Blood trail, p.1
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       Blood Trail, p.1

          part  #2 of  Vicki Nelson Series  by  Tanya Huff / Horror / Mystery & Detective
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Blood Trail
Chapter One

The three-quarter moon, hanging low in the night sky, turned even tamed and placid farmland into a mysterious landscape of silver light and shadows. Each blade of grass, toasted golden brown by two months of summer heat, had a thin black replica stretching out behind it. The bushes along the fence bottom, highways for those too timid to brave the open fields, rustled once and then were silent as some nocturnal creature went about its business.

Their summer-shorn fleece turned milky white by the moonlight, a large flock of sheep had settled for the night in one corner of the meadow. Except for the rhythmic motion of a number of jaws and the occasional flick of an ear or twitch of a lamb unable to be still for long, even in sleep, they appeared to be an outcropping of pale stone. An outcropping come suddenly to life as several heads rose at once, aristocratic noses pointed into the breeze.

They were obviously familiar with the creature that bounded over the fence and into the meadow, for although the ewes remained alert they watched it approach with mild curiosity rather than alarm.

The huge black beast paused to mark a fence post, then trotted a few steps into the field and sat down, gazing back at the sheep with a proprietary air. Something in its general outline, in the shape of its head, said wolf just as its coloring, its size, its breadth of chest, and the reaction of the flock said dog.

Convinced that all was as it should be, it began to lope along the edge of the fence bottom, plumed tail streaming behind it like a banner, moon-silvered highlights rippling through its thick fur with every movement. Picking up speed, it leapt a thistle - more for the sheer joy of leaping than because the thistle was in its way - and cut diagonally across the lower end of the pasture.

With no more warning than a distant cough, the gleaming black head exploded in a shower of blood and bone. The body, lifted off its feet by the impact, spasmed for a frenzied moment and then lay still.

Bleating in terror at the sudden blood scent, the sheep panicked, racing to the far end of the field and pressing in a huddled noisy mass against the fence. Fortunately, the direction they'd taken had moved them upwind, not down. When nothing further happened, they began to calm and a few of the older ewes moved themselves and their lambs out of the crowding and began to settle once again.

It was doubtful that the three animals who leapt the fence a short time later even noticed the sheep. Huge paws seeming to barely touch ground, they raced to the body. One of them, russet hackles high, started back along the slain animal's trail but a growl from the bigger of the two remaining called it back.

Three pointed muzzles lifted and the howl that lifted with them panicked the sheep yet again. As the sound rose and fell, its primal cadences wiped out any remaining resemblance the three howling might have had to dogs.

Vicki hated August. It was the month in which Toronto proved what a world class city it had become; when the heat and humidity hung on to the car exhaust and the air in the concrete and glass canyon at Yonge and Bloor took on a yellowish-brown hue that left a bitter taste in the back of the throat; when every loose screw in the city decided to take a walk on the wild side and tempers were baked short. The police, in their navy blue pants and hats and heavy boots, hated August for both personal and professional reasons. Vicki had moved quickly out of uniform, and out of the force entirely a year ago, but she still hated August. In fact, as August was now forever linked with her leaving a job she'd loved, this least congenial of months had been blackened beyond redemption.

As she unlocked the door to her apartment, she tried not to smell herself. She'd spent the day, the last three days, working as an order picker in a small coffee processing factory up on Railside Drive. In the last month the company had been plagued with a number of equipment failures that the owners had finally come to realize were sabotage. Desperate - a small specialty company couldn't afford the downtime if they hoped to complete with the multinationals - the owners had hired Vicki to find out what was going on.

"And Vicki Nelson, private investigator, comes through again. " She closed the door behind her and thankfully peeled off her damp T-shirt. She'd been able to pinpoint who was jamming the processing machines on her first day but even knowing that, it took her two further days to discover how and to gather enough evidence to bring charges. Tomorrow she'd go in, lay the report on Mr. Glassman's desk and never go near the place again.

Tonight, she wanted a shower, something to eat that didn't smell like coffee, and a long vapid evening spent sucking at the boob tube.

She kicked the filthy T-shirt into a corner as she peeled off her jeans. The only up side about the entire experience was that smelling as she did, she'd gotten a seat on the subway coming home and no one had tried to crowd her.

The hot water had just begun to pound the stink and stiffness away when the phone rang. And rang. She tried to ignore it, to let the shower drown it out, but had little success. She'd always been a compulsive phone answerer. Muttering under her breath, she turned the water off, quickly wrapped herself in towels, and raced for the receiver.

"Oh there you are, dear. What took you so long?"

