Mighty Long Fall
An alarm was going off.
That is if you could call the metallic clang of two pieces of cheap cookware being smashed together an alarm.
As still as the crescent moon that hung in the night sky, Madeline paused to wait out the unplanned audio interruption. Ever cautious, she replayed the past ten minutes in her mind as if she was rewinding an old movie. She'd stuck to the shadows and hadn't been seen. She'd watched her footing around the poorly laid tripwire. The nearby cicadas hadn't ceased their chirping until now, which meant she hadn't been heard either, and she had studied the compound for months before taking on this mission. In fact, she had been so careful that she was expecting to catch a flight out of Guadalajara before the sun began saturating the horizon with its life-giving color and warmth.
So why was she suddenly straddling the still-warm Spanish roof tiles? What had gone wrong?
It wasn't until she felt the gentle pressure of two small paws on the back of her left calf that she realized the cruel joke that was being played on her. Nothing had actually gone wrong, and she didn't need to turn her head around to know that the ball of warmth now curling up against her thigh was, in fact, a large, black cat.
And a mischievous one at that.
You asshole. You did this didn't you? she thought to herself as a handful of local men raced around below her, investigating the area surrounding the house she was blending into.
All she could do was remain motionless and wait for the commotion to settle, hoping she didn’t get spotted. That was no small feat, considering how uncomfortable the tiles were against her ribcage and pelvis. As the minutes crawled by, she could feel the cat shift his weight and start grooming its paws.
Laying her ear lightly against the deep crimson braid of her hair, Madeline tried to push images of strangling the cat out of her mind and replaced them with the mother and daughter whom this contract was for.
She had accepted the job of helping a young mother and her three-year-old daughter recover a ring that was assumed stolen. After some investigating, Madeline deduced that the father of the child had taken what few valuables the mother had and fled to Mexico. One of the valuables happened to be a sapphire ring. It had been passed down through the mother's family for over four generations, but it was further believed that the stone itself had been in her family for much, much longer. It was hinted that the gem was special and that lone fact was the reason Madeline was hired. An ordinary ring would not have attracted the attention of Madeline’s broker, nor would it have secured Madeline's talents, especially since the mother and daughter were not the ones actually paying her expenses nor were they supplying the reward. It was one of those jobs where the client wished to remain anonymous.
The cat suddenly got up and began carefully padding its way around her sprawled-out body, working it's way to her head. Madeline shot a glare full of thunderclouds at the feline as it sat right in front of her face, his emerald-green eyes twinkling with mischief, a bemused smirk curled upon its moist, little black lips. With a flick of his tail, which felt very much to Madeline like an insult, the black cat leaped down from the roof and vanished into the darkness.
"Gato negro," came a shout out of the darkness below, followed by a gruff chuckle and a few other mumbled words that Madeline couldn't make out.
Then after a few more minutes, there was silence. The men had gone, and the area outside of the house had grown dark and lifeless once more. Patiently, Madeline gave herself ten more minutes of uncomfortable roof-hugging before moving on to the room below.
An alarm was going off.
What the hell…?
Suddenly, the curves and protrusions of the red roof tiles melted into soft, cotton quilting, and the cover of the night brightened into a fresh, new morning. Madeline dwelled on the thought that she might have actually slept through her alarm, a feat she hadn't accomplished in a very long time. Then again, she had just returned from her first solo trip out of the country, and the jet lag had worn her out. So much so that it had affected her dreams, making her relive her recent mission with a few twists. For one, Levi hadn’t been there at all, so why she was dreaming about him being roguish in his cat form? And two, she didn’t set off any alarms on that job.
Taking a slow, deep breath, she rolled over. Something was out of sorts. A warmth. A shadow…
She quickly opened her eyes and found herself staring into the same pair of emerald eyes from her dream.
"What are you doing here?" she gasped, gathering her bed sheets tightly to her body in one quick movement.
Stretched out the length of her king-sized bed, her mentor laid leisurely. His shaggy, black mane brushed past his shoulders lightly, and spiked here and there around his face, framing his eyes flirtatiously. He was fully clothed in dark-gray jeans and a rich red sweater flecked with black, his whole body emitting the familiar scent of sandalwood. Madeline wondered suddenly if the scent was what had triggered his intrusion into her dream.
"Just dropped by to see how your trip went," his velvety voice purred, face propped up elegantly with his hand. All the while he was smiling, obviously proud of himself for sneaking in and surprising her so.
"It's not appreciated," the redhead replied, irritated at how he always showed up as he pleased.
It was no use getting angry with him. It wasn’t like she could stop him from coming and going even if she wanted to, not that she really did. His sudden appearances never made her feel unsafe. Never frightened her. That, and over time she learned she could always trust him with things that truly mattered. Little things that didn’t however…
"I made coffee..." he tempted, still refusing to leave the bed, "and pancakes."
Madeline recognized the scent of the freshly brewed coffee hovering deliciously in the air.
"You can't make pancakes," she grumbled, eyes narrowing suspiciously.
"You’re right. I lied," Levi admitted, still smiling and remaining motionless on the bed.
There was a silence that hung awkwardly for Madeline, but no doubt felt like a victory to Levi.
"A little privacy, please," She finally piped up, pulling the sheets even higher as if shielding herself against his presence.
Gracefully, Levi sat up, draped his long legs over the side of the bed and strutted out of the room, knowing Madeline's eyes were on him the whole time. After he was well down the hall, Madeline let out a long sigh and threw off the covers. She always slept in shorts and a tank top, but even wearing that around him seemed dangerous. It wasn't that she was worried he would try to take advantage of her, but that her own willpower would someday falter.
Even without being in a relationship with him, his teasing and indiscretions tore at her heart. As strong and stubborn she was, Madeline knew she wasn't strong enough to deal with that if exposed to it for too long. And thus, her wall stayed up, and she repeatedly convinced herself that pursuing the relationship would end in disaster.
