On Midnight Wings
1 DARK AND BITTER PEARLS
JACK CHERAMIE’S HOUSE
LUCIEN DE NOIR SAT beside the unconscious girl curled on the bed, box springs creaking beneath him. Mid-afternoon sunlight filtered through the golden, gauzy curtains covering the window, bathing the room in a tranquil glow. An illusion—no, worse, a lie—given the day’s dark, violent, and unimaginable events.
My son has been shot and stolen and the mortal woman he loves, the woman who keeps his slipping sanity balanced, is missing.
Lucien’s deltoid muscles flexed, restless, but he suppressed the urge to unfurl his wings and take to the sky in search of Dante and Heather; he feared that they had been spirited off in two very different directions. And he had no idea where to look, which path to follow, or even who was responsible.
Not yet, anyway.
Lucien focused his attention on Heather Wallace’s drugged sister. A light sheen of sweat glistened on Annie’s forehead. Tears wet the ends of her lashes. And her blood-speckled face looked light-years away from peaceful.
Guessing why wasn’t difficult.
The blood freckling her face and throat was Dante’s. Lucien knew by the scent alone—copper, a hint of adrenaline, a moonlight-silver tang—and had known from the moment he’d scooped her unconscious body up from the sidewalk in front of the club.
She must’ve been standing beside Dante when he’d been shot. Or damned close, anyway. A muscle flexed in Lucien’s jaw. Shot repeatedly and without mercy. Dante’s blood had saturated the Oriental carpet in front of the bedroom he shared with Heather.
So much blood when Dante should’ve healed. Too much blood. And the odd scent clinging to the shell casings Lucien had picked up from the hallway carpet had left him wondering. A troubling scent. Familiar.
Lucien studied Annie’s pale face, pushed sweat-damp tendrils of her punk-style blue/purple/black hair back from her face. She shivered inside her fuzzy purple bathrobe as though it was woven from ice, instead of plush terry cloth.
With a soft chirp, Heather’s orange tabby jumped up onto the bed and sniffed Annie for several moments before curling up beside her. Eerie blinked golden eyes at Lucien, then began licking the undersides of his paws, his tongue scraping delicately across the scorched pads.
Like the cat, Lucien also smelled the drugs on Annie’s skin, in her sweat—a cold, chemical taint. He had no idea what drugs flowed through her veins, or how long she’d remain unconscious, but he had no intention of waiting for her to wake up. Not when answers rested like pearls in her mind. Not when he could play thief.
Too much time had passed already. Hours lost to the police
and their investigation of the shoot-out outside the club and the fire inside; a loss he’d finally cut short with a touch of a blue-sparked finger to the lead detective’s forehead and a whispered suggestion: You’ve already spoken to Dante. He saw nothing. Heard nothing. Knows nothing about the incident here or the fire that claimed his home four nights ago. You will write that down in your notebook.
Blinking, the detective promptly put her pen to paper.
Lucien sighed. A temporary solution at best; the suggestion would eventually fade. But a problem for another time. Closing his eyes, he drew in a long, deep breath—in through his nose, out through his mouth—then another, as he worked on centering himself before delving into Annie’s unshielded mind.
“How she doing?” a Cajun-spiced voice asked from the doorway. “Looks like she ain’t moved an inch since I carried her in from the van.”
Lucien’s calming breath morphed into a low, frustrated exhalation. He opened his eyes. Glanced over his shoulder.
Dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt announcing LAFAYETTE MARQUIS, the interruption—better known as Black Bayou Jack Cheramie, Dante’s band mate in Inferno—leaned one muscled, tribal-inked shoulder against the doorjamb, arms crossed over his chest, a bloodstained washcloth balled-up in one hand. The drummer’s mane of cherry-red braids framed his face, his expression a tight-jawed mix of worried and angry.
“She hasn’t,” Lucien confirmed. He nodded at the washcloth in Jack’s hand. “How are Von and Silver doing? Has the bleeding stopped? Are they healing?”
“Oui, it’s stopped and they’re healing, for true, them. But given that they’re nightkind and all, it took longer than I expected. Thibodaux agrees with me,” Jack added, with a tilt of his head toward the kitchen where the fugitive SB agent sat at the table cleaning his Colt .45. “Said his partner always heals up beaucoup fast. But he also admitted that she ain’t never taken a bullet to the head before neither.”
Lucien thought of the odd scent on the shell casings he’d found in the blood-spattered hall, wondering again just what they had contained. “I don’t think normal rounds were used.”
