One for the Money, Page 1Jeaniene Frost
ONE FOR THE MONEY
I squinted in the morning sunlight. At this hour, I should have been in bed, but thanks to my uncle Don, I was traipsing across the NCSU campus instead. I strode up to Harrelson Hall, then climbed to the third floor to the class I was looking for. When I walked in, most of the students ignored me, either chatting with each other or rifling through their bags as they waited for class to start. The room had stadium-style seating, with the entrance down by the professor's podium. My lower vantage point gave me the same sweeping view of the students the professor would have. I scanned every face, seeking the one that matched the jpeg I'd been sent. No, no, no...ah. There you are.
A pretty blonde stared back at me with barely concealed suspicion. I smiled in a friendly way and threaded up the aisle toward her. My smile didn't soothe her; she flicked her gaze around the room as if debating whether to make a run for it.
Tammy Winslow, I thought coolly. You should be scared, because you're worth a lot of money dead.
The air felt charged with invisible current moments before a ghost burst into the room. Of course, I was the only one who could see him.
"Trouble," the ghost said.
Sounds of heavy footsteps came down the hall while the air thickened with greater supernatural energy.
So much for doing this the quiet way.
"Get Bones," I told the ghost. "Tell him to be ready at the window."
That turned a few heads, but I didn't care about my college student ruse anymore. I had to get those people out of here.
"I've got a bomb," I called out loudly. "If you don't want to die, get out now."
Several kids gasped. A few snickered, not sure if I was kidding, but no one ran for the door. The footsteps coming down the hall got closer.
"Get out now," I snarled, pulling my gun out of its hidden holster and waving it.
No one waited to see if I was kidding anymore. Scrambling ensued as the students ran for the door. I held onto my gun, shouting at everyone to stay away from me, relieved to see the room emptying. But when Tammy tried to dart away, I grabbed her.
A man barreled through the door, knocking the panicked deluge of students aside as if they were weightless. I shoved Tammy away and whipped out three of the silver knives that I had strapped to my legs under my skirt, waiting until no one was in front of him before flinging them at the charging figure.
He didn't try to dodge my blades and nothing happened when they landed in his chest. A ghoul, great. Silver through the heart did nothing to ghouls; I'd have to take his head off to kill him. Where was a big sword when I needed one?
I didn't bother with more knives, but launched myself at the ghoul, bear-hugging him. He pounded at my sides, smashing my ribs as he tried to shake me off. Pain flared in me, but I didn't let go. If I were human, the punishment from his fists would have killed me, but I was a full vampire now, so my broken bones healed almost instantly.
I managed to put the gun's muzzle to the ghoul's temple and pulled the trigger.
Screams erupted from the few kids still left in the room. I ignored them and kept pumping bullets into the ghoul's head. The bullets wouldn't kill him, but they did a lot of damage. His head was in oozing pieces when I let go.
Tammy tried to run past me, but I was faster, knocking over desks in my way as I grabbed her. Scraping sounds let me know the ghoul was crawling toward us, his head healing with every second. I hopped over the desks, yanking Tammy along with me, and pulled out my largest knife from under my sleeve. With a hard swipe, I skewered the ghoul's neck.
The ghost appeared in the window, followed by another surge of energy coming from the same direction. Time to go.
Tammy screamed as she fought me, trying to break my hold on her. "I'm not going to hurt you," I said. "Fabian." I glanced at the ghost. "Hold on."
He wrapped his spectral hands around my shoulders. Tammy wasn't as trusting. She kept screaming and kicking.
I ignored that and ran right at the window. Tammy shrieked as we smashed through it with a hail of glass. Since her classroom had been on the third floor, we didn't have a long hang time before something collided with us, propelling us straight upward. Tammy's screams rose to a terrified crescendo as we rocketed up at an incredible speed.
"Somebody help me!" she shrieked.
The vampire who'd caught us adjusted his grip, flying me, Tammy, and the hitchhiking ghost toward our destination at the far edge of campus.
