The Virtuous Vampire

A Gooden and Knight Mystery: Case File #1

Monette Michaels

 

Chapter One

As Abigail Merriweather Gooden reached the end of the sidewalk leading to the front door of her offices, a wave of low-level energy flowed over her skin, rippling the fine hairs on her arms and the nape of her neck. Sniffing the air, she separated out the strong chemical smells of burnt sulfur and magnesium from the ever-present cedar and vehicle smells of the urban neighborhood. Someone had performed powerful magick—and not so long ago. Her narrowed gaze swept the newly gentrified west-end Austin neighborhood. Nothing seemed out of place, unusual, or transmogrified, but appearances could be deceiving.

Highly attuned senses on alert, Abbie approached the entrance of the remodeled cottage that served as offices for her legal practice. As she reached for the door handle, the magick’s signature amplified until she had no doubt to whom it belonged.

Mother!

The blessed Goddess only knew what her well-meaning—but meddling—parent had done now. Abbie gritted her teeth, then opened the Art Nouveau glass-paned doors to the reception area and stormed in.

“I tried to stop her.” Daniel, her secretary and man-of-all-trades, met her at the doorway. His hand, palm out, was raised in midair as if halting traffic or, in his case, as if auditioning for an all-girl Motown singing group. He and his significant other, Van, had never forgiven Diana Ross for breaking up The Supremes. “But you know your mother—a force of nature.”

Daniel, she knew, had meant the last statement literally. Her mother was a force of nature, a powerful witch whose earth powers would have terrified most of the Austin society crowd with whom she hobnobbed, had they known. Being a witch was not something you bragged about, even in the twenty-first century, and especially not in the Bible Belt of Texas where there were still fundamentalist Christians, even in hippie-dippy Austin. “Outing” the preternatural denizens of Texas would produce a conflagration that would make the Salem witch burnings look like a wienie roast.

Abbie blew out a disgusted breath. “What has she done now?” More importantly, “Was anyone around to see or hear the energy show?”

Her mother could do subtle, but much preferred the showier, whiz-bang kind of magick. Ilana Storm Gooden was of the generation who lived by the saying “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.”

“She redecorated your office.” Daniel tried hard not to smirk, but failed. “She said just because you chose to live like a nun and deny your heritage didn’t mean your surroundings couldn’t be beautiful.”

“Not again,” Abbie whined. Her secretary choked back a laugh. If it had been up to him, Van, or her mother, she’d have been married off, ensconced in a mini-mansion overlooking Lake Austin, with a gaggle of little witches at her feet many moons ago. Family and friends could be such a burden at times.

She flung an I’ll-deal-with-you-later look at her less-than-chastened assistant and raced down the carpeted hallway to the ominously closed door at the far end. She threw open the door, then shut her eyes at the sight. After she counted to ten, she reopened them. Just as she feared, her twenty-twenty vision had been accurate the first time. The scene within was as bad as her first glimpse had depicted.

The palace at Versailles had nothing on her newly redone space. Her formerly efficient, businesslike law office now looked as if an overly energetic, newly graduated interior decorator with a Marie Antoinette fetish had been given carte blanche and an unlimited budget. Fourteen-karat gold-veined mirrors, gilt-edged baroque-framed oils, and swags of richly hued satins and silks swathed her walls and windows. The desk looked to be an original Louis-whatever-in-the-Hades-his-number-was vintage. Fainting couches and spindle-legged chairs filled the room. The Aubusson rug under her feet had to be three inches thick. It was like walking on a comforter-covered floor. Her shelves—

“My books!” she gasped. She turned and glared at Daniel. His mouth opened and closed like an asphyxiating guppy’s. “Where are my law books? Where are my files?”

“You’ve got me,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders as he peered into the room, his eyes blinking rapidly as if to deny the scene before him. “I haven’t been in here since she did her mumbo jumbo act.”

Dire threats of retribution filled Abbie’s head as she dug through the underlying foundations of the transformation spell her mother had used. She raised her hands and wiggled her fingers in preparation to reverse the spell.

“Ah-ah-ah!” Daniel remonstrated, shaking a warning finger in her face. “Remember last New Year’s Eve? After the second bottle of champagne? You vowed never to use magick again? Remember?”

