Chapter Three
Deacon walked out a couple of minutes later, dressed in nothing but a pair of jeans. Her hormones danced. Damn near did the foxtrot. She refused to join in. “Simon sent you.”
To his credit, he didn’t bother to deny it. “Two birds. One stone.” Grabbing a fresh T-shirt from his duffel, he pulled it over his head. “You know it’s the right decision.”
The fact that he sounded so coolly logical made her want to shoot him with the crossbow just to make a point. “The Guild Director can’t be seen as weak.”
“She also can’t be seen as stupid.” Intractable will in those midnight-forest eyes.
Putting down the cell she’d been squeezing half to death, she dug out a brush and began to pull it through her hair. “Tell me about the killer. Is there any chance it could be an impostor?”
He didn’t say anything for several seconds, as if not trusting her sudden capitulation. “Yes. But as of right now, I have three possibles—all hunters. We’ll visit them one by one.”
A small nod. “I figure we give it four hours, enough time for the killer to relax his guard.”
“Why didn’t you follow him after he hit Rodney?”
“There was no visible trail.”
She snorted. “And your job is to babysit me.”
“Babysitting you isn’t what I want to do.” Quiet, intense words, stroking over her skin like living velvet. “But since taking you to bed is out of bounds, I’m stuck with babysitting.”
Heat exploded across her skin, a raw, dark fire. “What makes you think I’d let you within a foot of me?” Her voice held the rough edge of desire, but it could as easily have been anger.
“What makes you think I’d ask nice?”
“Try anything and I’ll cheerfully gut you with your own knife.”
Deacon smiled. And it turned him from sexy to devastating. “This’ll be fun.”
But four hours of fitful sleep later, she was in no mood to play. Pulling on her gear before joining Deacon in the corridor, she adjusted her crossbow and set her jaw. “I don’t like the fact that we’re hunting one of our own.”
She glanced at him as they walked down to the garage, and saw nothing. No expression. No emotion. No mercy. In that moment, he was the Slayer. “How many have you had to kill?”
She blew out a breath at the single precise word, and opened the door to the stairs. No point in making hotel security crazy by being caught on the elevator cameras armed to the teeth. “Why you?”
“It has to be someone.”
She understood all about that. “I never wanted to be Guild Director.”
“That’s why you were chosen—you’ll do what the director is meant to do.”
“As opposed to?”
He exited first, and she knew it was a gesture of protection. Annoying, but on the scale of annoyances, minor.
“You know about Paris. They had that director a few years ago who politicked himself into the position. Almost got all his hunters killed, he was so busy grandstanding.”
Sara nodded and headed to the bike, their chosen method of transport tonight. “I always wondered how that could’ve happened.” Hunters were a tough, forthright lot as a whole. Slick made them suspicious.
“Some people say he struck a deal with a powerful cabal of vampires, that they influenced the vote.”
Very old vampires were rumored to have mind-control abilities, and one of Sara’s more important qualifications for the position of Guild Director was that she had a natural immunity to all vampiric abilities. Like Ellie and the other hunter-born, she’d always been meant for the Guild. “I’m surprised he’s still alive.”
“Don’t be so sure—he hasn’t been seen since he was deposed.” Handing her a spare helmet, he watched as she put it on, then settled his own. “Can you hear me?”
She nodded, realizing the helmets were miked. “Where’re we going first?”
“Timothy Lee. He’s shorter than Rodney described, but Rod was traumatized. We can’t trust his recollection.”
She was about to reply when she suddenly knew they were no longer alone in the garage. Already straddling the bike behind Deacon, she looked across to the door they’d used to exit the stairs and saw a vampire. She had no need to ask if Deacon had made him, too—the Slayer had gone motionless the same instant she had.
Meeting the vampire’s gaze, she felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise. He was an old one, his power so potent it thickened the air until she could barely breathe. When he didn’t say anything, she decided to remain silent, too. Deacon started the bike and backed out of the space. “Watch him,” he said into the mike.
As he turned the motorcycle, she twisted her head to keep the vamp in sight.
The tall, dark-haired male didn’t so much as blink as they drove out of the garage.
“Games,” she muttered. “They’re letting me know I’m being watched.”
