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…



Chapter 3


“I’m sorry about the call,” I said as we walked. “It was just wrong to take it while you were waiting and could hear. I’m usually much more discreet with a client’s business, but I didn’t think he’d appreciate waiting.”

    “Campbell gets overexcited, and I guess this isn’t a good time for him,” she replied. Of course, she would have heard about the company on the news. She would have connected the dots while she listened to my side of the telephone conversation. And of course, she would know him. She waved an elegant hand. “Let’s leave it, for the moment.”

    Jennifer Anna-Marie Kingslund was the CEO and owner of one of Colorado’s leading businesses, the Kingslund Group. She owned hotels, restaurants, sports facilities and nightclubs. I remembered hearing she had diversified into PR recently.

    Given her history of marriages that had come apart in public and the intriguing rumors of boardroom struggles, there weren’t many people in Denver who didn’t know something about her. According to the papers, she was a role model for businesswomen, or attractive and extroverted, depending on the angle of the story. She famously championed local causes. I didn’t think I qualified as a local cause and had to scratch my head trying to come up with a reason she might want to hire a solo private investigator.

    That, however, isn’t a question you ask, as a solo private investigator.

    Jennifer Kingslund could afford the best of the downtown agencies. If she had a reason to come to me, hopefully she would tell me. Even if she didn’t, I wouldn’t let that stop me from taking a case. I needed the money. Paying Tullah against the expectation of a prompt payment from Crate & Freight had left about sixty dollars in the account.

    In the flesh, she seemed a bit taller than her pictures on the news, though still a couple of inches off my five-ten. Maybe that was the effect of the pretty Italian heels that she clipped along on. She was slim. She wore a simple red dress hanging to just below the knee. Her Scandinavian blonde hair had been done that morning by the looks of it, big and swirly. It was a color that made me think of old gold. A single, thin chain hung around her neck and she carried a little clutch bag. What with the dress and the hairdo, the bag and the chain, she was probably carrying around more value than my entire wardrobe. Sigh.

    If she noticed me looking, she didn’t let it show and she didn’t return the favor. I guess there wasn’t a lot to see beyond the casual clothes and ugly bruises. My belt and cowboy boots were top quality, but no one ever noticed them.

    “Do you suppose,” she said, tilting her chin up at the peculiar turrets above Papa Dee’s, “that adding those ridiculous little roofs has resulted in so much as a single extra client?”

    I laughed. “Maybe not, but at least everyone knows where Papa Dee’s is.” Then we were inside, where it was cool and dark, even with the sunglasses pushed back up.

    We picked up a couple of coffees and sat in a corner. There were only a handful of customers, mainly people from the surrounding small businesses. It was late for lunch. The wooden tables were wiped down and the staff was beginning to set them  for dinner. I glanced around. The music was turned down low, but the customers were spread out through the restaurant. It was comfortable and it was reasonably discreet, if that was what she had wanted.

    “So, ahhh, Jen, how can I help?”

    She didn’t dive right in. “You were in the army for a while, weren’t you?”

    “Yes, that’s where I learned accounting.” Not a word of a lie, but not the whole truth at all. I hated being evasive, but there were things I couldn’t talk about. If she picked up on it, she didn’t show it.

    “Some time in the police as well.” That was a statement rather than a question, and she could have read that off the company website, so I just gave a little hum of confirmation. My time in the police included more things I couldn’t talk about. If she was one of those clients who needed a comprehensive review of my past, I was going to have to turn this one down, but it seemed she’d just been settling herself down.

    “You’ve been recommended to me.” She saw the question forming on my lips and held her hand up to stop me. “I promised them I wouldn’t tell you who it was and I take my word very seriously.” Her eyes got cooler and held mine. “I expect the same level of discretion from you. I need your word that anything I say from now on is held in absolute confidence. If a situation arises like the one with Campbell’s call in your office, you will find a way around it without revealing anything about me or my case to anyone else, or we can’t do business.”

    I don’t have a problem with people who state their requirements clearly, so that didn’t raise any hackles. It startled me a bit that she had gone from Ms. Nice to the ice queen businesswoman in the space of a couple of sentences. It gave me some appreciation for her reputation as a tough person in the commercial world. From what I could recall, she’d inherited a small restaurant business in a mess of family shares and bad deals. She’d turned it around, paid the rest of the family off, two ex-husbands included, and made it the successful company that she owned today. I was beginning to see how.

    “Agreed.” I nodded and took a sip of my coffee. “You have my word.”

    “Good.” The eyes warmed up a touch. She sat forward. I know all the body language pop psychology, but that doesn’t mean I don’t go along. I sat forward too, and she began to talk quietly and intensely.

