Author's note: This is very much a work-in-progress. Please bear with me. :-D

1.

The phone call came, just as I expected it, early in the morning. It always comes right after I've gotten off of my shift and am about ready to collapse into bed, bloody, tired, hungry, and ready to curl up into a ball and let the world get the better of me-and then the phone rings, shrilly. And I always let it ring five times before I answer it, because I routinely forget to turn on the answering machine. It's the phone call from Harrison, asking me to go investigate this or look into that, but to take a shower first, because he can smell me over the phone lines.

"Circus sector," he said to me, and I groaned into the mouthpiece of the phone, more out of frustration that I was staining my bed sheets once again with someone else's blood than a groan out of exhaustion, which would have been warranted as well.

"I just got back from the last wild-goose chase," I told him, but he didn't seem to care much. That was me-Nicole Forsythe-Kipling, superwoman. I could do anything, any time, in any condition, no fuss, little mess. That's what Harrison seemed to think of me, at any rate, along with the rest of the squad, who always sent me off on my own missions alone-because I was 'more than capable', they'd always groan. There was a difference between being invincible and simply knowing when not to complain. I needed to learn how to say 'no'-and quickly, before it killed me.

"I can send James, if it would make you feel better," he said to me, and that was all it took for me to pry my butt off of my bed in my apartment.

"I'll go," I groaned. "I'll go. Don't send James. I'll go."

"That's what I like to hear," Harrison preened at me, and I hung up the phone, barely getting the receiver into the cradle. I was exhausted and on the verge of mental breakdown, but I hadn't unloaded my gun, and I hadn't gotten clean, and I was sure as hell not going to let the man I was married to for three months go out there instead of me. I had a reputation to uphold, after all. And if I waited too long, Harrison would call in Luke Banyon, and then all bets would be off. I didn't want to have a showdown with him, not after what happened the last time. My ribs still hurt from that fight.

I slid on a new pair of jeans and a tight black long-sleeved t-shirt and then strapped my gun on over my shoulders, my Beretta. My baby. My silver cross slapped around my neck, my best friend, my lifeline. God was still on my side, no matter how much He had forsaken everyone-everything-else in this city, this world. My cross, my gun, my word-that pretty much sums up the list of things I think I can count on. And sometimes the gun misfires.

There was a part of me-a very large part of me-that was terrified that Luke would already be there. He scouted out crime scenes, always wanted to be the first one to tag a perpetrator, always wanted his personal death toll to rise higher and higher. He liked death, too much, reveled in it. Death was his security blanket. I'm not sure who I was more afraid for-Gage or Luke. And the fact that it even occurred to my brain to be scared for either one of them was equally as terrifying.

I brushed off the thought and went to the sink to wipe the blood off of my face and hands. Sometimes there's nothing you can do about the blood-the only thing that will work is a three-day long shower. I didn't have that luxury just then. I tossed myself a smile in the mirror I had looked into one too many times, and I pulled my long brown hair off of my shoulders. I considered, briefly, taking the electric razor and shaving all of it off, just because I was tired of the blood, the debris, the number of times I wash it a day-or night, as the case may be and very often is. "Okay, chica," I said to myself, and my blue eyes smiled back at me with some sense of knowing, knowing that I was beyond exhausted. But hey, who ever said you needed anything more than pure adrenaline to survive? "Let's blow this popsicle stand."

I grabbed the water bottle full of Holy Water as I exited my apartment into the brisk morning sunlight. I hated dead bodies in the morning; at least at night the blood faded into a less melodramatic shade of black. But such was the life of a decontaminator. I had chosen the life, or maybe it chose me, but however it happened, there we were together-Nicole Forsythe-Kipling and Decontamination Squad for Umbrella City. I never felt like I had much of a choice at all.

The drive down to the circus sector was short, because my mind was on other things. The city was deathly quiet, in that awkward, terrified time between sunrise and when the curfew ended. I blasted music to keep myself company, and I could see the crime scene just as I entered the sector. I also saw Percy Wayne, and I cursed under my breath. How the press got to the scenes before the Decon team did always amazed me. Someone had a source, and it was a damned good one.

