Legal Rites Book One

She’s got a destiny, and it’s all tied up in him….

Madeleine Macy is a magical enforcement officer. She doesn’t have power, but boy does she have a razor sharp wit.

Then she meets her match in Valstein, a powerful vampire of noble descent who's about to become a massive pain in her butt. When one of the most respected vampire lords in Knight City is brutally murdered, Madeleine is thrown together with Valstein to solve the case before it's too late. You see, if it's too late, Madeline dies. And Valstein really can't have that - not until he finds out who she is and - more to the point - who's been hiding her from him.

Legal Rites is an urban fantasy police-procedural sure to please fans of Odette C. Bell’s Angel: Private Eye series.


Chapter 1

Staring at this guy never gets old.

And yeah, that’s a pun. Because not only is he great to look at, but the bastard never ages, either.

I’m careful not to let any of my thoughts show as I sit there, perched on the edge of that expensive Regency chair, ensuring my skirt shows just enough knee without revealing the whole kit and caboodle. You see, you’ve got to be very careful when dealing with vampires, especially those as old and powerful as Valstein. No, that doesn’t mean he’s going to fall over like a geriatric tumbling down a set of stairs anytime soon.

Just the opposite. It’s the old and powerful ones that are truly lithe. They’re the kinds of bastards to jump up the side of a building and run you right across town without breaking a sweat.

They’re also… now, how am I going to point this out without being lewd?

Oh hell, no point. You can’t discuss one of the Calstan class of vampires without discussing, ah… sex.

There, I said it. If I’ve offended your sensibilities, I’m sorry. But like I said, there’s no way around it.

Calstan class vampires are… driven. Let’s put it that way. Really, really driven. They aren’t like your ordinary class of vampire. The lower-class fiends are really only in it for the blood. The more red juice, the merrier. But blood will only get those lower-class stooges so far. With the new night-limiting laws really stymieing how many lower-class vamps can hunt the city streets, I don’t have to deal with too many of those bastards these days.

There are tried-and-true methods of helping them shuffle off their mortal coil, anyway. No, I’m not talking a stake to the heart. Good luck getting close enough to a technically immortal being who would just love a close-up of your jugular as you foolishly try to stake his heart like you’re pitching a tent in his rib cage. He would rip out your throat faster than you can say, “Damn.”

Guns? Yeah, guns are just as effective against vampires as they are on road signs, cans at fairs, and people’s heads. You pack them with enough enchanted dust, and they’ll take down even the lithest lower-class vampire.

Oh, I said that word again, didn’t I?

Lithe. The one word that sums up Valstein more than any other. He’s got muscles, don’t get me wrong. And technically, he’s got the kind of vampire muscles that could see him stop a train in its tracks, let alone frame his tall, rigid form as he stands behind his desk, back to me, head tilted toward the view of the city down on the horizon.

Sorry, I keep getting sidetracked, don’t I?

All you need to keep up with me are these two little facts. I don’t care about lower-class vampires. All I have to do is grab the gun that’s magically been soldered into my aura, and return them to the dust from which they came.

Calstans? Who are otherwise known just as the Nobility?

Hmmm. Yeah. Controlling them is like attempting to control a wildfire with nothing more than a piece of paper. I don’t have any tools in my magical arsenal to kill them, let alone make them submit to justice.

“I do like that word,” he suddenly says.

Crap.

Though I’m trying to hold myself in a dignified, controlled manner as I continue to perch on the edge of my chair, I can’t help but stiffen my lips and press them hard against my teeth, swallowing a swearword.

I just left my thoughts unguarded, and the dear little noble vampire skimmed what I was thinking right off the top of my mind.

Though he’s been ignoring me almost the entire meeting as he waits for one of his lower-class punks to satisfy the evidence request I slammed on his desk 10 minutes ago, now he turns.

Oh, hello – no male model could ever match the view of him as little rays of silver-kissed moonlight penetrate the glass behind him, lighting up one side of his body while casting the other into darkness. And yeah, you don’t really need to be a physicist to appreciate that that shouldn’t be possible. The moonlight is technically striking all of his body, but it’s only illuminating one side while casting the other into everlasting shadow.

He’s still got his hands clasped behind his back, and my stomach clenches. It’s not because I’m suddenly overcome with thoughts of things I’d really love his hands to do for me, it’s because I would prefer to see what he’s doing with them. I don’t think he’s plucked out his phone and is texting while pretending to have a conversation with me. Nor do I think he’s suddenly found a knife and is hiding it as he waits for the perfect opportunity to slit my pretty throat.

Nope. But there are plenty of other things a noble like him could be doing with simple bone and skin. You see, while to a lower-class vampire their teeth are their true weapon, to a noble, it’s their entire body. And for this guy, though I’ve only seen him a few times, he seems to have a real big thing for hands.

“I bet he knows how to use them,” Calista mutters in my mind.

I jolt. I’m not expecting it.

You’d think I would be expecting it.

This is not my first rodeo, kids. I’ve been doling out partial justice for years now. Hell, I even have a commendation – that’s right, an actual commendation. It’s a certificate, and it’s currently sitting in my mom’s lounge. And before you say something snide, I’m seriously proud of that fact.

This is a hard job.

Doling out partial justice was never going to be an easy pastime. To think, I was a part-time pizza chef before I signed up for the magical policing course.

Now?

I’m respected by my superiors as someone who can get things done even when the odds are stacked against them.

Valstein’s watching me. You’d think, considering how good I’m meant to be, that I’d be focusing on his darting gaze, shoring up my mental defenses, and maintaining complete control over my thoughts.

“Yeah, Mads, I would be thinking that. But since the moment you met this guy, you’ve been letting his sex magic get the better of you.”

“Do you mind? And we’ve gone over this a thousand times, don’t call it that.”

“What? Sex magic?”

“Yes. That. It’s way more complicated than that. And a noble’s magic doesn’t just come from…” I trail off, cutting the thought short.

“You can’t even say it, can you?” Calista laughs right in my ear, her less than lilting chuckle like fingernails on a blackboard. “It’s sex, Mads. The other guardians are right – you are a prude.”

“I am not a prude!” I think back to my guardian.

She snorts. And let me tell you, it is not a pleasant experience to have somebody snort in your head.

Though, technically, that’s not where Calista is. She, like my magical gun, is attached to my aura. I know what you’re thinking. Auras are some hippie mumbo-jumbo that are meant to give an insight into your mood. Yeah, magical auras are slightly different. They’re more like a seriously handy pocket of space that only you can access. You can’t keep your keys or a spare packet of tissues in there, though. It’s strictly accessible only to objects and creatures who have aligned with your aura. And it’s a tricky, complicated affair to get the alignment right.

I’m digressing, though. You don’t care about that, do you? You don’t give a single hoot that all of my strongest magical protections are at this very moment in my aura, permanently accessible by me at any moment, anywhere. Nor do you care that – technically – the greatest asset I have as a magical enforcer is my guardian, and she’s also permanently accessible through my aura. Yeah, that’s right – permanently. I can be half asleep or in the bath, only for Calista’s grating, husky, whiskey-voice to ring loudly in my head like an alcoholic blues singer who’s jumped into my ear.

What you care about is what she’s pointing out. Don’t lie. You’re laughing your ass off that I’m a prude. And I guess… look… I am a prude.

Unlike a lot of my other magical enforcer colleagues, I have never given in to a noble.

Despite how… ah, uniquely pleasurable it’s meant to be.

“You know, though you’re irritating Valstein, if you ask for a free taste—” Calista begins.

“Would you just shut the hell up? I’m on official business now. I don’t need your protection as my guardian. I just need some peace and quiet to question this guy.”

“Question? You’ve just been making less-than-witty mental remarks about his personal proclivities while staring at his perfect body. I don’t call that—”

“Do you think it will take much longer for your aide to fulfill the information request?” I ask, realizing I can’t exactly just sit here and watch him as he watches me.

I’m not a fish in an aquarium.

“Oh, sweetie, he’s not looking at you like you’re a fish in an aquarium. Fish are already naked. Nope. That particular flicker in his eye? Yeah, it’s the look of a noble who just wants to undress you one piece of clothing at a time—”

“Calista! You’re really not helping. If you keep this up, he’s going to wonder why I’m distracted, put two and two together, and realize I’ve got a guardian.”

“Oh, poor, naïve, Madeleine Macy. He already knows. This is not your run-of-the-mill, garden-variety noble.”

His eyes are on me again. Okay, they’ve never left me. But right now, the intensity of his gaze… it kind of makes me feel like someone’s just poured oil down my top. Weird image, right? Not really. It’s kind of sticky and hot and makes me wriggle.

You get the point.

But as I have said many times, I will not submit to a vampire.

Though it’s not unusual for a vampire – especially a noble – to just stare at you like you’re a picture in a gallery, Valstein suddenly cracks a smile. It’s slow, and it draws all my attention to the left side of his lips as they curl into his cheeks. “Fond of that word, aren’t you?”

I blink quickly. “Sorry? What are you talking about—”

“Submit,” he says. He does something with his voice. I’m not entirely sure if it’s magical, or if this noble was born with a late-night radio host timbre that makes you way too aware of your pelvis.

I smile. Not a natural move, suffice to say. It’s that pale, pressed-lip curl you give people when you’re trying seriously hard not to react.

His gaze gets distracted for a little as he stares around the room, then, like a spring snapping back in on itself, it locks on me.

There’s power behind it. Sure, it doesn’t feel like I’ll be bowled off my feet, but that’s not the point. You see, you stare too long into a noble’s gaze, and they can wend their way into more than your sights. You know before how I talked about a magical aura and how only things that are aligned with you can be held inside it? Yeah, I’m suddenly reminded of the fact that extremely powerful, old nobles can find their way into your magical aura with sight alone.

And that is the last place I want this guy.

So I quickly dart my gaze away, demurely tucking my fringe behind my ears as if a few strands of loose hair is way more interesting than the veritable sex god to my side.

Just before the situation can spiral down and tug what’s left of my self-worth with it, there’s finally a knock on the door. I look up like a hopeful puppy as the door creaks open and in scurries one of Valstein’s staff. Though scurry isn’t really the right word. He kind of floats, doesn’t he? Because the guy, like every single poor sucker who works for Valstein, is a vampire. Not nearly as strong as the noble himself, but hardly your average, everyday scum-sucker, either.

In a testament to how much I want to get this done and get the hell out of Valstein’s office, I pretty much shoot to my feet as if I’ve been shot from a cannon. There isn’t a single sarcastic insult in my head, even though Valstein’s aide treated me like shit when I arrived unannounced at his mansion half an hour ago.

“Is that my evidence?” I ask sweetly, using the sycophantic, candy-cane sugar voice of someone who’s willing to tell you anything if only you’ll leave them alone.

The guy comes to a stop several meters away from the door, places his hands in front of himself, and bows, never making eye contact with Valstein.

I wonder if that’s self-defense. Yeah, I know – first hand – how powerful Valstein’s gaze is, but I assumed he just turns it up for hapless little humans. But now I imagine even his scum-sucking staff don’t like dealing with it.

Valstein shifts past me. Close enough that I can feel the rolled-up sleeve of his shirt brush against my arm.

I know better than to shiver and jerk back, even though I didn’t hear or see him move beside me. Last time I looked, he’d been several meters away by his desk. But in a split second that had changed.

The hair along the back of my neck stands on end, and I press my tongue hard against the roof of my mouth. Like I’ve said so many times before, this is definitely not my first rodeo. I know how fast a noble can move. Shifting the space of several meters in under a split second is nothing to this guy. He could take on an entire army, if he wanted to.

“Oh, I think he’s more of a lover than a fighter,” Calista suddenly says in my ear.

Dammit, I’m not expecting it, and I shiver.

Though the aide was standing there with his hands locked in front of himself and his head directed at the ground, almost like a wolf smelling blood, he darts his gaze up and locks it on me. “What is the human doing?”

“Oh, the human is just conversing with her guardian,” Valstein replies smoothly with only one flick of his glance my way.

Bastard.

“Of course he knows. You weren’t very subtle about me,” Calista says. “And I’ve told you before, this isn’t your garden-variety vampire. He would have pegged you as having a guardian the second you walked into his office.”

I don’t bother replying to Calista, because she’s right.

Still, I hate revealing to perps that I have a bonded guardian. It’s my ace in the hole.

The aide narrows his eyes, and I see his yellowed, slitlike pupils constrict until he looks like a cat that’s about to pounce. “Guardian? Her? I sense no special gifts,” he spits. Then he looks me right up and down as if I’m a slab of meat on a butcher’s hook. “This ugly, small human is not worthy of such a gift.”

I’m sorry, ugly, small human? If it weren’t for the fact the aide was currently holding my evidence request, I’d storm over there and punch him right on the jaw.

Yeah, I get it, I am nowhere near as good-looking as most vampire babes. But they have a little bit of help there – not only are they immortal, but they can use magic to alter and bolster their appearance. No sagging skin and cellulite for them. They don’t even have to book in an expensive, ineffective treatment with a plastic surgeon. All they have to do is find someone they like the look of and drink their blood.

And you know what, just fuck that guy generally. I may not be much to look at, and I may not have a physically impressive build. And yeah, I’m not the greatest magician out there. I don’t have some special destiny, and I sure as hell haven’t inherited unusual powers, as the scientists call them.

But you know what I do have?

Grit.

Yeah, I’m the kind of girl to chase you through the streets and never give up, even if I break my damn legs. I’m the kind of girl to tear apart a crime scene for months on end, even when everyone else has given up. I’m also the kind of girl who, once she gets a grudge, never forgets. I don’t need a little black book to remember every asshole who’s crossed my path – they sink right into my brain and remain there until the day I can get my just revenge.

So rather than splutter in indignation at this asshole, I just cross my arms and stare right back at him. “I guess it’s lucky for Valstein here you’re just an errand boy and not security. With those deductive skills of yours, it’s a surprise you’re still around,” I say sweetly with a hell of a saccharine smile spreading across my lips.

I can feel Valstein’s gaze on the side of my neck, and I watch out of the corner of my eye as he arches an eyebrow.

As for his aide, the guy practically turns beetroot red. I’ll let you in on a little secret about vampire biology, even though there’s still a lot ordinary humans don’t know. It’s been 10 years now since vampires made themselves known. And in those 10 years, despite the so-called Peace Treaty that was signed between ordinary humans and magical races, scientists have managed to get their hands on the odd vampire in an attempt to figure out how those immortal beings work.

Myth will tell you it’s blood. If a vampire drinks enough blood, he’ll live forever. And the blood will keep him youthful. Yeah, well it’s more than blood. I’m not going to go full-on esoteric on you here, but it’s a lot more to do with life force, movement, and change. That type of shit usually boggles the minds of my colleagues. Even the ones who are a lot more powerful than me. They don’t endeavor to understand magic – they just wield it like a frigging tool. Me? Yeah, even though I used to be a pizza chef before I became a magical enforcement officer, I grew up with a grandfather who loved philosophy. If I’d had the cash back then, I would’ve gone to university. But grandpa had taught me everything he knew, anyway. So the esoteric, mysterious side of magic has never bothered me. I actively study it, in fact. When I’m not prowling through the streets of Knight City, I’m usually online, tracking down rare magical tomes to add to my collection.

But sorry, I’m digressing here, aren’t I?

I promised you a tidbit of important information about the vampires, and here it is. They don’t have blood. Several scientific studies – albeit illicit ones that worked off illegally captured and killed vampires – have proven that fact time and time again. Vampires have circulatory systems, but the shit that pumps through their veins and arteries is nowhere near the same life force that streams through ours as humans.

It’s… now bear with me here – it’s a type of movement.

They say a universe that stops changing will stop existing. Because existence is tantamount to change. Movement, heat, the breakdown and the rebuilding of atomic bonds. It’s all change. And as for time? It’s just a handy, stable measurement of change.

Yeah, I get it, I’m boring you. Just hold on a little, though. You want to know how to kill a vampire – even the extremely powerful ones – you have to understand that. You can’t bleed the suckers dry. You have to stop them in place. And short of creating a big-ass black hole to suck them in so you can trap them on the static, virtually timeless event horizon, you have a few other options.

Stop moving, stop thinking, slow your metabolism down. Don’t make any sudden movements, and most importantly, control your emotions.

Trust me, it works wonders.

And that’s what I do right now as I stare impassively at the pissed off vampire.

His cheeks are pale, but I know better than to assume it’s because blood is being diverted to the rest of his body. Nope. He’s becoming undermined.

“You may be a prude, but goddamn, Mads, at times, I love you,” Calista suddenly says in my head.

This time I’m ready for her. I don’t even twitch. No shiver, no reaction at all. I just keep staring at the vampire like I’m a statue and he’ll never, ever get anything from me.

“I’ve been working for the enforcement squad my whole life, but I have never met someone who can stare a vampire cold like you,” Calista keeps chuckling.

Staring a vampire cold isn’t a euphemism. It’s an actual tactic.

Like I said – though I know you’re getting bored of vampire philosophy by now – the guys essentially live on movement. You stop moving, they start getting cold. Heat, after all, is just the temperature dependent motion of particles. If things slow down, they get colder; they speed up, they get faster. That’s science, see.

And science works on magic.

The vampire’s skin is seriously pale now. Looks like my grandma’s bleached and starched sheets. Don’t get me wrong, I love the dear to bits, but gran has always been fond of decorating everything plaster-white. And that’s exactly the hue this guy’s skin continues to turn. His eyes, on the other hand, get yellower and yellower.

As for his pupils? They start to turn red. And that means he’s about to feed.

Don’t worry for me, though. There’s no way in hell a noble would let one of his aides feed on an enforcement officer.

“And hey, even if Valstein is stupid enough to ignore the vamp, you’re hardly defenseless, are you, Mads?” Calista chuckles.

I have a little bit of a love-hate relationship with Calista. When she’s not calling me a prude and poking at my personal life, she’s usually cheering me on from the sidelines. Out of all of the guardians who work for the magical enforcement squad, she is by far the loopiest. Most of the other enforcers refuse to work with her, even though Calista has the most raw power of any of the guardians on the squad.

But you know what they say – nothing comes for free. And most enforcement officers who aligned with Calista in the past wound up going insane. One guy even took a drill to his skull as Calista, presumably, maniacally laughed between his ears.

With me, it’s different. Though I let Calista’s almost permanent commentary affect me sometimes, when it matters, I can tune her out.

Which is exactly what I do now.

I just watch the vampire’s red pupils.

I wait.

My arms are still hooked around my middle, but the fingers of my left hand are resting on my rib cage, ready to dart to the side in a split second.

My magical aura is primed, too, ready to spit out my gun without a moment’s notice.

Which is all the time I’ll need to put a bullet in this bastard’s brain if he makes a move for me.

That’s when I hear the creaking. No, it’s not the leather of the expensive furniture in this room contracting with the sudden cold. It’s not even the old wood foundations of this sprawling mansion. That would be the vampire’s teeth starting to grow, pushing hard through the guy’s top jaw, piercing the flesh of his gums like two little swords stabbing into skin.

I don’t move a muscle.

I even control my heartbeat. Let me tell you, that is no small task. There is a vampire – an immortal monster – getting ready to throw himself at my jugular. If I make a single mistake and waste a single second, I’m dead.

But fear will get me nowhere. If I let my heart beat harder, I’m a dead woman walking.

The secret to winning over any vampire is to control yourself. Yeah, maybe the other officers down at the enforcement squad don’t agree with me on that point, but they’re wrong.

“Bitch,” the vampire screams as he breaks and throws himself at me. In a microsecond, he changes. His hair falls out. It’s long and glossy white-gray. A few seconds ago, it was held behind the base of his head with a clip, but now it flares around his face, framing his pupils as they dilate to pure red. As for the rest of his body, it elongates, his arms reaching toward me, his fingernails growing with the sound of snapping bone.

And as for his teeth? Yeah, he’s pretty much all teeth now.

I reach for my gun.

I don’t get the chance to pull it out and put a bullet right between this guy’s eyes.

Valstein reacts.

So quickly. So goddamn quickly. I don’t see it. Even with the help of my guardian, I can’t really track what he does. But one second he’s standing to the side, the next he reaches forward, latches a hand on the aide’s chest while the guy is in mid-flight, then throws him to the ground. Valstein follows the move, never letting go of the guy’s chest as he slams him into the floor with enough force that the whole room pitches.

Seriously, it’s like a frigging meteorite has just impacted the house.

I stagger to the side, my hip slamming against Valstein’s desk, sending several items tumbling off.

At the same time, even though I know I have to control myself, my eyes blast wide and dilate with fear.

I have never seen a noble move as fast.

Valstein doesn’t get up. With one hand still locked on the guy’s chest, he looks down into his eyes. “Control yourself,” he spits.

But the aide can’t control himself. I’ve really wound the guy up, see.

“That’s because you have a preternatural ability to piss people off. Ever told you how much I love you? Though at the same time, you’re a god-awful prude who just needs to open your legs once in a while. Preferably for Valstein—” Calista begins.

“Shut the hell up,” I snap back at her in my mind, even though it’s a mistake.

You know what I said about movement before? It’s not just the movement of your body. It’s not just the pound of your heart. It’s everything. From quick, directed thoughts to floods of emotion. If you want to control any altercation with a vampire, you must control yourself.

And right now, I’m slipping.

It’s enough to see Valstein arch his neck toward me and lock his gaze on me just for a split second.

This room is well lit. And I’ve taken my night-see pills anyway. I could chase a vamp through a cave in pitch black darkness without falling over and stubbing my toe.

So why can’t I see Valstein’s eyes right now?

That would be because of the shadows he can control. Just like he controlled the light that illuminated only half of his body when he was standing in front of his window, now he controls the shadow looming under his eyes. It’s enough that I can’t see his pupils. Which is a problem. Because you can tell what a vampire is thinking – and planning to do with you – based on his pupils.

His aide continues to thrash, the guy reaching toward me with his clawed hands, his fangs dripping with blood.

Shit, I really did a number on this guy, didn’t I? If Valstein hadn’t been there to intervene, I wouldn’t have been able to just injure this vamp – I would’ve had to put him down with a bullet right between his eyes and three into his heart.

But Valstein is here. And with a hiss of breath like steam escaping a broken pipe, he twists around, brings up the base of his palm, and slams it into the vampire’s face.

It’s a vicious blow. The guy doesn’t have a chance.

His head lolls to the side as he falls unconscious.

“That was brilliant,” Calista says. “I think I’m falling in love with this vampire. Can you pretty please have—”

“Just shut up. For the love of God, shut up. That’s a command. Don’t make me think at you again,” I snarl back at her.

At the same time, Valstein shifts up. He doesn’t need to eke the tension out of his hand. It just falls gently by his side as he takes one step over his comatose aide and another step toward me.

I’m still close to his desk, one hand propped on it for support.

His gaze is on me. No, who am I kidding? His gaze is all over me. But here’s the thing. I can see his pupils now, and technically they’re not moving. But that doesn’t change the fact his eyes are darting over every centimeter of my skin. “You have quite an ability to affect those around you,” he says, lips barely moving over his teeth, making his words short and sharp like someone hammering a nail.

“Which makes you wonder if he’s good at hammering—” Calista says.

I just stop paying attention to her. If the idiot guardian doesn't shut up, I’ll just filter her out.

“I’m not sure I know what you’re speaking about,” I say politely to Valstein as I press a kind of smile over my lips.

He’s not blinking. He doesn’t actually have to blink. Vampire’s eyes don’t dry out or anything like that. You won’t catch him heading down to the local pharmacy for some fake tears after a hard day of staring victim’s down.

He also tilts his head ever so slightly to the left and right. It’s technically the gentlest of moves, and yet, his neck muscles are rigid like ropes. “You have an unusual ability to affect those around you,” he repeats without explaining anything at all.

“If you’re talking about what just happened,” I nod stiffly at the comatose vampire on the carpet, “that wasn’t my fault. He just went crazy,” I add, spreading my smile even further until it reveals my canines. Don’t get me wrong, they’re no vampire teeth, but that’s not the point.

Valstein takes another step toward me, and I double down, using every single scrap of control I have to ensure that my stomach doesn’t pitch. “Maybe it was a while since he fed,” I offer as I nod at the guy again. “Or maybe you should teach your staff to control themselves better. I shouldn’t need to remind you what would’ve happened if he’d attacked me.”

“You would’ve put a bullet through his eyes and three through his heart,” Valstein says, his lips moving so slowly around each word, I can’t help but rivet my attention on them.

Damn. Had he been scanning my thoughts again?

“That is the standard procedure in the Magical Enforcement Unit to take down a vampire, is it not?” he continues.

I relax a little. “Yes, it is, sir.”

“Sir?” He tilts his head even further to the side. And I won’t even try to describe what he’s doing with his eyes. Because if I do that – concentrate on those soulful, pale red-brown irises – I’ll run the risk of letting him in. “There’s no need for deference. Just call me Valstein.”

“Valstein it is. Can I have my evidence now?” I reach out a hand toward him.

His gaze is drifting over my face once more. I start to wonder what the hell he’s thinking.

… He’s not going to lose control too is he? Because there’s no way I’m going to be able to control him by just standing still.

I don’t let that thought affect me. I keep that less-than-friendly smile pressed across my lips, and I wait.

“Very well,” he says. And he shifts forward. He walks right up to me, and he gets down on his knee right in front of me.

“What—” I can’t control myself anymore, and I jolt back just as his arm brushes past the outside of my leg.

“Well, that was quick. I would’ve thought this guy would’ve taken a hell of a lot longer to warm to you. You do have a personality like a brick wall,” Calista says, her excitement obvious.

Just when I freak out at whatever the hell Valstein has planned, he picks something up from by my foot. It’s a pen that rolled off his desk when my hip slammed into it.

Slowly he stands.

Seriously, it couldn’t be slower. It’s like he’s commanding every single muscle in his body to move, one by one, and he’s taking pleasure in every contraction and expansion.

Suffice to say, he’s pretty damn close to me when he finally gets to his feet. And he doesn’t shift back.

He looks right into my eyes.

Though I know I should be staying still, excuse me if I can’t frigging do that. I still have one hand locked on his desk, and I’m leaning away. I also clear my throat. “Evidence?” I force myself to say, voice going up like a kazoo.

“You’ll have your evidence. But know this, I am going to keep my eyes on you… Madeleine?”

I didn’t tell him my first name when I came in. My jaw twitches.

“Though your friends call you… Mads, is it? An appropriate name,” his lips go back to moving in and out with perfect control.

“Which makes you wonder what else he can control perfectly,” Calista chimes.

There’s no way I can reply to her, not when he’s still this close.

“Yeah, my name’s Madeleine,” I say, realizing that the only way to regain control of this conversation is to regain control of my nerve. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Whoops, wrong word.

As soon as the word pleasure leaves my lips, I swear it somehow locks onto his, and with a single twitch, he smiles with his whole face. “Oh no. I assure you, the pleasure will be all mine,” he purrs.

“I love this guy!” Calista says.

I force myself to snort. “Okay, then the pleasure is all yours,” I control my tone. “But the evidence will have to be all mine. Can I have that document now?” I reach my hand out to him.

He pauses. And finally he turns on his foot and walks away from me.

I think I’m about to collapse as all the tension that wound through my body finally shifts.

Valstein walks back to the comatose vampire on his rug, gets down to one knee, and plucks something from the guy’s pocket.

It’s several folded pieces of paper. Valstein stands, unfolds them, ticks his gaze down to them, folds them back up, then walks over to me.

Fortunately he doesn’t invade my personal space again, and rather stands a few steps back as he hands me the documents.

That means I have to pull myself away from the relative safety of the corner of his desk. It also means I have to voluntarily approach him.

Mind games.

That’s the problem with nobles. It’s not just their power. It’s the fact they will always be looking for creative ways to control the situation, and to control you through it.

I make a quick darting motion as I snatch the paper off him, take several steps back, then come to a full stop. I don’t even bother to fold the paper up and shove it in my pocket. Too much movement.

“Thank you, Valstein,” I say.

“Perhaps you should do me the dignity of referring to me by my full title,” he says.

“I thought we already dispensed with formalities?”

“I changed my mind. I’d like you to treat me with the respect I deserve, Miss Macy,” he says, emphasizing Miss.

My cheeks stiffen. I’m one of those women who hates the word Miss. Why is it that the English language still has this goddamn title? All Miss tells someone is that you’re an unmarried woman. Boys don’t get that same distinction. They just have Mr., regardless of whether they’re hitched or not.

“It’s actually Ms,” I say pointedly, even though there’s really no point getting into an argument about gender equality with a goddamn noble vampire.

“But you are unmarried, aren’t you, Miss Macy?” he says, and I won’t even bother to tell you what his voice does on the word unmarried. “You see, I’m a traditionalist. I prefer to acknowledge when someone is available.”

I stiffen a smile over my lips. “I see. Well I’m a modernist. And that’s none of your damn business. Now thank you for this evidence. It’s been,” I stop myself before I say a pleasure, “informative.” With that, I push away and head toward the door.

To do that, I have to walk past him. Though I could try to skirt around him, it would look too conspicuous. So I just shore up my stance, let my chin jut out, and I strut.

Valstein? Watches me the entire time. But he doesn’t say anything until I reach the door. Just as I open it, he clears his throat. “I assume we will meet each other again. When we do, I would prefer that you do not bait my staff,” he says, voice dropping down all the way low in an obvious warning.

Though I know how to deal with vampires, and I know fear is the very worst thing you should show, the exact timbre of his voice sends a race of nerves spiraling up my back and slamming hard into my hindbrain.

“Baiting, after all, is illegal, isn’t it, Miss Macy?” He emphasizes Miss again.

I pause, my hand on the handle.

“You need to be very careful about what you say next,” Calista says, finally dropping her crazy act and doing what she should as my guardian. You see, guardians aren’t just there to give magical enforcement officers extra power to take down perps. They’re also there to interpret the extremely complex laws of the magic-human treaty. “You can’t incriminate yourself. Do that, and he’s going to have a legal advantage over you. And the only advantage you want this guy having—”

“I got it,” I think back to her.

“We shouldn’t have to meet each other again, Lord Valstein, Fifth Noble of the House of Bane. I have my evidence, and that’s all I need. Have a great night.” I open the door.

But he gets the last word. “Oh, we will meet again. Count on it.”

With that, I hear him turn and walk over to his desk, the conversation obviously over.

Dammit.

He’s just threatened me. And I hate it when vampires threaten me. I also hate it when I don’t get the last word.

“Just walk away,” Calista says.

I hesitate, then I go through with her suggestion.

I leave Valstein’s mansion, jump on my bike, and drive into the night.

All the while, his words play in my mind. Because even though I have no intention of meeting this asshole again, something tells me circumstances will conspire to throw us together once more. And if circumstances don’t conspire, Valstein will.

Chapter 2

“Do you know what will happen if you fuck this up again?” the Chief says as he leans toward me, his ruddy face like a sack of blood wobbling an inch from my nose.

I take a few seconds to answer, picking at my fingers in my lap. “To be fair, I didn’t fuck up last time – the DA did. I caught that guy two years ago; they let him out,” I say as I stab a finger forward, not really caring that the Chief is right there.

“But you failed to catch him the second time around, and that little wizard asshole caused over $100,000 of damage to the night markets. Do you know how much the Mayor roasted my balls for that incident?”

I twitch. You would too. I really don’t need the image of the mayor roasting my boss’ balls swimming around my noggin.

I really don’t need anything right now but a lie-down.

Last night, I didn’t sleep. I do go through periodic pockets of insomnia – and they’re usually related to the phases of the moon. But last night?

Oh, go on, you already know the answer. It was bloody Valstein. The Fifth noble of the House of Bane. I swear the little prick found a way to infiltrate my dreams. Which isn’t as crazy as it sounds, because some of the old magical nobles can practice dream magic.

“He didn’t practice dream magic,” Calista snaps as she chuckles in my mind. “You’re just obsessed with him. You know I’m always in your mind, even when you’re dreaming, so I know exactly what your consciousness got up to last night. Hardly PC,” she coos.

“Shut the hell up. I’m currently being eaten alive by my boss. Is this really the best time to belittle me, Calista?” I think back.

“Just tell him what he wants to hear, already, so we can get out of here and get to work. I’m getting bored,” Calista adds.

Seriously, despite the fact that Calista is technically one of the strongest guardians in the city, you wouldn’t know that hearing her speak. She sounds like a whiny three-year-old who just wants to go to the park – not a highly specialized light being who wants to bring some much-needed justice to the city streets.

She has a point, though.

“I don’t want to hear any excuses. I only want to hear one thing—” the Chief spits, a few licks of spittle landing on my arm and cheek.

It’s gross, but I don’t bother to clean it off. I just stiffen as I force my lips to pare back into the world’s shittest smile. “Okay. Okay. I’ll call in for backup next time. That’s what you want to hear, right?”

He finally shifts back. “Yeah, that’s what I want to hear. I want you to mean it, too,” he growls again. “You’re not a one-woman enforcement machine. For the Justice Department of Knight City to work, we all have to work together,” he adds, voice hitting that rare pitch that makes me wonder if it's about to destroy the mantle of the earth.

“I get it. I’m not a one-woman enforcement machine,” I say, ensuring my voice is contrite and every last ounce of sarcasm is trapped away for now.

“If anything goes down, you will call in the Action Squad,” he adds.

I just stop myself from snorting. For two reasons. It’s not just because of the Action Squad’s name. They sound like a knockoff version of the Avengers. Some tighted up, brightly colored, caped superhero group you call-in when you’re feeling too weak and pathetically human to deal with the situation on your own.

The other reason I laugh is because the Action Squad are completely and utterly ineffective. They’re also bent. As bent as a goddamn spring.

I won’t even try to describe to you the seriously complicated nature of Knight City’s Magical Enforcement Unit. It’s all to do with the Treaty. The Treaty that exists between magical races and humans. The Treaty that apparently keeps us all safe and living under the one city without all-out war breaking loose.

That Treaty, as I’ve already pointed out, is seriously frigging complex. Turns out vampires – who drafted it – are the original lawyers. The Treaty is so long and with so many contradicting clauses, it takes supernatural beings with almost limitless cognitive powers to interpret it. Hence the fact I always need Calista to tell me when I’m stepping over the line.

But I’m digressing again. The Action Squad do nothing.

Literally.

They’re more concerned with holding up the Treaty than offering justice. They’re meant to be some of the strongest magicians and wizards out there. There’s even a vampire or two in their ranks. And that right there is the problem.

Most crime in Knight City is perpetrated on humans, not magical creatures. And the problem with having the Action Squad made up primarily of magical creatures is that they are a little, ah, skewed when it comes to tracking down magical perpetrators.

Like I said – they’re as bent as a goddamn spring.

You call them to a serious incident, and the most they ever do is take your magical perp away, offer him a slap on the hand, then boot him out onto the same street he was terrorizing several hours earlier.

In other words, they don’t dole out justice.

They dole out partial justice.

“Don’t get started again,” Calista suddenly interrupts my internal monologue. “You really have to let this go. I like you, kid – well, I guess I kind of like you,” Calista gets sidetracked. “I’d like you a lot more if you’d just give into your desires a little more—”

“You want to get to the point, Calista?” I think back.

“You can’t keep challenging partial justice. It’s the only thing that keeps Knight City together.”

I don’t react.

I also hide all my thoughts from Calista.

At the same time, I control my expression in front of the Chief. Because if he knew I was currently questioning partial justice, he wouldn’t just chew my ear out; he’d kick me out of the squad completely.

Partial justice is what keeps us together – that’s the mantra that every single person in the enforcement unit has to repeat.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – what the hell is partial justice? You either have justice, or you have injustice. There’s nothing in between, right?

Yeah, you are right – there is nothing in between. It’s a frigging fantasy to think you can have justice that fits everyone’s needs. But that, apparently, is what Knight City’s Justice Department is built on.

