The night Saloman’s baby was born, Cyn felt weird. Too many vampires lurked in the house and its immediate surroundings, and her extreme sensitivity to undead presence made her edgy and ultra-aware of the maelstrom of emotion surrounding the birth—and the unspeakable efforts of both humans and vampires to sabotage it.
She’d have been happier if she could have done the fighting. But being a psychic human made her mind too valuable, and so she remained in the house of the vampire overlord Saloman while the various battles were fought and won, both in her presence and out.
When they were finally done, she had to feel her way out of Elizabeth’s bedroom, so battered by other people’s feelings that she had no idea how to shut them out. She wanted Rudy, her best friend in the world, just for his calming, solid comfort, but he was thousands of miles away in New York. She missed him.
“Cyn? Are you okay?” That was Mihaela, the Romanian hunter. Christ, she must look bad if Mihaela was worrying about her. Mihaela didn’t like her since they’d clashed in Malta. In retrospect, Cyn didn’t blame Mihaela—she’d been used—but the facts couldn’t be undone.
“Fine,” Cyn said, feeling her way along the last cool wall, which seemed to vibrate with Saloman’s overwhelming power, and sliding out the door. It was slightly easier here, away from him. Still too many vampires, but at least in a different room from the immediate torrent of Elizabeth’s and Saloman’s emotions, she could breathe. Her vision began to clear. She began to hear again with the clarity of physical voices and actual words.
“Konrad’s gone,” István said.
“Did he kill Maggie?” Mihaela asked urgently. At the same time, she pushed Cyn into the nearest chair, and Cyn was grateful enough to cry. Although she didn’t.
“No. She’s still standing,” István said.
“Thank God.” Mihaela’s whole body seemed to sag with relief.
It still felt weird to be thanking the Lord for the survival of a vampire, and in this particular case, Cyn wasn’t quite sure of the significance of Mihaela’s gratitude. The very air was too redolent of undead, of fear and hope that prickled her skin. The prickles grew stronger again as footsteps clumped up the stairs beyond Elizabeth’s study, where Cyn now sat, gradually pushing back the fuzziness that clouded her vision.
The double doors flew open, and a man strode in—a big, tall, scary-looking white man with a shaven head, a dangling chain in one ear—carrying another man in his arms. A leaner, dark-haired man she knew only too well.
“John,” she whispered. John Ramsay, Scottish ex-soldier, her trusted comrade and, after Rudy, her most valued friend.
“Oh no,” Mihaela was saying. “Oh no.”
Somehow, Cyn launched herself across the room to where the shaven-haired man was laying her friend on the sofa.
“Is he dead?” she demanded harshly. Oh God, don’t be dead. Is anything really worth this?
“Mostly,” the stranger said. “He soon will be. The female staked him.” He spoke in Hungarian-accented English, and his deep voice rumbled through her terrified person with a knowledge she was too distracted to grasp.
There was a mess of blood all over John’s chest. If he’d been a vampire, he’d have been dust with a wound like that. Cyn grabbed for his wrist, searching desperately for a pulse.
“Elizabeth,” she blurted. “Elizabeth has to heal him.”
“She can’t,” Mihaela said with despair. “Not after what she’s been through.”
“An ambulance is coming,” István said.
Under her trembling fingers, Cyn imagined she could feel the faintest flutter of a pulse. Her eyes flew upward to the stranger’s, blindly seeking confirmation. And the realization slammed into her that he was a vampire. His granite-grey eyes, as profound and merciless as an ocean in full storm, held hers without blinking.
At the same time, he took John’s hand from her grasp. His fingers brushed against hers, cold as autumn rain. And something sparked through her veins, scattering heat and altering that extreme awareness that had so troubled her all night. His hand was pale, slender, long-fingered, both sensitive and strong—at odds with the rest of his appearance you might think, until you saw the tattoo stamped on his wrist: a splash of blackness with wisps of silvery mist and a white crescent moon. Slowly, Cyn raised her gaze to his face.
You could drown in the grey, unforgiving maelstrom of this vampire’s eyes; you could enjoy the hardness of the face and body so close to you, grasp his hand just to keep the exquisite sensual awareness that radiated from his touch.
