Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER NINE)

CHASE FLICKED UP the collar of his coat as he rounded a corner off a dark side street in the city and headed deeper into the evening crush of pedestrians and rush-hour commuters. His gunshot wounds were bleeding again. He could feel the liquid heat of his own blood seeping through the fabric of the baggy jeans and lumberjack flannel shirt he'd pinched from a church thrift shop box overflowing with holiday donations. His tan construction boots were too tight by a full size and the dark wool-blend coat carried the faint smell of mothballs, but he was warm. Too warm, in fact. His skin felt fiery, stretched too tight around him.

He knew it was the hunger calling him.

It had started as a prickling annoyance about an hour ago, his body's way of telling him that night was falling and it was time to feed.

Head pounding, veins jangling more insistently than an alarm clock, he'd woken up in an abandoned mill in Malden, where he'd gone after paying his unannounced visit to the Minion senator's house. He'd been lucky to find the shelter last night. Luckier still that his exhaustion had overwhelmed his addiction's greed. He wouldn't be the first of his kind to get stupid from Bloodlust and end up ashing himself in the morning.

But he hadn't fallen into that abyss yet.

The way his stomach was twisting on itself, he had to wonder if the plunge into blood madness wasn't actually a relief in the end. God knew, fighting it off every waking second was its own brand of hell.

The blood he'd taken from the nurse had given him the boost he needed to escape the infirmary and take care of Dragos's mind slave, but he was paying the price for it now. Like a neglected lover suddenly shown a brief but passing interest, his blood thirst demanded all of his undivided attention. It sent him prowling the street, back into the bustle of the city more out of selfish, slavish need than out of any sense of righteous purpose or duty.

His hooded gaze slid from one human to another, temptation everywhere as he strode among them like a wraith. Without intending to, he found himself falling in behind a group of young women toting shopping bags and long rolls of wrapping paper. He casually followed them as they made their way up the street, chattering and laughing with one another. While his hunger urged them to head for the poorly lit parking lot at the end of the block, the women instead hung an abrupt right and entered the din of an Irish pub.

As they disappeared into the crowded establishment, Chase slowed his pace outside. His fangs were sharp against his tongue, and under the low tilt of his head, he could see the faint glow from twin points of amber reflecting his gaze back at him in the pub's garland-draped, light-festooned window.


He had to get a grip, get this thing under control. He knew where it was leading him, of course. He'd seen it happen to better men than he. Had seen it all too recently in his own family, in a promising young kid with the whole world ahead of him. Lost to Bloodlust and taken for good in a single, damning action that had haunted Chase ever since.


Jesus, had it really been more than a year since his nephew's death?

It felt like a matter of days sometimes. Other times, like now, with his own feral reflection staring back at him, it felt like centuries had passed.

Ancient fucking history.

And he could hardly afford to stand around rehashing the past. Keep moving; that's the best thing he could do. And if he wanted a snowball's chance of beating back his hunger tonight, he'd better get his ass away from the general human population and find someplace to sweat it out alone. The way he was hurting – and the way his wounds were lingering, his body's healing in need of fresh red cells – it wasn't wise for him to be anywhere public.

Chase started to turn away, but through the pub windows, a flash of movement on one of the wall-mounted TV screens caught his eye. Behind a yammering blond news reporter covering a story from earlier that day, he caught a glimpse of silky caramel brown hair and a pretty face he recognized instantly.

Tavia Fairchild, being escorted out of a Boston office building by several police officers and federal agents sometime that morning.

Chase stared at her image on the screen. Her cheeks were slack, gaze stricken with shock and grief as law enforcement hurried her toward a waiting vehicle outside the government building. A ticker at the bottom of the news video confirmed the senator's killing and a suspect still at large. The video went split screen to show his mug shot, but Chase only glanced at it. His attention was fixed on something else – something that made his blood run cold in his veins. He peered closer at one of the cops who was taking Tavia out of the building. Not the detective from the station but another man – a uniformed officer with dark hair and the flat gaze of a mind slave. Holy hell. Just how deep did Dragos's reach go?

