The entire cemetery adventure had been a total bust.
The funeral, Carl, the almost-kiss—the trip was worthless. Penny and I needed to go back and search in peace, and I fully intended for that to happen, except, when I woke up the next morning, there wasn’t a hint of sunlight streaming through the window blinds.
My first reaction was that the clock on my phone was lying. There was no way it was that dark out and 7:00am, but a quick check out the window had my heart sinking into the carpet. Black clouds hung low in the sky; torrents of rain streaked past the glass, so fast and thick I couldn’t see the backyard fence.
I opened the weather app on my phone and confirmed my worst fear: the remnants of Hurricane Clement would be wreaking havoc on central South Carolina for the next two days. The return trip to Willow Hill would have to wait.
I spent those days ensconced in my bedroom, sending unanswered text after unanswered text to Penny, doctoring my stab wound, and using slightly illegal means to find out all I could about Carl Allen. What I found wasn’t much—he was 38, wife and two kids (girls, aged 9 and 12). He worked at Willow Hill when he was in high school and, after receiving his degree in Landscape Architecture (totally a real thing) at North Carolina State, he worked at the cemetery full-time. A year ago, he was made the cemetery’s Director of Landscape Management. He had a handful of speeding tickets, but other than that his record was clean.
I turned my attention to researching magical signatures to explain the smell of dark magic that accompanied Carl Allen. This line of investigation proved to be just as fruitful as the previous one. Turned out, lots of different spells could be accompanied by a scent, but sometimes it had nothing to do with the spell, and was all about the practitioner. To complicate matters further, there was no way to track the smell back to the witch, unless, of course, you had prior knowledge of the witch’s skills and magic.
It was with an enormous amount of relief that I awoke on Tuesday to beaming sunlight and twittering birds. I didn’t dither getting ready, but showered, threw on the first thing I grabbed out of my dresser, and ate a toaster strudel while I laced up my boots.
I had to spend the day at work—much as I wanted to close the office for the day. My devotion, though, was well rewarded with two new cases. Guess Mrs. Speedman had spread the word.
I locked the door of the office at 4:30, and five minutes later, I pulled to a stop behind Penny’s car and next to a grey mailbox labeled “Penrose.” I called him, but his phone went straight to voicemail. Guess we were going to be doing this the hard way.
I knocked on the front door of the brick-split level—and knocked, and knocked, and knocked. My knuckles went numb, but I didn’t stop until I heard stomping footsteps coming towards me.
The door opened enough for me to see one narrowed, very angry eye.
“What?” he snapped.
“What’s your problem?” I asked, sticking my foot in the gap between the door and frame. “I’ve called you, like, a billion times.”
“I noticed. That’s why I turned off my phone,” he said. “I’m busy.” He squeezed my foot with the door.
“Jesus, chill out and let me in.”
The eye rolled at me, “I’m not in the mood for this, Caro. I’ll call you in a few days.”
“I really don’t want to bust through the door, Penny,” I said.
The eye closed for several long seconds before he stepped back. I opened it all the way, pushing past him into the hall.
“So?” I asked, studying his face. He seemed to be in worse shape today, though it was difficult to tell. The beard was back.
“Shouldn’t that be what I’m asking you?” He asked, crossing his arms over his chest. “You were so desperate to talk to me. What do you want?”
“The rain stopped,” I said, gesturing in the direction of outside “We need to get back to the cemetery.”
He snickered. “You’ve got to be kidding. Any evidence was washed away by the storm. Going back would be pointless.”
“Not pointless,” I said, hands going to my hips. “There might be something we overlooked. We missed the entire back section.”
“It’s a dead end,” he said, turning away and walking deeper into the house. I followed him into the living room.
The curtains were pulled and the lamps were off. The only light in the room came from the paused video game illuminating the flat screen. He grabbed for the controller sitting on the coffee table, but I got to it first.
“You can do this later,” I said, waving the controller in his face. His lips pursed into nothing, and his hands balled into fists.
“For the last time, I’m not going with you. The cemetery is a dead end,” he said, flopping down on the loveseat. “Did you check out the guy who attacked us—Carl Allen? What’s his story.”
“I didn’t find anything on him. He’s a completely normal, boring dude,” I said. “Which is why we have to go back.”
Penny rubbed at his forehead. “Just give it up already,” he said. “There are no leads. You were hired to kill zombies, you killed zombies. It’s over.”
Blood stuttered in my veins and my tongue felt too big for my mouth. “That’s not how this works. You don’t just give up when leads are hard to find. People are in danger.”
His face turned upside down in a heavy scowl. “People are in danger every hour of every day. Why should I care?”
I took a few steps forward so that I was standing in front of him. “I can’t believe you, of all people, would say that,” I said, jabbing his shoulder with my finger.
His callused hand gripped mine, twisting until the bones creaked. My eyes didn’t waiver from his face, and I didn’t make a sound, even though it hurt like hell.
