The Merkabah Recruit (sneak peek)

One Week Earlier

The roundhouse kick sent the woman reelingto the edge. She staggered back, slipped on the slick algae. As saltwater sprayed into the air, her enemy lunged forward and took a swipe at her. The woman deflected the blow with one hand. Her other clutched an object that had the power to send her enemy to its doom.

The enemy leapt high, twisted in midair, two muscular legs shoving her over the edge into the jagged rocks and churning tide below.

Rough waves crashed against the jetty and icy geysers spewed high as she fought for breath. The woman’s arm thrust out of the cold depths, her fingers gripping the object she dared not let go of.

It was her only weapon, one requiring time to reach critical mass. Time the woman did not have.

***

Bouquets of wiltedflowers lay atop the mound of dank dark earth. There was no headstone, no engraved script memorializing who rested beneath. A nameless grave for now. Except the tall, powerfully built man standing graveside knew. He placed a single perfect gardenia on the dirt. He knew secrets about the deceased no one would have ever suspected. He blinked, sighed, then turned from the dead and strode toward his car. He had an appointment with the living.

After sliding into a black Mercedes coupe, he took one last look across the cemetery grounds. His heart felt as though a two-hundred-pound weight sat on his chest. Not from guilt, because he bore no blame for her death, but with an acute awareness of life’s futility. He shook his head, cleared his thoughts, and put the car in gear. He drove slowly down the service road, accelerated past the cemetery gates, and sped recklessly through the early morning commuter traffic. By the time he arrived at his destination he realized only one solution would solve the problem caused by her death.

Only one.

He strode into an elegantly appointed conference room, nodded to each of the six somber faces already seated and waiting. “Thank you for arriving on such short notice.” He took his place at the head of the table. Behind him a gray mist blanketed the Pacific Ocean.

A tall, Prada-clad woman rose with cat-like grace from her chair and perused the Balinese credenza laden with an assortment of pastries, fruit, and mini quiches. “She’s too young.” She set a China cup under a silver coffee urn.

The leader remained unmoved. “Obviously.”

“Much too young.” Another woman spoke, a dark-haired exotic beauty who tapped her perfectly-manicured finger on the table. “You will endanger her life.”

“No other choice is available.” The leader relaxed back in the leather chair, interlocked his hands behind his head, and glanced up at the ceiling.

A strong black hand pushed a thick sheaf of papers across the gleaming marble table. “We reviewed her file. The findings are impressive. She will be a valuable resource. In the future. Not now.You will be risking a powerful, potential asset.”

All eyes angled to the leader.

He nodded once. “I’ll handle this personally.”

The room erupted in furious protest. They hurled blame. Accused the leader of negligence. Of irrationality. Of ineptness. Of arrogance.

“Failure means her certain death!” shouted one.

“I know the cost,” the leader roared back.

“Then what about the ancient laws?” the exotic beauty banged her fist on the table.

“What about the rules?” shouted another.

“This recruit is not prepared. She’s undeveloped and raw!”

“You might as well throw her to the lions!”

They ranted, scolded, and pleaded for almost an hour.

The leader stood, his eyes glowing red. “I know what I’m doing.” He turned his back to them. “Meeting adjourned.”

Chapter 1

 

Friday

I saw red. Scarlet slashes blurred and smeared before me. My eyes glazed over, no longer focused.

Most people unwind from a long stressful work week on a Friday night. Single people dated or met friends for drinks and gossip. Not me. I hunched over a stack of tragically written essays filled with every imaginable grammar error and misused word possible. No wonder I saw red. Even my pen color revealed my mood.

Students asked why I didn’t use a friendlier color to grade with. Green ink? Not a chance. Red is passion. Red is blood. Red is danger. Red is power. As an assistant professor of English, I prefer a symbolic color to grade with.

I stared out the narrow window to the empty campus below. Jeez, I’m a glutton for punishment. Staying late to grade papers was stupid, perhaps mildly obsessive. I blamed my ridiculous work ethic. I’m too concerned with making a good impression with the English Department chair.

I slapped the red-inked essay to the back of the stack and blinked at the next one. The words blurred. I rubbed my eyes. It didn’t help.

I needed wine. On my couch. And my comfy t-shirt and sweat pants. I slid my bare feet into the shoes under the desk. Quitting time.

The metallic whoosh of a door punctuated the silence. Guess I wasn’t the only suck-up still working.

Footsteps treaded toward me. Probably the night custodian. Except his approach was always accompanied by jangling keys and a whistled Motown tune.

I scanned my phone booth-sized office—didn’t want to forget anything important—which contained one battered old desk stacked with essays and books; one non-ergonomic cracked pleather office chair; two IKEA bookcases crammed to bursting; and one metal folding chair for grade bump pleaders and extra credit beggars.

I scowled at the two gilt-framed university degrees. How dare they mock me. I wassoclose. A Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Literature. Two down, one to go. The elusive PhD was within grasp. Almost. I was only one pesky dissertation away.

The footsteps slowed and a chill raced up my spine. At twenty-eight I knew better than to work late in a building with no security. Especially considering the town’s most recent crime.

A week ago, a brutal murder at the beach had made the local news. Someone had sliced open a transient and cut out a few body parts. Police said it was a drug deal gone wrong.

The gruesome killing happened a few miles from the college. I had nothing to worry about.

The footsteps probably belonged to an ambitious colleague. Or an on-the-verge-of-failing student.

The footsteps stopped. In front of my office.

I lifted my head. It was not the night custodian or another professor.

“Hello.” A divinely intimidating vision of handsome with the sexy deep voice to match filled the doorway.

I sized him up.

Broad shoulders tapered into a lean muscular frame and six-feet five inches of manliness scrutinized me with a gorgeous grin. On one hand, his skin tone and hair color were ethnically ambiguous. On the other, his deep-set brown eyes, straight nose, full lips, and square jaw suggested an ancestry of power and passion.

Oh my.

“Yes?” I used my bored professor voice. “May I help you?” Please don’t say you’re registering for my class next semester. It’s impossible to lecture while drooling.

“I need to speak with you, Professor Daphne Sites.” His voice. Smooth as jazz and Barry White smoky. The kind of voice that makes you think of hot s—

I cleared my throat. “What’s this concerning?”

