All characters in this publication are fictitious, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Angel: Private Eye
Copyright © 2016 Odette C Bell
Cover art stock photos: Heart of an angel © blackmoon979, Studio portrait of blonde woman © FlexDreams, Aerial View Of Chicago
© maxim, Drawn fantasy landscape with frame © greglith, Hathor Temple © mountainpix, and flowing folded fabric © vitaliy_sokol. Licensed from Depositphotos.
Angel: Private Eye
I pushed open the door, a knot of nerves twisting tight in my gut.
I glanced around the shop, shuffling awkwardly towards the empty counter on the far side of the room.
It was made of broken chip-wood with a massive crack running right down the middle. It, like the rest of the shop, was a mess. A quick glance around and I saw old dust-filled cobwebs tangled against the walls and massed around the mildew covered windows.
My old worn-out black ballet shoes suddenly crunched against a pile of torn up candy wrappers and a few scraps of abandoned newspapers.
By the time I made it to the front desk I was chewing so hard on my lip I was sure I was ready to swallow it.
There was nothing on that cracked wooden counter aside from a single bell. Unlike everything else in this jumble of an establishment, the counter bell was polished, pristine – as if someone had taken it out of its packet only that morning.
With a nervous twitch traveling from deep in my gut and shooting hard across my shoulders, I locked my eyes on the bell.
Ring that, and there’d be no going back.
Then again, who was I kidding? There was already no going back. I was out of work, out of luck, and if I didn’t find a way to scrounge some money by the end of the week, I’d be out of my flat, too.
A month ago, I hadn’t imagined myself here, picking through the dust and junk in desperation. Because a month ago, they hadn’t passed those new, shock work regulations.
From 1 April – two weeks ago – the federal government had voted unanimously to split work between the races. With only a few exceptions, ordinary humans could work for ordinary humans, and otherworlders – like myself – had to find employment amongst their own kind.
On 31 March I’d been a librarian working for the local university. On 1 April, I’d been summarily dismissed. No redundancy. No package. Just a boot up the backside and a hastily signed dismissal form.
I took a deep breath, locking it in my lungs as I pressed my lips open and whispered to myself, “Come on, girl, there’s no other way.”
Finally I reached forward, shoulder locked with tension as I gathered the strength and determination to ring the bell.
Its light tone barely competed with the wind bustling through the streets outside.
Hell, my panting breath was louder.
But just when I thought I should try to clear my throat or do something similar, I heard a set of hurried footsteps fly forward from the back of the shop. Right behind the counter was a door. Unlike the rest of the shop, it was clean, freshly painted in fire-truck red and sanded smooth. It looked like it belonged in a show room.
A second later, just as my nerves reached a crescendo like an orchestra madly playing a death march, I saw the polished brass door handle move.
The mechanism was so smooth, it didn’t even creak.
The door shifted open.
And out walked a man. Middle aged with a perfectly round bald patch that matched his perfectly round pot belly, he looked like Mr Sheen off those cleaning ads. Well, apart from his expression. That belonged on Jack Nicholson right before he threw you out the back door and killed you in your yard.
The guy was about my height, and I was all of 5’3. He had a starched white shirt rolled up at the cuffs, suspenders that were slightly loose on the left, and pilled woolen pants.
“What?” he demanded as he brought up his unusually scrawny arms, considering his otherwise stocky build, and wrapped them moodily around his middle.
I tried to smile. I also tried to shove a shaking hand in my bag and remove my resume.
For an otherworlder, my flat mate always accused me of being easily flustered. Otherworlders were meant to be tough, powerful, and brimming with attitude. Me? I was anything but. A spider had dropped on me the other day, and I’d freaked out so badly, I’d tripped into the coffee table and broken it in half.
“What do you want?” the guy growled as he flashed his less-than-patient gaze to my hand.
I was still frantically searching for my resume. “Ah, I… I was wondering if you had any work—”
“For the love of Belzox, another one, ha? Didn’t you read the sign on your way in, lady?” He pointed a pudgy, red finger at the door. “No help needed. Now get out of my shop.” He ticked his lip up and shot me a disgusted look. “Plus, you really think you’ve got what it takes to be a magical PI? Just look at ya, you can’t even find your own CV.” He pointed to the floor by my feet.
Flustered, cheeks turning as fire-truck red as the door, I realized my resume had dropped by my feet. I stooped to pick it up. By the time I was standing again, he’d turned his back on me and marched back through his pristine red door, muttering, “Get out before I throw you out.”
Heart sinking through my stomach, I brushed the dust off my resume, crammed it in my bag, and walked out of the shop.
Instantly a cold blast of wind shot into me, tugging my scarf from around my neck and sending it tumbling down the street.
“No,” I gasped, lurching after it. That scarf was Buccano – a semi decent Italian brand, and one of the most expensive things I owned. Spun blue-and-purple silk, it hid the otherworlder tattoo on my neck while also making me look respectable enough to score a job.
I ran after it, but the wind snatched it and sent it spinning across the road.
Though I tried to dart into traffic, a car almost hit me, and I threw myself back on the pavement just in time.
A leering woman in a leather-jacket and a red shift dress snarled at me through her window.
One look at her plush, almost luminescent red lips and her pin-prick black eyes, and it was clear she was a vampire.
I cast my gaze back to my scarf, but it was gone.
With a truly sinking feeling pushing hard through my gut, I yanked my collar up as high as it would go, and fought against the chill escaping down my back.
It was nothing compared to the dread and guilt churning through my gut.
I walked my way through the streets. I was in the otherworlder section of town, and I had to keep darting down into the gutter to avoid all the other colorful characters, from vampires, to werewolves, to witches and warlocks.
They all had power, an undeniable presence.
Me? I had nothing.
I wasn’t from a recognized race. I hadn’t been schooled since birth on how this world worked.
No. I just had the gene. The one that proved I wasn’t human. Until last year, I hadn’t even known I was an otherworlder. But when the government had enforced mandatory DNA tests for every citizen, I’d got the letter in the post. A few weeks after that, I’d got the tattoo, too.
Glum didn’t come close to what I was feeling now. Completely and utterly, soul-crushingly defeated, did.
I’d been clutching at straws when I’d gone to that detective agency to get a job.
But now – now there were no longer any straws to clutch at. This was over. Done. There was nowhere left to get a job.
I brought a hand up, crammed it over my cold, clammy brow, and tried seriously hard not to cry.
A few seconds later, my phone rang. It jolted me from my self-loathing, and I chucked a hand into my pocket, answering the call with a swipe of my thumb. “Yes,” I said in a truly pathetic tone.
There was a long pause. “Wow, you didn’t get a job then, did you? Oh, sweetie, you sound like you’re about to cry.”
Though it was very tempting to tell the truth and admit that I wasn’t just about to cry, but that I’d likely crumple and start whingeing in the gutter, I made a brave face. “No, I’m fine, Sarah,” I lied with the kind of false tone that wouldn’t be able to convince a slime mold.
Sarah paused again. Then I heard her take a pointed hiss through her teeth. “Sweetie, tell me where you are. I’ll come pick you up.”
“Sarah, aren’t you working a night shift at the bar tonight? Don’t you need to go to sleep now? I’ll be fine.”
She snorted. “You most certainly won’t be fine. You’ll be moping. Now come back to the apartment and we’ll look through the classifieds together. There’s got to be something out there. Heck, I have friends at a few of the otherworld bars. I’m sure they’ll pick a pretty girl like you for a barmaid.”
I gave a false smile, all crumpled and tightlipped.
Sarah was a terrible liar. A) I wasn’t a pretty girl. I was plain as plain could be. I was the kind of ordinary that spy forces would pick for espionage agents because there is no way I would stand out in a crowd. Ever. It was almost as if my parents had crammed together every feature on the planet and every range of beauty and picked the one dead in the center.
While average had been okay several years ago, it was the new ugly now. Normal just couldn’t compete with the extraordinary, otherworldly beauty of the vampires and other assorted magical creatures. While us poor ordinary folk had to contend with Botox and plastic surgery, the magical world had much more effective, much longer lasting, and much cheaper methods of beautification.
Oh, and they could actually sparkle.
Plus, even if I wasn’t average and mousy, no bar owner in their right mind would employ me. I had exactly zero personality. No charm, no pizzazz, and no ability to offer the drunk and truly irritating a rakish smile as they slurred for another whiskey on the rocks.
I didn’t point this out to Sarah. Instead I winced as I switched ears. “Like I said, I’ll be fine. I promise,” I said in what I hoped was my most convincing voice.
Sarah just sighed. “I’m serious, Lizzie. You should look into bar work. It’s not that hard. Nor is it particularly daunting. You’re smart. You’re attractive. You can do this.”
Sarah stopped just short of telling me I had no option but to do this. That was her real point, though. There was a finite amount of time I could crawl through the otherworld section of town looking for a job before I caved.
“Okay, okay,” I said reluctantly through a deep, groaning breath. “I’ll look into it.”
“Really?” There was undeniable excitement twisting high through her tone.
I didn’t stop wincing. “Yeah. I’ll keep trying to find a job today. If nothing comes up,” I had to grind my teeth together as I gathered the gumption to finish my sentence, “I’ll… I’ll grab those details off you and head to that bar tonight.”
“I’m texting them to you now. And, Lizzie, you won’t regret this. Plus, it would be kind of fun. We’ll both have the same jobs.”
I didn’t point out that we would not have the same job. She’d work in a human bar with other humans. Human clientele, and human regulations.
I’d been to otherworld bars once or twice, and it had been goddamn harrowing, like getting stuck in a haunted house at one of those funfairs. Except, in this place, no one had been pretending to be terrifying and there was nowhere to run.
I walked around town for the rest of the day, trying everything and going everywhere to find work, no matter how badly it paid or how undignified it would be.
Before I knew it, 9 o’clock rolled around.
Sarah had already left for work, leaving me a massive, cheery scrawled message on the blackboard in our kitchen. It mentioned the names of several otherworld bars I should look at.
I faffed around for a good half an hour until I gathered the gumption to go. Shrugging into a pair of nylons, a fitted skirt, some low heels, and a flouncy blouse that was kind of Edwardian and would, hopefully, gather the attention of any vampire managers, I reluctantly hauled my ass out the door.
I was not a nighttime girl. Especially these days. Especially around the otherworld section of town. But it was precisely where I had to go to find these bars.
To get to the otherworld side of town, I wisely chose to go on the bus. It was that or the subway. And there was no way in heaven or hell I would cross the subway line that led to the other half of town. The terrifying stories I’d heard could fill up a horror book. Even before the existence of magic had been revealed, that section of the subway had been terrifying. From murders to assaults, to plain old disappearances, the subway was about as friendly and safe as a wolf baring its teeth a centimeter from your jugular.
Still, I could hardly say the bus system was much better. As soon as we reached the rough demarcation line separating the normals from the otherworlders in Hope City, every single human got off the bus. Which just left me and some seriously shady blokes in hoods.
Heck, the bus drivers even switched.
I had to grip my hands into fists and grind my teeth into my bottom lip just to gather the courage not to jump off the bus screaming.
Before I knew it, the new bus driver gunned the engine, and we crossed the line. Immediately my hackles were raised, my blood pressure shot through the roof, and my heart started to beat a veritable military tattoo in my chest.
“This is such a bad idea. Oh god, oh god, this is such a bad idea,” I hissed to myself over and over again. But at the same time, I appreciated there was no going back.
I knew full well that the Draconian regulations that had stopped me from working at the library wouldn’t get better. They’d get worse. This was only the beginning of separating the human population from the magical population. Sarah could look after me for now. But I very much doubted I’d be able to live with her forever. If I didn’t fall on my feet, in a few weeks, I be thrown to the ground.
So I forced myself to stay on the bus until we reached the club district. The shady blokes in hoods got out, grins pressing over their white bloodless lips as they headed straight for a bar sunk down a long, winding set of steps that looked as if it led straight into the heart of a crypt. There were even eerie cold wisps of smoke filtering up from the bottom of the stairs.
Atmospheric – and creepy as all hell.
I watched them disappear, the smoke curling around their hoods like hands. A freaking powerful shudder charged down my shoulders, and I shrugged further into the collar of my blouse.
It was nothing, however, compared to the heart-shuddering shock that pulsed through me as a door opened beside me and three vampires pressed out.
I hadn’t seen them coming, and they moved with such cold precise speed, I immediately jolted backwards.
I lost my balance and tumbled into a sign behind me.
A sharp edge caught the side of my leg, snagging my nylons and slicing the flesh beneath.
A droplet of my blood splashed right beside one of the vampires.
He was tall, he was gaunt, and he was dressed in Gucci. He was also, however, categorically the most terrifying person I’d ever seen. His gaze was so hard and direct, it was like a hammer between the center of your eyes.
And that gaze – that godawful, penetrating gaze – only grew harder and more terrifying as he looked down to see the blood trickling over my knee.
His friends had already moved on, and they were halfway across the street.
I froze. Every muscle and joint and bone locked in place as if someone was going to make a plaster cast of my body.
He leaned down. Slowly. So goddamn slowly that I was treated to a precise view of his tight pronounced muscles pushing hard against his shirt.
Slicing his gaze from my cut knee to the drop of blood that had landed by his foot, he pressed out two fingers to touch it.
Immediately, I jerked a foot forward and covered the blood with my heel. It did, however, bring my bleeding knee right in front of the guy’s face.
He swiveled his gaze and locked it on mine. Then he smiled. His lips pulled back from around his teeth until he revealed his canines in all their glistening ferocious glory.
He tipped his head to the side and ran his gaze languidly up and down my leg. “Need a hand?”
I spluttered. I also shot up, grinding my heel over the drop of blood as if I were trying to stamp a cigarette out.
With his eyes still on my legs, he brought a tongue up and ran it pointedly over his pointed teeth.
He smiled, twisted his lips to the side, and practically purred. “Where are you heading tonight?”
I didn’t goddamn answer him. Instead, locking a hand on the top of my blouse and ensuring it was tightly closed, I shoved past, charging along the pavement until I was on the opposite side of the street.
I didn’t bother turning to check if he’d followed until a gaggle of witches walked out from a bar by my side and surrounded me as they walked down the street.
Oh God – thank God – he hadn’t followed.
He was, however, watching me.
And as I jerked my head back to check on him, he clearly tilted his head my way and parted his lips open. “I’ll be watching you,” he mouthed. Then, with a chuckle, he disappeared.
My gut locked with such tension I was sure it was going to be torn in half. This – this was why I hadn’t bothered to come look for work in the otherworld bars before.
It was too dangerous.
Feeling completely and thoroughly sick, I pretty much threw myself towards the nearest bus stop.
A part of me appreciated how pathetic I was. While I’d gathered the gumption to make it this far, I hadn’t even been able to head into a single bar.
Oh God, I was a goner. When they changed the laws and Sarah wouldn’t be able to look after me anymore, I’d be dead within a week.
A heady mix of guilt, shame, and crippling fear swarming over me like locusts, I made it to the bus stop. Or at least, I thought I made it to the bus stop.
The bus stop that would lead back into the normal human section of town was theoretically on the corner of the street. The only problem was, as I threw myself up to it, I realized it was closed. A torn piece of paper was stuck over the bus timetable by scraps of clear tape.
Bus line closed. There will be no more late night buses back to the hums.
The hums, I was vaguely aware, was what the otherworlders referred to as humans.
That, though, that was irrelevant. What was really goddamn, terrifyingly relevant, was that I was stuck here.
The subway didn’t run this late at night, and it would take me a good two hours to walk back to Sarah’s.
My stomach started to knot with nerves. Tighter. Tighter. Until it felt as if somebody was tying a noose around my intestines.
“Oh shit, oh shit,” I muttered as I crammed a nail into my mouth and began chewing furiously.
I darted my terrified gaze from left to right as I wondered what the hell I should do now.
The bus stop backed onto a winding alley that cut around several buildings and rapidly became as dark as a cave. The air was fetid, and the vibe coming off the place was about as friendly as a gun pressed against your temple.
I moved to walk back towards the bars, in the slim hope I may be able to find some other bus stop.
Before I’d taken two steps, a taxi rammed up the pavement and came to a stop several feet beside me.
I screamed, jolting back, my heart exploding in my chest.
The taxi driver wound down his window, pressed a long, hook-like arm against the windowsill, and leaned out, gaze leering. “Want a lift back into town, sugar?” He put the kind of emphasis on sugar a junky puts on the word hit.
I cowered back, jerking my hands in front of my face.
“Come on, sweetie, you look lost.” The guy leered as he opened his door and got out.
I freaked out.
I lost all goddamn reason, turned on my heel, and began to run in the opposite direction, down the alleyway.
The guy followed, protesting a little, shouting at me that he only wanted to take me for a ride.
The alleyway snaked around several buildings, becoming narrower and somehow darker. Despite the fact the otherworld section of town was lit up like a Christmas tree, none of those neon flashing lights made it into this laneway.
It was so oppressively dark, that after a few more steps, I stopped, lest I fall over and crack my head on the pavement.
I stared behind me with wide desperate eyes, waiting for the taxi driver to lurch around the corner.
… He didn’t.
But something else did.
A door opened from behind me, leading into some building that was pumping with music.
As I tugged my head around, I realized someone was now standing behind me.
My eyes were beginning to adjust to the gloom, so I could see enough to recognize who it was.
My heart tumbled out of my chest and shot through the pavement beneath my feet.
It was him. The vampire from before.
He looked me up and down, one hand casually pressed into the pocket of his Gucci pants.
He tilted his head to the side, and slowly, deliberately, his lips curled into a calculating smile. “Miss me already?”
I jolted backwards, bringing two hands up defensively. “Leave me alone,” I begged in a shaking voice.
With his hand still pressed into his pocket, he took a languid step forward, gaze constantly darting up and down my form, lingering on the cut on my knee.
“Come on, don’t be like that. You’re the one who offered me a taste.”
“You practically threw your blood at me.” He smiled, now only locking his gaze on the gash in my knee.
I felt so sick my stomach could have fallen out and withered at my feet. My hands still pressed up, I kept backing away from him until my shoulders jammed against the wall.
“Got any family?” he questioned around a snarl.
“No? Then there’s no one to miss you.”
In a snap, he was upon me. He grabbed my wrist, twisted it against my stomach, and made my shoulder arch up, revealing the long line of my neck.
I heaved against him, bucked, tried to use my spare hand to scratch at his face.
He shoved me harder into the wall, wrapping an arm around my back as his head descended against my shoulder.
Then he bit me.
I shrieked as a wave of pain stabbed down my neck.
I’d read about what happens when a vampire bleeds you dry. The good ones can soothe you with their mind tricks, making you feel giddy and happy as you drift away on the wings of death.
The bad ones want your fear. It made your blood taste purer.
I screamed, shrieking as loudly as my cracked throat could manage. My cry split the air, echoing down the alleyway and bouncing off the brick walls around us.
He shoved me harder against the wall and stars started to explode through my vision.
This was it. I was going to die.
Just as my head began to thump, and a ringing split between my ears, he began to shake.
I… felt something. Surge through my stomach, dive into my heart, and explode up my neck.
Suddenly, just when I was sure I would black out, the vampire was thrown off.
I watched his eyes bulge in his head, those black, pin-prick pupils suddenly shuddering like a shaking hand.
He gasped and started to claw at his throat.
… I couldn’t catch up.
Seconds before I’d been on the verge of death, unable to throw the vampire off – now he was kicking and screaming in the dust as if I’d somehow poisoned him.
I watched in heart-pounding terror as he hit the ground, his legs lurching out from underneath him. He began to shriek and wail like a strangled ghost.
Then, all of a sudden, nothing.
He stopped moving.
I was still pressed up against the wall, body locked with terror, face slicked with sweat, hair tangled down my shoulders.
Cracks started to appear in the vampire’s skin. Cracks that bled a brilliant white light.
I jerked a hand up to my head and covered my eyes just in time.
The vampire exploded, a brilliant burst of illumination bathing the entire alleyway in so much light, it looked as if 100 flood lamps had been attached to the roofs.
I groaned into my hand, but a second later, the illumination ebbed.
Blinking past the afterglow burned into my retinas, I dropped my hand and stared.
… The vampire was gone.
Nothing remained but his clothes and… dust.
Particles of white dust that shimmered like fragments of diamond.
… I couldn’t move. Not a muscle. Not a twitch. My whole frame was riveted to that damp wall as my shoulders convulsed under my torn cotton jacket.
It wasn’t long until I heard voices from along the main road.
Just as terror surged through my heart at the prospect it could be the vampire’s friends, I saw a light. A familiar blinking light. I heard the sirens, too.
The police. Oh, thank God, it was the police.
Sure enough, there was a grind of tires and the growl of an engine, and a second later, a squad car came into view.
I struggled, trying to push myself up, but there was no point. My legs had turned into jelly, my body nothing more than soggy cardboard.
A uniformed officer jumped out of the front seat, just as a detective piled out of the back.
The detective ran up to me, scooting down to one knee and staring earnestly into my eyes. “Ma’am, are you all right?” His eyes locked on the droplets of blood trickling from the wound in my neck.
I brought a shaking hand up and pressed it over the wound, finally managing a shaky nod. “I was attacked. I was attacked,” I stuttered so badly my words would be indiscernible.
Immediately the guy pulled off his jacket and furled it around my shoulders. Then he started looking around the crime scene. “Where’s the perp? Where did the vampire go?” He swiveled his gaze back to me. “And what was that almighty burst of light? We saw it from several blocks away.”
My head began to buzz as he mentioned the light, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the awful metallic taste that swam through my mouth when he asked where the vampire had gone.
“Did he get away? Ma’am, did you see where the vampire went?” the detective asked in a direct, calm tone clearly designed to put me at ease.
Finally I brought up a shaking hand.
I pointed at the pile of ash by my feet.
At first the guy didn’t understand. At first the guy kept swiveling his gaze around, clearly looking for any indication where the vampire had run off to.
Then the detective stopped. And slowly he turned his attention back to me. By now the uniformed officer had gotten out of the car. He had some kind of strange glowing device in his hand that burned with an unmistakable red, magical glow.
As soon as he brought it towards me, let alone the pile of dust on the ground, it began to beep like an overexcited Geiger counter.
In a single snapped second, the detective’s crumpled, caring gaze changed.
He pushed to his feet, his wary, dark eyes locked on me. “Ma’am, did you kill that vampire?”
The question made my already ringing mind twist into freefall. My head began to spin, faster and faster, faster and faster.
“Ma’am, did you kill that vampire?” the detective asked once more.
“I didn’t mean to,” I managed. Then I blacked out.
When I came to, I was being checked over by a stiff lipped nurse in the police station.
At first, my mind couldn’t catch up to what had happened. At first, all I was aware of was this godawful ringing in my mind that felt like a choir screeching between my ears.
Then the metallic taste of leftover fear filled my mouth. So did the memory of what had happened.
I’d been attacked… and I’d killed a guy. Or something had killed him.
As soon as I was awake, the stiff lipped, severe-looking nurse grabbed the phone from her pocket, made a call and then settled back to watching me with that hard gaze. “She’s awake.”
I didn’t need any clarification to realize the nurse was talking about me.
A few minutes later, the detective from the alleyway appeared. He was back in his jacket; he’d obviously taken it off me. That wasn’t the only thing he’d taken from me. His compassion was gone. Now his gaze was as hard as steel wrapped in diamond. “Miss Luck, you are going to be charged with first-degree murder,” he said with no introduction.
If my mind had spun before, it was absolutely nothing compared to what it did now. I felt like it imploded. Like my sense of self shattered and hit the floor with a bang.
“What? What?” I stuttered.
“Miss Elizabeth Luck, you killed a vampire tonight. He may be an otherworlder, like yourself, but that’s still murder,” the detective said with a tone about as dangerous as a knife held to your back. His gaze was about as deadly, too.
I started to shake my head, over and over and over again. “Murder? Murder? I didn’t kill anyone. That guy… he just, he attacked me. Tried to feed on me. But he had some kind of reaction to my blood. Like, like an allergy, or something. I didn’t kill him.” My world began to fall down around me. I’d started the day terrified that I wouldn’t be able to find a job. Now I was going to be charged with first-degree murder.
Neither the detective nor the nurse softened their hard gazes as they stared at me like the scum that collects in storm drains after a deluge.
“What are you?” the detective asked as he locked his arms around his middle. “Witch? A sorcerer? It isn’t on your citizen file, but that doesn’t mean much to people like you, does it?” He bared his teeth at me. “Get your kicks by luring unsuspecting vampires into alleyways and hexing them, do you? Well I’ve got news for you, missy, William Benson III is on his way. If you think you can mess with the vampire clan of Hope City and get away with it, you are dead wrong,” the guy’s voice shook violently hard on the word dead.
Benson… William Benson III. He was meant to be one of the most powerful vampires in the city, let alone the country. He was also the richest, too. Heck, his wealth rivaled most small governments.
Oh, but that wasn’t to mention the most important fact. William Benson III was the spokesperson for the vampire clans of Hope City.
And, apparently, soon to be my executioner.
Before I knew what was happening, my head began to spin again. And this time there was no stopping it as it snatched me down into the relatively peaceful arms of unconsciousness. Peaceful arms that wouldn’t be able to keep me safe for long.
My reckoning was coming – a reckoning that would come at the strong, perfect hands of William Benson.
“Sorry for dragging you down here while you’re busy,” Detective Cortez said as he leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms.
William smoothed a smile over his face and offered the detective a gracious nod. “I have told you before, I am always at the Hope City PD’s disposal. Especially when a crime is committed against a vampire.” Benson smiled and showed his teeth.
Detective Cortez snorted. “I have no idea what the idiotic witch was thinking. Killing a vampire in one of the busiest nightclub districts of the city? She must have a death wish.”
“Perhaps,” Benson agreed simply.
“I’m already throwing the book at her. We’ve got more than enough evidence to prove that the witch murdered him in cold blood.”
Benson didn’t twitch at that word. Many vampires less skilled would have. He did, however, narrow his gaze. “How are we so sure that she’s a witch? And do you have any idea how she murdered the victim?”
Detective Cortez didn’t look particularly pleased by that question.
“A taxi driver has come forward saying he saw Miss Luck running down that alleyway mere minutes before the crime was committed.”
Benson nodded politely. “I see, but do we have any idea how this Miss Luck – is it? How she murdered him?”
Cortez brought a hand up and grated his nails over the back of his head – a telling move. “She killed the guy – hexed him with her blood. I mean, all it took was one drink, and the guy turned to dust.”
William didn’t react. He’d spent several lifetimes perfecting the ability to keep a completely neutral expression. “Indeed, but are we sure she hexed her blood? It takes a great deal of magic, patience, and some would say sheer stupidity to lace your own blood with a magical spell capable of killing a vampire. Let alone turning one to dust.”
“What are you saying?” Cortez leaned back in his chair, the wooden legs groaning over the marked black-and-white linoleum of the floor.
“That I need to look at the evidence. I assume you’ve removed the totality of the victim’s ashes from the scene. Have you also taken a sample of Miss Luck’s blood?” William kept his voice even. Dead even. He wasn’t like some of the newer vampires, like some of his crasser brethren. He could work in a pathology taking blood, and it wouldn’t send his hunger wild.
He was in control of his passions, not the other way around.
William was vaguely aware that much of the amorous affection for vampire’s came from their lust. To a certain subset of the human population, they were attracted to vampires’ raw, undiluted, almost unstoppable passion.
Not William. He’d conquered his drive long ago. So it took no effort to control his expression whatsoever as he nodded at Cortez. “Do you have her bloods?”
Cortez made an uncomfortable move, his muscles creaking as they stiffened. William could also smell the distinct scent of heightened stress as Cortez clearly battled with his conscience.
It wasn’t that Cortez wouldn’t trust William – it was that Cortez would have heard the stories. Blood could send even the most gracious, courteous, polite vampire wild. Catch them on the wrong day, and a single drop of freely given blood could strip a vampire of every sentiment of reason, leaving only that pulsating, never-quenchable thirst instead.
William kept his expression even.
Cortez appeared to come to his decision. He shrugged, opened his desk, and tugged out two evidence bags. One held a vial of dust – presumably the victim’s ashes.
The other held a perfect sample of ruby-red glistening blood.
William reached out and plucked up the ash first. He pulled it from the ziplock clear plastic bag, and held it firmly in the palm of his hand.
He quietened his mind and locked every scrap of his attention on the ash. On the life it had been.
He looked for any trace of the spell that had killed the vampire. If he’d really been hexed, his ash would still be sparking with microscopic charges of ethema – the primary energy source for magic.
The ash was clean.
Finally William Benson III reached forward and tenderly plucked up the blood.
It sang to him. Reached out. Pushed through his mind and snagged a hold around his heart.
… It was powerful. Extremely powerful stuff. So powerful, he almost considered dropping it.
He didn’t, though. He wrapped his fingers harder around the vial, drawing it close to his face.
Perhaps for half a second, he forgot to control his expression, because he looked up to see Cortez swallowing visibly.
William cleared his throat. He ticked his head to the side, inserting a finger into his collar and neatening it.
Finally he concentrated on the blood – pushed past the insane hold it seemed to have over him.
There was no doubting that human blood was attractive to vampires. The blood of certain other magical races, however, was much, much more potent.
He suspected that’s what he was holding now.
“So,” Cortez appeared to reluctantly break the eerie silence, “What are you detecting? Can you feel the hex she used to kill the guy?”
“There’s no hex in this blood,” William managed, his voice not as even as he’d have liked.
“What?” Cortez spluttered. “Well… there has to be something else.”
“There is.” Reluctantly, though it felt like ripping off one of his arms, William handed the blood back to Cortez.
Cortez looked at him questioningly. “What do you mean?”
“I think it’s time I meet this Miss Luck,” her name rolled off William’s tongue with a pleasant tang.
“She’s currently in one of the holding cells. I’ll arrange for her to be brought to my office—” Cortez grabbed his rumpled jacket from over the back of his chair.
William brought a hand up, surprised at how quick the move was. “No. I’ll get her. It will give me a chance to size her up.”
Cortez froze halfway through tugging his jacket on, brow crumpling to a thin line over his dark eyes. “What does that mean? What the hell is she, anyway?”
“Oh, Hell is only one possibility, Detective Cortez. But there are many others,” William said cryptically as he stopped himself from giving the vial of Miss Luck’s blood one last longing look.
“What the heck does that mean?”
“That it’s time I find out what race Miss Luck comes from.” With that, Benson turned on his foot, a flicker of something igniting in his gut.
It was a sensation he hadn’t felt for years. Interest. Curiosity.
The feeling that something was about to begin. He curled his lips and savored the sensation as he strode forward, Italian loafers beating a solid drumbeat on the linoleum.
I sat there, still shaking. Though they’d given me something for the blood loss and shock, it wasn’t working.
I was in the cells now, pressed right up as far as I could get along one of the rickety metal seats. The cell was filled with other perps who’d been dragged in that night. Real criminals, if my innocent little mind was any judge. One looked like a body witch – a sorceress who could spell herself into looking like anyone or anything for your pleasure. Or torture – depending on who paid her.
My skin crawled the way she looked at me. As if she was sizing up my measurements, remembering them in case anyone was stupid enough to ever ask for a 5’3 mouse with blond stringy hair and a figure like a toothpick.
There was a sullen warlock pacing from one end of the room to the other, his arms clasped tightly around his well-built, muscular body. There were flecks of what looked like either dried blood or blood red paint under his nails. Or both. Unlike the vampires, it would be harder for the warlocks to source the material they needed for their spells. I’d always heard that certain enchantments that required pure blood could be thinned down with red pigment. Though the results were rarely the same, unless you were brewing spells for someone with the nous and balls to complain to a warlock, that didn’t matter. It was a little like powerful drug lords cutting down their cocaine with powdered sugar.
There were two other inhabitants of the cell. But I couldn’t even begin to guess what they were, let alone what crime had dragged them in here.
They huddled together standing up in one corner, their backs pressed against the wall. They were both wearing dark hoods that covered everything apart from their sallow yellow skinned hands.
At first glance, they looked terrified – just as I was – of everyone else in here.
At second glance, if you locked your attention on the faint shapes of their necks and shoulders, you could see the points of bone beneath the fabric. Demon spellers, if I was any judge. And let’s face it – I wasn’t. A vampire had died of an overdose after biting me, and I had no idea what had happened.
Just as my stomach began to tie itself into a painfully tight knot of fear, I heard footsteps. Low, determined, heading our way. They echoed out with the unmistakable squeak and shudder of leather over cracked concrete.
Almost as one, everyone in the cell turned to face the bars as someone walked into view. I imagined we all hoped it would be our ticket out of here.
As I was pressed up against the corner of the wall, I couldn’t quite see past the pacing warlock and the body witch. I could see enough, however, to note their exact expressions as someone finally stopped in front of the bars. If they’d looked hopeful before, now they looked crushed. It was as if somebody had kicked in their faces until the only expression they would ever show again was total and complete fear.
Though it was probably smarter to stay exactly where I was, curiosity got the better of me.
I pushed to my feet and arched my neck to the left, just as a man purposefully took a step to the left to stare at me.
With one hand pressed casually into his pocket and an even-tempered, polite expression smoothed across his extremely handsome face, it didn’t take me long to recognize him. He was an otherworlder, sure, but he just happened to be the most famous otherworlder in the city.
William Benson III. He was one of the only otherworlders to sit on the Council, he was also one of the few permitted to employ humans. And, most importantly, he was purported to be the richest man in the city. He owned an integrated investment firm with fingers in almost every company in the state.
And now he was looking right at me, piercing eyes roving over my body from head to foot.
There was one other fact about Benson that was important right now. One other fact that locked me to the spot.
He was a vampire. From one of the oldest families in Europe. His clan had lived through centuries upon centuries of fighting, of wars, even the dark ages hadn’t killed them. And now humanity had finally woken up to find real monsters under the bed, and knew everything about the otherworlders, they’d had the sense to embrace men like William Benson. Not only would it be financially impossible to ignore him, but one look in those crystalline blue eyes, and you wouldn’t be able to.
Plus, from all reports, he kept most of the vampires in Hope City in check.
And me? I’d just killed one of his vampires.
With his hand still casually locked in his pocket, he nodded at me. “Come with me,” he said as he took a step forward and casually waved his free hand to the side.
Immediately the magical locks holding the cell door in place disengaged with a resounding click.
The door swung open.
Benson was standing on his own. There were no other officers around him, no backup.
The warlock looked powerful, and the two aspiring demons in the corner didn’t appear to be pushovers, either. Theoretically, if they combined their skills, they’d be able to force their way past Benson and make a run for it.
Nobody tried it. Nobody dared.
I didn’t move.
I stood there in complete shock as I stared at him.
“Come with me,” he said in a clearer tone this time as he waved me forward with another languid flick of his hands, as if he were doing nothing more than brushing an unwanted speck of dirt from his pristine jacket.
“I… I didn’t… mean to kill the vampire,” the words exploded from my lips as fear took to my gut like a wildfire through dry scrub.
“Come with me,” he said once more, his tone rippling with a note of finality.
Christ, this was it.
I wasn’t just going to get charged for killing a vampire in self-defense, but William Benson III himself was going to bleed me dry.
There was nothing that could stop me from shivering as I finally took several shaky steps out of the cell. William didn’t move backwards, and instead stood straight as he stared at me from head to foot.
I nervously took several steps backwards, locking my sweaty hands behind my back. It felt as if I’d dipped my hands in the sea or had swapped my fingers for the cloying digits of a water pixie.
“Follow me,” he said as he turned sharply on his expensive Italian loafers and walked forward.
Perfectly balanced. Perfectly poised. Despite the fact he was in an expensive cashmere wool suit that looked as if it had been allotted divine proportions by Pythagoras himself, you could still see the predator under all that tailoring.
It was in every precise shift of his large, well-proportioned shoulders. In the way he struck the floor with the balls of his feet.
Me? I shivered with every step. I knew the rules – don’t show fear in front of a vampire. They like that. Get a kick out of it. It reminds them they’re the ones in charge.
Show enough fear, and you’ll pique their curiosity until that curiosity turns into bloodlust.
Theoretically vampires as prestigious and well-adapted to the human environment as William Benson III didn’t have bloodlust anymore.
As he shifted his head slightly and looked at me out of the corner of his eye, I doubted that.
This was when I should fall down onto one knee and babble that I was too young to die. Apparently, if you could catch a vampire before their lust for your blood burned out their reasoning, you could make a deal with them. They’d spare you if you gave them some favor. Maybe they’d save you for later, but it would buy you a few more measly years.
That’s how most humans back in the day had become indebted to those monsters. They’d screamed for their lives, foolishly telling the vampire they’d do anything – just anything – if only they’d be allowed to live.
Anything – just anything – was a seriously open contract. And vampires were some of the most ruthless and exploitative businessmen this side of Lucifer.
My one saving grace – my one small feeble hope – was that we were still in the police station. And technically, this was a house of law. Though humans pretty much hated all otherworlders, there were still laws in place to protect us. Even from ourselves.
As we finally made it out of the cellblock and into a bustling hallway jam-packed with harried-looking cops, I sliced my gaze to the nearest one in hope.
A diminutive female detective in a mismatched pinstripe pencil suit, she didn’t even make eye contact as she jostled past. She did, however, tip her head low and give an almost suggestive smile to William.
Yes, he was drop-dead gorgeous. But you had to appreciate the drop-dead part of that equation. The charms, perfect jaw, and strapping build came with a hell of a cost. One the devil had cooked up himself. Eternal, bloodied damnation.
If you willingly hooked up with a vampire – despite the otherworldly pleasure they were meant to give you – you deserved your fate.
At a time like this, I should probably reach for some kind of religious symbol. A cross, Star of David, a crescent moon. Hell, a snapped-off incense stick and a meditation pad would probably do. Anything or anyone to pray to. Any last ditch attempt to call on the good graces of the universe to save me.
Back in the past, I had worn a cross around my neck. One my great-grandmother had given me before she’d passed. It was gold with a tiny diamond in the center of the cross. It was categorically the most expensive thing I owned. And knowing full well that most otherworlders were like magpies, and gleefully stole anything shiny, it was at home tucked in a strong box under my bed.
That didn’t stop my hand from drawing up to my bedraggled, torn cotton collar in a feeble attempt to clutch the cross that wasn’t there.
Immediately William’s gaze sliced over to me. I could tell, because as soon as his eyes locked on my neck, a godawful shiver pulsed down my back.
My wavering gaze locked on his until he slid his eyes up to mine then looked away.
A flight of nervous tingles shot down my back with all the bombastic force of the Valkyrie.
I locked my sweaty fingers over my collar, pushed a breath through my teeth, and kept looking around for some escape.
Nothing. Every detective or uniformed officer we passed was too busy. They all had wads of paper in their hands, or half empty coffee cups clutched in their white-knuckled grips. And all wore the same expression of furrowed-brow stress.
The part of my brain that wasn’t currently tripping out on fear appreciated where they were coming from.
Ever since the otherworld work regulations came into place, crime had doubled.
Of course it had.
In one fell swoop the government had pushed tens of thousands of people in Hope City out of work.
And there was only so many jobs amongst the otherworlders to go around – as I’d experienced personally over the past two weeks.
You push people to the edge – especially magical people – and they push back.
I saw two officers stagger past, one sporting a massive magical rash down one side of his face, sparks discharging blue and white magic. Great big red angry welts covered his partner’s hands.
Suffice to say, they both looked pissed.
That being said, they didn’t take out an ounce of that aggression on the bona fides vampire leader/king who walked past. Instead, they nodded at William Benson with something even I couldn’t deny was respect.
Me? They looked at me like I was scum. My jacket was torn, my blouse ripped at the throat. There were two puncture marks in my neck, and crusted blood was still splashed over my shoulder.
I wasn’t an angry person. My flat mate told me I didn’t have the balls to understand where anger came from. I was the meek girl. Weak. The innocent one who was always too much of an airhead to appreciate what was going on.
That being said, as I realized I’d find no help amongst the police, just judgement, a tiny spark of anger flared in my gut. It was almost immediately extinguished by an absolute cascade of fear when we reached a door.
Again I felt Benson’s eyes on the back of my neck. They say a vampire’s gaze is like an appendage. Like a ghostly limb. If they look at you hard, you can feel their fingers caressing the line of your neck and dropping down to your collarbone.
I’d never really experienced it before – at least not to this extent. One casual look from Benson, and it was like his hand was pressing down hard into my shoulder. One long, direct look, and it was like he was folding me into his arms.
I shivered at that thought as he pushed forward, locked a large hand on the door handle, and opened it.
We entered a bustling floor that at one glance seemed like a detective unit. There were a few uniformed officers flitting in and out, delivering criminals and taking away mountains of paperwork.
The sound in here was calamitous. From shrieking banshees and wailing witches to angry detectives shouting over their perps. There was the grate of shoes on linoleum, the splash of coffee cups as they were slammed onto desks, and the general sound of stress filling the air like a crumpled spring.
Benson led me through the various desks and workstations, shifting around the darting officers and criminals like a snake gliding through grass.
We reached a desk, and I recognized the detective behind it.
Cortez. The guy who’d brought me in.
His expression was… different. Back in the alley, when he’d thought I’d killed the vampire, his face had been as hard as carved wood. Now his brow was slick with a tiny smattering of sweat, and his hard jaw was tucked up high in a neat frown.
He also wasn’t blinking. He was surveying me with what felt like unusual interest, like I was some curiosity Benson had scraped from the floor of the cells.
Both men appeared to share an important look before they turned their attention back to me.
I didn’t so much feel like a specimen from a lab anymore – as I cowered under their gazes, I felt like one of those crabs you get crammed into those tiny fish tanks in expensive Chinese restaurants.
If I’d had any claws, I might’ve brought them up in defense. Instead, I wrapped my arms around my middle and collapsed into the chair behind Cortez’s desk.
Cortez slowly stood, locking a hand on his desk as he drew his other hand up, made a fist, and pushed it against his hip.
He darted his gaze to the side, probably on the premise of checking some scrap of paper on his desk, but I wasn’t an idiot – he was still staring at me intently out of the corner of his eye.
I couldn’t take it anymore.
I broke down.
“I didn’t know – I didn’t – I didn’t kill him on purpose. I—”
“What race do you come from?” Benson asked in a smooth tone.
And I do mean smooth. Heck, it felt like someone suddenly brushed satin over every inch of my body.
“Miss Luck, this is a serious case – please tell us what race you are,” Benson continued.
“I…” I suddenly couldn’t take my eyes off him. My lips wobbled open.
“Your race,” he prompted once more as he stared at me with all the force of a laser right between your eyes.
“… I don’t know,” I heard myself answering.
Cortez snorted. “Now is when you stop lying and start telling the truth. You do understand powerful vampires can tell if you’re lying, right? There is precedent of using their testament as permissible evidence in court. If you’re—”
“She’s not lying,” Benson said through the strangest tick of a smile as he tilted his head to the side.
It would be impossible to deny the curiosity flaring in his gaze. It felt like a rapidly growing fire a few inches from my face.
Cortez stiffened. “Are you sure?”
Benson suddenly dropped to a knee, locked a hand on the desk beside me, and leaned in close.
I squeaked in what was categorically the most pathetic noise ever made by anyone ever. “What are you doing?”
“What race are you?” Benson asked. His voice wasn’t so much satin on skin anymore – it was warmth. Blessed pure warmth. It was like jumping into a hot bath after being chucked in a frozen lake.
“I don’t know,” the words slipped out of my mouth with such ease it was like someone else was speaking them.
Benson remained there – just a few centimeters from my face – for a few more seconds.
Then he turned away. He straightened up, smoothed a large, strong hand down his shirt, and stretched his neck. “She doesn’t know. Plus, I got more than close enough to smell her – I don’t know what she is, either.”
I cringed at the admission he’d smelt me.
… But then a ray of hope hit my brain like a torch lighting up the dark.
Benson had no idea what race I was.
He also wasn’t looking at me like I’d murdered one of his vampires in cold blood.
Oh, heck no – the only emotion flickering in his cold but nonetheless enthralling gaze was interest.
Plain and simple.
I kept a hand locked on my torn collar and tried not to squeak again.
“So she’s not a witch?” Cortez questioned with a heavy breath.
“Definitely not a witch.”
“And she didn’t hex the victim’s blood?”
“No.” Benson kept watching me out of the corner of his perfect eyes.
“Then how the hell did he die?” Cortez huffed, annoyance clear.
Benson paused. “There are certain races whose blood is, ah… unpalatable to vampires.”
“Unpalatable? The guy exploded and turned to ash on the sidewalk. I call that real unpalatable. But that’s not what I’m getting at. I need to know if she,” Cortez extended a stiff finger towards me, “Knowingly, purposefully killed that vampire.”
He looked at me.
I looked at him.
He now held my life in his hands.
“No. I don’t believe she knowingly killed the victim. He unknowingly killed himself by partaking of something he shouldn’t have.” Benson swiveled his gaze back to Cortez, but not before letting it linger on the dried blood splashed over my collar.
It took a second. A full second.
Then it hit me.
William Benson was on my side.
I crumpled into my hands as I took a shaking, sobbing breath. “I didn’t kill him. I had no idea what was happening.”
Cortez hardly looked happy as he blew a breath through his teeth. He was, however, softening. Imperceptibly at first, it was clear he was starting to re-evaluate how much of a brute he’d been to me.
He wasn’t quick enough, though.
Benson crossed his arms, turned, leaned against Cortez’s desk, and appeared to size me up. “That isn’t to say Miss Luck here didn’t commit a serious crime.”
I sucked in a breath, locking it in my throat until I felt like I was going to choke. “What?”
“How long have you known you are an otherworlder, Miss Luck?” Benson asked, that same smooth manipulative note behind his voice.
Now I was starting to get used to it, it was easier to detect. Maybe in the future I’d even be able to find some defense for it, too.
Not now. Because right now I doubted I had a future.
My lips parted open of their own accord. “Nine months.”
“Were you told – like others in your situation – to find out what race you belong to?” Benson asked.
It had been in the letter that had come back with the genetic test. I had a legal obligation, apparently, to discover just what kind of otherworlder I was. If I was a vampire, I needed to know that before I started sleep walking and snacking on the neighbor’s jugular.
“Have you made any moves to find out what species you belong to?” Benson continued to question me.
