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Bitten to Death
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The Raptor is trying to take over Vayl’s former Trust. Unfortunately the Trust’s new leader has her own plans.
This job is going to be the death of me.
Copyright © 2008 by Jennifer Rardin
Excerpt from One More Bite copyright © 2009 by Jennifer Rardin
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: August 2008
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
BY JENNIFER RARDIN
Once Bitten, Twice Shy
Another One Bites the Dust
Biting the Bullet
Bitten to Death
One More Bite
I stood in the moonlit courtyard of a Greek villa so old and enormous it would've made me feel like Hera herself if I hadn't been so pissed. I'd just pulled Grief, the Walther PPK that Bergman, my tech guru, had modified for me. So I had no problem keeping a steady bead on my target. Since he was a vampire, I'd pressed the magic button, transforming Grief into a crossbow. Which my mark was taking pretty seriously. The only reason he was still pretending to breathe.
Beside me, my boss played his part to perfection. He'd already made the leap from faked surprise that I'd drawn on one of our hosts, to faux acceptance that I'd once again dropped him into a socially precarious situation. Maybe Vayl slipped into the role so smoothly because he was used to it. I did tend to make his existence . . . interesting.
He turned his head slightly, his short dark curls indifferent to the late-April breeze coming off the mountain at our backs. Managing to keep an eye on my target, as well as whatever vamps might come pouring out of the sprawling sand-colored mansion to check on him, Vayl said, "Are you sure you recognize this fellow?"
"He's the one," I hissed. "I just saw the report on him last week. Name is Alan Binns. He's wanted for murder in three countries. His specialty is families. The pictures were—" Gruesome, I thought, but I choked on the word. The twitch of Vayl's left eyebrow told me I was on a roll. Thing was, at the moment, I didn't give two craps about our little game.
The Vampere world might be all about superiority, which was why we'd needed to make a power play the minute we crossed their threshold. But I'd have popped this bastard just to erase another monster from our hit list. In fact, that we should personally benefit from his takeout made me feel almost dirty. I know, I know. As assistant to the CIA's top assassin, I shouldn't make moral judgments. But that had never stopped me before.
"You can't prove anything," snarled Binns, whose dirt-brown, shoulder-length hair did nothing to disguise his bulging forehead.
"I don't have to, you idiot!" I snapped, wishing I could break my rage over his head like a vase full of cobras. "You others have so few legal rights they could fit on the back of my passport photo. That leaves me free to smoke you if I feel you're a clear and present danger to society. Which you are."
"What is the meaning of this? What are you strangers doing in my courtyard at ten o'clock in the evening!" demanded the woman who steamed out one of the villa's blue-framed back doors, all four of which were flanked by solar lamps made to resemble antique streetlights. The elongated sleeves of her black chiffon gown batted the air behind her, making her resemble an enraged homecoming queen candidate—one whose friends had voted for the other, uglier girl. Though her mega-gelled version of beauty could have landed her a closetful of pageant tiaras, her psychic scent hit me between the eyes so hard I felt like I'd been drop-kicked into a garbage dump. What the hell kind of vamp was she?
Vayl turned to intercept her, placing the tiger-carved cane he always carried firmly on the gray pavers between them. She stopped three feet from it, rearing back like she'd hit an invisible wall. Her eyes, the liquid brown of stale coffee, widened as a how-dare-you look tried to settle on her face. It faded almost immediately, as if she'd undergone a recent Botox treatment and couldn't sustain any expression that might leave evidence of emotion.
I struggled not to stare. My job did require some concentration, after all. But her scent, combined with the eye-strafing she gave Vayl, tempted the busybody in me. I forced my gaze back to Binns. He'd taken half a step forward. I smiled at him. Come on, asshole. Make it easy. He stopped.
"What are you doing here?" the woman snarled.
For a second I thought Vayl was going to freeze her like an MRE, his powers spiked so suddenly. Then he said, "I heard you were dead."
