As O drove his F-150 truck along Route 22, the waning four-o'clock sun stung his eyes and he felt as if he were hungover. Yeah… along with the headache, he had the same body crawls he used to get after a night of boozing, the little tremors flickering just under his skin like worms.
The long line of regret he was towing behind him also reminded him of his drinking days. Like when he'd woken up next to an ugly woman he despised, but had fucked anyway. The whole thing was just like that… only much, much worse.
He shifted his hands on the steering wheel. His knuckles were busted open and he knew he had scratches on his neck. As images of the day blinded him, his stomach heaved. He was disgusted by the things he'd done to his woman.
Well, now he was disgusted. When he'd been doing them… he'd been righteous.
Christ, he should have been more careful. She was a living thing, after all… Shit, what if he'd gone too far? Oh, man… He should never have let himself do those things. The trouble was, as soon as he'd seen that she'd freed the male he'd brought her, he'd lost it. Just splintered into shrapnel that had torn right through her.
He lifted his foot from the gas. He wanted to go back and take her out of her pipe and reassure himself that she was still breathing. Except there wasn't enough time before the meeting of the Primes started.
As he stomped on the accelerator, he knew he wouldn't be able to leave her once he saw her anyway, and then the Fore-lesser would come looking for him. And that would be a problem. The persuasion center was a mess. Goddamn it…
O slowed and wrenched the wheel to the right, the truck lurching off Route 22 onto a one-lane dirt road.
Mr. X's cabin, also the Lessening Society's HQ, was smack in the middle of a seventy-five-acre forest, completely isolated. The place was nothing more than a small log setup with a dark green shingled roof and an outbuilding about half the size behind it. As O pulled up, there were seven cars and trucks parked in a loose configuration, all of them domestic, most of them at least four years old.
O walked inside the cabin and saw he was the last to show. Ten other Primes were packed into the shallow interior space, their pale faces grim, their bodies broad and heavy with muscle. These were the Lessening Society's strongest men, the ones who had been in it the longest. O was the only exception when it came to time served. He had just three years since his induction, and none of them liked him because he was new.
Not that they got a vote. He was as tough as any Prime and had proved it. Jealous fuckers… Man, he was never going to be like them, just cattle for the Omega. He couldn't believe the idiots prided themselves on their paling out over time and losing their identities. He fought against the fading. He colored his hair to keep it the dark brown it had always been, and he dreaded the gradual lightening of his irises. He did not want to look like them.
"You're late," Mr. X said. The Fore-lesser leaned back against a refrigerator that wasn't plugged in, his pale eyes latching onto the scratches all over O's neck. "Been fighting?"
"You know how those Brothers are." O found a place to stand across the way. Though he nodded to his partner, U, he didn't acknowledge anyone else.
The Fore-lesser continued to look at him. "Has anyone seen Mr. M?"
Fuck, O thought. That lesser he'd taken out for walking in on him and his wife would have to be accounted for.
"O? You got something to say?"
From the left, U spoke up. "I saw M. Right before dawn. Fighting with a Brother downtown."
As Mr. X shifted his stare to the left, O was cold-shit shocked at the lie.
"You saw him with your own eyes?"
The other lesser's, voice was steady. "Yeah. I did."
"Any chance you're protecting O?"
Wasn't that the question to ask? Lessers were cutthroats, always jockeying with one another for position. Even among partners there was little loyalty.
The guy's pale head weal back and forth. "He's on his own. Why would I risk my skin for his?"
Clearly that was some logic Mr. X felt he could trust, because he went on with the meeting. After the quotas for kill and capture were assigned, the group broke up.
O went over to his partner. "I have to go back to the center for a minute before we go out. I want you to follow me."
He had to find out why U had saved his ass, and he wasn't worried about the other lesser seeing the shape the place had been left in. U wouldn't cause trouble. He wasn't particularly aggressive or an independent thinker, more operator than innovator.
Which made it even more weird that he'd taken the initiative he had.
Zsadist stared at the grandfather clock in the mansion's foyer. By the position of the hands he knew he had eight minutes before the sun was officially down. Thank God it was winter and the nights were long.
He eyed the double doors and knew just where he was going as soon as he could get through them. He'd memorized the location the civilian male had given them. Was going to dematerialize and be there in the blink of an eye.
It would be better to wait until the sky was all dark, but fuck that. The instant that godforsaken fireball slipped over the edge of the horizon, he was out. To hell with it if he ended up with a bitch of a tan.
He rechecked the daggers on his chest. Took the SIG Sauer out of the holster at his right hip and ran through it one more time, then did the same for the one that was on the left. He felt for the throwing knife at the small of his back and the six-inch blade he had on his thigh.
