Chapter Six
It was seven a.m. when they set out again—sleepless, but amped up on happy hormones as Sara liked to think of them, and armed to the teeth. It was obvious the vampires shadowing her were building up to something—no reason to give them an easy target.
The streets were still winter-dark when they rode out, the fog curling over the houses like a whispered caress. Even the junkyard looked dreamy and somehow softer in the muted light.
“Let’s take the front route today,” she suggested. “I’ll say I’m here to check up on him on orders from Simon.”
Deacon nodded and pulled the bike to a stop in front of the padlocked gate. “Lucy should be here any moment.”
But though they waited, Deacon’s favorite hellhound didn’t appear. A bad feeling bloomed in the pit of Sara’s stomach. “Wait.” Getting off, she picked the lock and waved Deacon through. It was tempting to leave the gate open for an easy exit, but she didn’t want Lucy escaping and terrorizing the neighborhood—and maybe getting terrorized herself if she couldn’t find her way back home.
Gate locked, she got back on the bike and they roared their way to Tim’s house/shack—or as close as they could get considering the random piles of junk. There was a light on inside. “He’s home.” Taking off her helmet, she hooked it on one handlebar, while Deacon did the same with his on the other.
“I don’t like this.” The Slayer’s words were calm, his eyes intent as they made their way through a gap in the junk to emerge into a relatively open space near Tim’s home. “Something’s wrong.”
Her instincts agreed. “Let’s do a circle of the house, make sure things are—” She saw them then. The vampires. Crouched on wrecked cars, lounging between towers of metal, leaning against the side of Tim’s shack.
She knew there’d be no running this time. “We need to get inside the house.” It was the only defensible position. Her crossbow was already in her hands.
“They’ll be ready for that.” Deacon’s back met hers as they stood facing in opposite directions.
“Unless Tim’s barricaded himself inside.”
Deacon said nothing, but she knew what he was doing. Listening. If Tim was alive and inside the house, he’d let them know. But it was Lucy they heard, a sudden set of sharp barks and then nothing. The vampire closest to Sara swore loud enough that the sound carried. “Damn devil dog ate half my leg.”
It was such an ordinary thing to say, but she knew he was in no way ordinary. Not only did he carry centuries of experience in his eyes, he moved like a man who knew how to use every shift to his advantage. But there were no weapons in his hands. The archangels were nothing if not fair. Of course, their concept of fair meant two hunters—possibly three—against what looked like fifteen vamps.
“Somebody upped the stakes,” she murmured under her breath.
“I don’t recognize any of them, even the old one. Means they belong to someone other than Raphael.”
She’d been thinking the same. “Good to know my own archangel isn’t trying to kill me.” She aimed the crossbow at the leader of the group. “Guess it’s time for target practice.”
The vampire smiled, polished and smooth. “I want but a sip, milady.” A voice that held echoes of gallantry and cruelty. “They say the Guild Director tastes sweet indeed.”
Since she doubted very much that Simon would’ve allowed anyone to munch on him, she took that with a grain of salt. “You so hard up for blood then?” She moved a little toward the house. Deacon moved with her.
The vampires kept their distance . . . for now.
“You wound me, petite guerrière.”
Little warrior? Sara almost shot him on principle. “You want to be chipped?”
“Lies, sweet lies.” He waved a finger. “You’re only allowed chip-embedded weapons on a hunt. If you use illegal copies on me, you can’t be Guild Director.”
Damn. She hadn’t expected the bluff to work, but his response meant he was smart. Smart plus old was not a good combination in a vampiric opponent. “I really will shoot you if you get any closer—and if I put a bolt through your heart, it’ll leave you helpless.”
The vampire spread his hands. “Alas, I have my orders. My master does not see how a human female could run a guild of warriors.”
“There are female archangels.” She felt Deacon’s body tense, ready itself for battle.
“Ah, but you’re not an archangel.” And then he moved.
So did Sara and Deacon. It was as if they’d been doing this for years. Shooting the crossbow as she ran sideways, she skew ered the lead vamp in the shoulder—she’d been aiming for his head, damn it—and reloaded superfast using Deacon’s patented technology. Hunters loved his weapons for a reason. She’d shot five more bolts by the time they were blocked in again. But now they were within a three-second run of the house.
Deacon had stayed back to back with her the entire time, accommodating her smaller stride with an ease that told her exactly how good he was at combat. From the sounds she’d heard, he was using some kind of a gun but not anything that shot bullets. The vamps were too close for her to risk a check, but she didn’t think he’d been injured anywhere.
