I took a deep breath and checked my gun for the hundredth time before I opened the Jeep’s door and hopped down to the pavement. It was hot, verging on sweltering. It was only May and already summer was bearing down on St. Louis. My hands were sweating, but somehow I didn’t think it was from the heat.
I looked at the building, blinking into the sun. It was more of a warehouse than a traditional storefront. The paint was chipping off of the aging brick facade making it look even more unsavory. Not that it needed that. A huge neon sign emblazoned with the words “Interrogation Room” buzzed noisily in the humid air. I have no idea why they left the sign on during the middle of the day.
Cop cars surrounded the place. I dug out my ID and clipped it to the front of the short sleeved dress shirt I wore over my tanktop to camouflage my gun. The Browning’s holster chaffed when I wore the tanktop, but it was too hot for anything more. I was stopped twice before I made it to the door. Rookies both times. I’d been out of the loop for about five months. I hadn’t thought that was a long time. Maybe it was. Most of the St. Louis cops knew me on sight. I’m not saying the seasoned officers wouldn’t have stopped me, but they would have been quicker about it. I helped the RPIT team on cases, but I wasn’t a cop. They didn’t like to let me forget that.
I pulled open The Interrogation Room’s glass doors before the young policeman could do it for me. I carry my own weight. Let people carry it for you long enough in the name of politeness and they forget you’re capable. I didn’t like anybody to forget that. The doors were black, not tinted, but painted with a can of spray paint. It went with the outside of the club.
The Interrogation Room was a club that catered to the wild side; S&M, prostitution, D/s, and even more exotic tastes. It was a haven for freaks of all persuasions, the kinkier, the better. It was located in the Vampire District which was both appropriate and puzzling. A large portion of the patrons were vampires and lycanthropes so I understood why it was located where it was, but at the same time, most of the clubs in the Vampire District catered to human tourism. The Interrogation Room certainly didn’t do that. It wasn’t a place for tourists of any kind. If you went into the Interrogation Room, you went in to play, not to window shop.
I have excellent night vision, but it still took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the dim lighting inside the club. Dolph was standing on the dance floor, several yards away. It was easy to pick him out of a crowd. At six eight, he tended to tower over everyone else. I checked my gun again and strode towards the little powwow. Zebrowski was the first to notice me. He looked me up and down and winked lasciviously.
“Nice to see ya got the figure back, Blake,” he said with a grin.
“Eat shit and die, Zebrowski,” I countered. It wasn’t terribly witty, but effective nonetheless.
A few of the other detectives in the circle chuckled. Dolph looked at both of us, his face cold and hard. We sobered up real quick.
“You two done?” he asked.
We both nodded.
Dolph was pissed. I was used to that. This was a real nasty case he was working on and it had been going on long enough that it was becoming a real thorn in his side. Dolph was a damn good detective. This case had been active for the last three months and they kept finding new victims. It would be enough to make anyone angry. But I knew that wasn’t the only reason he was short with me.
Dolph had been there when I was wheeled into the isolation wing of Mercy Hospital for Phillip’s birth. Dolph wasn’t stupid. He had one of the most logical and persistent minds I had ever met. He didn’t know the whole story, but I was betting he had some real good hunches.
The powwow broke up and Dolph walked me across the dance floor towards the back of the club. At Guilty Pleasures, the strip club Jean-Claude owned down the block, the rooms at the back of the club were dressing rooms and offices. For some reason, I knew the back rooms at The Interrogation Room would be used for something a bit more nefarious than costume changes and paperwork. Of course, for all I knew the same could be true of Guilty Pleasures. It probably was. I had a don’t ask don’t tell policy where my lover’s business ventures were concerned.
Dolph was silent as we walked. I’d half expected him to grill me, but he was escorting me to see the body. Dolph hated to influence anyone’s opinion of a crime scene. Having a fight with him in the middle of the club would have influenced my perceptions quite a bit.
A set of double doors led to a long hallway. It was all bare cement, floors and walls. The corridor was lined with doors and next to each of them, large windows. I knew what they were. One-way mirrors. It was set up to mimic a police interrogation room. I’m not into kink, but I’m around it a lot. I would bet even money that the mirrors were there so people could get off while they watched a scenario play out inside the room. Concrete is handy. It’s easy to hose down at the end of the evening. Only one of the doors was open. I walked towards it.
