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Albers was sitting in her house, lingering over her first evening cup of coffee, when a pounding at the door disturbed her. She sighed. The pounding continued. She looked up, expecting to see the tastefully framed paintings rattle against the powder blue wall of her foyer, but they remained still. One of the weaker vampires, then.
Albers dabbed at her lipstick, which had partially come off on the side of her china cup. The pounding at the door continued. Albers gracefully rose to her feet. She smoothed the front of her pale pink dress, and straightened the patent leather belt. It had recently slipped from “dated” to “vintage” and she was delighted to be able to take it out of mothballs and wear it again. The pounding continued. Albers patted her hair. Would she have time to curl her hair before her date tonight? She glanced at her watch, and then at the door, where the pounding had continued unabated. With a sigh, she strode to the inner door and hit the intercom.
“Who is it?”
“It’s me. Caneles,” Jolene said. Her voice sounded tense and scratchy, like she’d been crying.
Albers set her mouth, then shrugged and pulled her lips into a reasonably pleasant smile. She unlocked the inner door, then hit the switch that unlocked the outer door. She was already turning back to her table when Jolene flung the door open.
“You have to help me. Please. You have to help me.” Jolene pushed her fingers through her hair and clenched them into fists. She hadn’t yet developed the poise of a vampire, which was sad, because she’d been turned … what was it, five years ago? Six? Long enough to stop acting like such a child, that was certain. “The cops have been asking questions about Barnabus. They want to know where I was the night he died, and I don’t have an alibi and what am I going to do if they put me in jail? What if there’s a window in the jail cell? They say I had a motive, but it wasn’t my fault!”
“Hmm.” Albers frowned at her coffee. It was growing cold. If she made a fresh pot, she wouldn’t have time to curl her hair.
“Barnabus did this to me. He set it up so that it would look like I did it. James is furious. He’s going to kill me. I don’t know what I’m going to do. The cops don’t believe me, and James thinks I embezzled from him, and I don’t have an alibi, and I don’t know if I can afford a lawyer. What am I going to do?”
“You could leave town.” Albers got up to freshen her cup.
“Leave town? Where would I go? I can’t go rogue, and what if they come and put me in jail before then? I can’t go to jail.” Jolene looked up at her with pleading eyes. Her mascara was dripping down her chin in watery black lines of goo. No doubt her quivering lower lip would have melted the heart of someone who could be bothered to give a shit.
“I think you can keep James Melbourne from murdering you,” Albers said. The coffee in the pot was cold too. Maybe she’d just drink it iced. “Even if you did kill his partner.”
“No! You have to believe me! I had nothing to do with it.”
Albers shrugged. “As long as you didn’t tell the cops anything, you’ll be fine.”
Jolene sank into the other chair, and put her head in her hands.
“You talked to them.”
“A little. I had to explain myself! To clear my name!”
Albers sighed and shook her head.
“But I had a motive! They’ll think so, anyway. They’ve already asked me about the embezzling. He blamed it all on me! I hardly took any of that money! It’s not fair! What am I going to do?”
“Sounds like a terrible predicament.”
“Shit, shit shit. This is totally not fair,” Jolene sobbed into her hands.
Albers rolled her eyes. Fair has nothing to do with anything in this life. “You want my advice? Leave. Change your name and get a new job somewhere.”
“Where? Where am I going to get a Guild membership? I can’t go rogue.”
That was true. It was hard to get a position in a city with a Guild. You had to pull strings. And rogues usually didn’t last long, especially not ones as dumb as Jolene.
Jolene cried for another ten minutes, face red and contorted. Albers waited her out, not giving any more advice. Finally, Jolene figured out that her tears weren’t doing any good. She wiped her eyes and sniffles once or twice.
“You have to help me!”
“Because I didn’t kill him.”
Albers knew that was true. If Jolene had murdered Barnabus, she would have botched it somehow. “Well, then, you have nothing to worry about.”
“But they think I embezzled from James!”
“No, well, only a little, but Barnabus left evidence saying I did all of it.”
Albers rolled her eyes. “Get a lawyer then. I can’t help you.”
Jolene sniffed and got to her feet. She shot Albers a hurt glance and turned on her heel. She slammed the inner door, and a second later, slammed the outer door behind her.
Albers rose to her feet and followed her outside. Time to leave, anyway. The night was warm, and scented with lilac. She heard insects and the chirrup of frogs.