The simple answer was no. I’d stuck my head in the sand and tried real friggin’ hard to pretend nothing had happened.
“You understand that’s a crime, don’t you, Miss Luck? There’s a reason you were obliged to discover what you are – so accidents like this didn’t happen,” Benson continued.
Something managed to spark past my fear and guilt.
Just a lick of rage.
It ignited in my gaze before my better judgement could damp it out. “Accidents? He shoved me up against a wall and tried to bleed me dry,” I spat.
I thought Benson would brush my pointed comment away. He didn’t. Instead he dipped his head low in understanding, the beginnings of what almost looked like compassion smoothing his lips into a frown. “I’m not denying the vampire attacked you.”
“Really?” Tears started to touch my eyes, that cold sensation you get when you’re about to cry spreading through my chest. “Because five seconds ago you wanted to book me for first-degree murder.”
“As I’ve said, you didn’t kill that vampire. Knowingly. And should he have survived, considering his crime against you, he would have been punished accordingly. What matters now, though, is what you are. You have an obligation to find out. And, considering the severity of this situation, the impetus to start searching, rather than sticking your head in the sand.”
I shifted away from him, not wanting to hear a word of this.
“Like it or not, Miss Luck, some substance in your blood killed that vampire. While some would say he deserved his fate for attacking you, and I would personally agree with such a statement – it doesn’t change one fact. You have the ability to kill, and you don’t know why. I call that dangerous, don’t you? What if you had unwittingly donated blood to the hospital, only to kill a host of vampire children? Or one of the vampire paramedics working in the otherworld section of town could have attended to you, only to wind up dead for their efforts.”
I cringed, sinking away from his words as I locked a hand over my eyes.
“Again, Miss Luck – I feel nothing for the loss of that vampire. If he was so base and primal to have been unable to control his desires, then it is fitting that he ultimately succumbed to those same desires. You, however, are a different matter.” He arched his neck, staring down his nose imperiously at me. “Don’t you want to find out what you are? Or would you prefer to be controlled by the fear of finding out?” Something awfully strange happened when he said controlled. His voice became so quiet I shouldn’t have been able to discern it. But I could. Oh mama could I hear it. It shook up my legs and dove deep into my belly.
I crammed a hand on my stomach and looked up at him with wide, shaking eyes.
“I offer a truce.” Benson, still staring at me, reached a hand into his pocket and pulled something out.
It was a parchment of paper. One that rightly shouldn’t have fit in his pocket, considering the rather tight and appealing way his pecs sat flush against the fabric.
“W-what is that?” I asked, flashing my terrified gaze up to his.
“A contract.” He smiled.
“I will agree not to press charges against you for failing to find out what race you belong to, if you agree to my terms.” He smiled. And oh boy oh boy was it one heck of a smile. Equally as charming and compelling as it was victorious.
My gaze immediately flashed over to Cortez. Though the guy had been exactly zero help to me so far, deep down, I doubted he was bad. “Can he… can he do this?”
Cortez shrugged. “Sure. He’s not just a representative for the vampires in Hope City, but all the otherworlders.”
“You mean,” I brought a hesitant hand up and pointed at the contract as if it were going to jump down and bite me, “If I sign that, I won’t be in any trouble?”
Benson still smiled. “I’ll ensure you aren’t charged. All you have to do is agree to the following: you will not willingly or knowingly give your blood to a vampire. You will also assist me in finding out what you are.”
My stomach lurched so badly it practically swung a 360 around my spine. “What?” I choked around a dry mouth.
“I have considerable skills, Miss Luck. With some investigation, it shouldn’t be hard to find out what you are.” Benson looked blank, finally controlling his smile until it was little more than a tiny curl at the edges of his lips.
I swallowed. Real hard. If the roof had just flown off and a screaming rock band had descended from above, you would have still heard my gulp over the cacophony.
I swiveled my gaze back to Cortez.
Again he shrugged unhelpfully. “If it were me, I’d take the deal.”
Really? He’d sign a contract with a vampire? Worse – a smiling vampire who was holding all the cards?
I crammed a hand on my stomach and tried to think. It chose that exact moment to rumble.
“Are you hungry, Miss Luck?” Benson asked perceptively.
Goddamn he was good, because on the word hungry, his gaze did not tick up to the open wound on my neck.
“I haven’t eaten since this morning. I spent the whole day looking for work,” I muttered truthfully as I kept massaging my stomach in an attempt to make it shut the hell up.
“You are in need of employment?” Benson asked smoothly. “I take it you were… affected by the recent changes in work law.” He picked his words carefully. He also picked his expression carefully, because I had to try real hard to see the well-hidden flare of anger as he talked about the changes to the law.
I was way past lying to this guy. Do that, and he’d only descend slowly to one knee and lean in until our noses almost touched.
My gut tightened at the mere thought of it, then the treacherous thing gave another grumble.
I pretty much folded myself like a contorted piece of origami as I tried to shut my rumbling gut up.
“I can offer you a job,” Benson said out of the blue.
My eyes widened. “What?” Hope and surprise caused my tone to jack up high like a toot on a kazoo.
He smiled once more. Oh lordy lord, his smile could be used to sell anything. Toothpaste, cars, even death.
I could imagine someone dreamily falling into that smile and agreeing to anything.
“This, you must sign,” he pushed the contract onto the desk and slid it towards me, leaning to the side and plucking a black Parker pen from Cortez’s drawer. “And once you’ve signed it, we can talk about what work you’d like to do. I have many organizations, I’m sure we can find something in your current field of expertise. Which is?”
“I’m a librarian,” I said as I reluctantly accepted the pen and stared from it to the contract.
… I couldn’t not sign it. Not sign it, and I’d end up in an otherworlder jail.
In other words, Hell.
But would signing a contract indebting me to William Benson the III be just as impossible to escape as prison?
He locked a finger on the edge of the contract and slid it closer until it was right under my nose.
Closing my eyes, I signed it. In a messy squiggle that half fell off the page, but it was still a signature.
As soon as I put my name to the paper, a charge of white sparks shot through it, a few escaping up the pen and biting into my fingers.
I yowled, dropped the pen on the floor, and sunk back into my chair.
Benson let out a soft chuckle as he leaned down, thoughtfully picked up the pen, and returned it neatly to Cortez’s desk. “Don’t worry about the sparks, Miss Luck – they are just binding you to the contract. They may leave a tickle for a few minutes, but it will subside.” Benson leaned down, plucked up the parchment, rolled it up into a neat tube, and tucked it into the pocket of his jacket.
When he smoothed the jacket across his chest, it looked as if the bulky roll of paper had disappeared.
I could only wish. In all likelihood, it would have been spirited away to some vampire vault somewhere, to live out eternity and bind me to this man for good.
I brought up a hand and smashed it over my lips in a jerky move as I realized what I’d just done.
Benson suddenly pulled back his jacket and tugged out another parchment of paper. Again he slid it towards me.
“But I just signed—” I began.
“A work agreement. Once you sign it, I promise to find you fitting, well-paid work in your current profession, or perhaps something more stimulating.”
My mind really didn’t like the emphasis he used on the word stimulating. It was the verbal equivalent of running your hands down someone’s cheek.
My stomach, however, did kind of like it, and gave a pleasant tingle.
He tapped the contract with one finger. “Sign it, and I’ll even ensure you have lodgings and board.”
It was a hell of an offer.
“I’ll put you up in one of my apartment blocks in Morgana Street.”
Holy crap, Morgana Street was in the center of town. There was only one apartment block on it, and it was categorically the chicest place to live in Hope City.
Unless Benson planned on putting me up in the broom cupboard, then he was intending to put me up in a million-dollar apartment.
Even Cortez looked impressed.
Benson opened his mouth, possibly to sweeten the deal further by offering to buy me some diamond slippers, but what sounded like a fight broke out in the hall outside.
Benson swiveled his gaze towards it, one side of his nostrils flaring.
“What’s going on out there?” Cortez called across the room to a panicked uniformed officer who ducked their head in the door.
“I’ll deal with it.” Benson turned hard on his expensive loafer and nodded at Cortez. “I’ll deal with this.”
They both hurried away.
I wasn’t stupid enough to think I had an opportunity to escape. There was now nowhere in Hope City I could go.
William bloody Benson III had his eye on me. And a man like that never lost sight of you.
When they were out of sight, I turned my head down to stare at the contract.
With a strange mash of exhilaration and fear mixing in my gut like explosives, I grabbed it and brought it towards me.
Before I knew what was happening, someone darted over from my left and leaned in.
From the ruddy complexion to the perfectly round pot belly, I recognized him at once.
The PI from this morning. The one who’d kicked me out of his shop.
“What?” I frowned at him as I kept hold of the contract.
“Mr Marvelous.” He ignored my question, leaned over, and offered me his hand.
I didn’t shake it. Instead I stared at him in suitable shock. “Ah, what are you doing here?”
“I came in on a case – heard everything Benson just said. But that’s beside the point.” Mr Marvelous leaned in, locked one of the pudgy fingers of his left hand on the contract, and yanked it away from me.
I stared up, startled.
He surreptitiously shifted over his shoulder, locking his wary gaze on Benson and Cortez. By now, both of them were already out of the room.
“What are you doing?” I found my voice. I also found my sense, and leaned forward, trying to snatch the contract from Mr Marvelous.
That, right there, was my ticket out of this. Hell, it was my ticket not just to freedom, but back to normality.
I needed a job. If I didn’t get one, I’d turn into all the desperate magical criminals around me.
No matter how hard I tried to snatch at the contract, Mr Marvelous kept it locked in his pudgy, round, red fingers.
His lips pulled back in a sneer. “Get a head on you, girl. Who the hell signs a contract from a vampire king without reading it?”
“I have read it,” I protested too quickly. “Okay, I haven’t read it – but he summarized what it says. Plus, this is the police station. They wouldn’t allow me to sign something illegal,” I stammered.
I think I realized how stupid I sounded as I said it.
Mr Marvelous chucked his head back and laughed, though it wasn’t so ribald that he drew the attention of everyone in the room.
Somehow he was keeping the contract away from me, despite the fact he was the exact same height as I was.
He leaned in and locked his calculating gaze on me.
I swallowed and pushed back from the table, the legs of my chair grating across the lined and marked black-and-white linoleum.
“You came into my office today looking for a job. I’ve got one for you.” Mr Marvelous stuck a hand behind one of his suspenders. It was almost as if he was going to pick something out of his jacket pocket, but he wasn’t wearing a jacket.
That didn’t matter. With a suitable twang and a vibration that ran down the length of his suspender, he pulled something out of thin air.
A crisp clean contract written in glistening black pen on a piece of unmarked office paper.
He slammed it down in front of me, grabbed one of the pens from Cortez’s pen holder, and handed it to me.
“What? I don’t understand—” I began.
“Keep up, kid – I’m offering you a job. Sign on the dotted line, and you start as a magical PI right now. The benefits aren’t great – at least not the medical and dental. The security benefits, however, can’t be understated. As a full-time employee of Mr Marvelous, you will be under my considerable wing,” he motioned to one of his scrawny arms that stuck out from the folds of his upturned sleeves, “You’ll be protected from the scum of this city. You’ll also be inducted into a wide-ranging and fascinating career. It pays a flat rate of $10 an hour, and you get to keep 40% of any bounties or direct contracts you manage to bring in and solve.”
“$10 an hour?” I scrunched my nose up. Then I shook my head when I reminded myself it was completely irrelevant how many dollars an hour this job paid – I had no intention of accepting it.
I made another play at snapping Benson’s contract out of Mr Marvelous’ hand, but he just tugged it further from my reach. “Don’t be an idiot, kid. Don’t sell your soul to a vampire king. You want honest work that won’t leave you in damnation? Sign the contract.” As Mr Marvelous spat out his garbled words, he always kept one wary eye locked on the door Benson had left through. It was obvious he wanted to get this over and done with before the city’s most powerful vampire could return.
“I’m not going to work for you. You already ran me out of your office this morning. Now give me back my contract—” I practically bent double over the desk as I made a bold grab for it.
Somehow Mr Marvelous was a hell of a lot quicker on his feet than he looked. He was like a practiced boxer dodging a right hook as he shifted the contract just out of my grip.
I was surprised we hadn’t drawn a crowd. Then again, with the twin screaming banshees at the back of the room, it would probably take an explosion and an impromptu dance to turn heads here.
“Fine. $11 an hour, and I’ll let you bunk in the storage room at the shop. It’s got a window, good view,” he mentioned with some pride, as if that sealed the deal.
“A storage cupboard?” Again my nose scrunched up. Then, almost immediately, I shook my head as I reminded myself for the second time that he could take his window and hang.
“Spare room,” he corrected smoothly. “Reliable heating, a great view,” he mentioned pointedly once more, “And above all else – safe. I’ve never had a break in, never even had any threatening mail. Nobody in their right mind would dare attack my fine establishment.” He brought his fingers up and stuck them through his suspenders, pulling them out as his lips pulled into an almost corny smile. I could bet it was the same smile he’d use on his TV advertisements or on his mirror after he brushed his teeth.
It didn’t work on me. “Mr Marvelous, I don’t need your job. Benson has offered—”
“Benson wants you under his thumb,” Marvelous’ tone dropped and the shadows along his face became deeper as he ducked his head down and looked at me directly. “You look smarter than that, kid. Do you really want to be under the thumb of a vampire? Haven’t you stopped to ask yourself why William Benson the bloody III is offering to solve your every problem if only you sign yourself away to him?”
I snorted, though it was an unsure, kind of rattling noise. “I’m not selling myself to him,” I tried to say family. My voice was about as firm as unset jelly that had been left in the sun to melt.
“You’ve had a rough night, kid. But you have to think clearly here. Don’t make the kind of mistake you’ll regret for the rest of your life, and your death,” he said pointedly.
“I…” I trailed off. My eyes locked on the contract. “Maybe I should read it,” I muttered to myself. But what help could that make? You had to have a PhD in magical law to understand the complicated language vampires used in their contracts. They’d probably been work-shopping them for centuries, perfecting their circuitous, mind-boggling language until it felt like every sentence was a maze and every clause a noose around your neck.
“There you go. I’ll read it for you,” Mr Marvelous began as he tugged the contract down.
He cleared his throat, but didn’t get a chance to read the contract.
Instead someone smoothly snatched it out of his grip. Somebody who appeared at his side like an unwelcome apparition.
I hadn’t seen him walk up.
I had such a visceral reaction to his sudden appearance, that I doubled back so hard in my chair, I almost fell off it. I had to scoot a hand out and latch it on the edge of the desk to steady myself.
Mr Marvelous slowly turned around, crumpled his arms over his pot belly, and tipped his head back to stare up into the cold blue eyes of William Benson III.
“What are you doing?” Benson asked in a falsely patient tone.
“Disposing of this unnecessary contract here. My new employee doesn’t require your services anymore, Councilman,” Mr Marvelous said with a real note of irony shifting through his tone.
It surprised me. Hell, it practically floored me like a hay maker to the jaw.
No one – and I mean absolutely no one, from the heads of the werewolf clans to the strongest sorceresses in the city – talked to William Benson like that. It was like shoving your face against a hornet’s nest and opening your mouth wide.
“Employee?” Benson sliced his gaze towards me. His look was direct, so direct that I swore I felt his hands against my neck.
I immediately twisted my fingers through the collar of my torn blouse, closing it as tightly as I could.
“That’s right,” Mr Marvelous said in an almost chipper tone. “The Miss here now works for me.”
“She does? Do you even know her name?” Benson challenged.
“I don’t need to. I just need a signature. You know how the magical courts work, Councilman.” There it was again. That unmistakable note of sarcasm.
Just who did Mr Marvelous think he was that he could take on the strongest vampire in the city? Was it nothing more than a dangerous ploy of courage to get me on side? Or did Mr Marvelous have some ace up his crumpled sleeve?
Benson smoothly turned from Mr Marvelous, as if the man were nothing more important than an irritating fly. Then Benson locked his full attention on me.
If his direct gaze was like two hands on my neck. His full attention was like his fingers locking around my jaw and holding me tight.
I couldn’t move.
Not a centimeter. Not a millimeter.
“Miss Luck, the sooner you sign this, the sooner I can solve all your problems,” he said in a smooth voice like old whiskey sloshed over ice.
It even sent a suitable quiver tracing down my back. I sat straighter as a tightness gripped my firm stomach.
The slightest prickle of a smile twisted the corners of his lips.
And that smile – that tiny move – was enough to make the tightness in my gut explode into tingles like I’d swallowed a goddamn firecracker.
Mr Marvelous suddenly cleared his throat. He also jostled forward, apparently inadvertently striking Benson with the side of his shoulder as he bustled over the desk, grabbed the corner of his contract, and shoved it over to me. The paper was so new and shiny it slipped over the smooth desk and fell into my lap.
I had no option but to catch it, and as soon as my fingers wrapped around the paper, I could feel the magic eating through every fiber.
“Sign the contract, Miss Luck,” Mr Marvelous switched his pointed gaze to Benson, “And I can guarantee all your troubles aren’t given your address and personal details.”
Benson swallowed, the move hard as he locked his jaw stiffly. “Mr Marvelous, don’t you feel you are overstepping your mark? Miss Luck here has had a run in with the vampire clan. As the official vampire spokesperson for Hope City, it is up to me to mediate a solution.”
“Run in? Can I see the police report on that?” Mr Marvelous made a show of looking over the clean desk. “Or did your lapdog detective forget to write one up again?”
“Who are you calling a lapdog detective?” Cortez suddenly rumbled from behind Mr Marvelous.
To Mr Marvelous’ credit, he turned smoothly and shrugged without a hint of embarrassment flushing his cheeks. “You, Cortez. Dutifully playing the role as Benson’s right hand again, are we?”
It was almost as if I wasn’t there anymore. All three men stared at each other as if the world and all its assorted problems had been whittled down to just the three of them locking horns.
I thought of dropping down to my knees and skulking quietly out of the station.
I didn’t get the chance. Benson shifted forward, the contract still in his hand. Rather than reach over the desk and hand it to me, he walked around until he loomed over my seat.
He was like a great big storm cloud blocking out the sunshine.
No… that wasn’t quite right. A storm cloud blocking out the sunshine would block out its warmth, too. But as Benson looked right at me, I felt the gentle caress of his attention.
“Miss Luck.” He placed his contract on my lap, careful not to actually touch me. Then he brought a hand up and plucked an expensive pen from the neat, ironed pocket of his shirt. He handed it to me slowly, reverently, keeping me in his full attention all the time.
I was vaguely aware that my bottom lip had dropped open and was wobbling like the knees of a gal staring up into the gaze of her first crush.
When I didn’t pluck the pen from his hand, he gave it to me.
In a thoroughly strange way.
He didn’t pluck up one of my hands and press the smooth metal shaft of the pen into my fingers. Instead, he hooked his hand around the corner of my sleeve and tugged it forward, tapping the top of the pen into my palm.
Vampires had absolutely no problem touching you. They had the personal space of a puppy without any of the innocent cuteness. If a vampire wanted something from you, they certainly wouldn’t let something like plain old decency get in the way.
And yet here William Benson was, apparently going out of his way not to touch me….
I grabbed the pen, didn’t really have any option not to.
Mr Marvelous cleared his throat. He also shot Benson a crumpled-nosed, calculating look. He’d seen Benson’s strange reaction.
For Benson’s part, the vampire straightened up, smoothed a strong, large hand down his pocket, pressed it closed, then offered me the kind of dignified nod that you always saw in those period dramas. Some old English Earl who’d been properly schooled in etiquette and charm. The angle to his head was perfect, the look in his eyes smoldering, and the promise along his lips unmistakable.
That wasn’t anything to be said of his pen. It was heavy. Strangely heavy. Though it was obviously made out of metal, and probably gold considering the exact caliber of whom it came from – that didn’t account for its weight.
It felt like I was holding an anvil. And if not an anvil, then a very heavy, very long length of chain.
He nodded at me. “Go ahead and sign the contract, Miss Luck – and I will personally ensure you never have a problem again.”
My flat mate adored vampires. She wouldn’t call herself a groupie – she was too dignified for that – but she, like a lot of the other women in Hope City, couldn’t go back to ordinary men.
It wasn’t just a vampire’s magical charm and the ever-loving caress of their gaze – it was the fact they oozed seduction.
My great-grandmother would turn in her grave if she knew I was squirming under the gaze of a vampire.
Mr Marvelous cleared his throat once more. Then he switched his attention to me. “Go ahead and sign the contract, Miss Luck. I may not be able to promise you that I’ll be able to solve all your troubles,” Mr Marvelous switched his attention to the back of Benson’s head, “But I can sure as hell promise that I won’t become one of them.”
This morning, I’d been out of work and out of luck. Now I had two men shoving contracts under my nose.
And all it had taken was the murder of one vampire.
That fact suddenly struck me again. For all my apparent problems – I’d killed a man tonight. Okay, not a man by the traditional sense – an undead otherworlder. But the fact of murder remained.
Benson had given me a relatively simple explanation of what had happened, but as I dropped my attention from everyone and settled it on my wrists, I focused in on the most important thing in this case.
Before I knew what I was doing, I returned Benson’s expensive pen to the desk, brought a hand up, and latched it on my neck. My nails snagged over the dried blood, catching a few scraps and sending them tumbling down my chest and over my torn collar.
“… I don’t want to sign anything tonight.” I surprised myself by saying that as I pushed up from the chair so suddenly it clattered behind me.
It teetered, threatening to fall over, but Cortez moved in quickly, caught it smoothly, and set it straight.
Then he set his straight gaze on me, too. “You were involved in a serious crime tonight, Miss Luck—”
“And that doesn’t mean she has to sign her life away to the vampire king,” Mr Marvelous interrupted immediately. “You heard her – she wants some time to think.”
Cortez shot Benson a questioning look.
… It was pretty clear who worked for whom.
Maybe my gut instinct about Cortez was wrong. Maybe he was the lackey Mr Marvelous had accused him of being.
And maybe, just maybe signing another contract with William Benson would be like booking the first direct flight down to Hell.
Before I could even begin to make up my mind, there was a bang from the corridor.
Before the uniformed officers around it could react, the door burst open.
A vampire burst in. A vampire with an unmistakably ferocious look in his eyes.
Even from here I could tell his pupils were nothing more than pinpricks.
He was in a full bloodlust rage, fully evidence by the smattering of blood up his arms.
I freaked out and jolted forward, heart pounding at a million miles an hour at the all-too-fresh memory of my attack.
Benson swiveled on his foot and stalked towards the vampire.
Despite the fact the guy was clearly driven berserk by some rage, the vampire still cowered.
A few officers had pulled out their guns.
They didn’t need them.
Benson walked past a detective’s desk, plucked up a pair of magical handcuffs, and stalked right up to the vampire.
In a smooth move, Benson grabbed the man’s blood-splattered arm, yanked hard until the vampire fell to his knees, then cuffed him.
Immediately the cuffs had a sedating effect on the vampire, and the guy’s previously pin-prick eyes rolled into the back of his head as he sunk down to his knees.
“You can’t trust ‘em,” someone said by my ear.
It was Mr Marvelous.
My heart was still thundering along like a herd of antelope desperately fleeing a pride of lions.
Marvelous slipped his contract in front of me and practically smacked me on the nose. “Sign it, Miss Luck, and I’ll keep Benson and his clan away from you.”
Before I knew what I was doing, my shaking hand signed the contract.
There was another charge of magic.
Somehow – even though he was still on the other side of the room – Benson appeared to smell it.
He swiveled and locked his disappointed gaze on me.
The vampire was now well and truly sedated, and was pretty much a dribbling ball of putty on the floor.
Benson walked away, leaving the guy in the custody of two armed officers.
He walked back to me, pulling out his jacket and straightening it. The effect was like a demon suddenly unfurling and tucking its wings.
Benson had undeniable presence as he loomed towards me. “You shouldn’t have signed that.”
“Why not? She saw exactly what you vampires are like,” Mr Marvelous challenged as he gestured towards the vampire who was now being dragged away, “And she came to a pretty smart decision. Trusting you guys is like booking a date with death.”
Benson looked on the edge of anger, but appeared to control himself just in time.
He turned from Marvelous and faced me.
“This doesn’t end our relationship with each other, Miss Luck,” Benson said in a clear tone, though his disappointment was obvious. “I will be in contact soon. You are now contractually obliged to help me find out what you are.”
Relationship? Why the heck did he have to go and use a word like that?
I gulped, and there wasn’t anything I could do to stop myself.
He looked right at me for several more seconds before taking a deep breath that pushed his chest appreciably against his shirt.
Then he turned and walked away.
Mr Marvelous chuckled. “Alrighty, then. Time to get you back to the shop. What’s your name, anyway?”
“Okay, Lizzie. Let’s get out of here while the busses are still running.”
“Bus?” I spluttered. Considering the night I’d had, I never wanted to look at public transport again, especially if it led into the otherworld section of town.
“Yeah sorry, the car’s back at the shop.” Marvelous shrugged.
“And your license has been torn up,” Cortez snorted. “Because you drive like a raging bull.”
Marvelous shrugged. He appeared to be one of those unusual people who could pick whether he was insulted by something. Right now, he clearly wanted to ignore Cortez, so Marvelous pointed towards the door. “If that’s all, detective – and we both know you no longer have a legal right to keep Lizzie here – then we’ll be off.”
I blinked. “Ah, can we really go?”
Cortez snorted again. His arms were wrapped so tightly around his torso, his biceps rippled like waves. “Yes, you can go. But shouldn’t you be asking yourself where? You just signed a contract with this goon. You don’t even know who he is, do you?”
If William Benson’s gaze was like two warm hands around your cheeks, Cortez’s eyes were like scalpels. Scalpels that dissected you and found you lacking every time.
“I’m Hope City’s number one PI. I’ve solved more cases in my 40 years of operation than you ever will, detective. So now introductions are over, we’ll be leaving.” Marvelous motioned me forward.
Stupidly, I made eye contact with Cortez as I walked past.
He shot me an unmistakable look. It told me I was an idiot. A real idiot.
Well, maybe he was right. But the decision was made, the contract was signed, and my life would never be the same again.
I bit my lip and chewed industriously.
So this was meant to be my room. Mr Marvelous had been generous when he’d referred to it as a storage cupboard. It was barely 3m by 2m. You could stand in it, stretch your arms out, and spin in a circle, but that’s only if you wanted to ram into the furniture that cluttered every wall, not to mention the old archive boxes spewing their files over every centimeter of the floor.
I made no attempt whatsoever to hide my disgust as Mr Marvelous rolled up his sleeves for about the 10th time and nodded towards the window. “Beautiful view, isn’t it?”
“Maybe, but I can’t exactly sleep on a view,” I said pointedly as I grimaced at what looked like a bed under a mound of newspaper clippings.
“No problem,” Mr Marvelous said cheerily as he walked over to the bed and reached a hand behind one of his suspenders. Again, there was a twang. If you listened carefully, the exact note wasn’t accounted for by the tension in his suspenders. It echoed too powerfully through the room and set the hair on the back of my neck standing on end.
He pulled out a set of gloves the likes of which I’d never seen. They looked like black leather, yet at the same time they had lines of magical light running from the fingers to a small box at the wrists.
Mr Marvelous crammed them on his hands and set to work cleaning up the newspaper clippings and stacking up the boxes.
Just when I thought he intended to industriously clean the entire room, he gave a happy sigh and yanked the gloves off, tossing them to the floor. “You can do the rest,” he said.
Just as I let out the tiniest frustrated harrumph, the gloves suddenly came to life. They continued to clean the room, essentially copying the exact moves Marvelous had taught them.
He must’ve caught the stunned look in my eyes, because he chucked his head back and laughed. “Not too familiar with the otherworld, are you? That’s a simple set of cleaning gloves, Lizzie. You’ll find them available for a couple of hundred dollars from most good magical supply stores. They’re not perfect, and you tend to have to give them a very specific set of instructions or you’ll come back to find they’ve cleaned a hole in your wall, but they’ll get the job done quickly enough.”
I suddenly jerked back as the gloves picked up a box of archive files and flew from the room. The move was so fast it flattened my fringe over my forehead.
At times like this – when I saw something truly magical – I felt a familiar spark of fear in my heart. The same spark of fear I’d felt the day the world had woken up to find that magical creatures lived amongst us. Despite everything that had happened to me, I still thought of myself as normal. As just an ordinary human in a place where witches were real and vampires owned the biggest investment firms in town.
Mr Marvelous kept chuckling at me until his phone rang. He shoved a hand into his pocket and grabbed it out. He answered before he crammed it against his ear. “What have you got for me, Arnie?” he snarled.
I swiveled my attention between Mr Marvelous and the magical gloves. That was, until Mr Marvelous took an uncharacteristic hiss of a breath that rasped through his teeth like ragged metal over glass.
I felt my chest tighten.
Mr Marvelous swore, hung up the phone, and jammed it behind one of his suspenders. Then he jerked his gaze towards me. “You ready for your first case, kid?”
I blinked quickly. “Sorry? I mean isn’t this a little early? I’m just moving in.”
“There’s no such thing as early. Like I said before, you signed a contract. I take my business very seriously. I spent a lot of hard years carving out a niche for myself in this city, and a reputation to match my hard work. People call on Mr Marvelous Investigations when they have the kind of case no one else can break. I hired you because I saw something in you, kid. You’re lucky and you’ve got drive. Speaking of which, can you drive?” he suddenly changed track so quickly I shook my head.
“Can you drive?” he said slowly and clearly as if I was hard of hearing.
“Fantastic. I lost my license speeding,” he said through a grin. “So you get to drive the beast.” He turned smoothly on his foot and strode out of the room making several specific gestures to the gloves. The gloves suddenly dropped an archive box on the ground, a whole cloud of dust shifting up from the cobweb-laced floorboards and shooting up my nose.
I spluttered and waved at the dust madly.
The gloves repeated every action Mr Marvelous made, then went back to cleaning up the room.
With nothing else to do, I reluctantly turned on my heel and followed Mr Marvelous. He walked quickly, a lot quicker than his tubby form accounted for. Those arms and legs were scrawny, but he was clearly powerful, and right now, determined.
Before I had a chance to catch my breath, we darted out the back of the shop into an alleyway.
I frowned at the alleyway, immediately realizing it shouldn’t be here. Mr Marvelous’ shop was pressed right up against a magical supply store on one side and a Vietnamese restaurant on the other.
He saw me frowning as I looked confusedly from one brick wall to the other. “How is this alleyway here?”
“It’s a magical car park,” Mr Marvelous muttered offhand as he brought a set of keys from his pocket and clicked an immobilizer lock.
Immediately something appeared in front of me. It was so quick and unexpected that I jerked back, shrieking in surprise.
It was a car. After flickering lines of magic settled, it revealed a sleek black vehicle that looked exactly like something a 14-year-old kid would dream up. It wasn’t exactly the Batmobile, but it was close. Slung low, with bright shiny rims that had actual blue streaks of lightning painted across them, it was exactly not the kind of car I had ever driven before.
I tended to stick with hatchbacks and small sedans easy to park in cramped streets.
“Ah, what the hell is this?” I asked in a shaking voice.
“Hell? You think this comes from hell? You’ve seen the kind of sports car trash those vampires and demons drive. This,” Mr Marvelous leaned over and fondly patted a hand down the front of the car, his fingers gliding off the well-polished metal. “This is a work of art. It took me 15 years to scrounge enough spells to create this masterpiece.” He swung his arms wide and gestured like an excited politician promising the brightest future the city had ever seen.
“You mean you’re a mechanic?”
Mr Marvelous rolled his eyes and chuckled. “You really know nothing about this world, do you? This isn’t a standard vehicle.” He patted the door lovingly as he opened it. “It’s magically enhanced. At the beginning of my career, I faced a little… ah, competition.” Mr Marvelous was usually as direct as a shot between the eyes, but here he was being coy.
“What do you mean?”
He ignored me as he kept fondly patting the door. He opened it and practically sighed as if he was slipping inside a warm bath. “Doesn’t matter. Point is, I found myself needing a car that could get me out of any situation. And that type of thing costs. I scrounged every cent I could, spending it on the most ludicrous magical enchantments you could imagine, until I’d built this.” He brought his hands up wide again and gestured like an extremely keen host on one of those game shows that can’t even make it to the prime-time slot.
“But you don’t have a license,” I said as I brought a hand up and scratched my suddenly itchy neck. “Why didn’t you sell it?”
Mr Marvelous slowly turned to face me. His expression had grown just as dark and shadowy and unwelcome as a crypt in the middle of the night. “Because it’s my baby,” he said flatly. “Why would I sell it? You can drive. Now get in the front seat.” He motioned towards it and pointed with a stiff hand. “You want to be careful on the clutch. And also, the accelerator can respond a bit heavy.” He chuckled. “Growls like a tiger poked with a stick of lightning,”
Growls like a tiger poked with lightning…? I was careful not to roll my eyes at that.
Reluctantly I walked around the side of the car, making a grimace that I hid expertly behind my hair.
Carefully, as if I was about to plunge my hand into a pit of snakes, I opened the door. Though I wasn’t exactly a witch, I could feel the magic as the door swung next to my leg. It buffeted off me as if I’d washed in a magical solution.
Shivering as unwelcome tingles danced over my spine and my hair stood on end, I sat down in the driver’s seat.
Mr Marvelous reverently handed me the keys.
I took them and placed them carefully in the ignition.
I felt exactly like someone tasked with disarming a bomb. Someone with absolutely no training and an extremely shaky hand.
What exactly had I gotten myself into here? If I’d been smart and stayed at home last night, I would never have met that vampire, and I wouldn’t be in this situation now.
“Start her up,” Mr Marvelous said as he leaned forward and slapped a hand on the dash. Discovering a mark I couldn’t even see, he carefully wiped it off with his finger.
Grimacing as if I was about to be struck in the gut, I started the ignition, and the car growled. No, that was an understatement. It suddenly sounded like a choir of lions and tigers and bears jumped up around the engine and sang at the top of their lungs.
“Jesus,” I spluttered, turning the ignition off in a snapped, desperate move.
Mr Marvelous laughed. “It’s a beautiful sound, isn’t it? Now start the ignition and back her up. Lizzie, we’ve got a case to get to.” Suddenly his demeanor changed completely. The smile that spread over his lips at the sound of his car roaring like a dragon was replaced by a thin lipped-grimace.
It distracted me enough to start the car and ease it into first. Though the car kicked and bucked like a wild horse, I didn’t shift my attention off Mr Marvelous. As we drove out of the alleyway, there was a pop around me as the mysterious laneway disappeared and I suddenly found myself on the pavement. “Oh, shit,” I spat as I jerked off it and join the street, swerving in front of two vampires on bikes.
Mr Marvelous slapped his legs with his open palms. “That’s it. I like the way you drive, kid.” He chuckled as the two vampires swore and flipped us off.
I cringed, immediately slowing down to a respectable speed.
When we paused at the first set of lights, I shifted my full attention back to Mr Marvelous. “Where exactly are we going?”
That look passed over his face again. I suddenly realized something. I swallowed. Uncomfortably. “What crimes do you deal with? I mean, you’re a PI – does that mean you just investigate people who are cheating on each other or something?”
He shifted in his seat, bringing up a hand and scratching his chin distractedly. “We are heading to a murder.”
I stopped. If the car hadn’t already been paused at a set of lights, I would have slammed the brakes on. “Sorry?” I said through a shuddering breath.
He kept scratching his chin. “It’s a murder. We’re going in to help the family, do our own investigation.”
“I’m sorry? Aren’t the police meant to do that?” my voice was shaking so badly it sounded like ticker tape in a hurricane.
“The police, ha? Of course they’re going to investigate it. But we can investigate it, too.”
“I’m pretty sure you can’t do that. Private investigators don’t investigate crime.”
Mr Marvelous sighed. “Could you keep up? I know you don’t know much about the otherworld, but even you have to know that us otherworlders have the right to hire coinvestigators.”
“The police will do their investigation, and we’ll do ours.”
“Why would you hire two people to do the same thing?”
He switched his attention to me, looking at me from underneath his eyebrows, making his gaze as dark and shadowy as a grave stone cast into gloom. “Because we’ll get them the answers they really want.”
I balked at that, switching my gaze back to the road as a massive unmarked van beeped at me wildly. I shifted off and promptly stalled. Swearing, I started the car again and inched forward.
“You’ll have to drive faster than that. Come on, show me it wasn’t a complete mistake hiring you.”
“You hired me to find out what Mr Benson wants and to piss him off,” I said. It was exactly the kind of comment I would always keep to myself. Blame it on the fact I just found out I’d become a homicide detective, but my tongue was a heck of a lot looser and freer than it should be.
Mr Marvelous grunted. “Not as stupid as you look, are you? But those aren’t the only reasons I hired you. Believe it or not, I see something in you, kid. Something I can mold and shape until you’re exactly like me.” He grinned.
I didn’t. I tried to sink my attention back into driving this beast in the hopes it would distract me from what would come next.
It didn’t. Nothing could.
Sooner rather than later, Mr Marvelous pointed to the side of the street and told me to stop.
I pulled up to the curb, body already a shaking, sweaty mess. My gaze jerked to the side and locked on a small apartment block. It was cordoned off with police tape, and the fell wind that had been chasing through the city streets since this morning batted it like an invisible army.
Several strands had come completely loose and whipped through the air in a manic dance.
By the time I scrounged the courage to open the door and pour my shaking form out onto the pavement, the wind was so wild it sounded like 1000 wolves howling into a PA system.
Though I wanted to say Mr Marvelous walked confidently towards the apartment block, that would be denying the exact ashen quality of his skin. His face had lost all its color, and he instantly looked at least 20 years older.
He strode right through a section a police tape, but his body didn’t break it. It shifted through the tape as it suddenly became lines of magical light that hissed and sizzled along his pot belly.
Me, I stopped right outside of the tape, stomach suddenly a knot of nerves and bubbling, gagging, churning fear.
My head jerked up towards the apartment block as if someone had attached a string around the top of my neck. Beyond the tape I could hear several hushed murmured whispers. I assumed they were police officers, but as I tipped my head from left to right, I couldn’t see anyone.
“Who’s muttering?” I asked as I finally gathered the courage to throw myself through the tape.
It was a truly nasty feeling to have the tape turning to magical lines of light that flickered and groped around the exposed skin of my wrists and fingers.
Immediately I brought my hands up and rubbed them together as I ran to catch up to Mr Marvelous.
“No one is muttering, kid. Now get your mind on the game. You stay right behind me and you don’t touch anything. You don’t say anything. And if you feel the need to throw up, you hold on and you do it outside. You understand?” He flashed me a look as he threw himself up the front steps and barreled through the door. He was like a boulder gathering speed to ensure it had the momentum to roll all the way down the hill.
I had no momentum. I was flat, and there was absolutely no chance whatsoever that I was going to get through this without throwing up and crying.
“Hurry up,” Mr Marvelous grumbled from inside the apartment door, his voice echoing out like a clap of thunder.
I had no choice but to follow.
Some humans fancied they had extrasensory abilities – a dash of clairvoyance, a touch of the ability to channel.
Me, I’d never been one of those people. I’ve never been able to read the future, and God knows I haven’t been able to feel a spirit in some haunted house.
So as I walked through the low archway of the apartment door, I told myself the cold shiver that instantly raced down my back and sunk deep into the base of my spine was nothing more than a reaction to the cold wind.
It was not me suddenly tapping into the evil magical vibe that wound around this place like rope.
For some reason my teeth were chattering, jumping about in my skull and sending pulses of intense sharp pain snaking down into my neck.
I followed Mr Marvelous, several steps behind him. Somehow he appeared to grow the further behind I got. Hey, maybe I was shrinking, pulling into myself as I realized just how much I didn’t want to see what was inside that apartment.
We finally reached it. The right door. It wasn’t just cordoned off with magical police tape, but there was a magical circle made of hastily scattered baking soda mixed with chalk specifically from the Isle of Wight and a handful of watercolor pigment from some cheap craft store.
The pigment was bright and red, there to make sure nobody accidentally scuffed the edge of the magical circle with their boot.
The chalk from the Isle of Wight was a warning sign to ghosts and other magical creatures. The baking soda was apparently to lift bloodstains.
“Oh god, oh god, oh god,” I started to mutter to myself under my breath, so quiet it sounded like nothing more than several hasty breaths.
The uniformed officer on duty outside the door nodded and stepped away.
We pushed our way into the room.
I saw several detectives hard at work. They all looked up as one, like a band of meerkats who’d just seen a distraction prance across the prairie.
Okay, that didn’t sum up their expressions at all. As soon as they saw Mr Marvelous, their faces hardened as if someone smeared starch over their cheeks and baked them dry.
Though I could have melted under the combined intensity of their unwelcome stares, I found my neck tugging to the left. Before I knew what my eyes were doing, they locked on a door through a short hallway into what looked like someone’s bedroom.
Instantly a wave of nausea struck me. I heard footfall, and soon a man walked out of the bedroom.
Not just any man. Detective Cortez. He flicked his gaze from Mr Marvelous to me. “Isn’t it a little early for her first case?” he asked directly as he shoved a hand into his pocket and pulled out a latex glove. He crammed it on his hand in a smooth, practiced move. The latex glove snapped with an elastic twang. Which was about the same move his lips made as he gave me what could only be termed a sour and suspicious smile.
He still thought I’d murdered that vampire in cold blood, didn’t he? And he hadn’t exactly hidden his displeasure when I’d rejected Mr Benson’s offer.
Clearly, I was a monumental disappointment to Detective Cortez.
Before I knew what I was doing, I found myself trying to hide behind Mr Marvelous’ shadow, which was kind of hard considering we were the exact same height.
“Never too early to begin, especially with a case like this. I take it you don’t need me to show my papers?” Mr Marvelous challenged.
Cortez shifted his jaw from left to right, his tongue darting forward and sliding over his teeth. “No, but you can still show me your papers,” Cortez demanded.
Mr Marvelous wasted no time in twanging open one of his suspenders, pushing a hand past it, and grabbing something out of whatever ethereal realm existed past that high tension spandex. It was a piece of parchment rolled up like it was some kind of scroll.
Instantly, it caught my attention, because I saw several charges of an odd white blue magic spark over it and discharge into the air.
Cortez brought both feet up and planted them firmly into the floor, which was covered in deep scratches as if some wild animal had tried to dig through the wood.
Cortez made a show of sucking in a deep breath and grounding himself, almost as if he was getting ready for a judo throw.
Finally he nodded at Mr Marvelous. At the same time, Cortez gently parted open his lips and curled his tongue up to the roof of his mouth.
What the heck was he doing?
I got my answer as Mr Marvelous handed over the contract and magic discharged down Cortez’s arm, over his leg, and into the floor where it harmlessly danced between the grooves and scratch marks in the wood before disappearing completely.
Once all the magic had dissipated off the contract, Cortez dropped his tongue from the roof of his mouth and gave a shudder, stamping his feet. “Goddamn unpleasant, that. Feels like ants under your skin.”
“I don’t really care what it feels like, Mr Marvelous said as he crossed his arms and locked Cortez in an unmistakably unfriendly look. “That’s a bona fides contract from Miss Susan Smith’s family. It confirms mine and my employee’s right to investigate this case alongside the police. You will hand on any evidence as you find it, not as you see fit.”
Cortez finished scanning the contract, rolled it up carefully, and handed it back to Mr Marvelous. “This isn’t my first rodeo, unlike some.” He flashed his gaze towards me and made no attempt to hide the dismissive judgmental look in his gaze as he looked me down from head to foot. “You ever seen a murder, Miss Luck?”
I didn’t answer. Couldn’t. Didn’t want to. Because what he just said had made this real.
For a few seconds I’d been distracted by Cortez and Mr Marvelous’ interaction. I’d forgotten about the fact there was a dead body in the other room.
There was a goddamn dead body in the other room.
I crumpled my arms around my middle, feeling the sudden and violent urge to throw up.
“No you don’t, not yet.” Mr Marvelous suddenly darted beside me and locked a hand on my shoulder. “Hold it together. All we have to do is go in and go out.”
“Why do I have to?” I began.
Mr Marvelous tugged me around and shoved me down the short hallway towards the room.
The door was open a crack, a strange red glow emanating from it. I hoped like hell that wasn’t blood splashed over the lightbulb.
Oh god, oh god, oh god. I started to shake, stumbling with every step.
Just as we reached the door and my fear hit a crescendo, Cortez darted forward, grabbed the door, and closed it. He looked right into my face. “You don’t want to go in there, Miss Luck.”
“She’s my employee, detective. You don’t get to dictate our access to evidence. Or do I need to remind you of the rules governing otherworldly crimes?”
“You don’t need to remind me of any rules,” Cortez said through a clenched jaw, “But do I need to remind you that Miss Luck here was attacked by a vampire approximately seven hours ago and joined your fine establishment in the wee hours of this morning? Don’t you think this is all a little soon?” Cortez finally flashed his gaze away from me and stared Mr Marvelous down.
I wasn’t entirely sure if Cortez was being kind. He was probably worried that I’d turn to putty in the bedroom and throw up all over the crime scene.
To be honest, I didn’t care. I wanted to go home. Not to Mr Marvelous’ shop – to my flat.
God, I wanted all of this to go away.
I brought a hand up and crumpled it over my lips, crushing them between my fingers as I gagged into my palm.
“Not here,” Cortez growled as he locked a hand on my shoulder and pushed me through a door to my side.
Just as my mind began to spin and my gut spun faster, I saw a sink.
I threw myself towards it and then I promptly threw up. I wasn’t quick enough to hook all my hair behind my ears and grimaced as several strands splashed in front of my face.
When I was done emptying the contents of my stomach, I clamped the back of my hand over my lips as if I was trying to cork my own gullet.
I squeezed my eyes shut.
It took me a heck of a long time to open them.
I washed my mouth. With a shaky palm full of water, I scrubbed my fringe.
When I turned around, Cortez was standing in the doorway, arms crossed, back pressed against the wall.
He had exactly the kind of stony unreadable expression you wouldn’t have if you’d just seen somebody throw up violently into a sink.
His nose wasn’t even creased at the smell.
When I finally dropped the back of my hand from my mouth and tried to stand up straight, he shook his head. “You can leave any time.”
