For centuries, the extremely powerful and ruthless vampire witches of the European Council have wandered the Earth, controlling governments, fostering war, creating political conflict, and often leaving absolute destruction in their wake. One of the strongest of them is set to create some havoc in the city of New Orleans, and it’s definitely personal.
Jane is tasked with tracking him down. With the help of a tech wiz and an ex-Army ranger, her partners in Yellowrock Securities, she’ll have to put everything on the line, and hope it’s enough. Things are about to get real hard in the Big Easy.
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Praise for the Jane Yellowrock Novels
ALSO BY FAITH HUNTER
I stood against the wall, nursing a busted knuckle, watching my sensei try to recover. Daniel held a black belt, second dan, in hapkido, had a black belt in tae kwon do, and a black belt in tai chi—the combat martial art, not the pretty forms that hippies and old people do on beaches at sunrise. (Not that I had anything against pretty martial arts, hippies, or old people. I’d outlived all of the people who were alive when I was born, so I was old. Real old.)
Daniel hadn’t competed in years, however, believing that competition was for sissies and martial arts were for fighting and killing. He was probably a lot more dangerous than most people who did compete. And right now he was on his back on the practice mat, trying to figure out if his lungs still worked. It had been only about thirty seconds since I’d thrown him to the floor, knocking the breath out of him, but that can seem like a lot of time when you aren’t breathing.
“I’m not kissing him,” Eli Younger said, still gasping, sweat dripping off him onto the mat in little splats. My Beast and I had been sparring with both of them. Admittedly, it was a little too wound heavy to be just sparring, but testosterone and the urge to defeat the skinny girl were powerful motivators, keeping them coming back for more when they should have stayed down. And Beast had been having fun.
“Artificial respiration isn’t technically kissing,” I said, watching as Daniel fought back the natural panic of the air starved, arching his back, stretching his throat, trying to force open his airway.
“Still not kissing him. Sorry, bro,” Eli said, toeing Daniel’s shoulder. “Been nice knowin’ you.”
Daniel sucked in a breath that sounded like rubber bicycle tubing being stretched out by a couple of disgruntled sumo wrestlers. Strained. Very strained. Eli laughed. Faster than most humans can manage, Daniel whipped his arm around, his fist catching Eli on the outer knee joint. If Eli hadn’t already been bending into the direction of the hit, his knee would have buckled and Eli would have needed a brace or vamp blood to heal. Daniel was powerful, even flat on his back.
As it was, the guys rolled across each other like high school wrestlers, but punching and stabbing with fingers, kneeing below the belt. They separated, rolled to their feet, and engaged again. All I needed was popcorn and a beer and it would have been perfect. Delighted to sit this one out, I slid down the wall to the wood floor, my sweaty back to the wall, knees bent in a half lotus, and relaxed. The guys were really going at it, fists, kicks, sweat flinging, with a little blood mixed in. I had to wonder if something was bothering them, because this was starting to look real.
My sensei’s style was perfect for me, because I had always studied mixed disciplines and never went for any belt. I trained to stay alive, using a fast, violent amalgam of styles geared to the total annihilation of an attacker. My fighting style had best been described as dirty. Daniel and Eli, my partner in Yellowrock Securities, both fought dirty. I winced as Eli took a boxer’s blow straight to his chin and wobbled on his feet. But either he recovered fast or it was only a feint, because he kicked out, catching Daniel in the solar plexus. In fighters’ terms it wasn’t a low blow, but since I had just hit Sensei there, it wasn’t exactly sweet either.
Daniel skipped away, his breathing pained. I wondered whether he’d broken a rib.
The dojo was in the back room of a small jewelry store on St. Louis Street, the store specializing in faceted gems, vintage styles and settings, and real antique pieces. The dojo was down a narrow service alley, thirty inches wide, damp, and dim, and was open to the public only after store hours. I was one of a select few students Daniel saw during the day. I had my own key.
Eli took a fast series of punches to the ribs, bounced off a white-painted wall across from me and into the mirrored back wall. Daniel nearly got his boy parts crushed by a kick, but he jumped back, caught one of Eli’s ankles, and twisted it hard and fast, putting torqueing pressure on the knee. Eli was expecting the move and leaped off the floor into a twirl and kicked Daniel in the side of the neck with his other foot. They both went down. Daniel out for the count. Idiots. Eli was wheezing with pain. The hand he supported himself with had left a bloody print on the mirror.
The long room had hardwood floors, two white-painted walls—one now stained with blood—one mirrored wall (ditto), and one wall with French doors that looked out over a typical New Orleans–style enclosed courtyard planted with tropical and semitropical plants. Three cats, tails twitching, lounged on a low brick-stucco wall near the splashing fountain, which was designed in the fashion of a mountain stream, with the small pool at the bottom filled with plants. The cats, looking bored and hot, were watching the humans fight. The enclosed courtyard was surrounded by two- and three-story buildings and was overlooked by wrought-iron galleries dripping with potted vines and flowering plants. Sensei lived upstairs in one of the apartments, and he usually dropped down using a rappelling rope and climbing gear. I had a feeling he’d be going back up the hard way, one slow step at a time.
Since Daniel was rolling over, marginally awake, and it looked as if the fight was over, I shifted my weight and clapped slowly, the sound ringing brightly off the unadorned walls. “Danny boy, I think you got your butt beat,” I said.
“Maybe.” He winced as he rolled to his backside and stood upright, stretching muscles that had to have deep bruises. “But it took two of you. Tag team.” Daniel was average height, had muscles like rolls of barbed wire and a face no one would remember for two seconds. A man no one would notice.
Silent, working out the kinks, he walked around the room, bare feet solid, body as balanced as a walking tree, looking Eli and me over, considering.
I grinned at my partner and said, “Yeah, but I’m still holding back. A lot.”
“You are not holding back,” Daniel said, disbelief etching his face. “Seriously? Still?”
“Bro, she is absolutely still holding back.” Eli bent his injured knees, testing for damage that might need more than ice, elevation, anti-inflammatory meds, and time to heal. “When she really lets go, it’s nothing like human speed or human strength. She’d twist your lil’ bobblehead right off that skinny neck.”
I managed to keep the discomfort off my face. I still wasn’t used to part of the world knowing that I was a supernat, and was even less accustomed to hearing it spoken of like it was no big deal. It had been my secret for so long that it still felt like a big deal. But Eli was right. If I let go with Beast-strength and -speed, I could do some damage. Once he knew I’d been holding back, my training and sparring sessions with Daniel had changed. Now he pushed the normal human boundaries, trying to see what my limits were. There were two problems with that: I didn’t really know what my boundaries were, especially with the newfound ability to fold or bubble time, and my limits seemed to be changing now that my Beast and I had soul-bonded.
Daniel tossed a dry towel to Eli and the two guys dried off, still trash-talking.
I ignored them and pushed off the floor to my feet, seeing my reflection in the long wall mirror. I was moving a little differently now, smoother, more catlike, limbs and joints and muscles rolling and balanced and effortless. It was freaky. In the last month or so, my eyes had started to glow more often as Beast stared out at the world through my vision. Again, freaky. I still had my long black hair, currently braided close to my head, and the copper skin of my tribe—Chelokay, or Tsalagi, the Cherokee. Also known as The People.
I caught a towel tossed my way and wiped down. Showers would have to wait until we got back to the house. The dojo wasn’t set up for lockers and shower stalls.
Outside, the fountain tinkled in the enclosed courtyard. A cat made a mrowr sound, probably telling Daniel that it was suppertime. Cats could be demanding that way. I know. My Beast is a mountain lion and she’s big on being fed, though she prefers her food freshly caught and slaughtered by her killing teeth.
From the pile of gear on the floor, I heard both of our phones singing to us—both playing “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” by Pat Benatar. It was the ringtone for Alex, the other Younger brother, and the tech partner of Yellowrock Securities. If he was ringing both lines, this couldn’t be good.
I bent and caught up both cells, underhand throwing Eli’s to him and opening the Kevlar cover to mine. Eli said, “Go ahead.”
“Get to suckhead HQ. Something’s going down.”
