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For several heartbeats, I didn't move. Scarcely even dared to breathe as I listened to the wind, sorting through the scents that ran with it, nothing the sounds that ran underneath it. There was no hint of life - or even unlife - coming from this flat. Only from those behind me.
Gautier might have been here, but he wasn't now. I'd feel him - or any other vampire, for that matter.
And while part of the excrement scent was definitely his, there more to the smell than simply his presence. It had a very human aroma to it - and the one thing Gautier had never been was human.
Meaning someone had probably shit themselves inside the town house. Of course, anyone who had any brains would be scared shitless by Gautier. He was one nasty mother.
I stepped back from the door. The lock was in place, and there was nothing to indicate it had been forced in any way. If Gautier had been here, he hadn't come through the front door to get at Dunleavy. Though the only way he could have forced his way through the door in the first place was if Dunleavy had previously invited him in. If there was one rule about vampires that was true, it was the fact that they couldn't cross thresholds uninvited.
"I called the cops, you know."
I wasn't sure what leapt higher - my feet or my heart - and even as I spun around, I was reaching for the weapon I didn't have. Mainly because I'd taken it off near the coat stand at home last night, and had gone back to pick it up in my rush to get out Kellen's door this morning. Jack would have my hide if he found out.
Thankfully, I didn't need it. The voice belonged to the sharp-faced old woman from the first flat. I took a deep breath, trying to calm my racing pulse and ignore the fact that it could have been anyone who'd crept up on me. God, I was still so green at this, I was a danger to myself.
"What?" I said, perhaps more brusquely than I should have.
"I called the cops."
Great. Just what I needed to deal with on top of a possible murder. "And you'd be Mrs... ?"
"Ms. Radcliffe." She drew the knitted shawl draped over her frail shoulders closer to her body as the wind gusted again.
"Ms. Radcliffe, I'm a guardian." When her expression showed little comprehension, I added, "With the Directorate of Other Races." I grabbed my badge - which I always carried - and showed it to her. "I'm here to talk to Mr. Dunleavy, so there was no need to report - "
"Not now," she interrupted, expression suddenly cross. "Before. When all that racket was happening."
"Before when? And what sort of racket are we talking about?"
"Must have been seven-thirty, eight o'clock, something like that. And the noise - " She sniffed. "Sounded like they were throwing things about and smashing up the place."
"No screaming? No arguing? Nothing like that?"
"No. They were quiet this time - except for smashing things up, that is."
"Him and his dirty little piece."
I raised my eyebrows and somehow resisted the urge to grin at the bristling disapproval in the old girl's voice. "His girlfriend?"
She sniffed again, and somehow managed to make the sound disparaging. "If that's what you want to call her."
"What does she look like?" Not that I actually wanted to know, but I had no idea how good the old girl's sight was. Maybe she'd seen Gautier and didn't realize it.
"Thin, with big tits. Dark hair, dark skin."
Not Gautier, then. The wind swirled around us again. His scent was fading fast. If I wanted to uncover what, exactly, he'd been up to, I had to get inside. Which meant getting rid of the old biddy - and that obviously wasn't going to be easy.
"Ms Radcliff, I really need to talk to Mr. Dunleavy - "
"It ain't much use, you know," she cut in. "The noise stopped hours ago. It's been dead quiet since then."
Dead being the operative term. "Ms. Radcliff, please go inside, out of the cold I'll come and talk to you later, after I finish here."
"Yeah, been told that before," she muttered, but turned and went back to her town house. Though I had no doubt she'd be peering through the curtains once inside and watching my every move.
I turned back to Dunleavy's and scanned the windows. No sign of any window being forced - though really, there was no need to when all anyone had to do was push back the cardboard that took the place of two panes But no one had - maybe because of old eagle eyes in the first town house.
The garage showed no sign of forced entry, cither. Whoever had killed Dunleavy - or whoever else was dead inside - must have gone through either the side windows or back door I walked to the end of the porch and peered around the corner. No windows in sight, broken or otherwise Just a view of uncut lawn and a fence line that seemed far too close to the end of the building. I stepped from the porch and walked along the wall The ground under my feet seemed to vibrate, and the wind began to rush around me. I stopped, wondering what the hell was going on, my heart going a mile a minute - then snorted at my own stupidity as the reason came into sight. A goddamn train.
Why was I so jumpy? I might be green when it came to being a guardian, but I'd always been a jump-first, look-later type. And yet here I was, letting an old woman and a train spook me.
The answer came almost as soon as I asked the question. I might be a wolf, I might love to hunt, and I had certainly killed in order to protect pack and self, but I'd never loved the taste of fresh blood. It was the one thing Rhoan and I didn't share. He not only loved the hunt, he loved to rent and tear and kill. I never had, even if I had occasionally participated in it.
And eating and loving a rare steak was not the same as sinking your teeth into flesh, let me tell you. Even if that flesh was only rabbit flesh - which was the only thing we wolves were legally allowed to hunt these days. Steak came in plastic containers and just had to be unpacked and cooked. Steak didn't continue to struggle for life after your teeth had found its flesh.
