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A Perfect Blood (The Hollows #10)(6)

By:Kim Harrison

We started walking again, a good three feet between us now—and it was her pace that adjusted to my longer step. “I’d like to see you try,” I muttered, and Nina jumped as if having been rebuked. It seemed as if her master vampire was listening in and didn’t like her attitude. That was nice, in a creepy, somewhat uneasy way. Still, prudence had me exhaling slowly, trying to relax before Nina tried to jump my jugular. The woman was getting a huge unexpected eddy of sensory input thanks to the vampire possessing her, input that she hadn’t had time to learn how to deal with. If walkie-talkie man wasn’t there to pull in the reins, there might be accidents. Sure, it was nice now, but eventually there would be running and screaming and blood on the floor.
“I thought the crime scene was at a cemetery,” I said cautiously.
Nina nodded as she looking intently into the park, toward the unseen crackle of radios. “It used to be one,” she said, her voice distant, as if she was listening to the dead vamp in her head, “until they moved the bodies.”
I’d never understood that, but I suppose it was better than having cemeteries taking up prime property when a small town grew into a larger metropolis. “Did they miss any?” I said as I paced beside her, her heels now clacking in harsh discord with my boots. Nina was still looking into the park as if trying to place herself, though I’d be surprised if she’d ever been here before. I was starting to feel like something was creeping up on me, and my shoulders itched.
From behind us, the little cop who had stopped me shouted, “Hey! I told you to wait!”
Nina turned with the suddenness of a cracked whip, every inch of her demanding obedience. “Do. Your. Paper. Work.” The man backed up, his face white. I jerked, stifling a shiver as I looked at her, her teeth showing in a pleasant but frightening smile. The powerful dead vamp was back. 
“Y-yes, sir,” the officer stammered, almost falling as he backed his way to the van. The smooth sound of plastic wheels on metal broke the stillness as he slammed the door shut, and Nina turned, her hand lightly on the small of my back as she calmly ushered me forward with the grace of another age, not caring that the man had called her sir.
“I believe the reasoning behind depositing the body here was because it had once been a cemetery,” the undead vamp said softly, continuing the conversation as if I’d been talking to him all the time.
I remembered to breathe after about three steps. “I’ll give you one thing, Nina. You’re a handy man to have around.”
“I’ve been told that before,” she said with an honest, companionable warmth that raised just about every warning flag I had. Even so, the hint of amusement in her voice was soothing, and I relaxed, knowing that—oddly enough—I’d be safe now. He was back and in control, and I thought it strange that I’d feel safer with a monster in control of himself than with a woman struggling to find it.
“You’re going to handle this investigation personally? Why?” I said, tugging my bag onto my shoulder again to disguise the wrong feeling her hand was making on my back.
Nina smiled and shifted her hand from my back to take my arm as naturally as if she already owned it. It wasn’t as possessive, and my unease loosened, even as I disliked the fact that the undead vampire in Nina had been reading my emotions and was trying to ingratiate himself with me. “I want to get to know you better,” she said, her high voice taking on the hues of fine cigar smoke, rich and multilayered.
Swell. Nina’s steps beside mine had become silent next to the soft thumps of my boots. “The last vampire who wanted to ‘get to know me better’ ended up beaned by a chair leg,” I warned, but I didn’t pull away. There was a delicious tingle rising where she touched me, and I liked playing with fire.
“I’ll be careful,” Nina said, and I shocked myself when I looked up and saw her long black hair and delicate face, not one wrinkled and leathered, wise in the ways to screw over the world. “You are a demon, Ms. Morgan,” she said, leaning her head toward me as we walked as if we were close friends sharing a secret. “I want to know who you are so I can recognize your kind when it comes again. Who knows? Perhaps the I.S. is riddled with witches on the threshold of becoming demons.”
“Sure, okay,” I said, knowing I was the only witch besides Lee Saladan that Trent’s dad had saved, modifying our mitochondria to produce an enzyme that allowed us to survive the naturally occurring demon enzymes in our blood. I could pass the cure on, but Lee couldn’t.
