With the stealth of a seasoned cat burglar, fourteen-year-old Viola Ashwood slid her bedroom window open. She'd sprayed the entire frame with WD-40 that morning just to be on the safe side. Worn black canvas backpack in hand, Viola turned to make sure everything was in order. A vaguely human-shaped blanket-covered lump was in the middle of the bed and all the lights in the room were off.
Not that anyone would be checking in on her. Her older brother Sebastian was at one of his night classes. Her parents were on Network rotation and had gotten a call about a Verak near Galveston. Her sister Olivia was supposed to be babysitting, not that Viola needed a babysitter, but had been on the phone with her boyfriend for the past two hours. If past history was anything to go by, Viola knew Olivia would be on the phone for at least another couple of hours.
Viola slung the backpack over one shoulder and crept out into the cool night air. Balanced on a sturdy tree limb, she shut her window then shimmied down the tree. The thick soles of her black, scuffed Doc Martens made a squishing sound when they hit the damp grass. Rather than risk exposure by going out the gate and crossing in front of Olivia's bedroom window, Viola silently scrambled over the fence and onto the sidewalk on the other side.
It was cake from here on out. As long as she stuck to the shadows, no curious neighbors would see her. The silver chains looped around Viola's waist clinked softly in time with each careful, cautious step she took. She kept her breathing shallow and focused only on her goal.
"Goin' somewhere, kiddo?"
Viola swore under her breath. Of all the rotten luck in the world. Tobias Duke, her brother's best friend and the guy she'd been crushing on for years, would, of course, be the one to catch her sneaking out of the house. "None of your business."
"You do realize that with one shout, I can have Olivia out here before you can make it down the block, right? After that, it'll only take a couple of phone calls to get your parents and Bas here. If you're lucky, you'll be ungrounded sometime around graduation." Duke crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the trunk of an old pine tree. "Wanna try that again? Goin' somewhere?"
Viola wrapped one hand around the strap of her backpack, pivoted on her heel, and placed her other hand on her cocked hip. "What are you doing here? How'd you know I'd left the house?"
"I heard the call over the scanner and knew Bas had class. Thought I'd swing by and check on you and Olivia. Lucky for me, I saw you sneaking out."
Viola arched an eyebrow. "Really? You just happened to be staring at my bedroom window in the middle of the night? I think the police might be interested in hearing about that little hobby of yours."
"Nice to see the Ashwood bitchiness gene hasn't skipped a generation, just the common sense one." Duke's sharp eyes took in Viola's appearance. She'd undergone a relatively drastic transformation in the weeks since he'd seen her last. The teen was dressed in black from head to toe, her dark hair had been cut into a short pixie style, wide black leather cuffs covered both wrists, and chains circled her waist and neck. "And, apparently, the fashion gene."
"Drop dead, Toby."
Duke snorted. "Like that would help you avoid me."
Viola pursed her lips and fixed him with an icy glare that had even the seniors at her high school stepping out of her way. Duke didn't bat an eyelash. With a heavy sigh, Viola turned away. "Call whoever you want. I don't care. I'm out of here."
Duke briefly contemplated getting Olivia and calling Mr. and Mrs. Ashwood. If he did that, he'd have to chase Viola down and get her in the house. It could be done, but Duke didn't think Sebastian would appreciate Duke knocking his baby sister out or tying her up. Duke had help train Viola over the summer. He knew first hand how feisty she could be.
The best plan of action was to follow her and make sure she stayed out of trouble. Kissing his plans for the rest of the night goodbye, Duke jogged after the rapidly retreating Viola. "Hold up, kiddo!"
Viola stopped but didn't bother turning to look at Duke. "What?"
"Where are we going?"
Viola's eyes fluttered shut. Why wouldn't he just go away? The same burning, suffocating swell in her chest that had her sneaking out of the house at least twice a week was starting to build again. She rose up on her toes to stretch her calves. She was one of the fastest runners in her class, and she could probably outrun Duke even with the additional weight of her boots and the backpack.
