Law and Murder
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“Over my dead body.” Bad choice of words, when you work for the vampire night court.
Sarah Anderson loves her job at the supernatural night court of Washington DC. She especially looks forward to the trial of the century, where her testimony might put the world’s most bloodthirsty vampire behind bars forever.
But like any hard-working millennial, Sarah has a couple of problems. She can’t decide if she’d rather kiss her enigmatic vampire boss or kill him. Even worse, her supernatural mentor insists that her newly awakened powers might kill her, if they don’t drive her mad first. (Exhibit One: Visions of an ancient Egyptian goddess no one else can see.)
Someone is stalking Washington DC’s vampire elite. And when an ancient evil invades the actual courthouse, Sarah’s arcane training goes into overdrive. She must embrace the magic within her…or die trying.
<<< Chapter 1 >>>
As the clock struck midnight, I watched Judge Robert DuBois drink from a steaming chalice of blood.
What? That’s not the way you start your work day?
After seven months as the Court Clerk for the District of Columbia Night Court, I should have been ready for the bailiff to call the courtroom to order. I should have expected the trapdoor to slide back in the courtroom’s marble floor so the defendant could be brought up from the underground holding cells.
But nothing really prepares a girl to come face to face with the vampire defendant who tried to drink her dry.
Okay, so, I’m not really a “girl.” I’m a twenty-seven-year-old woman. A card-carrying supernatural sphinx.
And no. They don’t actually give you a card.
Whatever. I was a sphinx, bred for generations to serve and protect vampires. But I’d only been informed about my otherworldly status eight months earlier, when my ancient Egyptian breeding had barely sufficed to save me from a vampire criminal mastermind intent on killing me. At least when push came to shove against the silver bars of a cage, I’d discovered I was a pretty bad-ass fighter.
So I’d lived long enough to see Maurice Richardson—vampire gangster extraordinaire, scourge of five centuries, most wanted supernatural creature in the entire Eastern Empire—take his seat at the defendant’s table in Judge DuBois’s courtroom.
My heart was hammering in triple time. For the record, a rapid-fire pulse is definitely not a recommended survival strategy with a bunch of bloodsucking fiends hanging around. Even if the courtroom is lined with specially hired security guards, intended to keep the unusually large crowds under control. I consciously tried to calm myself, touching my fingertips to the hematite bracelet that circled my right wrist.
The most virulent vampire in the history of the world actually looked a little like Moby-Dick. Richardson was swamped by his baggy white prison uniform. His feet were shoved into filthy flip-flops, and his ankles were bound by the silver chains required of all vampire defendants. In light of his particular flight risk, he wore silver handcuffs, too. A plain white handkerchief was draped over his hands, protecting his bare flesh from the corrosive metal. In theory, the cotton cloth would fall to the ground if he lurched to sink his fangs into a victim, and the pain of the silver would drop him in his tracks until the bailiff got him in line.
Great theory. I fully intended to keep my distance.
Judge DuBois banged his gavel three times, the sharp reports sounding like silver bullets firing from a gun. The formality was unnecessary. Every single person in the courtroom was already silent. We had ringside seats to the trial of the century, and no one wanted to miss a word.
The judge directed his obsidian eyes to Richardson’s lawyer. “Your opening statement, counselor?”
Werner Brandt rose beside his client. The salamander’s voice was grave as he proclaimed, “Your Honor, we have one small housekeeping matter before we begin.”
Judge DuBois scowled. His blood cordial had automatically expressed his fangs, and he hissed as he countered, “Yes, Counselor?”
“At this time, defendant asks that all potential witnesses in this matter be excluded from the courtroom. In particular, we request Sarah Jane Anderson be removed from the premises.”
There went my heart rate again. But that seemed like a perfectly reasonable response when hundreds of eyes swiveled toward me. There were basilisks and dragons, naiads and chimeras, centaurs and gargoyles, all staring at me as if I were the most exotic creature they’d ever seen, inside or outside of a zoo.
