Home > Archangel's Shadows

Archangel's Shadows(Guild Hunter,book 7)(15) by Nalini Singh

14
 
Janvier picked Ashwini up at eight that morning. “You didn’t sleep well,” he said, eyes on the dark smudges beneath her eyes.
 
“It’s not the first sleepless night I’ve ever had—I’m fine.” Unable to resist the craving to touch him, she put her hand on his shoulder and swung up onto the bike. Warm and strong, his scent earthy and familiar, he made the bruises inside her hurt less, her muscles no longer as taut.
 
“I checked on the snowfall records,” he said. “Last fall in Manhattan before the body was found was around ten p.m., but there were earlier flurries.”
 
“That still leaves us with a wide window for the body dump.” She chewed on the information as she put on the helmet he passed over. “I don’t think this was done in the light.”
 
“No—there would’ve been too high a risk of being seen.”
 
“It’s dark by roughly six, but the shops in that area are open and busy till eight, the restaurants for longer. Even with the place next door to Rocco’s being closed at the time, I’d bet on the body being dumped very close to ten.”
 
“I agree.” He stroked his hand over her thigh.
 
She didn’t protest; there was something more tender than sexy in that touch and it closed up her throat. “The autopsy’s starting soon,” she managed to say, before putting her hand on his shoulder again. “Let’s go.”
 
“There isn’t a drop of blood left in her,” the pathologist confirmed thirty minutes into his examination of the body, “but if this was a vampire, he’s the messiest eater I’ve ever seen. I’ll do cross sections of her throat, but I don’t have much hope of finding deep tissue wounds that confirm fangs.”
 
“Her other injuries?” Janvier asked, echoing Ashwini’s thoughts.
 
“Long-term abuse.” The pathologist pointed to a set of scars on the victim’s br**sts. “At least three months old, though I’d hazard they were made even earlier. And I’m sure you noticed the fang marks elsewhere on her body. Whoever fed from her didn’t bother to seal up the wounds except over major veins and arteries, and even there, he or she only did the bare minimum to stop the bleeding.”
 
Ashwini’s best friend had been kidnapped and kept by a predatory group of vampires for two long months. Honor had survived, but she’d been brutalized. Ashwini would never forget the wounds on her friend’s body when they’d found her, the despair in the midnight green of Honor’s eyes. A little longer and she might have lost her friend forever.
 
The woman on the steel table in front of her hadn’t been found in time, the monsters hurting her terribly before they killed her.
 
I’ll get justice for you, she promised silently, before looking at the pathologist again. “Were you able to confirm when she died?”
 
“It’s best-guess at this stage, but from the signs of decomposition in the tissue she does have left, I’d say it was within the past week.”
 
“Any distinguishing marks on her body?”
 
“Tattoo on her outer left ankle of what looks like a rainbow-colored dolphin. That has to be unusual.”
 
Using her phone, Ashwini took a close-up of the image with the pathologist holding the skin taut. It wrinkled in on itself as soon as he let go, and the sight was at once sad and enraging. No one had the right to treat another being as if they had no value.
 
“This is for your own benefit.”
 
“But, Arvi—”
 
“No arguments. This . . . thing inside you is never going to permit you to be normal. The doctors will change that.”
 
Shaking off the memory of the greatest betrayal of her life, she watched with care as the pathologist turned the pitiable shell of the body to check the victim’s back. “No other tattoos or distinctive scars,” the doctor said after laying her down in the supine position again. “But there’s something else you should know.”
 
Ashwini frowned as the man picked up a limp hand. “That wrist wasn’t broken when she was loaded for transport.”
 
“Exactly.” The pathologist picked up the victim’s other arm. “I’m sorry to have to do this, but you need to see how bad it is.” With a quiet murmur that Ashwini couldn’t make out, but which appeared to be directed at the woman on the autopsy table, the pathologist snapped the ulna like it was driftwood.
 
Janvier hissed out a breath. “All her bones are so weak?”
 
“I’ll do scans to confirm, but yes. They’re porous to the point that I broke her wrist while doing an initial examination.” Placing the victim’s arm back down gently, he said, “Her teeth are cracked, and her skin’s so delicate it’s like paper. See how the bone shard’s gone straight through.”
 