“I wish I could,” I admitted in a moment of weakness, “But Mr Marvelous wants me to go through this. But I really don’t want to go into that room,” I kept spilling my heart out to Cortez, even though he was exactly the kind of judgmental asshole who would take your heart and chuck it in the trash.
“That’s not what I mean. You can end this any time. Go to Benson and accept his deal.”
I actually took a bodily step back. “Aren’t you with the police?”
Cortez gave a low, barely amused chuckle. He gestured to himself and then pointed a thumb behind him down the bustling hallway. “Yes, I’m with the police. What’s your point?”
“That you shouldn’t be pressuring random citizens into signing away their souls to vampire kings.”
Cortez now openly chuckled, his large shoulders pressing back and forth against his tight white shirt. “Vampire king? Benson is no king.”
“You know what I mean.” This conversation, and how wrong it was, was the only thing that could make me forget that I’d just thrown up in front of this guy.
“Sure, Benson is powerful, but you need powerful right now. I don’t know if you remember, but you killed a vampire last night. There’s only one reason the other vampires in the city aren’t going after you in retribution. And that’s Benson. Mr Marvelous may be able to offer you $11 an hour and a dingy room in his dingy shop, but that isn’t going to be able to keep you safe forever.”
“Listen to yourself,” I spat in exasperation, “You’re meant to be an officer of the law. And I did not murder a man last night. He attacked me. He was going to kill me.”
“Self-defense is still a kind of murder, just watered down,” Cortez shot right back. “If you hadn’t been so lazy and negligent, and you’d tried to find out what race you belong to earlier, that guy wouldn’t have had to die.”
I staggered back, hip bumping the sink as I stared at Cortez in disbelief. “I had no idea my blood would do that to the vampire. You know what, Mr Cortez?” I pressed my teeth together and spat my words through them, “That doesn’t make this manslaughter. It makes it an accident.”
Cortez snorted again. He hadn’t moved from the doorway, and he crossed his arms around his middle, his forearms bulging over his rolled up sleeves. “You a lawyer now as well as incompetent, green-eared private eye?”
“No, I’m not a lawyer. And you know what? Neither are you. You’re a bully. You know full well I didn’t kill that man. Mr Marvelous is right, isn’t he? You are Benson’s lapdog.”
Cortez bristled. He also unhooked his arms from around his middle, one suddenly clenched fist banging hard into the door frame. “I wouldn’t talk about stuff you don’t understand. This world that doesn’t abide ignorance and innocence. If I were you, I’d walk right out that door,” he punched a stiff finger in the direction of the front of the apartment, “And drive yourself to Benson before it’s too late.”
“And if I were you,” I said through clenched teeth, “I’d get the hell out of my way.” I stalked past him.
He barely shifted from the doorway, and our arms brushed up against one another.
I didn’t feel a prickle of warmth or even a tight scattering of nerves twisting through my gut at being so close to such a handsome man.
I felt nothing, because he was a creep. How dare he judge me. How dare he pretend I knowingly killed that vampire. And how dare he try to push me into the arms of Benson.
That – the anger curling through my gut – was the only thing that allowed me to walk the short distance towards the bedroom.
With only the slightest moment of indecision, I pushed out a hand, spread my fingers over the wood, and shoved the door out of the way.
I walked into a murder scene.
… And I didn’t see a dead body.
I don’t know what I was expecting. A scene like out of those grisly TV shows you get so much these days. A body on the bed, surrounded by bloodied sheets. Maybe something written across the wall. Maybe a knife buried in the floorboards.
But there was nothing. At least nothing ordinary.
The second I entered the room was the second my jaw locked together. It was as if somebody reached into my skull, clutched hold of the bone, and soldered it in place.
My skin started to crawl, the sensation so exquisitely acute, it felt like my dermis had come to life and was wriggling and writhing about like a snake trying to escape its own skin.
Mr Marvelous was over by the window, frowning at something etched into the chipped wood.
There was another detective knee deep in a pile of messy clothes by the open walk-in wardrobe.
And Cortez was right behind me.
Yet somehow… somehow I felt like I was completely alone.
In that moment, it was as if the floor gave way, the ceiling, too, and the walls… the walls pressed in. I felt like I was falling through some enormous tunnel on a direct path down to Hell.
I saw it first. Right out of the corner of my vision. A spark like someone hitting a flint in the deepest cave.
I jerked my head to the side just as the strangest sensation roared through my stomach and charged hard into my heart.
Before I knew what I was doing, I staggered over to the wall. The plain white wall.
“Hey, what are you doing?” Cortez said right from my side as he reached up a hand and locked it on my shoulder.
Before he could jerk me back, I pushed a hand forward, expecting to feel the rough plaster of the wall.
Except I didn’t.
My fingers pushed right through it. The wall suddenly became liquid. The white, chipped plaster rippling around my fingernails and oozing up the creases in my skin.
I screamed at the horrid sensation and staggered back.
“What the hell?” Cortez snapped. “It’s a fake wall! Christ, how did we miss that?” Cortez and the other detective rudely shoved me out of the way, and Mr Marvelous was hot on their heels.
As all three men faced the wall and inspected it, Cortez jerked his head to the side and snarled through the open door. “Get Charles in here.”
“No time for your on-call warlock,” Mr Marvelous snapped as he shoved a hand past his suspenders and drew something out.
I was in such a daze, but I knew what it was. A sacred dagger with a triple insulated sheath. It was used to break magical spells.
Wiping his thumb over his top lip to dislodge the sweat, Mr Marvelous shoved forward, gripped the dagger hard in his right hand, and stabbed the wall.
Instantly the shining silver runes carved along the tip of the blade sank through the rippling plaster. Sparks started to charge out in every direction, and I yelped as several struck my hand and burnt my skin.
I staggered back, knees catching the side of the bed. I fell on it before I knew what was happening.
Then… then the wall crumbled. It was like it suddenly aged on fast forward, becoming dust in seconds.
As it did, the room changed. The pile of crumpled clothes the other detective had been searching through by the wardrobe turned into lengths of hair. And the paint Mr Marvelous had been looking at by the windowsill turned out to be dried flecks of blood.
And the bed – the bed—
I tipped my head to the side and saw a pale grey hand right beside me.
I shrieked, screaming so loudly I could have taken down the ceiling.
I jerked up, scrabbling so wildly, I tripped.
Cortez lurched forward and caught me, swinging me to the side as he took a bodily step away from the bed.
I saw it out of the corner of my eye. The dead woman amongst the sheets.
There was no blood. Nothing smeared across the bed. Just a body. A dead body.
Cortez held onto me for a little longer than was necessary, but then straightened up, locked an arm around my shoulders, and bodily walked me towards the door.
Cortez turned to me. “Go into the main room and ask for Charles,” he said in a low even tone, as if he was just asking me for a cup of coffee.
There was something about the tone that soothed my mind. Something so normal about it, so every day, so not a dead body on the bed.
I don’t know how, but I staggered forward, made my way through the short corridor, and announced to the detectives in the main room that Charles was needed.
Then I walked outside.
I couldn’t stop my jerking limbs. I didn’t pause until I reached the beast.
It opened its door for me and I staggered inside. Crumpling my arms over the steering wheel and burying my head against the steering stack, I began to cry. Slow and then hard. Slow and then hard.
My tears came in violent waves only to peter out into dry sobs.
I’d just seen a dead body. And worse, I’d found it.
Detective Enrico Cortez
“You told me to call if I saw anything,” Cortez said before Benson had a chance to say hello.
There was a pause. “You’re talking about Miss Luck, aren’t you?”
“I sure am,” Cortez kept his voice low as he walked slowly down the corridor outside of the apartment. “She found a dead body.”
Benson paused, a real long conspicuous pause. Long enough and quiet enough that Cortez could hear the rattling plumbing in this old dilapidated building, even the low pressured hum of voices coming from the apartments that bordered either side of Susan Smith’s.
“She seemed to know there was some kind of wall spell on the room. Found it even though my best warlock had gone over that room with a fine tooth spell comb.”
“I see,” Benson finally reacted. “Did you sense any magic off her?”
Cortez stopped as he thought. The only thing he sensed off Elizabeth Luck was sheer stupidity. She reminded him exactly of a doe-eyed deer standing in the center of the road as a car barreled down onto it. She had time to duck to the side, plenty of time to get out of the way. But God knows she was too stupid to try.
He shook his head. “Nothing. It was like she just found it by accident.”
“That’s two serious accidents for Miss Luck in one night. Keep an eye on her,” Benson said in a low, strict tone.
Maybe Cortez should have reacted to the exact note of authority in that tone. After all, Benson wasn’t his boss.
But Cortez didn’t react. He knew full well what was at stake. This city needed men like Benson. Without them, the humans – the very people who thought they were in control – would find out real quick what happened when you messed with the otherworld.
“Keep me appraised of the details of your case. As much as you legally can,” Benson added.
“I was going to call you about that, anyway. From our preliminary investigation, it seems this murder was done at the hands of a vampire. Or vampires.”
Benson paused again. It was almost an electric pause.
Cortez wasn’t magical, but he’d been around enough of their kind to have a sixth sense for it. If Benson had been in the room right now, he would get that locked look he sometimes got. That look that reminded you he was as old and just as hard as a chiseled chunk of marble. “Are you sure it was vampires?”
“We’re pretty sure. I thought you said you were keeping your clan under control?” It wasn’t exactly Cortez’s place to admonish Benson. But their relationship was good enough that Cortez was sure he wouldn’t wake up to a horse’s head between his sheets or a fatal case of sudden blood loss.
“While I speak for the majority of Hope City’s vampires, I don’t speak for them all.” Benson’s tone dropped and rang so low the cellphone receiver couldn’t pick it up, and it crackled like a pig thrown on a fire. “Suffice to say, several new clans have moved in of late, and I’m having a certain amount of trouble pulling them into line.”
“Pulling them into line?” Cortez let his tone remain flat and neutral. “I’ve got a dead body in the apartment behind me, Benson. She’s not just been sucked dry – there’s Aramaic text written on her back in three-dollar marker. Don’t tell me that’s just a cheap alternative to a tattoo, and not some warning from your vampires.”
There was a long pause. “Send me photos. I want to know what that text says.”
Cortez could have taken umbrage at his tone, but didn’t. He opened his mouth to say something more, but that was when he saw her. Elizabeth Luck. She finally managed to drag herself back into the building. Her skin was about as colorful as powdered chalk, and she was loping along in an uncomfortable, almost staggering walk, as if she’d been struck several times over the head. And hey, in a way, she had. Your first magical crime scene was never easy, especially when that crime scene was a vampire murder.
She looked right at him, and though she appeared barely capable of sustaining the energy to walk, she managed to scrunch her plain features into half a scowl.
Yeah, the feeling was mutual. She had absolutely no place being here, and though there’d been a time when Cortez had suffered fools, it wasn’t any more. You see, the cost of innocence in this world was death. If Elizabeth was too stupid to appreciate Benson was her only ticket to safety, there wasn’t a goddamn tear Cortez was gonna cry for her when she wound up just like Susan Smith.
Deciding it wasn’t a great idea to stay on the line with Benson, Cortez reluctantly wrapped up the call. “Yes, sir, of course. I’ll get this to you right away.” He cleared his throat.
Benson appeared to get the picture. “If there are any developments in the case, or with Miss Luck, inform me.”
“I will do, sir.” With that, Cortez hung up and slipped the phone into his pocket.
Then he ticked his head back and unashamedly stared at her. “You’re better off back in your car. There’s nothing you can do here.”
She gave him a muddled, confused, and thoroughly sick look. In fact, her skin was so pale he feared she would throw up again.
He pointed firmly back the way she’d come. “You want a second helping, go outside and do it on the grass.”
She sneered at him.
He hadn’t known her long, but it seemed like an uncharacteristic move. Lizzie Luck was like a lost and scared mouse in every single way, but now that lost and scared mouse was baring its teeth. “Tell me, Detective Cortez, are you like this to all victims? Or only the victims of vampires?”
Goddamn, wasn’t that a left hook? He felt himself bristling. “Excuse me?” he let his words push out in single file, like warning shots across a ship’s bow.
She sniffed and still looked as sick as a dog, but didn’t soften the hard angle to her jaw. “I thought the police were meant to care for every citizen of Hope City, regardless of what race they come from? I told you once, and I’m not going to tell you again: I didn’t kill that vampire. He died because he tried to kill me. Now I’m sorry I didn’t wind up as a dead body in your morgue. Is that what you would have preferred, Detective Cortez? Another single white female winds up dead in an alleyway, sucked dry by a vampire. The vampire gets off with a slap on the wrist and a ticket to go to rehab.”
“I wouldn’t talk about things you don’t understand,” Cortez snapped.
“Who’s talking about things they don’t understand?” somebody said.
“Mr Marvelous.” Cortez turned, every muscle in his face stiffening as if he expected to be knocked out.
But Mr Marvelous never came right out and punched you on the jaw. Marvelous was the equivalent of a plague of locusts – he’d just descend on your otherwise neat and tidy case and pick it apart until all you had left were pissed off witnesses and an apoplectic chief.
Mr Marvelous walked past Cortez and stopped by Elizabeth’s elbow. “Is Mr Cortez talking about things he doesn’t understand again? Tsk tsk,” Marvelous said as he rolled his sleeves up. It was a perpetual move for the man. You never saw the guy without his pudgy fingers rolling back his overly large sleeves. “But now, now – if Mr Cortez isn’t allowed to talk of things he doesn’t understand, he won’t be allowed to talk at all.”
Cortez let out a frustrated chuckle and half shook his head. Then he ensured an extremely stony expression flattened his features. “You done with the crime scene, Marvelous?”
“For now.” Marvelous nodded. “I’ll leave you to write up the official report, and I’m sure you’ll tell the relevant people that it was one of my employees who found the body, won’t you, Cortez? Or have you already done that?”
It was obviously a leading question, and Cortez couldn’t help but stiffen.
It caught Elizabeth’s attention, and confusion crumpled her brow. “Ah, what does that mean?”
“Never mind, employee,” Marvelous said as he stretched out a hand and tapped Elizabeth on the shoulder.
Though the move wasn’t meant to be hard, she crumbled.
Fair enough. It had been one hell of a long night for her. A night that would never end. For now she worked for Mr Marvelous, her life was going to be anything but marvelous.
Cortez didn’t care, nor did he bother to nod at either of them as he turned hard on his foot. “I shouldn’t need to remind you,” he began as he walked away from them, “That this goes both ways. As soon as either of you find any evidence, you share it with me. No matter how small, no matter how irrelevant. You got that?” He locked a hand on the wall and turned over his shoulder, staring, not at Mr Marvelous, but right at Elizabeth.
At first she looked flustered, like a gold fish plucked out of its tiny bowl and thrown in the Atlantic. Then she hardened her jaw, flicked out her hair, and turned.
Maybe she thought she looked defiant, but maybe she couldn’t see the exact sickly hue her cheeks had turned, how dark the circles were under her eyes, how lost she looked.
He couldn’t resist tipping his head towards her. “Good night, Miss Luck, and good luck.”
She snorted. He smiled.
William Benson III
This news was unsettling. When the Petrova clan had moved into Hope City, William had no idea they’d bring trouble like this. He hadn’t expected another soul murder.
As Benson sat there in his seat, he brought up the metal pen from his pocket and placed it against his lips. He brought it forward and tapped it back in a rhythmic pulse as if he was striking a drum.
His office was on the penthouse floor of his largest tower in town. It had an unrivalled view. One that swept over the city towards the bay beyond.
The city was just waking up, a mellow, gloomy dawn paring back the night.
He could use his extended senses to see the pedestrians walking through the winding city streets and the cars rushing from stop to stop.
Tracking his gaze up, he locked it on the dark grey, overcast sky.
He let those menacing clouds steal his attention away for several seconds until he turned back to his desk.
He placed his pen carefully down on the polished wood. He pulled forward a manila folder full of notes. Rather than use the pen beside him, he stretched over and plucked one from the polished malachite inkwell to his left. He only used the pen from his pocket for two things: signing contracts and breaking them.
It had a compulsion spell inside, woven through every bond of the gold and platinum atoms. The ink itself had been sourced from an Egyptian tomb reputed to be over 3000 years old. It gave anything signed with the pen inescapable import that could not be ignored. It was the kind of pen used to sign away your life or sign for it.
With that image, his thoughts naturally returned to Miss Elizabeth Luck. In many ways, she was nothing more than a curious distraction. There were, after all, many races whose blood could kill a vampire, but not as thoroughly and not as completely as hers had. Most vampires would be able to smell an incompatible host. It was the same as mosquitoes – if you had blood that was not to their liking, they wouldn’t bother biting you.
So that left two options. The vampire who’d bitten Elizabeth had been too whacked out on drugs to be discerning, or Elizabeth Luck was something curious.
Benson liked curiosities. He’d been alive for countless centuries now, and curiosities, in many ways, were the only things that kept him alive. He’d seen almost everything else before – from wars, to the fall of great countries, to the ordinary tragedies of everyday man.
Taking a cursory glance through the file before him, he soon grew bored, closed it, and pushed it aside. Then he reached down and opened the last drawer on his massive cherry wood desk. The desk itself belonged to one of the founding fathers and was over 250 years old. It too had import. It was the kind of desk that had held many secrets. And a desk that had held many secrets knew how to keep holding them.
He plucked up a yellow lined pad of legal paper and began to write.
Killed a vampire, found a dead body.
At the top, he wrote Elizabeth Mary Luck. Then he underlined her name, ticked his head to the side, and smiled.
Bringing the pen up, he began to tap his lips once more.
I’d officially moved in to Mr Marvelous’ shop in more ways than one.
I still couldn’t believe that barely a few hours ago I’d attended my first magical homicide, and I’d been the one to find the body.
Mr Marvelous had waxed lyrical to me about it on the way home. He’d been so proud that I’d been able to see through that wall spell.
Wall spell? I didn’t know what a wall spell was. I’d just felt compelled – strangely, awfully compelled to touch that wall.
I was sitting on the edge of my bed. If you could call it a bed. The mattress was so bowed it was like I was sleeping in the crook of somebody’s elbow. It was lumpy, too, and though I tried to settle down to sleep, at 8 o’clock in the morning I’d spent the next half an hour pulling pens and scraps of paper and old photo tubes out from under the sheets.
Though my room was unimaginably pokey, it was strangely homey at the same time. And yet Mr Marvelous was right – it had a stunning view. An impossible view, in fact.
It seemed to be able to look out over the entire city, even though it was ostensibly only on the third floor.
Mr Marvelous was out for the morning, and he’d told me to pack up my things from my apartment, fix up my room, and be ready to work on the murder case by 2 o’clock in the afternoon.
It was already 12, and I was half furiously tired and furiously hungry. Except I couldn’t dare eat. Eat or even think of food, and another flash of that grey dead hand would snap into my mind.
Though I didn’t have any clothes to change in to, Mr Marvelous had found a trench coat for me.
I didn’t ask how, but as soon as I put the massive thing on, it shrunk to fit me. It was to be my only uniform, apparently. He didn’t care what I matched with it, as long as I wore that thick caramel brown trench coat wherever I went.
On the top left lapel was a small pin with a grinning Mr Marvelous. It was corny, but at least the trench coat was warm and did a fantastic job of keeping back the chill.
A few minutes later I found myself reluctantly leaving the shop. It took me a full five minutes to convince myself to open the door and creep out onto the pavement outside.
I just couldn’t calm my suspicious mind. Paranoia had settled deep into my bones, and I expected attack from every direction.
The only direction it came from, however, was the wind. As soon as I closed Mr Marvelous’ shop door behind me, a great gust of wind rocketed down the street and played around my skirt, threatening to flatten it high over my head. Fortunately the trench coat was thick enough and strong enough that the wind couldn’t even tug its hem.
Flattening it down with a half-smile, I took several mincing, scurrying steps forward.
I would look like an oversized mouse in an oversized jacket. And that wouldn’t be the first time someone had ever referred to me as a mouse. Sweet little innocent Elizabeth – that was my name. Well, sweet, little, and innocent may have worked when the world hadn’t known about the otherworlders, but now I was one of them, it was about the worst combination a girl could be.
Shrugging hard into my collar, I quickly made my way across town.
I’d called my flat mate a few times, lying to her and telling her I was totally fine and that nothing untoward had happened last night.
I’d kinda forgotten to mention about the fact I’d killed a vampire and found a dead body. That could come later, if at all.
Sarah had been thrilled the day we’d found out the results of my DNA test and it had been confirmed I was from the otherworld. She thought it was so cool, so edgy. She had plenty of vampire friends, and had apparently dated a werewolf in high school. Even though she hadn’t been aware at the time. But I doubted even Sarah would be completely okay with my nightly escapades.
I just hoped she wasn’t home. It would be so much easier to pack up my stuff and send her an email, giving her the option of never seeing me again if she didn’t want to.
I finally reached my apartment. My sweet little apartment set in my sweet little apartment block. Clean, new, and smack bang in the human section of town.
The streets were wider, lined with old oaks, and the trash was taken away every day. There were no vampires roaring around on motorbikes, flipping you the bird, and there were no werewolves thronging outside of the Turkish takeaway, ordering all the kebabs.
Peaceful, quiet, safe. Oh so safe. I held onto that word as if I could wrap my hands around it and keep it close to my chest.
With a shaking hand I pulled my house keys from my pocket, jammed them in the lock, and opened my door quietly.
My apartment was small, but nicely decorated. Sarah and I had both decided that it was a better idea to invest in pretty furniture than getting a bigger place that could skyrocket in rent.
As soon as the door swung open, I took a happy breath that pushed through my chest and felt like a warm hug.
In fact, it felt so much like a warm embrace that I brought a hand up and patted my neck distractedly, reveling in the pleasant sensation. A pleasant sensation that didn’t go away and only grew more intense.
Our living room was connected to the kitchen and dining room in one large open plan space.
I turned to face the kitchen. And there, my completely ecstatic flat mate was making tea for none other than William Benson III.
I rocked back on my foot, gaze darting towards the door, brain stupidly telling me that maybe he hadn’t seen me.
Of course he’d seen me. I could feel his ethereal touch around my neck. That was why I felt so pleasantly warm.
“Oh my God, Lizzie, there you are. Where have you been all night?” Sarah said as she sat down the tea and ran over to me. She hugged me tight.
I tugged my head back from her voluminous locks of black hair.
She gave me a pouty, commiserating look. “William here told me everything,” as she said the name William, her lips unmistakably curled into a flirtatious smile and she shot the man a look over her shoulder.
William Benson leaned over and screwed the cap off the bottle of milk and finished making his tea.
A few seconds later, when he brought his cup up to his lips and appeared to drink in the warmth, he finally returned his gaze to me.
There it was again – that ghostly touch.
All over my body.
I set my lips together in a thin frown and took a step back. “What exactly is he doing in our house? Why did you invite a vampire in?”
Sarah shot me a confused, amazed look. “Because that’s William Benson III,” she said in a harsh whisper. She leaned towards me. “Plus, he said he’s your new boss. He said he helped you out last night. He said he was worried about you. Speaking of which, Lizzie, where exactly have you been? Where did you spend last night? You look like you slept on a park bench.”
“I slept in a storeroom,” I muttered before I realized what I was saying.
“What?” she squeaked.
“Look, never mind. He can’t stay.” I pointed a finger towards him. Some part of me was aware that I was being bolshie towards not only the richest man in the city, but the most powerful vampire, too. Little mouse Elizabeth Luck was not a bolshie woman. But there was something about William Benson that brought it out of me.
Benson smiled over the top of his cup.
As my gaze slashed towards it, I realized it was mine. No, worse than that. It was my great-grandmother’s. It was bone china, and aside from my necklace, it was about the most expensive thing I owned. “What’s he doing with that?” I hissed.
“Oh, your grandma’s cup? Sorry, it was the only cup we had that wasn’t chipped. And come on, he’s the richest, most eligible bachelor in the city.” Sarah reminded me with a pointed look.
I dearly wanted to stride over to him, snatch up my cup, and tell him to get the hell out of my house.
I wasn’t that stupid, though.
He set the cup down with a steady hand and looked right at me.
Before I let his hands linger over my neck, I took a pointed step behind Sarah. “He can’t stay here. He’s not welcome.”
“Lizzie.” Sarah turned on me, surprise turning to exasperation. “What’s gotten into you? And look, I know you look like hell, but trust me, this is not a polite way to deal with your new boss.”
“He is not my new boss,” I said loudly enough that the neighbors would be able to hear. “I work for Mr Marvelous.”
“Mr Marvelous. He has a private eye firm in Partridge Street.”
“Partridge Street?” Sarah appeared to search her memory. Then her cheeks became slack and hollow. “That’s deep in the otherworld section of town. What do you mean you’ve got a job for a guy like that?”
“He’s okay,” I said.
“Why not work for someone you can trust?” Benson smiled at that. “I’m sure it won’t pay as well as I can.”
Sarah snapped her attention back to him, her smile becoming almost languid in its happiness. “Do you need any sugar?” she asked Benson.
With that smile still curling his lips, he shook his head gently. “I’ve never liked things too sweet.”
It was just a comment, and yet somehow it was laced with so much innuendo it sounded like he was inviting you back to his room.
Sarah actually giggled. Sarah was not the kind of girl to giggle. The last time she chuckled like a girl, she’d been six years old. She also bit her bottom lip as she turned back to me. She made a face. “You don’t smell particularly good,” she said in a low tone, “Have you been sick?”
I nodded. “I need to go and have a shower and change my clothes. By the time I’m back,” I sliced my gaze back to Benson, “You will be gone,” I said directly.
Wow. There I went again, giving orders to William Benson.
Sarah sucked in a shocked gasp. “Oh my God, I am so sorry. Look, she’s tired and she’s sick, and when she gets sick, she gets ratty. Just let her get clean, and I’m sure she’ll be pleasant when she comes out of the shower.”
I squeaked in indignation, turned hard on my foot, and strode towards the bathroom.
Sarah followed me in and closed the door. “What the hell was that? That’s William Benson III in there, don’t you think you should show a little more respect? The guy’s offering you a job.”
“I know who that is,” I said with an exasperated half shriek as I reached over and plucked up my brush. I tried to brush my hair, but I rapidly discovered it was like trying to neaten out a bramble bush with an ear bud.
My hair was so soaked in muck and sweat, and so knotty, I was starting to suspect I’d have to cut it all off.
With a sigh, Sarah took the brush off me and miraculously managed to detangle my locks with several precise moves. “Seriously, Lizzie what the hell happened to you last night? I was worried.”
My stomach knotted in true fear as I wondered whether I should tell her…. I didn’t want to tell her for two reasons. I didn’t want her to think I was any more pathetic than I already was. And more than anything I didn’t want to bring her further into this world. She may be absolutely thrilled by the fact there was a powerful vampire sitting at our chipped wood table, drinking from my grandmother’s finest teacup, but the otherworld was dark. It may sparkle at night, it may sound exciting and sexy, but its shadows were deadly.
Once Sarah had finished brushing my hair, she accidentally brushed away the top of my collar. Then she hissed as she saw the bite marks on my neck. “Oh my God, Lizzie, what happened to you?”
I snatched a hand on my collar and tugged it away from Sarah’s grasp. I swallowed hard and dropped my gaze to the floor.
Sarah loomed before me. “Lizzie, what the hell happened last night?” All of the good humor was gone from her voice. It’d been replaced with tense, compassionate fear.
I ground my bottom lip through my teeth. “Sarah, I have to move out,” I said.
“Look,” I didn’t dare tug my gaze up from the chipped tiles lest I start crying, “I have to move out. It’s no longer safe for me to stay here. I found a job, and I’m going to move into the office.”
“Wait, Lizzie, back up. What the hell happened?”
“I—” for half a second I thought I’d be brave enough to tell her.
I couldn’t. The words dried up in my throat.
“I just have to move out. It was never gonna work, anyway. You’re human, and I’m from the otherworld.” In a snap, I suddenly broke down. The stress and uncertainty of the situation undermined my remaining resolve and saw me crumple to the floor.
Instantly, Sarah grasped my shoulders and pulled me into a hug. “Lizzie, it’s okay. Whatever’s happened, it’s okay. We’ll take you to the police. It’s okay.”
“I don’t need to go to the police; I’ve already been there.”
“Wait, what? You went to the police last night? Lizzie, for the love of god, tell me what happened.”
“I just… just let me shower and dress, and get that man the hell out of this house. Okay?” I said pointedly.
The prospect of making Benson leave was the only thing that could muster up my courage.
Though Sarah didn’t look particularly happy about it, she pressed her lips together and nodded. “Okay, I’ll grab you some clothes.” She turned on her foot, darted out of the bathroom, and grabbed me some thick tights, a sensible skirt, and a sensible top.
A few minutes later, I sunk under the blessedly warm water of the shower and I began to scrub myself like a monk trying to ritualistically clean himself of his sins.
I used half a bottle of soap and washed my hair so thoroughly it practically turned to straw.
Once I was done, a full half hour had passed. Plenty of time for Sarah to have gotten rid of Benson.
I dressed and walked out of the room. And there he was. Still sitting exactly where I’d left him at the kitchen table, still sipping politely from my grandmother’s finest china tea cup.
Though I’d only broken down in the bathroom half an hour before, another stab of anger rang through my mind at his presence.
At least Sarah wasn’t simpering around him anymore. She was sitting across from him at the table, her legs crossed, a suspicious look plastered over her face.
“Sorry, honey,” she frowned at me, “He wouldn’t leave. He pulled out some kind of contract. Says he has a legal obligation to see you. What exactly happened last night? And what happened at the police station? Were you attacked?” Sarah began to babble.
For just a second, her questions felt like they would derail me.
Benson cleared his throat. “Yes, your flat mate was attacked last night by a vampire. It’s a somewhat complicated situation. I’m here today to discuss the terms of this contract with your flat mate. Do you have any chocolate biscuits?” Benson suddenly turned fully to Sarah.
She pouted at him. “What?”
“Do you have any chocolate biscuits?”
“I suggest you go to the store and buy as many packets as you can carry.”
“Ah, excuse me,” Sarah managed.
Benson reached into the pocket of his suit jacket, plucked out a folded up piece of yellow legal pad paper, and scribbled a brand name on it. “You must buy this brand only.”
Sarah plucked up the paper and stared at him in exasperation. If he’d been anyone other than William Benson, she would have told him to go hang.
“My flat mate is not gonna buy you all the chocolate biscuits she can carry. If you’re peckish, I suggest you go to the store yourself.” I said pointedly.
William settled back in his chair, tipped his head to the side, and looked at me evenly. “They’re not for me. They’re for you.”
“I don’t want chocolate biscuits.”
“No, but unfortunately you need them. This brand,” he pointed at the paper he’d given to Sarah, “Follows a certain unique recipe with specific healing properties.”
“I’m sorry, what?” I shook my head in confusion.
“You lost a lot of blood last night in a vampire attack, Miss Luck. Aren’t you feeling lightheaded, emotionally strung out? Are you finding it hard to sleep? To relax?”
I ground my teeth together, hoping that was answer enough.
If Sarah weren’t in the room, I’d point out that, yeah, I was experiencing all three of those symptoms, because I’d almost been killed last night.
“Wait, are you telling me that this brand will be able to help Lizzie?” Sarah leaned in and tapped the paper with her manicured nails.
William nodded. “She needs to keep her glucose up.”
I snorted. “Then I’ll just dip into the sugar bowl.”
“Please, Miss Luck, trust that I know slightly more about this arena than you do.”
I bristled at his tone.
Sarah, dear Sarah, jumped to her feet. She almost lurched towards her bag on the counter. Then promptly stopped. “I’m not going to leave you alone if you don’t want me to go,” she said pointedly in a clear tone Benson would be able to hear easily.
I pressed my lips together and thought of asking her to stay but quickly realized it was better this way.
I shook my head. “Go to the store. But don’t buy as many biscuits as you can carry. I really doubt chocolate biscuits are going to cure my symptoms,” I said dismissively.
Sarah shrugged. “I don’t know. Manny’s boyfriend is a vampire, and he buys this brand all the time. The groupies swear by it, too.”
I made a face.
Sarah leaned over, tapped my arm, and shot me a commiserating look. Then she turned over her shoulder and shot Benson a defiant stare. “If you do anything to my flat mate, I’m going to take it straight to the media.”
Benson set down his cup. “I’m a councilman, my dear, an upstanding member of society. I have no intention of harming your flat mate. I do suggest, however, that you buy those biscuits as quickly as you can. They can be quite hard to find these days.”
Sarah shot me one last questioning look. “You sure you don’t want me to stay?” she mouthed.
I shook my head.
She left, and then I was alone with William Benson. In my apartment.
He made a show of looking around. “You have taste.”
“I thought there wouldn’t be enough black leather and lace for a vampire,” I said defiantly.
He let out a slow light chuckle. “You don’t know much about vampires, do you?”
I stiffened. “If this is about last night,” I swallowed. “I had absolutely no idea—”
He brought up a hand. “We’ve already established the fact you didn’t know what your blood would do.”
It wasn’t just my imagination – his voice became strained on the word blood. Not so strained that he was seconds from jumping up and sucking me dry, but enough to notice.
“Why exactly are you in my apartment?” I got straight down to business. “And why are you using my grandmother’s teacup?”
He’d just drawn it up and placed it against his lips. He settled it there for several seconds, glancing down at the bone china.
I dearly wanted to thrust forward and snatch it off him, but that would bring me entirely too close to the vampire king.
“It’s antique,” he pointed out as if I was too stupid not to have realized that.
“Yes, I’m fully aware of that. Just as I’m aware of the fact it is one of the most expensive things I own. So put it down and don’t break it.”
He arched an eyebrow, delicately placing the cup down and turning the handle towards me with the soft touch of a man who’d been handling fine china his whole life. “Don’t worry, Miss Luck, I know just how to handle fragile objects.”
My stomach lurched. I crossed my arms as tightly as I could, crumpling the fabric of my shirt. “Why are you here?” I asked once more.
He leaned back, reached a hand into his pocket, and pulled out a vial.
I doubled back. I wasn’t an idiot. Though the glass ampoule could technically have been used for drugs, this was a vampire here.
“What is that?” I hissed.
He placed the glass down right next to the china teacup and tapped them both with the tips of his fingers. “This is the next stage of your contract. You agreed that you would allow me to find out why your blood managed to kill a vampire. Surely you can appreciate I need a sample of your blood to accomplish this task.”
My hand went up and clutched my wound from last night.
It took several seconds before Benson allowed his gaze to drift towards my collar. And, you guessed it, I shivered as I felt his ethereal hands tracing along my jaw.
“Could you please not do that,” I said through clenched teeth.
“Not do what?”
“You know what I mean. You’re looking at me like that.”
“Looking at you like what?”
This was descending into a conversation between two stubborn three-year-olds.
I bared my teeth. “I can feel your ethereal hands around my throat. Now get them the hell off me.”
Benson frowned. Maybe he was putting it on, maybe he wasn’t. My first impression was that my comment had floored him.
I still kept my teeth bared, but half a second later I felt his ghostly fingertips drop from around my cheeks, their gentle touch giving way to the ever so slight breeze shifting in through the open window in the lounge room.
I sighed in relief.
Benson looked as if he were concentrating for several seconds, then he returned his attention to me. “You’re more sensitive to magic than you led me to believe, Miss Luck.”
My stomach kicked. “What does that mean?”
“It takes a certain kind of practitioner to be able to feel a vampire’s glance.”
“I’m not a complete idiot. I’ve read about them in the newspaper and the magazines. I know full well that a vampire can use their eyes like a set of hands,” I said with an uncomfortable shiver that ran so hard into my stomach I almost wanted to gasp.
Benson smiled. “That’s true, but believe it or not, we don’t look at just anyone like that. And I assure you, Miss Luck, I was not using such a skill on you.”
“Then why exactly could I feel your hands around my neck?” I said through clenched teeth.
“You must be a lot more sensitive to this magical world than you assume.”
I didn’t like that answer, and took a pointed step back as if I were trying to bodily remove myself from the point. “Look, it doesn’t matter.” My gaze locked back on that vial. “What exactly do you want me to do with that? If you expect I’m going to let you bleed me dry—”
He brought a hand up. “Of course I have no intention of bleeding you dry. Believe it or not, I have every intention of holding up my end of the contract. I will find out what unique properties your blood has, just as long as you have every intention of holding up your end of the contract,” his tone dipped.
“I haven’t run into any vampires since last night. I haven’t given anyone my blood. Happy?”
Benson placed two fingers on the vial and pushed it towards me. “Go to a pathology and fill this up.”
I huffed. “And then what, doctor? Post it back to you?”
“No. You will hand it back to me. The contract you have, Miss Luck, is between you and me, so you will be dealing with me personally.” He rose from the table. The china teacup rattled against its plate until he reached out a quick hand and stilled it.
He kept his gaze on me, but thankfully I could no longer feel his fingers tracing down the line of my jaw.
He cleared his throat, neatened his jacket, and walked towards the window behind the couch. He placed his hands behind his back, angled his head, and stared at the city below. Though this apartment was cute, the view was hardly fantastic. Sure, you could see a slice of the city if you tipped your head on the right angle and stared past the bushy leaves of an oak.
Benson continued to watch the view like a hawk, until he turned and nodded once. “Whatever happens, Miss Luck, be assured that the deal is still on the table.”
“You can come and work for me any time you wish. All you have to do is walk into one of my buildings and ask to see me. I assure you, no matter what I’m doing, I’ll drop it and gladly accept your signature.” There was an unmistakable curl to his lips as he smiled on the word signature.
It made my lips stiffen all the harder. “There is no goddamn way I am ever going to work for you.”
He shrugged. “You will, however, fill that vial and give it to me. And you will – no matter what happens – not give your blood to any vampires. Do you understand?” He smiled around his teeth, and it was the first time I’d seen his fangs. Either he had the ability to hide them or he’d learned to speak in such a way that his lips obscured their permanently glistening sharp tips.
He saw me staring at them and he chuckled. “Good luck with the murder,” he said.
I jolted. “What?!”
“The case from last night. Please let me know if you require an appointment.”
“I’m not following you,” I hissed.
“Detective Cortez has already informed me that it is likely your murder suspect Miss Smith was killed by a vampire.”
My eyes widened in terror. “You know who killed her?” I couldn’t control the outrage that burst through my voice.
He shook his head. “I’m the representative for the vampire clans in this city, but I do not control them. You overestimate my abilities and reach, Miss Luck.” On the word reach, I swore I felt his fingers on my neck once more.
I pointedly brought a hand up and tapped my throat, hiding it. “Aren’t you meant to control the vampires, though? Aren’t you meant to be responsible for what they do?”
He chuckled. “Is the president of the country responsible for every petty crime committed by its citizens?”
“This isn’t a petty crime,” I spat. “A woman was killed last night,” my voice shook, and there wasn’t a goddamn thing I could do to steady it. Nor should it be steadied. Murder seemed to be too easily palatable to the creatures of the otherworld. The sanctity of life lost its meaning around these people.
“I am not suggesting this crime was anything other than abhorrent. All I’m saying is that should you find yourself needing information about the vampires, come to me.”
“I don’t understand. Can’t you just use your contacts to find out who murdered her?”
He smiled. It was an unmistakable smile. It was the kind of smile you gave to an idiot. “You don’t understand much about this world, do you, Miss Luck?”
“Would you stop calling me that?”
“It’s your name.”
“My name’s Lizzie.”
“Call me an old, formal soul, but for now I prefer Miss Luck. And you have much to learn. My only counsel to you would be to be careful now. The otherworld is dangerous, dark, and deadly. It doesn’t abide innocence well.”
On the word innocence, a tight shiver ran down my spine. I hid it as I stared up at him defiantly.
“Anyway, Miss Luck, have a good day.”
With that, he waved cordially and let himself out of the apartment. Before he closed the door, he reminded me to enjoy my biscuits.
As the door shut, I swore at him. I pressed my hands into fists, bit my lips, and shrieked at the room, even going so far as to grabbing one of the cushions from the couch and chucking it at the wall.
You guessed it. I was not the kind of girl who threw tantrums.
But I had to face one thing: the kind of girl I was, was changing.
It didn’t take long to devour three packets of the biscuits Sarah brought back from the store. Though I really didn’t want to admit it, they were working; they were taking the edge off my fatigue and making me feel less like I’d just been on the wrong end of a blood vacuum cleaner.
I tugged the collar of my shirt down a few times to notice the puncture marks on my neck were even healing.
I told Sarah just as much as I could to make my story believable. I decided it was a seriously bad idea to admit to her what I’d done to that vampire. It wasn’t just shame and guilt talking. Benson had already showed up at my house. Sarah didn’t need to be dragged further into this world.
She was strangely okay with me moving into the otherworld section of town, probably because it would give her a legitimate reason to visit more. Heck, I’d need her as a guide. She knew so much more about this world than I did.
Sarah helped me pack up my things and even offered to drive them over later tonight, meaning I managed to get back to Mr Marvelous’ shop in time for our 2 o’clock appointment.
I was dutiful enough to dress in my trench coat, even going so far as to shine my pin with my sleeve.
Though it shouldn’t work – the trench coat honestly made me feel like a private investigator. There was something strong about it, hardy, gritty. You could get a heck of a lot done in a trench coat, from slumming through the dirtiest sections of town to crawling through the sewers. Not that I hoped that would happen on my watch. But as Mr Marvelous stood behind his desk with a certain kind of smile peeling back his lips, I realized I had little idea what this job would entail.
“You did good last night, rooky. Way better than I thought you would. You found that wall spell, and you did a heck of a good job putting Cortez in his shoes. Which is something,” Mr Marvelous pointed at me with a strong stiff finger, “I expect you to do at every opportunity you get. Don’t let the police think they’re better than us. Especially the ones in Benson’s pocket.”
I unavoidably stiffened at the mention of Benson’s name.
Marvelous obviously saw it. “I made a promise to help you figure out why Benson is so interested in you. And then whatever it is,” Marvelous drew up a hand and crumpled his pudgy fingers, “We’ll use it against him.”
My brow knotted in concentration. “Permission to speak freely, sir,” I asked.
Marvelous chuckled. “You’re not in the army, kid. But having said that, I kind of like your deference. Permission to speak.” He nodded as he tucked his thumbs behind his suspenders.
“Um, I’ve never heard anyone speak about Benson with such disdain.”
Mr Marvelous smiled. “Most of this town is terrified of him. And with good reason.”
My gaze flashed up at that. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, he’s the top-of-the-pack, the vampire king. Heck, he has unprecedented power over most of the other clans, too.”
“So aren’t you a little worried about talking to him like that?” I chose my words carefully.
Mr Marvelous chuckled so outrageously I thought he’d pop a lung. “I’ve been around the block enough times, kid. I’ve seen the darkest sections of this city and the lightest, too. I won’t say I’m not scared of anything, but I do know when to cower and when to fight. Yes, Benson is a kingpin. But he’s mostly bark. He’s got his fingers in too many human pies. I ain’t saying he’s not a vampire underneath those fancy Italian wool suits. All I’m saying is he has more than enough reasons to act like a gentleman these days.”
I didn’t like that answer. I didn’t like anything that made Benson seem more like a human and less like the monster I’m sure he was.
“But that doesn’t matter. We’re likely to run into Benson again, but I’m sure you’ll find a way to deal with him.” Mr Marvelous flashed me a toothy grin. “Our first priority has to be figuring out what kind of a woman Susan Smith was. What connections she had, whether she was a vampire groupie or whether she belonged to any of the other clans.”
“Was she magical?” I asked. Maybe it was an innocent question. Maybe I should have done my homework and read the file on Mr Marvelous’ desk – if I’d been able to find it. While his storage room had been a complete shambles, it was absolutely nothing whatsoever compared to the main office. I’d heard of hoarders before, but the number of archive boxes in here was staggering. They lined every wall and were stacked up as if he were trying his hand at office Jenga.
The ceiling fan above Mr Marvelous’ desk seemed to be on permanently. It left a low hum issuing through the room, and scattered the dust that seemed to cover everything, and the cob webs, too. God, there were so many cobwebs. I swore Indiana Jones would mistake this place for an ancient crypt.
Mr Marvelous clearly had a pair of those cleaning gloves, and it wouldn’t take too long to dust and tidy this office up. But it was clear that was never going to happen.
“She’s a halfie,” he finally said as he brought a hand up and scratched at his stomach distractedly.
“And what’s that?”
He made a face. “You really know nothing whatsoever about this world, do you? Where exactly have you been keeping yourself for the past five years?”
I pressed my lips together and swallowed almost primly. “I’ve been keeping myself on the other side of town in a library at a university. It was a quiet, easy job, and God knows it didn’t involve any murder,” my voice became fragile on that word.
Marvelous shrugged. “That’s great, kid, but now you work for me. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” he pointed towards the window behind him, shrugging at what looked like a small fight that had broken out between some vampires and some seriously shaggy, rugged-looking werewolves. “You’re on the wrong side of town now. For God’s sake, stop being so innocent. Get a head in some books. Walk the streets. Learn about the otherworld.”
I couldn’t stop myself from gritting my teeth and wincing as if Marvelous had suggested I take a bath in acid.
He snorted. There was a certain hard edge to his look. “What, got a problem with us otherworlders?” he locked his arms over his potbelly and shot me a steely, challenging look.
“I just… I just wish everything would go back to normal. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?”
He let out a hard, rattling snort. “Guess what, Lizzie? You can’t stick your head in the sand. You work for me now, and I demand you start learning about every magical race. Spells. Charms. Hexes. You name it. Because we’ll be covering it all. And don’t make me regret employing you.”
I felt sick, but forced a nod.
“Right, back to work. Miss Smith was a halfie. That means she was spliced.”
“Spliced?” my brow crumpled.
“Keep up.” He clicked his fingers as he reached a hand into his desk and pulled out an enormous folder that looked as deep as an archive box. He chucked it to me casually.
I made the mistake of catching it and almost fell to my knees. “Bloody hell this is heavy.” I staggered, propped it on the edge of the table, and panted. Which was a mistake, as I inadvertently sucked in a lungful of dust.
It felt as if I just swallowed half of the Sahara.
Clutching at my throat and patting my face, I looked up to see Marvelous chuckling.
“Remind me again how you killed a cold-blooded vampire?”
It was a harsh thing to say, and I made no effort to hide my stony expression.
