“Get outta my way, you old bat,” I muttered under my breath as an elderly woman who shouldn’t have been driving a golf cart much less a Lincoln Town Car at this time of night putt-putted down the street in front of me, her blinker announcing she meant to make a right turn sometime before she reached the ocean.
“Are we a little testy to night, Lucille?” Lucille Robinson is my usual cover and my alter ego: a gracious, sweet girl who always knows the right thing to say. Vayl invokes her when I step out of line. I nearly flipped him off, but since he’s still got one foot mired in the 1700s, I thought better of it and stuck my tongue out at him instead. I wasn’t sure he’d see me making faces at him in the rearview, but of course Vayl sees everything. I realized I’d come to count on that as much as I sought his approval which, at the moment, had ditched me.
“Do not be distracted by menial events,” he reminded me in his stern baritone. “We have a job to do.”
“But if you’d just let me ram this old biddy into the next electric pole I’d feel much better.”
“You would not.”
I sighed. Six months. Scary how much Vayl had learned about me in such a short span. In my defense, given time he could worm the true ages out of the entire cast of Desperate Housewives. Still, the only living person who knew more about me was my sister, Evie, and she was just that nosy.
“It’s New Year’s Eve for chrissake,” I grumbled. “There’s supposed to be snow on the ground. It’s supposed to be freezing.” I guess the natives of Miami would’ve disagreed. And to be honest, all those palm trees would’ve sent me skipping around in circles if I’d been on vacation. But we Midwesterners have a thing about winter holidays and snow, and this year I had yet to experience either one.
Vayl went still, a sight that will creep you out big-time if you’ve never seen it before. He sort of resembles a statue anyway, as if da Vinci had chiseled his square forehead, high cheekbones, and long, straight nose from smooth, pale stone. His curly black hair was cut so short that right now I’d almost swear someone had painted it on. The temperature inside our silver Lexus suddenly dropped ten degrees. A breeze ruffled my red curls, playing them across my shoulders as if they were harp strings.
“You make it snow inside this car and I swear I’m going to park your butt in the middle of the next retirement village we come to and take the first plane I can find back to Ohio,” I warned him.
Strange to think of Ohio as a base for any operation more dangerous than cataract surgery. But that’s why we’re still doing the government’s business. Of course, people know we kill bad guys. They just don’t want the gory details. But if you asked them in a dark room where their neighbors couldn’t hear, they’d tell you we’re not nearly as proactive as they’d like. Witches, vamps, weres . . . some would vote to throw them all on a gigantic bonfire and have done. But there’s good sorts among those others who have earned — and deserve — the same rights and protections we humans get.
Vayl is one of them. And after six months of partnership, I was glad I hadn’t pulled a diva and stomped out of Pete’s office when he’d suggested our pairing. We’d clicked like checkers from the start. At this point I couldn’t imagine working without him. But he did have his eccentricities. And, okay, some of those quirks made me want to dangle him from the Terminal Tower from time to time. His intense interest in my so-called Gifts. The fact that he’d flunked out of the School of Positive Reinforcement. And especially his adept avoidance of any subject related to the why of our hookup sometimes annoyed the hell out of me.
He sort of came alive again, catching me off guard, as it would if, say, I was strolling through a botanical garden and the cherub in the fountain suddenly started flapping its wings. He sat forward, his smile just a twitch of the lips.
“How can you miss your sleepy little state when I have brought you to one of the most exotic spots on earth?”
“Okay, I know you’re too old to be taking lessons from a young punk like me —”
“Jasmine” — (he pronounced it Yaz-mee-na, which gave me the biggest thrill, though I’d never let on) — “while I agree that twenty-five is quite young, you can hardly call yourself a ‘punk.’ “
Yeah, but nutcase is just too close to the truth. “Dammit, you old fart, would you turn right already!” The white-haired wonder leading what had to, by now, be a blocks-long parade must’ve turned on her hearing aid. Because she finally pulled into the United Methodist Church parking lot, praise God, leaving the rest of us free to party until some other octogenarian found it necessary to take to the streets after dark. In Ohio, old folks know better than to drive at night. Yet another reason Cleveland rocks.