Eli and I grabbed up our gobags and trotted from the dojo, into the alley, moving fast. I gave a single wave to Daniel as the door shut behind me. I had a glimpse of Sensei, still standing against the wall, fists on his hips, looking better than Eli’s opponents usually did. I knew he wanted to go with us—he had been hinting it—but dealing with vamps took practice and a lot of emotional and verbal restraint. I wasn’t sure how restrained Daniel would be if a male vamp came on to him for dinner and a date. Vamps were a lot less reticent about sexual matters than most humans, and Daniel gave out strong, uncompromising hetero signals, a challenge to any vamp. Eli had quickly learned to fob them off with a laugh and a polite refusal, but Daniel struck me as the belt-him-first-and-stalk-away-mad-second kind. Which could get him dead, fast.
“You’re on speaker,” Eli said to Alex as the dojo door closed. “It’s too early to be a vamp problem. An attacker would fry.” I closed my cell and listened.
“Nothing on the outside cameras. It’s inside. At the ballroom.”
Vamps could maneuver inside most of vamp central, the windows being long and narrow and newly covered by electric shutters. I took a breath to speak and got a lungful of alley stink that was enough to bowl over an elephant. It smelled of urine—some of it not from cats—and all of it baking in the summer heat and humidity. I said, “Gimme details, because I’m not heading back to vamp HQ to settle a love spat or to get in the middle of a long-standing feud between vamp factions.” There were too many vamps in the relatively small space, and there had been more than a few violent incidents. Vamp-on-vamp action was outside my job requirements as long as no humans got caught in the cross fire.
“Got nothing that makes sense,” Alex said. “Still pulling up camera footage. But it’s bloody and it’s bigger than the usual fanghead altercation.”
Still moving at speed, we emerged from the alley, clanged the gate shut, and made it to the SUV, with Eli beeping the vehicle open. The trapped heat exploded out. We opened all the doors to let it air, which gave us time to take in the scenery. Traffic clogged the streets in the French Quarter so badly that we might not be able to get out of the parking spot unless someone was looking for one and let us out so they could get in. It was bumper-to-bumper gridlock. I’d be glad when my Harley was repaired and I could again weave through the New Orleans traffic. “We’re gonna hafta hoof it to HQ, Alex,” Eli said, “but we’re not going in wearing street clothes. We’ll change here. Give us details as they firm.”
“Copy. Better you than me in this heat, dude.”
Eli got behind the wheel and synced up our cells to the vehicle. I took the backseat and started gearing up—leathers, weapons, boots. Not easy in the backseat of an overheated SUV with windows tinted vamp-black, even one as roomy as the brand-spanking-new one Leo had provided for my use. Eli turned on the cab lights and the AC, but it would take forever to cool off. I shook out a handful of baby powder and tossed the container to Eli, both of us liberally powdering down the sweat and sliding the leathers over our limbs as Alex began to give us the particulars.
“Looks like it started in the sub-four basement about three minutes ago. Two fangheads fighting over a human woman. She’s hurt. Del sent down reinforcements, but they got caught up in it and now it’s a brawl.”
Eli spat a curse under his breath, sliding on his new, high-tech combat boots and yanking on the laces. He had a point. Injured humans meant we had no choice but to intervene.
“It’s getting nasty. Sending you vid now.”
On the SUV video screen, we had a clear view of a sub-four hallway and about ten vamps. It was a bloody mess, not abnormal for vamps fighting, but weird to be happening before dusk, when most older vamps were sleepy or sleeping, and the young ones were out cold, often unable to be roused.
“That looks wrong,” I said of the fight. “But I’m not sure why.” I checked the loads of my weapons and slid them into the oversized gobag. We were licensed to carry in Louisiana, but no one wanted to get detained if a hot, sweaty cop, stuck in traffic, saw us jog by.
“Yeah. They look . . . stumble-y. Like Night of the Living Dead but faster,” Eli said.
“That’s it. Vamps are graceful, and these are klutzes. I’m ready,” I said, strapping on my thigh rig.
The SUV’s engine went silent and we slid from the dark interior into the humidity. It was like being hit in the face with a soaking-wet, wrecking-ball-sized sponge. Eli beeped the SUV locked, and we reactivated our cells and started down the sidewalk, moving fast.
Holy crap. We had to jog in this heat?
As if reading my mind, Eli called back, “It’ll put hair on your chest.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.” Inside me, Beast chuffed and sent an image of my half-Beast shape, covered in Beast pelt. I didn’t have the breath to reply, not in this heat, and just kept jogging, the late-day summer sun like a steam torch on my exposed skin. I followed Eli down back alleys and, once, through a T-shirt and tourist-kitsch business, out the back, through the courtyard, into the back door of a restaurant, and out the front onto the street on the other side. No one stopped us, but I’d bet we’d end up on someone’s YouTube channel somewhere.
To Alex, I said, “I know Del is in charge, but notify Bruiser that something’s transpiring at HQ. Just in case.”
“Copy,” Alex said, his voice toneless enough to make my skin itch.
Bruiser was my . . . something. Boyfriend was too high school, lover was too sex-specific, significant other seemed more long-term and stable than what we might be starting to have. So my something was the best I could do. But he was also the former primo of the Master of the City of New Orleans, and Del, while capable, might need some backup. Informing him was not the same thing as calling for Bruiser’s help like said high schooler. Or at least I didn’t think it was. Having a “my something” wasn’t exactly common for me.
We rounded the corner, approaching vamp central from an oblique angle, not one I took often. I needed to walk the area more. Next winter maybe. During a hard, cold rain.
The high brick fence that surrounded HQ was topped with coils of razor wire, and the heavy iron gate—replaced after it was damaged, not so long ago—looked fine, the central, circular drive empty of cars. Peaceful. Calm. But when I pulled on my Beast-hearing, I heard muted screams and the sound of gunfire. I sped up, moving from a jog to a sprint. “Gunfire,” I reported.
“Roger that,” Eli said, sounding calm, his breathing steady as he increased his speed to match mine. The former active-duty Ranger always sounded calm, though, so that wasn’t such a big deal. “Alex?” he said. “Update.”
“They broke the camera. Sorry, bro. Working now to integrate your new headsets into the system. Get ready to switch out.”
“That might be the intent of the weird-looking fight,” I said. “Taking us off-line and out of the intel so someone can do something they shouldn’t.”
“‘Something they shouldn’t’ covers a lot of possibilities,” Eli said.
“Is everything localized on sub-four?” I asked.
“Negative,” Alex said. “As of right now, per the cameras, it’s subsiding at the ballroom but spreading to sub-three and farther into sub-four.”
“Crap on crackers,” I said. But at least the violence wasn’t on sub-five.
Chained in the lowest basement at vamp headquarters was one of the Sons of Darkness, one of the oldest vamps on earth, one of the founding fathers, as it was. His existence there had been a secret. Not so much now. Joses Bar-Judas was trouble of the worst vamp kind—a nearly immortal blood-drinker, but this one had the powers of a superhero and the morals of Torquemada and his merry band of torturers. If Joses ever got his sanity back and his body rehabbed, he’d be capable of doing anything a vamp could do but better and faster, and he would also be able to do witch magic—no telling what kind of witch magic, but I was betting on powerful and bloody.
During the decades that his presence as a prisoner was secret, Joses had been a useful captive for Clan Pellissier, his blood giving the Master of the City, Leo Pellissier, and his cronies special power and abilities. But with his status known, he made a formidable, dangerous pawn on the chessboard of vamp politics, especially with the European vamps wanting his return. And if Joses ever truly recovered, he’d be a deadly, psycho enemy. If this fight had been about him—somebody wanting to kidnap him or kill him or drink his potent blood—we would have been in trouble. The Son of Darkness was a power I had no way to gauge, evaluate, or fight against.
We rounded the corner and raced out of the blaring sun and under the porte cochere. Baby powder, the stink of our sweat, and the smell of vamp blood filled my nostrils. “Coms system is a go,” Alex said.
