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Walking After Midnight

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PROLOGUE

New Orleans, Louisiana
Friday, 12:03 A.M.
July 16, 2004

Flames leapt with crackling, sacrilegious laughter into the night sky, turning the creamed-coffee complexion of the dead girl to ruddy gold. Encarmined by the fire, her redeemer’s stance was sorrowful, a mourner grieving for the corpse lying at the base of the flaming cross though it might just as well be a time for joy. Another soul had gone home to God.

Well, maybe not. In the case of this harlot, she had probably gone home to the Devil.

“It’s a shame.” Her liberator spoke in the softest of whispers. “So young to be so sinful. But maybe the good Lord will forgive you. After all, it wasn’t your fault.”

The snap and pop of the fire overshadowed the quiet voice and its gentle Cajun accent. The avenger favored the hateful thing with a disapproving frown. The stinging creosote and burning pine smell of it, the heat… It was already so hard to suck in the humid, leaden air. Choking, chemical-laced smoke drifted in the hot, stillness. The cross was perfect for what was needed but it made the already-oppressive New Orleans night unbearable. Each movement sent beaded sweat trickling down to soak through underwear and clothes. Each breath set lungs to stinging.

Perspiration slicked the still-hot metal of the gun tucked against damp skin. The nearly blistering barrel of the pistol stung just enough to add to the rage already feeding the greater heat inside, making it boil over.

“You were led astray. Seduced into whoring for them. I may have pulled the trigger but they’re the ones who killed you.”

Anger roiled and burned as bright as the fire licking at the cross. It hurt so much, that anger. It was a knife jabbed repeatedly into the body until you curled into a ball and screamed. But no one ever heard. And eventually screaming wasn’t enough; you had to do something to make the pain stop. Finally the Lord provided the path and showed the way.

“Soon everyone will know the truth. They’ll pay for all the lives they’ve ruined. And I’ll save the ones that deserve saving. The others will burn in Hell.”

But now wasn’t the time to ruminate on the fast-approaching day when all scores would be settled once and for all. God couldn’t use His servant the way He wanted from a jail cell. The fire would attract attention just like it was meant to—police, the fire department, the FBI. The message was delivered and the courier needed to flee before they came because evil infiltrated even the police, turning protectors into oppressors. The left hand of Satan himself. That pain cut deeper than almost any other. To see a beloved group so corrupted, twisted until it was a perverse parody of what it was supposed to be… They’d turn on their own now-days to keep their nasty linen tucked away!

Yes, it was definitely time to leave. Before one of those harlots with a badge showed up.

The ancient oaks offered blessed shadow and concealment as the Lord’s appointed fought for calm. Damp grass cushioned footfalls even as tears stung and throat burned at the thought of so many once-good men tainted and impure. Bodies corrupted by letting those living corpses touch them! Whores. Worms crawling on their bellies at the feet of monsters. Let them all burn. They deserved it.

But a blessed few remained who believed there were creatures that shouldn’t walk. And perhaps there were others who could still be saved. That hope had to be clutched tight and never surrendered. It brought peace.

With some measure of control restored and the embers of rage banked until needed again, the archenemy of all vampires moved further and further away from the burning cross with quick, resolute treads. The perimeter fence presented little obstacle. Old bricks protruded from the wall, an invitation to climb over in the easy steps they offered and drop to the pavement on the other side.

A few strides—no need to run—and comfort returned. Distant sirens wailed and voices called out from the perimeters, but no one was near enough to see or snitch. God always provided safety for His anointed ones. And didn’t that just prove this was the right path.

The car waited in the dark beneath a broken streetlight and remained that way; no light came on when the door opened. His servant was smart enough to have thought of that detail. God also helped those who helped themselves. The snip of a wire beneath the button in the doorframe and the light was extinguished for good.

A pleased smile tugged at a face more used to tears now than joy. Well, the time for sadness was over. The vampires would face justice for all the pain they caused. Everyone would know soon and band together to hunt them down. They wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone ever again.

The key slid into the ignition and the engine turned over with the softest of purrs. The air conditioning unit sent out a draft of hot, moist air but began to cool almost immediately. Blessed relief. The dark car was old but well maintained and never gave its driver a minute’s trouble. It slid from the quiet side street unto a busier thoroughfare, escaping into the anonymity of traffic.

