Flight from mayhem, p.8
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       Flight from Mayhem, p.8

           Yasmine Galenorn
 

  “Are you okay, Alex?” I knew he couldn’t get sick, but maybe there was something else going on back behind those frosty eyes.

  He shuffled. “I just . . . Shimmer, when Glenda showed up, I realized how much happier I am with you than I was with her. Even though it’s early in our relationship, I was thinking, maybe we could make it exclusive?”

  “Oh, wow. I didn’t expect that one coming.” And I hadn’t. Alex didn’t strike me as an exclusive sort of guy—at least not considering he had just gotten out of a long-term, very tiring relationship.

  “Is it too soon?” He flashed me a boyish grin, the tips of his fangs showing.

  Frowning, I tried to think of how to answer him. Was it too soon? Yes. Was it too soon? No. Everything depended on so many varying factors that I wasn’t sure how to even begin. But I knew one thing: The lobby of the Seattle Vampire Nexus was not the spot to have the Where are we going with our relationship talk.

  I bit my lip, trying to plan out what I said so it didn’t come out wrong. “I need to think it over, Alex. And I need you to understand that it’s not because I want out, or because I don’t adore you. You see . . . the thing is, I’m just so new to this. And we—we’re just so new together. We don’t even know if it’s working. I mean, I have a lot of fun with you. I like being with you, and when I wake up, the first thing I think about is ‘How’s Alex?’ Don’t even think I’m sitting here, wanting to run out and date other men, either. I’m not interested in playing the field. I don’t think I’d be very good, coping with more than one man at a time. More than one person, for that matter. But I . . .”

  “You need to breathe a little, and you’re too polite to say it like that. You need a little space.” He didn’t look happy—but then again, he didn’t look mad. And that was important. I didn’t want him thinking he didn’t matter to me, because he did.

  “Alex, please understand. This is so new to me—I’m far older than you, and in my entire life, I’ve never had any relationship like this. Hell, Carter was hard for me to deal with. But this . . . with you, it’s gone to a new level for me. Where, for you, it’s . . . a blip.” I glanced at the vampire in front of me as he moved to the reception desk. We were now next in line.

  Alex blinked. “You think you’re a blip in my life? That you’re just one more notch on my belt? Shimmer, though I’ve had more relationships than you—a lot more, all right?—that doesn’t make this . . . you . . . any less meaningful to me. It’s not just sex. I’m not fond of one-night stands.”

  At that moment, the vampire in front of us veered off to the right and the receptionist—a pale young woman with silver hair and bright blue eyes, which meant she was a newly minted vamp—motioned us up. “How may I direct you?”

  Alex frowned, then quickly said to me, “We’ll talk about this later. Come on.” He took me by the elbow and escorted me across the waiting line, up to the desk. “We need to see Lord Roman—tell him Alex Radcliffe is here, and that I have an important matter to discuss with him. It has to do with possible criminal activity against vampires.”

  She eyed him quietly for a moment, then tapped her headset and punched a button on the phone. I wasn’t paying attention to what she was saying, but a moment later we were being escorted down the hall to a private room. The mansion was old world, with ornate trim, solid wood and marble floors, and textured paint on the walls that reminded me of something Bette had called faux Venetian plaster. I loved the polished, three-dimensional look, although the gold color was a little overwhelming.

  As we headed into an office, I steeled myself. I wasn’t very familiar with the vampire lord, and I had no doubt the brief few times we had met had fully escaped his notice. But he surprised me when he stood as we entered, nodded at Alex, and gave me a long look.

  “Shimmer, well met, Mistress of Dragonkin.” He had an effusive way about him that bordered on melodrama but never quite pushed over the edge into corny. As he clicked his heels and bowed, I felt like I should drop into a curtsey, but that would be ridiculous given who I was and my nature. Oh, I could drop low to the floor in front of the Wing-Liege, but it felt awkward and strange to think of doing so around a vampire. The thought that maybe he was making fun of me ran through my head, but again—vampires like Roman didn’t waste time on frat-boy idiocies.

