As anticipated, I look and feel like shit the next morning, and it’s already after ten before I finally get out of bed. My whole schedule is off now. Normally I’d be sleeping through the day so I can open the club for its first night of the week, but I need to get my ass down to the police station to harass Inspector Parker with what I’ve learned.
It’s not much, but it’s more than I had before.
Kiril’s warning about his father plays back in my mind as I get off the bus. He seemed most vehement about me not pursuing that line of inquiry… but then again, he’d seemed pretty interested in getting into my pants too, and we all know that didn’t quite get to where I wanted it to.
“No you fuckin’ didn’t,” I growl under my breath, skipping up the steps and pushing through the glass doors into the precinct.
There isn’t as much activity inside as television and film would have you believe, but that suits me just fine. I know Parker thinks Jazz has just eloped with Konstantin, and I shouldn’t worry – but that is dumb. How the hell could he possibly know what Jazz would and wouldn’t do?
Okay, so disbelieving cops are pretty weak plot devices in the face of actual, potential crime, so maybe I’ll be able to convince him to actually do his job properly this time. That doesn’t mean they’re not going to make me wait.
Frustrated by the desk officer, I slump down in a chair to wait. I suppose there’s no telling what other cases Inspector Parker might be working concurrently, so I should try to be a little more understanding.
Because I’m really good at being patient.
Resting my head gently back against the wall, I close my eyes and breathe deeply. There’s little I wouldn’t give for Jazz to just come waltzing in and tell me this was all some very unfunny joke. What filters through the darkness beneath my lids, however, is a voice, one that stands out among the rest – and instantly my brain painfully clenches.
Her words are hushed; I can’t really tell what she is saying, but a terrifying familiarity carves its way through my skull and pushes in behind my eyes.
“What’s yours is a matter for me to decide,” I hear her sniff, a commanding sound spoken to the night and my imminent death, not there in the police station.
My stomach lurches; my body is heavy, lethargic.
“Did you feed on her? Here? Are you fucking crazy?” the woman snarls, and my eyes open to fix on the motionless lips of a woman standing with a uniformed police officer on the far side of the reception desk.
Though I know, I know I haven’t seen her before, I am absolutely positive she is the owner of the voice in my head, that somehow and somewhere I have heard her speak those words.
Then, her name roars from the unseen lips of a furious man, and I pitch forward as hi possessive howl scrapes through my mind with animalistic claws.
“Get out of my way, Narumi!”
“Gah, Narumi,” I hiss through my teeth, holding both sides of my head and digging in my fingernails.
Fear swirls in, a rapidly moving tide as eyes fall upon my predicament; and I stumble to my feet, clumsily grappling for my bag before lurching for the door.
“Ma’am?” someone asks urgently at my back, but I need out, the cool air and the open.
“Miho,” comes a more insistent call – her voice, as I crash through the doors and staggering blindly down the steps.
To barrel straight into a pedestrian, who falls backward against the pavement with me collapsing on top.
Whimpering, my body feels weak against my victim, who barely even grunts as we hit the pavement. I’m sure I’d be embarrassed if my brain wasn’t still trying to escape out my ears, and so I just lie there against my human cushion.
Arms fold around me; a firm, safe embrace that brings some relief, until Narumi cuts into this momentary reprieve with a name that is not mine.
“Kiril?” she huffs as a question, and I crack my eyes open to peer blearily at the side of Kiril’s face.
“Okay now, Sparrow?” he queries with a smile so soft it’s briefly difficult to recall why I was so mad at him.
“Kiril,” Narumi prompts a little more sternly, her hands on her hips and her lips pressed into a thin, irked line.
“As much as I’m enjoying this arrangement,” Kiril murmurs into my hair, “perhaps we could take it somewhere a little more private?”
Weighted, fighting a kind of gravity Earth shouldn’t be pulling, my wriggling struggle out of Kiril’s arms no doubt looks something akin to an acid-tripping octopus.
