They clustered around the mouth of the alley, their eyes gleaming red in the darkness. She had stalked them here, waiting for backup to do what a woman alone could not. But it looked like her backup was going to arrive way too late.
Xandra sighed. Hunting vampires had its advantages. She was well paid and she didn't have to get up early in the morning. Still, there were times she'd happily have taken a boring office job instead. Times like these.
Since irrefutable evidence of vampirism had been caught on videotape, the laws had been rewritten. Technology had finally caught up to the vampires. Once outcasts lurking on the fringe of society, modern vamps now had to contend with video surveillance, the Internet and the legal system. No biting without consent meant no biting. But rogue vampires were notoriously difficult to discipline or contain, so secret agencies trained their own elite forces of hunters to track them down.
Xandra's hand strayed to the small of her back where she'd hidden the gun loaded with bullets specially designed to explode on impact, sending wooden shards into the victim's heart. She'd come prepared for battle. She wore silver bracelets to cover the veins in her wrists and a silver torque to protect her neck. Her personal arsenal also included a couple of silver-plated knives and a neon-colored turbo-powered water pistol loaded with holy water.
By the way her assailants flowed toward her like inky shadows, crawling up the brick walls for better height advantage, she doubted she'd have much of a chance to use any of it.
It wasn't unusual for vampires to go armed, whether it was legal for them to carry or not. Enough people objected to theirexistence to make owning a weapon prudent. However, this bunch didn't seem to be carrying guns of any sort.
They looked wild, feral even. They'd left their eyes uncovered, whereas cautious vamps usually wore contacts to mask their differences. Their clothes were disheveled, their long hair matted. Their lips curled back from yellow teeth. They had the look of a pack of dogs gone wild since puppyhood, as if they'd been turned and left to fend for themselves. Drawn out by the full moon, the vampire equivalent of a sunny day, they appeared ready to turn their vehemence on an unsuspecting neighborhood.
Normally bands of rogue vampires were an uncommon occurrence. Except this was the third vampire infestation she'd been called out to investigate this month. Which only confirmed her suspicions. Someone was intent on populating the city with vampires. And it was her job to find out who.
Xandra had no further time to wonder about that. The leader of the ragtag band reached her. Hanging from the brick wall by yellow fingernails, he sniffed the air. The others swarmed behind him, hissing like snakes. The leader smelled the silver and hesitated. Then, seemingly deciding that there were other places to bite a woman, he leapt at her. The others followed.
She drew both guns and fired off a couple of shots at point-blank range right into the leader's chest. He went down in a fountain of fetid black blood. His body began to decay. Apparently no one had bothered to warn him about the wooden bullets. She emptied her gun but even as the vamps fell, more took their place. Tossing the gun aside, she sprayed the rest of the mob with holy water. They screeched in an unholy coordinated wail, but still they kept coming.
With hands gone clammy with fear she struggled for a better grip on the water pistol. Even a concentrated stream of holy water couldn't hold them off for long, and injured vampires made angry vamps. They surged toward her, their flesh still sizzling from the holy water. The smell of charred rotten flesh filled the alley. She squeezed the trigger, but nothing came out. She tried again. The pistol made a piffling sound as she exhausted the last of its reservoir. Still more vampires crawled along the walls and swarmed through the bags of trash in the alley. She aimed a high kick at the nearest vamp. Her foot impacted his chest with a meaty thump. He tumbled backward, but before she could strike out again more took his place. She slugged another, but there were just too many. Cold hands seized her. Despite her valiant effort, Xandra went down under their assault.
Breath was squashed from her lungs as she hit the ground. She craned her neck to see past the bodies piling on top of her, still hoping against hope for that elusive backup. But no sirens raced to her rescue. The road beyond the alley stood clear and dark.
Then a man-shaped blur stepped beneath the streetlight, cutting off the light to the laneway. Not a shadow--the guy practically glowed. The halogen light illuminated his shoulder-length blond hair. His amber eyes glinted like an animal's. The feral vampires hesitated. They recognized this intruder.
