Sleight of Hand

“Vampires are the flickering illusions of Hollywood. They don’t exist.
We do. We are the Athanate.”

For Amber Farrell, post-military life as a PI has its ups and downs: She’s been hit by a truck. She’s being sued by a client. Denver’s newest drug lord just put out a contract on her. The sinister Athanate want her to come in for a friendly chat. And it’s only Tuesday.

Enter Jennifer Kingslund: rich, gorgeous—a tough businesswoman who’s known for getting what she wants in the boardroom and the bedroom. Someone’s trying to sabotage her new resort and destroy her company—and she wants Amber to find out who.

The answers lead Amber past Were and Adepts, right back to the Athanate—and a centuries-old war that could threaten not just Denver, but the nation that Amber swore to protect and serve.

And all sides want to claim her for their own…

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1. MONDAY

MONDAY

 

Chapter 1

 

It had been a couple of years and I was neither dead, nor undead, which I ranked as an achievement.

    It wasn’t as if I lacked opportunity. Even when I wasn’t really looking for it.

    I was safe at the moment. My perch among the roof beams of the Crate & Freight warehouse in the Northfield section of Denver was only fifty feet above the concrete floor. Those SCAR assault rifles down on the loading bay weren’t aimed at me. No one knew I was here and it was dark in this corner. That was safe, by some definitions of the word safe. I was kind of enjoying myself.

    Still, I knew what a few SCAR rounds could do to a body. The guys down there weren’t carrying them for show. If they pointed a flashlight up into the gloomy recesses, they would be surprised to see their afternoon visitor from the HR department, now minus her clipboard and big square glasses, in black coveralls and toting a camera with a zoom lens.

    Given what they were involved in, they wouldn’t stop to ask questions.

    I needed to call this in and hand it over to the police. I wasn’t armed tonight and besides, I was supposed to be a discreet PI, not a one-woman SWAT team.

    I didn’t want to risk them hearing me call 911. And I didn’t want the nearest cruiser with a couple of bored officers to swing by and spook these guys, thinking the call was some crazy woman. I wanted the Denver PD SWAT team, tooled up for the job. So I was waiting for a few of the photos to download from my camera to my cell and I would text them directly to Captain José Morales with details.

    I had his contact for a completely different reason, but surely he’d thank me for this?

    A noisy problem outside with the last truck emptied the warehouse, and I took the chance to climb down. Climbing urban structures was a teenage hobby of mine, so the prominent bolts and cross struts made this about as difficult as coming down a ladder.

    I lurked in the shadow of a pile of pallets, waiting for my cell to finish loading.

    Campbell Carter, the CEO of Centennial State Crate & Freight, had hired me on my office landlord’s recommendation. He suspected some of his drivers and dispatchers were stealing from him. Nothing major, just something he wanted straightened out. Crate & Freight was an important local business in Denver and Carter the kind of man who wanted to be squeaky clean. I knew he was gearing up to run for office next year.

    He was absolutely right in his suspicions—a group of drivers were skimming a margin, just enough that they thought it was below the radar. So far, so routine, so tame. But Carter’s assignment had been to find out what was going on, and it turned out skimming was the least of it.

    I’d worked out a cover story for the day with the Crate & Freight HR manager. She’d even given me a real HR survey they wanted done, laconically wishing me the best of luck with it. I’d wandered around the depot that afternoon with my clipboard, asking mind-numbing questions about job satisfaction.

    Every stuttered answer, every shifty eye, every sweaty face, told me something was happening today.

    They hustled me out at 5 p.m., and I was back, over the fence, at 9 p.m. I’d left the clipboard and the glasses behind. I was in black coveralls, black ski cap, black boots and some real good makeup.

    The photo transfer completed and I texted Morales: URGENT! Northfield Crate & Freight depot. See pix—large drug shipment moving NOW. RIFLES! SWAT team ASAP. Txt only. Amber Farrell.

    The text took forever to transmit with the photos, while I stared at the screen wondering how it would play with Morales. I was supposed to be low profile. I was supposed to be on call for him and not the other way around. I sighed. I’d find out soon enough what he thought about it.

    Of course, I’d come straight to the place they hadn’t want me this afternoon; the old warehouse. It was a vast building, about three stories tall, with a drive-in, drive-out loading area. It was stacked high with pallets and containers waiting for shipment. Normally, storage was all it was used for, but tonight they’d wanted to be able to load trucks with the shutters closed, away from prying eyes. Except mine. And my shutter was wide open.

