I gritted my teeth. “I’m fine, dammit.” But the crack in my voice gave me away.
“Sure you are,” he said with a knowing look. “Look, I’m not going to push you to spill your guts. Just know if you need to talk, I’m here, okay?”
I didn’t want to talk about it. In fact, I was done talking about anything. Exhaustion clung to me like a parasitic vine. I stifled a yawn.
“You’re beat. Why don’t you crash here? There’s a room behind the office with a futon. It’s not much, but it’s private and safe.”
Leave it to Slade to understand that safety would outweigh comfort. “Thanks, Slade.”
The corner of his mouth lifted. “Hey, what are friends for?” He patted my knee. “C’mon, the sun’s almost up. I’ll help you get settled and then head home.”
I followed him across the office to a bookcase on the far wall. He felt around for a hidden switch. The shelves slid aside smoothly, barely making a sound. Behind them, a steel door was set into the wall. “Nice,” I said.
He shrugged and used a key to open the dead bolt. “I set it up as a panic room years ago. I sleep here when I get word some new blood decides they want to take over my turf.”
“That happen often?”
He shook his head. “Not anymore.”
He motioned for me to go first into the dark room. He flipped a switch and light bathed the small room. He was right. It wasn’t much to write home about. A futon took up most of one wall. A small dorm fridge hummed in the corner. An out-of-date TV was hooked up to an old-school VCR with a few tapes piled next to it on the floor. Another door across the room probably led to a bathroom.
“What changed?” I asked. There was no use commenting on the room, so I focused on what he’d said.
“About twenty years ago, things were different. Turf wars were pretty common. The Hekate Council was worried the tensions would expose us all to humans. So they came to me and struck a deal. I’d get exclusive rights to sell their cash crops with a hefty commission. In return, I agreed to clean things up and keep the vamps and weres in line.” He shrugged. “Every now and then some new blood comes to town and tries to challenge my control, but they usually don’t get too far. I’ve made sure it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep me in charge.”
I looked at Slade with new eyes. Sure, he was no altruist, but his accomplishments were impressive. He’d also managed to escape the Dominae’s hold and build a new life for himself. If staying in New York didn’t mean I’d risk running into mages everywhere I turned, I’d almost consider staying and working for him on a more indefinite basis.
“Anyway, I better head out before the sun rises. My apartment’s a few blocks away.” He grabbed a cell phone from his jacket. “This has my number programmed. Just hit ‘one.’ If you need anything, let me know.”
I took the phone and stuck it in my pocket. “Thanks.”
He looked around as if trying to think if there was anything else I needed to know. “Oh, there’s bagged blood in the fridge. I have Earl restock it regularly, so it’s fresh. Help yourself.”
I grimaced. Bagged blood. Ugh.
“Okay, I’m off. Try to get some sleep, okay?” He put his hand on the side of my face, and his thumb stroked my cheek. I considered being offended by the presumptuous contact, but truth was, it was comforting. After weeks among mages and their f**ked-up customs and rules, being around Slade felt comfortable. Easy. Like putting on a favorite pair of broken-in jeans.
Only Slade stepped closer. The look in his eyes told me his thoughts had taken a less platonic direction. In my exhaustion, my reflexes were muted. He leaned in, and I was still processing the fact he was about to kiss me. But just when it clicked I needed to stop him, he changed path and kissed my cheek. “Good night, Sabina.”
I watched him walk out and shut the door. I heard the bookcases slide back into place. And a few minutes later, I listened to the sounds of him and Earl closing down the bar. Only when I was sure I had the building to myself did I collapse on the futon. I was out a few seconds later.
That day, I dreamed about being burned at the stake. As I screamed in agony, I looked out over the crowd. Maisie was there, sobbing as she clung to Orpheus. Adam and Slade were punching each other while Giguhl cheered them on. And Stryx sat on Lavinia’s arm as she danced around my funeral pyre.
To Slade’s credit, he’d patiently ignored me for an hour before he broke.
“All right, dammit.” He slammed his pen down on his desk. “Stop pacing before you wear a rut in my carpet.”
After being plagued by strange dreams all night only to wake up to a bag of cold blood, I’d woken in a shitty mood. I’d spent an hour in the bar spoiling for a fight before Slade demanded I go to his office.
I stopped and smiled. “You got something for me, after all?”
When I’d asked earlier, he’d said it was too soon. Probably he was right, but I didn’t care. I needed to do something before I went crazy.
“Yes, but don’t get too excited. It’s a small job. There’s a vamp who owes me some back blood taxes. I need you to go convince him bringing his account up to date is in his best interest.”
I’d spent a few years being an enforcer for the Dominae out in L.A. The job involved delivering a bunch of broken noses and shaking down the scum of the earth for overdue tithes. Before I got promoted to full-fledged assassin, I knew every vampire club owner, p**n peddler, and pimp in the City of Angels. So I knew a little something about convincing reluctant debtors to pay up.
“How persuasive do you want me to be?”
“Very. This guy’s a real ass**le. By the time I figured out he was cooking his books, he’d been underpaying for years. And now he’s two weeks late on his payment.”
My hand curled into a fist, itching to be put to use. “I’ll take care of it.”
In addition to his role as professional pimp, Tiny Malone also owned a strip club called The Fang Bang. Located in Alphabet City, the club catered to horny vamps. Upstairs, Tiny rented out rooms to the nymphs he kept on staff for clients who preferred their blow jobs fang-free.
The club consisted of one large cave-like room drenched in red light. On a stage toward the back, a female vampire gyrated her hips in time with “Blood Sugar Sex Magik.” Her tits were real—implants never took in vamps—and covered in silver glitter that matched her G-string. Another chick lay on the bar, dripping blood from a bottle onto her rack. A few horny male vamps watched mesmerized as she licked the blood from her ni**les.