I arrived at Charley’s—a local dive bar—fifteen minutes after the call. The surrounding area was cordoned off with yellow caution tape, and a swarm of people in black uniforms milled around. Some were taking samples from the parking lot, others writing notes in their notebooks.
The area was devoid of onlookers. Most of Spokane’s population knew that when trouble came, it was better to scatter than hang around in case trouble chose to strike again.
It took me several minutes to track down Jackson Harris. Most of the people I asked waved me off, too busy in their own work.
Jackson looked like he’d seen a lot in his career. Dressed in HPED dress blues, he had a weathered expression on his face as he surveyed the scene in front of him.
He was six feet tall with an average build and sandy blond hair. He couldn’t be more than forty and there was nothing striking about him. He’d easily blended into the crowd, which was probably how he preferred it.
Jackson took me straight to the first body situated right outside the front entrance to the bar. A young woman in her late teens, possibly early twenties. She had long blonde hair now matted with blood.
I crouched beside her cold form and gently turned her head left, then right, looking for any clues that may have been missed. Her injuries were similar to Daniel’s, but her throat was visibly less mangled than his had been.
Examining her wrists, I pulled out a small retractable ruler from my pocket and measured the distance between the marks. These were about two centimeters wider than the ones found on Daniel.
Could there be a copycat killer so quickly? Or maybe whoever murdered Daniel worked with a partner or group.
I visibly shook at the thought. If we were tracking more than one person, it was going to make finding the culprits that much more difficult. Having called James on my way to the scene, I wasn’t surprised when I felt him crouch down beside me. He dipped his middle and forefingers in the small puddle of blood that had pooled around the body, before bringing them to his nose and taking a deep breath.
An HPED employee tried to stop him, scolding him for contaminating the crime scene, but one growl and a flash of fang from James sent the man scurrying off. If the victim was a shifter, then the Pack had ruling jurisdiction.
“Shifter?” I asked.
James nodded his head. “Her name was Emma, a werelynx. She lived on the outskirts of the city but came into town from time to time to bar hop with her friends. She was young, twenty-two I think.”
“Do you know what she was doing here? If she was with anyone?”
James shook his head. “No, but I’ll put in a call to Brock, our head of security. Now that we know who she is, I’ll have him question her friends. See if they were out with her this evening. I have a hard time believing her friends would leave the bar without her, had they been with her.”
“The HPED unit found the body of a vampire twenty yards that way,” Jackson pointed towards the left side of the building. “We’ll notify the Coven shortly, but aside from the photographs the MEs took earlier, we have no way of confirming the identity. The body already turned to ash. The ME and his team are about to sweep the vamp’s remains into a containment vessel any minute now.”
James swore, a vicious growl following his expletive. Jackson took a step back. His hands held up in a placating gesture.
“How the hell could this happen? Are you sure of the cause of death for both victims? Something isn’t adding up here.”
“We’re sure. I’ll have my men send over the full reports as soon as they’re wrapped up.”
James nodded and then dismissed him. Jackson looked relieved to be able to walk away.
Something was definitely off about this particular murder. The strangest part being that the vampire was in this part of the city.
Shifters and vampires had a boundary line of sorts, and neither crossed it. It was an agreement between the two races and the vampire who had perished was on the wrong side of the proverbial tracks.
On an upside, the shifters couldn’t be held responsible for the vampire’s death. Once you crossed the line, all bets were off. What the hell had she been doing over here in the first place? She had to have known that her life was forfeit as soon as she crossed over into shifter territory, so why come?
Whatever her reasons, it would have had to be something important to risk herself like this. Clearly it hadn’t panned out.
“If we don’t figure this out, and soon, we’re going to have a war between the Pack and the Coven. There will be no avoiding it at this rate,” James said.
Even though the vampire had entered their territory, he was right. She was in the wrong, but the Coven would still raise hell for it.
We couldn’t let things escalate to that point. A war between the vampires and shifters would result in hundreds of casualties, humans included.
I gave James a quick rundown of the differences I’d discovered between Emma’s injuries and those found on Daniel, and then gave him some space to go over the scene with his shifter senses in the hope that he would discover something the HPED had missed. The probability was doubtful, now that so many people had passed through the space. It would be near impossible for James to pinpoint anything new, but it was still worth a shot.
