Chasing daybreak, p.3
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       Chasing Daybreak, p.3

           Ranae Glass
 

  The buzzing alarm startled me out of unconsciousness. I slapped the “off” button, making a mental note to kick the shit out of the guy who’d locked me in that damn closet the night before—that was, if the cops didn’t take care of the job first. Not only was I running on about four hours of sleep, but also my bruises were throbbing and all my muscles were stiff and tight despite my hot soak.

  Dressed in a modest gray pantsuit, I headed downstairs to get a cup of coffee and prepare for my first meeting. The nice thing about having a home office was that most days I could work in pajama pants and bunny slippers if I wanted to—which was why I saw clients by appointment only. Today, however, there would be no such luxury for me.

  It was just after eleven when Mr. Curtis arrived. I showed him to my office and closed the door behind us. Walking behind my desk, I slowly lowered myself into my desk chair, the muscles in my back protesting angrily. The still-warm mug of coffee in my hand helped.

  “Can I get you anything?” I asked.

  I’d wanted to hire a secretary or at least some sort of assistant for a while, but business had been slower than expected, and overhead had been higher. Most days, that left the job to Shane, but he was still snoozing so the schmoozing the clients was all me today.

  It wasn’t something I was particularly good at.

  “No, thank you, Miss Stone. I’m fine.”

  Richard Curtis didn’t look fine. His yellow polo shirt was wrinkled and his gray hair unruly. He had dark patches under his eyes, and the lines on his face were etched deep.

  “Why don’t you tell me how I can help you today?” I nudged.

  He sat rigid in the tall, hard-back chair, his hands folded tightly in his lap. My voice must have been curt because he blinked at me like I’d reached out and slapped him.

  I took a deep breath. “Sorry. I was out late on assignment last night, so I didn’t get much sleep. I didn’t mean to sound short. Please, tell me what you need.”

  My voice was much friendlier, and I even smiled. It still may not have seemed sincere, though. It was hard to act interested on four hours’ sleep. I sat back and waited.

  “You’ve heard about my daughter, Lisa Welch?”

  I nodded. Everyone from Charleston to Tucson had seen the headlines or heard the news reports. Lisa Welch, thirty-one-year-old mother of four, local cheerleading coach, and church pianist had gone missing six months before. After an exhaustive search, all the police had found was her purse and her abandoned car at the local mall. Suspicion ran wild; search parties were formed, all with no success. It was as if she’d simply vanished into thin air.

  “The police called off the investigation last week.” His voice cracked, a mix of sadness, desperation, and anger. I sympathized.

  “We’d be happy to look into the case, Mr. Curtis, but you should know, I can’t make any promises. I’ll call the local police and get a look at the case file, with your permission, but the police have vast resources and I’m sure they were quite thorough…”

  He frowned. That wasn’t what he wanted to hear, which was exactly why I had to say it. Grieving families wanted assurances, guarantees. Heck, they wanted miracles.

  I wasn’t in the miracle business.

  “However,” I continued, “we will do everything in our power to find your daughter.”

  He perked up, his hand sliding into his back pocket to produce a checkbook. Tossing the slim piece of leather on my desk, he picked up a pen.

  “Money is no object, Miss Stone…”

  I laid my hand over the booklet, closing it.

  “I appreciate that, but why don’t I take a look at the file, and make sure I’ll be able to help you before we worry about payment?”

  No reason to take this man’s hard-earned cash unless I could actually do something besides read a file. My father had been the same way.

  No wonder we weren’t wealthy.

  We stood. I moved around the desk to open the door and motion him toward the entryway door. He turned, his hand on the knob, and looked at me with earnest, sad eyes.

  “Your father was a good man. That’s why I came to you with this. He’d be proud,” Mr. Curtis said hoarsely before turning and walking into the hot summer afternoon.

  “I hope so,” I whispered to myself. “I hope so.”

  I watched Mr. Curtis drive away from my curb before closing the door. As soon as he was gone, I let out a yawn I’d been trying to hold back all morning. My body was at war with itself. Half of me begged for more sleep, the other half demanded nourishment. My growling stomach won out, and I locked up the office as I headed out to see my mother.