A smile appeared as a sense of accomplishment filled the Camry. Another soul freed of the vampires who stole the bodies of innocent men and women. Another soul safe from their possession and abuse. Their filthy fingers would never touch that poor girl again. Good work had been done and better work was yet to come.

Pacing the car, visible with just a slight turn of the head, the cross burned bright against the city’s glow. It looked so beautiful. Already it attracted attention for blocks around; drivers on the interstate slowing to rubberneck; the fiery spectacle inflaming the curiosity of the prurient.

“And I will show wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke. Deep breaths felt cleansing and pure. “And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” The words filled the car with peace and achievement. It felt so good, so right. Surely God was smiling down from Heaven on His dutiful and obedient child. “He’ll be saved. I’ll see to it. And when the Lord comes, we’ll all be safe from the vampires at last.”


 

CHapter 1

New Orleans, Louisiana
Friday, 12:55 A.M.
July 16, 2004

FBI Special Agent Jack Niemczyk watched the hellish snow of sparks falling from the burning crossbar onto the damp grass below with a set face and a leaden weight in his chest. The strobing red, white, and blue lights of the attendant police and fire vehicles couldn’t compete with the majesty of the twenty-foot column of fire hissing and roaring with such gleeful abandon. Their patriotic display only added to the bright conflagration and made the onlookers long for the comforting normalcy of gentle darkness. Mesmerized and revolted in equal measure, half of the gathered crowd couldn’t look at the burning cross while the other half couldn’t look away from it.

Outlined by the flames, a policeman stood, knelt, stood again, snapping photographs of the body lying just outside the fiery shower, his popping flash puny competition for the flaring cross. Other officers moved about in the garish firelight, collecting evidence, measuring and marking the crime scene, and tilting pads toward the fire to make notes.

Jack had seen the procedure a thousand times over his nineteen years with the Bureau. Sometimes it fascinated him; other times it repulsed him. Mostly, like tonight, the necessity of it saddened him.

Watchful firemen stood by, flames brightening their yellow waders and suspenders, talking in threes and fours, waiting, their hoses ready to extinguish the obscene flare as soon as the police finished gathering and collating whatever they could find. Jack hoped they found it all before the cleansing water washed away whatever evidence remained.

The muggy evening smelled of smoke, stinging and sharp with creosote and heavy with exhaust from the fire trucks. The leaden scent settled in a stifling quilt that would have to be washed from clothes, body, and hair before Jack would be able to sleep under more comfortable covers. Not that he’d be sleeping much tonight.

He wiped at the perspiration dotting his upper lip and repressed a sigh when new drops immediately replaced the ones he smeared away. The hottest evening in nearly a month and he was out in the humid, oppressive night instead of inside under air conditioning with a cold drink. The forecast said they’d be lucky if it dropped much below eighty before the sun rose. July in New Orleans—why did he voluntarily stay in such a climate?

He didn’t want to peer too deeply into that complex puzzle and focused on the busy officers going about their jobs and the lethargic ones watching them. Dark sweat marks stained great ovals on the backs of their shirts and showed beneath their arms regardless of their level of activity. He wouldn’t be surprised if the discolorations on his cream silk shirt were almost as bad. At least he didn’t smell. Yet. Give it a couple of hours and he wouldn’t be as sure of that. He thanked God he had sense enough to leave his tie at home as the onlookers milled about, pointing and calling out to each other, the sound half-consumed by the evening’s sticky heat.

He didn’t turn when a hand settled on his upper arm. “Jack?” Captain Remy Lambert of the New Orleans Homicide Division called for his attention with quiet urgency.

The agent didn’t need to look at the other man. When he’d arrived at the scene, one glance at his colleague convinced the profiler this murder was going to be worse than most. Remy’s gray eyes were dark with trouble and his usually smiling lips slashed a grim line across his face. The fire haloing his dark brown hair emphasizing the lines on his normally youthful face made him look every one of his thirty-seven years. The wait while his homicide team went about dissecting the crime scene didn’t lessen the detective’s burden one bit if the wrinkles on his brow were any indication. His deep blue suit coat hid the evidence of both the heat and his body’s reaction to whatever those furrows meant.

