Crimson Death, the plague like virus spawned from a failed government experiment to isolate the enzymes that make vampires immortal, continues to spread. Emberly and her partner, Jackson Miller, are desperately seeking the stolen research for a cure before the virus becomes a pandemic.
But their mission is jeopardized by another threat uncovered in Emberly’s prophetic dreams. A creature of ash and shadow has been unleashed on a murdering spree. Now Emberly must summon all her gifts and investigative knowledge to put an end to this entity’s brutal rampage—even if it means placing herself in harm’s way....
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From the Paperback edition.
Read an Excerpt
ALSO BY KERI ARTHUR
In the still darkness of this dream, Death was hunting.
Her scent filled the air, as heavy as the fog was thick.
I had no sense of where I was. There were no identifiable buildings here, no street signs, nothing that could provide a clue. Not even people.
Just me, the foggy darkness, and the huntress who stalked this place somewhere up ahead.
The night eddied around me but brought with it no sounds. Unease swept through me. In the hundreds of years I’d been dreaming of death, there’d never been one like this—one in which there was absolutely nothing that would enable me to pin down a time or location. And while I may have very recently sworn to stop interfering with fate and just let death take its natural path, I’d made that same vow dozens of times over the centuries, and it had never resulted in a dream like this.
The night continued to slide past me, gelatinous and uneasy. The sensation of Death was growing stronger, but I could neither see nor sense what form she was wearing.
And I had no idea why.
Usually when my prophetic dreams hit, I was not only given a clear image of the time and location, but I was also shown how that death would occur. But here, there was no such clarity. Some sorcerers and witches had the ability to hide their presence from either dreamers or astral travelers, but I was a spirit rather than a being born of flesh—even if I wore human form most of the time—and I could generally sense such magic being employed. But there was nothing here beyond the thick night and that steadily growing certainty of wrongness. It was almost as though my inner dreamer was having trouble pinning down the source of this death—and that in itself suggested whatever lay behind it was something I had never come across before.
It was a scary thought, given the many years and many lives I’d had.
Gradually, a sound that reminded me somewhat of the click of nails against stone began to echo through the fog. Loud at first, it grew ever softer, as if the source was moving away. And yet Death was nearer, not more distant. I frowned, confused, but I had little choice other than to keep moving. I knew from past episodes that the dream would not release me from its grip until the very end. It was an end I could stop if I chose to, but only if I was shown enough details.
The soft sound of nails continued to grow fainter, until it was barely audible again. But every intake of breath was filled with the foul presence of evil, and if I could have stopped, I would have. But the dream drew me on. Ever on.
Something flickered through the darkness ahead. It was little more than a deeper patch of night, but I had no doubt it was the giver of death.
I drew closer. The shape of the creature was fluid and oddly disconnected; it seemed to be made of embers rather than mere shadows, and it flowed from one form to another with ease. Sometimes it looked like a cat, at other times like a large bat that made the night eddy and flow around it with every sweep of its wings. Gradually, though, it settled into the form of a monstrous black dog.
A black dog whose paws were on backward.
And even though I was close enough to see it now, the noise of its stained yellow nails hitting the surface under its paws was still oddly distant. It was as if there was a weird disconnect between reality and sound in this place; it made me wonder whether there was some form of magic at work even though I had no sense of it.
I followed in its wake, and gradually the darkness gave way to forms and shapes. A dark street stretched ahead of us, silent and empty. The road surface was slick with rain, though I was immune to its touch. The creature ahead was not, and the scent of wet fur soon filled my nostrils.
There were no cars parked in this street and no footpath. Butting up against the two old bluestone drains that lined either side of the road were varied fences—some were brick, some were wood, and some were little more than metal roller doors. Many were almost hidden by the old roses that scrambled over them, and tall trees—their tops lost to the darkness and the rain—towered above us.
The creature stopped and looked around. Its eyes were large, bloodred, and filled with hunger. It raised its long snout and sniffed the air, as if searching for a scent. Finally, it snarled, revealing canines that were needle fine and razor sharp. Then it leapt over the nearest fence and disappeared.
The dream quickly followed, giving me little chance to do anything more than glimpse the graffiti that littered the old redbrick fence.
The yard beyond was small and strewn with rubbish. A clothesline that was little more than several strands of wire strung between two wooden T-pieces dominated the right-hand side of the yard, and to the left was a large lemon tree laden with fruit. As the creature moved up the concrete steps to the tiny house’s back door, its shape became fluid again. With little effort, it slid underneath the gap between the door and the floor.
The dream forced me to do the same. The air inside the house was thick with the scent of garlic and meat, and it was so hot, the fires within my soul burned to life, as if eager to draw in the richness of it.
The creature slunk through the house; its movements were cautious, wary, but its hunger was now so strong it filled the heated air and made my stomach turn. This death would not be a good one . . .
Not that any of them ever were.
As I drifted in its wake, I studied our surroundings, trying to find something—anything—that would clue me in as to where we were. The kitchen was small and neat, although a pot on the stove was beginning to smoke. If it wasn’t turned off soon, a fire was likely. But I doubted that was the reason I was here. I might be a phoenix, with fire mine to control, but this dream was about the strange creature and its intentions rather than about a house blaze.
A newspaper lay on the edge of the kitchen counter, and the date leapt out at me. August 25—today’s date. But was the dream showing me a real-time event—something no other dream had ever done—or was it once again showing me the future, even if only a few hours from now? I had no idea, because I could see no clocks in this place. Even the one on the oven was out of focus.
We moved into a small hall. A stand holding several coats lay sideways on the floor—an indication, perhaps, that someone had left in a hurry. On the small table nearby were several unopened letters. Mr. James Hamberly, one of them read. Forty-two Highett Street, Richmond.
I finally had a location.
