Book One in the Soul Reaper Series
Jessica Victoria Fisette
Copyright © 2015 Jessica Victoria Fisette
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval systems, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Waking up to Murder
- Lost in the Aftermath
- Unbound Soul
- Ray of Light
About the Author
To my daughter, Serena, for revealing within me the courage I never knew I had and inspiring me to follow my dreams; to God, for giving me the push I often need when facing such decisions; to my brother, Anthony, for being my first proofreader and possibly the story’s biggest fan, to my mother, Renee’, for always encouraging my writing, ever since I was a child; to my father, Tony, for diligently reading from cover to cover; to all three, for putting up with my extended disappearances during its creation and believing in me from the beginning; to Quitmon, for his extensive efforts in saving my computer and, therefore, my many works-in-progress after an unfortunate coffee spill; to my lovely beta readers; and to the many friends and family that have supported me along the way. Thanks to you all, the humble writer within me receives her long-awaited voice, and the avid dreamer is given her second chance at life.
For my daughter, Serena.
May you always know how much I love you,
And may the light always find rest within your heart.
The water rippled as a cool breeze blew through the back yard. The sunlight danced and shimmered across the surface.
I readied myself, took a deep breath, and plunged head-first. My fingertips parted as I entered. The water enveloped me, cool and crisp on my skin. I hurled deep into the abyss. I squeezed my eyes shut and kicked my feet to go deeper, still.
I stopped and merely existed in the void, disconnected from the world above. The water covered me like a thick blanket. I felt safe, relaxed. The stress slipped away. I hadn’t realized just how tense I was until now.
Soon, the oxygen dissipated from my lungs and I scanned the water for the blurry, warm sunlight. I pivoted my body toward the surface and ascended from the water. Chlorine-scented oxygen filled my nostrils as I gasped for air—the barrier broken, ambience dispelled.
Of course, I was stressed. Massachusetts was a long way from home. And, classes would be much more demanding than my undergrad schedules at Houston University. I had barely managed to maintain my four-point-oh as it was.
I was never quite certain why anything to do with grades and school had such a powerful influence over me. I shuddered at the idea of failing at the one thing I had wanted to do for as long as I could remember. I could no longer recall how I learned of Braxton, or the charming, little town called Elkridge in which the university sat. Yet, I had been working to achieve acceptance into its halls since the third grade.
The fact that I was having cold feet so close to the start of my first semester both scared and frustrated me. I couldn’t quite explain why such a quaint, little town with its Roman-cathedral style campus intrigued me so. Still, it was the only place where I had, for so long, felt positive I needed to be.
I swam for a while longer and then pulled myself up the ladder. The stone felt warm under my feet as I stepped out. I grabbed my towel off one of the chairs and dried off.
In the bathroom, I slipped out of my swimsuit and tossed it into the hamper. I had no desire to redress in the slacks from this afternoon. I opened the closet and found a pair of sweat pants and a hoodie Cecilia had stored for me. I slipped into the clothes and headed into the kitchen.
The delicious aroma of celery, onions, and bell peppers wafted through the room. My mother stood at the stove and dropped frozen shrimp into a large pot.
“Did you give Cecilia the night off?” I asked.
She grabbed the ladle. Her thin body shook and her arm jerked back and forth as she stirred the contents. Speckles of liquid splattered around the pot in a circle. Some even struck the lid she held in her other hand. She stretched her arm and took a sudden step back as if she were under attack.
She nodded. “Her granddaughter’s dance recital, I believe.”
“And, you’re making gumbo?”
I couldn’t hide the caution in my voice. Her previous attempts at making this particular dish had not gone well. She dropped the lid on the pot, set the ladle on the counter, and spun around to face me.
“I know it’s not my strong suit, but it’s really not very different from stew and our ancestors were known for their delicious stew.” I narrowed my eyes at her. “Where did you think you got your beautiful red hair, sweetie?”
She walked around the counter and cupped my face in her hands. A smile spread across her face. I smiled back. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this. Mom was so proud of our supposed royal Celtic bloodline that she would often mention it.
The idea of being Celtic royalty fascinated me, as well—although my enthusiasm had faded substantially over the years. As a little girl, I had often fantasized that my curly red locks signified that I was somehow extraordinary—since redheads made up a mere ten percent of the entire Irish population. When I got older, I realized our excessively diverse lineage was too mottled to truly credit my red hair to Celtic roots. I never had the heart to correct her on such a sacred topic of family discussion.
