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The bodies concerned him. There were too many for this to be merely a coincidence.
A toxic mix of rotting trash and old urine drifted out of the alley between the brick buildings. The stench, underscored by the slightly sweet scent of death, seemed a thousand times stronger to his preternaturally sharp sense of smell than to the human cops inspecting the scratched and dented Dumpster. And underlying it all was the scent of three, possibly four, unfamiliar vampires.
"There has to be more to it," Dmitri Dionotte muttered to no one in particular. Why would a vampire leave behind such a blatant calling card as a string of bodies void of blood and missing vital organs? Why kill a donor that would come back to give more? And what the hell did a vampire need with organs anyway? If he or sheor judging by the number of bodies, theyneeded additional sustenance, why not liquefy the organs with their venom and leave the outer body intact?
And more importantly, why leave them where they could easily be discovered in downtown?
Revenge. That was always an option. So was justice. Hell, everything as basic as blood lust to something as complicated as insanity could be a motivation to slake thirst. The lack of blood he understood, but the missing organs?
He ducked behind the edge of the brick building to avoid being seen as the police zipped a black body bag over the latest victim found among the heaps of plastic trash bags.
What did you discover? The voice of the clan laird, Roman Petrov, echoed clearly in his head.
It is another. Same situation. No blood, chest cavity split, organs missing. The police arrived before I finished my observations.
You can say that again. Someone is tipping off the mortals before we can remove the bodies. Dmitri walked at a steady pace back toward the club, the wind off Puget Sound whipping his black trench coat around his jean-clad legs and pushing strands of his dark hair and sunglasses hard against his face. Despite the cloudy sky and intermittent sunlight, the glasses helped prevent him from getting a migraine from the intensity of the light.
You know what this means?
Yes, my laird. They'll be looking for answers.
Followed directly by pointing fingers, Roman said dryly.
Dmitri's shoulders tightened as memories of a peasant mob, people he'd known and led, their faces twisted with fear and hate, flickered before his eyes. They were armed with pitchforks and lighted rushes, and rough-woven garments hung from their skeletal, starved forms. It took so very little to incite madness. A little fear, a dash of superstition, a pinch of anger and you had the perfect cocktail for chaos.
Mortals, so damn predictable, Roman scoffed.
Dmitri considered pointing out that once they had been mortals too, but held his tongue. My laird, since we already know there is the possibility of exposure, should we not work to ensure we're presented in a positive light while we conduct our own investigation?
An excellent suggestion. I shall convene the council.
An hour later, Dmitri still hadn't heard a single word from the council or Roman. Sitting in his office at the nightclub Sangria, he scrubbed his hands over his face, then closed down the tracking program on his computer screen.
He had enough to do with running the club, making sure that the donors who came in kept their anonymity and that the vampires who came in minded their manners. If there was one thing he was fastidious about in accommodating the vampires of Seattle, it was that humans weren't changed unless they wanted to be. Blood exchange wasn't allowed. Donation, yes. Drinking, yes. But no random conversions.
Despite being a vampire himself, he never believed in his kind's divine right to change humans as they saw fit, never giving a thought to whether the human wanted to be an immortal damned to a hellish eternity bound in blood.
He squeezed the bridge of his nose, warding off the pressure building there. Beyond the club, he didn't need or want any further entanglements with mortals. As trejan for the clan, responsible for governing their secrecy, security and safety, he had more than enough to occupy his time and resources. But the Bloodless Murders, as the local media had dubbed the four bodies found in the past two weeks, were the kind of high-profile exposure his clan didn't need or want. Dmitri rolled his shoulders.
As long as the clan kept itself exclusive, only admitting a few select mortals who knew to keep their mouths shut, vampires got along fine with the community. Ordinary people went about their happy, blissfully ignorant little lives, completely content with their confidence that mortals were at the top of the food chain. Imbeciles. If they only knew.
The Cascade Clan maintained order and discipline. Mortals were not cattle, they insisted. They were symbiotic partners. So the vampires that lived in and around Seattle followed the code lain down as law by the clan council. Or they left or were executed.
