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                             Midnight's Daughter


                                                  Chapter One

            My least favorite dead guy had his feet up on my desk.  I hate that.  His boots were probably cleaner than my blotter, but still.  It showed a lack of respect.
            I pushed the offending size tens into the floor and scowled.  “Whatever it is, the answer’s no.”
            “Okay, Dory.  Your call.”  Kyle was looking amiable–never a good sign.  “I should’ve known you wouldn’t care what happened to Claire.  After all, there’s not likely to be any money in it,” he paused to glance around my rathole of an office, “and you don’t appear to be in a position to do anything gratis.”
            I had been on the way to my feet to haul his undead ass out the door, but at his words I slowly sat back down.  Kyle was a real lowlife, even for a vamp, but once in a while he heard something useful–which explained why I hadn’t yet given into temptation and staked him.  And where Claire, my roommate and best friend, was concerned, I’d take anything I could get.  She’d been missing for almost a month, and I’d already gone through every lead I had.  Twice.  Before loser boy showed up, I’d been about to start through the file a third time in case I’d somehow missed something, even though I knew I hadn’t.  And every hour that passed made it less likely I’d be pleased with what I found at the end of the search.
            “Talk,” I said, hoping he’d make me beat it out of him.  I had a lot of pent up frustration that needed to go somewhere.  But, of course, he decided to find some manners.  Or what passes for them in our circle. 
            “Word is, she’s alive.  I thought she’d have been juiced and packed up for sale by now, but talk on the street is that she wasn’t kidnapped at all.” 
            By “juiced” he meant a disgusting black arts process in which a projective null, a witch or wizard capable of blocking out magic for a certain radius, is made into a weapon called a null bomb.  The null's energy is siphoned away to make a device capable of bringing all magic in an area to a standstill.  How far and how long the effect extends depends on the strength of the null being sacrificed—the younger and more powerful, the more energy she has to give.  And Claire was both very young and very powerful. 
            Making her even more attractive was the fact that the Harvesters, as the mages who specialize in the very illegal practice are known, could currently command a premium for their wares.  The Vampire Senate, the self-styled guardian of all North American vampires, was at war with the dark mages of the Black Circle, and the price for magical aids had gone through the roof.  The idea that someone had taken Claire to make into a tool for their stupid war was the main reason I was running myself ragged trying to find her.
            “The rumor is that she ran off with one of Michael’s crew,” Kyle was saying.  He leaned in to smile in my face, showing enough fang that I knew how much he was enjoying this.  He’d tried to chat me up when we first met and hadn’t taken my screams of laughter well.  He’d been waiting for something to throw in my face, and this was his big chance.  “Seems she got knocked up.”
            I smiled back.  “That little lie is going to cost you,” I promised, slipping a hand into my desk drawer.  Claire, the witch with girl power practically stamped on her forehead, running off with a lowlife connected with Michael’s stable?  Didn’t think so.
            Kyle held up grubby hands with telltale brown stains on them.  Leftovers from whoever had been lunch, I guessed.  I would have advised him that his love life might improve if he paid someone to scrape the dried blood out from under his nails once in a while, if I hadn’t thought he’d eat the manicurist. 
            “No lies, Dory.  Not between you and me.”  He sat back and crossed his legs, looking far too much at ease for my taste.  “And you haven’t heard the best part yet.  Rumor has it that the father’s not exactly human, if you know what I mean.”  His grin turned feral.  “Passing me up because you were afraid to bring another half-breed into the world was a waste of time, wasn’t it?  Looks like you’re about to be auntie to a bouncing baby dhampir.”
            I didn’t have to glance in the mirror behind his head to know that my expression hadn’t changed despite the shock.  After five hundred years of practice, anyone can perfect a decent poker face.  Even someone as naturally . . . expressive . . . as me. 
            “Actually, I shot you down because homicidal psychos with dog breath don’t turn me on,” I said pleasantly, pulling my hand out of the drawer and throwing an unstoppered vial in his face.  The holy water stuff is a myth, but there are other concoctions that don’t sit too well with the smarmy undead, and that was one of them.  The dragon’s blood wouldn’t kill him, but he wouldn’t look too good for a few days , either.  Of course, since it was Kyle, it was a good bet no one would notice the difference. 
            I tossed his screaming body out the window after he gave up the rest of the few facts he knew, like the name of a bar where I might locate a few of Michael’s thugs.  He bounced off the sidewalk three stories below and slammed into a parked car, denting the metal with his forehead before crawling off down the street.  Too bad it wasn’t daylight. 
            If Claire had been taken by the Harvesters, she was almost surely dead by now.  But there was a slim chance that Kyle the perpetually smarmy had actually heard something useful.  And any lead, however slim, was better than what I had. 
            I paused only long enough to grimace at my reflection, which looked almost as bad as I felt.  I needed makeup to conceal the dark circles that were currently almost as black as my eye color, and washing my greasy brown hair for the first time in a week wouldn’t hurt either.  No chance of doing the femme fatale thing tonight, but that was ok by me.  I get cranky without a full eight hours a night of beauty sleep, and since I’d had maybe that much in the past week, I was feeling surly.  I picked up a length of lead pipe and added it to the collection under my coat.  There were plenty of other ways to get information.

*   *   *
            An hour later, I was sitting on a pile of corpses, frowning.   The bar where I’d found two of Michael’s stable feasting on a half-dead teenager was now a wreck of shattered tables and broken glass.  I shifted to avoid the pool of multicolored blood seeping from the bodies under me and stared into the darkness outside.  Kyle, it seemed, had not been lying about everything.  As one of the boys had helpfully explained after I introduced his head to the bar top a few dozen times, Michael did have Claire.  And if Kyle hadn’t lied about that, there was the teeniest chance he hadn’t lied at all.  But I’d still have to see it to believe it.
            I tossed a handkerchief at the dazed boy leaning on the body of one of his recent attackers.  He looked at it blankly.  “For your neck,” I explained.  Vampires didn’t have to bite to feed–in fact, it was against the rules, since it left hard-to-explain corpses behind if they got carried away.  But no one had been paying much attention to the law lately.  Usually, that was the way I liked it, but it did leave me with a dilemma now. 
