Old adversaries are forced into an alliance in this sequel to 'The Hoax', when an otherworldly assassin begins murdering former members of the Forest Bluffs cult.
When conventional weapons have no effect on the unearthly killer, Agent Litner knows he has only one choice: To find Shep, his greatest and most frightening enemy, and ask for his help.
While reluctant, Shep aligns with the agent when it becomes clear that the assassin's ultimate goal is to destroy all he holds dear.
Two worlds conspire and collide when the real truth about the assassin's mission is revealed, and they face a shocking new foe that throws their existence into chaos.
Adrienne Jones is author of the books Brine, Gypsies Stole my Tequila, The Hoax, and editor of the collection Grimm and Grimmer. She spent early life in the Boston area, where her parents fed her an endless menu of mystery novels to keep her quiet. Ultimately moving to Vermont, she ate cheese, tried to ski and fell down a lot, but remained in the Green Mountain State until earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication. Thereafter she trekked back down to the flatlands where she worked various jobs as a journalist, film maker, office-grunt and copywriter. She now lives in Rhode Island and writes full time.
Agent Steven Litner set his coffee down on the sidewalk patio table and took his chair, making sure he was in plain sight. Church Street, Burlington, Vermont, was a bustle of activity Saturday morning: shoppers stepping in and out of stores, dreadlocked teens skateboarding along the cobble stone road and attempting daring tricks. Children walked alongside parents holding freshly bought Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cones piled so high they looked about to topple over. Across the street a busker sat on the sidewalk, guitar case open for tips as he strummed out a Bob Dylan song. Litner scanned the road, shifting his eyes only, head tilted over the newspaper he’d brought.
His gaze flicked back to the coffee shop as he caught a flash of bright orange hair heading for the door, but he quickly looked away. It wasn’t Margol. He didn’t think he’d be the one showing up today. But he was certain someone would.
He’d spent a week watching from the shadows, watching Margol, his ginger curls tucked up under a beanie cap. Each day he showed up on a bike, wobbling unsteadily as he parked outside the café. Each day he went in, purchased a large box of chocolate brownies, then glided back down Church Street, box balanced awkwardly on the handle bars. Litner hadn’t tried to follow. That wasn’t how he wanted to make contact, he didn’t want to appear as a threat.
What he was about to attempt was taking a great chance, he knew. Taking a chance. What an understatement. He was about to ask his greatest enemy, perhaps humanity’s greatest enemy, for a favor. There was a good chance Shep would just kill him, like a wolf tearing out the throat of an enemy trespassing too close to its lair. But he had to try. Lives depended on it.
Yesterday he’d finally made himself known. Perched at this same patio table, situated aside the path exiting the café, he’d set himself right in Margol’s view as he left the shop with his brownie box. At first the redhead breezed right by him, heading for the bike. But then he stopped short. He didn’t look back right away, but merely stood still, four feet away. Tilting his head toward the sky, his shoulders tensed, an animal catching an enemy scent on the wind. Then slowly he turned around, enormous green eyes locked onto Litner, jaw so tight the veins bulged in his neck.
Litner had raised his coffee cup in salute, nodding. It was an effort to hold the brother’s gaze without flinching. Margol appeared harmless in his hippie getup, just another free spirited Vermont dude, but Litner knew all too well he was something more. Something dangerous.
Margol’s eyes flashed, just a quick blaze of unnatural light. It was a struggle not to turn away, but he held the gaze, stone faced.
In a lightning fast whirl, the brother turned and ran off down the road, leaving his bike behind. Litner watched him disappear into an alley; a blur of color, then he was gone.
So now he waited again. He’d half expected to be awoken in his bed last night at the hotel, hands around his throat, or a gun pressed to his temple. But no one had come. Though he didn’t know exactly where their new base was, it had to be close by, and knowing Shep’s extraordinary abilities, he could have found Litner if he wanted. Easily. But he didn’t.
