As Valentin stood out of sight across the street from Hayden’s apartment building he couldn’t help but feel her fear, just as he couldn’t help his reaction to the sight of her body wrapped in red silk. Surprisingly, he found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to suppress the almost overpowering urge to find a way into her bedroom and ravish her.
It was an old word—almost quaint in its romanticism—and he seldom heard it used anymore. No, ravishing wasn’t the thing at all. Men got into “relationships” or lived with their “partners” or, if the timing was right, got married. Even marriage meant something different than it had when he been mortal. Back in the 1880’s the term “till death do us part” had carried weight. Now marriage seemed more like a tentative agreement. If things didn’t work out, it was easier enough to divorce and move on to the next “relationship.”
On the other hand, maybe the changes were for the best. Never had he met a woman whom he would consider spending a mortal lifetime with, never mind all eternity. Valentin wasn’t sure why. He had met plenty of women: beautiful women, funny women, women who possessed the precise combination of intellect and emotional coolness he found so alluring. He’d even loved a few of them, in his own fashion, and over the past century he had taken great satisfaction in giving rather more than a few of them intense pleasure.
For one night. Or two. On rare occasions—three.
But after that he began to feel claustrophobic. His sense of restlessness had nothing to do with the women themselves. Part of it was undoubtedly linked with his vampirism. It cut him off from the world, placed an unbridgeable gap between him and everyone else. His need for blood, his status as one of the undead, was something he had never shared with any human. Not that he hadn’t fantasized about sinking his fangs into his lovers’ necks or craved that final consummation with an ardor bordering on madness. Yet he had always pulled away at the final moment. He’d always had that strength.
Perhaps it was because he had witnessed firsthand the results of that kind of surrender, the downward spiral toward absolute darkness, absolute evil.
Over the past century he had been both a witness to that evil and a victim of it. Moreover, he knew it still went on, even apart from the never-ending stream of “Jack’s” victims. Although he had kept clear of the ruling clans for nearly 50 years, he doubted their methods had altered much over the ensuing decades.
Up above, the lights in Hayden’s apartment flicked off. He stood a few minutes longer, doing his damnedest not to contemplate the all-too-appealing image of his unwitting partner slipping unclothed into bed.
Partner. The word niggled at his impeccable sense of order. Because partner wasn’t quite the appropriate term, now was it? an insistent voice reminded him. Bait was more like it. Or, if he were fully honest with himself, prey.
He turned his back on Hayden’s building and began walking back into the heart of the city. The breeze picked up a bit and though there was no snow on the ground yet, the air smelled of winter and the cold days to come. He walked quickly, ignoring the lawn decorations and the Christmas trees that cast a deceptively warm glow onto the mostly deserted street. His breath misted as he exhaled, making him feel almost human.
But not quite. Below the surface of his calm demeanor he could already detect the sharp edges of his craving for blood. It had been too long since his last meal and if were to keep his strength up, which was essential, he needed to procure some form of nourishment. Soon.
Yet even as he summoned his senses and attempted to rally himself to the task, his mind kept veering off track. He envisioned Hayden as she had been earlier that night at the crime scene, her ghostly beauty reminding him of things he didn’t want to remember. He saw the waifish form of the teen-age prostitute curled up on the sidewalk. The unnatural shade of red hair that had fanned out behind the girl, mocking him with its pathetic resemblance to Annika’s glossy auburn locks.
It hadn’t been an accident, the resemblance. The prostitute’s death had been meant to inflict pain upon him and indeed it had. His heart began to beat a primal, syncopated tune inside his chest. He might not be wholly human but he wasn’t wholly dead either. He was caught in the endless stasis that bridged the two—in the ever-shifting landscape between life and death that the years had worn to an icy thinness. Just as he had been since that awful night so long ago.
For a long time he’d waited for the landscape to split apart beneath him and send him straight to hell It never happened though, and in recent years he had begun to believe it wouldn’t happen at all.
Or to fear that it never would, he amended silently, forcing himself to go on walking. After so long he wanted nothing but that final sweet release. Surely hell couldn’t rival the fire of his own self-recriminations?
