Read an Excerpt
Bitten in Two
By Rardin, Jennifer
OrbitCopyright © 2010 Rardin, Jennifer
All right reserved.
Holy crap, do you smell that?” I asked. I leaned away from the square, sun-bleached building and spat, but the creeping stench of death and rot had already made it down my throat.
Cole didn’t answer, just nodded and pulled the collar of his new gray T-shirt up over his nose. Vayl and I had presented it to him as we’d waited to board the endless flight from Australia, the site of our last mission, to Morocco, the scene of our present mess. Our sniper and occasional interpreter had worn the shirt over a fresh white tee every day since, making this the third night in a row I’d read the bright red letters on the front that said THE OTHER GUY GOT THE GIRL. On the back, a black widow perched on her web with her mate’s leg dangling out of her mouth while her rejected lover observed the carnage from under a striped beach umbrella as he sipped a fly-tai. The caption read DAMN, THAT WAS CLOSE!
“Promise me you’ll wash that tomorrow,” I whispered as I peered down the narrow cobblestone street. No room even for breezes here, where the red ochre buildings melded to one another like coffin lids. Every door was shut, locking poverty inside, but each displayed a unique inlaid design that raised even this arid, neglected neighborhood out of squalor. I had bigger distractions than the work of long-dead artists, however.
Where’d you sneak off to, you pain-in-the-ass vampire?
“Washing seems like a waste of time,” Cole mumbled, his voice muffled by one hundred percent cotton. “I’m just going to wear it again because, you know, it’s only the best shirt ever. I’m not saying you look like a spider, but if you were to cannibalize Vayl, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly the picture the tabloids would end up printing.” The crinkles beside his bright blue eyes gave away his hidden grin.
“Would you just throw some suds on the thing?” To soften the blow I added, “Make it my birthday present.” Crap! Only he could make me slip like that!
“Tomorrow’s your birthday?”
I nodded. Reluctantly.
And here I stand under the rickety metal awning of a building so old I can practically hear the ghosts screaming from behind these stucco walls. I should be lolling on some starlit beach with Vayl, half-naked and—naw, make us all naked; it’s already been too long for me to waste time on foreplay. But instead I’m slouching through the back alleys of freaking Marrakech, sniffing what has to be the city’s cesspool with an ex–Supernatural PI whose sleuthing skills may only be matched by his passion for red high-tops.
Moving quicker than I’d have given him credit for, Cole pulled me in for a hug so squishy I figured I’d spend the rest of the night with the imprint of my modified Walther PPK outlined on my left boob.
“Happy birthday!” he said. “You’re twenty-six on May twenty-sixth. How cool is that? Especially since I didn’t miss it. I thought it was earlier this month.”
“That’s what your file—uh, I mean—”
“You read my file?” I balled his shirt into my fist, forcing his collar past his nose to reveal his gaping mouth. The scent of cherry-flavored bubblegum wafted past, giving my churning stomach a break. Then it was gone and my nose hairs recurled.
“Vayl read it too,” Cole reminded me.
As the CIA’s top assassin, Vayl had been given full access to my information well before he’d decided to make his solo act a duet and, eventually, a whole band. I said, “That doesn’t make it okay!”
Cole plucked his shirt out of my hand and repositioned it as he asked, “Why don’t you want anyone to know the real date you were born?”
“Because I hate surprise parties. And I’m not interested in sharing my best secrets with snoops like you.” Hoping to head off more questions, I tapped the thin plastic receiver sitting inside my ear, just above the lobe, activating my connection to: “Bergman? He’s slipped our tail. Have you got a read on him?”
“Gimme a sec; someone’s at the door.”
Our technical consultant’s clear reply confirmed my suspicion that we were still within two miles of him and the Riad Almoravid where we’d set up temporary headquarters. We’d only left the town square, which locals called the Djemaa el Fna, twenty minutes before. And since the fountain in our riad’s courtyard could probably shoot a few sprinkles onto the square’s crowds of merchants, performers, and shoppers on a windy day, I’d figured we were within the limits of Bergman’s communications gizmo, which Cole had named the Party Line. Nice to be right about that, at least.
Now, instead of using his own transmitter, Cole leaned forward and spoke into the glamorous brown mole I’d stuck just to the left of my upper lip. “Bergman, today is Jaz’s birthday. We need cake!”