"It's a very small apartment, Mom. " Vicki sighed. She should have known. "Didn't it occur to you at about the seventh ring that maybe I wasn't going to answer the phone?"

"Of course not. I knew you were home or you'd have had your machine plugged in. "

She never left her machine on when she was home. She considered it the ultimate in rudeness. Maybe it was time to reconsider. The towel began to unwind and she made a grab for it - a second floor apartment was not high enough up for walking around in skin. "I was in the shower, Mom. "

"Good, then I didn't get you away from anything important. I wanted to call you before I left work. . . "

"So that the Life Sciences Department would pay for the call," Vicki added silently. Her mother had been working as a secretary at Queen's University in Kingston for longer than most of the tenured professors and she stretched job perks as far and as often as she could.

". . . and find out when you had vacation this year so maybe we could spend some time together. "

Right. Vicki loved her mother but more than three days in her company usually had her ready to commit matricide. "I don't get vacations anymore, Mom. I'm self-employed now and I have to take what jobs come my way. And besides, you were here in April. "

"You were in the hospital, Vicki, it wasn't exactly a social visit. "

The two vertical scars on her left wrist had faded to fine red lines against the pale skin. It looked like a suicide attempt and it had taken some extremely fancy footwork to avoid telling her mother how she'd actually gotten them. Being set up as a sacrifice for a demon by a sociopathic hacker was not something her mother would deal with well. "As soon as I get a free weekend, I'll come by. I promise. I have to go now, I'm dripping on the carpet. "

"Bring that Henry Fitzroy with you. I'd like to meet him. "

Vicki grinned. Henry Fitzroy and her mother. That might be worth a weekend in Kingston. "I don't think so, Mom. "

"Why not? What's wrong with him? Why was he avoiding me at the hospital?"

"He wasn't avoiding you and there's nothing wrong with him. " Okay, so he died in 1536. It hadn't slowed him down. "He's a writer. He's a little. . . unusual. "

"More unusual than Michael Celluci?"

"Mother!"

She could almost hear her mother's brows rise. "Honey, you may not remember this, but you've dated a number of unusual boys in your time. "

"I'm not dating boys anymore, Mom. I'm almost thirty-two years old. "

"You know what I mean. Remember that young man in high school? I don't recall his name but he kept a harem. . . "

"I'll call you, Mom. "

"Soon. "

"Soon," Vicki agreed, rescued the towel again and hung up. "Dated unusual boys in my time. . . " She snorted and headed back toward the bathroom. All right, a couple of them may have been a bit strange but she was over one hundred percent certain that none of them were vampires.

She turned the water back on and grinned, imagining the scene. Mom, I'd like you to meet Henry Fitzroy. He drinks blood. The grin widened as she stepped under the water. Her mother, infinitely practical, would probably ask what type. It took a lot to disrupt her mother's view of the world.

She'd just dumped a pan of scrambled eggs onto a plate when the phone rang again.

"It figures," she muttered, grabbing a fork and crossing into the living room. "Damn thing never rings when I'm not doing anything. " Sunset wouldn't be for a couple of hours yet - it wasn't Henry.

"Vicki? Celluci. " With so many Michaels on the Metropolitan Toronto Police Force, most of them had gotten into the habit of perpetually referring to themselves by their last names, on duty and off. "You remember the name of Quest's alleged accomplice? The guy who never got charged. "

"Good evening, Mike. Nice to hear from you. I'm fine thanks. " She shoveled a forkful of egg into her mouth and waited for the explosion.

"Cut the crap, Vicki. He had some woman's name. . . Marion, Maralyn. . . "

"Margot. Alan Margot. Why?"

Even over the sounds of traffic, she could hear the self-satisfied smile in his voice. "It's classified. "

"Listen you son of a bitch, when you pick my brains 'cause you're too lazy to look it up, you don't come back with 'it's classified. ' Not if you want to live to collect your pension. "

He sighed. "Use the brain you're accusing me of picking. "

"You pulled another body out of the lake?"

"Mere moments ago. "

So he was still at the site. That explained the background noise. "Same pattern of bruises?"

"Near as I can tell. Coroner just took the body away. "

"Nail the bastard. "

"That," he told her, "is the plan. "

She hung up and slid into her leather recliner, eggs balanced precariously on the arm. Two years ago, the case had been hers. Hers had been the responsibility of finding the scum who'd beaten a fifteen-year-old girl senseless and then dropped the unconscious body in Lake Ontario. Six weeks of work and they'd picked up a man named Quest, picked him up, charged him, and made it stick. There'd been a another man involved, Vicki had been sure of it, but Quest wouldn't talk and they hadn't been able to lay charges.

This time. . .