Eli and I secured our official cells, slipped on the high-tech ear-protector headsets. They had been created for variable noise reduction during tactical ops, where situational awareness and interunit communication were equally important. In combat, soldiers wore helmets. We hadn’t gotten that far along in personal protection yet. The new headsets had only recently replaced the earbuds we used to use and were tied into the coms system at vamp HQ and to Alex, so we could hear what we needed to hear and yet be protected from the worst of the ear damage of weapons fire. Over the new headset, I heard Derek Lee, Leo’s other Enforcer, say, “. . . standard ammo. Continue to take the vampires down. Three-burst, midcenter shots. They’ll heal. Do not—repeat, do not—target humans. If humans are involved, use any of the nonlethal compliance methods at your disposal. Repeat, nonlethal measures for humans.”
“We’re in,” I said to Alex, who was still back at the house. Then, to the security people at HQ, I said, “This is Jane Yellowrock, We’re under the porte cochere. Protocol Cowbird.”
“Legs,” Derek replied. “Protocol Cowbird affirmed.”
Cowbirds left their eggs in other birds’ nests instead of building ones of their own. The protocol named after them had been designed not for fighting off vamps from outside, but for dealing with problems already on the inside, for instance, like a nestling that wanted to take over from the rightful owners. “Update us.”
“We’ve got fighting in the subbasements,” Derek said. “Hostilities are under control at ballroom and on sub-three, but sub-four is still hostile. Elevator is stopped on top floor, on override, at my order. But conflict has spread through basement stairs. I have men there, but they’re cut off from reinforcements. And this fight’s not according to previous methodology. They’re not moving at vamp speed.”
“Copy.” That was what I’d noted on the cameras earlier, the stumbling, zombie-dance motions, still faster than human, but not the smooth, gliding, faster-than-sight speed vamps can use. Not normal.
There was no one at the back entrance, and Eli stepped out, motioning me to trail him and take the left wall. He’d take the right. I nodded. He moved ahead, pressed his palm over the biometric reader, and dashed into the cool dark of the windowless, air-conditioned entrance. I followed. The doors whooshed shut behind us and I took cover behind the half wall I’d had built there for just this purpose; I blinked, waiting for my eyes to adjust. As soon as I could, I did a quick look-see and popped back behind the wall.
With the exception of Eli, standing behind a decorative fluted column, the back entrance was empty of people. The white marble flooring, with its new black and gray marble fleur-de-lis inlay, and the pristine white walls were empty of blood-and-gore spatter. Art from some of New Orleans’ best painters over the last three centuries hung on the walls, hiding things Eli and I might need someday, in handy-dandy caches built into the walls. The stairs to the ballroom were just ahead, the door open and a light angling in. I raced from behind the wall to an angle where I could see up and down at the stairs landing.
“Not moving at vamp speed? Possible compulsion?” Eli asked, taking us back to the important parts.
Multiple three-bursts from automatic weapons fire erupted over the coms system. Over it all and up the elevator shaft also echoed the piercing wails of vamps dying, high-pitched and eardrum piercing. Eli ripped off his earpieces and left the headset hanging.
I yanked mine away and then stuck it back to hear Derek say, “Best guess. Things have been dicey ever since Adrianna got here.”
Despite the heat, I was suddenly cold all over and swore silently to myself. “Adrianna? How many times do I have to kill her?” Adrianna had been on the losing side in multiple attempts to take over the position of Master of the City of New Orleans, and I’d staked her more than once in retribution. She was gorgeous, violent, and even more wacko than most vamps. I’d been paid for her head not so long ago, but for reasons that had never made sense, Leo had, once again, refused to kill Adrianna true-dead. “When did she get here?” I pulled a vamp-killer and a silver stake. No more Mr. Nice Guy. This time when I saw her, her head was gonna roll.
“Last night about eleven. Leo welcomed her and put her on sub-four in a room that used to belong to her and her scions.”
“Stairs from sub-three opening into the closet? Lock on the outside? Everything falling off the walls? Everything rotten?” I asked.
“Stairs and lock, yes. Same room, but redecorated.”
“So he knew she was coming,” I spat. “He’s known for a while.”
“Best guess.” Derek didn’t sound happy about it. “I shoulda called,” he added, a familiar ring of self-blame in his words, “I get that. But it looked like the usual vamp crazy shit.”
“Language,” Alex muttered, his voice tight as he monitored coms.
“Company,” Eli said, his voice calm, cold, and uncompromising. His combat voice. He nodded to the elevator shaft.
“Fighting’s supposed to be contained in the ballroom,” I said.
“Yeah,” Eli said, adjusting his weapons. “Funny how things change.”
But the elevator wasn’t moving, hadn’t arrived. The doors opened slowly, an unbalanced, uneven motion, the way they’d move if hands forced them open instead of the electronics. Rather than the beautifully decorated, ice white and cream-of-tartar–toned elevator, we saw an empty shaft, black, dank, and dark.
From the shaft came the stink of vamp and human blood and the recorded strains of Chris LeDoux singing “This Cowboy’s Hat.” It was an odd combo. “Blood,” I whispered, as air from the lower floors reached me. “Human and vamp. And . . . holy crap.”
Something in my voice alerted Eli, because he switched weapons faster than I could follow and pulled up his small subgun loaded with silver ammo. A black form rose in the open shaft. Eli started firing, to heck with three-burst rounds. He shot in bursts of what sounded like ten rounds each before a short pause and a second burst. Eli emptied one mega-mag and slammed a fresh one home.
In the full second and a half that it took Eli to remove and replace the magazine, the form slithered/slid/floated/flew out of the shaft. So fast it looked feathery. Beast rammed into the front of my brain. As black as the unlit chute, as dark as a minion of hell, the thing crawled across the floor on all fours, moving like a centipede, feathery, fast, as graceful as an insect or a bird or . . . a lizard. That was it. Whipping and undulating like a hybrid of an insect and a lizard, its head and neck and limbs working together and yet totally separate to propel it forward.
In an act that I had never, ever wanted to experience again, Beast reached through me and brought up the Gray Between, the gray place my skinwalker energies were stored. No, I thought at her. She ignored me. Time slowed fractionally, then more. And again, to a consistency of tar, a hot, clinging thickness to the air. The thing was Joses Bar-Judas. A Son of Darkness. Leo’s prisoner. Until now.
The last time I saw him, he had been a sack of bones hanging on the wall of the lowest subbasement, crucified there with silver spikes, held in place with silver chains and several pocket watches, each containing a piece of the iron spike of Golgotha. He had been a dried-out, leathery husk of a thing, nowhere near human, blackened all over, with insane, glittering black eyes. He’d also been overly chatty for a nutcase with a dried-out strip of jerky for a tongue. And I had thrown a silver knife into his throat to shut him up.
In hindsight I could see that might have been unwise.
His black eyes settled on me and his mouth opened slowly, so slowly, to reveal a maw full of cracked and broken teeth, brown with age, and fangs like tusks in his upper and lower jaws. Even in the time bubble created by my Beast and me, Joses Bar-Judas could see me, see us. Power rippled across him, sparking white and black, colder than an arctic snow, hotter than volcanic ash falling from a flaming sky. The power didn’t so much dance across his skin as sizzle. So unbelievably powerful. And that was new. That meant he’d fed, and well.
I didn’t know how it had been arranged or carried out, but the fight among vamps on sub-three and -four had been a diversion. For this guy.
In the bubble that let me stand outside of time, he altered course, shifting trajectory fractionally, heading right for us. Eli was squeezing the trigger of the subgun. From inside the bubble I could see the silver-lead rounds leaving the muzzle of the gun, spiraling and twisting, half an inch at a time, a puff of black dust exploding out with each round. And Joses, a Son of Darkness, ducked to evade them. He was that fast.
Faster than HQ’s ambient time, I unsheathed a silver-plated vamp-killer. Leaped forward, taking the time bubble with me, ducking beneath the rounds blasting forward and the hot brass discharging out to the side of Eli’s gun. My right arm extended in front of me, point forward, more like the way one would use a sword than the way one would hold a knife in a knife fight. I heard the deep tones of a voice in my earpiece, the word so slow the sound was meaningless.
