Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Twenty-six)

Ben's captors had let him sit forever by himself in an unlit, windowless, securely locked room. He kept waiting for the one they'd called Master to appear–the nameless, faceless inpidual who'd been covertly financing the development and distribution of Crimson. Time dragged, maybe a full twenty-four hours since he'd been picked up and taken here. No one had come for him yet, but they would. And in a dark corner of his mind, Ben understood that when they did, he wouldn't get out of the confrontation alive.

He got up off the floor and made his way across the bare concrete to the closed steel door on the other side of the room. His head was screaming from the beating he'd taken before he was dragged off the street to this place. His broken nose and neck wound were crusted over with dried blood, both injuries on fire with raw pain. Ben put his ear to the cold metal door and listened to movement getting louder on the other side. Heavy footsteps clopped nearer and nearer, the purposeful gaits of more than one man, punctuated by the metallic jangle of chains and weaponry.

Ben backed up, retreating as far as he could into the darkness of his holding cell. There was a snick of a key turning the lock, then the door swung open and the two huge guards who'd brought him here came inside.

"He's ready for you now," one of the thugs growled.

Both men took Ben by the arms and wrenched him hard before shoving him forward, out the door and into a dim hallway outside. Ben had suspected he was being held in some kind of warehouse, based on the crude quarters he'd been stowed in until now. But his captors led him up a flight of stairs and into what looked to be an opulent, nineteenth-century estate. Polished wood gleamed in elegant, low lighting. Beneath his muddied shoes, a soft Persian rug spread out in an ornate pattern of deep red, purple, and gold. Above his head in the foyer his captors pushed him through, a large crystal chandelier twinkled.

For an instant, some of Ben's alarm eased. Maybe everything would be okay, after all. He was deep into the shit lately, but this wasn't the nightmare he'd expected it to be. Not some torture chamber of horrors as he'd feared.

Ahead of him, a set of open double doors framed yet another impressive room. Ben was guided there by his handlers, who then held him securely in the middle of the large formal sitting room. The furniture, the rugs, the original oil paintings on the walls–all of it reeked of extensive wealth. Old wealth, the kind you didn't get without a few hundred years of practice.

Surrounded by all that opulence, seated like a dark king behind a massive, carved mahogany desk, was a man in an expensive black suit and dark sunglasses.

Ben's palms started to sweat the instant his eyes lit on the guy. He was immense, broad shoulders straining beneath the impeccable fall of his jacket. The pressed white shirt he wore was unbuttoned at the neck, but Ben didn't think it was a sign of casualness so much as an indication of impatience. Menace permeated the air like a thick cloud, and some of Ben's hope strangled on the spot.

He cleared his throat. "I, uh… I'm glad to finally have the chance to meet with you," he said, hating the tremor in his voice. "We need to talk… about Crimson–"

"Indeed, we do." The deep, airless reply cut Ben off with its appearance of calm. But from behind those dark glasses trained on him, fury seethed. "It looks as though I'm not the only one you've annoyed recently, Mr. Sullivan. That's quite a nasty gash on your neck."

"I was attacked. Son of a bitch tried to tear my throat out."

Ben's shadowy employer grunted with obvious disinterest. "Who would do a thing like that?"

"A vampire," Ben said, knowing how crazy it had to sound. But what had happened to him down by the riverfront was only the tip of a very disturbing iceberg. "That's what I need to talk to you about. Like I said when I called the other night, something's gone really wrong with Crimson. It's… doing things to people. Bad things. It's turning them into bloodthirsty lunatics."

"Of course it is, Mr. Sullivan. That's precisely what it was meant to do."

"What?" Disbelief made Ben's stomach drop in his gut. "What are you talking about? I created Crimson. I know what it's supposed to do. It's just a mild amphetamine–"

"For humans, yes." The dark-haired man stood up slowly, then came around the side of the enormous desk. "For others, as you've discovered, it is something much more."

As he spoke, he glanced toward the open doors of the room. Another pair of heavily armed guards stood at the threshold, their hair shaggy and unkempt, fierce eyes seeming to burn like embers under their heavy brows. In the dim light from the candles in the room, Ben thought he saw the gleam of fangs behind the guards' lips. He flicked a nervous glance back at his employer.

"Unfortunately, I have discovered something troubling myself, Mr. Sullivan. After your call the other night, a few of my associates visited your laboratory in Boston. They searched your computer and records, but imagine my dismay to hear that they could not find the formula for Crimson. How do you explain that?"

Ben held the sunglass-shaded gaze that pinned him from only an arm's length away. "I never keep the true formula in the lab. I thought it would be safer kept offsite, with me."

"You need to give it to me." There was little inflection in the words, no movement in the powerful body that stood before him like an impassable wall. "Now, Mr. Sullivan."