“Here,” Narumi offers, but the thrust of her hand down in my direction causes an immediate resurgence of my panic.
“Don’t think she likes you,” Kiril smirks, getting to his feet and sweeping me against his body in one fluid movement of unfathomable grace.
Narumi, meanwhile, appears entirely put out.
“Taking this somewhere private might not be a bad idea,” she suggests, and I feel Kiril’s arms tighten around me.
“I’ll take care of her,” he declares, and while he is calm despite my hiccupping sobs into his coat, even I note the thread of inflexibility in his tone.
“Oh no, this is definitely my jurisdiction now,” Narumi insists, equally as insistent, but there is absolutely no give in Kiril’s posture.
“The little Sparrow is mine, Narumi,” he asserts, and this fires a spark of much needed resistance in my veins.
“I don’t belong to anyone,” I declare, giving Kiril’s chest enough of a push to extricate myself.
Though I wobble, I manage to stand my ground, but my thoughts are bubbling away with reflections of Narumi’s face, her words invading the memory of a dark alley and hostile man named Alex.
“Uh, just stay away,” I warn, gathering my frustration to a fine point and projecting it outward like a weapon.
“Calm down, Miss Fujiwara,” Narumi says, tempering her expression. “I have been working with Inspector Parker on the case of your missing friend.”
Shaking my head, I try to sift through what I know, don’t know, and what I think I may know… but aren’t sure. She was talking with officers inside the station, but at the same time, as each second passes I am more and more certain I’ve felt her pick me up from wet asphalt, sigh, maybe even a little in sympathy, and then convince me none of it ever happened.
“None of what?” I cry to myself, but as my shoulders slump I feel Narumi’s adamant gaze approach with force.
“Come with me,” she instructs, no fuss, no compromise.
The instinct is to comply, moving faster than thought, but the next second I battle it down.
“This one is not for your harem,” Kiril states, snatching my arm only to slide me in behind him.
“I’ve warned you not to meddle, Kiril,” Narumi snaps, but Kiril doesn’t seem at all bothered.
“And I told you, I will take care of this,” he replies. “Trust me.”
“Trust you?” she scoffs, rolling her eyes.
“Well, if you can’t trust family, who can you?” he chuckles.
It’s all some big game to him apparently, but even in my destabilised state I’m listening to the conversation; there is a web I’m caught in, fine, sticky threads linking Jazz and Konstantin, Kiril, this woman Narumi, and me – and I’m definitely not the spider.
“Fly, Sparrow,” I hear Kiril urge me, even as he tosses another defiant barb at Narumi. “You and I shall talk of this later, but for now, go.”
Have I reason to trust him any more than I have to distrust Narumi? Why don’t I even question his voice in my mind, why haven’t I ever questioned it?
Whatever the answer to those questions, I clutch the strap of my bag and wheel around.
“Hey!” Narumi barks, followed by an exasperated sound when Kiril bars her way to me.
Narumi made no further exclamation as Miho followed Kiril’s instruction and ran – not that Miho heard anyway. In an absolute muddle, she sprinted – not entirely sure why – but only slowed to a jog when she’d turned the corner of the next block.
Something told her this didn’t make her safe, but she was quick to flag down a cab, and she was soon on her way to Jazz’s apartment.
She found herself muttering as she exited, but stopped when she dug into her bag for the key to the foyer. The building’s façade stirred a weary lamentation where it had once roused a sense of friendship, comfort and safety – still, it was better than standing out on the street, where she still felt exposed.
As she approached the mail slots to the left of the front door, the mail had just been delivered, and as she had done every second day, Miho cleared Jazz’s box and headed upstairs.
“What the hell is going on? Am I really going nuts?” she thought, but figured if she was going nuts she probably wouldn’t be aware she was going nuts.
“Talking to yourself is kind of nuts,” she pointed out, then chuckled bitterly. “Kiril and Narumi clearly know each other – well – and then the headache… that woman. Fuck.”
