Home Author Books News Emporium Mailing List Clairvoyant Corner Contact


TOUCH THE DARK
 

CHAPTER ONE

       I knew I was in trouble as soon as I saw the obituary.  The fact that it had my name on it was sort of a clue.  What I didn’t know was how they’d found me, and who the guy was with the sense of humor.  Antonio has never been much for comedy.  I’ve never figured out if that has something to do with being dead, or if he’s always been a morose son of a bitch. 
            The obit was on my office PC’s screen in place of the usual travel agency logo.  It looked like part of a newspaper page had been scanned and then set as the computer’s wallpaper, and it hadn’t been there when I’d gone to get a salad half an hour earlier.  If I hadn’t been so freaked out, I’d have been impressed.  I didn’t know that any of Tony’s goons even knew what a computer was.   
            I scrambled around in my filing cabinet for my gun while I read the joker’s description of my gruesome death later that evening.  I had another gun at my apartment, along with a few other surprises, but going back there probably wasn’t my best move.  And unless I was expecting enough trouble to make it worth the risk of carrying concealed, the only thing I kept in my purse was a small canister of mace for potential muggers.  After more than three years of relative safety, I’d started to question the need for even that.  I’d gotten careless and could only hope it wasn’t about to get me killed.
            Under my name was a paragraph long description of an unfortunate incident involving me, an unknown rifleman and two bullets through the head.  The paper had tomorrow’s date, but the hit was to occur at 8:43 tonight on Peachtree Street.  I glanced at my watch; it was twenty to eight, so I’d been given an hour’s head start.  That seemed too generous for Tony.  My best guess for why I wasn’t already dead was that killing me outright was too easy for a guy who had people killed all the time.  In my case, he wanted something special.
            I finally found my Smith & Wesson 3913 under a flyer for a cruise to Rio.  I wondered if it was a sign.  No way did I have the kind of cash to get out of the country, though, and a chubby cheeked, blue-eyed blond might look a little obvious next to all those sloe-eyed señoritas.  Plus, I didn’t know if Tony had associates in Brazil, but I wouldn’t put it past him.  When you’ve been around long enough to remember drinking Michelangelo under the table, you make a few contacts.
            I fished a pack of gum out of the gun compartment in my purse and shoved the Smith & Wesson in.  It fit like it had been made for it, which it had.  I’d bought the gun, my first, and three of the handbags almost four years ago on the recommendation of a Fed named Jerry Sydell.  Like a lot of people, he’d thought I was a nut case, but since I’d helped to cripple one of the biggest crime families in Philly, he was willing to give some free advice.  He helped me pick out the 9 mm semiautomatic pistol, which combined a grip small enough for my hands with the power to discourage anything on two legs.  “Except for the ghosts and ghoulies,” he’d said with a grin.  “You’re on your own with them.”  He’d also taken me to a practice range every day for two weeks, and got me to the point that, even if I still couldn’t hit the side of a barn, I didn’t miss it by much.  I’d kept up the practice sessions whenever I could afford them, so now I could definitely hit a barn—if it was a big one, and I was standing within about ten feet of it.  I was secretly hoping I’d never have to shoot anything besides a target.  It wasn’t my fault it didn’t work out that way.
            I think Jerry sort of liked me--I reminded him of his eldest kid--and he wanted to see me go straight.  He thought I’d got in with the wrong crowd when too young to know better, which was truer than he knew, then wised up and decided to turn state’s evidence.  How he explained the fact that a twenty-year-old orphan knew all about the inner workings of a major crime family I’ll never know, but it sure wasn’t faith in “that witchcraft crap,” as he put it.   Jerry didn’t believe in the supernatural--any of it.  Since I didn’t want him to lock me in a small, padded cell somewhere, I didn’t mention my visions, or how close he’d been with the ghosts and ghoulies comment. 
            I’ve always been kind of a ghost magnet. Maybe it’s part of the whole clairvoyance thing, I don’t know.  Tony was always careful about what he let me study--I think he was afraid I’d figure out some way to use my abilities against him if I knew too much--so I’m not very knowledgeable about my talent.  Of course, it might be that my attractiveness to the spirit world is simply because I can see them: it must be a downer haunting someone who doesn’t even know you’re there.  Not that they haunt me exactly, but they do like showing off when I’m around.    
            Sometimes that’s not a bad thing, like with the old woman I met in an alley as a teenage runaway.  I tend to see ghosts as solid much of the time, especially if they are new and powerful, so it took me a while to realize what she was.  She was there to act as a sort of guardian angel over her grandson, who she’d helped to raise.  She died when he was ten, and her daughter’s boyfriend started beating him as soon as he went to live with them.  The boy ran away in less than a month.  She told me that she hadn’t spent a decade watching over him to abandon him now, and she was sure God wouldn’t mind waiting on her a bit.  At her request, I gave him enough money to get on a bus to her sister in San Diego before I moved on.  Naturally, I didn’t mention that sort of thing to Jerry.  He didn’t believe in anything he couldn’t see, touch or put a bullet in, kind of limiting subjects for conversation.  Needless to say, he also didn’t believe in vampires, at least not until a couple of Tony’s guys caught up with him one night and tore his throat out. 
            I knew what was about to happen to Jerry because I Saw his last few seconds as I was getting in the bath.  As usual, I got a vivid, full color, up-close-and-personal ticket to the carnage, which almost made me slip and break my neck on the slick bathroom floor.  After I stopped shaking enough to hold a phone, I called the Witness Protection Program emergency number and told them, but the agent who answered got suspicious when I wouldn’t say how I knew what was about to happen.  She said she’d get a message to Jerry, but didn’t sound too enthused about disturbing his weekend.  So I called Tony’s lead thug--a vamp named Alphonse--and reminded him that he was supposed to find out where the government had stashed me, not risk angering the Senate by killing humans who didn’t even know anything.  Jerry was useless to them because his information was about to be old news. 
            I’d never been very successful in altering my visions’ outcomes, but I was hoping that use of the Senate’s name would be enough to make Alphonse think twice.  They’re a group of really old vamps who pass laws that the less powerful ones have to obey.  While they don’t think any more of humans than Tony does, they like the freedom of being only a myth and go to a lot of trouble not to draw mortal attention.  Killing FBI agents is the sort of thing that tends to piss them off.  But all Alphonse did was give me the usual run around while his boys traced the call.  In the end, the only thing I could do was make sure that, by the time anybody got to my door, I was already on a bus out of town.  I figured that since the government won’t even admit that vampires exist, their chances of keeping me safe from them wasn’t too good.  I thought my odds were better on my own, and for more than three years I’d been right.  Until now. 
            I didn’t bother to grab anything from the office except the gun: one thing about running for your life--it really narrows your priorities.  Not that my 9mm would do much to a vamp, but Tony often used human thugs for minor errands.  I really hoped he hadn’t thought me worth calling in actual talent.  I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of taking a few bullets to the brain, but I liked even less the prospect of ending up as one of his permanent acquisitions.  He’d never let me be turned because he’d had a psychic once who became a vamp and was completely Psi blind afterwards, and he thought my gift too useful to risk.  Now I was worried that he’d take the gamble.  If I lost my talent after the change, he could stake me and get payback for some of the hell I’d caused him.  If not, he’d have an immortal adept with guaranteed loyalty, since it’s really hard to go against the wishes of the vamp who made you.  It was a win/win situation from his perspective, assuming he saw past his rage long enough to figure that out.  I checked the gun and made sure it had a full clip.  If they caught me, I wasn’t going down without a fight, and if worse came to worse, I’d eat the last round before I called that bastard master. 