And yet, deep down, there was this fear that one day I would come to love it. That one day, my vampire genes would assert themselves fully and I, too, would come to enjoy the warm rush of life that flooded the mouth when teeth sunk into fresh flesh.
The shudder that shook my body was soul deep. But in reality, there was no choice for me. My destiny was gathering speed and no one really knew just what the future held. I was a dhampire, and what I would become was already patterned in my DNA. I might currently be more wolf than vampire, but who knew what the future would bring? Especially with the drugs that had been injected into my system by the psychos who'd been hiding under the guise of lovers over the last year or so.
And becoming a guardian, being around death and destruction and blood on a regular basis, might very well be the first footsteps clown the path of acceptance. It was a known fact that the more death became a part of your everyday life, the easier it was to accept. I might fight it, but for how long?
Would there come a time when I loved the hunt and its aftermath as much as my brother? As much as Gautier?
God, I hoped not. Surely fate had shoveled enough shit on my plate without adding that as well.
I shuddered and rubbed my arms as the last of the train cars rumbled past, then walked on. Blood or no blood, I had to see what had happened in that house.
I stopped near the end of the town house and took a quick peek around. No one in sight. I ducked around, keeping low as I ran past the intact windows. There was an odd, darkened patch of soot-like substance on the concrete near the back steps. Dunleavy had obviously been burning something recently, though why he'd do it so close to his house was anyone's guess.
The back door was wide open, and the scent of blood was stronger than before. I ignored the wild part of me, the part that relished the smell if not the taste, and cautiously walked up the steps.
The small laundry beyond the doorway was shadowed and quiet. The washing machine lid was open, the tub half-filled with clothes. I glanced at them, noting the dark overalls, the faint smell of oil and petrol. Work clothes. Or, more accurately, thieving clothes. I walked through the laundry and stopped at the next doorway, tasting the air and listening. The blood scent was coming from the right - from what looked to be a bedroom - the shit smell from the left. Given I could see an upturned TV and lounge chair, it was obvious that some sort of confrontation had happened in the living room.
So why did Gautier's scent seem to be coming primarily from the bedroom? As far as I knew, Gautier wasn't homosexual. In fact, he'd always seemed asexual to me. I got no vibes when it came to sex and Gautier. I had never seen him with a woman, never heard him speaking of women - or men, for that matter - in a sexual way. And yet vampires were inherently sexual beings. Orgasms were their gift for blood taking, and having experienced them thanks to Quinn, it had to be said that they were certainly worth losing a bit of the red stuff over.
Not that I was going to let any other vampire near my neck. Christ, a lot of them had a tendency not to wash, and scent alone stopped me from getting close to most.
But Gautier was a vampire created in a lab rather than via a blood ceremony. Perhaps in the process of his creation his sexual urges had been lost. Or maybe they'd been transferred to his lust for blood. There wasn't a doubt in anyone's mind that he got off on killing.
A soft moan ran across the silence, a sound so full of pain that the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I edged out into the hall. The moans were coming from the bedroom, and yet I could sense no life in that room. Though if Dunleavy was human, that was no surprise. Humans didn't show up on my sensory radar like non-humans did, though I could read and adjust their thoughts if I was close enough. I glanced over my shoulder at the living room then, as another moan emanated from the bedroom, crept toward the latter, my senses on high alert for any sign or sound of movement.
But the only sounds to be heard were my light breathing and the occasional squeak of a floorboard under my feet.
In the bedroom, I found Dunleavy.
He was lying, spread-eagled and cheek down, on the bed, but I had no doubt it was him. The height, hair color, and profile were a match for the photos I'd seen in the file.
He wasn't moving, didn't appear to be breathing, and the white sheets on which he lay were darkened by pools of blood.
Not from a wound. Or rather, not from a normal wound, like a gunshot or stabbing.
Dunleavy had been skinned.
From the base of his neck right down to his heels. Not prettily, and not particularly neatly. In some ways, it reminded me of the sort of mess an apprentice butcher might make while practicing his cuts of meats.
My stomach rose and I closed my eyes, taking quick shallow breaths through my mouth rather than my nose. It didn't help much. The stench of blood and death was so thick I could practically taste it, and the image of the bloody mass of muscle and meat seemed burned onto my retinas.
I'd seen a lot of gruesome things over the last few months, including Gautier's fatal maiming of the innocent girl yesterday. I'd welcomed some of those deaths, had mourned or cried for others. But skinning a human like he was just another animal seemed oddly worse than anything else. And the fact that the killer had draped his somewhat shredded skin neatly over the bed end, as if it were a gossamer fine but bloody blanket ready for reuse, only made it seem worse.
I dug the vid-phone out of my pocket and called in both a medical team and a Directorate forensic team. Then I set the vid-phone on record and send, sat it on top of a nearby drawer and, ignoring my still squirmy stomach, stepped into the room.
