Catastrophe by Liz Schulte

“What do you mean ‘I can’t do it’?” I stared into Sy’s perfectly chiseled face that always seemed to have the beginning of a smile. The good-natured half-elf looked more human than elf when he smiled, which was probably why he did it so much. “I can eat an eighty-ounce steak in less than an hour, no problem. Maybe even two. Sign me up. I will prove it.”
Catastrophe
Catastrophe by Liz Schulte
Just the smell of this place was making me hangry, even though I’d just eaten about an hour earlier. My metabolism was fast, even for a Sekhmet. Food, medicine, alcohol, it all burned faster through me, which was great for my pants size but hell on my wallet. Sy nodded, obviously struggling not to laugh at my very real pain. “I have no doubt you can eat your body weight if you really put your mind to it.” Was he humoring me? I narrowed my eyes. “I can.” I wasn’t a wisp of a thing, either. With my boots on, I probably hovered somewhere around six feet tall. My muscles were long and lean like a cat’s, which wasn’t a surprise, since I was a descendant of the goddess Sekhmet. In fact, I had many catlike features I quite enjoyed—like nine lives. “However, the people in there”—he nodded to the packed, well-lit, rowdy-looking saloon—“can’t see you. So there will be no free eighty-ounce steak tonight.” I sighed. That was such bullshit. I looked back at the restaurant. The Abyss never had anything fun like that. “Humans get everything.” “They don’t have you.” He slung his arm over my shoulder. “Plus, if that offer was good in the Abyss, the restaurant would go out of business. Everyone would get the free steak.” I rolled my eyes and crossed my arms over my chest. He wasn’t wrong. Plenty of the supernaturals could eat massive amounts, and then the other half didn’t eat food at all. This place would totally tank outside of the human world. I ran my tongue over my teeth. The smell of meat wafted through the air directly to my stomach, which rumbled with eager anticipation. “Well, I have to eat something or I am going to start chewing on my arm. I’m starving. Why are we even here if it isn’t to eat?” Sy shrugged. “This is where Holden said to meet.” “That evil bastard.” My stomach protested again. Holden was a cranky jinni who was married to my best friend. He didn’t even like places like this. It was too crowded, too touristy, too much fun. He probably wouldn’t even try to eat the big steak. He definitely wouldn’t ride the bull. If it weren’t for Olivia and the kids, who were all basically family to me, I’d kick his ass for bringing me here if food wasn’t somehow involved. “Less and less, I’m afraid.” Holden’s velvety voice brushed against me, making me momentarily forget I was mad. “You’re late. The council is waiting.” “What?” Sy said, catching his arm before he could leave. “Why is the council here? I wasn’t informed of a meeting.” Holden gave him a hard stare, until Sy let go of his arm. “They didn’t tell me why we were meeting, just to make sure the two of you came.” He opened the door to the restaurant and went through. Never looking back or pausing, he walked with long strides through the clumps of people waiting for a table without so much as brushing one of them. All eyes trailed after him as he went. Every jinni had his/her own area and level of expertise designed to tempt humans toward one of the seven deadly sins. Holden was a master artist in lust. His presence in the room threatened to siphon every ounce of inhibition, which was probably why he moved fast and purposefully, so he could minimize damage. That was the thing with jinn that made them so dangerous. Logically, if you saw one you should head as fast as you could in the other direction, but no one ever did. They were magnetic, or at least the ones like Holden were—and thankfully there weren’t many like him. Even I, a nonhuman, wasn’t immune. And this was him in complete control. Had he been emotional or at all upset then meeting here would have been impossible. Orgy riots would probably break out, and the mechanical bull, dear God, would never be the same. He slipped through a closed door marked “private party.” Sy reached around me, pressing his hand against the door to keep it closed as I tried to follow Holden inside. I glanced back at him, still annoyed and hungry, hoping that on the other side of that door was a buffet. “What?” “Do you know what this is about?” I shook my head. “Nope. Pretty sure we find out in there.” His lips thinned slightly. “Olivia hasn’t said anything?” Olivia was Holden’s wife—technically not his wife, but basically the same thing. We met because she had a penchant for trouble, and I loved trouble. So between the two of us, things were never boring. But since her new job as an Angel of Death and adopting two kids, life had been quieter. I still chased after bounties, but without heaven or hell gunning for us, it seemed kind of mundane. If I were being completely honest, I missed the way it used to be, but I was happy for her. Olivia was happier now than I had ever seen her, and she deserved that more than anyone. “Why would she? She’s not supposed to get involved.” Sy raised an eyebrow. Okay, okay, so not getting involved wasn’t Olivia’s strength, but this time she really hadn’t said anything. That either meant she was getting better at staying out of Abyss matters or that Holden simply hadn’t told her. The latter was more likely. Olivia couldn’t stand to see injustice, and that wasn’t going to change overnight. I shrugged. “Fine. Look.” He glanced at the door. “Whatever happens or whatever they say, just don’t agree to anything or speak unless you are specifically asked a question. The council is tricky. They will bend and twist whatever happens in there to their own purpose, and before you know what’s happening you will have agreed to something you never intended to agree to. I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times. They are a lot like the fae in that regard.” “I’ll be fine.” I tugged on the handle, but he pushed against it harder. He moved close enough I could feel his entire body pressed to mine as he murmured in my ear, “I mean it, Femi. There’s no room for friendship when the council is involved. As soon as you walk through that door, Holden isn’t your friend anymore, and neither am I. You need to protect yourself. They make impossible demands, but more than that, once they pull you in…” He shook his head. “They don’t let go.” I leaned back into him slightly, rubbing against him because I knew it would drive him crazy. “You worry about me too much,” I said, turning around against him and running a finger down the hard planes of his chest. His pewter eyes darkened and he leaned in a little closer, dragging the tips of his fingers down my cheeks. “Someone should.” I leaned in for just a moment like I was going to kiss him then slapped my hand against his chest and give him a little push back. “We don’t have time for your nonsense, soldier,” I said with a laugh. Sy was too much fun to mess with. “I’ll be fine.” He took a step back, shaking his head good-naturedly, but still looking entirely too worried. Suddenly, I had a brilliant idea. I felt my pockets, but they were empty. It had to be in my car. I smiled at Sy. “With the necklace the witches enchanted for me, humans can see me.” I hadn’t had a reason to use it since the case Olivia had talked me into taking, but this was the perfect excuse. “That steak is going to be very happy in its new home.” I licked my lips and patted my stomach. “You know, once I find out what they want. Let’s get this over with.” I opened the door, feeling much better now that food was once again in my immediate future. Inside the room the lighting was dim, but it was easy enough to make out everyone sitting around the heavy, round table in high-back chairs. Holden sat next to the dragon Leilah, who was wearing sunglasses, as she always did. On his other side was another woman with long white-blonde hair. Next to her was an empty chair then on the other side of that was a man, also in sunglasses, with a thin face and slicked-back hair. Next to him there was a man who nearly blended into the shadows of the room. Everything about him was dark, including his entire eye, which was blacker than the darkest night. A man in a long coat with red eyes sat next to the shadow guy, and across the table taking up two spots was a huge man who barely fit into the room, let alone his two chairs. I started toward the empty chair next to the blonde, but the dragon held up her hand. “You are fine where you are.” She motioned to Sy, who took the seat, looking a little too comfortable in it, like it was his natural seat. “Now that we are finally all here”—though I couldn’t see it through her sunglasses, I would have sworn she shot Sy a look—“we can begin. The first order of business is the bounty hunter.” All eyes turned to me. “Femi,” I said with a half-wave. “And you guys are?” Now that I finally got to lay eyes on the council, I was more curious about them than ever. What were their names, what were they, what qualified them to rule the Abyss? Why did it all have to be a secret? How did they select new members? I had questions and they had the answers. Combine that with a huge steak and today was shaping up to be a really good day. “She doesn’t look like much,” the red-eyed man said. “Why her?” I stared back at the creepy bastard. I didn’t ask to be here. They’d tricked me into coming, and as far as I could see there was no food to be had. The very least he could do was show me some respect, and I opened my mouth to say as much, but Sy caught my eye and shook his head ever so slightly, so I bit down on my lip instead. “She’s here because we asked her to be here,” Leilah said. “I have worked with her before, she knows of our existence, Holden knows her, and Sy says she is the best.” “What about the humans?” the blonde said with a higher voice. “They are not likely to perceive her.” “Which she could use to her advantage, I would think,” Leilah said. “The human deaths are of no consequence to us. We are merely concerned with the deaths of our own and the implications that could arise from them.” “It could also be a disadvantage,” Holden said, his face completely impassive. “Perhaps the necromancer would be a better choice for this particular mission. She is a witch. She could resolve the issue quietly.” “And expose ourselves to another?” the big guy rumbled. “Let the skinny Sekhmet try. If she fails, the necromancer can be sent for.” “Humans can see me,” I volunteered, and Sy pressed his lips together so hard they turned white. “I have a…um…necklace. It’s not important how. But they can see me if I need them to.” I wasn’t sure what they were talking about, but there was no way I would let Frost (the necromancer) steal my job simply because she was human. Even Holden gave me an impatient look, but Leilah smiled. “There you have it. Any other objections to my choice for this mission?” Silence rang through the room. “Very well. I move to enlist her on a trial basis for this mission.” “Second,” the slicked-back-hair man hissed. “All those in favor?” she asked, and everyone but Sy and Holden raised their hands. “Passed,” she said. “Femi, will you accept the assignment?” “Probably, but you haven’t told me what it is,” I said. Sy closed his eyes and Holden looked even stonier than before. Leilah nodded. “You cannot be told until the job is accepted.” Well, that was a shitty way to do business…but I was curious. What could possibly be so important that the council would be involved? It had to be big, like things were about to go down in flames and the very fabric of our world was about to be shredded, or they wouldn’t give a rat’s ass. “Fine. I’ll do it. Now what is it?” She produced a piece of paper out of thin air and carried it around the table to me. “This is the contract. Read it carefully. Sign in blood.” I glanced over it. No exposing the council. No talking about the council to others. And then a bunch of stuff about how I was signing of my own free will and willing to risk bodily injury or death. I understood the risks and was cool with them sacrificing me for the greater good if need be. Blah, blah, blah. I used a sharpened fingernail to cut my finger, and I pressed it to the paper. She immediately went back to her seat. “Excellent. Holden and Sy will bring you up to speed on all relevant information after our meeting. You may go.” I stood there a moment longer, not comprehending her words, still reeling over the fact that my two friends in the room didn’t even vote for me. I had no idea what the job was, but I could do it better than Frost could, that was damn sure. They had both worked with me. I had saved— “Femi,” Sy said, and I looked up. Everyone was staring at me again. He glanced toward the door. “Oh. Well, this has been completely uninformative and strange,” I said, bowing slightly before I left because I didn’t know what else to do. I headed out to my car and dug around in the glove compartment and then center console, and then I finally found the enchanted necklace on the floorboard of the passenger side. I flicked a chunk of candy off it and put it around my neck. That steak was mine. **** After the waitress made the announcement to the rest of the restaurant that I was going to try to eat the eighty, a bright light was pointed at my table and a timer set at sixty minutes appeared on the wall. People all around me sized me up and found me lacking as the steak and all the sides were brought out to me. Apparently I was a girl, too thin, and my pants were too tight. I curled my lip at the salad. Rabbit food wasn’t usually something I ate, but apparently I had to consume it in order to win—a necessary evil. “Are you ready?” the waitress asked. I nodded. “Whenever you are.” “And you can start in five…four…three…two…one…eat!” she said enthusiastically into the microphone. I picked up my knife and fork and tucked in. Obviously I ate the steak first, enjoying each and every delicious, rare bite. Next I ate the baked potato and roll. And finally I started on the salad, glancing at the clock. I still had twenty minutes to spare. I took a big bite and slowly chewed as I looked around the room. Everyone was suddenly really into it, now sure that I was going to win. One thing about humans was they may like the underdogs, but they loved winners. Though the salad was disgusting, I kept chewing and swallowing until it was gone. I wiped off my mouth with the napkin on the table and sat the fork and knife down. The waitress came over and my plates were inspected. “We have a winner in record time,” she announced, and a series of bells and whistles went off. “Stand up,” she told me. I stood next to her and the whole room watched us. “How do you feel?” she asked. “Full,” I said cheerfully, and everyone laughed. I finally spotted Holden and Sy standing in the back of the room. Holden obsessively checked his watch and Sy grinned back at me as I accepted my prizes (a t-shirt and a key chain) and let them take a picture of me. When the hoopla was finally done, I weaved my way through the crowd toward the boys. “Happy now?” Sy asked. “Very,” I said. “Can we get on with this?” Holden asked. “Sure. Want to get a table?” The room and the line to get in were still packed. It would probably take an hour to get a table. By then, I could probably eat again. He shook his head. “The Office.” After we got far enough away from the crowd, Holden vanished into a puff of black smoke and Sy took my hand, transporting us back to Chicago, leaving my car completely abandoned. At least no one would want the hunk of metal. No one but me, that was. About the only value it had was sentimental. The Office was Sy’s bar and the bounty hunter hub for the central United States. He kept tight control over what sort of business was conducted in his establishment—mostly it was just bounty-hunting matters. He probably didn’t want other people to feel too comfortable about coming in and ruining the seedy aesthetics we learned to love and find comfort in. It was dark and dreary. The lights were never bright, no sunlight ever penetrated the dirty windows, and all the wood was dark with age and use. The room was filled with shadows and people of questionable backgrounds, but the Office was also a safe haven for the loners and rejects of the Abyss. People usually didn’t get into bounty hunting without a pretty good reason, because it was a lonely job. Most other people didn’t like you or trust you. You basically spent your life hunting down people for money. People took it personally. Sy did make exceptions every now and then, but usually not without a lot of bitching. I had seen him allow Olivia and Holden to have a couple meetings there, as well as his cousin. Usually, though, we were dealing with life-or-death situations, and it wasn’t like they made a habit of coming back. However, this time wasn’t an exception. It sounded to me like they were giving me a bounty—coming directly from the council, though it could have been anything, even an assassination. I wondered briefly if I was prepared to straight up murder someone just on the council’s say-so. Probably not. We reappeared in Sy’s private quarters behind the bar. “What in the hell did you do in the hallway that long if you weren’t warning her?” Holden said, flames popping up in his eyes before he blinked them away. “I did,” Sy snapped. “I told her not to speak unless spoken to and not to agree to anything. I can’t control her. Had I known sooner about the meeting, we could have handled all of this better. Made a plan. You or Olivia could have given her a heads-up. They watch me constantly now.” “I didn’t know about it sooner. It appears they don’t trust either of us,” Holden growled. “And Olivia would only get involved.” He turned his annoyed gaze to me. “You just had to volunteer information. We could have gotten you out of this, but someone had to open her stupid mouth.” “Hey,” I said. “First of all, why is it such a bad thing if I take the case? It’s what I do. Second, you need to relax. Whatever it is, I’ll handle it.” Sy rubbed a hand over his face. “It’s not her fault. She doesn’t know.” Holden rolled his eyes and sat down on the couch, crossing his legs. “She signed the contract. Did you even read it?” “Does anyone read those things?” He opened his mouth, but I rushed on. “I don’t need a lecture. I have backed you up on many stupid plans. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken the case without knowing what it was, but…” They both looked at me expectantly. How was I supposed to explain this to them? I had been curious about the council since I’d learned of their existence. Neither Sy nor Holden would tell me anything. Baker had been on it, but now he couldn’t tell me anything, and not knowing was driving me crazy. Also, what better way was there to get out of my bounty-hunting rut than to take a job that was probably significant? “But I didn’t. If anyone should be pissed off, it’s me. I never asked you to protect me, and frankly I find it a little offensive that you are trying. If I want to take a job for the council then I will. I don’t need your permission to do it.” I crossed my arms. “Now tell me something useful, like what exactly is my objective?” Chapter 2 “Werewolves,” Holden said, curling his lip in disgust. “There has been a werewolf outbreak. You might have nine lives, but would you like to spend all of them confined, or would you rather I kill you nine times in a row? One scratch, one bite, and that is your future. They are impossibly fast and strong. You need a team of people to take care of a werewolf problem. That’s how they were eradicated the first time. I don’t know why Leilah is insisting just one hunter can handle this. It’s a suicide mission.” I waited a moment for him to say he was joking, but he glowered at me instead. Werewolves weren’t possible, mainly because, as he said, they had been eradicated—mostly. A few might have remained in the one place the Abyss had to send their undesirables to. When no race would take responsibility for them and they couldn’t be killed, those beings were sent to Hollowfield. “It isn’t possible. First, I haven’t heard anything about an outbreak, and news like that travels fast, especially in the bounty-hunting circles. Second, there are no werewolves unless there was an escape from Hollowfield, which again I would have heard about, and werewolves are too stupid to escape. They don’t have the ability to plan or the temperament to work together. Whatever the problem is, it isn’t a werewolf problem.” Hollowfield was next to impossible to escape from. It was a magically made remote island with a single building on it. Its design was a collaboration of all the Abyss races (light and dark) to house the worst, most uncontrollable of their kind. Some beings couldn’t always be killed. Those were taken here to spend the rest of their days confined to a 6x6 cell. That place was probably the closest thing to a hell on earth as the world had ever come. Every defense imaginable was in place because, above all our differences, exposure wasn’t good for any of us. No one wanted to see anyone in there go free. “Hollowfield hasn’t had any problems,” Sy said. “They were the first place I checked when the news of the outbreak reached the council. Everything is secure there. It doesn’t change the fact that people are being mauled in a very wolflike manner.” My teeth ground together. “How long have you known?” “A while,” he said. “I didn’t believe it either. I sent a couple people to look into it, but none of them have come back. Just a second, I have to check on something.” He ducked out of the room, and a faint scent of something sweet and cinnamon-y filled my nostrils. It was a fae of some sort. Must have come from the bar. “What about you? How long have you known?” I asked Holden. He gave me a bored look, but didn’t answer. Figured. Why hadn’t either of them told me? Hell, why didn’t Holden just go to whatever this was and take care of it himself? It wasn’t like he didn’t have the power to eliminate any threat. “You could have ended this before it began.” He shook his head. “As hard as it is for you and Olivia to understand, I do not feel the need to insert myself into every problem the world has. Sometimes they just have to be figured out on their own.” How those two ever got along was mind-blowing to me. He was a jinni who worked with demons most of his existence. She was an angel. There was nothing like opposites attract. Sy came back in the room. “How many are there?” I asked him. “As far as our contact can tell, just the one,” Holden said. “The bodies have been too mutilated to regenerate. But the problem can quickly get out of hand if the wolf figures out how to grow his pack.” I rolled my eyes. “One werewolf is hardly an outbreak—not that it is a wolf. Regardless, it won’t be a problem.” These guys and their overreactions. I’d be fine. “I’ll be home by the end of the week.” Sy looked at me. “Four bounty hunters have already died. Do not underestimate this creature. If it’s new, who made it? If it is old, then it has stayed off everyone’s radar for the last twenty years or so—which is a feat in itself. Why is it popping up now? Four bodies have appeared in the last week, and those are just from the Abyss. We don’t know if it has targeted humans or not. It has to stop. I told the council I could take a group there and take it out, but Leilah had other ideas.” “She wanted me?” Holden looked grim. “You should have read the contract. She not only wants you to do this, she wants you to do it alone.” Why should she care if I hunt down a fake wolf attack alone or with someone else? “Why?” He shook his head. “I’m not sure. Leilah designed the contract. I didn’t get to see it until after you signed it. The best I can come up with is she wants to see what you are capable of. It clearly states that you have to resolve the crime on your own, with no assistance from anyone on the council or any other Abyss resident. If you fail, the council can punish you. If you succeed…” He gave me a stony look. “For some reason, their attention is focused on you, Femi. I don’t know why. But you should be concerned about that. The council is full of agendas. That’s why Baker got out. I’m only on it because it was the best choice at the time, and groups like this shouldn’t go unmonitored. Neither of us can really tell you what’s in store.” The corners of my mouth rose before I could stop them. So the dragon was testing me. “Mark my words, it’s not a werewolf. I don’t know what it is, but I will find it and I will bring its head to the council.” This won the smallest of smiles from Holden. “Be careful, Femi.” With that, he vanished into his usual black mist and probably headed home, since he was a family man now. Thin stress lines barely creased his eyes. So unusual for an elf. “Holden’s right,” he said. “The council is interested in you for a reason. Can you think of anything that would have caught their attention recently?” I shook my head. “Maybe Baba Yaga is complaining to them?” I had a case not too long ago where I found a thief for a mean old witch named Baba Yaga. I delivered the thief to her, but I didn’t give her back the stolen item, the hand of glory. The hand could unlock any door. Apparently Baba had been using it to steal children, so I kept the hand. “Doesn’t seem likely. Baba likes to handle those things on her own.” I shook my head. “Nothing else comes to mind. The selection of bounties has been lacking recently.” Sy ran his hand through his short blond hair. “I wish there was more I could do to help you with this one, but…” “They are watching you,” I said, repeating what he had told Holden. “Why?” “They are down two members. It has been proposed that I fill one of them, which was approved on a trial basis, but they are still deciding if they want to keep me.” “If they are as bad as you say, why would you want to stay?” He sighed. “The world isn’t always going to be like this. When it changes, I want a say in how it changes and how it is designed. The council itself isn’t bad, just disconnected. Most of them are ancient and isolated. They don’t know or care how the world works now. Also, the council is unbalanced. Holden ended up taking his father’s position as the neutral vote. The two positions that are open are both on the light side. The council historically has been made up of three dark, three light, and three neutral to give the best representation to all sides.” I ran my tongue over my lips, kind of wishing for a snack. “So right now there is only one light vote on the council?” That explained a lot of things. If Holden took his dad’s position, then that meant Baker must have been a light vote. How did he ever get mixed up with Holden to begin with? I smiled a little at the thought of him. Eventually his memories would come back, and when they did, I would ask him. “Why has it taken so long to fill the other two spots?” “I get the feeling Anessa has only nominated me, so far. As the only light council member, it is up to her to select nominations.” The Abyss needed Sy in the position. He had one of the best hearts of anyone I had ever met. He was certainly better than me, and he had a way with people. We would all be better off if he were on the council. “Maybe they aren’t testing me as much as they are testing you.” He shifted closer to me. “I’ve considered that. Especially since Leilah specified that you had to do this alone. She knows that you work for me. She knows that we’re…” “Friends,” I filled in for him. Because that was what we were. We may have flirted from time to time, we have even gone on the occasional date, but above all else, he was my friend. The first real friend I ever had. “I think she might have an inkling that my feelings are more than friendly for you,” he said, his hand brushing down my bare arm. “We should…” My voice ran out of steam as his fingertips reached my neck and trailed down my collarbone. There was a bar full of bounty hunters feet away and I was being sent on what Holden thought was a suicide mission. There was no time for this, whatever this was. “You’re always running away from me,” he breathed into my ear. “What are you so afraid of?” My eyes threatened to flutter closed as he brushed his lips against my neck. He was so tempting with his continual offers of more. And what if he was right? What if we were great together? That was the thought I had to constantly keep at bay. Sy’s friendship meant more to me than that, and I didn’t want it to change. I wanted to know he would always be here. I wanted to know that no matter what happened in my life, I could always walk into the Office and there he would be with a smile and food. As soon as love got involved, even the simplest feelings became complicated. I had enough complications with my family. “We’re not like your family,” he said softly, his lips inching toward mine. “I will always be here for you. I don’t like you doing this without backup.” He always seemed to know too much. It was another mystery about him that I would probably never solve, but I couldn’t shake the feeling things were changing whether or not I wanted them to. If Sy took the job with the council, who would run the Office? Would I lose him entirely? “I work alone,” I mumbled, closing the distance between us. His lips were soft and warm against mine. Warmth spread through me, making me ache for something I didn’t want to think about. Kissing Sy was a mistake, a wonderful, mesmerizing mistake. He took my lower lip between his and caressed it, coaxing me toward what he wanted—possibly what I wanted too. Definitely a mistake. One that I shouldn’t repeat. His lips became more demanding, and I wanted to give in so much I only had one choice: push myself away. I turned and took a couple steps away. His eyes stayed with me. I could feel them trying to ferret out a reaction of some sort. I didn’t actually believe he could read minds, but he was astute to an, at times, annoying degree. “Where are the attacks?” The sound of Sy dropping a file onto the coffee table turned me around. “Four bounty hunters have already been killed: Hatchet, McNeil, Falcon, and Mace. This is everything I know about what’s happening. If you don’t want to do this, I will find a way to get you out of it. Just say the word.” I laughed, picking up the file. “When have I ever run away?” “If it were just another case, but…” The council thing was obviously freaking him out. “I promise I’ll do a good job and I won’t compromise you with the council.” He took the file from my hands, forcing me to look at him. “I don’t care about them.” I took the file back from him and opened it. They weren’t even bodies anymore. With the first picture it took a moment to register what I was seeing. It was just bits and pieces that were left behind. How could he even identify who they were? I looked closer until I saw it: the knife that Falcon always carried halfway under an empty box. Its curved shape was unique. It more resembled a hook than a knife. I flipped through the rest of the pictures. I knew all of the hunters in passing, but wasn’t close to any of them. That didn’t mean I liked seeing their mutilated bodies on the ground. I closed the folder. “If the council didn’t want to bring other hunters into this, how did they find out?” “Hatchet caught whiff of it on his own, I think. Werewolves were always his particular hang-up. Then when he didn’t come back, McNeil and Falcon went to look for him.” “Together?” Sy nodded. “They were friends. When none of them came back, I sent Mace to scout the area. He wasn’t supposed to engage.” He leaned in close and plucked out a picture of an arm. “This is all that was found of him. That’s when I took the problem to the council. Our source in New Orleans had been telling us that he needed to talk, but Leilah said she would handle it. Apparently she didn’t. However, with my independent confirmation, the problem couldn’t be ignored. Leilah chose you rather than letting the council handle it.” I crossed my arms, a new sort of fire burning in me. No one just killed bounty hunters like this. We were the law. “You should have sent me to begin with.” “The witches in Selene’s coven aren’t part of the Abyss,” he said. “At least not all of them. So long as you leave Frost and Selene out of it, if you need help at any point, you could call them–” “Sy,” I said. He ignored me. “Jessica is good with research. She makes connections. She can help. The council can’t say anything about involving her. She was banished from the Abyss.” “Sy,” I tried again. He finally looked up at me with sad eyes. “I can live with a lot, but not with something happening to you.” I took a deep breath. This was why Sy and I would never work as a couple. I loved my job. I loved everything about bounty hunting: the hunt, the chase, and even the capture or kill. Sure, it was a thankless job at times, and it certainly didn’t win me a lot of friends, but it was satisfying. It was better than sitting around doing nothing or training for wars that would never come, like the rest of my people did. This was my place in the world, and Sy knew that because it was his place too. However, it didn’t stop him from trying to protect me, but how was I supposed to make a difference if I was being treated like a damn flower? “Nothing is going to happen to me, Sy.” I stayed my hand from reaching toward him. “I’m the best.” He took my shoulders, turning me toward his entirely-too-serious face. “Femi, you know that I—” “Stop,” I said firmly. Whatever declaration he was about to make, I didn’t want to hear it. I pulled back from him. I shouldn’t have kissed him. “We’re friends. We’re great friends. Why isn’t that enough?” A self-deprecating half-grin twisted on his face as he looked down at the table. “Are you ever going to let me tell you how I feel?” My head shook ever so slightly. He didn’t need to say the words. I knew what they were. “Can’t we just leave this alone?” I didn’t want to hurt him, but this was all I could offer him right now. I didn’t want to be tied to anyone. I was a free agent. He sat down on the couch. “I have a room already booked for you in New Orleans. It will be waiting for you whenever you want to go.” He crossed his legs. “One more thing, then I promise I will leave this alone. I’m not going to wait forever, Femi. You need to decide what you want. I know what I want.” His words formed into a pebble within me and sank, disturbing a pool of stubbornness. “I never asked you to wait.” The words came out harsher than I meant them to. I never asked anyone to wait. Not the man I was betrothed to back home, not Sy, not anyone. It was just another way to control me, and I wasn’t having it. I cast him a sidelong glance. “If it were just a one-night stand or a fling…” Sy met my gaze as if he had been waiting for it. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. We both knew it would never be that between us. He wanted what other couples had. I wasn’t the girl to give him that. “That’s what I thought,” I whispered. Chapter 3 I walked back home, deciding to get my car later. Not that I was running away from Sy or anything, but things had gotten too serious and we both needed some space. It would all go back to normal by morning. He was just reacting to the council bringing me in. He worries because he cares about you, the more reasonable internal voice reminded me. Just like I cared about him—and maybe someday we would be more. Just not yet. There were still things I wanted to do. Adventures I wanted to take and worlds I wanted to see. “And how is my favorite bounty hunter?” Corbin’s voice purred from just beyond the light in front of my apartment door. Years of training kept me from jumping at the sound of his voice, even though I hadn’t perceived the vampire at all. “What do you want?” I unlocked my door and went inside before he could answer, leaving it ajar. He followed me in, movements smooth and measured, like a panther stalking its prey. Even the dim light of my apartment seemed too bright for him. The paleness of his hair and his sharp cheekbones lent to his vaguely threatening appearance, but what truly made him look as dangerous as he probably was were the cold, nearly black eyes that never seemed to lighten. They made him impossible to read, and vampires were temperamental. One day you might be their friend and the next they could try to kill you. That was just the way they were—at least the ones I had known. “Do you color your hair?” I asked him. The Billy Idol blond had to be fake, and yet I couldn’t imagine him going to the trouble of actually dying it. His cheekbones became even more pronounced as his lips pulled together. “No.” I cleaned off one cushion on the couch and took a seat, crossing my legs. “What do you want?” I finally repeated. “I can’t just come to visit a friend?” he asked flatly. That was the problem. We weren’t really friends. We had worked together a couple times and he hadn’t betrayed me (unlike the first and last vampire I tried to be friends with), but that didn’t mean we were ever going to hang out. “I’m tired, Corbin. What do you want?” He slowly meandered around the living room of my apartment, his finger lightly grazing over the piles of junk. “Do you ever clean?” “Not if I can help it.” I was hardly ever home, and that was how I liked it. Mostly this place was a drop-off point. I’d get back from a job, leave my laundry, and repack before I was on the move again. “I can tell,” he said lightly. “Are you offering your services?” I asked, pretending to consider it. “Very well. You can start in the kitchen.” Corbin finally went still, standing in front of me. “Any news from our mutual friend?” I rolled my eyes. Thomas. Of course that was why he was here. Once, years ago, I had a fling with a vampire. It was one night, and that stupid night was going to haunt me for the rest of my life. How was I supposed to know that he was trafficking rare races in the Abyss to the highest bidder? All I had done was take a bounty to catch a vampire, and I stumbled onto to the rest with his careful prompting. One thing led to another, and we slept together just before he suffered a fit of conscience and warned me he was leading me into a trap because they wanted a Sekhmet. I did my part. I told the vampires and I told Sy, but I also warned him, making sure he got out before they arrived, because he had warned me. “You know, he hasn’t synced our calendar in ages. Do you think he doesn’t love me anymore? Does this mean we broke up?” I said with mock trepidation. Corbin didn’t look amused. “You seem to be the only one he comes out for these days.” I cleaned an imaginary speck of dirt off my brand-new silver-heeled boots. The second time Thomas showed up in my world was just a few months ago, but it was just as disastrous at the first time. “I have only seen him twice in my life. The first time, he wasn’t on the run, and the second he sure as hell didn’t come for me. What do you really want? I thought we were past this.” Corbin spent time following me around, determined I knew more than I was saying, but why would I lie? Especially to save an asshole like Thomas. “Just following up on a couple rumors. Figured I’d come right to the source rather than chasing shadows. That’s all I do these days.” If I could have invited him to join me on my case, I would have. Corbin and I worked well together. Despite his flaws, he could handle himself in a fight, and he had follow-through. But the council would probably get their panties in a bunch if I brought him in. “Maybe you should just stop looking for him. Get on with your life.” He raised an eyebrow and his expression clearly said, “What do you know about my life?” which was a fair point. I didn’t know anything, and we were going to keep it that way. “Well, it was good seeing you.” I stood up. “Are you coming or going?” he asked. “When’s your next case?” “Going,” I said. “I just got a new one tonight.” He nodded. “Anything interesting?” Was Corbin trying to make small talk? What in the hell was happening to the men in my life tonight? “Doubtful. Things have been kind of dull, but hey, a trip to New Orleans. I’m not complaining. I really do have a few things I need to do here before I get some shuteye.” He stood vampire still (not moving, not blinking, not breathing) and stared at nothing on the wall. Finally he nodded and let me lead him to the door. “If you hear anything…” “You’ll be the first to know. Night.” I closed the door and flipped the locks, briefly wondering what Corbin had heard. **** The next morning, everything was like it always was with Sy. He smiled and gave me breakfast before he took me back to my car. Not a single word was mentioned about us or the case. Just like I hoped it would be. The engine roared to life with the turn of a key, and I hit the road. My mind immediately went to the new case. What in the hell was killing people in New Orleans? No matter how I tried to twist it, a werewolf didn’t make sense. The first sign was that no more wolves were popping up. Sure, you could say the wolf was a crazed monster, because that’s what they were, but growing their pack would be instinctual. They always, without fail, made more wolves, which was why they were easy to hunt. Even if it were true, though, that this one was the sole surviving wolf, then why do all of this now? To have survived this long meant the wolf would have evolved and would be more than the rabid dog we all knew them to be. Why expose your existence if you were just going to devour all of your potential pack? There was no long-term gain in that, and any wolf that had been smart enough to survive would have been smart enough to figure that out. Either it’d leave enough for regeneration, or it’d eat the whole person to keep from being noticed. Really, the only thing that made any sense at all was that someone else was doing this. They wanted