Detective-Sergeant Celluci's night had gone from bad to worse. Most of his nights, actually, went from bad to worse, which was at least half the reason he ended up at The Devil's Advocate so frequently. Enough beer and it didn't seem so bad. Enough of his father's bitter Old Fashioneds and he could forget enough to rightfully pretend none if it, whatever it was, had ever happened.
This, however, was a beer night.
Mike stepped into the Advocate and into a raucous chorus of blessed familiarity. At almost any time of day, detectives and uniforms could be found on the high stools and tucked into solitary booths either winding themselves up or winding themselves down. Mike offered nods of acknowledgement to half a dozen coworkers as he wended his way toward one of the empty booths, with a clear view of nothing and all the darkness he cared to be swaddled in.
The air was heavy with fried and grilled meat. Food would have been advisable, but it wasn't the dinner he'd planned on, and he lacked the stomach for anything else.
He sighed heavily and held his head in his hands. He needed to think.
Hell, he didn't want to think.
Why did she always have to be so . . . so . . .
Mike got the impression of a presence at his side and looked up expecting to see a waitress, or that gay waiter they'd hired who'd drunk him under the table a few weeks back. It was neither.
"Detective." Gordon, the new ME, gave him an uneasy but genuine grin. His dark hair was tinged with sweat, and he had the breathless quality of someone who had just worked out. The brown shirt he wore was rolled to the elbows. He motioned to the empty bench, with fluid and precise movements. "Do you mind?" He let a hopeful smile break out.
Not as solicitous as he could have been, Mike let his hands fall and waved vaguely at the space across from him. It was more a motion of resignation than anything else. He sat a little straighter and tried to look personable as the other man took a seat.
Gordon ran his fingers through his damp hair. "Mind if I buy the first round?" His face gleamed with some kind of delight that he couldn't quite smother beneath the unflappability that all medical examiners seemed to develop—at least all the ones in Toronto.
Celluci offered half a grin and a curious gaze. "That is one thing I genuinely do not mind. And you can call me Mike."
"Right," he said, though with a shift in his eyes like he intended to do no such thing. Recovering his almost Mona Lisa smile, Gordon slid to the edge of the booth and peered searchingly out into the bar. He didn't have to look long. The waitress with the obviously dyed red hair had been tracking him since he'd entered that night. She met his eyes almost instantly and at the slightest shift in his expression came hurrying over. She bobbed to a stop and flashed the ME her brightest smile. Mike received an embarrassed little grin.
"What can I get you?" she asked, trying not to get lost somewhere in Gordon's eyes.
He seemed almost embarrassed at her staring and glanced at Mike, one eyebrow raised in question.
The detective shrugged. "You're buying."
Gordon inclined his head toward the waitress. "Two Labatt Blues. Please," he said just loudly enough to be heard.
"Coming right up," she breathed back, turning on her heel just as her cheeks started to flush.
Gordon settled back, casting ever so slight a shy glance around the edge of the booth.
"She likes you," Mike commented with a smirk.
The other man ducked his head. "I . . . think she's been watching me since before the first set."
Mike frowned. "Set?"
A perplexed looked crossed the planes of the younger man's face. "I thought that's why you were here."
Mike blinked, lost.
"Didn't I tell you? About the group I started playing with?" There was innocent disappointment written all over him, as though his sand castle had just washed out to sea.
Mike wracked his brain. There was . . . something. The guy'd mentioned . . . "Yeah, you said you play violin. With, umm, she . . . something."
A shift in his lip and downcast eyes. "Seelie Sídhe," he muttered, making quick study of the table top.
Perfect. Celluci scratched his head in irritation and not a little bit of guilt. He did remember, now, Gordon having announced that he'd been asked to join a band, and so quickly after arriving in town. The details of the case they were working had run roughshod over the information. But now he could picture quite clearly the glow of pride in the younger man's eyes as he rambled on about practices and songs he was going to have to learn, seemingly unaffected by the corpse he'd been wrist-deep in. It was quite possibly the longest string of words Mike had ever heard him utter. In a city full of strangers, finding people to share a passion with must have seemed a lot like finding a home. Some friend, Mike scowled at himself.
"So, umm. You guys must be pretty good to get a gig at the Advocate," he offered.
Gordon glanced up. "It's just one night's gig." He shrugged.
"Maybe. But one night turns into two, turns into a week . . ."
The younger man smirked. "If you're good enough."
"You telling me you're not?"
He stopped studying his hands and shifted his eyes up. "I'm telling you to wait for set two," Gordon grinned and sat straighter, warming to Mike's gentle prodding. "There's a great fiddle reel after the third song. You can tell me then if I'm good enough."
"Careful, cause I won't lie."
Gordon laughed a little—a transformative expression. "You won't have to."
Mike quirked an eyebrow at his companion's new-found confidence and then leaned to look for the redheaded waitress and their drinks. She was most definitely keeping her eye on his booth. He chuckled under his breath and shook his head. "Must be true what they say."
"Chicks really do dig musicians."
Gordon glanced around the edge of the booth. "She's serious? I don't know . . ." His tone was low and conspiratorial.
"Are you kidding me? She's young, she's cute, and she likes you. You need her to draw you a sign?"
"I don't need a sign." The younger man pouted some. "I just . . ." He studied his hands again, massaging one palm out of habit. The muscles along his jaw pulsed.
"Just what?" Mike eyed him.
Yeah. Nothing but nerves. "You should go talk to her," Mike said seriously.
Gordon glanced at him, then around the booth. "Really?"
"Christ, yes, really. Just don't saying anything insulting and you'll be fine. Now get the hell out of here, already." Mike pointed with authority. God damn if somebody couldn't hit it off tonight.
The ME hesitated a moment and then slid from the booth as ordered. Mike watched as he slithered through the crowd and ended up at the girl's elbow just as she was getting their beers. He said something, though his body language suggested shyness. And she laughed, the sound of which carried even to Mike's darkened corner. The detective couldn't help but grin. For five blessed minutes, he hadn't though about Vicki or worried about where he sat on her ever-shifting totem pole of priorities.
Record broken. He heaved a heavy sigh and vaguely wondered if he was actually going to get that beer.
Because damn, a little alcohol sure wouldn't hurt. He thought about trying to catch the eye of another waitress. Thought about it, started scanning the crowd.
And then his phone rang.
So did another in the bar. And a third. A tide of squalling ringers rose, along with voices sharp in alarm. Mike flipped the phone open and frowned out at the tavern where half the occupants were doing the same.
A familiar voice, full of tension, came back to him from the ether. "Mike? It's Kate. Look, I know you're off duty, but we've got a problem."
"Kate, every phone in the Advocate just went crazy. What's going on?" He found he was already standing, ready to make for the door, or bolt for it if need be.
"We . . . we don't know. There are fires all over the place. There weren't enough cops on duty to control the sites and direct traffic, much less start investigations. I'm sorry to call, but we need more people. The calls don't stop!" She sounded frazzled. Mike scowled and started jogging for the door. Half the bar beat him to it. He pressed into the throng and became engulfed in a roar of voices repeating addresses and names.
"Kate?" Mike called over the noise. He strained to hear amidst the shuffle and not lose his grip. "Kate, I can't hear you. Just—just wait until I get outside!"
The crowd moved of its own accord and expelled him onto the sidewalk.
"Mike?" He heard her voice, small and tinny from the cell.
People shoved and stumbled by, buffeted him with glancing blows. "Okay," he huffed. "Okay, where to?"
"1055 Glenlake Road."
"And . . . it's a fire. That's all we know?"
"They're all fires, Mike . . ." There was a waver in her voice, a weariness and wariness.
"Right. Well, we'll figure it out, okay? Just let me get down there and I'll call you."
"Yeah. Hey, Mike!"
"Be careful. They . . . they're thinking terrorists on this one." Her voice felt heavy and dead.
Celluci grimaced as he hung up and clipped the phone back on his belt. They'd been lucky, for the most part, avoiding terrorist plots, remaining the unnoticed northern neighbor. But it was bound to happen. Everyone knew it, prayed otherwise, and tried not to summon the ill spirits by carefully never mentioning the subject.
