Authors: E.J. Stevens
“I’d rather not,” I said. No way was I touching some
strange dude’s vest, no matter how impressive his beard. “No offense. Ceff?”
Ceff stepped forward and reached two fingers into the man’s
vest pocket, retrieving a dusty scroll tied with a ribbon. He carried it
toward me and I groaned. The thing reeked of vamps. It had the stink of dust
and decay all over it.
“You’re working as a messenger for the vampire master of the
city?” I asked.
The dwarf shrugged and placed his hat on his head.
“We have an arrangement, m’lady,” he said. “They rule the
city above from below, while I rule the city below from above.”
“So when the vamps took over your halls, you did what? Went
topside while your people dug deeper?” I asked.
Benmore nodded, beard wagging, and held out his hands in a
“what can you do?” gesture. I could think of a lot of things, like staking all
the vamps, but I kept those thoughts to myself.
“Shall we open it?” Ceff asked, eyeing the scroll in his
hand like a viper that may strike at any moment. Knowing vamps, it just
might. Vampires love theatrics.
“Okay, fine,” I said. The dwarf mayor or whatever seemed to
be waiting for us to read the letter and we needed to get a move on if we were
going to find Kaye. “Let’s get this over with.”
Ceff tugged at the red ribbon, which was the color of blood,
of course, and broke the wax seal that held the scroll together. As he
unrolled the scroll, the parchment—please god, tell me that’s not human
skin—made a dry, whispering sound that scraped along my nerves like claws on a
chalkboard. Leave it to the vamps to use a means of sending a message that was
both dramatic and annoying. God forbid the Luddites pick up a telephone.
“What does it say?” I asked.
I leaned toward Ceff, careful not to get too close to the
scroll. I sure as hell didn’t want to touch something that came from vamp
headquarters, even if it wasn’t human skin—and the jury was still out on that
Ceff tilted the scroll toward me with a grimace. The
spidery handwriting danced along the page with dark blotches where the nib of
the pen had caught the paper. The ink looked dark brown, but I knew by Ceff’s
look of disgust that it had run red when it was fresh.
The scroll was written in blood.
I swallowed hard, choking down my revulsion and focused on
the flowery words. Too bad the message found within wasn’t any better than the
vile manner in which it was written. The vamps meant to collect on my debt.
When it rains it pours. It seemed like everyone was out to
collect a piece of me. Too bad for them, I was busy.
“What shall I inform the vampire master of the city?”
“Like I said, we’re closed, family emergency,” I said.
“Oh, but the master will be very displeased,” he said, beard
“A moment,” Ceff said.
He gestured and I followed to where he stopped a few feet
away from the dwarf. It wasn’t private, but we didn’t have time to go back
inside and have a long chat. Plus, as far as I was concerned, the vamps could
“We don’t have time for this,” I said, speaking through my
“Would you agree that there is nothing more to be done until
you hear back from Forneus or Arachne?” he asked. “We do not know Kaye’s
whereabouts and we are no closer to breaking the incubus’ hold on Jinx.”
“But you’re the one who said I had to complete the bargain
before it started to sap my strength,” I said, sotto voce.
“All I am suggesting is that we hear the vampire out,” he
said. “Breaking a bargain with the master of the city while trying to do the
same with the queen of the carnival fae may be too much, even for you.”
I scrubbed a gloved hand over my face and groaned.
“Fine,” I said. I turned to Benmore who was not-so-subtly
checking the time on his pocket watch. “Tell the vampire master of the city
that I’ve accepted his invitation.”
I ground out the words and stormed up the street. I didn’t
have time for games, but Ceff was right. It would be foolish to piss off the
vamps. The last thing I needed was the council of dusty leeches on my ass.
That would suck, pun intended.
Forneus’ number and scowled when I was sent to voicemail. The demon wasn’t
answering his phone, the bastard. Strains of violin music played in the
background as his smooth voice informed me that it would be his pleasure to
return my call if I would be so kind as to leave a message after the beep.
“Where the hell are you?” I asked. “Get your ass back from
wherever you’ve slithered off to and call me.”
