Susan Michaels groaned as she read the headline for her latest story. She knew better than to read the rest of the article, but something inside her just wanted to feel kicked this afternoon. God forbid that she ever took pride in her work again...
Bred in a lab in South America, these top secret moths are the next generation of military assassins. They are genetically engineered to think their way into an enemy's lair where they bite the neck of the target and infect them with a concentrated poison that is completely undetectable and that will render the victim dead within an hour.
Now they have escaped the lab and were last seen heading north, straight for the central U.S. Be on guard. They could be in your neighborhood within the month...
Dear Lord, it was worse than she'd imagined.
Her hands shaking in anger, she got up from her desk and headed straight into Leo Kirby's office. As usual, he was online, reading some poor slob's blog and making copious notes.
Leo was a short, lean man with long black hair that he always wore in a ponytail. He also had a goatee, cold gray eyes that never laughed, and a strange spiderweb tattoo on his left hand. He was dressed in a baggy black T-shirt and jeans, with a giant Starbucks travel mug at his elbow while he worked. In his mid-thirties, he'd be cute if he wasn't so damned annoying.
"Killer moths?" she asked.
He looked up from his notepad and shrugged. "You said we were going to have a moth invasion. I just had Joanie rewrite the story to make it more marketable. "
She gaped in total astonishment. "Joanie? You had Joanie rewrite the story? The woman who wears tinfoil in her bra so that the people with x-ray vision can't see her breasts? That Joanie?"
He didn't flinch or miss a beat. "Yeah, she's my best writer."
Talk about insult to injury... "I thought I was your best writer, Leo."
Sighing heavily, he swiveled his chair to face her. "You would be if you had any imagination whatsoever." He held his hands up dramatically as if to illustrate his point. "C'mon, Sue, embrace your inner child. Embrace the absurd that lives amongst us. Think Ibsen." He put his hands down and gave another weary sigh. "But no, you never do, do you? I send you out to investigate the bat boy who lives in the old church belfry and you come back with a story about moths infesting the rafters. What the hell is that?"
She gave him a droll stare as she crossed her arms over her chest. "It's called reality, Leo. Reality. You should stop shrooming long enough to try it. "
He snorted at that before he flipped to a blank sheet of paper on his notepad. He set it beside his coffee. "Screw reality. It don't feed my dog. It don't make my Porsche payments. It don't get me laid. Bullshit does that... and I like it that way."
She rolled her eyes at his beaming face. "You are such a toad."
He paused as if an idea had struck him. He reached for his pad, where he quickly scribbled something. " 'Employee Kisses Toady Boss to Discover an Ancient Immortal Prince'... better yet, a god. Yeah, an ancient god"-he gestured at her with his pen-"a Greek god who's been cursed to live as a sex slave to women... I like it. Can you imagine? Women all over the country will be kissing their bosses to test the theory." Then he looked back at her with a wicked grin. "Shall we try the experiment and see if it works?"
She screwed her face up at him in disgust. "Hell, no. And that wasn't a come-on, Leo. Trust me, even with a thousand kisses you'd still be a toad."
He was totally undaunted, mostly because the two of them had been teasing each other this way since they attended college together. "I still think we should give it a try." He wagged his eyebrows at her.
Susan let out a long, exasperated breath. "You know, I would bring you up on sexual harassment charges, but that would imply that you have actually had sex in your lifetime, and I intend to maintain that you are a prime example of what happens to people when they're too sexually frustrated. "
That brought another glassy look to his eyes before he scribbled again. " 'Sexually Frustrated Boss Turns into Screaming Lunatic. Disembowels Woman Who Excites Him.' "
Susan groaned deep in her throat. If she didn't know better, she'd think he was threatening her, but that would involve actual action on his part, and Leo was nothing if not a complete delegator. His maxim had always been why do it yourself when you can hire or bully someone else to do it for you.
"Leo! Stop turning everything into a cheesy headline." And before he could respond, she quickly added, "I know, I know. Cheesy headlines pay for your Porsche. "
Disgusted, she rubbed at the sudden pain she felt behind her right eye.
"Look, Sue," he said as if he felt an uncharacteristic wave of sympathy for her. "I know how hard these last couple of years have been for you, okay? But you're not an investigative reporter anymore."
Her chest tightened at his words. Words she didn't really need to hear, since they haunted her every minute of every day. Two and a half years ago, she'd been one of the foremost investigative reporters in the country. Her former boss had nicknamed her Hound Dog Sue because she could sniff a story from a mile away and then run it to ground and bring it home.
And in one moment of gross stupidity, her whole world had come crumbling down around her. She'd been so hungry that she'd run headlong into a setup that had completely destroyed her reputation.
It'd almost cost her her life.
