Half-Dressed Vamp Gave a Come-Hither, Toothy Smile
Visiting the Master of the City of New Orleans was always challenging, but it was worse when he was in a mood. Leo Pellissier’s and personal residence had burned to the ground not so very long ago and the rebuilding was taking longer than he thought he should have to wait. Combined with the accidental media release of the upcoming arrival of a delegation of the European Mithrans—fangheads of state to the rest of us—and making the arrangements to house and feed his unwanted guests according to their usual kingly standards, his patience was wearing thin. Any equanimity he might have pretended to was long gone.
His Regal Grumpiness had demanded my presence. Yeah. I had called him that. From a safe distance, on my official, military-grade, bullet-resistant cell phone. I’m brave and all, but I’m not stupid.
I parked the SUV I had been driving lately—one of the MOC’s, a heavily armored gas-guzzler, fitted with laminated polycarbonate glass, the stuff often called bulletproof glass—in front of the Mithran Council Chambers and ascended the stairs, checking over the changes in the building’s security arrangements. The razor wire on the brick fence around the property in the French Quarter had caused quite a stir, various injunctions, and political posturing, but the New Orleans’ Vieux Carré Commission had caved when it was pointed out to them that Leo was currently, technically, something like a head of state, or maybe a Mithran ambassador, and the property was, therefore, currently, technically, not quite U.S. territory. The political relationships between the Secret Service, the Treasury Department, the United States legal system, and vamps were murky. Congress was still debating fanghead status and whether to declare them citizens or something else. I was betting on something else as the most likely outcome. It would be cheaper than rewriting the laws to include penalties for human blood-drinking; nearly immortal vampires, who were deathly allergic to sunlight, were strong enough to tear out iron bars, fast enough to be difficult to spot on standard security cameras, and had the ability to use their stalking compulsion and their blood to enslave humans and make them want to do stuff. Like let them walk free one night from any high-security prison. It was cheaper to consider them some form of noncitizen and therefore not subject to all U.S. laws.
I was in the middle of upgrading the security of the council house from an embassy-security precaution level to White House–security precaution level, to provide super-duper protection during the EVs’ upcoming shindig. Hence the razor wire; the increased number of dynamic cameras all over, with lowlight and infrared capability; the new, top-of-the-line automatic backup generators in case of power failure; the new automatic muted lighting that was being installed along all the hallways inside; the replacement of the decorative iron-barred gate in the brick fence with an ugly, layered-iron gate that weighed a ton and could resist a dump truck filled with explosives. Just for starters. The measures I had instituted were not Draconian but they were more stringent than the historical society liked on the outside and that the vamps themselves liked on the inside. All this for the visitation that no one wanted but no one could refuse. Not even the American vamps themselves.
A lot of ordinary humans in the U.S. were unhappy about the planned—but as yet unscheduled—visit by European vampires too, and there had been death threats made against the undead, mostly by extreme right-wing religious hate groups, neo-Nazis, fascist groups, one ultraliberal group, and several homegrown jihadist groups. No one was surprised at the reactions, but security preps had to include explosive, bacterial, and chemical attacks—as in weapons of mass destruction—and electronic attack. Even the State Department was getting in on it all.
But maybe odder than anything was the question that my team at Yellowrock were all asking. Why did the European vamps want to come here anyway?
As the head of YS and one of Leo’s current part-time Enforcers, it was my job to see that the Mithran Council Chambers—aka vamp HQ, aka vamp central—was secure. Go me. His Enforcer-in-training, Derek Lee, was helping and learning the ropes, even as he was trying to adjust to being an occasional dinner for Leo. Submitting didn’t come easy to any former active-duty marine, but several things had persuaded Derek: money; he’d get to kill vamps; he’d get to play with all the toys Uncle Sam and Sam’s R & D department came up with; his men would have constant employment. But there was something bigger too. Derek’s mother had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, and Leo had agreed to feed her his blood to help her heal. Family was more important than pride to Derek. More important than anything else.