    “I believe my company is under attack. I don’t mean in the normal commercial sense, but a systematic, criminal attack intended to disrupt my business to the point it collapses or my only viable choice is to sell. But I can’t prove it.”

    She paused to see if I had any comment, but I just sat and waited for her to continue.

    “This is the worst possible time for this to happen. You may know, my new division, Kingslund Media, has been formed from the purchase of an existing PR business, Frankell-Maines?”

    I nodded; that much I knew from the papers.

    She continued. “The funding came through the banks, and it’s taking a lot of effort to keep it going and repay the loans while it gets in a position to maintain itself. In the meantime, my capital reserve is earmarked for a takeover bid that I’m preparing. Any damage to either operation could put the whole company in jeopardy. Just a rumor of a financial problem could start the dominos falling in this environment. I can’t walk into Bell and Hewitt and get a bunch of their agents rooting through my business because everyone would know there’s something up. Even worse, there might be a leak about the funding or the takeover.”

    I nodded. I could see the problem. Bell and Hewitt were the big downtown investigation firm, but I always got the feeling that companies used them for show rather than results. Meow.

    “Okay,” I said. “I see why you might need a less well-known investigator, and one with some financial expertise. Is that why you were advised to come see me?”

    “No.” There was still a wariness in her eyes when I mentioned the recommendation. It made me very interested in where this story was leading. She continued, “I’ll get to that in a moment. First, I need to say that the level of attacks has been escalating. In the beginning it was just minor financial irregularities. If I’m right, it’s now completely out of hand. I’m worried that a key employee may have been abducted. I’m sure that some staff who’ve just left, have done so because they’ve been threatened. I need this stopped now.”

    “Jen, I understand the secrecy issues, but if I’m working on your case and I discover a felony, such as abduction, we will need to talk to the police.” I had to draw that line for her. I needed the business, but not at the expense of giving Morales an excuse to come after me.

    She looked a bit unhappy about it, but nodded. My respect for her went up a notch. Faced with compromising her business operation or helping an employee, she’d gone for the employee.

    “Also, I’m not the police.” I tapped the table to make my point. “I can discover things for you, and maybe with that knowledge you can prevent anything further from happening. But if someone needs ‘stopping,’ then it’s back to the police again. They have the big guys in uniforms with all the guns and helmets and flak jackets.”

    She nodded again.

    She seemed reluctant to go on with her brief, so I prodded her. “We can go into more detail on those things, and if we proceed, I’ll draw up a set of tasks against them, but I need to hear the rest first.”

    Her mouth became set, as if she were unsure how I would react. Her weight shifted backwards. She really wasn’t happy about this part.

    “I have a great piece of land outside of town, out on US 285. It’s called Silver Hills. I have planning permission for a resort and golf course, but I’m not building yet. It’s supposed to be getting a bit of preparatory landscaping work. I’ve had a couple of work crews...” she stumbled a bit, broke off eye contact and then finished, “well, scared off.”

    I raised my eyebrows questioningly. “Scared off? How? Guys with guns or telephone threats of some kind?”

It took a while for her to respond. “No, something completely different. Wolves, pawprints all over the site, things going missing. The site getting torn up overnight. Damage to equipment.”

    I blew out a breath. “Well, I can’t believe we’ve got wolves in this part of the Rockies, not this close to Denver. Wild animals, okay, maybe a bear. More likely a bunch of bored teens walking their dogs and stealing stuff. Can I be clear—I got specially recommended because something or someone like this scared your work crews?” I sat all the way back, folded my arms and just watched her. There was obviously something about this she wasn’t telling me.

    “Yes,” she said. “I spoke to a friend about this, one with some experience in these kinds of things, and the recommendation came back that, if it involved something ‘weird,’ then you’re the person.”

    This didn’t sound good to me. I wanted to keep the number of people who know anything about me and weird things to an absolute minimum. In my experience, weird is dangerous. I already spent enough time looking over my shoulder. But at the same time, I was intrigued and, of course, I had to think about my bank balance.

    “Any weird stuff that might have happened to me doesn’t make me an expert,” I said cautiously.

    “Do you know someone who is?” Her eyes were locked back on me and the ice queen was showing through again.

    I shook my head. “No.”

    “Is that ‘no’ you don’t know anyone better suited, or ‘no’ you won’t take the case?”

    I needed the business. I held up a placating hand. “How about this—I’ll split the case into three and do some checking on each. The three are staff, financial and your resort at Silver Hills. I’ll report to you if I discover anything significant, or at the end of the day, regardless. If I can’t find anything on any one of the cases, I’ll say so and you’ll be able to get someone else in for that part if you want. If I do find proof of a felony, we go to the police. In between, we just proceed as seems fit.”

