THIS PLACE sucked for ghost hunting. Arrigo had suspected that even before he first darkened the door to Delilah’s Diner a few weeks before. Subsequent visits failed to sway him into thinking otherwise. Delilah’s, a greasy spoon, held on to the 1950s vibe with the tenacity of a bear trap. He should know, having lived through them.
He squinted into the vestiges of a brilliantly red Nevada sunset, the cuts on his hands burning less now that the sun had faded. The sunlight, still blazing when he’d woken up at noon, had made his abraded skin burn and itch even more than it usually did.
Should he go inside the diner or to the bar at the other end of the block? He’d come there, after all, to gather more stories on the haunts inside the diner, but a drink and a chance to check out the Alibi’s bartender had more appeal. Delilah’s name had crossed his desk at his day job at Taabu and Giancarlo’s Psychic Advisement and Paranormal Investigations as a potential haunted place, but it was too far off either the Strip or Fremont Street to make it good for the ghost walk. Delilah’s rested on the sketchy side of town. He decided to add it into a book he’d been commissioned to write about haunted Vegas.
Just make a decision on whether to go to Delilah’s or go to the Alibi down the street before the night fades into day and you get all itchy again. He exaggerated, of course. He’d never take hours to make a choice, but if he did, at least the sunlight didn’t tear him up like it had when he was first turned. The virus that mutated them, changing people into vampires, continued to do so as the years passed, only more slowly than it had at the onset. Photodermatitis was certainly a problem for several centuries of life after infection, and their senses were somewhat altered. The virus didn’t magically make them invisible to mirrors, allergic to garlic, or afraid of crosses. Legends had only a kernel of truth, as legends often did, and the rest was wrong.
One of the wrong ideas was that vampires never ate food. The last time he’d been to Delilah’s, he had left with his stomach rumbling a bit. He knew better. His altered physiology didn’t care for greasy food, but the salt and bite of onion rings made his mouth happy.
Of course, there were vampires and other Supernaturals who embraced the Normal humans’ idea of how things should be. Instead of taking the small amounts of blood needed, they thrilled at death and mayhem. They kept him busy at his true job: an enforcer for the Chiaroscuro, an organization of Supernaturals that kept ill-mannered and dangerously violent Supernaturals under control. Just the previous week, Arrigo had tracked a renegade vampire to the Alibi, a biker bar less than a block away from Delilah’s. About the only thing worth noting in the Alibi had been a cute blond bartender. As for the renegade vampire, the idiot proved to be a fledgling so full of himself, it hadn’t been much of a fight. Arrigo barely broke a sweat killing him. He’d been with the Chiaroscuro for so long, fledglings posed little threat to him. Older vampires were more challenging.
That night, after dealing with the renegade, Arrigo decided to check out the Alibi. He had wanted to know more about the family who seemed to run the place or, more specifically, the hot bartender with the wild curls, whose name he’d learned on his last visit was Luc. The gray-haired, bearded man whose appearance screamed redneck was of no interest to Arrigo other than to inspire distaste because of how he lorded over the two young men who worked the bar with him. The other man, brawnier with darker hair, bullied Luc too. Arrigo learned quickly that his name was Henri, Luc’s brother, and the gray-haired man was their father.
Their accents were Louisianan, Cajun. Arrigo recognized the bayou accent because he had lived in the Pontalba Apartments in the French Quarter several years back. Arrigo figured they had come west looking for new homes after Hurricane Katrina like many others. He knew a whole clan of vampires who gave up the New Orleans cliché and moved to Tempe, Arizona.
At that first meeting, Luc snagged his attention, sending a warm feeling due south. Rarely did someone stir up enough lust to cloud his Roman-soldier sense of duty, but Luc nearly made him lose track of his quarry that night. He hoped the ghosts of his ancient cadre and his personal lares, the guardian spirits Romans believed in back in his mortal days, hadn’t seen him slip up like that. He hadn’t fully given up his belief in the old ways.
The problem with being so ancient was the nagging feeling he’d done it all, and he’d do something wild—and potentially stupid—to prove to himself there were new things to experience. Some days time went too fast, leaving him feeling alive, almost raw with sensation. On the other hand, there were weeks when time trudged by, and then he’d remember how long he’d been alone. Out of nowhere, a laugh perked up his spirit, a flash of a lovely eye ensnared him, or the sight of a well-rounded buttcheek made his heart race. Those moments were inevitable.
