Late in the witching hour of a September night, Henry Fitzroy, son of a king, bent over a low table, calculating strategies and plotting his course. His face was still in concentration, holding a slight crease between nearly perfect brows. His clothes were loose and comfortable, made for a night of staying in. Blue eyes darted, laying out plans and redrawing battle lines. Every decision had to be correct, and every response anticipated. He lifted one graceful hand and made his move.
White Knight F4 to E6.
He lifted Vicki's bishop from the board with a pleased grin.
She sighed irritably and glared. So much for respecting the clergy.
"Do you even have a strategy?" he said, leaning back into the couch.
"Of course I do." Vicki picked over her pieces like fruit.
"Really." Henry watched her with delight.
"I make it up as I go along." She smirked and slid a rook forward to take his pawn.
He smiled indulgently. "That's not a strategy. That's jazz," he said, in a smooth, low voice. His hands brushed down the fabric of the couch, and he leaned forward, stretching toward the board.
"Maybe I like jazz," Vicki huffed.
"Maybe I do too. But it doesn't win war." He gave her an impish grin and picked his piece, sliding his own bishop clear across the board. "Checkmate." His eyes glittered gleefully.
Vicki stared down at the game and gave a small disgruntled noise. She sat back against her sofa and crossed her arms petulantly. Henry averted his gaze, smiled, and started putting the pieces back in their box. Real ebony. Real ivory. Very old.
"Don't you have any other games?"
He glanced at her. "I don't often find the time," he said, closing the wooden box of royals. "But . . ." He leaned over the table, elbows resting on his knees. "If it's other forms of entertainment you want . . . I do have plenty of ideas."
Incorrigible did not begin to describe him. And yet, Vicki felt herself quicken at the purr in his voice. She drew a breath to answer, possibly deny, but found herself just watching him as he stood in a gentle sweep and then settled onto the seat next to her. He could have appeared almost like magic. He chose not to and slung one arm over the back of the couch so he could face her. He resisted the urge to play with her hair, choosing instead to see what she would do.
The offer hung in the air.
Vicki shifted, mirroring the vampire's pose. He was so close, so open, just waiting. Her cheeks grew hot with the memory of having touched him, kissed him. Her heart pounded.
It could be nice. Lovely. It could be everything-for awhile.
She reached up slowly and touched the corner of his mouth with her thumb . . . drew it feather-light across his lips. She felt him sigh, eyelids falling closed. Henry turned into her hand and touched a light kiss to her palm. The brush of skin and breath made her gasp.
Vicki shivered in want, ready to grab a handful of his curly hair and pull him on like a blanket. She shivered in fear, too. And drew her hand away. But he followed, and in a blink she felt his breath on her face, hovering.
Henry pressed in for a kiss, letting his lips slide over hers. He sucked lightly and felt her breathe out a moan. The sound of it made him smile. He brushed a hand down her sides, over the soft mohair fabric, and then slid fingers up under the hem. She jumped as his cool skin met her warm stomach and then kissed him hard. Tongues met and mingled heat.
Henry's hand moved higher. Caressed her breast. Electric.
Vicki jerked, both hands coming to Henry's shoulders in a quick shove that parted them instantly.
"Don't . . ." she whispered hoarsely. Don't make me fall for you. She slithered away, panting.
What Henry heard was something different. Don't touch me. Don't love me. He gave her a look of sorrow and defeat as he sat back. And he wondered, as he had many times, if she saw the animal, still, when looked at him. He had to know if that was the reason. If it would only take time. He caught her eyes and moved to speak, but she was faster for once.
Vicki took his face in her hands and planted a lingering kiss on the crown of his head. His eyes closed as his question died on his lips. And then he watched her back away, taking her warmth and scent with her.
"I'll see you tomorrow," she said, heading for the door.
He said nothing as she left. But as the door to the apartment clicked shut, Fitzroy clenched his jaw and slowly nodded.
She ran. Through the dark streets, through a nameless park, across busy intersections with lights and sounds that burned her delicate senses. The clothes from the trunk were red. It was good they were red. And good it was dark.
She checked the newspaper ad clutched in one bony hand as though the address wasn't burned into her soul. This name. This place. Vicki Nelson would help. She just had to reach her. She just needed time. The city was so large, unlike it had been years ago. So much to cross. She just needed time.
Air rushed like coals in her chest as she ran and turned the corner under a bright street light. Her brown hair looked black in the night, and it flowed out behind her like a cape, falling unnaturally still and slick when she paused, or when she stumbled and stopped.
Force drew on her like the ocean before a wave, a deep inhale of power. And then it hit, smashing upon the rocks. She fell to the pavement, soft skin tearing on rough cement, and screamed a silent scream as everything inside felt cut and burned at once. The pain blotted out movement until there were only the involuntary spasms of trying to escape.
Time had run out.
She lay sprawled and helpless for a time that held no meaning. Too late. All that mattered was that she had been too late. Eventually, the pain in her stomach ebbed, and she staggered to her feet. She had been close.
Tears of frustration jumbled her vision as she checked the moon, found north, and started back. Every few minutes, phantom blades would cut anew and she would sink against a building for support until he stopped. She would not cry for the pain, not while she could taste the fresh air. Only for her failure to have made it all the way.
The master called, and she must make it . . . back.
Not home. Never home.
Detective Sergeant Mike Celluci stood in one of the deluxe suites of the newly opened Hazelton Hotel staring down with unearthly calm at the body of one Edward Ellis, investor. He sipped coffee that they'd gotten on the way and started picking out details. He gave the room a once over, just to see what all the buzz had been about. Designer lamps with squat, round shades, patterned rugs, modern but reasonable art. He could never afford a night at such a place, so this was about as close as he was ever going to get to the experience. His gaze came back around to the true center of the room: the bed. It was difficult to imagine the effect they'd been going for, what with the blood and corpse and all. Mike absently wondered when the sight of that much blood had stopped interrupting his need for breakfast.
Edward, by the state of undress, had not been alone when he was killed. That and the bullwhip were a fairly strong hint that Eddie had a plaything. Mike set his coffee on the closest table and crouched near the whip that lay spooled on the floor. Something about it seemed serious, authentic. He snagged the forensics kid snapping photos and pulled him down.
"What does this look like to you?" Mike said, not quite touching the plaits near the tip of the whip.
The tech's eyes narrowed at the darkened leather. "Could be more blood," he offered.
"Yeah. Make sure you get a photo of this, okay?" Celluci said as he stood. He looked over to see his partner, Dave, waving something through the air.
"Money and cards are still in his wallet," he announced.
Mike nodded slowly, eyes fixing on Edward's dead body and the spiked heel still protruding from his neck. "Yeah, I'm not thinking this was a robbery."
"Are you even thinking this is a murder? I mean, maybe he . . ." Dave stood at the foot of the bed and started twisting his head, mimicking the sprawl that the corpse had fallen in to. He tried to imagine the possibilities.
"Zigged when he should have zagged?" Mike laughed darkly. "No . . . that just gives you rug burn." He retrieved his coffee and sipped.
Dave snorted and started to make a reply when Gracie, one of the city's medical examiners, rolled in with a gurney and her bag of gear. She brushed her hand over her ear like she was tucking back her blonde hair, except that it was already pulled in a tight ponytail. She snapped on her gloves and glanced at Mike with a smile at the edges of her lips.
"Since when do you get here first?"
He shrugged and smiled. "Can't have you thinking I'm slacking off."
"Hmm." Her mouth twisted into a wry grin and she eyed his coffee. "Bring any for me?" she asked, pulling a thermometer from her kit.
Mike looked sheepish. "I didn-"
"You'll remember next time," she cut him off with a quip and a coy look that dared him to forget.
He smiled to himself and glanced around the room.
Gracie edged onto the blood-soaked bed to take a liver temperature. She kept staring at the shoe, torn between laughing and keeping her professional cool.
Celluci looked up when he heard her shift off the mattress. "Well?"
"Dead about ten hours."
"So 10pm last night." Mike turned to his partner. "Dave, check the staff schedules, see who was working then. Maids, bellhops. Maybe someone might have been up here."
The big man nodded. "You got it, man." And he hurried off for the main lobby, pushing by uniformed officers and the forensics team that was beginning to map the room for more thorough evidence collection.
When he was gone, Mike turned his attention back to the ME. She was returning the thermometer to its proper place.
"I assume you've noted the massive blood loss?" Gracie smirked.
"Stab wound to the neck."
"Also did not escape my attention."
"Then there's not much more I can tell you here." She offered a slight smile and then waved for two of her assistants to help her move the body.
Mike took one last drink from his coffee cup and then raised it toward her. "Still hot?" he offered.
She wrinkled her nose. "Cop cooties."
And he just shook his head and laughed. "Thanks, Grace," he said, making for the door.
"Any time!" she called as Mike left.
He waved and followed in Dave's wake to the lobby to see what else he could get from the hotel.
Mike was flipping through the case file when Mohadevan called. She had interesting things that she wanted to show him in person.
"I'll be right down," he told her, taking the file with him.
Edward was grey under the bright, dazzling lights. He was also stitched together like a baseball, with neat, even sutures that would have been better placed on a living patient. Mike kept staring at the hole in Eddie's neck and picturing the shoe. A knot of giggles bounced around inside, but he kept it down and eyed the coroner with professional detachment.
"Well," she said, looking up from her microscope. "There were some epithelials left under his fingernails. But given the lack of defensive wounds, I can't quite tell you why. I also found a few hairs on him that were not, I can say with certainty, his own."
She smiled apologetically. "I'm afraid that's where it gets strange."
Mike's eyes closed automatically, and he concentrated on the reddish-black. "Strange how?"
"Strange as in both samples match, but they're not quite human."
He made an exaggerated sigh.
"But they are quite female. Vaginal fluids confirm that Mr. Ellis had sex recently. With the same someone who left her skin under his nails."
Celluci opened his eyes and regarded her seriously. "If it isn't human . . . " He couldn't believe he'd said that. "Do you know what it could be? Are we talking another vampire here?"
Mohadevan drew a deep breath and looked thoughtful. "Whatever I tested last time is not the same as this. So . . . I really couldn't say."
"Anything else?" Mike asked, looking over Edward bleakly.
"She broke his neck when she kicked him. It's why he didn't move and still managed to bleed out."
Mike grimaced and turned to go. "Thanks, doc."
She grinned after him. "Always a pleasure!"
"Not quite human." He muttered and swore a blue streak under his breath all the way back up the stairs. Mike returned to his desk to find his partner hovering and looking sour.
"I assume you have bad news?" The detective sergeant dropped into his chair.
"No one from the staff was on that floor. Room was reserved in Edward's name with his own credit card. Cameras show him entering the hotel alone."
Detective Celluci shook his head lightly. "Phone records? Maybe she was from an escort service?"
"Sorry, man. Already checked. No calls."
"Uniforms are still at his house. They might find one there."
Mike picked up a pen just to have the satisfaction of dropping it and then rubbed his hands over his face.
"So we're nowhere."
Dave shrugged, and Mike simply nodded. There was nothing for it. He'd have to wait for more evidence. With a sigh, he set Edward's case aside and started on the previous day's reports.
Mike rubbed his neck wearily as he closed the last file on his desk. Night was falling, his shift was over, and it was time to head out. He'd promised Vicki dinner as an apology for some slight against Henry that he couldn't remember. It'd gotten her pissed, though. And she was best pacified by fine food.
He turned his car on to College and headed east. Ink spread across the skyline, staining it purple and black. The lights from the signs and streetlamps danced a joyous carnival on either side of the road, blurring into streams of color as he drove. It was silent in the car, and the detective drifted into a light trance as he followed this path he'd followed a thousand times. There, the video store. There, the Tim Horton's. Stop for the light.
He kept the yellow lines in the right places and cruised, thinking about Edward Ellis. Killed during sex. Was that better or worse than other ways?
The turn for Vicki's office was coming.
Light. Light. Bump in the road. The tires hummed.
Mike slammed on the brakes, and the car slammed into the woman, rolling her up onto the hood. As the cruiser lurched to a halt, she slid from the smooth rumpled metal and tumbled across the asphalt. For a breath, Mike stared, his heart pounding against his ribs in horrified terror. And then he was out, rushing to her side.
"Oh . . . God . . . Where did-miss, are you?"
She moved and whipped her long brown hair aside. Her cheeks and hands were torn and bleeding, and her thin limbs shook violently as she gave a dazed look around at the car, at Mike, at her wounds.
"Miss?" Mike reached for her arm to help her up.
She shrieked and wrenched away, her eyes wide with wild fear.
"I . . . I'm sorry. I didn't see you. Are you okay?" Blood pounded in his ears, and he tried to reach for her again, only to have her cower away and bare her small teeth that were dark with blood. She needed an ambulance.
"Don't move, I'll call for help."
But she did move, scrambling backwards across the street. Away from the man; the one who grabbed.
Mike followed for a few steps, one hand out trying to calm her down and make her rest. "Please, you're hurt. I need you to-yes, this is Detective Celluci. I need an ambulance."
The woman staggered to her feet, eyes darting from Mike to the buildings beyond.
"Miss, something could be broken. You shouldn't walk." He moved again to touch her arm, and she swung at his hand, viciously snarling.
"Yes, just past the third light." He mumbled, recoiled from her strike, and almost dropped the phone.
She sucked rapid breaths as she backed away and looked at the paper she held crumpled in her hand. It wasn't fair. She shook involuntarily and started to cry.
Mike watched her cautiously as he slipped his phone into his pocket and held up both hands. "The paramedics will be here soon. They can take a look at you."
She stared at him, palms burning, bones aching, eyes streaming tears. And she stepped away. It was coming. She had taken too long, and the master knew. She moved up onto the sidewalk. Onto the grass.
Then the ocean pulled its waters deep inside. And pain came crashing at her back. She crumpled to the ground with a high-pitched grunt, hugging her arms around her body to keep from falling apart. The sound she heard must have been her own screaming, but it was hard to tell the burning in her throat from the searing in her stomach. Hands touched her small shoulders, and she wanted to vomit from their weight.
"Get away!" She flailed desperately in panic and rolled away as the cold pain dulled and her lungs opened so she could breathe. She came to her feet with unearthly grace and gave the man another savage flash of teeth.
Mike froze, startled by the violence and speed of her reaction. And before he could think beyond the blood on her beautiful cheek and the wholesale terror in her black opal eyes, she took off, sprinting with a lightness and speed that was . . .
Detective Celluci felt a grip in his gut as she vanished into the night. He let his eyes fall to the ground. A crumpled scrap of paper glared up at him. He picked it up and carried it to a streetlamp so he could see.
"Vicki Nelson Investigations. . . "
The strength went out of him. Of course. Of course she'd be looking for Vicki. The unnatural, it seemed, always were.
A flash of colored lights crossed Mike's vision, and he looked up to see the ambulance rolling to a stop. With great world-weariness, he sighed. After a few minutes' explanation, the paramedics were on their way and Mike was left to drive the last few blocks to Vicki's office with pointed, nervous caution. All thoughts of dinner had fled, replaced by the image of a bruised and bleeding woman beating at him like it meant her life.
He entered Vicki's building and took the stairs. The exercise was good for his body, now shaking as the adrenaline drained away. He leaned against the door frame and knocked.
Vicki answered. And she looked stunning. Her hair fell to her shoulders; it was swept and styled to frame and brush her golden cheeks. A simple black dress clung to her strong body. Mike didn't hide his roaming eyes as she stepped back to let him in. He knew every muscle and inch of skin, and yet the way the dress fell promised exciting possibilities, like a magician's scarf.