She yanked her glasses of her nose. This time, Celluci would get him, and Vicki Nelson, ex-fair-haired girl of the metro police would be sitting on her duff. The room in front of her blurred into an indistinguishable mass of fuzz-edged colors and she shoved the glasses back on.

"Shit!"

Breathing deeply, she forced herself to calm. After all, what mattered was catching Margot - not who made the collar. She scooped up the remote and flicked on the television. The Jays were in Milwaukee.

"The boys of summer," she sighed, and dug into her cooled eggs, giving herself over to the hypnotic accents of the announcers doing the pregame show. Like most Canadians over a certain age, Vicki was a hockey fan first but it was almost impossible to live in Toronto and not have baseball make inroads into your affections.

It was the bottom of the seventh, the score three to five, the Jays behind two runs, two out and a man on second with Mookie Wilson at bat. Wilson was hitting over three hundred against right-handers and Vicki could see that the Brewers' pitcher was sweating. At which point, the phone rang.

"It figures. " She stretched a long arm down and dragged the phone up onto her lap. Sunset had been at eight forty-one. It was now nine-oh-five. It had to be Henry.

Ball one.

"Yeah, what?"

"Vicki? It's Henry. Are you all right?"

Strike one.

"Yeah, I'm fine. You just called at a bad time. "

"I'm sorry, but I have some friends here who need your help. "

"My help?"

"Well, they need the help of a private investigator and you're the only one I know. "

Strike two.

"They need help right now?" There were only two innings left in the game. How desperate could it be?

"Vicki, it's important. " And she could tell by his voice that it was.

She sighed as Wilson popped out to left field, ending the inning, and thumbed the television of. "Well, if it's that important. . . "

"It is. "

". . . then I'll be right over. " With the receiver halfway back to the cradle, a sudden thought occurred to her and she snapped it back up to her mouth. "Henry?"

He was still there. "Yes?"

"These friends, they aren't vampires are they?"

"No. " Through his concern, he sounded a little amused. "They aren't vampires. "

Greg gave the young woman a neutral nod as he buzzed her through the security check and into the lobby. Vicki Nelson, her name was, and she'd dropped by a number of times over the summer while he was on the desk. Although she looked like the kind of person he'd have liked under other circumstances he simply couldn't get over the impressions he'd formed during their initial meeting last spring. It didn't help when observation confirmed that she was not the sort who would normally answer the door half dressed, proving, to his mind, his feeling that she'd been hiding something that night.

But what?

Over the last couple of months his belief that Henry Fitzroy was a vampire had begun to fade. He liked Mr. Fitzroy, respected him, realized that all his idiosyncrasies could stem from being a writer rather than a creature of the night but one last lingering doubt remained.

What had the young woman been hiding that night? And why?

Occasionally, just for his peace of mind, Greg considered asking her outright, but a certain set to her jaw had always stopped him. So he wondered. And he kept an eye on things. Just in case.

Vicki felt a distinct sense of relief as the elevator doors closed behind her. Scrutiny by that particular security guard always made her feel, well, dirty. Still, it's my own fault. I'm the one who answered the door practically naked. It had been the only solution she could think of at the time and as it had worked, distracting the old man from his intention of pounding a croquet stake through Henry's heart, she supposed she shouldn't complain about the aftereffects.

She pushed the button for the fourteenth floor and tucked her white golf shirt more securely into her red walking shorts. The little "adventure" last spring had melted off a few pounds and so far she'd managed to keep them from finding their way back. She carried too much muscle to ever be considered slim - a secret desire she'd admitted to no one - but it was nice to have a little more definition at the waist. Squinting in the glare of the fluorescent lights, she studied her reflection in the stainless steel walls of the elevator.

Not bad for an old broad, she decided, shoving the hated glasses up her nose. She wondered briefly if maybe she should have dressed more formally then decided that any friends of Henry Fitzroy, bastard son of Henry the VIII, ex-Duke of Richmond, et cetera, et cetera, were not likely to care if the private investigator showed up in shorts.

When the elevator reached Henry's floor, Vicki settled her purse on her shoulder and put on her professional face. It lasted right up until the condo door swung open and the only creature in the entrance hall was a huge russet colored dog.

It - no, he - has to be a dog. Vicki extended her hand for him to sniff. Wolves don't come in that color. Or that size. Do they? She could have added that wolves don't generally hang out in condominiums in downtown Toronto, but given that it was Henry's condo all bets were off.

The animal's eyes were outlined in black, adding to a remarkably expressive face. He enthusiastically sniffed the offered hand, then pushed his head demandingly under Vicki's fingers.

