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Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER FOUR)

SHE DIDN'T LET GO OF HIM, even while her scream tore past her lips. Slender but deceptively strong fingers held on to the metal cuff at his wrist, as though her reflexes were ready for a fight regardless of the fear and panic that vibrated from all around the chaos-stricken room. Tavia Fairchild was tenacious; Chase had to give her that.

She hadn't been afraid of him the night of the senator's party or a few minutes ago, when she'd looked him in the eyes through the one-way glass and condemned him to the cops and feds camped out in the viewing room.

He couldn't blame her for that. She and law enforcement both believed they were doing the right thing, trying to keep a dangerous man – a confessed killer – off the streets. Their human minds could not comprehend the kind of evil Chase and the rest of the Order were up against. Nor did Tavia Fairchild have any idea that her boss was a dead man.

Senator Robert Clarence might look unchanged to mortal eyes, but Chase's Breed senses sniffed out the Minion the instant he walked into the viewing room. The man belonged to Dragos now, obedient to none but his Master. Chase saw the truth of it in the dull glint of the politician's gaze and in the utter lack of concern for himself or any other life in the room. Dragos had sent him to the police station. Chase meant to send the Minion back to the son of a bitch in pieces. He swung his gaze away from Tavia Fairchild and ripped loose from her distracting grasp. "Where is Dragos?" He tightened his fist around the senator's arm and squeezed until he felt bones crack and pop against his palm. "Tell me now."

The Minion only howled in agony.

"Stand down!" shouted one of the cops from behind him in the lineup room. There was a scuffle of foot movement, a blur of motion in the viewing room as federal agents and the officers inside hustled to get Tavia clear of the struggle.

Chase squeezed the senator harder, shattering his forearm in a bruising grip. "I'm gonna find him. And you're gonna tell me where, you goddamn waste of – "

Something sharp slammed into his shoulder from behind. Not a bullet, but the piercing bite of fine twin barbs. Like fishhooks, sunk deep into his flesh. His ears filled with the rapid clickety- clickety staccato report of a Taser being discharged. At the same time, his body was pumped with fifty thousand volts of electricity. The current went through him in a violent jolt. The juice lit him up from scalp to heel, making his muscles scream in protest.

Chase roared, more from fury than pain. The hit was about as debilitating as a bee sting to one of his kind. He took a step forward, one hand still fastened on Senator Clarence, the other swinging around to find a better hold.

"For fuck's sake," someone in the viewing room gasped. "Did anyone check this guy for drugs? What the hell is he on?"

One of the feds in a dark suit had his semiauto out of its holster. "Hit this bastard again!" he commanded. "Take him down, damn it, or I'll make it permanent right here and now!"

Another Taser shot found its mark. The barbs latched on to the center of his spine this time, and he took another round of fifty thousand volts. The double whammy did the job well enough. Chase lost his grip on his prey. The instant Clarence was freed, several cops and feds rushed him and Tavia out of the room.

Chase swung his left arm around to rip away the electrodes that were stuck in the meat of his other shoulder. With the current from the second shot still riding his central nervous system, he charged the broken windowsill and made a clumsy leap onto the cracked metal frame.

The federal agent opened fire. So did one of the uniformed officers in the viewing room beside him.

Bullets chewed into Chase's chest and torso. Round after round, knocking him backward onto his heels. He staggered, looking down at the mess of red that was blooming all over him. Not good. Not fucking good at all, but he was Breed. He could survive it.

And there was still a chance that he could get his hands on Dragos's Minion before the cops whisked him out of the station …

While the fed reloaded his empty weapon, one of the straggler cops in the nearly empty viewing room edged forward, service pistol trained on Chase. "Stay where you are!" The cop was young, and his voice cracked a little, but his aim was steady. "Don't you fucking move, asshole."

Chase was dripping blood like water through a sieve. It pooled around his feet and in the broken glass that littered the floor. He took a step back, reaching inward for the speed and agility that was part of who – and what – he was. But the power wouldn't respond to his call. His body was already compromised from the Bloodlust that had been nipping at his heels for so many months.

And he was losing blood. Too much, too fast.

