The vault in the Sinclair home would have been hard to find had it not been for Mr. Sinclair rewarding the Bureau with its exact location. After removing a painting on the wall near Camille’s bed, the team faced off with what appeared to be nothing more than charming wallpaper. Nevertheless, they had been assured there was a panel, and after painstakingly tracing over the flat network of scroll and lace paper, they found a lip in the wall.
As it turned out, the busy pattern hadn’t been chosen to accentuate the room’s extravagant theme, but rather to conceal the outline of the hidden compartment containing the vault’s keypad.
The combination was punched in and a seamless entrance slipped away from the wall. Whoever had installed the vault was a pro; a foot thick wall created from layers of steel, glass and a boltwork system with a series of combination locks, swung open. Moreover, the elaborate space inside had been concealed well, and fit into the Sinclair home’s layout like it never existed.
Two walls on either side of a control desk were filled with flat monitors. And once the system had been booted up by Davis, the screens flared to life with video feeds from all around the world.
The team crammed into the hidden vault to watch the big reveal of each and every home belonging to His Children. Their IP addresses and coordinates were logged into a register on the main computer. And as the computer belonged to Camille Sinclair, along with every bank account and transaction made between each home and her routing number, Camille Sinclair had officially been made in black and white, as had countless pedophiles all over the world.
Millions of dollars in child trafficking, thousands of clients, and every one of their home addresses were there for the picking.
Davis solemnly turned in his chair. “Feist, this is your call.”
Feist perused the monitors. He put his hands on his hips, deep in thought with his bottom lip protruding. He regarded Sutton. His Captain gave him the okay with a nod. Feist said, “Text Nina. Send our people out to shut every single one of them down. If we have to use the Guardians to make it happen, bring them in. This will require more manpower than we have by ourselves.”
“And the kids?” Davis picked up his phone.
“They go into our custody. I don’t care how many of them there are.” Feist’s jaw ticked. “I’ll cram fifteen of them into my apartment if I have to. Better than those fucking homes they’re in now.”
“True that,” Davis mumbled. His thumbs worked overtime on his phone.
“And what of Camille’s security detail?” Sutton casually asked Feist. “They’re a threat now and if they regroup under Halverson’s command, we’ll have a terrorist cell right here in the city.”
Feist offered a diplomatic answer. “If they refuse to cooperate, they get no second chance. I want to know each and every one of their situations before we hand out death sentences. They should be on file in Camille’s system here, so round them all up.”
“Sounds like a rather extensive job, Detective Feist.” Sutton leaned in the doorway. He struck Feist with an inquisitive look. Wes knew exactly what Sutton was doing, but Feist didn’t; the Junior Detective licked his lips and hit his Captain with a dark stare as his leadership was questioned.
“It is, but it needs to be done. Do you suggest we simply kill men who could’ve been forced onto Camille’s payroll? I’m all for swift justice, but not of the pointless variety,” Feist replied carefully. “With all due respect, Captain, I thought we stood for the same thing.”
“We do.” Sutton tipped his head to the side to rest against the wall. The faintest smile touched his lips. “I wasn’t suggesting we hunt them down like animals, I was merely pointing out you have a lot on your plate now that your team has more than one grueling objective. It is my job as your Captain to guide you, Detective Feist. It is my job to teach you how to wear more than one hat at a time and instruct you on how to make hard choices, because one day you will have to make them yourself, and I’d like to think you knew how when the time came.”
“I know that.” Feist bristled and turned his back on Sutton. “Refresh my team,” Feist recited, straight from Academy 101. “Formulate a plan.”
Sutton closed his eyes briefly instead of nodding. Feist looked at every member of his team to make sure they were all paying attention. “Davis?”
“Message has been sent out. Nina’s people are organizing it now. She says that if necessary, if you have no other options, she and the prince will welcome the kids as guests to the compound if we need the room.”
“That’s a last resort. I don’t want it on my shoulders if something happens under the Queen’s roof. So get it out of your heads.” Feist scratched his chin. He moved around the small space he was allowed with his hands on his hips, his eyes trained on the floor, and nodded to himself. Wes knew he was searching for his next move, one that wouldn’t make him look like an idiot in front of Sutton. “What did she think we should do with the kids?”
Davis continued scrolling down his phone as messages poured in. “Shelters are being notified across the city. They’ll have to prepare for arrivals within the next 48 hours. Administrators and board members have been called into a mandatory meeting. That’s all I have for now.”
Feist chewed the inside of his cheek. “I want you and Fontine to choose a team of Guards and shelter workers that can be trusted. I need them to greet the kids when they arrive, register them, and see that they are delivered to a shelter safe and sound. It’s a big job—”
“No shit,” Fontine interrupted. “We don’t have time to be organizing teams for this right now, Feist. We can’t very well deliver those kids to shelters when our people are on lockdown because Halverson is out there hunting whoever pissed him off.”
Smaller than his teammate, Feist still had the confidence and a larger-than-life attitude that more than made up for any height difference. He peered up at Fontine with cold, hard eyes. “You’re right, we don’t have time, but you do. We’re a team, this is a big case, and there are many aspects being ignored because you are currently arguing with me. This team will always work together, even apart. We all have different skill sets and that is what makes this unit flow. So because you are charming and funny and a good judge of character—the perfect person to welcome scared fucking children home—and because your partner can spot a security risk from ten miles away—the perfect person to keep them all safe—I am putting the both of you on this whether you like it or not. And last time I checked, I was in charge.”
“You certainly are,” Sutton murmured. He peeked at Wes with glittering dark eyes; the approval of an impressed Captain. Wes winked back.
Feist glared at Wes. “Knock it off, Durren. I saw that.” He looked up at Fontine. “Do you have a problem with that, Detective Fontine?” Feist cocked his head.
“Not at all,” Fontine replied automatically and stepped away from Feist. “So do we need to go pack a bag? This is pretty short notice to get shipped out, away from our team when a serial killer is on the loose.”
Feist slapped Fontine upside the head. “That’s for being a dick when I’m trying to be a good boss here. Stop fighting me and listen, you asshole.”
“Jesus.” Fontine rubbed the back of his head.
“You better pray, moron. No one is getting shipped out unless you keep running your mouth and I get sick of hearing your voice. I said we work as a team. Sometimes teams have to branch out to make the unit run as one. We need to tie up loose ends here. We can’t very well do that with you nipping at my tit like a baby.” Feist rolled his eyes. “Maloy and I will be heading up the search for Camille’s security detail. The safest place to work them through the system will be the Bureau, so we’ll be starting there. And have a cow, Fontine. You’ll be in the same fucking building as Mama Feist. Hooray!”
“Fuck off. What about Halverson?” Fontine narrowed his eyes.
“I’m leaving that to the two people in this room most suited for the job, the double D’s—Durren and Donohue. What better way to find a man who’s spent his life chasing ghosts than to use the two people who can see them?” Feist put his hands on his hips and raised a brow. “Going to question my logic now, dumbass?”
Fontine huffed but smartly kept quiet. Davis patted his partner on the back. “Feist has you there.”
“That he does,” Sutton agreed. “Remarkably done, Detective Feist.”
“Thanks,” Feist bit out while still locked in a staring contest with Fontine. “Let’s turn this room over to the techs so we can pack these computers up and send them to the Bureau. Adrian and Wes, start digging up everything you can find on Halverson’s mother. If that’s what he wanted badly enough to kill for Camille, then that is what he still wants no matter what.”
“Yes, sir,” Wes returned and bumped shoulders with Adrian.
Focused on the screens behind them, Adrian drew his finger over one screen in particular, where a lady sat at a front desk and a skinny boy huddled in a chair in what looked to be a waiting room. “Understood,” Adrian finally said after Wes nudged him again.
“Great. We’re all on the same page. Lucky me.” Feist walked to the vault’s entrance. “I’m calling in the techs. Meet me downstairs in five, and for fuck’s sake, don’t break anything on the way down. Mama Feist out.” He snapped his fingers and sashayed out of the vault.
Fontine stuck up his middle finger as he followed after Feist. Sutton grabbed the offending digit and shook his head. “I asked him to lead,” he whispered. “And now he’s leading. Please do him a favor and let him have this. It might turn out well for everyone if everyone cooperated, understood?”
“Yes, sir,” Fontine grumbled and lowered his head. He made a shameful escape from the vault.
Davis took off after him. “This team shit is new to us. Always been just him and me, and now he’s kind of attached to everyone and this structure we got going lately. A lot of changes get to him,” Davis offered up an apology to Sutton. “I’ll talk to him.”
