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Authors: Lauren Dane

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“You don’t have that info already? Are you slacking off?” Jack’s smug grin amused her as she kept walking toward the front door.

“Carey has it on the first vic. He had one of them on Tricia here and was working on the other two. But as you and I are here now, I thought I’d ask you. Did they know each other? Our two friends?”

“Lunch first. I’m dying of starvation.”

“Fine.”

The coffee shop was crowded with locals who knew the food was plentiful and affordable, as well. She and Jack often met there for breakfast or a late dinner so they were ready to order by the time the server reached them with a smile and some iced tea.

“You look tired.” Jack had tried, and just missed nonchalance.

She snorted. “Yeah, so do you. But I’m going to sleep for a few hours after this. I have a feeling you’ll be working for the rest of the day.”

He stared at her for long moments, not speaking. Their food arrived and she began to eat, knowing she needed to, but not really feeling much interest in it. Aside from a nap after doing the mattress mambo with Mr. Vampire himself, she hadn’t slept in well over twenty-four hours.

Not getting enough sleep pushed her buttons, took her back to one of Theo’s lessons about human frailty when he’d routinely forced her to stay awake for days until she thought she’d lose her mind.

Maybe it was that small still-human part of her, maybe it was a flaw, but she got her fucking sleep and she didn’t apologize for needing it.

“So, what’s going on in your life these days?” Jack began to mow his way through a very large club sandwich. Not an ounce of fat on the man, but he was built like a tank. It wasn’t so long ago that she’d been able to forget just how good he looked naked.

“Started a new workout that’s totally kicking my ass. I need to go to the dentist. There’s a whackjob on the loose. Same old same old.” She knew he wanted to hear about Clive, but unless he asked directly, she was going to make him work for it because she was just that petty.

“When did this thing with whatshisname start?”

“Whatshisname? I don’t believe I’ve seen him since whatsherfoosits was in town. Hey, and how’s your delightful lady friend, Lisa, these days?”

He winced and she sent him a sunny smile.

“What’s the story with you and Stewart? He’s not your usual type.” He said it like he had a stomachache.

“Usual type? You mean incredibly handsome, stylish, a great job, oh and a sexy accent?”

He laughed. “Yeah, I guess so. You seem to prefer them more rough and tumble.”

A spark of what they’d had in the beginning danced along her skin for a brief moment. It was bound up in their friendship as well, an intensity of connection on all kinds of levels. It was what made them needle each other, what made her laugh, what had made the sex between them rather rough and tumble as he’d so rightly said.

“There’s nothing to tell really.”

He gave her a look and she laughed. “Really, I swear. He’s an insufferable ass. He’s not my prom date or anything. We fucked.”

“I don’t like that guy. What are his motivations?”

“Motivations? Are you worried he’ll try to touch me in my no-no places or something? Little late for that. Anyway, you met him for like four minutes. I thought you two were too busy trying to give each other the macho handshake to chitchat much.”

“The guy gets to town shortly after you disappear. I can’t find shit about him except for generic stuff. Articles about him in the British press. Plus, that Die Mitte place is hinky. I can feel it.”

“You think Die Mitte is mobbed up or something?” Amused, she managed to put a little more gusto into her food. He wasn’t that far off from the truth. The Vampire Nation was far better and had been involved in organized crime far longer than any humans had been.

“He’s too slick.”

“He’s all right in his own way. But he’s a powerful man. Just let it be. You don’t need any part of what he is.” Amusement at his jealousy was one thing, but Clive would eat him alive if Jack pushed too far. “Speaking of dislike and insufferable asses, again I ask how Lisa is.”

“Just be careful, okay?”

“Always am. I can handle myself, trust me.”

“Trust you, yeah.” He paused, she knew weighing his words. “Lisa.” He sighed. “She’s, fuck I don’t know. She’s all over the place. Right now, this week, things are good.”

What was she going to say to that? How could she judge him when she had her own baggage?

He drew his hand through the air. “Enough chitchat. The meth is probably a connection. Our vics were in the same facility, though not at the same time. We’re looking into it, to see if they were acquainted another way.”

She shrugged. It wasn’t that junkies were strangers to crime. It was altogether possible they didn’t know each other at all. But it was far less possible their killer wasn’t connected to them both via meth.