Partial justice is the concept that in any incident between magical races and the humans, the crime must be interpreted through the lens of racial peace. If ignoring a murder means you don’t threaten the balance, then that’s what you do.

When the laws were originally envisioned, they were written by human lawyers to protect human aggression. Because if anyone had been oppressing anyone, it was the magical creatures putting down ordinary people. So stupid human lawyers had written in an explicit act to the Treaty called Partial Justice, that could account for and help reduce the culpability of revenge acts.

But you know how I said before that vampires happen to be the best lawyers in the world? Yeah, they twisted that law. And considering most magical crime is perpetrated by magical races on the humans, vampires are pretty much the only people to benefit from partial justice.

And every time some bright spark thinks of removing the concept from the Treaty, the vampires shut them down. Because partial justice, the vampires say, is the only glue knitting the magical races to the humans. Without it, there’d be all-out war.

“The last few years have been getting more peaceful,” Calista says in my head. “There are fewer crimes in the city. Even you have to admit that.”

“No, I don’t have to admit anything. It’s still the worst concept in the world. It allows crimes to go unchecked and for criminal bastards to think they can get away with anything if only they hide behind the Treaty. I’m not just talking about magical criminals, either – I’m talking about human trafficking assholes, too. Don’t get me wrong – I’m pissed off at everybody. If you dilute justice, you dilute the very fabric that holds society together.”

“Oh, for the love of God, we’re not going to get into another one of these arguments again. Just tell the Chief exactly what he wants, and that you will rely on the Action Squad this time. Got it? I’m so bored with this conversation already. I just want to get out on the streets so I can spread my wings. Not, of course, that I can do that considering I’m stuck in your aura, but whatever.”

“I want your word this time,” the Chief continues. “Without it, I’m not going to let you out there. I’m going to relegate you to desk work for the next several months,” he says, taking particular pleasure in the phrase desk work.

I can control myself around a vampire, so I’m pretty good at hiding my emotions from the Chief, no matter how much he’s pissing me off. I shrug my shoulders. “Okay, sir. I appreciate how serious this matter is. I will call the Action Squad when they are required,” I add quietly.

Maybe I’m wearing the Chief down, or maybe he doesn’t pick up how shadily I said the phrase, “when they are required,” because he finally takes a sigh, lets his shoulders drop, shifts back, and sits.

I feel sorry for the chair as it practically collapses beneath him.

He brings up an arm, locks his elbow on his desk, presses his fingers over his brow, and looks at me. “You’re the best magical enforcement officer we’ve got, Madeleine. I don’t always tell you that, but it’s true. You don’t have nowhere near the raw power of some of the others, but you’ve got a brain. And that,” he plucks his hand off his brow and spreads a stiff finger toward me, “is just as likely to get you into trouble as it is to get you out of it. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Nope. Like I said, before being an officer, I was a pizza chef, hardly a law professor or a mathematics genius. But if there’s one thing I value more than anything else, it’s my brain.

Very few situations in life require outright brawn. Sure, if you get into a fist fight with a giant, it’s too late to think your way out of there. But that’s not the point. If you use your brain and value your smarts, you’ll never get into a fist fight with a giant in the first place. You’ll control and adapt to your environment, creating every opportunity you need.

So I don’t comment as I finally shift up from my seat, grab a hand on my uniform shirt, neaten it, and nod at the Chief. “Thank you, sir. I’ll be sure to follow your word.”

The Chief just looks at me and shakes his head as if I’m a lost case. But he doesn’t suddenly demand that I’m chained to my desk for the next several months. He just brings up a hand and wafts it my way as if I’m a bad smell he’s trying to get rid of.

I don’t say another word as I nod, turn on my foot, and walk out of his office.

As soon as I open the door and make it out into the corridor, I see several of my colleagues shifting quickly away.

I arch an eyebrow. “Enjoy the show?” I say as I catch up to the closest guy, Officer Harding.

“Not every day you get chewed out by the Chief. No, wait,” Harding flattens his eyebrows over his eyes as he lets out a chuckle, “it is every day you get chewed out by the Chief. But you know what,” he spreads his arms wide, “it never gets old. Because while you take all the heat, the rest of us get to fly under the radar.”

I don’t react. Seriously, I just tug my head forward and stare down the corridor.

No snort, no attempt to put him in his place, nothing.

Which, predictably, pisses him off.

I feel his gaze slice toward the side of my face. There’s no love lost between me and Harding. You see, before I joined the squad, he was the top dog. And in many ways, he still is. He easily has the most raw power out of any enforcement officer. This guy is part wizard. When he combines with his guardian, he can take down a half noble.

And me?

When I combine with my guardian, if I’m lucky, I can take down a half-dead rat.

But I think my way out of dangerous situations, I don’t court them – and that’s the point.

I continue to ignore Harding, even though his angry gaze is now locked on the side of my face. “I heard you went to go fulfill an evidence request from Fifth Noble Valstein last night. That right? Surprised you got out of there alive. I would’ve thought a little girl like you would’ve wandered into the lion’s den and never wandered out.”

Don’t react, I tell myself. Don’t give this asshole the satisfaction of getting to you.

“It’s not actually a den – it’s a mansion. And as for getting out, you use the door,” I say as I finally reach the end of the corridor, wrap my hand around the handle that will lead into the officer’s room, turn slowly, and finally make eye contact with Harding. “And as for Valstein, he’s not that scary.”

Harding snorts. “Then you haven’t heard,” he says, satisfaction springing across his lips and tugging them wide like someone has just yanked on plastic wrap.

Don’t react, don’t react, I repeat to myself. But fuck it, I can’t stop myself, either. Like I said, I spent the whole of last night dreaming about Valstein, and now the bastard has wended his way into my body until I’m primed to react to any mention of him.

Still, I’m not going to stand there, slack-jawed, and ask Harding what he’s on about. I’m not that stupid.

I tick my head to the side, controlling my eyebrows as they descend down a centimeter over my eyes. “If you have some pertinent information regarding my case, please send me an email.”

I go to shift away, even though my heart wants to hold me on the spot to find out what the hell Harding is insinuating.

“I don’t have time to email you,” he says through a snarling huff, “just thought a weak officer like you should have a heads up. You know, in case you ever get into an altercation with him.”

I want to walk through the open door and ignore this dick, but I stop. Dammit, I stop.

I arch my head over my shoulder to look at him. “Are you suggesting that Valstein would attack a magical enforcement officer? Violating Treaty Law? It, even for noble, would mean automatic expulsion from this realm and permanent incarceration in one of the three realms of the Hell prisons.”

“What I’m suggesting is he’s killed before. And he ain’t in no Hell prison realm.”

I’m not an idiot. Last night before I went to Valstein’s mansion, I looked him up. That means a complete check. I’m not like the other magical enforcement squad members, and I don’t rely on my guardian to tell me everything. No, I did the full kit-and-caboodle research on Valstein. Including a criminal check.

No mention of him murdering a magical enforcement officer cropped up.

I would assume that Harding is lying, but honestly, lying is too hard for his little brain.

“What are you talking about, Harding?” I finally cave into my curiosity.

He laughs as if he’s just one a terribly fun game. “It wasn’t in our city – it was in Fairchrist City down the coast. And her name was Suzanne Somers. A low-powered little enforcement officer like yourself,” Harding says as he brings his hand up and makes a compacting motion as if he’s taking an ordinary person and shrinking them down to my size. “Stepped on Valstein’s toes, see. Tried to investigate his involvement with a human trafficking ring. Ended up bled dry, splayed over Valstein’s desk,” Harding says, taking utter pleasure in every detail he’s relaying, despite the fact he’s talking about the murder of an innocent woman.

I stop. You know, ground to a halt as I control my heart, control my mind, control everything. It’s the same routine I do when I’m facing a vampire.

But while I can control my expression, I can’t control my mind, nor my stomach as it sinks.

Not only did I see the desk in question last night, I leaned against it for support. And now an image of that goddamn desk with a dead woman splayed on top of it slams into my mind, never to leave.

“Where did you hear this?” I ask, tone controlled and professional. “And why wasn’t it on his criminal check?”

Harding snorts. “You do know who he is, right? Lord Valstein, Fifth Noble of the Bane Family?”

“I am aware of his full title, yes.”

“You’re such a noob,” Harding says, letting out a self-satisfied laugh. “Don’t you know who the Bane Family is?”

“One of the three oldest families to come out of continental Europe. Based originally in Hamburg, Germany, they are a small but extremely powerful family line. They also strictly control those who enter into the family. Like some of the older noble classes, they cannot turn a human into a vampire without the explicit permission of the entire Family Council,” I start reeling off the facts easily, not having to ask Calista for a single one.

Harding’s face stiffens. He still has that self-satisfied flicker in his eyes, though. “All that shit is irrelevant. What you need to know is that the Banes were the swing vote.”

I don’t react.

Harding doesn’t give any context.

Swing vote? He could be talking about a local election, or, you know, he could be talking about the Treaty negotiations.

10 years ago, when the world changed forever and magical races became known to humans, the world was on the brink of war. A war that would tear everything apart.

That was until certain members of the magical races came to the table with a treaty. One that was meant to benefit both humans and magical races, and, most importantly, keep everyone in balance so no wars would break out.

There was a problem, though. Not every single magical race was behind it. The vampires were especially split.

When it came down to the final negotiations, and the vampires voted on it, everyone thought it wouldn’t pass. Then, right at the last moment, one of the old noble families shifted their views and put their support behind the Treaty, sealing the deal.

Without them, there would be no Treaty today, and there would presumably be all-out war.

I’m not a dumb-dumb. I know Treaty history inside out. I also know the name of the vampire family who gave the swing vote. The Valmars. Not the Banes.

I think I’m controlling my expression, but obviously I’m not, because Harding laughs right in my face. “They have two historic names. Though Bane is their ordinary name, their formal title is the Valmars.”

… Jesus, how come I didn’t know this? Like I said, I’m not an idiot. Before I started this job, I already knew as much as a girl could about the Treaty and its history. And ever since then, it’s been a pet topic of mine. I’ve got a massive bookcase devoted to it.

Harding looks like he’s having the time of his life as he jerks his head back and practically hoots. “You know it’s a requirement of this job to know Treaty history, right? How’d you miss this?”

Alright, I’ve had enough. I cross my arms and look at Harding like I could take him down with nothing more than a single finger. “How did you find out about this? And why wasn’t I told? And before you use this as an opportunity to put me down – don’t. This should have been on Valstein’s file, and if you knew about it, then you should have added it. Discipline Ordinance No. 7A strictly states that a magical enforcement officer must never hold back pertinent information—”

Harding’s obviously had enough of me blasting his balls, and he actually puts his hands up. “Shit. Fine. The reason it wasn’t on his file is we just learned it this morning. It is on his file now.”

“So when you were pretending I was an idiot for not knowing, you were just being a dick?”

“Guilty as charged. You done now?” Harding looks like a balloon that’s been popped. To think, he’d been having so much fun putting me down only a few minutes ago.

“No, we’re not done. Why did new information come in regarding Valstein this morning? It’s been two months since he moved to Knight City.”

Harding looks right at me. “He’s looking to tighten his ties with the Justice Department. Offered to become an official go-between between the Vamp Council and the DA.”

“What? I thought Lord Balstair already fulfilled that position?”

“Jesus, Macy, how far behind are you? You fail to check your memos this morning?”

“I got dragged straight into the Chief’s office. Why?” My voice is tight as I realize something serious is up.

Harding snorts. There’s less of a prickish edge to it now. “You miss the massive police cordon down town and the extra cop cars roaming the roads?”

“I took the subway. Will you just tell me what’s going on already?”

Harding is never the kind to look overcome by anything – even his own stupidity. Now there’s an unmistakable unsure look in his eyes. He even brings up a hand, locks it over his mouth, and lets it drag down with a jerked move. “Lord Balstair is dead.”

I blink hard. “Sorry? What? How?”

“Murder,” he answers flatly.

“How are they sure?”

He looks right at me. “Because his body was found cut into pieces and hung up in the Soul Club on butcher’s hooks. So, yeah, they’re pretty darn sure it was murder.”

I pale. I’ve read and seen some pretty grotesque things as a magical enforcement officer, but even I can’t stomach that particular description. “When did this happen?”

“Last night. 8 o’clock. They’re investigating now – even you should be able to appreciate how damn important it’ll be to solve this ASAP. Lord Balstair was one of the most important vamps in the city. If it turns out humans killed him, there’ll be hell to pay. Fortunately, not only has Valstein offered to help investigate, but he’s already smoothing things over with the Vampire Council.”

My eyebrows twitch down. “How the hell do we know Valstein wasn’t involved?”

Harding snorts. “Because he’s already given us his alibi. You.” Harding points a finger at me.

I open my mouth to protest, then I realize Harding was right. At 8 o’clock last night I was sitting in that Regency chair in Valstein’s office, trying not to ogle his perfect back. “Shit,” I say.

“Anyhow, if I were you, I’d watch your tail,” Harding suddenly jumps to a new topic, and that self-satisfied smile is back.

“What?”

“Like I already told you, Valstein has gotten away with murdering enforcement officers in the past, Scott free. Nothing to say he won’t do it again.”

I pale. “If we have credible evidence that this guy got away with murder, why the hell is the Chief accepting his help?”

“Because the Department ain’t got no choice,” Harding drawls.

I don’t point out his double negative. I narrow my eyes. “Yeah, we do. There are plenty of other vamp nobles in the city who can fill Balstair’s place.”

Harding shrugs. “You’re not keeping up. He’s a Valmar, remember? His family is pro-treaty. Balstair’s murder has the ability to destabilize magic-human relations. If the Justice Department is going to accept anyone’s help in trying to smooth things over with the vamps, they’re going to need to be pro-treaty and one of the old, powerful families. And Valstein is both. So watch your tail, Mads.”

I go back to not reacting as I try to process this mess.

“Whoa,” Calista chimes in my head. “I go back on what I said. Definitely don’t sleep with Valstein. Guy sounds dodgy as. Though he still does have a great body.”

“Really not the point, Calista,” I think back as I keep a completely neutral expression. “We were in that guy’s office yesterday, and now he knows us. Heck, I fell against his desk. And he threatened to keep an eye on us.”

“Ah, not us – you. Even if he does manage to get his hands on you, there’s nothing he can technically do to a guardian. I’ll just be reassigned.”

“Thanks so much for your vote of confidence,” I snap back.

“Calm down. I admit this isn’t great, but we’ll just do what Harding is suggesting, and stay out of Valstein’s way.”

“What if he actively comes after us?”

“I doubt it. Sounds like he has much bigger fish to fry.”

“I hope like Hell you’re right.”

“Don’t hope on Hell, sweetie – it’ll just add more fuel to the fire.”

I shake my head and dislodge Calista’s commentary as I return my attention to Harding. It’s just in time to see a snide kind of smile curl across his lips. “The Chief give you a mission yet?”

I know where he’s going with this. Harding, the bastard, wants me to be assigned to help Valstein.

“Even if you already have a job, we all have to be on standby today in case Valstein needs us. So I’d tuck your tail away and try not to stand out,” Harding says as a satisfied smile reveals his teeth.

I snort. “If you want all the glory, you go ahead and have it. You’re the strongest member of our team, anyway. It makes sense for you to help Valstein. If the Chief asks where I am, tell him I’m out on the beat. I’ll leave the big case to you,” I tell Harding as I shift past him, whacking a hand on his shoulder as hard as I possibly can without it technically being classed as assault.

I shift quickly through the door into the officer’s room before Harding can have the final word.

And that’s when I see how frantic it is in here. No one is sitting down at their desk – they’re all racing around, sweat plastering their brows as they work like crazy.

I’m like the island in the storm as I watch the mayhem.

And then it hits me again – shit, Lord Balstair was murdered last night. Cut up into little pieces and displayed in the Soul Club.

All other investigations are going to ground to a halt until we find the culprits.

“We should really get out of here while we can,” Calista says in my head.

I 100% agree. Just as one of my fraught colleagues shifts toward me, obviously to give me some task, I turn hard on my foot, head across the room to the alternate exit, and walk right out as if I’m already seriously busy.

That’s when I see the Chief marching toward me.

“Bathroom, quick. We’ll climb out the window,” Calista suggests.

“Already onto it,” I think back as I twist hard on my foot and pretty much dive for the bathroom just as the Chief says my name.

I close the bathroom door behind me, lean into it, and breathe.

“No time to catch your breath, idiot – let’s get the hell out of here before the Chief has the bright idea to put his best investigator onto this case, landing you squarely in the sights and arms of Valstein.”

I don’t need Calista to repeat that twice. Totally unashamedly, I head for the windows on the opposite side of the room and start to climb out, even though one of my surprised colleagues walks out of one of the stalls. “Ah, what are you doing, Mads?”

“Avoiding the Chief. If you cover for me, I’ll solve your cases for a week.”

Sarah looks thoughtful, then nods. “Deal. I’ll tell him you were spirited away by fairies. There has been an outbreak of them on Eastside.”

“Do it. See you, Sarah.”

“Don’t break your neck,” she chimes back as I climb all the way out.

“I’ll try not to.” With that, I let go of the windowsill. I’m currently up on the third floor of the Police Department building. It’s not exactly a pretty drop down to the cracked asphalt below.

“Just jump, and I’ll do the rest,” Calista snaps.

I steel myself, suck in a breath, then let go.

I have a little magic of my own, but it’s nowhere near enough to protect me from a fall like this. The only thing that can save me is Calista.

And fortunately, she does. Just as I sail down to the pavement, she sends a blast of magic enveloping me, and it stops me in place, my nose an inch from the asphalt.

Several pedestrians are walking along the street, and a few of them gasp and jerk out of the way as I let out a sigh, push up, stand, crack my back, and push into a jog. “Sorry, folks – important police business. You all have a great day.” I even wave as I make it around the side of the building.

“Wait, no – stop,” Calista pretty much screams in my head.

Though I’ve made a fine art out of ignoring my guardian, at times, she’s serious and her warnings are the only thing separating me from life and death.

So as she screams, I skid to a halt, shoving a hand out and grabbing the wall beside me as I half shift around the corner of the building. It’s enough that I see a seriously nice car pull up to the curb right in front of the Department.

I don’t need to look at the car too long to realize it belongs to a vamp. They’re the only people with enough money and class to drive around in something that looks like a palace on wheels.

My heart springs into a sprint as I realize it has to be one guy.

Sure enough, I don’t have to wait long until Valstein pulls himself out of the driver’s seat and walks onto the pavement.

It’s unusual for nobles like Valstein to drive themselves around, or do anything for themselves, for that matter. They are the embodiments of nobles in every way. I doubt this guy has ever paid a bill, cleaned his house, and ironed his crisp, white shirt in his life.

And yet he drives. Interesting.

Fortunately I’m far enough away that he doesn’t immediately look up and see me. Plus, he’s suitably distracted as the Commissioner of Police himself walks out of the Department building and down to Valstein.

“Don’t just stand here and gawk – get the hell out of here while you still can,” Calista snaps.

Though a part of me wants to hang around and see what Valstein will do and how the Commissioner will treat him, the rest of me remembers just how powerful Valstein is.

I swear I can still hear his warning echoing in my ears – we would meet again.

“Not if I have anything to do with it, buddy,” I say as I whirl on my heel and come good on my threat to flee.

Time to hunker down until the storm blows over.

“Good luck with that,” Calista says sarcastically as I jog off down the street.

Chapter 3

Yeah, okay, so Harding had a point this morning. How the Hell did I get a single block this morning without noticing that the city’s in lockdown? I can’t get anywhere near downtown without coming across squads of police cars. They’re not just out in force – they’re practically swarming the streets.

I know better than to assume they’re all looking for clues relating to the murder. Nope, this is for show. Some pomp and circumstance for the vamps of this city to prove the constabulary are taking this seriously.

Suffice to say, I don’t hang around downtown long. I make my way to Westside, about as far away from the purported crime scene as I can without ditching the city far behind.

“Which you should consider,” Calista randomly interjects.

“I’m not leaving town. I was born here.”

“You want to die here, too?”

“I have no intention of dying at the hands of Valstein,” I think with a shiver. “Plus, hopefully, if we can stay out of his way for long enough, he’ll forget us.”

“Okay, stop saying we. Valstein hasn’t even met me. This is all on you, Mads. And you’re downplaying just how interested he was in you last night. Though it was a hoot at the time, you probably shouldn’t have baited his vampire aide like that. Valstein will want revenge. Don’t get me wrong – at first I thought that smoldering attention in his gaze was interest. Now – considering we know his murderous past – it was probably him locking onto his next victim.”

“Oh my god, Calista, you’re really not helping.”

“I’m not here to help, kid – I’m here to keep you alive. So like I said, time to pack your bags. Aren’t you about to get evicted, anyway?”

“Sure, I was sent a final notice to relocate because of property development, but I’ve already found another place. Anyhow, if I leave town, you can’t come. You’re officially the property of Knight City Justice Department. I skip town with you, not only will the other magical enforcement officers hunt me down, but they’ll forcibly remove you.”

“I’ll stick with you, kid, through thick and thin. You’re the first enforcement officer I’ve ever gotten along with. Plus, I have a feeling our enforcement officer buddies will be a little too busy dealing with this murder.”

I’m walking along a side alley, hands stuffed in the pockets of my work pants as I keep to myself, sticking close to the musty brick wall beside me. I see a few rats scurrying through cracks in the wall, presumably down to the sewers below. City upkeep ain’t great on this side of town. They tend to keep the municipal budget for where the rich vamps live.

“Sure, Lord Balstair was a big deal,” I admit as I watch another rat scurry past me, his little claws scratching over the asphalt, “but if I skip town, I guarantee you that the Chief will spare an officer or two to hunt me down. No, we have to stay.”

“Sure, well it’s your funeral, then. I guess there are worse ways to go than at the hands of Valstein.”

“Okay, for one – we don’t actually know what happened to Suzanne.”

“Wait – did you just defend Valstein? God, you aren’t actually falling for him, are you?”

“Of course not! I’m just saying we should be smart and actually find out—” I stop.

I’ve been mooching my way slowly down the laneway, arguing with Calista in my head, paying zero attention to anything but the occasional scurrying rat. Now I freeze.

“Calista, can you feel that?” I think quickly.

“I wasn’t born yesterday. Of course I can feel it. A strong effect field – someone’s trying to hide magic. Kick into gear, girl.”

I sure as hell kick into gear. I throw myself at the wall beside me, right at the crack where a rat just scurried through.

I can feel the magic effect field all around me now. It’s like having fingernails pluck at your flesh, and it smells like a combo of burnt oranges, burning bleach, and sugar. Not nice.

“Be my eyes, Calista. I’ve got a feeling this is going to get nasty,” I think as I skid down to one knee, suit pants snagging on the uneven pavement and tearing.

I’m renowned around the office for going through uniforms quicker than the Chief goes through friends.

Who the hell cares though? Disregarding my pants enables me to reach the crack in the wall just as it closes.

Calista does the rest. I shove a hand forward, cramming my fingers into the hole as Calista’s magic spews down my arm and over my fingers.

Her magic fights against the effect field as it struggles to close.

“Come on, Calista,” I roar, really bracing my back as I put all my own power and strength into the move.

“This is a strong field. Give me a second…” she trails off.

“Just give me more juice!” I scream out loud.

The effect field struggles against my magic-bolstered grip as it tries to close, power discharging around my knees and arms with snaking, snapping crackles.

Despite my best efforts, the effect field closes until it’s just the size of my struggling fingers. If it gets any smaller, it’s going to take my hand with it, and now it’s way too late to pull out.

Just at the last moment, as my fingers feel like they’re being extruded, a burst of bright white magic slams into my hand, charging into my fingers and blasting into the effect field. It’s more than enough magic to rip through the field.

There’s a crack like a mirror being shattered underfoot, and a whole section of the brick wall in front of me caves in.

The brick turns to hot chunks of dust that burn through my pants and scorch my knees.

I don’t even bother to wince as I shove forward and throw myself through the hole in the wall.

“Be my eyes, Calista,” I scream as I shove into the darkness. Though I’ve taken my night-see pills, not even those can work against this type of darkness. It’s thick with magic and stifling like a rag over your face.

“Left, hard left,” Calista snaps.

I jerk to the left as hard as I can, and as I do, I feel something slice past my shoulder. “What the hell was that?” I spit at Calista.

She pauses, clearly calculating.

I’ll admit to something here – because I totally have the time to be thinking while avoiding whatever the hell is trying to kill me in the dark. Though I could certainly live without Calista’s snide wisecracks ringing through my ears every other minute, there’s no way I’d be able to do what I do without her. I have next to no magic of my own. Just enough that it was picked up by one of the government sponsored tests they did 8 years or so ago now.

In other words, Calista is invaluable. A creature who can not only offer me extra magical juice when I need it, but someone who can interpret treaty law and crunch numbers and battle data quicker than a super computer.

“Just analyzing now,” Calista says quickly. “Duck!”

I don’t hesitate – never have when Calista has given me a command that categorical.

I let my knees fall out from underneath me as I roll. It’s just in time to feel something hard slice past my shoulder. If I’d been a single second later, said thing would have sliced into my head instead.

“What the hell is out there?” I spit.

“Still calculating! Keep on your toes. Head forward and to the left.”

I do as I’m told, throwing myself up so quickly, the soles of my work shoes squeak against the floor.

If you’re thinking I’m in way over my head and it’s time to get the heck out of this dark magical trap and back onto the street outside, yeah, I’ve thought that too. But it’s way too late. Though I managed to widen the magical crack into a door to get in here, the minute I let go of it – and Calista’s magic stopped spewing into it – the door contracted. Now it’s no larger than a fingertip. And though technically I could amuse myself with skidding over to it, jamming my pinkie inside, and trying to open it again, that would give the dude attacking me all the time he needs to strike the final blow.

“Right three steps,” Calista blasts in my mind.

Sweat is slicking down my brow, catching a few stray strands of hair and sticking them to my cheeks. They scratch and tickle as I dart my head to the left-and-right, desperately trying to pick out whatever is out there.

“Just concentrate on running forward. This thing is fast,” Calista warns. Her voice is quick. There’s no commentary, either. Which, for Calista, is almost unimaginable. It serves to reinforce that it’s no normal crim out there in the dark.

“Right tank roll,” Calista blares.

I have no idea what’s in this room. I have no idea if it’s even a room. For all I know, that magical crack could have been a portal spell that sent me half way across the country and deep into some old, forgotten cave. Or I could be thick in some forest somewhere. I could be down in the industrial district or on top of one of the many high rises in downtown. Without the ability to see, I’ve got nothing to go on, save for the tactile feedback from my feet.

That’s relatively smooth, and as my footfall echoes out against it, I assume it’s either brick or stone.

“Just leave that up to me and dodge, for heaven’s sake,” Calista spits.

“Where? And what the hell are we fighting? Why is it taking you so long?”

“Because whatever is out there has got some kind of magical camo.”

“That stuff’s illegal,” I think back as I power forward with all my might.

“Yeah, genius – thank you for that legal insight. I know. It’s also some seriously sophisticated stuff. Not the kind of crap you buy on the Dark Magic Net for a couple of hundred bucks. This is the real deal. Just keep moving and dodging. The more he attacks us, the more info I find out.”

“In that case,” I say as I whirl on my foot.

I’m not an idiot. I know how truly pathetic I am when it comes to fighting magical creatures. I also know that while brains can get you far, there is a time for brawn – and that time is right now.

But this is a calculated risk.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Body contact,” I say simply. Incidentally, it’s exactly what I get as I open my arms wide.

I’m not an idiot, though. I’m not about to accept a magical blade to the center of my chest.

I do two things as I feel something slam into me. I roll back using the judo training my army dad gave me, and I also use the very little magic I have to take the brunt of any magical attack.

I feel like I’ve been hit by a semi-trailer, but my father taught me how to fall. He taught me how to pivot with my hip, how to accept the other person’s momentum, then use it against them as you roll and flip.

“You’re crazy, but I love you,” Calista says.

As I wrap my arms around whatever the hell has just thrown itself into me, I realize it’s a human. Or at least, it’s human shaped. Male, too.

I feel a blast of air against my cheek. It’s feted – kind of smells as if somebody has eaten year-old cheese and then topped it off by licking moldy lemons for a week.

In other words, real nice.

But I have no time to gag.

Despite how fast and hard the guy hits me, with my training and my magic, I flip him.

Calista helps too, of course.

As I roll on my back and kick with my legs, pushing him off me, my fingers catch against his jacket.

It’s puffy, feels like a bomber jacket of some description. He’s wearing ordinary pants, too. Nothing leather, nothing studded, and nothing made out of metal or magical armor.

I think I see his eyes, too. It’s hard to know. If your mind is stuck in total darkness for long enough, it starts to invent shapes. Just little flashes of illumination. It’s a neurological phenomenon. Has a name, but excuse me if I can’t remember it right now.

The guy thumps against the smooth floor behind me.

This is the critical part – getting to my feet before he gets to his.

The other guys back at the office may have a heck of a lot more power than me, but that isn’t always a blessing. It makes them cocky, makes them think they don’t need to work on their footwork, on their strength, on their ability to dodge. Why bother when you can produce magic stronger than a mage and you have the backup of a light guardian?

This is why you bother.

I do it. I roll up, snap forward, pump my glutes, and rocket out of the way just as I hear the guy let out a grating grunt and lurch for me.

“Got it!” Calista practically screams in my head. “He’s a dummy,” she says triumphantly.

No. Calista isn’t just handing out a pathetic insult here. She’s not questioning the intellectual capacity of the guy behind me. A dummy is a proxy, if you will. Kind of like a doppelgänger. A copy of a real magical practitioner that’s been sent out into the field while the actual practitioner gets to stay at home and astral travel. Think of it this way, a dummy is a kind of magical clone. And the person that summoned the dummy can sit back, put their feet up on the coffee table, close their eyes, and stretch their mind into the copy – getting a mission done without ever leaving the couch.

Perfect, right?

There’s a problem, there.

There are tried and true methods to deal with dummies.

“Roll to the left, come up kicking,” Calista says.

I shove forward, pitch into a roll, launch up, and swing my leg around. There’s real power in it. Because I train every single day. I’m not the kind of girl who goes out and spends her paycheck on expensive face cream and margaritas. I don’t buy fancy dresses, and I sure as hell don’t take fancy holidays. I’ve got a heck of a nice gym, though. It’s in the spare bedroom of my current apartment. But that’ll all have to change when I move places. Point is, I’m buff. I’m not muscle-mania or anything, but I do know how to use my body. And with the added advantage of judo training, I can make up for my diminutive size with power, speed, and the ability to use someone else’s momentum against them.

My kick is perfectly placed, and the guy runs into it, stumbling backward.

I don’t even need Calista’s advice, even though I’m technically still in the dark, as I pivot on my hip, bring my other foot around, and sweep it into the back of the guy’s legs.

There’s an, “Oph,” as he rockets backward and strikes the floor with a thump that travels all the way through the room.

Rip his damn head off,” Calista demands.

I comply.

I jerk forward, straddle the guy before he can launch to his feet, and I wrap my hands on his temples. I don’t even fumble. I know exactly where he is in the dark based on where I heard him fall. Like I’ve said 100 times before, I account for my lack of power with training, and yeah, once or twice, I’ve even trained with blindfolds on. You never know when the lights are going to go out on you, after all.

Immediately the guy bucks forward and wraps his arms around my torso, bringing me close in a violent move. No, I don’t think he’s sad and really needs a hug – he’s clearly taking the opportunity to try to crush me.

Big mistake.

The closer I get, the more it brings my body in contact with his. And the more my body is in contact with his—

“The more I’m in contact with him, too,” Calista finishes my thought with a happy little chuckle. “We’ve got this bastard – give him everything,” she commands me.

With my hands still flattened on his temples, I concentrate. The guy may have a crushing grip on my back, but I filter that out as I align perfectly with Calista, allowing her to transfer her power through my aura, into my body, and down, down into the guy’s brain.

Sorry – not brain – port. You know how computers have ports? Nodes that allow incoming or outgoing information? That’s what this guy’s brain is. Remember, he’s technically nothing more than a magical doppelgänger. Screw up the port – block it with interference – and this guy’s toast.

He bucks into me harder now, makes me feel like I’m riding an enraged bull. I also catch sight of his eyes properly. The first two things I’ve seen in the darkness since I stupidly came in here.

They’re blood red.

As wide as two full moons, with the tiniest black slits in between.

“Vampire,” Calista says. “This is one for the books. They usually hate body doubles.”

“Can you please concentrate on killing this guy, already?”

“You mean disabling him, but I got it. Two more seconds—” Calista chimes as if she’s a glorified microwave letting you know how much longer it will take for your soup to cook.

The guy has one more single second to look up into my eyes. I look down into his. He opens his lips and he begins to scream. One of those deep, throaty, gravelly affairs that makes you wonder if somebody’s throat has been replaced with the Earth’s mantle as it’s torn apart in an earthquake.

But the scream is cut short. Because the mouth and throat giving it suddenly lose all power.

The guy flops back down as if he’s a doll.

His arms fall from my back, peeling away like dead petals from a flower.

He doesn’t disappear, or anything. There isn’t a cascade of sparks as I suddenly fall on my ass.

Nope. This is a full magical clone. It will decompose eventually into its requisite energies, but we still have a couple of hours.

“And that’s all we’ll need to do the forensics on this guy. This is brilliant. Not only did this guy have proper magical camouflage, but magical clones like this are seriously illegal. The Chief is going to love us.”

“Sure,” I say as I push up and stand above the guy, “after he chews us out for escaping the police station this morning.”

“You mean chews you out for escaping the police station.”

“It was your idea to climb out the bathroom window,” I spit back as I take a step away. “Can you please do something about the lighting in here? I’d really like to know where I am.”

“Got it. Now that camouflage spell’s been broken, it should just take a little tinkering. Do us a favor, and bring a hand up wide and spread your fingers to the left.”

Sometimes I wonder if this junk is necessary. All these hand gestures and secret words. It’s decidedly comic-book. But Calista seems to like it, and she gets seriously mad whenever I question it. So I comply, bringing my hand up and spreading my fingers to the left. As I do, I feel a distinct crackling energy sink down the skin and zip along my nails. It’s like electrified ants dancing over my flesh.

As the magic hits the air, it reacts somehow. It’s accompanied by this hissing sound, almost like cold water striking hot coals.

There’s a sulfurous smell with the tang of orange peels, and then, with a snap, like somebody turning on a light switch, the darkness is thrown back.

I’m in a storeroom. It’s empty. That’s it. Just some concrete walls, a door on the opposite side, and a single ugly light fitting.

“Utilitarian,” Calista comments. “I gotta admit, I’m kind of underwhelmed. Why would anybody use an expensive astral-traveling body double to come to this piece of shit room?”

I shove my hands into my pockets as I pivot from left to right, narrowing my gaze and really assessing the room. There’s no furniture, no boxes, no handy cases of drugs stacked up in the corner. There are no weapons, no trapped magical creatures. There’s nothing.

“What the hell was this guy up to, then?” I mutter as a frown presses across my lips.

“I guess that’s going to take some investigating. Why don’t we ever get the easy cases?” Calista complains.

“Because I hate the easy cases. Leave the easy cases for the lazy officers. I like something I can sink my teeth into,” I say as I take a step toward the perfectly still body on the ground. If you didn’t know better than me, you’d think he was dead.

But when you look closely enough, especially at his eyes, you can tell he was never alive in the first place.

I poke him experimentally with the toe of my shoe. “I’m going to have to carry him out of here, aren’t I?”

“Hmm?”

“Calista, you paying attention?”

“Of course I’m paying attention. I was just thinking up a witty remark for what you just said,” Calista cackles.

“That I’m going to have to carry this guy out of here? How exactly is that funny?”