He tried to tell himself this was a hopeful sign, having not been killed in his sleep. But after profiling him for so long, and based on his personal interactions with this man that was not a man, he suspected he had the fortune to be still breathing today only because Shep was never quick to make decisions. He pictured him pacing back and forth in some grandiose office, smoking a joint, dark blond curls askew on his head. He’d be trying to figure out why Litner was there, how he’d found them, and what he was going to do about it.
He was still lost in these thoughts when he sensed something, a stirring in the air. Though his military training had helped him remain mostly immune to the enchanting, near hypnotic effect of the man’s essence, he’d still been exposed to it enough to recognize the palpable waves radiating from him. Stunned, he looked up, and saw the tall figure approaching. He wore jeans and a long sleeved gray tee shirt, sandals on his feet. A bandana wrapped around his head, a few loops of dark hair escaping out the bottom. Tinted circular glasses rested on his nose. When he reached the table, he pulled out the other chair and sat, flashing his movie star smile.
Joey Duvaine. Well I’ll be damned.
“I didn’t expect it to be you,” Litner said.
Joey shrugged. “I’m the only one without a warrant,” he said. “You gave me immunity, remember?”
Joey had brought his own coffee in a Styrofoam cup, and he popped the tab open and lifted it. “To regrets,” he said, and took a sip.
A waitress approached, cute and college aged with braids dangling loosely down her shoulders. “Sir?” She looked at Joey. “You can’t bring any outside drinks here, you have to order something if you’re going to sit at a table.”
Joe smiled up at her, wiping a bit of foam off his upper lip. “Come on. You don’t really care if I brought my own coffee. Do you?”
Her response was instantaneous, a smile lighting her pretty face, dimpling her cheeks. “No, I don’t care.” She shook her head, laughing as though surprised at her own ridiculousness. “I don’t care,” she said again, then moved on to another table.
Joey looked at Litner, a smirk twisting his lips.
“Still using your Obiwan powers, I see.”
“Comes in handy. Now what the fuck are you doing here?”
“I need to speak with him,” Litner said, keeping his voice level, expression blank.
Joey leaned forward. “Who?”
“You know who.”
He made a show of scratching his chin, pretending to think. “Hmm. I know a lot of people. I am a worshipped deity after all.”
Litner’s fists clenched. “You’re a murdering sociopath who should be locked up.” He surprised himself, the pressure of the mission wearing on him. Breathing deeply through his nose, he choked out, “I’m sorry. I’m not here to argue with you.”
Joey grinned widely. “No, no that’s okay.” He leaned back in the chair, linking fingers behind his head. “I always liked the episodes where Spock lost control of his emotions.”
Litner’s eye twitched, but he forced himself to calm. “Shep. I need to speak with Shep.”
“Why?” Joey said.
“I need his help.”
Joey’s face pinched like he’d tasted something sour. “For what? You got a really heavy bureau you need moved or something?”
“Just tell him I need to speak with him. Please.”
“Shep’s not taking visitors at the moment. Especially the kind that want to destroy him.”
“I don’t want to destroy him,” Litner said.
Joey cocked his head. “Please.”
“Okay, I do want to destroy him. But that’s not why I’m here now. You have my word.”
Twisting his coffee cup in circles on the table, Joey met his eyes. “Well, I don’t sense any of your goons hiding in the shadows. Pretty brave of you to come alone. So I’ll ask you again. Why are you here, Agent Litner?”
“I didn’t come to speak to you,” he said. “My business is with Shep.”
Joey’s expression darkened and he reached across the table and grabbed Litner’s wrist, squeezing. “Shep’s business is my business. I’m his Sword.”
“And you’re out in public without a shield,” Litner said. “Pretty brave of you to come alone.”
Joey released his wrist and laughed. “I don’t need a shield anymore. You want to test that theory, please, make my day. But speaking of shields, does Patrick know you’re here? Hmm?” He crossed his legs in a campy gesture, tapping a finger on his chin.
