Edge of Dawn (Chapter Sixteen)

THEY HAD BEEN IN THE CITY FOR MORE THAN AN HOUR, BUT so far, Rooster was as good as a ghost. He wasn't at his apartment. Hadn't been seen all day, according to the lowlifes he tended to hang with, dealing drugs or fencing electronics down in West Roxbury. No one had seen or heard from him since he'd run with them the night before.

As for Kellan, although he knew he'd recognize Rooster's signature hairstyle on the spot, he'd never had direct contact with him, always filtering messages and intel by way of Vince. Now he regretted that lack of connection. Finding the bastard would have been much easier if he'd been able to call Rooster and personally threaten his sorry life if he didn't cooperate in locating Vince. Not a good way to avoid the murder charge he had no intention of inviting.

But while Kellan's frustration level was steadily climbing toward lethal fury, Mira wasn't deterred by the lack of success thus far. She charged forth with her usual stubborn-headed determination, dragging him along to Boston's old North End, to the club and cage-fighting arena where she'd last seen Rooster a few nights ago.

"Since we're down here anyway," she said as the neo-Gothic silhouette of the converted church rose up into the night sky ahead of them. "It's early, so if he's not inside the club somewhere, our next best bet is a crackhead who calls himself Billy the Kid. He and Rooster did a stretch together in Bridgewater for possession a while back. From what I've heard, they're still tight."

Kellan grunted, impressed with her as usual, and finding it far too easy to fall back into the rhythm of seasoned patrol partners. He had to remind himself that this was not an op shared by fellow warriors. He was not a member of the Order, and Mira was risking her life just being with him – not because of the danger of what they were undertaking here but because of who he was, of who he'd become over these past eight years.

Fortunately, he'd been careful to keep a very low profile. His name, Bowman, might be uttered in dark rooms and back alleys from time to time, but he could practically count on one hand how many people had ever seen his face. Most of those people were back at the base in New Bedford. And now one of that number was dead.

Heavy bass throbbed, grinding guitar chords screaming, as Mira strode for the vestibule door of La Notte's main entrance and pulled it open. Kellan walked in alongside her, surveying the place with a judicious eye. Although the club was crowded for the early evening hour, most of the clientele gathered in front of the head-banging, five-man group looked like kids out of the suburbs and assorted tourist types. Primarily human, although Kellan noted a trio of Darkhaven youths skulking in the far corner, eyes trained on a clutch of big-haired, scantily clad young women who had a table full of empty glasses and seemed more than ready to keep the party going.

"The cage matches don't start until close to midnight," Mira told him, leaning in close to avoid having to shout over the din of music and chatter in the room. "This is just the warm-up."

Her breath beside his ear went through him like a lick of flame, unbidden but hard as hell to ignore. He narrowly resisted putting his hands on her, his head suddenly full of images of her naked in his bed, in the shower. But then Mira put her hand on his forearm, and her fingers bit in as she tugged him into the crowd. "Come on. Rooster's not here. Let's move."

"What's wrong?" he asked, pivoting his head on a scowl to scan the area behind the bar, where she'd been looking just before she grabbed him away. His gaze lit on a pair of males – one of them unmistakably Breed, with long blond hair pulled back in a braided leather tie, accentuating cheekbones that would have looked more in place on a female, if not for the killer coldness of his pale-blue eyes. He stood with massive arms crossed over his chest, listening to the other male who faced him, his back to Mira and Kellan.

"That's Syn," she said, nodding toward the Breed giant. "He's one of the newer fighters. That human he's talking to?" Her chin lifted, gesturing at the equally tall but less bulky man who was dressed in head-to-toe black leather that sported gleaming buckles and bristling spikes. His silver-white hair was shorn in a smooth wedge that rode his skull like a halo. Not that there was anything remotely angelic about him. "That's Cassian, the owner of this place. We shouldn't let either of them see us in here."

Neither one of the men looked happy. Nor did they break the focus of their intense conversation as Mira led Kellan to a shadowed back stairwell. They descended the flight of steps into what appeared to be the bowels of the old church. At the bottom, they emerged into a basementlike walkway illuminated by sparsely placed dim bulbs, aged brick walls tunneling ahead of them and foot-worn stone at their feet.

"This was once used as a crypt," Mira informed him. "Now the fighters' private dressing rooms are down here, along with the arena."

