I was surprised when the uneasy peace between Joel and me held throughout the remainder of our time at the safehouse. I was half-expecting him to suddenly up and run away like a wayward teenager, but he mostly kept to himself, either sleeping or playing games with headphones on in the main room so he wouldn’t bother Muri.
It was weird actually. The Joel I knew was stubborn to a fault. Even if it wasn’t possible to get his way, he’d go kicking and screaming just to prove a point. We weren’t fighting anymore but things still felt off.
But there was little time to obsess over things like that in between prepping for the trip. And when it was finally time to leave for the airport I didn’t feel the least bit ready.
That feeling was only exacerbated when Muri, Joel, and myself climbed into the backseat of the SUV that was idling outside the apartment to pick us up only to discover that Sara was already waiting for us inside.
“Seb hasn’t made much progress,” she said matter-of-factly, not bothering with pleasantries or small talk. “Well, progress that we know about, at least. We have informants in the area who have seen him making stops in several places of interest, none of which have been in his report. I want you two,” she said, pointing to me and Muri, “to keep an eye on him while you’re down there and make sure this gets wrapped up ASAP. And if he visits anyone, calls anyone, does anything out of the ordinary, I want to know about it. Capisce?”
Muri and I nodded. Joel just grunted. Sara ignored him.
“Muri already knows this,” Sara continued, “but Seb has always been more like a son to me than just an employee. I don’t like having to take such an…aggressive approach to investigating him, but these are the guidelines, and I can’t show favoritism because of our relationship, you understand that?” The full force of her gaze was suddenly on me now, and I nodded fervently, even though I still felt like I didn’t really understand anything, not really.
“Orders are orders,” Muri added, and Joel rolled his eyes.
Getting on the plane felt like routine now after how many flights I’d just taken in the last two weeks. And this couldn’t possibly compare to the nightmarish flight Seb and I had taken on our way to the preserve.
The trip wasn’t very long but I felt too wired to take a nap, so I pulled out one of the smaller books I had elected to take with me in my carry-on. I focused single-mindedly on the mating habits of gryphons and ignored the look of disapproval on Joel’s face when he looked over and saw what I was reading.
There was no one to meet us when we landed, and the drive down the interstate from the airport in Phoenix to Casa Grande was long and uncomfortably silent. Joel napped in the backseat, his sleep schedule still needing some adjustment. I wasn’t tired but there wasn’t much to look at through the windows except for endless desert and the occasional cactus. It was all fairly new to me, but the sameness grew old quick.
I tried only once to turn on the radio, but snatched my hand back when Muri gave me a warning glare. Still not a music fan, apparently.
“Where are we headed?” I asked once we reached the city limits, the barren wasteland around us finally giving way to civilization. “Hotel?”
“Seb’s meeting us at a restaurant for lunch,” Muri replied. “We’ll set up at the hotel after that.”
I woke Joel up about fifteen minutes later as we pulled into a tiny strip mall. He seemed startled when I reached back to touch his shoulder, and then annoyed when he looked out the window and caught sight of the restaurant.
“Sushi?” he grumbled. “Gross.”
“Don’t be a baby,” I snapped.
Muri looked at me in surprise. Joel was so startled by the outburst that he missed his opportunity to offer a retort and instead just climbed out of the car with a sour look on his face as he marched up to the front doors ahead of us.
There was a bubbly blonde girl manning the entrance and when we walked up her smile took up half of her face. “Just the three of you?” she asked, already grabbing menus.
“Actually I think we’re waiting on one more,” Joel replied, already slipping into the dad-mode he always used when dealing with waitresses or other customer service people. He looked to Muri for confirmation, and missed the blinding grin the hostess aimed at him.
Muri nodded, and Joel turned back to the girl with a polite smile.
“Yeah, so four,” he told her.
“Okay, great!” She snatched up an extra menu and gestured for us to follow her inside. The tables along the windows at the front were all filled but aside from that the place seemed pretty dead, especially for early evening. We were seated in a small booth near the back, in a section that was virtually empty. I filed in against the wall and Joel sat down next to me on the edge. The hostess latched onto him as soon as he sat down, practically perched on his shoulder as she explained the menu.
