Publisher:Black Dog Books, LLC
Series:The Potentate of Atlanta
The Potentate of Atlanta, Book 1
Hadley Whitaker is a liar, a killer, and a chocoholic, but she’s getting better about the first two. Or maybe she’s just getting better at them.
Some days it’s hard for her to tell fact from fiction, but only one truth matters. Goddess willing, she’s going to be the next Potentate of Atlanta. Even if it means playing nice with Midas Kinase, a shifter whose mysterious past might just be grimmer than her own.
When a bloodthirsty rogue begins hunting the city’s paranormals, Hadley ropes Midas into letting her work the case. But that rope starts to feel more like a noose as they come closer to discovering not only the rogue’s identity, but each other’s darkest secrets.
Shadow of Doubt Excerpt
Regret tasted like a discount food truck taco. Frak. Sal swore on his mother’s grave he had used real chicken this time, and I bought it. Literally. Goddess only knows what he had fed his regular customers until the health department caught up with him. Hence tonight’s discount. He was trying to lure in a new crop of suckers, and my forehead must have looked freshly stamped.
Rinsing my mouth out with a gulp of flat soda of undetermined flavor, I was tempted to chase this bad idea with another one. The Italian ice stand the next block down made for a good palate cleanser, but they served at a glacial pace worthy of their product, and I wanted to finish watching Robot Space Tentacles Attack Earth before I called it a day.
The shadow pretending to be mine unspooled its grasping fingers across the sidewalk in front of me and made a gimme motion.
“Fine.” I tossed my half-eaten meal, wrapper and all, into the darkness. “Don’t come whining to me if it makes you sick.”
The fingers shifted into a hand and formed the letter C. No. Wait. They mimed holding a drink.
“Are you serious?” I lifted my cup and got a thumbs-up in response. “Hope you like backwash.”
The void swallowed my offering and snapped back into shape, mimicking me once again.
I never should have fed it one of the single origin chocolate ganache squares my boss gave me on my birthday. Flavored with champagne and dusted in pure cacao, they were heaven in the mouth and hell on the wallet. Now they were the only currency the shadow accepted as a reward for good behavior. Thankfully, indulgences at that price tier came magically treated against melting in my pocket. Benefits of living in the Deep South.
Halfway down Peachtree Street Northwest, I got a text from Bishop, who might as well have been my parole officer given how often he required check-ins when the boss was out of town. Rumor had it he had been a desk jockey prior to my arrival. Lucky me, he had decided—or the potentate had decided for him—to hit the streets to keep a particular eye on the newest member of Team Atlanta.
>>We got trouble.
Nice and vague, just the way I like it.
>>Details to follow.
An address popped on-screen that forced me to pull up the GPS app.
I had been a resident of Atlanta for a year and two days, but Peachtrees still looked the same to me.
On my way.
Using a rideshare app exclusive to the city’s paranormal population, Swyft, I arranged for transportation. I didn’t have to wait long for a sporty two-seater painted lime green with black racing stripes to squeal up to the curb. The driver honked twice, and when I didn’t break an ankle sprinting around the car, she lowered her window.
Skin so pale it was translucent, I figured her for a vampire, but she hadn’t sent a warning tingle up my spine. Her wide blue eyes, the color of her pronounced veins, locked on me like a tractor beam, as if her will alone could haul me into the passenger seat. Her spiked pixie cut highlighted the roundness in her cheeks, and the elastics on her braces matched her hair and her wheels.
Open palm smacking her outer door, she called, “Are you coming or what?”
Sizing her up, I felt my eyebrows climb. “Are you old enough to drive?”
Returning the favor, she leaned out farther. “Do you see a student driver sticker, lady?”
Another texted nudge from Bishop forced me to take my chances. “Let’s go.”
I climbed in beside her, noted the aftermarket stereo system that belonged on a spaceship, and exhaled through my teeth.
“I’m an ace driver,” the girl snarled. “Stop huffing and puffing over there.”
“Does your attitude get you many tips?” I strapped in. “How about positive reviews?”
Once upon a time, I had taken pride in the number of glowing reviews I collected on the job. Those were the days. I didn’t get thanked for the work I did now, and I sure didn’t earn any tips. Heck, I considered it a good night if I made it home without blood on my clothes or spit in my hair, and those were the more sanitary bodily fluids that got splashed on me. Maybe things would have turned out differently had I not embraced the role of villain, rather than heroine, in the fairy tale that used to be my life.
Used to be was key. I wasn’t that person anymore. I had shed her and grown into a new skin.