I barely managed to stand before I snapped out a response to Brandt’s outrageous demand. “Your Honor, I shouldn’t have to remind Mr. Brandt that I am here in my official capacity as Court Clerk for the Eastern Empire.”
The salamander’s sparking eyes narrowed. “Your Honor, no one should have to remind Ms. Anderson that the Court Clerk’s primary responsibility is distributing cover sheets to attorneys. In the clerk’s office. Not the courtroom.”
Actually, the clerk’s primary job was managing tens of thousands of files, providing reliable organization and storage to both the humans who used the DC Night Court and the supernatural imperials who relied on the Eastern Empire.
But Brandt had a point. I didn’t regularly observe court proceedings. And I was likely to be called as a witness against Richardson.
I didn’t have a prayer of winning this round. At least Judge DuBois addressed me directly as he banished me. “Ms. Anderson? If you’ll do us the courtesy of leaving the courtroom?”
Like it or not, I had to follow his order. Not only because this courtroom was his domain, and he was the final arbiter of justice within these four walls. I had to follow the judge’s command because I was a sphinx. Because my people had been bred for generations to forge organization out of chaos. We’d been the first followers of the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet, the very incarnation of justice and order, and some said her blood actually flowed in our veins.
Still, it was a struggle to hold my head high as I made my way to the courtroom’s heavy oak doors. A path parted before me as if by magic. One of the special security guards, a particularly massive vampire with a military brush cut and shoulders the width of a Mack truck, stepped to the side so I could reach the door itself. I pounded my fist on the panic bar and stalked away.
At the clerk’s office, I snatched my “I’ll Be Back” clock off the door, sliding the little hand off the five.
So shoot me. I’d hoped I could spend the rest of my shift watching the man who had almost killed me get the justice that had been coming to him for four hundred years.
Instead, I wedged a block under the door, leaving it open for traffic. You know. In case an attorney needed a cover sheet or anything.
Throwing myself into my desk chair, I straightened the notepad I kept by my phone, placing it precisely parallel to the front of my desk. I twitched my letter opener into alignment across the top of the paper. I flicked two ballpoint pens into place so they stood perfectly upright in their container.
Not that anything had actually been out of place when I sat down. I kept my workstation in pristine order as a matter of basic sanity. As always, though, reorganizing the office supplies bled off a little of my irritation. For good measure, I opened my desk drawer and double-checked to make sure the small binder clips were corralled separately from the medium ones, separate from the large ones. I evened out the paper clips in their jar.
Part of me had known James Morton was standing behind me from the moment I’d opened my desk drawer. Of course, he hadn’t made a sound as he entered through the door labeled “Staff Only.” Silence was a virtue for the Night Court’s Director of Security. Not a bad advantage for a vampire, either.
I’d felt him, though, because I’d drunk James’s blood three times now. My body—and heart and mind—had been attuned to him ever since he’d first healed me, when I’d nearly bled out from a vampire attack in Judge DuBois’s courtroom during my first night on the job.
I knew whenever James was near. And part of me wanted him near every moment of every night. I wanted him sleeping in my bed every day. I wanted him waking beside me every time the sun set.
But eight months ago, I’d saved James with my own blood, letting him drink when he was half-dead from horrific silver burns. There’d been the potential that night for us to become lovers, but physical exhaustion—or maybe a tiny fillip of common sense—had prevailed. In the days, weeks, months since, I’d come to understand that vampires had a violent aversion to owing debts, especially blood ones. Hell, I’d known they avoided saying the words “thank you” because their sense of obligation became too overwhelming. Having drunk my blood to survive his agonizing injuries, James could never accept the fact that he’d been weak in front of me, that he’d needed me.
And so I spent substantial portions of each night trying to decide if I wanted to kiss him or kill him.
Strike that. I wasn’t entirely certain I could kill a supernatural monster with astronomical physical strength and the ability to mesmerize most humans with a single touch.
That left kissing him.
I shook my head, the better to focus on the matter at hand. Sighing, I said, “Judge DuBois tossed me from the courtroom.”
