21 June 2022

Devouring Darkness – Chapter One

CHAPTER ONE

Immortality required expecting the unexpected. And occasionally, heels.

Sometimes the unexpected was a mercenary fairy with a very sharp sword, or a shapeshifting monster, or a detachment of angry vampires at the door. And sometimes it was a pizza box taped to an art gallery wall . . . with a five-thousand-dollar price tag.

Reflections on Post-Consumerism,” the woman beside me said, reading aloud the tag beside the box. “A very interesting choice of mediums, don’t you think?”

Lulu Bell, nonpracticing sorcerer and my best friend since childhood, her chin-length dark hair falling across her face, was doing her best to look serious and Very Intellectual. She was an artist, and I was here to support her and offer up some much-needed bestie time, which had been hard to come by lately.

I was Elisa Sullivan—vampire and newest staff member of Chicago’s supernatural Ombudsman’s office. Chicago had always been a hot spot for supernatural surprises, and that was especially true lately, with the detachment of vampires and mercenary fairies. The increase in activity hadn’t been conducive to quality time with friends. So we were in this small white-walled gallery on a Saturday night, mingling with a crowd that was mostly human, who’d come to appreciate the art and sample tiny cheese cubes and music that was part ocean wave, part jazz.

“I think pizza is best mid-consumption,” I said, with as much gravity as I could muster.

The woman gave me a withering look before stalking off, apparently unimpressed by my critique.

Lulu snorted. “The pizza box is nonsense, but some of the other pieces are pretty good.”

She wasn’t wrong. There was a portrait of a former president rendered in neon lights. Rainbow streamers of plastic letters hung from the ceiling and made different words depending on your position. A hyperrealistic panorama of a Chicago traffic jam—uncomfortable content but remarkably detailed execution.

“The wine is excellent,” I said, holding up the plastic cup of silver-gold liquid. “And the people watching is even better.”

The opening of an independent gallery in a neighborhood of warehouses and up-and-coming shops attracted all kinds. They ran the gamut from matrons with designer heels and pink-tipped hair to probable artists who were younger than us and had the hunger in their eyes. They wanted their own openings and sold stickers, and the validation that came with both.

I wasn’t an artist—not by a long shot—but I had tried to look appropriately cool. I paired a flowy green top with black leggings and my favorite black boots. The green was a shade darker than my eyes, and I’d left my long, wavy blond hair down. I’d left my sheathed katana, a vampire’s favorite weapon, in the vehicle I’d borrowed for the night. And while I didn’t think there was much threat from this crowd, I still felt vulnerable without it.

“I like this,” I decided, and glanced at Lulu. “Thanks for inviting me.”

Her smile was warm. “You’re welcome, Lis. Thanks for coming with me.” She knocked her cup against mine. “To girls’ nights.”

I’d toast anything that put that kind of light in her eyes. A light I hadn’t seen in a while.

A human approached us—dark skin and dapper suit, trimly fit around a strong body. He smiled tentatively at me, then Lulu. “Lulu Bell?”

“That’s me,” Lulu said. “Hi.”

“I’m Clint Howard,” the man said, offering her hand.

“Oh my god, sure!” Lulu said brightly, shaking and then gesturing to me. “Elisa, this is Clint. He owns the gallery.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said. “You’ve got a lovely space here. And . . . an eclectic collection.”

His grin was wide and a little sly. “We’re a space for emerging artists. And speaking of which, I saw your piece on Halsted. I’d love to talk to you about an installation.”

Lulu’s eyes went wide. She was a muralist and specialized in outdoor projects; her brightly colored creations covered at least a dozen brick walls in Chicago. We were here, in part, because she wanted to improve her connection to Chicago’s art community. Mission accomplished.

“I’d love to. I love the installation you organized at Garfield Park.”

Clint’s smile was wide and bright. “Thank you. That was nearly a year in the planning. Bureaucrats,” he added with an eye roll.

