Fleur Dumont flung herself out of the ninety-third-floor window and somersaulted along the vertical length of the skyscraper. She quickly adjusted to the altered plane of the fighting field and leaped into the air, one leg bent at the knee; the other leg she kicked straight out into the chest of her assailant.
Her foe lost his footing, but he recovered position within seconds, foregoing any attempt at bracing himself along the slick glass of the building beneath him. Instead, hovering in the air, he gestured to someone behind Fleur. A glance at the reflection in the windows below her feet confirmed two more enemies. Sweat pouring down the back of her jacket, Fleur pulled a pair of daggers from the sheaths strapped around her thighs and whirled in a circle, her weapons at the ready, trying to make herself a little more space.
The sky blurred into a luminous rainbow as she turned, the night’s darkness making the lights that streamed past much more vivid. Projected down toward the human world at street level, they originated from a fleet of flying advertisement projectors. Looped videos, holographics, multicolored skylight lasers—all touting a seemingly endless number of desires and cures. The lights were uncomfortable and distracting to vampires, but Fleur had trained outside enough to be able to ignore them when it counted.
The three vampires floating around her were, like her, armed with daggers, and she already knew firsthand of their power and skill. Well, size and numbers could not trump the strength and agility inherent in her blood, so at worst, they were equals. Fleur focused and moved in for the kill, directing a flurry of blows at all three men as she danced through the air.
Until one of the men snatched a gun from his shoulder holster and fired. Caught by surprise, Fleur lurched away and hit the top of a billboard with her knee. She cartwheeled wildly off in the other direction amid a shower of sparks as some of the bulbs exploded from the impact. She went into free fall, just missing a remote-controlled drone that hummed by projecting an all-species evening edition of the news onto the thickening smog particles.
She let herself drop and took the opportunity to catch her breath, but the splash of violet on her right sleeve spurred her back into the fight. He’d capped her, all right. That pissed her off, and immediately she reversed direction, purposely holding her left arm behind her and out of sight.
Just as she reached the three men and lunged forward with her knife, a watch chime froze all her foes in mid-action. They stopped fighting immediately, and the session ended with the flat end of Fleur’s blade slapping dully off Marius’s chest armor. “That’s time,” he said. “And we’re off.”
Without another word, the men all turned and headed upward, Fleur on their heels. They alit gracefully on the edge of the huge picture window leading back into the training room, where the slick angles, metal, and glass wrapping the outside of the massive landmark building gave way to a completely different world: dark woods, lusciously colored fabrics and touches of gilt.
“Come on, come on … finish this!” Fleur looked wildly from one man to the next, but the three Protectors were already stripping off their fight gear.
“Sorry, Fleur,” Warrick said, swatting her dagger away as if it were a fly. “Nice work, but next time, don’t expect a reflection to save you.”
Fleur knew he was right. She wasn’t quite where she needed to be. She should have been training from the day she was born, but the assumption had been that she’d never be called. That hadn’t really changed, but the number of vampires left between her and serious responsibility had been whittled down to two: her half-brothers, Christian and Ryan. She could have gotten away with calling them brothers, straight up, but they simply weren’t close.
Her cousins, the three Protectors standing before her, were her core family now. For Marius, Warrick, and Ian Dumont had never once swayed in their loyalty, not even amidst the power struggle during the war between the species when her mother had not only fallen from grace, but had fallen forever.
Still, Fleur wasn’t convinced her cousins took her training seriously. Probably no one did. But at least they humored her, and they could humor her all they wanted as long as they gave her the training she’d requested.
She sighed and threw herself down on one of the carved rosewood benches lining the training hall. “I thought it was just going to be Marius today. Nice trick calling for the others.”
“You know us too well. You’re able to anticipate our movements at this point,” Ian said, busy flexing his chest muscles with the pleased air of a man who knew his body could not be more perfect. “And even with those damn stuffy helmets on, I’m sure you still know who is who. From movement or sense if not by sight. We should bring in some outsiders for you to practice on.”
Warrick stripped off his shirt and tossed it in the corner bin, then glanced over. “You’re not hurt, Fleur, are you? You took a nasty bounce off that advert.”
Fleur crossed her legs to hide the rip in her training suit and quickly peeled off her jacket so they wouldn’t see the violet paint. If Marius had been toting a real UV weapon, she’d be lying on the floor writhing in pain. “I’m absolutely fine. Not a bad recovery out there, I think…. So, what are you meeting about?”
She asked them the same question every morning. It had become something of a joke, since they all knew they wouldn’t say. What went on in the war room, stayed in the war room. That’s the way Fleur’s half-brothers wanted it, though it wasn’t the candid policy vampire leaders had exercised in the past. But, then, there had been quite a few policy changes recently.
Ian gave her the look she’d been expecting and promptly changed the subject. “Same time, day after tomorrow? We can try something new.”
She shrugged and nodded.
“You’re welcome to come for the beginning, you know,” Warrick said, pulling a fresh shirt over his head.
Fleur managed a half-smile. Actually, she wasn’t welcome. Inside the war room, they treated her as if she were still a small child; they tempered the discussion and waited until she gave up and left before letting the real discourse begin. It was a waste of time for everybody, and her presence made everyone uncomfortable, to boot. All because of her past.
The vampires of Crimson City were primarily descendants of four families who formed an organized body called the Primary Assembly, which controlled the policies of survival for the entire vampire world. Fleur had been born into the Dumont family, and thus was a key link of the most powerful lineage. The Dumonts, by tradition, controlled the Assembly. This was a legacy that should have run straight to her, and someday down to her children.
Yes, one vampire stood at the podium in the Primary Assembly meetings to report on the intricate web of relationships between the species in Crimson City. One vampire sat with the inner circle comprised of the heads of the four families and their advisors, and made final decisions on matters of defense and survival. There were other vampires who controlled matters of business and internal welfare, but it was the head of city intelligence who most impacted the survival of their species, and as the vampires evolved, it was this position that had become a kind of de facto presidency for the vampire world. And upon the death of her mother in the first major battle between the species some years back, that vampire should have been Fleur Dumont.