Okay, it wasn’t the nicest of messages, but Forneus was on
my last nerve. He claimed that he wanted to help Jinx, and then he off and
disappeared. That was typical of a demon, so I shouldn’t have been so worked
up over it. I guess I’d started to let the guy weasel inside my defenses with
his apparent worry over Jinx. Ceff raised an eyebrow and I snorted.
“The bastard said he was going to help,” I said. “I’m not holding
But I had been. I’d been waiting for Forneus to dramatically
appear in a puff of sulfurous smoke and bring me a way to save Jinx. I could
be Grade-A stupid sometimes.
Next, I speed dialed Arachne, hoping that she wasn’t in the
middle of casting something. Or if she was, that she’d had the foresight to
turn off her screeching ringtone.
“Ivy?” she answered. “Is that you?”
“Yeah, it’s me,” I said. “How’s Jinx?”
“Okay, the same,” she said. “Sorry.”
I’d been hoping for more, but if wishes could be dollars,
and all that.
“You’re doing your best,” I said. I knew the kid would do
anything to help Jinx get better. For now, that was enough. “Any word from
“Nothing yet,” she said. “But as my mom always says, a
watched cauldron never boils.”
“And that’s supposed to mean what exactly?” I asked.
“It means I’m focusing on Jinx and trying not to hover by
the phone waiting for you and Kaye to call,” she said.
She yawned and I realized the kid probably hadn’t slept
since yesterday. She’d been busy with her training when I’d interrupted this
morning. Knowing Kaye, they’d been at it all night, which would explain why
she was sounding grumpy.
“When was the last time you ate?” I asked.
If you have to go without sleep, food is a good substitute.
So was caffeine, but I’d never seen the kid drink coffee.
“I dunno, yesterday I guess,” she said.
“Is Hob there handy?” I asked.
“Think so,” she said. “Yeah, he’s polishing his hearth.
“Ask him to make you something to eat, something that is
safe for humans to eat,” I said.
“Anything else, mom?” she asked.
“Yeah, ask nicely,” I said.
“Okay, okay, fine, I’ll make sure to eat, but I’d rather
order out for pizza,” she said. “No offense to Hob.”
Huh, why hadn’t I thought of that? Pizza was sure to be
safer than negotiating a meal with a hearth brownie. Of course, we couldn’t
let the spell circle fall that was protecting Jinx and with Kaye AWOL that left
Arachne to maintain the circle.
“Your spell circle will hold if you go out front to pay the
delivery guy?” I asked.
I was pretty sure that proximity mattered, at least with
less experienced witches like Arachne.
“Yeah, I’m not a total loser,” she said.
“I didn’t mean to imply that you were,” I said. “Look, you
watch out for Jinx and you can eat all the pizza you want, my treat.”
I gave the kid my credit card info, thankful Jinx made sure
to pay the bills each month, even if I was spending too much of our profits on
the search for my father.
“Cool, thanks Ivy,” Arachne said.
Well that put the kid in a better mood. Nothing like free
pizza to raise the spirits.
“No problem,” I said. “Call me if anything changes.”
“I will,” she said over the sound of shuffling paper and
I put the phone in my pocket and turned to Ceff who was on
high alert. He’d been keeping pace with me as I strode across the cobbled
streets of the Old Port quarter, heading toward Joysen Hill and his eyes were
searching the shadows of every door and alleyway as we approached. We were
heading into a nasty part of town and it was nice to know he had my back.
“Jinx is stable,” I said. He continued to watch for
potential threats, the tightening around his eyes the only sign he’d heard me.
“We can do this, there’s still time.”
He nodded, but the words fell flat, even to my ears. For
the first time since this morning, I questioned whether or not I was kidding
myself. Doubt gnawed at me like a ravenous ghoul.
Speaking of ghouls, I wondered how the vamp’s doorman—who
I’d nicknamed Stinky for the foul putrescence that leaked from every open wound
and orifice—was doing. Last time I’d visited vamp headquarters, Stinky’s
abdomen had done a water balloon impersonation—and exploded all over me. I
grimaced at the memory. Visiting the council of dusty leaches and their grand
poobah, Sir Gaius Aurelius the vamp master of the city and chairman of the
northeastern vampire council, was bad enough without exploding ghoul grenades.
