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Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER TWO)

THE HOLDING CELL at the Suffolk County Sheriff's Department reeked of mildew and urine and the pungent stench of human sweat, anxiety, and disease. Sterling Chase's acute senses recoiled as he cast a hooded glance at the trio of lowlifes currently handcuffed and parked along with him in the holding tank inside the Boston jail. Across the six-by-eight windowless room, the meth- head seated on the bench opposite him bounced his boot heels nervously on the scuffed white linoleum floor. His arms were restrained behind him, thin shoulders hunched forward under the wrinkled folds of a lumberjack-plaid flannel shirt. The junkie's dark-ringed eyes were sunk deep into the hollowed sockets of his strung-out face, his gaze darting back and forth, wall to wall, ceiling to floor, and back again. Yet all the while he was careful to avoid looking directly at Chase, like a trapped and terrified rodent with the instinctive understanding that a dangerous predator was nearby.

On the other end of the long bench, a balding middle-age man sat as still as stone, sweating profusely, a pitifully sparse comb-over drooping onto his greasy forehead as he quietly murmured under his breath. He was praying in a barely audible whisper that Chase heard word for word, a plea to his God for absolution of his sins and bargaining for mercy with the fervor of a man facing the gallows. Not an hour earlier, this same man had been wailing about his innocence, swearing to the cops who'd arrested him that he had no idea how hundreds of pictures of him posed with naked children had ended up on his computer. Chase could hardly stand to breathe the same air as the pedophile, let alone look at him.

But it was the third man in the holding tank, the heavy-browed bruiser who'd arrived ten minutes ago, fresh off an arrest for domestic battery, that had Chase's molars clamped together as tight as a vise. Loose jeans sagged under the pregnant swell of a beer gut cloaked in a Patriots sweatshirt from a few Super Bowls past. The gray shirt was torn at the shoulder seam, its red- white-and-blue logo on the front stained with the smeared remnants of a pot roast and mashed potatoes meal. Judging from the knot riding the bridge of the guy's busted-up nose and the bleeding fingernail tracks skating down the left side of his face, it looked like his female victim hadn't gone down without a fight. Chase's nostrils flared, throat tickled, as his eyes rooted on the four long, bloodied gashes raking the human's cheek.

"Bitch fuckin' broke my nose," Man of the Year complained as he leaned back against the white-glazed brick wall of the holding cell. "You believe that shit? I give her a little smack for dropping my dinner in my lap, tell her to watch where the fuck she's goin', for crissake, and she hauls off and cold-cocks me. Big mistake." He grunted, mouth curling in a sneer. "She won't be stupid enough to try a stunt like that again, though. And the friggin' cops, man! Shoulda known they'd take that bitch's word over mine. Just like last time. I'm supposed ta let a judge wave a piece of paper at me sayin' I gotta stay away from my own wife? I gotta stay outta my own damn house? Fuck that. And fuck her too. I've sent her to the hospital more 'an once. Next time I see her, I'm gonna fix that bitch so good, she'll never be able to sic the cops on me again." Chase said nothing, merely listening in silence and trying not to fixate too intensely on the bright red rivulets that were making a liquid slide down onto the wife-beater's jaw. The sight and scent of fresh blood was enough to wake the predator in any member of the Breed, but all the worse for Chase.

Head tipped down toward his chest, he drew in a shallow breath and caught a whiff of something even more disturbing beneath the stale foulness of the room and the coppery tang of coagulating red cells – something raw and feral, verging on rabid.

Him.

The realization made his mouth quirk, but it was hard to appreciate the irony when his gums were throbbing with the need to feed.

Thanks to the fierce thirst that had been his constant companion for longer than he cared to admit, his sensory inputs were locked in overdrive. He felt every minute shift in the air around him. Saw every twitch and tic in the movements of his restless cellmates. He heard every anxious breath taken and expelled, every rhythmic heartbeat, every rush of blood pulsing through the veins of all three humans, who were little more than arm's reach from him inside the room. His mouth watered feverishly at the thought. Behind his flattened upper lip, the points of his fangs pressed like twin daggers into the cushion of his tongue. His vision started to tighten, burning amber as his pupils narrowed to thin slits under his closed lids.