Or you could snatch your hand away from the monster’s contaminating nearness. Which Cyn did, staring at him as though he’d violated her. A small silver chain dangled from his left ear, bearing a tiny horned skull. Bizarre. But, Jesus, there was warmth after all in those stony eyes, an odd charm in the slow upward quirk of his sensual lips. He could convince you he felt it too, this weird, reasonless tug of sexual attraction that churned her stomach and dampened her inner thighs. Just from the briefest brush of his skin against hers…
“Béla. Give him to me.” It was Saloman himself, striding across the room to sweep John up into his arms. The vampire—Béla?—and Cyn fell back out of his way.
Cyn stumbled to her feet. “What are you doing? You mustn’t turn him! Saloman!”
She’d never called the vampire prince by name before, but it made no impact. Nothing seemed to, except the burning of the strange vampire’s gaze into her spine. She needed him gone, to concentrate on the importance that was John Ramsay. But when she spun around to give him a good, New York mouthful of abuse, all she saw was the slamming door.
Only his echo remained in the air. Relief flooded her. And something else she wouldn’t think about. Ever.
“And that’s really what you do for a living?” Mrs. Dolan marveled. “Kill vampires?”
“We solve vampire problems,” Cyn corrected, keeping her attention on the dark corner of the alley where Pete and Nathan should shortly be emerging, hopefully flushing the rogue vampire before them.
“Amazing,” Mrs. Dolan pronounced. “And is there much money in that line of business?”
“Never used to be,” Cyn said. “We used to do it in secret and for nothing, since no one but us believed vampires existed. Now we find there are a few people like yourselves who’re happy to pay us to sort out your problem. Seems a good deal for all of us.”
“I must admit, I thought the others had lost their minds when they suggested it,” Mrs. Dolan confessed. “Especially when a little slip of a thing like you turned up.”
Few people would have described Cyn in quite that way. However, responding to the hint of genuine motherly anxiety in the old lady’s voice, Cyn spared her a quick grin. “Don’t worry, Mrs. D. I have four large, strong men to back me up.” Plus I’m still big enough and ugly enough to get them out of whatever trouble they land themselves in!
“So you’ve really done this before?” Mrs. Dolan pursued. “Caught actual vampires?”
Cyn didn’t correct her. Catching vampires was almost impossible: they were much too strong. Besides, where the hell would you keep a captured vampire?
“We’ve dealt with several recent problems,” she said evasively. Two where the vampires were doing no harm—apart from snacking lightly on passersby—and had merely to be moved on and reminded of discretion; and one rogue vamp terrorizing a rural community upstate. They’d killed him, and the official hunters whose job they’d done didn’t complain—if they even knew.
This was different, though. Two women had died. It was a police matter. Fortunately, the Manfred Street community had realized the police were no use in this kind of investigation. Officially, the cops didn’t acknowledge the existence of vampires, and even if they did, they had no experience, let alone expertise, in dealing with them. Cyn and her little mobile army of hunters—now mercenaries—had both. They’d fought the undead in eastern Europe, where, as a rule, vamps were far older and stronger.
In fact, Cyn had rather guiltily itchy feet. Something restless in her wanted a bigger and better fight than anything she’d found since returning to New York. She didn’t really think she’d get one here in Manfred Street, but the plight of the neighborhood had struck a chord in her. She couldn’t leave them to fight this on their own. And a murdering vamp—especially such a vicious one as this—shouldn’t be allowed to exist. No one disputed that, not even the great vampire overlord Saloman himself.
Mrs. Dolan and the other residents of East Manfred Street reminded Cyn of the community she’d grown up in—mostly working people, a little rough around the edges but a good mix with a strong community spirit. It was a populous, almost crowded area of old apartment buildings, narrow streets, and alleys, a few convenience stores, a small, locally run community center, and one playground for the kids.
In Cyn’s neighborhood, things had gone downhill as she hit her teens. The neglected buildings began to hemorrhage the old neighbors, and strangers had arrived. Her playground had been lost to teenage vandals and gangs. In time, the buildings had improved again and the gangs broken up, but the old neighborhood was still lost.
Manfred Street still had its community, and the people cared, not just for number one, but for their neighbors. They didn’t tolerate vandals or low-level nuisance crime if they could stop it. Since the police couldn’t catch the perpetrator of the recent horrific murders—two young women had their throats torn out—they’d looked around for someone who could.
Cyn spoke quietly into her Bluetooth mouthpiece. “Anything?”
