Silver-Tongued Devil (Sabina Kane Series #4)by Jaye Wells
Now that the threat of war has passed, Sabina Kane is ready to focus on the future. Her relationship with Adam Lazarus is getting stronger and she's helping her sister, Maisie, overcome the trauma of her captivity in New Orleans. Even Giguhl is managing to stay out of trouble thanks to the arrival of Pussy Willow and his new roller derby team. But as much as Sabina… See more details below
Now that the threat of war has passed, Sabina Kane is ready to focus on the future. Her relationship with Adam Lazarus is getting stronger and she's helping her sister, Maisie, overcome the trauma of her captivity in New Orleans. Even Giguhl is managing to stay out of trouble thanks to the arrival of Pussy Willow and his new roller derby team. But as much as Sabina wants to feel hopeful about the future, part of her doesn't believe that peace is possible.
Her suspicions are confirmed when a string of sadistic murders threatens to stall treaty negotiations between the mages and the vampires. Sabina pitches in to find the killer, but her investigation soon leads her down dark paths that have her questioning everyone she thought she could trust. And the closer she gets to the killer, the more Sabina begins to suspect this is one foe she may not be able to kill.
Red-Headed Stepchild is action-packed suspense at its best. And urban fantasy doesn't get much better than this. Steeped in mystery, intrigue, and magic, this debut is one of the best I've read in months. Jaye Wells is a promising new talent."scifichick.com"
Hold on tight a gritty new heroine has joined the pantheon of shoot-first, ask-questions-later protagonists."RT Booklovers on Red-Headed Stepchild
Read an Excerpt
By Jaye Wells
OrbitCopyright © 2012 Jaye Wells
All right reserved.
Blue lights flashed off the undersides of leaves. Off the tall brick buildings. Off the stoic faces of New York’s finest. The cops formed a tight circle around a tarp-covered body next to a Dumpster. Its lid gaped open like the mouth of a shell-shocked witness.
After three months on a steady diet of bagged blood, the aroma of a fresh human kill hooked me by the nose and dragged me toward the crime scene. The humans around me could smell the stink of trash and acid rain and gritty city. But they couldn’t detect the coppery scent that made my fangs throb against my tongue.
Delicious. Seductive. Forbidden.
Bright yellow police tape cordoned off the entrance to the park. Spectators gathered in a tight clutch on the sidewalk along Central Park West. Their morbid curiosity clung to their faces like Greek tragedy masks.
I shouldn’t have paid any attention. I shouldn’t have stopped. And I definitely shouldn’t have pushed my way to the front of the crowd.
But the blood called to me.
A male in a black Windbreaker with the word CORONER on the back lifted the tarp. His expression didn’t change as he surveyed the carnage. He looked up to address the detective and uniformed cops waiting to hear his verdict. “Anyone located the dick?”
A young patrolman lurched his head over the side of the steel box and vomited.
“Hey, rookie, you contaminate my crime scene and I’ll give you something to puke about.”
The white-faced recruit wiped his mouth with his arm. Raised a gloved hand. “Found it.”
“What’s that he’s got there?” The question came from a blue-hair standing next to me.
All around people started voicing guesses.
“Maybe it’s a finger.”
“That has to be an ear.”
I bit my lip. Giguhl was going to be so mad he missed this. If he’d been there with me, the Mischief demon probably would have said something like, “Sabina, dicks in Dumpsters are no laughing matter.” Then he’d move closer for a better look.
But Giguhl wasn’t there. He was waiting for me to get home. I should go—
The coroner knelt next to the body and frowned. “That’s odd.”
I halted my exit, curious despite my best intentions.
“Dick-ectomies usually are,” the detective replied.
The coroner ignored the joke and frowned. “Considering the extent of the wounds, there should be a lot more blood.”
“You think he was killed somewhere else and dumped here?” the rookie asked.
“Negative.” The detective shook his head. “There are signs of struggle over there.” He pointed to the tree line, where stubs of broken branches littered the ground.
“There’s blood spatter over there, too,” the coroner said, rising. “Just not enough for an arterial wound like this.” He sighed and put his hands on his hips. He scanned the area, as if searching for the answer—or the perp—among the crowd. When that gaze landed on me, I stifled the urge to shy away. To pull my collar higher and duck my head so he wouldn’t see the guilt on my face. But then I remembered that, while I shouldn’t be there, I wasn’t responsible for the human’s death.
Not this time.
But given everything I’d just heard, I knew who was. Or rather, what was responsible.
And a clumsy one at that. Slade was going to be pissed. Especially if the vamp was a new arrival who hadn’t bothered to pay the blood tax. Either way, once Slade found out, there’d be a reckoning. I almost wished I could be there with a bowl of popcorn when he found the guilty party.
But he definitely wasn’t going to hear about the botched kill from me. Vampire politics weren’t my business.
That reminder shook up a cocktail of emotions. Longing and jealousy mixed with something else. Something about being a spectator to someone else’s kill. Something about secondhand adrenaline leaving me hollow. Something about… loneliness.
A siren demanded attention. The crowd split apart, their eager eyes tracking the arrival of the medical examiner’s van. As I backed away, the phone in my pocket vibrated. Fishing it out, I glanced at the screen.
“Where are you?” he asked.
Ogling a crime scene. “Across the street.”
“You better hurry. Giguhl is already pacing.”
“Tell him to chill. The concert doesn’t start for an hour.”
In the background, I heard Giguhl’s deep voice asking if it was me on the phone. Adam affirmed the demon’s suspicion. “Tell that misbegotten daughter of Lilith to get her scrawny ass home already. I don’t want to miss Pussy Willow’s opening number!”
Guilt made me cringe. I should already have been up in that apartment, preparing to head out to Vein. Instead, I was standing in a crowd of mortals eyeing a crime scene like a voyeur. “I’ll be up in a sec.”
“Okay,” Adam said. “Love you.”
My stomach jumped. Surprising how those three little words could still pack such a punch. “You too.” I clicked the END button and shoved the phone back in my pocket.
The coroner watched his assistant load the body into a black bag. I couldn’t get past the feeling that the bag looked a lot like one used to collect trash. For some reason the sight made me feel… heavy. Like someone had thrown away a perfectly good life.
I shook my head to clear away the maudlin thoughts. I had a date with a hot mage, a Mischief demon, and a drag queen fae to get to. With a sigh, I turned my back on the bagged body, the eager bystanders, and the scent of blood.
A block or so ahead and across the street, the spires and turrets of Prytania Place loomed. To some, the mage fortress with its gray stone and gargoyles might seem macabre, a Gothic anachronism crouching sullenly between ambitious skyscrapers. But the warm golden lights beaming from all those arched windows and the promise of friendly mage faces waiting inside called me home.
As I walked, bright night eyes peeked from between the leaves and branches of Central Park’s tree line, beckoning me like crooked fingers toward memories of darker times. Back when using humans like fast food was standard operating procedure and my motto was “kill first, avoid questions later.”
But that was then. Now, I shook off the cold fingers of those shadow memories. That old life was over. I was happy now. Settled. Safe. I’d left the cold, blood-soaked world behind in favor of one filled with warmth and magic.
I finally reached the gates set into the base of the building. Entered my code, scanned my hand, spoke into the intercom. The gate popped open and I slipped inside. But I couldn’t resist turning for one last glimpse of the commotion.