The room was small with cinder block walls. Everything was painted black. Floor, ceiling, walls. It reminded me of a dorm room for a particularly industrious goth. The lights in the ceiling were black lights, so the cops had set up a few halogens. They made the room hot. A word to the wise, don’t intentionally warm up a room with a dead body in it if you can avoid it. The stench was overpowering. I knew without looking that the victim’s intestines and stomach had been ripped open.
“Tell me what you see,” Dolph said.
I steeled my nerves and went to work. The initial glance stopped me in my tracks. Deja vu really didn’t encompass what I felt when I looked at the scene. The body was tied to the bed, face down and nude, spread eagle. Claw marks. The body had been torn apart by claws.
Tied spread eagle.
Blindly, I turned and ran. I roughly pushed past Dolph getting through the door. I made it into the hallway before I lost everything. Bully for me. Zebrowski wasn’t there to see me leave my lunch all over the bare cement floor.
I couldn’t get the sight out of my mind. Not of today’s scene but of one two months ago. Nathaniel’s body violated and broken, tied to the bed frame. His long hair twisting around his body, his lavender eyes staring at nothing. His wrists hadn’t been abraded. Like he hadn’t fought. That meant two things, either he was confident that I was going to show up and save him, or he knew that I wasn’t. Either way, it made me want to scream until they locked me away in a rubber room forever.
Nathaniel was mine to protect, mine to heal and watch over. I abandoned him. I was too caught up in my own fears over Phillip to notice. I let him die. I let him be tortured to death. I was a fraud, a disgrace.
“Anita.” Dolph’s voice was still hard.
I stood up slowly enough that the world didn’t spin. I met Dolph’s gaze with my own and it wasn’t pretty. His expression was challenging, slightly arrogant.
“Why did you want me to see that body, Dolph?” I asked none too gently. “It’s text book. You know it was the same perp. You didn’t need me to verify that.”
His eyes narrowed at me. “What’s going on, Anita?” he asked.
“You’ve got some sick fuck who’s cutting up helpless little boys,” I said. “He’s a lycanthrope, most likely a bigger werecat, maybe a weretiger or a werelion. Hell, maybe even a witch, like that shapeshifter that got Zebrowski.”
Dolph stepped closer, getting into my personal space. I had to look up to hold eye contact. It pissed me off. Dolph generally didn’t use his size to try and intimidate.
“How can you be sure?” he asked. “Everyone knows that wererats and werewolves are much more common. Why don’t you think one of them did it?” he asked.
I swallowed, but made myself hold his gaze.
“You’ve got a lot of secrets, Anita. I want to know what they are,” he said.
“That’s none of your business,” I said as calmly as I could.
“I’m not in the mood, Anita. Not today. Not after all of this bullshit. I want the truth. That boy you knew, the one that died like this. He tested positive for lycanthropy. How did you know him? How do you come by your secrets?”
He finally stepped back. He watched me. I didn’t move. I stood there perfectly still, staring at him. He sighed and leaned back against the far wall. He rubbed his hands over his face wearily. Eventually, he lifted his head again and met my gaze.
“Tell me,” he said. His voice was calm, tired, slightly pleading.
“I don’t want to lie to you, Dolph,” I said.
I laughed. Dolph frowned. He tried a different approach.
“Why were you in the isolation wing at Mercy?” he asked.
All of my mirth vanished. I stared at him.
“What aren’t you telling me about Richard Zeeman?”
I worked hard at learning how to perfect a blank face. I used it now as I looked at Dolph.
“Don’t close up on me, Anita,” he said. “Tell me. Tell me what kind of lycanthrope Zeeman is and how you know so much about this case.”
“What does Richard have to do with my hospitalization?” I asked, my voice as blank as my face.
“Come off it, Anita,” Dolph countered. “We know. Everyone knows. It’s a real horrible thing what he did to you, leaving you while you were pregnant. I know you, Anita. I know how much you hate the monsters. Did Zeeman not tell you about his condition until it was too late?”
