NightWhispers72LG

When every night is a battle for survival, love is an endangered species.

ShadowLands, Book 1

Analyst James Bennett has spent the years since humankind fell victim to the Illness living underground. Part of an elite group of survivors determined to save their race, his only interaction with the blood-drinking Shadows roaming the Earth is through surveillance technology carried by his team of search-and-rescue agents. Scarred by vicious events, he has no desire to leave the safety of his bunker for the dangerous world outside—until he recruits a tough, haunted young woman clear across the country.

Former gang member Jules Guerrero learned two things early on: the value of loyalty and never backing down from a fight. Both of those teachings come in handy now that her job description includes protecting humans and kicking Shadow ass. But it’s hard to keep her mind strictly on her mission when all she can think about is the man whose voice keeps her sane through the depths of each dark night.

When Jules is captured and threatened by a rogue organization even more bloodthirsty than the Shadows, James must draw on all of his courage to fuel a furious cross-country chase through the lawless land…before the Jules he loves is destroyed forever.

Warning: Contains a hero who would fight monsters for his love, a heroine out to save the world, a treacherous wasteland, poetry as foreplay and flesh-eating enemies.

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Excerpt

Copyright © 2012 Alisha Rai
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication

Long blonde hair swept over the ground, soaking up blood like a thirsty mop. Jules Guerrero crouched down to study the severed head. No one who had ever known her would call her fastidious, and the good Lord knew her scuffed leather footwear wasn’t exactly couture, but she was careful to keep her boots and clothes out of contact with the red gore spreading over the floor. She’d rather face a blade to her throat than these bodily fluids. The former held a hope of survival.

She ignored the three other bodies strewn at her feet. In the three years since the Illness had spread, she’d become almost desensitized to the appearance of the scratched, naked, silvery bodies of the once-human Shadows. This one, though…

The woman’s expression retained the focused hunger she’d worn when she’d lunged at Jules, fangs flashing and fingers curled into claws. Her skin was a telltale white that was so light it gleamed like smooth alabaster. A bright red roadmap of veins stood out on the pale backdrop of flesh.

It was the blonde hair and the bright blue eyes, now dull and staring, that had caused Jules to hesitate to deliver the killing blow. The thing had almost gotten a lucky nibble in.

The eyes are always the last to go. The virus sucked the pigment from the skin fairly quickly, but the hair and eyes took a couple of weeks to transform into the eerie pearlescent hue of the Shadows. Which meant that less than two weeks ago, this adolescent had been human.

Late. Goddamn it, there was no worse feeling than being late.

She gently pressed her gloved fingers over the girl’s eyelids, tucking away that last sign of humanity before hoisting herself to her feet and listening. The Shadows weren’t real great at stealth mode, and if they were at the point where they were feasting on a—Jules studied the bloody mess in the middle of the grisly tableau—a cat, then they’d come running out of every nook and cranny at the ruckus she’d raised.

“Come out, come out,” she murmured softly and stepped over the mess, her blade gripped securely in one hand. With the other, she pulled a penlight out of her pocket and snapped it on. There were no exterior windows in this room, so it was a hazy dim blue, lit only by the sun trickling in from other adjacent rooms. No wonder the Shadows had congregated in here. Their eyes and skin couldn’t handle direct sunlight. Their bad luck she had waltzed in through those big double doors.

She toggled the light switch on the wall. Alas, nothing powered up. Either the building must have been too large or the university too poor to get off the electrical grid in favor of self-sustaining solar or wind energy before the Illness had spread. Too bad. Electric companies couldn’t supply a damn thing when all of their meter maids were either dead, undead or someone’s food.

She methodically went through the first and second floor, looking for humans as well as Shadows. Evidence of the latter littered the basement: bones, shredded clothes, small dead animals, though no actual beings leapt out at her. There was nothing, particularly in the sunlit classrooms, that suggested the former.

She made her way back to the ground floor and exited through the open doors, taking a deep breath of clean air to clear the stink of the decaying flesh of the Shadows. Call her crazy, but she was certain the air had become sweeter the minute she’d crossed out of California’s state lines early this morning, well before the sun rose.