"Somebody has," he replied, English accent discernible even above Tammy's screams.
*** *** ***
The Hummer was equipped with bulletproof windows, a reinforced frame, and a backseat that couldn't be opened from the inside. Tammy found that out when she tried to escape as soon as we'd thrown her in and sped off. Then she'd shrieked for another ten minutes, ignoring my repeated statements that we weren't going to hurt her. Finally, she calmed down enough to ask questions.
"You shot that guy in the head." Her eyes were wide. "But that didn't kill him. How is that possible?"
I could lie. Or, I could use the power in my gaze to make her believe she hadn't seen anything unusual, but it was her life on the line, so she deserved the truth.
"He wasn't human."
Even after what she'd seen, her first reaction was denial. "What kind of bullshit is that? Did my cousin send you?"
"If he'd sent us, you'd be dead now," Bones said, not taking his attention off the road. "We're your protection."
I knew the exact moment Tammy got a good look at the vampire who'd snatched us out of thin air, because she stared. Her scent changed, too. That former reek of terror became a more perfumed fragrance as she checked out his high cheekbones, dark hair, ripped physique, and sinfully gorgeous profile.
Young, old, alive, undead, doesn't matter , I thought ruefully. When Bones is around, women go into heat.
But Tammy had just been through a very traumatic experience, so I ignored the vampire territorialism that made me want to grab Bones and snap, "Mine!" Instead, I handed her a pack of wet wipes.
She looked at them with an incredulous expression. "What do you expect me to do with these?"
"Noting works better to wipe off blood, believe me," I said, showing her my newly-cleaned arms.
Tammy looked at them, at me, and at Bones. "What is going on?"
"She already told you," Bones said, pulling over on the side of the road and putting the vehicle in park. "But you need more proof before you believe us, right?" He held up his hand. "Watch."
Bones dragged a knife across his hand, cutting open a line of flesh. Tammy stared as it closed moments later as if it had an invisible zipper. Fabian didn't even blink. The ghost was used to the healing abilities of the undead.
"I'm a vampire, that's why I can do this. Name's Bones, by the way."
"And I'm Cat," I added. "I'd introduce you to Fabian, but you can't see him anyway. We're your guardians until my uncle tracks down your cousin and arrests him."
Tammy's face was almost comical in its incredulity. "But it's daylight," she said at last. "Vampires can't go out in the sun, everyone knows that!"
Bones chuckled. "Right. And we shrink back from crosses, can't travel over water, can't enter a home unless invited, and always get staked in the end by the righteous slayer. Really, who'd be afraid of a creature like that? All you'd need is a Bible, a tanning bed, and some holy water to send us shivering to our dooms."
Tammy shook her head slowly. I watched with sympathy. Denial was how I'd reacted at sixteen when I found out my absentee father had been a vampire, and that it wasn't puberty causing my strangeness, but the growth of my inhuman traits.
"I know it's hard to believe since vampires and ghou
ls look human most of the time," I tried again, "but -"
"Let me get this straight," Tammy interrupted. "I asked some of my father's old government friends for help when "accidents" kept happening to me, and someone sent a vampire to protect me?"
Fabian began to laugh. I gave the ghost a censuring look that silenced his chuckles, but even though he was partially transparent, it was clear his lips were still twitching.
"Actually, two vampires," I corrected. "The ghost was a bonus."
"I'm a dead woman," Tammy muttered.
Bones snorted. "Told you this job wouldn't be easy, luv."
He was right, but I owed Don a favor. Even if I hadn't, I would still be here. Last month, Tammy had almost been killed by a "freak" electrical surge. Two weeks ago, a drive-by shooting nearly took her life. Could've been unfortunate coincidences, except the fact that if Tammy died before her twenty-first birthday, all her father's millions would go to her cousin, Gables. Tammy's late father had been an old friend of my uncle's, and Don didn't believe in coincidences. Then Don did some digging and heard that the next attempt on Tammy would involve an 'exotic' kind of hitman that never failed.
