Authors: Jess Haines
Follow a stranger in a vamp-run bar? I hesitated, but only for a moment. Figuring it beat waiting around to try to spot Royce myself or for James to have a spare moment to help me, I did as he asked. As I followed him toward the back of the club, I managed to take note that he looked almost as good from the back as he did from the front. My, my. If these were the sorts of people in Royce’s entourage, maybe I needed to come by more often, if for nothing more than the eye candy. I wondered if the guy was security or vamp chow.
We weaved through the crowds, working our way to an elevator hidden around a bend I’d never cared enough to explore before. Once inside, he pulled out a key and used it to unlock the button for what I noted was a heretofore-unknown fifth floor. Even in the elevator, I could hear music pounding through, making it seem somehow uncomfortable to start talking just yet. As the elevator “pinged” almost imperceptibly, he reached forward to hold the doors and gestured for me to precede him.
I stepped into a silent, well-lit hallway with a number of thick mahogany doors leading to what were presumably management offices. It felt like stepping into a different world. The austere design would have looked more at home in a well-to-do law firm than a nightclub. There was no music once the elevator doors slid shut, only the soft burble of water flowing over rocks from a little fountain sitting on a low table.
The man slid past me and led the way to the last of the doors at the end of the hall. There was no sign to indicate whose office it was. He opened the door, flipped the light switch, and stepped inside.
It was a pristine white-carpeted, white-walled space, with two chrome-and-leather chairs facing a sleek black desk, and two black leather couches surrounding a gleaming marble table. He gestured for me to sit on one of the couches, which I did, a bit stiffly, holding on to the bottle of water since I didn’t see any coasters and wasn’t about to chance pissing off the vamp by getting spots on his nice, shiny table.
As I sat, I noticed a little wet bar in one of the corners, with two gleaming chrome barstools set before it. There were no papers on the desk, nothing but a pen, a desk calendar, and a silver paperweight shaped into a little pyramid. No computer? No phone? Odd.
The walls were hung with tasteful paintings of English riders and hunting scenes. A few potted plants, mostly ivies and ferns, added some color to the room. The view behind the desk was fantastic, overlooking the moonlit river spilling out into the ocean. Somehow the mix between sleek modern sophistication and rustic English lord came together into an unexpectedly comfortable workplace. I don’t know what I expected of an office for Royce, but I don’t think this was really it.
After I’d taken it all in, I said, “Thank you for showing me up here. I hope this isn’t much trouble for you. Will Royce be long?”
He chuckled, pulling the door shut and walking over to take a seat on the couch next to the one I’d chosen. He surprised me yet again when he leaned back and propped his combat-booted feet on the table.
“He’s here. What did you want to ask me, Ms. Waynest?”
Oh God. Oh God, oh God, oh God.
Alone in his office. Alone with a vampire.
, I’d checked out his butt!
Seeing my mouth drop open and my sudden speechlessness, he grinned, giving me an unnecessarily good view of sharp, pearly canines. They weren’t much longer than a normal human’s, since they weren’t extended to feed just now, but the razor tips were obvious, if only to me.
“Surprised, I see. Not to worry, I know you’re here for business rather than pleasure. I take it you weren’t expecting to see me under quite these circumstances, hmm?”
“Uh, no, not exactly.”
Not in leather pants and a netted, see-through shirt. Not looking quite that good, or so…alive, I suppose. Which for some reason made me sort of suspicious. He had approached me first and now called me by name. I knew I’d never met him before. Why would he come to me?
“How did you know who I was?”
He shrugged, sitting back comfortably and lacing his hands behind his head. His eyes never left mine, though, and it was getting more unnerving by the second.
“I make it a point to familiarize myself with others using my places of business to further their own ends. Forgive me for saying so, but you are much more lovely in person. Your picture in the paper last month did not do you justice.”
I could feel the heat and color rising in my cheeks. I would
let his flattery sidetrack me. Turning my head so my red curls hid the obvious blush on my pale skin, I started fumbling in my pockets to find the photo I’d brought with me. How could a vamp’s skin tone be darker than mine?
“I—listen, I actually wanted to just ask for your help. H&W Investigations has taken on a client whose son is missing. He was last seen fleeing his home in the company of a vampire.”
The flat words weren’t encouraging. He didn’t move, or say anything else. It was almost eerie. That was when I noticed out of the corner of my eye that his chest did not rise and fall to take a breath. He wasn’t bothering to “play human” for me now. Great.
Finally finding the picture, I dragged it out of my back pocket, only slightly creased from the abuse I’d put it through by carrying it back there. “This is the boy, David Borowsky, and his girlfriend Tara. Do either of them look familiar to you?”
