“That’s . . . accurate.”

“They won’t release the remains to us.”

I knew where he was coming from. “Doolittle wants a sample to analyze?”

“Yeah.”

Doolittle was the Pack’s medic and the best medmage I’d ever had the privilege of driving to the brink of near insanity. He was the reason why my friend Derek still had a face. He was also the reason why I was still around at all.

“Jim, Joshua was extremely contagious. Pieces of him fell off, grew pale fuzz, and crawled across the pavement. Biohazard torched him down to his skeleton, which they locked in a hermetically sealed coffin and then cremated. They would’ve dropped a nuke onto the parking lot if they thought they could get away with it.”

“Is there anything left?”

I drew claws on the doodle’s arms. “Unfortunately, no. Georgia Code, Title 38: under Georgia Supernatural Emergency Management Act of 2019, in the event of a clear threat of epidemic, Biohazard has broad emergency powers, which trump everything, including the Pack’s claim on the remains. As far as I know, they didn’t even keep a sample for themselves. It was extremely virulent, Jim. It slithered over salt and fire. If it got out, most of the city would be infected by now.”

The poodle raised his head, a low warning rumble rolling deep in his throat.

I looked at him.

“Visitor,” Maxine’s voice whispered in my head.

“I’ll have to hang up in a minute, so very quickly,” I murmured into the phone. “There were other shapeshifters in the bar. Why did they leave?”

He hesitated.

“Jim. We went through this before: I can’t help you if you don’t level with me.”

“They were driven out. Something that bastard did terrified them out of their minds.”

“Where are they now? I need to interview them.”

“You can’t interview Maria. She’s under sedation.”

“What about the rest?”

There was a tiny pause. “We’re looking for them.”

Oh crap. “How many are missing?”

“Three.”

There were three panicked shapeshifters lost in the city, each a spree killer in waiting. If they went loup, they’d paint the city red. Could this get any worse?

An emaciated shape scuttled into my office with preternatural quickness and perched in my client chair. It might have been a man at some point, but now it was a creature: gaunt, hairless, corded with dried muscle as if someone had stuck it into a dehydrator for a few days and all of the fat and softness had drained from it. The vampire stared at me with glowing eyes and in their red depths I sensed a terrible hunger.

The attack poodle exploded into wild barking.

Why did I even bother asking that question?

“Once again, I’m very sorry. Please pass my condolences to his family,” I said. “If there is anything I can do to help, I’m here.”

“I knew you would be.” Jim hung up.

I hung up and looked at the vampire. Its mouth gaped open and it showed me its fangs: two long curved needles of ivory. Seeing bloodsuckers during daylight wasn’t unheard of, but usually they appeared smeared with sunblock. Considering the dense gray blanket of clouds smothering the skies and weak, late fall sun, they probably didn’t need to bother today.

The vampire spared a single glance for the attack poodle and looked back at me.

I would’ve liked to kill it. I could almost picture my saber slicing into undead flesh right between the sixth and seventh vertebrae of his neck.

I pointed a finger at the attack poodle. “You—quiet.”

“An interesting animal.” Ghastek’s voice spilled from the bloodsucker’s mouth, sounding slightly muffled, as if through a phone.

The vampire repositioned itself in my client chair and crouched like a cat, arms in front.

Of all the Masters of the Dead among the People in Atlanta, Ghastek was the most dangerous, with the exception of his boss, Nataraja. But where Nataraja was cruel and chaotic in his behavior, Ghastek was intelligent and calculating, a far worse combination.

I folded my arms on my chest. “A personal visit. Don’t I feel special.”

“You don’t return your phone calls.” The vampire leaned forward, tapping my doodle with a scimitar claw. “Is that a lion with horns and a pitchfork?”

“Yep.”

“Is he carrying the moon on his pitchfork?”

“No, it’s a pie. What can I do for Atlanta’s premier Master of the Dead?”

The vampire’s features twisted, trying to mirror the emotion on Ghastek’s face. Judging by the result, Ghastek was struggling not to vomit. “Someone attacked the Casino this morning. The People wish to petition the Order to look into it.”

The vampire and I stared at each other. “Can you run that by me again?” I asked.

“Some mentally challenged individual attacked the Casino this morning, causing roughly two hundred thousand dollars’ worth of harm. The bulk of the cost came from four vampires he managed to fry. The damage to the building is mostly cosmetic.”

“I meant the part where the People petition the Order.”

“It was my understanding that the Order extends its protection to all citizens.”

I leaned forward. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t you the same guys who run the other way the moment a badge gets involved?”

The vampire looked insulted. “That’s not true. We always cooperate with law enforcement.”

And pigs gracefully glide through clear sky. “Two weeks ago, a woman robbed a vendor at gun point and fled into the Casino. It took the cops fourteen hours to get her out, because you claimed some sort of sanctuary privilege that was last invoked by the Catholic Church. As far as I know, the Casino doesn’t stand on hallowed ground.”

The vampire looked down on me with an air of haughty disdain. Whatever faults Ghastek had, his control over the undead was superb. “That is a matter of opinion.”

“You don’t cooperate with authorities unless forced, you lawyer up at the first hint of trouble, and you have a stable of undead capable of mass murder. You’re the last group I expected to petition the Order for assistance.”

“Life is full of surprises.”

I chewed on that for a minute. “Does Nataraja know you’re here?”

“I’m here on his direct orders.”

Warning bells went off in my head.

Ghastek’s superior, the People’s head honcho in Atlanta, called himself Nataraja after one of Shiva’s reincarnations. There was something odd about Nataraja. His power felt too old for a human and he packed a lot of magic, but I had never actually witnessed him pilot a vampire. About three months ago, I ended up getting involved in an underground martial arts tournament, which resulted in me fighting shapeshifting demons called rakshasas. It also resulted in my owing Curran a naked dinner.


Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires
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