After years of monitoring humans on the internet, he was well familiar with the characters the people were playing. Pyre’s Revyval was a popular tabletop role-playing game, and the world building and vampire-based characters of it had long metastasized out of the pages of its rule book and away from those eight-sided dice that were used to determine character motivation and strength.
As he moved through the crowd, looking for some staircase that went to a lower level, he wanted to shove people out of his way. About a year ago, he had set up an emergency calling service for the vampire species, a 911-style clearinghouse for everything from crimes to medical problems. Manned by volunteers, the callers were screened and help was assigned as necessary. The incident he was currently responding to had been logged in about twenty minutes ago. A female had phoned with the report of a body on the lower level of this place. She had refused to give her name, but she had been very clear about the location within the club—
There it was. A steel door in the far corner.
He beelined for the thing and ripped it open. The stairwell beyond smelled nasty and was refrigerator-cold, and he made fast work out of the descent. The instant he broke out into a subterranean corridor, he smelled the blood. Fresh. Female.
Striding down, he used his nose to determine whether there was anyone else around. Nope, right now, although there had been plenty of traffic tonight: All kinds of faded scents, human and vampire, masculine and feminine, lingered like shadows, nothing but two-dimensional representations of the living-and-breathing who had come down here and fucked and gone back up to the party.
The female who had done the dialing had apparently not stuck around. So it was impossible to know which of the scents was hers.
But he knew where to stop.
In front of one of the many doors.
The fresh blood was loud as a scream here.
Before he opened the way in, he frowned and dropped to his haunches. A single footprint gleamed red on the concrete floor, its heel toward the door, its triangled toes pointed away. V looked up and down the corridor. Yes . . . there. Another print. Nearly invisible. And then a final one after that, so faint he only saw it because he was looking for the damn thing.
The killer? he wondered. Or the caller who reported she’d found a body?
Maybe they were one in the same.
He rose to his full height, grabbed the door handle, and opened up. The area beyond was pitch black, and the piss-poor light from the flickering fixtures in the corridor didn’t illuminate shit. Didn’t matter. He knew exactly where the body was, and not just because of the overwhelming scent of blood. As his eyes adjusted, he could tell there was something hanging from the ceiling directly in front of him, and like the footprint, it glistened, the spastic light from over his shoulder blinking across glossy contours.
V unsheathed his lead-lined glove, releasing the glowing palm and fingers of his curse from the confines that protected the world from immolation. The illumination that emanated from his hand was so bright, he blinked from the glare, and as he held it forward, he ground his molars.
A masked female was hanging from the ceiling, a meat hook piercing the base of her skull, its speared point protruding out of her open mouth and touching the tip of her nose. Her throat had been slashed, the veins draining their load down the front of her naked body, her blood a transparent death shroud that colored her pale flesh bright red.
Through the mask’s twin holes, her eyes were open and staring straight at V.
“Motherfucker,” he said.
Just like the other two.
* * *
Boone opened the front door to his father’s house and stepped over the threshold. The familiar smells of lemon floor polish, freshly baked bread, and roses from the ladies’ parlor made him feel like he was in a distorted dream.
It should be different, he thought as he looked around the formal foyer. Everything should be different.
His father was no longer alive. And that monumental change seemed like the kind of thing that should be reflected in this mansion that had always defined the male. Sure as his station in society and his money and his bloodline had made Altamere the male he was, so too had this sprawling manse determined the course of, and provided the grounding to, his life.
“The door is ajar.”
At the clipped syllables, Boone looked to the left. Marquist was standing in the archway of the dining room. He had a polishing cloth in his hand, his jacket was removed and his starched white sleeves were jacked up by a pair of black elastic bands.
The door is ajar.
As if the butler were part of the alarm system of the house.
“My father is dead,” Boone said.
Marquist blinked. And then that cloth started to tremble ever so slightly. Other than that, the male showed no reaction at all.
“Ehrmine’s gone, too,” Boone continued. “They’re both . . . gone.”
The butler blinked a number of times. And Boone knew damn well any upset was not because of the loss of the female. Ehrmine had been no more significant to Marquist’s nightly existence than she had been to Altamere’s.
Without another word, the butler turned on his heel and walked away. His free hand, the one without the cloth, reached out into thin air, as if, in his mind, he were steadying himself on the wall.
