Chapter One

Arizona Daily News, February 13, 2012
From the Editor
By Simon Tripp

In just under two years this planet will see another influx of incorporeal beings. Most of them will be criminals, but some will be political dissidents or religious prisoners.  The dimensional rift itself is caused by the return of the Moore-Creasy-Devon comet making its 73-year journey through the solar system. Beings from the other dimension have been using Earth as their own Botany Bay for millennia, and as of yet our scientists have been unable to find a way to stop it. These interdimensional marauders will stream through the rift like Vikings of old riding the rough waves of the sea to take possession of human bodies without any regard for those they displace. Or, more accurately, suppress.

We know little more about them now than when we first became aware that vampires and werewolves and all those other creatures of myth were, in fact, real. According to Dr. Nandi Wesley of NASA, an Extra-Dimensional takes possession of a human and the combination of their otherworldly essence with that of their host determines just what creature they become. How that happens is still unexplained by any scientist on the planet. No one on this world can explain on a genetic level what makes one a vampire, another a werewolf, still another a pixie, not even the renowned Dr. Wesley. As well, governments around the globe are as unprepared now as they were three years ago when word of this rift became public knowledge. Following the hysteria that caused families to turn on each other because they suspected their loved ones had become EDs, the United States passed a law that protects EDs from discrimination in housing, employment, and other aspects of life. The Preternatural Protection Act (PPA) also includes strict penalties for hate crimes directed toward EDs.

I’ve always pretty much been a live and let live sort of guy, but I’ll admit I’m troubled by this laizzez-faire attitude we have toward the monsters in our midst. Just because they say they’ll police themselves doesn’t mean they will. It’s up to the everyday citizen to protect him or herself, since our government won’t, because in less than twenty-four months we’ll have even more EDs to contend with.

Vampires have been preying on humans for centuries. Just last month a woman was brutally attacked and died while her two small children looked on in terror. The vampire who was responsible has yet to be brought up on charges. More accurately, he or she has yet to be found. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that more often than not preternaturals literally get away with murder. Maybe some of these anti-preternatural groups that have sprung up over the last few years aren’t all wrong. Maybe, just maybe, the people who killed that vamp in Scottsdale yesterday have the right idea.

I’m not satisfied to leave things as they are. Are you?

Nix de la Fuente scowled at the editorial as she made her way from her car to the latest crime scene. She folded the newspaper and stuffed it into her oversized bag. It was garbage like this in the media that kept people stirred up. At least the guy hadn’t mentioned demons at all. She supposed she should be grateful for that. Thousands of years of propaganda foisted on humans by various religious establishments had definitely made demons out to be the bad guys. Some of that negative press wasn’t wrong. Okay, most of it was pretty accurate.

Since she was only half-demon, though, she considered herself one of the good guys. Most of the time, anyway. And it was her somewhat unique heritage that had landed her the job as one of the liaisons between the region’s preternatural Council and the local authorities. That hadn’t earned her many friends on her mother’s side of the family, because most demons wanted nothing to do with the Council. They figured it was their right to live and kill others as they pleased. Her mother had been downright pissy about Nix taking a job with the Council, but Nix didn’t see any reason to placate a mother who’d been mostly absent from her life, letting Nix’s paternal grandmother raise a child she’d resented and sometimes had even seemed to hate.

As Nix neared the crime scene, she paused outside the taped-off area and grabbed a pair of shoe covers to put over her boots. In between two tall saguaro cacti, she braced herself against the wall of the building and slipped on the covers. Flashing her ID at the uniformed Scottsdale police officer, she ducked under the yellow crime scene tape he held up for her. Taking care where she placed her feet, she walked several yards to where a corpse was covered with a black tarp. She pulled a pair of latex gloves out of her purse and with a sigh squatted down, slipped them on, then folded back the plastic sheeting.

