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The Burning City–Chapter 1

On June Coffin’s first official day of liberation, the day she could finally show herself to the world without fear of repercussion, she stood in a cemetery under the blazing July sun sweating her ass off—literally. Sweat trickled down the crack of her ass, and she struggled not to squirm.

The conservative black dress she wore wasn’t for mourning—despite the venue—but to cover the majority of her tattoos. God forbid she appear anything but vanilla and meek on this day when the Chicago public would turn out to pity her. She’d been shot, hunted, taken prisoner, and unfairly maligned during the past six months, but being digestible for the viewing public remained priority number one.

Maybe liberation wasn’t the right word.

Sam Haain, her boyfriend—God, that was weird to say—stood a few yards away in front of a pillar gravestone. He had dressed up too, in a suit and tie. She’d never had a thing for men in suits, but the way he wore his changed her mind. Maybe he’d had it tailored, or maybe he just possessed a body made for a suit. He’d pulled his long dark hair back, because propriety, after all. Their handlers had warned them repeatedly they needed to be “professional and presentable.”

“How much time do we have?” she asked Aaron Jenkins, who stood beside her.

Aaron also wore a suit, nearly the same shade of gray as his hair; however, she rarely saw him in less.

“Twenty minutes before we absolutely must be on our way.” He squeezed her arm. “I’ll wait in the car.”

He walked back toward the black limousine parked on the pathway. He hadn’t approached the pillar, despite the fact his daughter lay beneath it.

June fanned herself. Her tits were sweating too. Wearing a bra sucked.

She walked over to Sam. His hands were tucked in his pants pockets. He’d taken his sunglasses off, and they dangled out of one pocket, his thumb hooked around them.

“It’s nice,” June said softly.

The pillar was slender and tapered as it rose, with an ornamental orb on top. The white granite glittered in the sunlight. The words “Mary Ellen Jenkins” had been carved into the base of the stone. June had known her only as Muse, and only heard her real name for the first time after she died.

Muse had been born in 1986. Twenty-eight, a year younger than June.

“Yeah, it’s nice.” Sam pulled his hand out of his pocket and slipped his arm around her shoulders. “Simple and graceful. She’d like it.”

June leaned against his side, her head barely reaching his shoulder. Tall men gave her a reason to like being short.

“And white,” June said. “She loved white.”

“She didn’t, actually. She hated it. She said it made her look like a ghost.”

June tilted her face up.

Sam squinted at her. He had a strong jaw and dark eyes, was clean-shaven, and had a copper tint to his skin. Over the past month, as her emotions had grown stronger, his features seemed to stand out clearer in her love-addled vision.

“It was her condition,” he said. “Most dyes gave her a rash. Her autoimmune response was out of whack.”

June struggled for something to say. So many revelations about Muse. But then, June hadn’t really known her. She’d wanted to, more than ever now that she was gone. June regretted deeply she hadn’t tried to get to know her better when she was alive.

“Wow.” June focused on the pillar. “She suffered a lot, didn’t she?”

“She did.” Sam’s voice was hushed, as hushed as the sprawling somber yard around them. “This is the first time I’ve gone out to meet the public without her.” He wormed his fingers under the shoulder of June’s dress. “She won’t be there to watch my back. It makes me nervous.”

Muse had kept Sam safe with her mindreading, and when necessary, her knives. Going out in public without her made June uneasy as well.

“I doubt anyone will try to hurt us,” June said. “After all, we’ve gone from villains to heroes. The biggest challenge we’ll face is resisting the urge to tell everyone to eat shit.”

“You should probably let me do most of the talking.” He tugged her bra strap.

She swatted his hand. “Stop it. And I plan to say as little as possible.”

“I’m sure it’s Aaron and me they’ll want to talk to the most.” He released the strap, making it snap her shoulder. “You look nice, by the way.”

She yanked at the sides of her dress, wiggling it down over her hips. The fabric was form fitting and sheer, supposedly to make it cooler. False advertising.

