No one should die that way.
Detective Jane Hart stared at the broken body in the middle of Bourbon Street, a doll that had been cast aside. The victim’s skin was too pale. Her eyes were wide open—dark—seeming to still show the girl’s poor terror.
A crowd had gathered. Hardly a surprise. There was always a crowd on Bourbon Street. Jane could hear the whispers and rumbles behind her as everyone strained to get a look at the body.
The naked body. The victim had been dumped, just tossed aside, near the side of Hell’s Gate. Music blasted from the interior of the bar, and plenty of folks were still packed inside the place.
How long had the victim been out there, those desperate eyes still open in death as she waited to be found? How many people had just walked past her before someone had actually stopped and realized…
She’s dead. Not passed out. Not in some drunken stupor. She’s dead.
The fact that her throat was ripped open—that should have given someone a freaking clue.
It was one of the uniforms, looking green. He’d been the first on scene, and when he’d called in the homicide, she’d been close by. Her captain had sent her over. My first official case as a homicide detective. More cops were coming—a crime scene team was on the way.
“There’s so much blood,” the uniform murmured. Mason. Mason Mitchell. A guy in his early twenties with light blond hair and the horrified gaze that told her he hadn’t seen very many bodies before.
Maybe he was new to the beat.
There are always bodies in this city. Once upon a time, the Big Easy had boasted the highest murder rate of any U.S. city.
But things had changed.
Tell that to the girl on the ground.
“Just help me keep everyone back,” Jane told him, rubbing at her right side. An old habit, one that she’d never been able to shake. Her fingers pressed hard in that spot, just for a moment, then she squared her shoulders. “I want a closer look at her.”
Mason was right. There really was a whole lot of blood. Way too much for a typical scene. It looked as if the victim’s throat had been slit wide open, from ear to ear. A horrible way to die but…
Maybe it was quick. The slice of a knife, then she fell.
The victim had been pretty. With long red hair and pale skin. Too young, far too young. But then, there were plenty of girls who were too young on Bourbon Street. They stood in dimly lit doorways, clad in negligees that offered little to the imagination, and they invited passers-by to come in for dances.
Jane crouched over the body, trying to be very, very careful not to touch the victim. The girl was on her back, with her hands spread out at her sides and her legs closed. Perfectly closed. He posed her at death.
Chill bumps rose on Jane’s arms. The posing was not a good sign. Right, like slitting her throat was a good thing. Her eyes narrowed. There wasn’t any strong light out there, and maybe that was why the girl had just laid there so long.
And not because the people just hadn’t given a shit about her.
Jane pulled out her phone and turned on the flashlight app. She directed the light at the girl’s neck.
No missing that horrible slice but…
Something else was there. On the left side. About a centimeter above the slice, Jane could see…
Two small holes. Puncture wounds? Yes, yes, they looked like puncture wounds.
Her gaze trailed back up to the victim’s face. No one deserves this death. Jane wanted to take off her jacket and cover the young victim—there was just something about her eyes—but she knew that wasn’t possible. She’d contaminate the scene, and the last thing she wanted to do was destroy any evidence.
She heard the cry of a siren behind her, and Jane jumped. She glanced back over her shoulder, her gaze cutting through the crowd, and that was when she saw—
Tall. Broad shoulders. He was wearing black—a black t-shirt and dark jeans. His hair was dark, too—dark and thick, as it framed his face. A face that wasn’t handsome, but rather…dangerous. Intense.
Yes, the way he was staring at the scene was all wrong. The way he was staring at her was just wrong, and Jane’s hand automatically went to her holster.
His gaze—she couldn’t tell what color his eyes were—followed the movement, and a faint smile curved his lips.
What. In. The. Hell?
Her eyes narrowed as she marched toward him.
Other cops were finally at the scene. And she saw the flash of yellow police tape. Perfect. About time that area got sectioned off.
Two uniformed cops hurried toward her, blocking her before she could reach the guy who was still smiling.
“Secure the scene’s perimeter,” she said, getting straight to the point. “And get those idiots with the camera phones to stop taking their pictures.” Yeah, she’d seen those fools, too. Frat boys who were laughing as they recorded. Drunk idiots. This wasn’t some show—it was a person’s life.
At her words, the tall, dark stranger glanced over at the frat boys. His smile vanished and she saw his square jaw harden.
Using his inattention to her advantage, Jane closed in on him. She saw his nostrils flare when she was about five feet away, and his head jerked back toward her. Their eyes met—for an instant—and then he backed away. Fast.
Oh, no, you don’t.
She surged forward and her hand slapped down on his arm. “Excuse me, sir, but I’m gonna need a word.” Her southern accent thickened a bit with those words.