I pushed off with my toes, stretching into the lunge, feeling the new muscle memory of sword practice supporting my intent. Joses opened his fingers, exposing his hand. Around his neck was a gold chain, like a necklace, with red things dangling from it like rubies. On his wrist he wore a bracelet, half-hidden by the tatters of clothing, or maybe tatters of half-mummified flesh; it too was shiny gold.
My eyes latched onto his black ones, his desiccated lips moving. Shock thrummed through me like the single tone of a large bell, recently struck, vibrating, a pounding pulse of surprise.
As the vibrations hit me, I realized that the pulse wasn’t just shock, but was part of the word I’d been hearing. Joses Bar-Judas was speaking that word. That wyrd. A spell of darkness encoded into a single word, the power released when it was spoken.
The first syllable slid along my blade, heating it red-hot. Before I could react to the heat starting to burn where I gripped the hilt, it rolled up my arm, singeing the leather, heating the silver-over-titanium chain links between the outer leather and the silk lining. Over my shoulder and neck. The wyrd of power slammed me in the face like a sledgehammer.
Even in the time bubble, I was knocked backward, hard, my head whipped forward and back, my arm shoved down. I struck the wall, spine and back of my head first, then my limbs, ricocheting. My whole body shuddered at the impact of the power.
The time bubble popped.
I was rammed down into the marble floor, feeling my whole body hit and bounce. Just before everything went dark, I saw Joses Bar-Judas skitter out the door. Into the dusky . . . sunlight.
* * *
I woke slowly, with a headache pounding like I had been tucked into a fifty-five-gallon drum and someone was beating on it with a mallet. My gut was twisted, a gripping torture that felt as if I had swallowed a nest of live rattlesnakes and they were attacking me all at once. “Holy crap on crackers with . . .” I gagged, retched, doubled up on the floor, as my adnominal muscles contracted and my lungs forgot to breathe. The bout of pain and nausea lasted forever before it began to ease. After too long a time, I was able to force a hand between my chest and thighs and press against the knot that used to be my belly. I licked my lips, unable to think, and not remembering what I’d been saying.
“Jane?” The voice was tinny and far away. Oh yeah. Someone had been calling me.
I managed to inhale, my ribs protesting. Strongly. But the smells that hit my nose were of nitrocellulose, burned gunpowder, blood. Lots of blood. Battle. I had to get better, fast.
“Jane!” the tinny voice shouted.
I grunted. Managed to slit open my eyes. The light was blinding. I scrunched them shut and waited out a dozen of the painful mallet-pain-heartbeats. When the ache seemed to be abating, I tried opening them again. I was lying on a white marble floor, on my side, with my back against a gray-white wall and my head turned at a painful angle. Over me hung a painting, crooked on the wall. I blinked groggily at it to see a blond woman with grayish hazel green eyes, wearing some kind of gauzy evening gown, her shoulders bare, her décolletage mostly bare too. I knew her. Katie. Katie the vampire. I knew vampires. I worked for vampires. Right. And I was sick because Beast had taken over and forced me to fold time. At least this time when the bubble of time popped, I wasn’t throwing up blood.
Using one hand and both feet, I shoved myself upright, to a sitting position, knees bent up to my chest. The other hand fell, limp, pain ripping up my arm as it landed on the floor. There were blisters on the hand, the kind you get if you accidently pour scalding-hot tea on yourself. I’d done that at my sensei’s dojo when I was a kid. It had required a trip to the emergency room, but the blisters had healed really fast. Because I was a skinwalker. It was all coming back.
The hand hurt when I tried to open it, and I sucked air through my teeth as I released the thing I was holding. It clattered to the floor. It was a knife, scorched, ruined. The blade, once silver-plated steel, was warped, the edge wavy, the silver blackened where it had melted and formed runnels before cooling again. The leather-wrapped hilt was blackened except for the shape of my hand. A vamp-killer. I kill vampires. It’s what I do. Right.
“Janie! Answer me or I’m calling the cops!”
The memories finally started moving, a slow cascade that morphed into an avalanche. Alex. Coms. Eli. Derek. Joses. Holy crap. The Son of Darkness.
I raised the unblistered hand and tucked the headset back in place in one ear. “I’m here, Alex,” I whispered, my throat so dry it hurt to breathe. “How long have I been out?”
“Ninety-seven seconds out totally, another hundred forty getting your wits back.” He cursed foully and didn’t apologize for it, so I knew he was scared. The four minutes, plus or minus, didn’t seem like a long time, but in battle that could feel like forever, especially to the people watching and not taking part, unable to help.
“Update,” I said.
“Eli and Derek and three security guys are running through the Quarter, chasing a smoking fanghead-zombie thing. I guess no one told the zombie-vamp that the sun was up and he needed sunscreen.” Alex made a sound that could have been an attempt at laughter but fell far short. His levity was a crack at sounding macho, when he was really in panic mode.
I decided to not respond to it, saying instead, “Tell them to be careful. Joses has a wyrd of power and he knows how to use it.”
“I know.” Alex’s voice went grim. He sounded harder, older, than he had only this morning. “We all know. Debrief,” he said, ready to catch me up to date on the missing four minutes. “Eli put a mag and a half into him as you went all Jedi knight and attacked. In the next half second, Joses used the spell on you. Eli jumped behind the half wall. He wasn’t hit. Derek appeared from the hallway and filled the zombie with silver. He took a spell-hit too, but not near as strong as yours. He dropped back through the doorway and out of line of fire. Then Eli put nearly a full magazine into the zombie’s back. The vamp didn’t use the spell this time, but the rounds didn’t even slow him down.
“He took off outside, leaving a trail of smoke. Eli and Derek’s men followed. Derek, when he could stand again, pulled you against the wall, out of the way, and went after them.” He took a breath that sounded suspiciously tearful. I didn’t comment on it. Just waited.
“Jane?” Before I could reply, he went on, his distress deeper. “Next time there’s trouble at an entrance, stay behind the damn wall. It was built to protect you from every single thing that hit you, vamps, magic—”
“Eli’s okay,” I said, softly.
“You don’t know that. He isn’t answering on coms.”
“Oh,” I said, understanding why he was so rattled. “He’s probably busy,” I said gently. “And he’s off premises, so they’ll be communicating by talkies or cell. And they probably haven’t had time to sync their phones into your system.” Then, to give him something to do, I said, “Tell me what’s happening on the other floors.”
He took another breath, this one more stable but still wet sounding. “Yeah. Okay. I’m monitoring coms from off-site, so I don’t have access to the remote joystick for the dynamic cams. But on sub-three we have vamps feeding in the hallways. Just a word of warning—don’t go down there. I had to turn off the video. I need to scrub my eyeballs with bleach. There’s stuff happening down there that’s gonna give me nightmares and warp my sexual development forever.”
“Yeah. I’m real worried about that.” Not.
“How bad are you hurt?” he asked. “Do you need to shift?”
I blinked and looked up. Right. He could see me on the security camera. Beast? I thought at her. She didn’t reply, and I had to wonder if the blast of magic had hurt her. I shook my head to clear it and sought the Gray Between, the place where my skinwalker magics rested. And it wasn’t there. I . . . couldn’t sense it at all. Fear twisted through me like frozen barbed wire, burning where it touched.
Using the action to cover my reaction, I pushed myself to my knees, then to my feet, with my unblistered left hand. My gut was roiling, and I retched, the spasm making the pain worse for a terrifying space of time, but I didn’t vomit blood. Always look on the bright side. I’d had a housemother who used to say that, at the children’s home where I was raised. I wasn’t sure how that related to the sickness I experienced after folding reality, but it wasn’t bad advice. I might try it as soon as I could stand upright again. Walk again.
With the toe of my boot, I tapped the scorched vamp-killer. The blade shivered and split, sharp shards of steel flying up and tinkling down to the marble. With my left hand, I lifted my right arm against my waist, feeling blisters burst along my lower arm. The pain was like sliding my arm through burning cacti. It was all I could do to keep from screaming, but I held my breath until the agony eased, keeping silent for the Kid. Moisture leaked into the silk lining, feeling cold and slimy beneath the roasted leather.