She rubbed at the scar on her wrist as she forced herself not to remember that awful night in November-the only time in her life when she'd actually been weak. She'd come to her senses, and then vowed to never let anyone make her feel that powerless again. No matter what, this was her life and she was going to live it on her own terms.
But for Leo, whom she'd met in college when they'd worked on the staff of the campus paper together, she'd have never worked in journalism again. Not that working for the Daily Inquisitor could ever be construed as true journalism, but at least it allowed her to pay off some of her gargantuan debt and court costs. And though she hated her job, it kept her fed and off the street. For that she owed the little toad.
Leo tore off a sheet of paper and slid it toward her.
"What's this?" she asked as she took it from his desk.
"It's a Web address. There's some college kid who goes by the name Dark Angel who claims she's working for the undead. "
She stared at him. Oh, yeah... her life was definitely a lemon and she wanted her money back-with interest. "A vampire?"
"Not exactly. She says he's an immortal shapeshifting warrior who annoys the hell out of her. She's local, so I want you to check it out and see what else she has to say. Then report everything back to me."
Oh, this couldn't be happening to her, and yet that old internal voice in her head was already laughing at her. "Shapeshifter, huh? Is this before or after she drops acid?"
Leo made an irritated noise. "Why don't you at least try to get into the spirit of the job? You know, it's really not bad at all. In fact, it's actually highly entertaining. Live a little, Sue. Let go of the venom. Enjoy it."
Enjoy it... enjoy being a laughingstock after she'd been working for the Washington Post... yeah. It was hard to Carpe Crap when what she really wanted to do was get her reputation back.
But those days were over. She'd never be a real reporter again.
This was it. Her life. Joy, oh joy-the bad-luck fairy had really screwed her over.
No, she thought as her chest tightened again, that wasn't true. She'd screwed herself over and she knew it. Heartsick, she turned around and headed back to her desk as she looked at the blog address in her hand.
It's stupid. Don't do it. Don't even go to the site...
But before long, she did, and there it was... a black page with some hand-drawn Gothic artwork on a Web site called deadjournal.com. But her absolute favorite part had to be the header that read: "Musings from the Dark and Twisted Mind of a Damned College Student."
The girl, Dark Angel, was certainly that. Her entries showed the typical angst of an average student... who was seriously delusional and in need of years of therapy from between the walls of a padded room.
JUNE 3, 2006, 06:45 A.M.
Someone please shoot me. Please. I really can't stress the "please" part enough. So here I was trying to study for my test tomorrow. Note the word "trying. " So here I am engrossed in the complexities of Babylonian Math, which isn't really engrossing, to say the least, when all of a sudden my cell phone rings and scares the total shit out of me because the house is even more silent than a tomb-and trust me, I've been in enough tombs and crypts to know this for a fact.
At first I stupidly thought it was my father harassing me, until I looked closer at the number and no. Not him. Those who've been reading my journal know that it's my boss, 'cause who else would call me at this ungodly hour and think that I have no life whatsoever except to serve his every whim and need? Really, take my advice and never work for an immortal. They have no respect whatsoever for those of us with finite lives.
5:30 in the morning, there he is. Calling to tell me that he's just killed off a bunch of undead people (okay, vampires, but I really hate to use that word 'cause it draws out all sorts of lunatic weirdos who want to know how they, too, can become vampires and where to find the ones I know, which wouldn't do anything but get you killed, but back to my original thought) and that I need to pick him up since it's about to be dawn and he can't make it home before the sun turns him into grilled toast. You know this isn't the way to motivate me, since a grilled toast boss = one happy Dark Angel.
Now here's where I tirade against the fact that if he were just a regular shapeshifter, I wouldn't have to go get him. He'd be able to get home without help. He could just teleport himself into the house, but back when he made the bargain to become immortal, that ability was taken from him, along with the one that allows him to travel through time and the ability to walk as a man in daylight. And why was this taken from him? One reason. To make my life a living hell of servitude, that's why.
Oh, and I have to bring him clothes since he'll most likely be in cat form at Pike's Market, which is the only way he can be in daylight and not be a crispy critter (really). So when he switches back into human form he'll be naked and will need clothing- yes, for those with gutter-bent minds, he's a buff god in theory, but since I've known him all my life it's like seeing your brother naked-can we say "ew"?!
All right, it pisses me off, but I go since he pays me and if I don't he'll tell on me again and get me into all kinds of trouble, none of which I want to hear right now. So after I hoof my butt over there to get his sorry ass, what do I find?
Yes, you guessed it. Nothing but a couple of homeless people who think I've lost my mind as I search for my "cat" while holding male clothing which I slowly remember won't do any good since he can't shift back into a human until after I get him home. That rank bastard and his pranks. A curse of poxes on his head. Better yet, I hope he gets fleas (I would wish ticks, but then I'd probably get Lyme disease from him). So fleas. Lots and lots of fleas!