Without another word to Duke, she sprinted down the sidewalk. The pack slapped her back hard enough to leave bruises and the cool air burned her nose, but that swell was fading. Each slap of her feet on the pavement seemed to be jarring something loose inside her. Mind empty of everything except the bliss of freedom, Viola headed for her newest sanctuary.
Cursing the entire Ashwood family, Duke yanked open the driver's side door of the truck he'd parked across the street. He turned on the ignition and slammed the gearshift down. He did a quick u-turn in the Ashwood driveway. There were several alleyways in the neighborhood, and Viola knew the terrain better than he did. It wouldn't be hard for her to just disappear.
After driving down six streets, Duke caught the flash of silver out of the corner of his eye. Bingo! He slowed the truck to a crawl and watched as Viola quickly scaled the wrought iron fence surrounding the Peaceful Grove Cemetery. The ease with which she climbed the fence and dropped to the ground had him assuming this wasn't her first time to break into the cemetery.
Duke parked his truck in the parking lot, pocketed his keys, and made a trip over the fence. His knees protested the sudden impact with the ground. Hands in his pockets, Duke strolled behind Viola at a safe distance. He was curious to see just what in the hell she was doing here so late at night.
Viola ignored the spirit walking beside her. Her Great-Aunt Hattie had been a near-constant companion since Viola was three. Aunt Hat was great for advice and helping with homework, but she could be more smothering that both of Viola's parents combined. "Go away, Aunt Hat. I just want to be left alone."
"Viola, love, you know you shouldn't be out this late. If something is troubling you, you should speak with your father."
Viola jerked to a stop in front of a grayish stone mausoleum. The swell she'd thought was gone built up quickly. Hazel eyes flashed black and the air in the cemetery grew heavy. Viola clenched her fists as a wave of anger rushed over her. "Go away!"
Aunt Hattie disappeared as abruptly as she appeared. Viola shook her head to clear it as the swell died down once more. She navigated the winding paths of the cemetery until she found the spot she'd come to consider hers. She dropped her backpack to the ground, mindful of its contents, and settled on the cool grass with her back against a pink granite headstone.
Viola's head fell back against the granite. She closed her eyes and let all the negativity swirling inside fade away. School was growing unbearable. It was hard making the transition from a summer of tracking. No one else in the school was part of the Network, so she couldn't exactly talk about it with anyone. She didn't care much for homework assignments or classes either. What good was knowing the symbolism in The House of the Seven Gables going to do when you're up against a pack of angry Yeials?
Her home life wasn't entirely comfortable either. Sebastian was busy with college and all his friends. He and Duke spent most of their free time working with the Network. Olivia avoided Viola like the plague and was wrapped up with her perfect preppy boyfriend. Viola and her mother had never gotten along to begin with and her father, while still as attentive as ever, had this odd calculating look in his eye whenever they were talking.
Viola really wanted to skip the rest of high school and devote her time to the Network. She liked catching demons. She enjoyed the research, the hunt, and the takedown. She wanted to learn more about her abilities. Unfortunately, no one in her family knew anything about them. Everything she knew now she'd had to teach herself.
"Isn't this a little clichéd? The Goth girl in the cemetery at night?"
Viola rolled her head to the side and opened one heavily lined eye. "You seriously need to get that stalker thing worked on, Toby."
Duke perched on top of the headstone beside Viola and suppressed a shudder. Cemeteries gave him the creeps. Being in one with a clairvoyant seemed to make things even weirder. His lips lifted in a friendly, if forced, smile. Sympathetic, big-brother Duke always seemed to work best around a prickly Viola. "What's going on, Via-mia? Princess Livy giving you a hard time?"
Viola scoffed. Please. Olivia only gave Viola the time of day when she needed something. Most of the time, Viola was as invisible as a ghost. "Nope. And before you ask, it's nothing at home."