Under the setting sun the blood appeared dark and dull on the victim’s face and streaked the once beautiful but now grimy blonde hair. Vacant blue eyes, clouded over, still held a look of surprise in their depths. In death her fangs hadn’t retracted, the tips resting against her lower lip.

Nix’s heart gave a thump. She knew this victim. Amarinda Novellus. Nix would never have thought she would see her like this. She blew out a breath and lifted the tarp higher to see more of the body. What was once designer clothing hung in bloody tatters. The rib cage gaped open, some of the bones broken. Most of the victim’s internal organs were gone. One leg lay bent beneath her at an unnatural angle. Her right arm was at her side, palm down, while the left one was bent above her head. All of her fingers were gone, no doubt her attackers had removed them to hide the bits of flesh and blood Amarinda had gouged out of them with her nails. Deep slashes scored her forearms, her thighs. She hadn’t gone down easily.

There were any number of preternaturals with the capacity and the desire to do this sort of thing, but the suspects greatly decreased when victimology was taken into account. Vamps were strong. Really strong. And fast. Even alone, this one should have been able to defend herself against almost anything.

Except there’d obviously been no defense against whatever had done this to her. At this point it was difficult to tell whether she’d been gutted by claws or knives.

A pair of men’s scuffed brown shoes moved into Nix’s field of vision. She glanced up past a potbelly to the ruddy face of one of the assistant medical examiners. “George. How’re you doing?”

The porcine shifter scratched the side of his nose with a stubby finger. “Can’t complain. Wouldn’t do any good if I did.”

“Family all right?” she asked. “Your youngest just went off to college, right? How does she like it so far?”

A broad grin creased his face. “Family’s fine, and my baby’s lovin’ the college life. Worries me a little,” he muttered, his smile losing some of its brightness. Knees cracked as he squatted next to her. “Helluva thing,” he said with a slight gesture toward the body.

“Yeah.” Nix sighed. “What d’ya got?”

“Murder by person or persons unknown. Just like the one yesterday.” At her exasperated look he shrugged. “What do you want from me?” He gestured the length of the body. “She’s been cut open and disemboweled. The how of it I’ll know once I get her on the table. The why of it’s your job.  I can tell you she fed within the last twenty-four hours. That’s determined by how soft and pink her skin is.” He reached out and lifted her upper lip. “See how red her gums are? That shows she’s fed recently, too.” He let her lip fall back into place. “Course, it could be that she took a long draw from the bastards that did this to her. I can’t say for certain. It’s a damned shame.” He stood with a groan and stretched his back. “The boys should be here shortly to collect her. I’ll let you know what I find out from the autopsy.”

Nix watched him amble off and then looked back down at Amarinda. As with the earlier victim, there weren’t any visual clues that she could see on the body, but maybe there was some scent left. Nix leaned forward slightly. Just as she started to draw a breath to focus on the various odors on the body, a spicy, woodsy scent tickled her nostrils. A man moved into her peripheral vision and hitched up his black slacks to hunker down beside her.

“Nice of you to come,” Detective Dante MacMillan murmured, shooting her a sidelong glance. Dante had been assigned to the Special Case squad only a month ago. Even though it usually took her a while to warm up to people enough to call them friends, she and Dante had been on several cases together already and she knew he was a man of deep integrity and an abiding sense of justice.  Plus he made her laugh. Nix wouldn’t hesitate to name him as a friend, even after such a short amount of time.

She grimaced. “I came as soon as I got the call.” Damned werebear dispatcher had a thing about demons, and he always waited until the very last minute to call her about a new case, making sure she strolled onto the scene later than everyone else. She’d probably hear about it from her bosses afterward.

“I’ve been here ten minutes. First officer on scene secured the site and started jotting down makes, models and license plate numbers of cars on the street.” He clasped his hands between his knees. “I have uniforms doing a canvas of the area. So far no witnesses. At least none that want to tell us what they know.”

She looked down at the body. “I know her. Her name is Amarinda Novellus.”