Vayl’s eyes were the icy blue of an Alaskan husky as he took in every detail of the scene before him, his brain cataloging it for future reference. Parking lot full of high-end rentals. Check. Automatic, key-card entry door with bulletproof glass. Check. Lobby full of complimentary goodies from fluffy white towels to imported shampoos, all graciously displayed on the shelves of antique armoires. Check. Not a single soul in sight. Excellent.
His hands full of bags, Vayl leaned over and whispered, “According to legend this inn is haunted.”
I snorted. An unladylike habit, I know, but one which, like swearing, has its place. “Probably your old poker buddies waiting around to even the score.” This was not as far-fetched as it sounded. Rumor had it Vayl had won his cane and his first gold mine in a game of five-card stud.
Vayl’s lips twitched again. Not for the first time I thought, If he ever truly smiles his face is going to shatter. But I tried not to think it too loud. On the plane he’d overheard the flight attendants discussing the pilot’s stun gun from the back of the plane as he sat beside me in the front row. A man with that kind of ability only needs to listen slightly harder to hear my harsh thoughts.
Vayl had reserved the penthouse, so we took elevator 6A to twelve. At that point I did a little soft-shoe — the semiclaustrophobic’s version of the I-gotta-pee dance — until Vayl figured out which way to slip our key card into the metal slot on the elevator’s control panel so the door would open. After I’d leaped out and regained a somewhat steady pulse, I took stock. We stood in a small enclosed entryway decorated with a massive flowery mural that involved all four walls, including the elevator doors, and half of the ceiling. Tiles in the pastel pink so common to Florida covered the floor.
I wrinkled my nose at the color. Something about pink makes my stomach churn. Maybe it’s the resemblance to Pepto-Bismol. Personally, my taste runs toward bolder colors. That’s why I currently wore an emerald-green silk shirt under my black jacket. Unlike Vayl’s coat, which reached his knees and looked like it could comfortably hide a shotgun, or a sword, or possibly a small pony, mine stopped just below my waist and, because it had been tailored to mask my shoulder holster, fit superbly. My black slacks felt a little loose, probably because I’d missed lunch all month. And since the Weather Channel had warned of a cold spell hitting Florida at the same time we did, I’d worn my new boots. Hopefully they’d hold up longer than the last pair, which had fallen apart the first time I’d stepped in a puddle of blood.
I tugged my trunk through a set of white French doors that opened into a sunken living room furnished with flowered couches and chairs, glass tables, and Pepto-pink carpeting. On the opposite end of the room, next to ceiling-to-floor curtains in Elvis velvet, sat a bigger glass table surrounded by chairs. I noticed it mainly because the chairs had rollers, which keyed a memory from my childhood.
My brother, sister, and I were staying with our Granny May at her farm for the summer. Her kitchen chairs had wheels, so we spent part of each day either pushing each other around the room or having spinning contests to see who fell off first. Good times. I felt a throb of homesickness for those few golden moments when my sibs and I were friends, teammates, and coconspirators. Why couldn’t it have lasted forever?
“Never mind,” I whispered. “It’s over now. Move on. Move on. Move on.” I caught myself in the litany and clamped my lips shut, imprisoning the words before they could betray me.
Still carrying a suitcase, our laptop, his garment bag, and cane, Vayl strolled into the room and took inventory. His eyes rested momentarily on a cut-glass vase full of white orchids and moved on to a silver bucket filled with ice and a bottle of champagne.
“Nice,” he said, nodding with approval.
