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Archangel's Shadows(Guild Hunter,book 7)(11) by Nalini Singh
Ashwini and Janvier arrived back in Manhattan in half the time it should’ve taken. It was the most exhilarating ride of her life, the bike moving as smooth as a ribbon of water along a well-worn channel. Pure silk and steel and speed.
That exhilaration was replaced by bright, hard anger the instant they reached the scene.
The victim had been found in a Dumpster behind a restaurant officially located in Little Italy. In actuality, it hugged up against the far edge of the Vampire Quarter. One street over from this quiet one, and the clubs were questionable at best, deadly at worst.
Last time she’d been in the area—chasing a vamp who’d skipped out on his Contract and decided to hide in the dark underbelly of the city—she’d walked into one of those clubs and come across a blissed-out junkie passed out in the lap of a well-groomed and elegant vampire with a tinge of red in his eyes. He had the junkie’s sequined mini shoved off her shoulder, his hand molding her bare breast as he drank from her neck.
Another male vamp had his fangs buried in her inner thigh.
Ashwini had known she was wasting her time, but she’d made them stop, then waited until the woman was conscious. At which point the junkie had called Ash a bitch who needed to get f**ked. Then she’d spread her legs lewdly to reveal she wore no panties, and shoved one of the vampires down between her thighs, telling him to feed. Her eyes had rolled back in her head an instant later, orgasmic cries torn out of her throat.
A week later, Ashwini had seen the same woman’s face in a Guild bulletin. She’d been found drained of blood, fanged all to hell. Saddened but unsurprised, Ashwini had told the hunter on the case about the vamps she’d seen with the victim. Turned out the two had been in San Francisco at the time, the junkie killed by another of her customers.
That was only the tip of the iceberg.
Certain parts of the Vampire Quarter were a meat market—for blood, for sex, for pain. Not all of it in the dives. Two of the most dangerous Quarter clubs were also the most sophisticated and exclusive, catering to a highly select clientele. Old, old vampires who no longer liked anything vanilla.
The Guild did its best to keep an eye on things, but the hunters weren’t anyone’s big brother, and if the meat walked in and wanted to be eaten, it wasn’t anyone’s business but that of the adults involved.
Minors were a whole other story.
Ashwini’s skin pebbled at the memory of the report that had been part of the file she’d been given when she entered the Academy at sixteen—the Guild had a policy of making sure all its students were fully aware of the world in which they’d be moving should they complete their training.
The younger students received redacted data, what their minds could handle at the time, with more to follow as they grew. Older entrants, in contrast, were given the hard facts with both barrels from the word go. In that never-forgotten case, the vampire in question had been sent to a special prison for near-immortals and sentenced to have his skin flayed off once every fourteen days, no anesthetic, the tool to be a whip or a scalpel.
Apparently, he had to choose which tool was used each and every time. If that wasn’t terrifying enough, once every month, the jailors cut off his tongue and ge**tals in specific punishment for the fact he’d preyed on children. The timing was calculated to be precisely long enough for everything to grow back, given his age, and for him to have two days of perfect health.
Forty-eight hours in which to dread what is to come, Janvier had said to her once while they’d been discussing punishment in the realm of immortals and almost-immortals. It’s a stupid man indeed who seeks to break a law when the penalty is in Dmitri’s hands.
Parole wasn’t even a possibility until the vampire had served a hundred years.
As far as Ashwini was concerned, it was the perfect goddamn punishment. The vamp had been f**king and sucking from a thirteen-year-old boy and a twelve-year-old girl, both of whom had been raised in his household, the children of servants. Instead of protecting the innocents who’d looked up to him, he’d used their trust and that of their parents to systemically abuse.
He’d even groomed his victims to the point that they believed the abuse to be a normal part of life.
The two children had been damaged on such a deep level, Ashwini knew the prognosis for their future psychological health had been bleak at best. She’d heard rumors that it was one of the rare times Raphael had personally involved himself in the lives of mortals—this was long before Elena became his consort.
According to the rumor mill, he’d done something to the children’s minds that allowed them to heal. Ashwini had always hoped the rumor was true, that the kids had made it, were living safe and happy lives as the adults they’d now be . . . and that no other monster had invaded their existence.
Like the one who had preyed on this victim.
The female—who wasn’t any longer in the Dumpster, but had been put on a tarp on the fresh-fallen snow beside it, a white tablecloth protecting her from exposure—wasn’t a child. That much was clear when Ashwini and Janvier lifted one edge of the tablecloth to look underneath with the help of the high-powered flashlight she’d borrowed from one of the two cops who’d responded to the report of a body.
