The vampire pulled on the chainsrestraining him to the cave wall. His eyes were bright green, their glow illuminating the darkness surrounding us.
"Do you really think these will hold me?" he asked, an English accent caressing the challenge.
"Sure do," I replied. Those manacles were installed and tested by a Master vampire, so they were strong enough. I should know. I'd once been stuck in them myself.
The vampire's smile revealed fangs in his white upper teeth. They hadn't been there several minutes ago, when he'd still looked human to the untrained eye.
"Right, then. What do you want, now that you have me helpless?" He didn't sound like he felt helpless in the least. I pursed my lips and considered the question, letting my gaze sweep over him. Nothing interrupted my view, either, since he was na**d. I'd long ago learned that weapons could be stored in various clothing items, but bare skin hid nothing.
Except now, it was also very distracting. The vampire's body was a pale, beautiful expanse of muscle, bone, and lean, elegant lines, all topped off by a gorgeous face with cheekbones so finely chiseled they could cut butter. Clothed or unclothed, the vampire was stunning, something he was obviously aware of. Those glowing green eyes looked into mine with a knowing stare.
"Need me to repeat the question?" he asked with a hint of wickedness.
I strove for nonchalance. "Who do you work for?"
His grin widened, letting me know my aloof act wasn't as convincing as I'd meant it to be. He even stretched as much as the chains allowed, his muscles rippling like waves on a pond.
"Liar." I pulled out a silver knife and traced its tip lightly down his chest, not breaking his skin, just leaving a faint pink line that faded in seconds. Vampires might be able to heal with lightning quickness, but silver through the heart was lethal. Only a few inches of bone and muscle stood between this vampire's heart and my blade.
He glanced at the path my knife had traced. "Is that supposed to frighten me?" I pretended to consider the question. "Well, I've cut a bloody swath through the undead world ever since I was sixteen. Even earned myself the nickname of the Red Reaper, so if I've got a knife next to your heart, then yes, you should be afraid." His expression was still amused. "Right nasty wench you sound like, but I wager I could get free and have you on your back before you could stop me." Cocky bastard. "Talk is cheap. Prove it."
His legs flashed out, knocking me off-balance. I sprang forward at once, but a hard, cool body flattened me to the cave floor in the next instant. An iron grip closed around my wrist, preventing me from raising the knife.
"Always pride before a fall," he murmured in satisfaction.
I tried to throw him off, but a ton of bricks would have been easier to dislodge. Should've chained his arms and his legs before daring him like that, I mentally berated myself.
That arrogant smirk returned as the vampire looked down at me. "Keep squirming, luv.
Rubs me in all the right places, it does."
"How'd you get out of the clamps?" Over his shoulder, I saw a hole in the cave that used to be where the inch-thick titanium cuffs had dangled. Unbelievable. He'd ripped them right out of the wall.
A dark brow arched. "Knew just the right angle to pull. You don't install restraints without knowing how to get out of them. Only took a moment; and by then, I had you on your back. Just like I said I would."
If I still had a heartbeat, it would be racing by now, but I'd lost that - for the most part - when I'd changed from a half-breed into a full vampire several months ago. My eyes turned bright green as fangs slid out of my teeth.
He leaned down until our faces were only an inch apart. "Now, my lovely captive, with you trapped beneath me, what's to stop me from having my vile way with you?" The knife I still held dropped from my hand as I wrapped my arms around his neck.
"Nothing, I hope."
Bones, my vampire husband, gave a low, sinful laugh. "That's the answer I wanted to hear, Kitten."
Being underground in a cave wouldn't make most people's favorite last-minute accommodations list, but it was heaven to me. The only sounds were the smooth motions of the underground river. It was a relief not to have to tune out the background noise from countless conversations that were all too audible with a vampire's hearing. If it were up to me, Bones and I would stay here for weeks.