But Fleur had made a mistake. Though her intentions had been pure, though she’d acted in the name of love, the bottom line was that in the same month as she’d lost her mother, she’d broken vampire code. She’d been young and inexperienced, and her crime had made it convenient for the others to bypass her for the leadership circle in favor of her older half-brothers. And though the rest of the Primary Assembly had mostly forgiven her indiscretion, nobody had forgotten. Especially not Fleur. Years later, she still woke up every night with the memory of her shame.
She’d made a rogue. She’d created an enemy.
Vampires who belonged to the Primary Assembly were called primaries. All others were rogues. A rogue was a vampire who had chosen to rebel against his own kind, ignoring the Assembly’s rules and way of life. Sometimes these were primaries who had chosen a life of chaos; more often, they were “made” vampires—humans who had been turned.
Which was one reason why the Assembly had decreed so long ago that humans weren’t to be turned. While many humans fell prey to romantic notions about life as a vampire, not the least of which was the lure of seemingly limitless wealth and life span, the fact was that most turned humans could not—or would not, Fleur wasn’t sure—accept their new fates. These unfortunates most often turned against the Primary Assembly and disappeared into the city, trying to pass as human once more. Sometimes they reappeared, often with thoughts of revenge on their minds. This had once been rare. It was not so rare anymore, and in the back of the Assembly’s collective mind, a worry was brewing that the rogues had banded together and were becoming a powerful force.
Fleur reminded most of the inner circle of disaster and of failure. By legacy she should have been a key player in the security and intelligence community of Crimson City’s vampire world. Like her mother before her. Instead she existed in a strange sort of limbo, unable to detach herself from a sense of responsibility and thus forever on a heightened state of alert, yet never to be called for duty. It was like playing understudy to actors who could never get sick.
Marius, Warrick, and Ian finished changing out of their gear and collected their belongings. Warrick looked over his shoulder. “Oh, and watch for hidden weapons,” he said to Fleur. “You never know what someone might pull. We can work on some new evasive actions sometime, if you like.”
“I’ll take you up on that,” she said. Warrick’s advice was always good—when it came to fighting, he was the best. He might be a Protector by legacy, but sometimes she thought he had more the temperament of a Warrior like herself. Or like she was supposed to be, anyway. Fleur sighed. She should definitely start asking some of the others to train with her, if for no other reason than unpredictability.
She thought to pose the question of whom, but her cousins had already turned their backs and were engaged in a discussion about the imminent business of the day. Fleur pushed away the hair plastered to her sweaty face and neck, released the clips on her chest armor and just sat, twirling a dagger in her hands while they talked amongst themselves.
Warrior and Protector—was it all so important what one was born? She supposed it was. Besides the delineation between the four families, a vampire’s class was a huge part of her identity. And while as far as Fleur could tell, Crimson City’s humans were just beginning to come to terms with the implications that there was a difference between vampires—rogue or primary, Warrior or Protector; the classifications were information that humans either didn’t realize existed or didn’t know what to do with—the vampires themselves were unfailingly aware of the differences.
Classifications were determined, for the most part, by the genetics of the parents, but they could also be affected by blood the parents had ingested or other less explicable factors. There were many classes of vampire. Protectors and Warriors were merely two, and were the most common types in the Dumont family. Protector vampires had a duty to protect their people, making full use of a heightened sixth sense that told them when those they cared about were in trouble, though Protectors seemed to connect with some individuals more than with others. Most Protectors had various psychic abilities; were sometimes capable of reading minds, sometimes were capable of other things. Protectors were trained for combat in the defense of their kind.
Warrior vampires, on the other hand, exhibited uncanny agility and strength—along with the potential for an adrenaline surge more powerful than that of any other class. Biologically it was meant to help them withstand injury, and exact it on their enemies with exponential results. Sometimes Fleur was caught by surprise by her abilities, and in the most unlikely of places. It was not uncommon for her to be reminded that she was meant for other, bigger things, like when an unpleasant incident at a crowded sales event triggered an unusual amount of rage.
“Fleur, if I could have it my way, you’d be sitting in that meeting next to us. That’s how it should be,” Marius said. Then her cousins left the room, and the slam of the heavy mahogany door reverberated loudly in the cavernous space,
Fleur let her dagger slip through her fingers to impale itself in the floorboards with a loud twang. “I don’t know why nobody does anything about it if that’s how it should be,” she muttered.
Of course, she wasn’t doing anything about it either. She wasn’t barreling into the war room demanding her rights, her chance to lead. That would just make her look ridiculous. You couldn’t demand anything when you hadn’t a shred of power.
She replaced her training weapons in the cabinets lining the walls, then headed upstairs, passing the war room on the way. She could hear all the voices arguing loud enough to distinguish themselves through the heavy mahogany door: her three Protector cousins—Warrick, Ian, and Marius; Christian, acting as leader; Ryan reporting as the primary intelligence officer; and the other men and women representing the various clans of the Primary Assembly. The rebel groups excepted, everyone was represented in that room; all of the lines were in attendance. Everybody who was supposed to be there, was there. Except Fleur.
She took the quick route to her rooms, slipping back out the window and making quick work of the fifteen floors straight up to the residential levels. She typed in her code. Her window slid open and she slipped inside. Someone was knocking frantically on the front door of her apartments.
Fleur dodged the shopping bags dotting her floor and opened the door.