“I knew it was a Guild case soon as I saw it,” the senior member of the duo had said, her gray hair worn in a neat bun at the back of her head and her breath frosting the air. “Things I’ve seen on this job, you’d think I’d be immune to surprise. Never come across anything like this before, though.”
The victim, her hair like straw stripped of color, wasn’t a total mummy, had some shape to her. Enough that Ashwini could tell her face had the bone structure of an adult and her br**sts had developed beyond adolescence. Her height appeared to be near the five-four mark and, with the skin around her mouth having receded, her dentition was clear and testified to her humanity. No fangs, not even baby ones. The marks on her body were myriad. The light reflected off the shiny white of long-term scarring, sank into the fresh purple-green of new bruising, was torn up by the mess that had been her throat.
Someone had hurt this woman over a long period of time.
Anger throbbing in her gut, Ashwini knew any further examination would have to wait for the cold clarity of the Guild morgue. “Why did you move her?” she asked the senior patrol cop.
Her partner, young and buff and a touch green around the gills, was on guard at the entrance to the alley/drive that serviced the back of the businesses along this stretch.
“Wasn’t me, ma’am.” A subtle jerk of her head. “Restaurant owner, he had her out before we got here. Name’s Tony Rocco.”
Glancing behind the uniformed cop, Ashwini took in the short and solid-appearing man who stood red-eyed in the open back doorway of the restaurant. She rose, giving the waiting crime scene techs the go-ahead to process the scene. The two weren’t Guild, but had worked cases for and with them before and could be trusted not to leak anything to the media.
“Thanks for coming out so late, guys,” she said before walking over to Tony Rocco.
Janvier held back, talking quietly with the techs.
“Sir,” she said on reaching the restaurant owner. “My name is Ash. I’m with the Guild.”
He didn’t ask to see her ID, just shook his head, his thick hair the same deep black as his neatly groomed mustache, his skin pasty with shock. “I couldn’t leave her in there, like garbage. I know I’m not supposed to touch if I find something like that, but I just couldn’t.” His lower lip shook, his voice hoarse. “She’s someone’s little girl.”
At least, Ashwini thought, the victim had had this, a moment of care, of humanity after the horror. “I understand, Mr. Rocco,” she said, keeping her voice gentle. “But can you tell me how you found her? Was there rubbish on top of her?”
Instead of answering, he turned in the doorway to call out, “Coby!”
A lanky teenage boy with the same facial structure as Tony, but a foot more in height and skin several shades darker, appeared behind the older male. “Yes, Pa?”
“Show the lady the photos.”
The teenager took out his phone, touched the screen to bring up his photo files, then handed it to Ashwini. “I watch the crime shows . . . but I never expected to see anything for real.” His Adam’s apple bobbed. “I made Pa wait a minute to take her out. I helped him then, even though I knew we shouldn’t.”
Gripping his father’s hand as he must’ve done as a younger child, Coby blinked rapidly, added, “She was just thrown away. I didn’t know people did that for real. I thought they made that stuff up for TV.” His voice shook.
Ashwini met a lot of bad people in her line of work, mortal and immortal. A few were plain stupid and violent, others evil and cruel, a percentage selfish and narcissistic. Then she met people like Coby and his father and it renewed her faith in the world. “Thank you.” Forwarding herself the photos from the boy’s phone and deleting his copies so Coby wouldn’t have to do it himself, she said, “Do you usually put out the garbage around the time she was found?”
Tony Rocco nodded after putting his arm around his son and hugging the teenager to his side. “Yes. We clean up for the next morning and—”
“It would’ve been around eleven,” Coby said when his father broke off, the older man’s voice swallowed up by grief.
“Anyone else use this Dumpster?”
“Street people Dumpster dive now and then,” Coby said, “but we try to give them leftovers so they don’t have to.” Another jagged swallow, but the boy kept going. “It’s so cold now that they don’t come around at night anymore. Mostly it’s us and the place next door, only they were closed today.”
Coby’s father pointed a shaking finger toward the black garbage bags on the ground beside the Dumpster. “Who does that?” Making his hand into a fist, he thumped it against his heart. “Who just throws a human being away?”
Ashwini had no answer for him. “Did you come out here earlier in the day?”
“I did,” Coby said. “I do the cleanup after the lunch rush. It would’ve been maybe two thirty, three at the latest.” He rubbed his hands over his sweater-covered arms. “She wasn’t in the Dumpster and I didn’t see no one hanging around.”
Ashwini made a note to check for surveillance cameras anywhere nearby, the cops having already ascertained that the restaurant didn’t have one. She didn’t have high hopes; the area wasn’t wealthy enough for cameras to be an automatic add-on, but not crime-ridden enough that surveillance was a prerequisite for insurance. Here, neighbors looked out for one another, but most places would’ve closed at least an hour before, and while this restaurant butted up against the Vampire Quarter, it wasn’t on a popular pedestrian route for clubgoers, making it doubtful she’d be able to locate any eyewitnesses.