            Normally the mages would be willing to help a witch in a jam, especially a powerful null like Claire.   If for no other reason, she was a useful tool they didn’t want to lose to the magical black market.  The Silver Circle, the so-called white magic users, would have doubtless sent some of their thugs after Michael in more normal times, but I doubted they could spare any at the moment.  There was a war on, and they were allied with the Senate against an array of forces that were scary enough to make anyone blanch.  Not to mention that they hated my guts.  If I wanted Claire back, I was going to have to manage it myself. 
            “What,” the boy stopped, swallowed, and tried again.  “What were those . . . things?”
            I got up, moved around the bar and reached for the top shelf.  What the hell, I was going to torch the place anyway.  “You want a drink?”
            He tried to get to his feet, but was too weak and collapsed again.  “No,” he said dully.  “Just tell me.”
            I threw back a double of Tanqueray and slid the rest of the bottle into one of the deep pockets in my black denim coat.  I ignored his question and walked back around the bar.  My sense of smell can usually tell a human from anything else from across a room, but the state of the bar was interfering.  Dust and smoke hung in the air and rivers of blood and bile, and whatever fluid several of the odder demon races used as fuel, ran underfoot.  I was pretty sure I knew what I was dealing with, but wanted to be certain. 
            I kicked the head of a Varos demon out of the way and crouched in front of the boy, sniffing cautiously.  A gout of blood–green, so not his–had splattered in the direct center of his chest.  It stank to high heaven and explained my confusion.  I took the unused handkerchief from him and wiped it off.  Even after all he’d been through, he didn’t look afraid.  Being five feet two and dimpled has long been one of my chief assets.
            “You were here for a while, right?”  I asked.  It was a stupid question–he had six sets of bite marks on his skinny nude body, and none of them looked to be the same size.  Vamps have to know one another pretty well to do group feedings, since it’s considered an intimate act, so he’d probably been lying around as the free bar snack for a few hours at least.  But I wanted to start slow to give him a chance to gather whatever was left of his wits, since there was a chance he’d heard something useful.  The two vamps I’d found had told me that there had been a third, who left a half hour or so before I arrived, and that he was one of Michael’s lower-level masters.  That didn’t mean he knew any more than they did, but he could hardly know less.
            “I don’t get it,” the boy told me shakily.  “You killed them.  You killed all of them.  Why couldn’t I do that?”
            “Because you aren’t dhampir.”  The voice that answered for me was pitched low, from near the shattered door, but it carried.  I knew that voice in a thousand moods and tones, from the chill whipcrack of anger to the warm caress of pride, although the latter had never been directed at me.  I tensed but didn’t bother to look up.  Wonderful.  Just what I needed to make my day complete.
            The boy was staring at the newcomer with relief.  Sure, I thought sourly, I do the work, but you save the worshipful looks for the handsome devil with the charming smile.  Just don't forget that he could rip your throat out with a single gnash of those pearly white teeth.  For all the charisma and expensive tailoring, he’s a predator. 
One even more dangerous than me.
            I busied myself pouring some of the expensive alcohol in my pocket over the clean portion of the handkerchief and pressed it ruthlessly to the worst of the boy’s wounds.  He screamed, but neither of us paid any attention.  We were used to it. 
            “He’ll need medical attention,” the voice said, as the dark-haired vamp who owned it crossed the room carefully to avoid messing up his two thousand dollar suit and Ferragamo loafers.  He smelled of good brandy, nicotine and fresh pine.  I’ve never really gotten that last one, but it’s always there.  Maybe it’s some terribly costly cologne, mixed at an Italian perfumer’s shop for his exclusive use, or possibly it’s just my imagination.  A memory of home, maybe. 
            “I’m sure the Senate can arrange something, considering that they went out of their way only last month to proclaim that this sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore.”  I sloshed a bit more alcohol onto the bite marks at the boy’s neck and breast, before moving on to the ugly tear in his thigh.  He fainted a few seconds later, which left us with a–on my part at least–uncomfortable silence.  I broke it first, more interested in getting this over with than winning some kind of power play.  “What do you want?”
            “To talk to you,” he said calmly.  “I need your help.”
            I did look up at that.  In five hundred years, I had never heard those words pass his lips.  Hadn’t ever thought to, either.  “Come again?”
            “I will be happy to repeat myself, Dorina, but I believe you heard me the first time.  We need to talk, and the young man needs attention.  We can obtain both at–”
            “I’m not going there.”
            “At my apartment, I was about to say.  I am well aware of your sentiments toward the Senate.”
            I refrained from glaring, but doubted that my vaunted poker face was good enough to fool him.  It never had been before.  Besides, he could hear my heart rate speed up with the extra adrenaline of anger, and probably detect the telltale flush my pale skin couldn’t hide.  I told myself I didn’t care.  It had been twelve years since I saw him last, and that had ended with my threatening to kill him–for something like the thousandth time–and storming out.  He always got to me.  Always.  Even when he wasn’t trying.  I didn’t think this was likely to be any different.
            He reached out to take the unconscious boy in his arms, assuming with that unchanging conceit of his that I’d agree to whatever plan he made.  I didn’t object since taking the kid to a local hospital would entail explaining who or what had done this to him, something that would challenge even my ability to stretch the truth.  And running to the Senate’s local branch was definitely out considering what had happened the last time I dropped by.  Insurance had probably covered the damage, of course, and the place had needed remodeling, but I doubted they saw it that way.  I could take the kid back to my house, but although I could deal with his physical injuries, I couldn’t erase all this from his memory.  But the overgroomed bastard at my side could manage it with little more than a thought.
            “I didn’t know you had a place in New York,” I said, and that worried me.  There was no reason for him to be here, much less with what was probably an outrageously expensive Central Park-view apartment.  Vamps tend to be territorial by nature and usually stick close to home.  Of course, the Senate outlawed the old boundaries some time ago to cut down on feuds, so technically he could go wherever he wanted, but as far as I knew he had no business or personal interests in New York.  Except maybe me. 
            “It’s a recent acquisition.” 