A flash of red hair down the block caught my eye. I took a step forward for a better view. She turned her head, giving me a clear view of her face. I didn’t recognize her, but she was definitely a vampire. If the hair hadn’t been a dead giveaway, the smile on her face as she watched the scene told me everything I needed to know. Yes, she was definitely a vamp, but was she also the murderer?
I felt eyes on me, a palpable but unmistakable sensation. Figuring the chick had spotted me, I kept my eyes averted. Acknowledging her presence would be asking for trouble.
Instead, I focused my gaze across the street, where the coroner and his assistant hefted the body bag into their van. Somewhere in the city, a roommate or a partner or a mother expected that dead guy home at any minute. My stomach cramped at the thought of some gray-haired woman learning that her son had been slaughtered and left to rot like garbage. To her, only a monster could discard human life so carelessly. And she’d be right.
Funny. I never used to think of vampires as monsters. Back when I lived as one, human life was no more valuable than a Big Mac. I gripped the small cooler in my hand tighter. The bagged blood inside was more than just sustenance. It represented my new life among the mages, one where I’d learned to control my baser instincts.
So why did my fangs still throb?
The apartment Adam and I shared in Prytania Place sat on the third floor. I opted for the stairs for two reasons. One, the ancient elevator usually took twice as long as hoofing it up the steps. And two, after the crime scene, I needed to work off some excess energy.
Were I human, I might have found the staircase creepy with its dark wooden risers and shit-brown walls. I had no idea why the mages hadn’t updated the decor since the Victorian era, especially since a remodel would require only a few spells.
I climbed the last few steps and pushed open the door to the hall. I’d made it just a few steps when the air shimmered outside my door. The rise of magic made the hairs on my arm prickle. I braced myself and crouched into a fighting stance. Since I was inside the mage stronghold, an attack was unlikely, but the violence I’d just witnessed left me edgy.
Two seconds later, my twin sister materialized. I let out the breath I’d been holding. Her back was to me, so she hadn’t noticed me yet. I took a few cautious steps forward, not wanting to startle her. “Maisie?”
It happened fast. One second, I was reaching out to touch her shoulder. The next, she swung around with a snarl and a flash of fangs. I jumped back, more from surprise than fear. The cooler scuttled across the landing and hit the wall.
“Oh, no!” Maisie gasped, rushing forward to help. “Sabina, I’m so sorry.”
The rage on her face when she’d turned had dissolved into red cheeks and a frown. I forced a smile and made a mental note to make more noise next time I approached her from behind. “Not your fault.”
She bent to grab the cooler. Handing it over, she gave me a wobbly smile.
Please don’t cry.
She nodded and shuffled her feet. Her awkwardness wasn’t a surprise. This was the longest conversation I’d had with my twin in weeks. The silence welled up around us like rising water.
After a few tense moments, we both spoke at once. Our words tangled in the air like alphabet confetti. Self-conscious laughter followed. “You first,” I said.
“I was looking for you.”
“Oh?” My eyebrows shot up. Maisie lived on the top floor, in a penthouse apartment complete with gargoyle guards on her rooftop terrace. Since we’d returned to New York, she’d made that place into a plush hermit’s cave. “Did you need something?”
She shrugged. “Not really. It’s just… been a while. Thought I’d see what you were up to.”
As much as her seeking me out warmed me, my stomach tightened. “I was just going to drop this off.” I raised the cooler. “Why don’t you come in and say hi. I know Adam and Giguhl will be excited to see you.” Without giving her a chance to refuse, I opened the door and shooed her in.
The minute we crossed the threshold, the shit-talking began. “Thanks for joining us, magepire. What the hell took you so long?” This from the seven-foot-tall demon standing in the center of my living room. He tapped a hoof on the hardwoods and shot a glare that would make a lesser woman piss her pants. But when he spotted Maisie, his black lips morphed from a frown into a surprised smile. “Maisie!”
Adam ducked his head out of the kitchen. “Did I hear—” His warm gaze landed on me. Then he saw Maisie and stood straighter. “Wow! It’s so good to see you, Maze.” A chord of tension braided through his overly enthusiastic greeting. He approached her cautiously, like he was afraid she’d run. He reached for her, but she shied away.
She backed against the wall, crossed her arms, and curled into herself, as if buffering her body from the sudden attention. “Hi.” The word was barely above a whisper.
Adam recovered quickly. He changed course and gave me a quick kiss on the lips. “Hey,” he whispered. I looked into his eyes and offered a silent apology. His tight smile told me not to worry about it.
“How have you been?” he asked my twin.
She shrugged. “Fine, I guess.”
I bit my lip to keep from challenging her claim. True, her frame had lost its heroin-chic thinness and her coloring was better than the ghostly pallor it had been when we’d returned from New Orleans. In fact, she looked better than she had even a week earlier. I took this as a sign that Rhea had convinced her to take her weekly infusion of bagged blood like a good little vampire. Still, her slumped shoulders gave her a brittle appearance and black memories lurked behind her blue eyes.
Back in October, our maternal grandmother, Lavinia Kane—who was also the Alpha of the vampire race—had kidnapped my sister as part of her campaign to start a war between all the dark races. When we’d finally found Maisie inside the crypt that was her prison, she was barely more than a skeleton and out of her mind with bloodlust. I stifled a shudder as memories of that night threatened to take over. I blinked and tried to focus on the here and now. Maisie might be fragile and haunted, but at least she was alive.
We all were, thank the gods. I glanced at Adam as if to reassure myself. Even though Lavinia was dead and the remaining members of the Caste of Nod had been hunted down and killed by the Hekate Council’s Pythian Guards and Queen Maeve’s faery knights, I sometimes caught myself bracing for attack and searching the shadows for threats. Old habits died hard, I guess.
Maisie looked around the room and said, “Where’s Pussy Willow?”
“She’s at Vein doing her sound check,” Giguhl said. “Her first show is tonight.”
“Oh.” Maisie frowned. “I didn’t know.”
Adam and I shared a tense look. We hadn’t specifically decided not to invite Maisie. It’s just that, well, with her pulling the hermit act all the time we’d just assumed she wouldn’t want to go out in public.
“Don’t let me keep you then.” She turned to scurry off.
“Maisie, wait,” I said, jumping forward. “Do you—I mean, I don’t suppose you’d want to go with us, would you?”
She paused with a foot at the threshold, tensed for flight. “I don’t want to intrude on your date.” Something about her tone made my conscience prickle.
Adam stepped up to her. “It’s not a date. We’re all going.”
The hurt drained from her expression. “I don’t know.”
I gritted my teeth. Why was it still so hard to talk to her?
“You should totally come,” Giguhl said. “It’ll be the balls.”
Maisie looked to me for confirmation. “He’s right. Pussy Willow is an amazing performer.” A memory of the first time I’d seen the faery perform at the drag club in New Orleans made me smile. “Her shows are not to be missed.”
Adam shot my twin his trademark Lazarus smile, the one that usually charmed my pants off in five seconds flat. “Come with us, Maze. You’ll love it.”
And then a miracle happened: My sister smiled. Her hand flew up like that smile had escaped despite her best efforts to remain miserable. “It has been ages since I’ve been out.”
