Dealing with dead bodies was the worst part of Deane’s job. And he’d seen his fair share of death of over the last century. Deane made his way down the stairs into the basement level of the lodge with Emery, his rookie partner, following behind. The air was cool and dry, and the smell of stone and earth filled his nostrils, calling him back to his youth in Ireland.
Wall sconces lit the way as they walked along the brick corridor. A woman’s voice filtered into the hall. “I believe there are venom glands recessed above the upper canines. I’d like to take a tooth out to confirm they’re hollow and get a pure sample of venom. Time is of the essence.”
Deane rounded the doorway first, joining Alaric, the Genus Society lodge leader, and Doctor Khatri in the confined room. The doctor nodded at him in greeting, and her almond eyes traveled to the covered body on the exam table.
As soon as she entered, Emery wrinkled her nose. “You have some air freshener or a fan or something? It’s oh-so nasty in here.”
Alaric crossed his arms and leveled his gaze at the enforcer. “Did you expect the body would smell like roses after two weeks? Ramsay may have been a blood-sucker, but they rot just like the rest of us.”
Emery pinched her nose while affixing a sour expression to her face. Her red lips formed a tight line, and she blinked her long black lashes at the covered body of the deceased blood-sucker.
Deane was all too familiar with the aroma of death, but it was something he’d never gotten used to. He slipped his hands into his trousers pockets, trying not to inhale too deeply, and asked, “Anything new, Boss?”
“Besides the fact I’ve been on the phone with Consul Beaumont every waking minute since Aerilyn’s rescue?” The lodge leader sighed heavily. His stress was evident; dark circles shadowed his eyes. “We don’t know how many of these blood-suckers are out there, how long they’ve been running around undetected and what kind of danger we’re in.”
A look of guilt washed over Emery, and she lowered her hand from her nose. “I’m sorry I couldn’t stop her from escaping.”
She was referring to Marika, of course. Emery had been beating herself up about the young blood-sucker’s escape into the wilderness when they’d rescued Alaric’s daughter and Ramsay’s son from their abductors’ hideout in the Rockies.
Deane took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “At least ye weren’t locked in the basement, unable to lend a hand. Nobody blames ye anyhow. From what I hear, ye were fierce—even got a scar to prove yer brass.”
He nodded at her abdomen, the place she’d been knifed by Quinn, one of the blood-suckers now lying in a body bag in the adjoining room’s walk-in fridge.
Alaric leaned against the metal table and looked at Emery. “Deane’s right. You and Jax were the last ones standing—that’s nothing to be ashamed of. But the fact remains that after Marika escaped, she could have alerted the rest of their kind to our existence. Who knows if these blood-suckers are organized like us and, if so, whether we just triggered an all-out war.”
Emery appeared to have temporarily forgotten the foul smell. Her green eyes lit up at the mention of a fight. Deane leaned toward her and held her gaze. “That wouldn’t be what we’re hoping for. Just to remind ye.”
She scowled back at him. “What’s wrong with you? You’re Irish. Why don’t you like a good fight?”
“I’ve had enough of them in my time to have my fill,” he answered grimly. Then he reached toward her abdomen, and she pulled away with a wince. “It’s that fight that left ye with those bandages and a mark ye’ll take to yer grave. Ye should be proud ye saved yer friend, but a fight for the sake of fighting isn’t worth a damn thing.”
Emery rolled her eyes at him, and Doctor Khatri cleared her throat. The doctor pulled back the sheet that covered Ramsay, exposing the sallow blood-sucker. Her gloved hands parted his lips to reveal his teeth. She grabbed a tool that looked like a pair of pliers from a tray and asked Deane as she worked, “How’s your young charge doing?”
He watched her carefully pull one of Ramsay’s canines from his mouth and swallowed. “Hard to tell—he doesn’t talk much. Ye know how many hoops ye have to jump through to become a foster parent? I don’t know why I volunteered for this.”
Except he knew why he’d done it. He’d made a promise, one he wasn’t about to break. Although Riley was a blood-sucker, Ramsay’s son to be precise, he was like a youngling shapeshifter just coming into his powers. The kid had more to worry about than high school—he was different from everyone else. Plus, Riley had no one, something Deane could relate to.