“Enough playing?” she asked the vampire who seemed to be the mouthpiece of the entire group.
The handsome man had already removed the bolt and now tossed it at her feet. “That was rather unladylike.”
“Well, you weren’t exactly gentlemanly in attacking me.” She could feel the edge of sunrise in the distance. Too bad the vamps wouldn’t crumble to dust at the first touch of the sun’s rays. Only in the movies were things so convenient. Some vampires did suffer from light sensitivity, but she bet every single one in this bunch was capable of walking around under noon-light itself.
“Ah,” the vampire said. “That is so. But you have a knight to protect you.”
“I don’t need a knight,” she said, knowing full well this was about more than physical strength alone. “I’m not a queen to hide behind my troops. I’m a general.”
The vampire’s expression grew strangely quiet. “Then I will stop being a gentleman.”
This time, she couldn’t reload fast enough. Dropping the crossbow, she started to fight with knives, nicking him in the throat, catching a second vampire with a kick to the gut. Behind her, Deacon was taking out vamps left, right, and center. But they were severely outnumbered. This was in no way a fair fight.
Whoever had orchestrated this wanted Sara to die. Why? She slashed a line across one vampire’s neck, and the blood that hit her was hot and fresh and nauseating. The vampire staggered back, hand clamped over his throat. She kept fighting, kicking and breaking knees. Something burned into her shoulder, and she stabbed a knife through the ear of the vamp who’d decided to turn her into a breakfast buffet.
Howling, the attacker fell away. Deacon growled then, and she’d never heard a more chilling sound. He took out three more coming at her, holding off two others on his own side as she grabbed the gun she’d tucked into her lower back. “Ready!” she yelled, and started firing to cover his reloading.
They were closer to the house. But not close enough. If Tim was in there, he was either injured, dead, or didn’t give a shit. Else he’d have been shooting as well. Which meant it was time for drastic measures. Simon had been very clear in his instructions.
“We walk a precarious line. The angels need us. But if we prove too powerful, they’ll cheerfully wipe us from existence. Hurt the vampires they send after you, but try not to kill. Because if you do, you become a threat, not an asset.”
Problem was, the vampires were healing from the nonfatal wounds only to continue their relentless—and openly deadly—assault. “Deacon?”
“Yes.” Agreement.
Even as her hand moved to retrieve the miniature flame-thrower strapped to her thigh, a knife hit the vampire in front of her, severing his carotid artery. As he choked on his own blood and fell away from the attack, another knife lodged in the eye of the vampire she’d hit with her first bolt.
Neither knife was Sara’s.
Then the shooting started.
Knives from the left. Gunshots from the right.
And a clear pathway to the house. It had been the best choice at the start, a place from where they could make a stand. But now the odds had changed. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”
Smiling, she palmed a second gun from a shoulder holster and began firing two-handed.
Five minutes later, they had their backs to the house and the vampires were bloody and broken; caught between their guns and whoever was throwing knives—and other things—from the vicinity of the fence.
The head vamp raised his hands, palms out. “I yield.”
There was a collective groan from the other vampires—all still alive—as they collapsed onto the ground. Sara couldn’t believe it. “You think I’m just going to let that go?”
The vamp smiled. “Politics is a most unkind mistress.”
“Should I expect any other visits from you?”
“No. The test has been passed.” He blinked, his injured eye healing at a phenomenal rate. “And the archangels have little interest in the inner workings of the Guild.”
“So the whole trying-to-kill-me thing? What was that?”
“It had to be done.” Shrugging, he turned to his troops. “It’s time to go.”
Another five minutes and there wasn’t a single vampire to be seen in the cool dawn light of a winter morning. Sara finally lowered her weapons and glanced at Deacon. He was bloody, his jacket torn in several places, but it was the look in his eyes that rocked her to the core. He was pissed. “Goddamn it, Sara. I don’t like you being hurt.” And then he kissed her.
It was hot and wild and amazing . . . until Lucy began howling. And someone coughed.
Sara tore away from the kiss, gun raised—to see a tall woman with long white blonde hair pulled into a ponytail, her eyes frankly curious and her body plastered with knives. “So,” Ellie said, with a huge smile, “you and the Slayer, huh? I like.” She looked Deacon up and down, and whistled. “Best Friend Seal of Approval bestowed. With gold foil edging, even.”
