"What do you mean, you don't have a trace on him?" I shouted into the phone as the mirrored elevator zipped us dizzily downward. Three seconds of that and I turned my back on the glass front to face the only blank wall, since vomit tended to offend. I'd never done well with heights, or any of the other ways I had died.
"I'm sorry, sir," the voice at the other end crackled, "but—" There were a few harsh clicking noises, and then Thurgood was on the line, demanding, "Why the hell weren't you keeping an eye on him in the first place?"
"Complications," I replied. "A vampire hunter was on the same target." Said hunter smiled at my phone, giving a little twinkling of her long, brightly painted nails.
"You know, I'm not sure." I lowered the phone and held out my hand, saying, "Alexander Grennhart, Lighthouse."
"Ladasha Daniels, Wayne-Metro Cabal," she replied, taking it with a firm grip. "We got briefed on your group some time back. Grennhart... you're the guy with all the bodies, right?"
"That's one way of putting it, but not, ah, the best one. Maybe I'll be able to explain later..." Bringing up the phone again, I said, "Daniels of the Detroit group. Now, what happened to Khakwani's trace?"
"Detroit... just what we need, when we lose our own operative. Shit! The kid disappeared off our damn radar. One moment he was sitting in the club a few feet away from you; the next, nothing, just as you described."
"God almighty, this does not make sense," I muttered, running a hand through my hair like that would straighten out my thoughts. "There's only one elevator!"
"He probably just teleported through the glass," Ladasha said. Her fingernails tapped against the glass, indicating the city below us.
"Well, sure," the huntress said, staring at me. "This enclave gets enough blood and power, and bam, they just zip away. That's why I was trying to stop him, before you grabbed me; I've chased this group all the way from Lansing. You don't know that?"
"Our vampires don't teleport!" I protested weakly. Shit, shit, shit. Their abilities followed the blood; one vampire would get some strange power, bite out a bunch of followers, and suddenly you had a specialized enclave. Lighthouse had chased poison-spitting vampires and diamond-skinned ones that, annoyingly, could only be killed by the aforementioned poison, but never teleporting ones. "How far can they go?"
"Damn, it's lucky you found me. It's a set distance. Because we were so high up, it'll be shorter than usual, you know, along the hypotenuse." She tilted her hand in the air in demonstration, then said, "Probably no more than a half-mile. Listen, how many vampires have you actually killed?"
Ignoring that last question—I chanced a spin around the glass elevator, staring queasily out at the land around us. A dozen high-rises, a thousand restaurants and bars and shops... how many buildings were in a half-mile radius of this one? "Thurgood, can you start a sweep, a half-mile out from the Mile High Club?"
"After you tell me what damn fool thing you're planning!"
"Sorry," I said, shutting the phone and sliding it into my pocket. "My apologies if I get sick on you," I told the hunter.
"I beg your pardon?"
I jabbed the side of my temple, and then latched onto her arm as the only saving grace in the world as everything went suddenly flat and flooding and insane.
They teach us aura-readers quite a lot about the conditions under which to use our powers. I should know; I wrote half of the textbooks, in one life or another. All of them were very clear that you never, ever want to use the technique while moving. Maybe you could take a step or two, but plunging downwards in an elevator was a bad, bad idea.
But the only hope I've got is that I know Khakwani's aura. I've been staring at it for years through the office walls. Seeing the torment he refused to let me or anyone else heal is like poking a bruise or picking at a cut; bad for me, but some kind of comfort. Whenever I was having a bad day, I would turn on the reader and watch him at the cafeteria and think, this is why I do this job. I'd never tell him, since it broke all kinds of rules, but my sins might be his only chance at staying alive.
Too bad there were only, say, a hundred thousand auras suddenly blazing across my sight. It was like trying to find a pin in an I-Spy picture book. I spun and they whirled like a ferris wheel, like going into hyperdrive, becoming so much of a technicolor blur. Half mile, my mind chanted, how far is a half mile? A vampire that liked high rises might live in one himself, or maybe he just missed them because he didn't live in one any longer. Where were those new condos going up, anyway—
"There!" A hundred thousand auras, and I had found the one I wanted. Natan. I stared that way desperately, knowing that if I so much as blinked I could lose him again. As soon as the elevator lurched to a stop, I lurched forward. My face was suddenly an explosion of pain.
