Home » , , , , , , , » Vampire's Shade 1 (Vampire's Shade Collection) by Vivienne Neas

Vampire's Shade 1 (Vampire's Shade Collection) by Vivienne Neas

I backed the vampire into an alley, my knife out with the blade low and threatening. It gleamed in the almost-darkness of the alley, a reminder to me and my victim that the knife had silver in it.
Vampire's Shade 1 (Vampire's Shade Collection)
Vampire's Shade 1 (Vampire's Shade Collection) by Vivienne Neas
A black chain was looped over my shoulder, weighing me down, but I had trained like this. I could deal. I was just trying to scare the vampire with my knife. The short silver blade wasn’t good for a kill, not for a vampire. It would do in a pinch, because the silver burned their flesh – not enough, but a little – and I could work the vampire over if I wanted to, but that would get my hands dirty, and I preferred to stake them. Or blow their heads off. I had yet to see a vampire that could bounce back from that one. The vampire tried to dodge me and escape, but I had the upper hand. I knew about the vampire’s speed; it had underestimated mine. I was in front of it before it could get past me. It skidded to halt, gaping at me. In a life-and-death fight, there isn’t a lot of time for questions. You get to choose – answers or life. The vampire had made the wrong choice. I let the chain slip off my shoulder and swung it around, sheathing the knife with my free hand. When I flicked the chain, it twisted around the vampire’s wrist and the clip snapped shut around itself. This baby was going nowhere. Blue and red lights suddenly danced on the street at the alley entrance, and we both froze. The battle between us was one thing; neither of us wanted the police involved. I didn’t, because my work had a lot of moral pitfalls. The vampire didn’t, because when a vampire and a human were caught in an alley together, chances were the police would take the human’s side. There was also the small technicality that I wasn’t exactly human, and I supposedly didn’t exist. When the car had gone past and the silence of night fell around us again, I looked at my victim and smiled. I stepped closer, looping the chain, until my body was practically right up against the vampire’s. It squirmed and tried to fight, but it had been a long run to get here, and I was fitter. The vampire squeezed its eyes shut, and I felt a hum emanating from it. It faded so I could see the brick wall right through its chest, but the metal I’d wrapped around its wrist stopped it from dematerializing completely, and when it stopped trying to, the humming stopped, too. I was going to win this one, and it knew that. I flipped my hair over my shoulder to get it out of the way. In the tussle, I’d lost the hairband that kept my black mass of hair out of my face. I killed for a living, and my biggest stumbling block was keeping my long hair out of the way. Beauty was a bitch. I wasn’t going to cut it. It hung halfway down my back, thick and healthy. My looks were just as deadly as my skill. And I had a lot of skill. I whipped the chain around the vampire’s other wrist, too, and tightened it, pulling its hands up together. Then I slammed a silver stake under the vampire’s ribs and wrapped my fingers tightly around the smooth finish, fingering the pattern I’d carved out around its edge. I carried a lot of heat. I had a gun in a holster under my jacket and another tucked into my waistband at the small of my back. But guns didn’t work on vampires. Their ability to heal rapidly was a pain in the ass when it came to self-defense or hit jobs. The vampire’s eyes were wild, wide, rolling around in their sockets. The split second before death was never pretty. A thick black mist surrounded us, choking me, making it hard to breathe. I gritted my teeth and ignored it. It was almost like poison, the vampire’s last attempt to hold on to life, like an octopus’s ink, but I was immune. Never underestimate your enemies. An image of Aspen flashed through my mind, her eyes dull and lifeless. Her body was bent at an impossible angle. Around her, the furniture was upside down and out of place, like a nightmare version of our home. Nearby, bloody fangs dripping menace. A fire inside me threatened to consume me, and I leaned against the stake, pushing it through the vampire’s flesh, forcing it into the vampire’s heart. Killing the memories. The vampire focused on me, questioning, its eyes draining of life already, and a flicker of recognition passed across its face. Fast reflexes, stronger than human women, immune to the mist – it knew what I was. The pain of betrayal was the last emotion it displayed before its face went slack, its eyes rolled back, and the body slumped forward. Yeah, this one was going to haunt me. Great start to my week. I swallowed and gasped for air. The thick stench clung to my clothes even after the mist had gone, and I couldn’t shake the feeling of darkness and death clawing at my ankles. I shuddered. Guilt was about as ugly as death itself. I pushed the dead vampire off me, letting the body crumple to the ground. Then I wiped the stake clean on my black leather pants and zipped my jacket up halfway to conceal the gun. The silver line of dawn was on the horizon, bleeding into the inky night air, announcing the arrival of Tuesday morning. The rising sun would take care of everything else: the blood, the body. The darkness I just couldn’t seem to get away from. I turned and walked away, but stopped before I turned out of the alley. I bit my cheek and turned back. I had to frisk the damn thing. This part I hated the most. There was nothing as bad as playing with the dead when you were the reason they were dead in the first place. I ignored the seed of guilt that throbbed deep down inside me. I tried to shake the image of the vampire’s face when it had realized what I was. I might have been a half-breed, at least fifty percent one of them, but genetics was as far as it went. My loyalty lay with humans. My phone chirped in my pocket and I answered it, clamping it against my shoulder with my cheek. Small miracle I hadn’t lost it in the fight. It wouldn’t have been the first time. High tech was worth nothing if it fell out of my pocket. “Are you coming in before dawn?” Ruben’s voice was clipped. “I’m on my way to the office now.” “Cutting it a bit close, aren’t you, Adele?” “I don’t tell you how to do your job, Ruben. Let me do mine.” My boss was a hard-ass idiot who believed he knew everything there was to know about night creatures, even though he never set foot outside his office until sunrise. He knew what the dangers were, and he wasn’t going to take the fall. He trusted everyone about the same amount, which was not at all. I liked him best when he was riled up and it was my fault. “Just get in here to do the paperwork. I don’t want any mistakes. That damn Clemens woman was here again tonight, and I don’t want a story about you in the news.” “Since when do journalists do nighttime visits?” “Since you don’t have the day shift. I don’t want to start my week like this, Adele.” Like it was my fault. Ruben hung up the phone, and I shuddered in the silence that was left behind. Not a lot of people believed in half-breeds, and those who did wished us dead. I shook off the feeling of foreboding that had come with the phone call, and headed downtown. I worked as a vampire slayer for a living. I was good at what I did, and Ruben paid me well for it. It was quick work, even though it wasn’t always easy. And it wasn’t just the physical side of the business that was a problem. Every job had its emotional downside, and some people needed TV time to wind down after the daily grind. I probably needed therapy. I worked for a thickset, sleazy man in a dirty world. Ruben Cross was about as human as they came, but his scent disgusted me. I could smell his blood, which was laced with alcohol most of the time. He was dead set on ridding the world of vampires. For him, it was a religion as much as it was racism. From the outside, his company looked like a standard accounting firm. His after-hours advertising was directed at a few chosen individuals, a private affair among people who heard of us through word-of-mouth whispers around corners, and only a handful knew about what we did when night fell. We weren’t exactly on the radar, and I liked it that way. My entire existence was under the radar. The unlicensed killing meant I never had to own up to anything, and we didn’t speak about a job once it was done. Vampires didn’t fall under any constitution of the existing laws. They were seen as part of society now, but those who didn’t fear them shunned them, and discrimination was everywhere. Human rights got a little blurry when the person involved wasn’t human, and the fewer questions asked, the better. Vampires had a strange hierarchy. The ones we ended up taking out were the mundane vampires, the young ones, the ones that didn’t mean anything in the vampire world. The hit jobs were usually ordered by humans. The vampires that meant something, the powerful ones at the top of their own food chain – those, we left alone. They never had quarrels with humans, and we never ran into real killers. Still, when a cop found a body in the street, supernatural creature or not, it was going to attract attention. The common consensus was that humans and vampires couldn’t breed. The existence of half-breeds was just a rumor; as far as most people were concerned, Aspen and I couldn’t even exist. Ruben knew what I was, but he kept me on because as a half-breed I had the ability to pull off looking completely human. I also had vampire characteristics, which gave me an advantage above the human slayers. It upped my chances of tricking the pureblood vampires and putting them down before anyone could worry about moral issues. Betraying our own kind was a big deal, but I had a hatred for vampires that almost equaled Ruben’s. Why did I hate them? He had his reasons; I had mine. I had a strict don’t ask, don’t tell policy. So far, it had worked for me. When I stepped into the lobby of the office building where Ruben holed up, Carl was just coming down the stairs. He was a lot of man: muscle that made his shirt stretch tight over his arms, and thighs that threatened to pop out of his pants. But muscles were no good when they were only for show. If it came down to a life or death fight, I could have taken him easily. Muscle is worth nothing against a gun. “Oh, you’re here too,” he said. We didn’t often rub shoulders, not since he’d taken me out on his first kill so I could learn the ropes. He was always sarcastic about the job, calling it something a woman wouldn’t be able to do. But we both knew that within in a week I’d become better at his job than he was. When I looked at him closely, I saw the toll the last couple of years had taken on him. He had new wrinkles. He didn’t look like the young, strapping lad who had taken me under his wing anymore. He looked worn. I wondered if the same was true for me. It was hard to stay in this line of work and look fresh at the end of the day. “Just doing the final rounds, Carl,” I said. “I don’t feel like getting into a brawl tonight.” “You’re in the wrong job for that,” he pointed out. I shrugged. Carl was just a human. I didn’t know how he managed to do his job – the first night I’d seen him, he’d been quick, and that had been his only asset. Still, Ruben had kept him on, so maybe he had something going for him. Maybe he charmed the vamps to death. With his chiseled jaw and jet-black hair, he could get any woman to look twice. Maybe his icy eyes did the trick, hypnotizing the vampires into believing they shouldn’t run. I passed him, and he tipped his shoulder so it knocked me in the arm. In the world of vampire slayers, there are no courtesies for women. I jabbed my elbow back faster than he could blink and caught him in the kidney. He made a strangled sound. “You’d better watch your back, Adele. Sometimes humans can hold grudges too.” “If you’re talking about yourself, I’m not exactly going to lose sleep over it. But thanks for the warning.” He snorted and walked out into the silvery dawn. Carl wasn’t a bad guy; I just didn’t like him. There’d been a time when we’d gotten along, but he’d gotten cocky about his kills, and somewhere along the line he’d picked up that I was a half-breed. That had made all the difference. He didn’t see me as an equal anymore. Good thing I’d never really cared. I was good at working alone, and his smoldering looks might have worked on other females, but I didn’t have time for dating. “That’s what I’m talking about,” Ruben said when I walked into his office and dropped the ID card and keys I’d taken off the vampire on his desk. His salt-and-pepper hair looked like he’d spent the night sticking his hands into it, and he was wearing a jersey over his shirt that I would bet hid the fact that it was creased. The smell of whiskey hung in the air, laced with the day-old smell of his cologne, and I crinkled my nose. He picked up the ID and looked at the photo. He nodded, satisfied. “It took Carl a week, and he still couldn’t put this one down. And you do it as a quickie on the side.” “Not my fault you’re not delegating right, Ruben,” I said. “I told you this one wasn’t going to go down easy. Some of them you have to get hot and heavy with.” “Nothing as hot as a vampire slayer willing to get personal.” He shook his head. His amber eyes were bright, despite the fact that he looked like he could do with a year of sleep. “I wish there were more people like you on my team. Carl is good, but he’s not you, and I’ve already got your quota filled.” He leaned on his desk and intertwined his fingers. “About this journalist. You need to watch your back. She’s not letting this one go.” “Nothing I can’t handle. You know that.” He stretched his arms up, and his jersey pulled taut over the expanse of his body. When I glanced down, I noticed he was wearing slippers. I guessed if I’d been stuck in this office all night, I’d do something to get comfortable too. “You’re not immortal, Adele. If anyone finds out what you are, what you’re doing is only going to count against you.” “I’m doing what most humans are too scared to.” “And you’re an abomination...” I turned and walked out of the office before he could finish his sentence. He didn’t have the right to hire a killer and lecture her. He had to stay clear; I beat myself up enough without him joining in. “You make sure you’re back here by sundown,” Ruben called after me. I didn’t bother to answer. Being a half-breed meant there were some rules that didn’t apply to me. My human genes had won out more often than not. I had a perfect set of blunt teeth – no fangs – and I didn’t need blood to survive, even though I could smell it and sometimes it called out to me. Sunlight was uncomfortable, but it wasn’t going to turn me into ash. Ruben knew that, but we worked on a schedule that stretched from sunset to sunrise. He had me working all night as it was; I wasn’t going to give him a chance to put me on double duty. Daylight was a better time to hunt vampires, if you could find where they holed up. But I had a thing about killing something helpless, even if it was a vampire. I’d seen enough of that in my life to know that everyone – everything – deserved a fighting chance, at least. I refused to slay in the daytime. Personal policy. Besides, everyone needs some downtime, and that included me. I found my motorcycle three blocks away, in the opposite direction from my home, on the outskirts of Westham’s Business District. It was still sitting where I’d abandoned it, when the vampire had hopped a fence my motorcycle couldn’t. I was attracted to raw power, and the MV Augusta M4CC was just that. It had a black body with smooth curves. It was an orgasm on wheels. How had a civilian like me, with a slightly above average income, gotten her hands on something as rare as an Augusta? Vampires have resources, and I had happened to kill the right one. Who would have thought my job had perks. The bike purred underneath me and the wind wrapped around my body as I raced down the street. The speed gave me the illusion that I was actually escaping for a change. I preferred riding to walking, not just because the Augusta was a hot piece of metal, but because the neighborhood wasn’t a great one and I was a girl who got attention. Not that I ever had any trouble. The last man who had his hand up my thigh after I’d politely asked him to back off was still trying to figure out which way was up. Still, my ride was a reward, and after a night of kills, I wasn’t in the mood to play nice. I turned into my street. It was another couple of blocks to my apartment building, and shadows were lurking in between trashcans and down the narrow alleys. I twisted the throttle and ate up the distance. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the place. It was just that the threatening shadows reminded me of what could hide in them. Once you opened yourself up to the creepy-crawlies of the night, you could never really escape them again, and I wanted to be off duty at some point. I didn’t like killing after hours, and Ruben wasn’t going to pay me overtime. A sharp scent flowed in through the air vents in my helmet and pulled my head to the right. I slowed down the bike, stopped, and backed up with my toes on the asphalt until I could almost feel the smell inside of me. I fought the urge, but it drew me. Being a half-breed meant blood could call out to me, and I wasn’t as immune to it as I would have liked. It was a weakness I didn’t like to acknowledge. I knew the smell of vampire, and it was sometimes my downfall that I couldn’t ignore the call if it was on the right frequency. This one had something else to it too. Something I couldn’t quite place. The draw was stronger than usual. I switched off the bike and got off, pulled my helmet off and left it hanging on the handlebars. My hair fell into my face, and I shook my head irritably and followed my nose. It wasn’t the safest place to leave the bike unattended, but I didn’t plan on staying very long. I looked up and down the street, but I was alone. In all-black clothing, I was camouflaged at night, but I stuck out against the silvery color of morning. The scent pulled me, and I sniffed it out like a bloodhound. I walked into an alley that had walls reaching three stories up on either side. It ran into a dead end at the back, a chain-link fence that looked onto a dumpster. My nose prickled with the pungent smell. It was sour, and it spelled trouble. When I moved the dumpster, a pale hand fell onto my foot, and I jumped. I wasn’t nervous as a rule, but this could be a trap as much as anything else. I reached behind me and pulled the SIG Sauer P226 from my waistband. I’d left my stake with the bike, and this gun wouldn’t do much damage to a vampire who could heal at will and had the force of fury behind him, but it would slow the vamp down long enough for me to get away. I wished I had more bullets for my Smith & Wesson. The 500 packed a punch that could kill a large animal, and I had yet to meet a vampire that could hold on to its head after a good aim. The gap between life and death was only a hairline crack when you were staring down the right barrel. The hand on my foot was limp. I pointed my gun and trailed it up a well-shaped arm. On the other end of it, I found a male vampire. Its skin was tight over its skull and almost translucent on its neck. It was unconscious, its cheeks sunken, dark circles around its closed eyes. Its skin wasn’t as pale as that of some of the older vampires I’d seen, but the dull, almost colorless appearance of its hair made it look washed out, and it had fresh puncture marks at the base of its neck. A couple of them, with the skin bruised around the bites. This vampire was freshly turned, and had been left out here in the alley to die. Why? I looked around, preparing for company, but the alley around us was empty, and I couldn’t smell anyone. A vampire didn’t become a vampire by accident. It took a lot of work – a person had to be held for a number of days and drunk from at regular intervals until there was nothing left to give. Then, the body had to mutate to survive. Death by consumption. I smiled at my own joke. Generally vampires bred to make more vampires. But humans were turned sometimes, too. Usually with good reason, but what that reason was remained a mystery. After the sire had taken all that trouble to recruit this new vamp, why would it be left here to die at sunrise? Unless it had escaped... I considered returning to the bike to get my stake. I should kill it right here; then there’d be one less vampire to deal with when the time came. But when I looked at its face, I couldn’t do it. My values were twisted, but I had a set of rules I tried to live by. I couldn’t just turn away and shoot it point-blank. I grabbed it by the ankles and dragged it down the alley towards the street. The sun would be heading this way soon, and even the first rays of dawn were fatal for a pureblood. It was heavier than it looked, but I was stronger than most girls because of my supernatural gifts. Its arms flipped up, and the shirt rode up. The concrete was going to leave a hell of a graze, but if the vamp survived, it would be healed up in no time. Possibly even before it woke up, if it ever did. I worked my way across the street, keeping an eye out for danger, but it was deserted. When I got to the other side, I kicked a closed garage door. It lifted enough on its hinges for me to work with. I worked my fingers underneath, and it rolled to the top with a groan. Clearly, no one had lived here for years. The vampire would be safe, and ready to dematerialize by sundown if another predator didn’t sniff it out first. I shoved the body into the cold garage and slammed the door shut again without looking at it, then dusted my hands on my pants. As I walked away, I knew I was going to regret saving the vamp, but I didn’t like going after vampires who hadn’t done anything wrong. I would get it another time. Chapter 2 Inside my apartment, I double-locked the front door and checked the windows. It was a habit to make sure I was alone in the house. My windows were barred, but that was enough metal for me. As much as I didn’t want vampires to materialize into my home, I wanted them to be able to dematerialize back out of it. My place was in a bad part of town. I was earning enough for something better, but the illusion of safety nauseated me. I wanted to be on guard because I had to be. I couldn’t become comfortable. It had been in a well-off neighborhood, in a lovely family home, where I’d lost my mother and had nearly lost my sister. No, thank you. I preferred to slum it. I stripped my weapons and put them in the gun safe at the bottom of my cupboard. Then I peeled off the holster and thigh sheath and hung them up next to my leather jacket. I showered. I had to get the acidic smell of that mist off me, and get rid of any blood that might have gotten on my skin. I killed for a living, but the idea of blood still made me sick. The face looking back at me from the mirror was haunted. My black hair framed a too-white face. I had the classic vampire complexion. My face was smooth and flawless, but a long scar ran from my jaw down my neck and ended at the base of my collarbone. I traced it with my finger. By the time sunlight began to fall through my bedroom window, I was ready to leave again. My hair was dry and tied up in a bun, and I was wearing grey slacks and an aqua shirt. The blue made my eyes stand out. When I was dressed in my leathers, they looked like ice. When I dressed like a normal person, there was some depth to them. I didn’t take my bike. Instead, I took the bus to the other side of Westham, where there were flower boxes under the windows and other reminders that nocturnal life didn’t dominate everything else. Zelda opened the door. She was the live-in nurse who helped Aspen. Her white uniform was strained by her solid frame, and her hair was pulled back against her head with no sense of imagination. One thing I could say about Zelda was that she was consistent. “Adele,” she said, smiling when she saw me, like it was a surprise, even though no one else ever visited this early. “How are you?” “Fine,” I answered, but Zelda shook her head. “You should sleep more.” I shrugged. I would if I could. “Go on through to the kitchen,” she said. “She’s waiting for you.” When I walked into the kitchen, I found the buttery roll-up blinds drawn against the sun. Aspen didn’t need the sun to drain the little bit of energy she had. She had more vampire in her than I did, and her skin didn’t like the touch of sunlight very much. Aspen was sitting at the counter they had lowered for her wheelchair. “There you are,” she said when she saw me, and smiled. Her pearly white fangs showed, and the combination with her dainty face, ghostly white skin and cascading, honey-colored curls made her look like she had stepped out of a fantasy novel. My sister and I were total opposites. I had black hair and blue eyes. She had blonde hair and hazel eyes. She was the lucky one who had our mother stare back at her when she looked in the mirror, despite her fangs, which our human mother hadn’t had. I was saddled with the looks of my deadbeat father (minus the teeth), but I didn’t want to be reminded of him every day. I was pretty, but looks could kill in a lot of different ways. “How are you doing?” I asked, bending down to kiss her on the top of her head. I couldn’t help but notice her legs when I did. They were thin and frail from years of lack of use. Her arm, reaching across the counter for her orange juice, was thin and bony. “You’ve lost weight again,” I said, frowning. “If you keep at it, one day there’ll be nothing left of you.” I sat down on a chair that was always there for me, and took a piece of toast. “Already only half left,” she said, and laughed. Her laugh danced around the kitchen like the sound of wind chimes, but I didn’t join in. I didn’t think her joke was funny. Her laughter faded when she saw my lack of humor, but her eyes, full of golden flecks, held on to the joke. “Stop fussing over me. Tell me about your night. Did you catch any bad ones?” I shrugged and bit off a piece of toast. I was hazy about what I did when I talked to my sister. To Aspen, I was a hero, the one who had gotten out unscathed and was now devoting my life to fighting crime, putting bad guys behind bars. I wasn’t going to talk about gruesome death with my handicapped sister – and I certainly wasn’t going to tell her that if the police got hold of me, I was probably the one who would end up behind bars. It was bad enough that she had to sit in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. She didn’t have to know the gory details of how I was trying to make up for my failure to protect her. “You don’t have to keep coming around after your shift, you know,” Aspen said when I wouldn’t answer her. “I know you’re tired. You always insist on the graveyard shift.” Graveyard shift. Huh. The irony. “And what am I going to do for a social life, then?” I asked, pulling a face. I didn’t know a lot of people other than Joel, my weapons specialist. The other people I met, I usually ended up killing. “You should get yourself a boyfriend. It would be good for you to have someone take care of you for a change. I never can.” Her words hit me like physical punches. “That’s because you don’t have to. You have enough on your plate.” She snorted. “Like what? I sit around all day.” “I don’t think I’d be good at dating,” I offered. It was true – men didn’t like it when women were better with guns than they were. They had a set image of what they thought women should be, and leathers and guns weren’t included. Besides, between working and training, when did I have the time? “I’m happy focusing on my job.” “What about that guy you mentioned at work? Carl? You said he has the same shift as you. You guys ever pair up?” I rolled my eyes. Carl was a bodybuilder with more interest in his own looks than in the work he did. He killed to impress, not to save. And he wasn’t very good at it, either. Not from where I was standing. “I prefer to work alone.” “What about Joel?” “I’m not dating Joel. He’s a great friend, but he’s not going to bring me flowers.” “That’s because you wouldn’t know what to do with them.” Aspen giggled. “Honestly, Adele. You’re beautiful and interesting. It’s a shame to waste that on work.” “What, with a scar down my neck?” She looked down at her now-empty glass. “It’s less conspicuous than a wheelchair.” She wasn’t making a joke this time. The cold truth hung between us, all the warmth draining out of the room. I curled my hand into a fist. “If I hadn’t gone out to the store... If I’d been able to stop him—” I started, but she shook her head. “Don’t, Adele. Don’t do that to yourself.” Her voice was hard, but her eyes welled up. She shook her head and squeezed her eyes shut. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.” She let out a shaky breath. When she opened her eyes again, all trace of tears was gone. “Let me show you my art,” she said, quickly changing the subject. I got up and followed her down the hallway into her art room. She was working on a canvas of a woodlands scene. My talented sister could work magic with oils and acrylic. She pointed out things on the canvas, telling me about it, but the atmosphere between us was still heavy. Everything had changed with her reminder about our past. Finally, I said my goodbyes and left her house feeling worse than when I’d arrived. My next stop was the Martial Arts Academy on Sterling Street, three blocks over. I had a meeting with the sensei every morning at nine to train in combat and self-defense. He was the only man I’d been able to find who wouldn’t treat me like a woman. He worked me into the ground, not stopping until my muscles screamed, and in hand-to-hand he always put me on my back if I didn’t defend myself like a man. It was the kind of training I needed. Hard, merciless. We worked on fitness training first this morning, and he had me in a good sweat. I was fit and battle-ready, but he still wore me out. In hand-to-hand I went all out on him. I had pent-up frustration and anger to spare, and he was the one person who would fight back but still criticize me even when I’d won. He put me on the floor after my failed attempt to pin him, and knocked the wind out of me. When he stood over me, his eyebrows rose. Standing up, he was shorter than I was, but from this angle he looked larger than life. He kept his head bald, and he made up for his lack of height with muscle bulk and tone. I looked down and saw that my shirt had ridden up, exposing my stomach. I had a well-toned stomach, but a bruise was wrapped like a decoration around my ribs. It must have happened sometime after I’d ditched my bike. “You been looking for trouble?” he asked. With my skill set, he knew I wasn’t likely to get mugged. “Been street fighting again,” I joked. “I needed a little money on the side.” He grinned to cover up his concern, but it was still visible when we faced off for the next round. When we were done, I collapsed on the mat, breathing hard and sweating. “You really went all out today,” I said. My ribs hurt every time I inhaled. I tried to breathe around the pain. Ignoring it worked most of the time. Sensei sat down next to me, cross-legged, like he was going to meditate. “You want to tell me what those bruises are about?” I didn’t, really, but there were times people wouldn’t let something go, and I had seen Sensei’s fighting skills. If his personality matched his methods, he wasn’t one to let go. I shrugged. “Occupational hazard,” I finally answered. “I don’t really have a desk job.” “I figured that,” he said. “Are you in some kind of trouble?” If he meant my life, then yes. I was in some kind of trouble every day. But that wasn’t something I could just get out of the way. He wouldn’t understand. “No. I just went about something the wrong way. It’s complicated.” “Yeah, it looks real complicated. Look, all I know is that you’ll still bleed, no matter how long and hard you train to fight. Watch your back, okay? I don’t want to have to fill this slot with someone else because you didn’t make it through.” “Nice of you to care.” I didn’t do caring and affection. Those things were dangerous, disguises that made me feel like there were no enemies to watch my back for. Trust. That was the killer. And trust and love went hand in hand. “It would be nice for you to try, too,” he said, and got up. Chaos averted, I told myself. It was easy to keep my cover if people didn’t probe too much. But there was warmth in the emptiness he’d left behind. Not a lot of people gave a shit, which was why I didn’t, either. I rolled onto my stomach and pushed myself up off the mat, fighting the urge to try to shake off the warmth like a dog. By noon, I was back home. I found my black chain and looped it in a figure eight over my chest and shoulders. Then I headed out for a run, pushing myself past screaming muscles and aching bones. Half an hour in the dead neighborhood. When that was done, I hit the shower again. I finished off with a protein shake – nothing like an after-training snack that tastes like cardboard – and crawled into bed. I was aching from the injuries and the training, but the throbbing pain reminded me that I was alive, and I had to stay that way. My fingers curled around the butt of the Glock under my pillow, and only then did I relax. Usually my enemies were dead by the time I walked away, but I never knew who I had pissed off in the process. I kept a low profile, but luck favors the prepared. Chapter 3 A hammering on my door pulled me out of my sleep cycle before my alarm could wake me up. I stared at the hazy numbers on the digital clock next to my bed. I’d only slept about three hours. Whoever was out there had better have a bloody good reason for waking me up. I grabbed the Glock from under my pillow and walked to the front door. I pushed my eye against the peephole. A woman with a short red bob, wearing a power-dressing suit, was standing on the other side of my door. She must have been lost. I tucked the gun into the back of my shorts’ waistband and pulled open the door. The woman looked me up and down and blinked. Her eyes were emerald green, and her cheeks were dusted with freckles. The black and red dress suit made her look businesslike and much too classy to be in this neighborhood. “I’m sorry. I think I have the wrong apartment,” she said, looking down at a piece of paper and then up above my door where the metal number was screwed on. “Who are you looking for?” There weren’t a lot of characters in my apartment building she could want to see—I could tell her that much. “Mr. Griffin?” I cocked an eyebrow. There was no Mr. Griffin in my life. “I’m Adele Griffin,” I said. “No Mister here. Who sent you?” The woman looked unsure. “Ruben Cross sent me over here. He said he had an employee who could help me out.” “I work for Ruben,” I said, and stepped aside, making space for her to come in. If Ruben had sent her to me it was business, and it was serious. She hesitated before she stepped into the apartment. I gestured toward the kitchen. “Can I get you anything?” I asked when we got there. I opened the fridge and scanned the contents. I had to run to the store. “Just water, thank you,” she said, and sat down in the booth against the wall. I shrugged and poured us each a glass. The sun was low enough for the light to fall into my kitchen window. I wasn’t usually up at this time of the morning, and it made me crabby. “You’re a woman,” she said. Thank you, Ms. Obvious. “What do you need done?” “I’m sorry. Ruben just didn’t mention you were a woman. I expected a man.” “I can do a job as well as any man can,” I said smoothly. If she was going to sit here and make this a sexist thing, I wasn’t going to take the job, no matter who she wanted me to get rid of. She took a sip of water. “I didn’t mean that as an insult,” she said. “Now that I think about it, maybe it’s better that you are a woman. We look at things differently, don’t we?” “We certainly do,” I said, sarcasm bleeding through my words. I wasn’t going to be categorized. But if she picked up on it, she didn’t react. “Who is it you want me to take care of?” She fiddled with the glass, turning it around and around on the plastic tabletop with an irritating rhythm. I placed my hand on the glass and gripped it firmly so she couldn’t turn it. She looked up at me, and I couldn’t interpret the expression on her face. I forced politeness. “Look, this isn’t a good time for me. I’m off-duty, and these kinds of meetings usually happen at the office. If you want me to hit someone, tell me the details so I can get back to bed.” “Hit someone?” she asked, looking confused. The ignorance of some people irritated me. You didn’t knock on the door of a vampire slayer and wonder what they meant when they talked about taking care of someone. “You’re here for me to go after someone,” I said, my voice snappy. She nodded. “My fiancé.” I frowned and studied her for a second. She was very human. Her skin was light, but too tanned for any kind of vampire, purebred or half. Vampires and humans didn’t mix as a rule. The few who did kept it secret, and human-vampire couples chose to stay hidden so they wouldn’t be the subject of public ridicule. Miss Priss didn’t look like the vampire type. “I don’t kill humans,” I said flatly. Her eyes widened. “Kill? I don’t want you to kill anyone. I went to Ruben Cross because a colleague of mine mentioned that he deals with supernatural creatures. Connor...” Her eyes shimmered, and I prayed she wouldn’t cry. “Connor was kidnapped, and I have reason to believe vampires did it.” I raised an eyebrow. Either Ruben had a twisted sense of humor, sending a rescue mission my way, or he had misunderstood this woman’s idea of what his company did. I banked on the former. “Listen, Ms....” “Jennifer. Jennifer Lawson.” The name sounded familiar. “Jennifer. I don’t do search-and-rescues. If you have a problem with a vampire, I can hook you up. But I don’t go after their victims until they’ve turned.” “Turned? Is... is that something they’ll do to him?” “If the motivation’s right,” I said. “How long has he been missing?” “About five days,” she said. “No one has seen or heard from him, and it’s unlike him to disappear without letting me know. They didn’t leave a ransom note or anything, but he has a lot he can offer, and a lot of people know about it.” “Vampires don’t generally go after money,” I said. “They recruit for power, mostly. Or secrets. You’ll be surprised how much more secrets are worth.” “Secrets...” Jennifer said. I had a feeling she was talking to herself more than to me. I waited in silence for her to speak again. “Please, can you just see if you can find him? Even if he ends up being...” She swallowed hard. “Dead.” “Listen, vampires don’t kill unless they have a really good reason. That’s why they’re allowed into society now. And if they did to him what they usually do, he’ll probably wish he was dead instead anyway. It’s not legal for them to turn someone against their will. There are laws about these things, although I can’t say they’re set in stone yet. There are a lot of loopholes when it comes to vampires. I’m very sorry for your loss, but these things happen, and unfortunately there’s not a lot I can do about it. Not until he pops up on my radar as a vampire and I have an order to take him out.” Tears spilled down her cheeks, and I groaned inwardly. She clipped open her black handbag and rummaged around in it until she pulled out a tissue. She ran it underneath her eyes so her makeup wouldn’t smudge. “I’ll pay you whatever you like,” she said. “I just need to get him back. Or at least know what happened to him if I don’t.” “And if it turns out he’s a vampire? Because it’s more than likely that’s what’s happened to him.” She shuddered. There were cases where humans married vampires and had families with them. I was living proof of that. But it didn’t look to me like Jennifer was the type who would get it on with a vampire – it took a bit more of an open mind than she seemed to have– but people often surprised me. “I don’t suppose there are ways to save them?” she asked. “Save?” If she thought that being a vampire was some sort of curse you could save someone from, she had another think coming. But it wasn’t my style to defend vampires, considering that I hunted them, so I kept my mouth shut. “Unfortunately, there’s not a lot we can do about it,” I said instead. “Once he’s a vampire, there’s no going back.” “It’s his soul, isn’t it?” she said in a whisper. “It’s lost now.” I fought the urge to roll my eyes. The idea that vampires were the undead and had no soul was a common misconception. I blamed literature. There were so many stories claiming things about vampires that weren’t really true. But because the stories got a few things right, like sunlight and fangs, people tended to accept the rest of it as fact too. “Vampires aren’t undead, Jennifer,” I said, trying to explain. “They’re living, just like you and me.” “Then, what happens when they’re turned?” she asked. “It’s more like a mutation. A virus that alters them. Permanently. They need different things to survive, like darkness and blood, and their bodies change because of that. Think more along the lines of a different set of hormones kicking in. Blood loss is what turns them.” The fact that it messed with their moral structures too was something no one had been able to explain, at least not yet. In my book, that was what set them apart from humans. Something happened to them, their humanity got taken away, and an unfeeling monster remained — willing to kill, willing to sacrifice. Maybe that was the bit that made humans think of them as “undead.” The bit where they were heartless was translated into their literally not having a heart. But the fact was, vampires were alive, unless I got my hands on them. Jennifer started sniveling again, and I felt the onset of a black mood. Give me lack of sleep and a crying woman, and I’m ready for my next kill. “Will you help me?” she asked. “You’re the last person I can turn to. No one in my world really believes in the underworld. The whole thing is a bit bizarre for most people.” I kept quiet. In my experience, the longer I didn’t say anything, the more the other person filled up the empty space with their own words. “Do you follow the news, Ms. Griffin?” she asked. I shook my head. She nodded hers. “There’s been some trouble with his company lately. A lot of ugly things came out that were