Mike hustled down the street to his car and tossed the light on the roof as he got in. All around, other officers swarmed similarly, forming a line of lights flashing candy cane colors. Most were headed the same way. A few peeled off and went north.
He beat his hands restlessly on the steering wheel, even as cars threw themselves from his path and made way. As he left the surface streets, he and every one of his colleagues leaned on the accelerator. They were the cavalry. And they were already late for the war.
As they came around high on the expressway, they all had the same vision. All made the same pointless, inevitable exclamation.
"Ho...ly shit," Mike breathed, leaning forward as if to get a better view.
The flames danced in the sky like waving grass, illuminating their own stormcloud a sickly orange. The whole suburb was aglow, at once fascinating and terrible.
He had to tear his eyes away to keep from crashing but felt the pull of awe dragging them back. Mike followed the squad cars down the exit for Parkside Drive and continued on Keele to Glenlake. And as he drove, swerving around fire engines, cops, and the straggling bereft, he realized the blazes were getting stronger. Newer. Kate must have given him a recent one.
Number 1055 spewed fire from its windows and poured off black smoke. He pulled the the car to a stop and didn't even think. He just hopped out. And the air assaulted him.
Mike covered his face with an arm as he flinched from the wall of intense heat. When he gasped to breathe, he sucked in smoke. Damp spray from the fire hoses slicked his face.
Firemen shouted to be heard over the roar of the flame, and civilian wails filled his ears. From this house. From every house.
A breath to steady.
He whirled and darted for the nearest firefighter.
"Who's in charge?" he said loudly.
A soot-soaked young man paused long enough to point, and Mike followed, coming quickly to the side of a slightly older man with the presence of an old sea captain. He shouted into his radio and glanced the detective up and down with a slight motion of his head. Firelight was the only illumination, and it cast heavy, haunting shadows everywhere. The captain's eyes were hidden under his helmet.
Mike flashed his badge. "What do you need me to do?" he asked seriously. He was, after all, Homicide. The calls came his way when a body turned up in the rubble, not before.
The chief scrubbed his face, swearing and casting around. Then he lifted his hand and pointed at the crowd of people gathering on the sidewalk. They were jostling one another and shuffling closer to the flames.
"Keep them back and out of our way."
Simple enough. The detective turned to go, but a tight grip on his arm stopped him.
"And you stop whoever's doing this!"
Mike gave the man a long look and a curt nod. He was released.
He squared himself, tightened his jaw, and put on a steely mask. The house roared fire behind him as he marched toward the crowd. Instinctively, all eyes turned his way.
"I'm Detective Celluci," he called, holding up his badge as proof, though the brilliant backlight shadowed him. "I need you all to take a few steps back, now, for your own safety." Seemed plausible to him, anyway.
The crowd seemed to agree, as they ambled back from the sweeping motions he made with his arms. All except one man, mid-fifties, Mike guessed, who stood like he hung from the air, lifeless, powerless, barely substantial enough to be real. Tears streamed from his unblinking eyes, wetting his beard. He took no note and indulged in nothing so self-aware as shame.
"Sir?" Mike came closer and put himself in direct line of sight.
Slowly, the man tilted his head and looked Mike in the face. He moved his mouth as if to speak.
"I'm sorry?" Mike leaned in, encouragingly.
The man struggled with phlegm in his throat and coughed. His speech came out low and thick. "She just . . . she just burned," he said, giving Mike a searching look.
With small movements, the detective slipped a pen and paper from his coat pocket. "Can you tell me what happened?" he said evenly.
"She plays cards at the Montagues' every Thursday. Thank God, it's not for money, but, you know, she has fun." He smiled weakly, and then his face crumpled. "Had . . . fun." He bit the insides of his lips to fight the tears.
Mike looked away from a moment, for decency's sake. But the job required far more than that. It always did.
"So she was out playing cards tonight?" he prompted.
"Yeah . . . yeah. And then she came home. Early. I mean a lot earlier than usual, you know? The game wasn't half over. I always . . . told . . . her the score when she came in." He paused and then looked dazedly up the street, where crew after crew from every precinct drained the city's water supply onto fires that spread like oil.
Mike followed his gaze. "The Montagues' house?"
The man nodded solemnly. "She wasn't herself," he said distantly. Then he turned toward Mike, and the detective tried to radiate reassurance.
The man closed his eyes, shaking his head. Tears and ashen spray mingled on his cheeks. "She looked sick. Sweaty. Gasping like she'd run all the way home." He hesitated.
Mike waited. Then he added, "It could be important."
The man touched a hand to his damp face, briefly covering his mouth, afraid, unsure of what would come out. "Her eyes were . . . wrong. This—I'm not crazy!"
Who was Mike to accuse anyone, ever, of that? He shook his head gravely, not a bit of it an act. "I don't think you are. I've seen a lot of things I can't explain, myself."
The man looked him up and down and nodded. He sniffed once and wiped at his eyes. "Her eyes were . . . black. Like a movie or something. Red contacts, I think. I didn't—I didn't really see."
"You're doing fine," Mike made a show of taking down notes. "So she came home, and then . . ."
"And then she just . . . lit up," he said simply, sputtering the words in a mad laugh that ended in a sob. "Just like that. She . . ." he wheezed. Words caught in his throat. "Screamed." He managed. "Like I've never heard. I—" His eyes rolled, and he looked to Mike. "I won't forget." It was not conviction in his voice.
Mike's pen slid to a stop as sympathy spasmed in his chest. The man stared past him, at his life turning to sodden ash. His eyes were saucer-wide, flickering in reflected flame. Mike gave him a second, then pressed on.
"Were you alone in the house?"
A twitch in the other man's face.
Mike frowned. "Sir?" He shifted around, trying to make eye contact.
"I . . ." A twist of pain.
A sudden young voice shouted, "Officer!" And Mike jerked around to see where the teen was pointing. A stone fell in his stomach as he stashed his notes. A familiar silhouette stood outlined by the flames, closer than any civilians were supposed to be. He stalked over with menace.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Celluci demanded, glowering down.
Henry's features looked bronzed as he stared at the burning edifice. He made no acknowledgment of the detective's presence. Nothing about him shifted, despite the maelstrom around him. Nothing but his eyes, growing wider as their depths reflected growling gold.
He awoke with a heaving gasp and immediately choked. Startled by the pain of embers in his chest, he tried to move and fell to the floor in a spastic tangle of sheets. He rolled to his back, coughing, and held a silk-draped arm over his face. Every breath was fire, and by fire he could see.
The cellar was always safely pitch black when he awoke.
Flames ate the walls, billowing smoke. And as he watched, squinting against the heat and soot, fire consumed the ceiling above in a writhing blanket.
There was only a moment of cold disbelief before full blinding terror set in. Henry heaved, hacked uncontrollably, and found his feet. The stairway to the main floor was a maw of flame, sucking the air from the cellar with a churning moan. He stumbled to a stop, nearly falling onto a burning step. Even vampires, he learned then, could sweat.
His slow heart raced in panic. It was the stairs or be cooked alive in his bed. No choice. The only choice. Incoherent screaming followed livid cursing as he ran, as quickly as possible, up the passage. Each step seared the flesh on his feet, blisters made, broken, and charred. Every breath came red with pain. Tears of agony squeezed out his eyes. Long cries tried for force their way out his tortured throat as he ran with mad desperation for anywhere, anywhere safe.
The main floor was worse. Heavy with black smoke so he could not see and so hot . . . so hot. He knew this place like he'd have known the palace. Better. And he started for the door. Around him a lifetime burned. Memories and treasures disappearing, making the conflagration worse.
The very air lit his shirt. Cooked his skin to boils. With a desperate hand, he fed the garment to the house and kept moving, under fallen beams, through arched doorways ringed with fire. His hair singed, the only smell more sickening than the smoke. Despite living, he began to roast. Burns formed everywhere at once as his ability to heal gave way.
Fire could kill a vampire.
He screamed with anger and terror as his muscles started to fail and falter. The door was so close. If he could just . . . there was nothing but pain—pain of moving, pain of staying, pain of breathing. Aches and knives and boiling oil.