I couldn’t help but shudder when his fingers brushed against mine as he leaned forward to take the picture. His gaze flicked from the picture to me, then returned to focus fully on the photograph. A low “hmph” escaped him, his coal black brows slowly furrowing and a frown forming on his forehead. “She’s not one of my number. Nor one of any of my current guests’ flock. She’s poaching.”
. Just hearing him use that word so casually to mean taking the life of another human being made me feel ill.
At my silence, he glanced back to me again, still frowning. “I will assist you in finding her. You should get a warrant for her extermination. Do you have the connections?”
I shook my head, almost unable to believe my luck. This would tie him to me for a few days at least, possibly leading to the opening I needed to find that little figurine. I wondered why he recognized me but didn’t already know that I don’t do exterminations. H&W specializes in lost persons, tracking, surveillance, and photographing and videoing our marks. Sara and I left the rest up to our clients or the police if we discovered wrong-doing in the line of duty. My contacts at the local police stations were all pretty casual, not enough to get a warrant on short notice.
“Then I shall handle that for you.” He pointed at the photograph. “May I keep this?”
“Sure,” I croaked, feeling way in over my head. What the hell was I doing, partnering up with a vampire on a run?
“Very well. I’m sure we have the information on file somewhere, but would you mind giving me your card in case I need to contact you on the matter? I’ll give you my direct number as well.”
He rose with glacial slowness to head over to his desk, pick up the pen, and open a drawer to pull out a business card. Probably moving that way on purpose to keep from scaring me further. He scrawled something on the back of it and came back over to the couch. We exchanged cards, and this time I managed to keep from having a physical reaction when our fingers brushed again. Outwardly, anyway. I was pretty sure my stomach was still somewhere in the region of my knees.
Once that was done, he held out his hand. It took a long moment for me to realize he meant to help me up. I hesitated at the idea of putting my hand in his, and worse yet, it was noticeable. He actually smiled, amused rather than annoyed.
“I don’t bite without permission, Ms. Waynest. Or did you want to stay and chat?”
Oh no. No, no, no. I shook my head vehemently, probably too much so, taking his hand and rising quickly to my feet with little help on his part. He probably felt me shaking despite how brief the contact was. I certainly felt how cool his flesh was; it made my skin crawl.
“Do you need me to see you out?”
After swallowing my heart, I managed a few words. “No, I can find my way.” I hesitated again. What I said next felt like the equivalent of forcing ground glass out from behind my teeth. “Thank you, Mr. Royce. I’ll be in touch.”
I got a glimpse of fang as he grinned again before he turned away and moved toward the windows overlooking the river. He clasped his hands behind his back, his words seeming distant through my haze of fear. “The pleasure was all mine, Ms. Waynest. I’m sure we’ll speak again soon. Good night.”
When I got home, all I wanted to do was collapse in bed. I had the shakes in the car all the way across the river. I still had them when I shoved the key in the lock after the third try. Even after I turned on every light and snapped every lock and deadbolt in the apartment, my hands wouldn’t stop shaking.
What the hell was it about vamps that scared me so much? They’d come out of the closet, so to speak, along with the rest of the supernatural community shortly after 9/11. It was pretty creepy for most people to find out they’d been doing lunch with an elf in the next cube for the last few years and that a Were had been giving them their manicures. That the janitor was a vamp flunky. The plumber was a warlock. That the state representative they voted for was a mage and the one they didn’t was a Were. The initial panic that hit most people settled down when a handful of prominent celebrities, businesspeople, and even some government officials all came forward to let the world know they had supernatural origins.
Actually, that kind of explains a lot.
Anyway, it was common knowledge now that vamps, along with the rest of the underworld, have been around for ages plodding alongside the rest of humankind as we worked together and shaped what now passes for civilization. Even though they hid their identities and usually no more than scraped by in the past, making a living as best they could without giving away their origins, the layers of secrecy surrounding their existence are slowly coming undone. They’ve been here through our good times and bad, fighting and bleeding and dying alongside us in our wars, not to mention in their own secret turf wars in the shadows.
In the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, a Were known as Rohrik Donovan came forth, offering the aid of his pack members in searching the rubble of the Twin Towers for survivors. They worked hard and long into the night side-by-side with the police and firefighters, digging desperately through the remains of the collapsed buildings and using their superior sense of smell, blinded as it was by the toxic mix of chemicals and ash thick in the air, to find any signs of life. Actually, some of the firefighters first on the scene
Weres, and only revealed themselves after Rohrik announced the Moonwalker tribe’s offer of assistance that day.