“Wise man.” Sutton pushed Davis out the door gently. “We’ll be downstairs, gentlemen.”
“Be there in a few,” Wes called. Then they were alone. “Hey.”
“I’m okay, Wes.” Adrian lifted his hand for his mate to take. After Wes slid his palm into Adrian’s, they both relaxed.
“Why so quiet then?”
Adrian turned his head to Wes. “I’m still not used to feeling this way for victims. My job was to be detached from anything personal but now I’m with you, I have teammates to worry about and I give a shit about what happens to these boys. There’s a lot to deal with. I guess seeing him,” Adrian pointed to the lone boy in the waiting room, “and knowing there are potentially thousands more just like him, alive and surviving… I hurt for them. I don’t know how we’ll make each and every one of them feel better.”
Wes exhaled as he put his arms around his mate’s waist from behind. It had been a slow process to make Adrian aware of the humanity inside of him. But once Adrian grasped onto that thread, he rode a wave to the person he was now. His heart overflowed for others while he grappled with the man he used to be, straddling the fence between safety and danger. Wes was honored to hear such gentle honesty from his mate because he knew he’d played a part in Adrian’s transformation.
“You mean make them feel better like you do now?” Wes rested his cheek against Adrian’s head.
“Yes. They need to feel important, to have a place, a community that understands them. They have a lot of baggage and no one who will know how to put it away, Wes. How will we possibly make them human again?” Adrian clutched at Wes’s hands.
“You were able to do it.”
“I meant human as in taking back the good life. We aren’t human and as soon as those boys, some of them very human, come into our world they won’t have a choice to go back, to heal among their own kind or be embraced by people like them.” Adrian sighed. “I still remember, Wes. I remember the things I did. I remember their faces when they took their last breaths. I remember the last time my father looked at me and I knew my life would never be the same again. There are some things none of us can forget. There are some things that will always haunt us, but those boys will never heal if they’re thrust from one scary situation into another. They’ll be traumatized beyond what they are now.”
Wes turned Adrian in his arms. “I will never forget being chained up in that basement, Adrian. I will never forget the way they kicked me and punched me until my bones snapped or the way they touched me when their boss wasn’t looking. A day never went by I didn’t forget until I met you.” Wes put his forehead to Adrian’s. “One day, each and every one of those boys will meet someone that makes the pain bearable, someone who gives them the strength to move on. Until then, we have to be those people for them. We have to prove to those kids we are their safety, we are their family and we will never betray them. Just as I did with you and just as you did with me. You are my safety. You are the one who pulls me back from the edge. It is possible to go on. We’re proof.”
Adrian’s blue eyes filled with warmth. These moments were few and far between with Wes’s mate because Adrian was still growing into his own skin, but he was trying and that was all Wes would ever ask for. He didn’t need to hear his mate return the sentiment because Adrian had a hard time voicing how he felt. Didn’t mean his face wouldn’t always give him away, which was as good as any sappy reply he could have voiced. Instead, Adrian said, “We prove it to them by taking out the biggest threat to their safety. The one thing holding us back.”
“Halverson,” Wes replied.
Adrian’s eyes sparkled with danger as his grip on Wes’s hands tightened. “No mercy this time.”
“I don’t think that bitch’s end was very merciful.”
“It will be compared to what Halverson is in for.” Adrian flinched as the monitors began to crackle with static. The images turned snowy like the channel had gone out.
Wes let Adrian’s hands go to spin in a slow circle. “The fuck?”
“What?” Wes pivoted to his mate, only to find him staring at the same screen Adrian had been studying before. “What is that?”
Adrian squinted. He leaned in to make sense of the blurry image forming on the monitor. A large number sixteen popped into focus. It rolled over on the fuzzy monitor like it was on repeat before every single monitor went black.
“Sixteen? I don’t know what to make of that.” Adrian glanced at Wes.
Wes snorted. “And you think I do?”
“Stranger things have happened.” Adrian lifted his shoulders.
Wes sharply inhaled. His gaze shot to Adrian again. “Like when ghosts send us pieces to the puzzle?”
Adrian took one last look at the black screen before he grabbed Wes’s hand and marched them out of the vault.
They were back in the Cage with two techs buzzing about the computer’s helm. Adrian crowded the senior tech, Jin, at the keyboard until the tech looked over his shoulder in warning. Wes pulled his mate away with an apologetic smile.
“They’re working as fast as they can,” Wes assured Adrian.
“Not fast enough. I could do this, you know? I’m not technologically challenged.”
Jin snorted quietly. Wes growled at him. “Don’t push your luck.”
“Happens to be a very lucky day for me, boys. I think I’ll take my chances.” Jin spun around in his chair. “Roberta Halverson, now Roberta Glein, mate of Drew Glein, was scheduled for a dentist appointment three days ago. Her Second City Insurance was billed and she paid the copay with her credit card. None of her funds have been touched since then. No cards. No ATM. No activity on any of the Glein accounts, period. Strange for a couple who can’t go a few hours without pounding the transaction pavement like their money is going out of style. I mean, an hour before her appointment she wracked up nearly three thousand dollars at Saks on her card, and another hundred at some gourmet bake shop. These people thrive on their plastic.”
“Definitely a red flag right there. No one living that lifestyle suddenly starts using the cash under their mattress.” Wes sat in a chair across from Jin. He urged Adrian to do the same. “Glein? Isn’t he a committee chair on the Shelter Board?”
The other tech, Romero, was getting off the phone when he approached the table. “Good memory. Glein was supposed to be in the meeting that Davis and Fontine set up to sort out the new arrivals. He didn’t show. He hasn’t answered his cell and the Bureau can’t pinpoint his location. Looks like someone took the battery out of his phone, or he did.”
“And Roberta?” Adrian asked.
“Same deal,” Romero responded. “If Roberta knew about Sinclair being booked, and she had ties to this mess, I bet she took her mate and hightailed it. Surely after hearing about her boss…”
“I think you mean after number fifty-one went down?” Adrian glared.
Romero shrugged. Techs were a different breed altogether; they lived inside a computer and existed for the high of dissecting a crime scene. They dealt in secrets and the aftermath of violence and they were the most jaded employees the Bureau had. Romero was no exception. “Whatever. You asked. That’s my professional opinion. The only other thing we have is the location of some property Roberta and Drew own. It’s an old hunting lodge upstate that dates back to the late 1800s. Seems it got a makeover about ten years back and we’ve got some paperwork here filed in Essex County for a newer renovation permit, but it looks like it never went anywhere because the service quarters are considered historic or something. Odds are the Gleins didn’t have much time to finish any remodels as busy as they were covering Sinclair’s ass.”
Wes grabbed Adrian’s hand under the table to keep him from launching himself at the oblivious tech. “Sutton had mentioned some property up there,” Wes said to Adrian.
Adrian rolled his eyes. “We ruled it out. There is no way Halverson walked out of the city undetected. It’s hard enough for humans to get in and out with all the security checkpoints these days.”
“Uh huh, and the Gleins suddenly developed teleportation abilities,” Jin muttered.
“I’m going to deck him.” Adrian stood and cracked his back. His menacing eyes targeted Jin.
“Before you do that, you might want to think about what he just said.” Wes tapped the edge of his laptop to get Adrian’s attention. “What if Halverson took the Gleins for a ride upstate and they acted as his cover by force? No one was looking for the Gleins a few days ago and Halverson knew that. What if he took Frederick with and he’s got them all locked up in an old hunting lodge until he decides how to escape for good? If that’s the case, Adrian, he’ll be getting itchy by now. He’s not stable. He’ll kill all of them if he hasn’t already.”
Jin’s phone buzzed next to him. “Yeung.” He nodded and gestured for Romero to copy a license plate number he recited. “Got it. Thanks. I’ll let them know.”
Romero punched the number into his computer and sat back. “It’s a commercial fleet car registered to Sinclair Security, the only one out of the sixty vehicle fleet that hasn’t been impounded by the Bureau in the last few hours. The plate was flagged in Essex County for a speeding ticket about five hours ago.”
“That’s what they wanted to know, if someone had tagged it but hadn’t brought it in yet.” Jin turned in his chair. “Still think your boy didn’t cross the city line? The Gleins would have swiped a police officer to get out of a ticket. Halverson is still human, which means he’s got his hostages drugged or dead in that car and he now knows he’s going to be traced after being pulled over. At least he didn’t kill a cop. That’d be hard for any of us to cover.”
Adrian fisted his hands. “Where’s Essex County?”
“Might want to bundle up, you’re headed near the Adirondacks and it is fucking cold up there.” Jin gave Adrian a mock salute before turning around. “I’ll email you the details.”