Xandra tried to crawl out from beneath them, but they held her in place by the sheer weight of their bodies. Her fingers fumbled for her silver-plated knives, anything to use against them.
The stranger paused at the mouth of the alley, apparently unsure what to do about the horde of vamps pinning a woman to the ground. His amber eyes centered on her, narrowing as if he somehow knew her.
Who is he? Xandra had a second to wonder. Then suddenly deciding the newcomer was no threat, the feral vamps renewed their attack.
One dove for her neck. The kiss of silver burned his tongue. He shrieked and drooled blood. Then, deciding her neck was off limits, he turned his attention to her unprotected belly. She felt the bite of his razor-sharp teeth through the leather of her jacket. Her hand found her knife and she returned the favor.
Still, he'd broken the skin. The virus surged through her bloodstream. She'd taken precautions--injections of vampire blood--even though they made her nauseated for days. But the vaccine wouldn't protect her from multiple bites. If she suffered enough vampire bites, she would turn.
An ear-piercing whistle sliced through the air. The vampires froze. The clicking of their claws against the brick ceased. They stopped their low growling and fell silent. As one they turned to look at the stranger still standing at the mouth of the alley. From behind his back he pulled a crossbow loaded with a fat wooden stake. He released the trigger and the stake flew free. The vampire on top of her lifted his head. The stake caught him in the chest. For a moment he stared at the bolt of wood protruding from his heart. Then he uttered an ululating shriek. His cry ceased abruptly like the air flowing out of a ruptured balloon as his lungs rapidly deflated. His skin began to shrivel. The smell of rot assaulted her. His body swiftly blackened and decayed.
The stranger loaded another stake and let it fly, but the feral vamps needed no other encouragement. With one last look at their fallen comrade, they scattered like rats. The intruder had precise aim. Another vamp fell, his legs still twitching as he tried in vain to escape.
Using the last of her strength, Xandra shoved the decaying vampire off her. He fell to the ground with a boneless thud. For a moment she watched as his body turned to liquid and ran like steaming rainwater into a nearby sewer grate. Dizziness threatened to overwhelm her. Using the wall for support, she stood and turned to stare at the mouth of the alley where the intruder with the crossbow had been standing.
But the golden stranger had disappeared.
Off in the distance she heard the wail of sirens. The cavalry, she thought grimly. About time.
* * * *
The fluorescent lights in the hospital seemed painfully bright after the darkness of the alley. The few remaining rogue vampires had been restrained with silver handcuffs and taken to jail in a silver-lined paddy wagon. Against her protests, Xandra's boss had loaded her into an ambulance and whisked her off to the hospital. A good-looking intern with dark circles under his eyes stitched the wound in her side and attended to her numerous scratches and bruises.
"It's a good thing you're vaccinated." He filled a hypodermic with vamp blood. Under the sickly green lighting it looked purple. "Otherwise you'd be on your way to becoming one of the newly turned."
Xandra nodded at the needle. "Is that really necessary?"
"'Fraid so." The needle pierced her flesh.
Just what I need, another puncture wound.
"Wheeler!" Her boss's voice echoed down the corridor. "I thought we had an agreement. You were supposed to wait for backup."
"I did wait," she snapped, her patience evaporating. "They were late."
"Yeah, well there's trouble all over the city." Her boss, Jeremy Landis, looked down at the bandage on her torso as if the frailty of her human body somehow offended him. "I'm reassigning you."
"What!" If it weren't for the needle still lodged in her arm, she would have jumped up off the stretcher to protest.
Jeremy held up his hand. He was a gray-haired, wiry man, but his thinness was deceiving. He was ex-military, and it showed. The man was all muscle. "Aren't you going to ask what I'm reassigning you to?"
"Fine," Xandra said. She was tired, wounded and the vampire blood was starting to make her ill. "What am I going to be doing?"
"Dating vampires." And with that he turned and left the cubicle, leaving Xandra and the intern to stare after him.
