Blacker than Black

Blacker than Black by Rhi Etzweiler
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Apparently, my twin and I are two of York’s most notorious criminals. We’ve been Nightwalkers in the blue-light district since the vamps took over the world. Don’t know how many years it’s been. Long enough that a stream of fellow ’walkers have come and gone. Most don’t last long selling their chi. End up face-down in the gutter, or worse.

For us, one night and one sale change everything.

Monsieur Garthelle is the first john to hunt me down. He calls me a chi thief in one breath and offers absolution—servitude—in the next. Maybe I’m a sucker, but I like living and breathing. Strange that such a powerful vamp would show leniency to a mere human. And something’s not right with the chi I took from him. It won’t go away.

Neither will he, and he’s forcing us to spy on his peers. Then a vamp turns up dead, and we go from playing eyes and ears to investigating a murder. This isn’t what I signed up for. All I ever wanted was to sell a little chi, maybe steal some in return. I should’ve kept my damn hands to myself.

This is my story. Look through my eyes.

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One: Black

Music surges from somewhere down the block, a thrumming background rhythm. The vibrations send a chill up my spine, and I let it roll through me, absorbing the wave of anticipation and adrenaline. Kenna shifts nearby, stepping closer. I feel her proximity, the weight and heat of my fellow Nightwalker, but she’s no more substantial than a shadow.

I look back over my shoulder at her. The loud pink latex of her right sleeve is hiked up, wrinkled around her biceps. Clothing serving as a tourniquet, Kenna pulls the trigger on the sleek hypno-hitter she scored earlier from a street dealer a block over. The fluid injecting into her vein isn’t the vivid blue of the usual hallucinogens the dealers are pushing, though. Instead, it’s a pale fuchsia that, disturbingly, matches her outfit.

So that any unintentional overspray doesn’t show. She glances up, notices me watching, then slips the small hitter into her back pocket and pulls her sleeve down, intently focused on smoothing the material and smudging any traces of the drug from the edge of her cuff.

I want to tell her she missed a spot, but bite my tongue.

A john won’t really care that she’s masking her chi, synthetically amping it with a temporary surge. It makes her look healthier than she is, like steroids for the aura. She has a few sales left in her, but at the rate she’s going, none of them will be worth much. And then she’ll be so much offal for the regeneration plants to absorb.

Because when the drug wears off, there won’t be anything left in her.

I’ve seen it happen plenty of times. I used to warn them, wanting to help those who walk the blue-lit boulevard with me, but over the years the futility of my efforts has left me jaded. And it’s been a lot of years. The other ’walkers either have the strength to figure it out on their own, or they don’t. It isn’t something I can teach. The frustration depresses me, but it hurts less if I mind my own business.

I tilt my head back and stare up at the night sky, wondering if I’ll be able to see a star tonight. I never have, not with the glow from the buildings so close. But I always try.

And that’s when I feel it. With my hands crammed in my pockets, head back to stare at the dark gray wash of the sky. Someone’s looking. The sharp gaze studying me is razors along my nerve endings, a probe of my aura like the fumbling grope of a homeless drunk.

Maybe tonight will be interesting, after all. I scan the street to the right, in the direction of oncoming traffic. A small vehicle slows as it draws nearer, veering toward my side of the boulevard across empty lanes on a street devoid of life.

Activity, yes. Plenty of that.

It’s a lightweight two-seater that crawls along the curb, glowing an alien hue of blue in the illumination from the cramped buildings lining the street.

Even here in the slums, the city’s lighting doesn’t fail. Block after block down the boulevard, the shabby buildings radiate a steady, azure glow. It reflects off the vehicle’s glossy surfaces, and for a moment, however brief, the sight feels ethereal. Magical. I soak up the sensation, willing the stranger not to move or speak; I want to stay right here for a while. To freeze this pristine instant of unrealized potential before the vampire flaps his lips and makes an ass out of himself. It happens every time, without fail, and every time I manage to conceal the sigh of disappointment and refrain from putting voice to whatever sarcastic comment pops into my head.

Silence, magical energy. May it last, please, for just a little longer?

No such luck. The potential john, with his unblinking yellow eyes, shatters the spell. I can see him now, sharp gaze above a smile on his dark lips, but the expression isn’t warm or friendly. It’s not that kind of smile; all the same, it embodies something I understand.

“So strong,” he murmurs. His voice is barely audible, the comment clearly not intended for my ears.

“And it will cost you,” I purr back. Looks might not matter all that much, but a twist of coy charm never harmed a sale. I curl my lips in a lopsided smile, bending over a fraction so my gaze is almost level with his. And I get a better look at him, in the dim interior of his car. Not hard on the eyes, that’s for sure. Clean-cut and nondescript, he looks like one of those people who could melt into a crowd. Only the vivid color of his eyes would set him apart.

He blinks as if surprised, then narrows his eyes. The piercing sensation increases, a wave of pain flooding my body that triggers a rush of adrenaline. Jhez would just call me a thrill junkie. Turning the tables on the predator. I live for that brief moment when they hesitate and question who’s hunting who.

The john’s wide mouth curves, but this time he’s definitely leering. His craving is strong. It radiates from him, thrumming along my skin feather-light, a strange contrast to his careless probing. I can slake his thirst. It’s definitely going to cost him, though. More than he realizes.

“Get in.” Pure confidence flavors his tone; this man knows what he wants and intends to acquire it. Giving him a slight nod, I glance over my shoulder at Kenna. She’s retreated from her spot along the curb, her form a silhouette against the glow at her back. In the harsh blue lighting, she looks faintly purple.

“See you tomorrow,” I call, but Kenna doesn’t respond. She rubs at the cuff of her sleeve again, engrossed by some imagined stain.

Walking around the front of the vehicle, I take care not to brush against it. Don’t want to mar that glimpse of magic from the surface, the refracting glow of the buildings in its glass-bright curves.

The door slides back long enough for me to settle into the soft plush interior, and then the vehicle moves off down the street with a subtle revving purr.

The car smells of incense, the heavy cloying smoke saturating every inch. My john lounges in the driver’s seat, long legs and broad shoulders on a lean body, dark hair sharply contrasting a pale complexion. He’s dressed in a charcoal suit, and the material looks kissed with moon dust in the boulevard’s illumination. He’s a better prospect than I’ve seen trolling for quite some time, and this transaction looks to promise a bit of pleasure, even if it’s only of the eye candy variety.

One thing bothers me about this, though. Yeah, this vamp’s the best I’ve seen in a while. Most of the time, it’s the flunkies who troll the streets. The stronger vampires, like the one beside me guiding his little fiberglass coupe through the sporadic traffic, are rarely seen. They don’t need to resort to Nightwalkers to get what they need. They have little harems of humans stashed away, eagerly waiting to offer their chi free of charge.

Ugh. Just the thought makes me gag. It’s as bad as having a pimp. Your body isn’t your own anymore, traded in for a bit of comfort and security. I don’t blame the ones who do it. Jhez and I, though, we found a different way. It works for us.