Sighing in a way that was beginning to feel like habit, Miho dropped the letters on the coffee table, before heading over to the elaborate glass ‘hutch; belonging to a lean, but impossibly soft rabbit. As if recognising her, the animal put his little paws up to greet her, begging almost, to be drawn into her arms.
“So, how has your morning been, Kuni?” she asked, sweeping him up and snuggling him against her chest. Slowly, Kuni blinked up from between her breasts and Miho smoothed her fingers over his ears, clearly enjoying the sensation.
“Yeah, I totally get it,” Miho went on, as if Kuni had responded to her. “But, believe me, boring isn’t so bad.”
Careful not to crush her fuzzy friend, Miho flopped down on the couch and scooped up the three envelopes in front of her.
“Bill,” she muttered, unfolding the water bill before letting it drop from her fingers. “I’ve never known anyone to spend so much time in the shower.”
Oblivious, Kuni simply closed his eyes and enjoyed Miho’s petting as she opened the second piece of mail.
And sat up so quickly the rabbit nearly slipped to the floor.
It was the first bank statement Miho had seen, which wasn’t all that odd considering they were only delivered monthly – but it immediately piqued Miho’s interest.
“Nothing, nothing, nothing…” she muttered, then her eyes became wide. “Two days ago…” she exhaled, but her statement trailed off as her eyes read over the location of Jazz’s last purchase… yesterday.
“Sorry Kuni!” she exclaimed, jumping up and dropping the bunny safely back into his enclosure. “I’ll get Mieke to come over and feed you!”
The adrenaline of earlier that had been fuelled by alarm and confusion, rushed back through her system now through excitement. Over and over she turned what a small purchase out of the blue could mean.
“Surely if she was dead and someone stole her bank details, they’d have cleaned out her accounts by now, not just spend a couple of hundred dollars on what, menswear?” she thought, as she all but flew down stairs and flagged herself another taxi.
It wasn’t the first time Miho had gone to Prague, but the first time she had without Jazz. While their holidays in the Czech Republic capital were usually planned well in advance to coincide with festivals, caught up in a whirlwind of hope, Miho had booked the earliest flight online while still on her way back to her apartment, and was hanging up on Mieke as she walked through her door. Normally, she would have taken great care choosing what to pack, fretting over what she might accidentally leave behind, but the moment Miho’s suitcase hit her bed, she was flinging whatever was closest in her closet across the room, then packing it all flat.
She paused only when she got a text message, and fell still when she saw it was Sebastian.
‘Was thinking you, Selina and I could grab dinner before opening the club tonight – what do you think?’ he’d written, and Miho’s brow creased.
Occasionally she and Sebastian had eaten together, but it had only ever been through convenience or happenstance – someone picked up noddles on the way to work, or leftovers that stretched far enough to feed multiple people. Chewing on her lip, Miho wondered if the morning they had spent together – which had also been atypical – had led him to change his perception of their relationship.
“Not an entirely terrible thought,” was her first reaction, but her frown instantly deepened, and her gut clenched.
“Guilty why?” she questioned herself, resisting the burn in her chest and the put-out glare of Kiril’s eyes suddenly in her mind.
“Fuck,” she grumbled under her breath, and called Sebastian’s number.
“Hey,” Sebastian greeted cheerfully, a little surprised too perhaps that she hadn’t just texted her reply.
“Hey,” Miho parroted – awkward. “Ahh, I’ve just finished talking to Mieke,” she went on, getting right down to business rather than directly addressing his invitation. “I am popping over to Europe for a bit, so I’d like for you and her to operate the club in my absence.”
“Popping over?” he chortled. “What spurred the sudden departure?”
Reluctantly, Miho answered truthfully.
“I got a lead on Jazz’s location,” she announced, and in the few seconds of silence that followed, Miho got the impression of Sebastian straightening his posture.
“Where? How?” he prompted.