"You're late," she smirked and let him follow her into the reception room.
"Yeah, about that." He touched the paper in his pocket.
"Good evening, detective." The disembodied voice of Henry Fitzroy smiled from her office door.
Mike flinched and glared. "What's he doing here?" He looked at the vampire, spoke to Vicki.
She shrugged. "You were late."
"And you were going to tell us why." Henry strode forward, tilting his head in amusement.
His expression made Mike want to sneer, so he looked at Vicki instead. There was expectation in her eyes.
"I hit a woman tonight," he blurted.
"Who says chivalry isn't dead," Henry smiled as he stalked a circle around them.
"With my car! She was carrying this." He produced the newspaper ad, and Henry plucked it from his fingers as he passed.
"Is she okay?" Vicki asked.
They both watched Henry sniff the paper and jerk away from the scent of blood.
"Apparently," Mike said, snatching the paper back. "In fact, she got up and ran away."
The other two frowned.
"She was here looking for you, Vic. And . . . I think she killed a man last night."
"What makes you think it was her?" Vicki said. She took the ad and stared down at the bloody newsprint. Dark blotches obscured her name.
"Mohadevan said the hair samples were not quite human. And this woman? Who just got up like her leg wasn't busted? Something about her-"
"Wasn't quite human," Henry finished the thought for him and turned away, pacing the length of the office. When he turned back, his eyes were narrowed in thought. "You think she's a threat."
"If I'm right, she killed a man. Of course I think she's a threat."
Vicki could see it coming-the two of them leaping to her defense, positioning themselves as sentries outside her door. Something had to be done.
"Well!" She clapped Mike on the arm with enthusiasm. "Thanks for the heads up. I'll be sure to watch out for a . . ." She lifted her eyebrows in question.
"Small, thin woman with very long brown hair. Big dark eyes."
The men gave her a wary look.
"What? A thin small chick is not something I have to worry about. Now are you or are you not taking me to dinner an hour late?"
Mike's expression slid into a smile, and Henry's fell. As the two mortals linked arms, Fitzroy swept forward in a cloud of dark indifference. The very blankness on his pale face betrayed him. "Got dinner plans of my own," he said, with a brilliant, fake smile.
Vicki touched his arm as he passed, and he paused, turning to look her in the eyes.
"Be good," she said.
And then he was gone as though he had never been.
Vicki felt Mike's eyes on her. She looked to see just how much contempt they held but found only worry. It was an expression he wore far too often.
"What?" she said in her most innocent voice.
Mike glanced toward the open door. "Nothing. After you?" He gestured, and they strode out.
"So, you really hit a woman with your car?"
Battered and aching, she returned to his house, the master's house. It was old and richly appointed. The smell of money clung to the climbing ivy. Everything about it was one more thing that she hated. She hated the wall and the fence, the gate, the walkway, and the trees. She hated the small windows that looked out on the grounds and the round window at the very summit in the attic. She hated the way it smelled forever like pine and how the floorboards creaked under the lightest foot.
She stepped up to the front door and rang the bell. She had no key. Would never have a key. Keys open things, reveal secrets. Her secrets were gone and not even hope remained.
The ghastly hand and pull of a distant force receded, and for a few blessed moments on the front step, it felt like she was free. Then the latch on the heavy front door lifted. And the door swung in.
He was red with fury. Red from his greying beard to his greying hair. Blue, pale eyes like ice pierced her soft flesh.
"You stupid whore!" he roared as his hand lashed out to snatch her by the hair. He hauled her inside with one powerful yank and slammed the door shut. Her body flailed like the end of a whip, an arm cracking against the banister that led upstairs. She shook before his anger and did not look at his eyes when he brought her face to his. A wolf's hot breath smothered her.
"Did you think I wouldn't find out?"
They were words she had heard before. Words out of history.
Tadhg Dougherty was, like most Irishmen on the coast, a fisherman. Poor. Forever smelling like fishguts and seawater. Forever dreaming that life could be better, and should be, for a hard worker like himself. Hauling nets had made him strong, too many days on the craggy rock-strewn shores had made him hard.
Tadhg attended church like any good man and then returned to his cottage to pay heed to the local gods. Christ or no, you did not toy with spirits.
He wandered the shores under sunny skies that only God himself could design and beheld, on a shoal in the distance, a sight as rare as a banshee's lullaby. A family of selkies hopped and waddled from the waters to stretch themselves in the sun. Of all the sídhe, they are the least to be feared, for they are neither tricksome nor wise and have no use for the sons nor souls of man. They are children of the sea, who play in the waters, eat their fill, and make love as the will desires, troubling man only with the dreams inspired by their devastating beauty.
As Tadhg watched, the selkies drew themselves up the rocky shore until they reached the edge of the soft grass. And then they slipped from their pelts like shedding a thick winter coat. Men and woman with perfect white skin and supple, strong limbs emerged from their seal-selves like butterflies. Tadhg had nowhere to hide on the open coastline so that he might watch their play. But he recalled, once, having heard of a man in Cork who caught himself a selkie by swimming in from the sea. The fools never think that man will come from anywhere but dry land.
So Tadhg left all that was valuable to him in a dry spot that he could find again easily enough and walked into the icy Irish waters, minding that he didn't splash. He swam out a safe distance, where he would be lost among the waves, and then made his way down the rocky shore, just out to sea from where the selkies dropped their pelts. The water swallowed his strength whole, leaving him cold and numb and slow. But he let the waves carry him in as the sídhe creatures sprawled themselves lazily on the grass.
It was no great cunning that got Tadhg Dougherty his selkie pelt, just luck. As the water pushed him in to the shore, he started to churn his legs to revive the feeling. And as soon as he touched the solid sea floor, he was off, moving up the beach of stone as quickly as his limbs would allow.
The selkies heard his crashing on the gravel, though, and let out screams of terror. They ran for their skins with a lightness and ease no human could match. All but one. She had gone further ashore to pick flowers on a whim. So as the other selkies put on their seal-selves and made for the water, snapping at Tadhg with their sharp teeth, that one was only just then coming to the grassy ridge. Her pelt was the only one left. And she stared naked and shaking in terror as a human hand closed around her precious skin.
That was how she came to be an Irish fisherman's wife.
That was how he told the tale for miles around to anyone who would listen.
Tadhg was a gentle husband at first. He called his new wife Maebhe and tried as best he could to please her and make her smile. He brought home flowers when he had the time. He sang her songs that his mother had taught him. And he spoke with a soft voice when he told her how beautiful she was, how she brightened his life and made him feel whole. But always, her eyes found the sea, and any true affection she had was cast upon the waves.
"Maebhe," Tadhg said one evening in early winter.
She looked up from the pot boiling on the stove and wiped her slight hands on her apron.
"I've tried ta do right by ya, ya know." His voice was quiet and sad. Dark hair fell across his forehead.
She said nothing. She just stared at him with her deep eyes that swirled purple and green with reflected light.
"Yer not happy. I know that. But yer me wife, won fair. And I think. . . what I mean ta say is-" He got up from his chair and paced over to the peat fire to toss in a brick.
"How about o' deal b'tween you und I?"
She quirked her head to the side. "What kind o' deal?" Her violin voice filled the small house like sunshine. It warmed him more than the fire at his feet ever could.
Tadhg smiled to himself, and the light in the fireplace made his young blue eyes look green. Selkies, as they say, are the children of the sea. Innocent. Tadhg felt the devil whisper in his ear, telling him how to get the prize he most desired.
"A child. For yer freedom." He looked at her and held her gaze.
"For my freedom," she whispered.
The mere thought of it filled her eyes with tears as salty as the sea. She rushed to Tadhg and gripped him on the arms. It was the first time she'd ever sought his touch.
"My pelt?" She looked up with innocent hope.
"For a son." He lifted one calloused hand and wiped a tear of joy from her soft cheek.
She melted into him as she had never done. Maebhe wrapped her arms around him tightly and buried her face in his chest. Her touches were fire, and she bent his head to hers for a kiss to melt stone.
Tadhg's need came as a storm, beckoned by her willingness. His Maebhe. His wife.
He held her body close and rocked against her, learning every curve and tasting every cry. And she swallowed him, drew him in with every trick she knew from her ages spent in play. She drove him mad with caresses, mad with a kiss, and to shuddering incoherence as he came.
In the dark, they lay together, sweaty and spent. She had thought to give him what he wanted. To celebrate the birth of hope within her own breast. It didn't occur to her that her husband had already gotten what he wanted. And she could not read on his face what lay within his heart.
She had been perfect-his every want made real. And he could not imagine breathing without it, without her, yielding.
The selkie called Maebhe screamed like a human woman during her labor. She thrashed on the bed as the midwife stroked her head. She breathed and huffed as the contractions knotted her insides. Then she wheezed at the urge to push.
The midwife had a sharp, angular face and strong hands. If she noticed the birthing mother's strange, opalescent eyes, she made no sign. She just pressed a damp cloth to the woman's head and fetched clean sheets when needed. Already gasping and spent, Maebhe sobbed in her arms.
"Push now," the midwife said.
"Ya can. We all can."
Maebhe's head rolled on the pillows, her long hair clinging like a web to her skin. Pain cracked her pelvis and back, radiating outward into a howl.
The midwife took her shaky hand and held it between her palms. "Love, ya have ta try. Right now fer me. Jus' once. Then it'll be over."
Maebhe's head shook involuntarily as she sobbed at this madness.
"Jus' once," the woman urged.
The pain built again, but there was no hiding. And so she had to believe. She pushed. And she screamed.
And a third.
It was always just once more, until the baby came and the bed was red with blood.
The relief was a drenching waterfall. Maebhe laughed and reached out her thin white arms for the bundle of baby, her savior, who would be loved all the more for the gift he would give.
"It's a boy." The midwife smiled as she passed him over.
It's freedom, the selkie wanted to say. But she just stared down at the tiny red face in fascination. She touched his little nose with the tip of her finger and smiled with more joy than she could ever remember.
There was a creak at the door. The selkie glanced up from her son to see Tadhg, framed by the orange setting sun. The world blazed around him.
"We thank ya, Brenna," he said to the midwife.
She smiled back, wiping her hands and gathering all the soiled linens.
"What will ya call him?" she asked.
Tadhg knelt beside the bed and brushed a coarse finger over his son's small face. His eyes flicked to Maebhe and locked on the curve of her lip.
"William," he said.
Brenna nodded, and on her way home, she spread the happy news.
At first, Tadhg said, the baby needed his mother. But after he was weaned, she would be free.
And then Tadhg said it was fishing season and someone had to stay home to keep the baby out of trouble.
And then came the day Maebhe had been fearing, the day her simple mind refused to accept for so long, though the gathering clouds had forecast well before.
She stirred a pot of stew on the stove and waited for her husband to return from cutting peat. William laughed as he set up a row of small blocks and toppled them over. His laughter was a foreign sound. And compared to the waves of the sea and the songs of whales was small and insignificant.
Cool salty air blew in the open windows and ruffled the scant curtains. Maebhe turned to it like a sunflower and breathed. The sounds of William's playing faded to a grey drone that passed below her notice. And the breeze blew out her soul like a whipping flag.
An age could have passed as she stood there, transfixed by the sensations that reminded her of home. She longed for sharp teeth and fresh fish. She could remember dancing through the water with her brothers and sisters. She had been the best at hunting blind, with only her sensitive whiskers to tell her when fish flitted by. The salty breeze aroused the memory of water flowing over her soft skin, and she was lost.
The sudden stamp of feet on the wooden floor made her jump, splashing thin stew on her apron. She turned to see Tadhg just closing the door.
"I want my pelt," she said in a strong, determined voice.
He looked at her with his hard blue eyes. "No."
"What do ya mean, 'no'?" You said you'd make me a deal. And I kept my bargain!" She stalked toward him, finding a wooden spoon in her hand beating through the air as she hollered.
He was unmoved. He might have been a statue except for the lust in his eyes at the color of her cheeks and the heaving of her breast.
"I said no." He smirked.
The smirk sent her wild. It was the first time she had ever truly felt fury and the unseelie desire to taste blood. The selkie called Maebhe flew at her human husband from across their small home, wielding the spoon like a sword. He was a betrayer. His smile said it all. Suddenly their years of pleasant living and wild love became false, coated in a slime of deception worthy of a solitary sídhe. Every kind moment twisted and tarnished in her memory. She had treasured some of those memories, even as she had wanted to return home. In the wake of that violation, she raged and darted with uncanny speed, weapon held high.
Tadhg's eyes flashed. He stepped, swung his strong arm, and slapped her to the floor in a single blow. Her head careened into the wall with a loud thud as she fell.
For a moment, she lay sprawled in a pool of dress and long hair, too stunned to move. And then her wits gathered, and she turned, scrambling against the wall at her back. Blood rose on her lip, and she stared upward with wide eyes full of shock and fear. He stepped closer, and she cowered instinctively.
Tadhg Dougherty had learned something new. He leaned over his selkie wife and watched her shrink back, turning away her trembling lip. Power shot through his veins. It was the exaltation of mastery. He smiled and experimentally jerked his arm back with an open palm.
And his smile grew wicked.
She shook at the feel of his hot breath, hovering, pressing.
"Do ya know what I'm goin' ta do instead?" Tadhg nuzzled up to her ear with horrid gentleness.
She shook her head.
"I'm goin' ta take ya to America, maybe Canada, where you'll never see tha' blasted coast again." Then, he thought, she might have eyes for him.
The selkie pressed her dark eyes shut. And eventually she felt the heat of her husband's body move away. He picked up William from the middle of the floor, and only when she heard another door close did she hold her head in her hands and start to weep.
Tadhg kept his promise. Within two months, they were stowed away on an ocean liner like many Irish families before them, heading for the cheap ports of Canada. The fare was the lowest he'd been able to find.
Somewhere, amid all their belongings, her pelt was folded and locked away-somewhere in the hold that was inaccessible while at sea. And still Tadhg watched her. Always.
When they arrived on solid ground again, he swore off the sea and took a job as a green grocer instead. On the side, he learned to build houses as it was done in the New World. And eventually he built his own new house by hand.
Maebhe learned to speak to no one. If he knew, it made him angry. She might tell her story or beg for help. And no power in the world was going to take his lovely wife away. So she faded into a ghost who walked the sidewalk in a grey coat and turned her eyes from every smiling face. The music in her voice died. When she spoke to her husband, if she spoke at all, it was a small, strained sound that quivered like it might simply break.
In the eyes of all their neighbors, Tadhg read recrimination. Every day he was sure she had been out, talking to strangers. He was sure they all knew the secret of his pretty little wife and plotted amongst themselves behind drawn curtains. And so Tadhg became quiet too, because they could not understand what it took to protect a thing you loved so dearly. And they would not understand how deeply her sullen eyes cut into his soul.
On the day the new house was finished, Maebhe learned why no one had been asked to help in the construction. He led her and William over the polished wood floors of the hallway into the basement. Only it wasn't. She had expected a root cellar. What she saw was a room, fully furnished, with no windows and a single door. Her hand closed tightly on her son's, and she turned.
Tadhg smiled. "It's fer yer own good. Did ya think I wouldn't find out? Ya been talkin'. I know ya have. An' now I know ya won't be." He sounded tender and calm.
She gave a stuttering, horrified look around the small dark space. Her stomach quailed, and she drew a breath to speak, but her husband went on.
"Now, give me William." He stuck out his hand and looked pointedly at the toddler who held his mother's fingers.
"Tadhg. Ya can't. Please. I didn't-"
"Don't!" He roared and lunged, just enough to make her flinch back and drop the boy's hand.
