Excerpt for Legal Rites Book One by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

All characters in this publication are fictitious, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Legal Rites

Book One

Undercover Vampire

Copyright © 2017 Odette C Bell

Cover art stock photos licensed from Depositphotos.

www.odettecbell.com

 



Legal Rites

BOOK ONE

Undercover Vampire



She’s got a destiny, and it’s all tied up in him….

Madeleine Macy is a magical enforcement officer. She doesn’t have power, but boy does she have a razor sharp wit.

Then she meets her match in Valstein, a powerful vampire of noble descent who's about to become a massive pain in her butt. When one of the most respected vampire lords in Knight City is brutally murdered, Madeleine is thrown together with Valstein to solve the case before it's too late. You see, if it's too late, Madeline dies. And Valstein really can't have that - not until he finds out who she is and - more to the point - who's been hiding her from him.

Legal Rites is an urban fantasy police-procedural sure to please fans of Odette C. Bell’s Angel: Private Eye series.

Chapter 1

Staring at this guy never gets old.

And yeah, that’s a pun. Because not only is he great to look at, but the bastard never ages, either.

I’m careful not to let any of my thoughts show as I sit there, perched on the edge of that expensive Regency chair, ensuring my skirt shows just enough knee without revealing the whole kit and caboodle. You see, you’ve got to be very careful when dealing with vampires, especially those as old and powerful as Valstein. No, that doesn’t mean he’s going to fall over like a geriatric tumbling down a set of stairs anytime soon.

Just the opposite. It’s the old and powerful ones that are truly lithe. They’re the kinds of bastards to jump up the side of a building and run you right across town without breaking a sweat.

They’re also… now, how am I going to point this out without being lewd?

Oh hell, no point. You can’t discuss one of the Calstan class of vampires without discussing, ah… sex.

There, I said it. If I’ve offended your sensibilities, I’m sorry. But like I said, there’s no way around it.

Calstan class vampires are… driven. Let’s put it that way. Really, really driven. They aren’t like your ordinary class of vampire. The lower-class fiends are really only in it for the blood. The more red juice, the merrier. But blood will only get those lower-class stooges so far. With the new night-limiting laws really stymieing how many lower-class vamps can hunt the city streets, I don’t have to deal with too many of those bastards these days.

There are tried-and-true methods of helping them shuffle off their mortal coil, anyway. No, I’m not talking a stake to the heart. Good luck getting close enough to a technically immortal being who would just love a close-up of your jugular as you foolishly try to stake his heart like you’re pitching a tent in his rib cage. He would rip out your throat faster than you can say, “Damn.”

Guns? Yeah, guns are just as effective against vampires as they are on road signs, cans at fairs, and people’s heads. You pack them with enough enchanted dust, and they’ll take down even the lithest lower-class vampire.

Oh, I said that word again, didn’t I?

Lithe. The one word that sums up Valstein more than any other. He’s got muscles, don’t get me wrong. And technically, he’s got the kind of vampire muscles that could see him stop a train in its tracks, let alone frame his tall, rigid form as he stands behind his desk, back to me, head tilted toward the view of the city down on the horizon.

Sorry, I keep getting sidetracked, don’t I?

All you need to keep up with me are these two little facts. I don’t care about lower-class vampires. All I have to do is grab the gun that’s magically been soldered into my aura, and return them to the dust from which they came.

Calstans? Who are otherwise known just as the Nobility?

Hmmm. Yeah. Controlling them is like attempting to control a wildfire with nothing more than a piece of paper. I don’t have any tools in my magical arsenal to kill them, let alone make them submit to justice.

I do like that word,” he suddenly says.

Crap.

Though I’m trying to hold myself in a dignified, controlled manner as I continue to perch on the edge of my chair, I can’t help but stiffen my lips and press them hard against my teeth, swallowing a swearword.

I just left my thoughts unguarded, and the dear little noble vampire skimmed what I was thinking right off the top of my mind.

Though he’s been ignoring me almost the entire meeting as he waits for one of his lower-class punks to satisfy the evidence request I slammed on his desk 10 minutes ago, now he turns.

Oh, hello – no male model could ever match the view of him as little rays of silver-kissed moonlight penetrate the glass behind him, lighting up one side of his body while casting the other into darkness. And yeah, you don’t really need to be a physicist to appreciate that that shouldn’t be possible. The moonlight is technically striking all of his body, but it’s only illuminating one side while casting the other into everlasting shadow.

He’s still got his hands clasped behind his back, and my stomach clenches. It’s not because I’m suddenly overcome with thoughts of things I’d really love his hands to do for me, it’s because I would prefer to see what he’s doing with them. I don’t think he’s plucked out his phone and is texting while pretending to have a conversation with me. Nor do I think he’s suddenly found a knife and is hiding it as he waits for the perfect opportunity to slit my pretty throat.

Nope. But there are plenty of other things a noble like him could be doing with simple bone and skin. You see, while to a lower-class vampire their teeth are their true weapon, to a noble, it’s their entire body. And for this guy, though I’ve only seen him a few times, he seems to have a real big thing for hands.

I bet he knows how to use them,” Calista mutters in my mind.

I jolt. I’m not expecting it.

You’d think I would be expecting it.

This is not my first rodeo, kids. I’ve been doling out partial justice for years now. Hell, I even have a commendation – that’s right, an actual commendation. It’s a certificate, and it’s currently sitting in my mom’s lounge. And before you say something snide, I’m seriously proud of that fact.

This is a hard job.

Doling out partial justice was never going to be an easy pastime. To think, I was a part-time pizza chef before I signed up for the magical policing course.

Now?

I’m respected by my superiors as someone who can get things done even when the odds are stacked against them.

Valstein’s watching me. You’d think, considering how good I’m meant to be, that I’d be focusing on his darting gaze, shoring up my mental defenses, and maintaining complete control over my thoughts.