“It’s not. But the comment that you like to sink your teeth into cases – that is decidedly vamp. Is Valstein getting to you that much? Want him to turn you, do you? It’s meant to be the most pleasurable experience a human can ever undergo. And then, why, you two will get to live together forever.”

“Do you mind? Do you honestly think now is an appropriate time to drag up Valstein again? You’re the one who’s telling me I need to skip town to get away from him. You forgotten that?”

“No. I am an infinitely intelligent light being. You, on the other hand, are just simple flesh and blood. And we all know how easy it is for simple flesh and blood to give up their reason and fall headfirst into their desires,” she purrs, taking particular pleasure in saying the word desires.

I’m so over her mentioning this stuff now that I just give a derisive snort and shake my head. But there’s one thing she said that I can’t let go. “Calista, I’m not the one losing my mind – you are. Aren’t you forgetting that, out of all of the people in the Magical Enforcement Unit, I am the least likely to ever give up reason for desire? I’m a raging prude, remember? The last time I went out was…” I look to the side as I try to think, “three and a half years ago now. And I won’t even mention my last boyfriend.”

I can tell Calista is torn between mocking me for being uptight and teasing me about Valstein again. She settles on getting down to business instead, “I don’t think that guy’s heavy. Now the mind has been sucked out of him, you should be able to pick him up with ease. Give it a go.”

I shift down to one knee, pluck up one of his hands experimentally, and let it fall down. It doesn’t thump against the floor like his body did when he was technically alive. Instead, it almost wafts like a feather. “Damn, this is the Rolls-Royce of clones,” I mutter. I Calista says, her enthusiasm obvious.

“Hold your damn tongue, Cal. We don’t know what this guy is into. He could be a murderer, could be a trafficker, could be anything. While I admit it would be damn nice to track this scumbag down, try to contain your enthusiasm. Makes you sound like a real psychopath.”

“Sweetie dear, I am a real psychopath. That’s why I was landed with you. I’m the only person who can deal with your brick wall of a personality.”

I just snort, realizing the more time and energy I waste on this useless conversation, the less time the forensic team will have to investigate this body.

I wrap an arm around the guy’s middle and heft him up. Sorry, I don’t even really have to heft. That’s the wrong word. I pick him up as if he weighs no more than a house cat. He’s one or two kg, tops. But he’s bulky and pretty awkward to carry. I have to lock him over one shoulder, and even then, his butt and legs are in my way. “This was not how I thought I would be spending my morning,” I comment as I head toward the door.

I reach it and stop just in front of it. I push a hand toward the handle, but I do not grab it. I’m not that stupid.

I spread two of my fingers out, letting them almost touch the metal. “Cal, this safe to turn? Any enchantments?”

“Just give me a second…. No, we’re good to go. This room and the door is devoid of magic.”

“You know what else this place is devoid of?” I comment as I finally let my hand latch around the handle and I open it, “rats.”

“… Fascinating observation, Mads. You’ll find that most things in life are devoid of rats. And that’s a good thing.”

I snort. “Remember how before we came in here I kept seeing rats scurrying through that magical gate? Where the heck did they go? This is a sealed room.”

Calista pauses. “Further evidence,” she mutters. “I have made a note of it. Now let’s get back to the station. We can use this body double as leverage so the Chief doesn’t fire us.”

“Right you are,” I chime.

I open the door and walk out into a corridor.

It’s completely empty. Devoid of decoration, too. It, like the room I just exited from, is just so much old, musty concrete. Obviously the owners decided that decorating this shit hole was less important than focusing their time on doing illegal stuff.

“Where are we?” I manage as I walk all the way down the hall and find a set of ascending stairs.

I heave the body double onto my opposite shoulder and lock my right hand on the railing for support as I clamber up the steps.

“Not entirely sure yet.”

“I thought you had full location capacity? You’re always bragging about it. Doesn’t matter where we are in the city, you can do a pinpoint location better than GPS.”

“Yes, thank you, I don’t need to be reminded of my own significant capacities. What I’m trying to point out is this building is a little fuzzy right now.”

I don’t bother to snort at the less-than-illuminating description of fuzzy.

Because it’s a technical term.

Fuzzy might be something you’d say if you woke up from an all-night binge on elf alcohol and pain pills, or equally a descriptive you’d use if you were cleaning behind the fridge only to come across a cache of old cheese. But in the technical world of magical location sensing, fuzzy is used to refer to dislocated space. Just bear with me, I’ll make this explanation short. If you want to hide your location from human GPS tracking devices, you just go deep enough down that a signal can’t penetrate, or you cover your walls in copper like a Faraday cage, but it doesn’t work that way with magic. For one, you aren’t hiding your location in the previous example – you’re simply stopping a signal from getting out. With magic, it’s different. A fuzzy location is one that’s had so much magic pumped into the place that space starts to warp. It undulates like a slithering snake – or at least that’s how it’s been described to me. My tiny little mind wouldn’t be able to understand the mind-bending theoretical thermodynamic magical physics that are involved. Point is, this building right now is not entirely occupying the same place at the same time.

“Do tell me we’re still in Knight City,” I comment as I reach the top of the stairs and find a door in front of me.

“Pretty sure we are,” Calista says.

“Pretty sure?” I reach out a hand and let two fingers spread toward the handle in front of me. “I’d like you to be 100% sure.”

“Yeah, well you ain’t going to get that, kid. I can tell you how we can find out where we are, though.”

I tilt my head to the side. “How?”

“Open the door and find out,” Calista comments with a grunting chuckle.

“I’m not going to open the door if I don’t know where it leads,” I say clearly as if I’m talking to a petulant child. Which, in many ways, I am.

“Yeah, of course you are – it’s the only way out of here. And I really don’t want to spend the rest of my life in this Brutalist inspired concrete den. You know I like the finer things in life. Now open the damn door. There are no magical enchantments, no booby-traps.”

I sigh.

I also comply. What choice do I have?

Chapter 4

The door swings open with the kind of light, innocent creak that shouldn’t herald anything more than a new room.

Because, you’d think when you’re about to come face-to-face with your own destruction that there should be more than a tiny little squeak. When you suddenly face Armageddon, there should be massive bangs, explosions, and crashes of symbols.

Yet, there isn’t.

But I still face Armageddon.

Because as that door swings open, it reveals a man standing a single meter from it.

And that man technically isn’t even a man. No, he’s a noble. The Fifth Noble of the House of Bane to be precise.

Valstein.

He has his head tilted toward me, his body directed in the opposite direction, making it clear he hadn’t expected the door to open.

“Oh shit,” Calista says simply.

Oh yeah. Oh shit. On every level.

Turns out I’m still in Knight City. More to the point, I’m in the Soul Club.

And right before me, is the crime scene I’ve been trying to dodge all morning.

Worse? It’s not just Valstein who’s standing there staring at me – it’s most of the rest of my team, including the Chief.

Holy hell, I climbed out the window to get away from him this morning. Now I’m standing here, crashing his crime scene with a massive bloke hooked over my shoulder.

I think my expression says it all. Sprung on every level.

As for Valstein? His expression is unreadable. On every level. I seriously mean that. Even back when I was a pizza chef, I had a reputation for being able to read people’s moods. Okay, there isn’t that much call for it when you’re back of store whipping up dough and putting ludicrous amounts of fatty cheese on it. It was still a good skill, though. The kind of solid skill that, if you’ve got it, will help you in every aspect of your life.

But it’s useless right now. Even if I had some kind of magical brain scanner, I wouldn’t be able to figure out what Valstein is thinking.

The Chief? Oh, he makes his thoughts known.

“Madeleine? What the hell are you doing here? Where did you go this morning? Did you climb out of the window to get away from me?” The Chief fires off his questions so rapidly, he could write a dissertation in under a minute.

If there was a single person working in this packed crime scene that hadn’t been staring at me before, there isn’t now. I feel like I’m the number one oddity in a sideshow.

I bring up my spare hand and scratch my temple, a ridiculously guilty smile spreading my lips. “Oh… hi, Chief,” I say, voice so tight and high I could be easily mistaken for a boy hitting puberty. “Ah… let me explain. It’s been… a busy morning,” I say, trying to come up with excuses on the fly.

Thus far, I’ve been standing in the doorway, some primal part of my brain probably wanting to keep the option of escape open. Now I shift forward, letting the door start to swing closed.

But that would be when Valstein reacts.

Showing his true noble strength and speed, he closes the meter between us, reaches up, locks a hand on the door, and stops it in place. To do that, it brings him right up close-and-personal to my face. I’m talking just an inch away. Pupil to pupil, chin to chin, and, most importantly, lips to lips.

You know my golden rule by now. Always control yourself around a vampire. From thoughts to movements, and most importantly, to emotions. But excuse me if I momentarily forget that rule as the Fifth Noble of the House of Bane practically nuzzles me.

“Oh,” I manage.

Seriously? Oh? I sound like some startled damsel from an Elizabethan era novel. Should I follow it up with a suitable, “kind sir, what the fuck are you doing getting up in my grill?”

Though this is where I should lock my hand on Valstein’s shoulder and shove him the hell back, I don’t. I kind of just look up at him like a startled mullet. Or worse. You know before how I said I probably sound like a boy going through puberty? Yeah, well I probably look like a girl going through puberty as I’m staring up at my first crush.

Fortunately, my cheeks don’t flush. Yet.

Valstein takes several seconds to stare into my eyes. He doesn’t say a word, though.

So I finally find my voice as I clear my throat. “Ah, what are you doing?” There isn’t an ounce of bravery in my voice. Just the opposite. I sound like a mouse. A really small mouse.

“I can’t allow this door to close. Until you opened it, we couldn’t get inside. Now, do you mind getting out of my way?” His voice is husky and oh-so sexy. His words? To-the-point and brutal. The kind of slap you’d get if you, you know, were getting in the way of some critical criminal investigation.

I quickly drop my gaze and kind of shuffle to the side as if I’ve just burst onto a stage I’m not welcome on.

Valstein gets to work quickly, bringing the door all the way open as he starts to mutter something under his breath. A few quick charges of blue magic charge over his fingers and sink into the wood of the door, combating some spell.

Though I can tell the Chief really wants to grill me now while I’m still all fresh and guilty, he’s obviously too cowed by Valstein to say anything yet.

In fact, everybody watches as Valstein gets down to work.

As he continues to mutter under his breath, he starts practically massaging the door with his open palms. The movements are strong and smooth, like someone patting you down.

“Really? Is that the mental image you get?” Calista chimes uninvited. “How long is it since you’ve appreciated a lover’s touch?”

“Do you mind? Not now. We’re about to get roasted over the flames,” I think quickly.

But now Calista has pointed it out, I’m looking at Valstein’s hands a heck of a lot differently as his palms cover every single centimeter of the door. Technically, academically, I know what he’s doing. As magic sinks over his palms, crackles off his fingers, and covers the door, he’s completely patting it down for any remaining charges of magic. In a way, he’s also kind of dusting it for the magical equivalent of fingerprints.

But don’t tell that to my body as tingles dart down my stomach and into my pelvis. I’m seriously distracted by the firm and yet gentle way he moves. Directed, calculated, and yet free at the same time. Which really shouldn’t be possible.

“You need to remember this guy probably wants to kill you,” Calista interjects. “As fun as it is to watch you go all gooey over him, keep your eye on the prize. And in this case, the prize is living through the week.”

Though all I want to do is snap back at Calista, she has a pretty good point, and I quickly dart my gaze away.

A few seconds later, Valstein is finally done.

He takes a step back from the door, and it remains in position, even though he hasn’t chocked it open with anything. Nope, he’s just pushed so much noble magic into it, it won’t dare close again.

He turns swiftly on his foot, and just when I think he’s going to lock his attention on the Chief, he darts his gaze over to me. Specifically, he locks it on the man over my shoulder.

He doesn’t say anything. He’s got a talent for that, doesn’t he? It’s almost like he needs to look at you for at least five seconds before he can figure out the exact combination of words to rile you up the most.

“Hey, that’s exactly like you. You two must be kindred spirits,” Calista says.

I ignore her.

Because I finally hear the distinct rumble that is the Chief bearing down on me like an avalanche. He comes to a stop by my side, and I swear his nostrils are rattling so hard he’s going to rip his face in half. “You better start explaining yourself. And you can begin by telling me how exactly that guy died. Tell me you didn’t kill him,” the Chief spits.

I splutter. “Of course I didn’t kill him. When have I ever killed anyone?” I add, really wanting to draw a line in the sand here. The way the Chief’s speaking is as if I mooch into the station every other day with a freshly killed dead body over my shoulder, like a naughty human equivalent of a cat bringing you a trophy.

“Excuse me if you’re in my bad books for climbing out the window this morning to get away from me,” the Chief spits back.

“I thought I told Sarah to make an excuse for me,” I mutter under my breath.

“Well Sarah is far more dedicated to her job than you are,” the Chief snarls. “Now, where the hell did you pick up the dead guy?”

Valstein clears his throat, finally interjecting. “If I may, the man is neither dead nor technically a guy.”

The Chief instantly looks contrite. All it takes is a single word from the demigod Valstein, and the Chief looks like he’s ready to scurry back into his hole. He straightens his back and clears his throat. “Sorry?”

“That,” Valstein nods toward the body, “is a body double, unless I’m very much mistaken.” He looks at me questioningly.

I shrug. “It’s a body double. Good spell, too. Expensive,” I add.

The Chief looks derailed, and though I really want to take satisfaction in that, I know that right now I have to backpedal and start winning points.

“I… really needed to get some air this morning,” I say, even though this is the worst excuse ever. Getting some air is going up to a window and cracking it open, maybe flailing your hands around as you smell all that fresh air goodness. Getting some air is not climbing out the third-floor bathroom window and pretty much falling to your death with only the help of magic to save your sorry sack of blood and bones from being pulverized.

The Chief looks deadly at that explanation. Valstein? He looks amused. Slightly amused. Very, very slightly amused. The only reason I know that, is because my attention seems to be magnetically drawn to his lips.

“No, kid, your attention doesn’t seem to be magnetically drawn to his lips,” Calista interjects, obviously skimming my thoughts once more, despite the fact it’s against the Guardian code, “it is drawn to his lips. You’ve got a thing for this guy, a big thing.”

I ignore her. “Anyhow,” I say quickly, realizing that I really need to take things quickly so I can bamboozle the Chief with how good I am and not give him any time to remember how stupid I am, “I was walking down one of the alleys in Westside – Mathers Lane,” I add in a professional tone. “I got halfway down. I think it was at the back of a privately owned storehouse,” I say as I tick my eyes up to the left, trying to remember the mental blueprint I have of the city.

“Skip to the actual details. I really need you to explain why you have a body double over your shoulder and how in the hell you opened that door,” the Chief says as he points to it. His finger is rigid like steel, white too, as if all of the blood has been diverted from his hands. And hey, maybe it has – because his face is so ruddy, I’m pretty sure I should probably book him into a cardiologist before he pops.

I swivel my head back and look at the door, frowning slightly. I want to get right back down there and do some true detective work. More than anything, I want to find out where all those rats went.

But right now, I have to focus. “I saw rats,” I suddenly say out of the blue, as if that’s the most important fact I’ve ever made. I even bring up a hand and emphasize the point with a swift stabbing motion. You know, the kind of motion someone gives during an impassioned speech when they reach their climactic point.

It’s lost on both Valstein and the Chief.

“And?” the Chief prompts snidely.

“They were disappearing down a crack in a wall. At first, I kind of just ignored them. Then I felt magic. To cut a long story short, it was a portal crack. Got right down there on my knees, jammed my fingers into it, opened it up, and went inside. There was a darkness spell cast on the room, and some guy attacked me,” I say as I bring up my hand and pat the body double’s back, his limbs jerking around like a puppet on a string. “We had a little bit of an altercation, and it took Calista a while to figure out the guy was a body double, but once she did, it was pretty straightforward to yank his proverbial head off and block the scum sucker controlling him. Then I walked out of the room, found a corridor, found a set of stairs, walked up the set of stairs,” I turn over my shoulder and indicate the now open door, “and burst out into this. That’s it,” I add.

Silence.

Just silence.

No cheers and claps at the fact that I not only managed to take down a body double, but that I managed to open a door they couldn’t.

Valstein is the first to react. And the very first thing about him to react are his eyes. They contract. Vampires have the most exquisite control over their eyes. I’m not talking about the ability to stare at something and switch your gaze from it quickly. I’m talking about pupils, about them dilating and contracting at the click of a vampire’s fingers. You know how when you’re playing with a crazy cat and it's about to pounce on you its eyes will dilate in a snap? Yeah, it’s a little like vampires, but while you can push a house cat away, good luck doing that to a noble.

“You managed to fight a body double in the dark?” Valstein says, tone guarded.

I shrug. “I’m still here, aren’t I?”

I look at the Chief, and he’s like a cornered animal. No, worse than that. One of those confused rats nutty scientists put in mazes to test if the startled creatures can get out.

Though I can tell that the Chief’s primary desire is to chew me out for literally jumping out of a window to get away from him, I can equally tell that he needs to rein in that desire in front of Valstein. The Chief also needs to acknowledge what I’ve just done.

I watch the Chief’s face as he finally comes to a decision. He deflates like a balloon a toddler has jumped on. “… I suppose… this is… interesting,” he says.

I just stop myself from snorting.

Valstein inclines his head toward the Chief. “Not the exact word I would use. Not only has your employee here now opened the door into the rest of the club, finally locating it in real space and allowing us access, but she has, presumably, stopped the murderer,” Valstein says as he indicates the body double over my shoulder with a flick of his hand.

Silence. It spreads through the room like wildfire. I swear even if somebody had emphysema and was on the edge of choking to death, they wouldn’t dare cough. A pin could drop in here and sound like a clap of goddamn thunder.

I’m the first to react. I clear my throat with a stupid choking noise. “Sorry? Murderer? How do you—”

Valstein steps in close without any invitation, lets his hand drop down by my thigh, and plucks up the body double’s hand. As a consequence, Valstein’s fingers brush past my leg.

I know I shouldn’t do it. Every part of me knows I shouldn’t do it. But do you think that matters?

Apparently not.

Because I, Madeleine Macy, devout prude and vampire hater, shiver.

And Valstein? Locks his gaze on mine. His pupils? Oh God, they dilate. Not all the way. His eyes certainly don’t turn red, either. But the move is just enough to not just grab my attention, but to bottle my breath up in my chest.

“To give you what you want,” Valstein begins.

I have to swallow a girly squeak.

But then he continues, “And to answer your question, the reason I know this man is the murderer, is that he reeks of noble blood,” as Valstein says the last bit, his tone and timbre change. Everything about him changes. He no longer looks as if he’s taking infinite pleasure in baiting me. His expression is as hard as steel-encased stone.

“What?” the Chief says, his voice a snap. He also shifts forward quickly on the balls of his feet.

Valstein takes a step to the side, clearly allowing everyone else in the room a view of the body double’s hand as he brings it up.

There’s blood splattered on the fingernails. In fact, they’re caked with it.

My stomach starts to turn. Nope, I take it back. Turn is the wrong word – flip and somersault are more on the mark. Fortunately, I skipped breakfast this morning.

“Well, this case just got interesting,” Calista comments. “If he didn’t have the perfect alibi, I’d say Valstein knows too much about this case, and the reason he knows too much about this case is he’s the murderer.”

“Perfect alibi?” I think back, completely distracted and still kind of trapped in the moment of when Valstein’s fingers brushed past my thigh.

“You, you doofus. Have you forgotten last night? The answer is, hell no have you forgotten last night. I know for a fact it’s playing on a loop inside your head.”

Damn, she’s right. In many ways, Valstein does have the perfect alibi. If it was anyone else – any other enforcement officer who’d gone to his house last night – I would have doubted the alibi, but it was us.

“Heck, as far as I’m concerned, the only person we can rule out as being the murderer is Valstein.”

“That’s not exactly helping, Cal,” I mutter.

“Yeah, well, I’m not here to help, am I? I’m here to keep you safe. Speaking of which, I think it’s time to make a graceful exit.”

“Graceful?”

“Drop the dead body and run.”

I stop myself from snorting, but she’s right. I deliberately let my shoulders sag as if the featherweight body double is starting to get me down. “Well, Chief, I should probably get back to the station with this guy and hand him over to forensics. Then I should promptly write my report,” I add, emphasizing the words promptly and report.

Fortunately the Chief doesn’t snort, even though he would be well within his rights to do so. Me and the word paperwork are only ever combined in a sentence with the verbs burning, hiding, or whining. Never doing.

“Perhaps you can have someone else take this body double to forensics,” Valstein intercedes, again looking right at me.

“Dammit, he’s going to keep you here, isn’t he? Turns out Valstein is true to his word, after all. He is going to keep his eye on you,” Calista half warns and half purrs at the same time.

I don’t react. No, I do react. I kind of wince, but I think I mostly hide it as I try to tuck my short hair behind my ears. “I should really write my report, though. Got to get all those details in my head down on paper before I forget them.” I bring up a hand and tap my noggin, even though several seconds before I was pretending to cave under the not-significant weight of the body double.

Valstein offers me a bland smile. Vampires are extremely good at bland smiles. You see, a good stony, nondescript grin can only come from a being old enough, powerful enough, and damn arrogant enough to view you and your opinions as nothing more than insignificant breaths of air. “You don’t seem to have a problem speaking your mind, Miss Macy,” he says, and the bastard emphasizes the word Miss again. “I’m sure you can speak as you work. Now, if you’d like to hand one of your colleagues this body double, perhaps we can get to work.”

I look at the Chief. I make no attempt to hide the pleading quality to my gaze. I probably look like a puppy that’s just about to be stolen from its home and shoved down a lonely cave. A lonely cave full of vampires, no less.

But the Chief, even if he recognizes my desperation, clearly isn’t in a mood to pander to it. He nods hard. “Ramirez, come over here and get this body double.”

“No, no, I’m more than capable of taking it back to the police station,” I try.

No one’s listening.

I clear my throat, hoping to get their attention, but both the Chief and Valstein have returned their focus to the open door.

“You could take off your clothes and do a dance – that would get their attention, especially Valstein’s,” Calista mutters snidely.

“Really not helping, Cal. Do I need to remind you how very dangerous it’s going to be if I go down to the basement with Valstein? Especially if we’re alone.”

Calista begins by cackling, but then she stops as the situation obviously catches up with her. “He won’t try anything here. Not when the entire place is crawling with police. If he’s going to do anything, it’ll probably be back home. Or maybe he’ll look up where you live and come in the middle of the night—”

“That’s seriously not helping now. I don’t need you to paint a mental picture – I’m already fully capable of doing that myself.”

“I know. I did see your dreams last night, remember,” she laughs.

I’m starting to appreciate that there’s zero point in continuing this conversation with Calista. If I want to get out of here, I’m going to have to do it on my own steam.

Ramirez shuffles up to me and easily accepts the body double, bending his back a little too much, obviously expecting some significant weight. But when I hand over the guy, Ramirez straightens with a blink. “Light as a goddamn feather. You hurt your back or something, Madeleine? For someone who works out as much as you, I would’ve thought this would be a piece of cake.”

“Indeed,” I say through a smile that’s all teeth and regret.

Because Valstein’s eyes are still on me. I know that, even though I’m only half facing him. Though he’s technically conversing in low tones that can’t carry with the Chief, for some damn reason, the Fifth Noble of the House of Bane can’t keep his attention off me.

“We are so totally screwed,” Calista comments.

“Finally appreciating that we’re a we and not just a me?” I bite back.

“Like I said before, there’s nothing an immortal vampire can do to me. But I’d really hate to see my favorite magical enforcement officer sucked dry.”

“Thank you so much for that vote of confidence. I’ll try to keep my blood in my veins,” I assure her snidely.

Then I go back to trying to think of an escape plan.

We’re on the first floor of the Soul Club, and there are windows on the opposite side of the room.

I try to judge the distance between me and them and how many awkward shuffles I’ll have to do as I pretend to be looking at the evidence and not making a beeline for escape.

I rock back on my feet as I bite my lip.

Then finally, sensing an opportunity, I take a step forward.

But that would be when Valstein falls into step behind me.

I don’t jump, even though an ordinary person would be well within their rights to do so. You see, several moments ago, Valstein was back by the open door with the Chief. Now he’s right there beside me. He clears his throat. And it’s just as husky and sexy as the rest of the man. “Looking for a window to climb out of, Miss Macy? Reading your file, you’re dedicated to your job. It is unlike you to shirk your duty.”

I stop. I bring up a hand and awkwardly pat my hair to the side in a move that’s meant to distract the guy into looking at my fingers and not locking his full gaze on my pupils. I clear my throat too, and while Valstein’s move sounded like a late-night radio host ready to lull you to sleep, mine is frightened and high-pitched. “Just checking out the crime scene,” I say conversationally. Then I frown. “You’ve read my file? How did you get access to my file?”

“Because of my new capacity as the go-between between the Justice Department and the Vampire Council. I think you’ll find we’ll be working together closely, and with anyone whom I am meant to be close to, I always like to do my research,” he explains.

Calista laughs in my head. “Oh yeah, I get it – this guy wants to work real closely with you. Not one for subtlety, is he?”

I don’t reply to her. “I see. Well… I guess you should continue talking to the Chief. I’ll just assess the crime scene, give it a once over.”

“I was rather thinking that you would accompany me down to the basement. You are, after all, the only magical enforcement officer to have been down there yet. Your observations and advice would be invaluable. Now come along, Miss Macy,” he says. He even makes a patting motion to his side as if I’m an obedient dog he’s drawing in to heel.

“I’m not sure if I love this guy or hate him. Obviously he’s trying to kill you, which means I kind of hate him. But at the same time, damn, he has style. Anyone who can rile you up this much deserves a frigging medal.” Calista continues to cackle.

I really don’t want to be drawn into heel beside my vampire master, so I kind of mooch off to the side, pretend to be interested in something else, then finally take two awkward shuffling steps toward him. “I recommend we have backup. You know, we shouldn’t go down into the basement…” I trail off, voice becoming staccato as I realize I can’t possibly say what’s on my mind.

But therein lies the problem, because a powerful noble like Valstein can just read my mind if I’m not careful with my thoughts. He slowly arches an eyebrow. “Alone?” he says, lips moving hard around the word. “I’m a little confused, Miss Macy. You seem to be entirely unaffected by your ordeal. Despite the fact I must say it’s,” he lets his gaze dart down my body, “impressive for a woman of your size and, shall we say, limited power, to be able to take down a body double covered by a dark spell. And yet, you seem unrattled. You also didn’t mention any trouble in the basement. No magic, no fiends, no danger of any description. So forgive me if I need to question why it is we require backup. It would be a much more sensible use of police resources to keep your colleagues above ground,” he purrs on the term above ground, “investigating the rest of this crime scene. Don’t you agree?”

Damn him. Damn him to Hell. No, scratch that – vampires love Hell. Damn him to Heaven a thousand times. He’s put me on the spot. What’s more, this bastard spoke loud enough with his smooth little voice that everyone’s heard, including the Chief.

I either have to back down on my original story, or… I wince. “I guess you’re right. I’m just being… a little cautious. After all, this is a very serious crime. And that body double was a very expensive and powerful spell. That’s not to mention it came from a vampire,” I just add out of the blue as the detail snaps into my mind.

Half a second earlier, Valstein looked smooth and suave, completely in control and completely loving it. Now he stiffens as if someone has turned the vampire energy circulating in his body into ice. “Sorry, Miss Macy – I didn’t quite catch that. You believe a vampire was behind that body double spell?”

Everyone’s eyes are on me now, and I don’t deal too well with too much attention. But you know what I do deal well with? Facts. So I shrug. “That’s right. I looked right into his eyes, and he looked into mine. As I was locking my palms on his head and trying to block the guy’s astral traveling, I saw his pupils. They dilated to pure red,” I bring two fingers up and put them together, “with just the littlest slits of black. Vampire,” I conclude as I bring my hands wide.

Silence. Shit, again there is complete silence in the room. And though the rest of my colleagues are probably just digesting the fact that one vampire killed another, Valstein’s different. Oh no, see Valstein has just stiffened as if every single muscle in his body has constricted to the point of imploding.

“Ah, you okay?” I try.

“I’m fine. I question, however, how you still seem to be fine.”

I blink quickly. “You’ve lost me.”

“Which is, incidentally, I assume, precisely not what your employers wish to happen,” Valstein says as he finally unwinds his muscles and takes a step backward. He nods at the Chief and gestures for him to come over.

Either the Chief is perfectly happy to come to heel by a powerful vampire’s side, or he knows when to check his anger. He walks right up and stops next to Valstein, crossing his arms lightly. “What is it?”

“Your employee here must be put under a protection order, I’m afraid,” Valstein gets right down to business.

I splutter. “Sorry? What? Protection order? I’m fine,” I complain, voice shooting up so high I could rattle the windows. “Look at me, Chief, I’m fine,” I add with more emphasis.

Though I can tell the Chief is trying to be polite, he also obviously doesn’t know what’s going on, and he frowns hard. “I’ll grant you that Madeleine Macy is as irritating as they come and she’s made her fair share of enemies, but no one’s ever been stupid enough to go after her. Why exactly do you think she’d have to go under a protection order?”

“Because she was stupid enough to look right into the eyes of the man who committed this crime. Though,” Valstein darts his gaze back to me, “I want to be reluctant in accepting the fact that a vampire committed this crime, I am also confident that your employee here is no liar. Is that correct?”

I have no idea how the Chief is going to react, and that is a testament to our rather troubled relationship. But the Chief doesn’t sell me out. This time. He shrugs, undoing his arms and flattening a hand over his hair. “You’re right – she’s no liar. Like I said, one of the best we’ve got. Got a mouth on her, though,” he adds.

“I know; I’ve experienced it,” Valstein adds.

I think I hear somebody further into the room choke down a laugh.

Bastard. I turn my head around to try to figure out who it is so I can make their life hell, but I don’t dare take my gaze off Valstein for too long.

“But my point is this. If Miss Macy is correct, and not only did a vampire commit this crime, but she looked into his eyes, it’s a fair bet to assume that he will come after her. That is, after all, how my kind operates,” he adds quietly.

I expect the Chief to come out to bat for me again. Hello, this is not my first rodeo. I’ve dealt with dangerous crime scenes before. I’ve had my fair share of threats leveled my way, too. And for the most part, they’re just that – threats. Few magical creatures are brazen and stupid enough to go after a magical enforcement officer. While the laws around magical crime between the races are a little hazy, they’re crystal-clear when it comes to the police.

But the Chief caves. His shoulders look like the bones have been removed from them as they sag a good inch or two. “I guess you’re right,” he says.

“Wait, what? He’s not right. So what if I looked into that vampire’s eyes? He’s not going to be stupid enough to come after me—”

“He would not believe it was stupid. He would believe it is justified. Do I need to remind you of the facts of this case, Miss Macy? One of the most powerful vampires in Knight City has been murdered,” Valstein’s lips move hard around the word murder. “And while you yourself are a magical enforcement officer, Lord Balstair was the Go-Between. And while you are protected by the law, he was more so. And yet he was still murdered. So I hope you can see that the vampire who perpetrated this crime will think nothing of removing you from the equation.”

My mouth is open, and though all I want to do is continue the argument, I’m starting to lose my fight. I dart my gaze over to the Chief, but when he just looks at me glumly, I realize he’s not going to come to my aid.

Shit. Actual shit. This day started off bad enough, but now it’s going to complete hell.

I pale even more as I stare at Valstein.

He looks completely nonplussed as he stares back. “I take it you’ve never been on a protection order before,” he says smoothly as if he’s the one with all the experience in police procedure.

I grit my teeth. “Not for a real long time. But,” I begin, yet I stop as something hits me. Finally I see my opportunity to escape. I’m not stupid enough to smirk, though. “I guess you’re right. I do need to take this seriously. I need to go somewhere where I know I can be safe.” I shrug and look at the Chief. “Sir, I know how stretched thin we’ll be with this case, so how about I move into the station until this is over?”

Bingo.

My friends do say I have a preternatural ability to turn a shit situation into gold. I’m no alchemist, but I am a girl who can see opportunity even when the curtains are closing on her.

“Oh my God, Mads, this is genius,” Calista chimes.

Yes, it really is.

“I guess that’s a good option,” the Chief says, even though he usually chews me out for at least half an hour whenever he catches me kipping underneath my desk. “We are stretched thin.”

“It’s a done deal then,” I say as I bring my arms wide then clap loudly, the slap echoing through the room. “I’ll catch a lift with Ramirez back to the station.”

Valstein clears his throat. “No need to be so hasty, Miss Macy. I still need your expertise down in the basement.”

I lock gazes with him, even though it feels a little bit like trying to joust a knight with a fork. “I’m sure you can do that on your own, and I wouldn’t want to hang around here being a liability.”

I’ve put him on the spot now, and hopefully he’ll either have to admit to the fact that I don’t need to go on a protection order, or that this really is so serious that I need to head back to the station right now.

“I think you’re underestimating this guy,” Calista offers softly. “Really doesn’t strike me as the kind to give up that easily.”

“Oh, shut up.”

I’m going to win, I know it.

Problem is, I don’t win. Valstein smooths a smile over his face and looks at the Chief. “I need to go down to the basement right now to see if there’s more evidence. I’m going to need the full story from Miss Macy on the way. I assure you I am competent enough to keep your officer safe. While we’re gone, please have a full squad car go with Ramirez to the police station. I don’t want to run the risk of our vampire friend coming back to claim his expensive body.”

My eyes boggle as I look at the Chief. I don’t think I’ve ever gazed at him so desperately.

And for his part, he clearly doesn’t know what to do. He looks from me to Valstein, then back to me, then finally to Valstein.

“It would be preferable for us to get this case solved as soon as possible so that I can placate the Vampire Council,” Valstein adds.

That appears to seal the deal.

I didn’t think the Chief’s shoulders could cave anymore, but I was wrong. They now look like they’re going to clunk right through the floor. “Right you are. Ramirez,” the Chief suddenly screams right in my ear as he strides past, “hold off on transporting that body. Harding and Crew, I want you to go with him. Keep your eyes on the game, boys, no fooling around. We can’t have this body taken from us.” With that, the Chief walks away. Not another word. Heck, he doesn’t even glance my way, almost as if I’m a child he’s abandoned to the snow and wolves.

Sorry, snow and wolves? Just a vampire.

I gulp a little too loudly as I try to shuffle to the side, as if I can shimmy my way out of this problem.

Suffice to say, I can’t.

Valstein clears his throat. “Time is of the essence. Now come along, Miss Macy,” he says for the second time as he clicks his fingers beside him, clearly instructing me to heel.

“This guy is a total bastard,” I spit to Calista.

“Sure is – smooth, though,” she chuckles.

Sure, even though I currently hate his guts, I’m not completely blinded by hatred. He is smooth, and that? That’s the problem.

I follow him through the open door and down the stairs, back into the fray.

Chapter 5

My gaze is stuck on his back as he walks down the steps in front of me. It’s not just muscular – it looks like it’s been chiseled by the hand of a master artist. You know how some guys muscles bulge a little too much? Have veins throbbing through them and whatnot? Not with this guy. Because he’s a vampire, not a guy, I quickly remind myself. And it isn’t simple fortune and the luck of the genetic dice that made him turn out this way. Vampires know exactly how to craft their appearance. So there is no reason whatsoever to go gooey over one.

“Good luck taking your own advice,” Calista snorts in my ear.

I don’t react.

With two thumps, Valstein steps off the last stair and onto the musty concrete floor. His shoes are about the most expensive brand you can buy. He would’ve dropped a cool 10,000 on them, and that’s not even to mention the rest of his suit. Though he’s dressed down compared to last night. But his dressed down still makes my torn suit pants and scummy blouse look like I’ve just rolled around in a dumpster for several hours.

