Nolan smiled and moved to offer me his hand before catching a disapproving glare from Jameson and resuming his stoic pose.
“Pleasure to meet you,” he said in spite of himself. “We hear lots ’bout you ’round here.”
Jameson sighed dramatically, and Nolan recognized his mistake. It was also my introduction to Nolan’s unique voice, which was low and smooth. He seemed unable to attach the letter A to the beginning of words and had a classic Brooklyn accent that warmed my heart.
“What kind of information are you looking for?” Jameson asked.
“I’ve been contracted to eliminate a rogue threat by the name of Holden Chancery.” I watched them for any flicker of recognition and got nothing.
“I believe Mr. Chancery’s contract is…unjust. In order to prove it, I need to find out what he’s been accused of.”
Another long silence, this one isolated to our table, hung in the air. It was Nolan, not Jameson, who finally spoke up.
“You mean you want to help save the vampire?”
“But, you’re like some big-shot vampire slayer, ya? The biggest, baddest, ’ccording to word on the street.”
“I’m not disagreeing with that.”
“Then I don’t get it.”
Jameson must have been just as curious, because he hadn’t stopped Nolan from talking.
“This vampire is a friend. I trust when he says he’s innocent. He’s always had my back.” I hoped they could appreciate that.
Noriko stared at me with an expression so cold I got a chill.
“I came to you people because I thought you might want to save a life, rather than running around trying to take them,” I finished.
“We do save lives, Miss McQueen,” Jameson said, back to formal titles. “Every vampire we kill is a dozen lives we’ve saved.”
I formed my mouth into a thin line, and I narrowed my eyes at him. “You’re a fool if you think killing one vampire will save lives. The vampires you kill, the ones you can catch, they’re babies. Probably less than fifty years old and untrained in avoiding maniac vampire-slayer wannabes. If you ever met a true rogue, it would rip you and everyone in this bar to pieces in seconds. The true rogues are older than this city.” This was, of course, not true. Most rogues were middle-aged by vampire standards. One or two hundred years old and hell-bent on some sort of destructive agenda. They would still murder a group of mediocre slayers, though. The older vampire rogues, the ones who didn’t care about anything but bloodshed, they were the really scary ones. Vampires who didn’t care for the laws that kept their existence a secret, and only cared about the feed.
I’d known a few of them in my time, and those rogues even made me fearful for my life. When all you care about is death, you have little else to lose. Those vampires were the scariest. I doubted anyone in this room had ever met a vampire more than thirty years dead.
I rubbed the bridge of my nose and fought off the looming headache a few minutes longer. I was crankier than usual, thanks to my hunger, and being irritated wasn’t helping. There was no avoiding it; I’d need to stop at Calliope’s before I went home. I needed blood.
“I’m sorry. I know you think what you do is noble, and in theory it is. But there are vampires who mean no harm to humans.”
“Every vampire means harm to humans,” Nolan said, and pain flashed over his face. There was a story there, and I wanted to know it.
“Look, my mother was almost killed by a vampire, I get it,” I replied. This was, for all intents and purposes, true. What I didn’t mention was the vampire in question had been my formerly human father, and thanks to the vampire blood he fed her, I became the freak show I was today. My confession seemed to soothe Nolan’s frustration.
“If they almost killed someone you love, how could you work for them?” he asked.
I didn’t bother explaining how often I wished my father had finished the job, or how there was no love between Mercy McQueen and me. My personal history didn’t belong here because no one would ever be able to deal with the complexities of it all. I barely could.
“The vampire council exists to protect humanity, whether or not you want to believe it. They police vampires and make sure humanity never learns the truth about the existence of vampires in the world. That keeps human collateral to a minimum.”
“Human collateral?” Nolan looked disgusted. My word choice was poor at best, but I’d been with the monsters too long. Even I sometimes saw death that way.
“I’m a killer, Nolan,” I admitted. “I’m not the most…delicate person to explain this.”
Jameson drummed his fingers on the table, returning my attention to the rest of the group.
“Given our clear ineptitude at vampire hunting, how would you propose we help you?” He was clearly offended, but I suspected it was more because I’d drawn awareness to the truth rather than spoken a lie. He must have lost others to more experienced rogues and had probably earned his nasty scar in a similar fashion. If Jameson had survived a fight with a true rogue, I owed him more respect than I had been giving him, and I decided to operate henceforth as if he had earned it.