  I arrived at the family bakery with one of Bubba Sly’s famous Philly Cheese steaks in hand. It was the best deli in the state, and right around the corner from Mom’s shop. I’d had no intentions of stopping at Bubba’s—really—I hadn’t, but the smell made my mouth water as I passed the front door. After a brief internal debate, my love of all things cheesy and steaky won out.

  It was a typical Monday. The college kids were taking up every table at Mom’s, munching on sandwiches and soup bowls between scribbling frantically in notebooks and reading lines of text. My mom saw the sandwich in my hand as soon as I walked in, making the overhead bell chime. She frowned at me.

  She wasn’t the first—even today.

  I shrugged unapologetically and headed into the back office. Mom rung up the last customer in line before handing the register over to my sister, Phoebe, who had just finished busing an empty table.

  Phoebe, only a year my junior, had dropped out of college in her first year and settled on a life as an amateur photographer, which I found ironic because people are always telling her she should be a model. She was beautiful, even in her old, cutoff shorts and a T-shirt. Phoebe had the long, wavy, brown hair that marked our Italian heritage. Her symmetrical features were accented with high cheekbones and full lips. Taller than I was, Phoebe had our mother’s deep brown eyes.

  Her life choices made Mom cringe in a ‘what kind of respectable woman became a photographer?’ way. As if there was something seedy about it, like she’d somehow become a trashy tabloid photographer or something. As it was, Phoebe worked mostly on the weekends doing weddings and such, leaving her free to help Mom out in the shop most days.

  If it weren’t for Phoebe working for tips and free cupcakes, the bakery would fold like a house of cards. It barely squeaked by as it was. The economic bust hit everyone hard. Folks that had been in business in Charleston for years were closing up shop. Even the college kids and tourists were cutting back wherever they could, which left a little business like Mom’s in a financial pickle.

  Two years ago, our youngest sister, Heather, had all but dropped off the face of the earth. At sixteen, she decided she needed to ‘experience life’ and had taken off to backpack across Europe. Now Mom got the occasional postcard and a note about whatever city Heather was squatting in and whatever loser guy she’d latched on to. She hadn’t even bothered to come home for Dad’s funeral.

  We didn’t talk about Heather.

  “I heard you had some excitement last night,” Mom muttered as she slumped down onto the old couch in her cramped office. I was in her desk chair, mouth full of food, so I just shrugged. This was how we communicated. She talked, and I half-paid attention. We’d been close once, but my recent situation had her fearing for my very soul. Ironically, it was only partly because I was playing house with the living dead. The main issue was the fact that, at twenty-two, I was nearly an old maid and didn’t have a house full of obnoxious Italian children.

  I swallowed loudly. “I came by to bring the check for Sarah’s tuition this semester.”

  Sarah, barely nineteen and the spitting image of our father, was already in her second year of school thanks to a streak of severe overachieverness.

  “I know.” She sighed. “It’s the only reason you come see me anymore. You should come by for dinner tonight. Frank Calontoni—you remember him
, Stephanie’s son from across the street—he’s home from dental school this week. I’m sure we could have them over too…”

  I gagged on my sandwich.

  Frank, from middle school. I wondered for a moment if the eczema had cleared up, and then I shook my head.

  “Can’t, Ma. Shane and I have to go talk to Reggie down at the station tonight.”

  I hadn’t actually set that up yet, but anything was better than one of my mom’s ‘come and see my single daughter’ dinners. I’d done it before and left feeling like an exhibit at a freak show. At the mention of Shane, she made a grunting sound low in her throat. Nothing raised her hackles like the mention of my one-time fiancé turned blood-sucking roomie.

  “You’d think that today, of all days, you’d want to be away from that monster.”

  I wrinkled my brow. “Today?”

  She sighed and pointed at her desk calendar. “Do you know what day it is?”

  “Uh… June sixth…” Oh. I saw her point.

  Today was the one-year anniversary of the day Shane had left me at the altar. Not that it was entirely his fault. He had been a smidge preoccupied, being attacked by a psycho vampire and all.

  “I’m so over all that,” I lied smoothly, still staring at the calendar on her cluttered desk as if it were an alien being.

  She just gave me that look. You know, the one moms gave you when they knew you were completely and totally full of shit.

  “And he’s living in your attic because?”

  I rolled my eyes. We’d been over this a million times.