"School then? Other kids picking on you? Need Bas and me to go in and bash a few heads?"
That got a chuckle. Viola shut her eyes again. Duke really wasn't such a bad guy to talk to when he wasn't being a macho, know-it-all, arrogant, sexist jerk
"Hey! I am not a jerk!"
"Stay out my head if you don't want to hear things that might hurt your precious ego." Viola was working on trying to protect her thoughts from telepaths, but so far hadn't been able to build up an adequate shield. She was, however, able to hide her emotions from her empathic sister.
"So what's up at school?" Duke nudged Viola with the toe of his sneaker. If he had to choose between his best friend's two sisters, he'd rather spend time with Viola. She had a healthy interest in the Network and usually kept a cool head. Olivia was all makeup, boys, and fashion.
Viola shrugged her shoulders. She didn't think she could put it into words Duke would understand. He'd had Sebastian at school and his ability didn't make him a total freak. Olivia had been pretty and popular so no one minded her little quirks. "You wouldn't get it. No one would get it."
"Yeah, because no one in your family or mine understands what it's like to be weird."
"Your sarcasm is noted and not appreciated." Viola sat up a little straighter and opened her eyes. She kept her gaze on headstone across from her. She didn't want to see pity or scorn or mocking in Duke's eyes. "On the first day of school, I got to my English class a little early. There was a teacher there, at least I thought she was a teacher, and I started talking to her. A couple of kids came in and stared at me. I didn't realize anything was wrong until I heard them whispering."
"About the freak with imaginary friends!"
"Oh hell, Vi." Duke winced. He could only imagine what it must have been like to realize she'd been talking to a spirit the entire time. By the time he'd hit high school, he'd been able to block out other people's thoughts. No one had known about his ability.
"Mrs. Crane had a fatal heart attack in the classroom in 1956. The teacher sent me to the principal's office. Mom and Dad got called in. I have to spend every Wednesday afternoon with the school psychiatrist. He had a field day when I came in with a bruise after going out with Dad one night. Now he thinks I'm a violent, psychopath with authority issues who is acting out to get attention."
The air was sucked out of Duke's lungs. He coughed and tried to inhale, but his lungs still burned. If he squinted, he could see small arcs of power leaping from Viola's clenched fingers. "B-breathe, Vi."
Viola exhaled noisily. Duke hungrily drew in a breath. Just what he needed: a hormonal teenager growing into her abilities. At least she didn't have any control over the elements or the weather. That would be a recipe for disaster.
"You have to admit, kiddo, the whole Punk Princess of the Night look doesn't help matters much, either. On a scale of one to ten, how badly did your dad flip out when he saw the extra three holes in your ears?"
Viola rolled her eyes. She certainly hadn't planned on being labeled a Goth. Thanks to the time spent with the Network, most of her wardrobe happened to consist of dark colors. Not a big deal because it made coordinating pretty damn easy. After her slip-up that first day, though, she'd decided to give into the stereotype. It was what people expected, right? The freaky kid with the freaky clothes and the freaky jewelry. It doesn't hurt so much to be an outcast when you're the one keeping people at a distance.
"It completely sucks that I can't tell the difference between a ghost and a real person. The only person willing to teach me anything that doesn't involve weapons is your grandmother. Mom and I fight all the time because I'm not perfect like Olivia."
"I thought Goths were supposed to have that 'I don't care about anything' attitude. You're whining an awful lot for a Goth."
Viola's lips thinned. She flattened her hands on the grass and let the cool seep into her heated skin. "Ugh, I hate you. You can go away any time now."
"Not until your scrawny little butt is back in bed." Duke pushed off the headstone and sat beside Viola. He stretched his long legs out in front of him and bumped her shoulder with his. "How about we get some ice cream and then get you home before anyone realizes you're gone."