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to laugh or cry. Dolph was so right and so wrong all at the same time. I could still remember when I felt the same way as Dolph, when I saw lycanthropes and vampires as monsters. Sometimes I missed that clarity.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
“Don’t I?” he asked. “They don’t put you on the isolation wing unless they’re worried about contamination. That means monsters. You aren’t one. You have to submit to regular blood tests in order to be allowed to help RPIT. That leaves your boyfriend. Zeeman sure as hell isn’t a vampire and faeries and demons are too rare. I’m just being logical.”
I nodded. “You are being logical,” I said, my voice absolutely serious. “But you don’t have all the facts. Richard isn’t Phillip’s father. We were never lovers.”
It was Dolph’s turn to stare at me blankly. I wasn’t about to tell him that he’d been absolutely right about Richard’s lycanthropy. A lie of omission. Ask me if I care.
“I ... uh, “ he stuttered.
I kept watching him. I wasn’t going to back down. He looked at me, cocking his head slightly as he pursed his lips. His expression softened to something close to pity.
“Did something happen?” he asked carefully.
He took a deep breath and let it out. “You’re so tough, Anita, but did someone ... did one of those creatures attack you?”
Now my blank stare wasn’t for show. “You think I was raped?” I asked.
I started laughing hysterically. Raped. How wonderful if it were only that simple. Okay, I don’t mean that. I’ve never been raped, but I’m damn sure it’s one of the most horrible things a person can endure. Still, it would have made my moral dilemma so much easier. Rape. How clear cut. But no, I had to actually love the goddamned (literally) monster that got me pregnant. I had to rearrange my entire world. Everything went from white and black to varying shades of gray.
Dolph stared at me, uncertain of how to react. My laughter died and I stared at him.
“No,” I said. “I wasn’t raped. Phillip’s father and I are still involved.”
“Who?” he asked and part of me was shocked he hadn’t asked ‘what’.
I sighed deeply. I hated the idea of telling him, mostly because I was being pressed for the information. It wasn’t Dolph’s right to ask. He wasn’t my father. And part of me knew I was reluctant to tell him simply because his concern was almost parental. I still hadn’t told my parents the whole truth. Judith and my father knew about Phillip, they’d seen him and held him, but I hadn’t divulged any information about his father. I was being a wimp and I hated it.
“Jean-Claude,” I said, and it shocked me that I’d actually said it aloud.
Dolph stared at me. His mouth opened and closed, but no sound came out.
“The Master of the City?” he bellowed at me. “You had a child with the biggest vampire in St. Louis?”
I looked at my feet and nodded. It would have been great to be able to look him in the eye and admit it, but I was ashamed of my actions. I stared at the floor as I said, “Yes.”
“Well, I guess I know how you got the inside track,” he said. “Of all the monsters in the city, Jean-Claude is the biggest.”
I actually flinched. But there was no way I was going to stand there and debate Jean-Claude’s monstrosity with Dolph. I knew he was a vampire, there was no getting around that. But in truth, I knew humans with less humanity than Jean-Claude. I knew he loved Phillip. Our relationship was messy, but there it was. I knew he loved our son. I knew he would never let harm come to him. It wasn’t a white picket fence and a minivan, but it was enough. People trying to kill you on a regular basis makes you prioritize things. I had mine in order. My son’s safety came first. Jean-Claude would go to the ends of the earth to ensure that. I slept with a clear conscience.
I looked up and met his gaze without cowering. “My contacts aren’t through Jean-Claude,” I said calmly. “Our circles of ... acquaintances overlap quite a bit, but he’s not the reason I know these things.”
Dolph looked at me, his face almost pained. “How deep are you, Anita?” he asked.
“Pretty deep,” I said seriously.
He sighed and his expression hardened. “So tell me what you do know,” he said.
I nodded. “The local wererats and werewolves are not involved, neither are the wereleopards. I won’t tell you how I know that, but I will tell you that I’m certain. That leaves the other big werecats. Nothing else has the claws to do that. Ghouls could have, but some of the victims were too far from any cemeteries. It doesn’t make any sense. It has to be a lycanthrope.”
“But not someone local?” Dolph asked.
I shrugged. “I don’t really know. Most of the big cat lycanthropes are rare. There aren’t really enough to form packs or prides. They’re scattered around. Also, I’ve been playing mommy for the last few months. I can’t be positive that someone new didn’t move in while I was busy with my son.”
