He ploughed his fingers though her locks, cupping her head and wrapping his other arm about her shoulders, trying to relieve the burden of her terror.
He spied a photo on the floor at her feet. It was Sophia with a young girl, mid-teens by the looks of her. A raven-haired beauty. There was another picture of Sophia with the black cat. And another of a group of people. All three framed photos were dumped on the ground, the glass smashed as though someone had put their foot on them.
The jumbled thoughts began to straighten out. The cat. Sophia. The girl. The twenty or so people. The name Jim.
“You were with the Church of the Chosen, weren’t you?”
She stiffened and stepped right back away from him. She lifted eyes that seemed far too much for a face of a young woman in her twenties, and wary. “How do you know about that?” Her voice was flat. Scared.
He frowned. She shouldn’t be scared. Not around him. But how could he tell her he was Death incarnate and had come to harvest the souls who had committed suicide in the name of their God when he couldn’t utter his name?
He indicated the photos on the ground. “I recognize the faces.”
That was true. He’d been vaguely unimpressed he’d had to end a training session early to reap twenty souls. It had been a chore for him. The horror of how those twenty people had died hadn’t occurred to him. He hadn’t even really looked at their faces when he’d harvested them.
Looking at those smiling faces in the frame, Sophia and the raven-haired girl amongst them, he realized he shouldn’t have considered it a chore.
Her gaze flew from the photo to his face. “There’s only a few people who would recognize them.”
His blood heated and he readied himself for her revelation. He couldn’t be sure of her reaction. Humans normally didn’t come face to face with Death unless their lives were over.
“How do you know them, Liam? If that even is your name.”
“I…” The words stuck.
She pointed a finger at him. It trembled. “I knew it. You’re a cop. Undercover. You’re looking for Jim Broton, aren’t you? You think you can use me to find him. They told me they’d stay away and still they sent someone. Well, look what’s happened. You’re never going to find him. There’s one thing I know about Jim Broton—he’s a coward. He’ll never pay for his sins.”
“I wouldn’t go so far as saying something like that. It will catch up with him in the end. It always does no matter how people think it won’t,” Death said.
Her attention caught on the bench and she lurched to a note that had been neatly placed on top of it. The only neat thing in the entire apartment. She held it with two hands and as she read, she trembled even more. “God. Oh God. I… I have to go. Now.”
He grabbed her elbow as she passed, “What’s going on, Sophia?”
She threw the note at him. “See what you’ve done? They’ve taken her, and I have to try and stop them. There’s one thing I do know about Jim. He will kill her without a second thought. Don’t try to stop me.”
“I can protect you, Sophia.” He could protect her, just not how she probably thought he might.
“Your type of protection isn’t good enough. You don’t know Jim Broton like I do. He won’t stop until one of us is dead.”
He caught the note on his chest as she stalked from the apartment. Thick black capitals stared back at him, hastily written. We have Melody. Four Sparrow Marsh. Mill Basin Bridge. Come or she dies.
“Sophia!” But she’d already disappeared from the apartment. One step into the corridor and she wasn’t there.
He raced downstairs to see an empty foyer. He didn’t see her, but he knew where she was going. He strode outside to the waiting limo. The back door opened and he willingly dove inside. Tires squealed as they pulled into traffic. The kitten mewed and he patted it, trying his best to soothe the small creature.
“You know where to go, don’t you?”
There was no answer, except the smooth sound of tires on pavement and the quiet hum of the motor. A newsreel flew into his mind. Sophia Clark, a barely surviving member of the Church of the Chosen. A reclusive cult in the middle of Alabama that was taken down through her bravery. Despite being drugged, she’d crawled to a local farm ten miles down a back road to report Jim Broton’s mass drugging of twenty-one members of his cult with the intention of mass suicide. If the first group was successful, he had plotted to finish off the other fifty members of the cult.
Only she knew it for what it really was—murder. She’d been the critical person to bring the cult down and send Jim Broton to prison. The remaining members of the cult had been disbanded. She’d never been arrested, but she’d been a person of interest during the trial, eventually found innocent after putting her through her paces. Following the verdict, she’d been placed in witness protection which, it seemed, hadn’t been secure enough to keep her safe.
