Read Another Excerpt from Unsettled Spirits

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(Read Part 1 here.)

2.

Tuesday, July 11, 1972

 

Penelope pulled her black Lincoln into the parking lot of the Brown Tractor & Farm Supply Co. It was only ten o’clock in the morning, but the heat was already making the air above the asphalt parking lot wavy. She let the car idle for a moment before turning it off.

“Everything okay?” asked Zed from the passenger seat.

The building, a hodgepodge of brick, glass, and corrugated metal, loomed in front of them. Penelope thought back to the last time she’d been there, a few months earlier. It felt like years. “Does something seem … off to you?”

Zed squinted and peered through the windshield at the front of the building. “Now that you mention it, things seem a little quiet for a Tuesday.”

She nodded. “They do, don’t they?”

“Any idea why Bertram wants to talk to you? Think someone’s stealing from the till? Maybe someone trying to pass off counterfeit tractor parts? Do you think you could tell counterfeit tractor parts from real ones?”

Penelope rolled her eyes. “If it was anything like that, he wouldn’t have called me.”

Zed nodded. “You’re right. There’s probably some sort of federal agency that regulates tractors and ploughs and scythes and the like. I’m sure they have agents fighting twenty-four hours a day against the international cartels trafficking counterfeit tractor parts. Sounds like an idea for a TV show.”

Not for the first time, Penelope wondered about Zed’s mental state. “I just meant he’d hire a normal private investigator for something like that.”

Zed smirked. “Where is he going to find one of those?”

Penelope punched him in the arm. “There are a few around. Greenville’s not that small a place. After what happened back in May, though, I’m expecting Bertram wants to talk about something a little less … mundane.”

“So how are we playing this? I didn’t think you and Bertram were on the best of terms.”

She shrugged. “We’ve come to an understanding. And the way we’re ‘playing this’ is that you are letting me talk and keeping your mouth shut.”

Zed grinned. “I make no promises.”

She raised an eyebrow. “I mean it, Zed.”

The grin diminished. “I though you enjoyed my rapier wit.”

“Is that what that is?”

Zed clutched his heart. “I’m hurt, honestly.”

“You’re supposed to be my assistant, Zed.”

“I am. Part-time.”

“I can make that no-time if you want,” Penelope teased. “Look, I know I said Bertram and I had an understanding, but things are still a little touchy. Not everyone appreciates your clever banter like I do.” She opened her door. “Now come on and assist. Quietly.”

Bertram Brown was seated at his desk when Penelope and Zed walked into the main office. He pored over a ledger, pencil tucked behind his ear and an adding machine at the ready by his side. Without glancing up, he waved them over to the two chairs set up in front of his desk. Another minute passed while he scanned the columns and rows of the ledger, frowning and occasionally making marks with his pencil.

Wood paneling. Overstuffed filing cabinets. Dead potted plants. At least in here nothing had changed, except a different half-dressed woman perched on top of a tractor smiled out of the calendar hanging on the wall over Bertram’s head.

Penciling in one final mark, Bertram put the ledger down and raised his head. “Thanks for taking the time to come over, Penelope. I really appreciate it.”

Zed cleared his throat.

Bertram eyed him. “You too, Zed.”

Zed nodded. “Any time, Bertram.”

“How’s your mom doing?” Penelope asked.

Bertram shrugged. “Better. Most days, she’s able to convince herself everything that happened was a bad nightmare, but there are still some days when I find her sitting in the living room just staring out the window.”

In May of that year, a vengeful ex had used a cursed brooch to get back at Louise Brown for supposedly ruining his life. The ghost bound to the brooch assaulted her mind and her soul for days until Penelope, Zed, and their magically adept friend Charles were able to exorcise the malicious spirit. She’d be dealing with the scars from that experience for a long time to come, if not for the rest of her life. Not exactly what Bertram needed to hear at the moment, though.

“Hopefully there won’t be too many more days like that,” Penelope said. “At least he can’t hurt her anymore.”

They’d dealt with the vengeful ex, too, though it cost them all their own emotional trauma before it was over, along with some cuts and bruises and broken bones.

The corner of Bertram’s mouth twitched. The lines around his eyes were deeper than Penelope remembered. He’d also lost a few pounds. “Yeah, that’s the good thing, I guess.”

“What did you want to talk about, Bertram?”

Penelope’s question seemed to bring him back from wherever his thoughts had taken him. “We had an accident last night. New guy named Bobby Parker. He’s only been working here a week. They found him lying on the floor. Looks like he smacked his head pretty hard. We got him to the hospital, but we can’t figure out what happened.”

“What was he doing right before he got hurt?” Penelope asked.

“Truthfully? The other guys were playing a trick on him, told him it was an emergency and he needed to go get a part for a John Deere One-D-Ten-T right away.”

Zed frowned. “What’s the joke there?”

Bertram rolled his eyes. He grabbed a scrap piece of paper and scrawled on it with his pencil. Then he held up the piece of paper for Penelope and Zed to see.

1D10T.

IDIOT.

“Get it now?”

Penelope crinkled her nose. “Kind of a cruel joke, don’t you think?”

Bertram waved away her concern. “It’s just guys ribbing each other. It’s harmless.”

“Except this time, it wasn’t,” Zed added.

Bertram glared. “Like I said, we don’t know how he got hurt.”

“Do you think someone attacked him?”

Bertram pressed his hands together in front of his face. He wore a leather bracelet on his right wrist. Penelope had seen one exactly like it, on the wrist of his father, Ephraim. She assumed bracelet was charmed to ward off dark magic, one of the precautions the family had taken since the incident.

He took a deep breath. “I think something attacked him.”

Penelope had an inkling of why the warehouse didn’t seem to be as busy as it should have been. “What makes you think that?”

