(I'm late again :(. I am the worst).
Back in the car, Jason maneuvered us out of the driveway silently. If it had bothered him to kill the vampire woman, he didn’t show it. Chase sat in the back seat, just as quiet.
“I’m going to call Lucy,” I grumbled, retrieving my phone out of my pocket as we pulled out onto the street.
I scrolled through my contacts until I found her name and hit dial.
She picked up on the first ring. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh gee, nice to hear from you too.”
Her sigh was audible. “Sorry, we’re a bit up in arms over here. The Council contacted Devin again.”
It was my turn to sigh. “Are you at his place? What did they want?”
“They wanted to know why you traveled up here when you’d already used your weekly pass.”
Crap. “What did he tell them?”
“He told them you were doing the job they wanted you hired for,” she explained. “He figured that would get you in the least amount of trouble.”
“He figured right. How much do you know about what’s going on with the vamps and the local coven?”
I could practically hear the wheels turning in her head. “Not much. We’ve been keeping our distance with everything going on.”
I sighed. Jason had started driving back in the direction of Devin’s without asking questions. “We’re on our way over,” I informed Lucy. “We need to talk about the witches, but I also could use your nose.”
“Oh boy, who are we sniffing out this time?”
“Nix,” I replied. “She seems to be right at the center of our mystery . . . like always.”
“Of course she is. I’ll put the coffee on.”
She hung up, and I put my phone back in my pocket.
“Are you sure you’re allowed to be up here?” Jason questioned, taking the offramp leading to our eventual destination.
“Xoe,” Chase chided.
I loosened my seatbelt strap so I could turn around and look at him. “The most I’ll get is a slap on the wrist. They’ll kill you if we don’t figure this out in time.”
The bagged dagger felt like it was burning a hole in my pocket. We were no closer to figuring out who Sam’s real killer was, and Nix was one damned hard demon to find.
“Fine,” Chase sighed after a moment of thought. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” I said pointedly, then turned back around in my seat.
My phone buzzed.
“What now,” I grumbled, fetching it.
I didn’t recognize the number.
“Hello?” I answered, deciding to take my chances.
“Xoe!” I woman’s voice gasped.
“Nix? Believe it or not, we were just talking about you. Where are you?”
“I’m at the Pinetop Inn,” she whispered. “Xoe, I think someone is trying to kill me.”
I poked Jason in the shoulder. “Pinetop Inn,” I ordered. Could it be the same person who’d killed Sam? If we could get there in time, we might be able to end this. “Who would want to kill you?” I asked Nix. “Well, besides the Demon Council.”
“Nix?” I pressed.
I was met with fabric rustling, then a loud, muffled bang, like the phone was under a pillow . . . or in a pocket.
“What do you want?” Nix’s muffled voice asked. “Are you from the Council?”
I barely registered Jason taking an exit that would allow us to turn around as I strained my ears to hear anything else.
“Search her,” a muffled male voice replied. “Watch out for her hands. She’ll slice you up.”
A man grunted in pain, then more rustling. Then a beep.
I lowered the phone. Nix must have put it in her pocket so I’d hear what was going on. Either it got shut off accidentally, or one of her attackers found it and shut it off.
I lowered it to my lap.
“It will take us over ten minutes to get there,” Jason explained, his eyes on the road as he wove expertly through traffic.
Chase leaned forward. “Care to explain what’s going on to the guy without vampire hearing.”
I bit my lip. Jason had been able to hear Nix’s side of the conversation. Chase hadn’t . . . though there wasn’t much to hear. “Someone attacked Nix. Two someones, from what I could tell. We’re going to be too late.”
“It sounded like they wanted her alive,” Jason consoled.
I nodded. “Hopefully they keep her that way. Without her, we’ll be at a dead end with finding Sam’s real killer.”
“And I’ll just be dead,” Chase added.
I fidgeted in my seat, watching the scenery as it shifted from homes to nature. The Pinetop Inn was in the middle of that nature. A nice destination for a romantic getaway. Some of the cabins were well off the beaten path, which meant there might not be any witnesses to Nix’s kidnapping. If we couldn’t find any clues, there would only be one person who could find her for us.
And that person currently hated my guts, and wanted Nix dead.
Were murder investigations always this trying?
Don’t answer that.
I called Lucy back during the drive. We’d need her werewolf nose now more than ever, though she wouldn’t arrive for another fifteen minutes. The car crunched across the gravel parking lot leading up to the main lobby of the Pinetop Inn. It was the off season, evident by the nearly empty lot, but even off season the rooms were expensive. What the hell had Nix been doing here?