Not a New Orleans accent, because that was a different beast. Mississippi. Gulf Coast. Because once upon a time, she’d been a Mississippi girl.
Until her world had ripped apart.
Her hand tightened on the guy’s arm. He’d stopped backing away. Actually, he’d gone as still as a statue beneath her touch. A big statue. About six foot three, two hundred twenty pounds.
Maybe he was the kind of guy who used his size to intimidate people.
She wasn’t intimidated.
“I’m Detective Jane Hart.” She nodded. “And you are…”
For a moment, she didn’t think he’d answer. Her left hand gripped his arm and her right was still poised just above her holster.
She waited, but there was nothing else. Jane let her brows climb. “That a first name or a last?”
His head tilted toward her. “She suffered.”
He said it as if it weren’t a question. Alarm bells were going off like crazy in Jane’s head. The way this guy was acting—it was so not a typical bystander response. It was more the response of…
“Why are you out here tonight, Mr. Locke?” Jane pushed.
His gaze swept over her. She didn’t like that. Didn’t like him. He was making her feel too on edge, and where she touched him, her skin actually felt warm.
Killers could be attractive. Alluring. She knew, she’d sure spent plenty of time studying them. Ted Bundy had certainly used his looks to lure in his victims. Handsome faces could hide horrible monsters, she knew that.
This guy isn’t handsome. He’s big and strong and dangerous.
“I own Hell.”
Her hold tightened on him.
But he motioned to the club behind her. “Hell’s Gate, it’s mine. So when I heard about the body, I had to come outside. Terrible thing, this. Terrible.”
He owned the club. The victim had just been left outside his place of business…right, not suspicious at all. “Did you know her?”
“I haven’t gotten a good look at her yet.”
She didn’t believe those rumbling words.
“It’s a shame,” he suddenly said, his voice dropping, “what some people will do in this city…the lengths they will go to…people want to stay young and strong forever.”
Jane looked back at the victim. Dead far too young.
“Good luck finding the killer,” Locke said.
She turned her focus back to him. “I’ll want to talk to your staff. They may have seen something—”
He was too sure of that.
Her lips thinned. “Do you understand what cooperation is? Because if you don’t, you’re about to. When a woman’s body is dumped outside your business, it’s bad. Very bad. And when you stare out at the scene like you’re some kind of—of—” Words failed her.
“You look predatory,” Jane said flatly as her hand slid away from him. “There is no sympathy on your face. You seem to be…” Hunting. But she didn’t say that part, not out loud. She did have some restraint. Sometimes.
His head inclined toward her. “I hate this happened to that young woman.” Now his words were coated with emotion—emotion that she actually wanted to believe. “It’s a waste. A terrible shame. She should still be living her life and now things will just…end. They have to end.”
Uh, yeah, about that…“I think they ended when some SOB sliced her throat open.”
Mason called her name.
She didn’t move.
“I have more questions for you,” she said to Locke, a warning edge in her voice.
“I wish I had answers for you.”
Okay, that was just a weird-ass response. She didn’t have time for weird-ass anything. She glanced over at Mason. “I want you to make Locke comfortable in the back of a patrol car until I can question him again…”
Mason bounded forward. “Make who?”
“Locke.” She glanced back at her suspect. “Make him—” Only he wasn’t there. Locke had vanished, disappeared in an instant. “Sonofabitch.” She surged forward, pushing through the crowd, elbowing her way past the frat jerks with their phones—still filming. Such assholes. I will so be confiscating those phones later. She didn’t see Locke, not to the left, and not to the right. The guy had slipped away from her.
Jane whirled back to look at Hell’s Gate. Did he really own the club? Or had that just been bull?
Mason rushed toward her, huffing. “The ME is here.”
“Get in Hell,” she told him curtly. “See if a man named Locke is there. If he is, drag his ass out for me.”
“Um…do what, ma’am?”
“Drag his ass out,” Jane snapped. Then she squared her shoulders. The body wouldn’t stay out there much longer. The victim would need to be moved. And she wanted to be there. She wanted to make sure the ME saw those puncture wounds. Jane needed to make sure the victim was taken care of—the victim was her priority. And finding the girl’s killer?
Oh, hell, yes, I’m on that, too.
She marched back toward the body. She’d be seeing Locke again. Very, very soon.
Her hand slid down to her right side. Pressed hard. The mark there, as always, seemed to burn…
Aidan Locke didn’t usually hang out at police stations. But tonight was different. Tonight, there wasn’t an option.
So he’d followed the pretty cop—detective—back across town. Mary Jane Hart. Though he learned that she didn’t allow herself to be called Mary Jane. No, she was just Jane.
And, on the force, she was also all business.
Jane. Not exactly what he’d expected. Small, almost petite. A dancer’s body and a warrior’s mind. Such an interesting blend.
