Chasing daybreak, p.20
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       Chasing Daybreak, p.20

           Ranae Glass
 

  The house was empty when I got home. No sign of Shane or, thankfully, any more presents.

  It was just dark enough that I flipped on every light in the house as I went. Yes, between the previous night and Heather’s cryptic warnings, I was quickly becoming an electric company’s dream.

  My tiny yet surprisingly expensive dinner hadn’t taken the edge off my rumbling stomach, so I opened the fridge to rummage for leftovers. Settling on some day-old pizza, I nuked my plate and went to my office to eat as I searched. The machine was blinking again. I hit the playback button. It took me a second to place the voice.

  “Ms. Stone, it was really nice talking to you the other night. I’m calling because our church is having a prayer meeting tonight at eleven. I saw what happened on the news last night, and I wanted to express my sympathy and invite you to join us. Pastor Marlowe and I both hope you can make it. See you then.” Beep.

  The voice belonged to Pastor Marlowe’s right-hand man, David Pierce.

  Well, there was no way I was going to subject myself to Marlowe again, but I did decide to do some more intense background checks on the good pastor. I watched a few videos of his anti-vampire sermons. Same old rhetoric, but delivered by a handsome, charismatic man of the faith. I could see why people were drawn to him. He reminded me of the old-fashioned snake oil salesmen, saying just what you wanted to hear while simultaneously promising the moon and making you very afraid not to buy what he was selling.

  There were a few articles on his wife’s death, and a few on his daughter Melanie’s medical condition. His congregation had launched a huge fundraising campaign to earn the money he needed for her pricey treatments. Even so, the doctors weren’t holding out much hope, the general opinion being that it was a miracle she’d made it this long.

  A little after ten, Shane came home, alone thankfully. I got that he was seeing Mercy, and on some level, I could deal with that. But seriously? She made me want to redecorate in Holy Object Chic.

  Shane peeked his head around the doorframe, holding a bag from Bubba Sly’s deli out like bait.

  “Hungry?” he asked.

  I looked at my half-eaten, now-cold-again pizza for a split second before dumping it in the trash.

  “Bring it on.”

  He vanished, reappearing again with two paper plates. Handing me a Philly cheese steak with a side of salt and vinegar chips on my plate, he dropped into his usual place beside me. Vamps didn’t have to eat solid food, but they could. Their taste buds didn’t react quite like a human’s did, or so Shane said, but that just made experiencing food more enjoyable. It was like getting to try everything all over again for the first time.

  “Whatchya doin?” he asked.

  Sighing, I took a bite. I answered around my mouth-watering sandwich. “Trying to figure out this Marlowe guy.” I wiped my mouth. “He’s big bad, no question. But what was his connection to Lisa?”

  “She a member of his congregation?”

  I shook my head. “According to her sister, she went to St. Peters, downtown.”

  “So why was the husband going there?”

  I shrugged. “Convenient? He was going there for treatment for his gambling problem.”

  “We ever come up with any debts for the husband?”

  “Nope. No money missing that I can see, no weird debts, no loans. Clean.”

  Shane swallowed. “And I had no luck with the bookies. They’d never even heard of the guy. How many gamblers do you know with zero debt?”

  “None. So who was the wife working off the debts to?”

  It was his turn to shrug.

  “It’s just so sad,” I said thoughtfully. “A seemingly nice, normal suburban soccer mom gets coerced into prostitution to save her husband’s sorry ass.”

  “The question is—did the husband know what she was up to?” Shane added.

  It was a very good question.

  “The number-one question is still—who was he in debt to that the vamps were letting her work off his markers? Must have owed the vamps themselves,” I said, thinking out loud.

  “Or one of their subsidiaries.”

  I looked at Shane and blinked. Robert Welch was a vampire hater, part of Marlowe’s anti-vampire movement, so why would he owe money to the vamps unless it was through a middleman?

  “Shane, I could kiss you.” I smiled.

  He leaned away. “Eww. Girl cooties.”

  Jumping out of my chair, I went to the file cabinet and pulled open the drawer labeled B. I removed a manila folder, took it back to my chair, and opened it. It contained a list of all known businesses run by, associated with, or owing money to the vampires. Thank you, Dad.

  Unfortunately, it was a very thick folder.

  Shane set his plate on the edge of the desk and motioned with his hands. “Here, give me half. It’ll go faster if I help.”

  I handed him a small stack. “I’m not sure what I’m looking for.”

  “I’ll let you know if anything jumps out at me.”

  Smiling, I took another bite of my cheese steak and dug into the papers. The next time I looked up, my neck and back had cramped and it was eleven-thirty.