I'm sure Catman Moron found some bimbo to shack up with and shag for the day, but damn it all. Couldn't he have called and told me that? No. So here I am, chugging extra-caffeinated espresso and hoping I stay awake for my test this afternoon. Thanks, boss. Appreciate it. You are the best. Where's Animal Control when you really need them? Better yet, get me an ax so I can cut off his head, and I don't mean the one on his shoulders.
Song: "Everything About You": Ugly Kid Joe
Susan let out a tired breath as she rubbed her brow. Oh, yeah. The girl needed some serious professional help. But what the hell? It wasn't like she had anything else to do other than go and investigate the Immortal Catman of Pike's Market.
Susan cringed at the thought. "Now I'm doing it, too... Cheesy headlines are us." Groaning, she rubbed her eyes. "You know, if my life was a horse, I'd shoot it."
No matter the location or day, every animal shelter in the United States seemed to always hold the same pungent odor of cleaning antiseptic mixed with wet fur. And even though the shelters were warmed, there was always an odd chill to the air. One that penetrated straight to the bones.
Today was no different. The cat cages were lined along two walls where some of the felines slept while others played, ate, or groomed.
All except one.
That one crouched as if ready to kill and it watched everything around it with the sharp intellect of a vicious predator that belied its smaller size. It wasn't like the others. Only a fool would make that assumption.
At first glance, it appeared to be a regular Bengal house cat, but if one looked closer, it was obvious that it didn't hold quite the same facial characteristics that marked the Bengal breed. In fact, it looked just like an Arabian leopard-only it weighed a scant fifteen pounds instead of sixty.
More than that, its eyes were an eerie shade of black... an unnatural color for such a beast. And if one was really paying attention, they would definitely notice that while the other cats wore plain white collars, this one wore one of silver. It was a very special collar that caught the light and flashed with a preternatural gleam.
And what made it so special? Certainly not the thinness of its strap or the fact that it had no buckle on it. No. It was the unseen circuitry that ran along the underside of the silver fabric. Circuitry that had been designed to send out inhibitors that couldn't be felt by man or beast-unless the creature was both man and beast.
A devilish invention by those who wanted some control over the magick of others, this collar kept this particular cat in its current feline form.
And that seriously pissed the cat off.
Ravyn hissed as a man ventured near his cage. If he could get out of this, he'd tear the bastard's arms off and beat him with them. But unfortunately, he couldn't-that would require him to actually have arms of his own, which in his current form he didn't possess.
And it was all his fault. Damn him and his libido anyway. If he'd simply trotted past the sex goddess in the extremely short skirt at dawn, he'd be happily home by now-well, maybe not happily, since he'd have to listen to Erika bitch, but certainly he'd be home in his own bed and not locked in this damned cage.
What could one little stroking possibly hurt?
He looked at the bars on the cage and hissed at the apparent answer. Yeah. Ash would have a field day with him on this one.
Provided he got out of it. As it stood, he wasn't so sure he was going to make it this time. So long as he wore the collar, his powers as both a Dark-Hunter and a Were-Hunter were seriously restricted. As an Arcadian Were-Hunter, his natural form was human. To be trapped as a cat during the light of day was both painful and extremely disconcerting. Even with the metriazo collar on that inhibited him from using his paranormal powers, there was only so long he could hold this form before his own magick turned on him and killed him.
It was one frightfully sobering thought.
"How's he doing?"
Ravyn narrowed his eyes on the tall, blond male veterinarian who was an Apollite. As a rule, most Apollites stayed out of the war that raged between the Daimons and the Dark-Hunters. It wasn't until Apollites started stealing human souls to elongate their short lives and thereby becoming Daimons that Dark-Hunters bothered with them. After all, that was the whole reason Dark-Hunters had been created. They were the ones who killed the Daimons so that the stolen human souls could be released before the Daimon possession destroyed them.
Obviously this Apollite wanted a head start on being hunted.
The human assistant, who was a short man around the age of thirty with black hair and a shaggy beard, answered. "He's pissed and glaring. What else?" He cocked his head as he studied Ravyn from a safe distance. "You think he's Arcadian or Katagari?"
The vet shrugged before he bent down to look into the cage. "I don't know, but I'm hoping for Arcadian."
Ravyn bared his teeth at the prick who smiled in response. " 'Cause if he is, the magick that's holding him in cat form will eventually cause his head to explode. It'll be painful as hell before he dies."
The assistant laughed. "And no nine lives to bring him back. Damn shame. But I like it." He turned to look at the doctor. "What say you neuter him while he's like this, too?"
"You know, you have a great idea..."
Ravyn snarled as the vet reached for the clipboard that hung outside his cage and made a note. Ravyn hissed at him before he sent out a mental note to the Apollite vet. "You neuter me, you bastard, and I'll dance in your entrails. "
That bit of spite came back on him tenfold as it caused the collar to constrict and shock him enough to seriously hurt, but not so much that it caused him to change forms.