It was an uneasy alliance just yet, made worse when Derek’s men had razzed him about the new job as Enforcer requiring him to provide blood-meals for Leo. But the men were settling in as semipermanent security, and most of them had found a vamp to feed. Vamps were hard to resist when they turned on the charm and the compulsion, and even marines had their limits when a gorgeous, half-dressed vamp gave a come-hither, toothy smile.
I went through the security precautions at the council house door, relinquished my weapons, and was led through the building by Wrassler, to Leo, who was clearly not in his office, since we went down the elevator, not up the stairs. I’d known Wrassler long enough to expect an honest answer when I asked, “How’s Leo?”
Wrassler—nicknamed so because he would make a professional wrestler look puny—rubbed a hand over his pate. It needed a shave and his palm made a rasping sound on the bristles. “He broke a lamp after you hung up on him.” I laughed and Wrassler added, his tone mild, “An original Tiffany worth over thirty thousand dollars.”
I stopped laughing. “Ouch.”
“Mmmm. His Mercy Blade was out of touch for an hour, and Leo needed to blow off some steam without killing anybody, so I invited Brian and Brandon to spar with him. Thanks to them, you’ll get to sit this one out and watch, rather than fight him when he’s annoyed.” Wrassler looked down at me from his several inches of height and said, “It ain’t pretty.”
And it wasn’t. The hot smell of sweat and blood hit me when I entered the small gymnasium and fighting rings, and my Beast perked up at the scent, interested. Brian and Brandon were Onorios, two of three in the entire U.S. They were faster than humans, had better healing abilities than humans, and probably had other mad skills and abilities that I didn’t know about yet. The rarity meant that few people knew what they were truly capable of or what their full abilities were. But it sure wasn’t besting a ticked-off master vamp in full-on kill mode.
Leo was barefooted, wearing black gi pants of a style I’d see him fight in before, his upper body bare and smeared with blood that hid most of his white scars, his black hair plaited flat to his head, except for loose strands flying as he moved. He was vamped out, his three-inch-long fangs clicked down and his pupils black in scarlet sclera. Despite the vampy-ness, he looked in control. Barely. Drawing on my skinwalker abilities, I took a sniff to determine the pheromone level of his anger and aggression.
One of the twins was out, facedown, lying off the fighting mat, his chest rising and falling, so, still alive. The other twin was in play, but his face looked like he’d been used as a punching bag. Which he had been. There was blood all over his white gi, the cloth hiding bruises and torn flesh between the fang rents. The sounds of thuds and slaps and grunts resounded on the air, echoing brightly through the open space. The standing twin spun away and hit the wall. I felt the impact through the floor and my Lucchese boot soles. He slid down the wall, leaving a bloody smear on the painted cement block.
“This isn’t good,” Wrassler murmured to me. “The two of them should have been able to hold their own against him.”
“Hmmm. Who else did you call?” I asked softly, as Leo screamed his triumph into the room, fists raised to the ceiling. My Beast peeked out and purred, and I shoved her down. This not the time, I thought at her.
“Grégoire. He’s on the way.” Wrassler checked his cell. “And Gee DiMercy should be here any minute.”
On his words, Gee DiMercy, Clan Pellissier’s Mercy Blade, walked through the door on the far side of the room. “Hallelujah, Holy Moses,” Wrassler murmured beneath his breath. It was a Southern Bible Belt phrase uttered by people in a certain age group, and though Wrassler looked too young to use it, he drank vamp blood, so he didn’t look his age, whatever it was.
“Your gramma say that?” I asked, as I watched Girrard DiMercy from a safe distance. The Mercy Blade was dressed in tight black pants and a billowing royal blue shirt, and he carried twin flat blades, both long swords with hand-and-a-half hilts for one- or two-hand fighting. His hair was back in a queue, tied with a narrow black band. The first time I’d seen him fight, he’d been saving my butt, and I hadn’t had time to admire his technique. Leo was focused on the approaching man, arms out, hands and talons ready, shoulders tensed, motionless as a crouching predator. Unbreathing, in that statute-still way of the vamps. Funnn, Beast murmured.