Which presented a whole new ball of trouble. Or, rather a steaming pile of Vampire shit she’d have to scrape up.

“I’ll call you later. After I make a visit to The Peacock.”

“Don’t hold back on me with this. This is serious shit, Rowan, and I don’t want you getting caught in it. This perp is a monster. Creeps me the fuck out. Don’t you go putting yourself on his radar. Got me?”

“I got you. I appreciate your concern. You need to watch your back too.”

Chapter Thirteen

The Golden Peacock had never been glamorous in its heyday. There were, of course, many casinos that this could be said truly of, but The Peacock never had a heyday of any sort.

At six-fifteen on a Friday night, the old-school slots filled the air with their cacophony of bells and music. The air inside stank of cigarettes, stale sweat and rotting upholstery. Most likely from the moist heat of a shitty AC system. Which was the perfect backdrop, she was sure, for that lingering stink of urine.

She only barely managed to withhold the curled lip. It actually got easier when she imagined Clive’s reaction to a place like this.
Ah, that was better.

In her head again. Sneaky. She’d left him a voice mail right before turning her phone off and sleeping for four solid hours. Yes, it’d been cowardly, but she wasn’t ready to deal with him yet, not after the night before, especially on zero sleep.

She’d kept it businesslike. Told him she expected to know if Tricia had been doing any game with the Vamps. She could have said please, but if she had, he’d have been less pestered and she still had to keep her eyes on the prize. That neck tic had a ways to go yet.

She headed toward the lounge area Karen Fisk ran and where Tricia Gale had worked under her. A lot of connection to this place and these people. It didn’t necessarily mean anything, but it raised some red flags in any case.

Rowan slid into a decent-enough-looking chair, close to the edge of the lounge so she could see the entire floor. Didn’t take too long before a server came her way.

“I’m Rowan Summerwaite and I’m looking for Karen Fisk.” She said it clearly, holding the other woman’s gaze. It wasn’t so much a supernatural power as the ability to get into people’s attention and give them a direction. A slight bit of hypnosis. Vampires were masters at this, which was why part of the treaty was keeping them in check with who and how they used it.

Still, she learned it from them. Learned how to avoid it too. One of the more useful skills she’d gained as a child.

“I’m Karen. What’s this about?”

Rowan used a variety of tactics when dealing with witnesses. Usually she went for the soft push at first. But this woman, no, this woman felt wrong. Soft would be useless with this creature with her flat eyes and her tight mouth.

“You know what it’s about.”

The woman’s spine curved slightly before she squared her shoulders. “I don’t know anything about what happened to her. She worked here. She was trying to keep clean.”

“When was the last time you saw Tricia?”

“I got work to do.”

“There’s no one in here but the three drunks at the bar. They’re fine. But Tricia isn’t and I can’t figure out why it is you won’t help her.”

“She worked a shift four days ago.” Karen licked her lips, eyes roaming, never staying in one place long. Rowan sincerely hoped Karen wasn’t a gambler because she was a horrible liar.

“And that was the last time you saw her?”

“Didn’t I just say she worked a shift four days ago?”

“Yes, but that’s not an answer to my question. I’ll ask it again, you know, in case you’re confused. When was the last time you saw Tricia?”

“Like I said, I saw her when she worked that last shift.”

Rowan sighed, cocking her head to take Karen Fisk in more fully. The woman had lived hard. That much was clear in her face. She looked easily fifteen years older than her thirty years.

The way she ducked Rowan’s question told her more than the file had. She’d seen Tricia after that shift. She’d technically repeated the truth that Tricia had worked that shift four days ago, and that she’d seen her then. But she had neatly ducked the real question. Like a pro.

Karen here wasn’t unfamiliar with lying or being questioned by the cops. And, unless Rowan’s senses were wrong, Karen hadn’t been a very good sponsor. The Goddess felt it, knew the muddy stench the woman poured from her pores was the same as Tricia’s.

“Police report says your husband is the one who reported the scene at her apartment. You weren’t there?”

“No. I was here. Working her shift because we were short-handed.”

That much was true. But it also made Rowan wonder just why Karen hadn’t accompanied her husband. Had she been unworried because she knew Tricia had been back on meth? Or because she knew the scene would be horrible?

“How long had she been using this time?”

