Chapter 1

Sebastian Fiscard couldn’t have been older than thirty-five when he died. He sat across from me, wearing a crisp white shirt over dark blue pants and an air of barely contained impatience.

“Help me understand, Mr. Fiscard,” I said. “You want me, a human, to represent your brother, a vampire, in front of a jury of over four hundred vampires, in a murder trial in which the victim was human?”

The vampire sat absolutely still—not breathing, not doing anything, allowing me time to process the information—before he said, “Yes, Ms. Lake. That’s just about it.”

I slumped back in my chair, willing my mind to think faster. No human had ever set foot inside Vampire Court. This could be the break I needed in my career to join the big league—the kind of case any lawyer with an ounce of ambition would kill for. Oh. My. God. My mouth went suddenly dry.

“Please,” I said, remembering my manners, “tell me what happened.”

Fiscard drew a deep breath. A very human gesture, perhaps a habit?

“Twenty-two months ago, my brother Robert proposed his girlfriend Trish for conversion.” He paused, making sure I was familiar with the terminology. I took a sip of water, nodded for him to continue. “They had been together for only a year but Robert wanted to marry her. Since inter-species marriages are not legal, he wanted to turn her so they could marry under the vampire rituals.”

He told the story as if he had rehearsed it for hours, with no inflection in his voice, no emotion whatsoever. Save perhaps a hint of disdain.

“Trish was converted and they wed.”

Had he just said wed? Seriously? Wed? How old was this guy?

I took another sip of water, quickly followed by another. My mouth felt parched, my hands clammy against the cool glass.

Fiscard crossed his legs, wrapped his hands around his knee. His thumbs touched, forming a neat triangle. I got a good look at his thigh, noticed how powerful it was, and quickly averted my eyes. Did vampires work out? This one certainly seemed to. I couldn’t help travelling my gaze back to him. His well-defined shoulder muscles strained against an elegant shirt. Again, I reached out for the water decanter and topped off my glass. It got suddenly very hot in my office.

“You see, counselor, my little brother was blessed with a lot of things, but not much good sense. Last month he took a fancy to some girl who worked in a launderette and started having an affair with her. Trish found out, murdered her in cold blood, and engineered the whole thing so that Robert would be the one to find the body. Needless to say, he was distraught.” He rubbed his chin, the first hint of emotion seeping through the carefully masked face. “And to top it all, Robert has to answer for the murder.”

Huh? “I’m sorry, Mr. Fiscard, but I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“Of course you wouldn’t. It’s a vampire law.” He nodded toward the collection of books behind me. “I don’t suppose you have the Vampire Code handy?”

Turning on my swivel chair, I reached behind me for the leather-bound volume, and set it on the desk between us. One book to regulate all vampire social and moral conduct. It hardly seemed enough, but it was all we had.

“In here,” Fiscard said, his finger repeatedly stabbing the cover, “you will find the law on vicarious responsibility of a sponsor for his fledgling.”

I had no idea what he was referring to but I bluffed my way through, as I’d been trained. Three years of working full-time at one of New York’s busiest law firms meant that I’d picked up a few tricks along the way.   “Trish was Robert’s fledgling, so he will answer for her murder?” I asked.

“Yes, precisely. The trial is Wednesday at Diamond Tower. He will be judged by a full Council made up of The Twelve and The First Four Hundred.”

Holy shit. I shook my head, scrambling to put together the words that would explain my reticence without insulting his kind or appearing to be a coward. If I took on this case, I was bound to get some backlash from the hate groups, primarily the New Ku Klux Klan, which had already claimed responsibility for bombing a lending library founded by the vampire community. If I took this on, would I become a target too?

    “Ms. Lake?”

As if compelled or charmed, I looked straight into Sebastian Fiscard’s eyes. The most beautiful shade of blue—warm and mesmerizing, where the rest of him was cold marble.

“If it’s a question of money, we would be willing to double your fee.”

Money wasn’t the issue. I was willing to work on this case for no fee at all. But the potential repercussions turned my blood cold, and not only those from the KKK. Especially, I feared what Albert, my boss and one of the firm’s three founding partners, would say to me agreeing to take on the case without roping in someone with more experience.