    I’d expected to get photo evidence of some shrinkage of the stock. Not a sign of it, at least not tonight. There were thirty-two big rigs scheduled to leave the compound before morning. So far, a dozen had been driven into the warehouse and loaded just across from my hiding place. From what I’d seen, four were just regular loads. The others were carrying something extra, hidden in a compartment between the trailer and cab. From the lengths they went to for security and the size and shape of the packages, it was both drugs and weapons.

    All of the illicit stuff came from a blue box truck parked alongside the loading area. I didn’t recognize the company, Ranchos Rigs, but the plates were from New Mexico. In among a lot of edgy men, the driver, Nokes, had been the edgiest. He’d stood watching the transfer impatiently, talking only to Guy Windler, the Crate & Freight driver in charge of this operation. Windler took no crap from anyone else, but he was wary around Nokes.

    I checked the cell in case the vibrate wasn’t working. Nothing.

    Come on, Morales, the clock’s ticking. Look at your freaking texts.

    Given what was going on, the outer gates were locked and the eight drivers, site manager, forklift operator and dispatcher in the compound were all in on it. But you don’t keep a shipping depot like this closed for long. Other drivers would be arriving. They had to get those trucks out of the depot before then. Of course, the police would be able to round them all up eventually, but who knows if the drugs and guns would still be on board. And the credit for the bust would be shared with whichever cities the trucks were bound for.

    Morales, you want it for Denver PD, you come get it now.

    No one had come back inside the warehouse yet. I crept out of my hiding place and risked taking shots of the box truck plate and logo with my cell camera. I sent them to Morales: Delivery vehicle.

    I registered that the blue box truck had been closed up. The delivery had been completed, and Nokes was going to want out of here soon. Not on my watch. There was a chance he might lead Morales back up the supply chain.

    I checked his doors—locked. There are lots of ways to sabotage a truck, but I needed it to be quick and quiet. I also didn’t want to be obvious. There weren’t many good places to hide in this depot, if someone were really looking for you. I started with a tire. Front and left, where he’d see it. I got a thin splinter from a pallet and jammed the air valve open.

    I lay down to see how much of the engine I could reach from underneath. And the loading bay exit door in front of the truck started to rise.

    Oh, crap.

    The huge steel door would take about four seconds to get high enough for someone to see underneath. I pulled the splinter out and ran to the back, where the matching entry door was closed. Three seconds. Next to the truck entrance was a personnel door that was unlocked.

    Someone had left a stock man’s coat tossed on a chair near the entrance. Two seconds. I grabbed it and put it on as I opened the door. One. It was a calculated risk taking the coat, but it was what everyone was wearing outside. I closed the door gently. Zero. Through the small glass panel I watched Nokes go to his truck and stare at the half-deflated tire.

    Double crap. I’d been flushed from hiding and all I’d gained was a few minutes.

    Dammit, Morales, where are you?

    I was on the far side of the warehouse from whatever commotion had gotten everyone outside, but there would be another truck coming around here any minute. Turning the stiff collar up on the coat was barely half a disguise. I sprinted down the side of the warehouse, trailing coat like Batman, and slid into the dark gap between the warehouse and the dispatcher’s office. I made my way down to the end and peered out carefully into the central area.

    There was a gentle rain falling, making blurry halos around the sodium floodlights. Mack trucks, looming blank-eyed and sinister in the dark, were lined up in rows, ready to roll. The commotion was centered around the last truck loaded. It was one of the ones carrying drugs, and there’d been a problem with the hydraulics. It looked as if the cab’s steering had broken while it was maneuvering back into line. It was partly blocking the exit from the warehouse. Except for that, the dispersal might have started already. A huge lucky break for me and the Denver PD.

    A group was standing in front of the faulty cab, centered around Windler. He was only an inch or two taller than my five-ten, but massively heavy in the chest and shoulders. The bulk of him, the way he lowered his head, and his dark brown, unkempt hair and beard made me think of a bull buffalo. That crazed, wall-eyed look he’d given me this afternoon during my HR rounds shouted don’t get in my way. He’d refused my questions and I was so going to report him for it.

    Estes, the site manager, was standing alongside him, fidgeting and looking at his watch. They’d given up on the faulty cab. Another cab had been pulled up and was sitting there with its engine idling while they transferred the contents of the compartment. Headlights supplemented the sodium floodlight on the side of the office. The dispatcher, forklift operator and one of the drivers were staying to help, but the others were starting to drift towards their own rigs. Damn.