* * * *
"Dating dead men is murder!"
Xandra set down her glass of blood-red wine and stared moodily out into the club.
It was hard to talk over the throbbing beat of the music, but the kind of conversation she needed to have necessitated somewhere she wouldn't easily be overheard. The abundance of black velvet and dim light in the Goth club made her hard to spot--even to the keenest of eyes. In her leather jacket with her brown hair slicked back into a ponytail and wearing sunglasses to hide her turquoise eyes, she was practically indistinguishable from the throngs of vampire wannabes who frequented the Pit. In truth the difference couldn't be more striking.
"You're not supposed to be dating them," her friend Alix Greenberg all but shouted back. Alix owned the Pit. Aside from being a trusted friend, she kept an eye on things and passed along information Xandra might otherwise find it difficult to acquire. "You're supposed to be making sure they stay dead."
Xandra leaned across the table toward her friend. "Tell that to Jeremy." Despite her protests in the hospital and again in his office the next morning and yet again by phone and email, her boss remained adamant. She would take the assignment whether she wanted it or not. She'd pose as a vamp groupie and date her way through the prominent vampires until she found out who was behind the sudden proliferation of the newly-turned in the city. "Besides," she said with a sigh that summed up her frustration. "It seems someone has just the opposite idea."
As a nightclub owner, Alix was no stranger to the sordid side of the underworld, but for the first time worry stirred in her brown eyes. She was one of the few people who knew what Xandra really did for a living. Everyone else believed that she was a security expert.
Alix pushed a lock of curly blonde hair off her forehead and surveyed the dance floor nervously, as if rogue vamps might suddenly overrun the place. "The opposite idea?"
Xandra nodded. "Someone's making rogue vampires as fast as we can eradicate them. I suspect there's a new kingpin in town. But I can't prove it--yet."
"What are you going to do?"
"So far, I'm dating my way through a veritable black book of big-name vamps."
Xandra nearly laughed. Despite her distaste for the suave but dead, Alix seemed intrigued. "And nothing. If these guys were boring when they were thirty, they're doubly boring when they're three hundred. You'd think they'd find something interesting to do with all that time."
"You'd think," Alix agreed. "But come on, you must have met someone just a little interesting."
Either the conspiracy went deeper than Jeremy suspected, or vampires really were a boring lot. For all the trappings of dusty old homes, black velvet and the theatre of drinking blood from crystal goblets, their lives seemed remarkably staid. She'd posted her profile in the Mortals Seeking Vamps section of an Internet dating site, expecting at least a few offers of blood sports and kinky sex. So far she'd endured three dinners in five-star restaurants watching vampires pick at food they couldn't eat and trying to endure inane conversation long enough to uncover some intrigue. She tried not to think about the four-hundred-year-old vampire whose passion was bowling. Or the one who'd insisted on singing show tunes all the way home in his matte black Mercedes.
Last night's had been the worst yet. She'd met Mr. Uber-vamp at a hot new club in the entertainment district. The line ran around the block and spilled onto the next street. Mean-looking bouncers barred the doorway. She expected that Mr. Uber-vamp, who actually called himself Vlad, would be turned away along with the rest of the riffraff. Then they could just adjourn to a local coffee shop where she could grill him into revealing whether he knew anything and hopefully end the night mercifully early. Turned out Vlad had connections and an impressive amount of money to throw around.
When he gave his name to the doorman, they were whisked past the crowd and up into the club's VIP section. Vlad--she bet his name was really Frank or Ralph--ordered bottle after bottle of champagne, which he consumed with abandon while she sipped from her glass demurely and tried to stay sober enough to interrogate her subject. Alcohol had no effect on the vampire metabolism, so she was definitely at a disadvantage and Vlad seemed determined to get her drunk. A master of seduction, she thought sarcastically and pretended to take another sip.