    “Done,” she said quickly. There was a note of relief in her voice. I hadn’t done anything yet, but it was something I’d seen before, as if just talking to someone else had shifted part of the burden.

    “Can I see the contract, please?” she asked.

    I passed the standard duplicate forms across and sipped my cooling coffee as she bent her head over them. She noted some stuff on her smartphone as she went. She also made some changes, initialing them before moving on. I huffed quietly. I’d have to take a look at those and I hated reading legal forms.

    There was a bit of turnover in Papa Dee’s clientele. A couple walked out, kissed and went to separate cars. A guy whose face made me think of an angry rabbit came over and sat one table away from us. Now, there’s a convention that most people stick to in half-empty coffee shops. You try to space yourself out, you don’t take a table right next to someone else. He flicked up his laptop screen and dived in. A nerd. Low level of social skills. Probably only came in for the free internet. I sighed. Nothing that set my alarms off, but we’d have to talk quietly if there was more to say.

    The waiter wandered over with a coffee refill for us. He had a bit of a swagger and strong, square hands. I imagined those hands gently massaging my back and I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. A quick peek confirmed he had thick, dark hair that I could almost feel my fingers running though. And a nice smile. I gritted my teeth and closed my eyes. Not going to happen. Not allowed. Rules.

    Back in the real world, Jen had signed the contracts and pushed them back at me. I hoped she hadn’t spotted me eyeing the waiter. Or my reaction afterwards.

    I checked her amendments. They were perfectly fair. She had emphasized the confidentiality aspects, corrected a typo that I’d kept meaning to correct, and added nothing that made me unhappy. I matched her initials, signed both copies and passed one back to her.

    She fiddled with her smartphone and looked up.

    “Good. Thank you. I’ve transferred five thousand into your bank account to cover preliminary costs. Bank details as in the agreement.” She made a wry face. “Or at least, the money is wherever it goes to when it’s left my account and isn’t yet in yours.”

    I kept my face impassive and managed not to punch the air. Five thousand would take care of the bills due next week and then some.

    “Thanks,” I said blandly. “My reports will detail costs.”

    We exchanged cell numbers and email addresses, and she handed a USB drive across to me. “This contains files of my internal accounts with my analysis, a list of employees who’ve left recently, with contact details, and the missing man I’m especially worried about, Troy Huber. And security footage from Silver Hills.”

    She bit her lip and looked down at the table. “Amber, I know I sound evasive about the problem at the resort. Please, just have a look at the clip before you make your mind up. You’ll understand.”

    As I slipped the drive into my pocket, she also handed me a photo and a set of keys. “That’s Troy and these are for his apartment down in LoDo. The address is on the label.”

    I took them silently, glancing at the picture. I wondered how she came to have a set of keys for Troy’s apartment.

    “What’s his job?” I asked.

    “He’s the head chef at the Golden Harvest restaurant. He didn’t show up for work over the weekend. The police won’t do anything yet. All that information is on the drive.”

    I nodded. The Golden Harvest was her signature restaurant and the priciest place in town. Certainly not somewhere I could afford to eat, but I had heard the chef was something special. People would notice his absence.

    “Married? Partner? Local family?” She just shook her head.

    “Okay. I’ll start with his apartment and I’ll call you.”

    She nodded her thanks and made a call to her driver to pick her up, before turning back to me.

    “May I ask a personal question, Amber?”

    I shrugged. “Of course.”

    “Those are really beautiful boots. They’re handmade, aren’t they?”

    I pulled my jeans up to the tops of the boots and stretched my legs out beside the table to show her, obscurely pleased she’d noticed. “Yup. Made by a friend of mine.”

    “They’re so soft!” She felt the supple leather. “Does he do it as a business?”

    “Sure. Here, I’ll give you his contact info.” I fiddled with my cell and sent Werner’s details to her.

    “Werner Schumacher?” she asked. “Mr. Schumacher is the shoe maker?”

    “Indeed he is.” I laughed. “Your car’s here.” I pointed at the black limo and the driver shouldering his way through the doors.

    She got up and took my hand, squeezing it.

    “Thank you, Amber. Please call as soon as you can.” She started towards the door and stopped as if something had just occurred to her. She turned back and waved at my boots. “Do you ride?”

    I shook my head with a little smile. “Not unless you count a couple of hours when I was fourteen.”

    “Oh. Never mind. Maybe we can do some, after we straighten this business out. I have horses. Bye.” And with that she was out the door.

    I loved the cheerful assumption that all would go well.

    I sat there, watching a car that had gone around the block a couple of times do it again, and wondered why I hadn’t picked up my gun when I walked out of the office.

    In between, I wondered what the hell I was getting into, let alone what I was already in. And what were the prospects for a private investigator in, say, Alaska?


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