I stifled my urge to laugh out of relief and continued as if what she’d just done was a normal thing. “So how about it?”
“I—” She hesitated. “Will there be lots of people?”
I reminded myself to be patient. “Yes, but it’ll be safe. Promise.”
“I’ll be your personal bodyguard,” Giguhl said.
“Sabina’s allowing you to go out in your demon form?” She frowned at him. “Isn’t that kind of risky?”
“No, she’s not.” The demon glared at me. “But don’t worry. I’m a badass attack cat when I need to be.”
I laughed. “Yeah, right. If anyone gives you trouble, he’ll hump their leg like a berserker.”
“Hey! I haven’t humped anyone in months.” The demon pursed his lips. “Anyway, we’d better head out soon.” He shot me a pointed look. “Someone made us late.”
“Sorry, guys,” I said, holding up the cooler. “I ran into some hassle at the blood bank.”
“What happened?” Adam asked.
I sighed. “Just a misunderstanding. They have a new girl on staff who wasn’t aware of my ‘arrangement.’ But we got it worked out.” My “arrangement” being that the bank supplied me with their diseased or almost-expired blood. Yeah, I know. Gross. But it beat the bullshit I used to deal with by feeding from live humans. “Anyway, after that, I got distracted by a crime scene across the street.”
I’d considered not mentioning the murder at all, but (a) only a blind man would have missed the flashing blue lights coming through the wall of windows in the living room and (b) they’d see the scene on the street when we left anyway. Not mentioning it would have been even more cause for speculation.
Giguhl rushed to the window, smelling drama like a bloodhound on the trail of a prison escapee. “Ooh! What happened?”
Adam looked curious, but not overly concerned. This was New York, after all. Crime and the city weren’t exactly strangers.
“They found the body in a Dumpster. Seemed pretty nasty, but I moved on before I could get the whole story.” I forced a casual shrug to cover my evasion.
“Aw, man,” Giguhl said, coming back from the window. “Looks like they’re already wrapping things up. You know I hate missing drama.”
I pushed down my conscience. Giguhl would have loved to hear the sordid details I was keeping to myself, but sharing them now would only open the door for questions I didn’t want to answer.
“Anyway,” I said, and cleared my throat. “I just need to grab a quick pint and we can be on our way.” I opened the cooler and removed a bag of blood. “Maisie? Do you want some?”
Her eyes jumped to the bag of blood I held toward her. She recoiled like I’d offered her a cobra. Her face swung wildly side-to-side. “No!”
Before I’d offered excuses for my tardiness, she seemed fine. Now her complexion had gone ashen and a fine sheen of sweat coated her brow.
“Maze?” Adam said, moving toward her. “What’s wrong?”
I pulled the bag away and hid it behind my back. With my free hand, I reached for her. “Shh. Maisie, it’s okay.”
Her eyes were wild. “I-I can’t.” Magic crawled up my spine. In the next instant, Maisie disappeared.
I watched the spot in shock, my stomach sinking. “Shit.”
“Nice going, Red,” Giguhl said.
“I didn’t mean to—Oh, gods, I didn’t mean to upset her.” My chest clenched with guilt.
“It’s not your fault,” Adam said. But we both knew that was a lie. His stoic gaze met mine. “I thought she was getting better.”
“Are you kidding? That was better,” Giguhl said. “Remember how she was when we first got back from New Orleans?”
Of course we did. I’d been there when Adam pulled the lid off the tomb where our grandmother had confined her. Saw the feral beast lurking behind her gaze after a week of starvation and being fed upon by her own flesh and blood. And all that was before Lavinia unleashed my blood-crazed sister on Adam, a horror that almost resulted in his death. When Maisie finally killed our grandmother, I’d hoped the poetic justice would alleviate some of her guilt over nearly killing Adam, but, if anything, the violence had only intensified Maisie’s issues.
The simple truth was Maisie still needed time. According to Adam’s aunt Rhea, my sister’s condition was what mortals called post-traumatic stress disorder. The physical wounds resulting from her captivity had healed quickly, but three months wasn’t long enough to heal the emotional damage.
“Do you think it was the mention of the murder scene that set her off?” I asked.
Adam shrugged. “Who knows? It could just have easily been the blood.”
Since trying to figure out the source of her distress was a futile endeavor at that point, I didn’t respond. But I did briefly consider going to look for her. However, since I was the one who set her off, I probably wasn’t the best candidate to comfort her.
“Adam, call Rhea and have her check on Maisie.” He hesitated. Clearly he was thinking of going after her himself. But Maisie and Adam had their own issues, which made him almost as bad a choice as me. Finally, he nodded and went to grab the phone. Adam’s aunt was the only mage who knew how to handle Maisie’s… issues.
While Adam went to the kitchen to call his aunt, Giguhl murmured some vague excuse about getting something from his room. I shot him a grateful smile for allowing me a few minutes alone. The last thing I wanted right then was another postmortem about one of Maisie’s episodes.
I grabbed my discarded bag of blood and took it with me to find some solace in the view. One of the things I loved about our apartment was the full wall of old sash windows overlooking Central Park. Usually, gazing out at the park’s shadowed treetops with the sparkling city lights beyond calmed me. But that night, the blue lights demanded my attention. Tried to seduce me down dark serpentine paths.
But I’d seen enough darkness for one night. I turned my back and focused on ignoring the coagulant aftertaste of my meal. Thus far, my night was not amusing me. And frankly, despite my claims to Maisie that Pussy’s show would be fun, I was so not looking forward to going. But I didn’t have a choice. Pussy Willow was my friend and I wanted to support her. Besides, if I begged off, I knew I’d just sit around all night brooding about my twin.
“Rhea promised to check on her and give me an update,” Adam said, returning from the kitchen. I nodded and speared another bag with my fangs. I used my full mouth as an excuse to avoid talking about what had just happened.
“Red?” Adam’s tone was quiet, careful.
I swallowed the last few drops and lowered the empty bag. “Yeah?”
My first instinct was to fire back with a caustic retort. But this was Adam. He’d see right through it. “I just never know what’s going to set her off.”
“She’s going to be okay. Eventually.”
I blew out a shaky breath. “Maybe I need to get Rhea to teach me a patience spell.”
The mancy chuckled and wrapped his arms around me. “Red, there are some things even magic can’t fix.”
I thought about my sister, the once vital, earthy female who used to paint her dreams and loved to laugh. “Tell me about it.”
Getting to Vein was something straight out of a spy movie. Adam flashed us to the alley behind a hole-in-the-wall Chinese joint in Hell’s Kitchen. To the dark races, this area was known as the Black Light District, where vampires, mages, werewolves, and faeries came to indulge their favorite vices. Vein served as headquarters for the BLD, and its owner, Slade “The Shade” Corbin, ran prostitutes, drugs, and the dark-races underworld out of the club.
As usual, I was thankful for Adam’s skills with interspatial travel that allowed me to avoid public transportation. I might not feed off humans anymore, but that didn’t mean I wanted to press up against them in a tin can hurtling through a dark tunnel. I kept asking Rhea to teach me how to travel magically, too, but she held me off, saying I needed more experience in basic magic.
Once we arrived, I hefted my large tote bag up on my shoulder. The ugly canvas thing didn’t go with my black ensemble at all, but it made lugging my hairless cat demon around town easier.
