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Keri Arthur, author of the New York Times bestselling Riley Jenson Guardian series, has written more than two dozen books. She’s received several nominations in the Best Contemporary Paranormal category of the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Awards and recently won RT’s Career Achievement Award for urban fantasy. She lives with her daughter in Melbourne, Australia. --This text refers to the Mass Market Paperback edition.
Being a spook wasn’t at all what Samantha Ryan had expected. Long nights, sleepless days, yes--she’d faced that, and worse, during her ten years as a state police officer. In her time with State, the agents of the Special Investigations Unit had breezed in and out of situations, always on edge, always on the move, always looking like they loved what they were doing. So the sheer and utter boredom that filled ninety percent of her new job with the SIU had come as something of a shock.
She sighed and shifted slightly, trying to find a comfortable position on the icy metal step. Watch the back door, Gabriel had said. Make sure the vamps don’t hit the blood bank from the alley. This despite the fact that, in the five previous robberies, the vampires had always gone in through the front door.
So why the hell would they change a successful MO now?
They wouldn’t. He knew that. She knew that.
She rubbed her eyes wearily. She could hardly argue, though, as he was her senior and in charge of the investigation. And with intel stating that this blood bank would be the next one hit, she couldn’t argue with orders that were little more than covering all the bases.
What the intel wasn’t saying was whether it was actually vampires doing these robberies. Hell, with recent estimates saying that at least thirty percent of newly turned vampires were unable to control their bloodlust, human blood had become a hot commodity. Combine that with the recent spate of deaths brought about through infected blood in all the major hospitals--leading to a proliferation of private blood banks where people could stockpile their own blood--and you had the perfect opportunity for those wanting to make a quick buck.
So here she sat, in the cold night, on a cold step, waiting for robbers who weren’t likely to appear, while her goddamn partner watched the front door from the warmth of the car.
Bitter? Oh yeah.
He was certainly making good on his statement that he would never work with a partner. Whenever possible, he left her in her box of an office doing paperwork, or sent her on inane errands. This was her first “real” duty in the three months since her transfer, and she suspected she was here only because Byrne had given him a direct order to take her.
The wind picked up, running chilly fingers through her hair. She shivered and flicked up the collar on her coat. Overhead, the starlit sky was beginning to cloud over. The rain they’d been predicting for days was finally on the way. She could smell the moisture in the breeze, could feel the tingle of electricity running through the night air, charging her body with an odd sense of power.
Why she could feel these things was another point of concern, though it was one she kept to herself. There were only two people she trusted enough to sit down and talk to, anyway. The first was Finley, who was the head researcher for the SIU. While she didn’t really know him all that well--the only time they’d ever crossed paths was when he was doing either tests or research on her--he probably knew more about her than anyone else alive. Or, at least, knew more about her biology. If anyone had any chance of understanding why these things were happening, it would be him. But Finley was still on leave, recovering from the injuries he’d received in the bomb blast three months ago. The second person was her goddamn partner, and he was harder to nail down than a snowflake in a storm.
And he wasn’t just keeping his distance on a professional level, but on a personal one as well. Given how well they’d gotten on during their investigations of her former partner’s disappearance, she’d thought they could at least be friends. Obviously, she’d been very much mistaken.
God, how bad was it when he wouldn’t even go for a cup of coffee with her?
“Sam, you there?”
His warm voice whispered into her ear, so close she could almost feel the caress of his breath across her cheek. Except that he was tucked nice and warm in the car half a block away.
She was tempted, very tempted, to ignore him. But she’d spent ten long years as a cop doing the right thing, following all the rules--including keeping in constant contact when on watch. Even when her partner was being a bastard and deserved to suffer, it was a hard habit to break.
“What?” But her tone left no doubt of her mood. He’d left her sitting here so long her butt was almost frozen to the step. If he expected civility, he needed a brain transplant.
“Just checking if you’re still awake.”
Yeah, right. Like she was the one sitting in the nice, warm car. “The cold’s doing a fine job of that, thank you very much.”
