Chasing daybreak, p.28
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       Chasing Daybreak, p.28

           Ranae Glass

  Unlike the night before, there were no cameramen crawling the gates. Security seemed lighter but much less discreet. I counted three guards patrolling the grounds, two at the gate, and another watching from the front door. I pulled my car into the circular driveway and parked. Leaning over, I flipped open my glove box to reveal the small handgun my father had given me. It was specially modified to fire wooden bullets. They wouldn’t kill a vamp, but they would sure deter one. I slipped it inside the back of my waistband, pulling my jacket down over it as I got out.

  Twilight was making the sky that ominous shade between red and purple as the sun sank low in the horizon. Before I was halfway up the steps, the bodyguard had pushed the wooden door open for me.

  “Thanks,” I muttered, following as he led me toward Xavier’s office.

  But staring at his massive back spurred my curiosity. The guy was well over six foot, all broad shoulders and chunky muscles. He wasn’t overweight, but he had a build that on a human would have suggested a career as a pro-wrestler.

  Envisioning some title like Mad Dog Muldoon or The Hitman, I just had to ask, “So, what’s your name?”

  He didn’t slow down as he responded flatly, “Cage.”

  “Ah. I’m Isabel. It’s nice to meet you, Cage.”

  He grunted. He was the same guard who’d carried me to Xavier’s office the night before, the only witness to my meltdown. I was trying to be nice without having to come right out and thank him, but he remained aloof, so I dropped the small talk.

  The corridor was longer than I remembered, the walls dotted with beautiful paintings and intricate sculptures in carved recesses. We passed a door that was cracked just a fraction, and I saw a bright light glowing. As someone moved inside, an odd-looking shadow passed the corner of my eye.

  “What’s in here?” I asked, my hand going to the doorknob.

  In a heartbeat, Cage was there, his hand clutching mine. “Nothing for you to see. Come on.”

  I reluctantly let him lead me away.

  We turned the corner and came upon Mercy leaning against the left-hand wall, scratching her nails on a stone sculpture that rested on a cylindrical pedestal. The way a cat scratched on furniture to sharpen its claws.

  As soon as she caught sight of me, she pointed a finger my way and hissed, “You! This is all your fault.”

  “Really? Again? You should get some new material.”

  Without another word, she came at me like a rabid hyena. I thought for a moment that Cage would stop her, but she batted him aside as if he were a rag doll. Size, especially for vampires, was not indicative of strength. In a fraction of a second, I had the gun out and pulled the trigger.

  The bullet caught her in the shoulder, the impact spinning her around. She managed to stay on her feet, and after a heartbeat, turned back to me again, expression wild as she lunged.

  “I warned you once not to wound anything you couldn’t kill,” she spat.

  I fired again, nailing her square in the throat. This time, the force of the bullet knocked her backwards, blood pouring down the front of her green silk blouse, turning it a macabre shade of brown.

  I watched as she writhed on the floor, bubbles of blood erupting from the hole in her neck. Then right in front of my eyes, the hole shrank, knitting itself closed as the wooden pellet was expelled from her flesh.

  There was a sound behind me and I spun, gun raised at chest level, and came face to face with Shane. He was wearing the remains of his tuxedo from the previous night.

  I pointed to where the sleeves hung in tatters. “Good thing you bought that ‘cause there’s no way you’d be getting your deposit back.”

  He shrugged. With a sad smile, he put his hand on top of my gun and gently pushed it down. “Better put it away.”

  Xavier, Ahnarra, and three others had joined us in the hallway. To be honest, I was so relieved to see Shane in one piece that I didn’t care what else was going on. Realizing how fatal that mindset could potentially be, I smiled at him and turned my attention to Xavier as I slipped my gun back into my waistband.

  “She started it,” I stated as Xavier scowled at the woman bleeding all over his marble floor.

  Climbing to his feet, Cage spoke up. “It’s true. Mercy attacked her without warning and without provocation.”

  “Then it’s a good thing Ms. Stone was able to protect herself.” Xavier turned, glaring at Cage, who stood motionless. “I wonder, however, how it is that the human was able to come into my home armed. Surely, my guards would have thought to search her person?”