William's mumbling came to a stop, and he stared up at his father. The sight of him softened the man's monstrous expression.
"I'm sorry, love. Ya break my heart. I've loved ya, and ya break my heart." He lifted William in his arms and left, closing the door at the bottom of the stairs as his wife threw her small body against it. Through the solid wood, she could hear the top door close as well. She stared into the grain near her face and sank to the floor. Her small hand traced where the door knob should be. But there was only a keyhole. And only one key.
Slowly, over the weeks, her young husband with fine hair like coal and sapphire eyes faded away. He became a shade, a shadow that darkened her cellar door. She asked about his day, about William. He muttered replies in a dull voice and leered. If she fought him, he held her down with heavy hands that left bruises. Sometimes he used both hands on her neck just to see her eyes widen with primal fear. She would not die, no, but the pain got her attention. And in that he could revel.
"Your clothes are dirty," he said one day. Or one night. She could not say.
Her hand went to her blouse. It hadn't been cleaned since he'd locked her away.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. She wasn't. It had been a secret hope that the stench and ugliness would drive him off. That perhaps she wouldn't have to endure another lathering with his tongue if her skin tasted like grime.
Tadhg sneered at her. "Give them to me."
Anger flowed easily through him, and he snatched a fistful of her shirt in his hand, wrenching her close so she stumbled. His face was a mask of rage.
"No wife o' mine," he snarled and jerked until the fabric tore. "Is goin' ta wear rags!"
He used both hands and ripped the blouse from her shoulders while she shrieked. As easily as Tadhg angered, the selkie cried, letting tears streaming down her face and drop from her chin. Tadhg ran his hands over her trembling bared skin and cupped each breast as she shook, just to see if she'd try to stop him. Her lips moved, but that was all. So he slid thick fingers under the waist of her skirt and then knelt to get the full strength of his arms. The skirt too tore into strips. And then there were only the undergarments left guarding what was his by right.
Maebhe's stomach turned, and she jumped, screams catching in her throat, when his rough hands laid her bare. She gripped her hands into fists at her sides and fought against giving him what he wanted. She bit her lower lip when he pressed full against her.
"I built this house fer you. Crossed the ocean fer you," he growled into her ear and nuzzled his face against hers, feeling the wetness of her tears on his cheek. "Yer so beautiful. I need to see it."
Her eyes rolled open in silent pleading as his lips found her neck, and then she squeezed them shut again.
"Tell me ya love me," he muttered.
Maebhe trembled and threaded her thin fingers into his hair.
"Tell me!" he said more harshly, lifting her like a sack over to the small bed.
He dropped her on the mattress, and she bounced once. Instinctively, her knees drew up as she curled away. Hot calloused hands forced them down and apart, even as she strained. He leaned in close, waiting.
She mouthed the words at him, her throat too dry to speak.
"So I can hear you," he said softly.
"I love you, Tadhg."
There was only the light from the lamps in the corners to illuminate her room. She had a radio, a vanity, a bed, and a corner bathroom with a sink. The cold, varnished concrete floor was mottled with throw rugs. Everything smelled like her, a vague mixture of skin and sweat. She stood before the vanity mirror, watching the bruises on her reflected face fade from purple to yellow-green and finally vanish. It might have taken a day. A minute. The sídhe count time by the slow march of the stars. She had no stars. A day was the time between visits. A day was how long it took for her husband to remember he loved the feel of her fair flesh. And to forget it rendered him weak.
The radio played on, Count Basie's band splashing loud and happy noise around her cell. She stared, unmoved by it. Unmoved by anything. She watched her cheek heal with unnatural ease. Her broken arm mended as though it had never known violence. The ache of her crushed throat waned and she wheezed less as time rolled on. Hair as still and straight as the Cliffs of Moher hung to the backs of her knees.
Mirror, mirror on the wall . . .
The music blared. Sterile light made her skin glow.
She could not even remember the smell of the sea.
Her eyes refocused, and in the mirror she saw something new. Not herself. She saw the mirror and its sharp glass. Selkies are slow and gentle by nature. Innocent in their desires, faithful in their loves until the love has passed. She had never loved her husband. But she had never dreamed of his death either. Not until then. Not until the humiliations made her hate her own body, its unacceptable weakness, its capacity for endless pain. It's immortality.
He did not even bring food anymore. Her knees and elbows bulged under her skin. Her cheeks were sunken. He did not seem to notice. And though the hunger ached her bones, it would do no more than that. Just more pain.
Her fingers curled into fists, and she smashed them against the mirror with a sharp cry. It cracked into scimitar shards in its frame, and she laughed with a mad glee. She broke the frame enough to pull out a piece as big as a knife. She held it reverently, and the edges sliced her palms without pain. Red pools gathered in the creases of her hands, and a smile crossed her pale face. She dipped her delicate head to her cupped hands and licked off the blood with a satisfied shiver.
It tasted like the sea.
As a weapon, the bare glass would not quite do. The selkie peered around her cell, and her eyes alighted on the bed. It was a place she no longer slept. But it had linens that would make a fine wrapping.
She moved swiftly to turn off the radio so she could hear footsteps as she worked. The pillowcase had the thickest cloth. She sliced it into long strips that she then braided and wound around the shard. It was crude, at best, but it only had to last one use. She ran her fingers over the braids lightly, whispering prayers to a god that did not look out for her people. They were the only prayers she knew. And she thought it fitting that the human god take responsibility for his own wretched creations. She wondered who he was and if the oldest selkie might know. She wished to have words.
Tadhg Dougherty's wife pressed her naked body against the wall of her chamber and waited. She could wait forever. There was nothing for her but time. In the silence she could imagine the glass sliding into his chest or his stomach. The look of shock on his face made her want to laugh. In her mind's eye, he fell before her as weak and useless as a doll. She could strip him bare and leave his corpse to rot. The selkie looked down at the knife and pictured it covered with his blood. She smiled.
When his footsteps fell on the stairs, her breath stopped. The knife quivered in her hand as she heard him stop at the door. He was reaching down with the key around his neck. Her whole body burned with golden energy as the key turned and he gave the door a push.
In the scant second between the door moving and her attack, Tadhg saw the shattered mirror on the vanity. It made him pause. He never paused. He always shouldered through the door like a pissed bull. That pause brought her lunge up short.
She howled her fury and swung the knife as she flew around the corner. Pale light glinted off its glassy edge. She expected to bring the shard straight into his heart as he plowed forward. Instead, she found him motionless. His arms came up automatically for protection, and the glass slashed into the meat of his forearm, spattering blood on the both of them.
He cried out and stumbled back, glimpsing through his arms the thing he had married, a bright red knife raised high in her hands. She had ruined it, ruined everything! A rage blasted from his body to his hands, and Tadhg did not wait for a second strike. He dove at the selkie like a bear, catching her wrist in one hand.
They scrabbled for control of the knife. She screamed and clawed, twining her hands around his, over his, gasping and roaring and crying in desperation. She pulled on her wrist and the knife until he squeezed so hard that her fingers ceased to work. Tadhg took the knife and kicked her away, with nothing more than disgust on his red face.
She clutched her stomach and scrambled up. Her small frame vibrated in anger. He wasn't even afraid. He turned his back to her to leave, so she launched herself at him.
Tadhg turned, shard in hand.
And the selkie sank herself onto the knife with a stunned gasp. She fell without screaming. He watched with hateful eyes as she gulped in air. The motion of breathing cut her innards on the blade, sending fresh pain that only made her gasp again. Tadhg's lip curled into a slight sneer as he crushed his shirt into a bandage over the wound on his arm. And then he left.
Because the sídhe do not die, or do not do so easily, she lay with the shard in her belly for as a long as it took for her to pull it out herself. Her fingers always slipped on the slick glass and blood. She cut her hands gripping the edges. And when it finally fell to the floor with a crisp clink, she lay in a small pool of her own blood as the wound healed. The blood dried around her as she wept. Sometimes, when her fantasies told her how she might have won, she cried an ocean.
While she still lay weeping, her husband returned. He'd brought chains.
That was the day she lost her name.
He became simply master; she, simply slave.
When William was two, the selkie found herself burdened again with child. She had long since lost any hope for herself, but a child! A child deserved better. Better than her master. And more, the very thought of giving him anything made her spit bile. He would always have to take.
The chains kept her mostly in the middle of the room. If he cared to use the bed, he moved it. There wasn't much available to her, but she made do. She wrapped herself in the chains until they bit, squeezing her abdomen with all her strength. Eventually, despite Tadhg's interruptions, she succeeded in a miscarriage. The master was furious. And that made her heart glow.
Every time, she killed them. Every time one of the master's rapes became a child, she found a way. For awhile, she contrived to be willful just to be beaten. Even as she would writhe from the pain, inside, she would laugh.
But eventually, the options vanished. The chains became too short to twist. And he learned when she was using defiance to goad him. Time enough, and it was bound to happen.
Tadhg moved her to the attic when the contractions started. He called in a woman whose silence could be bought and stood in the doorway to watch.
Between screams, the selkie stared out the window in fascination. The sky was painfully beautiful. And bluer than the master's eyes. She watched the sky, wanting to embrace its free vastness, and felt the light of the sun arc through the window onto her pale white arm. It filled her up, called her out of herself, and made the world fall away. The sky, the sky, the sky.
The child, at some point, came. But her soul floated beyond the window and made her dream at how life had been. The sky made her think of the sea and sunsets over the water. She remembered crashing waves on cold rocks and the smell of salt and fish.
The midwife shoved a child into her arms, and she looked startled to see the woman and the child, both. It forced her back into the room, back to the master's daughter, the master's face, the master's house, and her own despair. She peered down at the small face, born of pain and violence, and felt only sadness and terror. A girl. What would the master do with a girl?
She grimaced and flushed with hatred.
Oblivious, the midwife turned and smiled to the master, babbling idiocy and kind things. For a moment, he looked away to show her out. And that was all it took to toss the window open. That was all it took to set her daughter free. Dearbhail. The name rose in her breast like a memory. Little Dearbhail who knew no pain.
Something snapped in the master when he returned and saw her leaning out the open window, laughing. It wasn't a mad laugh from someone in bedlam. It was joy, like she had climbed a mountain and wished for God to know.
He didn't even rage. He didn't strike her or slam her into furniture. When she turned at last from reveling in the sky and gazed at him, he backed away in gibbering horror.
"What have ya done?"
She looked out the window, then back. A breeze swept her hair out like a sail.
"What kind o' monster does that," he muttered in a small voice as he stared at her.
The master, the current one, had crueler eyes than Tadhg. They were twisted and dead with madness, possessed of a lighter, more haunting blue. His fingers dug into her cheeks as he forced her to look at him. She felt the stairs looming at her side, and her arm throbbed from where it whacked into the banister. Despite herself, she mewled as her cheeks cut against her teeth.
"Edward Ellis is dead. It's all over the news. The Hazelton was a huge affair, and now it's a scandal. That you caused!" He bared his teeth as he spoke.
She stared blankly back, shaking under his fury. Tears burned at her eyes, but she held them in. That much she had learned.
"You didn't think I'd find out. Well I did." He pressed his face right up to hers and then moved like a snake, striking the side of her head. He slammed her skull into the banister with each word. "I. Did. Find. Out." And then he let her fall into a heap. "Eddie was a good client, paid our bills! Did you think you were going to run away?" He laughed a high, incredulous laugh and then bent to grab a fistful of hair to haul her up.
Lights sprang and danced in her vision, and she panted, trying not to sob. Her hands curled over his, and she tried to lift herself up to stop her scalp from ripping off.
"No," the master said. "No . . . you know better." He gave her a calculating look and then shrugged. "Doesn't matter."
Then he turned, still holding the selkie by the hair, and dragged her to the cellar door. He opened the top door with his key, then the bottom one. And with a swing of his arm and swift kick, he sent her tumbling back inside where she belonged.
She knew the punishment for disobedience. The last master had discovered it many years before.
When William was five, he was brought to see the selkie on his birthday. It was a secret, his father said. And if he was very good, he could see her again next year. But he had to be very good, and he couldn't tell a soul.
The selkie looked down at her son's little face, and he pouted, telling her she looked sad.
When he was twelve, he sat awkwardly on the old bed, gawking in embarrassed silence. She was still as young and beautiful as he remembered. The sight of her round breasts and smooth stomach made him burn in ways he had never known. He thought he might save her, unlock her chains. And she would run away with him. He could touch her; she could love him. It was an innocently painted dream.
At fifteen, he tried to steal a kiss.
At sixteen, he learned to take one.
He had spent every moment since the year before thinking about the magic woman. Her dark eyes taunted him. In dreams, she held him willingly and whispered his name. She made him shudder. He thought the dreams were a prophecy. Maybe they were dreams she sent to him with her magic.
When she balked at his kiss and smashed those dreams to bits, he lashed out. He shoved hard at her shoulders, pinned her down, and crushed his mouth against hers anyway. Her struggle made him feel strong. And he understood why his father had kept her all those years. It had been a promise between father and son.
The last thing Tadhg Dougherty did before he died was tell his son the location of the selkie's pelt. And the first thing William did after the funeral was find it, locked in a box in an attic built above the bathroom closet. As a boy, he thought his father was telling stories about the sídhe creature from the old country. But she had never aged, and she never died. And her wounds did heal so perfectly. Running his hands over the soft pelt of mottled grey and brown, he finally had proof as to why.
He let himself through the first door to the cellar, still holding the enchanted skin on one arm and stroking it with his fingers. His feet thudded on the stairs as he went down and opened the second door. A sound he had never heard filtered through the gap.
The selkie moaned in pleasure, rolling herself on the floor as her chains would allow.
William stood frozen, staring. She stopped. And then her eyes fixed on the seal skin on his arm.
"My skin," she whispered in awe. And then she flung herself to the ends of her bonds like a hound, straining against his leash.
William flinched back and crushed the pelt against his side.
The selkie's face shattered. She crumpled like she'd been shot and held her stomach as though she kept her guts from spilling. Her mouth gaped wide in a gasp.
The man stared, and as he did so, his arm relaxed. The selkie responded in kind, coming to lie lax on the floor. She sucked in air and shook, eyeing her pelt from where she lay. William's eyes followed hers, and a smile spread across his face.
"Hurts, doesn't it," he said.
The fire of life in the selkie's dark eyes died.
"But not always," he mused. And then he stroked her skin again.
To her own horror, she felt the touch run up her back in a wave of pleasure, and she arched into it. A warm glow spread down her limbs. All unwanted. Tadhg had thrust upon her hurt after hurt and invasions that tore the tenderest places. He had never made violation feel good. William's discovery was all the more horrific for the way he could make her sigh. The pleasure was real. And only in the moments between ecstasies could her mind gather enough to be sickened.
The master was smirking in a way that made her want to tear her own flesh. When he stopped, she crawled back from him and gathered her limbs together into a ball, hiding her face in her knees. She heard him go. And when the door shut soundly, she rocked herself back and forth and let herself cry.
"Is it deja vú if we really have been here before?" Detective Celluci asked no one in particular.
Dawson, one of the many medical examiners employed by the city of Toronto, knelt by their newest victim, Larry Meets, a one night inhabitant of room 802 at the Fairmont Royal York hotel. Larry was slumped on the floor beside the king-sized bed with his head lolled back and his eyes lifeless.
Mike's lips pressed into a thin line. Another hotel room, another man found naked and dead. Too coincidental to be coincidence. He waited stoically for Dawson to make his assessment.
"Well . . ." The man looked up. "Time of death is about 8pm yesterday." Dawson levered himself up to standing and pulled off his gloves. "By the ligature marks on his neck, my thought is strangulation."
