One Foot in the Grave (Night Huntress #2)(7) by Jeaniene Frost

I gave a humorless laugh. "Living? What a neat idea. I'll try that."

Chapter Eight


Don's words were pleasant, but his expression told me he was about to piss me off. It was my first day back from a two-week forced vacation, and I was actually glad to get back to work. I spent the time either condemning myself over Dave's death, or brooding over the knowledge that Bones was truly lost to me. Somehow, I'd pictured him still in that cave, waiting should I ever decide to return. Illogical, irrational, and incorrect, as it turned out. The scent of him to my improved nose was so faint as to be almost nonexistent. Bones hadn't been there for years.

So, back to the grind where my life was regularly in peril? Sounded good to me.

"There's something you're not aware of," Don went on. "It was a judgment call not to tell you immediately, but it's time to inform you."

"What?" Ice edged the single word. "What did you in your cleverness decide to hide from me?"

He frowned. "Don't be snide. I made my decision based on the information that was pertinent at the time. Since you're recovering from a poor call yourself, you shouldn't be so quick to cast blame."

Uh oh, he was defensive. That wasn't a good sign. "Okay, lay it out. What don't I know?"

"After Dave died, you were understandably distraught. That's why I gave you time off. Four days into your vacation, I received a phone call from witness protection. Danny Milton had disappeared."

"He what?!" I jumped up and pounded my fist against the top of his desk. All his papers and equipment jumped. "How could you not have told me that? I didn't kill Lazarus because of that sniveling shit, and Dave died because of my decision!"

Don regarded me calmly. "I didn't tell you because of how you're reacting now. Dave was a soldier before he met you, Cat. He knew the risks. Don't take that away from him. It would make him a lesser man than he was."

"Save the sermon for Sunday, preacher," I snapped. "Has there been any word of Danny? A body, anything? How the f**k did he vanish four days after we left Ohio? Wasn't he moved to a safe location like I instructed?"

"We flew him to Chicago and had him in the hospital under guard. Frankly we don't know what happened. Tate went to the scene himself after it happened. He saw nothing. Danny Milton hasn't been seen or heard from since."

"It was a vampire." My reply was immediate. "Only a vampire could move in and out that easily without being noticed or alarming the guards. Probably mind-fucked them into forgetting they even saw him. Something had to be left at the scene. Vampires always leave a clue-it's like their calling card! I'm going to that hospital."

"No you're not. The scene was checked and photographed, but that isn't the issue now. The issue is whether Danny is still alive, and if so, whether he's a security risk. Is there anything you said in front of him that could be used against you? Even though he had his memory altered, is there any risk you can think of?"

My mind was too fixated on the sly way Danny was taken. There had to be a clue. Tate just hadn't found it.

"Let me see the pictures. Then I'll think about your issue."

He grunted in annoyance. "I'll give you the pictures. I'll even do you one better. We have all of the items here at the compound, down to the last piece of lint. I'll have them delivered to your office and you can waste your time, but when you're done, you tell me if there's anything Danny could repeat that should worry us."

I snorted rudely. "I'll do that, Don."

Thirty minutes later I flipped through the photos of the hospital room. Don was correct. Everything looked as tidy as could be. Even the IV needle that had been pulled from Danny's arm rested innocently on the bed, as if waiting for its next vein. No footprints, no fingerprints, no blood, no bodily fluid, not even a frigging sheet out of place. Molecular transportation couldn't have been neater. Maybe that was it. Maybe Danny had been beamed right the f**k out of there. It would almost be worth telling that to Don just to see the look on his face.

After I examined the pictures for an hour, I moved on to the personal and medical paraphernalia that were tucked in another medium-sized box. A pair of shoes, the tread not even worn. Clothes, underwear, socks, shaving cream (I poured some onto my desk. Yep, plain old shaving cream), cotton swabs, bandages, hypodermic needles carefully capped, wadded-up paper towels, a watch...

Spots danced in front of my vision. The hand I extended to pick up the watch shook so, I missed it twice. My heart pounded, and I felt like I was going to faint. I knew that watch. After all-it used to be mine.

To anyone else, it was a plain old watch. Nothing fancy, no pricey brand, just an ordinary watch that could be a man's or a woman's. The lack of flash had been deliberate so as not to draw attention, but it had an extra feature that didn't come standard. Push a button barely visible on its side and a page went off. A page that was short-range and only connected to one beeper. That button had saved my life once, and the last time I'd seen this watch was when I took it off my wrist and left it on top of the goodbye note I'd written Bones.

If I'd been the one to go to Chicago, I would have found the watch. Had Don not kept me out of the loop this one time, it would have been me who went there. Me, not Tate, and Bones had all but left me his goddamn phone number. The pager was only good for a radius of five miles. He would have been that close, waiting to see if I came and pressed that button.

I held the watch so hard, it cut into my skin. How Bones had heard about Danny or what happened I had no idea, but he'd been quick. After all these years, he'd reached out to me. I just hadn't gotten the message in time.

The sheer irony of it all made me laugh. That's how Don found me, on the floor and chortling in mirthless laughter. He eyed me with caution but stayed near the door.

"Do you mind telling me what's so funny?"

"Oh, you were right," I gasped. "There's nothing here. No clues whatsoever. But you can rest your mind about Danny Milton. Believe me when I tell you, that man is dead."

"What kind of vampire are we talking about?" I asked while climbing in the van. Normally the guys didn't pick me up at home unless one was still at the scene. When Tate called to say he was on his way, I apologized to Noah, who I'd had dinner plans with, and left. Another night interrupted. Why Noah was still around, I had no idea.