She cursed herself for even thinking about it and stormed off into her walk-in closet to find something to wear. After slipping on some jeans and a black camisole, she made her way to the kitchen where Levi was pouring coffee. There was also a neatly arranged plate of cranberry muffins that wasn't there last night.
"So how did the trip go?" Levi inquired again, glancing up at her while he poured the creamer. All manner of teasing was now gone, much to Madeline's disappointment.
"It was much easier than I was thinking it was going to be," she replied, taking a seat on one of the island’s three bar stools. "Turns out, the thief pawned the ring. All I had to do was buy it back from the shop. "
"Relish that," he replied stirring the coffee for her, "That's not going to happen very often."
Madeline nodded as she reached anxiously for the mug he had just prepared for her.
"By the way, new job for you tonight," Levi continued as he began to pour his own cup. "Local."
"Local? That's going to be two unusual jobs back to back. What's this one about?"
"Our broker wants you to investigate that club near the docks that just opened a month ago."
"Endless? Investigate it for what?" she questioned as she wrapped her right hand around the mug’s large handle, her left hand cupping the warm ceramic. Slowly, she brought it to her lips, taking an indulgent sip. Levi always gave it a perfect balance of sweet and bitter.
"Just a recon mission, nothing more."
Recon mission? Madeline didn't do recon missions unless there was something to be recovered at a later date. Not to mention all the recons she had done up to this point involved a target of some sort.
"Wear something expensive and sexy," Leviticus suggested with a devilish grin, derailing her train of thought. "And I'll pick you up at 10 p.m."
It was 9 p.m., and Madeline was still looking through her closet for something suitable to wear. Her contracts paid very well, so the selection of dresses was not limiting. Clubwear wasn't even the issue. The issue was her date. And although she told herself a million times that she didn't care about him, she wanted Levi’s eyes on her alone.
She slid hangers left and right, frantically assessing her collection, before settling on a classic little black dress with long, sheer sleeves. The hem had about 2 inches of the softest black lace sewn into the bottom, giving the naughtiness of the short length a whisper of feminine dignity. She matched it with her favorite strappy black heels, a pair of sparkling diamond earrings, and her ever-present family heirloom - the harlequin black opal - around her neck. She gathered most of her long red curls up, leaving a few teasing strands to brush her bare skin. She usually wouldn't dare to put her hair up when she knew there might be the possibility of vampires, but being with Levi gave her courage, and above all else, he made her feel safe.
Grabbing her black leather clutch and a faux fur wrap, she locked up her apartment and took the elevator down seven floors to the lobby. It was 10 p.m. on the dot, and as expected, a car was waiting. The driver opened the door for her, and she slid gracefully across the leather seat to Levi's side. She could feel his eyes undressing her, making her both elated and defensive at the same time.
"You look lovely," he responded to her attire with enthusiasm, and a provocative smile.
Trying to hide her reddening cheeks, she glanced at him to see what he was wearing, and her heart started to flutter.
His shoulder-length, jet black hair was highlighted with streaks of crimson. And his dress shirt, which was only buttoned up halfway, had a wet-look to it which shimmered like liquid beneath his open, thigh-length tailored black jacket. An intricate silver pendant, his gatekey, hung on a thin black cord from around his neck. She only saw him wear it when he needed to put on airs - to prove he was a lot higher on the food chain than anyone local would probably have ever seen. She couldn’t think of a reason why he would be wearing it now, unless he knew something about the job that she didn’t, or was suspecting there might be trouble.
"Why are you wearing that?" she flat-out asked him, pointing to his pendant.
"We've never been to this place," he began, "But it's likely not a place for you, so I figured it would be an added measure to keep you safe."
To keep her safe? It didn’t seem like anything dangerous in particular would happen in a public place, and she had knowingly gone into much worse situations without him showing so much as an ounce of concern. So why the sudden protectiveness?
As she was drifting off in thought, the leg of his black trousers brushed against her bare skin as he shifted closer to her. Madeline gasped at the sensation. She didn't want to be so tempted by him. Didn't want to feed him her emotions right now. Her body wanted to increase contact, but her mind was getting angry once again over the thought of being used for food.
"I suppose you would need to be well fed before we head inside," Madeline managed to stab the words out, wanting to make it clear she wasn't a fool, and was aware of the games he played with her to entertain himself.
He let out a small sigh at her accusation.
"Just making sure we play the part tonight. That's all," Levi replied despondently. "And I do have an image to uphold."
"Of course," she said crossing her arms.
That image was of a very free-spirited, devil-may-care, someone important in the shapeshifter world - which Madeline never cared to inquire about. She knew people disliked him because he was uncontrollable... and maybe that was her issue as well.
As the town car pulled up to the front of the club, Levi patted Madeline on the bare knee.
The driver opened the door for Levi first, who stepped out with feline grace. Rounding to the passenger side, Levi opened the door for Madeline and politely extended his hand for her to take, guiding her out of the vehicle in one fluid movement. Offering his arm to her, the pair stepped toward the entrance in perfect sync. As they approached, the doorman recognized Levi's pendant and waved them through.
The cold air within the club shocked Madeline immediately. It was far colder than the outside December air, and she regretted not bringing more than a wrap for her shoulders. Being prepared was part of the job, and she had failed in that regard this evening. And in the presence of her teacher. Embarrassing to say the least.
Before her sight even adjusted to the drastic drop in lighting, she could feel many sets of eyes her and Levi. It wasn't normal. Was it because she was human? Was this place that exclusive?
There was a sudden weight and warmth on her shoulders as Levi rested his arm on her.
“I know a good way to warm you up,” he purred, leading her to the dance floor.
Without any resistance, she followed his lead. She’d always loved to dance at the clubs, and Levi was pretty much the perfect dance partner with his fluid movements and sense of rhythm. The music pulsed with a heavy bass as she and Levi kept perfect time with each other. He placed his arms on her shoulders at the same time she set her hands on either side of his waist, their hips swaying left and right as they felt the music and responded to one another’s movements.
