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Visiting the Master of the City of New Orleans was always challenging, but it was worse when he was in a mood. Leo Pellissier’s Clan Home and personal residence had burned to the ground not so very long ago, and the rebuilding was taking longer than he thought he should have to wait. Combined with the accidental media release of the upcoming arrival of a delegation of the European Mithrans—fangheads of state to the rest of us—and making the arrangements to house and feed his unwanted guests according to their usual kingly standards, his patience was wearing thin. Any equanimity he might have feigned to was long gone.
His Regal Grumpiness had demanded my presence. Yeah. I had called him that—from a safe distance, on my official, military-grade, bullet-resistant cell phone. I’m brave and all, but I’m not stupid.
I parked the SUV I had been driving lately—one of the MOC’s, a heavily armored gas guzzler fitted with laminated polycarbonate glass, the stuff often called bulletproof glass—in front of the Mithran Council Chambers and ascended the stairs, checking over the changes in the building’s security arrangements. The razor wire on the brick fence around the property in the French Quarter had caused quite a stir, various injunctions, and political posturing, but New Orleans’ Vieux Carre; Commission had caved when it was pointed out to them that Leo was currently, technically, something like a head of state or maybe a Mithran ambassador, and the property was, therefore, currently, technically, not quite U.S. territory. The political relationships between the Secret Service, the Treasury Department, the United States legal system, and the vamps were murky. Congress was still debating fanghead status and whether to declare them citizens or something else. I was betting on something else as the most likely outcome. It would be cheaper than rewriting the laws to include penalties for human blood-drinking; nearly immortal vampires, who were deathly allergic to sunlight, were strong enough to tear out iron bars, fast enough to be difficult to spot on standard security cameras, and had the ability to use their stalking compulsion and their blood to enslave humans and make them want to do stuff. Like let them walk free one night from any high-security prison. It was cheaper to consider them some form of noncitizen and therefore not subject to all U.S. laws.
I was in the middle of upgrading the security of the council house from an embassy-security precaution level to White House–security precaution level to provide super-duper protection during the EVs’ upcoming shindig. Hence the razor wire; the increased number of dynamic cameras all over, with low-light and infrared capability; the new, top-of-the-line automatic backup generators in case of power failure; the new automatic muted lighting that was being installed along all the hallways inside; the replacement of the decorative iron-barred gate in the brick fence with an ugly, layered-iron gate that weighed a ton and could resist a dump truck filled with explosives. Just for starters. The measures I had instituted were not Draconian but they were more stringent than the historical society liked on the outside and that the vamps themselves liked on the inside. All this for the visitation that no one wanted but no one could refuse. Not even the American vamps themselves.
A lot of ordinary humans in the U.S. were unhappy about the planned—but as yet unscheduled—visit by European vampires too, and there had been death threats made against the undead, mostly by extreme right-wing religious hate groups, neo-Nazis, fascist groups, one ultraliberal group, and several homegrown jihadist groups. No one was surprised at the reactions, but security preps had to include explosive, bacterial, and chemical attacks—as in weapons of mass destruction—and electronic attack. Even the State Department was getting in on it all.
But maybe odder than anything was the question that my team at Yellowrock Securities were all asking. Why did the European vamps want to come here anyway?
As the head of YS and one of Leo’s current part-time Enforcers, it was my job to see that the Mithran Council Chambers—aka vamp HQ, aka vamp central—was secure. Go, me. His Enforcer-in-training, Derek Lee, was helping and learning the ropes, even as he was trying to adjust to being an occasional dinner for Leo. Submitting didn’t come easy to any former active-duty marine, but several things had persuaded Derek: money; he’d get to kill vamps; he’d get to play with all the toys Uncle Sam and Sam’s R & D department came up with; his men would have constant employment. But there was something bigger too. Derek’s mother had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, and Leo had agreed to feed her his blood to help her heal. Family was more important than pride to Derek. More important than anything else.
It was an uneasy alliance just yet, made worse when Derek’s men had razzed him about the new job as Enforcer requiring him to provide blood-meals for Leo. But the men were settling in as semipermanent security, and most of them had found a vamp to feed. Vamps were hard to resist when they turned on the charm and the compulsion, and even marines had their limits when a gorgeous, half-dressed vamp gave a come-hither, toothy smile.
I went through the security precautions at the council house door, relinquished my weapons, and was led through the building by Wrassler to Leo, who was clearly not in his office, since we went down the elevator, not up the stairs. I’d known Wrassler long enough to expect an honest answer when I asked, “How’s Leo?”
Wrassler—nicknamed so because he would make a professional wrestler look puny—rubbed a hand over his pate. It needed a shave, and his palm made a rasping sound on the bristles. “He broke a lamp after you hung up on him.” I laughed and Wrassler added, his tone mild, “An original Tiffany worth over thirty thousand dollars.”
I stopped laughing. “Ouch.”
“Mmmm. His Mercy Blade was out of touch for an hour, and Leo needed to blow off some steam without killing anybody, so I invited Brian and Brandon to spar with him. Thanks to them, you’ll get to sit this one out and watch, rather than fight him when he’s annoyed.” Wrassler looked down at me from his several inches of additional height and said, “It ain’t pretty.”
And it wasn’t. The hot smell of sweat and blood hit me when I entered the small gymnasium with its fighting rings, and my Beast perked up at the scent, interested. Brian and Brandon were Onorios, two of three in the entire U.S. They were faster than humans, had better healing abilities than humans, and probably had other mad skills and abilities that I didn’t know about yet. The rarity meant that few people knew what they were truly capable of or what their full abilities were. But it sure wasn’t besting a ticked-off master vamp in full-on kill mode.
Leo was barefooted, wearing black gi pants of a style I’d seen him fight in before, his upper body bare and smeared with blood that hid most of his white scars, his black hair plaited flat to his head except for loose strands flying as he moved. He was vamped out, his three-inch-long fangs clicked down and his pupils black in scarlet sclera. Despite the vampy-ness, he looked in control. Barely. Drawing on my skinwalker abilities, I took a sniff to determine the pheromone level of his anger and aggression.
One of the twins was out, lying off the fighting mat, his chest rising and falling, so still alive. The other twin was in play, but his face looked like it’d been used as a punching bag. Which it had been. There was blood all over his white gi, the cloth hiding bruises and torn flesh between the fang rents. The sounds of thuds and slaps and grunts resounded on the air, echoing brightly through the open space. The standing twin spun away and hit the wall. I felt the impact through the floor and my Lucchese boot soles. He slid down the wall, leaving a bloody smear on the painted cement block.
“This isn’t good,” Wrassler murmured to me. “The two of them should have been able to hold their own against him.”
“Hmmm. Who else did you call?” I asked softly, as Leo screamed his triumph into the room, fists raised to the ceiling. My Beast peeked out and purred, and I shoved her down. This is not the time, I thought at her.
“Gre;goire. He’s on the way.” Wrassler checked his cell. “And Gee DiMercy should be here any minute.”
At his words, Gee DiMercy, Clan Pellissier’s Mercy Blade, walked through the door on the far side of the room. “Hallelujah, holy Moses,” Wrassler murmured beneath his breath. It was a Southern Bible Belt phrase uttered by people in a certain age group, and though Wrassler looked too young to use it, he drank vamp blood, so he didn’t look his age, whatever it was.
