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That was the thing about a murder scene, Alexandra Jarvis reflected. It would be difficult to drive past one and later claim that you couldn’t find the right place. No matter how much you wanted to.
She wheeled her sedan into the space behind a Toronto Police Service car angled across the sidewalk. Alternating blue and red spilled from the cruiser’s bar lights, splashing against the squat brick building beside it and announcing the hive of activity in the dank alley beyond. Powerful floodlights, brought in to combat the predawn hours, backlit the scene, and yellow crime-scene tape stretched across the alley’s mouth.
And just in case Alex needed further confirmation she’d found the right place, a mob of media looked to be in a feeding frenzy street-side of a wooden police barricade, microphones and cameras thrust into the faces of the two impassive, uniformed officers holding them at bay. One of the uniforms glanced over as she killed her engine, acknowledging her arrival with a nod.
Alex took a gulp of lukewarm, oversugared coffee and balled up her fast-food breakfast wrapper. She’d bought the meal on her way home as a combined supper and bedtime snack, knowing her refrigerator to be woefully empty. The nearest she could figure, it was the first food she’d had in almost twenty hours, and she hadn’t made it past the first bite before she’d been called to this, another murder. She’d eaten it on her way over, even knowing what she would face when she got here. Working Homicide had that effect on you after a while.
She stuffed the wrapper into the empty paper bag, drained the remainder of her coffee, and dropped the cup in with the wrapper. Then she slid out of the air-conditioned vehicle.
The early August humidity slammed into her like a fist, oozing from the very pores of the city. Alex grimaced. After a storm like the one that had raged from midnight until almost three, knocking out power to most of the city’s core for the better part of an hour, surely they’d earned at least a brief respite from the sauna-like weather.
She fished in her blazer pocket for a hair elastic, checked that her police shield was still clipped to her waistband, and scraped back her shoulder-length blonde hair as she kneed shut the car door and started toward the alley.
The media piranhas, scenting new prey, engulfed her.
“Detective, can you tell us what—?”
“Can you describe—?”
“Is this death related—?”
The questions flew at her, fast and furious, each becoming lost in another. Alex elbowed her way through the throng and shouldered past a television camera, wrapping the elastic around her fistful of hair. If any of them knew how many coffees and how little sleep she operated on, they wouldn’t be so eager to get this close.
She patted her pockets in an automatic inventory. Pen, notebook, gloves…Lord, but her partner had picked a fine time to retire and take up fly-fishing. Davis was a hundred times more diplomatic than she was, and she’d always counted on him to run media interference for her at these times. She hoped to heaven his eventual replacement would be as accommodating.
“Don’t know, can’t say, and no comment,” she told the piranhas. She winced at the snarl in her voice, glad her supervisor wasn’t there to overhear. “We’ll let you know when we have a statement for you, just like we always do.”
The uniform who had acknowledged her arrival lifted the tape so she could duck beneath it.
“Yeah,” he muttered, “and the sharks will keep circling anyway, just like they always do.”
Alex flashed him a sympathetic look and headed down the alley, her focus shifting to the tall, lanky man silhouetted against the floodlights, and to the scene he surveyed.
Her stomach rolled uneasily around its grease-laden meal. Even from here, she could see the remains of a bloodbath. Splashes of shadows darkened the brick walls on either side of the narrow passageway, and rivulets of water, stained dark, ran together to pool on the pavement where they reflected crimson under the floodlights.
Alex scanned the alley as she strode deeper into its belly. She passed a sodden cardboard box, mentally catalogued it as nothing out of the ordinary, and continued without breaking stride. Her gaze flicked over a numbered flag, placed by Forensics, and the blurred shoe imprint that it marked in a patch of mud. Another sat beside a door where nothing visible remained, likely the site of something already bagged and tagged.
She inhaled a slow breath through her nose as she got closer to the scene. If this was the same as the others, if it was another slashing…
She blew out the air in a soft gust, drew back her shoulders, and lifted her chin. If it was another slashing, she would handle it as she did any other case, she told herself. Professionally, efficiently, thoroughly. Because that was how she worked. Because her past had no place here.
She stepped over the electrical cables powering the floodlights and joined Staff Inspector Doug Roberts, head of their Homicide unit. A tarp a few feet in front of him covered the vague form of a human body.
“Good sleep?” Roberts asked, looking sideways and down at her. Even raised over the guttural thrum of the generator powering the lights, his voice held a dry note. He knew she’d never made it home. None of their shift had. Again.
Alex snorted. “Nah. I figured the concept was highly overrated, so I settled for caffeine.”
She ran a critical eye over her staff inspector’s height, noting the two days’ growth along his dark jawline. Perspiration plastered his short-cropped hair to his forehead, and she felt her own tresses wilt in mute sympathy. If the air out in the street had been heavy, here in the alley it was downright oppressive. The man looked ready to drop.
“What about you?” she asked, wondering if she’d have to call for another gurney.
He grunted. “Ditto on the sleep, but I missed out on the caffeine.”
