Home » , , , , , , » Vampire Alpha Claim 7-Final Enforcement by Tamara Rose Blodgett

Vampire Alpha Claim 7-Final Enforcement by Tamara Rose Blodgett

“Wider—yes, that's it.” My breathless voice purrs into the woman's ear as her high-heeled boots pierce my lovely shag carpeting in a satisfyingly secure way.

Still, I brace myself with my hands flat-palmed on the wall on either side of her head.

Can't harm her by using vampire speed with my prick. Don't want to accidentally drill the filly.
Vampire Alpha Claim 7-Final Enforcement
Vampire Alpha Claim 7-Final Enforcement by Tamara Rose Blodgett
A tight smile stretches across my face as I roll my hips, pumping deeply inside her. Enjoying the greedy pulls from her tight wetness. “Please,” she says, tipping her head back, and I bite the inside of my cheek to keep the sigh encased. They're all alike. Fangbangers. Human bitches in heat. But males do have needs. And those of the vampiric persuasion—more than human. “Bite me,” she says with the same desperation all the human women seem to possess.. I aim to please. My mouth opens wide and a whisper-hiss slides from between my lips, fangs painfully lengthening in preparation for feeding, balls tightening toward blissful release.... A pounding fist reverberates against my wood door. Bollocks! My scalp tingles, a numbing thrill of adrenaline drilling my nuts right where it counts. “What?” the human woman asks in a limp daze. Her name—Trixie? Bunny? Fuck it. With a piercing thrust, I climax against her womb while tilting her head to the side. I palm her neck with my hand and hiss low in the back of my throat. I strike deep—hard. “Murphy!” Narah. My eyelids sink to half-mast. The woman groans with pleasure as her pussy rhythmically milks my cock. A pleasant female reaction to being pierced with fang and prick. My eyes close in equal parts bliss and frustration, taking hard pulls while delicious and perfect, fresh female blood pools inside my mouth. Gorging quickly, I take my fill, hiking my pants up one-handed as I do. The female's head lulls to the side and I capture her skull, carefully licking the punctures closed. “There ya go, love,” I say softly, giving her cheek a stroke with my finger. Hiking her skirt down I slowly spin her around and prop her up against the wall. Fragile lace panties float to her ankles and I sigh. Her eyes fly open as she tries to fight out of my hold. I frown. That simply won't do. Sometimes the ladies get a little knackered after a bite. The sound of splintering wood reaches us. No time. “Pipe down, gorgeous.” My nearly black eyes level on her round brown ones. Arms that had been clawing and flailing slow to spinning windshield wipers then stop. A vacant stare gazes back at me. Carefully arranging her against the wall I say, “Now stay right there, beauty.” She nods absently. I take in the half-tousled hair. My essence makes a snail trail down her inner thigh. I grin, looking at the bright side: Fang punctures are disappearing. I give a little half-nod of approval. “Murphy,” a low voice calls from behind me. I revolve slowly to meet the stare of my sire. Narah Adrienne stands before me, hard bounty enforcer weaponry hanging like a deadly belt around her swollen midsection. A tiny woman—lethal—throws daggers at me with her silvered gaze. Platinum hair reaches the small of her back, in slim, braid-like ropes of colored white gold. They whisper over her shoulder as her fist flies and she nails the only soft spot on my chin. I stagger backward, taking the assault, stars bursting in the periphery of my vision as I go down on one knee. There is not another option. I can't defend myself against Narah, my fellow bounty enforcer in the year of our Lord, twenty and twenty-four. She made me what and who I am. Not a man. Not a bounty hunter. But a vampire. And lately—I'm a bit more. * I move my jaw back and forth. “That fucking hurt, Narah.” She glares. I snicker at her new gracelessness. Ready to pop—that's our Narah. Reduced to desk duty at our mutual place of business, Final Enforcement. The last resort after the bobbies can't apprehend the worst of the criminals. We're the midwest branch, with each region having a sister unit. Final Enforcement is the last defense against criminals the police won't even touch. And since the paranormals have come out of the closet, or dens... lairs—whatever the case may be—we're fighting them as well, and assisting some. Narah folds her arms, whipping her many tiny braids over her shoulder. “You deserve it.” She flings a palm toward the hapless fangbanger holding up the wall behind me. I don't turn around, feeling a pang of guilt. “Buffy came to me,” I thumb my chest, feeling the chill of sweat cooling against my skin from our tryst against the wall. “She wanted to sex a vampire.” I lift a shoulder, glowering right back. “I'm not a brute with the ladies, Narah. Full disclosure, love.” Her light eyebrows hike in disdain. “No,” she paces away from me awkwardly, “you just hang a sign out that says ʻcome fuck the vampire bounty hunter and get fangedʼ.” Her tone is disgusted. “If you were not mated to tweedle dee and tweedle dumber, you could be having as much fun as I.” I spread my palms, oh so reasonably. “They are not tweedle dee and dumb,” Narah seethes. I shrug. “I don't mind the role of man-whore, and you shouldn't mind for me.” Folding my arms, I hike my eyebrows to my hairline. “You're using them. Casper is incensed—unprofessional conduct doesn't begin to cover your actions.” I put my thumb and index finger almost together. “It's a wee Craig's List pulse ad.” Narah whips out her pulse and I am just new enough with getting my own device that the device still strikes me as slightly bizarre. Gone are the “smart” cells, which now seem utterly “dumb” in comparison to the credit-card sized, integral thumbprint activated Brain Impulse Technology communication devices. Touch to brain. Your thought becomes ideas, interaction—everything is now linked. Narah depresses her thumb for a few seconds then her smirk comes up triumphant. “Little ad?” Her silvery eyes squint at me and all I can think is: Pregger hormones shall Kill the World. I wince, dropping my incriminating finger measurement. I might have been slightly understating things. “I will quote your ʻweeʼ ad,” Narah begins with protracted sarcasm. I drag a palm over my face. A sort of gurgling behind us has Narah and I turning. Buffy is drooling. My brows knot. Ah... might have used too much vampire juice. I take my chin in hand. “Oh my God!” Narah's eyes swing to me. “Did you OD her on thrall?” Her toned arms whip out at her sides. My hand drops. “Absolutely not.” Perhaps. “Anyway,” Narah's eyes are razors of mercury hate as they swing back to me, “you say,” her eyes find mine and I feel my neck flush with dull heat, “and I quote: British bounty enforcer turned vampire, at your sexual service.” Her eyes sweep back to me and I fight the cringe as she continues, “Free encounters in exchange for blood and a bit of fun.” She cocks her platinum eyebrow again, shaking the slim all-black pulse back and forth like brandishing a weapon. “As if! You're doing them a big favor.” Why yes, the ladies are guaranteed an orgasm upon being bitten. Just one of the many services vamps offer. Narah bares her fangs as she watches my mental wheels turn. My shoulders slump at her expression. Damn female. “Why, Narah?” My eyes search her face. “I want to engage in something with the mess I now find myself in. Let a bloke have a bit of fun.” Guilt flashes across her face like well-timed lightning and is gone. Instantly, I regret my words. Narah has never fancied that she turned me—but she couldn't stand my true death worse. Another garbled groan sounds from behind me. “She's falling,” Narah reports dryly. I whirl in my typical blur of speed—catching Buffy before she plants her nose on the ground and place her on the mattress I've tossed on the floor. “There you are, Buffy.” I sit down beside my dazed paramour. Her eyelids flutter open. “It's Bunny.” Damn. Sharper than I gave her credit for. “I knew it began with a B, love.” I pat her head. She sighs, her eyes softly closing. “That's pathetic. You should be ashamed of yourself.” Narah stomps over next to me. Bunny's lips sort of softly part as a snore escapes. She was a might sexier in the heat of the moment, I muse. “How many does that make now?” Narah asks in a low voice beside me. There's been a few hundred who answered the ad. Electing not to respond to the question directly, I answer, “I've only said yes to the pretty ones.” Narah hits me on the head with the hilt of her knife. “Ow!” I howl, clutching my scalp. I scowl up at her. “And the fine print says,” Narah pauses as she depresses her thumb on the security and transference dock of her pulse, “only those with these dimensions and attributes shall be considered.” Back to glaring, Narah recites, “Large breasts, hips, small waist—type AB negative blood preferred!” Narah shrieks, stalking around my small apartment in perfect rant mode. “Is this a hormonal fluctuation?” I ask quietly, taking a stab at reason. My partner is completely unreasonable. “I'm going to kill you again,” she says in a menacing voice. And Narah, being a level ten proficient in the deadliest profession of the 21st century, is no bald threat. “You're this angry over me dipping my wick?” I sit up on my elbows and Buffy—I mean, Bunny—begins to snore in earnest. We give her our attention. Narah's facade breaks, and a stealthy grin cracks the grim set of her face. “Don't you dare make fun of my condition.” Gazing at her swollen belly I give a small shake of my head. “Never.” I cross my heart with my fingers. Narah bursts into tears. Damn female. “Oh love, come here to Murphy. You hormonal rag fest.” Narah comes toward me and I heave myself off my arse, wrapping my arms around her, wincing at my head wound. Lucky that I've always had a hard head. Bunny makes a sucking inhale and turns over, one of her wonderfully shaped breasts sort of falling out of her brassiere. Brilliant. Narah explores my expression with knowing eyes. “Lech.” I nod. “Yes.” “I hate you.” I nod again. That much is obvious. “I love you.” That too. “I do understand the rationale of a pregnant woman is a logic known only onto them.” “Asshole,” Narah mutters. “Too true,” I say, stroking the back of her head. We pull apart and grin at each other. She tilts her chin back, gazing up into my face. “Stop screwing everything that has a vagina.” I tilt my head, a smirk creeping across my face. “How about only some who do?” “I'm serious, Murphy. What Aeslin says holds true. There's never been a vampire turned by a human hybrid before. The true nature of what you are isn't known.” I roll my eyes. “Cripes, love—you're beginning to sound like Aeslin. All pompous and full of himself.” Her lips lift. “And is he wrong?” I give a sharp grunt. “Well no, but I'd not admit that to him. He's already got a bike pump shoved up his arse.” Narah covers her mouth, laughter crinkling the sides of her eyes. I duck down, looking into my sire's silvered gaze, only a vague rim of goldish-amber surround the new iris color. A holdover from her pure human days. “Tell me I'm wrong?” “You're wrong,” she tries for stoic and bursts out laughing instead. “Ah, I see,” I tap my chin, walking a few paces away then whip back to face her, pointing, “you come to chastise your youngling's slutty ways only to succumb to my reasoning.” That sobers her. “No-I, I want you to not exploit the natural attraction we have to humanity. Of course beautiful human women will want to sleep with you. Feed you.” Narah's hands fall against her thighs in frustration. “You are vampire.” Her expression goes sulky. “And while I don't find you attractive...” I smile. Tall, dark and handsome—that's me. I blow air on my fist and polish it on my chest. “Yes, mate? Tell me how it really is.” “God you're insufferable.” Narah crosses her arms. “What if there's a female out there, someone like I was.” Her eyes hold me prisoner and I'm compelled to maintain eye contact. “Some hybrid suffering, getting ready to die if she's not turned?” I lift my palms in a warding-off gesture. “I'm afraid that's the Turnersʼ job, Narah.” My voice is low, soothing. “They are the vampire warriors whose blood turns a hybrid female to full vampire. They're the ones the Nobles use like puppets. Not I.” “That's what I've been trying to tell you, Murphy. You might be able.” I shrug. “I'm not interested in Aeslin's theories. They're just smoke in the wind. Just because my birth as a vampire is unprecedented, doesn't mean I have some grand role in the scheme of this new paranormal world.” “But what if it does mean exactly that?” My eyebrows rocket down like a brick above my eyes. “It won't.” Bunny sits up, looks around in a semi-fugue with her lovely tit still bare and asks, “Where am I?” Narah groans. I hold out my hand. “You're with me.” I snap my fingers. “Let me pulse for a cab.” “This is—ick.” Narah folds her arms, looking away through the filthy glass of my apartment window. Bunny looks at Narah with a wilting gaze and disdainfully points at my sire. “Who's she?” Narah spreads her fingers over her chest. “I'm Enforcer Adrienne.” “Right,” Bunny replies, unsuccessfully fluffing her hair. “You banging Murphy too?” Narah swivels her head back to Bunny. Blinks once. I snort. “Brilliant.” “Shut. Up. Murph.” “No, Bunny,” Narah speaks slowly, her mouth appears slightly crooked from trying not to laugh, “I am Murphy's colleague.” “Ah-huh,” she says, standing. Bunny sways and like the chivalrous chap I am, I take her arm. “About that cab?” I dose her between the eyes with my will—to leave, and her head sort of wobbles on the fragile stem of her neck. “Cab,” she says like a robot. “Gross,” Narah mutters. “Gross,” Bunny repeats. Narah puts her head in her hands. “Just, god, get her out of here. It's like having a zombie as an audience.” “Oh, I don't know, I wouldn't go that far, Narah. She was a might lively just—” “Shut. Up.” “Yes, but would you be a dear and grab an orange juice from the fridge? Bunny will need a bit of sustenance after her generosity.” I stop short of fluttering my eyelashes like a woman but the urge is almost overpowering. Narah stomps off to the fridge as my eyes drift to my ruined door. I spend a lot of money on repairing my shabby accommodations. Plucking my pulse device out of the front pocket of my denims, I depress my thumb on the dock and think a cab to my address. I am sure they know the way to my flat by heart. Chapter 2 Grace Rubbing my temples is becoming a part time job. I'm surprised I have any skin left. Ava's scream pierces my eardrum at the exact time a wayward swath of sunlight strikes the glass window pane, spearing me right in the eye. Nausea rolls over me in a wave and I suck in a breath, smelling and tasting the last dirty diaper I changed. Air. I need air. Arm outstretched in front of my body like a reanimated corpse, I focus on the doorknob to the playard. The large, beaten rectangle of 1960s décor is just a few more steps. “Grace?” Move, Grace. One foot, then the next. Vomit rises and my hand lands on my roiling stomach. I cover my mouth and grab the brushed antique brass doorknob. Twist. Jettison myself right out the door where I nearly sprawl on my hands and knees. I hunker down, forearms resting on my thighs, hands dangling between my legs and chin tucked low. I take swooping inhales to stave off the rising gorge. “Miss Grace,” the guileless voice of a four-year old says from beside me. Breathing deeply, I center myself. Yoga taught me that. The last year of my life has taught me more. I should go to the doctor and see what the hell is really wrong with me. But I'm afraid I already know. And O'Lamacare is for other people. Not a twenty-four year old woman who works at Sioux Falls Little People and makes ten dollars an hour. Sans benefits. Can't afford that two hundred dollar doctor visit. I can't make rent, forget finding out why I can't keep lunch down. Keep a clear head. Keep it together. I look up into Toby's pinched face and large chocolate brown eyes that hold too much knowledge I manage a smile. Probably isn't really convincing from my position on the ground. With a deep breath, I stare at the pea gravel, the smooth gray is bumpy underneath my beat up ballet flats and plant my hand on my knee, hauling myself to standing. “Grace!” Gah. I hang my head. Shelley. Again. I'm going to hear those words. Just two. You're fired. I turn. Shelley's face is a mask of concern. My shoulders bow forward in relief. For now. How many more days can I be late? Call in sick? Before my boss begins to think that I can't be counted on or trusted. Soon, I bet. My eyes dart away from the compassion I see in her steely gaze. “You know, you should see a doctor.” I give a vigorous head nod. Shelley's like a second mom to me. A more real version than my bio-mom. Her strawberry hair looks more red in the broken late summer sunlight, ruddy complexion to match the hair, only her dark grayish-blue eyes cool her. Toby, a little boy that is with me all day, every day, clutches on to my long bohemian-style skirt. “Miss Grace is sick,” he says, with the innate wisdom every kid has. Growing up wrecks their intuition. Of course, Toby has more than most, I think sadly. “Yes,” Shelley looks kindly at him, “she is.” Toby takes my hand. Her stare returns to me. “You can't show up to work like this. Sick.” “It's nothing contagious,” I mumble, thinking of the waste baskets I've filled with a breakfast I can't stomach. I'm so thin now my belly is concave. “It's not that,” Shelley insists, lightly touching my arm. My gaze rises to meet hers. Shame makes my ears burn. “It's that you're unwell, Grace. And, though you can perform your duties, you seem as though you're surviving them.” Her ginger eyebrows slowly rise. I hear: you can't do your job. I swallow all the replies I could make. All the excuses. I need this job. Glancing at Toby, I think about what he is to me and hold his small hand tighter. His golden brown hair is longish, beginning to curl around the tops of his ears. Big saucer eyes regard me—the infallible daycare worker. Yeah, right. “I'll get an appointment this week,” I lie through my teeth. Shelley lets out a breath. “Good.” She ruffles Toby's hair then frowns. “You know, Toby always reminds me of you. He could be your little mini-me.” She grins, and turns to swiftly walk across the yard. Checking on the other little kids, she swings Baby Ava, who promptly gnaws at her fingers, up onto her hip. Teeth coming in, I think absently. A trembling smile affixes on my face as I watch the two. He ought to look like me. Toby Cline is my half-brother. “Are you seeing the doctor, Miss Grace?” Toby asks in a whisper. I shake my head. Him—I'll never lie to. “No.” He gets only the truth from me. “Why?” he pops his thumb into his mouth and my heart swells with the action. Toby comforts himself because he knows what waits him at home. Our wasted mother and whatever abusive asshole she's drug home like a stray cat. Her men always have claws. “There's no doctor that can help me,” I say quietly. Because I know. The signs are all there. The nausea, the headaches—light sensitivity. I know what I am. What I'm becoming. And I can't let that happen. If I do, then who will take care of Toby? One of mom's men, that's who. I shudder. Even if I had the cash to see a doctor, he or she would file a report and I'd get