The crowd around the body turned to look at me slowly as I pulled the car up and put it into park and then turned the engine off. Percy looked at me with a touch of chagrin. Or maybe it was a touch of illness; he had vomited more than once at one of these scenes. I left the Holy Water on the seat of my car, and I climbed out of the driver's side and then slid my sunglasses down onto my head. I didn't get to wear them much; night duty never called for them, unless I really wanted to pull a Corey Hart.

"Nicole!" I heard someone call, and I turned to see Vanessa Hirsch waving to me. Her slick blond hair shone in the weak morning sunlight, and I marveled at how lucky she was to get to take showers in the morning. I knew I looked like I had just rolled off of the graveyard shift, and I had- both in the clich├ęd sense and in the literal one. She was expensively and nicely dressed, and I wondered when she would finally get that no one cares what anybody looks like any more. Being alive is enough for most people. "I'm so glad you're here-and that they didn't send in Banyon."

I grinned back at her. I didn't blame her for not wanting to see Luke. He was not the world's warmest person. And he could be an arrogant, misogynistic pig-except when the woman in question could kick his ass. "What's going on?"

The police deputy ran a hand back through her hair and lead me through the crowd to the scene, and she just stood there, letting me to take it all in. Since the scene wasn't particularly far into the sector, it lacked some of the seedy grunginess I was so used to. Bodies always look different in the daylight than they do at night. The body was approximately twenty yards away from the nearest home-not a human home, either. "This isn't pretty," I said, and Vanessa looked at me like I had just told her that these murders were good things. "What?" I asked. "Call me Captain Obvious."

It was a run-of-the-mill murder, blood drained, several bite marks. Someone had gotten a little too tipsy on their revolting drugs and gotten some of his buddies to go and attack some poor girl on the streets. Although, what she was doing out in the circus sector at night was beyond me. Seemed like she was asking for it, as callous as that thought might have been. "Time of death?" I asked the coroner-on-duty, and he shrugged and consulted his notes.

"Approximately 2:30AM," he told me, and I whistled lowly.

"Do we have an ID?" I asked him as I bent down to get a better look at the crumpled naked body. The girl's brown hair was a wreck, and I wondered if I looked anything like that after I got off my shift. Probably, I concluded. But with more blood in me. Most of the time. She was young, maybe twenty, pretty, skinny but not overly so. She was an odd target, and still the fact that she was even out this late bothered me. All of her primary arteries had been targeted-carotid, brachial, radial, ulnar, femoral. They had gotten all of them, sucked her dry. Bastards.

God, I hated vampires.

"Name's Priscilla Lansing," Percy told me sharply, as though I should have done my research before I came. Silly boy; that wasn't my job, it was his. I was just supposed to get the bad guys. He held out an ID for me to see, and I snapped it away from him. It was the girl all right.

"Where did you find this?" I asked him. They clearly hadn't found it on her, what with her being naked and all. I scanned the area. The area was a dead zone, almost no activity, even at night.

"It was on the street corner," Vanessa supplied, and I glanced at her.

"Just sitting there?"

"Just . . . sitting there," she answered, as though it concerned her as much as it concerned me. Why the hell was all of her clothing gone but her wallet had been left within plain sight?

I looked at the ID card again, actually reading it. I had missed the little doll-shaped symbol at the bottom of the card. "She was a puppeteer?" I asked them, looking for someone to give me an answer. I didn't need the answer, though. The truth was on the card. That wasn't good. It was the opposite of good. It was very, very bad.

Who would kill a necromancer? That was big in a bad way. No wonder Harrison called me in. I'd call me in, too. I didn't even want to think about the repercussions of that. The puppeteers were supposed to be the emissaries for both sides-and for one side to kill one, that was bad. Very, very bad.

