IN THE STILL OF THE NIGHT
The city is in a panic. In the still of the night, a vicious killer is leaving a trail of mutilated bodies drained of blood. A chilling M.O. that puts ex-vampire hunter Regan Delaney on the case, her gun clip packed with silver bullets, her instincts edgy. But the victims are both human and Undead, and the clues are as confusing as the vampire who may be her best ally—she hopes…
Master of the City, Joaquin Santiago, radiates supernatural power like heat from a blast furnace, but he's never met a creature like Regan Delaney. She intrigues him, fires his hunger and unleashes his desire, but before he can enter her world, or she his, they must confront a vicious, elusive killer who is an enemy even to his own…
They called it You Bet Your Life Park, because that's what you were doing if you lingered inside the park after sundown, betting your life that you'd get out again. It had been a nice quiet neighborhood once upon a time, and it still was, during the day. Modern, high rise condos enclosed the park on three sides.
Visitors to the city often remarked on the fact that most of the buildings didn't have any windows. A large outdoor pool was located in the middle of the park. The local kids went swimming there in the summertime. There was also a pizza parlor, a video game arcade, and a couple of small stores that sold groceries, ice, and gas to those who had need of such things.
Large signs were posted at regular intervals throughout the park warning visitors to vacate the premises well before sunset. Smart people paid attention to the signs. Dumb ones were rarely heard from again, because the condos and apartments that encompassed You Bet Your Life Park were a sanctuary for the Undead. A supernaturally-charged force field surrounded the outer perimeter of the apartment complex and the park, thereby preventing the vampires from leaving the area and wandering through the city.
Regan Delaney didn't have any idea how the force field worked or what it was made of. All she knew was that it kept the vamps inside but had no negative effect on humans. It was against the law to destroy vampires these days, unless you found one outside the Park, but the force field made that impossible. Any vampire who wished to leave the Park and move to a protected area in another part of the country had to apply for a permit and be transported, by day, by a company equipped to handle that kind of thing. What Regan found the hardest to accept was that vampires were now considered an endangered species, like tigers, elephants, and marine turtles and as such, they had to be protected from human predators. The very thought was ludicrous!
It hadn't always been so, of course. In her grandfather's day, vampires had been looked upon as vermin, the scum of the earth. Bounties had been placed on them and they had been hunted ruthlessly. Many of the known vampires had been destroyed. Then, about five years ago, the bleeding hearts had started crying about how sad it was to kill all those poor misunderstood creatures of the night. After all, the bleeding hearts argued, even vampires had rights. Besides, they were also human beings and deserved to be treated with respect. To Regan's astonishment, sympathy for the vampires had grown and vampires had been given immunity, of a sort, and put into protective custody in places like You Bet Your Life Park. And since the Undead could no longer hunt in the city, the law had decided to put the vampires to good use. For a brief period of time, criminals sentenced to death had been given to the vampires.
The thought still made Regan cringe. Though she had no love for murderers, rapists, or child molesters, she couldn't, in good conscience, condone throwing them to the vamps. She didn't have to worry for long. In less than a year, the same bleeding heart liberals who had felt sorry for the poor, misunderstood vampires began feeling sorry for the poor unfortunate criminals who had become their prey, and so a new law had been passed and criminals were again disposed of more humanely, by lethal injection.
Unfortunately, the new law had left the Undead with no ready food supply. In order to appease their hunger and keep them from killing each other, blood banks had agreed to donate whole blood to the vampire community until synthetic plasma could be developed. In a few months, Locke Pharmaceuticals invented something called Synthetic Type O that was reported to taste and smell the same as the real thing. A variety of blood types soon followed, though Type O remained the most popular.
Taking a deep breath, Regan shook off thoughts of the past and stared at the lifeless body sprawled at her feet. Apparently, one of the vampires had tired of surviving on Synthetic Type O. She felt a wave of pity for the dead man. In life, he had been a middle-aged man with sandy brown hair and a trim mustache. He might even have been handsome. Now his face was set in a rictus of horror. His heart, throat, and liver had been savagely ripped away, and there wasn't enough blood left in his body to fill an eye dropper. The corpse had been found under a bush by a couple who had been leaving the Park just before sunset. From the looks of it, the victim had been killed the night before.