I glared. “You need to use my alias,” I reminded Cole. “And, Miles, you can just ignore what’s-his-face completely. Just find—” I stopped when the swearing began.
Cole nodded wisely. “See what happens when people hang around you? Poor Bergman probably didn’t even know what those words meant before you lived with him.”
“Nobody should be blamed for the language they teach their roommates in college. Right, Miles?”
Before my oldest and smartest friend could reply, Cole said, “Your potty mouth is gonna get you in trouble someday.” He turned his head, like Bergman was skulking in the shadows next to us. “Right, dude?”
Bergman growled, “Goddammit, she’s back! I thought hotel owners had better things to do than annoy their guests every ten minutes!” We heard the door open. “I have plenty of towels—”
“Hello, Monsieur Bergman.” It was the 1-900-Fantasy voice of Monique Landry, still accented with Paris despite the decades she’d spent away from home. Contrary to our genius’s opinion, she’d been nothing but courteous and helpful. Except to Miles, who’d gotten extra snacks and the fluffy pillows from day one. Her twenty years in the Guests-R-Us biz had definitely honed her into the perfect hostess. And somehow she’d made the fact that she looked fabulous for a widow in her late forties (like Demi Moore with actual meat on her bones and enough past hardships to lace her eyes with compassion) part of the riad’s mystique. Unfortunately all Bergman had noticed so far was that she wore brightly flowered dresses and “bothered” him a lot.
We heard her say, “I noticed you were working late so I had Chef Henri fix you a plate of beignets and a cup of green tea.”
And Bergman’s reply: “I’m kind of busy here, Monique. And I’m still full from—” I heard a smothering sort of sound backed by attempted talking, which I interpreted as Monique stuffing one of the small fried doughnuts into his mouth. “Hey,” he said after he’d finally worked his teeth around the dessert. “That’s good!”
“Lovely,” she purred. “Henri will be delighted. And how is the world’s weather today?”
When we’d moved into the riad three days earlier, we’d explained Bergman’s mass of electronics by telling Monique that we were studying climate change.
Miles chuckled. Uh-oh. I knew exactly what expression went with that sound. His eyebrow had just gone up. He held his hand out as if a pipe filled it. And now he was shaking his head from side to side as if he’d just been caught inside a bell tower at noon. “Well, the weather waits for no one, my dear. I’d explain, but I’m sure the technical terms would make your head spin. We are, in fact, in the middle of a testing cycle, so I must get back to work. So good of you to come.”
Cole and I cringed as we waited for Monique to order him off his high horse—because he looked ridiculous riding sidesaddle—and stop insulting her intelligence. Instead we heard her hand, gently patting his cheek. “You are so adorable! All right, then, I’ll leave you to your work. Tomorrow morning we have fresh bread and Berber omelets for breakfast. And just for you, I will ask Chef Henri to make his famous chocolate éclairs!”
“But I don’t eat breakfast,” Bergman muttered. After the door had clicked shut.
Cole said, “So good of you to come? Dude, who are you, Queen Elizabeth?”
Bergman huffed, “I was trying to get her to leave without pissing her off! What would you have done?”
I said, “I’d have gotten on my knees and thanked her for those éclairs. Be nice, Miles. You need the calories.”
Bergman muttered, “Are we working, or what?”
I sighed. “Constantly. So get busy, will ya?”
I imagined him checking his satellite maps and hacked surveillance video, not to mention the tracker he’d attached to our target’s right boot heel. While we waited for his pronouncement, Cole reached behind his back and pulled a tranquilizer gun out from under the light brown jacket he wore over his T-shirts. The weapon blended so perfectly with his black jeans that it disappeared when he dropped his hands to his sides.
“That looks… lethal.” Could be, too, if we got the dosage wrong. Which we didn’t, because I double-checked it myself. Maybe we won’t need it, though. Maybe he’ll cooperate.
I cleared my throat. “Was that thing stuck in your belt?”
“Yeah. But don’t worry, the safety was on.” He sighted down the long, lean barrel. “Hey, imagine what would’ve happened if I’d shot myself in the butt. My cheeks would’ve been numb for a week!”
I took off down the sidewalk, keeping to the shadows, avoiding puddles of brown liquid that I knew weren’t water because, according to Monique, who’d been so ecstatic to rent all five of her riad’s rooms to us that she gave us random weather reports for free, it hadn’t rained in the past two weeks.