But he could still smell Dragos's Minion somewhere in the building. He knew the mind slave was still within his reach, and there was another part of him – a tarnished bit of chivalry in him – that bristled at the thought of letting an innocent woman get within ten feet of one of Dragos's soulless servants.

He would see the Minion dead before he'd willingly allow Tavia Fairchild anywhere near that kind of evil.

Chase pivoted around, his fading vision seeking the door that would lead him to the corridor outside. He took a sluggish step, his feet dragging beneath him.

"Ah, shit," muttered one of the anxious cops.

A gun clicked hard behind him. The fed's voice again, all business. "One more step, and it's your funeral, asshole."

Chase couldn't have kept his legs from moving if he'd been shackled to an army tank. He walked forward another pace.

The only shot he felt was the first one. The others hammered into him one after the other, until the floor went out from under him. He smelled gunpowder and a burst of spent human adrenaline. And as his legs crumpled, and his body came to a hard rest on the floor of the lineup room, he smelled the dark scent of his own blood pumping onto the field of filthy white linoleum in all directions around him.

THE BREED MALE took his time making the short stroll from his chauffeured limousine standing at the curb and the private club tucked into the back of a narrow Chinatown alley. He took no bodyguards with him, made no cautionary glances into the surrounding gloom of the wintry streets or night-cloaked shadows of the buildings rising up on all sides of him.

Not tonight.

Tonight, he strode into the heart of Boston – into the heart of the Order's domain – without a single care. In place of guards, he'd opted for more amusing, more serviceable, companions. The pair of delectable human females hurried to keep pace with him, their high heels clicking rapidly on the ice-crusted pavement. He didn't know their names, didn't care. They were merely playthings, the leggy redhead and the fresh-faced blonde selected by him a few minutes ago, as he'd noticed the underage young women waiting on line to get into LaNotte, the city's current hot spot.

They trotted along after him, giggling and eager, as he approached the large bulk of a Breed male posted as sentry near the arched vestibule and metal door of the private club. The guard, an Enforcement Agency brute named Taggart who'd done the odd job for him during his tenure in the highest ranks of that impotent organization, glowered as he took up a forbidding stance in front of the door. But then the beady eyes under the heavy brow widened in surprise and recognition.

"Sir," Taggart murmured, offering a bow of his head as he reached for the door, opened it, and stepped aside to permit the trio into the club.

The respect was welcome, as was the feeling of freedom that he wore around his shoulders like a king's mantle as he cut through the crowded room of Breed males and scantily clad human men and women who provided the club's specialized entertainment. On the central stage, a dark- skinned beauty wrapped her naked body around a Lucite pole with the boneless grace of a serpent. At the tables and banquettes below the raised platform of the stage, dozens of Breed males watched in rapt attention. Still others reclined in their booths and private alcoves, enjoying more personalized services from the humans employed by this Agency-run sip-and- strip.

Yet despite the various sex acts and blood-drinking taking place on the floor of the club, there was an air of restraint about the place. Breed law prohibited the killing of humans, and for most members of the Enforcement Agency in particular, that law was inviolable. It was as sacrosanct as the tenet of secrecy, the vow that had allowed the Breed to live alongside mankind – to feed upon them – undetected and unchallenged for centuries.

For some, like him and the other male now making his way through the club to greet him, that shackle had long begun to chafe.

Dragos watched as his lieutenant approached. He was one of a handful of like-minded, loyal members of Dragos's inner circle – a dwindling handful, thanks to a number of fuck-ups and failures along the way that had forced him to cull the weakest members from the herd. But that was behind him now. He was looking ahead, toward victory. It was so near, he could practically taste it on his tongue. "Good evening, Deputy Director Pike."

"Sir." The Enforcement Agent cast a furtive look around him before he met Dragos's gaze. "This is a … well, sir, it's an unexpected pleasure to see you here in the city."

"Then why do you look as though you're about to piss yourself?" Dragos replied, baring his teeth in a brief smile. Usually an unannounced, personal appearance from him meant a head was about to roll. "Relax, Pike. I'm here on pleasure tonight, not business."

"So, nothing is wrong, sir?"

"Not at all," Dragos replied.