  “Sir, she is just a human,” Cage defended himself softly. “A small human at that.”

  “A small, pretty human with a weapon capable of causing serious harm to your master,” Xavier retorted.

  Cage bowed his head. “It will never happen again.”

  “Then clean this mess up and take Mercy downstairs. I will come soon to have a chat with her about how we treat our guests.”

  Mercy’s eyes bulged, and she tried to say something in response, but nothing came out except a gurgle. In one smooth motion, Cage lifted her in a fireman’s carry and took her down the hallway.

  Seeming satisfied, Xavier turned to me. “Isabel, if you would follow me.”

  He headed toward his office. Shane was close behind me, with the other vampires not far off. Once inside, Xavier motioned for me to sit, but I shook my head. I wanted to be able to get to my gun if I needed to. Of course, if the situation deteriorated to the point where I needed to use it, I was pretty much dead anyway.

  Xavier grinned like he could read my mind. “I’ll let you keep your weapon since you’ve been so badly abused on this visit. However, I warn you, if you should ever return here, you’ll not be allowed the same privilege.”

  I nodded. Shane sat in the empty chair, leaning forward with his elbows resting on his knees. He looked so tired, dark hair hanging shaggy around his face. His eyes, normally so beautifully blue, were rimmed in red.

  He’s hungry, I realized.

  Xavier’s words broke into my thoughts. “First, let me apologize for how you’ve been treated. Mercy is passionate, often beyond reason. Her behavior will be dealt with. Second, you are here because Shane has committed a quite terrible faux pas. I’ll let him explain.”

  At a nod from Xavier, Shane spoke. “Last night, I was introduced to Gerard Von Swieten. It was his scent on Lisa’s purse, in her car. I asked him why he was there, what he was doing. He told me to mind my own business. There was a fight.”

  Xavier interrupted, “Disputes between vampires must be settled according to the rules of the Conclave. Outright aggression is forbidden. As a new member, Shane was ignorant of this rule. However, that does not excuse his actions.”

  Gerard stepped forward from the corner of the room. He wore a simple blue, button-down shirt tucked neatly into black slacks. His face was stern, hard. “And Shane will be punished, but that is not what we are here to discuss.” He glanced at Xavier, a look that sent an involuntary shiver up my spine into the roots of my hair.

  “Yes. Isabel, you are here because new evidence has come to my attention. It is a delicate matter, one we do not want taken to the police, if possible. You see, we are in a precarious situation. There are those who support our citizenship, but there are also those who work against us, those who would see us hunted like dogs in the streets. Revealing ourselves to the humans has laid down a gauntlet for us all. We refuse to hide any longer, but if we cannot be accepted by the humans, there are few options left to us. It would be war, you understand?”

  I nodded. “I understand. But being part of the human world means respecting our laws. You can’t just go around murdering people and expect to get away with it.”

  Xavier’s dark eyes held mine as he spoke. “We, to the best of our ability, follow your laws. Do you know what Gerard’s function in the Conclave is?”

  I shook my head.

  “Gerard is the Cleaner. When our world, our disputes, spill
over into the human world, he cleans up the mess. He protects us as well as the humans.”

  “Then why did he kill Lisa Welch?” I demanded, knowing no answer he could give me would keep me from running straight to the cops as soon as they let me out of there.

  “I did not kill the woman,” Gerard answered. Seeing Xavier’s motion to continue, Gerard explained. “I was investigating Marissa Du Champs. We believed she was running an unauthorized prostitution ring. I followed her on several occasions to an office space near the Old Slave Market. I discovered several human women on her payroll. She was using the women to extort several key political figures, moving them like chess pieces across the board. Only her agenda was not our own. She was using her influence to stir up anti-vampire sentiment. When she was questioned, she admitted that it was her goal to have the Conclave overthrown by the humans, so she could rise up and take control of it. She was quite insane by the end.” He paused, frowning. “There was a woman, Lisa Welch, working for her. I followed Lisa one evening to find proof of Marissa’s treachery and questioned her.”

  “By questioned, do you mean tortured?”

