Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Eleven)

"Go after him!" Dante called to Chase.

Although his gut impulse was to leap on the fleeing human and shred the bastard before his feet got their first taste of pavement, Dante had a bigger problem to deal with right here in the club. He catapulted onto the back of the raving Darkhaven youth and peeled him off his shrieking human prey. Dante threw the vampire into the nearest wall and crouched low to spring on him again.

"Get out of here!" he ordered the stricken female when she lay there at his feet, immobile in her shock. Everything would be happening too fast for her human mind to sort out, Dante's voice no doubt coming to her ears as a growled, disembodied command. "Move, damn it. Now!"

Dante didn't wait to see if she obeyed.

The Crimson eater came up off the floor, snarling and hissing, his fingers curled into claws. His gaping mouth dripped pink foam, globs of it stretching from the ends of his huge fangs. His pupils were narrowed to thin vertical slits, nothing but a blast of yellow fire surrounding them. The vampire's Bloodlusting focus was twitchy, head cocking from side to side as if he couldn't decide what he wanted more: an open human carotid or a piece of the one who'd interrupted his meal.

The vampire grunted, then made a lunge for the nearest human.

Dante flew at him like a hurricane.

Hurtling bodily down the back corridor of the club, the both of them smashed through the exit and rolled out onto the alley behind the place. There was no one out there–no sign of Chase or Tess's dealer boyfriend. There was only darkness and damp pavement and a Dumpster that reeked of week-old garbage.

With the Crimson eater snapping and clawing at him in a feral chaos of movement, Dante flicked a sharp mental command on the club's back door, slamming the thing shut and jamming the lock to keep the curious from wandering out into the fray.

The young Darkhaven vampire fought like he was crazed, bucking and kicking, thrashing and fighting like he was amped up on a shot of pure adrenaline. Dante felt something hot clamp down on his forearm and realized with not a little fury that the kid had sunk his fangs into his arm.

Dante roared, what little patience he had for the situation evaporating as he gripped his attacker's skull and launched the kid off him. The Darkhaven youth crashed against the side of the steel Dumpster, then slid to the pavement in a heap of gangly arms and legs.

Dante stalked over to him, his own eyes sharp with anger, throwing off the amber glow of fury. He could feel his fangs extruding, a physical reaction to the heat of battle. "Get up," he told the younger male.

"Get up, before I lift you up by your balls, asshole."

The kid was growling low under his breath, muscles bunching as he collected himself. He stood up and pulled a knife out of the back pocket of his jeans. As weapons went it was pitiful, just a stubby blade with a fake horn handle. The utilitarian knife looked like something the kid had pilfered out of his father's toolbox.

"Now, what the fuck do you think you're gonna do with that?" Dante asked, coolly sliding his malebranche blade out of its sheath. The arc of polished steel with its sleek titanium edge gleamed like molten silver, even in the dark.

The Darkhaven youth eyed the custom-made dagger, then snarled and took a careless swipe at Dante.

"Don't be stupid, kid. That hard-on you're feeling is just the Crimson talking. Drop your blade, and let 's take this shit down a notch, get you the help you need to come off your high." If the youth even heard Dante talking, it might as well have been coming at him in a foreign language. Nothing seemed to register. The vampire's glowing yellow eyes remained fixed and unresponsive, his breath sawing in and out of him from between his bared teeth. Thick pink spittle gathered at the corners of his mouth. He looked rabid, completely out of his mind.

He snarled. Took another swipe at Dante with the knife. As the edge of the blade came toward him, Dante moved his own weapon into the path to deflect it. The titanium-edged steel made contact, slicing across the back of the other male's hand.

The Darkhaven youth hissed in pain, but the sound stretched long, like a slow, wet sizzle.

"Ah, fuck," Dante muttered, having come to know that sound well enough in his many years of hunting Rogues.

The Crimson eater was beyond saving. The drug had induced Bloodlust, strong enough in this young vampire that he had turned Rogue. The truth of that irreversible transformation was in the acid burn of his flesh where the titanium of Dante's blade had cut him.

The metal alloy worked fast; already the skin of the vampire's hand was corroding, dissolving, falling away. Red trails running up the Rogue's arm showed the poison racing through his bloodstream. Another few minutes and there would be nothing left of him but a percolating mass of melting flesh and bone. Hell of a way to go.