"What the fuck are you doing?" Ladasha demanded, grabbing my arm. "Are you crazy? The door's over here!"
I let her pull me out, but I hadn't lost sight of the aura. "Okay," I gasped, and hoped that wasn't really blood running into my mouth, "here's the deal. I can see people, only people, right now. If I lose him... I can't lose him. You're going to be my eyes. I trust you."
"I—what the hell! You trust me? I haven't told you to do that!"
A vampire hadn't rattled her for a moment, but this had. Hunters had strict codes of trust, and I hadn't followed any of the protocols, but there wasn't really time for that.
Instead, I reached out and carefully put a finger over the exact spot where Natan was, then turned my eyes on her. Blue, glorious teal and peacock all the way through, with only the rare pink scab here and there. "You're trustworthy," I told her with all the confidence of someone who can see souls, then wrenched my gaze back to the spot. He was still there; nearly eclipsed by a thousand other lights between us, but there. "Let's go."
"Jesus. I'm starting to understand why Livernois always swears when she talks about you guys." But she tugged on my arm and we were off, her steps sure and quick, mine stumbling as I fought to keep my balance without moving my head. "I should just leave you now, call in my people, and find him myself."
"She's in Detroit now?" I asked. There was a few lengthy moments of waiting as she did something that caused a breeze, then finally pulled me onto rougher cement. "I taught her how to fight in my last life. Can we run?"
It was shambling and clumsy, but we had to get closer in case this vampire felt like teleporting away again. Cars honked, sometimes quite nearby; Ladasha shouted at them and pulled me on. "Knew I recognized your name," she gasped. "Three steps up here. Good Lord, what possessed me to wear this dress tonight?"
I was all out sprinting, stumbling over uneven sidewalk and gravel, her fingers digging into my arm. "Grass!" she called out, and the ground turned slippery and wet, crunching underfoot as we ran through a city park or a playground, something; I didn't care. "Tulips!" It didn't matter. If we ruined anyone's landscaping Thurgood could pay for it later.
"Pole!" Ladasha shouted, yanking me to the left, then, "Step step step step step step!" as we ran upwards. We were close now, the other auras falling behind us, the ones in front completely ignored as I focused on that one mass of orange and black and red. A few more steps of gravel, the last of the souls gone, and—
"Stop!" The hunter grabbed the back of my jacket, all but yanking me off my feet. The adrenaline pumping through my system whipped my focus from Khakwani ahead of me to whatever dared stop me. I may have been snarling as I slammed off the aura reader and spun.
We were at the edge of a steel platform; the tip of my leather shoe was hovering over nothingness as the rest of the world whirled sickeningly. I yelped and flung myself around the hunter, clinging until I could remember there was solid ground beneath us. Or woven steel, not solid at all. Swallowing down bile, I tried to blink the multi-colored stars from my eyes.
"I don't believe it," she breathed, ignoring me.
Her gaze was locked onto the skylight of the townhouse beneath it. Brick and steel and modern. A high, foreboding hedge prevented anyone on the street from noticing the bizarre lack of windows and the barred front door, and a multitude of glass skylights on the sloped ceiling were aimed so as to let any teleporting vampire in. They were no doubt shuttered during the day, to spare the creatures the harsh light of the sun. Someone had planned well, since none of occupants in buildings nearby had balconies that provided direct views inside. Only idiots that had broken into the construction site across the street and climbed up a rickety landing at night would possibly be able to see in.
There were five vampires standing around the designer hardwood floor, holding glasses and standing at awkward angles one does at an unhappy business party. An unconscious empath was propped up on the couch, his dark wrists bound over his head to the antique armoire behind him. The vampire we saw at the club walked over and leaned in close to him, making the hunter and me tense, but he only shook his head and stalked away again, seeming frustrated.
"How did you find them?" she asked.