Z cocked his head to the side, cracking his neck to loosen it up.
Fuck this. He was going now—
"You'll fry," Phury said from behind him.
Z closed his eyes. His impulse was to lash out, and the urge grew irresistible as Phury kept talking.
"Z, my man, how're you going to help her if you fall flat on your face and start steaming?"
"Do you get off being a buzz kill? Or does it just come natural?" As Z glared over his shoulder, he had a sudden memory of that one night Bella had come to the mansion. Phury had seemed so taken by her, and Z remembered the two of them standing together and talking, right where his boots were planted now. He'd watched them from the shadows, wanting her as she'd smiled and laughed with his twin.
Z's voice got sharper. "I'd think you'd want to get her back, being that she was all into you and shit, thinking you were handsome. Or… maybe you want her to stay gone because of that. Did your vow of celibacy get shaken, my brother?"
As Phury winced, Z's instinct for weakness jumped into the opening. "We all saw you checking her out that night she came here. You were looking, weren't you? Yeah, you were, and not just at her face. Did you wonder how she'd feel underneath you? Did you get all nervous about breaking that no-sex promise to yourself?"
Phury's mouth thinned into a slash, and Z hoped the male's response was a nasty one. He wanted something hard to come back at him. Maybe they could even go at it for the remaining three minutes.
But there was only silence.
"Nothing to say to me?" Z glanced at the clock. "Just as well. It's time to go—"
"I bleed for her. The same as you do."
Z looked back at his twin, witnessing the pain on the male's face from a long distance, as if he were staring through a pair of binoculars. He had a passing thought that he should feel something, some kind of shame or sorrow for forcing Phury to give up that intimate, sad revelation.
Without a word, Zsadist dematerialized.
He triangulated his reappearance to a wooded area about one hundred yards away from where the civilian male said he'd escaped from. As Z took form, the fading light in the sky blinded him and made him feel like he'd volunteered for an acid facial. He ignored the burning and headed in a northeasterly direction, jogging over the snow-covered ground.
And then there it was, in the middle of the woods, about a hundred feet from a stream: a single-story houselike structure with a black Ford F-150 and a nondescript silver Taurus parked off to one side. Z sidled up to the structure, staying behind the trunks of pine trees, moving quietly in the snow as he worked the building's periphery. It had no windows and only one door. Through the thin walls he could hear movement, talking.
He took out one of his SIGs, flipped off the safety, and considered his options. Dematerializing inside was a dumb move, because he didn't know the interior layout. And his only other alternative, though satisfying, wasn't that strategic either: Kicking the door down and going in shooting was damn appealing, but as suicidal as he was, he wasn't going to risk Bella's life by lighting the place up.
Except then, miracle of miracles, a lesser came out of the building, the door shutting with a smack. Moments later a second one followed, and then there was the beep-beep of a security alarm activating.
Z's first instinct was to shoot them both in the head, but he held his finger to the side of the trigger. If the slayers had reactivated the alarm, there was a good chance no one else was in-house, and his chances of getting Bella out had just improved. But what if that was SOP on exit regardless of whether the place was empty? Then all he'd do is announce his presence and set off a shit storm.
He watched the two lessers as they got in the truck. One had brown hair, which usually meant the slayer was a new recruit, but this guy didn't act like a FNG: He was sure in his boots and doing the talking. His pale-haired buddy was the one sporting the bobble-head nod.
The engine started up and the truck backed around, packing the snow under its tires. Without headlights, the F-150 headed down a barely-there lane through the trees.
Letting those two bastards drive off into the sunset was an exercise in bondage, with Z turning the large muscles of his body into iron ropes over his bones. It was either that or he'd be on the truck's hood, smashing his fist through the windshield, pulling the SOBs out by their hair so he could bite them.
As the sound of the truck faded, Z listened hard to the silence that followed. When he heard nothing, he went back to wanting to blast through the door, but he thought about the alarm and checked his watch. V would be on site in about a minute and a half.
It would kill him. But he would wait.
While he twitched in his shitkickers, he became aware of a smell, something… He sniffed the air. There was propane around, somewhere close. Probably feeding that generator around the back. And kerosene from a heater. But there was something else, some kind of smoky, burning… He looked at his hands, wondering if he was on fire and hadn't noticed. No.
What the hell?
His bones went cold as he realized what it was. His boots were planted in the middle of a scorched patch of earth, one about the size of a body. Something had been incinerated right where he was standing—within the last twelve hours, by the scent of it.
