the south side of Douglas. “I thought I lived in this region.”
“Nope. Of course, near the boundaries, things overlap, so you’re close enough to count if it matters to you.”
“Who is the illuminant enforcer over there?” The title sounded corny when I said it.
“The IE? Summer’s been there a few years, and I don’t think she has plans of going anywhere soon.”
“How many regions are there?”
“In Roseville? Two. East and west. We’re east. That’s considered Citrus Heights,” she said, pointing toward my apartment and Summer’s region. “Our region is kind of small, which if you know what’s good for you, you won’t mention to Brad. Where are you from anyway?”
“The Bay Area.” Looking like a fool in front of my new coworker was less appealing than letting her believe I was new in town. Plus, I hadn’t exactly lied. Even though I’d lived in Roseville for almost four years now, I’d grown up in Berkeley.
“Huh. Get on the freeway here.” I merged onto I-80 going east. “We’re everything that side of the freeway,” Rose continued, gesturing expansively at the back of Fry’s, Home Depot, and the entire eastern horizon.
“Just how much smaller is this region?”
“To give you a comparison, Jacob’s region is nearly three times as large as ours. He’s the IE for West Roseville—and most of Lincoln and Rocklin, too. His warden holds several regions.”
“Did you say ‘warden’?”
Rose gave me a long once-over, then touched a fingertip to the back of my hand. “Well, crap.” She wiped her fingertip on her skirt. “You haven’t worked a region before, have you?”
So much for hiding my ignorance. I tried to sound nonchalant. “Nope.”
Her eyebrows shot to her hairline, but all she said was, “A warden is the boss of a region. In your case, that’s Brad.”
That had an ominous sound to it. I vaguely remembered Kyle mentioning wardens in our surreal interview, back when I thought he was insane. Maybe he still was and I’d merely joined him.
We rode in silence while Rose finished programming a slew of numbers into my phone; then she slipped it into my purse in the backseat. I drove past the Eureka exit, then the Highway 65 exit. The farther we went, the more nervous I got. If this is considered a small area, I hope the ratio of imps to humans is very, very low. I eyed all the shops, the huge hospital, and all the houses on the Sierra College hill. My stomach fluttered. Why did I feel like I was in way over my head? Because you are, a small voice screamed. I drowned it out with happy thoughts about paying rent, eating out, and buying a new pair of shoes—or twenty.
“What do you do for Illumination Studios?” I finally thought to ask. We’d exited the freeway at Rocklin Road and were cruising past the junior college and the bisecting Sierra College Boulevard named after it.
“I do most of the design and some of the sales, but Joy and Will are a lot better at sales than I am. . . . Oh, you meant non–bumper sticker duties, the stuff I do for the CIA. I’m an empath.”
“As in you can tell what I’m feeling?”
“Okay, maybe this is rude or hypocritical, but . . . prove it.”
She laughed. “Take a right on Barton Road. Hmm, how can I prove it?” She hummed “Do You Believe in Magic” while she thought. “Well, for starters, you’re feeling really skeptical right now.” She winked at me. I laughed.
“Okay, that’s true but not good proof.”
“How about before I met you, I knew the exact moment you saw Niko.”
“The optivus aegis. Niko Demitrius. Tall guy, skin like Belgian dark chocolate, eyes that could melt your soul. Aha, I see this is ringing a bell.”
Mr. Dark and Deadly. Which meant he was an elite enforcer. That wasn’t difficult to believe.
“You’ve got a lot of lust packed into that skinny little body,” Rose said.
I blushed to my roots. “You could feel that?”
“No, wait. That’s still not proof. Any woman would have reacted the same.”
“Good point. How about this: When I told you we were going to modify your phone, you got protective.”
I chanced a glance at her expression. We’d left the city of Rocklin a few miles back, and our surroundings had transformed into rolling rural country landscape. Apartments and shopping centers had given way to white-rail fences and large, sprawling ranch-style homes. We’d passed horses, goats, a few llamas, and more mansions, RVs, trailered boats, and Corvettes than I could count. This was Granite Bay at its finest: big money and coveted acreage.
“You don’t have to believe me,” Rose said. “I can’t see the Primordium dimension and I can’t work with lux lucis, but I can feel it through my empathy. I can feel the darkness or sickness in people.”
I was getting the feeling that lux lucis was important, but before I could ask Rose what exactly it was, she switched back to driving directions.
Dutifully, I turned south onto Auburn-Folsom Road, a two-lane major thoroughfare, and kicked my speed up to fifty. “The region continues all the way to Folsom Lake”—Rose gestured east through the million-dollar housing division—“but there’s no other connecting road. From here, it’s back to Douglas, and we’ve completed our loop.” She paused. “Now you’re nervous again. Girl, you gotta trust me. You’ll do fine.”