I had buried the old me where no one would find her and risen with a new identity, a new purpose, and with hope that new and improved me would cancel out all the karmic debt past me had incurred. I was fully embracing the role of phoenix, which was only fitting since one graced the city seal.
Though I had to admit, as a necromancer living in a city teeming with paranormals, my old story hadn’t ended so much as I had flipped to the start of the next chapter.
“I have to make rent.” She stomped on the accelerator but mercifully left the radio off. “To do that, I zip as many slowpokes across town as I can in a night. Gas don’t pay for itself. Neither do groceries. Keep that in mind when you’re typing up the review I can hear you mentally composing over there.”
That stupid taco came back to haunt me as she cut lanes, slashed through an exit, then slammed on her brakes.
I swallowed it back down, hit release on my seat belt, then reached for the handle. “Thanks for the lift.”
“What’s he doing here?” the girl mumbled. “Hey.” She locked the doors, ensuring a captive audience. “What’s he doing here?”
“You’ve got to be more specific.” A manned barricade blocked the sidewalk. “Who?”
The sound of his name sent a shiver whispering down my spine. “I don’t know.”
But I could guess, and I only needed one.
The Atlanta gwyllgi pack wouldn’t trot out its heir and chief enforcer for anything less than a capital crime involving a pack member. Crossing paths with him—or his keen nose—was the absolute last thing I needed tonight or any other night.
Gwyllgi scent memories filed away all sorts of information, meaning my true identity was only a sniff away. I had taken precautions, magical ones, to flesh out my new persona, but this wasn’t how I wanted to learn if the witch had sold me the promised charm or just an old silver band that sometimes turned my middle finger green.
“You’re Hadley Whitaker.” Her eyes rounded until they swallowed her face. “The Hadley Whitaker. I saw your name pop up on the app, but…geez. You’re really her?”
“Yep.” I tapped on the window so she would take the hint. “I’m really me.”
“No shit?” She all but bounced in her seat. “You know the Potentate of Atlanta?”
Linus Andreas Lawson III.
Appointed by the Society for Post-Life Management, the ruling body for necromancers, over which his mother presided, to protect and serve this city. He was Society royalty. Rich. Powerful. Influential. And engaged to my former best friend.
Our relationship was…complicated, even before I took a walk on the dark side.
Chills coasted down my arms, and my heart kicked hard once. “He’s my boss.”
“You’re like his heir, right? Scion? I forget what you corpse-raisers call it.”
This kid could teach a master class on how not to get repeat business.
“Right now, I’m a lowly employee of the Office of the Potentate. One day, if I play my cards right, I might get promoted to upper management.”
“Wow.” She sank back against her seat. “He’s pretty hot if you’re into the grim reaper type.”
Once upon a time, I might have agreed with her, but on bad nights, I still dreamed of him.
The moth-eaten black cloak that hung from his shoulders, the threadbare cowl that hid his pale face. All that, I could stomach, but his scythe…the way moonlight glinted off its blade when he raised it to strike a killing blow…
I stood on the right side of the law these days, but one look at him had me feeling cold steel parting the warm flesh at my throat.
“Is this like official business?” She scanned the scene. “Did someone bite it?”
While she gawked, I manually unlocked my door. “That’s classified.”
“That’s a yes.”
She grinned at me, metal glinting over needle-sharp teeth that made me wonder if she wasn’t as pixie as her hairstyle. “I’ll be in the area if you want to call me up special.” She passed me a crumpled piece of paper trimmed into a lopsided rectangle. On the front, she had painstakingly drawn a business card with colorful markers. On the back, she had crossed out the last four digits of her debit card number on a receipt for takeout.
“The app won’t let you pick who you get, but I’ll charge their rates for a private ride.”
“I appreciate it.” I tucked the slip into my wallet so as not to ding her pride. “See you around.”
As I stepped onto the curb, she peeled out, blasting rap music that rattled my bones from three feet away. She hadn’t given me a chance to shut the door, so she yanked the wheel hard to one side and let momentum slam it for her.
“Goddess,” I muttered, grateful to have survived the experience.
“Buy a car,” Bishop advised on his way to greet me. “You won’t suffer so many near-death experiences.”
Adrenaline still pumping, I glanced behind me. “Do you have one?”
“Hell no.” A shudder rippled through his broad shoulders. “People drive like maniacs here.”
The snow-white hair he kept trimmed short and styled neat was streaked with russet brown. Not much. Just enough to tell me he had fallen off the wagon. His eyes, usually a brilliant titanium, were tinted the milky green of the corpse he had no doubt left in his wake. But he and I had an unspoken agreement. I didn’t ask how he fed, and he returned the favor.