“We need to put you on a diet, Mr. Giggles,” I complained.
A blue knit cap and two batlike ears appeared over the top of the bag. “Bite me, magepire.”
I rolled my eyes. Giguhl was always so bitchy in his cat form. Probably because of the ridiculous sweaters and cat toboggans he was forced to wear to protect his hairless body from the frigid New York winter.
Adam crossed his arms. “Are you two done? We’re running late.”
I held a hand toward the entrance of Pu Pu Palace. “Lead the way.”
Adam shook his head as he passed me to the entrance. The place held maybe six tables out front. When we entered, the few mortal customers kept their heads bent over bowls of steaming noodles and General Tso’s chicken. Slade must have paid the owner of the restaurant well to not notice the parade of vampires, mages, and faeries who came through the restaurant on a nightly basis. Although, knowing Slade, he’d bought the original owner out and kept the restaurant running as a front for his more illicit businesses.
We went back through the swinging door to the kitchen. Peanut oil droplets and the scent of MSG and mystery meats hung heavy in the air. The cooks sweated over large woks and prattled in a steady stream of Cantonese.
I grabbed an egg roll off a plate and dropped it in the bag for Giguhl to make up for my comment about his weight. A muttered “thanks” reached my ears over the kitchen racket. Adam opened the door to the walk-in freezer and shooed me in. I closed it behind us and pulled the lever to open the hidden passage. Two minutes later, we’d made our way down the stairs and into the tunnel that led to the entrance of Vein.
The regular bouncer, a Mohawked vampire named Joe, sat on the stool. Word of PW’s show must have spread because the line to get in was ten beings deep. Since Adam and I were regulars, Joe waved us past the line. A few disgruntled mutters rose from those who had to wait. I ignored them and high-fived Joe as we passed.
Earl, Vein’s fanged barkeep, was busy filling drink orders for the large crowd who’d turned out for Pussy Willow’s New York debut. I waved to get his attention and held up three fingers. Earl wasn’t exactly the chatty type, but he did deign to nod vaguely in my direction. The move was both a greeting and an acknowledgment that he’d send our drinks over to the table. After the night I’d had so far, I briefly considered changing my regular beer for a double Bloody Magdalene, but knew the move would only earn me The Look from Adam. On the bright side, the beer would go a long way to help scrub the chemical taste of coagulant from my tongue, courtesy of the pint of bagged blood I’d chugged earlier.
Adam beelined for our usual spot—a booth along the back wall that gave us a perfect view of the stage. I scooted in and opened the canvas bag. Giguhl leapt out and onto the vinyl banquette, the move knocking his blue cap askew.
“You don’t really expect me to hang out in this hairless carcass, do you?”
I removed a set of sweatpants from the bag and rose again with a sigh. “We’ll be right back.”
Carrying the cat under one arm, I made my way through the crowd toward the bathrooms. Ignoring the speculative glances from the females in line for the ladies’ room, I went to the men’s door. I pushed it open and tossed the cat and the pants inside. Leaning against the wall, I crossed my arms. “Giguhl change forms,” I called out loud enough to be heard inside to the john.
Two seconds later a pop sounded. Green smoke wafted under the door, bringing with it the scent of rotten eggs and urinal cakes.
“What the fuck!” a deep male voice shouted from inside. “Keep that thing away from me.”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Giguhl responded in a bored tone. “You couldn’t handle The Pitchfork.”
The door burst open and a very large, very pissed-off werewolf exited. As the door swung closed, I was treated to an unsavory view of naked demon ass as Giguhl pulled on his sweatpants. And here I was thinking I was clever for making him change forms in the bathroom. If I didn’t know better I’d think Giguhl enjoyed flashing me. Which was likely, considering he was a Mischief demon.
Two seconds later, the seven-foot-tall, green-scaled, black-horned demon emerged. He wore a pair of faded black sweatpants that ended a good six inches above his hooves. He looked ridiculous, but it was better than sitting next to a naked demon all night.
“Did you have to antagonize the werewolf?” I asked.
“That’s a rhetorical question, right?”
I rolled my eyes and pushed his shoulder. “C’mon, the show’s starting soon.”
As we walked back to the booth, I bumped shoulders with a familiar mage. He stopped when he recognized me. “Oh, sorry, Sabina.”
I waved away his apology. “Hey, Marty. No worries.”
“What up, homeslice?” Giguhl raised a claw to high-five the mage, who we knew casually from around Prytania Place. He was some sort of low-level administrator for the Council, but a nice enough guy.
Marty smiled and slapped Giguhl’s claw. “You up for another round of hoops, G? I want a chance to win back that twenty you took off me last time.”
“You’re welcome to try,” Giguhl said, and laughed.
We said our good-byes to Marty and headed back to our seats. Cinnamon, one of Slade’s nymph waitresses-slash-prostitutes, had delivered our drinks while we were gone. Giguhl dropped onto the bench and chugged down half his beer. When he paused for a breath, a loud belch escaped his black lips.
“Nice, G.” Adam raised his own drink to cover his smile.
“I can’t help it,” the demon said. “I’m so nervous for Pussy Willow.”
“Why?” I asked. “She performed all the time in New Orleans.”
Giguhl shot me a bitch-please look. “Yeah, but that was lip-synching. She’s been practicing her vocals but she’s still really nervous.”
“Wait,” I said. “You mean she’s actually going to sing?” I exchanged a worried look with Adam. He shook his head slightly. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought there might be a very good reason PW used to lip-synch during her drag shows.
The demon nodded and took a nervous sip of his beer.
“So how’s the Roller Derby stuff going, G?” Adam asked, deftly changing subjects before Giguhl could work himself up into a frenzy like an overprotective stage mother.
Giguhl sat forward, warming up to the new topic. “Pretty well. I’ve recruited six chicks so far.”
Up until a few weeks earlier, Giguhl had been the reigning champ of Demon Fight Club. The setup had been simple: Two demons faced off in a fight pit located in Vein’s basement. But an incident involving a Lust demon and a mage with attention deficit disorder brought that to a screaming halt. Luckily, I’d missed that ordeal, but according to Giguhl, the whole thing was quite upsetting. “Sabina, some things cannot be unseen,” he’d said. Apparently, several of Vein’s patrons agreed and Slade was forced to shut down DFC for good.
Never one to let a little difficulty prevent him from making a fast buck, The Shade, as Slade was known in the Black Light District, started looking for new ideas to entertain his customers. Giguhl suggested he bring Pussy Willow up from New Orleans to sing at the club one night a week. The suggestion hadn’t been without ulterior motive. Ever since we’d returned to New York, Giguhl had been moping about missing the changeling.
When she arrived, Pussy Willow admitted she’d been looking for a chance to get out of the Big Easy. “Everyone there still thinks of me as Brooks,” she’d said. “Even Zen had a hard time remembering I’m a full-time lady now.”
Brooks was the changeling’s given name. He used to live his life as a full-time male and part-time drag queen. But after an attack by a group of crazy cult members, Brooks had decided he felt safer behind a wig and stilettos. That’s when he became Pussy Willow full-time. And, since everyone in New Orleans knew Brooks, the changeling believed coming to New York would give her a chance at a fresh start among people who didn’t know her past.
“I feel just like Mary Tyler Moore,” she’d exclaimed the night she arrived. “And Giguhl is my Rhoda.”