Not a very high bar to meet. She’d grown up in a crowded South Los Angeles neighborhood, where the smell of bodies and hopelessness had hung over the place like a heavy veil. Since she’d started patrolling a little over a year ago, her nostrils were permanently clogged with the scent of Shadows and destruction. Her state had been hit hard, both by the Illness and the nuclear attacks that had followed.

The high Colorado altitude made her lightheaded. It was impossible not to find the sensation kind of seductive. She’d only been sober for so long.

Jules glanced over her shoulder at the closed doors behind her. She supposed she ought to destroy the bodies first, but the clock was ticking before sunset, and she had to beg forgiveness from a certain someone who happened to be rather cranky with her. As tempting as it was, she also wouldn’t waste any more time scouting the rest of the buildings on this small college campus before hitting up the place she’d come here for.

She set out along the path to the building next door. Fall leaves littered the ground, falling from the golden and red-tipped trees all around her. She kind of wanted to stop and gawk at everything, especially the huge, natural snow-topped mountains on either side of her. Like the clean air and infrastructure untouched by bombs or fire, the setting was a far cry from the urban environments she normally patrolled.

Not here to sightsee.

But, man, if she had the luxury of time, she would totally love to get closer to those big stone monsters.

Wind whistled through the leaves, covering the sound of her footsteps. It felt like everyone had simply walked away from this small town nestled in the Rockies.

Except for the ones who had been turned into mindless, flesh-eating zombies. No, they were still hanging about.

With that in mind, she was cautious about opening the door to the building she came to a stop in front of. Like the first place, the lock had been broken. When she opened the heavy wood door, dust motes swirled and rose up to greet her. In the waning light from outside, she could see the thick layer of dirt and dust on the floor. A good sign that no one was within, but she wasn’t taking any chances. Blood, especially her own, would totally ruin her apology.

Thank God the building wasn’t very large and didn’t have any subterranean floors. She was able to search both stories quickly, finding nothing even when she peered beneath chairs and between stacks.

Her shoulders relaxed as she came back down the steps to the ground floor. She lifted a hand to her neck, about to press the button that would summon her sulking handler, when she heard the scrape. The noise was tiny, a whisper against the carpeted floor, but she froze, her hand dropping from her collar while her other tightened on her knife hilt. Barely breathing, she turned only her head and eyed the bank of defunct old computers to her left.

The muffled scrape came again, and she lifted her blade higher, ready to strike. Unlike her prey, her footsteps were silent as she made her way over toward the noise. The silent monitors facing her reflected her image back at her in triplicate. Her eyes were grim, her mouth set in a tight line.

The noise was coming from…under the table? Frowning, she walked around the u-shaped desk, stopping in the middle. She waited, slowing her heartbeat down, clearing her mind and staring at the darkness under that table.

The slavering ball of black fur jumped out at her so fast she stumbled back, catching her foot on the cord of the computer behind her. The machine fell with her, slamming into her shoulder as they both hit the floor.

The minion of evil squeaked loudly, like this was all a big lark, and she swore it grinned at her, beady eyed and fearless. “You f**king little—”

“Jules!”

She sighed. Damn it all. There went her plans.

“What’s wrong? What happened?”

“Nothing happened, güey. Calm down.” When she was a kid, a woman named Crazy Ina had lived in her building. Ina claimed invisible people told her to do things, like wear tinfoil shoes and scream about the end of the world on the street corner.

Jules only heard one voice, delivered through the tiny earpiece that slid over her ear. She doubted any of Ina’s imaginary friends could hold a candle to sexy-sounding James Bennett.

Granted, James did also tell her what to do sometimes. She usually listened. Occasionally she didn’t. Case in point: she was in the wilds of Colorado right now instead of the dubious safety of her home state. He hadn’t quite gotten over that yet.

“Don’t tell me to calm down. Your heart rate jumped. Damn you, Jules, I told you. I told you something would happen, and it did. Are you hurt? Are you bleeding? Can you get to your van? Because then I want you to get in there and turn around and head home—”

She glared at the stupid rat for starting this nonsense, which she supposed was its cue to sneer at her and scamper away. “I hate rodents. Have I told you this?”

Though she couldn’t picture him since she’d never seen him, she knew James’s tension was receding. “Ah. Another close encounter of the squeaky kind, eh?”