Paulina Marakova sashayed in with an overly dramatic double take directed at Fleur’s disheveled appearance. Already dressed to the nines before breakfast, the redhead flung herself into the largest chair in the sitting room and arranged her amber taffeta ball skirt around her. “We’re planning a very different sort of recreation for next week. The twenties. Except—we’re all going as men! The girls are having a seamstress up to do tuxedos. You must come and be fitted. Drinks, ciggies, snooker … it’s going to be a scream!” She laughed, exposing a set of delicate, full-grown fangs that she never filed down.
Like many of her peers, Paulina never left the vampire strata—for that matter, she never even left her building, except to go shopping in the district built high above Rodeo Drive where few humans and even fewer werewolves could afford to browse. She’d taken happily to her position as a younger daughter of Marakova heritage, but underneath the materialism that seemed to consume all of her energy, there was a very real and generous spirit. Fleur counted Paulina as one of very few of her kind who’d never once let her loyalty or friendship lapse, even during the worst of what Fleur had experienced.
Already bored with sitting in one spot, Paulina leaped up and began rifling through a fortune in high-heeled shoes, party dresses, and jewelry Fleur had left strewn about the room after shopping yesterday. “Gorgeous. This one’s gorgeous. Oh! I have one word for you.”
Fleur unbuckled and unlaced her high boots. “Only one?” she teased.
“Ichibana,” Paulina intoned. “What do you think?” She floated her arm out in front of her, waving her fingers gracefully. “The art of Japanese flower arrangement. It’s going to be all the rage, and I’ve hired a private instructor. Can you put on something decent and join me in half an hour?”
“It sounds lovely, but I’ve got a meeting.” Fleur frowned. “Doesn’t that make me sound like a killjoy! But next week’s recreation sounds brilliant. I’ll try to be there.”
Such recreations of past eras, which many of them had actually lived through, were a favorite pastime. Almost every night in these highest reaches of the vampire strata was filled with some sort of similar entertainment. Indulgence was encouraged, as was decadence, for in this world the population could afford to always dress fabulously and the champagne never ran out. Fleur couldn’t really complain about having been forced into the life of an idle heiress. It was simply knowing that she should have been something else, and that she was capable of more, which made things difficult.
“Look, darling. I have so much to do. Decide what sort of accessories you want, and I’ll order them with your tuxedo.” Paulina looked her up and down as Fleur slipped off the rest of her training clothes and stood in her underwear. “Tut-tut! You exercise much too much; you’re losing all your curves. And I can’t believe you waste such a lovely bra and panty set on that kind of action. La Perla, isn’t it? So pretty!” Without waiting for an answer, she blew a kiss and plowed right back out the door.
Fleur dragged a robe from her closet and slipped it on, then walked to her desk, piled high with copies of memos, research reports, photos of high-ranking werewolf and human players in the intelligence and security communities. On paper, she was more than qualified to play her rightful role in vampire leadership. They probably had no idea how hard she’d worked to keep up to speed on things even as she was shut out from meetings and forced to walk the perimeter of the inner circle.
I’ve got to do something. I’ve somehow got to make them understand that I belong in that room. Marius is right. I must talk to Christian and Ryan about my situation.
They had to listen. She’d make them listen, if that’s what it came down to. It was the principle of the thing. Her legacy eroded a little more with every passing day. It was time to do something about that.
Dain Reston always walked to work fully armed. But whether his hands held a cup of coffee and a doughnut or a silver dagger and a pistol depended on instinct. Each day when he woke, he gave himself five seconds before rising to stare up at the stark white paint peeling off his ceiling; did his instincts tell him it was a dagger-through-the-heart sort of night, or an enjoy-your-coffee sort of night?
He actually liked the walk at dusk, halfway across town to the satellite office from his flat in The Triangle, a sort of DMZ for the vamps, wolves, and humans who’d chosen not to cluster in one of the three strata dominated by their own kind. He was one who’d made that choice, and everyone always asked why. Why did he insist on living in the relative hellhole he’d chosen when he could easily live in relative comfort on the base?
Bottom line: It was here or the base, and the base made you soft. There was a reason the divisions headquartered out there were grouped under the umbrella, “Internal Operations.” The official reason was because everything outside the base and inside the City was considered the external world, or the field. But to Dain it was because life in the base was like being in a cocoon. That was the positive spin on it, anyway. Dain also believed that living in such a vacuum of safety dulled the instincts. He wanted the presence of a vamp or a wolf to be a sixth sense.
The vampires had built their skyscrapers to dizzying heights that sheared off at crisp angles into the sky, and those structures gleamed with the cold perfection of tinted glass and steel. Inside, the rooms were reputed to be a riot of color in sumptuous fabrics, gold detailing, and hand-polished woods. Yes, the world above was intimidating to most, as it was meant to be. There weren’t many humans—or werewolves, for that matter—up there. To go up to Crimson City’s highest elevation, you needed either a serious purpose or a serious death wish.
Naturally, humans had remained where they’d always been, at midlevel, clustering in neighborhoods throughout the valleys, beach cities, and downtown areas that hadn’t been razed by the fires.
The werewolves were left to make use of the underground. The psychology of this arrangement wasn’t lost on anybody, and it all made for a nice cocktail of strained relations. That was why Dain made his home in The Triangle—it was one of the few places in town where he could really gauge interspecies tension. Didn’t exactly make for great block parties, but this wasn’t exactly a block party era, now, was it?
He was later than usual today, and as he stepped outside he was hurried by a honk from one of the chauffeured transports sent around to collect the members of the “Battlefield” Operations team for work. As usual, he passed on the ride with a friendly wave. Then, after strapping his bag across his back, double- and triple-checking his weapons for readiness, he walked into the gray mist and headed for the station, the transport trailing behind him in the street.
As a senior field intelligence officer, he knew full well that he wasn’t supposed to refer to his team as B-Ops or to the city streets as a battlefield anymore. B-Ops was just supposed to be Field or External Operations, and the city was supposed to be back to being plain old Los Angeles, not Crimson City. That was the party line. But the slang coined long ago when the wolves and the vamps first came to town and the streets ran red with blood—well, that wasn’t going to disappear just because the suits sitting behind the walls of their base liked to cover reality with a thick layer of gloss.