Yeah, Mads, I would be thinking that. But since the moment you met this guy, you’ve been letting his sex magic get the better of you.”

Do you mind? And we’ve gone over this a thousand times, don’t call it that.”

What? Sex magic?”

Yes. That. It’s way more complicated than that. And a noble’s magic doesn’t just come from…” I trail off, cutting the thought short.

You can’t even say it, can you?” Calista laughs right in my ear, her less than lilting chuckle like fingernails on a blackboard. “It’s sex, Mads. The other guardians are right – you are a prude.”

I am not a prude!” I think back to my guardian.

She snorts. And let me tell you, it is not a pleasant experience to have somebody snort in your head.

Though, technically, that’s not where Calista is. She, like my magical gun, is attached to my aura. I know what you’re thinking. Auras are some hippie mumbo-jumbo that are meant to give an insight into your mood. Yeah, magical auras are slightly different. They’re more like a seriously handy pocket of space that only you can access. You can’t keep your keys or a spare packet of tissues in there, though. It’s strictly accessible only to objects and creatures who have aligned with your aura. And it’s a tricky, complicated affair to get the alignment right.

I’m digressing, though. You don’t care about that, do you? You don’t give a single hoot that all of my strongest magical protections are at this very moment in my aura, permanently accessible by me at any moment, anywhere. Nor do you care that – technically – the greatest asset I have as a magical enforcer is my guardian, and she’s also permanently accessible through my aura. Yeah, that’s right – permanently. I can be half asleep or in the bath, only for Calista’s grating, husky, whiskey-voice to ring loudly in my head like an alcoholic blues singer who’s jumped into my ear.

What you care about is what she’s pointing out. Don’t lie. You’re laughing your ass off that I’m a prude. And I guess… look… I am a prude.

Unlike a lot of my other magical enforcer colleagues, I have never given in to a noble.

Despite how… ah, uniquely pleasurable it’s meant to be.

You know, though you’re irritating Valstein, if you ask for a free taste—” Calista begins.

Would you just shut the hell up? I’m on official business now. I don’t need your protection as my guardian. I just need some peace and quiet to question this guy.”

Question? You’ve just been making less-than-witty mental remarks about his personal proclivities while staring at his perfect body. I don’t call that—”

Do you think it will take much longer for your aide to fulfill the information request?” I ask, realizing I can’t exactly just sit here and watch him as he watches me.

I’m not a fish in an aquarium.

Oh, sweetie, he’s not looking at you like you’re a fish in an aquarium. Fish are already naked. Nope. That particular flicker in his eye? Yeah, it’s the look of a noble who just wants to undress you one piece of clothing at a time—”

Calista! You’re really not helping. If you keep this up, he’s going to wonder why I’m distracted, put two and two together, and realize I’ve got a guardian.”

Oh, poor, naïve, Madeleine Macy. He already knows. This is not your run-of-the-mill, garden-variety noble.”

His eyes are on me again. Okay, they’ve never left me. But right now, the intensity of his gaze… it kind of makes me feel like someone’s just poured oil down my top. Weird image, right? Not really. It’s kind of sticky and hot and makes me wriggle.

You get the point.

But as I have said many times, I will not submit to a vampire.

Though it’s not unusual for a vampire – especially a noble – to just stare at you like you’re a picture in a gallery, Valstein suddenly cracks a smile. It’s slow, and it draws all my attention to the left side of his lips as they curl into his cheeks. “Fond of that word, aren’t you?”

I blink quickly. “Sorry? What are you talking about—”

Submit,” he says. He does something with his voice. I’m not entirely sure if it’s magical, or if this noble was born with a late-night radio host timbre that makes you way too aware of your pelvis.

I smile. Not a natural move, suffice to say. It’s that pale, pressed-lip curl you give people when you’re trying seriously hard not to react.

His gaze gets distracted for a little as he stares around the room, then, like a spring snapping back in on itself, it locks on me.

There’s power behind it. Sure, it doesn’t feel like I’ll be bowled off my feet, but that’s not the point. You see, you stare too long into a noble’s gaze, and they can wend their way into more than your sights. You know before how I talked about a magical aura and how only things that are aligned with you can be held inside it? Yeah, I’m suddenly reminded of the fact that extremely powerful, old nobles can find their way into your magical aura with sight alone.

And that is the last place I want this guy.

So I quickly dart my gaze away, demurely tucking my fringe behind my ears as if a few strands of loose hair is way more interesting than the veritable sex god to my side.

Just before the situation can spiral down and tug what’s left of my self-worth with it, there’s finally a knock on the door. I look up like a hopeful puppy as the door creaks open and in scurries one of Valstein’s staff. Though scurry isn’t really the right word. He kind of floats, doesn’t he? Because the guy, like every single poor sucker who works for Valstein, is a vampire. Not nearly as strong as the noble himself, but hardly your average, everyday scum-sucker, either.

In a testament to how much I want to get this done and get the hell out of Valstein’s office, I pretty much shoot to my feet as if I’ve been shot from a cannon. There isn’t a single sarcastic insult in my head, even though Valstein’s aide treated me like shit when I arrived unannounced at his mansion half an hour ago.

Is that my evidence?” I ask sweetly, using the sycophantic, candy-cane sugar voice of someone who’s willing to tell you anything if only you’ll leave them alone.

The guy comes to a stop several meters away from the door, places his hands in front of himself, and bows, never making eye contact with Valstein.

I wonder if that’s self-defense. Yeah, I know – first hand – how powerful Valstein’s gaze is, but I assumed he just turns it up for hapless little humans. But now I imagine even his scum-sucking staff don’t like dealing with it.

Valstein shifts past me. Close enough that I can feel the rolled-up sleeve of his shirt brush against my arm.