Although, this particular john is stronger than any I’ve wrestled with lately. I’m starting to get slightly nervous about whether I’ll be able to pull off my usual trick. Most of the time, it’s like taking candy from a baby.

Jhez is standing sentry on her stretch of pavement as we drive by, but my twin’s expression startles me. Brow furrowed, lips twisted into a grimace, she gives her head a curt shake. I meet her dark gaze, and she reaches out with her aura, tendrils of energy drifting along the fringes of mine like fingers trailing over the surface of water.

The hue of fear radiating from her is nothing short of strange, but it’s contagious. I turn away from the window, trying to shake it off. It’s not like I haven’t done this a thousand times before. I won’t let the creeping misgivings undermine my confidence. I can’t afford to show any emotional weakness around a john. Any john, not just this one, but I need to be hyper-vigilant this time. This vamp’s a good bit more sensitive, aware, than my usual fare.

Perhaps he had a bad day and decided slumming it would make him feel bigger. Not that it matters. He’ll pay. Even if I fluff the price, I doubt he’ll bother with haggling.

I take measure of the man’s broad-shouldered body again, every detail that whispers of privilege, power. It’s possible I’ve tackled more than I can handle.

I inhale, slow and deep, and finally push the worry away. There’s no way I’ll know for sure until it’s too late to matter. It’s the same chance I take any other time. The possibility always exists that a vampire’s craving will be greater than my ability to slake it. Like I have any other choice in the matter; submitting to a pimp’s whims is not an option. It’s a dead end.

This is their world. People like Kenna, Jhez, and me—we’re nothing more than a few unremarkable pieces of an inexhaustible resource. There will always be Nightwalkers milling the edges of my blue-lit boulevard, desperate enough to sell themselves. I’ve seen more of them come and go in my time than I want to think about.

I need to focus, find my Zen. If I don’t, it won’t matter how strong I am. I won’t live to see sunrise.

Hiding behind that beauty beside me is a heartless beast. In my experience, a single-minded, selfish creature whose efforts to ease its appetite know no bounds. I don’t pretend to understand vampires, and I don’t pretend to like them.

“A rare gem,” the man beside me murmurs.

Panic swells at his tone, but I let the reaction wash up through me and dissipate without acknowledging it. Can’t afford that sort of emotive response, especially not with a john who seems to be fishing for a weakness, a crack, no matter how small. He doesn’t intend it to be a compliment, I’m sure. Did he actually sense something . . . different?

He falls silent then, and I get the odd impression my lack of engagement frustrates him. By the time I surface from my internal meditation, he’s climbing out of the vehicle. It’s not a matter of trust that permits me the safety of being unresponsive in a stranger’s company. Far from it; every john I’ve dealt with has understood what meeting their demands entails. A certain amount of preparation goes into feeding a john and being able to walk away afterward. That same preparation makes their experience more satisfying and reduces resistance.

Most of them prefer it that way. I steer clear of the ones that don’t.

Most of the time, anyways. It’s usually a simple feat to spot the ones that like their meals screaming and fighting—they don’t tend to offer to pay for it, for one.

My door is open, my john waiting for me to climb out. Chill, untainted air steals the warmth from my skin as I follow in his wake. He pauses long enough to glance over his shoulder at me, but his yellow gaze doesn’t hold that same piercing edge. He merely observes, eyes drifting up and down my form with appreciation. And then he licks his lips.

Despite his obvious anticipation, he seems content to bide his time. I glance up at the monolith of a building, following its austere lines up into the night sky. A glittering glass eye glowing in the darkness, the illumination a strange hue that brings to mind oxygen-rich blood. No soothing blue tones for the wealthy and well-to-do. There’s no trace of expediency as we pass the security barriers at the entrance and go into the lift.

“Greetings, Monsieur.” The disembodied voice is flat and metallic. A building more intelligent than any I’ve frequented thus far. I mean, it’s speaking to him? Really? I didn’t realize vamps were such Space Odyssey fanatics. “You have a visitor this evening?”

“Indeed.” Humor laces his voice.

“Very well.” The lift moves smoothly. “Enjoy your evening, Monsieur.”

Who is he to warrant such lavish opulence? And why is someone like him—with a residence that greets him by title, with resources to burn—bothering to troll the Blue District for some easy chi when he likely has it readily available?

Whatever his reason, this one gig will net me and Jhez enough to pay the rent and utilities for the next month. At the very least it gives us some breathing room, and a little extra to squirrel away for that vacation out to the countryside we want to take.

Upstairs, the hall is immaculate. It radiates the same red glow from the ceiling, floor, and walls. A single doorway mars its seamless lines. The vampire palms his security panel, stepping aside as the door slides open soundlessly. He meets my gaze, and his craving sluices over me again. Like it did back on the boulevard, but stronger this time. The wave of hunger is so immense, so powerful, so endless . . . No doubt about it, he had it masked when he approached me on the street.

I step through the door and wonder if I’ll ever see Jhez again.

Everything is black. Obsidian, onyx. Unrelieved. My favorite color, and its unexpected appearance relaxes me. The absence of all light, the presence of all color. The philosophical insinuations of this vamp’s lair soothe my agitation. Lull me. I close my eyes and take a slow breath. Stirring air, the faint rustle of cloth, lets me track my john as he follows in my wake.

The door closes, the latch engaging with a faint click. Tension ripples up my spine: the clawing, adrenaline-driven desire for self-preservation. My eyes slide open. And although my visual senses are useless, other ones—smell, touch—increase to accommodate. There’s incense burning somewhere, a blend of herbs reminding me of musk, of earth. The same scent that assaulted me in his glossy bubble of a car. The lesser concentration gives my surroundings a light, spacious feel, even though I can’t see anything.

The vampire steps past, a shadow of greater density and presence than all the others, his touch on my elbow disembodied as he guides me forward. A rush of adrenaline heightens my senses further. Even my best efforts don’t negate all emotion. A residue of fight or flight remains, along with faint traces of confusion, wariness, distrust. No doubt he’s strong enough to sense it all pulsing from me in heady waves—like getting a whiff of gourmet coffee before taking a sip.

His hunger slams against my aura, all finesse gone, and the force of it knocks the air from my body. So powerful my knees give out, but I manage to turn the sudden collapse into sitting down on his couch. Random stroke of luck that I didn’t hit his coffee table or a floor lamp. My skin crawls beneath the caress of his gaze. I catch a faint glint of his yellow eyes refracting what little illumination there is as he sits just out of arm’s reach.

My resistance is short-lived and feeble. He pierces through it with ease, penetrating my residual defenses, dominating my will. Pleasure swells and I ride the waves, desperately retaining that sliver of awareness, of coherent thought, as he scours me, strips me of every shred of energy, sanity, dignity.

He thought I was strong. Beneath the onslaught of his hunger, I’m not. I underestimated him. It’s a mistake that could cost me everything. His breath is moist against my neck, and I exhale raggedly. Grateful for the tactile sensation, anchoring, grounding.

“Don’t worry.” His voice is rough, hoarse, keyed low. A thread of tension in his tone. “I won’t take it all.”