“Quiet,” came Rudy’s voice at once.
“Nothing,” Pete said from the alley.
“Nothing yet,” Will grunted.
“I got nothing either,” Cyn said, frowning. She’d gotten nothing all evening. If it hadn’t been for the residual presence she’d sensed at the murder scene out back, she’d have almost sworn there were no vampires involved in this.
“Periphery’s clear,” Rudy said. “Moving inward toward you.”
A moving shadow at the corner of the alley caused Mrs. Dolan to grab at Cyn’s arm. “It’s all right,” Cyn said, detaching herself with what patience she could muster. “It’s Pete and Nathan. Why don’t you go back inside, Mrs. D? I’ll let you know at once if anything happens.”
With Pete and Nathan now near enough to guard her spot, Cyn felt able to urge Mrs. Dolan toward the apartment building entrance. This vamp was tricky. She needed to know Mrs. Dolan’s building was still clear before she let the old woman go back into her home.
There wasn’t a whiff of vampire. Which was depressing in its way. Cyn had hoped to clear up this job tonight, collect the rest of the money, and use it to move on somewhere else, maybe even back to Europe. She had no real ties in New York. Her mother didn’t know her anymore, and Cyn could stop worrying now the old lady was in the better residential care home. Rudy would be game to travel, and Will. She wasn’t sure about the others.
Cyn watched Mrs. Dolan waddle back into her apartment, and was just striding back to join Pete and Nathan when Rudy’s voice breathed in her ear. “Something here…”
Cyn broke into a run. “Position, Rudy.”
Pete and Nathan were already rushing to join her, but her earpiece only crackled with breath and grunts and a kind of strangled howl that terrified her.
“Will!” she said in panic, increasing her pace. “You’re closest, what’s happening?”
Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck…
Bolting through the alleys and backstreets, the three of them sped toward Rudy’s last known position. Both he and Will were ominously silent. Cyn couldn’t let herself think of possibilities, only of getting to them, of being prepared. She carried a stake in each fist, and she’d use both without hesitation to save one hair on Rudy’s head.
They bolted through the small children’s playground toward the end of the block.
“Shit,” Pete muttered, tripping heavily over something. “Wait, Cyn, it’s a body!”
Cyn slowed. Her skin was shrieking. Vampire.
All her senses on full alert, she edged toward Pete while scanning the whole area for signs of Rudy or the vampire.
“It’s Will,” Pete said.
“How is he?” Cyn snapped. All right. Let him be all right.
“Alive,” Pete said curtly. “Will. Will, are you with us?”
Will groaned faintly. “My head…”
“Where’s Rudy?” Cyn demanded.
“Don’t know, never found him,” Will said. He moved with Pete’s aid, feeling the back of his head. “Something hit me.”
Forcing herself, Cyn ran forward into the shadows of the surrounding wall. She touched it, felt the jolt of cold, sickening undead echo, and vaulted over it, stake ready.
A shadow moved in the doorway across the road. Vampire. As she began to dive toward it, her foot touched something yielding. The flashlight around her neck shone down on a bloody mess with Rudy’s face.
It was weird how everything worked on training and autopilot. She’d dialed 911 before she pointed the others to the vanishing shadow across the road. She wanted the bastard who did this more than she’d ever wanted anything before, but no way would she leave Rudy alone. Even if he was dead, she couldn’t leave him.
And he wasn’t dead. Blood still gushed from the wounds in his neck. Cyn did her best to stanch it, but this was too big for the very basic first aid kits they all carried. She smothered his throat in the bandages from hers and his, hung on to his wrist to reassure herself of the faint pulse still fluttering there, and cradled his head in her lap. He could be choking on blood—would she even know?
“Rudy, you old bastard, don’t you dare die on me,” she whispered. “Don’t you dare.”
They’d been partners for so long, since the day she’d found a vampire attacking him in the apartment building they shared and killed it with an umbrella. He’d become her best friend and substitute father. Hunting vampires together had never been a game, and yet although she’d always known this could happen to either of them, it had been like lip service. She’d never really acknowledged it, not deep down…
“All right?” Will’s hand touched her shoulder in rough sympathy. It seemed to be what she needed.
She nodded blindly. “You?”
“Good enough,” Will said and jogged slightly erratically after Pete and Nathan.