The night he first saw Luc’s cherubic face, it catalyzed a reaction. Of course a night in which he’d stalked dangerous prey had been no time to try to talk to Luc. However, working at Delilah’s Diner several doors down, investigating it for his book, suited Arrigo perfectly. After stopping at Delilah’s to gather stories the day after he’d fought the renegade, he planned to drop by the Alibi to see if he could talk to Luc.
As it turned out, he hadn’t had to. Luc showed up at Delilah’s that night. Luc and Lily, the waitress who had told Arrigo all about Delilah’s ghosts, chatted the whole time Arrigo poked around. The gentleness and concern Luc displayed with her, the promise to help her take her kids fishing like their dad used to, even his agreeing to pretend to be her boyfriend to shake off a scary customer spoke volumes. Luc was either a good guy or a crafty predator. Arrigo dealt with predators often, and Luc failed to impress him as one.
The second time Arrigo returned to Delilah’s to learn more from Lily, the cook, and a couple other waitresses in the dead, late-night hours of the twenty-four-hour diner, Luc showed up again, sporting a busted lip. Arrigo helped with a towel filled with ice for Luc so Lily could wait on other patrons. Arrigo only managed to exchange a few words with him, Luc’s wary gaze never leaving his face. Luc only stayed long enough to confirm the fishing trip before stumbling to the bus stop.
Tonight he’d try again at the Alibi after stopping at Delilah’s, using the diner as his excuse for being in the area. He could only imagine the bad reactions in the biker bar if someone thought he’d shown up to see Luc.
Once he arrived at the diner, Arrigo had second thoughts about going into the Alibi. This sort of bar probably thrived on gay bashing, and he was not in the mood to get into a fight with people he’d gladly drain down to the last drop. His inner predator didn’t need that sort of challenge. He glanced up and down the street, first at Delilah’s, then the Alibi. Tabernae remained unchanged for the most part since the days of his youth. Call it what you will: taberna, tavern, pub, bar, diner even, people had always needed a place to gather, to eat and drink. In a way, the Alibi reminded him far too much of his mortal days: rough people, bad booze, and even rougher prostitutes waiting nearby. A shiver ran through him. Some things Arrigo wanted to forget forever.
While Arrigo mentally debated on doing the smart thing and going home, Luc walked around the corner of the bar with a hose in tow. That made things easier. Arrigo didn’t even have to go into the bar with its sticky floors and miserable clientele.
Even though he knew he was probably asking for trouble, Arrigo sauntered across the street. Luc attacked the gritty, broken sidewalk with the stream of water from the hose, but no amount of cleaning could make the Alibi look more enticing. Luc wore torn jeans with ragged stringy hems, a plain blue T-shirt thin enough it was nearly see-through, and a worn-out pair of canvas tennis shoes with the uppers duct-taped to the soles. As he closed the distance, the booze and vomit hit his senses before the copious puddle of it came into view outside the Alibi’s door. “Bonsoir,” Arrigo said, remembering Cajuns spoke a form of French thick with slang he only half remembered. The trouble with living so long was that languages became dated and he knew so many, he struggled to keep them all straight.
Luc looked up, surprise in his expression at hearing French. His face taking on a curious expression, he stared at Arrigo, almost eye to eye. Despite how much taller humans had grown, Arrigo thought he might have an inch on Luc.
“Looks like a real mess there.”
“Damn drunks,” Luc said, hosing another blob of vomit into the street. He gave Arrigo a wary look. “Need help? Hey, you’re the guy from the diner. I never got your name.”
“Yeah, that’s me. I’m Arrigo, by the way. It’s a little too hot for this kind of work.”
“Luc.” Luc shrugged, going back to his hosing, taking care to avoid Arrigo’s feet. “Has to be done.”
Arrigo took stock of where the other two men who kept Luc on a short leash were, looking into the bar to assure himself they were busy with customers. Smiling, he peered intently at Luc. Luc tried to break eye contact, uncomfortable, as most were, with such a direct stare.
“Come with me, Luc,” he whispered.