"Probably a young one, maybe two," Tate answered.

He'd been stiff with me ever since my relationship with Noah began. I had no idea what prompted his attitude, but two could play cold shoulder.

We didn't talk again until we parked at the club. Even over the pounding of the music, I heard the heartbeats inside. Lots of them.

"Why hasn't the club been evacuated?"

"No bodies, Commander," Cooper said. "Just someone saying they saw a woman struggling with some blood on her neck. Then the woman disappeared. Don didn't want to make the vamp suspicious if he's still here."

Cooper had exceeded my expectations of him. Since that horrible afternoon at the cave, he never questioned my orders again. He still called me a freak to my face, but that didn't bother me. Now it was more like, "You're a freak, Commander. Come on, men, you heard the bitch! Move! Move!" He could call me any name in the book as long as he showed that same dedication.

"And the rest of the team is standing by?"

This was the most half-assed approach to a potential murder we'd ever taken. The guys weren't even properly suited up. They probably figured this was bullshit since the 911 caller had sounded drunk. It wouldn't be the first false alarm we'd received. Or the fiftieth.

"Querida, let's just go inside and check it out," Juan said, impatient. "If it's nothing, drinks are on me."

Sold. Without further complaint I pulled my coat on and we headed for the door. The May evening wasn't cold, but the trench coat concealed my weapons. The guys let me enter first as always, and as soon as I crossed the doorway, I knew it was a trap.

"Surprise!" Denise screamed.

The word was repeated by several members of my team as well as the two dozen male employees of what was clearly a strip club.

I blinked stupidly. "My birthday was last week."

She laughed. "I know that, Cat! That's why your party is a surprise. You can thank Tate; he's the one who planned the fake job as a setup to get you here."

I was overwhelmed. "Is Noah here?"

Denise snorted. "At a strip club? No. You can bet I didn't invite your mother, either!"

The very thought of my mother inside a male strip club made me laugh. She would have run screaming out the door.

Tate came up behind me and kissed me lightly on the cheek. "Happy birthday, Cat," he said softly.

I hugged him. Only then did I realize how much our recent estrangement had upset me. He and Juan were like the brothers I never had.

Juan pulled me into his arms from behind. "Denise hired me to be your gigolo for the night. You tell me how many orgasms you want, and I promise to deliver. I'll give you a whole new definition of the term smooth criminal, querida. Mmm, your ass feels like a round piece of-ooof!"

Tate's elbow in his rib cage cut him off. I rolled my eyes.

"I'm still armed, Juan. And you still have time left on your sentence for chopping cars. You might want to remember that." Then I looked over some of the heads and spotted another familiar face. "Is that Don? How did you get him to come to a place like this?"

Don approached me, looking about as comfortable as my mother would have.

"Happy belated birthday, Cat," he said, giving me a self-deprecating smile. "Aren't you glad Juan picked the place and not me? We would have had lattes and hors d'oeuvres instead of liquor and G-strings. Anyone get you a gin yet?"

"Here," Denise chirped, handing me a tall glass. She smiled at Don. "You must be her boss. You look just like I pictured you."

"You must be Denise. My name is Don, but don't remember it. You're not supposed to know about this."

She waived an airy hand. "If it makes you feel better, I'm going to get so drunk that I won't even remember my own name later. How's that for security?"

He gave me a wintry smile. "I can see why the two of you get along."

"Where's the birthday girl?" a buff young man in a leopard thong cooed as he approached.

"Right here!" Denise said immediately. "And she needs a lap dance, stat!"

"Don't worry, Daddy, I'll take good care of your girl." The stripper grinned at Don.

I almost choked on my gin. "He's not my father," I corrected at once.

"No? You have the same look, sugar. All stiff shoulders and sharp eyes. I'll fix you up, gorgeous, but you"-he winked at Don-"I'll send Chip over to fix you."

Denise started to laugh. Don looked even more ill than he did when he'd been mistaken for my father.

"If you need me, Cat," he grated, "I'll be in the corner. Hiding."

The club closed at three A.M. Don had kindly arranged for the carpooling for the rest of my team, but even with the drum of gin I'd consumed, I was still sober enough to take Denise, Juan, and Tate home.

Since Tate was the closest to my house, he was my last stop. He gamely tried to walk to his door, but his feet kept getting away from him. Out of amused frustration, I ended up carrying him inside. Thankfully he'd taken his key out so I didn't have to frisk him to find it.

For all the times he'd been to my house, I'd never been in his. The interior of the single-story home was clean enough to make a drill sergeant happy. He didn't have any pets, not even a goldfish, and his walls were bare of any artwork. When I got to his bedroom, it was more of the same. No decorations, just a single TV, and I could have bounced a quarter off his bed, but after hefting Tate onto it and tugging his shoes off, I wasn't in the mood.

He had a picture on his nightstand. It was the only one I'd seen in the whole house, so I looked at it curiously. It was of me, to my surprise, and not one I'd posed for. I was half turned away from the camera at a crime scene, of all things. He must have snapped it while he was photographing the bodies.

"Why do you have this?" I wondered out loud, not really expecting an answer.

Tate mumbled something that might have been my name, and with a suddenness I didn't believe him capable of in his condition, grasped me and pulled me down on top of him.

I was so stunned I didn't move. Tate kissed me, his mouth warm and tasting like alcohol while his lips moved over mine hungrily. He pushed past my lips and scoured the inside with his tongue. When he reached for the front of my pants, I finally reacted.

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