What was the reality, anyway? As far as his superiors were concerned, Dain and his field teams owned the night. Out of their satellite station in the middle of downtown, whatever was going to go down in Crimson City, B-Ops either knew about it or was planning it. But as far as Dain’s counterparts amongst the vamp and the wolf populations were concerned, the streets—day or night—weren’t owned by anybody anymore, least of all humans.
Two blocks from the station, a cross-eyed mutt barked from behind a chain-link fence. Dain heard a thin buzz ramp up from the transport behind him as it switched on an electrical defense system, and he had to laugh a bit This was what he thrived on, what he lived for: the charge in the air, the too-delicate nature of the peace that had been forged. He couldn’t remember a time when a sense of being on the edge of chaos wasn’t the norm. All the same, he was grateful for the constraints of law and order that his job provided.
Since he could remember, he’d had little opportunity to think about anything else save his work, the state of the city, and the rest of his team. Some might call it too insular a life. Dain called it just as well. He and most of his teammates had chosen Battlefield Operations for a reason.
Battlefield Operations and Internal Operations were two divisions established at city level under the jurisdiction of the Feds to address the tricky issue of human survival in a city now sharing space with a melting pot of other species. While the city’s regular police department was still responsible for keeping the peace on the streets on a day-to-day basis as they always had, B-Ops and I-Ops concerned themselves with big picture matters of intelligence and strategic defense.
B-Ops contained teams of combat-trained field agents, spies, military personnel and intelligence hunters. I-Ops contained teams of information analysts, researchers, policy wonks, and other management types. If you had your head on completely straight, a past without at least one personal arrest, and your personality under complete control, you worked for Internal Operations. If you were a bit of a wildcard, you worked for B-Ops.
Dain fit the latter mold in spades. He’d once been a bounty hunter working dangerous, and sometimes illegal jobs. Oddly, he didn’t remember any of it. He didn’t remember a lot of his past, and what memories still lurked in his mind were blurry. He tried to remember the good things, the helpful things—like his wife Serena. Truth be told, he didn’t care about remembering much except her, and some days he would just lie awake in bed trying to force those images to come into focus. All he had left were a few pictures and the scars on his arms from the chemical burns he’d received while trying to save her.
The vampires had killed her. There was a file on the whole thing, of course, but it was pretty slim. Just a cursory description of events filed by some hack who’d apparently had better things to do than to document the turning point of Dain’s life.
Serena had worked for a consumer products company that was trying to expand operations into the vampire realm. They’d negotiated a tentative deal to build a factory up in strata +1, a very rare arrangement. Apparently, the vampires had played the humans for fools.
The deal had imploded along with the factory; Dain had received a call from his wife that she was in trouble. He’d kept the message on his cell phone for months. He could remember the exact intonation of her voice, the exact words she’d used, the way she’d formed her sentences. He just couldn’t remember anything that wasn’t on tape. Apparently he’d responded to her call for help and traveled up to the vampire strata … and by the end of the night he was in a hospital bed being treated for severe burns to his arms, with no memory whatsoever of what had gone down. All he knew was that he’d failed his wife and that there was no one person to hunt down and no simple way to seek revenge.
Thus, when chaos had threatened the city and the government called for recruits, Dain had nothing to lose and everything to gain by answering. It had been a blessing in a way, for people like himself, his partner Cyd, and others like them who now formed the nucleus of B-Ops—real fighters with real street savvy to personally monitor and respond to the primitive violence perpetrated by the fangs and the dogs. This gave them a purpose.
Dain shook his head. Humans always accused the vamps and the dogs of trying to “pass,” trying to successfully play themselves off as human. Well, in a funny way, some humans were trying to pass, too. After he’d woken up in that hospital bed with no wife and no memory, he’d nearly lost it. He’d been tempted back into his former occupation, felt himself sucked toward taking out his anger and sorrow and confusion on everybody by killing them—by killing everything in his path. But the recruiters at Battlefield Operations had saved him. They’d given him a second chance at a life. And it was only fair that he stepped up now with every last ounce of his strength to keep what he’d received and to defend the people who’d finally, after so much time, given him a membership card as a respected part of society.
Today certainly seemed quiet enough. City security was humming along nicely at normal levels, and for the last month he’d had all his teams on two-day status, with full-blown station meetings only every other day. He turned the corner, the transport finally peeling off and pulling away into an adjacent parking lot. He’d arrived.
This downtown station was a night-shift outpost also used as a satellite office for the base out at LAX. His partner Cyd probably would have preferred working the day shift—less chance of bumping into something you didn’t want to bump into—except, this way she didn’t have to go out to the base much. Cyd refused to go unless it was a direct order; Dain actually liked to get out there once in a while.
The station before him was riddled with graffiti and defended by a set of old-school iron window bars that clashed with the high-tech security equipment built into the structure. Dain turned and hoisted his coffee in a gesture of thanks to the driver over in the parking lot, then turned back to the door.
Highly guarded, the station house looked deceptively small from the street. It actually housed rooms for interrogation, incarceration, research, conferencing, and more. After a retinal scan and a blood prick test, the doors unlocked and Dain headed straight for the break room. He could hear the uproar from way down the hall. Through the swinging doors, it looked like the night-shift teams were all in.
JB and Trask were sitting on the lunch table playing a hand of poker. Cyd seemed to be discussing her new holster with a teammate by the coffee machine, a blue candy cigarette flopping between her lips as she spoke. And a whole slew of guys barreled in behind him, in the middle of a shoving match.
“Okay, listen up!” he called.
After a few snorts, snickers, and last-minute wisecracks, the teams quieted down. “We’re on two-day check-in. I’ve read last night’s reports”—he looked at them sternly—“and I’ve never been so goddamn bored in my life.”
