Chasing daybreak, p.17
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       Chasing Daybreak, p.17

           Ranae Glass
 

  Stunned by Heather’s abrupt declaration, I slid into my car, resting my head on the steering wheel as a headache grew behind my eyes. Was she right about the brave Duke? I mean, I didn’t particularly like the idea of my little sister being involved with one of the furry persuasion. Was that speciest of me? Maybe. And besides, who was I to judge? I had a vampire shacking up in my attic after all. I sighed as my purse vibrated a second before busting out with the Buffy tune.

  Grumpy, I flipped open the phone. “What, Shane?”

  “Izzy, I think you need to come home. Now.”

  Behind the tense voice, I could make out sirens. “What? What happened?” I hurriedly slipped the key in the ignition and turned, suddenly impatient for the engine to come roaring to life.

  “We have a problem. The police are here. Just… just get here. Now.” Click.

  “Shane?” I asked into the receiver, but he was gone. I flipped the phone closed and tossed it into the seat next to me, mumbling, “Great.”

  Peeling out of my mom’s driveway I sped home, hoping the police were there to help Shane with whatever had happened and not to carry him off to jail.

  After cursing my way through five red lights and three stop signs, I saw the cruisers’ flashing red and blue lights before I turned onto my street. When I pulled up to the curb in front of my house, the first thing I noticed was the yellow crime scene tape strung across my porch. Second, I noticed Shane and Mercy standing in the side yard, talking to Reggie. Neither vampire was in handcuffs or perma-dead, so that was a relief.

  Shane must have heard my door slam because he said something to Mercy and Reggie and walked toward me. But knowing he was safe, my interest was focused on the black bag lying across my porch.

  “Isabel.” Shane put his arm around my shoulders.

  “What happened?” I nodded toward the porch. “Who’s in the bag?”

  At that moment, Reggie and Mercy joined us. She slid her head under Shane’s other arm in a maneuver that was both possessive and childish. I shook my head and slid out of Shane’s grasp.

  Reggie answered my question. “Shane and Miss Mercy here say they came home from a movie and found the deceased on your porch. He’s been identified as one Billy Young.”

  “Wait. Young, the arsonist?”

  “Looks that way. You tell anyone else that he was bothering you, Isabel?”

  I shook my head, staring at the bag, trying to make sense of the situation. On the one hand, I was weak with relief that it hadn’t been someone I cared about. On the other, I was racking my brain. Who would have done this? “Just Shane,” I replied automatically.

  Reggie nodded. “It looks as if he was killed somewhere else and placed here.”

  “How do you know?” I asked.

  “The body was drained of blood. But there isn’t a drop here.” He motioned toward the ground.

  “So, you’re thinking vampire?” I asked.

  Reggie shrugged. “Maybe, but there were no bite marks. It looks like whoever did the deed slit the bastard’s throat.”

  Shane and I exchanged a glance. It didn’t sound like a vamp kill, but it didn’t exclude them either. A squeal of tires from behind me made me turn. A Channel 7 news van had just showed up to the party. Super.

  Reggie tucked his notebook in his pocket and nodded. “If y’all will excuse me, I need to go deal with this.”

  As soon as he was out of earshot, Shane grabbed me by the elbow and led me off to the side, Mercy still in tow.

  “That isn’t all,” he said in hushed tones. “When we found him, there was a big red bow on his head and a tag stuck to his shirt. Isabel, it had your name on it.”

  “My name? Anything else?”

  He shook his head.

  “We, uh, left the bow, but I took the tag before the cops got here. I was afraid they might think…”

  “That I had something to do with the murder,” I added softly.

  Shane’s heart was in the right place, but if the cops ever found out he’d tampered with the evidence, he and Mercy could both be screwed.

  “Exactly.”

  “What kind of deranged person would put a bow and a tag on a dead body?” I asked out loud. To my surprise, Mercy answered.

  “Someone who was leaving you a gift,” she said in her usual over-the-top accent. With a petulant frown, she added quietly, “She gets the best presents.” Louder, she said, “Oh, Shane, can we go now? All these sirens are giving me a headache.”

  He looked surprised at her request. “Oh, well, I don’t know,” he said gently. “I don’t think Isabel should be alone tonight.”

  Mercy shot me a look so dirty it could have lit me on fire.

  The catty, insecure part of me wanted to play the frightened victim who needed him to stay, but the truth was, I’d have rather eaten glass than admit any weakness in front of that woman. The competitive side won out. What could I say? I sucked at damsel in distress.

  “Nah, I’m fine. Really. I’m just gonna grab a shower and hit the sack,” I lied smoothly, knowing full well I’d never be able to get to sleep after this.

