Alex resisted the urge to laugh when Phillippa’s mouth gaped open. But he was through with her insults and her frigid attitude. She’d made her point that she preferred him only when his blood had been Normal temperature. And she was so full of herself, she assumed his practical joke at the San Francisco mansion had been retaliation for her rejection. Dammit, he’d apologized enough over the last 100 years.
“Um, maybe the coven could send someone else to assist you, Mr. Stanton?” Jane asked. The poor girl had paled noticeably during his and Phillippa’s verbal sparring.
Pink flared in Phillippa’s cheeks and her heart rate jumped. Interesting. He couldn’t read her mind, but she couldn’t hide the little things, like her pulse.
He crossed his arms and gave Jane his full attention. “Sorry, darling. I’m the senior enforcer until my boss returns. My coven master values his business relationship with Miss Mann here, so I’m stuck babysitting her.”
Sure enough, the overhead fluorescents flickered on cue.
He ignored the Olympian temper-tantrum. “Could you get me this Mrs. Madison’s number and address?”
“No.” Phillippa’s voice resembled the low rumble of thunder.
“And, I’ll need an inventory of the other items y’all are handling for her.” He gave Jane a gentle smile.
Phillippa stepped between him and her assistant. “I said no.”
He shifted around the irate demi-goddess to face Jane. “You mentioned this was an estate sale. Does the widow have documentation for the items?”
Phillippa whirled to face her assistant. “Don’t you dare answer him.”
Jane flicked a glance at her boss before her attention returned to Alex. “I’ll get it for you.”
Once again, the lights in the shop brightened and dimmed. Alex had to give Jane credit. Most Normals would be quivering with terror when caught in the middle of an argument between a vampire and a demi-goddess. Unless she didn’t know what her boss was. But she damn well knew what he was. He’d caught that much in her surface thoughts when he shook her hand.
Instead, the girl raised her chin a notch as she faced her employer. “Somebody went to a lot of trouble to steal that replica. Don’t you want to know why?” She pivoted and marched toward the store’s office.
Phillippa whirled to face him again, her fists clenched at her sides. “How dare you glamour my employee.” One of the halogen spotlights popped. The acrid smoke overrode the saltpeter scent of her anger.
He crossed his arms. “You keep throwing tantrums, and you’ll fry the building’s wiring. Do you want to explain an electrical fire to your insurance agent or the arson investigator?”
She took a deep breath. It was all he could do to keep his attention on her face and away from her perfectly proportioned breasts. Only one time with her, and the feel of her skin had burned into his cells. Not even the V-virus wiped that away.
Alex shook his head. “I didn’t have to do anything to your assistant. She’s as upset and confused about this break-in as you are.”
“I am not—” she began. Then she took another lungful of air and crossed her arms, matching his body language, as her gaze swept the wreckage. “I really don’t want to explain to my insurance agent why my store was trashed twice in less than a year.”
His eyes widened in disbelief. “Augustine Coven didn’t compensate you for the rogue attack in January?”
One of Phil’s perfect shoulders lifted and dropped. “Caesar paid for the furniture and equipment that was destroyed and the building damage. What he can’t pay for is the time it takes to acquire such a collection in the first place or my reputation. The landlord refused to renew my lease. While the insurance company was thrilled not to pay on the first claim, they will question this one a lot more thoroughly.”
Jane walked back with a piece of paper. “Here’s Mrs. Madison’s info.”
Phil reached for it, but Alex snatched it first.
“Getting slow in your old age, Mann?” He ignored Phil’s look of outrage and scanned the address before checking his watch. It was a little late for a social visit, so he may have to glamour the widow. God, he hated messing with anyone’s mind.
He did another slow sweep of the mess. This may have been sheer vandalism, but something about the break-in just didn’t sit right. And why take a fake when there were pieces more valuable and easier to fence?
He folded the paper and shoved it into the back pocket of his jeans. “Thank you for your help, Jane. It’s been a pleasure.” The girl beamed. He faced Phil. “Since you insist you don’t need my help, have a good evening.” Phil stepped in front of him. “Wait. Where are you going?”
For second, the jiggle of her breasts almost made Alex forget her question. He forced his eyes to meet hers. “Out to do my job. We’ve been a little short-handed lately.” He tried to step around Phil, but she inserted herself between him and the gaping hole where the front door used to be.
“You’re going over to Mrs. Madison’s tonight, aren’t you?” Accusation ran thick in her voice.
“Didn’t you just tell me this wasn’t my jurisdiction?” He gestured at the broken display cases.
“You are not harassing one of my clients.” She planted her fists on her hips. Unfortunately, the motion gave her perfect breasts another little jiggle. Did she still taste like the sweetest white grapes?
Once again, it took all his willpower to meet her gaze. A gaze that literally flashed lightning. “Why do you care?” His was a simple question delivered in a flat voice because he’ll damned if he acted like a lovesick puppy around her anymore.
