“LET’S TRY THIS again, shall we?” Officer Nichols’s smile was strained and tight, any patience she’d had was long since gone. “What were you doing in an abandoned warehouse at two in the morning?” Under the table my leg bounced up and down, the only sign of my nerves. “What does anybody do in a warehouse at that time of the morning?” I quipped, unable to stop myself. What could I say? Anxiety and fear made me a tad snarky. Getting picked up by a cop while in the middle of a job was a new low for me. I could only hope no one had seen. Otherwise this whole experience was going to play havoc on my already shaky reputation. What kind of vampire got caught by humans? A ridiculous one, that was for sure. Officer Nichol’s glare was heated, fueled by the frustration of the past few hours. “You help me, and I’ll help you.” From hard ass to friend in less than a minute. It had to be a new record. “I’m not sure what help you’re thinking I can give. I already explained my reason for being there.” Many times, in fact.
Officer Nichols consulted her notes. “Right—you threw your phone over the fence and went to retrieve it.” I shrugged. “That about sums it up.” Officer Nichols sat back in her chair, irritation settling on her face. “Would you care to explain why you threw it in the first place?” I folded my hands in front of me, one thumb brushing against the smooth metal of the handcuffs I wore. Truthfully, they weren’t much of a deterrent. Even with my baby vampire strength, I could snap them and be out of here in seconds. Of course, that would out me as something supernatural. My world didn’t have a lot of rules, but it did have one.
Don’t expose the human world to the spooks. Which led to the real crux of the situation. Soon, that fiery nemesis of all vampires would rise, and I’d lapse into a sleep so deep it would appear to be a coma. Officer Nichols would have a hard time explaining why her interrogation subject keeled over. No doubt there’d be tests, the results of which I couldn’t afford getting out. I grimaced internally. I was going to have to make the call. There would be endless lectures and many “I told you so’s” and “what were you thinking’s”. If I could avoid it, I would, but talking my way out of the situation had yet to work in my favor. “I got some bad news,” I lied.
Nichols folded her arms over her chest. “You think this is a game?” I shrugged. Not really, but what she was asking for—the truth—I couldn’t give. No normal human would believe the reason I was in that warehouse was to steal back a bracelet for a pair of harpies. Or that the bracelet’s presence in that warehouse was grounds for a war between two supernatural species—the harpies and the kobolds. Nor would they believe the fallout of such a war would impact human lives—possibly even result in human deaths. Yeah, Officer Nichols wasn’t equipped to handle that kind of truth bomb. The monsters I saw on a nightly basis would turn her hair white—if they didn’t rip out her throat and use her as a food source first. Best for everybody if I continued to play dumb. By now, lying was practically second nature.
“About that phone call,” I started. She slammed her hand on the table, the sudden burst of sound loud and unexpected in the small room. A normal person would have jumped. Old Aileen would have startled. Current Aileen, lifted her eyebrow as if to ask if that was supposed to scare her. Disappointment moved through Nichols’s expression, only to be quickly covered. “You were caught trespassing. There are consequences.” I rolled my eyes. It was a misdemeanor at most.
Little more than a slap on the wrist. I was more worried about news of this little escapade getting back to the master of the city. Now that would have serious consequences. I could call someone else. Caroline, maybe. I discarded that option as soon as it occurred to me. Caroline might be my best friend, but she was also a werewolf. If her alpha found out I was dragging her into another one of my dramas, he’d probably try to skin me. That or use me as two-legged bait during his next full moon hunt. My family was also out.
Things had been rocky since the showdown outside my niece’s hospital room. I didn’t want our first contact to be me asking to be bailed out of jail. It was better to let things lie for a while. No, there was really only one person I could call. Someone who came with a whole bunch of strings attached—Liam. Vampire. Enforcer. Possible boyfriend. The groan I made this time was heartfelt. Damn it.
