Once Burned Page 3

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 . . .

Opened, a rich copper shade encircled by rings of evergreen. I would have thought they were beautiful, but at the moment, they looked as though they were staring right into mine.

It unnerved me, but I reminded myself it was only coincidence. No one ever knew it when I used my abilities to establish a link. I could be the world's biggest voyeur if I wanted, but my most fervent wish was to know less about people, not more-

’’Who are you?’’

I jumped. If I hadn't seen his finely shaped lips move, I would've thought I'd imagined the words. Coincidence, I reminded myself again. Any second someone would come into my line of vision and I'd see who he was really talking to-

’’I'll ask a second time,’’ his deep, slightly accented voice said. ’’Who are you, and how the hell are you inside my head?’’

That scared me into dropping the link at once. The ornate bed with its encircling drapes disappeared, replaced by ass-ugly wallpaper and a bed that would probably result in my getting bug bites. I let go of the silver knife as though it burned me, still reeling over what just happened.

’’Well?’’ Jackal asked. ’’Did you find him?’’

’’Oh yeah.’’ My voice was nearly a croak from shock.

’’And?’’ he prodded.

No way was I going to tell him the fire starter had somehow realized he was being been spied on. If Jackal knew that, he'd kill me on the spot so the fire starter couldn't follow the link back through me to find him. It was possible. If he could feel me in his head, the fire starter could probably hear me, too . . .

With a flash of inspiration that was more reckless than smart, I knew what I had to do.

Chapter 4

Twitchy, Pervert, and Psycho had already left the room, but Jackal stayed by the tiny desk. From the belligerent expression on his face, he had no intention of moving.

I let out a sigh. ’’You think I'm going to escape out the window if you leave me alone? Come on, the others would hear it and stop me. Can't call 911 and say, 'Help, a bunch of vampires kidnapped me!'either. Even if they didn't think it was a crank call, you'd just mesmerize any cops into leaving. Or eat them. Either way, I'm not going anywhere and I know it.’’

’’You're up to something,’’ Jackal stated.

It took all my willpower not to flinch, but I schooled myself to stay absolutely still. Don't panic, don't panic . . .

’’I don't know what,’’ he went on, ’’but I can smell that you're plotting something.’’

I cleared my throat. ’’What you smell is someone who's been breaking out in cold sweats ever since she was kidnapped by vampires. If you want more information on your fire guy aside from how nice his drapes are, then leave. How am I supposed to concentrate when I'm being stared at by a pack of creatures that keep looking at my neck and licking their lips?’’

He was suddenly in front of me, his hand gripping my chin. ’’What are you really trying to do?’’ he asked, forcing me to look into his now-glowing eyes.

Their effect was immediate. I felt drowsy, unconcerned, and talkative even as a part of me screeched in alarm.

’’Can't link to him with all of you watching,’’ I mumbled. ’’Can't get deep enough in his mind for it to work.’’

His eyes brightened until it almost hurt to look into them. ’’That's all?’’

The words He sees me, too hovered on my lips, about to fall and seal my fate. But though I felt like I'd just smoked a pound of weed, I found the strength to say something else.

’’Too scared . . . with you here.’’

That was the truth, but the reasons why remained unspoken. Jackal released me, his gaze still lit up. ’’You won't call anyone or try to leave this room.’’

His words resonated through my mind. I nodded without thinking. He shoved me and I fell back onto the bed, but to my relief, Jackal then headed to the door.

’’You have an hour, Frankie. Find him again, and more importantly, find where he'll be in the future.’’

He opened the door, and then paused. Before my next blink, Jackal had ripped the phone cord in two.

’’That's for insurance,’’ he muttered, and finally left.

I waited a few seconds and then let out the breath I'd been holding. Holy shit, that was close! I had no idea how I'd managed not to spill everything when Jackal turned his lite-brights on me, but I'd count my blessings later.

They say the devil you know is better than the one you don't. Maybe that was true, but considering what Jackal and the others had planned for me, I was going with Option B. It gave me better odds than trying to fight off four vampires with one puny knife-which Jackal had taken with him, I noticed. Must not want to risk me attempting suicide, although what I was about to do might turn out to be the equivalent.

There wasn't time for me to second-guess my decision, so I picked up the charred piece of fabric, and Raziel's death washed over me again. As usual, the impressions were fainter, the first touch always producing the most intense experience.

I pushed past Raziel's tortuous last moments to latch on to the fire starter's essence. What had been a thread before now felt like a rope because of my previous connection, so I grabbed it and pulled with all my might. My dingy surroundings fell away, replaced by a huge room with soaring ceilings, elegant furniture, and tapestries on every wall. It wasn't empty;two men stood in front of a fireplace that was big enough to fit both of them. I saw with relief that one of them was the fire starter, and the other a bald, brawny African American who was shaking his head.

’’Of course I don't think you're joking, but it still doesn't seem possible-’’

’’Shhh!’’ the fire starter hissed. Very slowly, his head turned. When those burnished copper eyes seemed to land on me, I fought my instinct to drop the link and run like hell.

’’Oh, it's too late for you to run,’’ he said coldly.

The words slammed into me, shocking me. I'd hoped with a little time-and a lot of luck-I could send him specific messages. It never occurred to me that the fire starter could read my mind as soon as I established a link. What kind of creature was he?

’’A dangerous one you shouldn't have trifled with,’’ was his response. ’’Whoever you are, rest assured that I will find you.’’

Fear paralyzed my mind. He was pissed, and I'd seen what he did to people when he looked to be in a good mood.

His friend glanced around. ’’Who are you-?’’

’’Quiet,’’ the fire starter said. ’’Leave.’’

The brawny man walked out of my sight without another word. The fire starter stayed in front of the enormous hearth, those orange and yellow flames growing as if they longed to reach him through the screen.

’’Quit calling me fire starter, it's insulting. You're spying on me, so you know who I am.’’

’’I don't,’’ I said aloud, then cursed myself. If Jackal heard me and came to investigate, I might not be able to resist a second dose of his gaze before I spilled the truth.

Look, you've got me all wrong, I thought rapidly, hoping his antennae into my head hadn't lost its signal. I have no idea who you are, but four vampires kidnapped me and they're forcing me to locate you for them.

’’Oh?’’ Amusement replaced the former harshness in his expression. ’’If that's true, I'll make it easy on you. I'm at my home. Tell the others to drop by anytime.’’

Flames coated his hands with the words, a warning I didn't need because I was terrified of him already. That fear combined with the death Jackal had planned for me made my reply snappy.

That's great, but I'm not only supposed to find out where you are now. I'm supposed to find out where you'll be in the future, and I'm guessing you won't be as flip about that.

His brows drew together at once, making those coppery green eyes all the more riveting-and frightening.

’’You can see the future?’’ All traces of humor left his expression.

I heaved a mental sigh. How to explain an ability I didn't fully understand?

If I touch someone-or an object with a strong emotional essence on it-I catch glimpses of things. If the glimpses are in black and white, they're from the past. If they're in color but hazy, they're from the future. And if I concentrate, I can trace someone's essence from an object to find that person in the present, which looks clear and normal to me. That's how I found you. Jackal gave me pieces of things from people you killed.


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