“How do you know her?” Dante’s voice was hushed, his tone compassionate. Finding out that you knew a victim was never easy. It brought the violence of the murder all that closer to home.

“She’s a friend.” Nix clenched her jaw against the pain of her loss. She and Amarinda had drifted apart over the last five years because being around the female vampire had dredged up too many memories Nix hadn’t wanted to deal with. Now she’d never have the chance to renew their friendship. Her emotions rose, her gut churning with demon fire as if the beast inside was trying to burn its way out.

Nix stared at what was left of her friend and pushed the guilt and grief aside. She had a job to do. Had to focus and get it done. She could grieve and wallow in regrets later. After she found Amarinda’s killer.

Dante glanced at the victim, his face drawn and taut. A heavy sigh left him. “The second dead ED in as many days. God, I thought humans could be vicious to one another, but what EDs can do to each other…” He gave a slight shake of his head and gestured toward the gaping rib cage. “I mean, an ED had to have done this kind of damage, right?”

“Could have been a pret.” Nix refused to call them EDs. It wasn’t that there was anything technically wrong with the term, “extra-dimensional” really was quite accurate. But most humans said it with such disdain in their voices that it had become an insult and wasn’t used by most preternaturals. She replaced the tarp and rose to her feet, removing her latex gloves and tugging the back of her short leather jacket down over the knife scabbard at the small of her back. She might possess more strength than an average human female, but it never hurt to have actual weapons at your disposal. Like a blade made of silver at her back and the Glock nine mil at her waist.

Dante stood as well, towering over her. Of course, most men did, since her human DNA contributed to the fact that she was only five-four in her stocking feet. Good thing she had on her three-inch-heeled boots tonight. That way, at least, her eyes were level with his chin instead of his Adam’s apple. She met his gaze. “There don’t seem to be any bite marks that could make it a vampire kill, and I don’t see any bites or scratches or tufts of fur on Rinda that would suggest a shapeshifter. Until the coroner can take a closer look, we won’t know if the damage was done by humans with knives or prets with claws and teeth.”

He cocked an eyebrow. “You really think humans could’ve done this?” He gestured toward the covered body.

“Maybe.” The editorial she’d read just before she’d entered the taped-off scene came to mind. “Some of the anti-pret groups might have moved from rhetoric to rampage.” She shrugged. “I’ve met some pretty violent humans, especially on this job.”

“Yeah, me, too.” He paused. She could tell by the look on his face he was really hoping humans hadn’t been involved. Of course, if they weren’t, that would mean that neither of them would be involved on this case any longer. If this incident was pret against pret, human authorities would back off and allow the preternatural Council to resolve the issue. Dante added, “This didn’t happen here. Not enough blood.” He gestured around the site. Criminalists were busy doing their jobs, from those taking photographs and placing evidence in paper bags to the one at the edge of the scene making a video recording. “There should be spatter everywhere, but there’s only what’s on and under her body.”

Nix agreed. “This is definitely a dump site. She was killed somewhere else.” The killing hadn’t taken place that long ago, either. What blood was there was still fresh. One of the human techs walked by, the air disturbed by his movements wafting the rich smell of blood toward her. She could almost taste the coppery tang on the back of her tongue, making her stomach knot even more.

Demons didn’t ingest blood like vampires did, but the smell of the stuff still brought out a primal response. A dull throb set up in her forehead and she brought one hand up to rub under her bangs, willing her hornbuds to stay hidden. The last thing she needed was to start showing her demon at a crime scene. None of her human colleagues except Dante knew she was anything but one hundred percent bona fide human being. She planned to keep it that way. While most people had settled down fairly well after finding out that vampires, werewolves and the various faery folk were real, they were downright hostile about demons. She didn’t need the prejudices of the cops and the crowd gathered on the other side of the yellow tape hindering her work.

“George says based on rigor mortis she’s been dead about an hour. No more than two.” Dante rubbed his jaw. “He went into some mumbo-jumbo about how it’s different with a vampire ’cause they’re technically already dead. My eyes glazed over after about the fifth time he said ‘Adenosine Triphosphate’.”