"Tell you later," I murmured, staring at the scene below. Five vampires; all male, unless I was wrong about the thin, long-haired one standing with his back to the street. All pale skinned, blonde or brown haired. Something about that was sending alert bells through my head, but I couldn't quite put a finger on why.
"So, what's your plan?" she asked.
The hunter's voice was muted, and a stab of guilt ran through me. I'd stolen her kill, dragged her across half the city in a now-ruined party dress, and wouldn't have made it out of the elevator without her. "What's yours?" I return.
The young woman snorted, adjusting the blue strap against her neck. "See that kid in there? That's their leader, Argent, who tries to fool his victims into not noticing he's an early transform from the 1880s. We've kept him on the run for years, but he's managed to get a little enclave together in the last decade or so. I thought he was too smart to let one of his men lead him right to him, so we've either caught him unawares, or my target is just that stupid. If you want my plan on how to take down a hundred-plus vampire, it would be to report back to headquarters and return tomorrow in force when they're sleeping, with Lafayette and the rest of the strike team. But let me guess: waiting until tomorrow isn't on your mind."
"You guess right." I pushed her sigh to the back of my mind and focused. "A teenager who collects white men," I muttered, trying to figure out what that seemed interesting. What kind of upbringing did someone from the 1880s have, anyway? History wasn't my strong point, but racism still reared up its head now, let alone a few decades after the civil war. And the women's rights movement hadn't gotten steam until… wait, there was another possibility anyway. "Ladasha, how do I look at the moment?"
"Uh... like you lost a fight with an elevator and then ran a dozen blocks. Do you want a handkerchief? My granny always insists I bring one."
I took it from her with thanks, spit on it for lack of any better option, and ran it across my face. "I'll send it through our cleaners," I tell her, tucking it into my front pocket. "Okay, how about now?"
"Like—sweet Jesus, what are you doing?"
I grinned a little as I worked. Below us, our initial prey said something to the long-haired leader, shook his head again and stalked from the room. Four vampires. "Aura manipulation," I said. "I don't have a mirror though, so I need you to be more specific. Is the change attractive, or desperate?"
"Let's just say, if you were on the cover of a porno, it'd be called 'Big Dix 4 U!'"
Too much yellow then; I eased some of that back to black. Did the 1880s have tragic poets, or was I thinking of the wrong decade? I was going to have to hit the web when all this was done. "Now?"
"Now I just want to know, do you want to go clubbing sometime with me? I think we'd walk away with free drinks for life."
My grin stretched wider. "It'd be my pleasure, as soon as I rescue my partner. Here's what I'm thinking. Please, stop me if I'm crazy..."
Ten minutes later, I was lounging against the doorframe in a desultory manner, the doorbell echoing within. A tall, blonde, and broad-shouldered vampire answered, his immortal status apparently not a deterrent to the puzzled lines appearing on his forehead. "Who are you?" he asked.
I let my eyes go wide in equal confusion. "Do I have the wrong address?" I gasped, pushing past him into the room with a sway of hips. When my gaze hit the bound Natan, I smiled and obviously relaxed. "Ah. No, this is the right address after all."
He was awfully pale. If they had done something to my partner, no cleaners in the world was going to get the blood out of that cream shag carpet.
"What is the meaning of this?"
I cast a half-lidded look over my shoulder as I turned, taking in the stances and expressions of everyone in the room. Fabio by the door was confused but curious. Wiry and brunette was the one growling from beside a pearly-white grand piano. He had a spiked leather collar and barbed wire tattoos over his crossed arms, and looked rightfully suspicious. The short, black-eyed man sipping his wine by the glass display cases seemed bored, but watchful, waiting to see what would happen.
And the thin boy framed artfully by the tall indoor ferns, his brows raised in cool contemplation—he was willing to swallow the bait that his missing underling had hired additional entertainment for the evening. Apparently a hundred-odd years of living hadn't erased all of his body's eighteen-year-old arrogance. Perfect.
I swayed up to tattooed and hostile, reached up and traced a finger along the tensed muscle on his forearm. "You hide your strength, don't you," I purred. "I'll bet you could lift me with one hand."
Outrageous flattery brought a brief flicker of hesitation through his hostility. "That doesn't answer my question."