And then the night creatures fell silent.
Albers held completely still. She heard nothing, saw nothing but Jolene, staring at her phone as she sulked down the street. Albers saw something move in the trees. A shadow. Following Jolene?
That little dishrag Jolene walked on, oblivious.
Well, this could be interesting. Albers locked the door behind her and followed. Even in heels, she knew how to move silently. She’d be late for her date, but Tom would understand.
Albers followed her for several miles. They were heading towards Ipswich. Wasn’t Melbourne’s house in Ipswich? Jolene wasn’t going to do anything stupid, was she? Albers smiled. Of course she was going to do something stupid. This would be good. Better than dinner and a show.
Jolene got as far as the woods behind Melbourne’s house and stopped. She put her phone back in her purse and balled her fists at her side, arms straight as if she were steeling herself.
It was dark there, deep within the greenbelt. Water trickled in the creek, cool and gurgling over mossy rocks. Under the thick trees, the night was velvety black. She heard the hoot of an owl, but then nothing, as the night creatures drew silent at their approach. Eventually the frogs and birds and insects began their songs again, and Albers waited, completely still, watching Jolene.
Jolene must have decided she was going to do whatever it was she had steeled herself for, because she strode forward.
Jolene walked back and forth, as if trying to find a way through an unseen barrier. She walked towards the house, only to pivot and find herself walking away again. Albers figured it out long before Jolene did. Wards. She’d heard rumors that Melbourne knew some witchcraft. Not just rumors, it seemed.
“This is stupid,” Jolene said. She splashed off through the stream. She didn’t seem to see Albers, or even look around like she had any suspicion she had been followed.
Albers had a moment of pity. Poor foolish creature. If she went rouge, she wouldn’t last a day.
Albers paused in the dark long enough for Jolene to get a nice, safe lead. She looked at the house, a tidy twentieth century bungalow with a wide lawn broken only by a handful of small fruit trees. The moon was full, illuminating peaches and cherries and plums ripening in the warm spring air. A tidy garden had rows of leafy vegetables and daffodils just past their prime. She tried to see in the windows, hoping to find some information which might be useful, but the back windows were dark.
She was just about to go when she saw the shape slink around the side of the house and across the wide lawn. The mountain lion, with dark patches on the sides of its muzzle. Eyes flashed tawny in the moonlight. Here was Jolene’s stalker then. This cougar.
The cougar slunk along the treeline and into the greenbelt. Lapping momentarily at the cool water, it peered up at her, one predator to another.
She waited, still as a predator, silent as a shadow, until the cougar left. She didn’t track it like she did Jolene. Mountain lions could snap a neck with one blow, and even though Albers was far tougher than a human, she didn’t want to be on the receiving end of that kind of violence. Even vampires couldn’t survive if they were half eaten.
She waited for a thousand heartbeats after the cougar had gone. It left paw prints in the soft earth near the creek, and Albers crouched to compare her hand in their breadth. She glanced back towards the Melbourne-Fenwick house, then rose to her feet.
How long had Kit been stalking Jolene? If Kit had been the one to kill Michael Jimenez—and it seemed likely—she would probably try to kill Jolene as well. She’d put money on Kit. Jolene was useless, certainly no match for a were-cougar. Albers smiled. Kit was a were-cougar. Such a delicious secret. Did Holzhausen know? He must. And now she knew as well.
Albers was halfway up the walk to her house when she heard the sound of running water. She picked out the green plastic line of hose snaking from the azaleas to the dry patch of lawn by the sidewalk. Had the gardener left the hose on all day? She’d have to get on him if he had. She picked up the end of the hose, and coiled it up carefully, following it back to the source. Walking around behind the house, she thought about Jolene and Kit, wondering idly if one of them would kill the other. Albers dropped the hose on the ground.
As she reached to turn off the faucet, she noticed a spot of mud on her skirt. She tsked. Then she saw something that made her even more irritated.
A giant paw print, as big as a wolf’s, but without claw marks.
Albers glanced up and saw a shape in the tree across the way, a glimpse of tawny fur in the streetlight. A human wouldn’t have been able to spot it, but a predator knew another predator. Her eyes narrowed. You could spy on Jolene Caneles all you wanted, but you didn’t spy on Joyce Albers and get away with it. Melbourne had better watch herself.
Like the book, but short on cash? New chapter next week!