My mind spins, startled, as his lips drift down over my collarbone. The sensation solidifies my shredded sanity.

He didn’t have to do that—but he did.

I feel his lips curve into a smile against my shoulder before his teeth clamp onto me. His breath and tongue sear along my flesh like fire. My body is limp with exhaustion, uncooperative. I fight oblivion for just a moment longer; it’s all I need to take my price. My hands frame his face, dark wavy hair like silk against my skin. He doesn’t notice my fingers tightening in his hair. Or if he does, the lethargy of energy thrall makes him unable to care.

The lack of resistance makes it easy to slide a foggy dark tentacle of my own inside his defenses. So easy, in fact, that I slip deeper than I intended. The heat of his core scalds my aura as I nip a small sliver of the vampire’s chi. Slick as lava glass and just as sharp along the jagged edges, a dark shade of blue-black somewhere between midnight, indigo, and the strange hue of maroon that blood sometimes has. Clotted blood.

I fondle the little treasure, the real price my john is paying.

And this little piece of vampire, it’s stronger than everything he’s taken from me. More concentrated. The irony is that he’ll never miss it.

It softens finally as I pull away, back into myself. Softens and melts, slipping into my aura, diluting into my energy.

For a few moments, I feel nothing.

And then it hits me like chugging a shot of whiskey. The world blurs and the vamp’s energy thrums against my skin, the trace inside me resonating with his close proximity, my own energy in him doing the same. I can feel myself in him.

Can feel him in me.

My head falls back against the arm of the couch, my eyes wide. I know the ceiling is up there somewhere. Even if it weren’t dark, I couldn’t focus enough to see shit. The vampire’s weight rests atop me, his forehead cool and clammy against my neck. Shallow puffs of breath tickle my skin, make it itch and tingle, nerve endings flaring to life as energy calls to energy, a banked ember in a gentle gust of air.

I need to get the fuck out of here, right now.

Chapter Two: Hangover

Steps pass beneath my feet as I descend them, driven purely on instinct. When I reach the concrete of the sidewalk, I glance back over my shoulder in confusion. Reluctance and loss flit through me like the chill night air sinking past my skin.

I try to wrestle the thoughts in my head into some kind of order, to clear space for coherency. My surroundings are slow to come into focus.

It’s a sensation I’m familiar with, the disorientation, although I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it. I blink a few times, scrubbing moisture from my cheeks with rough impatience. I’m alone. It surprises me, though I can’t think why.

That I’ve survived should fill me with relief. Or something like it. It doesn’t. Deep down, I know it was a gift. Restraint. He could have destroyed me so easily.

Tearing my gaze from the building’s entrance, I walk away. Every step’s an exertion of will. Every stride creates a gulf between myself and that part of me I’ve surrendered and left behind.

A larger part than I intended. The pull is stronger than any I’ve experienced. None have ever delved so deep into me, stripped me so thoroughly. It makes me feel hollow, empty.

I lift my hand and run a finger over my smooth, pale skin, blue veins prominent. My john paid handsomely for what I offered; the price I exacted is greater than he knows. The strength of his filched chi pulses through me like liquid fire, unnatural. It will assimilate slowly. But I can afford the luxury of time now. Judging by the translucent quality of my skin, I need it.

Looking back over my shoulder once more, I study the architecture of the building and its unfamiliar red aura. Beginning to fade now with the encroaching sunrise. I wonder if I’ll ever see him again.

My pace quickens as the glow of imminent dawn illuminates the city’s eastern skyline. Buildings jut into the vivid color like some mythical beast gaping its maw to breathe fire on the remnants of humanity. I have just enough time to make it back to my little hovel in the heart of the Blue District—to put some distance between me and the john, to weaken the resonant sensation, before he recovers from his feeding thrall.

Exhaustion is weighing down my feet by the time I make it back to the flat. Litter lines the hallway, remnants of life, or escape. All of it trash. The faint smell of mildew and decay hangs in the air, paint peeling off the sweating concrete walls. As I pull my key from its chain around my neck, the door opens.

“You look like cold shit, Black,” Jhez says. Her brow is furrowed in concern, relief flooding off her so heavily it’s discomfiting. As if she doused in flowery perfume during my absence.

“I love you too, sister.” I’m sure it sounds like I’m snarling; my tone is at once both rough and edged even to my own ears, but I’m too drained to care. Mind and body. One feels like someone pureed it, and as for the other? Well, I did just hoof it across half the city.

I shove past her, though gently, and thump into the living space. Its dreary features swirl around me, familiar and comforting, and I’m relieved when my gaze catches on the small painting that lives on the wall where it always has. The strong, heavy lines of pattern in the cheap print are better than any drug at staving off the persistent blurring and dizziness. Aftereffects we’re both accustomed to coping with. Thus the framed mandala hanging across from the couch.

The door clicks shut, the lock slides into place. “Didn’t you recognize him?” Jhez sounds annoyed.

“Recognize who? I don’t get why you’re so upset. He was a john, just like any other.”

“What the hell, Black? Did your brain short-circuit or something? That wasn’t just a vamp. That was Le Gross himself, the Monsieur of York.”

I turn and stare at her, not comprehending. My brain feels like it’s in reverse.

“Monsieur Garthelle? Hello? That name ring your bell?”

I know what the reigning vamp in this city looks like. What the heck did she bum off her street partner this evening? Seriously? I shake my head and frown. “Jhez, I don’t know what you think you saw. But that was not Monsieur Garthelle in the car. I think I’d know if I was sitting next to him.”

At least she doesn’t bother asking that one question I hate. I managed to survive the encounter—thanks to my john’s restraint—but I’m not “okay,” not by a long shot. There’s a reason why I look like cold shit. It’s about the way I feel at the moment, too.

I sink into the threadbare couch, beige more from dirt and stains than intention. For the space of a heartbeat, it’s transposed with a black velvet creature, its cushions so soft and deep I want to lose myself in them.

But then it’s just smudged tan corduroy again.

That’s happened before. It’s normal, the juxtaposition of reality with memories. Like the tug I still feel, it usually fades with time. I let my head fall back and massage my temples.

I don’t have the strength to pull my boots from my feet. It doesn’t stop me from propping my heels on the corner of the battered coffee table, though.

Jhez reaches over my shoulder, holding a tumbler full of chilled liquid. “How strong is the pull?”

“Strong.” I throw the entire contents of the tumbler down my throat without breathing. I learned some time ago not to try sipping anything she offers.

She slips over the back of the couch to sit beside me.

Holding the empty glass out to her, I roll my head to meet her gaze. “I almost turned back so many times, I lost count.”

Jhez takes the glass and sets it on the coffee table. “Given who—” She breaks off and starts again. “What if it doesn’t fade this time?”

I grunt and close my eyes. “It’s a chance we take, isn’t it?” My eyes flutter open, and I stare at her again. “Why do you care all the sudden? It’s no more likely to happen this time than any other.”