Damn it. Damn it. Why hadn’t I taken the time to learn how to compel people? This time my polite smile was more of a grimace. “I’d really like my phone call, now.” Nichols’s look of disgust and resignation deepened. She had no choice but to give me my phone call, and we both knew it. Shaking her head, she stood, tossing her pen on the table. “Fine, you can have your phone call.” As if to punctuate her mood, the lights flickered on and off before going dark. Nichols looked up with a distracted frown.
“Power must be out. Don’t move. I’ll see what’s going on.” Like I could go anywhere in these cuffs. Well, I could, but that might be hard to explain. Normal humans couldn’t snap chains like they were twigs. Nichols opened the door, light from the offices outside spilling into the room. Against the wall, a shadow swelled into existence, massive with wings that brushed the ceiling. “What the hell?” Nichols reached for the light switch, flicking it on and off several times as a strangled sound came from me. A frustrated growl left her.
“Someone must have blown a fuse.” Nichols stepped outside, the door starting to close behind her. “Wait! Don’t—” The door finished slamming shut. “Leave me alone in here.” It wasn’t that I thought Nichols could protect me from the shadow. I was pretty sure she couldn’t. Most humans when up against spooks were woefully defenseless, but her presence might have deterred whatever was hiding in the shadows from attacking. Spooks tended to avoid fighting each other when normals were around. My gaze searched the darkness, settling on a piece that was blacker than the rest. “Nice, shadow creature.
Let’s not attack or do anything stupid.” While I talked, I moved my wrists, pulling at the cuffs and hearing the metal protest as they flexed and bent. The shadow shifted, wings opening. Suddenly, it was a few feet closer than before, though I could swear it hadn’t taken a single step. I yanked harder at the cuffs. The humans would just have to come up with some wild explanation for why they were broken. I’d lived through one too many assassination attempts to let myself sit here and hope for the best. The shadow extended one arm, its inky blackness coming closer and closer. I made a small sound. This was not how I wanted to die.
The door to the interrogation room opened, the bright light from outside spilling into the dark room and dispelling the shadow creature as if it had never been. I looked from where it had stood to Officer Nichols’s pissed off expression, feeling something like relief. I didn’t know what the shadow creature had wanted, but I was betting it wasn’t good. Call me paranoid, but I’d survived one too many people trying to kill me to dismiss its presence here as anything but suspicious. Nichols hesitated, looking around the room with an uneasy expression, almost as if she somehow sensed the monster’s presence. Unlikely. “Something wrong?” I asked. Nichols shook herself, as if dismissing whatever was going through her head. She walked toward me, reaching for my cuffs. “You’re free to go.
” “I am?” I wasn’t one to question my good luck—I rarely had enough of it—but this was an unexpected turn of events. Nichols’s lip curled as she inserted her key and I held my breath, hoping she didn’t notice the slight misshapenness of the metal. I hadn’t had time to fully escape so they were only partially bent instead of a mangled mass. The cuffs loosened and she wasted no time grabbing them, stuffing them into her pocket seconds later. “Let’s go. Your boss is waiting,” she said, stepping back. Boss, I mouthed silently. What boss? There was a reason I worked for myself. People in authority positions and I didn’t always get along. One of the best things about starting my own business was I never had to deal with people who thought they could tell me what to do or how to live.
Of course, the tradeoff for that was that when things went wrong, I only had myself to blame. Nichols jerked her chin at me in irritation. “Are you coming? I don’t have all night.” I stared at her for a long moment, trying to decide if this was some sort of trick. At last I nodded and stood. “Yup, of course.” With one last searching look at the wall where I’d spotted the shadow monster, I stepped into the hallway, following Nichols through the police station. It took me the length of a hallway to figure out the likely reason for my sudden release. Liam. It had to be.