“You could say that.” Christ, but she despised rats. Always had, though others in her neighborhood had been indifferent, another fact of life in a hot and crowded place.

“Where are you? You shouldn’t have needed to stop until you reached Denver before nightfall. Did you run out of food—?”

“Relax, James.” She grabbed her fallen blade and stood, grimacing at the ache in her ass and her shoulder.

No surprise that he knew she’d stopped a good fifty miles west of the city where she was supposed to meet up with the soldiers from his corner of the world, Raven. GPS was a wonderful thing, and she had a nifty one in the lightweight collar locked around her neck. James could probably pinpoint exactly what building she was in too, and then her whole surprise would be completely ruined. Asshole rat.

“Relax? I haven’t been relaxed since I woke up this morning and discovered that you’d gone AWOL.”

She winced, as she’d been wincing since he’d spent an hour chewing her out earlier. She’d risked the road at a dangerous 3 a.m. in order to make the long trek. It had still been dark on the West Coast when he’d discovered she wasn’t where she was supposed to be. “I said I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about my plan earlier, but I knew you’d react like this. And I was totally planning on meeting up with your soldiers at Cheyenne, not going off completely half-cocked.”

“I should never have told you about the Cheyenne mission. How was I supposed to know you’d get some crazy idea to—?”

“James. I’m sorry.”

His exhale rushed over the line. “Fine. Whatever. Now why have you stopped?”

That clipped tone was not what she had come to expect from him. He’d been funny, teasing and gentle with her since she’d “met” him a little over a year ago.

She owed the life she had now to another man, a man she should have been thinking about all day, especially since this trip’s purpose was partially to pick up his trail. Instead, she’d been frantically wondering how to get back into James’s good graces.

“Well, I saw this sign on the highway, and it got me thinking. So I pulled off at the exit and found this cute college town.”

“Yes. It looks quite quaint. It also looks far from where you should be.”

Oh, yeah, he was still peeved.

“Did you run into anyone?”

Should she tell him about the Shadows? “Nope.”

“Liar. Humans or Shadows?”

The man was a human lie detector. Jules wondered if it was a skill he had with everyone, or if she was special. “Not important.”

His tone immediately sharpened. “Shadows, then. How many? Are you okay? Let me see.”

No. There was no reason for the now-nonexistent threat to ruin her surprise. “Wait,” she blurted out. The object of her quest was up on the second floor. She began walking toward the stairs. “Don’t look yet.”

“What are you hiding from me?”

“Stop being so suspicious.”

“Is the area secure? There are more of them, aren’t there?”

“As secure as can be. You think I’d be chatting with you if there was danger in the place?” She walked swiftly to the staircase, keeping one ear tuned to the sound of any further danger.

“You should have notified me immediately.”

“Knew you’d say that.”

“This isn’t a joke.”

“I was fine. There were only a few.”

“Few-against-one odds do not equal fine. Your mission is search and rescue and intelligence gathering, not—”

“Combat,” she finished for him. “Yeah, yeah. I never initially engage. I finish the bastards off when they find me. You want me to run away?”

“No, I want you to avoid.” He clipped off the words. “Fighting is for soldiers, not you.”

Okay, so Compound, the combined crew of Raven on the East Coast and Sanctuary on the West, had a military force. Theoretically, it was supposed to take care of official ass-kicking. But it suffered from the same problem plaguing all of them—too much need and not enough numbers. More importantly, there wasn’t a single soldier anywhere near her right now. If something attacked her, the scrappy hood rat in her wouldn’t let her sit on her hands and look pretty.

She had to be able to handle all of the aspects of her job that kept her on the front lines. “I’m a better fighter than a lot of those soldiers.”

“Damn it, Jules.”

“I had it under control.”

“You do it on purpose, don’t you?”

“What?”

“Keep your heartbeat steady when you’re fighting, so I won’t know until later.”

Nah, she’d always been pretty calm while fighting. She’d seen too many street fights end badly when someone lost their head. “You know I like to save my energy for more important things.”

When he spoke again, his voice was low and husky and sent all sorts of shivers down her spine. “Is that right?”

Blushing wasn’t something she experienced a ton, but one rough whisper from James could heat her cheeks.

She tried to tell herself their suggestive exchanges were no different from how she’d treat anyone who was in his place.