She won’t look at me, and doesn’t respond. I fumble the credit chit from the front pocket of my pants and toss it on the table. The sliver of plastic holds the balance of the vamp’s payment. The part he’s aware of.

Jhez’s gaze follows it, but she remains poised on the edge of the couch, unmoving.

A heavy tread in the hallway precedes a solid, insistent rap on the door.

I share a look with my twin. Our expressions mirror one another, and slowly we turn to regard the door.

“You expecting company?” I ask. Softly, just to stall the inevitable. I already know the answer.

“No,” she murmurs, drawing out the response. Her gaze swivels to me as the rap repeats, her eyes widening. “How much did you take from him?”

“Oh, please. No vamp would have the—”

The door flies open, rebounding off the wall, and I flinch at the screech of metal and wood. A chunk of debris catches me on the cheek before falling into my lap—part of the frame the bolt hole screwed into.

“—presence of mind to track me down.”

Judging by the size of the individual whose silhouette fills the doorframe, my john is more than mildly displeased. Whoever he is. That the vampire employs muscle to begin with is no real surprise, given the luxury I witnessed.

“Your presence is required, Nightwalker,” the man intones, stepping forward. He is the personification of hired muscle if ever I’ve seen it.

Odd that the vamp noticed. I lower my feet and push up from the couch. It’s rare for my clients to recover from energy thrall so quickly. Usually, they wallow in it. And none have yet complained about what they lacked in the aftermath. If they noticed at all.

I scrub the sweat that slicks my palms onto the well-worn softness of my pants, and try not to panic. There’s no taking this bulk of a man by surprise, not with me in the state I’m in. So despite the fear-fueled adrenaline pouring into my veins, I push to my feet and step past Jhez. She scoots her legs out of the way, staring up at me with equal parts horror, concern, and outrage. Impotence is a frustrating state, and I’m right there with her.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be back in a bit.” Why I make the effort to reassure her, I don’t really know. They’re empty words, a meaningless promise. I’m just trying really, really hard not to think about the worst-case scenario here.

Yeah, and maybe my john just wants to share a spot of tea, right?

Muscle doesn’t glance at Jhez as he grabs me by the arm and hauls me in his wake.

Chapter Three: Back at the Beginning

This is not my preferred method of coping with the pull I feel after being with a john. Far from it. Close proximity only reasserts the connection, making it that much more difficult to dispel. Perversely, however, every step I take toward the john’s residence eases the tugging pain that much more. And I hate him that much more. Because I can. I have that much free will, at least.

By the time Muscle knocks on the entrance to the suite—with a great deal more care, mind, than he did on mine—my vision is as red as the hallway. I am seething with hatred. And the painful tug is all but gone. But my previous conclusion that the vamp is simply unhappy, I discover, was a gross misjudgment on my part.

The door slides open. Muscle doesn’t set foot inside, just shoves me through the doorway. The blackness in the room envelops me, the very air throbbing with disapproval. Dragon’s blood incense is thick in the air, burning my throat and making my eyes water. I don’t remember it doing that before.

That’s my disapproving john looming before me; who else could it be, in this place? And I haven’t pissed off anyone else of note, not that I’m aware of. He’s so close his face hovers inches from mine, faintly visible in the ambient red lighting of the hall. Black lights gleam faintly from tracks in the ceiling. They don’t offer a great deal of illumination, but it’s enough to see.

Something is wrong, because he doesn’t look as I remember. He’s so close I can see specks of gold scattering through the various hues of yellow that make up his irises. Daffodil, mustard, and sunlight. Artfully messy hair hiding a widow’s peak; it’s just long enough to sink my fingers into, I recall, and soft as silk. I don’t remember it being pulled back at the nape of his neck, though. Strong jaw, speckled with a shadow of beard growth this late in the day. Or night. Whatever it is. A muscle is twitching in his cheek. Very patrician nose, I notice, as his nostrils flare a bit.

Okay. I swallow hard. No doubt about it, this man is the Monsieur of York. Ruling vampire of the metro.

Why didn’t I notice all these little details when he picked me up?

I was not tripping on anything. Every bit as sober as I am now. All things considered, I was more sober then. Tripping on a chi-high like I am, my perceptions are obviously . . . wonky.

The red lighting fades—Muscle shut the door, I’m guessing. Despite that, I can still see Garthelle quite clearly in the darkness. The vamp licks his lips, cants his head a fraction.

“I paid generously for what I took.” I shudder as my skin pimples at the feel of his breath. There’s a faint scar at the left corner of his mouth, pulling the otherwise flawless line of his upper lip into a slight but perpetual sneer. “I exercised restraint, and yet you repay me with common thievery.”

Okay, so maybe he’s sneering deliberately. I want to argue with him; I don’t consider what I did thievery. I press my lips together and manage to stay silent as his gaze flickers over my face, eyes roving incessantly. It feels like he’s trying to devour me.

“I should finish what I started.” His eyes narrow, dark brows drawing down like the string of a cocked crossbow. When even his threat doesn’t garner a response from me, he takes a slow breath. His shoulders lift with the effort, chest expanding; he’s not a thick, bulky person, but with Muscle on his payroll he doesn’t need to be. “You don’t yet realize what you’ve taken, do you.”

Of course I don’t . . . not completely. I never do, until my body has fully absorbed it. It burns through my bloodstream like a bad high, even now. And that’s not normal either, now that I think about it.

I shake my head. My throat convulses as I try to swallow enough moisture to form words.

He leans closer, just a fraction, and his nostrils flare again before he stalks off into the deep shadows. “You feel this?” His words float through the darkness, and the heat in my veins morphs into something like acid, devouring me cell by cell. Pain lances along every nerve ending in my body.

The sensation vanishes as suddenly as it started. I open my eyes to find myself panting, huddled in a lump on his thick black carpeting, the back of my throat so dry it hurts.

I’d been screaming.

“And this?” It’s like he has a control dial to my body. After cranking it one way, Garthelle decides to crank it the other. The blood feels thick in my veins, heavy with pleasure not entirely unlike post-coital bliss.

This is the pinnacle of embarrassment.

“Stop.” I bury my face between my knees and tighten my arms around myself, feeling the flush of heat rising in my face. “I’ll give it back, whatever it is.”

How much worse will it get once I’ve fully absorbed what I took?

His tread is soft across the carpet. Monsieur Garthelle squats in front of me; his fingertips brush against my cheek as he tucks my black veil of hair out of the way.

“It’s not that simple.” His gaze bores into mine. “The only way to do that is to finish what I started and strip you bare.”

I stare, cringing at the implications. His eyes look glazed and unfocused, but suddenly his fingers are no longer hovering just above my hair. They’re buried deep, against my scalp, curling into a fist with merciless force.

“You would kill me,” I whisper, pausing to wet my lips.

“There are some things you don’t understand, I see.” His yellow gaze sharpens, pupils tightening down to pinpricks. “First and foremost, the act of chi-theft against a lyche is a serious felony, punishable by death. We won’t bother to delve into the fact that this isn’t your first such offense. You’ve been lucky thus far. Because until now, you haven’t had the misfortune of stealing from a john who’s capable of making use of the link you forge.” He snarls the last words, fingers clenching tighter in my hair, ratcheting my head back until my neck feels like it’s going to snap.