Oh… God. Had they left her out for the sun?
Z eased down on his haunches, putting his free hand on the withered ground. He imagined Bella lying there when the sun came out, imagined her feeling ten thousand times more pain than he had as he'd just materialized.
The blackened spot got blurry.
He scrubbed his face and then stared at his palm. There was wetness on it. Tears?
He searched his chest for what he was feeling, but all that came to him was information about his body. His torso was swaying because his muscles were weak. He was light-headed and vaguely nauseous. But that was it. There were no emotions for him.
He rubbed his sternum and was about to do another sweep with his hands when a pair of shitkickers came into his line of sight.
He looked up into Phury's face. The thing was a mask, all frozen and pasty.
"Was it her?" he croaked, kneeling down.
Z lurched backward, just barely managing to keep his gun out of the snow. He couldn't be anywhere near someone right now, especially Phury.
In a messy scramble, he got to his feet. "Vishous here yet?"
"Right behind you, my brother," V whispered.
"There's…" He cleared his throat. Rubbed his face on his forearm. "There's a security alarm. I think the place is clear, because two slayers just left, but I'm not sure."
"I'm on the alarm."
Z caught a number of scents all of a sudden and glanced behind him. The whole of the Brotherhood was there, even Wrath, who as king was not supposed to be in the field. They were all armed. They had all come to get her back.
The group lined up flat against the house as V used a pick on the door lock. His Glock went in first. When there was no reaction, he slipped inside and closed himself in. A moment later there was one long beep. He opened the door.
"Good to go."
Z rushed forward, practically mowing down the male.
His eyes penetrated the dim corners of the single room. The place was a mess, with shit scattered all over the floor. Clothes… knives and handcuffs and… shampoo bottles? And what the fuck was that? God, a disemboweled first-aid kit, its gauze and tape bleeding out of the ruined lid. The thing looked like it had been stomped on until it had opened.
Heart pounding in his chest, sweat blooming all over him, he looked for Bella and saw only inanimate objects: A wall of shelving that held nightmarish instruments. A cot. A fireproof metal closet the size of a car. An autopsy table with four sets of steel chains hanging off its corners… and blood smudged on its smooth surface.
Random thoughts fired through Z's brain. She was dead. That burned oval proved it. Except what if that had just been another captive? What if she'd been moved or something?
As his brothers hung back, like they knew better than to get in his way, Z went over to the fireproof closet, keeping his gun in hand. He wrenched the doors off, just grabbed onto the metal panels and bent them until the hinges broke. He tossed the heavy sections away, hearing them clatter and bang.
Guns. Ammunition. Plastic explosives.
The arsenal of their enemies.
He went into the bathroom. Nothing but a stall shower and a bucket with a toilet seat on it.
"She's not here, my brother," Phury said.
In a fit of rage Z launched himself at the autopsy table, picking it up with one hand and throwing it into a wall. In midflight, a length of chain came back at him, catching him in the shoulder, nailing him to the bone.
And then he heard it. A soft whimpering sound.
His head snapped around to the left.
In the corner, on the ground, there were three cylindrical metal lips protruding from the earth, and they were capped by mesh plates that were the dark brown color of the dirt floor. Which explained why he hadn't noticed them.
He went over and kicked off one of the covers. The whimpering got louder.
Suddenly light-headed, he fell to his knees. "Bella?"
Gibberish rose from the earth to answer him, and he dropped his gun. How was he going to…? Ropes—there were ropes coming out of what looked like a sewer pipe. He grabbed onto them and pulled gently.
What emerged was a dirty, bloody male, about ten years out of his transition. The civilian was naked and shivering, his lips blue, his eyes rolling around.
Z dragged him free, and Rhage wrapped his leather trench coat around the male.
"Get him out of here," someone said as Hollywood sliced the ropes.
"Can you dematerialize?" another brother asked the male.
Z paid no attention to the conversation. He went for the next hole, but there were no ropes leading down into it, and his nose detected no scent. The thing was empty.
He was stepping over to the third when the captive yelled, "No! Th-that one's booby-trapped!"
Z froze. "How?"
Through chattering teeth, the civilian said, "I d-don't know. I just heard the l-lesser warn one of his m-men about it."
Before Z could ask, Rhage started walking the room. "Got a gun over here. Business end pointed in that direction." There were the sounds of metal clicks and shifting. "It's not armed. Anymore."
Z looked above the hole. Mounted on the exposed rafters of the roof, about fifteen feet from the floor, there was a small device. "V, what have we got up there?"
"Laser eye. You break it, it probably triggers the—"
"Hold up," Rhage said. "I got another gun to empty out here."