Even though he was not yet of legal age, I knew better than to treat Alex like a child, and since I knew he could see my face, I answered honestly, “I’ve had better days. Continue.” As Alex talked, I opened the med-pocket on the thigh rig and pulled out a roll of self-adhesive sticky bandage, fashioning a makeshift sling so I could keep the arm in place. The material was black, like my leathers. Eli liked military medical stuff, and so a lot of our medical gear was plain white, stark black, or army camo. In this case, the color would make my injured condition less of an issue until I could see to it.
“Sub-four floor is calming. Leo’s there. He’s pis— He’s not happy. But he’s not raging either. Wait. He’s heading down.”
“Down to sub-five?”
“Yeah. And cameras are off-line there. Working to get them back on system, which would be easier if I was there or if Angel Tit was on duty.” Angel Tit was Derek’s best coms and security guy, and we all worked well together, but he was out of town and new people meant less reliable help. “Leo’s moving fast, Grégoire right behind. You better hurry.” Grégoire was the best fighter the American Mithrans had and was utterly devoted to Leo. He was also Leo’s right-hand boy toy.
Hurry. Right. “Keep me in the loop when you hear from Eli and Derek.” The Kid grunted again, sounding remarkably like his big brother. I sheathed the stake I had dropped, unaware I had even drawn one in the fight, found a bottle of water in my gobag, and took a sip to moisten my throat. I wanted more but had discovered the hard way that anything on my cramping stomach made me throw up. A lot. Recapping the bottle, I pulled a handgun, one with an ambidextrous grip, so I could hold it in my left. My injured right arm was now cradled against my belly so I wouldn’t bump it on something and maybe pass out. Again.
With the elevator out, I wound my way up to and through the ballroom and out a set of stairs that led only up again, then around through the walls and back down. In the past few weeks, we had mapped most of the secret stairways, elevator shafts, and passages and installed electric lights with battery backup. They were low-maintenance, low-level illumination, in this case just tiny button lights down one side of the stairs, though some of the larger stairways had two sets of lights, one on either side of the casing.
Alex came back on, saying, “Police just got reports of, and I quote, ‘a man on fire, running through the streets, being chased by gang members.’ So I guess black guys have to be gang members, right?”
“Yeah,” I said, my voice low so as not to carry as I made my way down and around and down again, to the landing at the bottom of sub-five, the fifth-floor subbasement. I smelled blood on the updrafting air, vamp and human, and lots of it. From sub-four I could hear sounds that let me know the vamps were getting happy and well fed. I adjusted the grip on the weapon and gasped when I joggled the right arm. Something was very wrong with that. Beast should have sent me some relief by now. I could hear her panting in the back of my mind, and I got an image of her lying on a rock floor, licking her paw pad. Right front limb, just like mine. Yeah. She was hurt, but I’d have to deal with that later. Hang on, girl.
“Jane?” Alex said again. “There are reports of a white wolf joining the chase with the gangbangers.”
I hesitated an instant. A white wolf had to mean Brute. We hadn’t seen him in weeks. So how did he know a vamp—that vamp—was free? Brute had bitten Joses Bar-Judas the last time I’d seen him, and when one supernat takes a bite out of another, anything might happen, maybe even some mystic mumbo-jumbo-tracking thingamajimmy. Crap. Something else to worry about later. My list was getting really long.
I succeeded in getting the pocket door on sub-five open, and light and my blood-scent flooded the darkness beyond, illuminating the clay floor and the bodies, their vampire and human blood a mixed stench that made my stomach roil again.
Leo was kneeling over them. He was vamped-out, three-inch fangs extended on the hinges in the roof of his mouth, his eyes like black pits in bloody sclera. Leo was scary, but after seeing the Son of Darkness in all his magnificent horror, Leo looked nearly human. I chuffed with pained laughter at the thought, and Leo whirled to me.
His nostrils flared and shrank, his lips pulled back, as he smelled/tasted me on the air. His shoulders lifted, his talons spreading, claw-like. “You are injured,” he hissed. “I smell your blood, your burned flesh.”
“You know, Leo, the last few minutes have really sucked. And if I have to fill you full of silver and then fight my way outta here, it’s only gonna suck more. So how about you pull up your big-boy panties and let’s see what’s happened in this FUBARed afternoon.”
Behind him, Leo’s second-in-command, Grégoire, unsheathed his weapon, which was way more threatening and way less sexy than one might imagine. With two fastfast steps, Grégoire positioned himself between Leo and me, his sword pointed at my throat. I didn’t take my eyes off the MOC.
Leo blinked. Blinked again. His fingers softened their positions, relaxing; his talons slid back into the sheaths across the tops of his fingers that hid them when he was faking human. His eyes bled slowly back to human, and something like humor entered his eyes. Leo opened his mouth, and the fangs snicked back on their hinges. “I assure you I do not wear big-boy panties, or panties at all, a fact I will gladly allow my Enforcer to investigate at some later time.” He stood straight, losing that hulking-monster-in-a-dark-alley posture he’d been holding. And I saw that his hands, mouth, and jaw weren’t bloody. He hadn’t killed anyone. Yet.
Grégoire resheathed his sword and stepped to the side, his eyes taking in everything and everyone in the room. Vamps are hard to read at the best of times, but right now, Grégoire looked like stone, a fierce, furious, and oddly worried statue, some golden warrior carved by Michelangelo. He was sniffing, taking in the scents, and his scowl deepened as he moved around the perimeter of the room.
“Yeah. No, thanks. I’ll take your word for it.” I pointed the barrel at the bodies. “Who?”
“The fools who transgressed and betrayed me,” Leo said.
Feeling a little safer, now that he sounded rational and Grégoire was otherwise engaged, I entered the room, leaving the door open. I had a flashlight, but no way was I putting the gun away just for some light. My eyes adjusted to the dark more slowly than usual, and I approached Leo with my body bladed, weapon down at my thigh, knowing that, injured and with Beast out of things for now, I was in no shape to fight my boss. If he went nutso, I’d have to shoot him. And run.
The two bodies I had seen from the doorway were lying on the clay flooring, positioned about ten feet out from the wall, one male, one female, both vamps, lying on their sides. The position was oddly familiar. Leo and Katie, his heir, had been positioned similarly last time I had been down there. This time, the female had curly red hair that fanned out on the clay floor, hair I remembered well. The vamps’ bodies looked totally human, relaxed in sleep, until I got close enough to make out the small pool of blood beneath each head and the gleam of silver at each temple. I moved closer to make sure, because they looked so peaceful.
So did the pile of humans lying on the clay farther out, appearing well and truly dead, all of them relaxed and calm looking, not in postures of fighting. Just . . . asleep. Which was something I had seen once before, in photos down at NOPD. A whole unit of city cops had been taken down in an alley, not a shot fired, all of them drained dry by a master vamp with a gift for mind control. The humans had died happy, probably dreaming of being on a beach, sipping piña coladas, while a vampire-skinwalker monster drank them down and then ate their livers. It was why I’d been hired to come to New Orleans in the first place, to track down the vampire who had killed them. A vamp who had been a lot more than just a vamp.
Unlike the cops, however, these humans hadn’t been eaten. “I have called for master Mithrans to turn them,” Leo said to me, gesturing with his chin at the humans. “There is life enough in them to bring over.” His voice sounded funny, not quite himself, as if he was holding something back, holding something in.
Before I could figure out what was going on with Leo, there were numerous pops as the air pressure changed, to reveal vamps bending over each human. Some were high-placed vamps, like Dominique, Grégoire’s blond, beautiful heir, and some were low-placed ones, like Edmund Hartley, who was the vamp version of Leo’s bond slave. There were humans to help, and a dizzying miasma of scents washed over me, bloody, peppery, papery, the herbal signatures of vamps under stress and the pheromones of humans holding down panic.
“They signed the papers?” I asked, meaning the contracts that humans signed when they became blood-servants, designating what was to happen if they were almost killed in service—whether they would be allowed to die or brought over.
“It is being dealt with,” Leo said. Which didn’t really answer my question, but whatever.
