It was the type of night only the dead could enjoy-as dark as hell, and as warm as the Antarctic. Add to that the bonus of rain that bucketed down, and it was no wonder the streets were deserted.
Well, almost deserted, Sam amended, glancing at the alleyway across the street. An old man in a threadbare coat rummaged through the garbage bins that were lined up behind the Chinese restaurant, filling a plastic bag with God-knows what. And not five minutes ago, two prostitutes had come knocking on her car's window, their faces almost blue with cold as they'd tried to convince her to take them for a ride. Their expressions, when she'd flashed her badge, were almost relieved. But then, a warm cell block was certainly more enticing than trying to ply their trade on a night like this. Had she not been waiting for her partner to turn up, she might have taken them downtown and charged them with soliciting, just to get them off the street and warm again. Prostitution might be legal these days but it was restricted to certain areas, and this particular street in old Footscray wasn't one of them.
But she'd had no choice but let them go with a warning. To say they weren't happy with this stroke of fortune would an understatement. Obviously, they'd been looking forward to being locked up in a warm cell, and cuddling up with a blanket or two. And right now, she knew exactly how they felt. Even a cup of the shocking coffee they served at the station house would be heaven right now.
She glanced down at the on-board computer, and noted it was already after three. If her goddamn partner didn't turn up real soon, she was heading home. Why the hell he'd insisted on meeting in this ratty section of the city in the first place was beyond her. It wasn't even close to their patrol zone.
Sighing, she crossed her arms, and glanced out the car's side window again. A plastic bag tumbled down the road, ghostlike in the darkness. Unease pricked across her skin, though she wasn't sure why. Maybe it was just nerves. After all, it wasn't every night she got an urgent call from a man who'd been missing for weeks. And it certainly wasn't every night she went against department policy, and agree to a secret meeting.
She glanced back to the alley. The old man had disappeared. While she knew he'd probably just moved beyond her line of sight, that vague sense of unease increased. She stared through the rain-washed darkness, watching for some form of movement that would indicate the old man was still there.
And instinct was insisting something was very wrong in that alley.
She rubbed a hand across her eyes, and silently cursed her partner's tardiness. She didn't need this, not after a fifteen-hour shift, and especially not in a patrol zone that wasn't hers. Just thinking about the extra paper work made her head ache.
She leaned forward, and pressed the locater switch. The on-board computer hummed to life, and produced a map of the immediate vicinity. The only way out of the alley, besides the entrance she could see, was via a fire escape on the building that hosted the Chinese restaurant. She stabbed a finger at the screen, and the computer immediately listed other occupants. The top two floors were empty, but the second floor was rented to an R.C.Clarke.
She frowned again. The name rang a bell, though she didn't know why. She pressed the screen a second time, but the computer had no additional information. For several seconds, she blindly watched the rain race down the glass. It was very wet out there. But the sooner she got out and investigated, the sooner she could get back to the relative warmth of this icebox they had the cheek to call a squad car.
With a slight grimace, she opened the glove compartment and retrieved her wristcom. In reality, it wasn't just a communications unit, more a two-inch wide mini computer capable of doing just about everything but make coffee. She wasn't supposed to be using it out of hours, but there was no way known she going into that alley without it. Not when unease sat like a lead weight in her belly. If things went wrong, she wanted an electronic record of everything that happened.
After fastening the unit onto her wrist, she flicked the record button, checked that it was working, then collected her gun and climbed out of the car. As the door automatically locked behind her, she zipped up her jacket and eyed the dark alley. It was quite possible that this was some sort of set-up. In the last few weeks, five detectives had disappeared, one of them Jack, her partner. And while he'd finally contacted her earlier this evening, it was extremely odd that he'd called neither headquarters, nor Suzy, his wife. She knew, because she'd checked.
It worried her.
And it was what held her still, even as the drenching rain sluiced off her coat and soaked through her boots. Jack loved Suzy more than life itself, and there was no way known he'd contact her before he contacted his wife.
The wind lifted her hair and wrapped icy fingers round her neck. She shivered, but knew it had nothing to do with the cold. Suddenly, the night felt very wrong.
Which was daft. It was probably just the cold, the rain, and the severe need for sleep. If Jack hadn't made an appearance by the time she checked the alley, she was going home. She didn't need to be involved in another of his stupid games in the dead of the night after a very long shift. If he wanted to talk to her, he could do so in the heat of day. He knew were she lived-knew he was welcome there anytime. She clipped the gun to her belt. Its familiar weight offered a sense of comfort to the uneasiness that stilled stirred through her as she walked across the road.