Muri ignored the obvious flirting, unperturbed, but the more Joel warmed up to the girl—Trish, I shortly found out—the more annoyed I became.
Finally, she left to go get our drinks and I couldn’t help the loud sigh that escaped me once she was gone.
Joel’s smile transformed into an irritated scowl within seconds. “Oh, get over it,” he mumbled, leafing through the menu with a grimace. I could tell he was more embarrassed than mad.
I rolled my eyes. “When is Seb supposed to get here?” I asked Muri.
She pulled out her phone and tapped the screen a few times. “He’s already here, apparently.” Her bored expression didn’t change a bit.
I craned my neck over the back of the booth to look for him, wondering if he’d gotten a table already and was waiting for us to find him. I wasn’t sure why he and Muri hadn’t coordinated this meeting a little better.
“He’s over there,” Joel said a few minutes later, pointing towards the bar. I glanced over and sure enough, spotted a familiar head of blonde hair, just barely visible from where I was sitting.
“Move,” I said, elbowing Joel in the side. “I’ll go get him.”
Joel looked like he wanted to use a less than kind word in response to the nudge, but he restrained himself and moved out of the way just enough to let me squeeze past him. I bounded awkwardly across the restaurant, nearly bowling over two different waiters as I navigated the maze of tables and chairs.
It had been days since I’d seen Seb and I found I didn’t really know what to say when I finally sidled up to him. I didn’t want to touch him to get his attention though, like I might have done with Joel. “Been waiting that long, huh?” I finally asked, gesturing to the cluster of empty shot glasses sitting upside down on the counter in front of him. It was an unexpected reminder of when we’d first met back at Karma.
The bartender, standing a few feet away mixing a drink, let out a cutesy giggle that was at odds with their choppy alternative hairstyle and multiple piercings. “Who’s your friend?” they asked with a high-pitched breathy voice.
“Colleague, actually,” Seb replied, turning his head to give me a simpering smile. “Isn’t that right?”
“Yup.” I stared pointedly back at him. “Speaking of which: you sure you can handle that much alcohol? You’re supposed to be working.”
Seb smiled tightly, winked at the bartender, and then spun around in his seat to fully face me. “I’ll have you know that I am in possession of a bladder of steel,” he said.
“You know that’s not what I’m worried about,” I replied, staring down at the toxic green cocktail in his hand with apprehension. I was surprised he was still vertical.
“I think you’ll find my tolerance is exceptional,” Seb remarked huffily. “Bambi here can attest to that.”
“Bambi?” I mouthed, noticing too late that they were looking straight at us. I smiled guiltily as they walked over and started to clear away Seb’s empty glasses.
Seb pulled out his wallet and slapped a crisp fifty down on the bar with a phone number written on it in ballpoint pen. I stared at the thing in disbelief. “What?” he asked, his face a mask of pure innocence.
“Do you ever get tired of being douche?” I asked him.
“Never.” He slid the stool back and jaunted across the restaurant without asking where we were sitting, leading me to believe that he’d seen us come in, and had waited for someone to come fetch him just to be obnoxious. He scooched in close to Muri. She paid him no attention whatsoever, still totally intent on examining the menu.
The hostess, now our waitress apparently, followed us over and asked if we were ready to order. Muri rattled off a list of items and Trish had to scramble to jot them all down. Joel’s reluctance to order anything he even suspected contained fish was evident when Trish turned to him. She leaned over me so she could point out various items he might like instead, which meant that I was forced to stare at her nametag (and her boobs) for a full five minutes. I enjoyed it less than I should have.
After Joel settled on something he thought he could stomach, she moved onto Seb, giving my brother a wistful little smile as she pulled away. I shot Joel a disapproving look and then braced myself for the second round of intolerable flirting that was bound to ensue.
I was shocked when Trish barely acknowledged Seb’s existence, merely taking his order and then his menu before telling the rest of us that our food would be out shortly.