“This is ridiculous,” she complained. “I’m the victim. Why do I have to be presentable? I can’t believe they told me to take out my piercings too. I didn’t take my posts out, though. That’s why I have to wear a bra. God forbid anyone sees my nipples.”

“They should be honored to see your nipples.” He glanced down. “What about the other one? Did you take that out?”

She pushed her sunglasses up her nose. “Of course, because I plan on flashing my vagina at the crowd.”

“We’ll definitely make front page then.”

He pulled her against him and kissed the top of her head. She had her hair pulled up, and at least that looked cute. Her first indulgence once she got out of hiding had been to have her hair done. The light brown roots were gone, all of it a nice solid black again. She’d been tempted to add some unnatural color as well, a few streaks, but ultimately decided against it. After all she’d been through, she wasn’t feeling the punk vibe. Her mother would be relieved.

“Are you ready for this?” he murmured against her hair. “It’s going to be a circus, you realize.”

“No, but it’s too much to hope they’d let us get back to our lives in peace. Or, as much peace as possible. Just leave us alone and let us find Robbie and Occam.”

Her stomach lurched at speaking the vampire’s name. Her brother, Jason, and best friend, Diego, had been Occam’s prisoners for over a month now—longer than her brother had been held captive at the Institute. She had to make a choice soon: let Occam turn her into a vampire, or let him end their lives. Not a choice she could even remotely come close to making.

She prayed every day that he held them prisoner as disinterestedly as he’d held Micha Bellevue before them. A dirty mattress and bags of chips for sustenance was better than the other possibilities.

“Of course they can’t leave us be,” Sam said. “They need to ask us what it was like to be hunted and lied about for months on end. That’s the human interest part.”

“I wouldn’t call that human.”

“You realize it will be a long time before our lives get back to normal. Even if we hunt Robbie and Occam down tomorrow. Even if I kill that monster and you get Jason and Diego back.”

She looked down at her feet cushioned in the bright green grass, her bare toes peeking from her black flats. She wouldn’t risk wobbling around on heels in front of a crowd. Her toenails were painted black, her one “screw you” to the polite world.

“I know,” she said. “I don’t know that we’ll ever be normal again. But I’ve come to terms with that.”

“After today, we’ll at least be out of FBI custody.”

She lifted her head and took in the graveyard. The world was a cemetery, and in the end, that was where they’d end up. She would make her own gravestone, though.

“We just have to get through this,” she said. “So we can begin doing what needs to be done.”

He rubbed her back. “Don’t worry. I have a little surprise.”

“I don’t like surprises.” She eyed him. “I’ve had my fill of them.”

“You know if I have an audience, I’m going to talk.” He slipped his sunglasses on and tugged at the lapels of his jacket. “They should know better than to put me on a stage.”

“Sam. What are you planning?”

“Something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.” He looked at the pillar. “Something I discussed with her. She’d be proud.”

“Sam.”

He smoothed his tie. “You’d better get used to this. They’ve kept me in the shadows way too long. I’m going to run my mouth all I want. They owe me that.”

She put her hands on her hips.

“You should take advantage of it too,” he said. “They’re giving us a platform to air our grievances.”

“Tell me what you’re planning. I don’t want to be caught off guard.”

He smirked smugly. Once, she’d wanted to slap that smirk off his face. She still did, but she would do it lovingly. Despite all the crap he’d been through lately, his self-assured punchy attitude hadn’t dulled.

“You should fix your lipstick,” he said. “You want to look your best for the gawkers, don’t you?”

She touched her lips. “What’s wrong with my lipstick? I just put it on before we—”

He swept in and kissed her, hard. She made a sound between an angry yelp and a grunt into his mouth and pushed at his chest. When he stepped back, his lips were smeared with her bright red lipstick.

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Like I said, fix your lipstick.”

She huffed. “Way to be disrespectful, you friggin’ meathead. Right on top of her grave.”

“She’d be happy for me.” He slid his arm around her, and they turned toward the limo. “She got tired of my fuming and swaggering every time I saw you and Micha together. She’d get on me about acting like a man and telling you.”

