At first the smoke was so thick I couldn't see past the bright gaze lasered on me. Then I saw dark hair framing a lean face that had the shadow of stubble around the jaw and mouth. That mouth stretched into a smile that wasn't cruel, as I'd expected, but looked surprisingly good-humored.
"Raziel," the dark-haired stranger said in a chiding tone. "You shouldn't have."
I'd heard parents scold their children more harshly, but that didn't stop the torrent of fear that flooded over me.
"Please," I gasped.
"Please?" The stranger laughed, revealing white teeth with two distinct upper fangs. "How unoriginal."
Then he let me go, turning around and waving farewell in a friendly manner. Relief overwhelmed me to the point that my knees trembled, but I didn't let that stop me. I lunged toward the warehouse door.
That's when the fire swarmed me, forming out of nowhere. It climbed up my legs in coiling, merciless bands, making me scream from the sudden blast of agony. I tried to run faster, but that only made the fire climb higher. I flung myself onto the floor next, rolling, every nerve ending howling with anguish, but the fire still didn't extinguish. It kept growing, covering me with ruthless, hungry waves, until a roaring blackness rushed up and consumed me. The last thing I saw as I floated above my lifeless body was the dark-haired vampire still walking away, his hands now lit up by flames that somehow didn't scorch his skin.
I blinked in disbelief. When my eyes opened, I was back in the hotel room curled into the fetal position, much like Raziel had been when he died. I must have instinctively mimicked his actions with the memory of those phantom flames.
"Well?" Jackal's demanding voice was a relief because it centered me in reality instead of the nightmare I'd been forced to relive. "What did you see?"
I righted myself on the bed and threw the charred piece of fabric at him.
"I saw someone named Raziel get Krispy Kremed by a vampire who apparently can control fire," I said, still trying to shake off the echoes of that gruesome death.
The four of them exchanged a look that could only be described as delighted. "Jackpot!" Psycho exclaimed, pumping his fists into the air.
From how happy they were, I guessed that either Raziel hadn't been a friend or they already knew what had happened to him and this had been a test.
"Let's be a hundred percent sure," Jackal said, his grin fading. "Frankie, touch the ring next."
I picked it up, tensing in grim expectation, but a scattershot of images I'd already seen filled my mind. They were still revolting enough to make me want to vomit, but in addition to being in the grayish colors of the past, they felt fainter, like I was watching a movie instead of experiencing them firsthand. With a shake of my head to clear it, I set the ring back down by Jackal.
"Maybe you made a mistake. The only impressions I'm picking up off this are yours, and they don't tell me anything new."
His hazel eyes gleamed emerald for a second, and then he let out a loud whoop that made me flinch.
"It's not a fluke, she's for f**king real!"
Anything that thrilled a sadistic child murderer freaked me out, but I tried not to let it show. Don't panic, Marty had said. Prey panics, and then prey gets eaten.
"On to the next one?" I asked, trying to sound as cool as I could under the circumstances.
They stopped their high fiving to look at me. "Yeah," Jackal said, pushing the knife toward me. His excitement was almost palpable. "Only this time, I want you to concentrate on the fire starter. Try to see where the bastard is, not just what happened when he butchered Neddy."
That told me the knife would make me relive someone else's murder, but that wasn't what made me pause before reaching for it.
"The fire starter?" I repeated. "He's the one you want me to find through these objects?"
Are you out of your minds? I almost added, but didn't because even if they were, I wasn't.
"You can do it, right?" Jackal asked, all mirth wiping from his expression.
Sure I could, but I didn't want to. I doubted the fire starter was a friend; Jackal calling him a bastard in that contemptuous tone plus wanting me to find where he was smacked of nefarious intentions. Anyone smart would avoid being on the same continent as that creature if they were at odds, yet Jackal and the others must be trying to ambush him. The memory of the fire starter's charming smile right before he burned Raziel to a heap of smoldering ruins was something I wanted to forget. But if I refused to look for him, I wouldn't live long enough to worry about forgetting anything.
Any way you cut it, I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Or, more accurately, between a fang and a sharp place.
I reached for the silver knife. With that single touch, the grayish images from Neddy's death invaded my consciousness as though everything were happening to me. No surprise that the fire starter was the one who killed Neddy, using the knife after some preliminary toasting. Also no shock was that he did it with the same sort of detached geniality he'd shown while executing Raziel. I pushed past the searing pain I felt, past the feeling of floating into whatever awaited people after death, and focused on the fire starter, trying to see him now instead of only then.
This part was harder. In highly emotional situations, everyone leaves a piece of their essence onto objects, but the fire starter hadn't been worked up over killing Neddy, so only a smidgeon of his remained on the knife. Still, detached or not, nothing tied two people closer together than death. Something about the door to the other world cracking open made essences merge and imprint more strongly, so once I pushed past the seething remains of Neddy's rage and fear, I felt the fire starter's distinct essence. It was only as big as a thread, but I wrapped all my concentration around it and pulled.
Black and white images were replaced with full color clarity. Instead of the grimy riverfront setting where Neddy had met his end, I saw opulent drapes surrounding me. At first I thought I was in a small room, but then I realized the midnight-green drapes hung around a large bed, cocooning it. The fire starter lay in the center, fully clothed, his eyes closed as though he were asleep.
Gotcha, I thought, torn between relief and dismay at finding him in what I knew was the present.
I'd only seen him before through the grayish tones of past memories, but spying on him in the present was different. No one else was in my head but me. Free from other people's perspectives, I took my time studying the fire starter.
At first, he looked like a normal, well-built man in his thirties, but then hints of his uniqueness showed. His espresso-colored hair was past his shoulders-longer than most men dared, but on him it somehow looked supremely masculine. Black pants and an indigo shirt draped over muscles that appeared far harder than a gym membership usually accounted for, and though no flames clung to his hands, they were crisscrossed with scars that looked like former battle wounds. His high cheekbones were accented by stubble somewhere between five o'clock shadow and a beard, yet instead of coming across as unkempt, it was rugged and enticing. I hadn't seen a man pull off that look so well since Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, and his eyes . . .