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 past 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 was get home to Nikki. They'd been apart for nearly three weeks, and it felt like an eternity.
After living alone for over three hundred 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. He 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 just 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. A ransom demand appeared. 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; most vampires didn't like sharing their meals. Yet it didn't really explain the anger he could feel pouring off 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 upset--and they'd tackled some pretty tough cases in their time.
The bastards mutilated her. They shaved off her hair, pulled out all her nails, cut up her face and slit her nose. And removed her breasts for good measure . . .
Her voice faded, but her anger remained, sizzling his mind with its heat.
Obviously, they weren't dealing with just vampires, but vampires with some serious psychological problems. So, basically, they destroyed her self-image before they killed her. Or, at least, took away practically everything that defined her as a woman.
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.
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 as 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 and her grandmother always work together. I really don't think she's the best choice . . .
And I really don't care what you think of her personally. She is the best choice for the case, and she lives in San Francisco.
He bit down on his irritation. He knew it came from exhaustion more than any real annoyance. Is she there at the moment?
Seline hesitated. No, but I can pull her off the other case easily 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 don't have 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 it, things always went wrong. And more often than not, the bait became the victim. As annoying as Kat could be, he didn't want to see her dead. Where are we staying in San Francisco?
The three kidnappings happened within a two-block radius, and the third victim was taken from the Diamond Grand. 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 also attended that benefit, which is why I want 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 sure how.
So how did the thieves get past security?
No one knows. They disappeared just as easily, as well.
What about the security tapes? Have 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. The people behind the theft and the kidnappings aren't getting in by any ordinary means.
If vampires were behind all this, then all it took was one employee under their control to leave a window open, and they could enter 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 biker leathers and motorcycle helmets, so their faces were hidden. But she did say there was one maker and five loop members.
Which suggested not only that the head vampire was gay, but also that he liked more than one partner--though five was taking it a bit far. Even Elizabeth--the woman who'd made him a vampire--at her worst had only four lovers at any one time--and they were never created at the same time. Controlling a single fledgling was often difficult. Dealing with a loop of them would be overwhelming.
Did she sense anything else?
Only that she thinks robbery was not the true motivation. The loop's creator was skimming the minds of the women there.
That could mean he had a definite target, and that the robbery was little more than a means of collecting information. What are 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 would be more bodies. Three women weren't likely to satisfy 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 to his driveway. He shifted toward the door, half tempted to tell the driver to stop here so that he could get out and run. The need to hold Nikki--to breathe in the rich scent of her--had become so strong that 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 to start any rumors that might eventually force him to move.
His house came into view--a large, rambling cabin half hidden by 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 images. All I can feel is hate.
That seems obvious, given 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 hung in the air. He switched to the infrared of his vampire vision and scanned the house. There was no life anywhere inside.
Concern knifed through him. Nikki had 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 bright baubles hung off every branch, glittering faintly in the moonlight streaming in through the windows.
Don't expect her to be the good little wife waiting meekly for you to come home, Seline continued.
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 she's used to working. With the agency temporarily closed down, and 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, feeling 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 years of existence, I thought you'd have learned something about women by now.
I have--that the old ones can be damn irritating sometimes. He walked into the kitchen. Various Santas danced around the edges of his refrigerator door, but there were no notes. On the table were several unopened envelopes and a half-finished Christmas wreath.
Michael, if you really want this relationship to last, you'd better start thinking a little more clearly.
He frowned and headed for the stairs. What do you mean?
Seline sighed again. Have you even discussed the future with her?
He'd known Seline 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.