“Oh dear,” Nina said around a sigh, somehow injecting the soft oath with a world of disappointment. “There are no more of you?” she asked, having sensed in my last words that there were not. “Are you sure? Pity. I think I will stay nevertheless. You amuse me, and so little does anymore.”
Better and better. With a solid effort, I pulled my arm from hers as we stepped from the sidewalk and walked on the frost-burnt grass. I still wanted to know why Trent had been out here, but didn’t think I’d be willing to pay the price for it. Besides, Jenks and Ivy would probably know, seeing that they were out here already.
Nina’s eyes were full of a delicious delight at my rebellion as we headed for the crackling radios. The older dead vampires got, the more human they became, and seeing such an old presence in a young body unnerved me more than seeing a masculine presence in a feminine one.
“I kind of like Nina, you know,” I said, not knowing why but feeling I had to stick up for the woman being used so callously. I’d lived long enough with Ivy to know that those who attracted the undead’s attention were abused and warped, and Nina had no clue to the depth of misery she was in for.Nina sniffed, shifting her shoulders to look at the sky through the branches. “She’s a sweet girl, but poor.”
Ire pricked through me, and the last of his charisma shredded. “Being poor is not an indication of potential or worth. It’s a lack of resources.”
Nina turned, her dark eyebrows high in surprise. The delicious tang of experienced, confident living vampire was growing more complex and stronger the longer the undead vamp was in her, and I felt my expression freeze as I remembered Kisten. A fairy tale of a wish slipped through me that this might be Kisten, undead and reaching out to me, but no. I’d seen him dead twice. Nothing remained of him but memories and a box of ash under Ivy’s bed. Besides, this guy was really old.
“You’ve loved one of us before,” Nina breathed, as if the undead vampire in her shared my pain.
Blinking, I pulled myself out of my brief misery, finding that I’d put a hand on my neck to hide the scar that could no longer be seen. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“This way,” Nina said, making me take a small detour around a patch of grass. I could see nothing different about it as we passed, and Nina sniffed. “There are bones there,” she said, her low voice having the hint of old emotion.
Curious, I looked back at the earth again. “Must be icky knowing where everything is buried,” I said, thinking she was better than a metal detector.
“She was about eight,” Nina said. “Died of cholera in the 1800s. They missed her grave when they moved them because someone stole her marker.”
We were nearing the gazebo, wreathed with people and noise, but I turned to look behind me again even as I continued forward. “You can tell that from walking over a grave?”
“No. I helped bury her.”
“Oh.” I shut my mouth, wondering if the missing marker was under this guy’s coffin. The undead did not love, but they remembered love with a savage loyalty. Uneasy with all the people, I looked to find Ivy, standing with two I.S. agents in suits, going over a stapled printout. The sparkle of light on her shoulder was probably Jenks, the pixy making a burst of bright dust to acknowledge me but not leaving the warmth of Ivy’s shoulder as they studied a clipboard.
Behind them stood the gazebo bandstand, brightly painted and open. It would have been pretty except for the bloody, contorted body hanging from the center of the ceiling like a rag doll, spread-eagled, with filthy cords holding the limbs out. I felt myself pale as I realized the body had hooves instead of feet, and the brown I’d thought was a pair of sweats was actually a blood-soaked pelt of tightly curled fur. Blood had dripped from the corpse to puddle underneath, but there wasn’t nearly enough there to drain a body, and by the gray skin visible above the waist, he was drained, the blood either somewhere else or leaked through the cracks to the earth below. 
My pace slowing, I swallowed hard and wished I had an amulet to soothe my gut. At first glance, I’d say that it looked like a misaligned curse had hit him and he’d been strung up as a warning—sort of a perverted public announcement against the dangers of black magic.
Then I saw the letters scrawled on the steps in blood. Stopping dead in my tracks, I felt Nina hesitate, evaluating me for signs of guilt as I took in the single word.
EVULGO, it said. It was the word that the demons used to publicly acknowledge and register a curse, and very few people would know it.
Someone was calling me out.
Chapter Three
My head hurt, my heart was pounding so hard. Had Nina brought me out here to shake a confession from me? Was the I.S. blaming me for this . . . this atrocity?