“I am going to kick his fucking arse,” Stefan Skarsnok muttered as he paced back and forth in front of the old, craggy tree in the center of the clearing. They were well-concealed in the middle of a dense wooded area east of Lake Washington, but if Mace didn’t show up soon, someone would come to investigate all the bloody noise.
Stefan’s teeth ached, the desperate desire to feed making his hands shake and his stomach churn. The Arctos demon tied to the tree’s rough trunk snarled and cursed in a language no one had heard in a thousand years, but Stefan ignored him. To listen to a demon was folly, at best, and at worst, could get you killed. Or consigned to Hell for all eternity.
He’d already done his time in Hell. Nothing and no one would send him back.
“Shut it,” he barked at the demon. “I don’t care how scum-of-the-earth the arseholes were you usually killed. This time, you killed an innocent. In front of witnesses. The warrant was valid. If it were up to me, you’d be dead.”
The demon spit at him. Brilliant.
A rustling in the underbrush a hundred yards away drew his gaze. Pulling his dagger from his belt, Stefan widened his stance, his nostrils flaring as he tried to scent the male he’d been waiting for.
“Sheath your weapon,” the deep voice said from behind him. “If I wanted you dead, I’d have taken your head off already.”
How the fuck had Mace gotten the drop on him? Whirling around, Stefan glared at the trader. “You’re late.”
“And you’re a piece of shit. How much did you torture this one?” Mace, six-foot-five with the build of a linebacker, circled the tree, looking the demon up and down as he tried to assess the thing’s injuries. His black hair shone in the moonlight, a few locks tumbling over his forehead. The vampire looked like bloody GQ model, except for the twin, sharp teeth that rested on his bottom lip.
“Only as much as I had to.”
“Not all demons deserve your hatred, you know.” Mace snapped a collar around the demon’s neck, and the thing strained against the obsidian-infused iron before slumping back against the tree with a whine.
“So you say. I’ve yet to meet one who didn’t try to kill me and everyone I know,” Stefan spat. “They should all be ended on sight, not sent to your cushy rehabilitation camps. Fucking peace accords. This one murdered a human who interrupted his feeding. Do you have my payment?”
A small velvet pouch arced through the air, and Stefan snatched it an inch from his face. “Bastard. You could have broken it.”
“That’s not blood. Find a willing meal. If she’s very willing, blow off a little steam before you open that bag.” With a cocky grin, Mace slashed through the ropes that bound the demon to the tree. The collar kept the thing docile, and its red eyes unfocused as the massive vampire led it to the south edge of the clearing.
Panic seized Stefan’s muscles, and coupled with the starvation, slowed him enough that he failed to catch the other vampire before he disappeared into the mists. “Mace! Get your arse back here! We had a deal.”
A strained curse answered him, followed by a faint call. “Follow the map. You’re the only one I trust. You can thank me later.”
Later? Slipping into the misty night himself, Stefan’s stomach cramped. If he lived through the next few days, he wouldn’t thank Mace. He’d kill him.
The dim lights in the hall of his apartment building were kind to his sensitive eyes, and though Stefan hadn’t believed in God in two centuries, he whispered a quick prayer that he’d find someone out and about this late at night.
No one loitering in the lobby or in the hall outside any of the first story apartments. Too cold of a night to turn tricks outdoors. In a building without reliable heat. Trudging up to the second floor, he was rewarded with angry voices. Two of his neighbors—Traci and James, he thought their names were—arguing in their apartment. If they followed their well-established pattern, James would slap Traci around a little, then go drinking with his buddies.
“You’re a fucking bitch, Trace. Is it really too much to ask for a guy to get a little head once in a while?” The door slammed, and James shouldered past Stefan, shuddering as he brushed against pure evil. Stefan curled his lips in what James probably thought was a smile, but in reality, only served to highlight his sharp teeth. If one looked close enough, that was.
The apartment door swung open, and Traci peered out at Stefan, tears staining her too-thin and rapidly swelling face. “Oh,” she said on a sniffle. “Hi.”
He really needed to stop doing this. Relying on her misery to feed. But he had little choice. Mace was supposed to bring him fresh blood for each demon he captured. He’d glanced into the bag in the forest, and had found only a key and a folded piece of paper inside. Wanker.
“Traci,” Stefan said as he held her gaze. His pupils dilated and he lowered his voice. “You want to invite me in. You don’t want to be alone.”
“C-can you come in for a while?” Traci asked. “I don’t want to be alone.”
“Of course, darling.” With his hand at her back, he ushered her back into the apartment and shut the door. The stench of burned meat made his nose wrinkle and his stomach turn. Plates sat on the table untouched, some sort of cheese sauce congealing on pasta with what looked to be pieces of shoe leather next to them. “Are you all right?”
Another sniffle, and she swiped at her cheeks. “Fine. He’s an asshole.”
Stefan took her by the shoulders and eased her down to the tiny, threadbare couch. “Yes, he is.” Extending his control over the little waif was so simple he almost regretted doing it. “Close your eyes.”
She complied immediately, settling back on the sofa as he tilted her head to the side. “This will not hurt.”