Out the corner of my eye I saw her throw her head sideways, as if to dodge a bitter memory. "Hardly," she replied, her voice higher and tighter than before. "Hamon and I might have had a slight . . . disagreement. But that was settled years ago."
"Where is your Deyrar?" Vayl asked.
I searched my mental dictionary, my limited Vampere vocabulary coming up with one of its few complete definitions. The Deyrar was the supreme leader of a secretive vampire community called a Trust. He was like a king, only less prone to gout and gambling addiction.
She drew herself up to her full height, maybe five-foot-one, and said, "I am the Deyrar."
Vayl and I don't have a psychic link. But we're close enough to say a ton with one stricken look.
Are we screwed? I asked him with puckered eyebrows.
A valid question, Jasmine, his narrowed gaze replied. Obviously she was not expecting us. Which means she knows nothing about the deal.
Our agreement had been with Hamon Eryx, the (deposed?) leader of the vampires who packed the mansion before us. Together they formed one of a network of worldwide Trusts. Vayl himself had lived with this particular group nearly a century ago.
We'd been asked to come to Patras by Eryx himself, a canny old sleaze who'd promised us safe passage in return for a shot at Edward Samos, aka the Raptor. Samos had either attempted or committed enough acts of terrorism in the past few years to raise him to the top of our department's hit list. He'd also written to Eryx offering an alliance. Eryx wasn't interested, but because he knew everyone who refused Samos's advances ended up dead, he'd asked Vayl to intervene.
Now the Deyrar had been replaced, which meant our whole mission could be junk before it even came out of the box. Plus, we were standing in the middle of a well-established Trust. Any minute now we could be surrounded by fifteen to twenty vamps and their human guardians, who'd be psyched to have an excuse to disembowel us. Those goofy Vampere. Anything for a giggle.
As if he'd read my mind, a Mr. Universe candidate burst out the same back door the Deyrar had just exited. His appearance made me seriously consider smoking my target just so I could stand and stare. He went shirtless, though Grecian springs are cool and the temperature currently hovered around sixty degrees. From the look of that sculpted bod I estimated his workout took a three-hour chunk out of his daily schedule. It wouldn't have made a difference if he was a vamp. But he was all man. The kind photographers feature on the covers of books with titles like Forbidden Folly and Wesley's Wench.
"Disa, the party's ready to start," he said eagerly. He looked at Vayl, starting slightly, as if he'd only just seen him. "Who're you?" he demanded.
"I am Vayl. And this is Lucille Robinson."
"My mother's name was Lucille," said Binns.
"Shut up," I said.
"Did you know I killed her?" he sneered. "I kill everybody I meet named Lucille, Lucille. Lucy Lucillia Robin—"
"Shut the fuck up before I cut out your tongue!" I snarled.
His teeth clicked shut.
I blew my breath out through my nose, trying to keep anger from shredding my better sense. Because I knew what he was trying to pull.
Vayl had explained that in the Vampere world, knowing someone's name could give you power over them. Which was why Hamon Eryx had insisted on trading birth certificates. Vayl had, in turn, demanded that Eryx keep my personal info secure. Meaning everyone else in the Trust should get my favorite fake ID. I sure as hell would've picked another if I'd known it was going to set Binns off. Not because it disturbed me. But because I didn't want to kill him out of anger. So unprofessional.
Cover Boy, noting Disa's displeasure at my foul mouth, asked, "Do you want me to kill them?"
I tried not to gape. After all, I was holding a loaded weapon. Could he be that dumb?
"No, Tarasios," Disa said tiredly. "Get the rest of the Trust." As he bobbed his head and went back inside, she turned her glare to me. "So you are Vayl's . . ." She raised an eyebrow, gave me that look. The one that said, Hey, even vamps who're trying to blend gotta get their blood from somewhere. So what about it? Are you Vayl's very own, personal Slurpee?
I gave her empty eyes as I said, "I'm his assistant," then zoomed back in on Binns. He was beginning to relax. Starting to believe his Deyrar would tow him out of this jam. His gaze dropped to his front pocket just before his right hand tried to follow suit. So I shot him.