painted the wrong way. I think it’s all an inside job to pin it on Connor.” “Why would anyone want to do that?” “He stands for vampires and their rights. A lot of people are angry about it.” “But you’re saying vampires did it. That doesn’t make sense.” She shrugged, and it looked like she was searching for words. She kept her gaze on her hands, fiddling with the tissue she’d used for her tears. “He just employed the wrong people,” she finally said. “He didn’t do anything to deserve this. Oh, god, what if they do end up just killing him?” I crossed my arms over my chest and leaned back in my seat, feeling the Glock bite into my back. I didn’t do pity cases, but this guy was a human. Well, he had been before he was taken. If he still was human, it was my duty at least to try to protect him. But I had other things on my plate. I had to deal with so much already, and handling a kidnapping wasn’t really in my job description. “Do you mind if I ask what your motivation is?” I said. I didn’t like taking on jobs that didn’t fit into my division. “Didn’t I just explain my motivation?” she asked. She looked confused, like I’d said something foreign. “How much of a reason do you need to get your loved one back? Connor and I are engaged. He’s so much a part of my life, I can’t imagine my life without him. Haven’t you ever loved someone so much that it felt like you were bleeding to death when something happened to them? Like half of you doesn’t work right anymore?” I thought of Aspen. Maybe. But she didn’t talk about that kind of love. “I’m not going to go on a wild goose chase if I don’t know what I’m doing this for. Is he in trouble himself, or is it his company?” She opened her mouth and moved it without words coming out, then closed it again and shook her head. “It’s all on the company,” she said. “He didn’t do anything wrong.” She began to study her perfectly manicured nails. I wondered where people got time for things like that. Between surviving and training to survive, I didn’t have time to bother with my looks. She opened her mouth, but hesitated before she spoke. “I love him,” she said quietly. “Shouldn’t that be enough?” I supposed it was. I loved Aspen, and she was the drive for all of this, for everything I was doing. But I didn’t understand how men and women could love each other enough for something like that. All I knew about love was the fact that it could kill you. Literally. Had Ruben sent Jennifer to me because he knew the moral side of her situation would get to me? Was it about the money? Or did he really think she had a job for me? She’s been pretty straightforward about what she wanted. I doubted Ruben had misunderstood. He was obtuse, but he wasn’t stupid. “Look, let me think about this,” I said. “I’ll give you an answer by tomorrow.” I wanted to turn it down. I wanted to stay away from this mess. Love stories didn’t do it for me, and I didn’t want to have to deal with sniveling women who’d lost their boyfriends. Life was tough all over. If I sat here mourning about everything I’d lost, I wouldn’t ever get out of the house. But something was drawing me to this like a magnet. The pull fascinated me as much as it bugged me. Jennifer nodded. She looked disappointed, but she didn’t say so. The truth was that I just didn’t know. My loyalty lay with humans, but I didn’t generally get involved with people unless it involved killing. And I didn’t get involved with vampires unless there was a Wanted sign on their backs. If I could choose, they’d all have one, but again it wasn’t my thing to kill anyone who hadn’t done something to deserve it. Jennifer opened her handbag again and pulled out a business card, which she slid across the table. “This is where you can reach me,” she said. I turned the card and looked it over. She was a marketing consultant at the big shot firm whose headquarters was the glass building in the heart of the CBD. The Palace, they called it. Chances were, Jennifer’s boyfriend was a big shot too. “What did you say his name was?” “Connor O’Neill,” she said. Definitely a big shot. I’d heard of him; his name was in the news every now and then, but for what, I didn’t know. I only listened to the news to hear whether there were any bulletins on vampire killing that would cue me to lay low. Jennifer stood up. I let her walk to the door first. I made a point of never having someone at my back, even if they were small and harmless, like Jennifer. Sometimes it was the small, harmless-looking ones who did the most damage. Besides, I didn’t want to give her a look at the gun I had on me. She wouldn’t have been able to miss that lump of black matte metal underneath my white tank. “Thank you,” she said as she stepped through the door. “I’ll call you,” I promised. “Are you going to be all right getting out of here? It’s not the best neighborhood.” “I have a car waiting on the street,” she said, and turned away. A car. Waiting. Imagine that. I closed the door, walked back to my bedroom, and got back into bed. I returned my Glock to its place under my pillow and pulled the sheets over me. I closed my eyes, but my mind was awake now, and whirring. The vampire in the alley came back to me, its accusing eyes staring at me. I felt like a lowlife, betraying them. But then again, which species was at fault when I lost my mother and nearly Aspen, too? My circumstances had created me, and a killing vampire had made me a vampire killer. I wasn’t going to apologize for taking care of Aspen. I buried my face in the pillow and forced my mind to be blank until I finally fell asleep again. Chapter 4 The office lights at Cross Ledger Accounting were on but the lobby lights were off, making it look like the offices were closed but a handful of people were putting in some overtime. I walked through to the office Sonya used after the sun had set. Sonya was a vampire. With her mouse-brown hair and dull yellow eyes, her pale skin made her look even more washed out. She was impossibly thin and tall, with long fingers. Ruben employed her because it meant he could take vampire business too, if it came down to that. Money was the driving force behind his choices. Vampires often had a lot more money because they stuck around long enough to make fortunes. Immortality was a blessing, at least in that way. I put my helmet on Sonya’s desk. She glanced up at me, irritated. Her lips lifted in a snarl that threatened to roll back over her long fangs, but she controlled herself. She knew well enough what I could do. “Ruben wants to see you before you head out,” she said, handing me a stack of papers. We were careful not to touch each other during the exchange. Her skin on mine felt like it would burn me. I was sure she felt the same about me. The papers had photos of driver’s licenses or black and white scans pulled off servers somewhere. “Who’s this one?” I asked. There was no photo, only a social security number. “That’s the one Ruben wants to see you about,” Sonya said, not looking up at me. “He’s in his office.” Where else would he be? I took the stack of papers and walked into Ruben’s office. He was scribbling something down on a piece of paper. “Since when do you send clients to my apartment?” I asked. I didn’t sit down, and in my leathers and lace-ups, I was intimidating. Ruben knew I carried firepower, and I didn’t know if he was sure I wouldn’t use it. “Look, she wouldn’t leave me alone. She kept going on about needing to find some vampire, and you’re the best person for that kind of thing. Besides, she was going to pay big bucks. I wasn’t going to pass her up.” “No, you were going to pass her on. She wants a rescue mission. I don’t do charity cases.” Ruben looked up at me. “She said she’d pay,” he repeated. “I didn’t mean money. I meant letting people live. It’s not my department.” Ruben chuckled and dropped his pen. “Look, you do what you want with that case, but make it look like you did what you could so I can get some money out of this. I don’t hire you for my health.” I grunted and sat down on a chair opposite him. “What about this other one? Sonya was cheerful about it.” Sonya was never cheerful about anything. I supposed working for people who slayed her kind after hours was tough for her to handle. And Ruben paid her next to nothing. On the other hand, maybe she had a reason to hate vampires as much as I did. “Someone from the Hills wants this one taken out. Another big contract – he’s a big shot around town who did something to piss off the wrong people. I want you all out on this one. It’s a kill, so it’s right up your alley.” “What am I supposed to do with this?” I lifted up the paper with the details. “You didn’t give me much to work with. I don’t even have a name or an address.” Ruben shrugged. “That’s what they gave me. They’re not too keen on any of this information getting out, so they’re trying to limit the amount of information that changes hands around here. I get the feeling they’re after him for something bigger than the usual I-hate-vampires stuff. You’ve done this before. Don’t tell me you’re getting picky. Picky is above your pay grade.” I rolled my eyes and got up. I was itching to get my hands on a vampire or two. I was in a terrible mood, and the only way to fix that was to take out a menace. “Don’t cut it so close. I want to leave the office earlier tonight.” “If I believed you had what it takes to set foot out in the dark, I’d believe you,” I called over my shoulder. Ruben could suck it. I did what I wanted. He wasn’t going to fire me. Carl was a joke; without me, Ruben would lose all his money. There weren’t a lot of people out there jumping to take my place. Sonya shook her head when I walked out. I took my helmet off her desk and stepped out into the night. The air was crisp with the first hints of autumn. There were no clouds, and the sky was filled with pinpricks of light. I opened the throttle on my bike and drove to the first address on the list. A driver’s license was a big help – I found a lot of houses that way – but the vampires were rarely home. I stopped in front of a red brick house with a well-maintained lawn. The night smelled like jasmine as I walked up to the front door. Vampires liked to choose night-scented flowers, not because they liked them, but because every animal knows the importance of scents and covering them up. The porch light was on, but everything else was off. I walked around to the back of the house. I kept my eyes open for trouble, and my nose was working overtime. There was no vampire on the premises at the moment. The smell of cheap cologne was hanging in the air near the bedroom window, telling me the vampire had been here earlier and had tried to cover his scent with a different smell. They tended to do that. Vampires could sniff each other out, and cologne helped. But it wasn’t enough. It was never enough. I worked my blade under one of the windows and slid it up. It was a good neighborhood, and the windows weren’t sticky like some of the ones I worked with. It also helped that there were no burglar bars. Those could really make breaking and entering a bitch. Inside the house, I walked around. The furniture was cheap but nice, and was organized like whoever lived here enjoyed being here. I guessed that this had been the house the vamp had lived in before he’d turned. Vampires often chose a new place to live in after they’d turned, because they had cut ties with their old life – or they changed the interior of their existing homes. They slept during the day, and at night they wanted to get out. The night air made vampire skins itch if they were cooped up for too long. Houses became nothing more than a safe haven for sleep. Furniture and décor didn’t matter. The en-suite bathroom was the room where the fragrance hung thickest in the air. It tickled my nose and I crinkled it, trying to breathe around the smell. In the bedroom I found what I was looking for: a scent that wasn’t altered. The bed was full of it. The myth that vampires slept in coffins was absolutely ridiculous; vampires liked comfort as much as the next person. The curtains in this room were thick and black, with roll-up blinds behind them. When I looked carefully at the walls around the window, I saw that shutters had been installed that came down in the daytime to keep out the light. That seemed a little like overkill, but whatever. Better safe than sorry. “Well, let’s see if we can find you,” I said, and took a deep breath, filling my nose with the scent. It smelled like earth and mulch, and something that reminded me of baby powder. The house had little else to offer. There were no photos or personal mementos that I could see. This vampire had fallen into the habit of distancing itself from life a little, after all. Finding the vampire after I left the house was easy. Now that I had the scent, it was just a matter of tracking it. The vampire had left over the back wall, not through the front yard. Clever. I found the scent on the other side of the wall and followed it through two neighboring gardens. I stuck to the shadows so I wouldn’t be seen. Unless there were dogs around, it was easy to hide myself. Some animals loved vampires; they seemed to be drawn to the lack of humanity in the vampires’ nature. Other animals hated them. With me, it could swing either way. Animals hated or loved me, depending on how much of myself I showed to them, and which side they preferred. I hated that it was a gamble and I could never be sure, but I had enough going for me that I couldn’t complain about a few setbacks. After all, everyone had flaws. The vampire was a young one. It didn’t cover itself up the way it should have, and I found it two blocks away. It was hunched in a corner, eyes half-closed with the satiated high of the feed. If you’ve ever seen a snake with an animal halfway down its throat, you’ll get the idea. There’s a moment for every predator where it’s helpless. For a vampire, it was the moment just after a feed, when its energy levels hadn’t kicked up just yet, and it was lulled into a passive state for a few minutes. I’d caught it at the perfect moment. I waited until it had snapped back to reality so that it would have a fighting chance, but even then the vampire wasn’t as quick as it should have been. It was clumsy and helpless, and it didn’t take long before the job was done. I didn’t even get my leathers dirty. I walked away, unsatisfied and more frustrated than when I’d started. I had a handful of vampires still to find before I could call it a night, but I needed a challenge. If it wasn’t a good fight, if I didn’t have to fight for my life, it wasn’t worth the trouble. Nothing made me feel as alive as being so close to death I could smell the rot on its breath. I was going to find the faceless vampire that Ruben wanted me to hunt down. That would be a challenge, and I had all night to do it. When I got to my bike, my phone rang. “Are you knee-deep in blood yet, or can you come in?” It was Joel. “Your ammunition arrived, and I have another gun here that’s looking for an owner who will actually fire it.” “It’s a slow night. I’ve got time. I need you for a couple of things, anyway. I’ll be there in ten.” I pulled my helmet on and goosed the throttle, spraying gravel like waves on both sides of the bike until I was on the street. I got to Joel in less than ten minutes. When I pulled into the drive, the garage door was already open for me. I rolled my bike inside, and the automatic doors slowly rolled shut. “You’re going to get caught if you keep drawing attention to yourself like that,” Joel said. “What, you don’t think I can talk my way out of it?” I pouted and made my eyes big, and he laughed and hugged me. His dark brown hair was long and curled where it brushed his shoulders and jawline. He wore glasses with black frames that made his eyes stand out, and he always had a three-day stubble. Tonight he was wearing sweatpants and a matching jacket with holes cut in the sleeves for his thumbs, but I’d seen him in a variety of outfits ranging from hobo to classy. Joel was weird, but there was no question about who he was, and his loyalty was complete. He would never rat me out. “Come on through,” he said. We walked through a narrow door at the back of the garage. It led into a small room with a narrow strip of small windows near the ceiling. Servants’ quarters, once upon a time. A dark opening took up most of the floor space: a concrete staircase leading down into the earth. The trap door that normally covered it was leaning up against the wall. There were houses in Westham that still had war bunkers and the like. Joel had been lucky enough to snatch one of the last ones on the market. Fluorescent lights hung from the ceiling every couple of feet, throwing circles of light on several workbenches. The low hum of the lights filled the air, and classical music was streaming from a radio somewhere. He opened a safe and stacked boxes of ammo on the table in front of me. The boxes all had polystyrene packaging in them, holding rows of bullets. Five by ten. Joel packed them out according to their labels. “Smith and Wesson 500s, Gen4 Glock 23, 9mm Beretta, SIG Sauer P226.” I nodded as he named them. He knew what I carried. Joel Garber was the only person in the county who could organize silver bullets. The way I saw it, every police officer needed to carry at least one silver cartridge, not just the vampire-prison guards, but vampires hadn’t made that kind of name for themselves yet. “You’re a star,” I said as I started taking out the cartridges I had on me so I could fill them. The rest I would put in the storage compartment on my bike. I always felt better when I had a fresh set of ammo. “Should last you a while,” Joel said. “I hope so.” Joel walked to a narrow locker in the corner and opened it. He took out a gun and walked back to me. I whistled, as I took it from him. It was an AR-15 carbine. The black metal was cold under my fingers. “This one’s semi-automatic. Air-cooled. Light enough for you to throw around when you need to.” He produced a scope. “And it has extras.” I smiled, looking the gun over, holding it up against my shoulder to try it on for size. Joel was right: it was light. “Not your usual inconspicuous deal, but I thought you could appreciate it.” “This is why I love coming to you,” I said, grinning as Joel pushed a box of ammo across the table toward me. “And you got me silver for it,” I exclaimed. Joel grinned. “What else do you need done?” He leaned back against the desk and folded his arms. “I need you to check out a social security number for me. It’s all I have to go by.” Joel shook his head, but he walked to his computer and sat down. It was always on. He ran a hell of a system. I didn’t know much about those things, but Joel was a real techie. Sometimes I wondered what he was doing in a hole in Westham, helping a fly-by-night vampire hunter like me. “Don’t you have better things to do with your time?” I asked. He held out his hand, and I gave him the paper with the details on it. He kept his eyes on the screen while his fingers flew over the keyboard in a blur. “Then who are you going to run to for this kind of information? There are some ugly characters in town.” I snorted. “I think I count as one of them,” I said. “You’re not so bad,” he said with a shrug. “I’ve seen worse. You don’t see the kinds of guys who walk through my door.” “If they don’t have fangs, they’re not really on my radar,” I agreed. “Here we are,” Joel said, and the computer beeped. I walked around the desk and bent down. My face hovered over Joel’s shoulder. He smelled musky, like he’d sprayed on deodorant, but not recently. “There’s no name,” I said. It was only an address. 442 Caldwell Street. It was definitely in Westham Hills. “I know. His details are blocked with all sorts of firewalls and security systems. This was all I could get.” “I thought you were good at this,” I teased. He turned and looked at me. His face was open and his eyes were serious. He was offended. “I can do it, but it’s going to take me a while. You don’t look like you want to wait a day or two.” I shook my head. “I’ll figure it out.” Joel nodded and got up. “Look, I’ll keep running it for you and let you know if I find anything else. Until then, you’re going to have to use address only. It’s more than you started off with, though.” I climbed the stairs back up to the garage, carrying my load, with Joel a couple of steps behind me. I packed my ammunition into the compartment under the seat of my bike and swung my leg over. The carbine was on my back with a strap. There was nowhere else I could put it with the compartment full, but maybe I’d get the chance to use it tonight. I was about to pull on my helmet when Joel put his hand on my arm. “Be careful out there,” he said. “I have at least two hundred shots on me, and a helluva gun. Don’t worry about it.” “People don’t usually have that kind of protection unless it’s serious. He doesn’t want to be found, and you’re going to push his buttons by doing the exact opposite. Don’t get dead.” “I won’t,” I said, smiling at Joel. I wasn’t going to tell him that if that happened, I didn’t know that I’d be too upset about it. They couldn’t turn me, with my already-vampire mix of blood. The only way for me to go was out for good, and sometimes I wondered if that would really be a bad thing. Still, his concern was endearing. I pulled my helmet on and waited for the garage door to roll up. Then I pulled out into the night, my bike the only sound for miles around. I opened the throttle and raced down the street. I followed the main road until I had to take a left that eventually wound up the hill. It became darker, the halos around the lights drowned by the canopy of leaves that stretched over the road and around the lights. My bike’s headlight cut a shaft of light into the inky black, and the darkness folded closed behind me again like a curtain. I found Caldwell Street easily. It was close to the top of the hill. The road was framed by high walls with electric fencing on top and cast iron gates with intricate curls to keep everyone out that didn’t belong. Through the gates I spied mansions, lit up by green garden lighting and chandelier porch lights, making the rest of Westham look like someone’s leftovers. Number 442 had a mustard-colored nine-foot wall all around it, topped off with electric fencing. The gate was big and black, mostly solid, so I couldn’t see much through it save for the paving on the other side. The spikes on top were a warning. Despite all my skills and my breaking-and-entering expertise, I wasn’t sure how I was going to get into this one. I sat back on my bike in the dark shadows of a huge poplar tree, and listened. The whole neighborhood was alive. I could feel people everywhere. They felt like the warm puffs of air that cloud around your face in winter. Smells traveled to me on the wind, sweet and spicy, a mix of people and the lifeblood pumping through their veins. There was no way I was going to find a trace of this vampire by sitting out on the road. Either I had to come up with another plan, or I had to wait a day or two for Joel to get back to me. I hated waiting. I had a furnace raging inside of me that only managed to settle after a kill. I leaned forward, about to turn the key to kick the engine back into life, when a dark shadow blurred in the corner of my eye. I reacted too late; the sight reached my brain too slowly. Something hard cracked against the right side of my jaw, and I crashed to the ground next to my bike. White spots danced in front of my eyes, and for a moment I couldn’t figure out which way was up. The world spun around me and my stomach flipped, ready to heave. I had to be fight-ready – I was sure there would be a follow-up – but with my head spinning, I wasn’t worth much. I reached for the carbine on my back and pointed it deftly in front of me as I pushed myself up. Joel would be happy to hear it had been fired on its first night on the job. I heard a snicker to my left, and I swung the gun in that direction, but I couldn’t see anything. My mind recovered, and I was up on my feet with a swift jump. The air smelled stale, laced with a flowery scent I couldn’t place – it tried to be natural, but it wasn’t. I pulled the trigger, and the first bullets left the barrel with a whoosh and a clap, but whatever was out there had moved. I could feel a shift in the atmosphere. If it was faster than my bullets, I was in trouble. If I was too concussed to shoot straight, I was in trouble too, but I could forgive myself for that. “You’re not nearly what I thought you’d be.” A silky voice traveled to me on the breeze. It surrounded me and caressed my skin. A woman’s voice. An icy finger traced a shiver down my spine. She stepped into a pool of moonlight that broke through the leaves. She was dressed in tight black clothes – it looked like I wasn’t the only one who had dressed to suit the night – and she had white hair that was pulled back tightly against her head. She kept her head dipped so her face was masked with shadows. Where her eyes should have been, there were only pools of black. “Who are you?” I asked. I didn’t usually ask my opponents that, but then again, they’d never been the ones to hunt me. “Your worst nightmare,” she said. The cliché was lost in the venom in her voice. We circled each other in a crouched stance, both ready to attack. I still had the gun pointed in her direction. One pull of the trigger and she would have a hole in her chest, whether she was human or not. I had my mind back in the game, so she wouldn’t be able to outrun the bullets again. But I was intrigued by this woman, who managed to seem like a copy of me, and the exact opposite, all at once. “What do you want?” I asked. The million-dollar question. “How long did you think you could get away with it? How long did you think it was going to take for people to find out what you really are?” The blood drained from my face and I suddenly felt cold, despite my leather jacket. I’d hoped the answer to that question would be “never”. There was a reason I worked in the dead hours of the night. I opened my mouth to ask a question, but she launched herself at me. She took me by surprise again. Twice in one night – I was getting sloppy. In the process, she knocked my gun out of my hand, and it clattered into the darkness beyond my reach. There was no time for me to reach for another gun. She was on top of me, and she didn’t fight like a girl. It got dirty fast, and I silently thanked Sensei for training me the way he had. Her fists were like jackhammers, with a strength that equaled my own. I wondered if she was human, or some other sort of creature – a half-breed like me, or maybe something else that was mythical. Vampires were the only creatures acknowledged by the government, but there were others, too. We rolled around in the dirt. She got more hits in than I did, and besides it hurting, it made me angry. I reached down and pulled my silver knife from its thigh sheath. I lunged at her, but she was faster than I’d thought and I only nicked her skin. Still, she let out a piercing scream and let me go, scrambling away. “Bitch,” she hissed. “You’d better watch your back. This isn’t over.” She melted into the shadows, and seconds later she was gone. If she’d reacted to the silver that badly, she was definitely not human. Or a half-breed vampire. I groaned and lay back on the ground. My face throbbed and ached. I touched my nose carefully, and my fingers came away with blood on them, black in the moonlight. I managed to get myself back into downtown Westham, where the streetlights were welcome and the roads were familiar. I knew nothing could get to me there. “What the hell happened to you?” Ruben asked when I walked into the office. He checked his watch. “You’re early.” “I think I’m gonna call it a night,” I said as I dropped the ID of the one vampire I’d gotten on his desk. Ruben raised his eyebrows. “Before you say it,” I said when I saw a complaint forming on his tongue. “If you want to send me out there to do your dirty work, you’d better believe I’m going to take some time off to recover. Every other job has sick leave.” “And other jobs pay taxes,” he said. “I’m going home. I’ll call you,” I told him, then I walked out. Sonya didn’t say anything. She just stared. I bet she was damn happy about her safe little desk job. I made my way home more slowly than usual. I didn’t want to run into a pole because my coordination was off. I was dizzy and nauseated, and the movement around me made it worse. I was sure I had a concussion. I considered myself lucky I didn’t have a broken nose. Small blessings. Somehow, I made it home and into the shower. The water stung on my face. I had a split lip, and I would have a black eye and a swollen jaw for a day or two. Thank goodness for supernatural healing abilities. When I looked in the mirror, my colorful face complimented the scar down my neck for a change, and it blended rather than standing out. I shook my head at myself, then stopped. My brain felt like it was loose in my head. I had the presence of mind to check my Glock before I put my head on the pillow. Then I let myself sink into a deep slumber. Chapter 5 When I woke up again, the light in my bedroom was all wrong. It was way past sunrise. I checked the clock on my nightstand and swore. I’d missed my class with Sensei, and I had a missed call from Aspen on my phone. I pushed myself up and swore again when all my muscles screamed in protest. Sore muscles weren’t a new thing for me with how hard I trained, but there was a hell of a difference between lactic acid and bruises. I picked up the phone and dialed Aspen’s number. “Are you okay?” she asked when she picked up. “When you weren’t here, I got worried.” “I had a rough night and slept it off. I’m sorry I didn’t let you know. I’ll be over later.” I phoned Sensei as well and rescheduled. It was just as well I hadn’t woken up in time to go. I was stupid enough to train even when I was injured, and that wouldn’t have worked out well. My eye was still bruised, but it looked like the worst was over. If I’d been human, it would have been an angry purple, but it was a yellowy-blue, already healing. My split lip was almost fully healed, just tender. But my head still hurt like hell. An image of Aspen lying on the floor in a pool of blood flashed through my mind: a cut across her forehead, the blood slick and glistening on her cheek and on the carpet. Then I saw teeth, sharp and elongated, and heard the guttural hiss that meant the vampire was going to strike again. Finally, I saw my mother’s body slumped under the table, her lifeless eyes staring through me. I squeezed my eyes shut and grunted, grinding my teeth hard enough for my jaw to hurt, trying to ground myself. I had to get out of the house, away from the memories. When I finally made it to the other side of Westham, it was almost eleven. I knocked on the door, and Zelda opened it. When she saw me, her eyes got wide. “What happened to you?” she asked. I shrugged. “One of them got to me.” What was I supposed to say? I was getting into trouble, and it was literally starting to bite me in the ass. Aspen was in her art room. She looked up at me, her face bright and open, but when she saw me, the light dimmed in her eyes. She frowned. “Did you have a rough night?” Well, you could say that. I didn’t look so bad, but she knew how fast I could heal – which meant that my injuries had probably been bad. I shook my head and forced a smile. “It looks a lot worse than it feels,” I lied. It felt like hell. It was more emotional than physical at this point, though. “In my line of work, these things happen once in a while.” Aspen pressed her lips into a thin line, and her eyes shimmered. “Don’t worry about me. I just had to come see you so you’d know I’m all right.” Actually, I wasn’t sure this would count as “all right” in her book. The truth was, I’d come to see her to make sure she was the one who was all right. “Has anyone contacted you lately?” I asked. “Contact me? How?” When she frowned and tipped her head to the side like that, she looked exactly like she had when she was fourteen. Sometimes, Aspen didn’t look like she’d aged a day. It was part of what had made her so vulnerable, even before she’d become wheelchair-bound. “Don’t worry about it,” I said, shrugging to look less serious. “Someone mentioned something yesterday about half-breeds.” “You mean we’re going to be thrown out in the open?” she asked. “I doubt that’s going to happen. Just tell me if anyone tries to call or anything, okay?” It wasn’t her they were after. It was me. Aspen wasn’t a threat because she didn’t go out looking for trouble. I was the one who was leaving a trail, however thin, something someone could follow. I swallowed hard and pushed away the guilt that throbbed in my gut. If I was caught or discovered somehow, it would put Aspen in danger. And that would be the exact opposite of what I was trying to accomplish every night. The only answer was to be careful and to keep an eye out for the woman who had attacked me. If it happened again, I wouldn’t lose. Only one person would walk away the next time. “I wanted to talk to you about something,” I said, changing the subject. “I need your help.” “Oh, the great Adele comes to me for help?” Aspen said, beaming. “Don’t get a big head,” I said, but the light was back in her eyes. This was how I liked to see her. This was how she was meant to be. I told her about Jennifer and the job she wanted me to do. “Isn’t this the kind of thing you’re supposed to be doing?” Aspen asked. Oh, right. The police job I used as a front. In that case it would have made sense. “It’s not exactly in my line of work,” I answered. It wasn’t at all, actually. “I was wondering if I should take it anyway.” “I think you should,” she said. “Why?” “Because you’ve told me that it’s probably the right thing to do. You seem convinced that it is, and that’s as good a reason as any. Besides, if vampires got this guy... it might be too late for him. He might be...” “I know,” I said softly. We were both influenced by what had happened to us. We couldn’t think of vampires the same way anymore, no matter how related to them we ended up being. Aspen painted away her emotions. I fought them out. To each her own, but we both had the same problem. “You have to save him, if you can,” Aspen said, and her voice was different. Thick, like she was going to cry. “And if I can’t?” She shrugged. There wasn’t an answer she could give me, but I didn’t need one. I could answer the question for myself. Kill him. “Thank you,” I said, and got up, then planted a kiss on her hair. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” “Let me know if something comes up again. I worry about you.” “I will,” I said, and let myself out. It was sweet of her to worry about me. She didn’t have to. I worried enough for both of us. On the bus back home, I took out my phone and fished Jennifer’s business card out of my wallet. I dialed the number and waited. After the third ring, someone with an older voice picked up. “Jennifer Lawson’s office.” “I’d like to speak to Jennifer, please,” I said. “Tell her it’s Adele Griffin calling.” Music blared over the line for a moment, and then Jennifer’s crisp voice rang out through the speaker. “I was beginning to think you’d given up on me,” she said. “I’m so glad you called.” “I’ll do it,” I said. She gasped into the phone, and then her voice changed, making me think she was getting emotional on me again. “Look, you have to give me something to work with,” I said before she could get blubbery on me. “A photo would be great, but information like... places he liked to go, or an address, maybe. You know, the important things. Anything that will help me find this guy as quickly as I can.” “Of course. I’ll send it to you. Do you have an e-mail address?” I gave her my home e-mail, making a mental note to check it later. As I hung up, the phone rang in my hands. I pushed the talk button. “Joel,” I said. “I have a hit on that social security number you were asking about. Do you want to swing by tonight to have a look?” Great. A kill was exactly what I needed. “You’re a saint, Joel. I’ll be there just after sunset.” It looked like it was going to be a good night. I dialed one more number, and Sonya answered. “He’s in a meeting,” she said, each word clipped. “Just tell him I’m coming in tonight, but I’ll be a bit late.” I wasn’t going to beg to talk to Ruben. Hell, if it weren’t for my job, I would choose never to see him again. When I got home, I made a sandwich for lunch and switched on the computer I hardly ever used. A thick sheet of dust lay over the top, and it took a long time to boot up. One e-mail was waiting in my inbox. It was from Jennifer. A photo of Connor O’Neill was attached. He was young, with blond hair, ocean-blue eyes, and a lot of muscle, but not in a showy way. It was lean muscle. Strength. If I ever paid attention to that kind of quality in a man, I’d have to admit he was attractive. He had the same kind of glossiness about him that Jennifer had, the sheen that generally accompanied the rich. There was something very familiar about him, too, but I couldn’t place where I’d seen him before. The address listed was 13 Mulberry Drive. It was in an average neighborhood just this side of the business district. Nothing too rich and fancy, nothing that screamed social elite. Jennifer had added a couple of his favorite hangouts and business meeting places, all very public and posh. That troubled me. The address not making sense meant it might be new. New addresses pointed to vampire changes, especially if they were trying to be inconspicuous. To me, nothing stood out more than a vampire trying to blend in. I sent the information to Joel to print out for me. If anything had happened to Connor O’Neill, all that information would be pretty useless, but it was a place to start, at least. I wished I had something with his scent on it, but I wasn’t going to ask Jennifer for that, something a human investigator would have no use for. No, Jennifer was going to have to stay in the dark about my identity – no matter how far back that set me in my search. Chapter 6 By sunset I was ready to roll. I didn’t want another run-in with GI Jane, but if she came at me again, I would get her. I pulled my black leather jacket over the shoulder holster. I had the Smith & Wesson on me, freshly loaded with gleaming silver bullets. I wasn’t going to take chances with a smaller gun. At my back I had my SIG, and my knife was in its thigh sheath. Still, I felt naked. I wondered if it would look suspicious if I drove around with the carbine on my back again, but I decided against it. The S&W would pack the right kind of punch, and the carbine hadn’t helped the night before. I’d applied makeup around my eye and on my jaw to cover up the yellowish smudge the bruises had gone down to, but it looked wrong. The color was wrong for my skin tone, so I washed it off again. I didn’t really care what I looked like, but I didn’t want to look like I was trying to cover something up. My phone vibrated in my pocket as I walked out the door. “The reporter was here again today.” Ruben’s gravelly voice scraped through the speaker. “You sure she doesn’t just want to write a review of your excellent accounting skills?” Ruben’s firm had a good name, and he was charming enough to fool people who didn’t know the truth. Reporters fell into the “ignorant” bracket – in spite of all their research, and they ended up empty-handed almost every time. “This one’s not letting go. She keeps coming by after hours, and she won’t listen when I tell her the office is closed.” “Well, you are in the business of handling accounts for some vampires. Maybe it’s about that. But I’ll watch out,” I said. I slid one leg over my bike and straddled it. “I’ll come in in about an hour.” I hung up before he could argue with me. This was business, after all. He’d pointed Jennifer in my direction, and he’d pay me for my time. Joel was waiting for me in his open garage when I pulled in. “What happened to you?” he asked the moment I took my helmet off. Like my sister, he knew that I healed up fast, and he was doing the math. I wondered if I should have covered up after all. “Someone’s on my trail,” I admitted. He looked concerned and lifted his hand to my face. His fingers brushed the skin under my eye, sending small jolts of electricity through my face. Maybe in a different life something more could have happened between us. “It’s nothing. Just looks bad,” I said, leaning back so he wouldn’t touch me anymore. “You need to up your training skills if you’re going to be fighting your victims like this.” “It wasn’t a victim. She said something about me getting away with who I am, but to be honest, I was getting beaten up too much to follow the conversation.” “She?” I nodded. “I don’t know who she is, but she’s a damn good fighter.” Joel shook his head and turned toward the door, expecting me to follow. I did. “You’re going to back yourself into a corner one of these days,” he said over his shoulder. I shrugged, but he couldn’t see it as we stepped into the stairwell. The place looked neater than it had the night before, and I wondered if he had domestic help that he let down here once in a while. I didn’t trust anyone with my equipment, but maybe he had found someone he could rely on. To each his own. Trust in general wasn’t my strong suit. Joel sat down in front of his computer. The bluish light fell on his face and colored his skin, making him seem bruised, like me. “I didn’t get much for you. The system is still a tough one to crack. Whatever they’re using, it’s top of the line. My software could only do so much.” “I didn’t know you could be outsmarted,” I teased. Joel prided himself on his ability to get into any system in the world if he wanted to. “Are you trying to be funny?” he asked. “Because you’re not.” His fingers clacked on the keys, and windows popped open on the screen. “Did you get the e-mail I forwarded to you?” I asked. “I printed it out. It’s still in the rack,” he said, not looking at me. I walked over to the corner where his printers and scanners were set up and took the pages out of the printing tray. I flipped through them. “You don’t usually take jobs on personally,” he said. He was talking about the fact that I’d sent him the details from my home e-mail and not from work. “I’m working on a search-and-rescue. Ruben thinks he’s being funny.” “Nice of you to give back to the community once in a while.” “Bite me.” Joel snickered. “The guy your social security number brought up – his name’s O’Neill.” “What?” I walked over to him. O’Neill was a common surname, but this kind of coincidence didn’t just happen. Not in Westham. Not to me. I bent over Joel’s shoulder and looked at the screen. “Connor O’Neill, 442 Caldwell, Westham Hills,” Joel read out loud. “There’s a secondary address listed.” I scrunched the edge of the paper I was holding, and it crackled in my fist. “Thirteen Mulberry Street?” Joel scrolled down. “Yes, actually. How did you—?” I held up the papers in my hand. Joel looked at them, and my eyes fell on the screen where the photo attached to his findings had opened. The same photo was on the papers in my hand. Ruben and Jennifer were after the same guy. Shit. Chapter 7 “It’s not rocket science. If he’s a vampire already, kill him. If he’s still human, Ruben can’t have him taken out no matter how badly someone wants him. That’s just wrong.” Joel sipped his coffee. He’d made us each a cup after I’d kicked over a chair. So, I wasn’t great at anger management. The last twenty-four hours had made me edgy. The coffee was bitter and it tasted like he had brewed it through a sock, but I sipped mine to be polite. “It’s not like my moral standards have been very high lately,” I said. “True, but you have your reasons.” He let those words hang in the air for a while. He knew a bit of what had happened, but he didn’t know everything. I pushed away the fact that he was giving me a reason for my less-than-acceptable behavior. “Besides, you can refuse on legal grounds. Ruben can’t say anything about it if it’s illegal.” “You know him, Joel. He will say something. And with that reporter sniffing around, I don’t want to look for trouble.” “Reporter?” “Some woman is trying to stick her nose into Ruben’s business, and by that I don’t mean his front.” “Well, that makes it pretty easy, then. If it’s a human, get out.” “There’s something about this reporter that feels wrong. She’s too pushy.” “Aren’t they always?” “Only when they know something. And the fact that she does know something that she really shouldn’t, makes me wonder if she has a better reason than just a story. Something tells me Connor’s not human anymore, not if he popped up on our radar.” “You think it’s connected?” I shook my head and gave up on the coffee. “I doubt it, but it’s happening at the same time. Worth noticing. Pity the photo is of him as a human. Without a smell to go with it, he’ll be hard to recognize.” Joel chuckled. “It’ll be good for you to have a challenge for a change.” I got up and put the half-empty cup of coffee on the table. “I have to get to the office. I promised Ruben an hour after sundown, and I’m already running late.” I rolled out of the garage and started the bike. It came to life with a growl. “I’ll keep you posted,” I said, my voice muffled through the helmet, then I turned and opened the throttle. “You’re late,” Ruben said when I walked into his office. I had my helmet under my arm. I hadn’t dropped it on Sonya’s desk, which meant her mood wasn’t fouler than usual. Who said I didn’t have my generous moments? “I’m heading out again,” I said without answering his accusation. “You’ve got paperwork to look at.” “Not tonight. I have other things on my plate.” Ruben blinked at me. “Did you just tell me you were too busy to work for me on my time?” “You sent Jennifer Lawson to my apartment, Ruben. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” I turned and left his office. His grumbling followed me all the way to the stairwell before it stopped. The Mulberry Street neighborhood was just what I’d expected it to be. Inconspicuous. The houses were average-sized, with nothing that made any of them stand out from the others. They all had medium-sized gardens wrapped round them, and I guessed that if the occupants weren’t vampires, they would each have standard nine-to-five jobs and two-point-five children. Number thirteen was a neat house with white wooden walls and a picket fence. It looked like something from a real estate ad. The windows had green shutters on either side, and the garden was in full bloom. A medley of scents hung in the air. I smelled jasmine and lilies, and to the side I spotted an archway covered in white wisteria that led to the back garden. These were all night flowers, the first sign of a vampire house. I closed my eyes and reached into the night, searching for people. Some of the houses nearby were occupied, but this one was definitely empty. I couldn’t sense a thing – no bodies in the house, no smell of blood in the air. I walked around to the back of the house, through the archway and onto a well-manicured lawn, which surprised me. Vampires didn’t often take care of their yards like this. I inspected the windows, but found no visible changes, no shutters installed. It could be that the owner of this house was just someone who loved gardening. I pushed my knife underneath a window and slid it open. It creaked a bit, but it didn’t stick. I slipped in, and my lace-ups sank into a plush carpet. Someone hissed loudly in my ear. I had my Smith & Wesson out in a flash, but I was aiming it at a grey cat with its back arched and its claws out. I dared to breathe again, and yellow eyes glared at me. “You’re lucky I didn’t shoot you,” I said. I tried to calm my hammering heart. After the night before, hissing wasn’t my favorite sound, and I had almost overreacted to it. If I’d blown the cat’s head off, I would have had to worry about blood all over everything, and that would have been a real pain in the ass. The cat hissed at me again. This animal obviously didn’t like my vampire blood – another sign that this house might not belong to vampires after all, not if Kitty Galore had a say. The conflicting signs annoyed me. The house was tidy, and it smelled of detergent. I breathed in deeply, trying to find a lead, but there was nothing out of the ordinary. I’d never come across a vampire that smelled like almost nothing. Humans doused themselves in perfumes and deodorant, and it usually irritated my nose. I couldn’t tell what I was smelling, and the fact that I was being messed with bothered me even more. In the bedroom I finally found a scent on the sheets. It was very faint, but it was there. No deodorant had been used to cover it up. I could understand why. It would take someone a long time to track a smell this faint, and the deodorant would give it away more than the natural scent at this point. But it still smelled like vampire, however faint. The only explanation I could think of was that whatever slept here hadn’t been here for a while. It was better than admitting I couldn’t do everything perfectly. I walked to the kitchen. The cat was sitting on the counter, watching. It made a low moaning sound at the back of its throat. “It’s not too late for me to shoot you,” I said. It was sitting next to two bowls, both empty and dry. “Your master hasn’t been here in a while, has he?” I asked. The cat answered with a warning moan. “Get off it,” I said. I opened cabinet doors until the scent of cat food wafted out. I poured some into one bowl and filled the other up with water. The cat jumped up next to me, ignoring my presence, and dove into the food. From the looks of things, it was hungry. I didn’t reach out to stroke it; it would only try to scratch me anyway. But it was kind of nice seeing something alive be grateful for something I’d done, not dead or resentful. Maybe I should get myself a pet. The front door clicked, and the sound traveled through my bones. I stepped back, melting into the darkness. I pushed myself up against a tall cabinet and took out my Smith & Wesson. With my other hand I felt for the stake at my hip. If this guy was a vampire, the one I was looking for, he was going to get it. Nothing like a surprise attack at home. “Hey, Clyde,” a deep voice said. It was husky and silky, and it was like music to listen to. It sent shivers down my spine in a warm way, not the foreboding sensation I usually felt. I wondered vaguely what had happened to Bonnie if this cat was Clyde. “Sorry I disappeared for a while.” The cat answered with soft mewing sounds. I couldn’t see the guy, but I heard him move towards the kitchen. Then the movement stopped. “Who fed you?” he asked, alarm in his voice. He was close enough for me to smell, and I took a deep breath, letting the smell into my lungs, my mind racing to place it. Definitely vampire. Warm blood, mutated cells. I was betting on fangs. With it came a strong pull, lacing all the signals. I didn’t usually feel this drawn to something. I took two seconds to puzzle over it, then I pushed it away. There was one way to break a magnetic pull – eliminate the source. I stepped out from behind the cabinet, pointing my S&W right at his face. He was shocked. I could feel it in the air. But, strangely, there was no fear. Usually it dominated, but there wasn’t even a trace. In the dim light I could see his hands lift up, a surrender. His hair was a pale blond in the light falling in through the window. He looked a lot like the photo I’d seen, save for the ghostly pale skin and the elongated limbs. “Mr. O’Neill,” I said. It wasn’t a question. “What do you want?” he asked. He didn’t try to fight or run. But the smell of vampire became stronger. It was almost as if he had hidden it, and he was letting up now. Was that possible? I’d never met a vampire that could pretend to be human. I heard him take a long, slow breath. He was smelling me, too. It was a predator thing; we weren’t two people, facing off – we were animals. But this wasn’t going to be a fight for dominance, as if we were part of the animal world. With a gun like mine, we both knew who was boss. My finger curled around the trigger. If I couldn’t get in close enough to use a stake, I was going to shoot. “I know you,” he said. The words caught me off guard, and I let go of the trigger. He’d been about one squeeze away from death. I stepped to the side, gun still pointing at his face, and turned on a lamp. Yellowish light flooded the room, brightening the white tiles to a glare. My eyes adjusted quickly, but he held up his arms over his eyes to shield them. Vampire eyes were sensitive even to manmade light. He grimaced, and I spotted fangs touching his bottom lip. “What do you know about me?” I demanded. “Your smell,” he said. His voice was trembling a little, and it made me wonder if he really wasn’t scared, or if he’d managed to mask his fear as well. “Your scent. I’ve smelled it before.” He slowly dropped his arms, and I realized that the vampire I’d saved that morning in the alley was standing in front of me. His neck wounds had healed up, and he didn’t have the dark circles under his eyes anymore, but it was definitely him. Something in my body shifted, and I silently scolded my weakness. The attraction was ridiculous. “Connor?” I asked, just to be sure. He nodded. In a flash I had him up against the wall, with my forearm against his throat. He gasped and squirmed underneath my grip. I didn’t have my chain on me; I’d left it with the bike. Dammit. I hadn’t expected to catch him at home. If he dematerialized now, I’d lose him. “What are you?” he asked in a hoarse voice. Despite his strong ability to disguise himself, his naivety showed through. He didn’t know a half-breed when he saw one. I’d moved in a blur like him; I was strong like him. But I knew he had noticed my blunt teeth. His eyes were on my mouth. I let my gaze trail down to his mouth. His fangs were sharp, resting lightly on his bottom lip. His lips were smooth and full, but not too thick for a man. I forced my eyes back to his. “There’s a warrant out for you,” I said. “Dead or alive?” “Dead.” I positioned the stake underneath his ribs, then looked up into his eyes. They were dark blue, deep, like the ocean. I could fall into them if I wasn’t careful. I swallowed hard. We were frozen like that, with me half-choking him, and time stood still. I felt something around us – not the mist I’d expected, but a shift in the atmosphere. It became so thick I was sure I could run my fingers through it. I frowned and slowly released him, letting him stand on his own two feet. He didn’t run or fight or try to dematerialize. Instead, he stood there looking at me while I was gaping at him. He lifted his hand slowly, and I flinched when he brought it closer to my face, but I didn’t move away. His fingers touched the skin above my right eyebrow, and he brushed my hair out of my face. A warm surge of electricity raced through my body. My blood hummed in my veins. “You’re bruised,” he said, and I remembered what I must look like. “It happens,” I said, and regretted justifying it. Who was he? “I woke up in a garage with your scent hanging around me like a fog,” Connor said. His fingers were still in my hair. I had to step away. Actually, I had to stake a vampire. I was aware of the tips of his teeth, visible when he spoke. But the way he combed the tips of his fingers through my hair was nice. It made me feel warm. When had I last felt warm? And his eyes – I couldn’t look into his eyes and kill him. They hypnotized me, and I wanted to keep staring into them. “You were in the alley,” I said, and my voice was husky, not my own. “The sun was coming up.” “You saved me then just so you could kill me now?” “It’s my job,” I said, and looked away so his eyes wouldn’t make me betray myself even further. “What’s stopping you?” “You,” I whispered before I could stop myself. Something changed in Connor’s eyes. Emotion flickered across his face, too fast for me to read. I became aware of the cat, purring on the counter like a tractor. This one liked vampires, apparently. It was reveling in Connor’s presence. So, it was just me it hated. Nice to know. A sound outside ripped us out of the spell we were caught in. Connor cocked his head and listened. I was almost grateful for that; even with my half-breed ears I was going to miss sounds a vampire could hear. “Something tells me I’m not the only person who’s after you,” I said. He shook his head. If the security he had set up around his information online was anything to go by, he had much more on his plate than I did. “You’re not safe if you stay here, either,” he told me. “At the moment I’m just using this house as a distraction.” “And you’re leaving your cat behind to fend for itself?” He frowned at me. “Coming from someone who kills people, that’s a very judgmental statement.” His words were sharp, and I felt my insides cringe away as if he’d physically done something to me. I shook my head. Who the hell was he? I didn’t care what he thought. I wouldn’t. “So, you want to tell me who’s out to kill you?” “Are you planning on eliminating the competition? Because that would be swell.” He moved around the kitchen, turning his head to catch the sounds of the night. Twice he sniffed the air. Half the time he looked like he didn’t know what was going on, and the other half he looked like he’d been a vampire for years. “You’ve been spending a lot of time with vampires,” I said, suddenly realizing what I was seeing. He nodded slowly. “I had a couple of them working with me, until I found out they were dealing with illegal things behind my back. When I fired them, things turned ugly, so I turned vampire.” “You chose to turn?” I was appalled. I couldn’t imagine giving up something as perfect as humanity for something as raw and emotionless as being a vampire. “It’s a question of survival. You know better than anyone that a vampire is difficult to kill, while a human can just be taken out. It wasn’t my time to go.” “Your fiancée is looking for you,” I said. The atmosphere changed again. It suddenly became ice-cold, as if someone had just switched off the heat. “You know Jennifer?” he asked. “She’s the one who hired me.” “To kill me?” He looked confused. “Not if you were human. Being a vampire puts you on my kill list.” Connor looked like he was thinking about it for a moment. I could see cogs turning behind his eyes, but his face was carefully blank. “You’re fun,” he said in a dull voice, and I figured he’d finally come to a conclusion. It was the right one, too, if he was being sarcastic with me. People weren’t nice to me once they understood what I did. I opened my mouth to say something, but he held up his hand, listening. “I have to go. Trouble’s coming,” he said, and then he disappeared. It was almost like he’d dissolved at record speed. The feel of him lingered for a while after he’d dematerialized. I took a deep breath and tried to swallow, but my mouth was dry and my throat felt like sandpaper. The words I’d wanted to speak were still rolling around on my tongue as I stood alone in the kitchen, trying to decide which way was up in my life. “Oh, you’re in trouble now,” I said to myself. This was the first mark that had gotten away from me, not because it had outsmarted me, but because I’d been rendered dumb. I felt like a fool. Anger bubbled up in my throat, and my blood heated up beneath my skin. Damn vampires. Damn Connor. Damn my stupid life. I hated all the killing, hated that I needed it to survive. And at the same time, I hated myself for letting my target get away. Clyde hissed at me, mouth open and teeth bare. I didn’t have fangs, but I could hold my own in a cat fight. I hissed right back. The cat arched its back and squealed, then disappeared down the hallway. I left the house before Connor’s troubles could catch up to me, too. Chapter 8 Sonya’s desk was empty when I reached the office half an hour before sunrise. The days rolling from one to the next as I finished work still affected me. It made me feel like time was getting away from me. Now, it was heading into Thursday. I had been at this for almost a week and had nothing to show for it. “Your secretary is missing,” I said to Ruben, walking into his office without an announcement. “She’s wasn’t feeling well. I let her off early.” “Big of you.” I dropped three sets of keys and ID cards on Ruben’s desk. He frowned at my hand. There was blood across my fingers and under my nails, and it stained the cuff of my sleeve as well, although it was harder to see against the black leather. “Busy night?” he asked. I shrugged. After I’d left Connor’s place, I’d gone on a rampage. I had to feel like I was still good for something, like I had some sort of worth. I’d stood face to face with one of my marks, and I hadn’t been able to kill him – so I killed every vamp Ruben had pointed me toward. No, I corrected myself. I hadn’t wanted to kill Connor. I could still do it. I wasn’t getting weak. I wouldn’t let myself get to that point. “What are these?” Ruben asked, frowning at the three cards he’d arranged in front of him in a row. “Kills,” I said. Obviously. “I don’t exactly take them out for coffee.” He looked up at me, his eyes almost yellow, annoyed. “These are low level, Adele. I told you, you need to prioritize that last one I gave you. I’ve got clients on my case about it.” I shifted my weight from one foot to the other and looked out the window. The sky was changing, the darkness incomplete now with the coming of dawn. “I’m still tracking him. I haven’t found a solid lead.” I didn’t want him to know I’d failed with Connor. I didn’t want him to know that I saw Connor as a he and not an it even though he was a vampire. I didn’t want Ruben to know that I thought of him as Connor. “You’re getting sloppy, Adele. You’re usually on top of them in one night.” “You just gave me a social security number. What do you expect from me?” He looked at me, and I looked right back, locking us into a stare-down. In Ruben’s world, it was a warning. Humans did it to emphasize their point, their resolve. They did it to win an argument. In my world, it was a fight for dominance. If one predator locked eyes with another, it was a challenge. And Ruben sure as shit didn’t want to challenge me. I had a lot on him, speed and strength and two guns and a knife. He was going to end up a very distant second. Ruben broke the stare and looked down at the ID cards again. He didn’t realize he’d just lost the fight. I was the alpha between me and him, no matter who paid who at the end of the month. “Just make sure you get this over and done with,” he said, not looking at me. “Talk to your friends, call your contacts. I know you run to a techie when you need something. Now would be a good time to do that.” The way he said it got my back up. I didn’t run to anyone. “I said I would get it done,” I said, and my voice was as hard and cold as ice. Ruben looked up at me. I didn’t know what my face was showing, but he nodded. “You’d better,” he said, but his voice was empty of the warning his words were suggesting. I drove home and put away my guns, stripped out of my leather and got into the shower. There, I scrubbed my skin until it was raw. The thing about blood was that once it was dry, it was damn hard to get off. I didn’t want to arrive at training with blood on my hands. Much less at Aspen’s. By the time I was ready to leave again, it was already heading on towards eight o’clock. I picked up my phone and dialed Aspen’s number, but I only got through to voicemail. “I’ve got training until ten today. I’ll stop by afterward. Keep something warm for me. Sensei is going to make sure I’m starving.” I met with Sensei an hour earlier than normal to make up for missing my session yesterday. We started with a warm-up and then some sparring. Everything went well until he knocked me in the head. If I had been fine, nothing would have happened; I would have recovered and gone after him for it. But my head hurt more than I’d expected it would, and I sprawled on the floor. I held my hand up for him to just wait a second. I didn’t have to say anything; he put two and two together. “Either you’re running with the wrong crowd, or my teaching isn’t working. What happened?” “I stepped into the wrong territory, is all,” I answered. Sensei looked at me until I squirmed under his stare. “Really, it was nothing. You should see the other guy.” I chuckled half-heartedly. Of course it hadn’t been another guy. It had been a woman. And I hadn’t left a mark on her, save for the burn I was sure she was carrying on her leg after I’d cut her with my silver blade. But I wasn’t going to admit any of that to Sensei. Besides, he didn’t know about all the other injuries. “I’m starting to think I should be worried about you on more than just a self-defense and fighting technique level,” he said, starting with the stretching routine I mirrored for warm-up. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I can handle myself.” “Doesn’t sound like it,” he said. I steeled myself against the insult. I’d prove it to him in our sparring and hand-to-hand just now. I could still put him on his back and make him hurt. I ignored that that was because he was only a human, and my enemies almost never were. At the back of my mind I wondered if I would be able to find a vampire who would train me in supernatural fighting skills. It might come in handier than what I was doing now. But that meant that I would have to work with a vampire without killing it, and that wasn’t something I liked to do. Not because I killed every vampire I knew, but because I only spoke to them when I was about to kill them. It was a strange, backward situation. And in the middle of it all, holding everything together like a stake in between us, was Connor. The one vampire I hadn’t managed to kill. The one vampire I didn’t hate, if I had to admit it. I shook my head. I wasn’t going to admit it just yet. There was still time. Hatred was better when it was left simmering for a while. “You’re not doing this for fun, are you?” Sensei asked me after I had all but crawled to my bag and fished out my water bottle. I’d taken it all out on him, and he looked like he’d just had a warm-up. Maybe he had energy left because he wasn’t beating himself up on top of everything. “I don’t—” “You know, your stories are getting old,” he said, then walked over to the chair next to my bag and sat down. “All I’m seeing is you getting hurt, and then coming down here to take whatever you’re mad at out on me. I don’t mind being a punching bag; that’s my job. But just hitting everything and everyone you see isn’t going to fix whatever’s bothering you.” “It’s worked for me so far,” I lied. The truth was, it wasn’t working at all. But what else could I do? Forgiveness wasn’t an option, and it seemed ridiculous for me to scale down to a nine-to-five desk job now. I threw my things in my bag without ceremony. When I went to stand up, Sensei put his hand on my shoulder. The warmth of his touch made me want to lean into it – and cringe away, all at the same time. Instead, I just froze. My muscles were tense. I could take him again if I had to. I shook my head to get those thoughts out. This wasn’t an attack. Not everything was. “I don’t know what you’re doing,” he said. “But you’ve been coming here for long enough with the same routine. All I’m saying is that not everyone is an enemy. There are a few people in your life who are willing to be your friends.” He stood up and walked away from me without a care in a world, like he always did. I resented that. He could walk away and take on his next student without the darkness trying to catch up with him. I walked out the door into the past. I reached Aspen’s house half an hour after my training session. Every muscle in my body felt numb, but complained when I slid off my bike. Zelda opened the front door. “Adele!” she exclaimed, looking at the motorcycle over my shoulder as I walked toward the front porch. “You don’t usually come here on that.” “I had a change in routine today. I left her a voicemail,” I answered. When I was on the steps, Zelda shook her head. “Aspen’s gone out.” I froze in my tracks, one foot still hovering in the air over the last step. I put it down again without climbing further. “Out where?” “She went shopping. Claude took her about...” She lifted her wrist and squinted at her watch. “An hour ago.” I swore under my breath in a way that was very unbecoming for a lady. “How could you just let her go?” “Because I’m her nurse, not her warden,” she said matter-of-factly. “Claude is with her.” “Claude is a damn driver.” I sneered, then spun around, running for my bike. Zelda called after me, but I didn’t hear what she was saying. I was already pushing the helmet over my head. I had the bike started and was reeling down the road in a flash. I was overreacting; I knew I was. But it had been a hell of a week, and if someone was on my case and knew what I was, how was my sister safe? My heart hammered in my chest, and I struggled to breathe. Shopping wasn’t a bad thing, was it? Aspen was a grown woman. But she was also half-vampire, and with her teeth she looked pretty mythical. Plus, she was in a wheelchair. What if someone decided they didn’t like her? If they accidentally saw her teeth, even though she knew how to smile and speak to conceal them? She was so vulnerable. If something happened to her and I couldn’t save her... it would all be my fault. Again. I shook my head as I flew towards the mall. I tried to get rid of the images that flashed through my mind’s eye. Aspen had just been a teenager when her whole life was ripped apart. She’d only had me, and I hadn’t been able to save her from a life that was worse than death. I pulled into a parking space for motorcycles and ran into the mall. I dialed Aspen’s number as I ran, and to my relief it rang. “Adele.” Her clear voice rang over the speaker. “Where are you?” I asked. “I’m at the mall. I’m shopping.” “I mean, what shop? Let me come find you.” “You’re here? I’m at the food court.” I hung up and made my way to the food court. The mall was busy for this time of the morning, and I pushed my way through bustling groups of people. Finally I spotted her at a table with the chair removed for her wheelchair, drinking a soda. “What are you doing here?” she asked as I collapsed on a chair next to her and tried to catch my breath. The air came in in ragged gasps and burned my lungs on the way in and out. No matter how fit I was, the kind of fear I kindled when Aspen was concerned got me breathless and heaving every time. “I just wanted to say hello,” I lied. Aspen narrowed her eyes at me. “You’re checking up on me.” “I’m not. I just... Shit, Aspen. What if something happened to you?” Aspen sighed and put down her soda with a clunk. “Don’t you think you’re being a bit much?” she asked. I knew I was, but I wasn’t going to admit to it. “I’m just shopping. I’m allowed to get out of the house and have a life, you know.” I nodded, looking around the food court, scanning for anything that might look like trouble. “Claude is here to help me,” she said, and nodded toward the burger stand, where I saw the driver standing in line. “And, besides, what’s going to happen to me? The worst already has, and I survived it.” I looked down at her wheelchair. Her words snapped around me like whips. “I’m sorry,” I said, even though I wasn’t. The only thing I regretted was that she felt I was being overprotective. I wasn’t sorry at all for the fact that I was overprotective. I just needed her to be safe. I wasn’t going to let her get hurt again, even if it killed me. I offered her a smile that she returned after a moment of hesitation. “I’m gonna head home and have a shower. I’m still sweaty from training.” Aspen nodded. “I’ll see you tomorrow. And don’t worry about me, okay? I’m perfectly fine.” “Okay,” I said, trying to sound confident about it. Then I turned and walked away. I’d almost reached my bike when my phone rang. I pulled it out and looked at the caller ID. It was Joel. “Can I come over?” he asked. Joel never came over to my place. No one did. I didn’t like showing people the dump I lived in. “I’m still out. Let me come to you. I’ll be there in ten.” “No, don’t do that,” he said, and his voice sounded panicky. “Stay where you are. I’ll come to you.” “What’s going on?” “Someone trashed my place. I have footage, and I think you need to see this.” I arranged for him to meet me at the mall, at a coffee shop on the other side so I wouldn’t run into Aspen and make her think I was keeping an eye on her. I hung my helmet on my bike and wove my way through the crowds again. My eyes felt gritty when I blinked, and my head thumped dully. I was running on eighteen hours with no sleep, and after sleeping in yesterday morning and training twice as hard today, my internal clock was off and my body was complaining pretty loudly. I found the coffee shop we’d agreed on and took a table in the back, where the hum of voices all around us could drown out our conversation. I texted Joel where to find me, then leaned back, waiting. I hated being out in public like this. There were people around me everywhere, groups of three laughing, couples staring into each other’s eyes... It was all very normal. With my nighttime career of murder and mayhem, it was difficult to remember a daytime life that had looked this ordinary. I wondered what my life would look like if I didn’t have Aspen to worry about. If my mother were still alive. If my father weren’t locked up in a metal cell with no light so he wouldn’t fry or dematerialize. Joel arrived just in time to snap me out of the downward spiral my thoughts were pulling me into. “I’m glad you’re here,” he said as he sat down. He looked about as panicked as I had felt a half-hour earlier. He let his gaze slide down and back up my body. “You look different.” I rolled my eyes. “Don’t remind me.” “No, it looks good. The whole I-actually-do-have-a-heart look works on you.” I punched him lightly on the shoulder and he leaned back in his chair, ducking away from me. “I’m not here for insults,” I said. “Only you would take a compliment as an insult. If I told you that you look like a serial killer, I might get you to smile. You’re all backwards, Adele.” “Are we here to discuss you, or me?” I asked irritably. “You’re right,” he said. “Well, someone got into the pit and trashed everything. All my computers are ruined. When I got there this morning, it looked like a hurricane had been through the place. All my papers were scattered. It’s a hell of a lot of money in damages, too.” “I didn’t know people knew about your workplace,” I said. Joel was discreet in his dealings. “Only three people do, and you and I are two of them.” “You said you have footage?” He nodded and produced a laptop bag that I hadn’t noticed him carrying over his shoulder. “This one’s fine, though,” I said, nodding at the laptop. “I keep this one on me. It has all my cameras linked up to it.” “Cameras?” I hadn’t noticed any, and for me that’s saying something. “They’re thumbtack cameras,” Joel said, as if he’d read my mind. “No one’s supposed to see them. I invented them myself.” He said it like he wanted a pat on the back. He wasn’t going to get it from me. “Do you have more where those came from?” I asked instead. He nodded, a smile slowly creeping across his face. “I could do with some surveillance at my place. Maybe Aspen’s as well,” I added. “I won’t be able to set it up for you right away. I have to clean up the pit first and find them. I also need to check your system to see if it’s up to date enough to run them.” I thought about my computer. Up to date enough? Unlikely, but maybe Joel could work a bit of magic. “I wish you could do it sooner. I have a feeling someone’s on my trail.” Joel flipped open his laptop. He pulled up a screen split four ways, each of the four showing a black-and-white tape view of the pit. Someone in black clothes appeared and started ransacking the place, throwing over tables, kicking monitors and cabinets over. “What was he looking for?” “Not he. She,” Joel said. The next frame showed the person from the side. It was clearly a woman, and she had white hair. She was wearing a bandana over her mouth, so it was impossible to see her face properly, but I was pretty sure I knew her. “How did she know we were linked?” I asked. “It’s her, isn’t it?” Joel asked. “I knew it was.” “What did she want?” “I don’t know. As far as I can tell, nothing’s missing. Just destroyed. More like a warning than a hit.” I took a deep breath and blew it out again. A warning I could believe. A hit would have meant death. I was pretty sure that even the other night’s attack on me had been more of a warning. I doubted she would have fled from an unfinished job. “I’m going to have to find her and put an end to this nonsense.” It was one thing if I got beaten up. It was different when the people I cared about were thrown into the mix. “Don’t plan your revenge just yet,” Joel said. “I get all the information my servers find sent to the laptop. Backups and all that. This came through just before the system went offline.” He clicked on a tab at the bottom of the screen and pulled up a website address. A newspaper article appeared on screen. Connor O’Neill, king of Westham’s business district and part of Westham’s social elite, has gone missing after a troubling report came to light that suggests he is involved in vampire trafficking. O’Neill, third generation owner of O’Neill & Grodin, Inc., is one of the champions of vampire-human equality and demonstrated his support by employing vampires. O’Neill & Grodin, Inc. was one of the first companies to implement this employment policy, with many other companies following suit. To date, his company employees are 30% vampire, which is one of the highest rates in the country. Questions are being raised by partners and stockholders as to whether the vampire employment policy was a cover, and some are going as far as saying that O’Neill used it as a front to attract vampires, which he then shipped off to work in illegal blood banks in the Middle East. Vampire trafficking is a relatively new concept, but there is a growing market for it. Vampires are used for everything from scientific experimentation and the search for a viable means to “cure” vampirism, to the fulfillment of fetishes and fantasies. With their life expectancy being so high, and their ability to heal so rapidly, they are sold at an extremely high price. Chief of Police Sorrel Marx commented, “Connor O’Neill has always been a big name in Westham. It’s difficult to believe he’s behind something this horrendous, but we’ve been surprised before. The police are working day and night to solve this. Vampires are new to our society, but we will fight to protect their rights, just as we would for humans.” The case is still being investigated. Jennifer Lawson, O’Neill’s fiancée, has no comment on the topic but she’s been questioned by police about her involvement and she continues to be under public scrutiny. I frowned and read the article again. “Looks like your mark is in a lot of trouble.” “He said he had to change to get out of it,” I mumbled, more to myself than to Joel, but he’d heard me. “He what? You spoke to him?” I closed my eyes for a moment and scolded myself for slipping up. “I ran into him while I was searching his house,” I said. I wasn’t going to lie to Joel. There might have been times where I hadn’t told him the whole truth, but I wouldn’t lie to him. “How much did you get out of him before you killed him?” “No enough,” I said. I hadn’t killed him, of course, but that counted as omission of truth, not a lie. Besides, I should have asked more questions. And I would if I saw Connor again. If I could control myself enough to not kill him right away. Right. “Was this in the newspapers?” I asked. Joel nodded. I didn’t read the papers, but then again, neither did Joel. “Someone’s been lying to me,” I said. I thought back to my conversation with Jennifer. It must have seemed convenient to her that I didn’t know about the whole scandal. I’d have to have a word with her, too. “Who wrote this?” I asked, a thought suddenly dawning on me. Joel scrolled down, squinting at the screen. “Celia Clemens,” he said. Clemens. It sounded familiar. A name I could trace. “Thanks for this,” I said to Joel, getting up. “And I’m sorry about your place. I’ll figure it out.” “You just worry about your face. If she could do that to my hardware, I’d hate to know what she can do to someone who bleeds.” Chapter 9 I left the mall feeling frustrated and tired, and that made me grumpy. I tore down the road, speeding tickets be damned. My head was spinning with information, and my fingers were itching for some action. I hadn’t slept yet, but I needed to get this poison out of my system. I hated being the one who wasn’t on top of things. I hated being on the bottom rung of the ladder. This woman, whoever she was, was messing with my people. And with me. On top of that – Connor and vampire trafficking? I had no loyalty to vampires; I was a killer, for crying out loud. But trafficking? That just seemed wrong. The whole idea of a life that stretched to infinity, all of it filled with torture, made me feel uncomfortable. I shook my head, my view of the road shaking. I had to get my mind straight. But I couldn’t pick and choose. I couldn’t hate vampires and protect them at the same time. But what did I feel, then? Why did this news upset me so much? It felt like a stake lodged under my ribs, and it moved around painfully every time I moved, every time I breathed. This was why I had to kill Connor. This was why it had been such a mistake that I’d let him go. I thought suddenly of Jennifer. How much did she know about the trafficking? How much was she involved in? Giving the police a story was one thing. I was starting to wonder about her motivation for finding Connor, and I was pissed that she’d lied to me. Was it to give him up? Or was it to save him, and thus save herself? By the time I got home, the only thing I allowed to keep rolling around in my mind was the fact that my people were being messed with – and someone had to pay for that. I fell into bed, but not before I had reloaded the Glock under my pillow and slid the Smith & Wesson under my bed instead of returning it to my gun safe. Nervous, much? The fact was, if I woke up with a blonde bitch hovering over my face, I wanted to end her with the least amount of effort. I was done playing games. I had never been one to toe the line. I just stepped over the damn thing and started shooting. I woke up to three messages on my phone and a handful of missed calls from private numbers. None of them were from Aspen, and that was enough for me to relax. Ruben had tried to get hold of me. I dialed his cell. “Anxious to see me?” I asked when he picked up on the first ring. “I want to make sure you’re getting your ass in here the moment the sun goes down and taking care of business. I want this finished.” “You sound like someone’s chewing your ass.” He took a deep breath. I knew it was to calm down before he broke something on his end of the line. “You have no idea what’s at stake here.” “A lot of cash?” He chuckled without emotion. “If it were only that easy. Your life is simple enough – you pull a trigger, and you troubles are over. My troubles live long enough to come back and bite me.” “I’ll be there,” I said, and hung up. My life was easy, was it? Because I could just shoot my troubles and go to bed without a headache? If only it were that simple. The problem with killing was that it really did come back to haunt you, no matter how justified it was. And there had been plenty of reasons for me to pick up a gun in the first place. But it was safer to let Ruben believe that his life was difficult, cocooned in the safety of his office, while I got blood on my hands. There were some offenses that couldn’t be repaid in any other way. I got dressed in my leathers and looked at myself in the mirror. I looked as deadly as my father, with my dark hair and haunted eyes. I curled my lips back to confirm that I was only looking at myself. No fangs. No threat. I shuddered and shrugged into my holsters. The guns against my body were a kind of security. They were something I understood, something solid. A gun was something I could trust. It didn’t pretend that it loved me when all it could really offer was death. I looked at the clock. It was still early, even though the sun was casting a fiery glow through my window. I walked out the door anyway and got on my bike. I switched it on and let it idle for a minute, then twisted the throttle and pulled out into the street, with the intention of driving around until it was time to head to the office. Instead, I ended up in front of Westham Penitentiary. The big grey building was low and squat, like it had sunk in on itself. It was divided into two sides, one half reinforced with metal rebar inside the walls and no windows, and the guards had silver bullets. The visitor lines shifted from the human building during the day to the vampire building at night. The realization of where my body had taken me when my mind was occupied swirled like nausea in my stomach. I walked inside and went through the usual motions, filling out the forms and producing my ID. Eventually I was sitting in an uncomfortable plastic chair with thick glass in front of me. I shivered, and my chest felt like lead. Suddenly I wanted to run, but just as I began to get up, he walked through the door. My father. He was wearing an orange jumpsuit, and his formerly black hair was almost completely grey now. He looked like he hadn’t shaved for a couple of days. But it was what was underneath the hair and clothes that scared me. My father looked like he had doubled in age. His face sagged and his cheeks were sunken in; his blue irises were so pale that it was difficult to tell what color they had once been. And at the same time, the face that stared back at me was still the face of the father I’d grown up with. He picked up the phone attached to the partition and held it against his ear. I did the same. The receiver was cold and heavy against my cheek. “I didn’t expect to see you,” he said. “I didn’t expect to come.” A silence hung between us, filled with everything we couldn’t say. “How’s Aspen?” “She’s doing all right,” I answered stiffly. No thanks to you, I added silently. “I’m doing well too. Thank you for asking.” He didn’t need to say the words. I could hear them anyway. I didn’t look like I was doing okay. I didn’t feel like it, either. His eyes glazed over, and he seemed to look past me at a memory that transported him to a different world. I guessed that in a place as colorless and drab as this, he had to escape to a world he’d created himself. He’d gotten good at it. I know I had, and my prison wasn’t even something tangible. “I never meant to do any of it,” he said so softly I could barely make out the words. But what he said wasn’t lost on me. “It’s a bit late for that now.” “I miss her.” He rubbed his eyes like he was wiping away tears, but when he looked at me I saw no trace of tears. There was no question about where Aspen had gotten that skill. I wondered who she was. The mother I’d lost, or the sister I was fighting to keep? He’d lost both of them, even though it hadn’t been a straight kill the second time around. Goose bumps spread over my body like a duvet, stuffed with memories of times past and loved ones lost, rather than the feathers of geese. “Will you ask Aspen to come see me?” he asked. “You’re the last person on this earth she wants to see, Dad. Besides, the jailhouse isn’t exactly wheelchair friendly.” He flinched at my remark. I wondered how much he was refusing to acknowledge. “I...” His face was a blank mask, his lips moving without producing a sound. It was enough quiet space for me to spill my own bitterness into the silence. “You remember that, don’t you? Why you’re here? Mom’s dead, and Aspen is crippled for the rest of her life. And I’m left behind, fixing every mistake you made because you weren’t enough of a man to do it yourself.” My dad looked down at his hand, lying on the plastic table in front of him. He picked at his forefinger nail with his thumb and began to hum a little, and I wondered for a moment if he was sane at all. Maybe all of this would have been easier to accept if he’d been declared clinically insane. If a crazy person had made those decisions, I could forgive them somehow – a lapse in judgment, a lapse in who my father really was – but two psychologists had visited with my father, and both had declared him more sane than most of the people who were walking the streets. If anything, insanity was just beginning to creep in now, without the presence of the real world to keep him in check. “Why are you here?” he suddenly asked, looking at me, and it was the sharpest I’d seen his eyes in years. I looked at him for a long time before I answered him. “I don’t know. I never really know why I end up coming to see you.” No matter how many kills I made, I knew that the man I really wanted dead was still here. Maybe one day I could lay down my guns, but there were too many vampires out there, too many people who could still be killed. Too many Aspens in this world, and not enough Adeles. “Maybe it’s because every time you walk in here, I hope that I’ll see a different person. Someone who hasn’t done all those things. But every time it’s just you coming through that door.” “Just me,” he said. I put down the phone and stood up. I was running late for work. I shouldn’t have come in the first place. I never knew why I kept running back to the one man I truly hated, in the most raw sense of the word. It was his face I saw every time I forced my stake into a vampire’s heart, or pulled a trigger. It was his blood I saw splattered on the walls behind the victims, on my hands after a long night. In my nightmares. I looked over my shoulder. A guard was already leading him away from the booth, but my father’s eyes locked with mine, and his lips were moving. “I love you,” he mouthed. I turned my back and kept walking. In the parking lot, I sat on my bike. The last fingers of sunlight were lying across the horizon, leaving stretched shadows behind them like scars. I felt ripped apart, like there was a gaping hole in my chest and every breath I took escaped through it again. I gasped for air, fighting down the lump that was rising in my throat. “Are you all right?” a voice said from behind me. I swallowed my emotions and turned around. My hand was already on the knife on my thigh. Connor was standing half behind me, and he looked concerned. Something inside me jumped, and I tried to place what I was feeling. I looked toward the horizon again and noticed that the last light was gone. What remained now was just an afterthought. “You’re out early,” I said, not answering his question. “It’s a big risk for a purebred to be out this close to sunset.” “A purebred?” I bit my tongue. I was suggesting that there was a breed that wasn’t pure. I shook my head. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “I guess I could ask you the same thing.” “You avoid all my questions,” he pointed out. “I have unfinished business I need to tie up.” He sighed, and he looked so sad for a moment that I wondered if it was my job to do something about it. Was someone going to take care of my unfinished business? We all had to deal with our own troubles. Then the emotion cleared as quickly as it had arrived, and his face was carefully expressionless. “When you join the dark side, you don’t realize how many ends you can’t seem to tie up. Even if none of it was your choice in the first place.” “As opposed to the darkness you created in you past life?” I asked. Connor blanched, if that was possible for a vampire whose skin was already too pale. “So you’ve heard,” he said. “Anyone who reads the paper knows.” “Except you didn’t read the papers. It was like talking to a long-lost friend when I realized you didn’t know. You’re only hunting me as a job, aren’t you?” I shrugged. Admitting to that made it sound worse than it was. I didn’t need to be classified in the same group as him. “I’m guessing you have an interest in there,” he said, tipping his head toward the building. “Vampire?” I stilled. “How did you guess?” “The entrance to the human facility is on the other side.” He smiled a brilliant smile that flashed long white teeth. He would have to learn to hide those in public. “I didn’t peg you for the vampire-loving type. What with you trying to stake me and all.” “I’m not,” I said flatly. Speaking of staking, for someone who knew for a fact that I’d intended to kill him, he was being very casual around me. “So, are all those stories true?” I wanted to stop myself, but I had to ask. It was about the vampires. About them, about their lives. I didn’t want to admit that it was also about Connor. That I didn’t want to be disappointed in him. “Would it make a difference to you if it were? Weren’t you going to kill me anyway?” I looked down at my hands. I didn’t know the answer to that question, and that pissed me off. “You don’t seem too worried about it,” I said instead. “The fact that the reason you know me at all is because I was about to kill you.” “But you didn’t.” He shrugged and jammed his hands into his pockets. He was wearing civilian clothes, and if it weren’t for the small telltale signs and the obvious fangs, I would say he could pass for human. His ability to disguise himself was amusing. I hadn’t met a vampire before who could do that. Though I hadn’t really given any of them a chance. “I don’t know. Maybe I like you,” he said, and his words knocked whatever I was thinking out of my head. “You go for the hard-asses, do you? A handsome guy like you? What would Jennifer say?” His face turned to stone, his lips set in a straight line. “She’s not really the kind of person who fits into this world,” he said. “Are you talking about the trafficking world, or the vampire one?” He looked at me for a long time. When he finally spoke, it wasn’t to answer my question. We were playing the same game. He looked down at his shoes. “In another life... Sometimes it takes nearly dying to realize how much time you were wasting on the wrong stuff, and how many people you dedicated yourself to for the wrong reasons.” I groaned. “I don’t do sagas,” I said. I hated it when people, or vampires in this case, got all emotional on me. Emotion was for weaklings. I’d worked hard to push mine far enough away to believe they didn’t exist. I really would have appreciated it if others could do the same. Connor chuckled. “I want to see you again.” “See me again?” I echoed, because I couldn’t remember any of our meetings where I hadn’t tried to kill him, so it seemed strange. Maybe he wanted a challenge. “Yeah. Saturday.” “During the day?” He shrugged again. “Nighttime would suit me better.” He looked toward the horizon, and then toward the jail. “I have to get going,” he said. “One of my friends was locked up for trafficking. Imagine that.” “Won’t they be looking for you?” “It’s hard to find someone when they’re not what you expect.” I smiled despite myself. “I’ll see you after sunset on Saturday. You have some explaining to do if I want to take my job seriously.” “That sounds a lot like a compromise to me. I didn’t think you did that often.” “Never,” I agreed. “Promise to leave the stake behind?” I nodded, noting that he hadn’t said anything about knives and guns. Connor had started to fade, see-through, when he spoke again. “For what it’s worth, I didn’t do it. Some people I hired did. When I found out, I had to save myself. You can fill in the blanks for yourself.” Then he dematerialized, and I was left alone again, cursing myself for being an idiot. For feeling the emptiness he’d left behind. It was okay, I reassured myself. I needed to know who was after him and why. That was why I’d agreed to meet him. When I drove toward the office I kept repeating that to myself, like a mantra. Maybe if I did it often enough, I would start believing it. Chapter 10 “Nice to you see you’re back,” I said to Sonya, who was sitting behind her desk again. “Two more nights until the weekend.” Her eyes were a little swollen, and her nose was red. She looked at me with a dull stare. Even sick Sonya wasn’t much of a party. If anything, it annoyed her more when I didn’t act like I wanted to kill her. “No papers tonight?” I asked when she didn’t hand me a stack of papers like she usually did. “No, tonight you get to be humane,” she said in an icy voice. It was nice to know she had some emotions, albeit negative ones. I’d long ago gotten over being upset when people didn’t think I was lovable. You had to be able to do “cute and cuddly” for that. I didn’t do cute and cuddly. I walked through to Ruben’s office and opened the closed door without knocking. “You’re late,” he said. “I’m here,” I countered. “And you don’t have work for me anyway, it seems. I don’t know what you’re upset about.” Ruben leaned back in his chair and stretched up his arms. His shirt had ketchup stains down the front. “You’re not prioritizing my clients, like I asked,” he said. I rolled my eyes and sat down on the chair opposite him. “Don’t get comfortable. You’re hitting the streets in less than a minute.” “What am I supposed to do if I can’t find him?” I asked. “You’re going to make sure you do. I’m not giving you any other cases tonight, so you get to take all the time you need to locate your mark. Don’t say I don’t ever do anything for you.” “I can’t go to my contact,” I said. Ruben frowned at me. That was my cue to explain. “He’s having... technical trouble.” It was close enough to the truth. Having your monitors kicked in was pretty technical. “Well, you’re resourceful. I’m sure you’ll find a way.” I got up and turned toward the door without saying anything. “I want this guy before the weekend, Adele,” Ruben said, and there was a warning in his voice. “I can’t do more than I can do, Ruben. You know better than to make me promise.” “I’m not making you promise. I’m promising. This one has consequences.” I walked out, because it sounded too much like a threat. I didn’t respond well to threats – I tended to turn on them and be the one who was threatening. And when I threatened, I didn’t let it hang. I finished the job. Outside, I looked up and down the road. It was empty, the halogen lamps casting circles of light onto the otherwise dark street. No one was around. It was just common sense not to be out on the street in Westham’s downtown at night. I tried to decide where I was going to go. I couldn’t go to Joel, for obvious reasons. Aspen was out of the question, because I was supposed to be on duty and she didn’t have a nocturnal cycle like I did. And the sad fact was, that was the sum total of people I knew. Besides my dad, whom I’d already seen and hoped not to see again if I could help it, and Connor, whom I was seeing way too much of. I sighed. My life was complicated as hell, even when nothing was happening. The only thing left was to try to trace the person who had attacked me. She’d had a reason. Maybe it was something we could talk out. And by talking it out, I meant with the business end of my gun staring her in the face. But how was I going to do that? All I knew about her was that she couldn’t be human, and she had it in for me. It wasn’t much to go on. I got on my bike and drove up to Westham Hill. I’d seen her there last. I doubted she’d been following me, or else I would have seen her in other places. Unless she’d meant to stay away, which was just as possible. But I was pretty sure I’d run into her by accident. She knew who I was and what I did, but she hadn’t meant to go after me. If that was the case, maybe she’d been monitoring the house on Caldwell Street, the same as I had. So that was where I was going to start. What did I have to lose? Only my life. No biggie. I scolded myself. I might be running after a dead end. Someone suddenly popped up in the beam of my headlights, and I pulled both brakes and stepped down hard. My bike squealed, and flipped to the side, and skidded forward. I shrieked, the sound of my panic filling my helmet. I slid on the asphalt, the rough road tearing and ripping into my leather pants. The sickening sound of the skid filled the night. When I finally came to a stop, I jumped up and looked around, but saw no sign of whoever that had been. Where had they gone? My leather pants were torn all the way down the outside of my left leg. Dammit. Leathers weren’t cheap. At least it was better than being ripped raw myself. I was grazed a little, and I could feel the fresh wound running down my leg, but it wouldn’t be deep. Only skin, no flesh. That was partly why I wore leathers – they were thick enough to protect me from a scrape. I picked up my bike and tried to start it. Luckily it hadn’t flooded, but the paint job was a mess. That hurt me more than my leg would tomorrow. My bike was one of the few things I got sentimental about. I usually distanced myself emotionally to spare myself. But a bike I could trust. All of this is going to catch up with you. A voice swirled around me like a warm breeze. It was everywhere around me, and in my head, all at once. I was pretty sure it was hers. I’m watching you. You can run, princess, but you can’t hide. It was sickening. I had my knife out, even though there was nothing I could stab. A cackling laughter enveloped me, and it made me feel useless and naïve. I was furious. Humiliated that I’d fallen, angry that my paint job was messed up, horrified that I could be haunted by someone who was still alive. “Come out and face me, coward!” I shouted into the night. My voice broke around the edges of my words like cracked glass. She had to be here somewhere, to mess with my mind like that. Supernatural creatures had all sorts of powers, but they also had ranges. She couldn’t find me if I was too far away, unless she had my blood. And I knew for a fact she didn’t. I had enough vampire in me to know my blood and what it felt like when someone else had some of it. The laughter danced around me again, mocking me, and then it faded like a lost echo. Suddenly, she was in front of me. Her hair was ice-white in the moonlight, and this time her face wasn’t hidden in the shadows. She had sharp, cat-like features, and her eyes glowed green in the dark. Not pools of black, like before. I would bet everything I had that she had feline characteristics and powers. She was wearing a leather outfit that was a lot sexier than mine, I had to admit. I wondered if I should do something about my own clothes, but then I told myself I was a killer, not a temptress. A smile lit up her eyes even more, and I realized she was still toying with my mind, creating jealousy, self-doubt, materialistic values. I’d heard of something like her before. There were creatures out there that could mess with your mind, bring up all sorts of thoughts and emotions, enough to destroy you without their doing much at all. “You take a while to catch on,” she said in a syrupy voice that I didn’t trust at all. “I don’t have all night.” Actually, I did. But I wasn’t going to let her last that long. She was quicker than I’d thought. With a blast of cold air she was right in front of me, our faces so close they almost touched. A sharp pain shot into my cheek, and I saw her nails colored red by my blood. The bitch had scratched me, and she’d done it so fast I hadn’t seen it coming. I touched my cheek gingerly, and my fingers came away slick with blood. I swore. I was starting to wonder if I was outmatched. “You swear like a man,” she said. “You fight like a girl.” It wasn’t my most creative comeback, but I had to say something before I launched at her because she kept putting me on my ass so fast I couldn’t keep up. I had to win this one. I wasn’t the type that was accustomed to losing. She let out a feline scream when I jumped on her, and we tumbled to the ground in a tangle of limbs. I tried to grab a handful of her hair, but it was plaited in a complicated twirl that didn’t give me much of a grip. “You need to up your beauty skills,” she said, drawing my mind to my own hair. It was in a ponytail, streaming down my back. As she redirected my mind, she grabbed a handful and yanked. Her hand came away with strands of hair streaming between her fingers. I balled my fist and hit her square in the mouth. It bloomed red the moment my hand left her face, and she spat on the ground. I was being slapped around like a child, and I had to make my mark quick if I wanted this fight to be equal. “You’re going to regret doing that,” she said, her voice still as charming as ever. I reached for my knife. The silver had done the trick last time. I held it up, poising the blade to sink it into her chest. But her green eyes suddenly caught mine, and her pupils expanded until there was nothing left of her irises. Only black holes, a void of nothing. It was welcoming, beckoning me into a world of oblivion. Of bliss. I could leave all this behind and escape to a place where my life didn’t exist. Where I didn’t exist. No, I had to fight it. My thoughts were almost like a fading echo in my mind, but I focused on them. I couldn’t let her steal me away from myself. I blinked and tried to look away, but something held my gaze. Something powerful. Something invisible. “It’s a pity I’m not allowed to kill you,” she whispered, her voice rolling around in my mind in waves. “It would have been so much fun to watch you bleed out. But my masters have a bone to pick with you. So I only get to play.” She ran a finger down my other cheek, and it left a trail of fire behind. I wanted to fight back, but my body was numb and I couldn’t move my limbs. All I could feel was the emptiness beckoning to me. All I could see were those bottomless pits and the whites of her eyes... which were now glowing fluorescent green. Chapter 11 My eyes were foggy, and I kept blinking to clear my vision. Slowly the room around me came into focus, and I found myself staring at my own ceiling. Soft morning light was filtering into the bedroom. I sat up, grabbed my phone from where it lay face down on the nightstand, and checked it. It was eight thirty on Friday morning. I hadn’t lost too much time. Then a million questions crashed down on me. How had I gotten home? What had happened after the fight last night? I groaned, the weight of humiliation dragging me down like a weight around my ankles. Could I even call what had happened a fight? Where had the rest of the night gone? What had I done in the black void that stretched from then until now? I couldn’t remember anything. The last thing I remembered was those eyes, black pools of emptiness that drew me in. The warmth came back, the numb feeling that I had been craving for years. The feeling I had never been able to find with any of my kills. I shook my head. I had to snap out of it. That woman was going to steal everything from me. Everything that made me, me. I knew it like a solid truth inside me, cementing my resolve in place. When I threw back the covers and swung my legs out, I noticed I was still wearing my leathers. The graze on my leg smarted, and I touched my thigh gingerly. Hadn’t I gotten undressed? I felt like I’d been stuck in a dream. I got up, unbuckled my thigh sheath and climbed out of the torn pants. The leather clung to my wounds, and peeling it off was like removing a Band-Aid. Once they were off, I threw them toward the wastebasket. Then I stripped off the rest of my clothes as well. I slathered antiseptic cream on the wound, which burned an angry red all the way down. It hurt like hell, and I could feel my pulse throbbing down the length of my leg. The last thing I wanted was an infection the size of half my body. At least being half-vampire meant I would heal up in half the time. When I’d finished, I took an inventory of my stuff. All my guns were in the gun safe, which was normal. But my thigh sheath had still been on my leg. Strange. I walked over to the bed and discovered that my Glock was missing. When I searched through the room, I found it on the dressing table. Definitely not where it should have been. In the bathroom, I checked myself out in the mirror. I ran my hands down my face, then opened the tap. I cupped my hands under the stream, intending to splash some cold water onto my face. Then I looked at myself in the mirror again. My old bruises were completely gone. The woman had scratched me hard on the cheek. I remembered how it had stung, the slick blood running down my face, but when I inspected my skin, there wasn’t a mark. I tried to count how many hours it had been. Seven? Eight? I could easily heal up in that time, but this felt quicker than normal. Either I was showing more of my vampire side, which scared me, or something else was wrong – I’d missed more time or something. That scared me too, so I decided to believe the former. Still, it all felt wrong. Very wrong. I fetched my knife in its sheath from the bedroom and hung it in the shower. I wasn’t going to do anything without protection anymore, until I could figure out what the hell was going on. The hot water stung down my leg and I gritted my teeth, trying to keep soap out of the wound. By the time I was finished showering, two things were playing in my mind. One: she was just toying with me now, like a cat playing with a mouse. But the real trouble would come. She wouldn’t let me live. If I was getting beaten up already, how would I protect myself when things got serious? And two: if I had gotten home by myself, that would have been fine, but there were too many things that pointed to someone else trying to fake my routine. That meant that someone knew me well enough to know what I did and where I lived. And if that was the case, I was in very, very deep trouble. The phone rang, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. When I picked it up, I didn’t recognize the number. “Hello?” My voice was thin, unsure. I hated the way I sounded. “It’s Jennifer,” that familiar, feminine voice said. I could feel every fiber in my body slowly begin to relax. I rubbed my temple with my free hand. “I was just wondering if you’ve managed to find anything yet,” Jennifer said. Yes, I found your boyfriend. He was a vampire, and I really wanted to see him again. “Actually, I was hoping we could meet in person again. There are a couple of things I’d like to talk about.” “We can talk now,” she suggested. “I don’t think this is the kind of thing we want to talk about on the phone.” She gasped at the other end of the line, then dropped her voice. “Do you think it’s being tapped?” This wasn’t a spy novel. Blood, betrayal, death – that was a part of my daily life. But my phone being tapped didn’t seem likely. I thought back to Joel, and his pit being trashed. The level of security on Connor’s online information. I shook it off. “Nothing like that. I just want to meet up. When’s good for you?” “Saturday afternoon,” she said after a moment. “We can meet at my house.” I hesitated for a second, then agreed. If it wasn’t her home, it would be mine. I hated being out in public, and I wasn’t willing to let her into my home again unless I didn’t have a choice. “I’ll be there at three,” I said. “Send me your address.” “Will you let me know if you find anything in the meantime?” “I will,” I lied. “The truth is, I’m starting to lose hope,” she said. A pang of guilt shot through my chest. I was working myself into a corner, and fast. At the beginning of the week, my life had been regular, ordinary. Shoot to kill, survive to see another night, take care of Aspen. Simple. Now I didn’t know which side was up anymore. My life had become a Rubik’s Cube I couldn’t solve. After Jennifer had hung up, I dialed the office. Boy, was Ruben going to be pissed. Not only had I managed to ignore his orders to find Connor, but I had also lost an entire night. “What?” he barked into the phone when he picked up. “I wanted to explain last night,” I replied. This wasn’t going to be easy. I expected him to swear up one side of me and down the other. “What about last night?” he asked. “You have more information you want to share with me?” “More?” “Than last night.” I hesitated. “Did I phone in last night?” Ruben snorted. “You told me you’d found a lead and you were tracing him. Not your best effort, but it’s better than nothing. What’s going on?” Someone was playing with me. Nothing made sense, and most of all, Ruben wasn’t angry with me. Something was definitely off. “I just called to check what time you needed me in tonight,” I said, recovering. I didn’t want him to find out something was wrong. I needed this job more than I needed the money. “Don’t come in tonight. Something urgent came up, and I’m not going to be in the office. I gave Carl a night off too.” I’d completely forgotten about my so-called colleague. It usually felt like I was working the field alone. I hardly ran into the guy. Why hadn’t Ruben assigned him to Connor’s case, if he thought I was making such a mess of it? Also, having a night off was a rarity. “I’ll be in touch,” Ruben said before I could ask, and hung up the phone. A night off. I couldn’t remember the last time that had happened. It sounded good, until I started wondering what I would do with my time. What I would do for a release instead. I put more antiseptic cream on my wound, then bandaged my leg up. It restricted my movements, which I hated, but with some luck the wound would be healed soon. I dressed in jeans and a blouse, and left my hair loose for a change. I had a couple of errands to run. I’d run out of leather clothes, and I wasn’t going to do the dirty in jeans. It just wasn’t that easy to get blood out of regular fabric. I also needed a quote on my paint job, I had to train with Sensei, and I needed to get to a place where I could do some research about the cat lady whose name I still didn’t know. I was getting tired of thinking of her as my attacker. I would have much preferred to think of her as my victim, but for that I’d need a leg up on what she was capable of. The rest of Friday was ridiculous. I went home with my bike booked in for a paint job and new leathers in plastic bags – but I’d found absolutely nothing anywhere on women who had abilities like Ms. White Hair. I was miserable and tired, so instead of heading out, I took two sleeping pills and crawled under the covers. Saturday morning, my cell phone pulled me out of a coma-like sleep with a shrill ring that made me want to throw it through the window. Instead, I answered. No one had ever said I had a lack of self-control. “What is it?” “This is Sonya,” her dull voice came over the phone. I realized she’d never phoned me before. I was usually in the office at sundown. If anything, she sounded even more boring over the phone than in person. I wondered if she had a life outside the office. “You work on weekends? You’re phoning me during the day.” I imagined her in a room with metal shutters and black curtains. She ignored my question. “Ruben has a meeting set up that you need to attend.” “You may work weekends, but I don’t.” “You had the night off,” she pointed out. Of course. Why would I think I’d get paid leave? “He wants you to meet with Ms. Clemens today at noon.” “Ms. Clemens the reporter?” The name at the bottom of the article Joel had shown me. “That’s the one.” “It’s daytime,” I said. Ruben and I had agreed on no work during, even though we both knew that I could operate during the day. I just didn’t want to. “You’ll make a plan. Meet Ruben at Fiasco just before noon.” That said, she hung up. I sighed and let the phone slide down onto the pillow. Great. If I’d known I was going to trade my weekend for a Friday night off, I would have refused and gone out anyway. I didn’t know how I was going to get hold of Connor to cancel with him. He’d just have to suck it. Work came before vampires. Even though work was vampires. I rolled out of bed and crawled into the shower, swearing when the hot water stung enough to remind me about my leg. The edges of the wound were healed with new pink skin, but the graze was still quite big, and it hurt. Once the stinging had ebbed, the hot water woke my body up slowly, and by the time I was finished I felt human again. I texted Aspen. I didn’t like skipping days, but I would see her tomorrow. Then I stood in front of my closet with a towel wrapped around my body, looking for something appropriate to wear. I wasn’t going to meet the snooping reporter in my killing clothes. Nothing screamed trouble more than a woman like me wearing guns and leathers. I settled on jeans that could stretch to allow for the bandage I had wrapped around my leg, a wine-red blouse that made my hair color intense, and black sandals. The shoes were still in the original shoebox Aspen had given them to me in, three birthdays ago. I applied makeup and brushed my hair. I even went to the effort of putting on earrings. When I studied the final result in the mirror, I didn’t look like myself at all. I looked like a businesswoman. A civilian. Someone who could have a completely different life. Unfortunately, changing what I looked like didn’t change who I was. Fiasco was a coffee shop in the shopping center across from the mall. It was the place everyone went to for early morning business meetings, because it opened at six, and it offered the paper with a coffee and a bagel as its morning special. When I arrived, Ruben was already sitting at a table. He was wearing suit pants and a collared shirt with a tie. The shirt was ironed and clean, and he’d run a comb through his hair. I glanced down to see shiny black shoes instead of slippers. “You clean up nicely. You look human for a change,” Ruben said when I sat down. “I can say the same for you,” I responded coolly. He snorted. “I was scared you might arrive in your leathers.” “What kind of an accountant would I be if I wore leathers?” “That’s my girl,” Ruben said, smiling. I wanted to tell him how much I wasn’t his girl, but before I could, another woman arrived at our table. She introduced herself as Celia Clemens, journalist for the Westham Gazette. I didn’t know why she bothered with all of that. There was only one newspaper in town. No competitors? Tough life. I looked at her carefully. She had mouse-brown hair pulled back into a low bun and glasses with big frames that covered half of her face. She had sharp features, almost pixie-like. She was wearing a green dress suit that did nothing for her skin tone, and her eyes were a dark brown. Her clothes dated from a time period that suggested she was in her forties, but her smooth skin and lack of smile wrinkles told me otherwise. She couldn’t have been much older than thirty. There was something familiar about her. Something I couldn’t put my finger on. “I appreciate you making the time to meet with me,” she said to Ruben in a sweet voice. Her words lilted, and again there was something familiar about them. Almost like there was a veil between me and her, and if I could just remove it I would know I’d seen her before, and where. “Of course, Ms. Clemens,” Ruben answered, equally charming. “Celia, please,” she said, and took a small notepad out of her briefcase. “I just have a couple of questions for you.” She never made eye contact with me. I didn’t know if I should feel insulted or flattered. “Go on,” Ruben said, and Celia started her questioning. It was standard stuff. What kind of business Ruben ran, how long he’d been doing it, how many employees he had, that sort of thing. I had no idea why she was bothering. “Word has it that you operate at night, as well,” Celia said, and Ruben’s face closed. “We have a team that works overtime pretty often,” he said. His voice was guarded. “It’s common knowledge that we employ vampires.” “You are pro-vampire, then, I assume?” Ruben was anything but pro-vampire. “I do what’s necessary to keep my company active in the right circles. There are laws about everything these days, and who am I to keep someone out of business just because they’re...” He looked at me. “Different.” I could feel the tension building like an approaching storm. Ruben’s face was expressionless, but I could smell his panic. Celia wasn’t throwing off any kind of emotion at all, and that had me on alert. People always threw off some kind of scent that clued me in to their emotions. Excitement, fear, sadness – even something as simple as interest had a smell and a feel to it. Celia should have been giving off at least that. And she wasn’t. “There are rumors that you’re the person to come to when someone has a problem,” she said. “We’ve always helped people with their finances. Our main goal is to help our clients make ends meet.” That would have been relatively smooth if he hadn’t looked so panicked. “Now, Mr. Cross, we both know that wasn’t what I was talking about.” “Do we?” he answered. Good for Ruben. He was starting to play this game the right way. “And what do you do?” She suddenly turned to me, and her eyes sent a shock through my body that I couldn’t place, but it wasn’t altogether unfamiliar. It made my fingertips tingle, and my legs felt warm. This was not natural, coming from a human. “I’m an accountant with Cross Ledger,” I answered without missing a beat. Ruben might have been panicking, but I was ready for her. Ms. Clemens was trying to hide who she really was. I did it all the time; I recognized the signs. The only question now was, who was she really? Celia had a glint in her eye. She sat back in her chair like she didn’t have a care in the world, one leg crossed over the other. Her skirt rode up a little, and on the skin just above her knee was a burn mark. A couple of days old, a scar now. It wasn’t red and burning anymore. I knew right away that that burn was out of place. Household accidents didn’t leave a scar like that. It was about three inches long and slightly off-kilter. “Ms. Clemens,” I said, interrupting her questioning. Ruben looked relieved, but she was annoyed. She wanted to be the one in control of this conversation. Too bad. When I looked into her eyes, I noticed that the black of her pupils had grown to cover her irises. The realization knocked me off-balance, and I fought to maintain composure. “That looks like a painful burn mark on your leg,” I said. She looked down at her leg and tugged her skirt down to hide it. “Cooking accident,” she said. “I’m clumsy in the kitchen.” Sure. Straight burn marks, the length of a blade. What had she been doing, kitchen gymnastics? Her eyes settled on mine again, and her words suddenly seemed believable. Kitchen accidents happen all the time. Burns are common in the kitchen. Stop it! my mind shouted at her, and I forced her out of there. I’d nailed her. There was only one person I’d run into who could play mind games like that. “I’ll bet you are,” I said. My voice was calm, but the atmosphere around us had changed. It was thick now, laced with warning and threat. I suddenly smelled her emotions: a powerful stench like flowers, the perfume-like smell that came after they’d been parched. I’d smelled that scent before. “Where was I?” she asked Ruben, but she was still looking at me. “You were talking about hidden identities and double lives,” I said without missing a beat. That wasn’t what she’d been talking about at all. I was calling her out. Ruben looked from me to Celia and back. He was starting to realize he’d missed something. I couldn’t be sure this was her. After all, this woman had brown hair, and the other woman had had white hair. But I had started running into creatures that could disguise themselves, and the only time I would believe what I was seeing was never. “I think that’s enough for today,” she said. Her voice was confident. I didn’t think she was leaving because she’d been exposed. Her reaction wasn’t panicked. She was leaving because she’d found what she was looking for. Me. “Thank you for coming,” Ruben said, but Celia stood up and walked away just as the waitress arrived. “Can I take your order?” the waitress asked with a bright smile. Ruben shook his head and waved her away. “What was that all about?” “A hundred bucks says Celia Clemens is only an alias,” I said as we both watched her walk away. “Maybe not the name, but the job, definitely.” An alias, or she had a damn good cover. Better than mine, if she could throw her name around in public. “You’d better get some sort of insurance, Ruben. I have a feeling you’re not going to last very long.” “I’ll get right on it,” he said. He was taking my word for it. That was a first. Maybe he’d realized somewhere along the line that he was in over his head, and that I knew more about this ugly world than he did. “I need to go,” I said to Ruben. “I want you in the office at midnight,” he said when I turned to leave. “Why?” Midnight was the witching hour. That was when supernatural creatures were most alive, the time I either wanted to be out with my guns, or locked up safely at home. “My clients want answers about why the job isn’t done yet, and I’m not going to make excuses for you again. I’m not facing them alone. You can come in and deal with them with me.” “In the middle of the night?” “It’s the only time slot they have available.” I opened my mouth to argue, but instead I closed it again and nodded. I would be there. Why not? I needed some action, and maybe if I knew why these clients wanted Connor dead, it would give me enough motivation to push my pathetic attraction aside and finish the job. “I’ll be there,” I said. A midnight meeting over the weekend sounded like a lot of fun... not. I was sure I’d run into some creatures that didn’t show their faces during the day, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to. But if Ruben was involved, I had to be there. He was just a human, and even though I strongly disliked him, this job was my responsibility. His increasing anxiety over the kill had me on guard, too. Ruben didn’t ordinarily get upset when I didn’t make a kill right away. First, though, I had to get to Jennifer. She’d texted me her address, and I had half an hour to get to her. I took the bus, and it dropped me off halfway up Westham Hills. Jennifer lived on Tambuca Crescent, one street up from Caldwell. I was starting to get to know this area. When I reached number 21, I pushed the button on the intercom and a woman with an accent answered. “Adele Griffin for Jennifer Lawson, please,” I said. The intercom clicked and the massive gates swung open, revealing a curling driveway that led up to a Tuscan style house with arches over the balconies and a lot of hanging plants. The door opened, and a dark-skinned woman wearing a maid’s outfit answered the door. I’d half-expected a butler. “Please follow me,” she said, and took me to a formal sitting room just off the entrance hall. It was mostly white, with splashes of mahogany and red here and there. She pointed me toward a chair. “Ms. Lawson will be with you shortly.” When Jennifer arrived, she was wearing a flowing green dress the color of her eyes. She glided to the armchair opposite mine. Her hair was impossibly straight, and her makeup was flawless. If this was how she dressed on a Saturday, I wondered how she dressed for a big event. “Thank you for taking the time to meet with me,” she said as the maid brought in a tray with a teapot and cups sitting upside down on their saucers. They were accompanied by a glass bowl filled with sugar cookies. “You look nice.” “Business meeting,” I said, wishing I didn’t look like a mannequin in a window display. Jennifer turned the cups over and poured the tea. I took a cookie and nibbled on it. I felt out of place here, surrounded by things that had never mattered to me. “You lied to me,” I said, getting right down to business. Jennifer’s hands trembled slightly, but other than that she was composed and her voice was steady when she answered me. “What do you mean?” “You didn’t tell me about the trafficking. The