“Used to,” Wrassler murmured. “My mama. My daddy.” He added, his tone mesmerized, “Me.”
When he was twelve feet away, the Mercy Blade tossed Leo a blade, the overhead lights glittering on the steel edge. The vamp leaped high and whipped it out of the air, but the small swordsman was already moving. His blade left a long cut on Leo’s side. The Master of the City landed on the balls of his feet and slid away before the blade could bite deep, but his blood flowed fast from the slice.
Beside me, Wrassler tapped the mouthpiece of his headset and called for blood-servants to join him in the gym, his voice soft but demanding. Yeah. No matter what was going on, Leo was gonna be hungry; it would be wise to have donors on hand.
On the mat, the men danced with the swords, their bodies moving with deadly grace. Scarlet droplets flew on the air, the clang of steel so bright and sharp it hurt my eardrums. It was probably stupid, but I walked closer to get a better view.
The stench of pheromones increased and I rubbed a wrist on my nose to keep from sneezing. It was potent and heady, with the reek of violence and an underlying hint of wet feathers from the Mercy Blade and of raw power from Leo. But I’d smelled Leo fighting both ways: out of control and using his anger to power his vamp gifts. The difference was negligible, but it was there. Out-of-control Leo stank, an acrid taint on the air, tart as a rotten lemon. This was the other fighting scent. A show, controlled and planned, no matter how out of control and bloody it looked, no matter how bloody it was.
The fighters pirouetted away and back, the swords so fast they were a blur of light on steel and the clash of menace. Inside, Beast chuffed with delight. Down, girl, I thought at her. We’re not here to get sliced and diced. She huffed and turned her head away from me—a pointed insult.
The men on the mat locked blades and Gee grabbed Leo’s wrist, sticking out a leg and shoving his master across it. Leo landed with a thump. The point of Gee’s blade nicked Leo’s throat. The others in the room went silent, not even the sound of breathing echoing off the bare, white walls.
I lifted my hands and clapped, the sound slow enough to pass for bored. “Onorios heal fast. So do Mercy Blades. But it was a pretty show, boys.”
Leo kipped to his feet, actually breathing now, from the exertion. Off the mat, the twins rolled over, groaning, gasping, and smelling of pain. One of them cursed under his breath about the need for realism being “effing painful.” Gee DiMercy chuckled softly. “Indeed, you are a bruised mess, dear boy.” To me he asked, “And how did you know this was all a play, little goddess?”
Studying Leo, I tapped my nose and then tucked my fingers in my jeans pockets. “You smell different.”
Leo blew off his irritation and looked up at a blast of air from the door. He said something in French, and Grégoire, standing there, said something back. There was a time when I’d wanted to learn Chinese. Now I’d give a bundle to be able to speak French, even though I was betting Leo and his best boy-pal, sparring partner, combat comrade, and probably lover, were rattling off in some archaic form of the language that no human alive today could understand. Leo and Grégoire had both learned the language centuries ago, and languages evolve faster than most people think.
The two vamps helped each of the twins rise, and gave them sips of their own blood to drink to speed the healing. It was a little too much PDA for me, all the lips and teeth and tongues and bare skin, but then, I’m a prude by most standards, even by the cultural criterion of the Cherokee of the eighteen hundreds. I know that for certain because I was alive back then. Cherokee skinwalkers live a long time. And then we go insane and eat people. Go figure. I guess everything has a price.
“Will others discern that we do not fight in a rage?” Grégoire asked.
“I did warn you she would not be easy to dupe,” Gee DiMercy said. He was cleaning his blade as he walked, head down, a soft cloth that looked like silk on one side and chamois on the other stroking the blade in a hypnotic rhythm.
Answering Grégoire, I said, “Probably.” And then asked, “What others?” as I followed the vamps to the door where I had entered.
“The European Mithrans,” Brandon said. He balled up the hem of his torn gi top and wiped his chest. Grégoire’s eyes followed the action with a look that spoke of hunger, and not just blood-hunger. I was pretty sure Grégoire was poly-sexual. Or maybe pansexual. I wasn’t sure whether they were different and didn’t really want to know. That whole prude thing again.