the attacks to look like a wolf, but the question was why? What did they have to gain by that? It also wanted attention, or it wouldn’t have gone after bounty hunters. That alone was asking for a nightmare of trouble. Had the council not gotten involved and Sy hadn’t broadcast the news to the bounty hunters, any suspicious creature in a two-hundred-mile radius would have been taken out. We may not like each other, but we also took care of our own. Maybe that was what the council had been trying to avoid by sending me here. Obviously the rest of the hunters came in like it was a werewolf, which meant they tried to hunt it. They would have followed its tracks, learned its patterns, and then, just when they thought they had it, it killed them. Taking on an aware bounty hunter was no small feat. Killing two working together was impressive. Whatever was out there wasn’t just good at what it was doing. It was exceptional. I parked the car a couple blocks from my hotel and hefted my bag out of the trunk. The air was warm and filled with smells I couldn’t quite identify—for better or worse. However, the city had energy, a life force of its own that seeped beneath my skin and eased away the hustle I usually felt in Chicago. I strolled toward the hotel, listening to the faint sounds of jazz that carried through the air from somewhere in the distance. I could already tell I was going to like it here. The closer I got to the hotel in the French Quarter, the more I felt the unbridled enthusiasm of the people around me. Humans were mostly just a blur of nameless faces for me, but they were far from being the only residents in a city like this. Vampires were simply everywhere, which was odd. In most cities they pretty much kept to themselves, but here they were out and thick in the evening crowds. All types of fae wandered the streets, and plenty of jinn too. It was a mecca of decadence. One that was almost impossible to resist. I definitely needed to come back here when I didn’t have to work. I caught sight of my hotel entrance. It wasn’t the typical Abyss establishment I would have normally stayed in. Some of the Abyss was parallel to the human world, and some of it simply overlapped. The establishments that didn’t want to deal with humans at all usually had a spell on them that kept them obscured from sight. Usually those were tucked into the alleys and cracks in the walls, places most people wouldn’t look at twice. This was a human hotel, which was strange. Humans were far more concerned about what other people were doing than we were. All it really did was add another layer I would have to be aware of during this investigation. Why would Sy book me here? I rang the bell and was buzzed inside. After a quick check-in, I took the elevator up to my room on the fifth floor. Inside there was square box wrapped in matte black paper and tied with a shiny black bow sitting on the bed, and a manila envelope beneath it. I wrinkled my nose. Could this case get any stranger? I pulled the ribbon off and opened the box. Inside was a wrinkled sheet of paper that looked like it had been crumpled and smoothed multiple times before it was folded and placed into the box. I reached down and plucked it out, unfolding the soft sheet of paper. It was a bounty, an old one from the case I was working on when I met Thomas. I’d hunted down a vampire named Ambrose who was accused of taking a little girl. He didn’t make it and he turned out to be innocent, mostly. It was one of those cases that would always stick with me. Sy wouldn’t have sent this to me. Corbin might have, but he didn’t know—no one did except Thomas. I stared at the paper in my hand. It was subtle, but I couldn’t think of anyone else who could possibly have this besides him or Sy. Maybe Corbin was right and Thomas was coming out of hiding again, but why now, and why in the hell would he come to me? The last time he was here he’d betrayed me for a second time. I was literally the last person he should try to see. I refolded the paper. I should have called Corbin to let him know, or at the very least told Sy, but instead I slipped the paper into my back pocket and picked up the envelope. This was definitely from Sy. I recognized the writing on the front. Inside there were four hotel room keys, with the names and addresses of different hotels on them. And there was a stack of cards with a rubber band around them. I flipped through the cards: a human driver’s license, a credit card, a private detective license, a library card, and a random assortment of other crap I didn’t understand. Underneath was a note from Sy. The other bounty hunters stayed in the Abyss and out of the human eye. I thought you might want to check out their rooms, but wear the necklace. Be as human as possible. I touched the flame agate on a silver chain around my neck. So he was thinking the hunters had been targeted too. Was it because they caught the killer’s eye, or was it because they were onto something? There was really no time like the present to find out. I tucked my own key into my back pocket, and took theirs too. Chapter 4 A few blocks away in an alley, the painted wooden sign for the Joyous Harlot hung on display. I rolled my eyes at the big-busted, curvy redhead painted beneath the letters. She wouldn’t even be able to stand up with those things. I went inside and it was every bit as loud and crowded as the human bars were. No one really even looked over at me as I weaved my way through the crowd to the rickety staircase. On the third floor I found McNeil’s room and unlocked the door, but the room had already been cleaned. Everything neat, and all the drawers and closets were empty. There wasn’t even an article of clothing left. I relocked the door behind me and went looking for someone who worked here. “Hey,” I called out to the bartender downstairs. She didn’t look up at me as she made drinks, but she raised an eyebrow. “Is there a manager or owner here?” “You’re looking at her,” she said. “What can I do for you?” “I’m friends with the last occupant of room seven. I came for his things.” She nodded. “Check with housekeeping. You don’t come back for two days, and the room is cleared out. Everyone knows the rules.” “Where can I find them?” “Top floor,” she said. I went back up the stairs all the way to attic. On the door at the very top was a handwritten sign that said housekeeping. I knocked on the door. A person about the size of a child answered. “Whoa. And it isn’t even my birthday. What I can do for you, mama?” It was the huge nose and bad skin that gave away it was a kobold. It was an interesting choice for a hotel housekeeping department given their proclivity for practical jokes, but the labor was probably cheap. “I’m looking for the belongings of the former resident of room seven.” “Gone,” he said, lighting a cigar and leering at me. “But why don’t you come inside anyway?” He waggled his eyebrows at me. “I’m sure I could find something to give you.” I looked down at the little man. “What do you mean gone?” “Scattered…in the wind. Had I known you were coming, I would have saved you a trinket or two.” He put his hand on the side of my knee. “He didn’t come back, so we took it. That’s the agreement. Got a problem with that, take it to someone else. Now in or out?” “You’re a disgusting little man,” I said as I picked him up by his crusty brown shirt. “If you touch me again, I will nail you to the wall and watch you bleed.” I winked at the little fellow. He grinned. “Your loss.” I dropped him to the floor. “I’m small, but mighty.” I laughed the rest of the way down. Next stop, Falcon’s hotel. Where McNeil may have been cleaned out, Falcon’s room was a completely different story. Everything was still in her room. Her duffel bag was on the floor and messy, like she had recently rifled through it. Also unlike the last hotel, hers was quiet and off the beaten path. I lifted her mattress, but nothing was beneath it. I went through the garbage can piece by piece, but there weren’t any leads there either. I searched the place top to bottom, but nothing indicating that she was even on an investigation popped up. I threw everything of hers that I could find back into her bag and zipped it closed, taking it with me. When all this was wrapped up, I’d take the bag to her family. It was the least I could do. My phone rang as I trotted down the stairs. “Hello?” “You need to come home,” my sister said. “Dendera, someday I’m going to change my phone number and not give you the new one,” I said. “Every time you call it is the same thing. How about each week, I just leave myself a note that says ‘you need to go home,’ and that way you won’t have to keep calling.” “Mother is ill,” she said in a soft tone. “We need you here. This nonsense has to stop.” It wasn’t possible. My mother was the strongest person I had ever known. Sure, she was a royal pain in my ass and wanted to run every piece of my life, but she had never been sick since the day I was born. “I’m sure she’ll bounce back.” Dendera sighed. “I’m not.” I couldn’t do this now. Dendera’s dramatics weren’t going to get me to come home. I’d left that place, and our very own mother told me the moment I set foot off our land that I wasn’t welcome back. I took that deal and never once regretted it. “Well, she has plenty of other lives.” “How can you be so cold?” my sister asked. “We are your family. You mean nothing to those other people. You are just a tool for them to use. Darius still waits for you too. Come home. Everything can go back to how it was.” “Even if that’s true, is it better to be a tool who gets to experience life or a bargaining chip sold to the highest bidder to improve our family’s social status?” I waited for Dendera to answer as I left the hotel, but she never did. “Tell Mother I hope she feels better soon, but if she doesn’t, tell her not to fight death. It only makes it hurt more.” She tsked. “You would know. You have died more than any of us.” “I’ve lived more than any of you, too.” A group of vampires on the corner caught my eye. They were being entirely too inconspicuous not to be conspicuous. I openly watched them as I passed by, though none of them made eye contact with me. “I’m in the middle of a case. I really do need to go if there isn’t anything else.” “Why do you insist on throwing away your life?” my sister mumbled. “I think we have different ideas about what the word ‘life’ means. Come visit me, Dendera. I promise you’ll never want to go back. I will show you what living is really about.” “I’ll update you on Mother when I know more,” she said. “Be safe, Femi. We’ll be here waiting for you when you do decide to come home.” I hung up the phone and headed immediately for Hatchet and Mace’s rooms. Their rooms were no different. I collected everything I could find from each room and took it all back to my hotel, but the problem was it really wasn’t anything to go on. Mostly I had clothing, a few weapons, and a map of the city. That was all. I tossed their bags and keys into my closet and got out Sy’s folder. If there wasn’t anything in the rooms, then I needed to go to the crime scenes. I didn’t bother looking at the pictures again. They weren’t going to tell me anything new, not yet. I needed an idea of what to look for. I flipped them all over so I could see the names, addresses, and dates that were written on the back. I retrieved Mace’s map of New Orleans and set to work pinpointing each location where a body was found. There was a knock on my door. I glanced at the clock. The hours had ticked by and my body was stiff. It was nearly five a.m., too early for housekeeping. I folded the map and collected the pictures, tucking it all back into the folder and sliding it to the bottom of my duffel bag before I went to the door, knife already in hand. “Who is it?” I asked, not looking through the peephole. It was a common mistake. Put your eye up to a hole in the door and you have no idea what might come through it, skewering you and your brain. Enough beings in the Abyss were able to regenerate that most people interested in killing someone just went for the brain. Destroying enough of that would prevent most people from coming back. “Um, I’m looking for a bounty hunter named Femi,” said an unsure voice. I opened the door in a flash and dragged a mostly human-looking man inside by the neck, pinning him to the door and pressing my knife to his throat. “Who are you and how did you know where I was?” I asked calmly. “Amos,” he croaked. “I’m Amos. Leilah sent me to be your guide around the city. I work with the council.” My fingers loosened slightly so he could talk better. “You have thirty seconds to make me believe you before we find out how well you can survive without a head.” His eyes grew wider. “I’m the council representative in this area. New Orleans has a large Abyss population, and someone has to keep tabs on it.” It sounded sort of like what Sy did from Chicago, but it was hard to tell exactly, because Sy would never give me a straight answer on what his actual involvement with the council was. The fact that this guy would was suspicious. “Do you know Sy?” I asked. “Sure,” he said, relaxing a little. “Who doesn’t?” “Don’t move. Not a muscle.” I released my hold on him, but kept the knife to his throat as I called Sy. He answered on the second ring. “You know I can’t help you.” “Do you know someone named Amos?” I asked. Sy didn’t answer for a moment. “Vaguely.” “He said he was sent by Leilah. I need a confirmation.” “Hold on a sec,” he said, and the phone went silent. Amos shifted, and I pressed the knife hard enough against his throat to draw blood. “Ah, ah, ah,” I said. “Your story hasn’t been verified.” “Femi?” Sy said. “Still here.” “He’s fine. Leilah confirmed his story. She said he’s there to take you to the crime scenes and to get you anything you might need.” He paused like there was more, but didn’t continue. “And?” “Just watch your back. He’s not your friend. He’s there to report to the council what you are doing.” So he was like a babysitter. I nodded. “Gotcha. Later.” I hung up and narrowed my eyes at Amos. “Looks like someone didn’t quite tell me the whole truth.” His mouth fell open and his voice rose at least an octave. “I did. Leilah sent me. Call her. She’ll tell you.” I laughed, twirling the knife back to my waistband. “I’m just messing with you. So you are supposed to take me to the crime scenes.” He nodded, knuckles still white. “I’m supposed to help you in whatever manner you need assistance. I came by earlier, but you were already out.” “How did you know I was even here?” He smiled a little. “This is my city. I have contacts everywhere. I knew the moment you checked in.” I raised an eyebrow, thinking about the vampires who had been watching me earlier. He was definitely in a Sy-like position, then. “So what are you?” I asked. “Doppelganger,” he said. If he could look like anyone in the world, why would he choose his current look? He was maybe five and a half feet, with sharp, angular features and frightened eyes. Not exactly the most intimidating of figures. “How’d you get involved with the council?” He smiled, but shook his head. “It’s a long story.” He moved past me, deeper into my room. “So where would you like to start?” “Did you meet any of the other bounty hunters who came here?” He shook his head. “I didn’t know why they were here. The council wasn’t involved yet. I assumed it was random. We get a lot of traffic in and out. I can’t keep track of everyone.” So obviously he had been briefed on what the case was. “Let’s start with the first crime scene,” I said. “I’ll meet you downstairs.” He nodded. “I’ll be in the lobby,” he said as he closed the door behind him. I stripped off my leather pants and halter top. If I was to appear human, like Sy suggested, I had to wear something less sensible—the coven of witches taught me that. I pulled on a pair of black jeans, a white t-shirt, and a black leather moto jacket. I topped it off with my silver-heeled boots and glanced in the mirror to make sure nothing was in my teeth before I started downstairs, realizing that it had been hours since I last ate. I thumped Amos on the back of the head as I walked past him. “Anywhere to get breakfast on the way?” I asked as he jogged to keep up with me. “Sure,” he said. “We have lots of great places. You want anything in particular?” “Just food,” I said. “The faster the better.” “Okay, this is my car,” he said, stopping abruptly next to a black sedan with heavily tinted windows. “We can’t walk there?” He shook his head. “You said you wanted to go to the first crime scene, right? That’s in another parish. Hop in.” He opened the passenger door for me. I climbed into his vehicle, and he expertly wove his way through the early morning traffic as we headed out of the city and into the country. “And there are restaurants out here?” I asked. He laughed. “Some of the best you will ever eat at, I promise you.” Fifteen minutes later we pulled into the parking lot of a little café and were seated almost immediately. We were off to a good start. I glanced at the menu, immediately spotting what I wanted. Before the waitress could escape, I placed my order: a skillet breakfast with Cajun beans, eggs, hash browns, and hollandaise sauce, with a side of French toast and coffee. Amos ordered the heart-healthy breakfast. I shook my head. Why even bother? When she left, I leaned in closer. “So tell me what you know about the first crime scene.” He frowned. “Not much. This is out of my area. All I know is the victim was a ghoul the locals called Gus. He was a bit of a drifter from cemetery to cemetery, so they didn’t realize immediately that he was missing. When they finally started looking for him, well, they didn’t find much.” I nodded. They hadn’t found much of anyone. Whatever it was obviously wasn’t just targeting the living if its first kill was a ghoul. Ghouls were undead, sort of like vampires, but they survived on the flesh of dead humans. It was actually pretty disgusting. So disgusting, in fact, that most creatures, living or undead, avoided them. “So he was pretty well known around here?” He took a drink of his herbal tea (blech) and sat back against the booth. “The cemetery sect definitely knew him well.” I raised an eyebrow. “The vampires and witches and ghosts—you know, the people who spend the most time in places like that. They would joke that he was the official greeter. Also, if you had any historical questions, Gus was your guy.” “No enemies?” Amos shook his head. “None that I know of, but you know how the Abyss is. There’s always someone who isn’t happy about what you are or are not doing. It’s possible this isn’t even connected to the werewolf.” He whispered the last word. “Gus could have witnessed something someone didn’t want him to see, or he could have eaten the wrong person and made someone mad. I don’t know. He was only included because of the condition of the body. You’ll see.” “The body is still there? You didn’t move him?” I asked. “How long ago did he die?” “Why would we move him? He’s already in a cemetery—where else were we supposed to take him?” I guessed that was true enough. “The first time he died was about thirty years ago. This time was about two weeks ago.” Breakfast was served, and I enjoyed each and every delicious bite in silence as I thought about the killings. A ghoul didn’t make a lot of sense. I wasn’t even certain a ghoul could be turned into a werewolf. “What about humans?” I asked as I set my knife and fork down. “What about them?” he asked. “Have humans been dying too?” He tilted his head as he thought about it. “There have been a few maulings fairly recently. I don’t really pay attention to the human news, so I can’t offer you any specifics. Not enough of them have been killed to garner much attention. It doesn’t really matter, though. It’s not like they would likely jump to a werewolf conclusion.” I nodded. The council wasn’t likely to care what happened to humans. They never said a word about the jinn targeting them or vampires hunting them. Mostly, they turned a blind eye to humans, unless the humans knew about us. If the killer did target them too, then maybe he or she would have been sloppier with those murders, because they wouldn’t be investigated like the paranormal ones. It wasn’t likely, but it was at least worth a shot. “Why don’t you find out for me? I want their names and locations of their bodies as well. You ready to go?” He nodded, setting the fork down on his half-eaten plate of food. “Sure.” A few minutes later, we pulled into a remote graveyard. “This way.” He led me in, winding through the graves until we came to a small mausoleum nestled in the corner. He stopped next to it and rolled up the sleeve of his shirt to the elbow revealing a tattoo of a snake coiled around some sort of knife on his forearm. Crouching down, he reached into a small hole where the stone had crumbled away. “This was where he was found?” “Well just outside of the grave. I tossed what was left of the body in.” He pulled out the remains of Gus and sat them on the ground between us. Three fingers, half a leg, and an ear. “How was he identified?” I asked. “The fingers.” Amos picked up two of the digits. “Gus didn’t have the tip of his finger, just like this one—and it’s tattooed, see?” He held it up for me. “He also had a tattoo on the ring finger. It’s definitely him.” I took one from him and had a closer look at the end. It definitely looked bitten off. “If something bit off his finger, it would have to spit it back out. Don’t you think it is convenient that the pieces needed to identify him were left behind?” Amos shrugged. “How would the killer know he could be identified by a tattoo and the missing end of a finger?” “You knew.” Amos had said he hardly knew Gus, and yet he still knew what to look for to make the ID. Obviously, it was a fairly well-known character trait. “It’s my job to know the people in the area.” “Then maybe the killer knew him too. There was some way he was found and targeted by the killer. I think the killer wanted us to know who the victims were and that these people died. Otherwise, why not finish the bodies off or hide the remains?” “Well, if the killer cared about that, wouldn’t he just leave the heads so there’d be no mistake in the matter? It would be more impactful.” Amos with another valid point. “Why leave behind bits and pieces?” I looked at what was left behind again. The ear was pierced, the leg was tattooed, and the two fingers Amos picked up were also flawed in some way. “Let me see the other finger.” He handed me the little finger. There didn’t appear to be anything wrong with it. I sniffed it, but all I could smell was death. “Can I keep this?” I asked, waving it at him. “I don’t have a problem with it,” Amos said. “It’s weird, but whatever you need.” “Great. I’m ready to go.” We headed back to the car. “You want to go to the next location?” he asked. I shook my head. “Just take me back to the hotel. I can find some of these on my own. You can start looking for the human deaths. We’ll meet up later.” His face froze and his mouth opened to protest, but nothing came out. “You’re supposed to watch me, huh?” He cleared his throat and glanced out of the window. “You could put it that way.” I nodded. “I’m not going to break their contract. This is what I need to solve the case. I’m just trying to do my job.” He looked over at me. “I’ll do it—but don’t screw me on this. Keep me in the loop. Leilah kind of terrifies me.” Well, she was a dragon. “She’s kind of awesome.” “Sure, sure. She could transform into her actual form and swallow us whole if we displease her, but yeah, she’s awesome.” I laughed. “What do you know about the rest of them?” “Nothing. Even if I did, I couldn’t tell you—again swallowing me whole. The thing about the council is they don’t want to be known or seen. I have personally only met one member that I know of. I mean, it is possible I have met others and not known it. The council is everywhere. Doesn’t it freak you out?” I rolled my eyes. “Not even a little. I hate secrets. Wouldn’t life be easier without them?” “I think we’re going to get along just fine.” Amos smiled at me. Chapter 5 Back at the hotel, I spread out the contents of all of the duffel bags, making sure they were completely empty. After I tossed the clothing to the side, all that was left were a few random weapons, a city map, and a completely empty notebook. If they ever had anything worth looking at, it was long gone. And since each of them ended up dead, I was willing to bet they had uncovered something. Why else would it kill them and risk more bounty hunters being sent down? I shook my head and stuffed everything back in the bags. Next I laid the pictures back out and looked closer at each of them. Something about the body parts left behind in the cemetery had been bugging me, but I couldn’t quite place what it was. Each scene had completely different pieces. Some overlapped, but not that much. The internal organs were always gone, but sometimes an arm or a leg would be left. Other times a finger or ear or hunk of skin. It appeared random…all except one thing. I ran my finger over each of the pictures. Nearly all the pieces left behind were in some way marked. Whether it was a piercing or a tattoo, the piece left had some sort of identifying piece to it. I looked at the ghoul’s pinkie finger lying on the desk in my room. One of the fingers at the cemetery had a tattoo, and the other one that was missing the tip was also tattooed, but this one appeared normal. There was only one way to find out. I picked up my knife and sliced down the center of the finger, holding my breath as I peeled away the skin. It didn’t take long to spot the metal plate at the base of the finger. I leaned back in my chair. Interesting. The killer was leaving behind anything man-made. There was a knock on my door. I grabbed the finger and the pictures and tossed them into the room safe. I never put out the “Do not disturb” sign. At least in the Abyss hotels, they knew better than to disturb you. I cracked open the door. “What do you want?” I growled. Amos stood on the other side. “You need to work on your door-answering skills,” he said. I opened the door to let him in, hanging the sign. “I don’t need humans poking around in my business,” I said. “Better to scare them off. Why are you back so soon? What did you find?” “Nothing yet, but there’s a crime scene,” he said. “It’s just down the road from here. I couldn’t get close enough to see, but I heard people talking. They said it looked like an animal attack. I thought you’d want to know while it’s still fresh and there is something to see.” Fresh was good. It could still have a scent on it. I took the ID and credit cards Sy had given to me and slipped them into my back pocket. Now was as good as any time to start playing human. “You are absolutely right.” I was out the door and headed down the hall before Amos caught up. “Want me to come with you?” he asked hopefully. “Did you work with the other bounty hunters who came down here?” “Not really,” he said. “I didn’t even know they were here until after the bodies were found.” I nodded. Chances were the others didn’t look at the humans. No one ever did. “What I really need is for you to find out about the other human killings. That’s the top priority.” “Why?” he asked. I breezed through the lobby and stopped outside the door. “Which way?” He pointed to the left. “Up two blocks then three blocks to the left. Why are the humans so important?” “I don’t know yet. I just have a feeling that to solve this case I need to see the whole picture. Is it a problem?” He shrugged. “It won’t be easy. I don’t know how it works where you are from, but we pretty much stay clear of the humans here. They are superstitious enough without us feeding into the fear.” “Just do the best you can.” I took off down the sidewalk the way he had directed me. There was a crowd of people bunched around the yellow tape as police officers and a silent ambulance sat off to the side. Never a good sign. I ducked under the tape without slowing and walked down the alley. No one stopped as I walked up to the body and squatted in front of it, careful not to touch anything as I took it in. More of the body had been left this time, but the wounds definitely appeared to be bite marks. Through a large hole in the skull the brain had been removed, and the chest cavity was fairly torn up. It looked like a much more frenzied attack than the pictures I had. I breathed in deeply. There was something vaguely canine, but there were too many foreign smells to really connect it to the body and not just the area. “Who is that? What the fuck is she doing in my crime scene?” said a voice from behind me as footsteps quickly approached. I looked up at the man in a suit with a silver badge connected to his belt. He had intense eyes, with heavy dark circles beneath them, and a sharp nose. He frowned at me. “Looks to me like you have a problem,” I said, glancing back to the body. “Whatever did this sure as hell wasn’t a dog.” “I couldn’t agree more.” He hauled me up by the arm. “Now, why don’t you tell me why I shouldn’t arrest you for contaminating my crime scene?” “Because you have a serial killer on your hands and you don’t even know it,” I said. It was a long shot, especially since I couldn’t prove any of it as far as humans were involved. But it was worth the risk. Working with a human detective could get me information about both sides of the attacks. His jaw tightened. “It’s a feral animal. That’s all,” he said as he nodded to someone else. “Escort her out of my crime scene.” I pulled my arm out of the other man’s grip. I walked backward as I spoke. “A feral animal no one has seen or witnessed? One that leaves behind random, chewed-on body parts? Have you wondered why the only pieces left are all marked by something man-made? Look at the crime scenes. You’ll see what I am talking about.” “Hey, X-Files,” one of the other police officers said. “Tell her your theory.” People around us laughed as I held his serious eyes for a moment. Finally, I nodded and ducked back under the tape. My display might have been a waste, but at least I got the human’s attention. If more crime scenes popped up, he might actually seek me out. Mace’s murder scene was the next closest to where I was. I started toward it, though I didn’t expect to find anything at the Abyss spots. The bodies would have been cleared out by now, and countless people would have traveled over the area. The human scene was such a contrast to Gus’s crime scene. The killings had similar aspects, but enough of the body was left that I couldn’t even be sure what I’d said to the detective fit his crime scenes. That body did look like it had been mauled. Obviously not by a feral animal, but a hell of a lot more wolflike than what was left of Gus. Gus’s grave was cold and surgical. Sure, there were bite marks, but there was something that didn’t feel right about the scene. It was just more sterile somehow, and less honest—though I didn’t know how that made sense. Maybe it was two different killers entirely. “Wait.” The detective’s shoes slapped the street as he jogged. He’d never sneak up on anyone in those things. I stopped and waited for him to catch up. “Who are you?” he said as he came to a stop in front of me. “Femi.” I offered him my hand. He shook it with a nice, firm grip. “Do you have a last name, Femi?” I winked at him. “No.” He shook his head. “Fine. What do you do for a living?” “I am a bou—” I stopped myself, trying to think of the words on the card Sy had given me. “Private detective.” He crossed his arms. “How did you know about the body parts?” Interesting. “You noticed too?” I asked. “It’s my job to notice. What I want to know is how did you notice? Who are working for? None of that has been released to the press.” “I’ve done my research,” I said. “And my client wishes to remain anonymous.” I waited a couple beats before continuing. “I heard there was another potential scene, so I thought I would take a look, but I think this might be a different guy.” The detective crossed his arms. “Why?” “The person I am looking for is leaving pieces behind, not whole bodies. That body was mangled, but a lot more than a piece was left.” “And which bodies were those?” he asked. I shook my head. “We can work together or separately. That’s up to you.” “You think the killer is human?” he asked. I blinked and reassessed the man in front of me. Everything about him appeared to be human. His look, his smell, his movements—he couldn’t be paranormal. But based on the few humans I knew, they didn’t refer to themselves that way. So why would he ask me a question like that? Maybe it was just superstition, like Amos had said. “What else would it be?” His cognac eyes met mine. “You said earlier there was no witness to the animal. That isn’t exactly true. We have no witnesses this time, but I have seen things out there that you would never believe. Some things are best left alone. It would be safest for everyone involved if you just walk away from this, ma’am,” he said. I raised an eyebrow. Were his eyes opened to the Abyss? Questions like how and why raced through me, but I struggled to keep a passive face. I couldn’t assume something like that. “Like what? Ghosts? Vampires?” “You think I’m crazy.” He ran his fingers through his hair and glanced back down the street toward the crime scene. “It doesn’t matter. Just know that you should stay as far away from this as possible before it takes notice of you.” He took a couple steps back. “That’s the most help I can give you.” “What’s your name?” I called after him. “Dempsey,” he said. “Have a good day, ma’am. Do yourself a favor and forget this case.” He smiled at me a little. It made him look a little older, sadder, and more tired, but it was a good smile—an honest one. I probably should have let him go. Confirming the human’s suspicions about the Abyss was possibly the worst thing I could do. He’d never have a normal life if he knew for certain. Some took it better than others, but most of them didn’t. And I wasn’t in any position to babysit him until he became comfortable seeing my world. However, he knew something, and I needed to know what that was. He already suspected something supernatural was happening. Maybe letting him in would ease his mind. That sounded like as good a theory as any other. “Hey, Dempsey,” I called before he was out of earshot. “What if I told you that other world you were talking about is real? And if you want the killer to be caught, I’m the person who can help with that.” He stopped and came back toward me, staring at the ground until his eyes, much darker now, rose up to meet mine. They searched mine then narrowed slightly as the corners of his mouth turned down. “Then I’d say we have a lot more to talk about. Wouldn’t you?” I shrugged one shoulder. There wasn’t a lot I could tell him, especially not out in the open like this. Maybe it was the brief thought of the council that drifted through my mind, but suddenly chills ran down my spine. I was being watched. I glanced around at the unfamiliar faces as they passed. Dempsey was waiting patiently for me to continue, but I couldn’t do it here. “Do you have a piece of paper?” He handed me a notepad. I scribbled down my hotel and phone number. “I can’t talk here. Give me a call later. We’ll compare notes, but for what it’s worth, you’re not crazy.” As soon as I figured out what he knew, I’d ditch him. The less I could expose him to this world, the safer he’d be. I handed him the paper and started back down the street. “Where are you going?” he called after me. I waved, but didn’t slow down. I spent the afternoon hitting the rest of the crime scenes in the Abyss. They all had that same sterile feeling as Gus’s. Just after the sun went down, Amos finally called me. “I think I have what you are looking for, though I don’t think they are connected. The crime scenes look different to me,” he said. “Where are you? I’ll swing by.” I licked the powdered sugar from my fingers then plucked another beignet from the heaping plate. “I’ll just meet you at my hotel. I’m headed there now.” I hit end and took a bite, closing my eyes at the sugary, doughy goodness. When I finished the entire plate, I took off across Jackson Square toward my hotel. The area was thick with tourists and sounds, but the crowds were exhilarating. So much life and joy bubbled up around me that I got lost watching people, mostly the humans. The music and laughter and art and life all around me was infectious. A wide smile spread across my face as I watched them. Humans had the right idea. This was how we were supposed to live. I didn’t notice the fast-approaching footsteps or the fact that they weren’t accompanied by breathing until it was too late and my head was slammed into a brick building hard enough I could hear the stone crack. Everything went black. Chapter 6 My eyes struggled to roll back into my head as soon as I opened them. I blinked until the room started to come into focus around me. Blood trickled down the side of my head. My hands were bound and my legs wouldn’t move either. My head throbbed. The people in the room moved too fast, too smooth. Fucking vampires. None of them gave me a second glance, which was good. If they didn’t know I was awake, I still had time to come up with a plan. I closed my eyes again and stayed as still as possible as I worked my thumbnail against the zip tie around my wrists. My nails were thicker than human fingernails. I kept them sharpened, not just because they looked totally badass (they did), but also for situations like this. The plastic snapped and I caught it before it could fall. Not one of them looked back. The vampires were distracted by an argument they were having between them, but that wouldn’t hold if I moved, which made freeing to my legs harder. Big movements like that would probably get someone’s attention. “He specifically said to not kill her,” a woman said. “We’re to wait for him.” “She’s still breathing,” a thick, deep voice responded. “But I don’t see why we can’t sample her. She has plenty of lives. He doesn’t have to know about it.” I inched down the column they had me strapped to. “If you go near her, I’ll kill you myself. We aren’t to touch her. She knows where Thomas is,” the woman insisted. “Paolo wants to question her.” Damn it all to hell. Fucking Thomas. That rat bastard son of a bitch. I never had a single vampire problem until him. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to wait around here until Paolo, the unofficial leader of the vampires, showed up. He had always blamed me for Thomas getting away the first time. “What about Corbin?” the man said. “Corbin doesn’t have a say. Maybe he isn’t the favorite anymore. Maybe Paolo is ready to move on—or at least he will be after she breaks,” the woman said snidely. “Then more deserving people can step into his spot.” Pssh. Break. They could take all of my lives and I wouldn’t tell them anything. Even if I knew something to tell, which I didn’t. I shifted my legs as I continued to ease myself lower, trying to figure out how my ankles were bound. My boots were still on, so it was possible they hadn’t taken my knife, but even with a knife, there was no way I could move faster than a vampire. “More deserving.” Corbin’s silky voice came from across the room with a perfect amount of irony and pique. Did he practice these things? I opened my eyes. He was just the distraction I needed. I squatted, hand immediately going inside my left boot. The knife was right where I always left it. How stupid were these vampires, leaving a prisoner armed? I cut the ties around my ankles in the back, but didn’t remove them. Not a single vampire looked back at me. Corbin’s timing couldn’t have been better. There were only about five other vampires in the room. I could take them. I stood back up like nothing had happened and put my hands behind my back again, with the knife resting against my forearm. “Paolo is on his way,” the woman said with bravado she couldn’t have felt looking at Corbin’s black, soulless eyes. “He’ll see for himself that she knows more than she shares with you. Your days are numbered.” Corbin laughed without humor. “I have no doubt the Sekhmet knows more than she shares with anyone,” he said dryly. “But this isn’t the way to make her talk. She will sooner die than have information forced out of her. Do you know nothing of her people? Allies are better than enemies.” “Kristina has already contacted him. And you have come one step closer to losing his favor.” I could hear the smile in her voice. “There’s always a new and better replacement waiting to take your spot. It’s Kristina’s time now. I will say you have been quite disappointing.” She crossed her arms over her chest as two huge vampires moved to either side of her. “I hope he doesn’t show you mercy.” “I certainly didn’t show it to your daughter when I took her life. Who do you think ordered that hit, Joann?” Corbin’s eyes flickered over me for a moment, and one corner of his mouth went up. “Besides, I’m not the one who failed today. If you and Kristina leave now, you might be able to hide at least for a day or two before he finds you.” “We haven’t failed,” she said, shaking her head, making her black hair ripple. “How hard is it to keep one Sekhmet from escaping? I really don’t think he will be understanding. Especially if you damaged the relationship we have fostered with her.” All heads swiveled in my direction. A vampire who looked like a bodybuilder came toward me. “She’s still here,” he said in his deep, thick voice, like his tongue was too big for his mouth. He reached around me to check the ties. I jammed the knife into his temple with my left hand as I hit out with my right hand as hard as I could, leading with my fingernails. His soft undead flesh and bone gave way, and I came back with his heart. I dropped it to the floor. The knife pulled out as he fell in front of me. Two others reached me before he even hit the floor. I threw the knife at the one on the right at the same time I kicked to my left. The silver heel of my boot sank into his eye with the force of his own assault. The vampire screamed and pulled back, dropping to his knees, both hands covering his face. The one I’d hit with the knife hit me from the side, knocking me off balance. Grabbing his shirt as I fell, I pulled him to the ground with me. I grabbed the hilt of the knife lodged in his chest and twisted as I used the weight of my body to flip him over beneath me. He got in one good punch that made my ears ring and my mouth fill with blood before I jammed the blade into his brain and pulled it back out. The last two were already coming toward me, but Corbin stopped their charge. “If you want to die, please do carry on. I have no doubt she will dispatch the two of you as easily as she did the others.” The woman and her last brute stopped, glaring down at me as I stood up, spitting out the mouthful of blood. I grinned at her. My teeth were probably red. “Any time you’re ready,” I said with a wink. “I should have let them kill you when they found you,” she spat. I advanced on her slowly, not missing Corbin’s warning glance, but he didn’t tell me what to do. No one did. I held my arms out wide. “Give it your best shot.” She didn’t budge. I dropped my arms. “That’s what I thought.” I wiped the blood off the blade of my knife on her shirt before I slipped it back into my boot. “Come after me again, and I will finish what I started here today.” Her mouth pinched, and the big guy stood stoically next to her, awaiting her commands. Sheep. “I tried to warn you, Joann. Now you have lost two of Kristina’s men and this poor devil,” Corbin said, pointing at the guy still bemoaning the loss of his eye. “Will have to live with pirate jokes for the rest of eternity.” He tilted his head at the man. “Could be worse, mate. Women love patches.” I shook my head as I took off my leather jacket and peeled the formerly white t-shirt off my body. See, that was the problem with wearing regular clothes. I’d never get the bloodstains off. “Does anyone have a towel?” Corbin reached behind him and tossed me a dirty, oily rag, but at least I could clean off some of the signs of violence. The jeans would have to be thrown away. I should have worn leather. When I was as clean as I was getting, I put the leather jacket back on and zipped it up. We were in some sort of garage, but it really didn’t look like anything special. “All of this was about Thomas?” I asked casually. Corbin took the rag out of my hand and dabbed it against my temple. “Missed a spot.” My jaw tightened at the pain of the touch. “Nope. Still bleeding,” I said, knocking his hand away. “I don’t want oil and dirt in the wound. Thanks anyway.” “Hold still,” he said, as he tilted my head to the side and looked at the spot where they’d bashed it against the building. Those assholes. It was amazing my skull wasn’t fractured. “You’ll live,” he said, letting me go. “No shit.” I bent down and picked up my t-shirt and tore it in half, leaving the bloody front part on the floor, and wadded up the cleaner back portion, pressing it to my head. “So did they attack me in particular, or is it any bounty hunter who comes into the area?” Corbin took a deep breath. “New Orleans is their turf. It should have been cleared with Paolo before you came here.” I raised an eyebrow. “Since when do I need vampire permission to go wherever in the hell I want?” He shrugged. “Since when do you let barely adolescent vampires sneak up on you? You’re getting sloppy, Femi.” “I was distracted—I don’t have to explain myself. I shouldn’t have been attacked. I don’t know where fucking Thomas is.” I shouted the last part to make sure the other ones could hear me. “I haven’t heard from him since he abandoned us in Arizona. For all I know, hell has taken him, because that’s what happens when you make deals with demons that you can’t follow through on. They fucking kill you. I wish people would stop coming to me as the standing expert on him. I don’t know anything.” The anger was real, even if my words weren’t entirely. I didn’t know where he was, but he obviously wasn’t in hell, since he’d sent me a gift. Corbin squeezed the bridge of his nose. “That cockroach is still around. Sightings pop up almost daily. But maybe the demons are helping him. He’s always gone by the time I get there. If not demons, he’s turning to someone. There’s no other way he could have avoided me this long. Last place he was seen was here, and then you show up. You must know how that looks.” “If you knew Thomas was here, why didn’t you tell me?” Corbin said he had been spotted at my apartment, but he didn’t say a word when I told him I was assigned a case here. “You’ve been following me again, haven’t you?” Corbin’s dark eyes met mine without apology. “Tell me, what have you seen? Have I met with Thomas? Have you seen him at all?” “No,” he said. I nodded. I didn’t like any of this. I was sent to the exact same city Thomas just so happened to be in. One that vampires apparently felt they owned, and which was now having fake werewolf attacks. This whole scenario had Thomas written all over it. He was in some way manipulating this. When I found him, I’d kill him myself. For a moment Corbin just looked so over everything. “You should probably go before Paolo gets here,” he said quietly, eyes flicking toward the door. “I’ll take care of everything here.” My legs didn’t move. “Have you really lost favor with him?” Corbin and I might not have been friends, but I still liked him fine. Losing favor with Paolo meant one thing: he’d be killed. He winked at me. “It wouldn’t be the first time. He’ll come around. He always does.” “Was it because of…” I didn’t say Selene’s name. Corbin was so touchy when it came to her—the half-elf fairy queen who apparently had his heart, whether or not she wanted it. “Among other things. I’ll make it right or we’ll part ways. Life will return to normal one way or another.” “Won’t he kill you?” “He can’t,” he said without explanation. He ran a hand over his face and looked back at me. “I would recommend leaving the city.” I shook my head. “I’m on a job.” He walked me to the door, but didn’t touch me. “Tell Sy to send someone else. Your past with Thomas is known, and unfortunately Kristina called Paolo.” He ground his teeth together. “The reward for his capture is too high, and Paolo is getting impatient. Every vampire is now a threat to you until he is caught. This is the last place you want to be right now.” I chuckled to myself, though the situation wasn’t funny. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t leave. I’d signed that stupid contract. I could mentally hear Holden telling me “I told you so.” If I left now, the council would punish me. I didn’t know what that meant, but it probably wasn’t a good thing. And besides that, I wasn’t about to let a bunch of vampires run me off. “Even if I wanted to, which I don’t, I can’t. I have to solve this case.” His black eyes stared into mine. “What sort of case is it?” “The classified sort,” I said, and raised my eyebrows. “Given to me by mutual acquaintances.” He went vampire still. As always, it was eerie as hell. “I’ll buy you as much time as I can. Call Sy. You need a miracle of public relations right now, and if anyone can pull that off, it’s him. Tell me something about Thomas, and I might be able to stall them…” I rolled my eyes. “I don’t know anything to tell you.” Corbin opened the door. “Talk to the half-elf, then. The sooner the better.” He closed the door behind him. Well, shit. That complicated things. I pulled the rag away from my temple and glanced at it. The bleeding had mostly stopped, though my head still hurt like hell. I tossed the remainder of my shirt in the next garbage can. I could call Sy, but Holden had made it clear I was on my own for this case. Neither of them could get involved. But this wasn’t technically getting involved in the case. It was a different matter entirely. I dialed Sy’s number. “Hey,” he said. “Solve the case already?” “Not quite,” I said. “I’m having a little vampire issue.” He was silent for a moment. “Is that right?” he finally said. “Great. I am sure you will wrap this up in no time.” I rolled my eyes. He wasn’t alone. Message received. “Fine. Whatever. I’ll take care of it.” I hung up. It wasn’t like Sy to completely blow me off. Maybe the vampires were connected to the case and he knew it. There was way too much coincidence to ignore. The simplest answer was normally the correct one. So we either had two separate yet similar killers and a sudden vampire uprising that I was in the middle of, or someone was moving all of us around like toy soldiers. But why? I couldn’t stand not knowing. That was why I took the job with the council to begin with. The fact that there was a council at all ate at me. I wanted to know all of their secrets—I wanted to know Sy’s secrets. The hows and whys kept me going and pushing forward with everything I did. It was that insatiable curiosity that had driven me from my homeland in search of more. It was also the reason I couldn’t just leave. I replayed everything that had happened in the garage and everything they had said. Really, it could have gone much worse. Actually, it probably should have. The whole thing was too easy. My feet slowed to a stop, and I looked back over my shoulder at the faint scratching noise behind me. A rat scurried into an alleyway. The vampire who’d snuck up on me wasn’t an adolescent vampire. No way did a new vampire get the jump on me. That vampire had been too fast and too silent for that. Yes, I had been distracted, but so was I just now, and I still noticed a rat. Even distracted, I was alert. The vampire who’d captured me had to have been older, much older, and stronger. I lightly touched my head. It was the perfect spot to knock me out, but not permanently damage me. And my skull hadn’t been fractured. That showed a tremendous amount of control. And then there was the knife in my boot. Why would they leave the prisoner armed even if they were tied up? That was an unnecessary risk, even for a vampire. Sure, they could move fast, but it gave the prisoner a chance to get the jump on them, like I did. What if I had waited to attack until it was Paolo standing in front of me? Also, if they knew they hadn’t really searched me, why was no one watching me? Why were all the vampires there so new? I had personally spotted at least twenty older vampires since I’d set foot in this city. Yet the ones charged with guarding me were babies, and slower than most. It was almost offensive that they hadn’t taken more precautions. Not to mention Corbin’s timing was perfect. Too perfect…that son of bitch. He knew I wouldn’t tell him if I knew something about Thomas. He also knew he couldn’t force it out of me, but he could “save” me and make me feel like I owed him something. I’d bet my next three meals that Corbin was the one who’d hit my head against the wall, and he had arranged everything that happened. I was good, but making it out of a situation like that pretty much unharmed was nearly impossible. Just when I was starting to like him, too. Were the others in on it, or was Corbin playing both sides? Knowing him, it was the latter. He was on the outs with Paolo, which meant others were probably honestly vying for his spot in the vampire hierarchy. Fake-kidnapping me meant embarrassment for them, and he would buy himself more time to find Thomas, hence his renewed interest. I almost felt sorry for him. I rolled my eyes. I had no idea how he’d done it, but obviously he had made sure they “found” me. Then he let them call Paolo before he waltzed in, giving me the chance to escape, thereby making them look incompetent and making me trust him. It was actually a really good play. All things considered, they were incompetent, or they would have done a better job with me. At the same time, though, he’d used me and put me in a dangerous situation. As annoying as that was, the real part I needed to focus on was how did all of this connect? Had the council set it up as a test, and if so, why? Or was Thomas once again at the heart of this clusterfuck? He knew I was here. Was he reaching out, or was he using the vampires to distract me from the case? Then there was Corbin. Twice, Corbin had helped me on cases that had nothing to do with him. I didn’t want to suspect him, but what choice did I have? You know what they say: never trust a vampire. Chapter 7 By the time I made it to the hotel, I was pissed off in general. I needed to talk this out with someone, and all of my usual sounding boards were off-limits. Normally, Sy was my first call, but that was obviously not going to happen again. Next, I would go to Olivia, but since Holden was on the council—and if I told her about it, she wouldn’t be able to resist getting involved—that pretty much meant she was off-limits too. Next in line would have been Baker, but since he was currently in diapers and just being fed solids, I didn’t think he would be much help. Cute, but no help. And because fate was a bitch, Dempsey stood outside my hotel room door in his now-wrinkled suit and with a five o’clock shadow. He looked like he could use a good meal and a solid night’s sleep, neither of which he was going to find here. I didn’t have time to deal with a human, especially now that I had a vampire problem. “It’s not a good time,” I said, as I went past him. After unlocking the door, I went inside and tried to shut it on him, but he stopped the door and came in anyway. “I’ve been waiting for over an hour. We’re going to talk now,” he said. His irritated eyes met mine, widening slightly. “What happened to you?” Of everyone in the world I could talk to, a human was the last person who would understand. I had to find Amos. He wasn’t the ideal choice, but at least he understood the politics. Even if he was a spy for the council, he was better than a human. “I’m fine. You need to go.” “No. You need to tell me what’s happening.” I took off the leather coat and let it drop to the floor, not caring that I no longer had a shirt on underneath it. What I really needed was a shower, but the damn human obviously wasn’t leaving unless I physically removed him. The vampire blood, dried and caked over me, was making me itch. I wetted down a washcloth and scrubbed my skin. Dempsey stood in the doorway to the bathroom opening, gawking at me as I slid off my ruined jeans and threw them at the trash can. I glared at him. “Sorry.” He held a hand up as he turned around. “That’s too much blood for you to be fine. Were you attacked? Do you need to go to the hospital? Are you hurt? What attacked you?” It didn’t escape my notice that he’d asked what and not who. I let out a slow breath. Even so, I didn’t want to get involved with having to explain the Abyss to a human. “I’m fine. It isn’t mine. At least, most of it isn’t.” “Whose is it?” he asked, looking back at me. I shook my head. “You don’t know them.” His mouth creased into a frown and his hand inched inside his jacket. “Have you been in a fight in the past month?” “Probably,” I said. He pulled his gun and pointed it at me. “Were you scratched? Have you been losing time?” I went back to scrubbing the blood from my legs. “I’m not the killer.” He didn’t lower his weapon. “I must inform you, if you have been a party to a criminal act, anything you say can and will be used against you.” I snorted. He had no idea. Anything I said right now I had a feeling the council would happily use against me. “Are you threatening me? You’re the one who barged into my room. Now you are pointing a gun at me. Get out.” “You can talk to me now, or I’ll take you down to the station. One way or the other, you are going to tell me what you know and whose blood is on you.” My temper boiled up. In about two moves, that gun could be mine and he could be one less problem in my life. Instead I threw the washcloth into the sink. He wasn’t the one I was mad at. That squarely fell on Corbin’s shoulders. “Look, you don’t need to worry about it. I didn’t kill a single living human. Grab me some clothes then get out of here before someone thinks you know more than you should.” Amos said he had the information I needed. I didn’t need Dempsey anymore. We would both be better off if he had nothing to do with this case. He could go on living his oblivious, yet happy, human life, and I could keep from having to babysit a nearly helpless human. “I already know more than I ever wanted to,” he mumbled to himself as he went to my duffel bag and pulled out a pair of leather pants and a long-sleeve black shirt and handed them to me, but made no move toward the door. I dried off and changed, feeling slightly better. “Look, I should have never come to your crime scene. There are probably two different killers. Good luck with your cases, but I don’t think we can help each other.” “That’s it?” He gave me a dubious look. “You said something today…” His tongue touched the corner of his mouth. “About?” I asked, putting my boots back on and tucking the last of the knives back into their hiding spots on my body. “You said you know about…” He couldn’t even say the word. “Supernaturals?” Relief washed over his face. “What do you know?” This wasn’t the first time I had seen a human go through something like this. Knowing in theory but not knowing enough to understand was terrible, but it also kept them alive. So long as they were smart enough not to keep digging, no one in the Abyss had to know they knew, because once that was out, they were a liability. The only choice I really had was to perpetuate what everyone was probably already telling him. “That it’s bullshit,” I said, forcing a smile. “I lied. I heard them call you X-Files and took a stab. Is that why you are here and waited for me? Sort of pathetic. You’re too old for ghosts and goblins.” He rolled his shoulders back, eyes trained on the ceiling. “I was married once. Wife. Kids. That sort of thing. It was the happiest time of my life.” His voice cracked. “I was never a believer back then. The stories, the legends—they weren’t my thing. I always figured we had enough real bad guys to deal with that we didn’t need to make up fake ones.” His hands went up and loosened his tie. “I honestly never gave any of it much thought. Then one night this happened and my whole life changed.” He opened his shirt, revealing a long, jagged scar across his chest. “It’s not possible,” I said, staring at the scar. If a werewolf had scratched him, he would be a werewolf now. That didn’t go away. Once someone transformed into a wolf, they didn’t go back to their human form…ever. If he had some sort of mutation of the virus, then the council had a much larger problem on their hands. Also, he might very well be the killer. He asked me if I had been scratched, if I had blacked out. Was that what happened to him? He buttoned his shirt again and ran his hand back and forth through his hair. “For someone who doesn’t believe, you seem to know what you saw.” He met my eyes. “As I said, you are going to tell me what you know.” I put a hand to one of my knives just in case. “If I do, I can’t protect you.” He raised his eyebrows. “I don’t need protection. I need to know what is happening.” I nodded. “Fine. Tell me the whole story about what happened to you, and I will answer your questions if I can.” His shoulders sagged and his eyes closed. Not exactly the response I expected. He opened his mouth to speak then closed it again, the lines on his face deepening. He ran his hand over his hair again. “Do you want to get something to eat?” he finally said. My stomach rumbled in response. “Sure. But I want to make one thing clear. I answer your questions and then you stay out of my way. None of this makes us friends or partners. And if I find out you are the one behind anything that is happening, I will not hesitate to kill you.” “Noted,” he said, glancing at me with a smile. “You don’t trust me, do you?” My head tilted to the side, but I kept my hand close to the knife. “Wherever you want to go. Let’s make this quick.” His eyes trailed to my fingers tapping against the hilt of the knife. A moment later he drew his gun and handed it to me. I hesitated for just a moment before I took it. “Whatever you think I am, I’m not that anymore.” I nodded slowly, putting the gun beneath my jacket. “We’ll see.” He took me to a much quieter section of the city. Neither of us spoke much on the way there. I was still stewing over him potentially being a werewolf while watching the shadows for vampires. Finally, he opened the blue door to a tiny restaurant named Alfios. The waitress tried to sit us in the front along the windows, but he asked for a table in the back. She shrugged and gave us a dimly lit table in the very back of the restaurant, near the restrooms. The entire restaurant was human; I could tell almost immediately from the smell as I entered. Each species had their own scent, but only humans worked so hard at covering it with perfumes, making them the most identifiable of all. I ordered a beer and the house special. He held up two fingers and the waitress nodded as she left. “Having been sworn to uphold the law, I feel like you should probably tell me exactly what happened to you tonight…but my instincts are telling me to let it go.” His intense eyes drilled into me. “Do I need to know what happened?” I shook my head. “It’s out of your jurisdiction.” He sighed. “I knew you’d be trouble the moment you crossed my police tape.” That was big talk coming from someone who could sprout fur and fangs at any second. I accepted my beer from the waitress and took a long drink, finishing over half of it. “What happened after you were scratched?” He barely sipped the alcohol before setting it back down. “I had been chasing this guy, or at least I thought it was a man, for weeks. The trail of bodies all led back to one person, but I couldn’t physically connect him to any of the scenes, so I staked him out. That’s when I saw him change from man into…some sort of beast. I pursued him. He led me deeper and deeper into the woods before I lost him entirely. I didn’t even have time to react before he took a swipe at me, laying open my chest. I knew in that moment I was dead. I had seen the victims he had torn apart. I drew my weapon and fired a round directly into his heart. He fell next to me, and I watched as he changed back into himself. The bastard almost looked relieved.” He shook his head. “I was taken to the hospital, got stitched up, and thought everything was fine. My temper was worse and I was constantly in a bad mood. Mostly, though, I felt like I was getting sick. I was tired, and even the smallest things would set me off. I assumed it was the stress of the job and nearly getting myself killed. Then one night, I don’t even remember what happened, but I got angry. Rage exploded inside of me and I changed. It was horrible. Blinding pain and bloodlust pumped through me. Luckily that night I didn’t harm anyone, though I did kill a deer. That was when I understood that monsters were real and I was one of them.” “Let me get this straight. You can change into a wolf at will?” This went against everything I had ever learned or knew about werewolves. “Not anymore, and I was never a wolf. Neither was the man I chased.” He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. “We have a legend here about people who are cursed for one hundred and one days to become this half-man, half-beast creature. That’s what happened to me. The curse was passed on to me because I killed the carrier. We call it the loup-garou, or rougarou.” I had never heard of such a thing, but I wasn’t well versed in magic either. Curses were tricky. “How long have you been cursed?” He shook his head. “I’m not anymore. I made it through my hundred and one days, then the curse passed on to another.” “So that’s it. You just waited and it went away? You didn’t have to sacrifice something or…” That seemed highly unlikely. Most curses had a purpose, and until that purpose was fulfilled, they never left. He took a longer drink this time. “The curse takes everything you love from you. As I said, I had a wife and kids, and then I was cursed.” My breath thinned. I could predict what was coming, but I still wanted to hear it from him. “I killed them,” he whispered. “Shredded them. I couldn’t stop myself. It was my last day, and the bloodlust…you can’t understand what that was like. I tried. Lord knows I tried.” He pressed his hand to his mouth. No tears, just tortured, haunted eyes. There was nothing I could say to that. No words would ever make it right or assuage his guilt. It was a pain he would always have to live with. He may have lost the physical curse, but he would always be scarred from it. “What happened after?” “There was an investigation. It was ruled an animal attack and the case was closed. I wanted to die, but…” He shook his head. “I started tracking the curse. I survived it for a reason. It had to mean something. So now I track it and make sure that what happened to me doesn’t happen to anyone else, but I lost track of it. For a couple months there was nothing. No deaths. I hoped it was over, that someone had finally figured out how to end it, but then they started again, and now I have no idea who the loup-garou is.” Chapter 8 He finished his beer and exhaled, leaning back in his chair. “Your turn. What do you know about the others and how do you know it?” “The others?” I hadn’t lied. I would answer his questions, but I needed him to be more specific in what he asked. I didn’t want to volunteer information about things he had no idea existed. The man had already been through too much. He caught the waitress’s eye and motioned at his drink before looking back to me. “Don’t play dumb. I bared my soul to you. The least you can do is tell me what I want to know.” The front door opened and a gust of wind carried through the restaurant. I could smell some sort of fae in the air: sweet with faint traces of cinnamon. I glanced around the restaurant trying to pinpoint where it was, but I couldn’t find it. The fae race was large and varied. There were species small enough to fit in my pocket and ones that were the size of small houses. The smell, though, was too familiar to ignore. It was definitely the same one I caught a whiff of in the Office. Sy always seemed to know everything that was happening around Chicago, and as a half-elf he would have plenty of fae connections. He could have potentially recruited something like a pixie—they would be small enough and could hide almost anywhere and find out whatever he needed to know… I stood up and walked slowly toward the front of the room, looking for the fae. Of course, on the other hand, the council could have done the same thing. While I knew they sent Amos to spy on me, that didn’t mean that they didn’t have other methods as well. People openly stared at me as I walked around their tables sniffing the air, but I didn’t care. Somewhere in here was a faery, and I was going to find it. I spotted it behind the bar, blending into the bottles. Gotcha. “What are you doing?” Dempsey asked, taking hold of my arm. There was no way I would get back there without being noticed, so I let him lead me back to the table. “Are you okay?” he asked, sounding genuinely concerned. I leaned in close to his ear before I took my seat. “We’re not alone.” He nodded slowly, holding out my chair for me. “Right,” he said as he took his seat and another drink, casually glancing around the room. “Where are you from?” “Chicago.” If I concentrated hard enough, I could hear the flutter of its wings as it maneuvered closer. The pleasant expression on Dempsey’s face looked forced, but he held it well. “Is this your first time in New Orleans?” “Yeah.” “And you’re a private detective?” I nodded, waiting for the flutter to get close enough I could snatch the little snitch. “How about you? Are you from here? Have you always lived here? What made you become a detective?” I asked, keeping my voice very low to lure it closer. A smile haunted his lips, but it was sad. “Born and raised. Never moved away.” I waved over the waitress, pretending the fae wasn’t nearly within my grasp. “Can we have another round and four shots of tequila?” I watched her walk away before I looked back at him. “I don’t care about your past any more than you care about mine. We’re both here for one reason only. We had a shitty day.” “You have no idea,” he said, but his eyes traveled to my head. “Or maybe you do.” I nodded. “Let’s just drink and eat and fucking laugh while the world burns.” The waitress set our drinks on the table. He picked up a shot and held it out to me. I clinked my glass against his. “I knew I liked you.” He shot it back, and I did the same as my hand darted out, capturing the nosy little pest and pinning her to the table. The night was already looking better. “Who do you work for?” I said. Her wings fluttered and she bit me, but I kept a firm grasp on her. “Bite me again and I’ll pluck off your wings and leave you here.” She went still, arms dropped to the side. “How did you find me?” “Who do you work for?” I asked slowly. “Sy was worried about you,” she said. My hand loosened for just a moment before I tightened it again. “Why should I believe you?” She crossed her tiny arms. “Because it’s true. Ask him yourself… Oh wait, you can’t. That’s why I’m here.” She promptly sank her tiny teeth into my hand again. It was just like Sy to find a way to communicate with me, when the council had otherwise blocked our channels of communication. I released the faery. “Tell him I am fine, but the vampire situation needs to be looked into.” With one sharp nod, she took off from the table. I looked back up, and Dempsey was staring at me with the shot glass paused right before his lips. “What the fuck was that?” he asked. I grimaced. “You should probably have all of these.” I gave him my last shot. I didn’t have much choice now, especially if he could already see the faery. **** It was late enough and I was numb enough that suddenly everything felt like a good idea. Though walking was a bit troublesome, especially for Dempsey, who bumped against me again. “You’re weaving,” I told him. “I think it’s you,” he said with a slur. “I can fix it.” He put his arm around me, pressing my hip tight against his. “Better?” “Mmm.” The alcohol did a pretty good job shutting up the internal voice that sounded a lot like my mother telling me that I was being irresponsible and I had a job to do. “I’ll do my job,” I mumbled as we slowly went back to the hotel. “What job?” he asked. “Find the killer and bring him to justice, no matter who he is.” And that was the crux of the problem. It appeared we had two different killers. Dempsey was chasing a loup-garou, but what I was chasing definitely wasn’t. There was a cold, calculated killer who wanted something, though I couldn’t see what that was. Then we also had the vampires who wanted me to give them Thomas and Corbin, who had betrayed and then attempted to save me, which only confused matters more. Despite everything, I liked Corbin and I didn’t hate Thomas. I didn’t always approve of their methods—okay, I never liked their actions, but we all made mistakes. I had made plenty of them in my life. As far as I was concerned, we could all happily live out our lives not being assholes to each other or using one another, but I couldn’t say the same for either of them. For the first time, I kind of wished I had listened to Sy and kept my mouth shut. That way I wouldn’t have to ruin Dempsey’s life further by telling him what he only thought he wanted to know. I wouldn’t be in this mess with the damn vampires, and this case would be Frost’s problem and not mine. I grabbed Dempsey by the front of the shirt and pressed my lips hard against his. It only took a split second for him to respond. He shifted his body so we fit together better, and his tongue brushed against the seam of my lips. I smiled against him. It wasn’t like kissing Sy, but it wasn’t bad either. I couldn’t feel myself falling and I certainly wasn’t worried about falling in love with him, but it served the purpose I needed it to. My mind was once again blissfully blank as he backed me up against the building behind us. I lightly ran my nails down his chest until I got to the waistband of his pants. He pulled back slightly, his hypnotic brown eyes hooded as he brushed his hand against the side of my head and I sucked in a breath. “Are you okay?” he said, instantly pulling away. “Did I hurt you?” He leaned in closer to look at my head. “You’re bleeding again,” he said. “You need to go to the hospital. I think you need stitches.” And the moment was broken. I brushed his hand away. “I’m fine.” A sound down the street and laughter somewhere in the distance sobered me almost instantly. We were on the street at night in a city filled with vampires. Not the smartest decision I had ever made. I started back down the sidewalk with more purpose. Providing Corbin wasn’t lying, it probably wasn’t safe for either of us to be out here now. “Femi, stop. Talk to me. What are you doing? What happened to you tonight?” “I don’t have time for twenty questions.” I walked a little faster. “Sorry, but this was a mistake.” Humans were so fragile. The vampires could break him like a twig. “You should stay away from me. Like you said, I’m trouble.” He caught my arm. “You still haven’t told me—” I shook my head. “Not here. Let’s get off the street.” Finally back at my hotel room, he spoke again. “No more stalling. Tell me everything.” There was an envelope on the desk that hadn’t been there before. I went over picked it up, sitting down on the chair. “There are people watching me. The more you are seen with me, the greater the risk to your life. Right now, that’s what you need to know. I promise before I leave this city, I will tell you all about the Abyss. I can’t be responsible for you too.” His mouth fell open. “I’m a police officer—” “Your laws don’t matter to them.” There was a note on it from Amos, basically saying he must have missed me and that he was heading out to look for me. How had he gotten into my room? I opened the envelope and looked inside. It was filled with police reports. “Close the door behind you,” I said without looking up. Dempsey didn’t budge. “No. I have waited this long. I have no life outside of the loup-garou curse. I deserve to know the truth.” “I don’t know anything about the curse. I had never even heard of it until I met you. What do you want me to say? Magic is real. Curses are real. And there are plenty of things in this world that hunt humans for food.” I crossed my legs. “The more you know, the worse it will get. I have watched another human go through this.” “I don’t want your help,” he said, coming closer. “I want answers.” I gave him a helpless gesture. He pulled out his handcuffs and dangled them in front of me. Judging by his face, he didn’t intend to use them in a fun way. “Do you believe in vampires?” His teeth clicked together a few times. “I think we both do. For all I know, you are one, because you aren’t human.” I rolled my eyes. “So if I’m not human, I must be a vampire? That’s ridiculous.” “Then enlighten me. Why are you here?” He sat on the edge of my bed, resting his elbows against his knees. “Did you follow the curse back here from Chicago? Is that how I lost it?” He waited for me to respond, but I couldn’t. The lies I should have said stuck in my throat. He closed his eyes. “That’s possible,” I said softly. “But that isn’t why I am here.” “Then why? If you aren’t a vampire, what are you?” I reached up around my neck and touched the clasp of the necklace the coven charmed to make me appear more human. One of two things would happen next: either I would disappear and Dempsey wouldn’t be able to see me, or he’d see me as I truly was. This was exactly the sort of revelation I should have avoided, but looking at him so haunted and tired, I couldn’t keep up the charade. No one deserved to live with a burden like he carried. With a deep breath, I took it off. His head pulled back then he squinted at me and his mouth fell open slightly. “How much did we have to drink?” he asked, reaching out toward me then pulling back almost immediately without touching me. “You—” He shook his head. I pressed my fingers to his lips and he flinched slightly. It wasn’t like I was a monster, even by human standards. I just wasn’t exactly like them. I was a descendant of the goddess Sekhmet. He should be happy I didn’t look like her. We had evolved over the years to fit into the world around us better. My race no longer had the head of a lion, but we did retain many catlike features, including our eyes and vertically contracting pupils, claw-like fingernails, slightly pointed teeth, an excellent sense of balance, skin flecked with gold, and nine lives. Thankfully, the mane, the whiskers, and the tail fell victims to evolution. “You can see me,” I whispered in his ear. “That means you can see the others too. That puts you in a very dangerous situation. Humans aren’t supposed to know about us.” He slowly moved his head up and down. “Did you see the faery in the restaurant?” I raised an eyebrow and he looked confused. Obviously he didn’t. If that was the case, why could he see me now? “There was a creak outside my hotel room door.” I looked through the peephole but nothing was there, at least not anything I could see. Amos could obviously come and go from my room freely. Talking here probably wasn’t any better than talking at the restaurant. “I have to go,” he said, sliding by me, careful not to touch me or look directly at me. “Watch your back, Dempsey,” I said. “How do I know you aren’t the killer?” he asked, still looking at the door. His question stung, but I’d suspected him earlier of the same thing. “I don’t kill people,” I said, raising my chin ever so slightly. “I save them.” The door softly clicked behind him. Chapter 9 I slept for a couple hours to help my body heal before I really gave the envelope Amos had left for me attention. There were eight known human cases, but he’d left a note inside that mentioned there were many more disappearances, so it was hard to say if any could have been this killer or typical vampire hunting. Given the vampire population in the area, it was very possible none of the disappearances were the loup-garou. And that was the problem with looking into the human cases, and probably why none of the other bounty hunters did it. It opened a can of worms. Too many species targeted humans, and we definitely couldn’t save them all. No one expected us to. While I didn’t have pictures, most of the crime scenes sounded about on par with the one scene I had been to: messy and chaotic. Basically, exactly what I would expect from the attack of a rage-filled man-beast. However, three of the scenes did mention that most of the body was gone and only pieces remained. That was promising. I also didn’t miss Dempsey’s name on all the reports. A voice in my mind pointed out more than once that if I were the killer, making sure I was investigating the crimes would be a great way to cover them up. He’d already admitted to killing his family—why not complete strangers too? However, his story was good and heartfelt. I believed him, cautiously. I had learned with Thomas that sometimes it was all too easy to miss what should have been obvious because I didn’t want to see the truth. Emotion had no part in bounty hunting or investigations. Despite how much pain he carried with him, Dempsey had to be a suspect in the killings—at least the human ones. While they weren’t my case officially, they were the closest thing to wolf attacks happening down here, so maybe it was part of Leilah’s test for me. Which meant I would find out everything I could about the loup-garou curse—for Leilah, of course, not Dempsey. There was a knock on my door. I glanced out the window. The sun was already coming up, so at least it wasn’t a vampire. “Femi,” Amos called from the other side. “Are you in there?” I let him in. His face was pale. “I looked for you all night. Where did you go? I thought you were coming to meet me here. I was worried that…” He looked away. “That I was chopped into bits like the other bounty hunters? Not likely.” I patted his shoulder. “Thanks for the files.” “So what happened?” he asked. “I was delayed.” The council didn’t need to know about the vampires, not until I heard back from Sy. There were simply too many coincidences to trust anyone else. “Nothing I couldn’t handle.” He frowned, but nodded. “You all right, then?” I gave him a questioning look. “Why wouldn’t I be?” He looked past me to the human cases strewn over my floor with the paranormal cases. “I still don’t understand what the human cases will tell you,” he said. “They appear to be completely different.” “Mostly,” I said, “but there is something off about them too. Why does the council care about this case in particular? Why exactly was I sent here?” “Werewolf attacks are never taken lightly,” he said, seriously. “Right,” I said. So they were still going with the werewolf story. “I guess not.” “What are you thinking?” he asked, looking back up. “You see something, don’t you?” I shook my head. “That’s just it. I don’t see anything. It looks perfectly random. The victims don’t connect, the humans were killed differently, and nothing about them actually says werewolf to me, except the bite marks. But why do everything else so purposefully and then leave blatant bite marks?” “No one ever accused a werewolf of having a higher sense of reasoning.” He shrugged. “Honestly, I think it is stranger how long it took the council to respond to my requests for help.” That was new. “You asked for help?” He nodded. “I petitioned them several times, but never even got a phone call. Sure, Sy sent hunters down here, but