He paused. “Do you want to swap for a while?”
She raised her eyebrows. Just for an instant, the compassion in his voice reminded her of the man she’d known before she’d become his partner. “You got coffee onboard?”
And he hadn’t offered her any until now? It was lucky he’d equipped the two of them with only stun rifles, because she was very tempted to march right over and shoot him. “Sure you can spare a cup?” she said tightly. “I mean, you oldsters need some sort of stimulant to keep you awake at this hour of the night, don’t you?”
“Do I take that as a yes or a no?” His warm voice held an undertone of annoyance.
But she was way past caring at this particular moment. “That depends.”
“On whether you intend to freeze me out, figuratively or literally.”
He made no immediate reply and she waited, wondering what he’d do now that she’d finally called him out. Down toward the Main Street end of the alley, she heard a soft thump, as if someone had jumped off a rooftop, and a dog yelped somewhere to the left of that--a short, sharp sound that spoke of fear. She frowned and stared into the darkness. The electricity filling the night stirred, running over her skin, standing the small hairs at the back of her neck on end. Heat followed quickly. Then her senses exploded outward, and she was tasting the night.
A kite creature walked toward her.
She jumped and quickly pressed the earphone, cutting him off. He’d once told her the kites hunted by sound and movement. She wasn’t about to chance the creature hearing his voice, no matter how unlikely that might be.
The kite came into view. It almost looked like a large white sheet, except that it had feet and talon-like hands. The creature hesitated as it neared the steps, sniffing the night like a dog. It turned milky-white eyes in her direction. She controlled the urge to reach for the stun rifle and remained still.
After a moment, it lumbered past, moving to the other end of the alley. Avoiding the yellow wash of the streetlight, it slunk around the corner and disappeared. She rose and picked up her rifle before switching the earpiece back on.
“A kite just made an appearance in the alley. I’m about to follow.”
“Negative. You’re not equipped--”
Sam snorted softly. “Neither are you, partner. You continue to keep watch on the blood bank, and I’ll see what the creature is up to.”
“Stun guns won’t--”
“Gabriel, remember imperative one?” The SIU had become aware of the kites only five months ago, but since then, the creatures had reached the top of the SIU’s extermination list. With an edge in her voice that imitated his own, she continued, “Find and stop all kites, regardless of the cost.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to do a suicide run when you’re not properly equipped to deal with them.”
“Please credit me with a little bit of sense. I’m merely going to see what the thing is up to.” She stopped at the end of the alley and carefully peered around the corner. The kite lumbered across the road.
“I’m calling for backup,” he said, his voice terse.
The kite disappeared around the corner of the opposite street. She ran across the road and then edged forward, keeping to the shadows of the three-story apartment building.
“Fine.” It only made sense. “I’ll keep in contact.”
“You’d better,” he growled.
She grinned. She might well pay for it later, but damn, it felt good to annoy him.
She reached the corner, but the kite was nowhere to be seen. Wondering how the creature could have moved so fast, she frowned and glanced up--and found it. The loose skin around its arms flapped lightly as it climbed crablike up the wall.
The wind tugged at her hair, throwing it across her eyes. She brushed it back and listened to the sounds beneath the soft cry of the wind. Two men were talking, their voices harsh and grating. A radio near the top of the building played classic rock. Between the two came the squeak of a bed and a whispered good night. These were all sounds she wouldn’t normally have heard but now did thanks to the odd sense of power flowing through the night.
The creature seemed to be headed for the apartment in which the radio played. She watched it for as long as she dared. When it stopped and pressed a taloned hand against a window, she turned and ran for the building’s front door.
“Gabriel, the kite’s about to break into a top-floor apartment on the corner of Gibb and Macelan streets.”
“Help’s on the way. Stay where you are.”
The words had barely whispered into her ear when she heard the sound of glass shattering. A heartbeat later the screaming began. Sickening visions swam through her mind--bloodied images of the street bum she’d found three months ago, his body a mass of raw, weeping muscle stripped of skin.