“Please don’t tell me you’re surprised.”
Once upon a time, I’d been too afraid of James to glare at him. I got over that. Now I scowled and said, “I’m not an idiot.”
James ignored both my expression and the exasperated tone behind my words. “It’s just as well you’re back here. This arrived while you were gone.”
I reached for the filing he handed me, automatically scanning to confirm that the document met the court’s requirements. That’s me, the consummate professional. Or at least the woman willing to be distracted from her frustration.
The heading on the paper screamed: Clans v. Richardson. The “Clans” meant it belonged to an Eastern Empire criminal case, the one being prosecuted right now, in Judge DuBois’s courtroom. The one I’d just been ordered to leave.
And the pages in my hand suggested I’d be excluded from the proceedings for a long time to come. The title was printed in bold, presumably so I’d be able to read it easily after I filed it away in the court’s records: Motion to Exclude the Testimony of Sarah Jane Anderson.
My testimony was vital to putting Maurice Richardson behind bars. I was the one who had witnessed his crimes eight months before. I was the imperial victim he’d kidnapped, falsely imprisoned, attempted to murder.
If I couldn’t take the stand, Richardson was likely to walk. And dollars to donuts, he’d break the law the very first night he was out from behind bars. He’d spent centuries building his criminal empire. My taking the stand was the only bulwark against his spending centuries more expanding it.
Flipping to the next page, I muttered a few words not entirely appropriate for a family courthouse. The argument was straightforward: I shouldn’t be allowed to testify because I wasn’t a registered sphinx. I’d never completed the paperwork to formally list myself as a member of any supernatural species. I’d been raised as a human, educated as a human, and I’d consistently and uninterruptedly maintained human friendships and family relationships.
Hogwash. (Okay, that’s not actually what I said. But you get the idea.) My sphinx powers were the only thing that had saved me from grim death at the hands of Maurice Richardson. He knew damn well I wasn’t merely human.
I looked at James. “What am I supposed to do with this?”
“I time-stamped it. Next stage is to enter it into the docket for the case.”
I glared at him. “I know how to do my job, thank you very much.”
He didn’t react to the sarcasm drenching my tone. Instead, he clarified, “You wait for the prosecutor to file a response. You wait for DuBois to schedule an argument. And between now and that court date, you do every single thing you can to prove you actually are a sphinx.”
A human woman would have thrown something in frustration. As a non-human, I settled my fingertips on my hematite bangle. When the smooth stone did nothing to calm me, I started to twist the coral band on the middle finger of my right hand. The bracelet and ring were my insignia, concrete bonds to my sphinx heritage. James himself had given them to me, the first night he interviewed me for my job at the court. The first night he awakened my sphinx abilities, even as he buried that knowledge deep inside my memories…
“This is your fault,” I said. Those words probably weren’t wise for a couple of reasons. It’s a bad idea for anyone to talk back to her boss. But only a suicidal idiot purposely annoys a vampire boss. But I broke every rule in the book when it came to James.
“Humans,” James said, shaking his head. “Always so impatient. Never willing to take the long view of things.”
“I’m not hu—” I started to protest, but then I saw his thin lips quirk into the barest suggestion of a smile. “Wait! You’re actually joking about this?”
“Do you have a better suggestion?”
His dark blue eyes issued a direct challenge, a dare that made something flutter in my belly. Or somewhere distinctly lower.
That was the thing. James Morton was a blood-drinking monster, a creature who stalked the night, a supernatural being with more physical strength and mental determination than any human I’d ever met.
But he was my monster.
And he was only speaking the truth. There wasn’t anything else I could do tonight—not to get back into Judge DuBois’s courtroom as a spectator, and not to respond to Richardson’s bid to have me excluded from ever testifying at the trial.
James was still studying me, measuring my every reaction. It didn’t take vampire senses to know my breath was coming faster. He didn’t need superhuman eyes to tell my cheeks were flushing. There was absolutely no reason for his gaze to be centered on my lips.