“Sups have them, too,” Lulu said. “Anyway, it’s gorgeous.”

He nodded. “We’re looking next at a spot in Hyde Park. Not far from Cadogan House, actually,” he said, offering me a smile.

Hyde Park, a Chicago neighborhood on the city’s South Side, was home to Cadogan House, one of the city’s four vampire houses. My dad, Ethan Sullivan, was the House’s master, and my mother, Merit, was its Sentinel. I’d been born and raised there, although I rarely spent time at the House now.

Someone across the room called Clint’s name. He lifted a hand. “Right there,” he said, then smiled at Lulu. “I’ll call you,” he said, then nodded at me and moved across the room.

“Merry Christmas,” I said, grinning back at Lulu. “You got your present early.”

“Oh my freaking god,” she said, the words a single roller coaster of sound. “That was Clint freaking Howard.”

“So I heard. You’re amazing, and he recognized it.” I gave her a poke. “You’re going places, kid.”

“I’d like to go to that spot in Hyde Park,” she said, then narrowed her gaze at me. “You don’t think your mom had anything to do with this, do you?”

“Arranging murals? No. She loves you like her own kid, but that’s not really her style.”

But my father? Entirely possible. Vampires loved making deals, although I had no idea what an art gallery owner would want from the Master of a House of vampires. And besides, “You have the talent. You don’t need anyone making calls for you.”

“Thank you,” she said, and before I could respond, she’d wrapped her arms around me. “Thank you,” she repeated.

“You’re welcome.”

Two more hours of chatting, of deciphering paintings, of reading artist statements . . . and I was done and ready to be somewhere else. This wasn’t my scene.

But because Lulu deserved my support, I put on a smile when she came toward me, the light in her eyes still as bright as it had been when we’d walked through the door. It was the happiest I’d seen her since I’d returned to Chicago a few months ago. Maybe she’d finally found her place—a place where she belonged. That possibility lifted a weight I hadn’t known I’d been carrying.

“Hey,” she said, and gestured to a group of people behind her. “So Clint asked if I want to go get drinks with him and a few of the others.” There was hope in her eyes. “I don’t want to bail on you, but . . .”

“Go,” I said. “Absolutely go.”

“You’re sure you don’t mind?”

“Not at all. But take an Auto home.”

“Oh, of course.” She leaned in. “He wants us to talk about art and installations and—oh my god, Lis. What if this is my moment?”

I squeezed her into a hug. “There will be a million moments, Lulu. But yeah, this could be one of them.” I let her go and grinned as she blew out a breath and tried not to look too eager. Then she joined the others, leaving me alone beneath a pinpoint light.

My screen beeped, and I pulled the slender and signaling rectangle of glass from my pocket and checked the display. It was a call from Roger Yuen, Chicago’s supernatural Ombudsman and my boss. I was an associate Ombud, and new to the team, so I answered it quickly.

“Hey, Elisa,” he said quickly. “I know it’s your night off, and I’m really sorry for the interruption, but we have an emergency.”

“Just a minute,” I told him. “Let me get somewhere quiet.” I walked outside as Lulu’s group began discussing where to find the city’s best craft cocktails.

When I reached a small grassy area a dozen feet away, where metal sculptures made from old tractor parts hulked in the grass, I lifted up the screen.

“Okay, I said. What’s going on?”

“I need you to rescue someone.”

# # #

Adrenaline, prompted by those words, was like a comfy sweater. “Who needs rescuing?”

“One of my informants. She’s in trouble. I’m going to keep it brief because we need to hurry. And I’ll apologize for dumping this on you and Theo; I’m on childcare duty tonight and don’t have time to arrange for a sitter.”

“I understand. No worries. You’ve talked to Theo?”

“The timing there is . . . sensitive,” he said. “But I sent him a message. He should be on his way to you. Shit—I assume you’re still at the gallery with Lulu, right?”