  Shane looked at me like I was full of shit, but he didn’t challenge me. A lingering, vulnerable part of me was disappointed.

  “All right then. Come on, Mercy. Let’s go.”

  It took another hour before I’d answered all the cops’ questions and the coroner had taken the body. Reggie stayed with me and did a walk-through of the house just to make sure no one was inside and nothing had been stolen. Near as we could tell, whoever left the body had never made it inside. Unfortunately, that did little to calm my nerves.

  I did everything I could to avoid going to bed. I sent some e-mails that were sitting in my outbox, returned a frantic call from my mother who’d seen the entire thing on the ten o’clock news, scrubbed my bathtub until I had a contact high from the cleaners, and then I watched Avatar.

  My nerves finally settled down just as first light crept into my windows. Something about dawn made me feel safer, despite the fact that Shane still hadn’t made it home. He was probably shacking up with Mercy somewhere, I told myself grumpily as I slid into my cool bed and closed my eyes.

  The cell phone in my nightstand started ringing just after I’d hit the sack, or at least, that was how it felt.

  Peeling my eyes open, I glanced at the numbers on the glowing clock face. 6:48. I’d been in bed less than an hour. The vibrating ring tone told me it was Shane. I snatched the phone off the table and chucked it full force at the far wall. It collided with a satisfying crack, falling to the floor. Silent.

  If people are going to insist on calling me before seven AM, I’m gonna need a cell phone that can handle being thrown across the room. I thought with some venom. Can you hear me now?

  Making a mental note to swing by the electronics store later, feeling grateful I’d taken out the extra insurance this time, I tucked my head under the pillow, cocooned in my blankets, and drifted back to sleep.

  It was almost three in the afternoon when I finally woke up. One of the major downsides of having a semi-nocturnal partner was it made keeping unusual business hours and existing on little-to-no sleep job requirements.

  Dressing quickly I headed down to the office to boot up the computer. The red button on the answering machine blinked angrily at me. I hit the button with the eraser of my pencil, and the speakers crackled to life.

  “You have three new messages. First message.”

  Shane’s voice. “Hey Isabel. Just calling to check in. I found out something interesting you’re gonna want to hear.”

  Sighing, I leaned back in my chair.

  Beep.

  “Ms. Stone, this is Mr. Curtis. I was just checking in to see how you were progressing with the case. Please give me a call.”

  I pulled out the Curtis file and found his number. Figuring he was probably still at work, I decided to call his house and leave a message. At some point, I was going to have to reveal what I’d discovered about his daughter
’s dirty little secret, but until I knew for sure how the vamps fit into the equation, I’d play that card close to the vest.

  Beep.

  “Hey Isabel. It’s Heather. I was hoping we could get together for lunch this week. I have some stuff to share with you. It’s not exactly urgent, but it’s important, okay? So call me. Or I’ll call you back later. Whichever. Ciao, chica!”

  Rolling my eyes, I hit the delete button on the machine and dialed Mr. Curtis. As expected, I got his machine.

  “Hello, this is Isabel. I wanted to call and let you know that I have a new lead in your daughter’s case. However, it’s too soon to tell whether it will pan out. I should have more solid answers for you by next week. I’m doing everything I can. I’ll be in touch.”

  No, that wasn’t going to be a pleasant conversation at all. Hopefully, I’d be able to go to him with something other than his daughter’s shady past and give the poor man some answers. Turning to the computer, I pulled up my online calendar. Shane’s vamp cotillion was tomorrow night, which was good and bad. Mostly bad, I thought, biting my lower lip.

  As much as I was ready to get some answers on this case, part of me really wasn’t ready to let him go. Selfish, I knew, but that was just how I felt. For so long, he’d been my Shane. Even after we weren’t involved romantically anymore, he was still such a huge part of me. I didn’t want to admit it—I’d rather have eaten glass than confessed this to anyone—but deep down, I always hoped we’d end up together. I shook my head. It was silly. Insane, actually. Him being what he was meant we could never have a life together, not the life I wanted anyway.

  But there was a part of me that still longed for the happily ever after that he’d promised me once. We’d been so close to perfect. So close to forever. But joining the Conclave meant, at a minimum, he’d have to move out. They liked to keep the neonates close to the nest. They probably wouldn’t let him continue to work with me, either. They’d give him some cushy job at one of their many businesses, all the better to keep an eye on him. The moment they took him in, he’d become an investment. And they expected returns on their investments. It wasn’t an arrangement I’d ever agree to, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t my decision. Sure, I’d put on big-girl panties and deal with it, but it still made my heart hurt.