Fuck. This was a bad place for him to be, especially in his condition.

Bad place, bad idea. Bad damned odds of walking away from this whole situation in any way, shape, or form.

Not that he'd given a shit about bad ideas and doomed outcomes when he'd offered himself up to the police on the front lawn of the Order's estate earlier that day. His only concern had been protecting his friends. Giving them the opportunity – very likely their only prayer of a chance – to avoid discovery by human law enforcement and, he hoped, find a way to clear out of the compound and get to someplace safe.

And so he hadn't resisted when the cops clamped handcuffs on him and hauled him into the station. He'd cooperated during the seven hours of interrogation, doling out just enough information to the local boys and the feds to satisfy their endless questioning and keep them focused solely on him as the kingpin and mastermind of the violence that had taken place in the city over the last couple of days. Violence that had begun a few nights ago with a holiday party shooting at an up-and-coming young politician's swank North Shore home.

The botched assassination attempt had been Chase's doing, but the intended target wasn't the golden-boy senator or even his highprofile guest of honor, the United States vice president, as the cops and federal agents were inclined to believe. Chase had been gunning for a vampire named Dragos that night. The Order had been hunting Dragos for more than a year, and suddenly Chase had found the bastard rubbing elbows with influential, well-connected humans, passing himself off as one of them. To what end, Chase could only imagine, and none of it was good. Which is why, when he saw the opportunity to act, he didn't hesitate to pull the trigger on the son of a bitch. But he'd failed. Not only had Dragos apparently walked away from the assault, but Chase found himself the focus of every media outlet in the country in the hours that followed. He'd been spotted at the senator's party, and the eyewitness had given law enforcement a nearly photographic description of him.

Couple that with a bombing the next day at Boston's United Nations and a police pursuit of the suspects – a carload of heavily armed backwoods malcontents who led the cops right to the Order's front door – and Boston's finest were sure they had uncovered a major domestic terrorist cell.

A misconception Chase was happy to indulge, at least for the time being.

He'd spent the daylight hours inside the station, content to let the cops believe he was cooperative and under their control. The longer he sat there, pretending that the blame for all that had gone down lately rested squarely on him, telling them all the things they wanted to hear, the less impatient law enforcement was to stake out the mansion or raid the place. He'd done all he could to deflect attention from his friends at the compound. If they hadn't used the time wisely and evacuated by now, there wasn't much he could do to fix that.

As for him, he had to get moving too.

He had payback to deliver on Dragos – payback and then some. The bastard had stepped up his game in the past few weeks, and after this latest strike, which had nearly exposed the Order to humankind, Chase dreaded to think what Dragos might be willing to do next. For what wasn't the first time, Chase considered the senator Dragos had been currying favor from lately. The man was in danger purely by association, if Dragos hadn't already recruited him into service since Chase had last seen him.

And if Dragos had turned a United States senator into one of his Minions – particularly a senator with Robert Clarence's personal access to the White House via his friendship with his university mentor, the vice president? The ramifications were unthinkable. The fallout from a move like that would be irreparable.

All the more reason to get the hell out of this place ASAP. He had to make sure Senator Robert Clarence wasn't already under Dragos's control. Better still, he had to find Dragos. He had to take him out once and for all, even if he had to do it single-handed.

The metal handcuffs at his back couldn't hold him any longer than he allowed. Neither could this locked room, nor any of the cops who'd strayed by the hallway and paused to glower in at him through the small glass pane in the holding cell's door.

Night had fallen. Chase knew that without the benefit of a clock on the bare walls or a window looking onto the city street outside the building. He could feel it in his bones, all the way to his weak and starving marrow. And with the night came the reminder of his hunger, the wild thirst that owned him now.

He shoved it down deep inside him and rallied his thoughts around his unfinished business with Dragos.

Hard to do when Man of the Year and his oozing cat scratches were making a slow swagger toward Chase's seat in the corner of the small room.

"Fuckin' cops, eh? Think they can leave us sitting in here without food or water, shackle us up together like a bunch of animals." He scoffed and planted his ass down next to Chase on the bench. "What'd they bust you for?"