Kellan had never been near one of the illegal cage-fighting clubs, and he wasn't enthused to realize how familiar Mira had become with them. A surge of protectiveness rose up in him as he watched her hips sway with each quiet stride of her combat boots on the stone floor. He didn't want her in the vicinity of dangerous males, let alone dangerous Breed males who made their names and fortunes by tearing one another to shreds for the amusement of violence-thirsty humans willing to pay to watch the spectacle.

"Hey." He snagged Mira's hand and drew her to a halt. Pulled her closer to him than was necessary, if only to feel her heat radiating toward him in the dank coolness of the corridor. "Where the hell are we going?"

"To see Rune."

Now Kellan bristled. He knew that name, knew it belonged to a denizen of Boston's underground, someone feared even by the city's most dangerous criminal circuit. More specifically, Rune was a brutal Breed fighter reputed to have never lost a match. It was a well-known fact that some of his opponents had forfeited their lives to him in the cage.

"Fuck no. You're not going anywhere near that guy." It was a command, spurred by pure masculine possessiveness, and Kellan couldn't bite it back. No more than he could keep his hands from going even tighter where he now held on to Mira.

The answering curve of her lips seemed equal parts pleased and annoyed. "I'm a big girl, Kellan. I can handle myself. We need intel, and Rune might have some." She came up on her toes and planted a quick kiss on his lips. "But I kind of like seeing you all growly and protective."

She didn't give him a chance to argue, which he damn well would have. Pivoting away, she resumed her trek down the corridor and paused in front of a battered, unmarked door. She dropped her fist on it a couple of times, the hard raps echoing like gunfire in the narrow passageway.

"Fuck off." A terse, snarled reply.

Mira knocked again, glancing to Kellan as he took his place beside her, battle instincts at the ready.

"Holy bleeding Christ." The voice was deep, all gravel. A more menacing snarl from the other side of the door, before heavy footsteps approached at an impatient gait. The old door squealed on its hinges as it was forcefully yanked open. Then roughly six-and-a-half-feet, three-hundred-plus pounds of bare-chested, pissed-off vampire stood in front of them. "What part of 'fuck off' do you not fucking comprehend?"

"I need information, Rune. It's important," Mira replied, speaking over the low growl that had crept up Kellan's throat. His response was automatic, an alpha reaction to the potential threat this other deadly male presented to the Breedmate standing in front of them.

My Breedmate, Kellan's every instinct declared.

He faced off against the dark-haired fighter, chin lowered, eyes fixed on him in silent warning.

But Rune didn't appear to be in the mind to test him. His midnight blue eyes slid only briefly from Mira to Kellan, and when he spoke, his tone was gruff, uninterested. "Not in the business of providing information or anything else to anyone. Least of all the Order." He eased off, started to close the door.

Mira's palm went flat against the scarred wood panel before Kellan could pull her back. "If you can help me," she ventured, unfazed by the fighter's curt dismissal, "I promise I'll see that you're compensated."

Sparks leapt into the darkness of his narrowed gaze, and the gravel of the fighter's voice took on sharp edges. The tangle of dermaglyphs on his chest, which had been infused with dark color when he first appeared in the doorway, now churned with menace. "Do I strike you as the kind of man who can be bought – at any price?"

"The lady is asking for your help," Kellan interjected, subtly stepping in to put himself between the partially open door and Mira, now standing behind his shoulder. "You going to give it to her or not?"

"Lady," Rune mused, uttering the word like he wanted to chuckle. "I've seen the way she wields those daggers of hers. She may be female, but she's no lady. Who the fuck are you?"

Kellan felt his own eyes light with flecks of rising amber, his pupils thinning to catlike slits as his temper spiked. "Someone prepared to carve your larynx out of your throat if you lift one finger against her."

Rune stared. "I believe you would. Or try, at least." The words were a challenge thrown, but then the big vampire's fierce expression relaxed a fraction. "I don't hurt females. Not even the ones armed with blades and too much attitude for their own damn good. Not even the ones who come down to my lair, interrupt my off time before I have to go pound some asshole into a bloody pulp in the ring, then stand in front of my face and insult my integrity by implying my assistance might come with a price tag."