“Will, you’re not fit for it,” she warned. “Wait.”
Even as Will hesitated, Pete and Nathan emerged from the building, shaking their heads.
“Gone,” Pete said succinctly. “Ran up the fire escape to fool us, then jumped from there to the next building. He’s fast and strong. Stronger than anything else in New York, I’d say. How’s Rudy?”
“Alive,” Cyn said fiercely. Stay alive, stay alive… She shivered, gazing fearfully around her. “He hasn’t gone. The vamp. Not unless he left a friend. I can still feel him.”
There. On top of the building, a dark figure silhouetted for an instant by the flicker of the lights above and behind. And then he really did vanish.
Because it seemed the only thing to do, they fell out of the hospital into Cyn’s beat-up old truck and from there into a late-night bar a couple of blocks away from the Manfred Street area.
Rudy was in intensive care but still alive. Will’s head bump had been checked out and dismissed as minor, although he’d been given instructions about dealing with possible concussion. They’d sustained a lecture from the police on the dangers of vigilantism. Now, numb, Cyn watched Will break the first of the doctor’s orders and down the best part of a large bourbon.
She picked up her own and gazed at the amber liquid through the glass.
Pete clinked his glass against hers. “Rudy,” he said. “A tough old dog.”
“He’d better be,” Cyn said and drank.
As the liquor burned, forcing her to feel and think once more, she set down the glass with a bump. “What the hell happened? How did he get so close to Rudy so fast?”
“Easily,” Nathan said. “The speed he moved at when we chased him, even Rudy wouldn’t have seen him coming.”
“So when did he attack you, Will?” Cyn wondered. “Before or after Rudy?”
Will sighed, dragging his fingers through his short, tight black curls. “I’ve been thinking about that. It must have been after. When I heard Rudy say he had something, I moved in toward him as we planned. I heard him make some weird noises over the phone, so maybe I was moving too fast, in too much of a rush to pay proper attention. Whatever, I didn’t see it coming either. Just a whack on the back of my head, and then you guys waking me up.”
“Why didn’t he bite Will too?” Pete wondered.
“No time,” Cyn guessed. “He’d know we were coming, didn’t want to take us all on. Which is the only comfort I get out of all of this.” She frowned. “Why Rudy?”
“He was there?” Nathan suggested.
“Yes, but his other victims were young women. Rudy is neither.”
“This guy’s a vampire,” Pete said dryly. “What makes you think he has preferences?”
“Observation,” Cyn retorted. “They all have preferences. Like humans dating, or serial killers killing, vamps tend to go for a type.”
“Tend to,” Will pointed out. “In a crisis—or a fight—they’ll take what they can get.”
“True,” Cyn allowed. “And Rudy’s an attraction to any vamp. I keep forgetting, but he’s a descendant of one of Saloman’s so-called killers back in the seventeenth century—makes his blood strong and appealing.” She rubbed her forehead. “I’m looking for reasons that are under my nose.”
“He’ll be all right, Cyn,” Pete said anxiously. “He really is a tough old dog.”
“I know that.” But he’s my tough old dog, and I can’t bear to lose him… Blinking, she looked around the bar, taking in her surroundings for the first time. Just outside the Manfred Street district, and therefore in somewhat trendier territory, in the middle of a row of bars and restaurants, the bar was big and basic, the kind that encouraged live music and a young crowd. No band tonight—although since it was three in the morning, they could have already played and gone home.
Where I should be. Some hope. She stood. “Come on. We’ve still got a job to do. We patrol the streets until dawn, then sleep. And tomorrow night, if not before, we kill this bastard.”
“Thanks for dropping in,” the barman said, following them to the door, presumably in order to lock it behind them. “Come back earlier on tomorrow and see the band. They’re awesome.” He stuck a half-size flyer into Cyn’s hand. She mumbled thanks and stuffed it in her pocket beside the stake.
Cyn insisted they stayed in pairs for the rest of the night. With a vampire this strong, it was obviously necessary. Pete and Nathan, outwardly less powerful than Will, the retired Marine she’d taken on because John Ramsay was still in Europe, nevertheless had more vampire hunting experience, so she sent them off together and kept Will with her.
She said, “He hasn’t been anywhere around here apart from the playground and that building across the street.” They stood outside the playground, gazing at the building where she’d last seen the vampire.