His fingers tapped his knee as they peeled off Flatbush Avenue onto the Belt Parkway. They were going too slow. There was no telling what they would do to her if he wasn’t fast enough.
The limo surged forward and darted around traffic. The car bumped over rough ground as they came off the freeway and onto a service road that led down to the shore. They screeched to a halt. He threw open the door and bolted over spindly shrubs down to the rough gritted sand along the shore.
He saw Sophia walking towards a group of men holding the arm of a young teen with raven hair. Melody, his brain supplied. The girl from the photo who Sophia was trying to save.
Black mist circled the group, tendrils reaching out towards all of them. The undeniable urge to reap infused within him.
One of the men, a middle-aged man with thinning red hair, pointed at him. Death recognized his image from the television report he’d forgotten all about. Jim Broton.
“I told you not to bring the cops!”
Sophia swung around. Her eyes hardened and her mouth fell open when she saw him. “I told you to stay away.”
“Don’t go in there, Sophia.” Death eyed the mist that swirled on the ground. If she stepped into it, he would be forced to harvest her. Even though he was neutral, for the first time he wanted it to take those who needed to depart from this Earth.
“I told you not to follow me.”
“Sophia!” Melody screamed. The man holding her shook the girl hard enough for her head to snap back and forth.
“Don’t hurt her!” Sophia’s voice spiked. Desperate. “I’ll come.”
“You will not!” His shout echoed off the concrete pylons that held up the bridge above them.
Two men appeared from behind a column, pointing guns at Sophia. Death snarled. He raced towards the men as a single shot rang out. Almost as though he willed the black mist to bend to his will, tendrils rose and snapped around their ankles, and slithered up their bodies and around their necks.
The dark-haired man’s hands went around his throat. Froth foamed over his lips as he gasped for air. Death tore the man’s hands from his neck and replaced them with his own. His body sagged and his soul was jolted free. Death let the lifeless body drop to the ground like garbage.
“Who… who are you?’ the soul stammered. Crimson mist roiled around him. He tried to brush it away and screamed when it stung his hands.
The other man spun on his heels and bolted away. Death was faster. Two strides had him locking his hands around the man’s neck from behind. He squeezed. The body hung in his hands as the soul surged forward, not even realizing it had been separated from its body.
Red mist raced toward him and spun about him, a cyclone of energy. He screamed a high-pitched sound as he was torn away from this world.
Death let the corpse drop to the ground.
An engine revved and tires spun on gravel. A car sped past and he saw Melody in the back between two men, while another one drove. The man on the passenger side fired his weapon at Death as he drove past.
There was a burning in his stomach before agony roared to life. He staggered until his legs gave away and he fell to the ground. He placed his hand over his stomach, clutching it as fire engulfed his insides.
Gravel sprayed as Sophia fell to her knees by his side. Her hands fluttered over the spreading red on his T-shirt. “My God. You…you’ve been shot.”
He grimaced and tugged up his T-shirt. Crimson blood flowed freely from a small hole in the middle of his stomach. “Is that what this is?”
“Don’t you know when you’ve been shot?” Her features twisted and her gaze darted from his face to his stomach and back again.
“Don’t know. Never been shot before.” All he knew was that being in the physical realm was harder than he thought it would be and hurt like a bitch.
He grunted, coming up on his elbow.
“Stay still. I need to call an ambulance.”
The limo drew up and the back door opened. “No need.”
The propulsion helped him to his feet and he managed to stagger inside where he sprawled out over the back seat. He glanced at her staring open-mouthed outside the car. His blood was on her hands. Some had stained her clothes.
“I’ll wash that for you.”
Jerky, she looked at her clothes and held her hands in front of her, shaking. Her eyes were glazed. He had to get her moving one way or the other.
“Get in the car.”
She took one step forward. Then another, looking as though her legs were going to give out at any second. “How did you kill those men?” Her voice was just a whisper.
He held out his blood-soaked hand. “Get in the car, Sophia.”
She crumpled inside the car, her shoulders slumped and her body limp. She slid across the seat and dropped beside him. He wrapped his arm around her and tugged her closer to him.
Apart from the blinding pain from his gunshot wound, satisfaction wove through him like a peaceful sigh.