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    Chapter One

    Being a spook wasn't what Samantha Ryan had expected. Long nights, sleepless days, yes. She'd faced that, and worse, during her ten years as a State Police Officer. In that time, the agents of the Special Investigations Unit had breezed in and out of situations, always on edge, always on the move. Always looking like they loved what they were doing. So the sheer and utter boredom that filled ninety percent of a spook's job had come as something of a shock.

    She sighed and shifted slightly, trying to find a comfortable position on the icy metal step. Watch the back door, Gabriel had said. Make sure the vamps don't hit the blood bank from the alley. This, despite the fact that in the five previous robberies, the vampires had always gone in through the front door.

    Why the hell would they change a successful routine now?

    They wouldn't. He knew that. She knew that.

    She rubbed her eyes wearily. She could hardly argue, though, as he was her senior and in charge of the investigation. And with intel stating that this blood bank would be the next one hit, she couldn't argue with orders that were little more than covering all the bases.

    What the intel wasn't saying was whether it was actually vampires doing these robberies. Hell, with recent estimates saying that at least thirty percent of newly-turned vampires were unable to control their blood desire, human blood had become a hot commodity on the streets. Combine that with the recent spate of deaths through infected blood products in all the major hospitals — leading to the situation where private blood banks were inundated with people wanting to stockpile their own blood — and you had the perfect opportunity for those wanting to make a quick buck on the streets.

    So here she sat, in the cold night, on a cold step, waiting for robbers who weren't likely to come by the back entrance, while her goddamn partner watched the front door from the warmth of the car.

    Bitter? Her? Oh yeah.

    He was certainly making good on his statement that he would never work with a partner. Whenever possible, he left her in her box of an office doing paperwork, or he sent her on inane errands. This was her first "real" duty in the three months since her transfer, and she suspected she was here only because Byrne had given him a direct order to take her.

    The wind picked up, running chill fingers through her hair. She shivered and flicked up the collar on her coat. Overhead, the starlit sky was beginning to cloud over. The rain they'd been predicting for days was finally on the way. She could smell the moisture in the breeze. Could feel the tingle of electricity running through the night air, charging her body with an odd sense of power.

    Why she could feel these things was another point of concern, though it was one she kept to herself. There were only two people she trusted enough to sit down and talk to, anyway. Finley was still on leave, recovering from the injuries he'd received in the bomb blast three months ago, and her goddamn partner was harder to nail down than a snowflake in a storm.

    And it wasn't just on a professional level that he was keeping his distance, but a personal one, as well. Given how well they'd gotten on during their investigations of her former partner's disappearance, she'd thought that they could at least be friends. Obviously, she'd been very wrong.

    God, how bad was it when he wouldn't even go for a cup of coffee with her?

    "Sam, you there?"

    His warm voice whispered into her ear, so close she could almost feel the caress of his breath across her cheek. Except that he was tucked nice and warm in the car half a block away.

    She was tempted, very tempted, to ignore him. But she'd spent ten long years as a cop doing the right thing, following all the rules — like keeping in constant contact when on watch duty. Even when her partner was being a bastard and deserved to suffer, it was a habit hard to break.

    "What?" Her tone left no doubt of her mood. He'd left her sitting here so long her butt was almost frozen to the step. If he expected civility, he needed a brain transplant.

    "Just checking you're still awake."

    Yeah, right. Like she was the one sitting in the nice warm car. "The cold's doing a fine job of that, thank you very much."

    He paused. "Do you want to swap for a while?"

    She raised her eyebrows. Just for an instant, the compassion in his voice reminded her of the man she'd known before she'd become his partner. "You got coffee on board?"

    "Freshly brewed."

    And he hadn't offered her any until now. It was lucky he'd only equipped the two of them with stun rifles, because she was tempted, very tempted, to march right over there and shoot him. "Sure you can spare a cup?" she said tightly. "I mean, you older types need some sort of stimulant to keep you awake at this hour of the night, don't you?"

