A luxurious green carpet lined the fifteenth floor. The pile was thicker than some mattresses I've seen. Sinking into it, I made my way to the metal door marked 158, pressed the button of the bell, and knocked in case the magic had short-circuited it. Nobody home.

The metal box of an electronic key card reader, about six by three inches, secured the door. Like all things in Champion Heights, the lock was not what it seemed, magic masquerading as tech. Slayer whispered as it left its sheath, and I slid its blade into the narrow slit of the key card reader. Concentrating on the saber, I put my hand onto the blade. A jolt of magic pulsed from my fingers.

Open!

The lock clicked and the heavy door gave under the pressure of my palm. Retrieving Slayer, I stepped inside and locked the door behind me.

Reaching for the feylantern, I turned the round handle and a wide tongue of blue flame flared into existence, illuminating the apartment. I would never make a living as an interior decorator. My home was a comfortable chaos, my furniture mismatched but highly functional. The esthetic properties of any given piece were secondary to its convenience, and luxury for me meant having a small table by my couch to support a reading lamp and a mug of coffee.

Not so here. The moment I stepped into this apartment, it was clear that its owner had crafted his environment with a deliberate goal in mind. I was looking at years of selective purchases made by a person for whom the word "sale" held no meaning. The furnishings, the carpet, the spare decorations - all blended to present a distinctive whole, and looking at it produced the same feeling as viewing the reconstruction of an African savannah in a zoo. It was a harmonious but alien habitat of glass, steel, and white plush, all ellipses and curves. Three doors led from the room, one to the bedroom, another to a bathroom with a double sink and a walk-in shower, and the third to the lab.

The spell-haze did not affect the view from the inside and huge windows offered a vision of midnight Atlanta under the endless black sky. The weak light of the single feylantern caressed the window glass, rendering it invisible, and permeated the darkness outside as if the apartment itself was but a piece of midnight sky, defined by glass and stone but not separated from the world outside. If I stood very close to the window, I could imagine that I was flying high above the city...

As I watched, the tech hit. Thousands of tiny lights sparked into existence, like jewels among the folds of black velvet and the street lamps flooded the avenue below me in man-made sunshine. The feylantern flickered and died, and bright electric lights came on inside the apartment, murdering the illusion and separating me from the infinite blackness. The glass became impenetrable, and I stood confined by it as if locked in the middle of a transparent cage. Suddenly I felt vulnerable so I turned off the lights, all but a single reading lamp of steel and opaque glass.

I washed my face and arms up to my elbow, dried them with a fluffy white towel I found hanging on a hook near the sink, and took up residence on the ultramodern couch. Curran's question nagged me: why would the knight-protector give Greg's investigation to a no-name merc? On the surface, it made no sense. I finally managed to look past my own ego. One of the Order's own was dead, a well-known man of substantial power. They wouldn't handle it themselves. They would bring in a crusader.

The crusaders served as the Order's equivalent of a lancet. Got a nasty boil ready to rupture - throw a crusader at it. Loners, highly skilled and deadly, they were great at what they did and after they did it, they returned to where they came from. Ted expected me to "investigate the crime," meaning he expected me to make lots of noise and draw attention to myself, while the crusader quietly worked under my smoke screen. It chaffed at me for about two seconds, but in the end both parties got what they wanted: Ted got his lightning rod and I got to search for Greg's killer. Everybody won.

I flipped open the Almanac and pulled the m-scan and the folded cutout of the article Bono had given me from between the book's pages. Glancing at the m-scan one last time, I slid it onto the glass table, unfolded the article, and began to read. The owner of the apartment would arrive shortly. He rarely stayed out past two in the morning - he thought 3:00 a.m. to be an unlucky hour.

IT WAS CLOSE TO TWO O'CLOCK WHEN A SINGLE cab made its way up the avenue below me. I raised binoculars to my eyes.

The door of the cab opened and a blonde stepped onto the pavement. She was tall and very slender. The short black dress clung to her narrow hips and long waist, flaring to artfully enclose breasts that looked too large for her body. Her hair, so pale it shimmered white, fell to her shoulders without a trace of a curl.

Her face was perfectly formed, with high prominent cheekbones, aquiline nose, huge eyes, and a full mouth. As she strode to the highrise, her face wore an expression which on someone less attractive would be called a sneer. Elegant, graceful, and arrogant in her beauty, she was like a young Arabian horse, haughty and cruel and an irresistible challenge to any male.

A lone passerby stopped, struck by the sight of her. I thought he whistled but could not tell for sure. The blonde ignored his presence without even trying; for her, he simply did not exist. I put away the binoculars and returned to my Almanac.

Five minutes later the lock clicked and the blonde walked through the door. She saw me and stopped. The sneer vanished. "Oh, good. I have something for you."

Not again.

She went to the kitchen, retrieved several protein cans from a cabinet, and put them onto the bar. A bag of dried apricots joined the cans, together with a bag of sugar, a block of chocolate, and an oversized blender. She took a carton of eggs from the fridge and cracked three into the blender. Two handfuls of apricots followed, with several cups of sugar, the chocolate, and the contents of at least six cans. "Ice water," the blonde murmured, nodding to the drink I had gotten myself. "You could've gotten something from the bar."

"I wanted water," I said.

The blonde smiled, a strange expression on her face, and turned on the blender. The blades spun, converting the contents into a thick uniform paste. She unplugged the blender, detached the top with a practiced twist, and drank straight from it.

"What is it, about two-thirds of a gallon?" I asked.

She stopped drinking for a moment. "Closer to three-quarters, actually."

She finished and unceremoniously pulled her dress over her head. I looked at my book again.

"Are you uncomfortable?" the blonde laughed, stripping her stockings.

"No, just giving you a bit of privacy." And hoping to miss the glorious moment when my stomach would clench and squirt its burning contents into my throat.


Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires
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