“The prince is here.” That would be the reason for the frown. The detective’s soft Cajun slur was far stronger than Jack usually heard unless Remy was intent on annoying the agent. This time it wasn’t one of Remy’s payback games. The deep accent was indicative of just how deeply disturbing Remy found the situation. Of course, with that particular body lying only yards from their feet he had legitimate reason to be upset. The thought of breaking this news to the prince made Jack’s insides crawl.

“You want to tell him or should I?” Remy wasn’t pleased by either prospect.

The deep breath Jack took didn’t mean anything; it just gave him a few seconds to put off the much clichéd inevitable. “I’ll do it but you should come with me.” After all, there was protocol to be considered. His smile was grim. There was always protocol to be considered.

Turning away from the burning cross and the body at its foot, he found he had stared at the crime scene too long. Blinded, he could only see the phantom likeness of the corpse. In the reversed retinal image the dead girl glowed bright against a cross alight with black fire. Jack quelled a shudder against the nightmare image of vague and nameless premonitions.

Thirty feet away beneath the canopy of ancient oaks, a motley crowd leaned over yellow crime scene tape only restrained by the presence of uniformed police officers. As his vision adjusted to the night, the FBI agent recognized the figure of the Crown Prince of New Orleans as the man ducked beneath the canary tape held aloft by a uniform and one of the prince’s ubiquitous bodyguards. In contrast to Remy, who always had his top two shirt buttons unfastened and his tie so loose the knot hung halfway down his chest, the prince exhibited sartorial perfection. His tailored suit caught the sheen of the flashing lights as only silk could. The varicolored glow shimmered on his silvery tie and paler shirt. The alternating cobalt and ruby colored his solemn face from corpse to bloody in carefully timed rotation. A shiver climbed Jack’s spine; he knew both images held an aspect of truth.

Jack set out across the wet grass with Remy at his shoulder to face the undisputed ruler of New Orleans’ hours of darkness. The hand Prince Jean extended to the profiler was cool and dry despite the heat and humidity. Jack wasn’t surprised. After all, Jean was a vampire and the vagaries of weather meant little to him.

The prince’s grip was firm but gentle. It wasn’t necessary for him to play any of the dominance games men sometimes indulged in. Strength to pulp the agent’s hand with a simple squeeze remained held in tight check but Jack felt no fear. Jean would never intentionally hurt him. The prince had been kindness from the moment they met. Of all the monsters lurking in the cornered shadows of his world, Jack trusted the quiet and diplomatic ruler most. That trust led to a genuine liking that had nothing to do with the exotic attraction Jack felt for all vampires.

Of course he was far from the only one who felt that way. Even now some girl was pointing the prince out and oo-ing like she’s spotted a rock star. Only in New Orleans would you find the vampire groupies dancing with excitement on spotting one of their idols in public. Not that the girl didn’t have reasons to bounce. Handsome in a very masculine way, elegance and a gentle nature tempering the power that seemed to flow from him, Jean could have almost anyone he wanted. One glance from his deep liquid eyes drew a person in and left them drowning. Luckily for those so ensnared, he was a kind man and while noted for his numerous lovers, he was also noted for the care and affection he showed to each one. That care extended even to those who refused him.

Normally Jack welcomed any chance to speak with the prince but this time he wished to see anyone but Jean DuValliere standing in the lurid firelight. Why didn’t he just take the easy route and let Remy do this? Because however much he hated this, it wasn’t right to put the burden on his friend. And Jean deserved better from him than that sort of cowardice. His gaze flicked back to the waiting coroner’s wagon.

The profiler’s tense fingers toyed with his FBI Academy ring, seeking peace in its raised symbols while the prince shook hands with Remy, the fire from the cross setting newer, warmer color on Jean’s dark gray suit and face. Their hands fell apart and Jack didn’t wait for that espresso gaze to turn to him.

“I’m afraid you know the victim, Your Highness.” He kept his tone as gentle as he could make it. He couldn’t add to the sorrow tightening the muscles of Jean’s handsome face. “She has your mark.” Those two tiny scars, evidence of a vampire’s bite, that meant so much to those who lived in the darkness. Unique to an individual vampire, tonight they meant someone belonging to Jean had been murdered.