“Do you even know what kind of stew these famous ancestors made?”
“I know it probably had potatoes in it.” She smirked and tossed a lock of auburn hair behind her shoulder as she returned to the stove. “Besides, I have an old Louisianan recipe this time. I ran into a Mrs. Brown down at the gym and she told me the secret is in the roux.”
I rolled my eyes. “I doubt she’s an expert on gumbo if she’s worried about her figure. Why are you going to a public gym, anyway, when we have a private one in the next room?”
She placed a skillet on a free burner and dumped some flour into it. Then, she added some seasonings from a grocery bag to the mix.
“It is a private gym, Kendra. I pay a hefty membership fee to ensure that. Besides, I like it being more ‘public’ as you put it.” She adjusted the tie on her apron. “What else am I supposed to do with my time—with your father always working late at the hospital? Between his busy schedule and you about to leave for school, I might as well be living by myself as an old spinster.”
I sighed. “I see.”
My mother lived to socialize and had dozens of friends at her disposal. She came from old money and a well-known line of southern belles. Her great-great-grandmother had migrated to America with her parents at seventeen and fallen in love with a wealthy landowner from Texas—or something along those lines. Adding that to the fact that my dad was one of the top plastic surgeons in Houston, which only helped her reputation, she would hardly be lost in my absence. I knew where this conversation was headed.
“If only you weren’t moving so far away. Maybe then I wouldn’t be forced to find new ways of spending my free time,” she said. “We could spend our days getting manicures and shopping at the Galleria. Who knows, you might even find a nice man to marry and give up this silly idea of becoming a lawyer and attending that ridiculous school.”
“Mom, you’re so old-fashioned. I have no interest in settling down right away.”
“I just want what’s best for you, sweetheart. I don’t want you to work your entire life away.”
If only I hadn’t already heard this speech four times in the past week. “I won’t work my life away, Mom. I promise. Your flour is burning.”
I pointed to the smoking skillet behind her and waited for her to get caught up trying to salvage the roux before I slipped upstairs.
My eyes resembled a raccoon, with thick, black ink smudged around them. When I’d decided to go for a swim, I forgot I’d opted for lengthening mascara over waterproof. I smeared a cotton ball into a jar of coconut oil and dabbed it around my eyes. The mascara released effortlessly. I continued with the rest of my face-cleaning regimen.
Things had felt strained between Mom and me in recent years. Lately, it had only worsened. She had become increasingly anxious over the slow pace at which my life progressed. I shook my head. It wasn’t that I never dated. I had gone on a couple of interesting dates, but I hadn’t met anyone worth pursuing a relationship with. Besides, I was too busy for dating.
I looked at my clean face and realized how pale and tired I looked. I always hated to remove my makeup, especially on days it turned out so pretty. But, what I saw as I gazed at my reflection was more than just dull skin and vague features. I hadn’t been sleeping much, and it was starting to take a toll on my appearance. I could only hope a nap would be revitalizing to my worn out body.
I entered my bedroom and crawled into bed. The green satin comforter felt good against my open pores. In no time, my muscles relaxed.
I unlocked my phone, opened my light switch app, and slid the bedroom to “off.” The room went dark. Sunlight flowed in through my curtains. The Celtic knot in the center burned a bright golden. I closed my eyes and drifted off.
I stood in a small, bare cottage. The tiny living area contained a small fireplace on one end—the drafty room’s only heat source. I rubbed my palms over my arms as a shiver ran through me.
My toes dug into the thick dirt that carpeted the floor. Something roasted on a spit above the fire. Its savory aroma piqued my interest and my stomach growled.
I stepped closer and squinted in the dim lantern light. The shape of the lean, long-legged rabbit made my heart slam against my chest. One wide eye pierced through mine, depicting the terror endured in its final moments. The flames lapped at its torso. I gasped and turned away. The very scent of the roasting meat suddenly repulsed me.
The door behind me swung open and closed. I looked out into the night as it opened and froze. Darkness rushed toward the little cottage—a huge body of water. It would cover us in an instant, trapping my family and myself in the house to drown.
I hurried to the door and pulled it open. The mass came into focus and I sucked in. What I saw was no flood.
It wasn’t rushing. It was staggering. The militia stumbled toward the cottage as if injured or drunk. One arm hung at each soldier’s side while the other dragged a huge, spiked mace across the barren field.
They would be here soon. I could do nothing to stop them. The thin, wooden door would not keep them out for long. I stood motionless, my eyes fixed on the black mass. I staggered back.
