Authors: Karen Chance
Tags: #Paranormal Romance
To my surprise, Louis-Cesare took the hint and backed off. “There are other types of jewelry,” he commented, as if that thought had never occurred to me.
“Bracelets and necklaces rattle at inconvenient times and are hazards in a fight,” I told him shortly. I’d found that out the hard way, when a vamp almost succeeded in strangling me with my own choker.
“You do not have to fight every day.”
“I don’t have to eat every day, either, but I get really cranky when I don’t.”
“Never mind.” I could live without rehashing my physical inconveniences. “Hair color is the only ornamentation both my body and my profession can handle,” I added, to forestall more questions.
“Ah.” He looked like something I’d said had finally made sense. “That explains the purple.”
Louis-Cesare looked like he was going to argue the point, but thought better of it. “Who is Claire?” he asked after a moment.
I narrowed my eyes. What was with the twenty questions all of a sudden? Was he trying to psychoanalyze me, find some sort of weakness, by asking about my life, my friends? Had he forgotten already who Daddy was? If any form of mind games worked on me, Mircea would have had me fetching his slippers long ago. I gave him a flat look and munched bagel.
“If we are to work together, we should know something about each other,” he noted calmly. He probably thought he was hiding it, but the lazy regard held cool, critical assessment. Apparently, my new partner wasn’t convinced that Mircea hadn’t saddled him with a liability. That made two of us.
I returned the appraisal, looking him up and down in a deliberately brazen way. A sunbeam was dancing on his hair like a captured flame, highlighting a few shorter strands that curled just below the strong line of his jaw. The color went well with the creamy cashmere and the eyes, which, at the moment, were a guileless, angelic blue. I concluded my own assessment: sophisticated, dangerous and sexy as hell.
Something must have shown on my face, because he smirked slightly. Smug. Good looks aside, I decided furiously, Louis-Cesare really didn’t have much to offer. He was a judgmental, condescending, self-important son of a bitch. Like every vamp I’d ever known, come to think of it.
I leaned back in my chair, stretching luxuriantly, deliberately letting my jacket fall open. Predictably, his eyes moved down my body—some things outlast even the change. I grinned and he looked away, a rueful smile twitching at his lips. I finished breakfast in peace.
When I’d polished off the last, calorie-laden bite, I pulled out my pathetic excuse for a cell phone. As expected, it had gone belly-up yet again. Portals play hell with anything magnetic, not to mention that the evil thing had come with a couple of built-in quirks. On Drac’s trail, the last thing I could afford was faulty equipment, but my nerves were in no shape for fine-tuning anything. I went through the usual routine, and when it still wouldn’t come on, I slammed it down on the table and glared at it.
Louis-Cesare picked it up. He looked it over, then quirked an eyebrow at me. “If I can repair this…”
“Then I choose the topic of conversation.”
I gave him a look. Most centuries-old vamps didn’t even know what a cell phone was, much less how to fix one. Technological troglodytes, almost every one. “You think you’re up to it?”
“Are we agreed?”
“Sure. Go for it.”
He regarded the small white devil for a moment, then turned it over in his hands. He pressed, poked and fiddled with the quiet assurance of a man who thinks he knows what he’s doing. I watched him, secure in the knowledge that there was no way he’d be able to—
The LED display flickered to life. Louis-Cesare held up the phone. “Fixed,” he said unnecessarily.
“My hero,” I replied drily. Like hell it was fixed. I hadn’t spent months tinkering with the damn thing without learning its vicious little tricks.
“Who is Claire?”
I didn’t answer, being preoccupied with an internal countdown… nine, eight, seven…. When I hit five, I said calmly, “Fifty bucks says it’ll die by the time I finish this”—the screen went dark with a cheeky little blip—“sentence.”
Louis-Cesare reached into his pocket and pulled out a sleek new cell phone in a shiny black case. He pushed it across the table to me. “Who is Claire?”
I could have pointed out that the bet had been to fix my old phone, not to give me a new one. But he’d been carrying exactly the model I’d been lusting after for months, but hadn’t been able to afford. Taking time off to search for Claire had played havoc with my bank account.
“I met her at Gerald & Co.—the auction house.” I paused for a minute to pound my piece of possessed circuitry into a hundred pieces. “Gerald’s occasionally came across an item that was dangerously unstable but also potentially valuable. They needed a null to keep anything freaky from happening while their people decided if whatever it was could be stabilized. She also worked some of the auctions, to keep the more volatile merchandise quiet while the suckers were bidding on it.”
“Why were you there?” Louis-Cesare asked after a moment, his tone managing to convey disbelief that they’d let anyone as disreputable as me into a genteel auction. He’d obviously never been to Gerald’s.
“To place a bid.” I started fiddling with my new toy, which had every bell and whistle known to man.
“Sweet! This thing even has Internet!”
Louis-Cesare just looked at me. I gave in with a put-upon sigh. “Wallachia’s first ruler was a Transylvanian named Radu Negru. Around 1300, he decided to build himself a grand new cathedral at Curtea de Arges, which is now a two-donkey town but was then the capital. According to legend, construction was going a little slow, and Radu threatened his chief architect, a guy named Manoli, if he didn’t start to see some progress. Trying to excuse himself, Manoli claimed that evil spirits were opposing the project. The solution: bury a living woman in the foundation to appease them.”
“What does this have to do with you meeting the null?” Louis-Cesare looked like he thought he was being had.
“I’m getting there. Anyway, Radu and Manoli agreed that the first woman on-site the next day would get the honor. As it turned out, the unlucky lady was Flora Manoli. She pleaded with her husband for mercy, and when that didn’t work, she cursed him and any other man who touched her grave. Shortly thereafter, Manoli fell off the roof of the cathedral and plummeted to his death.” Louis-Cesare was looking confused and slightly annoyed. “Legend says that he hit the dirt right next to the spot where he’d bricked up the missus.”