Marvelous dropped my gaze then pointed at the massive folder. “In there is everything you need to learn. I want you to read it by tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” my voice went up like a kazoo.
“You have a problem with that? You gotta earn your $11 an hour and board here.”
“Doesn’t board mean that you’ll feed me?” I said hesitantly, realizing I’d actually had nothing but chocolate biscuits all day.
“Sure does. You can have the excess from the spells grown in the basement.”
“Spells grown in the basement?” I made a face.
“Poisonous mushrooms, lizards, worms, frogs—”
I brought a hand up and almost gagged.
Marvelous laughed. “Christ, you really do know nothing about magic, don’t you? Do you honestly think spells are made out of lizard entrails and a bit of hocus-pocus? They’re made out of chemicals, dearie, just like drugs. Except us magicians can make chemicals do some fantastic things.”
“Hold on, are you suggesting I subsist on jumped up drugs?!”
“No, I’m suggesting you can have surplus from some of the plants I use for distillation. A couple are edible.”
I continued to make a face. “I think I’ll fare for myself.”
“Suit yourself. Anyway, get to work. Read that folder. But for now, I need you to go out and canvas the streets around Susan Smith’s apartment. Use that magical sniffing nose of yours to figure out if there are any more wall spells.”
I immediately shook my head. “That was an accident last night. I just—”
“You just specifically walked into the room and were drawn to the wall, breaking the spell with merely a touch. Sure, that was an accident, and I’m a 10 foot pink mole. You’ve got a magical nose.” He brought a hand up and tapped his rather prominent proboscis. It almost twanged like a plucked guitar string. “It’s time for you to learn how to use it. Don’t do anything dangerous, stay to the main roads, and for God’s sake, come back before it gets dark.”
“That’s it? That’s all I have to do? Just walk around the streets and see if I feel anything? I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but we’re deep in the otherworld side of town. Surely there’s magic everywhere.”
Mr Marvelous tapped his fingers on his elbows. “Yes, I have noticed. I’m just trusting the fact that you’ll be able to separate the dark from the good. Sure, there’s vampires and werewolves and banshees screeching about on their motorbikes and zooming around in their flashy cars, but you ignore them.” He brought a hand up again and tapped his nose with another twang. “You follow this, and you follow this.” He brought a hand down and slapped his belly. It practically rippled like a massive brick thrown in a pond. “You work with your instincts. There will be clues out there. Nobody can murder someone like that – drain them of their blood and a fragment of their soul – without leaving a trail.”
I suddenly stopped, froze almost as if somebody had tipped my head back and poured ice cold water down my throat. “Taken a fragment of her soul?”
He frowned, deep grooves etching down his lips. “Didn’t I mention that last night? That’s why she was grey. That’s why the police had such trouble finding the body. It wasn’t just masked by a wall spell – they took part of her everafter.”
“A part of her everafter?”
He rolled his eyes. “Just read the folder.” He leaned over and tapped it.
Another enormous cloud of dust billowed and zeroed in on my lungs. I violently patted it away as I jerked backwards.
Then almost immediately my mind locked on what he’d said. A slice of her soul? A slice of her everafter?
I shook, and I had no idea why.
That seemed wrong. Not just on a moral level, on a personal level. I felt this strange spark of anger ignite somewhere in my gut and fly violently to my heart. It was small, small enough that I shook it off as I shivered. “Ah, what are you going to do while I’m out there canvassing the streets?”
“I’m going to go and annoy Cortez, make sure he gives us everything he gets on this case.” Marvelous brought up two hands and slammed one fist into his palm, using it to crack his knuckles. “Now get to work, missy. I expect you back in three hours.”
I bit my lip. “It’s gonna take me ages to walk there. And the public transport around these areas isn’t exactly…” I trailed off. What I wanted to say was not something Mr Marvelous would want to hear. Safe, nice, on time – these were not words you could associate with the public transport of the otherworld section of town.
“You can take the beast.” Marvelous twanged back one of his suspenders, grabbed a set of keys from somewhere, and chucked them at me.
I tried to catch them, but they fell from my hands and clanged onto the floor.
He rolled his eyes. “You’d better get smart real fast, Lizzie, because this world is unforgiving.” With that, he stretched his shoulders, grabbed the jacket from off the back of his chair, nodded firmly, and walked through the door. Not the door that led back into the corridor, but the door that shouldn’t lead anywhere. The one that looked as if it led to the sheer side of the building outside.
Though I tried to shift to the left and peer intently at the door, hoping to see where it led, I wasn’t quick enough. Mr Marvelous left in a flash.
I trotted over to the window, pressing a hand into it and angling my head down to see if he’d fallen down the side of the building and landed on the street below.
Nope. Nothing. He just disappeared.
Though I wanted to deny it, I felt a crackle of magic in the air. As I crushed my bottom lip between my teeth, I walked over to the door and ran my palm down it. It was warm. What was more, there was a certain amount of potential in the air, if you could measure potential, that was.
It was like the door existed in a different realm of probability, one where anything really could happen.
Shaking my head and still crushing my lip between my teeth, I turned.
Reluctantly I picked up the folder, having to shore up my shoulders and set my weight into my hips lest I fall over and be crushed by the darn thing.
Walking in a strange, straddling, duck-like waddle, I managed to lug the folder back to my room.
I’d done an okay job cleaning it, and when Sarah brought my stuff tonight, I guess it would start to feel a lot more like home.
I cleaned the folder as best as I could, finally depositing it on my bed.
The mattress now sagged like a banana.
Leaning forward, I opened the folder and grabbed the first chapter, pulling it out of the spring-bound mechanism, folding up the pages, and tucking them into the voluminous pocket inside my jacket.
I did up my belt and patted the trench flat.
I could feel the wad of paper next to my chest, but as I patted the outside of the jacket, it was as if it wasn’t there. Continuing to frown, I undid my belt and cast my gaze around the room.
I found a rather large candle stump about the size of a fist that had been half burnt and had a collection of strange looking imprints in the wax.
I made a face as I brought the candle up and shoved it in my inside pocket.
I closed my jacket, and I couldn’t see it anymore. There was no bump, just the smooth tailored line of the camel-colored coat.
Though it made sense that Mr Marvelous would have access to magical clothing like this, it blew my mind. It made the fact that I was now a real magical private detective all the realer.
Though I would have loved to shove massive objects in my pocket all day, I knew I didn’t have the time.
Swallowing my gumption, I grabbed the keys to the beast.
Then I drove that overpowered, roaring monster of a car to Susan Smith’s apartment.
This was crazy. Christ, was this crazy. Before I knew it, I was standing out on the city street, hand crammed in my jacket pockets, canvassing the city. Like a bona fides private eye.
I began yesterday as a jobless, hopeless bum. Now I was tracking down a vicious murderer.
I kept cramming my thumb into my mouth, chewing one nail and then focusing on the next like an assembly line of jittery nerves.
If the perp had come back to check out his handiwork, he’d take one look at the nervous out-of-place woman in her overly large jacket, and run a mile.
And heck, there was a worse prospect than the perp coming back – Detective Cortez. While I’d been able to deal with him last night, that had been nerves and the overwhelming crushing experience of seeing my first dead body.
If he came back and growled at me in that by-now-familiar guttural tone that made you feel as if he was standing on a rumbling engine, I doubted I’d be able to tell him to sod off.
The reason I wouldn't be able to tell him to take a hike, was that he was right. 150% totally right. I shouldn't be here. This world was not for me. And yes, in reality, I had exactly zero chance of solving this crime without a) throwing up over everything, b) ruining the case, or c) getting myself killed.
Just thinking about that horrible possibility forced me to bring up a hand and cram it over my stomach, wriggling my fingers under the buttons of my coat.
The weather was going crazy. It was meant to be early autumn, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from the onslaught of storms we’d had over the past week. A ferocious gale kept ripping through the streets as if it were trying to denude the trees and push the cars over. It was the perfect creepy accompaniment to the solitary pound of my footfall as I wended my way around the apartment block.
I expected to see police tape, the whole area cordoned off like it had been last night. But it wasn’t. The tape was gone, there weren’t even any uniformed officers on patrol, and the only evidence that there’d been a murder here last night was the softly trodden grass outside the main entrance.
Oh, yeah, and the vibe.
Like I keep saying, I’m not magical. This world is so new to me it’s like I’ve been transported to an alien planet. But I could feel it. Christ, could I feel it. This horrible sense that hung in the air, that charged up my back with cloying, clammy hands. It felt like ghosts swarming over my skin, like demonic worms wriggling over my back.
I kept bringing a hand up and distractedly pinching my shoulders, thumping my arms, balling my hands into fists and striking them into my legs – anything to push away that fiendish feeling.
Before I knew it, my teeth began jittering in my skull as if they were tectonic plates being thrown around in an earthquake.
“Get a grip on yourself,” I commanded myself under my breath.
Easier said than done. At that exact moment, a car backfired along the main road. It was clearly not an explosion, a gunshot, or the first volley of a magical attack. You couldn’t tell my hindbrain that, though. It sent such a pulse of adrenaline shooting down my spine I jolted forward with the force to spit my teeth out.
I spun on the spot, eyes wide, heart pulsing so hard I swore my collarbones were shaking.
I saw the car shift off from the mouth of the laneway, a suitably dense and ominous cloud of exhaust fumes billowing out from behind it.
I went to turn back, to continue heading down the laneway that ran around one side of the apartment block.
But that’s when I saw it.
Just to my left.
Small, tiny, practically indiscernible from the haze of lights and noise and the general sensory onslaught that was Hope City.
A rush of tingles exploded down my spine, cascading down my back, and making every inch of skin feel as if it had been struck by lightning.
That tiny little, apparently insignificant spark was just hanging in the air several meters to my left.
There was no one else down the laneway with me, though a couple of pedestrians had been walking around the apartment earlier. So there was no one else to confirm what I was looking at. Nobody to point to and say “Do you see that random spark just hovering there in mid-air?”
Occasionally in this new magical world, I’d have the same reaction I did five years ago – when the world formally found out about the otherworlders. I say formally – because most of the world had known about magic and magical creatures for eons. All the important people who’d made all the important decisions – like politicians and bankers and presidents and royalty – they’d known for centuries. In fact, their judicious use of magic and their ties to prominent otherworlders was usually what gave them the edge.
Us – the simple ordinary people like me – five years ago we had the shock of our lives. Because five years ago, simplicity, innocence, and the illusion of human progress had been turned on their heads. Every history book had to be rewritten and every memory re-evaluated.
So even though it had been five years, occasionally I still had that same reaction – that magic was new, impossible, incredible. This flight of nerves that flew down my back like a swell of birds rushing up into the sky.
Taking a very cautious, wary step forward, I stopped about a meter in front of the spark, half hoping it would disappear or turn out to be a speck of dust on my eye.
Instead, it appeared to grow at my presence.
“Oh, that’s not good,” I had time to say.
Then the thing exploded.
Fortunately the explosion wasn’t big enough to tear me apart or throw me backwards, but it was enough to terrify me.
I shrieked and doubled back just as the spark popped with all the force of a party popper.
It could hardly be classed as deafening or particularly powerful, but that didn’t stop me from cramming my hand over my ears and shuddering like somebody was trying to remove my spine.
“What the hell?” I stuttered as something began to ooze from the spark.
There was no crack, no split in space. Nothing for anything to leak from. But that didn’t stop the oozing substance from trickling down and sloshing on the ground by my feet.
Instantly I jerked backwards, desperate not to get any on my skin, let alone my shoes. I brought a shaking hand up, crammed it on my chest, and stared on in horror as that oozing substance became thicker and thicker. It now looked as if somebody had chucked a bucket of goo down a wall.
Except there was no bucket, and there was no wall.
I kept swiveling my head from left to right, trying to find a fellow human being – anyone to share the impossibility of the situation with.
I was alone.
I was also a budding private eye, and I’d just found a clue.
When Mr Marvelous had employed me last night, he’d promised to give me training. You know, some help before he threw me in the deep end, chucked me onto the streets, and told me to solve a violent magical crime.
Right now, I sure could use some training.
I kept taking several steps back, hoping for the crack to heal itself and that godawful green, sticky, almost blood-like goo to stop dribbling over the pavement.
When it hit the trim of grass that rimmed the pavement, it began to hiss. This nasty sulfur like smell filled the air as if somebody had just cracked a case on 1000 bad eggs.
I gagged, balling my sleeves over my mouth and coughing into them in great splutters. “God, what’s that?”
I got my answer.
A man was walking past, a pensive look on his face as he considered that green goo bleeding from the very air.
Though I was just starting to wrap my head around the various magical creatures, I got the distinct impression the guy was a warlock. Though he was neatly dressed with a pair of neat glasses on his face – and didn’t look anything at all like Mr Marvelous – his hands were dappled white and pink from compromised circulation – so definitely a warlock. Their magic, apparently, required fine control of their circulatory system. Used up chi, or personal energy, or whatever it was called. Point was, I was dead certain this guy was a warlock.
He stopped beside me, bottom lip drawn in. “Not every day you see a magical bleed,” he commented.
I snapped my head towards him. “You know what that is?” I hesitantly pointed at the green goo, not wanting to get too close in case some splashed on my hand.
He settled his gaze on me, that frown still pressed over his bottom lip, crinkling his chin, and folding his neck. “It’s a magical bleed. Happens when a powerful spell is cast but isn’t employed properly. Magic tends to unbalance the natural order of things. If you don’t have an earthed spell, excess magic has to discharge somewhere. It’s a little like electricity.”
I nodded, even though I barely understood. “So… it means a powerful magical spell was cast around here recently?”
“It could have been anytime within the past 24 hours. It takes a while for a bleed like this to happen. Judging by the amount of discharge,” he shrugged towards it, “That was a pretty significant spell. And it wasn’t all used up.”
“All used up?” I crumpled my nose in confusion.
“When you’re casting a spell in advance, or maybe you are using it to hide something, or you’re not expecting an immediate effect, you have to allot a portion of magic towards it. You kind of have to guess how much it needs. Well, I’d say that whoever cast that spell got interrupted.” He shrugged towards the goo again, which was now marching across the grass and singeing everything in its path. It came across a Styrofoam cup, and the poor piece of trash was completely crumpled before it burst into a tiny spurt of blue flame and disappeared completely. “That’s a lot of discharge. Which means that a powerful spell was cut short.”
“Is there any way to tell what kind of spell was cast?”
“Sure – you just need some kind of forensic magic unit. Like they have at the police. For an ordinary practitioner,” he shoved his hand in his pockets and shifted his shoulders around, clearly thinking, “There are a few ways. But you’d want to be careful,” he settled his gaze on me.
“Careful?” This guy had my full, undiluted, absolute attention. He was the first magical creature I’d met who was actually answering my questions. Answering me without belittling me, offering me a job, or cramming an unwanted vampire contract under my nose.
“You’ve got to have real balls to go sniffing around in somebody else’s spell. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you could accidentally restart it.”
“Anyway, you probably don’t want to stand there,” he finally got around to saying.
I yelped, jerking backwards, thinking that the goo was about to rush up and swallow me. “Why?” I said once I was standing in the middle of the street. Right now I would rather be run down by a car than run down by discharging magical goo.
“You breathe in too much of that stuff,” he shook his head in disgust, “And you’ll start seeing fairies.”
He chuckled, and there was a real edge of mirth to it. “Believe you me, they can be distracting, but the little pests rarely shut up.”
My head was swimming. Literally. Not only was I learning too much information in one big blast, but I didn’t know how to separate fact from euphemism. Was this guy for real? If I stood around this weird green goo for long enough, would fairies appear and start talking my ear off?
Again reality struck me with a bone-shaking punch right to my jaw. God, I did not know enough to be here. In fact, I knew just enough to know that I was in a world full of danger.
I wrapped my sweaty hand over my collar, digging the fingers in until my nails almost perforated my blouse.
“Anyway, nice talking to you,” the warlock said as he shrugged and turned away.
“I’m sorry, Mister, but is there anything I should do? Is there anyone I should call?”
He was already out of earshot.
I rolled my bottom lip through my teeth as I jerked my head back to the green goo.
It was still spilling out of that invisible hole in the air, the sludge only travelling faster and faster, thicker and thicker as wet globs sloshed along the pavement like slops thrown from a kitchen bucket.
I stood there for about five more minutes, just staring at it, alternating between chewing my nail and ensuring I was well enough away from the smell that I didn’t start seeing any fairies.
I was so absorbed by staring at it and trying to figure out what to do that I didn’t hear footsteps behind me until it was too late.
“That’s it. That’s exactly what you should do. There’s our only clue as it disappears down a storm drain.”
I jolted, twisting so hard and quickly to the side, I momentarily lost balance on my heel.
I lurched, managing to grab a service poll just in time before I could dive head first into the path of a sedan.
Detective Cortez. He was standing behind me, one hand loosely pushed into his pocket, the other scratching distractedly at his chin.
He was staring at me with the exact same barely contained frustration he’d worn last night.
He shrugged towards the goo. “When exactly were you planning on calling us? I take it Mr Marvelous has pointed out that you have a legal obligation to share every clue you find with the police? And that,” he extended a white, stiff finger towards that ever-growing puddle of what looked like iridescent radioactive waste, “Is probably the only evidence we’re going to get.”
“Evidence?” I should have tried to control my voice, but couldn’t. It went up with an excited kink as I swiveled my gaze to stare at the puddle once more.
“Was evidence,” he growled. “As soon as it hits the sewers, it’s impossible to separate from the rest of the gunk down there. Now our only clue is gone, because you had no idea what you were staring at.” He ground his teeth as he looked at me. “You shouldn’t be out here, Lizzie, and you know that. You have absolutely no training and no clue.”
I shrank back from his tone and the angry look blazing in his gaze.
Just as I foolishly opened my lips to defend myself, there was a weird noise from further down the laneway.
It was little more than a pop, as if somebody had stepped on an insect, recorded the noise, and played it back over a set of loudspeakers.
Then… then I heard it again.
The same low, eerie muttering I’d heard caught along the wind last night.
My eyes must have drawn real wide, because Cortez jerked his head towards me. “What’s the matter?” he demanded.
“Can’t you hear that?” I asked as my brow receded behind my hairline.
“What?” he began.
Then he stopped.
He stopped, because there was the low mumbling of a far-off engine. Probably some motorbike, probably driving in the opposite direction down the main road.
The effect the noise had on Cortez was undeniable.
“Shit, that’s the Gortix Gang,” he hissed through his teeth.
“What? How can you tell that? It’s just an engine—”
“I’d know the rev of their bikes anywhere. Stay here,” he growled. He sprinted forward, pulling the gun from the leather holster slung around his shoulder.
Cortez darted out of sight along the alley way before I could even catch my breath.
He left me alone.
I didn’t want to be alone right now. Not when my head was spinning and my life was tumbling out of control.
Worse, I couldn’t exactly walk away and head back to the shop. Cortez had pretty much ordered me to stay right here.
Which was going to prove to be a tough ask.
Because, was it just me? Or was the goo coming thicker now? Heck, those sparks crackling around the hole in the air were growing brighter, too.
“What’s happening?” I asked nervously.
Again, I heard the muttering. Growing louder, coming from the left. Right up along the grass towards the back of the apartment block.
I was not a courageous, enterprising girl. I was exactly not the kind of girl who heard an eerie magical muttering that nobody else could perceive and followed it to its source.
So why exactly was I now walking around the puddle of grot and heading out over the grass?
The muttering grew louder and louder the closer I neared a small old metal vent sunk into the concrete.
I got down on my knee, a few old spiky twigs and stones plucking at my already ruined nylons.
The metal vent looked innocuous enough, so I hesitantly reached out a hand, running my fingers over it.
… And there it was. A few charges of magic. Practically indiscernible. Maybe they wouldn’t be for a proper practitioner like Mr Marvelous or William Benson. But for me, I had to cram out every other thought threatening to overcome my mind as I concentrated on them.
Driving my teeth into my bottom lip, I realized I needed to pry back the vent.
Which shouldn’t prove to be too tough a task, considering the thing was warped with age.
Locking a hand in the grass, I picked up a smattering of mud along the cuff of my jacket as I angled my foot back. And kicked. At a vent, inside an apartment building. An apartment building I didn’t own, and hardly had any right to go around kicking. But did that stop me? Nope.
Because little by little, clearly Lizzie Luck was losing her mind.
Blame it on the left-over adrenaline from last night, but I didn’t stop kicking until I dented the vent enough to rest back, pry my fingers into the gap, and pull it off.
I really had no idea what I expected to find.
But one thing was for sure – as I kicked open the vent, that muttering grew louder, and so too did that hint of magic. It was darting over my tongue now, tasting a heck of a lot like sugar mixed with salt.
“Oh God, Lizzie, what the hell are you doing?” I chided myself as I let the vent fall on the grass beside me.
I went to shove a finger in my mouth to nervously chew my nail. Fortunately I stopped in time when I smelt a nasty musty smell caught along my nails from where I’d touched the drain.
Scrunching up my nose, I tried to pull myself away.
I should have left. A smart, intelligent girl who wanted to live into the night, would have turned, tucked her tail between her legs, and run all the way home.
I was rapidly starting to learn I was anything but smart.
The vent was large enough, and I was more than small enough, to fit through.
There were 1 trillion reasons why I shouldn’t crawl into the vent space, but did that stop me? Nope.
Before I really appreciated the stupidity of what I was doing, I pushed down on all fours and started to shuffle forward.
My back absolutely prickled with nerves. Except they weren’t just nerves. They were this undeniable sense that strong magic was in the air. Magic strong enough to send my teeth chattering in my skull and my eyes practically rolling back into my head.
If I paid attention, I would have realized the muttering had stopped.
Because the muttering had done what it had set out to do – get me in here.
I heard the scattering of claws on metal, and caught the unmistakable whiff of vermin. I saw plenty of roaches, too, evidencing just how clean this apartment wasn’t.
Before my stomach could churn like butter, I… heard something.
The strangest, faintest hissing sound I’d ever perceived.
It was right on the edge of hearing. It was as if my ears suddenly became as perceptive as a dog’s. I started to hear in a range I shouldn’t be able to pick up. And just there – right on the edge of my perception – I heard someone breathing.
Wheezing, taking their last breath.
Fear crumpled through my gut and I froze on the spot. My hair stood on end as an electric charge of shock vaulted down my spine.
I finally caught hold of my reason, realized I was a fricking nutter to have come down here alone, and turned.
Not in time.
I felt an ethereal hand push out from some realm that existed between time and space.
The hand – made out of nothing more than pure, crackling energy – rested on my elbow and locked me in place.
Instantly my teeth jittered in my skull as if I’d swallowed a jackhammer.
A ghost started to appear before me.
A real ghost.
I’d seen plenty of things since the world had woken up to otherworlders. I’d never seen a ghost. I was smart enough to stay away from their usual haunts. No pun intended.
But this ghost, it formed right in front of my face.
Its appearance wasn’t static. It shifted in and out, blinking or flickering like a candle being assaulted by a violent wind.
It was trying to speak to me. In the snapped occasions I could see its mouth, I watched its pressured, white lips open wide and desperately try to communicate with me.
It was that desperation alone that could cut through my fear.
Though my body told me to run, my heart locked me in place.
I… I reached out a hand and tried to lock it on the ghost’s elbow.
Maybe it was my gesture – maybe it was something more – but my move seemed to lock the ghost in place.
Her shifting, vibrating form solidified.
And I saw the gaunt, obviously dead, grave features of Susan Smith.
Mr Marvelous had showed me a picture of her before I’d left that morning.
Maybe I’d felt locked in my body before. Ground to the spot by fear.
It was nothing, nothing at all compared to this.
It was as if every vital process suddenly shut down, and I was cast out of stone.
The ghost gradually gained more and more form, until I saw a dead body. Honestly, I could see the exact same sickly grey hue of her skin as if a corpse had come to life.
I would have jerked back, repulsed, were it not for one thing. The fear in her eyes. It was palpable. Undeniable. It reached right inside me and wrapped itself around my heart as if it were looking for a warm place to die.
“They stole my everafter,” the ghost finally spoke.
Her voice was almost indescribable.
The voice was human, recognizable, yet at the same time, it sounded extended. As if somebody had grasped hold of the notes and smeared them across space and time.
It set the fine bones along my jaw and up into my ears on edge.
“They stole a part of my everafter. Took it. Now I am all alone,” the ghost said in a haunting, far off tone like a lonely, melancholy wind chasing across some barren plain.
A part of me realized I had to pull myself together, push back my fear, cram it out of the way and ask the woman what had happened. Because here she was. Susan Smith. Not entirely in the flesh, but close enough.
Grabbing hold of some unknown source of courage, I shifted further forward, knees grating against the metal floor of the vent shaft. “Who killed you? What happened?”
A pulse of pure fear shot through the woman’s dead eyes.
Though the rest of her body was unmistakably grey and rotting, her eyes hadn’t glazed over yet. They were eerily human as they darted around, searching for something.
Though I doubted she needed to breathe in her current form, she kept panting and gasping for air. She kept trying to clutch at her back, too, as if something were there.
I turned over her shoulder, coming closer to a ghost than I ever thought I’d be capable of. My hair stood on end, and pulses and waves of nerves crippled my body like continuous electric shocks.
But I still shifted past far enough to see red glowing writing visible through the torn scraps of her ghost-like clothes.
I jerked back. “What’s that?” I hissed.
At first my touch had been enough to anchor the ghost, make her real, pull her disheveled form out from the wriggling smoke that surrounded her and threatened, at any moment, to drag her back into the realm of unreality. Now the effect of my touch seemed to be waning.
I knew instinctively that I had seconds, maybe a minute to find out everything I could from Susan Smith before she disappeared entirely.
I jolted forward, now bringing both hands up and wrapping them over her hands.
It was easily the most ghastly experience I’d ever had. At the same time, I could feel her stiff fingers and her rotting flesh. And yet, just beyond that, I caught an impression of warmth, of the way she’d been before she’d been brutally murdered.
“Susan Smith, who killed you. What happened?”
“I… don’t remember. Vampires, vampires,” she stuttered in a far off tone. She brought a hand up and tried to grab at her neck. It was an impossible task. Her neck kept appearing and disappearing, and her prying fingers slipped right through.
I shifted even further forward on my knees, my nylons well and truly torn.
I gripped her rapidly-disappearing form with all my might. And, though, I wasn’t aware of it at the time, all my magic, too. “Susan, please, just hold on. You have to tell me who killed you. I promise to bring them to justice,” my voice rang on the word promise. Heck, it did more than ring, it hit a note that shouldn’t be possible for a weak little mouse like me. In that moment, I spoke with an almost divine sense of justice dwelling in my heart.
That – that was enough to see her solidify for just a few seconds longer.
She looked earnestly into my gaze. “He’ll know. It was one of his clans. I went home with a vampire last night. I can’t remember who it was. But he’ll know. He’ll know,” she promised as she began to fade.
True, gut-wrenching nerves gouged through my stomach with such force it felt as if they would drive me backwards. I thought only of one man. Benson. Could Benson be responsible for the murder after all? Was his promise of helping nothing more than another ploy?
I shouldn’t feel sick at that prospect. Shouldn’t feel betrayed. But goddammit, I did.
“I’ll find him,” I said through bared teeth. “I’ll find Benson and make him pay for what he did to you.”
She shook her head. “No. Not William Benson. Theodore Van Edgerton. He… will know.” With that, Susan Smith disappeared. For good.
I screamed, thrust towards her, tried to catch her again, tried to use whatever little mysterious magic I had to hold her in place, if only for a few more seconds of life.
It didn’t work.
Susan Smith died. Finally.
And I broke down, a sobbing, blubbering mess.
Eventually I pushed myself out of the vent.
I half expected to see Cortez marching meanly along the street, ready to snap at me for disappearing when he’d explicitly told me to stay put.
He wasn’t there.
The street was empty.
Maybe sense dictated that I should wait around for Cortez so I could tell him what had happened.
I walked back to the beast, crawled inside, and drove back to Mr Marvelous’ shop in a haze.
Then I crawled into bed. And slept. God knows I needed to sleep.
I did not, however, need to dream.
The first few hours, my body was so weary with fatigue I was out like a log, but as I resurfaced around 6 o’clock in the evening, I slipped back into the strangest slumber.
Something was chasing me. Not someone. Not some monster. Some force. Some powerful force. And it was glowing. The brightest light you’d ever seen. The most powerful illumination in all the universe.
I pushed myself along, desperate body winding through some indistinct corridor.
Fear pulsed through me, rocketed through my heart, felt like a catapult shooting me forward as fast as I could go. There was nothing. Nothing that could stop the light from reaching me.
It backed me into a corner, and—
I woke with a scream. An extremely pathetic, rattling scream. The kind of scream you give at finding a spider jump on your face.
It took me far, far too long to calm down, suck in a breath, and realize I was alive.
It would take me much, much longer to chase away the eerie effects of that dream. The light had done something to me when it had reached me in my nightmare. Filled me up with a power I’d felt before. The same power, specifically, that had charged through my body when the vampire had bitten me.
This, perhaps, was exactly the kind of experience I should share with Benson. Who knew, maybe it would turn out to be some important clue.
But the very thought of sharing this experience with anyone made my toes curl.
There was, however, something else I needed to ask Benson. Though the experience of seeing Susan Smith’s ghost was a truly harrowing one, and one I would never forget for as long as I lived, it had also left me with a certain feeling of determination.
I’d promised her I would find her killer. And as I rocked back and forth on my bowed bed, springs of the crappy mattress creaking like some old gnarled tree, I knew I had to do it. Everything I could to find her killer. Which meant finding one Theodore Van Edgerton.
I vaguely recognized his name, and when I looked him up on the Internet, I realized he had a stake in most of the gambling enterprises in Hope City. He owned all the primary casinos, and had a controlling interest in most of the poker machines, too. In other words, a real nice guy. If the Internet was to be trusted, he’d only bought those controlling shares recently. He’d moved into Hope City a few months ago.
My mind instantly locked on what Benson had told me this morning. After he’d demanded I give him a vial of my blood, he’d casually mentioned that I could come to see him if I needed any information on the vampires of Hope City. I kind of hated the prospect of willingly going to see Benson, but couldn’t see any way around it. I really doubted Theodore would meet with me if I showed up at one of his casinos. Plus, I was starting to learn enough about this world to appreciate that would be a very stupid idea. If Benson arranged a meeting, and hopefully stuck around to ensure Theodore didn’t bleed me dry, I’d have a much better chance of solving this case.
Though it was already 7 o’clock, and I was extremely hungry and still pretty tired, I resigned myself to going to see Benson tonight.
This case was personal now. Personal, because Susan Smith was no longer just a dead body on a bed to me. I’d held her and seen her fade away. So no more dallying.
I washed my face, brushed my hair, changed into a top and jeans, and walked out the door into the magical alleyway between our buildings.
Mr Marvelous wasn’t back yet, but I still had the keys to the beast. Though maybe I should have texted him and asked his permission to drive the car, I didn’t want to waste any more time.
I messaged Sarah and let her know not to come around till later. Then I hauled my ass into the beast and found myself smiling as the engine roared into life. “Lizzie Luck, you are not a speed freak,” I reminded myself in a pointed tone as I nonetheless giggled at the deafening roar the engine made as I pulled out of the car park and onto the road.
I should probably have called Benson first, emailed, attempted to notify his offices that I was coming. I didn’t.
The further I drove through town, the more the haunting memory of Susan’s ghost played in my mind. A nervous, jittery feeling collected in my hands, and I kept tapping them against the steering wheel as I changed gears.
At exactly 8 o’clock sharp, I arrived at Benson’s primary tower.
I ticked my head back and looked at it as I parked across the street.
Christ almighty, it was a sight.
I knew that I was rich, but there was rich, and then there was living in what looked like the modern equivalent of Buckingham Palace.
It was the tallest skyscraper in the city, made of gleaming glass and metal. It had what should have been an impossible curve to it, giving it the feeling of a wave. But if you dipped your head to one side, it looked instead like a hand. Maybe it was just my overactive imagination, but it kind of looked like a hand ready to lurch out and grab you.
“Not now,” I told my nerves sharply as I finally got out of the car.
There was quite a lot of traffic, and I noted with an interested frown as I saw a crowd of people walking towards Benson’s tower. Each and every one of them was dressed like 1 million bucks. Me? I was dressed like precisely 20 bucks. My jeans were hand-me-downs, I’d scored my top on sale, my shoes were ballet flats from the drug store, and the jacket belonged to Mr Marvelous.
I crossed the pavement and paused just outside of the building. Though I’d come here in a blaze of determination, now I kind of realized one important fact. There was clearly a function going on, and I clearly wasn’t invited. There were also security guards checking people’s invitations at the massive front doors.
The old Lizzie Luck would have chosen this point to turn around, defeated. The old Lizzie Luck wouldn’t have bothered walking up the front steps, notifying the guards who she was, and seeing if that would be enough to get in.
But the old Lizzie Luck hadn’t been tasked with solving a murder.
Ignoring how uncomfortable I felt, I cleared my throat, crammed my hands further into the pockets of my trench coat, and even took half a second to straighten Mr Marvelous’ pin.
I cleared my throat and walked forward.
I honestly expected the security guards at the door to growl at me, and tell me to shove off. They didn’t. In fact, the larger of the two, the guy who looked like he was in charge, waved me forward. “Miss Luck. This way.” He pointed to the doors.
I frowned. “Ah, sorry? I don’t have an invite,” I clarified stupidly.
“Mr Benson has extended an open invitation to you. You can have access to his buildings any time. If you would just like to wait in the atrium, I’ll make a call and he’ll see you in a moment.”
Flabbergasted, I pushed past the extremely wealthy-looking guests, and stood by myself in a little corner of the atrium. I said little, but the atrium was massive. It looked like a ballroom. As I cast my gaze around, I saw some extremely expensive artwork on display along the walls and arranged in tasteful display cases, giving the room a museum-like feel.
A few guests shot me confused, wary looks, mostly women, mostly dressed up to the T. They were probably legitimately questioning how a woman in five dollar ballet flats from the drug store could get William Benson’s attention so quickly.
I found myself curling in, hunching my shoulders, trying to make myself a smaller target. As I was already pretty petite, it should have worked. It didn’t. I kept catching judgmental gazes until somebody cleared their throat from beside me.
I had absolutely no idea how he’d gotten there. To walk up beside me, either he’d sidled along the walls, or he’d walked right through my field of vision, and I’d just blanked him.
I squeaked like a mouse.
And he smiled. “To what do I owe this pleasure?” I could practically feel him itching to reach into his pocket and pluck out that goddamn work contract.
I cleared my throat. “I need your help.”
His gaze narrowed. “Help? Have you finally decided to—”
I shook my head, interrupting him quickly. “Earlier today, you offered your assistance if I needed to contact any of the vampires in the city regarding the case. I now need that help.” I surprised myself by sounding professional.
I clearly surprised Benson, too, because he shot me a long sideways glance as he pushed one hand into his pocket and gestured forward with the other. “I have some time now. I’ll take you to my office.”
I looked around. “You sure you’re free? It looks like you’re having some kind of party or something.”
“I was. But it’s irrelevant now. You’re here.” He gave a very gentlemanly nod then led me forward.
Were he not a vampire, and were I not indebted to him, I would have given a giddy smile at the charm oozing off him.
As it was, I straightened and reminded myself why I was here.
Benson led me to one of the lifts on the opposite side of the room. Though there were plenty of guests milling around, waiting for one of the lifts to arrive, no one joined us as Benson strode forward, pushed past several people and pressed the door button.
Instantly a lift arrived. We walked in alone, Benson clearing his throat when an older gentleman and his wife threatened to walk inside with us.
The man laughed it off, bowed, and scuttled out.
The door closed with a ping.
My heart – oh, that old thing started to race faster and faster the higher we climbed.
He didn’t say a word to me, and appeared to keep to himself.
Appearances, however, are always misleading when it comes to vampires. He was watching me out of the corner of his eye. Intently.
Though it couldn’t have been more than a minute or two, the ride up in the lift felt like an eternity. I became exquisitely aware of how close he was. While I sure as heck wasn’t as subtle as he was, I was watching him out of the corner of my eye, too.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I needed to get this done and get out of here as quickly as I could. I cleared my throat. “I need your help organizing a meeting with a vampire—”
He brought up a finger to silence me. Though it hovered close to my lips, it never quite touched me. “Not here, Miss Luck,” he said as the doors opened with a ping, revealing a long corridor, “For decency’s sake, we should wait until we’re in my office.”
I went pink at that prospect, the kind of iridescent pink you wouldn’t be able to hide with a coat of paint.
He waved me forward through the longest, widest, neatest corridor I’d ever seen. Though there were windows along one side, it felt like a tunnel leading you down to something.
I got a taste of what that something was as we approached a massive set of imposing doors and I shivered uncontrollably.
Immediately, Benson darted his keen gaze over to me. “Are you cold?” he asked in that almost languorous voice he used sometimes. The kind of voice that was just begging to help you drift off to sleep.
I shook my head, yet at the same time I brought my hands up and rubbed at my shoulders feverishly.
Cold I wasn’t. Tickled, I was. And no, I didn’t find the sight of Benson’s imposing office doors hilarious. It just felt like something was crawling along my skin.
I shifted around uncomfortably, as if I were trying to wriggle out of my jacket.
“It’ll be better once we get inside,” he suddenly said, still inspecting me with a watchful eye.
“Your reaction to the built up magic in this corridor, Miss Luck – it will get better once we’re inside. I’m always very careful to ensure my office is cleaned – both of physical and magical residue – daily.”
“I… I’m not having a reaction to magic,” I said with a slight huff.
Benson’s lips folded into a smile. “Oh, you’re just cold then, are you? Perhaps you’d like my jacket.” He moved to take it off, one hand locking on the button above his waste.
I shook my head so quickly it could have spun off and shattered the window to my side.
He let out a light chuckle. “Sensing magic is nothing to be ashamed of, Miss Luck.”
“Could you just stop calling me that? My name’s Lizzie. And I certainly can’t sense magic. I’m just… tired, that’s all.”
“Well then, there’s a rather comfortable antique chaise longue in my office, I’m sure I won’t mind if you lie down on it for a while.”
Oh deary, my skin went all pink again. Heck, at this rate, I’d turn into a giant raspberry shuffling around in a trench coat.
I cleared my throat. “I’m not that tired,” I said meekly.
“Ah, I see. Well, in the very unlikely event that you are having a reaction to built-up magic, I can suggest a few simple mental tricks to help defend yourself against it.”
I deliberately didn’t look at him.
“Chapter 48 of the book you’re reading would suffice.”
“What?” I blinked.
He gestured to my pocket. “Chapter 48 of that book lists all you need to know to keep yourself guarded against unwanted magic.”
“I—” I brought a hand up and patted my flat pocket. “… How do you know what’s in my pocket?”
“Don’t – don’t tell me I still have so much to learn about this magical world. Just tell me how you knew,” I demanded.
He reached his doors and waved them open.
I expected them to groan, grate on their massive hinges, considering their size.
They opened silently like a hushed breath of air shifting gently past your cheek.
“We vampires have a very keen sense of smell. And the book you’re reading just happens to be one of the most famous in the magical world. It has been around eons, and is constantly updated as changes happen within the otherworld realm. As such, it has a very strong scent of magic. Unmistakable, I’m afraid.”
“Oh,” I managed, feeling glum at the prospect vampires could actually smell how stupid I was now. I was walking around with the equivalent of a scented instructional manual in my pocket.
He led me into his office.
And oh what a sight it was. With windows along two sides, it offered categorically the best view of the city I’d ever seen, and that included the view from my room in Mr Marvelous’ shop.
I didn’t go in for modern style, usually – it was all drab colors and flat lines, to me. But this room looked incredible. Every element was specifically crafted, every detail allowing the eye to slip around the office in a seamless, uninterrupted curve.
More than anything, though, it was the lack of magic that caught my attention. As horrible as it was to admit, I felt completely normal and at-home in a vampire king’s haunt.
Benson caught me gawking at his office, dipped his head to the side, and locked me in another of those charming smiles. “Does it meet with your approval, Miss—”
“Lizzie,” I corrected as I tugged my gaze off his office and finally faced him.
I could have paused, asked him to show me around a bit, even asked for something to eat, considering how famished I was.
I didn’t. I surprised myself by jumping straight in. “You offered earlier today to help me find out more about the vampires of this city. I need you to arrange a meeting between me and Theodore van Edgerton.”
Benson stiffened. As he stood there in the middle of his office, body outlined by the gorgeous glow of the city below, I watched his shoulders shift out and his jaw tuck down. “What?”
Now, I may have only known William Benson for a couple of days. So far, he’d only ever spoken to me like the charming, suave, in-control vampire he was.
Right now, I couldn’t deny the tension tightening his tone and locking his jaw in place.
I blinked quickly. “Theodore—”
“I heard what you said, but the answer’s no.”
“What? I thought—” Before I could accuse him of going back on his deal, his phone rang.
He didn’t jump – even though I jolted at the interruption.
“Very well, I’ll be right there.” He ended the call, slipped his phone back into his pocket, and looked at me. “Stay here. I’ll be back shortly.”
“Ah, are you sure? This is your office—” I had no idea what I was saying.
Benson slowly tugged an eyebrow up. “I trust you, Elizabeth. Now please feel free to take a rest.” He motioned to the chaise longue.
I sat down on it and blinked up at him as he gave a single courteous nod, then smoothly turned on his foot, striding out of the room and leaving me alone.
What a hell of a day today had been.
From waking up this morning in my new bed, to sitting here in William Benson’s own office.
I dearly wanted to wriggle up off the couch and investigate, maybe pull back some of the drawers on his cherrywood desk and see exactly how dark the secrets were within.
I wasn’t stupid, though. Do that, and I’d probably trip some kind of alarm. Demons would probably spurt from the cracks in the walls and drag me back to Hell before I could as much as scream.
Still, this was weird. Weird and kind of… exciting.
His office wasn’t anything like I’d imagined.
Where were all the broken crosses, the warnings about garlic, the sunglasses and sun screen?
Okay, those were facetious observations. Seriously, though, it just looked… normal. Extremely expensive, and just the kind of opulent office you would expect to find on the penthouse floor of the most expensive skyscraper in the city. What it wasn’t, was creepy. No vibes. Nothing. Zip.
He was right – I couldn’t feel a scrap of magic anywhere in here. What was more, though, it wasn’t dark, dangerous, or nasty.
I certainly didn’t get the impression as I stared around the place with an open mouth that Benson had taken the opportunity just that morning to kill his secretary, murder any puppies, or generally act like a devilish vampire.
The minutes started to tick past.
Benson certainly didn’t come back in a jiffy.
He was obviously halfway through some kind of expensive, fancy soirée. Maybe he’d just forgotten about me completely, and I’d be forced to curl up on his couch, waking the next morning to the sight of him shooting me a belittling look over his cup of coffee.
I sneered at the thought of it.
I also got to my feet. Goddamn did it require a lot of courage, but for the weirdest, strangest reason, courage was something I had around Benson. Around Cortez, around the vampires, around this entire situation – nope.
Benson, yes. Don’t ask me to quote myself, but I didn’t feel particularly threatened by him.
That was probably the most stupid thing I’d ever said, but I couldn’t deny my heart.
Yes, Benson was a vampire, and he was a bit of a dick, but somehow I knew he would keep his end of the bargain. He’d look for a way to figure out what I was without concurrently looking for a way to bleed me dry.
“You better not be wrong about this, Lizzie Luck,” I muttered as I clamped my hands behind my back and began to walk around his office.
Several minutes passed, then almost 10, and he still didn’t return.
I was starting to get bored, which was surprisingly possible in the office of a vampire king.
Once I finished looking at the expensive art hung over the walls and the few stylish antiques arranged in the display cabinets, I stuck my thumb in my mouth and started to chew it.
Purely on a whim. On a stupid whim, I walked towards the door and tried the handle.
Every ounce of sense I had told me that the door would be locked. Mr Benson was not the kind of idiot to leave me access to the rest of his building.
… Except the door wasn’t locked. The handle yielded easily under my firm grip.
I let out a little, suitably stupid squeak as the well-oiled mechanism of the door swung open to reveal the clear, long, completely empty hallway beyond.
I stood there, frozen on the spot, expecting Benson to sweep down and punish me for leaving the office.… Nope. Nothing. No one. Not even a security guard.
I… I started to hear something. Far off on the edge of hearing.
I frowned at it, tried to turn away, tried to walk back into Benson’s office.
The muttering grew almost imperceptibly louder as I took a hesitant step forward and then another.
Just as had happened with the vent this afternoon, I started to feel compelled.
As I paid more and more attention to the muttering, it dragged me forward.
Before I realized what I was doing, I found a set of fire escape stairs.
I took them. Down to one floor, then down to another.
There was no method to my madness. I had no idea where I was going. If I valued my life, I knew full well that I should turn around, head back to his office, and pretend nothing had ever happened.
Did that stop me?
I found myself reaching out a hand and opening the fire escape door onto one of the levels.
As far as I knew, it was just a random floor.
And yet… I don’t know, my gut started to churn. And something started to churn it.
I shifted forward, head swiveling from side-to-side as I wondered what the hell was down here.
It looked like simple, innocuous offices branching off the long, wide hallway. Simple and innocuous, that was, until I reached one. A door.
I stopped, because every magical sense I shouldn’t have, suddenly exploded and pointed towards the door like a massive neon lit arrow.
That compulsion was back, springing through my limbs, sinking into my hands, and seeing my fingers tingle with so much energy there was only one thing I could do to chase it away – open the door.
I suddenly became exquisitely aware of my heartbeat as it roared in my ears.
I reached the door. I brought a hand up and rested it on the handle. Immediately a zing of power rippled through my fingers, feeling as if I’d gathered a handful of sparks from a fire.
I went to open the door, feeling the smooth, cool metal of the handle start to twist in my suddenly sweaty palm.
Out of nowhere, a hand suddenly grabbed my shoulder and pulled me back. It had such force that I spun around on the ball of my foot, my ballet shoes squeaking over the polished floor.
I stared up into Benson’s face. It was hooded with shadow, despite the fact this floor was perfectly lit.
My heart ground to a stop and my lungs felt as if they shut down completely.
He didn’t keep a hand latched on my shoulder, and rather stepped back. With his gaze riveted on me, it still felt like his fingers were pressing into the soft flesh between my shoulder blade and collar bone.