He was plenty good-looking with his dark curly hair and red-tinged dark eyes. And with his blatant show of wealth, Xandra suspected he might be a good lead. So, when he thought he'd gotten her sufficiently liquored up and suggested they move to his penthouse, she agreed. Well-trained in hand-to-hand combat, she wasn't worried about being alone with a vampire. She had no fewer than five weapons concealed in her thigh-high boots and beneath the hem of her little black dress.
Vlad's loft turned out to be more of a crypt. He owned a fancy new condo on the waterfront, one built with utilitarian architecture to make it look old. From the doorman to the expensively decorated lobby, she knew it had to have cost him a fortune. She tried to ignore Vlad's leer as they rode up in the mirrored elevators.
His apartment would have sported a great panorama of the skyline if black velvet drapes hadn't covered the floor-to-ceiling windows. Even well past dark, the vampire kept his domain concealed.
A shiny black baby grand piano sat in the center of the sunken living room, complete with candles dripping wax onto its shiny finish. She scanned the shadowed corners of the room, thankfully finding no fake spider webs. Vlad hadn't gone that far in his affectation.
Xandra pretended to be impressed by his blatant show of vampirism. Preening, Vlad gave her a tour. A spiral staircase led upstairs to his bedroom. Instead of the round bed covered with black satin sheets she expected, a massive coffin sat in the center of the room. Polished to a gleam, it didn't look like it had been slept in recently. Maybe he had another bed hidden somewhere else, or perhaps the apartment and the coffin were just meant to impress women.
Turned out Vlad, for all his show of wealth and Goth furnishings, was more interested in seducing her than in revealing anything about the vampire underworld. He was young for a vampire, only fifty, though he looked no more than twenty-nine. He'd graduated from university with a degree in philosophy and never worked a day in his life. He couldn't tell her anything useful. So when he'd suggested they give it a go in his shiny black coffin, she pleaded claustrophobia and made her escape, ignoring his pleas to reconsider.
That didn't stop him from pursuing her down the hall. He lounged in the mirrored hallway while she waited for the elevator.
"Ah, come on, baby," he actually said. "I thought we had a thing."
"I'm not your baby." She drew her gun. "And we didn't have a thing."
At the sight of the gun, Vlad eyes had widened. "Sorry," he'd muttered. And slunk back into his velvet-lined penthouse.
Two weeks of dating and Xandra had come up empty handed. Jeremy was getting impatient.
She turned her attention back to Alix. "No one interesting yet. But I'm meeting someone new tonight." She peered into the shadows that collected in the corners despite the bright lights on the dance floor. To her dismay, a tall man in a long velvet cape strode toward her. A cape, for God's sake! She resigned herself to hours of inane conversation. Didn't vampires ever shop anywhere normal?
Alix whistled in appreciation as the caped vamp approached. He was handsome--even Xandra had to admit that. Hair so dark it glistened with a blue sheen was brushed back from his high forehead. He had eyes as black as a moonless night, a straight nose and a rugged jaw. But it was his mouth that drew her attention. Full lips curled up at the corners making him look like he was perpetually smiling.
Xandra forced her mind back to business. Nothing about this vampire mattered except for the information he might be able to give her. Alix was still staring at him like a love-struck schoolgirl. Xandra cleared her throat. Her friend excused herself, leaving Xandra with Mr. Vamp in Cape. George, she corrected herself. Despite the affectation of the velvet cape and his movie-star looks, Mr. Vamp in Cape's parents had apparently given him the improbable name of George.
"Lisa," he said, using the name she'd made up for her Internet-dating profile. He bowed with great flourish over her outstretched hand. His grip was firm, his skin cool. His lips caressed her skin, as if both worshiping and tasting her. She could have sworn she felt the scrape of his teeth.
What a letch. She pulled her hand gently away. "George," she said with as much warmth as she could muster.
"Shall we?" He held out his arm. Beneath the cape he wore a tuxedo. If she couldn't wrangle some information out of good old George here, it promised to be a very boring night.