  Neither my interruption nor my accusation fazed Gerard. “No. By this time, Marissa had been dealt with. I intended to take her place in the office, pretending to be the new liaison there. Actually,” he paused, looking at Xavier, “I did feel that while her goals were skewed, the methods and results of Marissa’s enterprise were quite useful. I still believe we should have kept the business. But alas.”

  He turned back to me. “She was panicked when I confronted her. After some gentle persuasion, the woman admitted why she was working for Marissa. She told me her husband was in debt, and she had been brought in to pay off those debts. Only, one of her clients had threatened her. Threatened to expose her to her family.”

  “And what did you do?” I asked, not sure I wanted to hear the answer.

  “I did as I was told. We dismantled the business, gave each of the women a hefty sum to purchase their silence, and erased any trace it had ever happened. Lisa’s husband’s debts were expunged, and I personally gave her enough money to make most men weep with gratitude.”

  Xavier sighed. “Only that wasn’t the end. A few days later, some of the guards found Lisa’s dead body on my doorstep.”

  “What? Why didn’t you mention this before?” I almost screamed. Here I thought he’d been trying to help me, but Xavier was just covering his own ass.

  “Because he didn’t know,” Gerard answered for him. “I was called upon, and I took care of the situation.”

  “Yes, and while Gerard performed his role as he is charged to do, in the future, I will be apprised of any such events,” Xavier stated, an edge of warning in his voice.

  “So what did you do with her?” I asked the gray-haired vampire.

  “Her body was buried on the southern tip of Drum Island.”

  I sat down, my hands shaking. I’d known logically that Lisa Welch was dead. Statistically, the odds of finding her alive had always been minimal. But this, the callous tone of his voice as he calmly discussed burying her body, made my blood boil. It was all I could do to hold my tongue.

  Shane put a hand on my knee and whispered, “Are you all right?”

  I tilted my head, letting him see the anger in my face, and kept my eyes locked on his while I spoke to Gerard. “If you didn’t kill her, then who did?”

  “I’m sure I don’t know. But for her to be left at our door in that way…”

  He kept speaking, but I couldn’t hear him anymore. My blood was pounding in my ears. I could see from the look on Shane’s face that he just had the same thought I’d had.

  “On your doorstep?” Shane asked.

  Gerard nodded.

  Shane looked at me. “You better tell them.”

  I laughed, “Why? It’s not their problem. What are they gonna do about it?” I stood, anger lacing my voice. “He knew Lisa was being threatened, and it didn’t even occur to him to try to help her. So why would he help me?”

  “Is this about what you asked me?” Xavier’s voice was calm and detached. “About someone leaving a body on your porch?”

  “Bodies,” I corrected. “And I’ll deal with it. I don’t need your help. Not that you’d give it anyway.”

  “I hope you understand why this information cannot be shared with the police,” Xavier said carefully, like he was talking to a lion who’d just escaped its cage.

  Crossing my arms over my chest, I faced off with him. “I understand why you don’t want the police to know. It’d look pretty bad for you, wouldn’t it? Having a body show up at your doorstep, a woman who died hooking for you. But you know what? Her family deserves the truth.”

  I spun on my heel to walk out the door, but in a blink, Xavier was in front of me.

  “The truth? About how she tried to save her husband’s life by selling her body to pay off his debts? Yes, I’m sure that’s exactly what her family wants to hear.”

  “You don’t get it, do you?” I asked, steamed at his attitude and not about to hide it. “It doesn’t matter what she did. She was their family. They deserve to know the truth because not knowing, always having that flicker of hope that someday she might walk through that door, those kids wondering why their mommy didn’t love them enough to stay with them, it’s living in hell, Xavier.”

  It was Shane’s voice that pulled me back from the abyss.

  “Isabel, we have to find out who killed her first. Then you can scream the truth from the rooftops if you need to, but like it or not, the Conclave didn’t kill her. Someone did—someone who wanted the Conclave to take the blame for it. Don’t you think that’s a truth worth finding out?”

  I sighed, relaxing my shoulders as I turned to look at him. “You’re right. I’m going to find out who killed her.”

  “Even if it gets you killed too?” Shane asked, his voice tight.

  I smiled bitterly. “No worries. Gerard is good with a shovel. At least you’ll know where to dig for me.”

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