He staggered. Stared down at the bolt sticking out of his left shoulder. Looked up at me in shock. "Why did you do that?"
"Hair trigger," I said. Maybe not, though. He liked to torture his victims before he killed them, half of whom had been under the age of twelve. And the more I obsessed about his MO, the less control my brain seemed to exercise over my hand. "I suggest you stand very still now. Wouldn't want you to have a nasty accident before I settle on your future plans." In the deep silence that followed, all I could hear was the whir of well-oiled machinery as Grief automatically loaded another bolt into my crossbow.
I glanced at Disa just in time to see her eyes go through major changes, moving from brown to black, red to orange and bright yellow before fading back to brown. It happened so quickly it felt like watching a retro rock video in fast-forward. Psychedelic, man. And kinda nauseating. The only other vampire I knew whose eyes transformed with his emotions was Vayl. Did that mean the entire Trust had the ability? Or had he and Disa—naw, don't be silly, Jaz. You're just being suspicious because . . .
Well, because on our last mission Vayl had nearly gone off the deep end. Had almost trashed whatever future we might hope for by taking the blood of an Iranian Seer named Zarsa. We'd survived that seismic shift. That didn't mean another wouldn't destroy us.
"How dare you attack my knaer?" Disa demanded.
Why can't we all speak English today? Seriously, I'm going to have to get Bergman started on some kind of universal translator. Now, what did Vayl say a knaer was? Some kind of jelly roll? No, dipshit, that's what you ate for breakfast. This has something to do with Trust hierarchy. That's right, power-wise, the knaer operate at about twenty-five watts. Only the humans put out less heat than them. I'd picked the right vamp to harass.
I gave Disa my most intimidating stare. "Alan Binns is an enemy of the people I'm sworn to protect," I said. "And you're harboring him. Makes me wonder what other filthy secrets you're hiding."
She swung her head around, probably searching for something to throw. Luckily they hadn't left much in the way of portable Jaz trashers in the backyard. I watched her fists clench and hoped the next phase would involve stomping and screaming. My entertainment quota for the month had already fallen way below par.
Unfortunately, before Disa could wind it up a notch, her vamps and their human guardians came pouring through the villa's back doors, exclaiming angrily when they saw their wounded bud and pinning me with hostile glares when they realized I'd done the deed. Again the balance had shifted. I glanced at Vayl. He gave me a nod and the slight lift of his lips that passed for a smile. Warped souls that we are, we kinda love it when our odds dip. Because that's when the real fun begins.
When Vayl gathers his powers it feels like I'm standing next to a glacial whirlpool. But it doesn't hurt. As a Sensitive I'm mostly immune to vamp abilities. One of the perks of cheating death—twice. Plus, I was wearing my black leather jacket over matching jeans and boots with my fave new shirt—a bright yellow tee with an artsy black graphic that reminded me of battling minotaurs—so my shiver rose out of anticipation more than cold. Yup, definitely time for something big.
Since my health might depend on it, I cemented the scene in my mind. Mount Panachaikon loomed like a giant ogre over the groves of olive trees and gnarled lines of grapevines that dotted the surrounding acreage. Growing like a melanoma from its big toe was the seventeenth-century building housing Vayl's former Trust. Only Cole, my wannabe beau and sometime shooting partner, could've described the villa correctly. He'd have taken one look at its massive block-on-block-on-block design with multiple outer staircases, random balconies, and tiny shuttered windows and said, "This is definitely a LEGO house. The haunted kind. Are they building another amusement park here?"
The mansion's stone-walled front entrance discouraged visitors. Its path led, not to the lane where we'd parked our green metallic Range Rover, but northeast down a steep hill to a warehouse-sized building surrounded by weeds. So we'd come around back, through the double-doored gate to our right, which still stood wide open. Vayl had expected Eryx to open the way for us, but now the walk-in kinda made you wonder about their security.