That explained it. Given enough java in his or her system, a homicide cop could run almost indefinitely, but without…
Alex’s gaze slid to the tarp. “Well?” she asked.
“We won’t know for sure until the autopsy.”
Silence. Because he didn’t know, or because he didn’t want to say?
“Chest ripped open, throat slit, posed like the others,” he said finally.
“Damn it,” she muttered. She scuffed the toe of her shoe against a dandelion growing through the pavement. Four bodies in as many days, with the last two less than twelve hours apart. She flinched as one of the floodlights gave a sudden, loud pop, and the light in the alley dimmed a fraction. Underneath a loading dock, someone bellowed for a replacement bulb, his voice muffled.
Alex pushed a limp lock off her forehead, scrunched her fist over it for a moment, and said again, “Damn it, damn it, damn it.” She released her clutch on her scalp and balanced hands on hips. “Is Forensics finding anything?”
“After the rain we just had? We’re lucky the body didn’t float away.”
“Maybe the killer’s waiting for it,” she mused. “The rain, I mean. Maybe he knows it will wash away the evidence.”
“So what, he’s a disgruntled meteorologist?” Roberts shook his head. “The weather’s too unpredictable for someone to rely on it like that, especially lately. None of these storms this week were even in the forecast. I think it’s just bad luck for us.”
She sighed. “You’re probably right. So, has the chief called for a task force yet?”
“Not yet, but my guess is it’s about to become a priority. I’ll put in a call to him and get the ball rolling. The sooner we get a profiler working on this psycho, the better. You have a look around here, then go home, okay? I’ve put Joly and Abrams on point for this one. You’ve been on your feet longer than anyone else on this so far, and you need some sleep.”
Alex rolled her eyes. “If this guy keeps up at the rate he’s going,” she muttered, “I can pretty much guarantee that won’t happen.”
“If this guy keeps up at the rate he’s going, I’m going to need you on your toes, not dropping from exhaustion. So let me rephrase that: get some sleep.”
Staff Inspector Roberts stalked away, his long legs covering the distance to the end of the alley in remarkably few strides. Alex watched him bulldoze his way through the waiting scavengers, and then, with a sigh that came all the way from her toes, she turned back to the bloody, rain-washed alley.
Roberts was right. The others were getting more downtime than she was on this case. They always did on slashings, because as much as she liked to pretend her past had no bearing on her present, no one else brought the same unique perspective to these cases that she did. The kind of perspective that made her drive herself a little harder, a little longer…
And made sure she wouldn’t sleep much until it was over.
The Dominion Verchiel, of the Fourth Choir of angels, stared at the Highest Seraph’s office door, and then, grimacing, she raised her hand to knock. She didn’t look forward to delivering bad news to Heaven’s executive administrator, but she could think of no way to avoid the task, and standing here would make it no easier.
A resonant voice, hollowed by the oaken door, spoke from within. “Enter.”
Verchiel pushed down on the ornate metal handle and stepped inside. Mittron, overseer of eight of the nine choirs, sat behind his desk on the far side of the book-lined room, intent on writing. Verchiel cleared her throat.
“Is it important?” Mittron asked. He did not look up.
Verchiel suppressed a sigh. The Highest knew she would never intrude without reason, but since the Cleanse, he had taken every opportunity he could to remind her of her place. In fact, if she thought about it, he had been so inclined even prior to the Cleanse, but that was long behind them and made no difference now. She folded her hands into her robe, counseled herself to ignore the slight, and made her tone carefully neutral.
“Forgive the intrusion, Highest, but we’ve encountered a problem.”
The Highest Seraph looked up from his work and fixed pale golden eyes on her. It took everything in Verchiel not to flinch. Or apologize. She tightened her lips. Her former soulmate had always had the uncanny knack of making her feel as though any issue she brought before him was her fault. Over the millennia, it had just become that much worse.
“Tell me,” he ordered.
“I am aware of the situation,” he interrupted, returning to his task.
Irritation stabbed at her. She so disliked this side of him. “I don’t think so. There’s more to it than we expected.”
After making her wait several more seconds, Mittron laid aside his pen and sat back in his chair, “Where Caim is concerned, there is always more than expected. But go on.”
“The mortals have launched an investigation into Caim’s work. They’re calling him a serial killer.”
“A valid observation, given what he’s been up to.”
“Yes, well, because the police officers involved will be more likely than most mortals to put themselves in his path, I thought it prudent to warn their Guardians. To have them pay particular attention to keeping their charges safe.” Verchiel hesitated.
“And one of the officers doesn’t have a Guardian.”
Mittron waved an impatient hand. “Don’t be ridiculous. Every mortal has a Guardian.”
“You know that’s not true.”
“Fine. Then every mortal has the opportunity to have a Guardian. If this one has rejected his, that’s his choice. He is of no concern to us.”
“That’s what I thought at first, but I thought it prudent to make certain and—well, she is of concern. Great concern.”