“Yeah, it’s uh” — I struggled to put some of the expected enthusiasm into my voice — “grrreat!” I skirted the rim of the living room bowl, rolling my trunk after me. I liked it because it looked the way I felt most of the time, battered and old. Right now it appeared sorely out of place, and if the furniture could talk I was sure it would shame my low-class luggage right out of the building. The pack on my back wouldn’t score any points either. Despite the fact that it dressed in basic black, it too had seen better days. But it worked, carry ing my weapons in well-padded pockets along with my ammunition and cleaning cases. So rather than run to the nearest Motel 6, I just kept walking, taking my most treasured possessions toward another set of French doors to my left, which no doubt led to a grossly sumptuous bedroom.
“Come now, Jasmine,” Vayl chided me. Already across the room, he set the laptop on the table and moved to the curtains, which I expected him to stroke like a pet panther. Instead he flicked them back, peered out the window. Satisfied, he looked over his shoulder at me. “I bring you to the most exclusive hotel in Florida and the only reaction I get is your Tony the Tiger impression?”
I felt like slumping against the wall, at which point I would bang my head repeatedly until I passed out. But no, the bell had dinged, forcing me back into the ring for Round Fourteen of the Never-Ending Battle. Nope, no blows traded, damn it all. Our struggle was just a continuous conversation during which Vayl tried to figure out how I’d grown to adulthood without acquiring the slightest refinement, and I continued to be baffled that a man old enough to remember when bathrooms were windowless shacks built above deep stinkin’ holes could be fooled into thinking that ugly flowers and crappy-tasting liquor meant something.
“Look, Vayl, we’ve got a really big night ahead of us. Can’t we just agree that I’m a cretin and you’re a snob and move on?”
For a minute I thought he was having convulsions. Then I realized he was laughing. Depositing his stuff on an end table, he collapsed on the nearest couch and heaved with barely suppressed merriment. He looked . . . Now, why would the word “yummy” come to mind? Under his coat he wore a dark blue sweater that hugged his torso as if they’d been reunited after a long separation. On the plane he’d mentioned his gray slacks had been tailored by a guy named Nigel Clay who spoke with a lisp and sewed like a savant. His shiny black shoes had come straight off the shelf — in Italy. Since he’d assumed the identity of a high-end antiques dealer named Jeremy Bhane, his elegance was called for. It baffled me that such a thing could come so naturally. Or that I should find it so . . . delectable.
What is the deal with these food metaphors, girl? I asked myself. Miss too many entrées, did you? Or are you hungry for something a little more — no, no, no, don’t you dare go there. For damn sure not with your badass vampire bossman. He could never replace Matt anyway. No one could.
“Are you all right? You suddenly look . . . haunted.”
“Oh, yeah. I mean, no.” Short, fake laugh while I fished for something to say. “I was just wondering why you don’t smile more. And I thought maybe it’s because your fangs would show.”
“Would that bother you?” he asked sharply.
“Not at all. We had two vamps on my Helsinger crew. Stellar people.” Now dead, dead, dead . . . Feeling a guilty sort of pride that I’d been able to say that last bit without breaking down, I opened the bedroom door. Surprise, surprise, it had a huge round bed with a fuscia duvet and a mirrored headboard. I’d call the carpeting a nauseating mix of Pepto-pink and cherry-flavored NyQuil. I liked the Whirlpool tub in the next room though, and the shower was big enough for me and the cutest six guys I could round up on short notice.
“I suppose you find this room a bit over the top,” said Vayl, making me jump and squeal.
“What is the deal with you to night?” And how come you keep showing up just when I’m trying not to think of how long it’s been since I’ve had sex?
He shrugged. “I am, how do you say, feeling my oats, perhaps?” He’d let a trace of his original accent creep into his voice. His left eyebrow moved upward a couple of notches. I forgot to breathe as I wondered just how many women had lost themselves in those emerald-green eyes. Over nearly three hundred years? Don’t make me laugh. And don’t think about him that way anymore. You’re his assistant. Period.
