Authors: Amber Riley
My hands itched at my sides.
I thought. It was important to remain calm. I wasn’t sure anything was wrong, and anger solved nothing. I was probably becoming paranoid. There were countless vampires fitting those descriptions.
“Hire a couple more people to help out,” I told him. “I’d rather be safe than sorry.”
“If this is about letting Merv get into trouble, then you don’t have to worry. It won’t happen again.” He darted back behind the bar and grabbed the man’s wrist as he reached for a beer sitting in ice. “Not a good idea, buddy.”
“It’s only partially about that.” I crossed the room and grabbed my suitcase again. “I’ve got some things to look into.”
“Kaden, what’s going on?” he called after me, sounding slightly nervous.
The heat blew across the floor and up my pant legs as I unloaded the blood bags into the mini-fridge in my bedroom. It felt good against my skin. With my diet, I never felt warm. But I refused to steal the heat from anything living, and I was therefore resigned to that fact.
There was one thing that helped a little. Scalding hot showers thawed me out. My joints would loosen, and I could feel almost normal. As long as the hot water lasted, I would let it pound my skin and take some of my stress down the drain with the soap. It was then, and only then, when no one was around, that I could allow myself to remember the rush of the hunt, the sensation of sinking my fangs into flesh, their pulse beneath my lips, and the rush their blood gave me as it flowed over my tongue.
I pulled myself back to reality. I was on a mission; there wasn’t time to think about that. If that woman was who I thought it was, then I was probably being investigated. As an investigator, she would have gone to the club I owned. Someone there would have seen her.
Every little sound seemed to echo off the walls around me as I finished putting the blood away. The house was too big for one person, or even for five people. It was more for show than for comfort, but it provided the perfect amount of privacy.
I reached up to the top shelf of my closet and grabbed a shoe box. I flung the lid aside, followed by the entire box. I grabbed the next, then the next. Each was full of information. I had stolen them when I left Spain, hoping to figure out if there were any more lies to uncover. It wasn’t enough that my entire afterlife had been a giant fabrication. I wanted the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Unfortunately, I came up empty-handed in regards to the shoe boxes. All I managed to get out of the country were vampire profiles and a few locket-sized portraits. If I had just had more time to look, I was sure I would have found something more.
Once the chocolate brown carpet was covered with things I should have thrown away long ago, I found it—the box with the portraits. As luck would have it, the one I was looking for was sitting right on top. The same girl I had seen earlier was posed, unsmiling, with her hair piled on top of her head. With it tucked safely into my back pocket, I took off for Manhattan.
It was only after I got there that I realized my keys were sitting at home. I hadn’t planned on needing them before I got sidetracked, and after that, I had been too preoccupied to even think about them. So I knocked and then I waited in the cold October air.
The Amaryllis was the club that I used as a cover. There had to be some sort of legitimate income in case anyone ever came asking, and there was plenty coming in from the club. It was in a great location for nightlife. The building was red brick with white awnings over dark windows. The inside had been completely redone to open up the layout. Upstairs, velvet couches were positioned around square glass tables overlooking the dance floor and bar below.
I heard someone hurry toward the door, their heels clicking on the tile. Jessica swung the door open with a smile. The bags under her eyes didn’t suit her very well, and her auburn hair was frizzing around her oval face. There was a large cranberry juice stain running down the entire front of her blue dress.
“You look like hell,” I told her. “You drank one of those energy drinks again, didn’t you?”
“I might have.” She beamed, trotting after me.
Music was still playing from the DJ booth. It was some upbeat song I didn’t recognize. I assumed it was to keep her awake while she finished cleaning up, since the club had been closed for a couple hours.
“You know they’re not good for you,” I said.
She laughed. “Kaden, you do care.”
“I don’t want to worry about finding someone else to run this place for me.” From the look of the new bartender behind the bar, I knew it wouldn’t be easy to find someone as good as Jessica, especially since she knew what I was. It always made things easier when I didn’t have to hide.
I watched as Max slowly hung a martini glass upside down above the bar. He was trying not to let the base of the glass touch the opening. It reminded me of the game Operation. The only difference was that nothing was going to happen if the glass touched the sides. It was a mystery how he got anything done.
“There are water spots on that one,” Jessica said, plopping onto a stool.
Max blushed and stuck the glass back into the water. He had that certain boy-next-door charm about him, completed by his Southern accent. He must have been in his own little world not to have noticed me come in, but he jumped when he saw me standing there. His elbow knocked a glass onto the floor, shattering it.
“Never mind him; he gets nervous around you,” Jessica said to get my attention back.
I forced myself to stop watching him scramble to pick up the broken glass, crossing my fingers in the hope that he didn’t cut himself. I was too thirsty to smell fresh blood. I didn’t know why I even bothered hiring humans. I must have been a masochist.
“So, what are you doing here so late?” she asked.
My gaze unconsciously floated back to Max, who was still picking up the pieces of glass gingerly between two fingers and dropping them into the garbage one by one. I wondered what it would take to light a fire under him. Attack dogs? An ax murderer?
“Earth to Kaden,” Jessica called, waving her hand in front of my face.
I motioned for her to follow me to one of the lounges. I didn’t want Mr. Jumpy overhearing us. I couldn’t imagine his reaction to the truth if he was that on edge to begin with.
When we sat on one of the maroon sectionals, far out of Max’s hearing range, I pulled the portrait from my pocket. I looked down at it and let out a breath. “This is very important. Do you recognize her?” I asked, handing the portrait to her. “Has she been in here?”
