Stone Chameleon
205 pages
English

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205 pages
English

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Description

When a series of unusual murders point to Lou Hudson, Ironhill’s monster whisperer, as the primary suspect, she has but one choice: find the real perpetrator before her trial begins or face execution. Lou, the last of the jinn, survives by hiding her abilities after the rest of the elementals fell victim to genocide. As a preternatural pest control expert and self-proclaimed guardian of the innocent, she’s accustomed to trudging through the dregs of society. Hunting down a pesky murderer should be easy, especially with help from a dashing local media darling and a tantalizing Scottish vampire whose motives are a mystery. For Lou, though, nothing is ever simple. When she discovers the killer’s identity, to reveal it would unearth her secret and go against her strict moral code, resulting in a deadly catch twenty-two.

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Publié par
Date de parution 20 octobre 2013
Nombre de lectures 1
EAN13 9781773625676
Langue English

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,0032€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.

Exrait

Stone Chameleon
Ironhill Jinn Book One - Water
By Jocelyn Adams
 
Digital ISBNs 
EPUB 978-1-77362-567-6
Kindle978-1-77362-568-3
WEB978-1-77362-569-0
Print ISBN 978-1-77362-570-6
Amazon Print ISBN978-1-77362-571-3
 

 
 
Copyright2013 by JoanneGalbraith
 
All rightsreserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reservedabove, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in orintroduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, orby any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, orotherwise) without the prior written permission of both thecopyright owner and the publisher of this book
Dedication
 
For those brave enough to stand betweenprejudice and its victims, who see beauty in the soul instead ofthe skin, and who can walk among all races, creeds, orientations,and religions and see only friends.
Chapter One
 