the council didn’t care at all.” “So what made them care? What case changed that?” “The last bounty hunter before you, I guess. A couple days after he was found, Leilah called me and said she would send someone to take care of my problem.” He shook his head. “And here you are.” So Mace had changed their mind. I guessed it was possible, but it didn’t sound right to me. My eyes went back over the pictures. “Why is there no blood at the scenes?” “Must have killed them somewhere else.” “Then why place them in these spots? What do the places mean to you?” He shook his head. “Nothing.” I stopped on Gus’s picture. He was the first. He was also a ghoul. Everyone else that had been killed was more alive than him. There was an elf, four bounty hunters who must have been potential threats, and possibly three humans, but Gus was the one who stuck out the most. So why was he killed? “I wonder why it isn’t building its pack,” I said, casually poking holes in the wolf theory Amos refused to give up. “Usually the wolf leaves at least a couple survivors to get that nasty, hairy surprise on the first full moon.” His head tilted and his lips pursed. “I guess we won’t know for certain for a few more days.” “All the better reason to have this wrapped up by then.” I smiled and walked away from the pictures, stretching my arms. “You know, I have been trying all night to think of anything else this could be, but nothing is coming to mind. I just can’t believe it is a werewolf. Do you have any ideas?” He was from this area—surely he knew about loup-garous. They were the closest thing to a werewolf that I had ever heard about in the Abyss, so why hadn’t he mentioned them yet? Why was no one considering them, unless Dempsey was lying about the whole thing? “I guess it could be a vampire trying to make it look like a werewolf,” he said, squatting down and pointing at one of the pictures. “They look like bite marks around the edges, but the lines are fairly clean and surgical. I don’t know why the vampires would want to draw attention to themselves, though. There’s always the rougarou.” He laughed. “What’s that?” I asked. He shook his head. “Local human legend. Complete nonsense. It is about a werewolf-like creature who kills bad Catholics.” “Humans are an imaginative group, aren’t they?” He laughed again. “They believe nothing and yet will believe everything. Have you had much vampire contact since you arrived?” I touched the spot on my head, which was completely healed now. “No. Why?” Bringing up vampires twice in connection with my case—Amos knew something. I took in the pictures with new eyes. Were the vampires manipulating the council the same way Corbin had manipulated me? My phone rang, jarring me from my thoughts. “Hello?” “It’s Dempsey. There’s been another,” he said, with a hoarse voice. “I’m not inviting you to the crime scene.” I felt my eyebrows pull together. Then why did he call me? “I want to meet. I have more questions.” “Yeah, last night was fun,” I said in an overly chipper voice, smiling at Amos. “We should do it again. We can eat at the same restaurant.” He didn’t say anything for long enough that I wasn’t sure he understood. Finally, he spoke. “I’ll be there in an hour.” Amos was watching me with a thoughtful expression as I hung up the phone. “I thought you didn’t know anyone here.” I waved my hand. “I wasn’t sure you could get me the information I wanted about the humans, so I made friends with the human detective last night. I thought it would be good to keep track of their progress. Never know where a break in the case might come from.” Amos shrugged. “It seems like a waste of time to me, but I’m not the bounty hunter.” “Well, I am going to hit the showers, because I stink, and then I think I want to sleep for a while.” I punctuated the sentence with a yawn that started off as fake, but turned real. “Unless you need me for anything, I’ll talk to you in a couple hours.” “What did the detective want?” “To ask me out again.” I winked at him. “I guess I left an impression.” Amos nodded and headed for the door. “I’ll talk to my contact at the police department and make sure he tells me if anything new comes in that might interest you. Get some rest. We have a werewolf to catch.” I locked and chained the door behind him. I went to my bag and dug around in it until I produced a roll of duct tape. I tore off the end and placed it at the base of the door, making sure both sides were perfectly smoothed down before I really did take a shower. When I was dressed and all the pictures and police reports were once again in the safe, I slipped off the necklace and went to the interior connecting door to the next room. I pressed my ear to the door and listened. I didn’t hear anything on the other side. I squatted down and picked the lock without much trouble, then eased the door open. The other room looked just like mine, only empty. I watched out of its peephole for a moment. No one was in the hallway. I opened the door quickly and walked toward the stairwell with my head down and hood up. I trotted down the stairs, pausing occasionally to listen, making sure no one was following me. Between the council and the vampires, paranoia was the order of the day. I snuck out of the hotel through the kitchen delivery door and stayed off the main roads all the way to my car. It was the one place I felt was probably safe from prying eyes. The only two people connected to the council who even knew what car I drove were Sy and Holden. They had both earned my trust over the years. Corbin also knew what I drove, but had he wanted me dead, he would have tried harder the day before. He wanted Thomas, not me. I hopped in and the engine roared to life. I slipped the necklace back on and took off. I drove to Alfios. Dempsey stood on the street with his hands jammed into his pockets and sunglasses on. I tapped my horn when he didn’t see me right away. He tried to open the passenger door, but it didn’t budge. “It sticks,” I yelled. “Put your back into it.” He yanked on it harder and it popped open. He climbed in. “You take this on the water too?” “Ha. Ha. Ha.” I scrunched my nose as I patted the steering wheel. “Don’t listen to him, baby. You’re perfect just the way you are.” I pulled away from the curb and back into traffic. “Where are we going?” he asked. “Moving targets are harder to spy on,” I said. “Who’s watching you?” he asked. “Vampires and others. It’s not important. I just have to be careful. What did you want to talk about?” He sighed. “If you trust me, I know somewhere we can go.” I glanced over at him. “I think I have shown you quite a bit of trust. You’re the one who appears to suddenly be afraid of me.” His mouth settled into a firm line. “It was just a shock.” He directed me out of the city and deeper into the bayou. At the end of a dirt road, we got out. Dempsey headed directly to the water and climbed onto a small boat. I didn’t venture far from my car. “What are you waiting for?” he called out. “You to come to your senses and get out of that water coffin,” I said, tempted to get back in my car. His real and honest laughter rang out. “You want a private place to talk. Can’t get more private than where I am taking you.” I walked slowly toward him. “If your plan is to drown me in the swamp, I just want to warn you that I’ll likely take you with me. And that would be a shame. I sort of like you.” He shrugged. “You’ll never know.” I climbed in the boat and it rocked. This was such a bad idea. Chapter 10 Moss dangled from the bald cypress trees canopying the still waters. Animal sounds surrounded us, making my ears twitch as the boat’s motor hummed, catapulting us through the murky water. “Do you have life jackets in here?” I asked. He shook his head. “You don’t want that. It will only make the gators more interested in you.” He winked. Give me mountains any day. I hated water. We seemed to go on forever before a tiny, weathered cabin on stilts came into view and Dempsey started to slow down. He tied the boat to a half-rotten dock, and offered me his hand to help me out. Water surrounded the house. What did he have against dry land? I ignored his hand, taking large hopping steps off the deck and up the equally unsafe stairs. “Where are we?” I asked at the top of the stairs, my fingernails digging into the railing. “It was my grandfather’s,” he said. “No one will find us here unless they have a boat, and then we’ll hear them coming. Even cell phones don’t work out here.” I nodded. That was probably true, that the location would keep away fae or probably a dozen other creatures, but I guessed they would have to know we were here to begin with. “I wasn’t sure I’d see you again after last night.” I pried my fingers from the railing and went into the house. The inside was cleaner than I would have guessed. “You come here a lot?” He shrugged. “When I need to think.” He dropped down into one of the four wooden chairs surrounding the table made from an old door. “Let’s start with what you are.” I sat down next to him. “I’m a Sekhmet.” He gave me the anticipated blank look. “I am a descendant of an ancient Egyptian goddess of fire, war, healing, and vengeance.” He leaned his elbows against the table and put his head in his hands. “You’re a delusion.” I pinched him hard enough to make him jump. “Can a delusion do that?” He didn’t laugh. Couldn’t win them all. “You can see me without my necklace on. Your eyes are open to the Abyss. New Orleans is bursting with my kind—well, not like me, but paranormals. You had to have seen more horrible creatures than just me.” He shook his head. “I didn’t say you were horrible. Just surprising. And I haven’t seen anything, except the loup-garou. That’s all.” It was my turn to be dubious. “Not even a vampire?” He licked his lips. “I know there are people who think they are vampires—” “Not those,” I said. Humans, as weird as they were, for some inexplicable reason, were absolutely fascinated with vampires. They wrote books about them, made movies and TV shows, dressed like them, and utterly romanticized them, even though most vampires saw them as little more than fast food. “Those are the groupies. I’m talking about the real ones. They probably stay in tight-knit groups. They are alluring and charming, yet creepy. Sometimes they stand really still. The best way to spot one is to watch them move.” “How is that different?” “Two ways. First, they are dead, so movement is unnatural. If they aren’t trying to blend, or forget to blend, they are still as a corpse. Second, when they do move, they have to be careful not to move too fast. They’re generally strong and quick, so that isn’t always easy. What that leaves you with are jerky, calculated movements. Trust me, once you know what to look for, you will spot them everywhere.” He nodded. “What else?” I gave him a helpless gesture. “If you have a story about it, chances are it’s real. We really don’t have time for me to tell you about an entire world.” “Where is this world?” he asked. “How do you get here?” “It is overlapping with your world. At least pieces of it are. For the most part, humans can’t see us, but we can see them.” “And the curse, that’s from you guys?” he asked. I shook my head. “I seriously doubt it. I would guess it’s a human curse. Most races in the Abyss control their magic usage. Witches, on the other hand, are very human and very free to do as they please.” His mouth dropped open. “A witch.” “Could be a hoodoo priestess. These are the things we need to figure out, but they aren’t a priority yet. We also need to know the origin of the original curse. And we need to know the exact terms of the curse, but still more important than any of that is to stop whoever is doing these killings. Now, I looked at your cases, and three of them look like they might belong to the person I came here to find.” “The three that we only found pieces of,” he said. “Exactly. Were you able to match the bite marks?” He nodded. “The lab’s findings were inconclusive. As for the loup-garou, I have researched as much as I could. Most everything is made up, or stories to scare children. But what happened to me was real. What’s happening to these people is real.” His tired cognac eyes met mine. “I just don’t understand how I lost the trail.” I tapped my foot. “Just because the curse was created by a human, doesn’t mean it only affects humans. My guess is that it was passed to someone from the Abyss. You couldn’t track it once it crossed the line. How far back were you able to track this curse?” He shook his head. “Not far. It comes and goes, and then records get fuzzy. If we find the origin of the curse, can it be stopped once and for all?” “I don’t know, but I know people who might have the answers.” I couldn’t focus on this now, though. “And when we find the killers, we’ll take care of the curse. I promise.” He nodded. “The crime scene today, how was that? About the same?” He blew out a breath. “Pretty much. Most of the body was left behind, but it was ripped to shreds. The entire chest cavity was emptied.” “Pictures?” He pulled out his phone and set it on the table. The blood was the first thing I noticed. It was absolutely everywhere this time. Also, this was the first body found indoors. The pile of mutilated flesh left behind was barely recognizable as human. “What was taken?” “What makes you think anything was?” he asked, eyes narrowing at the picture. “You said most of the body was left behind. So…” I gestured for him to continue. “The brain, heart, lungs. I’ll know more later,” he said. “The skull appears to have been smashed.” My fingernails clicked against the table. “Were you able to identify him?” He shook his head. “Not yet. The owners of the house were both out of town and accounted for. They said no one had a key, or should have been in their home. They are headed back as we speak.” I stood up, stretching. “We need to know who he was.” “You think he knew the killer?” “Possibly. Why was this one inside? Why was that different? Were the other bodies moved? If so, where did the killings happen?” “That’s why I called you. I thought maybe you had a lead I had missed, or you’d see something that I didn’t. What case are you working on? You said they were two different killers.” “It’s hard to say.” I glanced back at the picture. “The murders look different, but there are also similarities in them. In my crime scenes, only pieces of bodies were found. There wasn’t a lot of blood and there wasn’t much of the bodies left. All the pieces had something man-made, whether it was a tattoo or piercing or whatever. It’s all very precise and staged.” He shook his head. “You’re right. That’s not like this. A couple of mine were closer to that, though.” He picked his phone back up. “So you are some sort of police officer for the other kind?” “Not really. We don’t have laws like you do. I’m a bounty hunter. I was assigned to investigate this.” “To catch the killer.” “I doubt they want him caught as much as dealt with.” He paused for a moment before he nodded. All-too-familiar black smoke filled the room. Dempsey scrambled back, but I waited. I guessed we weren’t obscured from everyone. “Hey, Holden,” I said before he was fully formed. He took a moment to glance around the room. “You disappeared…again. People have noticed,” he said, ignoring Dempsey entirely. “You are piquing their interest.” I crossed my arms. “And you came to what? Bring me back? Or were you worried about me?” I pressed a hand to my heart. “I’m touched.” He gave me a stony look. “They don’t know I’m here. Who’s the human?” “Detective Garett Dempsey.” He offered Holden his hand. Holden shook it, actually being civil for once, but the moment their hands touched, Dempsey froze. I snapped my fingers in front of his eyes and he didn’t even blink. “What did you do to him?” “He’s fine,” Holden said. “This is a good spot. If Sy hadn’t known where you were, I wouldn’t have found you.” “How’d Sy know?” I said, slightly annoyed he’d frozen my human. However, it was nice to have someone I could completely trust to talk to. He shrugged. “I assumed you told him.” Damn faeries. “You came all this way just to tell me the council is interested in what I am doing? Didn’t we already know that? Why didn’t Sy come, or better yet, one of you call?” “They’re watching Sy. They expect him to interfere, and he still isn’t a full member. I am and I’m harder to follow. Phones aren’t the best line of communication right now. If you need either of us, work through Olivia.” As an angel, Olivia didn’t need a phone. All I had to do was pray to her and she’d hear me, impossible to trace. “Leilah is too interested in what is happening here. Have you seen anything that would have piqued her interest?” “Chuckles, you’re worried. You really love me.” I laughed as he curled his lips, looking like he wished he had never said anything. “Not really. Honestly, there is so much happening right at this moment that I have no idea which part she ever wants me to handle. First, we have the bodies I was supposedly sent to investigate. While there isn’t much to go on, it’s definitely not a wolf—like I said. Second, the humans apparently have a loup-garou issue that, as far as I can tell, has nothing to do with our murders, and third, suddenly the vampires have their panties in a wad over Thomas and are now targeting me. I am willing to believe the loup-garou might be a coincidence in timing, but the vampires suddenly being interested in me at the exact time I was sent to their mecca is a little too much to chalk up to fate.” Holden’s eyes narrowed and his jaw flexed. “What do you know about Leilah’s involvement with vampires? Or is this part of the council’s test, and why are they even testing me? I don’t want to join.” “Maybe you should have asked these questions before you signed the contract.” I rolled my eyes. “Aren’t I supposed to be working alone? Why are you even here?” “As far as the rest of them knows, you are working alone…mostly. They are aware of the human, but unconcerned about him. You are positive it isn’t a werewolf?” I nodded. “I told you that from the start. There is nothing werewolf-like about this. Werewolves want a pack. They don’t want to indiscriminately kill. They indiscriminately recruit. There’s a difference. These are precise killings. Pieces are being selected to leave behind. Yes, there are bite marks, but they almost look like they’re trying to make the victims look like something else. The whole scene appears staged.” He paced a couple steps in the small cabin. “Baker never trusted the council. I don’t know the particulars. However, I tend to agree with him. They each have their own agenda that they are willing to protect to the death. I don’t know why Leilah is interested in you or if she has any side arrangements with the vampires, but Olivia and I have theories.” “Like?” “They know you’re close to Sy and that you have worked with us. Not everyone was thrilled when I was recruited to the council. They don’t seem to be able to predict how I will react or where I will fall on issues.” Holden looked a little smug. “I’m sure you do nothing to enhance that feeling, either.” This wasn’t Holden’s first time navigating the politics of our world. As a jinni he had lived most of his immortal life under the thumb of both jinn and demon rule. He obviously knew how to play these games or he wouldn’t still be alive. With Olivia in the mix, the council may have bitten off more than they could handle with those two. Then again, that was also probably why he was recruited. Better to have them with you than against you. “If they like games, I can play them,” he said, taking a couple more impatient steps around the room. “The vampire angle is concerning, though. What exactly have they done?” I gave him the rundown on Corbin’s kidnapping of me, then the assisted escape. “I don’t know what his angle is in this. He wants Thomas. He has always wanted Thomas.” “And is he here?” I nodded. “He sent something to my hotel room.” I shook my head. “I need to find him and find out what in the hell is happening.” “Talk to Corbin again. See if you can get a straight answer out of him. I will make some inquiries as well. If you do manage to find Thomas—” “I know, I know.” I held up my hand. He didn’t have to say it. If I found him, I should turn him in and take care of this mess once and for all. “You aren’t going to do it, are you?” I met his green eyes. “Would you have turned in Olivia?” “Do you love him?” he asked, just as conversationally. I scowled at the thought. “No.” “Then it isn’t the same. Turn him in. He has only caused problems.” That was truth. “They’ll kill him.” He nodded. “You can’t say he doesn’t have it coming.” Again the truth. Thomas knew what he was doing and the price he would have to pay for it from the start, but it never stopped him from doing exactly what he wanted to do. I just never thought I’d be the one to bring about his death. “I’ll think about it.” Holden nodded, looking Dempsey up and down. “What about the human?” he asked. “For all we know, he’s the one who is doing this.” “But why? What does he have to gain? If it is him, he’s not aware of it.” “I don’t know what to tell you. I’d close the council’s case first and get them off my back, if it were me. As far as anyone else is concerned, I’m not helping you, because that is in direct violation of your contract.” He shot me the “I still can’t believe you signed that” look. “But if the vampires are the real reason Leilah sent you here, then whether or not you solve the case won’t matter. Either way, you are in a bad position.” He stared off at the wall as if listening to something else entirely. “You know, if you needed help that the council couldn’t regulate, a good person to contact would be—” “The coven? I know. Sy already mentioned them.” He shook his head. “They’re on their radar. Sy is too close to them and they have caused too much trouble to be completely ignored. Stay away from them.” I frowned. “Who else is there?” “Quintus,” he said. “Guardians only concern themselves with humans, and they rarely break the rules, so the council generally avoids them. I don’t know how much help he would actually be, but at least you know you can trust him, and he could keep an eye on someone for you. Like him.” He hooked his thumb at Dempsey. Holden was a flipping genius. “Olivia and I will always come if you need us.” I nodded. “I know. Hug Charlie and Baker for me, and unfreeze my human. That can’t be good for him.” Holden smiled a little, snapped his fingers, and then left the same way he came. Dempsey blinked several times, head swiveling about. “Where’d he go?” “Chuckles isn’t a people person.” He turned back to me slowly. “His name is Chuckles?” “Yes.” I patted his shoulder, barely containing my smile. “Let’s get out of here.” Chapter 11 Back in the city, I dropped Dempsey off where I’d picked him up and headed to the garage where the vampires had taken me. Corbin could have been anywhere in the city, but I had to start somewhere, and he’d be easier to find than Thomas. Getting him to tell me the truth would be the harder part. Corbin’s loyalty was at least predictable. He was mostly concerned with himself. So if he thought I could somehow help him, he’d be more likely to work with me than against me. If Paolo was in the city, then this was a whole different game. Corbin probably wouldn’t go against his direct orders, which could have been why he suggested I get Sy involved. I stared at the painted-over windows of the garage. Paolo and the other vampires could easily be inside doing whatever it was vampires did during the day: sleeping, Twister, knitting, day drinking… Charging inside in the middle of the afternoon certainly wasn’t going to make any friends. The street was quiet. There were no signs of life at all, which was weird for being in the middle of the city on a sunny afternoon. I glanced around at the surrounding buildings. Most of them were abandoned. The occasional one still had a sign hanging on the door, but the windows were dark. I parked a few blocks away in an area with more signs of life. On foot, I went toward the vampire lair and slipped into the back of the building across the street from the garage. The building had layers of dirt over the floor, broken glass everywhere, colorful graffiti on the walls, and, more importantly, a clean line of sight to the entrance across the street. I set up camp beside the window and settled in to wait. Most of the day ticked by with little to no action. A few vampire groupies went in—someone must have needed a snack—but other than that, no one came out. As the sky grew darker, more and more vampires came out. I had never seen this many vampires in one area in my entire life, and they weren’t trying to blend in. They moved fast or stood completely still. Not one of them even glanced at the building. The skin on the back of my neck prickled as even more joined the crowd. What in the hell was happening here? Still no one had come out of the garage, or at least no one that I had witnessed. There was probably another entrance, but that really didn’t seem to matter when there were throngs of vampires just outside on the other side of my window. If they caught me here, I was in real trouble. Trouble I probably couldn’t get out of, even with Holden and Olivia’s help. A creak behind me snapped my attention away from the window. I flipped around, knife in hand and already pulling another one. A little human child stared up at me with huge gray eyes on top of his bony body. “They’ll find you here. Follow me,” he whispered, abruptly turning around, walking around like there wasn’t a vampire block party less than five feet from us. Keeping my knife in hand, I stayed close to the walls and in the shadows as I followed the kid. He didn’t head for the back door. Instead, he led me to what appeared to have been a kitchen of some sort. He glanced over his shoulder, making sure I was still with him, before he shoved a little door in the wall about halfway up and climbed inside, disappearing. I moved toward it cautiously. “Hey, kid,” I called out. “Follow me.” His little voice came from above. “Hurry. They know you’re here.” I paused, listening for any indication that someone was coming, but there was nothing. The building was dead silent. I pushed the door in the wall up a couple more inches before it ground to a halt. I ducked down and looked inside. It was basically a narrow shaft in the wall that went up a couple floors. The kid scurried up the rope to the top floor before swinging his legs out, like he had done it a hundred times, and climbed through another opening door. I took hold of the single rope hanging down the center and tugged on it. It’d hold. He stuck his head back inside and motioned for me to follow. “Hurry,” he said. “Oh hell,” I muttered to myself, slipped my knife back into its holder, and climbed through. Why wouldn’t I let this kid lead me into another trap? I obviously didn’t have enough problems in my life. I closed the dumbwaiter door behind us—just in case someone was actually following—then climbed the rope and slid through the opening without making a sound. The room at the top wasn’t really even a room. It was just the space between the roof and the ceiling. The child balanced on the crossbeam and was already across the room. “Faster,” he said. “Where are we going?” I asked, walking behind him across the beams. “Shhhh,” he said, pressing his finger to his lips. “Vampires.” He darted forward like we were being pursued, but I had yet to see another soul. I caught up with the kid, taking him by the shoulder. “The vampires don’t know we’re here.” He pointed out the small dormer window. I lightly stepped across the boards until I could look out. We were facing the street. Everything looked fairly normal—until I saw him. Paolo stood in front of the garage just out of sight from where I had been, staring at the building, completely still. The starkness of his face and cold death in his eyes sent shivers down my spine. He was the oldest and strongest of the vampires. Sure, he had never really liked me, but he also never wanted me dead. Why, all of a sudden, would I matter so much to him? Vampires didn’t have any official hierarchy. They resisted legislation—all except Paolo. I had never met a vampire who wouldn’t do practically anything to stay on his good side. Even Corbin wasn’t immune. The rumor was if you displeased Paolo, you had maybe a day to get your affairs in order. I didn’t know a lot about the inner workings of how or why he’d taken on this responsibility, but I did know that he was “friends” with Sy—whatever that meant. Just looking at him, he didn’t appear to be the type who had friends. Not in the way I had them, at least. He looked through the swarms of vampires right at the building, like he could see through the walls and straight into me, though I wasn’t there anymore. His face maintained a passive expression as he stoically waited for me to be dragged kicking and screaming out of the building and into the mob. “Did Corbin send you?” I asked the kid, but he was already moving again. He pushed open a trapdoor in the roof and pulled himself up. Outside, he pressed his back to the brick and peeked out over the top. He waited a couple seconds then nodded to me before he climbed over the ledge and dropped down to the next building’s roof a few feet lower. I was tempted to check the back alley to see if anyone was back there, but I kept going. The kid took me across roofs with drops and climbs until we were finally out of buildings he could get across, all without saying a word. On the last building, he ran across the roof to the back and popped his head up, looking over. I did the same. The tail end of a line of vampires dressed in full SWAT gear went inside the building where I had been. Finally, when no one was left, he scaled the downspout and landed safely on the street. When my feet touched the ground, he sprinted in the opposite direction as the vampires and I followed. After all, he had gotten me this far. Zigzagging down blocks and alleyways, we finally left the more commercial area and went into an older residential section. We stopped in front of a blue house with two windows and a red door facing the street. The house was dark, but the kid pointed at it. “In there,” he said. I grabbed the kid by the shirt before he took off again. “I’m not moving another step until you tell me who is in there and why they sent you.” He pushed against me, but I didn’t let him go. “The vamps don’t care about me. I’m too scrawny. They don’t even see me. He sent me to getcha before they did. You couldn’t see them. You didn’t know.” He tried to shove away again then glanced worriedly over his shoulder. “Lady, you trying to get us killed. Get inside before they find us. He’s waiting.” “Who?” The kid kicked me in the shin as hard as he could and then bit my hand. Fear was so evident in his eyes that I let him go. He wasn’t going to tell me anything else. Besides, he had been right about the vampires coming for me. By the time I heard them, it would have already been too late for me to do anything but fight. I considered the house again. It looked like any other house in the area, but it was dark inside where the rest were brightly lit. I could have left, gone back to my car, and found Amos or Dempsey so we could continue working on the case. Holden was probably right that I should have started with solving the case and left the vampires alone until I knew more, but finding Corbin seemed harmless enough. But since I was already here, I wanted to know who was inside and how whoever it was knew where I would be. There was only one way to find out. I pulled out my knives as I climbed the steps. The door was unlocked. Inside, all the shades were closed tight and taped along the edges. A vampire was definitely squatting here. “I knew you’d come,” the one voice I didn’t expect said. Thomas. The sound came from the darkest part of the shadows, but I could still make out his form. Just the sight of him made my fist clench at my side. He had a lot of nerve bringing me anywhere. The last time he swore to help me and my friends, he abandoned us at the first sign we might not win. He was a coward and a traitor, and now he was messing up my case. “You better talk fast,” I told him through clenched teeth. He stepped into the dim light. He looked rough. Those piercing blue eyes were sunk in and had heavy bags beneath them. His cheekbones were more pronounced, and the skin around his eyes almost seemed to be stretched and thin. He looked older. “I’m glad you came.” “It’s not like you gave me much of a choice.” “I sent a child to get you, Femi. You could have stayed. The decision was entirely yours on whether or not you followed him and how far you were willing to go. But you came the whole way.” He smiled a little. “You knew it was me.” I laughed, but it wasn’t because any of this was funny. “I thought it was Corbin, actually. I came because I wanted to see him. You never even entered my mind.” Thomas’s jaw tightened and his eyes narrowed. “I hadn’t realized the two of you were so close.” “Why would you?” I asked. I didn’t owe Thomas anything. In fact, the only one in this room who had anything to feel guilty over was him. “Had I known it was you, I would have called Corbin and told him where you were. He’s been looking for you.” His smile held, but sadness filled his eyes. “I had to leave you in Arizona. You have to see that. I had no choice. They would have killed me…us all if I stayed. It was more dangerous for you if I stayed than if I left. And you survived, so it isn’t like my leaving did any real harm.” I pressed my hands against my face, trying hard to not yell at him. “And yet Corbin hasn’t abandoned me even once. Even when he doesn’t want to help, he still manages to do more than you. Doesn’t say much for your character, does it?” “His situation is different from mine. I was trying not to burden you further.” “Sure, leaving me for dead is definitely less of a burden. I have an idea, though. How about next time, you stay out of my fucking life.” I crossed my arms. “I am so sick of your excuses. Everything you do is your choice. You’re not a victim.” I dropped my hands back to my sides and took a step into the room. So long as I had him here, I wanted answers. “How did you know where I was?” “Sy is not the only one with spies. He has his friends and I have mine.” I blinked. “What spies are those?” He shook his head. “I’m sorry you’re caught in the middle of this. I never intended for that to happen again, but this time I swear it isn’t my fault.” “It never is,” I said. And yet in direct opposition, he kept popping up in my life. What did he think would happen? The vampires wanted him, and the only time they ever got close was when I was somehow involved. Of course they would see me as the link. He knew it and I knew it. “Why am I here? I know you didn’t warn me out of the kindness of your heart. I mean, if you honestly cared at all about my life, then you would never have come back here, because every time you do, they believe that I have this magical ability to get into contact with you, which we both know is a lie.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “I heard they had captured you. I had to see for myself if there was anything I could do.” I stamped my foot. “Stop lying. You left a package for me at my hotel before the vampires took me. Try again.” His head tilted to the side and those blue eyes softened. “I need your help.” His voice ran down my arms like a caress. More vampire trickery, but this time it was harder to shake off. No matter how angry I was, no matter how much he deserved to be hated, I couldn’t do it. And to make matters worse, he was completely hateable. I closed my eyes, trying to dislodge the softer memories that fought to come forward. They were a lie. Everything about him was a lie. “Every time I help you, you screw me over. I wouldn’t cross the road to get a glass of water if you were on fire. That is how I feel about you. Why don’t you understand this? The last time I saw you was your second chance, and you did it again. You could have gotten me and all of my friends killed. I’m done. Whatever you need, figure it out on your own.” I turned back to the door. “I’ll give you two hours before I tell Corbin where you are. That’s the only help I’m offering today, and it’s more than you deserve.” “We want the same things, Femi,” he said softly. “Clearly we don’t.” I just wanted him to leave me alone. “Stop talking before I change my mind and call him now. Turning you over would solve a lot of problems in my life.” “If you give me to them, your problems will just begin.” I rolled my eyes and grabbed the door handle. More words. That was all he ever had. The perfect words to make me feel bad for him, to make me question what I know, but that was all they were—words. His actions were the only true part of him. “You’re here about the killings.” His voice cracked through my internal pep talk. “About the loup-garou.” I didn’t want to turn around. If I did, he’d pull me into whatever web he was weaving, and by the time it was over, I’d know less than when I started. And that was the last thing I needed. But at the same time, he knew about the loup-garou, and that wasn’t something I could ignore, not when all of my leads were so thin. I turned around, though every muscle in my body rebelled against it. “What do you know about the loup-garou?” “I know who it is.” “Who?” “It’s me.” Chapter 12 “I’m the one you are searching for.” Thomas held his arms out wide in a universal nonthreatening gesture. A cough tore from the center of him, doubling him over as he clung to the wall with one hand. Everything in me stuttered to a halt. I had never seen a vampire cough. They couldn’t get sick. They were the undead—emphasis on dead. They didn’t even breathe. The coughing kept on ripping through him, sounding more and more like bits of his unused lungs might come up. After several minutes, he regained control and slowly stood erect, eyes glowing bright red and his shoulders hunched. “I bet you didn’t see that coming.” I was to him in about three steps, drew back my arm, and punched him right in the face. What an idiot. “You’re being glib? You’ve killed at least eight people. Your actions threaten to reveal the Abyss to humans.” Thomas wasn’t dumb. He probably knew I would never be sent here to look into human murders, but if he killed enough paranormal creatures, then… “Did you kill the ghoul and the elf and the bounty hunters as well?” He didn’t reply. Instead he snapped his nose back into place. “Damn it, Thomas. It’s too late for my help. You think that Corbin hunting you is a bitch, wait until the council wants you dead or locked up… Wait, that’s already what they want. That’s why I am here. I am either to kill the culprit or neutralize it, but don’t worry, because you’ve got jokes.” I was tempted to punch him again, but instead I poked him in the chest with my fingernail. He looked up at me, eyes even redder than before. “Don’t touch me again,” he growled. “Are you trying to get killed? I am hanging on by a thread. Do not provoke it. I don’t want to hurt you—not you.” “If bullshit were a language, you’d be fluent. You’ve lived with being a vampire for how long? And now one full moon and suddenly you’re killing everyone in your path. I’m not buying it. You know how to resist urges. At least, you damn well should. Have you gone completely mad?” He moved out of my reach. “This isn’t like being a vampire. I lose time. I don’t remember anything that happens after I change. I don’t know how many people I have killed or who they were. When I wake up, there is almost always a new body found somewhere. And the transformations have nothing to do with the moon. I could transform right now, if I was pushed. The beast can smell you, Femi. It wants to taste your blood.” His eyes grew brighter. “It’s you more than the others.” “I will kill you,” I told him. He nodded. “That’s why I brought you here. Maybe you can help me control it.” “What do you mean brought me here?” “Tonight, with the boy,” he said. I nodded. “Believe it or not, I don’t actually enjoy indiscriminatingly killing people.” The Abyss killings weren’t those of someone who was crazed or rabid or out of control. Each slice, each bite, each piece had been left with a purpose in mind. Whoever it was wanted all of this to be found. There was a message of some sort, I was sure of it, but for the life of me, I couldn’t understand what it meant. The human deaths were out of control, except for three of them. Then again, this was Thomas we were talking about. The best lies were always based in partial truth. I crossed my arms. “Why shouldn’t I kill you? End all of this right now. The case would be solved, the vampires would get off my ass, and everyone would be happy.” Eyes blue again, he looked even more tired than before. “I can’t give you a good reason not to do exactly that. Hell, I deserve it. If the situations were reversed, I’d probably do the same to you.” He blinked a couple times, staring off into nothing. “But I am counting on the fact that you are a better person than me. I came to you for help because I am scared and I don’t have anyone else. You’re the only friend I have, Femi.” “You don’t have me.” I didn’t try to keep the annoyance out of my voice. “I know. I also know the kind of person you are, and even though I would betray you in a heartbeat, you won’t do the same to me or you already would have done it.” Turn him in and finish this, the practical voice in my mind said. But at the same time, another voice was there. If you don’t keep digging, you’ll never know the truth. “Where were you before this?” I asked. He shook his head slightly. “I can’t tell you.” Why did I even bother? I pulled out my cell phone. His hand snapped out, covering mine. “Who are you calling?” “You want my help. You’re going to take what you can get.” I