Blood Price (Vicki Nelson #1)

Chapter 2

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He lifted her arm and ran his tongue down the soft flesh on the inside of her wrist. She moaned, head back, breath coming in labored gasps.

Almost.

He watched her closely and when she began to go into the final climb, when her body began to arch under his, he took the small pulsing vein at the base of her thumb between the sharp points of his teeth and bit down. The slight pain was for her just one more sensation added to a system already overloaded and while she rode the waves of her orgasm, he drank.

They finished at much the same time.

He reached up and gently pushed a strand of damp mahogany hair off her face. "Thank you," he said softly.

"No, thank you, " she murmured, capturing his hand and placing a kiss on the palm.

They lay quietly for a time; she drifting in and out of sleep, he tracing light patterns on the soft curves of her breasts, his fingertip following the blue lines of veins beneath the white skin. Now that he'd fed, they no longer drove him to distraction. When he was sure that the coagulant in his saliva had taken effect, and the tiny wound on her wrist would bleed no more, he untangled his legs from hers and padded to the bathroom to clean up.

She roused while he was dressing.

"Henry?"

"I'm still here, Caroline."

"Now. But you're leaving."

"I have work to do." He pulled a sweater over his head and emerged, blinking in the sudden light from the bedside lamp. Long years of practice kept him from recoiling, but he turned his back to give his sensitive eyes a chance to recover.

"Why can't you work in the daytime, like a normal person," Caroline protested, pulling the comforter up from the foot of the bed and snuggling down under it. "Then you'd have your nights free for me."

He smiled and replied truthfully, "I can't think in the daytime."                                       '                                

"Writers," she sighed.                                                

"Writers," he agreed, bending over and kissing her on the nose. "We're a breed apart."

"Will you call me?"

"As soon as I have the time."

"Men!"

He reached over and snapped off the lamp. "That, too." Deftly avoiding her groping hands, he kissed her good-bye and padded silently out of the bedroom and through the dark apartment. Behind him, he heard her breathing change and knew she slept. Usually, she fell asleep right after they finished, never knowing when he left. It was one of the things he liked best about her, for it meant they seldom had awkward arguments about whether he'd be staying the night.

Retrieving his coat and boots, he let himself out of the apartment, one ear cocked for the sound of the dead bolt snapping home. In many ways, this was the safest time he'd ever lived in. In others, the most dangerous.

Caroline had no suspicion of what he actually was. For her, he was no more than a pleasant interlude, an infrequent companion, sex without guilt. He hadn't even had to work very hard to have it turn out that way.

He frowned at his reflection on the elevator doors. "I want more." The disquiet had been growing for some time, prodding at him, giving him little peace. Feeding had helped ease it but not enough. Choking back a cry of frustration, he whirled and slammed his palm against the plastic wall. The blow sounded like a gunshot in the enclosed space and Henry stared at the pattern of cracks radiating out from under his hand. His palm stung, but the violence seemed to have dulled the point of the disquiet.

No one waited in the lobby to investigate the noise and Henry left the building in an almost jaunty mood.

It was cold out on the street. He tucked his scarf a little more securely around his throat and turned his collar up. His nature made him less susceptible to weather than most, but he still had no liking for a cold wind finding its way down his back. With the bottom of his leather trench coat flapping about his legs, he made his way down the short block to Bloor, turned east, and headed home.

Although it was nearly one o'clock on a Thursday morning, and spring seemed to have decided to make a very late appearance this year, the streets were not yet empty. Traffic still moved steadily along the city's east/west axis and the closer Henry got to Yonge and Bloor, the city's main intersection, the more people he passed on the sidewalk. It was one of the things he liked best about this part of the city, the fact that it never really slept, and it was why he had his home as close to it as he could get. Two blocks past Yonge, he turned into a circular drive and followed the curve around to the door of his building.

In his time, he had lived in castles of every description, a fair number of very private country estates, and even a crypt or two when times were bad, but it had been centuries since he'd had a home that suited him as well as the condominium he'd bought in the heart of Toronto.

"Good evening, Mr. Fitzroy."