Liar.

Flirting with James was such a bad idea. Let me count the ways. One, he was her boss. Kind of. The shadowy head of the organization, Gabriel, was everyone’s boss, but she took his orders through James. Two, she’d never met him in person. Three, he lived clear across the country from her, and traveling that distance was a huge undertaking. Hell, there had only been about two envoys to date between the bases since they’d established communication over a year and a half ago, and they’d been fraught with danger for the travelers. Four, number three made number two highly improbable to achieve…

Never mind, she didn’t want to count the ways. They were far too depressing.

“Let me see,” he insisted.

“I’m not hiding anything from you,” she yelped, and jogged up the stairs, careful to keep her still-bloody and therefore potentially infectious blade away from her body.

“If you’re not hiding something, then why won’t you let me see?”

“Maybe I’m not decent.”

“If you’re fighting Shadows naked, I’m going to keep my video plugged in all the time. And hope for mirrors.”

“Empty threats.” He never intruded on her, even though it probably only took a flip of a switch to see her surroundings through the camera she wore in her collar.

“I’ll keep it plugged in, and I’ll sell tickets.”

“Hopefully you’ll make enough to pay for surgery on all the men whose eyes I’ll have to gouge out,” she said cheerfully.

“I’m loading video in three. One…”

She scurried into the big room upstairs.

“Two…”

She played the light over the foyer area. Cobwebs were the main decoration, along with rat droppings and the musty smell of mold and mildew. A long desk, covered in dust and probably abandoned for at least a decade, sat in the middle of the room. During her search earlier, she’d noted the skeleton that lay partially exposed behind it. She averted the light and quickly walked to the right of the desk so James wouldn’t get too good of a look. The poor bastard had either taken shelter here and died naturally long ago, or he was recently deceased and the Shadows had picked his bones clean after sucking his blood dry. Either way, he was beyond help.

“Two and a half…”

She smiled. Tickets, her ass. He was so damn predictably noble. “Okay, open your eyes.”

She imagined she could feel the choker she wore around her neck warm slightly. From experience, she knew it would shift in color from black to a dull blue as he obtained a 360-degree view of the room. It was part of the reason she had to hack off her hair every few weeks. The few times she let it go, James made puffing noises as if he were trying to blow strands out of his eyes.

Tough intelligence/militiamen/search-and-rescue agents weren’t supposed to be giggling when a monster could be lurking nearby.

“It’s an administrative building?”

“Kind of.” It did look like an administrative building with the rows of outdated computers and Xerox machines, which dated back over a decade and a half ago. A smidgen of the anticipation she’d felt when she’d seen the sign and pulled off the road to this campus resurfaced.

She directed the light to the entrance of the smaller room closest to her and walked through it, keeping her free hand on the hilt of her knife and her senses open, despite her excitement. She hadn’t lived to the ripe old age of twenty-two by being stupid.

James’s breath hitched in her ear as she played the light over the far east side of the large room. She played dumb. “What?”

“Walk closer,” he said slowly.

She obeyed, the thought of James’s pleasure making her grin like a fool. When she’d been a kid, before the virus had, you know, destroyed the planet and all, this was how she’d felt on Christmas morning, presenting her troubled mama with some macaroni necklace she’d spent hours slaving over. The walls were lined with bookshelves which housed…

“Books,” he said, his tone reverent. Jules didn’t know if he spoke to her or himself.

“An I’m sorry present. And happy early birthday too. Next week, right? Thirty’s a big number.”

He was silent for a second. “Jules.”

The one word was so laden with emotion she tripped over her own tongue to launch into speech.

“I know it isn’t much, but after you told me how your dad used to take you to the library when you were a kid and you haven’t seen a real book since you went underground, I thought you would like to maybe…and then I saw the sign for the university—”

“Jules, shut up.” The caressing tone muted her way more effectively than the actual words of the command. “You remembered my birthday?”

“Funny how it comes around every year like that.” He’d abruptly announced it last year. That in and of itself had been unusual enough for her to make a note of it. Until then, though they’d been connected to each other for a solid month, he hadn’t volunteered any personal information about himself during their cool, no-nonsense exchanges.