Pity and anger entwined inside Ashwini. “Anything else?” she said, fighting to keep her voice level.
 
“Not yet. I’ll forward you the blood test results and any other forensic evidence.”
 
“Her fingerprints could significantly speed up identification,” Janvier said, white grooves at the corners of his mouth.
 
“I’ll get started on them right away.”
 
Thanking the pathologist, Ashwini stepped out of the morgue and into the cool white corridor empty of all other life. It was odd; every time she came to the morgue, it was to exit into this cool quiet and yet it never failed to unsettle her, despite the fact that, to her ability, this place was almost peaceful. The dead kept their secrets.
 
Striding through the silence, she didn’t refer to what the pathologist had shown them; there was nothing to say, Janvier’s anger as white-hot as her own. “I’ve sent the image of the tattoo to the Guild computer team, asked them to run a search against all possible databases. They’ll do the same as soon as the fingerprints come through, liaise with the Tower team throughout.”
 
“What about the face?” Janvier zipped up his jacket as they stepped outside into the light snow that had begun to fall. “The Tower has access to an artist who can rebuild it.”
 
Zipping up her own jacket and flipping up the collar, she said, “Can he—she—do it without the skull? I don’t want to strip away the skin the victim has left.” She should be allowed that dignity at least.
 
“I’ll ask,” Janvier said, not questioning her irrational choice. “It may be possible with high-resolution scans and X-rays.”
 
When he went to hand her a helmet, she shook her head. “I’m going to walk to Guild Academy, see if I can pick up useful scuttlebutt from the other hunters.” Her brethren might have seen or heard something useful without realizing its significance. “I’ll also drop by the other businesses in the area near the restaurant, see if anyone has security footage or was around late last night.”
 
“I can join you.”
 
“No, I think it’s better I do this myself. Even a hint of Tower interest and people start getting nervous—not to mention, your presence will raise questions.” Ashwini, on the other hand, could explain hers away by saying she was doing a favor for a cop friend in order to assuage the boredom of being on mandatory sick leave.
 
Stowing the helmet, Janvier straddled his bike. “When will you tell me about your brother, cher?” he asked in a voice as dark and as mysterious as the slow-moving waters in the land he called home.
 
Ashwini’s thoughts filled with the terrible secret she’d carried within for so long. He had to know, that much had become clear to her during their ride . . . but she didn’t have the courage to face the pain on this cold morning while the afterimage of death lingered on her retinas.
 
“Not today,” she whispered.
 
•   •   •
 
Watching Ash walk away into the falling veil of snow, long and lithe and alone, Janvier fought the urge to haul her back, demand her trust. That would get him nothing. She was wounded deep inside and, like any wounded creature, would strike out in an effort to protect herself. Not only that, in attempting to force her, he’d lose the faith she already had in him.
 
And his Ashblade offered that faith with the wariness of one who’d once had the gift of it betrayed.
 
Revving the engine, he made himself leave. He might have been born in a time when a man protected his woman from the world, but he’d come of age in a changing world, and, unlike some vampires of his generation, he didn’t cling to the nostalgia of what once was, choosing instead to embrace the new world while never forgetting his past.
 
Ash would die if caged.
 
Even were the cage built with love and a devoted need to protect her from harm.
 
The image an ugly one, he rode through the streets with pitiless focus, taking the bike directly into the Tower’s underground garage. He knew he’d passed at least five levels of security by the time he brought it to a halt—security most people never glimpsed. Striding to the elevator afterward, he didn’t jerk in surprise when Naasir dropped from the ceiling to stand beside him, having had his senses open for the vampire.
 
Feet bare under his jeans and the incongruously soft-looking black V-necked sweater he wore over a pale blue shirt with the ends hanging out, he said, “You didn’t bring our hunter?”
 
Naasir had a feral charm that drew women to him—be they mortal, vampire, or angel. Janvier had seen more than one experienced immortal make a fool of herself over him. But despite the way the vampire liked to needle Janvier every so often, his interest in Ash wasn’t romantic or sexual, the possessiveness he displayed more comparable to that he exhibited with Raphael and the Seven.
 