“I’ll call Sutton.” Wes moved as quickly as his body would allow. His heart raced as he called his best friend. They had Halverson. They fucking had him!
“Sorry, Durren, you have to make this quick. I’m five minutes from the SoHo Shelter—they’re rounding up the kids from the operation within the city and the place is flooded from what Greg says. We’ve got so many Royal males being booked we don’t know what to do with them. And I’m about out of coffee.” Sutton took a deep breath.
“We know where Halverson is.”
“What! Pull over here,” Sutton demanded. Tires screeched in the background. “Where?”
“Near Lake Placcid. We think he took his birth mother, her mate Drew Glein, and Frederick, and headed for the Gleins’ vacation home in Essex County. It’s a town called North Elba.”
“Shit. That’s near the mountains, Wesley. A man like Halverson could be anywhere in the Adirondacks by now.”
“Which is why we need to move fast. Adrian and I will take the lead on this one. I know the team is stretched thin already, but we’ll still need some backup.”
Sutton was quiet for a moment. “Take Niles.”
Wes growled. “Are you out of your mind?”
“He’s a tracker, Wesley. This is what he does—track, kill and run.”
“And he’s also on lockdown. You want me to call up the Pope and Mickey Mouse to come with us too?”
“If you think it wise.” Sutton clucked his tongue. “I’ll have some reinforcements sent to you. In the meantime, pull up a map of the area, pinpoint the residence, and locate the safest point of entry. Call me back.”
“This is bullshit,” Wes shouted to the dead line. He looked up to find two blinking techs and his mate looking at him. “He wants us to take Niles for a spin.”
Adrian frowned. “Why is that a bad idea?’
“Are you kidding me right now?”
Adrian lifted a shoulder. “He tracked Halverson for years. He knows how he thinks outside the Academy. Niles knows how he hunts when given the room. I know how he fights. You’re an experienced Detective with a brain full of protocol. I don’t see why we can’t make this work. It’s kind of perfect, actually.”
“Sometimes you annoy me, in a bad way.” Wes grunted as he stood up and walked out of the Cage. Adrian tagged along with a smirk.
Adrian trailed Wes two floors up to where they were holding Niles. Word had spread around the Bureau they had a lead on Halverson and everyone wanted to know the details, wanted to be a part of the great hunt. Part of Adrian wanted to suit up and charge into battle like he used to, but the other part of him knew that wasn’t how things were done anymore. Not here. Not as a Detective.
Innocent lives were on the line. They needed a plan. There were rules on how to save a life.
He thanked the stars Wes had the rule part on lockdown. Where Adrian was wild, Wes was tame and that made them the perfect team, although now Adrian had to be the one to reel Wes in. Wes wasn’t Niles’ biggest fan, so surely there would be a showdown once they reached him.
What Adrian didn’t expect was Niles to be surrounded by at least a dozen Guards in full tactical gear like Niles was a ticking time bomb. Even Wes stopped short to make sense of the scene. “Can I help you gentlemen?”
Niles looked up and tucked a piece of dark hair behind his ear. His wriggled his long nose and sighed. “They’re with me.”
“With you,” Adrian repeated.
“Yes.” Niles stared back in challenge.
“What do you mean, with you?” Wes’s brows drew closer together.
“I mean this is your backup. My backup.” Niles sat back in his chair. “Word travels fast, Detective, and these men are all too eager to finish the job. Besides, the big guy ordered reinforcements, did he not?”
It took Adrian a second to comprehend what Niles was getting at. When he did, he stiffened and searched the men’s eyes. He’d known Niles had people on the inside, Guards who were once scared little boys working for Camille, but never in a thousand years could he have imagined the men they were today. A few thousand pounds of muscle and anger packed the room; boys who were now men looking for the revenge they’d earned with service.
“Indeed.” Niles stood.
Adrian turned to Wes. “They’re…”
“You all wait here.” Wes cursed through his teeth and then dragged Adrian into the hallway. “Should we call Cap?”
“You don’t think he knows about this?”
“Do you?” Wes scoffed. “Yeah. Right.”
Adrian looked over his shoulder at the men staring at him. They weren’t going anywhere. Not with force. Not if they were hit by a train right this second. They were going with them to Essex County and that was that. “Whether they were approved or not, I don’t think we have a choice.”
“You think they have a right, don’t you?”
Adrian shot Wes’s question back at him. “Don’t you?”
Wes sighed loudly. “I hate this.”
“I’m not exactly having a field day either, Wes, but if we think about it, these guys are probably the best backup we have next to our real team. They want this and they’ll do anything to get it, but they still take their job seriously.” Adrian searched the hall for any spying eyes before he pushed Wes out of sight of the doorway. He rubbed Wes’s arms because he craved the touch and then kissed Wes at the corner of his mouth. “Let’s get this over with.”
“You got somewhere to be, princess?”
Adrian snorted. “Home.”
Wes rumbled with approval. “Yeah, that sounds nice.”
“We’re not much closer to the end with you standing there pouting. Let’s go get him, Wes. Let’s end this for real.”
Wes looked both ways before he kissed Adrian hard and fast. “Lock and load, baby.”
“Fuck yeah.” Adrian licked Wes’s lips. He pushed him away and walked back into the room.
After being in the city for a while, Adrian almost forgot places like this existed. North Elba was situated along the rolling hills of upstate New York. Clear lakes, fresh air, inches of crisp snow already accumulating in the treetops and on the ground. He understood why someone would choose to get away to this place. It reminded him of the reason his father preferred the great outdoors to the cramped, eclectic life in the city.
There was room to move. To run. To breathe. And when Adrian took his first big gulp of clean, cold air, he stepped back in time to the free agent he used to be. Only this time he couldn’t just disappear into thin air, into the trees never to be seen again.
This time he didn’t want to.
This time he waited for Wes by the Jeep and allowed his mate to finish gearing up.
Niles spread a map across the hood of another vehicle. Their team gathered around. “These are the blueprints Jin was able to get from the county records. They’re about ten years old and not very specific, but they’ll help us understand the property. From what we know, we have about forty acres of ground to cover and the lodge building sits on one and a half acres that butts up against the northern property line. As easy as that sounds, it’s not the only structure on the land.”
“What are those?” Adrian pointed to the small squares dotting the property.
Niles put a finger near to the map. “This used to be a hunting lodge and now it’s the main house.” He touched a medium sized blue square well away from the lodge. “Those are guest cabins and the smaller ones in red are treetop structures used as deer blinds. Hunters need them to stake out from above and watch the deer unnoticed.”
“So what you’re saying is he could be hiding them anywhere on the property.” Wes secured his rifle strap over his chest and shifted the weapon onto his back.
“I wouldn’t hide in the lodge if I was him—that’d be too easy. He also has the advantage of the Gleins’ knowledge of the property.” Niles looked to Adrian. “We’ll have to track the old fashioned way. You up for that?”
Adrian sniffed the air. A myriad of smells and tastes filled the air. He immediately recognized the scent and direction of wildlife in the area, heard them running through the woods, but he also sensed something else; something familiar to him. “I’m down.”
“Wes?” Niles stared at the Senior Detective.
Wes nodded. He glanced at Adrian out of the corner of his eye. He knew that look all too well by now. They weren’t alone out here. “We’ll split into two teams. You lead one and we’ll lead the other. Our team will cut into the property here.” Wes tapped the southeast barrier line where a creek was outlined. “Your team will come in through the northern barrier to give you space. If you’re sure he wouldn’t be in the lodge, then we’ll surround him on the property that way. He might have the Gleins, but we have the advantage that Halverson is human.”
“He won’t see or smell us coming,” Adrian agreed. “We got this.” Adrian snapped a few shots of the map with his phone and pocketed it. “Whoever is coming with us, we head out now. The light will be gone soon and the snow is supposed to pick up.”
“I’m texting Sutton that we’re going in. He’s got guys on standby near the county line in case we need help.” Wes walked next to his mate as they crossed the deserted stretch of road from where the vehicles were parked in the trees.
“We won’t need it.” Adrian pulled up his fur lined hood. “Follow me.”
He felt Wes in his head as their bond began to channel each other. Adrian was the first to walk into wood lined barrier. There are bodies out here.
Wes caught up to his mate, but didn’t look at him. The men to either side of them fanned out without noticing their silent conversation. Our vics?
Anyone we know?
Adrian reached the creek and stopped along its edge. I’m going to try something. Trust me, okay?
Are you summoning dead animals now? Wes cleared his throat and gave one of the men a nervous smile.
