When I got back home, Nyx was in the kitchen making scrambled eggs and toast. She was dressed for work, wearing a black 1940’s-themed pencil dress with a sweetheart neckline, stockings with the seam up the back of the leg, and peep-toe pumps. Her hair was pulled into a pair of curled pigtails, and she wore bright red lipstick and a black choker with a silver spiderweb dangling from the throat. She reminded me of an adorably Goth version of I Love Lucy. Luc, of course, was perched on the counter beside her. Phin was on the sofa watching MythBusters, and Josie and Seth were already at the Dupré House for Seth’s first day of school. All in all, I guessed this was as relatively normal as it was going to get for us.
Eli was still gone. It still hurt.
It pissed me off even more.
I felt as if I were having an out-of-body experience the whole day; I was there, but it wasn’t really me. It was more as if I were looking down and watching myself. Nothing felt real. Everything felt surreal, as if I were trapped in a dream, in an old black-and-white movie.
That was the story of my life lately.
Even with Jimi Hendrix’s “Valleys of Neptune” thumping in the shop, I couldn’t be pulled into that zone I loved. I managed good work, but my heart wasn’t in it like usual, and that pissed me off.
The early part of the day rolled by; I’d inked that flower dragon on the lower back of a skinny biology major. Without the cushion of a little fat, she said it felt as if I was inking her backbone, and honestly I thought she was going to pass out. I hadn’t had a passer-outer in quite some time . I had to stop, give her some water, let her catch her breath. I was impressed, though; she was a trouper and wanted to continue. We finally finished the outline, and I made her appointment for six weeks to come by for the fill-in. By the time she left Inksomnia, her color had returned. All I could think was that I probably was not going to be here.
“Thanks,” she said, then jumped as Gene, the stuffed black raven, cawed at her exit.
“Later,” I said, then decided to grab some lunch. Luc offered to go get it, but I needed some air, needed to be alone, and needed to just … release my thoughts, I guess, or maybe my bad mood. It was four p.m. and daylight; there was no fear of vampires lurking in the shadows, so the Duprés didn’t push. My next appointment wasn’t until five fifteen, so I grabbed my backpack and left.
Stifling, humid air hit me the moment I stepped out of Inksomnia, and I drew in a deep breath of the everpresent brine rolling off the Savannah River directly across the cobbles from my shop. I turned left. The tourists had thinned but hadn’t completely disappeared, and I dodged bodies of all types and ages, wearing everything from plaid Bermuda shorts and T-shirts to long pull-over beach dresses and flip-flops; smiling, unwary people pointing in windows, snapping photos of the river walk and riverboats, and walking out of shops with bags of goodies from historic Savannah.
All I could think about was that dark-haired girl, her ripped-open chest, and her head cracking against the pineapple fountain in Charleston.
I stopped in at Kevin Barry’s Irish Pub, ordered a corned beef Reuben on pumpernickel with double fries and malt vinegar, a large sweet tea, and headed out to the river walk to park on a bench and chow down. The September sun beat against my skin. I pulled a long swig of tea from the white Styrofoam cup, unwrapped the sandwich, and bit into the warm, crunchy, toasted dark bread. Corned beef and sauerkraut gushed out the sides. I closed my eyes and chewed. Yes, it was delicious. Yes, I ate every crumb. Yes, I know I’m a hog.
No, it did not relieve my mind of the problems at hand.
I wanted a smoke. A friggin’ cigarette. Seth would kill me if I did, but man, the stress was piling up and a long drag on a cig would be heaven. But I’d promised, so I didn’t cave. And, I admit, I did feel better without them. I’m surprised I hadn’t gained any weight, but maybe my extensive Tendie workouts were enough to keep off the extra calories.
I smelled him long before I heard his voice.
A shiver coursed through my body.
Eli slid onto the bench beside me. He said nothing, but I felt his eyes boring into me. Slowly, I turned my gaze to his. Behind a pair of shades he stared at me; a black T-shirt clung to his chest, and a pair of low-slung jeans hugged his hips. My eyes were glued to his lips; perfectly shaped, full, and memories of how those lips caressed my body, devoured my mouth, filled my head. Again, I shivered.
“Do you have to keep your last appointment?” he said silkily.
I didn’t answer. Instead, I slowly poked a French fry into my mouth and chewed; another followed. After I’d drained every drop of tea and eaten every single French fry, in total silence and extreme scrutiny, I inhaled deeply.
Eli reached over, grabbed my cup and wrappers, tossed them into the trash can beside the bench, then pulled me into a crushing hug. With strong arms, he embraced me.
“It’s been less than forty-eight hours, but I missed the hell out of you,” he said, his mouth against my temple. My arms went around him, and he pulled me closer.
“Forty-eight hours? I hadn’t even noticed you were gone,” I said against his throat, my voice muffled.
I felt his chest rumble as he laughed. He pulled back, took off his shades, and stared down at me. The shocking blue intensity caused another shiver within me. “We’ve things to discuss.”
I nodded. “After my appointment. I can’t get into the habit of ducking out on my clients, Eli.”
With a heavy-lidded gaze, he regarded me. “Is it a big tat, or a little one?”
