Saturday: Day One of the Death Mark
The whispers were nothing new.
Darcy MacAlister followed behind her mother’s graceful white casket with the elegant raised scrolls as they left the MacAlister Funeral Home to process to the cemetery next door. Being the funeral director eased the knot of grief and sorrow in her throat. She was honored to oversee every detail of the service that celebrated Eileen MacAlister’s life, and show the community how well-loved her mother had been. She would not let the whispers affect her.
“They used to call her Dark Mac in high school.”
“Some say her father was afraid of her.”
“. . . Drove him to drink.”
“Hush! Darcy took care of your grandfather when he passed. She’s been nothing but kind to us.”
“She found my cat for me when he got lost. Just knew where he was.”
“There’s something strange about that one . . .”
Darcy stiffened her back, her black sheath dress sliding around her legs. She focused on the coffin and inhaled the briny, damp ocean air.
Joe’s arm slid around her shoulder, pulling her close to his side.
She looked up at her cousin. Joe hovered around six feet and weighed in at one eighty, and he knew how to kill, thanks to his years in the Special Forces. And right now, his jaw was so tight, she knew he wanted to hit someone. “Ignore them,” she said softly.
He barely nodded.
Not a promise, but the best she’d get from him. It had been almost nine years since Joe had left the seaside town of Glassbreakers, California, full of excitement about changing the world. When he returned a few months ago, he was a different man, grim and disconnected, like he didn’t care if he lived or died. Yet once he found out that her mom, his aunt, was terminally ill with a complication from lupus, he would show up at the house to do chores, barbeque, or take care of anything else that needed to be done. Any thanks just irritated him.
They stopped at the grave. The base of the casket was surrounded by flower arrangements; fresh greenery and baby’s breath was woven around the poles of the canopy under which the guests sat or stood.
Darcy cleared her throat, feeling the weight of her mother’s last gift; a silver Celtic knot pendant of loops and swirls that spread out like wings at her throat. “Thank you all for coming today. My mother asked me to tell you that she cherished each of you. That you all brought joy and happiness to her life. And now, she’s asked that you don’t grieve for her, but instead celebrate each of your days, and embrace your families and loved ones.” She looked out over all the mourners, warmed to see so many that truly cared about Eileen MacAlister. “Once we do the final prayers, we will have a reception back inside. We would be pleased if you would join us.”
She took her seat, grateful that she didn’t have to worry about the reception. Her best friend, Carla Fisk, and her newest employee, Morgan Reed, were inside the mortuary right now setting up the sandwiches, salads, and cookies. Instead, she concentrated on the prayers and closing words that would send her mom to her final rest. For the last time, people streamed by the casket, cried, and hugged her. The day was nearly over.
“You’ve done your mom proud, darling,” Reverend Jack Masters said, leaning down and kissing her cheek.
Darcy rose and walked with the minister to stand by her mom’s casket. “Thank you, Jack. We planned this ceremony together. I just followed her wishes.” Those last months had been a blessing and a nightmare. Eileen had struggled with lupus since her early twenties, but in the last year her lungs had given out.
Words from two stragglers floated to them. “Strange that she doesn’t even cry for her mother.”
Jack’s face tightened, then he shook his head in disgust. “Eileen knew you loved her, Darcy. And I have worked with you on dozens of funerals. You’re a professional through and through. This is your final gift to your mother.”
She almost cried then, but hugged him instead. “Thanks, Jack. That really helps.”
“Can I walk you in?”
She shook her head. “I want to stay here for a few more minutes.”
He nodded and headed inside.
Darcy was finally alone. She inhaled the sea breeze mixed with the scent of recently cut grass and freshly turned dirt. Jack was right, she had done her mom proud. That felt good; it felt right. Her mom had adopted Darcy when she was only a few weeks old, and no matter how odd a child Darcy had turned out to be, Eileen’s love had remained rock steady. Always.
Turning slightly, she swept her hand across the glossy surface of the casket. “I’m going to give the house to Joe, Mom. I’ve thought about this a lot. He needs something, an anchor. I can’t live there, I just . . . can’t. But Joe . . .”
The warmth she felt vanished, replaced by a deep chill. She snapped her head up and caught sight of a young couple walking along one of the sidewalk pathways directly in front of her. Sweeping her eyes left, she saw three people: two men and a woman standing by a headstone.
They all looked like normal visitors to the cemetery.
