This Side of the Grave Page 2

Scratch began to rattle off a list, but all of a sudden, his voice was drowned out under a deluge of others.

. . . four more hours until I get a break . . .

. . . remember to get the receipt for that? If it doesn't fit, I'm taking it back . . .

. . . if she looks at one more pair of shoes, I'm going to scream . . .

The sudden crash of intrusive conversation wasn't coming from the mall shoppers around us - I'd tuned that out even before we sat down. This was coming from inside my head. I jerked as if struck, my hand flying to my temple.

Oh shit. Not again.

Chapter Two

What's wrong, Kitten?" Bones askedat once.

Ed and Scratch also gave me concerned glances. I forced a smile while struggling to concentrate on them instead of the plethora of conversations that had suddenly taken up in my mind.

"Just, um, a little hot out here," I muttered. Damned if I was going to tell two strange vampires the real cause of my problem.

Bones's gaze traveled over my face, his dark brown eyes missing nothing, while those voices pitilessly continued to chatter on in my mind.

. . . no one saw me. Hope I can get the security tag off . . .

. . . I'll give him something to cry about soon . . .

. . . if she doesn't show up in five minutes, I'm eating without her . . .

"I, ah, need some air," I blurted before recognizing the stupidity in that excuse. One, we were already outdoors, and two, I was a vampire. I didn't breathe anymore, let alone have any health conditions I could blame my sudden weird behavior on.

Bones stood, taking my elbow and throwing a stiff "Stay here" over his shoulder at Ed and Scratch.

I walked quickly, trying to concentrate on the cool pressure of his hand more than where I was going. My head was lowered, because my eyes had probably turned bright green from agitation. Shut up, shut up, shut up, I chanted at the unwelcome crowd in my head.

The din in my mind seemed to amplify the noises from the people milling around us, until everything blurred into a sort of white noise. It grew, overwhelming my other senses, making it hard for me to focus on anything except the relentless voices coming at me from all sides. I struggled to push them back, to concentrate on anything except the sounds that seemed to grow with every second.

Something hard pressed against my front the same time that a straighter, harder barrier flattened my back. Underneath the now-thunderous chatter bombarding my mind, I heard a familiar English voice.

" . . . all right, luv. Force them back. Listen to me, not them . . ." I tried to picture the countless voices in my head as a TV channel I just needed to turn down - with my willpower being the remote control. Fingers stroked my face, their touch an anchor I drew strength from. With great effort, I pulled my mind away from the melee, distancing myself from the noise that wanted to consume the rest of my senses. After several minutes of dogged concentration, that mental roar subsided into an annoying but manageable mumble. It was similar to the sounds from the shoppers around us, oblivious to the fact that they were in biting distance of creatures that weren't supposed to exist.

"I have got to stop drinking your blood," I said to Bones when I felt in control enough to open my eyes. A glance around showed that he'd backed me into a pillar in what probably looked like a passionate embrace, judging from the slanted glances thrown our way.

Bones sighed. "You'll be weaker."

"But sane," I added. And safer, too, because if hundreds of voices suddenly crashed into my mind during a battle, it might be distracting enough to get me killed.

I tugged at Bones's short dark curls until he pulled back to look at me. "You know this can't be leftovers from when I drank Mencheres's blood; it's happening more often, not less," I said softly. "I have to be getting this from you. And I can't handle it." I'd thought changing from a half-breed into a full vampire meant an end to my uniqueness, but fate thought differently. I woke up on the other side of the grave in possession of two things unprecedented in vampire history - an occasional heartbeat and a craving for undead blood. The side effect of the latter meant I temporarily absorbed power from the blood I drank, much like vampires absorbed life from human blood. That was all well and good, but if I drank from a Master vampire, I also temporarily absorbed any special abilities that Master had. This was great when it came to enhanced strength, but not so great when it came to other abilities that were out of my depth to control. Like Bones's ability to read human minds.

"You don't give yourself enough credit, Kitten," he said, his voice low.

