May 14

Changer’s Turf – Chapter Nineteen

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   Chapter Nineteen

 

 

Albers opened the documents one at a time, each photograph a nasty surprise. Here she was standing next to her car. Here she was walking along the street. It was from the same email address as the other ones. And then there had been the flowers left on her back doorstep. Dead flowers. It was clearly either a threat or a warning. Maybe both.

She peered closer at the last one, trying to recognize the location. It was her standing in front of a row of bushes, and it was night, of course. She recognized it, but was having a hard time placing it. It was something familiar, something she’d seen often. Where was it? In the photo, she wore a sleeveless yellow top.

Albers got up from her computer and walked towards the bedroom. This house had only four rooms. Once she owned a house whose servants’ wing was larger than this place. Now it was the only house she still owned. Flipping houses my ass, she thought, cursing herself for the hundredth time. There’s no fool like an old fool.

It was just like that tulip bulb nonsense all over again and she’d been too stubborn to recognize it. Sure, she’d gotten out of the railroad speculation in time, and she’d been wise enough to avoid that stock market nonsense back in … was it almost a hundred years ago already? Time flew past. She should have known better, but there was too much money floating around and she just got greedy. Safe as houses, my ass.

She was paying for it now. She’d sold several of her properties at a loss, was renting out the ones she couldn’t unload, and was living in a tiny duplex that shared a wall with two college kids who had appalling taste in music. It could be worse. They could play their music during the day, when she was trying to sleep, instead of at night, when she was mostly out and about visiting her contacts. It could be worse. She could have lost so much that she’d actually have to work for a living, something she hadn’t done in decades and had no interest in starting. Working a graveyard shift was a lonely life, especially when photosensitivity made you housebound from dawn to dusk.

She reached into her laundry hamper and counted out the outfits. She wore that one Monday, that one Sunday. That one Saturday, that one Friday. The yellow blouse lay under Friday’s shirt. The photo had been taken on Thursday. What had she done on Thursday? She went back to her computer.

Her calendar said she’d gone to see Ian on Thursday. She closed her eyes and remembered what she’d done on Thursday. She woke up just before dusk. She’d had breakfast at an all-night diner. She’d gone to the Guild House. Then she’d gone to see Ian. She’d been sure that someone hadn’t followed her from the Guild House. She’d been sure of it. Which meant that whoever followed her was better at following her than she was about spotting.

This wasn’t the first set of photos. So far, they hadn’t sent any photos of her near her house, which meant she’d likely been followed from the Guild House. Her residence of record was still one of her larger properties. She didn’t need anyone else knowing her financial situation, and she had an arrangement with the property manager to let her receive her mail there and be seen there from time to time.

So who was it from? Glavin? Too subtle for him, surely? But she’d been surprised before. Siang? This was her style, but Siang wasn’t powerful enough to challenge her, even obliquely, and not ambitious enough to need her support in a coup. Holzhausen? No, certainly not.

Albers scooped up her keys and went to see Ian. If she was wrong, and she hadn’t been followed from the Guild House, she might see photos of her from tonight. If her hunch was right, and people were tracking her only when she left the Guild House, she shouldn’t be followed.

Albers had no official business at the morgue, but she’d been there often enough that Stanley the janitor opened the door for her and the coroner’s assistant smiled at her as she walked in. Once, a new office manager tried to crack down on outsiders coming into a government building, but Albers had made a few phone calls. When it came down to it, the city manager decided that he wasn’t going to prohibit Joyce Albers (who had helped his daughter get bumped up the waiting list for the most exclusive high school in town) in favor of a manager who had (he learned, through an anonymous tip) been caught hiring illegal immigrants to mow his lawn.

Ian was in the basement, as usual. They kept it cold down here, and her breath plumed out in front of her. One of the pathologists was there too, up to her elbows in someone’s lungs. Ian was leaning over her shoulder, peering at the chest cavity. He ate microwave popcorn from a bag as he watched. She saw the oil of the fake butter seeping through the waxed paper, but she couldn’t smell it over the ever-present odor of decaying human flesh.

“Hey Joyce,” the pathologist said, as Albers pushed open the door. “How have you been?”

“Pretty good. You mind if I borrow Ian?”