“Dunno, padnat. They sure as hell look like normal rounds to me. Course there ain’t no telling what kind of load they-all contained.” Jack uncrossed his arms and held out his hand, revealing two skull-dented and compressed bullets cupped in his callused palm. “They just kinda worked their way outta the wounds. Ain’t never seen nightkind heal from bullets before. Weirdest goddamned sight.”
“Let me have the bullets.”
Jack stepped over to the bed and dumped them into Lucien’s waiting palm. A faint tree-sap, amber-like odor wafted from the small bits of mangled brass. Whatever the substance had been, it seemed to be capable of slowing, perhaps even halting, a vampire’s natural ability to heal. Even a True Blood’s.
Remembering what he’d felt when he’d reached for Dante’s mind back at the club—a psionic flatline that had sheeted Lucien’s soul in black ice until he’d finally detected a low, ebbing life force absent of any healing spark—he once again felt the urgent desire to unsheathe his wings and vault into the sky.
He needed to find Dante before it was too late. Before destiny twisted in on itself and became fate.
“Tee-Tee? Heather?” Jack asked. “You think they were in the back of that van those assholes were trying to put Annie into?”
Tee-Tee. Jack and the other mortal members of Inferno had tagged their nightkind frontman with the affectionate nickname because, at five-nine, Dante was shorter than the rest of the band. Petit. Little one. Tee-Tee. And with Dante also the youngest, at nearly twenty-four, the name pulled double duty.
Young in years, perhaps, but not in hard and brutal experience. Dante was the last surviving member of a secret, decades-long project co-run by the FBI and the Shadow Branch—a government black ops division that answered to no one and
didn’t officially exist. Project Bad Seed had been devoted to the development and study of sociopaths. But in truth the goal had been to create, then control them.
And being the only nonhuman subject in the project, Dante had garnered special attention. Had been shoved with cool deliberation beyond boundaries no human subject would’ve survived. Just to see if he could.
Dante had been placed in the worst foster homes available, shuffled around constantly; everything and everyone he’d ever cared about or loved had been systematically stripped from him. Human monsters had fragmented and buried his memories, implanted deadly programming.
The muscle ticked in Lucien’s jaw again. He’d flown away from New Orleans on a sultry July night unaware that he wouldn’t return for eighteen years, unaware that Genevieve, his dark-haired belle femme, was pregnant, unaware that she would soon fall into cold and curious hands, or that their son—born vampire and Fallen—would be birthed into an experiment of unthinkable design.
Dante had escaped, his heart and mind scarred and damaged, haunted by things he couldn’t even remember. Yet he led his household and Inferno with skill and focus, with quiet strength, fierce devotion, and stubborn will.
And I have failed at every turn to keep him safe.
“Lucien?” Jack’s concerned voice scattered Lucien’s dark thoughts, returning him to the bedroom and the unconscious girl he sat beside. “You okay, you?”
Lucien frowned. “Fine. Why do you ask?”
“No reason, really—other than the fact that you’re getting blood all over the floor,” Jack replied, tapping a finger against the back of his own hand, and pointedly arching one dark blond eyebrow.
Lucien’s frown deepened when he looked down and saw drops of blood speckling the oak planks. He became aware of a distant, prickling pain. Exhaling in exasperation, he
unclenched his hands, pulling his thick black talons free of his blood-slicked palms.
“Well. Perhaps fine isn’t completely accurate,” Lucien amended.
“King of the understatement. Here, you. Catch.”
Glancing up, Lucien snagged the bloodstained washcloth Jack tossed at him, then busied himself wiping his palms and talons semiclean. The punctures were already healing, the pain nearly gone. His unbound waist-length hair brushed against his back and sides with the movement, soft as silk against his bare skin. He’d left his shirt behind on the club’s roof when he’d taken to the sky—not caring in the slightest that it had still been daylight or that he might be seen.
Tossing the washcloth back to Jack, Lucien curved his lips into what he hoped was a reassuring smile, but when Jack’s dubious expression remained stubbornly in place, he decided to shift the drummer’s attention elsewhere. “You were asking if I thought Heather and Dante might’ve been inside the van, correct?”
“Heather might’ve been, yes,” Lucien said, “but Dante . . . ?” He shook his head. “I saw a few things at the club that lead me to believe that whoever took him wrapped him up to protect him from the sun, then carried him out through the courtyard.”
“Shit. You thinking two different vehicles heading off in two different directions?”
“That I am.”
“Shit,” Jack repeated. He skimmed a hand along the buzz-cut dark blond hair beneath his mane of braids, his hazel eyes fixed on his scuffed brown Durangos. “I shoulda been there,” he said, voice bleak.