noticed. No. I have to stop this process, take Toby away. Save him. Save me. * My hands fist, crescent moons imprinting on my palms as I watch the latest guy come pick up Toby. The car sounds like its exploding. His car's muffler isn't working. I'd like to play that off on him just being down on his luck. But the truth is it's not. He's just one of those guys that thinks the noisier his ride is, the cooler it makes him seem. Only to him. Ten other little kids run around the play yard, demanding mine and my co-worker, Sondra's, attention. A few hurl shredded mulch at each other from the square of railroad ties used as a border that houses the wooden play set. “Dick,” Sondra says as she watches the scrubby, tatted, ex-con hop out of the car, tear open the back door and chin flick to Toby, indicating wordlessly he should get in. Toby drags over there. Slides in the back and turns. Pressing his palm to the glass his eyes find me like a lifeline. A grain of stable in the desert of his life. I hold my palm up and mouth, tomorrow. Just hang on, Toby. Sister will be here, sick or not. Thinking about tomorrow reminds me my mom's got her probation officer coming over. She'll be on her best behavior, of course. Drug free—just for his visit so she can pee in a cup. Banana bread will be baking in the oven so the house has that lived in, homey smell that fools the soul. Rough and tough will be hidden in her bedroom or in whatever hole he can crawl in. She'll show the probation stupe all the paperwork proving she's looking for work—keeping shit legit. When really? She's nothing but a whore. Thank God Talbot Cline can't have more children. Having had me at sixteen wasn't enough of a lesson. She had to repeat it at thirty-six to see if she still could. But Toby's birth tore her up and the doctor had to take out her female parts. It's a blessing. There'd been a bunch of miscarriages in between. Every child's life is precious, but the thought of Talbot having more children to screw up leaves me chilled to my marrow. My eyes narrow as the thug of the week pulls away in his illegal fossil-fuel beater. Toby's little nose is pressed against the window, fogging it. He stares at me until I'm surely just a dot in a big yard full of brightly colored toys. My shoulders sag once he's out of sight. Sondra, puts her arm around me. “Don't.” “I can't,” I say in a despondent hush. “Talbot picks beaters. This guy's a beater. He has the look.” “Ah, yes. I gotcha.” Sondra grins, putting her index and thumb about an inch apart. “He's a compensator, Grace. Ya know, he works out and gets all bulky because he has a nub for a penis.” I burst out laughing, the threat of tears called back from the trembling brink in the face of her humor. “That's terrible, Sondra.” Sondra's wide, friendly smile flashes across her dark face. “Refute my logic,” she challenges. I shake my head. “I don't think his dick plays into it,” I say wryly. She flips a palm out as a few more cars pull up to retrieve the kids we watch all day. “He's male, right?” Her dark eyebrow quirks. “Yeah.” Sort of. Not a real man. Not the one I imagine, anyway. She shrugs. “Case closed. I can't imagine a man alive who cares about anything more than his dick.” I sling an arm around her shoulders, our height exactly the same at five foot six. We stand together comfortably, watching the controlled chaos of kids getting scooped up and taken home. I try to put my worry for Toby on a shelf inside my head. “You're probably right.” “Damn straight,” she thumps her chest. “I know I am.” I crack the first real smile of the day, glad the sky's gone to overcast so my eyes won't hurt. “You're okay, Sondra.” I say. I love her. “Don't ya go all sappy on me, Grace.” “Never,” I say, wiping my eyes. She squeezes my shoulder and saunters off, getting into her POS Buick sedan she got for five hundred bucks. I hear her pulse the engine on and turn to walk to my place. Too broke to own a car. Or anything else. * His eyes follow me. Like ink. Unyielding. Spreading over me like a safe blanket of night. I remember the aptitude I had in high school for language. I was encouraged to pursue English at the college level. Then mom got pregnant with Toby from an encounter she doesn't even remember. So there was no college in my future. But if I had a fancy word to describe the eyes that drift after me as I restlessly dream, they'd be obsidian banked by fire. Smoldering black glass. On me. For me. Like ebony water flowing over my headache, my aching, constant nausea. My hopelessness. They slide over me obsessively, covering, sucking—protecting. I jerk inside my bed, clutching the covers with sweating palms and a hammering heart. Waking as I always do lately. Unrested. Anxious. A feeling of a vague, unfulfilled something, causes me to compulsively seek the dark corners in my small apartment space. The memories of this man are thin wisps of vapor that escape my consciousness. But he's not like my mom's men. Or the men I know. He's different. He makes my heart beat faster—my core throb, my nipples tingle. He eases my pain. I breathe deeply, gripping the sheet high and tight underneath my throat. Closing my eyes, I swear I can hear the roar of blood in my veins. The heat. Swinging my legs to the edge of my futon I resign myself to sleeplessness again. Sleep's not in the cards. I slip into my flip flops and walk across the threadbare and molted apartment carpeting and head to the bathroom. I could find it if I were blind. The drip, drip of the faucet gives the location away. That, and the dinky size of my apartment where the kitchen runs into my living/pseudo bedroom. The digital clock on top of a tall, thrift store highboy-style dresser reads 4:45. Its colorful numbers are a bright spot inside my apartment. It's not dawn yet and I yawn. A shower will wake me up. Turning the faucet on, I run my hand underneath the spray and adjust the knobs until the temperature is just right. Standing, I pop the stem for the shower and the water beats the cast iron sides of the decaying tub. I walk into the kitchen and slug a glass of water down. Setting it on top of the scarred and worn window ledge. I peer out into the gloom. The beginnings of white light frost the midnight blue of night, faded color weeping like bleached denim toward the coming day. The water from the shower drums within the stillness of my apartment, gaining heat. My eyes shift to the eviction notice on the worn speckled laminate countertop. Yup. I've got three weeks. Can't pay my rent, running two months behind now. I sigh, gripping the chipped edge of the countertop. Look up. Eyes look back at me. Not black, like those from my dream. Not comforting. But reflective—evil. I stumble backward, whirl—tear through my tiny studio apartment and hit the bathroom door, slamming it shut behind me. Steam strangles my vision. The tinkling of glass fries my nerve endings. All I can think of is one of my mom's men have found me. An animal. Toby, I think with a mental scream, fear scrambling my breaths before they escape. I have to survive whatever this is to help him. It's more than myself. Footsteps pound through my apartment. Stop at the cheap, hollow-core door that pretends to keep me safe. Snuffling and shadows border the small space at the bottom, floating like small, captured ghosts at the ominous crack revealed between door and floor. I soundlessly step backward, get into the shower fully clothed and use the shower curtain as an additional barrier. My breath releases in a gush, as warm water soaks my clothes against my body. Squeaks, yelps and other weird sounds stab the noise of the water. My heart hammers, and my hands ache from the grip I maintain on the cheap yellowing vinyl between stiff fingers. I silently will whatever's gotten into my apartment to go. A gargantuan headache breathes its pain into my skull and I shiver, though the spray from the water is hot. After ten minutes of silence, I release the shower curtain. My fingers tingle as feeling returns. I peek out from behind the curtain and release a held breath. The door is intact. I step out of the tub, dripping water everywhere. I begin to shake as my body heat flees. Someone's banging at my front door. Still, I wait until the banging stops. I count to ten, put my hand on the knob. Take it off. Count to twenty. This time I twist the metal ball and throw the door open, crouching. My apartment's in ruins. Everything in the entire place is on the floor. My gaze skates over the mess of silverware and broken dishes. When my eyes reach the bed my bottom lip trembles and I capture it between my teeth. A prized quilt, from my long-dead great-grandma is full of lengthy rips, the batting between the patchwork and the backing scattered like decimated clouds. The colorful squares appear as wounded rainbows. I shuffle across my floor, glad for the footwear to protect my feet from the littered debris. There's not a bare space anywhere. Everything cloth is torn—everything fragile is broken. The drywall has punched holes through it like Swiss cheese. A second round of banging at my door rips through my reverie and I startle, hand to heart. Walking over to the door in a daze I lean forward, shutting one eye and peering through the peephole. My landlord's one bloodshot mud-brown eyeball glares back. I let my forehead drop against the cheap wood. Then I do the bravest thing of my life. I open the door. Chapter 3 Murphy I stand from my crouch. “Fucking Mutables.” I don't bother reining in the disgust in my voice. Mollie, my distasteful co-worker, and acting wench within Final Enforcement turns to me, crossing her arms. “So, because you got into a few skirmishes, now you're the expert?” Her dark, severely plucked eyebrows are two frozen lines high on her forehead. Somehow, her being a woman is something I can never keep in the forefront of my mind. “Expert is a relative term, Mollie.” Her nose scrunches. And I take a stab at admiring the view of her figure. She's solid, like all enforcers, with curves in all the right places. Taller than my sire, Narah, but not by a lot. Then she speaks again and ruins all the fun. Why do I insist on engaging her? Manners get in the way of my life. Her hip juts out, full lips pursing. “I'm not one of your vampire groupies, Murphy.” I hang my head. Here we are, with evidence of Mutables in the area and she has to get fucking needy. “It's not about groupies, Moll. Stay on task.” She points at me, hazel eyes flashing, the amber within her irises flashing with her temper. “Narah turned you. You've had battles with the supes and now you claim every case like peeing in a corner.” Mollie mimics my voice, “Oh love, not to worry, let me and my big vampire penis flog the bad paranormal.” I loathe a woman that discusses my wanker without foreknowledge. “You couldn't fake a British accent if your life depended on it,” I blandly point out. She rolls her eyes. “Tough. I want this Mutable case. I don't need you. There's only four enforcers and I'm level ten. Casey is only an eight, and The Ghost baby's his ass because he's new.” Our boss, Casper, doesn't believe in throwing everyone to the wolves. Not right off the start, that is. I smirk, thinking about last year's client, Talyn Phisher, now mated to a Lycan and a dragon, of all fucking things. Just another day in the menagerie. “I don't see anything funny here, Murphy.” Her golden-amber eyes narrow within her sharp-featured face. I tear a hand over my hair, my fangs giving a pangy ache. Hunger tears at my insides. Since I'm full vamp, I can't make do with human food any longer. What I wouldn't give for a good pint of ale. I glance at Mollie's throat. Or blood. “Not laughing,” I say, holding up a warding-off palm. “I was merely pointing out that when the supes get involved, circumstances becomes complicated. Casper's not going to clear you working without a mate.” She glares down at the footprints between us. I'm letting Mollie think they're Mutable but one pair of prints looks suspiciously prehistoric. Like our friend the woolly mammoth. Noah or Jac? If the prehistorics are sniffing around—must mean there's a knot of potential females. Final Enforcement doesn't worry its pretty little head about them. We don't involve FE in the new breeding squabbles and acquisitions for the most part. But the Mutables have become a proven problem. “Fine, you can help me, but I want credit for the case. Especially since bitch Narah is busy pushing out an animal baby.” I instinctively hiss. Mollie backs away. “What's your fucking problem?” The fear in her voice makes my dick hard. No need to rabbit on about that, though. “I know you want Narah to bugger off, but the truth hurts, darling. She's flat better than you are.” Mollie pouts. “That's your perspective.” The only one that matters. I begin walking back to my car, leaving her with the last word. Or words. A fuzziness remains in my brain from the shitty bit of sleep during the last day. I've been plagued by random, vague dreams. Of a woman. The more I try to remember, the worse the nagging memories become like vapor in the catacomb of my brain. Frustrating as fuck. I shake off the lethargy and survey my ride. Not as cool as Narah's vintage beauty, but in its own way, any fossil fuel car in existence is a rarity. This vintage Mazda Miata has been grandfathered. One of the perks of being an enforcer. I don't have to use the natural gas-fueled engines that came online for all new cars beginning in 2022. The media and forces that be carry on about how the wonderful natural gas emissions have decreased the carbon fallout to near-zero. Nancys. Sometimes a gent needs to get after someone with something fast. Though I can really move now. Most criminals don't have the tools to deal with the likes of me and Narah. Excepting those of the paranormal persuasion. The pearlescent ivory paint of the Miata shimmers in the moonlight. When one can only go out at night, car color becomes important. I had a custom color overlayed on the creamy-white. In the dark the shade appears as though it's imprisoned moonlight. I lick my lips. Hunger beats at me. Got another dalliance with Bunny in the cogs. Or Buffy? I frown then shrug. I tap the thumb-sized, pulse sensor dock above the door handle. The car identifies me instantly, popping the lock and turning on the engine. I hear footsteps behind me. “Mollie,” I say turning, exasperated. It's not Mollie. Four Mutables surround me. My vampire hearing saved me, but was not acute enough to hear Mollie's attackers. She's on the ground and more bodies litter the area around her. My nostrils flare. She lives. Automatically my body begins to tingle as a call of blood goes out. Only one being will hear the specific summons. Hopefully, Narah isn't in labor. * Narah “Fuck!” I say, whipping up from the couch like a wooden plank. No small feat, given I'm so rotund, moving at any pace is a challenge. I'm suddenly furious at being pregnant. Rage-y. “What?” Matthews says, setting down his blood bag on top of the acres of sleek granite countertop. My eyes snag the sustenance, a pang of hunger trying to assert dominance even over the call. I meet his eyes. “Murph's in trouble.” Aeslin smoothly sits beside me, rubbing my back in slow, lazy circles. “Are you sure this isn't a,” his palm waffles around and I narrow my eyes on him, not even enjoying the muscled naked view of his chest. At. All. “If you ask if this is a hormonal episode, I think I'll kill you.” Aeslin's smile is swift, and I sorta want to kick him. Which pisses me off even more. I cannot wait to be back to my aloof and logical self. “Oh? I see, kill the soon-to-be father because he questions your state of being? No. Definitely not hormonal.” He and Matthews exchange a glance. I huff a breath and cross my arms. “You guys are smug bastards.” Matthews shakes his head. “No, we're survivalists in the world of Narah.” “God!” I trumpet, trying to stand, hating the loss of that warm touch at my back. Then I can't. I can't shovel myself off the couch, which makes me want to bawl. Aeslin gently lifts me. “Your youngling calls to you.” I nod, brushing the dumb, damning female tears angrily away. “Yes,” I hiss, fangs making an appearance. I'm hungry. A-fucking-again. I eye up the blood bag in a greedy glance and Matthews hands me the remnants. I make the bag go concave gleefully, sucking up the last few precious drops. “We shall take you to where he is and Matthews and I will help with his... issue.” Aeslin's silver eyes flare. I put a staying hand on the strong, flat planes of his chest. “I want to help him,” I admit, guilty. Matthews draws my chin up with a tender finger and searches my eyes. “There's no shame in relying on us. If you weren't carrying our young, this wouldn't even be a thing.” He's right. But why do I feel so fucking mad? I blow an abrupt breath out, my small braids notched back into a tight ponytail. “Okay.” “Good girl,” Aeslin says and I punch him on the arm, he frowns pulling me against him. “Shh, Narah.” I won't be placated. I pull away when all I want to do is fall into his arms and cry. “Let's go, boys.” I hold my hands out to them. * Murphy “Final Enforcement, gents,” I announce unnecessarily to the pesky bunch of Mutables. I briefly contemplate—is there anyone left in Sioux Falls who does not know who I am? Who Narah Adrienne is? The state of our notoriety is constant. Oppressive. “We know,” the obvious leader of the group says, coming forward. His hair is a brash orange color with green eyes. Fuck, I know this chap. Hunter. Killian. The leader of what Matthews used to be: Hunters sent to find females like Narah once was. Seek and sterilize. We've been looking for this blighter forever. “Killian.” He smiles, eyes like the forest in the clinging darkness. “Oh to be infamous,” he seems to relish his flash of fame. “It's a death sentence to injure or kill an enforcer.” My eyes don't stray to Mollie, but the inference is clear. He harmed my co-worker and that alone is worth due diligence on my part. Due violence. He snickers like an unhinged door. “Not unless I'm caught.” I spread my arms away from my body. “Consider yourself duly apprehended.” “Ah—that's where you're wrong, mongrel vampire. This is a matter of moving the applicable chess pieces around so I can get to the queen.” “Stop speaking in riddles,” I say, my eyes keeping tabs on the half-formed Mutables. Black bear. Lion. Wolf. Of course, those are the forms they're choosing to take. My attention returns to their leader. Killian is smug. Maybe not as much when Narah appears with tweedle dee and dumber. Though they don't seem quite as stupid when they're coming to my aid. * “It's old home week,” Killian says in a good-natured voice, eyes trained on Matthews. “Fuck off, Killian. Killer of females.” He frowns then uses his fingers to show a small space between them. “A minor detail.” “Why bother to have Hunters at all if you didn't believe in the cause?” Matthews steps forward and Narah puts a hand on his arm. “If you torture a bound female?” his voice lowers to a growl. Killian's eyes move to my sire. “You're a catastrophe of nature. It would have been a favor to end you.” His eyes sweep her bulging belly. “Now you carry an abomination.” Killian's green eyes glow with insanity. I do not agree on all charges. Narah doesn't cringe at the Hunter who worked in collusion with the magistrate in a plan to torture her, but meets his stare head on. Her silver eyes narrow, the soft rustle of her