Michael? Where are you?
The sharp voice swam through his consciousness, scattering any remnants of sleep. He opened his eyes and watched the moonlit landscape sweep by the cab's windows. Only a few more miles and he'd be with Nikki.
Michael? This time, Seline's piercing mind voice held a hint of concern. Can you hear me?
He sighed. How could he not hear her when she was all but screeching? Yes, I can hear you . He just wasn't concentrating. All he wanted to do right now was get home to Nikki. They'd been apart for nearly three weeks, and it felt like forever.
After living alone for over three hundred and sixty years, it was amazing how quickly he'd become accustomed to having her in his thoughts and in his life. He needed her, not just physically, but emotionally.
You sound tired, Michael.
He was. Tired of chasing vamps gone bad. Tired of killing. Or maybe he was just tired of doing it alone, though he had no intention of giving in to Nikki's demands to let her share this part of his life. One killer in the family was more than enough. It's been a long three weeks, Seline. It was a tougher case than I'd originally thought. I'm sorry. He smiled wryly. That was a first—her apologizing. She had to be after something. What's the problem?
You know me too well. Her amusement swam down the mental line between them, yet it was mixed with an anger that burned so sharply he could almost smell it.
Curiosity stirred, but he thrust it away. He'd never refused Seline anything she'd asked him to do, but after one hundred years, he was getting a little weary of helping everyone else at the cost of his own existence. Especially now, when he had someone to exist for. Seline, I'm tired, I'm almost home, and I'm in no mood for games. Get to the point.
She sighed. I think we need your help on another case.
I've just finished this one. I need a break. Needed time to regain some sense of normality—something that had been sorely missing in his life until Nikki had come along. I know, and I'm sorry. But vamps are your area of expertise, and this case has a bad feel to it. Was there ever one that didn't? For a moment, he studied the softly glowing aspens lining the road, then glanced at the cab driver. “It's the next left.” Ten more minutes, and he'd be with her. The longing that had sat like a weight in his gut these past three weeks lifted, and something close to excitement bubbled through his veins.
What are we dealing with? he asked eventually.
That's it—we're not exactly sure.
Then how do you know it's me you need? Impatience edged his words, and her smile shimmered through his mind.
I'm a witch. Some things I just know.
He rubbed his eyes . Seline...
Okay, okay, I'll come to the point. She hesitated again, then all sense of amusement disappeared, replaced by a bluntness that spoke of fury. Two weeks ago, the wife of a wealthy restaurateur was kidnapped from a high profile hotel in San Francisco, and a ransom subsequently demanded. The husband paid the ransom, but his wife wasn't returned, and the money hasn't resurfaced. He frowned. As yet, it didn't seem the sort of case that the Circle would get involved in, let alone one that would need his expertise. And ... ?
Four days later, another woman was kidnapped. From a private home this time, but otherwise, everything was the same.
So the police are dealing with a serial kidnapper?
Yes. And there was a third victim—she was taken two days ago. They found the body of the first victim yesterday.
He raised his eyebrows, surprised by the fierce undertone of anger washing down the mental lines. How did she die?
They'd drained her. The autopsy revealed half a dozen different puncture wounds. Meaning six vamps had fed off her? That was unusual, because most vampires didn't like sharing their meals. Yet it didn't really explain the anger he could feel in Seline. Apparently. But that's far from the worst of it. She hesitated, and again the anger surged—a wave of red heat that roared through his mind. These vamps weren't just after blood and money. They were after far more than that.
What did they do? In over one hundred years of knowing her, he'd never heard her so riled—and they'd tackled some pretty damn tough cases in their time together.
The bastards mutilated her—they shaved off her hair, pulled all her nails, scarred her face and slit her nose. And cut off her br**sts for good measure...
Her voice faded, but her anger remained, sizzling his mind with its heat. So basically, they destroyed her self-image before they killed her. Or at least, took away practically everything that defined her as a woman. Obviously, they weren't just dealing with vampires, but vampires with some serious psychological problems. A shudder ran down the mental line. I want these things caught, Michael. I want them killed quickly, before they can do this again. No one who is capable of something like this has a right to life—whether they're human or not.