"Mr. Dunleavy?" I pulled on a glove and pressed my fingers against his neck. No pulse. I picked up his wrist and tried again. Again, nothing. It made me wonder if I'd really heard the moans or something else. Something that stepped into the realms of the spiritual.
Goose bumps ran across my skin. I tried to ignore the odd premonition that more was to come, and reported Dunleavy's death, as well as the time, for the benefit of the taping vid-phone. As I dropped his hand back to the bed, a wisp that seemed little more than steam began to rise from his body. A chill raced across my skin, and it suddenly seemed a whole lot colder in the room, as if the emergence of the mist had sucked the warmth out of the air.
Only it wasn't just mist, I realized. It was Dunleavy's soul.
This wasn't the first time I'd seen a soul rise, though I'd certainly been hoping that the first time had been the last time. That it had been an aberration rather than a strange development in a recently awakened talent. I didn't want to see ghosts or souls or anything else along those lines. What the hell use was the ability to see dead people? Especially when it was dead dead rather than vampire dead? How could the dead be of any earthly help when they were no longer a part of the physical world?
As the last wisp of mist emerged from Dunleavy's bloodied body and converged with the rest, his body seemed to collapse in on itself a little and another moan escaped - this one so soft I could barely even hear it.
And it sounded like a word. Dahaki.
I blinked, wondering if I was hearing things. Wondering who or what the hell Dahaki was.
I glanced at the vid-phone, hoping it had been close enough to record the soft sound, then steeled myself mentally and looked at the mess that was his back.
In some areas, the layers of skin had been stripped as one, leaving muscles and meat totally untouched. In others, skin and muscles were a raw and ugly mess. There was blood, and lots of it, because the skin is the body's cover - it seals and protects, and blood runs rich under its surface. Which was why simple wounds often bled the worst. But to achieve something like this took skill, practice, and a razor-sharp knife. Why would Gautier bother, when he was one of the most efficient killing machines the Directorate had ever produced?
And yet, besides Dunleavy, there were only two other scents in the room. One was Gautier's. The other was more flowery and feminine, so it undoubtedly belonged to the girlfriend the old girl had mentioned.
So, if this was Gautier's handiwork, where the hell had he learned to skin a body this skillfully? Dunleavy's back might be a mess in places, but the knife work was still way above that of an amateur. Which Gautier surely would have been. He might have been off the Directorate leash for months, but was that enough time to learn the ins and outs of skinning without the benefits of a teacher?
And if he had been practicing, where were the bodies?
Then I remembered all the body parts I'd found in the factory. Maybe, if I'd taken the time to sort through the bits and pieces, I would have found skins, whole and not.
Maybe the bits and pieces weren't the result of a baby vamps feeding frenzy, but rather, Gautier's efforts to learn new and terrifying skills.
I shivered and rubbed my arms. Perhaps the more worrying thought was the fact that Gautier had obviously left the town house after dawn had risen. The old girl had said the noise all stopped hours ago, which still placed the fall of silence well after dawn. And the stickiness of the blood on the sheets and on Dunleavy's body would probably match that estimate.
Gautier was a young vamp. He shouldn't have been able to go anywhere once the sun was up, and yet it looked like he had. I had a bad feeling we'd better find out how real fast, or the shit could really hit the fan.
I took a breath and released it slowly, and let my gaze travel across Dunleavy's body. There was no obvious sign of a struggle - neither his hands nor his feet were tied, and nothing in the room was upturned or knocked over.
Which meant Gautier had used mind control to bring Dunleavy in here, and he'd obviously used it to control the girlfriend, because the old girl in the first town house had heard no shouting. So who'd been destroying the place? And why not stop that as well? Gautier was certainly powerful enough to fully control the actions of two humans. Unless, of course, he didn't want to.
It was a thought that had chills skating across my skin. Gautier didn't do anything without a reason - how often had I thought that in the past?
Frowning, I lifted my gaze from Dunleavy's body and looked around. The walk-in closet was filled with a mix of women's and men's clothing, meaning Dunleavy's girlfriend either lived here, or spent a hell of a lot of time here. But there was little else in the room. Dunleavy was a man who didn't spend a lot on furnishings, because everything in this room was bargain-basement type furniture. Either he wasn't a very successful thief, or he spent his takings on other things. Maybe the living room might hold that particular answer.
As I turned to leave the room, a tingle of awareness ran across my neck, even as the scent of musk reached my nostrils.
"Riley Jenson?" an unknown voice said. "Cole Reece, Directorate cleanup team."
I smiled at the caution in his voice. Obviously, Cole was a man who'd worked around a few too many quicktempered - or perhaps that should be quick-reacting - guardians. "In here."
Footsteps echoed down the hall - three sets, all men. The heavy weight of their steps was as much of a giveaway as their thick scent. A tall, craggy-faced man of indeterminate age appeared, his gray hair glinting silver in the harsh light streaming in through the window. His musky, spicy scent swum around me, as refreshing as an evening sea breeze in the less than aromatic atmosphere of the apartment. My hormones did an excited little shuffle - not that that took a lot of doing when the moon heat was rising.