He kicked a broken door aside, stumbling headlong for the foyer.
A breath of ashen swords exited as a wail.
Shaking with the pain and adrenaline, he pressed his eyes shut to keep them from burning and hurtled toward the front door—the last barrier to escape.
It buckled under his weight. And he tumbled a smoking, screaming mass onto Carter Street.
Shocked cries rose up all around him. "Ar' yu' awright?" A woman's shrill voice asked from above him.
His eyes flashed open, then black. One swift swipe of his charred, raw arm, and he had her. Her blood was the only sound, the only movement in the universe. With an animal's quick assurance, he sank his teeth in greedily, desperately, trying to sob and drink and breathe all at once. The warm blood was tasteless on his scorched tongue. It enraged the burns, and he'd have stopped or spit, but need overcame all, and he drank without looking, without thinking, until his victim was dry.
Still heaving, still sobbing jolting tears onto ravaged cheeks and shaking violently in torment, he lifted his head from the woman's limp body and saw a sight like none other. His house, his sanctuary, was gone, disappearing into the sky with the lick of gold tongues. But he was not alone.
London was burning.
"Hey!" Mike's shadow cut in and severed the memory, leaving a shocking emptiness.
The detective leaned in, examining Fitzroy's furrowed brow and glassy eyes. He looked . . . terrified. Mike softened his tone some. "Are you okay?"
Henry blinked into the present, his heart still racing. Shaken, he gave Celluci a confused look and then quickly recovered, smoothing his countenance. The noise of the machinery and people came pounding back. And he remembered what brought him to a halt.
"Did they check the basement?" He spoke in a strained, hollow voice, lifting his eyes to Mike's.
Celluci frowned down. "I don't—you can hear a heartbeat from here?" he said in disbelief, glancing briefly to the house over his shoulder.
Henry's face twisted until he looked like he might be sick. "It isn't a heartbeat," he said darkly.
The detective stared at him as the words sank in. Not a heartbeat? But what could he be . . . something . . . louder, still lost in the commotion? Mike's eyes flashed, and then he was gone, running for the old dragon of a fire chief. In the absence of the shield of Mike's body, Henry flinched from the wave of heat that came rolling off the house, stepping back. The flames called his attention with wicked fascination. Acid fear burned his throat as he forced himself to turn away.
He watched as the chief crooked his head to his radio. The man shook his head. Henry felt water bead on his skin and run down.
He heard it before anyone else. A crack, like a breaking spine. In a mix of curiosity and horror, he turned slowly to look at the house. It made a second, bonebreaking creak, and all at once the roof fell in. Everyone screamed, even as two men in yellow suits exploded from the doorway into the arms of comrades. Dust and smoke billowed from the door behind them. It all seemed to happen in slow motion. And Henry fought an instinct to run.
He felt and heard Celluci come to a stop at his side, hovering, and he turned to face him, giving half of his face to shadow. The air, thick with water and soot, seemed too heavy to breathe. Suffocating. A bolt of panic shot through him, but he pinned himself to the ground and tried to regard the detective calmly.
"There was no way down," Mike said.
A small shift in Fitzroy's lip produced a grimace.
Mike went on. "Are you going to tell me what the hell you're doing here?"
In defiance, Henry moved to reply, but he was cut off.
"And where's Vicki?" The detective looked out and around expecting, maybe, to see her running for the blaze with a sloshing bucket. He met the vampire's eyes and the flame reflected there.
Mike felt shot. "Henry—where's Vicki?" The vehemence in his voice was unmistakable as he drew out the words. He expected a glare and didn't quite care if his royal Highness took offense.
The vampire's forehead furled, casting black shadows that transformed his face. "She . . . something happened."
Despite the inferno beside him, Mike felt chilled. "Be specific," he ground out.
"She had a seizure she didn't wake up from."
Mike found he couldn't breathe. "So . . . she's in the hospital?" he asked with pointed expectation.
Henry lifted his chin and did offer a glare now. "Burning demon tattoos seemed a little beyond their ken."
Both men grimaced at one another. And then Mike took Henry by the arm and started heading him away from the engines, the water, the woman wailing as her house vanished. He didn't get two steps before the vampire jerked his arm back with a growl. They rounded on one another in heated anger.
"Fine, your Lordship. You wanna have this conversation here?" Mike swept his arm toward the crowds of people. "We'll have it here."
Henry gave him a narrow-eyed glare, with a slight glance to their surroundings. His lip twitched. "This way," he said. And he stalked off in precisely the direction Mike had been going. The detective rolled his eyes and followed in his wake. In a lighted and unoccupied patch of sidewalk, Henry turned abruptly and gave Celluci and expectant look.
"Thanks," Mike sneered.
"I aim to please."
Celluci took a breath to calm the rippling energy in his chest that longed for just one good punch. He chewed his lower lip and then started. "So what you're telling me is that you're here looking for whatever set off Vicki's . . . demon stuff." He waved a hand vaguely.
"Is she okay?"
"I . . ." A cloud of something crossed Henry's face. "As far as I can tell."
"And she is currently . . ."
"In my apartment with Coreen."
"Right." Mike's sighed and scrubbed his face. "So . . . okay." He took a moment to rally. "So what brought you to my crime scene?"
"Is this twenty questions?"
Celluci squeezed his hands into fists and closed his eyes. "Just . . . answer me."
Henry drew a breath and exhaled, nostrils flaring. "I went to see an acquaintance who's familiar with black magic. She cast a spell. The spell led me here. I didn't know what I was going to find."
Clearly, by the look Mike remembered on Henry's ageless face. The detective's expression shifted slowly from anger to curious thoughtfulness. He turned his head to gaze at the street, the neighborhood going up in smoke.
"Detective?" Henry said after a moment's silence.
Mike glanced his way. Without a word, he snatched his phone from his belt and dialed the station. He held up a finger, asking Henry's patience, and waited. The vampire watched with tense curiosity, fighting the need to get moving, to keep searching, though it was a base instinct and fruitless.
"Kate?" Mike said into the phone. "Can you do me a favor? Can you look up the location of the first fire reported tonight?"
He waited and caught Fitzroy giving him an approving smirk. "What? Surprised I had a good idea?"
"Shall I really answer that?" The vampire replied, amused.
Celluci shot a glare that wasn't entirely serious and then settled on shifting his weight slowly back and forth as he scanned the ground and waited.
Kate's voice returned, and he perked. "51 Radford Avenue. You're sure? . . . Thanks, Kate." He snapped the phone shut. "That address is—"
"Only a few blocks from here. I know." Henry wore a smug smile. Then he turned to head for his car. "I'll drive."
"Like hell," Mike said with a laugh. "You drive like a girl."
"And you drive like an idiot."
"Vicki never complained."
"Vic—" Henry halted at the quick, sharp pain of anguish in his chest. He cast a glance over his shoulder and met Mike's eyes for a moment. Celluci looked grim and pierced with the same pain. "I'll meet you there," Henry added with a soft strain of regret.
At that, Mike could only nod.
Two car doors slammed simultaneously across the street from the smoldering remains of 51 Radford. The two occupants met each other halfway and started for a woman who stood on the wet sidewalk, swaddled in a pink robe and an officer's heavy coat. She turned slowly, scanning up and down the street, and then settled for watching the uniform whose coat she wore.
Mike cast his companion a sidelong glance and spoke in hushed tones.
"So what is it this time? I mean, what haven't we seen?"
"I don't know," Henry answered honestly, concern ever-present.
"A . . . dragon? Fire giant? Maybe one of those Hawaiian dancers with the fire sticks turned zombie?"
Fitzroy's lips pressed into a mirthless smile. "I doubt it's a dragon."
"Very reassuring," Mike quipped as they stepped up onto the sidewalk with an audible scrunch of shoes on wet dusty gravel.
The woman turned abruptly. Even with only the light of the street lamp, her face was red with tears and drawn to the brink of breaking. She held herself close, shuddering to keep the pieces of self from tumbling into the street.
"Did you find her?" she demanded, sounding as rough as a storm-fraught mountain.