“She’s at Guild Academy.” Attempting to get his mind off the old pain he’d glimpsed in Ash’s eyes before she walked away, he tested the texture of Naasir’s sweater. “Is this cashmere?”
 
“So?” A growl. “It’s cold here. I don’t like the cold, and the shop lady said this would keep me warm.”
 
Janvier was momentarily diverted from his thoughts by the idea of Naasir shopping in one of the exclusive department stores that sold this type of clothing; the stores were open all hours to cater to an immortal clientele. He had a hunch the vampire had walked into the first clothes shop he’d seen when the cold began to pinch. “Did the woman in the shop also tell you shoes might help?”
 
“I’ll wear them when I go outside.” Naasir raised his arm to rub the sleeve against the side of his face, his pleasure in the texture open. “Why is Ash at the Academy? She should be here. She’s one of us.”
 
“She disagrees.” Immortality didn’t hold the lure for her that it did for so many, and Janvier couldn’t blame her. “You know what she can do—imagine her living in the world of immortals.”
 
Naasir took time to think over his words. “I don’t know how to fix that,” he said at last, his silver eyes on Janvier. “This is bad, Cajun. I don’t want to watch Ash die.”
 
Wrenching pain in his gut at the idea of it. “I don’t have an answer, either.” The very things that made Ash who she was were also the same things that made immortality a bad choice for her. Janvier knew in his bones that she had the strength to handle the challenges, but he wasn’t sure how to convince her of that.
 
Naasir narrowed his eyes as the elevator doors opened, and took off toward the stairs. When Janvier stepped out on the floor of the Tower that held Dmitri’s office, high, high above the city, it was to see Naasir coming through the door on the other side. The vampire’s face was pumped with energy, his hair falling around his face, but he wasn’t even out of breath.
 
“Stupid race,” the other man growled. “You didn’t run.”
 
“Yeah, I should have.” He had too much energy inside his skin, too much pent-up want. “I’ll race you down later.”
 
They walked together to Dmitri’s office. Raphael’s second and the leader of the Seven was standing by the large wall of glass behind his desk that looked out over Manhattan, his hand cupping his wife’s cheek. Dressed in black jeans paired with a fitted black jacket over a top the color of fresh raspberries, Honor St. Nicholas laughed up at her husband. Her eyes were an intense dark green that reminded Janvier of a shadowed jungle he’d once traversed as a courier, her hair soft ebony.
 
Ashwini’s best friend had come through the transformation to vampirism with a luminous physical beauty it took most vampires hundreds of years to achieve. Her physical appearance, however, wasn’t what made her beautiful to Janvier. It was the way she looked at Dmitri. No one in the world could doubt her allegiance to the lethal vampire, her heart worn on her sleeve.
 
Hearing Janvier and Naasir at the door, she glanced toward them. “Oh, look at you!” Pure delight in her expression.
 
Janvier stared as Naasir ducked his head, his hands in the pockets of his jeans. Was he blushing? Impossible. Naasir didn’t blush. But the vampire stayed in place as Honor closed the distance between them to stroke her hands over his shoulders. “It suits you,” she said with open affection.
 
Naasir took his hands out of his pockets in response and put his arms around Honor. Then he held her, rubbing his cheek against her hair, his eyes closed. It was rare to see the vampire so quietly content. Janvier knew Naasir was staying in Honor and Dmitri’s Tower suite—he didn’t like living alone, eschewed his own quarters. He’d also stayed with the couple the two days he’d remained in the city after the final battle.
 
It was clear he’d bonded with Honor during their time together.
 
The hunter hugged him back with the same warmth, unafraid though she had to know she was being held by a predator. No, Janvier realized, that wasn’t right. Despite the fact that Naasir’s arms were around her upper body, hers around his waist, it was Honor who was doing the holding. Naasir had subtly ceded control of the embrace.
 
Janvier glanced at Dmitri, saw an intensity of emotion on his face that made his own heart squeeze. He’d never truly thought about the fact that Dmitri was over a thousand years old, the other man was so at home in this time period. Today, however, he felt the ache of memory within Dmitri, the weight of a history that had left scars on his soul, and he thought again of Ash, of the gift that could drown her in a stranger’s past.
 