Behind us a long mosaic-topped table surrounded by teak chairs ran the length of a jasmine-covered pergola that had been built off a three-car garage. Its quaint wooden door was also framed by vines. To our left someone had arranged another seating area, almost restaurant-like in its scattering of round metal tables and director chairs. Large planters filled with miniature orange trees softened the stone wall that formed the perimeter of that section of courtyard.
Between us and the villa, the Trust members formed a united front. At first glance anyway. Six vamps and five humans, all dressed in special-occasion duds, ranged themselves in a rough semicircle around Disa except for two human guards, who stood like giant totem poles behind her.
The vamps' combined powers, as intense and unpredictable as a lightning storm, practically made the air crackle. Vayl had warned me about this, but words fell way short of the reality. Facing them felt like opening up the door of an air-conditioned SUV and stepping into the heat of the Sahara. My cheeks burned as I experienced the force of a unified Trust, something Vayl had said even he might have difficulty resisting. Especially if we had to stay any length of time. We were going to have to watch each other's backs every second on this one.
And damned if a couple of vamps didn't try to move behind us just as the thought crossed my mind. But a jolt of Vayl's arctic strength stepped them back. That and his pronouncement, delivered in his clear baritone. "We come at the invitation of Hamon Eryx. He signed a blood oath guaranteeing us safe passage in return for a boon to the Trust. Do you honor your Deyrar?"
"I am the Deyrar!" Disa screeched.
"So the Vitem has decreed," said a busty, tavern-wench type as she laid her hand on Disa's shoulder.
Vayl had either sketched or found pictures of the major players still likely to be, as he put it, "walking in the Trust." I recognized this one as Sibley. A member of Eryx's Vitem, which my boss had compared to the president's cabinet, she'd been his most conservative adviser. Now her role seemed to have morphed to ass kisser and morale booster. But she didn't seem comfortable in it. As soon as she touched her leader, Sibley yanked her hand back and brushed it down the skirt of her long red dress. In that moment I saw a whole lot of white in her eyes.
Since she stood closest to Disa, I'd tagged Sibley as the most powerful member of her Vitem. Otherwise I'd have assumed that honor went to the dude standing next to her. His silver hair, pulled back in a tight ponytail, accentuated his smooth, fine-boned face. I guessed an age, added twenty years for the hair, and decided he'd been turned sometime after his fiftieth birthday. Given his maturity and office, he could've puffed and strutted like an elder statesman. But the way his eyes darted around the scene reminded me of a chipmunk ready to jump for cover the second he spied an owl. This guy's gotta be Marcon.
It was easy to pick out the other Vitem members from the fact that they lined up on the other side of Disa, each with his own set of groupies. The vamp directly to her left kept glancing at her and nodding whether she had anything to say or not. I figured he had his head so far up her ass he should probably learn sign language. But then, Vayl had already given me the lowdown on his old nemesis, Genti. To give the toady credit, at least he was a simple soul. All he wanted from life was the quickest route to Easy Street.
He and his crew looked to have raided Bob's Costume Supply before rushing out to confront us. Genti wore a furred, feathered top hat and a purple velvet smoking jacket over leopard-print pants. The other male vamp was dressed like the gunner for a WWII bombing crew, while the female seemed to be impersonating a homeless woman. Since I didn't recognize either of them, I decided they must have arrived after Vayl left the Trust. Their human guardian, while beautiful in a Californian blonde sort of way, wore her hair in dreadlocks. Ick.
The last Vitem member caught my interest because, of the entire group, he seemed the least scared. And he was the first vamp I'd met since Vayl who didn't smell of the grave. I'd begun to believe this meant something significant for their souls. It was just a theory, though. And really, who knew?
Vayl's psychic scent reminded me of a walk through a pine forest. This guy I'd put more in the area of . . . freshly picked grapes. I studied him as closely as I dared, considering I was still covering a wanted felon. Though his hair hung longer, straighter, and redder than mine, it somehow accentuated the masculine planes of his face and the iron gray of his eyes. A sleek blue-silver pinstripe suit complemented his slender build and his height, which equaled Vayl's.
