Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Twenty)

Although the young politician was playing at subtlety, Dragos needed no further hint to guess that the VIP and good friend of Bobby Clarence was none other than his favored college professor who had hitched his savvy wagon to another rising star and landed in the secondhighest seat of power in the country. It was that very connection that had made Bobby Clarence so valuable to Dragos.

By tomorrow night, Dragos would own the minds – and souls – of both men.

"Until then," he said, reaching out to the senator and giving the unsuspecting human's hand an enthusiastic pump. He glanced at Bobby Clarence's pretty assistant and offered a courtly bow of his head. "Miss Fairchild, a pleasure to finally meet you."

With her shrewd gaze following him, and the senator's optimistic good-bye echoing into the adjacent hallway, Dragos exited the office and headed for the elevator. By the time he reached the street level and climbed into his own waiting limousine, his cheeks burned from the wide spread of his contented, unabashedly eager, smile.

It took about an hour to make the drive to the safe house the Order had arranged for them. They were several miles off the highway, traveling along an unpaved road that led them deeper into an area of low-lying marshlands and clusters of eerie, moss-strewn cypress. As Hunter made a turn into an unmarked driveway – Corinne assumed it was a driveway – the car's headlights illuminated several pairs of glowing yellow eyes hovering at ground level up ahead. The dense scrub brush shook as the swamp creatures hiding within it scurried back into the gloom of their wild domain.

"Are you sure this is the right place?" Corinne asked as Hunter drove deeper into the darkness. "It doesn't look like anywhere someone would put a house."

"There is no mistake," he replied. "This is where Amelie Dupree resides."

It was the first thing he'd said to her the whole trip. The impassive soldier was back in full effect now, not that she should be surprised at his all-business tone. They hadn't exactly left things on the best terms earlier.

Although she'd wanted to talk about what had happened – explain her panicked reaction to what had been so pleasant, so incredibly pleasurable at first – embarrassment had kept her tongue pressed to the roof of her mouth. That, and the stunning, abject alarm at having heard Hunter voice her son's name out loud.

She hadn't been prepared for that. Still wasn't, in fact. The instinct to protect her child, to deny his existence if it might mean keeping him safe from discovery, safe from harm, had risen up in her in much the same way as she would yank her hand away from an open flame. The lie had been a reflex, and now it lay between Hunter and her like a chasm. She glanced away from his unreadable face as the car slowed and the beams lit up the weathered gray wood shingles of a rustic old house nestled deep among the ghostly, moss-draped trees. An elderly black woman in a floral housedress stood beneath the shelter of the covered porch, watching them approach. Her arms had been crossed under her ample bosom, but as the car neared and came to a stop, she lifted her hand in a slow wave of greeting. Hunter turned off the engine and pocketed the keys in his leather coat. "Wait here until I tell you it's safe."

As he stepped out of the vehicle and walked around to meet the old woman, Corinne wondered what kind of threat he expected might wait for them with her. But she could see from the way he carried himself, the hard line of his shoulders and the loose gait of his long legs, that it was his training in control of his actions now.

Having spent so many hours in close company with him, it was easy to forget how massive he was, how purely lethal he could be. He radiated danger, even without the skills that had made him one of Dragos's deadliest foot soldiers. Having felt his mouth move so tenderly on hers, it was easy to forget how unforgiving his hands could be if he sensed an enemy threat or had cause for suspicion. He was taking no chances here, no matter how minute they might seem. Corinne wanted to dismiss his caution, but if he was overprotective, she realized with no small amount of humility that it was because he meant to keep her safe.

He moved with pantherlike grace and military precision, and as he strode up to their smiling, grandmotherly hostess, for a moment Corinne worried the poor old woman might shriek with fright and run the other way. She didn't. Corinne heard a molasses-smooth voice through the glass of the passenger-side window, welcoming Hunter and her and bidding them to come inside. Hunter swiveled his head and met Corinne's gaze. He gave a vague nod, then came over and opened her door before she had the chance to climb out on her own. He walked back with her toward the elderly woman and placed Corinne's hand in the outstretched palm that waited to greet her.

Clouded, milky eyes darted back and forth sightlessly as Amelie Dupree clasped Corinne's hand in a warm hold. Her smile was broad and radiant, filled with a kindness that seemed to radiate from deep within her. And when she spoke, her aging voice was a sweet, musical rasp. "Hello, child."

Hunter made quick introductions while Amelie's blind gaze searched them out in the dark. She gave Corinne's hand a motherly pat. "You come on in now, child. I got a kettle about to whistle on the stove and a pot of gumbo been simmerin' all afternoon."