The rain eased a little as she entered the alley, but the wind danced through the darkness, a forlorn moan that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. She hesitated, her gaze skating across the shadows. The old man's possessions were strewn across the ground near the garbage bins. They amounted to little more than a few old books, a couple of credit cards and the scraps of food he'd ferreted out of the bin.
She bent, and picked up the cards. The names on them were all different-Joseph Ryan, Tom King, Jake George. Obviously, the old guy had not been above a little credit fraud. She dropped the cards, then stepped across the books and cautiously walked deeper into the alley. The darkness was blanket heavy, but her eyes slowly adjusted. Shapes loomed through the ink of night. On the right hand side of the alley, a dozen or so large boxes were stacked haphazardly against a graffiti decorated wall, and to her left was the fire escape that zigzagged up the restaurant wall.
She walked past the rusted metal ladder, then stopped. With the full force of the wind blocked by the buildings on either side, the smells that haunted the alley came into their own. Rotting rubbish, puddles of stale water, and the faintest hint of human excrement all combined into one stomach-churning stench. She shuddered, and tried breathing through her mouth rather than her nose. It didn't help much.
Twenty feet away the alley came to a dead halt, blocked by a wall at least fifteen feet tall. Unless the old guy had springs for legs, or wings hidden under his threadbare coat-both of which were certainly possible in this day and age-there was no way on Earth he could have gotten over it. She glanced across to the boxes. It didn't make any sort of sense for him to be hiding there, either, especially when he'd abandoned his belongings to do so. Most street people clung to their few possessions with a ferocity only death could shatter. Besides, the rain had made the boxes a sodden mass that would have collapsed with the slightest touch.
Which left only the fire escape.
She glanced up. Moisture dripped from above, splattering across her face. She wiped it away with her palm, then frowned and glanced down. Why did the rain suddenly feel warm?
In her heart, she knew the answer to that question even as it crossed her mind. Grimly, she pressed a small switch on her wristcom. Light flared from the unit, a pale yellow glow that jostled uneasily against the darkness. She raised her arm, and shone the light on the metal walkway above her.
As she thought, it wasn't rain dripping down from the fire escape, but rather, blood. But there wasn't a body-or, at least, not one that she could see from where she stood.
For a moment, she considered contacting headquarters about a possible homicide. But Jack had asked her to come here alone. Had specifically asked her not to contact them. She didn't understand why, and, in the end, didn't really care. He'd been her partner for close on five years now, and she trusted him more than she trusted the pratts and politicians back at headquarters.
Wiping her palm down her thigh, she reached back for her gun. Then slowly, and cautiously, she began to climb.
Three flights up she found the old man. He'd been thrown against the far edge of the landing, his body a broken and bloody mass that barely resembled anything human. She closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. Death was never an easy find. In her ten years on the force, she'd come across many of its masks, yet it still had the power to shock her.
Especially when it was as gruesome as this.
The old man's eyes were wide with fear, his mouth locked in a scream that would never be heard. His flesh had been stripped from his face, leaving a bloody mass of raw veins and muscle. No vampire had done this. In fact, none of the non-human species currently on record were capable of an act like this.
She took another deep breath, then knelt by the old man's side and felt his neck. No pulse, as expected, but his skin was still very warm. The murderer had to be close.
Metal creaked above her. Her pulse rate zooming, she grabbed her gun and twisted around, sights aimed at the landing above her. Nothing moved. No one came down the stairs. The wind moaned loudly, but nothing else could be heard beyond the harsh note of her breathing.
Cautiously, she rose and walked back to the ladder. One more flight and she'd reach the roof. Whoever, or whatever, had done that to the old man might still be up there.
She had to call for backup. There was no other choice, not in a situation like this. Pressing the communication switch, she waited for a response then quickly asked for help. The closest unit was seven minutes away.
Her gaze went back to the landing above her, and she bit her lip. Was there anyone up there? Was Jack up there? Or was this all some sort of weird set up that somehow involved Jack? No, she thought. He wouldn't do that to her. And it had been him on the comlink. Her security system had identified his voice. That the old man was murdered at the same time she was supposed to have met her partner had to be little more than random chance.