There was something peaceful about working inthe sewer, despite the rotting toilet stench. Surrounded by stone,I communed with my element without fear of exposing my heritage toever-watching eyes. Jinn were subject to a kill-on-sight law. I wasthe last one, an earth elemental, hiding in the one locale thatmade survival possible. After all, there was no better place forthe boogieman of all races to hide out than Monster City. Oneill-informed news caster had coined the catch phrase on air fifteenyears ago, and Ironhill suddenly had a nickname that wouldn’tdie.
I peered around the corner of the sewertunnel from the catwalk. The dim lighting didn’t illuminateanything. Certainly nothing that moved enough to disturb thechannel of water running the length of the corridor, other thantrickles of liquid running down the slime-coated stone walls.
A small adjustment of my earpiece reduced thehum of static. “Harper,” I said over the comm, “are you in place atthe other end of this tunnel?”
“Locked and loaded in crap shoot number six.Any sign of this nasty critter yet, oh great and powerful monsterwhisperer?”
I winced as she knew bloody well I would.“You know I hate that name.”
“Aww, but that cute guy on channel elevenadores calling you that. Like, every night. I think he’s in lurvewith you.”
Were all TV personalities idiots by nature? Iwas beginning to think so. “The media is in love with the danger ofthis job, and it has little to do with me.” I cursed my boss,Blake, for bringing our pest control business into the limelightthrough a reality TV series, whose camera crew and host hadfollowed me around for a week last year.
The host and two of his staff had been maimedand nearly eaten by a rogue naiad we were hunting in the KimbleRiver, after which I’d put an end to that nonsense. It was the mostexcruciating and terrifying seven days of my life so far. Given myline of work, dealing with preternatural creatures who weremisbehaving in the city, and the constant threat of exposure, thatwas saying something.
“Can we focus, please?” I glanced back andforth, my spine itching. “Our mark has already killed one andterrified half of the municipal workers who were down hereearlier.” They described it as something bluish that moved likewater, but also like a person. “Eyes in the water,” one of them hadsaid.
The men had been pale and glassy-eyed aftertheir encounter, but their descriptions had matched when Blakequestioned the four of them separately. We’d had them drug testedand found them all to be free of hallucinogens, a practice we’dadopted to sort out the nutters from those with real cases.
Their story was enough for the case to landon my desk and not on Rudy’s, the gatekeeper of the mundanedivision of Ironhill Pest Control, or IPC as the media referred tous.
Something splashed in the distance. The waterswelled as if something large had risen from the bottom, but notfar enough to break the surface. The long, winding bulge moved downthe channel faster than anything should have been able to swim.
I tightened my wrist sheaths, hoping I wasn’tdestined for a dip in the sewage. “Look lively, Harper,” I saidthrough the comm, “it’s coming toward you. It’s gigantic and shapedlike a serpent.” I took off after it, my black boots poundingagainst the grungy cement.
“If it slithers, then it bleeds.”
Clicks sounded in my earpiece, most likelyfrom her guns coming out of safety mode. “Only as a last resort. Wecapture if we can—don’t make me remind you again.”
“Yeah, yeah. Nag me later.” Elf females werenotoriously feisty, perhaps to compensate for their small stature.I was lucky she was only half elf, or she’d have been completelyunmanageable.
I couldn’t see a bloody thing. Every fiftyfeet, a light bulb within a protective cage dotted the ceiling, butevery other one seemed to be broken. Bringing my own lighting wouldhave painted a target on my head.
“Dom.” I looked up as if I could see where hewatched us through surveillance equipment in the van. “Do you seeit on the infrared?” My voice jerked in staccato bursts with myfootfalls.
“Got nothin’ here, Lou, but that’s notsurprising if it’s cold-blooded and under water,” he said aroundcrunches of what I assumed to be his beloved Doritos.
“Then forget the monitors. Gear up, because Ithink we’re going to need—”
Harper’s distant battle cry echoed throughthe chamber, stealing the rest of my breath. Gun shots rang out,too close together to be from a single weapon. She never emptiedboth pistols unless it was a Hail Mary for survival.
Mercy mother of hellfire.
I ran faster. “Get down here, Dominic. Now!Harper, what’s going on over there? Respond.”
Static filled my ear piece. Her screamricocheted along the tunnel again, but this one held hints of angerand pain.
A dull thud sounded ahead, and silencedescended.
“Harper!” I stopped and listened. She’d beenmy friend since junior year of high school. If something hadhappened to her…no, she might have appeared delicate, but she wasstronger than anyone I knew, and she’d be fine, as always. Iwouldn’t consider the alternative.
A strand of my ebony hair came loose from thebundle at the top of my head, flying up with my heavy exhalationsas I broke into a run again. “Harper, talk to me.”
Finally, I neared the end of the tunnel,which came to a “T” a short distance ahead. Groaning came frombeyond the weak cone of light I approached. I slowed my pace,stalking along in a crouch. “Say something, my friend.”
“Did someone get the license plate of thatbig-ass bus?” Harper’s words mixed with moans, muffled as if shespoke with something over her mouth. Thank the stars. If she wasjoking, she wasn’t badly injured.
“What happened?” Hands tensed to grab mydaggers, I approached the form bobbing in the water below withcaution. Once upon a time I’d been inhabited by a haven—a speciesmost people mistakenly called demons—when Harper found me insimilar circumstances. If she hadn’t shot me in the shoulder, Iwould have slit her throat.
“Dunno,” she slurred. “There werebutterflies. Butterflies in the water.”
What? “I think you’re confused. Didyou see dead butterflies?”
“No, no. Not dead. Flying. They cut me up,and bullets didn’t touch them. After that, something came out ofthe water and pulled me into the cesspool, and then launched meagainst the wall like a freakin’ rocket. Took all three of mybabies, too. Bastard.”
By babies, she meant her guns. Two Berettasand a Sig she had elaborate acquisition stories for, as if theywere pets. I didn’t joke about her affection for them unless Iwanted a good jab in the ribs for my trouble.
I listened to the cadence of her voice anddecided she remained my Harper. To be sure, I asked, “Are youyourself?”
“Think so. No extra voices in my head, just alot of ringing. Ribs are broken and possibly some fingers. Figuresit’s my right hand. Lots of cuts from those razor-winged butterflythings. Won’t know more until my skull stops pounding.”
“We’ll get you to Dr. Courian.” A few stridestook me to where Harper hung from a groove in the channel wallwhere she’d wedged the fingers of her left hand into the concrete.I bent down at the edge of the waterway and looked her over. Herpale forehead pressed against her crooked elbow as she hungthere.
Her long, straight hair flowed behind her,what wasn’t covered in muck shining with the kind of red you’d seeon a Christmas bauble, streaked with black—she’d inherited thatfrom her elven grandfather. A dark patch covered what little of hertemple I could see around her shoulder. Blood from a blow to thehead. Several lacerations crisscrossed her face, and sludge coveredher from the neck down.
My gaze remained vigilant for our creature asDom’s footfalls came from the direction I’d run from, but I foundnothing but dirt and stone.
“Tell me again what you saw after thebutterflies.” They had to be a figment of her imagination,occurring after her head injury.
“Nothing.” Her head tilted back into themuck.
I reached down and cupped a hand behind herslender neck, searching her feisty winter green eyes for warningsigns. “You may have a concussion.” I noted a slight variance inthe size of her pupils. “Keep talking to me.”
“Heard water moving and then blam! Lightsout. Started to drown and woke up. I really need a toothbrush and astomach pump. Good thing I’m immune to disease. Thank you,Grandpa.”
I laughed, but it died away under the worryprickling my skin. “What did you hear, then?”
“Oy, um…” Her lids drooped, jerking up againin an apparent fight for consciousness. “Sort of a whisper, but itdidn’t speak any language I know.” She knew many, so that wouldnarrow it down. “Then a splash before I got a face full ofwall.”
“Did hands grab you beneath the surface?Tentacles? Claws?” The more I had her remember while it remainedfresh in her mind, the better.
A pause. “Uh…would you think I’m crazy if Isaid the water kind of wrapped around me like a monkey’s prehensiletail? There was nothing solid. Just the water. My fingers wentright through when I went to pry it off. I tried to shoot it, whichis when it took my babies.” She snorted and then groaned. “GuessI’m going to have to carry a few extras from now on, huh?”
I smiled and peeled some hairs from herforehead. “I don’t know that your little elf body is big enough tohold any more without you toppling over.”
“Oh, don’t you worry about me, chica .I’ll find a way.”
Of that, I had little doubt.
Dom appeared on the catwalk across thechannel, his clean-shaven face pale, making his blue eyes seembrighter than usual. He’d only been with us for a week so far. Thiswould be his first time participating in the actual hunt, as hisprimary job was to keep communications open and to be our eyes withthe aid of a complex monitoring system.