Now I just had to see the death and decide whether I should interfere. Most of the time, it was better not to—I’d learned that the hard way—but even so, there were some deaths I just couldn’t walk away from, no matter the risk to my personal safety. Which was the reason why in this lifetime my back had become a mass of scars after I’d saved a child from a burning car, and why my heart had gotten all bruised and hurting again after I’d saved my ex’s grumpy ass.
The creature paused and lifted its nose, then looked over its shoulder, its eyes bloody fire in the darkness. I wondered if it had some sense of my presence, but it made no move to flee and, after a few more seconds, it turned and went through the door on the left.
Inside was a dead man.
Shock hit me, its force so fierce and cold it briefly calmed the heat in the air and the fires in my soul. Why was the dream showing someone who was already dead? It wasn’t even a particularly fresh death, because Death herself was nowhere to be seen.
So why was I here?
No answers came, but then, they rarely did. I watched as the creature slunk to the bed, its backward paws making no sound on the wooden floorboards. As it neared its prey, it seemed to grow, until it was almost the height of a tall human. It sniffed the covered form, then raised a paw and pulled the blankets back, revealing the man’s flaccid form to the night and the heat. The creature sniffed him from head to toe, and the scent of anticipation filled the air. My stomach roiled and the heat grew, but I had no flames in this dream state and no way to stop what was about to happen.
The creature’s tongue flicked out and, almost lovingly, it licked the man’s rotund belly. I shivered again, despite the growing heat, guessing what was coming and not wanting to see it. But it wasn’t as if I had a choice.
Again the creature’s tongue flickered out, this time centering on the area above the liver. It was almost as if it was marking its spot for penetration.
With very little fanfare, the creature bared its teeth and pierced the exact spot it had marked. The cuts were small and precise, and it made no move to enlarge the wound. It didn’t need to.
It was syphoning the man’s liver through its teeth . . .
The dream finally dissolved, but the heat did not. I thrust up into a sitting position, suddenly aware that the flames in my soul not only danced across my skin but also across the sheets and blankets. It was a sensation that was thick and warm and luscious, but it was also very dangerous, considering my bedroom had no special protection against the heat that was mine by nature.
But even as I started to draw it back into my body, the door opened and Rory burst in, his red hair burning in the light of my fire. He was a phoenix like me, but he was also my life mate—the spirit to which I was bound forever, and the being who meant everything to me, because neither of us could be reborn without the other’s help. And yet, while I loved him, I wasn’t in love with him. It was an unfortunate fact that paired phoenixes had been cursed with the inability to find emotional completion with each other, even though we could have children only with our decreed partner.
Of course, the other half of the damn curse was that love, for us, never ended happily—and it was something we’d both cursed more than once during our many lifetimes.
He didn’t say anything, just sat down beside me, pulled me into his embrace, and drew the remaining heat and flames into his body. And though desire stirred between us, he did nothing more than simply hold me.
“It must have been a bad one this time,” he said, his warm breath tickling my ear. “It’s rare for your prophetic dreams to end in flames like this.”
“It wasn’t bad. It was just weird.” I pulled free from his arms and swept the hair out of my eyes. Like Rory’s, mine was red, though it strayed toward the copper end of the spectrum more than was usual for phoenixes. “This time the victim was already dead.”
He frowned. “Why on earth would you see that?”
I snorted softly. “Why on earth do I even get them? It’s not like it’s an ability found in any other phoenix we’ve ever come across.”
He half smiled. “True. But then, you always were a little different. It’s what attracted me to you.”
“Like you even had a choice in that.”
My tone was dry, and he acknowledged the point with a wider smile. When a phoenix hit sixteen years old, a ritual was performed to reveal his or her partner and, from that moment on, the two were bonded—whether they liked said partner or not. Thankfully, I’d never heard of a bonding in which the partners hated each other, but it would certainly be a horrible situation to be in, considering that each phoenix in the pairing relied on the other for rebirth.
I swung my legs past him and rose. The carpet was thick and warm under my toes as I padded across to the chair, grabbed my jeans, and pulled them on.
“I take it you’re going to investigate this death, despite being able to do nothing to prevent it?” His tone held an edge that was both amused and resigned.
“Yes.” I grabbed a sweater, gave it a sniff, and tugged it over my head. “I don’t think the death was the reason I was there. I think it was the creature.”
Surprise flickered through his amber eyes. “What creature?”
I sat down and tugged on socks. “It was some sort of shape-shifter, but nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
“Given the number of shifters we’ve come across over the centuries, that’s saying something.”
“Yeah.” I grabbed my boots. “This thing had multiple shapes, but the form it seemed to settle on was a big black dog with backward-facing feet.”
“Backward feet? How did the damn thing even walk?”
“Without any problem, from what I saw.” I stood up. “I have to see what is going on, Rory. I need to know why I was shown that thing.”
He sighed and pushed to his feet. “I know. But please promise me you’ll be careful. I would really love to get through one lifetime without either of us being killed before our hundred years are up.”
I smiled as I walked over to him. While every phoenix could be reborn with the help of his partner, his life span each time totaled one hundred years precisely. I had no idea why or how that number of years had been allotted to us, but neither of us had ever gotten to that magical figure. The closest I’d ever come was ninety-eight.
I draped my arms around his neck and kissed him. It was a gentle thing, but the promise of fire ran beneath it. We both had other partners sexually, but it never erased our need for each other. In fact, phoenix partners had to combine energies every couple of days or we risked fading and could die—which was just another nail in the coffin when it came to finding happiness with whomever we fell in love with each lifetime.
“I’ll promise to be careful if you promise to get your butt out of bed and actually make it to work on time this morning.”
“Hey, my butt has made it to work with five minutes to spare on three occasions this week.”
I grinned. “Then go for four—hell, even five. The fire chief will think all his Christmases have come at once.”
“I just might, even if only to show you both it’s entirely possible.” He ran a finger lightly down my cheek before his touch settled on my lips. “I mean it. Be careful. I really don’t like the sound of this dream, and I like the thought of your investigating it alone even less.”