I sighed, feeling a whole new level of bummed. “Well, I’m not. I was supposed to hang out with my sister to night, not hop a flight to Miami. She’s already mad that I missed Christmas, and if this trip triggers her labor I’m never forgiving myself. Or you. So can we just start the briefing? The quicker this is over the faster I can crawl home.” And grovel. At the knees of my kid sister. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
He checked his pocket watch. “All right,” he said. “The party is in two hours and, knowing women as I do, it will probably take you at least half that time just to get dressed.”
I knew Vayl wasn’t complaining, but since I already felt vulnerable, the comment cut me. And when I bleed, I get pissed. It’s like he’s implying a tough girl like me needs a miracle to transform herself into a beautiful lady and, as we all know, miracles take time. What an ass!
His touch, bare fingertips on my cheek, startled me. I could tell by his feverish warmth that he’d eaten when he woke at sunset. The decent vamps, the ones who were trying to blend, all fed without killing. Many had willing donors. Others bought their blood from one of two government-licensed suppliers. More would likely pop up as vamps like Vayl made obvious the advantages of integration.
He said, “I have offended you.”
“Actually, yeah, you have.” I shook my head to dislodge his hand. It felt a little too . . . nice. “It’s okay, though,” I said, my anger deflating somewhat in response to his stricken expression. “People ought to be able to point out the truth, or at least give it a nod on the way past without other people getting all freaked out about it.”
“I have no idea what you just said.”
“Good. Now, let me unpack and I’ll meet you in the pit, um, living room in five minutes.”
He left me alone to empty my trunk. I didn’t. I sat on the bed, fished a pack of cards out of my bag, and began to mix them. Blend, bend, bridge, over and over I shuffled the dog-eared pack until Evie’s tears, my ghosts, Vayl’s unintended insult, and the immense suckage of the holidays, which I’d spent equally between blacking out and melting down, receded beneath the steady thrum of the cards.
Vayl had already draped himself across one of the couches by the time I came into the living room. All he needed was an ivy crown and some half-dressed bimbo fanning him with palm fronds between bites of grapes and he’d have been a dead ringer for a gorgeous Julius Caesar. Aw, who was I kidding? He’d probably palled around with the man before Cleopatra showed up and ruined all their fun. I sank down on the couch opposite him, curling my feet underneath me. “Getting into character?”
“We are going to a five-thousand-dollar-a-plate charity dinner/dance. Our target has invited only the crème de la crème of society. He will expect both of us to behave with a certain amount of savoir faire.”
“Let me see if I can translate your bullshit, um, I mean French. We’re supposed to be a couple of big spenders?”
“Yes,” he replied, raising his eyebrow a disapproving tick at my language.
“So who’s the target?”
“A plastic surgeon of Pakistani origin. His name is Mohammed Khad Abn-Assan and he has either lifted, tucked, or liposuctioned half of Hollywood. I understand several of his celebrity clients will be there to night.”
“And here I left my autograph book in my other purse. So what’s the charity?”
“It is called New Start. It brings in millions of dollars a year, allegedly to pay for reconstructive surgery for child victims of disfiguring accidents.”
“Cool. Only I’m guessing the kids will never see a dime.”
“That is highly doubtful when you consider the fact that Assan is diverting most of those funds into the Sons of Paradise.”
“Whoa, hang on just a second. The Sons of Paradise? Are you telling me we’re going to hit a financial bastion of the most extreme of the extremist terrorist groups?” Vayl nodded. “Awesome!” Those assholes will be dining on sand and pisswater by the time we’re finished with Dr. Bankroller.
Perhaps my delight could be explained by the fact that the Sons of Paradise had, among its most recent atrocities, blown an army Pave Hawk out of the sky over Burma, murdered its five-member crew, and released the footage of how they’d mutilated the bodies to the entire world. Referred to by journalists as the “Mother of All Cults,” Sons of Paradise members worshipped a mythical creature called the Tor-al-Degan, which, as a chaos beast, didn’t have a face or a place to call home. But the Deganites didn’t seem to need statues or heaven. Just an excuse to vent their hate and havoc.