Gross. Adrian peered up at him with disgust. “Cross the creek and start sniffing, boys. We’re looking for anything out of place—blood, perfume, sweat, anything not animal.”
“Understood,” a large male with a heavy German accent said as he splashed through the creek with his boots. The man shouldered through a pair of trees and continued into the darkening forest. His brothers followed him.
Wes crouched next to Adrian, his eyes still on the men making their way into the woods. “You gonna tell me what’s up now or do I have to pry it out of your head?”
“There’s a male, forty to fifty, died by gunshot to the head. I think it was a self-inflicted hunting wound, an accident, but they never found his body. He’s still here.” Adrian skimmed the water with his glove. “It happened at least sixty years ago.”
“Can you hear him?” Wes looked around.
“No. I feel him. Here.” Adrian gestured to the water. “There are points of this creek that feed into ponds. If winter iced the water over after his body drifted away, they would have a hard time finding him. He just wants to be found.”
“And if you help him, he’ll help you.”
Adrian cut his eyes to the side. “That’s generally how this works now that I’ve got a grip on it. Only this time, I don’t want to hear him and lose all of my energy. I just want him to understand and work with me. I think I can do it. I think if he’s already here, reaching out, I don’t have to waste energy summoning him.”
“You said bodies as in more than one. What if he wakes others in the area and you have no choice but to hear them? We can’t have you out of the game right now.”
“A spirit told me one time that they have a way of communicating with each other, and that if I just stopped fighting it, they’d get in line. If we get this guy on board, I’m confident he’ll tell the others not to mess with me.” Adrian stood up and offered Wes a hand.
Once Wes was on his feet, he put a hand to Adrian’s shoulder. “I trust you.”
“Good.” Adrian cracked a smile and then closed his eyes. He pictured the man in his head, piecing together images the spirit had been sending out. The man’s desperation ceased, making the air easier to breathe.
Relax. I have a deal for you. Adrian opened his eyes. Behind Wes was a tall man in a red checkered Lambswool jacket. A billed cap with ear warmers covered most of the wound to his head, but blood still dripped down his face. A gun fell from his hand and the ghostly echo of a shot rang out in the woods.
“Wes, don’t freak out when you turn around. He’s here.” Adrian turned Wes to see the man.
Wes put a hand over his mouth but said nothing. Adrian did the talking for both of them. With every word the ghost said, Adrian’s hearing would start to fade, so he needed him to understand quickly. “I know you want to tell me everything and I will listen, and I will help them find your body, but I need you not to talk right now. I need you to help me first. Nod if you understand because when I have to focus on hearing you, I lose energy and that doesn’t help either of us.”
The ghost’s gun snapped back against his palm as if someone had pressed rewind. One minute he was a few yards away and the next he was breathing in Adrian’s face. He nodded once.
“Listen to me carefully,” Adrian continued despite the smell of decay. “Shake your head for no and nod for yes. I’m going to ask you a few questions.”
The ghost nodded.
“Did you live here?”
The ghost nodded.
“At the lodge?”
The ghost shook his head.
“Do you know of the lodge?”
The ghost nodded.
“Then you’re familiar with the area?”
The ghost nodded.
“Good. I need you to help us find someone. He’s holding three people hostage on the property and we need to save them. Will you help me?”
The ghost nodded.
“One condition: If there are others like you, tell them not to bother me unless they want to help. I can’t save everyone.”
It was the first time Adrian had uttered the words aloud. He really couldn’t save everyone—even though he’d tried many times. The world was just too great and he was only one man. The spirit seemed to understand the very same thing and attempted a soft smile and a gracious bow of his head. The blood immediately evaporated from his face, allowing the blue of his eyes to shine through.
Although Adrian wasn’t able to save everyone, sometimes saving one person had the same effect on his heart as if he’d rescued countless others. The moment of pride he shared with the spirit was another step in the right direction, and given time, all of these new emotions would make sense. Right now, he had a killer to catch and his new friend would lead them in the right direction.
The spirit gripped his shotgun, turned towards the woods and disappeared. Adrian shared a look with Wes and followed. They eventually caught up to the rest of their team.
“Anything?” Wes searched the woods, no doubt looking for their spirit guide.
The German nodded to the east. “We found numerous discarded shotgun shells, but they are old.”
“Means there’s a deer blind near here.” Wes looked up and spun in a circle. They saw the wall free structure a few yards away and were able to clear it of activity just by looking at it; the treetop blind had a floor, a roof, and nothing else except for the ladder style rungs nailed up the tree trunk.
Adrian sought out the sky through the trees and grew anxious now their light had faded. A murky gray storm was moving in. The temperature dropped half an hour ago. “We need to start marking our way out in case we have to move fast. Everything will look the same once we go completely dark.”
They’d heard nothing from Niles yet, which wasn’t exactly a bad thing, but it didn’t make Adrian any happier. Because Halverson knew how to monitor radio signals, they’d left their basic communication equipment in the vehicles, relying on their phones instead. They had to disable the GPS feature in case Halverson had a way to track them that way, and that made their situation even more dangerous, but most of them had been trained to navigate treacherous terrain without technology. Not to Adrian’s extent, but that was why he was leading them alongside Wes.
They had this. At least Adrian hoped they did.
To keep himself distracted from paranoid thoughts, Adrian took a plastic bag of beads out of his pocket and squished one through the dispenser. He dripped the fluorescent fluid onto the side of tree in a line to mark where they’d come.
“These will show up with night vision when we need to make our way back. They aren’t charged with natural light, so they can’t be seen by anyone without the goggles.” Adrian patted the side of the tree.
“Where were you trained? I don’t recall this practice in the Academy,” the German piped up.
“Trust me, you don’t want to know.” Adrian nudged his chin to the north and said, “Split into teams of three and space out. We want to cover the property quickly and comb through any hiding places. Don’t turn your lights on unless absolutely necessary. Remember, we have the advantage here. Let’s keep it that way.”
As vampires, they weren’t able to penetrate the dark with their eyesight completely. Nevertheless, they had more enhanced vision than humans and were able to traverse woods like these better than Halverson. They followed a rocky slope down, feeling around with their hands and feet until they touched down on a snowy, flat strip of terrain. A mixture of snow and rain started to trickle through the trees, smacking against them in big, fat drops. When the temperature plunged again, the woods would ice over and slow them down. They had to get going.
“You see anything I don’t?” Wes startled Adrian from behind.
“Not yet,” Adrian whispered. “Starting to think I’ve been duped, led out here in the middle of this crap. It’s going to be hard to see soon through the storm and the accumulation on the ground isn’t helping us move any quicker.”
It was then Adrian saw a handprint form a few yards down, in the same liquid he’d used on the tree earlier. Gone in a flash, the handprint was still a sign from the spirit to head that way instead of walking north as planned. What confused Adrian, or maybe he’d imagined it, was the handprint was smaller than any adult male would have made, even from afar.
He grabbed Wes’s arm as they walked. Did you see that?
It was small.
That’s what I was afraid of.
Guess word does travel fast. Wes sparked a whole new level of paranoia in Adrian. Relax, baby. I think they just want to help.
“How can you be so, I don’t know, you? It was a child,” Adrian hissed under his breath.
“And this land has been here for a very long time, longer than before I was born. Before a lot of people were born. Things happen. Death happens.” Wes squeezed Adrian’s arm before letting go. “And if I were you, I’d take a kid’s help before anyone else’s. They’re the most honest people you’ll ever meet.”
Wes would know; he’d had a little sister who died of illness when she was rather young—nine or ten if Adrian remembered correctly. He had to trust in Wes’s advice and move on. If the little one wanted to help, who was he to deny them the excitement when they’d been alone out here for who knew how long?
“Over here,” one of the men’s voices rang out softly. A coyote echoed his call in the distance, making their surroundings all the more real to Adrian. This place was about as much of a vacation retreat as hell was and while it had been scenic and nostalgic for a minute, as night settled in the woods revealed their true colors and released the predators unto their prey.
He was not about to become people Alpo for the furry beasts shuffling about the grounds.
“What is it?” Adrian pushed through the small crowd to see a cabin nestled in the trees. The closer he got, the more vivid the number fifteen painted on the door became. “Surround the perimeter. I’ll go in first.”
“Is it locked?” Wes leaned over his shoulder to see.
“Door’s open.” Adrian readied his rifle and toed the door open a few inches with a creak. He pulled his goggles down from under his hood and turned them on, illuminating the cabin in green, black and glaring white.
“Bureau Guard,” Wes called. “We are armed. If there is anyone in there, show yourself now.”