Swallowing requires a full-body spasm, but I manage to work some moisture back into my mouth. “I didn’t know.”

“Ignorance of the law is not protection from it, youngling.” His lips twist into a grimace, and with a flick of his wrist, he releases my hair and tosses me away from him.

I hit the carpet so hard it knocks the wind right out of me. He stares off across the room, resting his forearms on his knees. It doesn’t occur to me to move. Even if I had breath to, I wouldn’t. It’s obvious my life is hanging in the balance, and precariously at that. The prospect of sitting up and meeting him eye to eye doesn’t much appeal at the moment, either.

“You’re unusual. Strong.” His gaze trails over my body, making me shudder. “I loathe destroying something so beautiful.”

I roll onto my back and push up to my elbows, my fingers digging into the nap of the carpet. It’s apparent he enjoys toying with people. Humans. Monsieur Garthelle, beautiful as he is, has a mean streak.

Most vamps are simply indifferent toward us, uncaring.

He straightens and walks across the room again, out of sight.

“You can’t walk the streets any longer.” His voice sounds firmer, his resolve stronger. “Not with the sheer volume of thefts you’ve orchestrated. The lyche community will not suffer you to live. The next john you take would bleed you dry and leave your empty husk in the gutter.” I hear him moving, restive sounds as if his resolve is weakening despite his efforts. When he returns to loom above me, his scowl is deeper. “And that, dear youngling, leaves me with a dilemma. I restrained myself earlier as a gesture of goodwill.”

Was it really? He doesn’t strike me as that sort.

“What would you offer me, to show restraint yet again?” His voice is abrasive against the residue of pleasure still coursing through my veins.

What would I offer? What do I have that he hasn’t already taken? What do I have that isn’t forfeit?

I can’t think of a single thing he’d value enough to be swayed by. Impromptu performances are totally not my forte.

Chapter Four: Answer the Question

Jhez nicknamed him aptly: Le Gross Shite, a derogatory title and a notorious amalgamation of languages the street dealers and Nightwalkers developed over the years. It hurts my ears to listen to it, sometimes. I know how it should sound, though I’ve numbed to it thanks to constant exposure.

Garthelle knows precisely what my decision will be before he asks. He knows because the residue of my thoughts and emotions still color the energy he took from me.

He stares down at me, and I meet his yellow gaze. The harsh quality of his words doesn’t reflect in those eyes. What I see there, in fact, is at direct odds with his tone.

That expression of curiosity, interest, is not how one regards a piece of outdated meat one intends to discard. My throat convulses as I try to force moisture back into my mouth. If I don’t handle this situation correctly, I’m as good as dead. If I don’t offer him what he wants, what he’s looking for, something he would value sufficiently, will he retract the offer of restraint without haggling?

What did I take from him?

I try to reach inside myself and feel it. Seek it out, still throbbing through my bloodstream with the lacing of vampire-influenced emotions and sensations. I am, to put it bluntly, a complete wreck right now.

I can’t think straight, and I can’t find anything of substance. It’s a melee. I have no idea what he meant about making use of the link I forged. It takes a moment, but I manage to clear my throat, collect my nerve, and maintain at least an outward appearance of calm. “What would you have me offer you, Monsieur Garthelle?”

No response of any sort for a few tense seconds. Then his lips curl into something between a smile and leer. Why does he always leer at me?

The vampire turns and strides slowly across the room, back into the embrace of the shadows. Taking advantage, I scramble to my feet. My attention drifts to the couch, its matte black softness inviting.

“How long have you and your sister been employed on Nightwalker Boulevard?”

The question startles me, and I blink a few times. Trying to follow his logic from my offer to this query leads down a path too deep and murky for me.

“Almost a decade, Monsieur.” It’s been a good bit longer than that, but few would believe it. A decade, on the other hand, isn’t such a terribly unrealistic timeframe for a Nightwalker who’s sufficiently cautious. My sister and I aren’t considered cautious by any stretch, but that’s a different story. Takes a special kind of Nightwalker to execute a . . . what did he call it? Ah, yes. A chi-theft.

Silence again. I edge toward the couch, not caring that it’s rather presumptuous of me. This night just keeps dragging out, and I’m exhausted. Adrenaline is the only thing keeping me on my feet.

“The two of you have developed quite a reputation, from what I’ve heard.”

When did there get to be two of me? Wait a moment . . . heard? “My ego’s not so large that I inquire after the opinions of others.” I sink into the couch. Anything to distract me from the fact that every hair on my body is currently trying to stand up and scuttle off to a safe corner.

A soft chuckle floats from the shadows. I see him, once he’s standing in front of me. Resting my head on the back of the couch, I quirk an eyebrow and gaze up at him, continuing on with my little front of “calm, unfazed Nightwalker.” Doing my damnedest to convince myself of it, every bit as much as the vamp.

“You would work for me. Both of you. That is my price.”

What the hell does Jhez have to do with this? I got myself into this mess all by myself. Um. One thing at a time. “Work for you?”

“Yes, work for me. You’re . . . unique, in some way. A delicacy. And I, it just so happens, will be entertaining distinguished guests in the near future.”

My throat hurts, I swallow so hard. “Pardon, but what does my sister have to do with this? She’s not involved, in any fashion.”

His hand floats through the air in a dismissive gesture. “She’ll be rewarded handsomely by the offer of employment. And it would get her off the streets as well; do you consider that prospect so objectionable?”

Not at all. But I doubt she’d embrace the opportunity. “I’m not able to speak for my sister. It’s her decision to make.”

“You are able to speak for yourself, I take it?”

I lift my head off the couch and scowl at him, then stare off into the shadows where the thickly veiled windows stretch from floor to ceiling.

“I accept your price for restraint.” As if there was any chance of me doing otherwise.

“Very good, then. You’ve provided half the price.”

Infuriating vampire. “There’s a possibility I won’t be able to provide the other half.”

The need to look at his face grips me in a vice. When I do, Garthelle leans down and braces his hands on the back of the couch to hover mere inches away. His breath on my cheek makes me shudder. I squelch the urge to cringe into the velvet.

His eyes roam my face in a frantic, devouring fashion. “Then it would behoove you to do your best to convince her, wouldn’t it.” Tension strains his voice, each word enunciated carefully.

“She will demand details you’ve not divulged.” My shoulder itches, but I don’t think moving is a good idea. To distract myself, I follow the line of his neck down to the hard contour of his collarbone, the glimpse of bulging shoulder muscle visible beneath the loose material of his shirt. The edge of danger, of hostility, outweighs the hint of eroticism, but it’s still there. I’m definitely feeling it. Scared shitless, because this could go to hell in heartbeat, yet definitely aroused. His lips part slightly, nostrils flared, pupils dilating.