“She…knew?”

“She could read my mind.”

Muse and Sam’s relationship remained shrouded in mystery, and June couldn’t bring herself to press for details. His wound was still raw, and she would not be jealous of a dead woman, especially one who had been so amazing in life.

“I’ll come back and put flowers on her grave,” he said, “now that I know where it is.” He’d asked Aaron this morning, in their hotel room, to bring him before the ridiculous press conference they were about to attend. June suspected he needed a morale boost from “seeing” her.

“I was going to bring some white roses.” June glanced over her shoulder. “But now I’ll bring something more colorful.”

* * * *

Two weeks prior, at Aaron’s urging, they had turned themselves over to the FBI. The truth had been confirmed by that time. They were never taken into legal custody, but a protective one, where they were questioned relentlessly and helped the Feds put the final pieces together.

June’s role in the investigation was small; still, she must have talked to sixty different people about the same things, answering the same questions over and over. At one point, she asked them why they didn’t employ telepaths. The suggestion was met with frowns and blank stares.

A week ago, the whole mess had gone public and the pace of events turned breathtaking.

First, the FBI, in conjunction with the state of Illinois, shut down the Chicago Institute For Supernatural Research pending a thorough investigation of “unethical practices, felony conspiracy and cover up, and crimes against humanity.” Researchers were questioned and the governing board—who had not yet appointed a new head to replace Eric Greerson—faced a huge, nasty federal probe. Warrants were issued for the seizure of all Institute property.

Paranormal folks the city over rejoiced. The various bickering groups actually shook hands and celebrated together. The night it exploded all over the news, she and Sam sat in their hotel room where the FBI kept them and watched in silence. June was too hollow and exhausted to either cry or celebrate.

The end of the Institute was a victory they’d long desired, but it wasn’t the only one, and it wasn’t the biggest one.

Directly on the heels of this bombshell, the FBI announced Aaron and Sam had been framed for the murder of Eric Greerson. Though the agency didn’t release the video of what happened that night—the grisly revelation of Eric’s shenanigans, their narrow escape, all the horrible things Eric had used Micha for—someone leaked it on the Internet. This, more than the FBI’s statement, quickly turned the public’s opinion of Sam and Aaron from murderous demons to avenging angels.

The sudden swell of fame was frightening. Luckily, June remained as always little more than a footnote. Her part in the story, and Jason’s part, was mentioned when only the rest of the tale had already been breathlessly passed along.

The Paranormal Alliance—members of which Robbie Beecher hadn’t turned to his cause or killed for not joining him—had risen up in glorious, roaring triumph. Sam said he couldn’t wait to stand before them again. He would pace the hotel room, telling her what he intended to say to them, how he’d reward them for their loyalty, the whole time gesturing and full of fire. She’d try to coax him into bed to take a little of that fire out on her.

No wonder she had so many feelings, godlike as he was lately.

The FBI placed Robbie at the top of their Most Wanted list. They promised he’d be brought swiftly to justice. They’d find him and make him pay for the massacre in the park as well as the supernatural people he’d killed so the Institute didn’t get their hands on them.

June laughed at this. Robbie was not the kind of man to be caught “swiftly.” He was not the kind of man to easily be brought to justice, either.

But one could always hope.

She sat in the back of the limo, reapplying her lipstick in a compact mirror. The car slid through the bustling downtown streets of Chicago, beneath the looming towers. For the first time in half a year, the throngs of people and the chugging hub of activity didn’t frighten her. She could actually walk among them again, if she wanted to.

“Any leads on Occam?” Sam asked. He spoke to Aaron.

Aaron sat on the bench seat across from them. “No. The vampires are keeping their mouths shut, as usual.”

Aaron had people crawling all over the Nocturnal District, but no one was giving up Occam’s whereabouts. The house he’d been staying in when she met him sat abandoned. The periodic messages Occam sent her—all handwritten notes—included no clue where they originated. Sometimes they just appeared, which meant he definitely knew her whereabouts.

