Home > Dancing with the Devil (Nikki & Michael #1)(7)

Dancing with the Devil (Nikki & Michael #1)(7)
Author: Keri Arthur

She could tell by his tone that he wasn't happy. She swept the flashlight in the direction of his voice but couldn't see anything. “And?"

"She's still warm."

Warm but dead, she knew without asking. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. If she hadn't been such a coward last night, the teenager might still be alive, safe in her father's house.

"Neither of us had much choice last night, Nikki. Do not condemn yourself for matters that cannot be controlled."

His words failed to ease the guilty ache in her heart. She could have tried harder. Should have tried harder.

"How did she die?” she asked, edging towards the sound of his voice. His reply was terse. “Blood loss."

The floorboards moved a second time. Frowning, she stopped. Apprehension crawled up her spine, but she thrust it away. Michael had walked across this same floor only a few moments ago. If they had held his weight, surely they'd hold hers.

"He's mutilated her?” she said, praying it wasn't so.

"No."

She took another step. “Then how did she die?"

The floor buckled. Wood groaned, as if ready to collapse. Imagination, she told herself fiercely, and took another step.

The floor bowed again, this time accompanied by an odd cracking sound. Sweat broke out across her brow. She cleared her throat. “Michael, I think something's wrong here."

"What?” His voice was sharp, alert.

"The floor.” She frowned and took another small step. The boards seemed to bow even further.

"It's an old building,” he reminded her gently. “Who knows what condition the supporting pylons are in." A plausible enough explanation, but not the answer here. She had the horrible feeling the whole lot was about to disappear beneath her. “It's more than that."

"Don't move, then. I'm coming back."

She swung the flashlight round in a tight circle. There was nothing to see but years of dust, stirred to sluggish life in the wake of Michael's passing. She bit her lip and took one more step. It was one step too many.

Without warning, everything gave way, and she dropped like a stone into darkness.

Chapter Five

Her scream became a grunt when she hit something solid. She gripped the old crossbeam that had stopped her fall, and hoped like hell it would hold. Far below she could hear the cry of the ocean, a siren's song that promised death.

She couldn't swim. Could barely even dog paddle.

There was another crack, then everything around her began to fall again, heading for the deeper pit of darkness opening near her feet

She let go of the flashlight and dove forward, reaching for something, anything, to stop her slide into oblivion. Her hands scraped against wood; she grabbed at it wildly. It shifted under the force of her weight, slipping several feet forward. For one heart-stopping moment, she hung motionless above the black pit, barely daring to breathe.

The wood cracked. She swung forward, desperate to find a more secure hold. Jagged splinters tore at her hands and offered no hope.

"Michael!” Her hands slipped further down the old piece of timber. It cracked again, dropping her several inches closer to the pit and death.

"Nikki!"

She glanced up. He leaned over the pit, reaching for her. She shifted her grip on the timber then lunged for his outstretched fingers. His hand caught hers as more flooring shifted and dropped away.

"Your other arm,” he ordered, voice hoarse.

She released the timber and swung towards him. He caught her other hand, his grip like iron as she swung wildly around. The sound of the ocean far below grew stronger. Inch by precious inch, Michael moved backwards, pulling her with him. As her feet came over the edge of the hole, he stood and dragged her upright. The night whirled briefly, and she closed her eyes, willing the sensation away.

He placed his hand under her elbow and guided her to safety. Dark laughter flickered through her mind. She shivered. Jasper's trap might have failed, but he wasn't finished with her yet. Lord, she felt so cold—not externally. Internally, deep inside her heart and soul. Michael stopped, forcing her to do the same.

"Are you all right?” He raised her hand, gently running his fingers over hers. She flinched when he touched several splinters. “Battered and shaking, but otherwise in one piece.” Her voice shook slightly, and she took a deep breath, trying to calm the desperate racing of her heart.

"Thank you,” she added softly. “That's the second time you've saved my life." "One more time, and you're mine."

The odd seriousness behind the light remark made her uneasy. She wished she could see his eyes. Wished she could see his thoughts and know what he meant.

"You're bleeding,” he said, lightly touching her middle finger. She frowned. While she had no doubt that she was, how could he tell in the darkness?

"You should go back to the car and tend to these straight away,” he continued softly, “or you might risk infection."

"A couple more minutes won't matter. Can you pull the splinters out?"

"I could, but I think it might be wiser if you went back to the car." Why was he suddenly so determined to get rid of her? “No. I want to see to Monica first."

"There's nothing to see, Nikki. Go back to the car and tend to your hands."

"No.” Besides, something warned her not to leave the girl's body with this man. Warned that she might not find it again if she did. An odd thought indeed—what in hell would Michael want with a dead teenager?

"You're a stubborn woman, Nikki James."

She smiled at the hint of exasperation in his voice. He'd only known her twenty-four hours, and already he'd come to that realization. It usually took people far longer to see beneath her polite veneer.

"And this is one of my good days,” she replied lightly. “Now, would you please remove the damn splinters?"

"As you wish."

She stared into the darkness and tried counting to one hundred. It didn't work. She could no more ignore the sting in her hands than the warm brush of his body against hers.

"There,” he said after a moment. “All gone."

"Good. Now we can go find Monica."

He smiled, though she couldn't say how she knew this. Perhaps it was little more than a quick caress of laughter in her mind. Or wishful thinking.

He placed a hand under her elbow again and led her forward. The smell of decay tainted the air, a smell that had nothing to do with the sea or the rotting rubbish she kept tripping over. It was the smell of death. If only she hadn't dropped her flashlight...