And what did it mean for Tavia Fairchild if his Minions were keeping her close in their sights?

It couldn't be good.

Chase's fury spiked as he watched the Minion cop put his hands on her to assist her into the vehicle – the same way it had spiked when he'd seen her stand next to Senator Clarence in the police station viewing room. Although he was far from being anyone's hero, Chase felt the tarnished inklings of his old sense of honor grind to life inside him when he thought of her being anywhere near Dragos or his legion of soulless servants.

The morning news report was easily eight hours old. Potentially eight hours that Tavia had been breathing the same air as the Minion cop who climbed into the car with her and the police detective and drove off. If Dragos had wanted to harm the woman, he'd had plenty of time to get it done. Not that Chase should be the one to save her. Hell, when it came right down to it, he doubted he could even save himself.

But that didn't keep his blood from surging with new purpose.

It didn't keep his feet from moving, stepping away from the pub and heading across the street for the shadows. He vanished into the gloom, all of his predatory focus rooted to a single goal: finding Tavia Fairchild.

FIFTEEN MINUTES LATER, Chase was crouched like a gargoyle at the edge of the Suffolk County Sheriff's Department rooftop, his eye trained on the employee parking lot below. After an end- of-shift parade of uniformed officers and shuffling office types trickled down to nil, his patience was strained and he was about two seconds away from storming the place to find the cop he was looking for. But then, at last, pay dirt. He recognized the middle-age police detective as soon as the human exited the building.

This was the man who'd been in the witness viewing room with Tavia Fairchild. The same man who'd accompanied her past the television news camera crews at the press conference that morning. Chase watched the human make his way across the lot toward his car. He aimed the little keyless remote in his hand and a rust-speckled silver Toyota sedan chirped halfway up the row.

Chase dropped down from the roof, his church donation box boots landing on the cold asphalt without a sound.

"Got time for a chat, Detective?" Chase was already in the passenger seat of the vehicle by the time the human had opened the driver's door and plopped down behind the wheel.

"Jesus Christ!" He jumped, panic flooding his jowly face. His cop instincts kicked in at the same time, sending his hands scrambling to the service revolver holstered at his hip.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," Chase cautioned.

Apparently thinking better of it, the officer lunged for the door handle beside him. As if he stood any chance of escape. He hauled on the lever but it didn't release, even after repeated tries to work the electronic locks with his other hand. "Damn it!"

Chase stared at him, unfazed. "That'll do you no good either."

Nevertheless, Avery went another round on the locks and door handle, unaware that Chase was holding them closed by force of his Breed will. Then the aging cop suddenly got desperate and dropped his elbow on the horn. The cheery Japanese bleat shot loose like a scream before Chase seized the human's arm and wrenched him to full attention. "That was unwise."

"What're you gonna do? Fucking kill me right here in the parking lot?"

"If I wanted you dead, you wouldn't be sitting here about to piss yourself, Detective." "Oh, Jesus," Avery moaned. "What the hell is going on? What the hell is wrong with your face?"

In the reflection shining back at him from the glass of the driver's side window, Chase saw the twin coals of his eyes glowing fiery amber in the dark of the vehicle. He looked monstrous, feral. Unhinged. Nothing close to human. He ground his jaws together, feeling the tips of his fangs graze sharply against his tongue.

The glimpse of his reflection sent his mind careening back to another, similar moment from his recent past. Back then, little more than a year ago, Chase had been sitting in a darkened vehicle, eyes glowing and fangs drawn for the kill, as he stared into the terrified face of a human drug peddler who'd sent his nephew Camden into a narcotic-induced, tailspin addiction for blood.

