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He smelled her long before he saw her. A sweet, luscious smell wafted to him on the breeze, the kind of scent that raised his hunger to dangerous levels. He paused for a moment, invisible in the dark shadow of a building on a nighttime street dotted only infrequently with the yellow of street lamps.
He gave himself some time to drink in the intoxicating scent, a few moments of masochistic torture because he knew he wouldn't heed the siren call to feed. He'd stopped heeding that call a long time ago, except for an occasional, harmless but necessary half-pint.
Besides, he had found those willing to share, a few trustworthy humans who would allow him to feed in exchange for the sexual thrill.
But this scent called to him, as only a few had over the centuries. He lifted his head, drinking it in, forgetting for a few seconds that he had work to do, a job to complete. For just a few seconds he allowed himself to remember how it had once been when he'd hunted freely, merely to satisfy himself.
Then he shook himself out of the hunger, and closed off his needs. He had changed, times had changed, and practice made control easier, though no less painful.
The job, he reminded himself. The address was only two blocks away. He moved freely, shadow to shadow, with a speed that would make him nearly invisible to all but the most perceptive. In this part of town there were no crowds to mingle with and thus hide among. The warehouse district was almost deserted and at night, only those with evil in mind dared to emerge after darkness claimed the street.
Evil had brought him here.
He was still half a block away from his target when he smelled the intoxicating scent again. But this time it was even more compelling because now it definitely held an overtone of fear.
And fear was another siren call for his kind, a part he had come to loathe.
He paused, torn. The evil he had come to deal with or the evil he sensed about to happen?
A woman's cry pierced the night, making his decision for him. Forgetting the shadows for speed, he dashed toward the sound, the scent, moving now at a speed that rendered him invisible to human eyes.
Three blocks to the east he found her. She stood surrounded by four punks, one of them holding a knife, every single one of them looking as if they enjoyed frightening her as much as one of his kind might. He could smell their evil intentions. And something else. Something he couldn't identify, but it disturbed him.
"Don't touch me," she demanded, taking an aggressive posture, as if she was willing to attack them. Little good it would do when she was outnumbered. "Don't. Take my money. Take my credit cards."
"Hey, sweetie," said the guy with the knife, "what makes you think we want your money?"
The others laughed. "Naw," one said, "she's got a better treasure than that."
He could have, in less than a minute, killed all four of the thugs. Once he might have. But the sight of the frightened but feisty woman prevented him. While those four didn't deserve to live, neither did the woman they threatened deserve the nightmares he would leave her with if he savaged those men.
He stepped forward so they could see him. "You don't want to do that." The Voice.
They all hesitated, looking at him as if suddenly confused. The woman herself looked at him as if he were a savior. He knew better. She had no idea the kind of danger she might be in from him.
"Go," he said. "Go home now."
Slowly, almost like zombies, the four men turned away from the woman and began to disperse.
"Go home now," he repeated with more force, and they began to run.
The woman stood there, frozen, even though she should have responded to the Voice as well. Perplexing, but not the first time someone had been immune.
She was dark-haired, petite. Even with his extraordinary night vision, however, he could not see the color of her eyes. Probably too dilated from adrenaline.
"How did you do that?" she asked, barely whispering. His acute hearing picked that up, too.
"Cowards are easy to intimidate," he answered, a half-truth.
He walked toward her and she took a quick, stumbling step back. "Stay away."
He stopped. "I'm not going to leave you here alone. Where do you live?"
"I'm not telling you that!"
He almost sighed, but he could hardly blame her. "I am not leaving you here alone," he said again. He didn't want to use the Voice on her, didn't want to try it again even though it might not work. He avoided manipulating humans unless it was the only way.
"I'll get a cab."
"Where?" A faint amusement curled his thin mouth. "Don't even suggest calling one. They won't come here at night."
He saw her shoulders sag a bit. "How did you get here?" he asked, feeling his curiosity stir.
"None of your business!"
Now he did sigh. "I have a car. I can take you home."
"If you think I'm going to get into a car with you "
Not even centuries of practice could give him perfect patience. He had to get this piece of bait away from the predators that lurked for blocks around, and he couldn't go back to his investigation unless he made sure she was safe. Time was passing, dawn approaching steadily and inevitably. Limited time, limited patience, now two tasks instead of one for the short hours he had.
He reached her so fast she gasped when he stood right in front of her. Then, utterly without compunction, he picked her up, hardly noticing her weight, certainly not slowed by it.
"I'm not leaving you here," he said yet again and began to stride toward his car, not as fast as he could because he didn't want to scare her any more, but fast enough.
"Let me go!"
He should have just put her to sleep. "I can take you to your home, or take you to my office, but I am not leaving you here."
Just a touch of the Voice. Just a hint, but it stilled her until they reached his car. So she wasn't completely impervious. Perhaps. Impossible to tell exactly what she was responding to.