Madeline looked into Levi’s eyes for a brief moment, in between casually scanning the room and other dancers. He was staring at her strangely as if he was really enjoying himself rather than playing a role. He slowly brought her body closer to his until their hips were almost touching. Madeline’s temperature rose. This was going a bit too far. She looked back into his eyes, and his expression was serious. It broke her rhythm for an instant, and she found her body reacting to him. This wasn’t one of his tricks, at least not one she knew of first hand. She tried to distract herself from his gaze by studying the crowd again. People around them were whispering. Judging. But why?
Assessing the clientele, there appeared to be all manner of beings here, but the atmosphere was not as casual and friendly as at the Lotus. There were those that had the characteristics of vampires, some of the more common type of shapeshifters, and possibly fae, but very few actual humans.
Suddenly, a few of those who’d been observing Madeline and Levi started to snap photos with their cell phones. Levi noticed it too.
"Well that is certainly interesting," Levi whispered into Madeline’s ear over the grind of the music. "Apparently we’re news to someone."
“Well, you are wearing your pendant. That has to trigger some gossip I would assume, especially among those that don’t know who you are. Could that be what this mission is about?" Madeline asked, “To see who has an interest in you?”
"Or rather who has an interest in you..." Levi said, suddenly unamused, staring off toward the far end of the room.
Madeline followed his gaze to a group of men who were possibly vampires, one of which she recognized immediately, but hadn’t seen for at least six months.
"What’s he doing here?" she whispered harshly under her breath so only Levi could hear her uneasy tone.
It was Scott.
And here she was, dancing with Leviticus.
To make matters worse, her shapeshifting date’s serious expression had turned, and he was now playing off of Scott's festering jealousy, throwing devilish smiles at the vampire as if they were challenges. Scott's companions were clearly trying to get him to confront Levi, prompting the silver-haired vampire to make a slicing motion along his throat directed at the couple.
Her mind flashed back to the morning Scott had bitten her, and Madeline froze, eyes locked on her ex. She saw the satisfied grin that began to spread across his face as he realized he could still affect her.
Suddenly there were two warm and gentle hands on either side of her face, turning her gaze away from the vampires and toward a familiar pair of green eyes. Levi's eyes closed as he brought her face to his, the warm softness of his lips and the comfort of his scent making Madeline forget everything around her. Instinctively, she reached up and placed her palms lightly on his chest, but not to push him away. Years ago, he kissed her during the blue diamond job to show they were a genuine couple and more recently with the unexpected forcefulness of the umeshu, but that had been nothing so honest as this. This kiss was so sincere and tender that it broke her heart when their lips parted.
She opened her eyes gradually, and for an instant, his expression was devout. Was her hope blinding her again? No, the look Levi gave her was the real thing.
A few flashes of blinding white light cause her to flinch as the same few people that were on their cell phones earlier continued taking pictures. She glanced back at Levi, finding her attention fixed on his soft, beautifully curved lips, but his eyes were already transfixed back on Scott. The sly, devilish smile crept back in as he shot the vampire a wicked glare. Scott’s rage was at the breaking point, as his ego could only bottle up so much, but Levi knew Scott wouldn’t erupt here. There were laws of the shrouded world that prevented things like that in public. Knowing he was mere moments away from breaking those laws, Scott and his small entourage of friends ducked out of the club. It was a big piece of pride to swallow, but he frankly had no choice in the matter. Any older or stronger vampires in the club would have ripped him apart later had he transgressed.
"Well, that went well," Levi chuckled under his breath.
Madeline semi-punched him in the chest out of annoyance more than anything. Whatever feelings she had felt coming off of him during their kiss must have been fabricated by Levi to anger Scott.
She'd been tricked yet again.
"What was that for?" Levi responding, trying to make it look like his feelings were hurt. "You know he's an ass, can't be trusted, and he's stupid on top of that. I warned you about him from the get-go. You should be grateful you were able to get him back."
Another flash from a cell phone wiped the playfulness out of Levi completely. His gaze sliced out into the crowd like a blade, cutting through bodies as he searched for the culprit.
Madeline knew that look, and began trying to nonchalantly read the crowd in her own way, but knew she couldn't come close to analyzing as thoroughly as Levi could. He was listening. Sensing emotions. Sensing intentions. Behind his eyes, he was also calculating something or another. Madeline could never tell what he was really up to. But just as his expression was suddenly all business, it quickly returned back to playful charm. His eyes were still fixed away from her, now on a pair of young females seated on a sofa in the nearby lounge. Madeline could feel her face flush with jealousy as she saw Levi lick his lips, gifting the ladies a sinful grin.
"If you'll excuse me," he said, giving Madeline a sideways glance as he slipped out of his jacket and placed it on her shoulders over her wrap. "I have some socializing to do. Have the doorman summon a cab for you anytime you want to leave. I'll pick up the tab of course."
And that was it.
He hurried away from her without another word.
He actually hurried.
Madeline felt another camera flash slap her in the face. She was beyond hiding her feelings right now and didn't really care who saw her anger and pain. Her eyes followed Levi for a few more seconds, long enough to see him take a seat between the two young ladies who wasted no time cuddling up to him. Walking alone back to the bar, she figured she would try to make the most of the night by taking her mind off of Levi. The problem was, no one would talk to her. There were plenty of attractive men at the club, but whenever she tried to chat up any of them, they politely excused themselves from her presence as if she had the plague. Her frustration was only building the longer she stayed, so it was quite easy to convince herself it was time to go. After the doorman called her a cab, she peeled Levi’s jacket off her shoulders almost repulsively and handed it to him as she exited.
"Make sure the asshole gets this back," she said under her breath.