I know better than to shiver and jerk back, even though I didn’t hear or see him move beside me. Last time I looked, he’d been several meters away by his desk. But in a split second that had changed.

The hair along the back of my neck stands on end, and I press my tongue hard against the roof of my mouth. Like I’ve said so many times before, this is definitely not my first rodeo. I know how fast a noble can move. Shifting the space of several meters in under a split second is nothing to this guy. He could take on an entire army, if he wanted to.

Oh, I think he’s more of a lover than a fighter,” Calista suddenly says in my ear.

Dammit, I’m not expecting it, and I shiver.

Though the aide was standing there with his hands locked in front of himself and his head directed at the ground, almost like a wolf smelling blood, he darts his gaze up and locks it on me. “What is the human doing?”

Oh, the human is just conversing with her guardian,” Valstein replies smoothly with only one flick of his glance my way.

Bastard.

Of course he knows. You weren’t very subtle about me,” Calista says. “And I’ve told you before, this isn’t your garden-variety vampire. He would have pegged you as having a guardian the second you walked into his office.”

I don’t bother replying to Calista, because she’s right.

Still, I hate revealing to perps that I have a bonded guardian. It’s my ace in the hole.

The aide narrows his eyes, and I see his yellowed, slitlike pupils constrict until he looks like a cat that’s about to pounce. “Guardian? Her? I sense no special gifts,” he spits. Then he looks me right up and down as if I’m a slab of meat on a butcher’s hook. “This ugly, small human is not worthy of such a gift.”

I’m sorry, ugly, small human? If it weren’t for the fact the aide was currently holding my evidence request, I’d storm over there and punch him right on the jaw.

Yeah, I get it, I am nowhere near as good-looking as most vampire babes. But they have a little bit of help there – not only are they immortal, but they can use magic to alter and bolster their appearance. No sagging skin and cellulite for them. They don’t even have to book in an expensive, ineffective treatment with a plastic surgeon. All they have to do is find someone they like the look of and drink their blood.

And you know what, just fuck that guy generally. I may not be much to look at, and I may not have a physically impressive build. And yeah, I’m not the greatest magician out there. I don’t have some special destiny, and I sure as hell haven’t inherited unusual powers, as the scientists call them.

But you know what I do have?

Grit.

Yeah, I’m the kind of girl to chase you through the streets and never give up, even if I break my damn legs. I’m the kind of girl to tear apart a crime scene for months on end, even when everyone else has given up. I’m also the kind of girl who, once she gets a grudge, never forgets. I don’t need a little black book to remember every asshole who’s crossed my path – they sink right into my brain and remain there until the day I can get my just revenge.

So rather than splutter in indignation at this asshole, I just cross my arms and stare right back at him. “I guess it’s lucky for Valstein here you’re just an errand boy and not security. With those deductive skills of yours, it’s a surprise you’re still around,” I say sweetly with a hell of a saccharine smile spreading across my lips.

I can feel Valstein’s gaze on the side of my neck, and I watch out of the corner of my eye as he arches an eyebrow.

As for his aide, the guy practically turns beetroot red. I’ll let you in on a little secret about vampire biology, even though there’s still a lot ordinary humans don’t know. It’s been 10 years now since vampires made themselves known. And in those 10 years, despite the so-called Peace Treaty that was signed between ordinary humans and magical races, scientists have managed to get their hands on the odd vampire in an attempt to figure out how those immortal beings work.

Myth will tell you it’s blood. If a vampire drinks enough blood, he’ll live forever. And the blood will keep him youthful. Yeah, well it’s more than blood. I’m not going to go full-on esoteric on you here, but it’s a lot more to do with life force, movement, and change. That type of shit usually boggles the minds of my colleagues. Even the ones who are a lot more powerful than me. They don’t endeavor to understand magic – they just wield it like a frigging tool. Me? Yeah, even though I used to be a pizza chef before I became a magical enforcement officer, I grew up with a grandfather who loved philosophy. If I’d had the cash back then, I would’ve gone to university. But grandpa had taught me everything he knew, anyway. So the esoteric, mysterious side of magic has never bothered me. I actively study it, in fact. When I’m not prowling through the streets of Knight City, I’m usually online, tracking down rare magical tomes to add to my collection.

But sorry, I’m digressing here, aren’t I?

I promised you a tidbit of important information about the vampires, and here it is. They don’t have blood. Several scientific studies – albeit illicit ones that worked off illegally captured and killed vampires – have proven that fact time and time again. Vampires have circulatory systems, but the shit that pumps through their veins and arteries is nowhere near the same life force that streams through ours as humans.

It’s… now bear with me here – it’s a type of movement.

They say a universe that stops changing will stop existing. Because existence is tantamount to change. Movement, heat, the breakdown and the rebuilding of atomic bonds. It’s all change. And as for time? It’s just a handy, stable measurement of change.

Yeah, I get it, I’m boring you. Just hold on a little, though. You want to know how to kill a vampire – even the extremely powerful ones – you have to understand that. You can’t bleed the suckers dry. You have to stop them in place. And short of creating a big-ass black hole to suck them in so you can trap them on the static, virtually timeless event horizon, you have a few other options.

Stop moving, stop thinking, slow your metabolism down. Don’t make any sudden movements, and most importantly, control your emotions.

Trust me, it works wonders.

And that’s what I do right now as I stare impassively at the pissed off vampire.

His cheeks are pale, but I know better than to assume it’s because blood is being diverted to the rest of his body. Nope. He’s becoming undermined.

You may be a prude, but goddamn, Mads, at times, I love you,” Calista suddenly says in my head.

This time I’m ready for her. I don’t even twitch. No shiver, no reaction at all. I just keep staring at the vampire like I’m a statue and he’ll never, ever get anything from me.

I’ve been working for the enforcement squad my whole life, but I have never met someone who can stare a vampire cold like you,” Calista keeps chuckling.

