alexandra sabian hated cemeteries. during her twenty-plus years as an Enforcer with the Federal Bureau of Preternatural Investigation, she’d been in far too many. Some thought cemeteries were calm and peaceful places, but for her it was like stepping into a waking nightmare.
Blue and white emergency lights strobed across the landscape, casting strange shadows on the ground. The pulsing wash created the illusion of movement in the corners of her eyes, which relentlessly searched for the shadows that moved against the direction of the light.
Crime scenes attracted both the living and the dead, and it was her job to listen to both.
She pulled her shoulder-length auburn hair into a crude ponytail and secured it with a paper hair cap similar to what surgeons would wear in an operating room. She carefully stepped into a disposable Tyvek jumpsuit and slipped paper foot coverings over her boots. Preservation of the scene was vital, especially with outdoor sites. In today’s world of forensic science, a stray hair or fiber could make or break a case, and this was one case she wanted to get right. The protective gear she donned was to prevent cross-contamination and had the added benefits of rendering the wearer androgynous, giving the appearance of multiple Pillsbury Doughboys prowling the scene.
She signed in her name and badge number with the communications officer responsible for keeping track of everyone who entered and left the scene. Steeling herself against what awaited her on the other side of the yellow tape barrier, she ducked under the barricade and picked her way through the headstones, snapping a pair of latex gloves into place as she walked.
“Murder, my ass,” someone said in a raised voice from a group of uniformed officers huddled in the darkness. “Killing vampires should be considered a public service, if you ask me.”
Alex recognized the voice as belonging to Harvey Manser, Nassau County’s duly elected sheriff and all-around jackass. His dislike of vampires, and even more so of her, was well documented, and the feeling was mutual. Tonight, however, she wasn’t in the mood to respond to the obvious bait he provided. She ignored the comment and kept walking.
Even though it’d been forty years since vampires—her people—had revealed themselves to humanity, relations between the two species remained tense. Progress had been made in educating the human population about the difference between real vampires and those portrayed by Hollywood, but some of the old fears remained and combined with the new. She could understand their fear. Suddenly waking up to discover that humanity wasn’t the only intelligent life on the planet must have been quite a shock.
Floodlights illuminated the scene, and she blinked against their glare as she joined the group of similarly attired detectives and officers surrounding a freshly discovered body. Centuries of evolution had made her entire race photophobic—a misnomer because they didn’t actually fear light. Instead, they experienced varying degrees of eye discomfort or pain, depending on the amount of brightness. Like most vampires, she thought wearing sunglasses during the day was a fair trade for the superior night vision she gained. Not that it helped her much under the glare of police spotlights.
“Alex.” A short Doughboy wannabe with a round caramel face broke from the group. “I’m sorry to call you out in the middle of the night like this.”
Alex shrugged, already focusing on the scene before her. “Night. Day. Doesn’t really matter. It’s not like killers punch a time clock, right?”
Lieutenant Tasha Lockwood sighed. “No, I guess not.”
As the liaison officer between the human-operated Jefferson Police and Nassau County Sheriff?’s departments and the FBPI, Tasha had worked closely with Alex for the six years Alex had been living in the tiny southwestern Mississippi town. While neither of them would categorize their relationship as a friendship, they’d built a level of mutual respect and understanding that both found comfortable.
Alex indicated the body with a thrust of her chin. “So, what’ve you got for me?”
“Same scenario as before,” Tasha answered, leading her around the scene’s perimeter. “Caucasian male vampire, nude, no signs of defensive wounds on hands or arms, no blood present at the scene, cross-shaped stake driven through the heart, and—”
“No head,” Alex finished as they stopped beside a tombstone, in front of which the body lay.
The corpse lay on its back with its arms stretched out at shoulder height, feet bound with bright yellow nylon rope, in a classic crucifix position. The ragged neck stump abutted to the sleek black granite tombstone, so it appeared as though the marker itself was the body’s head.
