Veil of Midnight (Chapter Twenty-two)

Do you think he'll hurt her?"

Renata's voice was quiet, breaking the prolonged silence in the humid apartment. She was seated across from Nikolai at the card table, wearing an extra-large gray T-shirt and her own jeans, laundered and returned earlier in the day, courtesy of Jack. Her shoulder wound was looking a hell of a lot better, and every time Niko had asked, she insisted she wasn't feeling much pain. He figured his blood would carry her for a few hours at least. They'd been out of bed for a while now, both of them bathed and dressed, and carefully avoiding the subject of all that had happened between them today.

Instead, Nikolai kept himself busy cleaning and prepping Jack's twin Colt .45s, while he and Renata put plans together for their trek out to Yakut's lodge shortly. Although Niko doubted Lex would willingly cough up information on his alliance with Edgar Fabien, he had a feeling a few strategically placed rounds would loosen the bastard's tongue.

He hoped so, because without a solid lead on the Darkhaven leader's probable location, the odds of finding Mira unscathed by Fabien's twisted proclivities were diminishing by the second.

"Do you think he will…do anything to her?"

Niko looked over and saw the dread in Renata's eyes. "Fabien's not a good man. I honestly don't know what he intends for her."

She glanced down at that, her slim dark brows drawn together. "You didn't tell me everything your friends back in Boston learned about him."

Shit. He should have known Renata would call him on this. He'd deliberately skimmed over the worst of what Gideon had told him, figuring the sordid details wouldn't help them locate Mira any faster and would only make Renata worry more. But he respected her too much to lie to her.

"No, I didn't tell you everything," he admitted. "Do you really want to know all of it?"

"I think I need to know." She met his gaze again, her pale green eyes sober, as steady as a warrior girded for battle. "What did the Order find out about him?"

"He's second-generation Breed, easily several hundred years old," Niko said, starting with the least of Fabien's offenses.

"He's been the leader of the Montreal Darkhaven for the past century and a half, and he's also got far-reaching ties into the upper tiers of the Enforcement Agency, which means he's politically connected too."

Renata scoffed quietly. "That's a resume, Nikolai. You know what I'm asking. Give it to me straight."

"All right." He nodded, not bothering to hide his admiration. Or his concern. "Even though he's got a lot of friends in high places, Edgar Fabien's not what you'd call a model citizen. Apparently he's got some fairly sick kinks that have caused him a bit of trouble over the years."

"Kinks," Renata said, all but spitting the word.

"His tastes tend to run on the sadistic side, and he…well, he's been known to enjoy the company of children from time to time. Particularly young girls."

"Jesus Christ," Renata exclaimed in a tight rush of her breath. She closed her eyes and turned her face aside, all of her going very still, as though it took some work to keep from breaking down. When she finally looked back at Niko, there was a murderous glint in her unblinking jade-green gaze. "I'll kill him. I swear it, Nikolai. I will fucking kill him if he's done anything to her." "We're gonna get him," he assured her. "We're going to find him, and we're going to get Mira back."

"I can't fail her, Nikolai."

"Hey," he said, reaching out to cover her hand with his. "We won't fail her. Got it? I'm with you on this. We're gonna get her back."

She looked at him in silence for a long moment. Then, very slowly, she flipped her hand over and linked her fingers through his. "She's going to be safe…right?"

A trace of uncertainty, one of the first times he'd heard it in her voice. He wanted to erase the doubt for her, and the worry, but all he could offer was his promise. "We're going to get her back, Renata. You've got my word on that."

"Okay," she said. Then, more resolutely, "Okay, Nikolai. Thank you."

"You're really something, you know that?" She started to shake her head in denial, but Niko gave her hand a gentle squeeze, keeping her centered. "You're strong, Renata. Stronger than you know. Mira's lucky to have you on her side. Hell, so am I." Her answering smile was faint and slightly sad. "I hope you're right."

"I'm hardly ever wrong," he said, grinning at her and barely resisting the urge to lean across the little table and kiss her. But that would only lead to one thing – something that his libido was already imagining in explicit detail.

"So, how long are you going to fondle those Colts before you let me have a look at one?"

Niko leaned back in the metal folding chair and chuckled. "Take your pick. You sure you know how to handle – "

He didn't have a chance to finish the thought. Renata reached out for the gun nearest to her and a full magazine of rounds. She had the weapon loaded, locked, and ready for action in three seconds flat. Niko had never seen anything sexier in his life. "Impressive."

