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You're So Vein
By Christine Warren
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Christine Warren
All rights reserved.
In the humming chill of the Manhattan night, a nearly silent buzz made the hunkered shadow twitch in its rooftop perch.
"What?" the shadow hissed into a sleek black mobile phone, but eyes the color of hard frost never shifted their attention from the street below.
"Est-ce que vous à New York?"
The shadow grunted and shifted until the form of a man could almost be seen. Provided the observer was especially perceptive, specially trained, and happened to be on an adjacent rooftop on the Upper East Side with a good pair of binoculars at an inhuman hour of the night. It would also help if the observer himself wasn't human. Dima certainly wasn't.
Vladimir Rurikovich had visited nearly every major city in the world, and this one ranked near the bottom of his list of favorites. New York City simply smelled wrong. It stank of cement and glass and pollution, as well as the millions of human bodies that lived stacked atop each other like cords of firewood. At least Kiev and Moscow could be trusted to smell of snow or vodka or centuries of history. Those things he could trust. Those things reminded him of home, a place he intended to return to just as soon as he finished his current assignment.
"I called in my arrival three days ago," he rumbled back in English, his voice low and rough and impatient. He had never been able to make his handlers on the European Council understand that he could do his job much more efficiently if they stayed out of his way and didn't waste his time demanding reports on his progress.
"We expected a report by now."
The voice on the phone sounded crisp and French and ineffably aristocratic. Dima vaguely recalled a rumor about the Revolution, the Guillotine, and an unlikely escape. He had never cared enough to pursue the tale, but it did go a little way toward explaining why this particular councilman ranked among his least favorite.
"I report when I have information worth reporting."
"Three days and you've learned nothing?"
Grimly, Dima pushed aside the impulse to take his impatience out on the Frenchman and focused on the task at hand. A successful mission provided the only way Dima could honorably return to Russia and his estate near the banks of the Shelon. Even if his employers could be satisfied with anything less, he could not.
"I have eliminated several possibilities," he said grudgingly.
"That is progress of the sort we would wish to hear reported."
"That is not how I work."
For more than three hundred years, Vladimir of Novgorod had stood as the finest — and most feared — member of the European Council of Vampires' elite army of enforcers of the Laws. His skill, relentless determination, and brute strength had brought to justice many of Europe's most notorious vampire offenders, those beings who disregarded the customs and boundaries that had kept the secret of their kind from humanity since the dawn of time.
"Perhaps you will need to make a concession or two." Before Dima could express his disdain of that idea, the Frenchman continued. "The council would like also to hear your impressions of the relations between us and the humans. Of course, we possess much curiosity of the results of the American experiment."
Several years ago, the American Others had managed to force the issue of Unveiling their existence to humans. Reactions had been predictably mixed but perhaps unpredictably — in the eyes of the ECV, at least — peaceable. Still, the ECV and other groups like it maintained a tight rein on the vampire population under its purview in order to bolster the uneasy truce with humankind.
Dima grunted. "The situation appears stable for the most part. Law and order prevails; however, the mortals remain wary of us, especially of vampires."
"We have always focused much of their fear." The Frenchman's philosophical shrug sounded clear in his tone.
To Dima, this made no sense. Were he still a mortal man, he would have more fear of the shape-shifting predators like the Lupines and the Feline races than of vampires. After all, a vampire might feed on human blood, but a werewolf could feed on human flesh. The mortals, though, didn't seem to feel the same way. Something about the shifters fascinated them, curbing their fear with a sort of grudging affection. The way Dima figured it, it had to be the fur. Cover a beast in a soft, shiny pelt and humans just couldn't resist petting it, no matter what the risk to their outstretched limbs. But make a beast an enemy of the sun and the humans shivered at the mere mention of its name.
"Not so foolish," the Frenchman corrected. "After all, who better than you understands how some vampires can prove very dangerous to humans indeed? If they choose to disregard the Laws."
Dima grunted, shifting his weight while maintaining his clear view of the empty street below him. He couldn't argue with the Frenchman's contention. The truth of it was, after all, the reason Dima was here.
The first of the Laws of the Vampire Race stated that humans must not be drained to the point of death, because only a stupid predator killed off its food source. Dead, humans became useless, but alive they could continue to provide nourishment for vampires for years or decades to come. The second Law decreed with equal adamance that humans should be turned only under the most extreme circumstances, or after permission had been granted by the prince of a territory or by the ECV itself.
"I hardly need to remind you of the laws Yelizaveta has broken," the Frenchman said.