“They will be here soon,” I mumbled.
“They will be here soon.”
I heard the words again—only it wasn’t me saying them. I turned. An old woman with white, unkempt hair dressed in a wool cloak sat on a stool before the fireplace.
“They will be here soon,” she repeated, wide eyed.
“Who will? Who are they?”
“They will be here soon, child.”
The lady stood and strode toward me. I took another step back.
She lunged at me and grabbed my arm. I struggled to pull free as I choked on the rancid, decaying stench of her breath. My eyes met hers. I let out a scream as I stared into white, cloudy marbles that seemed to peer into my soul.
The witch split into a dozen crows that blacked out what little light the cottage produced. I threw my hands over my face as they clawed and pecked at my flesh. Hellish screeches pierced my ears as their wings beat above me. The sound overrode my own screams until I was deaf to everything else. I could see nothing but the woman’s white eyes, the image burned into my retina.
I shot up and gasped for air. My bedroom came into focus as I trembled over the horror from which I had escaped.
“It was only a dream,” I muttered between gasps. “It wasn’t real.”
No wonder I needed to nap in the middle of the day. I couldn’t sleep without waking to such frightful images. How would I ever get a peaceful night’s rest?
Each time I slept, I awoke feeling more vulnerable. If this was nothing more than my subconscious telling me I was afraid to move so far away, I had gotten the message. I didn’t need any more horrible nightmares about witches, zombies, or even birds, for that matter. I could do without dreaming of birds for quite a while.
I jumped as an upbeat tune shattered the silence—my phone. Mom’s auburn hair filled the edges of the screen. I slid my finger across and put the phone to my ear.
“Dinner’s ready, are you going to come down and eat?”
I took a deep breath. “Yeah. I’ll be right down.”
I climbed out of bed and trudged to the dining room. The long, mahogany dining table held only three place settings, making the room appear desolate. No light gleamed through the windows. Night had already fallen.
Dad was already sitting at the table’s far end. A bowl containing brown, chunky liquid sat atop a large plate before him. Beside his dish stood crystal stemware.
Judging by the medium bowl and dramatically narrow mouth, it held a rare Tempranillo. A popular wine in Texas and loved for its peppery finish, Tempranillo was my dad’s favorite red. I, however, thought it was disgusting to drink anything that seemed to hold remnants of jalapeño or chili peppers.
“Red or white, hon?”
“I’ll take the Riesling.”
I pointed to the tall, skinny bottle with the long neck. German words decorated the front. Mom finished setting the places and we both sat down.
The gumbo was good, definitely better than I’d expected. She’d finally gotten it right. The roux was rich and flavorful. It complemented the shrimp flawlessly. And, the Riesling—it was a perfect match to the onion and bell pepper that accompanied. I ate all the way down to the last few remnants of rice before I felt I might explode.
“Wow. That was delicious, Mom.” I leaned back to give my lungs room to expand.
“It tastes just like a dish from New Orleans,” my father added.
She beamed. “Well, thank you both. I’d hoped y’all would like it.”
She stood and began clearing the table. Dad started to help, but she grabbed his plate before he could protest.
“I’ve got it, hon. I know where Cecilia keeps everything. If we mess it up too much, she’ll never take another night off.” She winked at me.
I smirked. The last time my best friend Riley and I had opted for a midnight snack, we spent the entire night experimenting with French toast and chocolate soufflé recipes she’d found on the Internet. Cecilia arrived the next morning to a mess of baking pans, eggshells, and misplaced measuring cups. We’d spent the rest of the morning helping Cecilia clean and put away dishes. She made us promise to wait for her guidance before attempting any new recipes in the future.
Mom, on the other hand, knew her way around the kitchen. She loved to cook. She often gave Cecilia the evening off so she could try a recipe she’d discovered.
The fact that she couldn’t get a Southeast Texan and Louisianan recipe like gumbo right had bothered her for years. She had tried to make it a few times, but failed so miserably she almost seemed afraid to try again. We were just as apprehensive. She must have been so happy at finally getting it right.
She gathered the dishes and headed into the kitchen. The clanging resonated into the dining room as she loaded the dishwasher.
“So, one more week.” Dad leaned back in his chair.
I nodded. “One more week.”
He took a sip of his Tempranillo. His face was solemn, yet he looked me in the eye when he spoke and the corners of his mouth curved up in a slight smile.
“Is there anything I need to do before you go?”
