Trail of Dead (Scarlett Bernard #2)(2)

by Melissa F. Olson

When we finally got off the plane at LAX, I kept my head down and avoided eye contact with the other passengers as the herd moved en masse toward baggage claim. It was late, especially for those of us still on East Coast time, and we were all staggering zombie-style through the terminal, which was decorated with cheerful red-and-green-tinsel garlands. The touristy shops in Terminal 4 informed us, with festively threatening signs, that there were only seven more shopping days until Christmas.

I hadn’t checked a bag, which allowed me to break away from most of the group and head straight for the exit. I felt sort of a tug as the werewolf left my radius. He felt it too, and stopped his migration, pivoting to face me. He turned out to be a white-haired black guy, which probably explained why the uncle thing hadn’t worked. He looked like he was in his fifties, but the wolves age slower than humans do, so he may have actually been much older. I stood still for a second, unsure if I should go talk to him, but he just gave me a polite smile and a nod and was on his way again. I shrugged to myself. You’re welcome, I guess.

I had almost made my escape into the night when I heard my name. “Scarlett?” I lifted my eyes to see Detective Jesse Cruz leaning against a concrete pillar near the sliding doors. I froze, a mixture of happiness and anxiety further polluting my tired brain. Cruz worked with LA’s Southwest Homicide Division, and it didn’t look like he’d come just in case I needed a ride home. When our eyes met, he pushed off and took the few steps toward me.

“Who did she kill?” I said immediately. “Her doctor? One of her friends?”

A couple of my fellow passengers glanced at me, and I was suddenly very aware of the tinny rendition of “Jingle Bells” playing on the overhead speaker. Oops. Jesse took my carry-on in one hand and my arm in the other and led me toward the automatic doors. “It’s not Olivia,” he said quietly. “I’ve been watching for the names on your list, but there’s been no movement.”

The cool LA night hit my face like a splash of water. There might have been snow in New York, but even at this hour LA was a balmy fifty degrees. “Oh,” I said lamely, oddly deflated. I didn’t want anyone else to get hurt, but I was sick of waiting for Olivia to come for me.

Once upon a time, Olivia had been my mentor. She was also a null, and had persuaded me to get involved in the Old World in the first place. It took me a long time to find out that she had done some terrible things, and by the time I did she was dying of cancer. Somehow, though, Olivia found a way to turn herself into a vampire—and then had made a couple of terrifying appearances back in my life. But no one had heard anything from her since September, though Jesse kept an eye out within the police department.

“If you’re not here because of Olivia, why are you here?” I asked. “And how did you know when I’d be back?”

“Molly gave me your itinerary,” he said shortly, without looking at me. “I need to show you something.”

“It’s almost midnight.”

“This can’t wait.”

Without another word, Jesse opened the sedan door for me, and I actually saw his hand twitch up for a second, as though he was about to guide my head into the car, perp-style, but he managed to suppress it. When we were situated on the on-ramp for the 405 North, I looked over at him, trying to adjust to the sudden turn of my night. A couple of months earlier, I had helped Jesse solve a murder case that connected back to the supernatural world, which calls itself the Old World. Afterward Jesse had made it known that he was interested in being, as the kids say, more than friends, but we’d gone on just one date that ended in enough of a disaster that I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be trapped in a car with him. And he definitely didn’t seem thrilled to be trapped in a car with me.

“So where are we going?” I finally asked.

“Crime scene.”

That got my attention. “What do you mean? A murder?”

He didn’t answer me, which wasn’t like him. Why was he taking me to a crime scene? And why the snappishness? At this point I probably should have just kept my mouth shut and let it play out, but I’m not known for my subtlety. Or my manners. “Dude. Have I done something to piss you off in the five minutes I’ve been back in the state?”

The line of his mouth quivered into a frown. I may have forgotten to mention that even in a town full of movie stars, Jesse is alarmingly gorgeous, with dark Latino good looks on a muscled frame. He makes those perpetually topless Abercrombie & Fitch guys look like homely wannabes.

I had been at least half kidding, but he took the question seriously. “I’m not sure, but I think so.”

Great. His tone said don’t ask, and for once, I listened to my inner Dr. Phil and didn’t. I was just too tired for this. Instead, I just stared out at the city lights. Some of the towers were lit up with red and green lights for the holidays. Presumably, someone from the Old World had been killed, though I didn’t know why Jesse would necessarily call me in for that. I make my living working for the three heads of the LA Old World community—the witches, the vampires, and the werewolves—cleaning up supernatural crime scenes before the police can get there. If a vampire spills blood somewhere, or a werewolf accidentally murders a neighbor’s chickens, I get called in to hide all the evidence. I almost always make it in time, and Dashiell, the city’s master vampire, pulls strings to cover it up if I can’t. The system works because, despite being the second-largest city in the country, Los Angeles has just never had much of a supernatural population. The wolves don’t like being two hours of unpredictable traffic away from good natural areas, and most of the out-of-state vampires I’ve met think living in LA is…tacky. Basically, most of the Old World’s attitude about LA is sort of the equivalent of most of the humans’ attitude about, say, Boise: sure, it’s there, but who the hell cares?

So yeah, I’d helped Jesse on a case before, but I still couldn’t figure out why he was bringing me to a crime scene now: If he was already officially on the case, then the police knew about it, so what would be the point in bringing me in? It was now up to Dashiell to pull some strings with the higher-ups. I gave up on trying to logic it out and settled for yawning and resting my head against the cool glass of the window.

I dozed off after Jesse got on the 101 on-ramp, but snapped awake when the car finally stopped. Blinking, I peered in the direction of the nearest major street: Ventura Boulevard. We were in Studio City. Jesse was out of the car before I had my seat belt undone, so I had to scramble to catch up as he strode toward the front door of a dingy stucco apartment building. A half-assed attempt had been made to throw Christmas lights on the tree-shaped shrub next to the front door. It probably would have looked better if they had forgone the Christmas lights entirely.