            I narrowed my eyes and followed him out the door.  That could mean a lot of things, from him getting a lark to spend some of the millions he’d accumulated through the centuries to dueling another master and acquiring his possessions.  I really hoped it was one of those and not some plot to keep up with me.  I was well aware that I was dealing with a Senate member, one of the most powerful and dangerous vamps on the planet.  I’d been underestimated too many times myself to ever do it to anyone else, no matter how human he looked.  Especially not this one. 
            “Well, I hope it has a shower,” I said, pouring the rest of the booze over a nearby pile of highly flammable vamp bodies and tossing on a match.  “I need a bath.”

*   *   *

            The apartment was posh, Fifth Avenue, and did indeed have a park view.  I was relieved to see that it was also furnished in the designer-bland beiges and creams meant to be acceptable to virtually any taste–other than mine.  That meant he hadn’t been there long enough to impose his personal style, so maybe he hadn’t been spying on me.  I didn’t waste breath sighing in relief, but focused on the only other occupant of the room.  I hadn’t been dragged off to the Senate’s local base of operations, but unless I was mistaken, at least one of its members was sitting on a pale, camel-colored sofa waiting for us. 
            The strange vamp flowed to his feet when we came in, his eyes sweeping over the boy before coming to rest on me.  I braced for the usual reaction, but didn’t get it.  That told me he’d either been warned ahead of time, or he was even better than me at the whole poker-face thing.  Not surprising–since they don’t have to breathe or have a heart beat unless they choose, most vamps don’t have a lot of tells.  Especially not the old ones, and I was guessing from the sense of power this one wore like a cloak that he was a lot older than his thirty-something face appeared.   
            I examined him with interest, since I’d never seen him before.  That was unusual, if he was as old as I thought.  The newbies come and go, most of them dead before they
manage to outlive a normal human–so much for immortality–but I try to keep up with the major players in the vamp world.  There aren’t that many first-level masters out there, but this one was not in my extensive mental filing cabinet.  I quickly added a new file. 
            He was dressed in an understated outfit my host might have worn if he’d decided it was casual day, one designed to enhance what nature had bestowed with a liberal hand.  The off-white sweater was tight enough to show off a nice upper body and the tan suede pants hugged muscular thighs.  A spill of rich auburn was trying to escape from a gold clip at his nape.  It looked like the kind of hair women on shampoo commercials have–luxurious, overabundant and shiny.  It should have looked effeminate on a man, as should the long-lashed blue-gray eyes, but the broad shoulders and strong, arrogant jaw were all male.  I frowned at him.  Vamps had plenty of advantages already; they didn’t need good looks, too.  I cataloged his scent–a combination of whiskey, fine leather and, oddly, butterscotch–for future reference, and returned my attention to his companion. 
            “There is a shower in the bath down the hall, or you may use the one in my room if you like,” I was told.  “It’s through the bedroom at the end of the corridor.” 
            My host placed the boy on the sofa, heedless of the expensive upholstery, and whoever the auburn-haired vamp was, he moved without a word to help.  He didn’t even bother to keep an eye on me as he did so, which I found vaguely insulting.  I’d killed his kind for half a millennium and I didn’t even rate a blink?  He must figure the odds were in his favor.  Considering that I was in a room with two first-level masters, he was probably right.
            I went down a hall that smelled faintly of some generic air freshener.  They probably advertised it as “lilac-scented,” but it reminded me more of vats of chemicals than wide open fields and flowers.  There is a down side to super sharp senses, as with so much else about me. 
            Of course, there is an up side, too.  I cocked an ear, but there was nothing much to hear.  A girl was on the phone next door, complaining about some guy to a girlfriend, and someone down a floor was either talking to his cat or having a psychotic episode, but both voices were clearer than the soft noises coming from the living room.   The vamps were presumably cleaning the wounds better than I’d been able to do at the bar, and bandaging him up.  I knew nobody was planning a snack–it would be like offering people used to Beluga caviar and Dom Perignon a sack of stale Fritos and a flat Coke.  Sloppy seconds weren’t likely to appeal. 
            I let myself into the big master bedroom and looked around.  Opulent, understated, rich.  What a surprise.  In here the decorator had gone out on a limb and chosen a gray color palette, everything from charcoal on the bedding to ash on the walls.   I frowned around with distaste and craved my paints so badly my palms itched.  A good half hour of work on the bare stretch over the bed would make all the difference.  I’ve never gotten a security deposit back yet, but then, in my line of work, that was pretty much a given anyway.  And I’ve never lived with flat, gray walls.
            The bathroom was all blinding white subway tiles in what I guess was supposed to be industrial chic.  I took white–of course–towels out of the closet and got my filthy self into the chrome and glass shower.  At least it was big. 
            I leaned my head against the soon-steamy wall and tried not to imagine Claire with a tiny version of myself in her arms.  Dhampirs, children of human women and male vampires, were never a good thing.  Luckily, we are really rare, since dead sperm don’t swim too well.  However, there were a few cases where a newly made vamp just out of the grave had been able to sire a child.  The kids were usually born barking mad and lived very short, very violent lives. 
            Of course, not all dhampirs were the same.  Just like with human children, you never knew how the genes were going to combine.  I’d known a few rare ones who took after their mothers and managed to live–mostly–normal lives.  Other than for heightened senses and strength, you might never have known what they were.  But those were even rarer than the rare breed itself, and I somehow doubted Claire would get so lucky. 
            I knew her.  Whatever the story behind her child’s conception, she would love it, nurture it and defend it fiercely, at least until it grew up enough to throw her off a building in a fit of rage it wouldn’t even remember.  I really, really hoped Kyle had been lying.  Otherwise, I was faced with killing my best friend’s kid, along with any affection she’d ever had for me, or waiting for her violent death. 
            It would be useless to try to talk to Claire.  She’d never understand how much danger she was in, nor be willing to take the necessary steps to ensure her safety.  It was that damn respect for life she was always lecturing me about, the same one that made her a strict vegetarian and forced me to have to sneak out to eat bar-b-que.  After all, I could hear her argue, I’ve known you for years and you’ve never wanted to kill me.  She’d only be hurt and confused if I explained just how wrong she was.  Whatever control I may have acquired through long centuries of practice, I’m still a monster.  And like the one who sired me, I’ll always love death and destruction a little bit more than anything, or anyone, else. 