I’m usually never one to compare my appearance, because there’s not that much point. I’m on the slightly lower end of normal, as Calista has pointed out multiple times. I have a lean, athletic body, considering how much I work out, and apart from that, I’ve got the kind of features that won’t make me stand out from the crowd, but will instead make me blend right into the back.

But you know what? This is the appearance I was born with. I didn’t go find some good-looking lad, suck his blood, and try to remake myself to resemble his appearance. I just look after what I’ve got.

“Yeah, those are great points, and I do agree with you. So maybe you should just take your eyes off his back already,” Calista interrupts.

She has a point, and I dart my gaze to the side just in time as he turns and looks up at me. “You do understand what haste is, don’t you, Miss Macy?”

“Sure do. So you know what, you can dispense with calling me Miss Macy. Just call me Madeleine.”

“I’ll stick with Miss Macy. It isn’t significantly longer than Madeleine, and it maintains a professional relationship between us. Which I think is important, don’t you?”

I’m not prepared for this question. Would you be?

The way he says professional relationship, and most importantly, the gruff tone he has makes my back do all the wrong things.

I reach the end of the stairway, but I don’t step off the last step, because he hasn’t moved back yet. I bring up a hand and pretend to scratch my shoulder. “Sure, a professional relationship sounds great. All I’m saying is it’s probably going to be a mouthful every single time I have to refer to you as the Fifth Noble of the House of Bane.”

He looks right at me. Then his gaze slides right down to my lips for several seconds. “You don’t look like the kind of girl who has trouble doing anything with that mouth,” he says. Then finally he turns and walks away from the steps.

Calista snorts so loudly, it’s a surprise she doesn’t blow my ears off. “Like I’ve said so many times before, I’m just… I’m not sure if I love this guy or hate him, or some horrible mix.”

“You just keep your eyes on him,” I comment to her quickly. “Have you forgotten he has a history of murdering magical enforcement officers? I really don’t want to end up splayed over his desk,” I begin.

“Unless—” she interrupts.

“No unless. I don’t want to end up dead,” I spit back to her. “So you need to keep an energetic lock on him. The second he gets violent, you’ve gotta tell me.”

“How about frisky?” she asks.

“Calista, so help me.”

“Fine, fine. No more games. I’ve already been keeping an energetic lock on him. And if he’s angry at all or has even the slightest violent thought, I’m not picking it up. So I think… I think you’re good to follow him for now.”

I hide a sigh as I step off onto the musty concrete floor.

I trundle after Valstein, and for the first time, he doesn’t appear to be paying any attention to me at all. His gaze doesn’t slice my way but rather methodically darts over the walls. From every crack to every single patch of mold.

… He’s a little like me, some part of my mind points out. He seems to be the kind of guy who’s methodical in his casework. Which, on some level, is refreshing considering the respect the rest of my colleagues have for gathering evidence.

We walk until we reach the end of the corridor, and he turns smoothly and looks right at me. “Has anything changed in here?”

I shrug. “Looks pretty much like it did before,” I say, caught off guard.

“Then where exactly is the storeroom you claim you arrived in?”

I open my mouth, lips pausing in a frown as I suddenly dart my gaze to the left and right. He’s right. The storeroom’s gone. Or at least, the door to it has gone.

He gives out a kind of gruff, grating growl that’s halfway between a cough and a grunt. “Miss Macy, please pay attention to the crime scene and not to my back,” he says.

Damn him.

He catches me off guard, and I start to blush. But I catch myself, clear my throat, and shake my head. “I wasn’t distracted by your back. But yeah, my head was elsewhere. I want to know where those rats went,” I comment, knowing that the only way to salvage this conversation is to change topics quickly.

He doesn’t look convinced, and yet, equally, he looks interested in what I’m saying. “This is not the first time you’ve mentioned rats. Please explain,” he says as he crosses his arms.

“Like I said before, the only reason I found that storeroom is because I was following rats. But when I went into the storeroom, there were no rats. So where did they go?”

He slowly arches an eyebrow. “I think it would be far more pertinent to question where the storeroom went.”

I ignore his blustering tone. I turn hard on my foot and start walking down the corridor again. I spread my arms out as far as they can go, but I still don’t have the wingspan to be able to touch both walls at once. So I concentrate on the left wall. I let two fingers spread across the musty concrete, my short nails darting up and down as they trace over the many imperfections in the wall.

Cal, give us a hand here. Even if we’re dealing with some seriously strong magical practitioners, nobody can hide a door like that without a trace.”

“Okay. But you have to keep your eyes on Mr. Good-Looking Murderer here, because I’ll be distracted.”

“Got it,” I think back.

Valstein appears to stay at the end of the corridor as I walk away, then, without warning, I feel him step in right beside me.

I know better than to jolt. Vampires can move like the wind. And though, usually, even the most powerful ones don’t bother using that ability unless the situation calls for it, it’s pretty obvious that Valstein has a flair for the dramatic. That, or he seems to adore catching me off guard.

“It is unlikely –” he begins.

“Got it,” Calista says triumphantly. “It’s here.”

Yes,” I mutter under my breath as I turn hard on my foot and slam both palms against an apparently innocuous looking section of wall.

Valstein comes to a stop beside me. “Is this the location?”

“What were you about to say? That it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to find the door?”

He doesn’t react. He jerks his attention to the concrete wall. And that would be when he leans right over and places his palm in between mine. There’s no call for it. If he wants to touch the wall, he could touch his own damn section of wall. But just like a toddler who hasn’t learned personal space yet, he wants to touch mine.

“No, Mads, he wants to touch you,” Calista corrects. “I thought I told you to pay attention to him while I’m distracted searching for the door.”

I don’t reply to her. Sorry if I can’t, but I’m fairly distracted by the fact that Valstein is leaning into me, his thumb and pinky finger brushing up against both my hands.

“Do you mind?” I say to him. “You could just move—”

“Or you could move,” he says, as, with his spare hand, he locks it on my shoulder and just pushes me out of the way.

He’s a noble, and even with Calista’s help, there’s no way I’m a physical match for him, so I stagger backward, almost losing my balance. “Hey,” I begin.

“Miss Macy, do not make me explain once more how important it is that we investigate this scene quickly. Not only will the magical evidence start to degrade, but,” he slices his gaze over his shoulder and stares at me, “you may degrade too. A vampire with the power and vicious anger to commit a crime like this isn’t going to think twice about eliminating you from the equation,” he says darkly.

Maybe I’m making it up, but there’s something about just how dark his voice is. A warning, perhaps. A warning that maybe he can get that violent too.

I pale a little.

Valstein, being a vampire and being exquisitely fine-tuned when it comes to any change in blood flow, notices. He appears to take a sighing breath. “I’m sure that with the assistance of your guardian you can keep the location of this door locked in space, but right now, we don’t have the time to wait.” With that, he brings his free hand around, rounds it into a fist, and suddenly slams it against the concrete.

I’m not expecting it, and I gasp a little as I jerk back.

Magic cascades off his knuckles, sinking hard into the concrete, darting over it, and scattering over the floor like a handful of coals crushed underfoot.

“Jesus Christ, that’s power,” Calista rattles in my head.

I don’t need Calista to point that out. Anybody trained in even the slightest understanding of magic could appreciate just how much energy Valstein is expending now.

And it pays off. Because, as he keeps one hand flattened on the invisible door and brings his fist back once more, I can see the concrete starting to crack.

You’d think that it would have cracked and crumbled at the first assault from a noble vampire, but that’s not the point. The point is it’s not actually concrete. It’s a super hard magical substance that’s been spelled to look like concrete and is currently between us and our storeroom.

With one single grunt, Valstein punches the wall once more. That’s all it takes. It finally crumbles.

But unlike real concrete, as it crumbles, it turns into fire that licks around Valstein’s feet.

While he doesn’t have to move back, I jerk out of the way and start patting at my pants when a few sparks alight over them.

“Sorry about that. I would’ve assumed that you would have moved further back. Now come along,” he adds.

Come along.

Come along.

That refrain repeats in my head as I clench my teeth.

This guy is a total damn asshole. It doesn’t matter if he has a great body and the voice of a sex god. All that matters is he treats me like shit.

But I don’t exactly have an option. As he strides into the storeroom, I follow him.

But I’m not quick enough.

Valstein clearly can’t wait to investigate the storeroom, and he strides in so quickly, he’s soon out of sight.

I make it to the doorway.

And that’s when Calista screams. “Duck down, duck down.”

But I don’t have time.

I feel something latch around my ankle and tug me back with all the speed and violence of a whip.

I don’t have time to scream. I don’t even have time to breathe. The whip locked around my ankle sends a neurological pulse of magic darting up my body. It’s almost powerful enough to knock me unconscious, let alone paralyze my vocal cords.

I’ve been attacked like this before, and though I know the paralyzing effects won’t last, that’s not the point. The point is just as I feel my lips coming back, I feel another neurological pulse slam into my body.

This time it’s a miracle that I retain consciousness.

“I’m doing what I can, doing what I can. Just don’t lose consciousness. Stay awake. For God’s sake, stay awake,” Calista screams.

But her blaring shouts seem far off, as if they’ve been covered by a blanket of some description.

I’m starting to slip. Despite my training and my best efforts, I’ve just been shot with two neuro pulses, and it would make even the strongest practitioner a dribbling mess on the floor.

“Madeleine, no,” Calista screams, using my full name and underlining just how serious the situation is.

But if it’s serious, I can no longer appreciate that. And there’s nothing, nothing I can do as I feel whatever the heck is wrapped around my ankle dragging me backward.

I can’t keep my eyes open anymore, I can barely breathe, and there’s nothing I can do to break free.

“Shit, we have no option. Mads, I’m going to use your lips, sorry,” she adds.

Technically, it’s forbidden for a light guardian to ever take over control of their magical enforcement officer’s body. There’s a really strong line in the sand there. Light guardians can assist magical officers in bolstering their senses and power, but they must never directly manipulate a person’s body.

But Calista is right, and she has no choice.

Just as I almost slip all the way into unconsciousness, I feel myself scream. And what do I scream? Help? I’m being attacked?

Nope.

“Valstein, save me.” Yep. That’s what Calista uses my voice to say.

But I don’t even have the energy to care.

Throughout the entire quick, breakneck altercation, neither the tentacle around my ankle or my body has made a single sound.

But Calista obviously uses all of her magic to make my scream echo out as loudly as it can.

I start to slip….

Then I hear pounding footfall.

Someone reaches my side and skids down to their knee. I feel a flat, seriously warm hand lock on my shoulder.

Valstein.

He doesn’t say a word. Instead, holding me in place, he uses his other hand to reach down and snap the tentacle.

There’s a sound like somebody squeezing a blood sausage until it pops.

Then sweet release.

The oppressive power pulsing through me stops.

Don’t get me wrong, the paralysis lingers, but the immediate threat of unconsciousness drifts away.

“Miss Macy,” Valstein begins, his tone unlike anything I’ve heard so far. You see, Valstein appears to have two states. Arrogant, and arrogant.

But right now, it’s almost as if he’s worried.

But he doesn’t get time to do anything about that concern.

I feel it just before Calista warns me, “Shit, there’s a magical effect field spreading through the room. Keep your head down!”

It’s hardly as if I have the physical ability to lift my head right now, and as I’m face first on the ground, my head’s about as down as it’s going to get.

I feel the effect field, though. Anyone would. It’s powerful. And as it blasts through the basement, it brings with it another dark spell.

A seriously thick dark spell.

And the dark spell I encountered in the storeroom was bad enough. This one? It not only sucks out all the light, but affects most sound, too, until I could be screaming at the top of my lungs and it would sound like nothing more than a far-off thump.

It can’t affect Calista, though, and she screams as loudly as she possibly can right between my ears. “Shit! This is not good. Mads, this is not good. You need to get out now. You need to run.”

“I can’t move,” I say.

“Stop complaining. You’ve been shot with neurological blasts before; you know what to do,” she spits back.

Though my body is still weary and all I want to do is cram out her shouting and try to go to sleep, she’s right.

I do know how to deal with this kind of paralysis.

Force yourself past it. If you can remind your body that it was built to move, you can flush out some of the lingering effects of the paralysis magic.

So even though it’s the hardest damn thing in the world, I plant my hands into the floor, and I push up.

Valstein is still close to my side, and I feel his hand travel around from my back and latch onto my shoulder. Then he pulls me in.

I have just a moment for my eyes to pulse wide, for fear and yet possibly desire to spread through my heart as something tells me he’s about to bite my neck. But he doesn’t bite my neck; he just draws me close enough that he can scream in my ear.

And yet, though he obviously shouts with all his might, I can’t pick up a word he’s saying. The sounds are too muffled.

“Valstein?” I try.

But that’s when I feel something moving through the corridor toward us.

“To the left, now,” Calista screams.

I jerk hard to the left, but I bring Valstein with me, too, lurching up a hand, locking it over his wrist, and tugging him on top of me.

It’s just in time as something sails through the tunnel. The only reason I’m aware of it is that I can feel the massive amount of air displaced as it zooms past.

I slam hard into the floor, and Valstein half falls on top of me, his hand locking against my hip and his face falling alongside mine.

But I’m provided exactly no time to appreciate the sensory onslaught of having his chiseled body press against mine, his breath hard in my ear, and his heat pushing into me from every angle.

He lurches to his feet, and though he shifts to grab my arm and pull me up, something slices through the corridor again. And this time, it hits him. His hand is jerked off my arm so quickly, it’s like he’s been struck by a wrecking ball.

I actually scream. Scream like I’ve known Valstein my whole life, or, you know, like I actually care for the bastard.

But my scream can’t make it out of my throat, and no one can damn well hear.

“Right, to the right, jump and roll. Now,” Calista screams.

I do as I’m told, even though my body still feels like jelly.

It’s not the most dignified of moves, but I put all of my strength into it, and it saves me.

Something slices past my shoulder, catching a few stray strands of my hair and slicing them off.

A part of me wants to jerk over and grope toward Valstein, but the rest of me knows that’s just going to make me a big fat target.

“Calista, what the hell are we dealing with here?” I scream at her.

“No idea. I’m scanning. You’re going to have to buy me some time by not dying,” she says desperately.

Even in the most serious situations, Calista usually finds the time to bait me or make some kind of sarcastic comment. There’s nothing now but pure desperation. It should warn me that it’s very unlikely that I’ll get out of this situation alive, but I have no time to appreciate that thought.

Instead, I follow every single one of Calista’s orders, and they’re the only thing that keeps me alive and on my toes.

As for Valstein, I have no idea where he is. I can’t hear him, and I’m so focused on dodging whatever’s attacking me that there’s no way I can grope around in the dark and find him.

“There’s a heck of a lot of power in this dark spell,” Calista says, and it’s something she doesn’t need to point out. “It seems specifically designed to stop you from finding each other.”

That’s a stretch, I want to point out to her, but I don’t have the time. I pivot on my hip, twist like a ballerina pirouetting, and then jerk back. I feel something slice past my face. This time, however, I’m proactive. As it shifts past, I jerk forward and slam a hand out.

“Shit, Mads, we don’t know what we’re fighting. Don’t go to grab it – it could be a skeleton sword. And you really don’t need to lose your fingers right now – it will vastly compromise my ability to produce magic through you.”

I ignore her. I go with my gut. I know the only way to speed up Calista’s processing and to help her find out what’s attacking us is to get closer. Preferably skin on skin contact.

So I follow the thing.

“Mads!” Calista begins. “Fine, fine. Just be quicker,” she adds as I feel a pulse of magic shift down into my feet, allowing me to move like a sprinter.

I dart forward, reaching my fingers out. And finally they catch hold of something.

It’s light, feels like fabric. Silk maybe?

It’s certainly smooth to touch.

“That’s it, grab hold. Don’t let go!” Calista screams.

I latch my fingers around it, holding on with all my might.

There’s the tearing sound of fabric, and I have no idea how I can hear it considering I can’t even hear my own desperate panting breath.

I stumble to the side as the fabric tears off completely in my hand and my momentum is cut short.

“Duck,” Calista commands.

I throw myself backward. I’m pretty light when I need to be, and I pitch into a roll and spring onto my hands, jerking to the left as I feel something slice past my shoulder.

“Don’t you dare let go of that scrap of fabric. I’m analyzing it now…. It’s another body double. Christ, who the hell has enough magic and money for two body doubles in one day?”

“Can you locate where the guy is?” I spit back.

“Clutch the fabric harder,” she commands. “… Yeah, I’ve got something. Dead ahead, two meters. Come out punching, kid.”

I do exactly as I’m told. I start relying on my own senses, too, really pushing my mind into my intuition, letting it spread through not just my body, but the room. I’m no light guardian, but I’ve been doing this job long enough that I’ve started to get a sixth sense about how to dodge trouble.

So I pivot and twist on my hip as something slices past my shoulder. Then I lunge forward, putting all of my strength into my shoulder and letting out a hell of a rugby-tackle grunt.

It works. I strike something. A hard male chest. I wrap my arms right around the bastard and pull him over.

Then, it’s essentially a repeat of what I did earlier in the storeroom. Now I’m on top of the guy, it’s a heck of a lot harder for him to fight me. I straddle him, strengthening my thighs to lock him in place, and I clamp my hands on his temples.

And that would be when I start to hear footsteps. Running away. Loud, hard, echoing.

I don’t know why I can hear them.

“Because the effect field is starting to crack,” Calista supplies with a triumphant hoot. “Now don’t let go of this—” she stops abruptly. “Oh shit,” she says.

“What do you mean oh shit?” I actually scream out loud, not bothering to think to Calista this time. “I am fighting a body double, aren’t I? Calista, what’s going on—”

As the effect field cracks, the darkness spell goes with it. Light floods back in, and I catch a full glimpse of the man I’m struggling with.

“What’s going on, Miss Macy, is you have me pinned to the ground,” Valstein says as he stares right back at me.

Oh damn. Oh double, triple, quadruple damn.

I attacked the wrong guy in the dark.

But that’s not the pertinent fact here.

I am currently straddling the Fifth Noble of the House of Bane. My thighs are locked as hard around his sides as they can be, and I’m bent all the way forward with my hands clamped around his face.

So it’s time to get the hell off him, right?

Definitely not the time to notice all the fine details of Valstein’s chiseled chest, the heat of his body, the subtle rocking motion of his breath, the hard press of his hips and pelvis, and, more than anything, the particular look in his eyes.

Now, where do I begin with that particular look in his eyes?

“You don’t,” Calista snaps in my head. “Do that, and you’re going to go all—”

My senses finally snap back, and I go to jerk off him like a spring that’s been compacted and released.

But he doesn’t let me get up. Instead, he locks a hand just above my knee, pinning me in place as he shifts forward and sits up. Now he’s looking right into my eyes, about as close as we can get without, you know—

I gulp.

“Do be careful, Miss Macy. Don’t get up too quickly – there is a trap behind you,” he says.

“Ha?” I manage.

“Shit, he’s right. The body double left a trap,” Calista spits in my head. “It’s right behind us. You’re going to need to be seriously careful when you get up,” she summarizes.

Careful?

Sorry?

What?

I don’t currently have the brainpower to think of anything but the fact that I’m currently in Valstein’s lap, his hand just above my knee, our faces practically pressed together.

And as for his gaze?

As for his all-important vampire pupils?

Yeah, they’re dilated.

And then, he moves.

Into me, or should I say against.

It’s quick, decisive, and it’s effective.

But he certainly doesn’t press in and kiss me. He just loops an arm around my back, lifts me up, and stands. Don’t ask me how he does it, but with a complicated set of movements, he somehow manages to flip me around with one arm while still pressing me against his chest. It wouldn’t be possible for anyone, save for a vampire.

Before I know it, I go from sitting on him, to being held in the fireman position.

I blink hard. “What—”

Valstein isn’t looking at me. Which is saying something, because seconds ago, he couldn’t drag his gaze off me.

“Happened? You intervened at the wrong moment, Miss Macy, and you attacked the wrong man. If you hadn’t, I would’ve had him,” Valstein growls.

I’m not usually the kind of girl who takes being told off well, especially by somebody as needlessly arrogant as Valstein.

But excuse me if I’m a little distracted right now.

“I’m continuing to analyze this scene, and there’s so much excess magic. I have no idea who attacked us, Mads, but it was clear they weren’t playing around,” Calista mutters.

I only pay attention to her with half an ear.

“If you hadn’t interrupted, I fancy we would have solved this case by now,” Valstein continues to remonstrate.

I finally do what I should’ve done when I ended up on top of him – I snort. Derisively. “Catching another body double wouldn’t have solved this case. You have a lot to learn about police procedure.”

Valstein finally looks at me, his eyebrow about as high as it can be. “And why would you assume that, Miss Macy? Do you know anything about me? At all? Other than what you’ve read on my file?”

I open my mouth, unsure of how to react to that. “I guess I can level the same question at you. If you’re trying to point out that you can’t really know somebody by reading their biographical information, I guess, on some level, you’re right. But it does tell me what you’ve done. And your file didn’t mention anything—” I begin, but I stop. I’d been intending to say that his file hadn’t mentioned anything about him working with other justice departments around the country.

So what about the dead magical enforcement officer on his desk?

He’s watching me now, boy is he watching me. With all his effort, I can bet.

“Yes, Miss Macy?” he prompts me. “What were you about to suggest? That I don’t have any information on my file to suggest I’ve ever worked with another police department? Perhaps it’s not on my ordinary civilian file, but I imagine you’ve gotten the other one by now, correct?”

I’m suddenly reminded of one fact. It’s a fact that washes away all the pleasant awkwardness of the past several minutes.

This guy front-up murdered a magical enforcement officer, and now I’m alone with him.

I stiffen.

He watches me. In fact, his gaze darts from my cheek down to my throat.

“You can put me down now,” I say stiffly.

“Believe you me, I would if I could. However, I’m standing on the only patch of ground that is not booby-trapped. I think you need to answer the question anyhow, Miss Macy. Have you read my other file?”

I pause.

There’s no way out of this.

So I open my mouth, break eye contact, and nod. “Yeah, I read it.”

“So you would know about…” he trails off, and it’s an awkward kind of pause – definitely out of character for the suave man, “Suzanne Somers.” If his pause was awkward, the exact nature of his tone as he says her name is on a completely different level. It’s all twisted and constricted as if somebody has just placed their hands around his throat and started to squeeze.

Though my fearful hindbrain tells me not to make eye contact with the predator, something tugs at my heartstrings, and I look up at him.

His pupils aren’t dilated, and there isn’t a look of satisfied aggression on his face, and he certainly doesn’t appear to have taken any pleasure in what he’s just revealed.

Just the opposite.

If I didn’t know better about vampire nobles and their cold, hard hearts, I’d almost think….

“I take it you’ve already been warned by your colleagues that,” his voice constricts again, “Suzanne ended up… dead on my desk. Correct?”

I have nowhere to go, literally nowhere to go. Usually when you’re having an awkward, uncomfortable, confrontational conversation with someone, you can shift back, you can tear your gaze off them, or you can get away in some fashion.

Right now, there’s nothing I can do but face the full brunt of his emotion, and trust me when I say it’s powerful.

“Miss Macy? I asked you a question. Have you been warned?”

“Yes, you bastard, I’ve been warned. Look, if you’re planning to do something to me, I suggest you do it right now—”

“What exactly would I be planning to do to you?” he asks, tone and affect completely flat.

It’s enough that it throws me. I look up at him, blazing anger and passion blasting through my gaze. “Murder me, you asshole, just like you did to Suzanne. But I ask one thing, make it a fair fight—” I spit.

He’s looking down at me. I swear even if another two body doubles appeared behind him, he wouldn’t look away.

Then, one by one, his cheek muscles stiffen. And, second by second, they start to reveal the long points of his canines. “If your life weren’t on the line right now, Miss Macy, I would drop you,” he says, and his words couldn’t be harder.

“Go ahead and drop me,” I spit back. “You just give me a chance to fight—”

“Why would I fight you when I just expended considerable magic to save your sorry little life?”

I’m thrown by what he’s saying. Also thrown by the fact that he didn’t follow up the creepy story of Suzanne Somers by, you know, biting my neck and killing me.

In fact, the only way he appears to have reacted is with total anger. Not violence – the kind of anger you have toward someone who’s betrayed your trust.

“You know, I can’t get a single reading on this guy,” Calista interrupts. “I came into this thinking he murdered Somers, but now I’m not sure. This is one seriously complicated vampire,” she continues.

“Calista, for the love of God, not now,” I say. I don’t think it – I speak it out loud.

I’m usually so controlled – from my emotions to my thoughts. But the intense way Valstein is looking at me is undermining all of that.

He half arches an eyebrow at my sudden outburst, but his face is so stiff, it’s really more of a twitch. “It’s rude to continue a conversation with someone else while you’re meant to be talking to me. It’s also rude to accuse me without any evidence. I thought, out of all of the magical enforcement officers that work for your unit, you had the most dedication toward police procedure. Why, then, is it that you are so willing to condemn a man without a scrap of evidence?”

I snort. “Sorry, you want evidence? She wound up dead on your desk, bled dry. Nobody went down for the murder. If it was one of your lower-class vampire aides, the Justice Department wouldn’t have even batted an eyelid at putting them in prison for her death. She was an enforcement officer, after all. But nobody went down for her death, which means the guy who killed her is untouchable,” I say, offering a stiff smile on the word untouchable.

He sure as heck looks like he wants to drop me, possibly even throw me over his shoulder at the wall. But he just looks down at me instead. “Aren’t you forgetting another possibility, Miss Macy?”

“Stop calling me Miss Macy! And for the love of God, stop baiting me. Like I said, you want to do this, you give me a chance. I may not be as high-powered as the other magical officers, but trust me when I say I know how to fight.”

For the first time since this angry conversation began, the tiniest smile spreads his lips. “Yes, I’ve experienced your ability to fight firsthand. But no, I’m not going to stop calling you Miss Macy for the reasons I’ve already stated. And, lastly,” his voice vibrates down all the way low, “for a police officer, you are derelict in your duty. A man is innocent until proven guilty. I did not kill Suzanne Somers,” his voice does that thing where it becomes all constricted again, “and the reason nobody was charged for that crime is that the murderer was never found.”

I snort. I want there to be power behind it. I want to show him that I don’t believe his stupid lies for a second. But the move is a little unsure.

“Like I said, Mads, I’m not entirely sure he’s lying. You don’t usually see a noble showing as much emotion as this guy,” she thinks.

“But they can hide and manipulate their emotion,” I think back.

“Sure, but usually not with this much intensity. Maybe…” she trails off.

Valstein suddenly leans in. He brings his eyes right up close to mine. “Perhaps you should listen to your light guardian.”

I blanch. “You’re reading her thoughts, you bastard?”

“No, Miss Macy, I’m reading your body. It is in my arms, after all. Every beat of your heart,” he says, voice hard on the word heart, “every breath, every change in temperature, every constriction in blood flow,” his voice becomes as smooth as butter on the word blood. “I know when you are conversing with her. Just as I can conclude that you don’t like what she’s suggesting. And considering your personality, I’m putting two and two together and appreciating that she’s telling you to drop this. I did not kill Suzanne Somers. And believe me when I say I have dedicated my life to finding out who did.”

I’m confused.

Dammit, I am so confused. It’s not helped by the fact I’m still in this guy’s arms.

And the reason it’s not helped by that is that, even though I may be no Calista, like I said before, I’m very good at reading people. From their emotions to their mental states, you pick up the right facial cues, and you can figure out what someone’s thinking.

And all that training tells me that Valstein isn’t lying.

But at the same time I don’t want to accept that fact.

Assuming he’s guilty feeds right into my general negativity around vampires.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those idiot humans that line up outside of vampire neighborhoods, picketing with derisive slogans written on signs.

But… I know firsthand how much shit vampires get away with. I know firsthand how much damage they do to people, too.

And, more than anything, I know firsthand how much the law is going to protect them over everyone else.

So I force my chin to harden.

Valstein’s gaze narrows. “Though I would love to continue to argue with you all day, that’s a lie. The very last thing I want to do is listen to your protestations. I want to get out of here and figure out where that body double went. Time is running out,” he adds. And for a second he darts his eyes up and locks them on the corridor, then he looks back at me. “Especially for you.”

I stiffen.

He shakes his head. “Do not take that to mean I will murder you, you idiot. As I have already said, I expended considerable energy in trying to keep you safe. I mean, instead, that the body double that came here was no doubt attempting to relinquish you of your life.”

“We don’t know that,” I try, but my voice is weak.

“Yeah, Mads, we pretty much know that. He waited until Valstein was out of the room, cast a dark and silent spell, grabbed you by the ankle, and dragged you away. He was definitely after you.”

I pale.

Valstein seems to finally take this as evidence that I’m caving. He also lets out a sigh. “I was wrong to place any confidence in you, I see that now. I will go through with your desire, deposit you in the police station, and have nothing to do with you until this case is over.”

“Works for me,” I spit back. “But how exactly are we going to get out of here if the entire floor is booby-trapped?”

“Magic, Miss Macy. You do know what that is, don’t you?”

“I’m sorry, if you had the ability to get rid of this booby-trap all along, then why haven’t you done it earlier?” I spit back.

“Because I was too busy erroneously trying to convince you that I am no murderer. At the time, I was concerned by the fact we would be working closely together. Now I appreciate that is impossible. So please do me a favor and lie still and silent for just a little.”

Still and silent?

I want to pulverize this guy.

“Do as he says. It’s going to be the quickest way to get out of his arms,” Calista points out.

She has a good point.

It doesn’t take Valstein long to get rid of the booby-traps. He closes his eyes and starts muttering under his breath, and I can feel distinct waves of magic pulse off him.

They sink into the ground and start to react to some invisible force field that appears smeared over every inch of the concrete floor.

There are several sparks, then an almighty cascade of them as if someone’s just thrown a brick into a television screen.

Without warning, Valstein lets his arms drop, and I drop with them.

Part of me is expecting the move, though, and I refuse to allow myself to fall flat on my ass. I roll, absorb the force of the move, press my hands into the floor, and stand. I pat my arms down, and that’s when I notice the scrap of white satin in my hand.

Forgive me if I’ve clean forgotten all about it considering what happened since the second body double attacked.

Though Valstein looks so disgusted in me that he wants to ignore me, he sees that scrap of fabric, and his eyes blast wide. “Where did you get that?”

I blink quickly at his sudden change in mood. I look down at the fabric and shrug. “Off the body double.”

“You managed to grab hold of him?” Though Valstein is clearly guarding his tone, at the same time, he’s clearly impressed.

“Yeah. Not enough that I grabbed his body, but enough that I got this.”

Valstein doesn’t say anything. It takes him a second to react, too. Then, with the full speed of an immortal vampire, he closes the distance between us. He moves so fast that my hair rustles over my cheek and forehead.

Though a lot of other people – ordinary people who value their existence – would jerk the hell back, I hold my ground.

Before I know it, Valstein is wrapping his hand over mine as he plucks the satin from my fingers.

I don’t shiver. You see, I’m well past that. This guy is a prick. Plain and simple. A complicated prick, yeah. A vampire that’s confusing the living daylights out of me, absolutely. But underneath?

Total jerk.

“Albeit an extremely good-looking one,” Calista suddenly adds, “and a sweetie pie, too.”

Valstein, now he has his fabric, takes several steps back and starts looking over it methodically, his eyes never blinking. It gives me all the opportunity I need to comment to dear Calista. “I’m sorry, don’t you remember that only several hours ago you were pushing me to leave town so this bastard doesn’t murder me? How exactly does that make him a sweetie?”

“Like I’ve already said, I’ve completely changed my mind about this guy. I think he’s right. I think he didn’t murder Suzanne. Just as I think his touching emotional display earlier wasn’t an act. He’s genuinely dedicated his life to finding out who killed her. So we should help him,” Calista suddenly adds. “Just think of how he’ll reward us.”

It takes an extreme amount of control not to react to Calista’s sheer stupidity.

I don’t even care if or how he would reward us. Because it’s a total hypothetical.

Though Calista seems to have forgiven this jerk easily, I am still on the fence. Okay, I’m not as convinced he was the murderer as I was before his little freakout, but I still know for a fact he’s holding back most of the information he knows.

A few seconds later, Valstein finishes assessing the fabric, and he lets his hand drop beside him. Then his gaze, like always, is all over me. “When you ripped this fabric off the body double, did you find out any information about him?”

I’m not a kid, and I know the only way to deal with this situation is professionally until – as promised – Valstein takes me back to the police station and never has anything to do with me again. But sorry if I don’t feel like acting like an adult right now. “I thought you were too disgusted in me to value my opinion?”

He stares at me unblinkingly, and I can’t tell if his gaze is deadly or just dead bored. “I really am disappointed in you, Miss Macy. Your file and the glowing recommendation the Chief gave seemed to suggest you would be other than you are.” On the comment other than you are, his gaze slowly ticks up and down my body.

I don’t react. This is not the first time a vampire has tried to stare me down. “Gee, I’m sorry if I’m not all you want me to be. But just because I don’t play nice with you doesn’t mean I can’t do my job. And to answer your question, Calista picked up a little bit about the guy, but not a lot. At first, we thought he was the same body double as the guy I took down in the storeroom,” I say as I shrug over my shoulder in the direction of the storeroom. “But he was different. Subtly different,” I add.

Valstein arches an eyebrow. “Please explain.”

“I’d say it’s an altered clone,” Calista says in my head. “Hey, this is a good test – if Valstein knows what an altered clone is, it’s obvious he’s had extensive dealings with a Magical Enforcement Unit. It’s a term Justice Departments use, not ordinary punters.”

I eagerly take up her challenge. I tip my head back somewhat haughtily. “We’re sure it’s an altered clone. You do know what one of those is, don’t you?”

“Yes indeed. May I ask if your light guardian is 100% certain of this fact?”

“Jesus Christ, this guy is smooth. I’m also keeping a permanent, close lock on him. He’s not lying. This guy has definitely had a significant amount to do with a Justice Department. Hey, you don’t think this Suzanne Somers was his lover or something and some vampire got back at him for revenge, right? Holy shit, wait, that works. If there’s anything I know about the House of Bane, it’s that they’re pretty much the only vampire clan to strictly enforce entry into the family. If one of their nobles wants to turn a human into a vampire and bring them into the House of Bane, they have to get full permission from the Family Council. What if—”

“Can you stop what iff-ing in my ear while Valstein is staring at me like that? He already thinks it’s rude that I keep having conversations with you while I’m meant to be talking to him.”

“And what the hell do you care if he thinks it’s rude? I think I’m genuinely onto something here. It explains all that trapped passion and anger,” Calista says with the same tone as a damsel clutching her heaving chest and recounting the most romantic tale she can.

Valstein clears his throat. “Have I passed the test?”

I pale. I know that – as he’s already said – he has such an exquisite lock on my body that he can figure out what I’m thinking based on my physical reactions, or maybe he’s just skimming my thoughts right off the top of my head. Though I know the last thing I should do is act like I’ve been sprung, that doesn’t stop me from bringing up a finger, inserting it in my collar, and loosening it. “Yeah…” I mutter. “You pass the test. And to answer your question – Calista is 100% sure that this is an altered clone. I was holding onto that fabric long enough that she managed to get a full reading off it.”

Valstein holds his expression steady for several seconds, then, almost like a crack appearing up the side of an important dam, a frown etches itself over his lips. “I see. This isn’t good,” he says, voice hitting a particularly low and deep timbre.

It’s one that makes my eyebrows scrunch even lower. “How exactly could this get any worse? And I don’t see how it changes what we already know about the situation. Sure, altered clones are expensive. But so is sending two body doubles cavorting around the city. It’s clear whoever’s at the center of this mess has a lot of magic and money to spare.”

He stares at me evenly. “Is that it? Is that your full assessment? Aren’t you forgetting one particularly important fact?”

You know what I hate most about this guy? You know what really gets my goat and riles my back? Continually being told off and put down. I don’t care if technically this guy has had a lot to do with Justice Departments – I know my job.