“Czech Republic. She made a purchase there yesterday after weeks of nothing,” Miho explained, her heart rate increasing just thinking about this clue that could finally lead her to her friend. “I know it’s a long shot, Sebastian, so don’t say it, but with the police doing fuck all and Kiril being just as helpful I have to tr…”
“Kiril?” Sebastian queried, but it actually emerged more like a denouncement than a name. “What has Kiril Lambert got to do with this?”
“Oh… um…” Miho stalled, again feeling guilt swell. “Konstantin, who I’m sure is with Jazz – I mean why else would she be buying menswear – is Kiril’s brother.”
More silence, soundlessness that stretched so long Miho wondered if Sebastian had hung up.
“Still there?” she probed, and Sebastian cleared his throat.
“Is he with you now? Is he going with you?” he asked, seriously: worried and maybe even sneering.
“No, he’s not,” she told him a little curtly. “I’m a big girl, I don’t need a babysitter.”
“Of course you never get yourself into trouble,” he huffed, and Miho switched the phone to her other ear irritably.
“Look, I know it’s short notice, and you’ve got your sister with you,” she argued, trying to temper her tone, “but I am not missing this opportunity, so I really need you look after Pale while I get myself into trouble.”
“Miho, I don’t think you realise how dangerous the Lambert family is,” Sebastian warned, clearly frustrated. “If Konstantin is a Lambert, then Jazz is in far greater danger than you alone can…”
“This isn’t an argument, you know I’ll do anything for her,” Miho interrupted curtly. “I’ll message you when I know something if it’ll make you feel better.”
“Damnit Miho! It might be too late by then!” he growled, but Miho was moving the phone away from.
“Thanks, I’ll talk to you later,” she said, and then hung up, grumbling under her breath.
Night had well and truly closed in by the time Miho made it to her hotel in Prague – Iron Gate Hotel and Suites – the one she and Jazz always stayed at when they were in town. The beauty of their regular suite didn’t bring Miho the joy it usually did, the fine wooden furniture that really felt like the city.
Her stomach growled, but she ignored it, and after dumping her luggage, she skipped back downstairs and hit the pavement. Tourists walked the streets, couples arm in arm, groups of young women looking for fun, smiling and laughing, but Miho stalked with determination toward the first place she could think Jazz might be at that time – where they might have been if they were there together.
Overflowing with people, as it usually was, Miho entered the restaurant and nudged past several people waiting to be seated before casting her gaze around. Ignoring the glares of many, she simply stood, her pulse thundering in her ears as she scanned every inch of the large, crowded space while the maître d tried politely to get her attention.
“Slečna?” he prompted, a word Miho was familiar with at least, but she ignored the man and headed for the female toilets.“Jazz?” she called, strolling in and checking for locked stalls, but there were none.Though the maître d and a waiter was waiting for her when she emerged, again encouraging her to respond without actually laying their hands on her, she brushed by them and pushed into the men’s room without ceremony.“Jazz?”“Ma’am, please,” the maître d sighed in exasperation, clearly not wanting a confrontation. “I must ask you to…”“Have you seen this woman lately?” Miho questioned, rounding on him with her cell-phone with a picture of Jazz on it.The man blinked – glanced to the waiter who also looked at the image – then shook his head.“And you’ve worked here every night the last… uhh… three weeks?” she pressed.“Yes,” he frowned. “What is this about?”“Here,” Miho said, thrusting a card against his chest. “She’s missing, so if you see her, please call me on that number. I’m offering a big reward for information leading to her.”Leaving the two men stunned in her wake, the Miho-whirlwind blustered out of the restaurant and out onto the footpath once more, sucking in a lungful of cold air.It was a gasp that overwhelmed her, an unexpected surge of emotion that threatened to knock her off her feet. Of course she hadn’t anticipated finding Jazz at the first place she looked, but hope had buoyed her beyond previous levels, so much so the disappointment of coming up empty flushed her cheeks with heat and her heart with anguish anew.