He must have people watching the police. That, or he’d gotten one of his enforcers—I was betting Makoto—to hack into the databases. I probably popped up on his radar as soon as I was brought in. The tight feeling I’d had in the pit of my stomach relaxed. Liam might call me an idiot and question my sanity, but he wasn’t likely to try to kill me. Nichols slowed as a woman came into view. “Crap,” Nichols muttered. “Someone’s going to get an earful later, and it better not be me. She was supposed to be gone already.” I looked with interest at the stranger, tempted to ask about her even though I suspected Nichols wouldn’t answer.
My guess—the woman was a civilian. There was just something about her that didn’t say cop. Her clothes were casual as was her manner. She’d thrown her hair up into a messy bun. Her eyes were tired and had dark circles under them. For the most part, she seemed average. Nothing really stood out about her if I didn’t count the extreme shock in her face as Nichols led me over to the desk she was standing next to. “What is she doing out here?” the woman demanded. Nichols didn’t answer, swiping a manila envelope with my name on it off the desk and handing it to me. I cracked it open, making sure my driver’s license, phone, and the bracelet responsible for this whole mess was there.
At the sight of them, I breathed a sigh of relief. The debacle with the cop might have been mildly embarrassing, and I might have a new assassin after me, but at least it hadn’t been for nothing. As innocuous looking as that bracelet was, returning it to its rightful master was going to ensure I paid rent this month. In the end that was all I could ask for. “Wait—you’re letting her go?” the woman asked, finally realizing why Nichols had handed me the envelope. Her expression held alarm as she glanced between us Nichols glanced at the woman. “Ma’am, I’ll be with you in a moment.” I didn’t waste time signing my name to the sheet Nichols offered me to verify all of my belongings had been returned to me. All the while, the woman watched with a suspicious frown that only deepened the longer I stood there. For the most part, I ignored her, not wanting her to see I was as interested in her as she was in me.
It was obvious from the way she spoke that she recognized me. I glanced at Nichols and the way she was steadfastly not looking at the woman. Hmm. Suddenly, Nichols presence outside the warehouse at the exact moment I exited wasn’t so surprising. It seemed someone had watched me go inside. I frowned as I slipped my driver’s license into my back pocket. How much had the woman seen, and could that come back to bite me in the ass later? The stranger’s gaze sharpened as I picked up the bracelet. “What’s that?” “A bracelet.” Nichols eyed the woman like she was seriously questioning the stranger’s sanity. I hid a smile as I grabbed my phone.
Still, I didn’t like the way the woman was staring at the bracelet like it was a snake that would jump up and bite her at any moment. It made me wonder if there was something more to the stranger than was obvious at first glance. A moment later, my smile faded as I glanced at the phone’s notifications. Two missed calls from a blocked number. No voicemail, though. Mentally, I shrugged, sliding the phone into my pocket. Whoever it was must not need anything important. Otherwise they would have left a message. Either way I wasn’t too worried. My clients preferred face-to-face meetings when discussing what they needed from me.
They rarely picked up a phone to call. Most of them didn’t even have a phone. As someone who skated the line between a fixer and private investigator to the supernatural community, I was often the last stop for those with nowhere else to turn. I’d stumbled into the business quite by accident, with one job leading into another, then another, until I was making far more than the minimum wage I’d made as a gas station attendant. Thankfully, the new business fit a niche not already filled in Columbus’s spook community. Jerry, the owner of Hermes and my former employer, had thrown a few cases my way when his people stumbled into a situation outside their expertise. For now, it worked. More importantly, it paid well enough that I could keep myself in black raspberry ice cream if I wanted to. Sadly, my new diet made eating ice cream a tad challenging. Nichols held the door to the waiting room for me, her disapproval an almost physical weight.
“Maybe next time, start with the truth so we don’t have to waste so much time.” I didn’t bother asking what truth she was talking about, not wanting to contradict any compulsion Liam would have lain on her. “Of course, Officer Nichols. You’re right. It won’t happen again.” “See that it doesn’t.” The door slammed behind me as I soon as I stepped into the next room. I hesitated, straining to hear the conversation on the other side of the door. Because I was a vampire which came with increased hearing, I could hear most of what was being said. “Why are you letting her go? Don’t you see that she’s dangerous,” the woman demanded.
