Chapter One:

The vampire's head is mounted to the wall like a big game trophy. The body isn't in the room, but the scent of blood permeates every inch of the office. The small teddy bear clamped between the vampire's teeth is pristine and more than a little creepy.

I hate Thursdays.

Being the Alpha of the sole Shifter pack in the Houston-metro area, the only Paranormal Community liaison with every law enforcement agency in my territory, and the official protector of the PC means that my time is rarely my own. Fortunately, the liaison gig pays pretty damn nicely because I haven't had time to work a PI case in over two weeks.

"What've we got, Rick?" Detective Dave Greer, head of the Houston PD's Paranormal Incident Bureau, is the least annoying cop I know. Which isn't really saying much. At least he knows when to back off and let me handle things on my own. Recently I've made his job too easy for him. I do the grunt work, and he gets the commendations. I'm not in the mood to hold his hand today.

"A dead vampire."

"Where's the rest of him?" Greer asks, eyes moving around the small office.

"Obviously not here."

"Do you think you could track the body?"

"I'm sure your police dogs could do an adequate job of tracking the scent." I'm not a bloodhound, and I know what he's really asking. He doesn't want me to track the body. He wants my partner to track the body. I don't want to think much about my partner. I'm out of antacids, and keeping the wolf contained is taking more concentration than normal.

"Where's Ms. Stanton?"

"On her way."

At least she'd better be. Astraea Vardan Stanton, the only non-Shifter member of my pack, was going to have Jose, an ocelot Shifter and her best friend, drop her off at the crime scene. I'd expected her to beat Greer to the scene. She's officially ten minutes late.

I like to think that I'm a fairly simple man. My priorities are: my pack, my pack, my PI business, my pack, and Houston's Paranormal Community. There may be room somewhere near the top of that list for an ulcer-aggravating, headache-inducing blonde. I don't ask that my people adore me, but there are a few things I do demand. Respect. Loyalty. Honesty. Obedience.


Az normally manages three out of the five. If she shows a surprising lack of respect for her Alpha, I'm willing to chalk it up to the fact that she misses a lot of things that come naturally to a Shifter. Besides, she knows how to use her dimples to her best advantage. I have a feeling that the obedience part will be an eternal work in progress.

The fact that she's two out of five today is startling. She argues with me more than anyone I've ever met. She's not afraid to tell me when she thinks I'm being an arrogant ass. She has no qualms about interpreting my orders as vaguely as possible. But she's never late. Never.

The air near the door shifts ever so slightly. The faint aroma of magnolias drifts in from the hallway. My churning stomach instantly settles. The wolf retreats with a contended grunt.

"Hello, darling," Az greets cheerily.

Too cheerily. There's something off in that slightly husky New Orleans drawl. Fear? No. All I can smell is magnolias. I open up my senses. Is it anger? No. Sorrow? No. It takes a moment for it to register.

Pain. Her pain leaves a heavy, sour taste in my mouth. I lean closer. She pulls back. The slight tang of fresh blood cuts through the sweetness of her scent.

"What happened, Princess?"

"Nothing." Cool, slender fingers curl around my wrist. "So, I'm no interior decorator, but I'm pretty sure that the vampire on the wall thing only works in Transylvania. It doesn't go with the room's overall minimalist vibe."

I turn toward her, but she ducks her head. The case is interesting, but it's not enough to distract me. My Az is the queen of diversion, but I'm a quick study. The health and welfare of my pack take priority over a crime scene. I'd rather not argue in front of an audience, but I won't let this set a precedent. There's a limit to how much defiance I'll allow.

"What happened?"

She sighs like the world is ending. Her shoulders slump. She slowly raises her head. I lift her chin with a finger. Her entire forehead is covered with gauze. A small ribbon of dried blood mars the skin between her pale eyebrows.

"What the fuck, Princess? Who do I need to kill?"

She presses her free hand to her temple. "Could you not yell? The paramedics wanted to give me something for the pain, but I knew I needed to come here, so I thought it was best to skip out on things that make me loopy."

Because she's a void – a devourer of magic and energy - and too much magic makes her loopy. Poor Princess. That still doesn't answer my question. If I have to ask again, I won't be quite so polite. Evasiveness only irritates me. "Astraea."

"An ocelot, a librarian, and a void walk into a bar," she says with a wry smile.

I swallow down a growl. Jokes? She thinks this is a good time for jokes?

Her smile disappears.

"No, really. That's what happened. It's a long story that involves a tiny bookstore, a rare first edition Lucas has been drooling over, and a bit of shoddy DIY construction." She rolls her neck before leaning against my side. "Jose got it on the chin. Lucas took the hit in the throat. Jose was going to take him home. Willie was on call, so he dropped me off."

"And none of you thought to call me?"

Az arches an eyebrow and then winces when it pulls on whatever is behind the gauze. "I didn't want you to overreact."

"I never overreact."

"Your first reaction was to ask who you needed to kill!"

Behind us, Greer clears this throat. "Actually, that's a pretty typical Shifter reaction."

Az and I turn to him. "Shut the hell up," I say as she tartly asks him to mind his own business. I relax enough to toss an arm across her shoulders. We're finally on the same page. I don't like being at odds with my void. Judging by the way she slips a hand into my back pocket and practically melts against me, I'd say she feels the same.

"We'll discuss this later." It's not meant as a threat. I want to hear the whole story, and then I want to know just why in the hell she and Jose thought it was all right to keep me in the dark about an incident that required medical attention. If they continue to show such poor judgment, I'll have to restrict their outings.

Az doesn't argue. She jerks her chin towards the vampire head. "Where's the rest of Vlad?"

