Ten minutes late to her first appointment, Cyra Mane sighed.
She shifted around in the back seat of the cab, having run two blocks to catch the darn thing, and now sweat plastered her shirt to her back. Staring at the houses and streets they passed, excited for her first solo field mission. Though the nerves refused to leave her. If she failed this task, her brand new job at Argos Inc., a clandestine demon hunting organization, she could kiss her new job goodbye.
A month ago, her grandma had broken her leg and insisted Cyra shouldn’t throw her life away by staying home caring for her, much against Cyra’s protests. And since her grandma was moving to another state, that presented Cyra with two options: live on her own or with her brother, Chase, in the heart of Detroit. She chose the latter, but skipped out on her brother and moved into a place on her own. And even as a nineteen-year-old with limited work experience, she’d make an invaluable member to Argos’ team. After all, they’d hired her on a probationary term instantly after seeing her hexing skills.
The cab traveled past gated homes draped in snow.
A three-story home complete with a pointy roof caught her eye with its S-shaped driveway and animal-shaped shrubs. Gorgeous. Christmas decorations dolled up the other residences—reindeer statues, trees decorated with tinsel and baubles. They reminded her of life on the farm, the gorgeous baking feasts, making her own decorations. That was what Christmas meant to her… time with family, laughing and watching old movies.
Her knees bounced with nerves that refused to leave her.
Her phone chimed. She grabbed it from her pocket and read the message.
Hey, sis. I should be in Detroit in 2 hrs. If you’re still working, I’ll join ya on the job.
She tightened her hold on the phone. Typical Chase. She responded.
Told you yesterday. I can handle this. Thanks anyway.
Her mistake had been telling her brother about her assignment. Sure, he’d put in a good word for her at Argos, seeing as he’s a big league demon hunter there, and that had paved the way for an interview. But she’d nailed most of the magical tasks they’d thrown at her, and now she had a chance to prove herself and have a real, paying job as a spell creator. Blitz it with this assignment, and her job was guaranteed.
Her supervisor at Argos had insisted the mission was a straightforward haunting, the non-intelligent kind that didn’t interact with the living. So it should be a simple task.
Another message hit her phone.
You sure you’re okay? Field jobs can turn dangerous fast. And I gave my word to Grandma to protect you.
There was such a thing as being overprotective. Like my brother popping over every second day or in the middle of the night, insisting she had to move out and live with him. His warning that druggies lived next door to her, or a brothel had opened up nearby, or whatever else he’d made up. She’d ignored him. Moving in with him was not happening. She was sick of being encased in bubble wrap. For the past month, she’d made herself comfortable living alone and had befriended many of her neighbors. It was a start. Glancing down at Chase’s message, she responded.
Drive safe. Love you.
As the cab pulled up along a curb, another response came from Chase.
Fine. See you later. Love ya.
“Twenty-five bucks.” The cab driver’s voice snapped her back to the present.
“Thanks.” She handed over the cash from her pocket. Once outside, a chilly breeze caught in her hair, coating her in shivers. The taxi drove off, and she turned her attention to the bare trees swallowed in white. Nearby stood a three-story blue house with Tudor windows and arched doors. No fancy gates, just a yard with a fountain peeking out from underneath the snow. Nearby stood a mailbox with the number 296 on its side. Yep, this was the right location. Shrubs covered in a thick blanket of white dotted the yard, divided by a pebbled footpath.
“Okay, let’s do this,” she whispered to herself as she swung her backpack over her shoulder. She tightened the collar of her leather jacket around her throat to keep the frigid winter air at bay and hurried toward the marble veranda with two columns that supported the balcony on the first floor. She glanced down at her pinstriped pants. They were her most professional pair, and, coupled with her buttoned-up shirt, she wasn’t going to upset anyone in this neighborhood.
Greeted by a fresh wreath made of pinecones and vines on the door, she raised a hand to the bronze knocker. But the door swung open, and a coldness brushed past Cyra. The hairs on her nape lifted.
An older man with peppered hair and dressed in a padded vest over a green shirt and pleated pants greeted her. He didn’t bat an eye at her silver-dyed hair, but, rather, extended his arm and took her hand in a shake, his touch frozen.
“You must be Cyra? I’m Henry.” He released her hand and held his head high, with a mask of defiance and surety.
“Yep, that’s me. I’m here to help.”
“Thank you for coming on such short notice. My local priest said you’d be able to assist.”
Argos had secret connections to churches all over the country. Letting Henry believe she’d come on behalf of the church avoided lengthy explanations. Your average Joe had no clue the Argos organization that cleaned up the demons from the streets existed, or that supernatural activity was more prevalent than anyone would admit.
“So, tell me what’s been going on?” she asked.
“Yes, yes.” He gestured to follow him inside into a marble hallway, toward a curved staircase, and closed the door behind them. A hint of lavender floated in the air. A dining room was to her right, a grand place with a mahogany table that took up most of the vast space. There was no tablecloth, just a crystal vase of fresh flowers and two candelabras with creamy white candles. Paintings of landscapes lined the pale-yellow walls, and a chandelier dangled overhead. In the far corner stood a Christmas tree crowded with red and green ornaments, each perfectly aligned across the branches. All that was missing were the guests and food. To her, the festivities were about decorations in every color, baked cookies, and wrapping paper everywhere. Christmas chaos. Well, at least that was how she’d celebrated growing up.
“Should have mentioned,” Henry said. “My wife, Nora is in the TV room, watching a cooking show. It’s the only thing that keeps her calm. She’s too shaken to come to the door.”
“It’s understandable,” Cyra replied, not surprised the poor couple were scared. Anything supernatural unnerved most people.