  “Well met, Lord Roman.” In the Dragon Reaches, he would have just made a major faux pas by recognizing me, but I kept my mouth shut. It was nice, for a change, to be greeted civilly. I still wasn’t used to how friendly people were to me over Earthside. Hell, if they knew I was a dragon they might not be so friendly, but it wouldn’t be because I was an outcaste. It would be because they’d be scared shitless of me.

  Roman motioned for us to sit on the opposite side of his desk. “My secretary tells me that you have concerns about criminal activity, Alex? From or against the vampire community?”

  Alex shifted in his seat, frowning. “It’s a complicated situation. I’m helping . . . someone . . . investigate a case. There have been several murders in the Fae community. I’m thinking Supe serial killer pack—there seem to be several persons of interest. But it occurred to me if they had targeted any vampires for their activities, if they killed their victims, there wouldn’t be any bodies left to find. So what I’m trying to ascertain is whether any wealthy vamps have come up missing lately? The victims would most likely be lonely types, possible shut-ins, or recluses who have few friends or who are pining for days gone by.”

  Roman paused, eyeing us carefully. “I’ve heard about this through the grapevine. I also understand the FH-CSI is on the job, but from what I gather, they’ve got their hands full. Another matter that is coming to light is taking all their time right now, but I cannot discuss that. You might be helping them, but if you were, I doubt they’d want that spread around. Is my read on the situation running on track?”

  Alex glanced at me, then gave a short nod. “You wouldn’t be far off.”

  Roman’s lip curled into a concentrated frown. “I don’t think we’ve had any reports of missing vamps—not from something like this. You say it’s a pack of killers?”

  Alex shrugged. “It’s looking that way, though to be honest, the thought doesn’t track well with me. I really don’t see that as making much sense. One killer, yes. Two—that happens. But I’ve found, through the years, that unless it’s a government-sanctioned killing squad, anything over two is suspect. Too many members create too many chances that somebody will run their mouth off.”

  I decided to interrupt. “Could Chase be wrong? I mean, just because all of the victims had new paramours, does it have to mean that they were killed by them? Could it be someone setting it up to look like that? One killer, smart enough to pick victims known to be in new relationships?”

  “Or, perhaps a variation.” Roman stood, folding his arms and pacing away from his desk. “Remember, there are creatures who can change shape . . . who can take on other forms. I have met a few of them in my time. They tend to be dangerous and unpredictable.”

  Alex blinked and I could see the “aha” moment sweep over his face. “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?”

  “Remember, I have been walking this world for over two millennia. I have seen wonders, and I have seen horrors. And all manner of creatures in between.” Roman’s gaze flashed to me and I felt myself drifting in his frosty stare. I realized—here was someone who had probably been born around the time I had, and yet, he felt so much older. I liked to think of myself as an adult, but truth was, among my kind, my adult life was just really getting under way.

  Nodding, Alex said, “That all makes sense. But these shapeshifters—they’re a rare breed. They aren’t Weres, not like Ralph.” Then, he snapped his fingers. “Doppelgängers. You’re right in that there are other types of these creatures, but doppelgängers are the most common, and most likely to be found around here. I’ll bet you anything that’s what we’r
e dealing with.”

  Roman slowly nodded. “I think you’re right.”

  “What’s a doppelgänger? I’ve heard the term, but I’m not terribly familiar with it.” I wasn’t up on my mythology.

  “A doppelgänger is a mutable shifter. They can change form as they like. And they can take on some of the memories of their victims, I think, by consuming the flesh.”

  A thought struck me—something Chase had said. “Wait! Bette’s friend Marlene. She was seen on camera at the bank at a time when she should have been dead.”

  Alex clapped his hands. “Hot damn, you’re right. And so were the others. This has to be the answer.” But then he glanced over at Roman, his glee quickly slipping from his face. “Oh hell. That means . . .”

  Roman gave him a short nod. “Yes, it does present a problem.”

  “What? What is it?” Whatever they were thinking was lost on me.