Viola didn't answer. Her eyes were glued to the spirit approaching from the southeast corner of the cemetery. It was so much easier to recognize ghosts when she was more aware of her surroundings, and they actually had the decency to look like ghosts. The man was dressed in early twentieth century clothing and his face was stern.
"Go home, little heir. It is too dangerous to be here." The ghost hovered in front of Viola. He wrung his hands and kept glancing over his shoulder. Murky eyes sought the shadows.
"What's out there?" Viola's hand automatically went for her backpack. She never went anywhere without a weapon or two. There were simply too many demons wandering around for her to be unprepared. It didn't help that sometimes it felt as if she had a giant neon target on her back.
"Giant, horned beasts. Run home, little heir!" His warning delivered, the spirit vanished into thin air.
"What's going on, Vi?" Duke watched as she pulled a mini crossbow pistol out of her backpack along with a handful of silver-tipped bolts. "Your ghost-dar go off?"
"A ghost said that there was something big with horns headed this direction. Sound like anything you know?"
"Yeah, because that only narrows it down to half the demons in our region." Duke shot to his feet before yanking Viola to hers. His rifle was in his truck but that was too far away. He'd have to deal with whatever demon they'd be facing using only the backup automatic in his ankle holster.
Duke had just enough time to page Sebastian with a quick 9-1-1 before a seven-foot, hairy, horned demon barreled down on them. To her credit, Viola didn't scream. She simply ducked behind a headstone and fired one bolt at the demon. It didn't even penetrate the first layer of hair.
Duke crouched beside Viola. He doubted his bullets would do much better against the demon's thick, protective outer layers. "I think it's a Hylan."
Viola nodded jerkily. That sounded right. She had a deck of flashcards in her room and remembered seeing something that looked similar to this in the deck. Her mind raced as she tried to recall what the demon's weaknesses were. "Gold! Gold burns it!"
Duke groaned. It wasn't like he carried gold bullets around. Very few demons had reactions to gold so no Trackers bothered with the stuff. "I'm going to aim for its eyes. When I start shooting, you run for my truck. The spare key is in the space between the toolbox and the rear window."
When Duke sprang to his feet to fire off his first shot, Viola dashed out around the demon but away from the truck. Slim fingers furiously worked at one of the thin chains around her neck. Unlike the ones around her waist, the chains around her neck were made up of several different metals. Once the clasp came loose, she pulled at the gold necklace, wincing when the friction burned the back of her neck.
The only other gold jewelry Viola had one was the thick hoop through her navel. Blood welled up from the fresh piercing as she ripped it out. She wrapped the chain around the hoop then used the chain like a whip to lash the demon.
Between Duke's bullet and the golden whip, the demon collapsed to the floor with a ground-shaking roar. Duke shot it twice more in the head to make sure it wouldn't rise to attack them again. Panting and heart thundering, Viola struggled to free her navel ring from the gold chain.
Duke's calloused fingers plucked the hoop from her shaking hands. "So, let me guess: it wasn't the holes in your ears that drove your father nuts, it was the one through your belly button?"
Viola chuckled nervously. "Actually, he doesn't know about that one yet."
Duke grinned and shook his head. He handed back the hoop and chain. "That was pretty idiotic, Vi. If you're going to get anywhere in the Network, you've got to learn to listen to other people. You're not invincible and being impetuous only gets you and others hurt or worse. You should have gone to the truck. I'm not going to be the one to tell your brother that your own stupidity got you killed."
"Like he's not already expecting that." Viola's cheeks flushed as she pocketed the navel ring and returned the chain to its rightful place. "You're not going to tell Dad about the piercing, are you?"
Duke handed Viola her backpack and clamped a hand on her shoulder. He could hear the squeal of tires on pavement and see approaching headlights. Undoubtedly it was Sebastian or her parents. Thankfully the Ashwoods had the presence of mind to fit their most unruly child with a tracking charm..
"Oh, don't worry about it, kiddo. We'll keep it our little secret. I have a feeling you're going to be in enough trouble as it is."