I toed a puddle of cooled metallic slag in the floor. It didn’t move. I looked up to the wall where Joses had hung. And back to the dead vamps, putting the scenario together. “The vampires came down here, pulled the silver stakes out of his wrists and feet, and let him off the wall. At some point, the pocket watches you were using to control Joses were activated and used in some spell. The working melted them down to puddles of bubbling goo.” I kicked another one of the disfigured, burned watches and chain with my boot, and it didn’t move. They were all stuck to the floor, melted into the clay, which had to take some kinda heat.
“With his mind he trapped the humans they had brought to feed him and drank them down. Then, a little healed, he held the vamps still and drank them down. And then he stabbed his rescuers through the brains with the silver spikes and took off.”
“Yesss.” Leo’s voice sounded ticked off again, that slithery dangerous tone vamps used when they wanted to remind you they were killers, at the top of the food chain. “You, my Enforcer, were supposed to keep my headquarters safe. You were supposed to keep my people safe. You were sup—”
“Stuff it, Leo. You were supposed to tell me when anything changed. Like Adrianna coming back. When did she show? Last night? Right. You didn’t call. So don’t blame me when you’re playing vampire games and it comes back and bites you in the butt.” I angled my body so he could see the gun, just in case my attitude was more than he wanted to put up with. Or maybe I should just throw up on him. That might keep him from attacking me. Toeing the female vamp, I said, “I’m taking her head this time. Gratis, since you already paid me. But you wanna tell me why she’s still alive? Or was? And why you let her back in here?”
Leo looked around the room slowly, and though his shoulders didn’t droop, it was obvious that he knew he’d screwed the pooch on this one. He frowned, a totally human frown, and said, “Rumors have persisted for many years that Adrianna had possession of objects of value to me—les objets de puissance, les objets de magie. I allowed her back, assured her of my good graces, and kept her under surveillance, with the intent to take les objets de magie from her.”
Objects of power. Magical objects. Well. That was honest. For once. “She was Joses Bar-Judas’ what? Sweetheart? Honeybunch? Snack cake?”
Leo smiled this time and drew in a breath that he didn’t need. The last of his hostility drained away when he exhaled, so maybe breathing did play a part in vamp physiology, like releasing tension. What did I know? What did anyone know?
He took another breath to speak. “Snack cake, my Enforcer?” he asked, with heavy emphasis on the first two words. “No. She was his lover for a number of years. Some claim that she was present the night he disappeared, but she was with me that night, hoping to gain some favor. I don’t remember now what she even wanted, what she bargained for.”
Sex and blood for a favor. Got it. “Uh-huh. And the thing you wanted to take away from her? The thing you let her back inside HQ for? Did you get it?” I remembered the hints of gold at Joses’ neck and wrist. “Or did the Son of Darkness get away with them too?”
“Or perhaps you took them from him,” Leo said, his shoulders rising again, his pupils widening, his sclera going scarlet. Leo was over-reactionary tonight. That was interesting and dangerous. Very dangerous.
“I don’t have anything except wounds,” I snapped, as my intestines did a tight, breath-stealing curl. Gasping shallowly, smelling the stink of my burned skin, I said, “Joses was wearing things made of gold at his wrist and neck when he took off. You can check your surveillance footage.”
Grégoire drifted to his master’s side and placed two fingers to Leo’s waist, a calming gesture. I toed Adrianna again, seeing abrasions around her neck where a necklace had been wrenched off. A similar rip in her flesh showed at her right wrist. “Necklace? Maybe bracelet of some kind, ones he ripped off of her? So I can guess that once word started to leak out that you held Joses prisoner, Adrianna—and probably the rest of the fanghead world—decided he should be free and that they should be the ones to do him that favor. Get on his good side. So she brought the magical mystery jewelry here to set him free and join him on his golden throne to take over the world, right? ’Cause that’s what most evil villains want, though why anyone would want responsibility for this ball of dirt, I don’t know.”
Leo’s shoulders slumped. He ran his fingers through his hair, holding the back of his skull with both hands as if trying to hold it together. He scrutinized each of the bodies for a moment, studying their faces. Their peaceful faces. “I have miscalculated,” he said at length. “Badly.” He dropped his hands slowly and looked into Grégoire’s eyes, as if seeking comfort. “My people are in grave danger.”
“Nous sommes tous bien, mon cœur. Il n’y a pas de raison de s’inquiéter.” Which I thought a reassurance of some sort.
I decided Leo was in control enough for me to holster the gun, which I did before unlocking my knees and dropping them to the clay floor. With my good hand, I pried a pocket watch free. Clay, hardened into stone or brick, came with it. Holding my injured arm tight against me to prepare for the jar, I pulled a knife with a solid steel hilt and banged the butt on the watch until the half-melted lid cracked open.
Inside was the round iron disc, the magical part of the pocket watches, items that might—or might not—have been intended to alter time, to give the user a way to fold or bend time and reality, as I did, to give the user control over time, which translated to power over others. I hadn’t really figured out much about them and had been hoping I’d never have to. But whatever spell they held, Joses had used it to help him get away. The iron disc looked different from the others I’d seen before. This one looked like someone had burnished it with a metal tool, then polished it with oil and a soft cloth, bringing all the brightness to the surface. It shimmered. I found another pocket watch and opened it the same way. Ditto on the iron disc. There were more, and I collected the discs from them too, holding them all in my good left palm. I shook them like one might shake dice at a craps table.
In an undamaged state, the discs were magnetic, attracting others like them, and if allowed into close proximity, they latched together into a single unit, seamless, becoming a solitary oversized disc. Like magic. These, not so much. They didn’t react at all.
I remembered the way Joses had moved while I was in the bubble of time. Yeah. Time. That was part of the spell and part of what all the vamps wanted. If you could control time or act outside of it, you could do anything. And now Joses Bar-Judas had used a wyrd and parts of the iron from the spike of Golgotha to maneuver outside of time. And he also now knew I had the same ability, without the iron.
My life just kept getting better and better.
I dragged my thoughts back to Leo. “Yeah. Sorry.” I shook the discs again and forced myself to my feet. “He used whatever spell was in the discs. They look inert. He got away. And he’ll want revenge on you for holding him here for, what? Decades?”
“And he’ll take it out on anyone he can get to, human or vamp.”
“Yes. You are to find him and bring him to me. Alive.”
I’ll get right on that, I thought. “I understand my duties, Leo.” Which didn’t say that I’d do exactly what he wanted. No promises on Joses being undead when I brought him back. I pocketed the discs and tapped my mouthpiece. “Alex. How long on the cameras?”
“Back up and running. I didn’t want to interrupt your tête-à-tête. Working now to find out if anything is left of the vid.”
“Thanks. I want to know how the vamps got down here. Who’s on coms upstairs? I need to talk to them, see footage.”
“Collating footage now,” Alex said. His tone implied that I was stepping on his toes, trying to tell him how to do his job. “Coms was supposed to be one of the new guys, name of Roman,” he said, “but he called in sick. His mother had a heart cath today.” I could tell I wasn’t gonna like whatever he said next. “Vodka Martini was on coms today. He’s dead, Jane. I have footage of Adrianna walking in and stabbing him in the spine at his shoulder blades. And feeding until his heart stopped.”
Shock spiraled through me, combining with the nausea already curdling in my gut. Martini had been with us a long time, as long as I’d known Derek, and had just come back after rehab following an on-the-job injury. Graying hair, ready laugh. Good with coms. Steady, reliable. A nice man killed because Leo had kept Adrianna alive.
Steeling myself against my grief, I said, “Make sure Roman’s mom really did have a heart cath. Make sure we know where he was all day. Make sure he didn’t have a sudden need for money or favors. Get yourself some help either here or at the house. Angel Tit, if you can get him back. Get all the footage collated, all the subjects identified. I want a timeline of what happened here and I want it yesterday.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Alex said. From his tone I knew he was feeling the loss of Martini.
“Hang in there, Alex,” I said softly. “Let me know when your brother checks back in.”
I snapped my coms unit off and turned to Leo. “Why did you let her back in? What did she have that you wanted?” When Leo hesitated, I added, “What magical toy did Joses Bar-Judas get away with, and how much trouble are we in because of it?”
