Shades of Midnight (Chapter Nineteen)

Since his snowmachine was still parked at Alex's house from earlier that morning, they had each taken a sled and rode out together, heading for the Coldstream Mining Company several miles out of town. Rather than draw undue attention, they'd ditched the noisy machines about a half mile from the secured site and walked the rest of the way on snowshoes.

The reconnaissance would have gone a lot faster if he'd been able to do it alone, but Kade was inwardly relieved to have Alex with him. At least this way she was in sight and within arm's reach. Back in town by herself left her vulnerable, a concept that made his heart squeeze a bit tighter in his chest as he navigated the dark, frozen tundra at her side.

navigated the dark, frozen tundra at her side.

Up ahead of them several hundred yards, floodlights washing over the snow, the mining company's compound was alive with activity. As had been the case when Kade first surveilled the location, tonight a handful of uniformed workers continued to empty one of the two parked cargo containers outside the mouth of the mine itself. Guards with automatic rifles patrolled the barricade out front; mounted security cameras were trained on the land surrounding the tall chain-link perimeter fence. Kade paused, putting his gloved hand on Alex's arm. "This is as far as we go."

"But we need to get much closer to see what's going on in there," she whispered, her breath clouding as it penetrated the fleece mask that protected her face.

"Too dangerous for you to get any closer, and I'm not about to leave you here without me."

"Then let's go back to Harmony and get my plane. We can fly over for a better look."

"And risk letting them identify you from the ground?" Kade gave a curt shake of his head. "Not even if Harmony had a hundred pilots who owned little red single-engines. No, there is another way." He inhaled deeply, letting a low howl build slowly in his throat. Then he sent it skyward in a long, searching summons. It took only a moment for a wilder reply to answer from somewhere not far off toward the west. Kade sought the lupine voice with his mind, then, with a wordless command, he called the wolf out from the night.

Alex startled when the silver-furred animal stepped into view from the woods and walked directly into their path.

"It's okay," Kade told her. He glanced at her, his mouth curving at her open astonishment. "You have your talent; I have mine."

"Yours is way better," she murmured on a breathless whisper. He smiled, then fixed his gaze on the wolf's bright, intelligent eyes. It listened to the silent instructions he gave, then it dashed off in stealth motion to carry them out. Alex gaped at him. "What did you just do? And, um … how?"

"I asked the wolf to help us. She'll get closer to the site than we can, and through the link she and I now share, she will show me everything she sees."

Alex got quiet as Kade focused on the temporary connection that put him inside the wolf's senses. Kade closed his eyes, feeling the rhythmic fall of its paws in the snow, hearing the soft huffs of its lungs, the steady, rapid beat of its heart. And through the keen night-sharp vision, he saw the webbed fence and heavysecurity outbuildings, the workers–Minions, all of them, he realized now–shuffling in and out of the mine's cavernous entrance, wheeling crated equipment and large, unmarked cartons of God knew what kinds of supplies.

The new management had moved in, all right, and from the looks of it, they wanted to make damned sure that no one got too close to see what they were about.

And speaking of the mining company's new management …

The wolf's ears pricked to attention, self-preservation instincts pushing her down into a low crouch as a large male with fair hair and expensive taste in suits strode from within the mine. Although Kade had never seen him before, he didn't miss for an instant that the male was Breed. If his size and demeanor hadn't given him away, the extensive network of dermaglyphs would have. The markings tracked out from the rolled-up cuffs and open throat of his white dress shirt, in patterns that clearly declared him an elder of the Breed.

Easily powerful enough to turn a human like Skeeter Arnold into his Minion. And flanking him like an obedient hound was another Breed male. If the one dressed like a Wall Street banker was formidable simply for the purity of his bloodline, then the inpidual standing with him trumped him by roughly a mile. Armed to the fangs and dressed from head to toe in black combat gear, his head shaved bald, covered with dense glyphs, this was a new enemy that Kade and the rest of the Order had only recently become familiar with.

Through the wolf's eyes, he saw the gleaming black collar that ringed the assassin's neck–an electronic collar rigged with an explosive device that ensured the vampire's loyalty to his creator's deviant initiatives.

"Ah, fuck," Kade muttered aloud as he remotely observed the scene from his lupine helper's eyes.

"Dragos has sent one of his assassins here."

"Who?" Alex whispered from beside him. "Assassins? Oh, my God. Kade, tell me what you see." He shook his head, unable to explain things adequately while his gut was churning with sudden dread and suspicion.

dread and suspicion.