Regan looked away from the body and into the deep gray eyes of Sergeant Michael Flynn. Flynn was a good cop, honest, hard-working, and straight forward, a rarity in this day and age. He was a handsome man in his mid-thirties, with a shock of dark red hair and a dimple in his left cheek. She had gone out on a number of dates with Mike in the last few months. He was fun to be with and she enjoyed his company. She knew Mike was eager to take their relationship to the next level, but she wasn't ready for that, not yet. She cared for him. She admired him. She loved him, but she wasn't in love with him. It was because he was the best friend she had in the city that she didn't want to complicate their friendship, or worse, jeopardize it, by going to bed with him. She had seen it happen all too often, a perfectly good friendship ruined when two people decided to sleep together.
"So," Flynn said, "definitely a vampire kill, right?"
"Looks that way," Regan agreed. But she wasn't sure. She had seen vampire kills before. The complete lack of blood pointed to a vampire, but the fact that the victim's heart, throat and liver had been ripped out disturbed her. She had never known a vampire to take anything but blood from its prey.
"So, you about through here?" Flynn asked.
"What? Oh, sure." She wasn't a cop and she had no real authority on the scene, but in the past, whenever the Department received a call about a suspected vampire killing, they had asked her to come out and take a look. She had been a vampire hunter in those days, and a darn good one, but that been back in the good old days, before vampires became "protected" and put her out of a job. Fortunately, she had a tidy little inheritance from her grandfather, though it wouldn't last much longer if she didn't find another job soon.
"I'll call you next week," Flynn said with a wink.
Regan nodded, then moved away from the scene so the forensic boys could get to work. It gave her an edgy feeling, being in the Park after the sun went down, though she supposed there were enough cops in the area to keep her reasonably safe from the monsters. At any rate, it felt good to be part of a criminal investigation again, good to feel needed. Still, she couldn't help feeling guilty that she would be out of work in a heart beat as soon as they caught the killer.
She remembered the first time the department had requested her expertise. Even now, years later, the thought made her wince with embarrassment. After all the classes she had taken at the Police Academy, she had been convinced she was prepared for anything. But no amount of training could have prepared her for the reality of seeing that first, fresh, vampire kill. At the Academy, the bodies had been dummies and while they had been realistic, they hadn't come close to the real thing. Regan had turned away and covered her mouth, trying in vain to keep her dinner down. It had been Michael who had come to her aid, who had offered her a handkerchief and assured her that it happened to everyone sooner or later. They had been friends from that night forward.
Now, she stood in the shadows, watching two men wearing masks and gloves slip the body into a black plastic bag for the trip to the morgue while the forensic team tagged and bagged possible evidence from the scene. Maybe they would get lucky downtown, but she didn't think so. She had a hunch that whoever had perpetrated the crime knew exactly what he was doing and that whatever evidence he had left behind, if any, would be useless.
Regan watched the ambulance pull away from the curb. Once the body had been thoroughly examined, the medical examiner. would take the necessary steps to insure that the corpse didn't rise as a new vampire tomorrow night. She didn't envy him the job, but if there was one thing the city didn't need, it was another vampire.
Regan was jotting down a few notes when she felt a shiver run down her spine. Not the "gee, it's cold outside" kind of shiver but the "you'd better be careful, there's a monster close by" kind.
Making a slow turn, she peered into the darkness as every instinct for self-preservation that she possessed screamed a warning.
If he hadn't moved, she never would have seen him.
He emerged from the shadowy darkness on cat-silent feet. "Do not be afraid," he said. "I mean you no harm."
His voice was like thick molasses covered in dark chocolate, so deep and sinfully rich, she could feel herself gaining weight just listening to him speak.
"Right." She slipped her hand into the pocket of her jacket, her fingers curling around the trigger of a snub-nosed pistol. She never left home without it. The gun was loaded with five silver bullets that had been dipped in holy water. The hammer rested on an empty chamber. "That's why you're sneaking up on me."
The corner of his sensual mouth lifted in a lazy half-smile. "If I wanted you dead, my lovely one, you would be dead."
Regan believed him. He spoke with the kind of calm assurance that left no room for doubt.