When he’d seen her earlier, her dark hair had been pulled back, making her eyes seem even bigger. Even darker. Her skin had been a warm gold. And her hand—it had been itching to grab her gun.
As if the gun would have done any good against him.
Meeting her had certainly been interesting. And the fact that she’d instantly looked at him and thought killer—well, that had been obvious enough.
And, unfortunately, she’d been dead on.
Before coming to the station, he’d made a little stop at the ME’s office. He’d talked to the doctor. Made sure that the right stories were told. The right tests performed on the body that had been brought in to the morgue. He had everything covered. As usual. After all, it was his job to keep the dark secrets of the city hidden.
Someone had to be in charge of the place. And the humans—they just thought that they were running the show. No, he was the one pulling the strings. Had been for quite some time. And Aidan would be…for many, many years to come.
The current case was handled. The murdered woman would be forgotten. The matter filed away.
All that remained now was for him to have a talk with the pretty detective. He’d saved her for last. The shadows surrounded him as he waited for her to leave the building.
Someone sure liked working late…Another detail he filed away about the delectable Jane Hart.
All work and no play…
Well, it didn’t make for a fun night in New Orleans.
Twenty more minutes passed, and then he saw her. She moved briskly down the police station’s stone steps, and her gaze swept around the scene, as if looking for threats.
A threat was there, but she didn’t see him. His prey never did.
She hurried down the sidewalk, her stride confident and quick, and he stepped out of those shadows to follow behind her. He didn’t make a sound. Not even a rustle and—
Jane whirled toward him, her gun drawn and her body surging with a quick, fluid power. Before he could even blink, her gun was aimed at his heart.
“What kind of idiot stalks a homicide detective?” Jane snarled at him.
The woman had bite. He normally liked that, a lot. But this wasn’t about pleasure. This was about business. Strictly business. “Stalking is a very strong word,” Aidan murmured, “I was merely…hoping for a chat.”
She didn’t lower her gun. “So we could finish our conversation from earlier?”
“Conversation…interrogation…I guess you could call it whatever you wanted, Aidan.”
Ah, so she’d been digging into his life. He wasn’t worried. The cops knew only what he allowed them to know. “Aidan Locke,” he said, inclining his head toward her. “At your service.”
The gun still wasn’t lowering. So, he just stepped forward, and he kept advancing, until the gun pressed into his chest. “I didn’t kill that poor girl.”
“So your staff at Hell’s Gate told me, again and again. The ME said the victim died less than an hour before she was found.”
Made sense, considering that Aidan knew the killer would have only hunted at night.
“And everyone who works for you was quick to point out that you’d been having some kind of grand opening bash at that time, and you were right at the bar, serving drinks for all to see.”
“Glad you checked out my alibi.”
“I checked out you.” Then, finally, she lowered the gun. But her delicate shoulders remained tense and her chin had notched into the air. “I also sent in one of the uniforms to find you right after that little disappearing act you performed on Bourbon Street, but you were nowhere to be found.”
Light from a street lamp fell onto her face. A rather striking face. Not beautiful, but better. Her eyes were a bit exotic, turning up at the corners. Her nose was long, elegant. And her thick hair was slipping out of the ponytail and sliding around her face. Softening her.
Not now. Business only. Pleasure later.
“I want to help,” Aidan said. The words were true enough. He did want to help. He’d find justice for that poor victim. After all, giving her justice was his job.
“Glad to hear that.” Jane nodded.
So serious. He knew quite a bit about the new detective. Facts that he’d read weeks ago when she’d first been vetted for the open homicide detective position. Though he doubted the woman realized he’d been the one to approve her promotion. When it came to homicide cops in the Big Easy, he always had final say. After all, he didn’t want anyone getting in his way.
There was a status to maintain.
“If you’re helping,” she continued, “then I’d like you to turn over your bar’s security footage from tonight. I could get a court order, but that would just take precious time. Time I don’t need to waste.”
No, he didn’t imagine that she liked wasting time.
“I’ll help,” he said again, nodding.
“Good.” She holstered her weapon. “And if we’re going to talk, we’re going to walk at the same time. I want to see what else the ME has for me.”
The walk wouldn’t be far. And the ME would have nothing for her. Aidan had seen to that.
But he fell into step beside her, automatically slowing his faster stride to match up with hers. Her scent wrapped around him—something soft. Feminine. Probably one of those lotions that human women were always using. He rather…liked her smell. What was it? He inhaled again.
Apples and…lavender. A nice blend.
Only…there was something more. A deeper, richer scent that was pulling at him. Drawing him closer to her.
“Are you sniffing me?”
“Because that is some weird serial killer shit if you’re doing that. Don’t make me go for my gun again.”