“If he’s hurt her I’m going to fucking kill him,” she growled, much to the confusion of a couple passing by, but she didn’t allow them to ponder longer, charging off again to her next search location. Pale didn’t open on Sunday nights, but there was often people inside preparing various elements or events. This evening was no different.Though it was clearly not meant to be accessible to the public, Kiril tested the doors anyway, finding them unsurprisingly locked. He knew he could force them, but chose instead to knock loudly and wait until someone came to see what all the noise was about.Eventually, a woman appeared, one he’d seen but never actually spoken to. Surprise registered on her face, and she unlocked the door and swung it outward.“Mr. Lambert?” Kara queried, though she obviously knew his name. “I’m sorry, but the club isn’t open at present.”In response, Kiril nodded, but his expression remained firm.“I’m looking for Miss Fujiwara,” he revealed. “We had a meeting scheduled but she did not arrive, and she has not answered any of my calls.”“Oh, that’s a bit weird,” Kara frowned quizzically. “That you had a meeting,” she clarified. “She called earlier saying she was headed for Prague, something of a family emergency I think.”Kiril’s chin lifted a little in surprise, his eyes narrowing.“Miss Mann?” he asked. “Miho has shared the story of her missing friend.”In confirmation, Kara nodded.“It was really very sudden, and she went on her own,” she explained, shrugging her shoulders a little uncomfortably. “If I’m honest, I’m a little worried for her.”“She is a force to be reckoned with it would seem,” Kiril smirked, but his eyes remained fixed on Kara’s face. “However, I share your concern. I could leave immediately if I had her travel details: provide support.”Without reserve, Kara smiled. Though she didn’t have any exact details, she had heard Miho and Jazz talk of their adventures in Prague many times.“It’s not much, but I know they always stayed at Iron Gate Hotel and Suites, so I guess she could be there?” she offered, when Sebastian called out, appearing a few seconds later.“Kara, have you seen the…”His sentence broke off when he saw Kiril, and a storm quickly gathered in his countenance.“We’re closed,” he announced coldly.“Mr. Lambert is looking for Miho,” Kara piped up, looking with some confusion between the two men.Open hostility radiated.“Thank you for your assistance,” Kiril said to Kara, inclining his head, even offering a shallow bow before he turned, but Sebastian caught his arm and hissed.“Stay away from Miho.”Straightening, Kiril looked down at the offending hand, but did nothing to remove it.“Unless I am mistaken, and I am not,” Kiril began slowly, deliberately, “you have no claim over her, Mr. Ross.”“No one has a claim over her,” Sebastian volleyed, all teeth and glaring, “but when one Lambert vampire has already torn her life apart, she doesn’t need another.”If Kiril was surprised by Sebastian’s specificity, it did not show, nor did any concern.“Mind yourself, little guard dog,” he smiled with infuriating smugness, the very peek of a pointed incisor adding to the sharpness to his condescension, “don’t think I’m unaware you and yours stand apart; it would be foolish to begin a fight you have no chance of winning.”“And equally as foolish of you to be so sure of yourself,” Sebastian shot back, in no way backing down. “I will not allow you to drag Miho into your world.”“It might surprise you to learn, Mr. Ross, that I do not want that for her either,” Kiril pointed out. “But the fact remains she is pursuing the shadow of her own accord; better that there be someone to catch her at the bottom of the rabbit hole, than not.”This did not seem to comfort Sebastian at all, but his hold on Kiril did fall away.“Just stay away from her, damnit,” he cursed, causing Kiril to chuckle.“If that is all you have, I will be on my way,” Kiril laughed. “Be a good boy and look after your mistress’ house while she’s away.”“Sebbie?” a new female voice called, and a slight, tanned-skin woman appeared behind Sebastian just in time to see Kiril’s smirk widen as he moved away once more.“Fucking Hell,” Sebastian hissed under his breath, though his anger was no truly directed as his sister.“Mmm, who’s that?” Selina grinned against her brother’s arm, watching Kiril’s back.