His scent also told me he was a wolf, though not a were. Every species had its own particular scent - a base, if you like, that personal odors were built upon. Male werewolves tended to have sharper basic aroma than males of other species. Or maybe it just seemed that way to us females because we were more attuned to them. Werewolves might spend a lot of time enjoying sex, but there was a serious purpose to all the fun - no matter what other races might think. The desire to find out soul mate was patterned into our DNA, and few wolves settled down until this aim was accomplished. And playing around with other species certainly wasn't going to accomplish anything - except, perhaps, fun. But no wolf could survive on fun forever.
No matter what my brother thought.
The shifter's gaze swept the room, pausing briefly on Dunleavy before coming to rest on mine. Surprise briefly overran the caution in his pale blue eyes. "Agent Jensen?"
I nodded. "Not what you expected, huh?"
His sudden grin crinkled the corners of his eyes, making his timeworn face a lot more attractive than I'd initially figured. "Not in the least. Never knew we'd gained a werewolf guardian."
Two other men crowded into the doorway behind him. One of them swore lightly as his gaze fell on Dunleavy. The other didn't react at all. Both of them, like Cole, were shifters. One had a cat scent, the other was a bird of some kind. Neither tickled my hormones in the least. Which was a good thing - there was nothing worse than a moon heat that lusted after everything with a dick. Especially when there was work to be done.
Cole motioned with his chin to the body. "What happened?"
"He was skinned."
Cole studied me for a moment, the brief spark of amusement gone. "By you?"
"Hell, yeah. And after that, we danced a tango down the hall."
He raised an eyebrow, like he wasn't entirely believing. But then, if he'd worked with guardians for any length of time, he'd know full well what they were capable of.
And given I'd identified myself as one of their number, I guess he had a right to be wary.
"Some guardians do like their torture."
"I'm a werewolf," I said dryly. "I think I could come up with a better means of getting information from a suspect than using torture."
He looked me up and down, but in a purely nonsexual way. Much to my hormones' disappointment. "I bet you could."
If four seemingly innocent words could state an opinion, then his certainly had. He might not have called me whore straight out, but his tone had certainly implied it. If I'd been in wolf form, the hackles around my neck would be bristling right about now.
I clamped down on the rising tide of my temper, and said, as mildly as I could, "You know, werewolves get enough attitude from humans. We certainly don't need it from our own kind as well."
He stepped forward to allow the two other men entry into the room, then said, "I am not your kind. I'm a shifter."
The unspoken words practically hung in the air and flashed like a neon sign. I flexed my fingers. "You're wolf, so therefore kin, whether you like it or not. And shifters of all kinds have a high sex drive, so don't try and get all high and mighty with me."
I glanced at the vid-phone, suddenly remembering it was on and recording. Great. A permanent record of unprofessional touchiness. Not that that would surprise anyone back at the Directorate. I blew out a breath and retrieved my phone. Cole's two assistants were setting up their own recording device, so I no longer had to bother. Of course, this brought me quite a few steps closer to Cole, and his scent spun around me, warm and tantalizing.
"If you're going to investigate the remainder of the house," he said, nostrils flaring - like he was catching a scent that both attracted and repelled - "I need to set up the mobile record units."
"Then do it quickly." I pushed past him and walked down the hall. If footsteps could sound angry, mine certainly did.
Dammit, I didn't need an attraction to a man who hated what I was. I had enough of that with Quinn. Of course, the moon heat didn't give a damn about those sort of things. It just saw a craggy-faced candy it wanted to taste.
Luckily for me, the moon fever had yet to fully begin.
I stopped when I reached the living room doorway and did a sweep of the room with my still-recording phone. There had definitely been a fight in this room - furniture was upturned, the TV and glass coffee table were smashed, and books and magazines scattered everywhere. So, if Dunleavy had fought for his life, why were there no marks on his body? Or could I simply not see them because he was lying on them?
Would I even see bruises on skin that had been stripped off?
The stench of shit was stronger here than anywhere else, but again, it was more human-based than the scent I associated with Gautier. Though that was here as well, just not as strong or as fresh. As I scanned the floor, looking for the source, I saw the feet.
Female feet, to be precise. Even from where I stood, I could see the pink nail polish on some of her toes. The rest of her body was covered by the upturned couch and several layers of book and magazine wreckage.
I glanced over my shoulder. Cole was kneeling beside an opened bag, setting up the mobile recording device. Though why they called it mobile when it didn't actually move anywhere, just hung from a ceiling and recorded a three-sixty view of the room, was anyone's guess.
"There's a second body in the living room. Hurry up with that thing."
"Guardians are not supposed to interfere with investigations." His voice was short, impatient.
"I don't really care what guardians are and aren't supposed to do." Which was more of a truth than Cole would ever know - and a statement that would annoy the hell out of Jack when he heard it. Not that he'd be surprised by it, mind. "How about you quit worrying about what I'm supposed to be doing, and just put a little speed into what you're supposed to be doing?"