Ahead, moonlight flickered through a few broken wallboards. The darkness shifted slightly, becoming less intense. Shapes loomed—old crates and half-destroyed internal walls. Michael stepped through a shattered doorway then stopped. Monica lay before them, serene and quiet on a battered old mattress. She looked at peace, Nikki thought. Innocent. Strange how death could be so deceiving. She knelt beside the teenager's body and gently touched her neck. Though she didn't doubt Michael's word, she couldn't help hoping that perhaps he was wrong.

He wasn't.

Guilt washed through her. This death was partly her fault. If she hadn't given in to fear, the teenager might still be alive.

"Monica chose her fate. Nothing you could have done would have prevented this,” Michael stated, kneeling on the opposite side of the body.

She raised an eyebrow at the anger in his voice. Yet she sensed the anger had been aimed at himself, not her. He moved his hand, drawing her gaze back to Monica.

"We should check her body."

"Why? Monica's dead, and as you pointed out, there's nothing much we can do about it now. Let's call the police and let them deal with her."

"I don't think that would be wise right now."

She sighed and rubbed her temples wearily. She had a horrible feeling the night's surprises were not over yet. “Why not?"

"Once I examine the body, I'll explain."

The thought of touching the dead girl any further made Nikki's skin crawl. “What are you looking for?" He gave her an enigmatic smile, shrugging one shoulder. “Odd marks. A recent knife wound." She raised an eyebrow and made no comment. Michael brushed the teenager's long hair to one side and bent to study her neck. His frown suggested he wasn't happy with what he found. She rubbed her arms. “Why are odd marks so important?"

"If I find them, I'll explain.” He hesitated and glanced up. “It'll be done a lot quicker if you helped." Though his tone was even, his irritation seared her mind. She bit her lip, then reached down, gingerly lifting Monica's right arm. The smooth flesh felt cool, like meat just taken out of the fridge. Her stomach turned. They shouldn't be doing this. It was a violation of the dead.

"If she's dead, she can't mind,” Michael said.

"Keep out of my thoughts,” she snapped, then frowned. “What do you mean, if she's dead?"

"Nothing yet. Keep checking."

"This is definitely not a sharing environment you're creating here, you know,” she muttered. "I never said it would be,” he said. “I'm here to catch a killer, nothing more." And she and Monica were merely the means to the end. The thought annoyed her more than it should have. Lowering Monica's arm to her side, she continued her examination. No unusual marks appeared to mar the creamy perfection of the teenager's skin. Nikki sat back on her heels. While she would have loved to get out of this building and the death it held so peacefully, she owed it to Trevgard to find out the truth. If she couldn't have prevented Monica's death, she could at least find out why she died—and maybe bring her killer to justice.

The image of sapphire-ringed eyes rose in her mind, and she shivered. If Monica's killer and her own hunter were one and the same, what would she do?

"You'd better come around here and have a look at what I've found,” Michael commented softly. His face was emotionless, giving no indication of what to expect. She rose and walked around to his side. “Look at what?"

"Her wrist for starters."

He pointed to Monica's wrist; a two-inch cut marred her skin. But the pale color of the scar indicated the wound was at least a week old. She couldn't see how it was related to Monica's death. “And?"

"Now look at her neck."

She squatted by his side. Two small puncture wounds spoiled the white skin. Dried blood ran a dark trail from the wounds and disappeared behind Monica's pale blonde hair. She froze.

Michael had commented earlier that Monica had died from blood loss, yet there was very little blood near the body and no other obvious sign of injury apart from the wrist and these two wounds. Wounds that looked an awful lot like bite marks. But not from an animal. Not from anything she knew. She closed her eyes, unable to voice the fear in her mind.

"From a vampire,” Michael finished for her.

A fear as ancient as time itself rose, threatening to overwhelm her. She took a deep breath and tried to control the turmoil running panicked circles in her mind. It couldn't be true. Vampires didn't exist, damn it! They were a product of fiction and imagination, not reality.

"Just as psychic powers don't exist?” Michael said, voice gentle. She glanced at him sharply. There was an odd expression on his face, as if her reaction was important in some way. “That isn't the same thing!"

"Why? Many people believe psychic powers to be in the same reality as vampires. Does not believing in them make them any less real?"

"No. But vampires?"

"Look at her neck, Nikki. Remember the man she was with, remember his evil." She didn't need to remember. All she had to do was close her eyes and his image was there. “Being evil doesn't necessarily make him a vampire."

"No. Drinking blood to survive does that."

She shuddered. Monica looked so young, so peaceful. So very dead. But if what Michael said was true, she would soon become a vampire. All it had taken was one little bite.

"Being the victim of a vampire doesn't mean you become one,” he commented softly.

"It does in the movies.” She rested back on her heels and rubbed her arms, wondering why the room had suddenly become so cold.

"In real life, one becomes a vampire by sharing the vampire's blood through a special ceremony.”

Michael shrugged. “And only with consent on both sides."

"Are you saying Monica wanted to become a vampire?"

"To some, the lure of eternal life is powerful."

"Not powerful enough, thank you very much.” Yet she remembered Jasper's mocking assessment of the rich, and wondered. “Besides, we can't be sure Monica went through this ceremony."

"No. But that cut on her wrist looks ominous."

She studied the half-healed wound. How could you tell an attempted suicide from an incision made during a special ceremony?

"You can't.” Michael's voice was grim. “And that is why we must make sure she is dead." She understood the intent behind his words well enough, even if he didn't come straight out and say it.

“Why?"

"If she shared blood, she merely rests, waiting while her body undergoes the transformation."

"And have the movies got the methods of killing a vampire wrong, as well?" He hesitated fractionally, then shook his head. “No. A stake through the heart will usually kill, as will the midday sun. Decapitation is the best method, though."

She raised an eyebrow. “And this is what you intend for Monica?" His gaze searched her face. She wondered why. If he read her mind so easily, surely he could taste her anger.

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