Authors: Tes Hilaire
Copyright © 2012 by Tes Hilaire
Cover and internal design © 2012 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by Patricia Schmitt (Pickyme)
Cover photo by Jenn LeBlanc
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To Tim. This one’s for you. Thanks for the inspiration.
Logan Calhoun III was going to die. Not as a result of fighting evil, as was his mission and destiny. Nor was he dying of old age, though if he were merely human he’d be but dust in his grave. Nope, Logan was going to die from the most rudimentary form of torture in the world: boredom.
Ever since the skirmish at the end of the summer, where the Paladin order had kicked evil’s ass, the normally dark-edged city that was the preferred hunting ground for the treacherous Ganelon’s demonic army had been all but peaceful. Which was not normal or natural, and all that peacefulness was making Logan itch.
Something had to drop. But what, where, and when?
Five nights straight, Logan had stood in the maw of the Bronx’s various “sin” clubs scoping the writhing bodies across the floor, and so far? Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero. Human stuff. Normal stuff the world over—since Lucifer set his sights on mankind. But he detected no demonic powers at work. Nothing to suggest the presence of true evil.
where, oh where have all the merker gone?
he thought to himself, scanning the seething room yet again. Same as before. No demons. Nor their harder to spot half-blood, merker relatives. Not even a vampire or an imp to provide some entertainment for the night. He shook his head, fighting off a yawn. The death of him. Truly.
“Don’t look so interested to be here, Cal.”
Logan straightened, shifting enough to glance toward the bull of a man who’d been mirroring him on the other side of the arched opening. Legs crossed, shoulder butted against the rough plaster, eyes scanning, he was a bulk of shadow to the average observer, nothing more. Only something evil would know he was akin to death waiting in the wings.
Alexander’s attention shifted from the floor of grinding bodies to Logan, one of his heavy eyebrows arching in challenge. “I’m just saying. Look much happier to be here and you’re going to get us kicked out.”
Logan grunted. “I wouldn’t worry about it. We’re pretty much hidden. Besides, you should talk. Your sorry mug does a fine job of keeping everyone away.”
“Not for much longer. That one doesn’t even notice me. She’s been watching you all night.” Alex jerked his chin toward one of the strategically placed shot bars.
Logan followed the motion, focusing on the corseted brunette who sat on the edge of her bar stool twirling an empty martini glass. He’d skimmed over her a dozen or more times without thought, but this time, as their gazes lined up, he realized it wasn’t the first time they had and he knew he’d screwed up. Big time. The girl—yes, she was a girl, no way she was legal, not without a fake ID—flashed a row of straight white teeth that probably still became intimate with a retainer at night, shifted off the black faux leather and struck out uncertainly on her towering heels toward him.
“Aw, fuck.” He whacked his head back against the wall a few times, the rub of the rough plaster seeming like insufficient punishment for his indiscretion.
“Don’t be alarmed,” the big warrior across from him murmured.
Easy for Alex to say. He wasn’t being eyed down by a recently-out-of-braces, probably-still-slept-in-Hello-Kitty-flannels girl. It would be one thing if it were a first for Logan. But it wasn’t. Something about him—his best friend Roland claimed it was the damn dimples—seemed to draw the young and innocent like moths to a flame. Or, in his case, a raging bonfire.
He was definitely too old for this crap. Too old and too cranky. Damn. He didn’t have the patience or the desire to let this innocent wish-I-were-a-big-girl down gently.
Drawing in a deep breath and trying to muster up the patience of a saint, he fortified himself for the challenge ahead: how to get her out of here and on her way home.
The girl’s smile burned into him, hopeful and anxious: The first strike, though with his hardened shell it didn’t even draw blood. He started to push away from the wall—never good to be backed into a corner during a battle—but found his path of attack blocked by one of Alexander’s tree-trunk arms, followed immediately by Alex’s freight-train body.
Logan jerked back, his body smacking into the rough archway, peeling plaster sticking in his hair as he tried to inch away from the warrior. “What the hell are you doing?”
