A female form rose in a liquid movement from where she’d been feasting on Johnson. “Are you insane? You’ll get us all killed. She’s supposed to die so they can blame it on Edgar.”
She started to move forward, to interfere, but a melodic voice stopped her in her tracks.
“Really? How very interesting.”
Every vamp in the alley turned at the sound of that voice. The chant above me stopped in mid-syllable. Soft as a sigh, three forms dropped to opposite ends of the alley from the rooftops. Only three, but even in miniature you could see the fear in the eyes of the bats who’d been feasting on me. I assumed the new bat was Edgar. He and two companions glided slowly forward. In the distance I heard the screech of tires and the slam of car doors followed by running feet. Edgar swore softly and gestured to his companions.
Edgar and the two vampires with him vanished, without so much as a puff of smoke, leaving the other bats to deal with the pair of snarling werewolves who tore through the mouth of the alley.
A harsh slap rocked my head back, and I blinked, trying to focus, as I found myself abruptly back in Dottie’s sunny living room. My throat ached from screaming and the carpet was wet from where the crystal bowl had been knocked off the table.
I shivered, my teeth chattering, cold from physical and psychic shock.
Furious pounding at the front door made Dottie jump to her feet abruptly enough to stumble. Gibson managed to grab her before she could fall, then hurried over to deal with whoever. An alarmed neighbor probably. Not that I cared. I didn’t. I couldn’t even think past the roar of my own pulse, pumping adrenaline-laced blood through my body.
As if from a great distance I heard a worried male voice calling out, “Dottie, are you all right?”
“I’m fine, Robert.” The old woman’s voice was surprisingly unperturbed. She gave me a meaningful look before continuing. “Celia here just saw a mouse. It startled her.”
I wasn’t going to argue. I was too busy hyperventilating. Memory suppression is a psychological defense mechanism. The subconscious mind tries its damnedest to protect us from the things we’re not equipped to deal with, and the vampire’s spell had helped. It had been too soon to tear the lid off of these particular memories. Any time in the next millennium would have been too soon. “Trauma” is such a nice, sterile word for what was ripping through my brain and chest.
An elderly man shoved roughly past Gibson to stand in front of Dot, his eyes narrowing with suspicion. He turned to me, his mouth dropping open.
“I’m phobic.” I managed to gasp out the lie, and saw real relief chase across my hostess’s features.
“Really, Robert, we need to get an exterminator in here! What I wouldn’t give for my dear Minnie. She was quite the mouser.” Minnie the Mouser. That was just sick. But I liked it. I found myself choking on a hysterical laugh.
“Are you all right?” Gibson’s eyes were on mine and were dark with concern.
“I’ll be fine.” It was a lie. Fine had gone for a long vacation somewhere along with my sanity. But I was alive, and here, and I damned well needed to get my shit together if I was going to survive this. And I intended to.
Dottie stepped over my foot, splayed across her nice carpet. “Be a dear, Robert, there’s a pitcher of lemonade in the refrigerator—”
“No.” I shook my head and tried to collect myself. “Thank you, but no. I’m fine now, and we need to get going.”
“Are you sure, dear?” Dottie might not want Robert to know what had happened, but she was obviously concerned about me.
I shook my head again. My brain was gathering the fabric of reality around itself again and I was happy to report the truth. “I’m okay. Just let me clean up the mess and we’ll be out of your hair.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do that.” But she wasn’t hurrying to do it herself, either.
“Really. I insist. Are there paper towels in the kitchen?”
“Yes, dear. On a holder attached to the wall by the refrigerator. You can’t miss them.”
I got my feet under me and hurried out of the room. Yes, I’d clean up the mess. But more than that, I wanted a couple of minutes alone.
The prince was a fake. There hadn’t been a raid. There had been no cops at either end of that alley. The entire job, from start to finish, had been a setup. I’d been supposed to die and have the whole thing be blamed on the vampire named Edgar. Why? Damn it … why? And who was behind it? I mean, the whole thing was being set up by someone with enough resources and money to make it all happen and have access to demons or half demons capable and willing to work spells that were anathema.
I’d come here for answers, and wound up with more, and scarier, questions.
Gibson slid his cell phone back into the pocket of his jacket. He’d called in and left a voice mail for his superiors as soon as we’d gotten into the privacy of his car. Now that the call was over, he glanced at me from the driver’s seat. “You look like shit.”