She stared at the portrait, covering a piece with her finger and then uncovering it again. She turned it one way and then the other, finally shaking her head. “No, I haven’t seen her.”
I leaned back, scowling. “That doesn’t mean she wasn’t here.”
Jessica shook her head again. “I don’t see everyone that passes through.”
It had been worth a try to ask. If Jessica hadn’t seen her, then someone else would have. She would have been there at one point. I knew it because I knew her. But she probably wasn’t alone. Anyone could have come instead of her.
“Why are you looking for her?” Jessica asked.
“I’m not,” I told her. “I think she’s looking for me.”
She smirked. “Ex-lover, huh? You scorned her, and now she’s here for her revenge. Ah, sweet revenge.” She clasped her hands together and batted her eyelashes.
I scowled. The last woman I would have ever taken as a lover was the one in that portrait. I pulled it back from Jessica and stuffed it into my pocket again. “Keep an eye out, and let me know if she shows up.”
She picked at the stain on her dress. “Still not watching the news?”
Of course I wasn’t. The news was depressing. It was always about the same things: someone was missing, or dead, a building had burned down, a politician was dirty, the economy was falling. I didn’t want to hear about women killing their own babies or another dogfighting ring.
“I didn’t think so,” Jessica continued. “So you don’t know about the murder in Central Park? The man was completely drained of blood.”
“No,” I said, sitting up straight. “When?”
Now I was sure of it. The rule in the city was simple: don’t kill your dinner. I had never had a single problem before now. It was too coincidental. I needed to take a look at the crime scene first thing tomorrow night.
“Kaden?” Jessica snapped her fingers. “What’s wrong with you tonight?”
My head was spinning.
I asked myself.
Why did she have to come back now?
I had just gotten comfortable here after so long.
“I’ve got to go,” I blurted. I got up and stormed toward the door. Max came around the corner with a box of liquor and almost ran into me. He spun on his heel and disappeared around the corner with eyes the size of dinner plates. I looked over my shoulder at Jessica. She shrugged. It was going to get really annoying if he kept avoiding me like that.
“Good night,” she called.
I waved my hand over my shoulder at her. “Stop drinking that stuff, and go home already.”
“Yes, boss.” She laughed.
I was glad one of us could still find humor in anything tonight. Things had gone from bad to worse. There wasn’t anything more I could do now except go home. I was ready to crawl into my bed, safe and sound, to mull everything over.
But when I got there, Reece was waiting on the porch steps for me. His head was resting on a pillar, and his eyes were shut. He was still in his T-shirt, but he wasn’t cold, though he had his arms folded across his chest. Werewolves ran at least twenty degrees warmer than the average human.
“Hey,” I said, giving him a little kick. “What are you doing here?”
He jumped and rubbed his face. He blinked his sleepy brown eyes until he could see straight again and looked up to the sky. “You’re cutting it close.”
He was right. The sky was turning light, and if I was still on the porch in another few minutes, I would be nothing more than a pile of ash. I pushed the door open and waited for him to go inside before me.
He got up stiffly and shook his head. “You’re telling me it was unlocked all this time?”
I shrugged when he passed me, and I shut us both safely inside. “I guess I should rethink that.”
He flopped down on the black leather couch in my living room and put his feet up. “I told Sid what happened, and he asked me to come find out exactly what’s going on.”
“Is your phone broken?” I asked.
“Is yours?” He yawned. “We tried to call like a hundred times.”
I reached into my pocket and pulled the phone out. A little box popped up saying I had missed nine calls. Somehow I had set the ringer to silent. I turned it back up and threw the portrait at Reece. “Was this the girl in the bar tonight?”
He caught it in midair and glanced at it. “It looks a lot like her, but I’m not sure, Kaden. It’s one of those faces that a lot of people have. Who is she, anyway, and what’s the big deal?”
“Her name is Francesca, and it’s a big deal because she works for Phoenix.” I snatched the portrait back. “She’s probably here to collect information for him.”
He held up his hands. “Wait. You think the master vampire sent her here for something like that? Don’t you think he’d do something a little more drastic? I mean, what does he need to know about you? It’s pretty well known how you live here.”
He was right, but I still felt that something was off. She wouldn’t have been vacationing, and I hadn’t received any requests to enter my territory. Working for Phoenix, though, she didn’t need to get permission. The whole world was her playground.
“There was a murder last night where the man was drained of blood,” I said and began pacing back and forth.
Reece sighed. “I think you’ve become paranoid. I’ll talk to one of the wolves that works down in the morgue, but it’s probably just some local vampire gone crazy.”
“It’s too coincidental—” I started.
“Kaden, it’s not this Francesca person. You need to stop worrying that Phoenix is going to send someone to kill you. It’s been what? Like two hundred years?” He yawned again. “Let the past be the past. Relax a little.”
I sat down in one of the leather chairs and sighed. He was probably right. If the master had wanted me dead, then it would have happened by now. There would be no point in coming to get me after all these years. But grudges could last forever—I should know.
“I’ll relax after I figure this out,” I told him. And I would figure it out.
The cops had probably cleaned up the crime scene and gotten rid of anything I might have found useful. I was determined to try though. Maybe there would be something they missed or something they didn’t think had any relation to the murder.
Reece had gone home sometime during the day. He hadn’t called yet to tell me what his friend from the morgue had said, but I could wait to hear about it until after I checked things out. I should have asked him to measure how far apart the fang marks were. Francesca had a large mouth with fangs set farther apart than most vampires. But it was too late to ask now.