“I still do not see—”
“After a number of suspicious deaths, the stone over Mrs. Manoli was removed and replaced with a new, curse-free version. The old rock was broken up and buried, but enterprising village women located it and sold the pieces. Most of them have been lost over the years, but a few survived. Gerald & Co. somehow got hold of one of the remaining bits.” I’d hoped to snag the thing for a song, but someone with deeper pockets had also believed the legend. “I met Claire during the auction and we went for a drink afterward. Turns out she needed a roommate.”
Claire was working for a skinflint outfit like Gerald’s because the family business was entailed—one heir got control of everything, and the rest were out of luck. After her father died, she and her cousin Sebastian fought over control of the business and she lost. And since rival heirs were usually killed, she preferred to lie low until things calmed down. I’d given her a few pointers about how to stay beneath her family’s radar, and in the process learned that she’d recently inherited a rambling old house with lots of spare room and had a pressing need for untraceable cash.
“And now she is missing?’ Louis-Cesare prompted.
I scowled. “Yeah.” A fact that, among other things, made me look pretty damn incompetent.
Claire had set my rent ridiculously low, saying that she was just glad of the company, and had also told me that I could use the attic for an office. I don’t like taking advantage of people, at least not the nice, trusting ones, but I’d needed cheap digs. To soothe my conscience, I’d decided to throw protection into the deal. I couldn’t very well act as her full-time bodyguard and still take other clients, but I’d foolishly assumed that, with a dhampir as a roommate, she’d at least be safe at home. So it had come as a rude shock when she was snatched right out from under my nose.
“You are sure she did not leave by choice?” Louis-Cesare asked.
“I returned from a job to find an empty house and no note.”
“That alone does not—”
“Claire is like a Virgo on steroids,” I interrupted. This conversation was about as comfortable as poking at a bruise. I wanted it done. “Anal-retentive doesn’t even come close. One concession I had to make early on was to always leave a note. She worried if I so much as stepped out the door and didn’t put a Post-it on the fridge saying when I’d be back. There was no way she would have left without some kind of explanation, at least not willingly.”
Louis-Cesare looked at me, but didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. A month was a very long time.
My descent into gloom was halted by the sight of three figures disappearing into the Hedgehog’s entrance. One of the few constants among all dhampirs, even the mostly human ones, is our ability to spot a vamp under any circumstances. I’m not sure how we do it. I’ve been in positions before where there was no way I could have smelled, heard or seen anything unusual, and yet I knew a vamp was near. It’s like an itch, a sense that somewhere close by, prey can be found. I’ve never been wrong yet, and every sense I had was telling me that the three heavily bundled figures were vampires. Somehow, I doubted they were stopping in to check their e-mail.
“I’m done,” I said, tossing back the last of my latte. “What do you say we take the back way in?”
I’d checked out the back of the club earlier on the pretext of looking for a restroom, having long ago learned that the first order of business in any situation is knowing how to get out of it. I hadn’t actually thought I’d need the information. But it just goes to show—paranoid can be a very useful state of mind.
“What is wrong?” Louis-Cesare demanded in an undertone as I paused beside the Dumpster in back of the Hog.
“Three vamps just went in. Leave at least one alive—I have some questions.” Before he could argue, I kicked in the back entrance, stake in hand. I felt him grip my upper arm a second later, but barely noticed. I was too busy staring around in rising rage.
Son of a bitch
!” I shook off his hold and ran toward the front, but there was no sign of the three assholes who’d done this. The street out front was empty in both directions, not that that meant anything. They could have disappeared into another alley or shop, or more likely into a waiting car. I should have sent Louis-Cesare around back while I checked on the front. Stupid, stupid!
mean?” asked a mild voice behind me. I walked back inside to see Louis-Cesare looking at a message that had been written in red across the gold calligraphy of the poetry excerpts. Alan and his partner, whose name I couldn’t even remember, had supplied the ink. What was left of them had been dumped in a corner, along with the body of an old man who had been cleaning earlier. Three deaths in what couldn’t have been more than a couple of minutes, and they still had time to leave me a message. It looked like Drac had acquired some capable help pretty fast.
“ ‘Devil’s cow.’ It’s his pet name for me.” It was actually one of the nicer ones, as I recalled.
“Whose? Are you saying Lord Dracula did this?”
“Not personally.” I’d have known if one of the cloaked bastards was Uncle. His presence was unmistakable, especially to me. I’d have been able to taste him on the air, musty and electric-ozone sharp—the smell of madness. I pushed away sickening memories and concentrated on translating the brief scrawl. It was leaking down the walls and was fairly indistinct against the black paint, especially where it crossed the poetry, but I got the idea. “Kristie and José are dead,” I said evenly. The note didn’t say how, for which I was grateful.
“Dracula knew they were coming to meet us.”
It wasn’t a question, so I didn’t reply. I fished around in my bag and brought out a bottle of tequila I’d ripped off from the Senate’s plane. It’s always good to have something flammable in my line of work, not to mention that I like tequila. “You might want to wait outside,” I said. Vamps tend to burn so nicely.
“How did they know?” It sounded more like he was talking to himself than to me, so I didn’t answer. Besides, there were far too many possibilities to count. I splashed alcohol around, except for a mouthful I decided I needed worse than the Hog. I stopped because of a grip of steel on my upper arm. I dropped the bottle and it rolled across the floor, spilling the remaining contents, until stopped by the cleaning man’s body.
“What is your problem?”
“We will not continue this way,” Louis-Cesare told me grimly. “I may be forced to work with you, but you will show me the proper respect. And when I ask you a question, you