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"Goddamn it," he growled. "We leave in five."

He stormed out of the room ahead of her. Mira tucked her dagger into the sheath on her belt and went after him.

The knock on the door of the ground-level apartment of the rat-infested triple-decker in Boston's Charlestown neighborhood came roughly seven minutes after sundown. Prompt, considering Rooster had been summoned there only five minutes ago by his friend's urgent, unexplained phone call.

Nathan casually eyed the dead heroin-dealing pimp who lay sprawled where he'd fallen, windpipe crushed five and a half minutes ago, after the human had the bad sense to think the vampire in his living room could be gotten rid of with the help of the revolver stowed under a sofa cushion. The butt of the unused Smith & Wesson was still wedged between the tattered, plaid-covered foam and a fleece throw that didn't quite mask the stains and cigarette burns riddling the filthy upholstery.

Nathan assumed the weapon was loaded, not that he cared. He'd been trained as a boy to kill a hundred different ways with his bare hands. And he'd never taken a hit in all this time. His record was flawless. His mercy nonexistent.

Rooster's rap on the door came again, two staccato beats. "Yo, Billy! You gonna open this damn door or - "

His words dried up in his throat in that next instant, as Nathan had the door open, Rooster yanked inside, and the dead bolts thrown home in the time it would have taken the human to utter another syllable.

"What the fuck!" he hollered, falling back onto the sofa where Nathan dropped him. His bloodshot eyes were wide under the ridiculous plume of his scarlet mohawk as he scrambled to right himself, trying to get his bearings inside the gloomy apartment. His confused, searching gaze finally lit on Nathan, standing in the shadows in front of him. "Oh, shit . . . no fucking way! Billy, what the fuck you doin' with the Order, man?"

Nathan stared down at him. "I need to talk to you, Rooster. Tried your place first, but you weren't home."

"Talk to me? I got no business with you, man. Got no business with the fuckin' Order!" Rooster's eyes went a bit wider, the whites rolling around in his skull as he glanced around him, no doubt looking for some support from his friend. Support he wasn't going to get. He realized that a moment later, when his panicked gaze landed on the motionless limbs and sightless stare of the corpse lying just a few feet away. "Holy shit! That Billy right there? Naw, I don't fuckin' believe this shit! I just talked to him, like five minutes ago."

Nathan shrugged. "Billy made the call to you because I asked him to. Then Billy got stupid and now he's dead."

"Oh, God!" Rooster howled, burying his head in his hands. "Shit, man . . . this is messed up! What the hell do you want from me?"

"Information, to start," Nathan said.

He'd done some discreet digging during the daylight hours between Lucan handing him this solo task and the wait till sundown, when he could finally hit the streets and start taking care of business. Word came back that most of the local lowlifes hadn't known the first thing about a civilian abduction, so whoever was responsible was keeping the intel close to their vest. But the common denominator when it came to rebel factions and related activity around Boston was the red-combed loser spluttering and twitching on the sofa in front of Nathan.

"Ain't got no information," Rooster whined. "You got the wrong guy, man."

Nathan narrowed his look on the human informant. "I know you're not going to sit there and deny you have business dealings of potential interest to me. I'm not talking about drug-dealing flesh-peddlers like this asshole Billy over here, but other associates of yours. Ones who might know something about a situation that went down a couple days ago over in the Berkshires."

Rooster's upper lip twitched. "What kind of situation?"

"Kidnapping," Nathan replied. "Someone very important. Potentially very high profile."

A sharp inhalation as the snitch fidgeted, crossing and uncrossing his arms. He was clued in now. He had information. He would talk. Just a matter of time, but unluckily for Rooster, Nathan's mission meant he was short on that commodity.

"This kidnapping also netted another hostage," he told the man. "One of particular interest to the Order and to me personally as well."

Rooster let out his breath in a gust of sour air. "I don't know anything about her, I swear."

"You just told me you do." Nathan's lethal instincts prickled to full attention, but he remained as outwardly calm as his years of unforgiving training as a born-and-bred killer had made him.