fact that Connor was wanted by the police.” Her green eyes were bright, like emeralds. “You found out.” “Did you think this was something you could keep secret from me?” I asked. “I just thought, when I first found out you didn’t know, that I could ask you to do this for me and you wouldn’t be influenced by what people were saying about him.” “And about you,” I said. Because that was what it was really about. She didn’t answer. Her lips were pursed and slightly pouted, and she was paying particular attention to the second cup of tea she had poured, which she offered to me. I took it to be polite. I hated tea. “You’re going to have to be honest with me. You came to me because of Connor, saying you needed me to find him. But you knew he wasn’t human anymore, didn’t you?” She seemed to understand that I would know if she was lying. She couldn’t know that I could actually smell a lie, but honesty was a smart move. “I’ve been to hell and back since I took this job, and I’m not going to get beaten up for nothing,” I said. “She found you, then?” Jennifer asked. The cat lady. Celia. “Are you involved with this?” I asked. Direct was usually the best way to go. When you embroider a picture around the facts, dance around the truth, the chances are that the person you’re talking to will do the same. A straightforward question is difficult to avoid without being obvious. “I’m not,” she said. “I don’t condone things like that.” “But you don’t condone vampirism, either,” I said. That was a guess, but seemed to be an accurate one. Her face turned to stone, and when she looked at me, a lot of the color had drained from her skin. “Why did you come to me?” I asked. “I hoped that if you found Connor before they did—” “You knew what it would mean for me to get into this, and you still sent me in there without the facts. That’s like going into battle unarmed, Jennifer. Do you have any idea what that’s like?” She took a sip of her tea, looking at me with big green eyes over the edge of the cup. She shuddered. “I needed him to stay alive. I needed them not to be able to find him. I can’t love a vampire, Adele. Surely you of all people can understand?” A million different emotions ran through me. Yes, I could understand. I killed vampires. My mother had loved one, and look where that had ended up. I’d met Connor, and everything about him, even in his vampire state, had drawn me to him. He was irresistible. I could love that vampire. “Did you know about the trafficking before Connor did?” I asked. She nodded slowly. “They asked me to help them, and to keep it a secret so he wouldn’t find out. They needed his money.” “And you agreed?” She sighed. “I don’t know how to make this sound like it’s not wrong. I was only looking out for his best interests. We were going to get married. I couldn’t let a scandal like that ruin everything.” “Because you love him so much?” Her eyes started to fill with tears. I fought the urge to roll my own eyes. I was being the epitome of politeness. “Can’t you understand that?” she asked. “Actually I can’t, no,” I said. I couldn’t imagine loving someone so much that something like trafficking couldn’t ruin it. I often argued that I didn’t have any morals. Maybe I was wrong. “Besides, I think you did it for the money.” “They weren’t paying me for my silence!” she said, her cheeks ashen. I shook my head. I was going out on a limb here, but her reactions guided me. “I’m not talking about their money. I’m talking about his.” She gasped, and the air around us turned cold. Not the supernatural kind of cold, but the kind that comes from a person realizing she’s talked herself into a corner and there’s no way to get out of it again. “I can’t lose it all. I won’t go back to the hole I was in when my ex-husband left me.” Ex? This whole thing had suddenly turned into a saga I didn’t want to be involved in. “Look,” I said. “I don’t want to hear from you again. You lied to me, and you got me into a mess where if I don’t do something soon, I have a feeling people are going to die. You’d better hope to god that doesn’t include me, because you signed off on my death sentence by not letting me know what this was really about.” The tears that had been sitting on the rims of her eyelids spilled over her cheeks now. “I knew it,” she whispered. “I’m doomed either way, then.” Yeah, sure. Don’t worry about your fiancé or his health, his life. Or mine. Just about your own. I knew better than to say any of those words out loud, but people like Jennifer disgusted me. “I have to go,” I said. I’d had just about enough of this house, and wealth, the urge to own things that didn’t matter at all. The betrayal. She stood up without a word and walked me to the door. I walked down the driveway, which curled around the trees growing alongside it, and when I stood outside the gate and it closed firmly shut behind me, I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. This was the last time I was going to try to help someone. Chapter 12 I got a call from the workshop telling me my bike was ready. I stopped by and picked it up. I wasn’t going to spend more time without my bike, come what may. I looked up at the sky. The sun was low, touching the horizon. It was time I met Connor. Unease swirled in my stomach like nausea. What was I doing? I couldn’t keep doing this. I had to go there and kill him. Get it over with. Yes. That was what I would do. I drove to Mulberry Street and sat in the road, one finger stroking the stake absently while I turned everything over in my head. I was going to march in there and stab the stake into his heart, breaking my promise, because that was what I did. I broke things. Or maybe I was going to use my Smith & Wesson and blow his head off. Either way, I was going to do this. I closed my eyes and breathed, ready to walk up to him and finish the job... but when I sent my feelers out, the house was empty. Connor wasn’t home. Disappointment lodged in my chest and dragged me down like something made of lead. I wouldn’t get to see him, then. I wasn’t sure why I was upset. Was it because I couldn’t see him, or because I wouldn’t get the chance to kill him? We had an appointment. Wasn’t I important enough? I started the bike and flew down the street, embracing the roar of the engine and the hum of speed in my blood. Not tonight. I wouldn’t have to kill him tonight. But at some point, I’d have to. I swallowed hard. This was my most difficult job to date, and killing people was particularly easy, as a rule. The office was cold and dark when I arrived just before midnight. I parked a block away so my bike’s engine wouldn’t announce my arrival. I wasn’t a girl who liked an entrance. I was wearing my leathers, and I felt comfortable and at home in my body again. I climbed the stairs, trying to ignore the pain every time I bent my leg. When I got to the second floor, I walked through Sonya’s deserted office and into Ruben’s. Apparently she did take a break now and then. A dim lamp on Ruben’s desk was the only source of light in the room. He was sitting at his desk looking worn and haggard, like a lifetime had passed between this afternoon’s meeting and now. The faint smell of alcohol hung in the air. “Don’t you just look like a ray of sunshine,” I said to him. He looked at me like he wasn’t fully registering my presence. “What’s wrong?” I asked. My back was up immediately, and I opened my senses. I’d been careless. The office had never been a danger zone. But now a thin trace of terror was hanging in the air. Ruben’s terror, although it seemed like something had him subdued. The alcohol smell was also a ruse. Something that was intended to throw me off. A dark shadow stepped out of a corner, and I jumped. The feeling intensified. The man was tall, wearing a black duster like a cowboy in the movies and black wraparound sunglasses. His skin and hair were pale, and he wasn’t a man at all. This was a vampire. No wonder Ruben looked like death warmed over. He didn’t usually come face-to-face with the underworld, not like this. Another shadow appeared behind me. The only reason I knew it was there was that I had smelled it before it moved. I couldn’t see it, but I felt it coming closer. “Stop right there,” I said in a low voice filled with warning. The first vampire chuckled. “So, this is your assassin? A woman? No wonder she hasn’t been able to get the job done.” “I wouldn’t be so quick with the insults, if I were you,” I said. Ruben didn’t respond. The thigh sheath and the guns on my side and at my back were all but burning against my skin. My fingers were itching to use them, but I wasn’t going to rush things. With two big vampires, me and a defenseless human in a small office, it was better not to jump right into fighting if it wasn’t necessary. Bloodshed needed space... and preferably, the lack of a human audience. “You want O’Neill dead,” I said matter-of-factly. The vampire nodded. I was aware of his partner moving around the office, probably listening and feeling for the presence of people or other vampires. “You’re not doing what we asked,” the vampire said. “We’re becoming impatient.” “Why do you need me to do it?” I asked. “You look like you have what it takes to do it yourself.” The vampire gave a low, evil laugh that danced across my skin, and I broke out in shivers. This vampire was powerful, more so than the ones I’d been hunting for so long. More powerful than my father had ever been. Where did the vampires like this hang out? I realized I’d been dealing with the bottom of the food chain. “Let’s just say it’s in our best interest not to be tied to the murder.” “She’s on the case. I told you.” Ruben spoke for the first time. His voice was dull, without inflection or emotion. The vampire ignored him. “He wasn’t supposed to live through the change, but he did. Now you need to get rid of him.” So they were the ones who had dumped Connor in the alley. “He’s getting away from you, isn’t he?” I asked. My tone was mocking, and I smiled although none of this was friendly. “You can’t find him, and it’s ticking you off that you have to ask for help.” The vampire in front of me scowled and the air turned ice cold around us. Frost formed on the inside of the window and crawled up the lamp stand. I shivered. Vampires this strong could only be masters. They were old, very old, and they had far more control than the everyday newbies I dealt with. “You should know better than to mock me,” the vampire said in a hiss, his voice spitting. I could almost feel it on my skin. “It looks like she needs some motivation,” the other vampire said in a gravelly voice that sent a bolt of fear through my body. His eyes slid to Ruben, and I readied myself to grab my gun the moment something happened. Instead, the first vampire laughed again, like I was a child who was trying to play grownup games. “You’ve met Celia,” the vampire said, and that icy finger traced the outlines of my body when he mentioned her name. I nodded slowly. He wasn’t talking about the reporter she’d come disguised as. He was referring to the woman who had been playing games with me. The cat. “I can’t say it was a pleasure. She needs to be put on a leash.” “She’s perfectly in control. She only does what we tell her to. She’s more like... a pet.” “A pet that needs to be put down,” I spat. I glanced at Ruben. He was hanging on to his desk, staring at nothing. I could smell his fear, but his face was calm. They had him under some sort of spell that kept him almost drugged. If he’d been left to his own devices, he would probably have panicked or tried to escape. Or worse. People turn crazy when fear takes over. The other vampire, the one who wasn’t the obvious leader, pointed a gun at Ruben. So they had guns too. And they were faster than I was. I wondered if I jumped at them, if I would be faster than a bullet in getting to Ruben. “You have a lot of anger in you,” the leader said. Apparently, he could smell my emotions better than I could smell his. He waved at his friend, and the other vampire lowered his gun. I felt like I could breathe again. Threatening Ruben’s life was foul play. “I don’t know if that will be enough.” “Enough for what?” I asked. My voice was hard, and I imagined grabbing my S&W and blowing his head off. “Enough to save her.” Fear rippled through my body, and suddenly every thought of violence was gone, replaced by an image of my sister’s face. The smell of fear permeated the room, sour and vile, and the vampires both laughed. “Yes, that’s the one. Your sister, I believe. You’ve worked hard to cover her up, but we found out anyway.” “Don’t you dare!” I shouted. All my control was gone now. I was crazy with fear. I pulled out my gun and pointed it at the vampire in front of me. They were both strong enough to overpower me. They could have beaten me to a pulp right there, and no training in the world would have prepared me. They could have killed me in an instant. But neither of them moved. The vampire I was aiming at was surprisingly calm looking down the barrel of a gun that could finish him, but that was because he knew as well as I that shooting him wasn’t going save Aspen. And if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t do it. “Finish the job, and we’ll leave you alone,” the second vampire said. “It’s not difficult. A life for a life. Take Connor’s, we’ll spare hers, or you can have it the other way around. You let us know which you prefer.” They both dematerialized with a whoosh that blew Ruben’s papers off his desk. The small office, filled with their presence until now, was suddenly cold and empty. Ruben’s eyes lost their glazed quality, and he looked up at me. “God, I hate it when they do that to me.” “I gather that wasn’t the first time,” I said. Ruben shook his head. “I told you they were dangerous. Just finish the job, Adele. Dammit.” He pushed himself upright in his chair and rubbed his eyes. Then he dragged his hands down over his cheeks, distorting his face for a second. I looked at Ruben, and suddenly I couldn’t breathe. It was like I’d turned to lead. I doubled over, clamping my arms over my stomach, trying to stop the terrible pain that sliced through me. My head spun, and I felt like I was going to throw up. “They’re going to kill her,” I gasped, dry heaving. There were no tears, only the fear making my blood thick in my veins and forcing my body into the kind of submission I’d only felt once before, when my sister had nearly died the first time. “Come on, Adele,” Ruben said, tugging at my arm, trying to pull me back to reality. “Keep it together.” He sounded panicked. That made two of us. “Just kill him, and then it will all be over.” He was right. The panic left my body as quickly as it had come, and I unfolded myself, peeling myself off the floor. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, finding all my pieces and forcing them back together. “I need to go,” I said, sounding controlled again. “You know, this is the first time I’ve ever seen you lose it,” he said. “We all have our demons, Ruben. I’m sure you have things in your life that reduce you to a puddle of fear.” Ruben nodded. “After this, vampires,” he said. I walked out into the night, the air filling my lungs as if I had never breathed before. The open sky above me was freedom after the jail the little office had become. I looked at the time. It was one o’clock, but I took a chance and dialed anyway. Aspen’s sleepy voice answered just before the phone would have rolled over to voicemail. “Are you okay?” I asked. “I’m fine,” she said, and yawned. Relief flooded my body, and I felt like my knees would buckle under my weight. “What’s going on?” she asked. “Nothing, angel. Go back to bed.” “You’ve only ever called me that when something was really wrong.” “I’m taking care of it,” I said, and hung up. Because I was. I was going to save my sister. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind about whom I would choose when it came down to it. Aspen would win out every single time, no matter how much Connor amused me. No matter how human I felt around him. Because at the end of the day, if Aspen died, I would die. Life without her was no life at all. For Aspen to live, for me to live, Connor had to die. He was just a vampire, anyway. I found my bike and got on, then kicked the engine to life. I rolled out, determined to finish what I’d started. It wasn’t far to Mulberry Street, and when I reached the top of the street, most of the homes were filled with sleeping bodies. Their resting states reached out to me with long fingers that reminded me how tired I was. It wasn’t the kind of tired that I could fix with sleep. This was the kind of tired that had built up over a lifetime of doing things that never brought me peace. When I reached number 13, it was quiet and dark. The jasmine in the air pinched my nose and I was annoyed with it, wishing it would go away. I killed the motor and popped out the kickstand, then left the bike in the driveway. I made my way into the house. It was still empty; I’d felt that the moment I set foot in the yard. That had been a saving grace for me earlier tonight, but now the tables were turned and he was lucky – if he was here, he’d be dead in three seconds. But he’d come back eventually, and until he did I wasn’t leaving. Clyde was in the kitchen again when I walked in, and he mewed. I hopped up onto the counter and settled in the corner where a tall cabinet rose up. The cat rubbed up against my arm, purring. “Two-face,” I said softly, but I scratched the cat behind his ears. It was nice to have a living being close to me. The warmth was comforting, and I felt safer than I had all night. I leaned against the tall cabinet, my head resting against the wood. My head felt heavy, suddenly, and I closed my eyes. I was jolted awake by the grating sound of shutters rolling into place. The house was locking down in anticipation of dawn. I panicked. I’d fallen asleep, and I hadn’t heard a thing. Clyde was on my lap, head lolling off the side, fast asleep. I strained my ears, trying to hear past the grating sound whether someone was home, but I heard and felt nothing. The shutters were probably time-controlled. I looked at my phone. The battery was low. The time told me it would be dawn in about ten minutes. “Are you ready to tango?” I asked Clyde, and scratched his neck softly. The cat started purring softly again, and I wondered if he would still like me after I killed his master. The front door clicked, and I felt Connor come home before I saw him. His aura was like a sweet mist at dawn, before the sun drove it away. Fresh, unscathed, unpolluted. I wrapped my fingers around the stake at my side and crouched, ready to lunge for him when he walked through the door. He walked in without switching on the light, which made it easier for me to stay concealed until the last moment. He heard me before I moved, but I was quick enough, and I had the element of surprise on my side. I had him up against the wall, my arm against his throat again, just like before. The pointed end of my stake was pressed to his chest, dimpling into it. I should have stabbed him right away, but something had stopped me again. “You promised not to bring the stake,” he said softly. “You were supposed to meet me at sunset,” I countered. “I had to take care of something, and I didn’t know how to contact you.” “Well, that’s too bad.” I pressed my arm harder against his throat. He gasped for air, and his breathing was raspy. I could feel it against my arm. “Does it deserve you trying to kill me?” he asked. He still wasn’t scared. Tears suddenly sprang to my eyes, and I snarled at him through clenched teeth because he’d managed to make me cry. I never cried. “I can’t lose her, okay? If I let you live, she dies.” The tears were streaming down my cheeks now, and I felt ashamed. I pressed the stake harder against the soft flesh between his ribs. He looked me in the eye, and his dark ocean-colored eyes bored right into my soul. Why the hell wasn’t he afraid of me? Didn’t he believe I was going to kill him? Didn’t I? “I’ll do it!” I cried out, threatening, pushing against his chest hard enough to leave a bruise. My whole body was tense, muscles aching with the strain of keeping myself together. Connor didn’t say anything. He didn’t try to fight. His eyes were on me, and they were so soft I felt like I was going to break open and everything that was trapped inside was going to fall out. The atmosphere around us changed, became thick again. Thick and warm and... safe. I hadn’t felt like this since I was a little girl. “Don’t do this,” Connor said softly. The atmosphere wrapped us in a cocoon, and I was suddenly aware how close our bodies were together, how gentle his eyes were. I opened my hand, and the stake clattered to the floor. Slowly I eased off with my arm, then buried my face in my hands. Connor didn’t move away from me; his warmth stayed exactly where it was. He lifted his hands and cupped my cheeks. He moved slowly, like I was a scared animal that he didn’t want to startle. His face inched closer to mine, and the next thing I knew, his lips were coming down on mine, and he kissed me. Electricity shot through my body. My skin tingled with the sensation. The tips of his fangs were on my bottom lip, his mouth had covered mine, and he had reduced me to a melting mess. I wasn’t a vampire hunter who wore leather and carried guns and killed for a living. I was a damsel in distress who had been running from my own personal hell all my life, and inwardly I was begging Connor to save me. His kissing became urgent, his arm wrapping around my body. The gun at my back bit into my flesh, and the one under my jacket pushed against my ribs. I stopped Connor and pulled them both out, then laid them on the counter. He raised his eyebrows. “I see you brought backup. In case the stake didn’t work?” “Standard issue vampire-hunter kit,” I said. He didn’t let me keep talking. He pulled me harshly against his body and kissed me hard. We tumbled through the house, knocking things off shelves and tabletops and banging doors until we finally made it to his bedroom. We collapsed onto the bed, his body on top of mine, and I could feel his muscles ripple underneath his skin. His body was hard and capable, even though he had never used it against me to save himself. He was only using it now to save me. He undressed me until I was naked. In the almost-black room I could feel his gaze on me, tracing every inch of my body. I knew he had night vision that was better than mine and that he could see me perfectly. I could smell his arousal, his lust for me, in the room around us. It wrapped around me like a cloak, and my body responded to him. He lowered himself onto me, and everything else was forgotten. He managed to clear my mind and work my body into a state of ecstasy, making me forget where my body ended and his began. And afterward, when everything was over and I lay in the crook of his arm, listening to the drumbeat of his heart, running my forefinger over the tips of his fangs, I fell asleep. For the first time in sixteen years, I didn’t have a gun under my pillow. Chapter 13 I woke up to darkness. The room around me was suffocating with it, and where the window should have been was only a vague black shape. I sat up and looked around. Everything was different. A movement next to me startled me until I realized it was Connor. I wasn’t in my home; I was in his. And I was in his bed, with him. Naked. I tried to orient myself. It was Sunday, sometime, but the darkness in the house made it hard to tell what time it was. I didn’t know how long I’d slept. I slipped from underneath the covers and found my clothes on the floor, half-tangled with my holsters, which were empty. I felt vulnerable without my guns. After I dressed and put on my holsters, I padded to the kitchen and found them on the counter, and my stake on the floor near the wall. When I found my phone, also on the floor, it was dead. I put the guns back into their holsters and flipped on the kitchen light. The darkness was chewing at me, and I needed to get rid of it. Aspen would be worried about me. My stomach turned when I thought about her. I would lose her if I didn’t kill Connor. Why the hell hadn’t I killed him? Instead, I’d gone and slept with him. Great move, Adele. Great move. Dammit. There weren’t a lot of options. The only intelligent thing I could do was get rid of Connor, no matter what it did to me. Because losing Aspen would be a thousand times worse. There was no pain that would compare to losing her. Connor appeared behind me before I managed to smell him or feel him. He’d crept up on me noiselessly. I spun around and pulled out my Smith & Wesson, pointing it at his head. He froze in his tracks, slowly lifting his hands. “What are you doing?” he asked. “What does it look like I’m doing?” He rolled his eyes and dropped his hands. I was getting tired of him not feeling threatened by me. I had a gun this time. I could keep far enough away from his that his body, his eyes, everything that made him Connor, wouldn’t distract me. “Are we back to that again?” he asked. “Dammit, Adele, I thought we’d passed that. We just slept together, for god’s sake.” I shook my head, forcing down the emotions that had threatened to bubble up. I could still feel his body against mine, the imprint of him between my legs. I ignored it. “She’ll die,” I said, my voice so soft it didn’t sound threatening at all. “Your master vampires – they’re going to kill her if I don’t kill you.” Tears ran down my cheeks, and the anger that came with them licked through my body. “I can’t lose her. Don’t you see? There’s no other way out of this.” He took a step closer to me. “Will you just let me—” I didn’t give him a chance. I fired the gun. I hadn’t intended to hit him. The gun bit a hole into the wall behind him, big and ugly and raw. He turned to look at the hole. “What the hell, Adele?” he exclaimed. “This isn’t you.” “Oh, no, that’s where you’re wrong,” I said, and now my voice sounded a lot more like my own. “This is exactly me. This is what I do, Connor. You can’t love someone like me, because I kill people like you. I kill vampires.” “Will you just calm down so we can talk about this? Maybe we can figure this out. I know them. I know what they can do. And I know what they can’t.” “I know what they can do, too,” I said, not taking my gun off him. He moved slowly toward the table in the corner and sat down on a chair. “They can kill Aspen.” He sighed. “I don’t even know who that is. I don’t know anything about you, and every time I think I’ve figured something out, you pull the rug out from underneath me.” I took a deep, shaky breath. Could I tell him? Could I trust him? I should just kill him; I knew that. But he was so casual, and leaning on his knees with his elbows the way he did now made him look tired, even though he’d just woken up. I lowered my gun, letting it hang by my side, but my finger was still ready to slip onto the trigger. I wasn’t going to let down my guard with him again. Weird things happened when I did. “She’s my sister,” I said. “She’s in a wheelchair. She can’t protect herself. And she’s like me.” “Like you? Wild and unpredictable? Good with guns? Beautiful?” That last comment threw me off-balance. I whipped the gun back up, pointing it at his face. I bit my bottom lip. “Easy. Easy, there,” Connor said, gesturing me away with his hands. “It was just a compliment. I was trying to keep things light. I won’t mean it if you don’t want me to.” A tremble ran up my arm from where my finger was on the trigger and shook through the rest of my body. “A half-breed,” I whispered. Someone ought to know. If I died, they would know. And if he died, my secret would die with him. What did I have to lose? It was a question I’d been asking myself for a long time, and I still didn’t have an answer. Connor looked like the sun had suddenly come up for him. Maybe he was thinking about the times I’d nearly managed to kill him, the way I moved, and my lack of fangs. “I’ve heard of half-breeds before,” he said. “I just didn’t know they were real. How can you kill vampires if you’re half-vampire yourself?” “Because vampires are what put Aspen in a wheelchair. Vampires killed my mother.” “And your father?” “He was the vampire who did it.” I could see him thinking about it. He put all the pieces together: the jail, me, my job. And then he nodded slowly. “Tell me about Aspen,” he said softly. I sighed and sat down opposite him. I put the gun down on the table, ready to grab, but the barrel didn’t face him. “She’s like Christmas morning,” I said. “The kind of person everyone wishes they knew just by looking at her. She’s thin and frail, but she’s fought through one of the hardest battles you can imagine. People think she’s weak, but she’s stronger than I am.” “You’re pretty strong if you can handle all of this,” he said, nodding toward the gun. “She deals with everything I do, without killing anyone for it. She’s a good person.” “Hey,” Connor said, and put his hand on mine. I flinched, but I didn’t pull my hand away. “You’re not a bad person.” I snorted. “Now you’re just trying to be nice. I kill vampires, Connor. Even though I believe they have feelings and lives and loved ones. Just because the law doesn’t have a fit when some of them disappear the way it does with humans, doesn’t make me a good person for doing it.” Connor sat back in his chair, taking his hand and his warmth with him, and I felt his absence acutely. “Well, maybe you should just fix that, then,” he said. “It’s not too late to change.” “You should know,” I said. He grinned half-heartedly and looked down at the gun that lay between us. “You know, if I were human, they would have killed me. When I found out about the trafficking, I wanted to put a stop to it, but nothing is that easy.” “Police?” I asked. “No. They would have arrested me. All the paperwork is in my name. I didn’t think I’d even survive a trial. My company definitely wouldn’t, and I wanted to leave a legacy behind. Something my children could take over one day. But now I don’t think that’s going to happen, either.” “What, your girlfriend isn’t the vampire-loving type?” I said, and smiled. Jennifer was much too perfect for something like that. Connor’s smile had vanished when I mentioned her name. “Not exactly. She wouldn’t have me now. Besides, I didn’t really think she was in it for the love, anyway.” “For your money, right? Why else would she keep all that a secret?” Connor’s head shot up, and his eyes were a cold kind of blue. “What did you say?” Maybe I shouldn’t have said what I’d said. Connor looked so hurt I wanted to kick myself. And that was saying something, considering I’d been willing to kill him eight out of ten times. “But you slept with me, so you’re not really in a good place to beg for her mercy right now,” I said lightly, trying to change the topic. “She kept what secret?” Connor asked, narrowing his eyes at me. He was like a dog that had bitten into something and wouldn’t let go. “I don’t think...” I started, but his expression stopped me. Anger and hatred poured out of him in waves. I wondered for a second if this was what I looked like to other people. Suddenly, he scooped up the gun so fast I couldn’t react quickly enough, and before I knew it he was pointing it at my head. “Hey, don’t do anything rash,” I said calmly. Connor had stood up, and I pushed myself up too, moving slowly so he wouldn’t do anything stupid. The gun was pointed right at my heart. Something told me Connor had worked with firearms before. “You do this all the time, don’t you?” Connor said. “I kind of see the appeal.” “You don’t mean that,” I said, still keeping my voice calm. “This is just a misunderstanding. You knew Jennifer sent me. I was just on the wrong tangent.” “Tell me what you know,” he said. “I don’t know anything,” I started, but his finger curled around the trigger and I knew I was running out of time. “I found out she knew more about the trafficking than she’d let on, but other than that, I don’t know anything. I went to confront her for lying to me after I found the article in the news, and I left when I couldn’t stand being around her anymore.” “She knew about it? Why did she keep that from me?” “Because she said...” I swallowed hard. I hated being the one who ruined the image of a loved one. I knew what that did to someone. “She said it was because she needed you to marry her. She couldn’t go back to the hole her ex had left her in.” His face fell, and for a moment his attention wasn’t on me. If I moved now, maybe I could get the gun away from him and swing it around again so that I was in charge. But his gaze slid back to me. “Her ex. It always comes back down to that. I’m so sick of hearing how I compare to him, how her life is exponentially better because of me, when at the end of the day I know it’s just about the money.” I groaned inwardly. I didn’t like having a gun on me. I didn’t like emotionally unstable people. I didn’t like monologues, and I didn’t like it when someone made their problems mine. “Look, just put the gun down, okay? This drama is all between you two. All I was doing was finishing a job.” “Whose job? Hers or the masters’?” he asked. I couldn’t wait any longer. I was in his face before he knew it, and I snatched the gun out of his hand. I pressed the muzzle against his chest and squeezed the trigger. The clap of the gunshot was loud, and tiles splintered off the wall behind him. He was gone. A thick black mist filled the air, and I sank into a squat to get away from it. Connor had dematerialized faster than my finger had moved on the trigger. Where would he have gone to in the middle of the day? It didn’t matter. He was still alive, which meant I had to get to Aspen. It took me all of five minutes to get to Aspen’s house and knock on the door. When Zelda opened it, she blinked at me, surprised. “Oh, Adele. It’s you. We weren’t expecting you,” she said, glancing over my shoulder. “Who were you expecting?” “Aspen is expecting a Mr. Joel.” Joel was coming by? I pushed past Zelda and walked into the house. Aspen was at the dining room table, setting out a tray with mugs for coffee. “Adele! Where have you been? I tried calling, but I only got voicemail and I know you never check that.” “I’m sorry. I’ve been busy. Are you all right?” “I’m fine,” she said, smiling. “Joel’s coming over.” “Why?” “He contacted me yesterday and asked if he could set up the cameras you asked for.” The cameras I’d asked for? I kept the questions off my face. He was a hell of a friend. “I’m so glad he’s coming,” I said, and my relief was complete as it washed through me. It was a way I could keep her safe until I found Connor. I had no idea what had just happened between us, but I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to show up any time soon. “What’s wrong?” Aspen asked. I didn’t know what my face showed, but I did my best to clear it. “Nothing,” I said. “When is he coming?” “Any minute. Zelda thought it was him when the doorbell rang.” I sat down and we waited together after I borrowed a charger and plugged in my phone. “How’s your case coming along?” Aspen asked. “My case?” I had to make a point of keeping track of my lies to her, I told myself. “You were looking for a guy who was kidnapped.” “Oh.” That one. The one where that guy and I had slept together and now wanted to kill each other. “He’s a vampire, after all. A lot of people are after him.” “I’m sorry,” Aspen said, reaching over and putting her hand on mine. “It’s okay. He’s different from the rest. I hope for his sake that they find him, because I don’t want to.” Aspen didn’t answer. “What?” I asked. “You smell like frustration,” she said. “Frustration, and sex.” “I do not!” I cried out. “You’re being inappropriate.” “You slept with someone! You slept with someone, and now you’re angry. You like him, don’t you? Only men make you this angry.” “I don’t like anyone. In fact, there are some people I hate even more now.” Aspen smiled, dropping the subject, but she gave me a knowing look. I rolled my eyes. I didn’t “like” anyone. Besides, if I liked Connor, I wouldn’t have tried to blow a hole in his chest, would I? Aspen was being absurd. We talked about other things. I asked about her week. It felt like I hadn’t seen her in a while. The time ticked by, and after an hour had passed, I frowned. “He’s running very late,” I said. Joel was never late. “Do you think something came up?” I shook my head and walked to my phone. I dialed Joel’s number, but it went straight to voicemail. Joel’s phone was never off. If he couldn’t be connected, he lost his mind. “I’m going to take a drive,” I said. My blood was tingling, and I felt like an itch had crept in under my skin. I’d been around the block enough times to know that I shouldn’t ignore this feeling. I stopped at the door. “I want you to get out of here,” I said to Aspen. “And go where?” “A safe house,” I said. I took a deep breath, bracing myself for my own words. “To Mom’s house.” “But...” Her voice trailed off. We’d never gotten rid of the house. I couldn’t let it go. It would have been like I was letting mom go. “Trust me, Aspen. It’s not safe for you here. I’ve been working on a... a case. And the guys involved are making this personal. I don’t want to lose you.” Her face contorted with horror. “I don’t want you to be afraid. I’m making you safe before things get out of hand. But this one will get worse before it gets better, and I can’t risk you getting caught in the crossfire.” “Adele...” Aspen’s voice was soft, and she looked down at her hands, lying in her lap. “You’re not a cop, are you?” I hesitated before I shook my head slowly. When she looked up at me, her eyes were shimmering with tears. How long had she been pretending she believed me, for my sake? We both knew she wasn’t stupid, and we’d both been pretending. “Promise me one thing,” she said. “One thing, and I’ll go.” “What is it?” “After this, you’ll put to rest all the demons that are still chasing you.” I took a deep breath and blew it out in a shudder. “I don’t know if I can do that.” “Promise you’ll try?” she asked. And I nodded. Because for Aspen I would do anything. For Aspen I would change the world. “Get your bags packed,” I said. Zelda jumped into action. I walked over to Aspen and hugged her. She wrapped her arms around me. I squeezed my eyes shut, regretting what I was about to do. I bit her in the neck. Aspen jerked and shoved me away hard enough for her wheelchair to move back a little despite the brakes. Her hand went to her neck, and when she pulled it away it was red. “What the hell?” she cried out. “You bit me!” Because of my blunt teeth, the bite had been a hell of a lot harder than a purebred vamp’s would have been. The metallic taste of her blood was in my mouth. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Who are you, Adele? You’re not the person I used to know, anymore. You’ve changed.” I sighed. I had changed; she was right. But hearing it from her hurt more than my own admission of the truth. “You have to get to the house as fast as you can. I’ll meet you there as soon as I find out what’s happening with Joel.” I turned and walked out. Chapter 14 There was nothing left of Joel’s house. The entire place had been burned to the ground, leaving only the outline of the floor plan and singed rubble lying in heaps all over the place. This hadn’t been done by human hands. Humans couldn’t burn a place like this, so that there was virtually nothing left. I knew who’d done this. Some master vampires had fire as their ability, and most of them were destructive. This was beyond a warning. This was their first move. I walked onto the property and stood where the garage used to be. The sun was sinking below the horizon, casting long, creepy shadows across the ground, making the burned lot seem so much more morbid. Any normal person would be spending this Sunday evening inside with their family. I was the only one who was out on what was supposed to be a day of rest, trying to do some form of chaos control. I could feel the people in the neighborhood around me: calm, peaceful, content, if not overly happy. I was suddenly jealous. I kicked around a bit, ash flying up into the air in a grey cloud. My toe stubbed against a latch, and I scraped away the ash with my foot to reveal the trap door that led down to the pit. When I opened the door, the stairs that led into the ground weren’t destroyed, like the rest of the place. The fire hadn’t gotten this far. The pit had served its intended use as a bomb shelter after all. I stepped into the darkness, and flicked the switch. The hum of the generator kicking in filled the air around me, and the pit lit up in a light-green flicker. It looked a lot like it had on the video Joel had shown me after Celia had trashed his place. But it wasn’t quite the same. Then, it had looked like someone had left a warning. Now it looked like someone had fought for their life here. A splatter of blood on the far wall drew my attention. There were more smears on the floor. I inhaled deeply and recognized Joel straight away. He’d been hurt here, bleeding. There was no more blood than this. He was still alive, unless they’d killed him somewhere else. I had to find him. I rummaged through the rubble, looking for something, anything, that I could use to find a lead. There were a lot of papers lying around, most of them with information on them that I didn’t understand. His filing system was shot to hell, and all the gun cabinets and safes had been thrown open. If there had been any weapons and ammunition here, they had been taken. But I still didn’t get the feeling that whoever had done this was interested in his belongings. They were interested only in Joel. And that had to be because of his involvement with me. My stomach turned, guilt swirling around inside me. A bitter taste in the back of my throat told me what I didn’t want to admit: that this was all my fault. If people had died here, their blood would be on my hands. As a killer, that shouldn’t have bothered me. But it did, because Joel was a friend. And Aspen... I took a deep breath. I couldn’t even bring myself to imagine what it would be like to lose her. There would be nothing left in my life, no reason why I was doing any of this. My hands grazed something hard underneath the papers I’d been fishing through, and I found a laptop. It looked like it had been caught in the fire. Which meant it had been upstairs when the fire had started, and someone had moved it down here afterwards. Joel? That had to mean that there was something on the computer that was important. That he didn’t want to lose in the fire. Joel had always uploaded everything onto backup servers that were protected and out of the way. Whatever it was he wanted to protect wasn’t in the cloud of data online. It was only on this laptop. I tucked the laptop under my arm. When I turned, she was standing at the bottom of the stairs. Her white hair caught the light streaming in through the trapdoor, and it looked like silk. She was smiling, but her green eyes didn’t reflect any kind of emotion other than cold hatred. “Can Adele come out and play?” she said in a mocking voice. I rolled my eyes. “Not today, princess.” She scowled. I went on looking through the pit, pretending to ignore her, but I kept my attention on her. She didn’t move, although I could feel contempt radiating off her in waves. She didn’t like being ignored. I kept moving, trying to mask the nerves that were bunching at the bottom of my throat, clenching my stomach. She took a deep breath through her nose, and then she cackled a laugh. “You’re afraid of me,” she said. Well, yes, I was. Because I hadn’t been able to defeat her – I hadn’t even figured out how to defeat her. And the memories of my previous fights with her, where I’d lost horribly, were too fresh in my mind. But I put on an emotionless smile of my own. “Being fearless is reckless. You have nothing to gain. I do.” I was talking about love. About emotion, about having something left in life that wasn’t materialistic. That wasn’t based on achievements. I didn’t think she understood something like that. “Well, if you wait long enough, you won’t have anything to gain, either. The difference between you and me is that I have nothing left to lose, either. You, on the other hand, still do. And your time’s running out.” I lost my cool. I could only put on a game face for so long. I put the laptop casually on a table and turned to face her as calmly as I could. I launched myself toward her, faster and stronger than I’d been before. Fear and anger were a deadly combination if you applied them right. She laughed in a cackle again, and the sound danced around me, singing inside my head, echoing through my hollow bones. She was quicker than I was, and was now standing where I’d stood before I reached her. She dragged a long black nail over the laptop. I wondered if she’d had those nails during the interview with Ruben, or if she could retract them like claws. When she smiled, I realized she could take away the only lead I might have – so I attacked again without thinking. This time I reached her before she had a chance to move, and I managed to hit her in the face, a strong blow to the jaw. She stumbled backward, and I got between her and the laptop. She hissed at me, her eyes flashing rage. Then she disappeared, moving in a blur around me and out of the door, the image of her remaining until long after she’d left. A cold feeling stayed behind too, like frost that licked up my body. I shivered, and the nerves I’d felt before solidified and became a rock of terror in my stomach. She did know what I was talking about. And I was about to lose someone if I didn’t make a plan soon. Joel was my techie. He was the one I would have run to with this laptop to find a way to hack out the information. I had no idea where else to go. So I took out my phone and did the one thing I hadn’t ever thought I would do. I phoned Carl. “Listen, I need a favor,” I said into the speaker when he answered, sounding as crisp as ever. Didn’t this man ever sleep? The only reason I was up and running was that life-threatening events tended to pump adrenaline into me. Otherwise I would have been home in bed too. That made me think about Connor’s house, and I pushed the memories away. Maybe Carl had a hell of a life too. Who knew what turned someone to a gun as a way of making a living? “Oh, the great Adele Griffin comes to me. What did I do to deserve this honor?” Sarcasm bled through his words. “Can it, Carl. I need help, and it’s urgent.” He groaned into the phone. “What do you want?” “A technician who’ll help me crack a laptop that’s been... damaged.” I turned the piece of scrap around in my hands. “What happened to yours?” “It was in a fire.” “Your technician was in a fire?” Well, yeah, but that wasn’t what I wanted him to know. “The laptop.” Carl chuckled, like it was a joke. “Don’t you know someone? People are going to die if I can’t crack this thing.” Carl whistled through his teeth. “Sounds like you’ve been getting some action. Better than me. I’ve been in a dry spell for far too long.” I tried not to imagine what he meant by that. “I’ll give it to you on one condition,” he said. “What?” “I want in on whatever it is you’re doing.” “Are you crazy?” He took a deep breath. “There are days I think I might be,” he said, and his voice was so sincere that I had the feeling he wasn’t joking this time. “Fine,” I said. He gave me the number of a guy. “I’ve used him a couple of times. He’s good, knows what he’s doing. He should have some time for you. His busy time is at night.” So, more technicians had the wrong friends. It was calming somehow to know that this guy wasn’t straightforward vanilla. Maybe he wouldn’t chase me away, with my leathers and guns. “Thanks,” I said to Carl, and hung up before he could say anything more. I phoned the guy. His voice was gravelly over the phone, and he sounded weary. After a bit of smooth talking, I finally got him to agree to taking on a client he didn’t know. I guessed that in his line of work, being cautious could save your life. I felt the same way about strangers, so I could respect that. I got an address and set a meeting for eight tomorrow morning. My week was going to start with a bang. He had openings for tonight, but I had a rule about going to meet people in the middle of the night. I’d done enough killing under the cloak of darkness to know I didn’t want to be the one who ended up at the other end of that food chain. The only thing left for me to do now was to go home. I took a deep breath and blew it out in a shudder. I didn’t want to leave Joel to fend for himself alone, but I didn’t have much of a choice. I would be no good to him if I were dead – I had to take care of myself first. My apartment was cold and dark when I arrived. I didn’t usually spend nighttime indoors. I was a nocturnal creature, and the walls always felt like they were closing down on me and suffocating me. I opened the curtains so I could see the inky black sky with the pinpricks of stars stretching across it like a blanket. The whole apartment looked different in the yellow light that replaced sunlight, and I didn’t feel like I was at my own home. When I crawled into bed after a quick shower, I fell asleep right away, but that wasn’t enough for me to escape my life. I had nightmares about Joel burning alive, throwing his laptop at me, yelling for me to get to Aspen before she burned too. The sound of bullets splintering tiles came out of his mouth every time he called for me. I tried to get to Aspen, but hot black tar stopped my bike’s wheels from turning. When I got off and tried to run, my feet were sucked into it and I had to fight for every step. When I finally got to Aspen’s house, it was dark and Zelda was there, beckoning me into the blackness. Aspen’s voice called out to me, crystal-clear as always, music in the night. I couldn’t see anything, but I followed the sound of her voice, feeling around for her in the dark. Flames started licking around us, consuming the house, lighting up the place enough for me to see. I found Aspen and wrapped my arms around her frail body, but she felt stronger and firmer than usual. When I pulled away again, it was Connor staring back at me. “Where’s Aspen?” I asked him, drawing back. I didn’t want to touch him. The warmth that flowed from him threatened to suck me in, and my memories of Aspen slipped away from me like bathwater down a drain. “She’s right there,” he said, pointing at someone behind me. When I spun around, it was Celia standing behind me. Her hair was white, her eyes a brilliant green. When I looked at Connor again, frowning, he looked like her too. They both laughed, and their cackling surrounded me like a storm. I sat up, the darkness in my room folding around me. The nightmare slowly faded, but my heart was hammering in my chest and I was hyperventilating. I swung my legs off the bed and leaned my head down between my knees. I focused on getting my breathing back to normal. When I looked up again, the night sky had a silvery quality to it, hinting at the arrival of dawn. Thank god. I got up and climbed into the shower again. I turned on only the hot water and stood underneath the scalding stream. The drops hit my skin like a thousand needles. I ignored the pain in my leg; the graze was a lot smaller, but still there. At least it didn’t bother me anymore, not like it had before. Steam fogged up the entire bathroom, and I couldn’t breathe in the humidity. But at least through all the pain and discomfort I knew I was alive. I was back in reality. I got into running clothes, found my chain, and left my apartment. The hallways and the lobby smelled dusty and moldy, and I wondered how I’d survived in this place for so long. When I finally stepped into the crisp morning air I took a deep breath. Then I ran. I ran until my muscles screamed at me, until my legs felt numb and my chest burned every time I took a breath. My neck and shoulders had been rubbed numb by the weight of the chain. I ran until I couldn’t run anymore, and then I turned around and started the run home. Finally it rolled onto seven thirty. I got dressed in my leathers and suited up: my knife in its thigh sheath, my S&W in the shoulder holster under my jacket, my SIG at my back. I glanced at the carbine, but decided against it. I needed Carlos to let me in. I did make sure I had the black chain in the bike’s compartment, though. Just in case. I always fell back onto my favorite saying – luck favors the prepared. Carlos was a couple of blocks away from my place, in an even worse part of town. I hadn’t been sure that was possible. The street looked like the garbage men just skipped it on garbage day, and there weren’t even stray cats around. If the cats didn’t bother, you had to know things were bad. I found the apartment he’d described and buzzed the first intercom on the list. None of them were marked. The wind picked up and a chilly finger sliced through me, despite the leathers. It was the kind of cold that came with foreboding. The door buzzed open, and I stepped into an apartment building that looked like it had been abandoned decades ago. The decorations inside were old, the wallpaper seemed like golden floral print under the dust, and the carpet seemed like it had once been a deep red. I could see that on the few patches that weren’t worn down to the concrete beneath. It, too, was dusty. A chandelier hung from the ceiling with real candles in it, all burned down to a pile of wax, and the elevator behind it still had a steel gate in front of the wooden door that closed it. I walked past reception, where a visitor’s book was open and signed here and there with curly handwriting, but there was no doorman. Not physically, anyway. The presence that hung in the lobby made me wonder if he was still around from time to time, checking in from the afterlife. I knocked on the first door on the ground floor, a white door that looked used and lacked cobwebs, unlike the others. Two seconds later the door opened. A man stood in front of me with long hair that hung in greasy strings around his face. He was clean-shaven, but he had a slimy quality about him. His shirt had grease stains all the way down the front, covering a body that he obviously maintained with fast foods, and his eyes were a watered-down grey. “Carlos Sanchez?” I asked, and he nodded. “I’m Adele Griffin.” “Come on in,” he said, opening the door wider. The inside of his apartment was a staggering contrast to the horrible neighborhood and the rest of the building. He had plush grey carpets and salmon-colored walls, with high-tech equipment on a desk in the corner and a wide screen television on the wall. It looked and smelled like it had all been cleaned half an hour ago. “Do you want coffee?” he asked, walking into the kitchen. “I’m okay,” I said. I wasn’t sure what to expect in the cup. Better not to expect anything. He came out with one cup of coffee with steam curling out of it. The aroma wrapped around the room and reminded me suddenly of home – when I was little and Aspen and I would watch my dad make breakfast in bed for my mom. The reminder was so strong I felt like I had been shoved backward in time. “What do you have for me?” he asked, nodding at the laptop under my arm and yanking me back to the present. I handed it over to him. “I think it’s been in a fire. I just need to know why someone wanted to save it. I think there’s something on there that might be important.” He looked at it, lifting his eyebrows. “Well, if we get something out of it, we’ll be lucky, but I can have a look,” he said. We moved to his desk in the corner and he sat down. I perched on the edge of the armchair nearby. He unscrewed the case and pulled out the insides. There, he found a green plate-like thing and turned it over in his hands, staring at it like it could break under his gaze. “Well, this survived a lot better than I expected,” he said. “Let’s have a look.” He hooked it up to a silver box with wires, then his fingers flew over his keyboard the same way Joel’s usually did. I wondered if all techies were the same: how they got into this line of work, what made them stray away from the daily grind, where they wouldn’t have to worry about being kidnapped or burned to death. After ten minutes, he swiveled his chair to face me. “Okay, so it looks like the standard stuff, for the most part. Nothing I’d say I might be killed over, if it were me. But there is one thing here...” I leaned forward. “What is it?” “A tracking system. It was installed two days ago.” “What is it tracking?” “It’s not tracking anymore, but I can tell you where it was pointing the last time it worked.” He squinted at the screen and read me the address. It was Aspen’s house. Relief spread through my body like warm liquid, and I slipped down to the seat of the armchair. “Thank god,” I said out loud. “He was watching her after all.” “Someone you know?” he asked. I nodded, and he went on. “Yes, someone close, I gather. People don’t watch over people they don’t care about. But there’s something you should know. I know this system, because I installed a very similar one for somebody yesterday.” “Okay...” I didn’t feel like having a techie heart-to-heart. I wanted to interrupt, but he kept talking. “The address for it was the same one.” It took me a couple of seconds to register what he was saying, and then my body went cold. The blood drained from my face, and I felt like I had to put my head between my knees if I didn’t want to faint. “It’s them, isn’t it?” I whispered. “If by ‘them’ you mean—” “Master vampires,” I finished for him. He nodded grimly. “They want to kill her.” “They didn’t look like the kind who were doing it for fun,” he agreed. “They won’t find her, though. She’s not at that address anymore.” It was a small consolation, but right now it meant the difference between life and death for my sister. “Why did you do it for them? If you knew they didn’t have good intentions?” Carlos swiveled to face me dead on. “They offered me more money than I make in a year. I have standards... but for that kind of money?” He shrugged. “What I can do for you, though, and I’ll throw this one in free of charge, is look up the tracker location.” I frowned. “On their system? You can do that?” “Well, I installed it, didn’t I? I can hack in and check the system. I set up the firewalls in the first place.” He typed in a couple of commands, and a moment later a screen popped up. It showed a map of town, and I could see a round loading icon. “It should give me the address,” he said. “Just give me a min—ah-hah. Here we are.” The map had a red blinking dot on it. I got up and leaned in closer. The dot was blinking steadily in one spot; it wasn’t moving. But it wasn’t at Aspen’s house. It was at the safe house. “This is right?” I asked. Carlos looked at me indignantly. “I wouldn’t charge this much if—” “Just tell me if it’s right, dammit!” I yelled. His face became stony, but he nodded. I spun and ran out the door. “You owe me money!” he shouted after me. “I’ll pay you later,” I answered, then ran through the dusty lobby and out into the sunlight to my bike. Chapter 15 There were times when I felt Westham was too small for me. Too small for my bike. Too small for my life. I wanted to live in a place that was bigger, that I could get lost in, with so many faces that no one would know me anymore. And then there were days like today, when it felt like it took forever to navigate the streets of the small town. I opened my bike full throttle where I could, but it felt like I was moving in slow motion. I could hear my own pulse thundering in my ears, felt it in my fingers where they curled around the throttle. I could still hear the cackling laugh of Celia the werecat dancing around me in Joel’s pit. I tried to breathe, forced myself to take a deep breath, and another, and another. But my chest was tight, and my body did nothing with the oxygen. I skidded to a halt outside my childhood home and took a long look. The oak tree at the side of the driveway had grown since I’d last seen it. Leaves were scattered on the grass, even though it had been cut recently. The low roof over the porch looked like it was leaning on the house, forcing it to squat down on itself. I wondered if it was because of my panic that this place looked like it was suffocating, or if it had always been like that and as a child I just hadn’t noticed. Claude’s car was in the driveway to the side of the house. It was unlocked. I opened the door expecting the worst, but there was nothing. No blood, no sign of struggle. No Aspen. I ran my hand under the steering wheel and in the foot well. I checked under the passenger seat. There was nothing there, no tracker I could find, and I didn’t have the time to keep looking. It didn’t matter. Wherever the tracker was, it said the vamps had to be here. I ran up to the front door and tried the handle. The door was locked. I rattled it, yelling for Aspen. Great approach when you’re expecting master vampires. When there was no response, I ran around to the back and hopped the low gate. The concrete in the backyard was cracked, with weeds growing out of it, and the grass was wheat beige even though it shouldn’t have been. I pressed my face against a window, cupping it with my hands so I could see into the kitchen. Everything inside was undisturbed. The table in the corner looked ready for someone’s next meal, but a thin veil of dust lay over everything like a blanket. No one had been inside. “Aspen!” I called out. I shivered, feeling cold despite my leathers. I ran to my bike, but halfway there I slowed down as an idea came to me. I had bitten her. Her blood was in my system. I stepped to the side and sat down on the grass under the oak tree. The leaves crackled under my weight. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and turned my focus inside. I’d never done this before; I’d only heard about it from my parents. I focused on my heart, slowing it down. I evened out my breathing, inhaling slowly, taking twice as long on the exhale. There had only been a few drops of blood on my lips. Barely anything at all. But I could feel her. She was alive. I focused on the faint pulse that came from her. I felt her emotions, dim and distant, like I was looking through fog, but they were there. She was panicked and scared, and sore from being manhandled. But she was alive, and she wasn’t badly hurt. I tried to find her. Her blood should have called out to me and told me where she was. But something was blocking me, and I lost the dim trail I’d picked up. Someone was hiding her. My heart started its wild race all over again. I ran to my bike, back in full-on panic mode. I made it to Aspen’s house in under five minutes, sure I’d broken every traffic rule in the book. I kicked out the bike stand and nearly dropped the bike to the ground before I balanced it and ran up the steps. The front door was ajar. I pushed it open carefully and stepped inside the house. End tables were on their sides, and a potted plant lay on the floor with dirt strewn across the carpet. Broken pieces of glass that used to be coffee cups lay scattered toward the kitchen. When I stepped onto the tiles, the smell hit me before I saw anything. Death had a smell. Rotten, a little sour, even though the body hadn’t begun decomposing yet. And fear often hung in the air around it. It took a while before that disappeared. It laced the air now, and I felt sick before I saw her. Zelda lay face down on the kitchen tiles, vacantly staring at the pool of dark blood that had swelled around her head. The hair that had escaped from her neat bun was stained with it. Her right arm was stretched up, like she’d been reaching for something. The blinds on one window were open, which they normally never were during the day, making everything sharp and vivid. From the looks of it, Zelda had run to open the blinds and had only made it to one window. If that had been the case, it meant the masters had been here. In the daylight. I knelt next to her and examined her without touching her. The blood came from a hole in her neck where her throat should have been. It was a mangled, bloody mess now. She’d been bitten and her throat ripped out to stop her. From the looks of things, they hadn’t taken her blood, or at least not a lot of it. “I’m so sorry,” I said softly. Zelda had been hard and strict, but I’d known her for a long time and she’d been good to Aspen. I took a deep breath and tried to calm my nerves. I had to keep my head about me. The way I was panicking was already dangerous. I doubted they’d killed Aspen. They still needed me to take out Connor. If they’d already gotten to him, Aspen would have been here too, dead next to Zelda. And Claude’s car wouldn’t have been at the safe house. No, I believed Aspen was still alive. I needed to believe it. They were using her for motivation, because they knew that if she died, I would give up. I had to find her. I stood up and systematically combed through the rest of the house, but nothing was out of place. The struggle had happened between the front door and the kitchen, and it had happened quickly, without wasting a lot of time. When I stepped out into the sunlight again it felt foreign, like the whole world was suddenly a place I didn’t know. The sun was high in the sky. It was rolling on towards noon, and I still hadn’t eaten. I felt empty and hollow, but food couldn’t fill this kind of hole in my soul. My phone rang in my pocket, and I pulled it out and pushed ‘talk’. “You’d better get to the office,” Carl’s voice came loud and clear through the speaker. “Just because I turned to you for help doesn’t mean we’re friends, Carl,” I sneered. I didn’t feel like playing his games. I already felt like I owed him one, and I didn’t like owing people. “Thanks for the sentiment, but don’t flatter yourself,” he said. “This is actually important. I’m guessing you can make more out of this than I can, seeing that Ruben actually tells you things once in a while.” I frowned but agreed. “I’ll be there in ten. I have nothing better to do with my time.” I’d meant that last bit sarcastically, but I realized as I hung up that it was true. I had nothing. No lead on Joel, a dead-end lead on Aspen, a dead caregiver and a missing driver. Nope, I could still fit more on my plate. The office was quiet, which was strange. Ruben ran a normal accounting firm during the day, which meant there should be cars outside. There weren’t. All the lights in the lobby were off, and everything had an eerie feel to it despite the sunlight filtering in through the windows. The day receptionist’s desk was unoccupied. “Carl?” I called. He appeared at the top of the stairs. He looked like he’d aged since I’d last seen him. His face was sagging, there were dark rings under his eyes and his blue irises were darker, like the ocean instead of like ice. “What’s going on?” I asked, climbing the stairs to him. “Where is everybody?” “I don’t know,” he answered, and for once he didn’t sound belittling or mocking or sarcastic. That in itself was more alarming than anything else. “Sonya paged me and I came here—” “You still use a pager?” I asked him. He rolled his eyes. “Focus, Adele,” he snapped. “Sonya paged me, which isn’t that weird – she works funny hours for a vampire – but when I got here the whole place was quiet, like this. I wasn’t able to come in right away, so I didn’t know if this had happened before or after... So I phoned you, because you know more about this place than I do.” “Aren’t you in Ruben’s back pocket?” I asked. I’d always had the idea that Carl was the favorite. But he shook his head. “Honestly? I think he was just doing me a favor by taking me on. I have skills, sure. But what can I do? I’m just a human.” “Very humbling words, Carl,” I said. “I always thought you were a bit of an ass—” We’d stopped at the doors that led to Sonya’s office, and what I saw cut me short. The place was a mess. The desk was upside down, a file cabinet lay face down and papers were scattered all over the place. There was blood on the carpet. When I looked up, I saw that the light bulbs in all the lamps that hung from the ceiling were broken. “What the hell happened here?” I asked. “That’s what I was hoping you’d tell me,” Carl said, not sounding in the least offended that I’d been about to call him an asshole. In fact, he sounded worn. He looked like he was dead on his feet. I walked through the office, looking around. Someone had been looking for something, from what I could gather, but everything was such a mess it would take days, and Sonya, to know what had gone missing. I pushed against the door to Ruben’s office. “Don’t go in there,” Carl said. I looked over my shoulder at him, and he was as white as a ghost. I frowned but pushed into the office anyway. Something was leaning against the door, and I had to shove to get the door open wide enough for me to go in there. After I managed to slip through, the door closed again, and I was trapped in the office. There was blood everywhere: on the walls, the carpet, the papers on Ruben’s desk. And the office was the same mess the other one had been. The furniture was all overturned, and the file cabinet drawers were all pulled out. When I turned to see what had stopped the door from opening, I gagged. It was Ruben. And he was very dead. His face was a bloody mess, like he’d been hit a couple of times. Big gashes across his body were oozing blood, and his clothes were a red-stained mess. His eyes were open, staring at his office. His throat was gone, worse than Zelda’s. I closed my eyes and turned my head away. The blinds all around the office were closed. The light bulbs in here were broken too. I pulled the door open, shoving against the dead body I didn’t want to touch so I could get out again. When I reached Sonya’s office I shivered. Carl was sitting on the edge of a tipped cabinet, looking small despite his bulk of muscle. “Told you,” he said, but the joking tone in his voice was missing, and he looked about as haunted as I felt. “Well,” was all I could say. “Do you know what’s going on here?” he asked me after a moment of silence. I walked over to the cabinet and sat down next to him. It was strange sharing personal space with someone. I was aware of the warmth that came from him and the smell of his cologne filtering through the sour smell of death and fear. “He took on the wrong clients,” I said. “They’re vampires, after someone for a big deal. They came to him, and he took the job for the money. But it ended up costing a lot more than that.” “I’m assuming you got the job?” I nodded. I wished I’d never taken it. “You think it’s just another kill, and before you know it everyone around you is dying.” I stopped talking because a lump had suddenly risen in my throat. I didn’t want to cry in front of Carl. “You know, I took this job because I wanted to prove myself to my father. He said I didn’t have it in me, that I was too soft, that I’d never be a real man.” Underneath his charming, I-don’t-care façade and bulky muscles, he was just a boy. He looked vulnerable now, with the events of the morning peeling away his macho veneer. “This doesn’t make me a man, though. You know? It just makes me a murderer.” “They’re vampires, Carl,” I said, trying to sound like they didn’t matter. But somewhere along the line, I’d started to feel like they did matter. Connor mattered. And Mom mattered. I sighed. “I hate it too.” “Why are you still doing it?” Carl asked. I shrugged. “I guess when you give so much of yourself away to do it in the first place, you can’t stop. There won’t be anything left. This has started to define me, I think. Why do you still do it?” Carl shrugged too. “I think it’s safe to see this as an opportunity to change jobs. The switch shouldn’t be too hard now. No two weeks’ notice, you know?” His attempt at a joke fell to the floor in front of us. Neither of us thought it was funny. “So, these vampires who killed him – are they after you too?” he asked. “Yes, but not to kill me. They want me to take out the mark. They’re willing to kill to make sure that happens.” “Why don’t they do it themselves?” “Because he’s slippery, and they lost control of their own mess. Now they’re just making a mess for everyone else.” Carl nodded slowly. “Hey, at least your life isn’t in danger,” he said. “My sister’s is. And my IT guy. If they’re still alive, I have to finish the job to save them. If they’re already dead, well, then, the vamps have successfully killed me too.” “I can help you find him,” Carl offered. “I’m sure when we put our heads together, we can do more than either of us alone could manage.” I shook my head. “It’s not that easy. The mark – Connor – he’s not really the kind of vampire I want to kill. He’s...” I took a deep breath, not finishing my sentence. Carl narrowed his eyes at me. “I’m guessing there’s a lot more to this story. Let me see what I have so far. You don’t want to kill the mark because – and I’m just guessing – you have feelings for him.” “I do not,” I said meekly, which was an answer in itself. “Right. Sure. Your sister and the IT guy are being held hostage—” “Maybe.” “And you need to put an end to all of this. What am I missing?” I sighed. What did I have to lose at this point, telling him? “My sister’s caregiver has been killed, my driver is missing, they have a pet cat-woman who’s out to torture me within an inch of my life, and I don’t know where to find Connor even if I don’t want to kill him, because I shot him.” Carl raised his eyebrows. “I missed,” I said. “You?” I snorted. “Hard to believe. I know.” “These vampires... they’re the ones who killed Ruben?” He swallowed hard, like the words in his mouth made him sick. I nodded. “And they’re the ones who hired you.” “To kill the mark, yeah. His girlfriend hired me to find him for her. At least, that’s what I thought. Now I don’t really know what to think. It’s complicated.” “I can see that.” I sighed, and Carl lapsed into silence next to me. A banging suddenly started, and the cabinet underneath us rattled and shook. Carl and I both jumped up and backed away. The banging continued, and the muffled sounds of a woman’s voice traveled through the metal. “Someone’s in there,” I said. “I know,” Carl said, but neither of us made a move. “We have to get her out,” I said. Carl nodded, and finally we moved toward the cabinet. We tipped it onto its side with some effort, and the voice inside groaned. I fiddled with the door, trying to get it open, but a voice called from inside. “No! Don’t open it! I’ll fry. It’s Sonya.” “The sunlight,” I said. “She’ll burn to a crisp if we open it.” “What are we going to do?” I thought for a moment. “The janitor’s closet,” I said. “It has no windows.” “That’s downstairs,” Carl said, and I nodded. He sighed and braced himself at the one end of the cabinet. I was at the other end, and we heaved and lifted it up with Sonya inside. She made small whimpering sounds as we moved her. Twice Carl slipped and dropped his end, and she screamed and cursed from inside. “Sorry,” Carl muttered. Finally, after a lot of sweating and heaving and swearing, we finally had the cabinet in the closet between the buckets and mops and ladders. I clicked on the single light bulb that hung from the ceiling, and Carl wrestled with the now-dented door to get it open. When he yanked it free, Sonya tumbled out. Her brown hair was disheveled, and she had bruises on her face. Her hands were raw, with dried blood caked around her nails, and she glared at us. “You couldn’t be a little more careful?” she asked. “It was either that or fried Sonya,” I answered flatly. “What happened?” Sonya took a shuddering breath. “They scheduled a meeting in the middle of the night. Ruben assumed it was to talk about everything. He asked me to unlock the office, said he’d be here literally last minute. But they didn’t want to talk. The moment they arrived, they started trashing the place. They knocked me down.” “How many were there?” I asked. “Just the same two as last time,” she said, and I nodded. Carl looked at me questioningly, but I would answer him later. “Why didn’t you get out of here?” I asked. “Ruben arrived and saw them bullying me. He got them away from me into the office. One of them followed – the master – but the other one stuffed me in this cabinet so I couldn’t go anywhere.” “It’s metal,” I confirmed. She hadn’t been able to dematerialize. “I don’t know what happened. I couldn’t hear too well through the metal, but I know Ruben closed the door. The next thing I knew, there was a lot of banging around me and then the cabinet fell over.” I sat down on an upturned bucket. The closet was extremely small for the three of us and the cabinet, and I felt a wave of claustrophobia. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” Sonya asked in a thin voice. I nodded. There was no use denying it. Sonya covered her face with her hands and cried. Her shoulders shook, and her body shrank in on itself, crushed by the weight of her misery. Carl put a hand on her shoulder. She flinched, but she didn’t pull away from him. “I’m sorry,” I said, and I didn’t just mean for the fact that Ruben was dead. I was sorry for everything, for this happening at all, for her being involved in it, for the mess it had become. “We have to go,” Carl said. He wanted to talk; I could see it. If he was smart, he would run and never look back. He had too much to lose – he didn’t want to be involved in this. But I knew that Carl wasn’t particularly smart when it came to risking his own life. He wouldn’t run. He would stay to fight. That should have made me feel better, that there was someone who’d have my back. But it just made me feel sick to my stomach. If he died – and the chances were pretty good that he would – his blood would be on my hands too. It would be another body to add to my growing list of losses. “We can’t open the door,” I said, turning to Sonya. She’d stopped sobbing, but her cheeks were wet and her eyes were bright. “You’ll have to get back inside that thing so we can leave. You’ll be able to get out again once we’re gone. And then you’ll have to wait it out in here until the sun goes down and you can go home.” She didn’t look happy with me, but she didn’t argue, either. There wasn’t anything else to do about it. She stood up and stepped back into the cabinet. Carl made sure she could push the door open from the inside before we left, so she wouldn’t be stuck in there again, and once she was inside her little metal coffin he opened the door and we stepped out of the closet. “I don’t know what to do with this one,” Carl admitted. “We’re going to have to call the police because of Ruben’s death, and they’re going to go through all the paperwork. We have to get in there and get rid of our stuff before they can get at it.” I suddenly felt like my body was made of lead. I felt heavy and sore, like I was the one who’d been beaten up. It felt like everything that normally kept me going had been drained out of me, and I was just a shell. “Just call them, Carl. I’m going to go home.” “But we can’t just leave—” “It’s over, Carl,” I said. “Let them come. I can’t do this anymore.” Then I left. Chapter 16 The day of the attack came back to me. I’d gone to the store for my mom to buy milk. We’d been arguing about it – I’d wanted to bake sugar cookies. She said it wasn’t necessary, that there were store-bought cookies in the tin and it was getting dark, too late to run out to the store for a sixteen-year-old. Aspen, who was fourteen, was stretching out one leg on the counter and balancing on the other. She wanted to be a dancer. It was never too late to get fit and flexible, she used to say. I was jealous that she was taller than I was. After that night, she’d never be taller than I was again. I fought with Mom about my age, telling her that I was practically a grownup. But, cocooned in a shell of innocence, I actually knew nothing. The last words I spoke to my mother were that I wanted her to leave me to make my own mistakes, that I didn’t need her to baby me for the rest of my life. I’d give anything to take those words back now, to tell her just one more time that I love her, that she made me everything I am. Well, no. Everything I used to be. The line at the store was too long. Instead of heading back home, I went to the next one, a bit farther away. I’d gotten my milk, but by the time I finally stepped onto the front porch, it was dark. There was no moon that night, and the world was drenched in the inky black of night. Even the stars looked like they were dimmer. I climbed the porch steps, noticing that the outside light was off. Mom usually switched it on, and I was irritated that she hadn’t left it on for me. She knew I’d gone out. If I’d taken that as a sign of danger, maybe things would have been different. But then again, maybe they wouldn’t have. When I pushed against the front door and it swung open into more darkness, the smell in the air caught my attention. Something sour or bitter. Something that didn’t feel right. I called out into the house, but no one answered. I walked through the living room and into the dining room. The table had been overturned. Chairs lay scattered across the floor, some of them splintered. The vase that had been in the center of the table was shattered and lay in shards on the floor. The water had made a wet patch around the shattered glass and the ruined flowers. I reached for the light switch automatically, even though a voice in my head kept screaming that I should turn and run. But I reached out and flipped the switch. The white light was blinding at first. And then it showed me the ugly truth. There was blood on the carpet. The metallic smell of it pinched my nose and I gagged, covering my nose and mouth with my hand. The milk I’d been carrying fell to the floor, the container split open and the milk spread across the carpet. I followed the trail of the blood, and under the table, I found a body. My mother’s body. Her short blonde hair was fanned out around her head like a halo. Her arm was bent at an impossible angle, and when I took two steps closer I saw what I’d already known. Her face was covered in blood, and her soft hazel eyes were staring vacantly at the chaos around her. Her throat had been ripped open on one side, and was bloody and... chewed. I covered my mouth and screamed into my hands. My whole body had started shaking, and I felt like the life was draining out of me. A crash in the next room pulled me out of my state of shock, and I whirled around. Aspen and my dad... if whoever had done this was still here, I had to stop them before I lost more people I loved. I ran to Aspen’s bedroom, where the crash had come from. I kicked the door open and it bounced back, nearly hitting me in the face, but I shoved it open again. Aspen was sprawled on the floor, her body twisted and bent just above the hips in a way that wasn’t natural. Her eyes were closed and for a very long time I feared the worst, but then she whimpered, the tiniest sign of life. “Where are they?” I whispered, hoping she’d respond, but she only whimpered again, her head lolling to the side. Her light skin was ash-grey, and there was blood on her clothes. I ripped the fabric aside and saw that the blood wasn’t hers. A sound behind me made me spin around. My dad was standing there. He was... showing his fangs. There was blood smeared across his face and chest, and he hissed at me. “Dad?” I asked in a small voice, and then I noticed the fireplace poker he was holding. It had blood on it, the tip dripping red. The image of my mom’s body flashed through my mind, and I lost it. I was only half-vampire, but in a case of life and death, the animal in me came out just like it would in any purebred vamp. I hissed back at my dad even though I had no fangs to show him. He swung the poker at me and struck me in the neck. It burned, and I could feel blood pouring out of the gash, oozing down my neck and staining my shirt. I didn’t waste any time. I jumped on him, ducking underneath the poker he’d lifted to swing again, and tackled him through the open door to the opposite wall of the hallway. The impact winded us both, but I was beyond the point of no return. In my rage I’d seen a white light: my dead mother, and my broken sister. And in front of me was the man who was responsible. Anger makes anyone stronger. I was a testimony to that. The police finally pulled me off my dad, whose face had been purple with flowering bruises and bloody where I’d hit him way past unconsciousness with my bare hands. My mother was pronounced dead on the scene. My sister was taken to a hospital. I was booked into therapy. Years of therapy did nothing. All the therapist ever did was remind me of that awful night, over and over again. And I hated every minute of it, until I turned eighteen and was old enough to tell my foster parents I wasn’t going to therapy anymore. Aspen was in a wheelchair after having been hospitalized for a month, and no amount of therapy would have been able to erase what had happened to her. After the night my mother died, I stayed out of the way of vampires. I avoided the dark, slept with a nightlight like a child, and made sure to be in before sunset every evening. One night it rained so hard, I was stranded at the gym on my college campus. Howling winds were ripping through the trees, and no one dared go out. By the time the storm subsided, it had gotten dark and I was terrified. I walked the quiet streets home, keeping my ears open, doing my best to suppress the fear of the dark that I’d been kindling for over two years. A vampire appeared next to me, a man who had a nasty cut across his face, which reminded me too much of the scar that had formed on my neck. He grinned at me, and his fangs, although they were yellow, brought back a flash of my bloodstained father attacking me. I attacked the vampire before he was able to think twice, and I killed him. As I stood there with blood on my hands and my heart pounding in my throat, a voice rang out to me. “You have skills,” it said. I swung around and backed away, afraid he’d call the police. It was a man, not a vamp. Muscles on top of muscles. “You hate vampires,” he said – a statement, not a question. “I know someone I’d like you to meet.” Then he pulled out a card with Ruben’s firm name and number on it. “This is an accounting firm,” I said, confused. “Just call him. Tell him Carl sent you. He’ll know.” He turned and sauntered down the street as if he didn’t have a care in the world. “Why?” I called after him. “You have rage, kid. In this life, we can use that kind of thing.” After that, he disappeared. Going to work for Ruben was quick and painless. I spent one night out with Carl, and for a week I had nightmares after I’d seen him work. I went back after that and told Ruben I wanted to do it permanently. He told me everything I already knew, that I’d need to train, that it wasn’t going to be easy, that it would border on illegal activities. But I agreed, because it meant I could kill vampires. I hadn’t been able to kill my dad. Maybe if the police hadn’t come in time to save him, I would have. But there were a lot of other vampires around, since the law let them roam free, and it wasn’t long before Carl started avoiding me because I was better, because the rookie was outshining him and jealousy didn’t look good on a man with his physique. I’d taken the job because somehow it felt like every vampire I killed was one less in the world that could get to Aspen. In a wheelchair she was vulnerable, and I couldn’t run the risk of another monster suddenly going rogue. The fact that there never really was a chance of that anymore was something I ignored. And after all that, after training for years and killing vampires every night the way other people went in to the office, I’d managed to fail her again. I sat on my bike after I’d parked in front of my apartment building and took a deep breath. I closed my eyes and focused on the blood surging through my veins. I could still feel her, a faint pulse next to my own. She was still alive. Every time I checked in to find out, I held my breath – hoping for the best but preparing myself for the worst. And every time I found that she was still alive, I felt relief so strong I felt like I might crumble. But I still couldn’t pinpoint a location. It was like someone knew that I had my own tracker on her, and they were stopping me from finding her. It was like a metal wall between us, and try as I might, I couldn’t get through it. I pushed the bike into my crummy garage and rolled the door shut with a terrible noise. I clicked the lock shut, then made my way into the building. Everything in my apartment was as I’d left it before, and I felt safe enough to take my guns off and put them away. I still had my Glock under my pillow, and I kept the knife on me in the thigh sheath just in case. I sat down at the booth in the kitchen and stared at the empty seat opposite me. How long had it been – a week? – since Jennifer had sat across from me? It had seemed like such an innocent job then. Distasteful, but innocent. It was difficult to accept that things had gotten so bent out of shape in such a short time. I’d lost Joel, the only friend I’d ever had – and I knew it was my fault. They’d taken him either as a warning, or as bait. They might have killed him. I had no way of knowing whether he was still alive the way I could trace signs of life from Aspen. Ruben was definitely dead. That was my fault too, because I hadn’t done my job. If only I’d understood how serious the situation was; if only I’d taken him more seriously and done what he’d asked. But his cocky attitude and the arrogance with which he talked about the night world when he knew nothing about it annoyed me, and I had shown that to him through lack of respect. Now he was dead, and there was nothing I could do about it. And Sonya? It was just dumb luck that she was still alive, and no one knew what would happen to her now. Maybe the vamps would come after her too, in case she knew something. That would be another black mark on my name. Another death to feel guilty about. I sighed. I had to figure out how the master vampires operated. Once I knew what they did, what skills they possessed and how they did their business, maybe I could find a crack in their wall – and find Aspen. The only person who knew anything about the masters was Connor. I was damn glad I’d missed when I’d shot him. I needed him alive now, to tell me what he knew. At the same time I knew that it was ridiculous to even try to go to him. He would never help me. Why would he? After what had happened between us, after the night we’d spent together... But I had to find him if I wanted to find Aspen, no matter how horrible it was going to be. And the only person I could rely on for help right now was Jennifer. The phone rang seven times. One more time and it would roll over to voice mail. But it didn’t. She answered. “I need to see you,” I said into the phone. She hesitated for a moment. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.” “Why not? Don’t you think you owe me, at least?” I knew that wasn’t the best card to play, but I was running out of options. “Look, you’re not the kind of person I should be having contact with right now. If they hear that I’ve spoken to you, after everything...” “The master vampires? Have they contacted you?” If they’d threatened Jennifer but she was still alive, she had something on them. Maybe it was something I could use. “I just need to find—” Jennifer cut me off. “Don’t say it. Don’t. I can’t do this.” She hung up on me. The line beeped in my ear and I swore, throwing my phone onto the bed. Dammit. Two seconds later the phone beeped again. There was a message from Jennifer. They’re watching me. I didn’t want to talk on the phone. Meet me at Fiasco at nine. It was still a while before dark, but at least now I had something to do once the sun had gone down. Without a job I felt untethered, and I didn’t want to think what sitting at home twiddling my thumbs would be like. I showered and got dressed, putting on my leathers again. I wasn’t going out for kills just yet, but I didn’t know what information Jennifer would be able to give me, and if I was going to get Aspen out of wherever she was, I wanted to be ready. I loaded my guns. Silver bullets in each of them. I had my Smith & Wesson on me, my SIG at my back and my knife on my thigh. I had an ankle holster where I secured my Glock, and I put the carbine in my bike’s compartment. I didn’t want to be caught off guard, and if I wanted to get Aspen out of there alive – myself, too, for that matter – I had to go in there guns blazing. My phone rang. “What is it?” I asked. I was in a foul mood, pumped full of adrenaline in anticipation of a hectic night and because I had to wait. “Don’t sound so happy to hear from me,” Carl said in his usual sarcastic tone. “What do you want, Carl?” “I told you, I want in. I want to know where you’re headed later. You can use some backup once in a while.” I shook my head, even though Carl couldn’t see it. “I’m not going out to kill. I need to contact some people first, and you’re not coming with me.” “Don’t cut me out of this now, Adele. I want revenge for Ruben just as much as you do.” I hadn’t thought about that – but I didn’t revenge for Ruben. His death was tragic, and I knew guilt was going to chew away at me for a very, very long time. But I was going to get Aspen. I wondered what Ruben and Carl had had going that made Carl feel like he needed revenge. “Look, I’m just going to talk to someone. If I find out more, I’ll call you, okay?” Carl mumbled something that sounded unhappy, but he agreed. I hung up the phone, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. It didn’t matter how badly Carl wanted to get in on this. I wasn’t going to drag him along. Carl was just a human, and even though I hated his guts most of the time, I wasn’t going to involve him in a situation where he could get killed. There was enough blood on my hands already. It was finally time to leave. My bike growled into the night as I pulled out. It sounded the way I felt. When I stepped onto the deck at Fiasco, where the outside tables were arranged, I noticed Jennifer sitting in the back, looking like she was trying to make herself small and invisible. “You’re not really fooling anyone trying to hide like that,” I said. “You’re not invisible.” I sat down, and a waiter appeared immediately. “Water,” I said. Alcohol was off limits for me. It made me buzz, and I couldn’t go out on a killing spree like that. It would be asking for trouble. “What do you want?” Jennifer asked. Her voice was calm, but she kept looking around. “Who are you hiding from?” I asked. “I can’t be seen with you. I’ve been warned.” “By the masters?” Jennifer nodded. “They called me yesterday and told me that if I talk to you, I’m dead.” For someone who was walking around with a death sentence hanging over her, she was damn brave to be out here talking to me. Either that, or really stupid. The water arrived, and we both kept quiet as the waitress put the cold glass in front of me. When she had walked away, I took a sip. I didn’t say anything until I was sure everyone was out of earshot. “What do you have on them?” I asked. She frowned. “There has to be a reason why you’re still alive. They’ve already killed a handful of people to get what they want.” Jennifer’s face blanched. “They have?” I nodded. “So?” I prodded. Jennifer took a shaky breath and looked down at her hands. She was fiddling with a napkin, tearing it into tiny pieces, making a pile on the table. “It’s not really something I have on them. It’s more like something they need. They can’t kill me as long as they need the funding for their... business. Connor’s account has my name on it, too. I’m allowed to say what happens to the money, so as long as I’m alive, they have access to the money. They can’t kill me. Unless they can find funding somewhere else.” I was horrified. Jennifer was letting this nightmare go on. “Why don’t you cut them off?” I asked. “You’re just letting this go on and on, and you know it’s wrong.” When Jennifer looked up at me, her eyes were brimming with tears. Again. She was really quick to cry. “If I do, they’ll kill me. This is the only thing that’s keeping me alive. With what I know... they’ll kill me. It’s the lesser of two evils.” Something inside me shut down. I wasn’t going to fall for that one. The lesser of two evils was what I’d chosen, to keep my sister alive no matter what. But if it came down to the greater good, I’d sacrifice myself. The only reason I couldn’t do it now was because I was the only person left who cared about Aspen, the only person who could bring her back. “You’re disgusting,” I said, and I meant it. Judging by the look of shame and anger on Jennifer’s face, she knew it, too. “What do you want from me?” she asked in a cold voice. “I need to find Connor,” I said. Jennifer shook her head. “How would I know where he is? Since he disappeared...” She swallowed hard and looked down at her pile of napkin shreds. “He’s dead to me now. He’s cut himself off from everyone. I don’t know where he is.” I’d expected her to say that. But I wasn’t going to give up. “Give me an address. Something. Anything, Jennifer. Otherwise, a lot more people will die. I need to stop this.” I don’t know if it was something in my expression or in my voice, or because she felt condemned, but she nodded and pulled out a notepad and pen. She scribbled on the pad and slid it across the table. It had two addresses on it. The mansion on Caldwell Street in Westham Hills. That belonged to him after all. And the address of his offices – the Palace. “If you want to go to the offices,” Jennifer said, “just use my name, and they should let you in. The night guards know me.” I bet they did. I thanked her and got up, my glass of water hardly touched. At least I hadn’t ordered something that cost money. It was nine thirty when I got back on my bike. I’d only spoken to Jennifer for ten minutes. My phone rang just as I was about to pull away. “You owe me money,” Carlos said. “I know. I’ll bring it to you.” “Now. I don’t like waiting. I can’t afford to give my clients credit.” His voice was hard. Maybe this was as tough as his life got. “I’ll drop by later tonight,” I said with a sigh. “I have errands to run.” “You can’t—” I hung up. I didn’t feel like arguing about it. No, I hadn’t paid him, and I was in the wrong. But I’d fix that as soon as I had the chance. Whenever that was. I had more important things to do first. Chapter 17 The roads were quieting down, most people settling down into their weeknight routines. I was the only one who was out of mine. If it had been an ordinary night, I would have been heading out from the office with a stack of papers from Ruben and a night of blood and guts ahead of me. I wanted to go back to that. It hadn’t been a great job, and I’d always been a little torn. But it was familiar. Safe, ironically. It was my life. What did I have now? A big mess to clear up before it was all too late. The neighborhood felt like it always did, with so many suburban families at home. The neighborhood buzzed with vibrant life – if not happiness, then at least contentment. Families were together; I could feel the strength of their bonds as I passed the houses. It made me feel strangely untethered, like an island. Surrounded by nothing but ocean. Disconnected from everything else like me. I cut the engine before I got to Connor’s house and rolled the last couple of feet. But who was I fooling? He had probably heard me coming. He was a purebred, with hearing that outmatched my own. But it made me feel better to do it this way. It made me feel like somehow I still had control. I parked my bike and slid off it, then walked up the dark driveway. I was aware again of the strong scent of night flowers. The jasmine hung the thickest in the air, and I couldn’t decide if I liked it or hated it. Smells brought with them so many memories, both good and bad. I tried the front door, the only entrance to the house I hadn’t used before, and found it unlocked. That was a surprise. If Connor was home, I expected him to have stronger security. Clyde, the mean old housecat, came to the door making a low moaning sound that warned me off. “Get over it,” I sneered. I worked from the one room to the next, systematically checking each of them. I had my SIG out, gripped in two hands and pointed toward the floor. I didn’t want to shoot Connor, for once, but I didn’t want to run into unwanted company either. After all, the door had been unlocked. When I got to the office, a room I’d only been in once before, I found Connor standing in it with his back to me. “So, you’ve decided to have another run at it,” he said, not looking at me. His voice was dull, empty. He sounded bored. But the muscles in his back were tense, both his feet were planted firmly on the floor, and I knew all his attention was on me, not on the papers he was flipping through. “I’m not here to kill you,” I said. My voice sounded thin. I didn’t feel capable and tough tonight. I had three guns on me, but I’d never been so nervous in my life. I tucked my SIG back into my waistband to prove my point. Connor still wasn’t looking at me, but I didn’t doubt that he’d heard me. “I know you’re not,” he said. Finally, he turned to me. His face seemed paler than it had been before, and his eyes had faint circles underneath them. He looked taller, and the skin on his face clung to the bone underneath so I could see the structure of his skull. I wanted to ask if he was all right, but it wasn’t my place to do that. “I need your help,” I said. “What for?” I’d expected an immediate no. His answer sparked a little hope inside of me. “I need to find the masters. I need to know how to find them. They’re angry, and at some point I’m going to have to face them.” “Well, that can’t be due to any failure on your part,” he said, his voice cold and hard. “After all, you did shoot me. I was just lucky enough to be faster than the bullet.” “Connor...” “I’d like for you to leave,” he said, then he walked past me. “Connor, please. I... they have Aspen.” I hated to admit my weakness. I hated that I was begging for help. But there was nothing I wouldn’t do for my sister. If I had to give the upper hand to my mark... well, I’d do that. “At this point, Adele, I don’t really think I want to help you. I’ve done more than enough to show you that you’re above all this. That you’re worth more.” And all this time I’d thought he’d intentionally been driving me crazy. A sharp pain shot through my chest. “I fell for you,” he admitted. “God knows that was the biggest mistake in the world. Who falls for the girl who’s trying to kill you?” “Why did you?” I asked, because suddenly I was dying to know what anyone could see in me other than a monster. That was all that I saw in the mirror anymore. I had that horrible scar and eyes that promised nothing but death, and I dressed it all up in leathers and guns that drove the point home. “How can someone like you think anything... good... about me?” He chuckled, without humor. “I don’t know the answer to that,” he said, and his words stung. “You see, there was a time when I believed I could see the beauty in you, despite all the ugliness you’re trying to bury it under. I wanted to believe that I could change you, that I could show you what it’s like to have something to live for again. Something that would stop you looking over your shoulder, back at your father.” I suddenly felt like there wasn’t a single bone in my body. I reached out for the wall to steady myself before I lost my balance. “How did you know?” I asked, my voice brittle. “Your secrets may not be in the news now, Adele, but they were once upon a time. It didn’t take a lot of digging to get the story. Not that I can even begin to imagine what you’re dealing with, but I told myself that what you were doing was justifiable.” “And still you think I’m the monster,” I sneered. I was getting closer and closer to crying, and I had to come up with a plan to make the tears go away, fast. Being mean was the only way I knew, even if it meant I got hurt even more. “I don’t think you’re a monster. At least I didn’t. But it takes a lot for someone to shoot the man she’s just slept with point blank. I’m not so sure anymore.” I took a deep breath, and it was shaky. It made me sound weak. I looked weak. I knew that. And I hated it. “Please just help me with Aspen,” I said. “Then you can hate me forever.” Connor smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “I’m sorry, princess,” he said, and then he disappeared. I was left alone in the empty house. Clyde padded into the room silently and mewed. “Shut up,” I said, and left the house. My eyes burned as I tore full throttle down the road. Everything around me faded to a blur and the wind whipped around me, yanking at my emotions. I prayed they would blow away behind me. I made it to the ugly side of town in under five minutes, sure there were about six cameras with pictures of my plates on them now. But I didn’t care. Joel could squash them for me again. Joel. My stomach contracted, and I felt like I was going to throw up. If he was dead... I didn’t even want to think about it. I was becoming more and more aware that I was completely alone. I had no one left. I wasn’t one of those people with a huge social life. But I did have a few people I held dear. And one by one, they were being ripped away from me. That was why I was in this filthy neighborhood where the streets were full of garbage, a twisted insight to the type of people who lived here. The night was quiet, and there wasn’t a light on in any of the windows I passed. Not even the streetlights were on despite the fact that it was going on eleven o’clock. I parked in front of the rundown building where Carlos lived. At night it was even worse; the whole place seemed to have sunk in on itself. When I stepped into the lobby, it really did feel haunted. Everything was dark; the counter where the doorman should have been was a gaping black hole. I hurried through the lobby towards the hallway where I would find Carlos’s door. When I reached it, I stretched out my hand to knock, then I caught myself. The door wasn’t closed completely. It was slightly ajar. The apartment inside was quiet, no music blaring like the last time I’d been here. “Please, no,” I whispered. Not Carlos too... “Well, we didn’t expect to see you here,” a voice purred around me. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from, but I recognized its echoing quality and soft, seductive tone. I spun around. She laughed, and it danced around me like chimes in the wind. “You’re just a surprise every time, aren’t you?” she said. Her words echoed in a whisper that made my skin crawl. I looked up and down the hallway, relying on my other senses because I couldn’t see in the dark, but it was difficult to tell where she was. She was very good at making it sound like she was everywhere at once. “What’s wrong, Celia?” I asked, using her name for the first time. “Too scared to come out and face me? Is that why you’re hiding?” She laughed again, and this time it was laced with malice. I knew she wasn’t scared. There was arrogance in the air, and a lot of confidence. If there was any fear, it was mine. I needed her to come out and show herself because as much as I hated to admit it, I couldn’t find her. I knew she wasn’t inside the apartment, so I stepped back toward the lobby. As I got closer, Celia laughed again, and this time it came from one place: the dark area where the counter was. I took another step, and then I saw a dark shape, crouching on the counter. Her eyes were glowing green, which gave her away. I reached behind my back to pull my gun, but she launched herself toward me and she was quicker than I was. She managed to knock me to the floor even though I attempted to duck. I hit the floor, and for a moment I couldn’t breathe. “You shouldn’t challenge me if you’re not ready to face me,” Celia said, her voice sweet and sultry. “Oh, I’m ready,” I said, pushing myself up. I was more than fed up with this woman. I’d taken out the S&W and held it tight, my fingers curling around the butt like it was a lifeline. She was quick, but if I could get this one shot fired, she wouldn’t live to laugh about it. I took aim at the dark shadow with the gleaming eyes and pulled the trigger. The shot rang out, and the plaster splintered. A big hole in the wall showed me where the bullet had hit. And she laughed again. Dammit. Then, out of nowhere, she kicked me on the jaw and I saw stars. The gun fell and bounced away, and I heard a dull thud in the darkness as the world tilted. A second later my head hit the floor. I lay there stunned, trying to get my bearings. The carpet was rough and gritty under my cheek. When I tried to get up, my head spun and I felt sick. That was definitely a concussion. She waited for me to pull myself together and get back up before she struck again. I was ready for her this time, and I got in a blow. I imagined I’d given her a bloody nose, at least, but I wasn’t sure. I unsheathed the knife at my thigh and held the blade away from me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a shadow move, and I slashed without thinking. I cut something. She screamed an unearthly howl and my blade had blood on it. Where I’d gotten her, I didn’t know. “You have to stop doing that,” she sneered. I knew she was hurting. I could hear it in her voice. There were very few supernatural creatures that could withstand silver – and she wasn’t one of them. I reached behind my back for my SIG. I wanted to kill the bitch. Her next attack was slower, which told me I’d cut her somewhere that mattered, but again she was faster than I was and she knocked the SIG out of my hand too. She was still putting up a damn good fight, and she came in with her claws, ready to scratch my eyes out. I was just as eager to get to hers, so I punched her in the face. She managed to scratch me down the throat, but I already had a scar there and it wasn’t going to slow me down. I managed to elbow her in the gut, and she doubled over, gasping for breath. I jammed my knee up to hit her in the face, but she’d already recovered and straightened out. She slammed into me and I lost my grip on the knife. It clattered away in the dark. I still had the Glock on me, but she wasn’t giving me time to draw it. She thrust out her arm faster than I’d seen her move before, grabbed my hair, and yanked it. Pain shot through my head as I bent over backwards, trying to escape her grip. I fell to the floor, but she didn’t let up. She kicked me while I was down: in the ribs, in the stomach, two kicks to the head. I couldn’t think about moving anymore. I curled into a ball and let her kicks rain on me. There was nothing else to do but hope I survived. After what felt like forever, she finally stopped. I lay there, curled in a ball, for a long time. I guessed she was gone, but I didn’t know for sure. Every bone in my body ached, and I knew from experience that I would have a whole collection of bruises. I was sure I was bleeding somewhere, too. I could feel the blood draining out of me, taking my energy, my strength, along with it. I heard footsteps. I didn’t have the energy to face anything more, so I closed my eyes and let the darkness surround me. If it called me home, I would go. I woke up in a blue room. The covers over me were heavy, and when I moved to get them off me, the pain made me groan. Everything hurt. It felt like I’d been dragged for miles. I couldn’t open my right eye all the way. I figured it would be bruised too. I did a quick inventory. Nothing broken. I could deal with the rest of it. “You’re up,” someone said from the doorway, and when I looked I saw Carlos standing there, leaning against the doorframe with his arms crossed over his chest. “What time is it?” I asked. Carlos frowned, but he looked at his watch. “Eight,” he said. “Tuesday?” I asked. My worst fear was losing days. I couldn’t afford that. But Carlos nodded. “You took quite a beating,” he said. “She was here,” I answered, and swallowed. Talking hurt. “I tried to tell you not to come. The masters were checking me out.” “Am I going to get you in trouble?” “I think it’ll be okay. I’m pretty sure they think you’re dead. I thought you were dead when I found you.” I pushed myself up and groaned. “You really shouldn’t be up,” he said. “You can stay at least until you can move.” “I can move,” I said, but it took everything I had to get myself out of the bed. “I have a training session at nine.” “I don’t think that’s wise,” he said. “And yet, you’re working for vampires and I’m killing people.” He shut up because it was true. “I owe you money,” I said. Carlos shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. You got assaulted in my building. I think we can wait with that.” I nodded... and regretted it. My head thumped painfully. I tried to stretch myself out. Everything ached. My ribs were badly bruised – I could feel it when I moved – and there was something wrong with my wrist. I couldn’t move my hand without it hurting. “Maybe I’ll take it slow on the hand-to-hand combat today,” I said to Carlos. He just shook his head. It took me a full hour to make my way to the Academy, where Sensei was waiting for me. When he saw me, he raised his eyebrows. Then he put his hands on my shoulders, looking at me with a lot of worry on his face. I was pretty sure I looked like hell. I could feel it. “Want to tell me what’s going on?” he asked. I lowered myself to the floor, slipping out from underneath his hands, and managed to lie down with Sensei standing over me like a towering sentry. I winced, moving around until I could lie flat on my back. Nothing hurt if I didn’t move. “Not really,” I answered. “Let me rephrase. Tell me what’s going on.” He sat down next to me, watching, and he clearly wouldn’t take silence as an answer. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. And then I told him – about my job, about Jennifer and her strange request, and my ridiculous act of kindness where I had saved the vampire I should just have killed. I told him about Ruben, the man who had been so arrogant I couldn’t stand him, but now that he was gone, I missed him. Aspen and Joel were lost to me; I was sure of that, and I might have dragged more people into this situation by going to Carlos and promising Carl he could have a hand in what was going on. Sonya was involved too, of course. When I finished, there was a moment of silence. Sensei was just looking at me, and I wondered if he hated me now. “You’ve been training to fight supernatural creatures all this time?” he asked. I nodded as well as I could manage, which wasn’t very well at all. “Why didn’t you tell me?” “Would you have believed me?” “I would have trained you differently,” he said after a moment. “I don’t think you should train today, though.” I chuckled, and a sharp pain shot through my chest. I groaned. “I didn’t really come here to train.” “Then why did you come?” I sighed, a lump rising in my throat. “You’re all I have left.” My voice was thick and my throat felt tight, like I was having an allergic reaction. Yeah, I was allergic. To grief. “Aspen and Joel might be dead by now. I’ve lost Ruben and Zelda, and I won’t be surprised if Sonya and Carlos turn up dead too. I just can’t...” I took a deep breath and blew it out again. “I can’t save everyone. I can’t save anyone.” I blinked furiously, trying to get the tears that were stinging my eyes to go away. “Can I ask you a question?” Sensei’s voice was soft and calm. “What?” I asked. “Why do you do it?” “Kill vampires?” He nodded. “Because I have to make sure my sister is safe. My father... I can’t let it happen again.” “You need help,” Sensei said. “Yeah, thanks for that,” I snapped. Then I took a deep breath and forced myself to calm down. It was hard to be angry and aggressive with so many injuries. “You’re probably right, though.” He chuckled. “I didn’t mean professionally, although I don’t think you’ve been handling it quite the way you should have. I meant that you need people who back you up so you can end this.” “What do you mean?” “I mean, you have friends who are willing to help you. So, let them.” I pushed myself up and wiped my good eye with the back of my hand. “I can’t let more people sacrifice their lives for me. I’ve lost too many already.” “Have you asked them?” he asked. “Maybe they want to do this for you.” I shook my head, and Sensei got up and stood in front of me. He looked tall, from where I was sitting on the floor. “I know I would,” he said, and smiled. “Why?” I asked. “Some things are worth fighting for.” This was the second time in two days that someone had mentioned my worth. It was a difficult pill to swallow. Since the night my mother died, I’d figured I was worthless. It’s easy to flirt with death when you feel like you’re disposable. “Come on,” Sensei said, and held out his hand to help me up. “Where are we going?” “You need real medication.” Chapter 18 After I got some painkillers into my system, I started to feel like I wasn’t on the brink of death anymore. My right eye was still swollen almost shut and the lopsided vision annoyed me, but my head wasn’t throbbing as much and the pool of despair I’d been set on drowning myself in had somehow been drained. It still hurt to move. Something horrible ached in my ribs, almost like they were broken, but I knew from experience that the truth was much worse. When Sensei was done with me, he offered me coffee. I hadn’t had something as simple as coffee in a while, and when he handed me the cup the warmth traveled into my hands and up my arms. It was nice. When had I last focused on something that was just nice? “What do I do now?” I asked. I wanted to go get Aspen. I could tell she was still alive. That half of me didn’t feel like it had died yet, and if I focused very hard I could still find her pulse, although my headache made it harder. Now that my spell of self-pity was over and I felt like I could carry on again, a terrible anger bubbled up inside of me – the kind of anger that could roll over into rage if I wasn’t careful. The kind of anger that had me attack my father after he had hurt my sister. “Now you decide if it really was worth it, being a one-woman show all this time,” Sensei said. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Asking for help wasn’t my strong suit. In fact, it made me feel weak to rely on someone else. Besides that, I wasn’t good at trusting anyone else, so this was really a tough one. “Everyone who’s gotten involved so far has gotten killed, and that was without me asking them.” Stubbornly, I could still place some of the blame on them for getting involved, because it was what they had wanted. Ruben had taken on a job that was too much for him. My fault because I’d messed around. His fault because he’d been stupid. Joel had known what hacking could do; he’d gotten the warnings. My fault because he would do anything for me without asking. His fault because he knew what his line of work could bring down on his head. Zelda’s death, on the other hand, had been all my fault. She’d protected Aspen when I couldn’t. What was happening to Aspen was my fault because I’d taken a job I was arrogant enough to think was easy. I was starting to realize that the arrogance and pride I’d been building for a while were ridiculous. I’d been playing in a kiddie pool when there was a whole ocean out there. And I’d crowned myself queen of the world, thinking I was winning. The truth was, I hadn’t been winning at all. I’d been losing – and the only person I’d fooled was myself. Ruben had been using me as an assassin for lower-class problems that no one tried to sort out any differently. I was a murderer, hiding in the dark, nothing more. I was starting to realize I couldn’t beat Celia, not because she was that good, but because I’d never really been good enough. Now I wanted to take on master vampires because of the mess I’d created in my ignorance. And I had no idea how all of us who were left would make it out of this alive. “What if we all die?” I asked. Sensei shrugged. “None of us will be around to remember it, in that case.” I chuckled without much emotion. He knew how to hand me the truth. Then I took another deep breath. “Sensei, will you help me?” He looked at me and smiled. “Sure,” he said, like I’d asked if I could borrow a book. “You may die,” I pointed out, suddenly feeling like I’d made a mistake. He looked way too happy to be involved in this. Maybe he didn’t understand. He shrugged again. “Maybe this isn’t a good idea,” I said. He was a great guy, a good teacher, and the only ray of hope in this horrible mess. I didn’t want to be the reason for his death. “I’ll help,” he said. “You asked. It’s all I’ve been waiting for.” I sighed, and he rubbed his hands together like he was eager to get going. “Call me Phil,” he said. “Phil...” I said, trying it on for size. It seemed strange to call him by his first name. It made us seem... equal. “Right. Now. Who else can you call?” I thought for a moment, then pulled out my phone. Carl answered on the second ring. “Can you meet me?” I asked. I gave him the address and he promised he would be here shortly. I wondered if the man ever slept. I never seemed to catch him during his downtime. He arrived at the Martial Arts Academy in less than twenty minutes. When he walked in, he and Sensei – Phil, I should say – sized each other up like boxers in a ring. “Carl,” he said tightly. “Phil.” The atmosphere was tense as they looked each other over. But then it eased, and they shook hands. Whatever had been happening had been smoothed over between them without any words. Somehow, they had decided they liked each other. “So, what’s up?” Carl asked me. “You said you wanted in on the action.” He nodded. “My sister and my IT guy have been taken by master vampires who are a hell of a lot stronger than the ones we’ve been pretending to be boss over. They also have a deadly cat woman as a pet, and she won’t stand down. I want to go get them.” “Do you know where they are?” he asked. “No idea.” He nodded, looking thoughtful. “Do you know how to defeat master vampires and this... cat lady?” I shook my head. Carl looked like he was still thinking, and to be honest I expected him to say no. I wanted him to say no. I wanted him to go home where he could be the asshole I didn’t like, because I preferred asshole Carl to dead Carl. But he shrugged in much the same way Phil had responded, like it was no big deal. “Sure,” he said. These two men in front of me were willing to sacrifice their lives to help me. And here I’d been thinking I was crazy. “So, what’s the plan?” Carl asked. I hesitated. I hadn’t really thought that far ahead. He barked a laugh. “Two humans and a half-breed? I don’t know. You’re good, Adele, but I think we need something else.” He was right. As offensive as he was, he was telling the truth. If we wanted anything good to happen, we needed something else on our side. Someone else. “I have to go,” I said. “I’ll meet you guys back here in an hour.” “Are you going to get someone?” Carl asked. “I don’t know. I’m... gonna try.” Then I turned to leave, but not before I noticed the look Phil and Carl were giving each other. It wasn’t very friendly, but I didn’t have the time or the energy to worry about them. A minute later, I got on my bike and pulled out. Just maneuvering a machine that was technically too big for me took more effort than I would have liked. How was I going to fight if I had this many injuries? Hopefully my vampire blood would work its magic and heal me up quickly. I was daylight, and I didn’t expect I’d have much success. But I had to try, one last time. There was only one person who knew the masters well enough to help me. Jennifer knew them, but she was just a human, and it took a vampire to know a vampire. The house was quiet and shuttered when I pulled into the driveway. I’d left the engine on so he’d know I was coming, but maybe he wasn’t even at home. I was feeling too frail to hope for anything more than walking out again with my dignity intact. I walked up to the front door. Or rather, I limped up to the front door. My legs were fine, but I kept feeling like I wanted to double over, like that would ease the pain the bruising had caused. I paused before I rang the bell. I tried to take a deep breath, but the expansion of my chest hurt ten times more than when I’d simply been walking. I rang the bell and swallowed hard. I never even blinked when I was staking a vampire. I was a boss with my gun and my leathers. But the idea of ringing a doorbell and talking to a man sent me into a cold sweat. Maybe Joel had been right. I was built backwards. “You’re going to have to open it yourself and let yourself in,” said a muffled voice from the other side. “The sunlight is a problem for me.” Of course. It was heading on towards late afternoon. I was getting sloppy, forgetting even simple facts. I had to pull my act together. “Can I come in?” I called, certain that when he heard that it was me he would say no. Well, then, I’d bang open the door and demand that he see me. Yeah, right. Me and what army? When he said “Yes,” it threw me off guard, almost to the point that I didn’t know what to do next. I’d expected a struggle, and apparently there wasn’t going to be one. I opened the door. Inside, the house was dark and warm, almost humid. I wondered if he’d had the heater on. Then I wondered why. I closed the door behind me, and the only bit of light that had bled into the blackness disappeared. I stood still for a couple of counts, just getting used to the darkness. “What do you want?” Connor’s voice flowed around me, deep and caressing, like when I’d heard it the first time. It was a melody that I wanted never to stop listening to. My eyes were getting used to the dark, but I still couldn’t see him. But I could smell him. It was the same scent I’d smelled in the alley that morning, when I’d dragged him out of the pending dawn. The smell that had surrounded me the first time I’d come here to take him out. The smell that had made me surrender myself to him when I had nothing left but the raw side of me. “I asked why you’re here,” he said again, because I hadn’t answered him. “I need your help,” I said. “And why should I help you?” he asked. His voice was harsh, and I flinched. “There’s no reason why you should,” I admitted. “I don’t understand you,” he said. “One minute you’re kissing me, and the next you’re trying to kill me, and you didn’t seem very sorry about it.” “I was,” I said quickly. “About the killing, I mean. I regret it.” I regretted the kissing, too, but not for the same reason. I regretted shooting him because I’d been pushed into something I hadn’t wanted to do at that point. I’d been scared. Scratch that – I’d been terrified. I’d learned that love could kill. I regretted kissing him because I’d let myself get emotionally involved with a mark. I’d been weak. I’d dared to love someone again, and I was scared that with that weakness, I’d never be able to save Aspen. “I don’t think I want to play this game anymore,” Connor said, and his voice was cold enough to drain all the warmth from the room. “Please...” I started, but I didn’t know what to say. Besides, I was begging. And I hated begging. “Dammit, Adele—” Connor started, then he flipped a light switch. Light flooded the room and I winced. It hurt my eyes, my concussed head. But Connor didn’t wince or cover his eyes like he had before. He simply stared at my face, and all hostility drained out of his eyes. “Oh my god,” he whispered, letting his gaze roam over my bruises and the way I was trying to hold myself up. “Who did this to you?” “Please help me get Aspen back,” I asked again. “I can’t do this alone. You know them well enough to tell me what to expect.” Connor took a step closer to me, and I felt my knees wobble. I didn’t have the strength to stay upright for long if he was going to come closer to me. He already had me weak in the knees. I couldn’t handle his pity on top of everything else. He kept moving until he was right in front of me. I straightened up and took a deep breath, trying to ignore my ribs. Connor lifted his hand to my face like he was going to touch my eye, but he didn’t. “I’m sorry,” he said. I shook my head and wished I hadn’t. “I’m the one who should be sorry,” I said. Connor put his hands on my shoulders, lightly and tentatively, like I might break. Gently he pulled me closer to him, and for the first time I let him do it without a fight. There were no guns involved, no knives, no battle of wills. It was just Connor, the man I loved, and me, leaning against him. “I’ll help you,” he said finally, and my body sagged with relief. He held on to me, his arms wrapping around me, and I let him hold me up for a second before I took my own weight again. “We just need information,” I said as I pulled away from him and looked into his eyes. They were deep blue, like the ocean, and I wanted to drown in them. But there was no time. “Can we meet here?” “Who’s ‘we’?” “My martial arts instructor and a colleague. We’re going to get my sister back, but I don’t know where to start.” “You’re taking on the masters with two humans?” he asked, looking at me like I was crazy. I shrugged. I felt like cursing, because I kept forgetting I couldn’t do the body language I usually used. Every inch of me damn well hurt. “I don’t really think you should go in there alone,” Connor said, and I didn’t appreciate how know-it-all he sounded. But then his face softened. “Not if they did this to you. They’ll eat you alive.” He didn’t mean it figuratively. I shivered. “You can’t come, though,” I told him. “They want you dead. What better time to kill you?” Connor chuckled. “Don’t tell me you’re trying to look out for me now. You’re a walking conflict.” “I don’t have anyone else to ask. My people are all missing. Or dead.” The last words were so heavy, I felt like I might crumble under their weight. Connor must have seen something in my expression, because his eyes changed, got lighter and deeper. They were ringed with a dark green, although I could swear they had been midnight blue a moment ago. “I don’t want you to go alone,” he said. “Get them to come here, and we’ll talk. And tonight after dark, we’ll head out.” “I won’t let you come with us,” I said. “And I won’t let you go without me.” I was too tired to argue. If we all died – well, then we were all dead. There was nothing more I could say about that. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and dialed Carl’s number. I gave him the address, and he promised to be there in half an hour. He would bring Sensei. Phil. I was going to have to get used to calling him that. I let them in when they arrived while Connor hid somewhere so the sunlight spilling in couldn’t fry him. When the door was shut and everything was drenched in artificial light, he came out. Carl looked like he was irritated. I wasn’t the only one who had had issues with being on friendly terms with vampires. But if I could come around, he could too. “Behave,” I said. “He’s one of us.” “Don’t you mean you’re one of them?” he asked, and even though his mouth was smiling at me like he’d intended for that to be a joke, his eyes didn’t laugh along. He’d been serious. And I supposed he was right. Phil looked at Connor with wide eyes. When Connor spoke and Phil caught a glimpse of his fangs, he turned a shade paler. It was one thing to know every trick in the book about fighting when it came down to humans, I figured. Getting to know the night world, even if you were just skirting the edges of it like Phil was doing now, was a whole other ball game. I wondered if he was revising his fighting technique in his mind. Connor seemed calm, even though we could both smell Phil’s nervousness. “He doesn’t bite,” I said, and Carl snickered at my poor choice of words. “Well,” I added. “He won’t bite you, anyway.” Connor smiled and Carl chuckled, but Phil didn’t look like he thought it was funny. I guessed that until now, he’d really just been thinking this was all a fairy tale. Vampires were damn scary when you came down to it. I was just used to them. “Okay, so, what’s the plan?” Carl asked. Chapter 19 When darkness fell, we were almost ready to head out. I’d gone home and suited up in my leathers and my guns. I still felt like hell, but I would ignore it. If we got through this, I would have the rest of my life to get through. If Connor died, I wouldn’t feel my aches and pains anyway. We had a plan. We had people to execute it. Most of all we had the drive to succeed. We had to succeed. I had to succeed. We weren’t really much of an army, no matter how much I was trying to convince myself that we were going to beat the odds. Two humans, one of whom had only really become aware – truly aware – of the supernatural world tonight. Phil knew how to fight, but what would he do when he came face to face with a vampire? Carl was used to it all, but he was a human. He didn’t have superhuman strength or blurring speed or premonitions or the ability to smell blood. Connor was the opposite. He had all that, but none of the skills that a vampire slayer needed. On top of that, the relationship between us was like cracked glass. Any moment I was sure it would shatter. So much had happened between us, and we were building our survival on a broken foundation. I was in between. The best of both worlds, everyone else had agreed, but I didn’t feel that way about it. I was the worst of both worlds. A half-breed who rejected the vampire in me and had never really completely made the human side of me work. Two worlds I had never really felt like I fit into. Yep, we were one hell of a team. Once the darkness of night was complete, we headed out. Connor was alert and awake, a vampire at his best. Carl and I were wired. Phil was cautious. We got into Phil’s car and drove towards town. I had left my bike at Connor’s house, and it was strange not using it. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been in a car. We headed to the Palace, because it was the most likely place the vamps would be. Connor knew that they were still active at night. I wondered how long he’d known that, and why he’d never mentioned it to anyone – like the police, for instance. When I asked him about it, he shrugged. “It’s not always easy to stop the things you know are wrong. I’ve been trying.” “But the police could have helped,” I said. “Helped lock me up,” was his retort, and I dropped the subject. The building was dark and quiet, a giant in the night. “How are we going to get in?” I asked. “Jennifer said I just had to mention her name to the doorman, but with Connor here...” I didn’t want to be rude and point out that he was a wanted man, but that was how it was. “Through the front door,” Connor said matter-of-factly, ignoring what I was pointing out. “We can’t just walk in,” I said. “What about the security cameras?” Carl asked, his hands in his pockets. He looked like we were going on a field trip, not to a fight to the death. “I called in a favor,” Connor said, and nodded in a direction past the building. When I looked that way, I saw a shadow move. My chest constricted, but then Carlos stepped into the dim light that reached us from the street. “You two know each other?” I asked. “We’ve done business before, from time to time,” Connor said, looking at Carlos, who shrugged. I should have guessed that that would be the case. If the masters used Carlos, and the masters used to work with Connor... The world seemed too small. There were too many things going on in the dark. “It’s all taken care of,” Carlos said to Connor. “But I don’t know how much time you’ll have before they notice it.” Phil shivered, and I knew it wasn’t because he was cold. “Well, come on,” Connor said, and he led the way. Somehow he’d taken control, although I knew if I said something, he would have followed me. It was nice to have someone else take charge for a change – but it was also strange to be in a group where I didn’t have to just watch my own back and that was it. There were more people around me now, people who seemed to care. They had my back. And I had theirs. So help me, if anything happened to them... I shook my head. I had to focus on the positive. We didn’t take the elevator. Instead, we took the stairs. Eighty floors, all the way to the top. The master vamps weren’t going to wait for us on the first floor, or even the tenth. “We could have taken the elevator at least up to floor fifty,” Carl heaved. I wondered why he wasn’t fit enough for this. Didn’t he train? He was the one who had enforced Ruben’s advice from the start, that I had to make sure to follow a strict training regime and never get out of shape. He must have known what I was thinking, because when I looked at him, he just shrugged. “Carlos cut the power,” Connor said. “The cameras have backup systems so this couldn’t happen. No elevators. If the masters are here, they don’t need lights anyway, so with a little luck they won’t know we’ve cut everything.” Most of what he said slid by me, but I focused on the word ‘if’. What if they weren’t here? What if it was all wrong? What if Connor was leading me into a trap? I shook the last question off. I couldn’t think like that. The only way we’d be able to do this now was if we trusted each other. Without that, we would fail. If I was right, well, then we’d all die. It was pretty simple. It took us a long time to get to the top, and when we finally got there, even I was huffing and puffing, gasping for air. It didn’t matter how fit you were; eighty floors was no joke. After I’d caught my breath, I realized that my exhaustion outweighed the pain. My head hurt, but I could handle it, and my ribs felt a bit better. I touched my eye gingerly, and felt I could open it more. Vampire healing at its best. Connor walked ahead because he could see better than the rest of us, and he knew his offices. Carl followed, Phil after him, and I brought up the rear. The floor was all dark, shiny tiles that reflected what little moonlight was coming in through the windows. We moved through double doors into a lobby with secretaries’ desks. They were unoccupied, of course. Connor kept moving, turning his head, listening. I strained my ears, but I couldn’t hear anything. Then I breathed in deep. Someone was here. I could tell, could feel the lifeblood pumping through their veins. But I didn’t know who it was. Connor held up his hand and we all froze. Phil looked like he was going to attack the first shadow that moved. Connor stepped forward and opened the double doors in front of him. I was nervous. If the master vamps were in there, he would die. I hadn’t wanted him to come. I hadn’t wanted him to lead the team. I hadn’t wanted any of this. But I hadn’t had a choice. Connor poked his head in and looked around. I expected all hell to break loose, but nothing happened. A moment later Connor waved us on, and he stepped into the room. When I entered, I realized this was what must have been Connor’s office. The walls were covered with framed pictures of Connor as a human; Jennifer was in some of them. Other frames held diplomas, degrees, and awards he’d been given. His desk was heavy and dark, with an expensive computer on one side and papers scattered across the top. Connor walked to the desk and slid his hand along the edge. He missed working there. I could tell. I took a deep breath and picked up a faint smell, something that smelled like it had been burning at some point. With it I smelled anger and fear. And hopelessness. “Someone’s here,” I said. Connor nodded. “You’re right.” We walked around, following our noses, while the two humans looked on. Phil looked nervous. Carl looked bored. “In here,” Connor said when he got to a door that I thought might lead to a closet. I watched him nervously, my heartbeat pounding in my throat. Whoever was behind that door could either be an answer or an ending. I took a deep breath, and Connor pushed open the door. Joel lay on the floor, tied up and gagged. “Joel,” I breathed, and knelt beside him. His eyes were closed and his pulse was faint, but it was there. The burning smell was strong now. His clothes were singed. His face was bruised, but the bruises weren’t new. When I lifted him up and held his head I felt dry blood caked in his hair. That could have been the source of the blood in the pit. “Joel,” I said again, wishing he would answer me. “It’s all right, Adele,” Connor said. “He’s going to be fine.” I believed him. I had to; I had to hold on to something. Joel was alive. I’d expected the worst for so long that I felt like I was going to fall over. “Your techie?” Carl asked. He and Phil were standing right behind me. I nodded, but Connor snapped at them. “Watch the office, dammit,” he said. “If anyone catches us now, we’re dead.” Phil whipped around and scanned the room, but Carl scowled. Connor lifted Joel and he moaned, eyes fluttering open. “Hey,” I said, running my hand down Joel’s cheek. His eyes looked like they weren’t registering anything, like he was staring into a void, but then his gaze slid to me. “Adele?” he asked in a hoarse voice. “You’re going to be fine,” I said. My voice was thick with emotion. I scolded myself, commanding myself not to cry. “We’re going to get you to a hospital.” Connor managed to get Joel out of the closet and laid him down on the floor. “Can we get him to a hospital?” I asked him. “We have to,” he agreed. “And then where are we headed?” I stood up and looked around the office, feeling forlorn. There was no one else here. Joel had been here alone. It made me feel like I’d failed. Again. “She’s not here,” I said, feeling a void open in my chest as I said it. Where was I supposed to look for my sister now? “We’ll just have to move on, then,” Connor said. “Where?” We all fell quiet. None of us knew the answer to that. “I don’t know,” Connor said softly. A little while later, I found myself in a circle in front of the hospital. The bright lights streaming from the emergency room lit up the pavement around me as bright as daylight. It made my black leather clothes look blacker. Connor looked ghostly white in the light, like a marble statue. I closed my eyes and reached out for my sister. It took me a while to calm myself enough. When my heart rate had slowed down and I could almost track the molecules in my body because I was concentrating that hard, I picked up the faint hum in my veins that didn’t come from my blood, but Aspen’s. It was fading. I opened my eyes. “I can’t find her,” I moaned. “What do you mean?” Carl asked. Connor understood. He looked at me, his eyes asking me questions he didn’t speak aloud. “They keep shutting me out. I can’t find her,” I said. “I know she’s alive, but I don’t know where she is. It’s like she’s behind some kind of thick metal wall.” “She might very well be,” Connor said. Phil and Carl both looked like they didn’t know what I was talking about, like they knew they were missing something. “What do you mean?” I asked. “If they have her, they’d want to stop her from being able to dematerialize.” “She can’t do that,” I said. “She only has half the genes, like me. Or wouldn’t they know that? She looks more vampire than I do.” Connor shook his head. “I doubt they don’t know. But they might keep her where they’ve kept other vampires before. Vampires who can dematerialize.” What he was saying took a few seconds to sink in. They might be keeping her in the same place where they’d kept the other vampires. The one they’d sold. My hands flew up to my mouth almost involuntarily. “How are we going to find her?” I groaned. I was getting frantic. After all this, what if we never found her? What if she died before I got to her? What if...? “Don’t do this,” Connor said, pulling my hands away from my face. When my fingers came away from my face, they were trembling. “Don’t do it,” he said again. His voice was soft, gentle. “They’re doing this because they’re vampires. Because they can. You can do it, too. Just find her. Focus, and find her.” “But I’m only half, Connor. I’m not—” “You can do it,” he said. “You can. I believe in you.” Chapter 20 I glanced at Phil, who shrugged. Carl looked bored. Somewhere along the line, we’d lost both of them – they didn’t understand what was going on. I took a deep breath. Connor was right. This was all I had left, and I hated it. “Are we going to get a move on?” Carl asked, sounding a lot less bored than he looked. “We just need to find her,” Connor said in a calm voice, not taking his eyes off me. “How?” Phil asked. Connor just shook his head, his eyes glued to mine. Carl finally seemed to understand. For someone who’d been hunting vampires for so long, it had taken him a long time to catch up. “I think Adele can trace her sister’s blood,” he explained. “Like a tracker?” “Something like that.” Phil looked horrified. Maybe he’d put two and two together after all. I ignored him; ignored both of them. Phil had wanted to come along. He’d agreed. But this was the night world. This was what I was, somewhere deep down inside. If he didn’t like it, no one was forcing him to stay. But he didn’t leave. I took a deep breath and blew it out with a shudder. I hadn’t done this, ever. I had rejected this side of me since the days I’d attended therapy. After I was placed with a foster family who were human. I closed my eyes and calmed myself again. I imagined this was what it was like to dematerialize. I focused on myself, my body. The beat of my heart, pumping blood through my veins. The movement of the platelets that carried oxygen. The rise and fall of my chest as I breathed in and out. Eventually I found Aspen’s pulse, dimly fluttering next to my own. It was weak because of how little blood I had in me that belonged to her. Not because she was fighting for her life; I realized that now. Maybe, if I were a vampire, I would have dematerialized. I felt like I was made of stone, the same way vampires looked when they had time to think about disappearing. And there it was again: that metal wall that slammed into place, blocking me from finding Aspen. I knew she was alive. I still felt the echo of her heartbeat in my veins. But I couldn’t find her. It was like a GPS searching for a signal. I willed it away with my mind, with everything I had inside me. I reached deep down, to the person I’d pushed away for so long I almost didn’t know who she was. The person who could feel farther and deeper than a human, or even a half-breed. The person that was stronger, and faster, and more elegant. A creature of the night. I dug deep down and found the vampire. I pushed back against the metal wall, forcing my whole will against it. It wouldn’t budge at first. But then, slowly, it started to move, almost like I was physically pushing it. I threw everything I had into it, and finally it gave way faster and faster, until I could feel my sister again. I could almost see her in my mind’s eye. Just a silhouette, but her wavy hair was moving in a breeze, and her fingers were curled around the arms of her wheelchair. I could feel her despair, her fear, her panic. It felt like I was peeling away from the world I knew. My head started pounding, and I felt dizzy. And suddenly, I knew where she was. When I opened my eyes, all three men were staring at me. Carl looked amused. Phil looked shocked. And Connor was looking at me with so much emotion in his eyes, I was scared he would choke on it. “Caldwell Street,” I said, and my voice sounded different. “The house on Caldwell Street. That’s where she is.” Something nicked my lip, and a sharp pain shot through it. “Ow,” I said, and when I licked my lip I tasted blood. I frowned, bringing a finger to my lip, and then to my teeth. I had vampire teeth. Fangs. When I pulled my finger away, it was red with blood, and the blood tasted metallic in my mouth. “Well,” Connor said, and that word spoke volumes. “Well,” I answered, because I’d finally found myself. I’d finally come home. Connor frowned, the words I’d spoken finally dawning on him. “Caldwell Street?” he asked. “But I got rid of that property.” “You owned it?” Carl asked. “I lived there until the change. I sold it so that I could disappear.” “Who did you sell it to?” I asked. “I don’t know.” “I do,” I said. We drove up the hill in silence. There wasn’t a lot to be said. We were heading to the vampires’ lair, the center of everything. This new truth, this new person, the one I really was, was all a bit new for me, and I felt foreign in my own skin. “What will we do when we get there?” Phil asked. That was a fair question. “I think you should stay in the car,” I told him. He wasn’t trained in any of the vampire-killing arts, and even Carl and I, who’d been doing this for a long time, were outmatched. These vampires were a lot stronger. “I agree with Adele,” Connor said, but when I looked at Phil, he didn’t look like he was upset with the arrangement. He’d been noble, and in any other fight I’d want him at my back. But this time he was in over his head. It had been a mistake to bring him. The three of us climbed out of the car and walked the last couple of yards to the gate. We stopped in front of it. The rustic metal gate reached far above our heads. “How do we get in?” Carl asked. He was already pacing along the wall, trying to see if there was a way. “We can go in through the servants’ entrance,” Connor said. “I doubt they kept the codes the same for the main gate, but the servants have their own gate and their own code.” “And if that’s changed?” I asked. “Well, then, we’ll think of a plan B.” Connor turned and followed the wall that reached far up above us. Carl and I followed. Connor made it to the end of the wall where I thought the neighboring property began, but I realized that the wall dipped in and a narrow passage led between the two properties. I felt claustrophobic with tall walls on both sides and very little space to move other than forward or back. Connor was in front of me, Carl behind me, and somehow that didn’t make me feel much better. The whole place had a foreboding feeling to it, like something was waiting to go wrong at any second. Connor finally reached a door made of the same rustic metal as the main gate. It was arched and narrow, like the rest of the passage. Connor took out a key and turned it. He might have been able to materialize inside, but neither Carl nor I could. “What if they have cameras?” Carl asked. “Then they’ll see us,” Connor answered. “We’re going to have to face them sooner or later.” Carl nodded, but he looked like he’d rather turn back and wait for Phil. He swallowed hard, and Connor pushed open the door. It was like magic. We followed him through into the garden, then he closed the door behind us. I didn’t want it closed, but keeping it open would show whoever found it that something was wrong. The garden was huge, with big trees scattered across a perfectly manicured lawn. The moon cast a silver light on everything, making it all look like it belonged in a fairy tale. We followed the shadows, sticking to them as much as we could. A long, winding driveway ran through the garden, paved with cobbles that had an Italian feel to them, and a big fountain formed the center of a circle at the front door where cars could drive around to head back to the gate. Garages were lined up on the other side of the property. Connor beckoned us in the opposite direction. We crept silently up the stairs that led to the balcony on the first floor, and it was only by some miracle that we hadn’t been seen yet. Either they were waiting for us because they knew we were coming, or we were managing to slip through. I hoped it was the latter. The house was incredible. Under any other circumstances I would have admired it, envied it. Wanted it. I wasn’t one for living in the lap of luxury, but this wasn’t just money. It was art. I was impressed with Connor’s taste. He led us through a maze of passages and rooms until we finally reached a room where he stopped. “There’s metal in these walls,” he said in a whisper. I tried to access the new part of me that I’d only found a short time ago, and after struggling for a few seconds I could feel it too. It felt the same way it had felt when my mind was foggy and I couldn’t quite remember what I wanted to say. If the vampires were anywhere, it would be in there. Suddenly a scream echoed through the house, so loud it vibrated in my bones long after it had stopped. “What was that?” Carl asked with a frown. “Celia,” I answered. This was it. I turned, and she appeared as if out of nowhere in front of me. “Adele,” Connor started, but I waved him off. “Let me deal with this. Keep Carl safe. She’s mine.” The words were barely out of my mouth when she attacked with a hiss. I hissed too, and launched myself at her. When we collided, it was like an explosion. She had her claws out and scratched at me. I was faster now, stronger. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t made an effort to accept myself earlier. She noticed the change, and her movements became careful. I managed to out-maneuver her, and I sank my teeth into her arm. She screamed, and a shudder rippled through her body. When I let go, her arm bled onto the floor. I could smell her blood: warm and sweet, different, supernatural. That scent of flowers hung in the air. “You’ve acquired some skills,” she said, clutching her bleeding arm against her body. “Never show your enemy everything you can do right away,” I said. Of course that wasn’t true. If I’d been able to do this before, I would have taken her out the first time. But it sounded great when I said it, and the scowl on her face was a terrific reward. She jumped at me again. I ducked, but she upped her game too, now that she knew what I was capable of, and her nails scraped down my cheek and neck. I hissed at her and felt my skin. It was ripped and sticky with blood. I curled my lips back in a snarl, but the feeling in my neck and my face stopped me in my tracks. I was healing fast. I could feel the wound closing up. Celia couldn’t do that. I grinned smugly. She knew it too: this was it. This was the fight. She wasn’t going to toy with me like a cat with a mouse anymore. If she didn’t give it everything she had, she wouldn’t make it. I wasn’t planning to let that to happen anyway. I jumped at her first. She’d been stunned, watching the wound on my face heal in front of her, and I caught her off guard. I grabbed a handful of her hair and yanked. She moaned and rolled me over, getting in a hit that would have been a problem if I’d still had the concussion she’d left me with. But I was fine, and besides stunning me for just a second, the blow did nothing. I braced myself and threw everything I had into my attack, throwing her off me. I landed on top of her, pushing her elbows down with my knees. Her eyes were pools of black surrounded by green. I could feel her tentacles reaching into my mind, but I closed it and pushed her out. Her eyes widened. “Please don’t—” she started, but I cut her off. I pushed my silver stake in under her ribs and angled it upward. I pushed in deeper, finding her heart, and her pulse throbbed and then stopped. Her eyes were wide, her mouth frozen in a silent ‘o’ before her features went slack and she collapsed. “Remind me not to get on your bad side,” Carl said from behind me. When I got off Celia and turned, he was looking at me like I was a goddess and he hadn’t realized that before. “We had a history,” I said. “I can see that.” When I looked at Connor, he smiled. I didn’t think it was because of my lack of feeling when I had murdered Celia. I thought maybe it was because of who I’d become. I smiled, and I felt the points of my fangs touching my lips. It was a strange sensation, but not altogether unfamiliar. I wondered at which point I’d forgotten I’d always had them as a child. “We have to get in there,” Connor said, nodding towards the door. I took a deep breath. It didn’t matter how in touch I was with myself. These guys were still the master vampires who had killed Zelda and Ruben. Carl swallowed hard enough for me to hear him, and I knew he was thinking the same thing. “Together,” I said to him, and he understood. A part of this would be for Ruben after all. Connor tested the door, but it was locked. That was no surprise; I hadn’t thought it would be open. There was no way to get in – I could feel the metal all the way around. So Connor knocked on the door, as if we had an appointment. For a moment, nothing happened. Then the door clicked like a lock was being turned, and it opened. The leader had opened the door. “Well,” he said, looking at Connor and then at me. “We knew she’d eventually arrive, but we didn’t expect you.” “Vladimir,” Connor said as a greeting. If there was ever a scary vampire with a scary name, this was it. He smiled with teeth that still seemed horrible to me, even though I had a set of my own now, and his eyes flashed red. He didn’t look friendly at all. “Come, come in,” he said. “We have everything ready for you.” He stepped aside, and we walked into the room. I was last to go in, and as soon I was through the door I found a wall and put my back to it so I was facing the entire room. I had guns and knives on me, but somehow it didn’t feel like that was enough. These vampires weren’t here to play games. To my surprise, the room, other than the menacing vampires in it, was very normal. Rich, but normal. The floor was covered from wall to wall with a thick white carpet that my feet sank into. The walls were painted wine red, and the furniture was all black. Leather couches formed a cozy half-circle around an unlit fireplace, a lacquered desk stood in a corner covered with stacks of papers and files, and the back wall was covered with ceiling-height bookshelves holding leather-bound books. The other vampire – Number Two, I decided – was lounging on a leather sofa. I noticed there were two big windows across from me, covered with thick black curtains. The fabric looked like it was lined with lead, the same as the covers they put over people in x-ray machines. They could keep light out all by themselves. There were no other vampires in the room. I had thought maybe there would be hostages. But there was no one. Vladimir walked to the wall and pushed a button, and a bar rolled out. Fancy. “Can I offer you anything to drink?” he asked. We all shook our heads. He shrugged and picked up a wine glass, then took a sip. The wine was a dark red and thick. I frowned, and then the smell reached me. It wasn’t wine at all; it was blood. I gasped at the same time Connor did. Vladimir laughed. “Not so tough after all, the two of you,” he said in a voice that suddenly sounded deeper, harder. He pointed a long finger at Carl. “Only he seems to have the stomach for this. But he’s just a human. I doubt he knows what this is.” I felt suddenly nauseated. “Where’s Aspen?” I asked, hoping I sounded more confident than I felt. “I’m here for my sister.” “Yes, I thought so. Of course, killing him would have been fine. But I see you brought him here. Did you hope we would do it for you?” He was talking about Connor. Carl stepped in front of Connor, and Vlad and his Number Two laughed. “There’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity,” Vladimir said. He’d moved so fast I hadn’t even seen him move. Not even a blur. One moment he’d been by the bar, and the next he had Carl pinned against the wall, the blood in his glass still dancing from side to side. “Don’t!” I cried out. Vladimir gave me a terrible smile, one that promised bloodshed. “He’s done nothing to deserve dying,” I said. “And still, you brought him.” “I volunteered,” Carl said, but his throat was squeezed shut, so the words came out as a wheeze. “Are you going to beg for mercy, like your boss?” Vladimir asked Carl, squeezing tighter. Carl squirmed in his grip, kicking, groping at the fingers around his neck. His face went red. I pulled out a gun and aimed it at Vladimir’s head. The Smith & Wesson would take his head off. “I’ll shoot,” I said. “Let him go.” Vladimir’s expression turned from amused to menacing. “You threaten me? You’re an abomination, and you have the arrogance to stand there and point a gun at me? For that, you’ll—” Carl kicked him in the crotch. It didn’t matter who you were, vampire or not; a kick to the balls hurt like hell. He didn’t double over or gasp for breath or drop to the ground like a human – but he did drop Carl, and it bought me some time. Carl gasped for air and scrambled across the floor toward me. If he could get under my gun, I could cover him. Vladimir growled like an animal and grabbed Carl’s ankle, yanked him up and flung him across the room. I heard bones snap, and Carl cried out. He hit the far wall, and then he sank to the floor, unconscious. He was out of the way, badly hurt, but not dead. Not yet. Vladimir turned to me. “The girl!” he barked, and Number Two moved. Another door opened, and they wheeled Aspen out. She looked frail and vulnerable, drooped in her chair. Her arms were strapped to the chair so she couldn’t wheel herself around, and her head was bowed, her blonde hair a curtain that covered most of her face. When I gasped she looked up, and when she saw me, she stilled. “Adele?” she said in a small voice. But she looked okay, unharmed. “We’re going to get you out of here, angel,” I said, and she smiled and nodded. She believed me. “You can let us go now,” I said to the vampires. “We’ll be taking my sister and leaving.” The two vampires looked at each other, smiled, and then burst out laughing, like I’d made a joke. “Really, Adele,” Vladimir said. He looked into my eyes, and suddenly the world went black. When I opened my eyes again, hours had passed. I could feel it. I was lying on the floor, unable to move. Connor lay near the window with his eyes closed. Carl was bent at a bad angle, still unconscious. Aspen was sitting across from me, looking exhausted and worried. When she saw that I was awake, her expression changed to relief, but she didn’t make a sound. My smart sister. The vampires were talking in hushed tones, and I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Then Vladimir turned to me, suddenly aware that I was awake. “You’re not as strong as we thought you were, after killing Celia.” She couldn’t have been very important to them if they didn’t care that she was dead. “Didn’t you at least like her?” I asked. My mouth worked fine, even though I couldn’t move anything else. Vladimir shrugged. “She didn’t do her job well enough. Death is a fair payment for that. She lost.” I tried to move again, but I couldn’t. “What are you going to do?” I asked. “We’re going to wait for sunrise,” Vlad said, looking at his watch. “And then we’re going to leave, and those curtains are going to open. You’re going to watch Connor die in the first rays of dawn.” That was cruel. Inhumane. “You can’t do that,” I said. Vladimir walked over to me, knelt in front of me and grabbed my chin. It hurt. He tipped my head and looked at my fangs, frowning. He was probably trying to remember if they’d been there before. Then he yanked my head to the side, sending a bolt of pain down my neck. “Oh, but we can,” he said. “Master,” Number Two called. He’d sat down at a laptop, and he pointed to the screen. Vladimir walked toward the desk, looked at the screen, and swore. “Fix it,” he snapped. Number Two typed furiously, but he looked panicked. Maybe his punishment for failure would be death too. “Business deal gone wrong?” I asked innocently. Both vampires scowled, and I knew I’d hit a nerve. The time was ticking on, and I realized it was sunrise. They could still kill Connor, but they wouldn’t have the dramatic death they’d wanted. They were still fighting about whatever was happening on the screen. I managed to slide my gaze to Aspen. She sat quietly, looking at me, and I wondered what she was thinking. I knew she was scared; it was hanging in the air, coming off her skin, but the feeling was old, like it had been going on for too long for it to be full strength. Her arms were taped to the wheelchair, and with how frail she was I knew she couldn’t break free. If only someone could open those damn curtains. I fought against whatever spell was holding me down, but no matter how hard I struggled, I couldn’t move. I closed my eyes and focused, but even the vampire abilities I’d only come in contact with recently weren’t good enough. The fact was, these vampires were older and stronger than I was. I groaned. When I looked at Connor, his eyes were finally open, big and blue, full of resignation. He knew they were going to kill him. And he wasn’t scared. He was angry. All this, and this was how it ended? The door was flung open, and something shot past me. It was Phil. The vampires both hissed and moved toward him, but he’d caught them by surprise. Before they could stop him, he yanked the curtains away from the window, letting sunlight flood into the room. Vladimir froze halfway to Phil and screamed. Then he burst into ash, which fell to the floor in a cloud of dust. Number Two hissed and drew toward the far corner. He was sizzling and smoking, but it wasn’t direct light. With Vladimir dead, I could suddenly move again. I rolled over and drew my Smith & Wesson. I didn’t take the time to aim properly. I just fired. Number Two looked down at his chest. Blood oozed out of it from a hole as big as an eye. I’d hit his heart with silver. It didn’t matter how well he could normally heal; it was over for him. He looked at me blankly, and then he fell to the floor. My arm was numb from the recoil. I lowered my hand to the floor and lay there for a second. Then I pushed myself up. Connor, also able to move again, was curled against another wall, moaning and smoking as well. I jumped up and yanked the curtain closed, and Connor’s complaints stopped. Phil sat huddled in a ball at my feet. “They’re dead,” I said, tapping him on the shoulder. “Thank God,” he said, and stood up. “No, thank you,” I said, and gave him a hug. “If it weren’t for you, we’d be lost.” Then I turned to Aspen and cut the tape that bound her with my knife. Her eyes were squeezed shut. “It’s okay, Aspen,” I said, kneeling in front of her. “It’s over.” “I knew you’d come for me,” she whispered. “Of course.” She took a deep breath and looked at me like she was seeing me for the first time. “You look different.” I looked at my leathers and shrugged. “I didn’t really want you to see me like this.” But she shook her head. “I don’t mean your clothes and your guns. I mean you. Your teeth. And... well, just you.” I smiled, and she smiled back. “I’m going to have nightmares about this for weeks,” she said, nodding toward Number Two on the floor, lying in a pool of blood that colored the carpet a dark red. “I’m sorry,” I said, and I hugged her. When I got up, Phil was bent over Carl. “I think he needs help,” he said. He pulled out his phone and called 911. Connor walked over to me, looking like he had a bad sunburn. “You look like shit,” I said. He grinned. “You look amazing,” he said, and I felt myself blush. And then I realized that for the first time in a very long time, I felt amazing. Chapter 21 Everything was different after that. Aspen and I found a place where we could stay together for a while, until I could make arrangements for a new live-in nurse. She didn’t want anyone just yet. She’d been close to Zelda, and losing her had been painful. She had nightmares for a long time. She’d seen Zelda get killed, and we never found Claude. After a year the police suggested that we expect the worst. It didn’t go down well. Joel recovered and went back to working for a company that did their work during daylight hours. He did some pirating business on the side for a thrill, but I had the idea that he was done with the night world for a while. He was sweet on my sister, and the way she lit up for him was enough for me not to take his head off for dating her. She deserved a good guy, and if anyone was a good guy, it was Joel. Their relationship wasn’t very serious yet, but it would be. I could feel it. Carl had had a leg broken in three places, two broken ribs and a hell of a concussion, but he’d made it out alive, and we stayed friends. He came over every now and then, and we pretended to like each other even though we didn’t always get along. What he did for a living was a mystery; he never told us, but I had a feeling we’d all had enough of the darkness. He didn’t like to admit that he owed his life to a martial arts instructor he didn’t like, so we didn’t talk about it. Neither of us knew what had happened to Sonya, but Ruben’s company was closed and a nightclub opened in its place. I would never go there again. I didn’t go back to the ugly side of the world. It had been hard enough to deal with as it was. Instead I managed to find a job at the Academy, training with Phil and teaching classes of my own in self-defense and fighting techniques, and we were thinking of branching out to a shooting range. I spent every day with Phil, knowing that if it hadn’t been for the most inexperienced, most human one of us all, we’d all be dead. Connor and I visited my father a week after the incident. “Who’s this?” he asked when Connor sat down next to me. I looked at Connor, and he smiled, his blue eyes encouraging me to face my past and deal with it. “He’s my boyfriend,” I said. “I love him.” My dad nodded. “Why are you here?” he asked, the way he always did. “I came to say...” I took a deep breath. “I forgive you.” My father’s face crumpled, and he pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. “And goodbye,” I added. This was the last time we’d see each other. When he looked up at me again, he nodded. I got up, and Connor and I walked out into the night, hand in hand. “Did you mean it?” he asked. “Someday, I’ll come to mean it,” I said. “But for now, it was right to say it.” We walked into the night world that accepted me now, one that didn’t have monsters and hell wherever I looked. Jennifer disappeared. It was in the news. Either she’d left the country, or she’d turned. I guessed we would never find out. And me? I didn’t know who I was just yet, but I’d find out. Aspen, Joel, Connor, Phil, Carl and I made a twisted but fairly happy family. We accepted each other for what we were, and what we weren’t. The only thing I wasn’t willing to give up yet was my bike. I might not have been a vampire slayer anymore, but I was still Adele Griffin. I liked my bike and my guns and my leathers, and everyone loved me for it, myself included. And those who didn’t, could suck it.


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