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Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Thirteen)

Dragos snapped his cell phone closed, irritation still rankling him from the news he'd received a few hours ago from his lieutenant in New Orleans.

Henry Vachon, a longtime ally from his time in the Enforcement Agency, was gravely concerned that he was soon to get a visit from one of the members of the Order. Dragos didn't doubt it for a moment. Based on the information Vachon had received from a very anxious Victor Bishop in Detroit, Dragos was guessing that retaliation from the Order would be more a matter of when than if.

To soothe Vachon and ensure that the operation didn't lose yet another asset to Lucan's warriors, Dragos had called in heavy reinforcements and given them orders to kill. As for Victor Bishop, he had served his purpose long ago. Now he was nothing but a liability, no matter how he'd apparently groveled when he'd called to alert Vachon to the trouble. If Bishop was ever fool enough to show his face, Dragos would take great pleasure in tearing it off. His foul mood of the past few hours wasn't helped at all by the hellish jostle of his limousine as his driver barreled along a godforsaken stretch of twilit, rural dirt road in northern Maine.

"Must you hit every goddamn pothole?" he barked at the Minion. He ignored the simpering apology that followed, instead glaring out the window at mile after mile of dark, encroaching forest and frozen marshland. "I've been getting tossed around back here for more than four hours since we arrived on the mainland. How much farther is it?"

"Not far at all, Master. According to the GPS, we're nearly there."

Dragos grunted, his gaze still following the bleakness of the passing landscape. They'd left the last town behind them a hundred miles ago – if the rundown cluster of fifty-year-old mobile homes and junked automobiles could actually be called a town. Human civilization hadn't seemed to stretch this far north, not in any great numbers. Or if it had, it had been beaten back down toward the cities by the rugged land and lack of industry.

Only the most intrepid souls would choose to carve their living out of this backwoods frontier. Or those with damned good reason to live off grid, as far as they could get from the human establishment they so despised.

Men like the ones Dragos was on his way to meet now.

The human government called them terrorists, disgruntled citizens looking to blame their malcontent and personal failures on anyone but themselves. Others would call them sociopathic time bombs just waiting for the next political or financial crisis to justify their violence. To most on either side of the argument, men like these were deemed insane, anomalies within the norm of human society.

Among themselves, no doubt they called one another heroes, patriots. Any one of the three awaiting him would likely go so far as to be a willing martyr, emulating the celebrity handful of their ilk who had staked and spent their lives on the altars of their righteous moral indignation. It was that fervent belief in their personal causes, that dangerous dedication and the eagerness to act on it, that had first brought these men to Dragos's attention.

The fact that the entire group of them had spent time on the U.S. government's watch list over the past decade only made the prospect of recruiting them that much sweeter. From the backseat of the limo, Dragos glanced out the windshield as his driver slowed, then turned onto an even more narrow tract of unpaved road. This was less road than path, a sheet of hard-packed snow and ice that led into a thick stand of forested acreage. The headlight beams bounced as the long sedan rocked and pitched along the trail. Except for the faint track of a pickup truck's chained snow tires – left by his other Minion, the one who'd arranged the meeting for him the day before – it didn't appear that anyone had been back on this chunk of godforsaken land for months.

That Minion, a former Army intelligence officer, was waiting outside a ramshackle barn at the end of the road.

He walked up to the passenger-side door of the limousine as it jounced to a stop.

"Master," he greeted, bowing his head as Dragos climbed out. "They await you inside."

"Tell my driver to kill the engine and the headlights and wait for me here," Dragos murmured. "This shouldn't take long."

"Of course, Master."

Dragos stepped carefully onto the icy path that meandered toward the dim light glowing from inside the old barn. He couldn't help pausing to look at the dilapidated, sagging wooden structure with its rotting boards and aged, wafting livestock stench. Nor could he help the smile that curved his mouth as he thought about the victory that would soon be his. How ironic that within this inauspicious wreck of a building – in the hands of a radical few local losers – lay the perfect means of ensuring the total, irrevocable demise of mighty Lucan Thorne and his damnable Order.

Corinne sat on one of the two double beds in the New Orleans hotel room, clicking from channel to channel on the television remote control. The activity had kept her mind occupied for a little while, kept her from prowling the confines of her small quarters like a caged cat. But the novelty of so much chatter and noise, all the vivid images flashing by onscreen with just a push of a button, had long since worn off.

She glanced at Hunter, who'd seemed to grow more distant, more silently aloof, with every passing minute since the sun had set. He had spoken to Gideon on his cell phone about an hour ago, discussing Hunter's intended plan for locating and infiltrating Henry Vachon's known properties in the area. When he found Vachon, he would remove him to an isolated location and interrogate him for information on Dragos. He only needed to uncover Vachon's current whereabouts and break in without getting caught or killed in the process. It all sounded very bold, extremely dangerous.

She turned off the television, leaving the remote on the bed as she got up to look at the marked-up map that was spread out on the sofa table across the room. Hunter had since discarded the paper map in favor of the electronic one on his cell phone.

She studied the circled areas where the Order believed Vachon's properties were situated. During the flight from Detroit and the time she'd spent sequestered in the hotel room awaiting nightfall with Hunter, Corinne had been puzzling out a way to find Henry Vachon on her own and plead her case to him about getting back her son.