Staring a vampire cold isn’t a euphemism. It’s an actual tactic.

Like I said – though I know you’re getting bored of vampire philosophy by now – the guys essentially live on movement. You stop moving, they start getting cold. Heat, after all, is just the temperature dependent motion of particles. If things slow down, they get colder; they speed up, they get faster. That’s science, see.

And science works on magic.

The vampire’s skin is seriously pale now. Looks like my grandma’s bleached and starched sheets. Don’t get me wrong, I love the dear to bits, but gran has always been fond of decorating everything plaster-white. And that’s exactly the hue this guy’s skin continues to turn. His eyes, on the other hand, get yellower and yellower.

As for his pupils? They start to turn red. And that means he’s about to feed.

Don’t worry for me, though. There’s no way in hell a noble would let one of his aides feed on an enforcement officer.

And hey, even if Valstein is stupid enough to ignore the vamp, you’re hardly defenseless, are you, Mads?” Calista chuckles.

I have a little bit of a love-hate relationship with Calista. When she’s not calling me a prude and poking at my personal life, she’s usually cheering me on from the sidelines. Out of all of the guardians who work for the magical enforcement squad, she is by far the loopiest. Most of the other enforcers refuse to work with her, even though Calista has the most raw power of any of the guardians on the squad.

But you know what they say – nothing comes for free. And most enforcement officers who aligned with Calista in the past wound up going insane. One guy even took a drill to his skull as Calista, presumably, maniacally laughed between his ears.

With me, it’s different. Though I let Calista’s almost permanent commentary affect me sometimes, when it matters, I can tune her out.

Which is exactly what I do now.

I just watch the vampire’s red pupils.

I wait.

My arms are still hooked around my middle, but the fingers of my left hand are resting on my rib cage, ready to dart to the side in a split second.

My magical aura is primed, too, ready to spit out my gun without a moment’s notice.

Which is all the time I’ll need to put a bullet in this bastard’s brain if he makes a move for me.

That’s when I hear the creaking. No, it’s not the leather of the expensive furniture in this room contracting with the sudden cold. It’s not even the old wood foundations of this sprawling mansion. That would be the vampire’s teeth starting to grow, pushing hard through the guy’s top jaw, piercing the flesh of his gums like two little swords stabbing into skin.

I don’t move a muscle.

I even control my heartbeat. Let me tell you, that is no small task. There is a vampire – an immortal monster – getting ready to throw himself at my jugular. If I make a single mistake and waste a single second, I’m dead.

But fear will get me nowhere. If I let my heart beat harder, I’m a dead woman walking.

The secret to winning over any vampire is to control yourself. Yeah, maybe the other officers down at the enforcement squad don’t agree with me on that point, but they’re wrong.

Bitch,” the vampire screams as he breaks and throws himself at me. In a microsecond, he changes. His hair falls out. It’s long and glossy white-gray. A few seconds ago, it was held behind the base of his head with a clip, but now it flares around his face, framing his pupils as they dilate to pure red. As for the rest of his body, it elongates, his arms reaching toward me, his fingernails growing with the sound of snapping bone.

And as for his teeth? Yeah, he’s pretty much all teeth now.

I reach for my gun.

I don’t get the chance to pull it out and put a bullet right between this guy’s eyes.

Valstein reacts.

So quickly. So goddamn quickly. I don’t see it. Even with the help of my guardian, I can’t really track what he does. But one second he’s standing to the side, the next he reaches forward, latches a hand on the aide’s chest while the guy is in mid-flight, then throws him to the ground. Valstein follows the move, never letting go of the guy’s chest as he slams him into the floor with enough force that the whole room pitches.

Seriously, it’s like a frigging meteorite has just impacted the house.

I stagger to the side, my hip slamming against Valstein’s desk, sending several items tumbling off.

At the same time, even though I know I have to control myself, my eyes blast wide and dilate with fear.

I have never seen a noble move as fast.

Valstein doesn’t get up. With one hand still locked on the guy’s chest, he looks down into his eyes. “Control yourself,” he spits.

But the aide can’t control himself. I’ve really wound the guy up, see.

That’s because you have a preternatural ability to piss people off. Ever told you how much I love you? Though at the same time, you’re a god-awful prude who just needs to open your legs once in a while. Preferably for Valstein—” Calista begins.

Shut the hell up,” I snap back at her in my mind, even though it’s a mistake.

You know what I said about movement before? It’s not just the movement of your body. It’s not just the pound of your heart. It’s everything. From quick, directed thoughts to floods of emotion. If you want to control any altercation with a vampire, you must control yourself.

And right now, I’m slipping.

It’s enough to see Valstein arch his neck toward me and lock his gaze on me just for a split second.

This room is well lit. And I’ve taken my night-see pills anyway. I could chase a vamp through a cave in pitch black darkness without falling over and stubbing my toe.

So why can’t I see Valstein’s eyes right now?

That would be because of the shadows he can control. Just like he controlled the light that illuminated only half of his body when he was standing in front of his window, now he controls the shadow looming under his eyes. It’s enough that I can’t see his pupils. Which is a problem. Because you can tell what a vampire is thinking – and planning to do with you – based on his pupils.

His aide continues to thrash, the guy reaching toward me with his clawed hands, his fangs dripping with blood.

Shit, I really did a number on this guy, didn’t I? If Valstein hadn’t been there to intervene, I wouldn’t have been able to just injure this vamp – I would’ve had to put him down with a bullet right between his eyes and three into his heart.

But Valstein is here. And with a hiss of breath like steam escaping a broken pipe, he twists around, brings up the base of his palm, and slams it into the vampire’s face.

It’s a vicious blow. The guy doesn’t have a chance.

His head lolls to the side as he falls unconscious.

