Shades of Midnight (Chapter Ten)

Kade hung back in the darkness, watching from within a tight copse of spruce and pine some five hundred yards from where Skeeter Arnold's fancy ride had taken him. Twenty-plus miles out of Harmony, situated near the base of a small mountain and a narrow tributary that spoked off the Koyukuk, the ten-acre patch of land and squat white buildings sat fenced in and gated by fifteen-foot-high steel links and coiled barbed wire. Security lights and cameras were mounted all around the place, and the pair of uniformed guards trying to keep warm in the shack out front were carrying military-grade assault rifles. Kade might have guessed the friendly little spot to be a supermax prison, if not for the weathered metal sign bolted onto the gate that read in chipped black lettering: COLDSTREAM MINING COMPANY. Outside in the yard, a group of workers were busy unloading various-size sealed crates from two large cargo containers parked near what appeared to be some kind of warehouse. Some crates were wheeled into the storage facility, while others were brought into the secured entrance of the mine itself. Curiouser and curiouser, Kade thought, figuring the more than two hours Skeeter had been inside the main office building hadn't been spent interviewing for a job.

Kade was more than eager to question the human about his business here–along with the rest of his entrepreneurial ventures–but if Skeeter's new friends didn't turn him loose in the next few minutes, his interrogation would have to wait for another time. More important was the need to check in with the Order and let them know what he'd uncovered thus far. He also needed to get his head on straight about Alexandra Maguire.

To his complete irritation, his libido perked up with the eager suggestion that he turn back for Harmony and go find her again. Not that it should surprise him that thoughts of her simmered just beneath the surface of his consciousness. Their kiss still had him on fire inside–banked flames, but embers needing only the slightest trace of fuel to ignite.

And that was bad news.

Bad news to want the female so badly, especially when his mission depended on keeping her silent. Deflecting her suspicions, whatever the cost. Erasing the risk she posed to his mission, the Order's goals, and the security of the Breed nation as a whole.

Whatever Alexandra Maguire knew about the killings in the bush–whatever she knew about Kade's kind in general–had to be shut down, and shut down fast.

Had it only been earlier that day that he'd considered seducing the truth out of her, if necessary? Now that plan had a serious kink in it, because if their kiss had shown him anything, it was that letting himself get close to Alex–even in the name of duty–wasn't going to be easy. She had an unanticipated effect on him already, from the mile-wide independent streak she wore like a carefully placed mask, to the threadbare hint of vulnerability he'd glimpsed in her tonight.

No, going back to find Alex at home right now was not an option. Besides, he doubted she'd look favorably on him stalking her after the way she bolted from him at Pete's. Hell, for all he knew, Zach Tucker might still be with her. Obviously they were friends, and no doubt the clean-cut trooper appealed to her stated need to categorize everything into neat compartments. From his domed hat and meticulously pressed uniform to the tops of his precisely laced boots, Officer Tucker projected cut-and-dried, black-and-white, good-guy appeal.

Except something about the man bothered Kade. Partly the apparent ease of his relationship with Alex, although jealousy wasn't something Kade caved to very often. That didn't keep him from gritting his teeth thinking about the guy, or from wondering if maybe a quick trip back to Harmony just to look in on Alex wasn't in order after all. Picking up where they'd left off in Pete's parking lot was optional. Not to mention sorely tempting.

Before the idea could take root any more than it had already, Kade dismissed it with a curse muttered low under his breath.

Bad fucking news–that's what this entire mission was shaping up to be. With that thought dogging his heels, Kade slipped away from his surveillance of Skeeter Arnold and his new high-security pals, and started off in the direction of his father's Darkhaven a few hours away on foot. He could wait out the daylight there, check in with headquarters in Boston about his findings so far, and see if Gideon could turn up anything of interest on the Coldstream Mining Company. Skeeter Arnold had lost all track of time. He rode in the backseat of the black Hummer, surprised to see the clock on the expensive ride's dashboard up front read 6:00 AM.

He'd been gone all night?

It felt as though he'd just left Pete's tavern a few minutes ago and now here he was, back again. Only now everything was different.

