Authors: Jess Haines
No matter what I did, who I chose to work for, or what choices I made, I’d be pissing somebody off. I had my pick between The Circle, Royce, or the White Hats. The White Hats were obviously an unstable element, considering they thought I’d be more amenable to joining their fun and games at knifepoint. The Circle had me in a contractual pinch I wouldn’t be able to break out of with any ease. Royce would probably hit the roof as soon as he figured out what I was really after. Each and every one of them had the resources and clout to make my life miserable or even make me disappear. One, or more, of them would have a reason to want me to, once I made a move.
I wandered back to my bed and sat down on the edge, staring blankly at the wall. My hands had started shaking again. Right now, Royce seemed like my safest bet, seeing as he was the only one of the three who hadn’t threatened me.
I was so dead…
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
To my unofficial number one fan, Binah, and all the friends who supported me through the publishing process. You know who you are. To my tireless cheerleader, Mom. To my compadre, caffeine, followed closely by his sidekick, chocolate. I love you guys!
A special word of thanks to my agent, Ellen Pepus, and to my editor, John Scognamiglio (along with the rest of the team at Kensington). Words cannot express my appreciation for all your time, advice, patience and hard work. Thank you so much for helping me bring the world of the Others to life.
Long, delicate fingers caressed the stem of a wineglass, trailing upward to catch a few small beads of condensation on the glass. Sultry eyes the color of the sky during a summer storm bored into me from across the cloth-covered table, with all of the woman’s not-inconsiderable power of compulsion behind them. I knew what she was trying to do, which didn’t make it any easier to resist.
Taking a deep breath, I forced my gaze away as nonchalantly as I could to look through the bay window beside our table. Staring at the rippling black waters of a little man-made pond, dotted with reflected lights and a single white swan, beat falling into a black enchant by looking into Veronica’s eyes. The bird floated, serene and oblivious, as a laughing young couple threw bits of bread at it to try to lure it closer.
Swans were pretty but vicious if you got too close. Much like my dinner companion.
She was still waiting oh-so-breathlessly for my reply. With a sigh, I dragged my attention off the sights outside and back to the mage, careful not to meet her gaze directly.
“Look, it’s not that I don’t need the money, but I don’t kill vampires for magi. First and foremost, I’m human. I can’t compete with you guys. Second, I’m a private detective, not an assassin. Not to mention that it’s still illegal to kill vamps without a signed warrant.”
It took every ounce of willpower I had not to look into those overbright eyes and change my mind. Hey, I hated vampires as much as the next human, but I wasn’t about to go
hunt one down
like a crazy person and get myself killed. My job was scary enough as it was without adding angry vampires to the list of stalkers trying to get a piece of my hide to make up for the grief I caused them.
“Shiarra, I’m not asking you to kill him. Just,” Veronica paused, her persuasive tones trailing off into a throaty “hmm” before she continued, “just find out what he’s up to. Detain him if necessary. Find the location of a little trinket for us. My coven will take care of the rest.”
Her cherry lips curved in a smile more predatory than any vamp’s, her pinkish tongue darting out to run suggestively along her upper lip once she noticed that was where my attention was focused. God, I hate magi.
In the back of my mind, I wondered darkly why Jenny, our receptionist-slash-bookkeeper, had set this appointment without checking with me first. Belatedly recalling that she went over the bills with my business partner on a regular basis, I realized she must have decided the need to pay our bills outweighed my likely moral outrage. Under any other circumstances, the moment I found out a potential client was an Other, I walked. Jenny knew this. She also knew that since money was so tight, I’d probably at least agree to hear the mage out.
After finding out what she wanted, though, I was starting to regret agreeing to stay through dinner.
“I know I made the news with that whole Were incident at the Embassy last month, but honestly, that was my first run-in with supernaturals. I don’t have the experience or the equipment to deal with vampires.”
I tried to sound reasonable, though I was afraid I was coming across more testy and frightened. This woman really put me on edge, though I tried to tell myself it was what she was asking me to do, not the aura and crackle of magic surrounding her, that did it. Maybe it had something to do with her coming on to me? Either way, I didn’t like it.
“Frankly, I don’t think you could pay me enough to put my life on the line against a vampire. Shouldn’t you be getting a half-blood? Or another mage to deal with him?”
Little furrows appeared between those perfectly shaped brows of hers. Her hair was a lovely mahogany shade that didn’t quite match the dark brown of those eyebrows, framing her delicate, oval face. I hated that she could pull the look off so effortlessly. My hopelessly curly red hair would never look as sleek and sophisticated as her artfully careless ’do. It was probably spelled to look that way.