    My cell tickled. I pulled it out and shielded the screen.

    From Morales: Are you still inside compound?

    At last, and he was treating it seriously. Yes. Trucks about to roll.

    Shouting brought my attention back to the group. Nokes had come back out of the warehouse and squared up to Windler, gesturing in agitation.

    “…someone in here. The frigg'n hydraulics go on your truck and then someone’s let the air out of my tire.”

    I couldn’t hear Windler’s response. His back was to me and he was drowned out by Nokes’s panicked shouting.

    “I’m telling you, there was someone in the warehouse. And they’ve been out here, messing with your trucks. Shit! We’re busted, man, we’re busted.”

    So much for the lucky break. The hydraulics were nothing to do with me. He was adding two and two and getting a big number. The drivers were returning. Even the guys trying to switch the cabs had stopped and come across.

    I didn’t wait to hear what Windler said back to Nokes. It was time to find another hiding place.

    The gap between the warehouse wall and the office wall was just right. I wedged myself in and walked my way up the wall, eased myself quietly onto the flat roof of the office. I was close enough I could hear some of what was going on, but I was well above everyone’s eye line. And with all the people in the compound, hiding here would be a lot safer than creeping around. I pulled my ski cap lower and raised my head enough to see the group.

    Nokes had calmed down a fraction and backed off to make a call. Windler was standing in front of the cabs, frowning.

    Estes was alongside Windler, tapping his watch and talking in his ear. I could just about lip-read him. “The next batch of drivers will be here any minute. We’ve got to do something. Just move them out?”

    Windler shook his head as if dislodging flies. He looked up and spoke to the group loudly.

    “Nokes is sure there was someone in the warehouse. We can’t take the risk, but we can’t take the risk of someone seeing rifles either. Rack the rifles in my trailer, take the pistols instead and keep them hidden,” he said, looking around. “Spread out and check this place from one end to the other. In, on, under everything. You see him, kill him. We’ll hold anyone else at the gate. I’ll come up with a cover story.”

    I texted Morales again: They’re looking for me. Real soon would be good.

    Inbound, he responded. Head down.

    What the hell had spooked Nokes? It wasn’t the missing coat—he’d have said. I’d left no trace. He hadn’t seen me. He hadn’t heard me. Smell? I’m trained; I wasn’t wearing perfume and last I checked I smelled better than the coat I’d stolen. Maybe he was just right for the wrong reasons, like he’d been about the hydraulics.

    The only benefit from this was that the drivers who were looking for me weren’t driving away in their rigs. But if they did a good job with the search, they’d look up here soon. It was a straight race between the SWAT team and the search party. I distracted myself by trying to estimate how long it should take those men to search the compound, and comparing it with the response time the SWAT team quoted.

    It had gone quiet, except for the idling engines. I peered over the shed roof again. Windler and Estes were still there, Nokes to one side arguing on his cell. Everyone else had gone off to look for me. Nothing like being wanted to give a girl a nice, warm feeling on a cold, wet night.

    Estes held his pistol up in the headlights, checked it and chambered a round. He stuck it back in the pocket of his coat, unsafed. Idiot. The pair of them wandered over toward the office.

    “Don’t like this,” Windler muttered, not ten yards from me. “Not tonight. It’s trouble.”

    “He’s just jumpy, for Christ’s sake, Guy.”

    Windler wasn’t going to be calmed. “There’s been something the whole frigg'n day.”

    “What d’you mean?” said Estes. “It’s just a hydraulic pipe. It happens, man. Nokes is scared of his own shadow.”

    “No. Right from the start today. That woman from HR poking around. Something off about her. Trouble,” he said again.

    “Look, him or her, we’ll find them,” Estes said. “Then they’ll be no trouble at all.” He chuckled and grabbed his crotch. “If it’s her, maybe we don’t kill her right away.”

    Windler had started to shake his head in irritation again when there was shouting from the gates. Awesome. The cavalry was here.

    Windler was the first to react. He turned and sprinted to the new cab. It hadn’t been connected to the trailer yet, and its engine was running. Nokes went for it too.

    No freaking way. I leaped off the roof, coat flying, and landed next to Estes.

    He turned to me, shock and disbelief on his face giving way to terror. I guess it was the makeup. He started scrabbling in his coat pocket, jerking at the pistol to free it.