Both men frowned slightly.
"Find who?" Henry asked in his best gentle tone.
The woman became a viper. "My daughter! What are you people doing! She's gone! I told you—" Her own tears cut off her rage as she stomped and tried to rein herself in. She bit down on her lip until it hurt.
Detective Celluci shuffled forward a step and drew out his notepad. The motion gave her something to watch, and she stilled as she gazed at his hands.
"We came as soon as they called, but it's been a busy night. Dispatch was a little scant on the details," he offered by way of apology.
The woman gave him a derisive huff and turned to stare at the remnants of her house. Her life. "What do you want to know?" she asked bleakly.
"Why don't you start at the beginning. What happened tonight?"
She swiveled at the waist and pierced him with a glare that made his face burn.
Henry took a few circumspect steps around Mike and looked toward the house. "Before the fire, then. Ms. . . ." He quirked an eyebrow at her.
"Melanie Ryerson," she snuffled.
"Ms. Ryerson," he grinned faintly. "Tonight. Did anything happen? Anything different?"
For a moment the viper was in her face again, but she swallowed down the screaming. "You mean before my husband burned down our house?"
A quick glance to Mike. "Yes."
Melanie shifted and curled further into the borrowed coat. "We fought," she said simply.
"About?" Fitzroy came closer, all calm and easy grace. "What did you fight about?"
She met his eyes, a shade akin to green in the glow of the light. "Nothing. It was . . ." New pain rose, and she looked away, half-turning from the compassion she saw on the stranger's face.
"Melanie . . ."
"I get mad sometimes," she whispered, looking back with tears shimmering in her eyes.
She shrugged helplessly. "And then Evan left." Her gaze searched Henry's face for what she was sure lay beneath. Contempt. Judgment. But he betrayed only a concern that was far worse than either of those. As she studied him, Detective Celluci spoke.
"Do you know where he went?"
Without looking away, "Same place he always goes. Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library." She pronounced the name with mock formality.
"And you said he burned your house?"
Her eyes clouded as fresh tears streaked her cheeks. She pulled the coat on hard and drew a torn breath.
"How?" Henry ventured softly.
She shook her head against it, against the remembering. Her voice was not her own when she answered. Someone else told it. It had to be someone else, because she couldn't stand to see it all again.
"He looked sick. Sweating and white as a sheet. He . . . he broke the door down!" She laughed. "My Evan! And then . . . and then he just screamed and caught on fire. Like . . . I don't even know." She opened her mouth and tried to form words, but sorrow had its own shape. And as she saw him again, screaming and thrashing, burning, blistering, a pain in her stomach doubled her over.
Burning human had an odor all its own.
She breathed a gasp for dear life, and from the depths of herself that hadn't known pain, sorrow found shape in a wail. Henry moved to place a hand on her back, even as he gave Mike a long look.
"Melanie," the vampire said, turning his attention back. He filled his voice with power, let force and coercion flow into the deep thrum of his words. At her name, she stopped keening, stopped breathing. "You do not remember seeing your husband die. The fire was an accident. He died getting you to safety." It was a better memory, anyway, than the one she'd had.
She straightened as Henry moved away and stood staring at her house. In lingering grief, she mouthed Evan's name.
The two men exchanged glances and then turned to leave her with her demons. The jogged quickly to their cars.
"That was kind of you," Mike offered.
Henry shrugged. "Some memories are not worth keeping."
The comment hung in the air for a step before Mike made a sound of acknowledgment and moved on. "You know, that's two people who spontaneously combusted.
Henry scowled. "There is no such thing."
"You're going to be the skeptic?"
Fitzroy flashed him a look of annoyance. "I believe everything has a reason. Evan left here a normal human and came back something else. I'm going to the library. I'll let you know what I find."
Mike was about to protest when his phone let out a peal. He motioned to Henry as he slowed to talk.
"Yeah, Kate." Celluci's expression grew dark and then, for a second, extremely tired. "Just . . . in the street?" He stared at his companion.
Charred bodies on the sidewalk, in the street. People panicking. Celluci rubbed a hand over his face.
"Yeah," the detective nodded. "I'll be right in." He snapped the phone shut with a sigh. "There—"
Mike sighed again and pointed his phone in Henry's direction. "As soon as you find anything."
Fitzroy bowed his head in a nod.
Mike looked skyward in exasperation before climbing behind the wheel and heading out.
The library was practically all the way home. A few blocks east, a few blocks north, and he could be at her side, see how she was. A useless, pointless gesture, but one that wrapped barbs around his heart. With effort, he turned down St. George Street, did not wing toward home, did not hold Vicki's warm hand and pray.
The street and surrounding campus were almost completely empty. A heartbeat was moving in his direction. And Henry felt a stir of hunger at its sound. He hadn't had anything, anyone, since waking. There hadn't been time. His mouth twitched into a grimace. There wasn't time now, either, but the need boiled and fed his sharp sense of urgency.
With a dash, he was at the door, peering through the smoky glass. Inside . . . something. His senses reached, and he scanned upward. Radiant evil, like a stench from a skunk, filtered through the walls. Hands pressed against the glass, he listened for it, felt for it, blocked out all else.
"Hey, you. The library's closed!"
Slowly, the prince turned, wearing a half-smile. "Yes, I suppose it is."
"Yeah, well," the campus guard, a man Celluci's age and aiming for half his weight pushed his hat up and back down. "It'll be open again tomorrow. 9am."
Henry smiled indulgently. And then his pupils dilated, revealing darkest black, and his voice hummed in preternatural power. "You will let me in this building. It's an emergency. No one will ever know."
The guard hesitated, then swept his eyes over Henry and his expensive grey coat, expensive clean clothes. "Well, I guess there'd be no harm in letting you in. If it's an emergency."
"My thesis is due tomorrow," Henry offered with a sheepish smile. "I left some notes inside."
With an exasperated sigh, the guard reached for the keys on his belt. He pushed past Henry, bringing the scent and sound of his blood intoxicatingly close. "Just . . . don't tell anyone, okay? I'm not supposed to do this," he said lowly.
"I know. You have my word."
The man gave him an unsure look as he opened the door and then headed to the alarm system keypad. He signaled with his hand when the automatic door system switched on. "You'd better hurry and get your stuff."
Henry bobbed his head and hurried through the second set of glass doors, letting out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding. The sound of the man's heart, rapid in anxiety, was loud in his ears as he mounted the stairs two at a time. Evil pulsed from the top floor, making his skin crawl with its filth. He sneered as he set foot in the top hallway and slowed to a hunter's graceful gait. Down the length of the building he slid, silent as a shadow. The air grew thick with magic and malcontent, blowing like a dust storm from a small office.
One careful step at a time, he moved for the door. With a ringed hand against the hard wood, he pushed the door on its whispering hinges. The room within was . . . not what he'd anticipated. Bright colors spotted the walls and floor like flung paint. Golds and yellows and reds . . .
Henry tensed at the colors of fire.
And on the desk, a book that reeked of sulfur and evil. He glided to it and touched a page experimentally. Nothing.
Far below, he could hear the guard's heartbeat moving, crossing the floor. The vampire cursed and snatched up the book and a pile of Evan's notes for good measure. He considered them both a moment and then unbuttoned his coat so he could slip the book into the back of his waistband. He rebuttoned the coat, took up the stack of notes, and ran a smoothing hand over his clothes.
Something . . . something not coming from the book still pressed thickly in the alcove. Someone, Evan maybe, had died. And this small space would forever remember it. Even as he hurried out, Henry whispered a prayer. He came down the stairs at less than a run and brandished the papers at the guard, flashing a smile.
"Got everything?" the man said, obviously relieved.
"I do indeed," Henry replied, slipping through the first set of doors.
The guard punched numbers into the key pad and called over his shoulder. "Well, good luck on your paper!"
The vampire spared the man a smile and a wave as he strode for his car. He undid the buttons of his coat with quick fingers and slipped the book from the small of his back as he stood by the obscuring shelter of the Jag—just in the case the guard was looking. He slid into the driver's seat and flicked on the light. The book looked charred, as if he needed proof that this was what he'd been looking for. It didn't quite burn to touch. But it . . . he drew one hand back and rubbed his fingers. They stung disconcertingly. For the hundredth time that night, he scowled.