  I closed the folder, careful to mark my spot.

  “I gotta go.” I stretched, rolling my neck side to side as I stood up.

  “I’m going too.”

  I looked at him flatly. “No, you are gonna stay here and keep looking. The note said come alone, remember?”

  “And it was written by a possibly psychotic Vampire Mafia boss, remember?” he snapped back.

  “It’s Xavier. He’s helped us this far. Besides, he’s your soon-to-be undead boss.”

  “He’s only helping because he’s attracted to you,” Shane retorted.

  That stopped me for a moment, and then I laughed. “Whatever.”

  “I can smell it,” Shane admitted with a low growl.

  Now I stopped laughing. “You can smell what, exactly?”

  “The testosterone. He oozes it when you’re around.”

  “Hold up.” I planted my hands on my hips. “Were you planning on sharing this information?”

  “Why? You don’t do vampires.”

  Shane’s bitter tone felt like he’d slapped me across the face. He had never acted bitter since he’d turned, or even like he wanted to get back together. I always sort of thought he felt the same way I did. It wasn’t about not loving each other, it was about the fact we had no future together.

  I wasn’t sure what to say, so I opted for an irritated rebuttal. “So, some mystery person leaves me a drained body on the porch, and you don’t think to mention that the local head vamp has a crush on me? What the hell, Shane?”

  He shook his head. “Wasn’t Xavier. I’d have smelled him on it.”

  “Um, unless Xavier is smarter and older than you and had either a helper or is just that scary good at killing people.” I snapped my fingers. “Oh wait, he is all of those things. I seriously can’t believe you’ve been keeping this from me.”

  Whatever he was going to say died on his lips, and Shane hung his head in dejection. It was his sad, puppy face. Damn it. Well, I wasn’t in the mood for it this time.

  “I’m going. You’re staying. Period.” I grabbed my jacket.

  “What if it was Xavier?”

  “Well, let’s hope he likes me enough not to kill me, tonight at least,” I retorted with as much venom as I could muster and stormed out of the house.

  I really hadn’t planned to go to the meet without some sort of backup, not that I’d admit that to Shane. I had barely turned the first corner before I dialed Tyger.

  “What?” His voice crackled through the car.

  “Hey, it’s Isabel.”

  He grunted and mumbled something to someone on his end that I couldn’t quite make out. “What can I do for you?”

  I bit my bottom lip. We’d only just balanced the scales between us. I wasn’t too fond of going into favor-debt with him, but this was a sort of a special
circumstance. By special circumstance, I meant, of course, that I was too stubborn to admit that Shane might be right, and I probably did need someone watching my back.

  “How did the keystroke recorder work out for you?” I asked.

  “Fine. Figured out who was skimming the cash.”

  I blew out a breath. “Oh, well, that’s good.”

  Tone very cool, he asked, “You wanna tell me why you’re really calling me at almost midnight?”

  “I’m going to a meeting tonight. Might be shady. I could use a pair of eyes from a distance. Just in case. You busy?”

  He took a long drag of what I assumed was a cigarette before asking, “What happened to your usual wingman, what’s-his-name?”

  “He’s unavailable. You up for this or not?”

  A long pause, more whispers. “Sure. Where and when?”

  I gave him the address. “And, Patrick?”

  “Yeah?”

  I took a deep breath. “You didn’t happen to leave a dead guy on my porch, did you?”

  He laughed out loud. “Nope. What, did Brooks forget his keys?”

  “No. This guy tried to kill me, and then ended up on my doorstep as a gift-wrapped corpse.”

  His next words chilled me. “Sounds like someone did you a favor.”

  “See you soon,” I said after a quiet minute.

  “Yep.” Click.

  I snapped my phone closed and tossed it on the empty seat next to me. Sometimes, Patrick scared the living shit out of me. Other times, it paid to have friends in all the wrong places.

  I pulled in to the empty parking lot with one minute to spare. There was only one light. I drove under it and threw the car in park. Stepping out, I took a quick survey of my surroundings, unable to forget what Patrick had said.

  The address Xavier gave me was just north of Truxtun Avenue, not far from Storehouse Row. The area was practically a ghost town that late. The only noise was the nearby sound of cars on the freeway.

  I sat on the hood of the car, determined to wait only ten minutes before getting the hell out of there, and hoping that somewhere in the unseen darkness, Patrick had my back.

  “You came.” Xavier’s deep voice cut through the silence, causing me to whip my head around.

  He was approaching from behind, his expensive-looking loafers making no sound as he moved toward me, looking as human as I’d ever seen. He lacked his normal predatory gait, something I wondered if he did deliberately to put me at ease. If so, it wasn’t working. If anything, the unexpected change in his demeanor had me on edge.