  Because he’d been attacked and turned into a blood-sucking demon. Because he’d been unable to go back to his job as a teacher afterward. Because the vamp that turned him and was supposed to take care of him had been hunted down and killed for creating him without the blessing of the local Vamp-in-Charge. He’d had no place else to go, and no one else to depend on. His own folks had cursed and spit on him when he tried to go home. I was all he had. Besides, a small, tiny, mutinous part of myself still loved him.

  And I hated him for that.

  The day Shane had been thrust back into my life was a turning point for me, for both of us really. Even though I’d been expecting him, the knock on my door had surprised me. I’d been drifting for days on the sensation that none of it was real, that at any moment I’d wake up to find it had all been a horrible dream.

  When I’d answered the door, Shane stood there, in the cool, spring rain, water dripping off the tip of his nose. He had a duffle bag in one hand and a bag of blood in the other. His eyes were drawn to the ground as if he couldn’t quite bring himself to look me in the eye. It shattered the fragile grip of sanity I’d been holding on to and I ran to him, throwing my arms around him as I had so many times before. I wanted him to hold me, to tell me everything was going to be all right. I never needed another human being so much in my life as I needed him in that moment. He wound his fingers in my hair. Dropping everything else at his feet, he crushed his mouth to mine and kissed me passionately, ferociously. I lost myself in him.

  Until I felt the sharp prick of his fangs in my bottom lip. The taste of old pennies filled my mouth, making my stomach churn. I tried to pull away, but he held me tightly, his fingers digging into my skin, pulling my hair painfully. I screamed into his mouth and clawed at his face with my fingernails. Finally, he dropped me, literally, into a puddle at his feet. Wiping my hand across my mouth, I smeared the blood that was still seeping from my lip. I looked into his eyes, expecting remorse, but I saw only cold, red eyes. He licked his lip hungrily. I backpedaled quickly across the threshold of the front door. He took a predatory step forward before regaining control of himself. Shaking his head, he blinked, his eyes returning to their natural hue. Using the door to brace myself, I stood, dripping onto the wood floor.

  “I’ll go,” was all he said as he turned to leave.

  “Go where?” I’d asked. Even then, he meant more to me than my own safety. The idea of him out in the world alone, scavenging like a stray dog, twisted knots in my heart.

  He shrugged.

  “Come in, Shane, please,” I whispered shakily.

  He turned, searching my face with his eyes.

  “I can’t be with you,” he said finally. “I don’t trust myself not to hurt you.”

  I wanted to reassure him, to tell him that none of it mattered. But deep down, I knew it would be a lie. Everything had changed. Nothing would ever be the same again.

  “We can’t go back, I know that. But maybe we can start something new. We can be friends,” I offered, though it physically hurt to utter the words.

  He nodded. “Friends.”

  He’d stepped inside my door, and we’d been working on the whole ‘friends’ thing ever since. It didn’t erase the past. It didn’t stop me from missing him. It was messy, complicated, and painful, but it worked when so few things in my life had.

  “Here’s the check, Ma.” I stuffed it in her hands and scooped up the unfinished sandwich. “I gotta run.”

  Mom kissed me on the cheek as I practically launched myself out the door, waving quickly to Phoebe, the only daughter who still had the patience to listen to her lectures.

  The shades were all drawn when I got back to the office, signaling Shane’s presence downstairs. I opened the door slowly, letting as little light as possible into the house and flipping over the OPEN sign as I went. I found Shane in the kitchen, chugging a bag of A-positive straight from the fridge, making my newly full stomach lurch violently.

  “Morning, Sleeping Ugly,” I greeted him, trying to hide my revulsion as I strode in and sat down to look over the day’s mail.

  “Same to you.” He gulped between sucking noises. My stomach rolled again, and I swallowed a gag.

  “Anything good?” he asked, tossing the empty bag in the trash, finally done with his liquid breakfast.

  “Bills, bills, and a Victoria’s Secret catalog,” I answered mechanically.

  He snatched the magazine from my hands. “Mine.”

  I tossed the bills aside. “I had the meeting with Mr. Curtis today.”

  “How’d it go?” He flipped through the pages, whistling occasionally.

  “I told him we’d go over the file. Try to find some new leads, see if the investigators overlooked anything.”

  “You think they did?” He was serious now, all business.