  Snapping myself out of the gloomy thoughts, I dialed my mother’s house. Heather picked up on the first ring.

  “Hey, sis,” she answered with no prelude.

  “Hi, Heather. Listen. I got your message. Lunch doesn’t work for me, but how about an early dinner? Like around five?”

  On the other end of the phone, she chortled. “Sure, we could hit the early-bird dinner at the senior center.”

  “Ha-ha.”

  “Naw, five is fine. How about we meet at Muse, you know, down on Society Street?”

  I rolled my eyes. I’d been hoping for beer and hot dogs. She wanted an upscale French wine bar. Figured.

  “Sure. Muse it is. See you at five,” I said and hung up.

  Much as I was loathe to admit it, Heather seemed like a different person than the bratty little sister I’d grown up with. As crazy as she sounded, she had a stillness to her, like she was finally comfortable in her own skin. It couldn’t have been easy being the baby in a family like ours. By the time Heather was a teenager, Mom was busy with the bakery, Dad worked all the time, and the rest of us were too busy getting our own lives started to take any real notice of her. I pinched the bridge of my nose, squeezing my eyes closed. We were pretty lucky she turned out as well as she did, all things considered. Although it’d almost killed Mom when she took off, maybe she really did find herself out there in the world. The jury was still out on that one. But now that she was home, I just couldn’t help wondering why.

  Something in the pit of my stomach told me that my baby sister was going to make me pay for this dinner, in more ways than one.

  In the chaos of the night before, I’d nearly forgotten the accusation Heather had made about Phoebe’s new boyfriend. I’d done a preliminary background check on the guy at Mom’s insistence, but there hadn’t been anything to suggest he was a were. I decided, on the off chance that Heather was right somehow, to dig just a little deeper.

  It wasn’t like the weres were obvious about what they were. They were the most secretive of all supernatural beings. Hell, who could blame them? When the vamps first debuted to the world, they’d been all but branded and sent to prison camps. According to Dad’s files, dozens of vamps were rounded up and put in camps all over the country. But something amazing happened. The vampires let people do it. They didn’t retaliate or fight back, and on the rare occasion when one did go postal, he or she was dealt with quickly and decisively by the others. It was that more than anything that made people start to see them less as monsters and more as people.

  It was a brilliant strategy, very Gandhi. Almost overnight, they went from dangerous predators to a piteous, oppressed, misunderstood minority group.

  However, there were limitations to people’s generosity. It was illegal for vampires to work in certain professions, such as teaching, medicine, things like that, which was why Shane had been canned from his job as a middle school teacher after the change. Vampires were required to register with the state like sex offenders, and they weren’t allowed to vote. It was like, welcome to the 1800s. Err, I guessed for some of them, it would be ‘welcome back’.

  Still, they had at least won a few key battles. They were guaranteed basic protection under the law, which meant that you couldn’t just kill them on sight. And the laws were constantly in flux. Elected officials argued weekly about whatever new scrap of legislation was on the table, everything from inheritance taxes and property restrictions to basic human rights and equal opportunity issues. Currently, vampires had the right to an attorney, trial, etc. Unless they were seen killing a human. For a vampire, murder was punishable by immediate execution. No jury, no sitting in a cell for years working on appeals. Just instant, fiery death.

  Who could blame weres for worrying that they’d be treated the same?

  The bad blood between the vamps and weres went way back. From what Shane told me, it basically boiled down to early territory disputes that led to bloody battles. The fact that Xavier had them working side by side here in Charleston, well, that was an oddity of epic proportions.

  The way my father described them was as warring factions. Neither remembered who fired the first shot, but each was determined to fire the last. He also warned that were pack politics were bloody, archaic, and should be avoided at all costs. Dad also named a man he believed to be the pack Alpha, the leader. But that file was put together in the late sixties. No other mention was made of the furry community.

  It took nearly an hour of scanning newspaper archives from Duke’s hometown before I found what I was looking for. An article describing a bear attack on an adolescent boy during a hunting trip.

  According to the article, Duke and his father, Martin, had been elk hunting when Duke had been attacked by a bear. His father managed to frighten the animal off, but Duke was seriously injured. The bear was never found. I scanned the archives further, but there was no follow-up on the incident.

  I leaned back in my chair, folding my arms across my chest as I stared at the picture frozen on my screen of a young Duke being carted off in an ambulance.

  Okay, it didn’t prove anything, but the coincidence was too big to be ignored. I’d have a talk with Heather tonight, try to figure out where she’d come up with the accusation, and then do what I did best.

  Get some answers.

 
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