            I don’t know much about my mother, except that she was a young serving girl dumb enough to believe that the local lord’s handsome son wasn’t just having a good time with her.  They’d been together for several months before he was cursed with vampirism, a state he failed to recognize immediately.  Unlike the usual way of making a vamp, the curse took a while to complete the transformation.  There was no big death scene and no dramatic clawing his way out of his own grave.  Instead, he’d shrugged off the Gypsy’s mutterings as the ravings of a madwoman and gone about his usual, love-’em-and-leave-’em lifestyle for a fateful few days.  Fortunately, I was the only one to whom he’d passed his newly acquired vampiric genes in the meantime. 
            Long story short, nine months later, after he’d gone off to get his undead head together, a bouncing baby me entered the world, only to find that the world wasn’t happy to see me.  The humans where I grew up were pretty savvy about all things vampire and figured out what I was the first time they saw my baby fangs.  Mother was told to drown me in the river and save everyone a lot of trouble.  I don’t know to this day whether I’m happy or not that she gave me away to a passing Gypsy band instead.  She died in a plague some years later, so I never knew her.  And my father–well, let’s just say we have issues.
            I don’t guess that is too surprising considering that dhampirs and vampires are mortal enemies.  Some legends say that God lets dhampirs exist to keep a check on the number of vamps out there.  A more scientific explanation is that the predator instinct in vamps is necessary to allow them to feed, but it plays hell with a body that has an adrenal system to overload.   But I think at least part of the anger we carry is a natural reaction to being forced into a world where we have zero chance of ever belonging.  Vampires hate and fear us, and usually try to kill us on sight.  Humans think we’re one of them for a while, until one of the rages takes us and our true nature becomes all too obvious.  Then we’re on the run again, trying to avoid angry mobs of both species while attempting to carve a niche out of their world for ourselves. 
            Most of my kind burn out early, either by over-tasking their systems or–far more often–by dying in a fight.  I only know of one other dhampir as old as me, a batty Indian fakir who lives in the desert of Rajasthan, as far away from human habitation as he can get.  It took me more than two months to find him the only time I’d bothered, and he didn’t have much useful advice to impart.  He manages to keep a lid on things by meditating the centuries away, controlling his true nature by simply denying it any contact with possible prey.  That really isn’t my style.  I prefer the traditional method of letting my second nature out occasionally to hunt, providing that it only kills the undead.  Or demons, or the occasional were, or pretty much anything that isn’t human.   It’s messy, but it works, and it even led to my current job. 
            I soaped up my greasy hair and wondered if that was why I’d been tracked down.  It seemed unlikely.  If the Senate wanted someone dead, they sure as hell didn’t need to hire me to do it.  They had plenty of their own muscle and an intelligence department second to none.  One cut-rate assassin they could do without. 
            There was also the little matter that I had a habit of refusing assignments unless I knew the circumstances involved–all of them.  I had promised myself to limit my sprees to those who, as the saying goes, needed killing.  I figured that since it was my hand on the ax–or the stake or the rifle or whatever–it was up to me to be certain I didn’t take out someone who had merely irritated a local loan shark.  But that nosiness, as the Senate would view it, would have put me off their list of hired talent even if the accident of my birth hadn’t already made me persona non grata in a big way.  So my skills at the hunt were probably not what was needed here.
            I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what else it could be, though.  Occasionally I earned a few bucks checking the supernatural underground for people with problems that the human authorities couldn’t manage or even understand.  But again, there was nothing I could offer that the Senate couldn’t do itself and probably far better.  All things considered, I was stumped.  Not that it mattered anyway.  As soon as I got a few answers out of buffet boy, I was off hunting Michael.  Whatever the Senate wanted, it could damn well come up with some other way to get it.  And as for my host, he could drop dead.  Again.

Chapter Two

            “This is Louis-Cesare.  I would appreciate it if you refrained from attacking him while under my roof.”
            I had slipped back into the living room unannounced, but of course I’d been heard.  I was relieved that at least they hadn’t smelled me coming–or not as easily as before–since I was clean for the first time in days.  I was also wearing one of my host’s pristine white dress shirts over my blood-spattered jeans, which he refrained from commenting on although he did tighten his lips somewhat.  I grinned.  It had probably cost as much as my rent for the month and it hung down to my knees, but I hadn’t had a great selection to choose from.  The closet in his room had been almost bare, another good sign, since the guy is a clothes horse.  If he’d been near the New York shops for more than a few days, the place would’ve looked like an Armani boutique.
            “I’ll keep that in mind,” I told him, sauntering over to the bar and mixing myself a double.  With my metabolism, alcohol burns off too fast for me to get drunk–one of the few perks of my condition.  “Where’s the kid?”
            “I’ve arranged for his care.  He was taken away a few moments ago.”
            I tightened my grip on the bottle and counted to ten.  It wasn’t a record–he’d managed to get under my skin faster on previous occasions–but it was close.  “I needed to talk to him,” I said carefully, turning around.  “He was the only lead I had.  You had no right to–”
            “He retains his memories, for the moment,” I was told.  “You can speak to him later if you must.  For now, there are more important matters.”
            I looked down at a crunching sound to see that I’d cracked the bottle.  I sat it carefully on the bar and ignored the single malt draining away over the dark wood.  Five centuries of fighting for control, and it was all I could do not to smash the thing the rest of the way against his head.  How did he do it?  No one else caused me to reach boiling point this fast, at least not anymore.  “I’d prefer to speak to him tonight,” I said evenly.  “I’m in something of a hurry.”
             I noticed that the redhead had closed in a little, as if he thought his buddy might need backup.  I repressed a smile.  At least I had his attention now. 
            “He has been heavily medicated, Dorina.  He won’t be able to tell you anything for approximately eight hours.  If you wished it otherwise, you might have mentioned the fact.” 