His jeans had holes large enough to exposehis knees, and his black T-shirt had orange stains where he’d wipedDorito cheese from his hands. I’d have to have a word with hisgrandmother about the contents of his closet, and how did a youngman stay so thin when he never stopped eating? Between Harper andher obsession with Pixy Stix and Dom’s chip fetish, I didn’t knowwhich was worse.
“She okay?” His gaze bounced around thecorridor and to the ceiling before returning to me. Good, he’d beenpaying attention. Danger in Ironhill could come from any direction,even from the stone beneath our feet—if the danger happened to beme.
“She’ll live,” I said, “but we need to gether out of here. Come on, lift her gently so I can pull her up onthe catwalk.”
“What? But where’s the water beast thingy?”Dom’s focus settled on me. “Wait, tell me you’re not telling me toget into that liquid shit.”
“Mouth, Dom. And yes, hurry up.”
“But I paid two hundred bucks for thesesneaks in anticipation of my first paycheck, and I am not going inthere barefoot. Christ, is that a condom?” He gagged. “You don’tpay me enough to swim in condom and dead rat stew. No way, forgetit.”
“We’ll discuss your salary later.”
A spine curling scream reverberated fromfarther down the tunnel. It sounded male.
Dom and I stared at each other from acrossthe river of sludge, his eyes as wide as I imagined mine were.
Harper clawed at the stone, her breathingirregular and rapid. “Someone get me the flying freak out of hereand find me a gun!”
I gestured at Dom, who groaned and jumpeddown into the flow, the muck swallowing him up to the chest. “Seeher safely to the van, make sure nobody else comes down here, andshut down all surveillance on this tunnel.”
“Why?”
Because I was about to disappear. “Do now,ask questions later.” I ran in the direction of the deathsounds.
“Wait, I almost forgot. We have a big problemupstairs—”
“Then deal with it. You asked for moreresponsibility, and I’m giving it to you, so step up or getout.”
“Christ, Gran’s going to kill me when I gethome.”
“If that thing doesn’t eat us first,” Harperadded.
I reached the junction and continued right.Although my fondness for the young man settled a guilty weight onmy shoulders, our jobs were messy, and he needed to get used to it.Distantly, I noted that same fondness would make it harder for meto keep bringing him into danger. The four talented, brave menwho’d held his position previously had either been maimed orresigned shortly after beginning work. Dom was the only onedesperate enough to apply, so it wasn’t like I had a lot ofoptions. We needed at least three for this job.
I grasped the carved bone handles of my elvendaggers and pulled them free of their wrist sheaths. It was theonly location I’d found to keep them dry while in the sewer. Theywere beautiful weapons, the blades glinting bright green.
Tough as diamonds, they could slice throughanything, even steel and bone. Delicate scrolling letters adornedthe center of each blade in elvish. I’d acquired them by way of ayoung elf I met in college, trading a few of the most preciousstones from my collection for them. They were made of ore onlyfound within the elven realm.
Unlike Harper, I didn’t have a love for guns,though I knew how to shoot one. I preferred blades. There wassomething intimate about knives, bringing me closer to my target soI was certain of their intentions before striking. The eyes toldeverything. I’m scared. I’m hurt. I’m protecting someone I love.I want to kill you. The last, I paid particular attentionto.
Elven daggers in hand, I rushed toward thesloshing sound, which had replaced the screaming and was growing involume. A mewling cry came before gurgling took its place. Coughingto clear the lump from my throat, I stopped and looked back to makesure nobody had followed me. I was alone as far as I could see.
Images of razor-spined bog toads and mutatedalligators crossed my mind, not that I’d seen one since werelocated most of the reptiles down to the dangerous creaturereserve in the Florida Everglades. Although I rarely riskedexposing my talents with my crew around, the fear dragging againstmy spine demanded I brace myself for a strike.
I whispered greetings to the earth in alanguage I’d known instinctively since birth. The stone in thewalls answered, a shimmer of power racing across the surface likethe waver of heat rising from sunbaked asphalt. Almostimperceptible white sparks flitted within the distortion.
A flex of my fingers could have caved in theentire structure or formed it into any shape, even a prison. Iwouldn’t allow the beast to escape and wreak havoc among themundanes. The non-humans of the world didn’t need any more badpress.
I backed up against the wall and pressed myfingers along the slimy stone. Its flavor and unique vibrationssang to me, caused a stirring in my soul as I learned from it. Witha shudder, my body took on the properties of that which I touched.My flesh hardened and darkened to slate gray, becoming as solid anddifficult to harm as the rock itself. Not completelyindestructible, but nearly so. As long as I kept my proportions thesame, I didn’t have to worry about shredding my clothes. Beingnaked in the sewer was not a pleasant thought.
Although the black shirt and jeansinterrupted my camouflage, in the dim tunnel it would give me a fewmoments to observe the scene safely.
All sound had ceased by the time I cameacross someone floating face-down in the brown water ahead. Thepoor lighting didn’t illuminate it enough for me to identify thespecies. Something glinted in the air above it.
I crouched and navigated aroundhalf-desiccated rat corpses that littered the walkway in thissection. Within ten feet of the body, I stopped and studied it withsharper focus. The leather-like skin and emaciated torso identifieda vampire.
Good lord, not another one. The brown waterobscured most of its stringy hair and face. Every bump of its spinejutted into view through translucent skin, along with the lines ofeach rib. As Harper had described, a small swarm of butterflieshummed around the corpse and appeared to be made of…water.
What on earth?
I took another step closer. The butterfliesburst into a fine mist, drifting down like fog beforedissipating.
“Mercy mother of hellfire.” I hung my head tolet the adrenaline burn off. Certain the assailant had fled, Iimagined my body as flesh and bone once more. A few seconds ofburning tingles, and my skin softened to pink again.
Calling out to the stone once more, I coaxeda wide column to rise beneath the vampire so I could have a betterlook without getting wet.
I stepped onto the makeshift platform andnudged the nude body with my foot. When it didn’t move, I stashedmy daggers back in their sleeves, then bent and rolled it over. Thetexture of its skin reminded me of an old vinyl binder cover—thetelltale sign of a fresh inductee to the hive.
Even wet, the young male weighed no more thana sack of sawdust. Like the last four I’d found, his yellowish ribsjutted wide as if someone had opened him like a garden gate. Hismouth lay stretched in a silent scream, his black eyes vacant, andhis heart was missing, just like the others. That settled it—we hada vampire serial killer in our midst.
Isaac, the lord of the local hive, would befurious. The more lesser vampires in a hive, the greater the drawof power for the lord. It was the worst sort of pyramid scheme ofall time. A newborn vampire came in at the bottom of the pile, andthe others received varying degrees of his or her life energy. Onlywhen enough above the new one perished during a power strugglewould they be set free to keep their energy for their own, to livein the mainstream, or to set up their own hive. Isaac wasn’t thedeadliest of the world’s vampire lords, so I’d heard, but he cameclose.
I hadn’t a clue what sort of creature had theability to overpower a vampire and get him to lay still while itpeeled him open. And what could have cut such neat incisions intohis chest during the time it took me to get there? He would havebeen alive until the perpetrator removed the heart. Although itdidn’t beat, whatever magic animated the undead resided there.
Had the killer eaten it? Taken it as atrophy? I considered feeling around the bottom for it, but decidedthe police might be upset with me for disturbing their crime scenemore than necessary.
Why did circumstance always send me intothese situations alone? It was as if by design, but that was silly.Why would anyone want to implicate me in vampire murders? I notonly fought to protect them physically on the streets, but had alsospent a decade trying to change the laws that kept them fromintegrating into human society.
Isaac had eyed me with suspicion when I’dfound the last body. It would be nearly impossible to convince himof my innocence this time.
“Lou,” Dom’s frantic voice came over thecomm, “Harper’s in the van, but I think you’d better get up herebefore they all come down there.”
Good lord, what now? “Who?”
“Reporters and camera crews from every damnnews station in the state, and they don’t seem to care about what’sdown there as long as they get a statement from you about whetherthis thing we’re hunting is connected to the vampire murders.”
Bloody hell. “Call Detective Petersondiscreetly, because there’s been another one. Don’t tell those nosyvultures anything. I’ll be right there.”
If the media knew where to find me, it meantone thing—my boss had some explaining to do.
 