They all laughed. “So, unless you’ve got something you want to discuss, we’ll save the official powwow for tomorrow morning. Go ahead and download your assignments and get out in the field. Anyone have anything? No? Fantastic. Then get the hell out of here. I’ll see you tomorrow. And remember—”
“Be careful out there!” the crew chimed in unison, amidst much eye rolling. In a flurry of activity, everyone except Cyd grabbed gear and headed out.
“’Morning, partner.” Cydney Brighton had the kind of smoky voice that would have made her a bona fide knockout all on its own even if she hadn’t been such a natural looker. Of course, she didn’t bother to work what she had. Not that Dain cared. He hadn’t gotten around to shaving for two days, himself. That was B-Ops. It just took a certain kind.
“What’s the temperature?” she asked.
“I didn’t pick up anything unusual on the way over.”
“Me neither. It should be a quiet day.”
“Maybe I should bring a book.”
A few hours later, he was thinking she probably wished she had. It was midnight, and the city was just hitting its stride. But as they’d dished on just about every mutual acquaintance they’d ever had, now Dain was reading some old reports while Cyd graduated to an unlit cigarette and stared out through the windshield.
Their car was like a mobile fortress. Hidden panels slid open to reveal a mind-blowing array of devices, lights, switches, and panels. GPS, video conferencing, communications center, mapping, DNA lab—everything. And that didn’t count the arsenal built into side door and roof compartments. Only Dain and Cyd had the code for the car; anyone else would pretty much be incinerated if they even touched it.
In all fairness, the car would give perpetrators advance warning to back off. And besides, Dain was well enough known in the city that even his nonstandard patrol car was recognized. That was one of the main reasons Cyd never took a car—she didn’t want to be recognized. She was partial to the new subterranean transit system the werewolves had constructed. It was open to everyone, of course, though there still weren’t too many besides the dogs who’d go down there.
Dain had been down a couple of times on business. He’d even seen a couple of young vamps on the train, once, and had to work hard not to laugh. They’d probably dared each other to do it on a lark, and had underestimated the discomfort of being surrounded by such a high concentration of opposite—and fairly antagonistic—energy.
Cyd sighed loudly. “I don’t suppose you have a match on you.”
“If I did, you know I wouldn’t give it to you. You made me swear to it.”
She sighed again and pointed to where a switch box was built into the lower part of the dashboard. “Most cars have a cigarette lighter there.” This car could light up a huge radius of the night around them. Even though they had an unlimited supply of night vision contact lenses and specialized goggles, visors, and helmets, it was a nice feature to have.
Dain pushed his seat back and stretched his legs. “Would you like me to have them swap it back out? Personally, I prefer the equipment that actually helps save my life.”
She rolled her eyes. She’d been quitting smoking for the better part of a year. As far as Dain knew, by the time they headed back to the office for lunch, she’d be begging a book of matches off JB to start the cycle all over again.
The woman was wicked smart. A goddamn mess, but too clever by half. Whatever else she was—and she was a lot of things—she was probably smarter than he was. But she’d had some kind of a scare working in the Paranormal Research & Development division out at I-Ops. She probably would have outranked him now if she’d stayed. She didn’t talk about it, and Dain didn’t ask questions.
What he did know was that Cyd had been fresh out of college when she’d joined up. There was a lot of hushed talk about her origins. One rumor had it that she’d been in a research group that had opened a portal to some demon underworld and had seen or been through “things.” There had been talk of spells, curses, evil … whatever.
It was a bunch of crap, as far as Dain was concerned. No one had ever seemed able to describe any of those things. And frankly, the only thing Cyd seemed truly cursed with was a penchant for addictive substances. She’d spilled her purse in the car, once. Gum, mints, lozenges, real cigarettes, candy cigarettes, mini-bar whiskeys. And little packets of … stuff. Pieces, squares, random thingums. Things for days when she was on the wagon, things for days she was off.
Dain had kept his mouth shut. She was a damn good field operative, had cultivated the best network of informants in Crimson City, and therefore the contents of her purse were none of his business.
“This is getting ridiculous,” Cyd finally muttered after they’d been sitting in the car for two more hours. “Maybe we should go find a section of town that the city police aren’t staffing tonight.”
Dain gave her a look. “You feel like creating a little trouble, do you?”
She shrugged. “There’s such a thing as too quiet. I don’t like it when things are too quiet.”
The city police were another division entirely. They handled human crimes and human emergencies and were just as happy to pretend that werewolves and vamps didn’t exist. Of course, that also meant they were just as happy to pretend that people like Dain and Cyd didn’t exist, and the feeling was mutual.
“After lunch, why don’t you do the rounds and visit your informants,” Dain suggested. “I was thinking of stopping by the base for a meeting, anyway.”
“Fun. I’ll be skipping that … whoa. Wait.” Cyd pointed to the car’s GPS screen. “Do you see what I see?”
The screen showed the placement of all of the teams for which Dain was responsible. Coded by number and color, he could see their location while they were on duty. Sometimes his men turned their GPS off to avoid being traced by enemies, though that wasn’t supposed to be a worry these days. And Cyd went off it more than most for the sake of maintaining her informants’ privacy. But what was different about the screen today was an extra blip, one without a recognizable team code. It was just a symbol.
“You know anything about this?” Cyd asked.
Yeah, he knew something about it. That was the symbol for a mech. It had never been used before, and he was beyond surprised to see it being used now. Mechs—humans with mechanical features and built-in weapons systems—were developed and housed out at the base. None of them had been sent outside their barracks and training facilities. None of them had ever been out in the open. None of them had ever been programmed for a full-scale mission. “That’s a mech symbol,” he said.
“That’s impossible,” Cyd blurted. But the blip didn’t fade away, and now it was moving. According to the coordinates it was on strata +1, in vampire territory.
