The doorbell rang while Tori was scrubbing pots. She almost called for Cat to see who it was, but then she recalled that her wife was in the shower. It had been a long day, full of tears and hard work, of grief and hopeful preparation. Tori found it difficult to look forward to the equinox with the pain of Keomany's death so fresh. She had become like a sister both to her and to Cat, a constant reassuring presence, and her absence would leave a dreadful void.
'Damn it,' she whispered, wiping the back of her hand across her eyes.
It had been like this ever since Octavian had shown up with the news, and with Keomany's ashes . . . in a damned wine bottle. She'd be fine, and then the tears would start.
Frustrated with herself, even though she knew that her grief was entirely to be expected, she rinsed her hands and shut off the tap. The doorbell rang again as she dried her hands with a dishtowel and she tossed it onto the counter as she hurried out of the kitchen. She and Cat had an agreement; at dinner time, one of them cooked and the other one cleaned up afterward. Since Cat's culinary achievements rarely went further than sauteed vegetables or tofu stir fry, Tori tended to be the one making the meals. Tonight, one of their sisters in the craft had brought fresh swordfish, and Cat had gleefully prepared it blackened Cajun style, with dirty rice on the side, the one dish she really felt confident in making. If they'd had time, Tori would have made a light gumbo to go along with it, but today hadn't been the day for such things. A quiet night of reflection with the woman she loved, a nice meal, a glass of wine . . . these were all she required to find contentment tonight.
And perhaps there would be more to look forward to, tonight. Cat had a strange reaction to death, and always had. It made her angry and it made her want to seize life with both hands and squeeze. It made her want to scream and to laugh, but especially it made her want to lose herself in love and in mind-shattering orgasms - both giving and receiving. This had gone unspoken between them, but Tori knew her pattern. For herself, she would rather have mourned quietly, shared memories of Keomany, and left it until the equinox to make love, as they always did at the turns of the year. But she knew what Cat needed, and she would open her heart and her body to provide that solace.
That plan, however, did not allow for unexpected visitors.
It was strange, getting a knock on the door. Most of the employees had gone home by now, and the earthwitches who had arrived from out of town for the equinox had all pursued their own plans for the evening. Several of them, those Cat and Tori knew best, had originally been invited to stay here at the orchard house, but as if by mutual agreement - and perhaps that was the case - they had all retreated to hotels upon learning of Keomany's death, giving their hosts time to mourn.
Tori cocked her head, trying to see through the tempered glass panels in the front door. She flicked on the outside light, turned the lock, and pulled the door open.
'Ed? What's wrong?'
The orchard foreman stood on the front steps, breathing hard and looking at her with wide eyes. Ed Rushton had been with them for three years, overseeing all of the harvesting at Summerfields. Fifty-one years old, tall and powerfully built, he always wore a baseball cap to protect his balding pate from the sun. Night had fallen, and now he clutched his cap tightly in both hands.
'Best you just see for yourself,' he said, nodding, and he started down the steps. The ATV he used to motor around the orchard sat on the dirt road, fifty feet from the front door.
Tori moved out onto the stoop. A strong breeze blew past her, bringing the rich smells of earth and plants and apples.
He shot her a look that spoke of fear and wonder in equal measure. 'Tori, please. I've seen a lot of things since coming to work here, and I can't complain. You and Cat gave me the rundown before I started. Elemental magic, naked witchy rituals, loving the earth . . . to be honest, I like it. And not just the naked part. I don't understand witchcraft - earthcraft, or whatever - but I know you're good people and that there's only love in what you do. But this is . . . Hell, I don't know what.'
'What is going on?'
Despite his farmer's tan, the foreman looked pale.
'You've gotta just come with me,' he said. 'If I try to explain, it'll sound crazy or stupid or both.'
'All right.' She glanced back into the house, thought of Cat in the shower, and then pulled the door shut behind her. Whatever this was, she'd be back soon. And she had her cell phone; Cat would call or text her if she was worried.
