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One Foot in the Grave, Page 2

Jeaniene Frost

  My gamble paid off. “That’s better,” Liam muttered, and knelt next to me. He let his hands travel over my body, and then he grunted in amusement.

  “Talk about an army of one. Woman’s wearing a whole bloody arsenal.”

  He unzipped my pants in a businesslike manner. Probably he was going to strip me of my knives; that would be the smart thing. When he pulled my pants past my hips, however, he paused. His fingers traced over the tattoo on my hip that I’d gotten four years ago, right after I left my old life in Ohio behind for this new one.

  Seizing my chance, I closed my hand over the nearby dagger and drove the knife into his heart. Liam’s shocked eyes met mine as he froze.

  “I thought if the Alexander didn’t kill me, nothing would…”

  I was just about to deliver that final, fatal twist when the last piece clicked. A ship named the Alexander. He was from London, and he’d been dead about two hundred and twenty years. He had Aborigine artwork, given to him from a friend in Australia…

  “Which one are you?” I asked, holding the knife still. If he moved, it would shred his heart. If he stayed motionless, it wouldn’t kill him. Yet.


  “In 1788, four convicts sailed to South Wales penal colonies on a ship named the Alexander. One escaped soon after arriving. A year later, that runaway convict returned and killed everyone but his three friends. One of them was turned into a vampire by choice, two by force. I know who you’re not, so tell me who you are.”

  If it were possible, he looked even more astonished than he had when I stabbed him in the heart. “Only a few people in the world know that story.”

  I gave the blade a menacing flick that edged it fractions deeper. He got the point, all right.

  “Ian. I am Ian.”

  Motherfucker! On top of me was the man who’d turned the love of my life into a vampire almost two hundred and twenty years ago. Talk about irony.

  Liam, or Ian, was a murderer by his own admission. Granted, his employees may or may not have stolen from him; the world never lacked for fools. Vampires played by a different set of rules when it came to their possessions. They were territorial to a fantastic degree. If Thomas and Jerome knew what he was and stole from him, they’d have known the consequences. But that wasn’t what stayed my hand. Eventually it boiled down to one simple truth—I might have left Bones, but I couldn’t kill the person responsible for bringing him into my life.

  Yeah, call me sentimental.

  “Liam, or Ian, if you prefer, listen to me very carefully. You and I are going to stand up. I’m going to pull this knife out, and then you’re going to run away. Your heart’s been punctured, but you’ll heal. I owed someone a life and I’m making it yours.”

  He stared at me. The glowing lights of our eyes merged.

  “Crispin.” Bones’s real name hung between us, but I didn’t react. Ian let out a pained laugh. “It could only be Crispin. Should have known from the way you fought, not to mention your tattoo that’s identical to his. Nasty trick, faking to be unconscious. He would have never fallen for it. He’d have kicked you until you quit pretending.”

  “You’re right,” I agreed mildly. “That’s the first thing Bones taught me. Always kick someone when they’re down. I paid attention. You didn’t.”

  “Well, well, little Red Reaper. So you’re the reason he’s been in such a foul mood the past few years.”

  At once my heart constricted with joy. Ian had just confirmed what I hadn’t allowed myself to wonder. Bones was alive. Even if he hated me for leaving him, he was alive.

  Ian pressed his advantage. “You and Crispin, hmm? I haven’t spoken to him in a few months, but I can find him. I could take you to him, if you’d like.”

  The thought of seeing Bones again caused a shattering of emotions in me. To cover them, I laughed derisively.

  “Not for gold. Bones found me and turned me out as bait for the marks he was paid to kill. Even talked me into that tattoo. Speaking of gold, when you see Bones again, you can tell him he still owes me money. He never paid me my share of the jobs like he promised. The only reason it’s your lucky day is he helped rescue my mother once, so I owe him for that, and you’re my payment. But if I ever see Bones again, it’ll be at the end of my knife.”

  Each word hurt, but they were necessary. I wouldn’t hang a target around Bones’s neck by admitting I still loved him. If Ian repeated what I said, Bones would know it wasn’t true. He hadn’t refused to pay me on the jobs I’d done with him—I’d refused to take the money. Nor had he talked me into my tattoo. I’d gotten the crossbones matching his out of useless longing after I left him.