“James…” I said. Because I was tired of our uneasy peace. I was tired of memory flashes, of recalling the sliver of ice against my jugular as he bit my neck, then the growing flame as he drank. I was tired of wanting him, fearing him, needing him.
His hand rose to my throat. His fingers curled around the back of my neck, and his thumb rested against the vein beneath my ear.
Lifting my chin, I met his gaze. Some emotion flickered deep in his eyes, feelings I couldn’t define, thoughts I couldn’t gauge. His tongue darted out, just enough to moisten his lips. That fluttery place deep inside me jacked into overdrive.
He stepped away.
My protest flooded the damned fluttery place. I was caught between a sigh and a grunt, the distilled sound of pure frustration.
Before I could say his name, though, before I could reach for his hand and pull him close and demand that we settle this insane business once and for all, I heard footsteps in the hall.
James, with his superior vampire hearing, must have made them out well before I had. That was why he’d backed off. Now, he made a show of reaching across my desk, of selecting a pen from the container beside my computer monitor. His casual gesture sent the bristling forest of writing implements into disarray, mixing pencils with red markers with government-issue blue and black ballpoints.
I didn’t have time to straighten them, though, before I turned to face the dryad who approached the counter. Tall and willowy, her long hair was tangled around her face, snarled by the summer night’s humidity. She set her briefcase on the counter and worked the locks with efficient fingers that looked thin enough to snap under the pressure. “This is where I file a complaint for trespass?”
James took his damned pen back to his damned office, silently closing the damned “Staff Only” door behind him. I caught a deep breath and held it for a moment before I reached for a civil cover sheet. “Yes,” I said to the dryad. “You just need to complete this form.”
I handed over the document and watched as she filled in the spaces. My own fingers moved automatically as I retrieved a heavy cardstock folder. I punched two holes in the top of her complaint and added the newly completed cover sheet. Pulling up a computer file, I assigned a number to the new case. I printed a receipt and handed it over to the dryad, then I watched her walk away. I listened until her footsteps faded down the corridor.
I could shift the hands on my “I’ll Be Back” clock. I could hang the sign on the door, letting all future litigants know the clerk’s office was temporarily closed for business. I could push through the “Staff Only” door and corner James in his lair, refusing to leave his office until we resolved things between us once and for all.
But I only pretended to be brave. I only pretended my heart was locked away in a shiny silver box, safe from anyone and anything. I only pretended I knew what the hell I wanted.
Sitting at my desk, I reached for the container beside my monitor and brushed the pens and pencils into order. Well, I clearly wasn’t human anymore, not if I was compulsively neatening every office supply in sight. Not if I was contemplating a real, long-term relationship with a vampire.
Damn, if that silly little flutter didn’t come to life again.
I collected the document splayed across my blotter—Richardson’s motion that had brought James into my office in the first place: Motion to Exclude the Testimony of Sarah Jane Anderson.
First things first. I was a sphinx. All I had to do was prove it.
I knew precisely one other sphinx in the entire world. His name was Christopher Gardner—Chris—and he’d already complicated my life more times than I could count. James and Chris hated each other on sight, on scent, and on general principle.
But I’d always felt something for Chris—in fact, my feelings for him were every bit as tangled and confusing and exasperating as my feelings for James. Chris had promised to mentor me in the ways of being a sphinx. He’d sworn to help me. But he’d found dozens of reasons to delay that help, telling me I wasn’t ready, that the wider world of sphinxes wasn’t ready, that the entire universe starting from the Big Bang wasn’t ready.
Now, though, everything had changed. Chris’s failure to train me was the foundation for Maurice Richardson’s motion to exclude my testimony. If I’d been allowed to learn about my sphinx heritage, I could have completed whatever absurd paperwork would give me a voice in the trial of the creature who’d nearly killed me. I could guarantee the murderous vampire villain would be behind bars for the rest of his unnatural life.
I’d had enough of Chris dragging his feet. I had no choice but to confront him once again, to demand that he teach me everything I needed to know about our shared supernatural species.
And this time, I wasn’t taking “no” for an answer.
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