I didn’t doubt him, but that didn’t mean I liked hearing it said out loud. “Gee, thanks.” I made the words as dry and sarcastic as I could, and it brought a tight smile to his face. “You try remembering your own murder sometime, see how you like it.”
“Nah, I think I’ll pass.” He turned his full attention back to the road.
“Quick thinking, by the way—telling the neighbor I’d seen a mouse.”
“Well, she had to say something. You were screaming bloody murder. And Dottie doesn’t want anyone to know about her talent. The last time people found out, they hounded her constantly, wanting her to ‘find out things.’ She didn’t get a minute’s peace.”
I shook my head. The lie had made me look like an idiot, but I’d played along. “Did she really have a cat named Minnie the Mouser?”
“Right up until the landlord made her get rid of Minnie.”
He chuckled. “I take it you like animals?”
“Love ’em. But my schedule’s weird.”
He let out a heaving sigh as he took a left turn. “Too bad. I was hoping you might want a cat. She really is one hell of a mouser.”
I started to laugh. It was a little bit hysterical, but I couldn’t help myself. Sometimes either you laugh or you cry, and crying wouldn’t do any good.
Unfortunately, I laughed hard enough that tears started. Then I cried. Gibson didn’t say a word, just reached over when we hit a red light and popped open the glove box. Inside was a box of tissues.
I used a few to wipe my eyes and blow my nose. He pretended not to notice. It was a relief, really. I don’t like crying. It makes me feel weak and out of control. I’m not weak, but out of control … today that was something of an understatement. Besides, Bob Johnson was a friend, and judging from what I’d seen in that vision, he was dead and gone. How the hell was I going to break the news to Vanessa?
I cried hard, but not for long. Still, even that small release was good for me. I was feeling a little bit better by the time Gibson pulled into the parking lot of my office building. My office isn’t quite in central downtown. Even with office sharing I couldn’t afford that. Instead, we’re about four blocks off. It puts us closer to the county jail, which works well for the bail bondsmen. Being in the same building with the bail bondsmen (who do not and ethically cannot actually refer clients to a specific attorney) is good for the attorney. Because let’s face it. Even without a referral, sheer placement means they’re going to get noticed.
Left over from a bygone era and surrounded by squat office buildings, our three-story Victorian, once a mansion, has more charm and style than anyplace else within miles. The bulk of it is painted slate gray, but there’s lots of gingerbread trim that is done up in white, burgundy, and black. A portion of the rents is pooled into a fund that pays for building maintenance, including lawn care, so David’s son comes by once a week to keep the grounds picture perfect, including the huge trees that shade the front and back porches.
The place has its drawbacks. The parking lot is small, only holding six cars. And the high ceilings and choppy floor plan make it hard to keep it a reasonable temperature. In summer, the upper floors can be wretchedly hot. In winter … well, let’s just say I’m glad it’s California and it doesn’t get too cold. Still, it’s a gem of a building, with the original dark wood stain on trim and doors, a huge stained-glass window on the second-floor landing, and a turret where I can sit and eat my morning bagel and watch the world go by. I rent about half of the third floor, including said turret.
Gibson pulled his sedan into the spot marked with my name. It was one of only two in the shade. I watched him take a seemingly casual look around while taking in every detail. I didn’t mind. The place looks good. Even the windows get washed on a regular basis.
He looked around and grinned. “Nice. You want to clean up before you go inside?” He unfastened his seat belt and got out of the car. He was moving slowly, with an unnatural stiffness that spoke of the pain he was trying to hide.
That made me frown. “No. Why?” I climbed out as well. As I shoved the door closed I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the car window. Gibson was right. I looked awful. Somewhere during the course of the morning I’d lost the ponytail holder, and my hair was hanging loose. Raking my hands through the tangled mass didn’t help much, and nothing was going to make the dark circles under my reddened eyes any less obvious.
Ah well. There was nothing I could do to change things right now, so there was no point in dwelling on it.
Gibson waited patiently for me to join him on the steps onto the wide front porch. I touched my finger to the porch swing to set it moving. I do it every time I walk by, and have no idea why. Maybe just as a counterpoint to the other furniture. It wouldn’t do any good to push the wicker chairs. They were permanently affixed to the floor.
He graciously held open the door for me, so I stepped into the muted shadows of the lobby. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the relative darkness, so I heard Dawna’s gasp before I saw her.