waited for him to let me go before I dialed. Dempsey answered on the fourth ring. “Yeah.” “Hey, it’s Femi. When you were a loup-garou, did you black out?” He didn’t answer right away. I shifted beneath Thomas’s unrelenting stare. “No. I remember it all. I remember the anger and the hatred for everything and everyone I saw. It took everything I had to keep myself from being a monster all the time.” His voice got very soft. “I can still hear their screams.” I felt a wave of sympathy for him. “I’m sorry.” “Is that all?” “Yeah,” I said. “Talk to you tomorrow.” The other end of the line went dead. This was more than a case for him. He’d lost everything. If we did find a way to break the curse, what would Dempsey have left? Right now, chasing this ever-changing monster was probably what got him out of bed in the morning. If I took that away, what would happen to him? I pushed the thoughts to the back of my mind and refocused. “You’re telling me that you black out and then wake up and someone is dead.” He nodded. “How long has it been happening?” “Since I got to New Orleans.” I nodded. “And when was that?” “I came here when I heard you were coming here.” Lie, but I let it go—for now. “How were you cursed?” He sank into the small loveseat. “There was a deal that I was a part of, but before everything had been arranged, the other party lost his mind and turned into a werewolf. He attacked me and I held him off, but it was stronger than me and its teeth sank into my shoulder. I grabbed it by the head and broke its neck.” He pulled the collar of his shirt to the left to show me the unhealed wound. “It was the longest night of my life waiting to turn into that rabid dog, but it never happened. I thought I made it out. Then the next day something happened and I got mad. The beast took over. I thought I had it under control, but the moment I set foot in this city, everything changed.” “And you came here for my help?” I asked. He nodded. “But the problem with that is, if you had it under control, then why come to me at all? All you had to do was wait it out and it would pass on to someone else.” “It’s hard enough to stay hidden as I am. With this thing happening to me, the vampires will be able to find me. They will be able to track me.” If a single piece of his story meshed with Dempsey’s, I might have been able to believe it, but it didn’t. It never did with Thomas. Only one thing he’d said reminded me of something Corbin had mentioned. Thomas said that he didn’t come until he found out I was here. Corbin had said he was seen here the same night I was assigned the case. Either Thomas knew the moment it was assigned to me or he was lying. The only way he could have known was if he had a source on the council. “You didn’t get here after me, did you?” The corners of his mouth turned down. “I got here two days before you. I knew you were coming though, so it’s basically the same thing.” “You couldn’t have,” I said. It was impossible that he knew. I didn’t even know. “If you can’t be honest, then I don’t know what you expect me to do.” Thomas gave me an impatient look. “Well, if you know all the answers, why are you asking me questions? I mean, obviously the great Femi couldn’t be wrong. She says I couldn’t have, then I guess I didn’t. Why don’t you tell me when I came here? I’m sure you are right.” I glared at him. “Fine. Let’s say it was two days before me because you knew where I would be, as implausible as that is. What do you want from me? Be specific.” “I want you to break the curse, but I don’t want to die. So lock me up, do what you have to do, but keep me off the street and away from the vampires until it runs its course. Then I will leave and I promise you will not see me again.” “What are the odds,” I said. “How did you know?” “I can’t tell you,” he said. “If I could I would. Please just promise to help me.” His eyes pleaded with me. “You will never see me again. I swear.” Him gone from my life was what I told myself I wanted. And it was, but for some reason him using it as a bargaining chip made me doubt that. He raised an eyebrow when I didn’t reply. “Unless you want to see me again, that is.” He reached out, brushing his hand against mine. “It was good between us. It could be again.” His eyes rose up to mine. I was already shaking my head. I was positive that wasn’t what I wanted. “Never seeing you again sounds fine.” If Thomas had a source on the council, it had to be Leilah. She was the one behind sending me here, but what would a dragon want with one outlaw vampire? The two of them didn’t make sense. He didn’t have any real power. There was nothing he could do to further her agenda, whatever it might be. “I’ll leave it entirely up to you,” he said. “But you might surprise yourself, Femi. You might find that despite all of your plans, I am still the adventure you crave.” “Craving something doesn’t make it good for me. It’s a lesson you taught me.” The words sparked the memory, and his eyes darkened as his tongue ran over his bottom lip as he took half a step close to me. “Since when has life ever been about doing what’s good for you?” He breathed the words into my ear, fingers trailing down my arm. For just a moment I let the temptation wash over me, remembering the way he had touched me. The way his lips felt against mine. It was one night. Why couldn’t I let this go? He also fed on me, stole countless years from my life because I was too naïve to know vampires fed by touch. The intoxicating pull of him that night had nothing to do with chemistry and everything to do with him feeding on my life. I turned my face so my nose pressed against his cheek as he twined his fingers in mine. “If you ever touch me again, I will cut off your balls. Then you can tell me all about how life isn’t about doing what’s good for you.” He released me at once, taking a step back. “So long as you are still mad at me, Femi, there will always be a chance for us. I won’t give up.” “Then prepare yourself for a frustrating life.” I pulled out a knife from my belt and flipped it with my fingers as I thought about what he had told me and everything he hadn’t. “I can’t help you if you keep lying to me.” “You’ll manage,” he said with a wink. I threw the knife, sticking it in the wall an inch from his head. “The thing is that I don’t have to manage. You want my help. It’s not the other way around. So I’m going to go and you’re going to stay here and think long and hard about how you can make my life easier. Then if you’re lucky, I’ll come back.” “Where are you going?” he asked, catching my arm as I pulled the knife from the wall. “I’m going to talk to the only other person I know who has been a loup-garou. I’m going to figure out what in the hell is happening here. That’s my main priority. I’m helping you”—I poked just below his collarbone with a sharpened nail—“only because you might be the key to figuring out all of these murders. So stay inside and stay off everyone’s radar. You understand?” He nodded. “What am I supposed to do until you come back?” “Maybe use that time to think about what you’re doing with your life. And try not to have a furry relapse before I get back.” “Easier said than done.” I gave him a sweet smile. “You’ll manage.” I slammed the door behind me. I hated vampires. I hated how they complicated everything and thought they could charm their way out of the truth. I also hated that I hadn’t called Corbin to tell him Thomas was here immediately after I found him. Most of all, though, I absolutely loathed the fact that what I had to do next felt a lot like betrayal. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and stared at the screen as I walked. Finally, I dialed the number. “Where are you?” Corbin answered. “Why? Did you miss me in the building tonight? You should have just bashed me over the head again.” He was quiet for a moment. “I wasn’t a part of the raid. It was Paolo. He sensed you were close and sent people in, but obviously they didn’t find you.” “Obviously,” I echoed, my stomach twisting. “I told you to call Sy. He has dealt with Paolo before. He wouldn’t blatantly go against the elf’s wishes.” “Sy can’t help me with this,” I said. “You were lucky this time. I wouldn’t count on it twice. Also, I wouldn’t go back to your hotel. You need his help whether or not you want it.” Corbin sounded vaguely, but legitimately, concerned. I pressed my lips together hard before I closed my eyes and said, “How much time would Thomas buy me?” “Where are you?” he asked, suddenly less worried and infinitely more alert. “How much time?” I repeated slowly. “You give them Thomas, and they have no need for you. It should end all of this,” he said. Having no need for me could go one of two ways. “As in they leave me alone or they kill me?” “I don’t know,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. Where you are. Meet me at your car. I’ll be waiting.” He hung up. Corbin was the wild card. I needed him or I was never going to finish my case, but trusting him was a whole different story. My instincts were no help in this matter. Given a choice between believing Thomas or Corbin, I’d choose Corbin. He had earned at least that. But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t flip sides the moment he thought it would help him more. But so long as I kept that in mind, I would be okay. Probably. Chapter 13 True to his word, Corbin waited, half sitting on my car with his legs stretched out in front of him and crossed at the ankles. As soon as I was close, he stood up. “You know where he is.” I nodded. “As of a few minutes ago.” “Take me to him and I will tell Paolo you caught him for us. That should be enough to appease him.” I held up a hand for him to wait as I opened my car door and got inside, leaning across the seat and unlocking the passenger side. “I will give you Thomas, but I have conditions.” “What?” he asked. “You hold him for twelve hours. I need to solve the case I am working on, and he might be the key to that process. Once the time has passed…” The words were hard to force out. “Do what you have to do.” “You will never make it through the night. Paolo will find and kill you. Just give him Thomas now and be done with it. I will personally vouch for you with the vampires.” I shook my head. “I’ll talk to Paolo. I’ll go to the garage to see him; he has to respect that. I’ll tell him that I need Thomas for the next twelve hours, but will accept you as his vampire guard. After that time, I will relinquish all hold on him. That’s the best deal I can offer. I have to do what I was sent here to do.” “He’ll want to know who sent you,” Corbin said. I smiled, more to myself than at him. “Then he can call Sy himself, because that will have nothing to do with me.” Corbin rolled his eyes. “What? Did he get your drink wrong? Why are you mad? I thought the two of you were…” He shrugged. “This isn’t my game and these aren’t my rules. I am simply playing by them.” His head turned quickly toward me. I met his eyes. “Take it or leave it.” “We’ll take it,” he said. “I’ll go with you to see Paolo. You’ll have a better chance of making it out alive. Any chance the Angel of Death could make an appearance? I think it would go a long way to strengthening your case.” I shook my head. “Not unless things look dire.” “At least there’s a plan B,” he mumbled. I drove directly to the garage door as Corbin instructed and waited for it to open. The hundreds of vampires from before were gone now, probably scouring the city for me. Slowly the door lifted, groaning in response. “Nervous?” he asked. “No,” I lied. He smiled. “I can hear your heart beating.” I took a few deep breaths, slowing it down. If Corbin could hear, they’d all be able to. I couldn’t show any fear or weakness. They’d eat me alive. My jaw tightened at the fifteen to twenty vampires who waited inside with Paolo in the center of all of them. Corbin didn’t take his eyes off Paolo, but he spoke under his breath. “The nicer he seems, the worse it is.” Both car doors were opened as we were taken by the arms and pulled out. The vampire who’d sacrificed an eye to my boot now sported an eye patch as he shoved up to the front of the group. I winked at him as I walked around the car to meet Corbin in the center. Together we approached Paolo. “I asked for the rogue, but you bring me the bounty hunter. I would have caught her anyway,” he said with a sigh. “What am I going to do with you, Corbin? Chance after chance you’ve had, but you keep letting me down.” “I’ve brought cooperation,” Corbin said smoothly. “You would have never gotten it your way.” Paolo didn’t look impressed. “Everyone breaks.” Corbin shrugged a shoulder. “I didn’t. And neither would she. Plus she has protection—we both know that.” “I can handle the bartender,” Paolo said coldly, and my hackles rose. I bit down on the inside corners of my lips hard to keep from saying anything. “That’s not her only protection,” he said. “You’re soft, flabby,” Paolo said, coming up and poking Corbin’s hard chest. “There was a time you would have enthralled her, taken what she knew for yourself, and disposed of her remains. Is wanting to see that again too much to ask? I don’t believe it is. That is the Corbin we need back. That’s the one I want to see standing before me. Not this weak, lazy vampire talking of compromises.” Corbin’s eyes blackened, and in a flash he had Paolo by the back of the neck, pulling him toward us. “Do not tempt me, old man, or the body I will dispose of will be yours. Never forget who you speak to or what I am capable of.” He released him just as suddenly, eyes still burning. Paolo smiled a little, obviously pleased with the display, but the smile disappeared as he turned to me. “I knew from the moment Sy brought you to my house, you would be a thorn in my side,” he said. “I am never wrong.” His nostrils flared and he leaned in close, drawing in a deep breath. “The stench of curiosity clings to your scent. Why are you here? Corbin has not touched you. You have not been influenced in any way. Why walk into my domain unprotected?” I met his eyes. “I’m not frightened of you. I’m here to make a deal. I have knowledge of something you want and am willing to give it to you,” I said. “For a price.” “What are you offering this time? Another lead that will get us nowhere?” He ran his fingers down my cheek and blatantly pulled from my life force enough to make my eyes flutter, but I didn’t pull back. “Perhaps we should just keep you and see if it tempts Thomas to come to us.” “My way would be faster. I promise you, he won’t bother with trying to save me.” And it was completely true. He wouldn’t. “That’s why I’m offering you him. I know where he is right now. This is a one-time offer. I will take Corbin and only Corbin to him as soon as we leave this place if you meet my terms.” “Why Corbin?” Paolo crossed his arms, a ghost of a smile on his lips. “Are you in love with this one as well? Have you developed a taste for our kind?” “Not at all. But he does have the distinction of being the only vampire I would trust slightly further than I could throw him.” Paolo gave Corbin an appraising look, tongue running over his teeth. “Is that so,” he said softly. It was impossible to tell if any of this was good or bad. Corbin didn’t react, so neither did I. “And what is your price?” “Twelve hours and no vampire harasses me again. Ever,” I said, watching him. “Corbin can come with me now and I will give him Thomas, but I need access to him for the next twelve hours. I have a case to solve and Thomas, so far, is my best lead. That’s my one-time offer. If you try to take him before that time is up, I will bring a hell down upon you like you have never known. If the vampires do not leave me alone, then I start fighting back.” He held my gaze for several moments before he finally stepped away, glancing at Corbin, who nodded slightly. “She doesn’t exaggerate. Besides the half-elf, she knows the Angel of Death personally, and Holden, the jinni. The Erlking and Queen also owe her debts. If you desire a war, this Sekhmet can give it to you.” Paolo tapped his index finger against his leg three times. With the slightest gesture of his finger, the vampires behind us left, blending into the crowd. “Very well,” he said. “I will accept your terms, but know this, Sekhmet. Double-cross me and you will not have time to call your important friends before I drain all of your lives from you.” It was my turn to give him a smug look. “May the best man win.” “Indeed,” he said, turning away and walking quickly out of the room. “Don’t disappoint me again, Corbin,” he said before he left completely. “This is your last chance.” Corbin and I left the same way we’d come in, only this time I was even more nervous than before. We drove for a couple blocks in silence before I spoke. “You hit my head against the wall and gave me to the vampires,” I said, watching the traffic in front of me. “I needed Kristina to lose you. So long as Paolo doesn’t have any good choices, he’s forced to recognize he still needs me.” My hands tightened over the steering wheel. “You used me.” Corbin didn’t respond. “What you said in there about trusting me,” he said, then cleared his throat. “It’s not a good idea.” Trusting him more than other vampires wasn’t exactly the same as trusting him, but now didn’t feel like the time to split hairs. “Just the fact that you’re telling me it isn’t a good idea supports what I said.” “Sentimental,” he muttered to himself. “I’ve worked with Paolo for hundreds of years. I’d kill him in a moment and take over if it meant I could have what I want. That’s the sort of man I am.” I stopped the car a couple blocks away from the house. “I just can’t picture you leading the vampires. You don’t seem to want to,” I said. “I don’t.” He stared out of the window. “Why is Thomas so important?” I asked. “I don’t like to lose,” he growled as he got out of the car, slamming the door behind him. “Which house?” “None.” I climbed out and locked my door. “Let me go in first and distract him, then you come in—that’s the safest way. He won’t have time to prepare or to run.” Corbin snorted. “I’m not worried about whether or not I can defeat him.” “He’s been infected with the loup-garou curse,” I said. “If he feels threatened, he will turn into a werewolf-like creature. Let’s do this smart, not hard.” I opened the trunk of my car and retrieved the cuffs I usually reserved for the really old vampires. Corbin lightly touched the vampire cuffs. “If what you say is true, what makes you think he’ll let you use these?” I slammed the trunk. “Stay out of sight.” I trotted up the sidewalk to the blue house. I drummed my fingers against the door before I went inside. The house was even darker now than before. There were no sounds inside. I walked further into the room. “Thomas?” I said softly. “That was quick,” he said in my ear, though it was tight and strained. I swung around, only seeing his red glowing eyes in the dark. “Think we could turn on a light or two?” A moment later the lights were on and he was standing in front of me again, eyes still red and starved. “Couldn’t stay away?” I touched my tongue to my lip. “Have you figured out how to make my life easier?” His eyes turned the color of blood, searing my skin as they trailed down my body. A growl formed deep in his throat as he buried his face in my neck. “Ah, ah.” I stepped back, dangling the cuffs in front of him. “No touching,” I said. “We wouldn’t want any accidents, would we?” He eyed the handcuffs. “I rather like touching you.” He took a swipe at me, but I nimbly avoided his hand. “But you don’t want to hurt anyone. Isn’t that what you told me?” I jingled them at him. “You asked me to stop you.” “And these will do that?” “They’re the strongest cuffs I have ever found. I don’t know how that will hold up against a loup-garou, but it should at least give us a fighting chance if you change.” He nodded, taking them from me and inspecting them. “Maybe.” I gave him a helpless gesture. “How about this? I am not convinced you killed those people. The crime scenes don’t match with what you described. If I can be reasonably sure you haven’t left this house, when a new murder occurs, we’ll know for sure.” He came close, pressing the cuffs into my hand, careful not to touch flesh to flesh. His mouth was less than an inch away from mine. “By all means, then, have your way with me.” “Looking forward to it,” I said, clasping the cuff around his right wrist. “Too tight?” His nostrils flared, but he shook his head. I brushed against him as I moved around him. Heat radiated from his body. Usually vampires were ice cold to the touch, but he was hot. Too hot. My fingers trailed down his left arm before I took his hand and pulled it back, clasping the other end of the cuff around his wrist, just as tight as the other one. I snaked one hand around him and ran my fingernails down his chest. “Karma’s a bitch,” I said. “What do you plan to do to me?” His skin began to cool beneath my hands. “I think she meant me, mate,” Corbin said, yanking Thomas away from me before he could react. Corbin’s hand was around his throat as he slammed him against the wall, plaster crumbling around him. “I should kill you now for Camila…for Clara, but it would be too kind.” Corbin’s fingers dug into his neck as Thomas coughed and sputtered, eyes bright red as his body started to contort. “Corbin, stop. You’re killing him.” Corbin’s eyes were completely black and his face was filled with nothing but hatred. I moved around them. “If you kill him, the curse will pass to you. You don’t want this. Look at him. It isn’t worth it.” “I’ve lived with worse,” he growled. “It will kill everything you love. That’s what it does. That’s how it always ends. Selene. Is it worth risking her?” His fingers loosened slightly and Thomas sucked in a breath, but the transformation didn’t stop. He screamed as the curse buckled and twisted his body. “Does he get paws?” Corbin asked. “How would I know that? I’m not the one who threatened him,” I said, pulling my knives as I watched new razor-sharp teeth tear through his gums. “He’ll slip the cuffs if he does.” I ran for the front door. “Keep him in here,” I shouted, sprinting to my car. I pulled the chains and padlocks out of my trunk then hurried them inside. Corbin grabbed Thomas’s shoulders and held him against a column between the kitchen and living room. Thomas writhed as his bones popped and snapped beneath his skin and hair spread over his body. It was no wonder he looked sick. How did anyone survive something like this? “Gawk later,” Corbin said, struggling to keep a hold on him. I snapped back to attention, wrapping the chain around Thomas’s chest and shoulders as tight as I could then padlocked it. Corbin grabbed the other chain and wrapped it around his legs. The transformation took a total of about ten minutes. I didn’t know what I had expected, but it wasn’t what I got. A werewolf didn’t stand before us. Instead Thomas was some strange humanoid wolf creature who stood on two legs and had hands though his fingernails had been pushed out by thick black claws. Coarse gray and black hair covered his face and body, but a muzzle never fully formed. His red eyes burned with thousands of years of hatred. “What the fuck is he supposed to be?” Corbin asked, eyes wide. “A loup-garou. It’s a curse that passes from person to person. It stays just long enough to ruin your life.” “And if I kill him…” I nodded. “You will take the curse.” I lightly touched Thomas’s cheek. “Are you still in there?” A momentary flash of sadness warred with the rage, but quickly lost out. He was in there, though. Somewhere trapped inside of all that anger was Thomas, unable to fight against it. “This is for your own good. I know it’s hard to remember why, but you don’t want to hurt anyone else.” Corbin snorted. “I wouldn’t count on that, kitten.” “Don’t call me kitten,” I said as I backed away from Thomas, watching him thrash and fight against the restraints. Corbin stood with his head tilted to the side, taking in every thrash. “Is there a way he could keep the curse? For it to stay with him?” “If you want to kill him, then you better hope not.” Corbin smiled slightly to himself. “I wonder if he isn’t here, not in this world, would it still end. Is time a factor? And how is it calculated?” The sort of calm that came just before a storm suddenly surrounded Corbin. “Death may be too gentle for him.” I had seen this look with Holden before, but only once. So consumed with his own hate he couldn’t even see what was in front of him. What in the hell had Thomas done? “It’s worth a try, though,” he said. “He looks like he’s in pain.” Thomas’s muscles beneath the fur still clenched and strained. His bones had stopped cracking, but blood still dripped from his nails and mouth. The pain had to be unbearable. “What are you talking about?” I asked. Corbin pulled out his own knife and nicked Thomas’s face as soon as he stopped struggling. Thomas growled and snarled like the beast he currently was. Corbin leaned in close. “Just know this: it’s still better than you deserve.” Thomas fought harder, neck straining and muscles bulging, teeth gnashing. The column creaked. Corbin’s fist connected to his face, knocking his head back. Thomas’s eyes fluttered closed. Chapter 14 “What did he do to you?” I asked, when Corbin finally moved away from Thomas. “He didn’t do anything to me,” he said. “This is retribution…for others.” And I was an Olympic swimmer. I rolled my eyes. He wanted Thomas to suffer more than payback for some random crime. As far as I could tell, there was very little Corbin actually cared about in this world. Certainly not the vampires, and I doubted he would have lifted a finger to stop Thomas from killing anyone who wasn’t personal to him in some way. “Who are Camila and Clara?” A bitter smile twisted onto Corbin’s lips. “You have your twelve hours. He’ll be here if you need him. After that, he’s mine, so make it count.” My feet stayed locked in place. The wolfy version of Thomas was fading back to normal, out cold. I had miscalculated the situation. Corbin wasn’t looking for justice. Thomas was never going to stand vampire trial and he wasn’t going to be executed fast. Even that scenario was hard to imagine, but this was something completely different. Corbin was getting revenge. Not that Thomas deserves to be protected, I reminded myself. “What did he do?” I repeated. I needed to understand. I couldn’t leave him to this fate if I didn’t understand why—maybe not even then. Paolo’s smile came to mind when I said I would only take Corbin with me. He had known this would happen. He may have wanted Thomas, but he also wanted the old Corbin back; he said so himself. I didn’t know the Corbin before Selene. Was that when everything changed for him, or had it changed before that? Selene’s name hadn’t been mentioned. It was Clara and Camila. “He changed you, didn’t he? Was it Clara or Camila?” Finally, he shrugged with practiced ambivalence. “It’s your dime. Thomas here has been bad. You know about the trafficking, but you see, he didn’t just target rare species. Don’t get me wrong; he did plenty of that. That’s how he made the real money, but when he thought someone was too close to figuring out his schemes, he went after their families, both living and dead. I noticed more and more bounties were being placed on vampires who claimed innocence. I started looking into it, and…” He shook his head. “Your family,” I said softly. “Clara.” His black, fathomless eyes met mine. “But that loss wasn’t enough to distract me. Camila was my maker. When vampires are made, they are bound to children until the child breaks the bond. To kill an old vampire, one must eliminate all existing bonds. Camila and I were close. My world was different when she was in it.” Regret fluttered across his mouth. “We had fun.” “How did he kill her?” Corbin shook his head. “He didn’t. I did. He trapped her in purgatory. Decades of pain and torture, I was the only thing that kept her alive, but I couldn’t get to her. Then Selene came into my life. She wanted me to be her guide through purgatory, which would have finally let me free her.” His fist clenched at his side. “Why didn’t you?” He closed his eyes and shook his head. “He will suffer. No one can stop that. It’s been years in the making. Anyone who tries will be an enemy.” **** There wasn’t time for any other arrangements, not that Corbin would have gone for them. He said he’d give me my twelve hours, but whether or not that was true was anyone’s guess. I had believed Corbin would be the calmer, more patient of the vampire choices, but how was I supposed to know their history? All he had ever really said was that it was his job to find Thomas. I should have dug deeper. But regret wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I had a case to solve. What, if anything, I was going to do about Thomas and Corbin would have to wait. Thomas wasn’t the killer I’d come here to find. He was definitely homicidal, but all I felt from him was anger and sadness. The emotions were base, though. That monster in the living room couldn’t have made those calculated crime scenes. Thomas was definitely still in there, but I didn’t sense a huge amount of control. Perhaps he could plan an attack, but once it started, it’d look more like the last human that was found and less like a surgery. All of this took me back to the one anomaly: Gus. Why kill the ghoul? Nothing fed on ghouls. They couldn’t sate hunger and they wouldn’t have been a threat, unlike the other victims. I got into my car and started the engine. Before I could think about it too much, I sent up a quick prayer, and moments later Quintus arrived, sitting in the passenger seat, nearly blinding me with his bright yellow light. “Femi, it’s wonderful to hear from you. I’ve missed you,” he said as he hugged me warmly with a wide, dimpled smile across his handsome face. “I’m so glad you’ve reached out. How have you been?” I kissed his cheek. “Same shit. You know how it is. I need your help with something.” “Absolutely,” he said. “What can I do?” I put the car into gear and headed out of the city toward the cemetery Amos had taken me to, trying to shield my eyes from the bright light pouring from him. “Do you think we could cover you up or something? You’re blinding me.” He laughed. “The curse of a guardian, I am afraid. Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do about it. I could meet you wherever you are going.” I shook my head. “Don’t bother.” I put on my sunglasses. The gnawing worry in my stomach wasn’t doing much for my mood. Maybe turning in Thomas had been the wrong decision. Maybe I should have waited. “What do you know about loup-garous?” “It’s a curse that lasts for a set period of time then passes on to the surviving victims. Its use is fairly regional. It probably stems from hoodoo, but I don’t know a lot about that.” Thomas claimed he couldn’t remember what he did while cursed. Dempsey, on the other hand, remembered everything. Either they were contending with different curses or one of them wasn’t telling me the truth. “Could it be used to control someone? Like if I cursed you, could I make you do things against your will?” Quintus shook his head. “I don’t believe so, but I am really not an expert. It is my understanding that the curse reveals, through the monster, that which frightens us the most about ourselves. It would be impossible to predict how anyone would react to it, since even the recipient of the curse is often unaware of what it will exploit.” That explained why the emotions I felt in Thomas were so base. The curse pulled up the fears and resentment hidden from the world and, as Quintus said, from ourselves. What was Thomas hiding? Why did he come here and why did he reach out to me? Especially now, of all times. “The victims are personal to the loup-garou, then? Like they would be people it knows in life.” “Most of the time. It would depend on the person who was cursed. If someone like Holden were cursed, I would fear for all of humanity more than I would fear for Olivia, because he already has the proclivity toward violence. However, it probably wouldn’t release him until he sacrificed her. It was made to punish its victims for their weakness of faith and will. Some try to resist it, but most fail in the end.” Dempsey’s story came to mind. He’d failed and he had to live with that. “I would imagine, like with anything, there will be exceptions. Perhaps some could learn to use the curse to their advantage, but I couldn’t begin to guess how. Holden might have some insight into that. Is this helpful at all?” I nodded. Who did Thomas love more than himself? Who would the curse want to take from him? Maybe there wasn’t anyone, and that was why he had killed so many humans. Anger and sadness ran so deep in him that he might not even be capable of love. “What if the cursed person doesn’t love anyone else?” Sad, regretful lines etched at the corners of Quintus’s mouth. “What a sad life that person must lead. I suppose, in that case, it’s possible it wouldn’t end. The curse could become entirely unpredictable.” Good news for Corbin, terrible news for the rest of the world. “I take it this has to do with a current bounty.” I blew out a breath. “Sort of. This is half of the case, anyway.” The other murders were still unaccounted for, and I didn’t understand how the council fit in or why the vampires had suddenly decided they had to have Thomas right now. Corbin obviously was unaware of the loup-garou curse. The story was starting to come together, but there were gaps. “Let’s say we have one of these unpredictable cursed people—how would I stop it?” “Kill it?” he said. “But then you will take the curse. Or there’s always Hollowfield. That’s why it was built.” “What if I want to extinguish this curse once and for all? Can I do that?” He scratched his jaw. “I haven’t encountered many who have been cursed, and those that I have were mostly in human form and I simply tried to help ease their burden. I wasn’t looking for a cure. There may not be one. Most of the time, curses have to be broken by the cursed. There is usually a lesson involved and a sacrifice on their part.” I clicked my teeth together. Thomas probably wouldn’t be willing to make a sacrifice or learn anything, especially given what horrors awaited him at the hands of the vampires as soon he was himself again. “Where are we going?” Quintus asked. “Cemetery. I’d like a second opinion.” He nodded. “Sure. Does this have to do with the loup-garou?” “I don’t think so. The best I can tell, there are two killers, and something about the—” I shook my head. I didn’t want to influence his opinion by sharing mine. “I just want you to tell me what you think and feel at the crime scene.” His head tilted. “Why do you need me? Not that I don’t love seeing you, but you have never needed my help on an investigation before. I am positive you have already formed your opinions.” I grinned at him. “Maybe I just like having you around, Dimples.” It wasn’t far from the truth. Having someone like Quintus around made all of my problems somehow seem more manageable. Quintus didn’t have angles and he certainly didn’t have a stake in this. Yeah, he was a goody two shoes—most guardians were—but he was a friend. He smiled back, his adorable dimples as cute and boyish as ever—which was a hard look to maintain on someone thousands of years old. His eyes gave him away, though. Deep and ancient and entirely too perceptive. “I know you.” His voice was gentle. “You wouldn’t have called me for information. You have Sy for that. Something else weighs on you. Are you in trouble?” I pulled into the same place I’d parked last time I was here. What he had told me about the loup-garous was useful, but he was right. Had I just wanted basic information, I would have called him yesterday. What I really wanted was someone to assuage my guilt. Most people admitted that most things fell into the metaphorical gray area as far as right or wrong were concerned. Punching a coworker in the face might be wrong, but sometimes it was deserved—especially with bounty hunters. Quintus wasn’t like that, though. He saw the world as black and white. Like even though Holden had been fairly good for a while now, Quintus still viewed him as evil and probably always would. That was why I wanted him here now. I needed him to tell me that turning in Thomas was the right thing to do, no matter how it felt. “I did something.” He nodded, but didn’t speak. “Do you remember the vampire that tried to turn Maggie?” “I do.” “He came to me for help and I said I would, but I lied. I helped myself instead. I gave him to Corbin. The vampires were coming for me, and it was impossible to investigate this case if they were going to attack me at every turn. I had to find a way to deal with them and I had to do it on my own, so I made a choice. Thomas showed up out of the blue and thinks he can turn my life upside down. I am one person. I can’t be at war with the vampires, especially in a city like this. Plus, I can’t be distracted by his mess if I want to complete my assignment, so I simplified the situation. I gave the vampires what they wanted so I could wrap this case for the council.” I looked over at him, waiting for the general sense of disgust that I felt in myself to show up on his face. It didn’t. “He has hurt many people,” Quintus said. “I know.” “Your job is, in fact, to hunt down criminals and return them for judgment by their people.” I nodded. “Why, then, is this one different?” I pressed my palm hard against my forehead. “It isn’t.” But even as I said the words, I knew it was a lie. “I’m fine with the vampires—” Nope, that wasn’t true either. I wasn’t fine with the vampires doing whatever they thought was best. “I know his debt to society can never be paid. He has hurt too many people for that, but Corbin’s plans for him…” “You disapprove?” “Yes.” He took my hand. “What would you have him do instead?” There was no answer for that. On one hand, if he had killed the people I loved in hopes of controlling me, I wouldn’t be any different than Corbin. I’d go after him with everything I was. “Do you love him?” he asked. I shook my head. “No.” “Then why do you resist?” I pulled my hand away from his and scowled at the dashboard. “You are honestly for him being tortured and killed?” I could feel him smiling, but I refused to look. “No. But I am never for that. I believe in peace full-heartedly. But we are not discussing me. You capture bounties and deliver them. Do you believe this doesn’t happen with the others you turn in?” I had honestly never thought much about it. It wasn’t my business. They committed crimes then ran away, and I found them and returned them. That was my job. “Do you not feel the vampires should be allowed to govern their own race? They are perhaps somehow more corrupt than most.” I closed my eyes. “I am not saying that either.” It was probably true, but I wasn’t saying it. I wasn’t sure what I was saying. I just wanted to stop feeling like my actions made me as bad as he was. I’d let him believe I would help him then stabbed him in the back. It was beneath me. “Perhaps you believe all of this is about you, then?” I opened one eye. “What do you mean?” “You are the one who exposed him for what he was, correct? It is because of you the vampires hunt him.” “No. They are after him because he is an asshole who tried to sell people to rich vampires to feed on, and apparently betrayed a lot more than that. There is no proof that Thomas has ever made a good decision in his whole life.” Besides for the one when he warned me about the plan to sell me, turning his life upside down and having to go on the run, because in the end he couldn’t betray me, not on a life-or-death matter. Not like I had betrayed him. “I put a stop to what he was doing and I am proud of it. This is different, though.” “How?” “I’m hungry.” I laid my head against the steering wheel. I turned to look at him. “I know it isn’t my place, but I don’t want to be the reason he dies.” Chapter 15 Quintus took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Life is rarely comprised of easy paths. But I have no doubt you will find your way.” I rolled my eyes. That was fucking helpful. “That’s it? That’s the best you can do? Chin up.” He smiled. “It’s not your fault, nor is it over. Appeal to Corbin’s goodwill.” If that was all I had going for them then we were all sunk. “Come take a look at this ghoul with me. Tell me if you see anything at all. I’m missing something.” I took him back to the remains. I didn’t bother getting a flashlight; the light Quintus naturally emitted was bright enough. The pieces were where Amos had left them, and we squatted around them: two fingers (the other one was still in my hotel room), an ear, and half a leg. “This is all that’s left?” Quintus asked. I nodded. “It is leaving behind pieces with anything man-made.” He picked up the rotting leg and looked over it. “This isn’t much to go on.” His hand hovered over the skin as he inspected it with a frown. He put the limb back down and stood, meandering around the gravestones. “Decided to take a walk?” I asked, catching up with him. “Did you see something?” He shook his head. “Graveyards are rarely as empty as they look. There’s always at least a ghost or two, if not some other undead being. Have you spoken with them?” I hadn’t sensed any other presence, but I hadn’t thought about it. He was right—something else should have been here, but instead it was empty. Completely empty. “What doesn’t like man-made items and has the power to scare off the undead?” He put an arm over my shoulders. “Figure that out and you’ve found your killer.” **** Quintus left to make some of his own inquiries while I headed back to the hotel. It was time Amos and I had a nice, long chat about the council. There was no way he or Leilah or anyone who saw the bodies believed they were a werewolf attack. Also, the vampires didn’t suddenly get the notion