Jason parked the car and we all climbed out. I was hit with the strong, sappy scent of pine, a smell I closely associated with home. There was nothing like it in the demon underground. At least not the section of the underground I was used to.
Reaching my side, Chase peered around at our surroundings. “How do we know which cabin?”
“Ask in the lobby?” Jason suggested.
I shook my head. “Let’s take a look around first. I don’t want anyone interfering with our search.”
That decided, we started walking, skirting far around the lobby toward the first cabin within sight. Lucy would be able to sniff us out once she arrived. As we crunched over the dead pine needles, I internally recapped what we’d learned so far, which was basically just that we’d found a bloody knife in Sam’s hidden warehouse, and that said bloody knife belonged to Nix. It really didn’t mean much at all. We’d just assumed the knife was the real murder weapon, but it could be anyone’s blood on the knife. Realizing I still had the darn thing in my pocket, I cringed, but it was too late to turn back now.
“Look.” I pointed to a small log cabin at the end of a diverging path.
“What are we looking at?” Chase asked, stopping beside me.
I sighed. “The plants beside the path are all trampled. Someone was struggling.”
“Who needs wolves when we have Xoe,” Jason muttered, moving past us toward the cabin.
I hurried to catch up with him. Since the man I’d heard over the phone knew about Nix’s powers, he was probably a demon. Someone might still be around, and I wasn’t about to let Jason get attacked for going in first. Upper level demons have the peculiar power to deflect some demonic attacks with their auras. Like if I threw a fireball at a powerful enough demon, it wouldn’t really hurt them past setting their clothes on fire. That resulting fire could burn them, but the initial magical fire could not. While I was only half demon, my bloodline was strong enough that some attacks wouldn’t affect me like they would Jason.
I reached the door ahead of him to find it slightly ajar, then pushed it open and stepped inside right ahead of the boys. I glanced around, noting the immaculate interior.
Chase ran his hand over the edge of the freshly made bed. “Nix doesn’t exactly seem like the make your bed type.”
I chewed my lip, looking for clues, but the room seemed clean. Then I spotted the cleaning cart, and had a major face-palm moment. “She wasn’t staying here, she was cleaning here,” I sighed, pointing to the cart near the room’s front window.
Jason walked over to the cart. “Which means her employers will probably be wondering where she is soon. We should finish our search while we still have time.”
Nodding, I walked over to the open closet door. I had a feeling that’s where Nix had been hiding when she called. I glanced inside. Hangers, a dry cleaning bag, and that was it. No clues whatsoever.
Turning back to Chase and Jason, I shook my head. “We’ll talk to her employer, but I don’t imagine they’ll know about what Nix got herself into, or even about who she really is.”
I tensed as the front door creaked inward, then relaxed as it revealed Lucy. “You could have waited,” she chided, one hand on her slender hip.
I rolled my eyes. “What do you smell? Demons?”
“Yes I smell two demons and a vampire.”
I fought the urge to roll my eyes again. “We’ll leave the room. See if you can pick up any other scents.”
I led the way past Lucy and out into the crisp, pine-scented air.
Jason walked past, circling the building, looking for clues only a vampire might notice.
Chase stayed with me. “Do you think the council got her?”
I nodded. “Probably. They’ve been hunting her for years. Maybe they even picked up her trail because of me. We’ll have to ask around once we get back to the underground.” I narrowed my gaze toward a tree in the distance at a flash of black. I could have sworn I saw something move, but now there was nothing. Probably just a crow or other woodland critter.
“Demons,” Lucy’s voice said from behind me, “but not any scents I recognize besides Nix. I could try to track them, but I imagine the trail will just lead us to the parking lot.”
I glanced at Chase. “Looks like you hired the wrong detective.”
He offered my a soft smile. “No I didn’t.”
I couldn’t quite help my return smile.
“No other signs of entry,” Jason announced, rejoining us. “Looks like they just came right through the front door. Nix struggled on her way out,” he gestured toward the trampled plants, “and that’s it. All we can do now is ask around and see if anyone saw anything.”
“I guess so,” I muttered. I turned back to Lucy. “Care to tell me about the Demon Council developments while we walk?”
She fell into step beside me as we headed back toward the lobby. “Not much to tell, really. They called, Devin told them you were on liaison duty, and that you probably assumed you were allowed to travel extra for it. They gave him a number for you to call.” She pulled a slip of paper from her back pocket.
I took it and unfolded it while we walked, the boys like silent shadows behind us. It was just a number, nothing else.