"Evening, Greg. Anything happening?"

The security guard smiled and reached for the door release. "Quiet as a tomb, sir."

Henry Fitzroy raised one red-gold eyebrow but waited until he had the door open and the buzzer had ceased its electronic flatulence before asking, "And how would you know?"

Greg grinned. "Used to be a guard at Mount Pleasant Cemetery."

Henry shook his head and smiled as well. "I should've known you'd have an answer."

"Yes, sir, you should've. Good night, sir."

The heavy glass door closed off any further conversation, so as Greg picked up his newspaper Henry waved a silent good night and turned toward the elevators. Then he stopped. And turned back to face the glass.

"VAMPIRE STALKS CITY"

Lips moving as he read, Greg laid the paper flat on his desk, hiding the headline.

His world narrowed to three words, Henry shoved the door open.

"You forget something, Mr. Fitzroy?"

"Your paper. Let me see it."

Startled by the tone but responding to the command, Greg pushed the paper forward until Henry snatched it out from under his hands.

'"VAMPIRE STALKS CITY"

Slowly, making no sudden movements, Greg slid his chair back, putting as much distance as possible between himself and the man on the other side of the desk. He wasn't sure why, but in sixty-three years and two wars, he'd never seen an expression like the one Henry Fitzroy now wore. And he hoped he'd never see it again, for the anger was more than human anger and the terror it invoked more than human spirit could stand.

Please, God, don't let him turn it on me…

The minutes stretched and paper tore under tightening fingers.

"Uh, Mr. Fitzroy …"

Hazel eyes, like frozen smoke, lifted from their reading. Held by their intensity, the trembling security guard had to swallow once, twice, before he could finish.

"… you can, uh, keep the paper."

The fear in Greg's voice penetrated through the rage. There was danger in fear. Henry found the carefully constructed civilized veneer that he wore over the predator and forced it back on. "I hate this kind of sensationalism!" He slapped the paper down on the desk.

Greg jumped and his chair hit the back wall, ending retreat.

"This playing on the fears of the public is irresponsible journalism." Henry sighed and covered the anger with a patina of weary annoyance. Four hundred and fifty years of practice made the false face believable regardless of how uncomfortable the fit had grown lately. "They make us all look bad."

Greg sighed in turn and wiped damp palms on his thighs, snatching at the explanation. "I guess writers are kind of sensitive about that," he offered.

"Some of us," Henry agreed. "You sure about the paper? That I can keep it?"

"No problem, Mr. Fitzroy. I checked the hockey scores first thing." His mind had already begun to dull what he had seen, adding rationalizations that made it possible, that made it bearable, but he didn't slide his chair back to the desk until the elevator door had closed and the indicator light had begun to climb.

Muscles knotted with the effort of standing still, Henry concentrated on breathing, on controlling the rage rather than allowing it to control him. In this age his kind survived by blending in, and he'd made a potentially fatal mistake by letting his reaction to the headline show. Allowing his true nature to emerge in the privacy of an empty elevator could do little harm, but doing so before a mortal witness was quite another matter. Not that he expected Greg to suddenly start pointing his finger and screaming vampire…

Helping to dampen the rage was the guilt he felt at terrifying the old man. He liked Greg; in this world of equality and democracy it was good to meet a man willing to serve. The attitude reminded him of the men who'd worked on the estate when he was a boy and took him back, for a little while at least, to a simpler time.

Barriers firmly in place, he got off the elevator at the fourteenth floor, holding the door so Mrs. Hughes and her mastiff could get on. The big dog walked past him stiff-legged, the hairs on the back of his neck up, and a growl rumbling deep in his throat. As always, Mrs. Hughes made apologetic sounds.

"I really don't understand this, Mr. Fitzroy. Owen is usually such a sweet dog. He never… Owen!"

The mastiff, trembling with the desire to attack, settled for maneuvering his huge body between his owner and the man in the door, putting as much distance as possible between her and the perceived threat.