Anyway, after the success in bringing Pussy Willow up, Giguhl went to Slade with the Roller Derby idea after watching some movie. And that’s when the idea for Hell on Wheel’s Roller Derby Night was born.
I leaned forward to look past Adam at my minion. “I didn’t realize you were already recruiting for the team.”
The demon nodded, his enthusiasm palpable. “I convinced Slade to host the first match here next week.”
I blinked. “Wow. How many team members do you need total?” This wasn’t an idle question. Ever since he’d first brought up the idea of putting a team together, I’d been waiting for my invitation.
“I’d like ten. That way we’ll have plenty of subs. So far I have three mages, two of Slade’s nymphs, and, of course, Pussy Willow.”
“No vamps?” I asked. “Or weres?” I added at the last minute so it wouldn’t look like I was digging.
Giguhl pulled the label off his beer bottle and started shredding it. “That’s the problem. I don’t know any vampires in the city. And all the weres I know are dudes.”
I stilled. He didn’t know any vampires? “Um, Giguhl? Not to point out the obvious or anything, but… I’m a vampire.”
“You don’t count.” He waved a claw.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He shrugged. “You’re not going to be on the team.” He said this like it was the most obvious statement in the world.
I set down my beer with deliberate slowness. “And why not?”
Adam tensed. He knew I’d been waiting for Giguhl to ask me to be on the team.
“Don’t give me that look, trampire,” Giguhl said. “It’s nothing personal.”
“You just told me you need warm bodies for the team. And in the next breath, you say you don’t want me. How am I not supposed to take it personally?”
Giguhl finally noticed the sharp edge to my words. He shot a look at Adam. “Um, I’m not asking friends to be on the team.”
“But you just said PW is on it!”
Giguhl cradled the beer between his claws and sighed. “Look, Red, no offense, but you’re not exactly a team player.”
My mouth fell open. “How can you say that? What happened to us being Team Awesome?”
Two dubious male stares greeted that statement.
“What?” I demanded. “I know I had some problems remembering the team thing in New Orleans but I’m much better now. Right?”
Adam shifted uncomfortably. “I think what Giguhl means is that since he’s your minion you won’t take coaching from him seriously.”
I grabbed my beer and sat back with a huff. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
“See?” Giguhl said, looking at Adam. “She’s already undermining me.”
The lights dimmed. Giguhl’s eyes widened and he swiveled toward the stage. But if he thought this conversation was over, he was sorely mistaken. How dare he imply I couldn’t be a team player?
“Here we go,” Adam said under his breath. He tried to pull me closer but I remained stiffly distant. He sighed and leaned in. “Oh, come on. You didn’t really want to play Roller Derby anyway.”
He was right, of course. I thought the costumes and nicknames the teams used were silly. Still, Giguhl’s rejection stung more than it should have. But none of that was Adam’s fault, so I scooted closer.
Onstage, spotlights flashed and a machine belched smoke. PW’s backup band appeared and took their positions, accompanied by lackluster applause from the crowd. A few moments later, they began to play a swingy baseline.
“Ladies and gentlemen.” Pussy Willow’s voice came from the speakers. She stood just offstage in the shadows with her mic. “Vein is proud to present the Black Light District’s newest musical sensation—Pussy Willow and the Catnips!”
Giguhl looked over his shoulder. “The band name was my idea!” He looked so proud that I smothered my urge to roll my eyes. Instead, I shot him two thumbs-up. When the demon turned back around, Adam squeezed my thigh and smiled.
With the lights still down, the Catnips switched the melody into the opening notes of the first song. Instead of the upbeat dance songs PW performed at Lagniappe in New Orleans, this had a jazzy lounge sound. Sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t call the title to mind.
In the shadows, Pussy Willow’s silhouette rushed across the stage to take her place. A few seconds later, a single spotlight illuminated the piano. The faery draped across the top like a mink stole. She wore a long, blue-sequined gown and Lana Turner waves spilled over her shoulder.
She lifted the microphone to her bright red lips like a phallus. The first words were something about making it through the wilderness but not knowing how lost she was. I frowned. Where had I heard this song before? The words were familiar but the bossa nova beat threw me off.
But then she got to the refrain. With her false-lashed eyes groping the audience, she sang, “Like a virgin, touched for the very first time.”
A snort escaped my mouth. I couldn’t help it. Adam bit his lip. Giguhl shot a glare over his shoulder.
It’s not that Pussy’s singing was funny. She actually was doing a pretty good job. But her choice of song was hilarious. I had to give her some credit, though—she was a pretty sexy woman… for someone with a penis.
I looked around to gauge the audience’s reaction. The crowd at Vein was used to screaming for blood at Demon Fight Club. But I was pleasantly surprised to see most of the patrons enjoying the performance. Especially the nymphs, who gathered in a clutch near the back of the bar. The nymphs usually didn’t take kindly to other hot chicks getting male attention on their turf. After all, they made their living seducing Slade’s patrons. But that night a few of them even sang along with the changeling.
As I watched, Marty approached Tansy, one of Slade’s most popular nymphs. She was known for providing services to more adventurous johns, like a certain Mischief demon who shall remain nameless. Marty spoke to her briefly and handed her something I couldn’t see. She palmed what he offered and took his hand to lead him to the back rooms.
Dismissing the exchange, I started to look back at the stage, but a familiar auburn-haired male near the bar caught my eye. My stomach did a little dip. “Shit.”
Adam turned and followed my gaze. “What’s wrong?”
Crap. I hadn’t meant to say that out loud.
“Oh, nothing.” I shook my head. He’d already seen who caused my reaction so there was no use in lying. “Just surprised to see Slade. I thought he was still in California.”
Adam shrugged. “Cinnamon said he got back this afternoon. It’ll be interesting to hear what news he has about how Tanith’s doing as Despina.”
I nodded absently. As much as I wanted to know what was going on now that Tanith had taken over the leadership of the vamp race, I wasn’t sure I was ready to hear it from Slade. Ever since we’d returned to New York, I’d managed to avoid much contact with him.
My avoidance had less to do with his personality and more to do with our shared, very personal history. As far as Adam knew, that history was old news. I’d told him about how back in Los Angeles in the late ’70s, Slade and I had partnered on a case that went south. And when I say “partnered,” I mean in more ways than one. But what Adam didn’t know was that Slade and I had repeated history just before Maisie was kidnapped. It was only one night and the mancy and I weren’t together at that time, but I’d kept that mistake to myself because I knew it would hurt Adam. Okay, it would hurt me to tell him, too. Regardless, I tried to avoid Slade as a rule to avoid any chance the truth might come out.
Unfortunately, Slade hadn’t gotten that memo. Because he saw me looking at him and headed our way. I tensed. I couldn’t very well escape the booth with the show going on. Besides, I couldn’t think of a way to justify avoiding Slade that blatantly to Adam. So I just sat there and prayed I didn’t look as uncomfortable as I felt.
By that point, Pussy Willow had moved on to an acoustic version of “Papa Don’t Preach.” I glued my gaze to the stage, pretending I wasn’t counting down the steps until Slade reached us. So when he tapped me on my shoulder, I performed a pretty convincing startle.
“Oh!” I said, jerking around like he’d caught me off guard. “Hey, Slade.”