  “You’re part vampire. You have to be with those glowing eyes. Tell me—how?”

  I almost didn’t, but figured, what the hell. Ian already knew my secret. The how was anticlimactic.

  “Some newly dead vampire raped my mother, and unluckily for her, his sperm still swam. I don’t know who he is, but one day I’ll find him and kill him. Until then, I’ll settle for deadbeats just like him.”

  Somewhere on the far side of the room, my cell phone rang. I didn’t move to answer it, but spoke hurriedly.

  “That’s my backup. When I don’t answer, they come in with force. More force than you can take on right now. Move slowly; stand up. When I take this knife out, you run like hell and don’t stop. You’ll get your life, but you’re leaving this house and you’re not coming back. Do we have a deal? Think before you answer, because I don’t bluff.”

  Ian smiled tightly. “Oh, I believe you. You’ve got a knife in my heart. That gives you little reason to lie.”

  I didn’t blink. “Then let’s do this.”

  Without another comment, Ian began to pull himself to his knees. Each movement was agony for him, I could tell, but he thinned his lips and didn’t make a sound. When we both stood, I carefully drew the blade out of his back and held the bloody knife in front of me.

  “Goodbye, Ian. Get lost.”

  He crashed through a window to my left in a blur of speed that was slower than before, but still impressive. Out in front, I heard my men rushing up to the door. There was one last thing I had to do.

  I plunged the same dagger into my belly, deep enough to make me drop to my knees, but high enough to avoid mortal injury. When my second officer, Tate, came running into the room, I was gasping and bent double, blood pouring out onto the lovely thick carpet.

  “Jesus, Cat!” he exclaimed. “Someone get the Brams!”

  My other two captains, Dave and Juan, fanned out to comply. Tate picked me up and carried me out of the house. With jagged breaths I gave my instructions.

  “One got away but don’t chase him. He’s too strong. No one else is in the house, but do a quick check and then pull back. We have to leave in case he comes back with reinforcements. They’d slaughter us.”

  “One sweep and then fall back, fall back!” Dave ordered, shutting the doors of the van I’d been taken to. Tate pulled the knife out and pressed bandages to the wound, giving me several pills to swallow that no regular pharmacy carried.

  After four years and a team of brilliant scientists, my boss, Don, had managed to filter through the components in undead blood to come up with a wonder drug. On regular humans, it repaired injuries such as broken bones and internal bleeding like magic. We’d named it Brams, in honor of the writer who’d made vampires famous.

  “You shouldn’t have gone in alone,” Tate berated me. “Goddammit, Cat, next time listen to me!”

  I gave a faint chuckle. “Whatever you say. I’m not in the mood to argue.”

  Then I passed out.


  MY HOUSE WAS A SMALL TWO-STORY STRUCTURE at the end of a cul-de-sac. The interior was almost spartan in its bareness. A single couch downstairs, bookshelves, some lamps, and a minibar loaded with gin and tonic. If my liver wasn’t half vampire, I’d have expired from cirrhosis already. Certainly Tate, Juan, and Dave never complained about all my booze. A steady su
pply of liquor and a deck of cards was enough to keep them coming back. Too bad none of them were great poker players, even when sober. Get them drunk and it was funny to watch their card skills drop by the second.

  So, how does one sign on for this life of luxury? My boss, Don, found me at twenty-two when I got into a little trouble with the law. You know, the usual youthful stuff. Killed the governor of Ohio and several of his staff, but they’d been modern-day slavers who sold women to the undead for food and fun. Yeah, they deserved to die, especially since I was one of the women they’d tried to sell. Me and my vampire boyfriend, Bones, had delivered our own brand of justice to them, which left a lot of bodies.

  After I was arrested, my funky pathology reports tattled on me for not being totally human. Don snapped me up to lead his secret “Homeland Security” unit by giving me the quintessential offer I couldn’t refuse. Or death threat, to be more accurate. I’d taken the job. What choice did I have?