weapon's belt is a whisper of warning as she shifts her weight. “If I wasn't supposed to be what I am, I wouldn't exist. Take up your bullshit with Mother Nature, needle dick.” I'd laugh but with the Mutables closing in, and their unique ability to shift to whatever form of their choosing for a brief time, we can't really luxuriate in clever banter. Killian appears bored. “Kill them.” “Where's Drake when we need him?” Narah mutters. Yes, the prehistoric dragon would even the playing field. The bear tears toward Narah. I have a single pulse of protection for my sire that is numbingly terrible just as Aeslin blurs to meet the bear's charge. He stabs beastie in the guts, twisting the short dagger he unsheathed in a jerking, spinning strike that causes the bear Mutable's intestines to evacuate the cavity of his body. They land in an ivory pile that steams in the coolness of the night. Killian is on me before I can lift a finger to react. Too fast. Too fast for a Hunter, supernatural Druid blood aside. “Narah!” I bellow in warning. Then his eyes catch mine. Vampire thrall batters my own. Killian's been hiding what he really was—an ancient form of vampire. Reaper. Then Matthews clubs him on the back of the head. Clever boy. Blood lets loose from his mouth, spraying in an inky pattern of spatter, hitting my mouth, my eyes. I lick my lips. Finger-licking-good, as the Americans say. Talons burst from my fingertips and I pierce his chest. Curling my fingers, I yank the heart. Tossing the piece of muscle high in the air, Matthews steps back and I kick the piece of shit imposter with a foot to the chest. Killian tumbles on his back, chest geysering blood while his mouth opens and closes in surprise. I straighten, cracking my spine as I reach for the sky, getting the post-skirmish kinks out. The other Mutables lay like discarded rubbish on the road. I move quickly to Mollie and after checking her pulse and ignoring the delicious pulse of blood pushing against my touch, I stand. “She'll live,” I say aloud. I turn to Matthews and Aeslin. “Thank you, gents.” “Kind of anticlimactic,” Matthews comments. “I always thought I'd meet up with Killian and there'd be a big, drawn out dual.” Aeslin claps him on the back. “Not to worry, I think the night will have plenty of theatrics.” We look behind him. Narah's in the background, grunting and screaming. Not from injuries, but from pain. She has gone into labor. Bollocks. Chapter 4 Grace Boxes litter my floor. It's pretty sad really. There's only five. Sondra stoops over some of my panties and scoops them directly from the lean laundry basket and tosses them inside a box. She hooks a finger along the scant piece of fabric that connects the front with the back. “Hopeful?” she asks, trying to inject humor into the horror that my life's become. Instead of crying I laugh. “Always.” “Humph,” she snorts, throwing the lacy tiny white g-string underwear in the box and taping it shut. “Landlord didn't give you a break,” Sondra comments. “I mean,” she straightens, stretching like a cat, and the small bones pop in her back, “you can't help it that psychos tore through here. And, sure, they caused some damage but all your stuff got trashed.” “Yeah.” I look down and the long curtain of my mousy brown hair closes around my expression. Hiding me. “Least it's the weekend,” Sondra comments, scraping up some silver lining. No work. But no Toby either. Mom holds our time together hostage. If I do stuff for her, then I see Toby. I did negotiate some time for next Sunday. You'd think she'd be hot to get rid of him at every opportunity. More time with Bad to the Bone, and her drugs. But no. He's her ace in the hole. Her pipeline to welfare. Her small cash cow. The one thing Talbot hangs over me to keep me in line. An innocent human being who didn't ask to be born. Used. I slowly sit on a few books stacked up, swiping a tear and Sondra's suddenly there, sinking to her heels. “Hey, you always got a couch at my place.” Her steady brown eyes meet mine. Sondra's place is worse than mine, if possible. She has two couches, one is a bed and one is for sitting on. “Don't know if you can sacrifice your only seating...” I begin to say. She shrugs, her dark hair is like a cloud of spun chocolate around her head, swinging with her animated personality. “Fuck that.” I burst out laughing and Sondra grins. “Extra seating is overrated. Means I have to think about it, doe eyes.” I flush a little at the old nickname. My eyes take up a lot of my face. At least they're not buggy. “That's not a dis,” Sondra says with a wink. “You've got gorgeous eyes, girl. They're almost purple.” “Not really,” I laugh. “They're just really blue.” Sondra shakes her head. “No really, they're kinda like a powder purple.” I cross my arms. “Now you're just feeding my ego.” Sondra arches an ebony eyebrow. “Working?” “Nope.” But I smile a little. She's been a good friend. Even when I don't have anything to really offer her. Sondra holds out a palm and I grab her hand as she hauls me up. Looking at my lame assembly of boxes, she says, “Not much to figure out here, between the two of us, we can get the entire shibang in my car in like, ten minutes.” My landlord gave me twenty-four hours to evacuate. Or he'd make me responsible for the intrudersʼ damage too. “I know.” I sigh, surveying my meager belongings. “I just wish this last month wasn't happening.” “Still feeling sick?” “Every day.” I don't meet her eyes. Sondra squeezes my shoulder and her hand drops. “You leaving your furniture behind?” Her voice holds disbelief. I nod, chest tight. “Kurt said he wouldn't come after me for the back rent if I left my stuff here.” My eyes flick to her disgusted expression. “But, God Grace—we got this stuff for nothing, worked on making it awesome... and now you have to leave it behind?” My eyes catch and hold the gorgeous, quartersawn oak table dating to pre-1920s. Just a small round table, solid wood—four seater. The arched back sofa covered in cabbage rose material fills the corner, long enough for four people. It's been my bed and lounger since I found it on the side of the road and reupholstered it with fabric choices from Sondra. The cedar chest. The depression era pink glassware that was miraculously unbroken. Probably because it was in the chest. The secretary dresser that has a square mirror at the top and held my small amount of jewelry. My inhale is shaky. Sondra's anger is tasteable. “Kurt's a prick. Sees some stuff here that looks nice and takes it out of your hide.” Slowly I turn to her, swallowing my resentment. “He's right. I owe a thousand bucks in rent.” I suck in a raw inhale, ripping my eyes away from my stuff. “In the end, squaring up my debt with him is more important than things.” Sondra searches my face for a painful beat of seconds then turns, bending over and hiking up the first box. As she walks out the door she says over her shoulder, “Maybe it's okay that you're not here anymore. What with all the freaks barging in here.” She pointedly avoids the subject of all my precious finds that I'm abandoning. I glance around my apartment of the last year and after a few moments, decide she's right. I walk out the door. I don't shiver once. Even when I see long nail marks scarring the thrashed drywall. * Sondra squints through the filthy fog of her windshield trying to make out important things like traffic signs. “So the cops didn't know anything?” She uses her blinker and we turn into her covered parking space within the sea of all the others. “No,” I shake my head. “They couldn't find any fingerprints, and the pockmarked drywall—” “—should have been an indicator that they weren't human. Duh.” Sondra's right. Now that the world knows about the sub-species of once-mythological creatures running around? Hell, the police have a whole new group of potential criminals. Used to be it was just garden variety losers to nab. Now if there's a law broken, it isn't necessarily a human who caused the offense. It's a whole new world. And Grace Cline is soon to be a part of it. Or not, if there's any way on this planet I can stop it. Maybe the man from my dream will help me. I bite my lip. Get real, Grace. There's never a white knight when you need one. That's a fantasy for dumb girls. Not girls like me. Realists. * I breathe a sigh of relief when Monday rolls around and Toby's okay. Until I see the bruises on his upper arm. I gently pull him aside. “What happened to your arm, baby?” My eyes search a face that still has the baby he was inside it. Thumb goes in mouth. “Tell Grace,” I say, forgetting the “miss,” forgetting a shit ton in the face of my little brother's bruised flesh. “Fred got mad.” Fred. Oh yes—man of the week. “Is he the same dude who picked you up last time?” I can't use Friday or before the weekend because that's all pretty abstract. Solemn nod. Okay. I take measured breaths, trying for calm in the middle of icy rage. If I call CPS they'll take Toby out of the home and plop him into foster care. Probably a worse outcome. Sure, there's a few foster families who are decent. But my experience is they want the state check. Period. I can't take him because my income disqualifies me. And the small problem of a mobile address. I'm never somewhere longer than a half-year, except my latest apartment and well, we know how that ended. God. And me turning into something. I shiver. I stroke his arm and Toby's eyes go shiny. “What did Mom do?” Toby shakes his head and pats the crook of his elbow. Blasted again. Probably heroin. Drugs were made legal in 2020. However—using in the presence of a minor—is not. Hard thing to enforce. A pulsemercial about Final Enforcement surfaces in my memory. There's an enforcer that's half-vampire, half-human. She looks like a hard woman. I remember her pale skin, corn-rowed hair and silver eyes. Narah Adrienne, I think her name is. I wouldn't want to be on the end of her catching me. Now our last resort police force has taken on paranormal crime until the regular police can assemble a paranormal task force. What they really want is to staff the ranks of the cops with people who are paranormal. Vampires. Shifters. People like me. But I don't want to fight criminals or paranormals. I just want to take Toby and make ends meet. Maybe someday, I'll find a nice guy and have that whole picket fence deal. Right. Then my alarm clock shrieks and I wake up from my dreamland. I stand and hold out my hand. Toby takes it. I tug him behind me and pile him into the swing. I use the flat of my palms to push his small back. As his legs pump high in the air, Sondra's eyes meet mine from across the yard and I give a slight chin dip. Her dark eyes are troubled. There's no distance between us long enough for me not to see the knowledge held in that gaze. It's the same as mine. What can I do? My mom gets lit and Toby gets roughed up by Fred. I press my palms against Toby's back and push him on the swing. Thinking—scheming. Cop cars pull up as I contemplate my options. My boss moves toward the huge metal gate that fences the yard. Cicadas still buzz in the humid dredges of summer's end. Their insect music suffocates me, clinging to my anxiety, heightening it. Despite my anxiety, I'm having a rare window of well-being. No headache or nausea looms. The pessimist in me thinks, calm before the storm. Shelley opens the gate, her champagne-colored hair lifting with the winds South Dakota ceaselessly generates. She points, and I swallow hard when the copsʼ eyes find me across the yard. Recognizing one of the officers, I grip the chains for the swing and Toby twists to a stop. “Grace?” he asks, voice tight. I smooth his light brown hair, the same shade as mine, out of his eyes. Sondra's already making her way toward us, hair bobbing as she strides. When she reaches us she asks in a fierce whisper, “What's going on?” I shake my head and guess, “Probably a follow up to the break-in at my apartment.” “I don't know, seems weird, now that I think about it, they didn't even take anything.” No, they hadn't. “Miss Cline?” The officer I remember coming to my apartment after the break-in, asks. I lift my hand to my chest. “Yes, that's me—Grace.” He inclines his head toward his partner and says, “This is Officer Donovan and I'm Officer Taylor.” He flicks a fingernail at his pulse badge and it flashes his stats. Taylor, Nick. Age twenty-eight, four years street, no brutality, outstanding... I look up, glance at Donovan. His badge pulses stats that are different. Donovan, Sully. Age forty-eight, perfect attendance, twenty years street, one year homicide. I'm glad I'm not in public service. There's no way I'd want a pulse badge. I can just see the pulse info-dump loop now. Cline, Grace. Age twenty-four, daycare worker, broke, can't fix shit, going nowhere, essentially homeless. I suck in a breath, quitting my own pity party. I don't have time for it. Toby needs me. Sondra's putting me up. I kinda have a home. “We're transferring your case to Final Enforcement.” My polite smile freezes on my face. “Why?” Donovan says, “We believe the break-in is a paranormal matter and we're not equipped to handle those unless there's a death.” Paranormal matter. My eyes skate back to his badge. Homicide, it flashes in its information revolution. “Violent crime,” he goes on, “or other.” “Wrecking my place doesn't count?” Donovan shakes his head, hiking his pants up under a soft belly. “Nope. Property destruction doesn't warrant FE interference.” “Sully,” the younger cop says with a subtle tone of warning. I give him a sharp look. “Assistance,” Donovan says in reluctant correction. “She's staying with me,” Sondra volunteers. Officer Taylor inclines his head, and I notice his hair is still damp from a shower. He skipped a shave, dark hair peppering his square jaw. “Good thinking. Already spoke with your landlord—” “—former,” I say. His brown eyes narrow slightly and he depresses his thumb on a pulse device. Probably documenting the entire thing. “Right,” he lifts his thumb and loses that split-concentration look. “And he mentioned he's already got your place repaired and painted with a new tenant slated for October first.” Tears scald the back of my eyelids when I think of someone else living in my place and using my furniture. It was a dump, but it was mine. All the wood furniture Sondra and I picked up for next-to-nothing that was hand stripped of its ugly layers of paint by me, and restored to a beautiful finish. By me. Now it's someone else's. Someone who doesn't care. And real wood is no longer used for furniture production. Save the forests. I blink rapidly, ruthlessly disallowing crying and other emotional bullshit and glance at Toby. His brown eyes hope at me. Trust me. I shift attention back to the cops. Donovan must misinterpret my reaction. “It's okay, you're safe now. We're handing this off to FE because it's within their jurisdiction now. Since the paranormals were outed.” I think of something. “Are you certain it was paranormals?” But already memories of the strange noises connect with the information that they suspect the break-in was not human intruders who broke into my place and wrecked my stuff. Donovan shifts his weight, appearing vaguely uncomfortable. “The vamps and shifters don't leave DNA per se, but there are other factors,” he pauses briefly, “that dictate para versus mundane.” “Like what?” Sondra crosses her arms, giving the cops her full attention. Taylor clears his throat. “Urine, sperm—other—bodily fluids.” “What?” Sondra asks in a loud voice. Her hand moves to her throat, clearly repulsed. Taylor nods, swinging his attention to Toby. Possibly he thinks he's too young to hear this stuff. If Taylor only knew what my little brother's been subjected to. A few words about sperm isn't going to register when you're scared of adults all the time. It's about priorities. “When a colony of Mutables is on the prowl, we find their calling card is pretty distinctive.” My stomach drops at the M word. Mutables are a renegade, lawless group of malleable shapeshifters, whose only goal is to find women with compatible DNA and use them to seamlessly change into whatever creature they prefer—and impregnate them. “So you're not coming by here to chat me up? There's like a threat to me?” My nervous laugh dies at their expressions. Heartbeats try to pound their way out and Toby draws closer to the comfort of my body and grabs my hand again. His is dry within my sweaty grasp and I want to cry when his thumb pops in his mouth. Donovan gives a grave nod. “I'm afraid when a pack—” “Colony.” Taylor frowns at Donovan for the second time in a space of ten minutes. “Whatever. They deserve the name ʻpackʼ, behaving as they do.” They face each other, sensing obvious animosity between the elder and the younger. I blink. Pretty strong words for our politically correct culture. “Usually they send out a scouting group and leave their mark,” Donovan makes airquotes on the last word, and his lips twist in disgust, “to warn others that they're infringing on their territory.” Sondra's arms drop by her sides, and she stuffs a tendril of curly hair behind her ear. “Territory for what?” Her naturally low voice is strained. Taylor and Donovan exchange a full look. “For a female.” I take a step back. “What?” I whisper-hiss. Taylor straightens his tie. Checks his pulse. Finally he answers, “You or another female who may have visited your residence—has—DNA that is compatible.” His eyes hold compassion and I grind through wanting to cry again and holding it back. “At this point, it's a matter of time. Final Enforcement is familiar with, ah, these paranormals, and can get you the help you need for your transition.” His serious brown eyes meet mine. “Because believe me, Miss Cline, you don't want a Mutable taking the reins of your transition. If it is you who they're after.” His eyes shift to Sondra, studying her briefly, then return to me. I stand there, mute and dazed. And here I thought I was clever. Keeping this terrible inevitable secret to myself, taking charge of the bigger issue of Toby's care. Juggling the chaos of my life like a performer in a circus act. Wondering over my next meal—where to live. And all the while I was leaving some kind of scent trail for these shitbird Mutables to come calling. “If it is your transition...” Taylor says then roots around in his back pocket, holding out a brochure. He hands it to me. Are you becoming? It reads simply. Oh please. “Pulse the toll free think line and get checked out by a physician. They've got blood and DNA tests that will conclusively tell you what's happening.” Taylor's brows leap, waiting for my response. “And what I am.” Donovan's answer sounds weary. “Yeah,” he says softly. “What ya are.” He lifts his shoulders in a helpless shrug. “If it makes a difference, we're sorry.” The cops make the potential for a transition sound like a death. In a way, it is. My death as a human. Chapter 5 Murphy A war cry pierces the air and I flinch. Last one—if we're lucky. Glad I'm a bloke. Listening to Narah gnash and wail for the last ten hours is enough to make my balls shrivel to walnuts. Feeling helpless is not my strong suit. Aeslin comes racing down the hollow and medicinal hospital corridor. “It's a male!” Thank Christ. She's through the worst. I stand. Feel dizzy and sit on my arse again, I'm starved for blood but while my sire was in distress, I was stuck here like glue. Another scream pierces the air and Aeslin gives a surprised scowl, whipping his