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    When Elena told people she was a vampire hunter, their first reaction was an inevitable gasp, followed by, "You go around sticking those sharp stakes in their evil putrid hearts?"

    Okay, maybe the actual words varied but the feel was the same. It made her want to track down and exterminate the idiot fifteenth-century storyteller who'd made up that tale in the first place. Of course, the vampires had probably already taken care of it-after the first few of them ended up in whatever passed for an emergency room back then.

    Elena didn't stake vampires. She tracked them, bagged them, and returned them to their masters-the angels. Some people called her kind bounty hunters, but according to her Guild card, she was "Licensed to Hunt Vampires & Assorted Others"-which made her a vampire hunter, with the attendant benefits, including hazard pay. That pay was very healthy. It had to be to compensate for the fact that hunters occasionally had their jugulars torn open.

    Still, Elena decided she needed a pay raise after her calf muscle started protesting. She'd been stuck in a cramped corner of an alley in the Bronx for the past two hours, a too tall female with pale, almost white hair and silver eyes. The hair was a pain in the butt. According to her sometimes friend Ransom, she might as well wear a sign announcing her presence. Since dyes wouldn't work on it for longer than two minutes, Elena had a great collection of knit caps.

    She was tempted to pull her current one down over her nose, but had a feeling that would only intensify the malodorous "ambience" of this dank piece of New York City. That led her to thinking about the virtues of nose plugs-

    Something rustled behind her.

    She swiveled . . . to come face-to-face with a stalking cat, its eyes reflecting silver in the darkness. Satisfied the animal was what it seemed, she returned her attention to the sidewalk, wondering if her eyes shone as freakily as that cat's. It was a good thing she'd inherited dark gold skin from her Moroccan grandmother or she'd have resembled a ghost.

    "Where the hell are you?" she muttered, reaching down to rub at her calf. This vamp had led her on a merry chase-through his own sheer stupidity. He didn't know what he was doing, which made him a little hard to second-guess.

    Ransom had once asked her if it bothered her to round up helpless vampires and drag their sorry asses back to a life of virtual slavery. He'd been laughing hysterically at the time. No, it didn't bother her. Just like it didn't bother him. The vamps chose that slavery-of a hundred years' duration-the instant they petitioned an angel to Make them almost-immortal. If they had stayed human, if they had gone to their graves in peace, then they wouldn't have found themselves bound by a contract signed in blood. And while the angels did take advantage of their position, a contract was a contract.

    A flash of light in the street.

    Bingo!

    There was the target, chomping away on a cigar and boasting on his cell phone about how he was a Made man now and no prissy angel was going to tell him what to do. Even with several feet of distance between them, she could smell the sweat pooling under his armpits. The vampirism hadn't yet advanced enough to melt away the fat he wore like a spare coat, and he thought he could run out on a contract with an angel?

    Idiot.

    Walking out, she pulled off her knit cap and stuffed it in her back pocket. Her hair tumbled around her shoulders in a soft cloud, distinctive and bright. It wasn't a risk. Not tonight. She might have been well known by the locals, but this vampire had a distinct Australian accent. He'd recently arrived from Sydney-and his master wanted him back in that city, pronto.

    "Got a light?"

    The vampire jumped and dropped his phone. Elena barely stopped herself from rolling her eyes. He wasn't even fully formed-the canines he'd flashed in surprise were only baby teeth. No wonder his master was pissed. The bonehead had to have scuttled after not much more than a year or so of service.

    "Sorry," she said with a smile as he retrieved the phone and weighed her up. She knew what he saw. A lone female with bimbo blonde hair, dressed in black leather jeans and a form-fitting long-sleeved top in the same color, no visible weapons.

    Because he was young and stupid, the image made him relax. "Sure, sweet thang." He reached into his pocket for the lighter.

    That was when Elena leaned forward, one hand sweeping behind her back and under her top. "Tut-tut. Mr. Ebose is very disappointed in you." She'd retrieved and locked the necklet into place before he processed the meaning of that huskily spoken censure. His eyes bulged red, but instead of screaming, he stood silently in place. A hunter's necklet had a way of freezing a man. Fear was a live thing skittering across his face.

