Nadiya climbed the stairs two steps at a time with the saunter of a predator on the hunt. Sky blue curls bounced around her head and smoke streamed from her lips as she flicked a roach from her fingers before entering glass doors.
Cold blasted through her clothes from the air conditioning with the chill of a Russian wind. Resettling the messenger bag on her shoulder, Nadie checked the directory before climbing more stairs. She moved with a fluid grace that was silent, despite all the metal hanging from her clothes.
A human ascended as Nadie passed. Her shoulder grazed against Nadiya. She shoved the human against the wall. Her snarl outmatched a mountain lion’s and she bared sharp fangs. The woman gaped at her, wide-eyed and frozen in terror. Nadiya was too quick for the human to see clearly as she pulled away.
The vampire was nothing but a blur.
“Watch where you’re going.” Nadiya’s eyes burned with hunger as her nostrils flared. The woman’s blood smelled sweet and tangy like a freshly picked blood orange.
She shouldn’t be hungry, all things considered. She drank a fair amount yesterday after an entitled elitist totaled her brand new car. He returned home with an obscured version of what truly transpired.
It was because of that stupid bastard that she was forced to take cabbies all day and no amount of rolled hundreds could make those asses drive sensibly.
“I-I’m sorry.” The human clutched her handbag as she wobbled on knees turned to flan. “I… I didn’t see you.”
“That’s right, you didn’t.”
Nadie sifted through the woman’s memories. Her name was Laura, she weighed one-hundred and forty pounds, and recently started juicing her body. The vampire ignored the useless information at the front of the human’s mind and twisted her memory of their meeting in the stairwell.
The woman’s head jerked to the side as her eyes widened and pupils dilated. Her eyes closed. When they opened again, they were empty of fear and she trotted down the stairs as if Nadiya didn’t exist. She pulled out a cell phone and punched numbers on the screen.
Nadiya continued her trek up the stairs. Her anger was getting the best of her. Scaring that human was unnecessary. It was uncalled for, and—dare she think it?—very like a vampire.
But she was tired of running around this city, hammering up and down ten to twelve stories each time, only to end up empty handed.
If this private investigator didn’t take her case, she was likely to rip out his artery with her fangs.
She rolled her shoulders to restrain the urge for blood.
Born a vampire, she learned long ago to control the bloodlust raging inside, but chaotic events caused the beast to rattle its cage. Anger was the easiest way to break the barrier between control and going berserk. Vampires could be as friendly as any next-door neighbor, but the right trigger could incite animalistic instincts that were beyond conscious control.
To be a vampire was to walk the line of sanity every waking moment.
Nadie needed to keep her cool if she planned to convince this guy to take her job. Her temper got the best of her at the worst of times, but she couldn’t let her emotions ruin her chance of hiring the next investigator. He was the last on her list and she was desperate.
Magic was involved, she was positive, which limited her list of resources. While there were plenty of Talents and other paranormal creatures such as herself running around, tracking magic wasn’t something just anybody knew. It was a skill mastered by few and she wouldn’t waste her time with amateurs.
The last investigator she barraged gave her this man’s name and address. The burly PI couldn’t help her, he said, but he was sure this Talent was exactly what she needed.
She hoped so.
Private Investigator Ward’s office was on the eleventh floor and was tucked at the end of a long hall with undecorated walls that Nadiya wanted to lather in paint. She ignored the impulse and swallowed hard when she reached Ward’s door.
His name was engraved on the door’s plaque. Nadiya caught her reflection in its surface and saw guilt, fear, and sadness storming in her dark eyes. She closed them as she inhaled.
She needed to be calm. Not for herself, but for her brother.
This man could help her find her brother’s killer.
That in mind, she knocked on the door.
Keith lounged in his office chair with a cigarette dangling between naturally pouty lips. The smoke streamed through an open window and the loud noises of the city’s traffic thrummed through the long office. Eyes closed and arms crossed, the private investigator drifted into a light sleep. His cigarette snuffed out and the smoke purled around the ash like coiling octopus tentacles.
His phone rang, startling him into consciousness.
Keith flung the cigarette and several objects from his desk as he woke in a fit. Growling, he snatched the phone. “What?”
"Is this a bad time?” The man on the other line had an abrasive voice that suggested he not only smoked too many cigarettes, but probably washed them down with handles of brandy.