The contrast wasn’t lost on Joel, who smiled smugly at Seb from across the table.
“Guess not everyone’s that into you, huh?” he said.
Seb arched an eyebrow but seemed unfazed. “If I wanted, I could have that girl eating out of the palm of my hand.” He smiled and narrowed his eyes. “But I’m sure you know that already.”
“Okay,” Muri interrupted. “Time to zip up, boys. I am so not in the mood for this, so if you could at least try to act like professionals, that would be fucking stellar.”
Joel tensed his shoulders like he was about to argue, but I caught his eyes and shook my head minutely. “Look, I’m just here for the free food,” he said, instead of whatever he’d been about to blurt out in the heat of the moment. “No professionalism required on my end.”
Muri rolled her eyes. “Humor me. Please.”
It wasn’t exactly the best lunch I’d ever been treated to. Seb and Muri spent the majority of the wait on their phones, typing away like teenagers texting their crushes. And when our food finally came out, there was another ten minutes of flirting between the waitress and Joel, who was in my opinion enjoying the situation far too much.
And then of course I had to watch Joel eat with his fingers because at twenty-eight he still didn’t know how to use chopsticks. He earned a critical look from Seb for that but thankfully there was no further conflict during our meal.
Afterward the check was given to Joel, who handed it off to Muri as soon as Trish was out of sight.
Muri opened the billfold and pursed her lips. “Think this one’s for you,” she said, handing Joel a copy of the receipt with a phone number written on it in pink highlighter.
“You are not calling her,” I told him.
“You’re not my mom,” he replied maturely.
We left shortly after that. It wasn’t until Joel and I were back in Muri’s car again that she explained there was a change of plans: before we went to the hotel, we would be following Seb to make a quick stop at the missing vampire’s nest. Joel looked dismayed by the news. I wasn’t sure how to react. On the one hand: I was finally getting to work the case. On the other: well, vampires.
I was vibrating with nervous energy by the time we turned into a rundown neighborhood near the outskirts of the city. When we parked in front of a house that looked like it should have been condemned years ago my hands were literally shaking, and I fumbled with the car door for a minute before finally extricating myself and stepping out into the stale desert air.
Joel and I followed cautiously behind Seb and Muri, who both walked up to the porch in sync like they’d done this hundreds of times. Seb knocked twice. He waited a minute, tapping tattooed fingers against his thigh, but there was no answer.
“Ricky?” he called out, putting his ear against the door. “Hey, buddy, it’s me. If you don’t answer the door, I’m gonna have to come in anyway. Fair warning.”
I looked questioningly at Muri, wondering why there was such a big to-do about barging into the house, but she just shook her head and looked back at Seb.
He sighed and pulled out a credit card. But when he slid the card in along the door jamb and braced himself against the handle, it turned. “It’s open,” Seb said, exchanging a surprised look with Muri. He twisted the knob further and the door popped open to reveal a scene of utter chaos.
The exterior of the house was fairly dilapidated but inside it was far worse. The front room was strewn with books, magazines, DVDs; there was glass everywhere surrounding an object that looked like it used to be a coffee table. A trash can at the entrance to the kitchen was lying overturned on the floor, its contents scattered across the tile.
“Guess Letuch beat you here,” Seb said with a smarmy smile.
Muri didn’t take the comment lying down. “Making crazy assumptions already? Maybe your true calling is in talk radio.”
“I’m pointing out a pattern,” Seb argued, “not manufacturing conspiracy theories.”
“Maybe wait for a little more proof before you start tying string to pushpins,” she replied coolly. She walked into the house and gave the place a disgruntled once-over. Her nose wrinkled as she examined the pool of garbage in the kitchen. “There’s no reason to think Letuch had anything to do with this. Maybe their housekeeper was out sick.”
Seb’s face darkened. “I was here yesterday, Muri. They’re vampires, not savages.”
“Then maybe it was our person of interest,” she suggested. “Looking for his friends.”
Seb’s expression remained dour but he didn’t try to debunk her conclusion. He stepped inside as well and began to comb the edges of the room looking for I don’t know what.