Ed climbed onto the ATV and Tori got on behind him, holding tightly to him as she straddled the machine. Growing up, she'd always ridden like this on the back of her brother Johnny's dirtbike, and the memory rose up and lingered in her head as Ed drove her down the road and turned up into the orchard. Johnny had died when she was fifteen, and memories of him were always bittersweet. She loved her life, loved Cat and what they'd built here at Summerfields, but she'd have given almost anything to have another day with Johnny. Unfortunately, there were some things even magic could not do.
The ATV jounced through a pothole in the path leading up into the orchard. They passed pumpkin beds and entered the thick of the orchard, with rows of apple trees stretching across the hill for acres in either direction.
When she realized where Ed must be taking her, she clutched him even tighter.
'What the hell is this?' she called over the guttural growl of the ATV's motor.
He turned his head and raised his voice to be heard. 'You're going to have to tell me.'
Then they were pulling into the clearing where they had said their goodbyes to Keomany that morning, and where they would be conducting their equinox ceremony. In the center of the clearing stood the new tree that Keomany had nurtured from seed to maturity in moments. It was the most robust tree in the orchard, now, with the finest apples.
Something else had grown in the clearing.
Ed killed the ATV's engine, its growl echoing in Tori's ears for several seconds. The silence that followed, broken only by the rustle of the breeze in the trees, felt like the world holding its breath.
She climbed off the back of the ATV. Ed stayed where he was, staring at the new thing that had sprouted from the soil. He had obviously come across it while traversing the orchard and now, having seen it once, had no interest in getting near to it again.
'Goddess,' Tori whispered as she walked toward it, unsure even as she spoke if it was a prayer or a cry for help. The smell of earth and apples filled the air, swirling on the breeze.
Her heart thrummed in her chest, a captive hummingbird. Her face felt flushed and her breath came in short, shallow sips as she knelt in the dirt and stared at the new growth, which looked like no tree or bush she had ever seen. Perhaps fourteen inches high, it had skin like an apple, and thick roots that went deep into the ground, covered in bark. It had the shape - the figure - of a woman, though it did not move except for the stirring caused by the wind, and though it had no expression, it did indeed have a face.
Tori began to weep. Though she felt a shiver of fear, most of what she felt - what made her hands shake and caused the grin that broke out on her face - was the joy of miracles.
'Ed,' she said, her voice cracking with emotion. 'Get a fence up around this right away. Tonight.' She stood and looked at him. 'And don't breathe a word.'
The deep, bass chop of the helicopter's rotors felt like an assault on Charlotte's ears, a thumping on her chest, as if she sat inside a quickening heart that beat from without instead of within. Normally she would not have been quite as nervous. A vampire could easily survive a helicopter crash - even an explosion. But she still had traces of the Medusa toxin in her blood and she didn't like her chances if the chopper went down.
Five people shared the rear compartment of the helicopter with her. Three of them were rank-and-file members of Task Force Victor, soldiers-turned-vampire-hunters who clearly had a very dim view of her. The youngest, a buzzcut Chinese guy named Song, no more than twenty, kept stealing glances at her that seemed to say he thought it was a shame that a cute girl who looked near his own age was a bloodsucking freak. Song kept getting disgusted scowls from the only other woman on the chopper, a Brazilian named Galleti who had a quartet of scars on the left side of her throat that could only have been clawmarks. The two of them took orders from Sergeant Omondi, a New Yorker by way of Kenya. He was maybe thirty, six and a half feet tall and built like a tank, though the intellect sparkling in his eyes belied that great size. Omondi was no brute.
As much as they intrigued her, these armed soldiers who had dedicated their lives to exterminating her kind, she was far more interested in the other two people riding in the back of the chopper. The rumpled, goateed Barbieri carried a few too many pounds, especially as he looked to be nearing fifty, but he had kind eyes. He certainly didn't match any image her mind would have conjured of a forensics expert specializing in tracking vampires.
Of all of them, it was Commander Leon Metzger who scared her the most. When she'd been taken into custody in front of the Shadow Registry building, it had been Metzger's order that kept her from being burned alive with the assassins Cortez had sent. Charlotte had been bustled indoors and into a room that was the equivalent of an iron box and seated in a steel chair bolted to the floor, where she had waited alone for hours while someone - she was sure - tried to persuade Leon Metzger to burn her and be done with it.