Cole jogged after me. “Jaz, where are you going? We don’t even know—”
“I’d rather walk aimlessly than discuss your ass, all right?”
“Yeah, but this is my numb ass. Do you think my legs would stop working too?”
I was getting ready to grab the gun and perform an experiment that would satisfy both his curiosity and my need to shoot something when Bergman said, “Got him. Two blocks northeast of you. He’s stationary.”
We turned the corner, moving so quickly we nearly plowed into two men carrying bundles of bath supplies, which meant they were headed for the nearest hammam. They’d just exited a diamond-mosaiced door. Cole hid the tranq gun behind his thigh, mumbled an apology in French, and pulled me around the men, who wore light shirts, long pants, and baseball hats, all of which were blotched with mustard-colored stains. And damn, did they stink! They must work at the dump we’d been smelling.
One of the men, a black-mustached thirtysomething with a scar under his left eye, spoke to Cole, who replied sharply, his hand tightening on my arm. Already I was used to natives offering to guide us anywhere we wanted to go, but these guys didn’t have the look of euro-hungry street hustlers. I looked up at Cole. His face had gone blank, a bad sign in a guy who assassinates his country’s enemies for a living.
Like the knife in my skirt’s hidden pocket, the .38 strapped to my right leg weighed heavier, reminding me of my offensive options if I decided not to pull the gun disguised by my snow white windbreaker. But I didn’t want to spill blood knowing a vamp prowled nearby.
“What do they want?” I asked.
“The dude with the scar is demanding a toll for the use of his road, and extra payment for nearly running him and his buddy over.”
“What’s his name?”
Cole asked, and while the man replied I checked out his friend. He was maybe seventeen, a brown-eyed kid with lashes so long they looked fake. He couldn’t bring himself to meet my eyes.
Cole said, “His name is Yousef. The boy’s name is Kamal.”
“Tell Yousef I’ll pay.”
“Tell him.” Cole began to talk.
I swished forward, making my full red skirt swirl around my knees as my boots clicked against the cobblestones, letting my alter ego take the spotlight. Lucille Robinson was a pale, slender, green-eyed sweetie with a white streak in her red curls that might’ve signified another time when a man had taken advantage of her weakness and bashed her across the head before forcing her to his will. Yousef didn’t know I’d earned the streak in hell, or that the Eldhayr who’d taken me there had already brought me back from the dead. Twice. All he could see was that Lucille’s curls looked more likely to bounce up and defend her than her fists. Mission accomplished.
I looked up at him like he was the cutest teddy bear I’d ever hoped to squeeze. Even though he couldn’t understand the words, I figured he’d get the tone as I reached down the V-neck of my dress with my left hand and said, “Just give me a second, okay? I keep my money in here so I don’t have to worry about pickpockets. I understand they can be a problem in Marrakech. Am I right?”
By now I’d come within an arm’s length of the reeking man, who was staring at my hand like he wished it was his. He never saw the base of my right palm shoot up. Just grunted with shock as it jammed into his jaw and knocked his head backward. He staggered. Cole aimed the tranq gun at Kamal to make sure he stayed peaceful as I followed Yousef down the sidewalk, throwing a side kick that landed on his chest with the thump of a bongo drum. He landed flat on his back in the street.
I watched him struggle to breathe as I said, “We go where we please.”
Cole translated. To my surprise Yousef smiled. I looked over my shoulder at Kamal. He was staring around nervously, making me think he didn’t savor a conversation with any authorities that might show to investigate the noise. He didn’t seem concerned about Yousef. Maybe girls hit him a lot.
“Feel better?” Cole asked me.
I backed off before the bully’s blech could stick to my sunny-day outfit. “Yeah. Let’s go.”
We headed down the street, keeping our eyes and Cole’s gun on the mini gang until we reached the end of the block and turned north. Yousef called after us.
“Unbelievable,” said Cole as he shook his head.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“He wants to know if he can see you again. He says his uncle’s friend owns a good restaurant above the Djemaa el Fna.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“No.” Cole’s wild blond hair danced at the suggestion. “I think he liked what you did to him. In fact, I think he liked you. Do you think he’ll try to follow us?”
“Move fast,” I urged, pulling him into the next alley. It would mean doubling back, but Yousef was one freak worth losing. At the same time I asked, “Bergman, is our mark still there?”