“She hadn’t. She was clean. She wanted to get her kids back. Talked about them all the time.” What an automatic response. Karen was not the brightest bulb in Vegas, that’s for sure.

Even if she wanted to, Rowan was sure she’d never have been able to hold her smirk back. “Really? What are their names?”

Karen froze and Rowan allowed a slight rise of her right eyebrow for the briefest of moments.

“I’m bad with names.”

“Meth’s bad for your brain, Karen. Now, why don’t you talk to me about when Tricia started using again? Hmm?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She tried to resist Rowan’s hold, but she couldn’t. She wasn’t strong enough. The weak were the easiest to manipulate.

“Don’t insult me any further.” Lightning-quick, she grabbed the woman’s wrist and held fast. “When did you see her last?”

Rowan pushed some of her power into the other woman, underlining her point.

“Night before last. She—she came in to get an advance.”

“Did you give her one?”

“Bob did.”

“Is there surveillance camera footage?”

Karen’s mouth opened and closed a few times. Rowan opened her bag and slid the picture of what Tricia looked like in the desert, torn to shreds, across the table. “This is what happened to her. I know you’re scared to tell me. You’re afraid of whoever, or whatever did this to her. I’m trying to stop it, do you understand? Listen to me, Karen, I am trying to find this monster and put him down. No one, you least of all, will be safe until that’s done.”

“No footage. Bob got rid of it when Tricia went missing.”

“Was she alone?”

Karen’s brow furrowed. “I can’t remember. I don’t know. No, probably not.”

“Who’s her dealer?”

“She was going to score open air.”

At that point, the hair on the back of Rowan’s neck stood and she broke her gaze with Karen to find Clive watching from a slot machine nearby.

“Karen, what are you doing? Who is this?”

A pale, sweaty man stormed over. In the back of her consciousness, she knew Clive was flanking what had to be Bob Fisk, Karen’s husband. The energy the two of them put out settled all around, sending those playing on nearby slot machines off to perches far out of range.

That connection of purpose, and maybe even of existence, zinged through Rowan’s system.

Bob’s eyes widened a moment as Rowan stood.

“Sit down, Bob. We’re just going to have a quiet talk.” Clive eased up to the table, a hand on Bob’s shoulder guiding him into a seat. His voice was smooth. Calm and thick, like cream. It gave her a shiver.

“Karen was just telling me if Tricia was alone when she came here for money on the night she died,” Rowan took over. Clive wasn’t supposed to be breaking the rules this way, but like she did with other kinds of infractions, she applied common sense. They needed the info, he’d plant a powerful suggestion that they go to the cops to tell them what they knew and they wouldn’t remember a thing about Rowan.

“No.” He hesitated and shook his head. “Yes, yes she was alone. I think.”

Rowan’s gaze slid to Clive. He nodded slightly. There’d been some sort of tampering here, just like with Karen and the waitress.

Clive sat and listened to the humans talk. Watched Rowan’s sharp gaze flick over the two, knowing behind it, her brain ferreted through information as fast as his.

There was no way he could hold even the smallest room for doubt. Another Vampire had done some pretty deep memory work on these two. Clive couldn’t hold out even the tiniest of hopes his people weren’t involved.

Moreover, he found himself admiring the way she worked, the subtle directions she pushed the Fisks as she attempted to make her way around the blank spots.

Her mind was razor-sharp. Her control excellent. He wished any of his team had half her skills. He saw The First all over her. He found himself wanting to collect her. Something he hadn’t felt in centuries.

Avarice aside, by the time they’d finished up, he found a whole new level of respect and, he couldn’t deny, slight awe, for the Hunter, and most definitely for Rowan Summerwaite.

He wiped the memory of their being in the casino and had Bob bring them the surveillance video of their visit as well before he escorted Rowan, her elbow in his hand firm enough to keep her in place, out the front doors. He knew she’d be heading out to the location Karen Fisk had indicated Tricia may have purchased drugs in the past.

A shiny red Porsche zipped up and stopped a little hard. She growled and sent the valet a look of such violence he shrank back and refused a tip. On the other hand, Clive found her little moments of violence fascinating. Liked the danger she exuded.

“You’re still here why?” She yanked her elbow from his grip. Though she did have atrocious manners. Like a monkey.

“I’ll need a ride.” He got into her car, impressed with the luxury inside as well as out. “I considered this model last year.”

