Presence: Sorrow’s Aria (Presence Series 7)
Written by Charity Becker
Published by Blysster Press http://blysster.com/store-2/presence-sorrows-aria/
From the back:
Still reeling from the devastating blow of betrayal by her closest friends and confidants, Mina Jewel must put aside her personal pain to complete one last dangerous task before she leaves Presence forever.
In a panicked race against time to rescue a very special child, it soon becomes obvious that the psychopathic Surgeon has more torment in store than Mina can handle on her own. She must learn to cope with her crippling PTSD and gather new and unlikely allies to complete her mission and put an end to the terror gripping Port Orchard, Washington.
Will Mina be able to trust again, or will Aria, Presence, and the Latrator pack be lost forever to the Surgeon’s blade?
Read on for a free sneak peek!
So, this is what it’s like to be dead. That thought wasn’t meant to be melodramatic or irreverent; it was just a fact. My life was over. It had been a mere two weeks since that fateful moment. Two weeks since I’d died. Yet, I still clung to my old life in this damned place, existing in this state of uncertainty. Why? And why couldn’t I just move on?
Fifteen days, I thought, shaking my head and taking a sip of the bitter liquid in my glass.
Just fifteen days ago I had a loving boyfriend, a child who adored me, and a job making a difference. It had been a relatively satisfying change to my nightmare of a life. Sure, there were some hiccups along the way, but everyone gets those. Okay, maybe not everyone has to deal with shifting during the full moon, or controlling deadly psychic gifts, or hunting down psychopaths and pedophiles on a daily basis, but everyone has their own special issues, right? Getting fired is crummy, and a car breaking down can suck. Who am I to judge who has it worse?
Snorting a derisive laugh into my glass, I shook my head, then tossed back another swallow.
Fifteen days ago, I was happy, which was a hell of a feat for me. Fifteen days ago, I felt like life wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe I’d paid my debt for whatever horrible deeds I’d done in a past life, and now my karmic ass-beating was finally complete. Fifteen days ago, I had hope, I smiled and laughed, and I knew love. Just fifteen days ago, I’d been happy.
And today? Well, today I’d been angry, terrified, depressed, and lonely, just to name a few of my roiling, twisting feelings. It was easy to identify each one, but it wasn’t easy to predict them. I never knew how long I’d feel angry, or how far depression would suck me down into the mud of despair before loneliness or fear took over and left me cowering in a dark corner of my mind.
That’s where I was now, pondering it all.
Confusion was the overall theme of my last two weeks, and it tainted everything I saw, coloring every thought with a grainy miasma of distorted ideas and stained memories. I wasn’t sure if I should be mourning the loss of the child I considered my own, or if I should keep searching for her in some insane hope she’d survived her ordeal with the Surgeon. Logic played no part in any of my current anxious thoughts, and maybe that was for the best.
Logic would just tell me that Aria had to be dead. She’d been skinned alive. Surely, she’d bled out, or she’d died of an infection or terror or heartbreak by now. In the back of my mind, I knew that if that were true, if Aria was dead, I didn’t want to live another day. How could I?
Yet, that was the entire reason I knew I was dead inside already; I just didn’t want to admit that out loud. I’d failed and Aria was lost forever because of it. I didn’t deserve to live, and so I wasn’t living at all. Not for the last fifteen days.
Perhaps my body hadn’t quite caught up with my softly weeping subconscious. Perhaps my conscious self was too stubborn to accept the truth of the situation. For whatever reason, I hung onto the last shreds of my mortal life, knowing my soul was truly dead, and nothing I said or did would change that.
With that sobering thought, my mind drifted to my present state. How had I come to this point? How had I fallen so far after climbing so high?
″Betrayal, that’s how,″ I muttered. ″Absolute betrayal.″
Normally, I’d have at least one person to help me, or even just someone to lean on while I vented my frustrations, but everything was different now. Presence had closed ranks in an effort to prepare for a full assault by the Surgeon and his goons, so they were no help. That was the line they tried to feed me, at least. The truth was much worse. Apparently, a lost and tortured Lycan girl wasn’t a priority—or maybe they thought she was already dead and not worth the trouble. I’d always done their bidding, helped each of them in their times of need. Seeing Presence ignore my cries for help was just another dagger in my back, their duplicity clear as day now.
