Renata climbed into the truck and started the engine. She drove back toward the city, uncertain where she was heading until she eventually found herself on familiar ground. She never thought she'd be back. Certainly never like this.


The old city neighborhood hadn't changed much in the two years she'd been gone. Cramped tenements and modest post - World War II bungalows lined the twilit street. A few of the youths coming out of the convenience store on the corner glanced at the medical supply truck as Renata drove past.


She didn't recognize any of them, nor any of the shiftless, vacant-eyed adults who made this stretch of concrete their home. But Renata wasn't looking for familiar faces out here. There was just one person she prayed was still around. One person who could be trusted to help her, with few questions asked.


As she rolled up on a squat yellow bungalow with its trellis of pink roses blooming out front, a queer tightness balled in her chest. Jack was still here; Anna's beloved roses, well tended and thriving, were evidence enough of that. And so was the small ironwork sign that Jack had made himself to hang beside the front door, proclaiming the cheery house Anna's Place.


Renata slowed the truck to a stop at the curb and cut the engine, staring at the youth halfway house she'd been to so many times but never actually entered. Lights were on inside, throwing off a welcoming, golden glow. It must have been near suppertime because through the large picture window in front she could see that two teenagers - Jack's clients, though he preferred to call them his "kids" - were setting the table for the evening meal.


"Damn it," she muttered under her breath, closing her eyes and resting her forehead on the steering wheel.


This wasn't right. She shouldn't be here. Not now, after all this time. Not with the problems she was facing. And definitely not with the problem she was currently carrying in the back of the truck.


No, she had to deal with this on her own. Start the engine, wheel the truck around, and take her chances on the street. Hell, she was no stranger to that. But Nikolai was in bad shape, and she wasn't exactly at the top of her game either. She didn't know how much longer she could drive before -


"Evenin'." The friendly, unmistakable Texas drawl came from directly beside her at the open driver's side window. She didn't see him walk up, but now there was no avoiding him. "Can I help ya with...any...thing..."


Jack's voice trailed off as Renata lifted her head and turned to face him. He was a little grayer than she remembered, his short, military-style buzzcut looking thinner, his cheeks and jowls a bit rounder than when she'd last seen him. But he was still a jovial bear of a man, more than six feet tall and built like a tank despite the fact that he was easily pushing seventy. Renata hoped her smile seemed better than the wince it was. "Hi, Jack."


He stared at her - gaped, actually. "Well, I'll be damned," he said, slowly shaking his head. "It's been a long time, Renata. I hoped you'd found a good life somewhere...When you quit coming around a couple of years ago, I worried that maybe - " He stopped himself from completing the thought, gave her a big old grin instead. "Well, hell, it don't matter what I worried about because here you are."


"I can't stay," she blurted, her fingers gripping the key in the ignition, ready to give it a twist. "I shouldn't have come." Jack frowned. "Two years after I see you last, you show up out of the blue just to tell me you can't stay?"


"I'm sorry," she murmured. "I have to go."


He put his hands on the open truck window, as if he meant to physically hold her there. She glanced at the tan, weathered hands that had helped so many kids out of trouble on Montreal's streets - the same hands that had served his home country in war some four decades past, and which now nurtured and protected that trellis of pink roses as though they were more precious to him than gold.


"What's going on, Renata? You know you can talk to me, you can trust me. Are you okay?"


"Yeah," she said. "Yeah, I'm fine, really. Just passing through."


The look in his eyes said he didn't buy that for a second. "Someone else in trouble?"


She shook her head. "Why would you think that?"


"Because that's the only way you ever came around here before. Never for yourself, no matter how badly you personally might have needed a hand up."


"This is different. This isn't anything you should be involved in." She started the truck. "Please, Jack...just forget you even saw me here tonight, okay? I'm sorry. I have to go."


No sooner had she grabbed the shifter to put the truck into gear than Jack's strong hand come to rest on her shoulder. It wasn't a hard touch, but even the smallest pressure on her wound made her practically jump out of her skin. She sucked in her breath as the pain lanced through her.


"You're injured," he said, those wiry gray brows crashing together.


"It's nothing."


"Nothing, my ass." He opened the door and climbed up on the runningboard to get a better look at her. When he saw the blood, he muttered a ripe curse. "What happened? Were you stabbed? Some gangbanger try to roll you for your truck, or your cargo? You have a chance to call the cops yet? Jesus, this looks like a gunshot wound, and you've been bleeding for some time now - "


"I'm fine," she insisted. "It's not my truck, and none of this is what you think."


"Then you can tell me all about it while I take you to the hospital." He crowded her in the cab, gesturing for her to make room. "Move over. I'll drive."


"Jack." She put her hand on his thick, leathery forearm. "I can't go to the hospital, or the police. And I'm not alone in here. There's someone in the back of the truck and he's in bad shape too. I can't leave him."


He stared at her, uncertain. "You do something against the law, Renata?"


Her exhaled laugh was weak, full of things she couldn't say. Things he couldn't know and sure as hell wouldn't believe even if she told him. "I wish it was only the law I had to deal with. I'm in danger, Jack. I can't tell you more than that. I don't want to get you involved."


"You need help. That's all the info I need." His face was serious now, and beyond the wrinkles and thinning, graying hair, she saw a glimpse of the unshakable Marine he'd been all those years ago. "Come inside and I'll get you and your friend someplace to rest awhile. Get something for your shoulder too. Come on, there's plenty of room in the house. Let me help you - for once, Renata, let someone help you."


She wanted that so badly, in a place buried so deep within her it ached. But bringing Nikolai into someplace public was too great a risk, to him and to anyone who might see him. "Do you have somewhere other than the house? Somewhere quiet, with less traffic in and out. It doesn't have to be much."


