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Not a place I'd want to live, but then, disorder and I were comfortable companions.
I walked through the gates and up to the white marble steps, my footsteps echoing harshly in the cavernous entrance. The tall metal doors were stippled, the surface so highly polished that I had to squint against the brightness of the sunshine bouncing off them. I pressed the button to the right of the massive doors, and somewhere deep inside the house a sound rang out, reminding me somewhat of an old church bell.
I waited for several seconds, listening to the silence within the house and wondering if I'd even hear the approach of the old vampire. They could move with ghostly silence when they wanted to, though most vampires never bothered. Stealthy vamps tended to spook most humans, and given that many humans still weren't overly fond of vampires and their current place in society, spooking them often led to violence. That was never a good thing-for both the human and the reputation of vamps in general.
No one seemed to be answering the door, so I rang the doorbell again. Still no answer.
I stepped back and looked up at the massive windows. I wasn't sure what I was looking for, because I certainly wouldn't see a vampire standing there looking down at me. Even one as old as Armel couldn't withstand the sunshine that would currently be streaming in through the glass. Quinn could, but then, he was over four hundred years older than Armel. Which wasn't a whole lot of years in vampire terms, but apparently those extra years made a huge difference when it came to sunshine-immunity.
I looked back at the door, then grabbed my vid-phone and rang Jack.
"Don't tell me you're going to be late," he said by way of greeting. "I will not be happy if you are."
"I'm not late-"
"Miracle of miracles."
"I'm at Armel's. He not answering the door."
Jack frowned. "He's expecting you, so he should be there."
"Maybe he is. Maybe he's gone to sleep early." I hesitated, pressing the doorbell for a third time, just in case he was sleeping. "What do you want me to do, boss?"
"Try opening the door."
I did so. The knob turned easily in my hand and the huge door pushed open with barely a whisper of sound. "What's his surname?"
I moved the phone away from my mouth, and said, "Mr. Lambert? Riley Jenson here to see you."
"Any response?" Jack asked, voice terse.
"No." I stepped through the doorway and sucked in the air, letting the various flavors run across my tongue. I quickly discovered one that was all too familiar. "I can smell blood, Jack."
He swore softly. "Investigate. I'll be there in twenty minutes."
"Jack, it's after nine-"
"I'll be fine," he snapped, and hung up.
I blew out a breath and shoved the phone back into my pocket, then stepped farther into the wooden-floored hallway. No one challenged my appearance. The house remained as quiet as a grave.
I hoped that it hadn't become one, too.
Though my footsteps were soft, the rubber heels on my shoes squeaked lightly and the sound echoed across the stark silence. If there was someone alive in this place-someone other than me-then I wasn't sensing him. But I couldn't sense anything dead, either. The only reason to suspect something was wrong was the thick scent of blood.
Large rooms led off the hallway-a dining room, living room, and the biggest library I've ever seen. At the far end of the hall stood a staircase, the chrome balustrade curving gently upward to the next floor. Somewhere up there was the source of the blood.
I stopped with one foot on the bottom step. "Mr. Lambert, are you up there?"
I didn't expect an answer and I didn't get one. After a moment's hesitation, I grabbed the handrail and began to climb. There was a runner on the stairs, so the squeak of my shoes was silenced, and a deep sense of gloom seemed to descend. Or maybe that was just my pessimistic nature coming to the fore.
The carpet continued on the next floor. I walked past several doorways, not bothering to look inside, following my nose to the source of the blood.
I found it in the end room, in what looked like a study.
Or rather, I found him.
I had no doubt it was Jack's friend who lay dead on the floor beneath the open safe. He seemed about the same age, and had a regal sort of look that befitted his name. His face was angular, filled with lines that spoke of a life enjoyed, his skin lightly tanned despite the fact that he wouldn't have been able to take much sun.
In life, he would have been imposing. In death, he looked small and sad.
Especially with his head and legs separated from his body.
The blood I'd smelled had pooled mostly near his legs, but there wasn't a whole lot of it. Not a body's worth, anyway. Someone had cut them off and bled him out before he'd killed him. This in itself wouldn't have completed the job of killing him, simply because a vampire could survive wounds that would kill most nonhumans. Even breaking a vampire's neck wouldn't actually kill him, though it would incapacitate him, and this in itself could be deadly. But completely severing the head was a different matter altogether-no vampire could recover from that. Not even one as old as Armel.
I glanced around the room. Beyond the open safe, which only had a few scattered papers in it, the room seemed undisturbed. The windows were locked, and the sunlight streaming in through the glass highlighted the darkening pools of blood and little else. There was hardly anything in the way of mess and yet something felt very wrong here. Not just the death, and not just the fact that there didn't seem to be any reason for it, but something in the air itself. An energy that felt powerful, and yet very wicked.
I shivered and rubbed my arms. Armel might have called Jack about spirits, but I doubted a ghostly apparition had been responsible for this. Besides, how would a ghost cut off someone's legs or head?
This mightn't have started off as a proper Directorate case, but it sure was now.
I stepped around his body and walked over to the safe. Beyond the few scattered papers, there was nothing inside. I doubted Armel would have had a safe installed if he didn't actually put things of value in it, so it was a fair bet that this had probably been a murder-slash-robbery. The safe didn't appear to be tampered with in any way, so either Armel had opened it for the thieves, or he'd caught them in the midst of the job.
But if that was the case, why was there no sign of fighting? No vampire went to his death willingly, and I couldn't imagine Armel simply lying still while someone hacked off his legs and head.
So what the hell had happened?
Frowning slightly, I stepped away from the safe and walked across to one of the large windows. I had to squint against the brightness of the sunlight streaming in through the glass, but it did little to warm the chill from my flesh. Shivering, I dug my phone out of my pocket and called the Directorate.