Eight PM. The timeline was probable with his mystery woman, then. Celluci grimaced and peered around the room. Most of the interior was untouched, except for the lamp from the right bedside table. The desk was orderly, with not so much as a water glass out of place. The only clothes laying about were clearly Larry's.
Mike paced around the bed. The covers had been stripped off, leaving only the sheets. As he came to the foot of the bed, he spotted a thin strip of black fabric coiled beneath the bedskirt. Mike knelt, pulled a pen from his pocket, and teased the fabric out. Dawson crouched next to him.
"What do you suppose . . ."
"Tie, maybe?" Mike lifted the bedskirt. As he suspected, the black rope was tied to the foot of the bed. He glanced over and saw a matching one just a few inches from Larry's corpse.
Mike pushed himself up with a grunt. "Last time, Eddie had a whip in his room. Now we've got ties to bed posts."
Dawson looked nonplussed and shrugged. "It takes all sorts, Mike. You know that."
"I know." He looked down once and then around to search for Jamie, the kid with the camera, to be sure they got photos. Sure, kinky shit happens in hotels. That still didn't make it coincidence.
Celluci got to the corner where Larry lay dead and leaned over to get a look at the space between the bed and the wall. Sure enough . . .
"So the lamp's the murder weapon?" He shot Dawson a quizzical look. Normally murder weapons were much harder to find. Normally, killers tried to hide that sort of thing.
The ME packed his bag and waved in two assistants to help with the body. He spoke over his shoulder. "Seems reasonable to me. But so do those ties you found. Could be either one. Could be neither."
Mike rolled his eyes. "Forensics will have to test them," they said together.
"Yeah, I know." The detective stepped aside to let the gurney through. He felt Dave amble up beside him.
"Anything from the desk?"
"Naw, same as yesterday. Room's in his name. He checked in on his own. No calls. No room charges."
Dave held up a box of doughnuts in consolation. Mike picked out one with no powdered sugar and no filling. He gave Dawson a confectionary salute and headed for the door, looking thoughtful as he ate. Dave watched him as they made their way to the car. He kept expecting him to say something, maybe reveal the great clue that as junior partner he'd overlooked. On the drive back to the station, just a few minutes up Yonge, Mike simply ate another doughnut and watched traffic.
"Spill it or you're walking."
Celluci's head swiveled, and he stared at his partner.
"Whatever it is."
Mike briefly considered his theory about a mystery woman . . . demon. He eyed Dave.
"I was just . . . Both men were killed by weapons that were readily available in their environment. A high heel shoe, a lamp. That's . . . improvised." Mike frowned as the thoughts poured out, but they sounded good, even to him. "Improvised. Why improvise two murders? Why not bring a knife or a gun? If you know you're going to do it, you'd come prepared." He turned slightly in his seat, talking more to himself than to Dave. "So why wasn't she prepared?"
Dave glanced over and shrugged. "I don't know, man."
Yeah. Mike sank back and propped his face in his hand, leaning against the window in thought.
Vicki tapped a pen on her desk with the quick rhythm of someone profoundly bored. No one had called with a job for a week. Not so much as a gremlin had popped its head out of the woodwork to terrorize some local, no doubt poor, sector of the city. Coreen stopped by once in awhile to check if there was anything to do, but for the most part she'd been treating the last week like a paid vacation. Vicki sighed, watching the pen connect with the wooden desk. No work meant no money, no money meant nothing to give her landlords. She'd been late with payments before, but their collective patience wasn't endless.
Her mind's eye flicked to Henry's expensive apartment in the middle of downtown. She wondered if she could . . . he had to make plenty of money off the comic books.
She chucked the pen at the table and rolled her head to stare out the window. If she asked him for money, she was sure he'd say yes. But she was her own breadwinner thank you very much. The last thing she needed from anyone was charity.
She could imagine him turning at that, smiling indulgently. He'd say something like, "It's not charity to help the people you care about." Or if he was feeling cheeky, something like, "You've given me more than I could buy with this anyhow." She smiled at the remagination of his voice, which led swiftly to remembering their kiss in his apartment. One hand moved slightly, the echo of a caress she wanted to give. A small sound escaped her lips, and she smirked with self-derision, cutting off the images before memory slipped into fantasy.
Vicki sighed again, kicked her feet up, and glared at the office phone, willing it to ring. It didn't, and eventually she dozed.
". . . Vicki!"
"Vicki!" Coreen stomped into the office, and Vicki's eyes shot open.
"What! What's wrong!" She was on her feet before she could see well enough to focus.
The girl smirked. "Nothing's wrong. I just thought you'd like to know we have a client."
"Oh!" She smoothed a hand over her hair to make sure it was presentable and straightened the few items on her desk. She looked up at Coreen. The girl nodded in approval and then stepped out of sight.
"Ms. Nelson will see you now," she said sweetly.
Vicki sat down and tried to look approachable and curious. Her curiosity deepened when her client came into view.
A dirty young man stepped through her doorway. His clothes were worn and ragged. Many of them hung awkwardly from his thin shoulders. A beard tried desperately to shadow his face, making him look even less well kept than he otherwise might have. He hunched in embarrassment at his very existence and looked Vicki only briefly in the eyes.
"Are you Vicki Nelson?" he said, playing with his hands.
"I am." Her eyes narrowed. The boy was homeless, that much was easy to tell. She couldn't fathom why he might be standing in her office, though.
"Annie said . . . well, she said you'd help. That you care about people like us. Is that true?" His hazel eyes widened with hope.
Vicki chewed the inside of her lip. "Why don't you have a seat and tell me what you think I can do for you, mister . . ."
"Josh Carver." He perched on the chair and glanced around. "I . . . uhh. Well, it's my sister, Donna. She's gone. She just vanished two nights ago. And I've looked everywhere. And no one knows anything."
"Older? Younger?" Vicki found herself taking notes before she'd even agreed to anything.
He shifted in agitation and his breathing came shallow as he searched Vicki's face. "I know what you think. We're just street kids. She hooked up with some guy or ran away. But she isn't like that! You know, we stay together. Always. And . . . and now she's just gone. That's not normal. That's not right!"
Vicki frowned and looked at him calmly. "What makes you think she didn't run off?"
Pain shot through the boy's expression. "Because she's all I have," he said quietly, gaze dropping to his hands. And then louder he said, "Because she's not the only one. Okay? Girls keep disappearing, and no one cares 'cause we're just street trash. But she's my sister! Even if she's dead or something. I have to know." He glanced up briefly and then concentrated on picking at the frayed edge of his sleeve. "Everyone says you're good to us. I didn't know who else to ask."
Vicki sat back and let out a long sigh. She was getting a reputation, apparently, for weird and hopeless cases. On the one hand, business was slow, so it wasn't like she'd be putting off the paying clients. On the other, if you work for free, you get people begging at your door who expect to be saved. She looked at Josh's stricken face, red with the urge to cry. He was just a kid.
"I'll pay you," he said suddenly.
Vicki gave him a surprised look. "But don't you need . . ." She slowed when he stood up and stripped off his coat. "Money . . . to . . . eat."
His gaze were steady and far too calm. He slipped out of the flannel shirt he was wearing and folded it neatly over the chair. Under that, he had on a black cotton shirt made for someone twice his size. He slipped his arms up the sleeves and lifted the shirt off from the inside. That, too, he folded and laid on the back of the chair. There was only an undershirt left. Cleaned, it would have been white. The cut showed off his arms. They were just starting to gain the heft of muscle of a man's frame.
"Whatever you want," he said lowly, offering a soft gaze and a wanton smile. He slid the last shirt off, making sure to run his hands over his smooth chest as he did so.
Vicki gaped and blinked at him dumbly before she could gather a response. Horror followed on the heels of shock, and she rose to her feet. He was so young. Not even an attractive kind of young, a disturbing, awful kind of young that should still know something of innocence.
"Josh, no." She shook her head and rounded the desk, mortified and vaguely insulted. "No, I can't. I would never . . . look, just . . ." She reached for his white shirt to hand it back, but he took the opening to touch her arm and slide himself up close. He drew a few fingers down her cheek before she bolted back and snagged his wrist in a strong grip.
"Stop," she snapped. Her voice was hard and practically a shout.
His act fell. He looked away, red heat creeping up his neck to his face. Tears found their way to his eyes. "But that's all I have," he said thickly. He looked at Vicki with despair, and she let him go.
When she reached for his shirt a second time, he didn't move. She handed it to him with a sad, kind grin.
"Look, I don't-" She paused and tried again, seeking the safety of the other side of the desk. "Thank you, for the offer. I think."
"I can be thorough," he said, still clutching the undershirt.
Dear God. He made her want to cry.
"Josh . . ." she said carefully. "You don't have to pay me with sex or anything else. Okay? Now put your shirt on." She shook her head and sat heavily down. When she looked up, he was sitting as he had been before, perched for flight and wary.
"Why would you do that?" he said with a frown.
Even sadder, Vicki thought, than a teenager prostituting himself was one who couldn't imagine not having to.
She took off her glasses and rubbed at her eyes. "Isn't that what they say about me? Help the helpless?"
"That's Angel," the boy smirked. "But yeah, I guess."
"Well. Can't let 'they' be wrong. Half the advice my mother ever gave me was because 'they' said so."
Josh smiled weakly and waited while Vicki picked up her pen and scribbled down a few more notes.
"Okay, start at the beginning," she said. "With the first girl you noticed missing."
The boy's face twisted in thought. "Probably Lori."
"Okay, tell me everything you know about Lori."
He did. And by the fifth girl, a distinct and disturbing pattern was emerging. Vicki scowled and looked up from her notepad.
Her voice was low and serious when said spoke. "You're telling me that all of these girls were under 18?"
The boy nodded, a swift, uncomfortable gesture. "Except Jen. But she looks younger than she is."
"And did they all . . ." A pained and embarrassed look settled on Vicki's face.
"Turn tricks?" Josh smirked. "Not all. Lori drew sidewalk art. Yuki begged. Sometimes she put on her best dress and gave tours to anyone who would let her."
"And your sister?" Vicki asked lightly.
Josh looked away and shrugged.
Vicki set her pen down and leaned back. She steepled her fingers as she thought. If they really were missing, it was most likely kidnapping. That, assuming that they hadn't found a shelter or hostel to stay in. She peeked over her hands at the boy's stressed and miserable face.
"All right. This is what I'm going to do. I'll take a look up Yonge and Bloor, where you said they spent their days. Then I'll come by the river camp. I'll ask around, check all the reasonable places they could be, the hospitals, the police station. And while I don't have anything else on my plate, I'll try to keep an eye on everything. See if any suspicious activity pops up."
Josh's eyes shimmered, lit with hope. "Honest?"
"I promise. I can't promise to find anything, but I'll do my best."
He jumped from his chair and stuck his hand out. "Thank you. You . . . you have no idea." He shook her hand vigorously and smiled a giddy smile.
He flew by Coreen's desk and was half-way out the door before she could think. "Hey, Josh!"
He skidded to a halt and turned.
"If you want. I mean, I don't know what you have available to you, but there's a shower and stuff in the bathroom. You're welcome to it."
The boy's face shot bright red.
"Not that she's saying you need it right now," Coreen jumped in. "Just, if you do. It's here."
He gave Coreen an unguarded and unmanufactured smile.
"Thanks," he said. And then he was gone.
"Well," Coreen smirked. "That was different."
Torn between excitement and the horror of how this could turn out, Vicki only nodded. "Yeah."
Mike flipped through the paperwork they'd gathered on Edward Ellis and Larry Meets. Both had substantial investment portfolios, which could be nothing, but he'd sent Dave to talk to the account managers anyway. Perhaps the two had met or attended the same functions. It was worth looking into, at any rate.
Then came the bank records. Mike whistled to himself as he scanned down the balance column. It was too bad Edward didn't have any kids. Some distant relative, though, was going to get the phone call of a lifetime.
Most of the transactions looked normal. Bills, car payment. That is, a single check for a car. Celluci couldn't decide if he hated Ellis on principle or wished he knew how to be him. Probably both. Mike flipped the page. Payments to credit cards, a wire transfer. Alimony. Mike laughed to himself and switched to Larry's records.
"Mr. Meets. Not quite as savvy as ol' Eddie, now, are we." Mike grinned wryly at Larry's much smaller bottom line and much larger payments to his creditors. Mortgage bill, cell phone, car payment-the normal kind. Mike stopped at the very bottom of the page. A wire transfer. His eyes flicked to the total, and then he snatched up Edward's records.
"Five thousand dollars. Same account number." He felt a rush and grabbed for the phone.
"Royal Ontario Bank," a sweet voice said.
"Hi, this is Detective Sergeant Mike Celluci, Toronto PD. I think I need to talk to your manager."
There was a pause. "O-okay. One moment."
Mike smirked. There were some things that were very good about his job.
He heard a click, and an older woman's voice came on the line. "Hello? May I help you?"
"I hope so," Mike smiled. "I have two accounts at your bank connected to homicide investigations. Both have wire transfers to the same location. And I was wondering if you could tell me where the transfers went."
"I could tell you which bank based on the routing numbers, detective, but the receiving bank owns the information on the accounts. That's not something I would know."
"Well, it's a start. I'd appreciate it."
"Okay. Read me the number."
He did, and the woman made a displeased sound.
"What?" Mike frowned, leaning over his desk.
"You're not going to like it. That's a routing number for UBS AG."
"Beg your pardon?"
"The Bank of Switzerland."
Mike's shoulders fell. "Are you positive about that?"
"I'm sorry," the woman said. She sounded like she meant it.
"And their accounts-"
"Are numbered like most people have heard. But the real issue is the privacy laws. Even if the bank has the information you want, and it might, you'll have to meet strict criteria to get the government to give it to you."
Mike rubbed a hand through his hair. "Thank you for your time," he said calmly.
"Sure. And . . . good luck detective."
Mike hung up the phone and then slammed his fist on the desk with a force equal to annoyance, though not anger.
Kate made a startled sound and stopped a few feet from Mike's desk, holding a cup of coffee defensively. "Having problems?" she said, offering the cup slowly.
Mike looked like a kicked dog as he took the drink. He opened the lid and discovered that she'd already added cream and sugar. "Edward Ellis and Larry Meets paid someone five thousand dollars each a few days apart." He sighed.
Mike sipped his coffee and grimaced. "Account number 895545965444 at the UBS AG bank in Switzerland." The look he gave her challenged her to call his bluff.
She frowned and waited for him to go on.
"I mean, untraceable bank accounts? What legitimate business needs untraceable money?" He shook his head. "Something's not right."
"But Mike, these are the victims you're talking about."
"I know! By all accounts, decent, rich citizens."
"Who . . . paid someone a bunch of secret money."
Celluci made an open-handed gesture. "Whatever this is, my money is this is why they're both dead."
Kate nodded and leaned against the side of his desk. She opened her mouth to speak, but Mike's desk phone rang. He gave her a quick glance and then answered.
"Detective. This is John in forensics. I think you'd better get down here."
"I'll be right there," he said, standing.
Kate stood up straight. "Good news?"
"Don't know. I'll let you know what the nerds have to say." Mike raised his coffee in salute as he hurried by. He turned for a moment, still moving, and said, "Thanks for this, by the way."
Kate smiled and nudged him on with a look.
Mike took the stairs instead of the elevator and swung himself into John's office with a rush of excitement. John was chief computer guy on the forensics team. Mike understood very little of what the man said half the time, merely accepting the information he was given like it came from a heavenly oracle.
