* * *
Jayce slowed his bike and steered down the nearly hidden turnoff from the two-lane highway. After talking to Connor about the importance of working with the fae in regard to the APL—and giving the Alpha some vague information about possible vamp blood issues—he’d made his way to one of the last places he wanted to be.
Ned Hartwig’s house. Well, “house” was a bit of a stretch. The guy lived in a run-down trailer half the time, and the other half he lived in a hollowed-out school bus. Ned was a bit of a freak and had worked with the APL on occasion. However, he wasn’t a white supremacist. Nope, first and foremost Ned was a drug dealer. Mainly weed, but Jayce had received a tip that Hartwig had expanded into vampire blood. The guy wasn’t in Connor’s territory, though. Unfortunately this wasn’t the only tip Jayce had received about vamp blood trafficking in the state. There was another supposed dealer closer to Winston-Salem, but that was in the opposite direction and Jayce would rather talk to someone he knew first.
Seemed the shit was popping up everywhere lately. And no one had any idea who the source was. Or if it was multiple sources. If it was voluntary or if some dumbass humans had captured a vampire that they were now using as a blood source. God help anyone who was stupid enough to do that.
Vampires might be more individualistic and scoff at the type of pack mentality shifters embraced, but if someone fucked with one of their own, they got pissed and retaliated. There was nothing subtle about the way vamps reacted either. If they thought someone had wronged them, they more or less killed first and asked questions later. So in addition to that concern, Jayce was definitely worried about what would happen if the wrong person got hopped up on vamp blood. He could just see the headlines, and it made him cringe.
Moss and low-hanging branches from an abundance of thick, old trees nearly blocked the crumbling paved path. The fact that it wasn’t completely dirt was a miracle. Part of the reason was because the property Ned lived on had once held an antebellum mansion. That structure was now just ruins, lying about a mile from Ned’s trailer.
After hiding his bike in the underbrush, Jayce ducked into the woods and jogged parallel to the path. He knew for a fact that Ned had booby traps rigged, and even though he could survive damn near anything, he didn’t feel like getting his ass blown up and he didn’t want to announce his presence sooner than he had to.
About thirty yards farther along he noticed a trip wire stretched between two trees. He avoided it and slowed his pace until he came to the clearing where the rusty school bus and trailer were. Listening, he heard a steady heartbeat from the direction of the trailer. So he made his way to the bus.
He checked for traps, then hoisted himself up and through one of the open windows. Once inside, he froze for a moment. The seats had all been removed and what looked like one long, haphazardly built bench lined the left side. Odd.
Jayce tapped on it, then ran his hand along the rough-hewn material until he realized that it wasn’t nailed down. It was like someone had just nailed some wood together to create a giant L shape and then shoved it over . . . a bunch of mini-refrigerators.
Anger burst inside him as he removed the wood covering. Before he’d even opened one of the fridges, he knew what he would find inside. He opened one after another, fury building in him with each display of long, cylindrical tubes containing blood. Just to make sure it was what he thought it was, he opened one and smelled its contents.
Vampire blood had a sweeter, more distinctive odor than human blood. This was definitely vamp blood. He replaced the wood cover on the refrigerators, then slipped out the way he’d come in. Once on the ground, he realized that the electrical cord he’d seen draped from a hole in the bus must lead to a power source. Following it, he was silent as he crept up to the trailer. The windows were boarded up and he could see a couple of mounted video cameras, so he avoided them.
As he neared the trailer he changed his mind and backtracked to the bus. He would bring Ned to him. Grabbing the cord with both hands, he wrenched it apart. The soft hum of the refrigerators died instantly.
Jayce grinned to himself. Ned was a survivalist conspiracy-theorist type who didn’t believe in banks and hid all the cash he made from drugs only God-knew-where, so Jayce had no doubt that the guy had an alarm rigged to his refrigerators.
It would be silent, of course, but the amount of blood in those things was worth at least half a million. Maybe more. Jayce wasn’t sure what the current street price for the shit was. If more had flooded the market recently—and it seemed as if it had—then the price might have dropped a fraction.
Pressing his body against the side of the bus and making sure one of the wheels blocked any view of his legs, he was silent as he heard a curse from the direction of the trailer, then the trailer door opening. Jayce tugged down the zipper on his jacket, but didn’t draw either of his blades—or either of the two guns he had on his person. He waited only thirty seconds before revealing himself.
As he stepped out from behind the bus, he found Ned with his hand on the back door of it, his eyes wide with surprise. “Hey . . . man. Jayce, what the fuck are you doing here?”