Alexander blinked down at him, his mouth drawing into a pout as he answered, his voice taking on a pathetic, whiny edge that was just not natural coming out of the rock-solid man.
doing, baby? I thought this was our night. I thought we were here to have fun.” Alexander shifted in closer, his breath brushing Logan’s temple as he dipped his head down toward Logan’s ear. “You want that girl to run home crying to mom and dad? Then play along, Cal.”
The voice may have been low and dangerous like the warrior he knew, but the shock of that breath froze Logan stiff. No way. Yeah, he liked the man, as a friend, a brother in the war they waged, but not
way. His hand fisted, ready to pull back and strike out in a not-at-all-amused gut punch, but then he caught sight of the girl over Alex’s shoulder. She’d stopped a few feet away, her eyes round as she shifted from one foot to the other, her cheap stilettos poised to run toward him or the door depending on what he did next.
Suck it up. Deal. So what if Alex was turning out to be a star actor? Find him a square on Hollywood Boulevard and chisel his name in it. But first, get this girl out of here.
He forced himself to unfurl his hand and lay it on Alex’s waist. Turning his full attention, and what he hoped looked like an engaging rather than an I’m-going-to-kill-you-later smile on his Paladin brother, he said loudly enough for the girl to overhear, “Of course this is our night, XE. I was just going to get us a drink.”
“Ah baby, that’s sweet. But I don’t need a drink. You know all I thirst for is you.”
And then Alex did something that really did ice Logan’s blood. Alex shifted his hands from the wall beside Logan’s head and slid them alongside Logan’s jaw. Those hands, deceptively gentle to an observer, closed around Logan’s face like a vise, his golden eyes blurred together they were so close.
“Relax, Cal,” Alex hissed, his breath like a scalding furnace across Logan’s face.
“Then back off!” Logan shot back in an undertone.
“Just a few more seconds,” Alex replied calmly, not moving in any closer, but not budging either.
Logan counted them off, each second punctuated by a hissing breath through clenched teeth. It wasn’t so much the playing along as the feeling of being trapped. And it took all his control not to break the lock Alex’s body had against his.
“There.” Alex shifted back, resuming his cross-legged stance across from him on the other side of the archway. “And look, gone.”
Logan stifled the growl that wanted to escape. Alex was right. It was the results that counted, not the method, if the girl’s perceived humiliation would be enough to deter her from doing something so stupid again—at least for a few more years. He should be pleased with the victory, and was halfway to convincing himself to forgive Alex for his extreme, albeit successful, methods of counterattack when he felt the brush of a chuckle in his head followed by,
Valin. Of course the eavesdropper was present for that. Crap and hell. There would be no end to the bastard’s ribbing now.
«You think that was funny?»
«Why yes, I do.»
There was a pause, then,
«But, that’s not why I’ve reached out to touch someone. Though you boys seem to be way ahead of me there.»
Logan growled the name, at least as much as he could through projected thought.
Logan sensed Valin’s thoughts shift from his natural state of black-edged humor, his voice coming through crystal clear and all business like.
«I think I’ve got one. Lone bogey, coming your way.»
Finally. It was about friggin’ time. Logan pushed off the wall, jerking his head toward the back of the club. Alex tilted his head quizzically.
“Val’s found one,” Logan explained.
“What’s the strategy?” Alex fell into step beside him, his face showing no evidence of residual awkwardness from the scene they’d played out a few minutes ago. Oscar worthy indeed. Well, if Alex could do it, so could he.
“Bait and trap.”
“And then?” Alex reached out, pushing open the heavy metal door to the back alley.
“Then?” Logan smiled as he stood in the opening, breathing in the dark-edged night. Maybe tonight wouldn’t turn out to be so bad. “Then we make it wish it were back in Hell.”
Slouched down in the Chevy’s cracked vinyl seat, Jessica stared through the fogged-up window as she absently brought her hands to her mouth for another poof of heat, then rubbed them together. It was a routine she’d perfected over the last half hour. One she vowed she’d quit if she had to sit here for another ten. She wanted to turn on the goddamn heater, but a running car would be suspicious, wouldn’t it? Not that there was anyone here to be suspicious. Grim was late and so, obviously, was his buddy.