He grinned down at me. Damn him. He knew I saw him coming. “Can I talk to you?”
I cupped a hand to my ear. “Sorry, can’t hear you over the—”
Just then, Adam leaned over, interrupting me. “Care to join us?”
Slade’s grin widened. I wanted to scrape that smile off his face with a belt sander. “Actually, I was hoping to steal Sabina from you.”
My fists clenched at his double entendre. Damn him.
Adam shrugged. “Fine by me.”
Slade smirked and raised an eyebrow at me. I wanted to kick both him and the mancy. But instead of hitting either male, I leaned over and slapped a wet, sloppy kiss on Adam. “Be right back,” I whispered, pulling away. He looked a little dazed by my enthusiasm, but managed a nod.
As I exited the booth, I took my frustration out on Slade’s foot. He gave me the devil’s own smile and stepped back with a slight limp.
Giguhl looked up to shoot us a nasty glare for disrupting his enjoyment of Pussy Willow’s show. But when he saw me standing next to Slade, his eyebrows shot to his horns. He was the only one I had told about my indiscretion with Slade, so he had cause to speculate. Luckily, he covered his reaction smoothly and turned to engage Adam with some comment about the show.
As I climbed the metal stairs, Slade’s presence loomed behind me. Even though I had no interest in him as a lover anymore, it was hard not to appreciate his hotness. Auburn hair combed into a carelessly expensive style. An easy smile backed up with steely confidence and charming opportunism. His white dress shirt was open at the neck, exposing corded muscles and a thick, blue vein. Looking at him was like being a kid presented with candy from a handsome stranger.
Luckily, I’d outgrown my sweet tooth for that particular confection. Plus, the lie I’d told Adam hung around my neck like a lead scarlet letter.
Once we reached the office, he closed the door behind us. The muffled strains of Pussy Willow’s rendition of “Crazy for You” filtered into the room.
“I’m surprised to see you here,” I said, leading the way into the office. “I thought you were still in California.”
He leaned against the edge of his desk and crossed his arms. “Been keeping tabs on me, Bina?”
I narrowed my eyes. “Please. Everyone knows you’re Tanith’s man now.”
Tanith was the new leader of the vampire race. She used to share that role with two other vampires, the three making up the triumvirate we called the Dominae. My grandmother, Lavinia Kane, had been the Alpha Domina until Tanith conspired with the mage Hekate Council to have her killed to prevent a war between the races. Now that Lavinia was dead, Tanith had maneuvered herself into being named Despina of the race. From what I’d heard, the third former-Domina, Persephone, had been demoted to little more than Tanith’s lapdog.
As the leader of New York’s vampire population, Slade was a good ally for the Despina to have in her pocket. It didn’t hurt that he had good relations with the Hekate Council—or that his support for her new regime was easily bought.
“I just returned from Los Angeles last night,” he said. “The Despina decided to come to the Big Apple early to finalize some of the finer points of the treaty with the Hekate Council.”
My eyebrows shot up at this news. I hadn’t heard Tanith was already in town. But then, it’s not like the Hekate Council felt the need to keep me updated. Besides, I was hoping they’d keep the new Despina so busy I wouldn’t have to see her at all until the night of the treaty signing. I just wanted to keep my head down and the drama out of my life until that damned thing was finalized.
But Slade hadn’t called me to his office to discuss the Despina. “I need to talk to you about a delicate matter.” Tension braided through his words like piano wire.
I crossed my arms and tilted my head. “Why do I sense I won’t enjoy this conversation?”
“Now, now. Don’t go getting all defensive.”
“Who’s defensive?” I said, unclenching.
He smiled knowingly. Then he went in for the kill. “See anything interesting on your stroll through Central Park earlier tonight?”
Shock rippled through me. Slade’s knowledge of my activities shouldn’t have been a surprise. As the leader of New York’s vampires and mob boss of the Black Light District, he had eyes all over the city. I forced a casual shrug. “Oh, you know, the usual. Joggers, muggers, a dead body.” No point in denying I’d seen the murder scene. He already knew.
“You want to explain to me why you didn’t come to me with the information?” His paternal tone set my fangs on edge.
“It’s none of my business.” Slade’s face tightened into a disapproving frown, but before he could launch into a lecture, I had a question. “Who told you they saw me in the park?”
He crossed his arms. “One of Michael’s packs was on patrol. They saw you.”
Fucking werewolves. Slade’s main duty was keeping the vamps in line, but he also had influence over the local fae and werewolf packs to keep peace in the city. To prevent territorial disputes, he’d divided the boroughs into separate feeding areas. A pack that called themselves The Lone Wolves got most of Central Park. The pack’s Alpha, Michael Romulus, and I were friends, but this wasn’t the first time The Lone Wolves had caused me trouble.
“Did they also tell you there was another vampire chick there?”
Slade frowned. “No, they didn’t mention it. Who was she?”
“Never seen her before.” I shook my head. “I only got a quick look from far away, but her red was lighter than mine, so she must have been young. You might ask the pack again. See if any of their guys spotted her.”
Slade smiled. “Does this mean you’re going to help after all?”
“No. That’s as far as I’m going down this path. Just look for that chick and you’ll probably find your killer.”
Slade shifted on his desk and his face took on a devil’s advocate slant. “You know, her presence at the scene is no more proof of her guilt than it is of yours.”
“What the hell do you mean by that?”
He shrugged. “Some might speculate that you hung around to admire your own handiwork.”
I choked out a laugh. “Give me a fucking break. Even if I was still feeding from humans—which we both know I’m not—I’m smart enough to clean up after myself.”
His expression cleared and he pushed away from the desk. “I know that. Which is why I want you to help me find the idiot who did this.”
“Why?” I didn’t even try to hide the suspicion in my tone.
“Why do I need help? Or why you?”
I’d worked for him on a job months earlier—before Maisie was taken and shit went down in New Orleans. He’d asked me to rough up a strip club owner named Tiny Malone who owed Slade some money. I’d delivered the threats but then Tiny turned the tables on me and I barely escaped. The altercation had sparked off some emotional shit for me and I’d ended up calling Slade for help. Which is what led to us sleeping together. So needless to say, his request made all my warning bells shriek with alarm.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not asking you to come on my payroll permanently or anything. I know you’ve got your own… stuff going on.” The undertone in that one sentence was strong enough to give me pause, but he kept talking. “This is more of a favor that I’m willing to pay you for. But I need you to promise you won’t tell any of your mage buddies about it for now.”
I swirled my hand through the air so he’d continue. I wasn’t promising not to tell anyone about it until I knew everything. Slade was notorious for “forgetting” to mention important—and damning—details.
“It worries me that the cops are involved.” He spat this out like a gunpoint confession. Like he hated admitting he worried about anything. “Usually we’re able to clean up these messes and put the mortals off the scent of vampire involvement. But they’re all over this. Right now they’re calling it a murder, but once the press gets ahold of the details we could have trouble.”
I leaned back and crossed my arms. “So you’ve got a vamp who sucks at covering her tracks. Why do you need my help?”
He hesitated. “It’s complicated.”
I rolled my eyes. Since when weren’t things complicated with him? “Save your breath, Slade. I’m not looking for complications in my life right now.”
“Hmm.” He pursed his lips.
He was baiting me. I knew it. “Whatever.” I started to rise. “I’ve given you my answer.”