“Your gramma say that?” I asked, as I watched Girrard DiMercy from a safe distance. The Mercy Blade was dressed in tight black pants and a billowing royal blue shirt, and he carried twin flat blades, both long swords with hand-and-a-half hilts for one- or two-hand fighting. His hair was back in a queue, tied with a narrow black band. The first time I’d seen him fight, he’d been saving my butt, and I hadn’t had time to admire his technique. Leo was focused on the approaching man, arms out, hands and talons ready, shoulders tensed, motionless as a crouching predator. Unbreathing, in that statue-still way of the vamps.Funnn, Beast murmured.
“Used to,” Wrassler murmured. “My mama. My daddy.” He added, his tone mesmerized, “Me.”
When he was twelve feet away, the Mercy Blade tossed Leo a blade, the overhead lights glittering on the steel edge. The vamp leaped high and whipped it out of the air, but the small swordsman was already moving. His blade left a long cut on Leo’s side. The Master of the City landed on the balls of his feet and slid away before the blade could bite deep, but his blood flowed fast from the slice.
Beside me, Wrassler tapped the mouthpiece of his headset and called for blood-servants to join him in the gym, his voice soft but demanding. Yeah. No matter what was going on, Leo was gonna be hungry; it would be wise to have donors on hand.
On the mat, the men danced with the swords, their bodies moving with deadly grace. Scarlet droplets flew on the air, the clang of steel so bright and sharp it hurt my eardrums. It was probably stupid, but I walked closer to get a better view.
The stench of pheromones increased and I rubbed a wrist on my nose to keep from sneezing. It was potent and heady, with the reek of violence and an underlying hint of wet feathers from the Mercy Blade and of raw power from Leo. But I’d smelled Leo fighting both ways: out of control and using his anger to power his vamp gifts. The difference was negligible, but it was there. Out-of-control Leo stank, an acrid taint on the air, tart as a rotten lemon. This was the other fighting scent. A show, controlled and planned, no matter how out of control and bloody it looked, no matter how bloody it was.
The fighters pirouetted away and back, the swords so fast they were a blur of light on steel and the clash of menace. Inside, Beast chuffed with delight.Down, girl, I thought at her. We’re not here to get sliced and diced. She huffed and turned her head away from me—a pointed insult.
The men on the mat locked blades and Gee grabbed Leo’s wrist, sticking out a leg and shoving his master across it. Leo landed with a thump. The point of Gee’s blade nicked Leo’s throat. The others in the room went silent, not even the sound of breathing echoing off the bare, white walls.
I lifted my hands and clapped, the sound slow enough to pass for bored. “Onorios heal fast. So do Mercy Blades. But it was a pretty show, boys.”
Leo kipped to his feet, actually breathing now from the exertion. Off the mat, the twins rolled over, groaning, gasping, and smelling of pain. One of them cursed under his breath about the need for realism being “effing painful.” Gee DiMercy chuckled softly. “Indeed, you are a bruised mess, dear boy.” To me he asked, “And how did you know this was all a play, little goddess?”
Studying Leo, I tapped my nose and then tucked my fingers in my jeans pockets. “You smell different.”
Leo blew off his irritation and looked up at a blast of air from the door. He said something in French, and Gre;goire, standing there, said something back. There was a time when I’d wanted to learn Chinese. Now I’d give a bundle to be able to speak French, even though I was betting Leo and his best boy-pal, sparring partner, combat comrade, and probably lover, were rattling off in some archaic form of the language that no human alive today could understand. Leo and Gre;goire had both learned the language centuries ago, and languages evolve faster than most people think.
The two vamps helped each of the twins rise, and gave them sips of their own blood to drink to speed the healing. It was a little too much PDA for me, all the lips and teeth and tongues and bare skin, but then, I’m a prude by most standards, even by the cultural criterion of the Cherokee of the eighteen hundreds. I know that for certain because I was alive back then. Cherokee skinwalkers live a long time. And then we go insane and eat people. Go figure. I guess everything has a price.
“Will others discern that we do not fight in a rage?” Gre;goire asked.
“I did warn you she would not be easy to dupe,” Gee DiMercy said. He was cleaning his blade as he walked, head down, a soft cloth that looked like silk on one side and chamois on the other stroking the blade in a hypnotic rhythm.
Answering Gre;goire, I said, “Probably.” And then asked, “What others?” as I followed the vamps to the door where I had entered.
“The European Mithrans,” Brandon said. He balled up the hem of his torn gi top and wiped his chest. Gre;goire’s eyes followed the action with a look that spoke of hunger, and not just blood-hunger. I was pretty sure Gre;goire was polysexual. Or maybe pansexual. I wasn’t sure whether they were different and didn’t really want to know. That whole prude thing again.
“And you want them to think you’re fighting mad for what reason?” I asked as we pushed into the hallway.
“For les demonstrations,” Gre;goire said. “So as to lull them into thinking they can defeat us, of course.” Which made no sense until he added, “They will challenge us to les Duels Sang, no?” His tone was excessively patient, the way an adult sounds explaining something to a three-year-old who’s been asking “Why?” all day long.
Duels Sang. Sang meant “blood” in French. They were training for Blood Challenges, the totally legal duels that established place and importance and right to rule. And were sometimes fights to the death. “Oh,” I said. Then I realized that likely meant me too. “Oh. Well, dang.”
Gre;goire laughed again, the sound not unkind. “You will fight wonderfully, little cat. I have seen you.”
“Take Jane to my office,” Leo said to Wrassler. “See that a small repast is prepared and brought up maintenant. We will see to our toilette and join you.”
“Twa-let?” I asked when the males had entered the locker room set aside for bigwigs, and we were alone, heading to the elevator. “Like a French potty? One of those bidets?”
“He meant hot showers,” Wrassler said, “changing clothes. Healing wounds,” he finished, with a particular emphasis.
I nodded, pursing my lips. Hanky-panky. Gotcha. Well, at least they’d let me have food while I waited. Though I had to wonder how long the healing wounds would take. I only had all night, and mant’non could mean anything.
The elevator doors closed behind Wrassler and me. In the past, to reach most of the lower floors, a passenger had to swipe a security card. Now Wrassler rested his palm flat on an open plastic boxlike thing for his handprint to be read. I had implemented the security upgrades, but I’d wanted either retinal-scan devices or units that required a body-temp handprint, displaying adequate blood flow for life, to prevent anyone from cutting off the hand of an employee and using it to get around. Unfortunately, vamps didn’t have remotely human retinas, nor did they show signs of life as measured by a biometric screen, so I’d had to take the chance that no one would try an amputation. The system I had settled for recognized and stored all human employee and vamp handprints and gave the passenger the rights to access only specific floors. There were restrictions for most humans, and—because Leo couldn’t bind me like he wanted—that included me.
I had right of entry via the usual button control panel to all the normal floors, but none of my measures had gotten me onto any of the mystery floors. Until now. The elevator started going down. “Uh, Wrassler? I thought we were supposed to be going up to Leo’s office. Why are we going down?”
A small explosion of breath escaped Wrassler and he looked up at the display in shock, his face going paper white. “I don’t know, Janie. Something ain’t right.”
“How many subbasements are there?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said again, which was a surprise. “I think five. But I’ve never been down all the way before.” His face looked pale in the bluish light, and his sweat suddenly smelled of worry, which was odd. Wrassler topped my six feet and probably weighed in at 350, all of it hard muscle. He could take being rammed by a rhino and not even look ruffled. Something about his stance and expression made me pull my weapons. A silver stake from my bun and a small throwing knife from my boot. They weren’t much, but they were all I’d been able to conceal past the new security guys. The last crew woulda caught me in an instant, but the new rotation was not quite up to their level of awareness. Yet.