Keith sighed and ran a hand through dark waves. “No. Just… I was napping. Haven’t been sleeping right lately.”
“Huhn. That’s not like you. You sleep like the dead. I couldn’t wake you with a blare horn two inches from your ear.”
Keith rolled his eyes. “You’re exaggerating, Daugherty, and in our line of work, that’s a huge no-no. What did you need so badly it had to interrupt my beauty sleep?”
“Wanted ta give you a head’s up. I sent a client your way. She’ll probably be there soon. Vampires are fast as all hell and this one was in a hurry.”
Keith resisted hissing. Fingers curled, he leaned back in his chair. It squawked in protest at the force. “You sent a vampire to me?”
“I know you don’t like ‘em, but she’s paying good money and the job sounds… interesting. I know you need it.”
Now he growled. “Oh, sending me the bad eggs, huh? How very thoughtful of you.”
The older PI laughed. “It’s not like that, Ward. I think you could help her. Really. It’s easy money and you’ll put a smile on a pretty girl’s face. Win, win.”
“A vampire. A pretty vampire.”
“Ah, get off your high horse, Ward. Just thought I’d let you know. If it helps, what she’s offering could easily pay for two months rent.”
Keith pursed his lips at that, eyes squinting.
“Got your attention, eh?” There was amusement in Daugherty’s voice.
“Shut up, Daugherty and get back to work.”
Keith hung up.
The phone rang again and Keith jumped. He eyed it suspiciously.
He began receiving weird phone calls no more than a week ago. His hand hovered over the receiver as he stared daggers at it. He wasn’t sure if they were a prank or something sinister, but his gut told him it was the latter. His gut was never wrong, but denial always gave him some time of ignorant bliss.
“I am not afraid of a phone,” he said when it rang for the third time. Two more and it’d go to voicemail.
It never left a message.
He swallowed and snatched the receiver. He pressed it to an ear, breath stuck in his throat, and listened. There was breathing on the other end and his heart picked up speed.
The tension thickened, threatening to strangle him.
After an eternity, a voice said, “I’ve got you.”
Keith threw the phone. The stapler, name plaque, and lamp were taken in the process. The lamp shattered on impact, leaving glass everywhere.
Someone knocked on his door and walked in.
Keith grabbed two fistfuls of hair as he stared at the mess he’d made. “Great. Just great. I liked that lamp.” His sigh was heavier than lead and he faced the newcomer. “Can I help you?”
“I hope so,” the vampire said and Keith could almost taste the pheromones she released.
He stepped back, one hand slipping into a pocket and the other nervously touching his tie. Keith licked dry lips as he sized the vampire, from her torn band shirt to her patchwork pants.
Her age could be anything from twenty to a hundred, but he imagined her beauty would be timeless. Her flawless porcelain skin peeked through strategically ripped clothes. A blue Chinese dragon swirled around her torso, the face reaching her collarbone with an open maw. Keith counted twenty-six buckles, twelve zippers, and ten visible piercings. A few were spelled items. White hairs on the black fabric told him she had one, if not two, cats.
Despite her attire, her stance read aristocratic. She preferred the streets, he knew, but she was definitely high class bred.
Her eyes captivated him most. Countless emotions raved behind her droopy, eccentric brown eyes. Bold make-up accentuated their exotic nature. The darkest night could be drenched in light if those eyes smiled.
Keith knew it was the pheromones causing his body’s stirrings. He tore his eyes from the vampire and said, “I’m Keith Ward. Take a seat. I’ll uh… clean up that mess in a minute.” He shuddered at the memory of the voice on the phone.
The vampire glazed to the seat like a slinking cat and sat. Keith did, too, purposefully looking anywhere but at her. “You are…?” He asked, to be polite and to give his mind something else to focus on.
“Nadiya Vartanian. Call me Nadie.” She reached into her bag and produced several rolled wads of bills. Keith tried not to gawk. “I don’t normally do this up front, but here’s what I’m offering. Twenty thousand, down payment. Twenty thousand when the job is done.”
Keith ran a hand over his face, covering his gaping mouth. Forty thousand dollars. He’d never been offered anything close to this before. There had to be a catch.
“Okay, Nadie.” Keith folded his hands on his desk. “What’s the job? Suspect the boyfriend might be cheating?”
Nadie narrowed her eyes and attempted to keep her tone polite. “No. My brother was murdered. I want you to find his killer.”