She’d reciprocated, for some reason, and told him hers. And then, a few months ago, he’d surprised her with a birthday present. Not with cake or balloons, or even a stripper dressed like—well, him, or whatever she imagined he looked like. Nope, he’d given her something even more valuable.

When she got to the outpost he’d directed her to outside of San Diego, she’d been expected. She didn’t know what James had told them, but instead of handing her the usual supply of rations and some intel, the soldiers had shown her to a small room with a hard, narrow cot and a leaking roof.

Three heavily armed and trained soldiers had patrolled the perimeter of the outpost that night, while another two sat inside the building. It had been the first decent night’s sleep she’d received since she’d started patrolling, a solid twelve hours of bliss.

So she’d been mulling over what she could do for her boss/partner/fantasy lover for the past couple days. The broken-down sign for the university had been like a godsend. Libraries had gone mostly digital pre-virus, but not the ones inside of schools. She wasn’t the most empathetic of people, but even she’d picked up on the nostalgia in his voice when they’d been chatting during a particularly long, lonely day of exploring. I can get almost any book I want electronically through our archives, but what I wouldn’t give to walk through stacks of books again.

Plus, she owed him for what she’d put him through today.

“I love it. It’s the nicest present I’ve ever received.”

The flutter of her heart had her pressing her hand to her chest. “Great. Good. I’m happy to hear that. And we’re cool?”

“We’re always cool, Jules. I was—” He cut himself off. He did that a lot, stopped, thought and then spoke with deliberation. He was a thinker, her guy. “I was worried about you. I don’t want to think of you all alone out there.”

But she was always alone. Except for James. Which was fine with her. She did better on her own.

Sure, she supposed Sanctuary and the outposts scattered around California were some safety net, but the state was huge. She wasn’t always in shouting distance of someone.

She could have told him that, but somehow she knew it would only upset him to have his illusion of her security shattered.

“I guess you should get going. I want you to make Denver before nightfall.”

“You don’t want to see them up close?”

“Oh, no, it’ll take too much time…”

James wasn’t the only one who could tell when someone was fibbing. She walked over to a shelf. Some of the books had not fared well. “Can you see okay?”

“Yeah.” It didn’t seem as though he had noticed the less-than-perfect condition of the books. “When I was a child, my favorite smell was a new book. Better than a new car.”

The smell of mildew was pretty strong here, but she wouldn’t be telling him that.

“Touch them for me.” James’s whisper started a tingle in her abdomen that was as worrisome as heart flutters.

She wore combat boots and carried a big knife, for f**k’s sake. She had no time for flutters and tingles. You should remember that before you go giving sappy presents.

She propped her blade against the bookshelf and wiped her hands on her pants before running her finger along the spines of the closest leather-bound volumes. They appeared elegant with the gold embossed writing. In contrast, her hand looked stubby and mannish with its bitten-off nails and scars.

“Pick one up. Please.”

She licked her suddenly dry lips and pulled a book off the shelf. His breathing stuttered before accelerating. It took a rare man to have an orgasm over books.

Granted, maybe normal people did react like this. In her old life, pre Illness—it seemed a lifetime ago, and not just three years—she’d been more concerned about petty fights and getting her next fix than reading. Hell, she hadn’t even graduated high school.

Since coming to Sanctuary, she’d tried to make up for her lack of education by devouring knowledge from whoever she came across, but she was pretty sure book smarts would never be her strong suit. Meanwhile, all James had to do was open his mouth for a person to know how brainy he was. Sometimes she marveled that they could carry on the conversations they did.

She hefted the sturdy weight of the book. It felt both familiar and foreign—her hands were more used to balancing a blade than books. She turned it over in her hands. “Robert Frost.”

“I love old American poetry. Can you open it?” He sounded like a kid catching sight of real sugar. His excitement sent another pang of warmth through her. She opened the book, letting her fingers slide over the title page and binding. It was tattered but in remarkably good condition, having resisted the mold and mildew and decay that hung in the air. It wasn’t a first edition or anything so fancy as that, but even she could appreciate the crisp and foreign feel of paper under her fingers.

“I wish I could feel it,” her handler murmured. “It’s lovely, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” This wasn’t the first physical book she’d seen in her travels since the Illness, but it was the first she’d seen through James’s reverent, starved eyes.