Joaquin Santiago moved toward her like a sleek black panther on the trail of fresh game. Supernatural power radiated from him like heat from a blast furnace. He was tall and well-muscled, with broad shoulders, strong arms, and long, long legs. In movies, vampires were usually depicted as pale and gaunt, with stringy hair and long fingernails, but there was nothing pale or gaunt about Santiago. His dusky skin and the contours of his face proudly proclaimed his Spanish and Native America heritage. He wore snug black trousers, a black silk shirt, a long black coat reminiscent of the kind cowboys had worn in the Old West, and a pair of supple black leather boots.
He looked like the angel of death come to call.
Regan took a deep breath. "Do you know who killed that man?" she asked, pleased when her voice didn't tremble. Even though she had never met Joaquin Santiago before tonight, she knew who he was. He wasn't your garden variety vampire. Before the local Undead had been confined to You Bet Your Life Park, Santiago had been the undisputed master of the city, feared by vampires and humans alike. In person, he more than lived up to the hype that surrounded him.
"No." His answer was clipped and final.
"Well, somebody killed him, and all the outward signs point to one of your kind."
"My kind?" He lifted one black brow in an elegant gesture of disdain. "What kind would that be?"
Regan laughed. "A vampire, of course."
He shook his head. "Our kills are not so…" His gaze lingered briefly on her throat. "Messy."
She looked up at him, careful not to meet his eyes. Dark blue eyes that were vibrant and direct and glowed faintly, even in the dark. Eyes that could hypnotize with a glance.
She lifted her chin a notch. "I don't know anyone else around here who would kill a man and drink him dry, do you?"
A muscle throbbed in Joaquin Santiago's jaw.
Score one for me, Regan thought with an inner smile of satisfaction.
She tried not to stare at him, but it was difficult. He was easily the most handsome individual, man or vampire, she had ever seen. Of course, all vampires, male and female, seemed to be beautiful. It was part of their preternatural allure, but she was willing to bet that this man had been drop dead gorgeous even before the Dark Trick had been worked upon him. Though he looked to be in his early thirties, she knew he was an old vampire, perhaps ancient. Only the old ones possessed that eerie stillness.
"This is the fourth death in the last three weeks," he remarked.
"The fourth?" She hadn't been aware there had been others.
He nodded, once, curtly.
"Were the police notified?"
"No?" she exclaimed, her voice rising with her temper. "Why not?"
"We do not need any more bad publicity."
"Publicity? Three people were killed that no one knows about, and you were worried about a little bad publicity?" She shook her head, then took a deep, calming breath. "What happened to the other bodies?"
"They were disposed of."
"Did their remains look like the one found tonight?"
Again, that precise nod.
"The murders should have been reported."
He shrugged, a graceful movement of one muscular shoulder. "The victims would be just as dead."
She couldn't argue with that. Still. "Their families need to know what happened to them."
"I fear I cannot help you. We did not check their identification."
He talked of their deaths so calmly, as if those who had been killed were of no consequence. Feeling suddenly chilled, Regan wrapped her arms around her body. Three people had died violently and their loved ones would never know what happened to them. They would be listed as missing persons, their families left to forever wonder what had become of them. It wasn't right, and there was nothing she could do about it.
"Would you like to go to Sardino's for a drink?" he asked. "You look like you could use something to warm you."
Sardino's was a restaurant located on the southeast corner of the Park. It catered to humans during the day and the Undead after dark. The restaurant had long been considered neutral territory, a place where daring humans and curious vampire could mingle without fear, if they so desired. The restaurant had two doors - one you could enter from the Park and one exclusively for humans that could be accessed directly from the safety of the street beyond the Park's barrier. Out of curiosity, Regan had visited Sardino's once, soon after she graduated from the Academy, but it had been too weird, seeing vampires and humans sitting together like old friends, and she had never gone back.
"I don't think so," she said. The thought of sharing a booth with him while he drank a glass of warm Synthetic Type O wasn't the least bit appealing. Besides, she was supposed to hunt and destroy vampires, not have cocktails with them.
He laughed softly. "Afraid to be seen with me, Miss…" His gaze moved to the badge pinned to the lapel of her jacket. "Miss Delaney." There was an unspoken challenge in the depths of his midnight blue eyes.
She was afraid; afraid of the effect he had on her senses, afraid of that air of male supremacy that rolled off him in waves, but she would have chewed her tongue off and swallowed it whole before she would have admitted it. She had encountered vampires before, but never one this old, or this powerful.