She swiped at the waggling finger. “This is an emergency! I need my books, my files … my space. Anyway, she started it! Now get out of my way, or be prepared to pay the consequences. I can’t promise the reversal spell won’t turn you into a stick of furniture.”

Daniel leapt out of the line of her itching-to-undo-a-spell fingers with a yelp of fear. His actions warmed the hidden depths of her witchy heart. Power was a sinful indulgence, one she hadn’t catered to for quite a while. She’d almost forgotten how gratifying the threat of exercising her talents could feel. She would save the angst for later—after her office was back to normal.

She shook off the momentary lapse into self-conceit and turned once again to uncover the threads of her mother’s magick. As was normal with Ilana’s spells, the threads were complicated and multilayered, but there was always a way to reverse them. It just took patience, something in short supply when her mother was trying to rearrange Abbie’s life.

Ah, there’s the little sucker. A layer of purplish-blue seemed to be the primary enchantment layer. Capturing it, Abbie swiftly reversed the spell.

A loud reverberating clap echoed off the walls. The sound was closely followed by the vacuum-sucking sound of air as it left an enclosed space. The reentering whoosh of new air preceded a light show rivaling the Fourth of July over the Texas State Capital. And, voila, it was done.

Well, not quite.

The room no longer reflected the luxury of the French court, but had evolved into something akin to 1930s French moderne, encompassing exotic woods with metal accents, sleek geometric lines, and tribal and native art accents.

Daniel edged his way past a mahogany wood table topped with smoked glass and supported by graceful curved legs. Warily, he lowered himself into a mauve-colored club chair with rosewood accents as if he were afraid it would disappear. “Um, who’s your mother dating?” he asked as he snuggled into the seat. “A French count or something?”

“I’m not sure they still have nobility in France, but you’re probably correct; it has to be somebody French.” Abbie was just glad it wasn’t some cowboy. She shuddered at the thought of cowhide couches, rusty iron Texas stars, and longhorn objets d’art. “Or someone into all things French.” She turned to her secretary, whose pale blue eyes gleamed avariciously as he considered a bronze statue of Diana the Huntress. “Call my mother and tell her never to do this again.”

“Me?” Daniel’s voice squeaked and his pale white face turned redder than Texas dirt. “Why me? She likes me, says I have savoir faire.” He flicked an imaginary piece of lint from his charcoal gray designer trousers and slicked back a lock of baby-fine blond hair that had dared to escape his carefully groomed head. “Besides, she’s your mother—and a witch. You tell her you don’t like her decorating. I like my ears and nose right where they are, thank you very much.” He patted the appendages gingerly as if to make sure they were still there and normal.

“Daniel, she didn’t mean to give you bunny ears at the Annual Return of the Bats Ball,” Abbie chided gently. “She was aiming her spell at a crass good-ole-boy politician. You just zigged when you should’ve zagged.”

“So you say,” Daniel huffed. “But ever since, I’ve made the attempt to stay on your mother’s good side. You tell her you don’t want her to be a buttinski.” He turned to leave, then halted, throwing over his shoulder, “I’ve booked you a seven o’clock appointment this evening. I ordered in for you from Bubba’s BBQ. Bon appetit! I’m going home to Van who loves and appreciates me.”

At his last clipped word, he flounced down the hall.

“Goddess save me from overly sensitive secretaries and interfering mothers,” Abbie muttered as she turned to try to revert her office back to where it had been this morning before she’d left for court.

* * * *

Abbie’s seven o’clock was late—fifteen minutes late. She didn’t like tardy clients, especially ones who were given after-hours appointments. She would give Mr. Jurnik Golub ten more minutes and then she was home to her cat Pidge, a cup of cocoa, and her flying teacup jammies.

An unseen power tingled across her skin. She was no longer alone. Then a psychic tsunami smacked her mind like a nuclear flyswatter. Instinctively, she reverted to the lessons she’d learned at her mother’s knee. She raised her protective mental shields just in time, then supplemented them with a warding spell to prevent anyone from entering her office uninvited. With her defenses in place, she sat back and assessed exactly what was happening.

Her conclusion? Some son of a bitch was probing her! And not making an attempt to be subtle about it, either. For now, whoever or whatever was outside of her office door did not want to enter.

As relentless as the barrage of psychic energy was, she easily kept her shields in place. With her one-way firewall secure, nothing could enter, but anything could exit. With a small, satisfied smile, she exercised her own not-too-shabby powers to seek what or who had just entered her office building and attempted to scour her mind like a pneumatic Brillo pad.