"I don't have it. That's the God's honest truth." "Where is it?"

Ben's tongue froze. He needed a bargaining chip, and the formula was all he had. Besides, he wasn't about to sic these thugs on Tess by telling them he'd hidden the Crimson recipe in her clinic. He hadn't meant to leave it there for long, only until he'd sorted out his options in this mess. Too late to call back that misstep, unfortunately. Even though saving his own ass was his primary concern at the moment, putting Tess in the middle of this was out of the question.

"I can get it for you," Ben said, "but you'll have to let me go. Let's agree on this like gentlemen. We sever all ties right here and now and go our separate ways. Forget we know anything about each other."

A tight smile curved his employer's mouth. "Don't try to negotiate with me. You are beneath me… human."

Ben swallowed hard. He wanted to believe that the guy was just some kind of demented vampire fantasist. A nut job who was heavy on cash but light on sanity. Except he'd seen what Crimson had done to the kid he'd dealt it to the other night. That horrific transformation had been real, hard as it was to accept. And the ragged, searing gash in his neck was real too.

Panic started hammering hard in his chest.

"Look, I don't know what's going on here. Frankly, I don't wanna know. I just want to get the hell out of here in one piece."

"Excellent. Then you should have no trouble complying. Give me the formula."

"I told you, I don't have it."

"Then you will have to re-create it, Mr. Sullivan." A brief nod brought the two armed guards inside. "I' ve taken the liberty of bringing your lab equipment here. Everything you need is in order, including a test subject for the finished product. My associates will show you the way."

"Wait." Ben shot a look over his shoulder as the guards began to remove him from the room. "You don't understand. The formula is… complex. I don't have it memorized. To get it right could take me several days–"

"You have no more than two hours, Mr. Sullivan."

Bruising hands grasped Ben in an unyielding hold and pushed him back toward the descending stairwell that gaped ahead of him, as black as endless night.

Chase strapped on the last of his weapons, then checked his ammo supply one final time. He had one pistol loaded with regular rounds; another held a clip of the hollow-nose titanium specials that he'd been given by the warriors for the express purpose of killing Rogues. He sincerely hoped he wouldn't need to use those, but if he had to blast through a dozen feral vampires to reach his nephew, he damn well would.

Grabbing his dark wool pea coat from the hook near the door, he stepped into the hallway outside his private quarters in the Darkhaven. Elise was there; he nearly ran into her in his haste to be on his way.

"Sterling… hello. Have you been avoiding me? I'd been hoping I could talk with you." Her lavender eyes swept him in a quick glance. She frowned, seeing the array of guns and knives that circled his hips and crisscrossed his chest. He felt her apprehension, could smell the sudden, bitter note of dread mingling with the delicate scent that was simply her own. "So many terrible weapons. Is it very dangerous out there?"

"Don't worry about that," he told her. "Just keep praying for Camden to come home soon. I'll take care of the rest."

She picked up the tail of her scarlet widow's sash and idly smoothed the silk through her fingers. "That 's actually what I wanted to talk to you about, Sterling. Some of the other women and I have been discussing what more we can do for our missing sons. There is strength in numbers, so we thought that perhaps if we banded together… We would like to do some daytime searches of the waterfront or the old subway tunnels. We could look in the places where our sons might have gone for shelter from the sun –"

"Absolutely not."

Chase hadn't meant to cut her off so abruptly, but the idea of Elise leaving the sanctuary of the Darkhaven during daytime hours to venture into the worst parts of the city made his blood run cold. She would be beyond the protection of himself or any other members of the Breed so long as the sun was out, and while the Rogues would be no danger then for the very same reason, there was always the risk of running into their Minions.

"I'm sorry, but it's out of the question."

Her eyes widened momentarily in surprise. Then she quickly glanced down, giving him a polite nod, but he could see that she bristled beneath the veneer of her propriety. As her closest kin, even by marriage, Breed law gave Chase the right to impose a daytime curfew on her–an antiquated measure that had been in existence from the origination of the Darkhavens nearly a thousand years ago. Chase had never imposed it, and while he felt like an ass for doing so now, he could not allow her to risk her life while he stood by and watched.

"Do you think my brother would approve of what you want to do?" Chase asked, knowing that Quentin never would agree to such an idea, not even in an effort to save his own son. "You can help Camden the most by staying here, where I know you are safe."

Elise lifted her head, those pale purple eyes flashing with the spark of a determination he'd never seen in them before. "Camden is not the only child missing. Can you save them all, Sterling? Can the warriors of the Order save them all?" She let out a small sigh. "Nobody saved Jonas Redmond. He's dead, did you know that? His mother senses that he's gone. More of our sons are disappearing, dying every night, yet we are supposed to do nothing but sit here and wait for bad news?"