I kissed his fingertip, then said, “I know, but Jackson doesn’t get back from the job in Sydney until tomorrow afternoon.” I’d met Jackson only five weeks ago, after I became involved in the investigation into my boss’s murder. We’d gotten on so well that he was now not only my lover but also my business partner, as he’d offered me a fifty percent share in Hellfire Investigations, his PI agency. But he didn’t know about my dreams, and I really preferred to keep it that way. It was bad enough that I endangered my own life investigating them; there was no way I was going to risk someone else’s.
And it wasn’t as if we didn’t have plenty of other problems at the moment without my adding to them.
Rory’s concern deepened. “You haven’t told him about the dreams, have you?”
Jackson knew I was a phoenix because my fire had helped saved his life, but I hadn’t mentioned the dreams because there’d been no reason to. “No, but—”
“Em,” he cut in softly, “don’t make the same mistake with Jackson that you made with Sam.”
“It’s hardly the same thing,” I snapped back. “Damn it, you know very well why I didn’t tell Sam I was a phoenix, and he certainly didn’t give me a chance to explain why I need you in my life.”
“I know.” He grimaced, caught my hands, and squeezed them lightly. It only made the anger flame higher. “Believe me, I know. But I was just thinking the other day—what if it’s about honesty?”
“The curse. What if it’s all about honesty?”
“No one is sure if the curse theory is even true.” I pulled free from his grip. “And it’s not as if we haven’t been honest. For fuck’s sake, Rory, how many times has one of us been killed or burned because of honesty?”
“Too many.” His voice was grim. “But we’ve never been honest with our partners from the very beginning, and maybe that’s the point of the curse. Until we are, maybe we’ll never find happiness.”
“It’s hardly practical to be honest when humans fear the unknown.” I walked back to the chair to grab my leather jacket.
“I know, but baby steps and all that. Tell Jackson about the dreams, Em. Besides, if one hits when you’re with him, he needs to be prepared.”
“Maybe,” I muttered, not convinced. “I’ll think about it while I go investigate this creature.”
He snorted softly. “In other words, no.”
I didn’t say anything—there was little point. We’d been together for a very long time, and he knew me very well. “I’d better go. The dream didn’t pinpoint a time, so there just might be a chance of stopping this thing before it starts anything major.”
“Maybe I should come—”
“No,” I cut in instantly. “Remember our rule, Rory.”
That rule—only one of us could ever step into a dangerous situation at a time—had been made for a damn good reason after a particularly nasty event had almost taken us both out several lifetimes ago. I might be getting a little weary of endless centuries of heartbreak, but I certainly wasn’t tired of life itself.
He scrubbed a hand through his hair, leaving several bits sticking up at odd angles. “Okay, but take my bike. It’s not like you’re going to get public transport at this hour, and it probably wouldn’t be wise to catch a cab in case you have to leave in a hurry.”
I nodded and followed him into the kitchen. After grabbing the keys from where he’d dumped them on the counter, he tossed them over to me and added, “Just don’t scratch her.”
I grinned. “I think you worry about that bike even more than you worry about me.”
“Well, it is a classic, and a brand-new purchase besides.” Amusement teased his lips. “Give me a call once you figure out what is going on.”
I blew him a kiss, then grabbed my handbag and headed out of our apartment. Lights came on as I strode toward the elevator even as the shadows reclaimed the area behind me. They’d begun replacing all standard lighting in the building’s public areas—except for the lobby, which was manned with security twenty-four/seven—with movement-activated ones nearly a year ago, but it was only in the past few days that they’d finally gotten up to our floor. I rather liked the idea of them, if only because they gave advance warning that someone was approaching. A handy thing, considering that we were now on the outs with the sindicati, the vampire equivalent of the mafia, and definitely not an organization anyone with any brains would want to be on the wrong side of.
But it wasn’t like we’d had much choice. They’d not only kidnapped both me and Jackson, but they’d held him ransom in exchange for the missing notebook that held my boss’s research on the cure for the deadly red plague virus. It was a virus that had the potential to turn the human race—and some supernaturals—into insane pseudo vamps, and even with Jackson’s life at stake, there’d been no way I was about to let the sindicati get their grubby mitts on something like that. While I had no doubt that the sindicati, who had their fingers in just about every level of criminal activity imaginable, were a major headache to law enforcement, they’d be nigh on unstoppable if they got hold of a drug capable of changing the human race—and some nonhuman ones. Because they would use it to threaten and control.
So I’d arranged a little subterfuge of my own, and the exchange had gone off without a hitch. Almost. But at least the sindicati would find no joy in the notes, as the virus that had been placed into the computer that held them would activate the next time the device was booted up, and everything on the hard drive would be rendered unreadable and unrecoverable.
We were expecting reprisals, and the fact that they hadn’t responded, several weeks later, was scary. But then, vampires did have all the time in the world to plot revenge.
A soft chime announced the elevator’s arrival. I stepped inside its warm interior and pressed the basement button. The door closed, and, in no time at all, I was astride Rory’s fierce black Norton Commando and thoroughly enjoying being able to stretch her out in the near-empty Melbourne streets.
Highett Street looked nothing like what I’d seen in the dream. For a start, the street was wider, with two lanes of traffic as well as room for cars to park along either side. And there were not only footpaths but big old plane trees that cast deeper shadows across much of the street and the nearby houses.
James Hamberly’s house was hidden behind a six-foot green metal fence, and if the number of weeds and bushes scrambling over it was any indication, the front yard was as wild as the back. I parked the bike, took off my helmet, and immediately heard it—the electronic shrieking of a fire alarm. I swore and ran for the house.
“Is Jamie all right, then?”
I jumped and half swung around. The voice had come out of the darkness that enclosed the house to my right and, after a second, a woman appeared. With her white hair, pale skin, and the overly large dressing gown that flapped loosely in the slight breeze, she almost resembled a ghost.
