The club was a wash for the night so I took a breath and tried to figure out what was my next move. My pet vampire, Damson, was right. Kenyon's newest run at taking over the known Southern California vampire territories was impressive. My Master, Simon Conner, was much stronger than Kenyon and if he'd felt threatened by Kenyon he would have been with me and kicked down the doors of the club -- werewolves backing Kenyon or not. Simon's territory was well to the north and our clan was strong with ties to the gangs, cops and city officials. We didn't have bodies to dump as a rule and weren't in the middle of trying to flip around centuries of dominance over humans. But Simon didn't think Kenyon was worth too much effort and he rarely came out of his home region anymore.
The various vicious assassination attempts on my Master hadn't diminished in a good century, but I thought his staying up north was more along the lines that he didn't think much of anywhere south of Los Angeles. Simon preferred the San Francisco and the Tahoe area best when he felt the need to breathe the night air amongst the humans. Travel was easier now than it'd ever been and he could have come down personally to check on Kenyon and his club, Dark Whispers, but he sent us instead. Jessie had been down in Southern California for nearly a year learning the skills to run a club with vampire and human clientele. DB, Damson Barlow, was my vampire fledgling but since Simon was my Master he ruled both of us. So when Jessie started talking about her new werewolf boyfriend, Buddy, hearing about an alliance between vampires and werewolves Simon sent down DB to get involved. I wasn't asked if I minded but told. We weren't in any kind of democracy as vampires, but ruled by an age-old structure of somewhat like a monarchy yet with fangs and attitude rather than stuffy tea parties and properly set up meetings.
Simon told me when he sent me that there was something more going on, and that we both were needed down here, watching and infiltrating Kenyon's family and making sure to lock down the problems before the world figured out what exactly we were. But I had my doubts about why Simon stayed up north. More and more I'd seen the older vampires pulling back from vampire society and hierarchy. They were ruling remotely, leaving us younger vampires to take the heat and make the rules with not as many limits or controls as needed. From what I knew it wasn't working out that well in the long run. The lack of leaders was how creatures like Kenyon festered and grew. I was here to quell the infection and get the vampires back in the shadows where we rightly belonged. Simon didn't much care how I did it, but wanted to be kept in the loop.
The drive home wasn't bad, but my mind was busy trying to figure out the angles. Renee was still going to marry Carlos, no matter what, if Kenyon had his way. He needed the werewolves that Carlos' pack would bring with him to the wedding. Sort of like an old-fashioned groom's gift with fur and claws. What was really bugging me was I couldn't figure out who benefited from Jessie and Buddy's murders. They were just young lovers with no contacts from what I knew. Buddy wasn't high up in his werewolf pack from what I knew and Jessie was a reasonably new addition to our vampire family. And did the murderer honestly think that killing one of each would prevent the vampires and werewolves from making an alliance? Or was it some sort of 'true believer' was behind this mess? No matter what, it had to be someone supernatural with some major issues. We were rarely caught and killed by humans despite what the writers and moviemakers liked to show in their silly little books and films. We policed ourselves quite well.
I got into my house and then reset all the security alarms. Soon I crawled into bed and pounded my pillow into the proper shape. Checking my cell phone one last time I saw that DB hadn't called me. But I didn't think he would after I'd talked to my Master. Once I knew DB had ratted me out to Simon for leaving the front of Dark Whispers earlier I was pretty sure he'd hide as long as possible. I smirked as I put my cell on its charger. Pushing at my pillow I adjusted it a bit more and hoped that sleep would bring me answers. There wasn't anything more I could do.
My dreams were laced with odd images of calico bunnies and multi-colored rats in plastic cages lining walls of a large darkened bedroom. The bedroom wasn't mine but I was in the bed supine and unbothered in the dream by the furry observers. I woke with an abrupt start and looked around me for the containers. My pulse dropped down as I found only the familiar comforts of my room. My disappearing nightmares traced their way up through the fog of waking and I breathed in slowly. I missed my home in the north by Simon's mansion. The house I'd bought here last year still felt new and unfinished. I thought of it as a temporary home but Simon had yet to tell me if I could come home anytime soon. Over the decades I had created my own little homes in odd towns when the need arose but I felt like Simon's territory was still home.