“And I, Miss Macy,” he says, eyes flashing, “know vampires.”

“Did you just skim my thoughts, you bastard?” I spit back.

“Is referring to me as a bastard something a professional would do?”

I stiffen my lips over my teeth. “Yeah, I guess you’re right on that – I’m not much of a professional, am I? Answer the question. I know you read my thoughts before in your office. And there are laws about that, especially when you’re dealing with the police.”

It takes him a while, but his shoulders loosen, and he lets out a derisive laugh. “Very well, I skimmed your thoughts. But not because I chose to – because they’re so damn loud and obnoxious.”

Standing there, I roll my hands into two tight fists.

He looks down at them, then lets his gaze travel up my arm, linger on my neck for half a second, then finally lock on my eyes. “Though I know I keep saying this, it warrants mentioning once more,” he brings his arms up and crosses them over his chest, being extremely careful to hold that scrap of satin away from his body, “I am truly disappointed in you. From your file, I expected somebody a lot more,” he appears to search for his words, “controlled. If it’s this easy to know your emotions and your mind,” on the word emotions, his gaze flicks down my body for half a second before it snaps like a spring back to my eyes, “then you will be useless to me. So perhaps it’s time to get you back to the police station before you become the next victim in this case.”

I am so over this guy. I let out a truly frustrated chuckle. “That suits me perfectly. And even though the only thing I want to do right now is get the hell away from you, aren’t you forgetting something?”

If I don’t like being told off, it’s clear Valstein likes it even less. I watch as his jaw shifts to the left and right. “And what would that be?”

I shrug toward the storeroom. “We still haven’t figured out where those rats went. Surely that’s key—”

He brings up a hand, stopping me short. “Indeed, it probably is. But I now recognize that it was a mistake to bring you here. The sooner you get out of my hair, the better. Though you may have managed to grab,” his voice does the strangest thing on the word grab, “some important evidence from your recent altercation, you’re too much of a liability to have around. So come along, Miss Macy. I have no more time for you.”

He has no more time for me? Aargh! I genuinely want to kill this guy.

“Be careful of your thoughts and emotions, Mads,” Calista coos in my head, the first time she hasn’t taken the opportunity to tease me. “This guy is obviously extremely good at picking up what you’re thinking. Follow your own damn rule, kid – keep control of yourself around noble vampires.”

“I don’t want to control myself right now,” I snap back. “I want this guy to pay.”

“… Yeah,” Calista says, tone completely different to what it usually is. There’s no fun in her voice, just this far-off, distant, poignant note, almost as if she’s saddened by something.

That out-of-character tone is the only thing that can capture my attention and push back my anger. “… What?”

“Like I said, I keep a continual lock on this guy – never let it shift for a second.”

“And?”

“He’s sad,” Calista says out of the blue.

I almost lose control of myself and snigger so loudly, everyone in the city will be able to hear. “Sad? I think you’re confusing sadness for male-dominant arrogance. This guy is a jerk, through and through.”

Calista doesn’t answer right away.

“Cal?”

“No, Mads, he’s sad. And for some reason, you’ve made him even sadder.”

I’m fully exasperated by now. All I want is for Calista to back me up and to point out how much of a bastard this guy is. But out of all of the things she could say, pointing out that he’s sad is the only thing that can tug at my heartstrings.

Suffice to say, it’s enough that I follow his sorry ass out of the basement.

Because you know what? It’s time to get out of here and put this crazy day behind me.

But there’s a slight problem. This crazy day isn’t done with me yet.

Chapter 6

The ride to the police station is exquisitely silent. I’m not sure if you’ve ever experienced exquisite silence. It’s not the kind of peaceful quiet you get in some untouched forest, and nor is it the comforting stillness you achieve in a cozy room just before you go to sleep.

Exquisite silence is perhaps one of the most awkward things you can experience, especially with somebody you hate. It’s the kind of silence that makes you wonder every single second what the other person is thinking about you.

Or worse, if they’re thinking about you at all.

Last night when I went to Valstein’s house and he creepily told me he’d keep his eyes on me, I’d been pissed off.

And when I came across him this morning, it pissed me off even more.

But, weirdly, now he’s paying no attention to me whatsoever, I am….

“Falling for him,” Calista mutters as we pull up outside of the police station, and I practically jump from the car as if it’s about to gobble me down.

“Piss off,” I snarl at her in my head. “The only thing I’m falling for right now is the prospect of getting the hell away from this guy forever. In many ways, I’m happy I saw him today. He seems like the kind to keep his word, so hopefully he’ll never have anything to do with me again.”

Calista snorts, and it’s a rattling affair. Even though her voice is transmitted directly into my mind, she can still attach acoustics to it. Sometimes she sounds as if she’s shouting at me from across the street. Other times, it’s as if she has the acoustics of an empty church. Now, her rattling snort takes up my entire mind, and I almost want to clap my hands over my ears, not that that will help.

I go to close the door of Valstein’s extremely expensive, fancy vampire car. Though it’s technically a Corvette, it’s bigger than most, and it has a truly bad ass body structure, making it look a little bit like the Batmobile. It’s also solid. Solid enough that, for some reason, it makes me think it can take on a truck.

Valstein is still in the driver’s seat, but when I go to slam the car door, somehow he gets out of the car, races around the side, and catches the door just before it can close violently.

You know how I’ve said before that I know how to control myself around vampires and not react to their superhuman speed? Yeah, I’m not expecting it this time, and I jolt back. Problem is, I’m only half on the pavement, and I twist my foot. I promptly lose my balance and tumble backward.

Though romantic dramas aren’t my thing, I’ve watched one or two, and I know how they work. If the plucky but uncoordinated damsel accidentally trips over on the city street, the hero will always lean in dramatically and pluck her up. And it’s not as if Valstein, the extremely powerful noble here, doesn’t have the coordination and speed to catch me.

It’s just that he chooses not to as I crumple at his feet, slamming against the asphalt with a thump that slams hard up my hip.

“Ouch,” I say, not that too many people actually say that word when they hurt themselves, but it’s better than screaming obscenities outside of a police station. I do have a reputation to keep up, after all.

Valstein doesn’t even cast his gaze toward me as he delicately shuts his door. “I would ask you to please respect other people’s property. This is an expensive vehicle, surely more than you will ever be able to afford. So in future – not that I will ever give you a lift again – do not slam my door.” With that, he turns swiftly on his foot and starts to walk away from me.

Me? Yeah, I just tripped in front of the police station, and there are colleagues coming to and fro whom I’d really like not to embarrass myself in front of.

But you know what? Stuff it.

I’ve been through too much today.

So I just sit there petulantly and dust off my jacket, even pluck at the shredded fabric over the knees of my pants.

“… Are you really just going to sit here on the pavement for the rest of the day?” Calista questions.

“It’s better than coming to heel beside my vampire master again,” I snarl back. “Who does this guy think he is?”

“Ah, one of the most powerful vampires in the city? The fifth noble in one of the oldest and strongest vampire clans in the world? In other words, a much bigger deal than you,” Calista says, thoroughly not coming to my defense.

I swear under my breath at her.

Though I fully expect, with Valstein’s speed and desire to get the heck away from me, that he would’ve already entered the police station, he stops three meters away, his back to me, his hands in his pockets. There’s a wind racing down the street, and it rustles his hair, catching along the rolled-up sleeves of his shirt and whistling on by.

“Miss Macy, you are trying my patience. I know you haven’t broken anything, nor have you sprained anything. Just as I know you really don’t want me to turn around, pick you up, and carry you into your place of work. But I will do that if you don’t hurry up, now,” he spits the word now out.

Bastard.

Bastard!

“You better do as he says, Mads,” Calista says quickly. “I know we have a terrible reputation, but we really shouldn’t add to that by catching a lift in this guy’s arms through the lobby. Harding will never forget.”

I groan as I realize she’s right.

I push up. But that’s when I realize I’ve actually snagged the skin along my ankle on a rough section of the pavement. It’s bleeding a little, and a single droplet of blood traces down my ankle, over my shoe, and onto the asphalt.

Though Valstein has his back to me, as soon as that single droplet of blood silently hits the ground, his head jerks around.

Not all vampires have the same desire for blood. I know I tried to explain this before, but there’s something key I’ve missed out when it comes to vampires. Sure, low-grade vampires need blood. They also go crazy for it if they haven’t fed in a while. If they can’t make it to a blood bank in time, they’re the kind of bastards who’ll kill just to get their fix. For them, blood is a drug. But the further you go up the vampire chain until you get to nobles, the more refined it becomes.

Nobles aren’t just in it for the blood. In fact, from what I’ve learned in my studies, the blood’s almost irrelevant. It’s the movement that matters. The passion and emotion, too. You see, to a noble, blood is the distilled essence of a person. Yeah okay, you’re not going to get that in biology class. But this is a magical world, remember? And science will only get you so far.

What matters to a noble is pure emotion, and I don’t mean that in a Puritanical sense. I mean it in a quality sense. The more passionate you are about something, the more certain you are about something, and the more that affects your emotions, the more that emotion becomes imprinted in your blood. And that’s what a noble feeds off.

That’s why nobles have such a… ahem, reputation when it comes to desire. Some of the strongest emotions humans will ever feel is their desire for others. And nobles will feed off that untapped passion.

Don’t get me wrong, they still need to drink blood to survive. But it does mean they can go further and longer on less blood. If they also find… shall we say, a particularly pure source of emotion, they can sustain themselves almost indefinitely off one person. They don’t need to suck them dry – just a little drop here and there, and the noble will run for days and weeks like a particularly efficient battery.

I know all of this about nobles. Just as I know that while a low-class vampire may go all glassy eyed when you cut your knee in front of them, a noble shouldn’t react.

Valstein reacts.

Quickly. He goes from standing several meters in front of me, to turning and dropping down right by my ankle in half a second.

I don’t jerk back this time, but boy do my eyes widen. “What are you doing?” There’s an accusatory tone to my voice.

I can’t see Valstein’s pupils.

Maybe he’s doing it again – that thing where he can command shadow to well under his face to obscure how he’s looking at you.

But he doesn’t linger by my leg too long, anyway. Carefully, methodically, like he’s a forensic officer dusting for prints, he swipes one of his fingers over the blood dropped onto the pavement. He collects the droplet, shoves his free hand into his pocket, pulls out a tissue, then cleans his finger. Then, as if he’s folding an extremely expensive check, and not a scummy tissue, he presses the tissue neatly and puts it back in his pocket.

He finally stands up and takes a step away from me. “Just exactly how stupid are you?”

I’m not expecting his snide question. I don’t even pay attention to it, either. Because now I can see his pupils. And his pupils tell me something different to his nasty tone.

They’re dilated. Not all the way, but there’s definitely a little red pulsing through them.

“You know, they do say that certain nobles are disproportionately affected by certain people’s blood,” Calista comments. “Maybe you don’t just drive this guy crazy – as in you perpetually piss him off – but maybe your blood does something to him too. This,” Calista’s voice suddenly arcs high with interest, “is something to note. I would hate to see what this guy does if you actually cut yourself properly.”

“I thought you keep telling me that you don’t think he’s a murderer,” I snap back to Calista as Valstein spies another tiny drop of my blood on the ground, leans down, and tries to clean it once more.

“I’m sticking by that conclusion – I genuinely don’t think this guy’s out to kill you, just as I don’t think he killed Suzanne. But that’s not my point,” Calista says.

“Then what the hell is your point?” I snarl. “How exactly would he lose control?”

Calista snorts lewdly.

“That’s terrible, Calista.”

“It’s not what I mean, too. Jesus Christ, you have a dirty mind. No, all I’m saying is if a vampire has a particular… shall we say, affinity for a person’s blood, that person can find themselves wielding some pretty strong power over that vampire. Great way to get him to tell the truth,” she suddenly concludes.

Fortunately Valstein spends so much time methodically cleaning my blood that he isn’t paying attention to me as I have an argument with Calista in my head. “Sorry, what? I could force him to tell the truth? What are you on about?”

“I genuinely don’t think Valstein is the kind to take your blood without an invitation. Plus, blood’s way more potent when freely given. All I’m saying is if he’s having this kind of reaction to a single droplet of it, you could… say, offer him a little more if he’s willing to give you something you desire.” For the first time, Calista’s voice doesn’t purr on the word desire.

And me? My eyebrows clunk down.

What the hell would I desire from this guy? I think quickly. Then I stop.

Calista’s already pointed it out. The truth.

I want to think this through a little more, but Valstein suddenly snaps up. He steps away from me. I can’t help but remember that before he started hating me, he would take any chance to linger by my side.

He clears his throat and returns that now blood-stained tissue to his pocket. Once more his gaze becomes deadly. “Just how much of an idiot are you?” he asks through stiff teeth.

I’m done playing his game, so I shrug, bring my hands up wide, and look nonplussed. “How long is a piece of string?”

“Not funny. Do you know what would happen if you left some of your,” he appears to try to control himself, “blood on the pavement?”

I shrug again. “It would get washed away by the rain or trapped in the treads of peoples’ shoes?”

Though I’m trying to be sarcastic, I will admit that it’s hard in the face of his sheer anger. He clears his throat so hard, I wonder if it is, in fact, not a throat, and actually a wolf. “There is an extremely powerful vampire willing to expend untold amounts of magic to kill you. Do you know what a vampire can do with a single drop of a human’s blood?”

I want to remain haughty and angry at the same time, but then I stop. My mouth freezes. “You don’t actually think this guy is keeping an eye on me, though?”

He tilts his head to the side and shakes it in a seriously disappointed move. “Why would a vampire with almost limitless magical resources and money not be keeping an eye on you when you’re the key to his case and freedom?”

I shrink back at the way Valstein explains that, and I bring up a hand and start scratching my head uncomfortably. I glance back at his pocket where he’s stashed the tissue.

So that’s why Valstein had such a reaction to my blood?

No. Calista’s right. Yes, Valstein got rid of the blood off the pavement because of the case, but his pupils didn’t lie.

I swallow. “Okay…. Thank you,” I add.

Valstein blinks. It’s a rare move for a vampire. “What did you say?”

“Thank you.” I don’t even bother snapping back this time. “I guess you’re right – maybe I know more about police procedure than you do, but you obviously know more about vampires,” I concede.

“You surprise me, Miss Macy,” he says, and his voice is different. Far more controlled, as if he can’t afford to let even a scrap of emotion away right now. “Since your,” his jaw stiffened again, “accusation in the basement of the Soul Club, I had you pegged as somebody who couldn’t admit the truth even when it’s standing in front of her. Perhaps I will give you a second chance, after all. Now follow,” he says as he turns hard on his foot and heads toward the police station.

Bastard.

Evil, awful bastard.

I want to scream at the top of my lungs that I hate this guy’s guts.

As for Calista, she’s chuckling in my head.

With no other option, I finally follow.

I make it up into the police station, where Valstein promptly disappears, leaving me to my own devices.

I head back to the office and start to chat to the other people working on the case, though there’s barely anyone around.

For the rest of the day… I kind of just mooch around. With nothing else to do and without the ability to go out and hunt down new cases, I actually – heaven forbid – do some paperwork.

When it rolls around to the end of my shift, the Chief finally appears.

His eyes are hooded in shadow, and his usually ruddy face is a little pale.

I’m sitting at my desk, and I lock my arms in front of my middle as I lean all the way back. “You look like shit, Chief.”

He chuckles harshly. “Thank you so much for that pertinent observation, detective. I can really see you’re using your skills.”

Before the Chief can take the opportunity to get me in trouble for the numerous misdemeanors I’ve committed today, I point triumphantly at the out tray on my desk. “Look, Chief,” I say as I bring up a hand and try to dazzle him with spirit fingers, “I completed my paperwork. In fact,” I keep shifting my fingers back-and-forth as if I’m a game show host about to reveal the most stupendous of prizes, “I am completely up-to-date with paperwork. You can begin cheering now,” I add with a sweet smile.

The Chief just snorts. “I haven’t got time for this, kid. Now, come with me.”

I jump up. “Got something for me to sink my teeth into? I am dead bored.”

He looks over his shoulder as he walks me through the crowded office. Now the crime scene at the Soul Club has been completely scraped for clues, everyone’s back at the department going through the evidence. The Chief locks his dead-tired gaze on me. “Trust me, kid, being dead bored is better to being plain dead. Your shift’s over. You’ve had a hard day, too, and I’ve drawn in plenty of other magical officers to do double shifts.”

“I can do a double shift,” I say, not necessarily because I need the money, but I always have a point to prove. Plus, it’s not like I have anything else to do. Not, of course, that I want to put my hand up for more paperwork, but there’ll be plenty of background checks and other procedural stuff to do to get this murder case rolling.

“You’re clocking off, kid, and that’s final.”

“So where are you taking me?”

“To your new room,” the Chief says. “You haven’t forgotten you’re staying here, right? You haven’t forgotten that the Fifth Noble of the House of Bane has insisted I put you under a protection order, right?” the Chief says the Fifth Noble of the House of Bane very specifically. So specifically, that, without any other information, I can tell the Chief can’t afford to piss Valstein off.

“Of course I haven’t forgotten that. But he’s not around right now. He’s not going to care if you put me to work. As long as I’m in the police station, what does it matter?”

“You had a rough day, Madeleine, for the love of God. Plus, you’re going to need a head start,” he adds.

I frown.

We’ve made it out of the enforcement office, down the corridor, and to a set of stairs that form the backbone of the building.

The police station is from the turn of last century, so it still has that old-world charm that most new constructions lack. The outside is sandstone façade, and the roof has bona fide gargoyles. Not of the real variety – of the carved kind.

In other words, this place has gravitas full stop. Sure, the plumbing doesn’t always work, and the building is beset by other problems, but it makes up for that with that charm.

But I don’t like what the Chief just said, so I frown super hard. “Sorry, head start on what? So you are putting me to work, after all?” I say warily.

He snorts. “Sure, I’m putting you to work cleaning out your new room. You see,” he brings up his hands, claps them together, and rubs them warmly, and for the first time, the dead look disappears from his eyes to be replaced with one of joy. Cruel joy.

“I see what?” I slow right down, and my voice is one of utter suspicion.

“I’ve needed somebody to clean out the storeroom for years. But we’ve never had anyone to spare. Except now,” he stops as he reaches the top floor and turns hard, his shoes squeaking, and he points right at me, “we’ve got you. And you’ve got five hours to clear a path through the junk and to lug up a cot from one of the cells.” The Chief couldn’t be taking any more pleasure in what he’s saying.

I stare at him darkly. “This is a protection order, not a cleaning order. Why do I have to clean up the storeroom, anyway? That’s the kind of work you would give to some grunt.”

He laughs out loud. Seriously, at the prospect of baiting me, most of the fatigue that’s been haunting his body has lifted entirely. I’m sure if the Chief wanted to chase everlasting youth, all he’d need is to keep torturing me.

I reach the top of the stairs, stop, and lock my arms around my middle, leaning hard against the carved, chipped wooden banister behind me.

We’ve reached the top of the building, and though some of the lower levels have been updated over the years, the top retains most of its old-world charm. From the carved lintels above the doors, to the solid-wood banisters – whenever I head up to this floor, it makes me feel like I’m a cop from one of those ‘20s flicks.

“Madeleine, you’re always telling me that you, out of all of my officers, have a preternatural ability to multitask. Well this is multitasking. You get to remain in the police station, benefit from its protection, and yet, at the same time, clean up the storeroom. Now, I’m told there was once furniture in there,” he says as he turns on his foot and continues down the corridor, “you may even be able to find an old couch. Probably preferable to one of the scummy cots we’ve got down in the cells. If you can find it, you can sleep on it,” he says with the kind of tone that says if I can find a gold ingot, I can keep it.

Now I’m walking behind him, I narrow my eyes and stick my tongue out at him.

“Real mature, Mads,” Calista says.

I don’t care.

Because the Chief was right. I have had a long day, and I don’t deserve this.

“I don’t get it – why can’t I just stay in the office? I can sleep under my desk. We all know I’ve done it before,” I add.

Finally I wipe that sycophantic smile off the Chief’s face, and he looks at me darkly over his shoulder. “Yes, we all know you’ve done it before. Very professional that, Madeleine. Very professional.”

I grin at him. “Yeah, well, even if I can’t stay there, can’t I just stay in one of the waiting rooms? I can curl up on a chair or a couch. Plus, won’t it be safer? There isn’t that much foot traffic on the top level,” I say as I lean over and tap the wall fondly with a hand. “And we do need to keep Valstein happy now, don’t we?”

I expect the Chief to react to my tone. He doesn’t. No, far worse – he lets out a happy chuckle.

What’s the bugger keeping from me?

Without another word, we finally reach the end of the corridor and come to a drab-red, painted, chipped door. “Ah, here we are,” he says as he reaches a hand into a pocket and pulls out his keys.

The Chief has a magically-spelled key ring. Though you can’t see the keys when they’re in his pocket, as soon as he draws them out, they grow along the ring like daisies popping out of a field. When each key grows, there’s a suitable metal clunk.

It takes the Chief several frowning seconds until he finds the right key.

With a satisfied chuckle that’s far too malevolent for my liking, he shoves the right key into the lock, and, with a suitably ominous groan, the door opens.

“I’m not staying here,” I say defiantly, if petulantly. “I’ll just sneak down to my office in the middle of the night,” I threaten.

“Yeah, well I’ll be pulling an all-nighter. So if you do that, I’ll find some creative way to make you pay. Plus, to rebut your original point, Valstein has requested you stay here. And I can’t let the Fifth Noble of the House of Bane down now, can I?” the Chief says in a singsong, truly happy voice.

I splutter.

The door swings open, and the Chief takes a step inside, reaching a hand around and searching for a light switch on the wall. After several attempts to find it, he gets bored, brings up his hand, and clicks his fingers. Magical flame springs from his nails, glowing like a powerful torch.

You see, as much as I love to hate the Chief, I also secretly respect him. He’s the strongest practitioner in the Magical Enforcement Unit, even if he technically has a managerial position.

He’s a full-blooded wizard.

As the flame dances and flickers over his nails, he presses his lips together and whistles. “Damn, I didn’t realize it was this stacked full of junk,” he says, emphasizing the word this.

I peer into the now illuminated darkness, my stomach falling. Though, technically, the storeroom is huge, it’s also chock-full. There are old, bursting boxes of files, shelves, cabinets, you name it. It looks like somebody has scraped all the unwanted files in the police station and just chucked them through the door.

Which is a damn pity, because this could be a beautiful room. It’s right on the corner of the building, and it’s large enough that it spreads to three of the outer walls. It means there are windows lining every single wall except for the one with the door. Beautiful, carved, massive floor-to-ceiling windows that look right out onto little stone balconies and the perched gargoyles beyond.

“Don’t get distracted by the windows – I know you love to ogle at views, Mads. Get distracted by the junk. This bastard really wants us to clean this stuff – he’s not playing around. You know how I said I kind of like Valstein now? If he told the Chief to put us in here, he’s in my bad books again.”

I stare around the storeroom glumly. “I don’t get it – why exactly do I have to be in this room again? And how exactly is this room the most protected room in the police department?”

The Chief turns slowly on his foot to look at me, one hand on his hip as he keeps magical flames playing over his fingers. “Don’t make me question your credentials as a magical enforcement officer. Figure it out yourself,” he says as he shifts past me and starts laboring through the boxes.

I frown super hard now.

What? Does the Chief think that no crim is going to dare come in here to try to kill me in case he trips over a box and stubs his toe?

I really don’t think bad OH & S is going to affect the vamp after me.

No… so it has to be something else….

“You want me to tell you what it is?” Calista chimes in my head.

“What, so you already know?” I think.

“No, I just figured it out. The Chief was right, though – if you can’t figure it out, you really are slow.”

“Shut up,” I say.

“So you want me to tell you, or what?”

“No,” I think defensively, “I can do it on my own.”

Calista chuckles.

I return my attention to the room.

Most protected part of the building?

Let’s see, why would that be?

The walls are just as thick as the rest of the place, but there are a lot of windows, which means a lot of entry points. But, granted, it’s at the top of the building, which means it’s relatively safe from walking creatures, and yet, more of a target to flying creatures, like, you know, vampire bats.

So why….

Again my eyes are drawn to the windows and through them to the view of the carved gargoyles.

Though some of the other magical enforcement officers think the gargoyles are creepy or just outdated, I love to stop at the foot of the police station every day, tilt my head back, and smile at them.

They feel like sentinels, somehow. Watchmen of the building.

“Bingo, you’ve got it,” Calista says.

“But they’re just stone gargoyles,” I begin. I stop.

“You know more about magic than that,” Calista chides.

She is right, and I do.

Magic is a complicated affair. And though, technically, this building wasn’t built in a time when magic was known widely, there were plenty of practitioners practicing it secretly. And architects, for some reason, have always had a particular affinity for magical formulae, like the golden ratio and other esoteric, alchemical principles.

“God, it’s going to take you ages to deduct this, so let me just fill in the blanks. Not only have those gargoyles been protecting this building for over a hundred years, but they were carved by a wizard. Worked on the Council back in the day. So not only do the gargoyles spiritually protect this place – they physically do, too. They create an almost impenetrable magical barrier. Which makes this room the most protected room in all of the station, because it has the most windows looking out onto gargoyles.”

“Oh,” I think back. “I would have figured that out eventually.”

“Eventually being the operative word. Now, I’m going to go to sleep in your head and leave you alone to clean this storeroom for the rest of your life. Because that’s how long it’s going to take you.”

I hear the Chief swear several times as he continues to pick his way across the room. Finally, however, he reaches one of the opposite walls, dips down behind a shelf, appearing to find something he’s after, and then there’s a rustle as he plugs something in. A second later, there’s light.

Not a lot, but enough to throw back most of the darkness and to allow the Chief to let his flames die out.

I narrow my eyes and pick up the style of the light – one of those old Art Deco standing affairs with the carved bronze body of a woman holding up a frosted glass globe.

My Uncle Vinnie is an auctioneer, and I instantly recognize that the lamp would be worth a packet.

I also let my gaze swing across the rest of the room, picking out lots of little Art Deco and Art Nouveau features, from the furniture, to the light fittings above.

With a few more swears and stumbles, the Chief makes it back to me. He puts his hands on his hips and nods my way. “There are more lamps dotted around the room. I know you’re resourceful enough to fix them if they’re broken.”

I snort at him. “I’m hardly an electrician,” I whine.

“Then look it up on the Internet and let your light guardian help you. I’m not joking, though, Madeleine – you’re staying in this room for free. I want you to clean this place up. Plus,” he chuckles darkly, “you’re going to have to to find someplace to sleep. Now, you have fun,” he says as he congenially claps a hand on my shoulder and walks past.

The bastard chuckles all the way down the corridor and down the stairs until he’s out of earshot.

“Prick,” I chime loudly.

I turn.

I don’t think I’ve been glummer all day, which is saying something.

“Still, you have to admit this is a nice space,” Calista says with a sleepy yawn.

“Can you stop pretending that you’re going to nap? You don’t sleep,” I say out loud. “Plus, I’m going to need your help. I’m going to show the Chief just how much I can get done in one night.”

“No, Mads, that’s what he wants. He’s baiting you to razz you up. He knows you like that. He knows you’re going to stay up the entire night to clean this place up just to prove him wrong.”

I don’t listen to her as I shift forward, get down on one knee, and start stacking files.

Calista eventually sighs hard. “Fine, fine. We really need to fix the lighting first. Just follow what I say.”

“Atta girl, Calista,” I say proudly.

Then we get down to work.

Because Valstein is wrong. I’m not incompetent. Okay, sometimes maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about, and sometimes maybe it takes me a while to fall on my feet. But I have one thing that no one else does – grit.

But grit on its own will only get you so far.

Chapter 7

I am a cleaning machine. I’m like this at home. The Chief has always said that if only I could apply the same alacrity to my paperwork, I would become a beast of an officer who’s unstoppable.

Point is, I get into a focused zone, and with Calista’s help, I clean the hell out of this storeroom faster than a whole team of officers.

By 2 o’clock in the morning, I haven’t just cleared a space to the antique furniture, I’ve cleared the room.

I stand back, grinning, my smile practically swallowing my face.

“Wow, I hate to say this – but we have done a good job,” Calista says.

“Good job?” I say out loud. “This is beautiful. This beats my apartment back home by miles. I wonder if the Chief will let me stay here permanently.” I muse out loud. “After all, this is my space now – I cleaned it.”

Calista snorts. “Yeah, cleaning something doesn’t lead to ownership. But I agree – it’s not just that this place looks good; it’s got a great feel to it.”

I take a step forward, spread my arms out wide, and turn on the spot.

Though I’ve thrown out a lot of old files that have already been digitized, I’ve kept most of the old books.

I dismantled the yucky metal shelves and chucked them in the dumpster out the back of the station. I’ve left the beautiful stained oak and mahogany bookcases. Using a little of Calista’s magic and a lot of my own strength, I shifted them around to the corners of the room.

I also fixed the lighting, even though it took a lot of balancing on ladders and swearing.

Now the room looks like an extremely expensive penthouse loft apartment.

After I shoved back all the files, I found this massive Persian rug. I also found some beautiful old leather furniture. It’s a little distressed, but that just adds to the charm.

There’s a seriously sweet mahogany partners desk with a green leather insert and polished brass studs. I also found a whole host of those bronze carved lampshades, including a particularly regal – and expensive – one that’s now sitting on top of the desk.

After an extremely good vacuum, a quick wash of the windows, and a thorough dust, this place is categorically the best room in the police station.

Not caring that I’m acting like a kid, I jump up and down and clap my hands as if I’ve just found a candy mine. “How good am I?”

“I think you mean we. And yeah, we’re good. Now, shouldn’t you get some sleep?”

“Stuff that. We have research to do,” I say as I do another turn and head toward the bookcases on the opposite side of the room.

I found all sorts of little pockets of antique furniture, from side tables to armchairs, and made three distinct sections to the room. There’s the desk that’s facing the longest wall of windows, and behind that a bookcase blocking it off from the rest of the room. Then there’s the huge Persian rug, the gorgeous leather couch, a beautiful carved lamp, and two winged-back chairs.

On the two corners of the room closest to the door there are little alcoves, one with an occasional table, a chair, and a bookcase right next to it – in other words, the perfect reading nook. On the opposite side of the room there’s actually a kitchenette. It took a while to get the plumbing working again, but there’s a sink, some old Waterford crystal glasses, and even a bottle of whiskey in a lead tumbler that’s probably as old as the building. There’s a space under the sink you could fit a little bar fridge in – enough for one person. Though there’s no cooking gear, there’s a kitchenette further down this corridor, a bathroom too.

In other words, I’m serious – this would be the perfect place to live.

“Not that there’s any way that the Chief is going to let you live here permanently,” Calista says exasperatedly.

“You don’t know that for sure. All I have to do is trick him,” I say triumphantly as I bring a hand up, make a fist, and slam it against my palm. “Now, I have research to do.” I rush over to the library like an excited kid.

“Can’t you just do some research tomorrow? I really think you need to get your beauty rest. I’m sure Valstein will come find you tomorrow, even though he keeps threatening to never have anything to do with you again. I saw how he reacted to that blood of yours,” Calista points out.

“Yeah, yeah, but there are books here I’ve only ever heard of and never seen. This collection puts mine to shame. Can you think of how much it would be worth?”

“If you weren’t a straight-laced magical enforcement officer, by your tone, I’d say you’re planning to nick this stuff and sell it on the side.”

“I prefer to enjoy it,” I say as I head over to the library, which I dusted thoroughly, and start to pluck out several interesting but seriously heavy tomes.

That’s when my gaze darts to the side, and I notice a book has fallen under the bookcase. I promptly get down on one knee and fish it out.

My face freezes. My eyes open wide.

“Holy shit,” Calista says. “You know what you’re holding, don’t you, kid?”

I laugh out loud. “Yes, I certainly do. This is the Full Noble Family History of Knight City,” I say as I slap a hand on my mouth and give the world’s happiest laugh.

It’s a laugh Calista shares too, but with an edge. “It’s illegal for a human to procure this book, though.”

“But we’ve already got it. We didn’t procure it – we found it,” I say as I turn around and head toward the chair.

I sit down, place the book in my lap, and reverently open it.

My breath is trapped in my chest. It’s not just at the promise of what’s going to be in here, but it’s at the book itself. Though books don’t usually have gravitas, this one does. From its sheer weight, to the gold leaf on the cover, to the way it rests in my lap like a heavy set of hands.

It promises one thing – forbidden knowledge.

“Don’t go gooey on me here,” Calista warns.

“Oh, piss off,” I mutter as I start to leaf through the pages.

It lists the family history of each noble clan of the city.

I pause as I flick through them.

That’s when I find the Noble Family of Cantax. Lord Balstair’s family.

“Shit, Mads, this could really help our case,” Calista points out.

She’s right.

I pluck up the book, head over to the desk, leaf out an old pad of legal paper and a distinguished fountain pen, scurry back to my chair, and start making notes.

Some I already know. The rest of it, however, is a revelation.

You see, this book doesn’t just list the kind of biographical information you’d find on Balstair’s file. It lists the full history of his family up until the book was printed. But even though that was a good 50 years ago, there’s still a lot of pertinent information.

It doesn’t just list the people who married or were bitten into his clan – but it lists the family’s tensions with other noble clans.

Vampires are an extremely discrete lot. Though a lot of the clans hate each other’s guts, they hate humans and other magical races more. That’s why they keep their internal fights secret.

And that, incidentally, is why Valstein has come into my life again. You see, whenever you have disputes that involve vampires, you always need a vampire go-between between the police and the Vampire Council. The vampire will know more about the internal dynamics of the vampire clans and be able to navigate through them without ever letting the information get out to the humans.

I read the entire section on Balstair’s clan, and at the end, I get to the bit I really need.

The other clans who have declared war against the Cantax.

There are several I dart my gaze over, several more I’ve never heard of, and one that sticks out like a sore thumb.

But no, it’s not what you’re thinking – it’s not the House of Bane.

It’s the House of Falanx.

I hear Calista whistle in my ear. “Jesus Christ, I had no idea of this. There’s such a strong relationship between the Cantax and the Falanx – or at least there appears to be. They’re in a lot of property development together, they’re intermarried, and they both hold prominent positions on the Council.”

“And yet, at one point, they were at war. And I’m sure there are vamps in both families that still remember their bad blood.”

There’s an important thing you need to know about vampires. They, like elephants, never forget. But, unlike elephants, they have a real thing for revenge. Nobles especially. You see, no matter how refined a vampire noble appears, at the end of the day, all vampires are still predators. And when a predator is wronged, suffice to say, they get violent.

“This is a lead,” Calista says confidently. “Tomorrow, we can head down to the office, and we can look into the Falanx. Though I doubt there’s going to be anything about recent tensions between the two – considering they obviously do a pretty good job of hiding that – there will be something. Now, for the love of God, get your beauty sleep. You wouldn’t want to meet Valstein tomorrow looking like a ghoul of death, would you? Though, to be honest, I don’t really think he cares what you look like, more how you move,” she says.

“Shut up,” I say. But I go to close the book anyway, even though a part of me wants to research right through the night.

I stop.

I lean forward, excitement flickering in my eyes. I leaf toward the front of the book.

“I told you to get some sleep,” Calista says, but she suddenly stops as the book opens to a specific listing.

The House of Bane.

Calista whistles. “Do you really want to know what’s written down here? I mean, I don’t think finding out more information about this guy is a good idea. You’re confused enough about him as it is.”

I have nothing to say to her as I read through the entry, logging every detail away.

A lot of it I already know – sure, the House of Bane is one of the most prominent families in the world, one of the most powerful, too.

But they’re also one of the most archaic. Unlike a lot of the other vampires, they failed to run with the times. Even though this book is a good 50 years old, even back then the vampires were still modernizing at a rate of knots. No more ruffles, capes, and English County manors for them. They were investing, laying down their financial roots, and ultimately becoming intertwined with the humans they predated.