 
 
Chapter Two
 
The July sun had fallen below the buildingsby the time I’d emerged from the maintenance hole. Camera flashesfrom a large crowd near the IPC cube van spotted my vision, anddozens of voices crashed together at once as reporters thrustmicrophones toward me.
“Miss Hudson, do you know how many murdersthere’ve been?”
“Is the creature in the sewer now? Have youkilled it? Was it afraid of you?”
“What kind of monster is it? Is it the sameone slaughtering vampires in Ironhill?”
“Is it true you’re a suspect in the hivemurders, Miss Hudson?”
They went on and on without pause as I pushedthrough them to get to the van. “No comment. What you’re asking isa hive matter, and I’m sure Lord Isaac will inform you as he seesfit.” Which would be exactly never. If I said a word about it, he’dhave my head. “Now, I need all of you to clear the area for yourown safety.”
It took concentration to keep my power fromrising to protect myself as the mob cinched tighter. Dom came outof the back of the van and muscled his way through them. Half deaffrom their shouting, and blind from their cameras, I held onto Domas we elbowed our way through the shifting bodies.
Finally, we made it to the doors of the van,and Dom threw them open. I hopped into the back beside Harper, wholay groaning on the rubberized floor in a pool of dirty water.
Dom locked us inside. “I remember youpromising me this job would never be boring.” He gripped his narrowhips, panting. “Guess this is what you meant?”
“I’m a woman of my word, Dominic. Well donegetting Harper here through that chaos. Did you get Gerry on thephone?”
His grimace caused my stomach to clench. “Ohyeah, I talked to him all right. He said, and I quote, ‘Tell Loushe’d better not move a muscle from that crime scene, or I’llarrest her ass.’ He’s joking, right?”
“Don’t worry about Gerry.” Landing in a humanprison was the least of my worries at the moment.
Dom sat on the stool built into the rackingnear the monitors. “I also called City Hall and told them to getsome people down here to seal off the entrances to tunnel six untilthe cops get here.”
“That was good thinking.” Knowing Harperwould need a hit of sugar and to buy myself time to think, I pickeda pink Pixy Stix out of her stash, a sleeve containing pure coloredsugar, and ripped it open.
I didn’t dare call it the correct name in hervicinity, though. Before Abraham Lincoln was in diapers, the elvesand their smaller cousins, the pixies, had suffered a falling out.Over, of all things, the lyrics to one of their sacred hymns.Mentioning them to Harper would earn me a glare and a week-longcold shoulder treatment. I’d have thought they’d have mended therelationship by now, but they were stubborn races. Nobody held agrudge like an elf.
“Oh, I so love you right now,” Harper sang,opening her pink lips as I tilted her head up and fed the powderinto her mouth. Elves, very much like humming birds, needed vastquantities of sugar to counteract their insane metabolisms.
Without another distraction, I turned myattention to the murders. The more I considered the crime scenesand my apparent connection to them—the only connection I knewof—the darker my thoughts became. “Listen, Dom,” I said, “I have toask one more thing of you today.”
Fear had come to roost in his light blueeyes, and something else that hadn’t been there before—respect andperhaps affection. “Anything, just ask.”
“I need you to remain here while I takeHarper to Dr. Courian.”
He pointed at the front, where his cell saton the dash. “But you heard what Gerry said. Why can’t I take Harper and you stay here?”
I sighed, steeling myself for Harper’sreaction. “Because I’ve yet again stumbled across a dead vampirewhile alone. If Lord Isaac takes me to the hive tonight to be triedunder vampire law, then I’d like some time to make preparations.Not to mention I want time to think about how to approach mydefense.” And to have a shower, but I left that unsaid.
“What?” Harper tried to sit, moaned, and thenlay back down. “We were totally with you all day.”
“Yeah, what she said.” Dom gripped theracking that held all of our implements, his voice rising withurgency. “You have two witnesses who say you didn’t do it.”
I backed toward the driver’s seat, eager toget away before the cruisers arrived. “Two witnesses who work forme, who technically weren’t with me for the last ten minutes.”
“Then why did you have me turn offsurveillance? We could have had video evidence.”
Yet another point that made me appear guilty.I had no answer for him, so I pressed on. “We have to trust thatjustice will prevail here, and I’m asking you to trust me now. HaveGerry drag the sewer for the murder weapon, which has to be a bladeof some sort. I’ll meet him at the station at nine o’clock thisevening. And if anything comes out of any maintenance hole alongthis street, you run like hell, Dominic. Don’t make me a liar toyour grandmother.”
Harper’s glare softened, and she cursed underher breath. “Take my spare piece, nerd boy. It’s by the netting onthe top rack.”
Moments passed, none of us moving orspeaking, only three minds coming to the same conclusions. Finally,Dom’s shoulders straightened, and he opened his mouth, shut itagain. “I don’t like guns, thanks anyway. See you later.” And thenhe was gone through the door, shutting it from the outside.
“Isaac’s going to blow his stack again, isn’the?” Harper said as I slipped behind the wheel and started thevan.
“To put it mildly, yes, but he can bereasonable.”
Laughter bubbled out of her, but the soundcut off short. “I’m sorry, are we still talking about Isaac? I’veseen him smash a table over your head.”
“Technically, that was my fault.” I’d steppedbetween him and a human rights fanatic who’d burned down half ofthe vampire district, along with a few of its residents. “In theend, I saved the fanatic from a head injury and Isaac from facing atrial, and it only cost me a few stitches and a headache. He feltterrible about it.” As far as I could tell.
I inched the van forward as Dom cleared us apath through the press to the street.
“You have a dangerous habit of seeing goodwhere there’s none. And it was forty-five stitches, and he damnnear cracked your skull.” She mumbled something in elfish thatsounded distinctly like a curse. “What promise did you make toDom’s grandma?”
One I wasn’t sure I could keep. “He’s all shehas in the world, and she wants him to become a good man like hisdeparted father was. He can only do that if he comes home at theend of each day.”
“You promised you wouldn’t get him killed,then?”
“Something like that. Mrs. Kennedy seems tothink I’ll be good for him.” I questioned her judgement,considering I’d just left him with a herd of shouting reporters toawait a grumpy police detective.
“Wise lady. And don’t worry, Isaac won’t betaking you without a firefight.”
“If Isaac takes me, you’ll do nothing, orwe’ll both end up prisoners of the hive, or worse.”
“Yeah, not gonna happen.”
I clenched my teeth. It was either that orargue with my best friend until she stopped hating Isaac, but I’dhave more luck talking a tree out of growing leaves. Once Dom wavedme forward through a break in the crowd, I maneuvered the vanaround the reporters still flashing cameras at me through thewindshield.
Contemplating how to approach the vampireabout his latest loss, I pulled out of the alley onto CenterAvenue. The main thoroughfare would lead me into the city core if Icontinued over the bridge. Instead, I turned left before crossingthe Kimble River and headed out of town toward IPCheadquarters.
Ironhill stood on the ground that had oncebeen Philadelphia before a preternatural war destroyed itthirty-four years ago. The only building that survived the razingwas City Hall, with its white churchlike steeple rising aboveeverything else. It stood in the geographical center ofPhiladelphia, and did so in Ironhill, too, the new city having beencarefully planned around it.
The landscape had been so completelydemolished around the structure it stood atop a hill, hence the newname, I supposed. Most of downtown had been built low to the groundto allow the structure to be the focal point of the skyline, amonument to the death of a city. The taller buildings were pushedto the outskirts. Ironhill was a green city, inhabited by enoughtrees and natural beauty it appeared the concrete and nature hadcompromised, both taking their half and nothing more.
A buzzing against my hip sent a jolt throughme. I fished my phone out my pants pocket and glanced at thescreen: City Hall. Think of the devil, and he’ll ring in yourpocket. Good lord, what now? Mayor Tate must have seen me on one ofthe live news casts, or Dom’s call had made it through City Hall’schain of peons all the way to the big man’s office.
Splendid.
I cleared my throat and pressed my thumbagainst the answer button. “Lou Hudson.”
“Miss Hudson,” a melodious voice said.“You’re a hard woman to get in touch with.”
If only he could see my sneer through thephone, I’d have been happier. “What do you want, Mr. Bassili? Howdid you get my cell number, and why are you in the mayor’soffice?”
He’d been trying to date me for years, takingto outright stalking when I refused to see him. It wouldn’t havesurprised me if he’d broken in to City Hall to use their phone justso I’d answer.