            I felt my stomach twist into a knot and my heartbeat speed up.  I tried to slow my
suddenly accelerated breathing, knowing what was coming if I couldn’t get a grip, but all I could think about was Claire.  I thought of the past month, of the useless leads and the sleepless nights, of calling in every favor I had and promising more to entirely the wrong types for information that had turned out to be useless.  I thought of Kyle’s smarmy face as he told me a worst-case scenario that still had me wanting to scream, and then a familiar rushing sound filled my ears and I blacked out. 
            It happens that way sometimes, although mostly these days I keep it under better control.  But that night was like old times, when I’d gone on rampages that sometimes left dozens dead, and I was never be able to remember more than flashes later.  It was the real nature of a dhampir and the reason no one ever trusted us, especially the vamps who were our favorite prey.  It was one of so very many reasons I hoped Claire had been a lot smarter than Kyle had said.
            I came around eventually, which rather surprised me.  One of these centuries, I fully expect to die in the middle of some berserker rage and never even know when it happens.  I’ve come close more times than I can recall, waking up broken and bleeding, surrounded by bodies in places I didn’t recognize and sometimes days later than my last memory.  This was better than most.  There was something sharp pinning my shoulder to the wall, and the burn of familiar pain helped me concentrate enough to pull the rest of the way out of the trance.
            I knew when I’d succeeded by the fact that my shoulder suddenly felt like it had caught fire.  As an added bonus, I was the proud owner of an aching jaw, a pounding headache and a severe urge to vomit. The redhead was holding the rapier that had me skewered like a butterfly on a pin, rendering my left arm temporarily useless, and my host was using both hands to hold my right.  I was glad to see that they looked more than a little beaten up.  The redhead’s pretty white sweater was stained with blood that didn’t smell like mine, and the brunet had a long gash down one side of his face that had barely missed his right eye.  It wasn’t deep, though, and it started to close over as I watched.  Damn.
            “My lord, I do not mean to interfere, but perhaps restraints . . . ?”  The voice had a faint French accent, which explained why I hadn’t known him.  The redhead was a Senate member, but from the European version, not the North American.  And I hadn’t been to Europe since a very memorable visit during the Great War.  He was looking a little spooked, which would have pleased me under other circumstances.  At the moment, however, I was distracted by my host moving one hand up to grip me around the throat.
            “I would put you over my knee if I thought it would do any good,” he told me grimly. 
            The other vamp looked like he’d just been slapped.  I laughed.  “He thinks you’re being kinky,” I said, pausing to spit out a tooth that had come loose.  No worry.  I’d grow a replacement soon enough, and at least it was a back one this time.   I grinned at the French vamp, who looked vaguely ill at the thought of anyone doing anything with me, except maybe planting a stake in my ribs.  “You didn’t tell him, did you?”
            The brunet sighed and released me, pausing to yank out the rapier as he did so.  I didn’t wince.  At the moment, the pain almost felt good, a reminder that, once again, I’d beaten the odds and lived.  Not that I’d been in serious danger this go-around.  He wouldn’t kill me when he needed my help.  Well, at least not until I turned him down.
            “I was planning introductions, had you given me the opportunity,” I was told acerbically. 
            The redhead’s expression was now bordering on revulsion.  There must be a brain inside that pretty head, because he appeared to be putting things together, but not willing to believe what his instincts were telling him.  I decided to help him out.  I turned to my host, who was looking down at me with an annoyance he wasn’t bothering to hide.   I threw my good arm around his neck and gave him a robust kiss on the cheek.  “Hello, daddy!”

*   *   *

            Fifteen minutes later I was lying on the floor howling, and it wasn’t from pain.  I hadn’t laughed that hard in years, to the point that I almost couldn’t breathe and my ribs actually hurt.  Of course, that could have been from one of the new bruises I was sporting–between the bar fight and blacking out I was a little under the weather–but at the moment I didn’t care.  I wiped my streaming eyes and tried to sit up. 
            Mircea, better known as Daddy dearest when he bothered to acknowledge the connection, was sitting on the sofa with folded arms, waiting me out.  The French guy had poured himself a drink–stiff even by my standards–and taken it to the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the darkened cityscape.  He had his back to us.  I wasn’t sure whom he was trying to block out, the abomination or the one who made her. 
            I crawled into an armchair and valiantly fought to restrain myself.  It was difficult, with what I’d just been told.  I don’t have a chance to do this often, so I savored the moment.  “Would it be out of line to say I told you so?” I asked, with almost a straight face.
            “I have never known you to be concerned with proprieties,” was the caustic reply.
            “Du-te dracului,” I said automatically, before realizing how ironic telling him to go to the devil was under the circumstances.
            “I am proposing to send you to him instead,” Mircea replied evenly.
            I nodded at the other vamp.  “You tell your friend there that this is a suicide mission?”  I glanced at the handsome vamp.  “Got a death wish, buddy?”
            The Frenchman ignored me, but Mircea decided to be contentious.  As usual.  “He won’t be going alone.  That is why I went to the trouble of locating you.  His job is to trap Vlad.  Yours is–”
            “Did you tell him that you could’ve taken Uncle Drac out last time, but were too busy seducing some Senate member to bother?”
            “–to keep him alive.  He doesn’t know my brother; you do.”
            “Which is precisely why I’m not going anywhere near him.”  I stood up, stretched and looked around for my coat.  Claire had bought it for me after a hunt ruined my last leather number.  She’d hoped it would be more resilient, being washable and all, but I wasn’t so sure.  My wardrobe is constantly updated since I trash clothes like other people throw out Kleenex–a hazard of the job.  The last time I saw the coat, it had been covered in goo along with my t-shirt.  I decided that I must’ve left them lying in the bathroom.
            “Where do you think you’re going?”
            “To see if my dry cleaner can get out whatever it is Varos demons secrete when they spit at you.  Pinkish purple ooze, smells like a family of skunks and eats into fabric like acid.”
            I headed for the door, but before I could get there, Daddy was in the way, reclining against the doorjamb.  “Sit down.”
            I sighed.  I hadn’t really expected it to be that easy.  “There’s no point.”  Mircea just stood there, so I elaborated, more for the benefit of the idiot who’d gotten roped into this mess than for dear old dad.  Maybe the poor bastard could still weasel out of it.  For his sake, I hoped so, since he was certainly doomed otherwise.