That was brilliant,” Calista says. “I think I’m falling in love with this vampire. Can you pretty please have—”

Just shut up. For the love of God, shut up. That’s a command. Don’t make me think at you again,” I snarl back at her.

At the same time, Valstein shifts up. He doesn’t need to eke the tension out of his hand. It just falls gently by his side as he takes one step over his comatose aide and another step toward me.

I’m still close to his desk, one hand propped on it for support.

His gaze is on me. No, who am I kidding? His gaze is all over me. But here’s the thing. I can see his pupils now, and technically they’re not moving. But that doesn’t change the fact his eyes are darting over every centimeter of my skin. “You have quite an ability to affect those around you,” he says, lips barely moving over his teeth, making his words short and sharp like someone hammering a nail.

Which makes you wonder if he’s good at hammering—” Calista says.

I just stop paying attention to her. If the idiot guardian doesn't shut up, I’ll just filter her out.

I’m not sure I know what you’re speaking about,” I say politely to Valstein as I press a kind of smile over my lips.

He’s not blinking. He doesn’t actually have to blink. Vampire’s eyes don’t dry out or anything like that. You won’t catch him heading down to the local pharmacy for some fake tears after a hard day of staring victim’s down.

He also tilts his head ever so slightly to the left and right. It’s technically the gentlest of moves, and yet, his neck muscles are rigid like ropes. “You have an unusual ability to affect those around you,” he repeats without explaining anything at all.

If you’re talking about what just happened,” I nod stiffly at the comatose vampire on the carpet, “that wasn’t my fault. He just went crazy,” I add, spreading my smile even further until it reveals my canines. Don’t get me wrong, they’re no vampire teeth, but that’s not the point.

Valstein takes another step toward me, and I double down, using every single scrap of control I have to ensure that my stomach doesn’t pitch. “Maybe it was a while since he fed,” I offer as I nod at the guy again. “Or maybe you should teach your staff to control themselves better. I shouldn’t need to remind you what would’ve happened if he’d attacked me.”

You would’ve put a bullet through his eyes and three through his heart,” Valstein says, his lips moving so slowly around each word, I can’t help but rivet my attention on them.

Damn. Had he been scanning my thoughts again?

That is the standard procedure in the Magical Enforcement Unit to take down a vampire, is it not?” he continues.

I relax a little. “Yes, it is, sir.”

Sir?” He tilts his head even further to the side. And I won’t even try to describe what he’s doing with his eyes. Because if I do that – concentrate on those soulful, pale red-brown irises – I’ll run the risk of letting him in. “There’s no need for deference. Just call me Valstein.”

Valstein it is. Can I have my evidence now?” I reach out a hand toward him.

His gaze is drifting over my face once more. I start to wonder what the hell he’s thinking.

He’s not going to lose control too is he? Because there’s no way I’m going to be able to control him by just standing still.

I don’t let that thought affect me. I keep that less-than-friendly smile pressed across my lips, and I wait.

Very well,” he says. And he shifts forward. He walks right up to me, and he gets down on his knee right in front of me.

What—” I can’t control myself anymore, and I jolt back just as his arm brushes past the outside of my leg.

Well, that was quick. I would’ve thought this guy would’ve taken a hell of a lot longer to warm to you. You do have a personality like a brick wall,” Calista says, her excitement obvious.

Just when I freak out at whatever the hell Valstein has planned, he picks something up from by my foot. It’s a pen that rolled off his desk when my hip slammed into it.

Slowly he stands.

Seriously, it couldn’t be slower. It’s like he’s commanding every single muscle in his body to move, one by one, and he’s taking pleasure in every contraction and expansion.

Suffice to say, he’s pretty damn close to me when he finally gets to his feet. And he doesn’t shift back.

He looks right into my eyes.

Though I know I should be staying still, excuse me if I can’t frigging do that. I still have one hand locked on his desk, and I’m leaning away. I also clear my throat. “Evidence?” I force myself to say, voice going up like a kazoo.

You’ll have your evidence. But know this, I am going to keep my eyes on you… Madeleine?”

I didn’t tell him my first name when I came in. My jaw twitches.

Though your friends call you… Mads, is it? An appropriate name,” his lips go back to moving in and out with perfect control.

Which makes you wonder what else he can control perfectly,” Calista chimes.

There’s no way I can reply to her, not when he’s still this close.

Yeah, my name’s Madeleine,” I say, realizing that the only way to regain control of this conversation is to regain control of my nerve. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Whoops, wrong word.

As soon as the word pleasure leaves my lips, I swear it somehow locks onto his, and with a single twitch, he smiles with his whole face. “Oh no. I assure you, the pleasure will be all mine,” he purrs.

I love this guy!” Calista says.

I force myself to snort. “Okay, then the pleasure is all yours,” I control my tone. “But the evidence will have to be all mine. Can I have that document now?” I reach my hand out to him.

He pauses. And finally he turns on his foot and walks away from me.

I think I’m about to collapse as all the tension that wound through my body finally shifts.

Valstein walks back to the comatose vampire on his rug, gets down to one knee, and plucks something from the guy’s pocket.

It’s several folded pieces of paper. Valstein stands, unfolds them, ticks his gaze down to them, folds them back up, then walks over to me.

Fortunately he doesn’t invade my personal space again, and rather stands a few steps back as he hands me the documents.

That means I have to pull myself away from the relative safety of the corner of his desk. It also means I have to voluntarily approach him.

Mind games.

That’s the problem with nobles. It’s not just their power. It’s the fact they will always be looking for creative ways to control the situation, and to control you through it.

I make a quick darting motion as I snatch the paper off him, take several steps back, then come to a full stop. I don’t even bother to fold the paper up and shove it in my pocket. Too much movement.

Thank you, Valstein,” I say.

Perhaps you should do me the dignity of referring to me by my full title,” he says.

