Chapter Three
According to the ISP, the e-mail she’d received that morning had been sent from southern New Jersey. Maggie doubted James was still in the same place, but it gave her a direction to go until she had more information.
A direction, but no solid destination—and reaching the same area he’d been in when he’d contacted her meant spending hours on the road. It had been years since Maggie had tried to leave the city on a Friday afternoon, but she doubted they’d be driving faster than a crawl. So there was business to take care of first: food and clothes.
She asked Sir Pup for jeans and one of the shirts they’d taken from Blake’s hotel room. They fell, still neatly folded, into her lap.
She glanced over at Blake. He’d called Ames-Beaumont and spoken briefly with the vampire, and was now carrying out the rest of their conversation via instant messaging—Blake typing, and then listening to the response through his headset.
Anxiety tightened her stomach. Blake had said he’d stand between her and Ames-Beaumont, but it wouldn’t be for Maggie’s sake. Blake wanted to find his sister, and Maggie was their one connection to James. Blake’s offer of protection wouldn’t last any longer than it took to find Katherine.
But even up to that point, his offer meant very little. Ames-Beaumont was family, and the most powerful vampire in the world—and Blake didn’t owe anything to Maggie. If his uncle came after her, Blake would be an idiot to stand between them.
So her goals hadn’t changed, even if Blake was now coming with her; she’d keep him safe and find Katherine. And if she managed to do both—and if the vampire didn’t hold her as responsible for James’s actions as she did herself—maybe Ames-Beaumont would let her go.
It had become her mantra: maybe he’d let her go.
Her fingers clenched on the steering wheel. God, she didn’t want this mess. She wanted her job. Before that e-mail, everything had been good. Her new life was insane, full of vampires and Guardians, and her employer was an eccentric, to say the least—but she had been, for the first time she could remember, happy. The world had become strange and new, but she’d understood the people around her, what motivated them, and she’d finally felt as if she fit somewhere. And that feeling had been bone-deep.
And one decision from her past had shattered it.
Blake clicked his laptop shut and slid off the headset. When the computer disappeared, Maggie tossed the clothes onto his lap.
His palms swept over the material, as if identifying it. His brows lifted. “Is this a hint? A shower would be better.”
“You don’t have an odor, sir,” Maggie said.
Sir Pup made a doubtful noise in the back. Relieved to have a distraction from the bleak thoughts circling in her head, Maggie glanced into the rearview mirror. The hellhound had covered the end of his nose with his massive forepaw.
Maggie didn’t fight to hold her straight expression. Blake couldn’t see her reaction, so she could relax, just a little. She’d keep her responses appropriately formal, but she didn’t have to be.
I cannot detect any odor, Sir Pup,” she said, before looking at Blake again. “It’s to ward against any bugs—tracking or listening devices—that he might have inserted into your clothing.”
Blake fingered the collar of his shirt. “You think he’d do that?”
“I would.”
That must have convinced him. As she pulled into a fast-food lot, Blake shucked his jeans and shirt. When he reached for the folded jeans, Maggie shook her head. “Your shorts, too, Mr. Blake. And quickly, or the girl at the drive-thru window is going to get a good look.”
Sir Pup rolled over onto his back, chuffing great bursts of air. The hellhound version of a laugh.
It apparently amused Blake, too. He wore a smile as he hooked his fingers under the waistband. “Is this really about bugs? Or are you planning to take a peek?”
She didn’t need to. She assumed it hadn’t been a pair of socks filling out his oh-so-happy undershorts. She averted her gaze when he lifted his ass from the seat and worked them off. “We’re on the trail of your abducted sister, Mr. Blake. What kind of woman would I be if I did that?”
“One I’d like to get to know better.”
Maggie’s fingers flew to her lips to hold in her laugh. Oh, he was dangerous. She could end up liking him. And liking led to caring, caring to carelessness. She couldn’t afford that.
And he already knew enough about her. More than he should.
She wadded up his clothes and shoved them into the trash can sitting beside the drive-thru menu. The smiley faces didn’t seem so smug crowded in with the discarded coffee cups. Poor little guys.