It was not, he was shocked to find out, a book of spells.
His ancient eyes swept across the first few pages and saw nothing that looked like language. The words, the ink, rewrote themselves under his gaze. He caught hieroglyphs and cuneiform. Then Arabic, and on the fifth flip of a page, English. Modern, impossible, English. He held the book lightly, as though it were a living, timid thing, and began to read.
In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth and all the living creatures that roam the land and fill the deep sea. Into the Kingdom of Heaven, land of His everlasting light, God said Let there be angels, the most perfect beings, that they may extoll our holy nature and deliver our Divine will unto Creation.
And there were angels of many kinds, servants to the will of their glorious Creator. According to His plan, these angels were fashioned, who shall never die. Nor shall they ever disobey His command, for they are his hands and cannot act in defiance of the Lord's guidance.
This the Metatron, the Voice of God and second to the throne of Heaven, said to his brothers, angels of every weft, on the cusp of their creation, that they might know their holy purpose and live in the love of God. It was good. And the First Children were happy.
The light and the darkness came. And it was a new day.
God said Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
And the angels saw the birth of God's Second Children, fashioned from the clay of the earth, given right to rule over all living things, and asked to give names to all the creatures of the universe. Thus it was understood that free will was the purview of man and duty the purview of the Heavenly Host.
In His benevolence, God had said the Host would never know hunger or death. Nor would pain be inflicted upon their ethereal flesh for the duration of their loyalty to His Righteousness and Law. This bargain He made with his First Children. And this bargain in bloody disgrace was rejected by Shemyaza, Traitor of Many Names, and the angels of foolish pride who saw no Love in the gifts of the Lord.
Of the angels in the army of Shemyaza, who cherished not the gifts of God, was Xaphan, a being of kind nature and righteous intent. Xaphan was known to the Host as friend to seraph, cherub, and guardian. In God's perfect making, he was curious of mind and resolute in duty. He was brother to Azazeal and clerk to the accuser.
Xaphan, in accordance with his nature, had watched God's Second Children in their garden, dining on fruits of luscious juice. Their sighs filled his ears. They seemed, to his innocence, to display contentment, a feeling he had never known. And this, he knew, to be a gift denied.
The fruit, to his holy tongue, gave no pleasures or taste. It was as air and sun. And he lamented, placing the pomegranates back on their trees.
Shemyaza, the accuser, found him thus in discontent and heard from him the stories of apples and ripe plums. He took pity. And Shemyaza gave to his friend a gift of hope, saying that one day the First Children of God would ask more from their Maker. And that justice being with them, their request would not be denied. For God is Love, and he believed that love did not know or countenance suffering and denial.
Xaphan was heartened. And he clasped the archangel Shemyaza on broad shoulder and pledged him his allegiance, even as he dreamed of tasting the same fruits as man and sighing their contented sighs.
Light and darkness came in days with no meaning to the ageless Host. Shemyaza, the accuser, scoured the Earth for the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve who hid sin in their hearts and denied the love of God. These souls he drew before the throne of Heaven to receive the judgment of God as Xaphan read their deeds from the scroll written in his own hand. And so did the angels come to know that God's mercy on his Second Sons was as deep as his oceans. Their sins weighed against their mitzvahs, and he granted them entrance and eternal peace.
Shemyaza did not forget His mercy for mortals who disobeyed His word. Nor did he forget the Metatron's warning that Duty was the covenant of the Heavenly Host. But he had born witness to the Lord's mercy and believed it to be infinite. And he believed that love not freely given was love only in name.
In his heart, Shemyaza became resolute.
In his heart, Xaphan yearned.
And so it came to pass that one day Heaven knew blood and sword. Xaphan, brother of Azazeal, flew with Shemyaza, the accuser, for the right to taste the sweetness of Creation and the right to determine happiness from woe. One third of the angels of Heaven flew with them.
But by the sword of Gabriel and the arrow of mighty Michael, they fell from Heaven, wounded and dying. Xaphan and his brothers prayed for mercy. And merciful vengeance was granted.
The fallen angels of Heaven did not die, but they were cast down from Heaven, to fall for a hundred days and a hundred nights until they landed in the depths of Hell. Each traitor to the will of God became a demon in his own prison, all together suffering separate torments for their betrayal.
God knew the heart of the angel Xaphan. And with this knowledge struck him down. As he had once hungered, so would he forever hunger. As fire hungers, consuming everything without satisfaction, so would Xaphan know hunger and taste the ashes of his need. And so would Xaphan never been content, pained by his hunger, but never unto death.
In deepest Pandemonium, Shemyaza installed his loyal companion, a creature of burning gluttony, to burn the souls of the condemned and be forever in his own flesh the very fires of Hell.
Henry folded the book closed and stared. A whirlwind of pity and revulsion whipped through his soul, and his hand went unthinkingly to the cross at his chest. Pity. Pity, of all things! For an enemy of God, there was no right, no legitimate claim to any feelings like kindness, generosity, and mercy. And this Xaphan was, by his own book, an enemy of God.
Henry snarled and smothered his emotions with thoughts of Vicki lying helpless and the raw, tarnished faces, glowing in fire, of the people who watched their lives burn down around them. And then there were those whom he roasted alive. Pity. For a demon!
Henry tossed the book aside and wiped his hands off on his clothes. Evil was, indeed, seductive. He knew that. Knew it with all the fierce pride in his chest. And it would be the perfect ploy to feign innocence in offense against God—playing on the gullibility of the reader. As though written words were incapable of telling lies.
His pity melted in deference to his anger. And he became aware of a pain in his hand. Looking down, Henry saw that he was still clutching the silver cross. There were cuts edged with blood when he opened his palm.
For lack of a fresh meal, the cuts lasted seconds longer than they should have, giving him time to watch the skin seal shut. Wasn't this, then, proof of mercy. Wasn't he?
Henry shook off thoughts best left for for the confines of a pew and searched for his phone.
"Celluci," the voice on the other end said.
"It's a demon," Henry replied darkly.
"Another one?" Mike sounded incredulous.
"His name is Xaphan."
"I don't care if his name is Joe. What does he want?"
Henry hesitated. The demon's story throbbed in his mind like an ice pick. "To eat. It's his punishment for siding with the devil. To eat and never be full."
"To eat. To eat what? People?"
"Anything that burns. This Xaphan is the fires of Hell, Detective. And fire is never sated."
"That's . . . well that's peachy."
Mike went on, "But what does that have to do with Vicki?"
"I'm thinking!" Henry huffed and looked out the window into the street.
"Right. Well, this is what we know. Mohadevan and Gordon both confirm that the burned bodies on the street ignited from the inside. Charring on the bones, they said, indicates—" he checked his notes, "exposure to extremely high temperatures inconsistent with the degree of damage to the epidermis."
Henry made a sound of acknowledgment. "Evan Ryerson did burst into flames, burning down his own house." Henry squeezed his eyes shut and lightly massaged his forehead. When he spoke, it was in a voice of quiet dread. "He's burning through them."
"Have you ever played hot potato, Detective? The longer you hold on, the more it hurts. Xaphan wanted to experience being mortal, eating until he was full. But he's holding on too long."
"Literally burning through them," Mike echoed, sounding lost.
"I don't think it's on purpose. But they can't hold him, his power, his essence. They're too . . ."
"Small. But Vicki . . ." He swallowed. "She has the marks, I think . . . maybe . . ."
There was a shuffling on the end of the line, and Henry could barely make out a woman's voice. He heard Celluci breathing, and then the silence of held breath.
Fitzroy straightened in alarm. "What?"
"Another one. It . . . he changed direction at Yonge. Now he's heading back west. He'd been making an arc north and east."
Whatever heat Henry's supernatural body had fled. "He knows where she is." Every fiber of his being knew it for truth. He jammed his keys into the ignition. "Get to my apartment."
"But how can he—"
"He knows!" Henry roared and hung up.