Stepping out of the club and into the night, Madeline gave one last backward glance at Endless. In the dark warehouse district, it’s white neon sign stood out like a full moon on a clear night. The only thing she was able to deduce about it was how pretentious it felt on the inside. And cold. Vampires wouldn’t care about the cold, but common shapeshifters would have found the temperature refreshing. Without Levi at her side, it had been impossible to make small talk with anyone, and she got to feeling the only humans there were possessions. Hopefully, that would be enough information to report back with, unless Levi was able to extract any more.
Levi. He wasn’t going to be reliable in any way tonight. At least not to her.
Quietly getting into the taxi that was summoned for her, she gave the driver the usual directions to the block near hers, and then was silent for the rest of the drive. Upon arrival, she took a look around, noting the street was well lit and quiet. Seeing nothing suspicious, she strolled casually toward her building and keyed her way into the downstairs lobby.
Riding the elevator up to her floor, Madeline leaned weakly against the back wall, not realizing until now that the evening had taken such an emotional toll on her. Raising her fingertips to her cheek, she wiped away the wet trail of a tear, chastising herself for feeling this way yet again. Why did she love him? Why couldn’t she get over him? The anger and jealousy that had her in such a tizzy earlier in the evening had now dissipated, leaving only frustration and sadness behind.
Exiting the elevator, Madeline stepped leisurely down the quiet hallway to her apartment door and lazily placed her fingertips on the security keypad. As she began entering the first few digits, she realized the electronic beeps that chimed in response to each key-press were not echoing the same way they ordinarily did when the hallway was empty. There was a solid object somewhere behind her.
Madeline’s fingers momentarily froze on the keypad.
No one should be on this floor but her.
With a sudden flurry, she pressed the last digits.
As the door gave way in front of her, the force of a blow from behind impaled the doorknob into the wall and sent Madeline sailing into the blackness of her living room. She slammed hard, chest first, into her coffee table, which cracked until her weight.
"I asked for ONE NIGHT to make it up to you," Scott bellowed as Madeline attempted to scramble away.
In one fluid motion, he was at her again, grabbing her by the back of her dress and smashing her down hard onto the broken coffee table once more. She raised her arms up to block her face from hitting the fractured surface, leaving her torso unprotected. Upon impact, Madeline’s ribcage electrified with sharp, crippling pain.
Picking up a vase that had rolled onto the floor, Scott shattered it against the living room wall.
"That was all I wanted, now look what you've made me do...."
"How did you...?" she gasped in agony before she could finish her sentence. Every breath felt like it was tearing her apart from within.
"Find you?" he answered spitefully and then huffed in disbelief. "You're actually concerned with that?”
Wearing the same clothes from the club, but now stained with someone else’s blood, and his short, silver hair disheveled, Scott grabbed her by the wrist and started to twist her body to the hardwood floor. Although he foiled her attempt at making for the far corner of her apartment, it was only temporary, as Madeline still managed to swing her legs around and kick Scott’s legs out from under him. Wrestling out of his grasp as he fell, she bolted to her safe in the corner and pressed her thumb to the fingerprint reader, tears of agony streaming down her face. It opened with an electronic hiss just as Scott came at her again, but by that time she had her hand wrapped around what she was looking for.
Despite the debilitating pain in her ribs, her adrenaline allowed her enough coherency to stand and kick off her heels. Unsheathing the blade, she pointed it towards Scott. The pain was nearly blinding, but she knew if she doubled-over from it she was going to die. Biting down on her own lip until it was bloody, Madeline took a few well-aimed swings at the vampire, who even in the near darkness managed to dodge every attempt. While Madeline's blade missed its intended mark, it sliced effortlessly into her sofa and anything else in its way. It wasn't long before the living room was littered with bits of upholstery.
"You can't hit me," Scott mocked, "Between my natural agility and the darkness, the outcome won't fall in your favor."
Scott grabbed a floor lamp, ripping its cord from the wall, and swung it back at her mockingly. Snickering, he took one perfect and lightning-quick swing at her arm causing her already weak grip to fail, and the wakizashi spun across the floor. Momentarily paralyzed by the additional pain from her arm, Scott took advantage of her inaction and swung the lamp at her head, connecting on the right side of her face and knocking her to the floor. Straddling her, he held her wrists down and locked his long legs around hers.
"I'm going down... and I'm taking you with me."
He exposed his fangs and lunged at her throat.
For a moment, time stopped for Madeline. She was convinced this was it. This was how she was going to die. She could not move. Had no strength left to fight. And with all the pain she was in, death was actually feeling preferable. Closing her eyes to accept her fate, she wondered if Levi would avenge her.
Scott suddenly inhaled sharply, and Madeline felt the weight of his body lift away, followed by a loud thud which she assumed was his body slamming against the wall.
She remained perfectly still, not really sure what the hell was going on and uncertain if she could even make an effort to escape.
An unfamiliar, commanding voice from above startled her.
"How dishonorable of you, Scott," the voice, male and peppered with an accent, spoke. "Shamefully stalking an ex-lover."
Madeline turned her head slowly, acutely aware of how her cheek throbbed where the lamp had made contact. Her eyes were adjusted enough to the darkness to see what appeared to be the silhouette of Scott doubled-over against the wall where he landed. She turned her head back to see a bare hand extended out to her. Nervously bracing for the pain she knew would increase tenfold if she tried to sit up, she reached out. As she was gently helped up, the debilitating pain erupted.
Then, suddenly, it was gone.
As she breathed easier, confusion set it. Pain suppression? Who was this man? She couldn't see many details in the darkness, but this man was slender and tall, likely with dark hair, and from his accent, he was Japanese.
Reaching down, he took hold of a pillar candle that had toppled over in the commotion, and placing it on a shelf, lit it with a traditional match from his suit pocket.
As the candlelight flickered its golden light in the corner of the room, his familiar features were made clear.
With silky-straight, shoulder-length black hair and curvy, tempting lips, he glanced around the room. His clothes were expertly tailored and pressed, and expensive, and yet he dispatched Scott without causing them so much as a wrinkle. His skin was healthy looking, and his hand was warm when she took it, but he was strong, much stronger than an average human would be. His face was strikingly handsome in an ethereal sort of way, and his dark-brown eyes seemed to pierce everything around him. Intelligent eyes. Disarming eyes. Eyes that could see into souls.