She pulled her cell from the seat beside her, glanced at her notices. No texts. With a curse she tossed the phone back down and resumed her wait. In general, Grim was a reliable source; his take on the Bronx party circuit was normally spot on. So when he contacted her the other day, saying he had information on her unidentified suspect in a case that seemed to be heading toward sub-zero levels, her interest had been piqued.
According to Grim, their stiff, Thomas Rhodes, had croaked because he’d gotten messed up in some really freaky paranormal shit. Of the sharp and pointy fang variety to be precise. And the guy he was going to introduce her to could prove it.
Uh-huh. Thomas Rhodes’s death might’ve been freaky—as in freakin’ frustrating due to lack of concrete evidence—but there was nothing paranormal about it. The guy had tried to date-rape a coed, and some vigilante type had taken exception and pummeled the shit out of him in a back alley. Jessica’s problem was that she couldn’t prove the last part. All she knew for sure was that the coed and vigilante left together, and Thomas Rhodes’s body had washed up along Hunts Points shore, unidentifiable, more than a week later.
The only thing she considered inexplicable in Tom’s murder was that it hadn’t happened earlier. No one liked him. Not his boss, not his drinking “buddies,” not even his own mother. And after learning from those bar-hopping acquaintances that this wasn’t the first time he’d drugged some coed’s drink, well, Jessica didn’t like him much either. Okay, “didn’t like” might’ve been mild for what she thought of assholes like Thomas Rhodes. Very mild. Still, it was her job to find his killer and bring whoever it was to justice. And though she’d love to bury the file, she owed it to Lady Justice to at least follow up on this new lead.
Jessica blew on her hands again, this time tucking them between her thighs for extra warmth. What she wouldn’t give for some coffee. Just to hold. She thought of the Dunkin’s down the street but didn’t dare leave her post. Though it was tempting. Sitting in her beat-up Chevy at two a.m. was not how Jessica wanted to spend her night, especially when she had to be up bright and early for her real shift the next day. Tired and exhausted didn’t cut it. Her recent MO was as close to zombiehood as she could get and still have a heartbeat.
She blinked, rubbed her eyes with the heel of her hand. It felt so good she stayed there a moment: head tipped forward, palms cradling her forehead, elbows braced on her rib cage. Just a couple seconds, maybe a minute.
There was a loud bang, the sound of metal on metal. Jessica jerked, grabbing for her phone as she scanned the street both behind and in front of her. Nothing. In fact, there were very few cars other than her own, and they were all where they’d been when she arrived.
“What the hell?” She sat up straight and squinted down the one-way street diagonal from her car. No cars there. The only sign of life was the half-erected set of scaffolding that fronted a building partway down and that looked like it had been set up long ago.
She was studying the rickety lawsuit-in-waiting when something caught the edge of her vision. A flash of shadow on shadow, something that might or might not have been a human melting into the darkness behind the Dumpster that was left to collect the debris of the never-started renovations.
Her informant? Or someone else?
Hand shifting from phone to gun, she pulled the Sig from its holster, thumb flicking off the safety. With adrenaline coursing through her system, she eased from the Chevy.
The darkened street stretched before her. Curling shadows formed the hazy edges of doors and windows of the abandoned buildings. She shivered as she crossed the street, her gaze honing in on the Dumpster a few yards beyond the rusting scaffolding. She could’ve sworn that’s where she saw…whatever it was she saw. But no matter how hard she peered into the dark shadows, nothing morphed into substance.
“Grim?” she ventured, but tensed when a flash of movement up in the scaffolding caught her eye. She spun, gun raised and ready and came up against…a discarded newspaper trapped in one of the x-joints and flapping in the breeze.
“Brilliant.” She lowered her hands, removing her shaking finger from the trigger as she calmly counted to ten.
Damn it. Obviously her chronic case of exhaustion had frayed her nerves. Jumping at shadows and the wind? Staying up to listen to a wild story from a man two leaps ahead of crazy? She could imagine what the guys at the station would have to say about this.
Squaring her shoulders, she glanced down at her watch, then frowned at the digital readout. Almost three. Where in the hell was Grim? He’d said 2:30.
Five more minutes. Then, intel or not, she was out of here.