“I may have to take drastic measures if you want me to continue to press.” Aaron drummed his fingers on the seat. “The vampires take exception to our intrusion and they’re constantly menacing my operatives.”

June snapped her compact shut. “I want you to continue to press. Take drastic measures. I want to find my brother and Diego.”

“Sam might not want me to take drastic measures,” Aaron said. “I could pull my monetary donations that are still keeping Kevin Kramer safe. Or at least threaten it.”

Sam rubbed his fingers over his lips.

“Does Kevin Kramer really mean that much to you?” Aaron asked him.

“He did to my brother,” Sam said.

Sam’s brother, Thomas, had been Kevin’s best friend. When Thomas was murdered, Kevin had enlisted vampires to hunt down and slaughter Thomas’s murderers—which they had, apart from one killer who remained unknown. The vampires, callous and careless as they were, would have given away Kevin’s involvement without a second thought. Sam asked Aaron to pay them off for their silence. In return, Sam took Muse into his safekeeping to protect her from Aaron’s organization, the anti-paranormal Secular Normalists.

Obviously, Aaron didn’t need that favor anymore.

Sam squeezed June’s hand. “We’ll find Occam. It’ll be easier now that we can move in the open.”

Aaron sighed. “I wish he’d give you more proof he still has them alive before I take drastic measures. Something other than a strand of hair and my watch.”

June blinked at him.

“I recognized it. You got it from a box in the attic at the house in Hyde Park. I lived there for a time after my wife passed. All the junk in the attic is stuff I left there when I relocated downtown.”

“I gave it to him to hide the scar on his wrist,” June said. “It doesn’t even work.”

Aaron looked out the window. “Something from that time in my life might as well be useful again.”

She said nothing, rubbing her stomach. As always, it ached, partly from hunger and partly with the usual burning pain gnawing at her guts.

“Did you eat something this morning?” Sam asked her.

“I managed to keep some applesauce down. And the vitamins.”

Since discovering her power would eventually kill her, much the same as Muse’s power had been killing her, June lived as if she’d been given a fatal cancer diagnosis. She’d been through every stage of grief multiple times but had yet to find acceptance. She’d spent most of her life battling nausea, pain, and food issues. The added anxiety and dread made it worse.

“I still feel gross every morning,” she said. “Maybe it’s progressing faster than Occam said it would.”

Sam squeezed her hand again. “You’ve been under a lot of stress lately. It’s bound to take a toll on you. Everything is going to work out.”

She looked into his eyes. Those dark depths were intense, sincere. He believed that.

“Occam isn’t going to win this game,” he said softly. “And Robbie isn’t going to win his game, either. We’re going to be the winners.”

“I think you’re just feeling smug right now because we’ve finally got a few punches on our scorecard.”

“Or maybe it’s because I’ve finally got you, and you make me feel invincible.”

“Ugh.” She wrinkled her nose. “I thought I was gonna keep the applesauce down.”

He kissed her but didn’t try to smear her lipstick this time. A brief, comforting kiss.

They pulled up in front of Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue. June’s heart raced. The beat quickened even more when she took in the crowds gathered outside.

People packed the sidewalks around the building, stretching down the street and across the bridge spanning the Chicago River. One lane had been blocked off and filled with police cars. The police were positioned everywhere, along the barricades cordoning off the crowds, around the building’s entrance, in the street itself.

“Oh my God.” June stared wide-eyed. “Are they serious?”

Sam was practically vibrating. “Finally, the city is in our favor.”

She had attended a press conference once before, when Jason was being held by the Institute, in a ploy to get him back. She was now filled with the same horrifying nervousness as back then, her chest tightening so much she could barely breathe. Attention from huge crowds was not something she craved, yet since coming to Chicago that was all she seemed to get.

“You’re gonna do all the talking, right?” she asked in a small voice.

“Have you met me?”

Aaron got on his cell phone. “We’ve arrived. Pulling up now in the Aston Martin.”

June took a deep bracing breath, trying to open her chest up. Her pounding heart rattled all the wind out of her.

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