Beside him, Honor drew back and, rising on tiptoe, stroked the jagged cut of Naasir’s hair off his face. “I have to go. I’m teaching a class at Guild Academy.” Tugging him down, she kissed him on the cheek. “I didn’t know you’d already bought clothes, so I picked up a few things for you earlier this morning. I put the packages in your room.”
 
The rumble that came from Naasir’s chest was so close to a purr that Janvier wasn’t sure he hadn’t imagined it. Sending Janvier a warm smile and Dmitri a far more tender look, Honor slipped out.
 
The strange, beautiful, unexpected moment ended with her departure.
 
Dmitri motioned for the two of them to walk out with him to the balcony, the light fall of snow having passed to leave the city glittering under a crystalline winter sun. “Tell me about the autopsy.”
 
“It uncovered a tattoo that may help us track the victim’s identity should the fingerprint search fail,” Janvier said, then shared the details of the weakness in the bones, the skin. “However, the pathologist also confirmed the presence of fang bites as well as the long-term abuse we suspected.”
 
“So while the bones echo what Lijuan did to her sacrifices, the long-term nature of this would seem to nudge us away from her.”
 
“Yes, she ate up her people all at once,” Naasir said, having crouched at the very edge of the railingless platform, his bare feet on the thin layer of snow that had collected on the flat surface. He stared out at the city below in unbridled fascination.
 
No one who didn’t know him would ever expect such behavior. Janvier had seen the vampire act perfectly “normal,” even appear sophisticated, cultured, and arrogant, as might be expected from a male of his age and strength, but that was all it was—an act.
 
“It’s like putting on another skin,” Naasir had said to him shortly after their first meeting a hundred and twenty-five or so years back. “The skin is not mine and it itches until I take it off.”
 
Naasir only wore those skins around people he either didn’t like or was yet making up his mind about. The latter could take him an instant or a year. Janvier had never had to deal with the vampire in any skin but his own—he’d met Naasir in a no-name vampire bar in Bolivia. To cut a long story short, they’d raised hell, broken furniture and a few jaws, and come out of it friends who understood the wildness in each other.
 
“I like you, Cajun.” A flash of gleaming fangs. “Where do you go from here?”
 
“I have to deliver a ‘will you be my one and only concubine’ proposal from an angel to a vampire.”
 
“You’re to ask this vampire to be a concubine on behalf of another? Why?”
 
“Because I’m a stupid couillon who lost a bet, but this Cajun doesn’t go back on his word. So I’ll play matchmaker. I just have to find the son of a bitch in the damn rain forest first; he’s off licking his wounds after a lovers’ quarrel.”
 
Naasir’s eyes had lit up and Janvier had ended up with a companion on his hunt. They’d located the vampire and Janvier had delivered his message—to Naasir’s silent laughter—then escorted the happy male back out to his contrite angel. It wasn’t the first time the two of them had ended up playing or working together; it was through Naasir that Janvier had first come to see Raphael not simply as an archangel but as a man to whom he’d be proud to give his allegiance.
 
Now, he stepped up to where the vampire crouched, but instead of looking down at the ribbon of traffic far below, he turned his head in the direction of Guild Academy. “I’ll continue to work with Ash, dig up everything we can on the victim, tug on all possible threads that could lead us to her murderer.”
 
Dmitri shifted to stand on Naasir’s other side. “I also need you to keep an eye on the vampire community on the ground. With Illium busy running drills, he doesn’t have as much time to move in that arena.”
 
“Do I need to look out for any specific problems?”
 
“If you hear anything about a drug called Umber, pass on the information to me immediately.” The vampire gave him a briefing on the drug before adding, “In more general terms, the Made are aware the Tower’s busy with a number of other matters at present.”
 
Dmitri’s eyes followed a Legion fighter coming in to land on the roof of the high-rise that was being modified for their use. “Repairs, the Legion, the archangelic political situation—they’re sucking manpower and attention. And you know our kind.”
 
Yes. Vampires were predators, the clawing hunger for blood existing just beneath the surface of their skin. Janvier had learned to control it long ago, as had Dmitri, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t there. Being a vampire wasn’t a cosmetic choice; it affected the cells of the body itself, permanently altering its internal chemistry.
 
Bloodlust, if allowed free rein, could turn a vampire into a gluttonous killing machine.