“Huh. You have to be out of your mind to think I’d take this car to an open air blood-and-drug market. Or a
GQ
-looking Vampire for that matter.” She whipped out into traffic, he suspected as fast as she did just to needle him.

“I have other vehicles at my request. I’ll phone ahead and arrange one.”

“No. I’ll drop you at Die Mitte. I’ll let you know what I find out. The parts you need to know that is.”

“Who are you to decide this?”

“You told me the exact same thing just yesterday. Goddess, you are a baby. Why are all the men I know total babies?” She spoke to herself, as if he weren’t even there.

“I am not a baby. Has it ever occurred to you that you’re a singularly vexing person? That perhaps it’s not the men you know, but you?” He sniffed, indignant.

Her grunt told him what she thought of that suggestion. “Why am I driving you anyway? I wouldn’t be sitting in shitty traffic with a woman who thought about staking me every ten minutes if I had the power to fly my ass home in a minute.”

He ignored that part, redirecting her around why he was there. He wanted to continue to pretend he didn’t know either. “By the by, I do not appreciate being placed in the same company as your police officer. I assume he’s the one I smell on that…article of clothing in the floorboard.”

She looked down and the car didn’t swerve even a fraction. As he’d suspected, she had excellent reflexes so her little stunt as she pulled onto the street had been deliberate. Provocative woman.

“Oh that’s where it went. If you don’t want to be referred to as a baby, don’t be one.”

He waited for her to explain why the policeman’s clothing was there but she didn’t.

“How’d you know I was at The Peacock anyway?”

“You’re quite welcome for the help.” Even
he
would have been hard-pressed not to mock the peevish tone he took.

“I could have handled that. I do handle stuff like that all the time. This time I got out without bloodshed. That’s a good day. The backup was helpful, though I should warn you to keep the thrall to a minimum in the presence of the Hunter, I hear she tries to pin all sorts of things on poor innocent Vampires who are walking the elderly across the street or to church every Sunday.”

She wiggled her fingers, winking at a male in the car next to theirs who’d been staring.

“Must you always do such things? I’d think part of your job would be to keep a low profile.” Insulted by the human male’s audacity to stare at a woman in another man’s presence, Clive slid the tip of his tongue over the sharp edge of one of his incisors. He ought to snap the man’s neck for such liberties.

“I can hear you grinding your teeth over there. What’s crawled into your sharp-fanged craw now? Jealous of that little dingus in the car next to us?”

“I can’t imagine how much The First enjoyed these tangents of yours.” Once he’d said it, he regretted it. Fencing with her was one thing, being an ass was another.

Her mouth hardened for a brief moment before she shrugged. “He’s big on small talk. Eats too many Cheez Doodles and watches the soaps on satellite. He gets that orange stuff on the upholstery and everyone rushes to scrub it off when he’s resting.”

She burst out laughing, he knew, at the way he’d recoiled.

“You should come up to my apartment. To fill me in on everything. I’m sure my people will have some information by now.” He had no idea why he’d said it, but it was out there, hanging between them.

One of her brows rose. “You know what will happen when we get alone. Have one of your people email the data my way. That’ll be best.”

Well, of course he did. She said it as if he were unaware of the chemistry between them.

“You speak like a virgin maiden afraid to be ravished. I believe I can control my base urges.” He examined his cuticles. “Unless you can’t.”

She sighed, bordering on a growl. The delight at ruffling her demeanor should have filled him with shame.

“I’m woefully under-informed. You left a brief message and of course I’d like to hear your thoughts on what happened at The Peacock.”

Her brow furrowed as her mouth tightened. Just a brief movement, flashing her annoyance and consternation. The predator in him perked up, senses heightened at their exchange.

“Fine. I have an hour or so.”

She stopped at a light and he stepped out as if he were not mad and in the middle of the street. “As you noted, I am gifted with flight. I will see you at Die Mitte.” He tipped his head and slammed her door, walking up the crosswalk.

She knew he’d blink out of sight when he wouldn’t be noticed.

Was she supposed to not know he was leaving now so he wouldn’t be seen driving up with her? Truly, his arrogance was astounding, even for a Vampire.

Snorting, she changed lanes and headed home. She needed to send a report to the Motherhouse. Most likely, Carey would have ferreted out some new data, so she’d read that too.

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