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THE TAKEN DROPS IN...

THE STORY

Sloan Jordan’s days are numbered. She has 139 to be exact. In that time, there’s a lot to do: a missing friend to find, a wedding to plan, and her own murder plot to overthrow.

When a lead takes the crew back to Chicago, the truth they uncover is more shocking than they ever imagined—to fight the enemies of the present, they must first face the demons from the past.

shadow-ornament

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EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER ONE - THE TAKEN

The silvery winter moon was glistening off the bare Blue Ridge mountains in the distance when Adrianne turned onto my street. From the back seat, I peeked between her and Reuel and saw cars lining the street in front of my house. Warren was home. His Dodge Challenger, (that Nathan had finally recovered from impound) was parked next to mine in the driveway. Azrael’s truck was at the curb behind Nathan’s county-issued SUV, and there was a black sedan behind him that instantly triggered flashbacks and a severe case of PTSD the second my eyes landed on it.

It was the FBI.

My palms began to sweat.

“What the hell’s going on?” Adrianne asked.

I gulped as she slid the transmission into park. “I have no idea.”

Closing my eyes, I sent my evil radar into the house. Nothing sinister lurked inside my home…nothing sinister that was human, anyway. I looked at Reuel in question. He didn’t answer.

“Maybe it’s a party because the evil queen is dead and peace has returned to the galaxy.” Adrianne’s tone was sarcastic. Even she knew better.

As if anticipating my pending heart attack, Warren’s tall frame appeared in the front doorway. He was in jeans and a faded red t-shirt, wearing the leather jacket I’d bought him for our late Christmas morning do-over. The few months since his military-enforced scalping had done wonders for his hair. It was the perfect finger-raking length, just long enough to fall back away from his face when I dragged my nails through it. Just the sight of him standing in the glow from the porch light, eased the tension building in my neck and shoulders.

Bedroom eyes not included, the only time Warren’s face was readable was when he was really angry. That was rare and usually directed at Nathan McNamara. On the porch, he was expressionless, but it nevertheless made me nervous.

Adrianne parked behind my car in the driveway. Reuel got out, pushed his seat forward, and offered a hand to pull all my frumpiness out of the back seat. Warren was coming down the steps when we reached the front sidewalk.

I pointed to the convoy parked on the street. “What’s this about?”

He held up his hands. “Don’t freak out.”

“Why would I freak out?” My unconvincing voice was a couple octaves higher than usual.

Warren’s right eyebrow rose to taunt me. “Silvers came back with us. She has news.”

I stopped walking so quickly Adrianne bumped into me.

“We need to install brake lights on your ass,” she said.

I ignored her. “Silvers is here all the way from Texas? That can’t be good.”

“There’s been a break in the case. A positive one.”

My heart swelled with hope. “You found Taiya?”

He frowned. “Not that big of a break, unfortunately.” He reached for my hand, and when our fingers touched, his warm energy flowed through my body. “Come inside. I’ll let her explain.” He turned back toward the house. “How was dress shopping?”

“Ugh.”

Adrianne jostled the hanger of my dress causing the opaque plastic to rustle. “After much toil and tribulation, it was a success.”

Warren smiled down at me as we walked up the steps. “So you really are going to marry me?”

I rolled my eyes up at him. “There’s no going back now.”

He pressed a kiss to my forehead and pushed the door open.

Nathan stood when we walked into the house. He was off duty; the patch on his hat had a picture of a tyrannosaurus and the caption Licensed to carry small arms. He smiled when our eyes met.

Sharvell Silvers and Azrael were seated together on the new sofa I’d bought to replace my Taiya-stained white couch. The new one had sleek black, stain resistant leather and a pull-out bed. It also made fart-sounds anytime someone moved on it, especially Azrael for some reason. Like it was manufactured for the sole purpose of keeping the Archangel of Death humble.

He moved to get up. Phwaaaaawert…

The room erupted into muffled snickers.

Azrael scowled as he stepped aside to let me have his seat.

I walked over to the couch and extended a hand to Sharvell. She shook it. “Hello, Agent Silvers.”

She smiled, her lips painted a dark crimson. Her eyes were wide as she took in the sight of me. “It’s good to see you, Sloan. You’re looking…healthy.”

Healthy = Fluffy.

I sat down in Azrael’s spot. “It’s good to see you too. What brings you all the way up here?”

“We’ve had some developments.” Her tone was shaky. “Given the nature of our past dealings with each other—”

I lowered my voice. “Because of all the angel stuff?”

She swallowed. “Yes. Because of all the angel stuff, we all agreed this conversation should be had in person.”

I looked at Azrael. “A little heads up would’ve been nice.”

He looked at Warren for an explanation.

“It was my idea to wait till we got back here,” Warren said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because they were probably afraid you’d do something stupid,” Nathan interjected.