So where was he?
She glanced down at her wristcom. Twenty-nine minutes past three. It wasn't unusual for him to be late. In the five years she'd known him, he'd only ever managed to be on time for his wedding.
Maybe he was here. Maybe he was a victim of the creature who'd destroyed the old man.
Panic surged at the thought. God, she couldn't risk the wait for backup. Not when Jack's life might be at stake. She had to go on. Had to try and find him. If the department decided to discipline her for leaving a crime scene, then so be it. As long as she found her partner safe and sound, she couldn't really give a damn.
The full force of the wind hit her as she reached the top landing, thrusting her back a step before she regained her balance. Shivering, she dragged her coat zipper all the way up her neck, but it didn't stop the rain somehow getting past the collar and trickling down her back.
"This is great, just great," she muttered, wiping the water from her eyes-a totally useless gesture, given the conditions.
Visibility was practically zero. If there was someone up here with her, all they had to do was remain still and she'd never even see them. With a final, somewhat regretful, glance back to the fire escape, she moved forward. After a dozen steps, a dark, box like shape loomed out of the greyness. Stairs to the rooms below, presumably.
She found a door, and tested it cautiously. The handle turned. With her back to the wall, gun raised, she pushed the door open and listened for any sign of movement. Still nothing.
Yet instinct told her the murderer had to be inside. There was nowhere else he could be, nowhere else he really could have come from. Unless, of course, he could fly. But if he could fly, why would he have used the fire escape? Why wouldn't he have just dragged the old man's body down to the end of the alley rather than up the stairs, then flown away?
He was here, down those stairs, somewhere.
She switched the com-unit's light back on, then crossed her wrists, holding the gun and light to one side of her body as she edged forward.
The light gleamed off the metal stairs and puddled against the deeper darkness of the room. Three steps down, she halted again, listening. The silence was so intense it felt as if she could reach out and touch it. Frowning, unease a growing like a weight in her stomach, she edged down the remaining steps.
In the small circle of light she could see several stacks of chairs lined up against the wall. Beyond that, the vague shapes of upturned tables. Obviously, someone was using the empty floor as a storage facility. She moved across to the first stack of chairs, then stopped again.
Something hit her, an invisible force that came out of the darkness to slam her back against the wall. Her breath left in a whoosh of air, and for several heartbeats, she saw stars. Then her senses seemed to explode outwards. Just for an instant, the darkness became something that was real, something that had flavours and taste and body. And then she realised it did have bodies, that she was sensing its inhabitants through every pore and fibre of her being. As if, in that one moment, she was inhabiting the skins of the beings out there in the shadows, learning their secrets, feeling their thoughts.
One of those who hid in the shadows was a vampire.
The other wasn't human, wasn't vampire, wasn't anything she actually recognized. But it was filled with an evil so complete it seemed to seep into her very bones and made her soul shake.
The sensation disappeared with a snap that left her weak and shaking. She collapsed onto her knees, and took a deep, shuddering breath. What the hell had happened? Never in her life had she experienced anything so weird...or so frightening. For a brief moment, she'd become one with those others. Had felt the uneven pounding of their hearts, the rush of blood through their veins. Had felt their desire to kill seep through her being and become her own.
She wiped a trembling hand across her brow. The sooner backup got here, the better. A vampire intent on grievous bodily harm she could handle. That other thing, whatever it was, tipped the odds way too far in favor of the bad guys.
She forced herself upright, pressing her back against the wall as she listened to the silence. Still no sound or movement. Warily, she took a step towards the stairs, then stopped. A light prickling sensation ran across her skin, a faint wave that again tasted the secrets of the night.
Not understanding what was happening, she nevertheless clicked the safety off her gun, and held it at the ready. "Police! Come out with your hands up."
Laughter ran across the stillness, soft and warm. Laughter she'd heard before. Laughter she knew.
"I never could sneak up on you, Ryan."
Jack stepped into the small circle of light, then stopped. She lowered her weapon, but didn't relax or reapply the safety. Not until she knew what the hell her partner was up to. Not until she knew whether he was with those other two she'd sensed. Trust was one thing. Complete stupidity another. "What the hell is going on? And why haven't you phoned Suzy or the department?"
He smiled, and there was something decidedly odd about it. "I didn't come here to talk about Suzy. Or the department."
