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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2. TUESDAY

TUESDAY

 

Chapter 2

 

Well, unless sitting in the office was my own personal purgatory, I was still alive.

    I hurt like hell, though.

    I completed the report and stretched, carefully. The bruises would fade and the sprains and strains would repair themselves. I heal exceptionally quickly, but being hit by a truck is always going to hurt for a while.

    Scary stuff. Just my kind of evening’s entertainment.

    Sitting still while typing the reports had stiffened up my back and I attempted some gentle twists. One of the problems with being five-ten; there was more of me to hurt. Still, on the bright side, a normal person would have been in the hospital, if she were lucky.

    Morales had gotten his report. This one was for Carter. I attached it and a final invoice to an email, signed it off as Amber Farrell, Commercial and Private Investigator, and sent it. That began the sweet process that would end with money in my beleaguered bank account. Not a moment too soon. This case had lasted way longer than I had anticipated; the flat fee I’d agreed to had turned out to be a bad decision. It had been interesting, sure, and that was important to me personally, but it meant I had put aside the everyday work that kept an investigation business solvent.

    I couldn’t face the thought of that everyday work at the moment. I’d earned an afternoon off. But should I go swimming and show off the bruises all down my body, or just opt for a run to loosen everything up? Or both? That way, I could justify a steak dinner and one of Lario’s legendary chocolate desserts. My mouth started to water at the thought. I’m totally OCD on physical fitness, and a girl’s gotta fuel all that energy.

    Before I did anything else, I logged into the bank account and paid Tullah. She had come to work for me with the clear understanding that salaries get paid when they can, but I felt guilty when it was late.

    Done. I gathered the remaining notes on my desk and stuck them in the Crate & Freight folder.

    I guessed Windler would be in custody by now, with a charge for attempted vehicular manslaughter added to a long rap sheet.

    My cell rang and at the same time, the outer door opened. That was unusual, since we didn’t get much walk-in business, but Tullah would hold whoever it was for a few moments. The caller ID on the cell showed Morales.

    This ought to be good. Clearing up a major drug smuggling operation in one hit like that would look good in front of his bosses. So, a little thank you from the police captain, that would just be icing on today’s cake, or Lario’s chocolate dessert, whatever.

    The warmth from outside had set the air conditioning off again and made me think how cool that swimming pool would feel. I needed to keep this short.

    “Captain Morales, good day,” I said cheerfully.

    “Farrell, we have some problems.”

    “Hmm. ‘We,’ Captain?” My vision of an afternoon off receded, but I wasn’t going to let it go without a fight.

    “Yes, ‘we,’ Farrell, and you can put away the smartass comments any time now.”

    “What’s wrong?” I said. “Don’t tell me Windler and Nokes got away?”

    “For the moment.”

    Despite the sour note of their escape, I still felt good about the op, but I had to get moving.

    “Okay. Well, I guess you didn’t call for that.”

    “Yeah. Look, Farrell, we’ve locked down Crate & Freight.”

    “Damn! Carter’s not going to be happy.” Not to mention me—my invoice wasn’t going to get paid while the company accounts were frozen.

    “He isn’t, and let’s be clear, that’s an understatement. That’s the first reason I called you—to give you a heads up. He’s hurting and he’s blaming you.”

    The heads up surprised me. Captain Morales wasn’t ever my biggest fan. When I left the police force, I guess I could have dug my heels in and made it an issue, which wouldn’t have looked good on Lieutenant Morales’ watch just as he was pitching for the next slot. In the event, I had left quietly and he was made Captain a month or so later, but that didn’t obligate him to call me with warnings on a matter like this. I guess this was my thank you for last night.

    “Okay. Thanks for that.” I hesitated. My paycheck was delayed, and I didn’t want any more bad news today, but I knew there was something more here. “What else?”

    “Farrell, we’re talking literally tons of cocaine. This is major league organized crime. There’s someone else hurting here.”

    He didn’t need to go on. I was the cause of an astronomical loss to some crime boss. It wasn’t a good place to be.

    The landline phone rang and I heard Tullah pick up. Never one thing at a time. I had to end this call.

    “I hear you. Thanks again, Captain. I’ll be careful.”

    He wouldn’t let it go. “Haven’t you got somewhere else you could be? I’d still need to be able to—”

    That plain ticked me off. Of all people, he should have had a good idea of how well I can take care of myself. “I have all this kinda stuff hanging over me already, remember, Lieutenant? Now, I have a business to run. Gotta go run it. Bye.”

