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By V.K. FORREST
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Colleen Faulkner
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThey walked in single file, heads bowed in the silent, velvety darkness. Twelve hooded figures, one purpose. Down the long, narrow hallway and into the gathering room they proceeded, the magnitude of their responsibility as heavy on each man and woman's cloaked shoulders as the ancient daggers they carried.
At times, she felt an aching separation that could not be breached between her and the others, but on this special night, she was one of them. Tonight, all acknowledged that she was a member of this sept ... this clan that had existed since the beginning. Fifteen hundred years they had walked the earth side by side, apart from mortals and more powerful. Knowledge and immortality that, she knew, came at a terrible price.
As the twelve judges entered the room, candles hissed in a black oak chandelier and then ignited abruptly, casting light across the deeply scarred table that had come centuries ago from the green land that mortals called Eire. Macabre shadows of the tall hooded figures fell against the recesses of the four wainscoted walls. Near the door, the ship's bell clanged hollowly, sounding of its own accord, and she felt an inner thrill remembering how, long ago, the illusions had seemed so wondrous and magical.
As she moved to her appointed place at the judgment table, she felt a slight breeze off the bay. No matter that there were no windows in this sealed room, her senses were so keen that, even half a mile from the inlet, she smelled the tang of the salt air. She heard the sand fleas' endless digging and a hermit crab's footfalls in his moonlight stroll. And there was the scent of blood carried on the wind. Always, always the scent of blood.
The hooded council members gathered around the table, and she looked down at its marred surface, each scar as familiar as those she bore on her own immortal flesh. Instinctively, she tightened her hand on the hilt of the silver dagger tucked inside the sleeve of her cloak.
"Caraidean, we gather tonight in solemn accordance with the laws established by this sept ..."
The chieftain uttered the words of the sacred ritual. As always, he spoke in the old tongue, their native Gaelic, his gravelly voice crackling in the night air. With each ancient word, the circle seemed to grow smaller, the lives of those who gathered more tightly woven, until the energy in the room crackled and a faint blue light arced between them.
He chronicled, by rote, the establishment of the sept in the fifth century of recorded time. Those were the days when Rome was in decay and the great tribes of Ireland and Scotland struggled with old and new ways, battling for their faith. Christianity was on the ascent, but not without violence. It was a time when the sept developed a taste for power and for blood.
Then came the mallachd.
They were all damned by God for their refusal to reject their pagan gods, for their refusal to accept St. Patrick's message of the new faith. They were cursed for the blood of mankind they spilled.
With all the skill of a trained Shakespearean actor, the chieftain continued his time-honored speech. He reminded the council members of the vow taken only a short time ago. Only three centuries ago, a blink in the past. He warned of the nearly unbearable weight of the decision the High Council would make tonight.
She listened carefully as a human name was formally brought to the table of judgment, the sole reason for the gathering. Another voice quietly spoke. Specific details of the charges against the accused were given.
Stark. Cruel. Gruesome.
There was no doubt in her mind this human was a pestilence beyond redemption, one known as a serial killer to this generation, but she listened to every word. Carefully, she processed the information, refusing to allow her emotions to rule. There was a time for questions, but few were asked. Those around the table already knew of this man's heinous crimes. They had read the humans' newspapers. Watched CNN. The accused was clever, very, very clever and had evaded arrest for years, but it was his own private thoughts that had betrayed him to the sept.
Despite the evidence, the conclusion was not foregone; the pendulum could yet swing either way. Here in this place, there could be no measure of doubt. These who had been judged most severely by God Himself held compassion in their hearts that humans could not fathom. They possessed the bleak understanding that suffering did not end with death, and so they decided his fate slowly, deliberately, almost sadly.
The chieftain called for the aonta.
One by one, each member voted. Blade down, flat against the table was a nay-not enough proof to convict. Point down, knife tip thrust into wood was a yea. Guilty. Death to the forenamed.
She watched as an unearthly calm settled over the shadowed chamber and, one by one, the hooded figures cast their ballots. To her surprise, there was dissension. One member was not convinced of the human's guilt.
She was last to vote, the youngest and newest of the council, but she did not hesitate. She grasped the hilt of the sacred dagger entrusted to her for this life cycle, and thrust it, point down.
The decision was final. The human would die. She was the first to throw back the black hood of her cloak, the white gold of her Milesian signet ring sparkling in the candlelight. A rich, guttural cry erupted from deep inside her throat as she bared her canines....
The cell phone on the nightstand beside Fia's bed rang, startling her. She blinked as she lifted her head from the pillow and glanced at the digital clock, the numerals silky red in the stygian darkness.
Her last hours were hazy in her mind. She must have fallen asleep.
