The Wicked City–Chapter 1

The first time June Coffin saw Micha Bellevue, he was giving a lecture at the Chicago Institute for Supernatural Research. June and her brother Jason weren’t yet prisoners of the unholy place and June had sneaked into a conference room. Though the subject of the lecture—something insipid about paranormal rights in the workplace—didn’t interest her, the lecturer certainly did. Micha was tall and rugged yet boyishly handsome, all her weaknesses. Meesha, not Mi-ca, much easier to yell in bed. He had sandy brown hair with gold highlights, cut shaggy with a swoopy fringe. He also had sky blue eyes and a crooked smile.

June, in contrast, was five-four, lean, and petite. Her father once called her “diminutive,” and she’d hated the word ever since. She had a flowing mane of jet-black hair, though at the moment it lacked volume or luster and she’d been keeping it in a ponytail. Her eyes were vivid green, nearly iridescent, but their color was real, unlike her hair. She was also over-fond of tattoos and piercings.

She was Micha’s exact opposite, which was fine, because she believed people needed to explore sexual pursuits outside their peer groups.

In the fifteen minutes she spoke to Micha after the lecture at the Institute, the lovely man revealed himself to be full of ostentatious ideas and painfully corny jokes. A bit later, June stood in an atrium, smoking a cigarette while he led a string of eager young supernatural neophytes across the courtyard below. She narrowed her eyes against the smoke curling around her face. I’m so gonna hit that. She hadn’t, not yet, for huge moral reasons.

Namely, because Micha had a wife.

Except, his wife currently lay trussed up in her casket, awaiting her funeral service in the morning, and June had kind of helped put her in it.

But right now they also had this issue with the gun.

Hanging out with dead people on a Sunday night didn’t rank high on June’s to-do list, despite her last name. But as she stood in a darkened funeral parlor staring at the tall, buxom, red-haired woman with said gun, she realized how much her priorities had changed.

“What the hell is that?” June’s question was rhetorical, but she still wanted an answer.

“It’s a Glock.” The redhead—whose name was Cindy—said this coolly, as if she were describing a pair of shoes. Cindy had dressed all in black for the occasion, like a cat burglar.

The three of them—June, Micha, and Ms. Congeniality herself—weren’t in the funeral home to steal anything. Even after the events of the preceding week, June wasn’t cracked enough to snatch a body.

“Why do you have it?” June asked. “We don’t need a gun.”

The whimpering aged gentleman on his knees next to Cindy probably welcomed this news but clearly was no less frightened, as Cindy had the muzzle pressed against his temple. The man wore a handsome silk robe with wide lapels, the kind rich guys sported in movies. Were all funeral directors so dashing in their choice of nightclothes?

“I brought it just in case,” Cindy said.

“Why would we need to shoot someone in a funeral home?” June raised her voice, no longer worried about being quiet. The director had probably heard them clamoring through the window at the rear of the house. June possessed some nifty skills: she was an excellent self-taught artist, she could shoot whiskey with the boys like she was one of them, and she could make wicked smoke rings. However, grace and athletics eluded her.

“I don’t think he’s armed,” June said. “I doubt you need to defend a funeral home.”

“You never know,” Micha said behind her. “Necrophiliacs probably like to break into funeral homes.”

June closed her eyes; she counted to five, and then ten, but when she opened her eyes again, she wasn’t any calmer.

“I won’t hurt you,” the man on the floor said in a small, pitiful voice. “Just take what you want and go.”

June stepped forward and waved a hand at Cindy, shooing away the gun. June had never touched a gun in her life. She had never needed to.

Cindy lowered the gun and stepped back. “I was just trying to help.” She spoke with the petulance of an admonished child. A child who didn’t get to play with her deadly weapon.

June knelt. The paunchy balding man was shaking, his eyes wide.

“It’s all right.” A heavy energy, curled in June’s stomach like a sleeping cat, rose to her sternum and surged upward again to warmly coat her throat. “Just sit there and relax and think about your favorite things until we’re gone.”