Heedless of traffic and law, the Jaguar flew down St. George, turned, and slalomed up Bloor. It took almost as long to dial Coreen as it did to get to the condo.
"Henry?" Her young voice was sharp.
"Get out of there."
"He's coming. It's coming, Coreen. I need you to leave. Now!"
"But what about Vicki?"
"I'll be there, just go!"
"But . . ."
If coercion worked over the airwaves, he'd have forced her to take off running. He swung the car into the parking garage, scraping the exhaust on a speed bump.
"I'm here, okay? Now go home! It . . . will kill you if it can."
"I'm . . . not afraid."
"But I am. Please."
She sounded unsure. "Okay."
He heard a door opening as he started up the stairs. Vampiric speed was impossible to match with an elevator.
"Henry," she said tentatively as the elevator carried her down. "Be careful."
"I'm always careful," he replied. He slipped the phone into his pocket and pulled out his keys to open the apartment door.
Vicki's heartbeat was quick, quicker than sleep should allow. His own heart beat painfully against his chest as he strode into his bedroom and knelt at the bedside. She looked so . . . wrong, this vulnerable. He touched her hand, and then slipped it between his palms. She stirred in pain, and agony knifed him. He watched, hoping Coreen didn't change her mind, hoping Mike could take orders.
Outside, he heard heavy footsteps heading for his door. That answered that.
Henry set Vicki's hand down and then stood to lean over her form, over her face, dearer to him than he could have imagined. With a light touch, he tried to smooth her brow. Then he allowed himself a kiss, soft on her unresponsive lips.
One knock and Henry was there to swing open the door and let Celluci in. The detective vibrated in worry and alert caution. He was about to speak.
"Wait here," Henry said in the voice of a royal.
Cut off, Mike fought the urge to be contrary just for the hell of it and instead hovered just inside the door. He glanced around, while keeping an ear tuned for the elevator outside. And he nearly lost his professional cool when Henry emerged from his bedroom with Vicki limp in his arms. Mike stared and swallowed, hit with a sudden fatigue. And then Fitzroy was holding her to him.
"Take her and go. Drive. Don't stop." The vampire's words sounded strained, almost hollow.
Mike slipped his arms under Vicki's knees and back and took her weight with a grunt. Her head lolled onto his shoulder, and he briefly looked at her face. But he couldn't stand to look at her face, and for a moment was at a loss for words.
He glanced at Henry. "And what are you going to do?"
The vampire lifted his chin. "I'm going to stop him."
"I thought fire could kill a vampire."
Henry's slate-blue eyes held the detective's gaze for a silent moment as they clouded with a terror almost as old as he was. "It can kill humans too," he said with more bravado than he felt. He turned away before Mike could see any more.
But he'd seen enough. "Are you su—"
"Go!" Henry whirled, all traces of fear wiped clean. "Keep her safe."
Concern still evident in his expression, Mike nodded and turned for the door. He stopped a step beyond the threshold.
"Henry," he said, without turning around.
"Don't . . . die, all right?"
Henry's mouth twitched. "I'll make every effort."
Mike hesitated a moment longer and then started off, trudging for the elevator with an unquiet mind and serious doubts.
Henry listened for their heartbeats heading down, away to something like safety. He leaned heavily on the door and let out a ragged sigh. A moment's terror. A moment to wallow in fear and doubt and helplessness. Fire. Of course it would be fire. Henry sighed again, pressed an unsteady hand to his mouth, and held it there until his breathing calmed and everything narrowed to his purpose.
He launched himself from the wall and went straight for the bedroom. He needed . . . what he needed was a God-damned plan, and a bloody good one.
Demons. Demons. Demons. He paced at the foot of the bed, blue eyes sweeping over the interior of his sanctum. Over plush red pillows, satin sheets, art three centuries old—relics from a life long lived.
He stopped mid-stride and pivoted to gaze at the cross that hung high on the wall. It had been acquired in Paris at great personal cost. Acquired because nestled in the glass orb at its center was a relic from Saint Denis, the beheaded bishop and patron saint of, among other things, possession by demons. A wicked smile crossed Henry's fine lips.
He bounded up on the bed and lifted the cross from its perch. With careful, steady hands, he flipped the cross over and pried at the glass bubble holding the bone shard. It budged.
"Come on . . ."
In a single jerk, the glass not moved in centuries slid out of place. From the upturned cross, a small piece of Saint Denis dropped lightly in Henry's hand. He made a fist and kissed the curl of his fingers with an utterance of prayer.
The first rule of battle is to choose your ground. Selecting the location gives you the advantage of preparation and the elimination of variables. No chance for ambush. And no time for your adversary to assess his options.
The Duke of Richmond rolled up his sleeves tightly so they wouldn't dangle and looked down at his father's sword, then into his father's eyes. And he assessed. The lobby was confined, and the sword was far too long to be wielded properly. He'd be as like to stab the wall as his enemy.
No sword, then. He turned sharply and started for the box on the table near the door. He lifted the lid with his fingertips and selected a dagger from his collection, a dirk, whose handle was well worn to the shape of his hand. He gripped it tightly, closed the case, and headed for the lobby.
He had found it. Oh yes, he had found it—the soul that rang like a beacon, shone like a lighthouse with it power. He had always been good at the details, Shemyaza had said. And he had learned from him the art of locating quarry.
Xaphan lumbered in imperfect flesh, tongue lolling as he jogged a broken gait down the sidewalk. The hunger sliced him sideways and drove straight through his center. But this place, this place was metal and glass, as barren as the City of Din. Cars, moving pools of liquid sustenance, rolled past, but he could not stop, not even for the ache to eat and eat until full. Never full. Not when the human flesh failed before he was done. Not when it offered itself as a small morsel and burned.
They were guilty, all of them. He saw that now. As guilty as any Shemyaza delivered on bended knee to their one god. And as sinners, all of them, he did as was his duty and delivered them to torment. Such was the mercy of God.
He crossed the street amidst squeals of tires and blaring horns. And he paused to turn his human head, lift his human hand, and devour the precious, sweet oil that lapped so close. Around him, cars exploded into flame, and he drank in the power, mere drops in his fathomless pit.
Appetite whetted, he hurried on, coming at last to the locus of the beacon. He slowed, took measure of the structure through weak human eyes, and grimaced. He cursed the meatbag that held his essence, dulled his senses. The vessel was here, somewhere, and yet hidden. Another host, then. Another movement between prisons in which his true self could stretch and sense and see beyond mortal ken before he was sucked into another cage of weak meat. It was the only way to find the vessel hidden within the tower.
So close to the vessel, he could hardly wait.
He strode into the lobby with as much dignity as the burning joints in his body would allow. And then he stopped, staring in curious surprise.
"This ends," Henry said, lifting the dirk toward the heart of evil before him. It wore the guise of a tall man, a delivery boy, of all things, whose pale skin shone with sweat. The air around him shimmered heat waves. Xaphan's will and power alone had brought the body this far.
Henry flexed his jaw in nervous habit and swallowed.
The man's face cracked into a smile, a monstrous facsimile of innocence with black eyes of frozen flame. "Hey, buddy. I'm just here to—"
"I know you, Xaphan." Henry stepped forward, blade up.
The demon's lip curled from smile to sneer. "Do you."
The prince's eyes narrowed. "I know you fell by defying God, wanting what wasn't yours."
Xaphan's fiery eyes glittered of their own light. "Contentment!" He roared, power blazing into welts and burns on his face. "We never lacked or lusted or met a need—"
"The very definition of contentment."
"Spoken like a human," Xaphan seethed. "You have no idea what a gift he gave you. You think want is a burden, all of you. You want your bellies filled, your lusts quenched." Xaphan lunged foward, crying out his anger, heedless of the weapon Fitzroy held poised. "You want to eat and fuck and sleep, and I defy you"—he scoured the air with senses beyond the mortal that held him—"vampire, to tell me you didn't enjoy satisfying each one."
Henry's scowl was steady. He made no reply.
Xaphan snorted a laugh. "You're no better than I."
Fangs flashed, and Henry's eyes blinked black. "I was never meant to be. You . . . you simply failed." He tossed the insult with intent and smiled wickedly when it hit home.