            Unlike last time, there was something I had to do before I caught a ride to yet another new life.  I slipped out of the agency ASAP, just in case Tony’s boys decided to fudge a little on the deadline, and avoided the front door by squirming through the bathroom window.  It always seems so easy when people do that on TV.  I ended up with a scraped thigh, torn hose and a bitten lip from trying not to swear.  I finally managed it, ran down a dingy side street to a parking garage, and cut across to a Waffle House.  The trip was short but nerve-racking.  Familiar alleys suddenly looked like perfect hiding places for Tony’s thugs, and every noise sounded like a gun being cocked. 
            The Waffle House had bright, halogen lights in the parking lot, making me feel terribly exposed as I crossed it.  Mercifully, the bank of phones was in shadow near one side of the building.  I parked myself in front of the one that worked and dug some change out of my purse, but no one picked up at the club.  I let the phone ring twenty times while I bit my lip and told myself it didn’t mean anything.  It was Friday night--probably no one was able to hear a phone over the din, or had time to answer if they did. 
            It took a while to get there on foot, since I was trying to stay out of sight and to avoid breaking an ankle in my new, over the knee, high-heeled boots.  I’d bought them because they matched the cute leather mini a salesgirl had talked me into, and I’d planned to wow them at the club after work, but they weren’t exactly made for speed.  I’m supposed to be this powerful clairvoyant, but do you think anything popped into my head earlier about maybe wearing tennis shoes, or at least flats?  Hell no.  Just like I never win the lottery.  All I see is the kind of stuff that nightmares and serious drinking problems are made of.
            It was one of those hot Georgia nights when the air feels like a heavy blanket against your skin and the humidity is off the charts.  A thin mist showed up in the glow of the lampposts, but most of the available light came from the moon gleaming off rain slicked streets and turning puddles silver.  The night had bleached the color from the buildings downtown, fading them a soft gray that blended into the shadows and hid the tops of the skyscrapers.  The historic district was like something out of time that night, especially when I passed the Margaret Mitchell House on Crescent.  Its white columns stood out against the mist, looking like it was waiting for Scarlett and Aunt Pitty to return from a ball.  It would have seemed perfectly natural for one of the horse drawn carriages that cater to the tourist trade to round the corner—except that it was going at a full gallop and almost ran me over.
            I had a second to see the frightened faces of the tourists who were hanging on for dear life in the back seat, before it ricocheted off the sidewalk and careened down the street out of sight.  I dragged my mud-covered self out of the gutter and glared around suspiciously.  Merry laughter from behind me explained how that fat old horse had been convinced to try for a new speed record.  A trail of mist, almost indistinguishable from the light rain, drifted by.  I grabbed it, metaphysically speaking. 
            “Portia!  That wasn’t funny!”    
            The laugh tinkled again and a pretty southern belle complete with swinging hoopskirts materialized in front of me.  “Oh yes, it was.  Did you see their faces?”  Mirth sparkled in what had once been eyes bluer than mine.  Tonight, they were the color of the churning clouds overhead.
            I fished around in my purse for a tissue to wipe off my boots.  “I thought you weren’t going to do that anymore.  If you scare off the tourists, who will you play with?”  There aren’t a lot of companies willing to pretend that Atlanta, like Savannah or Charleston, has enough of a historic district to make horse drawn tours worthwhile.  If Portia kept up her games, whatever southern charm had managed to survive the urban sprawl--which offered such time honored favorites as the World of Coca-Cola, the CNN Center and the Underground Atlanta mall--was doomed.    
            Portia gave me a pout so attractive that she must have practiced it in front of a mirror when she was alive.  “You’re no fun, Cassie.” 
            I shot her an unhappy look as I tried to clean the mud-splattered leather, but all I managed was to streak it.  Never once had I made a run for it looking chic.  “I’m plenty of fun, just not tonight.”  It had started to rain, and the droplets were falling through Portia to spatter on the concrete.  I hate that, it’s like looking at a TV through too much interference.  “You haven’t seen Billy Joe, have you?” 
            I call Billy Joe my guardian spirit, but that isn’t entirely accurate.  He’s more of a pain in the ass who occasionally turns out to be useful, but right then I wasn’t feeling picky.  Billy is what remains of an Irish-American gambler who failed to lose the right hand of cards in 1858.  A couple of irate cowboys, who correctly assumed they’d been cheated, tied him into a sack and tossed it in the Mississippi.  Luckily for him, he’d recently relieved a visiting countess of a large, ugly necklace that served as a sort of supernatural battery, collecting magical energy from the natural world and storing it until needed.  When his spirit left his body, it came to rest in the necklace, which he haunted the same way other ghosts did more conventional things like crypts.  It gave him enough power to continue to exist, but it was my occasional donations of living energy that made him as mobile as he was.  I had found the necklace in a junk shop when I was seventeen, and Billy and I had been a team ever since.  Of course, he couldn’t take a message to the club for me so I didn’t have to go in person, but he could serve as lookout in case any bad guys got too close.  Assuming I could find him, that was, something which required a little ghostly help.
            There are a lot of ghosts in Atlanta’s historic district, and most are your run of the mill, let’s-haunt-something-until-we-work-through-our-issues-or-fade-away types like Billy Joe.  There are also a few guardian spirits and an occasional psychic imprint, not that the latter are technically ghosts.  Imprints are like a supernatural theatre that shows the same movie over and over until you want to scream.  Since it’s usually something traumatic, running into one isn’t fun.  I’d spent my free time for a couple of months after I moved in learning the streets in the area, and one of the main things I’d been looking for were imprint zones.  I’d found about fifty dealing with the burning of the city in the Civil War, but most were too weak to cause me much more than a twinge.  But there was a big one between my apartment and the agency where a slave had once been ripped apart by a pack of dogs.  I started taking the long way around after I got caught in it one day.  I have a lot of memories I’d just as soon forget; I don’t need other people’s nightmares. 
            Portia, however, isn’t an imprint.  Sometimes, I thought she was worse.  Portia is one of those ghosts who relive the tragic parts of their lives over and over, but not like a mindless movie.  They’re haunters with a fixation, similar to an obsessive human being who wants to wash her hands fifty times a day.  And they’re mobile, so they can follow you around and run on about whatever is bothering them 24/7.  I broke Billy Joe of that early--he’s upset because he died young, but I can only handle so many choruses of ‘the life I should have had’ before I start to get crabby. 
            Unfortunately, I’d caught Portia in a talkative mood, and it took more than ten minutes to find out--after a detailed description of the ivory buttons she’d sewn onto her never-used wedding gown--that she hadn’t seen Billy Joe.  Typical.  I spend most of my time wishing he’d go away, but he never gets lost until I need him.  My level of aggravation must have shown on my face, because Portia stopped in the middle of the story about a party where two officers had fought each other over the last place on her dance card.  It was one of her favorites and she was clearly not pleased to see my attention wandering.  “You aren’t listening, Cassie.  Is something wrong?”  An angry snap of her little lace edged fan said there had damn well better be.
            “Tony’s found me and I need to get out of town.  But I have to go by the club first, and I need a lookout.” 
            I knew as soon as I said it that I should have kept my mouth shut.  Portia’s eyes got even bigger, and she clapped her dainty gloved hands together delightedly.  “Oh, what fun!  I’ll help!”
            “Um, that’s really generous of you, Portia, but I don’t think . . . I mean, there’s a lot of ways into the club, and you couldn’t cover all of them.”  But Portia got a familiar, steely glint in her eyes and I immediately relented.  Most of the time she was sugar sweet, but get her upset at you and things could get bad fast. 