“I have a bad feeling about this, Sabina.” He stepped forward, his eyes pleading. Something about his tone told me he wasn’t bullshitting me this time. I paused and crossed my arms, ready to listen. “If word gets out that I can’t control the local vamps, the Despina might find someone else to take over here.”
Satisfied I wasn’t about to walk out the door, he approached the bar and held up a decanter filled with amber liquid. I shook my head and took a swig of the drink I’d forgotten I had. “I know you want to stay out of this, but if the Despina appoints some West Coast vamp to take control of the local population, the results could be potentially explosive. Especially since most of the local vamps escaped L.A. because they didn’t want to live under the Dominae’s dictatorial laws anymore.”
The words “potentially explosive” had been used on purpose. He knew me well enough to know that no matter how much I claimed to want peace in my life, part of me would never fully be out of the game. On the other hand, working with Slade again had its own potentially explosive ramifications. Ones I was determined to avoid at all costs.
“New York’s vamps are right to be wary. I don’t buy Tanith’s new kinder, gentler vampire party line. But none of that’s my business anymore. I’m done with vampire drama.”
Slade snorted and dropped a piece of ice in his glass. “Sabina, please. Let’s not bullshit each other. You might have everyone else convinced you’re cool with domestic bliss, but I know you better than that. I left the assassin life behind once, too, remember? Even tried to live the straight life for a few years. But the boredom almost killed me. Luckily, I wised up and got into organized crime. Otherwise I’d probably be a serial killer by now.” He chuckled at his own joke, but we both knew he wasn’t far off the mark. He took a casual sip of his drink. “How long has it been since you killed anyone?”
I schooled my features. “Only a psychopath would keep track of something like that.”
“A psychopath is just an assassin without pay.” A slow smile spread across his lips. “You don’t want to admit what you really are? Fine. But don’t be surprised when that darkness inside you rises up and you’re forced to deal with it.”
“That’s the difference between you and me, Slade.” I set down my drink and rose with deliberate slowness. “I’m actually happy no one’s tried to kill me in months. It’s a nice change of pace. I’m done with that dark shit. I’m embracing the light now.”
He laughed out loud. “Sweetheart, you might like to pretend you’re a mage now, but you’re still half vampire. And we all know what happens to vampires who embrace the light.”
Our gazes locked. Sounds from the bar intruded into the tense silence between us. I was so intent on glaring at Slade that it took me a second to register what I was hearing. The music had cut off and had been replaced by screams. But they weren’t the shouts of a happy audience. They were the shrieks of terrified patrons. Slade heard them, too. One second he was by the desk and the next he ran past me to the large one-way mirror that looked down on the bar.
“What the—” he breathed. Curious, I joined him. By the time I reached the window, beings were running around like spooked animals.
In the center of the chaos, Tansy was screaming and covered in blood. Slade ran to the door and threw it open. I followed him onto the landing.
“Tansy?” he shouted.
The nymph looked up with wide, spooked eyes. “Someone killed my client!”
In the aftermath of Tansy’s shocking announcement, my stomach dropped as if someone had pitched it from the Empire State Building. My head started to shake from side to side, as if the movement could somehow reverse time and make her a liar. Marty was dead? No way.
Slade stared at her for a split second before leaping down the stairs. As he ran to her, he barked orders. “Giguhl, help Earl seal all the exits. No one leaves until I clear them. Once that’s done, call Michael Romulus and tell him to bring his pack down to help take statements from everyone. Got it?”
The demon jerked into action and took off across the bar. I stood numbly, unable to process anything or do much more than stare dumbly at the spot where Tansy sat. Slade turned and located Pussy Willow among the onlookers. “PW, take Tansy. Get her cleaned up.”
Pussy Willow came forward and wrapped a comforting arm around the nymph. “Come on, cherie. I got a special bottle of hooch in my dressing room. We’ll have a nip or two and fix you up right as rain.” Despite her upbeat tone, PW’s face had gone pale under all that makeup. As the pair passed, the changeling looked at me with real fear in her eyes.
“What can we do?” Adam asked. Thank the gods one of us was thinking clearly.
Slade’s jaw clenched as if trying to keep his temper in check. Knowing the vampire, underneath that calm but determined façade, he was simmering with anger that someone dare do something like this under his own roof. “Both of you come with me.”
Slade led us through the door at the back of the club and into a nondescript hallway. A clutch of nymphs huddled at the end, whispering to each other and crying pretty tears. The air hung heavy with the aftershocks of violence and the scent of blood. Too much blood.
He stopped outside a door halfway down and on the left. His solemn eyes met mine; our shared look held the weight of… too much knowledge. Judging from the strong odor of blood, there was no chance Tansy was mistaken about Marty’s murder. “Brace yourselves,” Slade said. “This is going to be messy.”
He twisted the knob and pushed. The portal swung inside slowly but the air, heavy with the stench of death, slammed into us like a sucker punch.
I swallowed hard. It was one thing to see a crime scene when the victim was a stranger. Easy to compartmentalize. But knowing that the victim this time was someone I’d known and liked made me pause at the threshold. Almost as if I knew that once I crossed into that room, life would never be the same.
I licked my suddenly dry lips. “Let’s get this over with.”
Marty’s body hung from hooks like a macabre mobile. Pinned like a bloody butterfly. Displayed like a gruesome objet d’art.
A single, surgical line ran from his Adam’s apple to his groin. Wounds ravaged his neck, his thighs. But his lips tilted up in a secret smile.
Whoever strung him over the bed hadn’t worried about the mess. The formerly white sheets looked like Rorschach ink blots made from pools of blood and entrails. The air stunk of sex and fear.
Oxygen was suddenly too heavy for my lungs. Cold sweat coated my chest. And my mind turned into a sadistic time machine, forcing me back to a night thirty years earlier.
The virgin corpses hang from hooks like grisly angels. The Dominae stand below, their moonbeam skin bared to our eager eyes. Blood rains down, coating their hands, their lips, their breasts.
I tried to blink away the memory. Wanted to dig it out with those hooks. But it wouldn’t budge.
“No,” Lavinia’s voice cracks through the temple. “Not her.” My dreams disintegrate, choke me. Wet cement hits my lungs. My cheeks burn with shame. But Lavinia’s smile is cold.
“Sabina?” Adam’s voice sounded far away. But it somehow managed to break through the haze of remembered pain. I swallowed hard. My eyes focused again and they found the carnage that met them a relief. The blood and the gore and the thumbprint of violence were preferable to the bitter memories of that night long ago. The night Lavinia stole the future I wanted and replaced it with the one she needed. The night that left me fractured. Gave me the wounds that never fully healed. The night she made me an assassin.
“Red?” Adam said, closer now.
I blinked. Confusion on his handsome face and worry. Worry and love I never saw in Lavinia’s cold mask.
“Sorry. You were saying?”
Adam watched me warily, as if he expected me to bolt. He placed a hand on my arm. The contact was my undoing. I saw his lips move but I couldn’t hear him anymore. The overpowering scent of blood, the nauseating reek of decay, the biting sting of those black memories suffocated me. I clawed at the collar of my coat. I needed fresh air. I needed space.
“I need to go.” I barely managed to force the words out over the rising tide of bile and shame. Adam didn’t try to stop me. Bless him.
