"Thanks," I said and meant it.

"No problem. This is kind of fun for me - I'm so freaking bored. If magic hits, we'll skedaddle down to the vault, and if the reeves show while the tech is up, I'll use their heads for target practice."

The door burst open. Julie ran headfirst into Derek and flailed in his hands. He grabbed her and lifted her off the ground. "What? Speak!"

She strained and spat a single word. "Vampire!"

IT WAITED FOR ME UPSTAIRS ON MY DESK, A HAIRLESS, emaciated nightmare, wrapped in steel-wire muscle and hidden in human skin. It was nude, ugly, and had been dead for three or four decades. Someone had smeared copious amounts of purple sunblock over its hide. For some reason the sunblock didn't disappear but dried into paste, as if the creature had popped a giant bubble of grape gum onto himself.

"You've got to be kidding me."

The vampire unhinged its mouth and Ghastek's voice issued forth. "A pleasure to see you, as always."

It would have to be Ghastek. I wondered if Nataraja, the leader of the People's establishment in the city, had specifically assigned him to interact with me or if Ghastek took that dreadful task upon himself.

Andrea stepped into the office. And suddenly she had two guns and they were pointing at the vamp's face.

"Lovely firearms," Ghastek said.

"SIG-Sauer P226," Andrea said. "Move and you'll go blind."

"Do you really think you could beat vampiric reflexes?" Ghastek's tone was light. He wasn't challenging her, he was merely curious.

A small smile bent Andrea's lips. "Do you really want to find out?"

I shook my head. "She can blow his head off before you finish a twitch. Trust me, I measure speed for a living."

I made a mental note to never fight fair with Andrea. That was a hell of a draw. I was fast but not fast enough to beat her guns and my saber took a lot longer to come out of its sheath than a gun did coming out of a holster. "Fortunately for all of us, we don't have to fight." I smiled at Andrea.

Andrea nodded and guns vanished. "I'll be down the hall."

"Thank you."

She stepped out. I sat in my chair. "Off my table."

The vampire remained where it was.

"Ghastek, either you move him or I will. I don't have to put up with rudeness in my own office."

The undead slinked off the table. "That was not meant as an insult."

"Good, then I won't take it as such. Now, what is it you want?"

"How do you feel? Any broken bones? Open wounds?"

"No. Why this sudden concern for my well-being?"

"No episodes of dizziness? What about a slight prickling in the chest and along the neck? Feels a little like the rush of blood into a limb after it has fallen asleep, except the process occurs from the inside."

I crossed my arms. "Is there a particular reason why you're describing the initial stages of colonization by Immortuus pathogen to me?"

The vampire crept closer. "There can only be one reason."

"I'm not turning into a vampire, Ghastek." It was physically impossible. My blood chomped the vampirism bacterium for breakfast and then asked for seconds. No vampirism for me. No shapeshifting, either.

The vampire took another careful step to me. "May I see your irises, please."

"I'm telling you, I'm not infected. I wasn't bitten."

"Indulge me."

I leaned forward. The vampire reared from all fours and lifted its face to mine. We stared at each other, the corpse and I, with only inches of space between us. Almost touching. I looked into the vampire's eyes, once blue, and now red from the capillaries expanded by the flow of blood brimming with vampiric pathogen. Within their depths lay hunger, a terrible, all-consuming hunger that could never be doused. If Ghastek's control slipped just a hair, the abomination would rip into me, clawing at my flesh in search of hot blood.

At least it would try. And then I would kill it. I'd crush its disgusting mind like a gnat. It would feel good. It would make my day.

I would've liked to kill them all. I would've liked to go up the People's food chain until I reached Roland, their legendary leader. There were things I needed to discuss with him. But our conversation would have to wait until my power grew, because right now he could wipe me off the face of the Earth with a twitch of his eyebrow.

The vampire dropped to the floor.



"You sound disappointed. Does the idea of navigating me after my undeath appeal to you?"

The vampire's face twitched, trying to imitate Ghastek wincing somewhere in an armored room within the Casino's depths. "Kate, that was in poor taste. Although you would make a magnificent specimen. You're in excellent physical shape and well proportioned. I just looked through the stack of applications this morning and half of the candidates are malnourished, while the other half have wrong proportions."

Ghastek in all his glory. Clinical "R" Us.

I sighed. Was there any remote chance that he would get to the point of his visit this morning? Time was a-wasting and I needed to leave to look for Julie's mother. "My schedule is a bit cluttered this morning. I would appreciate it if we could get down to business."

"Our patrol sighted an unusual undead last night," Ghastek said. "Prehensile hair, claws, very interesting power signature."

Claws, huh. I replayed the fight in my mind. The claws only came out when the reeve was closing in for a kill. Two reeves had attacked my apartment within minutes of each other, but the third didn't show up until much later. It was delayed. I took a stab in the dark. "So how quickly did this weird undead dispose of your patrol?"

If Ghastek was surprised, he didn't show it. "Under ten seconds."

"That's a bit sad, don't you think?"

"It was a young vampire. We just got him."

Excuses, excuses. "I fail to see how it concerns me."

"We traced the power signature to your apartment. Which is in a state of advanced disrepair, from what could be seen through the window. Although it does appear to have a new door. I take it the old one was destroyed?"

"In a very dramatic way."

The vampire paused. Here we go.

"The People would like to obtain this specimen."

Knock yourself out. Ghastek was arguably the best Master of the Dead in the city. He had the best journeymen and the best vampires. The look on Ghastek's face, once he wasted several of those prized bloodsuckers trying to capture a reeve only to have it turn into sludge, would be priceless.

Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires
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