Leo didn’t answer. Disgusted, I pulled a vamp-killer and went to Adrianna. Still holding my injured arm close to me, I positioned the blade at what was left of Adrianna’s throat and prepared to bear down. Any vamp killed and not beheaded stood a chance of rising, a revenant, a mindless, blood-hunting, killing machine. Any vamp killed and brain-poisoned with silver stood an even better chance.
Leo’s hand landed on my forearm. “No, my Enforcer. You may not.” Effortlessly, he lifted me and the blade up, and when I was standing, he removed the blade from my hand. Deftly, he resheathed it. “She may make a bargaining chip for the Son of Darkness, assuming that he recalls his affection for her when he regains his sanity. Dead, she is useless.” At my expression—which couldn’t have been pretty—Leo chuckled. “I will feed her and care for her in a scion lair. I will not let her starve or torture her with want. And I will personally make certain that her cage is secure.”
“Sure you will. But, you see, it’s a little late for promises, Leo.” I pointed at the humans.
Leo frowned, but it was more a “waste of good food” and “more scions to chain and feed” expression than an expression of concern. I pulled a flash and went to the humans, who were being fed drops of blood by vamps, shining the light into each face. I knew two of them personally. Or I had. I tapped the mic. I gave Alex the names of the injured and dead. “Leo has decided to keep Adrianna alive,” I said. He cursed. Again. I didn’t respond; I must be getting used to the boys’ language.
“If you’re saving Adrianna, why not save him too?” I asked Leo, pointing at the other vamp.
The MOC shook his head. “He cannot be saved. He is not old enough to survive silver. He is true-dead and may rise as a revenant if you do not take his head.”
I figured it was a blood-master thing. Leo knew when his people could be saved or not. To Alex, I added, “His name is Mario Esposito.” Mario, a dark-skinned Italian vamp, had hit on me once, big-time. He had thought he was prettier and smoother than he really was, and I had used that to get something I wanted. I tried not to remember his mouth on my neck as I drew a vamp-killer. Efficiently, using the blade Leo had just put away, I cut through what was left of Mario’s cervical spine. There wasn’t enough blood left in him to spew, but the sound of the blade going through tissue was wet and sticky, followed by the harder, muted thumping and grating of steel on bone. The blade wasn’t made for boning or jointing animals, but it did the job, eventually, leaving only the stink of vamp blood meeting silver on the air.
I wiped the blade on Mario’s coat, noticing only now that it was white cloth with gold threads woven through it. Like, real cloth of gold. And Joses and I had ruined it with bloodstains. They’d never come out. A laugh tittered in the back of my throat but turned to a gasp when I stood and my jacket pulled on my injured arm. At least my stomach was feeling better. I no longer wanted to toss bloody cookies.
I tapped my mic and said, “We’re gonna need lights and equipment.”
“Roger that,” Alex said. “Eli’s on the way down.”
I pretended not to hear the utter relief in his voice, that Eli was back. “Copy.”
Ignoring me, Leo extended his talons toward Adrianna and pushed into the gore that was her head, gripping the blunt end of the huge silver stake buried deep in her temple. With a jerk, he pulled it out and threw it across the room, his tolerance of silver marking him stronger than most other vamps I knew. He scooped his arms beneath her and lifted Adrianna. From behind us, the other vamps, almost in unison, lifted their humans and popped away, moving like blurs up the staircase. Leo moved more sedately, away from the stairs, his bestie, Grégoire, on his heels. The elevator thumped and the doors opened.
Eli and Del stood there, Bruiser behind them, watching. Eli was holding a psy-meter, designed by the Psychometry Law Enforcement Division of Homeland Security for measuring ambient and active magical energy. I used to measure in at sixty-two. No telling what I measured now. I gave Eli a finger sign to wait and he offered back a truncated nod, understanding that until Leo departed, any measurement was void. I hadn’t asked my partner how he managed to get one of the rare psychometers, which were exclusive to the use of law enforcement and military. Sometimes it was better not to know stuff.
Without a backward glance at me, Leo walked onto the elevator, the others moving out of his way. He left behind droplets of Adrianna’s blood, and maybe a little bloody gray matter. I didn’t look closely at Leo’s trail. As he passed Adelaide, her eyes followed Leo, her face full of emotion, none of it good, none of it making sense. When the elevator door closed, Del moved quickly across the room and through the pocket door, up the stairs, as if chasing the vamps and their human burdens. She wasn’t running, not exactly, but she wasn’t taking her time either.
As she left, Bruiser approached, his eyes on me. At six-four, he was a tall man, even to me, topping my height by several inches. Looking every inch the Enforcer, the primo of a master vamp, neither of which he was anymore, he studied the room, the humans, the beheaded vamp, silent. But he took no command position, which felt so odd to me. He had always been Enforcer and primo, always in charge. Now he was Onorio and living off premises and . . . often in my bed, or I in his. But he never interfered when I was working, recognizing my authority as Leo’s current, temporary, part-time Enforcer. Everything was all backward.
“Suggestions?” I asked.
“One or two,” he said smoothly. “Over dinner, soon.”
Which meant later, privately, and not for any listening ears at coms. I nodded. I needed to know what was wrong with Del. I needed to know about Adrianna. I needed to know a lot of stuff, and Bruiser hadn’t been at his apartment last night, which meant he had stayed at HQ. I assumed. I didn’t really know. And I was too chicken to ask, fearful of sounding like a lovesick schoolgirl, whining, Where were you last night? You didn’t answer my text. Were you with your old girlfriend? Which I knew he wasn’t, since his old girlfriend was Katie of Katie’s Ladies, my former landlady, and Leo’s heir. And Leo’s lover. Vamp bed jumping was normally hard to keep up with, but Alex was currently handling the security cams and console for Katie’s place of business, until we could train Deon, her chef, for that job. We had access to all the cameras, and Bruiser hadn’t been there. Katie had been otherwise entertained last night. I tried to ignore my own relief at that. I trusted Bruiser. I did. But we hadn’t established the boundaries of our relationship yet. I wasn’t sure we really had a relationship yet.
Into my earpiece, I heard Alex ask, “Did I just see Leo carrying Adrianna, still with her head, up to his office?”
I nodded, then said, “Yeah. Creepy, I know. But he wants her alive.”
“But she tried to kill you. More than once. She was a pig. And now she’s a brain-dead pig. Hungry for a good meal of bacon and scrambled brains, anyone?”
I chuckled at the sophomoric humor, the laughter bumping my arm, the pain reverberating all through me. “Stop. Please. And follow Del on the cams. Tell me what’s up with her.”
“She took the stairs to Leo’s office. She was standing in the hallway when he went past.”
“And he didn’t look at her.”
“Correctomundo. A bad case of lovelorn, brokenhearted girl stuff?”
“Yeah.” And something else to ask Bruiser. How to make Leo fall in love. I grinned, picturing his face when I asked.
I stood out of the way while Eli, stinking of sweaty leather and failed deodorant from his dual runs in the sun, took ambient magical readings. The psy-meter needle was everywhere, flipping from one side—zero magical ambiance—to one hundred: redline magical activity or resonance. Most of the activity was on the wall where Joses had hung, crucified for a hundred years, give or take.
Yeah. Lots of magic juju, its distinctive pins-and-needles taint brushing my nose, as if trying to induce a sneeze, the stink of vamp and human blood, the reek of fear and anger. And if purpose had a scent, it too was part of the miasma of sub-five.
No one had said so, but I knew that Leo was in danger from this guy, a threat like I had never fought before and had no way to look up or research. And the world’s best research guy, Reach, was gone, vanished in the wind. Not that I missed him, the two-faced, backstabbing bastard. But. I was still worried about him. How stupid was that?
No, there was no Reach with his in-depth database to help me discover how Joses might intend to twist witch magic and vamp mojo together and turn them into a weapon, one served up with vengeance and a side dish of insanity. Alex was good. But he wasn’t Reach. Or Reach before he’d been tortured by Satan’s Three and gone on the run. Assuming all that story he’d given me was true. Which it might have been. Probably was. Reach had disappeared, gone off the grid. No one in the vamp-hunting community—which was small and growing smaller by the day—had heard from him.