“Garthelle?” I keep my voice soft, staring into his eyes. He seems to be looking through me, or at the very least into the back of my head. Inhaling deeply to keep myself calm only gets me a nose full of the vamp’s scent. Faint musk, sandalwood mixed with dragon’s blood. I doubt he’ll kill me for breathing, so I take another whiff.

“Shhh . . .”

The back of the couch makes a strange creak. I blink, confused and startled by the noise. Surely he can’t exert the force necessary to make a piece of furniture do that?

The vampire is no longer hovering in front of my face. I can hear the rustle of his presence over in the shadows again. He clears his throat, and speaks with measured words. “Inform your sister that I will meet you both tonight, at this location.”

An image slams into my head with finesse reminiscent of Garthelle’s earlier manipulations. I immediately recognize the small java house. It’s on our side of the metro, in the Blue District. Jhez and I are regulars there; he must’ve pulled the place from my thoughts. I have no idea if a vampire is even capable of that. Then again, I’ve discovered there’s a great deal I don’t know this evening.

“I will answer any questions she may have at that time. There’s an escort waiting outside to take you home.”

A clear dismissal, if ever I’ve heard one.

Chapter Five: Meeting Monsieur

Jhez is waiting up for me when I get back to our flat. She’s sitting in the same position she was in when Muscle showed up to drag me off.

I close the door gently and lean against it, meeting her gaze across the small living space.

“You’re alive.”

I nod, laughing softly. “Yes, I am. For now.”

“What happened?”

“We can talk about that after I sleep.” Actually, I’m just avoiding the inevitable. And I’m also looking forward to keeping it as fresh in her mind as possible so she can give Le Gross Shite a massive tongue-lashing when we meet him.

The verbal sort of tongue-lashing.

Dusk is only a few hours distant when I finally wake up. I roll over to stare at the ceiling and prod the soreness surging through my body from the still-honed residue of Garthelle.

I think it’s safe to say I fucked up massively. How did I not recognize him? That, more than anything, frightens me a good bit. Jhez and I, we learned the hard way to be careful. To watch our own backs and each other’s. But this . . . last night has totally rocked my confidence, my trust in my own judgment.

The pull is still strong. It’s a band of discomfort encircling my chest, like a panic attack hovering on the edge of a massive meltdown. Feeling poised on the edge of a cliff, I head for the shower.

From the looks of it, Jhez has been up for quite some time. She seems . . . way too perky for my tastes when I almost stumble over her housecleaning efforts upon walking out of my room.

We are, as twins, the embodiment of yin and yang.

When I grimace, she points to the kitchen. “Coffee is fresh.” And she turns back to polishing the coffee table or something. I don’t look too closely.

The confines of the kitchen might be cramped, but every surface is pristine.

“So tell me what happened last night before the anticipation kills me.” She keys her voice so her demand carries clearly from the living space.

Safely ensconced in the kitchen, I lean against the entryway. “Before or after Muscles came to retrieve me like a dog fetching a squeaky toy?” She lifts her head over the edge of the coffee table and glares. I can feel my name hovering on her lips and hurry to continue. “Garthelle offered to refrain from killing me.”

Jhez abandons cleaning and leaps across the table to flop onto the couch, which complains loudly at the mistreatment. I cringe and venture into the room to sit next to her. Her gaze plays over my face in an attempt to read ahead, impatient.

“I didn’t do it any differently than I have to any other john.” His face is clear in my mind, hovering inches from mine as he twisted my neck almost to the breaking point. More than just rage and vengeance had driven him. “I don’t understand why I didn’t recognize him.”

I sip at the hot, steamy coffee. It’s stronger than I like, but Jhez brews it that way. It gives me a reason to pause and consider my next words carefully. How do I tell her we’ve been breaking the law? A law we didn’t know existed.

But then, we’re not regular members of the vampire circles in society.

“He had me writhing on the floor in pain without even touching me. I don’t know how long it’ll take for his energy to burn out of my system. Garthelle called it chi-theft. Said I’d be dead at the hands of my next john if I hit the streets again.”

Jhez props her elbows on her knees and buries her mouth in her hands, staring at me over her fingertips. She studies me in silence, watching me sip at the coffee. Then her hands fall, arms folded across her knees. “There’s more to it than that.”

I nod and swallow. “His price for restraint is that we both work for him.”

Her lips immediately purse into a thin line. “You know all too well how I feel about that.”

“I told him you’d have questions I couldn’t answer, that you’d want some clarification. He wants to meet us this evening at the java house.”

She hangs her head and laces her fingers together at the back of her neck. “What have you done?” Her hands clench, pushing at tension in her muscles. “What have we done?”

I stare into the depths of my coffee and say nothing. I know she won’t refuse the meeting. The odds of her refusing his demand for employment are slimming down to nothing with each passing moment. Jhez isn’t dense; she can see all too well that our wellbeing hangs in the balance. And precariously.

* * *

The java house is all but empty when we settle into a corner booth in the back, well secluded from the few regulars pontificating on the meaning of life and liberty from their couch soapboxes near the steps to the loft. Instrumental music drifts from the sound system veiled strategically behind vivid paintings, abstract sculptures, and bookshelves lined with trinkets, oddities, and dust balls amidst leather-bound tomes.

Few traces of technology here. It’s one of the reasons why Jhez and I are so fond of it. It doesn’t attract the riffraff out to score a hypno-hit.

She wanders off to the counter to snag us drinks and a pastry to split, and I prop a knee against the edge of the table to tug on a loose thread dangling from my pants.

I hate waiting. It makes me fidgety. Out on the boulevard, I can pace up and down the concrete. I do that more than I realize, apparently; Jhez is always berating me that the ceaseless exercise leaves me resembling some emaciated, underfed orphan.

I don’t have the heart most times to remind her that “emaciated, underfed orphan” is precisely what we are.

I lift my gaze from my flawed clothing and glance across the room at the other regulars. One corner of my mouth tugs up in humor that suddenly dies when I catch sight of Garthelle striding toward me. I should have known. Not until I see him, though, am I aware of the slackening tension in my body. His gaze is locked on me as if a homing beacon is perched on my head. My attention flicks over his attire as he draws closer, and I wonder if he even bothered to change his clothing today. Same ivory shirt, black slacks, and tailor-cut trench coat. He certainly wears it well, especially given the number of unused buttons on the front of his shirt.

Hey, I can admire. Even as the strain of fear increases, tension humming through my muscles. Garthelle holds all the cards in this game. I wonder, for a moment, if Jhez and I would’ve done things differently if we’d known of the statutes that made our actions a crime.

He slides into the booth opposite me and folds his forearms on the table, drawing my wandering gaze. Exuding confidence—that vampire arrogance. I don’t feel any inclination to speak. The fact that Garthelle appears content to resume devouring me with his eyes only solidifies my resolve. I find it fascinating, leaning a bit toward hilarious. As a Nightwalker, I’m used to people appraising me like that, yet he has an edge. Not just violence, tightly leashed. Something else, a subtle nuance I can’t identify. The mystery of it intrigues me. He can devour to his heart’s content so long as he restricts it to an ocular activity.