At the same time, magi and vampires found it became necessary, because of their ties to the financial sector, to reveal themselves once the World Trade Center collapsed. While the stock market was already in flux over the act of terrorism, The Circle stepped forward a few days later with offers to dip into their coffers to give the halting economy a much-needed boost in the days following the country’s near collapse, as well as to use their supernatural skills to fortify strongholds in some major cities in the event of future attacks.
Royce, soon followed by a few other vampires, also stepped into the limelight to add his support to The Circle and speak on behalf of other vampires their wish to see the United States fortified against future acts of terrorism and rebuilt stronger than ever.
Their acts of charity in the name of patriotism and the deep shock people the world over had already suffered from the terrorist attacks was probably the only thing that saved the Others from the hysterical panic of the masses. Those who had stepped forth in other countries were not so fortunate.
Owing to their efforts, these days racism was simply
when it came to creatures not fully human. It had become more than just a social no-no. If you were going to discriminate, you needed to be prepared to deal with it in court. Royce was the one who brought that about, actually.
A. D. Royce Industries v. Amaretto Confections
was notable not only because the plaintiff was a vamp, but because the vamp was suing a distributor for discriminating against his restaurants by jacking up their prices and treating his staff like crap whenever they placed an order. He’d gathered the evidence and proven that they, along with a number of other businesses, charged more to Other-run establishments. Word on the street said The Circle was still bitter that he got to keep the majority of the winnings from the case since they hedged too long about joining the potential class action suit.
The result was more rights and privileges for our undead or otherwise nonfullblood citizens. There were other supernaturals who had made it a point to push for equal rights, and after the first few riots and massacres that broke out, things were settling down and they were actually getting their wishes. In the United States, at least, the Others are now considered to have the same rights as fullblood humans, perhaps more because of their minority status.
These days, it was illegal not only to inquire as to potential employees’ national origins or religion, but also to ask whether they were “daylight impaired” or for other clues to their not-quite-full-blood status, since Weres and vamps now fell under the Americans with Disabilities Act (don’t ask me how, I’m no lawyer). You couldn’t kick someone out of a theater or off a bus for being Other-blood. You also couldn’t expect to hunt or assault an Other without consequences, or vice versa. When a vamp sucked someone dry or turned the person without signed papers, they got staked after a quick, low-hassle trial. When someone staked a vamp without a signed warrant, in thirty-four states they got twenty to life for murder. The way the other sixteen states handle killers of Others varied between lethal injection and a bounty from the local authorities for “getting rid of varmints.”
I wanted to be enlightened and tolerant about vamps, but all I could do was be scared shitless when met face-to-face with one. Me and a good percentage of the human population were extremely thankful for the legislation that had been rushed through Congress to both protect them from us fullbloods, and vice versa. At least it meant Royce couldn’t legally touch me without my written consent. Though whether that written consent came before or after the fact could be fudged, I’d sooner cut off my own hand than sign
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not completely anti-Other. I only had a minor spastic fit when I found out that my last boyfriend was a Were. We still talked now and then. I haven’t quite gotten around to forgiving him for
me instead of
me what he was. He did a great job hiding it from me and lying about all the little tell-tales right up until he wanted me to sign a contract. Instead of leading up to it in conversation, his way of explaining was to suddenly turn into a timber wolf in my living room.
It was good that he at least knew better than to take his freaky half-man, half-wolf form in front of me. If the cops had shown up with him like that, they would’ve shot first and asked questions later. I mean, they would have seen this big, hairy
straight out of an eighties B-movie lumbering around my living room. Okay, maybe not an eighties movie. The special effects in those films don’t do justice to the oddly sleek and graceful in-between form Weres can assume.
Either way, he scared the bejeezus out of me, and—worse—shamed me by effectively hiding any sign of his true nature for months. The Others had grown adept at hiding themselves from mankind out of necessity, and I certainly wasn’t the first girl in the last decade to find out her boyfriend wasn’t a fullblood human. That had ceased to be a novelty on daytime soaps and talk shows five or six years ago. It didn’t make it right, but it stung when I realized I was just another statistic, and hadn’t been observant enough to spot any warning signs.
His motives for hiding his nature from me were even somewhat understandable. Besides being worried about my personal feelings on the matter, there were an awful lot of people out there that would happily hunt him down or ruin his business reputation if they found out what he was. I wasn’t one of them, but I knew they were out there.
The group who thinks every last supernatural should be exterminated call themselves the White Hats. There are others, but they’re the most vocal and active of the lot. Last I heard, they were lobbying to reinstate segregation laws for separate dining and public transportation facilities for Others. That was since their attempts to lobby for mass extermination (read: genocide) was shot down in flames before it even reached the floor in Congress. Their new idea has about a snowball’s chance in Hell of passing, too.