The man’s body sagged. His face slackened. He pivoted to the side and sat down on his bottom with a shuddering thump, his gaze gone distant and dreamy. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.

June stood.

“There. Isn’t that awesome? Supernatural powers and stuff?” She didn’t enjoy throwing around her “hypnotic voice phenomenon,” as the scientists liked to call it, but invasive persuasion seemed far less cruel than criminal menacing.

Cindy pushed the gun forcefully into a holster on her hip. June winced, afraid it might go off, but thankfully—or perhaps regrettably—it didn’t. June had failed to notice Cindy was wearing a holster, probably because she’d been too busy figuring out how to break into a funeral home.

“Come on,” June said. “Let’s get this done.”

She stepped past the oblivious man on the floor. Micha followed.

The casket, tucked into a bank of flowers and wreaths, rested atop a short dais like a morbid confectionery in a baking contest. June slid her hand along the side of the casket to find a latch. She did not want to do this. Despite the mind-obliterating madness she’d survived recently, corpses still jangled her nerves.

“Gah.” She lifted the lid a few inches.

She turned into a baby around corpses, despite knowing they weren’t going to sit up and strangle her. Earlier, when she’d voiced speculative, mostly joking concern about the dead getting their revenge, Cindy pointed out scientific research had proven zombies non-existent.

“Turn a light on.” June took a bracing breath and opened the lid farther. She expected a bad smell, but a faintly chemical, perfume-y odor wafted out.

“Here.” Cindy slid up beside her.

A pale bluish light illuminated the space around them and fell on the still, poised figure inside the casket. Cindy held her cell phone aloft, screen lit. June paused.

“What?” Cindy’s eyes shone in the faint light.

“I think if you try, you could be a little more disrespectful. Maybe you’d like to shoot her a couple times? Turn on a light!”

“You’re the one breaking into her casket.” Cindy tapped the screen to renew the light. “We can’t turn on a light. Someone might see. Hurry up. This is freaking me out.”

“It’s freaking you out?” June opened the lid fully. She snatched the phone from Cindy and held it closer to the body to get the grim task over with.

Micha’s wife, the esteemed Mrs. Rose Bellevue, had been a lovely woman. Had. Been. She had high delicate cheekbones, plump lips, and dusky skin—the times June had seen her alive, anyway. Her dark hair was fixed in a neat knot atop her head, loose curls spilling onto the white pillow beneath her. A tiny smile touched her lips. Her long-fingered hands rested delicately on her stomach, manicured nails gleaming. She wore a white dress with a boxy neckline and lace sleeves. She looked like an angel instead of a zombie, thank God.

June waited for Micha’s response, sort of hoping, sort of not. “Well?”

Micha leaned closer and peered at her face. The light on the phone dimmed. June jabbed the screen, and a moment later a faint jingle came out of the phone.

“Give me that.” Cindy yanked the phone from her and looked at the screen. “You just dialed my boyfriend. Good work.”

June was aghast. “I can’t believe anyone would date you.”

One of them.”

Cindy disconnected the call and shone the light back on Rose’s face. June ground her teeth and pulled a breath through her nose.

After a tense, silent moment, Micha stood upright. “No. I don’t recognize her.” He shrugged. “Pretty, though. I must have game.”

June smoothed a hand over her hair. The strands were greasy and limp and she winced. She hadn’t had a shower in more days than she wanted to contemplate.

“All right,” June said. “It was worth a try. Let’s split, before we get caught. We’ll go through the front door this time.”

Cindy lowered her phone and patted her hip. “If we have to fight our way out, I’m ready.”

“Yes, if the legions of undead try to block our escape.”

June carefully closed the lid of the casket, turned, and walked down the aisle, past rows of couches and folding chairs. The funeral would be huge. She had to get the hell out of the place, away from the woman’s dead body and her own guilt. She needed to get the hell out of Chicago, but she couldn’t. Not yet.

Not until she got her brother back.

