Claudia Donovan crouched down to get a closer look at the bodies, the
smell telling her it was bad, a damp smell, tangy with blood and bile. The moon
hung low and pale in the sky, and darkness shrouded the freshly graded dirt.
Two bodies sprawled in the shadow of a bulldozer. At one end of the lot a
dumpster overflowed with construction debris, broken sheetrock, tattered
insulation and twisted re-bar. She switched on her mag-light. The beam
illuminated the sheen of viscera.
br> Los Angeles, the City of Angels. It was earning its other nickname all over again: Crimson City. The war-- oh, right, the "conflict" --between the species was spreading. This time, two adult males. The smaller one looked peaceful. Close cropped afro, square-chinned face, ebony skin, big brown eyes and a deep gash across his throat. The other one, John Doe Number Two, didn't look so peaceful. Both men looked dead.
br> Claudia reached for her police-issue pack and took out a pair of latex gloves. After a hesitation, she slipped them on. No sense not checking things out while she waited for the detectives and the M.E. to arrive. Considering she'd notified the L.A.P.D. fifteen minutes before she'd called the buttheads from Internal Operations, she felt confident the detectives would arrive first. They'd better. Internal Operations, unofficially Battlefield Operations or B-Ops, the city government Intelligence division, was nothing but a freaking pain in the ass. No one in the L.A.P.D. liked them, least of all her. But in this case, damn it, she didn't have a choice. She had to notify B-Ops because of Korzha.
br> She glanced at the vampire just to make sure he was still there. He was. Now there was a real piece of work. Tiberiu Korzha. He was the reputed head of the vampire Family Korzha with an army of lawyers who had so far made every Prosecuting Attorney in the city look like a chump. The creature stood just within sight, though much of his face remained in shadow. Mostly the P.D. dealt with rogue vamps, vampires who went outside the law and the treaty between the species or who just went flat out insane; but Korzha had Strata +1 written all over him: He was part of their society and was as suave, rich and debonair as they came. Right now, he stood still as a statue. She hoped he had control of himself. There was blood all over, including a crimson splatter on the side of the bulldozer. Spilled blood tended to make an edgy vamp edgier.
br> "You have anything to do with this, Korzha, or you just get lucky?" she asked.
br> "Lucky," he replied. But not like he meant it.
br> The L.A.P.D. didn't have jurisdiction to arrest him for any of the crimes of which he was suspected-- racketeering, drug-trafficking, assault, forced conversion, fraud, and aiding-and-abetting all of the above-- but everybody knew Tiberiu Korzha was a killer. Anyone needed a vamp taken down, Korzha was reputedly the guy to make the hit. He was an interesting vamp. B-Ops insisted paranormal investigations belonged to them, but Claudia didn't give a rat's ass about that. There wasn't any law against the P.D. asking a vamp questions. Not yet.
br> Even in the dark, she took care not to meet Korzha's eyes. He'd been at her precinct for a friendly interview more than once. He liked to voodoo the ladies, give them that come-hither-for-a-mind-blowing-orgasm stare. He'd tried it once or twice with her. Damn near worked. Good-looking vamp. Weren't they all? She went back to examining the bodies. She decided Korzha must have fed on at least one of the dead guys, and that's why he wasn't twitchy.
br> "Lucky accident? Or lucky you got them both?" she asked, still crouched beside the bodies. The new P.D. uniforms, dark blue and form fitting, tended to fit poorly in the crotch. She had long legs and her uniform pants kept riding up.
br> "Well," the vamp said in his smooth voice. "You know what they say about luck."
br> "Yeah, right. If it weren't for bad luck. . . . Vamps don't have bad luck," she retorted. How much bad luck could you have if you lived in the Upper, were rolling in money and didn't die without a lot of help? Not much. Now, her? She had all kinds of luck, none good lately. Way too much overtime. All the cops were pulling extra shifts just to keep up. Her precinct had a pool going on total body count by end of month. She had one of the highest numbers. Halfway through the month and they were almost there. Her pick looked pretty good.
br> "This guy--" She pointed to the larger body. "He had some bad luck, I'd say." She glanced up again, kind of a sideways look so as to avoid meeting his eyes. A vamp hanging out in this neighborhood just didn't compute, not without throwing in a criminal motive or two or three. "Dollars to donuts he was looking to get Made. You know anything about that?"