“Come, we should not keep the vampires waiting,” he said.
I grunted my reply and fell into step beside Ceff. We stomped
our way through the Old Port quarter and up The Hill—well, I stomped while Ceff
managed to glide along silently in that otherworldly way that only a
pureblooded sidhe can—which gave me plenty of time to mull over my upcoming
visit with the most powerful vampire in the city.
Sir Gaius, who’d I’d aptly named The Boss on my first visit,
was an ancient vamp. Through centuries of machinations and cunning, he’d
achieved his current position as leader of the local vamps. It wasn’t healthy
being on The Boss’s radar and I’d given him his very own open invitation to
call me in. God, I was stupid.
I’d come to the vamps for answers, and in my rush to save a
group of missing fae children, I’d made a deal with The Boss. I’d agreed to
work one case of his choosing, pro bono. Working a free case may not sound
like a bad exchange for information that could save numerous lives, but this
was the vampire master of the city we were talking about. Bargains with vamps
never ended well.
up the steps to vamp headquarters, wondering idly if the ghoul Stinky would be
the one to open the door. Could a ghoul survive losing all of its internal
organs? Do ghouls even need organs? I mean, ghouls do eat, when their masters
allow it. Ghouls are the scavengers at a vamp’s table, eating dead things (ie,
humans) that the dust bags cast aside. But I’d had an up close and personal
look at Stinky’s insides and his organs had been long liquefied. So how does a
ghoul gain sustenance without any digestive system?
Contemplating the eating habits of ghouls? That was a
surefire way to lose my appetite and add a few more nightmares to my
repertoire. I was definitely procrastinating. With a heavy sigh, I took the
last two steps in one long stride, placing myself beside Ceff. It was time to
face the drama queens of the paranormal community, find a way to appease
whatever ridiculous demands they made, and get back to work.
I gave Ceff a curt nod and he reached for the doorbell. I
may be wearing heavy duty, leather gloves, but I wasn’t crazy. If I could
avoid touching anything in this place I would. Thankfully, Ceff understood my
aversion and rang the bell without me even having to ask.
I’d expected Stinky, or maybe even the recently demoted vampire
Gerald, but the vamp holding the door was a stranger to me. I stepped over the
threshold, glad to avoid Stinky’s malodorous stench and happy not to have Gerry
at my back—that vamp hated me with a passion—but my relief was short-lived.
Stinky’s replacement was a vamp armed to the fangs with
weapons. The handles and blades of two sai, a three pronged weapon similar to
Ceff’s trident, fanned out from the small of the guard’s back, a third sai was
slung at his hip, and he held a spear sporting a large, red, horse-hair tassel
in one hand.
That was new. The bloodsuckers had never bothered with armed
guards to escort their visitors in the past. An overt show of force by a race
that preferred stealth and subterfuge?—that could not be good. The scales must
really be tipping toward war if the vampires were so uncharacteristically edgy.
I filed it away for something to think about later.
Ever since Kaye mentioned trouble brewing, there seemed to
be signs of war everywhere I looked. The paranormal community was on edge and,
until now, I hadn’t even noticed. The ability to observe and put the puzzle
pieces together was integral to my job. It is part of what makes me a good
detective—that, my second sight, and a stubborn streak a mile long.
So why hadn’t I recognized the signs sooner? Because I’d
been a selfish fool, that’s why. I was so focused on finding my father that I
couldn’t see the obvious signs of trouble in my city. Now that I could see the
truth, I vowed to do what I could to protect Harborsmouth, and my friends. I
just hoped that it wasn’t too late.
But for now, I had more immediate things to worry about—like
the pair of sai now inches from touching me. The vamp had moved so fast, I
hadn’t even followed the movement. One second he was standing in the
flickering, artificial torchlight and the next he had me penned in with his
spear blocking the tunnel and his body blocking the door at my back. And, of
course, we couldn’t forget the blades.
I froze, eyes wide, taking in the sai—one aimed at my
jugular, the other at my solar plexus. I was one quick jab away from death or
incapacitation. Not to mention the potential for skull crushing visions from
contact with some old-school samurai vamp’s weapons.