And he bore an uncanny resemblance to Maseo.
"I apologize for not taking action sooner, but we had a bit of trouble landing on your roof," he said suddenly in a deep, throaty voice that warmed Madeline's cheeks. "I am Taro Tetsugawa. It is a pleasure to meet you, despite the circumstances." He bowed formally, the faint amber light reflecting in the soft silken luster of his ebony hair.
As his gaze passed over the room again, it prompted Madeline to do the same. It was a disaster. Even in the low light, she could see destruction. Table lamps knock over. The sofa and chair were ruined. Bits and pieces of broken vase were everywhere. Shaking off the thought of how much work it was going to take to clean up the mess, her gaze once again landed on Taro, catching him inspecting her with his brilliant brown eyes. The knowledge and intensity she had seen in them earlier now burned with something akin to amusement. Out of nowhere, his lips curled into a promiscuous grin. Her pulse began to race as her body grew warm from the flash of wicked images which played uncontrollably in her mind. This wasn't of her own doing. It was like they were being projected into her, and she recalled the time she spent on the edge of the bathtub with Maseo.
"Forgive me," he said in a husky voice barely above a lover's whisper, his eyes showing no signs of letting hers go.
Suddenly, Scott bolted from the corner and dashed towards the door with all the strength he could muster. In a blur of motion that was barely a blink, Taro beat him to the doorway and locked his hand tightly around the vampire's throat. Displeasure burned in his eyes now, and his expression was grim. Scott’s eyes, in contrast, were wide with terror.
"Do you not know when you are beaten, boy?" he snarled threateningly, tightening his grip slowly until the struggling vampire’s body went limp. Scott fell to the floor with the release of Taro's hold.
"Get him out of my sight..." Taro spat out as he pulled a tightly wrapped handkerchief from his breast pocket and tossed it onto Scott’s unconscious body.
From seemingly out of nowhere, another man appeared to drag the unconscious vampire out the door. Madeline recalled seeing this second man at the club earlier. He had been on his cell phone, but not taking pictures.
Now alone with her new savior in the moonlight, Madeline's lips parted to say "thank you," but Taro spoke first.
"I will have a check delivered to you in the morning, covering the damage," he said politely, letting the harsh expression from dealing with Scott fade from his features.
"Oh that," Madeline said, trying to smile, an expression made easier by the numbing of her injuries. "It's ok. I have it covered. Thank you though."
Finding herself at a loss for words, Madeline felt oddly vulnerable at the moment.
The crackle and hiss of an electronic voice sparked into the air around Taro.
Tilting his head slightly to the left, Taro replied into a mic that was pinned to his lapel and then turned his full attention back to the lovely redhead before him.
"That would be for me," Taro said softly to Madeline. He bowed deeply to her, black hair falling softly forward and back. "Sayonara."
As he turned to leave, Madeline felt an unexplained panic swell up. It compelled her to reach out and grab the cloth of his sleeve as she took a step forward, prompting Taro to turn back around. The touch and close proximity of their bodies brought about another emotion in Taro's eyes, something of a grand temptation that beckoned to be met. He didn't lean any closer to her. However, Madeline desperately wished him to do so. She brought herself to him until she felt the tease of his breath and the brush of his lips against hers.
With a jolt, she backed away.
What the hell am I doing?
She shook her head roughly in an effort to clear her mind. This wasn't like her at all.
Watching her distress, Taro gave the most subtle smile and repeated himself once again.
With a whisper, he was gone, and the air around Madeline grew still and cold. Half a second later, the pain returned, brutal and unrelenting. Feeling nausea start to brew in the pit of her stomach, she took a few shaky steps backward before her knees lost all strength and she collapsed unconscious onto her tattered sofa.
Amidst the gusts of the propeller, Taro slipped into his awaiting helicopter. Taking a plush leather seat next to Takeshi, the man who had dragged Scott’s body away, another subordinate slid the craft’s door tightly closed. The conversation that ensued was entirely spoken in a centuries-old dialect of Japanese.
"I've gathered more information on her, sir," Takeshi said as he handed Taro a tablet. "Her clothing and shoe sizes, interesting items in her bedroom, contents of her medicine cabinet, books in her collection, and so forth. Her computer was tightly encrypted so I couldn't get into it in the amount of time allowed."
Taro scrolled through the information carefully, nodding in satisfaction.
"The contents of her computer aren't too important to us at this time. We've confirmed she has been trained by that prodigal felinae Leviticus, and the pendant she wears matches Gideon's description. And she has that wakizashi."
Taro remembered precisely what Gideon had said about the night she stole the wakizashi. He reminded himself that affinity Madeline had for it wasn't necessary to their cause, but did confirm their suspicions. It would be an added bonus, however, if they were to win over supporters of that particular clan, and that made the idea of possessing her for the long term too tempting to pass up. The fact that she had Leviticus' scent on her amused him. From every detail gathered thus far, her relationship with Levi was nothing more than that of a master and apprentice. Levi's aimless and lecherous behavior was well-known, and his actions tonight at Endless reflected that, as expected.
Speaking of which…
"Is the traitor secure?"
"Of course," Takeshi responded. "I've restrained Scott in the rear of the craft."
"Excellent. Forward this to Yukihiro and have him compile it into Miss Madeline’s file," Taro instructed. "Let us be off."
As the helicopter ascended, Taro dwelled a bit more on the situation. Cat shapeshifters of both sexes toyed with humans like mice, grooming their prey to feed off their emotions and then feasting on the strong rage and heartbreak that followed at the breakup. Some were more notorious at it than others. They certainly didn't care about their victims any more than a vampire would. So why was Levi scent marking?
Taro's eyes narrowed a bit, considering the possibility. Did the cat know about the necklace and the blade? Was he trying to make a weak, pathetic attempt at a power grab?