  “I doubt it. But it’s worth a fresh look. Maybe we can pick up on something. Either way, it’s a place to start.”

  He opened his mouth to say something, but he was interrupted by the chime of the doorbell.

  The UPS guy was there to drop off some packages. He glared at me as I signed on the electronic clipboard. He’d left one too many of my packages in the rain, and I’d finally called to complain to his boss. I wasn’t sure what came of it, only that we now exchanged angry looks whenever forced to interact.

  I scooped up the boxes and headed back inside, slamming the door with my foot. Setting them carefully on the kitchen counter, I turned and pulled a knife from a drawer. Cutting the tape made me feel like a kid at Christmas. Even if I ordered them myself, getting packages was one of my favorite things.

  The first box fell open, showering packing peanuts on the floor as I pulled out my shiny, new night-vision camera. It was actually a combination of night vision and thermal, so it could take video in the dark with no light and read heat signatures through walls. I felt like James fucking Bond just holding it.

  “This would have been helpful last night,” I grumbled to myself.

  “Hold up. I’m sleeping on the twin bed you had when you were fourteen, and yet you can afford these?” Shane complained.

  I shot him a challenging glance. “If you don’t like the bed, I’ll just take it out and put in a nice, roomy coffin for you…”

  He shuddered. Claustrophobia, apparently, was not one of the things you got over after becoming a vampire. Without another word, he pulled open the next box, revealing
a plethora of goodies.

  “What’s all this?” he asked, licking the last drop of liquid from the corner of his mouth.

  I pointed. “Bionic ear. Computer snooper. And micro-UHF room transmitter.”

  “Okay, this time in English.”

  I sighed, “This one lets us hear from distances of eighty yards, this one records and transmits keystrokes on a computer, and this one is a listening device.”

  “I don’t know why you need this stuff. I’m better than any techno-gizmo,” he bragged. “And I can hear way farther than eighty yards.”

  He was right. Shane was better than any gear I could buy, but the rational part of me knew I couldn’t count on him being around forever.

  “Yeah, well, you know, in case you die for real next time…”

  He thought about that for a minute before responding, “I’d just come back and haunt you.”

  “Funny, I thought you already were,” I said earnestly.

  “Nah. If I were a ghost, you couldn’t make me clean the dishes.”

  I raised an eyebrow. “You wanna bet?”

  The rest of the afternoon passed with me at the computer paging through the articles and coverage of the Welch disappearance. There was a lot of media speculation, but no real leads. Shane sat behind me, making notes as I read aloud.

  “Lisa Welch disappeared from her home in Summerville on January 14th of this year. The neighbors reported nothing unusual, at least not to the press. Her four kids were in school, husband at work. That’s about it. It talks a little about her charity work, nothing helpful. Did you call Reggie?”

  Reggie Lukas was the lead detective on the case, and an old family friend. He was also one of the few people in town who treated Shane like he was still a person and not some demon sent to steal their souls. His wife, Connie, had even invited Shane to dinner last month.

  The older vamps in town pretty much ignored Shane, as he had no wealth or status, so it was good for him to feel like he belonged somewhere. I wondered if he’d change much when the vampire community really started to accept him. I kind of hoped not.

  “Yeah, he said we can come down at six.”

  I stretched in my chair, “What time is it now?”

  “Four-thirty. You need some food?”

  I shook my head, “Nah, I’ll grab something after.”

  “You know,” he said with mock earnestness, “you really should lay off those fast food stops. They go right to your thighs.”

  I spun the chair and stared him down. “My foot is going to go right to your ass here in a minute.”

  “Brave talk for a walking Happy Meal.”

  “Speaking of your repugnant diet, the blood bank is dropping off your order tonight. I’ll leave a check on the table in the foyer.”

  He rolled his eyes. “Thanks, Mom.”

  Thank goodness for the new vamp meals-on-wheels program. You’d be amazed how many people would be happy to donate to the cause. Some people thought there was something romantic about the idea. Most just didn’t want a town full of thirsty vamps. I couldn’t blame them on that count.