"Sounds delicious," Corinne said, left with no choice but to follow along as Amelie Dupree led her up the creaky steps of the porch. She glanced back at Hunter, noting he'd stayed behind, his cell phone already pressed to his ear, no doubt checking in with the Order to let them know they'd arrived without incident.

The house didn't look like much from outside, but inside the furnishings were new and well kept, the painted walls bathed in warm earth tones and adorned with art and several decades'

worth of framed photographs. One particular picture caught Corinne's eye at once as she walked along behind Amelie Dupree, marveling at the old woman's ability to navigate the room without assistance or hesitation.

Corinne paused to look closer at the photograph that drew her attention. It wasn't current – it had to be many years old, based on the odd clothing and yellowed tinge under the glass. But the face of the vibrant young woman with the round halo of ebony curls was unmistakable. Corinne had met her at the Order's Boston compound.

"My beautiful baby sister, Savannah," Amelie Dupree confirmed, having come back to stand next to Corinne. "Half-sister, actually. We had the same mama, God rest her sweet, tormented soul."

"I didn't realize," Corinne said, resuming her trek behind the gray-haired woman into the cheery yellow kitchen at the back of the house.

The tea kettle had just begun to whistle on the stove. Amelie felt for the knobs, unerringly cutting off the gas to the kettle while the covered pot of gumbo bubbled on the next burner. She opened the cupboard and took out a pair of earthenware mugs.

"Do you know my sister?" she asked, her splayed fingers traveling the surface of the counter now and landing on a tin canister.

"I've met her only briefly," Corinne replied, unsure how much she should divulge to someone outside the Order's compound, even if there was a blood relation. "Savannah seems very nice."

"They don't come any better, I can promise you that," Amelie confirmed, a smile in her lilting voice. "We don't get to talk but a few times a year, but we pick up right where we left off, like she's never been gone."

Corinne watched the old woman place teabags into the mugs then reach for a potholder that hung on a small hook suction-cupped to the front of the stove. She was tempted to offer help, but Amelie Dupree was remarkably capable on her own. Using the index finger of one hand to mark the rim of the mug, she poured the hot water without scalding herself or spilling a single drop. Corinne herself would have been hard-pressed to be so exacting.

"And how is that fine man of hers?" Amelie casually asked as she walked the two steaming cups over to the table. "If you met my sister, I know you must've met Gideon too. The pair of them have been joined at the hip for going on – my lawd, it must be at least thirty years now."

The elderly woman sat down, motioning Corinne toward the chair beside her. Since Hunter seemed to be taking his time outside, she sat down and blew gently across the top of her mug.

"Mm-mm," Amelie intoned contemplatively, her sightless gaze seeming lost in thought.

"Hard to believe it's been so long since all that trouble took place."

"Trouble?" Corinne asked as she sipped carefully at the hot tea. She couldn't deny that she was curious to know more, not only about the woman who'd opened her house to Hunter and her but also about the couple who seemed such an integral part of the Order.

"I don't like to dredge up bad memories, child, and this one's about the worst." She reached out to cover Corinne's hand with her own, giving it a little pat. "Too much blood was shed that night. Two lives nearly lost right outside on my front lawn. I knew Gideon was different the first moment I laid eyes on him – this being years before old age started stealing my sight, a'

course. I never would've guessed what he truly was, if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. The gunshot wound should've killed him. The one that hit Savannah should've killed her too – would have, if he hadn't done what he did to save her. If he hadn't bitten into his own wrist and given her his blood."

Corinne realized she was holding her breath, listening in rapt fascination. "You saw him feed her … you know what he is, Amelie?"

"Breed." The old woman nodded. "Yes, I know. They told me everything that night. They entrusted me with their lives, and it's a truth I mean to take to my grave when my time eventually comes." Amelie took a sip of her tea. "That man outside … he's also one of Gideon's kind. Even a blind old woman like me can see that. He has a dark power about him. I felt it vibrating off him before he even got out of the car."

Corinne stared down into her mug. "Hunter is a bit … intimidating, but I've seen the good in him. He's honorable and courageous, like you and Savannah know Gideon to be."

Amelie gave a low grunt. She was still holding Corinne's right hand, her thumb rubbing idly over the teardrop-and-crescent-moon birthmark. As she continued to trace the outline of the small mark, Corinne realized she was studying it. "It's just like hers," she murmured, her smooth brow creasing. "Savannah has this very same birthmark, except hers is on her left shoulder blade. Mama used to say it was the place where the fairies kissed her before placing her in Mama's womb. Then again, Mama was a bit touched herself."

Corinne smiled. "Every Breedmate is born with this mark somewhere on her body."