Dolph was silent, absorbing what I had said. “Can you find out?” he asked.
“If someone new has moved in?”
It wouldn’t be easy. Richard was spinning out of control. He’d forbidden the pack to speak to me. Without my contacts among the lukoi, it would be hard to get information. The wereleopards would share anything they knew, but Richard also knew that, so he’d told the pack to stay away from them as well. Jean-Claude was an option. He could force any of the lukoi to talk. Of course, that would damage Richard’s position even further. Damn, it made my head hurt just thinking about it.
“I’ll try,” I said.
“Don’t tell me your boyfriend can’t just snap his fingers and make it happen,” he said.
I glared at Dolph. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry that you thought I was someone that I’m not, but don’t make any assumptions about my life. You have no idea what it’s like.”
He didn’t try to stop me as I left.
Jean-Claude was quiet, with that stillness that always unnerves me. It’s like he’s not there, like his soul has fled and left a beautiful corpse behind. I knew if I touched him it would be like touching a wooden dummy, no sense of life.
“You will not ask me for help,” he said quietly.
I shook my head.
He took a deep breath and exhaled through his nose. With that tiny action, his body seemed animated again. A small, unhappy smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “You are rash, ma petite, and stubborn,” he said, “but this time I believe your approach is correct.”
I wasn’t exactly sure if he’d just insulted me or complemented me. I let it go. I’d learned to do that a lot with him recently. Who knew having a child would make me more diplomatic? No. That wasn’t it. Being a mother hadn’t made me more diplomatic. It was just that as far as Phillip was concerned, I trusted Jean-Claude like I trusted no one. I knew he was the only person in the world I could truly depend on to put my son’s needs above his own. That gave him a lot of leverage with me.
“If you intervened, it would weaken Richard’s position,” I said evenly.
He nodded. “Indeed.”
I cocked my head to the side and narrowed my gaze at him. “I thought you would love to take advantage of this situation. I know you’ve been a lot more secure since I got pregnant, but I can’t imagine you welcoming Richard with open arms.”
He looked at me with his mask of amusement. “Are you so certain of that, ma petite?” he asked.
I shook my head. “I don’t get you,” I said, not bothering to hide the exasperation I was feeling.
“Do you believe Monsieur Zeeman still desires you?” he asked, his face unreadable.
“Richard hates me,” I said dryly.
Jean-Claude smiled. “That is not what I asked, ma petite.”
“I left him,” I said. “I ran screaming from him and his beast, straight into your bed. I have a child with you. He’s forbidden the pack to even speak to me. No, I do not think that Richard still wants me.”
“You believe that you have wounded him so deeply that he no longer desires you?”
I looked at Jean-Claude. There was no censure in his expression, no jealousy. Just curiosity. “Yes,” I said. “That’s what I believe.”
“So young, ma petite. You are so young,” he mused.
I glared. That pissed me off. I don’t like being spoken to like I’m too naive to understand something. “What aren’t you telling me?” I demanded.
Jean-Claude looked at me but the amusement faded from his eyes. His vision flitted from me to the cradle behind me. We were sitting in his office at Guilty Pleasures, on opposite sides of his sexy black lacquered desk. Phillip was asleep in his cradle in the corner. Jean-Claude’s expression was positively somber as he blinked slowly and turned his attention back to me.
“You are Monsieur Zeeman’s lupa,” he said.
“I didn’t ask for the job,” I pointed out.
Jean-Claude smiled mirthlessly. “Regardless of how you acquired the position, ma petite, it is yours.”
I shrugged. What could I say to that? He was absolutely right.
“I have spoken with the Ulfric often over the last few months,” he said.
I stared at him blankly, thankful that my jaw hadn’t fallen open. My lover failed to mention to me that he was chatty with my ex-fiancé. I was shocked. I was also pissed at myself for being shocked. Jean-Claude always has his own agenda and full disclosure is never a part of it.
“What have you two been talking about?” I asked. I didn’t even bother trying to keep the irritation out of my voice.
He smiled, amused once again and I crossed my arms so that my right hand was on the butt of the Browning. I wasn’t going to kill him. I couldn’t do that. But I could wound him, remind him who exactly he was messing with. To his credit, he noticed my move and his smile faded.