br> Korzha's teeth flashed in the dim light. "I haven't Made a vampire in. . . quite a long time."
br> "Yeah. Right."
br> "The last thing this city needs is more post-human wrecks running amok."
br> She reached into the last of the smaller corpse's pockets. Surprise, surprise. He had no ID. "Something's rotten in the State of Denmark, wouldn't you say?" John Doe One looked to be the younger as well as the smaller of the two bodies. Adult human male, well developed. Good nutrition. She touched his neck and found the wounds she expected. His skin felt cool with a faint sheen of something on the surface. There were two puncture wounds, and about a centimeter and a half below that a scatter line of petechia from lower teeth pressing up and two telltale bruises from lower canines.
br> Korzha hunkered down beside her, watching curiously.
br> "Got hungry, did you?" she asked.
br> She pretended she didn't notice his shoulder practically touching hers. The problem with vamps like Korzha, besides the sharp teeth and insatiable lust for human blood, was the combination of physical and supernatural charisma. Supposedly, the man had been good-looking when he was human and becoming a vamp must have tripled the effect. When the subject came up, which it did whenever he got hauled to the precinct for a little polite interrogation, most every woman agreed Korzha was a fine-looking man. Yummy was the adjective most often applied. Rumor was a lot of other vamps imitated his looks. Some things, of course, couldn't be duplicated: his six-foot frame, muscled without being overdone, and a face that, when you caught him in a moment of repose, was handsome but not pretty. The Armani suits, leather shoes, French shirts, the close shave and the perfect hair cut with a hint of sideburn trimmed to a point, razored off his neck-- that look, a lot of male vamps adopted. If Korzha raked his fingers through his hair, every espresso-colored lock sprang back into place. A bit chilly, it always seemed to her, that kind of perfection. But, he had a smile that could heat a person up pretty quick.
br> Korzha shook his head like he had a bad taste in his mouth. Somewhere in the distance a dog barked. A real dog, not a werewolf. "It wasn't me."
br> Claudia shrugged. "It's not like I'm a vegetarian myself. But did you have to kill him?"
br> "I didn't."
br> "Right." She shook her head. "I swear, I don't know why I bother asking. I could have caught you with your teeth in the guy's throat and you'd be, 'Officer, I'm innocent.'" She risked a look at the vamp. His face was expressionless, but she saw his tongue come out to wet his lower lip. She hated it when anyone-- fang, dog or human --thought she was stupid. "You're one of the most freaking notorious vamps in the whole of Crimson City, Korzha. A known hit-man--"
br> "Prove it."
br> "I find you standing over two dead guys, and you didn't kill anybody?"
br> "Officially, of course--" Korzha gave her an odd smile-- "until the coroner calls it, they aren't dead."
br> "Stow it, fang."
br> Korzha laughed. "Even if I did-- how would you put it? --take care of these two gentlemen, Officer Donovan, you're outside your jurisdiction." Every now and then, Korzha talked like he came from someplace else. Someplace far away from the good old U.S. of A. Really, really Upper. Stood to reason. Most vampires and all the vamps from the Korzha family came from the Upper, lived in Strata +1. And it was in the nature of vamps to like the finer things. They looked it, lived it, talked it. They wouldn't interact with humans at all if they didn't need blood.
br> "Yeah, well. B-Ops isn't here yet," she said. Resentment gave her words an edge. B-Ops demanded they handle all paranormal incidents; like that sort of crime could only be handled by college boys and jarheads. B-Ops thought the L.A.P.D. was incompetent. From what she'd seen in her time on the force, they worked hard to compete. Nobody in the P.D. liked B-Ops; it was kind of a mutual-hatred society. Just like the rest of the city. Another serving of antipathy, please.
br> "Well, then," Korzha said, letting his aristocratic tones linger in the air.
br> "I'm the officer on the scene," she said. Freaking vamp. Snobs, all of them. Thought they were better than everyone. "There's dead humans here. Gotta take a look. Ask a few questions. It'd be a dereliction of duty, if I didn't."
br> "Only one of them is human," Korzha said.
br> He sounded serious, and Claudia thought that was a pretty interesting change of tactic. Vamps hardly ever shared information with cops. "Yeah? Which one isn't?"
br> "The larger."
