Vicki Pettersson

The Taken

The first book in the Celestial Blues series, 2012

For James-for talking me through this book in the beginning, living with me through its middle, and helping me see it through to the end. It’s as much yours as it is mine. Ditto the series. Ditto my life


Chapter One

Here’s the thing. Every two-bit Tom and Dick on this glorified mudflat thought prostitution was legal in Las Vegas, but that’s never been true.

Least, not when Grif was alive.

Maybe times had changed-plenty on the Surface had-but it was more likely that the johns were too lazy to trek out to Nye County for a sampling from the legal sexual menu. No, there was too much premeditation in that. But score a lay in some trucker-heavy roach-motel, and a man could tell himself he was the victim of impulse. Caught up in the moment. Just a little ol’ fly snared in Sin City’s glinting web.

Grif knew different. People created chaos, not places, and they were damned good at it no matter where they lived. And when this glittering gem of a city teamed up with the world’s oldest profession, fantasy piled atop fantasy; it could convince anyone that impulse was a virtue, not a vice.

Just one roll of the dice, he thought, checking the number on the warped motel door against the entry in his notebook. Just one sip, make sure to tip. Play hard, enjoy the ride, and be certain to take your secrets with you when you leave.

Nicole Rockwell’s last john, however, had taken a bit more.

“Help me!” she was yelling as Grif came through the door. Impressive, since she was missing her larynx. “There’s been a terrible crime!”

Can’t argue that, Grif thought, gaze skimming the hem of her cheap vinyl skirt. “You Nicole Elizabeth Rockwell?”

“Wh-what?” She looked from Grif to the fresh corpse on the bed-her own-then back again. “Yes.”

“Right.” He shut his notebook, returning it to his suit pocket. “Come with me.”

Rockwell took one good look at his quasi-transparent form and promptly collapsed on the bed. “Wh-who are you?”

“Griffin Shaw. I’m here to help.” He hesitated, then jerked his head at her remains. “Sorry I couldn’t get here sooner.”

Her expression, blasted and constricted all at once, made his jaw twitch, but he shrugged it off. Guardian wasn’t his beat. As a Centurion, he merely assisted the recently, and violently, deceased into the Everlast. Those who’d been clipped early often had trouble getting there on their own. As Grif well knew.

He explained all of this to Nicole quickly, flatly, hoping it would keep the hysterics to a minimum. Given half a chance, females were always either jawing or at the waterworks. Dead or alive.

“But I can’t just leave,” she protested when he was finished. “I’m going to a bonfire this weekend, the first one of the spring. And my best friend is waiting outside. We’re gonna chill downtown at the Beauty Bar tonight. Unwind a bit, ya know?” She glanced down at Grif’s proffered cigarette. A calming tactic. “Oh… thanks, honey.”

Something stirred Grif as he bent down and lit her smoke. Probably the shake in her voice, though she talked like a lady, too. Not like most of the rabble he’d been picking up this decade. He snapped the Zippo shut. “Look, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, kid. But you’ve been rooked.”


“You know, you got the dust-off. Killed. Murdered. Clipped. It’s a rough deal, but you’ve had some good times, right? Some wild rides?” He gave a little hip thrust to illuminate the point.

“I’m not a hooker,” she said evenly.

He let his eyes roam around the sex flop. “ ’Course you’re not.”

Blowing out a stream of smoke, Nicole returned his flat stare. “So where exactly is this… Everlast?”

“Now you’re choosy?” Grif muttered, glancing at his watch. He would’ve turned away, but the walls were mirrored and their reflections overlapped, her horrified heat wrapped over his impassive ice. Sighing heavily, he motioned her to the door.

Nicole didn’t move. “What if I wanna do it all over?”

“What over?” he mumbled, lighting his own stick.

“You know. Life. Earth. Humanity. Come back until I get it right.”

“Relax, sweetheart. Mattress time don’t count against you.”

That got her back on her feet. “I told you! I’m not a hooker! I’m a photographer-”

“Where’s your camera?”

“Well, it’s not here, but I have this notebook-” She pointed at the dresser bearing a crappy twenty-inch television and a Moleskine identical to his. Except for the blood splatter.

“Sure,” he said. “A photographer’s best friend.”

The fight drained from Rockwell then, and she slumped where she stood, falling so still the only sound in the room was the soft drip, drip of her arterial blood as it fell from the bed to the floor. “But I’m not done here.”

“Just take my hand, kid. It’ll be all right.”

She looked at him dubiously. Grif frowned. Sure, his suit was rumpled, but it was clean enough, and his pomade had held at his time of death, though it was hidden beneath the brim of his fedora. A little ginger stubble had sprouted-he’d been offed after five-but if his eyes were hard, they were also clear. All in all, not too bad for fifty years dead.

Yet Rockwell remained unconvinced. “How do I know you’re not tricking me? You could latch on and suck my soul down to hell, like in that movie.”

“You mean Ghost, right?” A couple of the younger Centurions had explained about that. Some sleeper flick that hit it big a couple decades ago. Now he had to explain himself to every corpse that walked his way. “Look, I’m not a demon, and I’m no ghost. I’m a… gentleman.”

Nicole blinked.

“Lots of firsts for you today, eh, Ms. Rockwell?”

Eyes narrowed, she crossed her arms. “Piss off, Shaw. I’m not going anywhere with you.”

Grif fought not to grind his teeth. He’d get hell from Sarge if she took it in her mind to hang out here and haunt the place. And he’d be damned-figuratively speaking, of course-if he was going to let her sully his perfect Take record. Besides, she’d been dead all of five minutes. She didn’t yet know what was good for her.

Grinding his cigarette beneath his heel, Grif said, “What are you going to do, honey? Throw down the menage in this joint for the rest of eternity? Though… I guess it does beat sizzling.”


“One wrong turn outta here, and…” He made a sound, trout frying in a pan. It was a rotten trick but it worked.

Nicole shuddered in her demi-cups, then stood and slowly glanced around. “So, that’s it, huh? Twenty-six years

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