“You are Monsieur Zeeman’s lupa,” he said. “You are my human servant and the mother of my beloved son. Richard is my animal. The three of us are the triumvirate, bound together through marks and blood for eternity.”
I raised my eyebrows at him sarcastically. “I already know all that,” I said. “Why the history lesson?”
“Because you obviously do not understand,” he said, his own irritation with me beginning to show.
“Then explain it,” I said through clenched teeth.
“You are mine, Anita,” he swore with chilling vehemence, leaning forward in his chair towards me.
I don’t know if it’s just Jean-Claude’s nature or if it’s because he’s four hundred years old, or maybe even because he’s French, but he always acts like nothing bothers him. Even facing down death, he’s absolutely calm. At that moment, he looked ruffled. It scared me. I swallowed hard enough for it to be audible. He eased down, sitting back in his chair.
“You are mine,” he repeated much more calmly, though his eyes still burned with blue flame. “Had it been any Ulfric other than Richard that dared to claim you, I would have killed him slowly and messily. Do not doubt that for one second.”
I was scared. Listening to him, I was actually scared. I hated being scared. I took a deep breath and forced myself to sit up straighter. “But it was Richard,” I managed to say despite my dry mouth.
Jean-Claude nodded. “We are both bound to him. His life is our life. Killing him is not an option. So I spoke with him about a great many things, foremost being my son.”
“What about our son?” I asked, scared enough to risk turning my back to Jean-Claude in order to make sure Phillip was all right. He was, sleeping soundly in the antique wooden cradle Jean-Claude procured. I turned back to face my lover.
“Just as I believe you are mine, he believes you are his,” Jean-Claude said.
“That doesn’t make it true,” I countered. I wasn’t a possession, a bone for two dogs to fight over.
“Oh, but it does, ma petite,” he explained. “Wolves mate for life. Richard chose you as his mate and now like it or not, he holds to that belief.”
“What does this have to do with my son?” I asked.
“You bore another male’s child, ma petite,” Jean-Claude said. “From Monsieur Zeeman’s point of view this is unacceptable. The Ulfric and his lupa are a mating pair, but you have a child who is not his issue. Phillip is a great threat to his power.”
I felt a chill go through me. I knew I played lupa to Richard’s Ulfric, but Jean-Claude was right, I hadn’t thought about the ramifications.
“Monsieur Zeeman is a reformist,” Jean-Claude continued, “but some traditions cannot be changed. The pack feels they have been slighted. They demand atonement.”
“Atonement?” I whispered.
“Any Ulfric worth his weight would kill his lupa’s bastard child,” Jean-Claude explained.
I swallowed and I felt like I was going to throw up. No, I hadn’t thought about the ramifications. Oh, God. I rose to my feet and made my unsteady way over to Phillip’s cradle. I picked my sleeping son up in my arms and leaned back against the wall, sliding down it until I was sitting on the ground. I held him close, breathing in his sweet, soft scent. My own ignorance and thoughtlessness had put my son at risk.
Jean-Claude stood and walked around his desk. He dropped into a crouch in front of me, balancing on the balls of his feet effortlessly. I looked at him, my arms still wrapped protectively around my child. He reached out and brushed his thumb along Phillip’s cheek.
“For reasons which I hope are stunningly clear to you, I could not allow that to happen,” he said.
“Something must be done, ma petite,” Jean-Claude said softly. “Some agreement must be reached. Richard would not harm an innocent child, but allowing Phillip to live weakens his position in the pack. If I were to intervene on your behalf and force the pack to speak to you about Nathaniel’s murder, it might be too much.”
“The pack must do what is best for the pack,” he said. “Having an Ulfric who cannot control his lupa or his pack is not good. They would turn on him.”
“And kill him,” I said, finishing his thought.
Jean-Claude nodded. “Indeed.”
For some reason, I finally got the big picture. I understood Jean-Claude’s machinations. “And if Richard dies, we die too,” I said.
Jean-Claude’s lips pursed together. “I am not positive, but there is that possibility,” he said. “I am not eager to leave our son an orphan, are you?”
I shook my head. Phillip would not survive without Jean-Claude and me. We had too many enemies.