Why would Dragos send a lieutenant of his operations and one of his personal stock of born-andbred Gen One killers to the middle of the frigid Alaskan interior?

What the hell were they doing here?

Once the vampires were gone inside another building, Kade directed the wolf to change position, to find a safe, concealed spot to dig beneath the perimeter fence and creep inside. He needed a better look at the cargo containers, particularly the one that the Minion workers seemed to take little interest in–the one, he noticed now, that bore huge dents in its sides and smashed, twisted hinges on the double doors at its rear. He waited, heart pounding in time with the wolf's as she dug her claws into the snow and burrowed deep, then wedged her body beneath the fence. She pulled herself through and began a stealthy crawl, knowing instinctively to keep to the shadows. As she neared the freight containers, Kade's muscles tensed. He had guessed he would find bad news inside the wrecked cargo hold. He'd been more than right about that. As the courageous wolf poked her head into the gaping ruin of the doors, peering into what had been a refrigerated space, Kade made instant, grim sense of the objects that held little meaning to her. He saw the smashed, large steel-and-concrete box that sat inside, its lid torn off and reduced to broken rubble. He saw the bloodstains that had dried nearly black on the floor and walls of the hold-bloodstains that reeked of his own kind as the wolf drew the trace scent into her sensitive nostrils. He saw the titanium restraints that had once encircled the thick wrists and ankles of a creature that most of the Breed population believed had been driven to extinction centuries ago … a creature that the Order knew firsthand did, in fact, still live.

The Ancient.

One of the alien forefathers who'd sired the entire Breed race on Earth. The powerful, savage otherworlder that Dragos had been using to further his insane goals. Had Dragos and his associates moved it north after the Order's recent strike on Dragos's hidden lair?

Had they thought to relocate the Ancient as far from the Order's reach as possible, transferring it to the old mine?

Or had that been the plan, until the Ancient somehow found a way to escape his captivity?

Kade thought back on the recent killings in the bush and on today's brutal attack on the two men from Harmony.

Neither Seth nor Rogues had been to blame.

Now he knew that with the gravest certainty. It had been something much worse.

"Jesus Christ," Kade hissed. "It's out here somewhere. On the loose." He commanded the wolf to abandon her prowl at once, and stayed with her as she made a quick escape from the mining company grounds. As her dark silver shadow vanished into the nearby forest, Kade broke their mental connection and reached for Alex's hand.

"We have to get out of here. Now."

She nodded at his urgent tone and ran with him, wasting no precious time on questions. He would explain everything to her, but first, he needed to contact the Order in Boston. Lucan and the others needed to know what he'd discovered here, and just how far his mission had veered off course. Zach Tucker knocked the carbide handle of his state-issued Maglite against the rickety doorjamb a few more times and waited, not with any kind of patience, on the back steps of Skeeter Arnold's run-down apartment.

Since the asshole had been ignoring his cell calls and text messages for the past twenty-four hours, Zach saw little choice but to make an in-person inquiry at the house Skeeter shared with his mother. Five minutes standing in the cold, freezing his balls off while he banged on the door with no reply, but he wasn't going anywhere until he got some answers out of the cocky piece of shit.

Answers, and the five hundred dollars cash that Skeeter owed him from their most recent deal. If Skeeter thought he could walk away without giving Zach his cut, he was sorely mistaken. And if he'd somehow gotten it into his fool head that he no longer needed Zach–that maybe he'd found himself another source of procurement in the area and suddenly had ideas about severing their association–then Skeeter Arnold might just discover that he was deadly mistaken.

Zach rapped on the door again, hard enough it was a wonder the frozen wood didn't shatter under the repeated blows of his flashlight handle.

Finally, a muffled voice sounded from somewhere inside–not Skeeter, but Ida Arnold, his offensive bitch of a mother. Zach despised the old woman, though not as much as Skeeter must have, being subjected to her piss and venom every day.

"Goddamn it, I'm coming! I'm coming!" she hollered, the heavy shuffle of her footsteps punctuating every syllable. The porch light went on over his head, then the door was yanked open on another coarse grumble.

"Evening, Ida," Zach said pleasantly as she scowled at him.

"What do you want?" She crossed her arms over her breasts, tugging at the edges of her old housecoat. "You come to tell me he's in trouble again?"

"No, ma'am."

She grunted. "He dead?"

