The point, as Jameson and Noriko would understand it, was that I’d proven how ineffectual Nolan was as a fighter. He hadn’t resisted my invasion into his space. He didn’t try to go for my gun to disarm me, and he’d willingly allowed me into his defensive zone. Foolish boy.
But my purpose was more sinister than they could have anticipated. While I was close to him, I nuzzled my face as close to his neck as I could, given how tall he was, and I took a big whiff. With so many different smells clouding the air in the bar I wanted to be certain I could recognize Nolan’s specific scent again. That he had let me get so close to his neck only proved how unprepared he was for the work he was doing.
Nolan, the would-be vampire slayer, had let a hungry half-vampire press herself right up to his jugular. Another hour or two without eating and the temptation would have proven too much for me. As it was, breathing in the luscious, musky smell of him, my fangs extended with anticipation. I clamped my mouth shut and stepped back. Patting Nolan on the cheek, I gave him a sad, tight smile, and shared a look with Jameson to be sure he understood what I’d just shown him.
His white, sweat-dappled face assured me the point had been made.
I didn’t say anything else, because I couldn’t risk flashing fang at them. Once they were exposed, I needed to feed. If I was in better control, I could calm myself down enough to retract them, but I wasn’t going to get that lucky tonight. The monster was out, and it called for blood.
Instead, I nodded curtly to everyone and took my exit. They let me leave without further comment.
In the alley, I was once again alone with Fagan, who had relaxed his doorman attitude a little now that he knew I wasn’t a potential threat to Bramley.
“Get what you needed?” he asked me, his deep voice filling the dark alley.
I looked up at the night sky, admiring the low, three-quarter moon. “Not yet,” I confessed, keeping my lips tight and gritting my teeth together. “But I have a plan.”
The twenty-four-hour Starbucks on the corner of West 52nd and 8th was hardly spectacular to look at. Like several other New York outposts of the chain, the exterior was painted brown to give the white letters a little extra pop. If you made it through the doors and onto the other side, the back interior wall had a long mirror along the top half, allowing the light from the two windowed walls to reflect farther into the room. There was a row of banquette seating for several two-person tables. These tables were almost always occupied by one person and a laptop, the new New York power couple.
I walked through the doors at least once a week, but I almost never made it inside.
This particular Starbucks was special for one reason—it served as a gateway to a separate reality from the human world. The realm on the other side of the door was only accessible to someone of the paranormal persuasion who was in genuine need. However, it was forbidden for werewolves or wereanimals of any kind to enter.
Because time functioned differently there, wereanimals couldn’t count on their control to work as it should. Without the ebb and flow of the moon, they might shift unexpectedly, which would be disastrous. A werewolf who shifts against its will is not only angry, it is a force with which there is no reckoning.
My wolf had been so repressed by the calming influence of my vampire blood, I didn’t shift even at the height of the full moon. So Calliope, mistress of the alternative reality gatehouse, made a unique exception for me.
I stepped through the door of the Starbucks, and for one heart-pounding second I feared I might not cross over. My need was genuine, though. My gums were throbbing with the pain of extended fangs, and my jaw hurt from keeping my mouth clamped shut. If I didn’t end up in Calliope’s waiting room, everyone in the Starbucks would be in trouble.
Thankfully, the world got hazy and dark, and when it refocused, the room I was in looked nothing like a coffee shop. I’d never been happier to see Calliope’s oddly decorated waiting room than I was right then. The last time I’d been in the immortal’s home, I’d been so close to death at least a few people didn’t believe I was going to pull through.
The memory of the defeated look on Desmond’s face made my chest tighten. He hadn’t been able to be with me when I healed, and I doubted that had helped our situation.
The mansion was one of a kind. It didn’t abide by the laws of physics. It could expand in size depending on the need, so it could have as many or as few rooms as the moment demanded. It could also be day and night simultaneously, so the sun might be shining in windows upstairs, while the courtyard outside could be bathed in moonlight. Calliope’s was the only place I’d ever seen the sun, as artificial as it was. The mansion was an augmented reality, and even though you couldn’t trust any of your senses, there was something comforting about it.
This room in particular invited a long stay. Large, high-backed armchairs and a couple of couches lined one wall. On the adjacent side, a fire was lit, which helped the small number of wall-mounted lamps illuminate the room. Persian rugs were scattered in a haphazard fashion across the floor, most in deep jewel tones, and the whole room was adorned with paintings of Calliope.