George, it turned out, didn't even make a pretense of eating. When she realized he wasn't going to be dining with her, she suggested they go for cocktails instead. But George insisted on buying her dinner. Dinner he'd promised, he said. He liked a woman with an appetite. He sipped wine suggestively while Xandra a.k.a. Lisa laid waste to a steak. His eyes followed every movement of her fork as she bit and chewed. Xandra swallowed a laugh with a mouthful of steak and a gulp of Merlot. Along with their taste in clothes, most vampires needed to work on their pick up lines. Perhaps that had worked in the sixteen hundreds, she thought. But she had to admit it was refreshing to find a man who didn't prefer his women stick-thin.
By the time the waiter cleared away the dinner dishes and presented Xandra with the dessert menu, she'd determined that poor George had nothing to tell her. He owned a shipping business, had for a couple of hundred years under various aliases. Other than that, his business dealings appeared to be above board. He paid his employees and his taxes. He lived well and he was looking for a woman to share it with. For all eternity.
Hiding her face behind the dessert menu, Xandra sighed. For a dead guy he seemed pretty decent. The right woman might actually be attracted to someone as doting and boring as George. But she wasn't the right woman. And she wasn't looking for a man.
It was past midnight, too late to try to arrange another date for the night. Xandra decided she might as well enjoy her dessert. She rarely indulged in the cream-rich pastries the restaurant offered. But after the blood she'd lost during her run-in with the feral vamps, her body needed energy. So she'd eat her chocolate mousse, wash it down with a latte and let poor George down as easily as she could. Maybe Alix would like him. Her friend certainly seemed interested enough.
By three a.m. she'd divested herself of a broken-hearted George and decided to call it a night. It had started raining while she'd been inside. The night just couldn't get better, she thought, walking to the fleet car she'd borrowed from work. The subcompact seemed too small for her five-foot-ten-inch frame. She wished she'd been able to bring her bright yellow Hummer, but the vehicle was simply too conspicuous. Should have gone for the gunmetal gray version. She doubted that would help. The truck looked conspicuous no matter what color. Oh well, she'd had a nice dinner and, for all the affectation with the cape, George was a nice guy. The night could have been a lot worse.
Xandra thumbed the release on the remote and opened the car door. Folding herself into the low seat, she caught a glimpse of gold out of her rear-view mirror.
One second he was halfway down the street behind her, a fleeting shimmer of golden hair and tawny eyes. In the next instant he was leaning nonchalantly against her car. Xandra jumped, then cursed herself for letting him know he'd scared her. No one could move that quickly--no one human, anyway. She studied her uninvited guest. Not even the feral vampires she'd encountered in the alley possessed his swiftness. It took her a moment to recognize him as the man from the alleyway the night she'd been injured.
Curly blond hair brushed his shoulders. It glistened in the rain. His brown leather jacket looked well worn. Tawny eyebrows framed amber eyes nearly the same shade as his hair. The stubble on his chin shadowed the outline of a beard. She couldn't tell if he'd just forgotten to shave or if he wore that close-cropped beard as a fashion statement. He nodded at her through the car window. The streetlight caught a tiny diamond in his left ear. A thin gold chain sporting some kind of medallion glittered between the neck of his jacket and the T-shirt beneath. He looked like a golden mirage that had suddenly materialized out of the darkness. And he was waiting for her to roll down the window.
She knew better than to open her window to specters that appeared out of nowhere.
Putting the car into gear, she stomped on the gas pedal. The little car surged forward, throwing the golden man off balance. With a curse, he whirled away from the vehicle. She glanced in the rearview mirror to see him staring after her as the car sped away.
She drove around the quiet downtown to make sure he hadn't tailed her home. When she'd seen no sign of being followed for over an hour and her eyelids were threatening to close of their own volition, she pulled into the driveway of her condo.
The nondescript building occupied what had been a turn-of-the-century industrial park. Old factories had been converted into apartments and townhouses. Xandra owned a tiny townhouse with a loft bedroom, a roof deck and no lawn to mow. It suited her just fine, down to its utilitarian interior. She pulled the fleet car into a visitor parking spot and turned off the engine. Casting one last glance at the road beyond her building's property, she prepared to get out of the car.