I swallowed wildly. “What are you doing here?”
“I should ask you the same. Miss Luck, please don’t bother telling me you were searching for the bathrooms and got lost. I made sure my staff made very clear signs.”
I was flustered. Hell, my heart was shuddering so quickly it was like a wet dog trying to shake itself dry.
… And yet, the fear at being found out by Benson wasn’t anywhere near the fear I’d experienced last night when I’d faced that vampire in the alley.
Whether I liked it or not, I was starting to realize William Benson III was a gentleman. And if not a gentleman, then at least a vampire who knew how to control himself.
He took another step from me to either reinstate his personal space or that invisible barrier he always respected whenever he was in my presence.
I watched him swallow hard enough that his taught neck pushed against the tight white collar of his shirt.
“Come with me.” He motioned me forward with a snapped word and an even more snapped wave.
I… stood exactly where I was. “What? You’re not going to grab my wrist and drag me forward? I thought you vampires never respected personal space?”
Wait… hold on. What the hell had I just asked Benson? Did I have a death wish?!
Though I wanted to blame my irrational question on the latent effects of my attack last night, that would be denying one important fact – I always seemed to lose my mind around this man. The mere cut of his shadow across the corridor or the caress of his gaze was enough for me to drop my marbles and to start dribbling on the floor. I’d switch between defiance and saying the first stupid thing I could think of.
Benson made a soft indiscernible noise. “You don’t strike me as the type to like being led around by their wrist, Miss Luck.”
Wow, his voice was smooth. Move over whisky on the rocks, it was more like wriggling between a set of satin sheets after a long hot soak in the tub.
… As that particular image flashed through my mind, I flushed and cleared my throat. “You’re right. I don’t want to be led around. So I’m going in here, if you don’t mind.” I twisted back to the door and reached for the handle.
What. The. Hell. Was. I. Doing? He was right there behind me. This was his office block. He had every legal right to kick me out and press charges for snooping around.
I managed to latch my hand over the smooth brass before I felt a rush of air beside me.
This time he grabbed my wrist and pulled me back. Though grabbed wasn’t the right word. His touch was firm and yet hesitant all at the same time.
He pulled me around until I was right next to him. Slowly, feeling every minute move of every minute muscle in my neck, I tipped my head back and stared into his cold blue gaze.
Except it wasn’t so much cold anymore – it was burning hot with some emotion I’d never seen the smooth, suave William Benson show.
“Be very careful, Miss Luck. I can only protect you so far. You know nothing about this world, so don’t walk into someone else’s web.” His penetrating gaze flicked off me and locked on the door.
He was still holding my wrist. He hadn’t dropped it like a hot coal and darted backwards yet.
“W…what’s behind the door?” I asked.
This was the bit where I should retreat, blubber my sorrys, and get the hell away from this guy.
So why was I staring up into his eyes defiantly? And why the hell was I asking more bloody questions?
“Something you don’t need to see. Now come with me.” With his hand still around my wrist, he pulled me forward.
His grip was just as careful as a jeweler cradling the biggest diamond he’d ever seen. He was holding onto me as if he was scared he’d break me. Or, perhaps, he was scared he’d break himself.
He pulled me forward, never letting go of my wrist.
I became almost obsessed with the strangely light yet hard feel of his hand wrapped around mine. So obsessed that I barely noticed when we reached one of the main corridors beyond.
Benson noticed, though.
I felt him stiffen. While he only had hold of my wrist, I was somehow connected to his whole body, connected enough that I felt the tension snap through every muscle like a coiled spring.
I heard footsteps and tugged my head back just in time to see an exceptionally well-dressed man walk towards us. He had one hand pressed into the hip pocket of his expensive, tailored jacket. His head was tilted to the side, one striking green eye visible as the other was hidden by a slice of his ice-white hair.
I kept waiting for Benson to drop my wrist, kept waiting for him to reinstate the personal space he only ever demanded whilst he was around me.
Instead, I watched as he swallowed. Watched as his gaze became almost predatory as it locked on the well-kempt man.
“William,” the man said in a rolling tone. It was nowhere near as smooth as Benson’s. It was harsh. Sharp. If Benson was the equivalent of whiskey over ice, then this guy was like having methyl alcohol poured up your nose.
I took a step away, and before I realized what I was doing, I pressed hard against Benson’s chest.
I felt one of his hands lock on my shoulder and push me away, though only slightly. Not completely. He still had a firm grasp of my wrist, after all.
The man now looked at me curiously, gaze hesitant as it swept between Benson’s grip on my wrist to the uncomfortable distance he was keeping between us.
“And who do you have here?” the man asked in what he probably thought was a smooth tone.
“That is not your business. Why aren’t you upstairs enjoying the party?” Benson asked. His tone and expression were blank. His body, however, was locked with tension.
I still felt connected to him, connected enough that I felt just how much rigidity was trapped in every muscle and tendon. It was almost as if he was getting ready to take over from Atlas and hold up the world. That, or fight a cold-blooded vampire in the corridor.
Once that thought struck my mind, I could hardly push it away, and began to notice even more signs of Benson’s stress. The usually sonorous hum of his breath had turned into raspy, uneven pants. And the skin around his eyes was so pulled and crumpled it looked like tangled string someone had scrunched between their fingers.
The man flicked his hard gaze on me. It was exactly like he was trying to tie me up in ropes with his eyes.
I took another shuddering step back, but this time had the presence of mind not to slam into Benson’s hard, sculpted chest. Instead, I swallowed, and darted my gaze between the two men.
Both of them were watching me out of the corner of their eyes. Though it appeared as if their gazes were locked on each other, they were also locked on me.
I felt exactly like the proverbial rabbit who’d wandered in front of the lions.
I found myself clearing my throat uneasily. “I– I think I can make my way back to the function room from here,” I said.
Benson didn’t even react. Benson kept his hand on my wrist and the majority of his gaze locked on Theodore. “Are you enjoying the party, Mr Van Edgerton?”
My attention suddenly snapped on him. Van Edgerton? This was Theodore Vann Edgerton?
Theodore chuckled lightly, that his gaze was anything but light. It was like he was trying to wrap his hands around Benson’s throat and drag him through the center of the earth.
Theodore tilted his head to the side, brought a hand up, flicked his hair from his eyes, and gave a cold and dismissive shrug. “It’s about as scintillating as your usual parties. Though I must admit, there does appear to be the occasional distraction.” Theodore’s gaze cut to mine with all the speed and biting strength of a blizzard slicing into your face.
I instantly felt the skin along my cheeks and down my neck prickle. Now I’d met my fair share of vampires, I realized the quality of their stares was different. If being locked in Benson’s direct gaze was like having his hands resting gently around your jaw, then being stared at by Theodore Van Edgerton was like having a knife pressed hard into your back.
Still, I surprised myself when I didn’t shudder back. Instead, I cut my edgy gaze towards Benson, wondering what he would do next.
He cleared his throat. “This is my secretary,” Benson said in a smooth lie.
On any other day, I would have pulled him up on that. Pointed out to anyone who would listen that I would never make a deal with Benson.
Today, I let the lie slide, hoping Theodore would accept it and stop looking at me like some new piece of meat that had been slung up in the butcher’s window.
He didn’t. Instead, he let all the force of his gaze slide up and down my body, a truly awful smile pressing over his lips. “Secretary?” he asked pointedly. “She doesn’t look like your usual secretaries, Benson. In fact, she doesn’t look like the kind of woman you would waste your time with. So who is she really?”
I should have been insulted by that. Though I didn’t want to be a leggy, dumb vampire broad, I could tell men like Theodore didn’t think women like me should bother getting out of bed in the morning. Let alone showing their faces.
Still, my indignation at his comment could not rival my fear at the look in his eye.
Suddenly Theodore took a slow step to the side, then another, almost as if he intended to circle us.
If Benson had tensed before, it was nothing compared to how stiff his muscles became. It was as if he’d been carved out of ice and thrown into space where no warmth would ever touch him again. “I think it’s time you head back to the function, don’t you, Theodore?”
“What exactly do you intend to do with your secretary while I go back to that disappointing party?” Theodore flashed me a smile.
Instantly I felt sick and scrunched my lips into a crumpled line. Though I’d met some truly reprehensible vampires, Theodore Van Edgerton was by far the worst of a bad lot. He was the reason the humans had passed those work laws, the reason smart people wanted to stay the hell away from the otherworlder half of town.
I didn’t have that opportunity. I had to find out what Theodore knew about Susan Smith’s death. Though bravery was the last thing I was feeling in his presence, somehow I managed to stiffen my back and tip my head to the side. “Mr van Edgerton, I need to talk to you—” I began.
Benson cleared his throat and smoothly stepped in front of me. “Head back to the party now, Theodore,” he said in an unmistakably belittling tone that nonetheless brimmed with authority.
I watched Theodore react to it, watched him pare back his lips and stiffen them into a grimace. At the same time he locked his full attention on me. “What were you saying, miss?” he let the word hiss out of his lips. “What’s your name, dear?”
Benson dipped his head forward in an obviously fake bow. “Head back to the party now. I’m afraid I’ll be busy for some time.” He turned around, still holding me in his grip, and he began to pull me forward, away from Theodore.
I couldn’t help but turn over my shoulder and stare at the man.
He flashed a wicked smile my way. “Have fun there, Benson. Don’t hurry on my account.” With that, he turned, one hand still in his pocket, and walked away.
I heard the resonating thump of every one of his steps until he was finally out of earshot.
Benson didn’t stop pulling me along until we reached an imposing silver door. I didn’t recognize it until he opened it with one swipe of his hand and strode quickly inside.
It was somehow an alternative entrance to his office, an entrance that somehow ported us up three floors to the right level.
That megalithic sprawling room now stretched before me. The picture windows along the wall gave an unrivaled view of the sparkling city beyond. It was lit up like stars scattered over the land.
It couldn’t hold my attention, despite its wonder.
Finally Benson let me go. He seemed to hesitate as if he had to pry his fingers back from my wrist, but couldn’t quite find the strength.
With a tight breath he let me go and took several jerked steps back.
He locked his hands behind him, turned, and marched into the center of the room.
For a few seconds I thought that was it. That he was going to ignore me, but then he turned slowly, carefully over his shoulder, and locked me in a look I’d never seen anyone use. It was at once as cautious as it was deadly. “Do you plan on getting yourself killed, Miss Luck?”
I shuddered at his tone. Though it was unquestionably hard, it didn’t have the menacing quality Theodore had used on me moments before.
I shook my head. “I don’t plan on getting myself killed,” I said in a stuttering voice that couldn’t convince a child.
“Then stay away from Theodore Van Edgerton.”
From outside, from far off beyond the city limits, there was a clap of thunder. It made me shake so violently it was as if it had rang out right by my ear.
“Are you… are you worried I will inadvertently kill him?” I hissed through my teeth.
Benson half turned from me and let out a slow, frustrated chuckle. “No, I am not worried you will inadvertently kill him. I am worried he will deliberately kill you.”
“I can look after myself,” I said. It was a knee jerk reaction. The kind of thing you are meant to say in a situation like this.
Benson unhurriedly arched one eyebrow. “When exactly have you ever been able to look after yourself? You told me yourself, you don’t belong in this world. So take it from a man who does,” his voice slipped down low, echoing hard through the room, harder than the strike of thunder that had shaken through me seconds before, “Stay away from Theodore.”
I grit my teeth. “I don’t have that luxury. He’s the next clue in my case.”
Benson half closed his eyes and laughed. It was truly dismissive, and it alone ignited the anger that was beginning to flare in my gut.
Before I knew what I was doing, I took several steps forward. I was close enough that I started to invade Benson’s personal space.
Though he glared at me for half a second, it didn’t last, and he took a large step backwards. Tipping his head to the side, he shook it as he placed one hand firmly in his pocket and pulled his lips just a touch back from his teeth. “You may not have come across many vampires, Miss Luck, but trust me when I say that Theodore Van Edgerton is a true predator of old. He won’t be cowed by the fact you work for Mr Marvelous. The only thing that will interest him is my interest in you.”
It was such a direct statement, it almost floored me. It also sent a shuddering wave of nausea pushing hard through my gut. “Your… interest in me?”
“Don’t read too much into my comment. Theodore understands that you’re not my secretary. He’s correct; I would not hire a woman like you.”
Despite the fact I didn’t want to react to that comment – I mean, I really didn’t want to react to that comment – I couldn’t stop my cheeks from paling as if I’d just been slapped. I also couldn’t stop myself from swallowing so hard it sounded as if I was trying to gulp down a squirming fish.
Benson didn’t retract his comment and instead kept an even hold of my gaze. “I suggest you don’t let a man like Theodore understand what you can do. Though I have agreed to help you find out what you are, Theodore will use you in every way he can. Though he won’t be able to bleed you dry with his own mouth, he’ll find some other way.”
I suddenly felt so sick I could barely stand. I couldn’t stop myself from bringing up a hand and cramming it under the buttons of my top to flatten it against my stomach.
Benson didn’t drop my gaze and didn’t blink. “I suggest you go home, Miss Luck. Find some other case for Mr Marvelous.”
“This is the only case going at the moment, and I need money,” I made the mistake of saying. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I gasped and crammed a hand over my lips.
Benson ticked his head to the side, that by-now-familiar smile spreading across his lips and denting his powerful jaw. Rather than say anything, he simply slipped a hand into the slim pocket of his shirt and plucked something out. From the exact hue of the cream parchment, there was only one thing it could be.
He held it out to me, grabbing a pen from his pocket and nodding my way. “If you need money, you know where to come. And if you need help, I’m always here,” his voice dropped to a husky note.
It was my turn to take several steps back to reinstate my personal space. I also crammed my arms around my middle, holding them so tightly it was like I was trying to keep myself back from him. “I don’t need your charity, Mr Benson.”
“Who said it was charity?” he said, lips pushing hard around his teeth. You rarely saw Benson’s prominent fangs. Right now I swore they glistened in the reflected light from the glowing city beyond.
I shuddered involuntarily and took several steps back, shaking my head. “If you’re done here, I’m going to go check out your party,” I said firmly, and was surprised when my words didn’t shake in my throat.
Benson held the contract and pen out for several more seconds until he let a heavy sigh shift down his shoulders. He folded the contract up neatly and pushed it into his pocket. The thing disappeared almost immediately. Then he unclicked his pen and pressed it into his jacket. “I’m afraid you won’t be going to the party, Miss Luck. You’ll be escorted off the premises. I was wrong – I can’t trust you, you see. You keep poking in places you shouldn’t. You’re like an innocent mouse dancing in front of the lion. So, Miss Luck, I must ask you to leave.”
My shoulders deflated but I still managed to hold my head up. “Fine, I’ll leave. But I have no intention of dropping this case. I’m going to prove to you and everybody that I can do this.” I don’t know where the burst of confidence came from, but suddenly it sparked through my heart like a powerful torch thrown into a dark basement. It reminded me almost exactly of that spark of something that had charged through my heart when the vampire bit me in the alleyway.
For just a second Benson’s gaze unfocused. He tilted his head to the side, and a crumpled, confused look compressed across his brow. It was almost as if he were trying to look through me at something beyond.
I broke the moment when I cleared my throat and turned hard on my foot. I stalked towards the door on the far side of the room. Just as I reached a hand out to grab the imposing silver handle, I heard him swoop in beside me.
He had hold of my sleeve before I could even dart my gaze to the left.
I stiffened, but not out of fear. “You don’t have to personally throw me out of your building – I know where the door is,” I hissed through my teeth, incapable of unlocking my jaw. It was almost as if I didn’t trust my mouth right now.
“I have no intention of personally throwing you out of the building. I have every intention of personally warning you. Remember our contract, Miss Luck.”
I frowned and reluctantly turned to face him. He didn’t drop his grip on my sleeve, and as I shifted, my arm almost came in contact with his.
Naturally he shifted back so I couldn’t touch him.
“I haven’t broken our contract. I haven’t killed any vampires. I haven’t threatened them with my blood—” I began.
He cleared his throat, dipped his head down, and stared at me almost like a man looking down the barrel of a gun. “I promised to place no charges against you as long as you allowed me to find out what race you belong to.”
I frowned even harder now, shifting fully around to face him again. My arm almost brushed his, but he was quicker, darting out of the way just in time and yet keeping a firm grasp on my sleeve.
He was like a shadow I couldn’t touch. “I haven’t broken the contract.”
“You will break it if you fail to live, Miss Luck.”
“This is the last time I’m going to warn you off Theodore Van Edgerton. Now, be a good girl, and see yourself out of the building.” He reached past me, grasped the handle from under my hand, and opened the door.
He shifted past, only to offer me a smooth, clearly victorious look.
I stalked after him, even though I was hardly the kind of girl who stalked after anything. “Not so fast, Mr Benson.”
He appeared to ignore me as he continued down the hallway, one hand still locked in the pocket of his tailored black pants.
“I said not so fast.” I shifted forward and hurried after him.
He stopped suddenly and turned over his shoulder. So suddenly, in fact, that I had to slam on the brakes as I almost skidded into him. “You better not forget your end of the bargain, either. You said you’d find out what I am, are you any closer?” I challenged.
This was when he would lock me in one of those smoldering looks and look me up and down from head to toe. Or at least that’s what he’d done in the past.
Instead he shrugged as he turned over his shoulder. “I get closer every minute, Miss Luck. Now, I have to attend to my party.”
“Really? That’s your answer?” I called after him.
But this time he didn’t stop. He walked until he reached a set of lifts at the opposite side of the hallway. I hurried to take the lift with him, not ready to end the conversation yet.
I didn’t reach it in time. The doors pinged and opened with a swish. He walked inside and turned hard on his foot, the soles of his shoes squeaking over the metal base of the elevator.
He locked me in his gaze just as the doors closed in front of him.
“How about I go back and snoop around your office?” I called before the doors could completely close.
“It’s time for you to leave,” he said. The doors closed, and the rest of what he said was cut off.
I didn’t need any more explanation, though. For at that exact moment, every open door along the hallway suddenly slammed shut and a great blowing wind rushed down, catching the hem of my jacket and blowing it hard against my knees. It even grasped at my hair, making it fly around my face until I gasped and had to bring up both hands to protect myself.
A few seconds later the wind abated, but not entirely. It still played and grasped around my ankles like a yapping dog ready to corral me out the door.
Gritting my teeth and grinding my hands into fists, I reluctantly walked out of Benson’s tower.
For the first time since I’d moved in to the cemetery side of town, I didn’t feel edgy as I stalked my way back to the car. Instead, all my attention was locked on that infuriating Benson. I reminded myself that vampires were meant to be smooth, so confident that you were meant to fall like putty into their hands.
I would have been okay if that’s all Benson was. What was infuriating, what made me second-guess everything I said around him and everything he said around me, was his hesitancy. The few meters he always kept between us. And more than anything, that look right in the center of his deep penetrating gaze. The look that told me he could be just as scared of me as I was of him.
Suddenly I shivered and looked up just in time to see the low clouds slung over the city open up. A few splatters of rain landed on the window.
A second later, the heavens opened up with a clap of thunder and a blast of lightning that lit the city streets and illuminated every nook and cranny. And considering this was the graveyard side of town, every nook and cranny held some dark stuff indeed.
I saw a few shady werewolves flitting off quickly down an alleyway, saw a couple of body witches working on the corner. And just out of the corner of my eye, I swore I saw a man staring at me from the car across the road. He was dressed in leather, with a gaze like two ice picks. He was a vampire.
A second later, the car roared around a corner and was out of sight. But the effect it had on me was unmistakable. I wasted no more time. I hurried home, locking the doors firmly behind me.
I relaxed once I was inside Mr Marvelous’ shop. I wouldn’t say I was starting to like this place – it was still full of dust and cobwebs and as cramped as a sardine can. But it was indisputably safe. It was kind of like a grown-up version of being able to run home and shove your head under the covers.
Mr Marvelous’ shop was built like a veritable magical strong box. Not only were the walls thick enough to survive a nuclear blast, but the more attention I paid, the more magical charms and enchantments I saw. What I thought was just water damage dripping down the side of the wall in the hallway turned out to be a permanent drain charm that ensured no tiny magical creatures would be able to crawl their way through the pipes and jump out of your toilet seat.
As I ran my hand along the wall and my nails accidentally peeled back a few flecks of paint, I saw some hastily scribbled spells beneath. Though at first glance you could easily mistake them for building measurements, as I squinted, I saw the unmistakable curve and curl of ancient Aramaic text. No doubt it was there to help keep demons from pushing their ethereal hands through the plaster and wood.
Drawing my bottom lip hard through my teeth, I quickly made my way to my storage room. As soon as I shoved open the door, I actually let my eyes half roll into the back of my head as I sighed in relief at the mere sight of my bed.
Instantly my gaze locked on the view, and kicking my shoes off and letting them bang hard against the wall, I padded over to it. Securing both hands on the chipped, water-damaged windowsill, I pressed my face as close as I could to the glass and I stared down at the city.
Mr Marvelous had been right about one thing: this really was the best view in Hope City. You could see an army coming a mile off. And if not an army, a soul-sucking vampire. Because that’s exactly what I saw.
As my gaze swept off that stunning city and jerked down to the street corner opposite the shop, I gasped. Tightness swelled in my chest as I saw a man dressed in leather with one hand tucked in his pocket.
He was staring right at the building.
“Crap,” I spluttered as I jerked back, terrified that he’d seen me.
When I gathered the courage to creep back to the window, practically looming up on it as if I were trying to startle the glass, he hadn’t shifted.
Mr Marvelous had told me that while this window offered the best view in the city, no one would be able to see inside.
Gritting my teeth, I brought my hand up and began to wave violently. The man down on the street corner didn’t move, didn’t react.
Though he was far enough away that I had no idea what his expression was, his body remained just as stiff as it had been before.
“Stay right there,” I muttered under my breath as I turned hard on my stockings, the nylons snagging against a few splintered chunks of the floorboards. I threw myself out of the room, using the doorframe for support as I swung around it and shot down the hallway.
I dived into the storage cupboard, falling down to my knees and grasping at the drawer were Mr Marvelous kept the magical binoculars.
I snatched them up in a shaking hand and sprinted back to my room. I flung myself inside and skidded to a halt in front of the windows.
I jerked the magical binoculars up, twiddled the bright red and blue tiles just how Mr Marvelous had shown me, and looked out at the city street.
The guy in leather was still there, and as I stared at him through the binoculars, I realized he was the vampire from the car on the street. The same creepy guy who’d sent fear marching through my gut.
I hissed through my teeth. “Oh God, this is bad. This is bad. This is bad. Isn’t it?” I asked the room in a trembling tone.
He was handsome, whoever he was. Hardly a surprise considering he was an undead vampire.
Now I was starting to learn more about the otherworlders, I was becoming less and less impressed by the drop-dead gorgeous vampires you saw swanning around the city. Not only had they had hundreds of years to perfect their style, they were all body change junkies – the magical equivalent of plastic surgery. They layered their face with special magical formulas that were kind of the equivalent of skin putty. They could use it to carve any feature they wanted. But get up and close enough, and it would be like thick foundation. You’d see it caking at the corners of their necks and around their eyes.
Except for William Benson, my mind suddenly told me. I’d been more than close enough to him to see that his skin and face were perfect.
“Not the time,” I told myself around clenched teeth. As I jerked the binoculars back up to my eyes I also crammed a thumb into my lips and started chewing on the nail industriously.
I stood there for God knows how long, just staring at the guy as he stared at the building.
Should I call Mr Marvelous? He told me on pain of death not to bother him when he went home. He was very much the kind of guy who did not take his work home with him, wherever the heck he lived. Which meant I was on my own.
Though some people may be able to tear themselves away from the window and try to get some sleep, trusting in the magical enchantments protecting this building, I was not one of those people.
I knew myself all too well. I would stand here, one sweaty hand pressed up against the glass, the magical binoculars locked over my eyes for the rest of the night. By the morning I’d be a nervous wreck.
I didn’t have to wait till morning. About five minutes later, the man casually pulled back his leather jacket and reached into a pocket. He pulled out several placards, even though they couldn’t possibly have fit in the space allotted to his pocket.
He tilted them forward and up, obviously intending to catch the attention of anyone in this building.
Jerking my thumb from my mouth, I shoved the binoculars so hard against my eyes it was as if I was trying to core them out.
Magical writing began to appear over the placards, curling itself in a neat calligraphic hand.
“Miss Luck,” it began. The vampire tossed a placard over his shoulder and it struck the rain slicked pavement, instantly hissing and disappearing in black wisps of smoke.
Another placard appeared in his hands, and that same, neat calligraphic writing appeared over it. “You have a meeting with Mr Theodore Van Edgerton tomorrow. Wear a dress.”
With that, the vampire tossed the remaining placards over his shoulder, threw me a mock salute, turned on his foot, and sauntered off, easily disappearing into the lines of streaking rain.
I dropped the magical binoculars. They tumbled over the floor by my feet.
I crammed my hand into my mouth and screamed around my sweaty fingers. “What the hell? What the hell?” my voice echoed around the cramped confines of my room. “I have a meeting with Theodore van Edgerton. Wear a dress? What does that mean? Where a dress?!”
My heart was pounding in my chest, reverberating up my neck, and shifting into my jaw with bone-breaking force.
It took a heckuva long time to pull myself away from the window. Then I crumpled on my bed and wriggled under my covers, unashamedly bringing them up over my head.
When I felt the cable of my jacket eating hard into my back, I shrugged out of it and threw it out from under my blanket. Then I nestled my face as hard as I could into my pillow as I practically sealed my eyes shut like a crypt you never intended to open again.
Not only did Theodore Van Edgerton know where I lived and what my name was, but he wanted to see me in a dress, apparently.
He hadn’t left a time or place, but I was dealing with vampires here. It would be some secluded fancy rooftop restaurant or the recently excavated remains of some historical building. Hell, maybe he expected me to show up at his veritable castle of a mansion just beyond the city limits.
“Oh God, this is not happening to me,” I said as I ran a sweaty hand down my brow, smoothing the knotted strands of my fringe away from my eyes.
Though I was thoroughly content to shiver and swear under my blankets, some part of me appreciated this could be a good thing. He was really the only person who’d be able to help me figure out what had happened to Miss Smith.
But ever since Benson’s warning, let alone my own visceral reaction to Theodore, I now appreciated how awful this plan was. Sure, maybe Theodore would be able to tell me what happened to Miss Smith, but God knows what price he’d exact for that information.
Briefly, for just the smallest fraction of a micro second, I almost thought of calling Benson.
Okay, I didn’t have his number, I wasn’t exactly his best bud. I could haul ass back to his building and beg to be let in. He’d know what to do, right? He had contacts in the vampire world, he’d be able to tell Theodore to stay the hell away from me. But that, of course, would mean Miss Smith’s murder would never be solved.
Even though it wasn’t dignified and wasn’t exactly going to help anyone, I began to whine as I chewed hard on my nails. It, of course, didn’t help, but eventually I found myself calming down enough to pull the covers back from my mouth so I didn’t choke.
I managed to slip into an uneasy sleep. I dreamt again. Of course I dreamt. And of course that light followed me. More aggressively this time. I ran through dreamlike corridor after dreamlike corridor, my frantic footfall a pounding drum beat in my heart.
And that light – it was everywhere. Chasing me. Pushing me forward. Hounding me towards the dark.
By the time I woke, I was drenched in sweat, about as bedraggled as the city streets beyond. Today, I was sure was going to make or break me. And considering my luck, it would be the latter.
That morning, I awoke expecting attack. An explosion. The sky to fall in. Vampires to come spurting out of the pipes in the bathroom. Demons to come dripping down the walls.
Except nothing happened at all.
For the first time in weeks, there wasn’t even a cloud in the sky. It was quiet and strangely peaceful.
For some reason the vampire hoons that usually rode their motorbikes right up to the intersection outside the window had taken the morning off. Not to mention the werewolves that always tore up and down the pavement shouting and screaming and snarling at each other.
I lay there for several minutes with my wrist pressed over my brow, my fingers grinding my eyes shut. My teeth were bared and my body was tensed, ready for an attack.
The memory of that vampire’s strange placards burnt brightly in my mind’s eye. So brightly, that as I closed my eyes, I could see the mock salute he’d given me.
Groaning, I eventually pushed the covers off and stood.
A few slices of the bright and cheery morning light were making it through the cracks in my blinds.
I frowned at them. Not the blinds, but the cherry light.
I quickly padded into the kitchen, made myself a cup of coffee, and sat down to read the paper.
The paper always magically appeared in the kitchen, right next to the coffee machine. It was here long before Mr Marvelous made it in in the morning.
I hadn’t even bothered to ask how it got there, probably magical rats for all I knew.
Not for the first time since I’d started working here, I was beginning to appreciate how much I didn’t know about this world, and how much that was costing me.
Thumbing through the paper, I half expected to find some new grisly murder or crime. Some fell magical deed to take the edge off the goddamn bright sunshine outside.
Nothing. Not a thing. It seemed as if last night, aside from the party, nothing much had happened in Hope City.
I finished my coffee and allowed myself the smallest smile. Because, hey, maybe my gut instinct was wrong, and today really would be a good one.
It was approximately five minutes later, when I was pulling on a pair of mom jeans and my most comfy top, that I got a message on my phone. It wasn’t from Sarah or Mr Marvelous. It was from frigging Benson. And no, don’t ask me how he got my number.
I stared at the screen, bottom lip caught between my teeth, a pained hissing wheezing sound filtering from my pursed lips.
He wanted another vial of my blood. Apparently he wasn’t done running tests yet.
Instantly, a sick feeling clutched at my gut as I realized what I was doing. I was giving a vampire my blood. This wasn’t like going to the doctors and realizing you needed a couple more tests.
This was like giving a vampire a pre-made snack.
That fact hit me over and over again. But there was nothing I could do. I’d signed that contract, and so far even though I didn’t want to admit it, Benson had held up his end of the bargain. Which meant I had to take myself to pathology and get them to squeeze a little more red juice from my veins.
Making a face at the reflective shiny metal splash behind the cooker, I pocketed my phone, stretched and walked into Mr Marvelous’ office.
He wasn’t there, but a message was. I hadn’t heard him arrive, but somehow a sticky note was flapping on his computer screen as if he’d dashed in and dashed out like the road runner.
I swiveled my head from side-to-side, trying to catch a glimpse of him, but there was nothing.
Frowning, I plucked up the sticky note and held it firmly between my fingers.
I’ll be out all day. If there are any crimes that come in, solve them.
That was it. There was no “How are you, how was last night? Did you, oh, I don’t know, get threatened by any more vampires?”
Screwing up the sticky note and throwing it in the dustbin by my feet, I kicked the side of Mr Marvelous’ desk for good measure, crossed my arms, and stared out of the window glumly.
Though I would have liked to have remained there all day, blaming the sunshine for leading me astray, I knew I couldn’t. Benson wanted another vial of my blood, and beyond that, I had to decide what I was going to do about the message. Should I really put on a dress and wait for Theodore Van Edgerton to magically appear?
“No,” I said, the words cracking from my lips without any effort of my own.
As soon as I heard myself say that, I realized that, yes, that was the only answer to this situation. There was no goddamn way I could put on a dress and wait for a bloodsucking vampire to pick me up.
Glad I’d finally made that decision, I loosened my arms from around my middle, grabbed my coat, and headed out.
It didn’t take long to reach the clinic and muddle through another one of my weak explanations as to why I needed a pristine vial of my blood and why I wasn’t going to send it to any government run pathology labs.
Once I had the vial in my pocket sealed in one of those little plastic yellow biohazard bags, I felt a certain kind of weight off my shoulders. But another kind of weight was building in my gut instead, prickling at my intestines like somebody playing an eerie tune on a guitar. The kind of tune you might get in one of those suspense films when you’re waiting for the heroine to make her next stupid mistake.
Cramming a hand on my stomach and realizing I was hungry but couldn’t bear the thought of food, I decided it was best to get this over with. I’d walk straight to Benson’s nearest building, drop off the blood, and be done with this by lunchtime.
That single thought buoyed me, but it couldn’t for long. It was as I was walking down the street through a relatively well-to-do section of town that I heard a strange rumble. There were plenty of cars crisscrossing through the intersections and darting down the winding streets. They were of every shape and size, from sports cars belonging to leering vampire teenagers, to massive Harley-Davidson motorbikes being ridden by massive hairy werewolves.
But this – the engine I caught humming through the air – it was different. Call it instinct, but I knew it was coming for me.
I stiffened, yanking my head to the side, but it wasn’t in time.
The next thing I knew, a limousine pulled up on the curb beside me. Not next to the curb, but on it. It rode up a storm drain, mounted the pavement, and came to a stop barely a millimeter from my left foot.
I shrieked and doubled back just as the passenger door was thrown open.
Before I knew what was happening, two tall gaunt men in impeccable black suits barreled out, grabbed me by the shoulders, and shoved me inside.
There were several other people on the street – two old grandma-looking types and a witch and warlock walking hand-in-hand. Not one of them blinked. Two guys were kidnapping me in broad daylight, and no one seemed to care. Not a single person plunged a hand into their pocket, ripped out a phone, and called the police.
Heck, I saw one of them shrug as if this was a pretty ordinary morning routine.
Me, I didn’t shrug. I sat there squeezed between those two gaunt men as one reached over and did my seatbelt up.
“What the hell is happening?” I shrieked. “Get away from me.” I tried to jerk back, locked a foot on his knee, and kicked him away.
But it wouldn’t work.
The guy was somehow as stiff and hard as a wall.
He was wearing those big wraparound shades that blocked the sunlight from coming in at any angle, and yet I swore I could see something glowing underneath. Something that shouldn’t be there. Red light.
I was starting to learn more about this magical world. Every night I ensured I read one chapter from Mr Marvelous’ file book. So I knew what a golem was. A creature made out of clay and brought to life by a scroll deposited inside its skull.
As I tried to shove the guy off once more, the heel of my boot scraped across his knee and a chunk of something fell out from the bottom of his suit pants.
It crushed against his shiny polished black shoe and scattered over the clean carpet beneath him.
He twisted his head and looked at me menacingly. “Don’t struggle,” he said. If you could call what came from his mouth a voice. It was more like the kind of rumble you’d expect before a massive earthquake tore a mountain in half.
I swallowed so hard I was sure I was going to gag. Though I kept trying to struggle, there was nothing I could do.
These guys were made of rock, and as they latched two hands on my shoulders and weighed me down, it was as if somebody had tied an anchor around my middle.
My breathing came in rapid, terrified pants as I watched the limousine pull out from the curb and drive down the street like a bat out of hell. Actually, who was I kidding? A bat out of hell didn’t have the same engine this beast had.
It was no normal limousine, and seemed to rather possess the acceleration capacity of a jetliner.
Before I knew it, we had crossed half of town.
Again we mounted the curb, several confused pedestrians scooting out of the way.
“What are you doing? Let me out, let me out!” I shrieked.
One of the golems leaned over, grabbed the door, and pushed it open. He got out with a creak.
I saw an opportunity that wasn’t there, shoved forward, fell to my knees and rolled out of the car.
Before I could spring to my feet, kick the golem in the shins, and shriek for help, I looked up at a pair of extremely expensive tailored suit pants.
As my head dipped further back and my gaze drifted up a tall, slender, well-built form, my eyes locked on none other than Theodore Van Edgerton.
He twisted his head to the side, a cruel, yet amused smile spreading his lips. “You don’t have to get down on all fours yet,” he said in a light tone. “And where is your dress?”
“What?” My jaw dropped open, and there wasn’t a thing I could do to close it. “What’s going on here?”
Theodore leaned down and cupped an arm around my elbow, pulling me to my feet in such a quick move my head spun.
Though I tried to take a jerked step back and shove him away, I quickly found a strange kind of weakness spreading from my arm and deep into my chest.
It was almost as if Theodore’s touch was an anesthetic, and I was slowly shutting down. “What?” I began, but I could barely move my lips.
“It’s time for lunch,” Theodore said. He brought up a hand and tapped his watch. “Actually, it’s a little early for lunch. Then we’ll make it brunch,” he continued his one-sided conversation and leaned over to pat a non-existent speck from my shoulder.
He led me forward.
In the terror that was being shoved into an expensive limousine and driven half way across town only to be dumped at Theodore’s feet, I hadn’t bothered to notice where we were. As I tugged my head back and swiveled it to the side, I really did lose all control of my jaw. I swear it ripped off my head and fell somewhere near my feet with a suitable clang. We were at categorically the most expensive restaurant in the city, if not the country.
If the rumors were correct, you had to pay $1000 to get in, let alone to buy your meal.
“What– what are we doing here?” I asked.
“Brunch,” Theodore said with a slow smile. “Do keep up, Miss Luck.”
“I don’t– I don’t understand,” I began.
I was rapidly losing the ability to speak, because I was rapidly losing the ability to think. My thoughts kept flitting in and out of my consciousness like clouds being chased by a hurricane.
I could barely walk, though Theodore didn’t seem to care, as he kept that cold grip locked around my elbow and pulled me forward. Even if I fell to my knees or fell flat on my face, he would just drag me.
Though there were two very human looking doormen at the front of the hotel, neither of them said a word as the vampire dragged in the helpless human. Nor did they point out that my mom jeans and flouncy sweatshirt really weren’t up to the dress standards.
Instead, they nodded, bowed and opened the doors.
There were several extremely important people hanging around in the atrium, several politicians, one anchorwoman from the 9 o’clock news, even the mayor. And none of them did a thing.
I was hardly in a happy state here. Not only was I disheveled from being kidnapped by two golems, but I knew my face was pale with panic. And yet, did they stop to call the police or ask if I wanted help to crowbar the vampire off my arm?
Nope. They ignored me.
They smiled at Theodore and swiftly turned back to continue their banal conversations.
“What– what’s happening here? Why isn’t anyone helping me?” I stuttered.
Theodore chuckled low. “Because they can’t see you, Miss Luck.” He pointed one slender white finger towards a reflective panel on the wall.
I gasped. What I saw was Theodore walking with me, except I didn’t look anything like me. I was dressed in a stunning blue gown that slipped down to my ankles and moved around like wisps of smoke caught in a gentle breeze.
I had what looked like $3000 designer heels on, and my hair was bunched into sensual curls that spilled over my shoulders and looped around my neck.
I had what could only be classed as a simpering smile on my face as I stared adoringly up at Theodore.
“What the hell?!” I screamed as Theodore tugged me past the reflective panel and I could no longer make out my reflection. “What is that?”
“A little show,” Theodore said as he leaned over and patted my hand endearingly. “And a little reminder,” he switched his gaze to me, and it was very much like the polite pussycat suddenly showing its claws, “You can scream, you can shout, and you can try to escape, Miss Luck, but nobody will see you, and nobody will help you. Now all I ask is for a few hours of your time. I assure you that while your reflection is not real, the food here is. And I will be more than happy to treat you too an expensive brunch. Oysters, champagne, chocolate – anything you please.”
“Let go of me,” I said, mustering all the strength I could and packing it behind each word like C4 behind a wall.
It didn’t work.
Theodore turned his head from me and nodded at a prominent doctor.
I began to shriek. “Help. Somebody help me. Can’t you see what he’s doing? Help,” I screamed so loudly, my voice became hoarse.
But nothing. Nobody even turned around.
I screamed so loudly that the guy beside me should have clutched his hands over his ears. But he didn’t even twitch.
Theodore began to chuckle once I was done. “Now, now. You’ll hurt your throat, and I won’t enjoy my meal,” he said very pointedly, showing his teeth.
I shivered and tried to jerk away from him with such force I very almost broke his grip.
I shouldn’t have very almost broken his grip, because he was the undead immortal vampire with the strength of 100 men and I was the frumpy unkempt woman in the sweatshirt.
I watched him jerk his head towards me, watched him crumple his brow, and watched him slice his calculating gaze towards my wrist.
He redoubled his grip until we reached a table set against the window.
The view was stunning. Though we hadn’t travelled up any floors, somehow we were on the very top floor of the building, and the view was just as expansive as you would imagine.
The hotel was set roughly in the center of town, and it offered a beautiful 360 panorama of the glistening, sprawling metropolis.
For almost half a second, I let the view take away my attention.
Then Theodore Van Edgerton leaned in, pressed an elbow into the white silk tablecloth, and placed his chin in his hand.
He began to stare at me. He looked me up and down, from the hem of my torn old sweatshirt up to the top of my scruffy hair. “You must tell me, dear, what exactly does William Benson want with you? Are you his new toy? Or does he have something more interesting in mind for you?”
On the word interesting, Theodore showed his teeth. All of his teeth. And though we were hardly under stage lights, they glinted as if somebody had shone a torch in his mouth.
I doubled back, shifting so hard against my chair, I could have fallen off it. Yet the thing felt as if it was bolted to the floor.
Theodore suddenly brought up a finger and tipped it to the side as if he were keeping time. “No, no, Miss Luck, you really can’t escape. As I said, I have too much to ask you.” With that, Theodore reached into his pocket and brought out two tiny pieces of string. He proceeded to sit them down on the pressed, ironed, and white tablecloth.
He made a fuss of straightening them, then he tapped both with the tips of his ring fingers.
They sparked to life, charges of magic wriggling through them, turning them into the string equivalent of writhing worms.
Instantly I recoiled, but I wasn’t quick enough. For those wriggling worms of string turned into massive lengths of rope that shot across the table, wound around my wrists, and tied me to the chair.
I screamed at the top of my lungs, so loudly I could have shattered the glass windows that swept around the room.
Theodore laughed melodiously. “Now, now, Miss Luck, there’s no need to scream like that. I promise not to hurt you.”
“What are you doing tying me to a chair, then?!” I shrieked.
He leaned back and gestured expansively. “I’m just reminding you that I want two mere hours of your time. Now, it’s not going to be that hard to enjoy my company while answering a few of my questions. I assure you, Miss Luck,” he reached out a hand, and suddenly my hand wriggled out from under one of the ropes and slammed onto the table. I hadn’t chosen to move, but the ropes had chosen to move for me. Theodore leaned forward and clasped my hand as if he were a lover about to recite a tender poem. “Just two hours of your time.”
“I don’t know anything. I don’t know why Benson has an interest in me,” I outright lied.
Theodore tilted his head slightly to the side, then kept on going as if his head was a ship that had suddenly taken on too much water and was listing dangerously. “You do understand that vampires can tell when a person is lying, don’t you, Miss Luck? Only those with the greatest training can possibly fool a vampire. And, Miss Luck, you don’t have great training or natural talent. Nor, I am afraid to say, do you have particularly alluring looks.” He leaned back and crossed an arm over his middle and began to tap his chin. “I’ve known William Benson for centuries. He doesn’t waste his time with those not worthy of his. So I’ll ask once more, why exactly is William interested in you?”
I clenched my teeth. “He’s not interested in me.”
“You misunderstand. Why is William paying you so much attention? What exactly can you do for him?” Theodore’s face suddenly stiffened. All that false good humor that had been curling through his tone and puffing up his cheeks, was gone. Now he looked at me exactly like a snake ready to strike.
I could barely swallow, and my body was shaking so badly under the magical ropes I was sure I was going to give myself burns. “I don’t know why William is interested in me,” I lied again. As I did, I made a fatal mistake. I glanced down at my pocket. The same pocket that now had a vial of my blood in it.
I had no intention whatsoever to look at it, but something happened to me as Theodore stared at me. It was almost as if I was compelled.
He chuckled once more. “You really are quite easy to manipulate, aren’t you, my little mouse?”
I stiffened at that revolting term.
“Now come here.” He leaned forward, gripped one hand on the table, and slipped an arm close to my side. His fingers pried back my jacket and plucked the yellow biohazard pack from my pocket.
It wasn’t a fast move. It was slow, so slow that as he slipped the packet from my pocket, he took several seconds to stare right into my eyes.
I shifted back as far as I could, screwing up my lips and scrunching my nose in revulsion.
He remained there, a few centimeters from my face, and chuckled. Then he pulled back and sat down.
He ran a tongue over his teeth, paying particular attention to his canines as if he were checking how sharp they were. “What have we here?” he said in a singsong voice as he played experimentally with the packet.
He brought it up and sniffed it in a single, delicate move. “Smells like blood,” he said. The way he said blood – the pitch his voice took, the way his face stiffened – it was undeniable. It was the same tense, almost primal move I’d seen Benson use before.
It reminded me like a punch in the gut that I was currently in the presence of a vampire. A bloodsucking parasite with unstoppable hunger and an unstoppable urge for violence.
Theodore kept running a tongue over his teeth until he set the packet down and opened it, not by the ziplock at the top, but by ripping into it.
The move was so quick and snapped, he was like a tiger eviscerating its prey.
I gave a soft shriek and shifted back.
He pushed a hand into the torn remnants of the packet and pulled out the vial of my blood.
He twisted it around in his fingers, an almost indescribable look in his gaze.
Just when I thought he’d uncork it and chuck it down his throat, he laid it carefully onto the table, then he steepled his fingers and shot me an odd look. “If I were you, Miss Luck, I would answer me.”
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t. All I could do was watch him and wait for what he would do next.
“Are you ill, Miss Luck?”
Though I seriously didn’t want to answer, I found my lips moving of their own accord. “I’m not ill.”
“Then what exactly are you doing taking your bloods?”
Again that word punched from his throat. It wasn’t so much violent, as menacing. Menacing in that true sense you don’t really get these days. Not the kind of bottled up, premade fear you find in crappy thriller movies. But the true menacing of old. The prospect of running through the woods only to hear the crack of twigs behind you and a short sharp pant by your ear.
I began to shake my head nervously, compulsively, as if that would somehow get me out of here.
“Were you going to deliver this to William Benson?” Theodore asked.
Halfway through shaking my head, I suddenly stopped. It was as if the muscles in my neck twanged and became as stiff as steel poles.
Before I knew what I was doing, I began to nod.
Theodore looked at me, looked at me in a way I’d never seen anyone look at me before. It wasn’t so much calculating, as deconstructing. It was like he suddenly turned into a scientist and started tearing me back, cell by cell, to discover what he would find beneath.
He reached forward, plucked up the blood, and carefully placed it in his pocket.
My eyes drew wide as I realized it was in a position that could easily be broken. And if it were broken, my blood could kill Theodore.