Beside me, Wrassler also pulled a weapon. It was a handgun—or a small canon; take your pick—the five-round Taurus Judge model .45/.410. It was capable of chambering both Colt .45 ammo and .410, two-and-a-half-inch shotshell ammo. The ammo would punch a hole through a pine tree. Wrassler’s gun had been fitted with a fiber-optic sight, and he held it steady as the doors opened to a storage room. His shoulders relaxed and he holstered his weapon as he repalmed his print and hit the floor button. The doors closed.
I put away my weapons, analyzing the floor I’d seen. The room had been full of cardboard boxes and old metal-covered, hump-backed steamer chests, the kind that actually went on steamships, full of rich people’s clothes. Or maybe on sailing ships, long before steam. It also contained lots of old books on shelves. And paintings. One or two had been in Leo’s home before it burned to the ground. Or maybe in Gre;goire’s clan home. I couldn’t remember, but they were familiar. In one painting, I recognized the spotted fur on the lapel of a man wearing tights and poufy drawers and buckled shoes. Sitting at his feet were three beautiful vamps. One was Gre;goire; the other boy and girl were unfamiliar, though all three wore period clothing like the vamp who stood over them. They also wore jewelry, Gre;goire a red-stoned ring, the girl a delicate bracelet, and the dark-haired boy a necklace of a bird in flight, set with blue stones.
In another painting was Leo and another vamp, Leo’s predecessor, his uncle Amaury Pellissier. And then there had been the painting of Adrianna and a female vamp in clothing from the eighteen hundreds. Adrianna had tried to kill me on several occasions. Next time I saw her, her head was mine.
“Wrassler? Why’d we draw our weapons on a storeroom?”
Wrassler didn’t look at me when he answered. “Elevator’s been acting up all week. Taking us to the wrong floors. And there’ve been stories. Tales. For years. About a dark floor. Boo stuff.” Which I translated as stuff that went boo and made you jump in fear.
“Okaaay.” The elevator was rising again, and his scent now smelled of relief and the breakdown products of adrenaline. “So we’re good?”
Wrassler nodded, still not meeting my eyes.
“You know . . . Really. I need to see all the lower levels and all the access stairwells to determine the security needs. And I need admittance to them in advance of the EuroVamps’ visit.”
Wrassler pursed his lips as if holding in a comment. We’d discussed this before, and Wrassler had orders from Leo to keep me on the upper floors and the gym level. Leo was being stubborn, which meant that Leo had things to hide. I shook my head and looked from the conflicted blood-servant to the doors with proper elevator etiquette.
“This is essential, Wrassler. You know it is.”
When the elevator stopped again, it opened to the correct floor and we stepped out. I flipped open my fancy cell phone in its upmarket, Kevlar-topped carrying case and hit the number for home. The Kid answered, “YS,” pronouncing it Wise Ass, which he could do without a head slap because of the distance between us.
“Funny. Can you dial in to the elevator system at vamp HQ?”
“It’s not on the communal system, but Eli wired it during the upgrades. Why?”
No one had mentioned wiring the elevator to me, but we could deal with that later. In private. “The main elevator’s been taking people to the wrong floor. Get in and take a look-see, digitally and any other way you can figure out. If you can’t find anything, we need to get the Otis people in here, pronto.”
“The elevator repair company.”
I closed the cell. If Eli’s unauthorized wiring had caused these problems, I might be in a world of hurt. Literally. But until I had proof that YS had caused the problems, I’d keep my worries to myself.
• • •
The small repast in Leo’s office was not small. By the time the waiters—wearing new liveries of black tuxedoes and white gloves—were done delivering food, setting it up to look pretty, and telling us what everything was, I was starving. There was a ten-pound bison roast on the center of the tea table, a copper tray of roasted, stuffed quail, a tray of cheeses, and one of fruit. There were also several bottles of wine—the dusty kind, with dry, curling labels that practically screamed expensive. Things were changing at vamp central and—with the exception of the varieties of meat—I wasn’t sure I liked all the hoity-toity alterations. Something about it set my dander up, as one of my housemothers used to say. “Why all the new duds?”
Wrassler explained while I loaded up a plate. “Leo will be moving into his new clan home, and with the Europeans coming, he wants the serving staff trained to present food and drink in the Continental manner, both here and there, for as long as the Mithran guests stay. Everything is to be perfect.”
He sounded worried and I had a feeling that the last line was a direct quote from Leo. Thinking, I plopped down in an upholstered chair and put my Lucchese-booted feet up on the coffee table. The boots, a gift from Leo, had been damaged the first time I wore them, and Leo had handled the repairs or replacement. I never asked which. They were gorgeous, and having them on the table was perfect for what I wanted to say. “Leo never read The Taming of the Shrew, did he?” I propped my plate on my flat belly and took a long slurp of wine. It tasted like, well, like wine. I grimaced and set the elegant crystal goblet aside. “Got any beer? That stuff is vile. It dries out my mouth.”
Wrassler pressed a button on the oversized desk. “Ask Quesnel for an assortment of beer, please,” he said. When he stood straight, he studied my posture. “Taming of the Shrew? You read Shakespeare?”
I lifted a leg, holding up a boot—black leather with green leaves and gold mountain lions embossed on the shafts. They were hand-constructed, hand-tooled, hand-stitched, hand-everything Lucchese Classics that sold for around three thousand bucks a pair. But they did not belong on a table. I crossed my ankles and set them back on the table.
“Past tense.” I chewed a bite of quail that simply exploded in my mouth with spicy, bacony, wild-bird flavor. “Holy crap,” I said around the mouthful of quail and bacon and some tiny little grain. “This is good.” It was also greasy and bony. I pulled a small bone from my mouth and dropped it on the plate with a piercing, crystal tinkle before licking my fingers. “In high school. For a while I thought I might like to go to college. Turned out there wasn’t money in the children’s home’s budget for a kid whose grades were only a little above average. Anyway, before I figured that out, I took some courses. The story’s based on the concept that if you try to please someone, they’ll only turn on you and look down on you. But if you act like a barbarian—”
“Like the one licking her fingers right now?”
“—then the fancy schmancy folk won’t know how to act and you’ll win by default of not doing the expected thing.”
“I don’t think Leo will go for that, Janie.”
Behind him, the door opened and one of the penguins entered, carrying a tray of cool bottles. Not cold the way we serve them here in the U.S., but cool, the way they serve beer in Europe, the temp of a root cellar. Ick. But I popped the top and drank half of an Einbecker Ur-Bock. “He’ll never impress the EuroVamps. He’ll have to kill them all or prove he’s something different—more modern and newer than they are. Whatever. But not better at being what they are. Won’t happen no matter how hard he tries.”
Wrassler said a low “Hmmm” as I finished off the quail and started on the bison, picking the meat up with my fingers. I had noted the number of chairs in the small but opulent office, and figured that if I didn’t get my fill now, I might not get anything. It looked like a much bigger meeting than usual, and I had to wonder why we weren’t in the security conference room.
By the time my plate was empty, the men entered, smelling of various colognes and scented soaps and aftershaves. And endorphins. Yeah, they’d gotten happy.
They stopped in the foyer of the office proper, clustered in a fanghead/blood-meal group, and stared at me in what smelled like shock. I grinned up at them and licked my fingers again.
“Little Janie has suggested that we act the Petruchio to the Europeans’ Kate Minola,” Wrassler said, his voice toneless but his eyes dancing as he took in their reactions to my lazy sprawl. “American barbarians.”
