Most of the information that came the Institute’s way was totally bogus. People came with tales of pale men with slavic accents and sharp teeth, telling spooky stories about fairies and werewolves that didn’t get the first detail right. It was very rare that they compiled evidence of an actual vampire, so Jon had little hope that his first month in the new position would come with a kill.
Peter Lukas was a vampire, of this Jon was certain.
They’d made a whole file out of statements of befuddled victims describing a pale old man in the uniform of a boat captain who’d taken their blood. The Lukas family owned a manor that was pretty much the stereotype of a vampire’s abode, and Naomi Hern’s statement was chock-full of details that any trained vampire hunter would recognize.
Any mere suggestion of further investigation was rebuked by Elias in the strongest possible terms. After all, the Lukas family gave considerable sums of money to the Magnus Institute, which researched and hunted the things that stalked the dark. Why would they donate to such an Institute, Elias asked rhetorically, if they were vampires?
Precisely because of this, Jon had told him a thousand times. To buy immunity.
But it did no good. Elias was Jon’s boss, and there was to be no investigation of the Lukas family.
Well, not on Institute time, at least.
The donations the Lukas family made weren’t public record, but with Sasha James on staff, that wasn’t a huge obstacle. She was perfectly happy to help once Jon explained the situation.
So that’s how Jon found himself sequestered in his office after the Institute was officially closed, poring over stacks of financial records.
It took him several days to sort through them all. Most were the standard affair: lip service donations to all the charities billionaires usually considered worth their time. There were a few outliers, though.
First, the Magnus Institute. Obviously. Then there was the London Skeptics Society. Unsurprising that a family of vampires would want the public to be skeptical of their existence. A few donations to a cult called the People’s Church of the Divine Host, which Jon suspected was affiliated with the Darklings.
Then there was a record of a massive donation to some place in central London called Blackwood Bookshelf. The donation wasn’t the interesting part, though. What was interesting is that the proprietor, one Martin Blackwood, had returned it.
“Over seven thousand pounds,” Jon muttered. “Why not take it, Martin?”
The address listed on the record was within walking distance of the Institute. Jon took a picture with his phone and resolved to go there the following day.
The following day saw Jon standing outside Blackwood Bookshelf on his lunch break. The board above the door was plain: the words “Blackwood Bookshelf” written in simple handwriting, and below that, “Used Books, Library, Apothecary.”
There was a display of antique cookbooks in one window, and in the other was an absolute forest of potted plants. The displays had no view of the rest of the store, and there was no window in the door.
Jon entered, one hand tightly gripping the strap of his leather satchel. A bell rang pleasantly as the door opened.
The store appeared totally empty, but it was hard to be sure in the dim light. The rows of bookshelves were tight and cozy, and wherever there weren’t books there were stacks of crystals, amulets, artifacts, and herbs. It took Jon a moment to locate the actual counter, cluttered as it was with things for sale. The counter bore an old computer, but given how well-maintained it was, its age seemed to be a choice rather than a burden. There was no one behind it, but there was a door marked “Employees Only.”
A closer look revealed what Jon had suspected. Every single crystal, amulet, artifact, and herb was the real deal—that is to say, it had a use in the arcane. Nothing dark, which put him at ease. Tim would have a field day here—he was always complaining about how the grocery store never had what he was looking for.
He picked up a fire agate carved roughly into a star, the price scrawled on a sticker attached to it. He was no witch, but he could feel the faint buzz of protection from its center. Not that that meant anything; plenty of people sold arcana without knowing what it was.
“Oh, sorry! I was just sorting through some stuff in the back!”
Jon turned to see a man appear from the back corner of the store. He was a big man, especially compared to the small size of the bookstore, yet seemingly had no problem moving through the tightly spaced bookshelves. Despite his size, though, there was nothing even remotely intimidating about him. He smiled apologetically upon seeing Jon, and quickly went behind the counter.