Stretching out I lingered a moment in the warmth of my bedding. The flannel sheets kept what little heat I had nestled next to me during sleep. Vampires lost heat easily and until we fed on warm human blood we cooled to tepid over time. The layers of blankets further cocooned me with their heaviness. The duvet topped the nest and was one luxury I treasured. In all my travels and with all my moving I kept my down comforter stuffed duvet. I might sell the house or lease it but my bedding followed me. A girl had to have her guilty pleasures, I'd always found.
My skin drained the little warmth left from the sheets and I swung my feet over the floor. I sat up and shook the remainder of the nightmare from my brain. I had more important things to focus on than my brain's sleep wanderings. They did little to help me figure out what had happened and only served to show me how crazy my world had become.
I'd never thought of calico bunnies in my life much less the after turning life. I didn't even know if they were real. As for the many rats in plastic cages staring at me while I slept that was imagery best left unexplored. I'd seen far too much during my decades and I knew that I liked to be the observer. Rodents watching me weren't high on my list of things I needed to experience.
My feet found the floor. The hardwood was cold and I quickly shuffled over to the large area rug near the furnace. I could hear the clicking and hissing as the heated steam rose from the basement. It'd been tough but I had found a home in California with a basement and steamed heat. Most houses were built on slabs and impersonally slapped up against each other looking like mirror reflections of the others. The only differences were superficial and unremarkable as a rule. I liked this home more than most of the houses in the area. It was different.
I wasn't willing to hurry the process of waking. I needed all the time possible to gather my thoughts and plot my next move. The heat was slowly warming my bones and chasing away the dark images from my dreams. Like a cat, I could stay all night warming by a fire or warm radiator, but I had to get moving. There were calls to make and people to see. The meeting Kenyon had arranged at the club wasn't for a few hours but it was critical. I needed to have my game face on and be ready for anything.
Sighing, I wandered off the rug and towards the large closet. I decided to go for a severe no-nonsense look. I flipped through the hangers mentally discarding one outfit over another as too causal or not business like enough. I settled on a black skirt with a dark purple silk blouse. I added my black leather boots with a slight heel. The jacket I picked was embroidered and afforded me a set of pockets to use so I wouldn't have to bring a purse. I'd need my hands free. Fangs were nice but fingers and nails added nicely in close contact sports like mayhem. I was well aware that Dark Whispers wouldn't be safe despite Kenyon's promises. Simon had warned me to trust nobody, and I took him at his word.
Finally fully awake, I got ready to face the night. It was going to be a wild ride that was for sure. I was hungry and decided to head out and grab a bite. Simon didn't allow me to bring any of our family vampire fledglings or minions when doing his work so I'd had to live off the local cuisine for however long as need be. DB wasn't working with me exactly, so I couldn't even count on him to get my back if things went off track at the club. And with Damson around things tended to go extremely off track easily. I'd need all the energy of being fully fed in order to react quickly and avoid danger. So I needed to top off my tank before I went to the meet.
Lover's Lanes exist in any city and quite a few smaller towns. I'd found many over the years to quench my thirst. Delightful lanes or dirt roads ending in little niches, or off street access where kids played at being adults in parked cars with steamy windows. No matter how liberal the parents or how many credit cards were easily stolen or freely given to kids they liked to find out of the way spots to explore each other and their sexuality. I didn't plan on draining anyone dry or creating my own fledgling, so I headed to the nearest local spot I'd found since I'd arrived. A sip here and there from a couple could give me enough, but I found it was too early and other than the scent of teen spirit there wasn't a car to be seen. I resisted punching the dashboard, frustration riding me, along with a touch of hunger as I had been anticipating a nice neck of warm. I drove out of the empty dirt lot plotting my next choice.