Jack tried to ignore the knot growing in his stomach. The flames reflecting in Jean’s eyes leant them false demon fire and conjured up new nightmare images. Gold, red, green, blue, unearthly purple, a rainbow of unnatural radiance lighting once human eyes that heralded trembling, clammy hands, cries and blood-splattered walls.

His tongue ran over dry lips. He’d never seen the vampire inside Jean freed from the tight restraints of pretended humanity, but he felt the power lurking behind mild gestures and a mellow accent and always had. Now the air thrummed with emotions held in tight check. Static electricity made the hairs on his arms stand and quiver. He could swear there was a hint of ozone in the air.

There were rare rumors of the prince losing control and the profiler couldn’t suppress visions of the police and onlookers lying dead and bleeding on the ground, victims of the Jean’s anger and grief. He hoped the vampire’s self-control was as considerable as he thought it was. He fell back on protocol and the illusion police procedures could see him through to dawn. “The body was found almost immediately.”

The vampire lord drew a deep and unnecessary breath. “Show me.” His order was soft but firm, the most delicate of bayou breezes tinting his rich voice with a faint Cajun accent. It was a request but one he expected would be instantly obeyed.

Jack nodded. “Of course.” He placed a tentative hand on Jean’s arm, the clean scent of exotic sandalwood rising from the prince clearing some of the hideous scent of death and smoke. The silk sleeve masked tense, stone hard muscle beneath. The profiler’s hopes their friendship had developed to the point where he didn’t need to worry mitigated the risk in touching the prince without permission. Jean was a good man and his friend. It was a belief he clutched tight. Otherwise…the grim smile returned. Otherwise he was as insane as Remy kept insisting he was.

“It’s a crime scene, sir. I’d like to keep contamination to a minimum. Could you ask your guards to stay back?”

Jean inclined his head and signaled his two shadows to stay where they were. Jack couldn’t contain the tiny thrill that skittered through his mind at the marked indication of how much the prince trusted him. His relief and satisfaction doubled with the prince’s next words.

“You don’t need to call me sir, Jacques. We are still friends, oui?” A frown appeared on his striking face. “You do not think I had something to do with this murder, do you? Because I assure you I have not been—”

“No, Your Highness.” Jack’s interruption was quick and sharper than he should have made it. He shouldn’t feel this tense around Jean. He took the smallest of breathes, calming, modulating his tone. “Not at all. If you were, you’d tell us so and then go about your business.”

Remy nodded agreement with an awkward motion of his hand and an uncomfortable glance at his friend. “We’d take care of everything from that point.”

He meant the case would never be investigated or even acknowledged as a murder. It had taken Jack a while to become accustomed to the idea certain homicides were routinely covered up by the NOPD but he knew it was necessary. Nothing could be gained by the public knowing about those who died from vampire attacks. He knew the spiel; no need to engender unnecessary panic and worry when there was no danger to the general population.

Wet grass pillowed his steps and threatened to ruin his Italian shoes as he led the way toward the still-burning cross. He tried not to contemplate the unique relationship between the undead and the living in his adopted city, but it was hard when everything emphasized it. Even now Jack could nearly hear the thoughts behind the guarded glances of the other policemen, so wary and uncomfortable. That crazy fucker Niemczyk gets off on sticking his neck out for the damned undead to chew off. Vampires were dangerous predators, killers who preyed on mankind. It was all in their eyes. Couldn’t Niemczyk see it? Maybe his colleagues weren’t completely wrong but they weren’t completely right either.

In other cities the vampire population might be nothing but marauding gangsters, little more than animals, but not in New Orleans. Here vampires killed only their human counterparts, frightening and powerful demonic hunters destroying the worst criminals the city offered. Jack glared back at the patrolmen and beat cops. Superstitious idiots. They knew vampires who broke that rule faced swift and lethal punishment from their overlords. Jean DuValliere did not tolerate random predation.

Secure and comforted in that knowledge, Jack long ago learned to ignore the violent deaths of murderers and rapists, accepting the verdicts handed down by the undead who judged humans on evidence he couldn’t begin to duplicate. He had to accept that here the predators only preyed on other predators, that they fought on the side of right.