            “London, 1889.  Dark and stormy night.  Ring any bells?  I think the exact quote was, ‘If you do not finish this tonight, if you leave him any avenue by which to return, I wash my hands of the whole affair.  Next time, you will hunt him alone.’”  I glanced at the French guy, who’d turned around to stare at us.  “I was a lot more pretentious back then,” I explained, “but you get the drift.  Barely survived the last go-round, not doing it again, especially when all you’re planning is to put him in another of those oh-so-secure traps and wait for him to find another way out.  And that’s assuming he doesn’t eviscerate you and anybody dumb enough to follow you first.  Now get out of the way, daddy dear; I have a real job to do.”
            “This is your job, until I say otherwise.”
            I smiled.  I was feeling fairly mellow for a change.  I wasn’t sure if that was because of all the violence earlier or the laughing fit, but either way, I actually didn’t feel like tearing his head off.  “And you used to have such good hearing.”
            “You will not defy me on this.” 
            I waited for a minute, but he just stood there, looking all grim and macho.  It was the face that usually caused other vamps to sink to their knees, babbling apologies and trying to kiss his expensive, leather-covered toes.  It had never worked on me.  “Um, I’m assuming there’s another half to that sentence.  Because I’m really not seeing–”
            “Claire.”  That one word stopped me in midrant. 
            “I had better be misunderstanding you,” I said softly.
            “You are fond of the human, aren’t you?”
            “If you had anything to do–”
            “I did not take her,” he said calmly, “but I could arrange to get her back for you.  I can call on the Senate’s resources, which you must admit are far greater than your own.”
            “I’ll find her myself.”
            He arched a dark, expressive brow and gave me his patented condescending smile.  “In time?”
            I didn’t answer for a moment, my brain being busy with a replay of that night in London.  All I could hear was the faint sound of bootheels on cobblestones, far away but getting closer.  That even, measured tread had echoed in my head for years.  I didn’t think about what had happened after the steps stopped, right in front of where I was concealed.  No.  I never thought about that at all.
            "Uncle Drac," as I flippantly referred to him to keep myself from gibbering, was the only thing on earth that truly scared me.  I think my laughter earlier had been less about Daddy finally admitting I was good for something, and more hysterics from the thought of going up against Drac again.  I had lobbied hard for the final solution to the problem more than a century ago, since trapping him had been as much about luck as skill.  With nothing else to do to while away the decades, he must have dissected that night a thousand times, analyzing it in that brilliant, broken mind of his, figuring out exactly where he went wrong.  Dracula deserved his legend, however mixed up much of it was due to that Victorian hack writer.  He wouldn’t make the same mistakes twice; in fact, I doubted he would make any at all.    
            A mental picture of Claire’s face wavered in front of my eyes.  She was one of the few friends I’d ever been able to hold on to for more than a few months.  It wasn’t that the rages didn’t scare her, but rather that she had never been exposed to them.  I had never thought of myself as a magical being before I met her, but there was no doubt that she had the same calming effect on me as on a spell or ward.  Living and working alongside her had given me the closest thing to peace and a normal life I’d ever known.  I still had occasional fits, but only when outside her orbit, and even then, they were rarer.  The idea of never seeing her face screw up in thought as she surveyed my latest painting, trying to figure out what the hell it was supposed to be, was brutal. 
            But Claire was more than my friend; she was also the only chance for me to master my rage once and for all.  She’s from one of the oldest magical families on earth, House Lachesis, who specialize in healing.  They have access to ancient lore that even the Circle itself doesn’t know.  Claire once told me that there is a branch of the family that does nothing but scavenge, in areas so out of the way as to make Antarctica look like 42nd and Broadway, for unusual cures, potions and amulets.  Another branch researches new treatments, and yet another comes up with debilitating spells to sell to malevolent types to ensure a steady supply of wealthy afflicted. 
            Despite the fact that she had worked in the business side of things rather than in research and development, she’d been using her contacts to try to find something that would decrease my fits.  Because of my metabolism, human drugs don’t stay in my system long enough to register.  I was hoping a magical solution would have more effect, but no one had ever thought to develop anything for dhampirs.  There are so few of us as to make it impractical, and we’re not exactly top of the popularity chart.  There was a good possibility that Claire’s work was the first of its kind ever done.  And if I didn’t find her soon, it might also be the last.
            I would find her, I had no doubt of that, but Mircea–damn him–was right.  I might not manage it in time.  Michael was only a low-level master, sixth at a guess, who ran errands for a couple of vamp bosses in Brooklyn.  He was nothing I couldn’t deal with half-asleep, but the information I’d gotten from his thugs was that he’d recently skipped town.  No one knew where he was, and tracking him with only my own resources to draw on was going to take time.  Time Claire might not have. 
            Mircea, on the other hand, could put an organization on the search that made the CIA, the FBI and Interpol look like a bunch of retarded children–even more so than they usually do.  By this time tomorrow, she could be back in our dilapidated house, clucking over her herb garden and two spoiled cats.  And, if the pregnancy thing wasn’t a figment of Kyle’s warped imagination, I’d have time to talk with her and explain a few hard truths. 
            I glanced at the other vamp, only to see him regarding me with faint contempt.  He probably thought he was hiding it, but I’d learned a few things about reading expressions over the years.  Or maybe he didn’t care if I knew he thought me a coward.  He was, after all, quite correct, at least when it came to my scary uncle.  Anyone who wasn’t afraid of him was either a lunatic or really stupid.  I wondered which type Mircea was trying to foist off on me.
            “I’d want her back first.  Payment only on delivery.”
            “No.”  Mircea didn’t even bother to look regretful.  “Vlad has been on the loose for over a week.  To give him more time to lay his plans is folly.”
            “He’s had more than a century to plan already,” I pointed out.  I didn’t like the Vlad reference.  If Mircea would just once forget that the monster we were discussing was his brother, it would make things so much easier.  But he has this weird affection for family that I’ve never understood.  It ensured that he tracked me down every few decades, even knowing we’d end up in the usual knock-down, drag-out, and it had kept him from staking Dracula when he’d had the chance.  