“Testing your strength.”
“You know, I can see their point—can you imagine what would happen to the world if any of the major chapters had a weak director?”
“Paris,” Deacon said again.
She nodded, though he couldn’t see her. “What was his name—Jarvis?”
“Right.” Jervois’s weakness had led to a disorganized European Guild. Vampires had taken immediate advantage. Most had simply escaped, planning to lose themselves into the world. But a few . . . “Several vamps gave in to bloodlust. The news reports said the streets ran with blood.”
“They weren’t far wrong. Paris lost ten percent of its population within a month.”
Put in such finite terms, the horror of it was chilling. “Why didn’t the angels step in?” In her native New York, Raphael ran the show, and as far as Sara knew, no bloodlust-ridden vampire had ever set foot in the city. Since that was statistically impossible, obviously Raphael had taken care of any problems with such flawless efficiency no one had heard so much as a murmur.
“Word is”—Deacon’s voice turned cold—“Michaela decided the humans needed a lesson in humility.”
Michaela was one of the more visible archangels, a stunning beauty who enjoyed attention enough to pose for the human media on occasion. “I think that one,” Sara said, “would be happy to push us all back to a time where she’d be looked upon as a goddess.”
“There are a lot of people even now who see the angels as God’s messengers.”
“What about you?”
“Another species,” he said. “Maybe they’re what we’ll become sometime in the next million years.”
It was an interesting hypothesis. Sara didn’t know what she thought. Angels had been around since the earliest cave paintings. There were as many explanations for their existence as there were stars in the sky. And if the angels knew the truth, they weren’t telling. “So, why Timothy Lee?”
“He’s been in the city during every one of the murders, he’s capable of doing the job—”
“We’re all capable.”
“Yes. So that wouldn’t matter as much, but Timothy’s a very dedicated hunter. He sees it not as a job, but as a calling.”
“Is he hunter-born?” Having been best friends with Ellie for so many years, she knew that for those born with the ability to scent-track vampires, entering the Guild was less a choice than a compulsion.
“No. But he worships the hunter-born.”
“Not healthy, but not psychopathic either.”
Deacon nodded. “That’s why he’s one of three. The other two have their own little idiosyncrasies but all hunters are strange to some degree.”
“You’ve met Ashwini, haven’t you?”
She heard him choke. “Met isn’t quite the right word. She shot me the first time we came into contact.”
“Sounds about right.” She grinned, but it didn’t last long. “If it is one of these three, you’ll execute him?”
“No police?”
“I’m authorized to do this. The law will never become involved.” A pause. “They’re glad we police ourselves. Hunters who turn bad have a way of upping the body count.”
“Like vampires.”
He didn’t say anything, but she felt his agreement in the tense stillness of his body. Eerily quiet, the night seemed to discourage further conversation, and they rode in silence until Deacon pulled over to the side of a still, dark street. “We’ll go on foot from here.”
Stowing her helmet alongside his, she followed him as he led her down the street and to a chain-link fence. She frowned. “This looks like a junkyard.”
“It is.”
Okay, that was truly odd. Hunters almost never lived in crappy places. They were paid very well for sticking their necks out chasing vampires who might just tear those necks off. “To each his own.”
“He has a hellhound.”
She thought she’d heard wrong. “Did you say hellhound?” Visions of red eyes pulsing in a miasma of sulfur danced through her head. Then the pitchforks started circling.
“Big, black thing, probably bite your hand off if you look at it wrong. Timothy calls it Lucifer’s Girl.” He took something from his pocket. “Tranquilizer dart.” Then he was gone, and if she hadn’t seen it, she’d never have guessed he could move that fast.
She stayed with him, both of them scrambling over the chain link to land with hunter silence on the other side. There was no bark, nothing to alert them they’d become prey—Lucifer’s Girl came out of the darkness like a raging whirlwind. Sara ducked instinctively, and the dog’s body jumped over hers . . . to meet the clearly rapid-acting tranquilizer in Deacon’s hand. Instead of allowing the dog to fall, Deacon caught its muscled weight and lowered it gently to the ground.
“You like her,” Sara said, incredulous.