In fact, some of the changes made in the postwar 50s were what led to the relatively smooth transition into the current so-called peace we have in modern times. If humanity had found out about vampires a hundred years ago, there would’ve been all-out war. But 10 years ago, it was a different matter. Vampires had already started controlling their ranks and relying on blood banks more than capturing hapless damsels in the middle of the night. In other words, they were tightening up the supply chain, ensuring a steady supply of food, and as a result, becoming a heck of a lot less desperate and nasty. At the same time, they were coming in closer contact with humans in every aspect of their lives. From financial to physical. It’s what laid the foundation for the world we have today – when some vampires realized they didn’t need humans for food and could live and work with them instead.

None of that is the point. The point is the second page on the entry of the House of Bane. The third paragraph, to be exact. The paragraph that deals with entry into the House of Bane.

Some of it I already know – that someone can only enter the House of Bane by full permission of the Family Council.

The rest of it, however, is a revelation.

A noble of the House of Bane cannot marry another vampire. They have to turn a human.

And they only have one choice and one chance. They have one opportunity to bring a candidate in front of the Family Council. And if that candidate doesn’t pass?

She’s bled dry.

“Jesus Christ, this is grisly,” Calista says. “And yet, somehow, still terribly romantic. Only one chance at happiness? Shakespeare couldn’t even write something this tragic.”

“Why do you assume married life is happiness?” I say, trying to control my tone even though it really wants to constrict at what I’m learning.

“God you humans are slow – skip a paragraph down,” she comments.

I do.

And that’s when I learn something about Valstein I really didn’t need to know. Not him specifically, just nobles that belong to his clan.

They, apparently, are like locks. A lock with only one key.

They can find the one human who, ahem, shall we say, can turn them on, then they will access true completeness, whatever that means.

“It means power and happiness, you idiot,” Calista mutters. “It means ascension.”

I make a face. “That’s a myth. Vampires can’t ascend. At least, not these days. Maybe in another time, but not this time,” I try to point out, my voice weak.

“Don’t kid yourself – you know what ascension is. It’s when a vampire becomes something much more. When they shirk off their violent ways and become angels,” she says.

I should snort at that. I don’t.

She’s not making it up.

Yeah, technically there are historical rumors about vampires ascending. There are some crazy theories out there that all vampires are fallen angels to begin with. Fallen angels who’ve been shoved into a pit of endless desire. But if they can find a way to get out of that desire, they can ascend once more.

But I don’t buy that crap.

Vampires aren’t fallen angels who can scrounge their way back to heaven by just doing enough good deeds. They’re just bloodsucking scum who predate humans and think they’re better than everyone else.

“Would you stop arguing with me in your head?” Calista says with a long-suffering sigh. “And, for the love of God, get some sleep already. It’s 2:30. I know for a fact the Chief is going to barge in here at 6 o’clock sharp.”

“Okay, okay, just get off my back. It’s not like we have to do anything important tomorrow. We’ll be stuck here all day.”

“Just get some sleep. I have a feeling tomorrow is going to be a lot harder than you think it’ll be.”

I open my mouth to tell her she’s full of shit. I stop.

My eyes are drawn inexorably back to the book, and of course I think of him. More to the point, I think of the last thing he told me before he swanned into the police station. That maybe I wasn’t a complete write-off, after all.

For some reason, I smile as I carefully close the book, place it down on the chair, and go to trundle toward the couch.

“No,” Calista screeches.

“Jesus, Calista, what was that for?”

“Maybe Valstein is right – maybe you really are an idiot. You just going to keep that illegal vampire book sitting on your chair like that? What if the Chief strides in tomorrow without an invitation and sees it? Or worse – what if Valstein comes with him? Yeah, you didn’t procure that book, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be taken off you and you won’t be severely reprimanded for reading it. Now, for the love of God, hide it back under the bookshelf.”

Calista has a point, and I begrudgingly follow through with her command. Once I’ve shoved the vampire history book all the way as far under the shelf as it will go, I shift back up, arch my shoulders, and yawn.

By the time I make it over to the couch and flop face first onto it, I’m already pretty much asleep.

And you guessed it. Out of all the things I could dream of, I dream of him.

But no, my dreams aren’t… ahem, shall we say on the naughty non-PG side. Nope. They’re just bizarre. Due to my job, I often have chase dreams. You know the kind I mean. Where you’re running along being pushed on by countless fiends of your subconscious.

Yeah, well… these dreams are different. They’re not chase dreams; they’re hiding dreams, if that’s a genre of nightmare.

But it’s not me hiding myself; it’s someone else hiding me. Just not in conventional places. Down crypts, in coffins, in old, massive mausoleums with creepy darkened rooms and cold, musty floors.

The dreams are vivid and never ending. That is, until it’s morning, and they break with one more final nightmare.

Someone’s shoving me down a set of stairs. I tumble, too weak to fight. I have a long white dress on, and it snags against a jagged piece of the wall beside me. It catches my leg, too, and sends a splatter of blood over the stone by my feet.

I hear a hiss of breath behind me. Long, guttural, primal. A predator who’s just seen food. Even in the dream I can recognize the sound of a vampire locking onto their target.

I feel a cold, bony hand snatch hold of my shoulder and shove me forward.

I stumble again, but this time my weak legs cut out from underneath me. I fall face-first on the ground, snagging my cheek, sending yet another splatter of blood dripping down my face.

That’s when I feel him beside me. A set of fangs, sharp and hot, press against the nape of my neck, the vampire behind me overcome by the frenzied need to feed.

But just as fear swells through my heart and blasts through my brain, the guy stops himself. Maybe it’s reason; maybe it’s something else, but he mutters a, “not yet, not yet,” under his breath. It’s a mantra he keeps repeating to himself as he latches an arm around mine and wrenches me to my feet.

He shoves me forward. Though it’s dark in here, the further I walk into the room, the more I see, until I can make out a plinth just a few meters away.

There’s a coffin on top. It’s half open.

I feel the vampire’s hand on my neck again, rubbing back-and-forth on the exact point where he almost bit me. “Not yet, not yet.”

We reach the coffin.

I’m shaking. The only reason I can stand is that he’s still got a hand on my shoulder. Then, with a snapped move, he puts his other hand on my other shoulder.

I hear him breathing behind me, the constant buffeting of his breath pushing against my hair.

That’s when I realize my hair is long. Much longer than it usually is. It goes halfway down my back, and as I pay attention to the sweat caking my brow, I realize I have a thick fringe.

But I also feel a necklace around my neck. It’s big, it’s heavy, and it’s glowing.

I want to draw up a hand and clasp it over the pendant; I want to tug my head down and stare at it. But when I go to move, the vampire moves quicker. He leans forward, presses his front into my back, and suddenly cups my chin, preventing me from tugging my head any further down.

I gasp, and this seems to give him pleasure as he laughs at the feel of my throat constricting against his palm. “Not yet. I said,” he ducks his head close to my left ear, “not yet.”

I stiffen.

He pushes me closer toward the open coffin. He even brings up his knee around my side, so he doesn’t have to remove his hands from my shoulder and throat, and he nudges the coffin lid. With a single move, the coffin lid topples off.

And that’s when I see a dead woman inside.

She’s wearing office pants and a stained white shirt. She has a thick belt on, and latched in the belt is a police magical enforcement badge.

She has beautiful blond locks that are splattered with red blood and frame her perfectly pale, dead face.

“Not yet,” the vampire says by my left ear.

He pushes me toward the coffin – that’s when I realize he’s going to shove me right on top of the dead body and close the lid. I start to scream. I don’t think I’ve ever screamed louder. It doesn’t just echo through the room – I swear it tries to tear down the very walls to help me escape.

But there’s no escaping. No escaping.

He shoves me down. I manage to punch a hand out, manage to grab the side of the coffin. It’s carved stone with gold edges. It’s more like the sarcophagus of a queen and not the final resting place of a deadbeat magical officer like me.

I try to struggle, but there’s nothing I can damn well do. With the ease of a man fending off a child, the vampire grabs my wrist, curls it in, and tugs it painfully under my arm.

I scream. No matter how loudly I shriek, there’s no one to come to my aid.

We’re alone down here, always have been.

I feel him take a hard breath by my left ear once more. “Not yet, Ellery,” he laughs. Then, in a snapped move that only a vampire would be able to achieve, he shifts his head to the right side of my face, nuzzles his cheek against mine, and spits, “but soon.”

He shoves me into the coffin.

I scream.

Which, incidentally, is what I keep doing as I wake, surfacing from the dream as if I’ve been shot. Because that, if it was indeed a dream, was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.

Chapter 8

It doesn’t take me long to reorient to my room. The reason it doesn’t take long is, without any warning, the door to the room suddenly bursts open, and in runs the Chief.

He gets several steps in, skids to a stop, and his eyes practically boggle out of his head as he stares at the completely transformed room. It takes a while to wrench his gaze off this beautiful place and lock it on me. “Why did you scream? That was you screaming, wasn’t it?”

I really need some time to digest what the hell that dream was. It was way too vivid and nasty to be an ordinary nighttime wonder. But at the same time, it was just a dream… right? And now I’m awake, it’s starting to slip.

I bring up a hand, lock it on my belly, and shake my head a few times. “Sorry, Chief. I just had a nightmare. I guess that’s what happens when you clean like a fiend until 2:30 in the morning and uncover this gem.” I take several deep breaths, try as hard as I can to smooth a smile on my face, and go to stand.

For just a fraction of a second I’m wobbly. The same kind of wobbly I was in the dream. This vicious kind of paralysis as if someone has reached into my body and stilled my limbs in place, all to make it easier to control me.

I lean against the couch for several seconds as I forcefully remind my damn body that that was nothing but a nightmare.

Fortunately, the Chief isn’t looking at me. He’s staring slack-jawed at this place. I think I can see the cogs moving around in his head, too. He’s wondering if he can claim this office for himself.

I’m suddenly reminded of the fact that, once upon a time, this place was meant to have been an office.

“How much magic did you expend to do this?” the Chief asks, and his voice couldn’t be higher. “This is insane. Who knew this place could look this good? But what did you do with all the files and the shelves and the junk?”

“Firstly,” I come to a stop behind him and lock my hands on my hips, “I didn’t expend magic. Okay, just a little when I almost fell off the ladder, and I did use Calista to help fix the plumbing and the lighting. But the rest of it was me and a heck of a lot of grit. The old shelves have been torn apart and put in the dumpster, and I got Calista to check through the files. Only a handful hadn’t been digitized yet, and the rest are distributed in shredding bins around the building. As for the antique furniture, to answer the question of who knew it was here, you did. Before you left last night, you pointed out that there were old couches in here. Well, you were right.”

The Chief takes a second to wrench his gaze off the fantastic view and lock it on me. “I thought they’d only be a few old broken chairs. This stuff…” he whistles. “That desk must be worth a packet.” He claps his hands together.

I suddenly dart in front of him and open my arms wide, like a lemming who simply won’t allow him to pass. And that’s when my gaze is brought directly in line with the door out into the hallway. There’s a man standing just beyond it.

Or should I say a vampire?

Valstein.

I don’t think my eyebrows have ever moved faster as they clunk against my eyes. “What’s he doing here?”

Valstein has his hands in his pockets, and he slowly makes eye contact with me.

Is there something… a little searching about the way he’s looking at me? Or am I just making that up?

Oh, who cares? Any entry-level magical enforcement officer knows that vampires are trained to confuse you with every look they give.

Plus, I have a far more important fight right now.

The Chief doesn’t answer my question, and instead darts around me, still clapping and rubbing his hands together. “This would make a perfect office. Just look at that view. You could feel like a superhero sitting in this chair,” he says as he strides over to my desk, sits in my chair, and looks at my view.

I run up to him. “Hey,” I bluster, “this is my room. I cleaned it, so it’s mine.”

The Chief cackles. “Oh, Madeleine, you really have outdone yourself. I should’ve found some excuse for you to clean this room earlier. This really will make a perfect office.” He turns around in his chair, looking like the picture of an arrogant boss as he brings his arms up and locks them around the back of his head.

“You bastard. Did you lie to me last night? Did you only put me in this place to force me to clean it up? You told me this is the safest place in the building.”

“Oh, don’t complain. Just bask in the fact that I’m happy with your work for once. This will definitely buy you some brownie points,” he says as he turns back around, clasps two hands on the desk, and practically hugs it. “And as for keeping you safe, if the case isn’t solved by the end of tonight, you can sleep down in the cells.”

I don’t even have the chance to splutter.

I hear soft footsteps, and Valstein stops right outside of the door. He also clears his throat.

Though it takes me jumping up and down in front of the Chief to get his attention, all it takes from Valstein is a guttural cough, and the Chief drops his act.

It’s almost as if he’s forgotten Valstein’s there.

The Chief clears his throat and stands. “Sorry, your Lordship. Please come in.”

Valstein doesn’t move a muscle. Sorry, he does move a muscle. His eyes certainly move as they lock on me. “It’s not you who I need personal permission from to enter their abode.… Miss Macy, would you mind?” He reaches a hand forward, gesturing into the room but never taking a step beyond the doorway.

I blink. It takes me a second to realize Valstein’s not playing a stupid game. You see, vampires should technically gain permission to enter someone’s residence. It’s a somewhat archaic rule, but I learned last night in the book of vampire history that the Banes are all about tradition, didn’t I?

I pause. Though it would be seriously satisfying to tell Valstein to piss off, if I do that, the Chief really will come good on his threat and make me sleep in the cells, so I nod. Without making eye contact, I gesture forward. “Please enter.”

Valstein nods down low, possibly the only move of deference he’s ever made toward me. Then he takes one step into the room, and another. Just like the Chief, he twists his head from side to side as he also takes in the beautiful space.

“Interesting. I never thought I’d see it like this again,” he mutters, and from the low tone of his voice, it’s clear he’s speaking only for his own benefit.

I frown. “What are you talking about? Have you been here before? I mean, it was you who decided I should stay here last night, right?”

Valstein appears to be too distracted by the office, and he takes a while to answer. Then he locks his attention on me, and there’s that keen question in his eyes once more. But if it really is there – and it’s not just a figment of my addled imagination – it doesn’t last.

“Yes, it was me who decided that you should stay here. I assume the Chief has explained to you that, due to the unique position close to the protection gargoyles on the outside of the building, this room is categorically the safest place in all of the police station.”

I shrug.

“To answer your other question,” he says smoothly, as, with an equally smooth move, he locks all his attention on me, not even saving a scrap for the Chief, “I was here many years ago when this was originally an office. And I must say,” again, he won’t look anywhere but at me, “you have done an unusually good job of being faithful to the original design. I must ask, did you find a photo of what this place used to look like? Or was this luck?”

The way he says luck tells me he doesn’t mean luck at all. But I catch up to what he’s just said. I blink hard. “Sorry, you’ve been here years ago when this was an office? It hasn’t been an office for….” I dart my gaze over to the Chief, not knowing the exact history of this room.

The Chief looks unmoved by what Valstein is saying, which is a fair indication he already knew this stuff. “30 years,” the Chief answers smoothly. “Turns out a member of Valstein’s clan used to be the old Police Chief,” the Chief says, and there’s the faintest disbelieving note to his tone.

I don’t move other than to let my eyebrows clunk so low over my eyes, I almost can’t see anymore. “Ah, sorry? I don’t understand. 30 years ago is well before magical integration. How could a vampire be a Police Chief?” I make no move to hide the disgusted quality to my tone.

Which of course means that Valstein picks up on it. His usually beautiful jaw stiffens. “To answer that question, Miss Macy, I will point you in the direction of the obvious. My clansman took the recruit test, became a policeman, and worked his way up the ranks. The same way anyone,” he says, emphasizing anyone, “would become a Police Chief.”

I’m looking right at him, and I don’t care how disgruntled his gaze is. It’s not like I have a problem insulting this guy, after all. “But he was a vampire. During a time when,” I stiffen my jaw, “your kind didn’t exactly have a lot of respect for our kind.”

“Ah, respect,” he says, pretty much spitting the word out. “I think you’ll find it’s a very interesting term. How one shows respect for another isn’t always obvious. As for my clansman, if you’re implying that he abused his position as Police Chief to eat those around him,” Valstein doesn’t even balk at using the untasteful term eat, even though most nobles would never be caught dead saying it, “you’re wrong. He protected them. From the rest of my kind, no less. Even before the magical unification, he was a man ahead of his time. A man who kept the balance. But you won’t believe me, so I’m sure if you ask your Chief, he can dig up the personnel file on Commissioner Bishop.”

I want to keep biting back, but at the same time, I want to get rid of these men so I can digest what the hell that dream was. Even though I’ve managed to thoroughly distract myself with the prospect of having a verbal tête-à-tête with Valstein, the dream lingers. Nowhere more so than my cheeks. If I concentrate on them too long, I swear I can still feel that vampire bastard pressed against them, whispering in my ear, “not yet, not yet.”

As I get distracted, I drop my gaze from Valstein, trying to remember the details of my dream as objectively as I can in the hopes it will undermine its latent power.

But while the Chief becomes easily distracted and goes back to cooing at this beautiful office, Valstein’s eyes are on me. He also clears his throat. “I thought I already told you that it’s rude to have two conversations at once?” he says.

I open my mouth to snap back automatically, but I stop.

Jesus Christ.

Calista.

She hasn’t said a thing to me since I woke up. Calista never goes quiet, unless she’s processing some monumental task, but even then she usually finds the time to grunt in my mind.

I pale in a snap.

I also draw all the way inward. “Calista? Hey, Calista, where are you? Calista!” I start to get desperate.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a serious love-hate relationship when it comes to Calista. Sometimes I love her power and advice, but more often than not, I could really do without her derogatory insults. There’s a reason no other magical enforcement officer will take her.

But I did take her, and when I accepted Calista, I also took an oath to protect her.

But now she’s seemingly gone.

“What is it?” Valstein says, all humor gone from his tone as he takes strong, quick steps toward me.

I don’t pay him a scrap of attention. I keep searching through my mind for my light guardian. “Calista, for the love of God, where are you? Calista!”

“Madeleine,” Valstein says, for the very first time ever using my real name.

He reaches me, and before I know what he’s doing, he places his hands on my shoulders.

You’d think, considering how similar that is to what happened in my dream, that I would scream and jolt back. But I don’t. Because I swear Valstein’s warm touch does something – pushes back some icy wall. Or, you know, shuts a door.

That’s when I finally feel her.

Calista.

“Calista! That’s you, isn’t it? Talk to me.”

“All right, all right, I can hear you. Jesus,” Calista says, but her tone is weak.

“What’s going on?” the Chief asks, finally waking up to the fact something serious is happening and now isn’t the best time to ogle his new office.

“I believe your officer has an injured light guardian,” Valstein says, and don’t ask me how he can possibly know that. Maybe it’s a fair bet that, because I’m so distressed, I’m not protecting my thoughts, and he’s just skimming the truth right off the top of my head.

Or maybe it’s something else.

I don’t really care.

“Calista, what the hell happened to you? Where did you go?” I think to her.

“What? Calista’s damaged? How?” the Chief snaps as he rushes over.

“I can’t answer that. All I can say is I’m picking up considerable mental distress from the light guardian.” Valstein still has his hands on my shoulders, and I swear they’re kind of anchoring me in place as I just try to find out what the hell happened to Calista.

True, Calista hasn’t been my light guardian for all that long, and yet, in that time, no matter how much we’ve fought together, she’s never encountered a creature that’s hurt her. We’ve encountered plenty of creatures that have hurt me, but I’m a different kettle of fish. Blood and bone and flesh. Calista? She’s a light guardian. There are very few things that are meant to be able to damage a light guardian.

“Dammit,” the Chief spits bitterly, as if this is the last thing he needs. “Madeleine, you look after that light guardian, you hear? Sit down on the couch, take the load off your legs. The stiller you keep yourself, the less effort Calista will have to expend to track your magical aura. Lie down, close your eyes, and wait for a medic.” With that, the Chief rushes out of the room.

That leaves me with Valstein, and even though once upon a time, I would’ve cared about that, all I care about now is Calista.

Valstein’s right. She’s injured.

And it is a singularly strange experience to have a light being injured in your mind.

Now I can concentrate on that fact, I can appreciate that the position she takes in my magical aura is muddied somehow, as if someone’s polluted it. If you imagine Calista a little bit like a fish, she’s having to swim through that pollution.

I don’t go through with what the Chief said, turn around, make it over to the couch, and close my eyes. I’m just too fraught to try.

I can hear Calista’s mutters, but they’re so far off, and they’re incoherent.

So that would be when Valstein acts. He shifts behind me, loops an arm under my legs before I know what he’s doing, and he plucks me up. This isn’t the first time Valstein’s plucked me up. In fact, it’s starting to become a nasty habit for him.

But this time he doesn’t allow me to linger in his arms. He takes several swift steps over to the couch, gets down on one knee, and places me down on it.

His face comes close to mine, and a deep frown etches over his lips. “Close your eyes, Miss Macy. Hold onto the light guardian. As the Chief said, he’s bringing a medic.”

“I don’t know what happened to her. She’s fading in and out,” I say, and I sound like a desperate kid. If there was ever a time to hold my dignity in front of the Fifth Noble of the House of Bane now is not it.

Because I’ll never forgive myself if I allow Calista to die.

“Miss Macy, please, close your eyes,” Valstein tries.

I completely ignore him, my heart beating at a million miles an hour in my chest.

“Calista,” I scream at her with my thoughts, “what happened to you? Where are you? What’s going on?”

“Madeleine,” again, Valstein uses my first name, “please, close your eyes.”

When I don’t, he brings up a hand and places it over my face.

I don’t jolt back. I let the gentle press of his thumb and fingers drag across my face and close my eyelids.

I don’t blink against the tender pressure of his hand, trying to wrench my eyes open again. I just let him press them closed.

You’d think I’d be tenser than I’ve ever been before, but I’m not. Maybe it’s the effect of lying down and keeping still – just as the Chief suggested – or maybe it’s the unique heat spreading from Valstein’s palm down into my face. A heat that, second by second, is chasing away every last trace of that dream. From the haunting press of the vampire’s cheek against my face, to the memory of falling into the open coffin with the dead woman.

I relax.

And finally, I hear Calista. “He’s back in my good books.”

“Calista? Is that you? Oh God, you’re alive.”

She snorts, but it’s still weak. She also coughs and splutters as if someone’s punched her in the chest. “Of course it’s me. Is there any other light guardian in communion with your thoughts? The answer is of course not, because I’m the only light guardian who’ll put up with you.”

“What happened to you? How on earth did you get injured?”

“I’ll answer the first one first. Because it’s the only one I know the answer to. You want to know what happened to me – your goddamn dream happened to me. Jesus Christ, kid, what was that?” Her words spit out and whistle with true vehemence.

“It was just a nightmare, I guess. I had a big night yesterday. I should’ve followed your advice and gone to bed sooner.”

There’s a considerable pause – one where I worry if Calista is becoming faint once more. “Kid, you’re not that stupid. That wasn’t an ordinary nightmare. That was way too intense. Way too powerful. From that bastard vampire whispering, to Suzanne Somers in the coffin.”

“I’m sorry, what? Suzanne Somers in the coffin? I’ve never seen Suzanne Somers. It was just a magical enforcement officer,” I begin.

Calista snorts, and again it’s weak, but at least it’s a little stronger than when I first found her. “There’s only one female murdered magical enforcement officer that’s been on your mind recently,” she points out.

“Okay, I’ll concede that, but that doesn’t make the woman in the coffin Suzanne Somers. I’ve never even seen a picture of Suzanne, just what my mind’s been able to cook up.”

“And that, kid, is the truly worrying point. Because the woman in the coffin was a dead ringer for Suzanne – and that is no pun.”

“How do you know that?” I think back quickly.

“Because I’m a goddamn light guardian, and I do my research. As soon as that shit Harding pointed out how Suzanne died, I looked it up. So trust me when I say that the woman in that coffin was Suzanne. The question is how the hell did your consciousness cook up the exact picture of Suzanne after she died? From the hair to the blood splatter – you saw her perfectly, Madeleine. And we need to figure out how.”

“I’m being honest – I’ve never seen a picture of Suzanne,” I try.

“Of course you haven’t. That’s not what I’m asking. I’m asking who infiltrated your mind and put her there.”

I can’t think back to her for several seconds. I’m as stiff as a dead body, and considering recent events, that’s the last image I want in my head.

A part of me is still aware of Valstein. He hasn’t moved a muscle. He’s still pressed there down on one knee by the couch, his warm palm over my eyes. He’s not interrupting me, never questioning me, and giving me all the time I need to talk to Calista.

“He’s also helping to clean your aura, making my signal clearer,” Calista suddenly adds. “Like I said, this guy is definitely back in the good books.”

“What?”

“Not all vampires can practice aura magic, but it doesn’t really surprise me that this bloke can. Every secret I find out about this boy is juicier than the next. But while he does his magic, you really need to talk to me, kid. I know I often kid around with you – and I know I sometimes play down the seriousness of certain situations. But I can’t do that this time,” she says, voice echoing on the word can’t. “Because this is some serious shit. Your mind was infiltrated. And either the bastard who did it pushed Suzanne into your head, or—” She swallows hard, even though technically Calista doesn’t have a throat.

“Or what?”

“He dug something up from your subconscious.”

“Like I said, I’ve never seen Suzanne Somers’ body.”

“That’s not what I think he dug up. You remember that hair?”

I twitch.

Yeah, I remember the hair. Dark and glossy like my hair, but much longer and with a thick fringe over my eyes.

“You remember the necklace?” Calista says, voice becoming so twisted on the word necklace, if she were a real flesh-and-blood being, I’d be worried she’d strangle herself.

I stop and twitch.

I feel Valstein react. He practically coos beside me. “Just relax, Miss Macy. The medic is on their way. Continue to converse with your light guardian. The more you interact with her, the more it strengthens your connection and pushes back the smoke in your aura.”

“How does he know I’m talking with you? Jesus, he’s not picking up what we’re saying to each other, is he?” I think desperately.

Calista snorts back. It’s much stronger now. The light guardian’s presence is becoming more powerful with every second. “No, he’s not skimming our thoughts. I wouldn’t let him do that. He’s just putting two and two together, kid. The only thing that can ever shut you up around him is me. Now stop letting him distract you. Even though, on any other day, I would pretty much order you to take in every sumptuous detail of having his hot little hand pressed over your face. Right now, we have to focus.”

“Why?”

“Because whichever vampire shit entered your mind last night is probably going to try to do it again,” Calista says.

I’m practically bowled off my feet, so it’s pretty lucky that I’m already lying down. “Wait, what do you mean he’s going to try to enter my mind again? That was just a nightmare,” I try, but it’s seriously feeble.

Calista doesn’t even bother to snort this time. “Like I said, kid, we don’t have much time. We also have to be bold. We’ve never been in danger like we are right now.”

“… What do you mean we?” Again my voice is feeble. “Even… even if I die, won’t you be all right?” I know I sound pathetic, and I know the last thing that Calista respects is being pathetic.

“Not this time. Whoever is after you can muddy your aura, kid. Worse, I’m pretty sure he went after me because he knew that without me, you’d be weaker. So I’m just as much of a target this time as you are. So I’m going to ask you to do exactly as I say.”

It takes me a second to take in what she’s saying. It’s one thing being in danger myself, but it’s a completely different thing having Calista’s life in my hands. “Anything. What do you want me to do?”

“Do you remember what that vampire shit called you in the dream?” Calista says without warning.

Up until that point, I hadn’t remembered. The name had slipped out of my mind as the immediacy of the dream had waned. But all it takes is her words, and it’s like a veil is lifted from my eyes.

“You do remember, don’t you?” There’s an excited tone to her voice. “I want you to say it out loud.”

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

I take a breath. Fortunately Valstein’s hand isn’t low enough that it’s pressing against my lips. So I can move them freely, which I do as I say, “Ellery.”

It takes a fraction of a second for Valstein to react.

He jerks away from me as if I’ve just slapped him. Or worse, attacked him with everything I have.

He’s not using his full vampire speed, though. No, this is more of a body reaction. That primal twitch of muscles a person gets when their hindbrain tells them to get the hell away from some new danger.

Though I know it’s important to keep my eyes closed, I can’t help but snap them open as I stare at Valstein.

As for Valstein? He’s looking at me like I’m some ghost who’s risen from the dead.

“I knew this would work,” Calista comments, and she’s obviously taking so much pleasure in what just happened that she almost sounds as if she’s back to full strength.

When Valstein jerked away from me, he fell on the carpet several meters away, and there he remains, one hand propped behind him as he stares at me like I’m some apparition who’s risen unbidden from the depths of history.

I have no idea what my own expression reveals as I stare back at him, and I don’t have much time to figure it out. Because I finally hear running footsteps.

I look up just in time to see the Chief and one of the magical medics rush into the room.

Though a second ago Valstein was down on his back, by the time the Chief walks in, the vampire has already utilized his superhuman speed and is standing, albeit as far away from me as he possibly can.

His gaze is on me, though. But I can no longer see his pupils. He’s manipulating shadow once more to ensure his eyes are practically swallowed by darkness.

I want to get up from this couch, walk over to him, and ask what on earth that name could mean to him.

“Calista, what the hell just happened? How did you know that Valstein would react to that name?” I think to her.

“Just a hunch. It turned out it was right on the money. This is getting way too interesting, kid. And even though, on any other day, I’d love interesting, I’m terrified we’re just going to get caught up in the middle of this.”

“Calista, what are you talking about? Caught up in the middle of what?” I demand.

But that’s when the Chief reaches me. “Lie the hell back down, Madeleine. We need to stabilize your light guardian.”

The medic sets to work quickly. The woman shifts down to one knee, places a bag she brought with her on the carpet, and starts expertly shifting through her gear.

I’ve never had an injured guardian before, but I know the process.

Sit down, shut up, and let somebody smarter than you figure out what’s going on.

The medic does a lot of clucking her tongue, and though I don’t recognize most of her devices, one is an aura checker. When she checks my aura, she presses her lips together and lets out a harsh whistle. “There’s a hole here. Not sure how long it’s been here for, but it definitely allowed entry. Somebody used that hole to pollute the aura and try to kill Calista,” the medic continues.

The Chief looks like he’s been struck. “Sorry, you think Calista was the target?”

“Makes sense,” the medic concludes. “She’s one of the strongest light guardians we’ve got.”

“Idiots,” Calista comments to me. “I was very much not the target. I was just an irritating light guardian who was getting in that bastard’s way.”

“Should I tell them?” I think back to her.

“No,” she says forcefully and quickly. “Let them believe whatever they want to.”

“How your officer here managed to walk around with a hole in her aura without feeling it, I don’t know, but this could’ve been serious,” the medic chastises.

“Sounds like you’re about to get in trouble.” Calista doesn’t even bother to chuckle. “But whatever happens, don’t you share a word of this with anyone else. Except for maybe him,” Calista points out, and I really don’t need her to tell me who him is.

Valstein is still standing in the middle of the room, and though I can tell he doesn’t want to look my way, at the same time, his head is directed toward me, but his eyes are still hooded in shadow. The result is he looks like a defeated man.

And all it took was one little word – Ellery.

Who the hell is Ellery?

“The question is who the hell was Ellery. And don’t you worry – we’ll find out. As soon as the medic and the Chief are done, we’re going to do some serious research. Oh, and we’re going to find the vampire before he kills you,” she adds, as if it’s little more than an afterthought.

“Wait, which vampire? You mean the guy who killed Lord Balstair – or the guy from my dream?”

“Both – they’re the same guy. You should really try harder to catch up.”

“What? Sorry? How the hell do you know that they’re the same guy?”

“Hunch.”

“Better bloody well be right.”

I tune back into what the medic and the Chief are saying, just in time for the medic to recommend that Calista be taken from me, as I obviously can’t look after her.

Though the Chief is usually willing to condemn me at any opportunity, he doesn’t jump to this one. “We still don’t know what broke Madeleine’s aura. This is a little premature.”

“Do I need to remind you, sir, that Calista is one of the strongest light guardians that the Police Department has? If she is killed in action because your officer is either too stupid or inexperienced to appreciate when she’s critically injured, then that will be on your head.”

Though the Chief looked like he was willing to defend me seconds before, now I can see his cheeks turn ashen. I open my mouth to defend myself, but I don’t have to. For the first time since I mentioned the word Ellery, Valstein finally takes a step toward us, then another. His movements are forceful and directed, all the power back in his inherently strong form. “I’m afraid I cannot allow that to happen.”

The medic looks shocked, then instantly locks her gaze on the Chief. “This is an internal police matter. There are no vampires involved here, and we don’t need the assistance of the official go-between. Like I said, sir,” she says, emphasizing the word sir, “if Calista dies, it will be on your head.”

“And if Madeleine Macy dies, it will be on your head,” Valstein says, and there’s a sharp anger in his tone. So far the only person he’s ever used that tone on is me. Even then, there’s always a more playful edge to the way he baits me.

“No, kid, what you’re hearing here is what a vampire sounds like when he’s worried someone’s going to take away what’s his.” Calista lets out a soft laugh, and again I note she’s getting stronger.

But in another second, I realize what she’s just said, and I splutter. “I am not the property of the Fifth Noble of the House of Bane,” I think back in an exasperated way.

“You tell him that, not me,” she chuckles. “You know, I’m feeling better now, and it’s got nothing to do with what the medic’s doing. I gotta say, your cute little interactions with Valstein always lift me up. I wonder what would happen if you just go over there right now, cave into the sexual tension building between you two, and kiss him right in front of everyone? It would sure as hell make my day and get me back on my feet sooner,” she laughs as loud as she possibly can in my mind.

I don’t bother pointing out the obvious – that there’s no damn way in hell that that would ever happen.

The medic clearly doesn’t like Valstein’s tone, and she stares at the Chief. It’s obvious the Chief is pulled. He clears his throat. But then, rather than look at the medic again, he swivels his gaze over to Valstein. “I… I understand that you have seniority in all matters to do with vampires. However, it would be a serious issue if one of the department’s light guardians was allowed to die.”

“You are correct. I have full seniority in any matter that has to do with the vampires. I’m also currently the only man holding the Vampire Council in check. They want the murder of Lord Balstair dealt with right now. And you will only achieve two things if you take Calista off Madeleine,” again he says my name – something he obviously only does when he’s being passionate, “you will hasten the death of your light guardian, and you will potentially make this case unsolvable. I was assured when I was given this position that the people I would be working with would have suitable experience and would always maintain a professional attitude.”

“Which we do and we have,” the Chief says as he brings up his hands in a placating move.

“If you are professionals, then please tell me why you would remove Madeleine’s light guardian before finding out exactly who damaged her aura, when, and why?”

Though I think the medic has been suitably chastised, obviously the woman can muster pluck, even in the face of an angry vampire. And even though she’s accused me of being incompetent and she wants to take away my light guardian, I can respect a woman with grit.

She tilts her head up, and she looks directly at Valstein. “Though we don’t know how, we already know the why. This officer’s aura was obviously damaged to get to Calista.”

Valstein shoots her that long withering look I know so well. It’s the look that should tell anyone they have the deductive skills of a mouse. “And what makes you think that?”

“Because it’s the only likely explanation. Like I’ve already said, Calista is the strongest light guardian we have. It would benefit any number of criminals to get rid of her.”

“And Miss Macy,” Valstein spits out every word, “is the only person who’s seen the murderer. You may not believe her life is worth taking over a light guardian’s,” though there’s the lightest laugh in his voice, it’s not a derogatory one – just exasperated, “trust me when I say that the extremely powerful vampire behind this doesn’t share your conclusion. Miss Macy is the target, not the light guardian. The light guardian was just in the vampire’s way.”

The medic blinks hard and immediately looks up to the Chief.