  But despite his many flaws, Don truly cared about defending those the normal law could never protect. I cared about that as well. It was why I risked my life, because I felt this was the reason I’d been born half dead but looking all human. I could be both bait and hook to what prowled in the night. It wasn’t a happily-ever-after, true, but at least I’d made a positive difference for some people.

  My phone rang as I changed into my pajamas. Since it was almost midnight, it had to be either one of the guys or Denise, because my mother was never up this late.

  “Hey, Cat. Just get in?”

  Denise knew what I did, and she knew what I was. One night while minding my own business, I’d come across a vamp trying to turn her neck into a Big Gulp. By the time I killed him, she’d already seen enough to know he wasn’t human. To her credit, she hadn’t screamed, fainted, or done any of the things a normal person would. She’d simply blinked and said, “Wow. I owe you a beer, at least.”

  “Yeah,” I answered. “Just got in now.”

  “Uh, bad day?” she asked.

  But she didn’t know I’d spent most of the day healing from a self-inflicted stab wound with the help of Brams and the dubious benefit of having gutted myself with a knife coated in vampire blood. That in itself had probably done more to heal me than Don’s magic pills. Nothing but nothing healed like vampire blood.

  “Um, the usual. How about you? How was your date?”

  She laughed. “I’m on the phone with you; what does that say? In fact, I was just about to defrost a cheesecake. Want to come over?”

  “Sure, but I’m in my pajamas.”

  “Don’t forget the fluffy slippers.” I could almost see Denise’s grin. “You wouldn’t look right without them.”

  “See you soon.”

  We hung up and I smiled. Loneliness was put on hold. At least until the cheesecake ran out.

  At this time of night, the Virginia roads were mostly deserted, but my eyes were peeled because this was prime undead foraging hour. Usually it was just a vamp taking a snack. They used the power in their gaze and the hallucinogenic in their fangs to drink and run, leaving their meals with a false memory and a lower iron count. Bones had been the one to reveal that to me. He’d taught me all about vampires: their strengths (many!), weaknesses (few, and sunlight, crosses, and wooden stakes weren’t among them), their beliefs (that Cain was the first vampire, created when God punished him for murdering Abel by changing him into something that must forever drink blood as a reminder that he’d spilled his brother’s), and how they lived in pyramidlike societies where the top vampire ruled over all the “children” they created. Yeah, Bones had taught me everything I knew.

  And then I’d left him.

  I swerved and hit the brakes as a cat darted in front of my tires. I climbed out to find it lying near my car. It tried to run, but I caught it and looked it over. There was blood on its nose, some scratches, and it let out a cry when I moved its leg. Broken, without a doubt.

  Mumbling soothing nonsense, I got out my cell phone. “I just hit a kitten,” I told Denise. “Can you find a vet for me? I can’t just leave it.”

  She made a cooing sound of sympathy and went to fetch the phone book. After a moment, she was back.

  “This one is open all night and they’re not far from you. Let me know how the kitty does, okay? I’ll put the cheesecake back in the freezer.”

  I hung up, then called the vet to get directions. In ten minutes, I pulled up to Noah’s Furry Ark.

  Over my pajamas I had on my coat, but instead of boots, yes, I was wearing blue fuzzy slippers. I probably looked like a housewife from hell.

  The man behind the desk smiled when I entered. “Are you the lady that just called? With the cat?”

  “That’s me.”

  “And you are Mrs….?”

  “Miss. Cristine Russell.” That was the name I went under now, another tribute to my lost love, since Bones’s human name had been Crispin Russell. My sentimental curse would be the end of me.

  That friendly smile widened. “I’m Dr. Noah Rose.”

  Noah. That explained the corny name of the place. He took the kitty for X-rays and returned after a few minutes.

  “One broken leg, some abrasions, and malnutrition. He should be fine in a couple weeks. This was a stray?”

  “As far as I know, Dr. Rose.”

  “Noah, please. Cute little kitten; are you going to keep him?”

  The word kitten made me flinch, but I covered it and answered without thinking.


  The kitten’s wide eyes fixed on me, as though he knew his fate had been settled. With his tiny leg in a cast and ointment in his scratches, he looked truly pitiful.

  “With food and rest, this kitty will be good as new.”