Chase had been so self-righteous then, so certain he could be the one – perhaps the only one – able to save Camden. Instead he'd been the one who destroyed him. His mind echoed with the blast of gunfire that had opened up the boy's chest that night. He could still feel the unforgiving chill of metal in his hand, the reverberation of his biceps in the sudden silence that followed. The stench of spent bullets and spilling blood rank in the air as the raw, grief-stricken scream of a woman he'd once wanted for his own split the night.

And now it was Chase who was the afflicted, the doomed. Not because of a reckless taste of Crimson – the substance that had ruined the lives of young Cam and some of his friends the autumn before last – but because of his own negligence and weakness. The culmination of a lifetime of failings. His selfish, insatiable, damning need to fill a void that gaped deep inside him was finally swallowing him whole.

He felt sick with it as the police detective gaped at his transformed face in abject terror. The human's eyes were wide as saucers, mouth hanging open in mute stupor before a choked groan erupted from his throat. "My God, what are you? What the hell do you want from me?"

Chase blew out a harsh curse. This wasn't how he'd intended it to go down here, letting the human cop see him for what he truly was, but it was too late for that. He'd deal with it after he got the information he sought.

"Where is she?" Chase leaned in close, the beast in him snapping at the scent of raw fear. "I need to find Tavia Fairchild."

Despite the fear and confusion swamping the detective's gaze, a spark of protectiveness flared. "You think I'll tell you that so you can kill her too? Fuck you."

Chase had to respect the man for that. Cop or not, there weren't many of his species who'd show that kind of allegiance to someone they hardly knew. Especially when they were staring into the face of a walking nightmare. In Chase's experience, only Minions could be counted on for that depth of loyalty, and theirs came at the price of their own souls. Detective Avery here was very much alive and very afraid, yet he was glaring back at Chase with what he could only assume was some inviolable sense of honor.

Chase had known that feeling once himself. So long ago he barely recognized it anymore.

Didn't really matter now. The man he truly was was the one sending this decent human being into a cower before him. "I saw you with her this morning," Chase said. "You were with another cop – a uniform. Dark hair, nasty scar running into one of his eyebrows. What's his name? I need to find him too. Start talking, Detective."

"I'm not gonna tell you anything. Least of all where Murphy took her."

Holy hell. So she was still with the Minion. "Where is she, goddamn it?" "Someplace safe." Avery practically spat the words.

Chase bore down on the man. "Safe from what?"

"From you, ya son of a bitch!" The detective started shaking, clutching at the collar of his rumpled white dress shirt and half-unhitched tie. "God almighty … you can't be real. You can't be human. That's how you survived all those gunshots. That's how you were able to walk out of the infirmary last night …"

Chase felt the terror rolling off the man as comprehension finally, fully, took root in the human's stricken face. He gaped now, as if he expected to be torn to pieces any second by the beast that Chase was.

This was the reason the Breed had protected the secret of their existence all this time. This bone-deep fear, fueled by myth and grim folklore – not all of it completely untrue – was the reason the Breed could never expect any kind of peaceful cohabitation with man. Humankind's fear of things that went bump in the night was too ingrained. Too dangerous to be trusted. Chase wasn't above using that terror to his advantage now. Nor would he hesitate to hurt this man in order to get the answers he came for. If Avery knew the kind of evil that was keeping company with Tavia Fairchild now, he'd need no coercion.

Then again, if this human or any other understood even half of the threat that Dragos and his followers presented to mankind's way of life, there might be no reasoning with any of them. Still, Chase opted for the unvarnished truth.

In frank, unsparing terms, he told Detective Avery everything.

When he was through, and after the aging officer wearily divulged Tavia Fairchild's location, Chase spared him the burden of carrying his awful knowledge beyond that moment.

He scrubbed the man's memory clean of it all and left him sitting alone, mentally numb but unharmed, in the dark cockpit of his Toyota.

TAVIA LINGERED in the hotel suite shower, unwilling to let go of the decadent, undisturbed solitude. It didn't bother her too much that she wasn't exactly alone. The pair of federal agents and the uniformed officer who'd brought her there that day were down the short hallway, in the living room of the spacious quarters.