to use me as leverage against Thomas. All of this somehow fit together, and that was where I’d find the real reason they sent me here. I hadn’t been in my room for more than a few seconds before there was a knock on the door, utterly confirming that my room was being watched. “I know you are there, Femi,” Amos said from the other side. “We need to talk.” “My sentiments exactly,” I said brightly, opening the door. Amos stood in the hallway scowling at me. “How was your day? Productive? Mine was.” He came into my room and I shut the door behind him. “Well, I spent most of it looking for you or being yelled at about how had I lost you. So there was that for starters.” “Really?” I batted my eyes. “I can’t imagine how the council would know you lost me, unless you told them. Or even why they would be so bent on knowing exactly where I am or what I am doing when I am working for them. In fact, it’s almost like they are impeding my progress, which makes me question—why send me here at all?” His hands fidgeted as he shifted his feet. “It’s more general concern. They just want to make sure you take their secrets seriously.” I scrunched my nose. “Well, I did sign the contract.” Amos gave me a helpless shrug. “We are all servants to a higher power.” “And who do they serve?” I asked. He smiled before it quickly fell from his face. “The people of the Abyss, of course.” “Oh, of course,” I echoed. “Those same people who aren’t allowed to know anything about them. That makes perfect sense.” Amos struggled not to smile. He wasn’t completely behind the council, that much was clear, which meant he might still be useful. I needed him on my side to help deflect them until I had the information I needed. And this room obviously wasn’t the best place to talk. “What did you find?” he asked, glancing around the room hopefully, like I would have the werewolf hog-tied on my bed. “You first,” I said. “Actually, let’s put a hold on this. You know I haven’t eaten almost the whole day. It’s no wonder I’m feeling sluggish. Come have dinner with me. We’ll chat over food.” His eyes flickered toward one of the ceiling vents. “We could order in?” “No. I want to go out. Is there a reason we shouldn’t?” His tongue darted out at the corner of his mouth. “Well…” “Yes?” “I’ve heard that the vampires might want to chat with you. It might be best to stay under their radar.” “Hmph. Interesting. I heard they already knew where I was staying.” And there was the confirmation that the council already knew about the vampires. “But I’ve never had problems with them in the past. I’m sure it will be fine.” I waved his concerns off. “Let’s go.” I charged toward the door, and he reluctantly fell into step with me. “They won’t like this,” he said under his breath as we waited for the elevator. “I don’t care,” I said, smiling up at the security camera. I picked the smallest, oldest restaurant I could find that definitely did not have security cameras. As soon as we were seated, I leaned forward. “You’re going to tell me exactly what your mission is in all of this. No more lies. No more bullshit. What have I gotten myself into?” “The council isn’t what it seems,” he said in a hushed tone. “A bunch of people too powerful for their own good and more interested in feeding their personal bias than the well-being of the people of the Abyss who they claim to represent?” I asked. He smiled. “Maybe they are exactly as they seem.” I laughed. “Seriously. Why was I sent here?” “It’s a test,” he said. I opened my mouth to argue, and he shook his head. “Not the test you think it is.” I pressed my lips together. “The test isn’t yours. The vampires—” A sudden smile spread over his lips, and he sat back slightly. “They really do have the best crawfish in town.” I didn’t look to see who came in, but obviously we weren’t alone. If the vampires weren’t testing me and it had to do with the council, then it either meant that they were testing Paolo or Corbin. “Great. I’ll have that,” I mumbled. The waitress came over and we both placed our orders. He gave me a subtle yet meaningful look as she walked away. “However,” he said, “I hear that the crawfish aren’t as good as they used to be. The owner lost one of his suppliers and none of the others have lived up to expectations. So really, the restaurant is slipping and everyone says if the supplier doesn’t come back then the owner will go bankrupt. The situation is quite desperate.” I nodded slowly. “It’s not easy running a restaurant.” So it was Paolo they were testing. The council must have sensed weakness in him and were worried that the vampires would lose their small sense of government. I could see where that would pose a problem. Without something to hold vampires accountable, anything could happen, and the Abyss wasn’t equipped to govern. That would mean either the council would have to find another race to absorb the vampires or they would have to be contained like the werewolves before them. It did explain why Paolo was trying so hard to get Corbin back as he had been. He needed Corbin by his side because together they were strong enough to keep the vampires in check, which would matter to the council—but why did it matter to Paolo? But then why was I here? Why did I need to be down here for that? “The supplier has nothing to do with me,” I said. If they wanted to make sure Corbin came here then they should have used Selene. He had nothing to do with me. Even Thomas would have been better—oh. It hit me. That was the hook. They did use Thomas, but Corbin was sick of chasing his own tail. He only believed Thomas was here when I showed up, but it still didn’t explain how they knew Thomas would be here. And if they knew he was here then why not just tell Paolo? “The supplier has nothing to do with any of us. He just needs to change his mind. There are ways to make that happen. To make people long for the ways things used to be in the brighter days of the past. There are things the supplier wants, though, as payment for his loyalty. Things that will hopefully remind him of who he was, but in order to see them, he had to come to the meeting. Perhaps the supplier thinks you could get him those things.” Corbin may not have come down here for a random sighting, but a sighting in combination with my being here… I’d walked him right into their trap. But what was their plan? Was giving him Thomas enough? There were too many unanswered questions. “Even if that’s true, how do they plan to change his mind?” “I agree that he can probably never go back to what he was, but he can be made into something new. When the very thing you have always wanted is within your grasp and is taken away, that bitterness and rage will fester and grow. It can change everything about you.” They were going to take Thomas from him. I felt an instant of relief mixed with concern. “When?” “I don’t know.” I had to get back to the house. It was probably already too late. I started to stand up, just as the waitress set our plates on the table. Just the smell alone made my mouth water. It wasn’t fair. “Restroom?” The waitress pointed to the back of the room. I nodded, casually walking to the back and through the door. A small window high up would work just fine. I stood on the sink and shoved it open then pushed out the screen before pulling myself through it. I had to get to Corbin before they did. **** Parked about a block from the house, I opened my trunk. I slipped off the necklace and zipped it into one of the pockets on the cargo pants. Mentally I prepared myself to find anything in the house. Corbin could have lost his temper and already killed Thomas. The vampires could have taken them both. I should have never left them alone. I picked two handguns from my stash and tucked them into the waistband of my pants. I proceeded to strap on every knife and piece of ammunition I could hold. It looked like I was going to war. I crept up to the house. The windows were dark, and inside was absolutely silent. Part of me questioned why I was doing any of this. I didn’t love being used, but I served my purpose here. The council had won. They’d used me to meddle with the vampires, and I had done everything they wanted me to do. It was done. It sucked, but I should have been able to walk away. However, my mind was already spinning with how I could get in and reach Corbin. I pushed open the door. Corbin sat on the couch across from Thomas, who was still chained to the post. His face might as well have been carved in marble for all the emotion it showed. He stared as if he blinked, Thomas would disappear again. “That was fast,” he said without looking up, the smooth baritone of his voice soft. “We need to move him,” I said. I had never seen this side of Corbin before. Usually he was a smug asshole, which, frankly, was easier to deal with. I had no idea what to expect from him now. “The situation isn’t what we think it is.” His black eyes shifted toward me. “He stays where he is.” “You don’t understand.” At least I hoped he didn’t. “All of this is a setup.” I glanced out the window. The street appeared quiet, but for how long? I had no idea why Paolo hadn’t come immediately, other than he wanted to give Corbin time alone with Thomas. Time to stew and be consumed by his hatred, which was obviously working. “I’ll explain everything later. They’re coming for him.” “I don’t care. Out there, I can’t control what happens, so we’re staying here,” Corbin said. “Until you release him, and then he’s mine. Solve your case. None of this has anything to do with you. Whatever he has planned, I can handle it.” “You have no idea how much I wish that was true.” I moved in front of him, forcing him to look at me. “We’re being scammed, Corbin. Both of us. We’re the only two people who have no idea what’s going on with any of this. The case hasn’t felt right from the beginning because everything was a lie. Don’t you see? We’re the pawns. You can’t honestly tell me that this doesn’t all seem too easy to you. Thomas just happens to show up and trust me all of a sudden? That doesn’t seem odd to you?” His mouth twitched down, a flicker of life. “How so?” “As far as I can tell, the council is worried about the vampires. They think for some reason that Paolo is losing control. I really don’t know a lot about it. They asked me to come here and investigate what they said was a werewolf outbreak. I agreed, though I told them from the start this wasn’t a werewolf. Holden and Sy thought they chose me to test me, but none of us knew why. But the test wasn’t mine—it was yours or Paolo’s, I’m not sure which, or what the council hopes will happen. Somehow, and I am still not sure how, they knew Thomas would be here, so they also sent me. I was the bait. If I was here and there was a Thomas sighting, they knew you’d come.” “And why should they care about any of this?” he asked. “My history with him has nothing to do with any of this.” “But it does. You were part of Paolo’s strength. I don’t know how things were, only you can answer that, but you have to admit things haven’t been the same since Camila. Could Thomas have gotten away with half of the shit he did before you were—” I gestured at him, not sure how to finish the sentence, but looking at his sulky face helped. “Emo.” He gave me that dead glare. “I am not emo. I’m just…” He shook his head. I nodded. “Okay, well, whatever you want to call it, you have lost that top-of-the-food-chain vampire quality. Am I right?” “Go on,” he said. Chapter 16 “Well, I’m guessing that was probably what made Paolo a scary son of a bitch. If they crossed him, he unleashed you. But now everyone knows you aren’t seeing eye to eye.” I glanced out the window again. If I was right about what was happening, there was no time for all of this, but Corbin still wasn’t budging. Paolo or his people could get here any moment. “There have been no challenges to his authority.” “Yet, but vampires are more openly hunting humans. They aren’t hiding like they once did. As you said, more and more bounties are being put on them. Don’t you see that they aren’t scared anymore?” “Is that such a bad thing?” Corbin asked dispassionately. “Maybe they’re all sick of hiding. I wouldn’t blame them. I’m sick of all of this too.” “It’s a change. As far as I can tell, the council opposes any sort of change in the Abyss.” Corbin leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “The only part of this that truly bothers me is how did they know Thomas would come? He has been anything but predictable in his movements. I’ve followed you for months and he never came. Now suddenly he is exactly where they want him to be.” “A little too convenient, don’t you think? I’m not pretending to know everything, but it’s finally starting to make sense. That’s why we can’t stay. I have it on good authority that the plan was to give him to you then take him away. The goal is to get you back. If you won’t come back, I don’t know what they’ll do.” “Time to wake up.” He went to Thomas and slapped him soundly before I even stood up. “Come on, you little worm. Time to talk.” Thomas’s eyes fluttered and opened slowly. They bypassed Corbin and immediately went to me. So blue and confused. “What happened?” he asked with a groan. “Why can’t I move? Femi?” I narrowed my eyes. I’d seen the recognition in his eyes when he was in the wolf state. This cool, blue innocence wasn’t going to work. He was too good at playing the victim. He manipulated my feelings…because he knew he could. “He’s working with them. He’s stalling. We have to go. We’ll find somewhere safe and question him there.” I dug out the keys to the locks out of my pockets and offered them to Corbin. The sound of a car on the street perked my ears up. Corbin moved to the window then was back in a second. “You’re right. We need to move.” I went to undo the chains, but he stopped me. “No time.” He looked at the beam where the loup-garou had cracked it. He kicked it three times until it splintered in half. He tore down the upper half, hitting Thomas several times in the process, and tossed it to the side. The ceiling cracked and sagged. Corbin lifted Thomas off the rest of the beam and tossed him over his shoulder, chains and all. “Where’s your car?” “About a block to the east,” I said, handing him the keys and feeling Thomas’s pockets for a cell phone. “Get him there and put him in the trunk. I’ll distract them.” I pulled his cell out and crushed it beneath my boot. The front door smashed against the wall as four vampires charged through. Corbin moved fast, taking Thomas into a room off to the side as I stepped out to meet them, guns drawn and already firing. Vampires moved too fast. If you waited to see what they were going to do, you were already too late. Bullets weren’t going to kill a vampire, even silver ones, but they would slow them down. The first vampire charged at me low and hard. There wasn’t time to move, so I adjusted, dropped a gun, and pulled the closest knife. He impaled himself on the blade, the force shoving the hilt of the knife into my stomach just above the hipbone. That was going to leave a mark. I shoved the other gun to his temple and pulled the trigger, knocking him back a few inches so I could move, twisting and ripping out the knife to run it across his throat before knocking him to the floor. “They’re not here,” a female vampire said. “We need the bounty hunter alive.” I twirled the blood-covered knife in my fingers and smiled at her. “Give it your best shot.” She motioned with both hands and the other two vampires charged at me. I threw the knife at the one coming at my left, but he deflected it as I shot the one on the right until the clip had been emptied. The one on the left grabbed me in a bear hug and squeezed so tight that at least two ribs snapped under the pressure. Pushing past the pain, I stretched my fingers to reach another blade I kept at my hip. The tips of my fingers barely brushed against the top of it. The other vampire came toward us slowly now, carefully readjusting his eye patch. “I’m going to enjoy this,” he said, picking up my knife from the floor. “An eye for an eye.” “If it isn’t One-Eyed Willy,” I said. “Go ahead, give us the Truffle Shuffle, then.” He came at me, and I kicked out my foot, sinking my heel into his throat (some people never learned). I jammed my other heel through the other vampire’s foot. His arms loosened enough that I could finally reach the knife. I grabbed it and brought it up hard, jamming it through my shoulder and into his heart. His skin sizzled and he cried out, letting me go completely. Though it hurt, I tore the knife from my shoulder, spun around, and buried it to the hilt into his chest again. Then I did the same to the other two vampires just to make sure they didn’t get back up again. Blood ran down my arm as I turned to face off with the older, infinitely more dangerous female vampire. She leaned against the wall, arms crossed, with a slight smile on her perfectly red lips. “I can see why they like you,” she said, her voice dark and rich. “But I can’t let you leave.” I pulled out another knife for my bad arm and cracked my neck to the side. “You won’t take me alive.” She moved so fast she blurred. I braced for impact, but then there was a crack against the ceiling above me and her body fell to the floor hard, skull crushed. Corbin stood in front of me. “You ready to go?” he asked. “The police are probably on their way.” I stepped over her. “I could have taken her.” Corbin raised an eyebrow. “Debatable.” I let him drive my car because my shoulder still burned and the muscles clenched as it tried to heal. Sekhmets healed fairly fast. Not instantly, but the recovery time was definitely less than most races. Vampire blood had its own healing properties, but since the wound had been made with a solid silver knife, it was probably the reason for the burning sensation. My phone buzzed with a text message. I pulled it out of my pocket, sucking in air between my teeth at the movement. I felt a little dizzy, but I read it. It was a new crime scene picture and an address from Dempsey. This one was more like the originals in the style of the killings. Everything happened at once. “You know I never had an issue with vampires, but every time I get mixed up with one of you, I always end up the worse for it.” Corbin laughed. “Maybe you should mind your own business, then.” I scowled at him. “I was trying to stay out of the Thomas situation. You were the one following me around. He was the one who approached me to begin with. I’m innocent.” I looked out the window and didn’t recognize anything. “It’s the two of you who keep dragging me back in.” “Where are we going?” he asked. That was an excellent question. I catalogued all the places I actually knew in the area, and there was really only one that fit the bill, so I directed him out of the city and to Dempsey’s cabin in the swamp. Thomas didn’t struggle during the boat ride. He sat between us, facing me. His vibrant blue eyes were visible even in the dark, sending goosebumps down my spine. He had always had this effect on me. Half curiosity, half I should know better, and I did, but it didn’t stop the attraction. If anything, it only made it worse. He was dangerous and he was bad, and he took what he wanted without any regard for the people around him. So why did I have the sudden desire to run my fingernails down his back? Oh, perfect. I was a cliché. Thomas winked at me, looking calm and collected, which I had to give him credit for, considering he was about to be in a secluded cabin with Corbin. Even though I was there, we all knew that if Corbin wanted to kill him, my chances of stopping him were pretty close to nil. I stopped the boat at the same dock as before and led them inside. Corbin unceremoniously dropped Thomas to the floor with a thunk and redid his chains, not bothering to hook them to anything, then sat him up against the wall, undoing my shirt covering his mouth. “Why are you in New Orleans?” Corbin asked him calmly. “He’s going to kill me, Femi. We both know that.” Being easy or empathetic wasn’t going to get the truth. “Then I guess you better answer his questions.” Thomas’s pleading look turned sad, and twisted the invisible knife in my chest. Corbin slapped his forehead with the palm on his hand, knocking his head back against the wall. “Oy! Stop fucking around. You know exactly what’s happening. And you’re going to tell me what that is, or you will learn all about pain today.” Thomas’s face changed. His upper lip curled, and those eyes became piercing and cold as ice as they settled on Corbin. “Tell me, did you spend more time trying to find me or trying to save that whore Camila? I fucked her for years. Right under your nose, but you never noticed. I half convinced myself you didn’t really care about her at all, and Paolo was crazy when he told me she was the best way to keep you in line. But, as usual, Paolo was right. Getting rid of her made all the difference in the world with you. Really, had I known that was all it would take to break you, I would have done it decades sooner. I never could stand the two of you.” Apparently he had a death wish. Good to know. This time I hit him before Corbin could. From the look on his face, Corbin was contemplating breaking things, preferably pieces of Thomas’s body. Mine was a gentler touch. We were getting off topic. “Why are you here?” I repeated, like I was talking to a child. Thomas turned his cold gaze to me. “I should have let them kill you when I had a chance.” “Why didn’t you?” I asked, even though I knew I shouldn’t open this doorway. His eyes warmed considerably. “I keep trying to figure that out.” I shook my head and rolled my eyes. “Enough is enough, Thomas. I’m done. Whatever this was has been over for a long time.” Hurt turned the edges of his mouth down. “I thought I knew you. I thought I had you figured out. I was positive you wouldn’t turn me in. When Paolo told me his plan, I told him there was no way you’d give me over. Just this once, I wanted to be right. You’ve had chances in the past and never pulled the trigger. Deny it all you want, Femi—nothing is over between us.” “You’ve been in contact with Paolo,” Corbin said, his voice dangerously soft. Thomas didn’t look back at him. “Paolo said it didn’t matter if you did it of your own free will. Just as long as you knew where I was, they were prepared to go to much greater lengths to get you to tell them everything you knew about me—in front of Corbin, of course—but then you surprised us all and gave me up right away. Why?” “He’s lying,” Corbin growled. Thomas laughed. “Have you still not figured it out? Paolo didn’t have me. He never wanted me. I’ve been free the whole time. Did you really think you just kept missing me? You never had a chance. He wanted you submissive. He wanted you unconnected. He wanted you to be his good little soldier.” Corbin blinked, shaking his head slightly. “Why?” “You might have enforced Paolo’s orders on the other vampires, but I was there to keep you in line. That was my job. Camila’s whispers in your ear were unacceptable. Had you supported her, Paolo wouldn’t be where he is now. She was in the way. She swayed you. We could all see it. But I couldn’t kill her without killing you, and Paolo wouldn’t stand for that, so we removed her from the equation. I thought you would simply break the connection, but you wore it like a fucking badge of honor, getting more and more unbearable. So you felt a bit of pain. That’s life.” Corbin’s eyes were so black they looked like empty sockets as he stared at Thomas. “Then the elf. Dear God. I didn’t think that’d ever end. The last thing we needed was a war with them, but you couldn’t just walk away from her. So, short of killing her too, that left me. We had to renew your interest in finding me. Remind you what I took from you. Fan the flame, so to speak.” Corbin lunged at him faster than I could possibly stop. Chapter 17 Corbin’s fingers dug into Thomas’s throat. “There are ways to silence you forever. I don’t have to kill you to do it. Keep talking and I will show you.” I pried off his fingers one at a time, even though it didn’t matter if a vampire could breathe. It did, however, matter that he could still speak. “He isn’t telling you this for his health. He wants something from us. He’s ready to make a deal.” Thomas smiled. “And the lady gets a prize.” “No deals,” Corbin said. “He dies.” “Corbin…” I tried for sympathetic. He met my eyes. “He dies or I do. Both of us are not leaving this cabin,” he said, his voice tight. “You can’t possibly side with him. So long as he is alive, he is a threat to every creature in the Abyss. You have to see that.” I nodded. “I do, but we can use him. He isn’t the mastermind in any of this. He’s a tool and we’re the pawns. I want to take down the players.” “And that’s what makes you special,” Thomas said. “You can see past the surface to the end game.” “Shut up,” Corbin and I said at the same time. “No more talking,” I said, retying the piece of shirt over his mouth. Thomas never stopped playing angles. But why was he so calm and why hadn’t he even tried to escape? When he was the loup-garou, he cracked the beam. He could have gone wolf-like in the boat and there wouldn’t have been much we could have done about it. Quintus’s words came back to me. The loup-garou always killed that which it loved most. What did Thomas love? I pulled the shirt from his mouth. “What do you love, Thomas?” “Fishing for compliments? Very well. You, of course,” he said in a mocking tone. I blinked a couple times. It was a lie. I could hear it, feel it. Not the words, but the tone, the whole attitude. “But you do,” I said. “That’s why you’re here. It doesn’t have anything to do with Paolo. That’s why you haven’t tried to run away. That’s why you keep coming back. You know, part of me always thought Corbin was crazy for thinking I would have any idea where you were. You left us in Arizona to fight a pissed-off angel on our own. You might be a coward, and you manipulate everything to get what you want, but the curse knows the truth.” I tapped his chest with my fingernail. “That’s why it wants to be here. It’s here for me. You didn’t run away. You didn’t tell Paolo when I left the house. You were waiting for me.” Thomas gave me a pitying smile, but I knew in my gut I was right, and I could prove it. I stood up and grabbed Corbin by the leather jacket, jamming my lips and body against his. It only took him a second to respond, and immediately there was the telltale sign of him sipping from my life force, but I let it go. I was making a point. The beast in Thomas roared behind us. I broke free from the kiss and smiled over my shoulder at his glowing bright red eyes. “Would you like to rethink your answer?” It growled and snarled, trying to move, but failed as the chains dug into its skin. Corbin gave me a questioning look. “The whole purpose of the loup-garou curse is to lose what you love the most. I thought that maybe it was different with him because he didn’t love anyone but himself, but then why hasn’t he tried to escape? He had to know that I was bringing you back. Paolo must have told him, but he stayed. Then when you left with him, he didn’t make a sound. And in the boat… He wants to be here, so I had to ask myself why.” “Because he loves you,” Corbin said slowly. I nodded. “Because the beast intends to kill me the first chance it gets. The curse is making the desire to be near me harder to resist. He will try to kill me.” “Interesting,” Corbin said, looking back at Thomas with a slight smile. “And if he doesn’t?” I shook my head. “No clue.” Corbin paced away from him. “So what’s your plan?” “I’m totally winging it right now. The council made me sign a contract that means they pretty much own me if they can prove that I broke it, which I have in so many ways. I need to figure out exactly what their angle is in all of this. I still need to stop whoever is doing the other killings in New Orleans, and I guess now I have the vampires to deal with, because there’s no way we are giving him to Paolo in the next ten hours.” Corbin stared at the ground. “Right? I mean, you don’t really want to go back to how things were, do you? I know you said you did, but look at the evidence, Corbin. Paolo has been using you all these years. You aren’t the same person you were then, whether or not you want to be. Camila is gone. They took her. If you go back, what do you think will happen to Selene? They are going to use her the same way. She’s your weakness, and Paolo knows.” “Have I really sunk so low that I need a pep talk?” He laughed to himself. “I don’t know what I want to do yet, but you don’t need to concern yourself with me. What is your plan for him?” That was an excellent question, and one that I didn’t quite have an answer to. Partly, Corbin was right. Thomas was a danger to the people of the Abyss because he was a narcissistic psychopath. But he also had moments (very few) of good. Maybe I had trouble reconciling both sides of him because I knew other people, Corbin included, who were also a lot like that, but still managed to be productive members of society. Also, it wasn’t my job to make these decisions. Sekhmets were neutral. We tried to avoid swaying the tides too heavily in favor of any side, but again that was a rule I’d always struggled with. When something felt wrong, it was hard for me to ignore it and continue on—much to my family’s consternation. “When I was young and in school, they would make us do drills. Basically, war scenarios would be laid out for us and then we were assigned sides. We should have been able to support whatever side we fell on, because that was what we were expected to do as a race. I never could support the side I didn’t agree with. I was whipped and lectured and failed over and over again because I would not submit to their rules and allow them to think for me.” I clicked my teeth as an image of my grandfather came to mind. “The only person in my entire family who would sit with me on the days I was being punished was my grandfather. He’d tell me that it was okay not to understand why I felt so strongly about an issue. The important part was that I did feel that way and I stayed true to it. That was heroic, and those feelings were a gift from the goddess. She was guiding me and I was the only one smart enough to listen. Maybe he was trying to make a rebellious kid feel better, but it really stuck with me. It’s how I have lived my life.” I rolled my hurt shoulder to keep it from getting stiff. “I don’t know why I think we should let him go, but I do. I know that he deserves punishment for his crimes. I do know that logically, but something in my gut tells me that Thomas has a role to play and it isn’t over yet. Killing him now will change all of our futures.” Corbin shook his head. “That’s the biggest load of crap I have ever heard.” I crossed my arms. “Then what’s your plan, Count Dracula?” “We store Thomas somewhere miserable until his curse ends, then kill him. You could put him in Hollowfield. You have access, or at least know people who do. Meanwhile, we kill Paolo because that’s the only way either of us will ever get any peace after all of this, and you’ll have it worse than me. Paolo knows he cannot kill me without killing Selene.” The way he said her name, it was obvious it cost him something to do it. “So it will be harder to come after me. That’s why he’s exploiting Clara and Camila’s deaths. It’s his only hope without having to go into open war with the elves, and if what you say is true then he won’t have the support of the vampires behind him. It’s a risky move. Especially since I have Frost.” Frost was a fellow bounty hunter who was a human necromancer and witch. “I don’t think anyone has Frost,” I said. “I don’t think she likes other people.” Corbin gave me his typical smug smile. “She likes me.” “You’re delusional, but whatever. So basically your plan is to kill Thomas and Paolo. What about the council?” “Your problem, not mine.” “And the other killer, not your problem either?” He nodded. “Exactly.” I shook my head. “What if the council decides to make you its problem? Then what? You can’t defeat them.” “Then I guess I’ll die, but at least I will die with the satisfaction of having killed both Paolo and Thomas. And again, they will have to be willing to kill Selene. I know your friends, Femi—they will never stand by and let that happen.” “They could put you in Hollowfield.” “I could use a rest.” He was impossible. “Let’s say I agree to this. Then what?” “Thomas won’t be a problem—I could kill him now if I wanted to. Paolo will, though. He’s old. Older than me. Older than all of us. If he at all sees it coming, we won’t have a chance. We need to take him by surprise. He needs to think he has won.” “If he has the council backing him, all the plans in the world aren’t going to make a difference.” I shook my head. We needed to know more, and the best way to do that was to solve the case that they’d sent me to solve. The council wasn’t out to kill me, but I had no doubt I would be an acceptable casualty in getting whatever it was that they wanted. And if that was to stabilize the vampires and Corbin wouldn’t play along, then the shit was about to hit the fan. “We need to talk to Holden.” The council’s reach was obviously wide, but I knew so little about them that I couldn’t say how wide. I slapped my hands together in front of my chest and said a quick prayer directed to Olivia. Corbin stared at me as if I’d lost my mind. “Suddenly feeling religious?” he asked. “Shh,” I said, waiting for Holden to arrive. It took several super-awkward minutes, but at last he came. He nodded to Corbin and gave Thomas a look that probably should have made him crap his pants. While he didn’t release his bowels, the loup-garou disappeared completely, leaving only the traitorous vampire. Not only had he betrayed me in Arizona, he’d betrayed all of us. Holden was the sort to take that very personally. Oh, and Thomas had tried to turn Holden’s only living relative into a vampire. I launched into an explanation about everything I suspected was happening. Holden sighed. “Leilah has been the driving force in all of this, but I don’t see the council rallying behind Paolo.” He shifted his face slightly toward Corbin. “They will support whoever they think can keep the vampires in line. If another vampire steps up, no one would object.” Corbin’s lip curled. “Not interested. Never have been, or I would have moved against Paolo years ago.” Holden shrugged. “Then you can’t kill him.” Corbin crossed his arms. “The hell I can’t. I don’t remember you asking for permission before you freed the jinn and turned the entire world upside down to get what you wanted.” “What do you want?” I asked him. “Because if it’s Selene, she’s not in the cards.” He rolled his eyes. “I want to be left alone.” Holden nearly smiled. “Good luck with that.” I shook my head. That wasn’t what he wanted. It might be what he wanted right now, but all of this was being driven by something else, whether or not Corbin chose to see it. “What do we do, then? How does all of this end?” Holden rubbed a hand over his jaw. “I don’t know.” “I don’t know why we are discussing this,” Corbin said. “We kill this asshole then take out Paolo. Someone will fill the void. That’s life. Someone always steps up.” Thomas said something through the gag that I couldn’t understand. “We’ll let you know when we want you to talk.” Corbin kicked his leg. I went over and untied the gag. “You have an opinion?” “Never come between an idiot and his plan,” Thomas said, casting a hooded glare toward Corbin. “I can be killed with no fallout. I agreed to be the villain in this drama because a villain was needed. Paolo, though, is a symbol. Take him out and he becomes a cause, a cry of war. But by all means, you should have your revenge.” A thin smile stretched over Corbin’s face. “He’s right.” My eyebrows shot up. I didn’t quite believe what I was hearing. “No one will care if we kill him. Let’s just get that out of the way before he finds a way to betray us.” I shook my head, sighing noisily. “Okay, whatever. I have to get back to the city. I still have a killer to deal with. You guys figure this out.” I started for the door. Corbin grabbed my arm and Thomas growled. “You can’t go back there. He’ll be looking for both of us.” I pulled away from him. “This is my problem, not yours. Remember? You see, I actually care about people dying, whether or not it has anything to do with me. I’m going to find out what’s happening.” He shook his head. “If he captures you, Femi… I don’t do suicide missions.” I nodded. At least he admitted these things up front. “I wouldn’t expect you to.” “I do them,” Holden said with a wink. “Olivia is quite fond of them. You know how to reach us if you need us.” I laughed. That was too true. I closed the door behind me and carefully climbed in the boat. Chapter 18 The address Dempsey had given me was completely empty. In the distance, sirens and commotion of some sort filled the night; I couldn’t quite make it out, though. I pulled out my phone and called him, but he didn’t answer. I was still decked out head to toe in weapons. The sound of emergency vehicles drew me down the road out of curiosity mostly, but also because that was where I’d probably find Dempsey. Chaos filled the street: the blue and red flashing lights, crying and scared people, and dozens of people in uniform. I went around the people who were shouting out orders and toward the heart of the disturbance. It took several moments to understand what I was seeing. Bodies were lying on the sidewalks and the streets, but they weren’t moving. It was a massacre. The dark streets were wet with blood in many places. A groan to my right and a slight movement caught my attention, but no one else noticed as they rushed by to help other people. The man on the ground tried to move even as blood bubbled up from his throat. I looked around, but there was no one even near him. Unable to stand it anymore, I went to him, kneeling beside him and taking his hand. “Help me,” he gurgled, falling back to the sidewalk. “Stay still. I’ll find help.” I took off my jacket and pulled off my shirt, pressing it to his throat to try to curb the blood flow, even though it was already too late. He wasn’t going to survive this wound. I couldn’t see how deep the cut was, but there was a lot of blood—too much. A dark form moved into the shadows a couple feet away. My eyes locked on it. “Come out,” I said, letting go of the human’s hand to retrieve a knife. Olivia stepped out. My first thought was that she was here to help, and relief filled me, but then I saw her tear-filled eyes and I knew. My stomach sank. That wasn’t her job anymore. She was here to transition the souls from this world to the next. She was, after all, an Angel of Death. She gave me a watery, understanding smile and nodded. We didn’t talk much about her job. I couldn’t imagine how hard it must be on her to see this kind of stuff daily. My chin dropped down to my chest as I squeezed the dying human’s hand. A single tear rolled down my cheek at the pain of so many around me. I wanted to help, but there was nothing I could do. There was nothing any of us could do. Olivia came closer, squatting down across from me. “It won’t be long now.” I nodded, not able to look at her. Knowing what she did wasn’t the same as seeing her in action. She took the man’s other hand and he stopped moaning and trying to move. Slowly peace relaxed his face and he closed his eyes for the last time as air rattled out between his lips. Olivia stood up, still holding on to something I couldn’t see. She smiled and nodded, quietly talking as she walked to the shadows. A second later, she came back. “Do you know what happened?” I asked. Her sad eyes absorbed the carnage around her. “I’m not sure. None of the spirits seem to know. From what they have told me, everyone started screaming and running but no one knew where to go. Then people started falling.” I shoved my feelings to the side and pulled my shirt from the man, tossing it over to the side. “They didn’t see anything?” She shook her head. Had it been a human, someone would have seen something. I leaned in closer to look at the cut. The wound was wasn’t deep enough across the man’s neck to kill him quickly, which was probably why he held on as long as he did. Whoever did it wanted people to suffer. It had definitely been made with a knife of some sort, and definitely not whatever was doing the other killings. I slipped on my leather jacket and zipped it. “I’m not supposed to make guesses,” Olivia said. “I just take the souls.” I hated all of these rules we had to live with now. She looked directly at me, anger burning in her stare. “Vampires.” She vanished and reappeared at the next victim. Corbin said Paolo would be mad, but this was too much. Even the council wouldn’t overlook this kind of display, and the humans sure as hell weren’t going to let it go. Regardless of what he wanted, he had signed his death warrant with each body his people had laid open. “You found me,” Dempsey called out, coming toward me. He shook his head as he got closer, looking exhausted and defeated. “Is this the”—he glanced around to make sure no one was close—“loup-garou?” “No.” Anger numbed the tragedy surrounding me. “Do I want to know?” he asked. I shook my head. “Vampires, probably. How many people died?” “So far ten; could be more. Various wounds and cuts on more people, though.” He rubbed a hand over his face. “How am I supposed to tell my supervisor, the mayor, the governor, even, that vampires are real and they did this? I’ll lose my job. They will lock me up.” “It will never happen again,” I said softly, starting back the way I came. I’d had enough of this. If I had to hunt them all down myself, this was going to fucking end. No people deserved to be slaughtered, and I wasn’t going to stand by and do nothing about it because the council felt like the