He scrubbed a hand across his eyes again. He didn't want this case, but he knew he had no real choice. Seline was right. Vampires were his field, and this sounded particularly nasty, though he'd heard—and seen—much worse over the years. This sort of defilement certainly wasn't new. I can't leave right away. I need to see Nikki first. Lord, wasn't she going to be ecstatic over him leaving again so soon?
Fine. I'll send the helicopter over to pick you up. It should be there by four. He glanced at his watch. That gave him six hours with Nikki. After three weeks of abstinence, it was nowhere near enough. How do you want to play this?
I want you to go undercover. I've set you up with a new profile—and seeing you don't want Nikki involved in any of these cases, I'm sending Katherine to play the part of your wife. He'd worked with Kat a few times in the past, but her forthright manner tended to get on his nerves—as did her raucous laugh. Kat comes as a pair with her grandmother. I really don't think she's the best choice...
And I really don't care what you think of the woman. She's the best choice for the case, and she lives in San Francisco.
He bit down on his irritation. He knew it came from tiredness more than any real annoyance . Is she there at the moment?
Seline hesitated. No. But I can pull her off the other case easy enough. This is more urgent. She's being used as bait, and you know I don't like doing that. I really do prefer to work alone. We haven't the time on this one, Michael. We have to flush them out fast. Katherine can defend herself well enough, believe me.
He knew she could defend herself. He just didn't like setting anyone up as bait. No matter how carefully you planned, things always went wrong. And more often than not, the bait became the victim. As annoying as Kat could be, he didn't want her dead. Where are we staying in San Francisco?
The three kidnappings happened within a radius of two blocks from each other. The third victim was taken from the Diamond Grand—and that's where you'll be staying. He frowned. He'd heard the hotel mentioned recently, but he couldn't remember where—or why. Surely they won't hit the same place twice?
Instinct tells me the Diamond Grand has a major part to play in this. But it also tells me it's not the location that matters as much as the people themselves. The victims have three things in common—they all originally came from Boston, they all married extremely wealthy men, and they all attended a fund raising benefit at the Hyatt two and a half weeks ago. Kat attended that benefit, which is why I wanted her along.
Michael raised an eyebrow. Does that mean you think all the women who attended the benefit might be potential victims?
I doubt it, though it's not beyond the realm of possibility. That benefit went badly wrong—six men broke in just before dessert and took everyone's cash and jewelry. It's linked to the kidnappings, I'm sure of that. I'm just not positive how yet.
How did the thieves get past security?
No one knows. They disappeared just as easily, as well.
What about the security tapes? They been checked? Even vampires wrapping themselves in shadows would not escape the camera's eye—simply because no hotel could afford to have foyers or corridors half-lit these days.
Yes. Nothing was found. The people behind the theft or the kidnappings aren't getting into the hotels through any normal means.
If vampires were behind all this, then all it took was one employee under their control to leave open a window, and they were in undetected. Did Kat give you much of a description of the men involved?
She said there were six of them, and that they were all vamps. They wore leathers and motor bike helmets, so it was impossible to see any features. But she did say there was one maker and five Loop members.
Which suggested two things — not only that the head vampire was gay, but that he liked more than one partner. Though five was taking it a bit far. Even Elizabeth at her worst only had four lovers at any one time—and they were never created at the same time. Controlling a fledgling was often difficult. Dealing with a Loop of them—whether that Loop contained three, five or more vampires, would be overwhelming.
Did she sense anything else?
Only that she thinks robbery was not the true motive. The Loop's creator was skimming the minds of the older women there.
That could mean he had a definite target, and the robbery was little more than a means of collecting recent information about them. What's the police thinking on this one?
They're not saying much, officially or otherwise. The Feds have been brought in, of course. Have there been any other unusual killings or disappearances outside of these three women? If vampires had moved into San Francisco, then surely there'd be more bodies about. Three women weren't likely to contain the hunger of six vampires for very long . A jump in the rate of homeless deaths, perhaps?