“Call me Amun, please.” His seductive tone,tinged with a hint of his Persian roots, tightened my belly as italways did. “Have dinner with me.”
My disgruntled sigh blew across the phone.“Amun,” I cursed his name at him, “as I’ve told you several times,I’d rather have dinner with a gargantuan troll slug, and I’m ratherbusy at the moment. Don’t you have another gala to host or a harlotto spend your millions on?”
His laughter filled my chest with unwantedtingling. “Why do you resist me so hard? I just want to talk to youin person. I’m not planning to ravage you upon sight.”
Hearing him say “ravage” sent a warm shiverthrough my abdomen, inducing images I wanted to gouge out of myhead. I’d seen him in the flesh once at a police benefit—though heappeared on TV daily when I watched—and I had no desire to sharehis air again.
No man had ever scared me down to the bonethe way he did, other than Lord Isaac, perhaps. Not that Amun haddone anything in particular to frighten me, other than smile andcause warm sensations I didn’t want to feel for the self-absorbedmedia darling, usually in parts of my body he wasn’t welcome totouch.
Low-rise buildings and pavement gave way towheat fields and forest as I put my foot down on the accelerator,easing back when Harper groaned. “Tell me why you’re so adamant wemeet? If it’s business, make an appointment at my office withGloria.” I chided myself in silence for the breathy whisper myvoice had become.
“Is it so shocking that I want to know you?And for the record, I talked to your receptionist, and I have tosay, this connection is stunningly clear for someone who’s gone tothe moon to collect pixies.”
I pulled the phone away from my mouth for amoment so my laughter wouldn’t reach him. Every few days I’d givenGloria a new ridiculous excuse why I couldn’t see or speak to him.I didn’t know how his giant ego survived my constant rejection.Perhaps that’s what drove him so hard to change my mind.
Upon reaching the winding, tree-lined drivethat would lead me to IPC, I turned in and waited for the guard toopen the iron gates. “Someone like you doesn’t want to know a lowlypest exterminator like me. When you tell me what it is you wantfrom me, I’ll consider seeing you. Now, unless you have a pest youneed me to remove,” other than you , “please don’t contact meagain.”
I ended the call and tossed the cell onto thepassenger seat. To prevent my hands from shaking, I clamped oneonto the steering wheel and fished my polished black ebony stonefrom my pocket with the other. It was one of a kind. I’d found itwhile BASE jumping at the Cave of Swallows in Mexico, and localgeologists had been intrigued when I showed it to them. They’d evenlet me name it. With grain-like striations in the rock, it remindedme of ebony wood, so it had been a no-brainer.
I rubbed my thumb over the smooth surface. Itwarmed and vibrated with song—one only I could hear—at my touch.Bit by bit, my angst subsided, and the dust cloud of my mindsettled.
“Amun’s a persistent bastard, all right.”Harper chuckled and groaned from the back. “But you have to admithe is the hottest man, like, ever. It’s those dark eyes that makeyou believe he’s thinking all kinds of wicked things to do betweenthe sheets. Aren’t you the least bit flattered he’s after you?”
“He’s not after me, not the way you mean,” Isaid too quickly, relieved when our head security guard, Simon,poked his head out of the security booth and waved before pointingto the phone pressed against his ear. “Besides, I have much largerissues at the moment.” They didn’t come much bigger than Isaac.
“Well, I say no woman could possibly say noto that tasty piece of man pie. You are human, after all.”
I winced, glad to have her at my back. She’dasked about my origins in a hundred different ways over the yearsbefore she’d given up and taken me at my word. Each time the liepassed my lips, it chipped another sliver off of my heart. Herobservance, though beneficial in our line of work, had made it hardto hide my secrets from her.
“I’m a woman with standards,” I said. “Unlikeyou, I won’t crawl into bed with any man who offers, no matter howpretty his packaging might be, nor with one who dangles a Twinkiein my direction.”
“Hey, I have standards, they’re justdifferent from yours. And if it’s his Twinkie he’s danglingin front of me, well…”
“Harper Fox!” Laugher burst out of me,harmonizing with her giggles until she took up moaning again. Thememory of Dom’s worried gaze stole away my humor. “I feel like awretch for leaving Dominic to deal with Gerry. He looked scaredright before he shut us into the van.” And more, he appeareddetermined. I hoped he wasn’t planning to do anything stupid on mybehalf.
“He talks about you like you’re anuntouchable Amazon warrior. He’s scared for you because he doesn’tknow you well enough to know he shouldn’t be.”
I squinted at that. “What do you mean?”
“We’ve been in worse spots and you’ve comeaway unscathed every time. This bullshit vamp thing will turn outthe same.”
“What could be worse than Isaac thinking I’vemurdered five of his people?”
She chuckled. “I seem to recall a certainincident with a colony of spider rats in the basement of Bo’sTavern last year.”
The creatures had bound our arms and legswith webbing as thick as repelling rope and hung us from theceiling upside down and bleeding. Yes, I supposed that was moreimmediately dangerous, but the vampire murders frightened memore.
“Still don’t know how you got us out of thatone with no hands free and no weapons, but you did, like you alwaysdo, like you always will. Why do you think I never get worriedbefore we go out on a job?”
I’d called upon the earth that day, summoningstone shards to nick the webbing at my back where she couldn’t see.“I’m not infallible. Our fear keeps us alive, and you may need itone day when my luck runs out.”
“Never gonna happen.” Her voice faded.
I bit down on my retort when Simon left thebrick building by the gate and bounded up to my rolled-downwindow.
“Sorry it took a minute.” His salt-and-pepperhair stuck out in clumps beneath his blue guard’s hat. “Something’sgot Blake’s bees all in a buzz.”
My eyebrow quirked up at the mention of ourboss. “What about this time?”
“Not sure.” Simon’s bony shoulders jerked upand down. “He wants to double up the guards every shift but didn’ttell me why.” His weathered hands clamped over the door frame. “Ifyou don’t know what’s up, then I’m guessing the you-know-what’sabout to hit the fan big time?”
I groaned and retrieved my cell, pressing thespeed dial for Blake.
It rang twice before he picked up, and hisTexas drawl filled my ear. “Now, don’t go off on me.”
I flattened the stone in my free hand todispel some of the fury from my voice. “Tell me you’re notresponsible for sending the media swarm that ambushed ustoday.”
He sighed, never a good sign with Blake.“It’s good press. Business is booming because of the paparazzi, soyeah, I might’ve tipped them off to where you were at.”
“So now they have footage of my presence atyet another crime scene involving the hive. And besides that, wehave more business than we can possibly handle. How much money doyou need before it’s enough?”
“Christ. If I’da known there was another dangvamp down there, I’da kept my trap shut. It takes a lot of scratchto run the creature reservation, you know it does.”
“Don’t try to sell your greed as anything butwhat it is. Now, tell me why you’ve doubled the guard.”
There was a long pause before he muttered,“Gerry mighta called me. Why didn’t you stay at the damn scene? IfIsaac comes here—”
“If Isaac comes after me with the power ofthe hive behind him, no amount of human guards, even if they wereall armed with fae silver, will stop him. We’ve been over thisbefore. If I survive the night, you and I will come to anunderstanding of how this business will operate in the future, oryou can find yourself another pest control expert who has a degreeand a decade of experience in preternatural creaturemanagement.”
Fae silver wasn’t silver at all, but asubstance the people of the Underhill discovered that couldseriously harm a vampire. When the undead had found somethingsimilar to hold against the fair folk, it created a strained peacebetween the two powerful races.
I hung up amidst a torrent of curses on theother end of the phone. “Would you kindly open the gate now, Simon?And a word to the wise—if the hive lord arrives on the premises,he’s to come to me unhindered.”
Simon nodded, his smile revealing crookedteeth. “Sure thing, ma’am.” He trotted back to the guard house. Amoment later, the gates trundled along their rollers as theyreceded into the stone walls on either side.
The compound not only housed the headquartersfor IPC, but also the facility containing the creatures that weretoo dangerous to be running loose, but not so dangerous they neededto be destroyed.
Not that the public knew what we hadsquirreled away beyond the main office tower. They knewpreternatural creatures existed, worked alongside them, even datedthem, but the majority preferred to pretend everyone was a harmlesshuman. They certainly wouldn’t want an entire compound dedicated tocontaining dangerous ones so near the city. What they didn’t know Imade sure didn’t hurt them.
What would happen to them if Isaac lost histemper and tossed me in a hive detainment cell or worse? Ishivered. No, I wouldn’t think that way.
Chapter Three
 