Don knew what that meant. He ran a special Homeland Security division that dealt with the supernatural - not that taxpayers knew part of their money went toward policing things that supposedly didn't exist. I was retired from the unit, but that made it even better for my uncle. Don didn't need to use an active team member to look after his old friend's daughter. No, he could call me, knowing I wouldn't turn away a girl who had her head on a preternatural chopping block.
Tammy seemed to have gotten over her initial shock. She tossed her blonde hair. "I offered to pay for protection and if you're the one protecting me, that means you work for me. So I'm going to lay some ground rules, got it?"
My brows rose. Fabian whistled, but of course, Tammy couldn't hear the ghost. You better hurry up and arrest her cousin, Don, I thought.
Bones gave me a knowing look. "Told you not to answer your mobile whilst we were on vacation, Kitten."
I sighed. Tammy began ordering us to take her back to her house. Bones ignored her, pulling onto the road and continuing in the opposite direction of where she lived.
"It's only for a few days," I said.
Or so I hoped, anyway.
Most people who'd had three brushes with death - one involving a ghoul - would be scared into a very cooperative state. Tammy appeared to be channeling her inner Paris Hilton instead. Evidently she'd never heard the word no before. She was outraged that we didn't let her go back to her house to pack, and then she was really upset once she saw the town we were hiding out in.
"You've got to be kidding." Tammy gave a disparaging glance at the rustic countryside and overgrown cherry orchard bordering the property where I'd grown up.
"It's in the middle of nowhere," Tammy went on. "You probably have psychotic inbreds living in the woods!"
She's suffered a traumatic experience , I reminded myself again, gritting my teeth. Cut her some slack.
Licking Falls was in the middle of rural nowhere, but that was the point. It might not look appealing to a young heiress, but for safety, it was ideal. No one would think to look for Tammy here.
We'd rounded the last turn and were heading down the long gravel road that led to my old house when Bones abruptly stopped.
"What's wrong?" I asked, feeling his tenseness like invisible ants marching across my skin.
"Your house isn't empty," he stated low. "And the occupant isn't human."
"Let's get out of here," Tammy said, her voice rising. "Now!"
I had my hand over her mouth even as Bones slid soundlessly out of the car. All we needed was for Tammy to start screaming to really alert whoever the undead intruder was. How the hell had someone beaten us here? We'd told no one we were coming! Instinct made me want to follow Bones, but that would leave Tammy unprotected. I glared at Tammy and ordered her in a low tone to be silent. The power from my gaze rendered Tammy mute at once. Then I let go of her mouth and pulled out a few weapons, all my senses directed toward the house half a mile up the road.
Relief rolled across my subconscious moments later, causing me to lessen my grip on my knives. Bones must have killed the intruder. Being connected to Bones this way was like hitchhiking on his emotions. In situations like this, it also came in handy.
I began to drive up the road again, ignoring Tammy's frantic pokes on my shoulders. I'd compelled her to be quiet, but not to be still, more's the pity.
When I was halfway up the road, Bones appeared, a bemused expression on his face.
"Your mum's here," he said.
I'd slowed on seeing him, but at that, I slammed on the brakes. "She is?"
Bones nodded and got into the passenger sear. "In the undead flesh."
"Catherine?" I heard my mother say, sounding as surprised as I felt. Of course. Even a hundred yards away, with her new hearing, she'd pick up my conversation with Bones as easily as if she'd been in the car.
A lump made its way into my throat. "Yeah, Mom. It's me."
I hadn't seen my mother in months. Not since the night I killed the man who kidnapped and forcibly changed her into a vampire. He'd done it just to hurt me, the bastard. It was a shame I couldn't kill him twice.
My mother was framed in the front door, watching me as I pulled up. The highlights had grown out of her hair and her skin was already paler than it had been the last time I'd seen her. Feeling the aura of supernatural energy coming from her was something I didn't think I'd ever get used to.