"Hmm," the old woman mused. "I guess that makes you and Savannah sisters of another kind, then, doesn't it?"

"Yes, I suppose it does," Corinne agreed, warmed from both the tea and her hostess's kind acceptance. "Have you lived here for a long time, Amelie?"

She gave a bob of her grayed head. "Seventy-two years I've been in this very spot. Born right in that other room, matter of fact. Same as Savannah, though by the time she came along, I was already grown and old enough to help deliver her. I've got twenty-four years on my baby sister."

Seventy-two years old, Corinne thought, studying the aged face and silvery gray hair. If not for the Ancient's blood that had been forced upon her all the time she'd been in Dragos's laboratory prison, her body would be roughly twenty years more weathered than Amelie Dupree's. It seemed ironic to her now that the very thing she despised – the life-giving nutrients from a creature not of this earth – had allowed her to survive Dragos's torture. It had kept her strong when all she'd wanted was to lie down and die. It was because of that alien blood that she had a son out there somewhere, a piece of her heart that she worried was slipping farther and farther out of her reach.

"Do you have other family?" she asked Amelie when the ache in her chest started to be more than she could bear.

The elderly woman beamed. "Oh, my, yes. Two daughters and a son. I've got eight grandbabies too. My kin is all spread out now. The kids, they never did love the swamp the way I do. It's not in their blood, in their bones, the way it is with me and my late husband. They took off to the cities as soon as they were able. Oh, they come to see me every week or so, make sure I'm getting on all right and help take care of things around the house, but it's never enough.

'Specially the older I get. Age makes you want to hold everyone you love close as you can."

Corinne smiled and gave the warm, age-lined hand a gentle squeeze. She was glad for the elderly woman's blindness in that moment, grateful that the tear leaking from the corner of her eye would go undetected. "I don't think you need to be old to feel that way, Amelie."

The kindly woman's face tilted slightly, a thoughtful expression coming over her features.

"Has it been a long time since you've seen yours, child?"

Corinne stilled, suddenly wondering if the cloudy eyes saw more than she assumed. Feeling ridiculous, she lifted her free hand and waved it briefly in front of Amelie's gaze. No reaction whatsoever. Had the old woman somehow peered into her mind? She glanced over her shoulder, making sure Hunter was nowhere that he might overhear. "How could you possibly know – "

"Oh, I'm not psychic, if that's what you think," Amelie said around a soft chuckle.

"Savannah's the only one in our family line with any kind of true gift. According to Mama, the girl was more gypsy than Cajun, but who's to say? Savannah's daddy was little more than a rumor in our family. Mama never seemed eager to speak of him. As for me, I've just midwived enough years to recognize a woman who's given birth. Something changes in a woman after she's brought a life into the world. If you're sensitive to such things, you can feel it – like an intuition, I guess."

Corinne didn't try to deny it. "I haven't seen my son since he was an infant. He was taken away from me soon after he was born. I don't even know where he is."

"Oh, child," Amelie gasped. "I'm so sorry for you. I'm sorry for him too, because I can feel the love you have for him in your heart. You need to find him. You must not give up hope."

"He's all that matters to me," Corinne replied quietly.

But even as she said it, she knew that wasn't entirely true. Someone else was coming to matter to her as well. Someone she wanted to trust with the truth. Someone she felt sick at having pushed away and lied to, when he'd shown her nothing but tenderness. She hated the wall he was erecting between them. She wanted to tear it down before it got any higher, and that meant opening herself up to him completely. She wanted to trust him, and that meant giving him the power to prove her right … or wrong, if she turned out to be the fool. All she knew was she had to give him that chance.

"Will you excuse me for just a moment, Amelie? I want to see what's keeping Hunter."

At the old woman's nod of agreement, Corinne got up from the table and walked back through the front of the house. Before she even got out to the porch, she saw that Hunter and the purple car were gone.

He had left for his mission without even saying a word.

Murdock came back to consciousness on a choked scream.

Chase watched the vampire flail and struggle on the chain that held him suspended by his ankles from the central beam of an old, empty grain silo somewhere deep in podunk. Blood ran from the hours-old lacerations and contusions that riddled the Agent's naked body. The air inside the silo was bitter cold, added torture for the son of a bitch who'd stubbornly refused to tell Chase what he needed to know.

For most of the daylight hours they'd spent within the rat-infested shelter, Chase had tried beating the intel out of Murdock. When that didn't work, and when Chase's thin patience had started to snap with the setting of the sun outside and the pricking of his thirst, he'd picked up Murdock's own blade and tried slicing the truth from him.