John's office was lined with desks on three walls, and each desk was bi-level. Flat screen monitors sat on the higher levels, while computer cases, laptops, manuals, and spare parts were scattered around most of the usable space. It wasn't so much messy as cluttered. There were bins and bags for everything, they just piled on top of one another like plates at Alice's tea party.
John's sandy-blond hair was bound back in a ponytail, and he wore a goatee like he'd invented it. He fixed a grey-eyed grimace on Mike as he turned in his chair.
"You called?" Celluci said.
The tech nodded. "I've got Ellis's computer from his home and Larry Meets's laptop found at the crime scene. There are . . . some pretty basic things we always check for when we get a new machine. I . . . well I thought you should see this."
He double-clicked a folder icon on Edward's computer and it opened a window of thumbnails. Mike stepped closer until he hovered over the other man's shoulder. The place inside him reserved for compassion, the place he looked for every time he saw his nephew just to be sure it existed, went cold. In a single stroke, the leaves fell from the trees with a shaky scream.
"Are they real?" he heard himself ask in a tight voice. He set down his coffee so he wouldn't crush it in an angry fist.
John cast a wary glance over his shoulder at the torn sound in Mike's voice.
"If you're asking me if the photos are unaltered, then I'd say yes. I checked for obvious image manipulation. If you're asking me if they're really underage . . . the turn in my gut says yes."
Mike's jaw clenched. "And this?" He indicated a still that was out of focus.
"Of?" He didn't want to know.
"Rape and torture," John replied. He picked up a set of headphones and offered them to Mike.
The detective stared at them a few seconds before taking them and slipping them on.
"It's always hard to tell," John was saying, "what's actual and what's fake. But . . ." He opened the file and let it run.
On the screen, Detective Celluci saw a very young face red with tears. He heard men's laughter and lustful moans, then the crack of a whip. The girl screamed with nothing approaching pleasure.
Mike swiped the headphones off, almost throwing them. "Turn it off."
John was more than happy to comply. They were both silent for a moment while Mike chewed his lip.
"This was on Edward's computer," he said at last. "What about Meets?"
"Same type of thing. A few of the same images. Mix of underage and stuff that looks legit. Not just roleplay."
Celluci silently raged, sending out menace that John could feel on the back of his skull.
The tech reached for the laptop. "Do you need me to-"
"No," Mike said in a whisper. He turned away from the screens and kneaded his forehead with the heel of his hand.
John breathed a little easier and swiveled his chair around. "There's something else."
Mike closed his eyes. "What?"
"Some emails they each got. Numbers and letters that don't mean much to me, but they're both from the same Gmail account."
The detective perked and spun around. "Can you print those for me?"
"Sure. I'll send them to the copy room upstairs."
The news brought a surge of hope and energy to Mike's chest. His eyes danced as thoughts came together. Anger forgotten, he snagged his coffee and breezed out of John's office with new determination and a dark smile. The game had changed in a matter of minutes. Now he was on a hunt, and predatory instinct stalked through his veins.
Afternoon melted into evening, and Detective Celluci stood staring at the whiteboard by his desk. The emails John had printed each had a letter code followed by a series of numbers. Mike had them on the board under each man's name, along with the hotel he was found at and the room number. He'd tried the numbers as coordinates, but there weren't enough of them to get a location.
"US 0237," Mike muttered to himself. "TOSC 0662."
Nothing jumped out. He reached for the phone and dialed the lead forensic investigator.
"Hi, Maureen, it's Celluci."
"What can I do for you, Mike?"
"Who processed Edward Ellis's personal affects?"
Mike heard the clack of a keyboard.
"Leo. You wanna talk to him?"
There was a beep as the call was transferred and a few rings before someone answered.
"This is Leo," a young voice said.
"Hey. Detective Celluci. You processed Ellis's affects, yes?"
"Yeah, not that there was much. Why?"
Mike briefly worried his lower lip. "Do the initials US mean anything to you?"
Mike's eyes narrowed in annoyance. "I think it's a location. Someplace Ellis might have gone recently, abbreviated US."
The young man was quiet, and Mike could hear rustling papers.
"Everything looked pretty average. Wallet had $162, 3 credit cards, a shopper's card for Canadian Tire, one for the wine store, one for Starbucks, a metro pass, and photo of his dog, who is now at the shelter."
Mike thought over the list. "Can we track where the metro pass was used?"
"I . . . guess so. But that gets you where he started, not where he got off."
"I know, but when you go home, do you take the same route as you did to get in?"
He could hear the young man smile. "Yeah. I'll call you as soon as I know!"
Mike grinned as he set down the phone. Edward Ellis. Dirty little Edward Ellis. He felt like he was setting a trap. If Leo could get something, anything, that matched the initials, he felt sure he'd know his prey.
He sat back with a smug expression that faded when he finally let his focus wander. His thoughts traveled back to the previous night. The girl with the hair. Instinct told him he should be tracking her down somehow. His case was the murder of two men, not the illegal activities of said men. And yet, could anyone blame him for following leads?
Mike's eyes darted to Crowley's lookout post. The plan he'd been working on, if it came together, would need department funds that were not his to use. He'd have to tell her. The idea left a bitter taste.
Mike was, as he had often been told, terrible at waiting. He fidgeted, rapped a pen against his desk and then the side of his head, and let out long sighs. What he really wanted to do was stand over Leo's shoulder and watch. What he did instead was call Vicki.
"Vicki Nelson," the familiar voice answered.
"Hey, Vic. No Coreen tonight?"
"Mike! No, she's at a concert or something. What's up?"
He grinned. "Nothing. Waiting for results from downstairs.
"Ahh," she said knowingly. "Have you badgered them yet?"
"I have not."
"Well, you should. Always worked for me."
"No it didn't. You got them annoyed so they took longer just to spite you."
"Yes. Maybe. But I felt better."
"Right. Well, I'll just wait like a good little boy."
Vicki made a strangled sound of amusement.
"Beg your pardon?" Mike grinned.
"What? Me? Nothing."
"Uh-huh. So what about you? Still in a dry spell?"
Vicki pondered his question with narrowed eyes. "Got an offer from a boy today."
Mike smirked. "Really."
"He was looking for the best."
"I do seem to recall that about you," Mike said warmly. He could picture her smiling.
"I think . . . I need your help though."
He arched an eyebrow. "We always were better together," he said slowly with a husky purr.
"This kid came in here today to ask me to find his sister. He said a bunch of girls from his area have gone missing. He gave me names and descriptions."
He sighed. So much for a little distraction. The detective shifted in his chair and flipped open his notepad to a clean page.
"What would you like me to do?"
"Check the morgue. Maybe see if there are any arrests matching any of them?"
"Well, it'll give me something to do while I'm waiting, I guess."
Vicki gave him all she had on Lori, Yuki, Jen, Caitlin, Chantal, Brie, and Donna.
"That's a lot of girls," Mike muttered.
"That's why I'm asking."
"Why hasn't anyone come to us?"
"They're homeless, Mike. A missing homeless kid is one less person for the city to worry about."
She was right, even though it made him feel like a heel to admit it. "I'll see what I can do."
"Thanks, Mike. You're the best."
She hung up. And Mike couldn't help but hear his own words in the silence: we always were better together.
Half-way through the Jane Does the city had logged in in the last few weeks, Mike's phone rang. It was Leo.
"How about . . . Union Station?" he said proudly.
"Union Station." Mike spun and looked at his board. "Union Station. Thanks, Leo!"
"Did that hel-" But young man was talking to dead air.
0237, Mike thought, could be a time. But 0662 couldn't. He jumped up, snagged his coat, and headed out of the station aiming for the nearest subway. He emerged from the train into Union Station and peered around, walking briskly but aimlessly along with traffic. He moved up the stairs toward the waiting area for the inter-city trains and walked out into the open space. People milled and hurried. Electric signs overhead declared departure and arrival times, spawning a rush when the platform was announced.
Mike scanned everything, numbers floating in his head. And then he saw them: a wall of small lockers. A wry smile spread across his lips, and he stalked over at a quick clip. The lockers had four digit designations. You pop in some coins, take the key, and there's no one to say who was there or why.
Mike nodded to himself and punched one of the doors lightly. Blue eyes traced back and forth in thought. He was going to need as many locations with lockers like these as he could find.
It was a start. And it made his blood sing. He called Dave on his way back and had him round up Kate for a little brainstorming. By the time he was back at his desk, they'd compiled a list of all the places they knew with lockers.
"Did you ask around?" Mike said as he tossed his coat and started pouring over the list.
"Yeah, man. That's all we got. I dunno how we're supposed to find 'em all though. It's a damn big city." Dave huffed.
"I don't need them all, I just need the right one," Mike responded absently. "Ha!" He jabbed a finger at the board, smudging one of the names.
"The Science Center?" Kate peered at him.
"The Ontario Science Center." His eyes gleamed in a way that Kate found troubling.
"So . . . now what?" she said with suspicion.
"Now, we bait the line." Celluci glanced up at Crowley's perch.
"Mike." Kate touched his arm. "You're a homicide detective, not special victims."
"And as a homicide detective, I think it's possible that tracking down this mystery man or woman could bring me my killer," he said calmly.
She didn't look convinced, but she let him go. "I've got to head home. Don't stay up too late on this, okay?" She touched his arm again and left.
Dave spoke up from his desk. "My wife wants me home. But, you know, if you want me ta stay wit you . . ."
Mike waved him off. "Go. I'll see you tomorrow.
There are some things a man must do alone.
Slow stallions pulled the world over into night, scattering clouds with the whipping of their tails across the sky. Vicki hurriedly pulled on a jacket and tossed open her office door.
She gasped and made a startled sound.
Henry stood in the doorway. He looked surprised, briefly, then smiled.
"Henry," Vicki breathed as she recovered. "Good, you're here."
"I am," he agreed, arching one eyebrow and smiling more deeply.
"Was your bat sense tingling?"
"I don't turn into a bat."
Vicki moved to finish leaving the office, and he shifted just enough for her to press by. She passed close enough that he could make out the scent of soap still clinging to her skin from morning, and he followed like a hunter.
"I know that. But I don't like spiders."
Henry grinned. "But you like bats."
"Bats eat spiders."
His chuckle echoed in the stairwell as they descended. The way it seemed to come from everywhere made Vicki shiver. As they reached the bottom and stepped into the cold night air, the vampire turned.
"So, you were looking for me?"
"I was going to call. I'd like your help with something."
Not the best reason to be sought, but it would do, for awhile. Henry dug his hands into his coat.
"Are we chasing witches? I know a few."
His eyes gleamed. "Would you like me to pull a sword from a stone?"
Vicki hid her smile and started walking to Henry's car. "Could you?" she said, sounding serious.
He shrugged as he followed. "Depends on the stone." And then he slipped into the driver's seat. "Seriously."
Vicki drew a breath and sighed. "Seriously? A homeless boy came to me and asked me to find his sister." She looked over and saw a twist of unvoiced laughter on Henry's pale lips. "What?" She scowled.
He moved carefully, placing one hand on the seat near her head. "Vicki. They're called vagrants for a reason. They have no place where they belong. People like that go missing all the time."
He could hear her heart rate jump at a flush of anger. "What happened to 'After the Great War, I was destitute and homeless'?"
His expression hardened. "I was destitute and homeless."
"But I shouldn't help this kid? The only thing he had in the whole world was his sister, and now she's gone. And I should . . . what?"
"Tell him, too bad, life sucks?"
He turned from her and sat back. He could remember those days, the way the country ached at its wound. Streets were rubble. Homeowners long dead left houses of trinkets and dusty memories that might be pawned for clothes. Mostly, he could recall the bitter, metal taste of the air as it came toward morning. And the panic he felt each day. Complete, unshattered darkness was difficult to come by. And often, he would be robbed and stripped during the ghastly sleep.
He slept in sewers. Woke naked in sewers, coated in their filth. The rock walls, dampness, and stench made his stomach roil still.
Royal Prince. Duke of Richmond. In those days of wild solitude and numb fear, he would have been a slave to anyone who could have kept him safe. That desperation was a thing of past, but sometimes, it closed around his throat, recalled by a sight or a scent.
Vicki snapped her fingers a second time.
He blinked and turned, focusing on her golden face. "Sorry." His voice was soft. He looked out at the empty street. "What makes you think you can find her?"
Vicki watched him closely. "Because five other girls in the same area have gone missing. And I'm betting that doesn't just happen."
The vampire looked over. "No, it doesn't." He was thoughtful and distant.
"So . . . I was thinking we head over to the Don River. Have a look around. Wait for trouble." She grinned encouragingly.
His face was still blank, though. Vicki lifted one hand and pressed warm fingertips to his cheek.
Henry's eyes widened, and he moved into the touch like waking.
"Are you okay?" she said.
He breathed and through her touch came back to the present. A bubble of lava popped inside, and he turned and kissed into her hand.
She drew back. "So you'll help?"
"Would it stop you if I didn't?" He smirked, acting more himself, and started the car.
"For, like, a second."
"So, the Don Trail?"
"Best place to start."
Henry gave his partner an annoyed look that she failed to notice.
Many of the city's homeless pitched tents along the river at night. The running water was a place to wash and find something to drink-the same reasons settlers and civilizations rose up around waterways. The trees provided fuel and shelter, as well, making it a bit of a paradise for the woefully lost. If squalor can ever be a paradise.
Henry parked his car at a distance he felt was safe, and he and Vicki made their way down to a large encampment. Lifeless, hungry eyes blinked like fireflies around them.
"We shouldn't be here," Henry muttered.
"Scared?" Vicki whispered back.
The vampire suppressed a snarl. He scanned the dirty faces that stared up at him. At first, he avoided their eyes. These huddled masses, half-mad some of them. The word peasant skittered through his mind, making him feel vaguely ashamed. Not that that kept him from turning the gems of his rings under. No good could come of someone trying to take one.
The two came to a stop when it seemed they were well surrounded. Hearts beat everywhere. Without the din of the city or the distraction of loud music, they sounded like a train, alive and rolling with their pulsing. Henry gave his partner an expectant look, and she cleared her throat, stepping forward.
"A boy named Josh came to me today to ask me to find his sister, Donna. He says she's gone missing. And that a bunch of other girls have gone missing. If any of you have seen anything, or heard anything, I need you to tell me so I can find them." No one moved. "Please."
Someone coughed. And people rustled against one another as they crowded near small fires. Vicki turned in a small circle, directing her gaze at those who were the closest.
"No one? Did any of you even know the girls? Donna? Yuki?"
She turned back and saw a man fading in from the darkness beyond her vision. He shambled like a zombie, she thought. Then she corrected herself to "just a limp." He wore a long coat, like Mike's, that was torn at the edges and mottled with mud. His jeans were rolled up to keep from dragging, and he wore several button down shirts, each as threadbare as the next. His face was plush and round with age, white hair sticking out from underneath a knit toque. He stopped in front of Vicki and stared hard, trying to find her eyes behind the orange, flickering reflections on her glasses.
The woods held its breath. Henry heard the man's heart beat arrhythmically. He wheezed in breaths with a rattle of mussels, like he might cough out a lung. It was a sound Fitzroy knew intimately. Many people he'd cared for had died of consumption. History recorded his own cause of death as such. In 500 years, it was a terrible marvel that people still suffered from it. And he could not help but wonder why the stranger hadn't sought help.
The man eyed Vicki up and down, from her tight jacket to her boots. His eyes, dark and yellowed, shifted to Henry, who looked far too clean to be walking among them. The vampire met his gaze calmly, with a studied indifference and not a hint of fear. Being evaluated pricked at his pride, but he tucked that away safely next to the knowledge that he could feast on the lot of them if he wanted.