For a full ten seconds, I felt Sebastian study me while I fixed my eyes on the office ceiling. If I didn’t at least suggest that a more senior lawyer be in on this, I’d be fired. I took a deep breath.

“Mr. Fiscard, surely you are aware that there are lawyers at this firm with many more years of experience who would be better qualified for this sort of case?” There. I’d done my duty. The words were out and there was no taking them back now.

The vampire seemed to consider my words for an instant.

“Ms. Lake,” he said, with the composure and panache of someone accustomed to brokering deals every day. “I assure you that initially I was as surprised as you seem to be by the whole idea. But my mother, my family’s matriarch, says you are the lawyer for Robert so I have to believe that she knows what she’s doing—and I assure you she always does—and my instructions are to secure a commitment from you today. Let me be clear here: we want you and nobody else. We will even offer personal protection in light of recent, shall we say…political upheaval.”

Had he just referred to a bomb going off in a public library as simple “political upheaval”?

A long moment passed in silence. Then, my mind made up and questioning my sanity, I took out a notepad.

“What was her name?”

“Becky. Becky Johnson. She was twenty-eight, unattached, lived in Brooklyn with a roommate. Parents divorced when she was little. They both live in Florida.”

“Cause of death?”

“Broken neck.”

    Shit.

“Did your brother’s wife drink the victim’s blood?”

“Not one drop, and I can testify to confirm this,” he said, a hint of excitement creeping in his voice.

“Will that be enough in your tribunal?”

“My testimony, you mean?”

“Yes. You are the brother, which makes you prejudiced. And usually we would require an autopsy report to confirm this sort of detail, which in turn would be confirmed by an independent expert.”

“I see. Well, I wouldn’t be testifying in my capacity as Robert’s brother but rather as first officer on the scene, so to speak. And in Vampire Court, it would be acceptable. Our trials follow the ancient Greek model—think large audience in a semi-circular arena, with you at the center.”

“Like Socrates and his Apology.…”

“Exactly,” he said. “With fewer dramatics.”

He smiled, showcasing perfect white teeth. My stomach roiled. Most humans were still nervous around vampires, and I was no exception.

Breathe, Aurora, breathe. How can one find a man attractive and frightening at the same time?

“What became of the victim’s body?”

“It was removed from the scene, which was cleaned up to eliminate all evidence of the murder. The body was subsequently cremated.”

WHAT?”    “It is standard procedure in these cases.”

“It’s called obstruction of justice and it is a crime, Mr. Fiscard.”

“Under your laws, Ms. Lake, not under our Code. We call it damage control or, if you prefer, think of it as not throwing more fuel on a fire that’s already out of hand, if you get my meaning.”

Oh, I got his meaning all right. If a vampire screwed up, they cleaned up after him and we humans wouldn’t be any the wiser. The vamps were playing dirty. I struggled to keep a perfect poker face in light of this revelation. To say that he’d thrown a wrench in my case would be an understatement.

“And it’s actually written in the Code? Forgive me, but I’ve never formally studied it.” Which also again begged the question, Why are they hiring me? A sense of unease pricked at my skin.

“Don’t worry. And to answer your question, it is a policy, not a law. You won’t find it in the Code.”

“And why exactly are you are telling me all this, Mr. Fiscard? I mean, this is very sensitive information.”

“Shouldn’t one tell his lawyer everything, Ms. Lake?” Was that humor or sarcasm in his tone?

“Indeed, but I haven’t agreed to take on this case yet.” Suspicious? Scared? Who, me? Nah.

“Let’s just say I trust you implicitly….”

I studied Sebastian Fiscard for an instant before starting to take notes again. I knew he came from an affluent vampire family. His last name preceded him. From his body language, I gathered he was both confident and impatient, a man of action rather than words. But he was also polite, refined in some ways. Nevertheless, he hadn’t offered an apology for his or his peers’ actions.