At some point, the vampire had passed out. Chase hadn't noticed until his own hand was bathed in the other male's blood, the big body drooping limply, unresponsive to any amount of inflicted pain.

And so Chase had put down the blade and waited.

He watched Murdock struggle back to alertness, chains jangling in the enclosed shelter. The male coughed and spit blood onto the floor some six feet beneath his head. A large stain already lay on the filthy concrete, the congealing pool of blood and piss soaking into the moldy remnants of long-forgotten livestock feed and scattered, ice-encrusted vermin droppings. The glossy puddle of fresh red cells drew his eye like a beacon, making him yearn to forget this business that needed to get done and instead head out to hunt.

Murdock bucked and thrashed, hissing when his bleary eyes met Chase's unblinking stare from across the floor of the silo. "Bastard!" he roared. "You don't know who you're fucking with!"

Chase wrapped his fist a bit tighter into the end of another long chain – this one slipknotted around Murdock's neck – and gave it a good, hard yank. "Does that mean you're ready to tell me?" He stood up, slowly looping the chain's slack around and around his fist as he approached. When there was only a couple of feet of space remaining, he paused. "What's your connection to Dragos? And fair warning – if you continue to tell me the name means nothing to you, I'm going to pound your fucking face into a mashy pulp until you figure it out."

Murdock let out a growl, his narrowed, blood-crusted eyes flaring with amber rage. "He'll kill me if I talk to you."

Chase shrugged. "And I'm going to kill you if you don't. This here is what you'd call your classic rock and a hard place. Since I'm the one holding the chain and the blade that's going to start cutting you up into bite-size pieces, I suggest you try not to piss me off any more than you already have."

Murdock glared. His jaw was held tight, but there was a note of fear in his coal-bright eyes. "There are others who are closer to Dragos's operation than me. Whatever it is you're looking for, I'm not the one you want to talk to."

"Unfortunately, you're the only one I've got hanging around at the moment. So stop testing my patience and start talking." To drive home his point, Chase wound another bit of chain around his fist.

Christ, he hated being so close to the male. Not only because of the strong urge to smash his brains out for his participation in the blood club, among his other repulsive sins, but also because of all the goddamned blood. Although Breed blood offered no nourishment to their own kind, the sight and scent of so much fresh, spilling hemoglobin made the feral part of Chase coil like a viper in the pit of his stomach.

Murdock would hardly be able to miss the fact that Chase's fangs were filling his mouth. His own gaze mirrored the same amber fire that seared him from between the battered slits of Murdock's eyes, though not from pain or fear or fury, but from the taloned grip of the hunger that had somehow begun to ride him nearly every waking moment.

That savage part of him snarled as he forced himself to get right up in Murdock's face.

"Tell me where to find Dragos."

When the answer didn't come fast enough, Chase hauled his arm back and swung the chain-wrapped hammer of his fist into the side of Murdock's skull. The vampire howled, a tooth shooting out of his mouth in a stream of dark red blood.

Chase's gut clenched, a hideous, wild thrill soaring through his veins as he watched Murdock spew a scarlet river onto the concrete below. A sick, rabid glee urged him to throw another punch, to tear the wailing piece of shit apart like he so richly deserved. It took him aback, how powerful the darkness inside him was becoming. How demanding the savagery, how deep-seated the madness felt now that it had him in its grasp. In truth, it terrified him.

He pushed it down – as far down as he could force it to go – and reached out to grab Murdock by his chin. It was a struggle to find his voice amid the churning roar of the battle taking place inside him. When he finally spoke, his voice was gravel, scraping in the back of his throat. His lips peeled away from his teeth and fangs on a snarl. "Where. Is. Dragos?"

"I don't know," Murdock gasped. Chase raised the ball of chain to strike again. "I don't know! I don't know – I swear to you! All I can tell you is he wants to see the Order destroyed – "

"No shit," Chase interjected tightly. "Now tell me something I don't know, before I end you right here and now."

Murdock sucked in a few quick breaths. "Okay, okay … he has a plan. He wants to get rid of all of you – the entire Order. He says he has to, if he stands any chance of seeing his grand scheme through to its fruition."

"Grand scheme," Chase repeated, feeling like maybe he was finally getting somewhere.

"What the fuck is Dragos up to?"

"I'm not sure. I'm not part of the inner circle. I reported to a lieutenant of his who came up to Boston from Atlanta. Freyne reported to him too."

"What's this lieutenant's name?" Chase demanded.

"Tell me where I can find him."

"Don't bother," Murdock replied. "No one's heard from him since last week, so odds are he pissed Dragos off and got himself killed. Dragos doesn't give anyone the chance to fuck up twice."