            “I’ll find help,” she promised.  “It’ll be like a party!”  She disappeared in a swirl of petticoats, and I sighed.  Some of Portia’s friends were even more annoying than she was, but any lookouts were better than none.  And I didn’t have to worry about Tony’s boys noticing them.  Even if he’d sent vamps, they wouldn’t see a thing. 
            As strange as it sounds, a lot of people in the supernatural community don’t believe in ghosts.  Oh, some will agree that there is the occasionally troubled spirit who hangs around its grave for awhile before accepting the inevitable, but few would accept it if I told them just how many spirits stick around after death, how many different types there are, and how active some of them can be.  Spirits like Portia and Billy Joe are, for the supernatural community, like vamps are to the human--old stories and legends that are dismissed without proof.  What can I tell you?  It’s a weird world.
            I arrived at the club a few minutes later, out of breath and with aching arches, but intact.  Showing up was, of course, a really bad idea.  Even if nobody had followed me, a dozen people at the agency and my apartment building knew I worked there part-time.  It was also only a block from Peachtree, which was not a coincidence I liked.  If it ended up getting me killed, I planned to come back and haunt Tony.  But I couldn’t leave without warning my roommate and making some kind of arrangement for him.  I had enough guilt without adding another messed up life to my total. 
            The club, with its high ceiling of exposed steel joints, graffiti-covered concrete walls and massive dance floor, was larger than most, but that night, there were enough gyrating figures under the hanging disco lights to make it almost claustrophobic.  I was grateful for the crush, since it made it less likely that anyone would notice me.  I slipped in the back way and didn’t encounter any problems.  At least, not of the gun-waving, homicidal variety. 
            One of the bartenders had called in sick so they were shorthanded, and Mike tried to talk me into subbing as soon as he saw me.  Normally I wouldn’t have minded, since my usual job as one of his novelty acts didn’t provide much in tips.  I read tarot three nights a week, although I’ve never liked the cards.  I used them because it’s expected, but I don’t need to squint at archaic images to know what’s about to happen.  My visions come in Technicolor and surround sound, and are a lot more complete.  But most people would have preferred a standard reading to what I gave out.  Like I said, I’m better at Seeing the bad stuff.  Tonight, though, I declined the chance to make a few bucks.  I didn’t think bartending was the way I wanted to spend my last hour. 
            “What’s the word?,” Mike yelled at me cheerfully, doing a Tom Cruise with the liquor bottles to the rowdy appreciation of the crowd. 
            I sighed and dug in my purse.   My fingers clenched around the greasy tarot deck that had been a tenth birthday gift from my old governess, Eugenie.  She’d had a charm put on the cards by some witch with a sense of humor, and I kept it with me because it was good for entertaining customers.  But the predictions--which acted like a kind of karmic mood ring--had an eerie habit of being right on the money.  I held it up and a card popped out.  It wasn’t one I wanted to see.  “The Tower,” a booming voice began, before I shoved it back in the pack and deep into my purse. 
            “Is that good?,” Mike asked, before getting distracted by a pretty blonde’s cleavage. I merely nodded and hurried off, losing myself in the crowd before he could hear anything else.  The voice was only a muffled croak from my overcrowded bag, but I didn’t need to hear it to know what it said.  The Tower signifies a huge, cataclysmic change, the kind that leaves a life completely altered.  I tried to tell myself that it could have been worse--it could have been Death--but it wasn’t much comfort.  The Tower is probably the most feared card in the deck.  Death can have many meanings, most not the literal one, but the Tower always indicates trouble for anyone who wants a quiet life.  I sighed--what else was new?
            I finally located Tomas in the Dungeon--Mike’s nickname for the basement room--wading through a sea of black-clad bodies with a tray of used glasses.  He looked edible as usual, if your thing is slender muscles, skin like honey over cream and sable hair that brushes his waist when he doesn’t keep it pulled back.  His face should look too rugged to be handsome, all high cheekbones and strong angles, but the delicacy of some of the features make up for it.  His hair was off his face in a thick braid, a sure sign he was working since he prefers it loose, but a few pieces had worked free and billowed about his head in fine strands.  Mike had picked out the outfit: a black silk shirt knitted in a cobweb design that revealed more than it covered, sleek black jeans that fit him like a second skin and black leather boots that climbed halfway up his thighs.  He looked like he ought to be headlining at a strip club instead of waiting tables, but the exotic, melt-in-your-mouth sex appeal pushed a lot of buttons for the Goths.  I didn’t exactly find it hard on the eyes, either.
            Mike had decided about a year ago that Atlanta had enough country and western bars, so he turned the family drinking hole into a progressive heaven upstairs and a Goth dream in the basement.  Some locals had grumbled, but the younger crowd loved it.  Tomas looked like he’d been designed for the place right along with the décor, and he brought in a lot of business, but it worried me that he spent half of every night fending off propositions.  At least, I assumed he fended them off, since he never brought anyone back to the apartment.  But I sometimes wondered, given his background, if getting him that particular job hadn’t been one of my dumber moves. 
            Tomas looked a lot better than when I first saw him, hanging out at the local shelter with the kind of dead eyes that I was familiar with from my own street days.  Lisa Porter, the manager and self-designated mother hen of the place, introduced us when I stopped by for one of my erratic volunteer sessions.  We got to talking while sorting the newest donated clothes into piles of the useable, the needs repair and the good-only-for-cleaning-rags.  It says something about Tomas’s personality that I mentioned him to Mike that very night, and that he was hired after a brief interview the next day.  Mike said he was the smartest hire he ever made--never sick, never complained, and looked like a dream.  I wasn’t so sure about that last part: the look was striking all right, but I personally thought he needed a pimple or a scar, some mark on all that pale gold skin to make him seem more real.  He resembled the undead more than most vampires I knew, and had their unconscious poise and quiet assurance to boot.  But he was alive, and as long as I got my seriously jinxed self away from him, he’d probably stay that way. 
            “Tomas, got a minute?” 
            I don’t think he heard me over the music, which the DJ kept painfully loud, but he nodded.  I wasn’t supposed to be there yet, so he knew something was up.  We carved a path through the crowd, which earned me a dirty look from a woman with purple dreads and black lipstick for stealing off with the main attraction.  Or maybe it was my happy face t-shirt and earrings she didn’t like.  I usually did the Goth thing, or as close as I could get without looking truly awful--strawberry blondes don’t wear black well--but that was when I was working.  I found out pretty early that no one takes a fortune teller seriously if she shows up in pastels.  But on my days off I reserved the right not to look like I was going to a funeral.  My life is depressing enough without help.
            We ducked behind the bar to the back room.  It was quieter there, which meant we could hear each other if we stood close and shouted, but the noise was less of a problem than looking into Tomas’s face and figuring out what to say.  Like me, he’d been on the street early.  Unlike me, he’d had nothing to trade but himself.  I didn’t like the look that came into his eyes whenever I asked about his past, so I normally avoided it, but it was probably a variation on the usual theme.  Most street kids have the same story to tell, revolving around being used, abused and thrown out with the trash.  I’d thought I was doing him a favor, letting him stay in my spare room and getting him a real job for a change, but a share in Tony’s wrath was a high price to pay for six months of stability. 
            Our relationship was not close enough to help me figure out how to keep Tomas safe without looking like I was bailing on him.  Part of the problem was that neither of us liked opening up, and it didn’t help that we’d gotten off to a rough start.  I came out of the bathroom the night he moved in to find him lounging nude on my bed, his hair spread out like an ink blot against my white sheets.  I’d stood there, clutching my Winnie the Pooh towel and gaping at him, while he stretched like a big cat on my feather comforter, all sleek muscles and boneless grace.  He was completely unselfconscious and I could see why; he sure didn’t look like a starved street kid.  I’d never asked his age, but assumed he was younger than me. Which made him way too young to have that particular look in his eye. 