Chase didn't answer. It took enough effort just to contain the low growl that was curling up from the back of his parched throat. He kept his head down, eyes averted so the human wouldn't catch the hungered glow radiating out of them.

"Whatta ya, too good to make conversation or sumthin'?"

He felt the guy sizing him up, checking out the sweats and T-shirt Chase had been wearing when the cops brought him in – the same clothes he'd had on in the compound's subterranean infirmary in the moments before he'd broken loose and ran topside in the effort to spare his friends. He'd been barefoot then too, but now he sported a pair of black plastic shower shoes, courtesy of the Suffolk County jail.

Even with his short blond hair raked down over his brow, his gaze averted, Chase could sense the human's eyes fixed on him. "Looks like somebody banged you up pretty good too, sport. Ya leg is bleedin' through ya pants."

So it was. Chase glanced at the small red bloom that was seeping through the gray fabric covering his right thigh. Bad sign, his wounds from the other night still not healing up. He needed blood for that.

"Cops do that to you, or what, man?"

"Or what," Chase muttered, his voice rough like gravel. He slid a low glance at the human and let his upper lip curl back from just the tips of his fangs.

"Motherfu – " The big man's eyes flew wide. "What the fuck!"

He scrambled away from Chase in a clumsy backpedal that had him knocking into the holding cell door just as a pair of uniformed officers were opening it.

"Time to take a walk, fellas," the first cop said. He looked around the room, from the pedophile and the junkie, both oblivious to anything but their own misery, to the bruiser who now had his spine plastered against the opposite wall, jaw slack, sucking in air like he'd just run a marathon. "We got a problem in here?"

Chase lifted his chin only high enough to send a narrow glare at the wheezing human across the room. This time, he kept his lips closed and schooled the amber glow of his irises into a dull glimmer. But the threat was there, and the big, tough wife-beater seemed unwilling to test him. "N-naw," he stammered, and gave a quick shake of his head. "No problem in here, Officer. Everything's cool."

"Good." The cop strode farther into the holding cell while his partner held the door open. "Everybody up. Follow me." He paused in front of Chase and jerked his chin in the direction of the hallway outside. "You first, asshole."

Chase rose from the bench. At six-and-a-half-feet tall, he towered over the officer and the other humans in the cell with him. Although he'd never worked out a minute in his life, thanks to Breed genetics and a metabolism that ran like a high-performance vehicle, the muscular bulk of his body dwarfed the gym-rat cop. As if to assert his authority over Chase, the human drew up his chest and pointed him toward the door, letting his other hand settle on the butt of his holstered pistol.

Chase walked ahead of him, but only because it would be less hassle to make his escape from the hallway than from inside the holding cell.

Behind him, the pedophile's voice was oily, overly polite. "Would it be all right to ask where you're taking us, Officer?"

"This way," the other cop said, directing the group of them past the desk clerk in the hall and toward a length of corridor that stretched out in a long track toward the back of the station. Chase stalked along the worn industrial-grade linoleum, gauging the opportune moment for him to make his break and speed out of the station before any of the humans could realize he was gone. It was a risky move, one certain to leave a hell of a lot of questions in its wake, but unfortunately he didn't see much choice.

As he prepared to take that first step toward freedom, a metal door opened at the far end of the corridor. Cold night air swept in, fine December snowflakes dancing around the tall, slender form of a young woman. She was bundled in a hooded, long wool coat. Waves of caramel- brown hair clung to her chill-reddened cheeks and drooped down toward calm, intelligent eyes. Chase froze, watching as she stomped some of the fresh snow from her glossy leather boots and turned to say something to the police officer who accompanied her into the station.

Holy hell. It was the witness from the senator's party.

The cop escorting her inside caught Chase's gaze and his face went tight. With a scowl at the officers leading the poorly timed perp parade, he steered Senator Clarence's attractive personal assistant into a room off the corridor and out of view.

"Keep moving," said the cop at the rear of the group.

If Chase wanted to reach the senator, he figured there was a good chance Bobby Clarence might be in the police station tonight along with his pretty aide.

Curious enough to find out, Chase reconsidered his plan to bolt. Instead he fell in line and let the cops march him farther down the corridor toward the room where his eyewitness had gone.

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