It was the only way he could live with himself.

As they drew near the corpse, Jean’s steps faltered, just the tiniest hesitation. He avoided looking at the cross above them though the action was subtle. It was more the way he held his head, the cords tight in his neck, the odd stiff angle of one shoulder rather than any obvious flinching from the sight. The conclusion Jack reached was the stereotypical one. It was pleasing to find he had the balls to ask if the religious aspects of the cross were bothering the vampire lord.

Oui.” Jean’s answer was accompanied by hint of a shrug. “Whoever set that on fire was a believer. It…” He paused to search for the right description. “It makes my skin itch and it hurts to look at it.”

Jack nodded, grateful the inquiry wasn’t taken as an insult. He’d had early suspicions only icons used by the truly faithful could discomfit a vampire. Long months of study and incessant questions gave him few concrete facts on his non-breathing brethren. And God knew he collected knowledge on the undead with a hunger that sometimes frightened him in its intensity. Confirmation of a theory was a beautiful thing but in this case the information was also useful to the investigation. Whoever their killer was, he was religious. The agent would use that in getting a confession if they caught the bastard. Of greater import, it added to the profile Jack was trying to build in his head of this killer.

The prince knelt beside the body, ignoring the dirt and grass staining his expensive slacks. The way he closed his eyes and rubbed his hand across his lower face in an attempt to control his emotions made Jack’s chest tightened. The profiler always hurt for the victim’s loved ones but it was worse when he was a friend with whoever was hurting so much.

After a long moment Jean opened his eyes again and spoke. “Her name is…was Chantay Williams.”

He reached out toward her face, fingers stretching out as if to comfort and caress her. Or perhaps just to assure himself she was gone. Jack stopped him with a gentle reminder. “It’s a crime scene, Jean. I’m sorry. Please don’t touch anything.”

Mai oui.” The pain of the prince’s answer was harsh on his face and thick in his voice. “I wasn’t thinking.” He withdrew his hand and stared at the body, his face blank. Somehow its emptiness emphasized the hurt more than any disfigurations could.

Jack tried to distance himself from that consuming ache, falling into investigative mode to ward off the burning in his stomach and the sting behind his eyes. He had assumed much the same position earlier, kneeling and staring at the girl though with a very different, analytical mind-set. Rather than seeing her through a filter of rage and mourning, he gathered information, trying to pull little clues from how the murderer left her corpse.

The killer used eerie, exaggerated care in placing Chantay’s body in a dignified manner. In a parody of decency and respect for the dead, he’d laid her out as if for burial, her feet in their strappy little rose sandals placed side by side and her hands resting on the once-crisp cotton covering her chest. Her dark hair with its false gold streaks was a mass of curls and braids now soaked with dark red and crusty russet. Her ivory sundress showed dapples of the same grisly color though it was neat and properly fastened. Even the few inches of her skirt below the final shell-shaped pink button were folded together with prim precision. Her head, turned to the side, was all blind eyes gazing at the cross. Only the bullet wound above her staring, distorted right eye and those lurid flecks of blood on her skin and clothes marred the image of peaceful death.

On the long, creamy taupe column of her neck, the bite scar that prompted Remy to call Jack stood out, two small pinkish knots, their centers indented and open. They would have closed over and healed completely if she wasn’t actively feeding a vampire. Fine lines of capillaries spread out from the wounds forming an intricate, specific pattern in delicate threads of burgundy and navy. That pattern always reminded Jack of a fleur-de-lys. The lacy design told the profiler Jean’s fangs would fit those little indentations perfectly.

Right now the creator of that other-worldly tattoo radiated pained confusion. “Why would someone do this, Jacques? She’s no threat to anyone. She’s just a sweet child. She was starting medical school this fall.” The firelight gleamed on rich brown hair as Jean bowed his head.

The sorrow emanating from the vampire possessed physical force. Like the blaze, it made the skin across Jack’s forehead and cheekbones feel tight and stretched. “She is one of yours, Jean? I am right about her mark?”