Handsome Hunk was too old to be a co-ed, too young to be a parent, and too muscular to be a stuffy intellectual. Evidently, some Greek God had gotten lost on the college campus.

Greek God stepped into my office, sat on the metal chair, and crossed his arms, his crisp white tailored shirt straining against impressive biceps. Not that it mattered to me.

I swallowed, my belly tightening with suspicion. I watched enough teen scream movies about sexy-looking killers to be wary of any late-night visitor.

Mmmm…Greek God knew my name and location of my office. He had the professor title wrong though.

I shifted in my chair. There were no Friday evening classes. No theatre productions scheduled. No campus club events. I didn’t like it. Not one little bit. And my reliable early warning system about people—intuition or whatever—was taking a nap. I was getting nadafrom Greek God. No vibes, no hunches, no—

I fussed with the papers on my desk when it happened.

Tingles. Pins and needles. An icy hot tightening at the back of my neck. My overactive intuition at work. Weird premonitions usually followed.

I was too vulnerable in this shoebox-sized office. Time to go. “I was just leaving.” I gathered the stray papers.

“I’ve come to train you.” Greek God’s tone was king-like, full of self-importance.

“Excuse me?” The tingle crept upwards, and my jaw clenched. According to the doctor, this was the reasons for my TMJ headaches. Worry, anger, even being annoyed contracted my jaw muscles. Tense should be my middle name.

I slowed my breaths, tried not to panic. I have tendency to overreact.

It didn’t work. My jaw began to throb. Something was verywrong with Greek God. He looked at me like a hawk looks at a mouse. Like I was dinner. Like Zeus looked at a beautiful woman.

“I’m here to train you.”

I chewed on my lip. What the hell kind of training was he talking about? Did I miss a department memo? “Who are you?”

Greek God leaned forward, set his powerful-looking hands flat on the desk. “My name is SJ.”

That’s nice. Greek God has initials. Despite alarms going off in my head, I smiled calmly. My eyes flicked to the doorway. It was four feet away. I could make a run for it. His muscles might slow him down.

Greek God stroked his chin, his brown eyes soft, encouraging, non-threatening. He flashed a wide grin, held up one hand, and, eyes locked on me, pulled an item from his trouser pocket with movie-like slow motion. “You’ll need this.” He set a small polished wood box at the edge of my desk.

I tracked his hand as he slid the box across the metal surface. Curiosity overcame fear. Ring-sized gifts tend to have that effect.

Oooh, jewelry, whispered Emotional Me. My hand reached out, hovered over the box.

Danger, danger, screamed Logical Me. It’s a trick! I snatched back my hand, curled my fingers into a fist. “You caught me at a bad time. I’m leaving. Make an appointment during my office hours.”

The Greek God called SJ tilted his head, his brow creased, his lips pressed into a disappointed smile.

It was ten o’clock at night. I was alone. In a vacant building. A Greek God look-alike wanted to give me jewelry. Or a psychopathic killer wanted to hurt me. It was a no-brainer. The second option made the most logical sense. Men bearing jewelry were a rare breed. Greek God was trying to lure me, like a worm on a hook. No way was I going to take the bait!

I looked down at my desk. Could you kill someone with a Sharpie? Or bore a person to death reciting 18thcentury English poetry? It worked with my students.

I needed to distract him. Throw these essays into the air and run for my life. Either that or get a grip on my overactive imagination.

SJ’s mouth spread into a brilliant smile, white teeth gleaming. I notice teeth, one of the consequences of having been married to a dentist.

“I’m here to help you, Daphne. Please, take the box.” He jutted his square chin toward it.

On a first name basis so soon, are we? I might look calm on the outside, but my insides churned like the three weird sisters’ evil brew in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Double double, I didn’t want any trouble.

“Whoareyou and whatdo you want?” My heart thrashed against my chest.

“The who I already told you. I’m SJ. The what takes a bit of explaining.” His eyes flicked to the box.

I sucked in a ragged breath, and, with false bravado, glared at him. The longer the standoff, the more time to figure a way out of this situation. “So explain.”

“Mmph.” SJ set back in the chair and folded his arms. It looked like his brown eyes flickered green. A trick of the light? Funky contacts? “I think you’re ready. The others have doubts. Truth be told, we don’t have a choice.”

My jaw tingled and tensed. Panic enveloped me like a cloud. “I need more of an explanation than that.”

This guy was psychotic, a bat shit crazy lunatic with a Greek God’s face and body. Overpowering him was impossible. But I could keep him talking.

“I don’t understand.” I lifted my schoolbag from the floor, unzipped the side compartment, and reached inside.

“You don’t trust me.” SJ pointed to the cellphone clutched in my hand. “But this time your intuition is wrong. I’m not dangerous. Well, not to you.”

“I need to make a call.” I tapped 911, showed him the screen. “You’ve given me no reason to trust you. If you don’t start explaining, I hit CALL.”

SJ leaned back. Relaxed, unconcerned, way too confident. “Let’s continue this discussion elsewhere.” He tapped his fingers on his lips. “Someplace with lots of people. Keep your phone in your hand if it makes you feel safe.”

“I’m only asking one more time. You don’t answer, I call 911. What do you want?”

“I’ve been sent to recruit you.” He grinned a thousand-watt grin. It was all sunshine and warmth and irresistibility.

I exhaled my relief. Tension melted away. The tingle disappeared. SJ was a college recruiter.

Strange, I hardly thought of myself as recruit-worthy. My dissertation wasn’t finished, I wasn’t published. Didn’t even have a blog. “Which university are you from?”

“I’m not. I work for an organization that recruits and trains people with your particular skills.”

Ambiguity was annoying. Even from a handsome hunk. I shoved the stack of essays into my schoolbag and rounded the desk. “Can you be more specific?”

SJ grunted. “Like I said, this cannot be explained quickly.”

“Why not?”

SJ stood, his impressive height and broad shoulders taking up all the space in my tiny cubicle. “There’s a lot to discuss. A lot you have to understand.” He wore an odd smile, part amusement, part determination, part exasperation. He plucked the ring box from the desk and slipped it into his front pocket. “Do you know the bar just off campus?”

“The Dive?” It was popular with the locals, always noisy and crowded with people looking to get laid.