Nix shot him a look of commiseration. The Assistant ME was a verbose little shapeshifter who loved the sound of his own voice. Especially when he was able to trot out long, complicated words. She was amazed he hadn’t gone into more detail with her, but maybe he figured he’d already given the information to Dante, so why bother? “So once we have a suspect list we’ll want to check alibis between the hours of two-thirty and five-thirty, just to be sure.”

Dante nodded. “Hey, can you…” He looked around and lowered his voice. “Can you smell anything?”

Dante was always discrete, and Nix was always grateful. She took a deep breath and held it, pushing past the scent of blood for other odors. The sounds around her faded as she focused on her olfactory sense. There was a light smell of vamp, some lingering aroma of shapeshifter, but nothing recent enough to support or discount their involvement. There was something else there, though, a smoky odor lingering just beneath everything else, something…like demon.

Nix stilled. Why in the hell would demons have attacked a lone vampire? As far as she knew there had been no blood feuds called. And most demons wouldn’t dare strike out on their own without sanction from their leader. Of course, there was always a possibility that a few had gone rogue and were having fun like in the old days. Gang up on a vampire who’d been foolish enough to venture out on his or her own, but she didn’t think that was what was going on. The scent of demon would be a lot stronger if that were the case.

She drew another breath. While her sense of smell was better than a full-blood human’s, it wasn’t as good as a full-blood demon’s. And nowhere near as good as a vamp’s or any of the shapeshifters. But even she could tell there was something wrong here. The demon scent was too faint. If actual demons had been here, the odor would be much stronger. Maybe it was residual from earlier in the day. But still, it troubled her. It wasn’t enough to definitely say demons were involved, but it was too much to rule them out.

“The strongest smell is of humans,” she murmured. “I’m no bloodhound, though, and I can’t tell older scents from the current ones,” she added with a glance at the technicians working the scene. She kept her voice low. “All of the pret scents are so faint, my first assumption is that the attackers were human. It’s just too difficult to sort out all the other smells.” Plus if vamps fed on humans just prior to the attack, they’d have an overriding odor of human on them. She said as much to Dante.

His low sigh drew her attention back to him. His eyes looked tired and soul-weary, like most of the other human cops she knew. Poor guy. He looked a little pale, the lines around his mouth testament to the strain he was under and the confusion he was trying to sort through.

“What is it?” she asked.

He scrubbed the back of his neck with a big hand. “It’s just…all this.” He drew a deep breath. “Here we were, going along for thousands of years thinking we were at the top of the food chain. We gave names to things we didn’t understand, like vampires or werewolves or goblins. And then to find out we weren’t kings of all we surveyed, that these things were real, just not in the way we’d imagined them.”

“What do you mean?” Nix crossed her arms and stared at him.

“Vampires aren’t vampires, shapeshifters aren’t shapeshifters. They’re all just a bunch of interdimensional squatters.”

She grinned. His metaphor was accurate. “Technically they are vampires. They have fangs. They don’t eat, they drink blood.”

“But they’re not reanimated corpses like in the legends. That’s what I mean.” When she started to correct him, Dante waved her off. “Okay, okay, I realize that the entities that turn into what we call vampires can only take over dying or newly dead bodies, so I suppose that makes them reanimated corpses. But…you know what I mean.” Frustration colored his deep voice. He gestured toward Amerinda. “She’s not human. Not really. She’s an alien possessing a human body. And in just under two years even more entities will come through the rift and nobody knows how to stop them.”

“It’s not like it’s going to be the end of the world,” Nix said slowly. She wasn’t sure how she felt about the next Influx. She was part demon, so the fact that more prets were going to come through the rift didn’t frighten her. If anything, she felt a little sad for all the humans who were going to be possessed by strangers, completely unable to do anything to prevent or avoid it. Thousands of families would become dysfunctional overnight. “We’ll adapt.” She hoped that was true.