"No, ma'am. Nothing like that." He cocked his head. "Why would you think that?"

"Wouldn't surprise me, is all. I heard what happened to Big Dave and Lanny Ham today." At Zach's grim nod, she huffed out a breath and shrugged. "Never did care much for either one of them, tell you the truth."

"Yes, well," Zach replied idly. He cleared his throat, adopting his cop voice, the one that Jenna said made him sound like a self-righteous prick. All he knew was, it generally got results. "I actually came by to talk to Stanley."

The fact that he'd used her son's given name and not the nickname that all the rest of Harmony had called him from the time he was a skinny, snot-nosed kid made Ida Arnold's scowl burrow a bit deeper on her forehead.

"Is he here, ma'am?"

"No, he ain't. Haven't seen hide nor hair since early this morning."

"He hasn't called or anything to let you know where he might be, ma'am?" She barked out a cutting laugh. "He don't tell me nothin', just like his no-good father before him. Thinks I'm blind and dumb, that boy," she muttered. "I know what he's up to, though."

"Oh? And what's that, Ida?" Zach asked carefully, narrowing his eyes under the glare of the overhead light as he watched the old woman's expression harden.

"He's dealing again, drugs, for sure. My guess is he's also bootlegging to some of the dry Native settlements up-river."

Zach felt his brows rise, even as his gut clenched into a tight ball. "What makes you suspect Skeet-Stanley–is involved in something like that?" She tapped the center of her chest with her finger. "I raised him, for better or worse. I don't need proof to know when he's up to no good. I'm not sure what he's gotten himself into lately, but he's starting to scare me. I think he has it in him to hurt me one day. In fact, after the way he treated me when he was here last, I don't doubt it for a second. Never seen him act so nasty and arrogant. Acted like he suddenly grew a pair of balls."

Zach cleared his throat at the woman's crudeness. "This was yesterday, you said?" She nodded. "He came home looking like something the cat dragged in. When I said something about it, he grabbed me by the throat. I tell you, I thought he was going to kill me right then and there. But he just mumbled that he had work to do, then went inside his room and closed the door. That's the last he was home, far as I know. Part of me hopes he never comes back, the way he treats me. Part of me wishes he would just … go away. To prison, if that's where he belongs."

Zach stared at her, realizing that her fear and dislike of her own son could work to his advantage here. "When he was here at the house last, did he say what kind of work he was doing?"

"He didn't say, but that boy's never done an honest day's work in his life. You wanna have a look inside his apartment? It's a damn pigsty, but if it's proof you need–"

"Can't do that," Zach said, even though right now he wanted nothing more. "From a law enforcement standpoint, I can't search his residence. That would require a lot of paperwork and procedures." The rounded bulk of her shoulders slumped a bit. "I see–"

"However," Zach added helpfully, "seeing how I've known you folks for the past decade or so since I've lived in Harmony, I suppose if you asked me as a personal favor to come in and have a look around-unofficially, as it were–then I would not be opposed." She peered at him for a long moment, then stepped back from the door and motioned him inside. "It's this way, down the hall. He'll have locked the door, but I keep a spare key tucked behind the baseboard." Ida Arnold ambled down to her son's door, retrieved the tarnished brass key from its hiding place, then unlocked and opened the door for Zach.

"I'll be just a few minutes," he said, dismissing her with both his tone and his unblinking academytrained stare. "Thank you, Ida." Once she had shuffled back up the hallway, Zach walked into Skeeter's dump of an apartment and began a swift, thorough search of the place. Empty food wrappers, bottles, and other trash littered the floor and nearly every flat surface. And there–surprise–on the counter next to an old police radio, a roll of twenty-dollar bills, secured with a rubber band.

It didn't seem like Skeeter to leave his money lying around. Didn't seem like him to leave his cell phone behind, either, but there it was, jammed into the seat of a tattered light blue recliner. Guess that explained the ignored calls and texts, although it hardly excused Skeeter for being an asshole out at Pete's the this morning.

Zach grabbed the cash and counted it out: fifteen bills. Not the five hundred bucks Skeeter owed him, but he'd gladly take what he could get.

Hell, he'd take the cell phone, too.

If it didn't give him any insight into Skeeter's recent activities or his apparent newfound business associates, then Zach would pawn the damned thing next time he went to Fairbanks to pick up new product from his connections in the city. Skeeter Arnold owed him, and one way or another, Zach intended to collect what he was due.