“Let’s go there. This…” he indicated my cubicle, “may not have been the best place to approach you.” He ran his fingers through his short tight curls. “I’ll buy you a drink.” He lifted his hands in mock surrender and walked out the door.

“Your company could have just sent me an email.” I locked the door behind me and followed him down the corridor. “Why The Dive?” A bar full of drunk horny singles was a strange place to recruit an adjunct professor.

“You’re not a follower of Bacchus?” SJ looked over his shoulder, his eyebrow as arched as his smirk.

My laugh echoed down the hall. Bacchus, aka Dionysus, was the god of winemaking, festivities, and sex. I told my students he was the Party God, patron deity of college students everywhere. “Are you an English professor?”

His playful seriousness was off-putting and yet enchanting. But something about him had me confused. Some thingmy brain could not identify but my body felt inexplicably drawn to. Like an eight-hundred-page book you want to read but worry you’ll never finish.

SJ made me feel like that moment when you’re buckled into the first car of a rollercoaster and waiting for the scary thrill.

“Me, an English professor?” He grimaced. “I don’t care for tweed.” He chuckled at his joke. “The organization I work for hires people who possess a unique and specific ability.”

“Can you give me a hint?” The rollercoaster chugged up the steep hill.

SJ gave me a sidelong glance. “You have a rare talent to see what others do not.”

“What’s the name of this organization?” I jogged down the wide staircase beside him.

He unfurled an impish smile. “It’s classified.”

Was he serious? Flirting with me? I couldn’t tell.

SJ held the door open as we exited the building. Once outside, I realized it wasn’t his demeanor that set all those alarms off in my mind. SJ wasn’t dangerous to me. But somethingabout him was dangerous. James Bond dangerous.

I stole a glance at him. He had a magnetizing essence. Impossible to ignore. Like that scream-inducing, adrenaline-pumping colossal rollercoaster you admire from the ground. You want the thrill of the ride, even though you know you’ll scream.

The tingling fear about SJ was gone. Replaced by butterflies flitting in my stomach. A hot guy wanted to recruit me for a top-secret job. How could I not be flattered and excited? Problem was, I had no rare talent.

Chapter 2

I stood inthe florescent glare of the Arts & Letters building, my mind awhirl. SJ and whoever he worked for were under the mistaken impression I had a rare skill. Do I tell Greek God he had the wrong adjunct professor? Or let him find out after he bought me a drink?

The tingle in my jaw was long gone, and The Dive was only a well-illuminated block away.

“You work for a secret government organization, right?”

“I don’t work for the government,” said SJ.

“A private company?”

“You might say that.”

“Can you give me something here? I mean, after all, I’m taking a risk going to a bar with a stranger with an obscure job offer.”

SJ stopped walking and turned to me. “I get it. I do. But trust me, you’ll want a drink when I explain the ah…job offer.”

I should have run at ‘trust me.’

I didn’t. Instead curiosity with a capital C body-slammed all my doubts to the ground. This might be a career opportunity. One drink. It couldn’t hurt to find out what this was all about.

“I’m not big on the trust thing, but I’ll listen. That’s all.” I shouldered my schoolbag and stepped out of the halo of light into the darkness.

SJ made polite small talk as we strode down the wide sidewalk toward The Dive. He asked me what I thought about the Tongva statue gifted by the Native American alumni association and inquired if I knew anything about the newest member on the Board of Regents. He knew more about the school than I did. Impressive.

A few minutes later we walked through the door of The Dive. Battered and outdated dive equipment dangled from the ceiling. Snorkels, fins, flags, and beachballs tangled with plastic sea creatures in netting nailed to the walls. A life-size blow-up doll wearing a clamshell bra and a green sequin tail hung above the bar. A three-foot inflatable shark nudged her ass.

The place was packed, but SJ scored two seats at the bar from a tipsy young couple on their way out. I don’t like crowds. They make me anxious. The droning chatter, the smells—it’s like they inhale all the oxygen and exhale a truckload of anxieties.

With nothing more than a quick chin lift, the bartender raced over to us.

“An extra dirty gin martini and a Long Island Iced Tea,” said SJ.

What?! “How do you know my favorite drink?”

SJ grinned. “May I take your hand for a moment?”

“Why?” I held it out as though he was going to read my palm.

SJ’s fingers wrapped around my hand.

An energy pulse surged up my arm. I yanked my hand away, but the rolling wave of warmth went right to my heart and blossomed outward. I rubbed my hand, his touch still lingering on my skin like the faintest tickle.

“You felt it. Good.” He nodded, satisfied, as though I had passed a test. “Relax, Daphne. Look at the people. What do you see?” He pushed my Long Island Iced Tea towards me.

I saw drunk people and desperate men and women laughing too loud and trying too hard to have fun. “What am I supposed to see?” I sipped the drink.

SJ’s lips twitched and his brow lifted. “You tell me.”

“I see people,” I shrugged.

“You see more than that.” His brown eyes twinkled at me from over the rim of his extra dirty martini.

“I see drunk people.”

SJ leaned close, his shoulder touching mine. “I know you sense the feelings and thoughts of others.”

My stomach flip-flopped. “Who are you?”

SJ tapped his chest, flashed his thousand-watt grin. “I’m your guide.”

“For what?” I sucked on the straw, tried to cool the embers burning in my belly. “Am I taking a trip?”

His forefinger made a little air circle in the air. “You see a person’s true form.” SJ withdrew his accusing finger, speared his martini olive with the tiny plastic fork, and popped the olive in his mouth.

This conversation took a sharp left onto Creepy Town Road.

SJ was right about one thing though. I did need this drink. Maybe two.

“What do you mean?” I lifted the drink, drank down the sweet nectar as though it could help me deal with this. With him. With his knowing.

“You’re an empath with special skills.” SJ’s eyes seared like laser beams.

“An empath?” I looked at the ice cubes floating in my Long Island Iced Tea. Was he referring to my over-sensibilities about people? Referring to the bizarre impressions I get about someone? I never told anybody about that. People would think I was crazy. Once in while I let something slip to my sisters, who laughed and said I was weird. When I was child, Mom accused me of having a fanciful imagination.

Slurp, swallow, repeat. The alcohol took the edge off my rising panic. I stared at my drink, the condensation on the glass as cold as the back of my neck.