My head whipped toward him, but his eyes met mine with a silent dare for me to argue. I kept my mouth shut and sank back into my seat.

Sharvell handed me the stack of folders that was balanced on her lap. “Have a look for yourself.”

When I flipped open the first one, the haunted eyes of Phenex stared lifelessly back at me. The photo was clipped to a stack of papers. The girl’s name was Maria Juarez. She’s fifteen and the daughter of Jorge (deceased) and Marisol Juarez of San Antonio, Texas.

Juarez. Juarez. Juarez…

I tapped the page. “I recognize this name. How?”

“Rex Parker and Tito Juarez, who was just visited in jail,” Warren said.

My head snapped back. “Oh.”

Sharvell thumbed through the pages till she found another paperclip. She pulled that bunch out and laid it on top. It was a federal indictment. The United States versus Marisol Juarez. Oh boy.

Marisol, Tito’s mother, had been arrested as the head of the prostitution ring in Chicago. I looked at Warren. “I guess three’s a charm and this trip was productive.”

He nodded and shrugged at the same time and sat down on the arm of the sofa beside me. “It answered some questions and created a lot of others.”

Sharvell crossed her legs. “We showed Tito Juarez the photo of Phenex. He said she was his sister, but that’s all we got out of him before he started making demands about a deal for release.” She shook her head. “I’m not willing to do that unless I have no other choice.”

“But you do have another choice,” I said. “Talk to their mother.”

“Exactly.” Sharvell leaned toward me. “That’s why I came to talk to you. I was wondering if you’d come with me to see her.”

I touched the center of my chest. “Me?”

“No,” Azrael barked, taking a reflexive step forward.

Judging from Azrael’s reaction, this was not part of the originally planned conversation. Warren, however, slouched forward, balancing his elbows on his knees as he tapped his fingertips together. “I agree with her.”

“What? This is ridiculous,” Azrael said.

Warren looked over at his father. “Marisol Juarez isn’t going to talk to us or the FBI. Sloan has a way with people. She’s helped Nate before get reluctant witnesses to talk.”

“He’s right,” Nathan added. “Not to sound too cliche, but I think it’s part of Sloan’s gift.”

“It’s too dangerous,” Azrael argued.

I looked at Sharvell. “I’ll do it.”

My agreement was based partly on a desire to help, but mostly on my desperation to get out of the house and do something useful. The fact that it bugged Azrael was a bonus, regardless of whether or not he was acting in my best interest.

She looked pleased. “We can fly to Chicago tomorrow morning.”

I glanced back at Warren. “You’ll come with me?”

He nodded. “Of course.”

Azrael walked toward us with his hands raised and a face that implied we had both lost our minds. “Hold on just a second. Nobody’s going to Chicago.”

My mouth fell open. “Az, this woman probably knows how to find Phenex. And if we find Phenex, we could find Taiya—”

“Taiya’s not in Chicago, Sloan,” he interrupted. “If she was, I would have found her.”

I turned my palms up. “That’s beside the point. Marisol Juarez is the best lead we’ve had recently, and you know as well as I do that Phenex is the most direct path to Taiya and Kasyade.”

He folded his large arms over his chest. “That doesn’t mean you have to go to Chicago.”

I smirked. “Yeah, it kinda does. If you and Warren walk in there, she might drop dead of a heart attack.”

He scowled. “You know that’s not true.”

“Maybe not, but she definitely won’t tell you anything.”

Azrael looked at Silvers. “Can’t you subpoena records on the Juarez kid? Or let me put pressure on Tito and get him to talk?”

“First, I’m afraid that whatever you might get out of Tito won’t be admissible into court depending on your tactics of interrogation.”

Sharvell had a point, but none of the rest of us cared about how all this would play out in a court of law.

She continued. “And I’ve started the process through my office, but we don’t have time to wait on the courts to get the information about the child. She could be in danger or—”

“The child is dead, Silvers.” Azrael put his hands on his hips. “She’s a lost cause.”

The agent visibly swallowed, then cleared her throat. “Well…” Her voice croaked. “If you want my help on this, you need to trust my judgment. I believe that the safest and most expedient route to getting the information is to go through Marisol.”

“With my help,” I added.

For a second, Azrael was speechless. Then after a beat, he pointed at Warren. “I’m ordering you to stay here.”

This had become a common practice in our lives lately. It didn’t take long to figure out what price Warren paid to come back to Earth as a full-blown angel. Free will. Similarly to the way I was able to control the souls of humans, calling them to me at will, Azrael was Warren’s new puppeteer. If he so desired, he could make Warren tap-dance around the dining room table—which he did one night over drinks and homemade fajitas. While we’d all gotten a good laugh about it at first, I wasn’t laughing about it anymore.