“The Ageless would know us for our magic. That wouldn’t work at all. A half-blood would kill first, ask questions later. Same with a Were.” She paused, thinking. “Unless, of course, he killed them first.”
I leaned back in the chair, crossing my arms over my chest. “Not really helping your cause here.”
The woman started tapping her perfectly manicured nails on the table, leaning back as she eyed me anew. Something in that look told me wheels were turning and her plans were changing. Uh-oh.
“A human is our only chance. You have no taint of magic, no scent of change on you. You also now have some familiarity with, and have proven yourself capable against, supernaturals.”
For a moment, Veronica’s lip curled faintly in a sneer, venomous but gone almost as soon as it appeared. I would have missed it if I hadn’t been staring at her lips and nose, avoiding looking directly into her eyes. Her features resumed that intent predatory look that told me she was only barely hiding her contempt for the lowly pure-blood human, doing what she could to put me on edge. Sadly, it was working.
“As I said, we do not want him dead, just watched. You can get close without fear of injury, since he has plenty of willing donors and is known for his restraint. The worst that could happen is you being banned from his places of business.”
It was my turn to tap my nails. “Aside from an abrupt, painful death, that
the worst thing that could happen to me. Alec Royce owns half the nightclubs and restaurants in the city. Those are the places I go to track my marks.”
I glanced at my watch in an effort to give her the hint that I wasn’t going to stick around much longer for this crazy talk, even if she was picking up the tab.
She gave an overly dramatic sigh, no longer hiding her annoyance. She dropped the sickly sweet tones she’d been affecting and finally put a cap on the damn aura she’d been exuding since this dinner started. No wonder the waiter hadn’t come to refill our glasses in almost an hour.
“Shiarra Waynest, you forget yourself. The other half of the city belongs to The Circle, and we are more than prepared to compensate you. Fifty thousand, plus expenses, and an extra ten thousand if you find what we’re looking for. Five thousand up front, and your pick of equipment from The Circle’s own security vaults. We’ll give you protection, and more work if you do well at this job.”
I sat back, speechless. Five grand to start? My usual take only came out to two thousand, sometimes up to four if it the job was tricky or somewhat dangerous. Plus equipment? Expenses? Maybe this really
a godsend in disguise. I wondered if she might know that I had debt up to my ears and a car payment that was killing me. Plus I think my PI license was about due for renewal, and let’s not forget taxes coming just around the bend. Mental note: get Jenny a very, very nice thank-you card and a bonus.
Taking my stunned silence as a bad sign, Veronica narrowed her eyes and threw another bone on the table. “Is that too little? Fine, make it ten if you get the information, and another twenty if you find the location of the artifact.”
Lifting my napkin up to my mouth to hide the fact that I couldn’t snap my jaw shut, I took just a moment to close my eyes, take a breath, and remind myself that I’d be walking right into a death trap if I took this job. I thought bleakly about the stack of bills that seemed to grow larger every day. Most unsettling was the one from my landlord that had appeared in my mailbox a few days back. I hadn’t quite been able to bring myself to open it yet. My cut of the deposit for this job would be enough to cover the demands of my landlord, and maybe a few of the other creditors demanding a good chunk of my income.
Though I couldn’t help but feel I was betraying something inside myself, something important, I gave her the words she wanted to hear, however grudgingly. “I’ll do it. What is it I’m looking for?”
Veronica leaned back in her chair and smiled grimly, a sly light in her eyes. I really hoped I would live long enough to regret this.
The next morning, my partner stared at me in shock over the scarred and pitted kitchen table in the tiny break room of our office, coffee mug paused inches from her lips. Sara Halloway blinked as if trying to clear her vision—to make sure she was really seeing what was in front of her.
“Run that by me one more time. Slowly.”
I rubbed a hand down my face, groaning as I tried to figure out how to explain my reasoning to her without sounding like I’d finally gone off the deep end.
“I know. I can’t believe I took the job either.”
I reached into the back pocket of my jeans and carefully smoothed out the crumpled check on the table, staring down at the five grand under my fingertips so I wouldn’t have to face Sara’s disbelief. I had enough of my own.
“What is it you’re supposed to be looking for exactly? You know it’s got to be dangerous if they’re paying so much.”
“Paying so much? This is a drop in the bucket to The Circle.”