 
When the road forked, I took the right oneand continued up to the three-story building made of black brickand mirrored windows. Large white letters announced Ironhill PestControl across the top of the main client entrance. I drove aroundthe side to the underground garage, punched in my security code atthe pillar, and maneuvered down the ramp beneath the building.
Rachel, Dr. Courian’s resident nurse, waitedwith a gurney near the industrial sized elevator. A swath oftranslucent hair lay along the center of her head like a mane, theback secured with a polka-dot scrunchy. Her eyes of perpetuallymorphing shades of purple relayed her pleasant demeanor.
The shorter than four-foot woman was theproduct of a union between Dr. Courian’s son and a mermaid, or sohe’d told me. I didn’t know how much of what came out of the oldkelpie’s mouth was true and what he made up to drive me mad withcuriosity.
“Hello, Lou.” Rachel’s soft voice carriedthrough the van window more like a song than simple words. Tinypink elephants dotted her purple scrubs, a perfect match for thesweet girl. “How badly is Harper injured this time?”
I climbed out, followed the slender nursearound the van, and pulled the back doors open. “Broken bones, somelacerations, a goose egg on her forehead, but she seems to bebreathing okay.”
Rachel hopped into the cargo bed and croucheddown by Harper in an oddly frog-like move. Not for the first time,I wondered if she had flippers tucked into her white shoes insteadof feet. Humming, Rachel stroked unusually long fingers overHarper’s hair in the way an adoring mother pets a child’s headafter they wake from a nightmare. “I’ll take care of you now, it’sall right. Rest now, and be well.”
Harper’s breathing slowed, and her armsrelaxed from where they’d clamped over her black tank top. Even Icouldn’t resist the promise in Rachel’s words. The tension betweenmy shoulder blades disappeared under her vocal spell. Perhaps hermother had been a siren instead of a regular mermaid. That, or somecreature altogether different I hadn’t yet encountered. That wouldexplain her ability to survive out of water when neither mermaidsnor kelpies could, to my knowledge.
In a coordinated effort, Rachel and I liftedHarper and put her on the gurney without a single noise ofdiscomfort from her. I wished I knew how Rachel did that. Thatparticular skill would come in handy when talking down an iratebanshee from the ceiling, or coaxing a grouchy elephant mole from asubway tunnel.
A short ride down in the elevator took us tothe basement level that adjoined the reservation. The doors openedto a wide hallway painted a calming aqua shade. The wheels of therolling bed clicked over white tiles as Rachel guided it toward thedouble doors at the far end. I mirrored her on the other side,holding Harper’s small hand.
Through the doors, the room opened into acavernous space lit with bright beacons in the ceiling. Most of theright side lay enclosed with thick glass. Within, the good doctormade his home in fresh water circulated by pumps humming on top ofan enclosure large enough to house a few whales. To the left, thecircular healing tank waited for Harper, with its teal water risingalmost to the top of the twenty-foot cylinder. A network of widetubes connected the two enclosures.
Dr. Courian poked his blue finned head abovethe surface of the healing tank and scowled down at Harper withsaucer-sized black eyes. “What have yeh done now, eh? Look at thefilth. Ach!” His thick Scottish brogue grew heavier with hisdisapproval. “Silly girlies, off doin’ the work of yer men. One ofthese days yeh’ll be comin’ home in a bag, and tha’ I cannafix.”
His spindly legs sported webbed toes at theirends, and navy oblong spots dotted his midriff. Bulbous red sacksbulged out of either side of his chest with his breaths. He couldalso use those sacs to make bullfrog-like noises. For mating, I’dlearned one day when he’d divulged too much information aboutkelpie procreation activities to me.
I’d stopped trying to convince the doctor weno longer lived in a time when women were only cooks, cleaners, andchild raisers and decided, instead, to ignore him. “Good evening,Doctor. Will you look her over while I wash up?”
“Ach, bring her up, then.” He waved me offand dove under the surface. Grouchy old codger.
Rachel took the controls for the winchattached to the ceiling and lowered the harness until we were ableto fasten the straps around Harper.
I brushed crimson hairs away from herforehead. “I’ll come back to check on you tomorrow.” At her smileand blink, I lowered my voice. “And please don’t get him started inan argument. I don’t have the strength for a lengthy rant tomorrowafter the one I’m no doubt going to receive from Isaac tonight.”Although I’d come to the conclusion Dr. Courian enjoyed arguingwith anyone who would engage him.
Harper’s smirk let me know she’d most likelydo the opposite of what I’d asked. Perhaps she enjoyed it as muchas he did. A press of Rachel’s thumb drew the cable taut until itpicked Harper off the gurney and lifted her to the ceiling. Thecables whined as Rachel pressed another switch to position Harperabove the tank, then lowered her inside.
Once Dr. Courian reached my wounded friend,he wrapped his hand around her nose and mouth and submerged withher. His methods allowed the injured to breathe the liquid he’dconcocted inside the tank, like an infant in amniotic fluid, whilehis kelpie magic sped up the healing process tenfold. At least,that was his answer every time I asked. Given the laughter in hiseyes, I assumed that wasn’t the whole truth. Maybe none of thetruth, for all I knew of kelpie genetics and magic.
Everything I’d learned in college had beenspeculation. Apparently none of the kelpies were terriblyforthcoming with details about themselves. Except, of course, whenthey wanted to get a rise out of a lady bold enough to askquestions.
Satisfied I’d left Harper in capable hands, Iplodded on weary feet back the way I’d come. The elevator took meto the second floor. With the state of my clothing, I exited theback of the elevator instead of the front, where a narrow corridorled me to the rear entrance of my office. On the small chance Ifailed to make Isaac see the truth, I wanted to be in clean,comfortable clothes for reasons my inner voice deemed silly, givenmy future if convicted. At least I’d look nice in my coffin, ifanyone found my body.
My throat tightened, but I shut down mythoughts before they sucked me into the awaiting darkness. Insidemy white-tiled decontamination room, I unlatched the knifeharnesses, stripped away the soiled jeans and shirt, turned on theshower until steam billowed into the room, and stepped inside.
Three rounds of vanilla-scented shampoo, oneround of conditioner, and a generous scrubbing with anti-bacterialsoap later, I turned off the water and toweled myself dry. AlthoughI loved my job most days, I preferred to be clean.
After searching through the supply ofclothing I’d stashed in the closet, I came out with a simple graypencil skirt. I matched it with a blouse in the same indigo-blueshade as my eyes and the wide strips that interrupted the otherwisepitch-black of my hair. I told anyone who asked that I dyed themin, being a fan of the color, but they occurred naturally. From myfather’s side of the gene pool I surmised, as my mother was astunning redhead.
My jinn father had been destroyed when thenations of all the realms deemed the elementals too powerful toexist and extinguished them in a war that lasted fifty days. Mostof the fighting had taken place overseas, but the American jinn mettheir end in Philadelphia, along with the city itself.
According to my mother, he died three daysbefore I was born, and had deserved his fate. No amount of askingdiscovered the reason she believed it so. If anyone protested thegenocide, I found no record of it. As far as I knew, no records ofthe jinn survived to indicate who they were or why they’d beeneradicated. Their culture, traditions, even the abilities theypossessed, remained a mystery to me.
I’d lost my temper only once when I wassmall, causing enough devastation to scare myself into never doingit again. If my father was anything like me power-wise... Idispelled the thought. Perhaps it was best I didn’t know what thejinn had done to bring on their extinction.
After cleaning and oiling my blades—Iwouldn’t be allowed weapons at the precinct despite a desperateurge to arm myself—I fingered some gel through my hair and dried itover a large round brush.
My fair skin needed no makeup; it remainedblemish free without much work, one of my best features in myopinion. My lashes were dark enough I didn’t own mascara. I did,though, apply a little pink to my cheeks, and some gloss to my lipsto make me appear less pale.
I studied my reflection, noting all the signsof stress and fear Isaac would attribute to guilt. The places undermy eyes appeared bruised, and my jaw remained tense. Gripping thesides of the sink, I drew in a settling breath and allowed it toescape slowly. I was innocent, an indisputable truth I needed tocling to in the coming hours. My confidence would be my defense. Myoffer of help and my tentative friendship with the hive lord wouldbe my offense.
In the end, justice would prevail. Despitebeing proven wrong on that belief in the past, I had faith now. I’dgiven up on the laws evolving on their own to keep up with ourever-changing demographics, so I’d taken matters into my own hands.If I failed this time, though, it meant my life.
“Then you’d best not have butter fingers,Baylou,” I said to my reflection, securing a string of pearls at mynape. It had been my name at birth. I still didn’t know why mymother had given me a known jinn name, given the war raging beyondthe hospital room walls at the time. It had taken me a long time, alot of money, and a warlock to erase that mistake.
Basking in a newfound calm and feeling betternow that I no longer smelled like a toilet, I slipped on a plainpair of black heels and opened the door to my office.
“You must be Miss Hudson?”
The man’s voice startled me badly enough mybones would have leaped free of my flesh had they not been sofirmly attached. At first I decided it had to be Mr. Bassili, but alook at the slim man sparked no recognition.
“Who are you, and how did you get in here?”My sharp tone left no question about my degree of irritation.
His hand extended toward me. Short nails,hints of dirt in the knuckles, callouses galore. A working man’shand. “Connor Lewiston. Your secretary said it’d be okay for me towait in here for you because she had to leave.”
I glanced down at his hand, back to hiscasual expression and storm-cloud eyes, no more impressed with himthan before. He was handsome, I supposed, in a simple sort ofway.
“She did, did she?”
Gloria and I would be having a chattomorrow.
Tired of leaving him hanging, I shook hisrough hand, and then perched a hip on the edge of the desk,smoothing my palms along my skirt to keep it from rising. “What canI do for you, Mr. Lewiston?”
“Connor, please.” He tilted his head andsquinted at me. “You’re not what I expected after reading so muchabout you in the papers.”
I sighed and propped my palm on the smoothwooden surface beneath me. “How so?”
Thoughts passed over his face before hespoke. “I guess I expected you to be a little less lady and a lotmore, I don’t know, leather and blades.”
“Just because I look and dress like a ladydoesn’t mean I’m not capable, Mr.— Connor.”
“Of course not. No insult intended.”
“Your smirk would suggest otherwise.”
His lips flattened, and he played his handsalong the green tie secured at his neck. His short haircut stood upas if his fingers had made several passes through the copper-browntresses. He didn’t seem suited to formal attire. Those rough handsand his fidgeting suggested he’d have been more comfortable wearingcoveralls and spending his days beneath machines.
When he didn’t speak, I circled my hand. “Youwere saying? I’m short on time today.”
“Yes, of course. I’m sure you’re terriblybusy given the influx of creatures into the city lately.” He rubbedhis hands together as if trying to merge them. “It seems I have aproblem that fits your unique skill set, especially your finessewith the authorities, if it comes to that.”
His hands had moved to the flaps of his blacksuit jacket pockets, flipping them open and shut. The suit didn’tfit him well. I was certain Mr. Lewiston wore someone else’sclothes, someone broader and taller than he was.
I stared at him, still trying to figure himout. “If this is a legal issue, I’m not sure why you’re here andnot at the precinct talking to Detective Peterson.”
“It’s a delicate matter.” He cleared histhroat and looked everywhere but at me. “I have something in thebasement of one of my facilities that I’d like removedquietly.”
Even if my elemental senses hadn’t picked upthe increase in his pulse through the tile under my feet, I’d haveknown untruth passed his lips. Although I didn’t know what subtledifference separated lies and fear, I could distinguish one fromthe other. “What’s in your basement?”
He shook his head, glanced up at me, and thencontinued his fidgeting. “I’m not entirely sure. It’s at leastmoderately intelligent, because it can operate doors, and I heardit weeping last night. I’m guessing a female by the pitch of itsvoice.”
From the small bar fridge beneath my desk, Iwithdrew a diet soda to give me some time to think and to parch mynagging thirst. Unlike Harper, I couldn’t have even a drop ofrefined sugar. It affected the jinn, or at least me, worse than anight of binge drinking. My mother discovered the issue when I wasstill young. We’d had to move before child services investigatedthe drunken baby at daycare.
“Would you like one?” I held out the can.
He shook his head. “No thanks.”
I dropped into my leather chair, forcing apuff of air to hiss from the cushion, and linked my fingerstogether atop my spotless desk. “If you’ve heard of me, then Iassume you know I don’t keep anything from the authorities when thelaw and protocol requires it of me?”
“Yes, I’d heard that.” His balled fingerspushed into his pockets. “I also heard that you use discretion whendealing with these things, when no laws have been broken. I’d hatefor our investors to get nervous about our product, and even worse,the labor board if they think our workers may be in danger. We’re anew company and suffering the scrutiny of everyone.”
I poured some soda into a glass and downed afew mouthfuls. “How soon would you need me to look into it?”
His swallow lifted his Adam’s apple above theknot of his tie. He withdrew an envelope from the inside pocket ofhis jacket and set it in my palm. Without opening it, I knew itcontained a large amount of cash by the bulk and weight of it.“This is half of what I’ll give you if you’ll do it tonight.”
I stared at the envelope, every impulsetelling me to hand it back to Connor, but it took a lot of funds tokeep the reservation afloat, as Blake had said. A peek into theenvelope revealed bills in hundred and thousand dollardenominations. Connor didn’t seem like a man who should have thatkind of cash lying around for the simple removal of a weepingcreature squatting in his factory.
“There’s ten thousand there, and another tenwhen the job’s done.” He shifted his feet. “So, do we have adeal?”
Twenty thousand? For one job? That could runthe facility for a few months. Protocol dictated I should clear itwith Blake, but knowing him as I did, he’d have danced naked inCenter Square for that kind of cash.
Ignoring the warning voices in my head thatknew at least part of what Connor said had been a lie, I nodded myagreement. “I have business with the police I need to take care offirst. Give me the address, and I’ll be there when I’m done. Giventhe urgency, I assume you won’t mind if it’s late?” If Isaac threwa fit, I might arrive after dawn. Or not at all.
“Any time, Miss Hudson.” Although his facehad blanked of expression, his eyes held a victory that unsettledme further. He pulled a business card from inside his jacket andhanded it to me. “Everything you need is on there. Thank you. Untiltonight, then.”
Chapter Four
 