“I heard Midas Kinase is here.”
“Yeah. The victim is gwyllgi.” Bishop studied me. “That a problem?”
“No,” I lied, and he pretended to believe me.
“Come on.” He led me to where sentinels, necromancers working undercover with the Atlanta Police Department, held the line. “The pack reps are waiting for you.”
“Goody.” I had successfully avoided all remnants of my past life since arriving in Atlanta, but it looked like my number was finally up. “It just had to be a gwyllgi.”
“You got this,” Bishop murmured, misreading my hesitation.
Ahead, two men cut from the same cloth stood watch over their dead. Gwyllgi varied in height, but they ran toward beefy—in a sink-your-teeth-in kind of way—and these two made a girl think about taking a bite. They lifted their heads in tandem upon scenting us and joined us at the barricade.
“Hadley,” Ford said, his voice warm. “This your scene, darlin’?”
Ford Bentley, who had cracked a joke about his name the first time we met, wasn’t laughing now. As the pack liaison with our office, he and I were on friendly enough terms that I recognized the endearment wasn’t a come-on or condescension but simply habit.
Sorrow had turned his lively blue eyes dull, and his wild black hair showed tracks from where his fingers kept tunneling through its jagged length.
“Yeah.” I locked my gaze on him to keep it from sliding to his left. “The POA is in Savannah.”
That meant this was my case to solve, the first one I would tackle as lead.
Just my luck, Midas was here to bear witness. A ghost from my past, come to haunt me.
“Have you met Midas?” Ford twitched his head toward the slightly taller man. “He’s our beta.”
“We haven’t been introduced.” I dropped my gaze to the victim, using the gruesome tableau to help regulate my pulse. “I’m Hadley Whitaker.”
“Midas Kinase,” he said, his voice sandpaper rough, not with emotion, though I heard that too, but from an old injury no one so much as whispered about behind his muscular back. “Are you sure we haven’t met?”
Predator that he was, he scented my nerves and eased in front of me for a better look.
In response, the predator in me unfurled, creeping across the asphalt, stretching shadowy fingers under his boots, tapping on individual treads, as if counting all the ways it could kill him.
“We both live in the city.” I kept my voice bland, eyes focused on the stag logo branding his tee. Fine. I was ogling the way his pecs stretched the thin fabric to its limits. He had packed on serious muscle since the last time I saw him, but he hadn’t been the heir then. His sister, Lethe, had held that title until deciding to break ties with Atlanta and start her own pack in Savannah. Guess her defection had landed him a promotion. “You must have seen me around.”
The new cut and style reinvigorated my blonde hair with short layers and plenty of curls, and the hazel contacts, heavy on the green, plus a few magical augmentations, meant Midas would see only Hadley. Just the law-abiding citizen and enforcer of justice. Not the homicidal maniac our mutual friends would have warned him about.
“Your scent…” Flaring his nostrils, he parted his lips. “It’s familiar.”
“I work a kiosk in the mall, and I run the Active Oval in Piedmont Park five days a week.” I held my ground. “You could have picked up my scent anywhere.”
Crowding me, he ducked his head, attempting to force eye contact, a dominance tactic that didn’t work half as well on necromancers as it did on gwyllgi and did nothing for me. “What was your name again?”
“Hadley.” I caved to the challenge and my annoyance, which never failed to land me in hot water, and met his gaze. “Hadley Whitaker.”
The full force of his shifter magic pooled in his eyes, turning the tranquil aquamarine to vibrant crimson. I should have been terrified. I was terrified. Goddess, I couldn’t glance away after verifying he was every bit as gorgeous up close as I remembered from all the glimpses I had stolen of him through a curtained window in that other life.
Sun-streaked blond hair fell in waves to his broad shoulders and framed a face so beautiful in its austerity that I wanted to reach out and touch it, see if he was real. His jaw was hard, and muscle twitched in his cheek. His mouth was full, perfect. Soft, I bet. But his eyes. That’s what captured and held my attention. The sorrow in them tugged on my heartstrings, and I understood in that soul-bearing moment when our gazes clashed that he was dangerous to me on levels I hadn’t conceived of before meeting him in the flesh.
The one thing I had been warned against doing—instigating a staring match—was exactly what I did while Bishop and Ford looked on in horror.
Clearly, they expected Midas to strike me down for the offense. I did too. And yet, I kept breathing.
“I have exceptional control,” he rumbled, “but you’re testing it.”
Bishop stomped on my instep, and the jolt of pain yanked my attention to him and away from Midas.
“Fire ant.” Bishop made a production of searching for more on the sidewalk. “Little bastards.”
