Take me as I am.
I offer scars, imperfections—
touch me and embrace my flaws
I am your beloved
You look at my failings and see stories
legends, maps of me before you.
I will tell the tales, my lover, only
whisper where I will find you
and I will come out of hiding.
Or we can play cat and mouse…
one another until we collide.
I’ll follow your trail and
you follow mine.
From My Lover Is Mine
by Aly Hawkins & Bryan Ashmore
Of all the places in all the world to spend a clandestine night alone, the Louvre museum in Paris is quite possibly the finest.
Of course, to do so is illegal.
Visiting hours are nine in the morning to six in the evening every day except Tuesday, with slightly extended hours on Wednesdays and Fridays. But for visitors with certain special abilities, visiting hours mean exactly zero.
Because when you can vanish into mist and nothingness by the mere focus of your will, a great many rules and regulations applicable to others cease to impress you.
It was one of these “special” people—beings, rather, or more accurately creatures—who happened to be contemplating a sculpture by Michelangelo titled Dying Slave at twenty minutes to three on one starlit, crystalline December morning, hours before daybreak and even longer before the tourists would begin to line up outside again. At almost eight feet tall, the dramatic, bone-hued marble sculpture of a naked man bound at wrist and chest was described by the plaque beneath as “the moment when life capitulates before the relentless force of dead matter.”
Brilliant, mused Eliana Cardinalis as she stood before the statue, admiring the uncanny representation of that fleeting moment just before death. I know just how he feels.
As naked as the dying marble figure she was so arrested by, she wasn’t cold or uncomfortable or in any way self-conscious. She was, simply, content. Alone—blessedly alone and free of the watchful eyes and whispers that normally followed her—her natural curiosity and good humor returned. She’d rambled through the cool, echoing corridors of the museum for longer than strictly necessary for the task at hand, but a pastoral Monet had called to her, then a fierce Caravaggio, then a glassed display of Egyptian funerary implements laid over woven palm leaves in a fascinating, ghoulish row.
The canopic jars—ceramic receptacles for storing the inner organs of a mummy—had made her snort in disdain. Dead was dead, but her kin, the ancient Egyptians, wholeheartedly believed in life after death, a leap of faith Eliana found seriously lacking.
She knew from firsthand experience that leaps of faith were nothing more than acts of willful self-delusion. Nowadays, she operated on two simple principles: I’ll believe it when I see it and It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission. Both had served her far better than the blind faith of her childhood.
Faith was a luxury she could no longer afford.
But she hadn’t always been a cynic. Born and raised far below ground in a dark, sprawling labyrinth of incense-scented catacombs no human eye had ever seen, her education in the lore of ancient gods and secret spells, of rituals steeped in magic, had been thorough and effective. She prayed to all the old gods and left offerings of handmade lace and ripe fruit for the new, she lit candles in honor of dead ancestors, she watched with all her kin on the once-monthly Purgare nights as the silk-wrapped ashes of the unfortunates who didn’t survive the Transition bobbed slowly down the Tiber on balsawood planks until they vanished from sight around a sinuous bend in the dark river. She accepted all she was taught by her elders with the open-armed trust of childhood, because even at twenty-three when most would have considered her a woman, Eliana had been still in many ways a child.
Then three years ago everything changed.
Now, from necessity, she was all grown up.
But she wasn’t thinking about any of that as she stood in silent contemplation of the Michelangelo. She was thinking she’d better get moving because the night guard would make his scheduled appearance around the far corner of the sculpture hall in exactly three minutes and seventeen seconds, and she had a painting to steal before he did.
With a sigh of regret, she turned from the statue and made her way silently down the shadowed marble hall, enjoying the feel of the cool air on her naked skin. She rounded another corner and stopped abruptly as she caught sight of Canova’s famous statue. Erotic and beautiful, the marble work titled Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss depicted two mythological lovers ensnared forever in a passionate near-kiss.
Seeing that—Cupid’s languorous embrace, Psyche’s sensual, pliant surrender—sparked an unwanted memory that pierced her heart, sharp as knives.
Her stomach twisted into a knot. Heat made her face feel molten. Then abruptly, without sound or warning, the flesh and bone woman that was Eliana dissolved into mist.