Dropping her gaze, she said, “Guess I’m tired. Anyway, about Joe and—”
She felt it again. This time chills raced down her back and the hair stood up on her arms. Her heart rate increased quickly. Dropping her hand, she whirled to look toward the canopy.
A man was suddenly there, standing by the chair she’d sat in earlier.
Her heart swelled and banged against her rib cage. The man was extremely tall and wore a long, black suede coat. But something was off, his face was too soft, almost feminine, yet his build was huge. Pull yourself together, he’s probably just a late mourner. Taking a deep breath, she noticed a coppery smell then said, “You startled me. Are you here for my mom?” Perhaps he was an acquaintance of her mom’s that she hadn’t met.
Staring at her, he said, “I’m here for you, Darcy.”
His eyes were a vacant and cruel green. She broke into a cold sweat. A voice in her head screamed, Run! Darcy shivered once, then turned and ran. The heels of her black pumps caught in the thick grass. She stopped, turned, and saw that the man was still standing there watching her, a nasty smirk on his full lips.
Fear washed up the back of her throat. She yanked off her shoes and looked back. The man was gone.
Unnamed terror pulsed deep inside of her and she ran, heading toward the mortuary. It was too far! At least thirty or forty yards . . .
It was Joe, striding toward her from the left, Morgan at his side. Darcy turned and raced to him, her thighs burning. She couldn’t get the metallic taste of fear out of her mouth.
Joe caught her in his arms, lifting her off the ground and turning with the momentum. “What’s wrong?” He set her down and whipped back around, keeping her at his back.
Tears burned behind her eyes at the gesture. He had always protected her.
“Darcy, are you okay?” Morgan looked at her, her huge blue eyes full of worry.
Warm embarrassment began in the center of Darcy’s chest and spread like a bad rash. What exactly had she panicked over? “I think I might have just made a fool of myself.”
Joe did one more scan then turned to look down at her; both of his dark eyebrows raised over vivid blue eyes. “You looked terrified. What happened?”
She shrugged, then leaned down to slide one pump onto her damp foot. “This guy just freaked me out.”
“That’s a switch. Usually it’s you freaking people out.”
She rolled her eyes as she balanced on one high heel, brushed a couple blades of grass from her foot, and slid on the other shoe. Then she stood and said, “He startled me. I didn’t hear him walk up, he was just . . . there. I asked him if he was here for mom, and he said ‘I’m here for you, Darcy.’?” Now that she said it out loud, she realized the man might have meant that he was there to support her at her mother’s funeral.
Morgan jerked her head around to stare at Darcy. “What did he look like?”
The fear coming off Morgan prickled her skin and nearly made her step back. In high school, Morgan had been popular and sure of herself while Darcy had been awkward; always trying to figure out how to fit in. Something had changed Morgan. She tried to answer, “Black hair, really weird green eyes, and his face was . . . well, it seemed almost delicate.”
“A small guy?” asked Joe.
“No. Big. Taller than you. He wore a black suede coat that went to his knees and black slacks under that.”
Morgan’s gaze darted around the cemetery, then she reached out and put her icy cold hand on Darcy’s arm. She opened her mouth, then grimaced before saying, “I need to tell you something. But I can’t seem to remember exactly . . .” She snatched her hand from Darcy’s arm and started rubbing her temples.
“Morgan, you need to eat. You’ve been working since this morning,” Joe said.
That was true, Darcy silently agreed. But she had felt the cold fear in Morgan’s hand. After being gone from town for a few years, the woman had returned scared and troubled by something. But then again, Darcy herself had just raced across the cemetery grounds like something out of a horror movie was after her, so who was she to judge? “Let’s all go inside. I’m acting like a nut house escapee and Morgan is forgetting things. We could all use some food, and we have guests waiting.”
Joe took her arm. “I’ll take a look around inside. If he’s there, I’ll get his story.”
She looked up at him. “Thanks.” It made her feel better that he took her seriously even when she felt like an utter fool. What had possessed her to run away?
It was nine o’clock by the time Darcy arrived home to her little apartment. The only thing that had gotten her through the last few hours was the promise of a hot shower and a big glass of wine. She lived in a ground floor unit overlooking a sunny courtyard with propane barbeques and benches shaded by a couple of large oak trees with sprawling limbs that bent and twisted like broken fingers. Tonight, it seemed dark and shadowy with too many hiding places.
Excerpted from Blood Magic by Jennifer Lyon. Copyright © 2009 by Jennifer Lyon. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.