I've come to accept the fact that I'm a guardian. I'll even admit that I enjoy hunting down those rogue supernatural elements who prey on human and non-humans alike.
But that doesn't mean there still aren't times when I absolutely hate my job.
Getting a call-out at three A.M. on a bitterly cold winter night was definitely one of those times. Especially when the call sent me to an area rapidly gaining a reputation as the 'it' spot for blood whores - which was the common term for humans hooked on the pleasures of a vampire's bite.
Normally I didn't have a problem with people getting their kicks any damn way they pleased, but for humans - and it only seemed to afflict humans, not the rest of us - becoming addicted to a vampire's bite was definitely one of the quicker ways to court death. They simply didn't have the strength, the speed, or even the will power to battle a vampire if things went wrong. Hell, many supernaturals didn't, either.
And while most vampires were generally law abiding and only took enough to give the addicted his or her hit, there were always some abusers who pushed for longer, stronger rushes, and there were always vampires willing to oblige.
And sometimes that meant death.
It had become such a problem in recent months that the government had set up a think tank to find ways of curtailing the growing numbers flocking to the vampire bars. There were even calls to outlaw the practice - though how the hell anyone was going to police that I had no idea. It wasn't like ordinary cops had much hope of tracking down and arresting vamps, and there simply weren't enough of us guardians. Not if they wanted us to do our real job.
Personally, I think they had about as much hope of stopping this craze as they did stopping all the designer drugs that were constantly hitting the streets. If a junkie wanted his fix, then he'd find it no matter how difficult or how illegal the government made it. And at least all the whores were of legal age - the vampire 'pushers' were careful about that. They had to be, because otherwise they had to deal with the Directorate. Regular drug dealers just got jail time, at worst.
Of course, there was no proof that the murder I'd been called to tonight was yet another pleasure seeker who'd pushed too far. Jack had simply told me to get my butt over there pronto, and the edge in his voice had me scrambling for clothes and not taking the time for questions. But the murder had happened in the older section of Fitzroy, in a parking lot behind Dante's - and that club was a prime location for blood whores and their vampire johns.
I slowed the car as I passed through the Smith Street intersection, then turned left onto Budd Street. Several of the street lights were out and darkness closed in around the car. The buildings here were mainly old factories and warehouses, their brick walls grimy and covered with graffiti. The few houses squeezed in between the larger buildings were dark - and with the graffiti on their walls and the filth littering their front fences, it was hard to tell whether they were occupied or not. But I was a dhampire - part werewolf, part vampire - and had inherited many gifts from both parts of my heritage. The vampire part of my soul could see the blood heat within those buildings - although unlike my twin brother, I couldn't hear the siren call of their heart beats.
And I was damn glad of that, because it meant I'd also missed out on the vampire's hunger for blood. Rhoan hadn't, but he had missed the fangs, and his blood hunger only rose in tandem with the full moon.
The crime scene came into view and I pulled up behind a Directorate van. The wind's icy fingers slapped across the back of my neck as I climbed out, and I hastily zipped up my jacket then pulled up the collar. It didn't help much. I might be a werewolf, and therefore supposedly immune to the winter, but the cold and I had never been on friendly terms.
I shoved my hands into my pockets and walked towards the parking lot. The rotating blue lights of the squad cars washed the night and the few bystanders in a ghostly glow, but as far as I could see or feel, there were no actual ghosts in the area. And if this was just a feeding taken too far, then there probably wouldn't be. As far as I knew, the souls that hung around tended to be the ones who'd met a violent end or who had something they needed to finish before they moved on. And blood whores didn't fit either of those categories, because they'd gone to their deaths knowing the dangers and not caring one bit.
And that's probably what annoyed me most. These people were knowingly flirting with death, yet when he answered, everyone got righteously moral and wanted the vamp responsible caught and killed. And the guardians were obliged to obey, because that was the law. But killing a blood whore wasn't a simple act of murder. It was consensual, and that raised a whole different set of issues. And although I did believe the vamp involved needed to be punished, killing them seemed a step too far. And most of the vampire community agreed.
Meaning that the worst part of the whole situation was the fact that our pursuit of these vamps was raising a lot of bad feeling in the supernatural community. And having the city's vampires angry at us could only ever end badly. There were a whole lot more of them than us, and as well trained as we guardians were, we didn't have a hope if the vamps decided we were too much of a problem.
Of course, the two vampires who dominated my life - Quinn, my lover, and Jack, my boss - thought I was making too much of the situation. Jack even kept trying to reassure me with the fact that the vampire council had a handle on it. I didn't believe it - or them. They weren't out on the street dealing with the ill-feeling day in and day out. They simply didn't understand how bad it was getting.
I did, and I didn't mind admitting that it scared me.
The parking lot had several cars in it, but the mobile light towers weren't trained on any of them, but rather on the corner of the lot, where it intersected with Dante's back wall. There were several overall-clad men there, and relief slithered through me as I caught the glint of silver hair. Cole might be our top guy when it came to crime scene forensics, but he also hated these early morning call-outs as much as I did. That meant he'd be doing his best to find the clues and get the hell home as quickly as possible.
As I ducked under the blue and white police tape lining the parking lot, one of the cops keeping an eye on the small crowd huddled in the middle of the road took a step in my direction. I grabbed my badge and flashed it his way, shivering a little as the wind hit my fingers and chilled them in an instant.
The cop gave me a nod and turned back. I stepped over the gnarled roots of a small tree struggling to survive in a little corner of bare ground then flared my nostrils, drawing in the flavors of the night.
Blood was the strongest scent and that surprised me
. Most vampires hated wasting their food, so maybe this murder wasn't as straight forward as I'd been presuming.
Cole looked up as I approached, his lined face weary and dark shadows under his normally bright blue eyes. "You took your time."