    “Dammit, Farrell, the feds will want—” I hit the cut off and sighed. So, the local drug boss wanted my hide. Take a number. See if you can find me before the vamps do.

    Tullah put her head around the door.

    “Amber, there’s Ms. Kingslund to see you, and a call. It’s Mr. Carter on line 1.” Tullah looked irritated, and I guessed that Carter was beyond being polite. If he had a beef with me, I’d take that, but I didn’t want him being unpleasant to Tullah.

    I sighed, and all hope of the afternoon off disappeared completely.

    “Ask Ms. Kingslund if she would allow me a couple more minutes for this call, please,” I asked Tullah.

    “Okay, honey, I hear you,” came back through the partition in a pleasant contralto. “Go ahead.”

    My office was a former storeroom at my accountant’s. Ms. Kingslund and I were separated by the thinnest of partitions. I grimaced. Not ideal. I could have done without the ‘honey,’ too, but this wasn’t going to be the best introduction a client could have and I let it ride. I couldn’t put Carter off any longer.

    Steeling myself, I picked up the landline.

    “Carter, it’s Farrell—” I was going to apologize for him having to hold while I was on my cell, before we discussed how he talked to Tullah, but I never got that far.

    “You’re finished, Farrell,” he shouted down the phone. “I should never have trusted you. When Greg told me you were reliable and confidential, I believed him. What was he thinking? When I’m done with you, you’ll never get work again in this town.”

    “Whoa, Carter. Can we back up a couple of steps here?”

    “Don’t give me any of that bull. I’m not going to waste my time talking to you any longer than I have to. You betrayed my confidence by going to the cops. You exceeded your assignment. You—”

    “I made the police aware of serious criminal activity,” I cut across his rant. “You look at my contract, Carter. I’ve done what I said I would do, and you owe me my fees.”

    “I don’t care what you think, you’ve screwed my whole company with your incompetent meddling.”

    I have a little demon in my throat that just ups and says things sometimes. “Incompetent?” said the demon sweetly. “I’m not the one who’s been running a busted drug smuggling operation.”

    That was probably not the best thing to say, but we were beyond any reasonable conversation anyway, so I wasn’t too upset with the demon.

    “I’m going to sue you, you-,” he screamed before I put the phone down.

    “I’m not taking calls from him until further notice, Tullah, and neither should you,” I managed to say calmly.

    My guts were churning with anger. There was no way his lawyers could get anything to stick against me, but I really couldn’t afford to waste time in court, or money on lawyers.

    Taking deep breaths and deliberately not thinking about the five most painful ways to kill a man with my bare hands, I told myself it was likely Carter was just letting off steam and it would never come to a lawsuit. Or he’d take it to his lawyers and they’d talk some sense into him. Maybe, eventually, I would get my money. Maybe.

    I couldn’t spend time thinking about that now. I’d ignored my steady work for a bit of excitement, much good it had done. I needed a nice, run of the mill, predictable case that paid well. If Ms. Kingslund was still there, I really needed her business.

    She was.

    Tullah ushered her in, and my stomach did a flip. Oh. That Ms. Kingslund.

    What with my anger at Carter, my surprise at seeing who it was, and getting out of my chair like I was suffering from rheumatism, I must have looked a sight to her. She ignored all that, walked over and stuck her hand out. “Jennifer Kingslund. Please call me Jen.” She ran her eyes over the office as we shook, taking it all in. That didn’t take very long, and they were back to looking at me.

    “Then I’m Amber,” I replied. Her eyes were the cool blue of a shirt too often washed. Nice, but wary. Not that I blamed her; she’d come to my office looking for a private investigator. The name would have told her I was female, but maybe she’d been expecting a Kathleen Turner, playing V. I. Warshawski, turned out in a chic dress and jacket. What she’d got was darker, taller and leaner, short auburn hair pulled back in a pony tail, dressed in my office clothes, also known as slim jeans and plain white T.

    Oh, and with extensive bruising all down one side. Yeah, I’d have looked wary too.

    “After your last call,” she said, with a flicker of a smile, “maybe you would appreciate a cup of coffee over in Papa Dee’s?”

    “Sure, let’s go across.”

    I picked up a blank client file, nodded to Tullah and we walked out into Denver’s fall sunshine. Both of us slipped on sunglasses against the bright light. It was hot, maybe one of the last few days of Indian summer, with the heat coming off the asphalt in waves.

    That Jennifer Kingslund. What the hell was she doing out here, talking to me?

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