The vet smirked before he hung the clipboard back on the peg. "I don't really see how you're going to do that in your current position. Do you, furball?"
The human assistant high-fived the vet. "I can't wait for Stryker and Paul to get here and finish him off." Then laughing, the two of them left Ravyn alone with the rest of the animals.
Ravyn charged the bars of his cage, but all he succeeded in doing was hurting himself. Damn them all. How had they managed to get him trapped like this? How had they known where to find him?
One minute he'd been hiding in the shadows of Pike's Market, waiting for his Squire, Erika, to come get him, and the next thing he'd known that puta in the red skirt had grabbed him and snapped the collar around his neck before he could fight or sense her intentions. Once the collar was in place, he'd been powerless without his magick.
Keeping a tight grip on him, the woman had wrapped him in her shawl, picked him up, and handed him off to a group of waiting humans who'd paid her fifty dollars for her services. Afterward, the humans had tossed him into the local animal shelter.
And here he would stay until either his head exploded from the inhibitors in the collar or he figured out some way to escape this cage without having either his magick or opposable thumbs.
Yeah. Great odds there... not. His only hope was that Erika would get concerned when he didn't show up after nightfall-
Wait, he was talking about Erika Thomas here. Erika. The girl who liked to pretend she didn't have to work for him. The girl who went out of her way to avoid him and her duties. She wouldn't notice for days that he wasn't home.
No, the little mutant would throw a party the instant she found out that while she'd ignored his absence, some mad Apollite had gelded his ass and left him impotent. Then, she'd call all her friends and laugh about it.
I am so screwed. ...
Susan sighed as she toyed with the small gold medallion that she kept in her purse. Only a hair larger than a silver dollar, it didn't look like much, but on the night she'd won it, it'd held even more value than a hundred-million-dollar lottery ticket.
She paused to look at it as old memories assailed her. She'd won the Sterling Award for Investigative Reporting for Politics in 2000. She'd been on top of the world that night...
Clenching the award in her hand, she cursed under her breath. "Just sell the damned thing on eBay."
But she couldn't and she hated herself for that. It was hard to let go of a glorious past even when all it did was bring her pain. Maybe she shouldn't have been so cocky back then. Maybe this was her comeuppance.
Bullshit. She didn't believe in that kind of divine retribution. She was where she was because she'd allowed herself to be deceived and she had been after more glory. There was no one to blame but herself. She'd been stupid and trusting, and she would pay for that one moment of fallacy for the rest of her life.
Her phone rang.
Grateful for the interruption to her morbid ruminations, she picked it up and answered. "Susan Michaels."
"Hey, Sue, it's Angie. How you doing?" Her buddy sounded a little less than upbeat, but it was still good to hear a friendly voice.
"Fine," Susan said as she tucked her award away into her purse. If anyone could make her feel better, it was Angie. A smart-mouthed vegan veterinarian, Angie had a way of cutting through the thick of any matter and pointing out the ludicrous-it was truly a gift Sue appreciated. "What are you up to?"
"Five by five as always."
Susan rolled her eyes. The statement wasn't just a reference to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer show Angie loved, it was also the way Angie described herself, since she was round and cuddly.
"I'll only give you five by three... maybe."
"Yeah, right. Trust me, I am as wide as I am tall, but that's not the point of this. You got a minute away from your lunatic boss?"
" 'Cause I've got some news that I think you're going to want to hear."
In spite of Angie's dire tone, Susan smiled. "Hugh Jackman has divorced his wife and happened upon my picture in some old article and decided that I'm the woman for him?"
Angie laughed. "Damn, you have been working for that paper for a long time. You're now starting to believe the rubbish you publish."
"Har, har. Is there a real point to this conversation?"
"Yes, there is. You know those strange missing-person reports Jimmy's been talking about that've been going on for a while? The ones Jimmy said might be related?"
Susan froze as her old reporter self leaped to the forefront. "How do you mean?"
"I can't say anything more on the phone, okay? In fact, I'm on a pay phone, and you don't want to know how hard one of these things is to find nowadays. But I can't take any chances. Can you come by work in about an hour to look for a cat?"
Screwing her face up, Susan let out a disgusted breath. "Ew! I'm deathly allergic to those things."
"Trust me, it'll be worth your wheezing and then some. Just be there." The phone went dead.
Susan hung up as a thousand scenarios went through her head. She'd heard real panic in Angie's voice. Real panic, and that wasn't like her friend. This was a serious situation and Angie was scared.
Susan tapped the phone with her fingernail as her thoughts scattered into a million different directions. But they all came back to one single thing-this odd call just might be her own road back toward salvation and respectability.