I thought we already dispensed with formalities?”

I changed my mind. I’d like you to treat me with the respect I deserve, Miss Macy,” he says, emphasizing Miss.

My cheeks stiffen. I’m one of those women who hates the word Miss. Why is it that the English language still has this goddamn title? All Miss tells someone is that you’re an unmarried woman. Boys don’t get that same distinction. They just have Mr., regardless of whether they’re hitched or not.

It’s actually Ms,” I say pointedly, even though there’s really no point getting into an argument about gender equality with a goddamn noble vampire.

But you are unmarried, aren’t you, Miss Macy?” he says, and I won’t even bother to tell you what his voice does on the word unmarried. “You see, I’m a traditionalist. I prefer to acknowledge when someone is available.”

I stiffen a smile over my lips. “I see. Well I’m a modernist. And that’s none of your damn business. Now thank you for this evidence. It’s been,” I stop myself before I say a pleasure, “informative.” With that, I push away and head toward the door.

To do that, I have to walk past him. Though I could try to skirt around him, it would look too conspicuous. So I just shore up my stance, let my chin jut out, and I strut.

Valstein? Watches me the entire time. But he doesn’t say anything until I reach the door. Just as I open it, he clears his throat. “I assume we will meet each other again. When we do, I would prefer that you do not bait my staff,” he says, voice dropping down all the way low in an obvious warning.

Though I know how to deal with vampires, and I know fear is the very worst thing you should show, the exact timbre of his voice sends a race of nerves spiraling up my back and slamming hard into my hindbrain.

Baiting, after all, is illegal, isn’t it, Miss Macy?” He emphasizes Miss again.

I pause, my hand on the handle.

You need to be very careful about what you say next,” Calista says, finally dropping her crazy act and doing what she should as my guardian. You see, guardians aren’t just there to give magical enforcement officers extra power to take down perps. They’re also there to interpret the extremely complex laws of the magic-human treaty. “You can’t incriminate yourself. Do that, and he’s going to have a legal advantage over you. And the only advantage you want this guy having—”

I got it,” I think back to her.

We shouldn’t have to meet each other again, Lord Valstein, Fifth Noble of the House of Bane. I have my evidence, and that’s all I need. Have a great night.” I open the door.

But he gets the last word. “Oh, we will meet again. Count on it.”

With that, I hear him turn and walk over to his desk, the conversation obviously over.

Dammit.

He’s just threatened me. And I hate it when vampires threaten me. I also hate it when I don’t get the last word.

Just walk away,” Calista says.

I hesitate, then I go through with her suggestion.

I leave Valstein’s mansion, jump on my bike, and drive into the night.

All the while, his words play in my mind. Because even though I have no intention of meeting this asshole again, something tells me circumstances will conspire to throw us together once more. And if circumstances don’t conspire, Valstein will.

Chapter 2

Do you know what will happen if you fuck this up again?” the Chief says as he leans toward me, his ruddy face like a sack of blood wobbling an inch from my nose.

I take a few seconds to answer, picking at my fingers in my lap. “To be fair, I didn’t fuck up last time – the DA did. I caught that guy two years ago; they let him out,” I say as I stab a finger forward, not really caring that the Chief is right there.

But you failed to catch him the second time around, and that little wizard asshole caused over $100,000 of damage to the night markets. Do you know how much the Mayor roasted my balls for that incident?”

I twitch. You would too. I really don’t need the image of the mayor roasting my boss’ balls swimming around my noggin.

I really don’t need anything right now but a lie-down.

Last night, I didn’t sleep. I do go through periodic pockets of insomnia – and they’re usually related to the phases of the moon. But last night?

Oh, go on, you already know the answer. It was bloody Valstein. The Fifth noble of the House of Bane. I swear the little prick found a way to infiltrate my dreams. Which isn’t as crazy as it sounds, because some of the old magical nobles can practice dream magic.

He didn’t practice dream magic,” Calista snaps as she chuckles in my mind. “You’re just obsessed with him. You know I’m always in your mind, even when you’re dreaming, so I know exactly what your consciousness got up to last night. Hardly PC,” she coos.

Shut the hell up. I’m currently being eaten alive by my boss. Is this really the best time to belittle me, Calista?” I think back.

Just tell him what he wants to hear, already, so we can get out of here and get to work. I’m getting bored,” Calista adds.

Seriously, despite the fact that Calista is technically one of the strongest guardians in the city, you wouldn’t know that hearing her speak. She sounds like a whiny three-year-old who just wants to go to the park – not a highly specialized light being who wants to bring some much-needed justice to the city streets.

She has a point, though.

I don’t want to hear any excuses. I only want to hear one thing—” the Chief spits, a few licks of spittle landing on my arm and cheek.

It’s gross, but I don’t bother to clean it off. I just stiffen as I force my lips to pare back into the world’s shittest smile. “Okay. Okay. I’ll call in for backup next time. That’s what you want to hear, right?”

He finally shifts back. “Yeah, that’s what I want to hear. I want you to mean it, too,” he growls again. “You’re not a one-woman enforcement machine. For the Justice Department of Knight City to work, we all have to work together,” he adds, voice hitting that rare pitch that makes me wonder if it's about to destroy the mantle of the earth.

I get it. I’m not a one-woman enforcement machine,” I say, ensuring my voice is contrite and every last ounce of sarcasm is trapped away for now.

If anything goes down, you will call in the Action Squad,” he adds.

I just stop myself from snorting. For two reasons. It’s not just because of the Action Squad’s name. They sound like a knockoff version of the Avengers. Some tighted up, brightly colored, caped superhero group you call-in when you’re feeling too weak and pathetically human to deal with the situation on your own.

The other reason I laugh is because the Action Squad are completely and utterly ineffective. They’re also bent. As bent as a goddamn spring.