head back around. Matthews bellows from just outside of her room, “It's a girl!” I stay seated. Because on rare occasion, I'm a thinking man. Aeslin blurs back the way he came. Silence reigns for half an hour. I fight picking up my nail biting habit again. Fangs nixed that soundly. What I would do to have a smoke. And some sex. Yes, that. Blood. Finally, Team Narah exits her room holding a pink bundle and a blue bundle. I keep my ridiculous grin plastered on my mug. “I thought,” I begin then look at the tiny faces. Holy Christ, they're gorgeous. Small and perfect features mirror each other, looking impossibly tiny in their fathersʼ arms. I screw my face into a puzzled scowl, continuing part of my prior thought, “How do they look remotely handsome with your ugly genes in the mix?” Matthews laughs and Aeslin responds with a predictable scowl. “Narah, of course,” Matthews answers instantly, cooing at his daughter, the finger he uses to stroke her small face an impossibly large stump of blunt flesh. I shake my head. “Twins?” Aeslin nods in an uncharacteristic absent fashion, counting the baby boy's toes. “Did you...” Matthews shakes his head. “One baby was hiding the other. Every pulsesound came back negative for anything but a singleton.” My grin is sudden—fierce. “This is perfect. And,” I lift a finger, tapping it against my unshaven chin, “explains all the mondo-hormone surges our dear Narah bombed us with.” Aeslin appears vaguely alarmed, a neat trick as vampire facial expressions go. “I will leave that for you to explain.” His lips curl. “Bullshit,” Matthews says, “it's over with now. Narah's okay and the babes are,” he glances down, face alight with happiness, “beautiful.” He and Aeslin exchange a look, and at that unspoken que, the babies open their mouths simultaneously to yawn. Tiny fang buds appear as white, non-erupted ghostly apparitions under gentle pink gums. “Ah,” I choke out, mouth agape. Matthews scrubs his head with his free hand. “Breastfeeding's a bitch.” “Right,” I agree, feeling vaguely nauseated. My pulse vibrates and I pluck it from the front pocket of my skin tight black denims. Depressing my thumb, I keep my eyes on the infant vampires. Questions crowd my skull: Will they drink milk or blood, will they daywalk because Narah is still partly human? Casper: why am I getting images of breasts and fangs? Damn, I lift my thumb from the dock. I was accidentally thinking my wonderings directly to my boss. Fuckwit. And me already on thin ice with too many kills for the quarter. At least lashes have been outlawed. Thank all that is holy. I hold a finger up to Narah's mates, indicating I need a moment. They don't notice. It's all about the babies. I roll my eyes. Two warriors reduced to simpering fools over a couple of poop-and fang-machines. Ridiculous. Me: Apologies—here at the hospital with Narah. Some thought processes slipped through. I feel heat climb my neck. I'm not the first person on earth to accidentally transmit thoughts I'd rather keep to myself. Casper: emotive response puzzled. I'll say. frowns As of now you're covering Narah while she's on maternity leave. Me: Right. The Ghost gets right on things. Casper: Your first case is a Mutable target. # 1213. Grace Cline. Standby for stats. My cell fills with her information and my gut becomes a hard knot. Don't like rescuing the ladies. Too much responsibility. Narah's better at it. She wants to save. I just want to apprehend the bad buggers. But now that the shifters and vamps have screamed their existence to the world, myself not excepted, Final Enforcement is the only law who has the skill set to deal with the new threat. Especially its two enforcers who are now, other. The mundane police haven't caught up to the new sub-species. We're it for the moment. This is only the second case of its kind. Narah just closed one three weeks ago where a colony of Mutables had sniffed out a target for transition. Of course, their brand of transition is cruel and criminal. Hence, interference is warranted from Final Enforcement. Mutables only goal is to transition female human hybrids into their animal so they can force-breed and use their unique properties to make themselves shift to any animal at will. Earning my pay here. I stuff my pulse in my back pocket and with a nod to my fellow vampires, I stride down the hall to congratulate Narah. * Narah's bleached white cheeks blend with the pillow her head rests on. “God, love—you look like ass.” Her middle finger raises in stiff response, then drops in a limp heap on top of the hospital covers. I grin. “Thanks for the info.” My smile fades. “Did you lose a lot of blood?” I take her limp hand in mine. “You're cool.” Immediately my blooded instinct is to feed her. I assert the logic that her mates are vamps. They can feed her. Still, the urge persists. I swallow past instinct. “Do you need me to feed you?” Her eyes soften. “No, but thank you.” Narah's smile turns wry. “You try shooting two watermelons out of your peehole, and see how rapturous you feel.” My grin comes flashing back into existence like a shooting star. That's my girl. “I see your nasty attitude is in place.” “Yes, and that hormonal bullshit is behind me. Thank fuck.” She frowns. “Where are the babinos?” “I think the males were trying to give you some rest.” Narah grabs her breasts. “I can't get any rest. My milk's already coming in and I feel like I have bricks for tits. Fetch them on your way out, Murph.” I blink. “Perhaps too much reality, Narah.” She gives an exasperated sigh. “Buck up, stud. I'm on this mother thing and you're taking over my cases.” She studies me. “You got a new case, don't ya?” I nod. She tilts her head back, giving me a hooded look. “Don't seem thrilled. Tell me.” I tug the back of my hair, tightened in a knot at my nape. “Fucking colony shooting their fluids at a new hybrid.” “Shit,” Narah hisses, hiking herself up and fluffing pillows behind her, wincing at the movement. “Bum hurt?” I ask with prefect compassion. “What do you think, blow hard?” she seethes. I retreat a step. Possibly not all the hormones have evacuated the building. Her eyes narrow to mercury razors. “Spill.” I talk. Ten minutes later Narah is thoughtful. “Killian's dead, so the Hunter community is out of commission for the moment.” She bites her thumbnail, brows knit. “Yes, one less group to fuck us up.” The corner's of Narah's lips lift and her hand drops onto her lap. “Yup. So Aeslin can help if the female is vamp, get her in touch with a Turner—Noble sanctioned, of course.” I nod. “Of course, but if she's not?” I ask in a lilt. Narah says nothing for a full minute. “We'll have to break silence. Get ahold of Doric.” I feel my brows meet. “I thought he wanted to stay out of human affairs. Something about keeping his wee oasis secret from other shifters.” “Prehistorics are funny that way. But being isolationist can't be a permanent solution. Merck can't keep hiding that he mated a change, that he's got a menage mating with a female that is both Lycan and prehistoric. The prehistorics need to establish their position as top dog. The time might be now.” My mouth quirks. “Brilliant turn of phrase.” Narah shrugs. “When I spoke with Talyn last, she conveyed the leader of the Prehistorics thoughts perfectly. Doric doesn't want to come out of the shifter closet. Not yet.” Her reflective eyes meet mine, our blood connection clicking into place. “But if this hybrid is one of them?” Narah gives a soft shake of her head. “There's a very slim chance. Most likely, she's a plain old run-of-the-mill shifter or vamp. Period. But reach out to Talyn, maybe put them on stand by.” “Stand by, love?” “Whatever, Murphy. Just do the prelim and—hell you've been at FE for over a year now. You know the drill.” We sit silently, my hand reaches out and lightly holds hers. Her eyes fill with our connection, the touch making it more. Narah rubs the middle of her chest. “What's really bugging you?” I hide my face by looking at our linked hands. Just touching Narah causes my emotions to smooth. “Don't want to be responsible for some woman's transition,” I finally admit. “Why?” she asks softly. I promised I'd never talk about it. Narah's fingers grip mine. “Talk, Murph.” The seconds slide into a minute before I say a word. Can't keep my past a secret forever. My exhale is raw nerves on air. “Before I left the UK, I thought to rescue a girl. Trapped in a nasty domestic.” My eyes rise. Knowledge rides in hers. “Three time offender. Our version of Final Enforcement had been dragging just behind this prick. Driving hard. We had him cornered.” “Had family?” Our gazes lock for a heartbeat. “Yeah,” I whisper. Sweat beads pop on my upper lip. “Used the family as a meat shield. “Boy, about five or so—wife. I can't,” I dump my head and Narah remains silent, “I can't erase their faces from my mind.” “Maybe you're not meant to, Murph,” Narah says softly. I nod, not really believing her words. “I checked my fire, but my men,” I glance at her face, “and one woman, who were under me, solid mates—did not. The boy was killed outright but the woman... she lingered.” I blow out a frustrated, mournful lungful. “She had no will to live, Narah.” My voice is a thread. I glance up and silent tears waterfall from her blazing steel eyes. And I know in that moment, she's absorbing my emotions. Essentially, she's crying for my bruised soul. “That debauched man robbed his family of their will to live, then in the final step, stole their lives by proxy.” Narah releases my hand and wipes her cheeks. “You need blood,” I say with quiet certainty and she nods. “The men will sense it and be back.” She gives a watery smile. “And how were you responsible?” she asks. “Because that man? He was a shifter. I know that now. We didn't kill him, we killed his family by accident and he took off like smoke. So having the final call where women and children are concerned?” I fling my hands out, “not, as you Americans say, feeling it.” “You're afraid of failing this unknown woman?” I jerk my head in her direction. Hit the question head on. “Hell yes.” “Is that why you screw everything with a vagina and never...” “Settle down?” I ask with defensive scorn. Narah stares at me and finally, she gives a curt nod. “Yeah, ya foul fucker.” “Apologies,” I say. “I don't want to rile the new mother.” I squeeze her hand then let it fall. “Listen to me.” I stare at my sire, so hungry for blood her lips have thinned, edged vaguely blue in color. I hear a distant wail and know the babies will be back—the vampire husbands. “Let your life lead you. Have some fucking faith. Look at how great my mess turned out.” Her smile twists on her pale face. It turned out well indeed. I stand and bending over her, kiss Narah on her forehead as the males come in with her children. I walk away to do my job. And hope I can save who I couldn't save before. Chapter 6 Grace My knuckles ache from the grip I have of Sondra's dark green car door. A breeze has picked up, whipping strands of my mid-back length light brown hair around my face. Tendrils try to tuck themselves against my neck, as though seeking warmth from the early fall blustering. Stomach in knots, I shut the door and slowly trudge up the cracked sidewalk. Weeds struggle successfully between the cracks, appearing like loose, insistent islands of washed out green within the chalky-gray cement. I climb the narrow crumbling pathway and traverse the sagging front steps to a door that's solid oak. The only thing of beauty from the faded glory days when the house was built at the turn-of-the-last century. Leaves skate and hide in the corners of the filthy, paint-peeled porch. As I raise my hand to knock, a dingy curtain parts and a small face peeks out. A face I love. Toby smiles for a heartbreaking moment and is yanked back by a man's hand. My knuckles rap on all that thick wood, heart scraping into my throat. The door is sucked inward and Toby stands there, Fred's paw clamped on his small shoulder. “Hey Grace,” he says, licking his thick lips. I haven't met this latest guy, just saw him briefly when he picked up Toby. But I could almost replace a face from dude to dude. They don't look the same, but they're identical inside. Rotten. He smiles, thinking he's charming. The same bully from the schoolyard grins as I note one of his canine teeth are missing. Probably all that uncapping of Bud Light. “Here to pick up the kid?” Gee yes, that's why I'm standing here sweating bullets. Aloud I say, “Yes. Talbot said I could have him today.” I couldn't have him the weekend before and now I'm desperate. Desperate for him not to have more weekend time with Fred. I don't refer to Talbot as “mom.” That's a name she hasn't earned. His eyes lower to half-mast and the hand that doesn't grip Toby lifts, taking a long pull from the beer I'd just imagined. His dull eyes meet mine over the threaded beer bottle rim, half the label peeled off. It's ten in the morning on a Sunday. But drunks don't care. “She did?” he asks, assuming an expression of confusion. Didn't he just ask me if I were here to pick up Toby? But his eyes are those of a sharp drunk. This type of drunk isn't common, but in my experience, they crop up once in awhile. As if they need a little booze to elevate an already pathetic IQ. I shift my gaze to Toby and his eyes plead with mine. “Hey babe!” Sondra shouts from the street and Fred's bloodshot eyes narrow to beady slits on my friend. Please don't interfere, Sondra, I rapidly pray. “Who's that black twat?” Fred asks. I briefly close my eyes, body tensing. Jesus. “That's my friend who works with me.” Less information for Fred is better. “Grace?” Toby asks in a small voice. “Shud'up,” Fred barks and I badly hide my wince. His circumspect gaze is still over my shoulder. “Nice body,” he adds. Oh no. I turn. Sondra's making her way up the steps. “Hi Fred.” My lips part. How does Sondra know his name? Maybe I mentioned it once last week? Really—he's only been around a couple... Fred's eyes shift to Sondra and he takes another pull of beer. “What do ya want?” “I gave Grace a ride to pick up Toby. Talbot said he could go with Grace all day and spend the night. She'd get him to Little People tomorrow morning.” He shoves a shoulder up, the tattered black and red checkered flannel long-sleeved shirt pulling taut over his pot belly. He's Santa Clause without the jolly. I swallow the lump of unease in my throat. I want to get my little brother and get the hell out of here. If I can't get him right now, he'll be stuck with this horrible man. Who's so intent on doing terrible things. “Talbot's outta it. Taking a breather.” He swings his chin toward the back of the house. His lips fashion into a sneer. Toby's eyes are bright with tears and I see the hand that's on his shoulder squeeze. “Let that boy go or I'll put in a word to CPS. They'll be real interested to know that you're sponging off the bio-mom who's using, and beating up on a four-year old.” He releases Toby and steps through the threshold. Toby takes advantage of the freedom and shoots out the door, flying toward me, he wraps his arms around my legs. Circling his small shoulders with my arm, I extract my paid pulse from the front pocket of my denims, thumb hovering over the dock. Fred looms over Sondra. She's my friend. My only friend, and Sondra meets his advance. “Go ahead dicklick. Take your best shot. You put a mark on my body and you'll be thrown away into prison. Get your doughboy hole husked.” I clap my hands over my mouth. Sondra's smile is sure. Bravery shimmers around her like the legendary angel's halos. Fred stops. Glares down at her. “You can't tell Fred what to do, ya black bitch.” Sondra's chin jerks back. “Sticks and stones, tubby. I can't be insulted unless I own it. And I don't own sacks of shit. They stink.” Oh God. I begin to back down the stairs, towing Toby behind me. My attention splits between Sondra and her car. I want to protect Toby—I don't want to leave Sondra. Fred's neck turns an unflattering shade of ruddy brick red. Sondra's arms fold underneath her breasts. “Go ahead, blow your stack. It's your funeral.” Fred's big hands clench. Probably was built like a linebacker back in the day. Now he's south of forty and sleeping with a heroine addict so he doesn't need a job and has free sex. I shudder. “Go Grace.” Sondra throws over her shoulder. I shake my head, realize Sondra can't see me and say, “Let's go together. It's my day, Fred knows that.” His gaze swings to me and he points. “I'm talking about this with Tal.” I bet. He'll probably not talk about how he hurt Toby just for fun. How he was too drunk to string a coherent sentence together. A belligerent bully. That's how Fred's gotten by in life. And my worthless mother has the don't ask, don't tell policy in full throttle. Sondra keeps her eyes on Fred, backing down the stairs with care. She baited him, but she's no dummy. “Remember what I said, Pillsbury,” she grates. His expression sours. “I'll remember to get my piece the next time you trot by, whore.” Sondra smiles. “You don't know what I am, but I know what you are.” She spins, jogging down the sidewalk and catching up to where Toby and I are. I pivot and face the car, grabbing the door handle on her pulse-less vehicle and yank up, swinging the door open wide. Toby scrambles in first and Sondra's eyes meet mine for a breathless moment over the roof of the car. Hers widen. “Grace!” Something grips me, hauling me backward. I'm whirled around and hit the side of the car with my back and my breath leaves me in a whoosh. Fred's stale beer breath wafts into my face and I'd gag if I could breathe. His eyes slim on me with rabid hate. “Argh,” I choke like a drowning pirate, my breath trying to return in fits and starts. “Don't you come back here cunt, unless you want a piece of the action I'm giving your mama.” His hand moves over the crotch of my denims. No. And painfully squeezes my sex. Oxygen fills my desperate lungs and I scream. At least, I try to scream. Instead, a fizzling thread of sound escapes. Suddenly the pressure from his hand eases and he falls away like a huge fleshy tree. Seems to take forever for Fred to slump onto the overgrown lawn flanking the sidewalk. Blood pools underneath his head. His perverted eyes are closed. Sondra stands over him with a crowbar. “Oh!” My palms slap the sides of her car. “Well that settles shit,” Sondra says with a hands dusting off her pants voice. Sondra gives a dismissive grunt, and rounds the back of her car. Popping the trunk, she tosses the bludgeoning tool inside. Sondra smirks. “I knew that I didn't need the crowbar for just changing tires. Versatile as shit.” She winks at me. Good Lord. “Definitely not.” I lean forward, as though Fred might bounce off the sidewalk like a sprung jack-in-the-box. Her pert nose wrinkles. “Don't worry about it, sweetie—that fool's down for the count.” Toby asks, “Can we go, Grace?” Thumb gets popped in mouth, his eyes all for an unmoving Fred. Good thinking, Fred might spring up like a zombie. I nod quickly, and hop in the car, Sondra slides into the driver's seat right after. My heart thumps as I survey the scene of the broken house, absent mother and unconscious Fred. I turn around, facing forward. “You know I can't take Toby back here, right?” “Yup.” My face swings in her direction. “Did ya have to hit him over the head?” She pauses for a heartbeat, turning on the engine and pulling away from the curb. I glance back at unconscious Fred. “Yeah, had