Chapter Six: Agreement

Garthelle’s neck cords with tension as he turns toward Jhez. She sets a steaming mug of cappuccino in front of me and then settles into the booth beside me. Her gaze doesn’t leave the vampire’s.

The strain is almost palpable as I glance between the two of them. Content to enjoy my hot dose of caffeine, I dip my finger into the foam and suck the steamed milk off while I reach over for the plate of hot pastry. The corner of Garthelle’s left eye twitches and his lips thin, but his focus doesn’t shift.

Snagging a fork, I decide that tasting the fresh cheese danish is more important than the niceties of formal introductions and such. Priorities. Those two can wait a moment. Besides, it’s not like they aren’t each aware of who the other is. When I slide the loaded fork into my mouth, Jhez turns her glare on me full force. “We’re sharing that, remember?”

I chew slowly and swallow before setting the fork on the plate and pushing it toward her. “Monsieur Garthelle. This is my twin, Jhez. Jhez, Garthelle.” There. Introductions concluded.

She keeps staring at me. “I am aware of who Le Shite is,” she growls, snagging the fork as if I’ve offended the pastry by having the virgin bite.

I glance nervously across the table at Garthelle, watching him carefully for a reaction to that street-pervasive moniker as I sip my cappuccino. “Well, now he knows you, too.”

The vampire has a faint smile on his lips as he watches our interaction. I feel a suspicious blush creeping up my neck. Garthelle’s edge of danger, and hostility, feels dulled. For the moment, at least. As though the nature of Jhez’s reception has put him back on familiar territory, stable ground.

“Well, Garthelle. My twin tells me you’ve made an offer of employment. Before we discuss what it is you have in mind, I’d like a few answers.” One of the few things Jhez and I have in common is that we’re both horrendously blunt.

“Would you.” His tone doesn’t sound too indulgent. “What I have in mind,” he begins slowly, “is an offer of solid and regular employment for both of you.”

“If I wanted a pimp, I’d have one.” She taps the prongs of the fork against the porcelain plate, and I abandon any hope of another bite. Jhez possesses a hostile streak that can turn indiscriminate in a heartbeat.

“I am looking to acquire quality entertainment for a number of distinguished guests I’ll be hosting in the near future.” His gaze falters, flickering down to the pastry Jhez is clinically devouring. “While I must admit that I’ll take advantage of your skill as a Nightwalker, my interests are slightly more complex than that. Which is why I thought the pair of you would suit my needs.”

Jhez sets the fork down on the table with great care and turns to study me, her gaze flickering over my face. I can almost hear her asking, What did you tell him?

I shake my head slightly. I didn’t tell him anything.

Her attention shifts back to Garthelle. I’m glad she isn’t focusing that ocular drill on me this time. “And how, pray tell, did you come to that conclusion?” Her soft, cautious tone almost matches the vampire’s for subliminal hostility.

“Your experience, for one,” Garthelle admits, leaning back and resting his hands in his lap.

“What experience? Our prowess as notorious chi-thieves?” She utters the term with a condescending drawl. “Tell me one thing, please. Why now? Why’s what we’ve done all these years suddenly a problem?”

The vampire hoods his gaze. He probably thinks neither of us notice the sudden flash in the yellow hue of his eyes.

Jhez rakes the fork across the plate, hacks off another bite of pastry with surgical precision.

“I did my research. Few Nightwalkers have a period of employment comparable to that which the two of you can boast.” Jhez stiffens, and he waves his hand dismissively. “I’m willing to overlook your rather extensive list of offenses in exchange for cooperation. Though my peers may not agree with my stance, I believe there are more dangerous individuals roaming the streets of my territory.” Is that a hint of dry sarcasm in his voice? I could be mistaken, given how loudly my stomach is growling. Jhez blinks at me with a slight scowl and slides the remnants of the pastry in my direction. “The offer of employment is not so much a matter of prostitution as it is espionage.” Garthelle folds his hands on the Formica table with careful precision.

I choke on my mouthful of cappuccino and somehow manage not to spray it across the table. My eyes water as I stare at him. “You did not mention anything like that last night.”

He lifts one shoulder a fraction, but the vampire’s attempt at shrugging is . . . stilted, at best. “It seemed unnecessary.”

“You want us to spy on your guests and report back to you.”

The vampire nods. “I need eyes and ears amongst my kin.”

I haven’t forgotten just how livid he was last night. Or early this morning. A hair’s breadth from obliterating my existence. Why the sudden change? The disparity only sets off my alarms.

Jhez and I stare at him in silence, unresponsive. Our mutual need for more information from the vamp happens without any side communication. There are things we’re always on the same page about. Dealing with vamps is one of them.

Finally, Garthelle’s lips twist into a grimace. “The undercurrents in lyche society make the politics of old look like child’s play.”

We share a glance. Politics equals criminal activity. Some things just don’t change.

Jhez isn’t the only one experiencing a marked level of discomfort at Garthelle’s word choice. They don’t call themselves vampires like we do. They consider the word offensive for some reason. “And you think that these . . . guests of yours . . . will be careless enough to let information slip in our presence. Sensitive information?”

“Such is the nature of the beast. Especially under the influence of hallucinogenic substances, an energy thrall can be a highly vulnerable state.”

“The only result I can see is the endangering of our lives.” My sister has a death grip on her mug. “Careless vampires, substance abuse . . . It’s almost asking to be drained.”

I share her concern; I’m so tense I can’t swallow. What a waste of perfectly sumptuous caffeine.

“They will have other avenues to meet that need if it strikes them. You two are unique, oddities. A delicacy to be tasted and passed around. Not gorged on.” Garthelle’s lips twist into a very thin line and he glances at me, a surreptitious flick of his yellow eyes.

Not gorged on? Really. Presumably a privilege reserved exclusively for you, Monsieur.

“Unique.” Where does that come from? What does he know? Put on display. That really sticks in my craw. Look at the might of Garthelle, who singlehandedly netted the tag-team chi-thieves of the metro. Given how unhappy the vampire was last night, some of the things he said, I can’t dismiss the possibility of our notoriety. I’m certainly not willing to risk even the slightest chance that my next john will drain me to the dregs out of a sense of vengeance.

If Jhez notices my discomfort, she doesn’t show it. Still, her laughter has a sharp, cynical edge. “All of your guests will voluntarily show restraint? Pardon me for being skeptical. How can you be so certain of that?”

The vampire leans forward. “Because I am their host and that’s the way things work in our circles. Guests abide by house rules.”

He’s revealing more than he wanted. Perhaps it’s the trace of tension in his posture, or the faint lines visible between his brows and at the corners of his eyes that’s keying me into it. He is far from pleased with this arrangement. And yet he is determined to employ it at all costs. I can feel his determination resonating in my veins, like calling to like, that sliver of his chi inside me humming softly. Letting me read him like a book.

Oh, this could be very useful, after all. It doesn’t explain why I’m still able to feel it, but it’s more insight than I’d have otherwise.

“And if I accept this offer, what would the compensation involve?” Jhez has a hard edge in her voice. The kind she uses with the street dealers.