I shook my head. "There's a reason why it takes centuries for vampires to get special powers, and only if they're Masters. It's too much to deal with otherwise. If I keep drinking from you, what happened today will only get worse. You've obviously grown into the mind-reading power you inherited from Mencheres, so much so that I'm starting to pick it up from your blood, too."

And if Bones started manifesting any other abilities as a result of the power exchange he'd received from his co-ruler, I really wanted no part of them. I'd drunk from Mencheres once out of necessity, and it had fried me for over a week afterward. I shuddered at the memory. Never again if I could help it. The voices thrumming in the background of my mind seemed to agree.

"We'll sort that out later, but we need to go back now, if you're ready," Bones said, giving my face a last stroke.

"I'm okay. Let's head back, before they freak out and bolt." Bones slowly uncurled his body from mine. The din in my head was now low enough that I noticed several females around us checking him out. I stamped even harder on those inner voices. The last thing I needed was to hear a flood of lusty imaginings involving my husband and other women to really sour my mood.

In fairness, I couldn't blame them. Even in his trademark black pants with a casual white pullover, Bones stood out like a jewel among rocks with his finely molded features and tall, sculpted frame. Every move of his body sent ripples along those lean muscles, and his flawless crystal skin practically dared people to see if it felt as good as it looked - which it did. Even when we'd first met and I plotted to kill him, Bones's looks had turned my head. In that way, he was a perfect predator, enticing his prey to come close enough to bite.

"You're being eye-humped by about a dozen women as we speak, but I'm sure you already know that," I said in a wry tone.

His mouth brushed my neck with the lightest of kisses, making me shiver.

"I only bother about one woman's desires," he murmured, the breath from his words teasing my ear.

His body was close enough to graze mine, a tantalizing reminder of how thoroughly he could satisfy my every lustful inclination as well as a few I probably hadn't thought of. Still, even though heat began to fill me, we had disappearances to investigate. Any intimate investigations between the two of us would have to wait.

As if in agreement, the cadre of voices in my head rose again, cutting off the warm sensuality that his nearness brought out in me.

"I don't know how you stand hearing this racket in your mind every day," I muttered, shaking my head as if that could clear it.

He gave me an unfathomable look as he drew away. "When it's always there, it's easier to ignore it."

Maybe that was true. Maybe if I didn't have only my own thoughts in my head most of the time, picking up on other people's mental frequencies would seem less overwhelming. I didn't know.

Still, I didn't want to keep drinking Bones's blood to find out.

Ed and Scratch didn't comment about our abrupt departure when Bones and I sat back down with them. Their expressions were also suitably bland, but the furtive looks they darted my way spoke volumes. They were wondering what the hell happened.

"Thought I smelled someone I knew," I offered, downing the gin and tonic that had arrived with the other drinks while Bones and I were away.

It was an obvious lie, but Ed and Scratch made agreeable noises and pretended to believe it. The look Bones gave them didn't lend itself to further questions on the subject.

"Right then, any more names of places these nasty flesh-eaters tend to frequent?" Bones asked, as if there had been no interruption in conversation.

Scratch elbowed the other vampire. "No, but Ed has something to tell you." Ed looked reluctant but then straightened his narrow shoulders.

"A buddy of mine, Shayne, called me last night and said our friend Harris got the shit kicked out of him from some ghouls at a club. Shayne was gonna go home with Harris to discourage any more beatings on him. Thing is, I've been callin' Shayne's cell all day, but he hasn't answered, which isn't like him. When I told Scratch, he told me to come here because he was meeting people who might be able to help."

"Do you know where Harris lives?" I asked at once.

"Yeah. It's not too far from here, actually."

"Yet you didn't go there yourself to check on him?" Bones asked with heavy skepticism.