She set the pistol down on the table and arched one slim dark brow at him. "You want help with yours now too?" He started to laugh, but swallowed the sound before it left his mouth.

They weren't alone.

Renata followed his gaze upward, to where Nikolai could swear he heard a muted thud. It came again, then a small creak of the garage roof.

"We've got company," he whispered to her.

Renata gave him a nod, already getting up from her chair. She slid the loaded to him across the table and moved in swift, efficient silence to begin loading the other.

No sooner had Nikolai picked up the gun than the garage apartment door burst inward, kicked off its hinges. A huge vampire in the black SWAT gear of the Enforcement Agency rushed inside, the laser sights of his silenced automatic rifle locked on Renata. "Son of a bitch!" Niko shouted. "Renata, shoot him!"

For an awful second, she didn't move. Nikolai thought she had frozen up in shock, but then the Agent let out a howl of pain and dropped his weapon to clutch at his temples. He went down on his knees, but there were two more armed males right behind him. They leapt over the shrieking obstacle and opened fire in the small space. Renata took cover behind one of the metal file cabinets, firing on the Agent in the lead. Niko targeted the second newcomer, but his shot went wild as the small window above the bed shattered and yet another Enforcement Agent dropped into the fray, armed to the gills.

"Nikolai – behind you!" Renata called.

She hit this latest arrival with a debilitating blast of her mind's power, and the bastard crumpled to the floor, writhing and convulsing before Niko stilled him with a couple of rounds to the head.

Renata crippled one of the others with a shot to the knee, then took him out completely with a dead-aim bullet between the eyes. Nikolai killed another, and realized belatedly that he'd completely lost sight of the first male who'd come through the door. The son of a bitch was no longer whimpering where Renata had dropped him.

To Niko's horror, the huge vampire had Renata in his hands, lifting her off the ground and throwing her into the nearest wall. The Breed male's strength was immense, like all of their kind. Renata crashed against the solid surface, then fell hard to the floor. She lay there unmoving, obviously too dazed to retaliate.

Nikolai's roar of fury rattled the feeble table and chairs. His vision went nuclear with the sudden flood of amber into his eyes, and his fangs punched hard from his gums, stretching long and sharp in his anger. He sprang on the other vampire from behind, grabbing the big head in his hands and twisting savagely. The crunch of splitting bone and shredding tendons wasn't enough for him. As the lifeless Agent slumped over, Niko kicked his body away from Renata and pumped his skull full of lead.

"Renata," he said, hunkering down in front of her and pulling her into his arms. "Can you hear me? Are you okay?"

She moaned, but managed a shaky nod. Her eyes opened, then went wide as she stared past him to the ruined doorway.

Niko swung his head around and locked gazes with a human male he'd seen once before – the human who'd tried to get a look at Nikolai when Jack had come up to the apartment that morning. Jack had called him Curtis, said the kid was doing some work for him in the house.

As Niko looked into that emotionless face that showed no reaction whatsoever to Niko's glowing eyes and bared fangs, he knew what he was seeing now…

"Minion," he growled. He released Renata gently as he got back to his feet. "Stay put. I'll handle him."

The Minion knew he'd made a grave mistake showing his face after the melee he'd probably instigated. He pivoted toward the night outside and started running down the stairs two at a time.

Nikolai grunted, seeing red as he bolted out of the apartment in pursuit. He vaulted over the railing of the second -story staircase, going airborne as the Minion's feet were just getting their taste of pavement. Nikolai landed right on top of him, tackling him down to the black asphalt of the driveway.

"Who made you?" he demanded, knocking the human's face against the rough pavement. "Who's your Master, goddamn you! Is it Fabien?"

The Minion didn't answer, but Niko knew the truth anyway. He flipped him over and slammed his spine down hard. "Where is he? Tell me where to find Fabien. Talk, you son of a bitch, or I'll gut you right here and now."

Distantly, Nikolai heard the bang of a screen door. Footsteps running through the grass.

Then Renata's voice rang out from above him in the wrecked doorway of the garage apartment. "Jack, no! Go back inside!"

Nikolai glanced over his shoulder just in time to see the old man's horrifed expression. Jack's eyes held his in utter disbelief, his grizzled jaw going slack. "Jesus Christ," he murmured, his feet slowing to a halt. "What the…hell…" And then, beneath him, Niko felt the Minion squirm.