V stroked his goatee. "There must be a remote-control activator, although the guy probably took it with him. That's what I would do." He squinted up at the ceiling. "That particular model runs on lithium batteries. So it's not like we could kill the generator to turn it off. And they're tricky to disarm."
Z glanced around for something he could use to push the plate off and thought of the bathroom. He went inside, whipped the shower curtain down, and brought the pole it had hung from back.
"Everyone clear out."
Rhage spoke sharply. "Z, man, I don't know that I've found all the—"
"Take the civilian with you." When no one moved, he cursed. "We don't have time to fuck around, and if someone's getting shot it's going to be me. Jesus Christ, will you brothers leave?"
When the place was cleared out, Z approached the hole. Standing with his back to one of the guns that had been removed, so that he would have been in its line of fire, he nudged the cover off with the pole. A gunshot rang out with a popping sound.
Z caught the slug in his left calf. The searing impact brought him down on one knee, but he ignored it and dragged himself to the neck of the pipe. He took hold of the ropes that led down into the earth and began to pull.
The first thing he saw was her hair. Bella's long, beautiful mahogany hair was all around her, a veil over her face and shoulders.
He sagged and lost his vision, partly passing out, but even through the full-body wobble, he kept pulling. Abruptly the effort became easier… because there were hands helping him… other hands on the rope, other hands laying her gently on the floor.
Dressed in a sheer nightgown that was stained with her blood, she wasn't moving, but she was breathing. He carefully pushed her hair back from her face…
Zsadist's blood pressure took a nosedive. "Oh, sweet Jesus… oh, sweet Jesus… oh, sweet—"
"What did they do…" Whoever had spoken couldn't find the words to finish.
Throats cleared. A couple of coughs were smothered. Or maybe they were gags.
Z gathered her in his arms and just… hugged her. He had to get her out, but he couldn't move for what had been done to her. Blinking, dizzy, screaming inside, he rocked her gently back and forth. Words fell from his mouth, lamentations for her in the Old Language.
Phury sank down to his knees. "Zsadist? We have to take her away from here."
Focus came to Z in a rush, and suddenly all he could think about was moving her to the mansion. He sliced the harness off her torso, then struggled to his feet with her in his arms. When he tried to walk, his left leg gave out and he stumbled. For a split second he couldn't think of why.
"Let me take her," Phury said, putting out his hands. "You've been shot."
Zsadist shook his head and brushed by his twin, limping.
He took Bella out to the Taurus that was still parked in front of the building. Holding her against his chest, he broke the driver's-side window with his fist, then craned his arm inside and unlocked everything while the alarm went crazy. Opening the rear door, he leaned down and put her on the seat. When he bent her legs slightly to make them fit, the nightgown rode up and he winced. She had bruises. A lot of them.
As the alarm ran out of steam, he said, "Someone give me a jacket."
The second he held his hand out behind him, leather hit his palm. He draped her carefully in what he realized was Phury's coat, and then he shut her in and got behind the wheel.
The last thing he heard was a command from Wrath. "V, get out that hand of yours. This place needs to be torched."
Reaching under the dash, Z hot-wired the sedan and sped from the scene like a bat out of hell.
O pulled his truck over to the curb on a dark section of Tenth Street. "I still don't get why you lied."
"If you got yourself sent home to the Omega, where would that leave us? You're one of the strongest slayers we've got."
O glanced over with distaste. "You're such a company man, aren't you?"
"I take pride in our work."
"How nineteen-fifties, Howdy Doody of you."
"Yeah, and that shit saved your ass, so be grateful."
Whatever. He had better things to worry about than U's gung ho pep rally crap.
He and U got out of the truck. ZeroSum and Screamer's and Snuff'd were down a couple blocks, and though it was cold, there were lines waiting to get into the clubs. Some of the shivering masses were undoubtedly vampires, and even if they weren't, the night would be busy. There were always fights with the Brothers to get down with.
O hit the security alarm, stuffed the keys into his pocket… and stopped dead in the middle of Tenth Street. He literally couldn't move.
His wife… Jesus, his wife really hadn't looked well when he'd left with U.
O grabbed the front of his black turtleneck, feeling like he couldn't breathe. He didn't care about the pain she was enduring; she'd brought that on herself. But he couldn't bear it if she died, if she left him… What if she was dying right now?
"What's the matter?" U asked.
O fished around for the car keys, anxiety sizzling in his veins. "I've got to go."
"You're bailing? We missed quota last night—"
"I just have to go back to the center for a sec. L's over on Fifth Street hunting. Hang with him. I'll find you in thirty."