“When Bobby came to, he started babbling nonsense, talking so fast all his words ran together. He was flailing his arms around, screaming and yelling about divine retribution, fire and blood raining from the sky, judgement for everyone. Then he started speaking in fucking Latin. They had to sedate him.”

“You sure he’s not Catholic?” Zed asked.

Bertram barked a laugh. “Bobby Parker has more of a chance of knowing an alien from Mars than a member of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Trust me on that.”

Penelope’s sense of dread was growing. “What is it you want us to do?”

“Help me figure out what’s going on.” Bertram jabbed a finger in the direction of the warehouse. “I can’t even get half my guys to show up for work now.”

He let his shoulders slump and leaned back in his chair, covering his face with his hands again.

Penelope had known Bertram pretty much her whole life. She’d seen him stressed before, but never so haggard. “Where’s your dad, Bertram?”

He sat up again, picked up his pencil, and twirled it between his fingers absentmindedly. “He’s … taken a step back from the business. He started handing things over to me after what happened to Mom. He said he needed to take some time for himself.”

“So, you’re running the day-to-day by yourself?”

“Pretty much. I was already running most of it before, to be honest.”

Penelope wondered if taking over the family business was what Bertram wanted to do, or if anyone had even asked him. “Anything else we need to know about?”

Bertram stood. “Yeah, but this is something you have to see for yourself.”

He ushered them through a door in the back of the office. On the other side, fluorescent lights illuminated row after row of shelves laden with tractor parts and other pieces of farm machinery.

Bertram led them into the heart of the warehouse. The looming shelves made for strange shadows. Penelope began to imagine the warehouse as a sort of tractor mausoleum, holding the deceased remains of the departed farm machinery, at peace in eternal slumber. She blamed Zed for inspiring that ridiculous train of thought. She glanced over at him, but he had the best poker face of anyone she knew—when he wanted to anyway. She couldn’t get any sort of read on his opinion of the situation.

Finally, Bertram came to a halt. When he stepped aside, Penelope and Zed exchanged looks. This time she knew without a doubt what her assistant was thinking.

Someone had drawn a pentagram inscribed in a circle on the floor. Symbols and words clustered where the lines intersected. In the center lay what looked like a splatter of blood. Zed raised his Polaroid camera and snapped a few pictures.

“This,” Bertram said, “is the real reason I called you.”

***

“Does Bertram know you’re here?”

Ephraim Brown didn’t look up as he slowly peeled the label off his bottle of beer. He had offered one to Penelope, but she opted instead for a bourbon and Coke. They sat together at the kitchen table in his Crescent Avenue house. Ephraim had aged in the last two months. He seemed smaller, lesser. The charmed bracelet even hung looser on his wrist.

“Not exactly,” she answered.

“I won’t tell, then.”

“It’s not a secret, really. I can handle Bertram. I just didn’t want to deal with the argument that would’ve resulted if I told him I was coming to see you.”

Ephraim chuckled. “He is pretty hard-headed, isn’t he?”

“You said it, not me.”

Ephraim was there alone. Louise had gone out with a few of her girlfriends. The house, overshadowed by the giant maple trees outside, was dark and quiet. Penelope had played countless games of hide-and-seek among those trees with Bertram and the other neighborhood kids during her summer vacations, run through sprinklers, swum in the kidney-shaped pool in the back yard. Growing up, she’d always been a little bit jealous of Bertram, his house, and his complete family, but on that day, all the big empty rooms struck her as oppressive and lonely.

Read an Excerpt from Unsettled Spirits

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1.

Monday, July 10, 1972

 

Rumors are the lifeblood of society. They are the ties that bind.

Steve and Cheryl are getting married.

Awfully fast, isn’t it?

Well, you didn’t hear this from me, but …

If you ever meet someone who says they don’t gossip, they’re either lying or they’ve lived in a hole in the ground their whole lives. Who can resist the siren call of you’ll never guess what I heard?

Boyd and Pam are getting a divorce.

I heard he fell off the wagon again.

I heard she caught him stepping out on her.

Everyone talks, and if you think they don’t talk about you, then you’re wrong. Rumors don’t discriminate. Rumors don’t care about class or sex or color.

Hey, did you hear about Dave?

Yeah, saw him leaving his office with all his stuff in a box.

You know why he got fired, don’t you?

But you know what’s worse than everyone talking about you?

No one talking about you.

***

There’s no such thing as ghosts, Bobby told himself. They were just joking about the warehouse being haunted, something to scare the new guy. Still, as he counted off the rows until he came to the one he wanted, he couldn’t help but notice how deserted this part of the warehouse was. He caught himself glancing over his shoulder more than once.

He needed to find a part, a crankshaft that would fit a 1963 John Deere 1D10T. Everyone else was grabbing their stuff out of their lockers, getting ready to clock out and go home, but not the new guy. Apparently, this part had to go out via special delivery that evening to a customer in Greensboro, and being the low man on the totem pole, the job fell to Bobby.

But after about twenty minutes of wandering back and forth along the row, searching the giant shelves in vain, it occurred to him maybe they were playing another joke on him, sending him after a fake part. Come to think of it, Lloyd was looking awfully smug while Gerald, the floor supervisor, told Bobby what he needed to do. Up until then, he had never heard Gerald put more than two words together.

If he didn’t need the money so badly, he probably would have quit right then. Working the warehouse at the Brown Tractor & Farm Supply Co. wasn’t his first choice. It wasn’t even in the top ten, but given his spotty employment records of late—not his fault at all—they were they only ones who would hire him.

After another few minutes of scanning the shelves without any luck, he was ready to throw in the towel. He’d just have to go back and tell Gerald he couldn’t find the part for the 1D10T. If Lloyd was still there, he might wipe the stupid grin from his face, too. Bobby—who prided himself on being a good judge of character despite what happened at his last job—definitely didn’t like Lloyd. He talked too much. It didn’t matter if anyone else participated in the conversation, Lloyd would carry the whole damn thing himself. It didn’t help either that Lloyd smelled like a giant reefer most of the time. He didn’t even have the common decency to share.