The image of another body, bloodied and lying crumpled beside a gravestone, pushed its way into her consciousness. She closed her eyes and forced the memory to retreat into the darkness of the past once more. Opening her eyes, she looked over the scene and noted the leather pouch draped around the arms of the cross-stake. “Who called it in?”
“Anonymous tip came into the main switchboard at JPD,” Tasha answered. “The nine-one-one system automatically logs the numbers of calls received. Switchboard doesn’t.”
“Photos been taken?”
“Yeah, it’s all yours.”
Alex skirted around the tombstone, careful not to disturb the body’s position, and knelt beside it, inhaling deeply. A vampire’s sense of smell was ten times that of a human, and she found a complex kaleidoscope of scents: the cleanness of pine from the trees hidden in the darkness beyond the floodlights. The earthy smells of a nearby freshly dug grave. The stink of sweat mixed with adrenaline from the humans moving at the periphery of her vision. Leaning close to the corpse, she inhaled again and fought the urge to sneeze. “Body smells of decay and a faint trace of ammonia.”
“Ammonia?” Tasha echoed. “Didn’t you say the same about the other bodies?”
“According to the ME’s report, our killer scrubbed the bodies with an ammonia mixture, presumably to limit the amount of evidence we could gain. It also keeps initial insect activity to a minimum.”
“Crap. Well, that makes our job all the more difficult.”
“Yeah, but it also tells us that our subject has at least a working knowledge of forensics, which is one more reason for us to be careful when handling the scene.” Plucking the leather pouch from the cross-stake, Alex pried the cords open and dumped the contents into her gloved hand. A golden wedding band. A Mississippi driver’s license. Two bloodstained pieces of what appeared to be ivory.
“Are those teeth?” Tasha asked, peering over Alex’s shoulder.
“Fangs,” she said, poking them with her gloved finger. Disgust rose within her. Vampires didn’t grow fangs until puberty, when hormonal changes forced the body to undergo its physical transformation from child to adult, and they were permanent dental fixtures, not the retractable kind favored by film and fiction. Until that time, human and vampire children were virtually indistinguishable. Defanging a vampire was the equivalent of forcibly castrating a human—a brutal practice that was reported all too frequently.
She dropped the fangs back into the leather pouch and examined the ring. It was a plain golden band with no inscription or other identifying marks. She checked the corpse’s left hand and saw a clear delineation in the skin coloration of the third finger that matched the width of the band. “Our victim was married,” she said, and added the ring to the pouch.
“Interesting,” Tasha said. “Our last vic was single.”
Four days prior, Alex and Tasha had worked a similar scene across town. The body of Grant Williams, an employee of Phancy Photos Studio and Video, was discovered in a loading bay at Kellner Hardware. Williams had been positioned in the same manner, and the pouch draped over his cross-stake contained fangs, a blood-smeared photo of the victim and his girlfriend, and his driver’s license. A tattoo on his lower back had helped them confirm his identity.
However, Williams wasn’t the first body. Nine days before, a startled security guard at a rest stop north of town had found the body of an as-yet-unidentified vampire in one of the men’s room stalls.
Alex held the new license in her hand, turning it toward the light. “Eric Stromheimer, age ninety-seven, address is four thirteen Cork Lane.” She glanced at Tasha. “He’s local, just like Williams.”
“You’ll notify the family?”
“I hate this shit.” Alex slipped the driver’s license back into the pouch. Notifying families that a loved one was dead was never easy, and when that loved one had been murdered, it was even worse. She stood and slowly began searching the ground around the body for anything that appeared out of place.
“Evening, ladies,” a young man pulling a gurney said as he approached.
“Hey, Jeff,” Alex replied without glancing up.
“May I be the first to say that the marshmallow-man look is not flattering on either of you?” Jeffery Stringer, assistant medical examiner for Nassau County, announced with a broad grin.
Tasha launched into a lecture about proper conduct at a crime scene, to which Jeff alternately smirked and chuckled, and Alex rolled her eyes. Twenty-three, long-limbed and skinny, and with delusions of being a ladies’ man bouncin...