She didn’t even need to consciously think it anymore—Vapor—Shifting was as natural to her as breathing, as natural as the first time it had happened to her at thirteen years old when her cunaria had tried to force her to eat boiled eggs and she’d balked. One minute she was sitting at the polished stone table with her lips smashed together in disgust, the next—poof!
Only the strongest of her kind could Shift to Vapor, and so she was grateful, but to this day she loathed eggs.
Vapor was only one of her many Gifts, but one that offered a precious benefit the others didn’t: escape. Now, relieved of the terrible burden of feelings, she floated in a ruffling pale gray plume for a moment, regaining equilibrium. Disconnected from a body, she was still herself—her mind remained, as did the strength of her will—but there was no heartbeat, no respiration, no emotion or digestion, just the lovely and calming sensation of freedom from gravity. Of herself, weightless as air.
An applied thought—up—and she drifted toward the ceiling, far enough above the lovers below that they became slightly less offensive. She turned away and surged off through the vast darkness of the museum, a shimmering cloud of Vapor headed toward room 77 and the Romantic paintings, where one of her other powerful Gifts would come into play.
A Degas was the prize tonight. Not too famous, not too large, it would still command a good price on the black market and wouldn’t be too easy to trace by the authorities, or too hard to remove from the wall.
Contrary to popular belief, museum security systems are typically some of the worst. Unlike the movies, which would lead one to believe a field of invisible lasers and infrared cameras are de rigeur, the reality is closer to the sorry duo of underpaid, badly trained security personnel and mechanical gates. Most jewelry stores are far more secure, as are all banks; Eliana knew this from experience.
And for a woman who could not only dissolve into a wisp of air but who was able—even better—to become invisible in the cover of shadow while still retaining a physical body that could lift and carry a painting, the temptation of stealing into buildings that were closed, locked, and legally verboten became too great.
But that wasn’t the primary reason. Money was the primary reason. Crass, yes, but she needed money to continue her father’s research, and her people needed to eat, so she’d resorted to using her Gifts as a way to avoid starvation.
It wasn’t as if they were going to start feeding on humans, after all, no matter how much her brother, Caesar, tried to convince her it was their birthright, and that the sorry creatures were quite tasty. Think of them as cows, he’d argued again not two days prior. You like beef, don’t you?
Yes, she liked beef, but she liked humans, too. For the most part. Either way, she wasn’t going to eat them. It just seemed like one of those things you don’t do.
She’d thought of getting a job to bring in money, but quickly realized how ridiculous that notion was. Not only did none of the Ikati have any work experience or what could be deemed “skills” by an employer, they were too different from humans. They stood out.
An ancient Zulu word from their even more ancient homeland in the darkest heart of Africa, Ikati meant “cat warrior,” and it was a near perfect description of Eliana and her kind. Sleek and lithe and powerful, able to move without sound on two feet or four, able to strike a killing blow before their prey ever sensed danger, the Ikati were part of the human world but not of it, and even in clever disguise it was evident for all to see.
The eyes gave it away. Flashing and feral, alight with a predatory gleam even when they smiled, Eliana and her kin of the Roman catacombs had eyes of deepest midnight, a black so deep it was fathomless. The most stalwart of human men had been known to falter in his step when one of her kind looked a moment too long in his direction.
So the eyes were a problem, but so was nearly everything else. The way they spoke, the way they walked, the way the very air seemed to hold its breath around them. Even at night when they usually went out their differences were apparent, so Eliana and her little band of rebels kept apart from the rest of the everyday world as best they could.
One day soon, however, the world would become well acquainted with them. Then everything would change.
Until then she’d have to keep stealing.
And there—just around another quiet corner, hanging benignly on the wall in a square gilt frame unprotected by glass—was the Degas.
The first thing to rematerialize was her lips, and they were smiling.
She took shape as a woman again, her feet alighting soundlessly on the stone floor with the casual grace of years of practice. Her senses surged back: the dull tang of cloistered air in her nose, the stone cool and smooth beneath her feet, a faint car horn from the traffic on the Rue de Rivoli that never dissipated, even at this hour. Her stomach growled with a hunger pang, and she realized she hadn’t eaten in hours.