Only to find the blond man standing in front of her vehicle.
Arms crossed, he cocked one eyebrow and waited for her to make a move.
Mirroring his casual posture, she stared back at him while her hand strayed to where her purse lay wedged between the seats. She'd tucked a gun loaded with wooden bullets into her satin evening purse--just in case. Poor George would probably have fainted if he'd known. She reached gingerly inside, trying not to jingle the coins as she groped for the gun and thumbed the safety off. Even in the darkness, his eyes followed her movements. Definitely not human.
And he knew where she lived.
He raised his hands to show he was unarmed, though she suspected an entire array of weapons lay concealed beneath that leather jacket. He walked around the front of the car to the driver's side and rapped on the window. Xandra put her purse on her lap, moving the gun closer, just in case. She rolled down the window.
"Ms. Wheeler." His smooth voice concealed a hint of an accent. European maybe. A man could seduce a woman with a voice like that. She caught the tang of his sandalwood soap mixed with the smell of damp leather. He held her in the thrall of those amber eyes.
To her dismay, her traitorous body tightened with interest. What two weeks of dating vampires hadn't done for her, this one alluring stranger had accomplished with his golden voice and his penetrating stare.
Damn, he made an attractive package. Which also made him dangerous. She wasn't a rookie. She held the top position in her field. She knew better than to be swayed by strangers who appeared out of nowhere on dark roads.
"Obviously you know who I am," she snapped, taking the offensive. Sexy voice or not, the man was stalking her. "You did follow me home." She launched her own imposing glance at him. "And you are?"
"Dante," he said, as if that told her everything.
"You got a last name, Dante?"
He smiled, showing even white teeth nested in the darkness of that almost-beard. "Maybe."
"That your real name, Dante?"
The smile widened. A woman could get lost in a smile that inviting. But she was a vampire hunter. And whoever, whatever Mr. Auspicious Name was, she wasn't interested.
"Matter of fact, it is."
She shook her head. "What were your parents thinking?"
That caught him off guard. For a moment anger crossed his handsome face. Then he laughed. "It should be obvious what they were thinking."
His openness charmed her despite her resolve not to be taken in. She had to admit, the man was good. Under other circumstances she'd definitely be interested. Why couldn't he have been one of the vampires she'd been forced to date? He'd have been far more to her liking than either Vlad or the unfortunate George. But Dante knew where she lived and she couldn't allow herself to be interested.
Xandra forced a yawn. "Well, this is all very interesting. Always nice to meet a stalker in the wee hours of the morning, but it's nearly dawn and I want to go to bed sometime tonight, so why don't you tell me if there's a point to your unwelcome visit."
His eyebrows drew together. "You have taken an unwelcome interest in a number of prominent members of a certain ... society. I'm wondering if there's a point to that."
Damn. Despite her attempts to cover her tracks, she'd been discovered. Jeremy would be furious. He would take her off the case, she thought with a pang of worry. She didn't want to date vampires, but she sure didn't want to be sidelined.
And since Dante knew her real name, there was no point in hiding what she'd been up to. Damned if she'd admit it, though. Not until she knew what he was really about.
"My personal preferences aren't illegal."
"Technically not," he conceded.
"And they're no one's business." She injected a healthy dose of attitude into the statement.
"Really," she insisted.
"Well, I'm afraid you're mistaken about that, Ms. Wheeler." He looked pointedly at the purse in her lap as if he knew for certain it contained a gun. "It is my business."
"And what makes it your concern?" she asked as her hand strayed to her open purse. If he could move with supersonic speed, would she have time to use the gun?
Instead of going for a concealed weapon, Dante held out a worn leather wallet. As he flipped it open, a shield gleamed.
Xandra squinted to read the ID badge beneath it. Dante, it said. No last name. Beneath that it also read, Metropolitan Police, Vampire Liaison Officer