Definitely not human, since most humans had little-to-no telepathic abilities, and those who did usually didn’t know how to control them. They had to be preternaturals. One was undead, the other living.

Damn, this was all she needed. Undead could mean one of three types: vampire, zombie, or ghost. The living preternatural could be anything. One thing was certain, he was a strong bastard. At her initial probing, he’d slammed the gateway to his mind shut. The resulting thud still reverberated in her head.

They could be either friends or foes.

But friends didn’t hurl potentially deadly energy at friends.

The outsider’s power surged to a higher and more punishing level. While her shields still held, a headache hinted at imminent breakdown. And still she had no definitive clue as to what or who was in her hallway. She needed answers and she needed them now. To get them, she would have to let the two into her office.

Abbie ramped all her psi powers to the max and reveled in the familiar feel of mastery, realizing in that instant her vow not to practice magick had been doomed to failure from the second she’d uttered it. Magick was her heritage, her identity; not practicing magick would be like cutting off an arm or going blind. As her uncle always said, the only good witch was a fully functioning witch. The two outside the door were just about to discover it themselves.

“Come in,” she called out. “No need to lurk, I know you’re out there.”

Two men entered the room. One was dark-haired with pale skin, flat black eyes, and a designer wardrobe. He was the dead one and had vampire written all over him. A not-so-gentle probe proved her correct. He shot an amused smile her way, but said nothing.

The vampire’s companion was taller, leanly muscled, with inky black hair touching his shoulders and golden eyes the color of honey. He was the source of the psychic energy, which had decreased after he entered the room, but not ceased. She still had no clue what type of preternatural he was. No, that wasn’t true; she did know he was dangerous.

She kept her protective wards in place—all of them.

“Have a seat.” She mentally shoved two chairs through the protective shield. The dark and dangerous one’s eyes narrowed at her action. Good. That should show him she wasn’t a pushover.

“Nice little magick trick,” said the vampire as he sat in the proffered chair.

She tilted her head in acknowledgment. “What’s one of the undead doing in a lawyer’s office?”

The vampire’s companion bristled at her tone, but kept his silence. Ah, the quiet type. He definitely had strong psi powers, but his blocks made him hard to read. Unlike humans with their cluttered, untidy minds, most preternaturals were an open book. This one was locked tighter than a teenage girl’s diary.

While Abbie wasn’t sure what he was, her other five senses definitely agreed the man was drop-dead gorgeous. His tall, sculpted body was reminiscent of a Greek god, if Greek deities had dressed in bad-boy black leather. The smell of wild, open spaces had preceded him into the room. A flash of movement in the tall grasses of an unknown land flitted across her mind’s eye, then vanished as he practically flowed into the chair.

His golden eyes blinked sleepily, almost sensuously at her perusal. A hint of a smile prowled in their fiery depths.

The son of a bitch was amused. He knew his blocks kept her from figuring him out, and he thought it was funny. The arrogant so-and-so.

The vampire’s dark dead gaze moved warily between her and his companion. But he wisely kept silent. Or, maybe, he just wanted to see, of the two, who was the most powerful. Vampires loved to set the cat among the pigeons, loved to control those around them. Maybe this was what he’d wanted to happen, why he had brought the dark Greek god with him. As a test for her.

Well, she’d show him. Ilana Storm Gooden hadn’t raised a weakling.

Abbie ramped her mental abilities up another notch while still maintaining her personal psychic firewall and invisible shield. Then, just because she could, she tripped lightly through the vamp’s consciousness. Like most of the undead, it was a cold, dark, cavernous expanse with only the synapses of thought it needed to pretend to be human. Everything else was filed away, dusty memories of past times. As most vamps did, he tried to exist mentally only in the here and now, with only his next meal of blood uppermost in his mind.

“Don’t even think of it, Golub,” she warned. “My blood is not for you. I suggest you cozy up to some blood bank employees and charm what you need out of them.”

Jurnik Golub started in his chair as if he realized he’d sat on a tack. Then he smiled and nodded, but said nothing aloud. Your mother said you were good. But of course I had to see for myself. Have you figured my associate out yet?

She bristled at the underlying insult in Golub’s query—and at the intimate feelings he had for her parent. She was frustrated at being unable to crack his companion.