Grinning, Sara went to hug her. Elena shook her head. “I love you, Sara, but you’re all bloody with vampire.”
“Ugh.” Sara looked down at her soaked clothing. “I thought I told you to stay away.”
“Would you have done that?” Ellie raised an eyebrow. “Exactly.”
Giving up, Sara threw up her hands. “We need to check on Tim—the hunter inside.” She turned to Deacon. “Think we should send Ellie in? We wouldn’t want to get blood all over Tim’s floor.”
Deacon’s eyes gleamed. “Good idea.”
Elena glanced from one to the other. “Do I have ‘sucker’ written on my forehead? I don’t think so. I know all about Timothy’s demon fiend of a sidekick.”
Despite his words, Deacon was already at the door. “Tim?”
“I’m okay,” came the groaning answer as Lucy went into a barking frenzy. “Luce, girl, down.” A few growls but the dog quieted.
“Cover me,” Deacon said and opened the door.
Sara was ready to shoot Lucy—to disable, not kill—but “the damn devil-eyed dog” was sitting attentively by the sprawled form of her master, grinning as if she wasn’t just waiting for a chance to bite off their faces. Tim had a gun in hand, a nasty bruise on the side of his face . . . and smelled like a distillery.
“Jesus, Tim,” Ellie muttered, waving a hand in front of her hunter-sensitive nose. “What, you took a beer bath?”
Tim winced. “Shh.”
“You’ve been on a bender?” Sara blew out an angry breath. “We thought you were dead.” Or a serial killer.
“Hey,” he muttered, “I got conscious long enough to shoot them, didn’t I? And I’m allowed to go on a bender after I find a vampire torn to pieces by a hate group—they even cut off his fingers one by one. How fucking noble.”
Sara had had one of those cases, too. She’d baked nonstop for five days after. Her neighbors loved her. “Who’s been feeding Lucy?”
“Me, of course.” He gave her an indignant look. “As if I’d leave my baby without food.” He kissed that mangy black head. “She knows where her stash is. And I leave fresh water all over the place.”
“Tim,” Sara pushed, “this is important. Can you prove where you’ve been the past few days?”
He gave her an oddly clear look. “Hiding in a corner of Sal’s All-Night-All-the-Time bar. Matchbook’s on the table.”
Deacon called the number and confirmed Tim’s story. Happy at the news, but cognizant of the implications, Sara rubbed her face. “Ellie, can you make sure Tim detoxes and gets that bruise taken care of? Deacon and I have something to handle.”
“I’m fine,” Tim murmured and tried to stand. Only to fall flat on his butt. “Or maybe not.”
Elena nodded. “No sweat. You need a hand?”
It was Deacon who answered. “Stay close. If we need backup, we’ll call.”
“Gotcha.” Pulling “yummy” faces behind Deacon’s back as he walked out to make another call, Ellie gave Sara the thumbs-up.
It was impossible not to smile, but that smile was gone by the time she reached the bike and Deacon. “It has to be Marco. And if not, we’re in deep shit.” Because that meant they had an unknown crazy out there.
“I just checked with Simon. Shah left the city two hours ago, so if there’s another killing . . .” He shook his head. “We can’t wait for that. It’s time to play hardball with Marco.”
“You think you can break him?”
Deacon’s face was a grim mask. “Yeah.”
It should’ve scared her. It didn’t. Because she knew how to play hardball, too. “Let’s do it.” Getting on the bike, she took the helmet he held out. “After this is over, I want a shower in a really big bathroom.”
“I’ll get us the penthouse.”
“What makes you think you’ll be sharing it with me?”
“I live in hope.”
Oh, she definitely wanted to keep him, she thought, as they closed the gate behind themselves and headed out. Maybe there was a way to make it work? But she knew there wasn’t. She could hardly see Deacon in a tux at some “do.” And the Guild Director had to play politics. Nobody liked a powerful presence like the Guild in the city, but that wariness could be turned into respect and even welcome by a little subtle maneuvering.
A long time ago, the Guild had chosen the veil of secrecy. The end result had been a spate of Guild-burnings that had razed many a chapter building to the ground, killing a devastating number of hunters in the process. No one wanted a repeat of that.
Suddenly conscious that Deacon had dramatically reduced his speed, she twisted to peer around one muscular arm. “Oh, no fucking way.” Pulling off her helmet, she stood on the back of the bike, using Deacon’s shoulder for balance. “You yielded,” she told the vampire standing in the middle of the road. “This time, we’ll be aiming to kill.”