Peter Octavian was the only reason they hadn't killed her on the spot, and the reason that instead of burning her, Metzger had come into the iron box with two cups of coffee and sat down across from her.
'I know, it's a TV show cop cliche. But it's here if you want it. Actually, the coffee around here's pretty good,' he said, taking a sip as he slouched back in his chair.
Charlotte hadn't hesitated. She'd taken the coffee and swigged it, wishing for more sugar but relishing it just the same. A little bit of civilization in the midst of madness. And she hadn't spent a moment worrying about what kind of signal it might send that she was so willing to drink . . . to accept what he offered. Either he was playing some kind of head game with her or he wasn't; she couldn't bring herself to care.
'Thank you,' she had said, and she thought he'd known she'd meant it as gratitude for both the coffee and her life.
'I'm not going to drag this out,' Metzger had said. 'Octavian says you can be trusted, and that's good enough for me. Whatever issues my predecessor had with him, I don't share them. So in a few minutes I'm going to have someone come in and explain the Covenant to you and then you're going to sign it, both because you say you want to and also because if you don't, you won't leave here alive.'
The strangest part of that bit of interaction had been that when he'd said it, Metzger had smiled in such an amiable way that Charlotte had smiled in return. She'd found herself somewhat charmed by a man who had just threatened to kill her, and so she had told him that she had come there specifically to sign the Covenant and nearly been killed already by assassins who wanted to make sure that never happened. Metzger had turned thoughtful, then.
Two soldiers - Song and Galleti, though she hadn't known their names at the time - had come in with a pen and a copy of the Covenant. Charlotte had only skimmed it, but she got enough of the gist. It wasn't hard to imagine what humans would want by way of promises from vampires. I won't hunt humans. I won't take blood without permission. I'll be a good little Shadow.
Then the interrogation had begun, about Cortez and the killers who had been hunting her, about Octavian and how she'd come to meet him, about what she'd done while she'd been answering to Cortez, and after. It had gone on for so long that she'd lost track of time, until Sergeant Omondi had come in to interrupt his commander with news that he was needed on the phone. Metzger had been irritated, right up until Omondi told him it was Peter Octavian calling and that he'd said it was urgent.
Less than thirty minutes later, they'd been boarding a helicopter, Charlotte and a handful of people who made their living hunting down vampires. Now here she was riding in the back of a chopper with them like she was somehow part of the team, and it felt like one of those dreams about going to school in your underwear. Charlotte had been vulnerable most of her life, and she didn't like it. She had been drugged and raped and murdered and transformed into a monster, and the only upside of all that horror was that people couldn't physically hurt her anymore. Medusa had taken that away and now Charlotte felt haunted and uneasy, acutely aware of every possible threat to her well-being.
The thrum of the chopper pounding at her ears, she glanced out the small window beside her. The pilot had said the trip would take about forty minutes, so she figured the sprawling lights below must be the city of Philadelphia. That was good; it meant they would be landing soon. Thus far today her luck had been for shit - sort of par for the course of her life - but if it turned in her favor at all, she would never have to get on a helicopter again.
'You don't look good,' a voice called.
Charlotte glanced up to see Metzger watching her with ice blue eyes. He arched a wiry gray eyebrow as if punctuating the comment, turning it into a query.
'I'm fine,' she said.
Metzger cocked his head to indicate he hadn't heard. With the roar of the rotors it was necessary for her to speak up.
'I said I'm fine!'
He nodded, though he looked doubtful. 'Not hungry? When was the last time you fed?'
Charlotte winced at the question. Fed, not ate. Like an animal. A beast on the prowl. It shouldn't have surprised her to get this peek into the way Metzger saw her kind, but thus far he had treated her fairly humanely, so it did shock her a little. And how was she supposed to answer that, anyway? Yes, it had been a while since the last time she had had human blood to drink, but she would survive. She figured the most fundamental difference between the Shadows who lived in peace with humanity and those who chose to embrace the word 'vampire' was self-control. She chose to ignore Metzger's question, turning again to look out the window.
She didn't hear him unsnap the rig that belted him into his seat, but she caught sight of the motion in the corner of her eye and turned back just as he grabbed hold of her wrist and crouched beside her seat. Charlotte glanced at the others. Barbieri had nodded off, but the three soldiers were alert with tension, watching their CO closely.