Separated from her by two closed doors – her private bathroom and bedroom – the men were currently engrossed in a basketball game they'd turned on a few minutes before she'd excused herself to have a shower and take a nap until room service arrived with dinner. Under the warm spray of the water, she heard the tinny chatter of the television in the living room, accompanied by an occasional shout of dismay or a triumphant whoop from the men watching the game.

She'd been surprised when Officer Murphy informed her she'd be spending the night at the hotel – possibly more than one – under armed watch. The hard-eyed cop with the sinister scar across his eyebrow had been her close companion all day, since the moment he and Detective Avery had taken her away from Senator Clarence's office that morning. God, it was all so surreal. She had no experience being an eyewitness to a crime, let alone one in need of police protection at an undisclosed location.

In truth, though, it didn't seem much different from her usual home life: never left totally on her own, someone forever checking on her well-being, encroaching on her privacy whenever they liked, with the reasoning that it was all simply for her own good. She'd never felt particularly helpless or infirm, regardless of what Dr. Lewis and Aunt Sarah seemed to think. Admittedly, her body rebelled on her from time to time, whether in reaction to new treatments for her mystifying condition or in situations of heightened stress. Tavia had never quite figured out how to predict the onslaught of her "spells," as Aunt Sarah referred to them. Dr. Lewis said she had an unusual form of epilepsy, complicated by a host of other strange ailments that had required her to be in his specialized care from the time she was a baby.

The silver-haired physician had been as much a father figure to her as Aunt Sarah had been the only mother she'd ever known. Tavia hadn't seen so much as a photograph of her birth parents, having lost both of them in a vicious house fire that had somehow, miraculously, spared her.

All she had to remind her of the past she'd lost were the scars that covered nearly all of her body.

Tavia lathered the small bar of hotel soap and ran it along her arms and torso, then down the length of her legs. The scars tracked nearly everywhere she touched, even up onto her neck, painless for as long as she could remember. Based on how much of her body they covered, the scars should have looked more severe than they did. Dr. Lewis's treatments had worked some kind of magic on them, apparently.

They were still hideous to her, of course, a relentless webwork of pinkish tan skin that could be hidden only beneath turtleneck collars, long sleeves, and slacks.

The conservative dress code of her job with the senator had been a blessing; not even he had known of her extensive flaws or her complicated medical conditions. To him and to everyone else she came in contact with, Tavia was reserved, professional, and exacting. Her work life was the only thing she felt truly in control of, and she'd made it her mission to be perfect in every way possible.

God knew, she had no personal life to worry about.

Only Aunt Sarah, who had given up her own personal life to devote herself to looking after her dead brother's child. The older woman never spoke of her past or the dreams she might have held as a young woman. She'd never married, never regretted the fact that she'd gone without a family or children of her own.

Tavia often wondered why her aunt had made the choice to appoint herself lifelong guardian and caretaker of her niece. Not that she hadn't posed that question, more than once. Aunt Sarah would merely smile placidly whenever asked about those things and dismiss all questions with a kindly pat on Tavia's hand. "Don't you fret about me, dear. You're what's important. And I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be."

Too bad Aunt Sarah didn't feel the same about dissecting every action and thought of Tavia's. She wanted to know everything, always. But she never got angry or impatient – not in all the time Tavia had known her. She never complained, which made Tavia feel a bit guilty to be enjoying a few hours away from Aunt Sarah's constant attention now.

In twenty-seven years, she'd spent less than an accumulated month away from home, counting business trips with the senator and the occasional emergency overnight observation and treatment at Dr. Lewis's private care clinic. Aunt Sarah was never unconcerned on any of those occasions, but when Tavia spoke with her on the phone earlier tonight, after the news and cable networks had been broadcasting the report of Senator Clarence's murder on practically every station for most of the day, the woman was as upset as Tavia had ever heard her.