Dain looked at Cyd darkly, jammed the gear stick in reverse and hit the accelerator. The vehicle peeled out backward, knocking over a row of garbage cans. Cyd gripped the center armrest as he flipped into forward. Fishtailing out of the parking lot, they careened toward Dumont Towers, aka “Vampire Central.”
The intercom crackled. “Turn it up,” Dain barked.
Cyd fiddled with the volume as Dain surfed channels on the video monitor, pausing on a view of the front door piped in by cameras mounted across the street from the tony Dumont Towers property development. There were surveillance cameras everywhere, but they revealed nothing. The streets in front of the skyscraper were empty.
Dain punched a few more controls to see what else he could find. An hourglass danced on the screen as the system searched and then finally produced what it could find. Which was absolutely nothing.
TRACKING . . .
NO DATA. INSERT CORRECT MODULE.
Dain cursed. “You drive.” He took his hands off the steering wheel and the vehicle flew onto the sidewalk. Cyd calmly reached over and got them back in the street, Dain’s foot still pressed hard against the accelerator as he scrabbled about in the glove compartment.
The correct module would be the one that allowed him to tap into the software used by mechs. The one he’d never used before. And the one he hadn’t been expecting to use because they’d never sent a mech out on a real-life mission.
Random electronics, batteries, wires, first-aid supplies along with the ubiquitous gum, condoms, and tampons showered out of the glove compartment as something dashed across the street.
Cyd swerved. “Sorry,” she muttered, her voice tense and low.
Dain found the item in question and tossed it in Cyd’s lap, taking over the steering. She ripped the shrinkwrap off and plugged the module into the slot.
“Don’t bother downloading it,” Dain said. “Just play it straight from the cartridge.”
The screen flashed a couple of times, then:
… IN PROCESS. COORDINATES: 93°NNE, 20°S, STRATA +1. CROSSING PSR 45 SECONDS …
“Dammit! What the hell is going on here?” Dain raged. Cyd looked at him and he nodded. She punched the all-call.
Dain straightened his earpiece and tapped the mic pad. “This is Dain Reston, Field Operations. All downtown units, please proceed immediately to red-alert positions throughout the city. Repeat: Red-alert is in effect. This is not an exercise.”
Cyd switched off the all-call and he punched in for a direct line to the base. “Phone. Dial ‘suits.’” Classify urgent,” he instructed.
The car phone kicked in and Bridget Rothschild’s voice came on the line. “Internal Operations, red line. What’s going on, Dain?” Her voice sounded high-pitched and thin.
“You tell me!”
“Did you send in a mech? We have no paperwork on this!”
Dain fought hard not to lose his patience. “I have no authority over the mechs, Bridget. Internal Ops isn’t in on this? The boss didn’t send a mech out?”
“No! Not to my knowledge … did you—”
The car swerved back and forth in the lane as Cyd grabbed his arm. She pointed at the monitor. “Oh, shit.”
PAST PSR. MISSION LOCKED.
Fleur stood in the hall before two enormous carved mahogany doors leading to the war room, absently running the toe of her boot across the supple Oriental carpet beneath her feet. She’d waited outside for a while now, turning away and walking to the window whenever someone passed by, embarrassed about her purpose here.
She looked up again, as she’d been compelled to do over and over for the last twenty minutes, gazing at the top of the doors. Carved into the wide door frame was the Latin translation of the same English engraved on a brass plaque by the street-level entrance, where the dogs and, more likely, humans passed by:
COME NOT HERE IF YOU DO NOT BELONG.
The phrase seemed to mock her, to remind her that she didn’t fit in with the vampire world quite in the way that she once had. She sighed again at the idea of fitting in. Fitting back in. Her anxiety was such that she’d changed her outfit three times already, from a gown back into fighting gear and then into something that bridged the two styles in an attempt to achieve just the right look for her goal.
She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, and thought about her purpose. It was to convince Christian and Ryan to give her a chance to exorcise the demons from her past. Her purpose was to make her peers want to forget about what she’d done and to make them believe that the wildness she’d exhibited that fateful night long ago was something that could be controlled.
She hadn’t seen Hayden since the night she’d made him. She remembered practically every detail, every word. She remembered lying in his arms, their bodies entwined on the bed. He’d told her he loved her more than anything. He’d told her he couldn’t live without her. He’d told her that he’d kill himself if she didn’t take him from the human race and make him vampire, if she didn’t make them of the same kind. He wanted to marry her; he wanted to live forever.
She’d believed him, though she’d been warned time and again to protect herself from those very words. From the words that would make you forget the one thing you were supposed to remember: Vampires must not turn humans. It was against code. But she’d lost her self-control in the heat of Hayden’s words and the lust between them. She’d sunk her fangs deep into his neck. And then she’d lost everything.
Fleur squeezed her eyes shut and tried to focus on the idea that all she could do now was work on reclaiming what she’d lost. And the first step was to walk into that room and show that she was putting the past behind her, that she was capable of taking on the kind of role in the vampire world for which she’d been destined.
The insistent tick of the nearby antique grandfather clock measured time, driving home the fact that the meeting should have been over by now and that they would be adjourning late. But that wasn’t unusual. This wasn’t the first time she’d come to the war room. But the humiliation her half-brothers had doled out last time was enough to inspire her to be quite sure that she had solid arguments on her side this time.
She knew they would patronize her, try to dissuade her from her “silly” ideas, would tell her to find contentment in the riches being a Dumont vampire could provide and to forget her notions of responsibility.
But Fleur had tried that. It simply wasn’t in her nature. If nothing else, she wanted to restore her good name and wipe away the shame that followed her on whispers in corridors, behind fans and between puffs of cigars. She had something to prove, and prove it she would.