“Don’t you start,” Sebastian growled. “Under no circumstances are you to go anywhere near that… man.” Dejected, my mission turns up nothing, and having been up since early Sunday morning, I end up returning disheartened and exhausted to the hotel as dawn is creeping up on the city. Struggling through a confusing swamp of dream and nightmare, I’m hunted by shadow, slashed at by light, chasing my best friend only to be barred by this woman Narumi and a sea of circling ravens.Waking in a sweaty tangle, however, is no longer a surprise to me, but it doesn’t mean I feel any less icky. Showering only does so much to pull me from a sullen mood, but I have to get moving because it’s already past eleven and I have plenty of places to search.Alas, my feet grow heavier each time I’m told no one has seen Jazz, and I’m convinced I’ve left little chips of my heart in a storybook trail behind me. By nightfall my stomach is grumbling, but I just can’t bring myself to stop and eat. My mind is occupied by the image of Jazz’s eyes, blue and beautiful, cheeky and teasing, challenging and complicit.God it stings.“Don’t cry, you fragile tart!” I snap at myself. “What good is crying?”But it’s so hard to look forward, because I’m afraid my forever won’t have Jazz in it anymore.“Assassin’s don’t cry,” I tell myself firmly, nodding politely as I make incidental eye contact with a man walking in my direction.When his hip bumps firmly into mine, it’s a total surprise, one that sends me stumbling sideways into one of many dim alleys lined with aging architecture and mystery.“Hey what the hell?” I snarl, gripping my bag’s strap tightly. “If this is being mugged, they’ve made a big mistake.”“Keep your voice down,” the man whispers, a baritone that should have sounded warm, but still racks a shiver through my body.An attempt to sidestep him is thwarted easily, but not by him.The man is not alone, this fact revealed as a hand curls over my mouth and an arm around my waist that drags me further into obscurity.Panic grips me; adrenaline fills me; and in a flurry of flailing limbs I land a lucky blow against my attacker and am released.There is no voice, however, when I open my mouth to scream, the banshee trapped in my throat by the clear and present danger of what was once two men, now four.“Good,” one of them snickers, satisfied it seems by my silence despite the hunched readiness of my posture. “That mouth of yours has already gotten you into plenty of trouble.”Surrounded, my back literally against the wall, I do my utmost to glower at each offender in turn.“Take it,” I finally gasp, throwing my bag to the ground before me, but none of them move to retrieve it.I note then, the cut of their clothing, the cleanness of their faces, the neatness of their hair – not really the types to grab a girl for her purse.“So,” the initial man begins, and I zero in on him, “what do you know about Konstantin Lambert?”Swallowing, I turn his question over in my mind. “First in London, and now here? Who is Konstantin Lambert to get such a response?”“I’m looking for him,” I answer, my throat dry. “Do you know where he is?”“If we did, he’d be dead,” one of the others growls, his shoes scraping loudly against the concrete as he shuffles toward me.“Why?” I very nearly hiccup, but my lip curls upward in what I can only hope is a fair imitation of a sneer.They look a little stunned, confused maybe, looking between one another, until the closest man reaches for my shoulder.I want to close my eyes, and I think for a split second I do, before something snaps inside me – and the next snap happens almost as quickly.There’s no thought, just pure instinct.My fingers dig into the flesh of his wrist as I step forward and jerk down; the sound his wrist makes as my heel stomps down on his arm, the crunch of bone breath beneath jarring force, it swiftly consumed by his yelp, and followed by the slump and roll of his body to the feet of his compatriots.For a few astonished seconds no one can believe what I’ve done, least of all myself. When the moment is broken, much like the limp dangle of my attacker’s wrist as he drags himself back to his feet, the expressions I face are a whole lot more terrifying.“That,” he grated, rage bubbling in his eyes, “was a mistake.”“Actually,” a new voice interrupts, casual, flippant and so familiar that my already racing heart threatens to seize, “attacking her was a mistake.”