“He hasn’t moved.” Finally, good news.
At the end of the alley we turned into another neglected street. This one didn’t even have sidewalks to separate the painstakingly carved apartment doors from the hit-and-run lanes. A single light at midblock threw a weak glow onto the run-down two-stories, allowing for multiple hidden spaces where people could do their worst to each other without ever being witnessed.
Our heavy breathing combined with the stress we felt at having to confront our target should’ve alerted him. But feeding vamps are so immersed in the moment they rarely sense their hunters. Ours had stopped beside an empty donkey cart, a hulking shadow stooping next to the wheel like he was checking its integrity. Except that a man wearing a plain white shirt, wrinkled blue pants, and backless leather shoes that dangled from his toes like dead squirrels lay twitching on the cobblestones beneath him.
Movement at the corner of my eye sent my hand to Grief. But it was just one of the gaunt, raggedy-eared cats that stalked the streets for scraps. This one must be hoping for a feast. It darted away when Cole strode forward, switching off his gun’s safety as he said, “That’s enough. Drop the guy before you kill him.”
The vampire turned. And my heart broke like it had every night I’d been forced to witness this scene. While Cole lifted the cart driver onto his seat and slipped him the wages we’d promised, I watched the creature that had shattered my defenses and made me fall in love lick the man’s blood from his lips.
“Madame Berggia,” Vayl said to me as he straightened. “Why are you interrupting my meal?”
Madame Berggia. I think that hurts the most, Vayl. That you were calling out my name like I’d invented sex three days ago, now you don’t even remember it, and we can’t figure out why. Do you know how much I’d give to hear you call me Jasmine that special way you do, like a song (Yazmeena), right this second?
“You could’ve killed the poor guy,” I said dully.
“You saw him in the Djemaa el Fna,” he replied. “He shoved his wife. He was shouting at his children.”
Because we paid him to. So we could set up your hunt tonight and make sure your victim didn’t end up dead. Like the first one nearly did, before we realized what had happened the night we arrived in Marrakech when you went missing and we had to hunt you for real. The night you woke with such a bizarre case of amnesia that you thought you were still a Rogue, still outside of your vow never to take human blood, and so deep in this brain-blip of yours that you’d mistaken all of us for people who shared your life over two hundred and thirty years ago!
I wanted to slap him with those words like a dueling glove. But he’d just look confused, and I’d be extra miserable. So I said, “The man’s family would starve without him.”
Vayl lowered his eyebrows. “I did not hire you to remind me of such things.”
I shoved my hands into the pockets of my sundress. It was one of his favorites, and I’d hoped seeing it would snap him out of his past. But he still believed that I was his frumpy middle-aged housekeeper. He also thought Cole was my husband, his valet, who he simply called Berggia. In his mind we’d just traveled to Morocco from his estate in England along with his beloved ward, Helena, whose part was played—grumpily—by Bergman.
My hands closed around the items most likely to console me. In my right pocket sat the long knife my great-great-grandpa, Samuel Parks, had used during his stint as a machine-gun operator in World War I. Mistress Kiss My Ass (my loudly suffering seam-stress) had skillfully made a place for the sheath in all my clothes. My left pocket held eight poker chips that rang like bells in my ear when I shuffled them. And on a silver hoop attached to the material so it wouldn’t get lost: my engagement ring. I hadn’t worn it long. But I cherished it now more than ever, because I was sure the man who’d slipped the pear-shaped emerald on my finger eighteen months ago would never forget me, no matter where he ended up. Right, Matt?
It’s not like you’ve slipped Vayl’s mind. Not Matt’s voice. He’d kept a steady silence since the vampire Aidyn Strait had murdered him two weeks after our engagement. On the other hand, my Granny May, who ruled my frontal lobe, couldn’t wait to comment. He believes he’s living over two hundred and thirty years before he met you, she reminded me.
Exactly! The way he looks at it, Jaz Parks doesn’t exist at all!
So quit whining and figure out why! Granny May had taken up needlepoint. She sat in her tree-filled backyard in the old metal chair she left out year-round (paint flecks hinted that it had once been red) alternately watching the cardinals fight over the sunflower seeds at her gazebo feeder and taking long, smooth stitches in a piece of fabric the size of a pillowcase.