The vampire Dima currently hunted had broken both the primary Laws many times, for which she'd been sentenced to spend the remainder of her existence in a palatial but well-guarded prison outside of Moscow. It hadn't helped her cause that Yelizaveta Chernigov had broken a third — unwritten but equally important — Law among their kind: If you plan to kill a prince and seize his territory, make certain he has no living relations to bring the crime to the attention of the ECV; and if you plan to kill more than one prince, be certain to kill them all, because the survivors left on the council will make it their only ambition to remove you as a threat to their own sovereignty.
"Yelizaveta never was very good with rules," Dima acknowledged. "Nor with strategy."
When Yelizaveta took her third territory by force, she made the ECV nervous enough for her to earn their harshest sentence — eternal imprisonment. More feared than death, because death was quick, eternal imprisonment had been known to drive a vampire mad. Even a human with a life sentence had an end to look forward to — the escape of death. A vampire had no such light at the end of her tunnel.
Yelizaveta had served a little over three centuries of her sentence before the boredom became too much for her and she broke out of her jail, quickly disappearing from the council's sight. The rumors suggested that she'd flown to America, and if she'd stayed there and stayed out of trouble, the ECV might very well have let her go, but Yelizaveta was equally bad at behaving herself. Newer rumors suggested that she was using the United States not as a hiding place but as a base camp from which she could plan her return to Europe with fresh forces at her command.
Clearly, the ECV wanted her stopped, so they sent an enforcer to recapture her. Dima, however, had his own reasons for taking this assignment himself rather than offering it to another member of his team. Any member of the Chernigov clan — though few enough of them remained — got his immediate attention. They had a long history in common with his own family, dating back to the time when his father, Rurik of Novgorod, had led his sons in battle to defend their lucrative trading empire against the scheming of their unwelcome neighbor.
His last confrontation with a Chernigov might have been over 750 years ago, Dima admitted, but some memories stayed with a man, especially when he lived forever.
A sharp memory could prove a valuable tool in his line of work. It helped with the many details he needed to learn in order to track his quarry as efficiently as he expected. Knowing the details of a person's life helped to predict that person's behavior, where he might go or with whom he might associate. Given what he knew of Yelizaveta, Dima figured it was a safe bet that she had settled on Manhattan for her nest.
Liza had grown up as an acknowledged diamond in the courts of Kiev and Smolensk, the eldest daughter of Kazimir of Chernigov. The position had always inclined her toward a desire for material possessions and crowds of fawning inferiors. What better place to shop and be admired than the heart of the most cosmopolitan city in the United States?
Unfortunately, knowing Liza was in Manhattan didn't mean Dima knew exactly where to find her. If he did, he'd already have her back at Kolomenskoye and be walking through his lands, inspecting his orchards and his flax fields. His position at that moment on a rooftop above East 88th Street indicated he should get to work.
"We need for you to find her quickly," the Frenchman said. "Every day when she remains free makes greater trouble for us."
"Then you should stop calling me for reports and let me do my job."
"Quietly. The council prefers to handle this matter on our own, without interference from the local authorities."
That was another point that Dima hardly needed to be reminded of. The American Council of Others had a reputation for handling matters in a manner their European counterparts found ... unconventional. Not to say lenient. But Dima had his own reason for avoiding contact with the local council, a reason called Vidâme.
"It is easier to keep quiet when not forced to speak."
"Be very quiet, because any explanations made to the American Council will have to come from your own lips. We mean to see the criminal returned to us for her punishment. We will not allow sentencing by committee, nor tolerate outside interference."
"Fine. Neither will I." Dima hung up the phone.
Reluctantly, he rose from his crouched position, ignoring the leg muscles that protested the abrupt change of position after three hours of stillness. Earlier research had indicated to Dima that a sort of nightclub for the city's Others was located within a few blocks of his perch, and though he knew Liza would not be dumb enough to show her famous face in such company, he had hoped one of her new minions might. Luck, however, had not favored him tonight.
He checked the horizon as he sheathed the long, deadly knife he carried in a scabbard at his thigh. A gray pre-dawn pallor had begun to lighten the sky. The sun would rise in another hour or two and bring an end to the night's work. Until then, he would make a check of the surrounding streets and perhaps make a new acquaintance to refresh his stock of information. For certain, he'd be keeping his eyes and ears open. You never knew when something interesting might stroll right into your path.CHAPTER 2
The heels of her black Gina boots clicked on the pavement with the sharp rap of gunfire, which suited Ava's mood just fine. Frankly, she felt as if she'd just fought the Battle of Bunker Hill single-handedly. And without ever letting the enemy know they'd been engaged. She had just come from the house of Vidâme, the well-known former head of the New York's Council of Others and a very public vampire. And she had been more than happy to escape.