As for the Chief, he’s looking at me. And his expression?

It’s not one of anger; it’s not one of frustration, either. In other words, it’s not one I have the experience to understand.

“He’s worried about you, kid,” Calista points out. “If we weren’t currently in the race for our lives, I’d take a picture of his expression and put it up behind our desk to remind us the guy has a heart after all.”

I don’t reply to Calista. I’m way too taken in by the strength and passion of Valstein’s reaction.

But having said that, he still isn’t looking at me. He’s looking at everyone else and anywhere else in the room, just not me. Almost as if he’s worried that if he looks at me again, I’ll say that word – Ellery.

It sure as hell is playing in my mind. On loop. And more than anything, the moment that vampire bastard said it to me.

“If you’re… right, and the vampire who perpetrated this murder attacked Calista, then why didn’t he go straight for Madeleine?” the Chief asks.

“Because, due to the magical protections of this room, the only way the bastard,” Valstein spits the word bastard with all the violent passion he can manage, “could get in here was through the hole he left in Madeleine’s aura. And the only way to kill her through that hole—”

The Chief suddenly nods. “Was through her dreams. To get a true psychic lock on her through her dreams, he had to push Calista out of the way. Shit.” The Chief never usually swears, but now he spits the word out as he brings a hand up, locks it on his jaw, and breathes hard through the fingers. “This is not good. What you’re describing is a vampire with extremely refined psychic abilities.”

“Indeed. But we already knew that fact – he managed to control two body doubles, and he clearly has the excess magic and money to spend on growing them. So I please request you cease all talk of removing Calista from Miss Macy. Also,” Valstein switches his gaze to the technician, “please close the hole in her aura. Completely,” he adds.

I have to say, even though this chick was mean to me, I’m seriously warming to her. Despite Valstein’s tone, she doesn’t appear to be someone who’s easily bullied. Instead, she nods her head professionally. “It’s going to take some time, though. There’s no such thing as aura glue. There’ll be a crack for a while. A week or two, maybe, and there’s nothing I can do about that.”

“Then please do your best. Also outfit her with an aura blocker,” he commands.

The medic doesn’t even bother to make eye contact with him anymore. She looks at the Chief professionally. “We’ve only got one in the entire city. They’re extremely expensive, and if it were to go missing or get broken, we would be screwed,” she says, laying down all the facts clearly.

The Chief appears to wince, but when he darts his gaze over to Valstein, and the vampire is looking just as deadly serious as ever, the Chief forces a shrug. “You send me the paperwork, I’ll sign it, and I’ll take the full responsibility,” he says with the sigh of a man about to die.

Valstein nods, finally satisfied, then, for the first time, lets his gaze drift toward me. As I try to make eye contact, he jerks his eyes away as if they’ve been burnt.

“Just what the hell is happening here?” I think to Calista desperately.

“I don’t know. The only way to find out is to keep stirring the pot,” she says with some satisfaction.

I don’t agree. But this is Calista, and I have no option but to follow. I’m just thankful she’s alive. And I tell myself right then and there that I’m willing to do anything to keep her safe.

Chapter 9

Everyone comes and goes. Even Valstein. As a few more med techs come up into my sweet office room, Valstein slips out the door without so much as a goodbye.

As for the Chief, he’s bustling to and fro. The guy looks like a walking corpse. There aren’t just shadows under his eyes anymore – it looks like they’re pits down to Hell.

As for me, I’m holding up a heck of a lot better. The medics are using some seriously strong enchantments on me to not just bolster the crack in my aura, but to correct every little medical condition they can find, from a bad case of athlete’s foot to a crick in my neck I’ve had for the past week. Their reasoning is this – the stronger I am physically, the harder it will be for someone to crack through my aura or to make the existing crack any larger.

The morning is turning out to be pretty much a whitewash. By noon, I’m finally fit enough to mooch my way down to the office. Though I seriously want to get out to get some air, there’s no way I can leave the station. Plus, I have to wait for the aura blocker to arrive. I can’t say I’m too comfortable at the prospect of wearing one. You see, I have a nasty habit of losing and/or breaking expensive gear. And it sounds as if I so much as scratch the aura blocker, the Chief’s head will be on the chopping block. Like I said, though we have a difficult relationship, I secretly respect the guy. I wouldn’t want anyone else shouting at me for late paperwork and blustering in my face.

As I make my way through the police station, there’s a different vibe. People are also looking at me strangely.

“Hey, check it out, you’re a celebrity. All it took was to almost get me killed,” Calista chuckles.

“Firstly, that is so not funny. Secondly, I wouldn’t exactly call myself a celebrity. I’m almost an oddity in a sideshow.”

“Your words not mine. Still, soak up the attention while it lasts. I’m sure we’ll slip back into obscurity soon.”

“I thought you were sure we’d be hunted down by that vampire?” I think back to her, a cold shiver darting up my back.

Calista takes a second to reply. “That’s a good point. And even though I never thought I’d say this, this is no laughing matter. No time for jokes.”

“Damn, this really must be serious. But what exactly can we do? We’re stuck in here until the aura blocker arrives. The Chief explicitly told me not to do any work, and I am a….” I mooch down another set of stairs, through the crowd of officers in the hallway, and I sigh deeply.

“Stop trailing off, and for the love of God, stop looking for him. He’s no longer in the building. He’s probably desperately trying to track down that vampire before he can kill you,” Calista says.

I need no explanation about who she’s talking about.

Valstein.

It takes me a moment to snort, and even then, it’s kind of pathetic and my heart isn’t in it. “Valstein isn’t going to go out there and chivalrously try to save us.”

It’s Calista’s turn to snort, and needless to say, she does a much better job of it. “Oh, trust me, kid, he’s going to try everything he freaking can to keep you safe now.”

“But he hates me,” I try.

“Maybe. Maybe he’s not even sure anymore. But I can tell you he’ll be certain about one fact.”

“What?” I hazard, not sure if I want to know the answer. My heart suddenly does this funny beat that skips and bounces around my chest as if it just wants someone to pluck it up and put it where it truly belongs.

“That boy is going to be driven to find out how you knew her name. And before you uselessly ask who I’m talking about – Ellery,” Calista’s voice becomes a little uncontrollable on that word.

I stiffen. “Who do you think she could be? Why did he have such a… strong reaction to her?”

“No, my dear, sweet, Mads, he didn’t have a strong reaction to her – he had a strong reaction to you saying her name. And maybe it was because you said that name out of the blue, or maybe it was because you yourself said it.”

“There’s no difference,” I say.

She just snorts derisively. “Trust me when I say there’s a big one. Have you forgotten about the fact that Valstein had an exquisitely strong reaction to a single drop of your blood? Whether you want to admit this or not – whether he understands it or not – he’s being drawn toward you.”

“It’s not like that,” I protest, but every time I think back at Calista, my thoughts become weaker and weaker as if I’m fighting her well-thought-out argument by flailing my hands around.

As I make it down to another corridor, I realize there’s a hullabaloo. People aren’t just rushing around looking like they’re busy solving the most important murder that’s happened to Knight City in the past several years. No, I feel a thrill of fear as I catch people talking about a new murder.

I dart forward to get the attention of the closest uniformed officer. “What’s going on?”

“We’ve just heard,” the woman says, her tone kind of breathy and choppy, “there’s been a double murder. Mother and a kid were bled dry,” she says.

I make a truly disgusted face as my heart sinks. “Oh my God, that’s horrible. Where?”

“Criterion Street,” the woman says without having to pause to think – the details of this horrendous murder having obviously sunk right into her brain.

I balk.

“Oh shit,” Calista says.

“You look kinda pale, ma’am,” the officer points out as she peers at me.

I swallow. “I live on Criterion Street,” I say. “In the Matriarch Apartments,” I add.

If it’s possible, the woman’s features crumple even further, and she looks so pale, I swear she’s going to need a blood transfusion. “That’s where it happened. Second floor, apartment 22.”

I draw a stuttering gasp. So does Calista as she takes a shaky, broken wheeze of a breath. “That’s next-door. That’s JoAnn and Lilly next-door. Jesus Christ, some vampire bastard has killed that sweet family,” she says, getting angrier and angrier by the second.

I can’t say anything, and though it’s clear the officer wants to find out what’s going on with me, she’s called away.

I stand there in a sea of activity as I break down. “It has to be connected to me somehow. Maybe the vampire went to my house looking for me last night and JoAnn disturbed him, so he—”

“Don’t you become undone, Madeleine. Don’t you dare become undone. Don’t you dare let him affect you this much. That’s what he wants. The more emotionally turbulent you become, the easier it will be for him to crack your aura. So you push him the hell back, you understand?”

“It’s my fault. God, it’s my fault. JoAnn and Lilly. My God.”

I stagger over to the nearest wall, slamming a sweaty hand on it as I almost lose the ability to stand.

“It was not your freaking fault,” Calista spits back, and there’s so much anger behind her words, I can tell all she wants to do is find this vampire asshole and strangle him. “And you couldn’t have predicted this. No one could have predicted this.”

“I should have. I should’ve sent some officers to look at my place. I should’ve figured out that this guy is so desperate, he’ll do anything—” Tears start to slick down my cheeks, hot and fast.

“Madeleine,” Calista pleads with me. “You can’t fall apart. That’s what he wants. For the love of God, follow your own rules. You know this guy’s a noble. You know nobles feed off strong emotion. He’s the one who cracked your aura, so we know he’s already got a way in. And the stronger you feel, the easier it’s going to be for him to get to you. So just pull yourself together, kid.”

“How can you say that when he just murdered two innocent people to get to me? I should be taken outside and shot.”

“No, you should pull yourself the hell together, get out there, find this bastard, and stop him before he can do this to anyone else. When somebody hands you injustice, Madeleine Macy, you do not become weak. You don’t surrender. You go and you hand them justice. Doesn’t matter what it takes. Even if it takes you pulling yourself together right now, drying your eyes, and toughening up. I can promise you this – I’m just as broken as you are by this fact. But I can also promise you that I’m going to do everything I can to make this bloodsucker pay.”

I… I let myself listen to her words.

I usually have a pretty good ability to distance myself from the facts of a case. I usually don’t let them swamp me. But it’s never usually as personal as this. And I never usually have a hand in it. But now I….

Another pulse of guilt hits me, and it threatens to sweep me back under my self-loathing.

“Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare, Madeleine. This is not your fault. You could not see this coming. You were tired and tormented last night by the goddamn crack in your aura. One I couldn’t even feel. You weren’t in any state to somehow predict that this vampire asshole would murder your neighbors just to get to you. If there’s anyone who should be blamed for this, it’s me,” Calista says, and for the first time, I hear the guilt in her voice. It’s twisting through it, practically choking her.

And maybe it’s the only thing that can truly pull me out of my pit of self-despair. “You… you didn’t do anything wrong,” I say. “If it had occurred to you that this was a likelihood, you would have done something about it. You’ve never once broken the ethical code of the guardians. Except when you controlled my body, but that doesn’t count. My point is, Cal, if you had any inkling of this, you’d have done something. But you couldn’t predict this. All evidence pointed to the fact that vampire was tracking me and knew I’d gone to the police station. So, at a time like this, when resources are already thin, there would’ve been no point in protecting my apartment.”

There’s silence as no doubt Calista soaks in what I’ve just said. I let it soak in, too. It’s more effective than her words. Which I guess makes sense. You often learn the best lessons about yourself when you’re trying to help others.

There’s a long pause. “So you believe your own words now, kid?” Calista says.

I lift my head and stare dead eyed at the wall.

… I guess I have to. Because, at the end of the day, Calista is right. The very worst thing I can do is let this injustice derail me. That’s what the vampire asshole behind this wants.

And I will never submit to that bastard.

It’s a testament to just how fraught things are that barely anyone notices my mini break down in the corridor. Officers and detectives are running to and fro, and from their fear-filled expressions, it’s easy to appreciate that very few of them have ever faced a crime as violent and despicable as this. At least, not since the magical integration. Even if the Peace Treaty laws themselves, with their awful partial justice, aren’t always enough to stop crimes, theoretically, the vampires themselves should self-regulate. Those amongst the vampire clans who specifically voted for peace and have the most on the line should stop the other bloodsuckers from getting out of hand and jeopardizing the Treaty.

But for some reason, that didn’t work this time. I ball up a hand and strike it hard against the wall. “What the hell is going on, Calista? I mean it this time. Who is this vampire bastard who killed Lord Balstair? Why did he go after JoAnn and Lilly next door?” I think through a cloud of emotion. “And what exactly does it have to do with me? What was that dream last night? And who the hell is Ellery?”

Calista doesn’t even pause. “It’s time to use that famed brain of yours. But I don’t think we can come up with an answer to the last one. Not yet, anyway. I would suggest just finding Valstein, pinning him in a corner somewhere, and repeating that name until he snaps and tells us who it is, but I have a feeling he ain’t going to be real friendly if we do that. Plus, he, like us, is too distracted. Now we know his family was the Swing Vote, it’s easy to assume that he has even more on the line than we do.”

“I thought we had our lives on the line?”

“Sure, we do. But he has his immortality and the continued existence of the rest of his clan. If, somehow, this brutal murder threatens the Treaty, and the vampires decide to destroy it, who do you think will be the first family to pay?”

“The Banes.”

“Bingo. So even if you still don’t know how you feel about Valstein, until this is over, I think we can, and need, to trust him.”

“That’s all very good, but I don’t know if you’ve noticed, he’s not here. I imagine he’s out there investigating this murder. We’re stuck in here until that aura blocker arrives. And even then, I really doubt the Chief is going to let us leave the station. So what exactly can we do within these four walls?”

There is a very long, protracted pause. “Do you really want me to answer that?”

“Are you doubting my resolve? I don’t care what it takes. I don’t care what it costs. We are going to find that vampire bastard, and we’re going to drag him into the light. No one else is going to die because of me,” I add viciously.

“In that case, fancy a nap?” Calista says out of the blue.

“What? No. Calista, this is no time to be funny. I thought you said you were going to be serious.”

“Okay, okay, okay. No need to chew me out. This is me being serious. Trust me kid, this is me being as serious as I possibly can be. Because this is going to be some risky shit. And unless we play our cards carefully…. Don’t even make me go there. I don’t know what that vampire asshole wants, but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with you.”

I’m still standing there with my fist pressed against the wall, and now I let a deep frown etch across my lips. “You’re talking about going back and meeting him in my dreams, aren’t you?”

“I knew you weren’t a complete idiot,” she says. Though technically her tone is playful, there’s a real hard edge there. The hard edge, to be precise, of someone considering a suicidal mission.

I take a deep breath, clench my teeth, and really think this through. “Won’t he be ready for us next time?”

“You betcha he’ll be ready for us. But we’ll be ready for him. And I bet he doesn’t think we’re the kind of crazy chicks to come knocking at his door. I assume he’ll be prepping his next attack for tonight when we’re asleep. And though I have to admit that the medics did an okay job of trying to seal your aura shut, there’s still a gaping hole in it. Okay, that’s an overstatement – there’s a teensy crack. But this isn’t the kind of guy to be put off by that. I felt how strong he was last night,” she says, and though she is technically a light being and doesn’t have a body, she still shudders, “and no amount of protecting ourselves is going to help.”

I pause as I let what she says sink all the way in. “So this really is a suicidal mission, then? What exactly do you plan on achieving?”

“No, kid. It ain’t completely a suicidal mission. Because, like I said, we’ll be prepared. We know just how strong this guy is. We also know what he wants – you. So you use that against him. We may be smaller than him, and we may not be as strong, but guerrilla tactics, baby. We can use our speed against him.”

“But you just said you know what he wants, and it’s me. Aren’t you kind of missing the point that he wants to kill me?” I add exasperatedly.

There’s a protracted pause. One that makes the back of my neck itch.

“Calista?”

“Yeah, I’m not so sure about that, kid. You remember the rest of your dreams last night?”

“Sure, though – understandably – they’ve mostly been overshadowed by that god-awful nightmare.”

“You know how they were all about somebody hiding you from somebody else? Down crypts, in mausoleums, stuffed into coffins?”

I stand there, and I shiver. I don’t even bother to answer.

“Yeah, well I think the whole series of dreams are connected. It was foreshadowing what this guy wants to do. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want to kill you – because he could’ve done that last night when he injured me. I’m pretty sure he wanted to capture you. And now we know that, we can use it against him.”

“Wait, hold up. We do not know for a fact that that’s what he wants. That’s an assumption. The kind of crazy, dangerous assumption that – if we’re wrong, and we probably are – is going to get us killed.”

“Fortune favors the bold, kid.”

“And life favors those that don’t rush out and court death.”

“Hey, if there was another way, believe you me, I would tell you. This isn’t me trying to trick you into doing something stupid – though on any other day, I would get a kick out of that,” she admits. “Haven’t you forgotten that this time I’m on the line, too? You go down, I come down even harder. That bastard is going to focus everything he has on wrenching me from your aura and crushing me into light dust. So trust me when I say this, Mads – this is the only viable plan I think is going to work. And the longer we put it off, the less time we have to catch them off guard. And the more time that bastard has to kill again. I don’t know if his ultimate target is the peace between humans and vampires in Knight City, but I do know that regardless of what he really wants, if he keeps acting like this, peace is what he’s going to threaten. And even though I don’t 100% agree with the stalemate of politics we have here, it’s better than all-out war. And I won’t let some scummy, bloodsucking vamp threaten that. So, are you with me?”

I take a long time to answer. “Shit. All right, let’s do this,” I think as I turn hard on my foot and intend to head back up the stairs to my new office.

“Whoa, wait a second. Like I said, this time we have to be prepared. You just go for another nap, and that guy’s going to finish this game off. We need a couple of things before we put our hat back in the ring.”

“Like what?”

“Just follow me,” Calista says mysteriously.

I don’t pause. If this were an ordinary day, I would. Because if this were an ordinary day, Calista would just be having her fun.

But we’re on the same page. And I can tell she is just as eager to exact revenge on this vamp and stop him in his tracks as I am.

As I rush through the police station, covertly gathering the things that Calista will need for her spell, I still think of him – Valstein. The way he looked at me when I mentioned that name.

I’ve seen a lot of nobles in my time, but I have never seen a noble look like that. With so much raw passion and emotion blazing behind his eyes, it was like the passion was going to make him spontaneously combust.

Though I know I shouldn’t let it, the more I concentrate on that passion, the more it softens me. The more I’m inclined to believe that Calista’s right.

Maybe… maybe the Fifth Noble of the House of Bane didn’t kill Suzanne Somers after all.

Maybe it was the same vampire that’s now after me?

You probably think that’s a stretch, but how much of a stretch is it really?

I have never seen the photographic evidence of Suzanne  Somers’ death. I didn’t know she had stunning blond locks that framed her face. I didn’t know she wore the same white shirt and black pants that I usually do. Nor did I know that she usually tucked her badge into her belt like a beat cop. Yet I saw that. It couldn’t have come from Calista’s consciousness, because Calista had been busy fighting for her life at the time. Which means it had to have come from the vamp’s consciousness.

Which in turn means one of two things. Either he saw the photographic evidence of Suzanne’s murder, or he saw the murder itself.

I’m inclined to go with the last one. You may think it’s a leap, but it ain’t. You see, the image of Suzanne in that coffin with blood splattering her blond locks was too perfect. It wasn’t the kind of thing you could mentally re-create from a photo. No, it had the kind of precision and detail of somebody who had lingered over the real deal and specifically taken in every single memory, from the exact way her badge had sat askew in her belt, to the still but cold serenity of her closed eyes.

“You know, you may be onto something,” Calista suddenly mumbles. “I agree – the memory of Suzanne Somers in that coffin was way too precise. I’m proud of you, kid. Despite the circumstances, you’re still relying on that big old brain on your shoulders. It’s going to be the difference between us getting through this, and you being vampire fodder.”

“Firstly, that is not a great image. Secondly, what are you doing prying around my thoughts again? You know the light guardian ethical code. You should only read the thoughts I send your way.”

Calista snorts. And even though it is truly derisive, I smile – because it’s nice to have my light guardian back, even if she is a shit.

“When have I ever respected that code? Plus, it’s in my best interests to actively scan your thoughts – even though I can only access the surface once. It pre-warns me about your crazy plans. But let’s get back to what you just said. I totally think you’re on the money here, kid. Because it explains something else.”

I pause. Though I could easily just ask her, I’m on a roll here. It doesn’t take me that long to figure out where she’s headed, either. “Valstein,” I think back with a quick, snapped thought.

“Atta girl. Valstein. He only moved to Knight City two months ago, and even though there are plenty of other Banes in Knight City, he was the one who was picked to replace Lord Balstair. Unless of course, he wasn’t picked, and he put his hand up. Valstein doesn’t strike me as a man who needs to try particularly hard to find himself some entertainment,” she says, really cooing on the word entertainment, making it as rude as she possibly can. “So he wouldn’t have picked this job just for some kicks. Nor would the rest of the family have selected him for it, considering he’s new to the city.”

“Which means he put his hand up,” I conclude for her.

“Because this is personal,” we both think at the same time.

Calista practically claps. “That’s right, this is personal. I don’t think it’s any surprise to anyone that dear Valstein knows more about this case than he’s letting on. He’s a vampire, after all. But even for a vampire who knows he has to uphold the Treaty and satisfy the Vampire Council, he’s unusually driven to solve this case, don’t you agree?”

I nod.

I’m currently making my way through one of the basement levels of the police station to one of the storerooms where the magical enforcement squad keeps their hard-core enchantments.

There’s barely anyone around. Though I haven’t been to the office today, I know for a fact that all other cases would’ve been shut down until this double murder is solved.

So there’s no one to stop me as I reach the closest storeroom door, swipe my hand over it in a complicated fashion that works like the magical equivalent of a biometric lock, and wait for the door to open.

“Yeah, I agree. Valstein’s definitely got something invested in this case. He gets so damn angry whenever this investigation slips behind,” I comment as I walk in through the open storeroom door and make a beeline for the shelf right at the back.

“We need a gallon of elf water, three sacred scented candles, and a great big bag of Iselin chalk,” Calista commands. Then she goes right back to clucking her tongue. “But as for what you just pointed out, you’re wrong,” she concludes.

“Sorry?” Fortunately there are storage baskets in this room, kind of like at the grocery store, and I pluck one up as I fill it with everything Calista has ordered.

Once I’m done, I don’t even bother to check the items out as I saunter out of the storeroom, close the door, and head up to one of the file rooms upstairs.

“You’re wrong about Valstein. He doesn’t get angry every time this case slips behind – though he kind of does. The real passion behind his anger is always directed at you,” Calista says, really emphasizing the word you.

I make a suitable face as I check my way into the files room.

There’s no one here. Which is rare. Unlike ordinary police departments before the magical unification, there are some files that must only be accessed in the file room. They can’t be digitized, they can’t be remotely accessed, and they can only be removed with special permission. As I walk into the file room, I frown. “What exactly do you want from here? I’m happy enough nicking – or should I say, borrowing,” I emphasize the word borrowing, “stuff from the magical storeroom, because no one’s going to notice that it’s missing. But if we pilfer files from here, my ass is really going to be on the line. I mean, if I somehow magically survive the vampire attack.”

“Relax, relax. All I want is a name.”

“Whose name?”

“The name of the vampire behind this,” Calista says simply.

I ground to a stop in the middle of the room. It’s full of archive shelves. The kind that can move mechanically. Even though I like to think it’s pretty much impossible to freak me out – and short of vampire-induced nightmares, I have a pretty good handle over my subconscious fears – this place has always given me the heebie-jeebies. As a kid, I’d always have the irrational fear that I’d get crushed in a compactor.

“Because you are still an irrational kid,” Calista chuckles, and even though it’s a mean chuckle, at least she’s in a state to be having fun.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Get back to the bit about finding out who the vampire is. I’m sorry, but if we can just figure out who the culprit is right here and right now by looking through these files, what the hell is the point of trying to get ourselves killed in my dreams?”

“Because knowing a guy’s name is not the same as catching him, you doofus.”

“But if we give that name to the other enforcement officers—”

“Then our target is just going to go underground, wait around for a while, keep quiet until things die down, then come for you then. And while he goes to ground, I imagine he’s just going to keep murdering people for the heck of it. We need his name to capture him and protect us from the brunt of his psychic power. You see, when you’re in the dream and he tries to do whatever nasty things he has planned for you—”

“Great picture. Thanks for that,” I mutter under my breath.

“Stop interrupting. Stop wasting time. Head to the second compactor to your right. Right at the back. Anyhow, where was I? Ah, yes. When you’re in your dream and this vampire bastard is trying to do whatever the heck it is he wants to do to you, his name is your ticket out of there.”

“You mean like a safety word? I say it, and the dream stops.”

“Kind of. You see, I have something brazen planned,” she admits.

I make a face as I finally make it to the compactor she indicated. “Kind of?”

“Get down on one knee and look at the last row toward the bottom. You’re looking for any files relating to the Falanx.”

“So you’re sure it’s them?”

“Sure enough that I’m willing to risk your life,” she quips. “Now, don’t you want me to get back to that bit about your safety word? Yeah, like I said, I have something brazen planned.”

“Of course you do. Do you have any intention of sharing with me the details of this suicidal plan?”

“We can capture the vamp bastard in your head and port him directly to your office.”

I stop, my hand half reached out, ready to pluck a book from the shelf.

I pale and practically fall over. “I’m sorry?” I say, voice shaking up and down with genuine exasperation. “You’re planning on casting a consciousness-to-consciousness porting spell between me and some crazy vamp who wants to kill me? Have you forgotten the fact that there’s ample evidence that this guy has extremely sophisticated psychic skills?”

“‘Course not. That’s why I’m suggesting this. We’ll use the bastard’s spell and greed against him. Remember, I’m pretty damn certain this guy wants you alive.”

“But why? I’m just a pain in the butt to this bastard.”

“Like I said, I don’t know. Maybe he wants to hide you – that’s what those other dreams would suggest.”

A serious shiver traces down my back at that. I don’t like the sound of that one bit. It’s also, thankfully, implausible. “Hide me from who or what? Plus, before this case, this guy didn’t even know who I was. He still doesn’t really know who I am. All I did – the only interaction we’ve had with each other – is when I stared into his eyes as he was inhabiting his body double….” Though my voice starts off strong, second by second, it gets weaker.

Something strikes me.

“Starting to figure it out, aren’t you? There’s serious power in staring into someone’s gaze. Especially if this guy is as good at psychic magic as he appears to be. It also accounts for the fact that dear Valstein got so damn angry when you admitted to staring into the vamp’s eyes. I shouldn’t need to remind you, Mads, but some vampires can access people’s auras just by looking into their gaze. Which is, presumably, how this bastard put a crack in yours – a crack so fine, not even I knew it was there. But that’s not even the point. Not only can psychic vamps like this crack your aura, but they can also stare right down into the depths of your memory and unlock stuff you don’t even know is there.”

I’m not moving now. I’m as rigid and cold as a glacier. “Where exactly are you going with all this? Unlocking some memory from my mind? Cal, for the love of God, before I became a magical enforcement officer, I was a pizza chef. My family history has been thoroughly vetted. My magical powers – or at least, the few I have – have been tested and retested. I have nothing to hide.”

She doesn’t pause. “Not everything comes up on tests, kid. And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you’re right. But I’m the infinitely intelligent light guardian, and you’re just Madeleine Macy. So I’m going to go with my gut instinct on this one, kid. I think when you looked into the vamp’s eyes, he saw something, recognized something in you, and now he wants that something back.”

“This is crazy,” I say, but my voice is so weak, it barely makes it out of my throat.

“No, this is bold. Now, pluck up those books and start flicking through them. As fast as you can. We’re running out of time. Don’t bother to read – I’ll do that,” she commands.

I seriously feel weak now, as if someone’s taken an axe to the back of my knees.

It doesn’t stop me from complying with Calista’s order.

I do just as she says, and I flick through every single page of the books I’ve managed to find. I don’t look at a single word – I’m flicking too fast for that, anyway. I don’t miss a single page, and when I’m done, Calista lets out a satisfied snort. “Move onto the next. That one was full of juicy information. I think I’ve almost got it.”

I don’t ask Calista to share her reasoning. I don’t want to distract her, and frankly, I don’t want to distract myself.

You see, I’ve always had this running narrative in my head. I’ve shared it with you before, and you’re probably getting bored with me repeating it. I’m the one without raw magical power, but I’m the one with brains and grit, and that makes up for no natural talent.

But Calista’s crazy theory suggests something different, doesn’t it? It suggests that somewhere, deep down in my consciousness, I’m special, after all. The kind of special where vampires will do everything they can to get their hands on me.

Even though Calista should be paying attention to reading the pages I’m flicking through, she somehow finds the time to snort. “I don’t think Valstein necessarily knows what he’s doing. I think he suspects you’re valuable somehow – I certainly think his suspicions have only deepened since you mentioned Ellery. But I’d wager that only our culprit knows what you’re actually worth.”

“Calista, this makes no sense,” I think, and I’ve never thought at her with more exasperation.

“I know, right? Who could ever think that you, Madeleine Macy, would be the special one? You’re bog-standard ordinary, stupidly short, a little on the ugly side, and you’re a raging prude. But there you go – you can’t account for destiny.”

I know her snide remarks are designed to rile me up and distract me from the horrors of what she’s suggesting, so I don’t react to them.

I just keep flicking through the pages, a few beads of sweat slicking down my brow.

“Okay, all done. Books read, information processed, and culprit identified.”

I gulp quickly. “Seriously? You already know who the vampire is? All it took was the information in these books? If that was the case, why haven’t the other light guardians found the culprit yet?”

“Because they’re not as good as me,” Calista snorts derisively. “I’m insulted you would even suggest that they have the same level of skill as I do.”

I just roll my eyes. But there’s a quick tightness to the move. One laden with fear, too. A part of me doesn’t want to know this guy’s name. Because if I learn this guy’s name, all Calista’s other theories might turn out to be true, too.

“But to answer your question,” Calista transitions smoothly from her arrogant act to the competent officer, “the other light guardians don’t have access to as much information as I do. Nor,” her voice drops down pointedly, “have they read the vampire history book of Knight City. I took in every single detail of the entry on the Falanxs. I cross-referenced it with the stuff in these crime books, and I’m pretty certain I have our culprit.”

I blink. “Who is it?”

“I’m not going to tell you. I’m going to give you a test, instead,” Calista says as if she’s a teacher.

I let out a suitable huff. “Is this really the time, Cal?”

“Sure is. Now, pick up the book right by your knee and flip to page 342.”

When I was flipping through the books, I wasn’t paying the least bit of attention, and I wasn’t even staring at the pages, but now I have to as I lug up the hefty book by my knee and flick to the page she’s indicated.

As I turn through the pages, my stomach starts to twist, and there’s an undeniable fear to the move.

I want to pretend it’s nothing more than all the leftover adrenaline a girl like me would have from her breakneck fights.

But it’s more. Because when I get to page 340, my hands curl into fists.

“Do it, flip the page. I want to see how you’ll react—”

Wincing as if I expect to be hit with a baseball bat to the face, I flip the page.

And there’s a photo.

Of a vampire.

Young and handsome – which, when noble vamps are concerned, is a given – the guy has the keenest, sharpest eyes I’ve ever seen.

He has a long, shapely jaw and shoulderlength dark hair that only serves to frame his eyes all the more. In fact, every single one of his features frames those eyes until they almost suck me in.

My lips crack open of their own accord, and a guttural, violent scream rips right out of my body.

Calista doesn’t bother to ask me what the hell is going on. She just clucks her tongue. “Turns out I’m on the money, after all. I really am worth my paycheck, aren’t I? Even though, technically, as a light being, there’s not that much I can spend money on. Point is, damn I’m good.”

She’s completely ignoring how undone I become as I lurch away from the book, plant a hand hard on my chest, and try to encourage a breath to penetrate further than my throat.

I’m sweating, I’m shaking, and I’m a complete and utter mess.

All it took was a photo. A photo, ostensibly, of a man I’ve never met.

“But you have met him, kid. You met him last night when the bastard kept shoving his face next to yours and whispering in your ear.”

“But I… I didn’t see his face,” I try. “I never saw his face.” I’m speaking out loud now, because I’m just too undone to be able to use mental communication.

“Doesn’t matter. Remember, Mads, it was a dream – not the real world. In a dream, perspective doesn’t count. In the real world, you can’t see behind you. But in a dream, all that space is yours.”

I kind of understand what she’s saying, but I still want to push it away. Because, more than anything, I want to push away the fear that’s climbing up my back, harder and faster as if it wants to pluck my hindbrain out and follow up with breaking my spine into tiny bone shards.

“Pleasant image, that,” Calista chuckles. Then she drops the act. “Now pull yourself together. Close your eyes, let several deep breaths settle into your chest, and remind yourself of what this bastard did to get to you. He’s murdering people to get to you, Mads, and we are going to stop this bastard in his tracks.”

“But… how do you know it’s him?” It might sound like a stupid question considering the visceral, horrible reaction I just had to this guy, but it’s still one I need to ask as a competent police officer. Because my body reaction is one thing. Actual evidence that will hold up in court is another.

“Simple. Not only did the Falanx family have a historical war with Lord Balstair’s clan – but the Falanxs were viciously anti-Treaty, while Balstair’s clan were pro-Treaty. Reading between the lines of those crimes, it sounds as if the Falanxs were willing to seek revenge against any vampire family who supported the Treaty.”

“That’s kind of a motive, but we need more.”

She snorts. “Of course we need more. How many times do I need to point out to you that I’m the infinitely powerful light being and you’re just a grunt? Now, shut up and pay attention. Not only do we now have a motive that pits the Falanxs, not just against the Cantaxs, but against the Banes as well, but we also know for a fact that our vampire fiend has extremely developed psychic skills. If you’d just read the books you flipped through, you would appreciate that there are several mentions of a specific member of the Falanx clan who has more developed psychic skills than the rest of his brethren. He’s been suspected of a few crimes, too, but he’s never gone down for them. And his crimes – interestingly enough – ranged from body double creation,” she emphasizes that, “to dream infiltration. This guy is bang on the money.”

I hold my tongue as a twinge of nerves sails hard up my back.

“Now, before you ask it, I have even more information. You see, I’m never idle. I used the remote light guardian connection to check up on this guy’s recent movements. Though he was born in Knight City, he hasn’t been here for years. You see, he only moved back three weeks ago. Before that? He was up the coast in Fairchrist. And, most importantly, he was there when Suzanne Somers died.”

I freeze.

Though I want to push away the obvious, I can’t anymore.

It’s this guy, isn’t it? I bring up a hand, clench it into a fist, and squeeze my eyes closed. “Does he have a name?”

Calista doesn’t answer immediately. “You just take a deep breath, because this name will have an effect on you. This bastard infiltrated your aura and your consciousness. So you hold onto yourself. You got that, kid? You ready?”

I close my eyes, trap a breath deep in my chest, and nod.

“Ventara,” she finally says.

At first, I don’t have a reaction. And just as I wonder if Calista has gotten ahead of herself and this isn’t the guy after all, I feel something. This snaking, biting pressure that starts at the base of my feet, wends around my legs, and rides all the way up my body until it slams into the center of my head. It feels like being attacked by a python.

I rock back, almost letting another gasping scream belt from my throat.

As a magical enforcement officer, I’ve been in some pretty scary situations, but most of the time, I’ve been able to control my emotions – even around vampires.

But I can’t control this. I slam a hand over my mouth and rock back and forth on my knees, so violently, my hip bangs against the shelf beside me and several books tumble out.

“You hold yourself together, kid. You understand that? Hold yourself together,” Calista says as loudly and forcefully as she can. “This guy has obviously put some kind of booby-trap in your head. He’s made it so the mere mention of his name and the picture of his face undermine you completely. He wants to use this in your next dream, kid. He wants to use this to control you. You know the rules around vampires, Madeleine. Especially nobles. The stronger you feel, the easier it is for them to attack.”