Yes, my laird. He edged forward in his black leather desk chair, waiting.
It has been decided. The council suspects there are reiver vampires within our territory. As trejan, you are to find out the truth of this, and what they want. Do what you can to seed the community with a positive view of our kind, if indeed the police or reports seem to be pointing in our direction. It would not do for there to be chaos. It may indeed be time for us to reintroduce our kind to mortals.
Come out into the open? Are you certain?
The council seems to think it may be best, especially if we need to form alliances against the reivers.
I'm on it.
Dmitri pushed away from his desk and strode through his private door into the main body of the club, his mind swirling with the implications of the assignment. This was a chance for his kind to solidify their status among mortals, to stop living in the shadows. But it was equally a chance for sheer insanity and mob mentality to rule if handled badly.
What happened within the walls of the club would help determine their future in this city. Too bad the interior of Sangria looked like a swanked-out version of the Bat Cave or a B-movie version of an uptown hell, minus the roaring flames.
With the modern black-and-chrome fixtures, plush crimson velvet booths, black lacquered bar uplit with red neon and oblong red glass globes suspended from the ceiling, Sangria qualified as an upscale trendy theme bar.
It was the strategically placed and lighted stalagmites jutting up from the floor and stalactites that dripped down in giant stone daggers from the ceiling that gave the place its underground appeal. They encircled the cozy booths, bracketed the length of the bar and encased the row of crimson curtains leading to the private rooms off the side of the dance floor.
He was used to the slightly unpleasant stench of overcooked steak and the acidic smell of cheap red wine, but those good-to-mortal smells were tainted with something caustic. Bleach. He'd have to talk to the staff about that. It wouldn't do to offend the incredibly sensitive noses of his best clientele.
A ridge of pressure built around Dmitri's eyes, pressing against his sinus cavities, forcing him to inhale a very potent scent, one that made the bleach inconsequential. His eyes narrowed, tracking the source. A mortal.
A curvy blonde in a conservative ice-blue button-down shirt and black slacks picked out a high-backed bar stool. Her shirt was cut for a man, based on how the shoulders looked a little too large and the buttons across her chest strained a little too hard. Dmitri felt a tug low and deep in his gut. A yearning he hadn't experienced in aeons crept over him, insidious and needy, causing his fangs to press insistently against his gums for release.
Thank God the club was nearly deserted at this time of day. The wave of need that slammed into him could have turned deadly in an instant had any other vampire strode up to her. As it was, the black lights caused the huge overlapping three-circle design inlayed with pale wood to glow amidst the dark wood of the empty dance floor. The mark of the Cascade Clan. It was still too early for most of his regulars to be here. Hell, half of them had yet to wake up at this hour. Only mortals were enticed into seeking out happy hour prior to sundown.
The woman gazed at the various bottles of deep ruby-red, clear and amber liquids lining the glass shelves behind the chrome-topped bar. Or perhaps she was observing herself in the mirror backing the shelves. A fall of long honey-blond hair cascaded over her shoulder, half masking a far too angelic face. At least too angelic to be in a place like this.
She reminded him of an image out of Botticelli's paintings. Ultrafeminine and ripe with wide expressive blue eyes, a delicate but determined chin and a lush mouth made for kisses. Dmitri wasn't sure for a moment if she truly was an angel or a succubus. The fallen sometimes did come to the vampires first. Immortals seeking out other immortals of dubious nature. And she was certainly the type that could lure a mortal into giving up his soul.
He tried to reach into her mind, to see precisely why she was there. What the Blocked. Interesting. It didn't happen often, but when it did, the mortal was intently focused on something. Normally it was only other vampires who could block their thoughts, and one whiff of the delicious mixture coursing through her veins told him she was definitely not a vampire.
"What can I get you?" asked Anastasia. Tonight the raven-haired bartender was laced up in a black leather vest. A small diamond stud glinted in her nose, but her thickly outlined hazel eyes were far too old and world-weary for her young face. Anastasia was over six hundred years old but still looked twenty-two.