Chase growled a low curse. "Okay, then tell me some more about his inner circle. Who else is in it?"

Murdock shook his head, scattering raindrops of blood onto Chase's boots. "No one knows who's got that kind of access to him. He's very careful like that."

"How does he plan to take out the Order?"

"I don't know. Something big. Something he's been working toward for a while, from what I've heard. He's been trying to find out where the compound is. Before Freyne was killed, he mentioned something about a decoy. Some kind of Trojan horse – "

"Ah, fuck," Chase muttered.

A sick suspicion snaked through him when he considered how Dragos might go about doing something like Murdock just described. Through the haze of his gnawing hunger, he thought about the night of Kellan Archer's rescue. The annihilation of Lazaro Archer's Darkhaven – an attack that had left the Order with little choice but to bring the two surviving members of that family into the compound for protection.

Had the whole thing played out the way Dragos had intended it to? Could the son of a bitch have used the incident to somehow expose the Order's headquarters? And to what end? The possibilities were numerous, every one of them driving into his gut like an iron stake. Chase mentally jerked his focus back to the interrogation. "What else do you know about his plans?"

"That's it. That's all I know."

Chase narrowed a look on the vampire, anger flaring along with suspicion. He shook his head. "I don't believe you. Maybe you need something to help jog your memory."

He smashed his fist into Murdock's head again. A gash ripped open on the vampire's cheek, and Chase could not contain the animal growl that erupted from him at the sight and scent of still more blood.

"Speak, goddamn you," he hissed, the bare thread of his humanity being devoured by the beast that was snapping at its bit. "I won't ask you again."

Murdock seemed convinced now. He coughed, a wet, broken sound. "He's using humans in law enforcement to be his eyes and ears. He's been making Minions, lots of them. I heard he's been talking about a politician recently – that new senator that just got elected."

It had been a long time since Chase gave a shit about human politics, but even he wasn't so far removed that he wasn't aware of the promising young Ivy Leaguer who had come fresh out of Cambridge and seemed destined for a fast rise to the national stage. "What's any of this got to do with him?" Chase demanded.

"You'll have to ask Dragos," Murdock sputtered through a split lip and swelling jaw.

"Whatever his plans are, there's a good chance they involve this Clarence guy in some way."

Chase considered it for a moment, staring at the Agent in contempt. "You sure that's all you can tell me? I'm not going to find out something more interesting if I knock a hole in the other side of your fucked-up skull?"

"I've told you everything now. I don't know anything more, I give you my word."

"Your word," Chase muttered low under his breath. "You expect me to take the word of a pedophile blood clubber who would sell out his own kind to a twisted piece of shit like Dragos?"

Murdock's eyes took on a cautious, worried gleam. His southern drawl seemed thicker for the blood that was leaking from the side of his mouth. "You said you wanted information, and I gave it to you. Fair's fair, Chase. Cut me loose. Let me go."

Chase smiled, genuinely amused. "Let you go? Oh, I don't think so. It ends for you right here. The world will be a hell of a lot better place without the likes of you in it."

Murdock's answering giggle had a maniacal edge to it, as though he understood he had no hope of walking away from the situation and meant to go out swinging. "Oh, that is rich, Sterling Chase. Your self-righteousness knows no bounds, does it? The world will be a better place without me in it. Have you looked in a mirror lately, my boy? I may be all the things you called me, but you're no prize either."

"Shut the fuck up," Chase growled.

"Don't think I didn't notice the fact that your eyes have been throwing off amber like a furnace this whole time. How long has it been since your fangs weren't filling your mouth?"

"I said shut up, Murdock."

But he didn't. Damn him, he wouldn't. "How desperate would an addict like you have to be not to be tempted to get down on your hands and knees and lap up the blood that's spilling out of me onto that shitty floor below? Wouldn't your holier-than-thou buddies back at the Order love to see you like this – like the fucked-up Rogue you truly are? Do the world a favor and take yourself out of it."

Chase couldn't tolerate any more. He couldn't stand to hear the truth, especially coming from scum like Murdock. He swung his chain-reinforced fist into the vampire's face, sending him swinging by the length of chain at his ankles. Chase yanked Murdock back and hammered him again, blow after punishing blow. He pounded until there was little left to hit. Until Murdock's body hung lifeless, the awful truth silenced at last. Chase dropped the chain from around his throbbing fist. Then he released the one holding Murdock aloft. The body hit the floor of the old silo in a heavy thump of flesh and bone, the chain rattling down behind it.

Chase turned around and walked out, leaving the door open for the other predators of the night to feed on the carcass and tomorrow's sun to take whatever remained.