  “That’s great. How much do I owe you?”

  He smiled in an abashed way. “No charge. You did a nice thing. You’ll have to bring him back in two weeks for me to remove that cast. When is good for you?”

  “Anything late. I, er, work strange hours.”

  “Evenings aren’t a problem.”

  He gave me another shy smile, and something told me he wasn’t as accommodating with every client. Still, he seemed harmless. That was a rarity in the men I met.

  “What about eight on Thursday in two weeks?”


  “Thanks for the help, Noah. I owe you one.” With the cat in tow, I started toward the door.

  “Wait!” He came around the desk and then stopped. “This is entirely unprofessional, but if you think you owe me, not that you do, of course, but…I’m new in town, and…well, I don’t know many people. Most of my clients are older or married and…what I’m trying to say is…”

  I raised a questioning brow at this ramble, and he actually flushed. “Never mind. If you don’t show up for your appointment, I’ll understand. I’m sorry.”

  The poor guy was a sweetheart. I gave him a quick feminine perusal, far different from the danger-assessment one I’d done when I first came in. Noah was tall, dark, and boyishly handsome. Maybe I’d hook him up with Denise—she just said her other date hadn’t impressed her.

  “Okay, Noah, the answer’s yes. In fact, my friend Denise and I were going to catch dinner Monday night. You’re welcome to join us.”

  He let out a breath. “Monday is perfect. I’ll call you Sunday to confirm. I don’t normally do things like this. God, that sounds like a line. Let me ask for your number, before I talk you out of it.”

  With a smile I wrote down my cell number. If Noah and Denise hit it off, I’d quietly leave before dessert. If he turned out to be a jerk, then I’d make sure he was sent on his way without bothering her further. Hey, what were friends for?

  “Please don’t change your mind,” he said when I handed him my number.

  Instead of responding, I merely waved good night.


  AT TEN TO SIX THE FOLLOWING MONDAY, my phone rang. I glanced at the number that flashed up and frowned. Why was Denise calling me f
rom her house? She was supposed to have gotten here fifteen minutes ago.

  “What’s up?” I answered. “You’re running late.”

  It sounded like she took a deep breath. “Cat, don’t be mad at me, but…I’m not coming.”

  “Are you sick?” I asked worriedly.

  There was the sound of another deep breath. “No, I’m not coming because I want you to go out with Noah. Alone. You said he seemed like a really nice guy.”

  “But I don’t want to go on a date!” I protested. “I was only doing this so you could meet him, but then have a graceful way out if he wasn’t your type.”

  “For God’s sake, Cat, I don’t need another date, but you do! I mean, my grandmother gets more action than you. Look, I know you don’t talk about the other guy, whoever he was, but we’ve been friends for over three years and you’ve got to start to live. Dazzle Noah with your drinking skills, burn his ears with your language, but try to have a little fun with a guy you’re not intending to kill by the end of the night. At least once. Maybe then you won’t be so sad all the time.”

  She’d hit a nerve. Even though I’d never mentioned specifics about Bones, especially the one about him being a vampire, she knew I’d loved someone and then lost him. And she knew how alone I felt, more than I’d ever admit to.

  I sighed. “I don’t think it’s a good idea—”

  “I do,” she cut me off at once. “You’re not dead, so you need to stop acting like you are. It’s just dinner, not eloping to Vegas. No one says you even have to see Noah again. But just go out this once. Come on.”

  I looked at my new kitty. He blinked, which I took as a yes as well.

  “All right. Noah’s due here in five minutes. I’ll go, but I’ll probably say something completely inappropriate and be home in an hour.”

  Denise laughed. “It doesn’t matter; at least you’d have given it a shot. Call me when you get in.”

  I said goodbye and hung up. Apparently I was going on a date. Ready or not.

  As I passed by a mirror, I did a double take at my reflection. My newly brown hair was cut shoulder-length and looked foreign, but that was the idea, in case Ian decided to confirm the rumors about my appearance. I didn’t need any vampires or ghouls getting a heads-up as to who I was because of my hair color. Blondes might have more fun, but I was hoping for a higher body count. The Red Reaper had been laid to rest. Long live the Brunette Reaper!