“What the fuck are you doing selling vamp blood?”
The fear that rolled off Ned was pungent. Some of the stench was probably because the guy hadn’t showered in a few days.
At six feet tall, with thickly muscled and tattooed arms, slicked-back hair, and a full beard and mustache, Ned didn’t look like a man easily intimidated. To any other observer he would even have looked calm and collected. But the human couldn’t hide the smell of his terror from Jayce.
“What are you talking about?” There was a waver in Ned’s voice, so slight that Jayce might not have heard it if not for his extremely sensitive hearing.
“I’ve been in your bus.” His voice was monotone.
Now anger punched off the human. Anger and that roll of fear again. Ned swallowed hard. “Why the hell do you care? You’re not a vamp.”
“Thanks for stating the obvious.” Jayce kept his gaze on Ned steady as he allowed his wolf to show in his eyes. He knew he could look like a scary bastard when he wanted to.
To Ned’s credit, he didn’t step away. Probably because he was frozen to the spot. Finally the human shrugged. “It’s none of your fucking business what I do. There’s money in vamp blood, and I’m not hurting anyone.”
“Who’s your dealer?”
Okay, now that fear turned to something acidic and . . . dark. Interesting. “None of your business.”
“How many clients are you selling to a week?”
Ned held up a hand and reached into his jacket pocket slowly. “Just grabbing a cig.” As he lit up, he said, “If I didn’t know better I’d think you were trying to move in on my territory.”
Jayce snorted; that thought was ludicrous for a multitude of reasons. “Who. Is. Your. Dealer.” He injected his animal side into his voice.
Ned shook his head, the acidic stench back. “I tell you, I’m dead,” he whispered.
“I’ll kill you if you don’t tell me.” Jayce wouldn’t, but he wanted to see Ned’s reaction.
Ned shook his head as he took a drag from his cigarette. “What he’ll do to me is worse.” He spoke so low Jayce almost didn’t hear him. It was as if Ned was afraid someone could actually overhear them.
There were no other humans nearby. Jayce couldn’t scent or hear anyone, but something told him Ned wouldn’t believe him if he told him. “Damn it, Ned. I don’t want to hurt you but I will.” Jayce quickly removed one of his blades, hoping the show of force would loosen the human’s lips. It’s not that he had any particular feelings for this guy, but he wasn’t eager to cause him pain either.
Moving lightning fast—fast enough to let Jayce know the human was taking his own product—Ned pulled something round from his pocket and tossed it into one of the bus windows.
A click and a soft hissing sound moved Jayce into action. Using all the strength in his legs he launched himself away from the bus. Out of his peripheral vision he watched as Ned sprinted in the opposite direction.
Before he had time to think of a plan of action, a loud explosion ripped through the air. Heat licked at his back, the impact of the bomb pulsing into his eardrums and lifting him off his feet. Jayce flew through the air and slammed into a tree, his stomach taking the brunt of the impact.
As he fell back onto the dirt, grass, and patches of ice, he rolled over and pushed to his feet in a few fluid movements. Blade still in hand, he started after Ned. The school bus burned incredibly fast, telling Jayce that Ned must have had other explosives already inside.
He’d been prepared for this possibility.
It could be something as simple as that the guy had been fearful of the cops and this was his backup plan to dispose of evidence, but something told Jayce otherwise. Ned had been shitting-his-pants afraid of someone. Someone apparently scarier than Jayce.
One of his eardrums had ruptured, and for a dizzying moment, nausea roiled in his stomach. Just as quickly, his body started mending itself. As he headed toward the trailer, his ear had already healed. His age had a lot to do with his abilities to regenerate. The older shifters were, the quicker, stronger, and more powerful they became.
Instead of following Ned, Jayce hurried into the trailer. After scanning it for possible traps, he zeroed in on the guy’s makeshift “office.” Meaning the desk and laptop he had set up in the only clean corner. Careful not to touch anything else, Jayce snagged the laptop and raced back to his bike. He could have followed Ned but decided against it at the moment. He already had a decent head start, and knowing his tendencies, Jayce would expect that Ned had probably set up a ton of traps.
With the giant fireball that had ripped through the sky, he didn’t want to be anywhere close to Ned’s place when the cops finally showed up. For all the bullshit and strange conspiracy theories that Jayce had heard Ned spout more than once in the past, something told Jayce that if he could crack the encryption on the laptop—and he knew it would be protected—he’d find a gold mine of information. At least he hoped so.