Leo tilted his head, studying me, and he did that single-eyebrow-quirk thing that was so classy and that I totally could not do. I’d tried. In that moment he looked completely human, if a bit like he’d stepped out of the pages of a historical novel. He was wearing a shirt with draping sleeves and a round collar that tied at the throat, the ties hanging open. High-heeled leather boots went to his knees, with a pair of nubby silky pants tucked into them. Except for the boots, I’d seen him wear this outfit before. Either he had a dozen of them or he was wearing this one out. I saluted the group with my beer and slurped, watching them.
Leo chuckled, his eyes crinkling up at the corners. When he laughed, he looked so normal, so human. It was uncanny and kinda scary that one of the most dangerous nonhumans I knew could appear so ordinary. He crossed the office proper and took up my deserted glass of wine. He drank deeply, his eyes still on me over the rim. “Barbarians, eh?”
“And tech experts. Modern people. Just a suggestion,” I said, and sucked the rest of the beer out of the bottle with one long, low-class glug. “So. Wha’s up, dudes?”
“We have a minimum of three months to prepare for our . . . visitors,” Leo said, the last word sounding forced, as if he’d rather have said invaders or attackersor enemies. Leo leaned over the desk, resting his weight on his fingertips, and studied us from his standing height. Leo wasn’t tall, but his posture gave him a commanding presence I had used myself.
Dominance posture, Beast murmured at me.
There were a bunch of us in the office, as I’d guessed: Adelaide (Del) who was Leo’s new primo; Bruiser, who was Onorio and Leo’s old primo; Gre;goire and the bruised-up Onorio twins; the Mercy Blade, Gee DiMercy; and Derek Lee, Leo’s potential new full-time Enforcer. It was an eclectic group, not what I had been expecting in terms of attendees. Everyone was dressed in what I’d call Victorian Age Chic except for Derek, Adelaide, and me.
Derek was wearing casual slacks and a tailored shirt. Unlike me and my slump, the former marine was sitting upright in his wingback chair, taking notes on an electronic tablet, looking every inch the up-and-coming businessman that he was developing into. Well, except for the shadows in his eyes every time his gaze moved to Leo. He was having trouble adapting to the position of Enforcer, and the requirements that went with the job.
He said, “Six months might be long enough to get your people ready. Assuming that we have the same team here straight through. Rotating out teams means constant retraining. My men need to work with whatever security will be here then, to integrate a real team, people who can almost read each other’s minds in hazardous situations.”
Leo looked at Del, who was wearing a little black sheath dress and low heels, and she checked her own tablet. “Clan teams end their two-month rotations in two weeks. We’ll get a new batch then.”
I interrupted. “Why do you rotate out that way? Why every two months? Why not have a full-time crew here all the time?”
“It is the way things are done,” Gre;goire said with a sniff.
It might have been a disdainful sniff, which made me smother a grin. “You mean, the way they did things back in feudal Mithran times?” I asked. “The way the EuroVamps do things? The way that will let them know exactly what we are going to do and when?”
“Predictability is a liability,” Derek said, agreeing.
I expected Leo to differ, as he usually did when I suggested a change of plans or methodology. Old vamps get set in their ways, the school of thought that went, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” For centuries, sometimes. Instead he asked, “What alternatives do you suggest, my Enforcers?”
Coulda knocked me over with a Mercy Blade feather. If they ever showed their feathers to the world instead of the layered glamours they wrapped themselves in so they’d appear human. “Uhhh,” I said, not prepared for him being agreeable. “A permanent crew here would be good.”
“I got some of Gre;goire’s new people in the swamps, training,” Derek said. I looked up at that. I knew he intended to integrate the two security forces—Gre;goire’s Atlanta team and Leo’s New Orleans team—at some point, but not that it had already started. “Most of ’em washed out and got sent back to Atlanta. We still got a few sticking with it.”
“You training them like SEALs?” I asked, meaning was he wearing them down to skin and bones and guts, the way Uncle Sam trained his best fighters.
He grinned at me and said, “I’m trying not to kill any.”
“We could bring Gre;goire’s crew in as permanent security,” I said to Leo. “We could also make the rotating clan home security teams’ cycles longer,” I suggested.
“Six months at a stretch,” Derek agreed. “And stagger them so that the council house doesn’t get a complete batch of new recruits all at once.”
His voice silky, Leo said, “My Enforcers have been plotting.”
“Nope,” I said. “Just great minds thinking alike.” To Derek, I said, “I’ve suggested that to him about ten times now. He’s kinda stuck in a European rut, doing things the old-country way.”
Leo and Derek both frowned, but Leo said to Del, “Adelaide, compose a letter addressed to the masters of the other clans, detailing the changes and asking if their own security or comfort will be negatively affected by such a modification to protocol.”
Derek frowned at me and I shrugged, even less prepared for Leo to capitulate. Maybe Leo had needed to hear it from a guy? Or maybe he was worried and finally listening to his paid troops? I was betting on the guy thing.
“George,” Leo said. “You will send my card to each of the other clan homes announcing an official visit. You and Adelaide will then deliver the letter requesting the protocol changes, by hand, and introduce my new primo.”
Del looked down at her lap, avoiding Bruiser’s eyes. Bruiser looked at me and smiled as he answered, “Yes, dominantem civitati—Master of this City and Hunting Territories. It shall be as you say.”
I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that, spoken in Latin and archaic-sounding English words, words that seemed to have a power of some kind over the others in the room, because their scents changed, smelling bitter, of shock, and maybe a little of horror.
Yes . . . Master of this City . . . It shall be as you say . . . ? And then it hit me. Bruiser didn’t call Leo my master. The phrase he used showed respect to the master of a city, but no more respect or loyalty than anyone might use, anyone unassociated with a master’s household. And the phrase had been all formal, in Latin. Crap. Bruiser had just announced publicly that he was no longer Leo’s . . . employee? Dinner? Sex partner, if he had ever been that? I hadn’t been comfortable enough to ask. Still wasn’t. But the phrase said that he was certainly no longer Leo’s blood-servant. Bruiser’s eyes were warm on me, a little smile on his lips.
My cheeks heated and I couldn’t control the speed of my heart rate. I sure as heck couldn’t control the scent of my pheromones, which were suddenly all over the place. The vamps in the room looked from Bruiser to Leo and then to me, picking up cues from each of us that we might rather have wished kept private. What did this public announcement mean to and for Bruiser? In the odd silence of the room, he let his smile drop and turned to Leo, who was still leaning over the desk, maybe frozen there in shock.
Leo held Bruiser’s gaze for a long moment before turning that predatory stare to me, his nostrils widening as he scented the air. I could feel the ice of Leo’s gaze as he spoke, but I kept my eyes on Bruiser. “Are you certain, primo quondam meus?”
“I am certain, dominantem civitati, magister quondam meus.”
“You give up much,” Leo said, his tone slightly hoarse. As if the words were pulled from him, as if they hurt as they left his mouth. I didn’t know what was going on, but it sounded important. Life-or-death important. And everyone in the room seemed to think so too. There were a lot of wide eyes and very little breathing, even from the humans.
Del, her face white with shock, mouthed a translation. Master of this City. My former master.
Holy crap. Bruiser was really . . . quitting?
Bruiser smiled and looked at me, his eyes heated. It was as though some closed, dark place inside me opened, revealing a painful, raw wound in an oddly empty space. “I gain much more, dominantem civitati,” he said. And the lesion in the dark, empty place within me seemed less painful somehow.
“It is done,” Leo said. “Factum est. Consummatum.”