"And you look like shit." I stopped beside him and stared down at the victim.
He was male, probably in his mid-to-late forties if his worn features and grey-flecked hair were anything to go by. There were no obvious wounds on his body, and very little in the way of blood on the front of his clothes. His arms had been crossed over his chest, almost as if he were asleep rather than dead. But someone had separated his head from his neck, and even a vampire couldn't survive that.
The blood that was missing from his clothes formed a lake around the area where his head should have been.
"Have you bothered looking in the mirror lately?" Cole snapped off his bloody gloves and tossed them into a nearby contamination bin.
"I'm trying to avoid them. Between working day shifts and getting call-outs at night, the bags under my eyes feel large enough to pack a lunch in. Who's our victim?"
"Grant Haven, a local vampire who owned a cafe up on Smith Street." Cole handed me a pair of slip-on shoe protectors. "Apparently he finished locking up at one, and was heading to Dante's for a little top-up feeding."
"There were no witnesses?" I slipped on the shoe protectors then stepped forward, avoiding the thickening pools of blood as I studied the severed flesh. It wasn't a clean wound. In fact, the edges were all ragged, as if the killer had used some sort of serrated blade.
"No witnesses have come forward," Cole said. "But there's a whole club of people just waiting to be interviewed."
"You're fucking kidding me." I glanced at him. His blue eyes were filled with amusement and a smile twitched at the corners of his lips. My long night had just stretched into an interminable morning. "You're a bastard."
"Those were Jack's orders, not mine."
Then Jack was a bastard. God, he knew I hated interviewing these idiots. "We'll never get anything sensible out of them. They'll all be high."
Although, truth be told, the high from a vamp bite didn't last all that long - just like the pleasure received from sex, really. And like sex, most humans could only stand several hits before it weakened them to point of sleep.
I guess we were lucky non-humans didn't get addicted, because I very much doubted there'd be enough vampires in Melbourne to cater to a werewolf's hunger.
"If it helps any, there aren't many customers. Tuesday is apparently their slow night."
Well, thank God for small mercies. I nodded down at the victim. "Who called it in?"
He motioned towards Dante's. "The caller was anonymous, but we traced the line and location. The cell phone belonged to a Mandy Jones, and the call came from inside Dante's."
Meaning she was likely still there. "She obviously doesn't know a lot about Directorate practices if she thought she could remain anonymous."
Cole smiled. "I don't think the Directorate actually advertises the fact they trace every single call coming in, or out."
That was true. I'd only discovered it because I'd been horribly nosy during my time as Jack's assistant, and I'd often gone trawling through the computer system to see what I could find. "Do we know who owns Dante's?"
"Unsurprisingly enough, a vamp named Dante Starke."
"What do we know about him?"
Cole shrugged. "He has a rep for preferring to handle his own problems. Other than that, you'll have to check the system."
'Preferring to handle his own problems' probably meant he hated cops. And guardians. Great. "What was used on the victim's neck?"
"Rough tooth saw. Dusty found it discarded in one of the bins behind the club. But it's been wiped clean of anything useful."
I glanced around and saw the shifter in question hunkering down over what looked like an oil stain. Cole's other assistant, Dobbs, was nowhere in sight - but given the three of them usually traveled together, I knew he'd be around somewhere. "Was it a new or old saw?"
"Brand new. It still had the Bunnings price tag on it."
"Any chance of tracking down which store it was purchased at?"
"Maybe. But even if we found the right hardware store, I don't think they'd be much help. They probably sell hundreds of the things each week."
"Still, it's worth a shot." I frowned down at the vamp's unmarked body. "He doesn't appear to have put up a fight of any kind."
"None at all, which leads me to suspect that he's probably been drugged. We'll run the full toxicology when we get him back to the lab."
"So there's no indication so far of who our murderer might be?"
"Well, sawing through a person's neck takes strength, so we're probably looking for either a large male, or a non-human . "
"Gee, that really narrows down the field."
"Best I've got for the moment," Cole said, snapping on a new set of gloves. "Now, if that's all you've got, I've really got to get back to work. I have a bed and a lover waiting."
I raised my eyebrows. For as long as I'd known him he'd been relationship free, so the woman who'd finally caught his interest had to be someone pretty special.
"She has to be new, because anyone familiar with our line of work wouldn't bother waiting." Hell, Quinn hadn't. He'd mumbled something about bundling up against the cold, and had promptly gone back to sleep. Anyone would think I'd worn the old vampire out. "So, is it anyone I know?"
"No." His smile bloomed bright. Man, he had the love-bug bad. "And no, I will not share details. Now go do some work."
"You do realize that I am now officially intrigued?"
He groaned. "Please don't go investigating. I don't want to scare her away."
I grinned as I stripped off the shoe protectors and tossed them in the hazard bin.
"Riley, don't." He almost sounded worried.
"Don't what?" I raised my eyebrows, pretending an innocence that probably wasn't believable given the grin I couldn't quite control.
"Don't try and play innocent. You're as far from that as anyone could get."
He had a point there. "I just want to protect your interests. I'd do the same for any friend."
"Then please consider me an enemy."
I patted his shoulder as I passed. "Sorry, I've got suspects to interview. We'll continue this discussion later. Over coffee."
"You are such a bitch," he muttered, but the twinkle in his eyes took the bite out of his words. "And you'd do anything to get a free coffee, wouldn't you?"
"Totally," I said, and left him to it.
There were two uniforms stationed at the entrance to Dante's, along with a dark eyed man who looked in serious need of a good feed. He was standing to one side of the doorway, under a blue light, and it gave his sallow features an even sicker glow. His dark gaze was never still, flickering from the cops to me, then onto the surrounding streets.