"If you'd shut the fuck up and let me concentrate, I might be able to."
I somehow managed to restrain my grin, and looked back at the wrecked living room. A glint in the left-hand corner of the room, near one of the rear windows, caught my eye. The sun had come out briefly from behind the clouds, and in the sudden beam of sunlight, something sparkled a pretty red. It didn't look like the sort of sparkle you got with glass. Even glass covered in blood.
Frowning, I carefully picked my way through the mess. A muttered curse followed my steps, meaning Cole still hadn't got the mobile unit together yet. I kept my phone on record and knelt near the shadows.
Sitting in the dust that had accumulated behind the now upturned TV was a ring. I recorded its position with the phone, then carefully picked it up. It was thick and silver and obviously worth a bit of money. Not the sort of thing a thief usually left lying about carelessly. So, where had it come from? Gautier? I'd never seen him wear rings or jewelry of any kind in the past. But then again, I'd never known he had a hankering for skinning before today, either. I suppose the ring could have belonged to Dunleavy - only this ring was designed for a man with thin fingers. Dunleavy had fat little sausages. And if he'd stolen it, he surely would have taken more care of it.
This ring would fit Gautier's fingers. So, was it his? And was losing it accidental or international? With that psycho, anything was possible.
When I brought it into the sunlight the engraving on the heavy, flat top revealed itself. It was a dragon with three heads, its claws wicked barbed and body snakelike. Six bloodred rubies gleamed in the dragon's eyes.
Just looking at it had chills skating across my skin and I had no idea why.
"You are not supposed to be moving evidence."
Cole's sharp voice made me jump a little. I tried to cover the movement by turning the ring over in my hand and studying the inside of it. "I recorded its position."
"That is not the point."
"No, the point is I'm stepping into your territory and you don't like it." I looked up at him then. "Get used to it, buddy, because I'm going to be messing up your life a whole lot more in months to come."
His stance stiffened a little. No male wolf likes to be challenged, especially when the challenge was as ambiguous as mine. "When the cleanup team arrives on a crime scene, they are in charge, not the paid killers."
His voice was filled with cold contempt and anger swirled through me again. People who judged en masse rather than on an individual basis annoyed the crap out of me. I was sick enough of defending my heritage to all and sundry. I didn't need to start having to defend my job as well - especially when it was a job I hadn't particularly wanted in the first place. "Well, this paid killer has never been one to follow the rules. Just ask Jack."
"Oh, I intend to."
I shook my head in disgust and looked back down at the ring. There was something written on the inside of the band, but it wasn't in a language I recognized. Actually, it looked like nothing more than a bunch of weird little symbols.
I took a photo of it then rose. Cole pressed the mobile unit against the roof, waited until the suction took hold, then hit the record button. The unit whirred to life, and one of the lenses behind the black glass sphere did a circuit around the room before coming back to rest on the two of us. From here on in, any movement and all conversation would be tracked.
"What?" he said, finally looking back at me.
I held out the ring. "Do you recognize the language?"
He took the ring and studied it intently. "Looks old Persian, but I can't be sure."
I raised an eyebrow. "Persia doesn't exist as such, anymore."
"No, but old Persian cuneiform inscriptions do exist, and they look like this."
"And how do you know that?"
"I study old-language forms in my free time."
He had to be kidding, right? "So those weird little pics are actually words?"
"Could you get a priority transcription on it, and send me the results?"
He looked at me for a moment, then moved to the door and grabbed a plastic bag from his kit. "I'll see what I can do."
I clamped down on the irritation that ran through me, and pointed toward the body. "Do you have any objections to me checking her out?"
He glanced up at the mobile unit. "Scan all elements north side of room."
I looked up in surprise. "I didn't know those things talked."
He raised an eyebrow, like he was amazed a guardian was admitting not knowing something.
I couldn't work up anything more than annoyance, though. The momentary twinkle in his pale blue eyes was just too cute for my hormones to ignore, and when they were interested in someone, everything else went out the window.
"Latest technology," he said. "I hear the labs are currently working on units that are actually mobile."
"Well, I'm sure that development will just rock your little socks off."
"Just as much as killing rocks yours, I imagine."
"Which just goes to prove some clean-team members don't have very good imaginations."
The mobile unit beeped. "Area scanned."
"Then let's go take a look, kemosabe."
He looked at me like I was weird. Obviously not a big Lone Ranger fan. I resisted the temptation to smile as he walked across the room and stopped next to the sofa covering the woman. After studying the floor for several seconds, he looked over his shoulder at me. "It's safe to move. You want to grab the other end?"
"For you, anything."
He gave me the sort of look that would surely have silenced anyone with a bit of sense. Of course, I wasn't anyone. Once again restraining my smile, I walked carefully across. This close to the woman, the scent of excrement was almost overwhelming. I wrinkled my nose and wondered how the hell Cole coped with it all. He had to hit smells far worse than this in the course of his work, which had to be a nightmare when you had a nose as sensitive as a wolfs. I couldn't imagine doing it myself - not day after day, month after month.