 
I pulled into the parking lot of the precinctat a quarter past nine. After a fruitless search of the entirereservation for Blake to discuss a contingency plan if I were to bedetained, I’d given up and checked on all of our long-termresidents at the reservation. I wasn’t stalling; I was giving myemotions time to settle, which was in everyone’s best interest.
Leaving my handbag on the seat—I didn’t wantto bring any suspicion that I had concealed weapons even though I’ddecided at the last minute to strap my stone blade to my innerthigh—I exited my hatchback and stared up at the building. The greybrick monstrosity took up an entire city block, the frosted glassof the front doors glowing from within.
The streetlights buzzed to life as Istraightened my shoulders and strode up to the door, giving nopause before pulling it open and stepping inside. Several officerswrangled a shirtless man and a woman in a zebra-striped skirttoward the counter.
Many voices clashed in the lobby and beyond.When the desk sergeant spied me in the entrance, silence fell, asif everyone picked up on the tension my presence evoked among theofficers. A woman who had a way with the objects of theirnightmares didn’t sit well with the boys and girls in blue.
Careful to keep my hands in plain view andrelaxed, I nodded to the desk sergeant, who already had a phonereceiver in hand. A few moments passed before the staff warlocksappeared by the metal detector I’d have to pass through on my wayto the preternatural division, which was in the back of thebuilding, of course.
I approached, smiling at Deirdre, who smiledback. Her red skin had marbled striations of white that grew pinkif she was embarrassed. She’d secured her black spiral-curled hairat her nape with a clip. Instead of a proper officer’s uniform,Deirdre and her partner wore black dress slacks and white shirtssporting an embroidered shield on the left breast. I still hadn’tconvinced the city to allow preternatural beings on thegovernment’s payroll, only as temporary consultants or contractworkers.
She’d always been the most personable of thewarlocks. It was the reason I’d approached her to have my jinn nameremoved from all memory and records when the media becameinterested in what I did for a living. Although my true name onlyappeared on a birth record hand-written by the jinn midwife who’ddelivered me and hadn’t been a point of concern until recently, Iwouldn’t chance leaving any clues about my ancestry for a reporterto find.
Once a person had made a contract with awarlock, nothing and no one could make them break it. They wereknown for their powers over magic and mind, but more so for theirloyalty. Their word was their contract, and they’d die beforebreaking it. Deirdre was the only living person in the world otherthan Mum who knew what I was, and the only person I trusted to keepmy secret.
“Nice to see you again.” Deirdre gesturedtoward the metal detector.
“It’s been a long time,” I said, returningher smile. “Is an escort really necessary?”
“Yes,” the male beside her said, his voice ablade. Something in his solid red eyes said that he’d enjoy havinga go at me.
“Brex is new, not that you could tell,because he’s as big of an ass as most of the others.” Deirdre wavedoff his snarl. “Lord Isaac wants you in chains, but I gave him myword you’d behave like the lady you are.”
His foul mood shouldn’t have surprised me,but my heart still tripped at that news. “I’d never make you breakyour word.”
“Told you.” She glowered at Brex, and thenwent to the far side of the archway, while he came in behindme.
I held my arms at my sides and passed throughthe metal detector, sighing internally when no alarms went off.Although I usually had no weapons—not that the stone blade wouldset off the metal detector—I always held an irrational fear theauthorities had employed a new enchantment that would out me asjinn. If it hadn’t happened after thirty plus years of a jinn-freeworld, logic suggested they were no longer looking forsurvivors.
Deirdre walked beside me while Brex remainedbehind as we headed through the maze of desks full of staringofficers. Some watched me from beneath lowered lashes as if afraidI’d catch them looking. Others made no attempt to hide their curledlips, and a few of the female officers appeared to be laughing atme. I’d gone to school with a few of them, not that I’d beenpopular even back then. If any of them knew what I was, they’d havefled the building by now and called in the SWAT team.
Once through the door at the back, Deirdrecursed under her breath. “What you saw back there is nothing butbruised egos,” she said close to my ear. “Don’t let them botheryou.”
I had an urge to touch her, refraining whenher partner shifted closer, clearly operating on a hair trigger.“People fear what they don’t understand.” I met Brex’s red eyeswithout flinching. “It’s one of humankind’s greatest failings,which is why it’s my mission in life to make them understand thatdifferent isn’t necessarily dangerous.”
“Get off your soapbox and get moving.” Brexthrust his hand toward a door. “He’s waiting.”
His reference to Isaac kicked my heart intoaction.
Brex strode past us to an interview room I’dbeen in several times before, only it had never stirred such utterdread. He paused, his hand on the knob. “Do you need a minute?”
His half-curled lip suggested it wasn’t agesture of kindness, but a test. The vampire wanted to assess myemotions. Asking for time to settle my nerves would tilt the scalestoward guilt.
I marched up to the warlock, staring at himuntil he stepped aside, then faced the door. “Enough with thegames, Isaac. You’ve no doubt been monitoring my heartbeat since Ientered the building. Now, open the bloody door, and let’s get onwith this.”
Deirdre moved in beside me with a grin. “Thetruth will out, isn’t that what the Brits say?”
I’d come into the world in Stourbridge, GreatBritain, to a Canadian-born mother, but we’d moved to Pennsylvaniawhen I was twelve. I searched her crimson eyes for signs of doubt,but as with Harper, I found only certainty. “Thank you,” Isaid.
The door opened inward to a dark room, savefor one light shining down on a metal table in the middle.Detective Gerry Peterson of the Preternatural Division of theIronhill Police sat on the far side of the briefing room table. Hewas a broad-shouldered man, thick through his barrel-shaped chest,making me imagine him standing atop the Donkey Kong video gameplatform beating his hairy chest.
My focus settled on the shaggy head of a mansitting to Gerry’s left. The young man had been dressed in anorange prison jumpsuit and shackled and chained to a ring on thesteel table.
Bloody hell.
I rushed into the room. “Why is Dominichere?”
Dom pulled against his chains, and his lashesappeared wet. “Collateral to make sure you showed up,” he said, hisvoice hoarse.
I bit down on a rant and glared at Gerry.“I’m here now, so unlock him so he can go home. He has nothing todo with this.”
“The boy stays.” Isaac’s smooth tenor camefrom the shadows in the far corner, hints of his Scottish heritageunderlying the words.
The downy hairs on my nape reacted to thepotential in the air, as if the sky was tasting me in search of agood place to deliver a lightning strike. My, but he was angry.
Gerry raised his hands in surrender when Ifocused on him again. “Not my circus. I’m only here because Isaac allowed it, as he’s so eloquently reminded me several timestonight. At least I got the kid a shower and something to wear thatdoesn’t stink like rat piss.”
He sighed harshly and bent forward, tappingthe end of his pen on a pad of paper. “Serves you right for leavinga crime scene again. Sit down nice and polite-like, and spill yourguts.” He pointed his pen at me, his brown cop eyes vigilantbeneath his bushy brows.
I sat, reaching over to touch Dom on the arm,stopping when he flinched. “I’m so sorry about this,” I said. “I’llhave you out of here soon.”
“That remains to be seen,” Isaac said.
I ignored the vampire and reiteratedeverything I’d seen in the sewer earlier, finishing with thebutterflies and leaving out the part where I’d lifted the body outof the water with my jinn connection to the earth.
Gerry held his hand toward Isaac as if tostop a rant the hive lord was about to unload. “Forgetting the factthat you were alone when you discovered all five victims, what doyou think did this?”
Isaac had moved to the edge of the light atsome point, posed like a Celtic statue. His black eyes held ametallic shine, like polished hematite beads. They often changedcolor with his violent mood swings. All the text I’d read incollege speculated that whoever had developed the vampire cursedidn’t want them to pass as human, and that’s why their eyes turneddark.
His blue kilt, with pinstripes of white andgreen crisscrossing the tartan, reached his knees. Navy blue kilthose covered him from the black shoes on his feet to the tops ofhis calves. He was built like a fighter, the curves of muscleexpertly sculpted. On his broad upper half, he wore only a bluesash across one shoulder, bound with a golden crested pin at hisright hip, leaving the rest of his splendor naked for the world’sviewing pleasure. All masculine, in-your-face sexuality in apleated skirt, complete with a fur sporran attached to his wideblack belt.
I might have swooned in his presence if Iwasn’t aware he’d died many centuries before my time. “If you’relooking for a profile of this murderer, my best guess is someonewith magical abilities, who has a grudge against the hive.”
“I think you’d find fewer people that don’t have a grudge,” Dom muttered.
I kicked him under the table.
He shrugged. “You know it’s true.”
Isaac came forward, his subtle movementregistering to my inner senses. “Why did you flee the scene in sucha hurry, Miss Hudson?”
I shifted in my seat to see him better. Notfor the first time, I wondered if he used the hive’s collectivepower to enhance his size. He had several inches over top of myfive foot ten height, and he was broad at the shoulder with hardmounds of muscle through his chest and abs. I knew little aboutancient Scotland, but I supposed their men could have been bornthat large, coming out of the womb ready to go to battle and dohard labor. If I thought he might answer me, I would have askedhim.
“One of my employees was injured,” I said. “Itook her to Dr. Courian.”
Isaac’s head canted right, his black eyesmorphing to glittering gold—a sign of growing annoyance. “Doonaplay with me, lass, because you will lose. Your boy suggested youwere taking damning evidence to the incinerator in your undergroundfacility.” His quiet accusation scared me more than if he’dshouted. Contained fury was unpredictable, adaptable, andpotentially explosive. I preferred him shouting.
“That’s bullshit,” Dom blurted. “He’stwisting my words, Lou, I swear. I told him if you’d done this andwere trying to cover it up, we’d have taken the body to theincinerator.”
Mercy mother of hellfire. Why had he put thatthought in the vampire’s head?
Isaac swung his focus to my young Doritosaddict. “Perhaps that evidence points to you, and that’s why she’salways first on the scene, so she can cover it up.”
Gerry pinched the bridge of his widenose.
Sensing Isaac’s movement again, I launchedout of my chair, putting myself between Dom and the hive lord, whowas suddenly right in front of me. His long hair, a shade lighterthan root beer, hung loose around his shoulders, not a tressshifting with his stillness. His fangs had slipped below his upperlip.
I stared, unblinking, into the abyss of hisblack eyes that had red flame spilling up from their depths. We’dmade it to anger. Bloody hell. “Dominic has nothing to do with themurders.”
Isaac pressed nearer, and despite wanting to,I didn’t step back. “Are you willing to bet your life on it?” Hecontinued to stare at me as if I’d just bitten him on the leg.
Drawing up my certainty, I let it fill myvoice. “Yes.”
“Does this lad know how fortunate he is tohave a loyal employer?”
“Put any innocent behind me, friend orstranger, and my answer would be the same.” I straightened my back.“Even some who aren’t so innocent.”
Isaac’s jaw flexed. “Are you suggesting I’mnot innocent?”
“Christ.” Gerry fingered the weapon in itship holster as he rose from the table. “Now would be a real goodtime to shut your blow hole, Lou.”
“No.” I waved him off, keeping my focus onthe vampire. “I’m done with all this posturing. How many times haveI put my body between yours and the hate groups who’ve tried tokill you over the decade we’ve known each other, Isaac? Twenty?Fifty? A hundred? You’re alive because of my loyalty to you and toall the preternatural communities in Ironhill. Don’t let your grieferase everything you know about me.”