            I hadn’t been able to keep from following the path of one long fingered hand as he traced a line down the side of his body from nipples to groin.  It was a blatant invitation, and it took me a second to stop drooling and realize what was going on.  I finally figured out that he thought he was supposed to pay for his room in what he considered the usual way.  On the streets, there’s no such thing as free, so when I refused to take money, he assumed I wanted payment of another kind.  I should have tried to explain, to tell him that my whole life had been about being used and that I sure as hell wasn’t going to do it to someone else.  Maybe if I had, we’d have started to talk and cleared up a few things.  Unfortunately, what I did instead was to freak and toss him out of the bedroom, along with the blanket that I’d quickly thrown over him.  I don’t know what he thought about it all since we never discussed that night.  We eventually fell into a more or less relaxed routine, splitting the housework, cooking and shopping like any two roommates, but both of us guarded our secrets.  I’d catch him watching me with a strange expression sometimes, and I figured he was waiting for me to abandon him like everyone else.  I really hated it that I was about to do exactly that.  
            “Did you get off early?”  He touched my cheek and I stepped back, wanting to be further from those trusting eyes.  There was no escaping what I had to do, but I wasn’t looking forward to seeing his face shut down, and watching whatever faith he’d regained in people bleed away because of me.
            “No.”  I shifted feet and tried to think how not to make this sound like a rejection.  It wasn’t his fault that my life was spiraling down the toilet.  Again.  “I have to tell you something important, and you need to listen and do what I ask, ok?”
            “You’re going.”  I don’t know how he knew.  Maybe I had that look.  He’d probably seen it before.
            “I don’t have a choice.”  By mutual consent, we moved out the back door to the paved surface surrounding the stairs to street level.  Not much of a view, but at least it was quieter.  The air smelled of rain, but the downpour that had been building all afternoon was holding off.  If I hurried, maybe I could make the bus station before getting soaked.  “You know how I told you that I had some bad things happen a while ago?”
            “Yes, but there is nothing to worry about now.  I’m here.”  He smiled, and I didn’t like the look in his eyes.  I didn’t want him fond of me, didn’t want him to miss me.  Damn, this wasn’t going well.  I decided to quit trying for subtlety; it wasn’t my strong suit.
            “There’s some serious stuff going down soon, and I have to be gone before it hits the fan.”  It wasn’t much of an explanation, but how do you tell someone that the vampire gangster who raised you and who you tried your best to destroy has put a price on your head?   There was no way Tomas could understand the world I came from, not if I had all the time in the world to explain.  “You can have the stuff in the apartment, but take my clothes to the shelter.  Lisa will put them to good use.”  I had a momentary pang for my carefully assembled wardrobe, but it couldn’t be helped. 
            “Cass . . .”
            “I’ll talk to Mike before I go.  I’m sure he’ll let you bunk here for a week or two, in case anyone drops by the apartment looking for me.  It probably wouldn’t be good for you to go back there for a while.”  There was a studio apartment at the top of the building left over from the era when owners sometimes lived over their businesses.  Mike had used it fairly recently, so it should be in decent shape.  And I would definitely feel better knowing Tomas was staying there.  I didn’t like the idea of a bunch of enraged vamps descending on our place looking for me and finding him instead.   
            “Cassie,” Tomas took my hand gingerly, as if afraid I might snatch it away.  He thought I was uptight about being touched since that initial misunderstanding.  I’d never corrected him because I didn’t want to give the wrong impression and, frankly, it was easier to behave myself if I kept a little distance between us.  He didn’t need to be hit on at home as well as at work.  “I’m coming with you.”  He said it calmly, as if it was the most logical thing in the world. 
            I didn’t want to hurt him, but I could not stand there and argue the point with an assassin after me.  “You can’t.  I’m sorry, but two people are easier to find than one, and besides, if I’m caught . . .” I stopped because I couldn’t think how to tell him how bad it would be and not sound like a raving lunatic.  Of course, he’d probably seen enough weird things on the streets to make him more open minded than the cops, who treated anyone who started talking about vampires as a druggie or a psychotic.  But even if I could figure out a way to tell him, there wasn’t time. 
            “I’m sorry, I have to go.”  That wasn‘t how I wanted to say goodbye.  There were a lot of things I hadn’t told Tomas because I was afraid it would sound like I was coming on to him.  And now, when I could say whatever I wanted, I had to leave. 
            I started to pull away, but he held onto my hand and his grip was surprisingly strong.  Before I could insist that he let me go, I had a very familiar, totally unwelcome feeling creep over me.  The muggy night air was suddenly replaced by something colder, darker and far less friendly.  I don’t know what non-sensitives feel around vampires, but all my life I’ve been able to tell when they’re near.  It’s like when people say that someone walks over their grave--kind of a shiver down the spine combined with a feeling of something being wrong.  I never feel that way around ghosts like norms sometimes do, but it hits me with vamps every time.  I looked up to see a dark shape silhouetted against the glare of the street lights for an instant, before it melted into the night and was gone.
            “Damn!”  I drew my gun and pushed Tomas back into the storeroom.  Not that it helped much; if Tony had sent vamps after me, we needed more protection than a simple door could give.  I’d seen Tony rip a solid oak plank off its hinges in one movement of his delicate, ring covered hands, just because he couldn’t find his key and was in a mood.
            “What is it?”
            “Somebody I don’t want to see.”  I looked at Tomas and got a vision of his face streaked with blood and his serene gaze empty with death.  It wasn’t a Seeing, just my brain coming up with its usual worst case scenario, but it was enough to help me prioritize.  The vamps wouldn’t come in and slaughter half the club looking for me.   Tony was too afraid of the Senate to ok mass murder, but he wouldn’t think twice about removing some street kid who got in his way.  It was the same attitude he’d demonstrated when he orphaned me at the age of four to insure himself complete control over my abilities.  My parents were an obstacle to his ambition, so they were removed.  Simple. And the Senate wasn’t likely to fuss over something that could be passed off as regular old gang activity.  Priority number one, then, was to get Tomas out of the line of fire.  “I have to get out of here or I’ll endanger everybody.  But now they might come after you since they saw us talking.  They’ll think you know where I’m going.” 
            I dragged him back through the storeroom, trying to think.  I’d been a fool to come here, to let them see Tomas and me together.  Despite being told otherwise on a regular basis, half the people at the club assumed he was my lover.  If Tony’s thugs started asking about him and anyone told them that, they’d torture him to death trying to find me.  I should have known better than to get involved, even platonically, with anyone.  I was like some kind of poison--get anywhere near me, and you’re lucky if you just die.  Somehow, I had to get Tomas away as well as myself and, like me, he could never hope to return.  Some life I’d helped him build. 
            There was also the problem that the vamp had let us go.  I’d seen them look like they dissolved into the wind, they could move so quickly.  He’d had more than enough time in those few seconds to strike, swift as a snake, or to shoot me from a nice, safe distance.  Vamps didn’t really need guns against mortals, but the Senate preferred hits to look as natural as possible, so most of Tony’s guys carried them.  He might have suspected I was armed, too, but I doubted he feared my gun even if he didn’t know how bad a shot I was.  The best I could hope for would be to slow him down.  No, I was alive because whoever was out there had been ordered to play the game.  The obit had said 8:43 and 8:43 it would be.  I could hear Tony telling the family that he’d arranged a last little Seeing for his Prophet, and this time, she didn’t even have to do the work herself.  I wondered if they planned to kill me here and carry me over to Peachtree, or if they’d simply overwhelm my mind and have me walk there like the proverbial sheep to slaughter.   I wasn’t real keen on either plan. 