Irritated, she zapped him mentally. I’m working on it.

Mental laughter tickled her psyche.

Blood-sucking bastard.

She swung her full and focused attention toward the darkly handsome man lounging in the uncomfortable chair as if it were a cushioned settee, and he, a pasha being serviced by his harem.

A small leakage of the dark man’s psi energy escaped. Atavistic fear swept over her. His lounging attitude was a lure, a false front for the unwary.

For what seemed like hours, but could only have been mere seconds, her mental abilities probed, then bounced off the invisible wall surrounding his mind. But she persisted. Patiently, she scanned the mental blocks until she found a crack. Fine-tuning her psi powers, she widened the fissure. It was like ripping open plastic shrink-wrap; the small crack stretched and stretched until finally the tensile strength tore under the pressure.

She was in!

She sifted through his mind until she found a layer she could access. It was a tangle of thoughts and fleeting memories. His consciousness, like that of humans, was hard to maneuver. Harder than any preternatural she’d ever encountered. His rapidly winging thoughts and recovered memories flew too swiftly for her to capture, but within a few seconds, a half-minute at the most, she eventually garnered enough illusory impressions to give her an idea of what he was.

Then he forced her out with a surge of psi energy, slamming the door against her.

He was a shape-shifter—and not just one form, either. A hawk. A panther. And a crocodile. At least, those were the three animé she’d managed to cull from his labyrinthine brain; spirit images of all three creatures swam through the electrical synapses of his conscious.

He was a predator by nature. That, along with the difficulty she had in dealing with his extremely strong psi powers, meant he was someone to keep at a distance.

She turned to Jurnik Golub. “Why are you here? And why did you feel the need to bring a shifter, and a predatory one at that?”

The shifter sat up in his chair and frowned, his relaxed expression vanishing as if it had never existed. His false repose had been exposed for what it really was—the stalking posture of a patient hunter. Predatory amber eyes were now slitted, establishing a resemblance to the creatures he could become in the flash of an eye.

Then, as if the momentary alertness had never happened, he slouched back into the chair and blinked lazily. A wisp of a smile passed across his lips. “Congratulations, Ms. Gooden. You got more information than I’d realized. I won’t underestimate you in the future.”

Despite her wariness, his voice warmed her like twenty-five-year-old scotch all the way to the pit of her stomach. And his smile contained an element of something she knew she needed to avoid. Her very existence seemed threatened in a way it never had before. Had she awakened a sleeping beast?

Yes, he was definitely dangerous. More dangerous than the vamp. Especially so, because she wasn’t sure she could ever get more than what she already had out of his mind. If she were smart, she’d kick them both out of her office and go home.

But she didn’t.

Abbie had to face it; the life of a lawyer to humans sucked. Day in and day out, she handled the petty problems of an increasingly litigious human population. Most of the cases were non-issues, but the clients pursued them as if the courtroom was The Price is Right and they had a chance at the grand showcase. It was all about the hunger for money and power.

She wanted a challenge. She wanted a case that was about more than greed.

As Abbie had riffled through Jurnik’s file-drawer of a mind, she’d sensed he had that kind of case. She sought the excitement the unknown would bring into her life as a lodestone seeks the North Pole.

Hopefully, she wouldn’t live to regret it.

“My mother sent you, didn’t she?” She resolutely pushed all thoughts of what this vampire was to her mother to the back of her mind. His thoughts of her parent had been more than friendly—they’d been intimate.

Jurnik inclined his head slightly. “Yes. She finds me très amusant.” A flicker of some strong emotion sparked his dark eyes. “You didn’t like your new office, I see.”

Abbie slapped the desk with the flat of her hand. “So, you’re the one who put the idea in her head. I ought to consign you to the furthest perimeters of Hades for that trick. It took me all afternoon and quite a lot of Mickey-Mousing around to get my office, files, and books all back where they belonged.”

“I’ve been in Hell for more centuries than I want to admit to, my dear,” he replied with a dour look on his face and an accent which wasn’t entirely French. “I am sorry you didn’t like our surprise. It was in the utmost taste, you know. All originals from my own collection smuggled from St. Petersburg before the Romanovs’ demise. I do hope you managed to send them back properly.”

Abbie recalled the draining and involved process of restoring her office to twenty-first century efficiency. She winced at the memory of one or two less-than-successful reversal attempts and felt a slight twinge of remorse at the heavy-handed magick she’d used.