The man held up a fist and then slowly opened his fingers wide.
"Five last month," he rasped. "Two this month. What makes you . . ." He paused to breathe. ". . . think you can," a rattled wheeze, "find them."
"I don't know if I can. But Josh asked me to try."
"Paid ya?" His old face cracked into a leer of missing teeth.
Henry quirked an eyebrow and stole a glance. She wore a tight smile that set his suspicions trolling.
"Not my currency," Vicki said evenly.
The old man nodded, and the leer disappeared. He muttered "good" under his breath. The man sucked in air with a flap of phlegm, and he started to cough with a force to rattle his bones. He doubled over, shaking and fighting for a full lung's worth, and he eventually came up like a swimmer gasping for breath. He raised one unsteady hand and pointed to a woman with shirts for a skirt and black leggings. She lowered her eyes, left her shopping cart by a barrel stove, and came to meet them.
She wavered on her feet, rocking back and forth to the internal rhythm of her heart. When she raised a hand to pull off her hat, her fingers strained open and bent at painful angles. She pinned the cloth between thumb and forefinger with effort and pulled it off with a passing glance at Henry. When she spoke, it was slow, with large airy vowels and inarticulate consonants. Her mouth defied her efforts to speak.
"I s-saaaw won dem t-takers. Beehind." A jabbing motion at the trees near the road. "Dere."
Vicki's eyes narrowed as she followed the awkward speech. "You saw one. What did he look like?"
The woman's arm spasmed, but she held it up toward one of the other vagrants, a large black man with square shoulders and a pouty expression.
The woman's mouth worked up to the words. "Biig. Whiite." She swung her hand at Henry and then drew it back in embarrassment.
The old man grunted. "Thanks, Shelly."
She turned to him, swaying, and smiled before tottering back to her cart. Vicki tried not to stare with pity.
"Is she the only witness?" she asked, looking back at the old man.
"That we know of."
She grimaced. "Five last month is about one a week."
The man grunted and rubbed his nose with his thumb. "Due for another. There are only a few girls left."
"You should keep them together," Henry said smoothly. "Have someone on guard."
The man's chest shook with laughter and a catch of illness. "This ain't a family, and no one's goin' to make anyone do anything. A guard would have to fight. And just who do you think would do that, son?"
"I would," Vicki said. And Henry felt his chest tighten.
He shot her a glance of worry that she missed and pressed his fine lips together to keep from sneering.
The old man looked amused. He scratched his chin. "It's your skin. You wanna risk it, up to you." He shrugged with an indifference at odds with the way the others watched him.
"For a leader, you seem blasé about letting your people be kidnapped." Henry's tone was scathing, but he scored a hit.
The old man lifted his head in haughty anger. "Better missing than dead. And what the fuck would you know about it anyway." The man eyed Henry's jacket. "Just 'cause your Daddy gave you everything-"
"I earned what I have!" the vampire snarled. It was mostly true.
The stranger scoffed at him. "Suffered long and hard, I bet."
Henry made no reply, though he bristled and turned slowly toward Vicki. "I didn't come here to be insulted."
She put her hand on his arm. "Innocent girls, remember? Imminent doom." She nudged him. "Dashing hero," she whispered.
His scowl melted. "Well. I am quite good at dashing." He offered a luxuriant smile as proof.
"I know. And you're going to have to be." Vicki looked back at the stranger who stood watching them, narrowing his eyes at the muttered exchange. "So can I talk to the girls that are left?"
A shrug. "Do what you want." He took a rattling breath. "Just don't hope for much."
With that, he turned away and slouched back toward a tent of tarp and plastic bags. The silent chorus that had been watching in awe began bubbling with chatter. No one volunteered names or came forward to declare themselves a potential victim.
Henry glanced around the dirty, reeking dross of humans with an unshakable disgust. It was long ago learned and not easily forgotten.
"Okay!" Vicki's voice was loud in his ears. "Guess we'll have to find them ourselves."
He gave her a doubtful look.
"I'm not letting more girls vanish, Henry."
"I know. I just . . ."
She started off toward the closest cluster of unwelcoming strangers, but stopped to give him a quizzical look.
"You just what?"
Don't like the poor? Can't stand the deformed? Henry dismissed such admissions. They rang poorly, if true.
"Nothing." He hunched his shoulders and followed her, wondering if she appreciated the sacrifices he made.
Fifteen sets of frightened eyes watched the selkie stumble and fall into their shared cell. Young girls of every description pressed themselves against the damp walls or sprawled on the polished floor. Some had expensive designer clothes, some rags. They whispered loudly when the selkie lifted her head. She groaned as she rolled herself over, and they made mewling sounds of terror at the blood that dripped down her cheek. One girl with dark chocolate skin and long dreads slid forward out of the crowd, casting disapproving glances at the silly twits around her.
"Are you okay?" Lori asked. She helped the selkie sit up and propped her against her knees.
The selkie looked up with a sad smile. "I'll start screaming soon," she said in a harsh whisper. "There's nothing you can do."
The girl frowned and smoothed a hand over the selkie's glistening hair. The blood came from a gash near the woman's ear. She had never told them her name. But she had learned all of theirs. And she hugged them closely through the long hours. She taught them songs she had learned from ages past. She didn't look much older, but they all sensed a wisdom, or a suffering, greater than their own. Unlike the other girls, she always came back, which made her the closest thing they had to a constant presence.
"Keep them quiet, Lori," the selkie said. "Keep them calm."
Somewhere, close but hidden, the master pulled a seal skin from its honored prison. He stroked it once, tip to toe, enjoying the slide of fur. And then he set it down, rolled it up, and wrapped it with barbed wire. The cold iron bit into the soft skin. A selkie's soul began to scream.
Henry Fitzroy paced from one tree in the darkness to another. His eyes picked out Vicki, sleeping against the trunk of a giant maple. Around her, five young girls slept soundlessly in their sleeping bags, jackets, or garbage bag pup tents. The fires of the camp burned low, casting long fingers of shadow over the packed dirt.
As he listened to the night, he could hear the slow heartbeats laid out before him. The river rushed not far away. Henry gave it a glance and a wry smirk of remembrance. Autumn leaves scratched one another's dry backs at the touch of a breeze.
It was a peaceful calm.
And yet he grimaced. The need for blood was growing insistent. He should have eaten before arriving at Vicki's office. Sometimes, enthusiasm had its price. With a sigh, Henry cast his gaze out over the homeless enclave. Easy prey, but revolting. Their clothes, their skin, all stank of sweat and worse. He'd rather eat rats. He was going to have to eat out.
The vampire slipped through the darkness without so much as a cracked branch and knelt at Vicki's side.
"Hmm?" She shook herself awake at his touch. "What's wrong?" Her eyes flashed wide and alert.
"I need blood," he whispered into her ear so no one might hear. He lingered to take in the scents that were so uniquely her. "If they come while I'm gone-"
"So don't go." Her voice was unexpectedly soft, and Henry drew back aways so he could see her clearly.
He sat in shadow from the tree and campfires. He could see her eyes roaming. Vicki was searching the black for where she thought his face might be.
"Vicki . . ." he breathed.
She reached out to the sound, her cool fingertips grazing his chin. From there, she slid her hand to hold his cheek.
"It's my fault you're here."
She felt him smile. "I wasn't keeping track."
"I was," she said, caressing his lip with her thumb like she had before.
The heat rippled everywhere. It struck his stomach and made his mouth water, touched his groin and made him burn. His fangs flashed on their own, and his eyes blazed black. In one fluid motion, he nudged her hand away and pressed his lips to her jaw. He let her feel the sharp teeth, and then moved to give her a kiss. If she was going to say no, it would be now. It was always now. He held his breath as he hovered. And then she pulled on his coat to draw him in, bringing their lips together hard. She hummed into his mouth, and they both shivered. She stroked her hands through his hair and pressed at the back of his neck.
Panting, Henry broke away to nuzzle her face and think. God, he wanted so much more. But his control was hard won. "Are you sure?" She felt his breath hot on her ear.
Vicki wriggled in her jacket and arched away from the tree. She slid one hand between them to grip his coat again and dug the other into his curly hair. A little pressure, and he breathed quick and shuddering on her neck.
"Stubborn when I make up my mind," she hissed.
Henry moaned and traced the soft skin of her neck with his lips until he found the spot. Her pulse raced for him. Her hands pulled at him. And it was real.
He smiled over his fangs and, with a quick motion, bit.
In the early dawn, Mike Celluci sat staring at the white-blue glow of his computer screen. Crowley had been obstinate but accommodating once he'd made his case two or three times. Mike's suggestion that a lot more was going on than a couple of murders was backed by evidence that even she couldn't deny. She authorized the money transfer from an account kept for undercover work. John was called in late to set up a convincing online persona, and Mike was left to set his trap.
Got your name from Meets. Says your merchandise is well worth it. Wired money.
PO Box 871 STN Adelaide
Toronto, ON M5C 2K1
His message contained no more than the one they'd found on Larry's computer. Larry's name was purposefully kept from the news to keep international travelers from panicking. The murder at the Hazelton had already cost the new hotel hundreds of thousands of dollars. With luck, the mystery person wouldn't know he was down another client until it was too late.
Mike interlaced his fingers and peered over them at the computer, waiting. His eyes hurt, and sleep clawed at him, but he didn't want to leave. While he slept, the bastard might slip away. And he wasn't going to let more bodies be unaccounted for. But even will cannot win out over need. As early morning joggers were rousing themselves from their warm beds, Mike Celluci fell into a light sleep at his desk. His head sank onto folded hands. He looked like a child at play.
When he awoke hours later to the sounds of voices, clicking heels, and the smell of coffee, his inbox boldly announced a new message. Mike wiped the sleep from his eyes, suddenly energized. He glanced around to see if anyone was watching and then straightened his tie. Married to his job? Never. Feeling safe that no one was watching, he opened the message.
This is not standard. I meet clients first. But Larry has a good rep. And the money checks out. You have mail. US9661
Mike's heart pounded as he read it again. Oh, the trap was set now. He grinned wickedly. Now he'd get some real answers. He decided to give his mystery man until noon before checking the PO box.
In the meantime, he could do some more work on Vicki's list of names.
Vicki's eyes drifted open as the sun cut through the leafy canopy over the homeless camp. She licked her dry lips and tasted the old metal quality of blood. A hand went to her neck as she peered around at the group of girls at her feet. Five. She sighed in relief and let her head fall back against the bark.
Henry had taken only what he'd needed and then watched like a cautious nursemaid to be sure the wound closed. She hadn't known what it would feel like, that blend of pain and giddy lightheadedness, of connection and peaking arousal. The way he whispered his thanks made her melt like few things had ever done. It made her feel out of control, which both fed her need for excitement and raised hackles of fear. Vicki frowned and turned up the collar of her coat.
Her joints protested, at first, at having spent all night in the cold, but she jumped and moved to loosen them. One of the girls yawned and looked up. "They didn't come."
Vicki grinned down at her. "Not last night. But they will. And I'll be here when they do."
"You're coming back?" A girl with black hair blinked.
"Long as it takes. Just make sure the others know to meet me here again, okay?"
The black-haired girl nodded and crawled out of her tent. "Thank you for trying to help us," she said.
Vicki gave her a half-grin and nodded. "Nightfall. I'll see you then all right?"
Vicki drew a deep breath and started off toward home. She needed a shower. And food. And a change of clothes. She also needed, she found herself thinking as she trudged up towards the street, to talk to Mike.
The shower was perfect. Vicki ran the water hot and let the strong massage setting beat against the hard muscles in her back. It set her body buzzing, and the relentless pounding of the water brought home how much she ached. Everywhere.
In the steam and familiar solitude, she closed her eyes and began to dream. She traced where she wanted hands to be, running her fingers through a river of wet hair, then feeling them glide over the still-warm wound at her neck.
She pressed one hand down and water sluiced down her arm. Its tiny warm hands tickled all the way, setting her skin on fire. How long had it been? The lack of an answer meant too long. With her free hand, she fumbled for the showerhead and its pulsing, vibrating heat.
When the water hit tender flesh, she gasped and thought of lips locked on her neck, soft and powerful. Henry's gentle touches. His more insistent kisses. And the way he lingered in each moment of pleasure like it might be his last.
She leaned against the cool tile wall as she came, shuddering and panting from the heat and vibration. With a calming sigh, she hung the showerhead back on the wall and set it to a gentle rain. She drew a deep breath and sighed again.
Puppy love, she told herself. Just because she thought about him. All the time. And felt better when he was around. And . . .
She could hear her cell phone ringing in the bedroom.
Vicki pursed her lips and shut off the water. She wrapped a towel around herself, twisted her hair up in a turban, and made it out in time to miss Mike's call.
"Crap." She glared at the message telling her she had voicemail.
"Vic," Mike's voice said. "I've looked for those girls of yours. No one at the morgue matches the descriptions. I checked Saint Michael's, Mount Sinai, and Toronto Western, but they didn't have any Jane Does with their descriptions either. I . . ." There was a pause. Vicki's eyes narrowed. "I'll talk to you later."
She deleted the message and worried a canine tooth with her tongue. Celluci was hiding something. She could hear it in the flicker of his voice. He was a decent liar most of the time, she just knew his ticks. She stared down at the phone in her hand in indecision.
Then it rang.
And she almost had a heart attack.
"Hey," Coreen's cheery voice greeted her. "I'm at the office. Wanted to let you know that boy is here."
"What's wrong? Did something happen?" Vicki dropped her towel and started flinging open drawers for clothes.
"He's here to take a shower like you offered . . ." she drew out the words with a coy smile.
Vicki stopped and straightened. "And . . .?"
"And he's not alone."
"How not alone."
"Like . . ." She muttered numbers. "Ten people."
"For the love of . . . Well don't let any more in!"
"I'm trying! But. You know. It's not like we'll run out of water."
"Coreen! I run a business, not a charity. No more. And keep Josh there."
"Whatever you say."
Vicki hung up the phone and flung it on the bed. She was already being charitable and now this? She quelled the urge to hit something just to blow off steam and searched for shoes with a heel, something with weight and a thundering clack when it landed. Mike, she decided, could wait.
An open envelope lay on Detective Celluci's desk. He'd opened it with tweezers and, equally as carefully, removed the hotel key card and small note. Forensics had found no prints, so Mike had taken the card back. He sat at his desk twirling it between his fingers and staring at the clock.
The note said 8:00. It was only 3:00.
He contemplated his next move. Evidence showed that the men who set up a rendezvous like his ended up dead at the hands of a woman. Possibly some avenging angel. But indications were also that the victims were repeat customers. Mike frowned. That didn't line up with a vigilante's MO.
He settled back into his chair and watched the hotel key as it flipped end over end in his hand. Nothing made much sense. It all had the vague impression of sense, but he needed more than that. He needed connections, evidence. He needed to close a damn case with something other than a supernatural beastie he couldn't put in a report. Mike set the card key down and hauled a file from his inbox front and center. The hours dragged by, though they were at least productive.
Long after the cool fall night lay heavy on the city, long after the work day was officially over, Detective-Sergeant Celluci shrugged on his trench coat, checked his gun, and headed out. His hands were steady as he drove, heart beating with excitement. The scenarios running through his head ranged from rescuing a child to gunning down a perp who looked invariably like a drug dealer.
He pulled in to the Sutton Place Hotel lot and did a quick perimeter scan as he got out of the car. Nothing seemed strikingly out of the ordinary. Mike made his way cautiously through the revolving door and across the sparkling white marble lobby to the elevator bank. He checked reflections on the polished doors to see if anyone was watching, though no one should have known his face.