Luc, moving as if in a daze, followed him into the shadows behind the bar. The stink from the alley’s trash bins made Arrigo’s eyes water a bit. Rotting, leftover bar food, sopping paper products, and the smell of piss almost killed his appetite, but he had been looking forward to this drink for weeks; he couldn’t let himself be put off. He had to take a little blood frequently. Arrigo found more satisfaction if the “donor” roused attraction in him. It was one of the reasons he regularly clubbed at the Scarlet Kiss, a Goth-vampire bar. The crowd there skewed young, so looking twenty-one as he did came in handy. He got carded a lot of places, which was a pain in the ass, but at the Scarlet Kiss he didn’t look old enough to make them suspicious. Arrigo didn’t feel much guilt over the drinks he took from his “donors.” After all, they would have no ill effects from it. Unlike mortals, he didn’t have to kill things to survive. That fact provided solace. At least with the vampiric ability to confound the senses and commandeer someone’s will, however temporary, most would never know anything happened and in a place like the Kiss he didn’t have to bother with that. That was why he liked picking up people in clubs; they would discount any bruising as a hickey or other drunken shenanigans.
Standing still, eyes unseeing, Luc didn’t move as Arrigo pulled him closer, feeling the muscles in Luc’s arms. Arrigo nuzzled the surprisingly soft skin of Luc’s neck, taking in the smell of him, the scents of sweat, grease, and hot spices. Using his acute vision, he picked out fading bruises, like grasping fingers, on Luc’s neck. Arrigo stopped himself. He couldn’t prey upon someone already victimized. Arrigo wanted even more to make a connection with Luc. This biker bar was hardly the place. For that matter, he didn’t know if Luc was gay, straight, or bi, in spite of eavesdropping at Delilah’s. He knew easier ways of finding a date, but Luc possessed some intangible quality Arrigo found compelling. His gut rumbled as if wondering why he shouldn’t take a drink. It was simply his nature, and no one would be the wiser or hurt. Arrigo hated the rare times he felt conflicted like this. Passing on his meal was the right thing to do. He wished he could read minds and know what had happened to Luc—though he had suspicions based on past visits to the bar—but his psychic abilities only extended to making someone docile and giving them a bit of retrograde amnesia so they couldn’t remember being snacked on.
The back door to the bar slammed open. A drunk stumbled out, his penis already dangling out of his pants. Well into his pissing against the dumpster, he noticed he wasn’t alone.
The man scowled at Luc. “Don’t you be telling your old man I’m out here, boy. His shitter is backed up, and I hafta go.”
Luc blinked slowly, still under Arrigo’s control. The drunk glared at them both as if trying to figure out why two young—in looks at any rate, in Arrigo’s case—men were doing in the alley behind the bar.
“Don’t worry, no one’s saying anything,” Arrigo muttered, guiding Luc back to the front of the bar. He left Luc hosing the sidewalk. Arrigo slipped off into the night.
He drove back to the Veer on the Strip. After seeing the poverty Luc struggled with, guilt panged inside Arrigo, making him feel like a bad person for owning a penthouse suite at the Veer. It cost a decadent amount of money, but he’d been alive for centuries. He had more wealth than Croesus. Hell, he’d aged into the next phase of vampiric life, being able to go out in the daylight. He still needed a lot of sunscreen to feel comfortable, though.
Arrigo mopped his brow, pushing his dark curls off his forehead. He gritted his teeth. Only an hour after sundown, and he still perspired heavily; typical of a desert night in August. It almost made him wish that the Normals had the legends right and that he had no biological functions, like sweating. At least the dry air sucked away the moisture almost as fast as his body made it. He longed for winter, even if it meant putting up with annoying, endless streets filled with tipsy New Year’s tourists.
After a quick ride up in the private elevator, Arrigo stopped in his place long enough to take a speedy shower and change his clothes. Slipping on an Affliction T-shirt and black jeans, Arrigo tried to figure out a plan for the rest of his night. He felt lazy and saw no point in going to work since he had already tracked down one ghost story. He had enough money, he could probably take a century off and not make much of a dent in all the reserves he had. Still, he liked to keep busy and often helped small business owners get started. They could be interesting. He currently shared a shop with Taabu, his friend and coowner of their psychic reading and ghost-hunting enterprise. She didn’t need him there for the day-to-day stuff. Taabu performed all the tarot, palm, and rune readings while, when Arrigo felt like it, he chased after ghosts. He had more work than he and his amateur team could deal with, thanks to all the ghost-hunting shows on TV and his current book deal.