"Do you have a special tonight?" The silken-smooth quality of the mortal's voice gave Dmitri a pang of memory. The pure quality of a soprano in the church choir, lifted above the people, a sliver of light and beauty inside a great cathedral. He released the curl of his fist. Forced himself to relax. That was another time, another existence, far too long ago. Best to focus on the here and now.
The bartender's eyes flicked toward him from across the room. She wants to see the manager.
Well, here I am.
Careful, Dmitri. I think she could be trouble. He smiled. Really? How entertaining. I'll see what I can do about it.
In an instant he crossed the room and stood right behind their visitor without so much as causing a current of air.
Dmitri lifted a brow. Careful, piccola. It's best not to speak so to your elders.
But you shouldn't move that fast where mortals can see you.
And did any of them notice? No.
Then quiet your mewling.
Tendrils of spiced vanilla and cinnamon swirled around the blonde in an invisible cloud that beckoned him closer, daring him to touch her cheek to see if it felt as soft as it appeared. Saints preserve him from temptation. From the scent, he bet her blood tasted like hot cinnamon rolls. Why were such wonders as this wasted upon the living?
"Why don't you get her a Vampire." The sexy-as-hell male voice, with a slight Italian lilt, soaked into Kristin Reed's skin and elicited a flutter in her stomach.
She glanced behind her and found herself face to broad chest. Encased in a crisp white shirt and fitted black jacket, the plane of muscle led to a deeply tanned throat, firm jaw and sinfully sculpted lips. She turned her gaze upward and found herself staring into a set of intense brown eyes, so dark they looked nearly black, and so deep they seemed soulless. A jolt, like caffeine from a double shot of espresso, raced down her spine and made her limbs tingle.
"Don't look quite so appalled," he offered in a deep, rich voice laced with amusement. "I think you'll enjoy it. No, put that away, this drink is on the house. Anastasia, please prepare a Vampire for our guest."
Kristin returned her wallet to her purse. "Thanks." Lord, he had a great mouth. What would it feel like to brush her mouth against his? To have his mouth crush hers in a soul-stealing kiss? Whoa, put on the brakes, she warned herself. This guy is a total stranger. Sexy and great to look at, but still a total stranger.
He put out his hand, and Kristin suddenly found her fingers enveloped in the coolness of his. "Dmitri Dionotte, manager of this establishment." He brought her hand up to his mouth, brushing dry lips across her skin. A shiver, part fear, part fascination, raced down her spine.
Still holding her hand, he lifted his head, his eyes all pupil as he held her gaze. He was like no one she'd ever met before. Darker, more imposing in a way that filled up the room, not just with his size, but also with the power radiating off him in pulsating waves.
She'd never had her hand kissed in her life and the contact alone was making her body buzz. "Kristin. Kristin Reed." Her pulsed kicked up double time, as if she'd made several trips up and down the staircase to the newsroom. Kristin swallowed and pulled herself together, kicking her brain back into gear, and withdrew her hand from his. She was here to find a lead. That's what she should be concentrating on. Not Mr. Tall, Dark and Delicious.
"Want that Vampire?" The bartender jarringly interrupted the silent connection shimmering between them.
Eyes still locked with his, Kristin pushed out something vaguely intelligent, though her brain had shut down and her body went into lust mode. "What's in it?"
The mountain-size guy beside her answered, "Chambord, peach schnapps, red Vampyre Vodka, a splash of 7-Up and some cranberry juice." The words were prosaic enough, but he made them sound like seduction.
The drink sounded harmless enough. The man was anything but. "Sure, I'll try it."
The bartender slid across a hurricane glass filled to the rim with ruby-red liquid and capped off with a black straw and a pair of plastic vampire-costume fangs on the rim. Cute, but a little tacky.
Kristin took out her wallet, pulled out a ten and tucked it in the tip jar. Good information was hard to come by and the man at her side was more a distraction than a good source. She forced her attention away from him and back to the bartender. "Have you worked here long?"
The bartender popped her gum as she sliced lemons and limes and dropped them into a container behind the bar. "Since they opened in October."
The sharp smell of citrus overwhelmed some of the mouthwatering cooking scents, which were making Kristin's stomach grumble. She'd forgotten lunch again.