She was still trying to think of a suitable reply when, without a word, he was gone.
Regan glanced around, surprised to find that everyone else was gone, as well, and that she was alone in the Park. Though every instinct she possessed urged her to run from the place just as fast as she could, she turned and walked sedately toward the street where she had left her car. One of the first things she had learned was that showing fear in front of a vampire, or any predator, for that matter, was never a good idea.
Regan slipped her hand into her jacket pocket. She was a hunter. She was supposed to be brave. Her finger curled around the trigger. Why had she parked so far away?
She was still a good distance from the curb when she realized someone was watching her from the darkness. She glanced casually over her shoulder, expecting to see hell-red eyes staring back at her. There was no one there, but she knew she wasn't alone. Someone was following her. She heard faint, mocking laughter off to her left and she veered to the right. Fingers of cold sweat trickled down her spine.
The sense of being followed grew stronger, the eerie laughter grew louder. And suddenly she was running. If anyone saw her and thought she was afraid, well, she would just have to live with it, because they were right.
She had almost reached the edge of the park when, without warning, she slammed into someone. She would have screamed, only terror froze the sound in her throat. At any rate, there was no one left in the Park to come to her aid.
The vampire stared down at her, close-set eyes blazing red, thin lips peeled back to reveal sharp white fangs. He looked young and strong and hungry. And she was going to be dinner. It was her own fault. Anyone who lingered in the Park after sundown was fair game. But she wasn't going down without a fight. She reached for her crucifix and her gun at the same time, but before she could use either one, the master of the city materialized between her and the other vampire.
"Karl," Santiago said, "go home."
The two vampires stared at each other for a long moment. Regan could feel the animosity that hummed between them, feel their power rise in a silent battle of wills. For a moment, she was afraid there would be a fight. She glanced at her car, wondering how long it would take her to get to the curb and climb inside, because if there was one thing she didn't want to do, it was get between two angry vampires.
Several taut moments ticked into eternity and then, with a hiss, Karl vanished from sight. She knew he hadn't really vanished, only that he had moved faster than mortal eyes could follow.
"Come," Santiago said, extending his hand to her. "I will walk you to your car."
Regan stared up at him. Walk her to her car? "How can you do that? You can't leave the Park."
A sudden chill tiptoed down her spine. "Can you?"
"No one tells me where to go or what to do," he said with bold arrogance. "Least of all a human girl."
"I'm not a girl," she said with asperity. "I'm a woman."
A faint smile tugged at his lips. "Go home, little girl, before the big bad wolf gobbles you up."
He didn't have to tell her twice. She was all too aware of his heated gaze on her back as he followed her to the edge of the park. He stopped where the sidewalk began.
After punching in the code to unlock the car, Regan slid behind the wheel and quickly closed the door. Resisting the urge to look back and see if the master of the city was still watching her, she punched in the ignition code and headed for home as if Satan himself was after her.
And perhaps he was.
Regan thought about the vampire Santiago all the way home; and again, later, while she soaked in a hot bubble bath. He had offered to walk her to her car. She had a terrible feeling that he would have been able to do it, too, if she had agreed. But how could that be? Vampires weren't supposed to be able to pass through the invisible force field. But what if he could? And if he could, did that mean others of the Undead were also able to leave the Park? Had mankind been living under a false sense of security for the last five years?
The thought made her go cold all over.
Stepping out of the tub, she wrapped up in a large fluffy towel and went into the bedroom. After drying off, she slipped into her nightgown and a warm fleece robe, then went into the kitchen. She punched hot chocolate with a splash of extra chocolate into the computer, hoping it would help her to relax. Meeting Joaquin Santiago had unsettled her far more than she cared to admit.
Though Santiago didn't look a day over thirty, it was said that he was the oldest vampire in the city, perhaps the oldest vampire in the country. He was undoubtedly the most dangerous, and certainly the most handsome, with his long black hair, dark, penetrating eyes, and muscular physique.
With a shake of her head, Regan thrust him from her mind. Curling up on the sofa, she switched on the Satellite Screen, flipping through the online guide in search of a late movie she hadn't already seen a hundred times.
For the next two hours, she managed to avoid thinking about Joaquin Santiago. But later, while she was lying in bed, he invaded her thoughts yet again, walking through the corridors of her mind like an ache that wouldn't go away.