Warren had spent a lot of years in the military, so taking orders didn’t bother him as much as it bothered me. It hadn’t proven to be a major problem yet, but it was only a matter of time. And Azrael putting his foot down about Warren accompanying me to Chicago might be the tipping point. Next to me, the ‘angry muscle’—as I had taken to calling it—was working in my fiancé’s jaw.

I pushed myself up off the couch and stood toe-to-toe with Azrael. “Then I guess I’ll be going alone.”

He blinked.

I stuck my finger in his face. “You may be able to tell him what to do, but you’re not the boss of me.” I considered stamping my foot for dramatic effect, but I didn’t. “And if you’re trying to keep me here by not letting him come with me, then I’ll go without him.”

The muscles around his dark eyes slowly relaxed. He knew I was right. And he knew there was nothing he could do about it. “We’ll all go then.”

I released the fists I hadn’t realized I’d balled at my sides. “Fine.”

Sharvell rubbed her forehead. “Forgive me if this is a stupid question, but why is Sloan any safer here than in Chicago?”

I rolled my eyes. “Because Azrael is the supernatural air traffic controller of Asheville.”

She turned her ear toward me. “Huh?”

“I track who from my world is coming and going in this area,” Azrael explained. “I’ve taken a lot of precautions to protect Sloan, and here in the mountains, she is a very important fish is a very small pond. Chicago is quite the opposite and is very dangerous for her.”

“Is there anything the government and I can do to help keep her safe?” Sharvell asked.

“No,” we all answered in unison.

Warren stood and put his arm around my shoulders. “I’ll work on flights. You’re good to leave in the morning?”

“Seeing as I no longer have a life, sure.”

He winked down at me.

I turned toward Nathan who was leaning against the back of the sofa behind us. “Are you coming with us?”

He shook his head. “I’m going to sit this adventure out. Some of us aren’t on the Almighty’s payroll.”

I looked at Azrael. “The Almighty has a payroll?”

He just rolled his eyes.

“If you’re sitting this out, why are you here?” I asked Nathan.

“He was with me,” Azrael answered. “He dropped by to tell me the good news.”

I was surprised. “Good news?”

Nathan nodded. “Looks like I’ll be headed to New Hope. Azrael made me an offer I can’t refuse.”

Agent Silvers crossed her arms. “Must have been quite an offer. You made it perfectly clear to the Bureau that you had no intentions of leaving Buncombe County.”

Nathan glanced away with an awkward chuckle, and the rest of the room kept silent. Everyone except Agent Silvers knew exactly why Nathan’s intentions had changed. His reason for staying in Asheville was twelve weeks and a pair of Jimmy Shoes (?) away from marrying someone else. And just because our relationship had been successfully wedged into a little platonic box, I still felt as guilty as a sinner in church.

Warren cleared his throat, signaling a shift in the conversation. My hero. “Well, I can’t wait to hear all about this offer. Over dinner, perhaps? I’m starving.” He patted his flat stomach and then wrapped his hand around mine. “Who’s coming with us?”

Azrael nodded. “I could eat.”

Reuel grunted in agreement, of course.

“We already ate,” I reminded him.

Adrianne took a step closer to Az and flashed me a smile that warned me to keep my mouth shut. “So what? We can eat again.”

I sighed.

“Agent Silvers?” Warren asked.

She stood, shaking her head. “I’ve got some paperwork to wrap up tonight, so I’m going to go back to my hotel. You have my cell number. Let me know when you finalize your travel plans. I land at O’Hare around nine in the morning.”

I nodded. “We will.”

Warren’s head swiveled toward Nate. “You in?”

Nathan pulled his keys from his pocket. “Nah. I’m gonna head home.” He walked over and offered his hand to Warren. “But you guys be safe tomorrow. Call me if you need anything.”

“Will do, brother,” Warren replied.

Nathan gave me a side hug as he walked past. “You be careful,” he said softly in my ear.

“Promise.” I grabbed him by sleeve as he pulled away. “Wait. When do you leave?”

He shrugged. “We haven’t ironed out all the details yet. It’ll be a little while.”

I nodded, unsure of what else to say. It wasn’t exactly news that Nathan was going to work for Claymore, Azrael had been talking about it for weeks, but the reality of it coming to pass was a bit jarring. Even though in a sense his acceptance of the job made him a more permanent fixture in our bizarre little family, Nathan McNamara was leaving. And it meant a whole lot more than just a career change.

Warren tugged on my hand. “You ready?”

I nodded. “I’m ready.”

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THE PLAYERS

Sloan Jordan, The Soul Summoner

Warren Parish, The Mercenary

Nathan McNamara, The Detective

Azrael, The Angel of Death

THE SETTING

Looking up, the buildings overwhelmed me, their sheer size reminding me of the literality of the word skyscraper. Some of their peaks disappeared completely into the clouds, like one might step into an elevator and ascend all the way to the misty heavens.

Chicago, Illinois

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