Not that they always use the legal route to get their way. Every few weeks there was something else in the papers about a building being burned down, some poor wretch being beaten or even killed just for being Other-blooded. The cops in this part of the state didn’t take kindly to that sort of thing, and if a White Hat was caught in the act of vandalism, slander, or assault, his butt was toast.
So. Why was I terrified of Royce, what with all of our progressive achievements where his kind were concerned? I like my bodily fluids just the way they are. Inside me. The fact that vampires are stronger, faster, and very often smarter and craftier than your average human gives me the willies. It wasn’t unheard of for them to use guile or even black enchants to get those contractual papers signed so that your blood, your life, and quite possibly your eternity rested in their hands. Yes, they are people, and not all of them are bastards, but their bodies are mostly dead. They have to feed on other people in order to survive. Cannibalism and black magic, no matter how you couch it, is still wrong and downright scary in my book. Sure, the man looks pretty, but knowing what he has to do in order to stay that way, and knowing also that he has his own brand of dark magic, is more than deterrent enough.
Frankly, I was lucky to get out of there without being spelled. Veronica the mage wasn’t the only one who could cast a black enchant with eye contact alone. It was well and truly unwise of me to stare into his eyes like I did, but of course the thought of what could have happened only occurred to me after the fact.
It didn’t help that I had read in the papers about that one vamp who went off the deep end about three months ago and went on a rampage. She started—literally—tearing the limbs off the White Hats who were (granted, illegally) accosting her and her flock of followers (read: food) at a downtown restaurant. The papers really spiced it up with unnecessary details, but most didn’t mention the fact that one of the White Hats had been holding a knife to the throat of her latest boy toy.
I heard the whole story when I dropped off some evidence down at the police station the night it happened. When I walked in, the blood-spattered White Hats who hadn’t been torn up by the vamp and shipped to the hospital or morgue were all in cuffs waiting to be processed. So were the vamp’s followers. The vamp herself had been staked in the line of duty by some of New York’s finest.
The vamp’s followers were either weeping their eyes out or screaming and shaking their cuffed wrists, basically pitching a fit over the loss of their leader. The running mascara and caked white makeup, black clothes, and multicolored dyed hair contrasted sharply with the clean-cut White Hats, all pressed shirts and crisp jeans or slacks. So did the heartwrenching cries for their lost “master.”
That was the thing. It wasn’t the sensationalism of the newspapers, or even the fact that the vamp had been throwing body parts around like a child’s discarded toys. Hearing more than one of my fellow humans cry for “master” was probably what got under my skin the most. Slavery, like cannibalism and black enchants, is not only illegal but wrong on every moral and ethical level, no matter which way you look at it. Whatever she did to them, even after taking their blood and seeing her tear apart other living people, instead of being overjoyed when she died for having their freedom back, they were utterly despondent. Whatever hold she had on them was still hooked deep, urging them to protect and love a leech even after her death. The memory still gives me nightmares.
I’d never let that happen to me. Never.
With all these cheerful thoughts in mind, I undressed, pulled on an oversized T-shirt, and got into bed. I left the lights burning in all the rooms, the cross still around my neck for comfort, and lay staring up at the ceiling as I drew the blankets up to my chin and shivered with more than cold. I’d effectively tied myself to Royce now, and willingly, too. Even if it was only for a short while, I would really have to watch my step. The minute I started feeling any kind of draw to him, that’s when I’d know it’s time to hit the brakes and back out. Now if only I could manage to fulfill the contract before that happens, and get the money in the process.
That gave me a moment’s pause.
What if backing out pissed off The Circle? If Royce
The Circle both got ticked at me, I would be royally screwed. I had no trouble admitting that I was small fry and so was my business. I wasn’t so egotistical as to think one short clip and my picture in the news was enough to make H&W Investigations a Fortune 500 firm. Hell, we’d be lucky to make the Fortune 50,000 at the rate we were going.
A. D. Royce Industries and The Circle were both incredibly affluent and politically powerful factions, not groups I wanted to come between. The only wealthy contact I had to speak of was my business partner, and she didn’t come with the contacts or political muscle to flex that Royce or Veronica had at their fingertips. This meant I’d also be bringing down the house on Sara if I did decide to cancel the contract. Being my partner, even though it wasn’t her run, meant that she was tied into this mess almost as much as I was. Crap.
I had no choice. I couldn’t back out of the contract now. For the time being, I had the dubious safety of The Circle to run to if Royce got pissed. Right now, he thought I was an ally or at least a business associate of some kind. If what I was doing for Veronica was a betrayal of some sort (and I had no doubt in my mind the vamp would view it that way if he found me out), then I had no choice but to carry things through or I’d lose that protection, however minimal it might be. If I broke the contract I’d have not one, but two, incredibly pissed-off powers-that-be after my hide.