A chuckle escaped Taro’s lips, drawing the curiosity of Takeshi.
We'll just see about that.
Levi wasn't sure if it was his conscience or his instinct, but something had been nagging at him all night. The feeling of unease led him to Madeline’s apartment where he currently found himself pensively riding the elevator up to her floor just as the sky was starting to lighten. As the elevator doors opened and he stepped out into the hall, her open door caused him to briefly pause. Madeline had the entire floor to herself now, but she wouldn’t in her right mind leave her door wide open like that. He taught her better. Then again he was against her moving into this place to begin with.
With uncharacteristic urgency, Levi rushed to her doorway and cautiously stepped through. A potent emotion, one that he’d denied himself for months now, twisted his stomach.
He was unable to mask his shock upon looking at the complete disaster that was her living room. Furniture was cut to pieces, and there were shards of porcelain littering the ground. Touching nothing, Leviticus took a few more hurried steps into the room, his highly polished black shoes keeping carefully out of the debris as he nervously approached her. Unaware his mouth was agape, he was relieved to hear her heart still beating rhythmically as she lay unconscious on the torn-up sofa, her dress from the night before ripped and dirty.
Leviticus knelt silently next to Madeline, gently brushing strands of wild hair from her face. With a look of concern, he softly stroked the developing bruise on her cheek with the back of his hand before noticing additional bruises developing on her wrists and arms. Surprisingly, he caught himself caressing her bloody, lower lip lightly with his thumb, and again his heart ached with that same undeniable feeling. He forced his eyes shut as if attempting to seal his body against what he was feeling. Deep down, he knew what it had to be, but he couldn’t allow it.
He could never allow it.
On the other side of the sofa, the wakizashi rested carelessly on the floor.
He remembered clearly the near-fatal run-in she had obtaining that sword, and there were a few rumors floating around as to who was behind the contract she accepted that night long ago. He was worried about her then too, but nowhere near as worried as he found himself right now. It had taken him completely by surprise.
After a deep breath, he reached out with his senses as far as he could, trying to detect anyone within a block of the building that wasn’t human. Thankfully, there was no one. He then took another deep breath and laid his hands on either side of Madeline’s torso. The knotting and rupture of energies indicated there was severe bruising to her ribs on her left side, with two of them actually being cracked. The rest of her injuries were typical of surface bruising, with the worse one being a deeper bruise on her sword arm.
Biting the corner of his lower lip, his hands warmed unnaturally as he used some of his own ki to repair the broken ribs by knitting and cleansing the flesh and bone. It had been a very, very long time since he’d healed anyone, but it wasn’t a skill he could actually forget how to use. He would fix her ribs, and to an extent, the bruising, but he needed to be careful not to do too much. After a third deep breath, he removed his hands from her body and focused his attention on the mess around him.
Knowing Madeline was now out of physical danger, his emerald eyes began to cloud over with rage. From the strong scent of decay in the room, he knew what had done this, but now he wanted to know who. Closing his eyes, he began to cycle through the layers of scents in the room.
He immediately disregarded Madeline’s scent and was left with the stench of the undead, as well as a faint trace of blood that was not Madeline’s.
Concentrating on that, he was surprised to be able to separate out the scents of two different vampires. One he didn’t recognize at all, but the other… that one was familiar. He followed the stench to the far wall of the living room, to where one of the vampires apparently hit the wall hard enough to leave a strong olfactory imprint. As Levi got closer to the wall, he picked up the undertone of a common, cheap cologne. There was no doubt who this was.
Next time I see you, Scott, you’re going to burn.
Hands clenched tightly into fists, Levi’s nails began to sharpen to the point they were nearly cutting into his own flesh, and for a single, brief moment, he almost lost it.
He tensed up his entire body, locking up each individual nerve and muscle as he suppressed the burning ferocity that was trying to escape. After a few minutes of silent struggle, Levi was able to slow his breathing and place a mask of disappointment on his face. Clearing his throat loudly, he raised his voice hoping to wake Madeline up.
“My, my… quite a lovely mess you have going on here.”
His familiar voice dragged her out of her sleep as if it was mud. Groggy, Madeline opened her heavy eyes. As her sight came into focus, she recognized her intruder. Exotic facial features with stunning green eyes. Soft and sleek, shoulder-length black hair. Perfectly pressed dark-gray trousers. Snug-fitting, blood-red colored silk shirt. At least he had changed clothes from the night before.
Impulsively, Madeline went to sit up but ended up gasping instead. The tenderness caused her to take a few breaths before continuing more slowly into an upright position. She had no idea she had been beaten so severely since her adrenaline had been pumping so hard last night.
Levi’s arm was around her immediately, helping her gently into a sitting position.
“Last night was… a nightmare. After I left the club..." she paused for a moment, catching her breath, "Scott paid me a visit. He was going to kill me, but apparently, he is in trouble with someone named Taro Tetsugawa. He stopped Scott.”
Madeline didn't miss Levi's brief expression of alarm.
"I won't go into Scott," Leviticus said firmly, successfully fighting back something akin to hatred. "But Tetsugawa... Taro Tetsugawa is a dangerous person with a lot of political influence."
Leviticus arched a thin brow in contemplation as he stared at the floor, thoughts analyzing a million things and his mood began to visibly darken. After a momentary silence, he continued.
"I'm surprised he came here himself after Scott. Any of his underlings would have been able to handle it, even the better trained human ones. There has to be a bigger reason he came here personally."
"Dangerous, eh?" Madeline said, wincing a bit as she forced herself to stand while Levi continued to support her. "Dangerous to whom? Because having dangerous allies can be a good thing."
She saw Leviticus' lips part, about to say something, when the sound of Madeline’s intercom buzzer interrupted. It was the concierge from the downstairs lobby.
"Yes?" Madeline queried, discomfort evident in her voice.
"A courier has arrived for you ma'am," the voice crackling over the speaker replied.