“I think it’s great Finn was able to help ‘lawyer’ things out so quickly. I think about Riley trying to eat dinner with a bunch of mundanes while eyeing the bloody drippings from their steaks.” Emery laughed and wrinkled her nose. “Say, isn’t Aerilyn bringing him by your place soon with all his stuff?”
Deane checked the time on his phone and sighed. He wasn’t used to taking care of anyone but himself. “Aye.”
Doctor Khatri set the tooth and pliers on the metal tray and looked at Deane. “Remember, he’s a seventeen-year-old who’s going through a lot of changes and will have special needs. Are you fully prepared for what that will entail?”
“Who better to keep an eye on him than my best enforcer?” Alaric chimed in. “I can’t have our only living specimen in just anyone’s hands.”
The doctor paused, holding a needle and an empty vial. “I understand your concerns, Alaric, but what about the day-to-day issues, like how often the boy needs to feed and whether animal blood is sufficient? We don’t know what kind of care he requires yet.”
“Yes, yes, or what his weaknesses are,” Alaric said.
Doctor Khatri seemed to think better of responding and put her attention on Ramsay while Alaric’s eyes widened. He patted his breast pocket and pulled a phone out. Alaric handed it to Deane. “It’s Ramsay’s. I haven’t looked at it yet, what with the massive amount of cleanup we had to do at that old couple’s home and the investigation into Riley’s mother’s murder, and there’s been a few other things on my mind. Too many balls in the air right now to do it all myself.”
Deane touched the power switch and watched the phone turn on. Its welcome screen asked for fingerprint recognition, so he lifted the edge of the sheet covering Ramsay and found the blood-sucker’s hand. Deane pushed Ramsay’s pale thumb against the button and sighed in relief when it worked.
“Check his contacts,” Emery said, peering around his shoulder to stare at the screen.
“Gettin’ to that,” Deane muttered as he opened the call log. He took a moment before responding, “The last outgoing call was made that night on the mountain, right around the time we broke into the cabin, to a place called TailGators.”
Emery frowned. “TailGators? Is it a strip club?”
“I dunno.” Deane scowled at her.
She rolled her eyes and pointed at the phone. “Google it.”
Deane knew technology had its benefits, but he wasn’t entirely comfortable using it. He searched the name in a browser and cleared his throat. “It’s in Cutler Bay, Florida.”
He let Emery take the phone from his hands so she could strip down the security and change the passwords.
“Whatever it is, I want you both there to find out its significance,” Alaric said. The lodge leader backed away from Ramsay’s body and gave it a repulsed frown. “Even if he was calling to check in on his puppy, I want to know. The Grand Consul will be holding an emergency meeting in the coming weeks to discuss these developments, and I personally want to provide them with more information about the blood-suckers.”
Emery lifted her gaze from the phone and spoke up. “What about Riley?”
Deane looked at his partner. He’d entirely forgotten about the lad. He wanted to investigate the case further, but having to deal with a pubescent teen wouldn’t make it easy.
“I know.” Alaric held up his hand. “Sitting around here may not be the safest place for him right now, not with Marika running loose. What if they come back looking for him? I understand winter break’s started. What if you take the kid with you? He could use some sun. I’ll call Cruz in Miami and see if he can help us out.”
“Just take him with us?” Emery frowned again. She adjusted her red bandana around her head and looked at Deane. “You don’t think he’s a flight risk, do you?”
Deane hadn’t spent much time with the kid, and when they had been around each other, Riley pretty much ignored him. But he wasn’t a baby who required diapers or bottles, so how hard would it be bringing him along? Teenagers were self-sufficient these days. Between Emery, the Society members at the Miami lodge and him, they’d be able to keep the lad in check.
He shrugged. “We can handle him.”
“Hello?” Deane’s townhouse door opened, and Aerilyn came in, carrying two suitcases. “Here we are.”