Which sounded like a death sentence. Or the end of the world. Or something equally awful. But Bruiser’s smile widened, and it didn’t droop when Leo leaned forward and added carefully, “All of my regulations and proscriptions shall stand. And you will remove the last of your belongings from the council home tonight, before the sun seeks to rise.”
Bruiser hesitated only an instant, as if measuring what the words meant before saying, “Yes, Master of this City. I shall abide by all regulations and proscriptions that pertain to me.”
Leo looked like that was less capitulation than he wanted, but he went on. “I require that Jane Yellowrock remain in the position of Enforcer, along with Derek Lee, for the duration of the Europeans’ visit. Derek and I have reached a settlement on remuneration for his services. Do you agree, Jane?”
I looked back and forth between Derek and Leo and held out my hand to Del. “You got a pen? A piece of paper?”
Without speaking, Del leaned forward and took both from a small drawer in the front of Leo’s desk, passing them to me. I half folded the paper so no one could see what I was writing and penned a number on the paper. $1,000,000.00. I folded it and passed it to Leo. He opened the paper and burst out laughing, the laughter again making him seem so human and so dang gorgeous. Monsters are supposed to be ugly; Leo simply wasn’t. His eyes glistened with amusement. The black hair he usually tied in a little queue came forward and brushed his pale olive cheeks. Still laughing, he passed the note to Gre;goire, whose blond eyebrows went up in surprise that quickly translated into amusement. “Vous avez e;te; correct, mon seigneur,” Gre;goire said, his tone formal.
I didn’t know what that meant, but did catch the correct part, and when Gre;goire pulled a ring from his finger and passed it to Leo, I realized that they had bet on my reply, and Leo had won. I narrowed my eyes at them, as Leo slid the ring onto his pinkie. The ring was gold, the band smooth and worn, centered by a ruby cabochon. It looked old and valuable, and a lot like the ring the much younger Gre;goire had worn in the painting downstairs. I sat back in my chair, irritated for reasons I didn’t understand.
“Half that,” Leo said. “No more. However, I will also pay expenses for you and salary for your crew. Take or leave it, mon petit chat.”
I thought about it, remembering the room full of books and papers in the basement, and decided to up the ante. “Leave it,” I said. Leo looked up from admiring his winnings, surprise on his face. Yeah, he hadn’t expected me to refuse. I adored surprising a vamp. It happened so seldom with the old ones and their expressions were priceless. “This is a negotiation, so you don’t get to demand. Half, plus expenses, Younger’s salary, and also access to everything in every vamp database, library, and storage available to you, no matter the language, about the history of witches and Mithrans, and the existence of other magical beings. I want access to anything and everything that you and any of your people have.”
Leo murmured, “Witches again. Are your loyalties divided, my Enforcer?”
I thought about what he might be asking me to claim and I said, very carefully, “My loyalties are perfectly aligned according to who I am, what I am, and according to my word and to my contracts.”
Leo watched me, sniffing slowly, smelling for a lie. “This bargain is acceptable to me.”
“Done,” I said.
Leo nodded. Still watching me, he said, “We have an infiltrator.”
I dragged my gaze from Leo’s to Bruiser’s. “Reach?” I’d shared my suspicions about the mysterious researcher and electronic security genius with Bruiser previously, and had since proven them. Reach wasn’t quite a traitor, more an entrepreneur, gathering and selling information to the highest bidder, instead of keeping proprietary info secret. I still hadn’t decided what to do about him. For that matter, I didn’t know what we could do about him. He’d made no secret of working for the customer who offered him the most money; he had no blood-bond with Leo to keep him loyal; and Reach had ways of finding out things that bordered on the mystical. Once he had his electronic claws into a system, it was nearly impossible to remove them. I more than halfway believed that he had his claws in my own system and in Leo’s, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.
“No, we have not been infiltrated.” Leo waved a lazy hand as if wiping away the thought of Reach. “I have a well-placed and well-paid infiltrator on the European Council of Mithrans.”
Every eye in the place settled on Leo, and he gave a languid smile, enjoying the astounded stares and olfactory responses. “You have a spy in Europe?” I half asked, half stated. “Dang.”
Leo’s smile widened and he did that eyebrow-lift thing. “Yes. This person has been in place for many years.”
I noticed that he didn’t say Mithran or blood-servant or give a gender. Cagey, Leo.
“This person has informed me that this visit by members of the European Council will be used to discover weaknesses in our organization. This information is nothing new. However, this person has confirmed that the preliminary delegation will be followed by a larger mission whose purpose is to destroy us. They wish to acquire our territory and bring it under the control of the Europeans, and not simply because we have grown too powerful.”
Gre;goire sat up slowly, horror on his face. “Pas François!”
Leo said, “Not your sire, my friend.”
“Who?” I asked.
Bruiser leaned toward me, his mouth at my ear. “Gre;goire’s sire was François Le Bâtard, an illegitimate son of François d’Angoulême.”
I had heard Gre;goire’s titles once, and they were as sparse as they were royal, as I recalled. It helped that I had a file on him. I pulled up the file on my official cell, which was mated to my laptop at home, and discovered that there was nothing in his titles about a François d’Angoulême or a Le Bâtard. He was simply “Gre;goire, blood-master of Clan Arceneau, of the court of Charles the Wise, fifth of his line, in the Valois Dynasty.” So I looked up the royal Charlie the Wise.
As I searched, Leo added, more gently, “But your brother and your sister Batildis have begun to rally their supporters to this end.” I remembered the painting of the man wearing tights and poufy drawers and buckled shoes, spotted fur on his lapel. Gre;goire close by. The boy and girl vamps with him had been unknowns, but maybe not for much longer. They had worn jewelry, Gre;goire with a ruby ring. The girl’s face had been terrified. “And yes,” Leo said, “that might eventually garner the interest of Le Bâtard, though he is not scheduled to travel to these shores with the European Council.”
Gre;goire snarled. He actually snarled, like a ticked-off big-cat. A perpetually blond, fifteen-year-old vampire big-cat. I looked up from under my brows to see his face, vamped out and furious, his hand on the hilt of a dagger. Leo placed his own hand over Gre;goire’s and a tingle of power swept through the room, smelling spiky, of pepper, papyrus, and plant-based ink. I looked back to my research as Leo soothed his bestie in French, the syllables soft and fluid, like liquid lovemaking. I so wanted to learn French.
According to my notes, François d’Angoulême was born on September 12, 1494, in Cognac, France, and died on March 31, 1547, in a place I couldn’t pronounce—Rambouillet. François Le Bâtard meant Francis the Bastard, and he was the illegitimate son of d’Angoulême. Of the Bastard, there was no birth date and no death date, which was a good indicator of . . . not much. Had he been human, he could have perished at sea, languished in a jail, or been sent to a penal colony. He could have chosen to disappear, or been involuntarily disappeared in dozens of ways and never heard from again. But in his case, Le Bâtard had been turned, making him not true-dead, but undead. Charming. A bastard had made Gre;goire. After what I’d guessed and heard about his maker, the title was appropriate on other levels too, because Gre;goire’s maker had been evil personified. He had liked little boys in the “You want some candy, little boy?” kinda way. He was the sort of vamp I liked to hunt, stake, and decapitate. Call me a lover of slasher porn, but some dudes just deserved to lose their heads. Both of them.
“What has been happening en le court?” Gre;goire asked, sounding more controlled, and even more Frenchy. When Gre;goire and Leo spent time together, they tended to talk more in French, and it was totally seductive. Not that I’d tell them so.