"Don't worry about it, Mrs. Hughes." Henry removed his hand and the door began to slide closed. "You can't expect Owen to like everybody." Just before the door shut completely, he smiled down at the dog. The mastiff recognized the baring of teeth for what it was and lunged. Henry managed a slightly more honest smile as the frantic barks faded down toward the lobby.

Ten minutes alone with the dog and they could settle what stood between them. Pack law was simple, the strongest ruled. But Owen always traveled with Mrs. Hughes and Henry doubted Mrs. Hughes would understand. As he had no wish to alienate his neighbor, he put up with the mastiff's animosity. It was a pity. He liked dogs and it would take so little to put Owen in his place-Once in the condo, with the door safely closed behind him, he looked at the paper again and snarled.

"VAMPIRE STALKS CITY."

The bodies of Terri Neal and DeVerne Jones had been found drained of blood.

The headline appeared to be accurate.

And he knew he wasn't doing it.

With a sudden snap of his wrist he flung the paper across the room and took a minor satisfaction in watching the pages flutter to the floor like wounded birds.

"Damn. Damn. DAMN!"

Crossing to the window, he shrugged out of his coat and tossed it on the couch, then yanked back the curtains that blocked the city from view. Vampires were a solitary breed, not seeking each other out nor keeping track of where their brothers and sisters roamed. Although he suspected he shared his territory with others of his kind, there could be a score moving, living, feeding among the patterns of light and shadow that made up the night and Henry would be no more aware of it than the people they moved among.

And worse, if the killer was a vampire, it was a child, one of the newly changed, for only the newly changed needed blood in such amounts and would kill with such brutal abandon.

"Not one of mine," he said to the night, his forehead resting against the cool glass. It was as much a prayer as a statement. Everyone of his kind feared that they would turn loose just such a monster, an accidental child, an accidental change. But he'd been careful; never feeding again until the blood had had a chance to renew, never taking the risk that his blood could be passed back. He would have a child someday, but it would change by choice as he had done and he would be there to guide it, to keep it safe.

No, not one of his. But he could not let it continue to terrorize the city. Fear had not changed over the centuries, nor had people's reactions to it and a terrorized city could quickly bring out the torches and sharpened stakes… or the twentieth century laboratory equivalent.

"And I no more want to be strapped to a table for the rest of my life than to have my head removed and my mouth stuffed with garlic," he told the night.

He would have to find the child, before the police did and their answer raised more questions than it solved. Find the child and destroy it, for without a blood bond he could not control it.

"And then," he raised his head and bared his teeth, "I will find the parent."

"Morning, Mrs. Kopolous."

"Hello, darling, you're up early."

"I couldn't sleep," Vicki told her, making her way to the back of the store where the refrigerators hummed, "and I was out of milk."

"Get the bags, they're on sale."

"I don't like the bags." Out of the corner of one eye she saw Mrs. Kopolous expressing a silent and not very favorable opinion of her unwillingness to save forty-nine cents. She grabbed a jug and brought it back to the counter. "Papers not out yet?"

"Yeah, yeah, they're right here, dear." She bent over the bundles, her stocky body hiding the headlines. When she straightened, she slapped one copy of each morning paper down by the cash register.

"SABERS DOWN LEAFS 10-2."

Vicki let out a lungful of air she hadn't known she was holding. If the tabloid made no mention of another murder-besides the slaughter in the division play-offs-it looked like the city had made it safely through the night.

"Those terrible things, you're mixed up in them, aren't you?"

"What terrible things, Mrs. Kopolous?" She scooped up her change, then put it back and grabbed an Easter cream egg instead. What the hell, there was reason to celebrate.

Mrs. Kopolous shook her head, but whether it was at the egg or life in general, Vicki couldn't tell. "You're making faces at the paper like you did when those little girls were killed."

"That was two years ago!" Two years and a lifetime.

"I remember two years. But this time it's not for you to get involved with, these things sucking blood." The register drawer slammed shut with unnecessary force. "This time it's unclean."

"It's never been clean, " Vicki protested, tucking the papers under her arm.

"You know what I mean."

The tone left no room for argument. "Yeah. I know what you mean." She turned to go, paused, and turned back to the counter. "Mrs. Kopolous, do you believe in vampires?"