Henry guided her up the staircase to the second floor, where the morning sun trickled through the windows in a few open rooms. “It’s here.” He remained near the banister made of dark wood. It lacked the ornate type of carvings she might have expected in such a house, but the railing was smooth and glossy.
“What’s here?” She pushed the sliding strap of her backpack back onto her shoulder and stared down the hallway, past the paintings and the floral rug running the length of the passage. She pulled away from Henry and stepped toward a closed door.
“This is where all the noises come from. Nora and I were downstairs watching television, but an elephant might as well have been stomping up here. Last time I came to check, I saw something.” His voice shook, and he clicked his tongue, which she guessed was nerves. “A dark silhouette with no face.”
Cyra nodded. Some spirits appeared like shadow people with no facial features, which was normal. She’d seen her fair share of spirits since she was young, and well, it still freaked her out sometimes.
She wandered farther down the hall, footfalls cushioned by the rug. She peeked into a bedroom with a single bed beside a chest of drawers. Toys decorated every piece of furniture, including the windowsill. The kid’s room reminded her of being four years old and seeing her first ghost. Since then, she’d always sensed their presence. Spirits hovered near her bed most mornings, then vanished seconds later. Never a word or indication of what they wanted, so she’d come to the conclusion they kept her safe as she slept.
Her flesh pinpricked again, as if being watched, and she turned her attention to the door at the end of the hall. Could there be more there than just spirits in the house? “Anything else I should know about? Voices, things being moved around?”
“No. Just the thumping every night. Though the last few nights, it’s started happening downstairs in Nora’s reading room.”
“And it’s been going on for weeks now?” she asked, making mental notes.
“Yes.” He rubbed his arms.
The couple’s description fit with the claims Argos had given her. Ghosts sometimes left behind an imprint of themselves. “Have you started any new renovations in the house?”
He shook his head.
“Okay, I’ll start a cleansing and that should definitely help send anything in your house away.” She’d know for sure at once upon completion if her protection worked.
He nodded. “Let me know if you need anything.”
She offered him a smile. “I’ll be in and out of the house while I work, but you won’t even notice I’m here. Do I have access to all rooms in your house for a cleansing?” Throughout her training, Argos had instilled the mentality that she was to do her work in silence, not disrupt anything in the house, and make the experience as painless for the clients as possible. The supernatural was a difficult topic for most innocents, who preferred to pretend it didn’t exist.
“Of course. Thank you so much.” Henry still held the banister with a death grip, and her heart went out to the poor guy. It might take a few weeks of no spirit activity for him to truly feel safe in his house again. After seeing her first ghost, she’d slept with her parents for a month straight, terrified of switching off the lights. And then it had taken her a year to get comfortable with realizing that one, the spirits weren’t going to leave her, and two, they wouldn’t harm her. So yeah, she understood the unease of constantly looking over her shoulder, terrified to be alone in her own home. So she’d do everything to help Henry out.
Start with the outside so nothing inside could escape and return indoors, was her approach to cleansing a property. And as a final touch, she would leave a guarding spell in the house, a deterrent for any other ghosts that might attempt to make this their home. Yep, she’d do an amazing job and Argos would be beyond impressed and hire her on the spot as full time.
She traipsed around the property filled with oaks, counting the windows. Thirteen. She’d reach the top floor from inside. Two doors and no sheds out the back. A spread of perfect, undisturbed snow covered the yard and the trees lining the rear fence. Returning to the front, she took a small pouch of crushed herbs from her bag, prepared yesterday for the occasion. The moment she opened the fabric pouch, the aroma of basil and cloves filled her senses. Best smell ever. It reminded her of the festive season.
A grunting roar of a motor echoed in the distance. Probably cops chasing a criminal. She grabbed her spray bottle filled with salty water out of her bag. At a window, she sprayed the frame. Under her breath, she murmured, “Salt and herbs. Cleanse away the spirits. Guard well this home.”
Again, the distinct shriek of a motor grew louder, grating on her nerves. Over her shoulder, the street remained calm. No cars, and no one was outside, either. Just the motorcycle noise disturbing the peace. She expected it where she lived, but not here.
She hooked the spray bottle onto her belt and sprinkled a pinch of herbs into her palm. “With this small token, I banish all spirits from this residence.” A slight snap of energy rolled through her lungs. With a deep exhale, she blew the contents across the window, and they sparked on contact. Perfect.
Except, when she looked through the window and into the room, a dark figure, twice her size and black as death, stared down at her with yellowish eyes.
She recoiled, a chill rising through her stomach and clinging to her ribs. The thing just stood there. Staring. Unmoving. Its form was like static, flicking between being solid and transparent as if it couldn’t hold its shape. This didn’t look like the typical ghosts she’d encountered that were transparent and gray. The fear she’d experienced on seeing her first spirit was nothing compared to this. She gasped for air, her mind emptying as she drowned in a terrorizing straitjacket. What is that?
A sudden screech of skidding tires boomed behind her. She spun, then froze, as a huge guy on a motorcycle hit the curb, and then both he and the bike were thrown upward and forward—headed straight in her direction.
The guy rolled sideways and was throw off his bike. The thing landed on its side, momentum sending it sliding across the lawn straight for Cyra.
Panic chocked her, and she shuddered.
The biker was already on his feet, running toward her, his arms flailing about, screaming, “Run!”
But it all happened so fast. Her world blurred as she inhaled her last breath, tensing. Her brain screamed at her to run, but her feet were cemented to the ground and her reflexes shot. All she imagined was the heavy bike crushing her legs and pinning her to the house.