The underlying thrum of heartbeats. Tempting scents and primitive urges denied. It was a night like thousands—tens of thousands—of others.
Abby stood behind the long, polished bar of her place, wiping down a beer mug until it shone like the row of gleaming glasses lined up behind her. She studied the customers, subtly keeping an eye on them much in the way a mother hen might, though no one who knew her well would mistake her for such a caring creature. On the other side of the room a number of round tables arranged around a small dance floor were populated by a mixture of vampires and humans, regulars for the most part. Things were quiet tonight, as Tuesdays often were. Friday and Saturday would be another story; weekends around here were rarely what anyone would call quiet.
The vampires here were, of course, acutely aware of the humans in their midst. Thirsty as they were, tempted as they might be by the scent of fresh blood and living flesh and the gentle, steady thudding of a dozen heartbeats beneath warm skin, they were not allowed to hunt within ten miles of Abby's place, and they were expressly forbidden to ever take the life of one of her customers. She was the oldest in town, and they respected— and even feared—the strength that came with centuries of survival in an unfriendly world. There was no official hierarchy, no appointed position. She was the strongest among those who gathered here, and so she led.
Abby did her best to show those of her kind who would listen that it wasn't necessary to take lives in order to survive. She wasn't tenderhearted and she didn't have any special fondness for humans, but logic drove her to be cautious and to convince others of the necessity. The existence of vampires was best served if there wasn't a constant stream of dead, bloodless humans to explain away. Besides, why kill when you could drink your fill, touch a weak mind and make your donor forget, and continue to live in one place for many years without fear of being discovered? Only the stupidest, the most out of control, killed their prey.
The humans who imbibed and talked and laughed in Abby's bar had no idea that they drank next to monsters, the stuff of fantastical nightmares. That was as it should be. Most of them lived in the neighborhood, mortals blind to the fact that some of the other customers in their favorite bar never actually drank the whiskey or beer placed before them. They didn't think it odd that the two groups never mingled, that there was an invisible but impenetrable wall between them. Instinct kept them from making friendly gestures toward the vampires; innate self-preservation prevented them from asking too many questions. They drank, sometimes too much. They paid, they laughed, they left the day's troubles behind. And they listened to Remy's music.
Remy played piano on the raised stage, his fingers moving with the ease brought on by more than two hundred years of practice. The piano itself was nothing special—it had been bought at a discount from a retiring piano teacher—but in Remy's hands the beat-up upright became special. Jazz was his favorite style, but in the hours the Sundown Bar was open to the public—to the living—he played to the crowd. Country and classic rock, for the most part, but always with a touch of the jazz he loved. No one played "Blue" quite like Remy, and he could bring the house down with "Sweet Home Alabama." At the moment Remy was using the surname Zeringue, but like Abby, he changed his last name often.
Abby had lived in a lot of different places over the years. Big cities, small towns and villages, mountain-top cabins, a cave—though not for very long—and an isolated farm or two. Budding Corner, Alabama, was a midsize town, large enough to keep her business profitable, small enough that the place wasn't overrun with rogue vamps, who usually preferred the anonymity and massive feeding ground of a large city. Here the air was clean, which was a comfort for her sensitive nose. The days were quiet and the residents were into easy living and minding their own business. What more could she ask for?
When the door to the windowless bar opened, almost every head in the room turned to see who was entering—no different from any other time that door swung in. Abby cursed beneath her breath, though the man who entered was a regular himself and she should be used to seeing him by now. Since Stryker had moved to Budding Corner a few short months back he'd stopped by her place almost every night, sometimes for a few minutes, other nights for hours. Abby wasn't bothered by cops. She paid her bills; she adhered to health codes and ABC regulations to the letter; she was very careful to do nothing that might call attention to her.
But this particular cop had been hanging around too often and too long. Detective Leo Stryker was observant—unlike the other humans in the room, unlike the large majority of the humans Abby met. There was something about him that made her nervous.
And he kept asking her out. On a date.
As Stryker approached the bar Abby grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniel's. Jack and Coke was his drink, and he never had more than one. Two on a really bad night a couple of months ago, but for the most part when his one drink was done and she turned down his always-charming offer of a date, he headed out the door. Leo left alone every time, even though more than one customer had made it clear that he didn't have to go home without a companion. He could get lucky in the parking lot night after night. But he didn't.
She placed a glass on the bar where Leo always sat, but he waved her off. "Nothing for me tonight," he said, taking his badge out and unnecessarily flashing it for her. "I'm here on official business."
Abby didn't allow her concern to show. Official business could be as simple as a patron parking their car where they should not, or a sign improperly displayed, or maybe one of her human customers was up to no good and he wanted to ask questions about that human. She smiled at him; he did not smile back as he usually did.
Leo took his usual bar stool and leaned onto the bar. If she was warm-blooded and into dating, she'd definitely accept his invitations. For a mortal he was quite handsome and well built, with medium-dark blond hair cut fairly short, but not severely so, expressive blue eyes and a strong jaw. His neck was thick and muscled and she could smell it from where she stood, a good four feet away. He had to be at least six foot two, a good twelve inches taller than she was, and he was a big guy—big arms, broad shoulders, large hands. Her mouth watered. It was the scent that got to her most strongly. She clenched her fists behind the bar, so he couldn't see her reaction. She was rarely so tempted, and it bothered her that this human had become something akin to a weakness.