He wasn’t exactly pleased about my choosing Braxton over an Ivy League Law school. But since I was set on going, he’d resigned to acceptance. He’d lately become focused on making sure everything was in order. I assured him that it was, excused myself from the table, and returned to my bed where I entered a much-needed, deep sleep.
The intercom boomed. I sat up, blinked, and rubbed my eyes. Most of the other passengers were already in position, facing forward with hands on their armrests. A few were just returning to their seats and hurried to buckle up.
I listened to the message that seemed to be on a constant loop. The pilot announced our landing. I looked out the window. I could now make out buildings and trees—a huge difference from the green and beige, veiny plains at which I’d stared before drifting off.
I buckled up and readied myself. The plane glided down toward the airstrip and my heartbeat quickened. I was here, in Elkridge, Massachusetts, where I would be living for the next three years.
I couldn’t help but feel excited for the transition to the quiet, small-town atmosphere Elkridge would bring. Houston was a big place. While I loved the fast-paced, convenient city life, I was ready to discover what the charming, little town of Elkridge had to offer. It felt as if I were headed into a foreign country. I would soon be completely on my own, and that revelation was both empowering and terrifying.
The pilot announced that we had landed. The passengers began standing and grabbing their carry-on luggage. I grabbed my tote and retrieved my phone from the side pocket while an exit line formed beside me.
I had one new message from Riley. I unlocked my phone and read it. It was short, but filled with warm wishes and a promise to keep me filled in on everything Texas-related while I was away. I smiled and eased in line.
Riley and I had been like sisters since the third grade. It would be hard to go months without seeing her every day. Up until now, we’d still stayed at each other’s house nearly every night.
Riley was a free spirit, while I was naturally more reserved. Somehow, our differences only made us closer. Almost nothing stressed Riley out, and if something did, she just wouldn’t bother with it. She was more open to life’s pleasures than the many responsibilities that came with it. I, however, found it harder to indulge. Without me teaching her responsible study habits, Riley would have given up on college by the first year. Without her forcing me to have some fun every once in a while, I would have died of a work overload.
I passed through the airport gate and scanned the parking lot for the rental car. The bright red BMW sat on the third row. I slid behind the wheel, cranked the ignition, and looked at the clock. It read 5:38AM. I sighed. My flight had arrived much earlier than expected. There was no way I would be able to get my dorm key at this hour.
My dad had scheduled my flight with office hours in mind so I could receive my key and settle into my dorm before Orientation. Even so, I was required to sign acceptance forms first. The office probably wouldn’t open until 7AM, at the earliest.
I headed down the main street in search for a coffee shop. I could definitely use a pick-me-up before starting such a busy day.
I spotted a brown-and-gold mosaic building with tall windows covering the right half of its anterior. The window closest to the door held a giant coffee-mug decal. The sign above the awning read Lydia’s Cup. Farther down the street, another sign read BRAXTON UNIVERSITY: TURN HERE.
I smiled. The location couldn’t have been more perfect. My favorite place to study back home had been the local coffee shop, Houston Java. The perpetually tranquil atmosphere and steaming coffee did wonders to my concentration.
Riley would often show up while I was halfway through an important assignment and drag me to the weekend’s hottest nightclub. We would spend the rest of the night dancing while I silently reminded myself I still had two weeks to finish the assignment.
I walked through the door and took a deep breath, immediately enveloped in the Arabica coffee beans’ heavenly aroma. The soft-lit main floor was littered with bistro table sets. A casual, singer/songwriter melody played overhead.
I peered between thick drapes into a private room beside me. It was fully furnished with comfortable couches and ottomans—a space perfect for studying.
I smiled, again. Discovering this little trove so close to the university made me feel less like a foreigner in a strange land. Maybe it wouldn’t be such an immense change, after all.
There was only one person in line before me. I shook my head as he ordered black coffee. Why did people bother to order plain coffee when they could dress it up with just about any flavor?
I looked him over. He was tall, with tanned, olive skin and black curly hair. He had defined biceps and a solid posture. I let my eyes linger as he paid the barista.
He turned and glanced at me. My cheeks burned with embarrassment, yet I couldn’t look away. He was unbelievably attractive, with strong angular features and the most beautiful green eyes I had ever seen—even though they were mostly hidden beneath thick eyebrows and curls. He stared back, and I found myself unable to breathe.