  “Yeah. You passed me a note in study hall, remember?” I heaved a tired sigh. “It’s late and I’ve had a really long day, so if we could skip the formalities, that’d be great.”

  Xavier closed in, uncomfortably close, actually grazing my legs as he passed, and sat on the hood beside me.

  He flashed his devastating smile. “You have a knack for asking all the wrong questions. You are aware of that, aren’t you?”

  I shook my head. “Or all the right ones, if you’re looking at it from my point of view.”

  “Touché. I asked you to meet me because I have a few things I’d like to talk to you about. Privately.”

  I frowned, confused. “I thought that was my line.”

  He shrugged, and it just looked wrong on him, like he was wearing someone else’s clothes. The thought made me look down from his face for the first time and really take a look at what he was wearing.

  Dark blue jeans and a light blue, button-down shirt, the first two buttons undone and the sleeves rolled to just below the elbow. Vampire casual? I wondered. It wasn’t that it didn’t look good on him, it did, but it was strange seeing him like that. Was he playing at human, and if so, was it for my benefit? I shook my head.

  “What do you want?”

  He smirked, as if my question took just a heartbeat too long, and he’d guessed I was checking him out. Which I totally wasn’t—sort of.

  “Your investigation has put Shane in a delicate situation. His indoctrination into the Conclave is this weekend. I’d hate to see anything put that in jeopardy.”

  I opened my mouth to say something, not sure what exactly, but he held up his hand.

  “Please, let me finish. Being outside the sphere of protection of the Conclave is dangerous. It isn’t just being accepted by the Council, it’s the only way he can be declared a legal member of our society. There are perks. I’m sure he’s mentioned a few of them. There are also responsibilities, and overall, he becomes ours. A threat to one of us is a threat to all of us. With this new legislation being passed, any vampire not aligned with a registered Conclave is considered a rogue and can be put down on sight, by human hunter or vampire. That’s the deal. To remain legal citizens in this country, we must police ourselves, and adhere to whatever justice the humans here demand.”

  “I understand. But as for the case, if you guys haven’t done anything wrong, then there’s no problem.”

  He tilted his head to the side. “Something tells me you have very different ideas of right and wrong than we do.”

  “Fair enough. But I’m not talking about some moral ambiguity here. I’m talking about a woman’s life. A woman I know for sure was hooking for you.”

  “Only because I told you. If I hadn’t shared that information, you would be exactly where the police have been for the better part of a year. Precisely nowhere.”

  I shifted, leaning away from him. I was trying to shoot him a look of exasperation but just then, an errant breeze blew through his dark brown hair, and I actually felt my IQ drop ten points.

  Shaking it off, I retorted, “Why did you show me that file? You had to know it would lead to more questions than answers.”

  He nodded. “Only to show you that you weren’t crusading for an innocent. Mrs. Welch was much less Mary and much more Magdalene than anyone knew.”

  “She was working for you to pay off her husband’s gambling debts, wasn’t she?”

  “Not for me. I operate a handful of gentlemen’s clubs, but would never stoop to anything as distasteful as prostitution.” He said the word as if it were something he’d have to scrape off his shoe.

  “But you know who does, I assume?”

  “One of my dancers showed up for work a few weeks back looking like a human punching bag. After a fair amount of questioning, she admitted to whoring on the side. The madam was one of our upper-level executives named Marissa Duchamp.”

  “And?” I asked, motioning for him to continue.

  “And Marissa was investigated and dealt with appropriately, according to our laws.”

  “Wait…” I slid off the car. “Are you saying that being a madam is against vampire law?”

  He scoffed. “Of course not. If she’d brought the idea to us, she would probably be raking in money hand over fist. But as it was, she began her little business off the books, behind our backs. That simply isn’t tolerated.”

  I put my hands on my hips, tucking them into my pants pockets.

  “So, let me get this straight. It’s okay to run a prostitution ring, but not to do it without permission?”

  “Precisely.”

  I rolled my eyes. “Can I talk to this Marissa person?”

  “Perhaps. If you own a Ouija Board.”

  I made an O with my mouth. That put a damper on things. “Wait, you questioned her, right?”

  He nodded.

  “Did she happen to mention where she got her girls? I guess I’m just trying to figure out what sort of deal she worked out with Lisa. I mean, how does the husband fit in to all this? How did Marissa end up picking up a gambling tab? Was she into anything else?”