I took a deep breath and walked on. “I don’t know, because I’m not in there yet.”
My somewhat offhand reply obviously didn’t please her, because her voice was sharper as she said, “You know him, then?”
“Old friends.” I paused to unlatch the rickety metal gate. “Could you go inside and call the fire brigade? That’s the fire alarm going off.”
I didn’t wait for her answer, just ran up the old wooden steps and headed for the front door . . . and discovered it was open. Just a crack, but since the creature hadn’t entered the house this way, James Hamberly was either lax about security or, as I’d suspected earlier, someone had left in a hurry.
I pulled a sleeve over my fingers and carefully pushed the door open. Even without entering the house, I could feel the dance of fire; the heat of it washed across my senses, stirring the embers within my soul to life and making me hungry to taste its sweetness.
I stepped warily into the house. Air brushed heat past my face, and I glanced up, seeing a vent several feet away. The heating was not only on but turned up. Hamberly had probably cranked it up when he’d gotten home, just to take the chill off the air, but why would he then go to bed and leave a pot to burn on the stove?
Again the heat of the flames washed across my senses, but I ignored its siren call and headed into the bedroom I’d seen in my dream.
The creature was gone. Only the dead man it had dined on remained.
I swore yet again, then spun and headed for the kitchen; I needed to take care of the fire before I did anything else. The pot on the stove had caught alight, and flames raced up the walls and across the ceiling, fierce and bright against the darkness. I stepped closer, flung my arms wide, and called them to me. The fire reacted instantly; thick fingers of flame leapt from both the ceiling and the walls and flung themselves at me. It spun around me, the intensity of the fire increasing until it was a maelstrom that roared with heat and power. For several seconds I simply enjoyed the close dance of the storm that didn’t touch, didn’t burn, but only fed.
Gradually, though, I became aware of approaching sirens. With a regretful sigh, I drew the maelstrom into my body, and, god, it was glorious. And it made me wish Rory were here to share the heat and the passion that such a moment always created.
But that was not what I was here for, and time was running out.
With darkness once again in control of the kitchen, I rummaged through the kitchen drawers until I found a lid that fit the pot. After calling a sliver of fire to one fingertip, I seared the inside of it to replicate what would have happened had I actually capped the pot with it and dropped it into place. Then I grabbed the pullout mixer tap and quickly sprayed water across the walls and ceiling. With everything drenched and the real reason the flames had been so quickly doused covered up, I grabbed my phone and called the cops to report the death as I spun on my heels and ran back to the bedroom. The fire brigade would be here within minutes, so I needed to discover whatever clues the creature had left before then.
As in the dream, James Hamberly lay on the bed with the blankets pulled back and his body exposed. But what I hadn’t noticed earlier was that—if the dents in the pillows beside his were anything to go by—someone had recently shared his bed.
So who was that person, and why had that person left in such a hurry as to have knocked over the coat stand and left the front door ajar?
I had no idea—but I had a feeling it would be very worthwhile to find the answers to both those questions.
Hamberly was a short, overweight man with steely gray hair and features that were not unpleasant. Death might have caught him unaware, but at least he’d died with a smile on his face.
My gaze dropped back to the area the creature had pierced with its teeth—only it hadn’t done it once, but twice. There was another cut in his chest, right above his heart. There didn’t seem to be any other marks on his body, however, and I wondered if the creature had simply come here to dine on those two organs, or whether its actions had been interrupted by the fire alarm. It certainly seemed like a whole lot of effort to go to for such a small gain, but until I knew for sure what this creature was, there was no way to know what it had really intended to do here tonight.
I stepped back and studied the rest of the room, looking for anything else that might provide some clue as to what I was dealing with. There were droplets of water on the wooden floor, but they could have dripped off my coat as easily as off the creature.
I closed my eyes, envisaging where it had stood, then looked for that spot on the floor. Other than the droplets, there didn’t seem to be any other giveaway clues. Not even hair.
So why did the damn dream bring me here if not to uncover some way to track this creature down? I spun around. If the nearness of the sirens was anything to go by, I had maybe three minutes—if that—before the fire crew arrived. I tugged a sleeve over my hand, walked across to the beautiful old mahogany wardrobe, and carefully opened the door. One set of clothing, not two. Hamberly’s partner either didn’t live here, or she kept her clothes in another room.
I closed the door, then turned and scanned the bedroom again, just in case I’d missed something. Nothing appeared to be out of place; the creature really had come here to dine on a dead man. I shivered and wondered how it had even sensed the death when it obviously hadn’t come from around here; then I thrust the question aside. The hows and whys were not important right now. But as I turned to walk out, an odd scent caught in the back of my throat. I frowned and took a deeper breath. Again that scent tickled my throat—foul and almost chemical in its taste. After several more breaths, I realized it was coming from Hamberly’s direction. Confused, I walked back over and leaned closer to the wound above his heart. It was definitely some sort of chemical smell, and it was coming from the wounds themselves. Maybe the creature had injected some kind of liquid through its teeth to dissolve both the liver and the heart before it had sucked them out. It would certainly explain how it had managed to do so through teeth that, while sharp, were also needle fine.
I shuddered and walked out. The creature might have become little more than shadow and ash to get into this place, but it had regained dog form once it had. Maybe there was a clue somewhere else.
I investigated the other rooms as I passed them, but found nothing to suggest anyone else lived here. I walked through the kitchen, then into the little laundry. There was water here, too, and several puddles that vaguely resembled paw prints. I got out my phone and took a photo and, in the brief flash of light, caught sight of something floating in one of them. I flicked on the flashlight app and squatted next to the puddle. It was a hair—a short dark one. There was no certainty it belonged to the creature; for all I knew, Hamberly owned a cat or maybe even a dog. Hell, it might even belong to whoever had recently shared the bed with him. But there’d been no sign of animals in the dream, and there wasn’t a litter box anywhere inside the house. It might prove to be nothing more than a random hair from a previous visitor, but it was better than nothing. And while I had no way of investigating whether the hair did belong to the creature, Jackson just might. I knew he had a secret source and, given the type of information he’d gotten from her recently, I very much suspected it was a cop.