            “True, but we dismantled his support network, if you recall.  Unless he plans to move entirely on his own, he will need time to find followers.  At the moment, he should be vulnerable.  But he will not stay that way for long.”
            I didn’t bother pointing out that "vulnerable" and "Dracula" really didn’t belong in the same sentence.  At no point in time had he ever been anything but utterly capable and completely ruthless.  But Mircea had a point.  If I had to take on Drac, I’d vastly prefer for him not to have found any helpers.  He was bad enough on his own, but the stable he used to control had been another source of nightmares, to the point that I’d spent more than a decade hunting the worst of them down.  It had let me sleep a little better afterward, although only a little.  Knowing that their lord and master was only one step away from being back in business had never gone down well.  I felt my temper rising at the thought that if, just once, Mircea the perpetually hardheaded had listened to me, Dracula would be in a coffin permanently right now and none of this would be necessary.  Of course, in that case, I wouldn’t have help with Claire.
            “Fine.  But if I start hunting him tonight, I want the search for Claire to start at the same time.”
            I didn’t ask for surety.  Mircea is a lot of things, but he keeps his word when he gives it.  You just better be damn sure you know what that word is, because he is one of the slipperiest bastards out there when he wants to be.  I decided I wanted things spelled out a little more.  “If she’s alive, I want her back.  If not . . .”
            “Would you prefer to deal with the parties responsible yourself, or have us do so?”
            “What do you think?”
            Mircea smiled slightly.  “I will order them held for you.  I take it we have an agreement?”
            I looked at the French guy and wasn’t pleased at what I saw.  Yeah, there was enough power emanating off him to rival Mircea’s aura, which raised hairs on my arms every time I got within five feet of him, but taking down someone like Dracula was going to require more than raw power.  A whole lot more.  “Yes, but I’d prefer a partner I already know,” I said, trying to blunt the insult.  “We won’t have time to learn each other’s styles.  What’s Marlowe doing?”
            Kit Marlowe, vamp, playwright and onetime Elizabethan bad boy, was head of intelligence for the Senate.  He was one evil son of a bitch, as I could testify on a personal level, and we weren’t exactly buddies.  But if I had to track the meanest vamp on the planet, I’d like to have one of the runners-up at my back.  As long as he wasn’t gunning for me this time.
            “We are on a wartime footing, Dorina.  I can hardly pull the chief of security away for a personal errand at such a moment.”
            “It’s not gonna stay personal for long,” I pointed out.  “Our names may head Uncle’s list, but we’re hardly the only ones on it.  The war may seem like a sideshow if he really gets going.”
            “Nonetheless, the Consul would never permit it.”  Even Mircea would think twice about bucking the Senate leader’s orders, and I couldn’t blame him.  I’d met her only once, and that had been more than sufficient.  My personal opinion was that she was crazier than Drac, but no one had asked me.
            “Who is going with us, then?”  I hoped he had some better backup in mind than the guys I normally used.  One or two could handle themselves in some pretty tough situations, but nothing like this.  The only connections I had who might have been useful were currently incommunicado–locked away for crimes the vamps or mages didn’t like, but hadn’t viewed as being serious enough to merit a cell six feet under.  And since the war had intervened, their trials were on permanent hold–there’s no such thing as habeas corpus in the supernatural world.
            “I would prefer to keep this in the family,” Mircea said. 
            I snorted.  I didn’t doubt it.  Anyone not under his direct command would, of course, have no compunction about staking good old Drac at the first opportunity.  It was certainly my plan.  Assuming he didn’t get me first.
            Something occurred to me.  “Then why’s he here?”  I jerked a thumb at the fashion plate.  I wasn’t on great terms with the family, but at least I knew who was who.  And Mr. Lack of Congeniality wasn’t on the list.
            “I told you,” Mircea said in that uberpatient voice he reserves for me and the mentally challenged.  “This is Louis-Cesare.”  I looked expectant.  He sighed.  “Radu’s get.”
            I gave the pretty vamp another, more interested look.  “I wasn’t aware my marginally sane uncle had any offspring.” 
            I was being kind.  Radu–Mircea and Dracula’s younger brother–was a real weirdo.  Not in the contender-for-homicidal-heavyweight-title kind of way like Drac, but almost as creepy.  For one thing, he insisted on dressing like a reject from a Three Musketeers film, only reluctantly putting on up-to-date clothes when strong-armed into it.  Some vamps liked to dress as they'd done in life when out of sight of humans, but Radu had been brought up in fifteenth-century Romania, not seventeenth-century France–hence the weird.  For another, he’d never, or so I’d thought, made another vamp in his life, although he had been a second-level master for centuries.  Someone that powerful without a stable was unprecedented.  Followers gave you income as well as protection, and who would voluntarily forego both?  He used Mircea’s stable almost like it was his own, but sponging off elder brother would have gotten tiresome to me.  But then, nobody much cared what the skeleton in the closet thought.
            “This is the only one.”  I waited, but Mircea didn’t elaborate.  Again, no real surprise.  Why tell cannon fodder any more than she has to know? 
            “Okay, I understand you want him along, and that’s fine.  I’m sure I can find something for him to do, but–”
            “I think you are laboring under a misapprehension,” the Frenchman interrupted, his accent a bit more obvious than it had been before.  “You speak as if you will be deciding strategy.  You will be under my direction, not the reverse.”
            I slowly turned to face him, and something in my expression caused him to lower a hand to the hilt of his rapier.  He didn’t draw it, but he didn’t take his hand back, either. 
            “I don’t know who you think you are,” I informed him evenly, “and I don’t care.  But I take direction from no one.  Are we clear?”
            “We most decidedly are not,” he responded, equally crisply.  It would have been funny at another time, our trying to out-enunciate each other, but at the moment I didn’t feel like laughing.  This was going to be hard enough without backup who couldn’t follow orders.
            “Then we have a problem,” I told him honestly.  I looked back at Mircea, who was wearing an expression that on anyone else I would have described as petulant.  “You know what’s at stake here.  I know you don’t like me any more than I do you, but we have worked together before.  I think it was luck, but maybe we’ll get lucky again.  And you already know how I operate.”