“And done what? Die?” Lucien’s flat voice brought Jack’s gaze up and lit a fire behind it. “If you had been at the club, you’d be dead now, a bullet buried deep in your brain—your mortal, unhealing brain.”
“Me, I don’t think you’re giving me enough credit here,” Jack replied, his Cajun accent thickening. “It mighta gone down a whole ’nother way, for true.”
Lucien arched one dubious eyebrow. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re a drummer, one who learned to shoot growing up in the bayou, and not some trained-to-kill Navy SEAL who can turn even pocket lint into a lethal weapon. You’re not a bodyguard, not a soldier, not even a rent-a-cop. Just a drummer with a gun.” At Jack’s less than enthusiastic grunt of agreement, he added, “And if you’d been inside the club, a dead drummer with a gun.”
“No need to be an asshole, you,” Jack growled. “But point taken. So what’s next? Do we wait until sunset to see if Dante contacts you or Von”—he tapped a finger against his temple to indicate how he expected the contact to be made—“and see if he knows where he is? Or who took him?”
“I’d prefer not to wait that long,” Lucien rumbled. He shifted his attention back to Annie. “With the help of Heather’s sister, we might not have to. Perhaps she heard something—a destination, a name—that could put us on the right path.”
“But Annie ain’t awake yet.”
“She doesn’t need to be. Like most mortals, her mind is unshielded and open. All I need do is to go inside.” As Jack’s brows drew down in a worried V, Lucien added soothingly, “She won’t feel a thing.” Which was true, but even if it hadn’t been, he still wouldn’t have hesitated, not with Dante’s life on the line.
No risk, no sacrifice would ever be too great.
Not just because Dante was his son—even though that was more than reason enough—but because Dante was also a creawdwr. The only one in existence and the first to walk the world since Yahweh’s death more than two thousand years ago, not to mention his being the first mixed-blood Maker ever. Capable of creating—Making—places, beings, life itself. And equally capable of Unmaking it all, as well.
Untrained, unbound, except for his bond to Heather,
Dante strode the same edge of madness that each creawdwr before him had walked—a precipice crumbling beneath his boots—fighting the damage done to him by Bad Seed, fighting for his sanity, for the right to claim his life as his own, to piece together his shattered past.
If Dante fell into darkness and chaos, all worlds—mortal, vampire, and Fallen—would fall with him. And if Dante died . . .
Lucien shoved the thought aside, refusing it.
Centering himself with another deep breath, he rested his fingertips against Annie’s temple, then closed his eyes. He slipped inside her mind. Absently, he shielded himself from the raw emotions swirling through her subconscious, a whirlpool of self-loathing, grief, guilt, and fury. He eased past her nonsensical narcotic dreams and delved into her memories. Looked through her eyes.
Images flashed and twirled, a mirror-bright disco ball of out-of-sequence fragments and splinters, a glittering puzzle-play of light, shadow, and betrayal.
Fragment: Desperate relief pours through Annie. Dante is somehow awake. He leans drunkenly against the threshold to his and Heather’s room, naked except for the bondage collar strapped around his throat, his pale hands clutching either side of the doorjamb for balance. It seems as though he’s already slipping back into Sleep, but beneath his milk-white skin, his muscles are taut, corded, rippling . . .
Splinter: “It’s not Dante I want. I’ve come for you, pumpkin.”
Fragment: Two members of the black-uniformed posse carry Heather out from behind the bar on a stretcher. Flex-cuffs bind her wrists and tendrils of red hair trail across her face. Out cold. Tranked . . .
Splinter: “Shoot the others. Burn it down.”
Splinter: “He won’t be getting up again, not with those bullets inside of him.”
Fragment: He presses the muzzle of his gun against Dante’s
blood-slicked chest, above his heart, and squeezes off two more rounds. Then he places the gun against Dante’s temple.
Once Lucien had prized each dark and bitter pearl of knowledge about that morning’s events from Annie’s mind—including a secret that made him glance at her robe-covered belly—he withdrew. A cold and furious anger thrummed through his veins. An acrid taste burned at the back of his throat. Words he’d once said to Dante came back to mock him.
The truth is never what you hope it will be.
Raking a hand through his hair, Lucien looked up and alarm flickered across Jack’s face at whatever he saw in his eyes.
“What?” Jack asked, straightening out of his slouch, his voice knotted with dread.
“It was Heather and Annie’s father—FBI agent James Wallace—and he didn’t take Dante. He shot him”—Lucien’s voice roughened as he visualized the trench-coated man standing over his son’s motionless and bloodied form, gun in hand, an image acid etched into his mind—“then left him to burn with the others.”