One Foot in the Grave (Night Huntress #2) by Jeaniene Frost

Chapter One

I WAITED OUTSIDE THE LARGE, FOUR-STORY home in Manhasset that was owned by a Mr. Liam Flannery. This wasn't a social call, as anyone looking at me could tell. The long jacket I wore was open, leaving my gun and shoulder holster clearly visible, as was my FBI badge. My pants were loose-fitting and so was my blouse, to hide the twenty pounds of silver weapons strapped to my arms and legs.

My knock was answered by an older man in a business suit. "Special Agent Catrina Arthur," I said. "Here to see Mr. Flannery."

Catrina wasn't my real name, but it's what was on my doctored badge. The doorman gave me an insincere smile.

"I'll see if Mr. Flannery is in. Wait here."

I already knew Liam Flannery was in. What I also knew was that Mr. Flannery wasn't human, and neither was the doorman.

Well, neither was I, even though I was the only one out of the three of us with a heartbeat.

A few minutes later, the door reopened. "Mr. Flannery has agreed to see you."

That was his first mistake. If I had anything to say about it, it would also be his last.

My first thought as I entered Liam Flannery's house was, Wow. Hand-carved wood adorned all the walls, the floor was some kind of really expensive-looking marble, and antiques were tastefully littered everywhere the eye could see. Being dead sure didn't mean you couldn't live it up.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as power filled the room. Flannery wouldn't know I could feel it, just like I'd felt it from his ghoul doorman. I might look as average as the next person, but I had a few secrets up my sleeve. And lots of knives, of course.

"Agent Arthur," Flannery said. "This must be about my two employees, but I've already been questioned by the police."

His accent was English, which was at odds with his Irish name. Just hearing that intonation made a shiver run up my spine. English accents held memories for me.

I turned around. Flannery looked even better than the picture in his FBI file. His pale crystal flesh almost shimmered against the tan color of his shirt. I'll say one thing for vampires-they all had gorgeous skin. Liam's eyes were a clear turquoise, and his chestnut hair fell past his collar.

Yep, he was pretty. He probably had no trouble scaring up dinner. But the most impressive thing about him was his aura. It flowed off him in tingling, power-filled waves. A Master vampire without a doubt.

"Yes, this is about Thomas Stillwell and Jerome Hawthorn. The Bureau would appreciate your cooperation."

My polite stalling was to gauge how many other people were in the house. I strained my ears, but so far came up with no one but Flannery, the ghoul doorman, and myself.

"Of course. Anything to assist law and order," he said with an undercurrent of amusement.

"And you're comfortable speaking here?" I asked, trying to get more of a look around. "Or is there somewhere private you'd prefer?"

He sauntered over. "Agent Arthur, if you want to have a private word with me, call me Liam. And I do hope you want to talk about something other than boring Jerome and Thomas."

Oh, I had little intention of talking as soon as I got Liam in private. Since he'd been implicated in the deaths of his employees, Flannery had made my to-do list, though I wasn't here to arrest him. The average person didn't believe in vampires or ghouls, so there wasn't a legal process for dealing with murdering ones. No, there was a covert branch of Homeland Security instead, and my boss, Don, would send me. There were rumors about me in the undead world, true. Ones that had grown during my tenure at this job, but only one vampire knew who I really was. And I hadn't seen him in over four years.

"Liam, you're not flirting with a federal agent who's investigating you in a double homicide, are you?"

"Catrina, an innocent man doesn't fret over the wheels of law whenever they rumble in the distance. At least I commend the feds on sending you to speak with me, beautiful woman that you are. You also look a bit familiar, though I'm sure I would have remembered meeting you before."

"You haven't," I said immediately. "Trust me, I would have remembered."

I didn't mean it as a compliment, but it caused him to chuckle in a way that was too insinuating for my liking.

"I'll bet."

You smug son of a bitch. Let's see how long you'll keep that smirk.

"Back to business, Liam. Are we talking here, or somewhere private?"

He made a noise of defeat. "If you insist on traveling this path, we may as well be comfortable in the library. Come with me."

I followed him past more lavish, empty rooms to the library. It was magnificent, with hundreds of new and old books. There were even scrolls preserved in a glass display case, but it was the large piece of artwork on the wall that caught my attention.

"This looks...primitive."

At first glance it appeared to be wood or ivory, but on closer inspection, it looked like bones. Human ones.

"Aborigine, nearly three hundred years old. Given to me by some mates of mine in Australia."

Liam came nearer, his turquoise eyes starting to glint with emerald. I knew the pinpoints of green in his gaze for what they were. Lust and feeding looked the same on a vampire. Both made the eyes glow emerald and the fangs pop out. Liam was either hungry or horny, but I wasn't going to satisfy any of his cravings.

My cell phone rang. "Hello," I answered.

"Agent Arthur, are you still questioning Mr. Flannery?" my second-in-command, Tate, asked.

"Yes. This should be wrapped up in thirty minutes."

Translation: If I didn't answer again in half an hour, Tate and my team would come in after me.

Tate hung up without further comment. He hated it when I handled things alone, but too bad. Flannery's house was as quiet as a tomb, apropos as that may be, and it had been a long time since I'd battled with a Master vampire.

"I believe the police told you that the bodies of Thomas Stillwell and Jerome Hawthorn were found with most of their blood missing. And not any visible wounds on them to account for it," I said, jumping right in.

Liam shrugged. "Does the Bureau have a theory?"

Oh, we had more than a theory. I knew Liam would have just closed the telltale holes on Thomas and Jerome's necks with a drop of his own blood before they died. Boom, two bodies drained, no vampire calling card to rally the villagers-unless you knew what tricks to look for.