She sat up, throwing her feet over the side of the bed; one stiletto heel caught the sheet.
She hadn't even taken off her boots?
Out of habit, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand before flipping open the phone and bringing it to her ear. "Special Agent Kahill."
"Christ-a-mighty, Kahill, don't you ever sleep? Just once I'd like to hear that husky voice, a little disoriented, drowsy, maybe. All playful. Sexy."
She pressed the palm of her hand to her forehead, feeling hung over, even though she'd not imbibed alcohol. "What do you want, Sedowski?"
"What does any man want? True love, of course. That's all I'm looking for."
"And your teeth? Will you be looking for them when I knock them out and they're spread all over the conference room?" Her tone was a warning, laced with just enough humor to keep the exchange light between them.
The night-shift supervisor chuckled. "Just sweet nuthins to me, Kahill." Then his voice changed and he was the old-school FBI agent she had admired since joining the Philadelphia Field Office nine years before. "Listen, I'd love to talk dirty with you, but I got a homicide needs your attention. Over in Lansdowne."
"Lansdowne?" She walked into the bathroom and turned on the cold water at the sink. She didn't need a light to know she looked like crap. "What? Some guy catch his wife cheating on him and strangle her with her pantyhose?"
"Got no details, Kahill. Only that the vic had her throat slashed, and an address."
"Give it to me."
Sedowski knew better than to bite on that one. Unlike some of the men in her office, he knew where the line was between light banter and sexual harassment. Besides, he was married to a pleasingly plump woman named Ann, who made him potato dumplings on Sunday afternoons and still adored him, despite his protruding abdomen and receding hairline. Fia admired the intimacy Sedowski shared with his wife; maybe she was even jealous of it.
He read the address to her and she committed it to memory. Tossing the phone onto her bed, she splashed water on her face and walked back into the bedroom.
She glanced at the clock again. She hadn't been home long. Couldn't have been asleep more than half an hour.
She perched on the edge of a chair in the corner and grasped the heel of one knee-high black boot. She gave it a hard tug. With a groan, it released and the supple leather slid off her foot. She yanked on the other boot and dropped it on the floor. Next came the black thigh highs. Not fishnet; she was classier than that. Sheer black argyle.
She rolled them off and tossed them into the clothes hamper, then wiggled out of the black leather skirt and bustier and walked naked into the bathroom, still in the dark. She made sure there was steam rolling over the glass shower stall door before she stepped in.
A few minutes later, wrapped in a towel, Fia folded the skirt and bustier and crammed them into the back of her closet behind her suits. She rarely invited anyone into her apartment, and never into her bedroom, but these were trappings best concealed from the light of day.
Trying not to think about where she had been tonight, what she had done, Fia chose a dark navy suit from a dry-cleaning bag. She grabbed a blue sleeveless shell, donning the clothes quickly over a black bra and panties.
She was out of her apartment by 4:45 A.M. Too bad she didn't drink coffee. She probably could have used a cup.
Less than an hour later she was at the scene in the suburb of Philadelphia, red and blue flashing lights marking the location of the crime. She displayed her credentials, X Files style, the way she and her brothers used to, playing cops and robbers under the eaves of their attic.
"Special Agent Kahill," she told a uniformed cop. He was nice looking. Young. A little scared. She wondered if this was his first messy homicide.
He glanced up at her and even in the bleak light of the flood lamps, running on noisy generators, she could tell he found her attractive. She was used to it. She saw that gleam of lust in most men's eyes. What she also saw was intimidation. People tended to become uncomfortable pretty quickly when confronted with a six-foot-tall redhead with nononsense eyes. It used to bother her, but over the years she'd resigned herself to it. Besides, it was handy with thugs. Or men, in general.
"Your investigating officer?" she asked as she glanced away, already taking in the scene.
The narrow, normally unlit alley was framed by the brick walls of two buildings. It looked like any other in Philly, or any city in the United States: a dumpster, some trash, a few used condoms, and some broken bottles. She smelled cat piss, and three-day-old potato skins. Typical and yet not typical. This alley also had a young blond woman, sprawled dead not fifteen feet from the street.
Fia felt, at once, as if she'd been here before. As if she had seen these very same walls, these same shadows, and the body, unnaturally twisted on the damp pavement.
Caught off guard, she tried to inhale through her mouth, exhaling through her nose, blocking out the smells, reining in her thoughts. Her job was not about weird flashes of déjà vu or uncanny feelings. It was about facts and evidence, and she needed to focus and get to work. The ME's van was here and the police would want the body out of the alley before citizens hit the streets, headed for work. Early-morning joggers were already out, gawking on the other side of the street.
"Lieutenant Sutton's in charge, ma'am." Flustered, the uniform stepped back and pointed to a trenchcoat hunkered down over the body.