I watched her manipulate the needle with one hand while the other steadied the hoop that framed her workspace. Why did I suddenly think she would’ve been just as precise with a throwing knife? I shook my head.
I’m not whining!… Okay, I am. It’s such sucktacular timing, that’s all! I mean, I may have control of the demon in my head. But I think you need reminding that Brude is still a Domytr. Which means Satan’s go-to guy is not going to give up without a fight. Especially when he was so close to succeeding at his own coup. And there’s Vayl, out of his right mind just when I need him to be the sharpest!
Granny May snapped, You still have Cole, Bergman—and Kyphas—whether you want her or not.
We should’ve deep-fried that hellspawn permanently, I huffed. Not cut her a deal that keeps her in our back pockets like a Chicago politician.
Of course, Gran knew what I was really worried about. Cassandra’s soul is safe from Kyphas, you saw to that. She’s an ocean away, secure behind her locks and wards in her colorful little apartment in Miami. You’re lucky to have a friend like her. A psychic who’s willing to dog-sit and research a cause for Vayl’s amnesia is practically a walking miracle. Just remember what she said last time you talked. You’re standing in the city where you believe the tool that you need to end Brude’s possession of you is located. So find it!
It sounds easy the way you put it. But I’m not convinced Kyphas is done with Cassandra. And until we know what caused Vayl’s amnesia—
You’re a girl. Multitask!
I sighed and scratched my head, wishing for the thousandth time that Lucifer’s gofer hadn’t infested my synapses. Then I could just concentrate on finding the bottom-feeder that had slapped Vayl into a virtual time machine and strapped a pair of 1777-tinted goggles over his eyes. Unless he was just plain sick. In which case I’d be on my own with Brude.
Who I couldn’t stop obsessing about. The Domytr who wanted to create a whole new hell was still stomping around in my mind. And although I had him contained in a place where he couldn’t control me anymore, I’d begun to show physical strain from keeping him imprisoned. Mainly nosebleeds. But also headaches that started behind one of my eyes and spread across my skull like I’d cracked it on an iron post. Even without consulting experts, I knew those were bad signs. If Brude broke free of the room where I’d imprisoned him, he’d destroy more than virtual walls. Which was why failed exorcisms often ended with a coroner writing the word “aneurism” on the victim’s death certificate.
We had to complete our original mission. The one Vayl had set us on before he’d lost his way. My life depended on finding the Rocenz, a demon-forged hammer and chisel that had been supernaturally welded together. Once we had the tool and figured out a way to separate the parts, we could engrave Brude’s name on the gates of hell. At which time the power of the Rocenz to reduce everything to its most basic elements would transform the Domytr in my head to dust.
Proving once again how utterly useless Vayl would be for this aspect of our operation, he asked, “Has your husband’s cough eased now that we have spent a few days in the dry air?”
“Who? I don’t—” Oh, he’s asking about Cole. “Yeah, yeah.”
His lips tightened and I thought I was about to get another lecture on my presumptuous behavior. Which would’ve been fine with me. Another chance to zone out, try to formulate some sort of plan. Plus, okay, I’ll admit it. Despite the fact that it had only been three days since I’d held him in my arms, I was already hunting excuses to stand and stare at my magnificent sverhamin, imagine my fingers brushing across his broad brow, sinking into his soft black curls. Pretend I was standing on the invited side of that come-love-me look in his emerald eyes.
I watched his lips part, wind around the words. My mouth went dry as he said, “I can tell you have something on your mind, Madame Berggia.”
If you only knew! “Uh, well, sure I do. That is, there’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you since… we got here.”
“I have a hard time believing Co—I mean my husband—was the real reason you left England.” I waited. He liked it when I did that. Freaking elitist.
“You are a very astute woman.” Vayl turned so all I could see was his profile, the proud bridge of his nose, the hard planes of his cheeks and jaw reminding me of pictures I’d seen of Roman generals. Until I realized he was watching his breakfast drive away in the creaking old donkey cart with a look of hunger that made my stomach clench.
“So what’s the deal?” I demanded. “Why are we really here?”
He turned his head, spoke sharply enough that I probably should’ve felt put in my place. But at least he explained. An entire story in a single word. “Helena.”
Excerpted from Bitten in Two by Rardin, Jennifer Copyright © 2010 by Rardin, Jennifer. Excerpted by permission.
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