The menu was loaded with junk. Not a problem, except that she would be motionless for the next several hours. She’d never liked feeling weighted down when she couldn’t move enough to work it off. “How hungry are you, Mr. Blake? We won’t stop again until later tonight, so order as much as you think you’ll need.”
Blake paused with his boxer-briefs on and his jeans halfway up one leg. Though he was bent over at the waist, there wasn’t a crease or a bulge anywhere that wasn’t muscle. “I could easily eat three hamburgers.”
Of course he could. Maggie tripled that for the hellhound and ordered coffee and a fruit-and-yogurt for herself.
She paid cash. James might be trying to track their movements, and she wouldn’t make it easy for him. Hopefully, though, he’d make it easy for her.
You can stop me.
It wasn’t a question or a challenge. It wasn’t a plea. Just a statement.
But how would she stop him? And why her?
She tapped her fingers against the steering wheel, pondering it. By mutual agreement, she and James had decided not to contact one another again—and, despite the circumstances, they had parted on good terms. Her gut said this wasn’t about revenge.
What, then? Was it just coincidence that his path had crossed with hers?
Maggie couldn’t make herself believe that.
Was it about Ames-Beaumont? Was James acting on his own, or had he been hired? And if someone was paying him, had James told them of his connection to her . . . and to Ames-Beaumont?
But why go after his family and not make any demands?
Frowning, she glanced at Blake. Where had he gotten that picture of her and James? And who had told Blake that the faces in the two photos matched? Not Savi, Ames-Beaumont’s fiancée. If she’d hacked Blake’s e-mail, she wouldn’t have seen the picture from hotel security until after Blake had been taken—so they hadn’t had an opportunity to compare notes.
So Maggie was missing a step, not seeing a connection somewhere. And since the hellhound was watching, she couldn’t use the interrogation method she was most familiar with: aiming her gun at him. That meant digging. Finagling.
Which also meant dropping a little more of the formality. Butlers did not initiate conversations, yet Maggie needed to. “You’re not what I expected, Mr. Blake.”
“I gathered that.”
“Not your blindness. Not just that,” she admitted. “I’ve looked at your dossier.”
“Have you?” Both his voice and his expression were neutral.
“Yes.” She had to look away from him to take the bags at the window. She passed the first to him, then set the others on the console between them. “It’s full of reprimands, complaints, transfers. You’ve been shuttled around Ramsdell for almost fifteen years.”
“I’m not very good at my job.”
She recognized a practiced answer when she heard it—a cover story. “Except that, every time you’ve been transferred to a new branch, a problem has quietly gone away. In London, it was embezzlement by a senior executive. Someone in the Paris labs selling research to a competitor. Using Ramsdell warehouses to smuggle cocaine in Florida. A problem with Ramsdell shipments getting to Doctors Without Borders in Darfur.” Those were only a few, but she didn’t need to go on. And if she wasn’t mistaken, there was a hint of surprise—and relief—in his face now. “You go in, act the doofus who yanks out the disability card at every opportunity and lets everyone think you’re getting by on the family name. And while whoever you’re after is feeling secure, because they don’t think they’ll need to pull the wool over the eyes of a blind man, you’re finding what you need to get rid of them. The pattern speaks for itself. Enough that when we heard about your sister, and Mr. Ames-Beaumont said that you were flying in to look for her, I thought it was a good move.”
“But you don’t think that now?”
“Now, I’m wondering how you manage it.”
“You don’t want to know, Winters.”
“I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you?” She let her amusement bleed into her voice, so that he would know she was smiling.
“Something like that.” He didn’t return the smile. “At least, my uncle would seriously consider it.”
A shiver raced down her spine. Whatever he was hiding, it was different from the knowledge that Ames-Beaumont was a vampire. And there were only two reasons Ames-Beaumont would kill without a thought: either his fiancée was endangered, or his family was. He would kill to protect the community of vampires he led, but only after deliberation. With his heart and his family, however, there were no questions asked, no shades of gray.
Since Savi was safe back in San Francisco, chances were that whatever Blake wasn’t revealing could threaten the family.
How incredible it must be to be a part of a family like that. And how terrifying to be considered their enemy.