"Oh, you don't need to hide this." I placed my hands on his denim-clad hips—he tried to take a step back, and found the wall behind him—and slid them down his thighs. Almost there... Another flicker, and his gaze jumped down from my eyes to my red, red lips. Bingo. "You've never met a whore?"
My arms went around his head, and I kissed him hard, sliding my tongue against his lips until they opened for me. He had some kind of cloying gel in his hair, and I tried not to wince as my fingers threaded through it. His mouth tasted like smoke; his soul like ashes.
But I tasted like virgin blood. He lurched suddenly and started kissing me back vigorously, until I had to untwine myself and step away lest he took it all, keeping my smile teasing. "Well, now you have."
Blood leaves a certain sort of stupor in vampires, so luckily he didn't try to follow as I turned and sauntered up to cool and watchful. This one kept his wine glass between us, the dark red liquid turning as he gently swirled it.
"You don't strike me as the fun type," I said, leaning against the back of the chair beside him as I tilted my face up suggestively. He didn't take the bait, only smirked and shook his head.
"A shame." I slid my finger against the emergency vial in my pocket, then dipped it in his wine glass. It might not be enough—I'd no idea what wine did to blood. Drawing back my hand again, I licked a drop off the end of my finger. "Isn't this vintage a bit young?" I asked him, smiling.
"What would a whore know about wine?" he replied. He took a sip, but I could see no sudden light in his eyes.
"That it's better shared." I dipped two fingers in the wine this time, and held them up to his lips. His sneer deepened, but there had been something in his eyes when I'd said shared—I cut off that line of thought immediately. I was rescuing Khakwani, not psychoanalyzing an enclave of vampires.
Rallying himself with a condescending snort, he leaned around my hand and said, "You reek of Richard's disgusting hair goop."
Damn. I laughed and dropped my hand, curling it around the vial. "You'll hurt my feelings," I said, curling my lips in a pout. "Let me get a proper sip this time, and I'll leave you alone."
"Is that all it takes? My pleasure."
He handed me the wine glass, and by the time I'd handed it back, half of the precious contents of my vial were in there. Kat had insisted we all take a sleigh-of-hand seminar last spring, and this was the first time I'd had cause to be grateful. "Must not be to my taste," I shrugged, letting my lashes drop as he took another sip. "You got any chardonnay?"
"Go away, whore."
I smiled, tossed my head, and sauntered back across the plush cream carpet to tall and good looking by the door. From his curious and nigh-friendly expression, I gathered that he might not be the brightest of the group. Neither were especially vampiric traits. "Do you know how to treat a man better?" I asked him.
His eyes flicked to the boy and back again, obviously hesitating, and I revised my opinion. He might be the only one who was actually intelligent. "Not so good as the boss," he said at last.
"Well, I'll be the judge of that." I planted a finger on his chest and dragging it up to his cheek.
The guard sucked in a breath, then turned and planted a kiss against my palm. A jolt of genuine lust fizzled through me, as my abilities chose that moment to remind me they were really for sleeping with people, not just tempting them. Natan, I reminded them firmly.
But I could let the feeling aid me. I gasped and stepped in close, tracing my other hand around the hard planes of his chest. His silk shirt tickled my fingers, and his head was already down when I raised mine up to him.
Vampire hunting, I decided dizzily as he hands dragged me closer, might not be so bad after all.
It was with a little reluctance that I untangled myself, but that was good, the yellow in my aura no longer false and all the more powerful for it. I smiled at tall and blonde, took a few strides backwards from him, and turned.
Vampire leader Argent was not amused. His eyes were hard as a killer's, though his lips were curved in what he no doubt thought of as a mysterious smile. He had the same ethereal beauty that all the older vampires did: smooth skin, an unsettling presence, and long hair that curled just a little at the ends around his aristocratic features. A certain kind of unfulfilled sensuality rolled off of him, the scent that must have trapped the others around us when they were still human. "Are you enjoying my men?" he asked coldly. "Ah, yes, I see your surprise, that they are mine, who you apparently overlooked."
Moody and melodramatic, given that I hadn't even thought to look surprised when I should have. I could work with that. "On the contrary," I murmured. "I save the best for last."