Steadfast rocks didn’t roam. They stayed in one place. Safe, but missing out on some fun.

“Can you flip through the pages?”

The words slid in front of her too fast to identify and read. She stopped when she came to a small, hard, cardboard piece stuck between the pages. She fleetingly wondered over the last person who had held this book. Had it been a woman? A man? A student?

Curious on her own part now, she shone the light on the words.

“I have been one acquainted with the night.

I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.

I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.

I have passed by the watchman on his beat

And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet

When far away an interrupted cry

Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;

And further still at an unearthly height,

A luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.

I have been one acquainted with the night.”

His voice joined hers on the last few sentences. She trailed off, suddenly awkward.

“Beautiful.”

“Mmm. Yeah. It’s a pretty poem.” Maybe that wasn’t the most insightful comment, but it had been pretty. She didn’t have enough pretty in her life that she could afford not to appreciate the few pieces that trickled through.

“Truly, this was the best present ever.” His voice dropped, became husky. “You have no idea what you’ve given me.”

Funny. It was like she’d been given the gift. She studied the bookshelves in front of her and wondered what each of those books held.

The sun was starting to set outside and the autumn wind was picking up. Somewhere up on the roof, a tree scraped a sad tune. She didn’t need to go back to the other building to see the bodies, the heads scattered like a pulled-apart doll. “One of the Shadows I killed here had blue eyes.”

He didn’t skip a beat at the abrupt change of subject. His voice, as always, was gentle. Steady. “Recently turned.”

“Yes. She was barely a teen. Might have parents.” Odds were low the girl had come from a great distance away. Shadows didn’t have the brainpower for cars or bikes. They loped when they wanted to travel, and were single-mindedly focused on feeding after they first rose, so she couldn’t have come very far in a few nights.

“I know what you’re thinking, Jules, but there’s nothing you can do about it now.”

“You don’t know what I’m thinking.”

“You’re thinking it’s a damn shame we don’t have the resources to get to all humans before the Shadows or death do. You’re always pushing to do more than you or anyone is able to do. That’s why you set out on your own across three states when I was stupid enough to mention we were sending a group of soldiers to Cheyenne Mountain to see what was going on over there.”

“I’m no hero, Bennett.”

“No, but I’d say your hero complex is nice and well-developed, Guerrero.”

She rubbed her thumb over the embossed title of the cover. She couldn’t allow him to keep thinking this was some sort of noble, disinterested move. “I came to Cheyenne for a reason. I wouldn’t come all this way on some whim.”

“Oh?”

“When Timothy was dying, his nurse told me he kept mumbling about Erik and ‘the Cheyenne’. It made no sense to me then. I thought he was hallucinating about a tribe or something.” Timothy had been a former soldier who, along with Erik, had done his best to turn Sanctuary into a crude haven for humans when they’d lost all communication with the rest of the government bases. After Erik had disappeared, Timothy had denied knowing where the other man had gone and had taken over until James and the rest of the crew at Raven Rock reestablished contact. Even then he’d remained in charge of operations at their base until his sickness and death last month.

Jules didn’t want to believe Timothy had lied about knowing where Erik was. She was hoping his rambling had been just that.

“When I told you yesterday that we were investigating the fate of any remaining survivors at Cheyenne Mountain…”

“It makes sense that he would have tried to go there for help. Erik was a civilian, so maybe he wouldn’t have known about the plan to split the government up, half to Raven Rock and half to Cheyenne Mountain. But Timothy was probably high enough up the chain to know. He could have told him. And Erik would have run here, because we were hungry and scared.” It was the first lead she’d had in almost eighteen months, and damn it, she was taking it.

“So you took off because of Erik? Jesus—”

She tried to head off his irritation. There weren’t many more gifts she could lay at his feet. “I figured this would be perfect. I could check out the place with a troop of well-armed soldiers. I have my own set of skills. I would be help, not dead weight.”

“Congratulations. That’s the same argument I made to Gabriel when he asked why I suddenly decided you were a vital part of this operation.”

The guilt of being the reason he was lying to his superior hit her like a whip. “I’m sorry.”

He sighed. “And we’re back to square one. Jules. Honey. We don’t know what’s going on at Cheyenne, but Erik’s been gone for almost two years. I understand he was important to you, but you can’t put yourself in danger to go chasing after rumors.”