"Sorry, kid," Dante told the wild-eyed Rogue before him.

In an act of mercy, he flipped the arced blade around in his hand and sliced it cleanly across the other vampire's neck.

"Jesus Christ–no!" Chase's shout preceded the hard pound of his footsteps on the asphalt of the alleyway. "No! What the fuck are you doing?"

He drew up short next to Dante, just as the Rogue's body dropped lifelessly to the ground, its severed head rolling to rest nearby. Decomposition was swift but grisly. Chase recoiled, watching the process in abject horror.

"That was a–" Dante heard a thick catch in the agent's voice, like he was choking back bile. "Son of a bitch! That was a Darkheaven civilian you just killed! He was a goddamn kid–"

"No," Dante answered calmly as he cleaned his blade and resheathed it on his hip. "What I killed was a Rogue, no longer a civilian or an innocent kid. The Crimson turned him, Chase. See for yourself."

On the street in front of them, all that was left of the Rogue was a scattered pile of ash. The fine dust caught in the slight breeze, tracing across the pavement. Chase bent down to recover the crude knife from the scattering remains of its owner.

"Where's the dealer?" Dante asked, hoping like hell to get his hands on him next.

Chase shook his head. "He got away from me. I lost track of him a few blocks from here. I thought I had him, but then he ran into a restaurant and I just… I lost him."

"Forget it." Dante wasn't worried about finding the guy; he only had to look for Tess, and sooner or later her boyfriend was bound to make an appearance. And he had to admit that taking the human out personally was something he looked forward to. The Darkhaven agent swore under his breath as he stared down at the knife in his hands. "That kid you killed–that Rogue," he corrected, "was from my community. He was a good kid from a good family, goddamn it. How am I going to tell them what happened to their son?"

Dante didn't know what to say. He couldn't apologize for the killing. This was war, no matter what the Darkhavens' official position might be on the situation. Once a Breed vampire turned Rogue–whether he turned from Crimson or the weakness present in all of the Breed–there was no coming back, no hope of rehabilitation. No second chances. If Harvard was going to run with the Order for any length of time, he'd better get a grip on that fact ASAP.

"Come on," Dante said, clapping the grim-faced agent on the shoulder. "We're finished here. You won't be able to save them all."

Ben Sullivan didn't ease up on the gas until Boston's city lights were a distant glow in the rearview mirror. He turned off Route 1 just inside Revere, flooring the vehicle onto one of the industrial drives down near the river. His hands were shaking on the wheel, palms slick with sweat. His heart was beating like a jackhammer behind his rib cage. He couldn't catch his breath.

Holy shit.

What the fuck just happened back there at that club?

Some kind of overdose–it had to be. The guy who'd taken the hit of Crimson and lapsed into convulsions was a regular customer. Ben had sold to him at least half a dozen times in the past couple of weeks alone. He'd been manufacturing and dealing the mild stimulant on the club and rave circuit for months now–since the summer–and to his knowledge, nothing like this had ever happened before.

A goddamn overdose.

Ben pulled the van into a gravel yard outside an old warehouse, cut the lights, and sat there with the engine running.

He'd been tailed by someone on foot when he fled the club–one of the two big dudes who'd been somewhere inside the place and evidently had seen him dealing. They might have been undercover cops, maybe even DEA, but both the dark-haired one in sunglasses and his equally intimidating companion who came at Ben like a freight train looked to be the shoot-first, ask-questions-later types.

Ben wasn't about to wait around and find out. He'd run out of the club and made a frantic, helter-skelter dash in and out of the surrounding streets and alleyways, finally ditching his pursuer long enough to circle back, reach his van, and get the hell out of Dodge.

The situation at the club was still playing through his head in a haze of confusion. Everything had happened so fast. The kid taking the jumbo hit of Crimson. The first sign of trouble, when his body began to spasm as the drug entered his system. The freakish roar that came out of his mouth an instant later. The answering screams of the people around him.

The sheer chaos that ensued.

Most of those intense several minutes were still spinning through Ben's mind in strobe-light flashes of memory, some images clear, others lost to the dark fog of his panic. But there was one thing he was absolutely sure of… The kid had sprouted fucking fangs.