            Mircea was shaking his head before I even finished.  “Normally that is the way I would choose to proceed.  But not now.”
            “Why not?”  I thought my question was reasonable, but he suddenly looked angry.
            “After all these years, can you not follow a simple command?”
            “Not when it’s likely to get me killed, no.”  I looked between the two of them, trying to figure out what unspoken communication was going on.  For a brief moment I felt something–not anger exactly but something more elusive–that Mircea and this stranger could communicate so easily without words.  Because that’s exactly what they were doing.  A normal human wouldn’t have noticed the few, almost-too-quick-for-the-eye glances, but I did.  That was one of the harshest parts of the dhampir experience: the fact that your senses never allow you to be oblivious, never let you for a moment fool yourself into thinking you belong. 
            Once, when I was very young and even dumber than I am now, I actually let a vamp try to turn me.  I’d just reached the century mark and seen my mortal acquaintances age and die before my eyes, with the last one buried earlier that week.  I was all alone and tired as hell of it.  Not that I’d ever fit in with humans very well, but, God, how I had tried.  So I figured, why not?  I’m almost there anyway, why not cross over and actually be part of something for a change? 
            I knew it was a risk, of course: even if the vamp didn’t just bleed me dry and leave me to die, most vamps spend eternity tied to a master they can’t disobey.  They are little more than slaves until they reach master status–which few ever do–and even then their responsibility to their master remains a debt that can be called in anytime.  But at that moment, I didn’t much care.  Turns out, though, I had chosen well, and he gave it his all, I guess hoping for whatever fame would come out of being the first on record to turn a dhampir.  But the next morning I woke up exactly as I’d been before, a little light-headed from the blood loss, maybe, but not changed one iota.  So add another rule to the books: dhampirs can’t be brought over.  This meant that, after torturing me for a few days or weeks or whatever time he could spare, Drac wouldn’t even try to add me to his new stable.   
            “I’m risking a lot here,” I told them in what had to be the understatement of at least my last century.  “I don’t think it’s asking too much to know why I can’t have decent backup.”
            I never saw it coming.  Despite the fact that I’ve survived longer than anyone would have bet by being unbelievably paranoid and very good at defense, I didn’t see a thing.  I also didn’t hear, smell or otherwise have a clue what was happening.  One second I was facing off with Mircea, and the next I was facedown on the ground, being pinned very effectively by the hard body pressing into mine. 
            My reaction was immediate and unthinking.  When you’ve been in literally more fights than you can count, often against opponents much bigger than you who have no compunction at all about fighting dirty, you learn a few things.  I used them all and then some, yet the face-to-the-carpet thing didn’t change.  I was stunned almost into disbelief.  This simply wasn’t happening.  I would have believed that Mircea was helping out, except that he had moved off to lean against the bar.  I could see the toes of his perfectly shined shoes and the knife-edge pleat of his trouser cuffs, meaning that I was, incredible as it seemed, being held by only one vamp. 
            Son of a bitch.
            “We can continue this as long as necessary,” an infuriatingly calm voice said near my left ear, “but we are wasting time.  Agree to my mastery and we can begin to plan how to overcome our prey.”
            “Bullshit!”  I tried unseating him again, but no luck.  The asshole was strong, but no way would any single vamp have pinned me if I’d been expecting it.  I tried to ignore the little voice reminding me that one of the first lessons I had ever learned was to always expect it. 
            “You cannot seriously believe you could lead a mission of this magnitude,” he continued.  “You know your place, dhampir.  Stay in it and you may be of some use to the family.  Fail to do so and I will be pleased to remove this stain on my lord’s honor.  Permanently.”
            “You will do no such thing.”  Mircea’s less-than-pleased voice startled both of us.  “I want your word, Louis-Cesare, that you will neither harm nor allow harm to come to my daughter if you can prevent it.”
            “My lord, you know what she is!”  The voice above me sounded startled, as if he hadn’t thought twice about threatening Daddy’s little girl in his presence.  Apparently, he didn’t understand Mircea’s family obsession.  Which was odd, considering that, as Radu’s get, he was part of our dysfunctional clan.
            “Your word.”
            It sounded like Frenchie was choking, but he got it out.  “You have it.” 
            I bit back a smile and took advantage of his distraction.  I relaxed all my muscles as if I had fainted, which, considering that most of the air was being pushed out of my lungs, wasn’t far from the truth.  The best I’d hoped for was that he would let up on the pressure enough for me to get a little room to maneuver, so it was a real shock when he suddenly pulled away altogether.  “I do not question your judgment, my lord,” I heard from far above my head, telling me that the idiot had actually stood up, “but obviously this . . . woman . . . is not up to the task.  May I suggest–”
            I never found out what he had in mind, because I seized the opportunity he had so foolishly provided.  Two seconds later, pretty boy was finding out what the rug smelled like as I ground his head into the pile.  “I DO question your judgment,” I told Mircea, “at expecting me to work with anybody this stupid.”  I paused to let Frenchie experience more of the pleasures of rug burn. 
            “I thought you two would get on,” Mircea murmured.
            “Hey, still talking here.  If you want me to do this, I do it my way.  If you aren’t available 'cause your manicurist can’t switch appointments or whatever, fine.  I’ll put a team together.  I have a couple names in mind already–all you need to do is get them out of jail for me–and I’m sure Marlowe can come up with a few more.  I heard there was some sort of dueling whiz over from Europe to help the Consul with a challenge.  Someone like that might be able to keep Drac busy long enough for me to deal with him.”
            “I quite agree,” Mircea said, pouring himself a drink. 
            “Then get busy and see about finding him,” I said testily.  I wanted things arranged before I let the sneaky creature beneath me off the floor.
            “I don’t need to find him,” I was told calmly.  “I already know where he is.”
            Good, at least one problem was out of the way.  “Somewhere nearby, I hope.”
            Mircea downed a generous measure of scotch in a single gulp.  I grinned–most unmannerly.  But the pleasure quickly faded at his next words.  “Oh, yes.  You’re sitting on him.”

                                Look for Midnight's Daughter from Roc, October 2008!