It had taken fifteen minutes just to convince her that Tavia was safe, particularly when the federal agents and officers had forbade her from disclosing to anyone where she was staying. Tavia was sure that if Aunt Sarah was given the hotel name or address, she would have been knocking on the door as soon as she could get there. She had fretted that Tavia wasn't telling her everything, which she wasn't.

"I don't understand, dear. Are you in some kind of trouble? Why would the police need you to stay somewhere overnight?"

"They have a lot of questions for me yet, Aunt Sarah. The detective in charge of the investigation thought it would be more convenient if I stayed in the city so we can talk some more tonight, then start again early in the morning."

"But they don't know about your condition. You're not well, Tavia. You should be home, not stuck somewhere for their convenience."

"I'm perfectly fine," she'd insisted, but it had been clear that Aunt Sarah hadn't totally believed it.

Ten more minutes had been spent assuring her that Tavia did, indeed, have her medicines – all of them, including the small stash she kept on hand in case of an emergency such as this that might delay her from getting home as expected – in her pocketbook.

Tavia didn't have the energy to explain she might be gone for more than one night. Nor did she divulge the fact that she'd convinced Detective Avery to send an unmarked squad car to Aunt Sarah's neighborhood to make sure none of the danger Tavia might be in spilled over onto her only living relative.

"Don't worry about me, Aunt Sarah," she'd told the old woman as gently as she could. "I'm going to be all right. I really will."

The conversation had left her feeling more stifled than protected. She hated begrudging Aunt Sarah's concern, but there were times when Tavia couldn't picture a future without her aunt in her life. Under the same roof. She felt trapped, suffocating with it, at the same time shamed by even this small resentment for a woman who clearly wanted only what was best for her.

Tavia put her head under the warm spray and worked a dollop of shampoo into her long hair.

She scrubbed her scalp, feeling the nearly imperceptible outlines of the curved tangle of old scars that tracked up the back of her nape and into her hairline. She rinsed away the soap, then squirted some of the conditioner into her palms and smoothed it on.

In the other room of the suite, a game horn sounded on the television, marking the end of a shot clock. The men's voices carried as they argued the last play and made cutting remarks about the out-of-town team.

Tavia took her time rinsing off, dousing her hair and body, reluctant to let go of the warm, wet peace she was enjoying. But with her stomach starting to growl and the men waiting to order dinner for themselves until she was ready to eat too, she finally reached out to crank the lever on the tub and shower's water supply. It cut off with a squeak.

And then … silence.

An unnatural, ominous silence.

Naked and dripping, she peeked out from behind the plastic curtain. Listened for a long moment.

Nothing but quiet – not even the sound of the television running now.

"Hello?" she called anxiously. "Officer Murphy?"

She stepped out onto the bath mat. No time to bother with a towel, she grabbed the terry hotel robe from its hook on the back of the door and wrapped it around herself. Wet strands of hair drooped into her face as she hastily tied the belt at her waist and crept forward to put her hand on the doorknob.

Something was wrong. Very wrong. She could feel it in every fiber of her being, nerve endings jolting with sudden, certain alarm.

She slipped out to the empty bedroom and padded silently toward the closed door that led to the suite's living quarters just down the hall.

As she neared, a muffled groan cut short in the other room, followed by a hard thump that vibrated the floor beneath her bare soles.

Tavia froze.

She didn't need to open the door to know that death waited on the other side, but she couldn't keep her hand from quietly turning the knob. She peered out through the smallest wedge of space she dared. Her eyes met the unseeing gaze of Officer Murphy, lying motionless at the other end of the hallway. A big man, yet his neck was twisted and broken like a doll's, his head turned at a morbid angle on the floor.

Tavia's heart slammed hard against her rib cage.

Had the intruder killed them all?

It was him, she knew it with a visceral certainty that throbbed in her veins.