Jackson stood next to one of the HPED vehicles a few yards away, talking to two other officers. I’d just taken a step in his direction when movement to my right caught my eye.
I turned to see a shadowy figure move quickly, retreating farther into the alley from where it came.
An onlooker? Maybe they’d seen what had happened.
I pulled my daggers out and cautiously made my way towards the mouth of the alley, keeping my eyes on the now still, shadowed form.
I didn’t make it a habit of threatening innocent bystanders, but I wasn’t going to walk in unarmed either. “Show yourself!” I called out, as I got closer.
Surprisingly, he did.
A shock of recognition thrummed through me as I came face to face with my new neighbor. Brows furrowed, I considered what his involvement might be as I studied him from my position.
Inarus was wearing dark denim jeans and a long sleeved black thermal shirt. The flickering streetlights shone on something small and metallic in his hands.
I stiffened. “What are you doing here?”
He looked over my shoulder to the alley entrance as if debating what to say before returning his gaze to mine.
“I’m watching over you,” he said, shrugging.
Great. I had a crazy stalker. Just what every girl needed.
“I don’t need anyone to watch over me, and I don’t know you. How about you cut the crap and tell me why you’re really here?”
As his blue-grey eyes met mine, I felt the temperature rise along with my irritation. The heat was still within my range of control, so I allowed myself to sink into it as the waves rolled over my neck and shoulders.
“I can see the fire within you. Even now when it’s buried deep below the surface, your eyes have that orange glow.”
Mouth hanging open and eyes growing wide, I took an involuntary step back. How did he know? Shock coursed through me, quickly replaced by a jolt of fear at the implications. My powers, in the wrong hands, could have catastrophic consequences, and somehow this stranger knew about them. How?
Anytime I got even a hint of someone figuring me out, I moved on. I was always careful. How could he possibly know I was a pyrokinetic?
Mike and James were the only people I trusted with my secret.
A million thoughts ran through my mind. Had Inarus seen me use my pyrokinetic abilities somehow? If so, where? When? How did I miss him?
No. No. No.
“You’re wondering how I know, right? If I stumbled upon you one day when you were reckless.”
I didn’t bother answering, too dumbfounded to even know what to say.
“You weren’t reckless, Aria.”
I shook my head. I didn’t remember ever giving him my name.
Inarus took two steps closer. “But I know you’re a psyker, because I am too.” Without any more explanation, he opened his palm and showed me three small metal spheres. I raised my daggers. I didn’t know what he was planning, but I was confident in my abilities. I could take him.
Before I could blink, all three floated in the air a few inches above his right palm. Rapidly they started spinning clockwise, and my gaze was transfixed on their movement.
All too quickly, he released whatever hold he had on the spheres and snapped his hand closed, hiding them within as he shoved his hand in his jean pocket.
“You’re not like me,” was the first thought that tumbled out of my mouth. Inwardly I cursed my stupidity. Telling him he wasn’t like me only confirmed I wasn’t human.
Way to go, Aria.
“No, not exactly. You’re a pyrokinetic. I’m a telekinetic. Our abilities are different in how they work and what we can do with them, but we’re both psykers.
“Awesome. I’m happy for you. Now if you don’t mind—”
James called out my name in the distance.
I threw a glance over my shoulder. “I need to get back,” I told him, slowly backing away from the alley like he was a predator getting ready to spring.
“Go ahead, run away. I’ll catch up to you later.” His words held an underlying threat that had my blood running cold.
“I’m not running,” I snapped.
“Sure you’re not.”
I glared at him. Maybe I was running, but what was I supposed to do? A sexy stranger, who happened to be my new neighbor, just told me he had psychic powers. I didn’t know who he was or what organization he belonged to, but whatever it was, it couldn’t be good.
My father had warned me when I was a girl to avoid psykers, and I was going to heed that advice.
“Look, I’m not running. But I don’t want any part of whatever it is you’re involved in.”
“You make it sound nefarious. I’m a friend. You can relax. When you’re up for it, why don’t we grab coffee sometime? We can talk.”
“Sure,” I waved him off. “Sometime.” I needed to get farther away from him, not closer. There was no way in hell I’d be meeting him anywhere in the foreseeable future. I made a hasty retreat, leaving Inarus in the darkened alley. The more steps I took, the more control I got over my racing heartbeat.