  Alex turned to me. “Think about it for a moment. We have a doppelgänger running around. A creature with psychopathic tendencies who can change shape at will. A mutable serial killer.” The glee over discovering the answer rapidly drained away. “See what this means? He . . . she . . . it . . . could be anywhere. We have no clue who to look for. We don’t know what its natural form is, and chances are the creature won’t be running around in its birthday suit, anyway. Not if it’s smart, and we can be sure that it’s fiendishly intelligent.”

  As the thought settled in—a killer who could change shape at will, who was targeting its victims with a conscious, thoughtful methodology, I began to understand their reaction. “How can we stop it?”

  “That’s the million-dollar question, love. Roman, if you suspect any vamps of being targeted, let me know, will you?”

  Roman stood and ushered us to the door. “Of course. And I’ll have my men keep their ears open.”

  As Alex and I headed out, my thoughts ran to what we were facing. If we were right, not only did this leave us with no clue as to where to look, but at this moment, the creature could be targeting its next victim, ready to begin wooing them to an early death.

  CHAPTER 6

  We were too close to sunrise to do much else, so Alex drove me home.

  As we sat in the Range Rover in front of my house, he reached out and took my hand. “Shimmer, I want you to know that I’m not going to press you on the question I asked tonight. I just want you to realize how much you already mean to me.” He lifted my fingers to his lips and slowly kissed them, one by one. “But I know that you aren’t used to this. I understand that you’re not sure what you’re getting into. And I never want you to feel that—because of the situation—I expect anything out of you. If you were to say to me, ‘Alex, back the hell off,’ I would.” He turned toward me, his gaze searching my face. “You know that, don’t you?”

  I let out a long breath. “Yes, I do. And thank you. I promise, I’ll be straight with you. I’ll think about it . . . I just don’t want to rush things. I don’t want to hurt you, in case I realize I’m not cut out to be anybody’s girlfriend. I have no clue who I really am, Alex. Not over here. Back in the Dragon Reaches, I knew my place. It sucked, but at least there, I knew who I was. Here? There are suddenly so many possibilities.” Very softly, I voiced a thought I hadn’t wanted to even say aloud. “I don’t know if I’m going to want to go home after being here. I think . . . I think I could get used to being respected and liked for who I am. I don’t feel . . . thrown away . . . here.”

  He leaned in, his lips touching mine for a long, luxurious kiss. “I know, love. And I realize just how confusing this is for you. I don’t want to complicate matters. So, take your time. Answer now, or answer next year. I’ll be fine either way.” And with that, he stroked my cheek, and I slid out of the car, watching as he drove off. My heart told me to make him smile, agree to be exclusive. My head told me to wait, to not take a chance on hurting him if I realized I couldn’t be the person he hoped I could.

  As I entered the house, Snookums came running, with Chai right behind him. The cat had something in his mouth and I realized it was one of my favorite scarves. As I watched, Snookums leaped over the back of the sofa, catching Chai off guard. The djinn twisted to keep from barreling into it, tripped, and landed at my feet. My mood shifted and I laughed, reaching over the back of the couch to scoop up the cat, who was kneading a seat cushion while purring and looking mighty proud of himself.

  “You’re home early. How did it go at the Seattle Vampire Nexus?” Chai rolled over on his side, still on the floor, propping himself up on an elbow.

  “Frustrating. We’re getting nowhere pretty damned fast, but at least we have an idea. I’ll tell you about it while I eat. Any messages?” I headed for the kitchen and Chai leaped to his feet, following behind me.

  “You mean did Stacy call? Yeah, her cold has morphed into bronchitis and she’s down for the count. I took her a bowl of soup.” Stacy had finally met Chai and she knew what he was. Even though she was leery of a lot of the Fae, she had taken to him. People generally did—Chai was a pretty likable guy. But then, all djinns could be charming. That was part of their danger.

  “Wonderful, not.” I rummaged in the refrigerator, finally coming up with some leftover pizza. I stuck four slices in the microwave and, while they were nuking, I munched on a couple of brownies that had escaped Chai’s notice. “So, any clues about the whereabouts of the salamander?”

  “Nope. Not at the moment. But I’m working on it. You look tired, Shimmer. What else happened?”