Frustration nagged at Litner’s temples. But if he wanted an audience with Shep, he’d have to endure Joey’s games. But it was chilling, this Joey being so different than the one he’d met at the medical facility. There was no pretense anymore, and it was odd. Joey was a strange hybrid of natural and unnatural. He was partly a product of Shep’s interference with his body chemistry, and part genius without a cause. A complicated egotist who seemed only to care about himself and Shep, he’d use anyone, kill anyone, even his own family, if it served what he held dear. Sadly, because of his amazing looks and powers of enchantment, most poor saps refused to see it until it was too late.
But Litner didn’t find him the least bit enchanting.
He’d been studying Joey Duvaine since before the Forest Bluffs incident, because he was convinced he’d had something to do with his family’s accidental deaths. He was right. It was unsettling, but nothing about Duvaine had ever been settling. He had the highest I.Q. on the planet since age six. And Litner knew his conscience had been put to sleep by order of Shep, but Joey had agreed to it. Joey worshipped Shep quietly but passionately, loyal beyond reason, but at the same time, they were equals, and friends.
Litner wasn’t accustomed to interacting personally with Joey, but then again, it was Patrick who’d done the hard time, lived at that house with them, seen the crazy up close. He was quickly gaining a new respect for what Patrick had endured.
“No,” he answered. “Patrick doesn’t know I’m here.”
“Didn’t think so,” Joey said. “Because he’d be pissed, am I right? He spent two weeks looking for us, you know. So pathetic. Shep got disgusted and decided he didn’t want the soppy bastard back. Juris was assigned to tail him, and he said Obrien cried in his hotel room every night. Every freaking night.” He twisted his fists over his eyes, pulling an exaggerated weepy face.
“He’d been traumatized,” Litner said. “He’s a human being.”
“Exactly!” Joey pointed a finger. “He’s a human being, and nothing more. A big, fat-headed baby who cries into his pillow at night. And this was supposed to be my shield, my protector? Well, I told Shep no way. Not happening. Not this time.”
“So it was you who decided not to try and get Patrick back. You said it was Shep.”
“Whatever,” Joey said, sneering.
“It must kill you, Shep’s affection for Patrick. It’s no wonder you didn’t want him around.”
“And it must kill you that I’m walking free. We can trade barbs all day, Agent Douchebag. The point is, Patrick was torturing himself looking for Robin, and you never even told him you knew where we were.”
“I didn’t know then.”
“But you didn’t help him either. You could have looked into your little psycho detective crystal ball, or whatever you use to track people. So why didn’t you? Thought you two were buds. Homies. The daring crime fighting duo, battling supernatural entities at each other’s side.”
Joey shook his head. “Nah, it’s real simple, I think. You don’t really care about anyone, do you, Litner? You call me a sociopath?” He leaned closer. “You can’t even smile.”
Swallowing hard, Litner dared lean in to match Joey’s glare. “I smile, Duvaine, when there’s something to smile about. There hasn’t been a lot of that since I first heard your name. And it’s because I care about Patrick that I didn’t help him find you. He’s a good man. And you are the worst thing that ever happened to him.”
“Come on.” Joey waved him off, watching an attractive woman with a leashed puppy walk by. “We added some excitement to that dumb Mick’s life. Why do you think he tried to find his way back to us?”
“You were holding his girlfriend hostage.”
“Hey!” Joey pointed at him. “Robin is my cousin, and she was a guest in our home. A willing guest.” Litner gave him a pointed look, and Joey narrowed his eyes back at him. Then he grinned. “Okay, you’re right. We were holding her hostage. But we let her go, I mean, she hasn’t pressed charges or anything.”
“No, she hasn’t,” Litner said. “But she was a different Robin when she got back. She told Patrick she couldn’t see him anymore. She wouldn’t talk about what happened.”
“Nothing happened to her,” Joey said.
“Really? Two weeks with your crew and she’s cut herself off, won’t see any of her old friends.”
Joey avoided his eyes. “Robin’s a weird chick, always has been. She went out with Shep for years, that ought to tell you something.” He held a finger up, signaling the waitress. “I want a beer. You want a beer, Litner?”