When he dropped his gaze, I found the courageto press on. “These are the facts. I’m an average sized woman whodoesn’t possess the speed or strength to subdue a vampire, letalone five, and live to tell about it. Neither could Dominic orHarper, both with statures not built for force. We work in placesof danger, so it makes sense that we’re the ones to find thebodies. If logic isn’t within your grasp tonight and you’re goingto arrest me, anyway, then do it, but know this—when the murderscontinue, and they will, each of those subsequent deaths will be onyou. Let me consult on this case with Gerry on behalf of the hive,and I promise we’ll find justice for your lost ones.”
Isaac stared at me for seconds, the angervisibly leaking out of his features to leave him unreadable andstill. “Leave us,” he said, flicking his fingers toward the door asthe two warlocks moved into my peripheral vision.
“Lou?” Gerry’s voice cut through the sound ofmy heartbeat echoing in my ears. “Say the word, and I’ll get youout of here.”
Isaac twisted his head to look at themiddle-aged man. “No, you won’t.”
Although a mild tremble had begun in myknees, I didn’t dare move. “It’s all right. Isaac won’t hurtme.”
“What?” Dom shot up, his chains clanking whenthey grew taut. “We’re not leaving you with him.”
“If he intends on killing me, then none ofyou can stop him, and I won’t put anyone else in his path. Go intothe hall with Gerry. I’ll take you home shortly.” I hoped I hadn’tlied to him.
Feet shuffled against the floor, and Dommuttered something low to Gerry. The chains jingled, I assumedbecause Gerry had unlocked his cuffs. Deirdre and Brax left thecorner of my vision. Even though I had a desperate desire for herto stay, I remained silent.
The door clicked shut, sealing me into alarge metal coffin with an angry vampire. Or, at least, that washow it seemed in my perception.
“You fear me, yet you sent them away.” Hismelodic accent resonated between my thighs.
Denial sat on my tongue, but denying emotionshe tasted like airborne candy would only amuse him. “Being alonewith you touches a primal part of me, Isaac, but—”
“Then I shall have to find you alone moreoften.” His lips curled into an indecent smile.
I crossed my arms and stepped sideways togain an illusion of safety. “I have a job tonight, so spit outwhatever it is you want to say.”
Isaac moved to the table and slid his rearonto the corner of it, leaving one of his thighs propped on themetal, and the other foot planted on the floor. The pose spread hislegs beneath the kilt. I stared and wondered, as I often had, if hewore anything beneath it.
The plaid fabric shifted up his bare knee. Mygaze tracked up to find his fists full of tartan. It trackedfurther up to find a fully fanged grin. “Would you like an answerto the question your eyes ask but your mouth never does?”
“Don’t flatter yourself. I like my men with apulse.” I moved toward the door, keeping my back to it.
“The pheromones rolling off your lush curvestell the truth even when you doona.” Gripping the edge of thetable, he let his head tilt down. His mass of root beer wavesshifted forward, casting his features in shadow, but I didn’t needto see them to recognize the shift in his mood. Something in theline of his jaw told me grief had claimed him.
An object glinted in his hand. I hadn’t seenhim retrieve anything from his sporran. Words spilled from hislips, not in Gaelic as I often heard him use, but in a dialect thatsounded ancient and possibly Aramaic.
A purple shimmer raced over the ceiling abovehim, and before I identified the cause, it had already gone downthe walls to the floor.
The surrounding air seemed static, unmoving,and the earth disappeared to my senses.
“What have you done?” Every hair stood out onmy body, and it took great effort to keep from going for my blade.My jinn power simmered in my soul, waiting to burst free with myself-preservation instincts and return me to my element.
“I’ve ensured our privacy. They canna hear usthrough the sound system or see us through that wall of mirrors,nor can you leave before I allow it.”
Bloody hell. “The warlocks will—”
“Do nothing,” he said over top of me. “Theyknow knowing of this magic.” He remained silent for a while,watching me from beneath dark lashes, like a panther making nobother to hide himself from his prey. “His name was Daniel,” hesaid finally.
I frowned, confused as to where this wasleading. “The young vampire in the sewer, is that who youmean?”
“He spoke of you as a revolutionary, destinedto pave the way to a united world of monsters and humans living inpeace.”
I wasn’t only doing it for them, but formyself as well. By smoothing the cultural gap between species, Ihoped to see a day when I didn’t have to hide in plain sight. Thatday remained a long way off, despite how far we’d come.
“The day you convinced Ironhill U to acceptstudents of all races and you stood upon the steps of City Hall anddeclared education for all, Daniel sought me out,” Isaac continued.“He wanted to be the first man to hold doctorates in everydiscipline of medicine, from dermatology to neurology, fromobstetrics to psychiatry. After your failed battle to allow otherspecies to be treated at Ironhill General, can you imagine such aresource in this city? A man who could heal whatever ailed hispatients, whether it was mind or body. He was brilliant, and hissuccess was only a matter of time.”
My ribs seemed to shrink as I listened, buthis past words echoed in my head. “Why are you telling me this?Because you once accused me of painting you with human emotionsyou’re apparently incapable of, and you’re trying awfully hard tomake this sound like sentiment. Did you care for this youngman?”
He rose to his imposing height and approachedslowly. “This is not my sentiment, but an attempt to appeal toyours. You see us as monsters, despite your apparent devotion toour cause. I need you to know who Daniel was, so you understandwhat’s been lost. Not a shadow in the night, but a futurerevolutionary in the field of preternatural medicine.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. Daniel was nodoubt an innocent, but denying my opinion of the one who damned himwould ring as a lie. “You’re no more of a monster than I am,” Isaid. I was the larger monster in the room in terms of power, butIsaac didn’t appear to have picked up on the insult. “I don’t needto know your people to do my job well. I’ll do whatever it takes tofind the truth.”
“You see, lass, herein lies my dilemma. Youtaste of truth, but also of fear. Perhaps you intend to lead meaway from the truth instead of to it, and I canna be sure which itis.”
He stopped in front of me, so close hisclean-shaven chin blocked the room from my sight. “You stand beforeme in silk and pearls and dainty heels. Most believe what you saidbefore, that you’re but an average woman, but I’ve seen you bring ahell hound to heel without saying a word. There’s more to you thanmeets the eye.”
I jumped when his hand brushed my outer thighand traced the edges of my knife harness through the skirt.
“You hide your true danger from the world,and it comes from something more lethal than a stone blade strappedto your thigh.”
How had he known it was there? I grabbed hiswrist, aware of the unbridled power in his body that was so near.“Mind your manners,” I said.
My thoughts twisted into chaos as I reachedfor words that would get me out of the room alive. I had to phrasemy response carefully to avoid an outright lie. “Tell me how I canprove that I’m no danger to you or your people.”
He pressed his hands into the door beside myhead, trapping me there with the solid mass of his muscular frame.His hair brushed my bare arm, inducing a rash of shivers, and hisvoice fell low, intimate. “I need to see what you saw in thattunnel.” A slight twist of his head brushed his lips against myhair, and warm breath washed across my temple.
Lost in the vibrating potential in his body,I trembled, his request registering slowly in my thoughts. “I can’tdo what you’re asking.”
He wanted an invitation into my mind, onethat couldn’t be ungiven. All I was, every memory since mybirth—including my species—would be his for the taking. Although hecould breech my mental borders regardless, taking me by force wouldalso provoke a kill order on him, thanks to changes I’d helpedbring to the law.
Sweat broke out on my brow at the thought ofhim injured or dead. My jinn side surged within my soul inresponse, and I suffered a violent urge to take him and flee. Whaton earth? Since when did Isaac’s life rank higher than my own?
“If you haven’t committed these crimes, thenyou have nothing to fear from me.” He gripped my face with stronghands, lining my chin up with his. Nobody could help me. Not Gerryand not Deirdre. Not the earth or my connection to it.
“Please, Isaac. Force this, and you die. Yourpeople need you. There’s nothing in my memory of this incident, orany of the others, that I haven’t told you. Listen to the truth inmy voice.”
After another agonizing few seconds, Isaacreleased my face, dropping one hand that had grown black claws tomy chest above my left breast. “As always with you, your truth isclouded. You’re hiding something. If I find my people’s blood onyour hands, our relationship over the years will not stop me fromripping your heart out and drinking it down as I watch the lightleave your stunning blue eyes. Bring me a murderer, or I’ll takeyou in his place.”
Static crackled in the atmosphere, and hevanished.
All my air left me at once, my shoulderssagging. Still trembling, I stepped aside and gripped the wall, thedoor swinging inward the instant I cleared it. For a moment, I heldonto the stone blocks and willed my jinn instincts to be still.Adrenaline had me in its grip, and there would be no comprehensionof the voices around me until it subsided.
“Lou, come on now.” It was Gerry. “Unless yousay something, I have to issue an arrest warrant I really, reallydon’t want to write up. Did he or did he not violate you in any waythat breaks our accords with the vampire nation?”
“He didn’t.” My voice resonated strangely inmy ears. “I’m fine, just unnerved.”
A warm touch landed on my arm. I turned tofind Dominic wide eyed and shaking. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know he’ddo that,” he said.
“It’s all right now.” I pulled his wiry frameinto my arms. He calmed within my embrace, and so did I. “We needto discuss the right and wrong way to talk to an angry vampire,” Isaid, relieved at the laughter bumping in his chest.
“You shouldn’t have gotten in his way when hecame for me.” Dom stepped back. “Guy’s like a bear caught in atrap—he might let you help him, but he also might tear your faceoff before you do.”
“Be that as it may, you shouldn’t have pissedhim off. I saved you this time, but he could still snatch you fromthe darkness one night and nobody would be the wiser.”
“Don’t even joke about that.” Gerry moved inbeside us. “And I could give the same advice to you. What were youthinking, challenging him like that? You got a death wish? Biggerthan the one you normally have, I mean?”
“He needs a firm hand.” I shrugged. “In theend, he agreed to let me work on the case.” At least, I thought hehad, based on his last comment to bring him the murderer or takehis or her place. I often found it difficult to interpret Isaac’sactions, but as usual, I’d find the best in the situation.
Gerry gave a humorless laugh and scrubbed abeefy hand over the back of his neck. “Can’t believe he’s lettingyou consult. Are there any beasts you can’t tame?”
“He’s not tamed and never will be. You’dunderstand if you’d seen him during the last five minutes.” Isaachad never touched me so personally before, the vibrations in myflesh reminding me of what it had been like to be in death’s arms.Terrifying and exhilarating at once.
I turned my attention to the crimes. “If Irecall, there was water around each victim. Even the one I found inthe west-side alley beside Rikki’s Café.”
Gerry nodded. “Yeah, that’s right. All ofthem were drenched, even though three of them were nowhere nearwater and there’d been no rain for days before the attack.”
“I’ll begin there, and I’ll talk to Dr.Courian. If anyone knows what kind of magic can control water andmake it take the form of a person and butterflies, he would.”Hopefully he’d give me a straight answer instead of riddles.
“You do that.” Gerry moved his six-foot-twoframe toward the door, his stomach bulging over the belt of hischocolate brown suit. “And no keeping secrets from me this time,Lou, I mean it. Let me know if you’re planning to leave town forany reason, and next time you leave a scene before I get there I’lllock you up my damn self.”
Scrubbing at his eyes, he let out a harshbreath. “Be careful, you hear?” He pointed his pen at me, his gazespeaking volumes that I had more to worry about than the mysterycreature or his idle threats. Even though Isaac had agreed to letme consult, he wouldn’t accept my help graciously, nor would he besatisfied with my word.
Gerry hadn’t told me anything I didn’talready know.
Chapter Five
 
 
Dom reached for the front door of the modestbungalow he shared with his grandmother. “It’s kind of embarrassinghaving my boss walk me to my house.”
“I put you in danger tonight, and I feelterrible.

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