"Unknown," Greer answers. "At this point, we don't have a positive ID on the vampire. The entire building is leased to the clan and this is the overflow office."

We'll have to call Matt Anders, Harris County District Attorney and second-in-command of the local vampire clan. Anders and I are friends. The sort of friends that only call when favors are needed. Let's just say that Anders dials my number far more often than I dial his.

"Let me talk to Mary Ellen," Az says, reaching into her paisley tote bag for her phone. She doesn't take her hand out of my pocket.

"Mary Ellen Johansen?" Greer's tone is thick with surprise.

I don't blame him. Mary Ellen Johansen is the Matron of one of the smallest and most conservative witch covens in the area. Thanks to some superior bullshit and void-related dazzle on her part, Az is the Mages' Council's designated witch wrangler for the territory I control. She doesn't like witches any more than I do, but she's good and making them walk her line.

"Mary Ellen's daughter is engaged to Ham Branson. It's all very Romeo and Juliet. Or Hatfield and McCoy. Whatever. Since Mary Ellen is afraid that her daughter's an enthralled, walking blood bank, Mary Ellen insists on going to clan meetings with Sue." Az scrolls through her contact list with her thumb and presses a button before lifting the phone to her ear. "Trust me, she'd have noticed if anything seemed weird."

Az's brief conversation with Mary Ellen proves that it takes the patience of a saint to deal with witches. Mary Ellen had a lot to report about the meeting of 'immoral bloodsucking fiends' but nothing relevant to our victim. I'm sure that Az will pay for her comment about morality being relative during her next weekly tea with the Matrons.

Striking out with Mary Ellen means that we'll have to call Anders or Josiah Danvers, the Master of the local clan. I don't relish the thought of either phone call. Anders annoys me and Josiah is always looking for an angle to gain more leverage in the Paranormal Community. Never trust anyone on a wholly liquid diet. It's one of the keys to living a long, happy life.

"Who would be able to stage this scene?" Greer asks.

Assuming you take him by surprise or drug him, anyone could decapitate a vampire. Their skin is as thin as a human's, and they don't regenerate quickly. The question is who could mount a vampire head ten feet off the floor.

When I point at the base of the wooden plaque surrounding the head, Az frowns but moves closer to the wall to examine the plaque. One of the officers holds the rolling chair steady for her as she climbs on it to reach the plaque. She runs two fingers across the smooth wood then pops the fingers into her mouth.

Az knows magic. She's more accurate than any scanner available. Since she'll never be able to perform magic the way her Mage father and witch mother expected, she devoted herself to learning everything she could about that which is, ultimately, her biggest weakness. The receptors in the tongue are highly sensitive and are able to pick up even the smallest traces of magic energy. Gross but effective.

She gags. Wipes her fingers on her black pants. By the time she returns to my side, I've already uncapped the bottle of water she keeps in her purse. She swishes her mouth out before giving us the results of her magical scan.

"Dust. All I got was dust. Whoever put that up there did it manually. I am not licking the corpse."

I don't blame her. I wouldn't want to lick a vampire, either. I tuck her back up against my side so that we present a united front to Greer. I'm taking over his investigation, whether he wants to admit it or not. This is a damn interesting case, and it'll keep me out of meetings at the Astrodome.

"We need to find the rest of the body. We also need to identify our victim. Without knowing who he is, we can't say if this is a random attack or something personal." I glance over my shoulder at the head. "Then again, I'd say this looks pretty personal."

Az surveys the room. I wait to see what she picks up. She's been learning how to investigate, and she's proven to be damn good at it. "The wood doesn't match anything in here. Killer brought it in. Probably wasn't a human, then."

She has a point. Most humans think that vampires turn to dust or a pile of bones when killed. They don't. In fact, unless magic is involved there are very few creatures that conveniently dissolve into pocket-sized pieces.

"What about a witch? Aren't witches and vampires mortal enemies?" Greer's eyes narrow. He doesn't trust witches – because he's not as stupid as he looks – and he's been cautious around Az since learning about her new position.

"A witch would have destroyed all trace of the body. Vlad would have ended up on the back of a blood bag." She glares at him until he drops his gaze to his shoes. She's no Alpha, but she's good at pretending.

"Witches are mortal enemies with everyone," I remind Greer. "But they're all a bunch of cowards. No one would take a vampire on by herself."

"Not without leaving a trace of magic," Az says, turning that glare on to me. It has no shot in hell of working. I taught her that glare, and I hold its patent.

"So, we've ruled out humans, and we've ruled out witches. That only leaves the rest of the Paranormal Community." Greer rakes a hand through his thinning hair. He opens his mouth, probably to complain more, but snaps it shut when his cell phone rings. He stalks out into the hallway without excusing himself. Rude bastard.

I had a chance to inspect the wall and the plaque. I'm interested to know if Az noticed the same things I did. She soaks up information like a sponge, and I like teaching her. "What else did you get from this, Az?"

"No holes in the wall around it and no scratches on the paint. I doubt anyone used a pulley or anything to get the plaque up there. It has to weigh at least thirty pounds. There were a few indentations that could be from a ladder." Az's face scrunches up for a moment. "Rules out centaurs. Leprechauns, too. They have terrible upper body strength."

I reward her excellent deductions with a kiss on the cheek. Or two. "Decapitation is messy work. Leaves out succubae and faeries."

Az and I are still working on weeding out unlikely suspects when an ashen Greer returns to the office. The vein in his forehead throbs and his fists are clenched. Not a happy phone call, then

"That was Josiah Danvers. Someone nailed a headless body to his front door."