The prince nodded. Confirmation of his skills at vampire lore again. One of the things an investigator lived for. Silence stretched as the fire crackled and popped its obscene laughter. Jean finally spoke in a voice choked and heavy with loss. “Yes. She was one of my acknowledged lovers. I met her when she was a teenager turning tricks on the street. She was too pretty and too young for that kind of a life. So I made her one of mine.” One shoulder rose in what might have been apology for making a young hooker his lover. “That was eight years ago.” He shook his head. “She seemed happy.” It was the tone of a man trying to convince himself of something he couldn’t quite believe.

Jack didn’t see the need for the apology or the guilt. He was willing to bet a fair portion of his yearly salary the prince had seen the girl not only educated and offered the career of her choice but also given the option to marry and have a family if it was what she wanted. Whatever her choices, it beat the hell out of growing up a prostitute.

Jean’s attention focused on his lover’s hands. “Jacques? Is she holding a crucifix?” Where he indicated the tiniest gleam of silver peeped from beneath her fingers. The agent looked at Jean in confusion.

“It hurts just a bit to look at what little I can see of it.” The prince’s explanation held faded apology. “All holy relics hurt but each has a distinct flavor to the pain, if you will. It is faint but it feels like a crucifix.”

Remy shuddered at the further confirmation of Jean’s demonic nature, his lips twitching in what Jack categorized as distaste. The detective didn’t share the FBI agent’s fascination with allure of the demonic world.

A call to the officer in charge of the body itself assured Jack the attending policemen were finished with everything they needed to do with the body in situ. The latex glove he pulled on made his fingers feel clammy despite the talcum dusting inside. The girl’s left hand was heavier than his mind said it should be. Dead hands always were.

A plain silver crucifix rested under her limp fingers.

“The killer must have put that there. That’s not hers.” Jean’s firm statement held no question. As Remy called for an officer to photograph the crucifix, the vampire explained his surety. “She’s Muslim.”

Remy looked up at the cross above the body. “Looks like our killer’s got an interesting fixation.”

The prince rose to his feet, moving a few reluctant steps from his lover’s corpse to make room for the police. As he let the police officers do their job, he continued to survey Chantay. “I don’t smell anything unusual.” He confided what his vampire senses revealed about the crime scene, offering what help he could. “There are some unfamiliar scents on her in addition to the ones I recognize. Strangers, you know? One of them might be her killer or just a man she stood too close to on an elevator. I might recognize the scent again if I bumped into them but that just means they were near her, not that they killed her. It happened quickly. It had to; she felt no fear.”

Abandoning his pensive study of the dead girl, his attention turned to the FBI agent. “I think you will have more chance of solving this than I will, mon ami.” He placed his hand on the profiler’s shoulder and spoke to the man in charge of the investigation. “Remy, you will let Jack help with this, yes?”

“Of course.” The police captain’s answer held no hesitation. “I know Jack’s a respected part of the family.” His remark held reluctance as he tried to cover his revulsion for that particular situation. Jack glared at the detective as their long-standing disagreement on the profiler’s association with the vampires of the Pride surfaced. “I called him as soon as I saw the victim was marked.” Remy grimaced as an officer called him back to the body.

Jack ran a hand beneath the open collar of his polo shirt and found his own mark, a pair of small, rough spots against his palm. Two years ago Remy’s comment about a vampire’s mark would have made no sense. That was before he gained the twinned scars on his neck, before he was assigned to New Orleans on a serial killer case. Before Remy introduced the agent to Alec de Leon, the Master of Louisiana and his wife, the flamboyant, intoxicating, glorious, infuriating, everything-Jack-wanted-in-the-world Baby Roxton, Queen of New Orleans.

The Master’s wife. The marriage thing bothered Jack until he found out Alec was a complete asshole and treated her and everyone around him like dirt under his motorcycle boots. After that it didn’t really matter that the Master was the crown prince’s sire, the one who made Jean vampire, and a powerful ruler among the so-called creatures of darkness; he was a punk and Jack hated him.

The scars tingled under his touch, still acutely sensitive even though well healed. They stood out plain against his tanned skin when he looked at them in a mirror, the wounded capillaries forming a rose, open, full blown, the teeth marks closer together than the ones on Chantay’s throat. He watched firelight dance over the dead woman. Just as she was marked as Jean’s lover, Jack was marked as Baby’s pet.