  Xavier shook his head. “I’m afraid not. I can’t think of a single thing that would link her to any sort of gambling ring. It’s the one thing we don’t have the market on, if you’d believe that.”

  “Where did she work?”

  “For our offices at Morris, King, and Deford.”

&
nbsp; Suddenly, the gears in my brain clicked into place. “That’s where the husband works. Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?”

  He cocked his head to the side quizzically. “There is nothing else I can tell you about this case. However, I admit I am looking forward to seeing you at the Conclave for Shane’s initiation.”

  “That reminds me… you didn’t happen to leave me a, um, gift the other day, did you?”

  He smiled. “No. Should I have?”

  I shook my head. Shane was getting punched in the stomach later for that. “Of course not. It’s just, well, someone left me a, well, a body.”

  He snickered, sliding gracefully off the car and leaning uncomfortably close to me. “And you assume it was me? Why is that, I wonder?”

  I took an involuntary step back. “It’s just something Shane said, but he’s an idiot so…” I let that hang between us.

  Xavier moved again, brushing past me once more, the line of our bodies grazing for less than a heartbeat.

  “Okay,” I said finally as he stood beside me, leaning on my car. “What’s with this?” I motioned to his entire body.

  He looked down. “What?”

  “You know what I mean. Why are you acting all human and friendly and stuff?

  He folded his arms across his chest and smiled. “What makes you think it’s an act?”

  I looked up as I spoke. The sky was clear and away from the bright lights of the city, you could see the vast expanse of sky. I took a deep breath.

  “Because I’ve seen it before. My father had an affair when I was fifteen. I don’t think my parents ever knew I knew, but I did. I’d hear them fighting before we’d get up for breakfast. My mother got really good at pretending to be happy. I remember thinking that maybe if she weren’t so good at pretending to be happy, she might actually be better at just being happy.” I looked at Xavier. His brown-green eyes studied mine. “I think you’re like that. You wear this mask so no one sees the real you. Maybe you’ve worn it for so long that you don’t know how to really just be yourself anymore.”

  It was his turn to look up at the sky.

  “You are disturbingly acute for a human, you know that?”

  I laughed. I’d been told that many times in not nearly as nice ways.

  “You are right. I came here tonight trying to make you comfortable. I thought this,” he motioned to his clothes, “would help. But you have caught me.”

  “Why? I mean, why do you care if I’m comfortable or not?”

  “Because, you remind me of something I lost many years past. You have this glow to you. You walk into a room, and you command it, not by your strength or power, but by your sheer determination to live. It’s a rare quality for a human to have a fire inside them that burns so brightly. I find more and more that I’m blinded by you.”

  Xavier stepped forward and cupped his hand under my chin. Carefully, as if he were holding a piece of fine china, he grazed his thumb across my lower lip, making my heart flutter. He leaned down to kiss me, but I stopped him.

  “Tell me something.” I whispered as the gears in my brain turned, trying to make sense of what was happening.

  “What do you want to know?”

  I swallowed. “Tell me something about you. Something you’ve never told anyone.”

  “Why?” he asked, still inches from my face, still holding my chin in his hand.

  “Because, I want to see you. Really see you. I need to know I can trust you.”

  He leaned forward, not kissing me, just rested his forehead on mine and closed his eyes.

  “You would ask for the one thing I cannot give you.”

  “Why?” I breathed.

  Temporarily speechless, I watched as he dropped his hand and smiled. Turning his back to me, he walked away slowly and waved over his shoulder, leaving me standing there, stupefied. He was moving at human speed, but with an otherworldly flow that gave away his true nature.

  “I’ll be seeing you, Isabel.” He said my name like a breath, a whisper on the breeze.

  Then he was gone. Not in a cool, Dracula-turning-into-mist kind of way, but in the back of a large, black sedan that whipped in out of nowhere, scooped him up, and sped off, throwing loose gravel in its wake.

  In the distance, the growl of a motorcycle gearing up let me know that Patrick had been watching my back. The noise spurted once and faded into the distance.

  Slipping into my own car, I headed for home, confident that Xavier had been honest, and maybe even a little helpful, and knowing that whatever game he was playing with me, I was about to be in way over my head.

  I had just pulled to a stop outside my house when my cell phone rang, air-raid siren tone. Without looking, I knew the call was coming from the police station. Never a good thing.

  I stifled a yawn as I flipped open the receiver. “Hello.”

  “Hey, Isabel. I need a favor,” Shane said.

  I could tell by the strain in his voice that this favor would likely involve bailing him out of jail.

  You were arrested for what?” I asked again in disbelief.

  Shane sighed on the other end of the line. “Loitering. Are you gonna come get me or not?”

 
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