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Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Fifteen)

Sick with the thought, furious with regret, Corinne held tightly to Hunter's hand as he hauled her through the crowd toward the darkened rear of the establishment.

They burst out the back door of the place, Hunter's sole objective to get Corinne Bishop to safety. As the steel door swung open onto the rear alleyway, a pair of Breed males wearing Enforcement Agency suits scrambled to attention at their post outside. Too late.

Hunter had them sized up and dismissed as insignificant obstacles even before the first one had a chance to reach for the firearm holstered at his side. Releasing Corinne's hand, Hunter grabbed the head of the male in front and gave it a violent twist. The spinal column cracked like muffled gunfire as the body dropped lifelessly to the ground.

The second guard went down just as swiftly.

Hunter glanced back at Corinne, who stood behind him, stricken into silence. "Come," he said. "We don't have much time."

Hunter pulled his cell phone from his pants pocket as they raced along a maze of narrow back alleys. He called Boston and relayed to Gideon what was happening.

"Shit," the warrior muttered on the other end. "If Dragos is worried enough to send assassins down to New Orleans, I guess it's safe to assume that the connection between Dragos and Vachon is a valid one."

"Which means the connection between Bishop and Dragos remains as well," Hunter replied as he navigated past a voodoo shop selling chicken's feet and other animal parts down one particularly strange alley. "That's an issue I will take up with Bishop later."

Gideon blew out a sharp exhalation. "No need, my man. Victor Bishop was killed this afternoon in his Darkhaven. The report filed with the Agency in Detroit stated that he'd attacked his Breedmate and might have done much worse if he hadn't been stopped by one of his security staff at the estate."

"Who killed him?"

"Guy named Mason, according to the reports."

Hunter grunted in acknowledgment, recalling the protective manner of the Darkhaven guard who'd been at the gates when he and Corinne arrived. He glanced at her now and saw the look of understanding creep over her pale features as she struggled to keep up with his long strides. At least Victor Bishop had wounded her for the last time. Some irrational part of him wished it had been his hands that ended the duplicitous bastard for all he'd done to her. "We need someplace to go," he told Gideon.

"You're not at the hotel?"

"No. The maps and my weapons were left in the room."

"Well, consider them gone. You can't go back there now, my man. Too damned risky."

An obvious conclusion, Hunter thought. If Dragos's men had been sweeping the city for some sign of them, he had to assume they would also be checking area hotels.

"Listen," Gideon said. "You just lost the advantage of surprise with Vachon. Lucan's here with me now and he agrees. Taking this mission on solo right now is too risky. Plus, you've got the female to think about. Lucan says it's time to abort. Head back to the plane. I'm gonna see about getting you the hell out of there right now."

Hunter felt an argument rising to the tip of his tongue. It tasted odd to him, he, who'd been raised to follow commands, to never question his orders. But part of him wanted to see this out – wanted to see Henry Vachon and Dragos both punished for what had been done to Corinne and the others. It grated to think this lead would go cold simply because he'd forfeited one tactical advantage.

Before he could make that point to his brethren in Boston, Gideon came back on the line.

"I just spoke to the pilots. They'll be gassed up and waiting for you to arrive. How far are you from the airport?"

Hunter navigated out of their current alleyway and found a street he recognized that would lead to one of the main thoroughfares through the French Quarter. "We're on foot now, but twenty minutes at the most by vehicle."

"Get there," Gideon said. "Call in once you're airborne. Then we'll find someplace for you both to lay low until the shit settles down up here. We can't afford to take any more hits to our ranks. Bad enough we're down one man already."

"Down one?" The remark caught him unaware. Something cold and tight clutched in his belly at the thought of losing one of his fellow warriors. "Has there been a death in the field?"

"Shit, you haven't heard. It's Harvard. He's gone – walked out the night before you left for Detroit and hasn't been seen or heard from since. Dante and Kade found his cell phone down by the river in Southie. Hate to say it, but it looks like Chase stepped off the ledge and has no intention of coming back." Gideon went quiet, contemplative for a moment. "You asked if there's been a death in the Order? I'll tell you what, that's exactly how it feels around here right now. About the only thing that'll feel worse is when, somewhere down the line, someone reports in from patrol that they've smoked a Rogue and it turns out to be Harvard."

"I hope that night will not come," Hunter said, struck by how deeply he meant it.

"You and all the rest of us back at the ranch," Gideon replied. "In the meantime, let's hope nothing else goes to hell, right? So, get your asses to the airport ASAP. Report back once you and the female are safe."

"Consider it done," Hunter answered grimly.

He slid the phone back into his pocket and ran with Corinne to search for a means of transportation out of the city.

He didn't notice the humans until they were nearly upon him.

Head down, Chase had his mouth fastened to the neck of a blood Host he'd followed out of a crack house in the bowels of the city a short while ago. Now he grunted in irritation as the approaching vehicle's headlight beams bounced off the brick walls of the narrow side street where he crouched with his prey.

The police cruiser prowled slowly between the old apartment buildings, the side-mounted spotlight flicking on as it neared the halfway mark.

Chase hunkered down, pulling his limp Host deeper into the shadows of the boxy Dumpster that would shield him only until the cops were right in front of it. The straw-haired blonde moaned, whether from the lull of his suckling at her carotid or the buzz of the cocaine that tainted her blood with its sickly sweet tang, he wasn't sure. She tried to move, but he held her down, not quite sated even though he knew he had taken more than his fill already. The police car crept farther along, edging ever nearer to where he greedily fed. Some shred of sanity warned him to reach for the shadows. He grabbed at them with his mind, tried to bend them to his will, to gather the gloom around him in order to hide from the threat of the human law enforcement that was mere seconds away from turning their obnoxious light in his direction.