“I think so. If not, mother will find them for you. And I apologize for the Hades reference. I realize you didn’t choose your state of existence. But if I’m to take your case, whatever it is, please promise me one thing.”

Why had she apologized? Could it have been the sense of hurt she’d read in him? For some reason, this aloof undead wanted to please her.

“And that one thing is?” Jurnik said, one dark eyebrow lifted in question.

“Don’t indulge my mother in trying to rearrange my life, okay?”

The eyebrow lowered and his thin lips quirked with amusement. “Quite, my dear.” He waved his hand to encompass the room. “If you wish to work in such utilitarian surroundings, far be it from me to attempt to bring a bit of charm into your life.”

Now he sounded just like her mother. Just how serious were they?

Abbie ignored the insult to her office, shirked the thorny question of just what her mother’s relationship was to Jurnik and got down to the safer topic of business. “Now, explain to me what has brought you here. I only caught glimpses of it in your current thoughts, and I didn’t catch your friend’s name.” She swung her gaze to the predatory male who eyed her as if she were a puzzle he wished to solve—or prey he wished to eat.

An uncomfortable silence ensued as the darkly handsome shifter swept her with lazy, thorough glances. Occasional nudges at her psychic shields told her he was still trying to find a weakness. Well, she could outlast the handsome bastard; unlike him, her walls had no cracks.

Suddenly, he nodded as if he’d found what he wanted. A satisfied smile crossed his lips and warmed his golden eyes to deep amber. Somewhere in her head a warning klaxon blared danger. She smacked it off. She could handle anything the shifter or the vamp dished out. She’d proven that.

So why was she shivering with instinctive fear? What had he found?

She reexamined her shields. Not a hairline fracture to be found. What in Hades had made him smile like that?

“It’s Lucan Knight. Call me Luc,” he said, interrupting her mental inventory.

Luc. A strong name for a hard man.

She turned back to Jurnik, away from Luc’s burning golden gaze. “What has brought you and Luc here to see me?”

Suddenly the room’s temperature soared. Or maybe she was overly warm because of all the energy she’d expended?

She mentally adjusted the office’s thermostat downward. The click-click-click of the thermostat sending a signal to the air conditioner sounded loudly in the silence of the room. Luc chuckled at her actions. His amusement heated her even more. Angrily, she socked the temperature control down another notch.

The vampire’s eyes glinted at the interaction between her and Luc. Glad someone was having fun.

Finally, Jurnik replied to her question, calmly, as if discussing the current high price of gas. “A human was murdered in my nightclub, Exotica. I want you to represent my club in any legal issues that might arise, civilly or criminally.”

Exotica. She’d heard of it, but had never been inside. It was a gentlemen’s club located one street short of being on the wrong end of East Sixth Street. Sixth was the main drag for clubs and restaurants in Austin. Just beyond Jurnik’s, the quality of establishments took a rapid nosedive to honky-tonk beer joints, mom-and-pop taquerias, and faded, decrepit houses with iron bars on the windows and doors and junk cars parked in the side yards. Her own offices were located on Sixth Street, but a light year away on the western end where chic little restaurants and boutiques gave way to older residential neighborhoods as the thoroughfare led to the hills of West Austin.

“Don’t wrinkle your charming retroussé nose, my dear. My club is reputable and safe, even though the neighborhood is not quite up to snuff.”

“Reputable? Safe? Didn’t you mention something about a murder on the premises?”

Okay, so she was being petty. But Jurnik hadn’t told her the whole truth. There was more to it than keeping his club from being sued or smeared in the papers.

“What are you really here for? And why the muscle?” She angled her head toward Luc who’d sat silently, an intensely disturbing look still featured on his sculpted face.

“Tell her the whole story, Jurnik,” Luc said. “She’ll find out anyway.” He eyed her, but addressed his comments to Jurnik. “Lieutenant Adams is a bulldog, and he’ll find out about Jo Beth and you eventually.”

"Jo Beth? Lieutenant Adams—as in Austin Homicide?” She glanced from one man to the other, finally settling on Jurnik since Luc’s piercing gaze made her uncomfortable. “Well?”

Jurnik sighed heavily, his shoulders lifting in a deprecatory shrug. “Jo Beth and I had a thing,” he said, but added at Luc’s derisive snort, “All right, we had a flaming sexual affair. But it was over. We parted friends. She wanted more than I could allow myself to give her.”