He wasn’t sure if it was the question or the tone that rocked her back on her heels. Her mouth opened and closed. She stared at the ruined jewelry case a moment before she said, “If something about this piece is the reason for the break-in, Beatrice may be in trouble.”
“Then someone needs to check on her. You coming with me, or you driving your own vehicle?”
For a split second, it seemed like she’d give him more shit. Then she grimaced and turned to Jane. “Will you be all right here until the contractor gets here with the plywood?”
Jane nodded. “I’ve got my Taser if they come back.”
Alex tried to hide his wince. The mention of a Taser brought back too many memories he’d rather forget. He motioned for Phil to follow him out to his truck.
* * *
Fifteen minutes later, Alex stole another glance at the woman next to him. Passing headlights illuminated the worried look on her face. If it were any other female, he’d take their hand and tell them everything would be all right. If he tried that with Phil, she cut off his hand before she beheaded him.
Instead, he focused on the case. “Did Mrs. Madison say where she acquired this tumi?”
She shook her head. The motion sent her high ponytail swinging. “Her husband got it on a business trip to Peru a few years ago.”
“If a tumi is a cultural artifact, how’d he get it through customs?”
She snorted. “Because customs isn’t going to stop you for carrying a fake.”
“What if it’s not a fake?”
He could feel her eyes boring into him as he kept his attention on the road. “You don’t believe me,” she finally said.
“I didn’t say that.” They passed the Beverly Hills sign, and Alex repressed a shudder. Nothing good came out of Beverly Hills. The last time had been a horde of zombies. “But someone went to an awful lot of trouble to steal one fake when everything else would have been more profitable.”
Phil chewed on a thumbnail. He wasn’t going to get anything more out of her now. Damn, she was touchier about her honor than most of the older vampires he knew.
He guided his pick-up into the Madison driveway. The second he stepped out of the truck, a sickly-sweet smell assaulted his olfactory nerve. He reached for his semi-automatic tucked at the small of his back. While teeth and claws were great for hand-to-hand, the specially designed bullets in the magazine gave him a decided advantage.
Phil’s worried expression melted into anger. “Where’s the spare?”
“Under your seat,” he said softly. He reached out with his mind, but the only thing he found was muddled thoughts that screamed canine. With his luck, it could be a were instead of someone’s pet.
She had the second gun in a tight grip as she circled around the bed to meet him. He held up one finger. With hand signals, she asked, Normal or supernatural?
He shook his head and shrugged. If neither of them could tell, this could turn nasty fast. It would be so much easier to communicate mentally, but he sincerely doubted she’d let him create a link for a tight telepathic bond. He’d have better luck getting into her bed again.
She motioned that she would take the back entrance. With a blur of motion even his vampire vision had difficulty tracking, she was across the front yard and over the stone privacy wall.
Alex eased up to the main door, senses extended. Faint sounds came from the house along with the snarl of animal thoughts.
He pulled his shirttail from the waistband of his jeans. The material covered his hand as he tried the door handle.
With his boot, he toed open the huge mahogany door. The smell of decay gagged him.
He followed the sound of crying to his right. Dark cinnamon spots covered nearly every surface of the living room. Including the tiny dog huddled next to the head of the dead woman lying spread-eagle in the middle of the carpet.
A middle-aged woman with a gaping hole in her chest. From the arcing splatter pattern, whoever killed her had started cutting while she was alive.
The dog had white fur where she wasn’t coated with her mistress’s blood. A small scrap of black fabric lay nearby. Something that wasn’t in the room when the killer had cut the aorta. From the smell and the dried puddle under the woman’s chest, she’d been dead for nearly forty-eight hours.
He scanned the room. Trashed. Furniture overturned. Cushions slashed. Odds and ends scattered across the carpet. Whoever did this tossed the room before they started cutting into Beatrice.
While the smell of old blood didn’t trigger the extension of his fangs, anger did.
Phil appeared in the doorway to the back of the house. He caught a hint of what may have been grief before she steeled her thoughts and her expression. She couldn’t hide her scent though. The brimstone of rage poured from her. She pointed at the rest of the house.
Without a word, they checked the rest of the first floor before they swept the second floor. Like the living room, every other nook and corner had been upended.
When they returned to the entrance of the living room, Alex pulled out his phone and hit the speed dial icon for Sifuentes. The only positive in this whole mess was the fact that Madison’s house sat just outside the Beverly Hills city limits. The last thing he needed was LASO and BHPD butting heads.
“Hey, Jorge, I’ve got something for you that’s more up your alley.”
Sifuentes swore in a streak of Spanish before he said, “Madison.”
“Yeah.” Alex gave him the address before he clicked off the call.