'Let's be clear,' Metzger said, squeezing her wrist for emphasis, gazing at her with those ice blue eyes. 'I'm not just being hospitable. If you need blood, I will see that you get it, not because I'm just that nice a guy but because I don't want you losing control and trying to drain one of my people. You might hurt somebody, and then we'd have to kill you. Octavian would be pissed and nobody wants that. I don't want the guy turning me into a newt, right?'
He grinned as if this was a joke, but Charlotte could hear the truth in it.
'You still haven't told me why we're doing this,' she said. 'Octavian sent me to you and now you're bringing me back to him?'
Metzger gave a small shrug. 'It's Octavian's business. You'll learn soon enough. But I brought you along because he asked for you, and because I trust him. If I didn't trust him, I'd have to kill him, and I'm not quite sure how to go about it. So I don't really have a choice - I have to trust him. Don't get to thinking that extends to you, though. The last time the commander of Task Force Victor trusted a vampire, it didn't turn out too well.'
Charlotte scowled. Allison Vigeant had been a Bloodhound for Task Force Victor until its previous commander, Ray Henning, had gone kill-crazy and tried to take down every Shadow he saw, ally or enemy. Allison had put him down like a rabid dog, which was fairly close to the truth.
'What was it you were saying about blood?' she asked, raising her voice over the chopper noise. She smiled and her fangs slid out.
Metzger hesitated, staring at her teeth. 'I see the Medusa toxin is starting to wear off.'
Charlotte ran her tongue over the sharp tips of her fangs. 'Sure looks like it.'
Metzger nodded slowly. 'When we're on the ground, I'll make a call to local law enforcement and set up a volunteer. There's always some freak who's willing to share.'
She didn't rise to the bait of his disdain. After a second, Metzger slid back into his seat and buckled himself into his restraints. The chopper began to yaw and pitch a little, in addition to the usual shuddering, and she glanced out the window to see the lights of the airport below, with trucks darting to and fro and the large H of a helipad looming closer.
They were landing. Octavian would be waiting with answers, but for the first time, Charlotte wasn't sure she wanted them.
There were cops in the hotel lobby, keeping an eye on everyone who came and went. Two uniformed officers stood near the elevator bank and checked the identification of everyone who went up or came down, keeping a log. Charlotte saw a pair of men in dark suits talking to a cop who looked like he must be a captain or a lieutenant or something, and figured the suits for FBI. Whatever had happened here, Octavian was right in the middle of it, and it had been significant enough to warrant this kind of attention. The nineteen-year-old girl in her wanted to make a run for it, but all of these grim-faced investigators with their guns and handcuffs weren't there looking for her. Besides that, she could feel the Medusa toxin wearing off, her ability to alter her flesh returning almost like an injured muscle regaining its limberness.
Soon, if she wanted to get away from Metzger and his team, she'd at least have a shot at making it before they hit her with another dose of the toxin. But before she took any action, she wanted to see Octavian and find out what this was all about.
'She has no ID,' Sergeant Omondi told the cops barring access to the elevators.
'Then she stays down here,' the older of the two cops said, lifting his chin in pride and defiance, wanting to make sure they knew who had jurisdiction.
Galleti smirked, closing her eyes a moment.
'Something funny, Miss?' the older cop asked.
Metzger shot Galleti a dark look. She stood up a bit straighter, no smile on her face now, chocolate brown eyes very serious. Omondi and Song followed suit, perfectly grim, but Barbieri shook his head in open pity for the uniformed policeman.
'This should be -'
'Barbieri,' Metzger said, the warning clear in his tone.
Then he turned back to the cops, who had already seen the identification of each member of the team from Task Force Victor.
'Officer, maybe you're not aware that Task Force Victor is charged with its duties under the United Nations amended charter, and has been given jurisdictional authority over all vampire-related incidents,' Metzger explained, feigning patience.
The cop sniffed, shot a can-you-believe-this glance at his partner, and then cocked his head to look at Metzger as if he were an unusual animal on display at the zoo.