Vicki grinned, pulled the door closed, then obediently began to scratch in the thick ruff behind the pointed ears. "Henry?" she called as a tail heavy enough to knock a grown man to the ground slammed rhythmically into the wall. "You home?"

"In the living room. "

Something in the tone of his voice drew her brows down but a saucerlike paw on her instep almost instantly distracted her. "Get off, you great brute. " The dog obediently shifted his weight. She grabbed his muzzle lightly in one hand and shook his massive head from side to side. "Come on, fella, they're waiting for us. "

He smiled - there really was no other word for it - whirled around and bounded into the living room, Vicki following at a slightly more sedate pace.

Henry stood in his usual place by the huge wall of windows that looked down on the city. The lights he used on the infrequent occasions he had company picked up the red highlights in his fair hair and turned his hazel eyes almost gold. Actually, Vicki was guessing about the effect on his eyes as she couldn't see details over that great a distance. She never tired of looking at him though, he had a presence that lifted his appearance from merely pleasing to extraordinary and she could certainly understand how poor Lucy and Mina hadn't stood a chance against his well-known fictional counterpart.

He wasn't alone. The young woman fiddling with the CD player turned as Vicki came into the living room and Vicki hid a smile as she found herself being thoroughly and obviously looked over. She took a good long look in return.

A dancer? Vicki wondered. Although small, the girl was sleekly muscled and held herself in a way that could almost be interpreted as challenging. Don't try it, kid. If I'm not quite twice your age - the girl could be no older than seventeen or eighteen - I'm definitely meaner. The short mane of silver blond hair, Vicki realized with a start, was natural; the brows could have been lightened but not the lashes. While not exactly pretty, the pale hair made for an exotic contrast with the deep tan. And that sundress certainly leaves little tan to the imagination.

Their eyes met and Vicki's brows rose. Just for an instant she almost had a grasp of what was really going on, then the instant passed and the girl was looking up through her lashes and smiling shyly.

The large red dog had gone to sit by Henry's side, his head level with Henry's waist, and now the two of them walked forward. Henry wore a carefully neutral expression. The dog looked amused.

"Vicki, I'd like you to meet Rose Heerkens. Her family is having some trouble I think you can help them with. "

"Pleased to meet you. " Vicki held out her hand and after a quick glance at Remy - What did he tell her about me? - the younger woman put hers in it. Very few women are any good at shaking hands, not having been raised to do it, but Vicki was surprised by both a grip that matched her own and a callus-ridged palm.

As Rose released her hold, she extended the motion to indicate the dog now leaning against her legs. "This is Storm. "

Storm held up a paw.

Bending over to take it, Vicki grinned. "Pleased to meet you too, Storm. "

The big dog gave a short bark and leaned forward, dragging his tongue across Vicki's face with enough force to almost dislodge her glasses.

"Storm, stop it!" With both hands buried in the russet ruff, Rose yanked the dog back. "Maybe she doesn't want to be covered in slobber. "

"Oh, I don't mind. " She wiped her face off with her palm and resettled her glasses on her nose. "What kind of a dog is he? He's beautiful. " Then she laughed, for Storm obviously recognized the compliment and was looking smug.

"Please don't encourage him, Ms. Nelson, he's vain enough already. " Rose dug her knee in behind the big dog's shoulder and shoved, knocking him over. "And as for what kind he is - he's a nuisance. "

Storm didn't look at all put out by being so unceremoniously dumped. Tongue lolling, he rolled over on his back, all four feet in the air, and looked expectantly up at Vicki.

"Do you want your stomach rubbed, then?"

"Storm. " Henry's command brought the animal off the floor, to stand looking remarkably chastened.

Vicki glanced at Henry in astonishment. What was with him?

"Perhaps," he met Yield's eyes then swept his gaze over the girl and the dog, "we should get on with things. "

Vicki found herself moving toward the couch without having made a conscious decision to move. She hated it when he did that. She hated the way she responded to it. And she really hated not being sure if it was the vampire or the prince she was responding to - somehow knuckling under to a supernatural ability seemed less reprehensible than giving in to a medieval petty dictator. His undead highness and I are going to have to have a little talk about this. . .

Tossing her bag down, she settled back against the red velvet upholstery, watching Rose curl up in the armchair and Storm throw himself to the floor at her feet. He looked splendid against the cream colored carpet but the russet fur clashed a little desperately with the crimson of the chair. Henry dropped one denim-clad leg on the arm of the couch and perched beside her, so close that, for a moment, Vicki was aware of him alone.

"It's too soon, Vicki, you lost a lot of blood. "

She felt her face flush. It had never occurred to her that he wouldn't want to. . . It was what they were leading up to, wasn't it? "They put most of it back at the hospital, Henry. I'm fine. Really. "

"I believe you. " He smiled and she suddenly found the air available in the hallway inadequate.