“Not even a name?”
She shook her head.
“Gre-eat,” I muttered as we reached the front lot. I shoved the paper into my back pocket as we walked past the two lone vehicles, besides Jason’s and Lucy’s.
Sensing eyes on me, I whipped around.
Jason and Chase both halted. “What?” Chase asked.
I shook my head, peering past them. “Just a weird feeling.” I scanned the trees. Nothing.
Shaking my head at my own foolishness, I resumed my pace toward the lobby, reaching the double doors first to hold one side open for Lucy. “You know what to do,” I said as she walked past.
She nodded, then approached the woman at the front desk. I could sense demons a bit, but couldn’t really tell with werewolves or vampires. Lucy would be able to tell me if any other supernaturals had been in the lobby.
The woman, a redhead with long hair cascading over a white silk blouse, looked each of us up and down, her gaze vaguely threatening. Warning bells went off in my mind.
“Can I help you?” she purred.
I stepped forward, leaning my arms casually on the tall counter. I read her name tag, then looked up at her. “Yes, Audrey, we’re looking for Nix. I think this is where she said she was working?”
Audrey nodded. “Yes, she’s the new maid in my employ.”
“Your employ?” I pressed.
She nodded. “I own the Pinetop Inn. Is that an issue?”
Lucy covertly nudged my shoe with her foot.
I glanced at her and she tapped her earlobe. Code for the woman being a supernatural, but she definitely wasn’t a half demon. That left vamp or werewolf, but I had no way of knowing which one. We really needed to come up with a better code.
“Nope, no issue,” I said finally. “Is Nix around?”
She narrowed her honey-colored eyes. “I’m not sure why you’re asking considering you already went looking for her. I’m not blind.”
I raised an eyebrow at her. “And you didn’t try to stop us?”
She smirked. “I don’t make a habit out of interfering with demons. Nix had assured me none of her kind would come here. Now you’re the second,” she glanced at Chase, “and third to visit in one day.”
My brow raised further. “And who was the first?”
“Tall,” she described, “of Asian decent, handsome . . . ” she trailed off. “And powerful. He wore a black hooded sweatshirt and jeans. Odd, since I’d guess he was of relatively high station in the demon community. Perhaps he was trying to not be noticed.”
I crossed my arms. Audrey seemed to know an awful lot about demons. “Alright lady, just who the hell are you? Do you know what happened to Nix?”
“They took her,” she said simply, a sly smile curving her lips.
I glanced back at Jason and Chase, who both seemed equally perplexed.
I turned back to Audrey. “Do you know where they took her?”
“As I’ve said, I will not involve myself in the affairs of demons. Nix needed a job, so I gave her a chance. I was once friends with her mother. I found myself overcome with sentimentality.”
The way she said it made me doubt she had a sentimental bone in her body.
“So demons took Nix, and that’s all you have to tell us?”
“You don’t care that your friend’s daughter might be in mortal peril?”
She smiled serenely. “I don’t make a habit out of involving myself in the affairs of demons,” she said again. “Although,” she paused with a secretive smile, “I will tell you that your only remaining clue is about to get away.”
We all whipped around, following her gaze out the window looking out over the parking lot. A man with a black hoodie was climbing into one of the two vehicles we’d passed, a white SUV.
“Shit,” I muttered, ready to run out after him, but Jason was way ahead of me. It was all I could do to make it to the lot in time to see Jason narrowly missing the white SUV as it sped away. In a flash he was back in his car, peeling out after the SUV, leaving us slow pokes behind.
I turned toward footsteps crunching up on the gravel beside me.
“I assume you need a lift?” Lucy asked. Chase stood silently behind her.
I nodded, feeling my pocket to assure myself I had a phone. We were too late to catch up with Jason and the SUV unless we broke about a billion traffic laws. I just hoped he wouldn’t be stupid enough to confront the demon.
“We’ll head in their direction and wait for a call,” I decided.
“What about her?” Chase asked, hiking his thumb over his shoulder toward the lobby.
As we started walking toward Lucy’s car, she explained, “She’s definitely not human, but she’s not a vamp or wolf either.”
“Well she’s definitely not a demon,” I added. I waited while Lucy pushed the button on her key fob, then climbed into the passenger seat of her white Toyota, leaving Chase to sit in the back.
Once we were all in, Lucy pulled the car out of the lot and onto the road, heading in the direction Jason had gone, which was unfortunately the way back to the highway. He’d probably already lost our demon suspect.
Chase leaned up between our seats. “So we have a new kind of supernatural on our hands?”