to. Can't have him grabbing your crotch. No. Can. Do.” Her dark eyebrows jerk high. Saving my honor. I hold up a stiff palm and Sondra high fives me. I turn back around and tell Toby to buckle up and hear the click. Sliding down in my seat I prop my feet on the dash and release a relieved breath. “Was that bullshit about CPS?” “Alive and in foster care is better than the alternative, Grace.” I start crying then. She hands me a McDonald's napkin and I blot my tears on the cheap, recycled paper. “You're sure a McGyver,” I finally say. “Yup,” Sondra says for the second time, making her way back to the apartment we're now sharing, “Crowbar as weapon, fast food napkins as a soother—I bet there's a ton of other shit in this crappy car that can serve our needs.” I laugh then massage my temples, feeling the familiar nausea return like a wave to shore. “Headache?” Sondra asks. My eyes flick to her then away. “Yeah—and that stuff with Fred didn't help.” “I know guys like that. Ya need to stand up to ʻem.” Sondra takes a couple of turns and ends up on Summit and 12th street. Her crappy subsidized apartment building rises like a big square prison in front of us. She kills the engine and it hiccups to silence, cooling. “So,” Sondra turns, bending her knee underneath her butt, and propping up her body. “Fred's out for now. If Toby goes back there...” she shakes her head, indicating she's not going to finish her thoughts while Toby's within earshot. “Grace?” Toby says from the back and I twist in the front seat to face him. “Can I take off my buckle?” “You sure can, sweet boy.” He unbuckles and climbs over the back seat to the front, sitting between us. He grabs Sondra's hand in his smaller one and whispers, “Did you kill Fred?” His large brown eyes are round, filled with pathetic hope. I sigh. A four year old shouldn't wish for a person's death. Even one who deserves it as much as Fred does. Sondra ruffles his hair. “I wish, buster.” I give her a look. “I mean,” she frowns at me, but when her attention shifts to Toby, she smiles, “Auntie Sondra doesn't want that big dude to hurt our little dude.” She pokes at his ribs with a finger and he giggles. When Toby finally stops laughing he grows serious. “Will he get up again?” She gives a solemn nod. “Those type always do. They're like evil Energizer Bunnies.” My brows come together. “You mean the old-fashioned battery commercial?” Sondra looks at me. “Yeah. Remember the bunny?” I can't. She sees my expression then slaps her palms together, miming clanging symbols. “Oh yeah!” I say, getting an image of a moving musical bunny—white and pink with cymbals. Annoying as hell. Probably why I can finally remember it. Seared into my brain. “What's a battery?” Toby asks, bouncing on the seat. “Something we don't use anymore,” Sondra says, opening the driver's side door. Toby pops out and looks up at Sondra's drab apartment building. I look at it through his eyes. Dimly colored sandstone brick from the 1940s is weathered, many of the bricks appear like decaying teeth at the corners, the poles that hold the covered parking stalls are rusty, with a spindly, just-about-ready-to-collapse look. Toby turns, his mussed hair floating around his cherub face. “Is this where you live now, Grace?” He gazes at the building with new interest. I want to cry. He never has the same place to go to. There's no stable home. Toby seems to sense my anguish and walks over to my side. I notice one of his shoes is untied and squat down in front of him with one knee, beginning to tie his bright red sneaker. His little hand pats my head. “It's okay, Grace. It doesn't matter where you live.” My eyes rise to his in mid-knot. His smile is benevolent—angelic. “It only matters that I'm with you. You're home, Grace.” “Be still my heart, little man!” Sondra sings into the parking lot, her splayed fingers landing on her chest. She grabs his hand and I stand, clasping the other while subtly wiping away tears. “Swing me!” he shouts. Sondra and I exchange a smile. We begin walking, swinging Toby between us. My headache and stomach quiet, a bright ray of joy piercing the encroaching misery of not having a place, Toby's domestic situation—and my upcoming transition. I have this moment and nothing can steal it from me. Chapter 7 Murphy I slowly turn, dusk having narrowed to the birth of night—the vaguest illumination throwing shadows along the apartment that belonged to Grace Cline just three days ago. Kurt Temper stands just behind me. “There's a good chap, stand back a bit—give a vampire room to breathe.” I turn my head, raising my eyebrows. Temper steps back. Normally, the civilian population is aware of my status as other, and has a healthy dose of respect—read terror—for us vampires. Excepting Bunny, and the other anomalous population of human women who want a night of fang and prick. “Hey man—I got a new tenant in here. Just,” he swipes a hair into the other from his once-perfect comb-over, “no proof you were in here, pal. Final Enforcement or not, I gotta keep renters happy.” I fully face him, hands coming to my hips. “Except Grace Cline? How happy was she when you tossed her out on her ear? The poor lamb.” Temper's fat lips purse. “They trashed my unit,” he explains in a lame parody of excuse. I cruise smoothly around all the antique pieces of furniture. Hitting my thumb on my pulse again, though I'm sure of her scent, I think a request for scent recognition into my device. The green characters obligingly float to the thin crystal surface in response to my query. Processing, Enforcer Murphy. Yes, yes. I heave a frustrated sigh for the three seconds it takes. Then Grace Cline's scent rises from the pinhole ports at the top of my device. Female. Young. Anglo-saxon descent. I tilt my head, nostrils flattening with their flare. Fertile. My nose ripples with the next smell. Undetermined. Brows meeting, I repeat the process. Same stats. Lifting my head I swing my palm over an old piece of furniture, perhaps five and a half feet tall, with a narrow desk section topping a china cabinet combo with drawers. I bend over the wood surface. Grace Cline's scent still lingers. I move to each piece of furniture, executing the same procedure over all the vintage pieces. Except for a vaguely ugly desk chair, all the items belong to Miss Cline. Temper looks at his feet when I ask him why her things remain if he got rid of her as a tenant. “Owed me a grand in back rent,” he supplies. Inhaling, I scent the vapor of guilt. “Why?” I ask softly. He shrugs a beefy shoulder. “Don't know why she couldn't make ends meet. Works at a babysitting outfit.” “Daycare?” I clarify. He nods, sweeping a nervous palm over his thinning hair. So a struggling single woman in her early twenties makes chump change wiping bottoms and noses and when she can't cough up the back rent, olʼ Kurt here makes her pay up with her belongings. Charming fella. “Alright, you've unhelpfully cleaned up the damage, expunging the evidence.” My eyes run over the now-repaired walls, carpet and the like. Temper opens his mouth and I raise my palm. “I know, you needed to rent the unit.” He sounds like a popped balloon, breath wheezing out of his overactive piehole in a thin whistle. “Yeah, like I told ya. I gotta pay for the building somehow.” I take in the shabby flecked countertops, the worn porcelain on the cast iron tub. I have a fine view of the loo from the center of the living/bedroom combo. There's no way Temper's paying much to maintain this slum. He's raking in cash and letting his tenants live in poverty. Okay. I depress my thumb on my pulse dock again. Known Mutable scent threads, I think. Processing, Enforcer Murphy. “Whad're ya doinʼ?” I ignore the landlord for the moment. A full minute later, ten scents ping. I think my selections. My eyebrows quirk at one of the listed scents. Holding my breath, I think the request. Processing, Enforcer Murphy. The pulse device lights, indicating the scent I requested will emit in three seconds. I suck in a lungful. Hold it. Commit it to memory in the predator's library vault of my mind. Stalking the room, Temper's anxious eyes follow my actions. Probably picked up some brains along the way, and sorted he wasn't going to scoot my arse out of here until I had the answers I came for. Nimble bugger. I halt at the sliding glass door. Small shards of tempered glass still glint in the slider rails. I sink to my haunches, hands dangling between my knees and study the glass. I use my vampire vision for the rest. Blood and microscopic bits of hair cling to some of the bits littering the thin tracks of the ancient door apparatus. Scooping up the glittering chunks, sized like raw salt pebbles, I roll them about in my palm. As the glass moves, a subtle scent permeates my sensitive olfactory canals. I stand so quickly, Temper tumbles into the wall behind him to avoid me. “Wh-what?” he chokes out, jowls trembling. My lips flatten into a thin line. “Looks like we have more than Mutables.” I whip fast to my left, fisting my hand around the fragments. They bite into my skin and the small wounds I accrue heal as they occur. Working my way around the room, I touch every surface, repeating the process of scooping and smelling. Only one piece of proof remains. The one I need. “What is it?” Temper fires after me. I don't bother answering, the tailwind of my departure has made his unfortunate combover rise like a spear of hair on his head. Casper must know. Final Enforcement has never had this scent typed before. We have Mutable in the pulse data system. Shifter, Lycan—vamp. But unidentified? Never. There's something else seeking Grace Cline. And I'm determined to find out what it is. Before it finds her. * Casper's shock of white hair stands up on end, icy scattered spires stick up willy-nilly, pale eyes that resemble dirty glass, stare back with flat disinterest. “Murphy,” he scrubs a palm over his face, “you're not supposed to guess about the perps. Just use your super vampire,” he waves his palm around wearily, “senses,” he momentarily perks, “and grab the girl. We'll give her to Aeslin's people and they'll assign one of those Turner men—” “—males,” I say in a dry, resigned voice. “Yes, yes.” He crosses his arms, shrugging. Giving a rough exhale, I lean forward, tapping the table where the small shards of glass sparkle inside a petri dish. “We've looked at this the old-fashioned way because you couldn't seem to take my word for it.” Casper's dirty snowflake-colored eyes hood. “Listen Murphy, you've got attitude, you're a vamp now—you've been here a year. I like you. But I can't waste what little manpower time I have on deciphering what this woman will turn into.” He snickers and I roll my eyes. Wanker. “Find the girl, plug her into our safehouse. Have Aeslin contact the Nobles and assign a Turner to get her vampy—or whatever she is—and #1213's out of our hair.” He lifts his pulse and depresses his thumb on the doc. Luminescent green characters converge on the surface, fashioning into a long list of names with assigned numbers. “Cline, Grace—is #1213.” He practically shoves the device underneath my nose, “I've got ten perps who need apprehension, and whatever other hybrid crops up in between. I need you to stop playing detective and close this.” I peg my hands on my hips. “You want me to be Narah.” I wear a tight smile and hope fangs show. He leans his ass against the desk, blasé. “She's very focused.” “She's an assassin,” Mollie mutters from the corner of the office. “Couldn't you stay knocked out?” I throw over my shoulder, thinking of the Mutable mess Narah and the males helped me with. “Thanks for nothing!” She hollers back. I did see to her safety. Eventually. “Children,” Casper warns. “What if Grace Cline is more than a hybrid vamp?” I believe this unidentified scent lingering in her apartment is a warning for us to proceed with caution. Maybe have back up. Without knowing what that scent is, it's not logical to charge in, guns blazing, so to speak. Casper clearly does not concur. He's a bottom line bloke. “Not our problem. We protect the hybrid for transitioning, then get them to the transitioner. If there's some kind of interbreeding thing manifesting—let the supernaturals figure it out. After all,” his eyes laser at me, “the supes confessed to the mess of their existence, let them deal with the consequences.” He taps my chest with his pulse. “Close this case, Enforcer Murphy, or I'll assign the whole mess to Enforcer Casey.” “Pfft!” Mollie says in the background. For once, we agree. “He's a incompetent bugger,” I state in a low voice. Casper whips his pulse device around and the list greets my sharp vision a second time. Yeah, yeah. I pivot on my heel, storming out of Final Enforcement. * Nervous fingers flutter to her throat and I suppress my exasperated exhale. “Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, Ms. Smyth.” I smile, realize I just flashed fang and close my mouth. She pales. Superb start. I tap a finger on my holographic badge. There's not a lot of these around. Mine's on a lariat today, when typically it's an integral rectangle that gives off what and who I am when in uniform via pulse flash loop. Tonight I'm not. I'm sure the flashing stats freak some out. Like Shelley Smyth, boss of Grace Cline. Who was summoned from her supper table to come back to her place of business to meet with a bounty enforcer. One of the vampire persuasion. I know what the badge flashes when I wear my uniform. Species: vampire. Bounty Enforcer, Level Ten proficient, Foreign national: British. Year turned: 2023. “So you're a new...” fingers flutter anew. “Vampire,” I give my second ass-puckering tight smile of the night. Ms. Smyth's eyes latch onto my fangs. She gulps, and I have a rush of lust surge through me when her throat convulses with the movement. Narah mentioned I have an entire year or more with bloodlust issues. It's been dreary as fuck. And longer than a goddamned year, fuck you very much. And not having fed since Bunny. “Why do you want to know where Grace lives?” I explain in great detail. “She's been very sick. But I never thought,” she bites her bottom lip. I sharpen on her scent. Compassion, regret, anxiety. Ah, she likes Grace. That bodes well. I will not put the vampire whammy on her. I shall not. I do. “Shelley Smyth,” I command in a resonant voice. Her chin hitches up, lips parting as her teeth release the tight grasp she just had on the plump flesh. “Do you care for Grace Cline?” Her eyes glaze but her answer is instant, “Yes. She's a nice girl from a bad situation.” Now we're getting somewhere. “Tell me everything you know, ending with where I can find her at present.” Shelley Smyth struggles. Sometimes conviction and true emotion offer handy shields from my vamp juice. “Will you hurt Grace?” she asks against my compulsion. My eyebrows hike in surprise. I could push more thrall down her throat—choke her with it. But there's something respectful about a woman trying to protect another. “Never,” I say. It's easy when it's the truth. “I am here to protect Grace until she can—be eased into the next phase of her life.” There—that's as vague as anything I've ever offered, but I didn't mention the big ticket words. Lycan. Shifter. Vamp. Other, my mind unhelpfully adds, and I scowl. Shelley tells me. My assurance was enough without jamming her with more thrall. The longer Shelley's recounting of Grace Cline's story goes, the more permanent my disquiet becomes. This is no ordinary client. This is a train wreck waiting to happen. Grace Cline has all the hallmarks of a difficult perp. Except she's not a criminal. Dysfunctional upbringing. Little brother still in the cauldron's pot of a druggie mom. No home. Sicker than she can stand. “Grace doesn't know you are privy to her relationship with Toby.” Shelley shakes her head. “She's gone to great lengths to cover the fact, and I didn't want to infringe on her privacy.” “That was good of you.” Even under deep thrall, she blushes at the compliment. Grace is lucky to have this profoundly devoted person at her back. “Tell me where she's living.” Robotically, Shelley thumbs her pulse and a glowing address blinks to the inky surface of the paper-thin device. Committing the address to memory I thank Shelley, releasing her from thrall and walk her to her vehicle. I wait until she's pulsed it on, the locks engage and she's driving back home. Inserting our false conversation was easy. She'll remember my questioning as a much more superficial conveying of information. Shelley Smyth will remember shielding Grace. Because I made it so. Willed it so. It's a mercy for her to remember protecting Grace. Thankfully, I don't mean her employee harm. The outcome would be wholly different had I meant the opposite. Sioux Falls Little People is located near to Grace's former derelict flat—but her co-worker, Sondra—her place is further. Driving distance. Unless one is vampire. Keeping to the swaths of green belted woods that connect the neighborhoods, I sprint to the address while ruminating on the details that Ms. Smyth shared. Fine forest debris kicks up with my passage and small woodland creatures surviving in the city's ribbons of mature forest scurry out of my way. I almost feel compassionate toward Grace Cline. A young woman who's never caught a break, as the Americans are fond of saying. Where life has only presented her with brief oases between harrowing circumstance. Then I recall London, and working for the UK's version of Final Enforcement. What I failed at. What was lost; a piece of me. People's lives. The tender feeling for my client fades. To be replaced with dedication. And nothing more. At least, that's what I tell myself. Chapter 8 Murphy I depress my thumb on my pulse doc to get the time, though I know I'm spot on. Vampires have an astute sense of time. I'm sure in part a default instinct, considering we'd be on the wienie roast parade past dawn if we didn't keep our wits about us. My vampire sense says half past ten p.m. Glancing at the pulse screen as the characters rise, I get the Greenwich mean time read out. Many would recognize it as military time—zulu. Perfect time. 22:30: 30 seconds. Too late for housecalls, Murph. I run my palm over the top of my head a few times, catching on strands of loose hair come undone from my tidy sprint. Yeah, and I'll just pass the time scratching my ass while Mr. Undetermined appears like Houdini and pulls a Mutable—or something worse. Not happening. Scanning the perimeter of the big block of shit in front of me, I note it's as depressing as Grace's former flat. They don't pay these women enough to mind the future of America; they live in unsafe hellholes. With a weary sigh, I do what I now think of as the vamp routine. Shutting my eyes, I drop my lower jaw, opening the ear canals for sound while closing off another sense. Nothing. That's not entirely true. The noisy squirrels and owls chatter, hoot and scamper. I catch the low-pitch of cockroaches as they skitter from one rotting mess of humanity's dredges to another. My eyelids lift halfway, and I use my vampire vision—and how acute is that? When I was born from Narah's blood, it was as though I'd been blind before, and now I can see. Vampires see one thousand times greater spectrum of color and detail than a human. We can see things that move too rapidly for humansʼ limited vision to track. We feel pain, but injuries of all kinds can be healed. Not all the vampire legends humans perpetuate are