He registered the brief glint of a blade only a half-second before the human mind slave slashed open his own throat.

Renata flew down the wooden stairs in heartsick panic. "Jack, please! Go back in the house now!"

But he merely stood there, frozen in place as if he couldn't hear her, couldn't see her. Couldn't process anything that was happening around him in these past few minutes of complete and utter chaos. Jack was a mute, unmoving statue in the driveway. And Nikolai…

Dear God, Nikolai looked like the stuff of anyone's worst nightmare. Blood-soaked, immense, his face a terrifying mask of lethal fangs and fierce, glowing eyes. When he got up off the body of the dead Minion and wheeled around to face Jack, he couldn't have seemed more predatory and inhuman, his breath sawing through his teeth, his massive chest and shoulders heaving from the combat.

"Sweet Mary, Mother of God," Jack murmured, crossing himself as Nikolai took a couple of steps away from the Minion's corpse. Belatedly he glanced over and saw Renata racing toward him across the driveway. "Renata, get out of here!"

Renata ran to put herself between the two males – Nikolai at her back, Jack gaping at her like she had just stepped into the middle of an active mine field.

"Oh, Jesus…Renata, honey…what are you doing?"

"It's okay, Jack," she told him, calmly holding her hands up in front of her. "Everything's okay, I promise you. Nikolai won't hurt you. He won't hurt either one of us."

The old man's face scrunched in confusion. But then he stared past her to Nikolai and the dimmest spark of recognition flickered across his features. His pallor was ghostly white against the night all around him, and his legs looked like they might give out beneath him. "It is you…but how? Just what the hell are you?"

"It's not safe for you to know that," Renata interjected. "It would be too dangerous, for us as well – "

"It's too late." Nikolai's voice was a low growl close behind her. "He's already seen too much here. We need to contain this situation, and we don't have a lot of time before more humans get curious and make things worse."

Renata nodded. "I know."

Nikolai's hand came to rest gently on her good shoulder. "That means Jack too. I can't let him walk away with his memory of this intact. Everything has to be scrubbed – starting with our arrival last night. He can't remember that you and I were ever here." She winced, but she couldn't argue. "Do I have a minute to say good-bye?"

"A minute," Nikolai said. "But that's about all we can risk."

"What the hell's going on here?" Jack mumbled, some of his shell shock dissipating and the retired warrior in him coming online. "Renata…just what the hell kind of trouble are you in, girl?"

She offered him a weak smile as she moved forward and pulled him into a hug. "Jack, I want to thank you – for helping us last night, but even more, for just being you." She drew away from him to look into his kind old eyes. "You may not realize this, but you were my anchor so many times. Whenever I lost my faith in humanity, your kindness restored it. You've been a true friend, and I love you for that. I always will."

"Renata, I need you to tell me what's going on. This man you're with…this creature. For crissake, am I losing my mind, or is he some kind of – "

"He's my friend," she said, meaning it so sincerely even she was taken aback by her conviction. "Nikolai is my friend. That's all you need to know."

"We have to go now, Renata."

Nikolai's voice was calm, all business. She nodded, and when she glanced over at him, she saw that he was back to his normal state now. Jack sputtered in confusion, but Nikolai merely reached out to take the human's hand.

"Thank you for all you've done, Jack. You're a good man." Nikolai didn't wait for a reply. With his free hand, he lifted his palm to Jack's forehead and pressed it there for a long moment. "Go back into the house and go to bed. When you wake up in the morning, you'll forget we were here at all. You will discover there was a break-in upstairs in the apartment – Curtis was mixed up with some bad people, the robbery got out of hand, and he was killed."

Jack said nothing, but he nodded his agreement.

"You won't see us when you open your eyes," Nikolai told him. "You won't see any of the blood or glass. You're going to turn around, head back into your house, and climb into bed where you'll stay for the rest of the night."

Again Jack bobbed his head in compliance. Nikolai removed his hand from the old man's brow. Jack's eyes blinked open, calm and unfazed. He looked at Renata, but it was an empty stare that seemed to pass right through her. She stood there, watching in sadness as her old, dear friend pivoted around in silence and began a slow trek back to the house.

"You all right?" Nikolai asked her, placing his arm around her waist as they waited in the driveway for Jack to disappear. "Yeah, I'm okay," she said quietly, letting herself lean into his strong embrace. "Let's clean up this mess and get out of here."