I shook my head. “She could have been using magic to alter her scent.”
“It’s possible,” Lucy agreed, “but why?”
The car bumped over the road as it shifted to the newer asphalt leading back into the city. My phone buzzed in my pocket. Holding up a finger to postpone my response to Lucy, I pulled out my phone and answered, spotting Jason’s name on the caller id.
“I lost him,” his voice sighed. “He cut across the highway near Irvine. Nearly caused a massive wreck. By the time I managed to flip around to follow him, he was gone.”
“It was probably for the best,” I muttered. “Who knows what he might have been capable of?”
“If he was so capable, why did he run?”
My thoughts halted. “Good question. Either he’s low on the demon power scale, or he wanted to avoid confrontation.”
The car reached the end of the road leading out onto the highway. Lucy looked to me.
I gestured for her to keep going. We could question the innkeeper another day. For now, we were much more likely to find a lead speaking with the demon council.
“We’ll head back to Devin’s,” I decided aloud, the phone still pressed to my ear. “Meet us there?”
“Sure,” he replied, then hung up.
I pulled the phone away from my ear and stared at it. Jason used to be so polite over the phone. Devin was having a negative effect on him. Or maybe I was the negative effect, but I wasn’t about to dwell on it.
I set the phone in my lap. “Back to the innkeeper, I don’t know what she is, or why she’d want to cover her scent, but I think we should ask Devin before we interrogate her. He may already know of her existence.”
With a nod, Lucy flipped on her headlights, then changed lanes as we neared our exit.
I stared out at the oncoming darkness. We’d wasted an entire day, and we weren’t any closer to figuring out who really killed Sam. Our only lead had been kidnapped. If she was taken by the demon council, there was little chance of me reaching her.
“Take the next exit!” I gasped.
“What?” Lucy questioned.
Lucy swerved off just in time. I wasn’t positive the SUV I’d spotted was the same one the demon had taken off in, but it sure looked like it.
Chase leaned forward, having obviously reached the same conclusion. “Slow down, we don’t want him to notice us.”
Lucy eased on the brakes as we took the offramp onto a street passing under the highway. She took a right, then pulled into the run-down gas station where the SUV was parked. The place had been deserted for a while. It wouldn’t take long for the demon to realize it was us.
Our headlights hit his SUV, illuminating the his black hoodie as he leaned against the driver’s side door. Stepping away from the door, he lowered a cell phone from his ear.
“Stay inside,” I ordered, quickly undoing my seatbelt before opening my door and stepping out.
I approached the man in the hoodie, who was yet to make a move.
I sighed as another door opened behind me, then Chase was at my side, staring at the man before us.
He was of Asian decent, my guess would be Korean, tall and lanky with short hair.
“Where’s Nix?” I demanded.
He smirked. “You’re always just a little too late, aren’t you?” He stuck a hand into his hoodie pocket, then withdrew a black sphere.
“Aw crap,” I hissed. I summoned a fireball into my hand, but I was too late. The sphere hit the asphalt, erupting into a cloud of black smoke.
When the smoke cleared, the demon was gone.
Footsteps signaled Lucy walking up behind us. Didn’t anyone listen to directions these days?
“That was one of the Demon Council travel spheres,” I observed.
“So he was either part of the Council . . . ” Chase trailed off.
“Or he was one of the jerks that reached the warehouse just before we got to go inside,” I finished for him. “The one I spotted was about his height, and wearing a black hoodie.”
Lucy stepped forward, observing the broken shards of black glass on the asphalt. “If he wasn’t part of the Council, then why would he want Nix?”
“Good question,” I sighed, looking over his abandoned vehicle. We’d need to search it, but I wasn’t hopeful about finding anything of use.
“So what do we do next?” Lucy pressed.
I turned my gaze to Chase, meeting his worried gray eyes. We both knew the next logical step to take.
“We talk to the Demon Council. If they really want me to work for the wolves, and by extension them, then maybe they’ll want to do me a favor.”
Chase continued to watch me. There was one other thing we both knew. I’d broken Demon Law quite a few times in the past. I was pretty sure I’d gotten away with certain things because the Council found me more useful alive than dead, but I still wasn’t looking forward to coming fully on to their radar . . . if I wasn’t there already.
I hope you enjoyed this week's (ever so slightly late) chapter! I won't have any new chapters these next two weeks, as I'll be preparing my new book, The Witch from Shadowmarsh," for release on August 24th! I will, however, share some sneak peeks of the new book, so hopefully you won't be too mad at me :).