He was different.

He felt it in the way his body sat so straight on the leather seat, his spine erect, shoulders lifted out of their usual heavy slump. He felt empowered somehow, and knew the source of that power was sitting beside him: motionless, silent, radiating dark menace and cool, lethal control. Skeeter didn't know his name. He couldn't even recall if he'd been told. It no longer mattered.

"You will tell no one of what transpired tonight," said the airless voice from within the deep hood of a black-fur parka. "You will go home immediately and destroy all copies of the video footage of the slayings."

Skeeter nodded obediently, eager to please. "Yes, Master." He recalled thinking that when the Hummer driver first approached him about sharing some information with an interested private party, the transaction was sure to involve someone stuffing a sweet amount of cash into his pocket.

He'd been wrong about that.

And when he'd been brought out to the old mining company location to meet the so-called interested private party, he'd been wrong to guess that the tall man in the pricey suit and crisp white shirt was a man at all. He was something more than that.

Something … other.

Skeeter had been a little afraid as he was escorted via armed guards from the vehicle and through the main building, into a secured area that looked like some kind of research facility, pimped out in shiny stainless steel exam tables and easily a few million bucks in computer equipment. It was all pretty weird, though the biggest head-scratcher had been the large vertical cylinder that seemed to be some kind of cage with thick metal chains and shackles bolted to the floor of it.

As he had tried to make sense of its purpose, the inpidual he was to meet with–the same inpidual seated beside him now–came into the room to question Skeeter about many things. He'd been asked about the cell phone video he'd taken at the Toms settlement. He'd been asked what he knew of the slayings, if he'd witnessed the creature who'd attacked the humans.

Skeeter recalled his confusion over the odd way the questions were phrased, and he worried that he had somehow walked into a situation more dangerous than it seemed. But there had been no opportunity to turn back. He'd walked into something deadly serious. He'd known that, even then. He'd been questioned about Alexandra Maguire, and what the rumors were around town about the killings. When he'd volunteered about the stranger in Harmony, the big, muscular dude with the jet black hair and wolfy eyes who showed up out of the blue just a couple of nights ago asking similar questions of the townsfolk, the air in the room had seemed to grow as thick as fog.

Skeeter recalled the dread he'd felt as the tall man in the expensive-looking suit pulled a satellite phone from a nearby table and left the room for a few minutes.

He remembered being antsy, needing to distract himself from whatever disaster might be waiting for him on the other end of that phone call. He'd asked the laboratory workers what the cage was used for, watching as three of them in white jumpsuits tested some of the fittings and clicked computer controls that operated different functions on the thing.

Skeeter had guessed out loud that it wasn't meant to hold a human. The size of the cell, as well as the size of the table inside and the heavy-duty restraints affixed to it, had seemed designed for something much size of the table inside and the heavy-duty restraints affixed to it, had seemed designed for something much larger than any man. A grizzly, maybe, Skeeter had said, to no reply from any of the workers or the armed guards.

But someone had an answer for him, impossible as it was to believe.

"It was built for one of my kind," the tall man in the expensive-looking suit had said as he'd walked back into the room.

And he had looked different to Skeeter then. Still rich and important, still the same current of lethal power about him, but his face had seemed tighter, his features drawn sharper, more pronounced. Skeeter recalled seeing a sudden spark of amber light flashing in the narrowed gaze that refused to let him squirm, even though every cell in his body was screaming for him to get the hell out of there. He recalled catching a fleeting glimpse of sharp white teeth, recalled thinking that he was only seconds away from dying … then he felt the full body blow that knocked him completely off his feet. Skeeter could not remember much after that moment of pure terror. Everything slowed down, went black.

But he hadn't died.

He'd woken up a short while ago and all of his confusion–all of his fear–was gone. Now he belonged to the powerful inpidual seated beside him, the vampire who had made him into something more than human tonight, as well. Skeeter's loyalty was ensured by blood, his very life tied to that of his Master.

"You will report to me with any and all information you can gather," said the voice that commanded him in all things now.

"Yes, Master," Skeeter replied, and when he was given a nod to go, he climbed out of the Hummer and waited as it eased away from the side of the road and departed.