I thrust upright, ran back to the kitchen, and grabbed a spoon and a sealable plastic bag. Once I’d claimed my prize, I shoved the bag deep into my purse and walked out of the house to wait for the fire crew and the police.
Several hours of questioning followed—not only from the fire chief and the police but also from the overly nosy neighbor—so it was almost dawn by the time I was allowed to leave. Rory had already gone to work when I got home, so I dumped his keys back on the kitchen counter and went to have a shower.
One of the many good things about becoming Jackson’s partner was that I could now walk to work. Hellfire’s offices were situated in West Melbourne, only a fifteen-minute walk from where Rory and I lived at Waterfront City. Once dressed, I grabbed my coat and bag and headed out. Though cold, the wind coming off the nearby sea brought with it the aroma of freshly baked bread. My stomach rumbled a reminder that while the spirit might have dined out on fire, the flesh had yet to feed, so I grabbed a couple of croissants and munched on those as I walked through streets that were surprisingly empty. Usually by eight in the morning, the place was packed—though admittedly, at this end of the city there was more car than foot traffic.
Hellfire Investigations was located on Stanley Street, and that was not only currently filled with early-blooming blossoms and wattles but also contained an eclectic mix of light industrial and old Victorian buildings. It was close to both the Queen Victoria Market and the Flagstaff Gardens, and the rent, I’d discovered, was horrific. But it had one major advantage that many other—cheaper—locations didn’t: It was situated right next to a blacksmith’s. Jackson was a fire Fae and, like most of the Fae, he had to be near his element regularly; otherwise he risked fading and, eventually, death.
Our building was a rather pretty, blue-painted double-story Victorian that was little more than two windows wide. I grabbed the mail out of the letter box, then opened the old wrought-iron gate and bounded up the two steps to the door.
Only to realize it was slightly open.
And it hadn’t been that way when I’d locked up and left the night before.
Someone had broken into our office.
I warily pushed the door open. Sparks danced across my fingertips, a weapon that was ready to ignite at the slightest hint of danger. The long, thin room that was our office appeared empty, but there was plenty of evidence that someone had been here, because the place was a mess. They’d ransacked our desks and filing cabinets and scattered paper everywhere. It almost looked as if the place had been hit by a snowstorm. The three computers were missing, although the screens and keyboards were still present and looked somewhat forlorn among the mess.
My gaze went to the spiral staircase that sat to one side of the lounge area at the far end of the room, and the tension running through me increased again. Just because I couldn’t immediately see or sense anyone on this level didn’t mean they hadn’t hightailed it to the next. I pressed the door all the way open to ensure no one hid behind it, then quickly stepped to the other side.
Still no sense or sign of anyone.
I placed my bag on the floor, then clenched my fist to contain the sparks. The last thing I needed right now was to inadvertently set fire to anything. I cautiously moved forward. Paper crunched under my feet or whispered away in the breeze of my passing, but nothing else stirred. Nor was anyone hiding under the desks, although the drawers, like everything else, had been ransacked. Several had even been smashed, as if to ensure there were no secret compartments. Whoever had done this was either a little paranoid or just very thorough.
I continued on until I reached the staircase. Thankfully, the paper storm hadn’t quite reached this end of the room, although there were a number of plastic cups in a nearby bin that hadn’t been there yesterday evening. The bastards had obviously made use of Jackson’s industrial-sized coffee machine while they’d ransacked the place—and that suggested a well-timed, well-planned raid rather than a spur-of-the-moment event. Just as the fact that they’d left the cups behind suggested they had no fear of being traced through their fingerprints.
I looked up to the next floor. Nothing registered on the sensory radar, but that didn’t mean someone couldn’t be up there. The senses of a phoenix, while far better than a human’s, were nowhere near as sharp as those of a werewolf or vampire.
There was only one way I was going to find out whether the fear twisting through me was justified or simply the product of an overactive imagination, but I just couldn’t force my feet onto the first metal step. Not in this form, anyway.
I glanced at the front door to ensure there were no passersby, then called to the fires within. They surged through me, flinging me from flesh to fire spirit in an instant. No longer constrained by physical limitations, I swept up the staircase and into Jackson’s living area. The light of my flames danced across the room, lending warmth to the shadows and leaving nowhere to hide. Like the floor below, the area up here was one big expanse. The kitchen was centrally located, with the bedroom to the left and the living area on the right. There was no one or nothing up here; nothing beyond the usual dust and unwashed dishes, anyway.
I moved across to check the bathroom—which was the only separate room in this entire area—but again, there was nothing. I reclaimed my flesh form and finally relaxed.
While this area had escaped the paper storm, it had nevertheless been searched. They’d stripped the bed, pulled the mattress away from the base, emptied out cupboards, and upended the couches. It had been a very thorough search and, for that reason alone, I suspected the persons behind it were connected to the sindicati. They had to be, because who else had any reason to snatch the computers? None of Jackson’s other cases—or at least, none of those he’d updated me on—warranted such action. The sindicati, however, didn’t have access to the research notes they’d been promised, and no doubt suspected we had to have backups hidden somewhere.
Only we didn’t—I’d given the only other copy of the notes to Sam Turner, who was not only my ex but also a cop working for the Paranormal Investigations Team, a specialist squad of humans and supernaturals who worked outside the regular police force to solve crimes that involved paranormals.
We’d neither seen nor heard from anyone at PIT since we’d handed over the notes. They even appeared to have pulled the tail they’d had on me. While I’d never been happy about being followed around, it had nevertheless been somewhat reassuring to know there was someone close who could come to my aid if things got ugly. Which they had, of course, and, in the end, the tail hadn’t really been of much use. Maybe that was why it had been pulled.