Toward the end of the street a curvaceous woman a short faux fur coat leaned back against a run-down building. He’d left behind Hayden’s gentrified neighborhood, with its brick townhouses and red-bowed wreaths, and emerged into the seedier section of town, not far from where the murder had occurred. Neon signs and blaring strains of music competed for his attention while women and men in revealing attire beckoned to passers-by. The woman propped one high-booted leg against the building, her relaxed posture an unspoken invitation. She pulled a pack of cigarettes out of her purse and lit one, eyeing him hungrily as he approached.
“Wannna pet the kitty?” she called out to him in a cloying voice.
He forced himself not to cringe at the sickly whine of her invitation. Her entire person, not to mention her voice, repulsed him. Well, he admitted, maybe not her entire person. In the glare of the neon sign across the street, her bare neck glowed invitingly.
He looked away. “Thank you for the invitation, but I shall have to pass.”
Her guffaw was maddening as it echoed out across the lascivious darkness. “Okay, sweetie, no hard feelins here. Annie don’t mind if you wanna go home and club the baby seal.” At this, the woman exploded into another round of guttural laughter.
He clenched his hands into fists, willing her to lapse into silence. Which, thankfully, she did. For a fleeting moment he could almost—
Could he? Surely not. He wasn’t like that. Wasn’t like them. Like him.
Or was he more similar than he cared to admit? As a rule, vampires were a nasty bunch. He might be one of them—“Jack” had made certain of that—and for a long time he’d justified his continuing existence on the premise that he committed no more sins than his state of being forced him to. But could he honestly go on with the fiction that he was somehow different from the others? That he was a kinder, gentler vampire who had little in common with the Primakov and Nikulin clans of his former homeland?
The mere thought of it evoked a thin smile.
There were no kinder, gentler vampires. If any differentiation could be made at all, it would have to rest on the flimsy netting of conscience. Because there were those who killed without compunction—vampires who savored their kills and were as incapable of experiencing guilt as the average serial killer. And there were vampires like Valentin—damned beings who preferred not to kill but accepted it as an unavoidable necessity. Granted, the word necessity was a bit of a euphemism. All vampires had a choice. There was always a choice. But up until a week ago he’d chosen to not to pursue that option. Now, however, he was ready. If all went as planned there would be only one more victim.
Or perhaps two.
When he reached the place where the prostitute stood, she glared at him a long second before pointedly turning away from him. He left her and her sullenness behind, willing himself to narrow his eyes and scan the blaring territory ahead of him in search of other sustenance.
He wondered who it would be tonight. Three nights ago, he’d been lucky. He had been on his way home when he heard the broken sobbing, punctuated by cries for help. He knew that music well by now. Another drunken husband beating his wife, no doubt with the children watching from behind a half-closed doorway. He waited for what seemed too long, his lips watering at the thought of fresh blood. At last the front door banged open and a short, thick-necked man wearing a faded football jacket had stumbled down the steps, shouting as he went. The woman, who couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds, stood in the doorway and watched him go, her swollen face covered with tears.
The man’s ugliness hadn’t bothered Valentin, nor had his bulk. If anything, it assuaged his guilt and made the killing seem almost right. He’d reveled in the man’s size and apparent strength, and the ensuing chase that had lead him to an alley outside a local bar had been a source of pure satisfaction.
Just as the man was about to step inside, he’d pulled him back and sank his teeth into the man’s jugular, feeling the life ebb out of him.
Valentin turned a corner and inhaled sharply. He could actually smell the stench of corruption and his senses were now fully alert. At an intersection no more than 10 yards away, he watched a drug dealer hand a white package to a boy who looked as if he could be no more 10 or 11 years old.
He quickened his pace.
“You’re kidding, right?”
In the fluorescent glare of the autopsy room, Autumn Skye’s body looked so pale it seemed to emit a ghoulish light. But was it really possible she had no blood left in her at all?
It had to be. Jed Farnum had been chief pathologist at the department since she’d started two years ago. In that time Jed had a never made a joke. At least not about dead bodies. Despite Jed’s somewhat unprofessional demeanor—he was never without his Red Sox cap and his wild white hair made Einstein seem clean-cut by comparison—the sixtyish pathologist approached his job with a dedication that bordered on obsession.
“How does a person lose all their blood?” Hayden asked.