Painful, but not entirely unexpected. The way Justice always refused to help me should have prepared me for Presence’s eventual backstabbing.
But what of my fellow werewolves? Surely, I could depend on the other Lycanthropes to help. Surely, they’d understand. They were used to being persecuted, ignored, mistreated; there’s no way they’d stand idly by and watch one of their own suffer. After all, the missing child belonged to their beloved pack leader, right?
″If only it were that cut and dry,″ I scoffed, tapping my nails on the counter and pulling deeper into my thoughts, oblivious to my surroundings.
Jacob Latrator’s daughter was missing and hurt, and he was in no condition to find her. Last I’d seen him, he couldn’t even walk, not even with the aid of a cane. And thanks to the Surgeon, the Latrator clan was no more. Without our pack to bolster and heal him, Latrator was helpless, which meant Aria really was lost to us.
Rounding my shoulders, I ground my teeth together, ignoring the ache in my jaw from days of similar grinding. I couldn’t blame the last of our pack for their mass exodus from our lands. Not after the Surgeon murdered so many and turned them into those freaky warg abominations. If I didn’t feel this overwhelming drive to find Aria, I’d probably have skipped town, too. I sure as hell didn’t want to end up like Alfred and the others. Dead, but not dead? Alive, but not quite? It was the stuff of campy horror movies and bad fiction.
Then again, wasn’t I just contemplating my metaphorical death? Did that make me a zombie? A warg?
I snorted an angry laugh into my mostly empty glass.
All of this crap piled up around me, my life falling apart at an astounding rate, and I didn’t know how to fix any of it. I couldn’t stop it or even slow it, and so I spiraled down and down, feeling pity for myself and anyone I’d had contact with over my short and miserable life. Three decades living in this body, and this is what I had to show for it?
And I guess that’s why I stopped in at J.A. Michael’s for a drink, or two, or twenty. I’d lost the ability to count hours ago, but if the row of empty glasses on the bar in front of me was any indication, I’d had more than my fill for the night—though I had no intentions of stopping now. The alcohol dulled the writhing heat of my Fury and it kept my wolf at bay. Now, if I could only drink enough to make my brain stop struggling for answers that weren’t there. If only I could literally drown my sorrow.
I’d come to the club just as the doors opened for the evening, letting in all of us sad saps before the lights were turned down and the music was cranked up. Before the lively, happy people showed up to dance the night away. They let us dejected masses in early to get good and toasted so we wouldn’t notice life going on around us. We’d be too drunk to bother anyone with our grief, and they’d be oblivious to our silent suffering while they wiggled and shimmied and twerked the night away.
That was good; I didn’t want anyone else’s pity.
The cloying stench of rampant hormones, stale beer, and desperation hardly affected me after the first several drinks. I’d been perched on my stool at the bar for countless blurry hours before a familiar face popped into view, interrupting my self-loathing.
Martin trotted behind the bar and slid to a stop in front of me, snatching up a folded cloth from the stack on the cleaning cart behind the bar. He brandished the rag with a magician’s flourish and a smile, white teeth almost gleaming in the flickering club lights.
“What’s happening, Miss Mina Jewel?” he asked, his good cheer scratching at my nerves. “Always great to see your smiling face.”
“Too exuberant, Martin,” I mumbled, thankful the music wasn’t too loud yet so I didn’t have to yell. “Bring the cheer down a notch, would ya? Some of us are trying to get wasted.”
After removing my fragile army of empty glasses from in front of me, he wiped the glossy surface of the bar, his soft, manicured hands a striking umber against the marshmallow-white cloth. I stared at those gentle hands, my mind wandering once again.
Martin was an everyday kind of guy. Although he ran a blog reporting the bits of information I’d feed him about the gifted movement and the plight of Lycans in Washington state, he was mostly just a normal guy. He served drinks and chatted up the patrons of the club each night. He made the bar flies smile and he flirted with everyone that batted an eye his way. And then he went home to his normal person apartment and did normal person things with his free time.