The older woman waved an expressive hand. "I don't not believe," she said, her brows drawn down for emphasis. "There are more things in heaven and earth… "

Vicki smiled. "Shakespeare?"

Her expression didn't soften. "Just because it came from a poet, doesn't make it less true."

When Vicki got back to her apartment building, a three-story brownstone in the heart of Chinatown, it was 7:14 and the neighborhood was just beginning to wake up. She considered going for a run, before the carbon monoxide levels rose, but decided against it when an experimental breath plumed in the air. Spring might have officially arrived, but it'd be time enough to start running when the temperature reflected the season. Taking the stairs two at a time, she thanked the lucky genetic combination that gave her a jock's body with a minimum amount of maintenance. Although at thirty-one who knew how much longer that would last…

Minor twinges of guilt sent her through a free weight routine while she listened to the 7:30 news.

By 8:28 she'd skimmed all three newspapers, drunk a pot and a half of tea, and readied the Foo Chan invoice for mailing. Tilting her chair back, she scrubbed at her glasses and let her world narrow into a circle of stucco ceiling. More things in heaven and earth…. She didn't know if she believed in vampires, but she definitely believed in her own senses, even if one of them had become less than reliable of late. Something strange had been down that tunnel, and nothing human could have struck that blow. A phrase from Wednesday's newspaper article kept running through her head: A source in the Coroner's Office reports that the bodies of Terri Neal and DeVerne Jones had been drained of blood. She knew it was none of her business…

Brandon Singh had always been at his desk at the Coroner's Office every morning at 8:30. He had a cup of tea and a bagel and was, until about 8:45, perfectly approachable.

Although she no longer had any sort of an official position to call from, coroners were government appointments and she was still a taxpayer. She reached for her address book. Hell, after Celluci how bad could it be?

"Dr. Singh, please. Yes, I'll hold." Why do they ask? Vicki wondered, shoving at her glasses with her free hand. It's not like you have a choice.

"Dr. Singh here."

"Brandon? It's Vicki Nelson."

His weighty Oxford accent-his telephone voice- lightened. "Victoria? Good to hear from you. Been keeping busy since you left the force?"

"Pretty busy," she admitted, swinging her feet up on a corner of the desk. Dr. Brandon Singh was the only person since the death of her maternal grandmother back in the seventies to call her Victoria. She'd never been able to decide whether it was old-world charm or sheer perversity as he knew full well how much she disliked hearing her full name. "I've started my own investigations company."

"I had heard a rumor to that effect, yes. But rumor … " In her mind's eye, Vicki could see his long surgeon's hands cutting through the air.  "… rumor also had you stone blind and selling pencils on a street corner."

"Not. Quite." Anger leached the life from her voice.

Brandon's voice warmed in contrast.  "Victoria, I am sorry. You know I'm not a tactful man, never had much chance to develop a bedside manner… " It was an old joke, going back to their first meeting over the autopsy of a well-known drug pusher. "Now then," he paused for a swallow of liquid, the sound a discreet distance from the receiver, "what can I do for you?"

Vicki had never found Brandon's habit of getting right to the point with a minimum of small talk disconcerting and she appreciated him never demanding tact when he wouldn't give it. Don't waste my time, I'm a busy man, set the tone for every conversation he had. "That article in yesterday's paper, the blood loss in Neal and Jones, was it true?"

The more formal syntax returned. "I hadn't realized you were involved in the case?"

"I'm not, exactly. But I found the first body."

"Tell me."

So she did; information exchange was the coin of favors among city employees even if she no longer exactly qualified.

"And in your professional opinion?" Brandon asked when she finished, his voice carefully neutral.

"In my professional opinion," Vicki echoed both words and tone, "based on three years in homicide, I haven't got a clue what could have caused the wound I saw. Not a single blow ripping through skin and muscle and cartilage."

On the other end of the line, Brandon sighed. "Yes, yes, I know what happened and frankly, I have no more idea than you do. And I've been dealing with this sort of thing considerably longer than three years. To answer your original question, the newspaper story was essentially true; I don't know if it was a vampire or a vacuum cleaner, but Neal and Jones were drained nearly dry."