Nothing more than what you'd expect. We'll keep checking, though, just in case. He glanced out the window again and saw the familiar formation of cottonwoods and pines that led into his driveway. He shifted again, half-tempted to just tell the driver to stop here so he could get out and run. The need to hold Nikki, to breathe in the rich scent of her, had become so strong his whole body was beginning to ache. It was only for appearance's sake that he remained in the cab. The driver was a local, and Michael didn't want any gossip started up that could eventually force him to move. His house came into view—a large, rambling cabin half-hidden by surrounding pines, aspens and cottonwoods. There were no lights visible through any of the windows. He glanced at his watch again and frowned. Nikki was a night owl and rarely went to sleep before midnight. At the very least, he should have seen the soft glow of the television in the front room.
He reached out with his thoughts, but he was met by silence. Either she was asleep, or she wasn't there. I've done a reading on the case, Seline continued. But I can't seem to get any clear image. All I can feel is hate.
That's a given, considering what they're doing to these women. He paid the cab driver, then grabbed his bag and climbed out. The wind whispered through the trees, and the smell of balsam tainted the night air. He switched to the infrared of his vampire vision and scanned the house. There was no life anywhere inside.
Concern knifed through him. She'd made no mention of going anywhere the last time they'd talked—though the phone connection had been bad and had made it hard to hear what she'd been saying.
Something must have happened. He shouldered his bag and raced up the steps. Michael, I get the feeling you're not exactly paying attention to what I'm saying. Sorry. I've just arrived home to find that Nikki's not here. He opened the front door and walked through.
Cinnamon and vanilla lingered in the air, mixed with the stronger scent of pine. The house was still warm, so she hadn't been gone long.
Seline's amusement whisked down the link . Maybe she's teaching you a lesson. Lesson? He walked into the living room and smiled. A huge Christmas tree dominated one corner of the room, its top branches bending across the ceiling. Ribbons, tinsel and various other bright baubles hung off every branch, glittering faintly in the moonlight streaming in through the windows. Yes, you know, Seline continued, don't expect her to be the good little wife waiting meekly for you to come home.
She's not my wife. He hesitated, wrapping his fingers around the small package in his pocket—one he'd carried all the way from his farm in Ireland. One he intended to give her on Christmas Eve. And I certainly don't expect her to wait meekly for me to come home. Seline's mental snort stung his mind. Then what the hell do you expect her to do out there in the sticks? She's a city girl, born and raised, and used to working. With the agency temporarily closed down, you off on cases and refusing her help, it's a wonder she hasn't gone stir crazy. It was her choice to stay here, he said, more than a little annoyed at the old witch's sarcasm. Damn it, he didn't need his friends taking Nikki's side against him. I even offered to pay for a vacation, if that's what she wanted.
Seline sighed. After three hundred and sixty years of existence, I thought you'd have learned something about the female species.
I have—even the old ones can be damn irritating sometimes. He walked into the kitchen. Santas danced around the edges of his refrigerator door, but none of them held notes. All that was on the table were several unopened envelopes and a half-finished Christmas wreath. Michael, if you really want this relationship to last long-term, you'd better start thinking a little clearer.
He frowned and headed for the stairs. What do you mean?
She sighed again. Have you even discussed the future with her?
He'd known the old witch long enough to realize she was actually asking if he'd thought about the future. Which he had, especially in the last three weeks. But it wasn't something he was about to discuss with Seline, no matter how close a friend she was—not until he'd talked to Nikki first. We've been living together less than four months. I hardly think she's worrying about the future just yet. He took the stairs two at a time, then walked down the hall to the bedroom. She's a very independent individual. Remember that, or you may just get yourself into trouble. The note was on his pillow. He switched back to the infrared of his vampire vision and picked it up, quickly scanning it. The uneasy tension sitting in his gut intensified, and he sat down on the bed, staring almost blindly at the paper.