SJ’s voice was low, its warmth encouraging and seducing. “An empath feels others’ emotions, but you do more than that. You detect people in their true form. The time has come to perfect this ability.”

I sensed his stare. Determined. Serious. Like a hot poker to my soul. I pretended fascination with the cocktail napkin. Confusion, curiosity, anxiety, and attraction swirled like a tornado around me. I didn’t dare make eye contact.

“We know you perceive strange creatures in human form.”

My heart jumped in my throat.

Chapter 3

I drained the glass. Gin, rum, vodka, Triple sec, and tequila joined forces to give me the liquid courage to stare into SJ’s brown eyes.He knew. This stranger knew my dark secret.

SJ hailed the bartender and ordered another round. A well-played move. It gave me time to compose myself. I swiveled the barstool, my back to SJ, and watched customers live their nice normal lives.

Perched on a barstool, a young woman with waist-length blonde hair, crossed a long, tanned leg and dangled her high heel from her toes. Hawk-like eyes focused on her prey, my hunky guide. She caught me staring, flipped her hair, and looked away.

Impudent Strumpet.

Twelve hours had passed since I left the house. My make-up had melted into my pores or been rubbed into nothingness. My hair was uncombed, my cotton blouse wrinkled, and my skirt stretched out. Call me frumptastic. Ivy, my fashionista sister, was always au courant.Not me. Trendy took too much time. I was a busy assistant professor. I had things to do. Lectures to prepare. Essays to grade. A dissertation to avoid.

I glanced down at my navy wool gabardine skirt. Bor-ing. If Greek God look-a-likes were going to show up at my office offering to buy drinks, I needed to up my game.

I checked on Impudent Strumpet, my first impression confirmed. She was already batting her fake eyelashes at another guy.

What a witch.

“Your impressions about people are accurate.” SJ’s voice tickled my neck. “The creatures you see are real.” He set his hand on mine, his thumb stroking my skin.

Good God, his touch sent a heated current up my arm where it made a hard left and dropped straight into my crotch. Sure, it had been a while since I had had sex, but my body should not have thatkind of response.

I jerked my hand away. “You know way too much about me. My favorite drink, the eerie impressions I get about people. Why?”

“It’s my job. My full name is Serik Jalani. I work for an organization which prepares individuals such as yourself for their true calling in life.” The words organization,prepares,and true calling sounded off, like a flat note in an otherwise sharp delivery.

I blinked. My true calling? I needed another Long Island Iced Tea.

“Your skill is extremely valuable,” said SJ. “You’re an English professor, so you know your myths and mythical creatures, right?”

“Uh-huh.” My brain was spinning, a slow lopsided alcoholic spin.

“They’re not mythical.” SJ watched me like a pitcher watches a catcher’s signs. Except it was SJ who had thrown the curve ball.

My ears pounded and the world buzzed. “What do you mean?”

The bartender set down our second round. I wrapped my fingers around the frosty glass, brought it to my lips, and gulped down more liquid courage.

SJ tilted his head, his eyes locked on mine. “The universe is bigger than you can possibly imagine. Life forms from other worlds exist. Your world—”

“My world?”

SJ’s mouth twitched. “This world is not as advanced as you suppose.”

“What do you mean? Intellectually? Morally? Physically?” Visions of oblong alien heads appeared in my human-sized skull.

“In all ways.” SJ’s hand moved toward mine, stopped, retreated.

His touch was electric, calming and thrilling in equal measure. A contradiction. Like the way hearing your favorite sad song on the radio makes you happy. I wanted to feel his touch again. And this time I would not pull away.

SJ jutted his chin toward Impudent Strumpet. “What do you make of the young woman over there?”

I shrugged. “She’s horny.”

“Why do think she’s a witch?” A wicked-sexy grin stretched across SJ’s face.

My brows shot up. “Did I say that out loud?”

SJ tapped his ear. “I have good hearing.”

“She’s not a real witch.” I bumped his shoulder with mine. “Is she?”

SJ looked at that place where I touched him, seemed to contemplate it as though it was a leftover puzzle piece. He looked away, swallowed. “What do you see? Feel? Intuit?”

My gaze rested on Impudent Strumpet—who doesn’t love Othello’s cruel name for his wife Desdemona—for a few minutes. “She’s beautiful but desperate, which doesn’t make any sense. Why would a beautiful woman be desperate? Men fall over themselves for women who look like her.”

“Go on.”

“Maybe it’s the snakeskin print miniskirt, but she reminds me of a reptile. Her eyes…” I chewed on my lip, hesitant to tell him what I really saw with my heart.

“Say it,” he whispered.

“She reminds me of a snake. And her nails look weird.”

They were painted black but something about them was off.

“Explain weird. Tell me what you feel.”

Impudent Strumpet drew a long, pointed black nail down the highball glass and cooed to the man sitting beside her.

“Her fingers and toes look like talons,” I whispered.

“She’s not a witch,” SJ whispered back.

“Who is she?”

“She’s a Lilithian.” He bumped my knee with his.

“A who?”

“You’ll need to study.”

“Study what?” Was there a book?

SJ sat back and crossed his arms. “You may know her as the mythological,” he made air quotes, “demon Lilith.”

My eyes bugged. My mouth opened, closed, opened again.

“Lilithians can only procreate with humans, so you’re right, she is desperate.”

“You’re joking.” I swung my head from right to left. “This is all a joke. You host a TV show where you play tricks on people. Where’s the camera?”

SJ grunted, frowned. “Stories of Lilith’s exploits have been recorded as far back as TheEpic of Gilgamesh.”

“Gilgamesh is the King of Urak.” I read the epic poem in a college freshman English class.

“Excellent, you remember it.”

“Not really.” I only remembered it was long and parts of the story were missing.

“The real Gilgamesh lived more than two thousand and seven hundred years ago, but it took the Sumerians more than seven hundred years later to transcribe the poem into cuneiform. The tablets ended up in the Assyrian library in Nineveh, which, you might recall, the Persian army destroyed in 612 CE.”

I nodded, pretended didrecall.

“Of all the tablets, only twelve detailing Gilgamesh’s adventures were recovered. One of those tablets recounts how Gilgamesh helped the goddess Inanna kill a serpent. Do you remember the story?”

“Sorry, no.” I shifted in the seat. “How is all this relevant?”