His lieutenant still didn't look comfortable. He kept his voice lowered, no doubt afraid of being seen speaking too familiarly with him in such a public place. "But, sir, do you really think it's wise coming into the city like this – or coming here, of all places? It was only last week that the Order sent two of their warriors into this club asking questions about you."

Dragos gave a mild shake of his head. "I'm not concerned about the Order. They have their hands full right now. I saw to that personally today."

Pike stared for a moment. "The rumors are true? The Order's compound was uncovered by the hu – " Looking at Dragos's two mortal companions, Pike abruptly cleared his throat. "They were found out by local police?"

Dragos grinned. "Let's just say Boston's finest had a little help in that area."

The Breed male returned the smile, but his eyes kept straying uncertainly from Dragos to the pair of human females latched on to him from both sides. Dragos shrugged idly at the question in his cautious lieutenant's eyes. "Speak freely, Pike. I fed them so much liquor and cocaine on the way over, they won't remember their names in the morning. If I let them survive that long," he drawled, leering at the young women he could hardly wait to sample.

"Are you saying that the bombing downtown this morning and the police chase of the suspects that followed – "

"That's precisely what I'm saying, Pike." Dragos watched the impressed expression of his lieutenant deepen. "From the orchestration of the explosion by the Minions I recruited to do the job, to the pursuit that led law enforcement right to Lucan Thorne's front door. All of it was my doing."

"I hear one of the warriors is in police custody. Did they really arrest Sterling Chase?" Dragos nodded. The warrior's apparent voluntary surrender was the one detail he hadn't arranged or foreseen in this entire offensive strike against the Order. He still wasn't quite sure what to make of that, but he'd sent his newest Minion servants to look in on the situation at the jail downtown. In fact, he should be hearing from the senator with a full report anytime now. "Word on the street says Chase is nearly Rogue," Pike said. "Doesn't surprise me to hear that, I suppose. After the way he came in here looking for you last week with that other warrior – the reports I saw about how many Agents he injured and the way he fought like a rabid dog –

doesn't sound like he's got far to fall before Bloodlust claims him for good. Hard to believe he's the same Sterling Chase of just a few years ago. Back then, it was accepted fact that he was headed straight for the top ranks of the Agency."

Dragos exhaled a sigh, instantly bored with Agent Pike's pointless meander down memory lane. "Let the son of a bitch go Rogue or die in human custody – I could give a flying fuck. One less warrior to contend with is all that matters to me."

"Of course, sir," Pike responded crisply. "I couldn't agree more."

Dragos dismissed the fawning obeisance with a curt wave. "I need a table, Pike." As he spoke, he reached out to pet the silky blond hair of one of his female companions. Not to neglect the redhead, he turned to her and stroked the long, slender column of her throat. "I'll take that one, near the stage."

It was the best in the house, a large half-moon leather banquette and table, centrally located, with a view both of the dancers onstage and the rest of the club. And it was also currently occupied by no fewer than eight Breed males, most of them of equal or higher rank than Deputy Director Arno Pike.

Although his lieutenant hardly looked comfortable with the command, he jogged off to do Dragos's bidding. There were a few turned heads from the Agents at the table, a couple of affronted stares and disgruntled scowls, but Pike cleared the men out, then hurried back to see Dragos to his seat.

Dragos prowled through the Agency club like he owned it.

Hell, it wouldn't be long before he did, in fact, own this club, the city, and everyone in it – Breed and human alike.

He wouldn't be satisfied until the whole goddamn world was kneeling at his feet. Soon, he assured himself. His plan had been long in the making – several centuries of laying the foundation and setting each building block into its proper place. It was all coming together now, and not even the Order would be able to interfere with his goals.

He slid onto the sumptuous leather seat at his newly acquired table, the pretty redhead on one side of him, the wide-eyed blonde on the other. "Join us, Pike. Everyone here has already seen that your allegiance is to me. Besides, there's no need to pretend anymore. The game has changed as of this morning. Now I make the rules."

As Pike settled in next to the blonde, Dragos turned an appreciative eye on the other woman. The skin of her throat and generously exposed cleavage was as pale as cream, almost translucent. Fine blue veins ticked near her collarbone, tempting his fangs from his gums. The sharp canines swelled in his mouth. He descended on her in a single, punching strike – too swiftly for her to do anything more than gasp as he pierced her carotid and drew a long, hard swallow from the pulsing wound.