“I don’t have anything else to go on.”

“Don’t sound like that. Don’t cry.”

Her eyes were dry, but her spirit did feel heavy with melancholy. If she could cry right now, she would. “I’m not. If you only knew—I have to do this.”

“Yeah. I know. No hero complex, huh?”

A tickle of laughter warmed her. “Not at all.”

He let out a groan. “I’d like to talk about this some more, but you need to hit the road.”

“I’ve got to get rid of the bodies first. Can’t leave a contaminated scene out here.”

“But then you won’t get to Denver tonight.”

“The envoy from your neck of the woods won’t be there until tomorrow, right?”

“Yes. They’re scheduled to arrive tomorrow afternoon.”

“Then I’ll bed down here and head on out in the morning.”

“Are you sure?”

“No choice, it seems. Don’t worry, I know this is my first time out in the big bad world, but I can’t imagine things are so different here. It’s not like Cali is so damn civilized or anything.” The state was too large and had been too well populated for an uneventful post-Illness world. Sometimes she felt like she could patrol the same square mile and find new Shadows or some human hidden away that she’d previously missed.

“One thing is different. No one who can get to you reasonably quickly if you need them. No outposts or Sanctuary.”

“What would I need? I can take care of myself. Now don’t waste my time arguing.”

“Fine. Find someplace safe to sleep tonight. Check it carefully.”

“I will.”

“Don’t waste the remaining precious daylight scouting for humans. I don’t care if you have a hunch your recently turned Shadow’s parents are in the next neighborhood. And if you do see any, remember not to go running right up to them. Scope them out and make sure they don’t wish you ill.”

“Yes, James.” Lord, was he going to go over all her training again? She picked up her blade.

“Call me if you need anything. I’m always here.”

Yes. He was. “Sure thing, don’t fret.”

His tone dripped with disdain. “Fretting is for old women, not fit, wildly brilliant young men at the height of their physical stamina.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Eat something. You’re skin and bones.”

“Goodbye, James.”

The smile in his voice warmed her. “Bye, Jules.”

There was no magic poof to tell her that he was no longer with her, but she knew. She felt empty and tired. She replaced the book back on the shelf as carefully as if a crusty librarian were going to show up and cluck at her for putting it in the wrong place.

She really ought to burn the bodies of the Shadows she’d killed, but she wasn’t certain she had the time to drag them all out of the building. The burning wasn’t to make sure the things stayed dead, but more out of concern over the infectious, untreatable virus the Shadows transmitted through their bite. No one had, as far as Jules knew, ever contracted the sickness from a dead Shadow, but overkill was the name of the game, until someone could develop a vaccine.

Jules made the sign of the cross as she passed the building that had become the Shadows’ final grave. In the parking lot, she took a minute to spray her blade with flammable liquid and struck a match. The blaze licked along the long blade, cleansing it and purging it of impurities. She had a gun, but she had always preferred the efficiency and security of steel. You could run out of bullets, but you couldn’t run out of a blade. Plus, bullets only worked against the Shadows if they went right in the brain. Hardy little bastards could still attack while they bled out from other, less mortal wounds. She hit the switch on the side of the handle. With a couple of clicks, the blade folded up into the leather hilt.

She had disturbing fantasies of dousing entire cities with fire, destroying the Shadows completely. Sick, horrible fantasies she chalked up to her messed-up mind.

Practically, she knew that would also kill her mission objective, which was, as James had reminded her, search and rescue with a side dish of combat. Plus, if they took out a few of the Shadows, all the better, but this first stage of protecting their race was all about getting their feet back under them. TPTB wanted the remaining infrastructure intact whenever possible, for humankind’s triumphant return to civilization once the threat was eradicated.

Every day she wondered more and more if that would ever happen.

She was about to get into her large utility van when she made the mistake of glancing back at the library.

Calling herself all kinds of foolish—she still needed to find a safe place to rest for the night, and the sun would set soon—she jogged back inside. Pulling the Frost book from the shelf, she tucked it under her arm and dashed back to her van. Traveling light was a necessity in her world.

Touch them.

She pushed the book gently into her sack before starting the engine.