I asked more questions and took more notes. The familiarity of the exercise calmed my nerves and I was finally able to think clearly again. As I tapped my pen over my notes, I knew the key to this case was right there on those pages. Words jumped out at me—unattached, responsibility, fledgling, and broken neck. I drew circles around fledgling and broken neck.

“How many years is a sponsor responsible for his fledgling, Mr. Fiscard?”

“Two, and Trish was weeks away from completing her time in that role. Why?”

“How many people could you round up to testify that Trish was perfectly in control of herself when she killed the girl?” I asked, ignoring his question.

“In what sense?”

“In the sense that this is not a case of a fledgling in the thralls of bloodlust”—I drew another circle around didn’t feed—“but rather a case of a scorned wife who takes revenge not only on the woman who stole her husband’s affections but also on her husband, who will have to answer for her crime.”

I wasn’t in my office anymore but flying high, propelled by that unique rush of adrenaline you get when you’re building an argument and you know it just might hold up in court if you play your cards right.

“It’s the perfect crime,” I said, relaxing against my armchair. “Not only does she get to kill the mistress with her bare hands, she gets to watch her husband take the fall for it.”

I looked up at Fiscard, who stared at me with a mixture of admiration and confusion, as if he couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of that one himself.

“Your brother is basically being framed,” I said. “Except everybody knows and seems to be okay with it.” I threw down my pen.

He nodded and leaned forward in his chair. “Ms. Lake, I will find as many witnesses as you need and I’ll do you one better, too”—one of my eyebrows rose dangerously close to my hairline—“I will get you into the Repository, where our society keeps any books of historical value. We will back your argument with the minutes of Council meetings when this law was discussed and voted into the Code.”

“Sounds like a plan. And will I be allowed to see these books?”

“I guess there’s a first for everything.”

I nodded, but remained silent. What could I say? I was either all in, or not at all.

While I mulled my new situation, Fiscard stood abruptly, as though an alarm had gone off inside his head and he had to make a dash for it. What was going on? Why had we suddenly switched gears? I had a ton of questions that still needed answering, and that prickly sensation just wouldn’t quit.

“I really have to be going now,” he said. “I’ll work on getting you a pass to the Repository, hopefully by tomorrow morning, and if you have further questions, I can answer them on our way. These are my contact details.…” He pushed a plain business card across my desk, tapped on it once, then stretched his hand out for me to shake.

If he squeezed too hard, I would lose a limb. I stood and put my hand in his. All in or not at all.

“Thanks for your time,” Fiscard said as his fingers closed gently around mine in what I would have normally called a weak handshake. In the circumstances, I was grateful because it showed a degree of concern for me. We made contact for half an instant, just enough for my senses to register his skin was cool, but not unnaturally so.

I followed Sebastian Fiscard to the door, not sure what my next step would be. Should I call one of the partners about this straight away, or run it first through my mentor, Bill Peterson? The vampire was halfway out the door before I remembered that I hadn’t asked when I could meet the brother.

“I’m afraid that will not be possible until the day of the trial itself,” Fiscard said. “Robert is being detained at the Council’s headquarters.”

“You mean Diamond Tower?”

“Yes.”

I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the idea of how I, a mortal, could ever be perceived as a threat to beings who could grind me to a pulp with their bare hands, as poor Becky Johnson had recently proved. But I kept these thoughts to myself.

“Could I at least place a call to him?”

Fiscard considered this, his head bent slightly to one side. “Yes, I suppose that could be arranged. I’ll confirm this tomorrow. Goodbye, Ms. Lake—it was a pleasure.”

I couldn’t really say the same for meeting him, so I limited myself to smiling and nodding as I closed the door behind him. I leaned my forehead against it for a few seconds. A deep breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding rushed out of me.

I was going to speak in Vampire Court. I was going to speak in Vampire Court. How many times would I have to repeat it to myself before I believed it? Goodness, this case would bring me either grief or untold rewards—only in extremes, no half measures. I ran trembling hands down my skirt and smoothed it.

My knees shook as I returned to my desk and picked up the receiver to talk to my secretary. “Lin? Cancel my appointments for the rest of the day. We have a new VIP client.”