“Bastard is right,” I groused at him before redirecting my focus to Midas’s chest to avoid another standoff. “Mr. Kinase, I’m sorry for your loss. I respect your right to be present, but I have a job to do. I would appreciate it if you stepped aside and let me do it.”
Midas yielded no ground but let me ease around him. If he figured my willingness to do so proved his dominance, well, bless his heart.
Ditching him and Ford at the barricade, I continued on with Bishop. “That went well.”
“Yeah,” he said, ignoring my sarcasm. “It did.” He crouched over the body, what remained of it. “The pack isn’t required to cooperate with us. Not when the victim is one of theirs. They could throw their weight around and block us from investigating. Their alpha prefers to handle these matters internally.”
“There’s no guarantee the person who did this is gwyllgi. That puts the ball back in our court.”
Though I couldn’t afford to let assumptions cloud my judgment this early in the investigation. I had to get this right, or I lost points with the POA, who would not want to cut his trip short to play pack politics.
“That’s why I like you.” Bishop chuckled under his breath. “You’re so gosh darn optimistic.”
“Har har.” I flicked my fingers at the shadow nosing the corpse. “Make yourself useful.”
The vague outline of me snapped out a salute then made a production of diving in headfirst.
“Showoff,” I grumbled then caught Bishop staring. “What?”
“I’m never going to get used to that.”
“All potentates have wraiths.”
“That is not a wraith.” His gimlet eyes dared me to lie to him. “It’s so…Peter Pan. Do you remember the part in the cartoon where Wendy captures his shadow one night then sews it back on him the next?”
“You never watched Peter Pan?” He clucked his tongue. “What kind of childhood did you have?”
A dull throb spread beneath my left eye, a distant memory of pain, and when I ran my tongue along my teeth, I almost tasted blood in my cheek. I would have spit to clear my mouth if it wouldn’t have contaminated the scene.
Some girls learned makeup to entice, some learned it to claim their spot in the girl hierarchy, but others learned it for more practical purposes.
Makeup had never been armor for me, it had been camouflage. I learned how to apply concealer, how to set a proper foundation, so no one, not even my siblings, saw what happened to the family’s spare when the heir misbehaved.
Goddess forbid we got a speck of dirt on the precious family name.
Thinking about how thoroughly I raked that name through the mud before discarding it once and for all, I almost laughed, but freedom from that life had cost me everything.
Most of them, I didn’t miss. Some things, two in particular, I missed a whole heck of a lot.
“A long one,” I rasped, drawing on the good times to erase the bad.
Motion caught my eye as darkness seeped from the body, giving no warning before it leapt into mine.
Cold plunged into my chest, wrapping my heart in an icy fist, squeezing a gasp out of me.
“Play nice, Ambrose,” I snarled under my breath. “Or I’ll put you in time-out.”
Warmth returned to my torso in a petulant creep, but the biting chill speared my skull in the next second, giving me an epic brain freeze.
At least, once I thawed out, I had the information I requested. Since he had more or less behaved, I tossed a piece of expensive chocolate into the darkness spilling from my soles across the concrete.
“You’re training your shadow to do tricks.” Bishop watched the confection vanish. “That can’t be healthy.”
“Nice streaks,” I said sourly. “Who does your hair?”
“Point taken,” he grumbled then gestured toward the body. “Walk me through it.”
“The victim is a black female, early twenties.” Squatting for a closer look, I started off easy, with the stats. “Five-nine or five-ten. Maybe one-sixty. Brown hair. Eye color is also brown.” Next came the hard part. “The cause of death is…” I searched my memory for the technical jargon the POA would have used but came up empty. A gaping hole started below the victim’s throat and ended at her hips. The soft parts had been devoured, the hard ones gnawed on. “She was eaten.”
Bishop didn’t dock me, just listened while I tried to keep the fumbling to a minimum.
“There are claw marks on the body as well as teeth marks.” Bruising where the creature pinned down the victim while it ate made clear which was which. “There are defensive wounds on the forearms and hands.” That stupid taco made its thoughts on the carnage evident, but I wasn’t going to hurl in front of an audience. “She was alive when the creature started feasting.”
The shadow I cast across her thighs turned its head, interested in something behind me.
“You keep saying the creature,” Midas rumbled, a dangerous edge to his voice. “Are you implying the killer was one of us?”
“I’m not implying anything.” I kept my back to him. “No gwyllgi did this.”
Ambrose, being a parasitic entity that consumed paranormal energies, had what you might call a refined palate. The flavor, according to him, wasn’t gwyllgi, wasn’t anything he could pinpoint, and I bowed to his superior taste buds.