“Patience.” SJ patted the air. “Inanna needed a tree chopped down—which happened to be imbued with great mystical power—because she wanted its hardwood to build her throne. The serpent living in its branches, however, refused to leave.”

“Sounds like an ancient landlord-tenant dispute.”

“Well that’s a 21stcentury way of looking at it.” His eyes glinted with amusement. “The ever-helpful Gilgamesh killed the snake for the goddess.” He pointed his finger at me. “It always helps to have a goddess on your side. Don’t forget that, Daphne.”

I bobbed my head in agreement. Whatever. Was he ever going to get to the point of the story?

“Lilith, another snake living in the tree, enraged that her home was destroyed, flew away and took her revenge on mankind. Lilith, as the story goes, is the one responsible for bringing evil into the world.” He lifted his eyebrows, waited for my response. “Lilith is often depicted as having wings and reptilian-like hands and feet.”

The proverbial light bulb went on in my head. And it shone into the darkest corners of my mind, the one labeled Not Just Another Evil-Snake-In-A-Tree story.

“Lilith makes an appearance in several other cultures as well. Muslim folklore claim that jinn, evil supernatural creatures who toy with humans, are the progeny of Lilith and Satan. Jewish Talmudic stories believe Lilith was Adam’s first wife who refused to be sexually submissive and left the Garden of Eden to make demon babies with evil fiends.”

I had dubbed her Impudent Strumpet without a moment’s thought, an all too accurate epithet. My heart banged at a run-up-two-flights-of stairs speed.

SJ continued. “Other Hebrew accounts say Lilith is a fallen angel or the iconic snake in the Garden of Eden. In Mesopotamian legends she’s a barren jealous demon who kills small children and pregnant women out of spite.”

“Seems to be some conflicting accounts.” My eyes flicked toward Lilith the Impudent Strumpet. She leaned on some young unsuspecting man, whispered in his ear. “Is she dangerous? Is that guy in trouble?”

“If you call having sex with a beautiful woman who only wants to get pregnant trouble, then yes.” SJ lips pressed into a smirk.

“I don’t understand. Which story about her is true?”

“I told you. Lilith is a life form who can only produce offspring with humans.”

I stared at SJ, any snappy comeback thwarted by my alcohol-addled brain. My mouth opened a few times, half-formed wisecracks wilting on my lips. I gave up hope of an intelligible response and covered a yawn. Lecturing, grading, panicking, drinking Long Islands, and learning I had some otherworldly skill tired a girl out.

SJ’s eyes sparkled green. At least it looked that way. Weird.

He stood, pushed my unfinished drink away, and pointed to my schoolbag. “I put the box in there. I’ll walk you home now. We’ll finish our discussion tomorrow. Time is short, Daphne. We have a lot to talk about.”

While SJ flagged down the bartender to pay the tab, I studied Lilith. I had identified her in a heartbeat. Did this mean everyweird feeling I had about someone was accurate? Holy crap.

We departed The Dive, SJ’s hand whisking over the small of my back. It felt protective. Right.

We strolled under a bright full moon in silence, the quiet street a welcome relief from the shrill voices, screeching laugher, and constant clamor of the bar.

“Oh night with hue so black! Oh night, whichever art when day is not! Oh night.” Shakespeare was best quoted after a few drinks. Does that make me an ass? I giggled.

SJ smiled. “My favorite line from A Midsummer Night’s Dreamis, ‘And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays.’”

My head whipped around. “Have experience with this, do you?”

“Too much.” SJ gave me a long look before taking my hand.

It’s been a few years since a man held my hand. I had forgotten the warm, safe feeling. I snuck a peek at him, admired his profile, chiseled chin, strong nose, the curve of his lips…

Lips for kisses. Nibbles. Sucks…

I cleared my throat.

“Tomorrow we’ll continue our discussion. Coffee is a better beverage,” said SJ with a straight face.

“No can do. I’m meeting my sisters in the morning. We’re shopping for Ivy’s wedding dress.” It’s like an unbreakable sister law: A sister must provide moral support during this important event. And mimosas.

“Shopping can wait.”

“Wedding dress shopping will most definitely not wait. Nothing is more important than—”

SJ stopped in mid stride and put his finger to his lips. He looked skyward, and it looked like his ears wiggled. His fingers tightened around my hand.

Leaves rustled. Crickets chirped. Frogs croaked. A car crossed the intersection. A cat caterwauled. I heard only the normal night sounds.

SJ grunted, eased his grip.

“What’s wrong?” I whispered.

“I thought I heard something.”

“Are you expecting Lilith to follow us?”

“No. Something else.” SJ turned to me, the cleft in his chin deepening. “You’ll find out soon enough.”

I swallowed. Another ominous comment. This was too much weird for one day. I glanced over my shoulder as though expecting to see the Boogey Man creeping toward us. My fingers pressed into SJ’s hand. All those muscles had to be good for something, right?

I was on a midnight stroll with a Greek God look-alike. Might as well enjoy it. I inhaled the sweet scent of night blooming jasmine and exhaled my worries. Or tried to.

Three blocks later, I rifled for my keys at the bottom of the schoolbag while Foo yapped behind the front door. My stuff was forever getting lost in the black lining’s dark abyss. Wallet, makeup bag, mini tissue pack, random receipts, pens, note pad, hand sanitizer, mints—it took a minute before my fingers touched the cool metal.

Foo greeted me at the door, tail wagging as she danced around me.

“How’s my girl?” I scratched the top of her scruffy head. “This is Foo.”

My white Maltese poodle mix stopped dancing the moment SJ crossed the threshold. Usually, she circles and sniffs new people. Not tonight. Foo stared, motionless. No sniffs. No tail wags. Only staring. Not a good sign.

SJ regarded Foo with amusement. “Not much of a Chinese Foo guard dog is she?”

SJ knowing the name for the lion statues who guarded the Chinese Imperial palace didn’t surprise me, but Foo’s next move did. My white fluff ball rolled over on her back in total submission.

SJ rubbed her belly. “You need two, you know. There are always two Foo. The male, whose paw sits atop the world and the female with a puppy on her back.”

“One spoiled pooch is all I can handle.” It was at that moment that my utter stupidity wiggled its way into my alcohol-sloshed brain. I had let a stranger into my home. “Um…” I looked down, found Foo giving adoring puppy eyes to SJ. Should I trust her canine instincts?