It was hardly a concern I should have, considering the guy had dragged me into this fancy restaurant and tied me to a chair. But I’d signed a contract not to give my blood to any vampires. And what was more, I was not a murderer. Even of the undead.
“You– you shouldn’t do that,” I began to stutter. “It’s dangerous,” I managed.
He brought a hand up and softly patted the vial.
I winced as if the thing was seconds from cracking and splashing everywhere like a blood bomb. “No– no—” I began. “You really shouldn’t do that. Please, just listen to me.”
He brought his hands out and gestured wide. “Why, I’m here to listen to you, Miss Luck. Why don’t you start from the beginning? Why are you giving vials of your blood to William Benson? And why are you so scared of this?” He pushed a hand into his pocket and plucked out the vial, swinging it back and forth in his hands.
I shivered and receded as far as I could into my chair. “Please, just be careful. That… you don’t know what you’re handling.”
“Then tell me what I’m handling,” his voice suddenly dipped low in a menacing growl as he locked both arms on the table and leaned forward. The table was quite large, yet somehow he was right by my face again, a snarling mass of teeth and terror.
While I was 100% certain that Benson didn't want me giving my blood to any vampires, I was pretty certain he didn't want me sharing my condition, either. Especially to Theodore. After all, Benson had gone to painful lengths to warn me off the guy. But what option did I have?
“Miss Luck,” Theodore hissed. “I’m running out of patience.”
I jolted. “I don’t– I don’t I—” began. Then I stopped swiftly.
Something was crawling up my wrists. Christ, it felt like they were on fire.
I jolted to the side, twisting my head down to look at my hands. The magical rope had returned my hands to my lap. Now I stared at them in open horror as something appeared to crack over my skin.
Theodore’s eyes narrowed to a point. “What are you doing?”
Me? I wasn’t doing a goddamn thing. Something, however, was reacting to the ropes. It was almost as if my skin was having an allergic reaction to them.
He got up, pressing one white-knuckled hand into the tablecloth.
He started to move around the table.
The menace embodied in his every movement snaked into me, igniting my fear like gasoline thrown on a fire.
And the reaction – the white light cracking up my skin and sinking into the ropes – only grew all the stronger.
Before I knew what was happening, the ropes broke, falling off me with a magical bang.
I shrieked, doubling to the side and falling off my chair.
Theodore was right behind me. He lurched forward, but I shifted, kicked the chair, and sent it slamming into his knees.
He may be a vampire, but I caught him off guard, and he tumbled back into the table.
I charged to my feet, my adrenaline pulsing so hard through my veins I was sure it would tear my circulatory system to shreds.
I heard Theodore snap something from behind me, but I’d already shoved through the crowd and made it to the door.
I ran. Didn’t stop running. Couldn’t stop running. Even if the world suddenly crumbled to dust around me, I’d find some way of pushing on.
I could still feel the effects of those wriggling ropes around my wrists. Even though I’d thrown them off, a shadow of their magical effects remained.
I knew instinctively that if I paid too much attention to it, the ropes would bind me once more. So I concentrated on fleeing, instead.
I shot out of the front doors like a ball fired from a canon. I was so fast that I practically rammed into the mayor’s wife. I locked a hand on the stout woman’s shoulder, and used her for momentum as I swung around and pitched towards the road.
I could hear the golems right behind me, and they sounded like being chased by an avalanche. So much rock shifted in their bodies and ground through their feet and joints, that clouds of dust actually erupted from their sleeves and the collars of their suits.
“Oh my God, help me, help me,” I shrieked.
But again nobody could hear me. Though the mayor’s wife was suitably disturbed at the fact she’d just lost balance, nobody else noticed a thing.
“Oh god, please help me,” I stuttered as I shoved a hand into my pocket and suddenly remembered my phone. It was the first chance I’d had to use it since those golem assholes had piled me into that car.
I didn’t have the chance to bring it up to my face and see who I was calling. Instead I just thumbed my way to contacts and hit redial.
The golems were right behind me, right behind me. One of them leapt to the side, missing me by centimeters as he ran up the brick wall to our left. The other shoved forward, clutching at my sleeve. He caught a few strands of my hair, jerking my head back, but I managed to wriggle free.
I lost my balance, and before I knew what was happening I found myself falling down a set of stairs.
The stairs came out of nowhere, and I had no chance to avoid them. My back slammed into the stone steps, my legs and arms jostling as I rolled down them with all the finesse and gentle touch of a cloth being cleaned on a wash board.
In a haze of limbs and pain, I finally reached the bottom, my head flicking back and cracking on the last stone step.
Stars invaded my vision, a heavy, deadly ringing building in my ears as a nasty iron taste filtered through my mouth.
My lips parted open and I gasped.
As stars started to explode through my vision and a nasty wet, metallic taste filtered through my mouth, I heard the two golems jump down from the step and land beside me.
Just when I felt sure I would black out, I lasted long enough to feel their hard clay fingers shove hard into my shoulders.
With no ceremony whatsoever, they dragged me forward.
The stone below me was cold, and sank its frigid claws into every centimeter of my back.
We reached the center of the room, and I was hauled up, two strong hands pinning me against another goddamn chair.
The golems tied me up and left.
Though I tried fiercely to blink against the pain invading my vision, it was a thankless task.
I saw enough to realize I was in some kind of basement. It was dark and dank, and as a nasty rush of air scooted past me, I realized it was as cold as the deepest cave.
From somewhere I found the strength to open my lips. “What– what are you going to do with me?” I managed.
No answer. Just the continuous creak and groan of the golem’s stone limbs moving against clay joints as they walked up the stairs and out of sight.
My vision began to swim, and I flopped back against the chair, thinking it really was lights out for me this time.
But something – some scrap of awareness so strong it could hardly belong to me – kept me alive. Kept me awake long enough to hear the strange grate of what sounded like metal claws clicking down the stone steps.
There was something so eerie and out-of-place about that sound that it sent a powerful shiver racing down my back. It was so strong, it had the effect of a defibrillator.
I was jolted awake just in time.
Barely any light made it down from the stone steps that led into the basement. It was just enough, however, that I could appreciate when it was cut out by some kind of massive form.
As fear punched hard through my gut and scoured every centimeter of my flesh, my eyes began to adjust to the gloom more and more until I saw some kind of massive creature loom before me.
It was large enough that it looked as if somebody had driven an SUV down those steep little steps.
“What?!” I began, voice shaking in my throat. “What?”
Something opened its mouth, and a blast of fetid breath slammed over my cheeks, pushing back my hair and sending it tumbling over my neck.
From somewhere up near the top of the steps on the street beyond, I heard a familiar chuckle. “You should have stayed at brunch, Miss Luck. Trust me when I say it was the nicer option.”
“Theodore? Theodore?!” I screamed. “What are you doing? What are you doing? If you– if you kill me, people will come looking for me. Benson will come looking for me,” I suddenly shrieked.
I heard the footsteps on top of the stairs pause. But just when I thought that particular comment would be enough to get Theodore’s attention and to call off whatever hellish creature was currently looming above me, he chuckled once more. “Don’t worry, Miss Luck. I know full well how to get William Benson’s attention. I think you’ll find this will send a particularly strong message indeed. Now, my only suggestion to you, is to answer every question it has for you. I warn you, it doesn’t have my patience, and it won’t be as nice when you fail it.”
“Theodore? Theodore?!” I screamed, voice pitching out of my throat and shaking through the room.
He walked away. I heard that asshole walk away.
Which meant I was left alone with the creature.
I couldn’t even describe how fast my heart was beating. It was like a military tattoo pounding through my chest wall.
Despite the gloom, my senses were somehow becoming sharper, and I swore I could see the full outline of the foul beast before me.
It had massive wings and a towering, hunched up body.
It could have just been my imagination, but I swore it was bright somehow. Shiny. As if a part of its body was made out of metal or diamond or glass.
I suddenly hissed out loud as my lips parted a crack.
It was a glass demon.
The Lizzie Luck of several weeks ago had never heard of a glass demon, but now I’d been hanging around the dark sections of town, I’d heard enough whispered terrifying tales of them to know they were a far nastier prospect than little Theodore Van Edgerton.
Sure enough, as the demon crouched down and suddenly opened its mouth, a burst of illumination shone from it like a lightning storm.
I shrieked and tried to jerk my head back, but there was nowhere to run. Nowhere I could go to escape that violent burning light.
The demon was completely made out of glass. While its body was black like smoky quartz, its claws and teeth and eyes and mouth were clear like diamonds. You would have thought from such a description that it was a fragile thing. That you could just throw a stone at it, or hit the right pitch with your operatic voice, and the goddamn thing would shatter.
Except, unfortunately, there was nothing on God’s green earth that could shatter the beast.
It wasn’t actually made out of glass, just this shiny, super reflective substance that was magically meant to show up the truth. Lie to a glass demon, and that lie would be reflected in their body.
They had potent mental capabilities and could read your mind just by staring into your terrified gaze.
As the demon twitched forward, it brought its massive, curled, long claws up.
I shrieked, trying to shift back on the chair, trying desperately to get away.
But there was nowhere I could go.
The golems had already tied me to the metal chair with magical ropes.
“No, no, please, no,” I began. “I promise to tell the truth. I just—”
It didn’t give me the option. A second later, the demon settled its claws alongside my face. They dug into my skin, but were just light enough that they didn’t cut it.
I began to squirm, but soon lost all fight as a heavy, dead feeling pushed through my limbs. My mouth opened and my eyes became unfocused as I stared limply at the demon.
“You will tell me the truth,” it spoke in the kind of voice that shouldn’t be possible. It was like the eerie noise you might expect from a 1000-year-old crypt being opened for the first time. There was something so dead and so wrong about it that it sent explosive nerves shooting hard up my back.
My eyes were now so riveted open, insects could probably crawl between the gaps in my eyelids.
I had no more fight, no more fight to stop the demon as it brought its reflective glass mouth down and locked it around my head.
It didn’t snap its jaws closed and rip my face in half. Instead it settled its jaws around my head as it shone the light from its mouth into my eyes.
The light tore through me like hands that suddenly clutched their way into my deepest darkest thoughts.
“Why does William Benson want you?” the demon now spoke in none other than Theodore’s voice. There was even a light nasty chuckle that unmistakably reminded me of that cruel man.
“I– I killed a vampire,” I said.
There was a long pause.
“How?” Theodore asked.
“I don’t know. It feasted on my blood, and my blood—” I paused.
God, don’t ask me where I found the strength of will to pause.
I hadn’t been lying when I’d said it felt as if the demon’s claws had somehow pushed their way into my very thoughts. And yet something – some strength I’d barely been aware existed in my heart – suddenly exploded and rammed up my back, shunting hard into my jaw and locking it closed.
“How did you kill the vampire?” Theodore snapped.
I didn’t answer. Again I managed to keep my mouth firmly shut.
I heard Theodore scream. Then I felt the glass demon shove forward. It closed its mouth around my head. Its teeth pressed into my face, finally cutting my skin.
I screamed. Screamed so loud I could have woken half the city.
The terrified shriek started deep in my heart and gouged its way out of my throat. But that wasn’t the only thing that sprung from my heart – the only powerful force that suddenly split through my body with all the unstoppable strength of a volcanic explosion.
I felt something – that same goddamn sensation that had been chasing me in my dreams. It burst from my heart and shot through every single cell of my body.
Something… something powered out of me, and that something was light. The brightest, most powerful magical light I’d ever seen.
It slammed into the glass demon, eating into its exposed mouth. From the little I knew of glass demons, the only part of their bodies that was susceptible to damage were their mouths. And right now that impossible, terrifying white light gouged into its mouth.
It doubled back, shrieking, the noise so loud it managed to shake the walls and floor.
I was thrown to the side, whatever magical spell locking the chair to the floor breaking.
With an earsplitting cry, the demon continued to pitch, thrashing around the room, clutching its glass claws at its glass body.
I’d never heard anything like it, it sounded like a 1000-strong pack of hyenas shrieking at death.
It was so thunderously loud that, as I fell back and slammed against the floor with a bone-shattering thunk, I curled my body forward and locked my ear against the cracked stone floor.
A full minute passed until the cracks appearing over the demon’s glass body became too much. With a single shriek, it shattered. Shards of glass exploded everywhere, several slashing over my exposed arms and cheeks. Charges of dark magic discharged, jumping over the cracked stone floor and sinking high into the walls, several shooting out and up the stairs, until finally, silence.
Silence and stillness, apart from my shaking, convulsing body.
So much blood and sweat slipped down my cheeks and brow it felt as if I would drown.
Though I’d broken the grips of the magical ropes that tied me to the chair, I could barely move. It felt as if my body had just discharged lightning. And hey, maybe it had.
It was meant to be almost impossible to kill a glass demon. Only the strongest practitioners of magic could do it, and yet somehow I’d done it.
My blood… my blood had shattered it.
My thoughts spun harder and harder, faster and faster, until it felt as if my head had turned into a spinning atom.
Just when I thought I’d lose consciousness, I began to hear angry voices from on top of the stairs. Though they were barely more than a rumble, I knew – God I knew – it was Theodore and his cronies. This time he was coming to get me and he wasn’t going to let me go.
Just when I heard footsteps echo closer, something rang. My phone, to be exact. It was still in my pocket, and fortunately hadn’t been crushed by my fall. Though the almost belligerent sound of it ringing was enough to shock me, I couldn’t find the strength to wriggle an arm around and answer it.
Maybe it was help. Maybe it was a telemarketer. And maybe it wouldn’t make any difference. I heard a golem’s stone feet finally reaching the bottom of the stairs.
“Help me, somebody help me,” I shrieked.
The phone stopped ringing.
It was so dark in this basement that I could see any illumination however small, and from behind me, I suddenly saw a single spark as if somebody was lighting up a cigarette or playing around with a half lit candle.
Somehow, somehow I felt a presence behind me and I heard the creak of fabric and the shifting of shoes as a hand was placed tenderly on my shoulder.
I screamed, realizing it must be Theodore, realizing he must have somehow used another entrance.
“God no, please, let me go, let me go,” I begged. “I don’t know anything. I don’t know anything. I don’t know why Benson wants me. Just let me go.”
“I assure you, Miss Luck, Benson only wants to help you,” somebody said.
It wasn’t Theodore; it was William Benson III himself.
I found the strength to snap my head around and stare up into his face. Though he looked easy, there was a certain tension about him. A tension that was magnified as his gaze darted over my cut, bedraggled form.
Before I knew it, he was leaning down, locking his arms around my back and pulling me easily up into his arms.
The sleeves of his expensive shirt were rolled up and bunched under my back. I could even feel the dent of his watch pushing hard into my side. And that wasn’t to mention – oh God – that wasn’t to mention his arms.
I could pick up every single detail of them, every bulge of muscle, every smooth line of ligament, and every blessed trace of warmth.
“What– what’s happening?” I managed.
“What is happening, Miss Luck, is that you asked for help. Now I suggest we get out of this basement and into the light.”
With that, he took a swift step backwards and there was another tiny, almost insignificant speck of light.
Before I knew it, I was standing in his office.
Instantly my head began to swim, but that was nothing to be said of my stomach. It lurched hard, and I pitched to the left.
Before I could throw up the empty contents of my stomach, I felt Benson latch two fingers into my cheek.
It was a strange, distracting sensation, granted, but shouldn’t have been enough to stop me from throwing up all over his expensive loafers and carpet.
Yet it was.
“Do understand, I just had this office cleaned,” he said importantly.
Then he walked me over to the couch in the center of the room and placed me down gently.
I stared up at him as he looked down at me.
I felt like utter trash. I’d never felt so sick in all my life.
I clamped a hand on my stomach, drew my head forward, and squeezed my eyes so closed it would have taken a crowbar to part them.
Then reality struck me like a brick between the eyes.
Benson had saved me.
I hesitantly opened one eye.
There he was, right in front of me, one hand rested easily in his pocket as he considered me, one eyebrow raised. “Miss Luck, though I can appreciate you would like to sleep after your ordeal, I think it would be common courtesy to explain to me – your savior – exactly what happened.”
There was something so exquisitely irritating about his tone and that sanctimonious smirk crumpling his perfect lips that I somehow managed to find the energy to shift up and glare at him. “You aren’t my savior.”
Slowly, so goddamn slowly, his lips crumpled into a smile. Christ, it was like a lesson in anatomy. I saw every twitch of the muscles along his lips, chin, and jaw.
And what was worse – what was infinitely worse – is he saw how keenly I watched him.
He let out a soft chuckle and shifted his shoulders as if he were trying to get more comfortable.
It only attracted my greedy gaze to his arms and back. I could still remember in unnervingly perfect detail how it felt to be lifted up by those arms.
I brought a hand up and crumpled it over my eyes, trying to grind them closed.
What the hell was I thinking? This jerk was William Benson. Why the hell was my stupid brain swinging from hating him one moment to being rather pleasantly distracted by his perfect body the next?
“It’s natural for there to be some confusion after a run in with a glass demon,” he told me as he shifted forward and walked over to a polished walnut drinks cabinet on the far side of the room. He fixed himself a whiskey, then grabbed the shadiest looking black bottle from the back of the cabinet. I’d snooped through enough of Mr Marvelous stuff to have seem some seriously peculiar looking bottles of potion, but what Benson uncorked and poured into a glass took the biscuit.
I could smell the stuff from over here, and it smelt like concentrated death.
He walked over to me and handed me the glass.
I frowned at it. “You don’t seriously expect me to drink that, do you?”
“Of course I do. If you don’t, you won’t be holding up your end of the bargain. And if you fail to hold up our contract, miss—” he began.
“Don’t call me Miss Luck again,” I snarled as I reluctantly grabbed the glass off him. “And don’t remind me about that frigging contract.”
He chuckled as he took several polite steps back, placed his hand back in his pocket, and took several slow, appreciative sips of his whiskey. “Why do I get the feeling you aren’t like this around other people?” he suddenly asked.
Thrown by the question, it distracted me sufficiently that I sat up without once realizing how painful my side was.
I glared at him from over the top of the black, bubbling, seething liquid. It looked like angry tar.
Benson held my gaze with that infuriating steady stare of his. The one that told you he could lock his eyes on you for the rest of eternity and not once be tempted to look away.
He dipped his head down, never blinking once. “Please drink, Miss Luck. I assure you it isn’t poison. You are far too interesting to poison at this stage.” He smiled as he took another sip of his whiskey.
Why did so many of our interactions end up like this?
Experimentally, I tried to get to my feet.
Big mistake. Oh boy, was it a big mistake.
I was suddenly violently reminded of how hurt I was.
I let out a pathetic little whine and almost crumpled.
Before I could let go of the glass and slosh the fiendish contents all over my torn sweatshirt, Benson was there. Right in front of me.
The guy had the apparent ability to divide space and travel over half the room in a split second.
He was down on one knee, right before me, one hand locked on the glass, holding it upright.
I jerked back, shoulders banging into the expensive leather of his antique sofa.
“Drink this, it will make you feel better. Go some way to healing your injuries.” With that statement, his eyes locked on my cheeks.
They were cut, smears of blood covering them, a few flecks staining my collar, too.
Benson was a composed vampire with a top financial firm, sure – but he was still a vampire.
There was a reason no vampires worked at the blood bank.
Though they could keep themselves restrained, theoretically, you never knew when they’d snap.
Before I knew what he was doing, Benson reached a hand up and almost placed it along my cheek.
I trembled at his expected touch.
But it didn’t come. As a flare of something – possibly reason – flashed through his eyes, he switched his hand to his pocket.
He withdrew a perfectly pressed, perfectly white handkerchief.
He pressed it against my cheek with a delicate, supremely careful touch.
Then he went right back to staring at me. “Drink,” he commanded.
There was something undeniably powerful about his tone – something undeniably compelling. Before I knew what I was doing, I jerked the glass up to my lips and took a sip.
… And didn’t promptly spit it out.
In fact, it was delicious. Hot and spicy, it sloshed down my throat, curling around my middle like a welcome embrace.
I quickly brought the glass up and took another much larger sip.
Just when I threatened to tip my head back and swallow the rest of the liquid in a great big gulp, Benson placed one strong finger on the rim of the glass and pushed it down. “Slowly,” he said, his lips moving appropriately slowly around the word.
I didn’t want to chuck this down slowly – I wanted to run over to the bottle in his drinks cabinet, uncork it, and tip every last drop down my throat.
I felt great. It wasn’t just pushing back the pain that had robbed me of my strength, it was making me feel on top of the world.
Before I knew it, I let out a very happy, very girly, very silly giggle.
“I think that’s enough for now.” Benson grabbed the glass back and stood before me.
For a second he didn’t step back, and I was treated to an up-close view of his front.
Christ, the guy was built. Chiseled like a Greek god under the finest tailored suit.
I, very stupidly, brought up a hand, crammed it over my mouth, and started to guffaw like a love-struck teenager at a boyband concert.
Benson took another polite, pointed step back. Then he took a breath. The kind of breath that pushed out his strong, rock-hard chest and saw his collar almost pop against his firm neck.
All details that riveted me to the spot. Oh god, if he didn’t stop looking so fine, I’d probably start drooling.
“Miss Luck, I need you to concentrate and tell me exactly what happened.”
I was staring at his chest. His outline was perfectly, beautifully, artfully lit up by the light streaming in through his panorama windows.
“Miss Luck,” he prompted once more.
There was that same note of authority in his tone.
It had the desired effect on me. I straightened as if someone had just rammed a rod down my back.
My lips split open and I started telling him the whole sorry tale. But did I once tear my gaze off his perfect stomach, neck, and arms? Nope.
I openly gawked at him as if he were the first real man I’d ever seen.
Benson visibly stiffened when I told him a vampire had followed me home and delivered a message with placards on my street corner.
“Did you leave the building? Did you go out at any time during the night?” he demanded.
I flopped a hand at him. “Do you think I’m stupid? I’m not stupid,” I said in the kind of droning voice that pretty much confirmed I was a raging idiot.
“Fine,” he swallowed hard, and hello mamma did it set off a pleasant ripple of muscles that pushed hard down his middle. “What happened next?”
“Oh, not much. I got your message in the morning, went to pathology, then got kidnapped by golems, tied to a chair in a fancy restaurant, and leered at by Theodore.”
“They kidnapped you outside of the pathology clinic? Where’s your blood sample?” Benson snapped as he snapped towards me.
I crammed a hand over my mouth and giggled again at his presence. “You know, that shirt fits you sooo well,” I said.
Holy. Crap. Holy crap, crap, crap, crap, crap. The scrap of my mind that wasn’t high on whatever Benson had given me, cringed.
I would regret this in the morning.
Boy, I’d never be able to live this down.
“Where’s the blood?” Benson’s direct, piercing gaze locked on my pockets.
“Theodore has it, silly. He stole it. Then I managed to get away from him. His golems chased me down into some stone basement thing on the opposite side of the street…. come to think of it, what the heck was it doing there? I mean, that’s the fanciest street in town. You’d think—”
“Focus,” Benson’s tone dropped, and it would be clear to anyone not currently whacked out on drugs, that he was starting to lose his patience. “The basement would have been a portal spell set up by Theodore. Just tell me what happened. Did you tell that demon anything?”
I looked up at him. Despite the fact I could still feel the silly effects of the drink bamboozling my mind and turning my sense inside out, I… held his gaze as something flared in my heart.
“You think I’m weak enough to fall for a glass demon?” I demanded.
Except… Christ, it didn’t sound like me. Same voice, just not the same force. When I spoke, I rarely did so with conviction. But as I looked up at William Benson and spoke, it felt like I was making a decree from god.
William straightened. Those perfect muscles along his neck stiffened, and I watched the skin around his eyes crinkle. “Miss Luck,” he said in a prying, careful tone, “Repeat what you just said.”
I frowned. For some reason, I couldn’t remember what I’d said – I was too freaking thrown by the fact I’d sounded like I was in control.
After a few seconds of gaping at him, Benson brought up a hand, tapped his chin once, and turned away.
He walked purposefully over to his desk, plucked a plain legal pad from the top drawer, and proceeded to scribble something over the top with a look of concentration smoothed over his brow.
“Ah, what are you doing?” I asked.
He ignored me until he was finished, then he promptly hid the pad away in the top drawer of his desk again.
He crossed his arms, leaned against his desk, and looked at me.
My eyes were a little blurry from my ordeal, so I couldn’t pick up his expression. His stance, however, was about as readable as a neon sign flashing right in front of your face.
He was suspicious. Of me.
Thank god I wasn’t giggling anymore. The heady, crazy effects of the drink had waned.
While I still felt a pleasant warm energy rushing through my body and soothing my injuries, I wasn’t ready to skip over to Benson, fall at his feet, and giggle at his perfect form.
I sat wearily on the edge of the couch, my crooked fingers bent around the molded leather.
We watched each other.
Eventually I couldn’t take it anymore, and rose to my feet. “Ah… what happens next?”
He took a few seconds to answer, clearly not done inspecting me with that godawful penetrating gaze. “Next, Miss Luck, I watch you. Like a hawk. Your exploits today have proved you can’t be left alone.”
I became pink at the prospect William Benson, the most eligible bachelor in the country, had no intention of leaving me alone.
Then what he was actually saying caught up with me like a sucker punch to the jaw. “Ah, what? What do you mean?”
“I mean, I can no longer afford to take this situation lightly. Theodore Van Edgerton now has a vial of your blood. Worse, you killed a glass demon.” His voice shook.
He was a vampire king, a consummate business man, and very much not the kind of guy whose voice shook.
Though I could tell he was trying hard to keep his expression even, it wasn’t working.
William Benson III looked impressed, shocked, and unsure.
It was enough to wash away the last giddying effects of my medication.
I took a very hesitant step towards him, clutching my sweaty hands around the torn hem of my sweatshirt. “I… I didn’t mean to kill it.”
He smiled. It was impressed. “It was a demon, Lizzie, no one will miss it. Plus, you were within your rights. It was trying to kill you. I’m more interested in how you managed to dispatch it.” He watched me intently.
Me, I just stood there and looked as lost as a puppy in the woods. I mutely shook my head, pressing a suddenly cold and sweaty hand to my lips.
Benson sighed. “Don’t tell me – you have no idea. Well, I thought that might be the case. Oh well, I’ll just have to wait to see what will happen next.”
I swallowed and stifled a groan.
He smiled. Though if you looked carefully – and I’d done nothing but look at Benson carefully since he’d brought me here – you could see the stress.
It marred his strong gaze, crawled up the side of his lips, and saw him stand a little stiffer as he leaned against his desk.
Before too long, he sent me home with a small bottle of that amazing black liquid and strong instructions not to drink it all at once.
I was too nervous, sick, and ashamed to try. Instead I moped back home in a chauffeured car Benson prepared for me.
He was certain Theodore wasn’t going to try his hand at any more kidnapping.
Me, I wasn’t so sure.
As I tugged my head up and stared at the sky, I was pretty damn sure it was going to fall down. And if not the sky, then the rest of my life.
I’d already killed a demon and fallen giddily at the knees of William Benson. And it was only 11:00 in the morning.
I sat on the edge of my bed wincing.
I was never ever, ever, ever going to live this down. Though I really should have been distracted by what I’d learned from Benson, the only thing I could think of is how I’d stared openmouthed at his perfect body.
“Oh God, you are a hopeless case,” I chided myself as I hissed through bared teeth, balled my hands up into fists, and struck the edge of my bed repeatedly. The crappy old mattress practically twanged under the onslaught.
Though I could have set myself to beating it and slowly eking out my frustration for the rest of the day, I couldn’t really, could I?
Because I’d killed a glass demon. Sure, Benson had tried to hide how impressed he’d been at that. But as repulsive as it sounded, I was starting to get to know the guy. And it had been damn obvious how taken aback he’d been at the prospect that me – little mouse, Lizzie Luck – had destroyed one of the hardest creatures to kill in all of Hope City.
It was that thought and that thought alone that finally stopped me from beating the mattress. Instead, I sat on the edge of my bed, nervously clutching my hands into tight fists. I was now so far into this stupid mess that I’d stopped thinking I could wake up from this nightmare.
The only thing I could do was find out what on earth I was. But in doing that, I would have to face the terrifying prospect that maybe I wasn’t from Earth, but I was from underneath it.
I brought my shaking hands up once more and swallowed hard at the memory of that demon shrieking. The memory of that pulsing, unstoppable, violent light tearing out of me and ripping through the creature’s glass body.
Before I could completely give in to my fear, crumple into a ball, and cry myself to sleep, my phone rang. I jolted as I clutched it from my pocket with shaking hands. I expected it to be him. Of course I did. Because he’d outright told me he was now intending to keep such a close eye on me I wouldn’t be able to cough without him knowing it.
It wasn’t Benson, though. It was Sarah.
The prospect of Sarah’s happy smile and outrageous sense of humor were the only things that could bring a small smile to my lips as I plucked the phone up and pressed it to my ear. “You have no idea how good it is to hear from you,” I began.
“Honey, you have to come over. Another vampire’s come to see you,” Sarah spluttered without as much as a hello. Sarah was not the kind of girl who ever got to the point quickly. You’d go through half an hour of random conversation with her until she bothered to blurt that your boss had called with an urgent appointment. But now Sarah was getting straight to that point, and that was a truly terrifying prospect.
Not as terrifying, however, as the thought of which vampire it could be.
I stiffened so badly I heard my muscles creak. I pressed towards the edge of my bed. “Sarah, you have to listen to me very carefully. If that’s Theodore van Edgerton, you need to find some way to get him out of the house. I’ll call for help—”
“Van Edgerton? You mean that socialite playboy who owns most of the gambling halls and casinos in the city? It’s not him. God, if it was him, you think I’d be calling you? I know we’re friends, and all, but if the city’s number one eligible bachelor and playboy vampire appeared on my doorstep, sweetie, I’d have other plans.”
Though I wanted to launch into an immediate tirade about Theodore Van Edgerton being an evil bastard, I stopped. Because while it wasn’t him, there was still a vampire in my ex roommate’s house.”
I tensed. “It’s not Benson, is it?”
Sarah spluttered. “Firstly, if it was Benson, I’d tell you. Sure, the guy’s hot, but you clearly have history, and I haven’t easily forgotten the last time he came over. It’s not Benson.”
“Then who the hell is it?” I demanded in a loud gulp.
It wasn’t impossible that I’d attracted the attention of more evil vampires other than Theodore. Hey, they were probably right now passing around a photo of me in whatever clubs and establishments of ill repute they met up in. I’d be the flavor of the month. Literally.
I shivered as I clutched a hand to my neck.
Sarah gave an odd, awkward pause that made me so frigging alarmed I sprung to my feet. “Sarah, who the hell is there?”
“She won’t give her name. Keeps saying that it could get her killed. She’s in a bad way, Lizzie – I’ve never seen a vampire this scared before.”
My nose crumpled as my legs fell out from underneath me and I sat with a bang on the bed. “It’s a woman?”
“Yes, and she’s goddamn terrified. She keeps asking to see you, says she has to warn you about something. I thought maybe she was playing at first, and this was just some sick joke of Benson’s. But it’s not. So, Liz, you’ve got to come over. Now.”
I had no option, did I? I had to get over to Sarah’s and find out what the hell that vampire wanted. Not only could I not leave my ex flat mate alone with her, but I had to find out what the heck was going on.
I knew full well that it was a bad idea to leave the shop. Not only had Benson warned me to be careful for the rest of the day until he got in contact with me again, but, seriously, Theodore was probably waiting behind the trashcan outside the shop, one of those bank sacks in hand, ready to chuck it over my head and shut me in the back of his car.
While I could have called Benson and begged for a lift, I wasn’t that stupid. Nor was I that desperate. Plus, from what Sarah had told me over the phone, the vampire in our apartment sounded terrified. Terrified someone would find her and kill her. For all I knew, that was Benson.
I wasn’t a brave girl. Sure, the past several days had been taxing, and had taught me that I had a heck of a lot more courage than I’d once suspected. Still, I surprised myself as I ran around the shop, gathering whatever magical supplies I could. Though Mr Marvelous had been quite strict in telling me that we were a private detective agency and not a private army, he still had weapons. After all, we weren’t exactly dealing with the nicest clientele. Not only were we in a particularly seedy, nasty section of town, but, hello, this business was a dangerous one. This was my first case, and I’d already been stalked and kidnapped.
So it didn’t take long to find the case of weapons. It took a little longer, however, to figure out what the hell they were.
Though some were obviously daggers of the particularly magical and pointy variety, there were one or two I couldn’t even guess the uses of.
One in particular looked to be nothing more than a charm bracelet. And yet, it couldn’t be a bloody charm bracelet, because not only was Mr Marvelous one of the most blokey blokes I’d ever seen, but, hello, it was in the armory box.
On closer inspection, I realized the exact charms looped around the gold bracelet weren’t exactly the ordinary figures you’d see on a child’s toy. They were downright nasty. One looked like a bulging eye. Another looked like a cracked skull. And one looked like some kind of sinister monster dragging a guy into the drains.
Not only were they marvelously detailed, they were exquisitely hideous. I made a face, shivered, but nonetheless crammed the bracelet on my wrist.
When I was done collecting my weapons, I shoved a pair of magical binoculars into my bag for good measure, grabbed a legal pad too in case I had to take any notes, then paused by the door, locking a sweaty hand on the handle.
“Come on, girl, you can do this. Because you don’t have any other bloody option.” With that awful thought, I opened the door and made it out onto the street.
I won’t lie to you. My head practically exploded from the effort of scanning and re-scanning the street for any sign of threat.
From the old trees groaning in the wind marching down the street, to the dustbins, to the birds, I analyzed everything like some kind of sophisticated targeting system.
When it became apparent that vampires weren’t about to chuck themselves out of the bushes and hunt me down, I relaxed.
Not willing to take any chances with public transport, I took the beast.
Before I knew it, I made it across town and arrived at my old apartment.
I didn’t have time to be proud of myself that I’d staved off attack by Theodore’s cronies. As soon as I walked in the door, Sarah pretty much jumped on me.
I’d never seen her looking more pressured.
She instantly shrugged backwards, indicating the woman practically crumpled on the couch.
She was obviously a vampire, just as she was obviously stunning. Six-foot, slender, buxom, and with dark ebony hair and white porcelain skin, she looked like a doll. A doll ready to break.
She had a thumb rammed in her mouth, and was chewing it so hard, her skin was ragged and raw.
Sarah pressed up close, motioning me towards the kitchen with a quick flick of her hand. “She’s been here for about an hour now, won’t say a word to me, keeps repeating that she has to see you. Lizzie, honey, I have no idea what this is about.”
I gave my flat mate a worried smile. “It’s okay, I got this,” I said.
And Sarah, Sarah looked suitably impressed. She’d known me long enough to realize I never had anything, apart from a serious case of nerves. Except now here I was, smiling warily at the vampire as I carefully sat down beside her on the couch.
The woman shot me a suspicious look, but didn’t snap at me with her fangs and hiss at me to get back.
Before I really knew what I was doing, I shoved a hand at her. “Lizzie Luck, private investigator.”
I saw Sarah flash me a seriously impressed look from the kitchen as she bustled around making cups of tea.
The vampire stared at my hand for a wary second before she grabbed it and shook it. Though the woman’s fingers were slender and delicate, her grip was just as strong as a vice.
I barely made a face as it felt like she crushed my hand to dust.
“You wanted to see me?” I questioned.
The vampire swiveled her gaze to Sarah. “Get the human out of the room.”
Sarah bristled at her tone.
A couple of days ago, I would have bristled, too, but I’d seen and heard worse. Vampires were spiky on the best of occasions.
I brought up a hand and waved Sarah off. “Do you think you can go into my old room and pack up a couple of my things?” I asked lightly.
Sarah stiffened and shot me a worried look, swiveling that same worried glance obviously between me and the vampire on the couch. “You sure?”
Reluctantly Sarah moved away, shooting the vampire a hard, warning stare.
I was more than surprised when the vampire barely noticed.
In fact, as soon as Sarah was out of the room, the woman practically jumped on me. She shifted forward until our knees touched, and her eyes widened to the point of popping. “You have to save me. You have to protect me from him.”
“Save you? Protect you from whom?” I said, shocked at her sudden violent outburst.
“Theodore,” the woman hissed.
Cold pressure swarmed through my belly and plunged deep into my heart. For a fraction of a second my thoughts became hazy as this morning’s terrifying ordeal struck me like a blow to my skull.
“I heard what you did. News spreads. You killed his favorite pet. You’re some kind of great sorceress. And I need your help. You have to help me. Keep me safe. I’ll give you what you want.”
“What… what I want?” My voice shook.
The vampire leaned back, arching her long elegant neck. “You’re investigating Susan Smith’s death. I can tell you who killed her. If,” the vampire locked a hand on the couch right next to my knees, “If you help me,” she spat around each word. “You have to agree to keep me safe from Theodore. Sign a contract.” The vampire reached a hand into her elegant jacket and pulled out a small rolled up piece of parchment.
I was so taken aback I made a strange whining noise. What the hell was it with vampires and contracts? They never let you get away with a verbal agreement. Hell, they probably contracted you into going down the shops and getting them a cup of coffee.
Then again, I really doubted there was that much trust in the vampire world. They probably learned the hard way that it was best to get someone to write it down than trust them. But I balked at the site of the contract as she unfurled it and practically slammed it down into my lap. She grabbed a pen out from somewhere and shoved it into my hand.
I had no idea what to do. On the one hand, the woman was promising to solve the Smith case for me. On the other hand, who was I kidding? I could hardly keep her safe from Theodore – I couldn’t keep myself safe from the man. And as for killing his pet, it had been an accident. And even if it hadn’t been an accident – I doubted I’d be able to replicate the results.
All that new found courage that had seen me make it across town to my apartment fluttered away in a moment of panic.
The vampire lurched forward, locked my hand around the pen, and squeezed my fingers against it so hard I was sure she was going to break my bones. “You’ve got to help me,” she hissed. “Theodore doesn’t abide by traitors. He’s going to get me killed.”
… There was no denying the fear pulsing through her gaze.
What’s more, there was no denying how human it felt. That’s right, human. As I stared at the scared vampire, I kind of forgot about the fact she was a vampire. Instead, all I saw was the terror pulsing through her clear blue eyes and shaking down her pretty shoulders.
Before I knew what I was doing, I grabbed the pen and signed the contract.
… I signed the frigging contract. A contract I couldn’t uphold.
Once the moment of pure insanity was over, I couldn’t even begin to believe what I’d just done.
The vampire pretty much collapsed in relief.
She let out the faintest chuckle as she brought a sweaty hand up and crammed it over her lips. The move was so hard that her fingers caught her lipstick and smeared a little onto her chin. Finally she swiveled her direct gaze back to me. She straightened up. “I’m a woman of my word, Elizabeth Luck, and I’ll show you who killed Susan Smith. But first—”
“First?” I whispered.
“First you have to deal with Theodore Van Edgerton.”
Slam. Bam. That was it. The consequences for being an idiot and signing a contract I couldn’t uphold suddenly powered into me with the force of a rocket.
My mouth kind of shuddered open. “What do you mean deal with Theodore?”
“Kill him,” the woman shifted her lips around the word kill with such smooth viciousness, it was clear she’d forgotten her fear from before. Because hey, she was under the deluded belief that I could click my fingers and kill the most powerful vampire in the city.
My heartbeat tripled as my mouth filled with the tang of iron. “S-s– sorry,” I stuttered. “Kill him? But he’s one of the most powerful vampires in the city.”
“And you’re one of the most powerful sorceresses. It’ll be easy. You killed his favorite pet.” As the woman spoke, she now languidly folded herself into the couch. She hooked one leg over the other and began to look under her nails as if all of her fear from before had drifted away completely.
A couple of minutes ago, I’d felt supremely sorry for her. Stunned at the fact a vampire could show such humanlike fear. Now I realized how much of an absolute goddamn idiot I’d been.
She suddenly stood and stretched, her shoulders clicking beneath her silk blouse.
She looked pointedly from me to the door. Her intention was clear. She obviously wanted to know why I wasn’t jumping to it, hopping the nearest bus, and getting ready to kill an ancient vampire.
I stared at her in stunned amazement. “I can’t kill him—”
“You signed a contract to dispose of Theodore Van Edgerton,” her lips took on a not entirely pleasant curl. “My magic will bind you to that contract. And even if it isn’t strong enough, one would hope your conscience will be.” For a fraction of a second, the vampire’s fear was back. The outright terror played in her gaze, and that lost, supremely fragile look smoothed her brow. She pressed forward on the couch, the fabric groaning under has slight weight. “Please, sorceress,” she hissed, “Please help me. I haven’t lied to you. I know who killed Susan Smith. I’ll show you. But first you have to kill Theodore Van Edgerton.”
I sat there, sinking into my couch as reality sank around me.
Oh God. Oh God. If this morning hadn’t been bad enough, now I was contracted to kill a vampire.
I winced as I curled protectively over my coffee cup and tried but failed not to make eye contact with Benson.
I’d barely made it two blocks from Sarah’s apartment before he’d called me up on the phone. I tried to fob him off, God knows I tried to tell him that I was fine and safely tucked up in Mr Marvelous’ shop, but the brute hadn’t believed me. Literally five minutes later, a swanky Lamborghini sports car had pulled up beside me, and William bloody Benson III had rolled down the window to stare at me pointedly.
While any normal girl would have run from that stare, reluctantly, dejectedly, I’d parked, got out of my car, and got into his. Then, in virtual silence, he’d driven me to a cafe.
Now he was sitting there, those big beautiful shoulders of his relaxed as he stared at me.
And it was a solid stare. It was no passing glance. As Benson locked his gaze on me, it was absolutely like he was undressing me and paring back every scrap of flesh.
I let out a soft groan as I hunched even further over my coffee cup and winced.
“Though I appreciate we don’t exactly have a relationship based on trust, I expect you to tell the truth on issues of safety,” Benson finally said.
I winced even harder, blinking my eyes closed only to carefully curl one open and realize that, yes, he was still sitting there, and yes, he still looked deadly.
“I appreciate the past several days have been somewhat trying for you, Miss Luck, but trust me when I say this is not a game. You cannot take Theodore Van Edgerton’s interest in you lightly,” as Benson spoke, his lips darted hard around each word, his canines glistening as if he was somehow trying to suck the blood from the conversation.
I gave up on my coffee and wrapped my arms dejectedly around my middle.
He leaned in, locked an elbow on the cast iron table and shifted forward until he was barely a few inches from my face. The prospect of William Benson’s perfect visage was the only thing that stopped me from whimpering. Instead it saw the breath catch in my throat.
“Can I ask a question?” Benson suddenly said.
I winced as I looked up at him. “What?” I hazarded.
He was still pressed right up close in front of me. Close enough, that I could see the exact pressured look in his gaze. “Are you taking this seriously yet, Miss Luck?”
Though I wanted to wince at his repeated, irritating use of Miss Luck, I didn’t. Couldn’t. I couldn’t look away from the god-awful serious look crumbling his brow.
“Because if you aren’t taking this seriously, I suggest you begin. Now.” He pretty much stabbed a finger into the table. It actually shuddered under his light move as if he’d struck it. That was nothing, however, compared to how much I crumpled.
“Are you somehow under the impression that Theodore Van Edgerton is not taking this seriously? Do you for some reason believe he’s going to wake up tomorrow and suddenly lose interest in you?”
I grimaced and shuddered.
“No. I assure you, Theodore is taking this seriously, just as you should be. This may be your first foray into the world of vampires, Miss Luck, but I assure you unless you stop acting like an idiot, it will be your last. Now tell me, why did you leave the shop and what happened?”
I crumpled under his terrifying words and terrifying gaze. “I accidentally signed a contract with a vampire,” I crammed a hand over my mouth and whispered through my sweaty fingers.
Benson frowned. “Accidentally?” he questioned as he bared his canines at me. “I’ll ask how you accidentally did it in a moment. First tell me what the contract stipulates.”
I squirmed. Right now, I would welcome a world ending catastrophe. Maybe a tsunami, maybe an enormous meteorite squashing the city. Anything to get out of telling Benson what I’d done.
“Lizzie,” he said in a truly threatening tone. But nothing, however, was as threatening as the use of my first name.
I squeaked, just like the mouse he always accused me of being.
“I signed a contract with another vampire to kill Theodore Van Edgerton,” I crammed the words out of my mouth, sucking in several breaths once I was finished as if I’d just saved myself from drowning.
Which I hadn’t.
Because when I was done, William Benson threw me the kind of look that told me he was going to chuck me in the river.
He shifted backwards, moving his arms in front of his chest in a terrifyingly slow move. “You,” he paused, “Accidentally,” he paused again, “Signed a contract,” another long, edgy pause, “To kill Theodore Van Edgerton.”
I shoved my elbows onto the table and collapsed into my palms. “Yes,” I sighed into my hands.
For several seconds he said nothing and did nothing. It took me a heckuva long time to gather the courage to peek out from between my fingers.
I didn’t even want to begin to describe the way he was looking at me. Words couldn’t do the consternation and anger crumpling his brow justice.
He pared back his lips and hissed like a snake warning off a predator. “How exactly did you accidentally sign this contract?”
I whinnied to myself like a horse who’d just broken her leg. “A vampire showed up at my apartment, and Sarah called me. I rushed over, and the vampire begged me to help her. She was terrified for her life. I felt so sorry for her. And before I knew what I was agreeing to, I’d already signed the contract.” I crumpled into my hands again. It was infinitely better than staring at his hard, terrifying expression.
“You felt sorry for some vampire,” he repeated, the movements of his lips precise as they shifted around each word.
I nodded frantically, hair bunching up and messing over my shoulders.
“It took the threat of prison to get you to sign a contract with me, Elizabeth Luck. Tell me, what vampire captured your heart and managed to make you sign your life away?” he asked through a snarl. Maybe, just maybe there was a hint of jealousy playing through William Benson’s impossibly cold, steely blue eyes.
Ah, who was I kidding? It was just more undiluted anger.
“She didn’t capture my heart,” I protested through a wheeze. “She showed up at my old apartment. My flat mate called me in tears. I rushed over, and the vampire, she promised to give me the name of Susan Smith’s killer if only I signed a contract. She seemed scared. Terrified even. I don’t know,” I shrugged a hand over the back of my head and scratched viciously at my scalp. “I felt sorry for her.”