Midas squatted next to me, our elbows almost brushing, close enough I smelled the cedar and amber soap he must use. “How can you tell?”
“It’s my job,” I said flatly, but Ambrose shook a warning finger, chastising me for taking all the credit. “What I can’t determine—yet—is the killer’s species.” There was no delicate way to ask, but I figured I might as well put him to work if he was going to hover. “Can you identify its scent?”
“No,” Midas said after a pause that made it plain he was deciding if the question insulted him.
I conducted the rest of my examination in silence, as much to keep my thoughts contained as to give the illusion I knew what the heck I was doing without the POA there to dictate my every move.
“I’m done here.” I stood, ready to bluff my way through the pack reps, when Midas rose beside me. “Mr. Kinase, I will keep you and your alpha apprised of any further developments.”
“Are you…?” I squared my shoulders, cleared my throat. “Are you taking the case from me?”
“I thought about it,” he admitted, and I had to swallow a plea to let me have this one chance. “I have a lot of respect for Linus, and he chose you as his potential successor. That means, if you ace your apprenticeship and trials, you and I will be crossing paths for the foreseeable future.”
Relief fluttered through me on butterfly wings. “Thank—”
“I can’t allow this investigation to continue without pack oversight.”
“—you,” I finished dumbly.
“Ford.” He gestured for him to join us. “You’re with Ms. Whitaker.”
Surprise flickered in Ford’s eyes, but he smothered it quickly. “Happy to oblige.”
Bishop, who filled the roll of aide to me when I wasn’t doing the same for Linus, goggled.
“Looks like it’s you and me against the world, darlin’.” Ford grinned at me. “Let’s give it a swift kick in its axis.”
A soft laugh escaped me, totally inappropriate given the location, and I caught Midas staring at me, watching my mouth like he expected me to crack up again. Blanking my expression, I angled my chin higher.
“Give me your number.”
The moisture evaporated from my mouth when he captured me in his gaze, but I found enough spit to lubricate my tongue. “Ask me nicely, and I might.”
“Please,” he said flatly. “Give me your number.”
Figuring that was as good as I was going to get, I rattled off my digits and waited, but Midas didn’t offer his in return.
He didn’t say goodbye, either. Just turned on his heel and left me questioning who had won our rematch. Bishop trotted after him, likely hoping to clarify our arrangements, but I was done here.
“Women.” Ford blasted out a sigh as I watched Midas go. “Y’all always want what you can’t have.”
“True.” I reeled my attention back to him. “I want to be home watching TV with a bowl of extra buttery, extra salty popcorn on my lap while I marathon the Robot Space Tentacles trilogy, but it doesn’t look like that’s happening.”
“You’re a geek.”
I swung my head toward him. “So?”
“A huge geek.” He flared his nostrils. “That’s probably what Midas smelled earlier.”
“And?” Used to being picked on, I reined in my temper. “There’s no law against being a geek.”
As a matter of fact, Atlanta hosted one of the largest science fiction and fantasy conventions in the world.
“You, being a geek, would know.”
A flicker of shadow coiled near Ford’s boots, but I stomped on it and sent it skittering.
“Fire ant,” I mumbled when his brows winged higher. “Little bastards.”
The rest of the on-site work fell to the cleaners. A neutral entity comprised of all supernatural factions in any given area, they documented each paranormal crime scene in photos and video, collected blood and tissue samples, then made it all disappear before humans caught wind of a disturbance. There wasn’t much I could do until they finished and uploaded their findings into their database, so I was done here.
“Come on, Lee.” He reached in his pocket. “Can I call you Lee?”
“Sure.” The almost familiar ring of the nickname shot a pang through me. “Where are we going?”
“Dawn will be here soon.” He squinted at the sky. “I’m driving you home.”
“Necromancers don’t have sun allergies like vampires do.”
“I know.” He jingled his keys. “Hurry and you can still catch Robot Space Tentacles Encircle the Earth.”
“Ah.” I nodded sagely. “I thought I caught a whiff, but I wasn’t sure.”
“This isn’t the start of a wet-dog joke, is it?” He pointed out a jacked-up white pickup truck, a gleaming off-roader without a speck of dirt marring its glossy wheels, one I would need a boost or a ladder to climb in. “I’ll warn you now, I’ve heard ’em all, and not a single one made me laugh.”
“No.” I made a show of sniffing him. “Geek.” I wiggled my nose. “You reek of it.”
Grinning when he hooted with laughter, I headed for his truck, shadow obediently in tow. For now.
Copyright 2019 Hailey Edwards