“Tomorrow will be a busy day,” said SJ. “You have a lot to learn, and we don’t have much time.” He stepped towards me, our bodies mere inches apart.

I felt his body heat, inhaled his scent. It was fresh as a forest after a rain with an undercurrent of an exotic fragrance I could not identify but had smelled before. All the questions I want to ask him stuck like cotton candy somewhere between my brain and mouth. I covered a yawn, my mind fuzzier and eyes heavier with each passing second.

SJ’s warm lips touched my forehead. I swayed toward him. If I weren’t so tired I would—

Who am I kidding? Even tipsy I’m a prude.

SJ stepped back and cleared his throat. “See you tomorrow.” With a tight smile, he strode out the front door, the screen door slamming behind him.

I bolted shut the door, flicked off the lights, and trudged to the bedroom. After brushing my teeth, I climbed into bed, pulled the covers to my chin, and stared at the ceiling.

I have a guide. His ears wiggle. I think. His eyes change color. Or had I imagined it? He works for a secret organization, and they don’t have much time. Time for what?

Thecreature’s fingertips dripped bright red specks on the white tile floor. Two eyes shone with delight. This task was easy. Too easy.

He needed another. More must be sacrificed. Sitting on his haunches, the creature piled viscous organs in a crimson heap. Thin fingers efficiently manipulated the grisly mound. Winnowing out the undesirable parts entailed time-consuming procedures. He grinned, the task restored his honor.

Chapter 4

Saturday

Demonic creatures had sex with beautiful womenwhile a giant black snake coiled around my head. A laughing King Gilgamesh tossed his sword to me as I struggled to pull off the ten-foot long serpent. Nearby, demons laughed at my feeble efforts before resuming their orgy. Breasts and cocks and—

Beep beep beep.

I startled awake, sat up, and shook off the sexy weird nightmare.

I squinted, the rude morning sun forcing its way through the blinds. The birds chirped too loudly. Foo barked in the back yard. It felt like Thor, God of Thunder, pounded my head with his hammer. I trudged into the bathroom, swallowed two aspirin, and stepped into the shower.

I’m not a shower thinker. Water lulls me into a stupor. Not today though. All of last night’s bizarreness crashed into my brain.

I had a guide.

I was an empath.

I saw aliens hiding in human skin. I shivered despite the hot water. The whole empath thing was as clear as the bathroom’s steamed mirror. Hazy, half-formed questions about mythical creatures swirled in my mind.

I had to write down my questions. Make sense of all this. Holding a pencil always helped me think. I needed answers from SJ.

I wiped the condensation from the mirror and dragged a comb through my tangled wet hair. The mirror was hateful. Pure evil. Mirror, mirror over the sink, who needs to refrain from mixed drinks? My nose was too long; my lips, too pale. My eyes too close together and my chin, too pointy. Was that a wrinkle?  I needed a tan. My mirror enjoyed torturing me. Two-dimensional devil!

The smell of bacon wafted into the bathroom.

Thank you, Rose, for making breakfast. She was thoughtful like that.

I wrapped around a towel and went to the kitchen. “Rose, thanks for making br—”

Rose was not the Saturday morning chef.

“What are you doing here? And how did you get in?” My fingers gripped the towel.

SJ, wearing a tan t-shirt that hugged his lean torso, brandished a mischievous grin. “Good morning, sunshine.” His eyes went from my wet head, skimmed over my overpriced 100% Egyptian cotton towel, and gave my still-damp legs an approving once-over.

The towel covered all the important parts, and yet SJ managed to make me feel as exposed as Playgirl of the Month’s classic full-frontal beaver shot.

“I’m glad to see you’re ready to start our busy day.” He flipped a piece of bacon. “Chewy or crunchy?”

“Chewy.” I adjusted the towel.

SJ picked up an egg. “Scrambled or over-easy?”

My mind was scrambled, that’s for sure. And I’m sure he could bend me over pretty easy. My face warmed just thinking about.

I cleared my throat, hoisted the towel up an inch, caught a cool draft between my thighs, and lowered it again.

“No time for breakfast.” I glanced at the back door. I remembered checking that it was locked before going to bed. I think.

SJ cracked four eggs and looked over his shoulder. “Nice towel.”

Foo, her tail a-wagging, waited for a piece of bacon with expectant puppy eyes.

“I told you, I’m busy today.”

“And I told you,” he flipped over an egg, “we don’t have much time.”

Ivy barged through the kitchen door. “Daphne, I can’t wait to—” She froze, her eyes wide. “Oh.”

My face flamed hot.

“Hello.” SJ flipped another egg. “You must be Ivy.”

A smirk flitted across Ivy’s gorgeous face as she crouched down to scratch Foo’s ears. “Am I interrupting something?”

“Indeed not. It’s nice to meet you. I’m a friend of Daphne’s.” He turned his back to flip the bacon.

Ivy pointed to SJ, silently mouthing her question. “Who’s he?”

“This is SJ, he’s a guy who…ah…” Who was he? A sexy hunk who worked for a secret organization in need of my empath skills. A Greek God look-alike who intended to prepare me for my true calling in life—whatever that was.

Yeah, none of those sounded even remotely believable.

SJ handed me a steaming mug of coffee.

I looked down. “You forgot cream and sugar.” I gave SJ please-help-me eyes.

“I’m a visiting professor from Canada.” SJ gave me cream from the refrigerator, then extended his hand to Ivy. “Daphne was kind enough to show me around town yesterday. We ended up at The Dive and…” He held his palms out, feigning embarrassment. “I got drunk and crashed on her couch.”

A believable explanation. Ivy would never buy it. Men don’t crash on my couch.

Ivy lifted a perfectly groomed eyebrow, her studied stare going from me, sans clothing, to SJ, who didn’t appear at allas though he spent a night on the couch. Nothing about his appearance or clothing said rumpled or hangover.

“Oh-kaaay. Daphne, let’s get you dressed.” Ivy clutched my arm and yanked me toward the bedroom. “Did you sleep with him? You haven’t mentioned him before. Don’t tell me you just met him yesterday and you already slept with him?” She flung open the closet doors and began rifling through my crammed mess of clothes. “Well?” She threw a faded black shirt on the floor.