“There have been many changes,” Leo said, “and some of our number tonight know nothing about the Europeans’ history. Adelaide, enlighten them, if you please.”
She raised her tablet and said, “A brief history. The European Council’s highest-ranking members were originally Semitic in origin, arising from the first three, the father of Mithrans, Judas Iscariot, and his sons—the Sons of Darkness. They were located primarily in and around Jerusalem and comprised largely of members who carried the witch gene. During these years, there was relative peace between the vampires and the witches, and many artifacts of power were created. That changed during the Roman siege of Jerusalem. The atrocities committed by the vampires to stay alive in a starving city were unimaginable. Following the diaspora in the year 72, they were under persecution from their own people due to those atrocities, and were hounded by the Roman conquerors. Many vampires resettled in countries along the northern coast of Africa, the southern coast of the Mediterranean, and later in Rome, under the noses of their enemies in the Holy Roman Church. They followed the Roman Empire to Constantinople, and when it fell, the vampires—then known as the Mithran Council—moved to France.”
I had heard parts of this, and had put other parts together, but the summary answered other questions, like why so many of the older vamps I’d seen were olive skinned. They shared a common origin with the early Christians—the cross of Golgotha—though for very different reasons. The earliest vamps moved with the Hebrew people to nearby territories during the diaspora, including to Africa, so the second generation of vamps had often been people of color.
“According to what we’ve learned,” Del said, “from sources inside the council itself, the Mithrans in many parts of the world are facing new and deadly troubles.”
I looked up at that. Leo was being awfully free with the info that he had a plant in European vamp headquarters. Leo did nothing without a reason. Maybe nothing more than slapping them in the face with a glove, but there was a reason. Or several reasons. Vamps tended to layer on reasons and meanings and old emotions like a lasagna.
Del continued. “In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in a number of key governments, in countries ruled by despots or a military elite, the Mithrans were able to place blood-servants or powerful Mithrans in high levels of the military, intelligence, and banking.”
She added, “Today, these Mithrans and blood-servants are being hunted by anti-Mithran fanatics, many using methods that are . . . barbaric.” Her mouth twisted down. I assumed she had been reading reports, and none of them were good reports about bunnies and butterflies.
“Led by the growing popular support, some governments are enacting stringent laws against the Mithrans in their midst, and have judged them as dangerous as witches. Perhaps more so. We are seeing an increase in witch hunts and Mithran hunts across the Middle East and in Eastern Europe and Russia,” Del said. “The Mithrans are fighting back. However, a number have been staked in recent days and the ensuing power shifts have been dramatic.”
I thought about the power plays and unrest in the Middle East. Many religions had proscriptions against drinking blood and therefore hated blood-drinkers. So, yeah, she had a point, but I’d never connected that to fanghead control or vamp deaths. So that meant that minor—but growing—political groups have seen the influence of vamps and staked them, which has resulted in world political power shifts. Interesting.
“The violence is moving into Europe and the council is becoming desperate to find both safe haven and the artifacts of power that they lost during the diaspora. According to our source on the council, they believe that with the icons in their hands, they will find security in this modern world, a world which is changing with such speed and creating such threat to them.
“There have been murmurs in the European Council,” she said, “about moving their headquarters to the New World. Our source believes that they would do so only if they could move into a well-established territory and hunting grounds—which means the extensive territory of New Orleans or New York, as the largest and most well-established hunting grounds in the Americas.”
“New York has been making overtures to the EC for decades,” Leo said, his face cold and hard as a block of white marble, “paying what amounts to a tithe to them. My predecessor never paid such a tithe in either monies or blood-servants, and neither have I. In return for New York’s tithe, I believe that they would leave him in peace and attempt to take this land.”
“And if they come here?” I asked him.
“If they come, they will challenge me for the territory, cattle, and magical artifacts. To protect themselves, they may well capture or kill every Mithran, witch, and other supernatural creature alive in the entire United States. Certainly in my territory.”
That meant my friends, my employer, his servants, and me. As if he heard my thoughts, Leo turned his black eyes to me. “They are wise to suspect me and my motives. I have dallied reporting to them about many things to secure my power base, to keep the status quo long enough to build my strengths. That includes the ongoing attempt to reach rapprochement with the witches of the United States and the attempt to locate and secure les objets de la puissance, lesobjets de magie. And that long before you came to my lands, mon cour.”
Toneless, Del translated, “Objects of power. Magical devices.” Leo’s statement implied that Leo had successfully found some magical items, but that was a conversation for another time.
“The original vampires were witches,” I said. “I’ve never understood why they would want to kill them off.”
Not breathing except to speak, his body as still as white marble, Leo said carefully, “The European witches and Mithrans were in a state of political neutrality until the time of the Spanish Inquisition. The persecution by the Church, and by Tomás de Torquemada, their instrument of torture, created a rift between the races, and both came here, to the New World, in great numbers. But not together. They were, by then, separate in all things. Torquemada and his desire to obtain les objets de la puissance is the cause of the chasm that divides the Mithrans and witches.”
To me Adelaide asked, “Have you heard of the Inquisition?”
I was raised in a Christian children’s home. Of course I knew a little about the history of the Church. I nodded and waffled a hand back and forth. “Nothing about how it affected Mithrans and witches.”
“Torquemada lived from 1420 to 1498,” Del said, “and he used the offices of the Church and European royal politics to take the lands and possessions of those deemed heretics by the Church. He tortured and killed uncounted numbers of people, and a great many of those who died were Jews, Muslims, witches, and vampires. From the beginning, he hated them all as being children of Satan, but after a time, his interests changed, and he began to drink blood from captive Mithrans. He began to search, not only for the heretics themselves, but for their objects of power. He played the witches and the vampires against one another, and, in a matter of years, the schism between the races grew wider, turning into outright enmity.”
“If the Europeans come here,” Leo said, his black eyes piercing me, “they will not be under my control. I will be under theirs. The media footage of my Enforcer fighting and defeating a demon, and killing a witch using a magical implement, reached them some time ago.”
I froze in my chair, putting it all together, how my life intersected with the history, the danger, and the future that was headed our way. I had killed a rogue witch who had summoned a demon with the blood diamond. Directed by the witch, who had long ago lost her mind in contact with the dark spirit, the demon had been killing humans in a bid to get to Leo Pellissier, whom the witch believed responsible for the death of her daughter. Even with the power of the magical artifact at her command, I had killed her and called an angel to defeat the demon. All caught on TV. Go, me. And now I had the blood diamond in a safe place. But the Europeans probably thought I had given the evil thing to Leo.
Leo gave me a regal nod as he watched me putting two and two together in my mind. “My enemies, and yours, know that many of the objects they have long sought are here, in my domain. They believe that the artifacts are in my hands, or, less likely but still possible, in yours.”
“Holy crap on a cracker,” I muttered. I had a number of magical trinkets, and Leo knew I had some of them. For reasons I didn’t understand, he hadn’t pressured me for them. Much. But maybe a battle was about to begin for them. I had some blood-iron discs made from pieces of the iron spike of Golgotha, vamp blood, and skinwalker blood, and I’d managed to keep the making of the magical discs secret. I had some pocket watches powered by the discs, and a black-magic focal stone called the blood diamond, as well as some other trinkets in my possession. Most of them were in safe-deposit boxes, which was even better—harder to get to, harder to break into, harder to steal. Vamps and vampire witches had done some pretty terrible things with the objects over the centuries, some of those horrible things since I’d been around. No way was I giving the witchy things up to the fangheads, but I kept that off my face. I hoped.