So this must be Niall, I thought. Though Vayl hadn't said so, I'd gotten the feeling he and Niall had been friends before the break. Niall's partner, a Greek stud named Admes, was a fierce warrior, according to Vayl, and absolutely loyal to Niall. A human in his mid-forties rounded out their group, his quiet, alert demeanor telling me if I ever wanted to get to the vamps, I'd have to mow through him first.
"The Trust has always respected the wishes of its Deyrar, both past and present," said Niall, whose accent put his birthplace somewhere in the vicinity of Dublin. It made me wonder how a son of Eire had wandered so far. Or if he'd been exiled from his homeland just as Vayl had been over two hundred years ago. "What was the boon Hamon asked of you?"
"What does it matter?" shouted Genti. "Vayl turned his back on the Trust. He deserves nothing from us!"
Vayl had told me Genti's roots lay just north of Greece, in Albania, though he looked like a native with his coal-black hair and dirt-brown eyes, which were starting to cross with rage. I couldn't decide if he and his group were genuinely pissed at Vayl for leaving, or if they despised him for returning. Only the human's message was clear. And the come-get-me look she sent Vayl made me want to grind her face into the ground.
Niall gave the Albanian a slap on the shoulder that seemed friendly. It made him wince. "Honestly, G-boy, do you ever stop shouting long enough to hear what's actually being said to you?" he asked. "Because it sounded to me as if Hamon was after something from Vayl."
"My name is Genti Luan, you Irish hound, and if you do not say it with the respect it deserves, so help me I will pin you to a cross and watch you sizzle!" As soon as Genti revealed his whole name, Niall darted his eyes at me, his lips quirking. Hmm, interesting. In this place, where knowing someone's full name gave you real leverage, Niall had just handed me a weapon.
"You will have to excuse Genti, here, Ms. Robinson," said Niall. "He was born without the ability to carry on a civil conversation."
Genti stuck his chest out so far he looked like he'd just snapped himself into a pair of child's pants. "While you obviously believe the Trust has nothing to lose from Vayl's reappearance, I beg to differ. To allow strangers here, ever, is risky. But now? I say it is insane!"
Was he talking about Samos? Or something even more sinister? Before I could decide, a blur of movement demanded my full attention. Binns, sensing major distraction, had decided to jump me. Ignorant creature. Did he really think I'd panic when I saw him coming at me a million miles an hour, sure death in his blood-filled eyes? Naw. I just channeled that jolt of attack-inspired adrenaline into my arms, raised my crossbow the necessary three inches as he leaped at me, and shot him.
His jaw gaped in utter disbelief as the finely polished maple pierced his heart. And then he faded. Wafted into the night while his clothes and the last bits of his material remains dropped to the stone at my feet, some of it scattering on the toes of my boots when I didn't step away in time. I resisted brushing them against the backs of my jeans and dropped my arms with relief as Grief rolled another bolt into the chamber.
"You killed him!" cried Genti's Bomber boy. Though he'd probably been smoking stogies before my Gramps Lew learned to crawl, he looked young enough to be rapping his pencil against his desk as his driver's ed teacher walked the class through the dos and don'ts of lane changing. I learned later his name was Rastus and he'd only joined the Trust six months before. He slapped the back of his black-nailed hand against Genti's lace-covered chest. "I say we tear her limbs off and beat her to death with them!"
Before I could blink, Vayl had unsheathed the sword that rode inside his cane, closed the gap between himself and Rastus, and rammed it straight into his throat.
I laughed. Yeah, I know, wrong reaction. What can I say, my timing sucks. In my defense? Gaping vamps look hilarious. Like big, stupid bats with great tailors.