It wasn’t that she was vain, but rather she was proud. She had been a muse for many men in a variety of her human forms, and she appreciated the art they had created in her honor. Calliope was only a half-god, but all deities loved a good offering.
I’d been in the room many, many times, and the number of occupants varied every time. Today it was empty. Sometimes it housed other paranormals in need, and sometimes there were dazed-looking teen boys who had recently donated some blood or aura energy to feed Calliope’s cravings. Those boys always left well paid and a little lacking in the memory department.
We all have our odd proclivities.
The large doors opened at the end of the room, bathing the whole space in warm light, and Calliope drifted in.
The woman herself would have looked familiar to anyone. One of Calliope’s forms on Earth had been that of Marilyn Monroe. She had taken the body of poor Norma Jean and transformed her into one of the most recognized sex symbols in the world. Then she’d gotten bored, as immortals often do, and left Norma Jean and Marilyn in an aura of mystery and eternal fame.
Sometimes she was attended by an enormous white tiger, whose origin and purpose I had never questioned. Tonight she was alone. She was leaner now than she’d been in her Marilyn years, and her hair was its natural shade of raven-wing black. Her wardrobe varied between goddess chic and twenty-something casual. Tonight she was wearing a knee-length peacock-print dress, with a low neck and back and a bouncy hemline. Her hair was braided and hung down her back in a thick rope.
“Secret!” Her voice was childlike, sweet and bubbly, and didn’t hint at the power that lurked within. She danced across the room and wrapped me into an embrace before I could stop her. Typically I didn’t like people getting too close to me, but Calliope wasn’t people, and she didn’t intend me any harm.
Calliope was a trusted friend of the vampire council. They would send her newborn vampires who were still unable to control themselves within the human population. She weaned them with bagged blood and helped them learn to keep their fangs to themselves, or at least to willing victims.
A vampire needed to be able to feed without killing before the council would trust them out in the world, and that was where Calliope came in. Her help meant the council got to keep its secrets and new vampires got to avoid meeting me alone in the dark.
I hugged Calliope back and relaxed. I’d never met a pure-blood fairy, so I didn’t know if they had a scent I would recognize or if the god part of her cancelled out anything I might be able to pick up on. Calliope always smelled like nothing.
She placed a hand on either side of my face and looked me in the eyes. She was still smiling, but her gaze told me she was judging my condition. “Let’s see.”
I opened my mouth, and she clucked her tongue at me. “Left it too long, I see.”
“Almost,” I admitted.
“Come on, then.” She took my hand and led me out of the room.
In a bedroom I had started to view as mine, Calliope sat me down on the sun-dappled window seat and leaned in close to get a good look at my eyes.
“Secret, why do you push yourself like this?”
“I was busy, and—”
“There are no excuses.” She sat on the bed and fixed me with a stern look. The Oracle, in spite of how youthful she looked, had always been something of a mother figure to me. To see the look of disappointment in her eyes made my heart sink.
“You could have lost control.” She leaned closer to me and placed the back of her hand against my cheek. “The risks are too high for you to be so foolish.”
I bit my tongue. She was being a little harsh. I knew I’d left feeding for far too long, but nothing had happened. Her reaction was a bit dramatic.
“I don’t understand why you’re making such a big deal out of this. I’m here now, aren’t I?”
Calliope dropped her hand and sat back. I could tell she wasn’t happy. “You are closed to me.”
I had no idea what she meant, but I didn’t like the sound of it. She opened a small fridge hidden inside the nightstand and threw a bag of blood to me.
Then she continued. “Your whole mind is focused on the need to consume. It’s drowning out your spirit.” She cocked her head to the side and watched me as I bit open the bag and began to feed. “Your future is lost.”
I choked on the blood. “Lost how?”
“There is much I need to tell you, especially about your warden. But your path is no longer clear. Without your spirit intact, I know nothing. I can’t see what your future holds.”
She stood up and touched my hair, shaking her head sadly, then turned and left the room.
She didn’t come back.
I exited the Starbucks an hour later, my cheeks rosy and a conspicuous Styrofoam container clutched in my hands. Having eaten, I no longer felt the need to kill every human in a twenty-foot radius. The contents of the container meant I wouldn’t need to worry about getting that bad for another week.