I studied the room for a moment longer, then headed back downstairs. After calling the cops, I made a pot of green tea, then sat down to watch the security tapes while I waited for them. What the tapes revealed were raiders in dark clothing wearing black masks. Which wasn’t exactly helpful, as the raiders had no doubt intended.
The cops weren’t exactly helpful, either, when they finally arrived. They basically took notes, collected the security tapes, and disappeared. But then, other than write up a report, take a few photos, and dust for prints, what else could they do? If the sindicati were behind the break-in, the nearby neighbors wouldn’t have spotted them. Not when vampires could wrap the night around their bodies and all but disappear to human eyes.
With the police gone, I closed—and locked—the door, then got down to the business of cleaning up. I was only halfway through the mess when the alarm on my phone went off, reminding me it was time to go meet Jackson at the airport.
I headed back upstairs to grab the keys of the car Jackson had rented until PIT released his truck—though why they even had it, I had no idea. The sindicati might have rammed it to snatch me, but I doubted there was a whole lot PIT could glean from the wrecked vehicle beyond the fact that the van that hit me was black—and they knew that from witness reports. And the longer they had it, the more likely it was that they would discover the three USBs I’d hidden under the seats. Given the trouble I went through to get the damn things, I’d be seriously pissed if they were taken before I’d even had a chance to look at them.
I found the car keys under an upended kitchen drawer and went back downstairs to reset the security cameras. Then I grabbed my handbag and headed out.
There was very little traffic on the Tullamarine Freeway, so it didn’t take long to get to the airport. I parked in the short-term area, then walked across the bridge to the terminal. After checking the boards to see where his plane was coming in, I headed through security and walked down to the lounge. It was packed, so I found a pillar to lean against while I waited.
Thankfully, the plane arrived on time and, as people began to disembark, I straightened, my gaze, scanning the crowd of people exiting the air bridge. Not that Jackson was in any way hard to spot. He was a big, lean man who radiated sexuality and heat, and he towered over those nearest him by a couple of inches. If there was one thing literature and movies had gotten wrong when it came to the Fae, it was their stature. They were neither small nor winged, and the only ones who were ethereal in any way were the air Fae.
His grin, when his gaze met mine, was easy and delighted, creasing the corners of his emerald green eyes.
I moved forward to meet him. He dropped his carryall, then caught one hand and pulled me close. His body was not only delightfully muscular but deliciously warm. Fire Fae had core temperatures that ran a lot hotter than most humanoids, which, in many ways, made them almost perfect partners for beings made of fire. But Jackson was also perfect in one other respect: Fire Fae didn’t do commitment, and Jackson was never going to want anything more than a good time from me—which was just as well, given Sam was this lifetime’s heartbreaker.
“You,” Jackson said, his voice gravelly and sounding as if it were coming from the general direction of his boots, “are a sight for sore eyes.”
A smile teased my lips. “Don’t try to tell me there were no seduction opportunities up in Sydney, because I won’t believe you.”
“It’s true, whether you choose to believe it or not.” His expression was woebegone, although the effect was somewhat muted by the amusement creasing the corners of his bright eyes. “The stakeout was in the middle of goddamn nowhere; the nearest I got to any sort of female was watching my target get picked up in the local pub.”
“A chance encounter, or a deliberate one?”
“Oh, the latter most definitely. It was artfully done, but once they were back in her hotel room, it was all business rather than sex.” He shook his head sadly. “Which was a total waste of a good bed and woman, if you ask me.”
I grinned. “I’m gathering you ran a trace on the man she met?”
“Woman,” he corrected. “And she’s a courier for the sindicati. But, for the moment, that is unimportant, because I seriously need to kiss you.”
And with that, he did.
It was a long, slow, and extremely sensual kiss, one that was filled with desire and heat. I wrapped my arms around his neck and pressed my body even closer, enjoying all his luscious heat even as I fought the desire to draw it into my own body.
“Oh, for god’s sake, get a room,” a woman muttered as she brushed past.
Jackson chuckled, the sound vibrating lightly against my lips. “That is a damn good idea,” he murmured. “Shall we race over to the hotel and grab one?”
“You have a perfectly good bed at home.” Or, at least, he would when it was put back into place. “Besides, you might not feel so amorous when you discover what happened last night.”
“It’d have to be a pretty dire event to stop a fire Fae from feeling amorous.” His tone was dry. “But what happened?”
“We got raided.”
His amusement faded. “By whom? PIT or the vamps?”
“I suspect the latter, if only because of the thoroughness of the search and that it happened at night. Besides, if PIT wanted something from us, they’d openly come and take it.”
“And woe betide us if we, in any way, objected.” He thrust a hand through his dark gold hair. “What was taken?”
“Besides the three computers, I’m not entirely sure. I’m only halfway through the cleanup.”
He picked up his carryall, then tucked a hand under my elbow and guided me forward. “Did the security cams reveal anything?”
“Yeah, men in dark clothes wearing ski masks.”
He grunted. “If it was the sindicati, I’m guessing they were looking for the notes.”
“And once they realize they’re not on any of the computers, they’ll be back.”
“We knew something like this was going to happen.”
“Yeah, but I was hoping we’d have more time.” Even if more time would have only caused more anxiety. But at least now that they’d made their first move, we had a clearer path forward.
His expression was grim. “Well, I can tell you one thing—those bastards are not getting their hands on me again. Not without a major battle.”
An understandable sentiment, considering the last time he’d been taken had resulted in a broken arm and leg. That he was walking now was only due to my having become spirit, allowing him to not only siphon my flames but use them to heal his body. It was something I’d never done before, and I had no idea whether there would be consequences for either of us. So far, it appeared not, but then, it hadn’t been all that long since it had happened.
“We could install a better security system—”
“It wouldn’t be of much use,” he cut in. “We’re talking about a crime syndicate, remember. I doubt there’s a system out there they couldn’t get around if they really wanted to.”