As Bobby turned to walk back to the front of the warehouse, only the quiet whir of the air conditioning and his own footsteps on the concrete floor broke the silence. Strange, he thought, because he should have heard the other guys talking.

He never expected the child’s laughter.

Startled, he glanced around, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. He shook his head and swore at himself under his breath. That was when the lights went out.

“Hey, y’all!” he called out. “Not funny anymore. Turn the lights back on.”

No one answered. Thanks to the long days of summer, the sun hadn’t yet set. Shafts of sunlight punched through windows high above. He could still make his way back, though plenty of deep shadows escaped the light’s reach.

The child’s laughter echoed through the warehouse again. Bobby spun around. Half disassembled tractors and machine parts loomed from the darkened corners of the building and sent his mind off in directions he’d rather it didn’t go. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a shadow move. He froze, one leg extended mid-stride, ready to run like hell if he had to. His heart pounded as he fought to control his breathing.

Another shadow stirred, followed by more high-pitched giggles. A small voice in the back of his head told Bobby something wasn’t right, but his curiosity overcame his fear. He followed the shadow and the laughter, until he saw a little boy running between the shelves in a patch of failing sunlight.

“Hey,” he called out. “What are you doing back here?”

The boy didn’t pay attention. Instead, he climbed on one of the defunct tractors, all the while squealing and laughing.

“Hey, stop that.” Bobby stepped toward the tractor. “You’ll get hurt.”

The boy turned toward him. He couldn’t have been any older than three. He was dressed in shorts and a tee shirt, with knee socks and a pair of black and white saddle oxfords. His dirty blond hair was cut into bangs across his forehead. Bobby took a step forward. Laughing, the boy hopped down and ran off again.

Bobby hurried after him. He caught sight of the boy in the next row and sprinted to the end to try to catch up with him. When he did, he found the boy climbing on top of another half-stripped tractor.

“Be careful, you could fall off,” Bobby yelled.

The boy looked up, apparently startled. He lost his footing and tumbled off the hood of the tractor, hitting the concrete floor. There was no crying, only silence. Bobby stood for a moment, stunned, before he remembered to breathe. He rushed over to see if the boy was okay, but the toddler wasn’t there. He scanned the floor all around the tractor. There was no sign of the boy anywhere.

Another sound echoed in Bobby’s ears, a low moan. At the edge of his vision, he glimpsed a different shadow moving beside a nearby shelf.

“Hey, little boy, are you there? Is that you?”

No answer, no laughter, just another low moan that sent chills up his spine. He eased his way toward the shelf. The boy couldn’t have crawled there without him seeing, even in the dim light. He wished he had a flashlight.

As he neared the shelf, he called out again. “Little boy, are you okay? Did you get hurt?”

The moaning grew into a full-blown shriek. Bobby stumbled backward and nearly lost his balance. When he turned toward the shelf again, something gazed back at him with glowing green eyes.

The shadow-thing flowed from the shelf like water and rematerialized in front of him. Bobby couldn’t run, couldn’t scream.

Vaguely human-shaped, the shadow-thing stood at least ten feet tall. The two glowing green dots where its eyes should have been bore into him. He squeezed his eyes shut, but it didn’t do any good. The thing ripped through his brain, through his soul.

An arm reached out and clamped down a massive clawed hand around his shoulder. Its grip was ice cold. The temperature in the room dropped. Bobby’s breath came out in white puffs. The shadow sucked the heat out of him as it pulled Bobby closer.

He struggled against the shadow-thing, but he might as well have been fighting gravity. He came inches from being engulfed when the thing mercifully stopped.

Seconds later, though, he wished he’d just been pulled inside.

It spoke. He couldn’t understand any of the words, but he knew what the thing said nonetheless. Its words were cruel and sharp and harsh. Cutting words. Tearing words. Biting words. It spoke of pain and despair and death.

The shadow released him, dissipating like smoke, leaving Bobby alone among the shelves. As soon as he could use his legs again, he ran. Unfortunately for him, what light remained was rapidly fading, and he didn’t see, of all things, a crankshaft lying in his path. He tripped over it and went sprawling, smacking his head on the cold, hard floor. He struggled to get back on his feet, but his head swam. He couldn’t push himself up. Blackness crept in from the edges of his vision, and he collapsed back to the floor.

His last thought before the darkness took him was of the little boy’s playful laughter.

Read a Free Excerpt from Daughters of Shadow and Blood – Book I: Yasamin (Part 4)

In anticipation of the upcoming release of Daughters of Shadow and Blood – Book I: Yasamin, I am releasing a free excerpt once a week until release day on May 3, 2015. This is Part 4. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. I hope you enjoy! Please share and order your copy today!

FOUR

Buda, Ottoman Hungary

8 Safar 1008

(20 August 1599 Old Style)

Yasamin watched the pillar of wax dwindle until it could no longer nourish the tiny flame dancing atop. Sunrise would not come for several more hours, but she couldn’t sleep. She cracked the door and slipped out of the room. The light from the waning moon dusted the silent passageways in pallid light, enough for her to make her way, though twice she became lost in the unfamiliar corridors and had to retrace her steps.

Cool air brushed her face as she stepped onto one of the many narrow dirt paths threading through the haremlık garden. She breathed deeply and smiled. Though the palace’s stone façades would not allow her to forget she was still confined to the haremlık, the open air relieved the immediate feeling that she might at any moment suffocate.

The other women had tried to make her room as welcoming and comfortable as they could. Stuffed with silk and satin pillows, her chambers were larger than her old room in her uncle’s house in Salonica. She even brought with her the tapestry her mother had made of the little mosque in the woods, but no matter what anyone did, she would never call Buda home.