Keith’s brows rose. “Isn’t that something better suited for the police?”
Nadie shook her head, blue ringlets swinging. “They won’t listen to me. There’s no body, so there’s nothing to investigate. I filed a missing’s person report, of course, but I don’t expect anything back from them.”
Keith bit back a laugh. No body? Was this vampire crazy?
“I’m sorry,” he said with a shake of his head. Was she mentally ill and didn’t know any better? “I can’t take your money to do a case that’s… well, not plausible. There can’t be murder without a body. Those are just facts.” He spread his hands.
Nadiya snorted and bared fang. “He’s dead. I can’t feel him anymore. I knew something was off, that’s why I moved here, but I didn’t expect this.”
“I can feel people’s presences.” She shrugged. “Always could. I know what his feels like distinctly. It’s gone. Not here. He hasn’t been home in days. I got here three days ago and he wasn’t home. His cat was out of food.”
“That’s your evidence? His cat was out of food?”
“He wouldn’t let her starve!” Nadiya jumped to her feet, slamming her hands on his desk with the power of someone three times her size. “He’d never let North’s food bowl get empty. Never. And there’s magic. There was magic. Something. There’s something there clouding my senses.”
“Magic?” Keith had moved a few feet back after Nadiya’s outburst. A hand remained on his tie. “Okay. That’s sounding more suspicious. Why don’t you tell me more about that?” His free hand reached for a pad on his desk, but he didn’t move closer.
Seeing the private investigator ready to take notes, Nadiya resettled in the chair. She licked her lips before speaking. “I have a key to his apartment so I went to surprise him the day I got into town. He wasn’t there and I noticed North’s food was empty. She was in distress. My way coming in, my nose wasn’t working so great, but it amplified in his apartment. It felt like someone shoved cotton balls up my nose.”
Keith’s brows furrowed and he frowned. He wrote some notes. “Were your other senses distorted?”
She nodded. “My hearing was muted. I could hear, but not into the next apartment. I couldn’t hear the pulse of anyone in the building.” She quivered from visible goose bumps. “It was the worst sensation. I felt completely naked. Anyone could have snuck up on me and I wouldn’t’ve known.”
The PI tapped the pencil against his lips. “Which was the intention, I’m sure. To do something on that scale… it’d take a good Talent to work a spell like that.”
“So you believe me?”
“I believe something’s going on in your brother’s apartment,” Keith amended. He set down the pad and pen. “I can’t jump to the conclusion that he’s dead, but magic like that is suspicious.” The Talent stood. “Tell you what, I’ll check out his place and we’ll go from there.” He grabbed his coat from the back of his chair and shoved the pad in one of its pockets. Working on anything sounded better than staying here and brooding about the voice on the phone. Keith was an action-oriented type of guy, liked to be hands-on when thinking.
“Right now?” Nadiya stood faster than Keith could blink. It unnerved him and he felt her feed off the fear. More pheromones wafted at him and he mentally built a barrier between him and her.
“Yeah. Give me your cell number and I’ll call you when I’ve determined what’s going on.” He pulled out a cell and stepped around the mess he’d made earlier.
“I’m going with you.” Nadiya crossed her arms. “Nothing you say will make me change my mind.” She didn’t quite growl, but Keith heard the threat in her voice.
He narrowed his eyes. She wasn’t giving him a choice. It was only fair he didn’t give her one, either. “If you want to do this, there need to be rules.”
Nadiya arched a brow. “Rules?”
“Yeah.” He got in her face, a dangerous thing to do to a vampire, but the only way to prove dominance over them. He stared down at her with hard eyes. The energy around him became alive and wild. “Tone down your pheromones. Your erratic emotional state is causing them to flare. Keep your shit under control.” The last sentence left his mouth hard, “And do not attempt to bite me.”
Nadiya opened her mouth to protest and Keith held up a hand.
“I’m not done. You can give me your vampire attitude all you want, but don’t touch me, don’t use any mind tricks on me, don’t even think about sifting through my mind. I have more tricks up my sleeve than Van Helsing, so I suggest you don’t try a thing.”
Nadiya met Keith’s gaze with palpable heat. A snarl rolled in her throat. “Don’t step on my toes, Talent, and I won’t step on yours.”
“Deal.” Keith opened the door for her and Nadiya stormed past him.