"This early? From who?"
"A Mr. Tetsugawa."
Madeline paused for a moment in consideration while Levi just stood by silently.
"Send him up please."
She waited for Levi to make a crack about the security, but he said nothing, still carefully supporting Madeline’s body with his own. Debating whether or not to primp, she figured if it was from Taro Tetsugawa he already knew what condition she was in.
It took only a few moments before the elevator door opened with a deceptively pleasant ding.
The courier was a young Japanese man (apparently Taro only trusts his own people with even menial tasks) in his early 20s, who looked briefly shocked at the lack of front door and the mess within. With a quick shift to a mask of professionalism, he stepped into the living room carrying a dozen red roses and an envelope. The roses brought red to Madeline's cheeks as she carefully stepped away from Levi to accept them into her arms, and with a graceful bow, the young man placed the card into her awaiting fingertips. He only took one glance at Levi with emotionless eyes, and then after a final bow, excused himself and disappeared back into the elevator.
The florist's paper rustled as she made quick work of the envelope, the lovely scent filling her senses.
"My dearest Madeline,
A true gentleman
would always right a wrong,
despite being told not to do so.
Please accept this with
my humble apologies.
If you ever find yourself in Japan,
I would be honored to be
your personal escort.
A check for $10,000 was included.
"Well this is a bit unexpected," Madeline whispered, still a bit shocked by the amount of money that was sent to her. She would be lying if she said she didn't feel charmed by the gesture, despite being in pain. Between letting the rose petals brush against her lips, and the honey-sweet words echoing in her thoughts, Madeline didn't notice Levi had taken the card from her fingertips to read it himself.
"So just how dangerous is this man again?" she asked him.
"He’s a snake," Levi responded sharply, having read the card and now touching the edge of the paper to his lips as he began processing the entire situation. "Something isn't right. The mission last night. The fiasco here. I don’t like it."
"You aren't the only one," Madeline added in a whisper, knowing full well Levi could hear her clearly.
Ignoring her, he continued to muse over his thoughts out loud. "It wasn't much of a recon mission. Was more like... entrapment."
"Entrapment?" Madeline questioned. "What do you mean?"
Leviticus didn't reply to her, didn't even acknowledge he had heard her question. The look on his face revealed that his thoughts were brewing up a storm, then suddenly his expression turned dark and feral. A low, vicious growl rattled in his throat, something that Madeline had never heard come out of him before.
Suddenly, he grabbed the roses out of her arms, tossing them to the floor. He took both of her hands firmly in his, being careful not to injure her wrists any further. He was in the worse mood she had ever seen. It caused whatever thoughts Madeline had concerned herself with to be cast aside trivially, and her full attention was focused clearly and nervously on Levi. Her breathing had quickened, bringing pain to her ribs, and she was genuinely frightened. He’d never scared her like this before. She searched his eyes, which seemed to be almost glowing, for something that would clue her in on his intentions. They burned a flickering green, but as he started speaking to her, they extinguished and became gentle, almost tender.
"That wakizashi," he said in low, even voice, “Keep it locked up somewhere safe. It is connected to you in a permanent way that could put you in danger if more people find out you have it. Your ribs are heavily bruised, so make sure you manage the pain and rest. And you have to find another place to live. Immediately. You’re not safe here anymore. No matter what you may think you see or hear, trust your instincts and stay strong. Second and triple guess everything. If there’s an emergency, contact Caslon. And don't trust Tetsugawa."
Levi’s mouth parted as if to continue, but instead, he looked away for a moment. When he finally looked back, his expression was tortured, his brilliant green eyes glistening with tears. This frightened Madeline more than anything. To see the person who was her rock looking as if he was about to break down.
“I want you to know that I… All of this was...”
He paused for what seemed like forever, opened his mouth to say something else, but decided against it the very next second.
She saw a look of torment in his eyes, and then the air around her was suddenly whipped into a frenzy, infused with his usual scent of sandalwood. It was so strong this time that it completely overpowered everything else in the room to the point she felt as if she was being smothered by it.
His sweet whisper echoed in the room as he released her hands. And then he, and the scent of sandalwood, was completely gone. Vanished.
For a few minutes, she stood alone in her living room, staring at the open door as if Levi was going to pop back in at any moment.
But he didn’t.
This was the first time since she had met him that his scent was entirely absent. Day to day, she was always able to catch his fragrance somehow. Most of the time she assumed it was her imagination being hopeful, but she never noticed how much it truly lingered until it was gone completely. Now all she could smell were the roses that lay scattered at her feet.
And the look on his face when he said he was sorry…
There was something in his eyes, and the way he spoke those words, that made her feel that at that moment he really did care for her. She’d been tricked by her own emotions so many times before, but this had caught her completely off guard. She hadn’t been looking to read anything into him this time.
And now she stood, unsure what to do next. Her stomach uneasy, she dared to wonder if this was actually a good-bye. No. Levi wouldn’t do that. Would he? After all he’d helped her with and his ongoing concern for her safety? It didn’t make sense for him to leave her.
She stopped herself from going further because that was her heart talking again and she didn’t want to admit it. The logical side of her processed all the events, his parting words and emotions, and came to the conclusion that Levi had left her. There was no way of telling for how long, but likely for a very long time, if not for good. Still, she couldn’t allow herself to believe it.
To satisfy the logical side of her, Madeline quickly started making a mental list of things she needed to do, as she stepped to her front door and pulled the knob out of the wall so she could close and lock it. The force of Scott’s entry left a gaping hole in the wall where the doorknob had embedded. Rather than have a contractor come in and repair it, she deduced it would be more efficient to have the property manager take care of it. She had paid a hefty deposit to move in with the promise to lease the entire floor once the other tenants moved out. He could easily deduct from that and then bill her for the difference.
The second most pressing issue would be locating a new place to call home. On such short notice, the best plan was to move into one of the buildings Levi owned in town. She could contact Caslon immediately to get her set up, and then it would be a simple matter of selecting a moving day.