'Given I haven't been in a coma or on the moon, yeah, I'm aware. But let me tell you what we've got upstairs. A murder victim and a magic-man,' the cop said, waggling his fingers at the end, mocking the idea of magic. 'There's no vampire here.'
A chill went through Charlotte. Octavian had come to Philadelphia to reconnect with his girlfriend, now he was in a swanky hotel room with a corpse.
'Shit,' she whispered, 'it's not Nikki, is it?'
The cops both glanced at her, as did Barbieri. The soldiers did not.
'Your victim was killed by a vampire. The investigation is yours; that's not what we do. But you're bound by your own government's laws to cooperate with us. If you impede us - '
'Didn't say you couldn't go through, Van Helsing,' the cop said, then pointed at Charlotte. 'But she's got no ID, and my orders are clear. You want to cross swords over jurisdiction, that's fine, but until someone changes my orders-'
'She's our new Bloodhound, you idiot,' Barbieri growled. 'She's a vampire!'
The cop laughed. 'Hell, that's not going to win you any points. You want her with you, go through channels. Get my lieutenant on the line and have him order me to let her pass. Until then, no go.'
'Points?' Metzger said, his patience frayed.
His nostrils flared with anger. He cast a sidelong glance at Sergeant Omondi and gave a curt nod. With a clatter, Omondi, Song, and Galleti put their hands on the butts of their weapons but did not draw them. The younger cop, who looked like he might piss his pants, started to reach for his gun, but the older one shouted at him and grabbed his wrist to keep him from doing so.
'You're wasting my time,' Metzger said. 'Both of you step aside. One of you call your lieutenant. If he has a problem with us being here, he can damn well come up and tell us himself. He can tell Octavian. I have a feeling he won't want to do that. Now, cooperate or I take you into custody and we let the city of Philadelphia fight it out with the UN, if you think they'll even bother.'
Charlotte shuddered in disgust. 'Enough with the dick-waving contest,' she said, turning to the cop. 'You lose. Right now you're just trying to find a way to save face. Well there isn't one. Fucking get over it.'
The cop glared at her for a second, and then laughed. It wasn't a derisive laugh, more an appreciative chuckle. He put his hands up in surrender.
'All right, Commander. You and your team can take your ferocious vampire upstairs.'
The cops made way, letting them through, and aside from a cold bit of courtesy from Metzger, they were all silent as they waited for the elevator. Charlotte kept glancing around at their faces, but none of them looked back at her until they were on board, ascending toward the seventh floor.
'What the hell was that?' she said.
Metzger watched the numbers light up. The others ignored her as the elevator passed the fifth floor with a ding. Finally she turned to Barbieri.
'They didn't believe you were a vampire,' he said. 'Young, pretty, mouth like a street kid.'
'I should eat his face,' Charlotte said, knitting her brow.
'You should,' Galleti muttered.
Metzger shot her a withering glance that caused Galleti to stare straight ahead at the elevator doors.
'Sorry, sir,' Galleti said. 'I didn't mean literally.'
Charlotte threw up her hands. 'For fuck's sake, neither did I!'
Both Song and Galleti smiled at that. Sergeant Omondi remained stoic as ever. When the elevator dinged to a stop on Seven and the doors slid open, Metzger was the first one off and the others all followed in his wake. Barbieri made a flourishing bow and gestured for Charlotte to precede him.
'It's going to be an interesting day,' he said.
Half a dozen other cops were in the corridor, either carrying crime scene equipment, taking statements at the doors of other guests' rooms, or standing guard at the entrance of one room. When Metzger and his team approached, the sentries just muttered a greeting and waved him through, and Charlotte figured the asshole downstairs had radioed up with a warning.
The minute she walked into the hotel room, all of the trivial politics and posturing of the authorities was forgotten. She had smelled the blood as soon as they got off the elevator, but now the smell filled up her head, rich and powerful. Metzger had called ahead for a volunteer - someone to give her blood - but nobody had shown up for the job as yet. The Philadelphia police would have some on hand, as would any hospital, but she didn't think she was going to get any handouts here in the City of Brotherly Love. The hungry animal inside of her stirred in its sleep and she licked her lips and swallowed drily. This was a problem that needed solving, but not yet.