The path led to the same place as all the others, a central clearing dominated by an ancient oak tree. It was so wide it took four people touching fingertip to fingertip to reach all the way around. Yasamin sat with her back to its immense trunk and stared into the still blackness of the small pond next to the tree.

The tears surprised her when they came. She should have been happy. Her fondest wish had come true, the one she had made so many times, to leave Salonica and be the wife of an important man, not just the only niece of an unimportant public official. As she sat under the old oak she wanted more than anything to take that wish back.

She cried until her tears dried up. She rose to return to her room, but froze when a pebble went skittering down the opposite bank of the pond toward the glassy smooth water that mirrored the clear night sky. With a small splash, the tiny stone sent silver ripples across the surface of the pond, shattering the moon’s reflection.

Yasamin stared across the water to find someone standing on the path. Her heart leapt into her throat, but it took Yasamin a mere second to recognize Ayla, another resident of the haremlık. Yasamin was certain the relief on Ayla’s face reflected her own. She motioned for Ayla to join her, though truth be told, she wanted nothing more than to be left alone.

“You scared me nearly to death,” Yasamin whispered once the two of them were seated under the oak tree together.

“My apologies,” Ayla replied. “I didn’t mean to frighten you. I didn’t expect anyone else to be out here in the middle of the night.”

“I couldn’t sleep. I thought it would be a good place to come and think.”

Yasamin paused, struggling for something more to say. She had met Ayla only once before in passing and was unsure what etiquette demanded in the current situation. She knew Ayla was around seventeen, a year younger than she was, and that she was the daughter or niece of one of the chief advisors to Ahmed Pasha, Buda’s governor. Beyond those paltry facts, she knew nothing.

Such matters of decorum, however, didn’t seem to worry Ayla. “So, what is it you’ve come here to think about?”

Yasamin could have chosen not to answer. She could have demurred or told Ayla it was none of her business, but instead she told the truth.

“I’m not happy here.”

“But you’re about to marry Murad Pashazade,” Ayla protested. “How could you not be happy to marry the son of a Pasha?”

“It’s not him.” Yasamin motioned around. “It’s this place. I’m not happy here. It’s nothing like where I came from. I wanted for so long to leave, to be away from my aunt and her rules. Now I find myself actually missing Salonica. I miss the smell of the sea and the blue of the water on a clear day, the most beautiful blue you could imagine. There, at least I had my pick of satins and silks, or if I wanted I could sit in the afternoon sun and eat citrons until they made me sick.”

The relief at saying it all out loud passed over Yasamin like a fresh breeze. She wanted to tell Ayla everything.

“Tonight is not the first time I’ve slipped out of my room,” she continued. “On the first night I was here I came to the garden. These pomegranate trees are from Greece. We had ones like them in our garden at home. I thought if I closed my eyes and touched the bark, or held a bunch of flowers in my hand, I could forget where I was.” Yasamin sighed. “I was wrong.”

“How?”

“I couldn’t plug my ears to the night noises. The wind that blows through the trees is coarse, not like the gentle breezes off the sea. The insects drone at a pitch that seems off to my ears. The wolves howl closer. I should be in Izmir, or even Istanbul, but instead, I’m here, marrying a man I know nothing about.”

“I hear Murad Pashazade is a good man.”

“Then you’ve heard more than I have.”

Yasamin’s soon-to-be husband remained an enigma to her. She gleaned from the gossip within the haremlık that he tended to shut himself up in his room for days on end, that he usually refused to speak but a few words whenever he did present himself, and that often those words were poorly chosen. In one story he embarrassed a guest of his father, a celebrated general, by pointing out mistakes the general had made in a particular battle. Even Murad’s own mother spoke of him as an idea or a notion, rather than a man.

On the other hand, the stories of Murad’s younger half-brother Selim were universal in their praise. He was an accomplished horseman and swordsman, and as young as he was, he had already led soldiers to victory in battle against the Christian armies threatening Buda. By all accounts, Selim was also a swaggering boor, but everyone knew he was a swaggering boor, and he didn’t pretend to be otherwise. If she had to be trapped in Buda, Yasamin thought she would prefer Selim to Murad.

She almost told Ayla so, but before she could, she heard a noise. As one, she and Ayla turned toward the sound. Someone else approached on the path. The two of them rounded the oak tree and crouched as deeply into the darkness as they could. Still, as the figure drew nearer, Yasamin couldn’t resist peeking around the trunk of the tree.

A tall, lanky man taking long, swift strides passed by on the path. He had tucked his robes into his belt, revealing his baggy trousers. He wore only a mustache, not the beard Yasamin was accustomed to seeing on most men. A fabric-draped, cylindrical hat adorned with a feather rested on his head. He didn’t notice Yasamin or Ayla as he passed by.

“A janissary,” Yasamin said after he was a safe distance away.

“How do you know?” Ayla asked.

“I’ve watched them walking down the street outside my home in Salonica countless times,” Yasamin replied.

“What is he doing in the haremlık? He should know he’s not allowed.”

Yasamin shrugged. She knew members of the janissary corps were supposed to remain celibate, thinking only of fighting for the Sultan, but underneath the uniform, they were still men. She herself had been tempted more than once to try to catch the eye of one passing by. If some young girl had caught this janissary’s attention, he could very well have considered the risk of being found within the haremlık to be worth the reward.

“Let it be his problem,” she said. “We should go back. It will be light soon.”

As they stepped back onto the path, Yasamin’s eyes briefly came to rest on a spot across he pond’s glassy water. She thought she saw a flicker of a shadow, but when she looked again, the pale moonlight illuminated only the trees and the flowers and the grassy banks of the black pond, nothing more.