"I apologize for that, Rune," Mira said from behind the shield of Kellan's body. "Please, let us inside so we don't have to talk around your door."

Rune didn't budge, but behind him in his quarters, Kellan caught the sudden, swift movement of another person in the room. Draped in nothing but a black satin bedsheet and a veil of honeyed brown hair that obscured her face as she ducked out of sight.

Now Kellan understood the other male's irritation at being disturbed. Rune's sparking eyes leveled on him as if to dare him to mention the presence of the naked young woman who'd since disappeared into a back room of the fighter's private chamber.

"I'm not the one interested in talking, so spit out what you have to say, then leave. Got things to do, and I don't appreciate wasting time."

Mira exhaled a short curse. "We're looking for Rooster. It's important that we find him, and I mean yesterday."

Rune's mouth went flat. "Still got a hard-on for that piece of shit, eh?"

"Have you seen him?" she pressed.

Rune gave a vague shake of his head. "Not since a few nights ago, when you nearly took the bastard's arms off with those wicked blades of yours. In front of a full house down in the arena, I might add."

Kellan didn't say anything in the wake of that disturbing news flash, but he did pivot a questioning look on Mira. No doubt she caught his displeasure at such a reckless move, but she merely glanced into his stern gaze, devoid of excuse or remorse.

Rune shrugged. "Anyway, haven't seen him since. I heard JUSTIS let him go that same night and sent you back to your boss with your tail between your legs. Heard you might've got bounced from duty with the Order on account of it. Fact, I figured you were back in Montreal by now, licking your wounds."

Kellan realized then that Jeremy Ackmeyer's kidnapping and Mira's unintended sweep into the fray were not yet common knowledge in the city. Not even a shady individual like Rune was privy to the intel that rebels had grabbed a notable scientist who'd been under the protection of the Order.

Which made him guess that Lucan had likely clapped a lid on the situation, given instructions to his warriors to keep the information out of the public eye.

And that was not good news for Kellan or his crew.

Because if Lucan and the Order were keeping Ackmeyer and Mira's abduction quiet, that probably meant there was a black op in motion right now. Almost certainly a death squad with license to kill anyone standing in their way.

Kellan had been part of the Order long enough to know that Lucan Thorne didn't mess around, especially when a strike hit close to home. Taking Ackmeyer hostage and possibly disrupting the tentative peace at the GNC summit would be bad enough. Involving Mira was an offense Lucan would not forgive.

Nor would Nikolai and Renata, Mira's adoptive parents.

Or Nathan, who'd been a best friend and brother to both Kellan and Mira since the three of them were kids.

Not to mention the rest of the warriors and their mates, including Lazaro Archer, who would be ashamed of his grandson for having vanished like a coward, only to rise again nearly a decade later as a villain they'd all be within their rights to despise.

Fuck. Even the most positive endgame of this whole scenario didn't promise a great outcome, regardless of whether he and Mira were successful tonight in tracking down Vince and getting Ackmeyer to safety.

Mira apparently hadn't absorbed what Rune's disclosure had just revealed. She peered around Kellan, frowning at the other Breed male. "Who told you I'd gotten reprimanded by Lucan? Where'd you hear I might have gotten bounced off patrols?"

"Make a difference where?" Rune shrugged. "Most folks I see around here have no love for the Order. People talk. I could've heard it anywhere."

"Well, whatever you heard," she said, "here I am now. And I'm looking for your help in locating Rooster. I'm not screwing around, Rune. I need to talk to him. So, if you see him in here tonight, I need you to find a way to hold him for me until I come back. I wouldn't ask you if I knew of anyone else who might be able to help me."

He considered for a long moment. "I don't do favors for anyone. I sure as hell don't do them because I want to get paid."

"Then do it because it's important," Mira pressed. "And it is important, Rune. I won't lie to you, it's a matter of life and death."

"Whose life we talking about?"

Although she didn't so much as look Kellan's way, he felt her body tense beside him. "Does it make a difference who?" she replied, echoing the fighter's words back to him.

"Might," he said. "Might not."

"I need to talk to Rooster, the sooner the better," Mira told him. "And no one can know that I'm looking for him. No one."

Rune's hard stare bore into her, then slid to Kellan in what felt a lot like suspicion. "What about the Order?"

"No one," Mira stated firmly.