I groped past Slade, past the nymphs clogging the hallway. Didn’t bother with manners. Just pushed through them like a drowning woman straining for the surface. Soon but not soon enough, I burst through the women’s restroom door. I slammed it closed and clicked the dead bolt.
The stalls and walls were painted industrial gray. Dingy white tiles looked like decayed teeth with plaque for grout. One of the faucets dripped methodically, like a counter ticking down the seconds to my nervous breakdown. I sucked in lungfuls of fetid air despite the scent of old mildew and wet cardboard and pine solvent. But what the restroom lacked in fresh oxygen it made up for with privacy.
Fluorescent bulbs overhead sputtered light like strobes, flashing in time with my heartbeat. The mirrors were little more than scraps of polished metal. Apparently, the clientele of Vein had little interest in using the mirrors as intended. Instead, they’d graffitied every inch of the surface with markers and lipstick. My mirror, for example, served as a canvas for a spurned lover who claimed that “Ben Charles is a fucking liar!” The last two words screamed across my face in harlot-red lipstick.
I turned on the tap and splashed water on my face. It stunk like rusty pipes, but it was as cold as a much-needed slap.
“Get it together, Sabina,” I said aloud to my reflection. But that face with the wide eyes. That pale visage with its lips pulled back in fear. That face wasn’t impressed by my bravado. That face knew things I hadn’t been able to admit to myself. Not yet.
I focused on getting my hitching breaths under control. On convincing my heart to stop trying to claw through my chest cavity. For a few moments, I hovered on the knife’s edge between sanity and hysteria. Then, thank the gods, I finally took my first painless breath. My neck muscles unclamped, leaving behind a dull ache in my jaw. I took another handful of water and rubbed my hands over my face. When I looked up again, the panic in my eyes had dulled. But the smoky gray shadows still lurked.
I released a long, slow breath. And with it, Lavinia’s ghost. But I knew the relief would be short-lived. Demons like Lavinia Kane never stayed exorcised.
The door handle shook. I swiveled, automatically crouching into a fighting stance.
“Sabina?” Adam’s muffled voice drifted through the door.
I blew out a breath. “One sec!” I used my shirt hem to wipe away the rest of the water. Checked my reflection one last time in the mirror. I glared at the strange chick staring back at me. “Suck it up.”
With that, I turned and went to the door. My hands shook as I flipped the bolt. The door whipped open with more force than necessary. It slammed against the gray wall like a gunshot. Adam flinched and narrowed his eyes at me. “Everything okay?” The question was hesitant, the kind one would use with a woman on the edge.
“Yep. All good.”
“What happened back there?” He jerked his head toward the door down the hall.
This was definitely not the time nor the place to have a heart-to-heart with him about how seeing Marty strung up like a virgin sacrifice had resurrected feelings I’d believed buried for good. Feelings of revenge and loss, guilt and victory, disappointment and pride about Lavinia’s death. One of the shittiest parts about mourning is that just when you think you’ve moved on, someone else dies and all that grief rises up, resurrecting all the pain and anger and remorse. But, like I said, not the time or the place. Hell, if I had my way, no time or place would ever be right to talk about it again.
“The smell got to me.” I shrugged and forced a self-deprecating laugh to hide the lie. “Guess I’m losing my edge.”
“I don’t think anyone has an edge sharp enough not to be affected by that.”
True enough. Even Adam, who was normally unflappable, looked green around the gills. “Does Slade have any idea who did this?”
Adam shook his head. He turned to walk back down the hall. I froze, my feet glued to the grimy tiles. My gut twisted at the thought of going back into that room. But then I noticed someone had closed the door. Swallowing my resistance, I marched toward Slade, determined to ignore the fear and the memories and focus on the job of finding out who killed Marty.
When we reached Slade, Michael Romulus was by his side, going over what they knew so far. Adam and I exchanged quick handshakes with the werewolf Alpha before we all got down to business.
“None of the girls saw anything,” Slade said. “Cinnamon found Tansy knocked out in the supply closet. They found the body together.”
“How many entrances and exits are there to this area?” I asked, switching to just-the-facts-ma’am mode.
“Just the one door. None of the rooms have windows either. Best bet is the killer did the job and slipped back into the club while Pussy Willow was playing. Looks like probably a fifteen-to thirty-minute window between his escape and Cinnamon finding Tansy.”
In other words, he had fuck-all in the way of leads.
“From the looks of it,” I said, “the culprit is almost definitely a vampire.”
Michael frowned at me. “What makes you say that?”
I hesitated, not wanting to go down this path but knowing I had to. “The position of the body.” I couldn’t stand to say Marty’s name right then if I was going to maintain my distance. “There’s an old Dominae ritual where they string up virgins above an altar and bathe in the blood.”
Adam’s eyebrow raised to his hairline. Something in his eyes told me he was connecting the dots about my earlier reaction. Luckily, Michael jumped in before the mage could question me about it.
“Or someone wants us to think it was a vampire to throw us off their scent,” Michael said. “Any number of beings could have done it. Several classifications of demons would be capable of this.”
“Or a rogue werewolf,” Slade said.
Michael tensed like he wanted to get defensive about that theory but thought better of it. “A rogue wolf wouldn’t make it far without me picking up a scent, but it’d be foolish to rule any possibility out at this point.”
“He’s right,” Adam said. “A mage could flash in and out unnoticed, which blows Slade’s escape-through-the-club theory out of the water. Hell, even a faery with enough motivation could have pulled this off.”
“There’s something else,” I said to the mancy. The other two males knew this already but it was time to fill Adam in on the truth about what I’d seen earlier that night. “Remember how I said there was a murder in Central Park earlier?” He frowned and nodded. “When Slade asked me to come to his office it was to discuss that killing. When I saw the body, it had bite marks and there wasn’t enough blood at the scene to show for the extent of the male’s injuries. That means vampire.”
“She’s right,” Michael said. “My boys saw the body and believed the culprit was probably a vamp, too.”
“So you think the two murders are connected?” Adam asked.
“I think it’d be a mistake to think two sadistic murders happening on dark-race territory on one night is a coincidence,” I said. “The real question is, are we dealing with a garden-variety psycho or someone with more strategic reasons?”
“Do you think this is related to the peace negotiations?” Michael asked.
My stomach tightened at the possibility. “Like you said, we can’t rule anything out yet. But for the record, I sure as hell pray this is just a psychotic vampire with a hard-on for drama.” I didn’t even want to contemplate the alternative. I’d worked too hard, sacrificed too much to face yet another roadblock to peace.
Slade ran a hand over his face. “Christ, what a clusterfuck. When the Despina finds out about this, she’s going to rake me over the coals.”
“Forget the Despina,” Adam said. “When Orpheus finds out a mage was murdered—possibly by a vampire—he’s going to shit bricks. With the peace treaty signing looming, he’s going to lock this city down until the perpetrator is found.”
Slade looked like he was going to be sick. “Speaking of, I’d better go call the High Councilman now so he hears this from me. In the meantime, Mike, I want you and your boys to get statements from everyone in the bar. Maybe we’ll get lucky and someone will have seen something.”
“And if they didn’t?” I asked.
Excerpted from Silver-Tongued Devil by Jaye Wells Copyright © 2012 by Jaye Wells. Excerpted by permission.
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