"Drained?" Not just massive blood loss, then, of the kind to be expected with a throat injury that severe. "Oh my God."

She heard Brandon take another swallow.

"Quite," he agreed dryly. "This will, of course, go no further."

"Of course."

"Then if you have all  the information you require… "

"Yes. Thank you, Brandon."

"My pleasure, Victoria."

She sat staring at nothing, considering implications until the phone began to beep, imperiously reminding her she hadn't yet hung up, jerking her out of her daze.

"Drained … ", she repeated. "Shit." She wondered what the official investigation made of that. No, be honest. You wonder what Mike Celluci made of it. Well, she wasn't going to call and find out. Still, it was the sort of thing that friends might discuss if one of them was a cop and one of them used to be. Except he's sure to say something cutting, especially if he thinks I'm using this whole incident as an excuse to hang around the fringes of the force.

Was she?

She thought about it while she listened to the three-year-old upstairs running back and forth, back and forth across the living room. It was a soothing, all-is-right-with-the-universe kind of sound and she used its staccato beat to keep her thoughts moving, to keep her from bogging down in the self-pity that had blurred a good part of the last eight months.

No, she decided at last, she was not using these deaths as a way of trying to grab onto some of what she'd had to give up. She was curious, plain and simple. Curious the way anyone would be in a similar circumstance, the difference being that she had a way to satisfy her curiosity.

"And if Celluci doesn't understand that," she muttered as she dialed, "he can fold it sideways and stick it up his…. Good morning. Mike Celluci, please. Yes, I'll hold." Someday, she tucked the phone under her chin and tried to peel the paper off a very old Life Saver, I'm going to say no, I won't hold, and send somebody's secretary into strong hysterics.

"Celluci."

"Morning. It's Vicki."

"Yeah. So?" He definitely didn't sound thrilled. "You complicating my life with another body or is this a social call at … "

Vicki checked her watch, during the pause while Celluci checked his.

"… nine oh two … "

"Eight fifty-eight."

He ignored her. "… on a Thursday morning?"

"No body, Celluci. I just wondered what you'd come up with so far."

"That's police information, Vicki, and in case you've forgotten, you're not a cop anymore."

The crack hurt but not as much as she expected. Well, two could play at that game.

"Come to a dead end, eh? A full stop?" She flipped over pages of the newspaper loud enough for him to hear the unmistakable rustle. "Paper seems to have come up with an answer." Shaking her head, she held the receiver away from her ear in order not to be deafened by a forcefully expressed opinion of certain reporters, their ancestors, and their descendants. She grinned. She was definitely enjoying this.

"Nice try, Mike, but I called the Coroner's Office and that report was essentially correct."

"Well, why don't I just read my report to you over the phone. Or I could send someone over with a copy of the file and no doubt you and your Nancy Drew detective kit can solve the case by lunch."

"Why don't we discuss this like intelligent human beings over dinner?" Over dinner? Good God, was that my mouth?

"Dinner?"

Oh, well. In for a penny in for a pound as Granny used to say. "Yeah, dinner, you know, where you sit down in the evening and stuff food in your mouth."

"Oh, dinner. Why didn't you say so?" Vicki could hear the smile in his voice and her mouth curved up in answer. Mike Celluci was the only man she'd ever met whose moods changed as quickly as hers. Maybe that was why…. "You buying?" He was also basically a cheap bastard.

"Why not. I'll deduct it as a business expense; consulting with the city's finest."

He snorted. "Took you long enough to remember that. I'll be by about seven."

"I'll be here."

She hung up, pushed her glasses up her nose, and wondered just what she thought she was doing. It had seemed, while they talked-All right, while we indulged in the verbal sparring that serves us for conversation-almost like the last eight months and the fights before hadn't happened. Or maybe it was just that their friendship was strong enough to pick up intact from where it had been dropped. Or maybe, just maybe, she'd managed to get a grip on her life.

"And I hope I haven't bitten off more than I can chew," she muttered to the empty apartment.

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