“It’s nine-thirty in the morning,” he said. “And I don’t drink.”
“Oh, of course you don’t. Self-righteousness is your drug of choice.”
Litner almost took the bait, but maintained his calm stature as Joey ordered a pitcher from the waitress. “Can I speak to Shep, or not?”
“Just,” he waved his fingers, “settle down, Litner. Let me get my fucking beer.”
The waitress brought Joey’s pitcher and two glasses. Litner held his hand over his glass when she tried to fill it.
“Government spook,” Joey whispered, nodding to her conspiratorially. She giggled and moved off.
Litner stared at Joey, saying nothing until finally he met his eyes.
“Quit giving me the laser beam stink-eye, Litner. You ain’t meeting with shit until you tell me what it’s about. Those were Shep’s orders.”
Resigned to his fate, Litner turned the newspaper around, pointing to an article. “Twenty-five-year old Carlos Bradley died of a heart attack in his sleep two weeks ago.”
Joey went stiff, staring down at the paper. Finally he removed his tinted glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose, his pale blue eyes like gems against his tanned face. “Carlos. Wow. I liked Carlos. He was all right.”
“Brin Marie is dead too,” Litner said.
Joey looked surprised for the first time as his head lifted. His dark lashes blinked twice. “What happened to Brin?”
“Heart attack,” Litner said. “In her sleep. Then two days ago it was Max Randolph. You remember Max, don’t you, Joey? Your loyal follower? He was seventeen years old.”
“What the hell is going on?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Litner said. “Someone is killing the former members of the Forest Bluffs Church. Your followers. People infected with you. You, tainted with Shep’s inhuman blood.”
“I don’t understand,” Joey said. “Who’s doing this?”
“My colleagues didn’t make the connection at first, thought it was some psychopath doing this for religious reasons. But I’ve seen something that tells me otherwise, and I’d guess it’s Celestial Cleanup Services from the great gangster hood in the sky. And it’ll probably keep going until it gets everyone with a hint of Shep’s essence. That includes you. And that of course, includes Shep.”
Joey stayed silent for several long moments, his eyes pinned to Litner’s. “Who would do that? And come after Shep? Who would be fucking stupid enough to do that? Not anyone that knows about us.”
“It’s not a who, it’s a what,” Litner said, “and I’m pretty damned sure it knows about you. Shep is likely the reason it’s here.”
Joey’s eyes narrowed. “What is it?”
“Something from the other side.”
“What sort of something from the other side? Shep’s had a lot of creepy crawlies stalking him over the years, they huff and puff and glow, but none has ever hurt a fly. It can’t be one of the things stalking Shep. Can’t be. They wouldn’t cross that line.” He shook his head, and seemed to be trying to convince himself. “Wouldn’t cross that line,” he repeated.
“One of them killed Allisto,” Litner reminded. “Shep’s own brother.”
Joey rolled his eyes. “That was suicide. You have no idea how sick I am of hearing about Saint Allisto, who died for all our stupidity. Change the subject. Now, what is this thing killing the followers?”
“I don’t know what it is,” Litner said. “But I have seen it. And I think we can guess that being from the other side himself, Shep will know what it is. Take me to him. I have something I need to show him.”
“Whatever it is, give it to me. I can show him.”
Litner shook his head. “There’s more at stake here than just your messianic ass, Duvaine. Something came through that cripulet recently, and an entire team saw it. It killed a man on that team. I have it all on tape.”
Joey rubbed his temples, groaning. “Oh, that’s just great. Just great.”
“What the hell were you government douchebags doing messing around in that cave?” he asked. “What did you think you were playing at? Did you tell them how to open the cripulet, you dumb fuck?”
“Of course not, I’m loyal but not stupid, regardless of what you think. My boss broke into my house and stole my personal log of what happened at Forest Bluffs. It had more...detailed information than what I put in my initial report.”
Joey leaned toward him. “How detailed?”
“He stole the record of what really happened. You can imagine his surprise when he read it. He wanted to send me to a shrink.”