    She'd have felt sorry for him if she hadn't known that he'd torn out four human throats in the course of his escape. That was not acceptable. The angels protected their get but even they had limits-Mr. Ebose had authorized the use of any and all force necessary on this one.

    Now, she let that knowledge bleed into the open, let the vampire see her willingness to hurt him. His face lost what color he'd managed to retain. She smiled. "Follow me."

    He trotted behind her like an obedient puppy. Damn, but she loved the necklets. Her best friend, Sara, liked to shoot the targets with honest-to-god arrows-the arrowheads were doctored to contain the same control chip that made the necklets so effective. The instant it touched skin, the chip apparently emitted some kind of an electromagnetic field that temporarily short-circuited a vampire's neural processes, leaving the target open to suggestion. Elena didn't know the science of it all, but she knew the limits and advantages of her chosen method of capture.

    Yeah, she did have to get closer to her targets than Sara, but conversely, there was no chance of missing and hitting an innocent bystander. Which Sara had once done. It had cost her half a year's pay to settle the lawsuit. Lips curving at the thought of how pissed her friend had been at not making the shot, Elena opened the passenger-side door of the car she'd parked nearby. "Inside."

    The baby vamp squeezed in his girth with effort.

    Making sure he was belted in, she called Mr. Ebose's head of security. "I've got him."

    The voice at the other end instructed her to drop the package off at a private airstrip.

    Unsurprised by the chosen location, she hung up and began driving. In silence. It would've been a bit redundant to try to make conversation, as the vamp had lost the ability to speak the instant she clamped him. The muting was a side effect of the neural straitjacket created by the necklet. Before the inception of the chip-embedded devices, vampire hunting had been something of a suicidal career choice, as even the babiest vamps had the ability to tear a human to pieces. Of course, according to the latest research, vampire hunters weren't quite human, but they were close enough.

    Arriving at the airstrip, she cleared security and was directed onto the tarmac. The team charged with escorting the vampire back to Sydney was waiting beside a sleek private jet. Elena took the captured male to them and they immediately nodded at her to go on in. She had to stow the package personally, as they didn't have the license to handle him at this point in the journey. Clearly, Mr. Ebose had good lawyers. He wasn't taking any chances that could lead to him being brought up on charges by the Vampire Protection Authority.

    Not that the VPA had ever managed to make cruelty allegations stick. All the angels had to do was display a couple of photos of humans with their throats torn out, and the jury was ready not only to acquit, but to give them a medal in the process.

    Elena escorted the vamp up the steps and to the large open crate at the back of the passenger hold. "Inside."

    He walked in then turned to face her, terror pouring off him in a wave that had already soaked through his shirt.

    "Sorry, bud. You killed three women and one old man. That tilts the pity slate way over in the wrong direction." Slamming the door on him, she padlocked it. The necklet would go with him to Sydney, from there it'd be returned directly to the Guild, as per the agreed protocol with all chip-embedded devices. "He's ready to go, boys."

    The head guard-all four had followed her inside-looked her up and down with eyes the startling shade of robin's eggs. "No injuries. Impressive." He handed over an envelope. "The transfer has been made to your Guild account, as agreed."

    Elena checked the confirmation slip. Her eyebrows rose. "Mr. Ebose has been generous."

    "A bonus for early and unharmed capture of the target. Mr. Ebose has plans for him. Old Jerry was his favorite secretary."

    Elena winced. The problem with being basically immortal was that you could have a lot of things done to you and not die. She'd once seen a vampire who'd had every one of his limbs amputated . . . without anesthetic. By the time the Guild rescue squad liberated him from the clutches of the hate group that had kidnapped him, he'd been beyond reason or coherence. But there had been a video. That was how they knew the tortured man had remained conscious throughout. She bet the angels didn't show that video to the petitioners who came in their droves, hoping to be Made.

    Then again, maybe they did.

    The angels only Made about a thousand vamps a year. And from what Elena had seen, the hopeful outnumbered that by the hundreds of thousands. She had no idea why. As far as she was concerned, the cost of immortality was far too high. Better to live free and turn to dust when the time came than end up locked in a wooden box while you waited for your master to decide your fate.

    Distaste an acrid film on her tongue, she slid both the confirmation slip and the envelope into a pants pocket. "Please thank Mr. Ebose for his generosity."