The demon roared, and they flew at one another like bulls. Xaphan's power drove his human host beyond its limits, and he moved to Henry's onslaught with blurring speed. One arm blocked the swiping dagger, and he connected his fist to Henry's jaw.
The vampire stumbled back, his face burning with the seared impression of knuckles.
Xaphan laughed and rushed. He drove his shoulder for Henry's middle and ran them both full speed into the marble wall. Everywhere they came in contact, Henry's skin burned. He howled until the impact with the wall knocked out his breath. And then he swung the dagger down at Xaphan's back, plunging to the hilt.
Xaphan twisted and roared, his anger turning to heat. Henry flailed a desperate kick to get him away. And the demon staggered unsteadily, catching himself against the elevators.
He turned with predatory malice. His adversary shook.
Burns arced across Henry's stomach with a blistering pain deeper than any blade. He clutched at the wound, winced, and jerked his arm away. He panted in agony, baring his fangs at Xaphan's terrible laughter.
And he slipped his hand into his pocket.
"I will have my vessel!" The demon cried.
"No?" He bared his teeth in a smile. "My touch is death to you. How can you possibly win."
Breathing hard, desperate gasps, Henry straightened. "Try me." He lowered himself to a ready stance.
They circled, testing reflexes, stepping and dodging one another. He had to move, had to go for the kill. Henry squeezed the relic tight and struggled against the terror that ran wild up his spine and weakened his knees. Fire or no, he was all that stood between Xaphan and Vicki.
He crouched, faked, and ran. Pumping every effort into speed, he threw himself by the demon's shoulder, grabbed his arm with his free hand, and swung himself around. Shocked, Xaphan opened his mouth to shout. And Henry clamped his hand with the relic over the demon's maw.
He held him like a vise. Held on for dear life as the demon's fire burned away his skin. It seared his chest and arms—scorched his face where he pressed it between the host's shoulder blades.
Together, they screamed.
Saint Denis's purifying light burned Xaphan as he burned souls. And in a white flash of agony, the demon was banished home.
Emergency light whirling, Mike flew down Avenue Road heading for the 401. He'd arranged Vicki as best he could on the back seat and hauled ass at the edge of safety. Every once in awhile she moaned or winced, and each time his heart jumped into his throat.
He just hoped Henry knew what he was doing. If that thing . . . well if it took out a vampire, what the hell was a human supposed to do?
He glanced in the mirror, adjusted to keep an eye on Vicki, and then looked back at the road. Almost there. On the open highway he could put plenty of distance between them and this demon. White knuckles on the steering wheel, he adjusted his grip.
She had to wake up. That was all there was. Simple as that.
Simple as that.
Mike licked his lower lip and shifted lanes for the approaching on-ramp. His shoulders ached from tension as he struggled to make each motion precise. Anything beyond precise and practiced and the whole collected facade would fall apart. He had no time for that. And no glue.
One second she slept.
The next she screamed awake.
And the car nearly side-swiped a passing vehicle as Mike's pulse hit the roof.
Heart pounding out of his ribs, he pulled into the first parking lot he came to, barely remembering to put the car in park as he flew around to the back door.
Grasping at the air, at the seat, she sat up just enough for him to slip in behind her.
"Mike!" His name came out as a sob as she turned. Her eyes were filled with tears and horror. "Are you—" She sucked a breath and shook.
"Hey . . ." He put a warm hand on the back of her neck. And much to his surprise, she collapsed onto his chest, fastening an iron grip around his waist. He ventured a wary, concerned hug in return. It was just getting comfortable and familiar when she snuffled and pulled away.
Vicki drew a more calming breath and sat straighter. She took his face in her hands and blinked through the remaining tears in her eyes. "You're okay," she muttered in wonder.
Mike frowned back at her. "Me?" He slid his hands around her wrists. "Vic, you've been out since—"
"I was at Henry's," she said with a sudden confused look. She pulled her hands free from his grasp and wiped at her eyes with embarrassment.
"W.. what happened?" She sniffed, regaining her composure, and reached out to touch his shoulder. Relief filled her face when he seemed as solid as he had a moment before.
Unnerved and unsure, Mike lay his hand on hers and squeezed a little. "It . . . uhh . . . Henry said it was a fire demon. Must have messed with your . . ."
"Marks," she offered.
"You were out, Vic. He said you had a seizure and then were just gone."
"And the demon?"
"Apparently thought you'd make a nice summer home."
She gave him a shaky laugh. "But . . . if I'm awake, then . . ."
"Then I'm guessing Henry found a way to stop it."
For a heartbeat, she stared at him, as though trying to read something more from his eyes and face. "You said a fire demon?"
"Well, yeah," he answered with caution.
She jerked her hand away. "Fires kill vampires, Mike!"
"You know? And you let him fight it alone!"
Mike reeled and threw up his hands, whacking the ceiling.
"He didn't really give me much choice, Vicki! Save you, save him, what was I supposed to do?"
"We're going back right now."
"I'm pretty sure the demon is dead, Vic."
"Well, I'm not sure Henry isn't!"
Mike sighed, extracting himself from the back seat with a huff. He threw himself behind the wheel and glared into the mirror. "You're awake. That means he's fine."
"You don't know that."
They looked at one another in the mirror, finding themselves in the same old place, in the same old argument. Vicki bit her lower lip and tried to recall her relief from a few moments before. She threaded her fingers into his hair. Mike's eyes reflected concern, care, defeat. "I have to know he's okay."
Celluci let his head sink to his chest for a second and then he looked up. "Fine. Put your seat belt on."
She settled back against the seat and, as requested, clicked on the belt. Her thoughts were anywhere but in the car. More than images, she had the impression of heat and pain lingering in her memory. Her sleep had been anything but peaceful. And if she closed her eyes for too long, she could conjure up the one image she couldn't forget. Mike . . . oh Mike.
They sped for the condo, and before the engine was off, Vicki flew for the lobby. She tossed the door open and stumbled to a stop just inside. Both hands clasped instinctively over her face. She paced in slowly on weak legs. Mike appeared quickly behind her and made a strangled sound as he stepped inside. He moved for the John Doe and began gingerly picking for a wallet. Anything to keep his back turned.
As she came near, Vicki barely whispered, "Henry?"
Propped against the lobby desk, he heaved. Gaped. Eyes black and fangs scraping the air, he spasmed in short bursts—one every second or two. His face was half-obliterated, burned deep red and edged with black char. It spread down his neck. One hand was burned beyond bleeding. Liquid oozed from the wounds, staining his white shirt pink.
Quick gasps. So quick he barely pulled oxygen. It did not matter. They were the gasps of a dying beast.
"Henry." Vicki knelt close, smelling of blood and life. Her pulse ran wild.
His black eyes rolled her direction, jaw and lips jerking like a fish in air, desperate.
Blinded with new tears, Vicki rolled up her sleeve and pushed her wrist to his mouth. She held her arm against his teeth in panic. An involuntary spasm carried through the bite for him, and he sucked, drank. So much hunger. He could drink her dry and not be full. He lapped at the wound, nearly coughing as he jerked for a breath and tried to swallow.
With what reason he had left, he forced his head back. "Enough," he breathed, a garbled sound.
Vicki held her arm to her chest and peered at him. The burns weren't changing. They weren't healing.
Mike glanced once over his shoulder. He'd already made sure the body was dead, already checked the wallet for ID. He swallowed down rising bile and turned to really look at Henry. The vampire's ravaged face twisted as he heaved in agony.
Vicki shoved her arm back toward Fitzroy's bloody lip, but drew back his fangs and turned his head minutely away, despite the gasps for life that jarred his whole body.
"Henry," she pleaded. "You need more blood!" She forced her arm toward him a third time.
"No." The vampire's voice was hoarse with unimaginable pain. He beat a hand on the ground, though weakness turned the gesture to a gentle tap.
Mike's chest tightened. And while a part of him thought this was insanity, the other part had already taken control. Before he could think on it twice, he shed his overcoat and rolled up his left sleeve. Fighting down fear and bit of revulsion, he knelt opposite Vicki and locked on Henry's eyes. Despite the hyperventilated gasping and tortured skin, the vampire's gaze was clear.