His point was well proven. Not only had they gotten into both the Chase Medical Research Institute, where I’d worked before my boss had been murdered, and Rosen Pharmaceuticals, the company that had hired Jackson, but they had also hacked into their computer systems and erased everything related to the research into the red plague virus.
“Besides,” he added, “I doubt the next attack will involve our building. It’ll be against us directly, and it’ll be someplace dark and secluded.” His gaze met mine, green eyes concerned. “Since dark and secluded are part and parcel of an investigator’s job, we’d better start carrying.”
I grimaced as we stepped onto the escalator and headed down to the bag collection and exit area. “My investigator’s license hasn’t come through yet, so that option is out for me. And my fire is a better weapon than any gun you could give me.” Besides, it wasn’t like a gun was going to stop a vampire attack—not when the bastards could move as fast as the wind.
Jackson must have been thinking along the same lines, because he said, “A gun might be useless against the speed of a vampire, but if you manage to get the drop on them, you can certainly blow their fucking brains out. But I wasn’t actually thinking about that sort of gun.”
I raised my eyebrows as we headed across to the parking lot. “What other sort of gun is there?”
Amusement touched his lips. “A water gun.”
“A water gun?” I stared at him for a second. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“Totally.” The amusement so evident on his lips warmed his bright eyes and had my pulse rate skyrocketing again. Not that that was a surprise, given both the desire he was still radiating and the fact my hormones were still physically unsatisfied after the delight of ingesting Hamberly’s fire. “A small plastic gun loaded with holy water can make as big a mess of any vampire as any regular gun—and you have the advantage of being able to hold down the trigger and spray it in a wide arc.”
I dug the parking ticket out of my pocket, paid the fee, and led the way across the lot to the car. “Why hasn’t anyone ever developed this idea commercially? At the very least, the police would find a weapon like that extremely handy.”
Hell, anyone would. Vampires might be more civilized these days—and attacks on humans few and far between—but that didn’t mean they never happened.
“Oh, both the police and the military have developed such a weapon. They just don’t use it during day-to-day operations.” He dumped his bag into the trunk of the car, then climbed into the passenger seat. “Could you imagine what would happen if it became common knowledge it existed? There’s enough trouble on the streets now with the antisupernatural squads without feeding them the knowledge that holy water really is an effective weapon against vamps.”
That was true enough. While humanity had reacted far better than anyone had really expected when vampires and werewolves had revealed their existence during the height of Hollywood’s love affair with all things supernatural, there were still pockets who believed nonhumans were a threat that needed to be eradicated—and who were willing to back this belief with action. Nightly “hunting” parties were becoming a real problem, and while they might be illegal, it didn’t seem to stop anyone. Of course, it didn’t help that some police and politicians who sympathized with the hunters were more than willing to turn a blind eye to their actions.
Which was the main reason why the rest of us hadn’t come out. Heaven only knew how the paranoid would react if they ever actually discovered just how many other nonhuman races were living among them.
“It’s hard to believe no one’s ever realized it, though.” I started up the car and headed out of the parking lot. “I mean, holy water is such a literary stable. Vamps might have spent years debunking the myth, but I would have thought someone, somewhere, would have tested it out anyway.”
“They undoubtedly have, but remember, holy water burns rather than kills outright. If you hit a body part other than the face, you’re basically dead meat. The vamp will be on top of you before you can scream.”
“True.” I paused to shove the ticket into the exit gate. “But that’s also a problem that applies to both of us.”
“Well, yes, except that we’re both faster than humans, and we have other weapons at our disposal.”
I glanced at him. “I have, but you need a source of fire before you can shape it.”
“I have you.” He shifted in his seat and gave me a wide grin. “Not only are you the best source of flame I’ve ever encountered, but you come wrapped in a very luscious package.”
I snorted softly. “I’m being serious here—”
“Oh, so am I.” He reached over and placed a big hand on my thigh. “You really are a luscious woman.”
“Concentrate on the sindicati and what we’re going to do to avoid them,” I said, ignoring not only his compliment but the warmth of his touch and the desire it stirred. “Because any plans you have for seduction might just depend on whether we can remain out of their grasp.”
“I know.” He sighed and removed his hand, though the heat of his touch lingered. “But the truth of the matter is, if they want us, they’ll get us. We both know that. We can’t run either the business or our lives around what they might or might not do—not indefinitely, anyway. All we can really do is watch each other’s backs as much as is practical.”
I mulled over his words as we merged into the traffic heading toward the city. While the reason Jackson had offered me the partnership in the first place was simply so that we could protect each other, he was right; it wasn’t going to be enough. The sindicati had to have been watching us to know when to make their raid, and yet we’d had no sense of them. No sense of being watched at all. And as much as I’d promised Rory I would be careful, I’d lived long enough to know that, sometimes, the best defense was offense.
“What if we take the fight up to them?” I said eventually.
“It’s certainly an interesting premise, although I daresay a dangerous one.”
I glanced at him. “And this worries you?”
He grinned. “I’m a fire Fae. We live for danger.”
“And here I was thinking you lived for sex.”
His grin grew. “And you don’t think sex can be dangerous? Darlin’, you obviously haven’t lived long enough.”
“I’m a phoenix. I’ve had more rebirths than you’ve had years.” My tone was dry. “And when it comes to sex, I’ve seen more and probably done more than you could ever imagine.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that.” His expression was decidedly wicked. “I can imagine a whole lot.”
“Well, just stop doing so right now, and concentrate on the matter at hand.”
“A hard thing to do when my hand is itching to reacquaint itself with all your lovely curves.”
Which was certainly something I wouldn’t have objected to . . . I mentally swatted away the images that rose with the thought, deciding I’d better take my own advice and concentrate. “We can attack them from two angles; we can go after Henry Morretti—”
“We were warned off the sindicati—and Morretti specifically—by your ex,” Jackson said. “I don’t think he’d take it all that well if we ignored that warning.”