    “Pleased to see me, are you?” I said, as I grabbed his wrist and slammed my elbow into his face.

    Everything happened at once. The pistol in his pocket went off and the bullet tore through his thigh. Windler’s cab started to roll. Estes screamed and would have collapsed but for my grip on him. The SWAT team opened the gates to come swarming through. No! No! No! Shut the gates!

    “FREEZE! POLICE!” was being bellowed from every angle. Someone was yelling my name. Shots were fired. I was standing right between the cab and the gates. It was barreling down on me, twelve feet tall and eight wide, hard bright chrome, lights blazing, engine roaring, dirt and gravel spurting out the sides. I felt a stupid sense of disbelief. He wasn’t going to stop.

    There was no chance Estes could get out of the way.

    I wanted him in prison, not the morgue. I’m far stronger than I look; I lifted him up and hurled him clear. I’m also very quick; I nearly made it, too.

    So, so close.

    I was diving backwards when the cab hit me and I did the old rag doll flip through the night air.

    “MAN DOWN!” someone screamed.

    Oh, jeez, that hurt. I know it was dark and, yeah, I was wearing coveralls and a coat, but come on, guys, gimme a break. Then the ground came up like a huge fist and punched my lights right out.

 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

 

Cold. Dark. Squeezed in a still, breathless space. Why was I crying? Sergeants don’t cry.

    I opened my eyes. Rain, not tears, on my cheeks. Hands on my face, pinching my nose, gripping my jaw. Behind that, someone loomed, inches away. No! I won’t go back to that cell.

    I sucked in a panicky lungful of air and lashed out. I caught him on the chin, and Detective Jennings grunted and collapsed backward.

    “Farrell!” Morales shouted at me. “Stop!”

    “Oh, shit. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” I levered myself up. Bad mistake. The world went all wobbly for a second and when it settled, I was on all fours, kneeling beside Jennings. At least he was blinking and mumbling.

    A medic shouldered me aside and bent over him, muttering about friendly fire.

    Morales knelt next to me, but not too close.

    “You okay?” he said.

    I grimaced as the fog in my head cleared out. The truck…

    “Windler? Nokes?” I twisted around to look, making my head spin, and ended up slumped back on my ass.

    “The guys in the truck? They got out the gate. We probably hit the driver with a couple of shots, but we didn’t have time to set up a blockade. They’re gone, but they won’t get far.” Morales reached out carefully and lifted my chin up to the lights, looked at my eyes. “You weren’t breathing,” he said. “No pulse.”

    “Just shock,” I said. “It wasn’t as bad as it looked.” It was. Or would have been for anyone else. “Anyway, heart and lungs working now.”

    “You need to get to the hospital?”

    “Thanks, but I don’t like hospitals.” I flexed my shoulders. “Nothing but bumps and bruises anyway.” My shoulders twinged and I stifled a hiss. A lot of bumps and bruises, but I can’t have doctors looking at me.

    Morales knew some of the background on this and he was just fishing with his question. I guess I couldn’t blame him. He thought I must know more about it than I did.

    I wasn’t a vampire. Yet. And if there was anything I could do to stop it, I wouldn’t become one. In the meantime, I couldn’t risk what might show up on X-rays and blood tests any more than I could risk violating my agreement with the army. And even mouth to mouth resuscitation might have been a really bad idea for Jennings to try, for both of us.

    “This man has a concussion. We’ll need to keep him under observation.” The medic glared at me as they stretchered him away.

    “I was not going to lie there and let him pump my chest and slobber all over my face,” I said defensively to Morales. “You know why…ah, hell. Apologize to him for me, will you? I’ll buy him a drink next week. And, uh, thank you too. Good timing.”

    Morales grunted and stood up. “Well, if you don’t need to go to the hospital, do you need a lift home?”

    I started to shake my head and thought better of it. Falling over wouldn’t look good. “No, thanks.” I got shakily to my feet. Not good, but not bad. I’ve felt worse.

    He handed me a handkerchief. “You might want to get that muck off your face,” he said. “You will have a full report in my in-tray tomorrow morning, 9 a.m. And you will be available for any further questions.”

    “Yes, sir.” Damn, so much for sleeping in tomorrow. But at least he wasn’t chewing me out for not keeping a low profile.

    “Then get the hell off my crime scene.” He waved toward the gate.

    I couldn’t resist. “Oh. That’s what all this pretty yellow ribbon is for, is it?”

 

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