I won’t even try to describe to you the seriously complicated nature of Knight City’s Magical Enforcement Unit. It’s all to do with the Treaty. The Treaty that exists between magical races and humans. The Treaty that apparently keeps us all safe and living under the one city without all-out war breaking loose.

That Treaty, as I’ve already pointed out, is seriously frigging complex. Turns out vampires – who drafted it – are the original lawyers. The Treaty is so long and with so many contradicting clauses, it takes supernatural beings with almost limitless cognitive powers to interpret it. Hence the fact I always need Calista to tell me when I’m stepping over the line.

But I’m digressing again. The Action Squad do nothing.

Literally.

They’re more concerned with holding up the Treaty than offering justice. They’re meant to be some of the strongest magicians and wizards out there. There’s even a vampire or two in their ranks. And that right there is the problem.

Most crime in Knight City is perpetrated on humans, not magical creatures. And the problem with having the Action Squad made up primarily of magical creatures is that they are a little, ah, skewed when it comes to tracking down magical perpetrators.

Like I said – they’re as bent as a goddamn spring.

You call them to a serious incident, and the most they ever do is take your magical perp away, offer him a slap on the hand, then boot him out onto the same street he was terrorizing several hours earlier.

In other words, they don’t dole out justice.

They dole out partial justice.

Don’t get started again,” Calista suddenly interrupts my internal monologue. “You really have to let this go. I like you, kid – well, I guess I kind of like you,” Calista gets sidetracked. “I’d like you a lot more if you’d just give into your desires a little more—”

You want to get to the point, Calista?” I think back.

You can’t keep challenging partial justice. It’s the only thing that keeps Knight City together.”

I don’t react.

I also hide all my thoughts from Calista.

At the same time, I control my expression in front of the Chief. Because if he knew I was currently questioning partial justice, he wouldn’t just chew my ear out; he’d kick me out of the squad completely.

Partial justice is what keeps us together – that’s the mantra that every single person in the enforcement unit has to repeat.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – what the hell is partial justice? You either have justice, or you have injustice. There’s nothing in between, right?

Yeah, you are right – there is nothing in between. It’s a frigging fantasy to think you can have justice that fits everyone’s needs. But that, apparently, is what Knight City’s Justice Department is built on.

Partial justice is the concept that in any incident between magical races and the humans, the crime must be interpreted through the lens of racial peace. If ignoring a murder means you don’t threaten the balance, then that’s what you do.

When the laws were originally envisioned, they were written by human lawyers to protect human aggression. Because if anyone had been oppressing anyone, it was the magical creatures putting down ordinary people. So stupid human lawyers had written in an explicit act to the Treaty called Partial Justice, that could account for and help reduce the culpability of revenge acts.

But you know how I said before that vampires happen to be the best lawyers in the world? Yeah, they twisted that law. And considering most magical crime is perpetrated by magical races on the humans, vampires are pretty much the only people to benefit from partial justice.

And every time some bright spark thinks of removing the concept from the Treaty, the vampires shut them down. Because partial justice, the vampires say, is the only glue knitting the magical races to the humans. Without it, there’d be all-out war.

The last few years have been getting more peaceful,” Calista says in my head. “There are fewer crimes in the city. Even you have to admit that.”

No, I don’t have to admit anything. It’s still the worst concept in the world. It allows crimes to go unchecked and for criminal bastards to think they can get away with anything if only they hide behind the Treaty. I’m not just talking about magical criminals, either – I’m talking about human trafficking assholes, too. Don’t get me wrong – I’m pissed off at everybody. If you dilute justice, you dilute the very fabric that holds society together.”

Oh, for the love of God, we’re not going to get into another one of these arguments again. Just tell the Chief exactly what he wants, and that you will rely on the Action Squad this time. Got it? I’m so bored with this conversation already. I just want to get out on the streets so I can spread my wings. Not, of course, that I can do that considering I’m stuck in your aura, but whatever.”

I want your word this time,” the Chief continues. “Without it, I’m not going to let you out there. I’m going to relegate you to desk work for the next several months,” he says, taking particular pleasure in the phrase desk work.

I can control myself around a vampire, so I’m pretty good at hiding my emotions from the Chief, no matter how much he’s pissing me off. I shrug my shoulders. “Okay, sir. I appreciate how serious this matter is. I will call the Action Squad when they are required,” I add quietly.

Maybe I’m wearing the Chief down, or maybe he doesn’t pick up how shadily I said the phrase, “when they are required,” because he finally takes a sigh, lets his shoulders drop, shifts back, and sits.

I feel sorry for the chair as it practically collapses beneath him.

He brings up an arm, locks his elbow on his desk, presses his fingers over his brow, and looks at me. “You’re the best magical enforcement officer we’ve got, Madeleine. I don’t always tell you that, but it’s true. You don’t have nowhere near the raw power of some of the others, but you’ve got a brain. And that,” he plucks his hand off his brow and spreads a stiff finger toward me, “is just as likely to get you into trouble as it is to get you out of it. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Nope. Like I said, before being an officer, I was a pizza chef, hardly a law professor or a mathematics genius. But if there’s one thing I value more than anything else, it’s my brain.

Very few situations in life require outright brawn. Sure, if you get into a fist fight with a giant, it’s too late to think your way out of there. But that’s not the point. If you use your brain and value your smarts, you’ll never get into a fist fight with a giant in the first place. You’ll control and adapt to your environment, creating every opportunity you need.

So I don’t comment as I finally shift up from my seat, grab a hand on my uniform shirt, neaten it, and nod at the Chief. “Thank you, sir. I’ll be sure to follow your word.”

The Chief just looks at me and shakes his head as if I’m a lost case. But he doesn’t suddenly demand that I’m chained to my desk for the next several months. He just brings up a hand and wafts it my way as if I’m a bad smell he’s trying to get rid of.