It took the menacing Breed fighter a long moment to respond. When he did, it was with a curt inclination of his head. Agreement, even though he started closing the door on them again, in earnest this time. "If that's all, I've got more important business to attend to."

The sharp turn of the lock punctuated his exit. Then Kellan and Mira were standing alone in the passageway once more.

"Let's get out of here," Kellan said, taking her by the hand to make their way back up the stairwell to the club at street level.

They had no sooner cleared the back stairwell and were on their way through the noisy crowd, heading for the door, when a low voice sounded from behind them. "Thought you got the message a few nights ago when you were in here causing trouble, warrior."

Kellan and Mira slowed to a halt, then together turned to face Cassian, La Notte's proprietor. His eyes were the color of peridot, shrewd and hawklike beneath his dark brows and snowy crown of short-cropped hair. No small man in stature or build, he stood with arms crossed over his leather-and-buckle-clad chest, his long legs braced in a commanding stance.

"In case there was any doubt, you're not welcome in my club." His mouth curved in a smile that bordered on profane. "Or are you in here slumming with your friend?"

He wasn't looking at Kellan when he said it, but Kellan's hackles rose at the sight of the guy. Tension seeped into his limbs, tightened his grasp on Mira's hand.

"We were just leaving," she replied.

"Who's this with you?" Cassian asked now. "New recruit?"

Kellan lowered his head as the man strolled toward them, moving with a rolling, pantherlike smoothness that belied that rough edges of the rest of his demeanor. Cassian's bright green eyes pinned Kellan in a hard stare. "I know you."

"Don't think so," Kellan growled, certain he'd never met the human. He would have recalled the arrogance and the none-too-subtle undercurrent of menace that vibrated around him.

That shock of silvery white hair seemed glacial under the swirling, colored lights from the stage behind them. A huge Faceboard monitor on the opposite wall flashed live coverage of a bloody human boxing match, no doubt meant to be an appetizer for the real fights set to take place later that night in the club's basement. The monitor's images illuminated Cassian's angular face in harsh relief and shadows. "Yes," he said, letting the word out slowly, almost a hiss. "It's been some years, but I have seen you somewhere once before."

Kellan dropped Mira's hand because his were suddenly fisting of their own accord at his sides. "And I said you're mistaken."

"Let's go." Mira took his arm in both her hands as though she were prepared to drag him away from the confrontation with La Notte's owner.

Cassian chuckled. "She likes you, wants to protect you. That's intriguing. Figured she might've gone the other way . . . not that I didn't find that thought intriguing too."

The man had the poor judgment to take a step toward Mira, and Kellan's hand shot out like a viper, blocking him. The chest that flattened against his palm was rock solid, unyielding. And where Cassian's gaze was ice, his body was hot like coals beneath the leather, radiating a power Kellan could hardly reconcile.

As he held the man in place, physically keeping him from getting close to Mira, Kellan's psychic gift roused awake inside him. It reached out through his touch on Cassian, searching for the truth of the human's intentions.

And came up blank.

Utterly unreadable.

How the fuck could that be?

Cassian held his gaze for a second longer than Kellan liked, then the man simply stepped aside and strode toward the bar, where a group of inebriated, pretty young women were having trouble staying upright on their spiked heels.

Kellan was still trying to process what he'd just experienced, and he was surprised Mira didn't have something to say about Cassian's sudden lack of interest in them and their business at his establishment.

But Mira wasn't looking at the man anymore.

She stared transfixed at the Faceboard monitor across the expanse of the place. Kellan followed her gaze. All the blood seemed to drain out of his head.

The monitor was no longer displaying the boxing match. On-screen now was a JUSTIS Department news alert, barely audible over the din of the crowd and the band still playing its set onstage. But the ticker scrolling across the huge monitor told Kellan all he needed to know.

Laboratory explosion in western Massachusetts today claims life of renowned scientist Jeremy Ackmeyer . . .

Second body recovered on-site, identified as Vincent DeSalvo, ex-convict with established ties to Boston area militant and rebel organizations . . .

Global Nations Council calling for thorough investigation into what it's calling an act of conspiracy and premeditated murder . . .

"Kellan," Mira murmured, her body unmoving, seeming frozen in place, even after he took her hand in his. "Oh, my God, Kellan . . . Jeremy Ackmeyer is dead."