As the elevator rose to the eighth floor, Celluci sighed and settled his bones. Lizard brain screams of terror sounded and were forgotten. Their echoes charged his blood, leaving him light, strong, and practically bouncing. When the doors finally opened, he forced himself to walk calmly down the hall, draw out the key like nothing was the matter, and slide it through the lock. He gripped his gun and drew it out in a swift motion as he swung into the room.
Mike's breath left him.
And he stared for a moment before lowering the gun.
There, on the ivory bed, in an almost dazzlingly white room, was the woman who should have died from the impact with his front bumper. Her hair gave her away. It fell across the bed like strewn ribbon, perfectly sculpted and glistening. She was bound, with her hands behind her back tied at the wrists and elbows. Each foot was stretched to a corner and tied, laying her bare body open. Her face was turned toward the opposite wall, and she did not move to look at him.
"Fucking hell," Mike breathed. He holstered the gun and moved quickly to the bedside. "I'm going to get you out of here, okay?" He saw, then, a black strap on her head from a gag and felt his stomach hitch in protest.
He reached for an ankle to undo the knots, but she squirmed away. And when he grabbed her leg to hold her still, she bucked and started shrieking dull cries.
"Miss, you-stop! Come on! I'm trying to help you here!" Mike snatched his hand back and watched her pant from the strain. Lines of worry deepened on his face as he pulled a knife from his jacket pocket.
"Now listen. I'm a cop. I'm going to cut the ropes off, but you can't move, okay? I might cut you if you do, and I don't want that." Perhaps a little threat and a lot of truth might get through.
She made no reply. He took it as assent.
When the cool blade slid against her skin, she stiffened. She didn't even breathe. And somewhere Mike's heart fell from his chest. The feel of a knife was familiar enough to her that she steeled herself for it. He couldn't imagine what she was thinking, but he felt like the worst kind of scum. He sliced through the knots quickly, then cut the ropes at her elbows and wrists.
The moment she was free, she scrambled away from him like a dashing rabbit and slammed her back against the headboard. She jerked on the comforter enough to cover herself and then let out a furious howl as she tore the gag off and threw it.
The detective folded the knife so she could see and put it back in his coat.
"What's your name?" he said softly, raising his hands so she could see them.
Her eyes flicked from his face to his hands to the door beyond his shoulder.
"I'm a cop. I'm not going to hurt you."
"You're a man," she spat, dark anger in her eyes.
He pressed his lips together. "I want to help."
"Men do not help," she said, pulling the blanket tightly against herself. A sneer cut across her pretty, gaunt face.
Mike moved slowly to grab a chair from the ubiquitous hotel room desk and set it down where he'd been standing, between the side of the bed and the door. The woman stared at him with wide eyes as he sat and leaned forward, propping his arms on his knees.
"Please tell me your name," he said.
She studied him, trembling, and lifted her head defiantly. There was only one name to give him. Her own private joke-the girl she wanted to be. "Dearbhail."
"Derval. Good. Dearbhail, does someone bring you here?" He looked at her with pity in his blue eyes.
"Does he have a name?"
She had given out his name once. The selkie shuddered and looked away. "No."
"So you don't know it?"
His questions pressed against the places that hurt. And she hated him for it. She hated the depth of his voice, the force in his hand when he grabbed her leg. Questions made the master angry. Strangers made him angrier.
"I cannot help you," she said suddenly. And then she lunged for the far side of the bed.
Mike jumped to his feet and moved to watch her pull a piece of luggage from under the bed.
"Dearbhail, please. What he's doing, selling you like this. I can put him away. Lock him up."
She popped open the locks and drew out simple linen clothes. She ignored him, intent instead on getting dressed as quickly as possible.
"Dearbhail." Mike stepped closer. "Would you please tell me what the hell is going on?"
He reached out to touch her shoulder.
She shrieked and flung him off in a flurry of hands and feet. Feral fear clouded her eyes as Mike stumbled back. They stared at one another until she regained the power of speech.
"I cannot help you," she said again. She pulled on a pair of sneakers.
"I don't understand! This is abuse, prostitution, maybe worse. I'm offering a way out. Why won't you take it?"
Her small hands stopped and let the laces on the sneakers slip.
"I can't," she whimpered. "I must go back."
Mike grimaced. "He has something, this guy. What, a child? Yours?"
The selkie almost laughed. This man seemed . . . honest. She thought he might keep his word and help. She had thought that all of another man as well. She scurried over toward the door and turned her sad eyes on Mike.
"You can't help me."
He changed tactics. "Did you kill two men?"
She looked away. "They deserved it," she ground out. She jumped to her feet. "Pigs! You would have done the same!"
Dearbhail threw herself at him. "Do you want to know what they did!"
Mike toppled into the desk as he caught her wrists.
"I'll show you!" she roared into his face and stretched her hands toward his neck.
He shook his head and recoiled from the fierce pain on her face. When she gave up and pulled, he let her go. Everything on the desk scattered as Mike regained his balance. "I don't understand," he said, looking right into her eyes. "You got away once. Edward was dead. You got away. You . . . I mean, you were trying to get away, right?"
"Yes. I needed-" She stopped herself.
"You needed what?"
Dearbhail stared at him and took a step away. "You can't help me."
"You're wrong." He let her gain space. "Someone hurt you. A lot of someones. I'm not one of them."
"Maybe." Defiance flared in her eyes. She reached for the luggage on the bed, watching Mike's every move. When he made no attempts to stop her, she backed down the hall toward the door.
"You killed two people," Mike said after her. "I can't just let you go."
The selkie's head quirked to the side and then moved slowly back. "You will have to hurt me to make me stay."
Mike got a flash of her doubling over in pain as she ran away from him the first time they met. "And if I let you go?"
"Then I return to the master's house."
"And Vicki? You were looking for her. What about her?"
The selkie blinked. "I . . . wanted her help," she admitted, edging toward the door.
"Hers, but not mine." Mike ground his teeth and, looking down, flexed a large hand, feeling the size and weight of it like it was new. This was what Dearbhail feared, the very flesh of him. For a moment, he wondered what she saw, and he felt himself a monster.
The doorknob ratcheted, and Celluci looked up to see that she was gone. He gave her a moment's head start, and then went after her. Even if she wouldn't say where the bastard lived, she was going there all the same. The fear in her eyes turned him inside out. Someone was going to pay for that.
Henry wasn't in the mood for pushing his luck. He'd gotten Vicki's voicemail asking him to meet by the Don, but he'd decided to take the long route-one that would lead through a condo complex in a dark part of the city. It was little trouble to saunter through the complex, eyeing passersby. He wound his way into the valleys between the buildings and melted into the shadows cast by the streetlamps. He watched a man a block down pass under a light. The yellow glow illuminated his short blond hair. A messenger bag bounced off his leg as he moved with brisk strides down the empty sidewalk. Henry smiled and leaned his head against the hard brick at his back to wait and listen. He was patient as the heartbeat drew closer, and he caught the warm scent of the man's cologne as he passed. Fitzroy's fangs flashed, and his eyes became darkness itself as he moved.
His attack was fast and rough. The stranger made a muffled shout as Henry's hand clamped over his mouth. He swung wildly, trying to jab with his elbows or break loose in spinning. It sent adrenaline and fear into his veins. When the vampire lifted him off his feet, he screamed and clawed at the hand on his mouth. Swift as a bat, they disappeared into a darkened corner, sheltered from view between buildings. The man wheezed and thrashed as Henry took his drink, trying to leverage his weight against his attacker. The pain in his neck made him frantic, and, sure that he was going to die, he started to sob.
Then a voice resonant with power buzzed in his ear. "Go home and rest. Drink water. You had a bad dream."
Elegant fingers lifted one at a time, and the stranger did not scream. He wavered, stumbled for his dropped bag, and staggered away with one hand pressed to his neck.
Henry sighed in pleasure, tasting the bright spicy mixture in the blood on his tongue. Fear was a flavor all its own. With languorous slowness, he wiped the corners of his mouth and stepped out of the shadows. Vicki was waiting, and tonight could be the night.
He found her arranged like she had been the night before, a sheep dog among her flock. She'd brought a heavier coat this time and held cooling coffee in her hands.
"Ten o'clock and all's well," Fitzroy said, suddenly at her side.
Vicki started but counseled herself. Frightened by a vampire at night? Pff. She turned with deliberate slowness to prove how unaffected she was by his ability to appear from nowhere.
"I'm not sure that's a good thing. We do actually want to catch these guys." She could barely make out the edge of his face in the darkness. "And hi."
"Hi," he smiled back. He studied her with the freedom of the masked, looking for signs of mood.
Vicki took a step closer to the sound of his breathing. "Do you . . ." She stared down at the white lid of her coffee cup. ". . . think you'll need to feed tonight?" Her voice was barely louder than the wind upon the branches.
The vampire felt a flood of warmth, and he reached out to touch her cheek with one finger.
"Was that an offer?" he growled lowly.
"Just a question." Her reply was clipped, though she didn't pull away.
He brushed a tendril of her hair and then sidled up beside her, pressing arm to arm.
"No. Ate before I came. It's . . . unwise to take from the same person too often."
Vicki took in that bit of truth and pondered the implications. She recalled the blonde she'd encountered in Henry's apartment once and felt a lick of jealousy. Her head turned sharply, and she watched him by moonlight.
"What?" He gazed over.
"Just . . . thanks for coming," she said.
He shrugged with calm ease. "No rest for the wicked."
Vicki snorted. "And the good?"
Henry rocked on his heels, watching the sleeping teens spread out like a buffet. "Supposedly, they die young," he said lightly.
He turned to her with a brilliant smile.
"Uh-huh. You're a walking cliché. Now, please, go be a lookout or something." She waved dismissively.
The Duke of Richmond drew himself up with a haughty pout. "I am not a cliché."
Vicki pointed to some darkened piece of land she could not see. "You should have a good view from there."
"I like the view fine from here," he purred.
"Henry!" Vicki stepped so she faced him and could meet eye to eye. "Look, I . . . can we just finish this job? Catch the bad guys?"
He looked at her seriously as a cool wind blew. The heat in her eyes was not, for the moment, from passion. "As you wish."
She rolled her eyes. "Don't-" she started to say. But he was gone.
Vicki let out a slow breath and leaned herself against the nearest tree. The fires in the homeless camp burned low and hot, meant more for heat than light. The vagrants huddled silently together, saving their energy for things more important than talking. Like breathing. One of the girls in Vicki's small clutch groaned and shifted, curling against the nearest warm body.
Vicki watched them with a worried grimace. She wondered how much she was saving them from. When this was over, the bad guys caught, these children would still be here, dredging the city's refuse for just enough to scrape by. Standing sentry didn't seem like enough.
Long after she'd finished her coffee, the sound of footsteps grew from the direction of the camp, and Vicki snatched a flashlight from her pocket. She aimed it at the sound and fell instantly into a cop's ready stance.
"Hey!" The intruder whined, holding his hands up to cover his eyes.
"Josh." Vicki grumbled. She stashed the light and leaned back against the tree. "What are you doing here?"
The young man blinked at the bright dots in his vision and stumbled to Vicki's side. "I came to help," he said firmly.
She grinned. "You don't need to do that. It's safer if you stay by the camp."
He didn't say anything.
"Josh?" She turned to look for him and almost kicked him in the side when she went to turn further. "Jeez!"
He sat on the ground with his knees drawn up. He looked up with a sadness on his face. "I'm sorry I took those people to your office."
Damn right he was sorry. "You were just helping."
He looked out over the sleeping girls. "Yeah."
The care-free boy in him slinked away. What remained was hard and bitter. He was left with the animal capable of anything and the man who knew loneliness and regret.
"We're going to find her."
"I mean it. I'm pretty good at my job. And I know when things are hopeless. We're gonna find her."
He rubbed the knuckles of one hand against the palm of the other and glanced up. "I want to help. For Donna."
The sincerity in his voice cracked her heart. She cleared her throat to answer. "Then do me a favor."
Josh was on his feet instantly.
"Get me some more coffee."
Josh was resourceful, and Vicki had her caffeine. She sent him off to sleep when he kept dozing at her feet. The caffeine kept her alert as the night dragged on. And it was the caffeine alone that powered her muscles to motion at the first sound of a scream.
The girl wasn't one of hers.
Vicki's heart hammered in her chest as she threw herself from the tree and tore into the darkness at a run. She headed east of the camp and up toward the street.
"Henry!" She didn't know where he was.
A girl's voice loosed garbled curses, and Vicki flicked out her ASP baton as she ran. Air burned down her throat as she panted and scanned the grounds.
She couldn't see.
She couldn't see!
And then she heard a roar.
"Henry . . ."
She dashed for the sound of his anger and came upon them in a patch of moonlight cutting through the trees. A girl skittered across the dirt, and Vicki ducked down to touch her shoulder. The girl wailed.
"It's okay! Are you all right?"
"He grabbed, he grabbed," she stuttered and pointed. "What the hell is that!"
"You don't wanna know. Now run!" She hauled the girl up. "Go find the others. Run!"
The girl made some warbling sound of assent and stumbled off, breaking into a run when she found her balance.
The fight hadn't lasted long. When Vicki hurried forward, she saw Henry's hand wrapped around the assailant's throat, pinning him to the ground. He straddled the man's body, holding down the arm that wasn't trying uselessly to push him off. It had apparently been made clear to the big man that struggling would not be tolerated. Henry looked annoyed, but entirely human.
Vicki resisted the urge to pet him like he was a trained cat and instead dropped into a crouch by the mystery man's head. "You're going to tell me everything I want to know," she drawled.
Henry squeezed and smirked. When he felt the man starting to fade, he let up. "Be nice," he said with a kind smile.
The thug sputtered and drew gasping breaths.
"Have you been kidnapping girls from this camp?" Vicki asked.
He sneered. "Yes."
The brute opened his mouth to speak but hesitated. Fitzroy's temper flared, and his eyes dilated fully. When he spoke, his voice was heavy with compulsion.
"Why are you kidnapping these girls?"
"Because he pays me to," the big man wheezed.
Henry's lip curled. "Who?"
"We don't use names."
"Why does he want them?" The vampire leaned in close and menacing.
"Sells 'em," the thug replied. He tried to sink down into the dirt to get away from those eyes, dark as pits.
"Slaves?" Vicki said.
Henry looked up at her troubled expression and then back down. Indignant fury burned in his chest.
"Where are they?" he demanded, pressing the full force of compulsion into those three words. He could force a man to cut off his own hand with such power.
"1120 Baby Point Road."
Henry glanced at his partner. "Are we done?"
She pressed herself to standing. "Got what we need."
She got a flash of him snapping the man's neck or squeezing his throat until he died. Instead, he let go and backed off.
"You will turn yourself in to the police," Henry said. His voice was low, and it echoed in supernatural splendor. "And you will remember that there are more dangerous things than you in the night." He stepped back, straightened his jacket, and watched in satisfaction as the thug scrambled to his feet and ran.
"God. That's so useful," Vicki grinned and picked a leaf from her partner's coat.
He gave her a quick glimpse of his stunning smile. "I aim to please," he said in his mischievous sultry way.
She smirked. "1120 Baby Point Road."
He looked away, in the direction of his car, and sighed. "I suppose I'm driving."