Seemed I was right. The woman had been watching me earlier that night. It was surprising—and concerning—I hadn’t noticed. “Look.” Nichols paused. “You put down that your name is Pelt, right?” “My last name, yes.” “I would be more concerned about your own situation. Right now, you’re the one acting suspiciously.” There was a frozen sound of dismay from Pelt. At that, I finally moved away from the door.
I’d worried for nothing and getting caught eavesdropping by the stranger would only arouse suspicions again. That was the last thing I needed. I only made it two steps before I stopped short, surprised at who was waiting for me. I blinked, then blinked again. “Connor.” Not the man I was expecting. Unlike during our first encounter, this time Connor actually wore clothes over a body I knew was muscular and lean. Eyes of a familiar intense blue met mine. They were framed by hair the color of moonlight—he’d cut it since the last time I’d seen him—and his skin looked like it had never seen the touch of the sun. Even in a mundane police station, he looked like something out of a story book.
A fey creature come to slum it with us mere mortals. Purity radiated from him—a sereneness that threatened to soak into my very being. I shook the feeling off. I might not be as angry and antisocial as I once was, but I still liked my prickly surliness, thank you very much. I had no intention of shedding it just because I liked the current trajectory of my life. “What are you doing here?” I managed to say through my surprise. He paused as the door I’d just exited opened again. Pelt stormed past, shooting a long, lingering look in our direction before she turned the corner and was gone. When we were alone, I focused on Connor and the question of his presence. It wasn’t that I was ungrateful he’d sprung me from the specter of jail; I was.
But I also wasn’t big on surprises. Both Liam and Thomas had spent centuries looking for this man. Having him here, now, springing little ole me from the police was unexpected. Yes, I’d freed him from the glamor he was under, but I hadn’t seen him since. Connor didn’t answer, instead peering at the TV with a childlike curiosity. “The human world is so strange. Is this how they see the world now?” I glanced at the screen. “Not really. It’s a story. Make believe.
” Connor’s head tilted. “Fascinating.” “Ah ha,” I managed. I guess if I had been locked into a stag’s form for as long as he had I’d find the modern world fascinating too. It still didn’t explain what he was doing here. “Did you break me out of jail to ask me about Anime?” Not that I was really complaining. It was a lot nicer on this side of the door. “I was under the impression you still had trouble with the sun. Was I wrong?” He wasn’t. “No, you’re right.
” Much to my continued dismay. I’d made great strides into being able to resist the call of slumber when the sun rose, but my willpower could only do so much. Connor waited; expectation filled his expression as he faced me more fully. I started to thank him and paused, studying him. Connor had spent years with the Fae, more than a century I suspected. It stood to reason some of their habits had worn off on him. For Fae, words of gratitude were binding. Thank a Fae and you would quickly find yourself owing on debts that you wouldn’t want to repay. I already had enough of those in this life. I saw no reason to add more.
“What do you want?” I asked instead. He made a small sound, his fingers moving restlessly against his thigh. Yeah, not as easy a mark as he’d thought. Many of my customers were Fae. You picked up a thing or two after a while. “To do you a favor,” he finally said. “Why?” The corner of his eyes tightened. “So, you’ll feel obligated to do me a favor in return.” Of course. Connor might have been a vampire, but he thought more like a Fae.
“How did you know I needed help?” I asked him, leaving that for later. His gaze left mine. “I followed you.” I inhaled sharply as my eyebrows lifted. A stalker. Just my luck. “Why?” He lifted a shoulder. “To study you.” I waited, allowing the silence to deepen. “How did you get them to release me?” “I wove a story they would believe.
