Vicki Pettersson

Cheat the Grave

The fifth book in the Sign of the Zodiac series, 2010

1

Dying isn’t as painful as you might think. I’ve done it twice now, and each time the woman I thought I was fell away with relative ease, almost as if she was late for an appointment and glad to be gone. As hard as it was at the time, the only real casualty in my first death was my identity. Good-bye, Joanna Archer. Good-bye, strong and able and tough; hello to an exterior so sweet I might as well be clothed in a fucking candy wrapper.

But it was the second death, the one that’d cost me every foothold gained after taking over my sister’s life and identity that really stripped me to the bone. In the ten weeks since, I’d been forced to rehab my blond, glossed, enhanced body as vigorously as a recently awakened coma victim, while hoping the work I’d already done on my mind would hold fast. It had, but there was no mistaking my losses. This time, good-bye twenty-first century superhero. So long to strength beyond a mortal’s. Farewell even to what I’d fleetingly mistaken for true love. The kicker? After all those losses, dying had turned out to be just another life experience.

Which wasn’t to say it got any easier.

“But third time’s a charm,” I muttered, gazing balefully down at the newly delivered letter as my driver rocketed past the multi-casino district, City Center. The doorman hadn’t known who it was from, just said some courier-probably a kid off the street who was slipped a twenty and an envelope with my name on it-had given it to him an hour before. I’d have to talk to the buildings staff about allowing strange missives and packages up to my high-rise apartment. After all, Olivia Archer wasn’t a mere celebutante anymore, or just a former Playmate and potential heiress. She was a mogul who effectively owned more of Las Vegas than any other living being.

“But I don’t think that’s why someone’s threatening to squeeze my beating heart in their palm,” I muttered as we flipped onto Vegas’s most famous road, heading midtown. Pulling the note from my pocket, I read it again.

Stay home tonight, and you will be safe. Leave, and your organs will be sliced from your body one by one.

Not even a clue as to the sender, though that was no surprise. Nobody from the paranormal underworld had contacted me since I’d been cast from the troop. Despite losing every power that had once made me one of them, the leader for the agents of Light, my former leader, had ordered my once-allies to neither contact nor extend me any greater protection than they did the rest of the general population. This, despite the fact that if the Shadows learned of my now-human status, Las Vegas’s mortality rate would see a precipitous spike.

You’ll be safe. I had to laugh. God, had I even been safe the day I was born?

Of course, anyone who knew me-the real me, Joanna-wouldn’t be surprised to find I went out anyway. My cat, Luna, had tried to persuade me otherwise, winding through my feet as I dressed, tripping me up like she thought the whole thing was a bad idea. But what could I do? Olivia’s best friend, Cher-now my best friend- was throwing a bachelorette party for her stepmother, Suzanne, a woman who must have been born under the Universe’s luckiest star. The loving relationship with her stepdaughter underscored that, but she’d recently trumped even herself by becoming engaged to a man who was both a billionaire and a prince. They were set to wed a week from now, on Valentine’s Day.

Besides, I thought now, pulling to a stop in front of the world’s tackiest party bus, I’d once battled in this city’s paranormal underworld for the mortal right to freedom of choice. Now that I was once again merely mortal- after those who’d once called themselves my allies had tossed me in a desert wash with other broken, discarded, used- up objects-I chose normal. I chose those friends who chose me.

I chose to keep living beyond death.

Yet I still hesitated when confronted by the shining silver bus door. Sure, this was a part of Suzanne’s monthlong wedding festivities, a series of events that had set tongues wagging worldwide. Her fiance had long been considered one of the globe’s most eligible bachelors, an international textiles magnate who hailed from an Indian dynasty, and had homes on every continent.

But, man, a double-decker could hold a lot of trouble.

It’s not too late to turn around, I thought, my too-smooth fingertips clinking unnaturally against the plastic. Their marblelike uniformity and pearlescent polish was one of the “tells” of my former involvement in a paranormal life, and should a Shadow see it, they’d know exactly who I was. Was an evening spent in a party bus worth risking that? I mean, there’d been a lot of recent nights when I’d kill for a glass of Belvedere…but to die for one?

“C’mon, Jo,” I muttered to myself, straightening. “Can’t turn down the promise of body glitter and temp tattoos, can you? Besides, how many people could say they’ve been on a bus with a disco ball before?”

But humor aside, a part of me was honestly worried. If the Shadows had discovered my identity, the bachelorette bus might turn into the lead car of a funeral procession. Yet some couriered letter telling me to bolt my door wouldn’t help then. If anything, the missive merely underscored my continued need to convince the world I was my flighty, over-exposed sister.

But I took a moment before boarding the bus to look out over the city I’d once fought to protect, alongside a troop of supernatural beings I thought were my friends.

Fuck you-whoever you are-for being an armchair superhero, and standing on the sidelines while I shoulder this mortality. Fuck you for accepting the sacrifices I made for your world and then throwing me away like trash. Fuck you for bottling your power like it’s your personal supernatural bong while I emptied mine out over this city and its people.

I didn’t care if those in the Zodiac underworld believed fate was preordained. So what if my return to mortality had been written in the stars, in the dark matter between them, in advance, or in permanent ink? I gave up my life twice to save the collective asses of those who called themselves superheroes, so a letter intended to keep me safe after the fact meant nothing.

Besides, I thought, turning from the city. Here’s what I knew of fate: it cared nothing about good intentions.

Becoming my younger, flashier, murdered sister had forced me to reconsider the way I moved through the world. After all, why use a deadly weapon when the crook of a manicured finger would just as well do? Yet I’d found a surprising strength in defying the world’s relatively low expectations of Olivia…or at the very least in using them to my advantage.

I’d also found an unexpected strength in Cher and Suzanne. True, they’d actually once been my antifriends- women who didn’t understand a woman who didn’t understand women-but during my recent recovery from a sacrificial near-drowning, when all my superhero allies remained tucked safely in an underground sanctuary pretending I no longer existed, these two flighty, bright socialites had unerringly stuck by me. Yes, they believed I was Olivia, but their show of relentless friendship meant there was nothing I wouldn’t do for them now. Even in my jaded postheroic state-even when I couldn’t save loose change, much less a life-I’d willingly lay down my own for theirs.

“C’mon, Jo.” I set my bare shoulders and knocked on the neon-trimmed door. After all, I was already here, defying a homicidal warning, and strapped into my big-girl halter top. If I could get through the first Jell-O shot, I’d probably be fine.

Then the door swung open. “Oh fu-”

A hip-hop/choir remix drowned out the rest of my curse, and my gaze caught on the turntable rising from the driver’s seat. Cher stood behind it, decked out in curvy silver satin, blond hair set in seductress waves, her right

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