vampires had to have a leader. “Where are you going?” he called behind me. “Femi, you can’t cut me out of this.” I didn’t slow down. Enough was enough. All of this was going to end tonight. I left my necklace off and grabbed the hand of glory from the trunk of my car. The hand was a rather contentious point. Technically, I’d withheld it from Baba Yaga. She wanted a selkie who had stolen it caught and brought to her, which I did, but I kept the hand. Baba Yaga was still pissed off about it and would probably come after me someday, but that day wasn’t today—why was I giving the universe ideas about how to further screw me? Today, I was going to use the hand, but unlike with her, it wasn’t to take children. I was going to use it to kill Paolo, and if the council knew about any of this and did nothing, I was coming for them too. I went through the lobby, not caring who knew I was there, and straight up to my room holding a dead man’s hand. I opened my room door, knife still in hand. The desk chair turned around as I walked in and I released the knife. Amos looked up, but it was too late to stop it. The knife stuck soundly into his arm. “Ow. What the—Femi!” He pulled it out with a thrppt that made me grimace. “Sorry. Sorry.” I held up my hands. “I thought you might be a vampire. You have no idea what I just came from.” I went over to him, but he avoided me, pushing the chair back. “You need stitches. Take off your shirt.” “There are easier ways to get my shirt off me,” he grumbled as he put the knife on the desk and practiced moving his fingers. “It’s fine. I’ll live.” “Seriously, at least let me bandage it.” I took another step toward him as the blood stain on his blue shirt grew. The trail went all the way down to his forearm, running over the tattoo which might have said something at the top, but it was smudged. “Can you get me a towel,” he asked. I went into the bathroom and grabbed the hand towel, tossing it to him. “The council wants a report,” he said, pressing the clean white towel to his arm. If he wasn’t going to let me help him, then I had other things to do. I started loading all of my crap into the duffle bag, ignoring his question. “Your report. They want it now,” Amos said. “I can’t keep putting them off.” I moved into the bathroom, clearing off the counter. It was amazing how much I could spread out in just a day. I jammed everything back into my duffel bag and zipped it. “This isn’t a game, Femi. If you don’t give them a report they will—” “What? What will they do? Get off their lazy asses and come down here to see what is actually happening? Will they do that?” He didn’t say anything though the edge of his mouth curled slightly. “I didn’t think so. So maybe they will just send another hunter. I don’t care anymore. How about this: you can tell them that as soon as I solve the case, I will give them a full report in person. And not a moment sooner. Until then, stay out of my way. I will not tolerate a shadow or an assistant or whatever you are supposed to be—not anymore. You’re right: this isn’t a game. These are people’s lives that are being destroyed. Sure, a few Abyss creatures bit the dust, but dozens of humans are dead tonight. How many are killed every year? How is that okay? How is it fair that they can’t even know enough to defend themselves? It isn’t. This, the council, it’s all a bunch of bullshit.” Amos looked away. “You know I’m right. That’s why I’m going to figure out everything that has led to this point, and if they don’t want that, then they shouldn’t have sent me. I will not stand by and do nothing. They want a report? Tell them the fucking vampires just massacred people in the street. Tell them they did this because their stupid fucking plan to bring Corbin back to Paolo backfired. I swear if I find out that they knew Paolo would do this, they will wish they had left me alone, because I will bring down everyone.” By the end I was shouting, tears burning in my eyes. He took a deep breath and kept his voice calm. “That’s not how this works.” He glanced back at the door. “You signed a contract. I can’t just let you leave.” “You don’t want to try to stop me,” I said. He stepped in front of me, apology written across his face. “I don’t have a choice.” I nodded. I understood. This was his job, and he was probably already catching plenty of flak for letting me ditch him as much as I did. Amos seemed nice enough. It wasn’t his fault he worked for the council, but I wasn’t playing their game anymore. The stakes were higher than that now, and I didn’t have time to waste with him. “I cannot step aside.” His older, deeply lined face was calming and wise-seeming. Perhaps that was why he’d chosen this appearance above others. It inspired confidence. It was hard to be mad at him. However, his face was also resolved. But then he slightly nodded, as if telling me to do what I had to do. I jammed the heel of my hand into his nose. He crumpled to the ground, clutching the lower half of his face. I left carrying both my bag and Falcon’s. At least now the council couldn’t blame him. I took the same path as before out of the hotel, pretending not to notice the three vampires who followed me out. I led them a safe distance in the opposite direction of my car, waiting for the attack, but it never came. When I couldn’t wait any longer, I dropped both duffel bags at once and whirled around on them. “What?” They looked young (less than eighteen), which meant nothing when it came to vampires. However, I didn’t feel a tremendous amount of power from them. The taller, broader one of the three spoke. “We want to see Corbin.” “Do I look like Corbin?” I snapped. “He went with you in the garage,” the shortest one said. “We don’t agree with what’s happening, and…” The kid looked at his friends. “We want him to know we didn’t do this. We didn’t attack the humans.” I didn’t have time for this. “We want to help,” the one to the left said. “Fine,” I said. “Wait. Inside my hotel room. Here’s the key.” I tossed it to them. “If a man named Amos is there, tell him I sent you. If you know other vampires who feel the same way, invite them over. I will tell Corbin where you are. If, and I mean if, he thinks he can use you, he will come to you. Got it?” They nodded and turned around, walking quickly back to the hotel. Picking up both duffels, I went more slowly after them back to my car. I shifted the bags to one hand and pulled out my phone and called Corbin. “Yeah,” he answered. I told him what was happening here. “Anyway, so the baby vamps are in my hotel. I don’t know if we can trust them or not. Tell me you and Holden came up with a plan.” “Holden went to talk to Sy. There really isn’t room for a discussion. Paolo has to go,” Corbin said. And for once, I agreed with him. “I’ll be back soon. We can figure out how to orchestrate the attack,” I said. “I want to do this now. Tonight. Do you want the baby vamps?” “No,” he said. “They’re next to useless.” “Has Thomas said anything?” I asked. “He could have some insight into all of this. If we can flip him to our side—” “I don’t care what side he’s on,” he said. “Thomas dies tonight too. Reconcile yourself to that fact.” “I’ll be there as soon as I can.” Personal feelings aside, if we really wanted to take on Paolo and potentially the council, we needed any help we could get. It wasn’t like there were a million people I could call for help. Corbin had a contentious relationship with Selene and Cheney, so that left them out. Olivia was bound by forced neutrality. Holden and Sy would be on our side, but were the four of us enough? I probably should have updated Sy before Holden went to see him. Part of me felt guilty about having not called him, because I knew he worried, but he hadn’t called me either. And I didn’t want him involved in all of this. It was one thing to take myself down, and possibly Corbin with me, but not Sy. Holden was a survivor and he owed me, so I wasn’t that concerned about him. Sy, on the other hand, hardly ever got me involved in drama—maybe he didn’t have it, or maybe he was protecting me from that. Regardless, he had a future with the council, and if anyone could make it better, it’d be him. I couldn’t take that away from him. I finally rounded the corner where I’d parked. The streetlight above my car was out now, leaving a dark patch in the road. I waited for Olivia to show herself—maybe she had found something else out—but it wasn’t her presence I felt. I didn’t feel anything at all. I ran my tongue over my lips and all my senses kicked into high gear. No one else was on the street, not even the scurry of a small animal. There was a smell I couldn’t quite identify; the city was filled with them. Moving with purpose, I didn’t linger. I tossed the bags in the back and climbed in. My hand paused before I could start the engine. Something was on the hood of my car. It was partly under my windshield wiper, but seemed to be thin and oozing. What the hell? I scanned the surrounding area. I could see better than a human in the dark, but not perfectly clear. It looked like any other city street: sidewalks, the occasional tree, and empty cars parked on the edges. There were so many places to hide. I pulled my knife and opened my door, stepping out slowly. I lifted the windshield wiper and pulled out a piece of what had to be skin. Dropping it on the hood of my car, I grabbed the flashlight. Definitely skin, only it was inside out. Disgusting. Slowly, careful not to damage it, I flipped it. Tattoos again, but this time it was one I recognized even stretched out. A knife with a single ruby in the hilt with a slick black snake coiled around the blade with crimson dripping from its fangs. Chapter 19 Amos. I dropped the skin back onto my hood. The killer had to be close—the flesh was still warm. I turned in a circle. The windows were dark in all the buildings. Where in the hell were all the people? “Hey! You can’t just cut me out of the investigation,” Dempsey yelled, stalking toward my car. My eyes narrowed as they focused on his hands, looking for traces of blood. He was always around the bodies, he could see paranormals, and he knew an awful lot about loup-garous. “Where have you been?” he said, coming to a stop in front of me, not looking at the hood or the chunk of skin. I inhaled deeply. The blood wasn’t visible to my eyes, but I could smell it on him. The problem was that he had also been at the crime scene. That would have left similar traces on him. I tried to calculate if he had time to get from the crime scene to my hotel room and then kill Amos before bringing a piece of him back here. “I think the better question is where have you been?” He scowled at me. “You know where I was. I was working the scene.” “After that?” “I came here. Just now.” I folded my arms behind my back, reaching for my knives. “You left the scene of a mass murder to what? Chase someone down who was probably already gone? Try again.” He shoved his hand through his hair. “I was sent home. Before I saw you. I was placed on leave this afternoon. I heard about the emergency and responded anyway. My commanding officer relieved me of duty because someone apparently heard me talking about the loup-garou.” His mouth pursed. “Are you satisfied?” I stared at him, looking for the lie, but couldn’t see it. “Where did you go when I left?” “An EMT stopped me on my way out and I helped him, then I came to find you. What’s with the questions? We’re partners. You can’t just cut me out. Those bodies are in my city. They are my responsibility, not yours. I’ll find them justice with or without you. Where are the vampires?” His stance was rigid and his jaw clenched. I shook my head. He’d be dinner before he could say “you’re under arrest.” The last thing I needed to worry about was keeping this human alive in a vampire fight, but he had a point. It was his fight as much if not more than it was mine. I may have been outraged by what happened, but he was in the middle of it. “I found this.” I took a step back so he could see the chunk of skin. “It was under my windshield wiper. You’re the first person I have seen in this section of the street since I found it.” He moved closer to the car and used my flashlight to see it more clearly. “Jesus, is that an arm?” “Part of it,” I said. “It’s not completely cold yet.” He looked up. “The killer is close.” Understanding dawned on him. “You think it’s me.” “It could be anyone,” I said. “I was at the scene,” he said again without the edge of anger, his eyes direct. I nodded and he turned back to the arm. “Have you found any more of the body? Maybe the tattoo is distinctive. It could help with identification.” He already had his phone out. “What are you doing?” I asked, taking it from him. One human was enough trouble. I didn’t need multiple. “Calling it in. We need forensics,” he said. I shook my head. “It’s from my world. It’s a man named Amos. He was my contact here in the city. I just left him at my hotel, and by the time I got here, this was waiting. Whatever is doing this is following me.” He was in my hotel room, where I’d sent the vampires. Crap. “Secure the scene.” I ran all the way back up to my hotel room. I didn’t need a key. The door was ajar and the room was dark. I pulled a knife and a gun, nudging the door open with my foot. The lights flickered to life. Three dead vampires were sprawled out in my room, cut into pieces, but lacking the precision of the others. This scene didn’t feel staged. It was hurried. The soft click of the door behind me as I left was so final. I straightened my shoulders, chin tilting up slightly. I would find whoever was doing this. Dempsey was still standing next to my car, looking everywhere but at the skin. “We have to assume the loup-garou wants something. If it is following you, but hasn’t attacked, isn’t it safe to assume it thinks you will lead it to whatever it wants?” “The loup-garou isn’t our problem.” Thomas did some of the killings, but they were all his. “Something else is out there.” “What else would do this?” he asked. That was an excellent question. I had lived in the Abyss my whole life, but most of it was spent in the very small, exclusive confines of the Sekhmet society. We didn’t allow outsiders in, which meant so much of what I’d encountered or seen since I became a bounty hunter was new to me. I wasn’t the best person to identify most things. Honestly, that was Sy. His job with the council was his life. If he helped me and they took the Office away from him, he’d be lost. No matter what happened to me on this mission, we needed Sy to stay exactly where he was. A light flipped on behind me. I whirled around and there was Quintus. “I can answer that,” he said. “Who the… Where did you come from?” Dempsey asked, eyes wide. Quintus’s eyes went back and forth between us. Leave it up to Quintus to eavesdrop. Such a guardian thing to do. “Quintus, this is Detective Dempsey. He’s been looking into the murders. Dempsey, this is Quintus. He’s…one of us. Don’t stare directly into the light. It will blind you.” Dempsey quickly averted his eyes and I grinned at Quintus. The concern didn’t leave his face. “Who is this man?” “He’s a human detective. I didn’t open his eyes. He could already see me. He’s had the loup-garou curse.” “I remember,” Quintus said, still frowning, eyebrows creased together as he stared at Dempsey. “I was there.” Dempsey just stared back at him. When it seemed like neither of them were never going to talk, I cleared my throat. “You said you know what the killer is?” Quintus snapped back to attention. “Right. It’s a skinwalker. That’s why it’s leaving behind the man-made items. The skinwalker can’t transplant those pieces.” I hadn’t hunted a skinwalker before. They could look like anyone. “That fits,” I said. “What’s a skinwalker?” Dempsey asked at the same time. “Most aren’t killers. Most settle into one body and live there their whole life, unless something happens that forces it out.” Quintus glanced back at Dempsey. “It’s a being without a form. It wears the skin of other creatures and attempts to blend into that creature’s life or make a new one for itself. Like a body snatcher.” “Ten points for the movie reference,” I said. Quintus smiled. Olivia had done a world of good bringing him out of the dark ages and into the present. “They have a metal allergy. Even in small doses like a tattoo, it can significantly weaken them. That’s why they leave those pieces behind when they take a body.” “Where is the rest of the body going?” I asked. “It’s probably consuming it. The skinwalker drains the blood and then consumes the flesh to gain the persona and memories of the person it takes.” “You’re shitting me,” Dempsey said under his breath. “So I am looking for a cannibal that could basically look like anyone.” “Yeah. Easy.” There had to be a way to track it apart from the bodies. Quintus shook his head. “I’m sorry I didn’t bring better news.” “No, it’s good.” I hugged him. “There’s a crisis a couple blocks away. I’m sure people there need your help more than we do. We’ll handle it from here.” He nodded, shooting Dempsey one more perplexed look before he disappeared into a light flare. Dempsey didn’t appear to have much fight left in him. “You can sit this one out,” I said. “I promise I will wrap this up.” He shook his head. “How do we find this thing?” “We figure out how all the victims are connected. A skinwalker wouldn’t have taken these bodies without a reason, so it is obviously trying to get somewhere. If we can figure out where that is, then we’ll know what body it is targeting. That’s how we’ll find the skinwalker.” “You said they were random. We couldn’t see how any of the human victims were linked. Now you think we can connect them?” I nodded. “We didn’t know what we were looking for. They won’t all be connected. Some of them were the loup-garou. Each victim would have gotten him to the next victim. There has to be a chain, and most of them probably didn’t even put up a fight because almost all weapons are made out of metal, which says to me they knew their attacker. If I had a metal allergy like that, I would avoid fights.” I tossed the chunk of skin into a plastic bag from the backseat of my car and tied off the top. “Get in,” I said. He closed the door behind him. “Where are we going?” “Your cabin. The loup-garou and a vampire are waiting for us.” “You found the loup-garou?” I nodded. “It’s a long story. He’s contained.” “In my house. Glad you made yourself at home.” He took a deep breath. “Stop by my apartment. I’ll get my case files.” It only took him a few minutes to run inside and then back to the car with an armload of files. We headed back out to the cabin in the swamp. I tried to wrap my mind around finding a killer that could change his appearance and look like anyone. Exploiting the metal allergy would be the easiest way to make it reveal itself. If Quintus was right, it wouldn’t be able to stay in the form once corrupted by metal. What that meant, I wasn’t sure, but we’d find out. All of this had started with the ghoul. Killing Gus must have gotten the skinwalker closer to whatever its target was. Dempsey mentioned that Gus was the official greeter. Which meant whoever the next person was would have gone to him for information, or maybe they were friends, and then Gus would have killed that person, eaten the body, and taken their skin, thus becoming them. But if he (or she) was leaving a trail of body parts behind, then the shelf life of the new body couldn’t be that high. If it were me, I wouldn’t leave behind the pieces of the body I was wearing. I’d keep them until I had disposed of that suit and moved on to a new one. But Amos’s skin was still warm. So either the skinwalker was walking around right now as Amos, which meant he was pretty much connected to the whole city and the council, which would be a disaster, or he hadn’t switched to Amos at all and he just wanted me to know he was here. But why warn me instead of attacking? “Why leave the skin for me?” I mumbled to myself. “Maybe he thinks you can help him,” Dempsey said. I glanced over at him. “With what?” He shrugged. “Whatever he wants. I don’t know.” He looked out the window. “So the vampire is at my cabin. And vampires killed those people tonight?” “Different vampires, but yes. It’s a long story.” “I have time.” I rehashed the vampire problem. The only reason I could think of why the skinwalker had avoided coming after me like it did the other bounty hunters was the vampire vendetta against me. However, once the vampires were off the table, there would be no reason it wouldn’t come for me, and then we’d have it. However, that meant it would target people I knew, which meant all of my friends were in danger. Unless it wasn’t after me at all. It could have wanted Amos. Wearing Amos would get it to almost any place it wanted to go in the Abyss. It could probably even take over one of the council positions if that was what it wanted. Not only that, but it would then possess all of the information that member knew. Talk about a security leak. Then again, was a psychotic skinwalker really that much worse than a demanding dragon? Maybe not. I shook my head. If it wanted someone on the council, then why would it make sure I found Amos’s tattoo? It was like it was begging to be caught. We climbed in the boat, carrying my duffel bag and Falcon’s. I steered us out to the house. Dempsey looked tired, and he chewed on his bottom lip the whole ride to the cabin until he finally said, “Why did you bring them here?” “It wasn’t safe anywhere else. The vampires are looking for us and the loup-garou could turn at any moment. I had to have somewhere to stash him.” That didn’t seem to ease his worry. “He’s restrained, and trust me, Corbin would have no problem killing him.” Dempsey turned his head, staring out into the swamp. “I’m so out of my depth with all of this,” he said under his breath. For a fairly green human, he was handling all of this better than most. Maybe it was the fact that he had been a loup-garou and he understood the horrors of life in a different way than most humans could. “Just don’t show any fear.” He nodded, clutching the sides of the boat as I pulled up next to the dock—I was really getting the hang of this whole boat thing. Dempsey tied it off and we went inside. Chapter 20 Corbin’s eyes trailed to Dempsey as we walked through the door, with a glimmer of hunger shining in them. “You brought me a snack. How thoughtful.” “No,” I said sharply, dropping the bags at the entrance. “He’s here to help.” “Unless your plan is to distract the vampires with dinner, love, I don’t think he will be much use. Might as well let me feed.” “Hilarious,” I said. “He was working the human side of the murder cases. Most of them we can attribute to him.” I hooked a thumb at Thomas. “We’ve had a breakthrough with the others, though. We’re close to finding the skinwalker.” “While that’s fascinating, I’m going to have to say no.” Corbin pressed his foot harder against Thomas’s neck. “Our plan for Paolo is the priority. That’s the only objective that we have tonight. You can deal with your distractions on your time.” “That might be your only objective, but it isn’t mine,” I said. “I say we solve the murder, kill Paolo, and then take down the council. In that order.” “Absolutely not.” Corbin folded his arms across his chest. This was why I didn’t work with a partner. “That’s quite the list you have there.” Sy’s voice came from behind me, more serious and colder than I had ever heard it. I glanced back at him. “You almost missed the party.” He didn’t look amused. “It helps when you’re invited to the party. Or are even informed of the location or what’s happening.” I’d done what I thought was best for him. I wasn’t going to apologize for that, and he wouldn’t have done anything differently. This was why we would never work as a couple. It was hard enough to work together as friends. “Well, you’re here now. That’s all that really matters. Holden has kept you in the loop. I have it covered. We didn’t need you.” He nodded, looking down at Thomas then to Corbin before finally back to me. “Where are you with the case?” I tossed him the bag with Amos’s tattoo. “This is Amos. He was my New Orleans version of you. Quintus thinks that it isn’t a loup-garou killing people, but a skinwalker, which is why it’s—” “Leaving the tattoos. Smart,” he said. “I could have probably told you that faster, but whatever. Apparently you went to everyone but me.” Great. So obviously we were going to be mature about this. Eye roll. “Well, I had orders not to talk to you. Remember? I didn’t want to get you in trouble.” His chin tilted up. “You managed to break your directive and talk to Holden, Corbin, Thomas, and Quintus,” he said, not letting me off the hook. He squeezed the bridge of his nose. “I made a judgment call.” What did he want from me? Did he want me to admit that I was less worried about the people he named than I was about him? Because I wasn’t going to do that. It may be absolutely true, but I didn’t have to say it. He should have known. I returned his glare with my own. “Yes, I think your point is very clear.” I couldn’t read a single emotion on his face, which was so unlike Sy, I had a momentary doubt it was him at all. The skinwalker took Amos—had it taken him too? My heart stuttered in my chest as my hands fumbled for a knife. Please not Sy, I sent up to whoever was listening. I went to him and jammed the knife into his shoulder, holding my breath. “Ouch,” he said, calmly pulling the knife out. “I’m not your skinwalker.” “I want to see.” I lifted the sleeve of his t-shirt and watched the wound close before I released my breath. “It’s you.” He simply stared at me. “Let’s get on with this. We have a limited amount of time,” Corbin said. “And I am tired of waiting.” Sy could bitch at me later when everything was handled and we were back in Chicago, drinking at the Office. Everything would be normal again. “Fine. I will work with Corbin on a plan to take out Paolo, and you”—I nodded to Sy—“work with Dempsey on the skinwalker. We need to know how all the victims connect and figure out what the skinwalker wants.” “Paolo has a place in the Abyss. He has a function. If he is removed, who will take that spot? It’s not as easy as just killing him. There will be consequences. Have you thought about those?” Sy’s demeanor was patient, yet his words were still clipped. “He had vampires openly slaughter humans tonight in the street because Corbin and I got away with Thomas when he tried to kill us. He kidnapped me.” Sy’s jaw tightened. “Corbin could once again take his position of his own free will and none of this would be necessary.” Corbin’s lip curled back. Before he could say anything, I hurried on. “Paolo has already taken two people who were important to him away. What’s to keep him from doing it again? He knows the only way to hurt Corbin is to use Selene.” Sy’s cheek twitched. “Like it or not, to protect your family, we need to help him. If the elves had killed Selene and your mother then tried to force you to come back to them, would you have done it?” He didn’t like Corbin, or really vampires in general, but Sy doted on his cousin. Maybe because he’d thought she was dead for so long, or maybe their relationship was nothing like mine with my sister. Either way, I knew it would strike the one nerve that would change his mind. He didn’t say anything for a long while, just stared into nothing, then finally he shook his head ever so slightly. “I wouldn’t go back.” His eyebrows pulled together. “But it isn’t the same thing. Corbin is a vampire. He knows his race. In fact, how many other vampires has he done this same thing to? I understand why you feel sorry for him, but this is their way. We can’t change that.” “Why are we still talking about this? It doesn’t matter what the bartender thinks.” Corbin tried to usher me into the tiny kitchen, but I didn’t move. I wanted Sy to understand. This wasn’t just a whim. It was partly for him too. It would endanger Selene’s life and possibly start a war. “It matters to me.” Some of the stiffness eased from his shoulders as he looked at Corbin. “Do what you have to do,” he said. “But be prepared for the consequences.” Corbin’s laughter was a bitter thing. Sy’s eyes narrowed. “If Selene is hurt because you caused a war for the sake of vengeance, I will personally find a way to break the bond and kill you. It isn’t threat. It’s a promise.” Corbin’s black eyes darkened, but he nodded. “Selene will not be harmed.” Sy looked at me. “I can’t talk you out of getting involved in this, can I?” I shook my head. “I was involved in this from the moment I set foot in this city, maybe even before. The council saw to that.” I tossed him my duffel. “The files are in here. Corbin, bring Thomas with you.” I started for the kitchen. Corbin lifted him easily from the floor and dropped him unceremoniously into one of the kitchen chairs. I took off the gag. “Thanks,” Thomas said, stretching his mouth. “Would you mind taking off the chains? They’re starting to pinch.” While Thomas was still the loup-garou, there was always the chance he would come after me. “The chains stay. This is your chance to prove your worth, Thomas. It might be the last one you have.” He shifted in the chair the best he could. “How about I save you again? Would that make you believe me when I say I never intended for any of this to happen?” Corbin snorted. “Corbin expects to die. He expects the war, but he doesn’t care because he has nothing to lose,” Thomas said, running his tongue over his lips. “It’s a suicide mission and he knows it. He’s taking you with him.” Corbin leaned back in his chair. “Dying is damn near impossible for me.” He glanced at me. “If you don’t want to come, I won’t think any less of you. I truly have no interest in harming you at this time, but you can also make your own decisions. I wouldn’t dream of telling you how to spend your lives.” He thought I would die. Though it wouldn’t be the first time, it wasn’t going to happen tonight. This was what I was born to do. Paolo had thrown down the gauntlet and I wasn’t going to walk away from that. “If Paolo wants a fight, then he’s going to have one. Where is he staying? We should hit him just before morning. He will be more relaxed and believe that we won’t attack tonight.” Corbin glanced at his watch. “He has a house here. My guess is he’d be there. It’s a fortress. Hardly any windows, and there will be extra people around. Only two entrances. He won’t be running scared from us. He already thinks that he won the moment you handed over Thomas. Everything has gone according to his plan so far. That might be used to our advantage.” “That’s wrong,” Thomas said. “He’s scared. Paolo never had guards when you were with him, but as soon as you pulled away he got them. You’ve always bought the legend. Everyone did.” Thomas shook his head. “Paolo painted this picture of himself that was larger than life. He killed every vampire who ever crossed him. He is supposedly the oldest and strongest among us, but where is the proof? You killed everyone who crossed him. He never lifted a finger. Before you, I imagine there was someone else. Paolo probably got sick of him, or he started asking too many questions and then he killed him. Friendly fire, so to speak. I’ve had a lot of time on my hands since my exile. I’ve looked back through the records. Paolo’s story is thin.” “Why did you question his story?” I asked. That small, almost shy smile curved on his lips. “I’m a skeptic. He was too concerned with finding a way to control Corbin. Why if he was this all-powerful vampire would he need me to manipulate Corbin?” How could so many people just believe something because that was what they were told to do? It didn’t make sense to me. I had never done anything but question the rules I was forced to follow my whole life. Then, of course, there was Thomas. He was never who he appeared to be, so recognizing that quality in other people couldn’t have been such a stretch. “Isn’t there some unspoken rule about liars having to stick together?” There was a flash of sadness, but how was I supposed to know if that was put-on for sympathy or because I had actually hurt him? It didn’t matter. Not anymore. “Perhaps, with the right incentive, I could reform.” Corbin brought the two front legs of the chair down with a snap. “Fine. Let’s say none of his stories are true. He’s still old. I can feel that. It can’t be manufactured. His age alone makes him a threat.” That was an excellent point. “Then why would he be scared?” I asked. “Paolo is old, but he has never been strong,” Thomas said. “It’s the best-kept secret in the Abyss. Everyone believes the legend because he surrounds himself with the strength of the unambitious. You’ve heard him say it—Corbin doesn’t want to lead, but he has a knack for killing. Paolo has used that to build his own mythology. It wasn’t strength that got him to where he is. It was pure, old-fashioned cunning. He is ruthless and he is cold. He isn’t loyal and he will turn on you as soon as he finds a more worthy replacement.” “And who would that be? You?” Thomas shook his head. “I was never in the running. I know too much. I question too much. I can’t be controlled.” Thomas smiled at Corbin. “It’s my personal opinion that he looks for stupidity.” “This is such bullshit. I have seen him…” Corbin trailed off, mouth pressing into a thin line. “He does mostly maneuver.” “And he’s good at it,” Thomas said. “That was my role. I was the maneuver to keep you in line, and I was paid handsomely for it.” He refocused on me. “Enough that if you kill him, I could leave here and this world for good. I’d never bother you again.” “If that’s true, why did you get involved with the demons? Why did you try to change Maggie?” If there were wheels in his head, smoke would be coming out of his ears. “When you take this long to answer, I know you’re lying,” I said. “It’s not an easy answer. I was officially wanted by the vampires. I had bounty hunters and other vampires chasing me, but I still had obligations to Paolo, and he wanted me to stay close. I got involved with some demons because they made me an offer that was too good to pass up. All I had to do was change this girl who was cute and willing. I didn’t know who she was. I didn’t ask. Is it so awful that I didn’t want to be alone?” I took a deep breath and released it slowly. Of course it was all about him. It was always about him. Thomas had never made a sacrifice in his life. I looked at Corbin. “He can’t help us,” he said. “I told you not to listen to him.” “I know the house.” Thomas leaned forward. “I’ve stayed there. If you untie me, I can draw it. I know where Paolo sleeps and I know where the guards are stationed. I can get us in.” “You aren’t coming with us,” I said. “If you make it inside, you are going to need all the help you can get,” he said. “Why? It won’t save your life. No matter what happens or what you do, I’m still going to kill you,” Corbin said. Thomas’s eyes didn’t leave mine. “I have a debt. If I’m going to die, then I’m running out of time to pay it off. Let me help you.” Chapter 21 It was the first legitimately honest thing he had said all night…or a hell of a good lie. However, the past couldn’t be ignored. Every time I had ever trusted him, he stabbed me in the back. Every. Single. Time. The first time was on him. The second time was on me. A third time and… I closed my eyes. “Take the chains off.” This was such a bad idea. “You’ve got to be joking.” I didn’t respond to Corbin. “What about the curse?” “I can control it,” Thomas said. “I have managed this long.” Finally I opened my eyes. “Have you been in the house, Corbin?” Corbin’s jaw flexed. “That’s what I thought.” Everything in me said this was wrong and that Thomas knew exactly what he was doing. Everything but one part: my stupid, stupid heart. It said he deserved a chance to redeem himself before he died. I wouldn’t stop Corbin from killing him, but I could give Thomas a chance to do one good thing in his life. To just once make the right decision. “We need him. I don’t like it any more than you do, but we need his expertise. We don’t have to trust him.” Corbin looked disgusted. “I think you like it a little more than I do.” But he undid the chains, dropping them to the floor and standing with his back to the wall, ready for an attack. Thomas cracked his neck and rolled his shoulders. “Much better. Do you have a pen and paper?” “No,” I said. “You’ll have to make do.” “Fine.” He leaned over the table and drew a box with his finger. “This is the house. There’s an entrance here and here.” He marked the invisible box with Xs at the front and back of the structure. “Most of the windows stay shuttered all the time, and several of them are bricked over on the inside.” “How do we get in?” Corbin asked. “One of the doors will be the easiest way. Security cameras are set up covering every inch of the outdoors, and humans are employed to keep up appearances.” “I am not really hearing a lot of solutions from you,” I said. He held up his finger. “Patience. The time you selected to attack is probably the best. There will be a guard shift change, from vampire to human. The humans will be easier to subdue.” “We’re not hurting any more humans.” “You don’t have to kill them. Just knock them out. They’ll be fine. Whatever you do, it will have to be quiet and fast. From the time you enter, you will only have seconds to make it inside. If we try to cause a distraction or interrupt the security camera feed, they will know they are under attack. How are you at picking locks?” “The lock won’t be a problem.” The hand of glory would take care of that. It would get us through any locked door, no matter what sort of lock was on it. Thomas gave me a dubious look. “It has to be fast.” “She said she has it covered,” Corbin said. Of all people, Thomas was the last one who needed to know I possessed the hand. Corbin only knew because he was with me the one and only time I’d used it before now. Sy had wanted me to destroy the hand, and that was probably what I should have done, but I couldn’t deny it was a useful tool, and I hated to get rid of it. “Where do we go inside?” “That depends on which door we go through,” Thomas said. “I think we should go for the front. First, those cameras will have more human traffic. So they will be less likely to notice if someone walks by. Second, if they are waiting for an attack, they will expect the back.” Corbin shook his head. “It doesn’t matter how we go in. They are going to see us. We have to go in fast and hard enough that they don’t have time to respond. No matter what he thinks, Paolo doesn’t hire fools. Well, except for maybe one.” He gave Thomas a pointed look. “Okay, how about this? We blast by the humans at vampire speed—I’ll hitch a ride with Corbin—kill the initial inside guards, and then charge Paolo’s bedroom. He won’t have any choice but to face us. If we take out the downstairs guards, then how many would he have still with him?” “Hard to say,” Corbin said. “What about the elf? Can’t Sy just transport us inside?” “Sy’s not going to get involved. This is our fight. He isn’t an option any more than Selene is,” I said. Corbin quirked an eyebrow, but nodded. “Then we’ll do it the hard way. Chances are before we clear the guards, Paolo will hear us and descend with everyone he has left.” Thomas nodded. “That’s probably right.” “Okay, then we’ll be ready.” I stood up. “I’m going to see what Sy and Dempsey have come up with.” The pictures and stats of all the victims were laid out in chronological order, starting with Gus. Oddly though, the next three victims were human. Why would a human go to visit a ghoul? I picked up the file on the human and scanned the details, looking for anything that would point me in the right direction. Maybe she had been visiting the cemetery. “Humans can’t see ghouls, right?” “Not unless her eyes were opened or she’s a witch,” Sy said. A pair of my pants stuck out of the duffel bag. The corner of the note Thomas had sent me was sticking out of the pocket. I hadn’t checked the pockets in Falcon’s clothes. She had to have found something, or why did the skinwalker kill her or the others? I grabbed her bag and sank down to my knees as I rifled through all of her pockets, until my fingers hit a slip of paper. It was a receipt, but on the back was written, “Coven: Patricia, Helen, Virginia, Alice, and Marie.” I looked back down at the names of the humans. “They’re witches. Falcon knew,” I said. “I didn’t think about checking her pockets, and the hotels cleared most of the other rooms.” Sy smiled. “That explains how the skinwalker chose those three. You didn’t find a connection between them?” he asked Dempsey. Dempsey shook his head. “They didn’t live near each other, and as far as we could tell, they had never met.” Maybe each one had noticed something was off about the other one when the body was snatched. Whatever it was, Hatchet must have caught on too, because he was the next victim. “How long did it take for you to notice Hatchet was gone?” Sy shook his head. “Not long. I had a weird phone call from him. Hatchet never called in, but he did and said it was a werewolf and I needed to come help. I told him to take care of it. Then he didn’t call back. That’s when I sent Falcon.” Falcon had gone looking for Hatchet. So it was possible she’d followed his trail directly to the elf, who was the next victim in line. I nodded. “What do we know about the elf?” “Not much. Loner. Friends with Hatchet, I think.” And so we went down the line until McNeil, and then the trail dried up. We couldn’t connect McNeil to any of the following human deaths. I took out the loup-garou murders, which left only a couple that fell somewhere between the two types of crimes scenes. They had the same staged feeling, but looked more loup-garou-like in the violence. “What did McNeil do while she was here?” Sy crossed to look at the picture of her crime scene. “I’m