Dark Hunger

Page 20

“You won’t touch her other memories?” Ransom asked Raphael, while she was still reeling under the force of the cruel emotional slap.

“Questioning the word of an archangel is a good way to end up dead.”

Raphael! Stop it. Furious, she met Ransom’s green eyes. “He doesn’t want anything but this particular memory.” Don’t make me a liar, she said mind to mind at the same instant.

A dangerous pause. You question my word, too, Elena?

Ransom is right. We are rats to you.

You aren’t part of any other group. You are my consort.

Ransom spoke before she could respond and it was just as well, since what she wanted to say would probably only have thrown fuel on the ugly fight brewing between her and Raphael.

“Cici lives down the street,” he said. “She came to buddy-watch the latest episode of Hunter’s Prey like she does every week, and when no one answered, she used the key they gave her a while back when she needed a place to hide out from a violent ex. She knew something was wrong as soon as she got a whiff of the smell, but she figured maybe the cat had dragged in a dead rat or something while everyone was out.”

Running a hand through his hair, he messed it up, tugged off the rawhide tie to put it back in order. “She’s a tough working girl, has come up against knife-wielding assailants and walked out the winner, but I found her curled up in a ball sobbing when I arrived.” A look at Raphael. “Janvier is with her. We were out riding together when I got the call.”

That explained the unfamiliar red motorcycle out front, parked next to Ransom’s black one. As for how Ransom knew the vampire who held the trust of senior Tower personnel, Janvier had some kind of a relationship—no one quite understood what—with one of their fellow hunters.

“Which house?”

“It’s an apartment. I’ll show you.”

Remaining behind after Raphael left with Ransom, Elena forced herself to go through the house, while Keir focused on the victims and Illium stood watch outside to make sure no one decided to get curious.

Three males and two females lay dead. Five more lives snuffed out. Two couples, judging from the photos she could see in the bedrooms. One couple was in bed, the two men spooned together as if they’d held on to each other as the sickness became too much to bear. The male half of the other couple was slumped on the couch, his girlfriend on the floor, and to Elena, it looked as if the girl had fallen in a spasm and been unable to get back up. The second girl was in a tiny room at the back, the petite prettiness evident in the photos tucked under the edges of her vanity obliterated by the pox.

This victim’s room might have been the smallest in the house, but it was well kept and made individual by the framed Broadway posters on the walls and the glittering masks hung around the same vanity mirror that held the photos. A dancer, Elena realized, seeing the costumes in the doorless cupboard. She recognized one of them from an off-Broadway show that had closed six months ago, after a respectable run.

Since the dead vampire was living in this part of town, she must’ve been a backup dancer and not yet a lead . . . had probably embraced the near-immortality of vampirism so as to have more time to pursue her dream of the stage. Elena understood why someone would sign on for a hundred years of slavery on the back of such overwhelming desire; dreams could be a commanding force.

Belle had been a dancer. Long legged and with a thousand dreams in her eyes as she practiced in the backyard. She’d laughed when Elena tried to copy her, but it had been the affectionate laughter of a big sister, and many times, she’d stopped her own practice to teach Elena how to do the moves.

“Like this, Ellie. You have to become the music, become the air.”

Sadness weighing down her shoulders, Elena whispered, “I’m sorry,” before leaving the bright little room, its color and flamboyance a painful foil for the small, rotting body that lay curled up on the bed.

As she went through the house more carefully, she noted another poster, this one from a Hollywood blockbuster that had a sticky note at the top proclaiming Extras rule! Then there was the marked-up television script on one bedside table, a musical score on another, next to a violin of glowing wood so beautiful, Elena didn’t dare touch it.

“They were artists,” she said to Keir, watching as he examined the body of the girl in the living room. “Dancers, actors, musicians. Must’ve banded together to rent this place so they could save on costs.” It surprised her. “I always figured after a hundred years of service to an angel, vampires would come out with at least some savings.”

“Not every angel is generous.” Keir kept his eyes on the body, his hands gentle and respectful as he opened the girl’s shirt to check the progression of the disease. “It’s an unspoken rule that the blood kin who complete their Contracts should be given enough money on leaving to begin a new life, but that sum is open to interpretation.”