Still, he hadn’t visited their psychic shop in nearly a week. He should be a little more supportive. They had an off-Strip location, but still within easy walking distance to where all the action was. Having walked more than he liked in this heat, Arrigo debated driving, but he’d feel stupid taking the car for a relatively short distance. Taabu had talked a little about moving her shop to Tahoe, which had a quainter façade than Vegas. It would probably be an improvement over the bland exterior of their business, looking like any run-of-the-mill, squat office building. Taabu had a friend make her a neon tarot card to hang in the window. Its vibrant blues and reds knifed the night.
Inside, good quality Shoyeido incense perfumed the air. The space was simple, a lobby waiting area straight through the front door. To the left his office door stood, wooden and heavy, and to the right, a brightly beaded curtain separated Taabu’s work space from the rest of the business. The waiting room chairs, all charity rescues, ill-matched but soft and comfortable, crowded the small space. Beyond the beaded curtain, Taabu’s reading room gave a nod to Victorian finery, filled with lots of beeswax candles, books, and arcane knickknacks.
Arrigo walked into his office. He’d gone with a more minimalist style, black leather chairs and photos of the ghost investigations he’d run, though some of Taabu’s candles had strayed into his office. A few dotted his desk and others huddled near his stereo system sitting on top his bookcase. He turned on his computer, dreading how many emails he might have. Still, there might be something in there to interest him.
“Thought I heard you come in.”
He glanced toward the doorway. Taabu lounged against the frame in what he liked to call her priestess clothing: a loose long dress. Sunshine yellow highlighted her dark skin, but the confidence in her eyes appealed to him more than her curvy body. Taabu smoldered.
“Thought maybe I ought to put in an appearance before you thought I died.” He grinned.
She snorted at him. “I just assumed you were being lazy.”
“That too. Anything interesting happen while I was gone?” Arrigo brought up his social media sites, preparing to waste an hour or two and pretend he was working.
“Not really. I have another customer, and then I’m going home for the evening.”
Taabu rested a hip on the edge of his desk, a nice hip at that. If he was the type to mix business with pleasure, Arrigo would bet Taabu would rock him. What a pity. It might be worth the risk. She smiled at him, a secret in the subtle curve of her lips. Did she know his thoughts? Some psychics might, but most had trouble reading vampires. Many of them were frightened by the deadness they felt when touching a vampire’s mental shields. Taabu, however, never seemed to fear him.
“You are coming to the barbecue, right?” She played with one of the many bangles on her arm.
“I am. I’ll bring steaks.” Arrigo started thinking of the salty rub he’d use on them. Anything salty made him think of blood. The older he got, the more food satisfied him and the less he needed blood, but he still like that salty, mineral taste. At least the backyard party was supposed to be small, and mostly humans he already knew were invited. “Shani will be there, right?” He couldn’t help the hopeful uptick in his voice.
Taabu let the bangle click against its neighbor, grinning at him. “Don’t you go getting all excited.”
“I like talking to your sister.”
She eyed him like she knew what he wanted to talk about. It occurred to him he didn’t know how Taabu felt about interracial dating. “I know, and you know my sister. If crime lets her have the night off, she’ll be there. I’m more interested in who you’ll be bringing.”
“I’ll be the lone wolf,” he replied, wondering what his werewolf friend, Sharon, would think about that statement. Probably bite his ass, but that would lead to all kinds of fun afterward.
Taabu tsked at him. “As I figured. I should find you a date.”
“Aw, Taabu, no,” Arrigo whined. “You know I hate being set up on a date.”
“And you know how rare it is I set a dog like you up with a friend.” She eyed him. “But you’ve been heeling pretty well as of late.”
“I’ve never been cut out for monogamy,” he replied. That wasn’t entirely true. He’d been known to go decades with one lover, but most vampires found monogamy counter to their nature. Eternity together was too much for most. “I’m flattered, but I’m courting someone.” Did trying to learn more about Luc count as courting? As far as Taabu was concerned, absolutely.
Taabu raised her hands as well as her eyebrows. Damn, courting was too old-fashioned a word, wasn’t it? Keeping up with changing language could be a challenge. “Fair enough. Anyone I know?”
“No.” He shrugged. “Guess I’ll bring beer too.”
“Bring him or her if you want,” she invited before sashaying out of his office. Arrigo rolled his eyes at her before opening a computer file for the number of his contact at Circus Circus. He needed to set up a time to investigate the ghostly screams for help that were supposedly heard on the casino floor. Ghosts were less unsettling than whatever Taabu had in mind. Maybe he should bring a date just in case.