After a couple of greedy pulls, he pivoted to sample her friend on the other side of him. He was even less gentle with her, digging his fingers into her arms when she whimpered, trying to squirm out of his hold as he bit her. He could have calmed her with a light trance, a consideration most of his kind offered freely to their blood Hosts. But where was the fun in that? Dragos fed openly from both women, his eyes on Arno Pike, who was fighting like hell to keep the savage part of himself in check amid so much fresh, flowing blood. His eyes glowed as bright as embers, pupils narrowed to thin vertical slits. Even though his lips were clamped tightly closed, Dragos knew Pike's mouth would be full with the extended length of his fangs. Dragos laughed. He reached over and grabbed a fistful of the male's Enforcement Agency standard issue black suit and white shirt, hauling him closer. "Why do you deny yourself? What are you afraid of – the Order?" He shook his head. "This is what we've been working toward. This freedom. It is the birthright of all the Breed."

Pike released a gust of air from his lungs. With the exhalation, his lips curled away from his teeth and fangs, baring them on a hungered growl as the scent of fresh blood wreathed the banquette. Pike swiveled his amber gaze onto the blonde, who now drooped in the booth between them, narcotics and blood loss leaving her dazed and unaware of what was happening. "Take her," Dragos told his lieutenant. "She's yours."

With a snarl, Pike swung the woman onto the table and tore her dress open down the front. He fell upon her like an animal, feeding in a public spectacle that drew every pair of Breed eyes in the place.

Dragos watched with voyeuristic pleasure, not only for the unleashed, frenzied lust of his lieutenant but for the avid interest of the other males who slowly closed in from all sides, fangs gleaming, amber stares smoldering, in the relentless pound of the strobe lights ricocheting out from the stage.

How good it felt to know this sense of relaxation, of pure, predatory power. It had been too long since he'd been able to move about in public this freely, without the Order forever breathing down his neck, disrupting him at nearly every turn. He was finished running from Lucan Thorne and his warriors. The blow he delivered to them today should have been signal enough of that. Now it was their turn to go to ground. Their turn to wonder where he might strike next, and how deeply.

Right now, he was in charge.

He owned this moment and everything that would take place within it.

And he wasn't satisfied, not yet.

He sent the redhead up on the table with a command whispered into her ear. She disrobed as he'd instructed her, gyrating in time to the hard bass thumping from the club's sound system and trailing her slender fingers through the twin rivulets of blood that streaked down from the open bite wound in her neck.

The ranks tightened, sharks gathering for the kill. Only a few seconds passed before the first vampire broke from the crowd to leap up onto the table with her.

As he took her throat in his teeth, Dragos nodded his approval. "Drink," he said, then stood to address the crowd. "Take as much as you want, all of you! There are no laws here tonight. No one to stop us from being what we truly are."

With an assenting roar, another male vaulted up onto the table to drink from the redhead's wrist. Then another, fastening his mouth around her other one.

In a far corner of the club, a woman's scream ripped loose then fell abruptly silent as someone else took his fill in the shadows. More and more feedings began, punctuated here and there by the shrieked alarm of the humans who were being savaged by the suddenly ravenous pack of thirsting Breed vampires.

Dragos observed it all with the satisfaction of a barbarian king at home in his arena. The coppery fragrance of spilling human blood rose up from everywhere, turning the club into an orgy of sex and savagery and unchecked madness.

Dragos savored the raw, violent energy vibrating all around him. This was power. This was freedom, at last.

And in this moment – this perfect, terrible moment – not even the Order could take it from him.

Let them learn what he'd done here and seethe that they hadn't been there to stop him. Let them tear apart the Enforcement Agency in a furious quest to find his secret allies. They could dismantle the entire organization for all he cared. His operation would only benefit from any distraction on the Order's part. And soon enough, nothing they did would matter anymore. He would own them, the same way he would own the rest of the peasants of this insignificant, unsuspecting world.

With triumph surging through his veins, Dragos threw his head back and roared like the beast he'd been born to be.

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