            I licked suddenly dry lips.  “Ok, here.  Put this on and get your coat.  Tuck your hair up.”  Mike had left one of his many baseball caps on a storage shelf and I grabbed it, but no way was all that hair going underneath it.  “We need to find somebody who has a coat with a hood you can borrow.  You’re too easy to identify.”  Maybe one of the Goths would loan us a cape.  If I could make Tomas look different enough, he might be able to sneak away while the vamps were concentrating on me.
            “Cassie, listen.  There is . . .” I never found out what Tomas had been about to say because the door we’d just entered slammed open as if the lock wasn’t even there, and five huge vampires rushed into the room.  They looked like a bunch of linebackers who had joined a grunge band--all bulging muscles and shoulder length, greasy hair.
            For one frozen moment, we all stared at each other.  Size is pretty much irrelevant when you’re undead, but Tony likes them big, I guess for the intimidation factor.  It worked--I was intimidated.  The fact that they weren’t bothering to hide their real faces under polite masks didn’t help.  I knew what a vampire looks like when hunting--I’d seen it enough times--but it was still the stuff of nightmares.  I had time to wonder if I’d live long enough to need to worry about bad dreams before they moved in a blur of motion.  I got a shot off into one in the general area of his heart, but it didn’t stop him.  I hadn’t thought it would.  Not that it mattered: I hadn’t expected to rank five vamp assassins, and no way could I deal with those odds.  Tony must be even more pissed than I’d thought.


Chapter Two

            The gun was snatched from my hand and I was smashed into the mason block wall, face first.  In the same breath, my arm was wrenched up so far behind me that I was afraid it would break.  I didn’t see what happened then because I was too busy getting a concrete facial, but I heard what sounded like every metal shelving unit in the place being turned over.  Someone gave a roar of rage, then a swell of power billowed through the room like a hot wind, crashing against my skin in a hail of sparks.  If I’d had enough breath I would have screamed, both at the sensation and at the sheer pettiness of the bastard who wouldn’t even allow me a tiny chance of escape.  Not only had Tony sent a whole squad of vamps after me, at least one of them simply had to be a master.  No one else could summon that kind of power, not even five ordinary vamps working together.  And it wasn’t just any old master either. 
            Most vamps spend their immortal lives as little more than slaves, serving whoever made them without the ability to break away or to refuse an assignment.  But some, usually those who were the strongest willed in life, gain power over time.  When they reach master level, they can make other vampires to serve them, and are usually given some autonomy by their makers.  Seventh level is the lowest master rank, and most never progress past it; but for those who do, each additional step up the ladder gains them new abilities and more freedom.  I’d been around master vamps all my life, up to third level ones like Tony, and I’d seen plenty of them lose their tempers.  But it had never before felt like their power might actually burn holes in my skin.  It seemed impossible that Tony had talked a senior vamp, second or first level, into taking on a sordid little assassination--offing me wasn’t exactly a challenge--but there wasn’t any other explanation.
            I yelled for Tomas to run, even knowing it wouldn’t do any good, and my vamp decided I must not be in enough pain if I could make all that noise.  He lowered the hand holding the back of my head to my neck and squeezed.  I remember thinking that, if I was lucky, he’d choke me to death before he remembered to bring me over.  It didn’t make for a great night for me, but it was better than looking at Tony’s ugly face for eternity. 
            A few seconds later, when I was beginning to see dots swirling around my vision and to hear a roaring in my ears, the vamp gave a high pitched scream and the pressure suddenly let up.  I gasped and fell to my knees, struggling to get a deep breath past my burning throat, while he flopped around in front of me, screeching as if he was literally being torn apart.  It took me a few seconds to figure out what was wrong with him, since it wasn’t an everyday occurrence.  A big hint was the warm, almost liquid feeling tracing a lopsided pentagram on my back, as if someone had drizzled heated oil over my skin.  Another clue was that the vamp’s arm and part of his chest were covered in lines that glowed gold as they sizzled and popped, cooking the flesh between them and the bone.  As I watched, one molten welt obscured the small indentation over his breast where my bullet had gone in and kept going.  I stared at him in paralyzed shock.  From the shape of the marks, it was pretty obvious that my ward had flared to life. 
            That was ironic considering that Tony must have been the one to have it worked into my skin in the first place.  I’d always thought he’d been gypped: its original pentagram shape had stretched as I grew older, and all I’d ended up with was an ugly tattoo that covered half my back and part of my left shoulder.  But although it wasn’t a very good looking design anymore, it seemed to work pretty well.  However, the vamp who attacked me wasn’t a master--that surge of energy had come from somewhere behind us--and how my ward would fair against one of the big boys was an open question.  I was pretty impressed that it had done this much; the only time it had flared up before, it hadn’t put on nearly as much of a show.  It had only burnt the would-be mugger’s arm, singeing him enough that I was able to get away.  Of course, then it had been a human trying to rip my head off.  Maybe it became stronger depending on the strength of the one it was fighting?  I had a bad feeling I was going to find out.
              I know something about wards, since Tony always kept two wardsmiths on staff to maintain the fortress of magical protections around his home and businesses.  I’d learned from them that there are three main categories: perimeter wards, energy wards and protection wards.  Perimeter wards are what Tony uses as camouflage when he’s up to something illegal--in other words, constantly.  Energy wards are more complex: at their best, they are better than Prozac at relieving stress and helping people work through emotional problems.  At their worst, which is the way Tony usually used them, they could allow him to influence important business negotiations. Everyone within the perimeter of the wards would start to feel very mellow, and suddenly decide that cut-throat tactics were too much trouble when they could simply do whatever Tony wanted.  There are two types or protection wards: personal shields and guards.  Eugenie instructed me in the first type when I was a kid.  Without them, I could even sense the ghosts of ghosts--the thin energy trails stretching back in time like glowing lines on a map, telling me that once, maybe hundreds of years ago, a spirit had passed by.  The older I got, the more distracted I became by the impressions, not surprisingly since Tony’s old mansion was sandwiched between an Indian burial ground and a colonial cemetery.  Eugenie had finally tired of my mind wandering during lessons and gave me the tools to shield against them.  She taught me to sense my energy field, what some people call an aura, then use my power to build a hedge around it for protection.  Eventually, my shields became automatic, filtering out anything except active spirits in the here and now. 
            But shields are only as powerful as the person building them, since they usually draw on personal power, and most aren’t enough to thwart a major spiritual or physical attack.  That’s where guards wards come in.  Crafted by a group of magic users, they are designed to protect a person, object, or location from harm.  They can be set to fend off danger, usually by turning the evil intent back on its sender or, in cases like mine, insuring that anyone touching me with harm in mind ends up screaming in agony. 
            These types of wards are big business in the supernatural community.  Tony once paid a wardsmith a small fortune to craft a special perimeter/protection combo for a convoy of ships carrying some highly illegal substances.  He was supposed to make them look like old garbage scowls to any observers--not the sort of thing the authorities enjoy searching too thoroughly.  But the guy was young and careless, and the wards failed right as the ships were heading into port--almost in front of a Coast Guard patrol.  Tony lost the cargo and the wardsmith lost his life.  I had been too young when my ward was done to remember the experience, but whoever had crafted it knew what they were doing. Tony must have paid a pretty penny for it, although this was probably one instance when he wished he’d gone cut rate.
