CW: Strong language, adult situations, violence, gore, sexual situations, depictions of grief, trauma, and severe depression.
Vlad’s House, Henford-on-Bagley
Alice balanced Gwendolyn on her hip and rapped on Vlad’s door. She’d barely gotten through the second knock before he flung it open.
“Alice.” His eyes widened as he took her in. His hair was longer and he was sporting a silvery five-o-clock shadow.
“Hey,” she adjusted Gwendolyn again, who was now squirming to get down. “Can I—er—we come in? I promise she won’t break anything.”
“That would be impossible,” he murmured.
“Nothing.” He seemed frazzled, patting his pockets as if he’d forgotten something. “I’m sorry. I mean, yes, come in.”
He led them into the kitchen, where it finally dawned on her that he was in the middle of something. If the fact that he was dressed to the nines wasn’t a sign, the laughter drifting in from an open window was a dead giveaway.
“Shit,” she shifted Gwendolyn, trying to avoid the toddler sticking her whole hand in Alice’s mouth, “You have company. We should go.”
“I have company,” his father corrected as he came in through the backdoor. “And let me tell you, the Queen of Windenburg herself could be standing in that yard, and he would pay her no mind long as you were here.”
“The pie is cooling,” Vlad reached for a bowl, “And there’s fresh lime for the margaritas, I—”
“We’re fine,” his dad waved him off. He gave Alice a warm smile. “And you can put her down; I promise she can’t damage nothin.’”
Alice complied, keeping a wary eye on the tiny terror, who happily squealed as soon as she hit the ground. “This is Gwendolyn,” she looked down at her daughter, “Gwendolyn, do you want to say hi?”
She surveyed Vlad and his father with keen eyes. “I owl,” she began pointing at herself, “You monster,” she pointed at Vlad, who looked startled, “And you book!” she finished staring at Latimer.
Alice covered her face. Clearly, embarrassment was not something toddlers gave a shit about. “Uh, she doesn’t meet a ton of strangers, and story time is her favorite thing,” she tapped Gwendolyn’s shoulder, “Say ‘sorry’ to Vlad. You can’t just call someone a monster.”
“No!” Gwendolyn stomped her foot, “He monster! My monster!”
“It’s alright,” Vlad gave her a bemused look as he knelt. “It’s lovely to meet you, Gwendolyn. I’m Vladislaus, and this”—he gestured at his dad—“is Latimer.”
The Waterfront Spot, San Myshuno
Bella examined her reflection. She didn’t usually spend time getting dolled up outside of the boring-as-sin fundraising events for Mortimer. But then again, she didn’t usually have hot, dangerous sex with a 300-year-old vampire.
She’d turned 40 this year, but she felt 25. It wasn’t just the sex; it was Caleb. He was fun, self-sufficient, and deeply mysterious. At first, her detective training kicked in but starting to solve the mystery dampened her interest. She had enough real puzzles to deal with.
Snapping her compact shut, she looked around the club. Salim should be making his way in to collect his bubble blower payment from the owner right about…
He strolled in, sporting a new haircut, expensive sneakers, and a gold watch. He tried to run as soon as he saw her, but Bella was prepared for that. The bouncer she bribed closed the door and clicked the lock behind him. Where Salim was all smiles before, he was now furious.
A small voice nudged her to call Deacon, but she ignored it. “Salim Benali. Thirty-three years old. Past charges include selling illegal bubble blower flavors, running an illegal card game, and hosting various internet scams. But my favorite is your most recent: attempted robbery of the Newcrest Natural History Museum.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about, officer.”
“Sure you do,” Bella insisted, ignoring the erratic beat of her heart. “You like to talk. That’s what you were doing when they arrested you. Told them all about your girlfriend. What was her name?” Bella tapped her chin, “Oh right, Alice Martin.”
His lips flattened into a straight line. He glanced back at the door before shooting the bouncer a dirty look.
She flipped open the case file she’d brought with her. It was nearly empty, but Salim didn’t know that. “You were just the getaway driver. And you might play tough, but according to the security guard on duty, you helped when your little girlfriend set off a bomb in the Historical Artifacts section. You were the one who called the cops.”
“No,” Salim shook his head, still scanning the room for exits.
Bella held up a picture. “Remember her? Kelly Dalton? The security guard you helped get to safety? I’m not here because I believe you’re a bad guy.” Bella softened her expression and feigned concern. “Although it’s probably not good for your criminal reputation if this were to get out.”
She watched with interest as he worked to bury his anger. After a few minutes, the tick in his jaw stopped, and his expression grew languid. He spread his arms wide. “What do you want to know?”
Many things, namely how a convicted thief who set off a bomb convinced her father to use his military connections to shut the case down because of “national security.” But Bella decided to pull the thread most relevant to her current case. “Was Eliza Pancakes involved in the heist, or were you just screwing her brains out for fun?”