He closed the sides of the shirt, doing up two buttons so it wouldn’t gape. “Then,” he said, shifting to look at the male, “there are the vampires who come out of their Contracts so used to being told what to do that they have no idea how to manage their money and end up going through it like water.”

“The musician,” Elena said, “I think he spent his money on his violin; the actor on drama classes, from the brochures I found in her room; so these five, at least, were working toward something.” There was a vibrant sense of promise in every room of the house, the kind of energy that said all five had been on the same wavelength. “It seems so unfair. They were the good ones, the ones who did their hundred years, and this is their reward?”

“Life is rarely fair, Elena.” Keir’s voice held the echoes of thousands of years of existence. “But this, at least . . . no, it should not have happened.”

Finding nothing in the living room that might provide a clue as to how all five roommates had apparently been infected simultaneously—a fact that seemed to negate their blood donor theory—Elena moved on. Ransom returned while she was in the kitchen. “Raphael is one scary motherfucker,” was his greeting.

Elena’s hand tightened around the edge of the fridge door, the cold air seeping into her clothes to scrape over her skin. “Cici?”

“Sleeping like a baby. And yeah, your scary boyfriend’s returned to the Tower to deal with something else.” Lines of strain around his mouth, he blew out a harsh breath. “Part of me is glad Cici won’t be haunted by this horror, won’t wake up whimpering and screaming night after night, but we took a piece of her life, Ellie.”

“I would rather die as Elena than live as a shadow.”

She’d said that to Raphael once, and he’d kept her faith, hadn’t messed with her memories. Maybe that was why she’d become complacent, forgetting he’d do so to others without blinking. Even to the people who were more her family than Jeffrey would ever be. “I’m sorry,” she said again, door edge digging into her palm from the force of her grip.

Ransom shoulder-bumped her. “It’s not your fault. I’d have had to report this to the Tower whether or not you were with Raphael. Only difference is, I’d have been wiped, too, and never known it, so thanks for having my back.” Bending, he began to move things around in the fridge. “Hey”—utter motionlessness—“did you see this?”

Alerted by his response, she pushed the door wide and bent down beside him. “Blood.” Bottles of it, tucked away in back of the second shelf. Most vampires preferred the vein, but bottled blood was like fast food—every city vamp had some within easy reach. “Supplier?”

If it was one of the major vamp-focused blood services, this could go nuclear very, very fast. Those services didn’t test for disease, because vampires weren’t supposed to get sick. Instead, they took in donors the human banks rejected, paying them enough that, for some, donating “food blood” was a steady source of income. And with New York being a Tower city, with a strong vampire population, demand was high. It would’ve been child’s play for the carrier of this deadly pox to slip into the donor line.

“Blood-for-Less,” Ransom read out. “That’s a new outfit in the Vampire Quarter.”

Known as Soho in the daytime, the area wasn’t exactly a cheap-rent part of the city, which meant, Elena thought, the business had to be at least moderately successful.

“Small-time blood café but with a growing fan base,” Ransom continued, closing the fridge door. “Lower-quality blood, according to my vamp contacts.”

“How can it be lower quality than diseased blood?”

“Word is they take anemics, people who overdonate, might even be watering the blood down a little, but it’s cheap. There’s a market for that—blood that’s enough for a snack, not a meal. And since that’s the Blood-for-Less motto, no one feels cheated.”

Elena walked across to flip open the lid of the garbage bin.

No bottles.

Then she spied a white plastic crate off to the side marked Recycling in sparkly purple pen that erased any distance she might’ve managed to keep from the victims. “Here we go,” she said through a throat gone raw. “One large bottle.”

“There was that half-eaten cake in the fridge.”

“Yes.” The remnants of the word Congratulations had still been readable, white icing over chocolate frosting. “A celebration, complete with cake and a shared bottle of blood to do the toast.” God, it pissed her off that these people had died so an archangel already bloated with power could gain more.

“I can reach out to my contacts”—stress lines bracketed either side of Ransom’s mouth as he spoke—“find out if there are any other budget operations like Blood-for-Less, if that information will help with whatever the hell is going on.”

Elena could taste his frustration, but she wasn’t about to risk his mind or his memories. “Yes,” she said, and the responding flash of anger on his face cut like a knife; she had the sense of a wall going up between her and someone who’d been a part of her life since the day she’d first walked into the Academy. “I’ll check out Blood-for-Less.”

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