O didn't wait for an answer. He hopped in the truck and sped out of town, taking Route 22 through Caldwell's rural sprawl. He was about fifteen minutes away from the persuasion center when he saw the flashing tangle of a cop car convention up ahead. He cursed and hit the brakes, hoping it was just an accident.
But no, in the intervening time since he'd left, the goddamned police had set up another one of their intoxication checkpoints. Two squad cars were parked on either side of Route 22, and orange cones and flares ran up the middle of the road. On the right, there was a reflective sign announcing the Caldwell Police Department's Safety First program.
Holy Christ, like they had to do this here? In the middle of nowhere? Why weren't they downtown, near the bars? Then again, people from the shit burg next to Caldwell did have to drive home after club-hopping in the big city…
There was one car in front of him, a minivan, and O drummed his fingers on top of the steering wheel. He had half a mind to pull out his Smith & Wesson and pop both the cop and the driver to their royal reward. Just for slowing him up.
A car approached from the opposite direction, and O looked across the road. The unremarkable Ford Taurus stopped with a little squeak of the brakes, its headlights milky and dim.
Man, those lame-ass cars were a dime a dozen, but that was why U had chosen the make and model for his own ride. Fitting in with the general human population was critical to keeping the war with the vampires secret.
As the policeman approached the POS, O thought it was weird that the driver's window was already down on a cold night like this. Then he got a gander at the guy behind the wheel. Holy shit. Bastard had a scar as thick as a finger running down his face. And a gauge in his earlobe. Maybe the car was stolen.
The cop obviously had the same idea, because his hand was on the butt of his gun as he bent over to address the driver. And the shit really went down when the badge trained his flashlight into the backseat. Abruptly his body jerked like he'd been nailed between the eyes, and he reached for his shoulder, going for what was probably his transmitter. Except the driver stuck his head out the window and stared up at the officer. There was a frozen moment between them.
Then the policeman dropped his arm and casually waved the Taurus through without even checking the driver's ID.
O glared at the cop doing duty on O's side of the road. The fucker was still detaining the soccer-mom special in front like the minivan was full of drug dealers. Meanwhile, the guy's buddy across the way was letting what looked like a serial killer go through without so much as a hi-how-are-ya. It was like getting in the wrong lane at a tollbooth.
Finally O pulled up. He was as civil as he could be, and a couple minutes later he was hitting the gas. He'd gone about five miles when a brilliant flash of light broke out over the landscape to the right. About where the persuasion center was.
He thought of the kerosene heater. The one that leaked.
O floored the accelerator. His woman was stuck in the ground… If there was a fire…
He cut into the forest and sped under the pine trees, bumping up and down, his head smacking the roof while he tried to hang onto the steering wheel. He reassured himself that up ahead there was no orange glow from a blaze. If there had been an explosion, there would be flames, smoke…
His headlights swung around. The persuasion center was gone. Eliminated. Ash.
O punched into the brake to keep the truck from smashing into a tree. Then he looked around the forest to make sure he was in the right place. When it was clear he was, he leaped out and threw himself to the ground.
Grabbing handfuls of dust, he waded around in the residue until the shit got in his nose and his mouth and covered his body like a robe. He found bits of melted metal, but nothing larger than his palm.
Through the roaring in his mind, he remembered seeing this odd ghostly powder before.
O tilted his head back and hurled his voice to the heavens. He had no idea what left his mouth. All he knew was that the Brotherhood had done this. Because the same thing had happened to the lessers' martial-arts academy six months ago.
Dust… ashes… gone. And they had taken his wife.
Oh, God… Had she been alive when they'd found her? Or had they taken her body with them? Was she dead?
This was his fault; this was all his fault. He'd been so hellbent on punishing her, he'd missed the implications of that civilian getting loose. The male had gone to the Brotherhood and told them where she was, and they had come at the first shades of night and taken her away.
O wiped desperate tears out of his eyes. And then he stopped breathing. He swiveled his head around, taking in the landscape. U's silver Ford Taurus was gone.
The checkpoint. The fucking checkpoint. That scary-ass man behind the wheel had in fact been no man at all. He'd been a member of the Black Dagger Brotherhood. Had to be. And O's wife had been in the back, either barely breathing or dead. That was why the cop had freaked out. He'd seen her as he'd looked into the rear of the car, but the Brother had brainwashed him into letting the Taurus through.
O lurched into the truck and hammered the accelerator, driving east, heading for U's place.
The Taurus had a LoJack system.
Which meant with the right computer equipment, he could find that POS anywhere.