"Mike . . ." Vicki gaped.
He just looked at Henry steadily and brought his arm close.
"Try not to make it hurt this time," he said.
Henry's gaze flicked to the man's arm.
Mike inched closer, bringing the flesh of his wrist to the vampire's lip. Henry lunged with a spasm, but Mike jerked back. "And leave enough for me." They looked one another in the eye, and came to an understanding.
Mike nodded, touched his wrist to Henry's gaping mouth, and let out a grunt as fangs flashed and pierced his skin. He panted, looked at Vicki with worry, and tried not to think too much about it.
After what seemed like far too long, the vampire released him with a gasp. Mike checked his wound and exchanged glances with Vicki.
She shrugged helplessly. "Henry?"
He was greedily swallowing all traces of blood. And then he looked at her, at both of them, with shimmering, grateful affection. His breathing altered from the desperate cry of hunger to the drawn thin wail of agony.
Vicki took the sound as improvement. Her eyes followed Mike as he stood.
"We have to get him upstairs," she said.
The detective looked from Henry to the other body sprawled on the floor. "I have to deal with this." He motioned to the corpse with a gaping knife wound in its back. How the hell was he going to explain that?
"After," her voice was hard. "Mike, they can't find him here like this."
"Right. I know, I was just—never mind." Mike shook his head clear and went to the elevator.
Vicki watched him for a moment and then turned to Henry. She touched the unburned part of his face and stifled tears. "I hear you vanquished a demon," she said, unsteady.
Through the shallow gasps, he smirked.
Sniffling, she took one of his arms and draped it over her neck. With one hand on his waist and one on his wrist, she lurched to her feet, dragging his heavy weight with her. She gripped his belt for leverage and hauled him toward the elevator with brute strength.
Mike watched in silent sympathy, unable, quite, to look at Henry's burns without feeling ill and somehow guilty. He held the door as Vicki maneuvered them in and hit the button for the penthouse.
Fitzroy was oddly silent. Not even wheezing wails through his torched lungs.
Disconcerted, Mike glanced back over his shoulder. The sight stunned him. Eyes flashing wide in horror, his blood went cold.
She looked up at the revulsion on his face and then over at the mirrored walls in alarm.
Henry's head hung limp, his fangs dripping saliva. Tears streamed from his monstrous black eyes and down his cheeks. He was frozen in the rictus of a scream. Ever so slightly, he lifted his head drew enough air for an utterance. Pain worse than knives, than claws, than lying broken by bullets in a winter's trench blotted out his senses. His vision wavered toward darkness.
"Hurts," he wheezed.
Vicki stared for a second at her partner's turned head, and then she gasped loudly. He was burned everywhere. The weight of his body against hers . . . . She dropped him unceremoniously against the wall with a horrified cry and stumbled back.
"Oh, God. I didn't—I'm sorry!" She looked at Mike for absolution and clamped her hands over her face when she got none. "I'm sorry . . ." She drew her hands away. "Henry?"
He panted in his strangled way and stared dumbly, though his eyes were human again.
Wide-eyed, Vicki turned to Mike as the elevator slowed and the door slid open.
"How am I supposed to move him if I can't touch him," she demanded.
The detective grimaced. He glanced down at the pile of shuddering vampire and back at Vicki. The lost, hurt look on her face tore him. "You get the place ready. I got this."
She looked uncertain.
"Vicki. I've got it," he said gently.
Still not entirely convinced, she knelt by Henry to get his keys and then hurried to make way in the apartment.
Mike crouched at the vampire's side. At least the unburned portion of his face was toward him. He watched as Henry struggled to breathe as little as possible and felt his throat tighten.
Henry met his eyes and shook his head vaguely.
"Yeah," Mike sighed. "Me neither. On three." He slid one arm under the other man's knees. "One." And then slid the other around his back, as far from the burns as he could get. Henry whimpered, and Mike winced. "Two." A deep breath. "Three." Celluci grunted with the effort to stand.
As the burned skin stretched and flexed, Henry screamed behind locked lips. Even the tears squeezed from his eyes by pain salted his wounds to greater agony. If Celluci had any mercy at all, he would hurry.
Mike did hurry. And he bit his own lip as every jostling step drew new cries. Vicki ushered him into Henry's bedroom, and as soon as he'd set the man down, she'd shoved him out. Not that he was reluctant to go. She'd be inspecting the wounds. And that he really didn't need to see.
Vicki sighed heavily as she slipped out of Henry's room, leaving the door open a crack. Dawn was still a few hours off, but she found the remote for the shudders and lowered the metal shades. He wasn't healing nearly as fast as she wanted. But he refused more blood. Even refused more from Mike, which surprised her just a little. Although, every time Mike had come to loom in the doorway, he'd done so with worry carved deeply into his face. So maybe surprise was a bit too cynical.
She wandered the empty apartment alone, trying not to remember the nightmares she'd seen during her siesta. Hell. It must have been. All those people in torment. All the pain. The screaming that came up through her feet and shook her bones. It was . . . everything Henry had always warned her about. She stared at the floors, the empty couch, the silent piano.
She slipped her phone from her pocket and dialed Coreen. The girl's voice squealed sharply, and Vicki winced. "Hi, Coreen. Yes, I'm . . . no, it's . . ." She bit her lip. "Not so good. I know, but . . . Look, Coreen. Coreen! Can you take care of the office tomorrow? I'm . . . I just want to be sure. I promise, I will let you know as soon as he grants an audience." She smirked as the girl rallied her enthusiasm and tried not to sound disappointed. "Thank you," Vicki said, adding, "for everything." She closed the phone quietly and dropped it back into her pocket. Thoughts and silence settled back over the apartment, and she paced to the window to stare out at the city lights.
The front door opened with a sudden metal jostling that made her jump. She turned sharply to see Mike coming in. He held up a bag of food and a six pack with an accompanying pleasant grin. She couldn't help but smile back.
"You don't have to stay," she said, sliding onto the black couch.
Mike set down the food and beer in front of her. He took a seat at her side and offered her a bottle.
"I know," he said, settling back.
"Don't you have to be at the station?" She held her hand expectantly for his keys and their accompanying bottle opener, and she popped her beer open with and expert flick.
Watching her, Mike shrugged languidly. "Fires are someone else's department."
"And corpses in apartment buildings?"
He took back the keys and popped open a bottle for himself. "There are other homicide detectives."
"I don't believe you."
"That there are other homicide detectives?"
She smacked him on the arm. "That you really want to stay."
He shrugged again. "I just don't really want to leave."
She smirked. And then she scooted closer and leaned against him in that comfortable, familiar way. His chest moved in a sigh beneath her.
"Is he gonna be all right?" he asked quietly.
Her turn to shrug. She took a swig. "Should be by morning. I guess. I don't know . . . he was really close this time."
Mike brushed a hand over her tawny hair and settled his arm around her. "Yeah."
"How many fires?"
He hesitated, concentrating on his beer instead.
"Mike." Vicki's tone was serious and insistent.
"Twenty-five building fires."
Her question came as a whisper. "How many dead?"
He pressed his eyes shut. "Vic . . ."
"Counting the ones on the street . . . about forty."
Forty. Forty . . .
Vicki chewed her lip and doused the sinking feeling in her gut with booze.
After a stretching silence, she found her voice. "I'm a danger to the city."
"You had nothing to do with that thing getting out." Mike's reply was swift.
"No . . . I just sent it on a wild goose chase."
"Hey . . ." He set his beer on the floor and tilted her head so he could see her face. "Henry said that thing wanted to set fires. That's all. Whether you were here or not. Way I see it, you gave us the chance to stop it."
The certainty in his eyes was almost convincing. She shook her head lightly. "I'm a menace to y—."
"Mike . . ."
"It's bull, Vic. We've been through this. Experiment failed." He sighed and dropped his head. She felt his breath in her hair. "I couldn't stay away. I won't. I'd follow you anywhere. To hell if I had to."
A sharp pain pricked her heart.
"I know." She gave him a protective squeeze. "I know."