I had no idea what “sensitive timing” involved my partner tonight, but I’d find out soon enough. “Yeah, I’m outside. Give me the basics.”

“I’ll send you some docs,” he said, “but her name’s Rose Doerman. She’s a sympath. She can manipulate someone else’s emotions. It’s like vampire glamour but dialed in, and usually less powerful. She lives in Edentown, Illinois.”

Edentown was southeast of Chicago, a town perched at the edge of the Illinois-Indiana border. It was a 1960s development built for commuters to Chicago who wanted plenty of space between themselves and their day jobs.

“She’s been feeding me information here and there for the last three years. Usually small-time stuff: Sups grifting humans. Human gangsters dipping into magic and spellselling, that kind of thing. Someone figured out she’s been helping us. They cornered her outside her place, jumped her. She managed to get away, but not without injuries.”

“Where is she now?”

“I only know she made her way to a spot she considers safe. She’s going to give it a little time, make sure she wasn’t followed. When she’s sure she’s clear, she’ll go to a bus stop in the old downtown—corners of Main and Third,” he said. “It’s usually empty at night. White female, five foot six, medium build, thirty years old. Blond hair and blue eyes. Although it probably won’t be hard to miss her given the injuries.”

“Where are we taking her?”

“The safe house in Back of the Yards.”

That was a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. I hadn’t seen the house, but I knew its location.

“We’ll make it work,” I promised him. “We’ll get her back.”

Ten minutes later, a sleek, black convertible pulled to the curb in front of the gallery. Theo climbed out, stylish in a gray checked button-down, dark slacks, and black Oxford-style shoes. His skin was dark brown and his hair was black and short. His somber eyes were wide over a strong brow.

At the moment, those eyes looked flat. Presumably, I guessed, because of the woman at the wheel. Detective Gwen Robinson was the Chicago Police Department’s supernatural liaison and generally worked with Ombuds in matters that required more firepower. She was out of uniform tonight, looking gorgeous in an ivory pantsuit that gleamed against her medium brown skin. Tonight her hair was shoulder-length and curly, and pulled back at the sides with small rose-gold clips.

It was pretty obvious they’d been on a date. And since I’d heard nothing about it, probably a first date. Which explained the “sensitive timing.”

“Detective Robinson,” I said, giving her a nod. “Great night for a drive.”

“It was,” she said with a thin smile, then lifted her dark eyes to Theo. “Although it turned out to be a very short drive.”

“I’ll make it up to you,” Theo promised. “After we rescue Rose.”

Concern shadowed her face. “You sure you don’t want backup?”

“I think we need to keep this low key,” he said, and glanced at me.

I nodded. “If there’s any chance to save her cover, we need a small team, quick-moving. But we’ll call the locals if it gets to that.”

We looked at each other awkwardly for a minute, until I realized they were waiting for me to give them a private moment. So I turned back, took a sudden interest in the posters and flyers that nearly covered one wall. Lot of missing cats in this neighborhood.

“Goodnight, Elisa,” I heard Gwen say. 

Figuring it was safe, I turned back to see the car speed away again. 

“You’ve got the Pack’s SUV?” Theo asked. 

I’d borrowed the vehicle from my boyfriend, the son of North American Central Pack’s Apex. 

“I do. It’s parked down there,” I said, and pointed down the block. “I had wine, so you’re driving.”

“We didn’t get to wine,” he said grouchily as I offered him the key fob.

“What did you get to?” I asked as we climbed into the car.

“Very little. Were planning on Italian food and some very good wine. Instead, I’m driving to Edentown. Which nobody wants to do.”

“Other than the people who live there,” I said. “Since when are you two an item?”

“Would have been forty minutes, although we spent most of it in the car. This was our first date. And it took a month to get her to agree.” He gave me a sour look.

“Blame the assholes in Edentown,” I said.

DEVOURING DARKNESS will be released on September 20, 2022.

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