“I did not sleep with him.” Although the thought had briefly crossed my mind. Several times.

“Clean out your closet, sis,” Ivy mumbled as she disappeared into the black-gray conservative abyss.

“It’s on my to-do list.” Not.

Ivy emerged from the frumpy depths. “That professor oozes sex, how could you not sleep with him?” She shoved clothes at me. “Is he gay? Married? Asexual?”

“I don’t know.”

“A guy with a body of Adonis spends the night and nothing happened?” Ivy rolled her eyes and tapped her watch. “The appointment at Couture Bridal is for ten o’clock. Hurry up.”

I struggled into my black skinny jeans.

“I don’t know him. Why would I have sex with a stranger?”

“Jeez, Daphne, you’re so damned proper. Live a little. Have yourself a little sexscapade.” Ivy tugged opened a dresser drawer and rifled through my unmentionables. “Ooooh. Puurrfect.” She tossed a lacy black bra at me. “You might need it.” She winked. “For later.”

I grunted and rolled my eyes.

“Makeup, please. You look like something the cat dragged in,” she laughed.

“What? I’m not naturally beautiful?” I fluttered my eyelashes.

“You have dark circles and your eyes are puffy. Other than that: You. Are. Gorgeous.”

Ivy never needed makeup. She was stunning even hungover. We look nothing alike.

I’m tall, Ivy’s petite. Blonde hair cascaded to her waist in perfect waves and long bangs framed her big brown doe eyes. Despite her demanding engineering job, she found time to run a few times week. She called it stress relief. I called it torture. Walking briskly to the coffee shop was my idea of exercise.

Ivy cupped her breasts with both hands. “Do they sew padding in those wedding bodices?”

“As much as you want.” I pulled a sky-blue tunic over my head and slipped on new wedges. “Am I presentable?”

“Always.” She pointed to her watch again, then tapped her feet as I patted on some over-priced concealer and dragged mascara over my lashes.

I looked only slightly less hungover when we returned to the kitchen, which was the exact moment Rose came through the back door.

“Ladies, let’s do this thing because I don’t have all day and—” Rose’s eyes bugged out at the sight of the handsome hunk holding a plate of bacon in the middle of my kitchen. “Well hello, sweetness,” she drawled, giving SJ the once over. “Who are you?”

“His name is SJ.” Ivy plucked a bacon strip from the plate. “He’s a visiting professor. Daphne got him drunk last night, so he made her bacon as a cruel fatty-protein punishment.”

SJ burst out laughing, which made me laugh at the silliness of the situation. A sexy man cooking breakfast in my kitchen was the last thing my sisters expected.

SJ held out the plate heaped with perfectly cooked bacon to Rose.

Rose took one and chewed thoughtfully, her eyes zeroing in on me for evidence of…uncharacteristic naughtiness, I guess.

Ivy slung her Louis Vuitton purse over her shoulder. “Time to go. We can’t be late.” She pointed to SJ. “You staying or going?”

“He’s going,” I set down the coffee and plucked three bacon slices off the plate.

“Staying.” SJ’s brow furrowed with annoyance.

“I’m going.” I shouldered my purse.

“Staying.”

“Going.”

My sisters watched us like a tennis game, their eyes moving back and forth between us.

His lips twitched. “How much time does it take to shop for a wedding dress? We have a lot to do.”

My sisters’ eyebrows lifted in unison.

“I’m sure your professor stuff can wait,” said Rose. “We will take as much time as we need. Relax, Mr. Hotness.”

A yucky awkwardness smothered the yummy bacon smell.

“Hellooooo.” A honey-sweet greeting interrupted The Awkward. “Daphne?” Tiffany, my next-door neighbor, stood at the door, a large black cat in her arms. “Do you have any cat food?”

Foo barked at the fat feline, who buried its head in the crook of Tiffany’s arm.

“When did you get a cat?” I pushed open the door to let her in.

Tiffany waggled her fingers at my sisters but gawked at SJ. “Hello there.”

Tiffany was a man magnet. You know the type. XXL implants, XL collagen lips, and uberplatinum hair. She worked the beach Barbie look a lot of guys find sexy.

This morning, Tiffany wore her standard casual ensemble; white nipple-revealing sports bra, camel-toe tight leggings, and some kind of ridiculous platform flip-flop.

Tiffany thrust out her breasts, her cleavage spilling out over the spandex. “Hi, I’m Tiffany.” She extended a hand to SJ.

Thanks for the nipple show, Tiff.

Rose rolled her eyes. Ivy tapped her foot. Tiffany had a habit of showing up whenever I had guests. She was nosey. Or bored. Maybe lonely.

“SJ.” He shook her hand, his focus on the plump ball of fluff in her arms. “Nice cat.” The way he said ‘cat’ didn’t sound nice at all.

“I don’t have cat food, Tiffany, because ,ah…” I bobbed a thumb at Foo, “I have a dog.”

The cat, who outweighed Foo by a few pounds, hissed.

Foo growled.

“Quiet.” I looked down at Foo. “That cat will kick your ass.”

Tiffany scratched Fat Cat between the ears. “I found her yesterday. This is my lucky kitty.”

SJ tilted his head, his attention fixed on the feline. “How so?”

Tiffany heaved her bosom and raked her teeth over glossy pink lips. “Right after I found her, I found a hundred dollars in the parking lot. She’s a very, very good pussy.”

Rose coughed, and Ivy rolled her eyes.

“That cat will steal your soul,” SJ stated, then turned to me, his eyes boring into mine.

I shrugged. Guess he was more of a dog person.

Tiffany bit her lip. “That’s what a good pussy does.” She did a fair impression of the classic Marilyn Monroe nose wrinkle.

I burst out laughing. My sisters too.

SJ’s stern face melted. “True enough.”

I walked toward the door, beckoned my sisters. “Your cat looks pretty well-fed to me. I’m sure she’ll manage without food for an hour.”

Tiffany’s Ferrari-red nails raked the cat’s thick fur. “You think so?”

“The cat will be fine,” said Ivy. “If we don’t leave now, we’ll be late.”

Tiffany batted her eyes at SJ. “Nice meeting you.” She sashayed out the door.

“I await your return, Daphne.” SJ planted a kiss on my forehead.