“Such as?” Abbie took notes, not allowing herself to think about what a ‘flaming sexual affair’ between a mortal female and a vampire would entail. And, she definitely wasn’t going to think how such an arrangement might apply to her mother and this man.

“She wanted me to share blood with her.” He shot her an angry, defensive look. “Just to be crystal clear, I do not suck blood from humans—or witches. As you so correctly pointed out, it is much easier—and safer—to get my blood from the blood bank. I do, and I give them generous monetary donations to cover the blood I appropriate. I also work tirelessly to organize blood drives to keep the supplies up.”

“Okay, I believe you and apologize if I insulted you in any way.”

Bless the Goddess, he was one touchy vampire.

His abrupt nod indicated he’d accepted her apology.

“So, Jo Beth wanted you to turn her,” she said. “You refused. Then what? She tripped off into the night to find a vampire who would?”

“Exactly.” Jurnik smiled grimly.

“And you know this, how?” she asked.

“Because she left my employ and went to work for one of my competitors, Alek. He runs a club called GothCity. She bragged to her former peers that she was the man’s mistress.” Jurnik chuckled. His laughter sounded like a rusty gear. “Of course, while Alek may have indulged her with the exchange of blood, she wasn’t turned.”

“That’s obvious,” Abbie said. “She died.”

Luc made a noise. It sounded a lot like choked-off laughter. She threw him a dirty look. He winked at her.

She returned to Jurnik. “So, you’re telling me she left you for a fake vampire?”

“Yes, although at the time of her death Jo Beth was once again dancing at Exotica. The poor girl was very confused. She didn’t have much luck with the men in her life. You see, she discovered Alek had lied to her, that he was a vampyre, a pretender. It’s all a game for him and the Goth-types who frequent his establishment.”

Jurnik waved his hand in the air as if the vampyres were of no importance.

But they could be.

“Does Alek know you’re a real vampire?” she asked.

“No. Well, I don’t think so. He’s never indicated such. The only human who knew was Jo Beth.”

“Are you sure?” Abbie asked.

“No. How can I be?” Jurnik said with an elegant shrug. “No one has come to me and said anything, so if any other human knows, they are keeping quiet.”

“Lovely.” Abbie made more notes. She’d have her relatives keep their ears, eyes, and other assorted senses open to the hint of gossip about Jurnik. For a vampire, the man was just too trusting. He was a case of blackmail waiting to happen.

“Do you have an alibi for the time of death?”

“Yes. The coroner estimated Jo Beth died at the earliest, twelve o’clock noon, and the latest, three o’clock in the afternoon.” His lips twisted into a wry grin. “During that time period, I was tucked up in my dark basement bedroom. While I can take some daylight, I can’t stand the light from around eleven in the morning until late afternoon.”

“Well, that’s good,” she said. “But I can see why your alibi wouldn’t be prudent to mention to the Austin police. Is there any reason why they might suspect you, other than the fact you had a past relationship with the victim?”

“No.”

Luc rustled in his chair at Jurnik’s too-blunt, too-quick response. “Don’t lie to her. Tell her all.”

Jurnik tightened his lips and stared at a point beyond Abbie’s head. “Ms. Gooden can read my mind. She can figure it out.”

“I don’t go tromping willy-nilly through people’s minds, living or dead.” She paused and, in spite of her protestations, made an attempt to read him. “Plus, you know very well your current thoughts are on the pint of O negative coming to room temperature back at your office.” And the date he had with her mother later this evening.

She glared at Jurnik. “If you don’t trust me, find yourself another lawyer.”

Luc grumbled under his breath. “Stupid, stupid.” She wasn’t sure to whom he referred, but it had better not be her. Then he cleared his throat and captured her gaze with his golden one.

“Jurnik found the body when he went in to do paperwork before the club opened. One of his silk neckties was knotted around Jo Beth’s neck. He removed it before he called the cops, and later destroyed it. He called me in—I’m a private investigator—because he wants me to find out who tried to frame him for the crime. We figure that person is the murderer.”

“Ya think?” Abbie said.

Luc’s shout of laughter startled her, snapping her out of her momentary shock. How could Jurnik be so stupid to think that by taking the tie he’d thwarted the murderer’s plan to implicate him? The killer must have framed Jurnik for a specific reason. It only made sense he or she would continue to lead the cops to him.