“Can I help you find anything?” the man asked.
Jon scanned the man closely. He was soft, no sharp edges and no aura of danger that Jon had learned to detect from years of hunting dangerous things. No black sclera or pointed ears even when Jon knew what to look for, so not fae or darkling. Just a man who ran a bookshop.
“Are you Martin Blackwood?”
The man nodded.
“Does the name Peter Lukas mean anything to you?” Jon asked.
If the question surprised him, he didn’t show it.
“What can you tell me about him?”
Martin shrugged. “Not much. Just what’s public record, I guess.”
Jon held up the sheet with the donation record on it. “And he donated to this place.”
“Yeah, I turned it down. Let’s just say he was very rude to me once, and I don’t take apologies in cash.”
Jon made a noncommittal noise. Martin didn’t seem like he was lying, and it was certainly true that you didn’t need to be involved in the paranormal to hate the Lukases.
Jon took another look around. Many of the books bore titles he didn’t recognize. Perhaps there were some useful ones. The Institute library was full of lore on all sorts of creatures, but there was one area where information remained maddeningly muddled.
“Do you have any books on vampires?”
Martin’s eyes lit up.
“What are you looking for? Romance, lore, stories, YA…unusual ones?”
Jon had no idea what “unusual ones” meant, but he requested them. Unusual books were either very useful, very useless, or very dangerous, and the Institute was interested in all three categories.
Martin disappeared into the depths of the store—impressive, given the store was tiny—and returned with three books. One self-published and spiral-bound, one old and leather, one tiny paperback novella.
“These ones are just for loan,” Martin said, “so you’ll have to get a card.”
The card, as it turned out, was just as old-school as the computer. It was just a piece of paper with Jon’s name and an identification number Martin wrote down in a giant ledger along with the books Jon was checking out. Once he had finished that, he grabbed the fire agate Jon had been looking at and passed it to Jon.
“On the house for a new card. For protection.”
Jon’s hand closed around the star-shaped gem. It thrummed pleasantly.
“See you in two weeks, Jonathan.”
“It’s just Jon. And…thank you.”
“My pleasure. Jon.”
The man who had just walked into Martin’s shop was probably a vampire. Newly turned, too. His face was dignified and handsome, but carried a gaunt exhaustion. His hands were skeletal and clutched the strap of his bag with suspicious desperation. His eyes were fierce and burning—clearly he hadn’t mastered his mask yet. Most telling were the bags forming under his eyes. Every newly turned had them. It wasn’t anything unique to vampires, just the stress of a life upturned.
So Martin was about 60 percent sure the man was a vampire.
That number went up to 70 percent when the man asked about Peter Lukas. The patriarch of the Lukas manor, a place crawling with nightstalkers that had rejected their humanity. The man so well known among the denizens of the dark that “knows Peter Lukas” was practically code for “is a vampire.” The thing who’d left Martin poisoned and empty of blood in an alleyway. The vampire who’d probably turned the fidgety customer.
Martin gave him a cautious answer, and the man’s eyes gleamed. It was the eyes that were the strongest evidence, really. Hungry, intense, scrutinizing. Captivating.
The man’s next question bumped Martin’s confidence in his suspicion up to 80 percent.
“Do you have any books on vampires?” he asked with practiced disinterest.
“What are you looking for?” Martin asked, and he didn’t just mean the books. “Romance, lore, stories, YA…unusual ones?”
The man’s eyes lit up. “Unusual ones.” 90 percent.
Martin went to an easily overlooked (by design) corner of the bookstore and pulled out three books, his curated crash course for the newly turned.
The man stared in awe and ravenous curiosity at the books, and Martin felt his heart swell with pride at piquing his interest.
The man signed the library card with enthusiasm, and Martin passed him a protection icon. Nothing too strong, but it should keep him safe from hunters long enough to get on his feet and off their radar.
I’ll see you again, Jon, Martin vowed as Jon left. He was sure of it.