So normal. So boring. Everything I wanted, but everything I knew that I would never have. Especially now.
“You doing okay?” Martin’s voice came to me through a fog of twisting emotions and tumbling thoughts, and maybe—just maybe—a little too much booze.
Glancing up, I blinked away the tears that had gathered in my eyes, and Martin frowned, finally realizing I wasn’t in the best state of mind. With a sniff, I straightened my stiff shoulders, lifted my rum and Coke to numb lips, and threw the rest back, swallowing the strong drink in two big gulps.
Martin leaned across the bar, muscled forearms holding his weight, his hands clasped loosely and fingers woven together. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you drunk. Definitely not at seven in the evening. What the hell is going on?”
“What happened to your head?” I asked in a lame attempt to deflect his question. I hadn’t decided yet if I was willing to share my misery with Martin. Just another person unable to help me. Or maybe everyone was just unwilling to help. Nobody was willing to get their hands dirty to save one little girl? Grinding my teeth together once more, I stared hard at Martin through blurred vision.
He ran a hand over his scalp, a flash of confusion crossing his face. “It’s been weeks since my boyfriend started shaving my head for me, and I just can’t seem to get used to this. I miss the braids. Do you think I look stupid?”
Smirking to cover my irritation, I shook my head and said, “Nah. Your scalp reflects the bar lights nicely.”
“Oh,” he said in a flat tone. “Thanks.”
“Hey!” I replied, faking some playfulness with a wildly gesturing hand. “Your head’s like a beacon of hope to your patrons. You are the Pourer of Libations! The Saint of Spirits, Martin, and we praise you!” I raised my glass in a silent toast and gave a single nod for emphasis.
Martin’s black brows crinkled and lowered over dark eyes as he threw me a nasty look. “So what brings you in, Mina? I mean, aside from your biting remarks and cheerful destruction of my self-esteem, of course.”
Staring at the bar, I tapped my fingers against my empty glass. Martin took it as a hint. In a split second, his deft hands grabbed a fresh glass, filled it with ice, poured a generous serving of rum, and squirted in a ridiculously small amount of dark cola to top it off. Had all of my drinks been that strong? Without a word, he slid the drink toward me and took away the old glass, making it disappear under the bar.
With a deep breath, I readied myself, then said, “Shit’s hitting the fan. . .” I let the words trail off, hoping Martin might volunteer something. Maybe he already knew. Or maybe he’d heard something recently that he hadn’t yet figured out was linked to me and my problems. Martin was good at finding interesting morsels of information. People liked to talk to bartenders for some reason.
Suddenly realizing that I was one of those people, I snorted an unhappy laugh and stared at my glistening drink.
“Is that so?” he replied, leaning in a bit closer and flashing his mahogany eyes around the club. “Anything juicy?”
Scowling, I raised my gaze to meet his, leaned in the rest of the way, and said, “Someone kidnapped my ex-boyfriend’s daughter and skinned her alive, but not before he murdered my pack mates. Juicy enough for you? Or should I tell you about the zombie werewolves and the pedophile I nearly eviscerated while he was strapped to a table?”
The reddish undertones of Martin’s smooth cheeks drained away in an instant, leaving his skin ashy. Martin jerked away from me, his eyes wide and his mouth open in an O of shock. “Someone got Aria?” he asked. “And they. . . skinned her. . . Oh, God! She can’t still be alive, can she?”
My face went tight and I glared at Martin. It took him only a second to realize what he’d said.
Holding both hands up and showing me his palms, he said, “I’m so sorry! Of course she’s alive. Shit. . . What can I do to help?”
With a humorless laugh, I shook my head and took a long pull on my drink. When I set the half-empty glass down on the bar, I said, “Unless you’ve got some magical psycho-sensing device hiding somewhere, there’s not much you can do.” Wiping my soft cardigan sleeve across my mouth, I gazed up at Martin, my vision swimming. “Have you heard anything that might help me locate Aria? Maybe something about missing Lycans or strange murders? Weird creatures lurking around?”