But then, I couldn't imagine being a guardian for the rest of my life either - and right now, that was the only option I had.
After righting the sofa, the reason for the smell became obvious. The woman was naked and lay on her back, her arms pinned underneath her body and legs akimbo. The bruising on her thighs suggested rape, and the bruising on the rest of her body said she'd fought it as hard as she could.
And whoever had raped her had ripped apart her neck and sucked the life out of her. But they hadn't been satisfied with that. Oh no. Because they'd then turned around and shit on her. The evidence of it lay between her breasts, watery and reeking to hell.
"Vampire shit," Cole said. "Very few other creatures produce excrement that diluted."
I looked up to find him studying me. "What?"
He waved a hand at the brown fluid. "That is the waste product of a vampire, and probably a baby one at that. Older vamps tend to have less color and form. Baby vamps are generally still shaking off their 'humanness' and tend to produce something vaguely resembling regular waste matter."
"Seems I learn something new about vampires every damn day." Although vampires' waste products wasn't really something I'd ever wanted to think about, let alone know.
"I've never seen a guardian look as furious as you do right now." He cocked his head a little, expression hinting at surprise and curiosity. "It's almost as if this death offends you."
"And a senseless death doesn't offend you? It doesn't offend you that some bastard shit on this woman after he'd raped and killed her?"
He shrugged. "I've seen too much for something like this to offend me."
I snorted softly. "And you think I'm the cold-blooded monster?"
"Cold-blooded killer," he amended softly. "There is a difference."
Not enough to matter, I'd warrant. I looked back at the woman and saw for the first time that she had dark skin and dark hair. This had to be Dunleavy's girlfriend if the old girl in the first flat had her descriptions right.
So, if Gautier was responsible for Dunleavy's death, who had been in here, taking care of the girlfriend?
My gaze rose to the mess of her neck, and the excrement. My stomach twisted, and an odd sense of foreboding crawled up my spine. I turned around, studying the remnants of glass and furniture scattered about the room. Eventually I found what I was looking for, facedown on the brick hearth. I rose and walked over to it.
Picked up the photo frame and saw the dark-haired woman and the child within it. I closed my eyes for a second, cursing the unfairness of fate.
"Why the interest in the photo frame?" Cole asked.
"Not the frame, but the photo within it." I turned it around and showed him. "See the child in the photo? We found her last night. She died this morning."
"So whoever did this wanted the child?"
"No, I think she was just bait." I rubbed a hand across my eyes. That's why the young vamp had stood there for so long in the rain. Gautier had wanted to ensure we'd follow. He knew we'd try and save the girl. Knew we'd try and trace her parents. Which meant, maybe, he'd wanted us to find these kills. And had wanted us to find that ring.
The question was, why?
My gaze went to the woman again, and my frown deepened. "How long has she been dead?"
Cole looked down at the body. "Rigor mortis hasn't yet set in, so she's been dead less than three hours." He met my gaze again. "Why?"
"Because the timing is all off. These two are recent kills, and yet the little girl was kidnapped much earlier." And we'd killed Gautier's little protegee last night, so it could have been him doing this. Though it was always possible that Gautier had more than one baby vamp in his nest.
But that still left the problem of how the baby vamp had gotten out of here when the sun was up. Gautier might be a young vamp, but he still would have a touch more tolerance than any youngsters he'd turned. The slightest caress of sunlight would be instant death to any one of them.
"Maybe she was kidnapped to buy their silence," Cole said.
Maybe. Dunleavy had rung yesterday evening, desperate for help. This was obviously why. If Jack had acted earlier, if the Directorate had more staff, then maybe the little girl would still be alive. Maybe even her mom and Dunleavy.
It made me wonder what they'd known. Obviously it was something of extreme value, because death had come hunting them pretty damn quick. But how did whatever they'd known connect with Gautier? And how did Gautier connect to The Cleaver?
Because it was beginning to look like he was connected, no matter what Jack said - and no matter what Gautier's so-called contest might imply.
I glanced down at the picture. It was better than looking at the real woman lying on the floor. "I think I'll go question the neighbor again. See if she saw anything earlier But please, save your cheering until I get out the door."
"A hard task, but I think I'm man enough for it." A smile teased his lips, making his craggy face and pale eyes suddenly seem warm and inviting.
"I think you're man enough for lots of things." I suddenly remembered the mobile recording unit, and resisted the urge to add more. Like, but are you man enough for me? The reality was. Cole was a wolf-shifter. He'd smell my interest. If it wasn't reciprocated, then I wasn't going to push. "You any objections to me taking this?"
"No." He hesitated. "I'll send the transcription from the ring as soon as we get it."
"And the woman's full ID, if you could."
He nodded. I turned and headed out the door. His gaze was a heated weight that centered not on my back, but on my butt. I resisted the urge to work it, and just got out of there before I got myself into trouble.
Ms. Radcliffe confirmed that the child did belong to Dunleavy's girlfriend. "When did you last see her?" I asked, wrinkling my nose at the overwhelming odor of cooking cabbage coming from the unit's interior.