Shaking my head, I brushed a few loose tendrils out of my eyes before reaching for my own coffee on the table. “Anytime a vampire or spark is involved, it’s dangerous. You mean more dangerous than that? Sure, I’m positive whatever it is will get me killed if I don’t watch my back. It may be worth the risk. I can always back out if things get too hairy.”
She made a rude noise, but at least she wasn’t giving me grief for my little racial epithet, calling the mage a spark.
“It’s part of the arrangement. I can keep the nonrefundable deposit on my services.” I flicked a few fingers, while carefully cradling the coffee mug, to point to the check. “I can end the contract at any time at my discretion if it looks like my life is on the line. Veronica e-mailed me the paperwork right after dinner. I looked it over last night; it’s clear and concise, and damned if it isn’t actually a fair deal.”
Sara’s clear blue eyes narrowed, thoughtful rather than annoyed. “What equipment are they going to give you? Did she say?”
I shrugged. I had plenty of my own equipment, so it was doubtful I’d be using any of The Circle’s stuff anyway.
“No, not really. Just ‘my pick of the security vaults’—whatever that means.”
Her soft harrumph was reassuring. That meant she was mulling it over and wouldn’t bug me about it too much more until she had a chance to work it out in her own head. Maybe she was starting to see the same twisted sense in the plan that I had.
Pressing on, I added, “Honestly, it doesn’t seem that dangerous a job. All she asked me to do was find out what I could about some artifact.”
The speculative look returned. “Did she tell you anything about it?”
I nodded. “A little. She showed me a picture. It’s a black stone about the size of a man’s fist, carved into a lizard-bat thing. Little rubies for eyes. Older than dirt, powerful, priceless, blah blah blah.”
Sara narrowed her eyes again, only this time in that dangerous don’t-even-try-me look. “Elaborate on that blah, blah, blah thing.”
“She didn’t tell me what it’s for or what it can do. She did say I’ll have to get my way into Royce’s good graces to find out more about it. Including where it might be hidden.”
A look of horror crossed her face. It would’ve been comical if my own face hadn’t mirrored her expression last night when I’d come to the same conclusion she just did. “You mean you’ll have to talk to the leech directly? Face to face? You’re crazy!”
“Not that crazy.” I tried to keep from showing outward signs of the sudden fear-induced surge of adrenaline her words gave me. “Reporters interview him all the time with no problems. He frequently makes appearances at his nightclubs and restaurants. There’s never been any kind of incident except last year when that White Hat tried to stake him at the opening of his new restaurant,
La Petite Boisson
. Remember that?”
Wow, go me. My voice didn’t crack or quiver even once getting all that out.
She chuckled, her crystalline blue eyes glinting with mirth. “Oh yes, I think I do. The one who knocked the mayor’s wife into the punchbowl, right?”
I smiled back, losing some tension. “That’s the one. Everything went backward for the White Hats after that. Poor, misjudged, minority vampires…”
“Yeah, I think she even kissed him on the cheek after for helping her up and making light of the whole thing. The tabloids loved it.” Sara’s expression hardened, and I braced myself for what I knew was coming next. “You know he’s still dangerous. I mean, Christ. Come on. A vampire?” An ominous, suspicious pause. “How exactly were you planning on meeting him anyway?”
I couldn’t help but redden a bit under her scrutiny. It doesn’t help that I blush easily with my pale skin, but the topic was making me more uncomfortable by the moment. “I was going to go in as a restaurant and nightclub guide reviewer or journalist. There’s a whole calendar of events on his website on when he makes appearances at his clubs. I figured it would be the best way to go in and get a chance to talk with him.”
She shook her head, frowning. I was about to protest, but she cut me off. “That will never work. He’s got press agents and marketing people to deal with the journalists. Not to mention his security. They’d spot you coming a mile away since you work that beat, and you’re more high profile after that thing at the Embassy. You may not have noticed since they usually leave us alone when we’re in his clubs, but that’s only because we generally don’t hassle the clientele.”
It was my turn to frown, more in consternation than anything. I’d thought the journalism thing was a stroke of genius on my part. “What do you suggest?”
She grinned at me in a way that suggested I really wasn’t going to like her idea. “Go exactly as you are. No pretenses.”
An incredulous laugh burst from my lips. “Are you kidding me? First, he’d laugh in my face before banning me. Second, what in the nine hells makes you think he’ll actually talk to me if I go now versus the other few hundred times I’ve visited his clubs?”
“Shia, don’t doubt me.” That know-it-all look somehow managed to get even more smug. “I know exactly how to do it.”