No one answered back.
Wes nodded to Adrian. They pushed inside the tiny cabin.
The space wasn’t more than ten square feet, big enough for a twin bed, a fold down table, a cabinet and a metal toilet in the corner. But that wasn’t what he was looking for. Adrian pivoted quickly to secure the space behind the door. No one was there.
Along with Wes, he looked under the bed, checked the rafters and knocked on every floorboard to make sure there wasn’t a sublevel to hide a killer and his three hostages. “Clear,” he sighed.
“You notice the number on the door?” Wes asked as they filed out of the cabin.
“Same print as the number we saw in the vault.” Wes’s eyes glowed with the help of night vision as he looked at Adrian. It didn’t take much to get Wes’s brain going, and with his mate’s memory, Adrian refused to let the detail slide. When it came to the facts, Wes remembered every last one of them.
Adrian marched outside a few yards and scanned the area for the next cabin. From what he’d seen on the map the cabins weren’t all that far apart from each other. They were secluded from the lodge for privacy, but still in the same neighborhood, probably so guests were able to enjoy each other’s company while on vacation. There was even a fire pit smack dab in the middle of some wooden benches a few yards away, covered in snow now, but they were still visible. Judging by the fresh accumulation in the fire pit, this place hadn’t been used recently, which meant Halverson was still out there somewhere.
“Cover me. I’m going to use my phone and I don’t want to broadcast the light.” Adrian turned his back. Wes and two others surrounded him as he pulled up pictures of the map he’d taken earlier. “See? The cabins all flow in a half moon pattern. This one is fifteen, but the next one is … seventeen.”
“Where is number sixteen?” the man to his right asked.
An owl above them answered with a hoot, scaring all of them half to death as it took flight to another tree. That about summed up the extent of their findings, nothing but going tree to tree with zilch in return. Adrian scowled as he broke another bead and made an angry slash across the cabin’s door.
“I don’t know, but we need to find out fast. We didn’t bring any food because of the bears out here and I’m not down for hunting myself a snack. So move out and stay focused.” Adrian slung his rifle around to his back. “Keep your eyes peeled for a big, fat sixteen. It’s important.”
Just as they were about to head out again, Adrian’s friend, the male spirit was waiting at the edge of the cabin’s clearing, waving his arms wildly. He stopped to point over and over towards the direction they’d come from. He put his fingers to his lips and disappeared.
“Take cover,” Adrian urged.
No one questioned his plea. His team moved with lightning speed, keeping their toes light through the snow to find shelter behind trees and behind the cabin. Wes pulled Adrian behind a cluster of boulders. They peeked over the rocky surface as the first wave of voices reached their ears. Flashlights bobbed. Four figures descended the rough slope of jagged rock towards the cabin.
“This is so stupid. We could’ve been gone by now.”
“We can get three million each, free and clear, and you want to run while he’s still out here? Go ahead. See if they don’t catch you when you try to take a plane out of New York. They’re taking those idiots into the Bureau right and left. You want to end up like that bitch Sinclair? I don’t think so.”
“Three mill and we can split to Canada. Take a plane out of there and go wherever the fuck we want. I got a brother who lives in Tokyo. Says his boss pays really well and they’d be willing to take me on. I could live like a king there.”
“They got room for one more?”
“What the hell about us? I’m not sticking around when Halverson loses his shit all the way and puts a bullet in my head. I want to grab him, get our money and get the hell out of here.”
“True that. We bring him the supplies, call this in to make sure it goes down, take the money and run together. Tokyo it is.”
“Yeah, we should stick together. Always been that way anyway. And I want to get as far away from these fuckers as possible—they ain’t like us, man. They did this because they wanted to…”
Adrian stood up, aiming his rifle at the group when they were about to pass. “This is the Bureau. Stay where you are and put your hands behind your head.”
“Ah shit. Are you for real?”
“Very,” Wes snarled. He moved out from behind the rocks with his weapon steady. “Don’t even think about reaching for your weapons.”
Their team swiftly closed in. Their targets went down to their knees with their hands behind their heads. After the group of four had been patted down, Adrian stared down at two handguns and an industrial box cutter. “That’s it? You were headed deep into the woods, knowing we could be here at any moment, and knowing you could be stuck in a storm at the base of a mountain with two handguns and a box cutter? You must be highly skilled or very stupid. I’m pretty sure it’s stupid.”
“We weren’t planning on sticking around to do anything! We swear,” one of their captives squeaked. He looked barely twenty and ready to piss his pants. He was also the only human out of the four, which intrigued Adrian.
Something didn’t sit right. Adrian made sure Wes was on top of their prisoners before he walked to where the supposed “supply boxes” were sitting. His men frowned at the contents and one held up a satellite phone. “This is the only thing in this one besides food and water, Adrian. The other one has a change of clothes and a few passports. Picture is Halverson’s.”
He really was planning to run. And since the boxes didn’t have anything that suggested he was taking guests with him that meant his hostages were expendable. He was using them as his last line of defense if push came to shove. But why here? Why not just run on his own after he got out of the city?
“Nothing else?” Adrian’s skin crawled.
The squirming beggar on his knees crawled forward until Wes pinned him with the end of his rifle. “Wait. You’re Adrian?”
“What the hell do you care?” Wes pressed steel to the kid’s temple.
“Man, you shouldn’t be out here—he wants you to come! I’ll tell you everything if we can get a deal. We didn’t do this for fun, man. Halverson has our brother. We owe Freddy our lives.”
“Nice try, kid. We heard you talking about the money.” Wes pushed the kid back in line.
“Money we were going to steal as payment from that bitch Camille. We have the account information from Sinclair’s private account in the Caymans. It’s in the process of wiring to our account right this minute. We were going to run as soon as we got Freddy. Halverson said we could have him back if we did one last drop for him. By the time we were gone, we knew Halverson would be picked up by the Bureau and none of his other teammates would know where we were.”
“Stupid. Did it ever occur to you that Halverson had no intention of letting any of you live after you brought him his escape kit?” Adrian marched over to the blabbermouth and grabbed him by the hair. “What others?”
“The ones coming to protect Halverson. The ones that got out before your people started the raids today. The guys Camille hired outright instead of plucking from the homes once they got too old to turn tricks. They’re monsters and that’s why Halverson sent them out here. To find you because he knew you’d come, and when he runs, he doesn’t plan on you coming after him. He hates you, man.”
“Adrian…” Wes stared into the dark woods.
Adrian looked up to see the male spirit readying his rifle at the trees. The ghost hadn’t been warning them to watch out for the four punks in their captivity. He’d seen the others coming for miles and tried to protect them from an all-out war.
“How many?” Adrian grabbed his phone and started dialing.
“More than you have here. A lot more.” The kid started to cry. “Please don’t kill us.”
Adrian handed his bag of beads to the German. “When we run, take point for the rest of the team and start marking like your life depends on it. Because it does.”
Niles answered his phone, clearly out of breath. Adrian warned, “We’ve got company and it’s not our guys.”
“I know. One of mine just spotted them from a blind near the road, said we’re looking at about ten vehicles.”
“Shit. We’re moving deeper into the property. Where are you?” Adrian tugged the kid to his feet and handed him back his box cutter. He might actually need it for something other than a delivery from UPS.
The others were let go and surrounded by their men. Wes directed them to follow the German as Adrian walked past the fire pit and into the area cabin seventeen was supposed to be.
Niles’ heavy breathing filled the other end. “Cleared the lodge and we’re about ten minutes out from the cabins if we take it at a dead run. Do me a favor and call in those boys you have sitting at the county line. I don’t feel like dying tonight.”
Adrian looked at his mate through night vision. The possibility of losing Wes put him in a different frame of mind. “I’ll do you one better. None of our guys are biting it tonight.”
“See you soon, Hunter.” Niles chuckled and the line went dead.
“I’m calling this in and then we run like hell. We need room to take them. I can smell them now.” Adrian became lightheaded when he took a deep drag of air into his lungs. So many of them. So many new scents.
Wes herded two of the captives along. “And if you can smell them, they can smell us.”
The spirit’s rifle shot was loud enough to ring in Adrian’s ears. “They’re here.”
“Adrian. Run.” Wes shot a look of terror to his mate.
“Run with me.” Adrian slapped one of his treasured daggers into Wes’s palm to let his mate know that if something happened they’d always be together. Two of a kind. Part of a pair.
A ferocious smile overtook Wes’s mouth. He gripped his new dagger and ran like hell with the rest of them.
“We’re biding time like sitting ducks. Why don’t we fight?” the German scowled from his perch above in a tree.