br> She studied the second body for a moment. It made a far less pleasant sight than the first which wasn't remotely pretty. Number Two's chest was torn open. Not cut; torn. It looked like someone had stuck his bare hand into the guy's rib cage, made a fist and pulled hard. A heart balanced in the corpse's left hand and, judging from the mess in his torso, she presumed it was his. She checked her comm readout, figured she had enough time, and dug a HemoStrip out of her backpack. "He's not a vamp or he'd be turning to dust by now, and I doubt he's a werewolf."
br> "Why?" asked Korzha.
br> "Why do I think he's not a dog?" Sheesh. Vamps could be so ignorant. But Korzha ought to know, considering the neighborhood he chose to hang out in. Lotsa wolves around here. "Easy," she said. "No sign of re-transformation. And besides, if he was a dog, his packmates would be all over this place."
br> The vampire didn't move. Eerie, the way his kind could be so motionless.
br> "Lucky us." She wiggled the HemoStrip at him. "Plenty of blood for a field sample." She collected a drop of glistening gore from the center of the chest cavity, less chance of contamination, then dropped the strip in the vial and broke the chem-release seal. "So, not a dog, not a vamp. Not a human. What the hell is he then? A ghost?"
br> "A demon."
br> Claudia fell backward onto her butt. Something went squish under her, followed by the odor of something rotting from the inside out. "Oh, crud. This is just gross. Korzha, you made me drop the HemoStrip." The vampire plucked something from the ground and handed it to her. Damn preternatural vision. B-Ops got night vision contacts, but not the P.D., oh no. God forbid the first line of defense in a city about to ignite should be prepared. Not that she could blame Korzha for that. She took the HemoStrip from him. "Thanks."
br> "My pleasure."
br> She dropped the vial into a pocket to free up her hands for brushing off her backside. Thank God she still had on the gloves. Yuck. Her eyes fixed on Korzha's ear-- he was a tall creature, which meant her head tipped back --she could peripherally see the line of his just-shaved cheek. She caught a whiff of sandalwood from him. Nice. "Let's pretend a minute there's any such thing as demons," she said.
br> "Cut the crap, Officer." There was that voice again. Very. . . Upper. "You know damn well there are."
br> "How can you tell?" she asked, genuinely curious. She stripped off her gloves and shoved them in an outside pocket of her pants. "To me, these look like two regular humans who didn't deserve to die."
br> Korzha picked something off the seat of her pants and flung it away. "Experience."
br> She gave him a look. Had he, or had he not, let his hand linger on her butt? Somewhere in the back of the lot, a tomcat yowled. "Gonna explain that?" she asked. She lifted her eyebrows when he didn't and pointed at the body. "If you're so experienced, what kind of demon is it?"
br> "A dead one," Korzha said.
br> "Everyone's a comedian," she said.
br> "He's Mahsei."
br> "Isn't that a kind of tuna fish?" She gave him a fake grin. "I got that for lunch today. Tuna salad with celery and stuff in it. Made it myself."
br> The vampire indicated the second body. "Considered a lesser demon. Although," he added, "I believe Mahsei are underestimated in their world."
br> "Har, har." Claudia turned back to the bodies. She gave John Doe Two a closer glance. Looked human to her. She really, really hated being condescended to. "Jerk," she muttered.
br> "I heard that."
br> "Oh, gee." She lifted a hand. He could be in the Upper right now, relaxing amidst the best that money could buy, and instead he was out here with the freaks and losers of L.A., slumming. Feeling superior. "Sorry, Korzha. I forgot about the supernatural hearing and all that. I'll be more careful next time."
br> "You do that."
br> Claudia studied the bodies. The thing was, rumors about demons had been cropping up on the streets for some time now. Lots of dead vamps and dogs these days, too. Lots of unrest. She frowned. She wasn't about to tell Korzha that something about the second body bothered her. The clothes for instance; unusual fabric, and not a style she'd ever seen in Crimson City. There were no buttons on the pants, and no zipper either. Instead, they laced in front. She touched the corpse's chin, pulling his face around. His eyes were open. For a moment she thought he'd been blind, but it was just that his irises were so pale they looked nearly white. "No rigor yet," she said to cover her surprise. But she supposed the eyes weren't so unusual. She knew at least one other human with freakily pale irises.
br> Korzha coughed, but she ignored him. Her mind clicked along. She didn't give a crap about contaminating the scene. B-Ops wouldn't notice, and if they did, hey, what did they expect? The P.D. was incompetent. They shoulda got to the scene sooner. "This guy. . ." She pointed to the gaping chest. "Classic rogue kill."