not sure. I told her to get in touch with Amos, and I warned him she was coming. He said she never contacted him.” I frowned. That wasn’t the impression I had when I spoke with him. I thought back over our time together. Every time I held a knife to him, he’d stiffen and never fight back. Then earlier tonight I’d stabbed him—accidentally, but I still stabbed him. “Can I see that tattoo again?” I asked. Sy tossed me the bag with the skin, and I laid it out on the floor, spreading it flat. I’d only seen the tattoo once, but I remembered it fairly well. I wet my finger and ran it over the smudge at the top then checked the tip. What were the chances that Amos had a fake tattoo? “This isn’t Amos. Amos wasn’t Amos,” I said. “I think I was working with the skinwalker the whole time. The tattoo isn’t real. The skinwalker took McNeil and then took Amos. I thought it was weird that Amos never used his ability to change his appearance. If I were a doppelganger, I’d do it all the time. But, I figured it just wasn’t his thing. But he couldn’t because he was the skinwalker.” “Why leave you the skin?” Dempsey chimed in. “Announcing who he was…it doesn’t make sense. What would it get from doing that?” “That depends on what it wants,” Sy said. “If it wants the council, then maybe it does make sense.” “What about these people?” Dempsey asked, tapping each file that came after McNeil. “Why did he take them?” “He didn’t,” I said. “They were decoys. The skinwalker wanted the council involved. Even as Hatchet he called Sy and told him there was a wolf. Obviously, he had never seen a wolf attack, because none of these scenes actually looked wolflike at all. He used McNeil to get to Amos, who was the last host body the skinwalker took, before today. I think that’s why he didn’t come after me. Amos had better connections. Had I not accidentally stabbed him, he could have stayed in there until it got what it wanted. Now it could be anyone.” Including anyone in this room—except for Sy, who had already been tested. I looked at Dempsey, who held up his hands. “You want to test me, don’t you?” he said as he took out a knife and ran it down the top of his forearm. Blood welled, but he didn’t appear to be in a lot of pain. “Satisfied?” He held it out to me so I could see the cut. I nodded and he pulled his sleeve back down. Who else could it be? Corbin and Thomas had been here the whole time. Neither of them could have left the skin for me. The three vampires in my room were dead. It wanted me to see something. Did it have to do with the tattoo? “Do you recognize this?” I asked Sy. He shook his head. “It doesn’t have any significance to me. Do you have any other idea who the skinwalker could have taken?” I shook my head as we hit another wall. “After Paolo’s, I will start looking for them.” “What do you think he wants?” Dempsey asked. It wanted the council down here. The only reason I could think for that was that it wanted someone on the council, but I couldn’t say why. Was it striving for position or revenge? “You know, if the skinwalker wanted to get to the council and it took Amos, it’s possible a council member came to see him after you left again. They weren’t happy with his inability to control you. They expected more,” Sy said, obviously on the same track as me. I snorted. “I expected more from them.” Sy shifted his feet. “I told them that they had to let you work, that you didn’t like to be micromanaged, but Leilah wasn’t a fan of that idea. She likes to be in control.” “Dragons.” I shook my head. “So basically you’re saying the skinwalker might already be a council member,” I said. Well, that would suck. In any of their forms, it would make it infinitely harder to take it down. Sy nodded. “It’s a possibility. At the very least, it is worth checking out.” “The only thing that really bothers me is why did he wait this long? I mean, you can pretty much see them whenever you want. Why not call them and immediately take the one you want? Obviously not the whole council, but tricking one member into seeing you wouldn’t be hard. One prayer and Holden would be here within minutes.” “Amos wasn’t like me. He didn’t know them. And him asking for a meeting would definitely be suspicious. That’s why he petitioned that we take care of this ‘werewolf’ issue. He couldn’t get a meeting. Not before Leilah had the idea to send you. The council is selective in who it chooses to hear. Even among the people it employs. The council prefers to call the meetings than to appear for them.” So Leilah sent me down here and then skinwalker Amos pushed me toward the vampires. He told me the council was corrupt and that they were basically willing to sacrifice me for the sake of vampire peace. “And that’s the only reason I was sent. Leilah’s whim.” Sy shook his head. “No. You were sent because you agreed to come. Other than that, I don’t know why she chose you, not for certain. I suspect you aren’t far off in your suspicion that she was helping Paolo.” He stood up. “Clear the slate with Paolo and catch the skinwalker. Holden and I will stand with you before the council. We will get to the bottom of what happened here.” I nodded, standing next to him. Sy leaned down and pressed his lips against my temple. “Be careful, Femi. I expect you to come back. If you have any trouble, get word to Olivia. She will send us.” A moment later, he vanished from the room. “You want a lift back to the city?” I asked Dempsey, who stared at the spot where Sy had been with a grim expression. The poor guy’s head would probably explode. I snapped my fingers in front of his eyes. He blinked and looked at me. “What was that?” “We’re about to head back to the city. You coming or staying?” “I’ll come,” he said. He was pale and the bags under his eyes were getting darker. It was easy to forget how fragile humans were. “What’s next? What can I do?” “Nothing at all. You get to go home, and I will call you in the morning to let you know how it went.” Chapter 22 The house was two stories and white. Even in the dark it was beautiful and entirely un-vampire-like. We stood halfway down the block looking at the grand structure. All the houses were dark at this hour, but this one somehow seemed darker. Maybe it was just my eyes playing tricks on me, but the moon didn’t seem to touch the house the same way it did the others. The sky was at its darkest, but the sounds were already changing. Morning would be here soon and the vampires would be changed forever. Once I did this, all neutrality was gone. I was to publically take sides and change an entire race because of my own personal beliefs. All Corbin was here for was his own freedom, but at least he had a personal stake. Thomas, well, I didn’t really know what he wanted. My stomach twisted, but it wasn’t the fight that was coming that had me nervous—I was ready for that. I was born ready to go to battle. This time, it was more about not knowing how Thomas would betray us. I wanted so much to believe him, but I couldn’t. Had we not needed him, I would have left him in the cabin. Thomas talked a good game. He was always filled with the words you wanted to hear, but he never made good on any of those pretty promises. I studied him out of the corner of my eye. He looked calm. Too calm, considering what we were about to do. I had weapons covering practically every inch of my body, and he had two, and yet I was nervous and he was calm. “Stop scowling at me,” he said without looking over. “You’ve already betrayed us, haven’t you?” “If I had, I wouldn’t tell you, would I?” He nudged me, and I thought about punching him. “No, I haven’t betrayed you. And for the record, I have no current plans to do so.” “Then why are you here? Why are you doing this?” “You’re the one who said to trust him,” Corbin said. “It’s now or never. There’s only so much time.” “Just a second,” Thomas said, and he turned to me. “Can I talk to you?” I waved the dead man’s hand for him to continue. “In private.” Corbin rolled his eyes, but moved away from us. Not so far that he couldn’t hear, but I guess it was far enough to appease Thomas, because he started talking. “I don’t know what’s going to happen once we are inside. One or all of us might not make it.” He smiled a little, looking down at his feet. “This is hard.” He shook his head a little. “I’m not good with feelings and emotion. I haven’t had a lot experience feeling like… It’s been hard to accept. It’s always just been me. The loup-garou has made me look at my life. It’s undeniable. It’s always been you.” “What has?” Corbin snickered, but I ignored him. What in the hell was happening? Thomas’s head fell back and he stared up at the sky. “I lov—” “Nope.” I slapped my hand over his mouth. “I don’t want to hear it. We’re going in to fight. Get your head in the game.” He looked down, perplexed. I went over to Corbin. “I’m ready. Let’s do this.” Corbin shrugged at Thomas. “Women.” A moment later he grabbed me by the waist and the world blurred around us. I held tight to the hand as we blasted through the door. Inside he dropped me to my feet. The vampires were already charging toward us. I kicked the door closed behind us, cutting off the humans outside. Squatting, back against the door, I let Corbin and Thomas handle the first wave as I tucked the hand into the bag attached to my belt then found my knives. I scanned the room. Vampires were everywhere. They nearly filled the room, and more waited on the stairs and looked down from above. This was way too many for just us, no matter how young they were. I rolled to Corbin’s right and jumped in the fight, knives flying as I went for the wounds they wouldn’t heal from. My arms and legs flew independent of my thoughts, fighting on all fronts as they tried to surround us. The solid silver heels of my boots might have been the best investment I’d ever made. I impaled another vampire on my shoe as I dropped two more in front of me. This was what I had been trained to do my whole life. With each new vampire before me, I moved faster and with more strength than ever before. The goddess was with me, guiding my weapons as I went. My people didn’t understand why I wanted to leave my homeland, why I wanted to do things like this, but that was because they’d never tried. When I fought, when bodies fell at my feet, I felt her with me. I felt justice, my birthright as I had never experienced before. Bodies fell around us, but more and more kept coming. I fought harder. Stab-twist-stab. Kick-stab-twist. Hands flew at me and I absorbed the impact. Blood ran from my arms; whether it was mine or theirs, I didn’t know. I couldn’t feel anything. “Enough,” Paolo yelled from above. Everyone stopped around us. I pulled my knife from the vampire’s temple and he dropped to the floor in the silent room. Paolo’s cold eyes met mine with more hatred than I had ever seen, and I winked at him. That old bastard never did like me. “You fight your brethren,” he said, clearly talking to Corbin. “Alongside our enemies.” His eyes flickered back to me. “Her kind has never been a friend to the vampire, and yet you trust her before your own.” Corbin looked up at him, eyes so black they could swallow worlds. “I have only one enemy in this room. No one else needed to die tonight. Come down and face me.” “So it is true. You’ve come for me.” Paolo held on to the railing. “I had such high hopes for you.” “You knew it would come to this. Camila. Clara. What did you think I would do? You took everything from me once… I won’t let you do it again.” Paolo tsked. “The elf again. You were supposed to turn to me. Not to her. You were meant to love me more than any of the others.” Paolo’s gaze transferred to Thomas. “And you. You may come upstairs. You have played your part. Masterfully, as always.” The vampires parted, but Thomas didn’t move. There were those wheels turning again. My hand twitched with the desire to end him before he could betray me a third time, but I didn’t. He nodded and did as he was told without a second glance at us. I fucking knew it. Why did I never learn with him? When he reached the top, Paolo kissed his temple. “You did well, my son. Your rewards will reflect your success.” I blinked. His what? I glanced at Corbin, who showed nothing. “They weren’t hard to lead here.” I could feel Thomas’s stare burning into me. “I want to keep the Sekhmet. I choose her as my reward.” Paolo’s mouth pinched. “No. She has been a thorn in my side long enough. She’ll die and Corbin will watch. Then we find the elf. That is the only way.” “Come and get me.” I attacked again. It didn’t matter if Thomas was with us or against us, or that we were outnumbered twenty to one. They wouldn’t take me without a fight. I’d take as many of them with me as I could. I fought the hordes of vampires with everything I had as they backed me up against the window. I couldn’t even see a path out. I had completely lost sight of Corbin. The glass broke behind me, an arm curled around my neck, and I was dragged through the window. Chapter 23 Thomas threw me to the ground and stood over me with glowing red eyes as the change tore through his body. It was faster this time, but looked just as painful. I moved for my knife and he roared, dropping down over the top of me, gnashing his teeth as new teeth tore out of his gums. Blood dripped on my face and chest from its mouth. A low rumble tore from it as its head swiveled. The beast’s fetid breath burned in my nostrils. It leaned in closer and I held my breath, but didn’t close my eyes. If Thomas was going to kill me, he’d look me in the eye. Its long, wet tongue started at my neck and ran up to my temple. Disgusting, rotten dog breath. I met its red eyes. The half-wolf, half-human, distorted face caked in blood nearly brushed mine. Thomas was in there. No matter how he looked, I could see him there staring down at me. Even praying to Olivia at this point probably wouldn’t save me. My only real hope was that it killed me outright and didn’t try to curse me. I had nine lives. I could come back from whatever it did—so long as I didn’t end up in pieces—but the curse I would have to live with, and I had no idea what it would take from me. Thomas growled again, head swiveling and teeth gnashing, but not at me. Vampires had surrounded us. Was he protecting me? The vampires charged all at once. The loup-garou sprang to life. A cross somewhere between a wolf and a human, but really neither, it was a strange creature that was made for one thing: killing. Its claws were several inches long and sliced through the vampires with ease. The beast moved faster than the vampires, shredding them as they came near us. Was that just because he was a vampire underneath? His teeth were elongated, and ripped and tore at anything they touched. Blood and pieces of vampires rained down on me. I scrambled to my feet, but the beast knocked me back down. Then Thomas yelped as Paolo hit him fast and hard from the side, knocking him across the yard and into a huge, old tree with a sickening crack. He fell limp to the ground. I stood up, facing off against the ancient vampire. “You have caused me quite enough trouble, don’t you think?” he said, looking down at me. My bloody fingers clung to the knife even as the vampires surrounded me. “Give up, Sekhmet. You have been outmaneuvered in every way. I honestly expected more from you.” I threw the knife straight at his head as fast and hard as I could as at least four vampires took a hold of me, taking long, intoxicating pulls from my life force, turning my bones into jelly. My eyelids grew heavy and my legs ceased to support me as I hung in their arms, helpless against them. Paolo slowly came toward me, cupping my face in his hands as he tilted my head up toward him. “There are worse ways to die than by our hands,” he said, pressing his cold, waxy lips to mine and drinking deeply from my soul, pulling me away from the others. “Enough.” Sy’s voice came from behind me. “So you decided to join the fight,” Paolo said, turning me around in his arms, though my head lolled forward. “I told Leilah you wouldn’t be able to stay away. Your pet is mine now, and I assure you, she is delicious.” His lips brushed against my neck and my eyes threatened to close. “The dragon gave her to me.” Sy looked about as menacing as I had ever seen him. “She belongs to no one. You don’t want to challenge me, Paolo.” Paolo shook his head. “Your council wants what I want. Peace among the vampires. That is all. They sent her to me so I could achieve that goal, and look what she has done. She brought me a fugitive and my wayward flock. Her function is through. Her continued existence, however, is a threat. If you kill me…I’ll take it personally. She was mine the moment they sent her to New Orleans. Leilah knew it, and now so do you. There is nothing you can do to save her.” Darkness crept to the edge of my vision. It was too hard to hold on. My fingers numbly grasped at my side, until I hit what I hoped was a knife. I did the only thing I could and swung my arm blindly up, not knowing if it would hit me or him—but it didn’t really matter. The blade struck something, sinking in to the hilt. I didn’t feel it, but I couldn’t feel anything. “I am no one’s,” I said, though the words were garbled even to my own ears. I kept my hand that held the knife squeezed tightly into a fist until it was pulled from my fingers and I began to fall. But I never hit the ground. Hands were on me, pulling at me, but they weren’t feeding from me. Warmth spread through me, combating the numbness. I did my best to push them away, but they were persistent as they rubbed roughly across my skin. “Femi. Open your eyes. Fight back,” Sy said before slapping me soundly. That did it. I opened my eyes. I took a swing at him, but my arm moved slowly and he easily avoided it. He smiled a little. “That’s good. Stay mad. There’s no time to sleep. You have to keep moving.” The fighting wasn’t over. I could still hear it all around us. “I’m okay,” I said, becoming aware that I was leaning against the house. “Help them.” Sy started to shake his head, but vampires were already coming toward us. “Help Corbin,” I said. “Holden already went after him,” he said, pulling a sword out of thin air. Elves had all the fun tricks. He twirled it in front of him and grinned at the vampires surrounding us before beckoning them forward. The vampires may have been faster than him, but he moved with easy, graceful, controlled swings that cut through them like they weren’t even there. I stamped my feet, trying to get the feeling back in my legs, and moved my arms. The sun was beginning to crest and the vampires who were left standing were starting to jump ship. As they thinned out, I had a clear view of Thomas, still sprawled unmoving under the tree. Sy was busy with the last few vampires, so I went toward Thomas, though it felt like the world was sitting sideways. I stumbled and staggered my way over before dropping down beside him. His face was normal again—bloody, but normal. I pressed a hand to his neck. There was still a pulse. Not that he’d live long after the sun came up, and I was too weak to drag him inside. I slapped his forehead. “Thomas. Wake up.” I hit him again. His blue eyes fluttered open and met mine. He smiled slightly, his teeth still pink from the blood. He reached up and touched my cheek lightly, his eyes closing as his fingertips dragged down over my bottom lip. “You’re still here.” “Paolo underestimated me. He thought he had won.” Thomas pushed himself up, air hissing between his teeth. “Is he dead?” I pointed to the body still lying in the grass. “Holden went to get Corbin.” Corbin. Some of the fog dissipated from my mind. “You have to go.” Thomas met my eyes. “He won’t stop coming after me.” I nodded. It was true, and Thomas absolutely deserved it, but… “Go. I don’t want to know where you are.” “Femi.” He gave me a soft, pleading look. “You didn’t let me say it before—” “Go,” I said, pushing him. “Go now and don’t come back. Not for anything.” He touched my face again. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything.” And then he was gone. He wouldn’t make it far before daylight, but then again, neither would Corbin. I looked up and met Sy’s direct gaze. His face was blank as he looked at me. Finally he nodded ever so slightly, acceptance flickering through his eyes. I pushed myself back to my feet and went toward him. “Your timing, it’s pretty good,” I said. He winked at me, offering me his arm to lean on. “You have no idea.” I bypassed the arm and went straight for his chest, resting my head against his shoulder. “Thank you,” I said. “I know the council…” Sy ran his hand over my hair. “Don’t worry about the council.” I took a couple slow, deep breaths then straightened back up. “I had to let him go.” He nodded again. “I know.” I squeezed his hand. “Thank you for coming.” I waited for his typical “I’ll always be there” speech, but he didn’t say anything. “You wouldn’t have anything to eat, would you?” He laughed. “And you’re feeling better. Maybe you can find something inside.” He closed the shutters on the broken window before we went through the front door. The house was quiet now. Holden and Corbin both stood in the living room with their arms crossed over their chests, probably competing to see who could use the fewest words possible. “Is the house clear?” Sy asked. Holden glanced at me and nodded. “Probably should call for clean-up.” “I’m on it,” Sy said, then immediately turned around and went back outside. I collapsed on the couch and kicked Corbin’s leg. “Glad you’re not dead.” “Likewise. Sorry about Thomas,” he said, but he didn’t sound sorry at all. “Well, mostly I’m sorry that I wasn’t the one who got to kill him.” I stretched my arms in front of me, still fighting off the numbness. “You didn’t do any of the heavy lifting. I killed Paolo. Paolo killed Thomas. What did you do?” He looked around the room littered with vampires. “Nothing at all.” I nodded. “Typical.” Holden sat down beside me. “Nothing like waiting until the last second to call.” I looked at him out of the corner of my eye. “I didn’t call.” The corner of his mouth turned down as he turned to me. “Olivia said…” I shook my head, shrugging. “It wasn’t me.” “While all of this is fascinating, I’m knackered. I’ll see you when I see you.” Corbin left with a half-salute. “Consider what I said,” Holden said to Corbin. “Caring—it’s just not really my thing.” Corbin gave him a one-shoulder shrug. “It doesn’t have to be,” Holden said. Corbin nodded. “I’ll sleep on it.” With that, he disappeared into the darkness of the hallway. After several moments of silence, I whispered, “You told him Thomas died?” Holden winked at me. “He looked dead to me.” But Thomas had changed Maggie and left us in Arizona. Holden had as much of a reason as anyone to hate him. “Why? After everything he’s done.” “I didn’t do it for him.” Holden patted my knee. “I’m going to go talk to Liv. Tell Sy I’ll see you guys at the meeting. He’ll catch you up on what we found out.” He stood up. “Hey, Holden.” His cool green eyes met mine for a moment. “You’re pretty great.” He smiled and disappeared into a cloud of black smoke. I pushed myself off the couch and found my way into the kitchen. I opened the refrigerator. “Gah! Damn vampires. Why don’t you eat?” I slammed the door closed. Worthless. I opened each cabinet hoping for anything at all, but no luck. The one thing I definitely wasn’t doing was thinking about Thomas. The fact that he’d not only resisted the curse and didn’t kill me, but also fought the vampires off me and almost died, didn’t change anything. Not really. And I wouldn’t want him to change, not for me. That wasn’t the life I wanted. Relationships tied you down. The world was huge and there was still so much left to see. And there was absolutely nothing that would keep me from seeing everything. “What are you smiling about?” Sy asked from the doorway. I grinned wider. “I love my life.” He shook his head. “I know you do.” Chapter 24 Hours later, after all the vampire bodies had been dealt with and humans were persuaded nothing had happened, Sy dropped me off back at my apartment in Chicago. I collapsed onto my couch. We didn’t meet with the council until the following night, which gave me time to recover. I wouldn’t find the skinwalker before the meeting, but I didn’t care. That wasn’t why they’d sent me anyway. It was good to be home. I let the darkness take me as I drifted off to sleep for the first time in two days. My eyes sprang open as something thin and needlelike slipped into my neck, jerking me awake, but it was already too late. “Shhh. This is the way it has to be,” Dempsey said into my ear. “Just relax.” He petted the side of my head. “Everything will be okay.” “No,” I said, but the word came out thick and slow even to my ears. My hands felt huge, and were harder and harder to move as I tried to knock him away from me. “It’s okay. I am not here to hurt you. I want you to understand.” He took a couple steps back and sat in the chair in front of the dark window. He smiled at me. “I knew you would be the one the moment I met you,” he said, folding his hands in his lap. “I spent years trying to get to Paolo.” I moved my lips but no words came out. “I didn’t want to kill the human, but you stabbed me.” His hand lightly touched his arm. I shook my head. I had tested him. He laughed, holding up his arm. “What, this? Porcelain knife. The other bounty hunters refused to see what was happening. They refused to look at the vampires. All they wanted was to find me. So single-minded. I tried to lead them as I did you, but it didn’t work, and the council ignored Amos. You were perfect. You cared.” I stared at him because that was the only thing I could do. My entire body was paralyzed. “Do you know what vampires do with skinwalkers? They keep us. Feed from us. We have no body, and we do not age, so they can drink from us for centuries. I do not know how long he kept me, but he did. I thought for certain Corbin would recognize me the moment I set foot in the cabin, but he was too distracted by Thomas. He had to be punished, and I couldn’t do it. I needed someone stronger, someone like the council. So I was working my way up when they sent me you. The very person who could bring about what I wanted.” He moved closer again, touching my face. “Thank you. Now there is one more thing we need to do. I need to be on the council. It’s the only way to destroy the vampires once and for all. The entire world will be better for it. I believe Sy is my best choice.” I shook my head. “I was afraid you’d say that,” he said, revealing a knife. “I didn’t want to hurt you.” He jerked from the floor as an arm went around his neck and a knife sank into his chest. “I knew I recognized your scent,” Corbin said, letting the body fall to the floor. “When I couldn’t find him in New Orleans, I figured he’d come here.” He glanced down at me still paralyzed on the couch. He smiled. “I bet you’re glad to see me. I always pay my debts. You’ll be safe tonight. Consider us even.” If I could have laughed, I would have. Vampires. **** “Keep your temper,” Sy coached me as we walked toward what looked like a barn door. “We didn’t call this meeting. Leilah did before either of us could. I know you’re angry, but if you want answers, then follow my lead. Holden thinks they were impressed with you, which is a good thing. But I promise we will find out why she sent you.” He had lost his damn mind, because there was no way in hell I was keeping my temper. Not tonight. I squeezed the handle of the bag so hard my bruised knuckles turned white. I didn’t care if they threw me a fucking parade. What happened wasn’t okay. “They don’t see things like you or I do. They are too far removed. All they care about are the results. You’re lucky they aren’t angry about Paolo.” “You see this?” I pointed at the cuts up and down my arms that still hadn’t healed totally. “They are about to become very acquainted with how the real world works.” I charged through the opening. “They’re lucky you took my knives away or we’d have another fight on our hands.” Once again everyone was already there, sitting around a table that looked eerily similar to the one at the restaurant. Seven of them sat imperiously (except for maybe Holden) in their high-back chairs, cloaked in shadows and candlelight. The room smelled damp, with faint traces of animals. “This is highly irregular,” the man with solid black eyes said, his voice deep, dark, and hollow. He stood, floating toward me, studying me for weakness. It wasn’t the first time someone had sized me up, and they almost always came to the wrong conclusion. “She does not respect us.” His bright red forked tongue ran over his lips. I turned to slowly face him. “You’re right. I don’t. Why would I respect anyone who lies and sends me to slaughter with my arms tied behind my back? Do you know how many people have died because of you?” “Do you know how many will die because of you?” Leilah asked. “Marcelo, take your seat.” “And yet here you stand.” Marcelo reached a bony finger toward the cuts on my arms, but didn’t quite touch me. “She smells wild, desperate. I like that.” “Sit. Now,” Leilah thundered. He slowly floated back to his chair, and though his back was to me, I could still feel his eyes running over me, which made my skin crawl. Leilah waved for me to continue. For once in my life I chose silence. I stared back at her. Why was I here? Looking around the table at the solemn faces, it was clear Sy and Holden were wrong. This meeting wasn’t to pat me on the back. “Defend your actions, Sekhmet. This is the only chance you will be given before the vote.” “What?” Sy said, his head popping up. “What vote?” “Life or death,” the huge man rumbled like rocks falling from a cliff. “She broke the contract.” “If everyone is through interrupting,” Leilah said like she was talking to children, “the Sekhmet still has the floor.” Sy shook his head. “She solved the case. The contract was bullshit and you know it.” “And yet she signed it. If you interrupt the process again, you will be removed from the room.” Holden gave a subtle nod, which was all fine and dandy, but I had no clue what he wanted me to do. Did the nod mean I should talk, or did it mean something else? I didn’t know and I didn’t care. Instead, I unleashed the one thing I was certain about. I took the final two steps to the table and slammed my fist down on it. “I won’t defend a single step I took in the last two days. You wanted me to solve a murder, and that’s what I did.” I set the bag on the table. “The ‘wolf’ is dead. Case closed. I’m leaving.” “Wait.” Leilah’s commanding voice stilled my feet. “You solved the case, but you broke the contract. You will stand trial. It is our way.” “I vote death,” Marcelo said. “You always vote death,” the blonde woman said. “I want to hear what happened.” I unzipped the bag. “This isn’t a game. We aren’t pieces you can move and adjust. We’re people. Lives have been destroyed. Do you have any idea how long that ‘wolf’ tried to get to you? How many people he killed along the way because you didn’t care? My real question is why? Do any of you even know why he wanted your attention so badly that he was willing to kill anyone just to get the chance to get to you?” None of them spoke. I shook my head, reaching into the bag. I took out the files for each person who was killed. One by one I dropped them on the table. “Each life that was taken, they all had families. They all had friends. They all had people who will mourn and miss them. Each and every one of those people will become your new enemy. You cannot act without regard to lives you destroy. If you want to rule the Abyss, then rule it openly.” “You made an emotional decision and killed the only leader the vampires have ever accepted. It took years of grooming and planning to get him in that position,” Leilah said calmly. “How many lives will that destroy? How many civil wars have you started? I remember the time before the vampires had leadership. I am not the only one at this table who does.” “He slaughtered humans in the street in full view of the public. He broke our laws.” “You have no authority to make that judgment,” the man with slicked-back hair and sunglasses said. “That was not the job you were sent to do.” “Are you certain?” Holden asked, and they all looked at him. “All I am saying is that I’m still unclear why she was sent. It wasn’t for a fake wolf attack.” “She said it was a wolf,” the big one said. I lifted Dempsey’s head out of the bag by the hair. “This is your ‘wolf.’ At least, it is the last body the skinwalker took. Before him, it was Amos, my council contact. And Holden’s right, I wasn’t sent for this case. I was sent for Paolo to use and kill.” I looked straight at Leilah. She lifted an eyebrow over her sunglasses. “The vampire you chose to rule was struggling. He lost Corbin, and the rest were slowly losing the faith in his abilities. All the good will and deals meant nothing without any real strength behind him. That’s why you needed me. The result is your fault, not mine.” “Did you or did you not kill Paolo?” Marcelo asked. “I saved myself,” I said. “Put me in that position a thousand times and I would do the same thing.” “No matter your reasons, you left the vampires in unrest.” “Not necessarily,” Holden said. “I have spoken to Corbin. He could easily step into Paolo’s seat. The vampires already know and trust him, and as far as most of them know, he killed Paolo. At the very least, it happened in his fight with him. It could be built into quite the legend. The jinn could help spread it.” Several heads nodded around the table. “Do you have anything to add?” Leilah asked me. I shook my head. “Then I move for a vote. Holden.” “Live,” he said. “Anessa?” “Live,” the woman with white-blonde hair said. “Grafton?” “Die,” the man with slicked-back hair said. “Marcelo?” “Die.” “Ralston?” “Die,” the giant said. “Nash?” The only person in the whole room who hadn’t spoken the entire time looked up. With pale gray skin and red eyes, I didn’t know how he was supposed to blend in anywhere, but he did. Had there not been a chair for him, I might not have noticed him at all. “Live,” he said. Leilah drummed her fingers along the table. She pulled off her sunglasses, revealing purple and red reptilian eyes. “The problem with you is you are emotional. You make reactionary decisions that may or may not be for the best. However, I didn’t believe you would survive, and you did. Without even losing a life, I am told.” Her inside eyelid blinked vertically before her top eyelid blinked horizontally. “I am curious to see what you could accomplish given time… Live.” “Great,” I said dryly, and started for the door again. “However, I do have another case for you.” “Not interested,” I said. “Did I make it sound like you have a choice? You don’t.” Leilah’s voice came from too close behind me. I turned to face her. “I’m done working with you.” “Is that so?” Her mouth curled down at the edges. “Yes. You have nothing to hold over my head.” “Oh, Femi. There are people you love. People you could lose. Races sometimes go extinct.” Ice went through my veins. Even a dragon wouldn’t be crazy enough to take on the Sekhmet race, would she? “I hear your mother is very ill,” she said, just in case I didn’t get it. “What do you want?” I asked. She smiled. “I knew we’d see eye to eye eventually. You like humans so much, I have a rather special task for you this time. Shezmu has been causing some trouble in the catacombs. I thought who better than an impetuous, human-loving Sekhmet to convince him to return to the underworld.” Right—convincing a demon who was fond of red wine and murder would be simple. “And when I succeed?” She smiled. “I guess we’ll have to wait and see.” I shook my head. “No. I want assurance. I want it in writing that if I convince Shezmu to return home, you will leave me and my family and friends alone.” “Convince him to return and I will grant you one favor. I will even put it in writing.” She held out her hand to me. “Deal.” I shook her hand. She went back to the others, and Sy came over. “You didn’t take the case, did you?” “She threatened my family,” I said, looking up at him. “I didn’t have a choice.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “What does she want this time?” “Can we not do this? I’m tired and hungry. Let’s just go.” Epilogue He transported us back to the Office. The lights cast the same warm, familiar glow they always did. It was comforting that no matter what happened, the Office was always the same. It was home. Within minutes he set heaping plates of fried food on the bar: fried clams, fish, and chicken. I collapsed onto the stool and tucked in, feeling more like myself with every bite. The tiredness vanished and another case was solved. When I looked up, Sy was leaning against the back of the bar, watching me eat. “Was some of this yours?” I asked with a full mouth. He shook his head, a grin toying at his full lips that I knew from experience were soft and persuasive. Despite the smile, something was obviously on his mind, but he didn’t say anything. I’d learned long ago not to ask questions I didn’t want the answer to, so I took another bite. I wasn’t blind or completely oblivious. Sy thought he loved me, and maybe he did. Life-or-death situations tended to bring those feelings to the surface. They did for Thomas and they probably did for Sy too. It was just the way most people worked. I had been trained my whole life to be a warrior, and nothing got in the way of that more than emotion. Leilah was partly right when she accused me of responding emotionally. I let the case get to me more than I should have, but no matter what happened, I wasn’t ready to profess undying love for anyone. Whatever stuff girlfriends were supposed to be made out of, it wasn’t in me. “Are you going to see Thomas again?” he asked. I shook my head. “I doubt it.” He quirked an eyebrow. “How do you feel about that?” “I never wanted to see him this time,” I said. Thomas and I were poisonous to one another. We were too much alike. We were both willing to have hot, casual, meaningless sex, but it would always become complicated and I’d never be able to trust him. “When do you leave for Paris?” I shook my head. “I don’t know. The sooner the better, probably, but Leilah didn’t give me a deadline. I’ll give it a few days. Maybe hang out at Olivia and Holden’s for a while.” Sy chewed on the side of his lip. “I feel like this is my fault.” “What?” I asked before plopping my next couple clams into my mouth. “The council’s interest in you. You shouldn’t have to do another case for them.” I shook my head. “It has nothing to do with you.” And it didn’t. I’d met Leilah while I was trying to find a way to save Baker. Holden made the introduction, not Sy. Besides, I was a big girl. All of this had been my choice. I didn’t need to blame someone else for my decisions. “We’re good. You and me, right? Things will go back to normal.” Sy nodded, looking down at the floor. “Absolutely. You have plans tonight?” I crossed my legs. Sy wasn’t wearing his typical uniform—t-shirt and torn jeans. Instead, he had on a button-down and what looked to be new jeans. Tomorrow I’d have to go back to New Orleans and get my car, but tonight I was free and grateful to still have all of my lives. Maybe a night out with Sy was just what I needed. No strings attached would never work with him, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be an excellent distraction for at least tonight. “Nope. What’d you have in mind?” “I’m ready when you are,” a female voice said behind me. Katrina, a human witch who was friends with Sy’s cousin, moved up and sat down beside me on a stool. “Hey, Femi,” she said brightly. “I hate to ask you this, and if you are at all tired and just want to go home and crash, please say no, but would you mind watching the bar for a couple hours?” Sy asked. I blinked a couple times, looking back and forth between them. Her hair fell down her back in soft curls and she wore a tight flowered skirt. My mouth went dry. They were going on a date. “Sure. I’m fine.” “Thanks, buddy.” He winked at me and tapped the bar twice. “If you have any problems, just call. The kitchen is closed, so you don’t have to worry about food. You know where everything is. I anticipate it being fairly quiet.” Katrina threaded her arm through his as he came around the bar to meet her. Together they walked out of the Office, smiling and laughing. A knot formed my chest that made it hard to breathe. Sy went out with different women all the time, but this time felt different. Sy and Katrina? When the hell did that happen? I moved around behind the bar, my appetite suddenly gone. “Can I get a beer?” a voice said. I continued to stare at the door like they would walk back through any second. Maybe he was just helping the coven with something. Maybe it wasn’t a date. “Beer,” the voice insisted. I turned my head slowly toward the annoying bounty hunter. “I will stab you.” “I can wait,” he said, taking a couple steps back. I looked back to the door. She was definitely girlfriend material. The knot in my chest grew. He wasn’t going to wait forever, a voice in my head told me, like that was at all helpful. Not that I expected Sy to wait. I didn’t know what I expected from him. That wasn’t the point. The point was I didn’t want anything to change between us. I liked it just the way it was. I liked knowing he would always be here. I liked flirting with him. I liked talking to him. Sy always came back to me. It wasn’t like Katrina somehow mattered more than the others, even if she was Selene’s friend. My pep talk wasn’t helping the knot, so I rubbed at it. It was just a date. It wasn’t like they were moving in together. I took a deep breath and squared my shoulders. Nothing was going to change. I nodded to myself. Everything would stay the same…unless it didn’t.

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