            My eyes had begun to water from the stench of frying vampire flesh, not something you smell everyday, and I gagged for a moment before suddenly realizing that I could move again.  I looked around frantically for my weapon, before almost immediately giving up and scrambling around the edge of a shelving unit.  There was no sign of my 9 mm, and no way was I going to make it to the door without it.  And the few boxes on the unit that formed my sad excuse for a hiding spot were not going to fool anybody for long.  No weapon, no way to hide and only a warped ward for protection.  I decided on the better part of valor, also known as running and hiding, and started backing down the aisle.
            If I could avoid the master vamp for a minute, maybe I could make it to the small door leading to the unfinished part of the basement.  It had no doorway to the rest of the club, but abutted the wall behind the far end of the bar.  If I was out of sight, there was a tiny chance the vamp’s senses might be confused and he’d assume I’d slipped into the bar again.  That might buy me a few seconds to sneak out the back, if he didn’t do the
smart thing and leave one of his guys to watch it.  Of course, even if he did, my ward might take out another low level vamp.   Then again, it might not.
            I finally reached the half-sized door at the end of the last row of shelves, but hadn’t even gotten it open before I heard a crash and an inhuman scream behind me.  I looked over my shoulder, expecting to see one or more murderous vamps headed my way.  It took my panicked brain a few seconds to realize that the person floating down the aisle was Portia, and that the sound of fighting was coming from several aisles over. 
            “I told you I would bring help, Cassie!”  Her face was shining with excitement and the little rows of curls on either side of her head bobbed as she turned to gesture dramatically behind her.  What looked like an entire Confederate brigade had muscled into the storeroom, even though there’s no way it could have held anywhere near that many people.  I’d seen that trick before--metaphysics tells regular old physics to go take a hike sometimes--but it was still impressive.
            A dashing officer with a long mustache swept me a bow.  “Captain Beauregard Lewis, at your service, ma’am.”  He looked kind of like Custer, an observation that probably wouldn’t have gone down well if I’d been dumb enough to make it.  But before I could say anything, a vamp reached through the shelving and the Captain’s insubstantial middle and grabbed me around the throat. 
            Beauregard unsheathed his sword and I had half a second to wonder what he thought he was going to do before it came down in a flashing arc that took off the vamp’s arm at the elbow.  He yelled and so did I, in my case because I’d been sprayed with a warm sheet of blood and because the severed arm was still tight around my throat, fingers digging for my windpipe.  Vamp bodies don’t die unless both head and heart are destroyed, so the arm was trying to complete the last order it had been given and choke me to death.  Beauregard tried to pry it off, but his hand went right through me.
            “I sure am sorry, ma’am,” he said, while my vision threatened to go dark for the second time that night.  “But I used most of my energy on that blow.”  He shook his head sadly.  “Time has caused us to sadly diminish.”  He looked like he expected me to say something, but it’s a little hard to sympathize when you can’t draw a breath and fireworks are going off behind your eyelids.
            The vamp made another lunge at me, but Portia managed to trip him with her parasol.  “Get him!,” she cried, and the battalion, which had been merely observing the scene until now, moved as one churning, massive river of gray.  It was one of those moments when your eyes cross as the brain tells them they can’t be seeing what they say they are.  Several thousand troops converged on the same point, falling into it like water disappearing down a drain.  Only the drain in question wasn’t designed for that kind of thing and sure as hell didn’t like it.  The vamp started ricocheting off shelving units, his one arm flapping as if he could somehow beat off the invasion, while his skin turned a mottled shade of purple. 
            By the time I managed to pry the fingers around my neck loose and throw the arm on the floor, he had stopped moving, frozen like a statue at the end of the aisle.   I tried to keep an eye on him, but was distracted by the severed arm, which was trying to scrabble across the floor and grab me.  I wasn’t real clear on what was happening, but my best guess was that each ghost was freezing a tiny bit of the vamp, turning him into a big, ugly Popsicle.  I had just begun to wonder what would happen when all those spirits tried to escape from his now unyielding flesh when the explosion came.  I’d grabbed a wine bottle and started hitting the arm, so I missed the big event.  All I know is that I ended up covered in icy bits of vampire flesh that hit me like tiny hailstones. 
            Portia drifted over, avoiding the repulsive floor by simply not touching it.  She twirled her lacy parasol and beamed at me.  “We must go, Cassie.  That took a lot out of the boys and they need to rest.  But we want you to know that we had a lovely time!”   She took Beauregard’s arm and curtsied while he made another bow, then they vanished along with the crowd that flowed out of the vamp’s remains. 
            I sat in the middle of a patch of melting goo, too stunned for action, and rubbed my neck.  My face stung from where the storm of vamp parts had hit me, but my throat was more of an issue.  I couldn’t seem to swallow, and it had me worried.  I might have sat there quite a while, watching vamp bits melt and fall off the shelving, but Tomas appeared around the edge of the passage. 
            “Hurry!,” he grabbed me by the wrist and hauled me into the main part of the room.  I yelped in pain--he’d taken hold of the same wrist the vamp had almost twisted off--and in surprise at seeing him alive.  I’d pretty much written us both off, but now it occurred to me to wonder who had been fighting with the vamps if Portia‘s group had been with me.  His hand was dripping blood and for a second I thought it was his, but I couldn’t see a wound.  My yell must have startled him, because he abruptly let go and I slumped to the floor, wheezing and choking at the strain the scream had put on my abused throat.  It was then, while cradling my wrist to my chest and trying not to be sick, that I noticed the bodies. 
            Other than my first attacker, who was now minus an arm and making gurgling sounds as the ward ate through his chest, the only one still moving was trapped under a shelving unit that looked like it had been torn from the wall and thrown on top of him.  It had contained a bunch of metal sheets left over from the urban warehouse theme Mike had done on the club, which had been salvaged from a condemned factory.  They weren’t some designer’s idea of stylish metal siding, but the real thing--thick, razor edged pieces that Mike had had to be extra careful when installing.  The box had apparently gotten up some momentum when the shelving was tossed around, making the sheets into lethal projectiles that had sliced up the vamp like a loaf of bread.  He must have fed recently, because enough blood had poured from the multiple gashes to spread across the floor like a crimson blanket. 
            None of the strips had taken off his head or pierced his heart, however, so despite his gruesome injuries, he continued to live.  He looked in my direction, and I saw him struggle to raise the gun he clutched in one hand.  Tomas noticed and without hesitation walked over and pulled out the metal sheet imbedded in the vamp’s abdomen.  He brought it down in a series of quick, meaty sounding thuds while I stared at him in openmouthed disbelief.  Within a few seconds, the thing on the floor resembled a pile of raw hamburger more than a person. 
            The vamp’s eyes continued to glare at me in hatred, aware of what was happening even as he was butchered, and I couldn’t scream, couldn’t do anything.  I’d been in some tight spots before, but the nerves forget what it is to remain bowstring-tight every minute of every day when you don’t have to live that way anymore.  I watched Tomas sever the vamp’s head from his body with a final jarring thud, and let out the breath I hadn’t even known I was holding.  We were alive.  I couldn’t believe it, and I sure as hell didn’t understand it. 
            Growing up at Tony’s had given me a fairly high tolerance for violence, so I was sort of holding things together until I noticed that the corpses of the fourth and fifth vamps had gaping, ragged holes where their hearts should have been.  Staking is the traditional and still most popular way of dealing with a vamp, but I guess ripping the heart out manually works, too, although I’d never seen it done that way.  I was thinking that I could live without ever seeing it again when I looked at Tomas and, suddenly, the room fell away. 