He looked at Phil with a start. It was the first time she said his name without the word dripping with contempt since he’d been Turned.< f/>
“Do you have any rags or an old shirt in your truck?”
He followed her gaze to the poor dog shivering next to his mistress. Well, former mistress. “Yeah. I’ll be right back.”
* * *
Phil ignored Sifuentes’s rant as she sat in the front yard of Beatrice Madison’s house. Instead, she concentrated on shaving the blood-matted fur from Beatrice’s Maltese. Unfortunately, all she had to work with was one of Stanton’s throwing knives, but it kept her focused enough that she wasn’t affecting any nearby electrical equipment.
When Sifuentes paused for a breath, she looked up at him. “Kiki hasn’t eaten or had any water in two days, Jorge. Was I supposed to let her starve? Die of dehydration? I didn’t think even you were that much of a shit.”
“You contaminated a crime scene,” he repeated for the thirty-eighth time.
“Tracking a teaspoon of dog urine through the kitchen is hardly contaminating a crime scene.”
Sifuentes threw up his hands in exasperation. “Stanton…”
“In this case, I’ve got to agree with Phil.” The familiar twinkle in his eyes sent unwanted tingles through her body. “You’re acting like a shit, Jorge.”
She returned her attention to Kiki and gave the dog a few more pieces of kibble. She’d doled out the food while they waited for the sheriff’s department to arrive. The last thing she wanted was to make the traumatized Maltese sick.
“Detective?” One of the deputies approached them. The scent of ginger surrounded the man, not the tart apple of a Normal. Witch. “It looks like Madison may have been getting ready to leave town. Suitcases are in the trunk of the car in the garage. Her purse was in the car as well. The killer or killers may have caught her in the garage, then dragged her into the house.”
Sifuentes shoved his hands in his trouser pockets. “Were the suitcases searched?”
“Yeah. But the odd thing is they didn’t take any money. Cash and credit cards are still in her wallet. We also found her passport in her purse along with a boarding pass.”
Sifuentes glared at the deputy. “Where was she headed?”
“Lima, Peru.” The deputy lowered his voice. “Her ghost isn’t around for me to question, sir. Sorry.”
The detective shrugged. “It was a long shot. Nothing appears to be missing except the vic’s heart.”
Phil looked up at the deputy. Honestly, men could be such dumbasses when something was right under their noses. “What about the demon?”
All three men turned to stare at her.
Alex crouched next to her. “What demon are you talking about?”
“The one that was in the house two days ago.” She eyed Alex for a moment before she shaved the last couple of swatches of ruined fur off Kiki.
“Are you saying a demon killed Mrs. Madison?” Alex’s voice broadcast his disbelief.
“No.” She set down Kiki, who gave herself a good shake before she turned and nudged Phil’s hand for more food.
“Then would you mind spelling it out for the rest of us,” Sifuentes growled.
“All I can tell you is a demon was in the house around the time of Beatrice’s death.” Phil held out a nugget that Kiki enthusiastically took. “I’m not saying the demon killed her. The back door was wide open when we got here. It may have stumbled on the scene after the fact, attracted by the scent. If it was here before she died, she invited it in.”
Which only added to the questions of this whole weird situation. Why would Beatrice be dealing with a demon?
There wasn’t anything in her dealings that indicated that Beatrice Madison was nothing more or less than a grieving Normal widow. She’d talked about getting rid of her late husband’s “collection of junk” before putting the house on the market.
Alex held out his palm to Kiki. “Phil, have you been to Madison’s house before tonight?”
Kiki trotted over and licked Alex’s hand. Weird. Most dogs avoided vampires.
Phil nodded. “Yes. Twice. Once for the initial appraisal. The second for when she signed the consignment contract. I didn’t smell or detect anyone other than humans and Kiki both times.”
“Why don’t you think the demon murdered her?” Alex said as he petted the Maltese.
It reminded her of how gentle he’d been with her…
Phil quashed the memory. “The opening is too neat. If a demon, no matter the pantheon, goes after the heart, it likes getting messy.”
Phil and Alex climbed to their feet at the shout. Before she could say anything, Alex scooped the tiny dog in his arms. A little green monster rose behind Phil’s eyes. Don’t be stupid. Kiki’s not even your dog.
They followed Jorge through the gate to the courtyard. Another deputy knelt near a flowerbed with a flashlight.
Sifuentes snorted. “Dog tracks? You called me over to look at dog tracks?”
“Not the dog tracks, sir. The gold pin.”
Alex crouched next to the deputy to examine the shiny object. Kiki growled low in her throat.
Phil leaned over him to see for herself. It was an odd little pin, still attached to a scrap of black cloth. The pin was about an inch long. A coiled snake-like creature superimposed over a star. Except the reptilian figure had eight tiny legs.
“What the hell is that?” Sifuentes whispered.
“A cult symbol,” Alex said. “The Sunshine Believers.”