“Yeah, I suppose.” He took a few steps away from the body and began moving around the crime scene, following in the footsteps the criminalists had already taken.

Nix pulled a small but powerful flashlight out of her purse and followed him, looking closely at the ground, at the adobe walls of the nearby building. Except for the body, there didn’t seem to be any other evidence of a crime, which supported their conclusion that Amarinda had been dumped here.

“Something this brutal tells me it was personal.” Dante circled back toward the body. “You just don’t do this kind of damage to someone you don’t know.”

“You don’t think so? Remember, if it was prets that killed her…” Nix gave a quick shrug. At his questioning glance, she reminded him, “Werewolves eat people. And the internal organs are the yummiest.”

“Oh, hell.” He grimaced. “I really didn’t need to be reminded of that. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to seeing stuff like this.” He hooked his thumbs in his belt, fingers framing the large silver buckle. “I wonder what’s keeping Knox?”

“I don’t know.” Nix looked around the crime scene for any sight of the quadrant vampire liaison. It was unusual that he wasn’t here yet. She stared down at the tarp, her heart beating like bongo drums in her chest. Amarinda was the second vamp to be killed, and Knox was late. What if… She drew in a breath and held it, trying to calm her fears. She hoped he was all right.

Dante gazed toward the edge of the scene where the techs were beginning to pack up their cases. “Hey, Marks!” When the man looked up from the computer tablet he was jotting notes on, Dante asked, “Did you get word to the Council dispatch that the vic is a vamp?”

The man nodded.

Dante glanced at Nix. “Then they should’ve called him by now.” He brought up his wrist to look at his watch. “Wonder what’s keeping him.” He dropped his hand, hooking his thumb over his belt again. “So, what can you tell me about your friend here?” He gave a quick nod toward Amarinda’s tarp-covered body.

Nix wet her lips. She realized she was thirsty and reached into her bag for a bottle of water. She usually carried at least one bottle with her because in the low humidity of the desert it was easy to become dehydrated. “She came through the rift somewhere around 330 B.C., give or take. There are vamps older than her, but not many.” Being immortal, like a vampire, didn’t mean you couldn’t be killed. It just meant it took a lot to do it, especially the older a vampire was. “She works…” Nix broke off and swallowed, surprised at how much this hurt. She twisted off the cap of the bottle and took a swig of water, using the few seconds to recap and replace the bottle to get her emotions under control. “Worked with Maldonado.”

“The quadrant’s vamp leader?” Dante gave a low whistle. “Someone must have a death wish, to take out one of Byron Maldonado’s people.”

“They may not have known. Or cared,” Nix said.

“Who didn’t know or care about what?” The raspy bass voice with a flavor of South Carolina came from behind her.

That deep voice stopped her heart. She turned, and when she saw Tobias Caine duck under the crime scene tape her stomach lurched. He was pulling on latex gloves as he walked. His thick black hair was in its usual rakish mess with a few strands falling over his forehead. He straightened and loped toward them with an easy long-legged stride that belied his underlying intensity.

Five years. It had been five years since he’d walked out on her. Five years since he’d thrown away her love.

It was like a dagger to the heart, seeing him again. He looked the same as ever, tall, lean, handsome as sin. His gray shirt matched his eyes and his leather coat fell to mid-thigh, drawing attention to those long legs encased in dark blue denim. He looked damned fine. It revved up her pulse. It made her mad. There should have been some sort of sign that he’d suffered as much as she had, the bastard.

Nix stiffened her legs, telling herself it wasn’t seeing him again that made her weak in the knees. There was no denying that lust surged through her body in tune to her quickened heartbeat. It didn’t seem to matter he wasn’t hers anymore.

Some people used meth. Others drank themselves into a stupor. Her drug of choice was Tobias Caine. And it seemed that even after five years of sobriety, she was still as addicted as ever.