Adrian looked up at him. “Because good hunters are patient, something you need to learn.”
“Now is not the time for teaching, Adrian. We fight for our lives.”
Adrian rolled his eyes. “Whatever. I’m going to walk to the edge of those rocks we saw back there and see what I can get. The snow is too heavy to carry their scent now. I need a visual.” He nodded to Wes. His mate nodded back because he trusted Adrian to hold his own, and Wes knew if he protested in front of the guys, Adrian’s mood would take a turn for the worse.
Adrian winked as he walked by. Only for you.
I like it when you talk dirty. I’ll make good on that when we get home.
I’ll make you beg…
Adrian exited their hiding place to the sound of Wes’s laughter in his head. He was grinning from ear to ear when he advanced on the rock formation near the eastern edge of the property line. Crouching down in the snow, he searched the woods for any sign of Niles or his crew, but they had yet to show. Using their phones was out of the question with so much activity on the grounds, so Adrian had to be patient.
He put his rifle down on the flat of rock underneath him and lay out on his belly to wait. That was when he sensed someone next to him and yanked his hood down to find a little girl sprawled out on her stomach next to him. She said nothing, only smiled at him, looking at him with stormy grey eyes that reflected the pale winter moonlight. Wisps of her waist length black hair swirled in the wind, as did the fluttering hem of her long, linen nightgown.
She lifted a tiny palm to show him that it was covered in bead paint before she rested her chin on her folded arms to watch with him.
He knew he shouldn’t waste the energy, but she was broken and lost, lonely and needed the company. More importantly, she was dead and that just about tore him in two.
“What’s your name, honey?”
She shook her head and put a finger to her lips.
“You can’t talk?”
She shook her head and smiled wide like they were playing a game. Instead, she started to write in the snow.
“Annie?” Adrian traced a line under her name.
She nodded and pointed to herself. Then she wrote another name in the snow. His name. She pointed to Adrian.
“Do I know you?”
She beamed and grabbed his hand in her sweaty, smaller one. Annie leaned forward and kissed his cheek with her cold lips. Adrian was overcome with love for the little girl. Forsaking everything he’d learned about his gift thus far, he pulled the little girl into his lap and hugged her back. Her forehead was burning up as it brushed his cheek, yet her lips were cold as they rested against his neck.
If he didn’t know any better, he’d say she’d died of a fever, but she didn’t give him any information to go by. She didn’t send him images or whispers or visuals of any kind. It was like she didn’t care about the past or her death. Like she didn’t have any messages to pass on or any troubles linked to her passing. She simply wanted to be here for him, with him, to hug him.
“Don’t you have anyone to take care of you? Where’s your mommy?”
Annie sat back and put a hand to his cheek, using the other one to point to the sky.
“Is that where you’re from?”
She nodded and crawled off his lap. She stood and offered him her hand, gesturing for him to follow with the other.
“It’s not safe out there, Annie. We have to stay here.”
She smiled and shook her head, insisting with her hand that he come with her.
Her doll-like eyes and childish smile made him cave. “Okay, but we can’t go far. I have to leave soon.”
Annie did something that caused Adrian to smile. She lifted her hands and signed, “I have to show you something before I go home too. That is why I came to you.”
How did she know to sign to him instead of talking? How did she know how to sign at all? Why would this little girl come back from heaven, separate from her family to seek him out in particular, to help him like this?
“Who are you?”
“Come on!” She grabbed his hand and towed him along.
The snow bank slowed him down as they descended the other side of the flat rock formation. Adrian struggled to keep up with Annie’s effortless gait. A few minutes later, she stopped and kneeled in the snow. Adrian crouched next to her. He waited for what she wanted to show him, but all he saw was two plus feet of snow and a little girl able to somehow sit on top of it like she weighed nothing.
“My mama took care of a friend who was a slave before she escaped to the North during the war. People said she brought a curse with her, folks getting sick and all after she arrived. Mama said that wasn’t true and the Lord was just taking people when it was their time, and we needed to listen to M-I-R-I-A-M because she had a gift. Like you.”
“Annie, I don’t understand. What does that have to do with me? Who is Miriam?”
“People said Miss M-I-R-I-A-M was a witch because she saw and heard things that weren’t there, but sometimes people came from miles away to pay her to talk to their dead loved ones. She didn’t do none of that. Said if the dead wanted to talk, they’d come do it themselves. That she didn’t have no right to it unless the dead gave her permission. When she did talk to them, she’d get real sick after. Thought she was going to sleep for days. Sometimes she wouldn’t be able to talk for a week too. Said she had to give something to get something.”
“Like my hearing…” Adrian stared at Annie. He reached for her hand and took it in his. “What happened to Miriam?”
“Bunch of men came to chase her out of town. They wanted to hurt her, and me and mama because we was protecting her. We didn’t have anyone to defend us because my big brother was gone, so M-I-R-I-A-M defended us the only way she knew how. She called them spirits to help us.”
“To scare the men away?”
“They done wrong. They wouldn’t be chased away that easy. They’d hurt others before and M-I-R-I-A-M wanted it all to stop. She used dark magic to make them hurt too.”
“There’s no such thing, Annie. Magic isn’t real.”
Annie looked up at him with shining eyes. “Then prove it like this.” She took the knife from his belt and slashed a gash across her palm in the blink of an eye. Adrian had never seen a ghost take something from him before. He was both scared and intrigued. “Some things have no choice but to die. With a little help from the living, they can be free again. Isn’t that what you do?”
“Annie, give me the knife.” Adrian slowly moved toward her as she crawled away.
She twisted to him and laid the bloody knife in the snow near her knee. “If you want something bad enough, there’s always someone willing to help. You just got to give them something in return, something that means a lot to you.”
“Annie, I mean it. Give me that knife.”
“Dark magic isn’t bad like it sounds. It’s dark because death is dark. Can’t change that, but you can change what happens to them people after they die because you are magic, whether you want to believe it or not. And right now, you don’t have any choices left but to believe. This is what M-I-R-I-A-M would have called an emergency, so I’m sorry I got to make your mind up for you, but he don’t deserve to die like this. He’s been through enough.” She picked up the knife again and slashed Adrian’s outstretched palm.
He hissed and retracted his hand, but not before blood dripped onto the crisp snow. “What is wrong with you? I thought you wanted to help me.”
“I am. I’m helping all of you.” She sat back on her heels and held out the knife to him. “Look.”
Adrian dropped his gaze to the snow again. Small droplets of his blood expanded and reached through the snow like veins in a large body. They spread, slithering out to the woods, where they started to hum a glowing red light. “What’s happening?”
“You gave something important to them. Something you can give without wasting yourself. All you have to do is tell them what you need, like M-I-R-I-A-M did. That’s all there is to it. I swear.”
“Who are you talking about?”
“The dead.” She stretched her arms above her for a moment to encompass the world as a whole. “You won’t last long out here without them and neither will he. Think outside yourself. Think about him.”
“You don’t understand!”
“The dead don’t need more than you have already given them unless you become greedy and start raising hell over this world. Don’t be scared, A-D-R-I-A-N. Be who you are.” Annie reached out to touch his cheek. She was closer now than before and something about her eyes were familiar to Adrian, something he couldn’t put his finger on. “Save them the best way you know how. Save him for me.”
“And how is that?”
“Hunt,” she punctuated the silence in a deep voice and then disappeared.
“Annie, wait.” Adrian’s hand sliced through thin air. He got to his feet, scrambling around in a circle to find himself alone, but not for long. Wes emerged from the other side of the rocks, practically stumbling over his feet to get to his mate.
“What happened? I felt you panic. I thought… Adrian?” Wes shook his shoulder. “What’s going on? Did you find something?”
Adrian looked up at Wes’s moonlit grey eyes. He knew for sure why Annie’s eyes had looked so familiar to him, why her plea had been so passionate and urgent. He knew who Annie meant by save him. And he now knew why Annie had come to him when he was alone. Adrian wasn’t supposed to tell Wes. It would break his mate all over again. Adrian was quick to slam his mental blocks in place because Wes had a way of digging in his head now that they were both vampires, mated ones at that.
Wes could not find out his little sister was out here.
He just couldn’t.
It would be as if he had to bury her all over again, and both he and Annie wished to spare Wes that.
Maybe that Miriam lady had the right idea all along. Don’t demand of the dead because some things are better left in the past to right someone’s future. Except in this case, an emergency, Adrian was granted permission from spirits who had come to his aid. And like Miriam, this time he had no choice but to answer their call and pay their price. Dark magic. Old blood magic. Myths and legends.