"We need to clean up now," I said to them, and I don't think they understood the necessity for getting the body up and out of there before Luke arrived. We didn't need a war on our hands, and if anyone was going to start it, I'd place my bets on Luke Banyon. "None of this gets into the news," I said pointedly to Percy. "There was a death in the circus sector, multiple bites, body drained, young woman. No name, no profession, do you understand me?"

He gazed at me sullenly like I had killed his puppy dog, and he said, "Any ideas on who it could be?" Then he blinked at me like I had personally had a hand in it, and then everyone turned to look at me.

You have one moment of indiscretion in your life and it comes back and kicks you in the ass every single time.

"Looks like your standard fare to me," I said to him coolly. "No big. I don't see any reason why we have to take extraordinary measures in dealing with it. I'll look into it." He looked at me and blinked again, and I added, "But get this body up and out of here."

I was beginning to feel my lack of sleep weigh on me as the clean up crew came and took the body away, taking it downtown to that it could be disposed of properly. I told them to watch out, because no one knew if they got any of their poison inside of her, and one of the guys assured me he had a gun, but I wasn't convinced it would do him any good. The girl didn't look like she'd be rising again, but you could never be too careful. Not careful enough got you caught with fangs in your neck.

Vanessa stood next to me, and we both watched the girl get put into the unmarked van. It was quickly approaching 7AM-and curfew would soon be over. Vanessa crossed her arms over her chest and then turned to look at me. "What are you thinking?" she asked me, and I shook my head. She had seen what was on the ID-she had to. It bothered me. Someone was crossing lines they were never supposed to cross.

We should have killed them all when we had the chance. But then there were all those stupid activist groups, people refusing to believe that vampires are the diseased monsters they are. Just another disease, people were saying. I don't buy it. It's just another disease that gives people seemingly immortal lives, incredible strength, and some weird ability to sway people's minds. And they were winning the war, the bastards.

I might just be a bigot, but I can deal with it.

"Could it be Gage?" she asked me, and I had to think about it for a minute. That's what they all thought, of course. Their minds immediately went to him-not to Etienne or Monica or any of the others, but Gage. I couldn't find it in myself to be angry about that, either. Gage deserved every bit of distrust that people threw at him. I'd like to be generous and say that it isn't his fault he is the way he is, but I don't think that'd be particularly honest.

"Nah," I said, brushing off the growing feeling of dread that sprouted root in the pit of my stomach. "Nope, not Gage's style." I could almost hear his Cajun growl deep within my brain, and it was probably him, sensing me out from the pits of wherever it was that he slept during the day. Bloody vampire bastard. "More like Monica," I said. "Or Etienne." The names were casual, but I wanted Vanessa as far away from Gage as possible.

Who knew what he was capable of? I'm not even sure that Gage would have been able to answer that question. Evil. Watchya gonna do about it? You're going to put a bullet into its chest and hope it doesn't hop right back up and tear open your jugular, I suppose.

"You look like hell," Vanessa said to me, eying me with eyes lined perfectly with smudge-proof brown eyeliner.

"I've seen hell," I told her. "And it looks worse than I do."

"You going to take care of this? Or call it in?"

I took a look at my watch and then looked out at the horizon, where the sun gave its early warning rays, calling to all of the bloodsuckers in the world, 'Get your asses inside before I fry your sorry behinds.' "I can't do anything this morning," I told her. "I'm going to go get some sleep," I added, stifling a yawn.

I looked down at the spot of ground where the poor puppeteer had once been, and I wondered what, in God's name, the vampires were doing killing someone of the law. And the second the Decon squad or any of the vigilantes running around Umbrella City got a hold of that information, there would be blood spilled-on both sides.

But sometimes, sleep calls.

I yawned again and smiled at Vanessa. "I'm going to get some sleep. But in the evening-this one's mine."

She grinned back. "You're the only one who'd come into this sector in the night, anyway."

"Damn straight," I said to her, and I got back into my car.

**More to come soon! Please read and review. :-D