“You felt sorry for her, so you agreed to kill one of the most powerful vampires in the city?” he summarized with an awful blank expression.
As he stared at me with that nonplussed gaze, I suddenly realized that his rage was better. Because when he was visibly angry, I didn’t have to guess what he was thinking. Now I had no idea what devious thoughts were running through Benson’s mind.
“No,” I stuttered, “I didn’t know what I was agreeing to. All she said was that she wanted my help to get away from Theodore. The next thing I know, I’d signed the contract, and she tells me that I have to kill him,” I squeaked.
Benson brought a hand up and covered his eyes for a fraction of a second. When he let the hand drop, he locked me in an unmistakable look. It was the kind of look you shot the most pathetic stupid creature in the world. “You signed the contract without reading it?”
I winced. I dropped my gaze to the table and nodded.
Silence. An edgy silence filtered between us, and Benson no doubt counted the ways he could make me pay for this.
After all, he’d specifically contracted me not to kill any vampires. So what had I done? Gone and signed a bloody contract to kill one.
As I realized how horribly bad this was, I crammed a thumb into my mouth and chewed it as if I had every intention of biting off my whole arm. “This is bad, this is bad. I know it’s bad. But please believe me when I say I didn’t know what I was signing. I know I’m not meant to kill any vampires,” I let out a burst of nervous laughter like a car exhaust playing up, “And it’s not like I’ll even be able to lay a finger on Theodore. I’ll just… find some way to break the contract. I can do that, right?” Reluctantly I pulled my thumb from my teeth and stared at Benson, misplaced hope crumpling my brow.
Benson stretched out a hand, locked it on the table, and started to drum his fingers. One by one. You think a ticking clock on a bomb is ominous? Try listening to this. So much terror pulsed through my heart I was pretty sure I was seconds from passing out.
Before I could, Benson ground his teeth together and sighed. “I suggest from now on you read what you sign. Did you catch the name of the vampire who contracted you?”
Wincing even harder and trying to hide under my hand, I shook my head.
“Of course not,” he said in an exasperated tone. “Why would you look for a simple little detail like that? No matter.” He held a hand out to me. “She would have given you a copy of the contract. She is legally obliged to. Now hand it over.”
Having exactly no option but to comply, I shrugged a hand into the inside pocket of my trench coat, and pulled out the contract. At least I tried to. First I pulled out the binoculars, then I brought out a half-eaten sandwich.
Starting to blush with embarrassment, I shoved my hand as far into my pocket as it would go and grasped the parchment.
Bashfully, not making eye contact, I gave it to him.
He snapped it open, read it, then pressed it flat on the table with a white, stiff hand. “Her name is Betty McLeod.”
“And you’re wrong.”
“There’ll be no way to break this contract. She’s inserted a little of her soul into this deal. The scrap of her soul will bind you to this contract. If you try to break it, her soul will break you. And before you ask – the answer is no. You do not have the magic to fight this spell. Or at least you shouldn’t,” he appeared to add to himself under his breath. “Worse, there is a time condition included in the fine print. You have until the next full moon – which is in precisely one week – to end Van Edgerton’s life.”
My head started to spin. “So… so what does that mean?”
“It means, Lizzie,” he steepled his fingers, “You have to kill Theodore.”
A buzzing started to fill my ears as if locusts were swarming in my head. “K-kill him? Isn’t there a way out of the contract?”
He shook his head. It was a short, almost brutal move. “You have to kill him in seven days, or you will be killed by a scrap of Betty’s soul.”
I locked a hand over my mouth and stopped breathing.
I… I started to black out, head tilting to the side as I lost my balance.
Before I could keel over and take my coffee with me, Benson snapped out a hand and grabbed mine. He wrapped his warm, large, strong fingers around my own.
And anchored me there. The buzzing stopped. My thoughts stopped swarming and choking me. And my balance settled.
I was stunned by the powerful effect of something as simple as his touch.
“Now is not the time to black out. Go home, Lizzie. I’ll take you there myself.”
“My– my car is parked back there.”
“The beast? It’ll find its own way home.”
“Oh,” I said, trying not to be too overcome by the warm fuzzy feeling filling me up like a hot cup of cocoa on a cold night.
It was him. Oh Christ, it was all him. Benson’s mere touch was like your first teaspoon of sugar after eating lemons your whole life.
“Come on.” He turned and led me forward.
“But… but what will I do?”
He stopped, turned, and looked right at me. “I’ll deal with it,” he promised.
Oh god, I could have melted into his arms.
Maybe he was a little worried that I’d try, as he cleared his throat and took a pointed step backwards. “For now, go home and sleep. Tomorrow, I will come for you.”
I went suitably gooey at that promise.
Then William Benson took me home.
I didn’t face Mr Marvelous. Instead, I chewed industriously on my lip and turned pointedly away, as if I was suddenly distracted by a cockroach climbing the wall.
Mr Marvelous had obviously been dealing with scumbag criminals long enough to know that I was trying to hide something.
He cleared his throat. It was one of those really slow, grating, gravelly, unmistakable sounds that couldn’t exactly be mistaken for anything other than suspicion. “What happened?” His voice dropped a full register.
I let out the smallest, lightest, silliest laugh on record. A laugh that suddenly quite violently turned into a groan.
“Tell me,” he snapped.
Realizing he would just drag the truth out of me like Benson had, I spilled.
When I was done, he crumpled his brow so low it was as if he was trying to snack on it. “So let me get this straight. This morning you were kidnapped by Theodore Van Edgerton and his cronies. And a little under three hours later, you signed a soul contract promising to kill him. Is there anything else you’d like to tell me, Lizzie?”
His tone was neutral. Unreadable. His expression, however, wasn’t. He looked ready to string me alive.
“I ran into Benson again today… twice.”
I actually had to count on my fingers just to ensure I hadn’t missed any run-ins with my mortal nemesis.
Mr Marvelous groaned as he brought up a hand and fell against it. “You’re meant to be my coup d’état. My Hail Mary, my ace in the hole,” he rambled as he mixed metaphors like an alcoholic mixing cocktails. “But here you go, practically your first day on the job, and you’re already signing deadies.”
There was something obviously cavalier about the way Mr Marvelous was referring to the contract. He had a cutesy pet name for them like they were no more onerous and unusual than filling out a quiz.
I sucked in my bolting fear for half a second and frowned at him.
I frowned, because slowly the edge was coming off his anger, until he actually shrugged, brought out his arms, and sighed. “I ain’t saying I’m pleased by this, but I guess it offers us a kind of opportunity.” He brought up a hand and started to scratch at his neck, counting down on one finger as if he was assessing exactly what those opportunities were.
I gasped, breath catching in my throat. “Sorry? This offers us an opportunity? I stupidly, foolishly, hopefully illegally, signed a contract to kill a man.”
Mr Marvelous brought up a hand and shrugged easily. “Keep your socks on, Lizzie. I’ve seen worse. Plus, maybe this will work to our advantage. You’re going to have a hell of a reputation when it gets out you’ve been contracted to kill Theodore. It might drive more scared witnesses out of the woodwork.” Mr Marvelous clutched a hand on his chin and started to tap it as he muttered to himself under his breath.
Me, I stood there completely flabbergasted. Eventually I managed to suck in the breath to make a squeaking sound. “I can’t kill the guy,” I stuttered, reminding him of that incredibly important fact.
Marvelous continued muttering to himself, even going to the extent of thrusting forward, grabbing up one of his scribble pads, and drawing a few frankly unpleasant diagrams.
I thrust forward, locking two hands on the edge of his desk. “I can’t kill Theodore. Not only is he a bloody vampire lord, and I have about as much chance of killing him as I do of being elected as president, I’m not a murderer.
Marvelous tilted his head to the side. He brought up a hand and held up two fingers.
I didn’t need to ask what those two fingers meant. Two fingers for two body counts. The vampire from the laneway and the glass demon.
I clutched a hand on my stomach as a wave of nausea goaded through my gut.
I shook my head so fast it was a surprise it didn’t take off like a helicopter. “That… that… isn’t fair, I didn’t kill them,” I said as I kept an arm locked around my middle and a hand flattened against my curdling gut. “It was self-defense. And… plus, I don’t even know how it happened.”
Marvelous’ expression softened, and he tucked his hand behind his back. He also shrugged. “You’re right, you didn’t kill those guys on purpose. You just saved yourself. And there’s nothing wrong with that, Lizzie. Just as there is nothing wrong with moving against a bastard like Theodore Van Edgerton. I’m sure I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but that bastard is dark. He’s always remained just beyond the reach of the law. But that toe rag belongs 6 feet under for the crimes he’s committed. Murder, assault, you name it. He’s been on the prowl for centuries, Lizzie, centuries,” Mr Marvelous’ voice shook with emphasis. “You know what kind of a body count that leaves a vampire like him?” He began to mouth.
I shook my head.
“Thousands,” he mouthed.
I shuddered back, suddenly as cold as the heart of a glacier.
“Theodore Van Edgerton is going to stay ahead of the law. There is nobody in Hope City with the balls to touch him.”
Though I should have just kept my big mouth shut, it opened of its own accord. And his name split from my lips. “Benson?”
Marvelous snorted. “William? You think William can do a thing against Van Edgerton? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Lizzie, but there’s not exactly any love lost between them. If Benson had the resources and gall to move against Van Edgerton, he would have done it already.”
I winced as I realized Marvelous was right.
He locked a hand on his desk and leaned forward, his potbelly brushing several papers along the smooth wood. “It’s going to take somebody powerful, somebody courageous, and somebody with a goddamn fine trench coat to take down that asshole.”
I blinked and shook my head. “Ah, what?
Marvelous pointed at me with a stiff, podgy finger. “You, Lizzie. It’s going to take somebody like you with your special powers to take down Theodore Van Edgerton for good.”
I spluttered. There was so much wrong about that statement that I didn’t know where to begin.
Firstly, as I kept telling everybody, I wasn’t a murderer. Secondly, hello, I didn’t have special powers. Or at least nothing I could control. Whatever I’d done to the glass demon this morning had been a fluke. And everyone was right about one thing – Van Edgerton was a seriously powerful vampire. The kind of seriously powerful vampire who would never be brought down by a fluke.
I was a dead woman.
That thought kind of slammed into my mind and knocked me off my feet. Before I knew it, I staggered sideways and fell into the chair beside Marvelous’ desk.
He looked at me with a keen, unflinching gaze. “This is two birds with one stone, Lizzie. Not only do you get a scumbag like Theodore Van Edgerton off the streets, but you will also solve Susan Smith’s case.”
I brought up a hand and covered my eyes as I shrunk further into the seat.
A few times I experimentally opened my eyes and stared between my fingers, as if I were testing reality, hoping this was all some kind of twisted, terrifying nightmare.
This was real. And apparently, I had seven days to kill a vampire.
I was on my bed. Reading. About vampires, about demons, about every aspect of this magical world. I was also looking for something. A frigging magical bullet. Anything to get me out of this contract and out of this goddamn city, too.
Mr Marvelous was still in a good mood. It had been three days since I’d signed the contract to kill Van Edgerton, and Marvelous had barely lifted a finger to help me. In fact, he was going around changing the merchandise for the shop, using my grinning face to attract customers with the byline “Vampires? No problem.”
I groaned as I settled further under the covers and hid my head in the file book.
I’d read the section on vampires over and over again, but no matter how many times I read it, the frigging information changed. It updated as frequently as a Wikipedia article.
I crammed my thumb into my teeth and chewed on my nail for about the 50th time that day. The nail was now so ragged I was starting to taste blood. Did I stop? Hell no.
The vampire who’d made me sign the contract – Betty – was staying at Sarah’s place. And Sarah was strangely cool with this. Apparently the two had struck up a friendship after I’d left. There were so many things wrong with that that I couldn’t even begin to list them. Instead I just crammed my finger even harder into my mouth. “Oh God, come on, there must be some kind of clue here.”
I had a scribble pad beside my bed where I was keeping rough notes from what I’d learnt.
Vampires, apparently, only ever ate eggs for breakfast. Well, if there wasn’t any blood. It was something to do with protein balance and hormone production.
Fascinating. No really, it would have been fascinating to somebody studying vampire biology. It was a goddamn waste of time for a girl with four days left to kill a vampire lord.
Eventually I grew suitably tired of thumbing through the well-worn pages of the file book, and I shoved it back, collapsing onto my bed with a suitable groan. “Oh God, God, I’m going to die.”
Mr Marvelous was out again.
When Marvelous had signed me to his detective agency, he’d promised me training. Supervision. He said he’d turn me into the best private investigator in Hope City.
But here I was, agonizing over figuring this out and saving my freaking life, and he was out. Doing what? I had no idea. It didn’t matter, though. I was alone.
Completely frigging alone. I wasn’t stupid enough to bring Sarah in on this, and Betty could hardly offer me any help. The few times I’d been stupid enough to call her, she’d just brushed me off, telling me to use whatever stupendous ability I’d conjured to kill the glass demon. Preferably soon so she could get back out on the town and hit the best vamp bars.
There was one person, however, who had offered to help me, and someone who undoubtedly had the ability to come through on that promise.
William bloody Benson. He’d offered to take the contract off my hands, use his vampiric ability to null and void it, and otherwise keep me safe from Theodore and my stupid self. With only one catch. I had to come work for him. Sign my little life away to the vampire king.
I, of course, hadn’t done that.
Yet. As true nerves goaded me like a bull on the rampage, I wondered how much longer I could hold out. Maybe until the morning of my last day? Maybe I’d fall into his office, a sobbing mess, scramble over to his shoes, kiss them, and beg him to help me.
Just the thought of it made me want to gag.
That day I sat around on my bed, mooching between the kitchen where I’d made myself a massive batch of fudgy brownies and back to my bed. I was in my slippers, my socks, and my favorite pair of bunny rabbit pajamas.
Mr Marvelous would be out again all day, and God knows no one respectable ever came to the shop.
In fact, nobody ever came to the shop at all. Marvelous just seemed to know when we had a case, without receiving a phone call or a letter or a message.
So I knew something was wrong when I heard footsteps.
I knew something was wrong, because half a second later, a terrifying, blaring alarm ripped through the building. It was so powerful, it shook and rattled my teeth in my skull.
“What the bloody hell is that?” I screamed as I crammed my hands over my ears.
As the blaring continued, suddenly a bright colorful red and blue ball shot down the corridor. It darted right in front of my face and stopped a centimeter from my nose. A tiny, tiny mouth appeared over its smooth surface. “The shop is under attack. Repeat, the shop is under attack.”
My hands still crammed over my ears, I stared at it in disbelief. “I don’t understand. How can the building be under attack?”
That small glowing ball of light darted to and fro like some kind of confused fat dragonfly. “Building under attack. We must repel attack, defend perimeters. Wait for help.”
Just as I opened my mouth to scream at the little ball that I had absolutely no idea what the hell was happening, the floor suddenly lurched to the side.
It was very much like we were on a ship that was suddenly rammed by another vessel.
Somehow – some goddamn how – the building actually listed.
I was thrown sideways and had to lock a hand on the wall as my face was pushed into it.
A second later, the building righted itself with an ominous creak.
I was way past asking what was happening, and skipped smoothly to screaming like a banshee.
That little ball flew right up to my face. Though it didn’t have eyes, somehow I was certain that its expressive mouth locked into a pleading frown. “You must repel borders. Stave off the attack until the master can return.”
The master was obviously Mr Marvelous. That was the only obvious thing about this entire situation.
As several chunks of dust flitted down from the ceiling and covered my sweat-lined brow, I shunted forward.
That little ball of light followed me like a lost puppy, squeaking by my side. “Repel borders. Repel borders.”
“Stop telling me that and start telling me how the hell I’m meant to do it,” I screamed.
“Fire at the vampires climbing the outside walls.” The little fat dragonfly finally squeaked.
“What? What the hell do you mean vampires climbing the walls?” I shrieked.
As the building listed again like a submarine threatening to go under, I punched out a hand, locked it on the wall, and tumbled through an open doorway. It led to one of the many file offices that lined the shop.
As the building jerked once more, and I rolled towards the wall, I caught sight of a window. Gritting my teeth and balancing long enough to haul myself up the wall, I stared outside. And shrieked. And shrieked. And shrieked. Move over, banshees. I no longer sounded like a screaming fiend of Hell; I took on the pitching voice of an army of screeching piglets.
There were vampires climbing the sides of the walls. Faces absolutely crumpled with thin-lipped, sneering consternation, they looked exactly like they wanted to punch their way through the window and suck me dry.
I shrieked again for good measure as I shoved violently away from the wall. Heartbeat thundering through my ears, I crumpled onto the floor, and wrapped my shaking hands over my head. That, of course, wasn’t going to stop the attack.
That magical ball kept swooping in and out in front of my face, the flying equivalent of somebody clutching my shoulders and shaking them. “No time to sit down. No time to rest,” it said, “Must repel borders. Must buy the shop some time.”
It would have been so easy to ignore that irritating orb, crumple my arms around my head, and try to pretend everything was a bad dream. Or, at least, it would have been easy if the building hadn’t chosen that exact moment to start shaking like a leaf in a hurricane. I was thrown over the floor and rolled until I managed to clutch hold of a desk leg.
The magical ball began to screech. “They’ve reached the main door. Reached the main door. They’re trying to blow it open. You must attack. Attack.”
“I don’t have weapons,” I screamed back.
“Use the charm guns,” the magical ball darted forward and did the hovering equivalent of pointing at the charm bracelet jangling around my shaking wrist.
My gaze darted down to it. I didn’t have the time to stare at it and wonder if loosening a charm locked around the gold bracelet would actually do anything against a horde of invading vampires.
A second later, the window behind me shattered.
I screamed as I crumpled forwards, locked my hands over my head, and tried to scoot backwards under a desk.
I wasn’t quick enough.
A vampire lurched towards me. It wasn’t an ordinary jump. Wasn’t even the kind of gymnastic leap a human Acrobat could manage. It was primal. Predatory. Had all the snapping grace of a leopard bounding down from its perch.
The vampire snapped a hand around my throat and dragged me to my feet.
I lashed out with everything, trying to catch hold of his face and scratch at his eyes, trying to kick at his shins and shove him off.
It wouldn’t work.
The guy was 100 times stronger than me, and as I saw a flash of his gaze, I realized he was 1000 times more brutal.
He jerked my head forward until he sneered into my face. I expected to smell fetid disgusting breath like you would on a wild animal. I didn’t.
He’d just brushed his teeth, and the rather pleasant minty aroma of mouthwash filled the air.
Obviously vampires always prided themselves on their dental hygiene. It was probably the equivalent of a soldier always checking their gun before going into battle.
I had just a few seconds to look up into his face and realize he was the creep who’d messaged me with the placards.
He brought his sneering smile down, ran a long, pointed tongue over his teeth, and jerked my head to the side, intention obvious. Just before his glistening, saliva-covered fangs snapped down around my neck, his warning hissed by my ear, breath pushing my hair against my face, “Theodore is sending a warning, Lizzie Luck, no more games.”
With that, the guy doubled forward, a drop of his saliva running down and settling on my neck.
I jerked into action. More for his benefit than mine. Let those fiendish fangs draw even a drop of my blood, and I knew full well what would happen.
My hand latched on one of the charms around the bracelet, and I tugged it free with a frenzied pull. At the same time, the little magical ball zoomed over and struck the guy hard on the back of the head. It was more than enough to get his attention. More than enough to buy me the time to throw the charm right in his face.
God knows if I was doing the right thing. There was probably more finesse and nuance required to casting a charm bracelet spell. Finesse and nuance could go to hell because right now all I had was gut-punching fear.
Miraculously, the charm didn’t strike the guy in the nose and do nothing more than make him sneeze. Instead, it stopped half an inch from his eyes, revolved to the right, then to the left, then… then it frigging exploded in a hail of magical sparks.
Smoke erupted from it. Enough that I had to double back, cram a hand over my mouth, and heave my lungs out.
Suddenly, somehow, miraculously, impossibly, the vampire’s nose broke. The snap of bone and crunch of ligament echoed through the air so loudly it was as if it’d been recorded and played back on an echoing PA system.
The guy jerked backwards, cramming both hands over his face as blood spluttered from his nostrils and leapt down his cheeks.
I lay there on the floor, body a mess where he’d thrown me, and stared up at him, completely, absolutely, frigging shocked.
It had worked.
A snapped second later, the vampire got over his crushed nose and lurched towards me. He was down on his hands and knees, and moved forward with the ferocious speed of a tiger.
He was upon me again, grabbing my wrists, nails digging over the sleeves of my pajama top.
I screamed as I tried to bring up a knee and force it hard into his gut.
Though my knee connected, it was a little like trying to bat away a speeding rhinoceros with nothing more than a tap of your hand.
Something terrifying happened as a few droplets of the vampire’s blood slipped off his nose, sailed through the air, and splashed on my pajamas.
They started to burn.
And as one single drop fell from his cheek and splashed on my neck, I screamed. With everything I had. Because, Christ almighty, I’d never felt pain like this. In one frantic, panicked snap, my head threatened to explode.
At first the vamp appeared taken aback by my strong reaction to his blood. Then he appeared to figure it out. With a godawful smile crumpling his lips, he unlocked one hand from around my wrist, brought a finger up, carelessly dragged it over the blood along his cheek, then brought it down.
Playfully, happily, like a puppy innocently chasing a butterfly, he tracked the blood over my cheek.
In a snap, I went beyond screaming. Because, in a snap, my head exploded in pain. Stars swarmed over my vision, and my whole body became rigid as if I was seconds from dying.
I had just enough time to hear the vampire laugh once more until I felt him reach down and touch one blood-covered finger over my lip.
And I, Elizabeth Luck, passed out.
I woke up. And unimaginably, I was tied to a chair.
These didn’t feel like ordinary silver magical ropes locking me in place this time, though. Though I was too dazed and fatigued to open my eyes and inspect my binds, they felt more like chains. Massive chains with inch thick steel links, kind of like the ones you used to tie up a boat. Not to lock an ordinary woman to a chair.
Agony tore through my body. It felt as if I’d soaked every cell in acid.
This wasn’t ordinary pain. Even in the same realm as every day ache.
I… it was so hard to explain. But it felt as if somebody had assaulted the very nature of my being. That ever elusive source of my magic.
Finally, wearily, I managed to open my eyes.
I was in a room. I couldn’t tell how large it was, where it was, whether there was a window, or even if there was furniture lined up along the walls. Because all I could see was myself. My chair and I were lit up by a single globe dangling from the ceiling above.
The light coming off the globe was powerful enough to illuminate me completely, and yet strangely dim enough that it could not penetrate even a centimeter further than my form.
This… this was the kind of implausible, eerie situation that should only be possible in movies.
Here I was. I could try to pretend this was a nightmare, but even nightmares weren’t this bad.
Just when I tried to convince myself it couldn’t get any worse, I heard footsteps.
From out of the darkness, Theodore Van Edgerton appeared. He was dressed in a truly fine suit. Though I hated to admit it, it gave his somewhat wiry frame a nicely rounded look. Making him seem larger, stronger.
He walked all the way up to me, reaching out. At first it appeared as if he intended to brush his long fingers down my cheek, but at the last moment he changed track and smoothed his long, thin, ice-white hair out of his face instead.
“It’s so nice of you to finally join me,” Van Edgerton said in a smooth, calm, courteous voice. It was the kind of voice you would use on a valued guest. Maybe a friend. Maybe an acquaintance. Not a woman you’d kidnapped and tied to a chair.
It cost almost every scrap of energy I didn’t have, but I managed to sneer at him. “The only place I’m going to join you, is in my car as I take you to the police station. Kidnap and assault are illegal, Van Edgerton, and I will testify against you. Just as I’ll prove that you killed Susan Smith,” I snapped. The reason I could snap – the reason I could face him – was that memory. The memory of Susan’s ghost clutching onto me. The memory of the last pulse of her fear before she’d slipped away to the afterlife, a fragment of her soul missing. I’d been too chicken to look up what would happen if somebody died without all of their soul. I wasn’t naive, though – it would be devilish. Maybe she’d be sent to Limbo. Or perhaps she’d book a ticket straight down to Hell.
One thing was for sure – she didn’t deserve it. And I was currently looking up into the goddamn repulsive expression of her murderer.
“Now, now, Miss Luck. You are strangely brave for a woman in such a precarious situation.”
“I’ll find some way to get out of this chair,” I sneered at him.
“And then what? Lizzie – you don’t mind me calling you that, do you?”
He didn’t wait for me to reply.
“Lizzie, you need to accept your precarious position now. I don’t just have you tied to a chair, my darling. I know precisely how to kill you. Kill you in the most painful way I can find.”
I swallowed. Or at least I tried to. In the end I choked as if Theodore had just wrapped one of those white knuckled-hands around my throat.
“You don’t remember, do you?” He ticked his head to the side and smiled as if he were about to share a tremendously funny joke with me. “You appear to be dangerously allergic to vampire blood,” he said through a happy laugh. “It’s extremely rare.” He suddenly locked all his attention on me as he shifted forward and gently pressed a hand into my shoulder.
While the move was soft, and some could say tender, it was accompanied with all the promise of a gun pressed against my throat. “Do you know how exquisitely rare it is for somebody to be allergic to vampire blood? It means the person in question can’t be turned into a vampire.”
I tried to hide my surprise, but couldn’t as I hissed, “What?”
He smiled. He probably intended it to be electric. To be charming. To be powerful. What it was, was insane. He looked as if he was trying to chew his own lips off. “Lizzie, my dear Lizzie,” he leaned down, pressed his face alongside mine, and whispered right in my ear until every puff of his breath played through my hair and shivered down my neck. “Though you can’t be turned into a vampire, if I make you drink my blood, you will die. You will die the most painful death in existence. You’ll be split apart, cell by cell, cell by cell,” he repeated with a slimy hiss.
“No, no,” I stuttered.
“So, isn’t this fun? I now have the perfect means with which to threaten you, don’t you agree, Lizzie?”
Though I practically begged Benson to call me by my first name, now I wished I didn’t even have a first name. The way Theodore said it made me cringe and shiver with such a violent force, I was sure I was ready to shrug out of my shoulders.
He tipped his head back and chuckled at my move.
“I must say, it’s terribly nice to have the means to finally get your attention. Though I’m surprised you’ve been trying to get mine.” He ticked his head to the side, opened his lips, and appeared to test the strength of his canines by running his tongue experimentally over them. “I heard from reputable sources that you signed a contract promising that you would kill me before the next full moon.” Again he began to lean in. This time he was slower, though. This time he clearly wanted me to see every minute movement of his muscles as he shifted my way.
He didn’t stop until his face was almost pressed up against my own. “You should not have signed that contract, dear Elizabeth. But I’ll help you break it.”
There was such a dark promise slipping through his words that I couldn’t help but gasp.
Theodore appeared to take stupendous pleasure in the noise, and shifted forward, pressing his ear close to my mouth. “What a pleasant noise that was, dear Elizabeth, please do it again.”
Though fear still curdled through my gut, growing with every awful second, so too did a flash of anger. “Get the hell away from me, you bastard,” I spat, a few droplets of my spittle splashing over his cheek.
He made a disgusted face, jerked back, and wiped his pretty little face clean with the sleeve of his expensive jacket.
“Now, now, Elizabeth,” he snarled around his teeth, “You really need to be a lot nicer to me. You see, I now hold your life in my hands.” He snapped his hand up, spreading the fingers wide before snapping them closed with all the force of somebody trying to crush a stone.
I shuddered, but wasn’t stupid enough to let out another gasp. Instead, I ground my teeth closed, pressed my lips against them, and practically choked.
“We’re going to start with you telling me just why Benson is interested in you. And I shouldn’t need to remind you that if you lie, I will know. I’ll be able to smell it.” His nostrils flared.
I… I think I was waiting. Waiting for something to save me. Whether it was Benson or the strange power I appeared to have. Something, anything. I needed a miracle.
But as the seconds passed, and Theodore only drew closer until he clamped both hands on my shoulders and tore into me with his gaze, I realized the cavalry weren’t coming.
If my magic was somehow strong enough to push through the ropes holding me in place, surely it would have done so already.
Which meant I had to face the fact I could not be saved.
Unless I told the truth.
Closing my eyes, unwilling to face him, I opened my mouth. “I killed a vampire.”
“I know that. You’ve told me that before. How?”
“I don’t really know. The vampire… he attacked me, drank my blood. But it… it did something to him. He had a reaction. And before I knew it, he turned to dust,” my voice collapsed in my throat on that word. Because it conjured the full horror of seeing that vampire crumble to ash before my eyes.
Though I shouldn’t have, though I really shouldn’t have, I opened my eyes to stare up into Theodore’s face.
He hadn’t moved, he was still barely a few centimeters from my nose. Close enough that I could see the exact confused and yet almost greedy expression that crossed through his eyes. He brought that same tongue out and ran it over that same canine. Except, it was slower this time. Goddamn, was it slower. I saw every move of the muscles down his neck and up into his cheeks. “Continue. Tell me everything,” he warned.
“I was taken to the police station, and they called Benson. He forced me to sign a contract with him. I had to promise not to let any vampires drink my blood.”
“And in return?” Theodore barely raised his voice above a sharp hiss.
“In return, he’d find out what I am.” I shivered uncontrollably as I admitted that. Because I was starting to realize that if only I’d known what I was earlier, none of this would have happened. If I hadn’t put my head in the sand over the past nine months, and refused to investigate my magical origins, I wouldn’t be here now. I wouldn’t know Benson, I wouldn’t be tied to Theodore’s chair. I would be safe even if I wouldn’t be normal.
“What you are?” he asked, tone flat.
I closed my eyes. “What race I belong to.”
There was a long pause. It was so long, in fact, that I had to blink one eye open to check that he was still there and hadn’t wandered off in boredom.
He was still there, all right. In fact, he was closer now. So close he was just a millimeter from my face.
There was that look again. That look of pure, undiluted greed. I shivered as his gaze sliced down my form and locked back on my face.
He smiled, showing all his teeth. Was it just me? Or were his canines growing longer?
“This,” he said, a puff of air splitting from his lips and blasting against my cheek, “Is interesting. Perhaps I will keep you alive, after all.”
I cringed, even whimpered. I was way beyond being brave. I was now completely at the mercy of this bastard.
Still, I didn’t crumple completely. I didn’t start to cry, and, importantly, nor did I start to beg for my life.
Instead I opened my eyes and I stared.
Though fear undoubtedly punched through every part of me, something else… something else was there. Right at the edge of my mind, just beyond reach.
It was the light from my dreams. The force that had killed the vampire, and undoubtedly the true origin of what I was. There was a part of me that wanted to stay away from it for the rest of my life, but my life would be short unless I found a way to utilize it. So, for the first time since this awful misadventure had begun, I actively tried to embrace it.
Though it was the force that chased me through my dreams, the force I’d run from with a heart full of terror, now I reversed the situation, and I chased it.
But I wasn’t quick enough to catch it in time.
Theodore Van Edgerton leaned forward, pressed a hand against my cheek, and locked his thumb hard over my ear.
Just when I thought he might try to squeeze my brain out of my eyeballs, he gave me a caress.
Before I knew what I was doing, I gulped. “Benson will come for me,” I said in an almost pleading tone. And it was pleading. Because the last scrap of hope I had told me it could still happen. Maybe he’d call my phone like he had in the basement. Maybe he’d appear like he did after I signed that contract with Betty.
This was a magical world, right? And didn’t that mean anything was possible? Yes, and no. Because Benson… he didn’t come for me in time.
“Would you like to know what I’m going to do with you?” Theodore asked almost conversationally as he tucked his head back and grinned.
I couldn’t speak, let alone breathe.
“I’m going to run some tests on you, Lizzie, take a little blood, and then a little more,” as he spoke, his gaze ticked down, locked on my neck, and then swiveled to my wrists in turn. “Once I’m done with my tests, once I confirm what you are, I’m going to get you to sign a contract.”
I choked through a swallowed breath. “What? I’m not going to—”
He brought up a finger and pressed it against my lips. “You are in no position to object. Only to listen. So be a good girl, Lizzie, and listen to what I have to say.”
I could have snapped my mouth open and tried to bite his finger, but that would have been a very bad idea for two reasons. One, he’d punish me for it. Two, it would likely mean I would cut him. And if he was right… a drop of his blood would kill me.
Totally defeated, totally beaten by shock and panic, I had no option but to listen.
“Once I’ve confirmed what you are, “my dear Elizabeth, you are going to sign a contract, giving your life to me.”
I shook my head vigorously, madly, wildly, as if I would be happy to snap my neck if only I made my disagreement crystal clear. “That’s never going to bloody happen—”
Again he brought up a finger, but thankfully this time he didn’t press it against my lips. “It will, Elizabeth. Because it will be the only way you will ever get out of this basement. It will be the only way to ensure you live. And, Elizabeth,” again he leaned in until he practically pressed his eyes against mine, “You really don’t want me to kill you. I will make sure it is as painful and protracted as I can.” With that absolutely horrendous promise, Theodore Van Edgerton shifted back, looked me up and down as if he were checking the strength of my magical binds, then walked away into the darkness. I heard his echoing footsteps until they suddenly cut out completely. There was no creak as a door opened, no retreating footsteps as he ascended a set of stairs.
He just disappeared.
Leaving me alone.
I had no idea how much time had passed. I could have been down here a few minutes, or a few days.
My thoughts… my mind… everything was threatening to shut down. Too much fear. Too much spine tingling, soul-crushing fear.
I was done sweating. Done shaking. Done crying. My poor body was so fatigued, my nerves so raw, all I could do was sit there and stare with wide, bloodshot eyes at the darkness just beyond my chair.
I waited for him to come back and for the inevitable to happen. Though I wanted to tell myself I would die rather than sign a contract with Van Edgerton, the more he left me alone, the less I believed I could do it. I still remembered, in exquisite, painful detail just how awful it had felt when that vampire had pressed a drop of his blood against my lip.
It had almost killed me. If he’d forced any more blood in my mouth, maybe it would have.
I began shaking my head in nasty, snapped movements that stressed the muscles so much I felt a twinge deep into my shoulder. If I didn’t stop madly shaking, I’d probably dislocate a joint. Did I stop? Could I stop? God no. God no.
A few times I experimentally tried calling Benson’s name. I dipped my head back, let my pulsing, shuddering lips jerk open, and I called for him. Begged for him. Offered the darkness anything if only Benson would come to my aid. A few days ago, I would’ve cringed at the thought of pinning my last hope on that man. Now he was my everything, the only way I would see another day.
But Benson never arrived, no matter how badly I hurt my throat in screeching his name.
Someone else did.
It wasn’t Theodore. It was the vampire who’d dragged me in here. The guy who’d messaged me with those placards from the side of the street.
He’d obviously been tasked with checking on me. Every few hours, I heard his languorous footsteps as he pushed out of the darkness. He would suddenly appear by my side, lean down, and sniff me. And yeah, that was just as creepy and spine-tingling as it sounded. Every time I would stiffen to the point of shattering as I watched him tensely out of the corner of my eye.
Just as I dipped my head back and called for Benson once more, the vampire appeared, laughing, stretching his shoulders to the side as he licked his lips with a quick, darting movement. “Little Lizzie, Benson isn’t coming. No one knows you’re missing. Even if they did, they’d have no idea you’re here. You have to face facts, you’re going to die. Theodore will bleed you dry.” His gaze flashed with unmistakable greed as his eyes locked on my neck. “Ever been bled by a vampire, little Lizzie? They say it’s the best way to die. Beats heroine, and cocaine doesn’t even come close. We can make you feel like you’re tripping off on cloud nine. If I’m real good, and I ask Theodore real nice, I bet he’ll let me take the first bite.”
I shuddered. Of course I shuddered. I practically fell off my chair as I shook. But at the same time, my brow knotted in confusion. Had Theodore not told his groupie that my blood would kill a vampire?
It certainly seemed that way as the guy took another long, pointed look at my neck.
“I bet you taste like strawberries, little Elizabeth. You see, different people taste like different things. Susan Smith was like honeydew melon dipped in tequila.”
Though I really should have fallen off my chair at the admission I would taste like strawberries, I locked on what he’d just said. “Susan Smith? You killed Susan Smith?” Something shook through my voice. Indignation. Anger. Rage.
The guy didn’t pick up on it.
He just shrugged from under the confines of his leather jacket. “Sure did. Found out something she wasn’t meant to. Discovered Theodore was breaking Regulation 12. So she had to die.” The vampire gestured wide and shrugged as if he were admitting to something as innocent as double parking in order to take a sick friend to the hospital.
My fear… my fear was burning away. It was burning away because that rage was getting brighter and brighter. It was chasing back the prospect that I may have to sign a contract with Van Edgerton. It was chasing back the gut-clenching fear of the vampire staring at my neck in hunger. It was chasing back everything and replacing it with bone-crunching rage. “How dare you,” I said, except my voice in that moment couldn’t exactly be classed as normal. I didn’t simply speak, I commanded. I bellowed at the man with all the force and import of god parting a cloud and smiting someone with a bolt of pure vengeance.
This time the guy noticed. This time the vampire shifted back, jerking his head to the side as if he’d just been slapped. His eyes drew wide, and he sneered. A hiss of breath darting sharp through his teeth like a snake suspiciously tasting the air. “What did you just say?” he asked after a considerably long pause.
“I said,” that rage still burned through my soul, “That you will be punished. That you will pay for your crime.” I was surprised I didn’t shake from the power of my own voice as it ripped through my chest.
Something shook. It wasn’t just the guy. It was the massive magical chains holding me in place. They shuddered is if a strong electrical charge pulsed through them. The guy took a jerked step back, surprised, wide eyes locking on my chains as he took a startled breath. “What the hell was that? What the hell are you doing?”
I had absolutely no idea. But I knew one thing. I couldn’t shrink from this anger anymore. From the light. From the force soaring through me. Shrink away, and I’d let Theodore snuff me out.
So my only option was to burn as bright as I possibly could.
In one single, shuddering, powerful moment that I would remember for my whole life, I threw myself at the vampire.
I was tied to a chair. I shouldn’t be throwing myself anywhere. That didn’t matter.
I lost all sense of the seat. The unyielding wood. Of the fact I was little more than a confused mouse thrown into the violent otherworld. I concentrated only on one thing. That this vampire had killed, and he would pay.
The chains shattered. They exploded in such a pulsing blast of light that the bulb above me suddenly stirred with an earsplitting zing, and the spell casting the rest of the room into shadow broke with a crack.
I realized I was in the very same basement I’d been attacked in by the glass demon.
The very same set of stairs led up to my right, and behind me, covering the floor in little glistening shards, was what could only be the remains of the demon.
None of that mattered. The only thing that mattered was the fight pulsing through me as I threw myself at the vampire.
The guy doubled back, hissing, bringing up his hand to defend himself.
He also lurched forward, snapping towards me with one of his long legs. He was much taller than me, and his kick reached me well before I could round a hand into a fist and slam it into his jaw.
The kick should have sent me sailing back. Should have collapsed my lungs and left me as nothing more than a wheezing mess by his shiny leather shoes.
It didn’t. As the light pulsed through me, I lurched forward, latched a hand on his foot, and pushed. I sent him spinning backwards with such force, that he rolled several meters until his back smashed up against the far wall with a bone-splitting crunch.
Just before I could think I’d finally won, he gasped, jerking a hand up almost immediately as a single drop of blood trickled down his lip. Pushing a hand into the wall behind him, he shakily got to his feet, keeping that blood-covered finger held out like a sword. “Try that again, try that again,” he screamed.
Reason told me I should stay exactly where I was. Reason told me that Theodore Van Edgerton himself had just confirmed that a single drop of vampire blood would kill me.
But where was reason now? Oh, reason was completely and utterly burnt away by the light driving through my soul. By the light lifting me up. By the light pushing me forward as I stalked towards him. Before I knew what I was doing, I latched a hand on his throat and pulled him up.
Though my grip around his neck was crippling, it wasn’t enough to stop him from jerking forward and flicking the blood at me. A few specks alighted over my cheeks, but one or two drops… they reached my lips, pushing right into my mouth.
… I should have died. Curled up on the spot, succumbed to the poison that was vampire blood.
I didn’t. The light burnt it up.
That light cracked up my skin as if I’d swallowed an army of fireflies that were now tearing out of my soul.
My lower lips jerked open and I screamed. I screamed. But I didn’t die. The light… that holy light, it simply coursed through me and attacked the vampire blood, until it disappeared in a magical wisp of smoke.
The guy’s eyes widened. He shuddered. And with one limp, pathetic scream, gave in to my grip. “Don’t kill me. Don’t kill me,” he begged.
“Frank Lipscomb, you took the life of another,” I preached. It was honestly as if my voice belonged to some rattling Southern pastor, commanding his flock to stay on the righteous and true path.
My voice didn’t just shake out of my throat, it powered through the building, cracking up the walls and sinking into the concrete with great shuddering booms.
Before I knew what was happening, the walls… fell away. They didn’t crumble to the ground, and the roof didn’t suddenly spring down from on high and crush me flat. Instead, the spell holding this room in place completely shattered.
And in a snap, I found myself standing in the lobby of a casino.
Shocked patrons and staff gasped and jerked away from me.
I still had my hand pinned down on the vampire’s throat, and he still spluttered and gurgled under my grip. The lines of light coursing over my skin were burning him wherever they touched.
A woman to my left screamed, and before I knew it, several security guards appeared. Except, they weren’t real security guards. They were more golems in tailored suits.
At first they went to throw themselves towards me, but wisely they stopped as they saw the unrivalled power cracking over my body.
It was so bright I could barely see any more. But could I stop? Did I have the option to pause what was happening?
I wasn’t in control anymore. Something, some incredible force from beyond was using me. And I continued to channel it as I took a jerked step forward.
Even the golems, who were reputedly so stupid they’d accept an order to run into a volcano, hesitated.
By now all the normal people had screamed and run from the room.
The vampire still squirmed in my grip, grasping at my hand as it locked his throat in place.
He would never be able to break my grip. Never be able to quench the holy outrage that powered through me at the prospect of what he’d done.
I jerked forward, heading for the door. Some part of me that wasn’t currently busy burning with holy outrage appreciated it was a seriously bad idea to take this little party out onto the human street beyond. This atrium was familiar enough that I knew where we were – in the middle of town. Not the otherworld district, but where the humans lived. Sure, people were a little bit more comfortable with magic now, probably a lot more comfortable since those work laws had been passed and humans could theoretically keep away from the magical folk. But they would most definitely not be comfortable with a burning lady dragging a kicking, screaming vampire out onto the pavement.
While I was aware it was a bad idea, I couldn’t stop myself. You see, I wasn’t in control. The moment I’d opened up to the holy outrage burning in my soul, was the moment it had taken almost complete control of my body. Now I sat back, practically a spectator as I continued to drag the vampire forward. Once or twice, he tried to use his blood on me again. It did nothing. The light tearing through me burnt it to dust.
Just as I reached the doors, I heard the frantic patter of feet. Then, finally, he arrived.
I turned, the vampire still clutched in my unforgiving grip. My muscles were so stiff, they almost creaked as I shifted over my shoulder and stared at Van Edgerton.
He locked me in his terrified gaze, bulging eyes jerking up and down my body as he obviously took in the fact that I was glowing like a fire cracker getting ready to explode.
“What– what are you?” Theodore spluttered, lips jerking hastily around his words as his eyes bulged even more.
I didn’t answer. All I could do was take one step to the side and stare at him.
The rage doubled in my heart as I remembered what he’d promised to do to me. “You will pay,” I roared, voice possessed with so much force, it could have split the heavens in two.
And hell, it did. Outside, there was such a massive clap of thunder, it was as if ten strikes of lightning struck all at once.
As the terrifying sound drew into silence, I heard the screams of people out on the street and further into the building.
Perhaps their fear should have gotten to me. Perhaps it should have told me to stop, to draw this fight back into the dark basement from which I’d come.
It didn’t matter. Not to the force burning brightly in my bones. A crime had been committed, and justice had to be served.
I took a strong, jerked step forward as I ticked my head down, locking Theodore in my burning gaze.
I was satisfied to see him jerk back as more cold dread washed down his cheeks as if I’d slammed his face into an ice-cold bucket of water.
“Get back,” he hissed through his teeth as his eyes continued to bulge. “Get back, Elizabeth. Get back, or I’ll kill you.” He brought up his hand, crammed a trembling finger into his mouth, and ripped a hole in his skin. Instantly a dark red drop of blood pooled over his fingertip.
He was going to kill me. Or at least try. Because he’d failed to appreciate one fact – a fact that was only dawning on me now.
I couldn’t be stopped. I was a bomb, one that had been set to countdown – and one that would explode, no matter what.
I took another step forward, and Theodore screamed in anger as he lurched towards me, flicking the blood along his finger right at me.
He was a centuries-old vampire, and his aim was just as good as Annie Oakley’s.
The blood splattered over my face.
Did it kill me? No. Did it even hurt? No.
It too was burnt up by the rage of light burning within me. Perhaps, for half a second, I’d been fearful that Theodore was too strong and would harm me.
There was nothing to fear now. Except myself.
Some part of me realized that Theodore would be far more of an immediate threat that Frank Lampton in my grip.
So I tossed Frank aside. He slammed onto the ground by my feet, instantly trying to crawl back, legs moving so frantically they were like the scuffling claws of a crab.
“You will await your damnation,” I said in a booming voice.
A circle of light appeared around Frank, locking him in place.
He hissed and screamed until he stopped, becoming as limp as a doll thrown in the trash.
The guy wasn’t dead. Don’t ask me how I knew that. I just did.
Because he hadn’t properly paid yet. He would have to account for his sins, and only then would his punishment be allotted.
The magical circle would lock him in place, though. So, for now, I was free to lock my righteous attention on Theodore.
He turned tail and ran, moving desperately as he shot through the atrium and chucked himself up a grand, sweeping staircase that led to a mezzanine level.
My movements were slow. Deliberate. Unhurried. Locking a hand on the banister and shifting forward with my head tilted to the side, the reflected light burning off my face catching every shiny surface, I followed.
Just as I reached the mezzanine level, Theodore threw himself into a lift. I had just enough time to appreciate the terror ripping through his gaze before the lift doors shut closed behind him.
Slowly, deliberately, not exactly hurriedly, I walked towards another lift. I jammed my finger into the controls, waiting for the doors to open, then slowly shifted inside.