Following Dearbhail was like seeking a shadow at night. Mike had to hide himself in crowds in the subway, press against walls in the open, look askance to see where she went, and keep his distance. She was paranoid and wary, watchful as a sparrow. She flitted down streets, checking the sky for direction. Mike couldn't understand how she saw anything beyond the orange sodium lights. But then, he couldn't really be sure that the two of them saw the same sky at all. Despite his workout routine, her pace left him winded. The cool fall air made it worse, fanning flames in his lungs. They'd been running since getting off at Jane Street. Dearbhail turned left and sailed down Baby Point. She was small, quick, and supernatural. Mike kept up through stubbornness, gritting his teeth and keeping his eyes on her flowing hair and white clothes.
They passed through neighborhoods of increasing wealth. Apartment buildings and condos became small houses and finally larger ones. Celluci had never had reason to come to Baby Point. With his pay, it was going to stay that way.
English manors with large bay windows cast their eyes down on gated properties. No one stirred on the streets. And Mike slowed, stepping warily down the sidewalk to avoid anything that might make noise. He ducked under some low hanging branches that unfolded themselves over a stone wall and followed the curving path of Baby Point Crescent.
And then he stopped.
She was standing at a black gate just around the apex, typing a code into a keypad. The detective backed away and hunched down below a cluster of dry leaves. He waited, hearing only the sound of his breathing, and then inched forward to take a peek. A shape moved across the front lawn and up to the main door of the house. He stood a little straighter and watched a silhouetted figure in the doorway grip Dearbhail by the hair and drag her in.
His fists clenched.
As Celluci came out from hiding, headlights cast their glow up the street. Instinct made him take cover, and he flexed his jaw in annoyance. The car came into view, slowed, turned its headlights off, and crept to a halt across from the black gate.
Mike frowned for a moment. And then the driver's side door swung open.
"God dammit." He stalked out from his spot beneath the trees and hustled over. "What the hell are you two doing at my crime scene?" he demanded in hushed tones.
Vicki came around the car. "What the hell are you doing on my case?"
"This isn't your case. My murderer just went in that house." Mike pointed.
Vicki's face fell into a scowl, and she glanced at her partner. "Our girls are in that house."
Henry looked grim. "They're being sold."
"As slaves." Mike's voice was hollow. "The girl, the one who killed my victims-"
"The one you hit with your car," the vampire smirked.
Mike gave him a sidelong glance. "She was being sold as a sex toy."
"How do you know she's here?" Vicki asked.
"Because I followed her. I let her go, and she brought me here."
"She could have been free." Henry looked Mike up and down and then focused on the house.
The prince's eyes narrowed. "Something's rotten in the state of Denmark. I suggest we find out what."
As a group, they crossed the street to the stone wall capped with iron pikes. Henry gave the wall a once over and then checked the keypad on the gate.
"An alarm will sound if I just break through," he said.
Vicki looked up. "So we go over."
Her partner gave the pikes an uncertain look. "I'll boost you both."
"Me first," Mike stepped closer and wisely offered no explanations. Nothing about catching Vicki as she came over or anything. The two men exchanged looks that said something similar, however, and Henry nodded once in agreement.
He could have tossed Celluci like a potato sack-sent him hurdling over the iron bars to land heavily, painfully, on the grass on the other side. He did briefly consider it, but Vicki would undoubtedly exact some punishment that he was unwilling to pay. She was terribly good at being too busy for visitors, for instance. Despite the childish urge, Henry lifted Mike gingerly by one foot, extending his whole arm to get him high enough. The detective squeezed himself painfully between the bars and then dropped down. Vicki followed, not needing Mike's help. And then Henry flew up and over with a single leap. He landed with the grace of a cat, touching the grass with a hand just briefly before rising.
Mike drew his gun and took point. They covered the grounds swiftly, moving up the walk to the front steps. The house seemed dead. No light shone out the side windows. And the door was solid oak, betraying nothing. Mike took the left, where the door hinged, and held his gun up, but ready. Vicki took the right, so she could reach the knob. They both eyed Henry as he pressed himself close to the door and listened.
He tuned out the beating hearts nearby. Their breathing became a distant breeze. His jaw flexed in concentration as his senses stretched out. Something sounded, sharp and high. He slid up to standing and heard a muffled, sputtered wail.
His eyes popped open. "A scream."
Before either human could so much as blink, Fitzroy gripped the doorknob and turned it until it snapped with a sharp bark of rending metal. He charged in and then halted at the bottom of the stairs.
"Henry?" Vicki whispered.
He turned in a circle, searching.
"What?" Celluci frowned, scanning for traps.
"There's a basement." He looked down at his feet.
He was counting and would have answered were it not for a woman's loud cry.
"Dearbhail." Mike took the stairs two at a time.
By the landing, they could hear her constant sobbing. At the top of the stairs, Mike could make out a man's voice and the guttural sound of his grunting. He didn't even hesitate. And he didn't need no damn vampire to do his job for him. With one mighty kick, the door to the study burst in, and they all saw him, whoever he was, and his white rolls of flesh rising and pounding down into a white rug. He was massive in comparison to the woman beneath him. Mike saw only her hand, but he heard her scream long and loud.
"Toronto PD!" Mike roared at the man's back, leveling his gun.
A blur passed by his elbow. And then there was a shocked cry and a loud thud. Henry shoved the man against the far wall and then crushed his neck with one forearm. He held him up just high enough for his toes to touch the floor.
Vicki started for the woman who lay naked on the rug, but she flew after Henry with less speed though no less grace.
"No!" she shrieked. She grabbed his arm and pulled. "Don't kill him!"
They all stared in disbelief. Even as she was shedding tears, she begged for his life.
Henry's nose wrinkled as he scented the air. Sex and a little blood. Something else.
She looked at him without fear, despite his fangs and blackened eyes. "Vampire please. Not yet."
He looked at the piece of human filth writhing under his arm and bared his teeth. "Why."
"Dearbhail," Mike said calmly. "Who is he?" He lowered his gun.
She tore her eyes away from Henry to look at Mike and then focused on the other woman in the room.
Vicki took a step forward. "My name's Vicki Nelson. Mike said you were looking for me."
Dearbhail's crazed eyes grew still. She looked at the master, who wheezed helplessly under the vampire's strength. His white skin seemed deathly pale to her. Her whole body flooded with something like sorrow, and she spoke to Mike and Vicki both, looking between them. "Donald Dougherty, son of William. Son of Tadhg."
They frowned in confusion.
She sniffed, and Donald glared at her with all the hatred he could muster. He grabbed for her hair as she slid away. Henry slammed his head into the wall with a growl.
She let the words tumble out. "He is my grandson."
Their jaws dropped. Even Henry's. Mike felt his hands grow cold and clammy as he holstered his pistol in slow motion. A cold crab scuttled up his spine, and the urge to vomit rose high in his throat, but he swallowed it down.
"How is that. . . but . . ." He shook his head in a daze.
She faced the vampire who held her future in his hands.
Mike spoke from behind with the whisper of a ghost. "How long have you been here?"
Her nakedness struck him hard, and slipped out of his coat.
She turned to him and caught the bundle of fabric he tossed. She slid the coat on, though it make her look like a child.
"How long?" Mike asked again.
Her face hardened. "Too long. His grandfather stole my pelt. Stole it!" Her chest heaved. "And I want it back!"
Fitzroy looked at her sharply. "Pelt?" Realization flashed through him. "Mother of God. You're a selkie."
Vicki and Mike exchanged questioning looks. And then Vicki remembered her own mission in that god awful house.
"Dearbhail," she ventured.
"That is not my name," the selkie replied. She did not take her eyes off her grandson.
Vicki frowned. "Are there others here? Other girls?"
The selkie nodded and reached out for the master's chest, shaking the long sleeves of Mike's coat up her arms. He keened and struggled as her slim fingers wrapped around the key that dangled from his neck. She pulled, slowly, against the force Henry exerted on the master's aging human body. She pulled until the chain bit into his skin. Until he bled on it and it finally snapped. His eyes teared from the pain of it, and she smiled with soul-deep satisfaction.
With a flick of her wrist, she tossed Vicki the key. The woman caught it, only by the length of its chain.
"In the cellar," the selkie said lowly.
Vicki looked at Mike and then hurried off. He stepped closer to Donald Dougherty, who hung limp, naked, and shivering in Henry's grip.
"The pelt, Donald." Celluci's voice rasped anger.
The man ignored him and stared instead at Fitzroy and his black demon eyes. The vampire sneered.
"Tell me where the selkie's pelt is hidden," he demanded in his voice of power. The command was accentuated with a shove against the wall that rang the human's skull.
The selkie watched, waiting on the tips of blades, her small hands opening and closing into fists.
Donald could not resist. His arm seemed to raise on its own and point to a mirror on the dark study wall. Henry's eyes followed, and Mike moved to examine it. He traced his fingers around the wrought iron frame until he hit a latch and the mirror swung open to reveal a safe.
"Needs a combination," Celluci said.
Henry arched an eyebrow at his captive. The man's heart beat nearly out of his ribcage, and he shook his head lightly. Sweat dripped down his cruel face.
With a wicked grin, Fitzroy pressed. "Tell me the combination."
They all listened as Mike tapped the buttons.
"I think it needs a key. I dunno. There's a weird depression here. Looks like a square in a circle."
The selkie stared at him. She knew a mark like a square in a circle. It had graced her skin a thousand times, raised as bruises on her flesh. She howled and whirled, tearing at Donald's hand. He flailed at her in terror, and only stopped when Henry choked the air out of him.
She gripped his wrist. He made a fist. So she sank her small white teeth into his arm until he screamed. He forgot to keep his hand closed, and she pulled the family ring from his finger.
Even Henry shied from her ferocity. She'd have torn the finger from the man's hand if she needed to. The crazed look in her green-opal-sheened eyes told him so. She examined the ring with terror and reverence as she brought it to Mike's extended hand.
She looked at the ring. And at his male hand. Her stomach quaked, and she imagined him taking the ring for his own, replacing one master with another. She shuddered.
"Please," the detective said.
Donald made a strangled cry, and Henry kneed him hard in the stomach. He let the old man sink to the floor.
The selkie held her breath and then dropped the ring. Mike pressed it quickly to the safe's mechanism and turned it. The box clicked, and the heavy metal door opened. Before she could cry out or weep, Mike put his hand in and touched the soft seal skin that was her other self. She let out a terrified gasp as he drew it out and shivered as his hands touched the tattered surfaces of the wounds the masters had made. Celluci gazed down in disbelieving wonder. He moved to stroke the soft fur, but her voice cut the heavy air.
"Don't." It was a plea.
And it made him look up to her brown eyes growing salty with tears.
"Sorry," he said quickly. And then he held out his arms and let the seal skin slip into her pale hands.
Tears spilled down the selkie's cheeks as she buried her face in the skin. It smelled of the sea. The sea.
She sniffed and looked at Mike through her blurred vision. She had never expected. She had given up hope. With her precious skin securely in one arm, she shimmied a hand free of the coat sleeve, reached out her hand, fingers trembling, and placed it on his cheek. She radiated heat.
"You are a good son of man," she whispered.
He swallowed. And sympathetic tears welled. He drew a breath to speak, but she shook her head and let her fingers fall away, one whispered touch at a time.
He recalled her desperate screams, the overwhelming fear. Her steady eyes moved him to the core.
"You're a fool," Donald said. He might have said more but for Henry's swift kick to the chest. He fell forward in pain and felt a boot on his back.
Celluci gave the . . . man, for he had no other word, a passing glare. When he turned his attention back, the selkie stood in the doorway, still wearing his coat that dragged on the floor like a wedding dress.
"Can you get home?" he said after her.
She froze, her hair falling perfectly straight. "I . . . don't know."
"Let me help you. Please." He spoke softly, earnestly. He watched her turn with a fairy's grace.
"I'm sorry," she said, her voice taking on a richness it had not known in ages. It filled the room and sang into all three men's hearts. "All you can do is let me go."
Donald bucked under Henry's hard boot and let out an anguished wail. She ignored him and watched Mike struggle with the same impulse to guide her hand, make her safe, make her his own.
He closed his eyes and nodded. And when he opened them, she was gone. The detective turned abruptly like he'd woken from a trance.
Henry smirked at him. "So, how are you putting that in your report?"
"Shut up," he grated. "And move." He whipped out a pair of handcuffs and strode across the room.
Henry obliged and noted with detached interest the way Donald Dougherty scarcely seemed to move as Mike cuffed him. And he did not protest as he was led away, bare as a baby.
Whatever had burned inside him had been doused by his selkie finding her way back to her seal-self and the sea.
Chapter 4: Epilogue
Henry set down his glass of water on the coffee table and reached out toward the gameboard. With deliberate seriousness, picked up the top card from the little stack. Blue. And moved his game piece.
"How did the reunion go?" he said, not looking up from the board.
Vicki smiled sadly. "Josh was ecstatic. Donna cried. And they all went back to living on the street." She finished quietly. She shook her head. "I should have done more."
Fitzroy regarded her with patience. "There will be other windmills."
She planted her piece on the appropriate square and scowled at him. "Doesn't that bother you?"
"That you will chase another windmill? A bit."
Her look of sarcasm was only slightly amused. Henry offered a direct, charming smile in reply.
"You know what I mean," she grumbled.
He was still for a moment and then breathed out a "yes."
As he reached for the cards again, he paused. He shifted, shot a look toward his door, and then frowned slightly, perfect brow creasing in concern. He absently moved his piece to yellow.
"What?" Vicki sat up straight and stared at the door.
"Company." He said it lightly, with more curiosity than caution, and crossed the apartment.
He pulled the door open at the first knock.
"I've been reading," Mike announced, wielding a book.
"Developing a habit?" Fitzroy stepped aside to let him in.
Mike shot him an unamused little laugh. "You called her a selkie," he said, waving the tome in the air.
"Hey, Mike!" Vicki called from the couch, not bothering to get up.
"So I did," Henry replied mildly. He swung the door shut and circled around the detective in amusement.
Mike eyed him. "According to this, selkies are seed . . . whatever the hell that word is."
"Sídhe," Henry smiled.
"Yeah. Well, they're seals that take off their skins and then get caught by humans."
"That seems accurate." Henry shrugged and wandered away. He settled himself back on the couch. It was his turn again.
"Well, what the hell kind of sense does that make?" Mike demanded, pacing over to the coffee table. "They swim. They take off their skins, they get caught. That's all?"
Henry turned over a red card. "That's-"
"Is that Candyland?" Mike stared down at the table, then at the two supposed adults.
Vicki leaned back and smiled up at him. "Got tired of losing at chess."
The detective rolled his eyes and settled his gaze on Henry. "Seriously."
"Seriously," he smirked. "She's terrible at chess."
"I meant the selkie!" Mike dropped the book on the table, sending a small earthquake through Gum Drop Mountain. "That's all? Just that? They don't kill people or eat people or steal babies?"
The vampire drew a long sigh. "Just that, detective. They just live. Sometimes tragically." He looked at Vicki. "Like everyone else."
She wasn't sure she wanted to catch his meaning and instead chanced looking up at Mike as he dug his fingers through his hair. She scooted over, and he took a seat.
"Sorry you let your murderer go?"
He scrunched his face and shook his head. "Self-defense."
Nodding, Vicki picked up her toppled game piece and set him on his feet.
"It's just . . ." Mike continued. "What a life." He gazed at the colorful gameboard, sugar sweet and friendly. "I wish I could have saved her sooner, you know. From all that."
Vicki nudged him sympathetically. "Did what you could. And she's free now, 'cause of you."
Henry arched an eyebrow at her and skipped his game piece toward home. "The two of you," he said, "need to lighten up and learn to savor your victories."
And then he set his piece down on the final square and sat back with a Cheshire cat smile.