I chanced a look over my shoulder, but he was gone.
Fuck me. This couldn’t be good.
* * *
“Anything?” I asked James as I came closer. James shook his head in irritation, his entire focus on the scene before him. I wasn’t surprised he’d missed my brief absence. When he was on a hunt, he was wholly focused.
“No, the entire area is coated in a fine layer of wolfsbane. I can’t smell anything.”
I considered telling him about my strange encounter with my neighbor when his words sunk in.
“Wolfsbane?” I asked, needing the confirmation.
James nodded again.
“Why would there be wolfsbane here?” Wolfsbane wasn’t easy to come by, so whoever had used it knew shifters would be on scene and had had enough forethought to come prepared. If I needed any additional confirmation, this was it.
Tonight’s events hadn’t been an accident.
“Your guess is as good as mine, but someone added it and made sure to cover not only the bodies but a perimeter extending thirty feet in each direction. This is smelling more and more like a setup, Ari.” His tone was grim.
My mind raced over everything I knew. Daniel Blackmore had gone missing a little over two weeks ago. We’d found his mutilated body dumped not far from the invisible border separating Pack and Coven territories. While Emma’s death appeared similar––twin fang marks on the wrist, slit throat––that was where the similarities ended. Fangs don’t widen in a vamp’s mouth, so Emma’s fang marks were clearly made by a different vampire. And, unlike Daniel, she had been left otherwise unblemished. No broken bones or ripped-open flesh.
We didn’t have much on our third victim aside from being a female vampire, name and age unknown. And cause of death was consistent with an animal or shifter attack.
That final thought gave me pause.
“What?” He didn’t bother to look up as he crouched down and poked through the vampire ashes with a pencil.
“Could Emma maintain a between form?” I wasn’t an expert on shifters by any means, but I did know that if a shifter died in animal form, they didn’t revert back to human, they remained animals. If a shifter died while in their between form though, they did revert back to human. If Emma couldn’t maintain a between form, then it was doubtful that she’d been able to cause our other victim’s injuries.
James shook his head. “No, she was too young to have acquired the skill. She could only shift to her full beast.”
“Is there a way for you to tell if Emma had gone, you know, furry or not? And whether she shifted back before her death?”
James quirked a brow. “What are you thinking, Ari?”
I began pacing in the street, letting my thoughts tumble out of my mouth. “I’m thinking this was all a set-up. That maybe Emma and whoever our unknown vamp is over there didn’t actually have any sort of altercation. Jackson showed me the photos of the body before it turned to ash. It has claw marks without a doubt, and the heart had been ripped from the victim’s chest, but what if Emma wasn’t the one that did it? What if our unknown vamp didn’t kill Emma either?”
James’s eyes lit up, clearly following my train of thought.
“Don’t you see?” I continued. “Why else would someone sprinkle the area with wolfsbane? Someone is trying to cover their tracks, but this”—I waved my arms in the direction of the two bodies. “This screams set-up, and if Emma can’t maintain a between form, how did she kill our vampire victim and then die in human form?”
James was nodding his head, and the gears in my mind were spinning. The sound of vehicle motors starting up caught my attention, and James and I each watched the HPED begin moving out.
What the hell?
“What’s going on?” I asked Jackson, jogging over to him as he climbed into his black SUV.
“We’ve been called off. This isn’t a human problem, so we’re pulling out,” he said.
You have got to be kidding me. “What about the bodies?” I asked, indicating the scene. Jackson shrugged his shoulders.
“Half the vamp is already gone, the rest will float away in the breeze by morning and your friend there,” he said, indicating James, “will take care of the shifter girl.”
I gritted my teeth. This was so like the HPED. They’d come to scope things out, but if it wasn’t a quick and easy job, they bailed and moved on.
This was why crime was so high in our city. Why things had yet to stabilize after the Awakening.
Stomping back to James, I filled him in. On a curse filled with disgust, he pulled out his cell and dialed a number. I assumed he was calling the Pack to have Emma’s body picked up.
Still frustrated over the situation, I went and pulled my HAZMAT kit out of the trunk of my Civic. The four-by-three-foot steel case housed virtually everything needed to collect evidence. In addition to the case, I pulled out a gallon-sized glass container and a battery-operated mini vac. You could never be too prepared. I lugged the items over to the vampire remains, opened my case, then unscrewed the lid on the glass jar.