Read a Free Excerpt from Daughters of Shadow and Blood – Book I: Yasamin (Part 3)

In anticipation of the upcoming release of Daughters of Shadow and Blood – Book I: Yasamin, I am releasing a free excerpt once a week until release day on May 3, 2015. This is Part 3. Read Part 1 and Part 2. I hope you enjoy! Please share and order your copy today!

THREE

Berlin, Germany

12 August 1999

Yasamin Ashrafi drummed her fingers on the arm of the divan, a slow, relentless rhythm that beat in time with Adam’s heart. “Your first experience with a knife to your throat?”

“And hopefully my last,” he replied.

“Hopefully. It never does get easier.”

Adam watched the rise and fall of her exquisite fingers as they danced over the dark, polished wood of the divan’s arm. “No, no, I wouldn’t imagine it does.”

“How fortunate for you, though, that someone came to your aid, and what a coincidence for this woman to arrive at the very moment you needed her.”

“Not so much of a coincidence, as I discovered.”

“Oh really?”

“She was following me.”

The drumming stopped. Her expression darkened, if such a thing was possible.

“Did she follow you here?”

Adam found relief in the sudden silence that before had been so oppressive. “Over the past ten days I’ve had the opportunity to learn lessons I never wanted to learn. I made certain neither she nor anyone else could follow me here.”

“If you’re lying—”

“I’m not stupid, Mrs. Ashrafi. Believe me.”

Her mouth curled up into the same twisted smile. “Only time will tell if that is true.”

“You promised to answer my question if I answered yours.”

“And I intend to keep that promise. But I am curious about one more thing. The name you found in the ledger of Janos Kovács. You said you had come across it elsewhere. Where, exactly?”

Adam made every attempt to remain nonchalant. “Odd documents, none of them related to one another, sometimes separated by centuries. A very tantalizing puzzle, but also frustrating. I only recently came upon some information that let me follow the trail down the rabbit hole.”

“Quite another coincidence.”

“Maybe there are no coincidences,” Adam countered. “I’ve noticed that if God wants to send you a message, he’ll often leave clues to follow. They may seem random and unrelated, but they are impossible to miss or ignore.”

She began tapping her fingers again. “Be careful Dr. Mire, or you may learn, as I did, that God isn’t always the one leaving the clues.”

Read Part 4>>

Read a Free Excerpt from Daughters of Shadow and Blood – Book I: Yasamin (Part 2)

In anticipation of the upcoming release of Daughters of Shadow and Blood – Book I: Yasamin, I am releasing a free excerpt once a week until release day on May 3, 2015. This is Part 2. Read Part 1 here. I hope you enjoy! Please share and order your copy today!

TWO

Budapest, Hungary

2 August 1999

A bell jingled as Adam opened the door and entered the antique shop. The smell of old books and dusty furniture mingled with the perfume of the flowers from the shop next door and the scent of fresh rain. He hesitated in the entryway, not certain how to proceed. A maze of tables, chairs, books, silver, china, and other random objects collected from hundreds of lifetimes filled the tiny store.

Amidst the chaos, a small, balding man stood at an old drafting table he had conscripted into a desk. Peering over the edge of his glasses, he leafed through a stack of papers. Every so often he made marks with a pencil. When Adam entered, the man glanced up. Adam nodded. The shopkeeper scrutinized him with pale blue eyes and smiled faintly before returning to his task. Adam chuckled quietly. Janos Kovács’s reputation preceded him. He catered only to serious collectors, not tourists. He had apparently taken Adam for the latter, exactly what Adam wanted.

Adam pushed into the store, cautiously stepping over a small wooden bench and squeezing himself around a giant Biedermeier armoire. On the other side, he found a stack of books balanced on a shelf much too small for the job. Adam could not detect any pattern in their order. He scanned the titles until he came across one that caught his attention—Description of the Székely Lands by Balázs Orbán. He picked it up and opened the worn cover. A name and a date were scrawled in faded pen in the upper-right corner of the title page: Mihai Iliescu, 3 May 1987. He tucked the book underneath his arm and continued reading the titles of the other books. When he finished, Adam turned to discover the shopkeeper standing next to him.

“May I help you?” the man asked in German, his gaze resting on the book underneath Adam’s arm.

“I don’t know. It’s possible,” Adam replied in Hungarian. He took the book and opened it to the title page, pointing to the signature written there. “I’m interested in seeing more items from the Mihai Iliescu estate. Do you have anything else?”

“I … I have many things from the Iliescu estate,” the shopkeeper stammered, his face flushed. “You need to be more specific. Are you looking for other books? Mr. Iliescu’s library was quite astounding.”

“I know. I became rather familiar with his collection on the occasions I visited him in his home. I’d love to see what other books you have, but the truth is I’m looking for something else.”

“What might that be?”

“I suppose you could best describe it as a piece of jewelry.”

“Jewelry, you say? But Mr. Iliescu was never married.”

Adam shook his head. “Not that kind of jewelry. More of a medallion, made into a pin, or even a clasp for a cloak. The design is … unusual. It depicts an animal that looks like a lizard, or a dragon.”

Mr. Kovács’s expression darkened. His gaze shifted away, toward the door. “I have never seen anything like what you describe.”

“Are you certain? I’ve been to several other dealers, and they’ve all told me the same, but you acquired the bulk of the Iliescu estate. I had hoped for better luck here.”

“I’m sorry. I’m certain I have nothing like that.”

He refused to look Adam in the eye, and as he spoke he twisted the garnet ring on his right pinky finger around and around.

“I’m not the first to ask that question, am I?” Adam asked. “There have been others.”

“Please, Mr.—”

“Doctor,” Adam said. “Doctor Adam Mire.”

“My apologies, Dr. Mire, but I don’t intend to continue this pointless conversation with you. I have work to do. Are you interested in purchasing the book you’re holding?”

“I think so, but I’d like to look around a little and see what other treasures I might be able to dig up.”