true. Yes, cut off our heads. That'll make us quitters. I smirk. Fire will also end us—as will the sun—though that is varying degrees of demise, depending on the individual. Narah can still daywalk, albeit with some discomfort. Stab us in the heart and the other keeps beating. The smaller of the two is hidden behind the larger, and the more powerful, despite the size. Senses satisfied, I leap from where I stand to the balcony of the second floor. This is where Sondra, and now Grace, live. Two women bustle around in the kitchen and I observe the happy domestic bit, balls of my feet balanced on the rail, fingertips steadying my body. They appear to be a similar height, and I know which is Grace by scent. Glass offers no barrier to a vampire's sense of smell. On a molecular level, glass is in motion. Eventually, this pane that separates the two women and myself will succumb to gravity. I also scent blood and frown, lightly hopping down. Soundlessly. But the little boy I hadn't seen from my vantage point on the rail turns his head. Interesting. He couldn't have heard me. Large, curious brown eyes meet mine. The hell with it. I wave. Hesitantly, his small hand pops up, giving a wagging enthusiastic salute back. I smile. His mouth drops open. Fuck—the fangs again. Damn. I never remember. Grace lifts her head, maybe catching his motion from the corner of her eye. The tiny fella points to me and I step out of the shadow of the narrow crumbling balcony and an inch away from the glass. She opens her mouth in obvious preparation for a scream. I'm instantly struck by how lovely she is. Before she can sound a vocal alarm, I slap my holographic badge against the glass. Her lips pop shut. There's no one alive that can fake the power of that badge. Grace Cline moves toward the door, the boy dancing around her legs like a jumping bean. The other girl moves between us, shaking her head. Her frizzy dark hair moves like one piece at the motion. Grace lifts her chin toward what I hold against the glass. Sondra gives a sigh of disgust and backs away. At the last moment, she pulses the lock on the ancient sliding glass door. The thing retracts along the aluminum runners, screaming resistance in a most annoying fashion. “Hello,” Grace says neutrally. “I was told Final Enforcement might be paying me a visit.” Her short laugh is nervous. “You startled me.” “Apologies, Miss Cline.” I cock an eyebrow. “You'll have to invite me in.” “Great, a vampire,” Sondra says, rolling dark eyes. Prejudice right out of the gate. Brilliant. Grace turns toward her friend and my eyes caress her neck. Seems like instinct. Or lust. However, Grace Cline is no Bunny. A small knick on her finger grabs my full attention. Fangs throbbing, I swallow my reactions. “He can't help what he is. He's that guy that got turned by the other enforcer last year, remember?” Grace turns back to me and I take note of her delicate features. Bluish eyes that mimic a shade of soft purple hold my gaze, dark blonde hair that frames a face with a smattering of gold freckles takes center stage across the bridge of her nose. Not a beautiful face. But one that becomes prettier the longer you look at it. Somehow, that kind of beauty is more devastating. I shift my weight. “I need the words, Miss Cline.” She seems to realize we were staring at each other and a faint pink color tints her cheeks. “Please, enter my dwelling—” I drown in those beautiful soft eyes. I'm never tongue tied. Until now. “Enforcer Murphy,” I choke out. She smiles, not seeming to notice my gaff. “Please enter my dwelling, Enforcer Murphy.” The barrier that keeps all vampires out of humansʼ homes, lifts. It's in those moments I desperately wish I was still as human as Narah. She doesn't need permission. An effective biological omission she benefits from. We've discussed the weird barrier that protects humans from my kind, and have decided it's a failsafe engineered by mother nature. I'd say mother nature is a bitch, but vamps have so much on their side, perhaps the Achilles's heel is only fair. Nature's justice. We listen to the slider close with agonizing slowness. We certainly can't converse over the top of the shrieking whine. Her friend studies me with unfriendly eyes. Can't say I blame her, the local law hasn't protected our client. They gave her to me—washing their hands of the untidy transition. Her landlord kept all her things. My gaze scans the five stacked boxes just inside the door. She's just moved in. “You're bleeding,” I say. Grace looks at her hand. “Oh—yeah.” Heat roars through my body. “I can help.” Her eyes find mine. “Help?” I nod slowly. I would like to do much more than heal that small wound. Burying my fangs and prick would be just the very least of what I wish for. “Heal you.” I lick my lips, feeling the press of my fangs. “Vamps have healing compounds in their saliva,” Sondra says dryly. “He won't hurt me, he's Final Enforcement,” Grace says, but her eyes are unsure. God knows, I won't hurt her. What I want isn't about hurting. My smile is tight and as neutral as I can make it. Grace's return smile is hesitant. She lifts her hand and I bridge the gap between us easily, in a blur of movement that has her friend gasping. I wrap her wrist and pull her against my body. Grace's pupils dilate like spilled ink within her unusual-colored irises. Nothing compares with taking the blood from a willing female. Putting her finger between my lips, I suck it inside my mouth in one graceful press between my fangs. Swirling my tongue around the wound. I taste her blood. I taste Grace Cline. It's a horribly intimate moment and I watch as her lips part and a soft moan escapes with her breath. “Oh,” she says again, and her free hand falls in the middle of my chest. Yes. Thrall doesn't work on hybrids. I have only my wits about me and whatever this attraction is between us. I release her finger with a pop and she slowly lowers her hand. Grace's heartbeat pushes against the hollow in her throat, keeping my gaze captive. My prick's so hard it aches, and I keep my body angled away so she can't know. “So you're the guy that's going to save Grace?” Disdain coats the friend's voice. Sondra, I remember from my research. Her words shatter the moment and I turn to Sondra, shifting my weight, and shake my head. “No. I am the enforcer who will hand her off to her transition male.” Grace backs up, worry tightening her beautiful eyes and curling the finger I just healed into the tight ball of her hand and placing it against her chest. I frown. “You have been told you're transitioning?” I split my attention between the two women for clarification, scowling at the thought of giving Grace to a Turner—or any other male. A growl that's too high a frequency for them to hear peels out of me. No one hears it but me. And that's enough. I'm losing it. Not hanging on to a professional bone in my body. “Yeah,” Grace says, blushing. “I don't feel well.” “Normal,” I give in clipped reply and shrug. No hybrid female feels right when getting close to their transition time. My nostrils flare, inhaling her blood scent on my tongue. Rolling around the succulent aftertaste. Brilliant. AB negative. Divine blood type. My fangs punch through my gums, and I feel my eyes dilate, my hard-won restraint slipping at the near-aphrodisiac sweet smell of her blood. Remembering the succulent bouquet of flavor. “Are you going to be okay?” Sondra asks with sarcasm. I clear my throat, throwing my eyelids wide from their hooded state. “It's—unclear all that you will be. But I can, ah... tell that you will need a Turner.” Can I ever. Jesus, Murph, get a grip. I've become a blundering schoolboy. Standing straighter, I try to smile and a fang pierces my lip. A conspicuous drop of blood begins to run down my jaw. I attempt to wipe it but Grace's brows form a knot between those gorgeous eyes. “You're bleeding.” That's because you're lovely, and I want to fuck and feed off you. Never mind me. I grit my teeth, willing my fangs back to nubs. Forget blue balls—it's blue fang. “He's got blood ʼcause he's a vampire,” the little boy behind Grace says in wonder. Not precisely. Grace steps forward, and I perform a sort of bumbling pinwheel backward like a clod, banging into the table behind me and knocking over a lamp. Which I catch mid-fall. Too fast for the ladies to see. Grace gives a small screaming shout and her smell washes over me. My cock chooses that opportunity to go full tilt again. Fuck me twice. “Whoa!” the boy yells into the awkward chasm I just created, “cool.” I right the lamp and straighten. “Sorry about that.” I lick the blood from my lip and Grace's eyes follow the movement. My cock throbs and I move behind the sofa, hoping I can hide my massive erection. Grace frowns. “You're—are you okay?” Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Stay where you are. “Yes,” I say with a curt word. Grace recoils from my tone and I instantly regret my manner—but it's worlds better than explaining myself. Subtly, I adjust my traitorous junk. She seems to gulp down her concern over my arsehole well-being and asks softly, “You're supposed to—give me to a vampire Turner.” I wordlessly nod, feeling my dick deflate. Just the thought of her going to another male makes me feel ill. Sondra frowns. “You seem kinda flustered, dude.” I give her a narrow gaze. She's a might sharp for her britches. She flings her hands up. “You enforcer guys—you're supposed to be all that.” I'm beginning to dislike Sondra, excepting the fact she shelters my client. “We are,” I say, and realize I'm growling. Dialing it back won't work. Fucking unreal. Grace Cline isn't a normal hybrid client in need of escorting and safekeeping under the umbrella of Final Enforcement. I don't know exactly what she is, but I know I can't just let her go. Her blood calls to mine. Like Narah—but without the relation tether. I won't address what the vibe is. But I do have to tip my hat at Aeslin, the anal prick. I am the first known human turned by a human hybrid vampire. There are certain unknowns. Apparently like this one. Licking another drop of blood from my lip, I say formally, “Grace Cline, I am here to escort you to the Final Enforcement safehouse, until the proper transitioner or Turner can be located, vetted and assigned to your transition.” Makes my chest tight saying the official spiel. “Wait a second,” Grace looks around in a semi-panic. “I know you're legit, Mr.-ah-Enforcer Murphy.” Her voice is pleading with me for reason and I'm keeping a lid on attacking her by a thread. I don't want to escort her anywhere. I want to keep her in bed for three days. Taste her blood, move inside her body. What the fuck is wrong with me? “But,” her palms come up in a warding off gesture, “I have Toby. I can't just leave and go to some unknown...” “Safehouse,” I manage to say. Grace retreats another step. I need to employ more compassion. But all I can see is her racing pulse, the deep gorgeous violet seas of her gaze. Her call is like a siren to my blood. My veins heat, pressing to the surface of my skin. Seeking Grace. I grip the corner of the couch, my eyes narrowing down on her mouth. Her lips. “You listening Enforcer Vampire?” Sondra says from beside me. My head swivels to her. “God, you're a spooky fucker,” she says, taking Grace's hand. “Yes,” I agree, because it's true. The little boy is unafraid, pulling on my free hand. Fearless, I have time to think before he blows me away with his question. “If we go with you, will you keep Grace and me safe from Fred?” I will keep you safe from all, kin of my blood, I think with ancient words I didn't know I had inside me. My body aches with the words, like an oath. “Yes,” I say and reach out with my thrall. It sloughs off the boy without effect. My thrall experiment excludes certain things. Like the boy being fully human. “Wait!” Sondra says. I ignore her, and lightly touch Toby's chin. Lifting his small face, I search the boy's eyes. The small one stares unflinchingly back. Upon releasing him, I look to Grace. “Toby is special, Miss Cline.” “Grace,” she answers with a little breathiness to her voice. I incline my head, nerves raw from the encounter, her blood—my want. “Let's get out of here before we receive unwanted guests.” “What are you talking about?” Sondra asks, hands on hips. “I'm sure, if Sioux Fall's finest said a bounty officer would be coming round from Final Enforcement, they must have told you something about who broke in to your flat?” “Love your accent,” Sondra reluctantly remarks. Already succumbing to the vamp proximity. I ignore her, she is not my charge. Even more importantly, she doesn't make my blood tremble with yearning. Taking a big inhale, I let it out slow. “Mutables have been identified as perps. They're tenacious wankers.” The little boy giggles and I absently pat his head. “They'll be cropping up like pesky weeds and I've been tasked with getting you to the safehouse.” “I need to bring Toby.” I look at the boy. “Toby?” He nods. I stick my hand out, remembering my manners. “Murphy.” “Just Murphy?” Sondra asks. “Like Madonna?” “Not really.” I don't find I'm especially flattered by the comparison. “My first name's not relevant. Most enforcers go by our last names. Keeps confusion to a dull roar.” Toby shakes my hand. “Toby's not part of the bargain, Miss—Grace.” However special, Casper might see my gonads bagged for assuming more than case #1213. The boy's face falls. “But,” I swing out a palm, making an instant decision, “I think I can bend the rules a bit.” I send him a wink and his face brightens, though he gives a sucking yawn. Tike's knackered. “What about me?” Sondra asks with a chin hike, tapping her foot. Right. I'm sailing down a slippery slope, arse first. “Is there any chance you'll remain here?” “Not on your life, vamp-boy.” “Sondra,” Grace admonishes. “Nope. Not missing this. Making sure my girl gets where she's supposed to go without a Mutable rapist making off with her.” “Mutables,” I correct, thinking she couldn't possibly offer defense, but not daft enough to utter it. “And, though I'm an amicable chap in most circumstances, if the right one presents, I will be vicious.” Sondra meets my eyes. “You're a level ten?” I nod. “That's a dangerous proficient.” I grin, fangs flashing like the weapons they are. “Yes. And now that I'm vampire, I have certain—factors—which benefit me, but not the perpetrator.” Grace cups her elbows, back to biting that luscious full bottom lip. I don't intend to frighten her. But I will kill whoever tries to inflict harm on her. My eyes briefly touch on Toby. I'll loop him too. “Let's go then,” Sondra finally says. “I need to pack—” Grace begins. “—no time.” Her lilac eyes meet mine and I instantly want to erase the worry I see. When I reach out my hand toward her, she steps into my space and her scent flat-lines my brain. It's as though her nearness takes out all the superficial niceties I was born with as a human—leaving only the primal. Protect. Feed. Fuck. Claim. That last instinctive directive is like a zap of electricity between us. I've never wanted more than a quick fang and fuck since the day I became vampire, and not much before. Yet, I can't deny the rightness of Grace. Even as my vague human intellect tries to reassert dominance, the primal side of my vampire nature shuts it down. A connection, lock to key, clicks into place and before I can analyze, she's in the crook of my body. And I know one thing for certain. I'm never letting her go. Chapter 9 Grace I let the vampire take my hand and lead me down two flights of stairs. Sondra speaks quietly to Toby from behind me. I glance up at Enforcer Murphy's hard face. Jaw like granite, eyes like dark marbles of obsidian embers in his face. He seems at a loss as to what to do with me. And I instinctively trust him. Final Enforcement has become the sole entity to protect transitioning females until the one who can transition them is alerted. That's if the hybrid is lucky enough to be discovered first by FE. News reports are full of women, like myself, who were discovered first by Mutables. Final Enforcement can't take any chances. But Murphy appears to have taken a personal interest in me that goes beyond just acquisition and transfer. He healed my small scratch from the box cut. I felt his sexual power swirl around me, my body responding. The best thing was my headache and nausea pulled away so I could think. Not that I was doing a lot of that. Now he's leading me out of here, making our way to the safehouse. Murphy's hand binds me. Sealing our heartbeats, seamlessly matching them. I know, because the pulse in his neck keeps time with mine. He takes me away from his side and puts me behind him. His eyes tighten, body tensing. “Hold back, love,” he says as I plow into his broad back. “Why hello, Enforcer Murphy,” I hear a deep voice rumble. I glance over my shoulder. Toby's large eyes meet mine, and his thumb is jammed in his mouth. “We're not acquainted, mate.” His grip on my hand tightens and he pulls me deeper behind his body. The hard muscles along Murphy's spine stiffen under the grasp I keep on his shirt. My heart batters wildly inside my chest. “No need,” the melodic voice goes on, pulling something low in my center. A soft moan escapes, and a ripe headache attacks my temples. I press my forehead into the enforcer's back, nausea rolling through my stomach and rising. “I feel the female hiding behind you.” He adds softly, “Her suffering.” Murphy is still. He's so still that if I weren't holding onto him, I wouldn't know he was present. “And the sooner I get her to safety, the sooner she can be transitioned.” “What the fuck is this?” Sondra says from behind me. Fearless. “Quiet,” Murphy rumbles, his voice traveling through my skullbones and reverberating in my body. But I could have told him that'd never work. Sondra takes matters in her own hands. “Nope. This nitwit bigfoot is not touching Grace.” My head clears. “Bigfoot?” I whisper, sliding my head around Murphy's back to take a cautious peek. A huge ape-like man stands about two meters away, facing us. Two others flank him. He bares his teeth at Murphy, and a hiss erupts. Fangs. “Oh-no, girlfriend. These,” she wags her finger between the three ape-shifter guys, “are not going to be transitioning you. No gorilla for you, girl.” “Agreed,” Murphy says. The leader's eyes find mine, then they go to his friends. “Get the boy and the life-bringer.” “It's a death sentence to interfere with an enforcer's task,” Murphy states with quiet confidence. “You have been duly warned.” The leader's slowly spinning amber eyes fix on Murphy. “You hold no jurisdiction over me, cousin.” What? Murphy's somehow related to this guy? Besides being terrified, I'm now officially confused. I take the leader in, head to toe. Nearly seven feet tall, his hulking brow ridge protrudes over glowing eyes and high, prominent cheekbones. Fierce intelligence and deadly intent radiate from his gaze as he rakes the assembled with deliberate calculation. Downy dark brown hair skates over the exposed flesh of his body. Heavily knuckled and long, dextrous fingers cinch and release. Thick ropes of muscle make up his legs and arms as they swing opposite each other, readying for an attack. The only garment he wears is some kind of soft black pants that hide nothing. My eyes scan his naked chest, see the muscle there and I grip Murphy tighter. His flinty scrutiny departs as he makes a sharp ascending chirping whistle at the other