Out of all of the things she could possibly say, it’s the last one that finally has an effect on me. It sees me wrench my hand off my mouth, stiffen my arms by my sides, and curl my hands into tight, tight fists.

I don’t care as the stubs of my nails cut my palms and a trickle of blood escapes over my skin.

I just force all my control back into my body.

Because this is my body. My head, too. My thoughts. And, most importantly, my emotions.

“Atta girl, kid. You can do this. You force that vampire’s booby-trap back.”

I don’t know how long it takes. I don’t care, either. I do this properly. Second by second, I remind myself of my own strength. I squeeze my glutes, pay attention to my hamstrings, force my fingers to curl in even tighter. I clench my jaw and settle my attention in every single one of my hard enameled teeth.

It reminds me that I can chew through anything, punch through any opposition, and kick my way out of any trouble.

But, more than anything, I can control myself.

Calista whistles, and I can even hear her clapping as if she has real hands. “You’re doing it. You’re doing it. You’re forcing back that booby-trap. Just a little longer.”

I settle my attention in my frontal lobe, really boring my focus in like the equivalent of a surgeon’s scalpel.

I can feel these twisting little pockets of fear. Almost as if there’s some kind of parasite that Ventara’s left in my brain.

I just clench my teeth all the harder and force them back.

I start to control my heart, my breathing, my metabolism. I settle everything in the stillness I know is the one force that truly undermines vampires.

And I let out a sigh

“That’s it, you did it!” Calista hoots. “You diffused that booby-trap better than I could. Which means we’re finally ready. We are going to capture this asshole and make him regret ever messing with us.”

I don’t exactly jump to my feet, gather up my supplies, and rush out of the room. No, I stagger to my feet. Because that was hard.

“Hey, catch your breath. And then let’s get back into the fray.”

I place a hand on my head, breathe, turn, pick up my supplies, and walk out of there.

Because Calista is right. It’s time to end this.

Chapter 10

I’ve got a heck of a sinking feeling as I climb the stairs to my new office/room.

It’s the kind of sinking feeling that’s engineered to tell you to turn the hell back and save yourself while you still can.

But I don’t have that option anymore.

I don’t even have to be all that coy as I carry my magical basket of supplies through the station – no one is paying the slightest bit of attention to me.

They’re all running around like headless chickens as they deal with the double murder.

Just thinking of it makes me clench my teeth and strengthen my resolve.

There’s no damn way I’m going to let Ventara do any more damage.

“Alright, kid – I am pumped. We’re going to do this, catch that slippery bastard, put him behind bars, and be back on the street by this arvo.”

“I think I’ll need a holiday, actually,” I comment back as we reach my door.

I sigh, shove out a hand, hooking my basket under my arm, and open the door. All it takes is my palm and fingers settling over the handle for a sense of true resolve to settle into my gut. The kind of resolve a good cop like me should have, even in the face of possible demise.

“You know, this room really would be the best room/office thing,” Calista says out of the blue as the door swings open and I walk inside. “It’s got so much gravitas. Puts you in the right kick-ass frame of mind just walking in the door.”

I nod and close the door behind me. That’s when I dart my head up and see there’s a heavy duty box on my desk. “I definitely didn’t leave that there,” I say as I make my way over to it.

“That, kid, would be your aura blocker. The Chief must have left it here and gotten back to work.”

I approach it warily, placing my basket down by the couch. I reach the desk, settle one hand on the edge of the wood, sigh, then open the box.

There’s a necklace inside. Large, heavy, and with a big crystal set in a gold and black choker.

I have an immediate reaction to it.

Because even though I’ve never seen an aura blocker in my life, I’ve seen this necklace.

I jerk back from the desk, slam my hands over my mouth, and stifle a surprised breath. “That’s the damn necklace from my dream. What the hell is going on?”

“Whoa, steady, Mads. I get it – you saw this exact necklace in your dream. But calm down and take a deep breath.”

“How the hell is that going to help? Just like Suzanne Somers, I’ve never seen this necklace before, and yet it was in my dream. What the hell is going on?”

“Hey, no point in freaking out – not when we’re so close to the end. You’re a big girl, Mads, and you knew this shit would get complicated. Well, it’s just coming good on that promise and getting real damn complicated.”

“That’s not an explanation!”

“Okay, you want an explanation? I don’t have one. Either the scum-sucking Ventara knew that the station would outfit you with one of these, and he put it in your dream to taunt you – to try to make you think even the aura blocker won’t be able to help you. Or… I don’t know, maybe you have a real visceral body memory of this necklace, even though you’ve never seen it before – the same reaction you had to Ellery.”

“I don’t like either of those explanations,” I say meekly.

“Yeah, I figured as much. But, kid – we just don’t have the time anymore. Read the instructions and put the aura blocker on.”

I want to run the hell away, but I know there’s no place to run anymore. So, with the kind of deep breaths a pearl diver would take, I grab up the note the Chief left beside the box and read it. It’s a quick explanation that he didn’t have the time to track me down and that I have to put this necklace on the second I get back to my office.

I skim over the multiple insults he’s written, and head straight to the instructions.

There’s not much to it. All I have to do is – like any ordinary necklace – put the damn thing on my neck. Though, as this is a choker, I’ll have to screw it on.

I take a few more seconds to stare at the choker warily, wondering how the heck it managed to get into my dreams before I clapped eyes on it.

Then I finally do it. With a fair amount of ceremony, as if I’m crowning myself as a queen, I pluck up the necklace, unscrew it, and put it on.

I don’t need to find a mirror to help me. Which is weird, because I’m usually seriously uncoordinated whenever I have to put on a necklace.

This time, I need no help. Because even I can admit to myself that this feels natural. Creepily natural. As if – unbeknownst to me – my hands have been practicing putting on this necklace my whole life.

As soon as it’s on, I take a step back from my desk and let my hands drop to my sides.

… I feel….

“Different. Damn, Mads – it’s like this necklace was built specifically for you. I’ve been around a long time – but I’ve never felt something like this.”

I frown. “I… admit that it feels familiar. But it’s not like my body is pulsing and tingling with magical recognition or anything.”

Calista snorts so loudly, she almost blows out my ear drums, and I jerk my head hard to the side.

“Kid,” Calista’s voice blasts away like a foghorn at close range, “I keep a constant lock on your body, and I can feel a deep reaction, even if you can’t. Yeah, you may not be falling over as magical blasts of power ricochet through your body, or anything. But there is a deep reaction going on here. One I’ve never felt. It’s like this necklace was built for you. Which raises the question of why, when, how, and why you’re only getting it now. You don’t think Valstein specifically set you up to get this necklace, right? No, wait, that would mean he knew about your cracked aura and did nothing – and judging by how badly he reacted, that makes no sense. But maybe he just used this as a chance to reunite you with this necklace early. Maybe he was always planning—”

“Hey, Cal, we don’t know anything. And honestly, all these questions are doing my head in. Now… shouldn’t we….”

“Throw all caution to the wind and invite Ventara in? Damn straight. Now, do as I say, kid – it’s time to do some spell work.”

I’m not the best at spell work, but Calista more than makes up for my lack of skills. I follow her orders to a T as she tells me to draw a giant circle around the couch and set up the candles.

She even tells me to open all the windows. Before I can wonder if she’s trying to invite in vampire bats, she snarls it’s to do with the gargoyles. Apparently, they’ll be better able to protect me with the windows open.

I don’t question. Though I do shiver against the fiendish draft.

When everything’s done, I stand in front of the couch, stomach sinking at a million knots and hour. I don’t think I’ve ever felt fear like this. It’s proving to me that I’m not nearly as tough as I once thought.

“Nope, Mads, you’re tougher. And it’s natural to feel fear before a spell like this.”

“You mean a spell that has no damn chance of working and, even if I survive, will see me sacked?”

“Na – a spell that’s going to bring you up-close-and-personal not just with a vicious vampire who’s hunting you down, but some big-ass secret stuck in your subconscious. Now, repeat after me. Once you go to sleep and invite Ventara in, you need to keep your wits about you. It’s going to feel real, kid – as real as life itself. But the more you let yourself believe that, the less control you’ll have over the dream. You need to keep reminding yourself that the real you is safe in the station on your couch, got it?”

I nod as I take a heck of a deep breath and finally sit on the couch. With a wince, I hook my legs up and lie down.

I don’t dare close my eyes yet. I focus on one of the three candles I’ve placed at equal distances around the circle. I can’t see the other two candles, but I focus on the softly flickering flame of the one right in front of me. Despite the veritable gale whipping through the open windows, the candle steadfastly won’t go out.

“Okay, now, you’re going to need to hold onto two things in that dream – Ventara’s name and the aura blocker.”

“Why the aura blocker?”

“Because it’s your ace in the hole.”

“I don’t get it, though,” I say as I try to get comfortable, though a part of me questions just how comfortable I should bother to make myself considering I’m about to get in a fight for my life. “I thought that aura blocker was meant to block anything from accessing my aura, and therefore, you know, stopping Ventara from accessing me?”

“Yeah and no. No, because you’re specifically going to let him in. And yeah, because once you’ve captured that bastard, you’re going to use the aura blocker to trap him in your magical aura as you wake. That’ll force him to transport here through your consciousness. Then the magical circle will capture him, and viola – this case will be done and dusted.”

I don’t share her enthusiasm. But one thing is for sure – I’m in way over my head. And the only way to get out is to go further in….

I close my eyes.

I calm my mind, and I let myself drift off to sleep.

This will either be the smartest thing I’ll do or the last thing I’ll ever do.

Chapter 11

Once upon a time, I liked my dreams. Because once upon a time, they were friendly and relaxing.

This one is anything but.

It starts with me in a graveyard. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m no stranger to the place of the dead. I’m a magical enforcement officer, for god’s sake – I’ve been to more graveyards than I could shake a stick at.

This one is different.

This is dark and cold, silent and still.

I’m standing on a grassy mound that looks down on a bed of crypts and gravestones. There’s a sliver of a silvery moon visible through a break in the dark, looming clouds above. It sends its slices of light skimming over the gravestones and lighting up the corners of the shadowy crypts.

There isn’t a sound – no hooting owls, no rustling leaves, no nothing.

But then I hear the scurrying.

The sound of little paws scratching over stone.

I dart my head to the side and see movement down the hill.

I hesitate.

I… this is a dream, I remind myself. I can’t just let the narrative pull me along.

At the same time, I can’t afford to stand still. I came here for a reason.

So I push forward down the hill.

I’m still in the same clothes the real me is wearing on the couch. Sturdy, albeit ripped trousers, a shirt, and strong shoes.

As for the necklace, as I draw up a hand and feel for it, my fingers slide over the crystal.

As soon as the tips of my nails shift across it, I stop.

The dream… almost dissolves around me.

But at the last moment, I jerk my hand back.

I stand there and blink as I appreciate the power of the aura blocker. Calista is right – it’s my ace in the hole. All I have to do is remember it’s there and keep a hand free to grab it when I need to.

Settling my mind into those facts, I push down the hill.

As soon as I reach the bottom of the grassy knoll, I feel the wind. It slams into me instantly, pulling at my shirt and sending my hair scattering around my face. I have a moment as I bring up a hand and check the length. It’s still my regulation short bob, and not the long glossy hair of Ellery.

As soon as I think that name, I swear the dream reacts to it.

That scratching of claws I heard before becomes all the louder.

I jerk my head to the side and see a crypt to my left.

It’s… realer than anything else in the dream. From the contrast to the depth of view, to the fact it looks solid enough to hold back a storm.

The crypt has a closed metal gate. And just beyond that metal gate is a rat.

Though the gate has little holes in the woven metal, they’re way too small for the rat to push through. And there’s no gap under the gate at the bottom.

In other words, the little guy is trapped.

He wants to get out, though. He’s scratching at the metal with all his might.

I approach warily, get down on one knee, rest an arm on my leg, and narrow my eyes at him.

I ready a wise crack – because even if this is a dream, I have a reputation to upkeep. I’m the smartest but lippiest detective in all of Knight City.

But I stop. Because that’s when I see the rat’s eyes.

They’re blood red like a vampire’s.

And then it hits me – this is Ventara. Back in the Soul Club, I kept looking for the rats. Now I realize the rats were body doubles.

Which means this asshole has the mental capacity to astral travel to more than one mind at once.

“Clever bastard,” I mutter.

The rat stops scratching. Slowly, he lets his paws press into the ground, and he presses his face as close to the gate as he can.

I stare at him.

I let all my emotion swell within me. All the anger at what this asshole’s done.

I have no intention of letting him use that emotion against me. No. I just let it remind me what’s on the line.

Then I stand.

The rat starts scratching at the gate again.

“Yeah, yeah – I get it. You want in.” I reach a hand forward and settle it on the handle that will let me open the crypt door.

I pause.

I know that the second I open this door – which is the dream-symbol equivalent of my aura – the game is going to start.

I breathe.

I think of Lord Balstair, Knight City, my neighbors, even Valstein.

And I do it.

I open the crypt door.

It creaks, sounding like old bones.

The rat shifts back, and in a snap, he changes.

I see his hands first, then his eyes, then finally his mouth.

I barrel into him, knowing speed is the only goddamn thing I have right now.

It works, and just before Ventara can form in full, I lock an arm around his middle and throw him backward.

Though the crypt is pitch black, I feel a set of stairs beneath me, and as I launch into Ventara, I push him down them.

Air slices past my cheeks as I tumble down and strike Ventara’s chest. His arms wrap around me, but his grip is weakened as he strikes his back and tumbles down the stairs.

I make sure I’m on top of him and the slippery bastard can’t flip me as we fall down the stairs. Then, with a thump, we land in the crypt.

It’s the same crypt from my dream this morning. The reason I know that is twofold. Even though I can only see a little, I can see enough to note the honking great stone and gold coffin on a plinth in the middle. The other reason I know without a shadow of a doubt that this is the right place, is because the memory of it is seared into my brain.

It’s more than that. It’s not just the memory – it… reaches down and seems to unlock something deeper.

I don’t have the time to assess that thought, because as soon as Ventara thumps against the floor, he reacts.

I should have the advantage – this is my dream – but there’s something so quick and primal and focused about the way he moves that it undermines my memory that I’m ultimately in control.

It sees me jerk back as he springs to his feet and comes at me.

I go to clutch a hand around my necklace. But I don’t get that opportunity.

He slams into me, somehow closing the distance between us in a time even an ordinary vampire wouldn’t be able to match.

He knocks the breath right out of me, and I feel pain pulse up through my ribs.

I know this is a dream. I know this is a dream, dammit. But no matter how much I continue to repeat that to myself, it doesn’t matter. Because the pain powering through my body undermines me in a way nothing else can. It accesses that primal part of my brain that tells me this is no time to be thinking. This is time to be acting. Fleeing, fighting, doing anything I can to save my life.

And with the desperation, I feed him.

Ventara’s pupils couldn’t be wider as he wraps his arms all the way around my middle, now holding me with a truly crushing grip. I feel his fingers snag on my side as he searches out my ribs. Don’t ask me how he knows exactly where to press, but he does, and with the stiffest, cruelest smile marching across his lips, he jams his fingers into my injury with all his might.

I scream. My head jerks back, my neck elongates, and my throat presses close to his mouth.

That’s when I feel a puff of his hard, practically burning breath against my neck.

He laughs, too. The lowest, nastiest laugh I’ve ever heard. “Home again, home again, Ellery. You came to me. Came to me. And I’ll help you, my dear, sweet, Ellery. I’ll help you unlock your memories. Every last one. I’ll give you anything you want, dear, sweet Ellery, but first, it’s time to lock you away so he can’t find you.”

“You bastard,” I spit as I try to buck against him and throw him off. There’s nothing I can damn well do. And the more I try to fight, the more he locks his grip against my ribs until pulses of the most incredible, agonizing pain jolts so hard up my side, I start to see stars.

He’s laughing. Right there in front of my face. And with his chest pressed close against mine, I can feel every time he takes a breath.

I have to get out of here. Have to… get out of here. Because this is just a dream. I… need to touch my necklace. The aura blocker. It’s the only thing that can end this now.

But just as I go to shift my arm, he gets there first, locking both his hands on my shoulders. Then he looks right into my eyes, smiles, and headbutts me. I feel his head slam against mine, and an explosion of sparks goes off behind my eyes.

Darkness begins to limit my vision, even though everything I know about dreams tells me that’s impossible. You can’t fall unconscious when you’re already unconscious.

But that’s when I feel Ventara press close to my cheek, his breath pressing against my neck. “But, dear, sweet Ellery, this isn’t a dream anymore.”

With that, the stars that had infiltrated my gaze spread, and I fall unconscious.

I don’t know how long it takes me to wake, but I do.

And as I rouse, it’s to the feel of new clothes. They’re soft, smooth. I glance down to see a white satin dress touched with lace.

Then I hear his footsteps, his hard breath as he laughs.

I can’t move, just my head, nothing else. I jerk it to the side, searching for him through the darkness.

There he is, right by the coffin, leaning against it, his arms crossed, his head tilted to the side. “Now you look the part, dear, sweet Ellery.” His voice is so damn different when he says that name. It’s like it alone is enough to transport his broken, twisted mind to a new place. But the serenity that name gives him doesn’t last, and I watch meekly as his white, whip-like lips snap back over his teeth.

I hear a creaking, a sound like a tree growing right out of the earth on fast-forward.

Then I catch sight of his teeth. His canines are growing, piercing the flesh of his gums, catching the light of the flickering candles.

The breath catches in my chest one final time as I see his pupils turn red.

With inhuman speed, he’s upon me. He wraps a hand around my ankle as I try to kick him off, scrounging strength from somewhere. But the strength does nothing. He grabs both my ankles in a single hand, his fingers like sticks of iron as they close hard around my skin.

I scream. It echoes off the close walls of the crypt, but that’s it.

Because there’s no one to save me now.

He starts to drag me backward. I try to clutch hold of the floor, my nails snagging and breaking against the cracks in the worn stones.

“Time to hide you away, Ellery. So he’ll never find you again. Time to trap you in the dark. But don’t worry, I’ll be here to keep you company,” he purrs.

I’m sick and nauseous and vibrating with fear. I try to kick his hands, but my movements have all the force and effect of someone chucking a piece of paper at a tank.

As he drags me backward across the floor, I finally see it out of the corner of my eye. The coffin. He stops right beside it, leans up, locks a hand on the half open lid, and pushes it off. The lid slams down close to my face, and the floor vibrates.

All thought of the fact this is a dream has disappeared from my mind. Ever since I woke up after falling unconscious, there’s no way I can trick myself into thinking this is nothing more than a nightmare again. Because it has become just as real, just as violent, just as scary as reality.

“Ellery, Ellery, Ellery – how long have we been looking for you? But now we’ve found you, the fun can begin.”

He leans down with a snap, wraps an arm underneath my throat, and wrenches me to my feet.

I choke and splutter for breath, so he just pushes all the harder until I see more stars spread across my vision.

Again he presses his cheek close to mine. “There’s no need to be frightened, Ellery. A destiny brighter than any other awaits you. Now embrace it with both arms.”

He pushes me toward the crypt. Keeping one arm locked under my chin, he uses his other arm to pin my arms open.

I jerk my gaze down to see her – the serene but still dead body of Suzanne Somers. From her perfect hair to her cold, dead face.

I shriek, buck against him, do everything I can, but it doesn’t matter.

“Turns out it was a mistake to have her killed,” he says as he reaches in and pushes my face close to Suzanne’s. “Turns out we need something from her after all. But that’s where you will come in, Ellery. That’s where you can fix everything. Now sleep until we need you.” He pushes me in.

There’s nothing I can do – nothing I can do. I fall face-first against Suzanne’s dead body.

I shriek louder than I ever have before. The kind of shriek that should break your soul in half.

I go to scramble, to push myself out of the coffin, but Ventara is too quick. As I lock a white knuckled, sweat slicked, desperate hand on the side of the coffin, he rests the lid on top, and it slams against my fingers.

I scream, but I don’t jerk back.

My fingers feel crushed, the bone pulverized under the weight of that heavy lid, pressed down with all the force of a noble vampire’s strength.

“Dear, sweet Ellery, no need to hurt yourself. Pull your hand back. I’ll nurse it better later.”

I don’t jerk my hand back, even though with every second as he presses the lid against it I’m sure it’ll slice my fingers clean off.

I can’t go down to this bastard.

I can’t die here.

Because this is….

It’s a… dream. It’s still a dream.

As if in reaction to that thought, he seems to body slam the lid, and so much pain shoots through my hand that I scream with all my vocal power.

The pain brings me back to the here and now, brings me back to this twisted reality that can’t possibly be a nightmare. Too real. Too painful.

… But it is a dream, something arises in my unconscious and screams in my mind.

It’s a dream, and you have to get out. If he closes that lid, you’re dead.

Or as good as dead.

“Get your little fingers out of the way,” he says, voice singsong. Then it drops right down low and becomes as brutal as the man himself, “Submit.”

Submit.

That word does something to me. Wakes something up from deep inside.

The memory of how this whole mess began. Sitting there on that Regency chair in front of Valstein’s desk. Watching his perfect body outlined by the moonlight.

I can almost see it now. The more I concentrate on it, the hazier things get around me.

“Submit,” Ventara suddenly screams as if he knows what I’m doing. He also shoves into the lid with all his might.

I know for a fact I’ll never feel pain like this again. Because this pain goes beyond anything your body can produce. This is the pain not of my fingers being broken, but of my mind being crushed.

I am not here. No matter how real this place feels, I am still back in the police station.

Calista’s still waiting for me. The spell is still in place. And, more than anything?

I still have my aura blocker on.

That bastard Ventara has put me in a high-necked dress that hides it, but if I concentrate, I can feel it against my skin. That unique heaviness – that natural fit.

The aura blocker.

I keep my hand locked against the side of the coffin, blocking the lid from closing completely. I don’t care that my fingers are pulverized, dripping with blood, seconds from being chopped off. With my free hand, I grab the top of my dress, and I rip it open.

The sound of tearing fabric fills the air.

Ventara has just enough time to breathe. The vicious, violent breath of a man who knows he has seconds to win.

I feel him body slam the lid. All his force. More than enough to chop the rest of my fingers clean off. But just as he does, I use every ounce of training I’ve ever scrounged, and I slam my hand over the blocker.

The lid closes. I start to shut down. This isn’t sleep. This isn’t mere unconsciousness. This is like hibernation. This is like being locked in a dark crypt until, one day, your master comes to fetch you.

But it doesn’t last. Because just at the last moment, as the lid slams closed, the force of the aura blocker spreads out. All it takes is a single scrap of its light to filter through the lid, and the dream starts to crack.

All around me. A vision that had once seemed so real it would kill me starts to shift into nothing more than trapped whirls of black smoke.

I feel myself take a breath. It’s not my dream body, but my real body.

More than anything, I hear him screaming. Ventara. He sounds like a trapped animal. I pick up the scrabbling of claws, and they couldn’t sound more desperate.

I never let my grip fall from the aura blocker. In fact, I tighten my fingers around it as hard as they’ll go.

I can feel it now – the couch beneath me. The rushing breeze making it in through the open windows. The light, the movement. I concentrate on it. Just a little longer.

I sink everything I have into that aura blocker until I hear a final crack.

I open my eyes.

I’m back. But I’m not the only one who’s back.

Instantly, I feel weight pressing down on my chest. I blink my bleary eyes in time to see a rat. It’s lying on its side, as if it’s dead.

But then it twitches, starts to move. I watch it blink its eyes open. I watch it turn its head toward me. Then I watch its eyes turn red.

“You did it. Mads, you did it. You—” Calista begins, but she stops. “Jesus Christ, Ventara isn’t down. God, somehow he managed to retain consciousness through the spell. Madeleine, for the love of God, get out of the magical ring, now.”

I’ve never heard Calista scream so desperately. So loudly. With so much force.

I try to shove the rat off, but just as my hand pushes against it, it starts to change, growing right there beneath my fingertips. I see a hand, feel an arm, hear teeth growing out of gums.

I try to shove off the couch, fall down to one knee, and reach a hand toward the edge of the circle.

“Madeleine, move. I’m begging you, run,” Calista shrieks.

I stagger to my feet, reach a hand out, use the last of my strength to push toward the edge of the circle.

It’s just there. It’s just—

I don’t reach it. I feel an arm wrap around my throat.

I hear a grunt. Pure anger. The anger of someone who was so close to getting exactly what they wanted. The anger of someone who’s just about to break.

“It would’ve been easier the other way,” Ventara spits in my ear, then I feel his mouth lock against my neck. His teeth push through my skin.

My eyes bulge wide.

But he doesn’t get the time to suck.

There’s a grunt from my side. It comes from outside the circle. I can’t turn my neck and see. I can’t move at all. The second a vampire has his teeth in you, is the second a fragile human body will lose all its control.

But that doesn’t matter.

Something slams into Ventara’s side just before he can taste my blood.

He’s wrenched from around me. At the same time, I feel someone’s hand slam against my back and push me. It’s all the momentum I need to finally exit the circle. I fall down onto one knee and slam onto my front, all strength gone.

Valstein.

I shift over my shoulder just in time to see him lock a hand on Ventara’s collar, pull the man up, then slam him against the floor.

Ventara tries to fight. His eyes are so red it’s clear he’s attempting to access the full power of his noble blood.

It doesn’t matter. With another pitching, bellowing scream, Valstein does it again – wrenching Ventara up, only to slam him back down as hard as he possibly can.

The floor is shaking, and the light fittings above are swaying like they’re caught in a storm.

I catch sight of Valstein’s eyes. They’re blood red. He is using his full force. And Ventara may be a lot of things, but he clearly doesn’t have the power to fight the Fifth Noble of the House of Bane.

With one more splitting shout, Valstein wrenches Ventara’s body up and slams it down.

Ventara’s body twitches, and his eyes roll into the back of his head.

I’m still on the floor, head tilted to the side, sweaty hair stuck across my brow, chest rocking back-and-forth as I try to breathe.

But I won’t close my eyes. Not for a single second.

Instead, I make eye contact with Valstein. He’s still down on one knee, hand locked around Ventara’s now torn collar.

I look right into Valstein’s pure red eyes, and he stares back.

I don’t flinch. Don’t look away. Staring into the power and greed of a vampire’s gaze – especially one as powerful as Valstein – should terrify even me.

But as I stare at Valstein, I go beyond terror to something else.

Finally he stands. He never breaks eye contact with me, never even bothers to glance down at Ventara to check the guy’s still down and out. Probably because that’s obvious. Instead, Valstein neatens his shirt with one directed pat, walks out of the magical circle, and stops above me.

I stare up at him.

I don’t know what kind of look is playing in his eyes. I don’t know if it’s further violence – this time directed at me. I don’t know if it’s greed at the puncture wound in my neck and the blood dripping down and staining my collar.

But part of me tells me something different altogether.

It’s the anger of a man who almost lost somebody he cherishes.

I have absolutely no time to try to consider that fact.

Showing his vampire speed, Valstein gets down, loops an arm around my middle, and helps me stand.

He stares right into my eyes, and I watch as, muscle by muscle, his whole face stiffens. “You fool,” he spits, his voice so dark, I almost can’t pick it up.

I’m still struggling for air, and I’m not sure if it’s weariness from the fight, or the fact I’m now pressed against Valstein’s distracting chest, staring into his seriously distracting gaze.

“Why did you do that?” Valstein spits. “Why did you put your life on the line?”

I’m still a little woozy. But as time catches up with me, I realize it’s over. Ventara has been captured, and technically I’m safe. If you could call being pressed against Valstein’s chest as I stare into his powerful gaze safe.

“It’s a kind of safe,” Calista suddenly comments, even though she’s been quiet for a while now. “You gotta admit, being locked in this guy’s arms sure is nice considering the shit you just went through.”

I don’t dare answer her. I can’t spare the attention. I swallow. “I couldn’t let him kill again. That bastard was going to do anything to get to me,” I answer Valstein.

“So your solution was to go and find him? You could have gotten yourself killed, Madeleine.” There is so much force behind his words, spite, too. But the spite isn’t directed at me.

I take a hard breath, one that pushes my chest distractingly close to his. But now, unfortunately, is no time for intimate details. “I think he didn’t want to kill me. Just capture me,” I say. Then I open my mouth to tell him about the coffin. The one with Suzanne Somers in it.

“No, kid. Stop right there. Do not tell him,” Calista snaps.

“Why not?”

“Because it’s clear as hell that even though Valstein is technically a good guy, he’s keeping stuff from us. And we’re not going to volunteer our information until he starts volunteering his.”

I’m honestly too tired to fight Calista. Instead, I concentrate on Valstein’s expression as it crumples. “What do you mean he wanted to capture you? Tell me the contents of your dream, now,” he demands. There is such power behind that demand. But it’s not the force of a greedy noble. No, it comes purely from emotion. Some pure emotion that, if I understood what it was, would unlock every secret Valstein has.

Though I want to go through with what Calista said, and keep the contents of my dream to myself, at the same time, there is no way I can fight Valstein’s gaze.

… I want to open up to him, anyway. Somewhere deep inside me, something tells me this is the right thing to do. That if I just tell him what I found out now, it will make the rest of this journey easier.

“Why do you expect there’ll be more to this journey? We have the culprit,” Calista mutters in my head. Then she stops herself. “Who am I kidding? Of course there’ll be more. This is only the beginning. Now Ventara’s in custody, we have to question him, find out if he was working with anyone else, and, more than anything, get to the bottom of this Ellery mystery. Plus, we need to find Suzanne Somers’ killer.”

It’s a testament to how irritating and intrusive Calista’s voice is that I can pay attention to her even when I’m in the most distracting position of my life, pressed against Valstein, staring into his gaze. “Hold on, I thought you said Ventara definitely killed Suzanne?” Somehow, I manage to think at Calista.

“Read between the lines of what he told you during that dream. He wasn’t working alone. Maybe he did the deed, but I bet you it wasn’t on his own steam. He would’ve just been following someone’s orders. We need to find out who that bastard is and bring him to justice.”

Part of me agrees with what she’s saying. The rest of me just wants a holiday. And hey, maybe I’m having one right now, because despite the fact Valstein still looks mad enough to kill, there’s something very comforting about the fact I now know for sure that he doesn’t want to kill me. Nope. It seems he’s willing to do anything to keep me safe.

I do not get the chance to really settle into that feeling.

The door to my office opens violently.

Valstein being an immortal vampire who possesses inhuman speed, steps away from me and unwraps his arm from around my middle faster than you could say boo.

I very almost fall over, but manage to stagger to the side and lock a hand over the back of one of my armchairs.

It’s just in time for the Chief to power in.

I can tell from the angry look on his face that he wants to tell me off. But then that look freezes as he stares from me, to Valstein, to the comatose vampire locked in the magical ring. “What the hell is going on here? Who is that guy?”

I try to cook up a story. A good one. One where I skip all the details about doing an unsanctioned magical ritual and allowing a murderer direct access to my consciousness.

Fortunately, I don’t have to answer.

Valstein clears his throat and takes a direct step toward the Chief. “That is the murderer. Ventara Falanx,” Valstein says, and there isn’t a hint of anything but vicious anger behind his tone.

I know for a fact that if Valstein himself hadn’t just revealed that, the Chief wouldn’t believe any of this. His cheeks pale, and he arches one eyebrow. “Why exactly is he in here?”

“Indeed. I will inform you. But first, we have work to do. Madeleine’s aura blocker is going to need to be scrubbed. Thoroughly.”

“Hey, and now we’ve got the bad guy, we can take the aura blocker back, and I don’t have to wake up at night in a cold sweat thinking she’ll break it.”

Valstein clears his throat, and there’s some real force behind his voice. “You will not take that necklace off Miss Macy. It will be hers for the foreseeable future.”

The Chief balks. I can tell he really wants to snap at Valstein, but the Chief clearly knows his place, and he takes a stiff breath instead. “Why exactly?”

“Because this is not over. Though we have the murderer of Lord Balstair, trust me when I say that that is only the tip of the iceberg,” Valstein says, and he swivels his gaze to me and locks all his raw focus on my eyes.

“Hands down, Valstein is easily the most intense vampire I have ever met. Can you imagine what he’d be like in bed?” Calista says out of the blue. “You should definitely try to find out,” she adds.

“Calista! I thought you got over this already? This is so inappropriate. This guy’s…”

“Clearly not a murderer. So you can’t use that excuse anymore,” Calista interjects.

“But he’s a colleague,” I default to saying.

Calista snorts all the louder. “Sure he is. Which means you guys will be working closely,” she emphasizes the word closely, “real closely if that look in Valstein’s eyes is anything to go by. I’m going to love every second of the unresolved sexual tension between you two,” she purrs.

I try to tune her out.

“I see,” the Chief says, finally answering Valstein’s bombshell. He brings a hand up, locks it on his jaw, then looks at me. Bless the Chief’s cotton socks, because he looks genuinely scared for my safety. But it doesn’t last. He lets his saddened gaze sweep across the office. “Does that mean I won’t be able to kick Madeleine out and claim this office as my own?”

“Absolutely not,” Valstein lays down the law, his voice as forceful as a punch. “Madeleine is going to need to stay here until this case is done. And unfortunately, that may take some time.”

It’s not my imagination, and I’m certain Valstein lets his gaze linger on me. Not on my face, mind you, but my body, as if solving this damn case will be distracting him from something he’d much prefer to be doing instead.

I don’t react.

The Chief?

He takes the kind of grating, groaning breath a man would before the hangman locks the rope around his neck. “But this isn’t even a room. It’s an office,” the Chief says, emphasizing that with a proud whistle, “so I’m sure we can find Madeleine somewhere better to stay.”

Valstein doesn’t answer. Instead, he walks over to one of the walls. Though there are light fittings at equal distances around the walls, as Valstein walks over to that particular section of wall, I notice a gap. There is a light, but it’s smaller and further to the side, almost like a bed lamp.

Valstein walks right up to the wall, rounds a hand into a soft fist, then taps the wall hard three times.

I hear the crack of a magical seal, and a foldaway bed suddenly appears. Valstein takes a step back as the bed drops down and lands against the floorboards with a controlled thump.

The bed is dressed in sumptuous silk, has the comfiest looking pillows I’ve ever seen, and suits the decor of this office perfectly. It’s also the kind of bed that just invites you to fall into it. The kind of bed that promises it will cradle you all night.

Both mine and the Chief’s jaws drop.

“When did that get there?” I say.

Valstein shoots me the kind of look that tells me I’m an idiot. “It’s always been here. You just failed to find it.”

“So why did you find it?”

“Because, as I have already told you – and you should remember as a good detective – I know this room from back when Commissioner Bishop resided in it. Madeleine, keep up.”

I don’t keep up with that fact. Instead my stomach twitches nervously at the fact he’s called me Madeleine again.

I glance back at the bed. Then my eyes narrow. I open my mouth to protest. But Valstein gets there first. “If you’re about to get stroppy with me because I failed to point out this bed was here, don’t. I really don’t care that you weren’t perfectly comfortable when you were trying to sacrifice your life, Madeleine,” he spits as he gestures at the couch, indicating the sleep spell I just committed.

I shrink away, bring a hand up, and scratch my ear. Though the Chief’s eyes widened at the sight of that sumptuous bed – his face now becomes dark as he realizes it’s not going to be his, but mine.

I start to smile. Valstein’s eyes lock on my grin with all the precision of a laser. “Trust me when I say you have nothing to smile about, Madeleine,” he spits. “Because this is just the beginning,” his voice is all power, all emotion, all trapped passion.

It’s the kind of voice you’d be a fool to ignore. But you know what? I smile anyway. Because sure, this is just the beginning. But that’s okay with me.

The end of Legal Rights Book One, Undercover Vampire. Legal Rites Book Two, Devious Dreams – is currently available.