I don’t say another word as I nod, turn on my foot, and walk out of his office.

As soon as I open the door and make it out into the corridor, I see several of my colleagues shifting quickly away.

I arch an eyebrow. “Enjoy the show?” I say as I catch up to the closest guy, Officer Harding.

Not every day you get chewed out by the Chief. No, wait,” Harding flattens his eyebrows over his eyes as he lets out a chuckle, “it is every day you get chewed out by the Chief. But you know what,” he spreads his arms wide, “it never gets old. Because while you take all the heat, the rest of us get to fly under the radar.”

I don’t react. Seriously, I just tug my head forward and stare down the corridor.

No snort, no attempt to put him in his place, nothing.

Which, predictably, pisses him off.

I feel his gaze slice toward the side of my face. There’s no love lost between me and Harding. You see, before I joined the squad, he was the top dog. And in many ways, he still is. He easily has the most raw power out of any enforcement officer. This guy is part wizard. When he combines with his guardian, he can take down a half noble.

And me?

When I combine with my guardian, if I’m lucky, I can take down a half-dead rat.

But I think my way out of dangerous situations, I don’t court them – and that’s the point.

I continue to ignore Harding, even though his angry gaze is now locked on the side of my face. “I heard you went to go fulfill an evidence request from Fifth Noble Valstein last night. That right? Surprised you got out of there alive. I would’ve thought a little girl like you would’ve wandered into the lion’s den and never wandered out.”

Don’t react, I tell myself. Don’t give this asshole the satisfaction of getting to you.

It’s not actually a den – it’s a mansion. And as for getting out, you use the door,” I say as I finally reach the end of the corridor, wrap my hand around the handle that will lead into the officer’s room, turn slowly, and finally make eye contact with Harding. “And as for Valstein, he’s not that scary.”

Harding snorts. “Then you haven’t heard,” he says, satisfaction springing across his lips and tugging them wide like someone has just yanked on plastic wrap.

Don’t react, don’t react, I repeat to myself. But fuck it, I can’t stop myself, either. Like I said, I spent the whole of last night dreaming about Valstein, and now the bastard has wended his way into my body until I’m primed to react to any mention of him.

Still, I’m not going to stand there, slack-jawed, and ask Harding what he’s on about. I’m not that stupid.

I tick my head to the side, controlling my eyebrows as they descend down a centimeter over my eyes. “If you have some pertinent information regarding my case, please send me an email.”

I go to shift away, even though my heart wants to hold me on the spot to find out what the hell Harding is insinuating.

I don’t have time to email you,” he says through a snarling huff, “just thought a weak officer like you should have a heads up. You know, in case you ever get into an altercation with him.”

I want to walk through the open door and ignore this dick, but I stop. Dammit, I stop.

I arch my head over my shoulder to look at him. “Are you suggesting that Valstein would attack a magical enforcement officer? Violating Treaty Law? It, even for noble, would mean automatic expulsion from this realm and permanent incarceration in one of the three realms of the Hell prisons.”

What I’m suggesting is he’s killed before. And he ain’t in no Hell prison realm.”

I’m not an idiot. Last night before I went to Valstein’s mansion, I looked him up. That means a complete check. I’m not like the other magical enforcement squad members, and I don’t rely on my guardian to tell me everything. No, I did the full kit-and-caboodle research on Valstein. Including a criminal check.

No mention of him murdering a magical enforcement officer cropped up.

I would assume that Harding is lying, but honestly, lying is too hard for his little brain.

What are you talking about, Harding?” I finally cave into my curiosity.

He laughs as if he’s just one a terribly fun game. “It wasn’t in our city – it was in Fairchrist City down the coast. And her name was Suzanne Somers. A low-powered little enforcement officer like yourself,” Harding says as he brings his hand up and makes a compacting motion as if he’s taking an ordinary person and shrinking them down to my size. “Stepped on Valstein’s toes, see. Tried to investigate his involvement with a human trafficking ring. Ended up bled dry, splayed over Valstein’s desk,” Harding says, taking utter pleasure in every detail he’s relaying, despite the fact he’s talking about the murder of an innocent woman.

I stop. You know, ground to a halt as I control my heart, control my mind, control everything. It’s the same routine I do when I’m facing a vampire.

But while I can control my expression, I can’t control my mind, nor my stomach as it sinks.

Not only did I see the desk in question last night, I leaned against it for support. And now an image of that goddamn desk with a dead woman splayed on top of it slams into my mind, never to leave.

Where did you hear this?” I ask, tone controlled and professional. “And why wasn’t it on his criminal check?”

Harding snorts. “You do know who he is, right? Lord Valstein, Fifth Noble of the Bane Family?”

I am aware of his full title, yes.”

You’re such a noob,” Harding says, letting out a self-satisfied laugh. “Don’t you know who the Bane Family is?”

One of the three oldest families to come out of continental Europe. Based originally in Hamburg, Germany, they are a small but extremely powerful family line. They also strictly control those who enter into the family. Like some of the older noble classes, they cannot turn a human into a vampire without the explicit permission of the entire Family Council,” I start reeling off the facts easily, not having to ask Calista for a single one.

Harding’s face stiffens. He still has that self-satisfied flicker in his eyes, though. “All that shit is irrelevant. What you need to know is that the Banes were the swing vote.”

I don’t react.

Harding doesn’t give any context.

Swing vote? He could be talking about a local election, or, you know, he could be talking about the Treaty negotiations.

10 years ago, when the world changed forever and magical races became known to humans, the world was on the brink of war. A war that would tear everything apart.

That was until certain members of the magical races came to the table with a treaty. One that was meant to benefit both humans and magical races, and, most importantly, keep everyone in balance so no wars would break out.

There was a problem, though. Not every single magical race was behind it. The vampires were especially split.


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