She’d just reached up and grasped the painting—ethereal light and shadow around the voluptuous figure of a retreating woman—when she heard a trio of faint noises and froze.
The creak of leather shoes.
For a split second her heart stopped beating. It started up again and took off at a thundering gallop.
She wasn’t alone. Someone was here.
Eliana didn’t even have time to turn before the darkness was sundered by a dozen wide yellow beams of light, aimed at her back. The soaring wall in front of her was bathed in brilliance, and the row of gilt frames caught the light and reflected it back in blinding glints of gold. She whirled around with one hand raised to shield her eyes, and just before she heard the loud report, in the infinitesimal second between the sting of gunpowder in the back of her throat, the flash of dazzling white and the pain that ripped through her bare calf, sending a flare of agony through her entire body, she heard a male voice shout something in French.
She crumpled to the floor. Blinded by the lights, unable to run or stand or even breathe, Eliana watched in horror as a dozen armed gendarmes ran crouched from hiding places on either side of the long corridor.
She touched her calf, felt the wound there, a ragged, wet slice through skin and muscle. She raised her hand, and for a suspended, horrible moment she stared down at it, slick with blood, her mind wiped utterly blank.
The male voice came again, still shouting at her in frenzied French, and she realized what he’d said before. A cliché she’d heard a dozen times in the American movies she loved, the old Westerns where it was easy to tell who the bad guys were because they always wore the black hats.
He’d shouted, “Stop or we’ll shoot!”
As she watched the booted knot of armed gendarmes creep closer—guns drawn, eyes rabid—to where she crouched naked and bleeding on the floor beneath the Degas, Eliana had the brief, ironic thought that he’d gotten that perfectly backward.
Seven days earlier
For the fourth time in as many weeks, the police paid a visit to Gregor MacGregor.
They had their reasons, of course. He wasn’t what could be called a good man—he wasn’t the worst, either—but he was an excellent businessman, and the type of business he specialized in never failed to attract the scrutiny of the authorities. Women, weapons, drugs, or thugs, Gregor could satisfy nearly every nefarious desire of his well-heeled clientele, and it had made him outrageously wealthy.
He managed his various business enterprises from the plush confines of a black leather recliner situated behind a massive, gleaming desk in an office on the top floor of a high-rise he owned in central Paris that housed a nightclub and a bordello, among other things. The police knew about the nightclub but not the bordello; only the very rich could afford to step beyond the opulent gold leaf doors that led to the garden of delights hidden deep in the bowels of the building, and they weren’t inclined to talk.
Because Gregor had been subjected to these impromptu visits by the police on dozens of occasions, he was more irritated than worried. They never found anything incriminating; he was much too careful for that.
What bothered him about this particular visit, however, was the man who sat in a shadowed corner of the office on his custom Louis Vuitton silk divan, smoking a cigarette, watching him with hawklike intensity from blue eyes as clear and cold as an arctic sky. Wearing a black suit, black oxfords, and no watch or rings or adornment of any kind except a pair of small round spectacles, he’d never accompanied the police on any of their other surprise visits, and something about this man didn’t sit right.
Gregor had grown up in the dodgy end of Edinburgh to impoverished parents who had eight children in quick succession until his father disappeared—fled, more like—and he’d been forced to survive as best he could. By the time he was ten years old, he’d committed nearly every crime imaginable and was well acquainted with all manner of thieves and cutthroats.
So he knew a soulless bastard when he saw one.
Gregor turned his attention back to the man seated across the desk from him. Tall, impeccably dressed, and utterly French, he was the chief of police’s right-hand man, and a royal pain in Gregor’s ass. “This is bordering on harassment, Édoard. I’m a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen of this country. I tolerate it because I’ve got nothing to hide, but if you keep up these witch hunts, I’ll call my lawyer.”
The blandly handsome Édoard smiled, revealing a row of perfectly straight, white teeth, a little too big for his mouth, like Chiclets. “Tax-paying, I’ll give you. We’ve already looked into that. Law-abiding, however…” The Chiclet smile grew mocking. “You and I both know that’s a stretch.”