“Dr. Mire, I don’t mean to be rude—”

The bell on the door jingled again. An older woman wearing a tailored suit and an abundance of jewelry stepped into the shop. The open contempt on Mr. Kovács’s face vanished. After one last stern glance at Adam, he beamed at the newcomer, greeting her with arms held out as if the woman were his long-lost sister, and left Adam to his own devices once more.

Adam poked around the shop, picking up another book or two, always trying to keep an eye on Mr. Kovács and the woman, who was apparently looking for a pair of chairs for her living room. As he pretended to browse, Adam made his way closer and closer to the drafting table where Mr. Kovács had left his papers.

They appeared to be nothing more than accounting ledgers—lists of sales with columns for names, inventory, prices. After a glance at Mr. Kovács and the woman, Adam lifted the top sheet. The one underneath was labeled “Iliescu” and followed much the same pattern, except for the note scrawled in one corner.

The bell on the door jingled again. Adam looked up to see the woman leaving. He replaced the papers on the desk and made his way back to the stack of books by the time Mr. Kovács turned his withering glare on him again.

“Did you find anything else of interest?” the dealer asked.

“No, not really,” Adam replied, smiling, “but I do believe I’ll purchase the book.”

 

Outside the shop, the rain had stopped, though the sky remained overcast. In Budapest, the August heat had subsided, and with it the flood of tourists. Adam made his way back to his hotel, his new purchase tucked securely under his arm. The doorman, standing ramrod straight, gave Adam a slight nod as he opened the door, the respect evident despite his threadbare uniform. Nearly empty, the Hotel Athena suited Adam perfectly. It provided him the solitude he preferred, yet retained a well-trained and loyal staff who pretended nothing had changed in a hundred years. The front desk and the maids abided his eccentricities without question, even if those eccentricities included stringing heads of garlic across the windows of his room and placing a holy wafer above the door.

As Adam entered his room, his gaze fell on the desk next to his bed. His books and papers lay strewn across the surface. A few extra forints slipped into the hands of the hotel manager ensured the housekeeping staff didn’t touch any of his work.

But someone had.

Though the desk hadn’t been the picture of order before, Adam knew what his chaos looked like. Nothing was where he had left it. Without hesitating, he stuffed everything from the desk into his leather satchel and walked out the door, planning to find another hotel and send for the rest of his clothes when he did.

Outside dusk rapidly approached, and Adam kept up a brisk pace. Neither the first hotel he tried nor the second had any vacancies. His third choice still lay a few blocks away. He never made it. A cold steel edge against his neck stopped him.

“One move and you die,” a harsh voice whispered his ear. “Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Adam replied.

A muscled arm pulled Adam into the shadow of an awning hanging over an abandoned storefront. In the window, Adam saw his own murky reflection and that of a well-built, olive-skinned man with a military-style haircut and a closely shaved beard. The man followed Adam’s gaze. The corners of his mouth turned up in a sneering grin.

“I don’t have much money,” Adam said. “My wallet’s in my pocket. Take it.”

“I don’t want your money.”

Adam never thought he did. “What do you want, then?”

“Where is it?” The man pressed the knife harder against Adam’s throat.

“Where is what?” Adam fought the urge to swallow. “I’m just looking for a hotel to spend the night.”

“You are not in a position to play games, effendi. Where is the Kazıklı Bey’s medallion?”

Effendi. Kazıklı Bey. The man was Turkish.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The knife slipped a fraction of an inch, and Adam felt a trickle of blood run down his neck. The angry red line reflected in the window.

“You lie. I know about your visit this afternoon. You were trying to sell it, weren’t you, effendi? Do not try to fool me, Dr. Mire. I know exactly who you are. You are not a stupid man, yet you act like one. You know what the medallion is, where it came from. You’re damning yourself to hell by hiding it. If you tell me the truth, though, you can die a hero’s death and receive your reward in heaven.”

“I swear I don’t know anything about a medallion, effendi.”

The man spat on the side of Adam’s face and uttered a word Adam didn’t understand but was sure he wouldn’t want translated. The pressure on Adam’s neck eased a little. Dropping his chin, Adam forced the man to turn his wrist and angle the knife away from Adam’s throat. Then he grasped the man’s arm and slipped underneath to escape the Turk’s embrace. He took off running down the street, but he heard the Turk’s footfalls behind him.

As he rounded a corner, Adam risked a glance over his shoulder to see the Turk only a few strides behind. Though he was by no means out of shape, Adam knew he couldn’t keep his current pace up for much longer. He scanned the area, looking for another way to escape, and failed to see that the sidewalk buckled in front of him. He tripped. His books and papers went sprawling into the street, and when Adam hit the pavement, something in his left shoulder popped. He cried out as searing pain shot through his arm and across his chest. His every instinct screamed at him to get up and keep running, but he could do nothing except lie on the ground and clutch his shoulder in agony.

The Turk stood over him, smiling. He raised the knife over his head, the blade flashing in the light of the streetlamps. “Impressive, effendi, but this ends exactly the same.”

At the last moment, however, an arm blocked the knife’s deadly arc. The newcomer, a slender woman roughly Adam’s age, stood between him and the Turk. Adam didn’t see where she had come from. The Turk’s eyes widened, and then his lips curled back in a snarl. He took a step back and lunged at her, but she dodged every one of his attacks with the grace of a dancer. His frustration evident, he swung the knife in a wide circle. The blade came within a hair’s breadth of her chin.

The Turk laughed. “Such a beautiful face. It would be a shame if anything were to mar it.”

She rolled her eyes. “Men. The same stupid line every time.”

He charged. She sidestepped the knife and brought her arm down on his wrist, making him drop the weapon. She spun around and backhanded him across the face, then kicked him in the chest and sent him flying into the wall. His body ricocheted off the brick surface, and his nose met with the heel of her hand. Bone and cartilage snapped. The Turk crumpled to the ground and didn’t move again.