Easy for her to say. She wasn’t the one who had to root out all the evil in this not-at-all-small-by-my-standards area. It was a hodgepodge of a region, too, with everything from office parks to horse ranches, a college, strip malls, suburban sprawl, and two hospitals. All it needed was a nuclear power plant and it’d be complete. Good job. Now you’re thinking positively.
Rose pulled a cell phone out of her purse. It was a generic black phone. Nothing like my beautiful phone. Maybe I should name it Gaea, the green goddess of all cell phones.
A hideous screech erupted behind my seat, dying down to a metallic warble. I swerved and ducked, frantically checking the backseat for a Godzillaesque creature of evil attached to that predatory roar.
“Watch the road, crazy!” Rose shouted.
I jerked the car back into my lane. “What was that?”
Rose started laughing and reached behind me. She held my phone in front of my face. “Ringy-dingy. Your new lifeline. I was making sure I had your number correct. Sheesh, you’re jumpy.”
I glared at the phone, then back at the road. How could something so pretty sound so awful? I dub thee Medusa, you obnoxious, gorgeous thing.
“Ringtones, that’s what you need. I’ve got my phone programmed with a different ring for each person. So, have you seen any evil lurking around?”
“What? You mean while I’ve been driving?”
“Yeah. When else?”
“I can’t look around in soul—in Primordium while driving! I would crash.”
“You’re definitely going to have to get over that,” Rose said with absolutely no compassion. “Not while I’m in the car, though. Pull over here. You look for evil, I’ll look for firemen.”
“That’s hardly fair,” I grumbled. I pulled over in a turn-around space near a fire station. We both got out. I studied the scenery. A few homes across the road. A lot of BMWs, Corvettes, and Cadillacs zooming past on Auburn-Folsom Road. A field behind the fire station with a couple of hedges and a patch of blackberry brambles. I did my own quick search for firemen. I could really do with a dose of handsome.
“Is there some evil, maybe over there?” Rose gestured to the fire station. “Maybe we should take a closer look.”
“What should we tell them we’re doing?”
“I think your car was sounding funny.”
“No, it wasn’t— Oh. I see where you’re going with that.”
“You’re a quick one.” She rolled her eyes at me.
I blinked. Primordium replaced color, daylight, and familiarity. I braced my hands on my knees and stared at the gray dirt at my feet until gravity rebalanced itself. I took a quick peek at the sky. The cerulean cloudless expanse had been swapped with black—solid, unrelieved black. I could still feel the sun on my face, though I couldn’t see it in the sky. For all I knew, I was looking straight at it.
I shuddered and made a point not to look up again. Instead, I scanned the firehouse. There were people upstairs and something small and white just inside the bay doors. A cat? I turned to look at Rose. She glowed a pretty, opaque white. It was nice to know that not everyone who worked for the CIA looked like they had a sun stuck up their ass. Unlike Kyle, Rose’s features looked like they were cast out of pure white marble, not radiating light. She was also in possession of one of the cleanest souls I’d seen in a long time, aside from my own and Kyle’s. Even if I was dangerously deep in a world I knew nothing about, it was reassuring that I was on the good side.
Now why hadn’t I thought to look at Mr. Pitt’s soul?
Because you’re trying not to use this sight, remember?
Too late for that.
I scanned the field. Only the blackberry brambles glowed. They were bright white, a mound of light with tendrils stretching across the dead field. Normally blackberry bushes tended to look sinister with all their thorns and the tenacious, mindless way they choked out other plant life. Now they looked like a beautiful oasis in a field of death.
I knew there had to be wildlife moving among the dead grasses, but the dark stalks were too dense for the small white bodies of rodents and birds to be visible from a distance.
I was about to switch back to normal vision when I saw it. Close to the edge of the fire station, hopping along unaware of my presence, was an imp. It was a little field mouse of an imp; I would have missed it if I hadn’t been looking so hard.
“There’s an imp over there.” I pointed.
“Oh, goodie. Maybe I can peek in a window. And maybe they’ll be having a naked wrestling contest.”
Rose sashayed across the gravel, heading straight for the imp.
“You can’t see it, right?”
“Nope. Take your time.”
I trailed after her. In its own dark and sinister way, the imp was remarkably cute. The ones in the restaurant had looked like chinchillas, and this one was a baby. Adorable. I flashed back on the prominent memory of the creatures jumping at Kyle. Maybe I’d overreacted. He hadn’t seemed the least bit frightened. Maybe they were just cute. All I would have to do was . . . whatever Kyle had done. Squint or something. Instinct would kick in and, poof, no more imp.
Unfortunately, the only instinct babbling in my head was telling me I needed to go the other way, not toward the harmless-looking fluff of evil. Don’t quit before you try, I scolded.
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