“Okay,” she breathed.
His fangs pierced the tender skin of her neck, and her hot blood flowed over his tongue. The constant low-level buzz she kept going with cheap whiskey soured her flavor, but beggars couldn’t be…well, discerning. He took as much as he could without damaging her, sealed the wounds, and then licked his lips before drawing back and clearing his throat.
“Traci, darling. Listen to me very carefully.” Stefan stood over her, close enough to maintain control, but as far from the probably-flea-infested couch as he could. “You will need to rest for an hour. After that, you will pack a bag and go to the bus station. Buy a ticket back to Minneapolis and move in with your parents. You will finish college and get sober. Do you understand?”
“Good girl. Oh, and one more thing. You will never let James hurt you again. If he calls you, tell him to leave you alone. If he doesn’t, you call me.”
“Okay.” Her responses were so automatic, so monotone, Stefan almost cringed. He hated compelling humans. Their emotions seeped into his soul, and right now, Traci’s sadness and desperation were oily slicks on his tongue—or perhaps that was just the not-quite-fresh tang of her blood.
On her counter, he found a dog-eared notepad, scribbled his phone number on it, and then tore the number from the book. “This is my mobile. If James ever bothers you again, call that number.”
“Call. Okay.” She sighed, and then her breathing evened out as she fell asleep.
When Stefan reached her door, he glanced back at the young woman, the red swelling under her right eye turning slightly purple. “Goodbye, Traci. Thank you for the snack.”
Stefan sank down onto his leather sofa. Unlike Traci’s apartment with its peeling paint and stained carpet, his bore little resemblance to the rest of the building. He’d reinforced the walls not long after moving in, and his door could weather a battering ram attack. Not a single soul had ever been inside his sanctuary.
Sated, though Traci’s blood left him with a sour stomach, he loosened the ties on the velvet bag and let the key fall into his hand. What the fuck was he supposed to do with this?
The hand-drawn map held little interest, save for its age and the odd heft to it. The paper crinkled, and one edge felt heavier than the rest. Spreading the parchment out on his glossy black coffee table, he turned the thing in all directions. Something vaguely familiar about the terrain tickled the back of his mind, but at no more than six inches square, he didn’t have a lot of detail to go on.
Water on one side—a lake or an ocean, perhaps—a river on the other. Mountains all around. Some high, some closer to rolling hills, if his topography skills were up to date. And X marking the spot? Mace had to be fucking with him. The brass key bore similar signs of age. Scraping his fingernail over the green and brown tarnish, he found a hint of the key’s original color.
Stefan dug his phone out of his jacket pocket and punched in Mace’s number. “You want to tell me what I’m looking at?”
“I’m not Sherlock Bloody Holmes, mate. Give me a little something more than that.” Stefan tossed the key next to the map and went to his mini-fridge for a beer. His body wouldn’t process the calories in the beverage, but the alcohol would give him a slight buzz for an hour, and he needed the kick.
“If I knew, I’d share.” Over the line, a grunt echoed. The demon Stefan had turned over. “Do us both a favor,” Mace said, his voice directed at the demon, “don’t fight the process. Once you’re chipped and tranqued, we’ll send you to orientation. You can have a rich, full life—as long as you stop killing people.”
Something that sounded vaguely like “Fuck you” made Mace laugh, and then he was back on the line with Stefan. “Found that pouch when I took down a trafficker outside of Malta last week.The asswipe was selling human girls into the sex trade. We busted up his business, killed half of his men. But one of them grabbed that pouch out of a safe and ran. When we caught him, he was trying to burn the contents.”
“So? This is probably the location of some fucking weapons cache or a couple of kilos of heroin. Not my problem.”
“He was vampire.”
Stefan almost choked on his beer. Vampires were deathly afraid of flame. Stakes to the heart, beheading, silver bullets, sunlight, and fire. Those were the only tried and true ways to kill one of his people. Well, one of his sire’s people. Stefan carried demon blood, courtesy of a father he’d never known, so he could withstand flames—even sunlight for a very short time. Both still hurt like hell—which was why Lucifer had insisted on chaining him to a dais surrounded by fire for a century.
“We only caught him because the idiot’s hands were shaking too much to light the match. Then he begged us to kill him because once his boss found out he hadn’t destroyed the ‘evidence,’ he’d be dead.”
“And is he?”
“Yup. But not by us.” A door slammed, and Mace sighed. “Long, fucking night.” A crack and hiss marked a can opening. “We found the vampire eviscerated in the exercise yard two nights later.”
Stefan narrowed his eyes at the map. “Why not investigate yourself? You hate my methods.”
“Bostanovich said no.” Weariness crept into Mace’s tone. “I’ve been working on him for weeks, but he won’t budge.”
“Don’t ask. Just…figure out if there’s anything to this. And be careful. Something about that key… It feels…wrong.” Mace ended the call before Stefan could say another word. The secrecy piqued Stefan’s curiosity, and with another healthy swig of beer, he booted up his laptop. Might as well spend the hours until daylight trying to find out where the hell the map led.