"Hi," I said as I got out. I wanted to hug her, but I was afraid she might push me away. My mother had always loathed vampires. Now she was stuck as one, and it was all because of me. To say that strained our relationship was putting it mildly.
Her hands fluttered, like she wasn't sure what to do with them. "Catherine." A small smile creased her face. "What are you doing here?"
"We were going to use the house to hide out, but since you're here -"
"Someone's after you again?" she cut me off, green tingeing her blue gaze.
"Not me," I hastened to assure her. "Tammy, the girl in the backseat. Bones and I are, uh, guarding her for a few days until Don squares things away."
"Hallo, Justina," Bones said, getting out of the car. "Certainly didn't expect to see you here."
"I wanted somewhere quiet to go for a vacation," she muttered.
He let out a sardonic laugh. "Seems we're not the only ones to have our vacation interrupted, then."
Bones took it for granted that we'd still be staying here. We'd decided this place was perfect to hide Tammy and I'm the one who owned it, so to him it was settled. But after all my mother had been through, I didn't want to subject her to my current predicament.
"We'll go somewhere else," I said with an apologetic shrug.
"Is something wrong with the girl?" my mother asked, pointing.
I glanced at the backseat. Tammy was smacking at the door while her eyes bugged and her mouth opened and closed like a fish.
"Oh shit, I forgot about muting her!"
I let Tammy out and returned her voice with a flash of my gaze. The first thing she did was howl loud enough to make me wince.
"Don't ever do that to me again!"
"Then don't give away our position if we think there's danger, and we won't have a reason to," Bones replied with an arched brow.
"Mom, this is Tammy," I said, waving the blonde forward.
My mother smiled with less tension. "Hello, Tammy. Nice to meet you."
Tammy grabbed my mother's arms. "Finally, someone normal! Do you know what it's like with these two? They're worse than prison guards! They wouldn't even stop to let me eat!"
Bones snorted. "We were a bit busy keeping you alive, if you recall."
My mother glanced at Tammy and then back at me. "Poor girl, you must be starving. I'll make you something for dinner. You don't want Catherine to cook, believe me."<
Under normal circumstances, I might have bristled at the implication. But that statement, plus the look she'd given me, said we would be staying here after all. Safety concerns for Tammy aside, I was happy. I'd missed my mother. Maybe our mutually interrupted vacations were a blessing in disguise for our relationship.
"After you, Mom."
*** *** ***
My warm and fuzzy feeling evaporated after dinner, however. The house only had two bedrooms. My mother kindly offered to share hers with Tammy, but just as I was about to thank her for it, Tammy spoke.
"Shouldn't I sleep with him instead?" Tammy's gaze swept over Bones with unmistakable lust. "After all, since I'm the one paying, I should choose who I bunk with."
My mother gasped. I opened my mouth to deliver a scathing retort, but Bones laughed. "I'm a married man, but even if I weren't, you wouldn't stand a chance. Rotten manners you have."
"Your loss," Tammy said, with another toss of her hair. Then she looked around in frustration. "You can't expect me to stay here more than a couple days. I'll go crazy."
"But you'll be alive," I pointed out, which should have been her top priority, in my opinion.
"You killed that thing, didn't you?" Tammy asked. "Doesn't that mean the danger's over?"
Bones shrugged. "I doubt the ghoul was the person contracted to kill you. Sounds like outsourced, cheap local talent to me."
Tammy gaped at him. "She had to cut his head off before he stayed down. That's what you consider cheap local talent?"
"No self-respecting undead hitman would take a contract on a human," Bones said dismissively. "Humans are too easy. Like getting paid to stomp on a goldfish. But in your case, probably a human hitman who knows about the undead got frustrated that his last two attempts didn't work, and gave some quid to a young ghoul to finish you. It's a practical solution; the ghoul gets money and a meal, the hitter still keeps the bulk of the contract payment, and the client's happy that you're dead."
"You would know, wouldn't you?" my mother muttered.
"How's that?" Tammy asked.
Bones smiled at her, beautiful and cold at the same time. "Because I was a hitman for over two hundred years."