Deacon stroked the dog’s heaving sides. “What’s not to like? She’s loyal, and she’s strong. If I have to execute Timothy, she’ll miss her master.”
“You’d adopt her, wouldn’t you?” She shook her head. “There go your chances of ever again getting a girl.”
He raised his head, looking at her in that intent way of his. “Not a fan?”
“She’s got nine-inch fangs.” Only a slight exaggeration. “A woman would have to love you an incredible amount to put up with that kind of competition.” She jerked her head toward the building on the other side of the mountain of scrap metal and God knew what else. “Yes?”
“Let’s go. Tranq will keep Lucy out for a while.”
They took their time finding a path through the junk, checking for booby traps in the process. When they finally reached the tumbledown shack that Timothy called home, it was to discover the place empty. A little breaking and entering later, they were inside, but saw nothing even close to a smoking gun. The fact that Tim wasn’t home meant nothing—hunters kept irregular hours as a rule.
She watched as Deacon took something from his pocket and placed it on the bottoms of all the shoes he could locate. “Transmitters,” he told her. “Battery life of about two days. So if there’s a kill in that period, and he wears a pair I’ve tagged, I’ll be able to trace his movements.”
“Who’s next on the list?”
He told her after they scaled the chain link—petting Lucy along the way, and waiting long enough to ensure that she was coming out of the tranq okay. “Next is Shah Mayur. Loner, does the job but doesn’t seem to have any contact with other hunters.”
“Like someone else I know.”
Deacon ignored the comment as they straddled his bike and took off.
Grinning, she pressed herself to the heat of his back. “What put Shah on your radar?”
“He’s had five complaints filed against him by the VPA.”
The Vampire Protection Authority had been set up to stop cruelty and prejudice against vamps. They never won court cases—it was extremely hard to make a vampire look the victim when you had pictures of their blood-soaked kills—but they could kick up a serious stink. “What for?”
“Excessive violence against a vampire during retrieval.”
“Hmm.” She thought about that. “Why don’t you sound more excited?”
“Because all five complaints came from the same vamp.”
Her own burgeoning excitement deflated. “Probably someone with an ax to grind.”
“Yeah, but we have to check him out.”
Shah Mayur lived in a much more ordinary home—in terms of its attractiveness to hunters. His apartment occupied the entire third floor of a freestanding town house.
Sara frowned. “Getting in’s going to be a problem.” Deacon had already told her there was no internal access, so they couldn’t break in downstairs—and the ladder that Shah used to get up and down was currently pulled up. That didn’t mean he was home. According to Deacon’s intel, it could be raised or lowered by remote. Shah wasn’t a trusting sort. But he was also supposed to be on a flight to Washington as of an hour ago. “Any ideas?”
Deacon was staring up at the back wall when she turned to him. “Can you climb that?”
She followed his gaze to what looked like some kind of a water pipe, a reasonably substantial one. “Yeah.” The request surprised her. “I thought you were babysitting me.”
“We’re probably under surveillance,” he told her, voice matter-of-fact. “I can’t defang you completely.”
“That implies you could.” She shot him a sweet smile laced with bite. “We have to consider something else—if we are being watched, then the angels and high-level vamps have to know what we’re up to. I’m not going to deliver a hunter into their hands.” Angelic vengeance could be soul-destroyingly brutal.
Deacon looked into her face, unblinking. “That’s why we have to get to him first. We’ll deliver death with mercy.”
Giving a nod, she accepted the transmitters he held out and ran to the pipe. She was light enough—and more importantly, had enough muscle—that it was fairly simple to pull herself up. When she reached the window ledge, she found it an easy, wide perch. So close, it was tempting to push up the window and go in, but she took her time checking everything out.
Just as well, as it turned out.
Shah had rigged a garrote across the opening, at the exact height to cut anyone coming in. From the faint glitter, she guessed it was covered with crushed glass. Gruesome, but home security wasn’t a crime. Double-checking for any electrical wires that might be connected to an alarm, she glanced down at Deacon and signaled her intention to enter.
He nodded once and signaled back. Two minutes.
Pushing up the window, she stepped in with care, avoiding the lethal stroke of the garrote by bending low. She found herself in what looked like the living room. It was dark. But not dark enough to hide the man sitting silently in the armchair.