“What are you doing?” James asked over my shoulder, having ended his call.
“Cleaning up.” I pulled on a pair of rubber gloves.
He eyed my mini vac skeptically. It was probably in poor taste to vacuum up the dead, but well, it isn’t like I had many options and frankly, a vacuum was going to be more effective than a broom and dustpan.
“What did the Pack say?” I asked. I pulled several chemical light sticks from my case and cracked them until they offered a faint glow. I placed one inside of the glass jar and placed the other two near the pile of ash-coated remains. The glow sticks did little to illuminate the space, forcing me to rely on the dim streetlights, but what they did do was cast the vampire remains in a blue glow separating them from typical dirt and debris, so nothing was missed.
“Devin and Brock are five minutes out. They’ll pick up Emma’s body while I go report to Declan.”
I nodded my head as I used a small wooden stick to poke around at the remains. James made a coughing noise mixed with a gag, and I turned around to look at him, a wry grin on my face.
“You doing okay there, buddy?” I mocked.
“That’s disgusting.” James wrinkled his face and took a few steps back.
“You were just poking it a few minutes ago,” I reminded him.
“That was different. I wasn’t paying attention to the gunk buried beneath, and I wasn’t unburying that retched smell.”
“Suck it up, buttercup. It’s all part of the job.” I turned back to the task at hand.
Small particles of the vampire’s body were hovering eerily in the air like dust motes, having risen from my poking around. I pulled out several pieces of bone too large for my vacuum to suck up and tossed them into the glass container. The fact that large remnants remained meant the vampire was young, relatively speaking. No more than fifty undead years.
My concentration was suddenly broken by the roar of an approaching car. James and I looked toward the sound to see a black Hummer fitted out like a tank with guardrails and roll bars. It stopped a few yards from the crime site, and two men climbed out.
The driver wore form-fitting jeans that hugged his thighs and a navy blue T-shirt that showed off his massive bulk and broad shoulders. Wearing a grim expression, he made his way towards us. If I had to guess, he looked to be in his mid-thirties.
The passenger was younger, maybe mid-twenties, with boyish features, a full mouth, and long limbs that had yet to fill out entirely.
The two men approached on silent feet. James inclined his head towards both men, offering a small greeting before leading them to Emma’s body while I continued my work with the vamps.
I watched the three men from the corner of my eye as they lifted Emma and placed her gently into a blue body bag before setting her in the rear of the Hummer.
The younger of the two newcomers poured a white fluid where the body had been that sizzled upon contact. White bubbles formed as it destroyed any part of the blood or bodily fluids that may have remained.
The Lyc-V virus was highly contagious. It was one of many reasons that humans feared shifters, and why several of the HPED members had been avoiding the body. No one wanted to accidentally get infected.
Unlike in the stories, it wasn’t a shifter bite that could turn a human. It was blood-to-blood contamination.
But every shifter I’d ever met was always extremely conscious of their ability to infect non shifters and most carried at least a small measure of LVP with them at all times.
LVP was a liquid substance that killed the virus outside of the host. Lycanthropy had an hour window of infection. Once the blood expired, the virus died, but since James wasn’t sticking around, the Pack was making sure no one stumbled by while it was still active.
With his task complete, the driver went back to his Hummer and headed out as James walked back toward me.
“Brock’s going to ride back with me since I’m going back to the Compound. How much longer will you be?” he asked.
“A while,” I told him. “You two go ahead. I’ll be fine.”
James looked conflicted for a moment.
“Go,” I told him again, waving him away, “I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself.”
He sighed. “Fine, but call me when you head out okay?”
“Yes, Mom,” I said with a snicker.
“Haha. Very funny.”
I watched as James and Brock went towards the Mustang, and after fishing the last bit of bone from the pile, pulled my mini vac out and began vacuuming up the ashy remains.
The sound of the vacuum drowned out the city as I hummed along to a silent tune, making sure to catch all of the particles.
I had to empty the vacuum canister into the glass jar three times before I finally had it all. It wasn’t my job to act as Hazmat clean up. The HPED should have taken care of that. Lazy jerks. But I didn’t like the idea of anyone wondering upon a pile of dead vamp. So here I was. Playing housekeeper to the city.