I remained in the doorway suddenly paralyzed by the realization that Letuch had been in my head after I’d learned about the case from Sara. Was it possible that Seb was right, and Letuch had known we were coming here?
Except if that were possible, then surely Letuch could have found me at any point and snatched Lila’s pendant up for himself without any of the mind games. This had to be a coincidence.
Still, the mess around was disconcerting and it was troubling to discover that Seb thought Letuch was involved in this case as well as the others.
“I’ll call Sara,” Muri announced as Seb moved further into the house. “Ricky might have reported this to someone at NIMA.”
Seb didn’t answer, and with Muri on the phone, I looked to Joel for his reaction. He shrugged and leaned nonchalantly against the wall. Just by looking at him, you would never have suspected that we were standing in the middle of a vampire nest.
“Hey!” Seb called out, and Muri pulled the phone away from her ear. “I found something.”
She stuffed her phone back into her pocket and headed to the back of the house without question. Joel made to follow her and I grabbed for his arm, not wanting him to stray too far in case something happened. He looked down at me, seeming slightly annoyed, but didn’t pull away.
The windows throughout the house were all covered with blackout paper but as we walked into the hallway to the left of the kitchen there was a loose corner that had curled up into itself. A small sliver of light peeked through, illuminating a small hatch in the floor that was partially obscured by a beat up old rug. Seb was standing over it grinning like he’d won an Easter egg hunt.
“Do you have an actual lock pick?” he asked Muri. “All my shit’s back at the hotel.”
She sighed and pulled a multi tool out of her pocket.
The padlock on the hatch put up a fight, and Seb struggled with it for a few minutes before letting out a triumphant cry. “Bingo,” he said, yanking open the hatch to reveal a square of absolute darkness below. He pulled his phone, shining it straight down to reveal a set of wooden steps that looked like they’d send him plummeting to his death the second he touched one with his foot. Actually, the whole set up screamed torture dungeon, and trainee or not I was beginning to wonder if I should just take Joel and wait outside.
Seb hopped down eagerly and vanished within seconds. I craned my neck, trying to at least make out the light from his phone, but the angle was all wrong. Muri motioned for Joel and me to stay quiet and I practically held my breath as we waited.
Just as I started to worry something had happened to him, Seb reappeared at the foot of the stairs, blinding the three of us with his phone as he pointed it directly up at our faces.
“Everything’s cool down here,” he called up. “Whoever trashed the place must not have found their den. The whole nest is sleeping.” He climbed back up and gave Muri a smug look. “Which means the culprit wasn’t our missing vamp,” he said as he closed the hatch back up.
“How long until sunset?” she asked, ignoring his proclamation.
Seb glanced at his phone for the time. “Not too long. We can just chill out here till they wake up.”
I tensed up at the thought of lurking in a house full of vampires just waiting for them to wake up and find us there. Joel must have noticed me squeezing his arm tighter, because he suddenly bumped me with his hip, like he was trying to reassure me he was still there.
“You sure we can’t wait outside?” I asked sheepishly.
“In this heat?” Seb scoffed. “No thanks.”
Muri looked around at the sad state of the house and the fact that what little light had made its way inside was quickly fading. “No, Pemberly’s right. We’ll just wait in the car.”
I puffed out a quick sigh of relief and finally let go of my brother, gladly following Muri back outside. I practically gulped down the fresh air once we stepped out of the house again, feeling like I’d just been submerged in the depths of the ocean thanks to the dark oppressive atmosphere inside the nest. I was secretly hoping we wouldn’t need to go back inside, that Seb could handle it himself, and Muri would take Joel and me back to the hotel, but there was little chance of that.
“Why didn’t they wake up when you went downstairs?” I asked Seb once we were safe and sound inside Muri’s car. She was sitting in the driver’s seat, Seb in shotgun, and I was behind Muri in the backseat. Joel was across from me with his head resting against the window, eyes closed, apparently not the least bit interested in this whole vampire thing. Well, I guess he was old enough to have missed the phase.