Sal answered. "What's up, wolf girl?"
"I need a cleanup team sent to my current location."
She didn't say anything for a moment, and when she did, there was a slight catch in her voice. "Armel's dead?"
"Yeah." I hesitated. "You knew him?"
"He was one of my lovers."
That surprised me. Not the fact that she had more than one lover-vampires couldn't survive on each other's blood, so while they often had vampire lovers, they also kept a harem of other races. And while some of them, like Quinn, preferred to keep their harems to a minimum, many did not. What did surprise me was the fact that Armel was one of Sal's men. Given that she had the hots for Jack something bad, I would have thought that fucking his best friend was a bad idea. Friends didn't take from friends-and Jack, from what I could gather, was more of a traditionalist like Quinn than the free-for-all man Armel had apparently been.
"I'm sorry to be the bearer of sad news, Sal."
"I figured it was bad when Jack rushed out of here." She hesitated. "Was it at least quick?"
I looked across at the decapitated body, at the blood pooled near the remains of his legs. "I don't think so."
She took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. "Get the bastards for me, wolf girl. Make them pay."
"I think I'll have to beat Jack to that task."
Her laugh had an edge that spoke of barely controlled pain. "Yeah, you probably will. I've reassigned Cole and his team. The boss will want the best on this one."
She hung up. I shoved the phone back into my pocket, then grabbed the nearest curtain and pulled it closed. The sunlight retreated from Armel's body, keeping him whole for Cole and his team when they got here.
I walked back out into the hall then stopped. The air out here was no fresher, the scent of blood seeming to drift everywhere, but that wasn't what I was looking for. I sorted through the differing scents, recognizing and discarding a dozen or so before I found the odd one I'd sensed in the study. The scent of wrongness. Of wickedness.
It was strange that such a thing could have an actual scent, but then, fear and anger did, and they were often stronger than life-affirming emotions like lust and happiness.
I followed my nose and ended up in one of the bedrooms. It had to be Armel's-the color scheme and furniture were very masculine, although the four-poster bed and accompanying draperies were not.
The scent stopped midway into the room. The owner of that scent had stood here, possibly staring at the bed but going no further. My gaze shifted to the nightstand. An expensive gold watch sat there, as did a wallet. If robbery was the reason for this murder, why not take those as well?
Frowning, I continued on to the disheveled bed. The dents in the pillows suggested that Armel had not been alone. I couldn't smell the other person's scent, but maybe its sheer evilness was overwhelming everything else. Because I certainly couldn't smell Armel in here, either, and I should have.
I picked up his wallet, blew off some dust-which was also odd-and had a quick look. Beyond the thick wad of cash, there were credit and ATM cards, as well as a collection of cards-both business and personal.
And the thief, who'd come in here and stared at the bed, had left all this sitting here.
This was definitely a weird one.
I turned around and walked back downstairs, checking the other rooms as I went and finding nothing out of place and no indication that someone else had been in the house. Except for that out-of-place scent and the dent in the pillows, Armel seemed to have been alone.
I walked to the front door to wait for Jack. He arrived in a dark van a few minutes later. The driver crashed through the carefully constructed garden beds as he maneuvered the van as close to the front entrance as possible. The van's side door opened, and I had a brief glimpse of Jack before he blurred and raced toward the door.
I stepped back out of his way, then slammed the door closed once he'd entered, stopping the sunshine from streaking into the hallway.
"Where's the body?" he said, face and bald head pink with sunburn despite his efforts.
"Upstairs." I hesitated. "Boss, it's not pretty-"
"I didn't expect it to be." He glanced up the stairs, his expression hard and grim. "Has a cleanup team been called?"
"Cole is on his way."
He grunted. "You need to get back to the Directorate and write up a report for last night. And check break-ins for this area, to see if we've got a pattern occurring."
Normally I would have argued, not only because I hated leaving crime scenes before I got a first impression from the cleanup team, but because I didn't like being stuck in the office doing paperwork. But the pain so obvious in Jack's green eyes suggested he wanted time alone to grieve for his friend.
I turned to leave, then hesitated. "Boss, there's an odd smell in both the bedroom and the study upstairs. You might want to call in the magi to investigate it."
He nodded and I left without another word.
The roads were still clogged with traffic, so it took longer than it should have to get back to the Directorate. I bought four coffees from Beans, the little coffee shop that had opened next to the Directorate building, then headed down to the level that held the guardian division's main office area and the cell we called a squad room. Sal was sitting at her desk in the main room, so I walked in and offered her a coffee. She took it with some trepidation, taking a sniff then saying, "Hazelnut?"
"Cures all hurts, if only temporarily," I said, and headed out.
I'd almost reached the door when she said, "Thanks, Riley."
I gave her a half-wave and continued on to the squad room. Both Kade and Iktar were there, the horse man squinting at the computer and the spirit lizard sitting in the corner, the outline of his body fading into the shadows. It was somewhat disconcerting to see, but given that Iktar preferred to study his case files that way, we'd almost become used to it.
I handed them both a coffee, then plonked my butt down on the corner of Kade's desk. Of course, this bought me into close proximity to the heated scent of him. Kade might be out of bounds-thanks to both Jack's rules and my own desire to remain as true as possible to Quinn-but that didn't stop desire from stirring, especially when the moon was heating my blood.
"I think you'd better get your eyes checked. Your squinting is getting worse."
"It's not my eyes, it's lack of sleep," he said, leaning back in his chair and rubbing a hand across eyes that were bloodshot and baggy. "It's the fucking babies. They won't sleep."
I grinned. "Well, you're the one who wouldn't keep his little swimmers to himself. I have no sympathy for you."