Her instincts screamed for her to get out of there now. She spun on her heel and hurried to the curtained slider on the far side of the bed. Fumbling with the lever lock on the handle, she finally wrenched the glass door and screen open. A wintry gust swept inside, blowing fine icy snowflakes into her eyes. Two steps out onto the frigid concrete balcony, she stopped short and exhaled a hissed curse.

The room was ten stories above the street.

No way out, not from here. Whatever was going on in the suite outside her bedroom, she was trapped in the middle of it.

"Shit." Tavia backed away from the open slider. She turned around … and came up short with a gasp.

The man from her nightmares – the deranged psychopath who'd murdered Senator Clarence in cold blood and undoubtedly now wanted to finish her off too – stood less than two inches from her face.

She opened her mouth to scream but didn't manage even the smallest sound before he clamped one hand around the back of her neck and the other came down swiftly across her lips. His grip was strong, unbreakable. Wild-eyed, terrified, she reached up to grab at his fingers, but they resisted like iron.

"Be still," he rasped, a curt command. His voice was rough and deep, far more powerful up close than it had been last night at the police station. There was something fuller about the grim set of his mouth too, and something not quite right at all about his eyes.

At first she dismissed their odd emberlike glow as a trick of her panicked mind. The pupils seemed distorted somehow, stretched thin and narrow in the center of his burning irises. Impossible that it could be anything but imagined.

But no … it wasn't distress that made her see it. This was real. As real as the unrelenting heat of his hands on her, fingers searing her nape and pressing hotly against her mouth.

As real as the sharp, elongated white tips of his teeth, which glinted as he parted his lips to speak once more. "I'm not going to hurt you, Tavia."

Oh, God.

Here was her nightmare, standing before her in real life.

He wasn't human; he couldn't be. Her mind rejected the word that leapt at her from out of the horror stories and dark fiction Aunt Sarah had chided her for reading when she was a child.

Tavia wasn't sure what he was, but she didn't believe even for a second that he wasn't going to kill her in that next instant like he had the senator and the men in the other room. She struggled against him with all she had now, attempting to twist and fight her way free. But she couldn't budge him off her.

He was strong – as strong as any monster should be.

And with the sudden surge of adrenaline into her bloodstream, Tavia felt her body begin to rebel beneath the forced calm that her medicines provided. Her heart rate jackhammered, sending her pulse throbbing in her temples. She groaned against the fingers that held her mouth closed, all the while trying to will herself out of an anxiety tailspin.

He maneuvered her around and pushed her down onto the bed.

"No!" her mind screamed, the physical cry snuffed in her throat.

She was on her back and struggling uselessly, his hand still flat on her lips. The other had come around swiftly from behind her neck, only to rest across her brow. Here he touched her lightly, the warmth of his broad palm barely skimming the surface of her skin.

"Relax, Tavia," he said, that low, graveled growl not so much menacing now as coaxing. "Close your eyes."

She bucked, thrashing her head beneath the odd comfort of his words. He seemed confused that she wouldn't comply. Those inhuman eyes narrowed, pinning her in a scathing amber glow. "Sleep." It was a command this time, his hand still held to her forehead.

She glared up at him in defiance, letting him read her fury in her own seething gaze. Fighting with her legs, slamming her fists futilely against the rock-solid muscles of his back and shoulders, she made another desperate attempt to break free.

As she shifted and fought, she felt cool air hit the naked skin of her chest. Her hotel robe gaped open in a wide downward V, baring her to his gaze from throat to navel. Baring the worst of her skin's flaws.

He stared.

Then he swore. "Holy hell …"

Tavia moaned, humiliation making her fright compound into something even more terrible. It was awful enough to be assaulted and in fear of her life. Now this astonishingly inhuman being gaped at her as though she were the freak.

The press of his palm against her mouth fell away on another, more vivid curse. Head cocked in an animalistic angle, his wild amber eyes came back up to her face in obvious disbelief. "What the fuck is this?"