Chase felt his jaw go rigid. "I have to go now, Elise. You have my answer on this subject. I'm sorry."

He brushed past her, shrugging into his coat as he headed out. He knew she followed; her white skirts rustled softly behind him with each quick step she took. But Chase kept going. He grabbed his keys out of his pocket and threw open the main door of the Darkhaven building, clicking the remote lock of his silver Lexus SUV in the driveway outside. The vehicle chirped, lights flashing in response, but Chase wouldn't be going anywhere fast.

Blocking the drive was a black Range Rover, its engine idling in the dark. The windows were tinted beyond legal opacity, but Chase didn't need to see through them to know who was inside. He could feel Dante's rage pouring through the steel and glass, rolling toward him like a frost heave.

The warrior wasn't alone. He and his companion, the stone-cold one called Tegan, got out of the vehicle and strolled around to the lawn. Their faces were deadly calm, but the menace radiating off both huge males was unmistakable.

Chase heard Elise's gasp behind him. "Sterling–"

"Get back inside," he told her, keeping his eyes locked on the two warriors. "Now, Elise. Everything's all right."

"What's going on, Sterling? Why are they here?"

"Just do as I say, damn it! Go back in the house. Everything is going to be okay."

"Oh, I don't know about that, Harvard." Dante prowled toward him, those wicked, arced blades at his hip glinting in the moonlight with every long stride of the warrior's legs. "I'd say things are about as fucked up as they could be right about now. Thanks to you, that is. You get lost last night or something? Maybe you just misunderstood what I told you to do with that drug-dealing scum–that it? I told you to haul his ass in to the compound, but you thought I said let the bastard walk?"

"No. There was no misunderstanding."

"What am I missing here, Harvard?" Dante drew one of his blades from its sheath, the steel whisking out as softly as a whisper. When he spoke, Chase saw the tips of his fangs. A bright amber gaze locked on him like twin laser beams. "Start talking fast, because I've got no problem cutting the truth out of you right here in front of the woman."

"Sterling!" Elise screamed. "Leave him alone!"

Chase whipped his head to the side just in time to see her dash down the brick steps of the Darkhaven entry and onto the pavement below. She didn't get far. Tegan moved like a ghost, vampire speed no match for Elise's human limbs. The warrior captured her around the waist and held her back as she struggled to get away from him.

Fury rose in Chase like a lit match on dry tinder. His fangs ripped out of his gums, his vision going sharp as his pupils narrowed with his transformation. He roared, ready to take on both warriors simply for the offense of touching Elise.

"Let her go," he growled. "Damn it, she is not a part of this!"

He pushed at Dante, but the vampire didn't budge.

"At least we have your full attention now, Harvard." Dante shoved back at him, a freight train coming at full steam. Chase's feet left the ground, his body propelled backward by the force of Dante's rage. The brick facade of the residence stopped their trajectory, slamming hard against Chase's spine.

Dante's enormous fangs came right up in Chase's face, his eyes burning into Chase's skull. "Where is Ben Sullivan? What the fuck is really going on with you?"

Chase glanced over at Elise, hating that she had to witness this brutal side of their world. He just wanted it over for her. He saw the tears streaming down her cheeks, the fear in her eyes as Tegan held her so coldly against all of the deadly steel and leather that girded his immense body.

Chase swore roundly. "I had to let the human go. I had no choice."

"Wrong answer," Dante snarled, bringing that hellish blade up under his chin. "The Crimson dealer would do me no good if he was locked up at the compound. I need him on the street, helping me look for someone–my nephew. I let him go so he would help me find Camden, my brother's son."

Dante scowled, but the blade eased up a little. "What about the others who've gone missing? All those kids Ben Sullivan has been feeding with his drug?"

"Getting Camden back is what I care about. He's been my true mission from day one."

"Son of a bitch, you lied to us," the warrior hissed.

Chase met the accusing amber glare. "Would the Order have bothered to help me if I'd come around asking for you to find one missing Darkhaven youth?"

Dante cursed, low and furious. "You'll never know, will you?"

He wondered now, having come to understand some of the warriors' code–having seen firsthand that, despite their ruthless methods and the efficiency that made them such a mysterious and deadly force among the Breed and humankind alike, they were not without honor. They were merciless killers when needed, but Chase suspected that every one of them was, at heart, a far better man than him.

Dante abruptly released him, then pivoted around to stalk back toward the waiting Rover. Across the lawn, Tegan let Elise go as well, the warrior's steady green gaze lingering on her as she anxiously stumbled away from him, rubbing at the places where he had touched her.

"Get in the truck, Harvard," Dante said, indicating the open back door with a look that promised hell to pay if Chase didn't cooperate. "You're going back to the compound. Maybe you can persuade Lucan that we ought to let you keep breathing."