When it was gone, Skeeter walked across Pete's parking lot to the lone snowmachine that still sat parked outside. He hopped on and turned the key in the ignition. Nothing happened. He tried again with the same result, then swore roundly when he realized he'd forgotten to buy gas for the damned thing last night.

"Morning," a familiar voice greeted him as chain-encased snow tires crunched in the frozen road.

"Need a hand?"

Skeeter shook his head without looking at Zach Tucker. Of all the shitty luck, he had to run into Harmony's sole cop today.

Tucker didn't accept his refusal. The Blazer rolled up next to Skeeter's sled and idled while the trooper got out and went around back to grab a red can of gasoline out of the back of the truck.

"Late night, huh?" he asked as he walked over and unscrewed the cap on the Yamaha's fuel tank.

"Looking a bit ragged this morning, Skeeter. Must have been out partying with new friends from out of town or something. Nice Hummer, by the way."

Skeeter offered no explanation, watching the red can empty into his snowmachine.

"No charge this time," Tucker said as he finished. But when Skeeter thought the cop might simply move on, instead he got in his face with a tight whisper. "I thought I told you to lay low for a while–quit the goddamn dealing and partying until we get this thing cleaned up around here. And for the record, posting that fucking cell phone video on that death fetish website was just about the stupidest thing you could do. Now I've got those assholes in Fairbanks busting my balls about losing control of a crime scene!" Tucker was furious, and ordinarily that might make Skeeter worry. But not today.

"Do I need to remind you that our little operation stands a damn good chance of getting blown up in our faces? I've got Staties coming up here later this week to crawl all over this investigation. I won't have you giving them added reasons to stick around and see what else is going on out here. You got that?" Skeeter ignored him, moving around him to take a seat on the sled.

"Are you that fucking stupid," Tucker scoffed, "or are you just stoned?"

"I have never been clearer in my life," Skeeter replied.

"I want to know who you were partying with last night. Where did you go? Jesus Christ, were you idiot enough to tell them anything about me or our arrangement?"

"None of that is any of your concern. What you want no longer matters. I have other priorities." When Skeeter turned the engine over, Tucker's hand came down hard on his shoulder. "If you fuck with me on this, don't think I won't throw you under the bus. You'll go down faster than you can say felony possession with intent to distribute. Cross me now and I swear to God I will bury you."

Skeeter held the flinty gaze of his recent silent business partner. "That would not be wise, Officer Tucker." He saw the momentary flinch of shock in the cop's eyes and felt a small sense of triumph that he had put it there. "Thanks for the gas, though."

Skeeter gave the sled some juice and tore out of the parking lot. By the time he reached his mother's house at the end of the block, he was full of his newfound power and twitchy with the need to carry out his Master's orders. He parked the snowmachine and ran into the back door of the house, aware, but not caring, that his heavy boots clomped loudly on the old wooden floor of the hallway.

Before he was inside his apartment for even as much as a minute, his mother started moving around upstairs, her muffled complaints echoing down to him beneath her bedroom. He knew she'd be storming down to bitch at him, and could hardly say that he was disappointed when she did.

"Stanley Elmer Arnold!" she screamed, banging on his door. "Do you have any idea what time it is?

You worthless piece of shit! How dare you stay out all goddamn night, making me worry about you, only to drag your sorry ass back home at the crack of dawn and wake me out of a dead sleep! You're nothing but a loser and a–"

Skeeter was at the door and in the hallway with her, his hand clamped punishingly around her throat and cutting her off before the words had a chance to shriek out of her mouth.

"Be quiet, bitch," he told her harshly. "I'm working in here." If she'd uttered even one syllable as his hand peeled away from her, Skeeter would have killed her, right then and there. And she knew it, by God. She understood that things would be different now. Soundless, she stepped back from him, wobbling just a little in her ratty slippers and matted terry housecoat. Slowly she turned around and walked carefully back up the hallway where she'd come from. Skeeter Arnold cocked his head at her retreating bulk, then smiled as he returned to the more important tasks that awaited him in the shithole apartment he called home.