"So," I said, turning to the group at large. "Where were we? Oh yeah, I believe someone was discussing the merits of beating me to death with my own severed limbs." Stab of fear on my part—typical delayed reaction. Ignore it, Jaz. If these predators smell weakness, you can kiss your ass goodbye.
I shook my head and forefinger at the same time. "Not a wise choice, as you see. Vayl can go left or right with that sword, but if we find we can work together, I'm sure he'll be willing to yank it straight out. Plus, where's the fun in dismemberment? I'd definitely bleed out before any of you got off on it."
"In addition," Niall said, "Rastus has not walked in the Trust long enough to have earned a voice."
Hmm, should I point out the irony of that comment, or does everyone already get it? Deciding I'd better make my point before somebody with an actual vote suggested an even grislier end to me, I said, "Edward Samos wants an alliance with you." I maintained eye contact with Niall and Disa. Niall, because I sensed in him a potential ally. And Disa because she clearly had the final word. "Eryx knew that really meant Samos wanted to absorb you. Eat your autonomy and then flush it for all time. He also knew if you refused Samos's offer he'd destroy your leadership and replace it with his own." I paused. Let them wonder . . . had it already happened? Admes and the female vamp in Genti's crew both sent curious looks in Disa's direction. "So Eryx contacted Vayl," I finished.
"And who are you to speak within these walls?" demanded Genti.
"She is my avhar," said Vayl.
He'd prepared me for the Big Announcement. I guess vamps have problems hooking up at the sverhamin level, so the reaction to those who do is usually pretty red-carpet. Ironic that we'd be viewed as celebrities among Vayl's peers, creatures who called their own communities Trusts but rarely pulled off the avhar/sverhamin connection.
Not that I was completely at ease in the relationship. I still hadn't read all the subparagraphs relating to late-night talks and who-gets-the-last-cookie moments. But I was sure as hell happier than Disa, who looked like she'd just bitten into a rotten tomato.
The other vamps reacted more like I'd expected. Niall came forward to congratulate us. Sibley's jaw gaped even wider than her neckline. Admes stared at Vayl as if he'd never seen him before. Marcon bowed his head respectfully and said, "I believe you can release Rastus now." As if Vayl had him in a headlock. And the scariest thing? I could quickly get used to the total disregard the Vampere seemed to have for bloodletting. Considering I'd come into this mission thinking they were whacked, what did that say about me?
Vayl yanked out his sword, stepping aside so the spurt of blood missed him and instead sprayed a fanlike arc on the ground. It stopped almost immediately. And not just because Rastus had covered the wound with his hand. He was already healing.
Genti huddled with his crew, making a big show of supporting Rastus with his shoulder, though the vamp could clearly stand on his own. He threw a couple of annoyed looks back at Vayl as my boss turned to Disa, his long leather coat billowing out behind him in a sudden breeze that brought with it the smell of rain.
Despite the fact that he was surrounded, Vayl gave no sense of being intimidated. Part of it was his stance, patient as a hunting panther in his black knit shirt and light gray slacks, his new boots shining like onyx daggers. Part was the way he cleaned his sword on his handkerchief and sheathed it. Deliberate. Dangerous. Death on a short, frayed leash.
He said, "We are willing to continue the contract. If you choose to honor the voice of your former Deyrar, we could even be persuaded to forgive the insult brought upon us by these two." He pointed the reconstructed cane first at Rastus, then at the remains of Alan Binns.
Wow, that takes some nuts. We attack them and then force them to ask our forgiveness. For the most part our hosts seemed to feel the same. But I saw respect on a few faces.
"We can take care of ourselves," snarled the female vamp from Genti's group. I spent some time studying her because, to be honest, I'd never seen a frumpy one before. It was nothing a good bra and some time in front of the makeup mirror wouldn't cure. But her look seemed to be full-immersion.
"You know my name," I reminded her. "What should I call you?" I asked.
"Koren," she said, spitting the word at me like it might land somewhere close to the corner of my mouth and drip off, sending me into dry heaves.
- On Sale
- Aug 12, 2008
- Page Count
- 320 pages