“You and Monsieur Zeeman must reach an agreement, ma petite,” Jean-Claude said softly.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
Jean-Claude looked at me seriously. He leaned forward and gently took Phillip from my arms. Once he had the sleeping baby cradled to his chest, he rose to his feet and offered me his hand. I let him help me. He walked to his chair and sat down. I did the same.
“Do you still love him?” he asked, holding my gaze.
I shifted uncomfortably in my chair and dropped my eyes to the shiny black surface of his desk top.
I looked up and didn’t know what to say. What could I say? There was my lover, holding our child, asking me if I loved another man. I stared at him helplessly.
Jean-Claude smiled conciliatorily at me. “Je t’aime, ma petite,” he said. “But I love my son more. I will not risk his safety, regardless of how much I desire to keep you all to myself.”
I stared blankly at him. “What are you saying?” I asked.
“Do not feign ignorance, Anita,” he said very seriously.
I closed my eyes and shook my head. This was not happening. I opened them again and looked at my lover. “What?” I asked caustically. “You and Richard are just going to share me now?”
Jean-Claude looked at me, but I couldn’t read anything in his expression. “If that is what has to happen in order to keep my son safe, then I am amenable,” he said.
“Amenable?” I parroted incredulously. “You’re amenable to the idea of another man fucking the mother of your child?”
He frowned slightly at me. “Do not make this more difficult than it has to be,” he said. “You love me. Together we have a child; a child we would both protect at any cost. You love Monsieur Zeeman. He loves you. He is pivotal to Phillip’s safety. The math is not so hard.”
“No way,” I said. “No. Way. I am not some whore to be passed around whenever you two need to get off.”
“Do not twist my words, ma petite. No one is suggesting that you are a whore. You are bound to both of us. There is no shame in being with both of us. On this point, Monsieur Zeeman and I agree.”
I stared at him and felt rage so intense I was shaking with it. “You and Richard discussed this?” I asked, my voice trembling.
He felt my anger, but he did not cower from it. His expression hardened. “You are making this difficult,” he said. “This arrangement would give you both Monsieur Zeeman and myself. You would no longer be forced to choose. It would keep Phillip safe, and it would help Richard. He is on the edge, ma petite. Remember that if he gets careless enough to allow himself to be killed, you and I could follow him, leaving Phillip alone.”
I cursed under my breath and rose to pace the room. I couldn’t do this. It was ... wrong on so many levels.
“What is it that upsets you so much about this?” he asked.
I turned and looked at him. I opened my mouth to speak and shut it again. How could I explain it to him?
“Tell me,” he said.
“Phillip,” I finally admitted.
He frowned. “I am afraid I do not understand,” he said.
“I am someone’s MOTHER,” I said. “I can’t be hopping between your bed and Richard’s.”
Jean-Claude looked at me incredulously. “Phillip prevents you from accepting this arrangement?”
I nodded wearily.
“But it is Phillip that would benefit the most,” he said.
I sighed and flopped back into my chair. I rubbed my temples. God, I had a hell of a headache. Everything Jean-Claude said made sense in a really twisted way, but I was having a hard time convincing myself.
“You are trying to apply human logic to this, ma petite,” Jean-Claude said. “This arrangement is not between humans. I am a vampire, you are a necromancer, Monsieur Zeeman is a werewolf. We are not human, we are the Other. We cannot allow ourselves to be constrained by what respectable human society deems acceptable. Our enemies certainly will not when they try to harm our son.”
I met my lover’s eyes and could not deny the truth in what he said. I wanted what Jean-Claude was offering. I wanted both him and Richard. I had my darkness in Jean-Claude, but damn if I didn’t want my light as well. I missed Richard. I missed his warmth and his smell. I missed long afternoons curled up with our favorite musicals. I missed the feel of his muscled body under my fingertips, so different from Jean-Claude’s catlike leanness. That was what felt so wrong about it. How could something so hedonistic be good? Maybe it was my Catholic upbringing, but I couldn’t believe that I could be offered something so self-indulgent without a catch.
Jean-Claude smiled at me like he could read my mind. “Talk to Monsieur Zeeman,” he said. “Decide for yourself if the two of you can work out your differences.”
I took a deep breath. God have mercy on my soul, but I nodded.
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