The vampire laces his fingers together, grip knuckle-white for a heartbeat before the tension drains away. Almost as if it hadn’t existed. “Aside from clemency for your crimes? A more convenient residential location. Outside the confines of lyche property, of course. And a salary commensurate with your experience and the nature of your employment.”

“For how long?” I interject when Jhez hesitates. She glances at me and surrenders the discussion with a cautious sip of her cappuccino, then a longer swallow when it doesn’t burn her. “I mean, surely you don’t expect us to just . . .” I lift one hand from my mug, waving it while attempting to find the best way to word what I’m thinking. “Blindly enter into an open-ended arrangement, do you? That would be asinine,” I add, smiling to take the sting from my words.

Because judging from the way the vampire blinks and stares at me with a more considering glint in his yellow gaze, I’m not too far off the mark. He truly expected nothing less than ignorant acceptance, an indefinite relationship he could manipulate on a whim.

“And while I’m asking questions, I’m really curious to know why it is that I didn’t recognize you on the street. I know who you are, knew the moment Muscle escorted me back.”

Garthelle blinks rapidly. “Muscle? Oh.” One corner of his mouth twitches upward, briefly. “You didn’t recognize me because I didn’t want you to. I fail to see what that has to do with this discussion.”

“Do you really?” I cant my head, daring to glare at him just a bit. “You didn’t want me to recognize you, so you . . . messed with my head. Just mine, because Jhez sure knew who you were. And you can’t connect the dots?”

“Black.” She lays a restraining hand on my arm, her touch soothing, aura lacing into mine.

“No.” I shake her off without breaking the hold I have on Garthelle’s attention, his eyes locked with mine. The vampire scares me shitless, but I’m not willing to back down on this. “If you could do it then, what’s to say you’re not doing it now? How do we know you’re not deceiving us?”

“Because it would be unethical of me to sit here negotiating a verbal agreement while employing such tactics.” The vampire’s words are soft, even, measured. “The arrangement will remain in effect until such time as the . . . aural issue . . . between myself and Black is resolved to my satisfaction.”

Jhez nods. It’s sufficient for her. “If he were manipulating you,” she says, drawing my attention, “he’d have us working for free, right?”

“I’ve no desire to withhold compensation to which you are entitled,” the vampire assures her with another twitch of a smile.

“And Black?”

His brows inch upward. “Has received compensation.”

Jhez hisses, her entire body stilling as if she wants to leap over the table and strangle the vamp. “You mean the gift of restraint?”

“You need not concern yourself. We have already come to an acceptable agreement.”

“Black isn’t your slave, Monsieur Garthelle.” Her exaggerated stress on the title is far from respectful. While I understand and appreciate her concern, I find myself recalling the painful stretch of my neck, the fiery sting in my scalp where the vampire fisted my hair.

I know he was restraining himself, even then. I’d reminded myself of that, standing in the shower, watching the broken strands of black hair catch and tangle in the drain trap. I don’t want Jhez fueling his wrath.

“My expectations do not lean in that direction.”

Her brows draw down, slowly. “Our parameters of employment will be identical.”

Garthelle props his elbows on the table and folds his arms, laughs softly. I get the impression he’d much rather sit back into the bench, yet doesn’t want to suggest retreat even subliminally. “They are. Rest assured I have no desire to endanger Black’s wellbeing in any fashion.” His brows lift faintly as he says my name. He pauses, seeming to choose his next words with care as he looks at both of us. “Your safety is of the utmost import to me now. Thus, the offer of alternate residence.” His gaze wanders off across the interior of the shop. “A very quaint and comfortable spot, this, but the area is not at all secure.”

“And why exactly is it that you’ve taken such an interest?” Jhez voices her query with an edge of uncertainty, hoping to draw more information from a vampire whose generosity has already been expansive.

I kick her ankle under the table. Hard. She shows no sign of feeling it.

Garthelle’s indulgent expression bleeds away like so much rainwater through a sewer grate. “That, I’m certain, is completely none of your concern.” He slides from the bench to stand. “A chauffeur will come to retrieve you both tomorrow morning. Any further questions you might have can wait until evening, after you’ve settled in.”

* * *

Jhez stalks down the sidewalk away from the java house. Her gaze is focused on some indeterminate point, and the growing throng of pedestrians veers from her path without encouragement. Obviously they can sense her mood as easily as I.

The one downfall to learning to manipulate your aura: sometimes you do it without conscious awareness. We walk in silence for a few blocks. I don’t want to disturb her. She seems to be thinking. Or maybe she’s simply fuming, since the notorious Le Gross is now her employer. Thanks to yours truly, no less. Well, not really, but I’ve no doubt she sees it that way. I know I would. It’s always easier when there’s someone else to blame.

“Whatever you did, I hope it wears off really soon,” she snarls.

“That makes three of us, I’m sure.” I keep my tone mild while perusing the random shop windows we pass. Not that the fading of this forged link will change the fact that apparently, in vampire circles, she and I are notorious criminals.

Her pace slows to something more reasonable. “How strong is the pull?” She softens her tone, almost a whisper.

I shrug. “It hasn’t weakened at all.”

She mutters a string of colorful phrases under her breath. “And what do you intend to do if it doesn’t?” I stop walking and stare at her back until she turns to meet my gaze from a few paces away. “It logically follows, dear twin.” Even so, her blunt query makes the plausibility of such a situation all too real, and I don’t like it.

I start walking again. “It will.”

“Have you considered,” she whispers, “that he sought you out specifically so that this would happen? So that he could blackmail us into working for him?”

My eyes widen but I resist the urge to look at her. “That would explain why he went through the trouble to ensure I wouldn’t recognize him.”

“We don’t know half of what they’re capable of doing.”

She’s all too correct. For all I know, whatever it is that’s going on between me and the vampire is not at all a result of my miscalculation. The whole situation reeks of entrapment. I’ve never before had any sort of connection like this with a john. And if Garthelle hadn’t been so ravenous, I might’ve not even bothered tapping into him.

“Something’s rotten in Denmark,” I mutter, staring at the sidewalk as it scrolls past beneath my feet. The cracks are crammed with ragged little weeds and random chunks of trash.

“It’s not the fish.” Beside me, Jhez resumes her intent study of nothing.

from The Delighted Reader

This book grabbed my interest from the beginning and didn’t let go . . . 

from MM Good Book Reviews (by Pixie)

[A] complex and dark [story with] mystery, intrigue, twists, complex relationships, really hot sex and something a little different about your vampires.

from Kim-Chan Experience

[D]etailed and filled with intrigue . . . [D]efinitely a world I’d love to revisit.

from Words of Wisdom (by Joder)

[N]ice flow, intriguing characters, vivid world imagery, and fresh take on the vampire mythos . . . a story that keeps you on the edge of your seat until the final page is turned.

from Joyfully Jay (by Melanie)

Who doesn't love that "huh, didn't see that coming" moment in stories? [T]rust me, there are quite a few of those [in Blacker than Black]. Each [character is] different yet completely memorable. What a story.