It all added up to tell her that the person who’d chosen this Dumpster knew the area well; he or she was either a local or lived nearby. Unfortunately that left her with a massive pool of suspects. Meeting Coby’s dark eyes, then Tony’s, she said, “Do either of you remember if there were other footprints in the snow when you came out tonight? Your own from before?”
“No, there was fresh snow, with only a cat’s paw prints,” Coby answered. “I remember, ’cause I stood in the doorway and thought about how it would make an awesome decoration for a cake, tiny paw prints on white icing, maybe a cat sitting on the edge.” He began to smile, but it faded a heartbeat later. “That was before . . .”
His father reached up to pat his boy’s face. “No, you don’t let anyone steal your dreams, especially some piece of scum who’d hurt a woman that way.” Pulling down his son’s face with weathered hands on his cheeks, Tony said, “We’ll go bake that cake and we’ll share it with our guests tomorrow, celebrate this woman’s life, give her something better than the ugliness of her death.”
Waiting until his son had nodded in response to his empathetic words, Rocco looked at Ashwini. “If she doesn’t have family, we’ll take care of her funeral, make sure she’s treated right.”
“Thank you,” she said, conscious it would be a monetary sacrifice for what appeared to be a small family business. “I’ll contact you once we know her circumstances and the details of when the pathologist will release her remains.” It would be as ashes, the state of the woman’s body too explosive to risk further exposure.
Tony nodded and led his son away. “I’ll leave the door open,” he said over his shoulder. “Anyone needs coffee, you come in.”
The older cop accepted his offer on behalf of herself and her partner, both of them having been out here for over an hour. Shaking her head when the cop stopped in the doorway to check if Ashwini wanted some, she walked over to Janvier and showed him the photos Coby had taken. “She was dumped sometime between two thirty in the afternoon and eleven at night, when the boy discovered her. We can narrow that down if we find out when it snowed in this area after two thirty.”
Janvier handed back her phone, his anger an icy film over the green of his eyes. “Before we do anything else,” he said, his voice rigid with control, “we have to make sure news about the condition of the body won’t spread. She deserves better, but this could affect an entire territory.”
Ashwini normally had no time for politics, but this particular political situation could quickly turn deadly—the archangels were all watching New York for any signs of fresh weakness. More, as Janvier had pointed out earlier, the city had only just started to heal from its losses. One more kick could tear the wounds open again.
“The senior cop told me she didn’t radio in any details, only the fact that they’d found a deceased female.” Ashwini had serious respect for the officer and her quick-thinking response in contacting the Guild by using her phone rather than the radio. “With this location, anyone listening in would’ve assumed she was a honey feed who serviced one of the fringe clubs. The media aren’t going to respond to anything as ‘routine’ as a honey feed death.”
The honey feeds—male and female—were part of the gray world. Light didn’t penetrate that world and it was one that “ordinary” people didn’t like to think about. Once lost, the people in the gray were forgotten, and that was both sad and an ugly indictment on society.
This time, however, that callous attitude would work to their advantage.
“That leaves the restaurant owner and his son,” Janvier said, his eyes on the open doorway through which the senior cop had exited a couple of minutes earlier with two steaming mugs of coffee. Both patrol officers were now at the open end of the service passage. “Boy had the photos.”
“No.” Stripped of any hint of charm, Janvier’s expression exposed the relentless will at the core of his nature. “We’ll talk to the boy and his father together.”
“These are good people.” Ashwini folded her arms. “They don’t need to be terrified in repayment for being honest enough to call in the body when they could’ve allowed sanitation to pick it up, no one the wiser.” Where Coby and his father had seen a person, many others would’ve seen garbage.
Janvier touched his fingers to her jaw, a cool, slightly rough brush that was over before she could protest. “Fear is what keeps the mortals alive in a world of predators.” Unspoken was that he was one of the predators.
Ashwini had always known that, always seen the complex strata of him, because the charm? It was real, too. “I’ll do the talking.” Taking a minute to speak to the crime scene techs to make sure the victim would be transported to the Guild morgue as fast as possible, she headed toward the restaurant.
“You don’t want her out in the cold,” Janvier said, stopping her on the doorstep.
Ashwini didn’t deny her irrational but visceral impulse. No one should have to lie in the cold dark after having been so brutally tortured. “Come on,” she said, forcing her eyes away from the body so emaciated that it made barely a ripple underneath the tablecloth that was its shroud, “let’s do this.”