“And you want them to think you’re fighting mad for what reason?” I asked as we pushed into the hallway.
“For les demonstrations,” Grégoire said. “So as to lull them into thinking they can defeat us, of course.” Which made no sense until he added, “They will challenge us to les Duels Sang, no?” His tone was excessively patient, the way an adult sounds explaining something to a three-year-old who’s been asking “Why?” all day long.
Duels Sang. Sang meant “blood” in French. They were training for Blood Challenges, the totally legal duels that established place and importance and right to rule. And were sometimes fights to the death. “Oh,” I said. Then I realized that likely meant me too. “Oh. Well, dang.”
Grégoire laughed again, the sound not unkind. “You will fight wonderfully, little cat. I have seen you.”
“Take Jane to my office,” Leo said to Wrassler. “See that a small repast is prepared and brought up maintenant. We will see to our toilette and join you.”
“Twa-let?” I asked when the males had entered the locker room set aside for bigwigs, and we were alone, heading to the elevator. “Like a French potty? One of those bidets?”
“He meant hot showers,” Wrassler said, “changing clothes. Healing wounds,” he finished, with a particular emphasis.
I nodded, pursing my lips. Hanky-panky. Gotcha. Well, at least they’d let me have food while I waited. Though I had to wonder how long the healing wounds would take. I only had all night, and mant’non could mean anything.
The elevator doors closed behind Wrassler and me. In the past, to reach most of the lower floors, a passenger had to swipe a security card. Now Wrassler rested his palm flat on an open plastic boxlike thing for his handprint to be read. I had implemented the security upgrades, but I’d wanted either retinal-scan devices or units that required a body-temp handprint, displaying adequate blood flow for life, to prevent anyone from cutting off the hand of an employee and using it to get around. Unfortunately, vamps didn’t have remotely human retinas, nor did they show signs of life as measured by a biometric screen, so I’d had to take the chance that no one would try an amputation. The system I had settled for recognized and stored all human employee and vamp handprints and gave the passenger the rights to access only specific floors. There were restrictions for most humans, and—because Leo couldn’t bind me like he wanted—that included me.
I had right of entry via the usual button control panel, to all the normal floors, but none of my measures had gotten me onto any of the mystery floors. Until now. The elevator started going down. “Uh, Wrassler? I thought we were supposed to be going up to Leo’s office. Why are we going down?”
A small explosion of breath escaped Wrassler and he looked up at the display in shock, his face going paper-white. “I don’t know, Janie. Something ain’t right.”
“How many subbasements are there?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said again, which was a surprise. “I think five. But I’ve never been down all the way before.” His face looked pale in the bluish light, and his sweat suddenly smelled of worry, which was odd. Wrassler topped my six feet and probably weighed in at 350, all of it hard muscle. He could take being rammed by a rhino and not even look ruffled. Something about his stance and expression made me pull my weapons. A silver stake from my bun and a small throwing knife from my boot. They weren’t much, but they were all I’d been able to conceal past the new security guys. The last crew woulda caught me out in an instant, but the new rotation was not quite up to their level of awareness. Yet.
Beside me, Wrassler also pulled a weapon. It was a handgun—or a small canon; take your pick—the five-round Taurus Judge model .45/.410. It was capable of chambering both Colt .45 ammo and .410, two-and-a-half-inch shotshell ammo. The ammo would punch a hole through a pine tree. Wrassler’s gun had been fitted with a fiber-optic sight, and he held it steady as the doors opened to a storage room. His shoulders relaxed and he holstered his weapon as he repalmed his print, and hit the floor button. The doors closed.