Chase scrabbled to bend the shadows, but his talent was too hard to hold. It wobbled weakly – there and gone, there and gone – lasting no more than mere seconds at a time. He snarled, frustrated by the loss of control.

How much longer before his ability slipped from his grasp completely? He'd seen the effects of Bloodlust on others. He knew its destructive power. The addiction would eat away his Breed-born talent, then his sanity, his humanity … and eventually his soul. The thought seeped through the haze of his avaricious feeding, as bitter as the drug-laced blood that coursed down his throat. With a growl, he tore his mouth from the wound and licked it sealed, repulsed by himself and the human he might have drained dry if not for the interruption of the approaching police.

He dragged her barely conscious body farther behind the large trash container. She would recover in a short while, recalling nothing of the past few minutes. She'd shake off her strange lethargy and get up, free to return to the addiction that had brought her to this squalid street in the first place.

As for him?

Chase grunted, his head still buzzing as he wiped the blood from his chin where he squatted in the filth of the alleyway. The slow creep of the police cruiser kept him cowered at the edge of the Dumpster for much longer than he liked. He waited, watched, wary as the car came to a halt in front of where he crouched, brakes squeaking. The vehicle's siren gave a short whoop before the blue strobes lit up, bathing the alleyway in pulsating light. One of the doors opened, then closed with a soft thump.

"Someone back theh?" A firm voice, all business in the heavy Boston accent. Hard-soled boots crunched on the frozen pavement. A sharp hiss of static came from the cop's radio as he moved in closer. "No loiterin' allowed out here, 'specially you degenerate crackheads and junkies." Another step closer. Two more and the human would be right in front of him. "Ya gonna hafta gitcha stoner ass gone, unless you'd rather we bring you down to the sta – "

Chase sprang out of his hiding spot like something out of a bad dream. In one great leap, he launched himself up and over the head of the confounded cop. He came down onto the hood of the parked cruiser as light as a cat, then kicked off just as neatly and tore away on foot before either of Boston's finest had a chance to register what they'd just witnessed.

Chase ran with all the speed he possessed through his Breed genetics. He still had that, still had the strength and stamina of his wilder nature. If anything, the overfill of blood he'd consumed amplified the beast in him. It drove him on, sent him deeper and deeper into the night, farther and farther out of the bright lights and bustling holiday traffic of the main thoroughfares. He didn't know how long he'd been running.

He wasn't sure where he was when he finally slowed enough to notice that he was far out of the city. No longer tearing through streets, parking lots, or neighborhoods but plunging through snow-covered open fields and thick copses of suburban woodland. Ahead of him, not far in the distance, a broad granite hill bristling with pines swelled from out of the surrounding countryside. It registered dimly, one of the humans' sprawling forest preserves. One of the few remaining patches of natural terrain held sacrosanct from the threat of urban sprawl that choked it from all sides.

The location pricked something buried in a dark corner of his mind, a fleeting thought that he should know this place. He'd been here once, years ago. Chase shook off the mental distraction as he entered the wooded preserve, no longer caring where he was, only that he was moving, putting the glare of the city miles behind him.

He dropped down onto his haunches in a stretch of thick-forested land, resting his back against the trunk of a soaring oak tree. Naked branches trembled above his head, the moon struggling to peek through the dense, nighttime cloud cover. For a long while, the only sound he heard was his own harsh breathing, the pounding beat of his pulse throbbing in his heaving chest. He sat there, unsure where his thirst would take him next.

In truth, he could hardly be bothered to give a damn.

Lips curled back from his teeth and fangs, he sucked in the wintry air, shuddering from the cold and the clenching of his poisoned gut. Even though his insides twisted, gorged on too much blood taken too often, he couldn't keep himself from wondering where to find his next fix. He stared up at the midnight sky and tried to guess how long he had yet to feed before dawn would drive him back into hiding to await the night once more.

Oh, yeah, he thought, chuckling to himself in half-mad amusement. All he needed was to give in to the taloned beast that had its hooks stuck hard in him already. Yet it was that beast that whispered to him as the woods went eerily quiet all around him. He went still, the predator roused to sharp, utter attention.

Some untold distance from where he rested, a twig snapped in the darkness. Then another. Chase went motionless, silent. Waiting.

Someone approached from deep within the thicket.

He saw him an instant later – a boy, thin, denim-clad legs pumping, booted feet racing as he tossed an anxious glance behind him toward the blackness of the woods at his back. He wore a winter jacket, but beneath the open zipper, his shirt was torn, splashed with dark stains. It was such an abrupt, bizarre intrusion, it didn't seem real. He thought the boy a hallucination at first. Some strange trick of a wasting mind.

Until the pungent scent of fear filled his nostrils. Bone-shredding, abject fear. And blood.

The boy was bleeding from a small wound in his neck, twin rivulets that did not escape Chase's acute notice. The scent of fresh red cells slammed into his senses like a freight train. He rolled into a crouch on his hands and knees as the child ran closer to where he hid. And then, suddenly, the boy was not alone.

A woman emerged from out of the darkness several yards behind him. Then another child, this one older, a teenager with rounded, terrified eyes. A man crashed out of the distant bracken a moment later. Followed by another woman, limping and sobbing. She too was spattered with blood, bleeding from a bite mark on her forearm. They careened off in separate directions, fleeing like a spooked herd of deer.

Like the sporting game they were, Chase realized, the truth of what he'd stumbled into dawning on him with cold understanding.

Blood club.

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