Sharp-ass canines that would have been damn hard to hide, not that the kid had been trying to conceal anything when he'd let out that bloodcurdling howl and made a grab for one of the club girls standing next to him.

Like he meant to rip her throat out with his teeth.

And his eyes. For crissake, they had been glowing bright amber, like they were on fire in his skull. Like they belonged on some kind of alien creature.

Ben knew what he saw, but it made zero sense. Not in this world, not by any brand of science he knew, and not in this reality, which cast things like that firmly into the realm of fiction.

Frankly, by everything he knew to be logical and true, what he had witnessed just wasn't possible.

But logic had little to do with the fear pounding through him right now or the chilling sense that his harmless little "pharming" endeavor had suddenly veered way off the track. An overdose was bad enough, even worse that it had happened in a very public place, with him still on the premises to be identified. But the incredible effect the Crimson seemed to have on that kid–the monstrous transformation–was something off-the-charts unreal.

Ben turned the key in the ignition, sitting numbly as the van's engine rattled to a rest. He had to check his formula for the drug. Maybe the current batch was bad; he might have accidentally altered it somehow. Maybe the kid simply had an allergic reaction.

Yeah. An allergic reaction that just so happened to turn an otherwise normal-looking twentysomething into a bloodthirsting vampire.

"Jesus Christ," Ben hissed as he climbed out of the van and hit the gravel below at an anxious jog.

He reached the old building and fumbled for the key to the big padlock on the door. With a metallic snick and a creak of the door's hinges, he entered his private lab. The place looked like shit outside, but inside, once you got past all the dilapidation and ghostly manufacturing remnants of the paper mill's previous occupation, the setup was actually pretty sweet–all of it provided by a wealthy, anonymous patron who'd commissioned Ben to focus his pharming efforts solely on the red powder known as Crimson.

Ben's office was located behind a spacious cell of ten-foot-high steel-link fencing. Inside, there was a gleaming stainless table weighted down by a collection of beakers, burners, a mortar and pestle, and a state-of-the-art digital scale. A wall of combination-locked cabinets housed canisters of assorted pharmaceutical drugs–serotonin accelerators, muscle relaxants, and other ingredients–none of it too hard to come by for an ex-chemist with business contacts in debt to him for numerous and varied favors.

He hadn't set out to be a drug dealer. In the beginning, after he was released from the cosmetics company where he'd been working as a chemical engineer and research?development manager, Ben would never have considered operating on the other side of the law. But his staunch opposition to animal abuse–the very thing that got him fired in the first place, after witnessing years of torture in the makeup company's testing labs–put a fire in Ben's belly to take a stand.

He started rescuing abandoned and neglected animals. Then he started stealing them when regular, legal channels proved too sluggish to be effective. From there, it was a short fall into other questionable activities, club drugs being an easy, relatively low-risk venture. After all, what was the crime in dealing fairly harmless recreational drugs to consenting adults? The way Ben saw it, his rescue operation needed funding and he had something of value to offer to the clubbers and candykids of the rave crowds– something they were going to get anyway from someone, somewhere, so why not him?

Unfortunately, Tess hadn't seen things from his perspective at all. Once she learned what he was doing, she broke it off with him. Ben had sworn up and down he would quit dealing–just for her–and he truly had, until his current patron came knocking last summer with a fat wad of cash in hand.

At the time, Ben hadn't understood the focused interest in Crimson. If he'd been paid to step up production and distribution of Ecstasy or GHB, maybe it would have made more sense, but Crimson– Ben's own private recipe–had been one of the milder products he had produced. In Ben's trials, conducted primarily on himself, he found that the drug generated a slightly more intense buzz than a caffeinated energy drink, with an increase in appetite and a lessening of inhibitions.

Crimson was a fast-hitting high, but fast-fading too. Its effects vanished after about an hour. In fact, the narcotic had seemed so innocuous, Ben could hardly justify the generous payment he'd been collecting for its manufacture and sale.

After what had happened tonight, he imagined those generous payments were about to come to an abrupt–and understandable–end.

He had to get in contact with his benefactor and report the terrible incident he'd witnessed at the nightclub. His patron needed to know about the apparent problems with the drug. Certainly he would have to agree that Crimson had to be taken out of circulation immediately.