She swallowed heavily and pounded up the stairs. “Negative. It’s attacking. I’m in pursuit.”
“Damn it, you’re not equipped to deal--”
“Just get backup here quickly.” She pressed the earphone, cutting him off again. She didn’t need to hear what she could and couldn’t do. Not when a man’s life was at stake.
Two flights . . . three. She leapt over the banister and up the remaining stairs. People milled in their doorways, their eyes wide and fearful. Not one of them appeared willing to investigate what was happening to their neighbor. City living, she thought, sucked. But then, would neighbors in suburban areas be any more willing to risk investigating screams as horrifying as the ones currently shattering the silence? She suspected not.
She slithered to a stop outside the apartment door and glanced back at the pajama-clad crowd. “SIU, folks. Go back inside and lock your doors.”
The crowd melted away. With her laser held at the ready, she stepped back and kicked the door. Wood shuddered, splintering. She booted it a second time and the door flung open, crashing back on its hinges.
The kite was in the middle of the living room, its sheetlike form covering all but the stranger’s slippers. His screams suddenly choked off, and all she heard was an odd sucking noise. Blood seeped past the flaccid, winglike sections of the creature’s arms, forming pools that seemed to glisten black in the darkness.
She raised the stun rifle and fired at the creature. The blue-white energy bit through the darkness, flaring against the kite’s leather-like skin. If it had any effect, she couldn’t see it.
She switched her aim to the creature’s oddly shaped head and fired again. The kite snarled and looked up. It had no mouth, she saw suddenly. It was sucking the stranger’s flesh and blood in through pores on its skin.
She shuddered and fired again, this time at its eyes. The creature snarled again, the sound high-pitched and almost batlike. Then it shook its head and jerked upright. Bloodied strips of half-consumed flesh slid down its body and puddled at its feet. Her stomach churned, but she held her ground and kept on firing at the creature’s eyes. It obviously wasn’t stunning the kite, but it was doing something, because the kite’s movements were becoming increasingly agitated.
It screamed again, then turned and stumbled toward the window. She edged into the apartment. The kite smacked into the wall, then flung out an arm, feeling for the window frame. It was almost as if it had lost all sonar capabilities. So maybe the weapon had addled its keen senses.
It grasped the window frame, felt for the other side to position itself, then dived through the shattered glass. Sam ran over to the window and leaned out. The kite was floating back to the street, its arms out wide, loose skin stretched taut to catch the light breeze. She pressed the earphone again.
“Gabriel, the kite is now on Macelan Street, heading west.”
“Do not go after it. I repeat, do not go after it. Stay in the apartment.”
Her smile was grim. If the tone of his voice was anything to go by, he was madder than hell. He had a right to be, she supposed, but what else could she have done? Let the kite devour the stranger?
Not that her intervention had saved him. She turned away from the window and dug out the marble-sized crime-scene monitor--the latest gadget from the SIU labs. She hit the activate button, then tossed the CSM into the air. It hovered for several seconds, then the light flickered from red to green, indicating it was now recording. She ordered it to do a sweep of the premises for record purposes. The monitor obeyed, panning around the room, taking in the doorway she’d kicked open, the window and the body. Then it returned, hovering several feet away from her.
“The kite smashed through the living room window and attacked the victim at three fifteen a.m. I--SIU Officer Ryan--intervened and drove the kite back through the window.” She showed the monitor her badge, then walked across the room to squat beside the body. “The victim is male, probably mid-sixties.”
The CSM dropped closer to the body, capturing the bloody details of the murder. What remained of the victim’s flesh hung in strips, almost indistinguishable from the remnants of his red-and-white-striped pajamas. His eyes were wide, his mouth locked into a scream--a look of astonished horror that was now permanently etched into his features.
Why this man? Why not the two men talking in the apartment below, or the woman who’d just joined her partner in bed? She glanced up and studied the room.
The kite had come straight to this apartment, so it had obviously wanted this man specifically. What they now had to find out was why. --This text refers to the Mass Market Paperback edition.