” I didn’t have to ask how. Compulsion was an ability all vampires had—well except for me. As a vampire, I was a little lacking in some areas. Some of that had to do with the less than traditional way I was changed. The rest could be laid at the feet of my “no live human blood” rule—something that had recently changed. It meant I was weaker than most, even considering my young age. “Do I even want to know?” He paused, a brief flash of uncertainty chasing across his face. “I don’t know. Do you?” My eyes narrowed. Was he fucking with me? “Why did you interfere?” I asked through gritted teeth.
Soft surprise filled his expression. “That’s easy. I want a job.” I stared at him for a beat. He had to be kidding. Wait. He wasn’t. Determination filled his face, stubbornness too. I shook my head. “No.
” I didn’t wait for his reaction, striding toward the door and freedom. The night was cool, carrying with it a sharp bite. Winter was courting Columbus, teasing the city with cold and snow before it inevitably dissipated leaving behind rain and moderate temperatures. It was like a fickle lover who couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to stay or not. MidJanuary and we’d only had one or two snowfalls that disappeared almost as quickly as they’d come. Most days it felt more like spring, making it challenging to know the appropriate number of layers to wear. Luckily, I had my puffy blue coat to keep me warm. As a vampire, I didn’t feel the cold as sharply as I once did, but I still preferred the heat and warmth of summer. Connor trailed behind me as I let myself out of the precinct, stepping onto the street and heading for where my car was parked several blocks away. “It’s so much louder here,” Connor mused from beside me.
I slid him a sideways glance. It was past four in the morning. The city was dead, not a soul on the streets except for us. If he thought this was loud, he should wait until rush hour began around seven thirty. Then he’d really see loud. He tilted his head back to take in the sky. “The stars aren’t as bright either.” “That’s because we’re in a city. Too much light pollution. Head into the country where there’s less people, and you’ll start seeing the stars again.
” The mountains out west would probably offer the best view, the high elevation making the sky clearer, but they were several states away. Connor hummed in response. “I think I will stick close for a while. Relearn what it means to be a man again.” I shrugged, unconcerned. It was his life. “Sure, that works too.” Connor’s gaze was almost amused. “You’re very different than I was told.” I paused, not sure I liked the sound of that.
“Oh?” The corners of his lips tilted up in a tiny smile. “The stubbornness is the same though.” I considered that, then nodded. Fair point. “Look, if you want me to consider giving you a job, you have to convince me you’re worth the inevitable headache you’ll bring to my door.” Since Thomas was pretty much a package deal when it came to Connor, there was no chance of that happening. My relationship with our sire wasn’t as fraught with tension as it once was, but that didn’t mean I wanted to get drawn deeper into Thomas’s orbit. If I let Connor work for me, that’s exactly what would happen. No, thank you. Better for everyone if I kept Connor at arm’s length.
To say I didn’t get along with Thomas was an understatement. I no longer hated him, but he was still manipulative and autocratic. Controlling in the extreme. All things I avoided when I could. “You want me to prove myself.” I stopped, staring at him with something that approached consternation. That hadn’t been exactly what I meant. Connor nodded once to himself. “I find these terms acceptable. I will work to earn your trust.
” I opened my mouth to argue. Last thing I wanted was for him to stalk me some more. “Do you know him?” Connor asked before I could correct his mistake. I glanced in the direction he was staring and frowned. The bright red scarf caught my attention first. It was a splash of color in an otherwise colorless night as its tip trailed over the front of a black suit. The next thing I noticed was the umbrella the stranger held over his head, casting his face in shadow. It was a strange affectation when there was no form of precipitation, not even a cloud in the sky. I had a feeling that umbrella was the reason I couldn’t see his face even with my enhanced eyesight. Taken all together, it was weird.
I’d learned to pay attention when things got weird. Not paying attention was how I ended up a vampire. Humans tended to justify and explain away details of the strange and unusual. It was how they’d gone so long brushing up against the edge of our world without ever really knowing what waited in the shadows they refused to see. That was how I missed the signs all those years ago when Thomas approached me in that bar. Now, I paid better attention. “No. You?” I said. Connor’s head moved in a tiny shake.