Adrian would have been called a witch too had he lived in Miriam’s time, in Annie’s time, but these days people like him were sought after, had their own reality shows, worked to cleanse people of demons who couldn’t let go. Interviewing dead witnesses was one thing to accept. But this, giving into his true nature, his amplified talent as a medium—this was hard to take.
“You said you trusted kids more than anyone else because they the most honest people on earth. Why?” Dread grew in his gut as the choice he had to make became clear. Annie hadn’t come to Wes because Wes wasn’t a part of this. While they swore they’d never part, it was Adrian who had to take the reins this time. Alone.
Wes pulled Adrian to him and looked around. Adrian sensed his unease at being in the open. “Because they’re innocent. They have nothing to hide yet. They’re pure.”
“Because you trusted her?”
Wes snapped his attention to Adrian’s face. “My sister?” Adrian nodded. “With all my heart. Why do you ask?”
“And you would trust me with all your heart. Even if I did something I couldn’t explain away, something I have no way of knowing how to control?”
“Adrian, what are you hiding from me?”
“Yeah, I would.”
Adrian pushed back from his mate. “Then take the others and follow the eastern perimeter north. Find Niles because he hasn’t shown up yet and that means he has to be in trouble.”
Wes pushed his hood back with force to give Adrian a good look at the anger in his eyes. “I’m not leaving you by yourself.”
Adrian lifted his dagger for Wes to see. “I won’t be alone.” He hoped Wes understood his meaning.
By the deep sigh from his mouth and the slump of his shoulders, Wes got the message. “What are you going to do, Adrian?” Wes tried to wade through the snow as Adrian backed away. For some reason, he didn’t see the glowing veins like Adrian did. He wasn’t meant to see this part.
“Go, Wes. Take them now. I’ll meet you in the middle.”
“Absolutely not.” Adrian’s heart pounded in time with the veins in the snow. He clenched his fists. Gunshots started to pop through the trees. Wes hissed and bared his teeth. “Adrian, we have to go.”
“No, you do. Go and help Niles. Go!” Adrian shouted.
The wind howled deep as it swam through the treetops. The snow blew in harsh, icy sheets, slicing them to the bone. The storm was upon them in more ways than one.
“Trust me.” Adrian pushed Wes away. “Just fucking trust me to do the right thing on my own. I am coming back to you.”
“And what if you come back to me as a ghost, Adrian?” Wes pushed back. His phone lit up in the mesh pocket of his coat.
“Answer it. Tell them where to find you.”
“It’s Sutton,” Wes snarled. “I’m not going to him.”
“Sometimes teams have to split up to make the unit flow as one,” Adrian recounted. “We all have a job to, so let me do mine.”
It was hard enough knowing he would have to bear this task alone, without the safety of Wes beside him, but in his heart Adrian knew this was the way it had to be. He had to focus and Wes was a distraction better suited to keep those young detectives and their captives alive. Wes let the call go to voicemail anyway and got in Adrian’s face like the stubborn man he was.
“You end up dead and I will dig a hole to hell with my own two hands to find you. Do you hear me, Donohue?” He grabbed Adrian by the ears and tugged him close. “You fucking hear me?”
As the gunfire became louder, closer, Adrian gripped the back of Wes’s neck and kissed him. “I hear you loud and clear, you son of a bitch. Now go.”
Wes’s phone went off again. Adrian smelled bodies on the wind, both dead and alive. His men in the woods began to shout their alarm and the explosion of bullets from the other side of the rock formation shook them both. “Go!”
Wes put his phone to his ear. His eyes watered, but he turned around and ran, taking Adrian’s heart with him.
“I don’t know what you got me into, Annie, but I swear to all that is holy if he dies I will kill you all over again,” Adrian cursed the air around him.
He pulled his gun from the holster, checked the magazine and headed for the trail of glowing veins that led deeper into the woods. “Alright, I’m here. You got what you wanted. Now show yourselves!”
Amidst the echoing fight, Adrian heard the first snap and crackle from the ground. “Hello? Annie?”
An animalistic rumble poured through the woods. The snow fluffed as if something was making its way through from below. Over and over, all around him, the creaks and groans sounded.
“What the fuck?” Adrian pointed his gun at a skeletal paw, complete with dagger sharp claws emerging from the snow. A bony hand with bits of tendon pushed between the roots of a tree. He spun around. On his other side, the ivory cap of a skull breached the earth and he nearly screamed. “Zombies,” he breathed. “Motherfucking Annie!”
Not one to fear much of anything, Adrian was currently scared shitless. All around him, bodies in different stages of decay, human and animal, began to rise from the dead. And he understood this was why Miriam hadn’t used dark magic unless she was desperate, because the scene before him was straight out of a horror movie. He couldn’t count how many of them twisted and looked at him, walked to him with uneasy steps, limbs clapping through the snow in a twitchy, uncoordinated way. He backed into a tree until he had nowhere to run, and as they were already dead, his gun was pointless.
They growled and groaned, and formed a circle around him. Missing eyes and limbs, complete skeletons, and some had flesh dangling from their mouths or chests. Coyotes with entrails lagging behind and bears with only a patch of hair left on their bloody muscles—every monster from every story ever written looked to him now for guidance.
Or they were going to kill him; that was also a distinct possibility.
A tall skeleton pushed through the others and snapped his jaw at Adrian. Fissures in its bones blazed with the red of Adrian’s blood. And as Adrian looked around at the rest of them, they too carried his spirit inside them.
“Why do you wake us?” the skeleton asked with a breathy voice; the sound of a nightmare coming to life.
“I… I need help. She made me do it,” Adrian argued.
“Help how, Hunter?” Another body, smaller than the first, clicked its bony fingers together.
Adrian sucked in air and maneuvered out its reach. “I need to fight them. I need to find someone before he gets away.”
“Too many things.” the first shook his head and the others growled in agreement. “Pay us more for our troubles.”
Adrian shied away from a bony hand that touched his hood. “Pay you how—with blood?”
“Blood,” the word reverberated through the crowd.
Unlike the ethereal spirits Adrian usually encountered, these were physical bodies with only remnants of their souls left behind to anchor them to this world. They needed power to be controlled, to come to life—power he had in the form of blood he again gave from his hand with his trusty dagger. He shook his hand before the wound began to heal, spattering the snow with scarlet rivulets.
“There. Is that what you want?”
“Yes,” they echoed. “Blood.”
He watched them relish the current of radiant liquid that spun through the throng, filling what was left of their repulsive bodies. A collective murmur of delight swirled around him like wind through a pile of leaves, licking the inside of his ears with the scratchy sound until he wanted to crawl out of his skin.
“Enough,” he murmured. His eyes closed because he needed to clear his irises of this dream for a minute. Their whispers simply grew louder, more haunting and greedy. He was afraid to move, to speak, and more than anything else he was scared to open his eyes in case they were inches from him.
“Demand what you will, fleshy one. We have had our fill.” A hard, sharp fingertip grazed down the slope of Adrian’s nose.
He opened his eyes to find them just as he’d left them, and thankfully they’d allowed him a few feet of personal space. Didn’t stop him from rubbing away the awful sensation along his nose.
“Continue to dawdle and more of your friends will meet their end.” The tall skeleton raised one bony finger to the north. “They drop like flies to the snow, where they will wither and freeze. Eyes unseeing the dark sky above. A fate we all have shared as Mother Nature intended. Although it seems you wish to change her course today. A risky gift you exercise, fleshy one.”
The skeleton’s hollow chortle would forever grace Adrian’s dreams. He couldn’t afford to be afraid right now. It wasn’t a part of who he was, nor would his fears aid him in getting Halverson’s head on a stick to bring back to the Bureau.
“I’m in control,” he said. For whose benefit, he wasn’t sure, but he had to get it off his chest.
“It would appear so, yes.” Another head cocked in his direction with a sickening crunch. The voice this time was female, like an old woman with a smoky scratch at the back of her throat. “You have paid you’re price, now use your gift so that we may rest again. Show us your desire.” She extended her hand. A scrap of dirty, intricate lace clung to her wrist, a cuff of a distinguished dress that once made her beautiful.
Adrian lifted his hand from his side, all the while keeping an eye on her splayed, grayish fingers. His glove was full, fleshed out in contrast to the hard, thin bones that settled in his palm. She curled her fingers around his with a surprisingly strong grip, immediately drawing his gaze to the eyeless sockets in her skull.
Adrian closed his eyes and told his new army what he desired.