br> "You don't say?"
br> Claudia twisted a little to look at the vampire. His eyes glittered, but she was careful not to directly meet his gaze. Not with that vampire voodoo head stuff he liked to do. She wanted to look, but she didn't. "Look, Korzha, the P.D. isn't stupid about paranormal crimes, no matter what B-Ops likes to say." She pointed again. "Heart torn out and put in the left hand. Wasted blood as a sign of contempt. Plain as day if you know anything about rogue kills. One of these guys was here to get Made, I'll guarantee that."
br> "If you say so."
br> Claudia fought back annoyance and explained: "Take down on the first guy, all the blood drained, throat slit to be sure he isn't coming back. Then the rogue-kill here with the other. To send a message."
br> "Fascinating," Korzha replied.
br> Claudia suddenly felt the hair on her arms prickle. She glanced over her shoulder, but the construction site was empty except for her and Korzha, the two bodies and the smell of death. "Busy vamp, aren't you, Mr. Korzha?" she asked.
br> "One strives not to be bored." He made a point of glancing at his Patek Philippe wristwatch. Another affection of the Upper. Vamps didn't need watches.
br> "You got someplace to be?"
br> Korzha shrugged. "A wedding reception."
br> "How romantic." She rose, and held up a hand, palm out. The howling cats started up again and she waited for a lull. "I got someplace to be, too, you know. I promised my daughter I'd make her waffles for breakfast." She checked her comms. "In three hours."
br> "Your daughter?" the vamp said.
br> Claudia knew she shouldn't smile at him, but she did anyway. "Strawberry waffles. With whipped cream on top." She pointed her forefinger downward and made a swirling motion. "You gonna mess me up and break her heart?"
br> "Perish the thought."
br> For some reason, he sounded. . . sad. Must be her imagination. "I'm humoring you here, okay?" She checked the time on her comm. Digital components worth about thirty-eight cents American. Forty-eight seconds, and she could read the test. Korzha shifted his weight, and that made her flinch. A thrill of adrenaline rolled through her. But he didn't attack. Just checked his twenty thousand dollar watch again. Where was everyone? She really didn't want to be alone with this vamp and a bunch of spilled blood. "What happens if I check the HemoStrip and the little arrow points to the minus?" Meaning, of course, not human.
br> "Nothing?" he said, with a taint of irony.
br> "You're a regular comedian, aren't you?"
br> There was a moment of silence Claudia expected would be filled with a sarcastic retort. Instead, he said, "How old is your daughter?"
br> "Ten. She's the greatest. She really is." Man, oh, man. The guy was unfairly handsome. Hair the color of an espresso bean; straight nose, a bit flared-- all the best characteristics of an eastern European. Sensitive mouth, strong cheekbones, a hint of the Attic hordes in the shape of his eyes. Even she, trained to a certain level of immunity to preternatural charm, couldn't entirely resist.
br> She looked at the bodies again. "If one of them's a demon, how come they're both dead?" she asked.
br> "One does wonder."
br> She cocked her head and flicked on her mag-light again. "Now that's just weird."
br> "Maybe, Officer Donovan. But then, I lack your insight into the criminal mind."
br> "F-you, Korzha."
br> "Respectfully, I decline the offer."
br> Claudia rolled her eyes again. "The small guy's got a tattoo," she went on. She fixed her light on a pale blue swirl of interlocking lines on his exposed shoulder. "Rogues like body art. Ever seen that before?"
br> "Me neither." She checked her comm again. "Where the hell are the detectives?" she said under her breath. "I gave them a head's up big enough to drive a truck through. They ought to be here." She kicked the toe of her boot into the dirt. She did not want to deal with B-Ops and their paperwork. Six forms for every paranormal handoff. Not to mention double pay for the babysitter whenever Claudia pulled an all-nighter and needed the sitter to stay with her daughter. Seemed like all her overtime pay went to the IRS and the sitter. "Another freaking night totally screwed up."
br> Korzha seemed amused. "Perhaps your colleagues are unavoidably detained?"
br> Claudia ignored him. "So." She narrowed her eyes at him and pulled out the HemoStrip. "How come you know so much about demons?"
br> "I make a point of keeping myself informed."
br> She clutched the HemoStrip but had her eyes on her time readout. Fifteen seconds. "Yeah, right."
br> "It's minus," Korzha said.