    "Do I take that as a yes or a no?" His warm tones held an undertone of annoyance.

    But she was way past caring at this particular moment. "That depends."

    "On what?"

    "On whether you intend to freeze me out, figuratively or literally."

    He made no immediate reply. She waited, wondering what he'd do now that she'd finally called him out. Down the Main Street end of the alley, she heard a soft thump, as if someone had jumped off a rooftop. A dog yelped somewhere to the left of that thump, a short sharp sound that spoke of fear. She frowned and stared into the darkness. The electricity filling the night stirred, running over her skin, standing the small hairs at the back of her neck on end. Heat followed quickly. Then her senses exploded outwards, and she was tasting the secrets of the night.

    A kite creature walked towards her.

    "Sam — "

    She jumped and quickly pressed the earphone, cutting him off. He'd once told her the kites hunted by sound and movement. She wasn't about to chance the creature hearing his voice, no matter how unlikely that might be.

    The kite came into view. It almost looked like a large white sheet, except that it had feet and talon-like hands. The creature hesitated as it neared the steps, sniffing the night like a dog. It turned milky white eyes in her direction. She controlled the urge to reach for the stun rifle and remained still.

    After a moment, it lumbered past, moving to the other end of the alley. Avoiding the yellow wash of the street light, it slunk round the corner and disappeared. She rose and picked up her rifle before switching the earpiece back on.

    "A kite just made an appearance in the alley. I'm about to follow."

    "Negative. You're not equipped — "

    She snorted softly. "Neither are you, partner. You continue to keep watch on the blood bank, and I'll see what the creature is up to."

    "Stun guns won't — "

    "Gabriel, remember imperative one?" The SIU had only become aware of the Kites two months ago, but since then, the creatures had reached the top of the SIU's extermination list. With an edge in her voice that imitated his own, she continued, "Find and stop all kites, regardless of the cost."

    "That doesn't mean you have to do a suicide run after them when you're not properly equipped to deal with them."

    "Please credit me with a little bit of brain power. I'm merely going to see what the thing is up to. Besides, they just may be using the creature to pull us away from the blood bank."

    "I don't particularly care about the damn blood bank."

    Meaning he cared more about her? Given his recent behavior, she found it a little hard to believe. She stopped at the end of the alley and carefully peered around the corner. The kite lumbered across the road.

    "But Byrne does. If the vamps follow the pattern, this one will be hit sometime tonight."

    The kite disappeared round the corner of the opposite street. She ran across the road and then edged forward, keeping to the shadows of the three-story apartment building.

    "I'm calling for backup," he said, voice terse.

    "Fine." It only made sense to do so. "I'll keep in contact."

    "You'd better," he growled.

    She grinned. She might well pay for it later, but damn, it felt good to annoy him.

    She reached the corner. The kite was nowhere to be seen. Wondering how the creature could have moved so fast, she frowned and glanced up — and found it. The loose skin around its arms flapped lightly as it climbed crab-like up the wall.

    The wind tugged at her hair, throwing it across her eyes. She brushed it back and listened to the sounds beneath the soft cry of the wind. Two men were talking, their voices harsh and grating. A radio near the top of the building played classics. Between the two, the squeak of a bed and a whispered good night. Sounds she wouldn't normally have heard except for the odd sense of power flowing through the night and into her soul.

    The creature seemed to be headed for the apartment in which the radio played. She watched it as long as she dared. When it stopped and pressed a taloned hand against a window, she turned and ran for the apartment building's front door.

    "Gabriel, the kite's about to break into a top floor apartment on the corner of Gibb and Macelan Streets."

    "Help's on the way. Stay where you are."

    The words had barely whispered into her ear when she heard the sound of glass shattering. A heartbeat later the screaming began. Sickening visions swam through her mind — bloodied images of the street bum she'd found three months ago, his body a mass of raw and weeping muscle stripped of skin.