He had chosen his vehicle because it wouldn't attract attention in this neighborhood: a few years too old, dented, even rusted. Not a hood ornament or hubcap to steal.
"You can't do this," she said as he put her on her feet beside the car.
"I am doing it. My office or your home."
"I don't want you to know where I live!"
"My office then. You'll like my assistant." He opened the passenger door for her.
Still, she hesitated. "Your assistant?"
"Chloe Crandall," he said, seeking to create a sense of normalcy for her. "A bit strange for my taste, but a nice young lady all the same. Then you can argue with her about how you'll get safely home."
Still stubborn, she glared at him. "Who are you?"
He reached into his breast pocket, inside his long leather coat, and passed her his business card.
Jude Messenger, Licensed Private Investigator, Messenger Investigations, Inc. Phone numbers, email, fax, but no website.
She looked up from the card at him. "A private investigator?"
"Yes." Would she ever get into the car? At this rate he'd never get back here to check into his case. "Can I keep this?"
"Not only can you keep it, you can have a whole stack of them if you want. Leave them everywhere you go like breadcrumbs."
At that, one corner of her mouth twitched upward. Some Rubicon had been crossed in her mind. At last she slid into the car. He closed the door behind her and forced himself to walk at human speed around to the driver's side.
When he got behind the wheel, however, he gave her no further quarter. The tires squealed as he peeled away. As good as she smelled, he had to get her out of the confines of the car as quickly as possible. He couldn't afford a slip, even a minor one.
"Could you slow down, please?"
"You'll get us killed!"
He laughed. How could he not? "You're safer with me at any speed than you were back there with those guys. How did you get there?"
Silence. Well, he had more important concerns. Let her keep her secrets.
But then, hesitantly, she answered. "I was with a friend. She wanted to go to some clubs. I ordinarily don't enjoy that, but she didn't want to go alone."
"Who was wise?" she asked. It almost sounded like a challenge.
"Both of you. Clubbing can be a bad scene. Going alone even worse. So let me guess. She met someone and there you were all alone."
A sigh reached him in the darkness and with it the truly enticing scent of her breath. His hands tightened on the steering wheel.
"Yes," she said presently. "She met someone, and I decided to go home. This guy she introduced me to earlier seemed safe enough. She knew him."
"So when he offered to drive me, I said yes. But he came this way, and tried to.tried to." He didn't need her to finish. "You ran."
"That's a clear picture." He wondered if he should ask her who this guy was who tried to take advantage of her, then decided she'd probably get angry at him for interfering. People rarely appreciated offers of help they hadn't asked for.
His hyperacute senses detected no heartbeats nearby at street level, at least none that weren't in the slow rhythm of sleep, so he ran a couple of red lights, certain no cops were near enough to see. He heard his passenger gasp, but he ignored it.
"Do you obey any laws?" she demanded.
"Not when they get in the way of saving lives."
"My life isn't in danger anymore."
"I'm not talking about you. I don't stroll that part of town without a reason."
He listened to her silence with some satisfaction. Humans tended to have such a narrow view of the world, with little real appreciation for the evils that truly existed.
A block later she asked, "I interfered?"
So she cared beyond herself. "It wasn't your fault."
"I know that. I'm just I'd hate to think someone else might suffer because you saved me."
"Your danger seemed the most immediate."
"Thank you. I was terrified." And she sounded reluctant to admit it. "I'd have fought, but with four of them " She let it trail off.
"I know." He could still smell the fear on her, though it had faded considerably. Making it easier for him to maintain control. But the scent of her bloodthere was a time he would have followed that scent around the globe.
With another squeal he took a sharp corner, then zipped into a parking space in front of his office.
"We're here," he said. "I'll take you to Chloe."
It didn't look as if anything was alive or awake on the street, but one little light burned redly next to a doorbell a half dozen steps below street level. He guided her down, swiped his key in the security lock, and heard the bolt slide open.
He shoved the heavy steel door open and urged her in ahead of him. She seemed reluctant now, afraid again. Of course, the hallway was unlit out of deference to his night vision.
"Chloe?" he called out to reassure his companion.
A moment later a doorway opened in the dark hallway, and yellow light spilled forth. Chloe emerged from her office, dressed in some weird version of not-quite-punk, not-quite-stripper black leather and lace. She dyed her hair black and wore it in spikes. The whole getup was topped with an amazing amount of black eyeliner and dark shadow.
"Jude," she said, her light, youthful voice sounding surprised. "I didn't expect you for a couple of hours."
"A little hitch," he explained, motioning to the woman beside him. "She was about to be assaulted by some thugs."
Chloe, for all she was weirdand to deal with him she had to be weirdat once surged forward. "Oh, my gosh! Are you all right?"
His rescued human relaxed at last. "I'm fine, I'm fine."
"Take care of her," Jude said to Chloe. "Get her home. I've got to go back."
Chloe's eyes leapt to him even as she wrapped a supporting arm around the woman. "You mean you didn't ?"
"Not yet. I have to get back."