“I got the impression from something flitting across Jurnik’s mind that Jo Beth’s relatives are threatening a lawsuit, right?” At the vampire’s nod, she continued, “So, not only do we need to keep the club out of trouble, but I also have to keep him out of jail long enough to find the real killer and point the police in his or her direction. Can’t have my client burnt to a crisp at a midday arraignment. That about it?”

“Not quite,” Luc said. “The murderer is definitely male—there were indications of rough sexual action and semen at the scene. I’ll be the only one seeking the killer and pointing the cops in the right direction. You’re being retained to do the legal tango with Jo Beth’s greedy relatives, the police, and the prosecutor.”

Abbie didn’t dignify Luc’s assumption that she wouldn’t be involved in the investigation with an answer; instead, she zeroed in on the mention of the prosecutor. “Is Jeff Walden already poking his rich aquiline nose into this case?”

“Yes.” Jurnik sighed as if the weight of eternity sat on his soul. “Walden is on a crusade against men’s clubs within the county. He’s the prime political force behind Citizens for a Decent Austin. Within the last six months, Exotica has been raided more than the Barbary Coast.”

“Well, frigging frog’s toes, that sounds like Jeff,” Abbie snapped with disgust. She pinned Jurnik to his chair with a sharp look. “Your club clean?”

“Clean? How do you mean?” Jurnik shrank away from her glare.

“Do you follow the current laws?” she asked, ticking them off on her fingers. “No underage drinking or guests. No naked crotches. No touching on lap dances. No prostitution. No illegal drugs on the premises. No smoking in the dining areas. No overcrowding. Not located within five hundred yards of church or school. Those laws.”

“I obey every law they’ve thrown at clubs like mine. I also meet and pass all the health inspections, have smoke detectors, fire alarms and a sprinkler system, plus security inside and outside the premises. We cut drinks off when we suspect inebriation, and we test people and put those over the legal limit in cabs at our expense.”

Abbie reexamined all Jurnik and Knight had told her. It was obvious the police eventually would consider Jurnik as the prime suspect. He’d had opportunity—the victim was killed on his premises. He had motive—he was a spurned lover, or at least Jeff Walden would play that up as the motive. And finally, he had had access to the weapon. The fact he had burned the particular tie used in the murder was negligible. Jo Beth had been strangled. Jeff would argue a smart killer would take his weapon with him, then dispose of it. The cons in the case won by a landslide.

But Jurnik had a very big pro—an alibi. Yet it couldn’t be used without subjecting him to a holy inquisition. At the very least, he’d be labeled a freak. At the very worst, he’d be killed by a wooden-spike-toting fundamentalist doing God’s work. He deserved good legal counsel, and as far as she knew, she was the only preternatural attorney in the State of Texas. She was his only hope.

Besides, the case sounded like just what she needed to eradicate her boredom.

“I’ll take the case. I want to visit the scene and talk to your employees about Jo Beth.” Abbie jotted yet more notes.

A large male hand slapped the middle of her notepad with a resounding thud. Abbie jumped, but managed not to shriek. How in the name of the Goddess had Luc breached her ward? Her momentary fright morphed into anger. Bloody alpha-bastard.

She raised her head, arching an eyebrow in inquiry. “You have an issue, Mr. Knight?”

“Yes, I do, Ms. Gooden,” he replied, using the same frigidly polite tone she’d used, but having much less success with it. The heat of his anger threatened to melt her skin. “You will not meddle in my investigation. You will stay away from the club unless you are accompanied there by either myself or Jurnik—and only when required to be there because of your pursuit of the civil or criminal cases which might be thrown at Jurnik or the club.” He reached forward and grabbed her chin, forcing her to look at him. “Are we clear?”

“As a scrying glass, Mr. Knight,” she said in clipped tones. Mentally chanting a repelling spell, she smiled and wiggled the fingers of her right hand, sending him flying back through the open doorway into the hall. “Don’t ever touch me like that again,” she called out archly, “or, the next time I’ll make sure the door is closed before I send you flying.”

Jurnik’s parting laughter as he joined Luc warmed her heart. It was Luc’s answering roar, like that of a large jungle cat denied his downed prey, which reencased it in ice and reminded her the shifter was not tame and she should remember that in the future.

 

 

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