The Highest Seraph frowned. He tilted back in the chair, and a shadow fell across his face, darkening the gold of his gaze to amber. “She is Nephilim.”
“She is descended from their line, yes.”
“That does complicate matters.”
“What do you suggest we do?”
Verchiel shook her head, no closer to a solution now than she had been when she’d first heard the news herself. Uninvited, she crossed the study and settled into one of the enormous wing chairs opposite him.
“I don’t know,” she admitted.
“How far back are her roots?”
“We’re not sure. We’re attempting to trace her, but it will take time. Even if the lineage is faint, however—”
Mittron nodded even as Verchiel let her words die away. “There may still be a risk,” he agreed.
Mittron levered himself out of his chair and paced to the window overlooking the gardens. His hands, linked behind his back, kept up a rhythmic tapping against his crimson robe. Out in the corridor, the murmur of voices approached, another door opened and closed, and the voices disappeared.
“What about assigning a Guardian to her?” he asked, his voice thoughtful.
Verchiel shook her head. She’d already considered and dismissed the possibility. “Even if we could get one to agree to watch over a Naphil, no Guardian would stand a chance against a Fallen Angel, especially not one as determined as Caim.”
Mittron looked over his shoulder at her. “Not that kind of Guardian.”
“What other kind of Guardian is there?”
“A Power? One of my Powers? With all due respect, Mittron, there is no way a hunter would agree to act—”
“Not just any Power,” Mittron interrupted. “Aramael.”
Verchiel couldn’t help it. She snorted. “You can’t be serious.”
Mittron turned from the window, his eyes like chips of yellow ice, and Verchiel’s insides shriveled. She paused to formulate her objection with as much care as she could. She needed to be clear about the impossibility of Mittron’s suggestion. She had allowed him to sway her once before where Aramael and Caim were concerned, and could not do so again. And not just for Aramael’s sake.
“Hunting Caim very nearly destroyed him the first time,” she said. “We cannot ask him again.”
“He is a Power, Verchiel. The hunt is his purpose. He’ll recover.”
“There must be some other way.”
“Name one angel in all of Heaven who would risk a confrontation with a Fallen One to protect a Naphil, no matter how faint the lineage.”
Verchiel fell silent. The Highest knew she could name no such an angel, because none existed. Not one of Heaven’s ranks had any love for the Nephilim, and Verchiel doubted she could find one who might feel even a stirring of pity for the race. The One herself had turned her back on the bloodline, a constant reminder of Lucifer’s downfall, denying them the guidance of the Guardians who watched over other mortals. She’d left them to survive—or in most cases, not—on their own.
But this…this was different, and both Verchiel and the Highest knew it. Where this particular Naphil was concerned, surviving Caim was essential. For all their sakes. Verchiel felt herself waver. She rested her elbow on the chair’s arm, fingertips pressed to her lips. Tried, and failed, to think of an alternative.
“It will consume him,” she said at last.
“Caim already consumes him, which is why we will ask him. The moment you mention Caim’s name, Aramael will do anything necessary to complete the hunt, even if it means protecting one of the Nephilim.” Mittron left the window and returned to his desk. Apparently having decided the matter was closed, he lowered himself into the chair and picked up his pen. “See to it. And keep me informed.”
Despite the obvious dismissal, Verchiel hesitated. The Highest’s logic made a certain kind of sense, but sending Aramael after Caim for a second time felt wrong. Very wrong. He was already the most volatile of all the Powers, barely acquiescing to any standard of control at the best of times. How much worse would he be after this?
The Highest Seraph lifted his head and looked at her. “You have a problem, Dominion?”
She did, but could think of no way to voice her elusive misgivings. At least, none that Mittron would take seriously. She rose from her chair.
“No, Highest. No problem.”
Mittron’s voice stopped her again at the door. “Verchiel.”
She looked back.
“We will keep this matter between us.” He put pen to paper and began to write. “There is no need to alarm the others.”
Mittron laid aside his pen as the door snapped shut behind the Dominion. Leaning back, he rested his head against the chair, closed his eyes, and willed the tension from his shoulders. He was becoming so very tired of Verchiel’s resistance. Every other angel under his authority obeyed without question, without comment. But not Verchiel. Never Verchiel.
Perhaps it was because of their former soulmate status, when, out of respect, he had treated her more as an equal. A mistake he’d realized too late and had paid for ever since. The Cleanse had been intended to provide a clean slate between them, between all the angels, but it hadn’t been as effective in every respect. Not as he would have liked.
Not for the first time, he considered placing the Dominion elsewhere, where they wouldn’t be in such constant contact with one another. Also not for the first time, he discarded the idea. She was too valuable as a handler of the Powers, particularly where Aramael was concerned, and particularly now.
Mittron sighed, straightened, and reached again for his pen.
No, he’d keep her in place for the moment. As long as she followed orders, however grudgingly, it would be best that way. If she didn’t—well, former soulmate or not, he was able to discipline an uncooperative angel. More than able.