            Normally, I get some kind of warning when I’m about to have a vision.  Not that I can stop them, but the thirty seconds or so of disorientation that precedes them gives me time to get out of other people’s sight and lets me mentally prepare.  This time, I got nothing.  It was as if the floor just gave way and I fell down a long, dark tunnel.  When I landed, Tomas stood about six feet from me on a grassy plain that seemed to go on forever under a pale blue sky.  His skin was burnished bronze instead of sun kissed cream and he was dressed in a sleeveless, dirty woolen tunic instead of Goth chic, but it was definitely him.  His eyes were wild, glittering like two dark jewels in his face, and his expression was triumphant.  A group of similarly dressed men surrounded him, all looking like their favorite team had just won the Super Bowl. 
            Waves crashed onto a rocky shore nearby, their color a green so deep it was almost black, and sent a cold breeze inland in icy gusts.  It would have been a stark but beautiful scene if not for the couple of dozen bodies lying around.  Most of them looked European, with the closest in an outfit that could have come out of an under-funded pirate movie: white cotton shirt with full sleeves, brown linen knee pants and soiled white hose.  The man had lost his shoes and his hair was as wild as his expression.
            As I watched in horrified fascination, Tomas thrust a crude bronze knife into the man’s still heaving chest and cut a deep gash that ripped it open from neck to belly.  Heat from the wound mixed with the cold air to cause a cloud of steam to rise up, but it wasn’t thick enough to keep me from seeing him tear through the ribs like he was snapping twigs.  Bright rivulets of blood bathed his hand as he brought out the trembling heart and held it aloft, then slowly, as if savoring the moment, he began to lower it to his mouth.  His teeth sank into quivering flesh that was still trying to beat, then tore through a pulsing vein that sent a stream of blood gushing across his face and down his chin.  The cascade pooled in the hollow in his throat, then sent red fingers down his chest into his tunic, leaving abstract designs behind so that he looked like he was wearing war paint.  His throat convulsed and he swallowed, causing a cheer to go up from the watching warriors.
              I must have made some type of noise, because he looked across at me and, flashing red stained teeth in a horrible parody of a smile, held out the grisly mass of flesh as if to offer to share.  He took a step forward and I realized I was rooted to the spot, unable to stop him, unable to get away, as that dripping hand with its gruesome offering came closer.  My paralysis finally broke and I screamed. 
            It hurt my throat, but there was no way I could have held it back.  The vision shattered and I was back in the gory store room, staring wildly at the new Tomas who, for a split second, was superimposed on the old.  His tongue slid out to lick up a tiny drop of red at the corner of his mouth, so small that it had been unnoticeable until he drew attention to it.  I remember thinking that old habits die hard, right before I began shrieking at the top of my lungs. 
            He took a step towards me, hands held out in front of him as if to show how harmless he was, and I saw that they were almost clean again.  As he came closer, a final stain on the pad of one palm dissolved, vanishing into his skin like a drop of water into desert sand.  I realized that I was scuttling backwards like a crab, crying and swearing, but I didn’t care.  I slipped in blood and went down, and screamed harder when I saw that my legs were covered in red, like roses had bloomed on my hose and boots.  Tomas came towards me slowly, speaking calmly like I was a skittish colt he was trying to tame.  “Cassie, please listen.  We’ve bought some time, but we must go.  There will be others.” 
            I slipped again and fell on my butt, bruising it on something hard.  Some part of my brain that was still coherent recognized the shape of the object, and I snatched my gun from beneath me.  “Don’t come any closer or I’ll kill you.”  I pointed it at Tomas and, despite the fact that it was shaking wildly in my less than steady grip, I could tell he knew I meant it.  His eyes, usually soft and warm and open, were opaque black mirrors now.  I couldn’t see anything past them, and I didn’t want to.  God, I didn’t want to. 
            “Cassie, you must listen to me.”  I looked into that handsome face, and some part of me detached itself to watch another illusion shatter and die.  I thought I’d finally done something good, that I’d actually helped someone, saved somebody, instead of always watching every damn thing I did end in pain--either mine or someone else’s.  I should have known it was too good to be true, that he was too good.  Way out of your league, Cassie my girl, I thought as my back hit the door.  Maybe you should start smaller, adopt a kitten next time, only I knew there was very little chance that there would be a next time. 
            I could hear the thud of music from the club through the door, some kind of chant mixed with techno, and it sounded like heaven.  I wanted to lose myself in the crowd, make my way up to the street and run like hell.  I was the hiding champ, and in the tourist district it would be easy to become an anonymous member of the happy, Friday night throng.  I had a separate bank account under yet another fake name, an emergency stash
of nondescript clothes in a locker at the bus station, and I’d memorized every back alley in a fifteen block radius.  I’d get away all right, if only I could lose Tomas. 
            I slowly slid up the door, using it to steady myself and cursing my high heels.  My skirt rode up but I didn’t bother to straighten it; flashing Tomas was the least of my worries.  I felt behind me with a hand slick with blood and finally found the doorknob.  I fell through the opening on unsteady legs, slammed the door behind me and scrambled around the bar.  I couldn’t get a deep breath and my body convulsed like it wanted to be sick, but I held on.  I didn’t have time for that now. 
            The light show had started, and the bouncing, gyrating mass of dancers was slashed through by blinding blasts from the strobes.  The pulsing rhythm and the noise of the crowd made me immediately deaf, but I didn’t need to hear Tomas to know he was back there.  The strobes leached the color from the blood on me, turning it alternately black and silver.  The low lighting let me blend in without causing a stampede, although I doubted I looked normal.  I slithered through every opening, trying to think as I ran, but my higher brain wasn‘t home and all my instincts said was “faster!”  I tried, because there was nothing else to do but wait for him to catch me, but I already knew it wouldn’t be enough. 
            I was halfway across the dance floor when Tomas grabbed me.  He spun me around to face him, and I felt a hand slide through the burnt back of my tee shirt to meld our bodies together.  It probably looked like we were dancing to everyone else; only I knew that I couldn’t pull away.  He had an iron grip on my gun hand, forcing the weapon down to my side and away from him.  I wouldn’t have tried to fire anyway.  My palm was so sweaty I was having trouble just holding onto the thing, and there were too many people around to risk a shot going wild.  Besides, unless I missed my guess, a bullet wouldn’t do much more than irritate him. 
            His fingers slid up my naked spine to the outline of my ward.  He traced the edges almost reverently. “I heard stories of this, but never believed them.”  His voice was full of something that sounded like awe.  Somehow he made me hear him despite the deafening music, but I wasn’t interested in conversation.  I twisted, trying futilely to break his hold, and cursed the useless ward.  It must have been exhausted by the previous fight or else it didn’t work against those at his level, because it had no reaction to his touch.
            “Cassie, look at me.” 
            I fought him, knowing from childhood that looking a vampire directly in the eyes made it easier for him to control you.  After the scene in the storeroom, there was no doubt in my mind what he was, and I desperately didn’t want him in my head.  Given that he’d gone right under my vamp radar and posed as human for months, there was no chance that I was dealing with less than a third-level master, and possibly higher.  Make that probably, considering that, on rare occasions, I’d seen him walk around in full daylight, which even Tony couldn’t do without risking a lot worse than a sun burn.  Not that his level mattered; if he felt like it, any master could have me clucking like a chicken with little more than a glance. 