She held herself steady, pulled back onto the street, and began to make her way to the Manhattan Bridge. As she’d expected, traffic was crawling.
And she was no good at finagling. “Where did the second picture come from?”
“Your previous employer’s files.”
Maggie shook her head. “The agency would have no reason—”
“Not the CIA. Congressman Stafford.”
A knot of dread tightened in her chest. Stafford knew she’d had national security and intelligence experience. But her references wouldn’t have given him that photo. He must have gotten it from another Washington connection . . . but who? “Where’d he get it?”
“We don’t know.”
And they couldn’t ask him. Stafford had been slain by the Guardians three months ago.
Blake unwrapped one of his burgers and bit in. When Sir Pup whined in the back, Maggie remembered to do the same for him. She twisted her arm back between the seats. Hot breath brushed her fingers before Sir Pup gently lifted the hamburger; even as she heard him gulp it down, two more whines came from the right and left. A hellhound’s appetite, in stereo.
She was in the middle of unwrapping the fourth when Blake said, “Tell me about him, Winters.”
There wasn’t much to tell. Thomas Stafford had been a charming politician and the perfect employer until he’d tried to pin a murder on her. But it could have been worse. Even if he’d successfully framed her, a life in prison would have been better than if he’d maneuvered her into a bargain that bound her in service to him. A bargain that, if not fulfilled, would have trapped her soul in a freezing wasteland between Hell and the Chaos realm.
Yes, she’d take prison over eternal torment any day. Luckily, the Guardians had saved her from either fate.
“Not Stafford. The man in the photo.”
So Blake wasn’t going to finagle, either. But Maggie could deflect just as well as he had.
“If I tell you, then I have to—”
“His name is Trevor James,” Blake said. “He served with you in the CIA from the date of your recruitment and training until three years ago—when, under orders, you assassinated him. It was your last assignment; you retired after that.”
Her hands, her brain felt limp. Her voice was hollow. “How do you know this?”
“You were investigated by the Guardians and vetted by my uncle. He passed the information to me, for my records. Do you think he would allow you anywhere near his home if he wasn’t certain of you? To have any access to his family?”
One of Sir Pup’s heads nudged her shoulder, knocking her out of her stupor. She fed him another burger, and forced her mind to work again.
The deep vetting wasn’t a surprise. How deep they’d managed to get shocked her, but she couldn’t focus on that yet. She was still trying to figure out why Ames-Beaumont would have sent her file to Blake for his records. She wasn’t a Ramsdell employee.
But maybe, to Ames-Beaumont and to Blake, there wasn’t a difference.
Sir Pup whined again. Maggie ignored him, trying to read as much as she could in Blake’s face each time she took her gaze off the road. There wasn’t much to go on. For a man who had never seen another face—or his own—he had a highly developed sense of how much an expression could give away.
“Vampire communities have an enforcer,” she said, feeling her way through it. “Someone who protects the community from outside threats and enforces the rules within the community. In San Francisco, Mr. Ames-Beaumont fulfills that function. And that’s what you are—the Ramsdell enforcer. You protect Ramsdell Pharmaceuticals.”
Maggie realized that wasn’t quite right as soon as she’d finished. He wasn’t protecting the business itself, and that was why Ames-Beaumont had sent Blake her file. It was about protecting the family—every aspect of it—and Ramsdell Pharmaceuticals just happened to be the family’s primary financial resource. Blake probably had files on every employee working at any of the family’s estates.
Blake didn’t confirm or deny it. He wiped his mouth with a paper napkin and asked, “Which direction are we going?”
“South. Eventually.” Slowly.
He nodded. “I received information last evening. Katherine was headed south. She’s in a large caravan.”
“An RV?” His British accent, which she’d barely been able to discern until now, had become stronger. Did that mean he was suppressing an emotion, or loosening up? “A motor home in August isn’t going to be easy to pin down.”
“No, it isn’t.”
Sir Pup whined, and she gave him a quelling glance in the rearview mirror. All six of his eyes were focused on the bag sitting on the console. Three one-track minds, but it was all greed. A hellhound didn’t need food; he just liked to eat.