I put away my weapons, analyzing the floor I’d seen. The room had been full of cardboard boxes and old, metal-covered, hump-backed steamer chests, the kind that actually went on steamships and were full of rich people’s clothes. Or maybe on sailing ships, long before steam. It also contained lots of old books on shelves. And paintings. One or two had been in Leo’s home before it burned to the ground. Or maybe in Grégoire’s home. I couldn’t remember, but they were familiar. In one painting, I recognized the spotted fur on the lapel of a man wearing tights and poufy drawers and buckled shoes. Sitting at his feet were three beautiful vamps. One was Grégoire; the other boy and girl were unfamiliar, though all three wore period clothing like the vamp who stood over them. They also wore jewelry, Grégoire a red-stoned ring, the girl a delicate bracelet, and the dark-haired boy a necklace of a bird in flight, set with blue stones.
In another painting was Leo and another vamp, Leo’s predecessor, his uncle Amaury Pellissier. And then there had been the painting of Adrianna and a female vamp in clothing from the eighteen hundreds. Adrianna had tried to kill me on several occasions. Next time I saw her, her head was mine.
“Wrassler? Why’d we draw our weapons on a storeroom?”
Wrassler didn’t look at me when he answered. “Elevator’s been acting up all week. Taking us to the wrong floors. And there’ve been stories. Tales. For years. About a dark floor. Boo stuff.” Which I translated as stuff that went boo and made you jump in fear.
“Okaaay.” The elevator was rising again, and his scent now smelled of relief and the breakdown products of adrenaline. “So we’re good?”
Wrassler nodded, still not meeting my eyes.
“You know . . . Really. I need to see all the lower levels and all the access stairwells to determine the security needs. And I need admittance to them in advance of the Euro vamps’ visit.”
Wrassler pursed his lips as if holding in a comment. We’d discussed this before, and Wrassler had orders from Leo to keep me on the upper floors and the gym level. Leo was being stubborn, which meant that Leo had things to hide. I shook my head and looked from the conflicted blood-servant to the doors with proper elevator etiquette.
“This is essential, Wrassler. You know it is.”
When the elevator stopped again, it opened to the correct floor and we stepped out. I flipped open my fancy cell phone in its upmarket, Kevlar-topped carrying case and hit the number for home. The Kid answered, “YS,” pronouncing it Wise Ass, which he could do without a head slap because of the distance between us.
“Funny. Can you dial in to the elevator system at vamp HQ?”
“It’s not on the communal system, but Eli wired it during the upgrades. Why?”
No one had mentioned wiring the elevator to me, but we could deal with that later. In private. “The main elevator’s been taking people to the wrong floor. Get in and take a look-see, digitally and any other way you can figure out. If you can’t find anything, we need to get the Otis people in here, pronto.”
“The elevator repair company.”
I closed the cell. If Eli’s unauthorized wiring had caused these problems, I might be in a world of hurt. Literally. But until I had proof that YS had caused the problems, I’d keep my worries to myself.
The small repast in Leo’s office was not small. By the time the waiters—wearing new liveries of black tuxedoes and white gloves—were done delivering food, setting it up to look pretty, and telling us what everything was, I was starving. There was a ten-pound bison roast on the center of the tea table, a copper tray of roasted, stuffed quail, a tray of cheeses, and one of fruit. There were also several bottles of wine—the dusty kind, with dry, curling labels that practically screamed expensive. Things were changing at vamp central and—with the exception of the varieties of meat—I wasn’t sure I liked all the hoity-toity alterations. Something about it set my dander up, as one of my housemothers used to say. “Why all the new duds?”
Wrassler explained while I loaded up a plate. “Leo will be moving into his new clan home, and with the Europeans coming, he wants the serving staff trained to present food and drink in the Continental manner, both here and there, for as long as the Mithran guests stay. Everything is to be perfect.”
He sounded worried and I had a feeling that the last line was a direct quote from Leo. Thinking, I plopped down in an upholstered chair and put my Lucchese-booted feet up on the coffee table. The boots, a gift from Leo, had been damaged the first time I wore them, and Leo had handled the repairs or replacement. I never asked which. They were gorgeous, and having them on the table was perfect for what I wanted to say. “Leo never read The Taming of the Shrew, did he?” I propped my plate on my flat belly and took a long slurp of wine. It tasted like, well, like wine. I grimaced and set the elegant crystal goblet aside. “Got any beer? That stuff is vile. It dries out my mouth.”