br> She flashed her light on the HemoStrip because the dim lamp at the street corner wasn't bright enough to get a decent reading. Her heart bottomed out. "Holy cripes."
br> "Problem, Officer?"
br> Hell, yes. Twelve forms! Six for Korzha and six for the non-human body. She thought about the bodies and the rumors of demons. The lots of rumors. The street lamp dimmed, buzzed, then flared before settling down to a faint yellowish glow. It made her feel sick, the thought of demons loose in the city. Korzha looked like a statue. "I'm just going to ask this straight out, okay?" she asked.
br> "I'm not going to hypnotize you," he said with a hint of exasperation. "So you can stop staring at my ear and talk to me. What offensive question do you wish to ask?"
br> She risked a look into his eyes. Green. Like moss. She'd always wanted green eyes, but got stuck with plain old brown. "Let's say you're right, and this is a demon. What's it doing in Los Angeles?" she asked.
br> He crossed his arms over his chest. "Not that I have all the time in the world for this fascinating chat, Officer, but haven't any of your forays into the B-Ops network gotten you the answer to that question?"
br> "I don't know what you're talking about," she said. But was it a stab in the dark or did he really know she'd cracked B-Ops? It never paid to dismiss the improbable. It just didn't. Her chest tightened. The world was a pretty scary place. The whole damn city was on the edge of war. It was practically in the middle of one, only no one would admit it. Conflict my ass. The war between the species had already walked right in and sat down to dinner. "Does Fleur Dumont know you're negotiating with demons, Korzha?"
br> He laughed, only he didn't sound amused. "It's so much easier to promise I'll never do it again."
br> "She'll have your head on a platter." The pull of his charisma tugged at her. For a guy out slumming, he kept himself pretty Upper. Right. A wedding reception. Too bad his expensive shoes were getting dirty.
br> "If humans won't live up to their responsibilities here, keeping the peace and our treaty, then I'll do whatever it takes to see vamps live despite you. Despite Fleur Dumont, if I have to."
br> "So, you think humans are killing vamps?"
br> "Are you?"
br> "You're insane, you know that?" She rolled her eyes. The lamp buzzed again then settled down. "B-Ops is always doing sneaky shit, I'll give you that, but that mostly died down. Everything's cool. And there are no demons here. If there were, I'd think we'd know." Claudia wished that had come out more like she believed it.
br> "How old are you?" Korzha asked. Not in a nice way. "Twenty-two? Maybe twenty-three?"
br> She rolled her eyes again. Twenty-five. But she knew she looked younger. "None of your damn business."
br> "A child. You know nothing."
br> Claudia bristled. "Oh, and you were what when you got Made? Thirty? Thirty-five, tops, I bet." She frowned at him. Maybe he'd been in his twenties when he was converted. It was hard to tell with some vamps, particularly when they didn't adjust well, as Made vampires typically did not. Tiberiu 'Tiber' Korzha was a Made vamp; everyone knew that. "The P.D. file on you doesn't go back more than ten years, and the B-Ops file doesn't have much more."
br> "On the servers you got to," he said.
br> She ignored the dig, but he was right. "You can't be that old," she said.
br> "I stopped counting three hundred years ago."
br> She made a face at him. "Har, har."
br> A blue flash illuminated the street. No sound, just light. Typical B-Ops. Well, she wasn't going to do them any favors. "I'm stuck with these guys," she said, mostly to herself. She flashed her mag-light on the demon corpse or whatever it was, but the beam sputtered once, turned yellow and went out. She stared at the cylinder with disgust. "That's what's wrong with the world today." She shook the flashlight in Korzha's face. "Brand-new batteries!"
br> "Tsk, tsk," the vamp said.
br> "Look, Korzha, I don't feel like spending the rest of my night filling out forms on you. Why don't you head off to your party, okay?" She twitched her head toward the building next door. "But if that guy's not a demon, I'm coming after you. I'll crash your reception and arrest you right in front of the happy bride and groom. That's a promise."
br> "How romantic, Officer." He gave her a business card. "My private cell is on here. If it seems you're going to be late for your appointment, call me. I'll see you get there on time."
br> "Scram, would ya?"
br> Korzha didn't waste a moment; Claudia blinked, and he was gone. Just like a vamp. She waited for the detectives or the coroner or some B-Ops bozos to announce themselves, then took a step toward the street when nobody did. The blue light faded, and she walked into a nightmare.