    The bodyguard inclined his head and she glimpsed the edges of what she guessed to be a raven tattooed on his shaved head. He was too tall to see for sure but the others were shorter and all bore that unique mark.

    "I see you're unattached." He glanced pointedly at the plain silver hoops in her ears. No married gold. No entangled amber. But she didn't make the mistake of assuming he wanted a date. The guards of the Wing Brotherhood practiced celibacy while on the job. Since the punishment for failure was the removal of a body part-Elena had never quite managed to discover which-she figured she wasn't temptation enough.

    "Yes. I'm free workwise, too." She preferred to complete one job before lining up the next. There were always more vamps to chase down. "Mr. Ebose want me to track another renegade?"

    "No. He has a friend who requires your services." The guard passed over a second envelope, this one sealed. "The appointment is for eight a.m. tomorrow. Please ensure you attend-it's been cleared with your Guild, the deposit paid."

    If the Guild had signed off, that meant it was a legitimate hunt. "Sure. Where's the meet?"

    "Manhattan."

    Elena's soul went ice cold. For only one angel would that single word suffice as enough of a direction. Even the angels had a pecking order and she knew very well who was at the top. But, fast as it had swept over her, the fear passed. Mr. Ebose, while powerful, was hardly likely to know an archangel, one of the Cadre of Ten that decided who would be Made and who would do the Making.

    "Is there a problem?"

    Her head snapped up at the guard's quiet comment. "No, of course not." She made a show of checking her watch. "I better be going. Please give my regards to Mr. Ebose." With that, she exited the lush confines of the private jet and the pungent fear-stink of the cargo.

    She'd never been able to figure out why so many morons got Made. Perhaps, she thought, they went in okay but turned into pricks after a few years of drinking blood. Who knew what the hell that stuff did to your brain. But that theory didn't explain her latest catch-he was two years old max.

    Shrugging, she got into the car. And because she wanted to tear open the sealed envelope with her teeth, she waited until she was home in her beautiful nest of an apartment in lower Manhattan. Given how much time they spent chasing shit, most hunters tended to make their homes into havens. Elena was no exception.

    Entering, she kicked off her boots and headed toward the luxurious bath and shower unit. Usually, she made a ritual out of washing off the grime and slathering on the creams and perfumes she collected. Ransom thought her girly tendencies the funniest thing ever, constantly teased her over them, but the last time he'd opened his big mouth, she'd got her own back by pointing out that his long black hair sure did look well conditioned.

    However, tonight she had neither the patience nor the inclination to pamper herself. Stripping, she made quick work of scrubbing away the reek of shit-scared vampire before slipping into a pair of cotton pajamas and running a brush through her hair as she put on some coffee. Soon as it was done, she took a full mug to the coffee table, set it down carefully on a coaster . . . then gave in to the demands of her rabid curiosity and tore open the envelope in one second flat.

    The paper was thick, the watermark elegant . . . and the name at the bottom of the page terrifying enough to make her want to pack her bags and run. To the farthest, tiniest hole she could find.

    Disbelieving, she ran her eyes over the page a second time. The words hadn't changed.

    I would be pleased if you would join me for breakfast. 8 a.m.

    Raphael

    There was no address but she had no need of it. She looked up, able to see the light-filled column of the city's Archangel Tower from the huge plate-glass window that had made this apartment so ridiculously expensive . . . and attractive. Being able to sit and watch the angels take wing from the high balconies of the Tower was her guiltiest pleasure.

    At night, they appeared as soft, dark shadows. But in the daytime, their wings shimmered bright in the sun, their movements incredibly graceful. They came and went throughout the day, but sometimes she saw them simply sitting, high up on those balconies, their legs hanging over the sides. The younger angels, she'd guessed, though youth was a relative term.

    Even knowing that most of them were decades older than she was, the sight always made her smile. It was the one and only time she'd ever glimpsed them acting in a way that could be described as normal. Usually, they were coolly remote, so far from the common humdrum of humanity as to be beyond their understanding.

    Tomorrow she, too, was going to be up there in that tower of light and glass. But it wasn't one of those younger maybe-approachable angels that she had to meet. No, tomorrow she was going to be sitting across from the archangel himself.

    Raphael.

    Elena bent over, sick to her stomach.
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