“Why wouldn’t I say that?” he asked, a shuddering tremor passing from his hand to mine. “It’s not like you know a goddamn thing about it.”
“No,” I said, lips twisting into a smile that wasn’t a smile. “You’re right. I’m only the person who’s been with you since the beginning. Only the person who puts herself in danger to—“
The rest of the sentence was lost in the exhalation of all the breath from my body as Penny lunged from the loveseat and shoved me into the wall. The half-healed stab wound gave a sharp pang at the impact. His legs pinned mine, one hand gripping my shoulder, while the other went around my throat. He exerted just enough pressure to make getting air difficult.
“You don’t know the half of it,” he said, voice nothing more than a low rumble. His eyes gleamed with the otherworldly blueness that I’d first noticed as he doctored the gash in my arm.
I should’ve been afraid, but the only emotion pounding through my veins was anger. He knew exactly why following through with this was important.
I forced words out of my half-closed throat. “I watched a thirteen year old girl have her throat ripped out by vampires. I watched demons feast on a congregation at a sunrise Easter service. Is that enough to make you believe I understand? If it’s not, I can tell you about when I watched a high school baseball star become—“
The fingers gripping my throat tightened as he pushed me harder into the wall. We were so close our noses ghosted against one another. Suddenly, I was very aware of how large—and glisteningly white—his teeth were.
My hand caught around the one he had around my neck, scrabbling to loosen his fingers, but he wouldn’t budge. “Are you afraid now?” he asked, lips pulling back into a feral grimace.
I hadn’t thought he would hurt me, but biology was taking over and fight-or-flight was setting in. Running was out of the question. He would find the chase intoxicating. I had a good chance in a fight, but it would be damaging to us both (to be fair, mostly to me).
I closed my eyes, controlling my breathing as much as I could, even as his very sharp teeth skimmed along my jaw.
“Penny,” I croaked.
He removed his hand from my neck, but before relief could begin, a sharp sting blossomed at my throat as he took flesh hard between his teeth. Panic built at my spine, creeping up my back in insidious tendrils.
“Penny!” I shouted, hoping the forcefulness would bring him back to himself. Instead, a low growl erupted from his throat.
I fought now, tossing my head back and forth, but Penny only bit harder. I clenched my hands into fists, jamming them into his sternum. He snarled, his hands lifting my arms, pinning them over my head, his teeth sinking into my neck.
“Jeremy!” My voice snapped like a flag in a strong wind.
He stilled; mouth pulling away, hands falling to his sides. The sound of his pounding heart was so loud that it seemed to emanate from the walls. I moved away, careful not to brush against him as I walked across the room.
My eyes burned; small tremors shook my hands and my neck ached where he’d grabbed my throat and bitten me. I stood at the picture window, lifting up the blind, wanting to look anywhere except at Penny.
This was not the Penny I knew. He wasn’t violent, unless the situation called for it, and he never hurt me. There was an emotional factor, of course. That wasn’t new, but usually it took the form of inhuman rage when a box of cereal falls off the fridge and hits you in the toe, or intense desire to strangle every bird in every tree that tweets you awake in the morning. But even then, Penny had everything well in control.
I caught his reflection in the window. His face was buried in his hands, shoulders hunched up to his ears. His self-possession wasn’t just ripped at the seams, it was shredded into confetti. As much as I wanted to go, leave him to his uncontrollable emotions, I couldn’t do it. I was the only person he had.
I gritted my teeth and squared my shoulders before turning toward him. He must have heard the rustle of my clothes because a muffled “You should leave,” emerged between his hands.
“No,” I replied.
His face emerged from the palms of his hands. “You need to go, Caro.
Our eyes met, but neither of us spoke.
“It’s not normally this bad,” I said, breaking the silence.
He hadn’t expected that. His mouth dropped open a bit, and he blinked several times as his mind reoriented itself. “Not usually, no,” he said. “There are good months and bad months. This is the worst.”
“Does it make it better, hiding in the house, playing Grand Theft Auto?”
His lips twisted. A smile, albeit a small one. “I thought it would. Apparently, not so much. Though, if you weren’t so persistent…” he left the sentence hanging.
“Don’t blame me for your inability to control your emotions,” I said.
“You’re such a wonderful scapegoat, though.”
I shook my head, but smiled to take the edge off. “Go get in the shower, put on clean clothes, and come with me to the damn cemetery. It’ll be good for you.”
He didn’t argue. Just shrugged his shoulders and headed toward the bathroom.
I sank into the couch, closing my eyes and sighing. I allowed my muscles to relax for a few minutes, before touching my neck to check for blood. He hadn’t broken the skin, but I would have some pretty unsightly bruises in the morning. My stab wound hadn’t reopened, so that was okay.
I had to help him, but I had no clue where to start. Getting him out of the house had to make a difference. It would allow him to burn off some of the excess energy, at least.
This was another instance where I was terribly wrong.