From the corner of his eye, he saw that her hand was already near the holster.
“You smell good,” he said, deciding to go with the truth. “But I’ll try to stop the ‘serial killer shit’ for you.”
“You’d better.” Her steps didn’t hurry. She wore boots and jeans. Jeans that hugged her legs and ass ever so well. He’d noticed the ass-hugging earlier, before she’d turned with her gun drawn. She had on a jacket, one that looked a bit battered, so he couldn’t tell much about her upper body. He suspected her breasts were as perfect as her ass.
“I don’t want lies from you.”
Pity. He only had lies to give her.
“Did you know the victim?”
He shook his head.
“Her prints turned up in the system. She had a…solicitation charge against her. Melanie Wagner, age twenty-one. Just twenty-one. According to the intel I gathered, she was dancing at one of those dives on Bourbon Street.” Disgust had entered her voice. “She didn’t deserve to be tossed away like trash.”
She hadn’t been tossed away, though. He’d seen the body and had noticed the care that had been taken to position young Melanie just right.
“I will find her killer.” It sounded as if Jane was making a vow. She should be careful doing that. It was never good to make a promise that you couldn’t keep.
Up ahead, a small alley snaked away from the street. Darkness filled that alley, and, automatically, his gaze slid toward it. What a perfect hunting spot.
His tongue slid over the edge of his teeth. He could feel them starting to sharpen. “I certainly wish you luck with that endeavor.” He started to say more, but then heard a faint rustle of sound. A light noise coming from the alley. Jane wouldn’t have noticed it. Most humans wouldn’t.
“Forget luck. Give me that security footage.”
He stopped walking.
So did she.
Aidan forced a smile. “Of course. I’ll call my manager right now and make sure the footage is sent to you.” He pulled out his phone, but didn’t call anyone. “I hope the ME has news that you can use.”
Her gaze raked over him. “I don’t get you.”
No, she wouldn’t. But she should hurry along to the ME’s office. The streets weren’t safe for her. Or rather, that particular street wasn’t safe right then.
This problem shouldn’t be happening. After he got the test results, the ME should have called in the clean-up team.
“No prior convictions, not so much as a traffic ticket,” she said as she tilted her head. More tendrils of her hair escaped from her ponytail, and that scent of hers was seriously getting beneath his skin. “But when I look at you, I see you.”
He tensed at that, wondering just what she meant.
“You’re not some safe guy who plays by the rules. That’s a lie. The image you’re giving to the world is a lie.”
She was hitting far too close to the truth. “So what am I?” Who am I?
“That’s really what I’d like to know.” She shook her head, sending those tendrils of hair sliding over her cheek. “Make that call. I’ll be paying you a visit at Hell’s Gate come morning.”
Morning wasn’t that far away.
Jane gave him a curt nod and then headed for the ME’s office.
He called his manager and made sure his voice carried as he gave instructions for Graham to send the security footage to Detective Hart. And Aidan watched her walk away.
A truly great ass.
When she hurried up the steps that would take her into the building that housed the ME’s office, his attention turned to the alley once more.
He could hear those rustles again. Louder.
And…a cry. A gurgle?
The detective was safe, but someone else wasn’t. He could smell the blood in the air. His hand reached into his coat, and his fingers curled around the wooden stake he’d hidden there.
Never leave home without a good stake. Advice he’d followed since his thirteenth birthday.
When he rushed into the alley, he saw the victim was struggling, kicking and scratching in the vampire’s grip. And that vamp—the vamp was guzzling the guy’s throat. A homeless man, by the looks of him. A fellow who’d made the mistake of thinking the alley was a safe place to sleep.
It wasn’t safe.
“Let him go.” Aidan’s voice was sharp and hard. Cold with power.
The vamp ignored him. Kept drinking. The homeless man’s struggles became weaker.
“You’re killing him.”
The vampire looked up at him. Laughed. Madness burned in that gaze. Madness and power but the vampire did actually let go of the victim.
Then the vamp charged at Aidan, rushing forward with fangs bared.
Those fangs never touched him.
The stake drove into the vampire’s chest, fast and hard and brutal. Straight to the heart. The vampire cried out and Aidan’s arms wrapped around his prey. “It’s all right now,” Aidan said softly.
The vampire blinked up at him. Death was coming.
Aidan lowered the vamp to the ground. The alley was dirty. It smelled of urine and rotting food. The urine had probably come from the homeless man. During the attack he’d no doubt—
The vamp’s hand grabbed tight to him. Like a claw.
Aidan could have broken away. He didn’t. He stared down at his prey. When the life faded from the vamp’s eyes, he was still crouched there, waiting.
After all, someone should stay until the end.
No one deserved to die alone.