“Some subspecies of vamps essentially hibernate once a week or so,” Seb informed me, slipping naturally into his Encyclopedia Seb voice. “Other than that, they don’t need to sleep every night like humans do. But when they do sleep, they’re more vulnerable because they can’t wake up until they’re fully charged. Hence the locked trapdoor and the secret basement.”
“There are different kinds of vampires?” I wondered if the one Eva had dated had been like these ones, or if she was a different type entirely. Then I quickly squashed that train of thought before it went any further.
“More than you’d expect,” Seb replied. “Especially if your intro to vampires is that horrible book series—”
“Don’t shit talk books you haven’t read,” Muri interrupted, like this was a practiced conflict.
Joel’s eyes flew open as he looked over in surprise at Muri. “You read those?” he asked.
“No,” Muri snapped at the same time as Seb answered with an enthusiastic, “Yup.”
I stared at the back of Muri’s head in disbelief.
“You know,” Joel said a few minutes later, as we watched the orange light on the horizon slowly fade to indigo. “This reminds me of when I went camping out on the ranch as a kid.”
“Oh,” I replied pathetically. I had to stop myself from automatically tacking on a ‘that’s nice’, because I didn’t have anything else to add.
Joel had been an only child long enough that he had an entire catalogue of childhood memories we didn’t share. I’d never been Marisol’s uncle’s ranch in Mexico. I wondered if Joel had ever resented me when we were younger for being the primary reason all those vacations had stopped. I mean, hell, he had reason enough to resent me now, truce or not.
I didn’t have long to dwell on those thoughts. The sun was setting fast, and finally Seb announced to the rest of us that it was dark enough to go back inside.
I stuck close to Joel as we walked back to the house, feeling—rightfully, in my opinion—terrified of what was inside. The streetlights along the whole block remained dark though I could see a faint yellow glow further down the street. Seb had to pull out his phone to guide us into the house again.
There was no one inside when we entered, but that did nothing to dissipate the heavy dread sitting low in my gut.
“Wait here,” Seb said, before taking his light with him into the kitchen. The three of us stood in what was practically complete darkness, listening to him rustle around in the cabinets before watching him emerge with a couple of lit candles in his hands. “This would be a hell of a lot easier if someone hadn’t busted all the lights,” he muttered, setting the candles on the remains of the ruined coffee table.
Muri seated herself on the threadbare tweed couch that looked like it might have been blue at some point in the distant past but was now more of a murky gray. I followed her lead, tugging Joel down with me. Only Seb remained standing, waiting with a look of tense concentration on his face, looking almost spectral in the flickering light emanating from the candles.
And then we waited some more.
“What happened to the damn house?” a voice suddenly asked from behind me in Spanish.
I jumped, nearly landing in Joel’s lap, and the voice let out a quiet chuckle. I turned and found that it belonged to a beanpole of a man who looked young enough to be someone I had gone to school with. But something about the way the light caught his oddly reflective eyes made him the most terrifying thing in the room.
“I was hoping you could tell me,” Seb replied with a wide grin. I was equally surprised at the string of Spanish that emerged from his mouth as well.
“Can we stick with English please?” Muri interjected, sounding genuinely annoyed at being left out of the conversation.
“Sorry,” the vampire replied with a laugh, this time in English per her request. “Didn’t realize NIMA was sending us a couple white girls.” He seemed to notice Joel for the first time after saying that, and switched back to Spanish to ask him if he spoke it.
“A little,” Joel replied in kind.
“We both do,” I hastily added, ignoring Muri’s betrayed expression.
“We’re brother and sister,” Joel explained after seeing the inquisitive look on the vampire’s face.
He seemed slightly taken aback by that, and then his eyes suddenly narrowed. He took a step toward me and inhaled deeply with his nose practically against my shoulder. I stared at him in revulsion but was too terrified to move.
Then he stepped way back, as if burned, and directed a glare at Seb. “Do manners mean nothing to you, my friend?” he demanded.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Seb replied. He looked every bit as confused and alarmed as I felt.