Adam stared up at the woman. Her red hair hung in a loose ponytail, and her eyes were the deep cerulean blue of the ocean on a cloudless day. She knelt beside him.

“Are you hurt?” she asked, her voice carrying a hint of an Eastern European accent.

“My shoulder. I think it’s dislocated.”

She gently placed a hand on his upper arm. “May I?”

No sooner had Adam nodded, than she seized his arm and popped his shoulder back into place with a stomach-churning jerk. Adam screamed in agony.

“What did you just do?” he asked.

“I fixed your shoulder. Is something wrong? It does feel better, yes?” She raised an eyebrow. “And I did ask you first. Now come with me, please. We have to get you someplace safe.”

Adam made a few tentative motions with his left arm. “Who are you?”

Standing, the woman grabbed him by his other arm. “Later. Now come.”

Adam pulled free. “Wait, my things.”

“Leave them.”

“I can’t. My books and papers. I need them.”

The woman eyed the unconscious man on the ground. “Fine then, but gather them as fast as you can.”

Adam struggled to keep up with her as they ran through the streets. After dozen or so blocks, as Adam felt his legs about to give out, she stopped. Townhouses lined the quiet street. A row of parked cars sat at the curb. The woman climbed into the driver’s side of a white Fiat and opened the passenger door for Adam. Before he could even climb completely in, she turned the ignition and punched the gas pedal. The car screeched away from the curb and sped down the street.

“My name is Anya,” she said, “to answer your question.”

“Adam.” He fumbled to buckle his seat belt as fast as he could. “Dr. Adam Mire.”

The tires screamed as she rounded a corner. “Oh, I already know your name.”

Adam still struggled to catch his breath. “Does everybody in this city know who I am?”

She shot him a sardonic glance. “Not quite, but more than you’d think.”

“And why is that?”

She made another gut-wrenching right turn onto a street already teeming with traffic. Horns blared as she cut off a Mercedes and a BMW, but miraculously, the white Fiat remained unscathed. “The truth? You’re not the only one looking for Dracula’s medallion, Dr. Mire. You’re just the only one who isn’t armed.”

“I don’t understand. How do you know about the medallion? And who was that man in they alley?”

“All in good time, Dr. Mire, all in good time.”

“Will you at least tell me where we’re going?”

She jerked the wheel and veered across three lanes of traffic. More horns bellowed. The car flew up an onramp and onto an expressway.

“Novi Sad,” Anya replied.

“Novi Sad?” Adam shook his head. “But I don’t have a visa to travel in Yugoslavia.”

Anya continued to weave among the cars on the expressway. “Details. Don’t worry.”

“Why should I trust you?”

“You’re still breathing, aren’t you? Isn’t that enough?” At Adam’s silence, she sighed. “Very well. Open the glove box.”

Adam pressed the button. The door fell open, revealing a Glock pistol.

Anya smiled. “Now you’re armed. You don’t think you can trust me, then shoot me. It’s entirely up to you.”

The Budapest suburbs sped by. Even the textured grip of the pistol in Adam’s hand did nothing to hold his panic at bay. In his mind, pieces of a puzzle began falling into place. He didn’t like the picture they revealed. He thought back to the look on Janos Kovács’s face at the antique shop when he brought up the medallion. It was a look of abject fear. After the assault on the street, Adam thought perhaps the man’s fears were warranted.

And there was something else.

The note in Mr. Kovács’s ledger contained a name he had come across before, one almost always accompanied by death.

Yasamin.

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Read a Free Excerpt from Daughters of Shadow and Blood – Book I: Yasamin (Part 1)

In anticipation of the upcoming release of Daughters of Shadow and Blood – Book I: Yasamin, I am releasing a free excerpt once a week until release day on May 3, 2015. This is Part 1. I hope you enjoy! Please share and order your copy today!

PROLOGUE

A Letter from Mihai Iliescu

Cluj, Romania

3 March 1999

I will miss the books.

I have never had enough space for my entire collection, but I have always insisted on dedicating one room in my house to the library. This house, in particular, is ill suited to handle so many things, least of all the books. They cascade off the shelves onto the floor and collect in the corners, but I know exactly where each and every one of them is.

There are those who expected more from the last scion of Arnold Pavle than an overweight, balding, middle-aged man who likes to hole himself up inside and read dusty tomes others have forgotten even exist. They see monster slayers in films, and they expect a dashing, square-jawed hero, fearless in the face of danger and willing at any moment to rush in and save the day.

I am simply Mihai Iliescu, son of Andras Iliescu, war criminal. My country tells me I should forget our shameful past. I was raised by an aunt who barely tolerated me because I reminded her of what my father was. But how could I pretend none of it ever happened? To deny my father and the events that shaped him as a person would be to deny a part of myself.

I’ve chased his ghost for almost fifty years. I thought I could understand him by surrounding myself with the artifacts of his universe, but it hasn’t worked. I’m no closer to understanding what kind of man my father was than the day I started, and now I’m tired.

Maybe I could have become the true heir of Arnold Pavle, had circumstances allowed, but now I will never have the chance. So perhaps in death my life will finally serve a purpose, and these books, seen by the eyes of others, will continue my family’s noble legacy.

I cannot explain everything. The only advice I can give you is to read. “The monsters are real,” my father told me, “but we are not helpless against the darkness.”

ONE

Berlin, Germany

12 August 1999

There was no ticking clock, no traffic din, no wind in the trees, not even the sound of his own breathing. Nothing broke the silence that followed until her lips parted, and she asked a single, simple question.

“Why are you here?”

Drawn like an adder ready to strike, the woman sat across the room on a divan. He stood near the door by one of the room’s tall, narrow windows, a shaft of sunlight cutting across his face. Though the shadows obscured her features, he could feel her dark eyes studying him. He knew the question was coming. He just didn’t want to answer it.