He's had over four hundred and fifty years to practice that smile, she reminded herself. Breathe.

"We have to be very careful," he continued, placing his hands lightly on her shoulders. "I don't want to hurt you. "

It sounded so much like dialogue out of a bad soap opera that Vicki grinned. "Just so long as you remember I haven't got a couple of hundred years to spare," she told him, digging for her apartment keys, "I'll try not to rush you. "

That had been almost four months ago, the first time they'd gone out after she'd been released from the hospital. And they still hadn't. Vicki had tried to be patient but there were times, and with him sitting so close this was one of them, when she wanted to kick his feet out from under him and beat him to the floor. With an effort, she brought her attention back to the business at hand.

As everyone appeared to be waiting for her to speak, she arranged her face into her best "the police officer is your friend" expression and turned to Rose. "What is it you need me to help you with?"

Again, Rose glanced at Henry. Although Vicki couldn't see the vampire's response it seemed to reassure the younger woman for she took a deep breath, brushed her hair back off her face with trembling fingers, and said, "In the last month two members of our family have been shot. " She had to stop and swallow grief before she could continue. "We need your help, Ms. Nelson, to find the killer. "

Murder. Well, that was definitely a little more serious than Vicki had been expecting. And a double murder at that. She pushed her glasses up her nose and let sympathy soften her voice as she asked, "Have the local police not turned up any leads?"

"They don't exactly know. "

"What do you mean by 'don't exactly know'?" Vicki could think of several things it might mean and none of them appealed to her.

"Why don't you show her, Rose," Henry said quietly.

Vicki swiveled around to look up at him, her peripheral vision too poor to allow her the luxury of glancing from the corner of her eye. His expression matched his tone. Whatever Rose had to show her was very important. More than slightly apprehensive, she turned around again.

Rose, who had been waiting for her attention, slipped out of her sandals and rose to her feet. Storm, after giving the sandals a quick sniff, padded over to her side. In one quick movement she stripped off the sundress she was wearing, stood naked for a heartbeat, and then, where there had been a pale-haired young woman and a large russet dog there was a red-haired young man and a large white dog.

The young man bore a strong resemblance to the young woman; they shared the same high cheekbones, the same large eyes, the same pointed chins. And the same lithe dancer's body, Vicki noted after one quick glance at the obvious difference.

"Werewolves," she heard herself say aloud, amazed at her composure. Odds are good it's Henry's influence. This is what comes of hanging around with vampires. . . I'll get the bastard for this.

The young man, completely undismayed by both her scrutiny and his nakedness, winked.

Vicki, considerably nonplussed, especially when she remembered how she'd been treating the dog - No, wolf. No, wer. Oh hell. - earlier, felt herself flushing and glanced away for an instant. When she looked back, she found she'd missed the actual moment of transformation and Rose was tugging her dress back over her head. The young man - Storm? - was resignedly pulling on a pair of bright blue shorts that offered minimal coverage.

Feeling her gaze on him, he looked up, smiled, and advanced with his hand held out. "Hi. I guess further introduction are in order. My name's Peter. "

"Uh, hi. " Apparently the names changed with the form. A little stunned, Vicki took the offered hand. It had the same pattern of heavy callus that Rose's had. Made sense actually if they ran on four feet part of the time. "You're, uh, Rose's brother?"

"We're twins. " He grinned and it reminded Vicki so much of the expression the russet dog had worn that she found herself grinning in return. "She's older; I'm better looking. "

"You're noisier," Rose corrected, curling back up in the armchair. "Come and sit down. " With a martyred air, Peter did as he was told, throwing himself gracefully down into the same spot he'd occupied as Storm, his back pressed against his sister's knees. "We're sorry about the theatricality of all this, Ms. Nelson," she continued, "but Henry suggested it was the best way to present it, that you. . . "

She hesitated and Henry smoothly finished the sentence. ". . . that you weren't a person who denied the evidence of your own eyes. "

Vicki supposed he meant it as a compliment so she contented herself with a quiet snort and an only moderately sarcastic, "Well, you should know. "

"You will help us, won't you?" Peter leaned forward, and placed one hand lightly on Vicki's knee. There was nothing sexual in the touch, and the expression accompanying it held only a combination of worry and hope.

Werewolves. Vicki sighed. First vampires and demons, now werewolves. What next? She crossed her legs, dislodging Peter's hand, and settled back into a more comfortable position; odds were good that this was going to be a long story. "Perhaps you'd better start at the beginning. "
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