Flatly I shot back, "You do, though, don't you?"

"You know what I have a theory on, Catrina? That you taste as sweet as you look. In fact, I haven't thought about anything else since you walked in."

I didn't resist when Liam closed the distance between us and lifted my chin. After all, this would distract him better than anything I came up with.

His lips were cool on mine and vibrating with energy, giving my mouth pleasant tingles. He was a very good kisser, sensing when to deepen it and when to really deepen it. For a minute, I actually allowed myself to enjoy it-God, four years of celibacy must be taking its toll!-and then I got down to business.

My arms went around him, concealing me pulling a dagger from my sleeve. At the same time, he slid his hands down to my h*ps and felt the hard outlines under my pants.

"What the hell-?" he muttered, pulling back.

I smiled. "Surprise!" And then I struck.

It would have been a killing blow, but Liam was faster than I anticipated. He swept my feet out from under me just as I jabbed, so my silver missed his heart by inches. Instead of attempting to regain my stability, I let myself drop, rolling away from the kick he aimed at my head. Liam moved in a streak to try it again, but then jerked back when three of my throwing knives landed in his chest. Dammit, I'd missed his heart again.

"Sweet bleedin' Christ!" Liam exclaimed. He quit pretending to be human and let his eyes turn glowing emerald while fangs popped out in his upper teeth. "You must be the fabled Red Reaper. What brings the vampire bogeyman to my home?"

He sounded intrigued, but not afraid. He was more wary, however, and circled around me as I sprang to my feet, throwing off my jacket to better access my weapons.

"The usual," I said. "You murdered humans. I'm here to settle the score."

Liam actually rolled his eyes. "Believe me, poppet, Jerome and Thomas had it coming. Those thieving bastards stole from me. It's so hard to find good help these days."

"Keep talking, pretty boy. I don't care."

I rolled my head around on my shoulders and palmed more knives. Neither of us blinked as we waited for the other to make a move. What Liam didn't know was that I was aware he'd summoned for help. I could hear the ghoul creep quietly closer toward us, barely disturbing the air around him. Liam's chattering was just to buy time.

He shook his head in apparent self-recrimination.

"Your appearance should have warned me. The Red Reaper is said to have hair as red as blood, gray eyes like smoke, and your skin...mmm, now there's the real distinction. I've never seen such beautiful flesh on a human before. Christ, girl, I wasn't even going to bite you. Well, not the way you're thinking."

"I'm flattered you want to f**k me as well as murder me. Really, Liam, that's sweet."

He grinned. "Valentine's Day was just last month, after all."

He was forcing me toward the door and I let him. Deliberately I pulled my longest knife from my pants leg, the one that was practically a small sword, and switched it with my throwing knives in my right hand.

Liam grinned wider when he saw it. "Impressive, but you haven't seen my lance yet. Drop your trappings and I'll show you. You can even keep a few knives on, if you'd like. Would only make it more interesting."

He lunged forward, but I didn't take the bait. Instead I flung the five knives in my left hand at him and whirled to avoid the blow from the ghoul behind me. With a single swipe that reverberated through my arm, I sent the blade into the ghoul's neck with all my strength.

It came out on the other side. The ghoul's head rotated on its axis for a moment, wide eyes fixed on mine, before it plopped to the ground. There was only one way to kill a ghoul, and that was it.

Liam yanked my silver knives out of him as if they were merely toothpicks.

"You nasty bitch, now I'm going to hurt you! Magnus has been my friend for over forty years!"

That signaled the end to the bantering. Liam came at me with incredible speed. He had no weapons except his body and his teeth, but those were formidable. Liam pounded his fists into me, and I retaliated with punishing blows. For several minutes, we just hammered at each other, knocking over every table and lamp in our path. Finally he threw me across the room, and I crashed near the unusual art piece I'd admired. When he came after me, I kicked out and knocked him backward into the display case. Then I tore the sculpture off the wall and chucked it at his head.

Liam ducked, cursing when the intricate artwork broke into pieces behind him.

"Don't you have any bleedin' respect for artifacts? That piece was older than I am! And how in the blazes did you get eyes like that?"

I didn't need to look to know what he was talking about. My formerly gray gaze would now be glowing as green as Liam's. Fighting brought out the proof of my mixed heritage that my unknown vampire father had left me.

"That bone puzzle was older than you are, huh? So you're what, two hundred? Two fifty? You're strong then. I've skewered vamps as old as seven hundred who didn't hit as hard as you do. You're going to be fun to kill."

God help me, but I wasn't kidding. There was no sport when I just staked a vampire and let my team sweep up the remains.

Liam grinned at me. "Two hundred and twenty, poppet. In pulseless years, that is. The other ones weren't good for anything but poverty and misery. London was a sewage back then. Looks much better now."

"Too bad you won't be seeing it again."

"I doubt that, poppet. You think you'll enjoy killing me? I know I'll love f**king you."

"Let's see what you've got," I taunted.

He flew across the room-too swiftly for me to avoid him-and delivered a brutal blow to my head. It made light explode in my brain and would have put a normal person right into the grave. Me, I'd never been normal, so while I fought nausea, I also reacted quickly.

I went limp, letting my mouth hang open and my eyes roll back as I dropped to the ground with my throat temptingly tilted upward. Near my relaxed hand was one of the throwing knives he'd pulled from his chest. Would Liam kick me while I was down, or see how badly I was hurt?

My gamble paid off. "That's better," Liam muttered, and knelt next to me. He let his hands travel over my body, and then he grunted in amusement.

"Talk about an army of one. Woman's wearing a whole bloody arsenal."

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