I grinned. “Medium. Shouldn’t take longer than an hour.”
In silence, he lowered his head to kiss me, but I covered my mouth. “Stop! Reuben with slaw. Gross.”
Eli merely smiled.
“Hey, Riley. Eli, right? What’s up?”
I turned and shaded my eyes. Mullet Morrison stood, grinning, his hands stuffed into his jeans pockets. I smiled. “Hey, Mullet-Man. What’s up?”
Eli stuck his hand out and the two shook. “Mullet.”
Mullet shrugged, glanced over his shoulder, and looked back at me. “Just hangin’ out until Tiff finishes shoppin’ in the SoHo. She’s in there picking out a dress or something. So how’s life?”
I nodded. “Interesting as always. You?” Eli sat silent beside me, his arm possessively around my shoulders.
Mullet nodded. “Sweet, sweet. Hey—Tiff wants some ink. I told her we’d come by next week maybe. Is that cool?”
Before vampires, I could have said yes with assuredness. Now? I had no freaking idea what I’d be doing next week. Hopefully, all the chaos in Charleston would be over. “Yeah, sure. Just have her call the shop and I’ll work her in. Does she know what she wants?”
Mullet scratched his jaw. “Yeah, I think she wants a Japanese koi fish along here.” He stretched and pointed to his side. “Pretty sick, huh?”
I grinned. “Sounds cool. Tell her to give me a call.”
He stuck his fist out and bumped mine. “Sweet. Later, Riley. Eli. Oh, hey—did you hear about the murders in Charleston?”
My insides froze at the mention of them. “Heard something about a body being found at the pineapple fountain. Why?”
Mullet peered at me. “You know, my cousin’s on the police force, and he says there’s been like, nine murders there over the past few weeks. Some pretty sick shit, from what Kelly says. Freaky, huh? They think it might be a serial killer or some crazy psychopath. I hope to hell they don’t come south.”
“Yeah,” I answered. “Me, too.”
“Right—later then,” he said, and turned to leave. “Lock your doors, Riley.”
“Yep,” I answered, and watched him saunter off. “Cool guy, Mullet. I hope he never has to know the things I know—especially that it doesn’t matter how many cops are on the Charleston case, they won’t catch the killer; rather, killers.” I looked at Eli. “There has to be more than one vampire working the streets. Nine murders, Eli.”
Eli’s expression was tight. “And those are only the ones they’ve discovered.”
Pulling the cell out of my pack, I glanced at the time. I still had thirty minutes until my next appointment.
“I have to speak with Papa,” Eli said, rising. I followed. “We’ve apparently got visitors. I’ll meet you back here in a couple of hours to pick you up, oui?”
I loved it when Eli occasionally threw in an unexpected French word. It was sexy as hell.
“Yeah, that’s cool,” I said. And before I could stop him, he grasped my jaw with one hand and pulled my mouth to his. He kissed me, Reuben, slaw, fries, and all, and it left me breathless and wanting to peel his clothes off right there on the riverfront to have my way with him.
He kissed my ear and whispered, “Later. I promise.”
I watched him slide his shades back onto his face and saunter away. He disappeared between two buildings. Shading my eyes with my hand, I glanced in the direction of Inksomnia, gauged the distance of walk time, and took off at a brisk pace. It still amazed me how fast a speed I could manage in a pair of spiked heels.
Eli was home! God Almighty, I’d missed him. Yeah, in less than forty-eight hours, I’d missed him. I was anxious to hear what he’d found out, and anxious for other things, too. I crossed the cobbles to the storefront side, cut up and through the steep stairway alley between two stores, and emerged onto Factors Walk. Crossing the parking lane, I managed my way through relatively few tourists to Bay Street, and turned right. I’d just passed the Cotton Exchange building when the smell hit me. It was so strong, pungent, that I stopped and looked around. There was nothing but tourists, cars, parking meters, and locals walking the sidewalk—nothing out of the ordinary. A young guy wearing a dark gray suit and carrying a briefcase bumped into me.
“Sorry,” he said, then stared at my arms, then my breasts. He smiled and turned back up the walk.
I felt unsettled. I didn’t like it.
Drawing in a deep breath, I caught the scent again, and, concentrating, closing out all other scents of the city, I zeroed in on this one in particular. It was sharp, almost spicy-hot, reminding me of wasabi sauce, and something else undefined. It was a scent unlike anything I’d ever inhaled, and I’d inhaled a lot of stuff in my youth. I could almost taste it in my mouth. I turned and followed it, slightly amused by my weird, wolfish tendency. I crossed Bay Street onto Drayton and continued up the sidewalk. I weaved in and out of passersby, the scent drawing me into, of course, an empty alley. I stood there, staring at the aged brick walls, the ferns growing between the mortar, the rusty drainpipes running from the rooftop to the lane. I opened my hearing, just a fraction, and listened closely to the abundance of sounds around me, trying to pick through to see if anything felt stranger than usual. It wasn’t easy. So many sounds—voices, a toilet flushing, car stereos, a rapid-fire heartbeat that was so fast it could be nothing else but a mouse. I moved toward the single door in the alley, the scent growing stronger.