“He travels the roofs. You wouldn’t feel that, would you?”
Cyn walked determinedly across the road. “Not unless I was up there.” Efficiently, she picked the lock of the building’s front door with a handy tool she’d begged from a delinquent friend in her youth. “Maybe he lives here.” Her senses prickled as she walked inside, dragging her fingers along one wall. They knew he’d been here, straight through to the other side and partway up the fire escape at the back of the building. Cyn took the stairs, touching wall and banister all the way to the top. She even rode the elevator back down.
“No,” she pronounced. “Suppose it would have been too easy.”
“That’s some cool gift you have,” Will remarked, following her from the building and back across to the playground. “I don’t suppose you can teach it?”
“Unfortunately not.” Since the first pale grey of dawn was lightening the darkness, she let herself sink down onto one of the swings, much as she had in her own neighborhood twenty years ago. Under the fresh paint on the fence, she thought she could make out graffiti and wondered how often the locals had to cover it up. It said a lot that they bothered.
She swung herself with one foot. “They say I have the Ancient gene. You know? From the race that made the first purebred vampires. Some of them—the live ones—bred with humans. Apparently most humans with psychic abilities are descended from them.”
“Then you and Rudy are pretty rare people.”
Cyn smiled faintly. “I’m not so rare. Johnny Ramsay, whom you haven’t met yet, has the gene too. Some other hunters.”
“That what brought you and Rudy together?”
“No. We found ourselves fighting off a vampire together and somehow kept on doing it.”
Will straddled the swing next to hers. “You seemed a pretty odd couple when I first met you. Rudy, old and craggy and white. You, young and beautiful and black.”
Cyn waved one irritated hand. She wasn’t beautiful and had never cared. She rarely looked in a mirror. “None of that stuff matters. Only trust.”
“Sure,” Will said lazily, and Cyn thought he probably understood. The newest of their little band, he was the only other African-American. She hadn’t really thought of it until now because he’d fit right in to their mixed group of fighting misfits, along with the once podgy accountant Pete and young Nathan, the good Christian country boy in the big, bad city.
Will said, “You’re allowed to grieve, Cyn.”
Cyn shoved her hands in her jacket pocket. For the first time, she realized how cold it was. There’d be snow soon. “I won’t grieve. Rudy isn’t dead. But I’ll make sure that vampire is before he’s much older. Why does he pick on this district if his lair isn’t here?”
“Maybe it is here,” Will said, idly swinging back and forth with the movement of one foot. “And we just haven’t found it yet.”
Cyn frowned. “But that’s the weird thing, Will. I got no feel of him, no sense of him whatsoever, except here where Rudy was attacked.”
“I thought you got something from the other crime scene too.”
“Sort of, like a very distant echo…”
Will’s foot jerked as if with irritation, and his swing bumped into Cyn’s. As she grabbed the chain to keep her balance, a piece of paper sprang out of her pocket with her hand and tumbled onto the ground.
“Sorry,” Will said, leaning down to pick up the paper. It was the flyer from the bar, which appeared to be called Sound and Vision, advertising their live music. “We could do worse than ask around the local bars,” Will observed, presumably inspired by the memory. “You could do your touchy-feely thing there too.”
“Vamps like bars,” Cyn agreed, taking the flyer from him and smoothing it out on her knee. “Lots of humans too inebriated to take care of themselves. Rudy and I—”
She broke off, blinking through the pale but growing light at the flyer photo of the resident band: The Devil Fiddles. What sort of a name was that? The publicity shot showed each of the five members of the band playing their instruments with gusto—guitar, bass, keyboard, drums, violin. But it was the violinist who caught and held her gaze.
With shaven head and stony eyes glaring straight at the camera, weirdly at odds with his devilishly smiling mouth, his violin gripped against his powerful-looking neck, he had a definite distinction, an odd, fierce attraction that was clearly being used to promote the band’s name. He wore one earring, a fine chain with something indistinguishable dangling at the end. The fingers holding the bow were unnaturally pale, long and slender, and farther up, on his wrist, a splash of color implied a tattoo.
He certainly gave Cyn chills. And more: an overwhelming, sweet, guilty lust she’d hoped never to encounter again.
But it wasn’t him. It couldn’t be him. She couldn’t even analyze all the reasons she didn’t want it to be him.
She swallowed. “I think we might have identified our vampire.”