That would keep her busy today.
Despondent, she took careful steps toward the wakizashi and held her breath as she squatted to pick up the blade and its scabbard. Joining the two, she also retrieved her clutch purse from the floor where it had landed when Scott had hit her from behind. Carrying both to her bedroom, she set them on the bed and then dug into the purse for her cell phone. Luckily it was still in one piece. She debated sitting on her mattress while she called Caslon, wondering if it would be painful and if she would be able to comfortably get up again. She compromised and decided to sit on the edge near the headboard to use that to help herself back up if need be.
Slowly inching her rear onto the mattress, she grimaced a couple of times and reminded herself that after she got off the phone, she should take some codeine. Dialing Caslon’s number, she waited for him to pick up.
“Good morning Madeline,” his cheerful voice warmed her mood. “It’s rather early, and you never call me, so can I hope you are requesting a rendezvous?”
“Nope, that is not what this is about at all,” Madeline responded with a sigh, somewhat used to his constant advances. “I need a new place to live. Immediately.”
“What happened?” he asked, sounding very concerned. Normally Levi would have called him about this in advance, so this was extremely out of the ordinary.
“To make a long story short, Scott nearly killed me last night. In my apartment. Levi thought it would be best if I moved out today, and I agree.”
“Are you okay?” he continued, making her feel better that her network of friends, even the one that wanted very badly to sleep with her, was still intact.
“I have some bruised ribs and bruised other places,” she replied, taking a moment to breathe. “But I’ll be fine.”
“I have two buildings I can move you to,” Caslon offered. “This one, or one South of you on Boren.”
She thought for a moment. As tempting as it was to move back into the same building as the safe house, she had to decline. She just couldn’t bring herself to do it.
“Boren will be fine.”
“As disappointed as I am with your choice, I can come get you in a few hours to escort you to the new apartment., just make sure you have an overnight bag and any sensitive materials. This apartment has a freight elevator for your bike, a large safe, electronic and biometric security, and 24 hour monitored cameras. Oh and it’s fully furnished, so I hope you didn’t plan on bringing any large pieces of furniture.”
“Nope,” she replied quietly. “You know me. I’m not attached to anything more than what I can fit in a suitcase.”
She heard Caslon sigh as if he was just as depressed hearing her words as she was speaking them.
“Okay then, be ready in a few hours. I’ll call before I head over. Oh and Madeline? I’m sorry you got hurt. If you want me to go after him, I will.”
Her eyes started to blur. She had to get off the phone soon or Caslon would figure out she was about to cry and then he would come over, and before long she’d be crying in his arms. Struggling to keep her voice from choking-up, she managed to respond in a normal tone before she hung up.
“Thanks. See you in a few.”
Sniffling the sadness back into check, she rose slowly off her bed. Madeline then attempted to wiggle out of the black dress from last night but found it both challenging and painful to do so.
Fuck it. I’m not ever wearing this again.
From her bathroom, she grabbed a pair of utility scissors and cut the front of the dress allowing her to slip out of it like a jacket. It was ruined anyway, so it made no sense to make its removal any harder than it needed to be. In its place, she pulled on a roomy t-shirt and a pair of black sweatpants. In the bathroom mirror, her hair was a frazzled mess. Straying wildly from her neatly styled up-do from the night before, Madeline took her dark red hair down and ran a brush through it. As she brushed her hair as best she could without pulling the muscles between her ribs, she glanced over at the wakizashi. What was so important about it? She wasn’t a professional appraiser but knew enough about weapons to tell this was well-crafted and probably priceless. But connected to her? Permanently? What did that even mean? And why didn’t he mention this to her before this morning?
Brushing her red hair up into a high ponytail, she began to wash the tired-looking makeup off of her face, being careful of the tender bruise developing on her cheek.
Speaking of contracts, she needed to sit down and email her broker about what happened last night at Endless. Surprisingly, there was already an email on her laptop inquiring about the recon mission. Madeline took a seat and stared at the screen for a bit, not quite sure what to enter in her report. After about ten minutes of mental deliberation, she started typing a response.
Didn’t notice any unusual fixtures or architecture. Mostly non-human guests, no VIPs outside of Leviticus who accompanied me. There were a few pictures taken of us together as we appeared to draw interest. I normally know better than to ask questions, but who purchased this recon?
She wasn’t expecting an answer, but the job wasn’t sitting well with her, and she couldn’t help but ask. Levi had it right. It felt like it was a setup to bring them unnecessary attention, and she had a strong hunch that’s what set off the avalanche that led to Levi’s departure.
But why didn’t he share what was going through his mind with me?
Getting up from her desk chair in the bedroom, she went into the kitchen and began to make herself fresh coffee, adding cream and sugar. It smelled divine, but it never tasted good enough. Before she could start feeling sorry for herself again, an email notification alarm chimed on her laptop. Shockingly, it was already a response from the broker.
You know I can’t reveal the source, but I understand your concern and agree it seems suspicious. Payment has been deposited.
And that was it.
Madeline didn’t even bother mentioning Levi’s departure. Even though she was extremely unsettled by it, her broker would have considered her worry ridiculous.
Still staring at the words on the screen, she drummed her fingertips tentatively on the desk. Ordinarily, she would have heeded Levi’s warning and wouldn’t even consider digging into such a dangerous man, but her life was nearly snuffed out. If Taro Tetsugawa was a key figure in underworld politics, she needed more information than what Levi elected to share. And considering the strong resemblance, Madeline guessed Maseo was bound to know something.
Knowing full well she couldn’t speak with Maseo until nightfall, she took some codeine and began to load her laptop and other valuables into a large suitcase, along with a few days worth of clothes, her toiletries, and makeup. Once that single task was accomplished, she rolled the suitcase to the living room and got settled in on the battered sofa. She had a couple of hours before Caslon would call, and decided to spend them with her eyes closed, napping on her couch.