Fia brushed by him. She had her "FBI Special Agent" game face on, practiced for years in the mirror. It kept her safe. Kept the men around her safe. Usually ...
"Lieutenant Sutton? Special Agent Kahill, FBI." The badge in its leather case again. Fia squatted beside the suit in the shadows over the lifeless body.
The victim was half nude, her black miniskirt pushed up around her waist, her silver metallic tank top ripped down the middle to expose small, round breasts. No bra. High heels were missing from her bare feet, but nearby. There was a halo of blood. A lot of blood.
It wasn't just a murder; it was a sexual assault, too. The front of her thong panties had been shoved aside and Fia could still detect the pungent scent of semen. She could smell the terror of the last moments of life on the victim's absent breath.
"I'm from the Philadelphia Field Office. I'm going to need my own photos, if you don't mind," Fia told the officer in charge, without looking at him.
"Special Agent Kahill, thank you for coming." The lieutenant glanced over to meet Fia's gaze, still squatting.
He was a she. Forty, maybe, honey hair, shoulder-length bob.
"Time of death?" Fia glanced down again at the victim. She appeared to be in her late twenties. Nice clothes, good haircut, no roots showing in her platinum blond hair. Expensive lingerie. She was educated, a professional; a CPA, attorney, maybe.
"ME just took a liver temp, but he can only give a range until he gets her into the morgue." The lieutenant continued to study the body. "Happened between one and two this morning. A barback called it in at three-fifteen. He was tossing out trash, closing up for the night. We've got bars on both sides here, upscale. She was in one or the other, I'm sure. We'll have to wait until tonight to ask around, see if the regulars saw her.
Fia shifted her weight, inching to the left, taking care not to step in the blood, already dark and congealing. She tried to keep breathing through her mouth, tried to ignore the fresh, heady scent. "Throat's obviously been slashed. I don't suppose he left the weapon behind?"
"My guys are walking the block, digging through the garbage, but you know he took it with him. Makes a nice souvenir, the bastard."
Lieutenant Sutton stood and Fia did the same. Both women sighed.
The crime was certainly hideous. Shocking. But this type of homicide took place in cities all over the United States every night of the week. The FBI wasn't called in by local police forces for random killings. There was a reason why Sutton had called them and down deep in the pit of her stomach, Fia knew why. She cleared her throat. "So, what's unusual about this one, Lieutenant? What can the FBI do for the Lansdowne police?"
The cop had to look up to meet Fia's gaze. "This homicide appears to be overly brutal. Blood everywhere; on the ground, splattered on the walls. Bruising on her arms suggests she was beaten before she was raped. This guy either hated this woman, or hates every woman."
Fia nodded, focusing on Sutton's words, trying to ignore the weird tingling in her fingertips. She had been here before. There was something hauntingly familiar about the crime. No, about the man who had committed it? ...
"But see, the thing is"-the lieutenant looked down at the pavement, scuffing one sensible brown loafer, and then she looked up again-"I think he's done this before."
Again, the creepy vibes washed over Fia. They made her slightly sick to her stomach, but again she suppressed them. "Where? When?" She kept her tone professional.
"A couple blocks from here, if I recall correctly. I was still driving a squad car. I wasn't called to the scene, but I remember the guys talking about it later. It had to have been fifteen, maybe sixteen years ago. We never made an arrest."
The year flashed in neon in Fia's head. She'd been a student at Temple. Barhopped most nights of the week. Prowled this same street. Maybe that was why it seemed so familiar.
"Let me have a quick look here before your ME gets her out. Can you put together a jacket for me?" Fia said. "I'll read it, present the information to my boss and get back to you once I know if we can help out."
"That's all I'm asking for, Agent Kahill."
At that moment, a city paramedic walked past them. "Excuse me," Fia asked. "Could I get a pair of disposables?"
"Sure." He tugged a pair of blue gloves from his back pocket. "No problem."
As Fia reached out, the white gold of her signet ring picked up the light from a spot lamp and the reflection from the precious metal caught the young man directly in the eye.
The paramedic blinked, startled, stepped back, and then walked away.
Smart move, Fia thought as she slipped her hand into a glove.
"What is this? The Special Agent Kahill all-request hot line?"
"Sir?" Fia was barely in Ed Jarrell's office before he was grumbling at her.
Jarrell was the Philadelphia Field Office ASAC, assistant special agent in charge. He had held one of the two ASAC positions as long as Fia had been at the Philadelphia office on Arch Street. He'd been in that chair at least five years before then, maybe longer. For all Fia knew, the office had been built around him.
Excerpted from Eternal by V.K. FORREST Copyright © 2007 by Colleen Faulkner. Excerpted by permission.
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