* * * *

Cindy had an apartment in West Lakeview. She told June that’s where they were, but June didn’t care if they were on the moon. She felt like she was on the moon, in some bizarre alternate reality, even if all signs pointed to being on earth. Cindy also had a tortoiseshell cat named Serendipity—Dipity for short—that liked to sit on June.

June lay in bed in Cindy’s guest room, a small white box with little decoration or furniture—a twin bed, a sagging sofa, and a hulking, ugly wooden dresser. Dipity sat on June’s stomach, kneading her belly as she prepared her for—who knew? Dinner, probably. One paw, then the other. Over and over. Knead, knead. Knead, knead. A cigarette dangled from the corner of June’s mouth, one eye open as she peered through the smoke, past the bowl she was utilizing as an ashtray on her chest.

“Will you lay the hell down?” June snarled.

Dipity did, folding herself into a loaf and gazing at June with wide, accusing yellow eyes. Dipity moved up and down as June breathed.

Soft slapping footsteps sounded in the hallway. Cindy peeked around the doorframe. “Did you say something?”

Dipity looked up at Cindy.

“I was talking to your damn cat,” June said.

Cindy stepped into the room. June found her pretty in an overbearing sense: Amazonian and bodacious, leggy and curvy in a way most guys liked. All the things June wasn’t.

“She likes you.” Cindy wore white pajama pants and a pink T-shirt stretched tight across her ample bosom. “It must be your charming personality. Or you smell like Micha.”

June glanced over at the sofa. Micha had his back to them, covers bunched around his waist, his white T-shirt twisted and hair a tousled, mottled mess of brown and gold. Despite Cindy’s friendship with Micha, she pointed out repeatedly that she was not a “paranormal activist” like him. June didn’t blame Cindy for wanting to be clear. June had actively avoided paranormal activists until she committed the grave mistake of coming to Chicago.

“He’s been sleeping a lot.” Cindy indicated Micha. “Is that one of the side effects?”

June ground her cigarette out in the bowl and sat the bowl next to her hip. “Hell if I know. I’ve never accidentally messed up someone’s mind so bad I couldn’t reverse it.”

Cindy left the room. She returned shortly with a newspaper.

“Look at this.” She walked to the bed and thrust the paper at June.

She gave June the Paranormal section of the Chicago Tribune. June had been reading it every day for some mention of Jason. She’d also been reading news online, on Cindy’s laptop. The Chicago Institute for Supernatural Research, the first and biggest facility to be given government approval for paranormal research, kept the city alive with supernatural intrigue and gave bloggers something to endlessly blather about. The Institute’s presence didn’t mean folks in Chicago were hugging their neighborhood telepath, however. The freaks still got persecuted, like in Sacramento where June lived.

The headline on the first page said: HAVE THE SIREN TWINS LEFT CHICAGO? INSTITUTE NOT FORTHCOMING.

June’s heart jumped and then sank again after she read the article. The reporter speculated she and Jason had fled, “shaken profoundly by the horrific and untimely death of the Institute’s top vampire researcher, Rose Bellevue, her vicious murder still a hot topic of rampant speculation.” The article went on to say paranormal citizens were pointing fingers at a normalist group called the Secular Normalists of Chicago or SNC, “a dastardly force polluting this city with misinformation and blatant ignorance.”

June could end the speculation, if she dared come out of hiding.

The article also said police were still investigating the possible kidnapping of Micha Bellevue, Rose’s husband and one of the paranormal community’s most lauded advocates: “last year’s recipient of the J.B. Rhine Award for Advocacy, friend of many paranormal people. His generous admirers hope fervently for his safety and the punishment of those involved in this horrendous crime.”

June had seen plenty of bloggers speculating Micha had something to do with Rose’s death and was on the run, and one particularly amusing guy was convinced Micha had been abducted by the CIA. June could be sneaky, but she wasn’t on level with the government.

“I can’t believe how lurid this shit is.” June tossed the paper on top of Dipity. She emitted an angry mewl and got up. “Reads like a tabloid.”