“It’s rude to leave an unwrapped candy bar in front of a diabetic,” the vampire said, giving me a vicious glare that implied I was to blame for whatever insult he had perceived.
“What are you talking about?” asked Joel, looking quizzically between me and the vampire.
Then it dawned on me. Probably wasn’t the best idea to walk into a nest full of vampires while on your period. Oops.
“You need to take her outside,” the vampire snarled, moving with startling speed into Muri’s space and causing Joel and I to leap back as he passed.
Muri didn’t even flinch. “Why me?” she asked flatly. “Because I’m a woman, too?”
“Because you’re a killer,” he replied, his fangs glinting wetly in the candlelight. “And I don’t trust you around my family. I may have restraint, Seb,” he continued, without taking his eyes off of Muri, “but I think it might be problematic if my nest wakes up and finds an open bottle of A-positive sitting in our living room, don’t you agree?”
“Muri,” Seb warned, “just do it. Look, Ricky, I’m sorry about this, okay? It was an honest mistake. Really.”
Muri scowled but grabbed me by the arm and pulled me up off the couch without trying to argue further. She didn’t say anything to me until we were out the door.
“So what he was implying about you…” she started, sounding like she was fumbling for the right words.
“Yeah,” I replied. “I mean, he was right, so I assume so.”
We were standing a foot’s breadth apart on the sidewalk outside the house, Muri’s hand still on my arm. I coughed politely and she finally let go.
“Sorry,” she said, stepping back a bit.
“It’s cool.” There was a raucous laugh from across the street, and both Muri and I turned our heads to see a group of unkempt looking young men on the other sidewalk, quickly drawing closer to us as they stumbled drunkenly forward. “Should we wait in the car?” I asked nervously.
Muri gave them a once-over and nodded. “Probably, yes.”
They started to cross the street over to our side just as we began walking back down the sidewalk to where Muri’s rental was parked. One of them, a shorter guy in a snapback and a too-small t-shirt, cupped his hands over his mouth to call out to us. “Hey baby, you wanna come party with us?”
Muri ignored him and unlocked the car. She held the passenger door open and shoved me inside, one hand on the back of my head to keep me from bashing my skull against the door frame. I watched as the group of men drifted steadily toward us while Muri crossed to the other side, got in, and started the car. I jumped a little when she suddenly put it into drive and sped past them, edging as close as possible to the guy in the hat who had yelled at us without actually hitting him.
“Where are we going?” I asked as we kept driving.
“Just doing a few laps.” She shook her head. “I’m never going to get used to that shit.”
“It’s not as big of an issue if you look like I do,” I joked, but Muri didn’t laugh. Not that Muri ever laughed, but if anything, her expression turned even more serious.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Well, I mean, look at me,” I said, flabbergasted by the question. “I’m not exactly a femme fatale.” Like you, was the unspoken declaration that hung in the air between us, and Muri continued to look perturbed by my statement.
“You’re young,” she said after a moment, as if that helped. “You’re still growing into yourself. And you shouldn’t be so worried about the way you look.”
“I’m not worried,” I fibbed. “Just self-aware.”
One glance at Muri’s face told me she didn’t believe that for a second. I decided to quit arguing my case.
By the time we made our rounds of the neighborhood, the teenage miscreants who had been harassing us were gone. Replacing them on the sidewalk outside the nest were Seb and Joel, looking annoyed that we had disappeared on them.
Muri rolled down the passenger window as we pulled up to the curb and Seb leaned in to talk to her while Joel climbed into the backseat.
“None of the vamps recognize the scent,” Seb told Muri, and I didn’t think that I was misreading the hint of smug satisfaction in his voice. “Definitely not our missing vampire, and it’s not even human.”
“That doesn’t mean it was Letuch,” Muri replied stubbornly. “He can’t be everywhere at once, Seb.” She rolled up the window, barely giving Seb enough time to pull his head and fingers out of the way. He flipped her off on the way to his own car, parked a few feet in front of ours.
And Muri was right: Letuch couldn’t be everywhere at once, but who knew how many people’s heads he could be in instead?