The flap door into the kitchen wing opened and closed as he disappeared through it.
Boone turned to the cold breeze that was funneling into the warm house. Stepping back out over the threshold, he stood on the stoop and stared past the curving drive to the lawn. In the light of the security fixtures that were tacked under the mansion’s roofline, the blanket of snow that covered the grounds of the estate was pristine, its weight buffering the already subtle contours of the property all the way down to the stone pillars by the road. At irregular intervals, mature oaks and stands of birches, currently barren of leaves, filled out vacancies like polite guests at a lawn party, and there were also flower beds that would be filled with pale blooms when the warm weather came.
As the cold wind blew against his fighting gear, he thought of his blood mahmen.
Back when Illumina had gone unto the Fade, he’d never gotten a clear story about what had happened to her. It had been sudden and unexpected, at least from his point of view. She had been young, healthy, and relatively free of bad habits. Nonetheless, one evening, he had come down for First Meal, and his father had informed him, over the scones and the eggs Benedict, that her Fade Ceremony was being conducted on the Thursday following.
That was it.
His sire had then risen from the head of the dining room table, picked up the Wall Street Journal, and departed.
Boone could remember looking down at where his mahmen had always sat. There had been a setting of china and silverware put out for her, as if her presence had been anticipated.
Left to his own devices, he had gone up to his room and set himself down at his desk. He’d had some notion of writing Illumna a letter, putting to page the questions going through his mind. But he hadn’t gotten far with it because he’d never really been able to ask her anything in life—and death, as it turned out, did not cure that.
Next thing he’d known, it was time for Last Meal. He had dressed in a different suit than he’d worn at the start of the night, as was appropriate, and joined his father at the dining table once again. Marquist had served them, as was customary when they had no guests.
There had been no setting for Boone’s mahmen then.
His eyes had lingered on her empty chair while his father had talked to the butler about . . . the same stuff he always did: Social gossip, house issues, staffing issues. Boone had stayed silent. Then again, even when Illumna had been alive, Altamere and his butler had always done all the talking at “family” meals, the normal boundaries between master and servant disappearing in the relative privacy.
At the time, the lack of real conversation around the loss of Boone’s blood mahmen had not struck him as weird. That was the way things were done; the more likely a subject was to upset, the less that was aired on the topic.
Or maybe it had been more a case of the death being unimportant.
Fast-forward two decades. The fact that he was standing here in the winter wind, with a shoulder that was throbbing from its stitches and a headache that was pounding from his empty stomach . . . with no one to talk to . . . was right out of the family playbook. The aristocracy had always been better at appearances, fancy velvet curtains drawn across stages that were ultimately empty—
The first of the shapes materialized out of thin air over on the right, the big body appearing in the shadows of the house’s exterior lights, taking solid form.
Boone’s eyes watered as he recognized who it was. And before he could offer a greeting, there was another directly on the male’s heels, a female this time.
Craeg and Paradise.
In quick succession, three others arrived. Axe. Novo. Peyton.
His trainee class.
As the five of them came up the walkway, Boone felt a loosening in the center of his chest, although what was unleashed was unwelcome. The sadness seemed like a waste of time, not only because it wasn’t going to do anything to fix what had happened at that glymera party, but because it wasn’t like he wanted his father back. Or his stepmahmen.
Craeg took off his Syracuse ball cap. “Hey, my man.”
The hug that followed said more than any words could have: We’re here for you. You are not alone. Whatever you need, we got you.
Paradise, Craeg’s mate, was next. And as she wrapped her arms around Boone, he relaxed into her embrace.
“I know this is hard,” she said. “I am really sorry.”
As a fellow member of the glymera and a distant cousin, she understood exactly how it was in aristocratic families. How grief was one more thing that was swept under the Oriental, put away in the safe, tucked into the silver closet.
Axe and Novo and Peyton were up next, and then Boone just stood there like a planker.
“Let’s go inside,” Paradise said gently.
“Oh, right. Yes, of course. It’s cold out here.”
Next thing he knew, they were all in the ladies’ parlor, sitting on the formal sofas, looking at each other. He expected Marquist to burst in at any moment. When that didn’t happen, he took a deep breath.