“The Europeans’ greatest desire,” Leo went on, reading my every twitch and heartbeat, “is for the remaining iron from the spike of Golgotha.”
“I don’t have it,” I said. “I never saw it.” I knew he would smell the truth on me. The spike could still be in Natchez. Or in Baton Rouge. Or in any of a hundred small towns or cities that had been settled by the white man for hundreds of years. It was too dangerous to leave in the wrong hands, and I’d had my own tech guy running searches for it. And then it hit me. “But they don’t know that, do they? The EuroVamps think I have the spike.”
I was sure that the EVs had paid good money for research on me, which made it likely that they had used the services of Reach. Which meant that they hadeverything. I closed my eyes.
On some level, I had—once upon a time—stupidly thought that Reach was a friend of sorts. Even knowing that he’d sell his mother to make a buck. It was a stupidity that might cost me.
Leo let his fangs click down on the little hinges in the roof of his mouth and spoke around them. “Soon, little kitten, you will have to find the spike. Or there will be nothing I can do to protect you. Nothing at all.”
I remembered the ferocity of the fight I’d witnessed in the gym, and my mouth went dry—my shoulders wanted to tense. Beast wanted to slash Leo across his perfect, beautiful face. But none of this was actually Leo’s fault. I had drawn the attention of the most powerful fangheads to me by my own actions, and by not finding a way to cut Reach out of my life and out of Leo’s. And mostly by killing a demon-calling witch on national TV. Go, me.
She had been using the blood diamond, one of the most powerful black arts devices in the witchy world. But the spike . . . it had been made by vamps, the very earliest vamps, smelted of the spikes from Golgotha, the spikes melted, welded, or forged into one single spike, covered with the blood of a murderer, a thief, and a holy man who rose from the dead. And according to the snatches of stories I had heard, it had been turned to evil from its first use.
I didn’t know whether the spike still existed or what it did, exactly, except it was believed to allow the handler to control vamps. So far as I knew, the spike had been carved up or melted down. Whatever form it now had, it was rumored to be here, in the States somewhere. Discs made from it had been used in black-magic ceremonies that slowly stole the life from witches who had been forced to fuel a huge working circle in Natchez. It had been ugly. Yeah. The vamps would hold me down and drink me dry if they had even a hint that I knew where the spike was.
Leo nodded once as he saw that I understood. “If you bring all the objets de magie to me, I will try to shield you and the witches you seek to protect.”
Yeah. I just bet you would, I thought.
Leo went on. “Before the Europeans arrive, there are several things that must be accomplished.” He inclined his head, as if to make a point. “Things that pertain directly to you, my Enforcer.
“In the following months, you will continue the work on this New Orleans Mithran Council building, bringing it to the highest level of security that can be achieved. You and Derek Lee will continue to oversee the security arrangements of the Pellissier Clan Home, as construction nears the end. And you will discover the location of the iron spike that you claim you do not have. You may also be called upon to assist in rapprochement with the witches in the Americas, but we shall discuss that another time.”
I left Leo’s office a half mil richer but filled with a gnawing worry. Following Wrassler, Derek behind me, I called the house—my house, which was so cool—on my cell, dialing the new business line, one that rotated over to a business cell when we were out. Working for the fangheads had been good for my bank account—not so good for my conscience, but good for my bank account.
“Yellowrock Securities. Alex Younger speaking.”
I grinned, because the Kid could see who was calling. Like the “Wise Ass” greeting of earlier, he was yanking my chain, but, this time, I could hear the enthusiasm in his voice, which meant he had something for me. I pressed the cell to my ear so we could talk without the humans hearing. “Elevator?”
“Is still malfunctioning. The floor buttons being pushed by passengers aren’t being correctly routed, and instead are sending out incorrect pulses and taking the car to the wrong floors. By the way, I can’t tell if the errors are all electrical, digital, or mechanical. The elevator company is doing an online diagnostic before they send out a repairman. They’ll call me with an update on the time, but I’d like to test it once more, with someone on board I can talk to. Can you use the elevator while I watch what happens digitally?”
“Ummm.” I was trying to figure out how to get the Kid to remember that I had no way to test the elevator, because he wasn’t supposed to have a way to test the elevator. And then I remembered my bargain with Leo. “I’m hoping to get some written material from the basement of vamp HQ. So I’ll be a while getting back.”
“Huh? Oh. Yeah. Whatever. I’ll watch.”
He ended the call and I turned to Wrassler. “So can I see the storage basement again?”
Wrassler shrugged his massive shoulders, ushered Derek and me into the elevator, placed his palm on the openmouthed display, and punched a button. We started down. And kept on going.
After a too-long descent, that odd smell of panic came again from Wrassler and he pulled his big-ass weapon. Derek pulled a gun too, a snub-nosed .32. I had an image of Mini Me from some old movie. Smothering a totally inappropriate titter-giggle, and only an instant behind them, I pulled my stake and the tiny knife. Micro Mini Me.
The lights flickered in the enclosed space. My breath caught, laughter mutating into something darker.
The elevator car came to a stop. The doors opened. And everything went black. Derek whispered a curse, soft, fierce, and emphatic.
The space around us and before us was blacker than the mouth to hell. Wrassler clicked on a small penlight, holding it to the side of the laser sight, which did nothing to penetrate the darkness of the room/hallway/cellar/dungeon/whatever-the-heck-it-was in front of us. The narrow bands of light were swallowed.
The stench that hit my nose nearly buckled my knees. It was a combination of old blood, rotten herbs, vinegar, sour urine, and sickly sweat. And then I heard breathing, a slow inhale. Slower exhale. Above us, the lights came back on, blinding after the dark. The space beyond remained black even as the elevator closed with a soft whoosh of sound.
“Palm,” Derek murmured to Wrassler. “Fast.”
Wrassler transferred the heavy gun to a one-handed stance, slapped his hand on the laser-reader box, and hit the button for the main floor. Yes. That. Do not attempt to stop on the storage floor. Just take me outta here. The elevator began to rise, and I realized I had spoken aloud, not just in my head. I hissed softly, inhaling through my teeth.
Derek had started to curse, a single word, over and over, under his breath. In the moments we had faced the blackness, he had sweated through his shirt. So had Wrassler. So had I. “Someone want to tell me what the hell that was?” Derek demanded, when he could say something more coherent.
Wrassler, a faint tremor in his hands, holstered his weapon and said, “Don’t know. Tall tales. Stuff to scare children. Stories the regulars used to tell the newbies, about a dark room, where things are kept, things that used to be human. Maybe. Or maybe never were.”
“Boo stuff,” I quoted, hiding my weapons again.
“Boo stuff,” Wrassler agreed. “Tall tales. Till now. And we gotta get you better weapons,” he said to us.
“Yeah,” we both said.
The doors opened and we stepped off onto the main floor, full of lights and milling people, and the bloody smell of vamp digs—herbs, funeral flowers, blood, humans, sex, alcohol, food cooking. Somewhere someone laughed. So normal. Only now did a shiver tremble along my spine, as my adrenal system did a quiver and shake. My mouth suddenly tasted bitter.
I pulled my keys and headed for the door, dodging Bethany, one of the outclan priestesses. She was dressed in a vibrant crimson skirt and shawl, with a purple shirt and bell-shaped earrings that tinkled. As always, she was barefoot, and her toenails were painted the same shade of red as her skirt. Either that or she had been dancing in blood. I turned around in midstride and got another look. Yeah. Polish. With Bethany, one never knew.