Wes hauled the human captive up by the shoulders, dragging him off his knees from where he’d fallen over a tree root. A bullet grazed a mighty oak’s trunk above their heads. Halverson’s men were hot on their tails.
Wes cursed the kid for being one of the unfortunate few Camille hadn’t turned before she bit the dust. The rest of the human’s crew was holding their own in the trees, which helped them out. But still, this kid was the most uncoordinated being he’d ever encountered. Then again, Wes’s job was to protect the innocent, the sort of innocent, and everywhere in between—which meant he had to get this kid out of here or it would eat him alive for however long he had left to live.
From out of nowhere, the German stepped away from a tree and shot into the darkened woods. The deafening pop of each bullet lit up the shadows for a nanosecond, and the reward was the repeated thud of several bodies hitting the snow somewhere behind them. “Found Niles,” the German murmured as he helped Wes up with one hand and kept his gun hand pointed to the south. “Three of our men are down. He had to keep the others going. There are too many out here.”
Wes noted the tinge of rage and sadness in the German’s voice. Those were his brothers, his friends, and the ones he’d trained with. They were bonded in a way that had nothing to do with mating and everything to do with tragic circumstances. Wes showed his respect for their loss by clasping the German’s hand and relaying a sharp nod as he stood. “Where?”
“They were ambushed on the way here and had to take cover near the creek. They found something. Come on, we have cover.”
Recovering his captive to awareness was hard, but had to be done. He held the poor kid around the middle and made him keep walking. The scent of blood and urine, the tremble of the kid’s shoulders as he shook with fear nearly stopped Wes in his tracks. Ever the good soldier, Wes forged on and sheltered the human under his arm.
He was aware of their men in the treetops now. Their smells familiar from the journey out here, and thankfully they had night vision to give them a lead over their new enemy. None of that mattered when the woods suddenly quieted and not even the wind made a sound. There was a quick rustle of leaves. Then something heavy dropped to the ground with a loud crunch.
The bloodcurdling scream of a man in pure agony lit up the night.
The German looked to Wes. Wes looked to his captive. They all looked behind them.
Wes’s heart leapt. Adrian…
“Run,” Wes whispered. Like someone had injected adrenaline into his chest, his heart kicked into overdrive. His night vision goggles became his only hope of making it out alive as he basically dragged his captive through the trees behind the German. Something bad was coming. Every fiber of his being knew it. His bond with Adrian was alive and busting at the seams.
Run. Run. Run. He heard Adrian clog his ears, his heart.
“What’s happening?” The kid screeched when another scream was sucked into the snowy silence. The sound of bones being feasted on reached them in a timely manner. They pumped their thighs at a dead run with no sure destination unless the German knew exactly where he was going under pressure.
“Hell if I know!” Wes threw the kid over a fallen tree and pressed his hands to the bark to swing his legs to the other side. “Get the fuck up! Move it,” he barked.
“Oh my god,” the kid screamed. His eyes were nothing but huge white orbs to the goggles. Wes wasn’t about to turn around. No fucking way. “It’s a… It’s a…”
“Get off your ass and run if you want to live, you moron!” Wes felt the kids shoulder pop as he pulled on his arm. He’d worry about setting it right later.
“There’s something out here,” Captain Obvious shouted from the German’s mouth. “Smells like…”
“Death?” Wes threw the kid over his shoulder and booked it. Over their heads, their boys were tree jumping like flying monkeys to keep up. Fate be with them, Wes thought just as the very same men opened fire on whatever was chasing them.
It was like a herd of wild animals tearing through the trees. Pounding the forest floor as if the snow was no obstacle and their feet were the size of a titan’s. The snap of teeth and the pop of bones were demonic, as was the scent of fresh death that rode the air like a tsunami ready to flatten the entire property. Wes was seized with panic for his mate. He knew this was the reason Adrian left. Whatever followed them was Adrian’s doing and there was no going back.
Wes had to trust his mate like he’d promised. He had to endure this. He had to be strong for both of them because if this was scary, whatever Adrian was going through had to be ten times worse.
Their light at the end of the tunnel came in the form of the male spirit with his gun. He appeared like a soft glow in the night vision and waved his hand. Wes coughed his relief. He grabbed the German’s coat sleeve and tugged. “This way.”
“Shut up and follow me.” Wes huffed and hoisted the kid back up on his shoulder to run faster.
In the near distance, a flashlight penetrated the dark, followed by another. As none of their men were dumb enough to do such a thing, Wes knew the enemy had found Niles’ hiding spot and was preparing to attack. He made a mental list of things to do before he even thought of setting the kid down to reach for his gun. They didn’t have much time to prepare with the demons gaining speed behind them, but Wes had his gut to follow.
No sooner had he looked at the German to make sure he understood when one of the flashlights was snuffed out and another scream wailed.
One of the men pointed a flashlight at his fallen comrade, only to spotlight the skeletal form of some kind of animal ripping the man’s body apart with his teeth and claws. A decaying corpse rose from his crouch and leapt onto the man holding the flashlight.
“Mother of God,” the German breathed.
Adrian, what have you done? Wes’s heartbeat filled his ears. He was only reminded to breathe when the kid on his shoulder yelped and kicked at something brushing by them. Not something, but rather a bunch of someone’s.
A strange sense of relief poured over Wes as the creatures of the undead filed past them as if they were nothing but another cluster of trees in the forest. The dead descended on the enemy; ants to sugar left out like a treat.
“There,” the German choked and pointed to the side of what looked to be another cabin. A large number 16 was printed across the door. “That’s it.”
Wes held the kid to him hard. He watched the male spirit look at him and then poof through the cabin door. The German was right. This is where they were supposed to be.
They slowly weaved through the zombie army, careful not to look them in the eye or touch them for longer than necessary. Putting hands on the cabin door was like finishing a marathon; every one of them was out of breath and gasping for air. What was left of their men dropped from the treetops with the other captives. All of them wore the same haunted look as Wes and his small crew of refugees.
Wes pushed at the door, at first thinking it was locked, but the harder he pushed the more he realized something was blocking the door. With the help of two others, men who ignored the feast going on around them, they finally got the door open enough to shimmy through.
A twin bed was flipped over to bar their entry. However, in the corner where the bed had been was a hatch with a circular pull in the floor. A slash of glowing liquid had been streaked across it.
“Thank fuck, Niles,” Wes said. “Everyone get inside and help me push the bed back against the door.”
The kid clung to Wes. “What about Adrian?”
“He’ll be okay.” Wes kept a straight face. Inside he was dying to know if that was true.
“A bed won’t hold those things,” the German argued.
“It will give us time. Now do it.”
Their crew firmly inside the small cabin’s confines, they pushed the bed back against the door easily and then surrounded the hatch. “They know we’re here now, no point in tiptoeing around.” Wes turned on his scope light and aimed it at the hatch. “Open it.”
The German gave the pull a good yank. The hatch creaked open on rusted hinges. Wes’s scope illuminated a rickety staircase in brilliant white light. Dust clouds puffed into the stale air and cobwebs fluttered with a cold breeze from below. The German patted his gloved hand around to make sure the stairs were sturdy and to see if there walls on either side.
“Footprints going down. Concrete walls. I’d say this is a tunnel judging by the cold air coming through.”
“To where is the question.” Wes put his feet on the first step.
The human hugged himself tight. “Anywhere but here.”
“Good point.” Wes aimed his rifle and descended the stairs. His feet hit solid ground a minute later. His light spotted a point on the wall that got tugged at his memory. In white block lettering, faded to the point it was almost illegible were a list of directions.
Service entrance. Lodge. Pantry.
“Jin said the Gleins had a permit denied for work at the lodge due to the service quarters being historic. These are the service quarters that gave servants access to the cabins from the lodge, I’m betting. So then what the hell did the Gleins have planned for down here? Because I’m guessing it wasn’t a sauna.” Wes swept the area with light, and soon the others helped him out. Door after door lined both sides of the hall until their scope lights were unable to pierce the area beyond.
Wes was the first to open a door. He put a hand to his mouth and fought not to gag at the smell. A bloody mattress and a metal toilet were all that filled the room. He rushed to the next door to find the same scene.
The team tore open door after door, getting an eyeful of Camille’s extended criminal activities. “Not only did the Gleins know. They were aiding in the operation in more ways than one.” Wes growled low in his throat. He stormed down the hall, sniffing out the scent of anything alive. While his mate took care of business topside, Wes was going to find Halverson and tear his heart out. And whatever was left of the Gleins, he was going to burn with the fire of ten thousand suns.
Drawn to Wes’s determination, the male spirit shifted away from the dark and led the way.To be continued…