“But they’ve pulled my tail—”
“You only think they’ve pulled the tail,” he cut in again. “Just because you can’t sense them doesn’t mean they’re not there.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Meaning you don’t want to go after Morretti?”
“No, I’m just pointing out the probable consequences. The next time your ex catches us interfering, he might do a whole lot more than merely give us a drug-enforced warning.” He hesitated. “And, just for reference, no air or fire Fae can survive jail time.”
I couldn’t, either, and for similar reasons. I might not need to be immersed in my element regularly, but I certainly needed time with Rory. But jail time was the threat we were currently under if we didn’t give up investigating the death of Mark Baltimore—my former boss at Chase. Somewhat oddly, though, Sam had not offered the same warning when it came to investigating the disappearance of Professor Wilson, the other scientist involved in the research into the red plague virus. His notes, like those of my boss, were missing, and no one had any idea where they’d gone. Except, maybe, Amanda Wilson, who was both the professor’s wife and a telepath for hire. She was also the woman who’d given me the USBs stashed in Jackson’s truck. And if Sam had found them, she might be our only hope of uncovering what had happened to either Wilson or his notes. And Sam wouldn’t stop us going after her—he’d told me she was of little interest to PIT. The trouble was finding her, as she was currently in the hands of one of the warring sindacati factions—but which one, we had no idea.
That there were two factions was something I hadn’t even known when Mark Baltimore had been murdered and all hell had broken loose in my life. I still had no idea which faction we’d been snatched by, because we had only one name—Morretti. Whether he was the current power or the would-be power, I didn’t know, and I certainly had no clue as to who his opposition was. Though I very much suspected the cool-voiced, ultrapolite vampire who’d been in charge when I’d exchanged Jackson for the laptop containing the research notes might have been it. And if that was true, it also meant I’d managed to annoy both factions. Because not only did I plant a virus on the laptop that would have destroyed the notes the minute he tried to access them, but we’d also foiled his plans to kill us. Although whether the kill plot had been his idea or that of the man in charge of the red cloaks—the nickname given to those infected by the red plague virus—was anyone’s guess.
After merging into some more traffic, I said, “What if we don’t go after him directly?”
I might fear Sam’s threat, and had no desire to anger him any more than he already was, but there was a part of me—the very same part that had gotten me into more trouble than I could remember over the centuries—that couldn’t walk away completely. Not only had my boss been murdered, but I’d been kidnapped, threatened, and drugged—and not just by the bad guys. I was pissed off, and I wanted answers.
Jackson half smiled. “I suspect your ex still wouldn’t be pleased by a sideways approach, but I do so love your thinking. Who do we hit first—Amanda Wilson, Denny Rosen, or Lee Rawlings?”
Rosen was the man behind Rosen Pharmaceuticals, and Lee Rawlings was the vamp Morretti had hired to pick me up the first time I’d been snatched. Unfortunately for Morretti, things had not gone according to plan—I’d not only escaped and interrogated Sherman Jones, the initial bagman, but we’d intercepted and paid out Rawlings in exchange for information.
“Given the sindicati have Amanda, and it might take a bit of time to find Rawlings, why don’t we tackle Rosen? You’re due to report to him anyway, aren’t you?”
Jackson grimaced. “I very much doubt he’ll be able to tell us much about the sindicati.”
“It’s still worth a shot.”
“Maybe. And he did call when I was in Sydney, enraged that I haven’t handed in an update for several days.” A smile flirted briefly with his kissable lips. “His bluster died somewhat when I told him PIT had become involved in the investigation.”
I frowned. “Surely he had to be aware of that? I mean, they would have spoken to him when Wilson and his research went missing.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Keri Arthur
“Arthur is positively one of the best urban fantasy authors in print today.”—Darque Reviews
“Keri Arthur’s imagination and energy infuse everything she writes with zest.”—Charlaine Harris
“Keri Arthur skillfully mixes her suspenseful plot with heady romance…Sexy vampires, randy werewolves, and unabashed, unapologetic, joyful sex—you’ve gotta love it. Smart, sexy, and well-conceived.”—Kim Harrison, #1 New York Times bestselling author
“Deliciously sexy…[it] pulls you in and won't let go. Keri Arthur knows how to thrill! Buckle up and get ready for a wild, cool ride!”—Shana Abé
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great very original series. Love the storyline. Crimson Death is a worthy opponent.
Keri is one of my favorites. I buy everything she writes .
I liked the second book in this series but i was hoping the storyline between Em, Sam and Rory would move forward farther. The author seems to be setting this series up to be another long one and while i love her writing, its hard to stay into the characters when the series is 7-8 books long and each book is a year apart.
Our Review, by LITERAL ADDICTION's Pack Alpha - Chelle: *Copy gifted in exchange for an honest review --Actual rating 4.5 Skulls Wicked Embers picks up where book #1 left off in true and fantastic Urban Fantasy form. Emberly and her beau Jackson are investigating a unique and dangerous case for their shared private investigation firm and trying not to step on the toes of her cop ex, Sam, while keeping those they care about, including Emberly's life mate Rory, safe. Emberly's dream visions kick into gear, making the case even more dangerous and intriguing, especially when they find out that everything behind the scenes is still tied to the Red Cloaks and their nefarious leader, the Grey Cloak. As Emberly and Jackson chase down the mysterious beast wreaking havoc, their tie-in with the Red Cloak virus-afflicted becomes even more convoluted. Death and destruction await around every turn, and secrets that they wished they wouldn't have learned are revealed. Wicked Embers was a beautifully written and gripping urban fantasy with lots of action, edge-of-your-seat suspense, thrills, and even some hot and sexy romance. This was another stellar book by Ms. Arthur. I am loving this series almost as much as Dark Angels, and that is one of my absolute favorite UF series ever. I can't wait to see what happens next!
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