"Yesterday, when that woman was taking her to kindergarten." She sniffed. "Her dad must have picked her up after. He shares custody, and just as well, too."
"You wouldn't happen to know his name, would you?"
"Robert Worthington. Lives over in Prahan, or someplace fancy like that. The kid's name is Ellana."
"And the girlfriend's name? Don't suppose you remember that?"
She sneered. "Trudi Stone. She's a part-time waitress, and a stripper at one of them men's clubs."
"Did you see anyone else come or go from the flat?"
"No." She sniffed. "But he was burning something behind the town house after all the racket had died down. Horrible smell, it was."
I remembered the burned patch outside the back door. The baby vamp, perhaps? Timing-wise, it'd probably fit, even if it made no logical sense. Why would Gautier not share whatever protection he had from the sun with his own creation? Or was it simply a case of the baby vamp having done what he was taken there for, and Gautier having no further use for him? Letting him fry in the sun was one sure way of getting rid of any evidence the Directorate might be able to use.
"Ms. Radcliffe, you've been extremely helpful. Thanks for your time."
"It's always my pleasure to help you officers."
I resisted the urge to smile, but couldn't help feeling sorry for the local cops. They were going to be seriously bombarded by the old girl's "helpful" reports over the next few days.
I retreated to my car, barely getting there before the skies opened up and the rain came down. As water pounded the windshield, I threw the photo on the seat then got out my phone and called the Directorate.
The caramel cow answered.
"Sal, Riley Jenson again. I need you to trace an ID for me."
"I'm not your personal servant," she replied coolly.
"There are proper channels to follow."
"I don't like proper channels, and I need this information quickly."
"Such requests have to be approved - "
"I haven't got the time for this shit, Sal. Just do it without arguing or I'll start whispering nasty things in Jack's car about his-hot-to-trot personal assistant." I quickly gave her Trudi's name and Dunleavy's address. "She apparently works as a waitress and part-time stripper. I need to know where."
"You are such an ass." Despite the annoyance in her tone, the soft tap of a keyboard was evident over the phone.
"But I'm an ass Jack listens to." Sometimes. I waited a few seconds, then said, "Anything?"
"Yeah. I'm sending you her profile."
"Including a working address?"
Salliane paused. "She works as a cocktail waitress at Cattle Club. There's no strip joint listed."
Meaning it was probably a cash-in-hand job at one of the underground strip joints. "Where's the Cattle Club? I've never heard of it."
"So much for you being a party animal," she said, somewhat cattily. "It's the latest hot spot."
"For weres, or for vamps who have the hots for their boss?"
"Humans, asshole. Anything else?"
"Nope. Such a pleasure talking to you again, Sal."
"Bite my ass, wolf girl."
She hung up and I grinned. I was going to get into trouble if I continued riling her, I knew that, but damn, it was fun. She was wound so tight her face would surely crack if she smiled. But at least she was efficient. I'd barely hung up when the information about Trudi Stone came through. I studied her file for several seconds, noting there was no criminal history and seemingly nothing out of the ordinary about her.
The daughter got a mention, as did the ex. I typed in a note asking that the dad be notified about the death of his little girl, then put the Cattle Club's name into the nav-computer and got the address and driving directions.
The club sat in the middle of the city's famed King Street dance club district, an area that was basically the human equivalent of werewolf clubs - but without the free sex. Though apparently was available, if you had ready cash and didn't mind a quickie in the alley or a nearby car. Part of me wondered if Trudi had been a part of that scene. I wouldn't entirely have been surprised if she was. In the file photo, her eyes had held that world-weary, bleak sort of look that hookers who'd been in the game for a while got.
Had the information she'd been killed for come from a client, or from somewhere else? Was the Cattle Club the connection at all, or was it the strip joint we knew nothing about?
The only way to know was to go there and snoop. While it was now early afternoon, I had no doubt the club would be open. Most of the King Street venues now had twenty-four-hour licenses, and served food, alcohol, and the promise of a good time to any who entered. It wasn't unusual to have lunchtime lines almost as long as the nighttime ones, as those on midday breaks tried to get inside for a little action. Trouble was, I wouldn't get in dressed as casually as I was, not without flashing my ID - and I had a feeling that was something I'd better avoid until I scoped out the place.
Clairvoyance, I thought, as I started up the car, truly sucked. I mean, if it was going to feed me little warnings, it could at least add why.
I headed home and changed into something a little more upmarket and sexy, then grabbed my thickest coat and drove on to the club.
There was a line out the front, but not a huge one. The rain was still coming down intermittently and the wind that whipped down King Street was icy, blasting away at the flyaway ends of my long woolen coat. By the time I got to the door, my bare legs had an almost blue tinge. Considering the red hair, it wasn't a good look.
"You're looking a little cold," the bright spark manning the door said as he opened it.
"You'd better have coffee inside, or things could get ugly," I said, through chattering teeth. God, the things I did for my job.