Under her breath, she practiced once more. “Christian … Ryan … I respect the work you’ve done, but I want…” Fleur stopped and frowned. She sounded too weak, too uncertain … too whiny. She tried again: “I should be more involved in security matters.” That was better, anyway. One more time. “I should—”
The door opened and the members of the inner circle filed out, giving her odd, surprised glances. Some even looked away, refusing to make eye contact
Chin up, shoulders back, Fleur slipped into the room as the last participant filed out. Christian and Ryan still stood by the conference table, leaning over to sign documents. Identical twins, they were nearly indistinguishable with the same black hair and pale features. Those who knew them knew that Ryan was flashier, louder, more the life of the party. Christian was the introvert and that was reflected in his dress and demeanor.
She waited quietly, knowing they could sense a presence in the room. Ryan finally looked up, his expression faltering a little as he saw who it was. “Hello, Fleur.”
Christian obviously noticed his brother’s tone and looked up as well, rewarding her with the same lack of enthusiasm. “Hello, Fleur,” he echoed.
“Hello. I was hoping to have a word with you both.” She could have sworn Christian actually cringed. It was the same old thing. She knew they didn’t think much of her. She also knew that they feared her a little bit and referred to her in private circles as “the wildcard” for more than one reason. A little fear was good; she just had to be careful about how and when she exploited it.
And it wasn’t as if she were trying to take anything from anyone. A power grab would only be destructive for the entire vampire world. Fleur just wanted the opportunity to participate, to serve … and of course, to clear her name.
“Well, go ahead,” Ryan said, still hunched over with his pen in midair.
Fleur wanted to roll her eyes. This wasn’t the sort of thing one discussed in between autographs. But if this was as much audience as they’d offer, she’d have to take it. She stepped farther into the room and approached the opposite end of the conference table. “I wanted to first thank you for being so understanding over the last several years…” She’d barely managed to start her speech, when already she’d lost their attention.
Lips parted in surprise, eyes looking past her to the windows along the back wall, the two men froze. Fleur felt the chill of fresh, cold air and noted the way the brothers’ hair rippled slightly in a curious breeze. Slowly, oh so slowly, she turned and looked over her shoulder.
Something … someone had breached the tower in complete silence. Someone who knew where to find the war room. And that someone was just standing there against the backdrop of an open window, surveying the scene.
One of the twins addressed the intercom. “This is Ryan. I’m still in the war room. We have a serious security breach. Human … I think. Get forces to man the perimeter of the building, get forces for this floor and outside the room. But nobody comes in here.”
Turning all the way around to face the intruder, Fleur braced herself for the possibility that whatever he was doing here, whatever he had planned, it would be the beginning of something terrible. She watched the figure’s gaze shift in response to the sound of fingernails against wood. Her brothers must be going for the guns in the holsters affixed under the table.
Backed up against the near end of the table, she was close enough to have a good look at the intruder, at the metal components that seemed to run in metal strips and piping and plates around his neck and radiated down underneath his clothing. He didn’t appear to be armed. But that, she knew was because he was himself the weapon. His forearms shone with an overlay of polished titanium, bordered by bolts and probably filled with wireless circuitry. The part of him that was mortal flesh looked real, although almost too handsome to be a real man.
He raised his left arm, and as Fleur took a closer look, she realized with horror that it had been converted into a weapon—it held a cartridge filled with the unmistakable purple-pink glow of ultraviolet fluid.
Fleur’s mouth went dry. She had no knowledge of the humans or anyone else successfully—or purposely—developing such a handheld UV weapon, much less using one in the field. “He’s got UV.”
“Fleur, don’t move,” Ryan muttered.
“He’s got a UV weapon,” she said, louder.
A gun discharged behind her and the bullet whizzed over her right shoulder. It bounced merrily off the intruder’s chest armor and rolled across the wood flooring. The acrid smell of gunpowder floated by, dispersed by the breeze from the open window.
“They’ve created a mech,” she said. “It’s a mech.”
“Shut up, Fleur!” It was Christian this time, uncharacteristically flustered. Her brothers were scared by what they saw. And they had reason to be. Fleur had heard rumors that the humans were developing something superhuman like this, some sort of creature with mechanical components who could be manipulated like a weapon. They were called mechs, but everyone had become convinced they were nothing more than a rumor meant to create fear among the vampire and the werewolf worlds.
She stood there with the hard edge of the table digging into her back as Christian and Ryan unleashed a hailstorm of bullets around her. Watching them bounce harmlessly off the intruder and roll across the floor like a spilled bag of marbles, Fleur recognized that she was looking at proof that mechs existed. And she was also looking at proof that the humans had not only gone ahead and effectively “bottled” a weapon that could easily kill vampires, but that they were willing to use it.
During the first battle between the species, the battle in which Fleur’s own mother had died, the humans had been reactive, disorganized, crude. They had worked hard to broker the truce that was currently in effect—as had the werewolf and vampire leaders. But this … this suggested the possibility that the humans now wanted to break their truce and launch a proactive assault on the vampire world. And worse, they had a level of weapon sophistication they had not been known to possess.
Her brothers’ weapons spent, the room went completely silent, thin curls of wafting smoke making Fleur tear up. Caught in the middle, she wasn’t quite sure how to react. If the intruder wanted to engage in hand-to-hand combat she had some moves in mind. If he wanted to shoot her, there wasn’t much she could do. And with her back to her brothers, she couldn’t get a read on what they wanted. As it turned out, it didn’t matter what they wanted.
The mech cocked his head, almost as if he’d been humoring them, waiting for the ammunition to run out so those pesky bullets would leave him alone.
“Fleur, I want you to get down on the floor and crawl to the door,” Ryan said.
“I can help,” Fleur whispered. “I can help you.”
“You’ll only hurt,” Christian said.
It stung, but Fleur recognized this wasn’t the time to argue; she slowly knelt on the floor. Pretending to inch her way toward escape, she set her sights on a wall cabinet she hoped still contained some decent explosives.