            Once, I’d had a level of protection from that sort of thing, but with my old defender the very one wanting me dead, I was fair game; no one would even revenge any harm that came to me.  For all I knew, Tomas would get a bounty for bringing me in.  Tony didn’t mind paying for revenge, and considering how much I’d cost him, he’d probably pay up with a smile.  Was that why Tomas had killed the other vamps, seeing them as rivals for his reward?  How the hell much was Tony offering for me, anyway?  And why had Tomas waited so long to cash in?
            I struggled and fought but everyone ignored us, I guess under the assumption that I was merely a lousy dancer.  Tomas just clasped me tighter.  Considering how seldom I touched him, it felt weird to be held so intimately now.  It was hard to remember that this was Tomas.  My brain had put him firmly in the friend category and was resisting moving him over to the file labeled psycho-assassin vampire.  The way he was holding me wasn’t helping the confusion--his hand felt a lot more than friendly as it slid up and down my almost bare back, pulling me into a dance far slower and more sensual than the music called for. 
            Unlike the legends, his body felt warm against mine and as smooth as muscled satin, but he may as well have been carved of steel for all the hope I had of breaking his hold.  My pulse sped up and I thought I would faint when he bent his head and I felt lips trailing over my neck.  I think my heart actually stopped as he delicately kissed the skin as if tasting the pulse under the surface.  It felt like my blood could sense him; that it moved slower and thicker in my veins, waiting for him to set it free.  I broke out in a sweat that had nothing to do with the heat of so many bodies crowded into a small place.  Was he going to kill me right there, in front of a couple of hundred witnesses?  A chill ran through me when I realized that he could probably get away with it.  He could definitely carry my body off and no one would think anything about it; all they’d see was Tomas taking care of his roommate who’d fainted in the heat.  What a gentleman.
            I should have known something like this was going to happen.  Every time I trusted someone they betrayed me; every time I loved someone, they died.  Since Tomas was already dead, I guessed the pattern held true. 
            “Please don’t fight me.”   His breath over my clammy skin made me shiver.  The suggestion ran like a drug through my veins, bathing me in a comfortable, rosy glow that took away some of the fear and most of the pain, but also made it harder to think.  It wasn’t as strong as if I’d made eye contact, but it still made me feel like I was surrounded by heavy water instead of air, with every tiny movement more of a struggle than it should have been.  Not that it mattered: my efforts were doing nothing except sending dull pains through my sore wrist and exciting him.   Nothing showed on his face, but his body was not as fully under control, and I could feel him stretched tight and firm against his jeans. 
            He brushed warm lips over mine.  “I don’t intend to hurt you,” he whispered.  If there had been any point, I’d have reminded him that whether he did the assassination himself or merely turned me over to Tony, the end result would be the same.  But I didn’t have time to say anything before his lips ghosted over mine again, then suddenly his control snapped and he covered my mouth in a bruising kiss that had none of the previous gentleness. 
            His arms tightened, pressing me against every inch of him, kissing me almost desperately, like a starving man at a feast.  That strong hand slipped further down my back until it found the edge of my short leather skirt and pushed it up.  He suddenly lifted me completely off the floor and settled me against his waist, so that I had to twine my legs around him or fall, and the sensory overload was enough that it took me a minute to
realize that he was dancing us back towards the storeroom.  Apparently, he preferred his kills to be private. 
            He was still kissing me when the first burst of energy radiated off him, sending a shudder down to my fingertips.  Either something had broken his concentration or he wasn’t bothering to shield anymore.  And why should he?  I was probably the only sensitive there, and I already knew what he was.  He may have looked the same to everyone else, but to me, it was like his skin had been dipped in molten gold, causing him to shine like a miniature sun in the dark room.  The amount of energy pouring off him raised little hairs all along my arms and at the back of my neck as it swirled and crackled around us.  The very air seemed to gain weight, feeling like it does right before a storm breaks--everything was suddenly clearer, brighter, and more sharp-edged.  All that force soon found a focus.  It hit me like high tide at the ocean, drenching me in wave after wave of his power, making it hard to remember why I was fighting, or much of anything else. 
            He broke off the kiss and I made a small, involuntary sound of protest before he slid his mouth down to my neck again.  But this time I didn’t mind; this time, it seemed a curiously tender gesture, although a small part of my brain noted that his hair fell across my ruined shirt, hiding it from the brighter lights near the bar.  Lucille, who was filling an order a couple of yards away, gave me a surprised thumbs up as we slipped behind the counter.  I didn’t try to call for help.  I rationalized it by asking what Lucille could do against even a baby vamp, much less a master.  The truth, though, was that I simply didn’t care.                  But Tomas must have thought I was about to be foolish, or maybe he didn’t want to take chances.  He kissed me again, and whatever his motives, there was no doubt that he knew what he was doing.  The silken feel of his lips on mine muddled my thoughts even more and, when we finally broke apart, I was too stunned to remember not to catch his gaze.  My mind immediately froze, all thoughts except Tomas simply not there anymore, like a switch had been thrown in my brain.  The light dimmed and the music receded until all I could see was his face and all I could hear was the pounding of my pulse in my ears. 
            Why had I never noticed the way his eyes tilted so enticingly upward?  The lashes were a black silk fringe around the tiny flames the bar’s lighting caused to dance in his pupils.  Something in me reacted to the heat I saw in that stare, because my hands acquired a will of their own and began tracing the flat planes of his stomach through the insubstantial barrier of his shirt.  All that seemed to matter was the feel of those hard muscles under that silky skin; all I wanted was to work my way up to his neck and bury my hands in that gleaming fall of midnight hair, to see if it was as soft, thick and heavy as it looked.  But then I was distracted by the sight of a dusky nipple bared by one of the many gaps in his shirt, the sort of thing that had driven me to distraction more times than I could count.  I discovered that it tasted as good as it looked, as good as I’d always known it would, and it tightened nicely under the efforts of my lips and teeth as if it had been longing for my touch. All things considered, I barely noticed when Tomas dragged me back into the store room and shut the door with his foot. 
            He drew a deep, shuddering breath and slowly pulled away from me.  After a moment he spoke in a hoarse voice completely unlike his usual tones.  “Give me the gun, Cassie.  Someone could get hurt if it accidentally goes off.”  The sound of his voice, harsh and curiously flat, cleared my head a little.  Seeing my first attacker helped, too.  He was lying in three pieces, having been eaten completely in half by the ward.  Through the wreck of his body, I could see blackened splinters where part of a lopsided pentagram had been burnt into the wooden floor.  I stared at the sight, feeling slightly dizzy and very odd.  All of a sudden, I got the joke: someone could get hurt.  Now that was funny. 
            I clutched Tomas to keep from falling, my gun dangling uselessly against his back.  He took it from my limp hand and tucked it away somewhere.  I didn’t see where he put it; it simply disappeared.  He was looking at me with concern, and suddenly that was funny, too.  I started to giggle.  I hoped Tony paid him well--he was a riot.
            “Cassie, I can carry you if you want, but we must go.”  He glanced at the clock on the wall.  It said 8:37. 
            “Look, we have time to make our appointment,” I was still giggling, and the voice didn’t sound like mine.  I vaguely realized that I was about to become hysterical, then Tomas moved.  The next thing I knew, I was back in his arms and we were outside, running along a darkened road so quickly that the streetlights all blurred together in a long, silver line.  A second later, several other dark shapes joined us, one on either side. 
            “Sleep,” Tomas commanded as the world raced past.  I realized that I was terribly tired and sleep seemed a very good idea.  I felt warm and comfortable, although my head was spinning so much that it looked like the night sky rushed down to meet us or that we were flying up to the stars.  I remember thinking dreamily, right before I drifted off, that as deaths go, this one wasn’t so bad.