The pathologist nodded absently. Ian Lincoln followed her into the lab. She didn’t suspect the pathologist of being a spy, but you never knew.

Albers wasn’t Ian Lincoln’s sire. He’d been made a vampire in Chicago in the late twentieth century. He’d already been working in the morgue as a diener at that time, and although he had no formal training as a forensic pathologist, he’d seen more dead bodies than a front-line soldier. Albers had approved his emigration to Seabingen before she’d lined him up as her spy. She’d helped him find a place to live, helped him find a few hosts, and then she’d asked for little favors to cement the alliance. She wouldn’t go so far as to say she trusted him completely, but she trusted him as much as those who actually had her blood in their veins. Everyone wanted permission to make vampires, but sometimes the progeny you cultivated were as loyal as the ones you actually bit.

“Who was here on Thursday?”

Ian’s eyebrows flew up in surprise. “Damn, Joyce, nothing escapes you.”

“Who?”

“Dayrunner Melbourne.” He shook the popcorn bag, as if to readjust the salt and butter, and offered her some. When she declined, he grabbed another handful for himself.

She kept her face blank to contain her surprise. “What did she want?”

“She wanted to look at a mangled corpse.”

“Really?” Well, this was certainly getting interesting.

“Yeah, and that’s not the weirdest thing. The weirdest thing is that she knew it was going to be there.”

“Did she explain?”

Ian put another handful of greasy popcorn in his mouth. She had no idea how he stayed so skinny. “Nah, but she gave me a name, which is more than the cops did. Michael Jimenez. She seemed pretty certain.”

Albers allowed her eyebrows to rise. “What did he look like?”

“Like a guy who had been ripped to shreds and mostly eaten.”

She tilted her head. What a nuisance. After she had gone through all that effort to contact him. Torn apart and half eaten. Sounded like the work of a were-cougar.

“Joyce, it was the weirdest thing. You could fit what was left of this guy in a bowling bag. Even his head was half gone. Ellen had to send the teeth to some expert in Chicago cause there wasn’t enough left, yet Melbourne took one look, popped out a name and left.”

“I imagine it’s because she killed him,” Albers said.

“You sure? Melbourne?”

“It makes sense, doesn’t it? How else would she know he was dead and who he was if she hadn’t put him here?”

“But why?”

“To keep him quiet about something.” Melbourne had found out that Albers was closing in on her contact, and she’d killed him before Albers had a chance to find out what he knew. Albers was surprised, and somewhat impressed, at this brutal streak. She’d heard Melbourne had guts, but to have the Dayrunner be this cold-blooded was delightful. Finally. A worthy adversary.

“We talking about the same Melbourne I know? Twenty-something pretty brunette with that dot on her forehead? How could she rip up and half eat some guy?” Ian asked.

She was a were-cougar, and she was killing to keep her secret. It was a warning to stay away. Albers smiled. Silly girl. Albers didn’t respond well to threats. She would find out proof, and then learn what Melbourne would be willing to pay to keep it quiet. She might have the cougar by the tail here, but when you were several centuries old, sometimes blackmail was the only thing that was any fun anymore.

“Joyce, you got that look. What’s up?”

“It’s a puzzle. A delightful puzzle.” She gave Ian her most radiant smile. “Thank you so much, you’ve been very helpful.”

Ian sketched a bemused half-salute with his greasy fingers. “Anytime.”

Albers glanced at her wrist watch. Nearly midnight. She’d kill for a nice filet and a couple of martinis, but she had one more errand before the night was through.

Barnabus didn’t know she was coming. She liked to call before she came over, more to avoid a wasted trip than out of politeness, but Barnabas had dodged her last two calls so she decided an unexpected visit was in order.

Even from the curb, she could tell something was wrong. What? What was it? She scanned the house, trying to find logical reasons for her unease. Grass edging towards HOA citations. Fliers on the door. Garage light not on.

She slipped out of her car and circled around the back of the house. The smell of human had grown faint, especially on the back deck, where she knew he liked to sit and drink his coffee in the morning. The musky human male odor of him had drifted away with the rain, and not been replenished. When had it rained? Two days ago? He had been gone for two days. Where had he gone? Hiding, or dead?

Whichever it was, she could find it. She hit his number again on her phone. If he didn’t answer and tell her where he was and what he was up to, she’d make him wish he was dead.

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