Ivy and Rose followed Tiffany out, both imitating her ass-swaying sashay.

I glanced over my shoulder before closing the door. SJ was not smiling.

At the car, Rose turned around and fanned her face. “Your professor is a hottie, buthe’s a bit on the controlling side.” Rose climbed into the backseat of Ivy’s new BMW and tapped Ivy on the shoulder. “Hey, why isn’t Stewart coming with us? Don’t you want his opinion? Or do you believe in the old wives’ tale that the groom can’t see the wedding dress until his bride walks down the aisle?”

“I don’t need Stewart’s approval of mywedding dress.” Ivy snapped on her seat belt. “Anyway, what do men know about wedding dresses?”

Stewart was smart, friendly, easygoing—a regular nice guy. He found Ivy’s giant ego endearing, her bossiness adorable, and her love of designer clothing amusing. Must be love.

“True,” said Rose. “They think all brides are beautiful.”

I tossed a smile over my shoulder at Rose. I loved my sisters. After too many years spent sniping at one another we finally got along. Maturity did that. And having your own bathroom. And not falling for Mom’s attempts to create drama. My mother: Don’t get me started.

“I can only stay a few hours,” said Rose. “I have a meeting with the sausage rep and I’m still training the new guy.”

Rose owned a small sandwich shop in town. Two years ago, she had a dead-end job, partied every night, and pretended to take courses at the local community college. A trip to Las Vegas and a lucky pull of the wheel at some two-bit casino changed her life. Rose hit the jackpot. The Gods must have been smiling upon her because it happened at just the right time in her life. Several months and multiple family meetings later, we convinced Rose to open the sandwich shop she always dreamed of owning.

She named her little lunch joint Bite Me. The menu drew rave reviews with its trendy sandwiches, cupcakes, and soups. Rose made everything from scratch. My favorite was the Italian sub, which was roasted chicken, tomato, provolone, fresh basil, baby lettuce, red onions, and pesto mayonnaise on garlic rosemary bread heaven. Yum.

“Sausage rep? Are you joking?” Ivy laughed.

“What’s so funny? Sam’s Grass-Fed Meats & Artisan Sausage wants me to sample their new selections. I’m thinking of expanding my menu. Everybody loves sausage. Which reminds me, Daphne…”

“No,” I snapped. “SJ and I did not have sex. I hardly know him. He’s a professor from a Canadian university. We went to The Dive where he got too drunk to drive and crashed on my couch. End of story.”

“I wonder if his sausage is as big as his pecs?” Rose kicked the back of my seat.

I flipped her the bird. “I wouldn’t know.” Time to change the topic. I chose a doozy. “So, Rose, did you consider Ivy’s suggestion?”

Rose groaned. “I told you already. I’m not interested.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” said Ivy. “Why not? Give us a good reason. You could become famous.”

“I don’t wantto make a cooking video.” Rose flicked the back of Ivy’s head.

Ivy and I had been pestering Rose to start her own video cooking show. Her sassy personality would shine on video. She was photogenic too. And Bite Me would benefit from the exposure.

“Why not?” Ivy and I asked in unison.

“You’re both bitches.” Rose put on her sunglasses and folded her arms. Case closed. Discussion over.

“That’s not a rational answer.” Ivy never lets up.

I twisted around in the seat. “Give us one good reason.”

“Make your own fucking video.” Rose stared out the window.

“Nobody wants to watch an English professor grade papers.” I reached out and rubbed her shoulder. “You’re very photogenic. Come on, Ivy will video, I’ll help. We’ll upload it and see the number of hits you get. It’ll be fun.”

“Not listening.” Rose stuck in her headphones.

I didn’t understand her attitude. People should jump at every chance given to them. Life only doled out a finite number of opportunities. We should seize them all. Who knows how many chances you get in a lifetime? Sure, you might fail, but not even trying, in my book, was worse.

“Get over yourself,” said Ivy. “Think about it, please. You’re funny and sassy. Hell, you might even enjoy yourself. Just make one. We won’t upload the video if you don’t like it.”

Rose mumbled under her breath.

“Forget it,” I said to Ivy.

Ivy and I chatted wedding while Rose sulked in the backseat.

“Right on time.” Ivy pulled into the bridal store parking lot. “Okay, ladies, let’s find a wedding dress worthy of a movie star.”

Wedding dress shopping was not as fun as I thought it would be.

I had first wedding flashbacks. Ivy and Rose disagreed over lace, flounces, and sequins. There were too many dresses. The sales lady’s syrup-sweet demeanor was annoying—oh honey, you look like an angel in that.

Also, the mystery of my recruitment continued to nag at me, irritated like a scratchy shirt tag on the back of my neck.

I had a guide. And I needed whatever was in the box.

*

“SJ!” I walked through the front door.

No answer.

I went into the kitchen, found it clean, nary a crumb or fork on the counter. He cleaned up after himself? Impressive.

I collapsed on the sofa. Being a wedding dress critic was exhausting. Too many choices. Too low, too high, too white, too much beading, too much lace, too severe, too frilly, too plain.

What had started as exciting matrimonial minutes stretched into nuptial nauseating hours. When Ivy finally found a dress she liked well enough to put on hold, Rose took a bottle of champagne from her enormous purse and we clinked plastic goblets.

I yawned, my head this close to the pillow when I noticed the stack of ungraded essays on the coffee table.

I moved them aside, only to be confronted by the ring-sized mystery box.

Open me, it shouted.

“Fine.” I reached out, let my fingers brush the smooth wood grain. My insides turned to mush. Weird vibes felt like a fly crawling on my skin. I knew, with a bone deep knowing, that the moment I opened the lid nothing would ever be the same. My own Pandora’s Box. And we all know how that worked out for the world. Hello, Evil.

I liked my boring life. It was safe. Predictable. I don’t like surprises. Not keen on change.

What had SJ said? The item in the box would help me. Help me do what?

“I’m a hypocrite.” I spoke to the box out loud. I looked to the ceiling., “Sorry, Rose. I shouldn’t be telling people to take a chance if I can’t myself.”

Thiswasdifferent though.

SJ and his mysterious unnamed organization were a complete mystery. Hell, I might be nothing more than a pawn in some weird cosmic game.

I traced the edges of the box.

To open or not to open; that was the question.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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