“You mean weirder than the werewolf sitting at my bar?” he asked. When his joke fell flat, he asked in a lower voice, “Does this have something to do with the Surgeon?”
Unable to hide my surprise in my current state, I slurred out, “What do you know about him?”
“Aside from Barbie being one of his victims?”
Swaying on my stool, I asked, “Who told you that?”
Martin shook his head and stood straight, shrugging. The bar lights glinted off of the silver fibers woven into his off-white shirt. “Nobody. I just guessed. . . I heard someone from the police talking about the cases a few days ago.″
″You’d be surprised what people talk about here.″ With a nod, he said, ″They were talking quietly, but I read lips.”
Scoffing, I replied, “Of course you do.″
Martin shrugged again, more flashes of reflected light off his scalp and shirt creating a momentary distraction. ″I work in a dance club, Mina. Reading lips is a necessary skill.″
With a sneer, I tapped the bar with my short nails. ″What did they say?”
“They didn’t say much other than some psycho is out there performing surgery on people. . . while they’re still awake.” He shuddered visibly and looked up at the bright lights above the bar. “That is some next level shit, Mina. Is it true? Is. . . is that what Barbie and Melanie went through?”
For a moment, I simply stared at Martin, wondering how much more I should share. Trust was a difficult thing for me, especially now, but Martin had always been fair and truthful, if not a little naïve.
Maybe it was the alcohol lowering my inhibitions, but without truly thinking it through, I reached up and unfastened the top three buttons of my blouse and pulled the shirt open enough to expose the pink, raised, angry-looking surgery scar running across my collarbones and down my chest. Though he couldn’t see that far into my shirt, it was obvious from any angle that the scar went down my torso, too. My eyes never left Martin’s face, and I watched the sickness rise in him, a cold terror clutching his soul at the reality of what I was showing him.
A hand to his mouth, Martin glanced away from my scar, shaking his head. I could see him struggle to keep his dinner down. In that moment, I was also keenly aware of several people sitting at a round table near the bar, watching our exchange with brazen curiosity. I shot them a seething glare as I buttoned my shirt, daring them to interrupt. Quickly, they all turned at once and began chattering, pretending not to notice me.
When I turned my attention back to Martin, he’d regained his composure. Or so it seemed at first glance. Anyone who didn’t know him well wouldn’t have seen the lingering horror in his eyes, but I sure did. With a single nod and a slow blink, I buttoned the last button on my silk blouse and reached for my drink.
“The Surgeon is real,” I said, my tone lifeless. “And you’re right. He tortured and killed Barbie and Melanie. He and his thugs almost killed Latrator and me, too.” I sniffed, shook my head quickly, and leveled my gaze at Martin’s terrified eyes. “And now he’s got Aria and nobody wants to help me rescue her.”
It was almost like the DJ knew we were discussing terrible things. As if to drown out my misery and Martin’s growing fear, fresh music suddenly blared through the club, and the remaining lights went low, the universal signal that party time had started. A quick glance over my shoulder and I knew darkness had finally fallen outside. Soon, people would be pouring in through the doors to drink and dance away their troubles. But I wouldn’t be dancing. No amount of booty shaking would make any of my troubles disappear.
A strapping young man with a military buzzcut shuffled in and sat three stools away from me, giving a single nod to Martin. He didn’t seem too happy, but I doubted his problems were anywhere near as bad as mine.
There I went comparing again. I scoffed and stared harder. Buzzcut noticed me watching him and gave a single nod my direction, then turned his attention to the mirrored shelves behind the bar holding every kind of alcohol I could imagine. He stared at his reflection, the muscles in his jaw clenching in time with the thumping, tuneless song.
After Martin slid a glass of frothy, dark beer in front of Buzzcut, he came to stand in front of me again. We shared a long stare in the flashing strobe lights, each of us knowing there wasn’t much left to say. If Martin had heard anything at all that could help me find Aria, he’d have told me right then.
His silence was a bad omen.