"There's a small apartment over the garage out back. I've been using it for storage mostly since Anna's been gone, but you're welcome to it." Jack hopped out of the truck and offered his hand to help her climb down. "Let's get you and your friend inside so I can have a look at that wound."


Renata stepped down onto the pavement. What about moving Nikolai? She was certain he was still sleeping off the tranquilizer, which would help conceal what he truly was, but there was no way she could hope that Jack wouldn't find the naked, bloodied and beaten, unconscious male just the slightest bit unusual. "My, um, my friend is really sick. He's in bad shape, and I don't think he'll be able to walk on his own."


"I've carried more than one man out of the jungle on my back," Jack said. "My shoulders may be a little bent now, but they're broad enough. I'll take care of him."


As they walked together around to the back, Renata added, "There's one more thing, Jack. The truck. It needs to disappear. Doesn't matter where, but the sooner the better."


He gave her a brief nod. "Consider it done."


Chapter Seventeen


As Nikolai came awake, he wondered why he wasn't dead. He felt like hell, eyes slow to open in the dark, muscles sluggish as he took a mental inventory of his current condition. He remembered blood and agony, arrest and torture at the hands of a bastard called Fabien. He remembered running - or, rather, someone else running while he stumbled and struggled just to stay upright.


He remembered darkness all around him, cold metal beneath him, drums pounding relentlessly in his head. And he distinctly remembered a pistol being pointed in his direction. A pistol that went off by his own command.


Renata.


She been the one holding that gun. Aiming it at him to prevent him from attacking her like some kind of monster. Why hadn't she killed him like he'd wanted? For that matter, why had she come looking for him at the containment facility in the first place? Didn't she realize she might have been killed right along with him?


He wanted to be pissed off that she would do something that reckless, but a more reasonable part of him was just damned grateful to be breathing. Even if breathing was about all he was capable of doing at the moment.


He groaned and rolled over, expecting to feel the hard floor of the truck under his body. Instead he felt a soft mattress, a fluffy pillow cradling his head. A light cotton blanket covered his nakedness.


What the hell? Where was he now?


He vaulted up to a sitting position and was rewarded with a violent lurch of his gut. "Ah, fuck," he murmured, sick and light- headed.


"Are you all right?" Renata was here with him. He didn't see her at first, but now she was getting up from the tattered chair where she'd been sitting a moment ago. She padded over to the bed. "How are you feeling?"


"Like shit," he said, his tongue thick, mouth desert dry.


He winced as a small bedside lamp clicked on. "You look better. A lot better, actually. Your eyes are back to normal and your fangs have receded."


"Where are we?"


"Someplace safe."


He looked around at the eclectic jumble of the room: mismatched furniture, storage bins stacked against one of the walls, a small collection of artist's canvases in various stages of completion leaning between two file cabinets, a small closet of a bathroom with floral-patterned towels and a quaint claw-footed tub. But it was the shutterless window arranged directly across the room from the bed that really clued him in. It was deep night on the other side of the glass right now, but by morning the room would be flooded with UV light.


"This is a human residence." He didn't mean for it to sound like an accusation, especially when it was his own damned fault he was in this situation. "Where the hell are we, Renata? What's going on here?"


"You were in bad shape. It wasn't safe for us to keep traveling in the supply truck when the Enforcement Agency and possibly Lex as well would be looking for it as soon as the sun set - "


"Where are we?" he demanded.


"A halfway house for street kids - it's called Anna's Place. I know the man who runs it. Or I knew him, that is...from before." Some flicker of emotion swept over her face. "Jack is a good man, trustworthy. We're safe here."


"He's human."


"Yes."


Just fucking lovely. "And does he know what I am? Did he see me...like I was?"


"No. I kept you covered as best I could with the plastic tarp from the truck. Jack helped bring you up here, but you were still sleeping off the tranquilizer I shot you with. I told him you were out of it because you were sick."


Tranqs. Well, at least that answered the question of why he wasn't dead.


"He didn't see your fangs or your eyes, and when he asked about your glyphs, I told him they were tattoos." She gestured to a shirt and black warm-ups folded on the bedside table. "He brought you some clothes. After he gets back from ditching the truck for us, he's going to look for a pair of shoes that might fit you. There's a toiletries kit in the bathroom - part of his welcome wagon for new arrivals at the house. He only had one fresh toothbrush to spare, so I hope you don't mind sharing."


"Jesus," Niko hissed. This was only getting worse. "I have to get out of here."


He threw off the blanket and grabbed the clothing from the little table. He was none too steady on his feet as he tried to step into the nylon pants. He fell back, his bare ass planted on the bed. His head was spinning. "Damn it. I need to report in with the Order. Think your good buddy Jack has a computer or a cell phone I could borrow?"


"It's two o'clock in the morning," Renata pointed out. "Everyone in the house is sleeping. Besides, I'm not even sure you're well enough to make it down the garage stairs. You need to rest a while longer."


"Fuck that. What I need is to get back to Boston ASAP." Still seated on the bed, he slipped on the warm-ups and hiked them over his hips, tugging the drawstring tight to cinch the extra-large waistband. "I've lost too much time already. Gonna need someone to come up here and haul my lame ass back in - "


Renata's hand came down on his, surprising him with the contact. "Nikolai. Something's happened to Mira."


Her voice was as sober as he'd ever heard it. She was worried - bone-deep worried - and for the first time, he noticed the smallest fissure in the otherwise unbreakable, icy facade she presented to any and all around her.


"Mira is in danger," she said. "They took her with them when they came to arrest you at the lodge. Lex sent her off with a vampire named Fabien. He...he sold her to him."


"Fabien." Niko shut his eyes, exhaled a curse. "Then she is probably already dead."

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***