On her heels was Sabina, the other priestess, dressed in her starched, nun-habit-like whites. It was good to see them in the same room, though I wasn’t sure what that might mean. They didn’t always get along. Sabina’s whites weren’t splashed with blood, so at least they weren’t killing anyone together. Today. Yet. I grabbed my weapons from the security guy at the front door checkpoint, without speaking, without glad-handing, without good-byes, and blew out of HQ into the night.
It had rained while I was inside, ensconced in windowless offices, on middle floors—and lower floors—and now the night smelled fresh, of water-water-everywhere, the air still so full of rain moisture and ozone from lightning that it soothed and energized both. To the south, lightning still flickered between clouds, brightening the horizon in white-gray flashes. Thunder rumbled far off, a long, low echo. It was probably a great show over the Gulf of Mexico.
I strapped into the SUV and took a deep breath, seeing my hands on the steering wheel. They looked calm, steady, competent, not terrified, shaky, or useless. I turned the key and managed not to put the pedal to the metal and fly around the circular drive. The new iron gate rolled back along its tracks as I approached. I timed it so that the sedate pace allowed the gate to be fully open as my SUV—one not driven by a heavy-footed speed demon or a panicked evacuee—reached the entrance.
And then I was gone, the gate pulling closed behind me. My panic started to ease. I gulped air, hyperventilating, trying to analyze what I had heard and smelled and tasted on my tongue while standing in the dark. It had felt cloying and heavy, the taste oily and vinegary, like really bad salad dressing and raw meat, rather than anything dangerous. My hindbrain, however, said otherwise. That subconscious, reptile brain had informed me that the lightless room contained a horrible, deadly . . . something.
Beast pulled on the power that lay between us, the gray place of the change, and our energies danced along my skin with a faint tingle, like holiday sparklers. She rumbled deep inside, a snarl of anger. Dead things. Hungry things. Do not go back to den of dead hungry things.
The laughter that had remained hidden inside me tittered out, sounding as panicked as a twelve-year-old kid at a Halloween slumber party—not that I had ever been to one. Whatever had been there, in the dark, waiting, something about it had hit me and the men with me, and even Beast, on a primal level, something so primitive that I couldn’t even name it except by nightmare titles—the bogeyman. Yeah. That was what had activated my Spidey sense. Something dark and malevolent. The bogeyman. And it was hiding in Leo’s basement. Not good. Just freaking not good.
I rolled on through the French Quarter streets, the mutter of the engine and the tires splashing through rain the only sound, shaking off the fear-sweats as Beast let go of our magics. I was still getting used to the time it took to get anywhere in a car in New Orleans. Like forever. The Harley had been so much faster, what with being able to take back alleys, go the wrong way up one-way streets—as long as a cop wasn’t around—and slip between cars stuck in traffic. The city seemed a lot bigger and a lot more crowded in the SUV. I didn’t particularly like it. Not at all. Everything took too long to get to.
One block out from my house and business, something hit my SUV door. Rammed it hard, knocking the vehicle into the oncoming lane. I yanked back on the wheel, righting myself and the vehicle. It hit again, harder, denting the door, rocking the SUV on its tires. A squealing sound pierced my ears, maybe fury, maybe pain. Maybe both, with a frenzied edge to the scream, like a buzz saw sliding along metal.
Before I could find it, the thing busted against the side window, creating a round impression of circular cracks with straight-line cracks radiating out from the center, like the spokes of a broken wheel. It looked like damage from a shotgun, fired point-blank into the laminated polycarbonate glass. I whipped the heavy vehicle back into my lane and gunned the engine. From the corner of my eye, in the rearview mirror, I caught a glimpse of rainbow-hued light and an impression of glittering wings. And then it was gone, leaving behind only the sound of its screaming.
I was gripping the steering wheel so hard the leather squeaked. I slowed and came to a stop on Canal Street, not sure how I’d gotten there. I was shaking, breathing all wonky. Eyes darting around, searching for an enemy. Seeing nothing. The street was empty at this hour. No attacker, no witnesses. As my eyes darted around, I spotted a security camera. And then realized that I had stopped after an attack, instead of clearing the scene at all speeds. Too much adrenaline in my system in too short a time had made me fuzzy-brained. “Not smart. Outta here.” I pressed the accelerator and drove on. I wasn’t attacked again.
But I did notice a black SUV, paralleling my progress one street over. Black SUVs were a dime a dozen, but this one . . . Had I seen it from the corner of my eye while the light thing attacked me? It looked familiar. I slowed, and the black vehicle continued on. Paranoid me.
When I got back to my place, I stepped from the SUV and inspected the damage. It looked like the kind that could be caused by a two-hundred-fifty-pound deer in a full run ramming an ordinary vehicle. But unlike a deer accident, there were no short brown hairs or blood in the indentations. No indication or evidence of what had hit the vehicle, though the rain may have washed some away. I had seen the sort of thing that hit me before, several times, in fact. The first time was when it wrecked Bitsa, my Harley, and most recently in Chauvin, Louisiana. It had been all teeth with vaguely humanoid features. Had the creature I had seen down south been the same species as the thing that hit my SUV? Maybe the same creature? And did this mean the creature was hunting me? Not a happy thought.
Feeling the damp in my bones, I shook off my misery, entered my house, acknowledged the guys sitting in the main room with a wave and a promise of info, and went to my bedroom, closing my door. I stripped and climbed into a shower, letting the steam and the water pressure pound the stress out of me.
• • •
The thing that had attacked my vehicle was similar to the being that was my ex-boyfriend’s partner in the department called PsyLED under the umbrella of Homeland Security. Her name was Soul and she was brilliant and curvy and gorgeous and deadly. And not human. When lives were at stake, she moved like the thing I’d seen, the thing that had now attacked me in the streets several times. The thing I had seen splashing in the water of the canals, like a dolphin playing, below Chauvin, Louisiana. A thing others didn’t seem to see at all, except for Bruiser, with his Onorio magics. Whatever she was, Soul changed form in a swoosh of light, just like the things, the light-beings, though she didn’t smell like one. Thinking of Soul and Chauvin made me think of Ricky Bo. Which just ticked me off.
Before I went back into the main room, I dressed and texted Soul, not that she had come here, or done anything substantive, when I saw the previous things. But informing her seemed the right thing to do. Another thing like you attacked my SUV. Dented it. I listed the time and sent the text. And stared at the screen, hoping Soul would call or text me back, but she didn’t. I knew how hard it was to step up and deal with the “I am not human” problem, but I had hoped Soul would come through sooner rather than later.
Back in the main room, I curled up on the couch and said, “Update.”
“Not trying to be rude or anything, Janie, but you look like crap,” the Kid said.
“It’s been an interesting night.”
To my side, Eli appeared, carrying a huge mug of tea, smelling of spices, with a dollop of Cool Whip on top. He put it in my hands and wrapped my fingers around the warm stoneware. His hands held mine on the heated mug, his flesh warm over mine. It was an odd, kind, unexpected thing, that touch. Tears burned under my lids. “Thanks,” I whispered, not trusting my voice for more than that.
“Alex is right,” Eli said aloud. He dropped into the chair across from the couch, watching me. “Debrief. Take it slow.”
As I sipped, I filled them in, step by step, while the Kid typed up a report. We had discovered that it helped to have a running record of the weird stuff in our lives and business.
When I got to the part about the thing in the basement, Eli asked, “What did it smell like? Did you recognize it?”
“No. It was . . .” My nose crinkled, remembering the oppressive dark and the stench.
“You didn’t have a record of the scent in your skinwalker memory?”