“She did have extensive lacerations on her face and neck,” Jed said, “but that wouldn’t have been enough to drain her of blood. Maybe if her neck had been slashed deeply, almost to the point of being severed, that would explain it. But of course then the crime scene would have been a mess and you wouldn’t be staring at me with your jaw practically hanging down to your knees.”
He lifted the prostitute’s badly dyed hair and touched a gloved fingertip to the two puncture wounds on her exposed neck. “Whoever—or whatever—did this extracted the blood straight from her jugular.”
The wounds were hardly visible, surgical in their precision. “Could it have been some type of animal?”
Jed shook his head. “I ran a photograph of the wound through the computer to compare it with known bite marks. Obviously it’s not your typical dog bite—but I thought maybe some type of fanged animal, possibly something in the cat family,” he said, “possibly a rare type of bat—“
She rubbed the bridge of her nose and tried to focus. It was 6 p.m. and she’d been working nonstop for nearly twelve hours with nothing to show for it. “And?”
“And nothing,” Jed said pointedly. “Whatever made that mark wasn’t an animal.”
“A guest at the hotel heard a scream at around 7:00 last night and the police were there within 15 minutes. How could somebody cut her up like that and extract all that blood in less than 15 minutes?”
He shrugged. “Maybe the scream came afterward. Maybe it wasn’t the murdered girl crying out but somebody else. Somebody who saw the body. The other problem is that there’s no rigor mortis. I’m not sure why, though my guess is it’s somehow related to the lack of blood. And without rigor mortis I can’t determine the time of death—can’t even give you a ballpark estimate. So I guess I’m saying anything’s possible. For all I know there’s a vampire on the loose in the streets of Boston.”
She laughed uneasily. “Well, if there is I’ll catch him.”
Jed grew uncharacteristically serious. “Maybe this is one case you should leave unsolved. You’ve been batting a thousand for two years. Even Ted Williams struck out from time to time. Even Ted he knew when not to swing. Sometimes the best thing you can do is take the walk.”
“With all due respect to Ted Williams,” she said, “I prefer to go down swinging.”
Jed peeled off his gloves, raising his eyes from the dead girl and fixing them on Hayden’s face.
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
The silence was broken by the ring of her cell phone. She glanced at the display for the number only long enough to register that it read restricted.
“Farrell,” she said in a clipped voice, bracing herself for more bad news.
The warmth of the voice on the other end was so unexpected it was almost disturbing. “In case you’re even thinking of blowing me off, I’m calling to warn you that if you do I’ll never forgive you,” her friend Cheryl warned playfully. “I don’t care what you’re working on, it can’t be more important than your best friend’s bachelorette party.”
She bit her lip. For the past 24 hours Cheryl’s party had been the last thing on her mind. And a night of partying was the last thing she wanted to do, not when she was standing six inches away from a corpse. But even as she tried to think of the right way to bow out of the festivities, she knew Cheryl was right—that no matter how much she wanted to focus on the case, she absolutely couldn’t let her best friend down. “Of course I’m coming,” she said, hoping she sounded at least somewhat excited.
“What should I bring?”
“Porn and a bottle of tequila,” Cheryl quipped. “Just kidding. Show up at my place around seven and I promise you an evening filled with margaritas and sexy men. Sexy men on dvd, that is. I rented Troy.”
“You do know that Troy came out like two decades ago,” she said, rolling her eyes even though Cheryl wasn’t there to see her do it. Troy was Cheryl’s absolute favorite movie, mostly because it contained a very muscular Brad Pitt.
“And your point is?”
“Brad Pitt is old. Plus he’s got around 10 kids.”
“I repeat: and your point is?”
Hayden sighed. She didn’t care to contemplate the number of times she’d spent her Friday night sitting on Cheryl’s couch, watching hot sex instead of actually having it. “I can honestly say there’s nothing I want more right now than to spend the night with you—and Brad Pitt.” Clicking her cell phone shut and shoving it back into her jacket pocket, she was already halfway across the morgue. “Gotta go.”
Jed raised his brows. “A new development in the case?”
She flashed him an impish grin. “Wedding stuff.”
The thought of her in connection with a wedding seemed to amuse Jed immensely. “Yours?” he asked.
“No chance.” She stopped at the door, her hand on the knob. “You’re looking at a confirmed spinster.”