Christian retreated from the conference table to a work desk at the far end of the room and shouted commands into the intercom, while Ryan reloaded his gun and continued blasting away at the mech. In the reflection of the cabinet glass, Fleur watched him quickly run out of bullets. Her panicked brother then tossed his weapon at the mech, but it fell harmlessly to the ground.
As she snaked one hand up and worked on the cabinet lock, Fleur could hear chaos in the halls just outside. Her hand shook and her sweaty fingers slipped on the locking mechanism. Behind her, Ryan was begging for mercy, pleading for his life.
The mech didn’t answer. What was it doing? To no avail, Fleur jiggled the lock, not really caring now how loud she was. She turned one eye to the glass reflection.
The mech took a step forward and looked at Christian, who was standing bolt straight. There was a weighty silence, and then the mech raised its left hand and gracefully curled its fingers. She saw her brother wince as the bullet released from the mechanism fused to the mech’s forearm, and actually felt an incongruous moment of calm watching the gorgeous violet tracer.
Christian screamed as the bullet struck his chest. It was a sound unlike anything Fleur had heard before. Blood fountained over his white dress shirt and he crumpled to the ground, still screaming at the top of his lungs. His body twitched and leaped for a moment, then he went completely silent and still.
Ryan stared at his brother in a kind of catatonic state, making no effort to run, to fight, to do anything but accept his fate.
“Run,” Fleur whispered hoarsely. She got to her feet and turned to the door, but her half-brother didn’t move. “Ryan! You’ve got to run!”
He didn’t. She was nearly to him before the next bullet struck. His blood spattered her face and they fell together. Like Christian, Ryan screamed as the UV bullet penetrated his body. Fleur cradled his head, holding his face in her hands and wanting to soothe his pain. “It’s okay, Ryan. You’re not alone.” But her words of comfort were lost; he died almost instantly, his life extinguished like a flame.
Fleur couldn’t quite breathe. Gasping and choking on fear, she looked up at the mech. With his arm still suspended in midair, he surveyed the room as if cataloging its contents and looking for anybody else. Apparently satisfied that only she was left, he cocked his head and studied Fleur.
She swallowed nervously as he reached down to his leg holster. He swept his forearm down and arched it back up in one graceful movement, snapping a new attachment onto its metal rigging. Fleur’s heart pounded. So this was what it was like to be at the mercy of a species you didn’t fully understand.
Ryan’s head still lay in her lap, and drops of his blood tickled her skin as they slid down her face. Fleur stared straight into the mech’s intense aquamarine eyes and waited.
Maybe it was only what she wanted to see—in those eyes she was certain she caught a flicker of something alive, something more than just a programmed machine. But when she blinked and looked once more, there was just a dull gaze and a dead presence.
The mech raised his arm in a slow and calculated manner and shot her.
Fleur screamed in surprise and pain then realized he’d shot her with a conventional bullet. She wasn’t going to die. She’d have to get some blood back into herself, but…. Through the pain and the pounding and the roaring in her brain, she could have sworn the mech lowered his weapon and said, “Play dead.” Had she misheard?
But maybe she’d imagined it. The mech took a step backward, the same shuttered look on his face. Fleur clutched her arm to her chest and let the red blood seep through her fingers, then collapsed in a heap with her eyes closed. She heard a series of clicks and hums, then one last sound: that of a boot on the windowsill, perhaps. Then there was silence.
She was counting to ten when the door burst open. The room was suddenly in chaos, medics rushing in with Warriors and Protectors of the defense force. All at once, as if everyone simultaneously realized what she meant to them now, she felt a million hands come at her, lifting and fussing and protecting and defending…
“I’m fine,” she whispered, opening her eyes. She sat up so the medics could properly wrap her wound before taking her to the blood banks upstairs.
But then Fleur looked over and saw them cover Christian and Ryan with cloths embroidered with the Dumont crest. The blood banks would have to wait. As if the same thought had occurred to everyone else, they turned their faces to her, one after the next.
Don’t lose it. Do not lose it, Fleur. “It didn’t get me. I’m fine. It ran out of UV bullets and shot me with a regular one.” She shoved all offers of help away and stood up, self-conscious to the extreme. The smell of the blood was making everyone incredibly edgy, and she was no exception.
“The humans did this,” someone blurted. “Didn’t they? What do we do now?”
Fleur’s cousins were now in the room. Marius came forward and whispered into her ear, “This is your moment, but nobody is going to give it to you. You’ll have to take it.”
She glanced over at the other two. “Take it, Fleur,” Warrick mouthed.
Ian nodded. “Take the power.”
She opened her mouth to answer, but they stepped away.
Arguments were already flaring about counterattacks, with several members of the other families discussing the transference of power. The medics attended to the bodies of her half-brothers, Fleur’s cousins stood in stony silence watching her. Fleur felt in danger of being swallowed up, in danger of just disappearing.
“Wait!” She drew the hair back from her face with blood-streaked hands. “It appears that the unthinkable has happened…” God, how ridiculous this must sound coming out of her mouth. She cleared her throat and turned to start giving orders. “This is what I want done: You—advance security measures on all of +1 to the highest level. You—get the defense teams into the skies. We’re looking for at least one … mech. I’m pretty sure that was a mech. It looks like a human but with mechanical upgrades. It’s armed and there could be more of them. If you can’t bring it in, collect whatever intelligence you can. The rest of you follow standard emergency procedures and meet me back in this room in one hour.”
They stared at her like stone statues. Fleur pointed at the bodies on the floor. “Do you need more convincing than this? Go!”
The room emptied, leaving the ferric smell of blood swirling in the air behind them. And when the medics finally wheeled out the desiccating remains of her half-brothers, Fleur turned to the window from which the mech had escaped, and leapt right through.