“Ethan Roberts.” Cindy lifted the paper off her cat. “He’s been the lead paranormal reporter for the Tribune for years. He might be colorful, but he knows what he’s talking about.” She tucked the paper under her arm. “My friend will be here soon. So haul your ass out of bed and get dressed.”

Dipity jumped off June and padded slowly around the bed.

“I tried to warn him.” Cindy looked over at Micha. “All those years he thought the Institute could do no wrong. He sure took it up the ass without lube this time.”

June didn’t comment.

“It sucks, though.” Cindy dropped her voice a little. “He didn’t deserve to lose Rose.”

“Look at it this way. Now he can be an advocate for the right people. Knowledge is power. Fight the Man. Rah rah.”

June sat up. Dipity moved behind her and rubbed across her back in a sleek caress. Cats forgave easily.

Cindy turned toward the door.

“Hey,” June said.

Cindy stopped.

“What’s the SNC? I keep seeing them pop up in these articles.”

Cindy scrunched up her face. “They’re a paranormal…protest group. Can’t say ‘hate group’ since the treaty. The Secular Normalists of Chicago. They wanted to set themselves apart from the Bible-thumpers and fundies, but they still like to beat us up.”

“I didn’t realize they needed an organized group to do that. Where I come from, that’s called a gang.”

“It was founded by this guy named Alan Jenkins. He died like five years ago and his son Aaron took over. Aaron says he wants to clean up his father’s dirt.” She pursed her lips. “I don’t believe him.”

“Quite a city you got here.”

Dipity hopped off the bed and landed on the floor with a thump.

“I don’t know how you sleep at night,” June said.

“With one eye open.” Cindy turned and left the room. Dipity streaked after her.

Micha, undoubtedly having been awake for the entire conversation, stirred and rolled partially onto his back and twisted his head around. He gazed at her with bleary, unfocused eyes. She fought the urge to walk over to the sofa and lovingly smooth his hair back; then grab a fistful.

“I like your ink,” Micha said groggily. “I have some. On my back.”

June blinked and stretched her exposed arms. She had countless hours and thousands of dollars worth of tattoos up and down her arms, across her chest, some on her back, one down her left side. A lot she’d done herself. She also had multiple piercings: six in one ear, four in the other—minus the gauges—one in her tongue too, not to mention a few other places. A “rebel,” her mother called her. She caused soccer moms to cross the street on a regular basis, even when doing nothing more malevolent than smoking a Parliament while holding a latte and texting.

“Thanks,” she said. “You’ll have to show me sometime.”

Micha rolled fully onto his back and stretched, arms over his head, long legs stiffening beneath the blanket. He didn’t fit on the sofa, but he’d insisted on taking it, like a gentleman.

“God, what time is it?” he asked.

“A little after nine.” She needed to say something but took a moment to choose her words carefully. “I feel bad about you missing your wife’s funeral today. But until I figure out how to fix what I’ve done to your head, I can’t send you back into the wild. Let them keep thinking you’ve been kidnapped by the CIA or whatever. I have a feeling if you surfaced right now you’d fall into the Institute’s net anyway.”

Micha put his hands over his face. The light caught on his gold wedding band.

“I’m so confused,” he murmured through his fingers. “Not only about this woman who’s supposed to be my wife, but about the Institute.” He took his hands away. “I supported them. I thought they were doing the right thing. I believed they were helping the maligned and oppressed.”

June couldn’t believe he’d used the words “maligned and oppressed” in seriousness.

“I’ve done so many seminars there,” Micha said. “I’ve lauded them as a safe haven and a place for paranormal people to understand themselves and help others understand them. When I think of all the people I’ve sent there…”

The sunlight blazing on the white walls magnified the color of his eyes, making them some inane interior decorating color like cerulean. They were desperate though, dimmed with worry and care, darkened and dulled by sadness.

“Well”—she wasn’t good at placating—“a lot of people thought Hitler was doing the right thing until they found out the truth. Didn’t make them criminals.”

Instead of seeming relieved, Micha blanched, his eyes going wide. She popped her tongue into her cheek and looked around for her smokes. Smooth. Real smooth.

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