  I didn’t feel like telling him about Alex’s request—that we be exclusive. Chai was protective and he was also on the side of sleeping with the boss is a bad thing. He liked Alex, but he hadn’t come around to approving of our relationship yet.

  “We think we’re facing a doppelgänger, and that makes everything just so much worse.” Before he could speak, the microwave beeped and I held up my hand. “I’m just tired. Maybe I need some extra sleep. I think I’ll take my pizza and go to bed early, for once.” Under Chai’s watchful eyes, I gathered up my food and a bottle of water and headed toward my bedroom. Surprisingly, I did exactly what I had said I was going to. I polished off the pizza, then slid under the covers and crashed hard.

  * * *

  Bette called and told me to meet her outside early. When she showed up, she hustled me into the car. “Alex called. He said we’re to get into the office pronto. No dawdling or stopping for doughnuts. You can bet that something’s going on.”

  By the time we reached the agency, Alex was waiting by Bette’s desk, car keys in hand. “We have to get out to the U-District. That salamander has been causing havoc there, and if the FH-CSI is called out on it, Lydia could find herself in trouble. Bette, hold down the fort. Ralph is in his office, trying to figure out some sort of triangulation of coordinates or some such thing. I have no clue, so don’t ask.” He impatiently glanced at his watch, then at the door leading to Ralph’s computer sanctum. We jokingly referred to it as his cyber-fortress.

  “I’m going to call Chai. Give me the address and I can send him directly there. He’ll be able to help us and he knows enough that I won’t have to ask.” I grabbed the slip of paper from Alex and stepped to the side. Chai picked up immediately.

  “Salamander is on the loose.” I cleared my throat. “We’re heading out.”

  “What’s the address? I’ll meet you there.”

  I gave him directions. “Be careful. We don’t know how strong that thing is.” As I hung up and turned back, Alex was halfway to the door.

  “He’d better not go and stir up things. Come on, we’ll have to take the Range Rover. Get Ralph up here now, would you, Bette? We don’t have any more time to wait. What the hell do you use to fight a salamander, anyway?” He patted his thigh, then frowned. “Oh bother. Hold on, I need to get Juanita.” His voice trailed off as he stomped toward his office to fetch his knife. Juanita was a wicked bowie
knife. I wasn’t sure if the blade was magical or not, but Alex loved her dearly.

  “Chai can probably figure out something to do with the critter.” Bette cackled, her cigarette hanging off her lip as she slipped behind the receptionist’s desk and punched a button on the intercom. “Wolfie, get your hackles up here. Alex wants to get on the road. Don’t forget your jacket—it’s chilly out there.”

  I snickered. Bette teased everybody as much as she mother-henned us, and we all loved it. She was the one constant in this job, and she made coming to work a lot more fun than it would have been otherwise. I leaned over the counter and swiped one of the chocolate Kisses she kept there, popping it in my mouth as I crinkled the foil wrapper between my fingers.

  “Earthside has a lot of pluses to be said for it.” I grinned. “Candy being one of them.”

  “I thought you weren’t big on sweets.” She handed me another.

  “I wasn’t, but chocolate is growing on me. Alex keeps buying me boxes of it—what’s that all about anyway?” I wasn’t sure what chocolate had to do with relationships, but he seemed to show up with a box every few weeks.

  “Chocolate is to romance, at least among humans, as what . . . oh . . . I have no idea what you dragons do. There’s a saying among humans. Sweets for the sweet. Chocolate’s considered an aphrodisiac, a way to make up for an argument, a mood soother—especially for women. It cures what ails you.” She leaned back, puffing on the cig. “I know you’ve never had much of a relationship before—except with the half-Titan . . . and gods help me, even I can’t imagine having a go at him. You are braver than I, my girl. But seriously, you need to learn about the cultural mores. Have you given Alex any special gifts?”

  I frowned. “I’m supposed to give gifts for no reason?” The thought made sense, though it wasn’t something I would have thought of on my own. Hell, I didn’t even know all the cultural mores of my own society, let alone one alien to me.

 
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