He took hold of Rooster's biceps, sure that the injuries Mira had inflicted with her blades at La Notte a few nights ago still pained the human. He squeezed, ignoring Rooster's sharp cry of anguish. "Take a look at your friend. You remember how I said Billy got stupid before he got dead?" That red mohawk wobbled with its owner's jerky nod. "Don't be stupid, Rooster. Tell me where they took Mira and Jeremy Ackmeyer."

When he didn't hear an answer through the groan of agony coming out of Rooster's mouth, Nathan increased the pressure.

"I don't know," the human howled. "I don't fuckin' know! Last I knew Ackmeyer was with Vince, man. You should be lookin' for him, not me!"

"Vince who?" Nathan demanded.

"I don't know the dude's last name, just know he runs with Bowman and his crew. Or did until today."

"Bowman," Nathan repeated, the first he'd heard of that name among rebel circles. "Where can I find Bowman?"

"Don't know. Never met him." Rooster's face was screwed up in a grimace when Nathan didn't relent for an instant on his wounded arms. "All's I know is, he heads up a small operation somewhere outside Boston."

Nathan noted the new intel but returned his focus to the rest of Rooster's statement. "And this other individual - Vince. He's got Ackmeyer now? Vince decide to run solo or something?"

Rooster nodded. "He was lookin' to make a ransom when he contacted me this morning. Never heard the dude so fired up and cocky. Said Ackmeyer was some kind of genius. Said he invented some kind of UV technology shit that was worth a fortune to the right buyer."

Although Nathan had a cursory awareness of Jeremy Ackmeyer's public resume and his contributions to the science and technology arenas, word of an invention of the type Rooster just mentioned came as a surprise. A very disturbing one.

He said nothing in reaction to this news, his mind playing out a host of possibilities that might come out of a scientific breakthrough involving ultraviolet light. None of them good where the Breed was concerned. And he could only imagine the kind of interest the availability of such technology might attract.

"What else do you know about Vince's plans to ransom Ackmeyer? Did he mention who he was looking at as potential buyers?" Nathan peered at the twitchy informant with assessing eyes. "Let me guess. That's why Vince got in touch with you - to put him in front of someone who might want the deal he had to offer."

Rooster swallowed, still wincing at the pain Nathan was inflicting. "He promised me a cut of his take, so I made some calls. I don't know who took the bait. All's I did was put the word out."

Nathan felt justified in killing Rooster for that offense alone, but he still had Mira to think about. "What about the female? Was Vince looking to turn some kind of profit on her head too?"

"Like I said, man, I don't know nothin' about her. Only what Vince said when I saw him today."

"And what was that?" Nathan all but snarled.

"He said Bowman seems to be having a real good time with her." This Rooster announced with remarkably reckless amusement. He chuckled, even through the pain he was enduring. "Don't ask me to feel sorry for the bitch. After what she did to me the other night, far's I'm concerned, she can suck my dick too."

Nathan's fury stunned him, it roared up so violently inside him. It seethed through his veins, although it was clear from Rooster's continued blathering, the human didn't sense the sudden shift in the air from dangerously tense to lethal still.

He went on, his stupidity far greater than Billy's ill-intended move to defend himself against certain death. "I hope she's gettin' it real good. I hope she got it from Vince and all the rest of Bowman's crew too. Teach that uppity bitch a lesson, put her in her fuckin' place."

Nathan's control snapped, just like that, but outwardly he didn't so much as blink.

He released Rooster's arms and grabbed his head between both palms. Then gave a twist, severing the human's spinal column in one swift twitch of his hands.

He let the body drop, and Rooster's head with its bright red comb of hair flopped at a grotesque angle in the dead man's lap.

Then Nathan turned and calmly walked out of the dump and into the night to continue his mission.

Chapter Sixteen

THEY HAD BEEN IN THE CITY FOR MORE THAN AN HOUR, BUT so far, Rooster was as good as a ghost. He wasn't at his apartment. Hadn't been seen all day, according to the lowlifes he tended to hang with, dealing drugs or fencing electronics down in West Roxbury. No one had seen or heard from him since he'd run with them the night before.