But taking a time-out from our lives to get some R&R wasn't in the cards for us. I'd learned that the hard way. What I'd also learned was to grab moments of escape when we could.
Hence the stopover to rest the dawn away in the same cave in which, seven years ago, my relationship with Bones began. Back then, it had been me in the chains, convinced I was about to be eaten by an evil bloodsucker. Instead, I ended up marrying that bloodsucker.
Helsing, my cat, gave a plaintive meow from the corner of the small enclave, scratching at the stone slab that served as a door.
"You don't get to explore," I told him. "You'd get lost." He meowed again but began to lick his paw, giving me baleful looks the whole time. He still hadn't forgiven me for leaving him with a house sitter for months. I didn't blame Helsing for his grudge, but if he'd stayed with me, he might have gotten killed. Several people had.
"Rested enough, luv?" Bones asked.
"Um hmm," I murmured, stretching. I'd fallen asleep shortly after dawn, but it hadn't been the instant unconsciousness that had plagued me for my first weeks as a vampire. I'd grown out of that, to my relief.
"We'd best get moving, then," he said.
Right. We had places to be, as usual.
"The only thing I regret about stopping to catch some sleep here is the lack of a normal shower," I sighed.
Bones snorted in amusement. "Come now, the river's very refreshing." At forty degrees, "refreshing" was a kind way to describe the cave's version of indoor plumbing. Bones moved the stone slab out of the way so we could exit the alcove, putting it back before my kitty could leap out, too.
"The trick is to jump in," he went on. "Taking it slow doesn't make it any easier." I swallowed a laugh. That advice could also apply to navigating the undead world. All right. One leap into a freezing river, coming up.
Then it was time to get to the real reason why we'd come to Ohio. With luck, nothing was going on in my old home state except for a few random cases of fang-on-fang violence.
I doubted it, but I could still hope.
The afternoon sun was still high in the sky by the time Bones and I arrived at the fountain of the Easton mall. Well, a street away from it. We had to make sure that this wasn't a trap.
Bones and I had a lot of enemies. Two recent vampire wars will do that, not to mention our former professions.
I didn't sense any excessive supernatural energy except a smaller tingle of power in the air that denoted one, maybe two younger vampires mixed in with the crowd. Still, neither Bones nor I moved until a hazy, indistinct form flew across the parking lot and into our rental car.
"Two vampires are at the fountain," Fabian, the ghost I'd sort of adopted, stated. His outline solidified until he looked more like a person and less like a thick particle cloud. "They didn't notice me."
Even though that was the goal, Fabian sounded almost sad at that last part. Unlike humans, vampires could see ghosts, but by and large they ignored them. Being dead didn't mean people automatically got along.
"Thanks, mate," Bones said. "Keep a lookout to make certain they don't have any unpleasant surprises waiting for us."
Fabian's features blurred until his entire body disappeared.
"We were only supposed to meet with one vampire," I mused. "What do you think of our contact having a buddy with him?"
Bones shrugged. "I think he'd better have a bloody good reason for it." He got out of the car. I followed suit, giving the silver knives concealed by my sleeves a slight, reassuring pat. Never leave home without them was my motto. True, vampires were keen on protecting the secrecy of their race and this was a crowded, public place, but that didn't guarantee safety. The knives didn't, either, but they sure tipped the odds in our favor. So did the other two vampires parked farther down the street, ready to jump into action if this turned out to be something other than a fact-gathering chat.
Scents assailed me as I approached the courtyard fountain. Perfumes, body odor, and various chemicals were the strongest, but underneath was another layer I'd gotten better at deciphering: emotions. Fear, greed, desire, anger, love, sadness . . . all those manifested in scents that ranged from sweetly aromatic to bitterly rancid. Not surprisingly, unpleasant emotions had the harsher aromas. Case in point: The vampires seated on the concrete bench both had the rotten-fruit smell of fear emanating from them, even before Bones gave them a quelling glare.