two. The noise is nearly bird-like. If birds could sound like menace. “Toby, come here,” Sondra says. I back away from Murphy and he lets me go, crouching protectively in front of us. Two of the ape men come forward while the leader shifts his slowly revolving gaze back to me, like a gun sighted on a target. Murphy's calm, acting as though he's waiting for a dance partner instead of an assault by ape shifter. The first ape guy reaches him and I suck in a gasp. He towers over Murphy, though I know the bounty enforcer is well over six feet. The ape men are so much taller. “Bring it, Murphy!” Sondra shouts and I back up further. Murphy looks like he needs the room. Ape number one stretches out with an impossibly long reach and Murphy captures his wrist, using the shifter's momentum, he twists, dumping him in a slow tumble over his outstretched leg. The shifter spins into the fall, hitting his palms on the ground a split second before his face. Number two hits Murphy in a dead run before he can fully right himself. Murphy swings his arms up and slaps his palms together over the shifter's ears. He howls and Murphy ducks as he sweeps toward him. The ape's arms catch air. Murphy blurs to the leader, who stiff arms him, palm to nose. Blood sprays from Murphy's face. I scream, feeling his pain as if it were my own as tears begin to leak out of my eyes. His head snaps back as the leader hits him again. Murphy's knee hits the ground. I begin to move forward. I know I can't help but I can't watch the enforcer get hurt because of me. Hand extended, Murphy seizes the leader's balls. He bellows into the night. I halt, cringing at the sound. Pedestrian traffic begins to converge around us. “Grace!” Murphy yells. I grab Toby, with Sondra on the other side, and we jog past the two struggling ape men, half-carrying Toby. We rush toward Murphy as a hard rain boils down on top of us, obscuring my vision. The leader writhes on the ground and fear sinks its talons deep. Murphy stands, appearing completely unfazed. “Take my hand, love.” I blink up at him, rain coating my eyelashes. His voice is muffled, his nose cruelly lurching to the side. I grab his palm, the immediate connection I noticed before reestablishing between us. “Your nose,” I choke, feeling guilty for the gore of his face—knowing it was for my benefit. His crooked smile is brief. “Nevermind love, it's a flesh wound—let's go.” I catch a blur in my periphery vision and with a grunt, Murphy goes down, hitting the sidewalk hard. I whirl. But as escapes go, it's not in the cards. “Run!” Murphy hollers from the ground. I don't move. I tighten my hold on Toby and turn. Sondra understands and releases him. The huge figure of the leader looms over me and my vision dims further. His body forces the rain back, and it sheets off the side of his body, drops falling at my sides. Toby's weight keeps me grounded in the now. I won't quit and leave him. Sondra comes between the huge shifter and us, bringing her knee up almost to chest height in an attempt to nail his balls. He shoves her without looking, a tightening of his eyes is the only indication she made contact with his injured crotch, as though it was a bee sting instead of a blow to the nuts. Our eyes meet. “I am taking you, life-bringer. You're far too rare for the vampires.” I vehemently shake my head, squeezing Toby tight. “Don't hurt us,” I whisper. “Ah!” he hisses whipping his head behind him. Murphy's latched on to the back of his ankle with his fangs. “Do not make me kill you, Enforcer.” Their gazes lock. Talons burst from Murphy and he swipes a path at the back of the leader's hamstrings while tearing a chunk from the back of his leg. Murphy spits out the piece of flesh, hissing. Venom drips and I back away. The leader sinks and I launch Toby over my shoulder and jog in the opposite direction. I pass Sondra but she's already getting to her feet. Footsteps pound after me. I don't turn to see who's behind me. Toby bounces on my back. Oh no, oh no. They grow closer. “Grace!” his small voice shatters the air like broken glass. I'm popped off my feet from behind and I instinctively stranglehold Toby's body against mine. It's not Murphy, there is no connection as though the heat of my blood cools because of his touch. The ground falls away and for a few seconds, we're weightless then I'm in a tree. The leader growls, “Hold the boy—I cannot save you both.” I smell woods and burnt cinnamon and fresh earth all around me—and realize it comes from my kidnapper. He doesn't smell like an animal, or the bigfoot Sondra called him—but a man. Wild and untamed, but still male. My intellect tells me it's not possible, but my senses wouldn't lie. I'm petrified and scattered but that's the one truth my nose is telling me. I grip Toby, because we're twenty feet above the ground. The shifter's long arm extends and the leader leaps. I shut my eyes so hard they hurt. Air and rain slap my skin as we swing without a tether through the night. “Grace,” Toby whispers against my chest, both arms around me. “Shh.” My voice shakes, cooling sweat chills against my skin, rain washing the proof of my fear away. “Grace!” Sondra yells from below us. My eyelids snap open, a hot tear mixing with the cool rain as it makes a lonely path down my cheek. The trees are a dark green smear behind us, cars appearing to crawl like metal ants below. People point upwards and the dots of their bodies grow smaller as, tree after tree, we sail further from Sioux Falls. Grace, I hear in my head. Vertigo assails me as we seem to float through the night then jar onto another branch before leaping again. Enforcer Murphy? I squeeze my eyes more tightly shut, willing to hear him again. Wind rushes past me and I feel the leader's warm, sure hands on my body, holding me like precious cargo. I'm coming for you, blood of my blood. I chance a glance behind us, the fingers that hold me prisoner tightening, Toby squished between me and the leader. A blur of flesh, bone and speed bears down. Gaining. Murphy. THE END Read More VAC #8 available August 20,2017! Never miss a new release! Subscribe: Marata Eros NEWS And/or TRB News If you enjoyed VAC 7-Final Enforcement, please consider posting your thoughts HERE, and help another reader discover a new series. Thank you! ***Love Final Enforcement Alpha Claim? Please read on for a sample chapter of another Marata Eros work …. 18+ Audience Mature themes: Pervasive violence, profanity and sexuality throughout. NOOSE A Road Kill MC Novella Volume 1 New York Times Bestselling author MARATA EROS All Rights Reserved. Copyright © 2016 Marata Eros This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer's imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental. This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to a legitimate retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. Marata Eros Website Marata Eros FB Fan Page Cover art by Willsin Rowe Editing suggestions provided by Red Adept Editing. Whores A smorgasbord of sweet butts, one for every taste. Noose has a sweet tooth that won't quit, and a clubwhore to suit his every need. Being a part of the Road Kill Motorcycle Club isn't a hard choice for Noose. A former Navy Seal and expert knotter, he's seen realtime choices—in circumstances most never do. It's killing road. Women and freedom are the benefits of being a one percenter. Until Rose Christo comes along and slams the brakes on his outlaw existence. Murderers Rose Christo knows death. Murder stole her sister, and gave her a son that's not hers. Love doesn't come in neat packages; it comes in the form of a five-year-old boy. Love is packaged in a man that tears out her heart with a brutal sexuality that strips Rose of her most sacred vow. Never count on a man. Never love. Never. When her sister's murderer comes calling, demanding his property, who does Rose trust? 1 Noose I grab Crystal's hair, fisting it tightly against the scalp, and drive into her hard from behind. She squeals, and I suck up the noise like a starving man. Sweet butts are all the same. They want to be taken. I want to take. I love bareback, but rubbers are key. This pussy has had more dicks than I can count, and it's like fucking another man if you're not wearing a raincoat. Even when it's not raining. I'm done being introspective. I don't have to be anymore. I just fuck. I wear a rubber so I can fuck and not think. Perfection. Like the knots I make. Like the ones I've made to murder with. Crystal moans. I thrust harder and start swirling my dick high in a semi-circle. She screams, her cunt squeezing my dick in big deep pulses. My balls get ready for lift-off, and I come from my toenails, emptying the double barrel right on target. My head tips back, and I give an exhausted exhale. When I finally come down, I slap her tight ass and withdraw, stripping the spent rubber from the top and rolling it off as I walk. Chucking the limp sheath in the trash can, I turn around. She's still there, tits still mounded on the tabletop I pushed her on, pussy all bright pink and plump. Splayed for the next guy. If any were dumb enough to enter my lair. I smirk. They sure as fuck shouldn't be. An exhale drives out of me, and I tear calloused fingers through my hair, wanting a smoke bad. I glance again at Crystal's slit. It's a shame when a perfectly good pussy isn't leaking cum. I shake my head in partial regret. Can't have it all. Her head pops off the table, and she moves to the side, her natural large rack sort of rolling toward the tabletop. Crystal puts her head in her palm, studying me. I admire the view as I hop into my jeans. Commando. I'll figure out underwear when she's outta here and I can grab a shower. For now, I just want to get my ass covered and have my post-coital drag. I rummage through shit on the top of my battered chest of drawers and spy the hard box of cigs underneath a pair of clean underwear. Snapping open the lid, I give the pack a wrist flick, and three cigarettes slide out. I open my lips and nip one out. After flipping the lid closed, I toss the pack back on the dresser. I grab the lighter out of my jeans pocket and light up. Cupping my hand around the flame, I take the first drag then shoot a smoke ring toward the peeling paint of the graying ceiling. Relief washes over me. I got off, time for a kick back, then I go back to work. I'm already hashing shit out for the day in my head when Crystal starts talking. I’d forgotten she was there. Her lips purse. Some girls think pouting is cute. I know it's the cue for a potential mega-rant in my near future. Not having that noise. She runs her hand through her bleached-blond hair, puffing it out on the side that was mashed against the tabletop. My lips quirk. Her effort to be sexy is sort of fun, like free entertainment. “Hey, baby, let me stay for a while,” she says in a voice that tries too hard for bedroom smooth, finger trailing over her tit and tweaking the nipple. Nice. I clamp the cig between my lips and shake my head. “Nope. Out.” My thumb slings toward the bedroom door. The big pout ensues, full bottom-lip treatment. “But”—she sits up, tits jiggling, and starts to walk fast after me—“I thought we could—” “Nope,” I repeat, flicking ash toward the ashtray as I stride toward the bathroom. Most of the inch-long ash lands in the glass bottom that reads Road Kill MC. How's that shit for propaganda? The Prez believes in the club like the Holy Grail. I do too. It's all there is for us one percenters. It's the road. The bike. And the women. Not always in that order. I don't need anything more than that. I never have. I turn around fast, and Crystal bounces into my chest. My hand rests against the doorjamb leading into the bathroom. “Listen, you're cute.” I give her chin a little chuck. “But I'm not looking for anything long-term.” I lift my shoulder, blowing another lazy oval toward the ceiling. Crystal looks ready to cry. God damn. I stuff my cig in the ashtray, mashing it in half. Spirals of smoke curl upward. Grabbing my wallet off the nightstand beside the door, I jerk out two twenties and a ten. I shove them at Crystal. “Go buy yourself something hot. Something that shows tits and ass.” Chicks like to shop. What do they call it? Oh yeah—retail therapy. She grabs the money, looks down at it for a second, then throws it in my face. “I'm not a whore!” I wince. The green bills floats to the worn carpet. Act like a whore, look like a whore… “You're a sweet butt. And you were sweet.” Not so much now. “But it's time for you to take off.” Her face reddens. “You're a jerk, Noose.” I've been called worse. I step into the bathroom. I don't look at the sweet butt picking up the crumpled cash. I kick the door closed behind me then give a hard turn to the faucet. When the entire bathroom is steaming, I get inside the shower. She'll be gone when I get out. They always are. * I should have done my sets before I showered. But no way was I going to have Crystal around while I work my shit out. Tonight I'll do pushups, twisted sisters, and burpies until the cows come home. There's always the punching bag. Nobody's ever using it when I come in. My fists will tire me out. Fucking insomnia. The witching hour is officially mine. I own it. I owned it over in Afghanistan too. Can't sleep when you know someone might kill you. Or you might have to be the one doing the killing. I move through the club with a lot of stealth, considering my size. It's part of why I was never a jumper in the military. Big guys get fucked up fast. Six feet, four and two hundred twenty pounds of male has all kinds of potential for getting broken to bits. “The bigger they are, the harder they fall” has new meaning in a parachute. That's why hands-on assassinations are so much more appealing. Knots. When I'm stressed out, my mind does them. My hands are restless to feel ropes under my fingertips—the abrasive kind or the slick new style that knots faster than my mind can think it. I pass the kitchen, a hangman's knot wrapping my thoughts. The loop's perfectly symmetrical, winding and wrapping until there's a little loop, then I pull through— “Noose!” A rough hand claps my back, and I frown. ’Bout had that knot. My favorite. Hence the namesake, I guess. My team would know why, even though the club guys don't. They're probably under the impression it's a tough name or that it’s cool. It's not. Noose has meaning. But to those of us who fought side by side, we don't talk about obvious shit. Our time just was. I give a broad smile. Lots of us brothers have similar names. Take Snare, the guy who’s just put his hand on me. He gets out of those—traps, close calls, the works. The dude's got nine lives. Nothing like a cat, though. He lifts his fist, and I bump my knuckles with his. “Hey, man.” “Saw Crystal go outta here in a huff.” His eyes, a blue so pale that they're the color of frozen water, hold humor. Snare's about three inches shorter than I am, but he’s built like a brick shithouse. I shrug at his words. “How was she?” His eyes are hooded. He’s probably thinking about the platter of pussy we have strutting around all the time. He hasn't sampled the Crystal hors d'oeuvre yet. I lift my shoulder. “Same as the rest.” His eyebrows jerk in surprise. Snare's got some Native American in him. His hair's jet black. White folk never get hair that dark without help. The mix of light-blue eyes and black hair is striking—or so the ladies seem to think. My hair is shit dishwater. Can't make up its mind between brown and blond. That doesn't matter; I keep the sides short and the top long. When it gets in my way, the whole load gets tied down. Since I'm on the back of the bike half my waking hours, hair's tied down a fuckton. I even have a little invisible hair tie for the beard. I keep that long and square. It's darker than the hair on my head, with a touch of ginger. Had a sweet butt ask me last month if I was Scottish. Fuck if I know. I guess I'm American, for what that's worth. I'm a mad bastard, I told her. Then I went to town on her twat. That shut up the questions in a hurry. Just a lot of moaning and shit after. That's how I like it—don't ask me for history. “Come on, Noose, she's always pining for you. I haven't had a crack at her.” I chuckle. “Nice choice of words, bro.” He flings his muscular arms wide. “Not just another pretty face.” Snare winks. His face is not pretty. Snare got some blade time and a close call that almost took out his eyeball. The twisted scar tissue bisects one eyebrow, narrowly misses his eye, and travels in a hooked line that ends at the cleft of his chin. Some girls are shy about Snare. I think scars add character, though. It makes him look bad ass, which, in turn, freaks out the chicks. Love/hate thing. Not bad for the sack. I exhale. “Crystal doesn't pine. She whines.” “Now who's the poet and they don't know it?” Snare asks, glacial eyes widening. I flip him the bird. “Ass.” He nods. “Yup. But put in a good word for me anyways.” I give a lopsided grin. “I don't think Crystal's gonna think any of my words are good after our interlude.” Snare whistles, walking outside with me. Brilliant sunlight belts me in the face, and I flick my sunglasses open. They’re high-end and polarized. I don't like glare when I ride. I slide them on my face, loving the anticipation of the wide-open ribbon of black asphalt. “Interlude?” he asks in disbelief. I throw up a hand and waffle it around. “Pelvic grind, hip bump, pipe lay…” Snare grunts. “You ever done anyone twice, Noose?” I narrow my gaze at him behind my dark glasses. “Nah.” “Figured.” Our attention turns to our rides. The windshields glint in the sun like sleepy, winking eyes. “Let's ride,” I say. Snare doesn't need another invitation. 