As for Kellan, although he knew he'd recognize Rooster's signature hairstyle on the spot, he'd never had direct contact with him, always filtering messages and intel by way of Vince. Now he regretted that lack of connection. Finding the bastard would have been much easier if he'd been able to call Rooster and personally threaten his sorry life if he didn't cooperate in locating Vince. Not a good way to avoid the murder charge he had no intention of inviting.

But while Kellan's frustration level was steadily climbing toward lethal fury, Mira wasn't deterred by the lack of success thus far. She charged forth with her usual stubborn-headed determination, dragging him along to Boston's old North End, to the club and cage-fighting arena where she'd last seen Rooster a few nights ago.

"Since we're down here anyway," she said as the neo-Gothic silhouette of the converted church rose up into the night sky ahead of them. "It's early, so if he's not inside the club somewhere, our next best bet is a crackhead who calls himself Billy the Kid. He and Rooster did a stretch together in Bridgewater for possession a while back. From what I've heard, they're still tight."

Kellan grunted, impressed with her as usual, and finding it far too easy to fall back into the rhythm of seasoned patrol partners. He had to remind himself that this was not an op shared by fellow warriors. He was not a member of the Order, and Mira was risking her life just being with him - not because of the danger of what they were undertaking here but because of who he was, of who he'd become over these past eight years.

Fortunately, he'd been careful to keep a very low profile. His name, Bowman, might be uttered in dark rooms and back alleys from time to time, but he could practically count on one hand how many people had ever seen his face. Most of those people were back at the base in New Bedford. And now one of that number was dead.

Heavy bass throbbed, grinding guitar chords screaming, as Mira strode for the vestibule door of La Notte's main entrance and pulled it open. Kellan walked in alongside her, surveying the place with a judicious eye. Although the club was crowded for the early evening hour, most of the clientele gathered in front of the head-banging, five-man group looked like kids out of the suburbs and assorted tourist types. Primarily human, although Kellan noted a trio of Darkhaven youths skulking in the far corner, eyes trained on a clutch of big-haired, scantily clad young women who had a table full of empty glasses and seemed more than ready to keep the party going.

"The cage matches don't start until close to midnight," Mira told him, leaning in close to avoid having to shout over the din of music and chatter in the room. "This is just the warm-up."

Her breath beside his ear went through him like a lick of flame, unbidden but hard as hell to ignore. He narrowly resisted putting his hands on her, his head suddenly full of images of her naked in his bed, in the shower. But then Mira put her hand on his forearm, and her fingers bit in as she tugged him into the crowd. "Come on. Rooster's not here. Let's move."

"What's wrong?" he asked, pivoting his head on a scowl to scan the area behind the bar, where she'd been looking just before she grabbed him away. His gaze lit on a pair of males - one of them unmistakably Breed, with long blond hair pulled back in a braided leather tie, accentuating cheekbones that would have looked more in place on a female, if not for the killer coldness of his pale-blue eyes. He stood with massive arms crossed over his chest, listening to the other male who faced him, his back to Mira and Kellan.

"That's Syn," she said, nodding toward the Breed giant. "He's one of the newer fighters. That human he's talking to?" Her chin lifted, gesturing at the equally tall but less bulky man who was dressed in head-to-toe black leather that sported gleaming buckles and bristling spikes. His silver-white hair was shorn in a smooth wedge that rode his skull like a halo. Not that there was anything remotely angelic about him. "That's Cassian, the owner of this place. We shouldn't let either of them see us in here."

Neither one of the men looked happy. Nor did they break the focus of their intense conversation as Mira led Kellan to a shadowed back stairwell. They descended the flight of steps into what appeared to be the bowels of the old church. At the bottom, they emerged into a basementlike walkway illuminated by sparsely placed dim bulbs, aged brick walls tunneling ahead of them and foot-worn stone at their feet.


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