The bouncer chuckled, white teeth positively glowing compared to his dark skin. "Fresh made on the hour and thick enough to stand a spoon in."
"And that's a good thing?"
"It'll warm the cockles of your heart right quick."
"Well, my cockles definitely need warming."
He looked me up and down, his gaze lingering just a little on the plunging neckline of my dark green cashmere sweater. "Hard for me to judge that with the coat you've got on." He grinned, brown eyes twinkling. "There's a cloakroom inside, if you want to ditch it."
"I do. Thanks."
He nodded and closed the door behind me. I stopped, waiting until my eyes adjusted to the sudden darkness before checking my coat and heading down the steps into the club proper.
The main room had a retro feel and was bigger than I'd expected. A primary-colored, well-lit bar curved around a good part of the room and was lined with old-fashioned silver stools. Funky disco balls sprayed rainbow colors across the large dance floor, and in the semidarkness that lined the remaining walls were sunken couches and old-fashioned diner tables, complete with booth seating. The music itself was a loud mix of dance and techno. Not my taste, but at least ignorable. Maybe they turned down the volume during the day.
I scanned the shadows. There were lots of people inside - the line outside was testament to that - but the sheer size of the room leant a feeling a space that few clubs could boast. Me, I liked my clubs crowded. All that flesh to flesh was a pleasure my wolf soul adored.
I walked over to the bar and propped on one of the stools. The bartender walked up from the other end, a polite smile touching his Asian features. "What can I do for you, pretty lady?"
"The man at the door promised me coffee strong enough to warm the cockles." I raised an eyebrow, a smile teasing my lips. "I'm here to see if the coffee lives up to that promise."
Amusement touched his lush lips and dark eyes, and my hormones sat up and took notice. "Cold outside, huh?"
"Goddamn freezing." I let my gaze slip down his back as he walked across to the coffee machine and grabbed a mug. Good shoulders. Nice ass. Shame this wasn't a wolf club - I caught the thought and shoved it away. I was here to work, not amuse giddy hormones.
Awareness shone in the deep brown depths of his eyes. He knew full well I'd been checking him out and wasn't in the least bit fazed. Maybe even appreciated it. "White and one, thanks."
He nodded, filled the cup, then walked back. I have to say, the packaging looked just as good from the front, too. He slid the coffee across the red-lit countertop, but waved away my money. "If you're going to be here a few hours, we'll run a tab and you can pay when you leave."
"Thanks." I lifted the mug, wrapping my hands around it to warm them up. One sip proved the security guy hadn't been kidding. The coffee was like sludge - thick and strong but surprisingly tasty.
"So, it lives up to its rep?" the bartender asked, watching my expression with increasing amusement.
"I think it's safe to say I've never tasted anything like it. But it certainly warms the cockles." I grinned and held out a hand. "I'm Riley."
His fingers were warm against mine, his palms calloused and grip strong. Not the hands of someone who did bartending for a living. "You tend bar here often?"
He shrugged as he grabbed a tea towel and began polishing glasses. "Couple of times a week. It's good money for casuals."
"Ah." I took a sip of the coffee. "That's probably why I haven't seen you before."
"You come here often, then?"
Something flashed on his left hand as he picked up another glass. A ring of some kind. Luckily, it was on his index finger rather than his ring finger. I hated flirting with someone who was married. Just a waste of everyone's time.
"Sometimes." I grinned. "I got personal attention from a yummy bartender then, too."
"We're the friendly type here." He studied me for a moment, interest still very evident. "That why you're here today?"
"Actually, no. I'm here to catch up with an old friend who works here part-time."
"What's his name?"
"Her name. Trudi Stone." I studied him, but caught no reaction to her name. Though why I was expecting one, I couldn't say.
"Hang on a sec, and I'll go check when she's next on." He walked down to the middle of the bar, served a man who was giving me a more than casual look over, then disappeared inside a small office. He came back out a few seconds later. "According to the roster, she isn't back on until tomorrow night."
"Damn, I swear she said she was on today." I put the coffee down and crossed my arms on the counter, leaning forward a little to give him a better view of my breasts. Hey, he was sexy, and I might as well enjoy myself while scavenging around for information. I certainly couldn't risk trying to read his mind here - not when there were security cameras everywhere. My telepathy might be strong, but anyone could be watching, and it would only take one person to notice the momentary stillness of the bartender as I searched his mind for things to go ass up. Better to do that sort of thing when I had him alone. "So, when are you back on?"
His gaze went from my face to my boobs and back again. Amusement curved his very kissable lips. "When do you want me on?"
"How about tonight?"
"It'd be my pleasure."
I raised an eyebrow. "It had better be mine, too."
He chuckled softly. "Oh, I guarantee it. But I do need a contact number."
"If you've got the pen, I've got the number."
He produced a pen and a bit of paper from under the desk and slid both across the counter with his left hand. For the first time, the ring on his finger was fully visible.
On the flat silver surface was a three-headed dragon with wicked claws and bloodred eyes.
Just like the ring I'd found in the dust at Dunleavy's place.