When Eli finished measuring once, he did it all again, this time marking the measurements down on a tablet that was synced to Alex’s console, like a map of magical stuff—substance and activity. Smart. If I hadn’t been hurting so bad and fighting the need to hurl, I’d have applauded.
When he was done I let him come to me, and I looked over his work. “Deets and conclusions?” I asked.
“The Headless Wonder,” he pointed at Mario, “has marginal amounts of magical residue on his clothes. His hands are suffused with it, and so is his right wrist.”
I looked at Mario, remembering the egotistical guy who had thought I was coming on to him and slobbered all over me while I used him to get down the elevator. I wasn’t proud of that, nor the “means to an end” mentality that had gone along with it. I bent and studied Mario’s wrist, noting that the skin was abraded in a circular pattern. I imagined what Mario would do if someone had offered him a magical bracelet, and yeah, he’d have put it on. He wouldn’t have been able to resist the urge. And the bracelet had left residue on his flesh.
Eli pocketed the tablet and went to the wall where Joses had hung. He pulled a packet of sterile gauze from a pocket in his pants that held medical supplies and opened the paper packet. With the roll of gauze, he scraped at some dried gunk left on the wall—blood, skin cells, gross fluids—and put the gauze back in the opened packet and into his gobag.
I grunted in approval. I should have thought about it and hadn’t. Evidence gathering was my bag, not my partner’s, but Eli had been studying the how-to of the PI business, saying he wanted to know everything about the business he had bought into. It had paid off.
“Mario and Adrianna brought something—or maybe more than one something—magical down to the basement,” Eli said, his words echoing my own conclusions. “Using it, or them, and the humans, they freed Joses.”
“Why the humans?” I asked.
Eli looked at me strangely. “Because the stakes are silver. And there’s no device or cloth or gloves on the floor or on the vamps that they could have used. No claw hammer. No burned fingers. Hence, they had a human or humans to help.”
“Oh. Yeah.” Of course. Obvious. Except when pain was thrumming through your gut and brain, short-circuiting everything logical.
“You okay, Janie?” Eli asked.
Alex said over the headphones. “No. She’s hurt. She did that thing again where time slows down for her, and she was nauseous from that, though she seems better now. From what I could make out in the vid, the spell hit her right hand first, and it’s bandaged into a sling, so I’m guessing she has burns on her right hand and arm.”
Eli closed the psy-meter, clamped it between his left arm and his body, and held out his right hand, a signal that demanded I let him see. The gestures were efficient and military. I just stared at his hand, the dark skin outlining the pale palm. “Jane?” he asked.
“I don’t—” I stopped and blew at a strand of hair that had worked its way loose from the fighting queue I had braided this morning. It wanted to dangle in my face and tickle my nose. “I don’t think I can.”
Eli pulled something from a pocket, and I heard a click the same moment that a bright light landed on my hand, pressed against my waist. Eli said nothing, just studied the hand, all blistered and juicy and weeping flesh. “Second-degree burns. How far up does it go?”
“My shoulder? Maybe?”
Eli said, “Alex. If Edmund is still on premises, get him into a private room, with some human females to act as duennas. Send one of them down here to get Jane and escort her up as soon as everyone is assembled. It’s daylight, so she can’t shift into her cat and then shift back. She’d be stuck in Beast form until sunset. And Jane’s waited a little too long to get the sleeve off. It’s got to be cut off and it’s going to be bad.” He looked at me, his face lit from below. “You are an idiot.”
“Um. Yeah. Okay.” He was right. What could I say? Except, “My Beast is supposed to ease the pain. She hasn’t. So maybe there’s something wrong with her too.”
He shook his head, confused. “Your Beast? Your skinwalker magic?”
Right. I hadn’t told him everything about Beast, the other soul now twined with mine. I’d have to add a total soul-baring to my social calendar. A strange sound, like the first note of a shattered laugh, escaped my mouth before I pressed my lips together to hold it in. When the sound was under control and shoved down deep, I said, “For all intents and purposes, yeah.”
“The spell that hurt your arm, you’re saying it also hurt your magic?”
“Maybe. I don’t know yet.”
Eli tapped his mic. “Bro, I’m sure you’re on top of it already, but if not, start a search of all the security cameras to see what the dead vamps brought down to the basement.”
“Done it. Every single security camera they passed shows the same thing. Two vamps and ten humans walking into security, where they killed Martini. Then taking the stairs to the basements. They met another vamp on sub-four, female, wearing a scarlet cloak with a hood.” And we didn’t have sufficient cameras in sub-five yet. Of course. Dang it.
“A human female, blood-servant to Leo, named Zelda, is on the way down,” Alex said. “Red hair, green eyes, freckles, five-five, one-sixty, all muscle and boobs.”
As he finished the description, the elevator opened, and I realized that there had been no ding, no tone to tell us it was there. Curious. Useless, but curious. A woman stepped through the doors and paused, one hand holding the doors open. Eli looked from his tablet and the photo the Kid had sent. “Verified,” he said into the mic. “Other female for the healing? Vamp?”
“A woman named Gretchen, who Janie calls Titan Two. And Edmund, because they liiike each other.”
I narrowed my eyes at the insinuation and then remembered that there were security cameras in most rooms. The Kid may have seen a healing session with Edmund not so long ago, one in a small room off the locker room. Great. Just freaking ducky.
To me, Eli said, “Go,” and pointed to the elevator.
Rather than deal with the problems in sub-five, I went.
Every step jarred my gut and my arm, as if knowing what was about to happen made everything infinitely worse. And since getting the leathers off was going to be way worse than Eli expected—because I would refuse to let them cut off my leathers—maybe my arm was indeed putting out caution alarms.
The elevator doors closed, leaving me in the tiny mobile room with Zelda. I turned off my headset and cleared my throat; she slanted a look up at me. “I only have two sets of fighting leathers, the fancy ones for when I officially act as Enforcer, and this set that I keep in the back of the SUV.” She didn’t reply, a look of polite inquiry on her face her only reaction. “I need more than one pair,” I explained. “They’re expensive and it takes time to get them made, time I may not have if I have to go after the thing from sub-five.” When she looked confused, I said, “I’m trying to say that I don’t want you to cut the sleeve. I can be healed of a wounded arm, but I can’t do without the fighting leathers.”
Persistently polite and reasonable sounding, she said, “Leathers are part of your expense account as part-time Enforcer and acting head of security. Why not order four or five sets?”
“Yeeeeah . . . ,” I drew out the word. “About that. Allowing Leo to provide them for me is binding me to the MOC a little more closely than I want.”
Puzzlement in her tone, she said, “It’s common knowledge that you can’t be bound. Our master tried and was not successful.”
“That’s not—” I stopped and looked up at the camera in the corner. There was a mic hidden in it, so whoever was on coms would hear, meaning Alex and a stranger, neither of whom I wanted in on my business. Zelda seemed to catch my discretionary look up and went silent. The elevator stopped and, without responding to her comment, I followed Zelda off the elevator to a floor and hallway I didn’t go to often—the living quarters of the permanent staff.
One of the rooms was Del’s, and I didn’t so much remember which room that was as pick up her scent as we passed it. A scent of heartbreak clung to the air. Del was suffering as Leo’s primo, and I had no idea how to help her through it. It was girly stuff, like love and blood-servant stuff. Binding stuff. Sex-with-vampire—ick—stuff.
Zelda paused outside a door and, her voice pitched low so only I would hear, said, “There is job-bound, there is emotion-bound, and there is blood-bound—all kinds of binding. Then there is stupid-bound. In this case, I think you’re stupid-bound. Even I can smell your blood.” She opened the door and entered the room, leaving me standing in the hallway with a frown pulling down on my face.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Jane Yellowrock novels:
“There is nothing as satisfying as the first time reading a Jane Yellowrock novel.”—Fresh Fiction
“Jane is the best urban fantasy heroine around.”—Night Owl Reviews
“Jane Yellowrock is smart, sexy, and ruthless.”—New York Times Bestselling Author Kim Harrison