James was long gone by now. The streets were quiet. The area now vacant in the early morning hours. I took a quick peek at my watch. It was only three hours till sunrise, and a yawn reminded me that I’d gotten barely any sleep.
I pulled out a small bottle of bleach and poured it over the concrete where the body had once been, making sure to coat the area evenly and cover a slightly larger perimeter to be on the safe side.
Vampirism wasn’t contagious the way lycanthropy was. You did, in fact, have to be bitten, multiples times actually, but dead-body particles were still dead-body particles. Who knew what heeby jeebies you could contract?
As I screwed the cap back onto the bleach bottle, the hairs on the back of my neck rose. I tossed my supplies back into the metal case and allowed instinct to guide me.
I wasn’t alone.
Without being too obvious, I scanned my surroundings as I busied myself with the latch on the case. Everything back in its place, I quickly shut it, grabbed my vacuum, and hauled it back to my little Civic, all the while keeping my eyes peeled for trouble.
I trusted my instincts, and they were screaming at me to get the hell out of here. Now. I just needed to make it to my car.
My Honda wasn’t anything spectacular on the outside, but I’d customized the thing to survive almost any kind of assault. The windows were quarter-inch-thick bulletproof glass, and the frame had been reinforced, encased in high mobility armor, even the underside, leaving it virtually indestructible.
My little Civic could take on a tank, and while the tank would probably win, my car would put up one hell of a fight. You couldn’t get a tougher car.
Whoever or whatever was stalking me through the night wouldn’t get the chance to take a shot at me once I was safely inside. Easier said than done.
Adrenaline coursed through me, urging me to run. I quickened my pace.
The feeling of being exposed increased tenfold, and I nearly dropped the metal case in my rush to get to my car. I tried to shake off the feeling of unease. Was this just morning jitters? I couldn’t see anyone. Let alone hear anything but still …
I finally made it to my car and quickly unlocked the trunk, tossing the case and vacuum in before jogging to the driver side door. My hand was on the door handle, a wave of relief washing over me. I’d made it.
Something slammed into the back of my head, and a bright burst of pain shot through me. My skull connected with the top of my car, and my vision blurred. Fuck.
Fight or flight took hold, and dammit, I was a fighter.
I struggled to hold myself upright as the world spun around me. I leaned against the Civic, trying to regain my balance when another blow to my head had me stumbling backward, away from the safety of my vehicle.
Shit. “Pull it together,” I growled to myself.
I tried to pull fire and target my attacker, but the pain in my head wouldn’t allow me to focus. The air whooshed out of my lungs as my attacker landed a kick to my ribs. A sharp stab of pain and the distinct sound of bone breaking was a sure sign at least one of my ribs had cracked. I clutched my stomach, gasping for breath. Breathing was becoming more and more difficult.
“What do you want?” I gasped. Silhouettes of men danced in front me, but I couldn’t zero in on him. I put my hand over my left eye and tried to pull the three swimming figures into one.
Gotcha. I threw a punch, connected with a jaw, heard my attacker curse, and then was thrown to the pavement.
“Ow!” I complained. “Look, if you’re going to be a big enough dick to attack an unsuspecting woman, the least you could do is give me a minute to catch my breath.”
I struggled to sit up and heard a distinctly male laugh. The soft sound of his footsteps against asphalt grew louder as he came closer to my prone form.
I took several labored breaths and clutched my ribcage. Everything hurt.
My head felt as if a thousand little people were hammering away inside. I rolled to my side clawing at the asphalt in an attempt to stay conscious. My attacker crouched in front of me. Grabbing my chin with cold fingers, he tilted my head upward. Bright crimson eyes glowed with menace as three sets of eyes slowly focused into one and met my gaze.
He smiled, his fangs evident now that he was close up. Vampire. That wasn’t good. Why was a vampire attacking me? What the hell had I done to him?
Confusion rolled through me. Did he think I was the one responsible for killing the vamp? I had been vacuuming up her remains. I could see how someone could get the wrong idea.
“Such a shame.” His rich, cultured voice was like velvet along my senses.