“I’m too well-known,” I admitted. “I don’t have the same access to information you do. I thought one of you might have heard of something, some reason why a vampire warden would be declared a rogue.”
“As you pointed out,” Jameson said, “we don’t pay much attention to the distinction between rogue and non-rogue vampires.” The disdain was still evident in his voice, but he was talking to me, which was a good enough sign for me to press on.
“You must keep an ear to the ground, though. Vampires are easier to kill once they’re removed from the council’s immediate protection. I’m guessing the ones you guys most commonly see are young vampires attempting to live alone for the first time. If Holden had been exiled from the council, there must have been some kind of a buzz about it.”
“At Havana the other—” Nolan was interrupted by both Noriko and Jameson cursing for him to be silent, but it was too late.
“Havana? You let your people go to the vampire bar?” I was shocked.
“Not into the bar, no.” Jameson sighed. “Everyone here is human except for Fagan and a few other half-fae. It would be far too risky to send them in. They would be under the thrall before they passed the coat check.”
Smart man. He was a better leader than I’d expected.
“But we do often send people out to patrol nearby in case a vampire should go out alone and attempt to feed.”
Jesus. I could only imagine some vampire, with his enthralled feed for the night, no intention of taking any lives, brought to the final death by the Scooby Gang here. It made me a little sad. These people needed proper training and real knowledge about vampires. I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t want to add to the damage caused by my previous outburst, but under the surface I was seething.
“I was patrolling the other night,” Nolan explained. He apparently had already done the damage by telling me about their presence outside Havana, because neither Noriko nor Jameson stopped him this time. “I didn’t find no solo vamps, but I heard two of them talking. They were saying something ’bout a ‘half-breed lover’? I didn’t know what that meant.” He shrugged. “But they said something like ‘he never was good at keeping secrets.’”
That stung. I’d always known Holden dealt with a lot of flack for being my warden, primarily because I was a difficult charge to keep in line, but more so because the other vampires didn’t trust me. He suffered for being my friend. The secrets the vampires mentioned were just a singular Secret.
I tried to look unmoved by his words, but I couldn’t mask the pain in my eyes, so I lowered them. Thank goodness no one at the table was a werewolf, because I didn’t want any of them to mistake the action for submissiveness. They’d have walked all over me after that, deserved or not.
“I appreciate your time,” I said, when the tone of my voice wasn’t at risk of giving me away.
Without a doubt in my mind, I now believed Holden had been framed because of me. I’d gone from being unsure of whether or not I could trust him, to feeling guilty for his current situation. It wasn’t to say that whatever he was accused of was related to me directly, because there was little they could pin on him there. No, he was on the run now because other vampires believed he was guilty, thanks to his relationship with me.
I rose from the table, as did Jameson and Nolan. Only Noriko remained seated, her dark eyes never looking away from my face. She hadn’t missed the pain. I extended a hand to Jameson, as both a farewell and a peace offering.
“I’m sorry,” I continued. “For not being more supportive of the work you do.” I wanted to lecture them on the differences between types of vampires a little more, but some people will never see a vampire as anything other than evil. Maybe they were the smart ones.
“I don’t know if we were of any help.” His voice had lost its former edge. We had reached an understanding, it seemed. He looked me in the eyes, and his handshake was firm and dry. Jameson saw me as an equal. While I would have rather he viewed me as his superior, at least in this field, I would accept equality. A twenty-two-year-old girl wasn’t going to get anything better from a fifty-something man, and I was lucky to get that.
Once I dropped his hand, I did something I bet none of them expected. I turned to Nolan, and instead of shaking his hand, I pulled him in for a hug. The purpose was twofold, but I was counting on them only understanding half of it.
As expected, Nolan didn’t fight the hug. He let me embrace him and pushed the gesture further by placing a hand on my lower back, as Lucas was so fond of doing, and pulling me closer. I had wanted to know what a hug in those arms felt like, and found my answer. It was solid and comforting, and though I was testing him, I couldn’t help but enjoy it a little.