Checking the time I went to Plan B. As in the Beach. Rolling into the asphalt-covered lot of one of the larger beach areas in Mission Bay I saw carloads of screaming kids pleading for another hour while harried parents, sunburnt and exhausted shouted at them to buckle up and be quiet. For the most part the beaches were easily accessible and there still were quite a few kids running and screaming up and down the sand throwing Frisbees and footballs to each other. The sun had set leaving the scent of oil and zinc oxide floating around on the coastal breeze tickling my nose. I rubbed my fist across my face and calculated the odds. Looking around I saw plenty of folks wandering slowly with their fingers casually entwined on the long stretches of beach. There were too many kids erratically dashing around for my comfort. I pondered my options. I didn't want to change clothes before the meeting at Dark Whispers so I pulled out of the crowded parking lot and headed over to Pacific Beach and the Boardwalk.
I had wanted a lovestruck couple due to the ease of control but would settle for some frat boys drinking their IQ points down to subhuman. The Boardwalk was less kid friendly with the numerous teenagers and college kids sneaking sips of liquor from to-go cups and paper sacks. A few edgier folks were in the darkness of building doorways and the edges of houses, but scurried from me. Street people knew a stronger predator and since I was hungry, I certainly wasn't giving off any sort of victim vibe. A smile tugged at my lips as I slowly wandered and breathed in deeply. My boots clacked as I walked and enjoyed the night. The salty tang of the ocean was heavy on the air while the fog was drifting in, creating niches and darkly shadowed hollows. The sounds echoed oddly in the lengthening evening and the aroma of hot blood and emotions invigorated me. We vampires fed off so much more than just the coppery liquid that fueled a body.
A vibration in my pocket distracted me.
"Yes," I answered my cell phone automatically. No choice, really, given it was Kenyon.
"Natasha, I heard you will be coming to the meeting at my club tonight," he oozed confidence and arrogance in equal measure.
"It seems so." I slowed my prowling and waited for him to get to his point.
"I was sorry that Jessie died. This just proves my point we need to be unified. Too many rogues are ruining the game." He sincerely meant it. He just neglected to add that he wasn't too far from a rogue vampire himself with his Machiavellian plots and plans. His vampire enforcers had been slaying vampires in record numbers, and I wasn't sure but had heard they'd been thinning the werewolves also. He was driving the merge of weres and vamps, not the other way around, despite his protestations and assertions. I wasn't fooled; neither was my Master, Simon. Kenyon was drawing them all close. Not just his friends, but also his enemies.
"Thanks," I was still waiting for what he wanted. He already knew I was coming to Dark Whispers so there had to be another reason for the call. Impatiently I waited for the explanation. I needed to drink soon to face the trauma and dramas I knew were ahead of me for the evening.
"Despite the setback of losing Jessie as the maid of honor Renee and Carlos will still be married next month. You can tell Simon to rest assured Jessie's death will be avenged and the ceremony will be tasteful as to not mock her memory." I gritted my teeth. Kenyon was more than chatty and that was concerning me. I also noticed he didn't mention anything about the dead werewolf, Buddy. I wondered how the werewolves were going to handle noticeably being second-class citizens in the vampire world. Kenyon had no ability to bow to the weres, so it was going to be an interesting transition for the werewolves once they joined Kenyon's army. Vampire clans and the werewolf packs historically kept themselves apart for a reason. There were lines being crossed by Kenyon and his crew that were having some far reaching effects.
"Marcus, Carlos' lieutenant for the lack of a better word I guess," Kenyon was finally getting to it, "suggested that you stand in for Jessie."
"What?" I was stunned.
I knew Simon would love the idea. Kenyon was diabolical in his purpose, while I wasn't so sure of his true intent for putting me in place of Jessie by Renee's side. Granted, I'd been married just before I was turned, so I had a working familiarity with the function of a maid of honor in the wedding ritual. I had no trouble with the idea of marriage but this ceremony wasn't a marriage, but a merger of power structures to further Kenyon's goal of total territorial control. Why was I going to be part of it?
Hunger ate at my attention and I heard him say, "So, I'll see you later. Thanks for being a part of this special event."
Did I have a choice?
To be continued ...