I felt the compulsion––that mind domination only vampires possessed––trying to take over. I struggled against the lulling effect of his deep voice. He yanked my head to the side, exposing the sensitive skin of my neck. I struggled against his iron grip, trying to reach for my daggers, but it was no use.
“I didn’t kill her, you asshole!”
I was defenseless from the angle he held my head. His warm breath caressed my neck, making me shiver. He inhaled deeply and lowered his mouth.
“Shhh … don’t fight it,” he whispered. My muscles relaxed against what little control I had left, as my mind panicked.
Come on, Aria. You are not going to become a vampire snack. This is not how you’re going to go out. Dammit.
He ran his tongue along the column of my neck, the sensation causing my stomach to revolt. The scrape of his fangs on my sensitive flesh jolted me from his thrall, and I struggled against his hold. My temperature rose and my fire finally surfaced. Thank God!
But not fast enough. The vampire chuckled under his breath, and just as flames licked my skin in a gentle caress, my attacker was thrown off of me.
As I quickly turned my head to see what had happened, a sharp pain shot into my skull. I gasped. Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to slow down and turned my head slower. A thin veil of flames clouded my vision, but only for a moment.
The vampire was slumped against a nearby brick building. A wound on the side of his skull bled profusely, and he sported a gaping hole in his chest. His eyes had dimmed to a dull red. The glow no longer evident.
Inarus stood before him like an avenging angel, holding a pulsing red mass of flesh in his outstretched hand.
Oh, my God, it was a heart. He ripped out his heart! I tried to get my head around that. He had literally ripped the vampire’s heart from his body. How the hell did he do that?
Struggling into a sitting position, I cradled my stomach. The pain was hitting me full force now as the adrenaline dissipated. I moaned, and my head began to swim. I wavered where I sat.
The upside was, if I collapsed, the fall wouldn’t be all that far. The downside was that I didn’t know this guy. Nor did I trust him. If I passed out now, who knew what would happen to me?
Inarus turned at the sound of my pained groan. His eyes blazed a bright blue, and he wore a grim expression.
Looking down, his expression changed to one of surprise when he realized he was still clutching the vampire’s heart. He dropped it like it was nothing more than a piece of trash, made his way to where I was sitting, and crouched down.
I flinched when he reached out for me.
“Aria, call your fire back,” his words were an order. His eyes locked on mine and defiance rose up.
Hell no! My fire was the only thing keeping me safe. If I called that back, he could … well he could do a lot of things, and none of the possibilities running through my mind were friendly.
“You’re hurt. I just want to check you out.”
I laughed, but it came out more like a pained wheeze. “I’m good. Your assistance won’t be necessary.” I tried to stand and made it all of two inches from the ground before collapsing.
Inarus placed his palms on either side of my face, the one part of my body currently fire free. His skin felt cool compared to my overheated flesh, and I leaned into his hold slightly, enjoying the comfort his touch brought.
“Let me help you,” he implored me.
I tried to speak, but a flash of pain consumed me. I bit back the tears threatening to form in the corners of my eyes.
“I won’t hurt you. You have my word.” His eyes were earnest, and something inside of me eased. I needed help. I knew that. And I didn’t have a lot of options here.
Muttering a curse, I slowly called in my fire. If he wanted to kill me, he could have already. I was going to just have to take my chances.
With my flames gone, he carefully folded me into his arms. The movement made my body scream in protest. I gasped audibly, barely containing a sob of agony.
I bit my cheek until I tasted blood, trying to hold it. Just breathe. You’ve been through worse. This is nothing. Keep it together. I repeated the mantra over and over in my head.
“I know. I’m so sorry, Aria,” he whispered the words into my hair as he rose to his full height, my body nestled in his strong arms. “This is going to hurt. I’ll go as slow as possible but …” He trailed off.
I nodded and closed my eyes, allowing him to carry me over to my Civic. He opened the door carefully and gently helped me inside before going around and climbing into the driver’s seat.
“Keys?” he asked.
I pulled my keys from my pocket and handed them to him with shaking fingers. When his hand brushed mine, I looked up, our gazes colliding.
His lips pursed. He looked angry, but I knew his anger wasn’t directed at me. That was good.
Without a word, he started the ignition and pulled out of the parking lot. I didn’t get the chance to ask where he was taking me before unconsciousness tugged at me, and I fell into its dark embrace.