    She swallowed heavily and pounded up the stairs. "Negative. It's attacking. I'm in pursuit."

    "Damn it, you're not equipped to deal — "

    "Just get backup here quickly." She pressed the earphone, cutting him off again. She didn't need to hear what she could and couldn't do. Not when a man's life was at stake.

    Two flights... three. She leapt over the banister and up the remaining stairs. People milled in their doorways, their eyes wide and fearful. Not one of them appeared willing to investigate what was happening to their neighbor. City living, she thought, sucked. But then, would neighbors in suburban areas be any more willing to risk investigating screams as fierce as the ones currently shattering the silence? She suspected not.

    She slithered to a stop outside the apartment door and glanced back at the pajama-clad crowd. "SIU, folks. Go back inside and lock your doors."

    The crowd melted away. With her laser held at the ready, she stepped back and kicked the door. Wood shuddered, splintering. She booted it a second time. The door flung open, crashing back on its hinges.

    The kite was in the middle of the living room, its sheetlike form covering all but the stranger's slippers. His screams suddenly choked off, and all she heard was an odd sucking sort of noise. Blood seeped past the flaccid, winglike sections of the creature's arms, forming pools that seemed to glisten black in the darkness.

    She raised the stun laser and fired at the creature. The blue-white light bit through the darkness, flaring against the kite's leather-like skin. If it had any effect, she certainly couldn't see it.

    She switched her aim to the creature's odd shaped head and fired again. The kite snarled and looked up. It had no mouth, she saw suddenly. Or rather, its whole body was a mouth. It was sucking the stranger's flesh and blood in through pores on its skin.

    She shuddered and fired again, this time at its eyes. The creature snarled a second time, the sound high pitched, almost bat-like. It shook its head and jerked upright. Bloodied strips of half consumed flesh slid down its body and puddled at its feet. Her stomach churned, but she held her ground and kept on firing the stun gun at the creature's eyes. It obviously wasn't stunning it, but it was doing something, because the kite's movements were becoming increasingly agitated.

    It screamed again, then turned and stumbled for the window. She edged into the apartment. The kite smacked into the wall, then flung out an arm, feeling for the window frame. It was almost as if it had lost all sonar capabilities. Maybe there was something in the blue-white beam that addled its keen senses.

    It grasped the window frame, felt for the other side to position itself, and then dived through the shattered glass. She ran over to the window and leaned out. The kite was floating back to the street, its arms out wide, loose skin stretched taut to catch the light breeze. She pressed the earphone again.

    "Gabriel, the kite is now in Macelan Street, heading west."

    "Do not go after it. I repeat, do not go after it. Stay in the apartment."

    Her smile was grim. If the tone of his voice was anything to go by, he was madder than hell. He had a right to be, she supposed, but what else could she have done? Let the kite devour the stranger?

    Not that her intervention had saved him. She turned away from the window and dug out her viaphone, the latest in gadgets from the SIU labs. It was similar to the wristcom the State Police used, only it had a cell phone and camera attached as well. And all in one palm-sized package. She hit the record button and panned the camera from the doorway she'd kicked open to the window and then down to the body.

    "The kite smashed through the living room window and attacked victim at 3.15 a.m. SIU Officer Ryan intervened and drove kite back through window." She hesitated, walking across to squat beside the body. "Victim is male, probably mid-sixties."

    She panned the camera down the length of his body and captured the bloody detail of the murder. What remained of his flesh hung in strips, almost indistinguishable from the remnants of his red and white striped pajamas. His eyes were wide, mouth locked into a scream — a look of astonished horror that was now permanently etched into his features.

    Why this man? Why not the two men talking in the flat below? Or the woman who'd only just joined her partner in bed? She glanced up and studied the room.

    The kite had come straight to this apartment — had obviously wanted this man, and no other. What they had to find out now was why.

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