"Which one of you is Scratch?" he asked in a crisp voice.
The one with gray streaks in his hair stood up. "I am."
"Then you can stay, but he" - Bones paused to give a short jerk of his head at the other, skinny vampire - "can leave."
"Wait!" Scratch's voice lowered and he moved closer to Bones. "That thing you're here to talk to me about? He might have some information on it." Bones glanced at me. I lifted one shoulder in a half shrug. "May as well hear what our unexpected guest has to say," I commented.
"I'm Ed," the vampire spoke up, with a nervous look over Bones's shoulder at me.
"Scratch didn't tell me he was meeting you guys here." From Ed's expression, I guessed that between my crimson hair, the large red diamond on my finger, Bones's English accent, and the tingling aura of power he emanated, Ed had figured out who we were.
"That's because he didn't know," Bones answered coolly. His emotions, accessible to me ever since the day Bones changed me, were now locked down behind the impenetrable wall he used in public. Still, anyone could pick up on the edge to his voice as he went on.
"I take it introductions aren't necessary?"
Scratch's gaze slid to me and then skipped away. "No," he muttered. "You're Bones, and that's the Reaper."
Bones's expression didn't soften, but I smiled in my best "I'm not going to kill you" way.
"Call me Cat, and why don't we find some shade where we can talk?" The sun's rays weren't lethal to vampires as mythology claimed, but we were easily sunburned. Expending some of our supernatural energy just to heal from the strong summer rays was pointless. A French restaurant with outdoor seating was nearby, so the four of us found a table under an umbrella and sat down as if we were old friends catching up.
"You said your Master was killed a few years ago, and she left no one to look after the members of her line," Bones stated to Scratch, after the waitress took our drink orders. "A group of you banded together to watch out for one another. When did you first notice something odd was going on?"
"Several months ago, around fall last year," Scratch replied. "At first, we just thought some of the guys skipped town without telling anyone. We kept an eye on each other, but we weren't babysitters, y'know? Then, when more of us went missing, people who'd normally say something before taking off . . . well. It got the rest of us worried." I didn't doubt it. As young, Masterless vampires, Scratch and others like him were on the bottom of the pecking order in the undead world. I might have some issues with the feudalistic system vampires operated under, but when it came to protecting members of their line, most Master vampires were pretty damn vigilant. Even the evil ones.
"Then, more ghouls started showing in the area," Scratch went on.
I tensed. This was why Bones and I had come to Ohio. We'd also heard about a recent influx of ghouls in my old home state, and reports of missing vampires.
"Hey, it's an undead playground here," Scratch continued, oblivious to my uneasiness.
"Lots of ley lines and fun vibrations, so we didn't think anything about all the flesh-eaters showing up. But some of 'em act real nasty to vampires. Harassing the Masterless ones, following them home, starting fights . . . it got us thinking maybe they were behind the disappearances. Problem is, no one gives a shit since we don't belong to anyone. I'm amazed you're interested, frankly."
"I have my reasons," Bones said in that same impassive tone. He didn't even glance at me. Centuries of feigning detachment made him an expert at it. Ed and Scratch would have no idea that the reason we were pumping them for information was to see if my World's Weirdest Vampire condition might be the reason that some ghouls were acting hostile - and why vampires were disappearing.
"If you're looking for money, we don't have much," Ed piped up. "Besides, I thought you retired from contract killing when you merged lines with that mega-Master Mencheres." Bones arched a brow. "Try not to think too often, you'll only hurt yourself," he replied pleasantly.
Ed's face tightened, but he shut his mouth. I hid a smile. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth - especially one that bites.
"Do you have any proof that ghouls might be involved in your friends' disappearances?" I asked Scratch, getting back to the subject.
"No. Just seems more than coincidence that whenever one of them went missing, they were last seen at a place where some of those a**hole ghouls were."
"What places?" I asked.
"Some bars, clubs - "
"Names," Bones pressed.