2 Rose It's my break. I'm allowed to look at my text messages. I have to. Charlie will send me pictures. He always does. The sweetheart. I move through the breakroom, my hip hitting the countertop of the little kitchenette. I grimace but hardly notice. A ping sounds, and an image fills my cell screen. It's a Lego tower. A perfect, brilliant work of art. For a five-year-old. I smile like I just saw an original Picasso. Love swells my chest, and pride tightens it. He's done so well. “Hey, Rose,” one of the other tellers greets me as she walks by. “Hey, Naomi,” I reply absently, brushing away a stray hair that's come loose from my topknot. My eyes are all for the new little creation my boy made during his first week of kindergarten. My heart flutters. I cried ten gallons of tears last week when I had to send him off. My sadness had been evil. I guess all mothers feel that way. I don't know for sure. I'm not really a mom. I'm an aunt. But his real mom's dead. So I'll have to do. I bite my lip, rolling the plump flesh inside my mouth and gnawing at it. My finger runs over the colorful blocks with a loving touch, my screen magnifies, and I see his left hand clutched over the top. A tower almost as tall as he is threatens to topple, but not before the teacher got the pic. I text back rapidly. “Beautiful.” There's no return text. I glance at the time on my cell. Naptime. My heartbeat regains its slow rhythm. I try to overcome the panic at not immediately hearing back from him. I'm sort of a gloom-and-doom type. I haven't seen Charlie's father in a year. The fucking loser. Time feels pregnant with potential, swollen with his promise of getting his son back. Over my dead body. “Rose.” I know that voice and sigh. I lift my chin, meeting his gaze. My boss stands there, his eyes steady on the clock over my left shoulder. One minute past break. Ned's about ten years older than I am. That puts him around thirty-four. He's married. Not that the little fact of his status as taken stops him from making passes at me whenever he can. Ned found out fast that I don't date. Ever. I sure as hell don't date married men who are my boss. Some of the girls don't care that he’s married. They rise in the ranks faster for blowing him in his office. I've been a teller at this bank since high school graduation. My first boss died of a heart attack last year. Orville was a good man. Now Ned's here. He smirks, obviously enjoying the discovery of my minor transgression. I slide off the stool, realizing I missed having a snack. Not great for the old hypoglycemia. Stupid, Rose. Oh well, maybe I can pop an M&M or two at my station. He leans down next to my face as I pass him, his hot breath singeing my temple. “Don't let it happen again.” Sacrificing my body’s natural aversion to a man, I try not to jerk away. I feel an expression of disgust seat itself on my face as I regard him. His beady brown eyes slim on me with a hate that I don't deserve. Just because I say no doesn't mean I suck. But to Ned, my lack of interest means exactly that. I turn away quickly, trying to pretend those interchanges don't bug me or make me nervous. That’s crap, of course. Anxious sweat stings my palms and breaks out underneath my armpits. I hate feeling stressed where I work. My fingers curl around the cell. I have Charlie. I have a job. I have a hell of a lot to be thankful for. Crying over my perv boss like a scared little bitch won't solve it. I just won't be late anymore. Even a minute. A second. I don't want to give the jerk anything to have over me. I scoot my stool with the rolling wheels underneath the counter and lift my sign that says Next Window. I'm ready to take money now. * I hate my boobs. Other women think I've got it made or something. I fill out clothes nice, sure. But I have to wear two sports bras so the girls don't drive me crazy with bouncing. Besides, it kind of hurts if I don't. Like now. I jog around nine-minute miles most days. On the weekends, I go a little nuts and do around six-mile runs, then I'm a true jogger, slowing down too just under tens. During the week, between my job and Charlie, I can only manage around three times a week. I take Sundays off. That's Charlie's day. My day. I swear I live at Scenic Park. Rumor has it we had a mayor back in the 1970s who was out of control for parks and threw one in everywhere there was land. Kent needs it. The city's a little armpit bedroom community to Seattle now. Infrastructure was not well thought out, and the traffic is a rat's nest of too many cars in clogged arteries. The roads of Kent have cholesterol, and there's not a damn thing we can do to stop the impending heart attack. The valley bisects the east and west hills of the city. Kent's got long fingers of ownership that travel all the way to Federal Way to the west, cutting a path through that town and still claiming a narrow swath that belongs to the City of Kent. I don't care about the impractical parks that could have been made into more roads or wider ones. I just like to jog the paths of Scenic Park and have a free, safe place to hang with my nephew. The ritual of running erases my mind's problems and takes me on a journey of the soul without introspection. I cannot think for that hour I'm pounding paths that wind through trees. I don't think about my creeper boss. I don't think about Charlie's real dad, my sister’s murderer. I just run. Charlie loves the park. If the wind's strong, we fly kites that get caught in the Douglas fir trees, tails like rainbow arcs toss their color in the deep blue of summer that comes late in the Pacific Northwest. A wave of light-headedness washes over me, making my stride stutter. Dammit. My little waist pouch taps my hip softly as I run. I hate stopping the rhythm I set when I run. My sports watch says I was doing high eights. That's pretty fast for my slow ass. A tight smile stretches my lips. Just one more quarter mile, and my car will be in sight. I can make it. I take the last bit of my run hard, seeing what I've got left. When my little Smartcar comes into sight I slow to a walk, cruising right past the shiny white toaster. I'm begging to puke if I just stop and hop in. Nope. First, it's the ten-minute cool-down walk, then it's stretching. First things first. I spring a Jolly Rancher candy free of my little pouch, tear off the wrapper, and stuff it inside my mouth, striding back and forth. I probably look like a crazy pacer. I suck hard through my nose and breathe out my mouth, controlling my air. Sweet and sour apple flavor explodes inside my mouth as I suck on the candy, willing it to settle me and ground my fuzzy brain. Being tied to protein and ready sugars gets old, but it could be worse. Oh well. My tongue rolls the candy around in my mouth, my heartbeats slow, and my shakiness subsides. I plant my hands at my hips, elbows out, and walk with my head down. Back and forth, back and forth. I don't see, hear, or think. I crunch my candy and cool down. That's probably why I didn't notice him at first. Drake moves into my path. I stop as if I just walked into an invisible wall. It sure feels like I did. The wings of my elbows fold, and that heartbeat I had under control riots inside a chest that suddenly doesn't feel like taking in air. “Hello, Rose.” He's just as I remember him from last year. Huge. Greasy. Sinister. Dangerous. I don't reply, pivoting quickly. I move to my car. He's so fast, his hand is on the handle before I touch it. I make a little noise of distress. God, please. Please. His smile is cruel as he grits out, “We're gonna talk, bitch.” My heart flies up my throat. I try to reply but can't. His hand grips my bicep, fingers biting the tender flesh just above the elbow. “There's witnesses, Drake.” I'm so proud of the evenness of my voice. He nods. “I know that. We're gonna talk. Here. Now.” I swallow, craning my neck to get a good look at him. He's over six feet to my five feet, seven. His biker gang tats are all over him. The only tat-free space on his big body is his face. He reeks like body odor and ashtrays. Underneath that is pure evil. I shudder. His smile widens. He's so pleased by the effect he has on me, and I'm helpless to not react. Drake is the most repugnant man I've ever met in the flesh. He drops my arm as though it burns him. I know that's not the case. He's told me I look as good as my sister. When he said that, tears burst from my eyeballs. Not a few. A flood. He laughed. The leather of his motorcycle jacket creaks when he shifts his weight. “Hearing's coming up.” I know that. I've lived knowing that. My feet take me a few steps out of his reach. “I know.” “They're going to give me my boy back.” A slow, false grin spreads on his face. I shake my head, my lips thinning. “They'll take one look at you and give me another five years.” “You fucking bitch. Give me visitation rights.” I swallow my fear, as his hands become flesh hammers at his side. “What rights?” I whisper in a choked voice, my fingers splaying over my heart. “What rights did Anna have?” “She stepped out on me,” Drake says, crossing his arms over his steroid-muscled chest. “She walked out on you. Big difference. But if that helps you sleep at night…” His eyes slim down on me. “I sleep like a baby.” He puts a V around his lips and his tongue punches out. Wagging at me. Disgust ripples through me. “What are you? Twelve?” I shake my head, turning to walk back to my car. Defeated. I have to see this maniac again in a week. I should have known he couldn't wait until then. He reaches out, snagging my wrist. He grinds the small bones together. “You will say you're willing to give me visitation, or I'll make it so you wished you had.” A whimper slips out. Drake likes the noise. His hold tightens slightly, then he drops my arm. I fight not to rub my wrist. I feel tears burn my eyes, knowing what my sister went through before she died. A taste of Drake's abuse is enough to last me a lifetime. “You can't force me. Charlie's all I have of Anna. He's a human being, not a pawn for your control.” His thumb hits his chest. “He's my fucking kid. Unless that crack was fucking someone I don't know about?” His dark eyebrows twitch upward. I wish she had. But Charlie is all his. Anna had only just started dating another guy when she was murdered. Who knows if she ever slept with him? Charlie was already here, so it’s a moot point. Drake was the only man Anna slept with, as far as I know. I shake my head. He lifts his shoulders hard, driving them to his ears. Heavy gauges distend the lobes. They’re jet black, like his clothes. Like his heart. “I'll be there.” I jerk the handle up and heave myself inside, slamming the door. Drake strides to the window and gives a single hard rap of his knuckles against the glass. I flinch. Starting the car, I crack the window. “It's not you being there that matters. It's you vouching for me, cunt.” I hate that word. It's so dirty from his mouth. I'm more than the sum of my parts. Ineffectual rage blossoms like a dark flower inside me, swarming my body with heat. His lips twist savagely. “Yeah. I see how you are. What you'd like to do to me. But you can't. I'm in control, see?” I do see, but I won't be manipulated. This won't stop. If I cave to Drake's demands, he won't stop there. He'll want more. He won't stop until he has Charlie. I can't let that happen. His grimy fingers curl over the window rim. I slam the gear in reverse and take off. Drake snatches his hand away. His glare haunts me even after he's out of sight. 3 Noose “Fucking Kent.” “Yup.” Snare squints up at the sky, taking in the Indian summer weather. “Don't really feeling like being errand boy today. Could be eating road.” “Killing road,” I say. He turns to me with a grin. We bump fists again. Good day to be alive. I hit the kickstand with the toe of my boot, and it clicks into place. I let the Road King settle to the side, its engine ticking as it cools. I'm the only brother with a King. I love the smoothness. Of course, I've had every thing under the sun done for speed. The pipes are bigger than a woman's waist. Well, maybe not that big. I grin, striding toward the bank where the club's money gets stowed. The manager's dirty. He'll hold anything for the right price. Road Kill MC always pays the right price for the job. He's a cowardly little simp. But as long as green greases his palm, he's our dog on a leash. Works for us. There’s lots of gang trash thinking they'll move into our territory and infringe on the club's rights. Road Kill will keep killing to maintain what's ours. Got to be proactive with disease, no matter what form it takes. Gangs. Drugs. Trafficking. Whatever. Cancer spreads. Money that can't be laundered gets its own security net. I look up at the sign. A big key logo hovers over the top, imposing and trying for that secure vibe. We're actually kissing distance to Covington. It's not quite the shithole Kent's become, but it's vying for second position. I shake my head with my normal disdain. Nothing's secure. I move through the entrance, and Snare scans the exits and living, breathing scenery. A good sergeant-at-arms will always tally ins and outs, potential threats. This bank is new for us. The one in Tacoma changed hands, and now we have to dick with the newest lackey. The Prez wants it done, so we go to Kent for the new account. Little intro. It's the right city size to cover shit—big, but not so big that we lose sight of our vitals. Vince, aka Viper, has been President of the Road Kill MC since before I was voted in five years ago, and his intuition rivals my own. We make a good team. Same as Snare and I do. Instincts will keep a man alive. Not brains. Not education. Not attitude. That's all show. Living by your gut sees a long life. Men tied to their primal side survive. He gives a low whistle that only I can hear, and I tense. “What?” I offer in a voice just above a hiss. “Check out that broad.” I stifle an eye roll. I'm all business. Get this money hustle out of the way and eat road. I already had pussy for breakfast. Then I see her, and time slows to a crawl. My dick hurts at just a glance. It's not just one thing about her, but a million things. Yeah, she does have some tits. But I've seen tits—dozens of cum-on-them tits. I'm not a piece man; I'm a package man. This chick's got that going in spades: exotic doe eyes so brown that they're almost black and dark-blond hair that's blonder than my own, but rich like honey. I imagine her pouring over my body like the sweet condiment. “Right?” Snare pants with full-on lust. I jab him in the ribs. He huffs. “Fuck you, Noose.” “Come on.” I pick up one boot after another. I'm never nervous around chicks. They're just a place to park my prick. I lick my lips, wondering for the first time in forever what I threw on to cover my body today. Well, my cut, for starters. Snare and I stand at the silken twisted rope. I read the sign. Please wait for next available teller. A text pings, and I slip my phone out of my jeans. It's the simp manager, Ned. Go to teller number three. Cryptic fuck. I don't text back. Guess who's teller number three? You got it—dark, dainty, and delicious. She’s like a fucking chocolate eclair. My tongue darts out and runs over my lip again, betraying my thoughts. She looks up. My balls lift. Holy fuck. “May I help you?” she asks. Hell yes. She's got one of those low contralto voices to match the package. Her words burn through me. Snare puts an elbow in my side. I move forward. “Yeah.” Her caramel eyebrow arches, and my eyes run all over her body, starting at the rack. She's not some slut. She's built better than any girl I've ever seen, but she's modestly dressed. Christ on a crutch, she looks like she just graduated high school. Finally, my eyes hit her face again. Those eyes. Oh yeah, she's trouble. A fine blush runs across her cheekbones. I've embarrassed her. I don't care. She's just some banker chick. My spine straightens. Ned sidles up behind her, placing a familiar hand at her shoulder. A finger slides up the skin of her neck, and I watch her fight to not shrug it off. My lust moves right into anger. Handy. The emotion chases my fog to the shore of my mind. I can think again. Thank fuck. “Rose,” Ned says, “these are the special clients I told you about.” Rose, my mind whispers like a prayer. Fear edges her eyes as she takes me in the way I just did her. My eyes tighten. Must be the tats. Or the cut. Or me. Probably me. I give a sideways look to Snare. His eyes are glued to the tiny bit of cleavage peeking out her fire-engine-red blouse. Dick. “Yes, thank you, Ned.” I sort of hear, Fuck off, Ned. Maybe it’s wishful thinking. He appears to give her an affectionate squeeze, and she shivers. Pleasure? A look of distaste moves across her features and is gone almost before I notice. Nope. Revulsion. I glare at good old Ned, and he shrinks away. I watch him until he disappears into his glass-walled office. “I can help you,” she says quietly. I reach into the flat leather satchel I have and slide a zippered and locked bag across the countertop between her and me. Rose's fingers tremble as she takes it, careful not to touch me. Her fear pisses me off. I would never hurt a woman, even if she begged me to. I'm not one of those sadist fucks. Why do I give two shits if Rose is scared of me? We're the Road Kill MC; lots of people are scared of us. I look at Rose, her dark honey-colored head bends over the money as she puts it in an automatic currency counter. I don't like her being afraid of me. That makes me even more pissed. She's just a woman, like any other woman. They all have vaginas. They are good for fucking. That's it. My dick throbs. And I'm back to goddamned thinking again. How'd that nasty little habit rear its head again? She finishes and looks up. Eyelashes like amber lace sweep down, fanning over the soft-pink color of her cheeks. She looks up from beneath them, and my breath stutters. Her lips move, and I think about kissing them. “What?” I say in slow motion. She’s clearly flustered at having to repeat herself. “I have your receipt.” I nod and hold out my hand. She hands me the square piece of paper. I glance at the figure. Correct. My fingers wrap hers, and the transaction receipt crinkles between us. I can feel her heartbeat through my hand. Our eyes lock. “Thank you,” she says quietly. Her features tighten. “Welcome,” I manage, releasing her hand. She sits there, stunned. Stunning. I pivot to walk away, and Snare follows, smart enough to keep his trap shut. I stuff the receipt inside the security bag and throw it in the satchel that diagonally crosses my body. Snare punches open the door ahead of me, and I move through first. I've been in combat, and taken lives. I've brushed death so closely, I could taste rot on my tongue. But today I've been undone by some bank teller. I'm fucking losing it. “What the fuck was that?” Snare asks, eyes roaming the parking lot. No thugs leap out of their possible hiding places. My shoulders ease down. “What?” I ask, purposely misunderstanding. I hate explaining shit I can't. To myself. To others. “The fucking chick back there.” He yanks his head back at the doors we just passed through. “Your brains were leaking out your ears. And,” he says, voice going low, “you scared the fuck outta her. Nice, Noose. Way to turn on the charm.” “Not all of us can be beautiful.” Snare snorts. “It's not that, you fucking clown. It's that you were all intense and didn't talk, then we deposit a hundred grand? Real circumspect, is all I'm saying.” “Uh-huh. Stop using the big words, Snare. Makes my brain hurt.” “Not as bad as your dick, apparently.” I turn on him, pointing. “Listen, it's no big thing. I'm just distracted.” Snare nods, unconvinced. “You're never distracted, Hoss.” He knows me. We hop on our rides. I open my trunk and toss the empty moneybag in there. I tap my fingers on my thigh. Snare waits. I turn around, unable to make her out through the dark glass. Maybe Rose sees me looking. Maybe she's watching me. The thought of her watching makes me want to jerk off. “Gee-zus. Just go in there and make a play, Noose. What do you have to lose?” His large hands slap jean-clad thighs. His exhale is frustrated. Nothing. I don't have anything to lose because I'm not going to try. Rose is a classy chick. Sluts are easy—and not just for sex. They've got one thing that interests me. And that's enough. I shake my head, and Snare takes me at my silent word. We hit our kickstands and roll out. Just as we're making the turn out of the parking lot a, Fat Boy cruiser turns in. Chaos Rider. Hate those bastards. I peer hard at the guy, who seems sort of familiar. Not sure how. Road Kill knows every club in Washington and the states that surround it. This dude doesn't rep them great. He looks unkempt, like a shower is a wish never granted. As we pull out, I don't like the way it makes me feel to leave the bank, knowing a biker from a rival club will go in there and feast his eyes on Rose. Heat rolls over me in a hot tide of anger. Fuck. I'm already thinking of Rose as mine. But that's for brothers who want that ball and chain. Need it. And that's the problem with that. She's not mine. I don't want to own anyone.


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