Alaric’s petite daughter stomped the snow off her boots onto the entry mat and gave him a warning glance. Although she practically looked like a teenager herself, she taught at a local high school and happened to be one of the Society’s guardians, a mentor to youngling shifters. Not only that, she’d already known Riley and had been involved with rescuing him from a closet in Ramsay’s house.
Deane went to take the oversized box off her hands and set it near the stairs leading to the second-level bedrooms. Photos of Riley and his mum smiled up at him from a time in the kid’s past.
Aerilyn turned around and looked outside at the porch. “Are you going to come in?”
Riley stepped inside, carrying two suitcases with his head down. Deane moved closer to take them from the lad, but Riley edged away and mumbled, “It’s fine.”
The kid shook his head, freeing his long brown hair so it hung across his eyes as he stood in silence. Aerilyn gave him a tentative glance before closing the door and explaining to Deane, “It took a lot of time to go through everything at the house, but Riley has what he’s keeping. Finn’s helping move things along with his mother’s estate. There’s not much, but apparently Marilyn socked away all the money Ramsay sent into an account for Riley—a trust. Something he can use when he’s eighteen.”
Deane nodded, only half listening. He pointed at the ceiling, then focused on Riley. “Yer room’s the second door on the right.”
Riley simply blinked back at him and rounded the stairwell with his luggage and thumped upstairs. Aerilyn’s brows furrowed as she watched him go and asked in an undertone, “You sure you’re up to this? He’s pretty depressed and might need a gentle touch.”
“I promised his ma I’d look after him,” Deane muttered. “If he can grow a thick skin, he’ll be the better for it.”
Aerilyn didn’t seem so certain.
Deane leaned in. “A little sun should put a smile on his face, though. I’m taking the kid to Florida.”
The news seemed to take Aerilyn off guard. She sputtered and widened her eyes. “Wow, that sounds like fun. A vacation might be a good opportunity for the two of you to bond.”
Deane pulled Ramsay’s phone from his pocket and held it up. She stared at it in confusion, so he explained, “We have a lead. Emery and I are connecting with the Miami lodge to investigate this veterinary clinic in Florida. It was the last place Ramsay called. Plus, Alaric wants him out of town in case they come back looking for him.”
“So you’re taking Riley with you?” Aerilyn’s enthusiasm for the trip dimmed. She didn’t appear pleased as she crossed her arms.
“Where are we going?”
Deane and Aerilyn faced the base of the stairs, where Riley now stood without his suitcases, wearing a sour expression. The teen’s long dark hair hung to his slouched shoulders. His complexion was healthier than it had been when he’d been starving himself of blood, but the kid was still on the pale side. The sporadic supply of chicken blood they’d been able to provide was keeping him from wasting away, though he didn’t seem fond of the stuff.
Aerilyn’s eyes darted to Deane, and it was obvious she wasn’t going to speak, so Deane cleared his throat and said, “Ye’re coming with me to Florida. I’ll be getting some work done out there, and we thought ye might enjoy the change of scene.”
Riley blinked back at him and said hollowly, “No one asked me what I wanted, but since I’m just a blood-sucker, I guess it doesn’t matter.”
“That has nothing to do with it.” Aerilyn went to her student’s side and put her hand on his shoulder. “What do you want?”
“I want my mom back.” Riley wrenched himself away from her and started breathing hard and fast. “I don’t want to be a freak who has to drink blood to survive. I don’t know why I have to live in a place with someone who doesn’t give a flying crap about me.”
The boy turned around and launched himself back up the stairs, leaving Aerilyn to give Deane an I-told-you-so look. A loud slam echoed through the house, and she shook her head. “That could have gone better.”
“And it could have gone worse,” Deane said with a cocked brow. “Don’t worry, love, things will be right as rain. Nothin’ like the passage of time to cure his raging case of adolescence.”
“You’ve got a lot to learn about kids.” Aerilyn’s eyes traveled upstairs, then she turned for the door. “Well, you can call me anytime if you need anything. Good luck—you’re going to need it.”
Deane brushed off his suit sleeve. “I don’t believe in luck.”
After she departed, he was left staring at the box in his entry. Riley had very little, yet Deane recalled a time when he’d had nothing but the clothes on his back and the sooty remains of his life on his blistered hands.