"Hey!" said wiry and tattooed again.
"A clever line," the boy sneered. "I've heard it before."
"But not sincerely, no doubt." I crossed the room but stopped a few feet away from him, going down on one knee on the dark hardwood floor. Either he would appreciate the sincerity of the pain I'd feel in a few minutes, or not notice another's suffering; tricky to tell. "I've been accused of many things, but rarely insincerity. That's why I'm a popular purchase, you see."
"Are you," he said coldly, eyeing me. "I don't see why."
He had all the experience and power of an old vampire; that I could feel even from this distance. But his age really was a flaw, and for more than just harming his pride when he was overlooked in favor of his older-seeming followers. I'd known it instinctually the moment I saw those he chose to turn, even if it had taken me some time to realize it.
Idiots or not, they were all handsome.
Sex should not be used as a weapon, fools did not deserve to be tricked only because they were foolish, but this was all I was armed with, and I did not regret using it. This vampire, he'd done it all to them first, and then he'd kidnapped Natan, for whatever nefarious purpose. He honestly didn't know what a mistake he had made.
To answer his question, I reached up and set my hand low on his stomach. Beneath the expensive suit jacket and slick shirt beneath, I could feel his pulse speed up. No doubt the steel mind in this week body hated that.
I shifted to my other knee, moving closer, and brought my head to rest beneath my hand. He swallowed audibly. Teenage hormones were going to be his undoing.
Natan, I thought as hard as I could as I slid my hand down, if you are conscious, I need you to make any sort of noise.
Almost as soon as the pictures formed in my mind, I heard a soft shifting on the couch. Thank God—it had been a long shot, but I'd thought he seemed a little too still there. A man who could read emotions was very difficult to stun or drug.
I eased the zipper beneath my fingers downwards. The boss's eyes fluttered shut. Get ready to order the vampire with the tattoos to shutter the skylights, I thought. The switch is next to his head. I couldn't remember if Khakwani would have to make his requests aloud or not, but I had to be prepared either way.
I slipped my fingers through the gap in the cloth; there was the sound of a door slamming down the hall behind me, and then heavy footsteps. I kept my mind on the job, pouring out pheromones in case the vampire in my hand had a short attention span, but it was damned hard when I couldn't be sure...
"I've got the needle—what the hell is going on here?" our target demanded.
The shutters clicked shut.
"Richard, what are you thinking? Eric, stop him—"
The door burst open.
"Sit!" Khakwani shouted, and there were three loud thumps.
Then a fourth thump, as our original target tried to teleport anyway through the shutters, and found himself just falling to the ground. Operatives quickly swarmed him; couldn't tell, from my very limited view if they were Ladasha's or mine.
She'd told me that the leader was the only one who could teleport through walls. I could feel him tense, planning to do just that. But I had tugged down my shirt so he could see the amulet around my neck, one that, according to Ladasha, nullified all vampire powers. She had admonished me not to lose it when she had she'd tugged it around my head, because it was the only one her group had.
"Then why give it to me?"I had asked.
"Because, for some reason, I trust you."
I couldn't use it to stop him from teleporting directly, but he'd have to cut off any offending part first to get away. Vampires can't regenerate everything.
His furious expression as a stern-faced Rangarajan handcuffed him was going to bring me amusement for a long, long time.
He wasn't the only one frowning. Khakwani was rubbing the marks on his wrist as he answered questions from a pair of nodding, black-dressed hunters. When he saw my gaze, though, his expression went nigh as frightening as the vampire's.
"I had it under control, Grennhart," he snapped as I sat down on the couch beside him. One of the men interrogating him went suddenly red, coughed, and excused himself, but my partner's hostility never wavered. "I was just about to find out why they had taken me when you showed up."
"Glad to see you're safe," I told him.
Scowling, he subsided back against the couch, rubbing his other wrist. "Even if your methods are as foul as ever, you did an ace job," he muttered.
My grin was bright enough that the other interrogator went red, too, and found something else to do.
A/N: Don't worry, I don't plan on dumping Perry; he's just not hunting vampires! He'll be back in the next chapter.