Ed gave Bones a weary look. "No, and I still won't unless I can get several people to go with me. I don't want to be the next vampire no one ever hears from. Judge all you want, but I don't have a bunch of badass powers to protect myself if something did happen to Shayne and Harris - and the ghouls who made it happen are still there." Sympathy welled up in me, dulling the voices still yammering on in my mind. Ed and Scratch were doing the best they could to look out for their friends under the very harsh circumstances of living in a world where they were close to second-class citizens. I knew from experience that it sucked to feel like no one had your back when the monsters came sniffing around. Of course, technically, Ed and Scratch were monsters, too.

Then again, so was I. In this case, that was a plus.

Bones looked at me and arched a brow.

"Let's do it," I said to the unspoken question.

He rose, giving his knuckles a quick, expert crack, and then threw several bills on the table.

"All right, then, mates. Let's see if Shayne's mobile just ran out of charge." True to Ed's word, Harris's apartment was only twenty minutes away. I found it ironic that it was also only about a mile away from the apartment complex I'd lived in when I went to OSU, seemingly another lifetime ago. If Bones noticed the close proximity to my old place, he didn't comment on it. He seemed more focused on the exterior of the building, trying to pick up any vibes of danger within. We couldn't risk sending Fabian in first to check it out. The ghost had snuck into our trunk when we drove off, unnoticed by Ed or Scratch, but if we sent Fabian in ahead of us, that would draw their attention to our phantom friend.

Tingles of power rode on the air behind us in the narrow parking lot. Ed and Scratch jerked around, but Bones didn't flinch. Neither did I. That was Tiny and Band-Aid, our backup who'd followed us over from the mall.

"Tiny, Band-Aid, keep an eye on these two for a moment, will you?" Bones said to them before striding toward the complex. I went with him, shrugging into my long leather coat. It wasn't because I was cold; the late summer day was warm, but my coat held several pounds'

worth of silver knives. Sure, I had knives tucked under my blouse, but those were the shorter, throwing variety meant for vampires. Only decapitation killed a ghoul, which meant I needed bigger blades if any sinister members of that species awaited us inside.

Bones inhaled once we reached the second floor. So did I. The front doors were all in a line facing the parking lot, with the fresh air chasing away most of the telltale scents of their occupants, but I caught a whiff of something inhuman coming from the second to last unit.

Bones must have, too, because his steps quickened. I inhaled again, my nose wrinkling when we were almost at that door. Bones paused to give me a grim look.

The shades were drawn tight, preventing us from peering inside, but I already knew what we'd find. The scent of death was unmistakable.

"We're too late," I whispered. Seeing the broken lock on the door was almost redundant.

Bones pushed the door open, moving immediately to the side in case a flash of flying silver accompanied his entry. Nothing moved, however. The inside of the apartment was as quiet as a tomb.

And just like a tomb, it had bodies in it.

"I don't feel anyone, but stay sharp," Bones said as he stepped inside. I followed, checking the corners first, joining Bones in doing a sweep of the interior with as much caution as if we knew enemy forces were within. As we'd suspected, though, the place was empty of everyone except us - and two shriveled vampires on the floor of the tiny family room.

The damn voices in my mind began to rise again. There weren't as many people in the apartment complex as the mall, so it didn't affect me with the same sort of mental explosion, but it was like my mind was filled with the hum from a nest of angry bees. I rubbed my temple, as if that could tone them down, but of course, it didn't help.

Bones didn't catch the gesture. His attention was still focused on the two shriveled corpses near our feet.

"Looks like a dawn ambush," he noted, taking in their lack of shoes and how neither body was fully dressed. "Poor sods didn't have the chance to put up much of a fight." The lack of disarray in the apartment was testament of that. When supernatural creatures fought to the death, things usually got a lot messier than a few overturned tables and some blood smeared on the carpet. Investigating the deaths of vampires was still somewhat unusual for me.

Sure, I'd spent years working for a covert branch of Homeland Security tracking paranormal homicides, but in those circumstances, the vampires had usually been the perpetrators. Not the victims.

. . . if I don't pay the car payment, I'll have enough money for the mortgage . . .

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