My heart raced. I breathed in, exhaled slowly, and willed myself to act calm. I wasn’t the kind of girl who lost herself just because a guy was good-looking. I forced myself to break his gaze and turned my attention to the barista waiting to take my order.
“Caramel Macchiato, please. Venti, soy, and whip cream.”
I steadied my voice and resisted the urge to glance back. It was much harder than I’d thought it would be.
I stole a glance his way. He stared at me—his gaze unwavering. He almost appeared shocked. I tensed. My own appearance must have been unsightly given the long plane ride. But, how did he know my name?
I raised an eyebrow. “Do I know you?”
He stepped closer. “It’s you.”
His wide eyes fixated on my own and his mouth gaped open. He stood rigid, as if taken aback. He reached a hand toward me before pulling it back.
His near touch caused a thrum of anticipation beneath my skin, followed by a sharp pang of disappointment at his hesitation. I furrowed my eyebrows.
“That’ll be $5.50.”
I suddenly realized we weren’t alone in the room. I turned to the impatient teenager, gave an apologetic smile, and reached into my bag. The mysterious stranger pulled some bills from his pocket and set them on the counter. His eyes never left mine.
I dropped my hand. He gave a slight nod. Still, I couldn’t shake the intense feeling that my presence upset him.
“So, how do you know my name?”
His eyes narrowed and dropped, glancing away for only a moment. His mouth closed in a frown. Why was this complete stranger being so intense toward me? I took a step back and opened my mouth to excuse myself, but he jerked to a start with wide eyes.
“Don’t go—I mean, will you have coffee with me? Please?” The barista handed him his coffee. He raised the disposable mug, shrugged, and smiled.
I returned his smile and breathed a sigh of relief. I had read him wrong. He was nervous, yet his awkwardness made me feel better than if he were over-confident.
The barista finished making my latte and I followed the man to a little bistro table in the corner. It was brighter than the rest of the room. As the early sunlight danced through the windows, a soft, flowy rhythm played in the background.
My paper mug warmed my hands. It was exactly what I needed to start the hectic day ahead of me. I looked across the table and blushed.
“So you know my name, yet you haven’t explained how. Are we in Orientation together?”
I sipped my coffee. Warm liquid filled my mouth, awakening my senses. It was sweet and creamy, and it soothed my throat going down. I felt energized already.
“Orientation? Uh, yeah. We are. At Braxton Law.” He took a sip from his mug.
“Okay. Well, that makes sense, I guess. Are you from around here?”
He went to my school. If he was a local, maybe he would take me on a tour of the town and I could get to know him better. He smiled at me and I blushed, acknowledging the audacity of my last thought.
“I’ve lived here for some time. Are you staying on campus?”
He continued to stare at me with those beautiful blue eyes. They had appeared green before, but the dim lighting had been misleading. In the morning light, they were the most piercing blue I had ever seen. They almost appeared electric.
“I am. I’m actually on my way to sign in. My plane got in early so I came here to kill some time.”
“I see. Where are you from?”
“Texas.” A proud smile involuntarily spread across my face.
“Texas. That’s a good place to grow up.”
He stared at me intently. My heart raced. I focused on sipping my coffee to keep from tripping over my words.
“So, you never told me your name.”
I tried to sound indifferent, despite the fact that a large part of me wanted nothing more than to know his name. What was wrong with me? I’d never felt so nervous over a guy before, let alone a practical stranger.
His shoulders tensed as he sounded out the words. “Alaric A’mswirth.”
His name left me speechless. I hadn’t expected something so unique. I studied his features. Was he a foreign exchange student? His English was perfect.
He dropped his shoulders and sighed, as if he had been holding his breath. Why was he acting so strange? Why was he so intense with someone he’d only just met? Was this the sort of greeting I would have to get used to from the locals?
“Well, it was nice to meet you, Alaric.” The name rolled easily off my tongue and I hesitated. “But, I need to take care of a few things so I had better get going. Maybe I’ll see you around.”
I stood and pulled my purse onto my shoulder. I caught his gaze. He was staring again.
The corners of his lips crept up. I pretended not to notice, although my cheeks felt like they might soon catch fire. Had I been modeling drool across my face all this time? It had been a long plane ride and I’d slept for most of it. He shook his head and looked away.
“It was nice meeting you, as well. I’m sure we’ll meet again.” He stood and held the door open for me. “Goodbye, Kendra.” He gave a slow smile and my chest began to pound.
A nagging, foreboding feeling washed over me. A soft smile spread across my face and my eyes dropped in bewilderment as I turned.
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