Not yet.

“So it’s true?” he asked.

She shook her head. “I didn’t say that.”

He let the beads of the rosary in his pocket slide one by one through his fingers and allowed himself a cautious smile. “Are you familiar with a man named Mihai Iliescu?”

“I’ve heard of him.”

“It’s remarkable how many have.”

“It’s not so remarkable if you have an appreciation for antiques.” She glanced around the room. He followed her eyes.

Indeed, the room spoke to her appreciation. It boasted several fine examples of Rococo Chinoiserie, including the divan on which she sat. The value of the two Empire-style tables on either side would have allowed him to retire in luxury then and there. A portrait set in a gilt frame hung on the wall to his right, notable both for its subject and its creator—Rembrandt van Rijn.

The most extraordinary object in the room, however, hung on the wall behind her. Unmistakably Turkish, the giant tapestry could not be any less than three hundred years old. Filaments of dark crimson, blue, cream, and black flowed through the green fabric, invoking lush hills and pomegranate trees heavy with blossoms. In the center the thread formed a tiny mosque with a splendid domed roof and four gleaming minarets. The tapestry’s graceful arcs and arabesques danced around the woman’s poised figure, the green color in the fabric setting off her olive skin.

“No, perhaps not so remarkable,” he said, “but I’m sure it came as a shock to many that a quiet mid-level Romanian bureaucrat had such a passion. He managed to amass quite the collection before he died—furniture, books, artwork, jewelry … relics.”

He drew out the last word so that it lingered, haunting the space between them for a moment before fading away.

If she reacted, he couldn’t tell. “Remind me again, Mr. Mire. What do you do?”

“It’s Dr. Mire, actually. I teach history at a university back in the States. I’ve also written a few books about medieval and Renaissance Eastern Europe.”

“And what interest does an American university professor have in the antique collection of a Romanian civil servant?”

He held his hand out to the sunlight beaming in through the open window. Adam Mire had learned to appreciate simple things like the warm late summer sun on his skin and the light playing on the leaves of the linden trees outside the woman’s townhouse. A part of him felt sorry for her, and he more than understood her reticence to answer what most would see as outlandish accusations.

He returned his attention to the woman still sitting across from him, her face still hidden in the shadows. “I’m not interested in the collection per se—but then neither are you. You’ve been making inquiries into the whereabouts of a certain item rumored to be part of the Iliescu estate.”

“And what is this item?”

“A medallion in the likeness of a dragon, formed into a circle with its tail wrapped around its neck. On the dragon’s back is a cross, and around the outside an inscription, ‘O Quam Misericors est Deus, Pius et Justus.’”

“‘O How Merciful is God,’” she spat, “‘Faithful and Just.’”

A cloud passed in front of the sun. The room grew darker and colder and. if possible, even stiller. Shadows reached across the floor toward him like grasping hands threatening to ensnare his feet. Instinctively, he backed away until the sun reemerged. The shadows retreated, though not exactly to where they had been. Around the woman they remained darker.

“And if I did seek such an item, what about this medallion leads you to make the allegations you do, Dr. Mire?”

He swallowed, struggling to suppress the sense of unease that had appeared unbidden in the pit of his stomach, and tried to keep his voice steady. “This medallion is not the type of thing an antique collector would bother with generally, and its value as a museum piece is only marginal. But its worth can’t be counted in currency, or what a museum curator might be able to see under a microscope. The stories and legends surrounding it and its owner go back centuries. Some are written. Some are not. Some have even inspired poets and novelists. But what most people don’t realize is that there is a tiny scrap of truth in each of these stories. I want to know the entire truth.”

“Stories and legends of some ancient, legendary artifact. You have nothing more?”

Adam took a deep breath. “Only that according to his doctors, Mr. Iliescu died of an ‘unidentified blood disorder,’ just as your husband did.”

Her eyes flashed with an emotion hard for him to classify. Pain? Anger? Loss? “You know nothing about my husband or how he died.”

The outburst surprised him. He noticed that even though more than a year had passed since her husband’s death, the woman still wore her wedding ring on her right hand. He found it curious she would do something so sentimental. “My apologies,” he said. “You’re right. I don’t know. In fact, I don’t have proof of anything I’ve claimed today.”

She raised an eyebrow. “But you make claims nonetheless.”

“There’s no need to worry, Mrs. Ashrafi. I’m not interested in telling anyone anything I know.”

Her expression changed again, this time to one he could read a little easier. He had seen it before in others—something feral, something predatory. “There is only one way to ensure you will not tell anyone.”

He clutched the rosary still concealed in his pocket. “With all due respect, Mrs. Ashrafi, whom would I tell? My professional reputation demands I verify every claim I make. I could never produce enough evidence to make anyone believe those such as you exist. My career would be over in an instant.”

“Then I’ll ask you again, Dr. Mire. Why are you here? What is it you want?”

“I want to know why you’re seeking this medallion.” Adam took a breath. “The very thing that gave Dracula his name.”

The minutes passed, measured only by the beating of his heart. Her dark eyes bore into him. Adam wondered if he had miscalculated, if he would be able to reach the door before she pulled him screaming into the shadows. She glanced at the photograph in her hand. He had used it as a calling card of sorts, to gain an invitation inside her home. The woman in the photograph bore an uncanny resemblance to her, though the picture would have been taken long before she was ever born—if the age she was in fact matched the age she appeared.

“You intrigue me, Dr. Mire,” she said, brushing her fingers across the picture. “I’ll tell you what you want to know, on the condition that you tell me how you found me.”

Adam slowly let out the breath he had been holding. “That’s a long story, I’m afraid.”

The corners of her mouth turned up in a twisted smile. “I don’t mind, Dr. Mire. Unlike you, I have all the time in the world.”

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