I headed for the roof.
Don’t ask me how I knew where he was going. But I knew. Or at least, it new.
I had a moment of silence as the lift road up to the top floor. And in that moment of silence, that gram of awareness in my mind that hadn’t been burnt apart by the light was terrified of what I was doing. At what I’d become.
Nothing scared me, and nothing could stop me. I knew, 150%, that I would make Theodore Van Edgerton pay for his crimes. For every crime he had committed in his centuries of life. Every murder. Every assault, everything he had ever done. Every felony against the soul and every act against God.
The doors opened with a ping.
I walked out.
I could not ride the elevator all the way to the top of the building. Because, in another moment of insight, I realized that Theodore had climbed all the way up to the roof. No doubt he had some magic spell up his sleeve, and intended to flee the building, lick his wounds, and come back with everything he had in a last-ditch, desperate attempt to make me pay and then finally kill me.
I would not give him that opportunity.
I reached the small set of stairs that led onto the roof. I took them.
The door to the roof was open, banging around in an incredible wind that felt strong enough to tear the building down.
Though it beat against me as I thrust forward through the door, it couldn’t pull me from my feet. Nothing could.
As I walked out onto the roof, he stopped and spun.
Theodore Van Edgerton grasped something from his pocket and threw it at me.
I had no idea what it was, but it slammed against me, a crackle of magic coursing over it and discharging around my face and chest. I instinctively knew that if I hadn’t been engorged on this powerful light, that spell would have killed me.
It would turn me to ash in an instant.
Instead, it arced off me, discharging in great big crackles and thick smoke that rivalled the plumes that could be seen after a nuclear explosion.
Theodore practically swallowed his eyes as I walked forward and broke through the thick smoke, my form coming back into view. Before I knew what was happening, my lips opened a crack. “Theodore Van Edgerton, you will pay for the numerous crimes you have committed over your long, hate-filled life. You will pay, you will give penance. You will repent, and you will pay,” my voice dropped down so low it rumbled like an engine ready to take flight.
It also gouged at my throat, made it feel as if I’d swallowed pure lightning. I was becoming aware of it now, that the longer I gave into this power – this impossible rage – the more it affected me. Though this righteous rage filled me with strength and had saved my life, now I could feel my limbs start to buck under its force, feel my throat start to crumple under its words.
I had to stop. I had to stop it before it was too late and it tore me apart. But I had no idea how to end it.
Theodore shrieked in frustration as he realized his spell hadn’t killed me. He kept plunging hands into his pockets, clearly searching for something that would rip my skin for my bones and save his life.
Nothing could save his life. He was damned. Just as I caught myself thinking that, I tried to stop. Tried to remind myself I was no murderer.
It didn’t matter.
I loomed upon him.
My heart started to beat faster. Not just from the power pushing through my body, but from the fear of knowing what I would do next. I was getting ready to burn him. Burn him alive, with my light.
No, no, I screamed in my head. I can’t do it, don’t make me do it.
There was no one to listen to me, no one to help me. I’d called this power upon myself when I’d given in to the rage that split through my heart.
And just as I took one more looming step towards him, bringing my hands wide almost as if I was about to spread a set of invisible wings, I knew what I had to do.
Close down the anger. Push it back, curl back in on myself. It would be the only way to save Theodore and myself. For I knew if I let my body give in to the burning light, it would burn me too.
I’m not a murderer, I’m not a murderer, I kept screaming in my head until finally my lips parted and the words burst from them.
I stopped. Hesitated. Though part of my body wanted to continue to push forward, wanted to wrap my burning hands around Theodore’s throat, I held onto just enough control to stop myself in place.
Theodore’s eyes, which had been pulsing with fear seconds before, narrowed in a snap. Because Theodore Van Edgerton was a vampire. A true vampire of old. He had lived through countless centuries, stolen countless lives. He knew how to survive, but more importantly, he knew how to kill.
He saw my weakness, and instantly, before I could do anything, capitalized on it.
Theodore darted forward, wrapped one arm around my body, and hauled me towards the edge of the roof.
The wind was howling now, screeching, driving through the streets like an army baying for my blood.
I didn’t even have time to scream, to beg for my life. We were already on the edge of the roof. He was already lifting me up as I kicked my legs desperately, as I locked them onto the railing and tried to save my life.
Though there was still left over light cracking over my skin, and I could hear it sizzling and burning his flesh, it didn’t matter. With an earsplitting, bone-crunching cry that curdled through my gut, Theodore Van Edgerton pushed.
He pushed me off the roof.
At the last moment, I held on. I thrust a hand forward and snagged his sleeve.
I dangled over the edge of the roof, body buffeting against the sheer, glass wall as the wind groped at me with a giant’s grip.
I no longer had the power of the light. I’d forced it back. So, by all rights, simple Lizzie shouldn’t have been able to keep hold of Theodore Van Edgerton’s sleeve. I did. I even found the strength to twist my grip up and grab his wrist instead.
He hissed at me, clutching my hand, trying to rip me off.
I didn’t let up. I squeezed close against the onslaught of the wind, I held on for all my life.
With a scream jerking from his lips and shuddering higher than the gale, he shoved forward and brought a leg up.
He leaned forward and grabbed something out of his pocket. In a moment of wide-eyed terror I realized it was a knife. He thrust towards me, angling towards my thumb, the blow more than vicious and strong enough to strike it from my bone.
Just at the last moment, I heaved forward, running my legs up the side of the wall and grabbing his hand that held the knife.
It overbalanced him. And Theodore Van Edgerton fell over the railings. With nothing more to hold onto, I fell too.
My mind shut down as the purest kind of fear I’d ever felt shot through me.
I saw flashes of the edge of the building. Glass, steel, even a flagpole with its flag madly jerking in the wind. I was going to die. Die. No more second chances.
Just as that thought soared through my mind it broke something. The last lock holding my true power in place. As I was halfway down the side of the building, ready to give in to the tight embrace of death, something exploded over my back.
Light. Oh, and feathers.
In a moment of pure, immense power, I, Lizzie Luck, grew a set of wings. Pulsing, white, bright, and made of feathers spun from light, they erupted over my back and furled around me. Instantly, they stopped me, and I paused, locked in the sky, my fatal descent cut short.
Theodore was right beside me, as I still had a hand locked on his.
As my wings formed, and held me in place, I watched startled fear power over his face.
I couldn’t quite feel it anymore. Couldn’t quite feel anything as this incredible, light, beautiful sensation rippled through my heart. It was exactly as if I’d just been embraced by an angel.
Despite what Theodore had done to me. Despite the horrors he promised, I did not let him drop. Instead I tightened my grip on his wrist. I would save him. Or at least, I’d try to.
As a blast of wind shot around the side of the building, it slammed into me. Having wings was pretty new, and I didn’t tilt them to the side in time to fight against the gust.
If I’d listened, I would have heard a low, by-now-familiar muttering caught along the gale.
Theodore was slammed to the side. I jerked a hand out, trying to catch him, but it was too late. The wind snatched him away from me and he fell.
I tried to jerk down, tried to catch him, but I couldn’t fly. All I could do was float, gently, effortlessly heading towards the ground.
I slammed my hand over my eyes as Theodore Van Edgerton hit the ground several hundred meters below.
Vampires can survive much. But he did not survive this. Theodore Van Edgerton died.
I sailed all the way down to the ground, landing with the lightest touch, my feet practically kissing the pavement. The wings made me so buoyant, that as another gust of wind pushed into me, I drifted a few feet off the ground, only to float down again and touch the pavement like a feather.
There was no one around on the street. At least, no people.
Just as I tried but failed to maneuver towards a streetlamp to hold my floating body in place, I heard a car door slam. Someone walked towards me. Someone with their hands pushed hard into their pockets. Someone with the most charming, enigmatic, and yet unnerving smile I’d ever seen. And that someone – oh, you know it could only have been one person.
William Benson strode towards me.
His expression, well, it was half controlled. Half the William Benson I knew. The other half – heck, it looked as if he’d just seen an angel.
Again I desperately tried to grasp towards a streetlamp and hold myself in place. Another gust of wind blew me off course, and I flew a few feet into the air.
William, with his hands still crammed into with pockets, walked over until he was right underneath me. Slowly, he turned his head up. He stared at me.
“What– what’s happening to me? What’s happening to me?” I demanded as my wings caught the wind once more.
He didn’t answer. Simply continued to stare, eyes roving over me until he tucked his lips in, half closed his eyes, and finally managed that smile I knew all too well. There was a different edge to it this time, though. He no longer looked as if he held all the cards.
He cleared his throat. “Do you want to come down from there, Lizzie?” He uncharacteristically used my first name. The interaction was normal enough that I could momentarily forget the horrors of what had just happened.
I spluttered at him. “Yes, I want to come down from here. But I can’t. What the hell is happening to me?” I demanded in a shaking tone.
He paused. His lips parted. “Hell? Lizzie, it’s heaven.”
That word and the promise it entailed, oh boy did it have an unsettling effect on me. It pushed away the light touch of my wings, and before I knew it, they disappeared completely. Which was a bit of a bother, as I was about 5m up.
Abruptly, I fell. Before I could charge head-first into the pavement, William brought out his arms and caught me.
I slammed against that rock solid chest, those powerful arms wrapping around me tightly and locking me in place.
William Benson turned his head down and looked at me.
There it was again – that expression – the one that told me he no longer held all the cards.
I gulped at it. An in-control, arrogant William Benson was one thing – a simple, ordinary guy unsure of how to handle the situation, oh my god, that was much worse.
I watched him swallow. “We were looking for you,” he admitted.
“Mr Marvelous and half of the Hope City PD. You’ve been gone for two days, Lizzie.”
I blinked in complete surprise. “Two days? But I… it couldn’t have been more than several hours.”
He shook his head, pressing his lips together in an unmistakable grim expression. “I’m sorry to say, but I thought we’d lost you.”
Was it just me, or was there an unmistakable twinge of fear rippling through his tone? Not the kind of fear you’d use at the prospect of losing someone contracted to you. But the kind of fear you’d use at the prospect of losing someone who meant a little bit more to you.
Just before my stomach could lurch at that prospect, I realized something rather important – I was still in Benson’s arms.
Maybe Benson realized it, too, because with a flash of a flattering smile, he helped me to my feet. With a hand still locked warmly on my shoulder, he turned to face me. “I take it you can stand?”
Apparently I could, but that didn’t stop my treacherous body from leaning supportively into his grip. I tried to remind myself that hey, he was a vampire king and the only thing I should be doing with his hand was shoving it in handcuffs.
Instead I looked up at him. “What happened to me?” I asked earnestly.
“Lizzie Luck,” he paused. It was a long, drawn-out pause. The kind of pause that didn’t just get your attention, but held you in place promising you you were about to learn the most important fact of your life. “Our contract is now over.”
I blinked, disconcerted. “What?”
“I now know what you are,” he said.
I stopped breathing.
Part of me realized I didn’t really need Benson to tell me what I was. The evidence was as clear as day. But I couldn’t stop from trembling as my lips split open, “What am I?” I breathed around my words.
“Lizzie,” he considered me as he shifted his head to the side, “You are suffering from an angel infection.”
I’d been expecting it, of course I’d been expecting it. The wings and light were a dead giveaway. The little part about having an infection, though, that made no goddamn sense.
I shifted hard, almost bucking. “Infection? You mean I’m an angel, don’t you? I’m an… angel….” I trailed off as I started to appreciate what that could mean.
He arched an eyebrow, and it was such an oddly normal move that it snapped my attention away from the enormity of the situation. For like half a second, then the truly impressed look locked in his gaze made me swallow.
“Technically, I think you will find, Lizzie, it’s classed as an infection. Just as vampiriety is.”
I began to shake my head.
I didn’t get the chance to finish. Before I could find out what was happening, a car screeched around the corner, its sirens blaring on full.
I’d had one hell of a sensory overload tonight, and I gritted my teeth, jerked my head to the side, and pretty much hid behind my hands as none other than Detective Cortez rode his car up the pavement and stopped in a screech of tires and burning rubber.
He threw himself out of the driver’s seat and lurched forward. Just when I thought he’d go for his gun, he locked me in a look. A crazy compassionate look. A crazy worried look. A crazy relieved look. Exactly the kind of looks Cortez would give to somebody he cared about. Not little old me.
“You’re alive,” he said, undeniable relief shaking through his voice. “Christ, Lizzie, what happened?” He jerked his head up and stared to the top of the building, then shifted his gaze down to look around him. It didn’t take long for his eyes to lock on a relatively inane pile of dirt.
But it wasn’t dirt, was it?
It was Van Edgerton.
I started to lose my balance, and I would have fallen to my knees had Benson not taken that exact moment to shift forward and shore up my stance with his ever-reliable grip.
“You didn’t kill him, Lizzie. He is dead, however, so you have satisfied the terms of your contract. But your conscience is clear,” he said in the kind of undeniable tone that could only be used when someone was telling the truth.
My heart, which had been threatening to jerk from my throat, suddenly stilled.
I made a face.
Detective Cortez ran his fingers through the remains of Theodore’s ashes, dusted his fingers on his pants, and shook his head. “I can’t say I’m sorry. That bastard was responsible for more crimes than any other vampire in the country. Hell of a way to go. How did he die exactly?”
We both jerked our gazes towards Benson. I was certain he was going to tell the truth. Admit to Cortez that it wasn’t a hell of a way to go – that it was the exact opposite. Heavenly retribution.
But as Benson shifted forward, locked me in his gaze for a single second, then nodded towards Cortez, I realized he was going to keep that particular truth to himself. “Van Edgerton fell off the roof.”
Cortez winced. “You serious? That’s what finally got him? A faulty railing or something?”
“Or something,” Benson agreed.
Suddenly, there was a screech of tires, and an extremely familiar engine roared down the street. The beast.
Mr Marvelous rode the car up onto the pavement, almost collecting the three of us.
Benson shifted me back with a firm hand as he tugged a finger into his collar, loosened it, and shot Mr Marvelous a pointed look through the window.
Marvelous threw himself out of the car. Before I had any idea what was happening, he jerked forward, wrapped a hand around my back, and gave me a quick squeeze of a hug. “Lizzie, boy am I glad you’re alive.” He shifted away, patted me on the back, and grinned.
I can’t say working for Mr Marvelous was particularly fun. But it was gratifying. I’d solved a murder, and I knew instinctively Susan Smith could now rest in peace. We could take the scrap of soul back from Frank, and she would be able to live everafter.
So I smiled as I nodded. “Thanks for being concerned about me.”
“Concerned? I was searching the entire city. Kid, you’ve been gone for two days, and the shop just isn’t the same without you.”
I couldn’t help but let out a soft laugh. “I’ve barely been there a week.”
“Lizzie Luck,” Marvelous spread his hands wide and gestured like a salesman, “You leave a lasting impression.”
I blinked. And I made the mistake of swiveling my gaze first to Cortez and then to Benson.
Both were looking at me in the kind of way that suggested, yeah, me, simple Lizzie Luck, left an impression.
Benson cleared his throat. “I suggest it’s time we clear the evidence and leave. The mayor will be quite displeased if we block up the main artery of the city.”
On the word evidence, my world came crashing down around me. Because I remembered what had happened. The anger that had gripped me as I’d burned through the casino, fighting Theodore and locking Frank in an impenetrable barrier of light.
Instantly I brought my hands up and crammed them over my mouth.
Benson jerked his gaze towards me. “It’s been a particularly long night for you, Lizzie, I suggest you go home and get some rest.”
“I can’t. The casino—”
Benson stepped in smoothly and cleared his throat. “While there was an altercation within the casino,” he appeared to pick his words carefully, “It is vampire business,” he said, a flash of his canines appearing over his lips.
Cortez frowned. “What exactly happened in there?”
Benson simply shrugged. “As I said, unfortunately, it is vampire business.”
Cortez ticked an eyebrow up, but appeared to have no other option other than to shrug. “Fine, vampire business,” he agreed. Then almost immediately he returned his attention to me. “Lizzie, how the hell did you get away from Theodore?”
I gulped. Nervously.
Benson cleared his throat once more.
Mr Marvelous let out an irritated chuckle. “You can’t tell us that was vampire business, too.”
William Benson pushed one hand into his pocket and smiled. And you guessed it, he showed his teeth again. “For now, it is vampire business. My agents will have to go in and see exactly what Theodore was doing.”
Suddenly something slammed into me. A memory. “What’s the 12th rule, or amendment, or regulation, or something?” I stuttered as I pushed my words out as fast as I could.
Everybody stopped. They all took stiff breaths and held them in their chests. “You mean the Regulation 12,” Benson said in a low, unrecognizable tone.
I nodded my head.
“Why would you mention this?”
“Because Frank – one of the vampires in there,” I spoke around a massive swallow, “He said that Theodore broke Regulation 12. That’s why Susan Smith was killed. She found out, and Frank killed her on Theodore’s orders.”
Nobody moved, shifted, breathed, or in any other way acted like ordinary human beings, even if two of them weren’t technically ordinary human beings.
Point was, all three of them were riveted to the spot in what was unquestionably shock and a smattering of fear.
“… What’s Regulation 12?” I asked hesitantly.
“You sure?” Cortez turned on me.” You sure that’s what he said? Regulation 12? Not 11, not 10?”
“That’s what she said, then that’s what she heard,” Marvelous crowed as he backed me up.
I cleared my throat carefully. “Is this serious?”
More than anything, I wanted to go home and crumple into bed. And then… digest the fact I was technically an angel. And that, that was technically an infection.
My head started to swim again. Before I could pitch head-first into the gutter, I felt Benson’s light touch on my shoulder. “Go home now, Lizzie.”
“But there’s too much to do–” I began.
“It will be done in the morning.”
“But I need to… find out what I—”
“I’ll tell you in the morning. You have my word.”
As he let his gaze rove over me, you guessed it, he held me in his hands. The ghostly grasp of his eyes wrapped around me. I felt warm, safe. The horror of the night flitted away from me as I allowed myself to slip closer into the warm embrace of his eyes.
“Go to sleep, go home. In the morning, I’ll explain everything.”
I turned. I walked back to the car with Marvelous.
He chatted my ear off, asking every detail of what happened.
I answered him with half a mind, careful to share only certain details. The rest of my mind? Oh, that locked on Benson. And it locked on tomorrow morning. When, apparently, he’d tell me everything and this journey would continue….
The end of Angel: Private Eye Book One. Angel: Private Eye Book 2 is currently available.
Odette C. Bell has written over 60 books from sci-fi adventure to magical realism. Her full catalogue is available
If you liked this book, you may also like Witch’s Bell. Read on for an excerpt from the first book.
Ebony opened the door, her car keys banging softly against the chipped wood of the frame. She rubbed gingerly at the scratched paintwork, hoping to smooth out the imperfections. Instead, all she managed was a splinter.
“You need a paint job,” she told the store as she walked in, dumping her bag on the counter. She bit her thumb, removing the shard of wood with little effort and spitting it onto the ground. “And I need manners,” she replied to herself with a satisfied laugh.
She didn’t have much to do today, in the way of store business that was. She had to stack some shelves, move some books out from the back, and post a couple of rare tomes overseas. Apart from that, this would be a quiet day.
Ebony abruptly stopped short, halfway through flipping the closed-sign to open. This should be a quiet day, she corrected herself. You should never tell the universe what to do. Giving it a categorical order only ever made it tetchy.
Ebony kicked several dusty books out of her path as she made her way over to the window. She intended to yank open her ancient blinds and throw some much-needed morning light over this shemozzle. As the old wooden slats parted with a creak, perfect stripes of light moved across her face and into the room behind. It lit up the dust motes drifting through the air, like seedpods on the wind, and played against the dark mahogany of her loose hair.
Ebony took a moment to stare through the windows, fixing her gaze on the blue skies above. It should be a beautiful, warm summer’s day.
Should be, she repeated to herself as she turned from the view.
Her long hair trickled over her shoulder as she turned. Though trickle was not usually a word you associated with dead, lifeless hair, you had to widen your vocabulary when it came to Ebony. Not only did her curled strands store up the light like a handful of diamonds glinting in the sun, but the hair itself had a mind of its own. It sometimes swayed from side to side, like wind over long grass. It sometimes danced between her shoulders, like a bird hopping from branch to branch. And sometimes it just sat there like a storm: eddying, brewing, each tassel a wild concentrated wave.
No, Ebony’s hair was not every day, normal, humdrum, or ordinary. Nothing about Ebony was ordinary: not her appearance, not her life, not her store, not her job.
Ebony Bell was –
The bell over the front door gave a light tinkle as someone carefully pushed it open. Ebony cocked her head to the side, long neck straining until she got a full view of the door and the two men that cautiously walked in.
One was tallish, the other stout. Both were dressed in apparently cheap, but well-made gray suits. Both had the same starched white shirts, their collars so stiff and neat that they could have been carved out of stone. The tall man wore a simple black tie, which sat straight all the way down his front. The short man didn’t wear a tie, and his top button had popped all the way open.
Detectives, Ebony thought immediately.
How Ebony could deduce who these men were based simply on the appearance of their clothes was not important. She had many gifts, many useful, unusual gifts. She also knew the stout man, which helped.
“Ben,” she curled her lips into a smile, flicking her hair over her shoulders as she moved out into the center of the store, “I thought I told you never to come here without food?”
Ben, a middle-aged man with a balding patch so perfectly circular it looked like a mushroom ring, grinned. His grins were half-cheeky, half-erratic, and mostly chin. He delved a hand into a pocket and produced a brown paper bag.
“Ohh,” Ebony pursed her lips and cocked an eyebrow, “I have you trained.”
Ben nodded in a humble but thoroughly fake way, and threw her the packet. Ebony could see the grease glistening off it as it spiraled through the air. When it came to Detective Benjamin Tate and food, salt, sugar, and grease were a dead on guarantee.
She caught the packet without shifting her eyes. One long, elegant hand simply snatched it out of the air with a snap.
Ebony let her gaze be drawn to the man with Ben: the tall, silent, brooding man that looked like he belonged in a classical painting of a knight. It wasn’t just the way he stood with his chest puffed out, his feet planted, and his hands rounding into soft fists. It was the way his jaw was set with an edge of righteous defiance. The way his short, brown hair lengthened the shadows on his face. The way his dark eyes glinted out at the world like pinpricks of fire on a moonless night.
If Ebony smiled, she couldn’t help it. Ben’s little friend looked like a barrel of fun: The way he gazed at, and seemed to note, every single detail of the store. The way he disparagingly stared at Ebony and Ben’s little play, and especially the way he looked at her.
Irritating was the only word for it. Ben’s little friend found Ebony, her store, and the way she looked irritating.
And this just made her smile all the harder.
Ebony finally slid her gaze off the man and onto the greasy packet in her hand. She peered inside to see some kind of fried biscuit. Why someone would intentionally deep-fry something that was already essentially fat and sugar molded into a lump, mystified her. Then again, many human behaviors bordered on the bizarre.
“So, Ben, tell me, what brings you here so early in the morning?”
“Early?” Ben produced another packet with the same type of fried biscuit inside, and proceeded to squeeze it into his mouth between breaths. “It’s ten. I’ve already been up for four hours.” Crumbs tumbled off his lips and between his fingers, forming quite a little pile at his feet.
She shrugged her shoulders expressively, rolling her make-up-clad eyes. “We appear to have a different concept of time.” Which was absolutely true. For Ben, time trundled on like a clock strapped to a packhorse. For Ebony, time spiraled. “Now, can I actually help you? Or are you here to drop crumbs all over my precious stock?”
Ben ignored her comment, instead leaning down to pick up the book by his feet, bits of biscuit still crumbling in his fingers. “Precious? You sure? This looks like a dog-eared Nancy Drew novel.”
This drew a sharp snort of a laugh from Ben’s little friend. Ebony shifted her eyes over to him, like a cat looking up, mid slumber, to see a mouse frolic across its path. Who was this man?
“So, who are you exactly?” Ebony didn’t beat about the bush, didn’t soften her tone. She just took several very confident steps towards the man, and curled up one ruby-red lip. “I’m not used to men giggling from the stalls.”
It was a challenge, of sorts.
The man bristled, his head shifting back slowly, and his chest punching out even more.
Before Ebony could exact her reply, Ben ruined the mood with a jovial laugh. “Leave him alone,” he pleaded, “the guy’s new.”
“Then why is he in an old suit?” Ebony’s smile was now teeth pressed into lip. She knew she was being cheeky, but she loved it.
The man’s look of affront peaked and finally plateaued with a gaze that could cut steel. Making a show of looking around the room he finally found his voice box: “strange, I would have thought it was the newest thing in this store, and certainly the cleanest.”
Ben chortled from behind her, crumbs spraying out like little waterfalls all over his jacket and tie.
Ebony had to suppress the utterly gleeful smile that was threatening to turn her into a Cheshire cat. “Ohhh,” she said, lips forming a long and drawn out w, “aren’t you sharp. With a wit like that you should come with a warning.”
The man didn’t falter for a second. “I’ll send around a police dispatch now, or—” he paused for a moment, trying to look as if he was concentrating, “I could just leave and do some real police work. Why are we here again, Ben?” The man now turned from Ebony, facing Ben with a mildly disapproving look. “Unless we can fine this woman for violating OH&S laws,” the man reached out and tested the stability of a teetering tower of boxes and old magazines, “I think we should start on the murder from last night.”
Ben finished his final swallow, giving a hearty cough as some of the crumbs stuck in his throat. “Yeah, yeah, rookie. We’ll get to the case. Remember, the way of the mentor isn’t always clear to the little new guy,” Ben patted his hand at about hip height, indicating that the man who stood a full five inches taller than him was technically a midget in Ben’s eyes. “You’ve got to relax. This is your first day, and I’m taking the time to show you the ropes, because around here ropes are real important.”
“And food,” Ebony added, resting her chin on her hand, her fingers drumming lightly against her cheek. She was almost getting bored with this conversation; she had a lot to do, after all. But watching Ben’s new little friend had a certain appeal. He was like some righteous Greek god who had been plucked from Mount Olympus only to be slapped down amongst all these mundane little people who didn’t understand the justice and order of things.
The man was obviously ignoring her now, concentrating instead on dragging Ben out of here. “Look,” he said with a sharp sigh, “I don’t see any ropes around here. And frankly, this is a used bookstore, Ben, don’t you think a dark alley, or a drug den, or an abandoned warehouse, or practically anywhere but here would be more relevant to police work?”
Ben trotted over to a half-full waste-paper basket and threw away his crumpled bag. Wiping his fingers on his pants, he shrugged. “Drug den? You been reading cop novels from the 1920s, or something?”
The man’s expression only grew more exasperated. “You know what I mean: meth lab, hydroponics unit, whatever. Point is we’re wasting our time. That murder isn’t going to get solved by standing around—”
Ben finally raised a hand, and Ebony was pleased to note there was an edge of finality to the movement. For the most part, Detective Ben Tate was a softy. He’d never say anything without a grin, was sure never to drop by before ten, and hardly grumbled when Ebony stole his coffee. But when he wanted to, he could muster the authority of a field general. “Alright Detective Wall, that’s enough. I brought you here to meet Ebony Bell. Ebony, this is Nate Wall.”
Ebony smiled, perfect white-teeth glinting through the ruby-red of her favorite lipstick. “Detectives Nate and Tate, hmm, now doesn’t that roll off the tongue.”
Ben made a loud sound like a buzzer. “Wrong answer, Eb. That’s where you curtsy and say “nice to meet you, detective.” And as for you,” Ben turned on Nate, “this is where you—”
“It’s such a damn pleasure to meet you,” Nate crossed the room quickly and, much to Ebony’s surprise, lifted up her hand and shook it vigorously. The man had a grip like a jeweler’s vice, and shook Ebony’s hand like a businessman after a sales pitch. “Gee,” his voice was high and fake, “my name’s Detective Nathan Andrew Wall, such a pleasure.”
Ebony blinked quickly, surprised at his sudden change of personality. Her first impression of this man had been one of a sarcastic, but mostly boring, all around good-guy. Tall, handsome, officious, and would probably cite every single rule in the book, given the chance. But now she had to change her estimation of Detective Nate Wall. Why? Because the man was clearly playing her.
“So, Eb,” Nate stood a little too close to Ebony, looming height and solid build just a touch inside her personal space, “do you mind if I call you Eb?”
Just as she’d teased and prodded him before, the good detective was now getting his own back. “No, pet,” she stressed the term of endearment, “you call me whatever you need to.”
“Ah, how accommodating,” Nate nodded, face full of false cheer. Only the curl at the corners of his lips looked real. “So, Eb, I’m the new detective in town, and my partner here was just showing me the ropes, see.”
Ebony nodded her head, eyes narrowing ever so slightly. Detective Nate could play this game all he wanted, but really, the boy had no idea what was coming.
“Anyhow, my partner here really seems to think it’s important that I meet you. I don’t know why,” Nate’s tone was beginning to shift, “I mean, you run a used bookstore, after all. Hey, maybe you have a great section on crime, or something? Or some collector’s edition Guns and Ammo? Or,” the detective’s tone was now as dry and sharp as a newly forged blade, “maybe this is a waste of time.”
“Hmm,” Ebony made a soft, careful noise. “You are in luck; I do have a very good collection of books relating to crime. And I might even have a couple of copies of Guns and Ammo hanging around.”
Nate’s face was stony, challenging.
“Also,” her mouth formed the slowest of smiles, “I’m a witch.”
Dead silence met that little fact. Finally Nate’s expression cracked, and he let out a bullet blast of a laugh. “A witch? Blimey, you’re wasting my time and you’re mad.”
If Nate Wall had half the mind to look at his partner, he would have seen the ashen look of fear cross Ben’s face. “Ah, Nate,” Ben began, “you might not want to—”
“You know what, lady, I have work to do. There was a horrible, brutal murder last night. As fun as this has been, I have a real job.” Nate turned around and started picking his way towards the front door. “Judging by the look of this store,” he mumbled under his breath, “you would have no idea what work is anyway. The damn thing should be torn down.”
Ebony crossed her arms, red fingernails drumming around the sleeves of her white summer-dress.
“Ebony,” Ben’s voice had a note of pleading, “don’t do anything too—”
A pile of old books and magazines suddenly tumbled off the counter and right into the path of the retreating Detective Nate. The Detective obviously had quick reflexes, and dodged to the side with little effort.
“This place is a death trap,” Nate noted through a grunt.
Another pile of books tumbled over, and another. None of them were close enough, or large enough, to do any damage to the rude detective. But still, the man’s face started to tighten with fear. “What,” he snapped quickly, “this store is coming down around your ears!”
“This store,” Ebony said, voice a cold whisper, “doesn’t like to be insulted. Me,” she brought an expressive hand up to her chest, “I don’t care what you say about me, pet, but you really shouldn’t insult the store.”
The man’s eyes widened as another pile of books tipped over by his side. Old novels and yellowed magazines were now strewn everywhere, as if Ebony had simply gone up the spiral staircase that led to the second level and tipped box after box over the railing and onto the floor below.
“You’re going to have to say sorry,” she lifted her face to meet the detective’s gaze. His eyes were wide, his brow more creased than a shoreline after a storm. But still, somehow, he didn’t appear to be all that shaken. Boxes may have been erupting books like geysers at a hot spring, but somehow the man still had that determined tilt to his jaw.
“You aren’t serious—” he began.
Books now started to simply tip from the bookcases, as if shoved from behind. The open-sign somehow fell off its hook, striking the floor with a thud, and coming to rest against Detective Nate’s particularly shiny shoes.
Nate looked down.
“Quickly,” Ebony hissed, “before he starts tipping the bookcases over.”
There was an ominous thud from upstairs.
Nate carefully looked up, then to each side, and finally back at Ebony. He tilted his head down, chin close to his chest, and looked up at her. “Sorry,” he began.
A tenuous silence filtered through the store.
“But this is ridiculous,” Nate finished.
Ebony sucked in a sudden breath. “Why you little—”
One of the large, wooden bookcases just behind the counter began to tilt forward. Left alone the thing would likely crash right over the counter and splinter on top of a truly surprised Detective Nate.
“Cowboy!” she spat at him as she stalked up to him. She grabbed his arm and yanked him towards her, out of the way of the teetering bookcase and out of the line of danger. “If I had a dollar for every time an arrogant idiot like you got yourself into trouble around magic,” she paused as she pushed him to the side as one of the light-fittings fell from the lamp above, “I’d buy you all life insurance and finally cash out. Really, is it so hard to believe in magic?”
With the now thoroughly surprised detective still in hand, Ebony whipped an arm around her head in a small circle. At her feet a soft blue glow appeared, spiraling outward until it encompassed both her and Nathan Wall with ease.
Finally the detective looked surprised. No, that wasn’t quite right. He looked bone-shaken, with pallid skin and a sharp, breathless look on his face.
“Now,” Ebony said, voice genuinely soft, “for some reason this store has taken a spectacular disliking to you. He’s never usually quite this rude. But unfortunately for you, you are the one who started it.” Ebony was standing close enough to the detective that she could feel the heat of his breath. “Like it or not, you’re going to have to finish it as well. Now, all you have to do is say only one little word.” Her sharp gray-blue eyes twinkled out at him. “Just one little word.”
Detective Nate just stood there and stared at her, bottom lip jutting slightly forward. “What on Earth is going—”
Ebony mouthed “sorry” expressively.
And finally the dolt did what he was told. With a quick little cough, and a startled but sheepish look on his face, he announced “sorry” in a loud voice.
“Ah,” Ebony clapped her hands together, “finally.”
The books stopped falling, the magazines stopped fluttering, the bookcases no longer tipped themselves all over the ground, and somehow the open sign had reverted to its usual place above the door.
Ebony patted at her hair. “Now, that’s certainly a strange way to start the morning.” She clicked her fingers, the blue circle of protection disappearing from her feet. She put her hands on her hips and surveyed the mess, “oh dear.”
Ben crawled out from underneath the banana lounge; his round face drooped like a flower. “Damn it Ebony, you trying to kill us?”
“It wasn’t me,” she waved him off with a flick of her hand. “Apparently Harry is in a mood this morning.” Ebony knelt down and started piling books on top of each other, trying to clear a path from the door to the stairs.
“What’s going on, who’s Harry?” came the gruff voice of Detective Nate behind her, “and what just happened?”
Ebony rolled her eyes, sighed, and stood up. Ebony Bell was tall, slender, had long red hair, and sparkling blue eyes. She was hardly a super model though. Ebony Bell wore her face and body like a trophy wife wears a jacket: one for every occasion. Not to say that Ebony literally pulled off her face and slotted a new one in place. It was her expressions, her stance, her body language. At times Ebony would smile, her hair glinting in the sun, her eyes sparkling and warm – and she would look like the most beautiful creature ever born. At other times she would stalk to and fro, her lips pulled, eyes narrow, fists rolled up – and look like a deadly menace, akin to the most terrifying of hardened criminals. And yet at other times Ebony would be engaged in the most mundane of tasks, and look for all the world like a simple, ordinary woman.
It was a rule with Ebony: whatever she was doing, she became.
Because Ebony Bell was a Summoner Witch. And the first hallowed rule of summoning is becoming.
“Listen Detective Nathan Wall, I’m sure you are a little surprised by all of this. So let me start at the beginning. My name is Ebony Elizabeth Bell. I am a witch. I own a magical second-hand bookstore. Harry is the name of the spirit who inhabits the store.” Ebony cast around her feet, as if looking for more thoughts. “Now let me see, is that it?”
Detective Nate looked at her askance. “A magical bookstore called Harry … a witch,” he repeated, voice uneven.
Ben trundled up to him. “I told you she was an important one to meet. But no, you didn’t believe me,” he let out a stuttering laugh. “That’s the thing with rookies, always think they know best.”
Ebony put a finger on her lips, and wondered just how much she should tell this man. He was a firecracker, to be sure. Full of determination, idiocy, and a freakish sense of right and wrong. Just the recipe for having something explode in your face.
But Ebony had what could only be called a special relationship with the police force of this city. As resident Summoner Witch, she had to. The city of Vale, after all, was sitting right on top of a gate between worlds – a Portal. As such, though it already had its fair share of ordinary crime, it also had extraordinary crime. And that’s where Ebony came in.
Vale had truly ancient roots, and somewhere in its dark past a pact had been made between the witches and whatever ragtag bunch had then been equivalent to the police. When they had to, they worked together to keep its citizens safe. No one else had a clue about this pact, or even the existence of witches, for that matter. If Ebony walked up to an ordinary Valian and asked if they knew that there was a witch who did consultancy work for the police department, they’d likely laugh at her and quickly text a friend about the tool fool they’d seen in the street.
Nevertheless, there was a pact, and it had held right up to this day. Somehow – no matter what happened to the governments, what political parties took hold, what practices were changed, what mayor was elected – the pact held. Even during the two World Wars, the witches of Vale had still kept up their bargain. Come rain, hail, shine, or demon, the Witches honored this sacred agreement.
And for the most part, the police honored theirs. No witch was ever dragged off by secret government spies for questioning and prodding in a dark room. And no policeman ever had a hex, a love potion, or a curse thrown through their front window. The police knew what they had to do, and so did the witches. Keep to the bargain and somehow this unlikely alliance would last. Break the bargain, as the old witches had warned, and the witches would simply disappear.
And guns and riot shields weren’t entirely effective against a hoard of demons.
So it was that Ebony had come to know Ben. Ebony had moved to this city when she was a sparkling eyed ten-year-old, and had fallen in love with it. She’d learned the code from her mother, a witch, and had learned to shoot from her father, a police officer. She’d gone off to study, travel the world, and generally bum around in her early twenties, before finally coming back to the only city she really knew. When Harry’s second-hand bookstore had come up for sale, she’d managed to muster the money for the deposit. And when the police department had put out the call for a new witch liaison, she’d been delighted when they’d accepted her application.
That was her story. The enigma of Ebony Bell wasn’t too mysterious after all. Just a witch in a big city trying to get by.
“Ebony is a consultant for us,” Ben scratched behind his ear, “we call her in when … stuff gets weird.”
Nate swallowed slowly. “Of course you do.”
“You remember when you were transferred to us?” Ben smiled reassuringly. “You remember when the Detective Chief Inspector sat you down and said this job’s going to be unlike anything you’ve ever done?”
“I thought he was just exaggerating,” Nate tried to neaten up his tie until it sat flat once more.
“Yeah well, he meant it. Now, I really should have handled this better. Instead of briefing you at the office about the uh … peculiarities of working for the Vale Police Department, I thought I’d bring you straight in to meet Eb, and get it all over and done with.”
“You weren’t to know Harry would react like this,” Ebony kept picking up books and stacking them into piles.
“Yeah well, whatever. Point is rookie, Eb here is a witch.”
Detective Nate nodded slowly, offering something halfway between a smile and a grimace. “We’ve covered this.”
“Yep, she’s a witch, and she works for us. Vale here is sitting on top of a … now let me get this right … a portal between worlds that somehow makes the energy here more charged …. Kind of like a storm, I guess,” Ben muddled through his words, hands flying about him as he tried to make sense of his confused thoughts.
“Yes, how about I explain,” Ebony cut in. “Vale is sitting on top of a Portal, that much is true. In fact, there are many such Portals all around the world; you just wouldn’t know it. Vale’s Portal, however, is unusually strong,” she said quickly, knowing that such detail would be entirely under-appreciated by the new guy detective. He had no clue about magic, so the prospect that Vale was sitting on one of the biggest inter-dimensional rifts this side of the Milky Way, wasn’t one he’d appreciate.
She took a deep breath, and decided to continue trying to explain the incredibly complex to the obviously stupid: “while the Vale Portal itself is usually closed, things sometimes leak through. This usually isn’t the problem, though. What is the problem is that being in such proximity to an inter-dimensional tunnel means that the city of Vale is highly charged with magical fields. Without going too far into the theory of Field Work, what happens is that being so charged it becomes much easier for people to unintentionally produce magic.” Ebony looked up to see Nate’s face, a picture of pained confusion. “You aren’t getting this, are you?”
“A magical bookstore just tried to kill me because I called it messy,” Nate said truthfully. “I have to say, I’m having difficulty paying attention.”
“Hmm okay, good point. Let me put it this way: when someone straps themselves to a metal pole on a bright summer’s day, what is their chance of being struck by lightning?”
Nate took a sigh, chest moving deeply. It was as if he was finally surrendering to the sheer ridiculousness of the situation. “Low to none.”
“Right, how about if they strap themselves to a metal pole during a violent thunder storm? Their chances increase measurably, right?” She waited for the detective to nod. “Well this is Vale. Vale is a violent electrical storm of magic. Now, anyone who recites an incantation they find off the Internet, or buys a book on devil craft, or accidentally picks up a cursed rocking chair in an antique store – they are like that idiot strapping himself to a metal pole. In the ordinary, everyday world, magic is incredibly hard. Here, magic is easy to attract, but still hits you like a thunderbolt.”
“The way I look at it,” Ben shifted a pile of magazines off the couch and sat down, “is like this. Magic is like drugs. People use it to forget themselves, get high, get transcendental, whatever. But the stuff is powerful and addictive. It’s cheap too, yet comes at a hell of a price. As Eb said, any goon with an Internet connection can look up the dark arts, just like any idiot can go downtown and get wasted on drugs. The kids don’t know what they’re dealing with, but like the high. And we clean up after them.”
“Junkies,” Nate raised an eyebrow, “Vale is a city of magical junkies … right?”
“No, no, you’ve got the wrong picture. There really isn’t too much magical crime around,” Ebony made her way over to the counter and started shuffling around behind it. “Honestly, there isn’t. Vale is usually quite ordinary. However—”
“On special occasions, we have to call in to see Eb. We bring her a biscuit, she steals our coffee, and goes and finds our bad guy.”
Ebony finally found the book she was looking for. “Ah ha, here you go, Detective Nate, here’s some light reading for you.”
Nate took the book and looked at the cover. “A Brief History of Magical Crime in Vale? Ahh … who wrote this … and who published it—”
“Oh no one wrote it, it wrote itself.” Ebony pulled out another book and threw it at Nate. “Here’s another one you might like.”
“Witches, a Comprehensive Study of their use in Law Enforcement in Vale,” Nate read aloud.
“There are other books I could find you,” Ebony began to pick her way towards the back of the store. She had to admit she was feeling a little bit ashamed, but only just a trifle. She’d had such fun playing with this new detective that she’d let Harry get out of hand. The spirit of this old store was cantankerous to be sure, but usually never as dangerous as he’d been today. To put it simply, she really could have handled things better, and now she was eager to smooth things over.
Well, not smooth things over completely. There was something very delicious in the way Detective Nate reacted to being teased. The man had this certain vibe about him that made Ebony want to walk up to him, mess up his hair, and pinch him on the cheek.
“Hey,” Ben walked up to Ebony and caught her arm, “you can look for books later. Right now, we need you on a case.”
“Oh,” Ebony said quickly, “oh dear. It’s that murder from last night, isn’t it?”
“I don’t like murders,” Ebony said softly.
“No one does, kid.” Ben nodded at Nate. “Now, you’ve kind of had a big morning. And I’m sorry for how things have played out. You can go back to the office, and I’ll get one of the boys to give you a proper debrief.”
Nate slowly shifted from foot to foot, staring warily out at the store, then down at the two books in his hands. “It has been an unusual morning,” he said carefully.
“Ha, yeah.” Ben clapped a hand on his shoulder and shook it lightly. “I told you it was important to learn the ropes in this town.”
“I did think it was strange when I was forced to sign a specially drafted secrets-act,” Nate noted, voice becoming more detached.
“About that,” Ben grinned, his chin dimpled like a sand dune in the wind. “That secrets-act is going to be, ah … more binding than you think.”
Nate’s brow knotted. “Sorry?”
“It’s a magical document,” Ebony interjected. “One of the things you’ll learn in those books I’ve given you is about the sacred pact between the witches and the police department. Part of that pact is that you’ll never pass on the secret of the witches. And in order to ensure that, you sign a special kind of document.”
Nate’s brow tightened. “What kind of document? What do you mean?”
“Well, while breaching an ordinary secrets-act might land you in jail … trying to tell anyone about the witches will ….”
“It’s not pleasant, son,” Ben patted Nate’s shoulder again. “Your throat will seize up, you’ll lose your voice for a day, you won’t be able to write or communicate in any way … oh, and you’ll grow a really hideous wart on the end of your nose.”
Nate grimaced. “Right.”
“Now, we’ve got to get to that crime scene, Eb, while it’s still, ah, fresh.”
Ebony gave a shudder. If anyone had been paying particularly close attention to her, they would have seen her stature reduce slightly, her expression become weaker, her stance less confident. While on familiar ground, Ebony could be as cheeky and sassy as her red lipstick and wild hair would permit, but when things became unfamiliar, uncertain, unsafe even then Ebony’s confidence would ebb. And as the confidence ebbed, the knowing glimmer would fade from her eyes to be replaced with … well, something more human.
“Rookie, I’ll drop you off at the office on the way.”
Detective Nathan Wall took a final look around the room, at the books in his hands, up at Ben’s open face, and finally over to Ebony. “I signed up for this job,” he said, voice stiff but determined. “And this is my first day. I’ll go with you.”
Ben smiled appreciatively. “I knew you were made of strong stuff! Alright, let’s stop burning daylight; the citizens of Vale are counting on us.”
As the three of them walked out of the store, Ebony quietly surveyed the strange Detective Nate. Firecracker, live wire, pain in the butt, or knight in shining armor?
This one was going to be interesting.
The end of Witch’s Bell Book One Chapter One.
Right and wrong will cost you.... Lizzie Luck is magical. Apparently. The DNA test came back proving she's from the otherworld. She's unemployed, has 24 dollars in her account, and is so out of luck it's killing her. Things couldn't get worse, right? Wrong. When she winds up in the police station and comes to the attention of the city's richest, most charming and most powerful vampire, her fortunes take a turn for the worse. Soon she finds herself under contract to him. She has to agree to his terms, and in return, he'll find out who she is.... From magical murders to dangerously attractive vampires, Lizzie is thrust headfirst into a world of intrigue, mystery, and fantasy. .... With plenty of action, adventure, wit, and romance, Angel: Private Eye is sure to please fans of Witch's Bell. A seven-book series, the first two books are currently available.