It was past time for her to feed from a living, breathing human being with a heartbeat and deliciously warm skin, but she'd be an idiot to drink from an overly observant cop, no matter how tasty he smelled, no matter how pleasing he was to the eye. Besides, it wasn't as if she was about to break her own rules about tasting the customers.
"Do you know a girl by the name of Marisa Blackwell?"
"Sure," Abby said, momentarily relieved. What on earth could Marisa Blackwell have done to get herself into trouble? Marisa was a regular, a quiet, pretty young girl who seemed harmless enough. Still, looks could be deceiving. Abby herself was proof of that. "What did she do?"
Leo's expression hardened. "She got herself murdered, and her roommate says the Sundown Bar was her last stop."
Leo watched Abby for a reaction, as he always did when he questioned anyone concerning a murder. The news of Blackwell's death seemed to make Abby angry. She wasn't visibly shocked, she didn't cry or shake… but she was not unaffected.
"I'm so sorry," she said softly, her voice reaching inside him and grabbing, as it always did. "What happened?"
"It wasn't a natural death, I can tell you that much." He wasn't about to explain to her, or to anyone else, that the victim's blood had been drained from her body, that the pretty girl's throat had been practically torn out. He couldn't explain yet what had happened, but he didn't want to alarm anyone. If that tidbit hit the newspapers and the television news, there would be hell to pay. Budding Corner's only newspaper was a thin weekly filled with the escapades of the mayor and city councilmen, as well as a shitload of recipes and letters to the editor, and the closest television station was in Hunts-ville, so maybe he could keep the details quiet for a while. "Do you remember who she was with last night?"
Abby's eyes narrowed. Even though he was here on business tonight, he couldn't help but note—not for the first time—that she was a striking woman. Beautiful, yes, but the world was filled with beautiful women. This one was somehow different, and he'd known it from the first moment he'd laid eyes on her. Abby Brown had long, dark hair, pale green eyes, a body that wouldn't quit and a face that would've been at home on a statue of a goddess. Her plain, white, button-up shirt gaped when she moved just so, revealing a tiny little bit of swelling cleavage, but not so much that she was flashing the customers in order to get better tips. The sight was very nice, after a long, crappy day.
But what called him to her went beyond her looks. She was smart, she was savvy and she kept secrets. He knew it; he felt it in his bones; he saw it in her eyes. And dammit, he wanted to uncover every one of her secrets— along with what lay beneath that plain blouse and whatever else she wore. She was partial to longish skirts that offered no more than an occasional flash of calf, on the rare occasions she stepped out from behind the bar.
He kept asking her out and she kept turning him down. For many divorced men that rejection might be traumatic. Abby's refusals were never brutal, but there was a certainty in her eyes and in her voice that would've warned most men away. Far, far away. Leo intended to keep trying; he was known for his patience and persistence, and he wanted this woman. One of these days he'd wear her down. A woman like Abby would be worth a little trauma and a bruise or two to his ego.
"She came in with a friend of hers," Abby said, answering his question. "Alicia, I believe."
"Yes," Leo responded. "We spoke to Alicia this afternoon."
Abby stared a hole through him. "Then why did you ask me who she was with?"
"I'd like to know if Alicia remembers last night's events correctly."
Abby leaned into the bar, bringing her face closer to his—but not close enough to suit him. She breathed deeply, once. "Detective Stryker, be honest. You want to know if one of us would be so foolish as to lie to you."
He couldn't help but smile a little. "There is that. And how many times do I have to tell you to call me Leo? I've been in here damn near every night for the past three months." When he'd moved to this little podunk town and taken a job as an investigator with a department much smaller than the one in Birmingham, he'd taken a cut in pay and had traded his very nice condo for a ramshackle rental house at the edge of town, a house he kept telling himself was only temporary. It had been worth every sacrifice to get away from his ex and all the reminders of the years they'd spent together—good and bad. Finding a woman like Abby here had been a nice little bonus, or would be if she'd give him the time of day.
The woman he'd been fantasizing about for months had never stared at him quite this way. Her eyes met his and held them, and he could swear he felt that gaze to his soul. It burned a little, it invaded, and he couldn't help but squirm.
"The two girls came in together," she said, her voice smooth and sensual. "As they often do. They had mar-garitas, two each. They were approached by two men who are not regular customers, young men I would guess to be in their midtwenties, who brought them each another margarita. Around ten in the evening, Marisa left. Alone. Alicia left an hour or so later in the company of one of the gentlemen. The other stayed a while longer. I'm afraid I didn't get their names, and they paid cash."
That wasn't much more help than Alicia's story that the guys' names were Jason and Mike, no last names offered or asked for, and they were simply "traveling through." Alicia had taken Mike home with her, but where had Jason gone?
"Did you often see Marisa and her friends here so late on a work night?"
"Sometimes," she responded in a smooth voice.
"I don't suppose either of those men is here tonight." Leo turned on his bar stool to survey the room, knowing what her answer would be. He recognized everyone here.
"No," Abby said as Leo watched the cocktail waitress Margaret, a blonde who was almost as beautiful as her employer, serve a tray of bottled beers to an appreciative table. Every man there took a moment to study Margaret's nicely displayed cleavage or long legs, depending on their body part of interest. She didn't seem to be offended, but then, if you dressed that way it wouldn't make much sense to be easily offended by open appreciation.
"You seem to have a good memory," he said to the woman behind the bar. "Think you can provide a description for a sketch artist?"
"I can do better than that."
He spun around to face Abby once more. "How's that?"
She cocked her head slightly and it seemed that for a moment there was no one in the room but the two of them. Leo held his breath; he almost forgot why he was here.