“Oh, man.” Joey fell back in his seat, hands on his head.
“I’m no happier about it than you are, but it happened, and here we are.”
“And if your boss was so disbelieving, why was he screwing with the cripulet?”
Litner wrung his hands. “I guess he was willing to open his mind on that one. I tried to stop it, to no avail.”
“I cannot believe what I’m hearing,” Joey said. “You say you’re not stupid, but you wrote it down?”
“At the time I thought it important to keep a private record of what really happened, even if no one would ever see it.”
“But someone did see it!” Joey grimaced. “Why the fuck would you write it down, Litner? You crazy, obsessive compulsive, dumbass, tool, this is all your fault!”
Litner flinched and leaned back away from Joey’s face, not wanting to get any of that magical spittle on himself. “We don’t know that the creature wouldn’t have come through anyway, of its own accord, whether they’d opened the cripulet or not.”
“Uh huh.” Joey grinned icily. “It was just some big coincidence.” He pointed. “You, fucking idiot boy, wrote down instructions for them to open that portal. And now something’s coming after us. Well, this is all good news, Litner, so glad you stopped by.”
“Not if we can take it out first. Guns have no effect on this thing. Our only chance is that Shep might have some insight. Joey, I need to handle this, and fast. Now that my boss knows what Shep and his brothers really are, now that he’s aware of just how many unwanted guests are roaming the country with bad intent, they’re talking about a retaliation attack.”
“On who? Us?”
Litner shook his head. “I talked them out of that, convinced them we need your...group to combat this. But knowing that Shep, and this most recent addition, came to this world through the cripulet, well...they know the cripulet goes both ways. Things come out. But things can also go in.”
“What?” Joey said. “They think they’re gonna go through the cripulet, lodge an attack? They’d get sucked into the void.”
“I know. But all they’ve seen is an enemy that came through and killed one of their own, they have no idea what they’re dealing with. They think it’s just an alien life form.”
“Well, it is a fucking alien life form!” Joey said.
“They don’t know that it’s connected to...” Litner sighed. He took out his pen and tapped his temple. “They don’t where that cripulet can ultimately lead. They don’t realize the power behind it.”
“The Light?” Joey grinned, batting his eyelashes. “Their God?” He made a halo of his fingers and held it over his head. “It’s a fucking parasite, that Light, and it’s never brought Shep anything but grief. I say let the feds nuke God. Fucking deserves it.” Joey took a gulp of beer.
“I need to show Shep this recording I have. Please. However you feel about me, for both our sakes, let’s not waste any more time. Please, Joey.”
Joe smiled broadly. “Are you trying to sweet talk me? I knew it, I knew you couldn’t resist me, you coy bastard.”
“You can cut the posturing, Duvaine. I see through you.”
“Nice try, Litner, but there’s nothing there to see.”
“Nothing but your panic.”
Joey’s grin faltered.
“I know what Shep did to you. Your deadened emotions. The calming of the soul. But the bugger of the thing is, it doesn’t work when it comes to your feelings about Shep. Does it?”
“I’m smarter than you, Litner. Don’t try to analyze me, you suck at it.” He slapped a hand to his head. “And Jesus, whose blood did they use to open the cripulet?”
Litner closed his eyes. “Let’s not get into that yet. You want to save yourself and Shep, I’m sure Shep wants to save his brothers. I’ve got Patrick, Kelinda—”
Joey huffed. “Crazy bitch. She's the one who gave the followers her blood, she infected them.”
“Because you infected her. Now all the people you infected and bewitched are going to die because of you. And will it stop there? We have no idea, more Americans could be killed.”
Joey raised his hands. “All right, all right, we’ll go, just please, stop with the action hero, flag waving speech.” Joey drained his beer and stood. “But just so you know, when we get to my car, I’m going to knock you out. With my fist.”
Litner’s face heated with rage. “I don’t suppose a blindfold would suffice.”
He smiled. “That wouldn’t be nearly as fun for me.” He threw a twenty down on the table and walked away. Litner hesitated, gathering his courage, then followed.