  I’d seen Shane after his change, when he was still deranged with the bloodlust. The Vamp Council had kept him caged in the basement of their local safe house for almost two weeks before they called me to come get him. At first, the call surprised me. I was still licking my wounds from my cancelled wedding. He’d taken off, or so I’d thought. Their call gave me a sick kind of hope. Maybe he didn’t blow me off after all; maybe we could still have our wedding, our life, just like we planned. Seeing him in those chains had been the last straw for me. When you were looking into the blood-red eyes of a vampire, there was nothing romantic about it. He’d grabbed for me, trying to rip my throat out. Part of me wanted to let him; it would have hurt less to have my throat ripped out than my heart.

  Something between us broke that day. I’d left him in that cage, unable to make myself believe what had happened. And a few days later, he’d shown up on my door. For a few minutes, it was like it had all been one long, terrible dream.

  And then he bit me.

  Maybe Mom was right, maybe his soul was damned. Maybe he was just another unfortunate accident. Either way, the person he used to be—the person I loved—was lost to me. Now I just struggled to look at him and not hate him. For what he did, what he’d become, and what I wanted him to be. I pinched my nose with my fingers.

  “Headache?” he asked.

  “Nah, I just didn’t get much sleep last night.”

  “I know. Oh, and you’re welcome for saving your life by the way.” He smirked.

  “We wouldn’t have been stuck in that closet in the first place if your ‘super nose’ would have smelled Young in the house.”

  He frowned. “All I could smell was the vamp blood. I thought someone might be hurt.”

  I waved my hand. “Bygones. Besides, watching you get tranqued with a blowgun was totally worth the price of admission. It was like watching an elephant fall asleep at the zoo. In slow motion.”

  “An elephant? Surely, you mean a ferocious tiger.”

  “Or a baboon.”

  He growled.

  I laughed. “You should go change. I have a few calls to make before we leave.”

  “Are you kicking me out?”

  “Darn, and here I thought I was being subtle. Guess I’m no match for your awesome brain power.”

  “As long as you can admit it.”

  I made a shooing motion with my hand. “Get out.”

  “Going. I have a few calls to make myself. Mercy wants to talk to me about the initiation into Conclave.”

  Mercy was Shane’s new girlfriend, of the walking-undead variety. I still didn’t get it. She was bottle blonde, her accent was as fake as her expensive fingernails, and she honestly thought Madagascar was something you smoked.

  “Are they finally taking you off the leper list?” I asked bitterly.

  “I know you don’t care, but it’s my chance to finally be accepted as what I am. It’s not just the money and the status. It’s nice to be around other people like me.”

  “Do you really want to break into that world?”

  “Well, I don’t really belong here anymore. I’d like to belong somewhere.”

  “I just don’t get what you see in her, Shane, seriously.”

  “She’s like me,” he snapped.

  Mercy was only a few vamp years older than he was, but she’d been made with the permission of the council and had quickly become their favorite pet. It was her voice in his ear telling him he didn’t belong here. He wasn’t mine anymore—the rational part of my brain knew that. It was the rest of me that didn’t get the memo.

  “That’s a pretty poor reason to be with someone.” I snorted.

  “What’s a good reason to be with someone? Enlighten me, Isabel.”

  “Well…” I paused, taking a drink of my coffee. “You should be with someone who gets your jokes. Someone who will hold your hand when you’re sick. Someone who doesn’t think Calvin Klein started the Boxer Rebellion.”

  “How about someone who I can kiss without wanting to take a bite of? Someone who doesn’t get grossed out when I drink a cup of blood, or who looks at me like they want me and not like I’m a burden?”

  I was so stunned that I didn’t know what to say. Partly because he was right, and as guilty as I felt about it, I didn’t know how to make it better either. In some ways, having him around helped. In others, it was like picking at old wounds. Neither of us ever seemed quite able to heal.

  Shane held up his hand to stop me before I even opened my mouth.

  “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for. I just… it’s been so long since I could be with someone and not hold myself back. With Mercy, I can let go and just be myself. Fangs and all.”

  I nodded. How could I begrudge him that?

  “Well, you always have a place here, no matter what Zombie Barbie thinks.”

  But when he smiled, showing just a li
ttle too much fang, I cringed. He noticed and closed his mouth tightly.

  “I know,” he whispered, walking away. As he turned to leave, he added, “But I think I need my own place. Maybe one of the old plantation houses.”

  “Or a nice crypt with a view,” I called after him.
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