Why she continued to attend these events Ava could hardly fathom. Certainly it had nothing to do with enjoyment. She'd stopped looking forward to the girls' nights years ago, and she knew perfectly well that she made all the rest of the attendees as uncomfortable as they made her, but Ava wasn't the kind of woman who gave in. To anything. So every other Friday evening, as regular as the army, she gathered up a bottle or three of good wine, stopped at the cheese shop down the block from her office, then carried herself, her provisions, and her very forced smile to a party that offered her approximately as much pleasure as an IRS audit.
Of course, she'd be a fool if she didn't acknowledge that periodontal surgery likely held more appeal for the other guests than her awkward presence. Everyone always welcomed her with open arms, but she could see that behind their smiles, her friends clenched their teeth whenever she made an appearance. That could very well have been one of the reasons that she continued to appear. Ava Maria Theresa de Castille Markham appreciated nothing so much as the sheer perversity of her own character. Knowing herself to be unwanted was the surest way on earth to ensure that she planted herself in the middle of the action.
You should have let me call you a cab.
The errant thought, coming out of thin air as it did, made the hairs on the back of Ava's neck stand at stiff attention. Damn it, this counted as one of the many reasons she had snuck out of the party after talking to no one other than her hostess. And she'd only done that because the woman had cornered her in front of the coat closet.
Immediately and reflexively, Ava tensed and forced her mind to go blank. She had rules about things like this, and she made very sure that everyone around her knew about them.
As expected, her cell phone rang less than a minute later.
"I'm serious. It's too late for you to be walking home alone."
Ava pressed the slim silver phone to her ear and kept walking. "No, actually it's merely too late for unexpected visitors to barge in without so much as knocking."
"I'm sorry, but that's what you get for making me worry."
"While I appreciate your concern, Regina, I neither needed nor wanted a taxi. I'm a big girl, more than able to take care of myself."
On the other end of the line, the woman Ava loved — and hated — like a sister sighed. "I don't dispute that, but it's two in the morning, Av, and even in this part of the Upper East Side that is not an hour when women should be walking alone."
"Why not? You've done it. Repeatedly."
"That's not the same thing, and you know it."
Regina sighed again. "Look, just tell me where you are and I'll come meet you. If you won't take a cab, at least let me walk you home."
The image of standing around like an idiot, waiting to be escorted home by a woman at least six inches shorter and two inches softer than herself, struck Ava as ridiculous. No matter how fast or strong the other woman might be.
The Other woman.
"No, I'll be fine," Ava dismissed, shoving her errant thought back into the abyss where it belonged. "Go back to your guests and tell everyone I said good night."
"They barely got a chance to see you all night. You kept disappearing on us. Everybody will be disappointed that you had to leave without saying goodbye."
"Don't lie, Regina. It can cause wrinkles."
She disconnected before Regina could answer. It would only have been another lie, and Ava didn't need anyone to pretend with her. She could handle the truth; in fact, she preferred it, and she thought she'd done a pretty damned good job of dealing with it over the last few years. Like she'd told Regina, Ava Markham was a big girl.
Having grown up in Manhattan, Ava knew the city like the rooms of her apartment — well enough to navigate blind, deaf, and wearing three-inch heels. The time of day, or night, wasn't going to give her any trouble. She always kept her eyes and ears open, her pace brisk, and her attitude confident. Attackers would take a look at her and move on to easier prey. But just in case any particularly stupid muggers decided to try for her, she had self-defense training, lungs like a prima donna, and a can of pepper spray. She'd be fine.
Her heels beat a steady tempo on the pavement as she shoved her hands into the pockets of her cardinal red trench coat and attempted to walk off her discomfort. Her oversized black Spade bag bumped her elbow with just enough force to maintain her current level of irritation. Now if only she could decide at whom that irritation should be directed.
Some of it had to rest on her own shoulders, of course. It was her monumental stubbornness that kept her running face-first into the same brick wall over and over while expecting a different result. That was the definition of insanity, wasn't it? Or had the guidelines been revised since the news broke that people who thought they were werewolves hadn't necessarily gone off their meds?
Excerpted from You're So Vein by Christine Warren. Copyright © 2009 Christine Warren. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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