“Just a minute, Sir Pup.” She didn’t want to be distracted. “Where did you get this info?”
“Would you believe your friend talked in front of me?”
Would she? James was inviting her to come find him—stop him. But to blab in front of someone like a cartoon villain? “No. How do you know where she’s headed?”
“Why did you pretend to kill him? Why didn’t you carry out your assignment?”
She clenched her teeth. “You have my file, Mr. Blake. Why don’t you tell me?”
“I’ve seen the kill order. I’ve seen the report you filed, saying the mission was completed. I’ve seen the forensic report, which stated that the charred chunk of flesh they’d found—which was all they’d been able to recover after you’d blown his house to hell—was a DNA match to James. But none of those forms tell me anything that happened between.”
Her mouth fell open. A kill order and the follow-up reports? Those weren’t kept electronically, weren’t something Savi could have hacked. Someone had physically gone into CIA headquarters and copied records that she—or even her direct supervisor—wouldn’t have had clearance to access. A Guardian, maybe—teleporting, or slipping through shadows.
“You’ve obviously no intention of giving me an answer,” Blake said, but he didn’t sound frustrated. He sounded relieved.
And his accent was still audible.
“Are you going to give one to me?”
“No.” He smiled, and his eyes met hers, eerily direct. “But it’s for your own protection.”
“I could say the same.” But more than that, she just couldn’t—wouldn’t—divulge classified information. Blake could poke around all he wanted. She wouldn’t spill sensitive details about her job now, or fifty years from now. She pointed out, “And knowing what happened then doesn’t change anything. We still have to stop him.”
“Knowing how I discovered where Katherine was last night doesn’t change anything, either. We still have to get her.”
All right, she couldn’t argue with that. Yet there must be another way. “Sir Pup, would you let me shoot him? Torture him for answers?”
Blake had a deep, rumbling laugh. The hellhound pushed one of his heads between the seats, his expression curious.
She sweetened the offer. “For a steak?”
Though she could barely see him behind Sir Pup’s big head, she heard Blake say, “What did my uncle ask you to do if she threatened me?”
Instantly, Sir Pup’s head shifted four times larger, his teeth serrated like knives. Scales rippled over his fur; barbed spikes ripped through, tipped with blood.
His eyes glowed with crimson hellfire and fixed on Maggie’s hand, clenching the steering wheel. Cold sweat broke out over her skin. His mouth was gentle when his enormous jaws closed over her forearm, but she got the message.
She was trembling when he let her go. She hoped she didn’t sound as terrified as she felt. “Thanks, Sir Pup. That’s good to know.”
The hellhound shifted back to his former size and snagged the fast-food bag from the console. He retreated into the back, giving her a clear view of Blake again.
His face was gray, his hands shaking as he pushed them through his hair.
“Christ, Maggie,” he said. “I didn’t know that he would—I shouldn’t have asked him that. I’m sorry.”
She nodded. She hadn’t expected it, either. But she was glad Sir Pup’s demon form hadn’t just scared the shit out of her. Blake had obviously been just as—
How the hell had Blake known what happened?
“You saw that. You saw him change.” Her heart knocked against her ribs. She stared at his solid-blue eyes, stunned—but couldn’t deny the evidence. “You can see.”
“I—” His eyes widened. His mouth closed. His jaw tightened. “You don’t know that,” he said flatly.
“I don’t? Because I sure as hell—”
“No, Maggie. You don’t. If anyone asks, you don’t know. Not until we find Katherine. Not until the problem with James is settled.”
“All right.” She understood that. Her knowing was something that didn’t go farther than this vehicle. Not even to Ames-Beaumont. Because if Ames-Beaumont learned of it while he was uncertain about her role in Katherine’s kidnapping . . .
Maggie smiled grimly. It wouldn’t be the first time someone had been killed for knowing too much. She stole a glance at Blake. His eyes were closed, and he was pressing his clenched fist to his forehead. If she had to guess, he was giving himself a heated telling-off.
But maybe, she thought, maybe he’d meant it when he’d offered to stand between her and Ames-Beaumont. If it came to that.
Not, of course, that she would let him. But it was still a good feeling.