“But you said they’re only getting most of the money. Why not all of it?”
Vayl’s eyes hardened, black obsidian even the most penetrating stare couldn’t break. “Sources say he uses the rest to perform surgery on members of the organization who cannot afford to look like their Most Wanted posters anymore.”
That got my motor running. “What a creep.”
“The world is full of them.”
“You’re telling me. It’s good there’s people like us around to balance things out.”
“What is this optimistic talk I hear coming from your mouth?” Vayl asked. “Are you Jasmine’s evil clone, come to lull me into fluffy white thoughts so you can stake me in my sleep?”
“At best your thoughts are pink. Kind of like this carpet.” Vayl’s eyes lightened suddenly, a trait that will make you do a double take if you’re not used to it. The vamps I’d known before him didn’t have that particular ability, but then it wasn’t really fair to compare. Vamps have their individual gifts and weaknesses, just like humans. The one sitting across from me, for instance, wore his eighty-odd-years’ string of successful missions like a mantle. He had infiltrated the most exclusive factions, beaten the highest tech security systems, faced the most powerful supernatural forces ever seen on earth and won. So why did he need me? I really should have a clue after six months, shouldn’t I? Well, shouldn’t I?
“Anything else you want to tell me?” I asked
“Assan has never before been more than a link in a chain. How do you say . . . a yes man. But he has suddenly gained great power within the Sons of Paradise. We understand he has brought them a new ally, one with the money and clout to rock this country to its core. There is not much chatter about this person, but when you listen to the whispers, you hear scary things.”
“You mean scarier than usual things?”
Vayl nodded. “This ally brings more than financial backing. He brings others, from nests, covens, and packs.”
Uh-oh. Cinch your seatbelt, Jaz. Things are about to get bumpy. “That sounds like the Raptor.” Only the Raptor had been able to make such traditionally quarrelsome sects cooperate long enough to work together toward any common goal.
“Precisely. Thus our mission tonight is to case Assan’s home, mark his security arrangements, and return in the wee hours of the morning. We will remove Assan from the premises, interrogate him back at Diamond Suites, and then terminate him.” Well didn’t that just shine a whole new light on this job? If we could stick it to the Sons of Paradise and make Assan identify the Raptor, maybe give us a location, we’d be rockin’.
The Raptor had been our department’s number-one target for nearly a decade, as more and more evidence had surfaced against him. His lethal mix of charisma and savagery had raised him high among the ranks of the Vampere from the start. But apparently vampire domination hadn’t been enough. He’d learned to consolidate power globally, accepting fealty oaths from a dozen large U.S. nests, two covens of black witches in Scotland, and several packs of Spanish weres. His tactics were brutal, his intentions vicious.
Vayl ran his fingers across the black cane that lay beside him on the couch. A museum piece, it had been hand carved in India and had inspired almost as many whispers around the office as its owner. A procession of intricately detailed tigers marched around the leg of the cane up to a gold band, which separated it from the multifaceted blue jewel that topped it. When you twisted the head, the tigers shot away from it, revealing a hand-hammered sword whose maker had been dust for centuries. It was unusual for Vayl to carry it with him here, where he should’ve felt safe. Where I’d felt pretty cozy myself. I sat up straighter and looked around the room.
“What aren’t you telling me?” I demanded.
“We are going to have to be extremely careful. While we believe the Raptor to be Assan’s new puppet master, we think there is also at least one U.S. government official dancing from the same strings. This is no simple hit, Jasmine, far from it. And . . .”
Vayl shook his head. “Just keep your eyes and ears open. Something about this feels . . . wrong.”
And that was really saying something, coming from the CIA’s number-one assassin.
Copyright © 2007 by Jennifer Rardin
Visit the author online at Jenniferrardin.com