A couple of plainclothes detectives stood inside the hotel room, which seemed crowded to Charlotte even before she heard Barbieri start bitching.
'What the hell is this?' the forensics expert asked, pushing ahead so he was just behind Metzger. 'You've had the Macy's parade in here. How am I supposed to -'
'Whoa, hold up,' one of the detectives said. 'The job is done, pal. CSU has been here and gone already. They just took away the last of their equipment. The scene's already been processed. Only thing still here that shouldn't be is the . . .'
He was about to say 'victim'. They all knew it, could feel it, but he faltered and just let the sentence hang there unfinished. When the detectives turned to glance awkwardly back into the room, they could all see why.
Peter Octavian lay on the bed, fully clothed, beside the body of Nikki Wydra, the woman he loved. He had stripped the sheet from the bed and swaddled her in it, wrapped her as if he'd been preparing some Egyptian pharaoh for burial. He lay there beside her cocoon, studying her face with a longing that broke Charlotte's heart, unconcerned by the knowledge that there were witnesses to his anguish. Charlotte studied Nikki's face, the only part of her that was exposed. Even her lips were so pale they seemed made from alabaster.
The awkwardness of the moment expanded until it filled the room. Charlotte lowered her gaze and half-turned away, wishing they would all have given Octavian his privacy. The mage looked terrible, his eyes rimmed with red, his hair mussed and his clothes rumpled.
'Goodbye, love,' Charlotte heard him say, and she glanced back in time to glimpse him brushing his lips against her forehead.
Octavian climbed to his feet, cast a final look at Nikki's corpse, and then turned to the detectives. 'Finish your work. Let me know if you have any further questions and I'll do the same. Task Force Victor will need to be kept informed of your progress.'
These detectives weren't likely to appreciate being told what to do any more than the uniformed cops downstairs, but they weren't going to argue with this man.
Octavian slid past the detectives, glanced once at Metzger, and then went to Charlotte. He took her hands and kissed her cheek, peering at her with those dark eyes.
'Thank you for coming,' he said, as if she'd had a choice.
Then he looked at the other members of Task Force Victor gathered there and nodded once in greeting before turning again to Metzger.
'I've secured us a room down the hall where we can talk,' Octavian said. 'Do what you need to do and let's get to it. The balance of things is shifting, and we need to act before it's shifted so far that it can't be righted again.'
Metzger ordered Barbieri to examine the crime scene, regardless of the fact that the Crime Scene Unit had already been and gone and many people had trampled through the room since then. The forensics man got to work immediately, putting the detectives on notice that he'd want someone to take him to the police labs as soon as he was done there. Song stayed behind to assist him and to look out for him in the event that something went violently wrong. Where Shadows and the supernatural were concerned, it was always best to be careful.
Octavian gestured for Charlotte to walk with him and she complied, the two of them leading Metzger, Sergeant Omondi, and Galleti down the corridor to the second to last door on the seventh floor. Charlotte expected him to produce a key card but instead he rapped lightly on the door in a certain rhythm, a signal knock, letting whoever was inside know it was him. She glanced at Metzger and saw him frowning in confusion.
They heard the deadbolt click open and the chain on the door slide back, and then the door swung inward.
The woman who stood there holding the door open looked incredibly familiar. Something was different about her, though, and it took Charlotte a second to realize that it was her hair. Once upon a time it had been a dark red and now it was a light brown, long and lush and veiling part of her face. But she knew the face.
So, after a moment, did the soldiers from Task Force Victor.
'Holy -' Galleti began, drawing her gun.
Metzger snatched up his own weapon, quick as a gunslinger, and in his eyes Charlotte saw death. She understood it, too. The woman was Allison Vigeant, who had murdered his predecessor - torn his throat out with her teeth. She had been Task Force Victor's most wanted for years.
With a flick of his wrist, Octavian froze them where they stood. Their hands and weapons crackled with a silver, electric mist. He looked at them with a ferocity that would brook no argument.
'We're going to talk. All of us,' he said. 'Which means you're going to put your weapons away and you're going to listen. Do not make the mistake of thinking you have a choice.'
'Fine,' Metzger said, staring at Allison before he flicked his gaze toward Octavian. 'But whatever you've got to say, it better be good.'