There was a chill in his green eyes she'd never noticed before, an edge to his voice that spoke of violence. This was the Jack she knew-and yet, in many ways, it wasn't. "Why not? What are you up to?"
He smiled and lowered his gaze, silently studying the floor. She had an odd notion that time was running out, that this man, her partner, had come here to kill her. It was a ridiculous thought, it really was, but it was one she just couldn't shake. Licking dry lips, she raised her gun a little.
Just in case.
"There's a war about to begin, Ryan."
The abrupt sound of his voice made her jump slightly. She met his gaze squarely, and saw in the green depths only death and determination. And felt no safer about his intentions.
"What sort of war?"
He shrugged. "A war in which man will play no part, and yet ultimately be the loser. The wise will choose sides."
She frowned. Since when had Jack began speaking in weird riddles? "And that's what you've done? Chosen a side?" She shifted her feet a little, strengthening her stance. If Jack came one step closer, she'd fire, partner or not.
So much for trusting this man beyond all others.
He smiled his strange smile. "Yes. And now it's your turn."
She stared at him, and wondered what was really going on. Surely he hadn't called her down here just to pick a side in some upcoming, mythical war. "We're cops, Jack. We're supposed to be impartial, and all that."
He snorted heavily. "Yeah, right. Tell that to someone who doesn't know the truth."
The cynical edge to his voice made her feel no easier. If there was one thing Jack had always been proud of, it had been his badge. "So why do I have to choose?"
"Because for you, there can be no standing in the middle. It's one side or the other."
She wondered if pinching herself would wake her from this weird dream. Or make sense of what Jack was saying. "That doesn't actually answer the question of why me. I mean, why not the thousands of others who work for the department?"
"Most of them haven't your intuitive nature, or your determination to act on a hunch." He shrugged. "And we need more people who can move around in the daylight."
Right now, her so-called intuitive nature was telling her he was lying through his back teeth-at least when it came to the reasons for wanting her to join them. "Who are you actually working for, if not the department?"
She might not have spoken, for all the notice he took. "We could continue as partners," he added softly.
God, how deep did he think their partnership had become? "Sorry. Still doesn't appeal to me very much."
"That's unfortunate. Already, too many good men and women have gone missing."
A chill ran down her spine. He knew about the disappearances. Had somehow been involved in them. "I really think you should come back to headquarters with me--"
She hesitated. The odd, prickling sensation ran across her skin again, whispering dark secrets to her mind. She stared at Jack, her gaze widening. Her partner, and friend of five years, was the vampire she'd sensed earlier.
And that thing out there in the darkness, the creature she could not name, was with him.
He studied her for a moment, then sighed, almost sadly. "So, you know."
Her finger curled around the trigger, and it took every ounce of strength she had to resist the urge to shoot him. Not all vampires were evil--how often had he told her that? Certainly she had no evidence that Jack himself had crossed the line between good and evil when he'd taken the step from life to death.
Only instinct, and the oddly ferocious look in his eyes, said that he had.
"But I don't know why."
"Why does one normally undertake the ceremony?" Amusement touched his green eyes. "I have no wish to die, Ryan. With the eve of the war at hand, I had no option but to cross over. Humans have no place in what is coming."
The sensation of danger was becoming so strong her muscles were twitching under the force of it. She took a deep breath, trying to calm down. Yet if Jack were a vampire, he would know her fear, her uncertainty. Would hear it in the thunderous pounding of her heart. "So why call me here?"
"Because, as I said earlier, it's your time to choose."
"I made my choice long ago." And her badge was all she really had. She wasn't about to walk away from it, even for her best friend. "I intend to stick to that choice."
Sadness briefly touched his eyes. "I'm asking you, as a friend, to join me."
Her finger tightened reflexively on the trigger, and it was all she could do not to press it that tiny bit more and actually fire the weapon. "No."
"One last chance." He took a slight step forward. The touch of sadness in his eyes was quickly giving way to the certainty of death.
"One more step, and I'll shoot."
He smiled. "I don't think so."
Sweat trickled down the side of her face. "I mean it. Stay where you are."
He took another step forward. "We're friends, Ryan. Partners. You can't shoot me."
There was no humanity in his eyes now, only the certainty of death. She'd seen that look in vampires before, and knew it precluded an attack. "Please, Jack. Don't make me shoot you."
He raised an eyebrow. "You won't. You can't," he said, and took another step.
She aimed low, and pulled the trigger.