Wrassler pressed a button on the oversized desk. “Ask Quesnel for an assortment of beer, please,” he said. When he stood straight, he studied my posture. “Taming of the Shrew? You read Shakespeare?”
I lifted a leg, holding up a boot—black leather with green leaves and gold mountain lions embossed on the shafts. They were hand-constructed, hand-tooled, hand-stitched, hand-everything Lucchese Classics that sold for around three thousand bucks a pair. But they did not belong on a table. I crossed my ankles and set them back on the table.
“Past tense.” I chewed a bite of quail that simply exploded in my mouth with spicy, bacony, wild-bird flavor. “Holy crap,” I said around the mouthful of quail and bacon and some tiny little grain. “This is good.” It was also greasy and bony. I pulled a small bone from my mouth and dropped it on the plate with a piercing, crystal tinkle before licking my fingers. “In high school. For a while I thought I might like to go college. Turned out there wasn’t money in the children’s home budget for a kid whose grades were only a little above average. Anyway, before I figured that out, I took some courses. The story’s based on the concept that if you try to please someone, they’ll only turn on you and look down on you. But if you act like a barbarian—”
“Like the one licking her fingers right now?”
“—then the fancy schmancy folk won’t know how to act and you’ll win by default of not doing the expected thing.”
“I don’t think Leo will go for that, Janie.”
Behind him, the door opened and one of the penguins entered, carrying a tray of cool bottles. Not cold the way we serve them here in the U.S., but cool, the way they serve beer in Europe, the temp of a root cellar. Ick. But I popped the top and drank half of an Einbecker Ur-Bock. “He’ll never impress the EuroVamps. He’ll have to kill them all or prove he’s something different—more modern and newer than they are. Whatever. But not better at being what they are. Won’t happen no matter how hard he tries.”
Wrassler said a low “Hmmm” as I finished off the quail and started on the bison, picking the meat up with my fingers. I had noted the number of chairs in the small but opulent office, and figured that if I didn’t get my fill now, I might not get anything. It looked like a much bigger meeting than usual, and I had to wonder why we weren’t in the security conference room.
By the time my plate was empty, the men entered, smelling of various colognes and scented soaps and aftershaves. And endorphins. Yeah, they’d gotten happy.
They stopped in the foyer of the office proper, clustered in a fanghead/blood-meal group, and stared at me in what smelled like shock. I grinned up at them and licked my fingers again.
“Little Janie has suggested that we act the Petruchio to the Europeans’ Kate Minola,” Wrassler said, his voice toneless but his eyes dancing as he took in their reactions to my lazy sprawl. “American barbarians.”
Leo tilted his head, studying me, and he did that single-eyebrow-quirk thing that was so classy and that I totally could not do. I’d tried. In that moment he looked completely human, if a bit like he’d stepped out of the pages of a historical novel. He was wearing a shirt with draping sleeves and a round collar that tied at the throat, the ties hanging open. High-heeled leather boots went to his knees, with a pair of nubby silky pants tucked into them. Except for the boots, I’d seen him wear this outfit before. Either he had a dozen of them or he was wearing this pair out. I saluted the group with my beer and slurped, watching them.
Leo chuckled, his eyes crinkling up at the corners. When he laughed, he looked so normal, so human. It was uncanny and kinda scary that one of the most dangerous nonhumans I knew could appear so ordinary. He crossed the office proper and took up my deserted glass of wine. He drank deeply, his eyes still on me over the rim. “Barbarians, eh?”
“And tech experts. Modern people. Just a suggestion,” I said, and sucked the rest of the beer out of the bottle with one long, low-class glug. “So. Wha’s up, dudes?”
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New York Times bestselling author Faith Hunter writes dark urban fantasy and paranormal thrillers, including the Skinwalker series, featuring rogue-vampire hunter Jane Yellowrock, and the Rogue Mage series, a post-apocalyptic, alternate reality series, featuring Thorn St. Croix, a stone mage. She has a new series under wraps.