A sudden, intense wish his mistress could be with him brought a clenching pain to his gut. But Alec de Leon had gone to Europe and demanded she accompany him. Jack hadn’t seen her in nearly three months and he hadn’t felt the brush of her consciousness inside his mind in weeks. His sense of her was so dim and ephemeral that more and more he doubted that he’d ever be with her again.

Depression turned the air heavier than it already was, but thinking of Baby’s touch inside his mind reminded him of something important. He forced his attention away from deceptive dreams back to callous reality.

“Jean, did you feel anything when Ms. Williams was shot?”

The vampire’s sigh further weighted the already heavy night. “Yes, Jacques. I felt her die. She simply stopped being. One second she was in my head, content and happy, and the next there was an empty spot.” Sorrow deepened as he faced Jack. “Didn’t you notice I wasn’t surprised by your phone call?” The hand still resting on Jack’s shoulder tightened. “We know when we lose one of our humans, mon ami, the same way we know when we lose one of our own kind.” The hand fell away and Jean shoved it in his pocket. “Should we be unlucky enough to lose Baby, you will feel her death as I felt Chantay’s. I pray you never experience that.”

Prince Jean glanced up at the cross and then quickly away. Jack noted his faint grimace of pain. “Find who did this for me. Find the one who shot my poor cher ami. If there is anything you need, I will see you get it.”

“I’ll need to know all I can about her. Knowing the victim helps me know the killer. I’ll have lots of questions for you. Remy will, too.”

Jean watched as Chantay’s corpse was lifted and placed in a body bag. “I’ll answer anything I can.” Grief etched his handsome, eternally youthful face. He turned anguished eyes to Jack but a call from Remy interrupted him before he could say more.

“Jack, I need you!” The detective’s arm jerked in frantic motion for the photographer to return even as he called for evidence bags. When the FBI agent and the vampire joined him, Remy pointed to the crushed grass where Chantay had lain. He pulled on a latex glove and pointed to a dew-stained envelope. “It’s addressed to you, Jack.”

The time it took to secure the evidence properly strained Jack’s patience to the point he nearly ripped the plastic bag containing the letter trying to take it from Remy. The brief note sent white hot anger and frozen nausea through him.

——

Jack,

The world thinks you’re some kind of hero. They don’t know you’re nothing but a slave to a living corpse. You belong to the damned. Talk to the newspapers and the TV. Tell the truth or more slaves like you will die. Save yourself.

——

The cross crackled and snapped and the voices of the onlookers and police sounded removed and muted as Jack lifted his head and stared into the misty, smoky distance. The city lights looked unreal, an impressionist’s view of the ancient oaks and decaying metropolis.

“Is this maniac saying what I think he is?” Jean leaned back as he finished reading over the agent’s shoulder. “He killed my Chantay just because she was mine? He killed her to coerce you into telling the media what I am?” Fury reverberated, rage such as Jack had never heard from the prince.

“That’s what it looks like.” Remy’s voice went taut, filled with caution as his shoulders tensed beneath the material of his jacket, cords in his neck emphasized by the fire’s glow. “And according to him, every human who’s bound to a vampire is a target unless Jack goes public with the truth about himself and New Orleans.”

A faint growl rumbled deep in the prince’s chest.

Tiny creatures, the offspring of tension and dread, crawled about in the agent’s stomach as invisible electricity crackled, weaving from that growl out to the onlookers. Icy despite the heat, they turned skin clammy and brought tremors to even strong fingers. Voices whispered where before they shouted and uneasy glances passed from person to person. Nameless danger lurked in the shadows ready to pounce if the wrong word was said too loudly or unmeaning eyes offered insult. Subliminal warnings let the herd know a lion moved in the grass. And the lion was consumed by anger.

“No one else dies. Not as long as I walk.” Jean’s voice held a harshness that grated on the ear. “Remy, I want you to use Jack to find this animal. He has talent none of us can touch.” He paused to draw a breath that shuddered with wrath. “Jacques, every asset the family has is at your disposal. Find this bastard. Find him and bring him to me. This isn’t for the courts anymore.” His fists were clenched tightly against his sides. “You know the cardinal rule—no one interferes with the family or what’s ours. And she belonged to us, just like you do.”

Purchase

 

Copyright © 2006 T.D.McKinney. All Rights Reserved.