If she let Hunter find him first, Vachon was as good as dead. But if she could somehow intercept that meeting, bargain for Vachon's mercy with whatever meager means she had left, perhaps there was a chance she might find her child. It worried her, the thought of putting herself back within the reach of one of Dragos's loyal followers. But then, if Henry Vachon had indeed been present the night she was abducted, then she had already seen his worst. She had faced his depraved cruelty once and survived; she would face him and Dragos both all over again if it might lead her to her son.

It was a desperate plan. A foolish one, which could be tantamount to suicide. But she was desperate. And she was willing to risk everything she had on the hope of reuniting with her boy.

She glanced at Hunter, standing near the glass sliding doors, his big body silhouetted by the moonlight and the glow of streetlamps on the boulevard below. Music hummed in the air outside the hotel, the soft wail of a saxophone, someone playing the blues. She drifted toward the glass too, drawn as always to the soothing sounds of poetry conveyed in notes and chords. She listened for a while, watching the old man on the opposite corner of the street play his battered brass horn with all the passion of someone less than half his age.

"When will you leave to begin looking for Vachon?"

Hunter lifted his head and met her glance. "As soon as possible. Gideon is searching for records on Vachon's properties, old building plans, security schematics, things that will assist with my reconnaissance. If he is able to turn up any useful data within the hour, he will call me with it."

"And if he doesn't find anything to help you?"

"Then I will proceed without it."

Corinne nodded, unsurprised by his frank reply. He didn't seem like someone who would let obstacles stand in his way, even if it meant stealing into an enemy's camp with nothing more than his wits and whatever weapons he happened to have on his body. "Do you think Vachon will tell you where Dragos is?"

Hunter's face was grimly confident. "If he knows, he will tell me."

She didn't want to guess how he would go about making sure of that. Nor could she hold his piercing gaze for longer than a moment when he was standing just a couple of feet away from her.

Being this close to him, feeling the palpable weight of his golden stare, only reminded her of how startled she'd been to find him watching her while she'd bathed that afternoon. She'd been more than startled. She had been astonished – utterly shocked by the heat that had smoldered in his otherwise inscrutable stare. A rush of warmth raced through her when she relived it now, all the worse when there was no door to close between them. She should have been affronted that he'd seen her, if not afraid. Then, like now, Hunter's gaze unsettled her. Not from the fear she expected she should feel but from her own sense of awareness. The stoic warrior hadn't looked at her as some object he needed to protect or pity, but as a woman.

At least, until he'd seen her scars.

The outward evidence of what she'd endured was ugly enough, but the more terrible wounds she bore inside. There was still a raw and wounded part of her that hadn't come out of Dragos's nightmarish prison, a part of her that might never make it out to the daylight. She'd left so much of herself behind in those dank laboratory cells, she wasn't sure she'd ever be whole again.

It was that part of her that had seized up at the idea of being shut in such a small space as the hotel room's tiny bathroom. She'd left only the smallest gap in the door, just enough to reassure herself that she could see beyond the small enclosure, that she had the power to walk out at any time. That she wasn't locked in or helpless, waiting for her next round of torture by the one who held the key.

Even now, just thinking about confined spaces and barred doors seemed to make the four walls contract inward on her. Pulse quickening, throat clenching up in the rising swell of her anxiety, Corinne turned to face the wide sliding door that looked out over the city from the small balcony. She put her hands out, palms pressed against the cool glass as she simply focused on breathing and tried to will her heart to calm.

It wasn't enough.

"What's wrong?" Hunter asked, frowning as she sucked in a couple of quick, hitching breaths. "Are you ill?"

"Air," she gasped. "I need a … air – "

She fumbled with the mechanism on the glass door, finally yanking it open and all but stumbling out to the balcony. Hunter was right beside her as she clung to the wrought-iron railing and drew in gulp after gulp of the cleansing, open night air. She felt his presence like a wall of heat at her side, the large shape of him looming close, watching her in silent concern.

"I'm okay," she murmured, everything still spinning around her, lungs still caught in a vise. "It's nothing …

I'm all right."

He reached out and took her chin gently in his hand, turning her face toward him in the dark. His scowl was deeper now, those probing golden eyes searching beneath the furrowed line of his brow. "You are not well."

"I'm fine. I needed some fresh air, that's all." She drew back slightly and he let his hand fall away. The warmth of his touch lingered. She could feel the broad lines of his fingers ghosted on her skin as she exhaled a shaky breath.

He stared at her, watching her tremble even though it was barely cold in the sultry New Orleans night. "You're not well," he said again. His voice was softer this time, but no less firm.

"Your body needs more rest. You need nourishment."

His gaze went to her mouth as he spoke. It lingered there, putting a new kind of clamor in her veins.

"When was the last time you had a meal, Corinne?"

God, she didn't even know. Probably more than twenty-four hours by now, since the last thing she'd eaten was at the compound in Boston before they'd left for Detroit. She gave him a vague shrug. She'd long become accustomed to the empty feeling of hunger during her time in captivity. Dragos had fed her and the others only frequently enough to keep them alive. Sometimes, when her rebellion had landed her in solitary confinement, she'd been allowed to eat even less than that.

"I'm okay," she said, uncomfortable with Hunter's probing scrutiny and concern. "I just needed to be outside for a little while. All I need is a bit of air."

Looking none too convinced, he cast a measuring glance over the balcony to the street below. Sounds drifted up on the pleasant night breeze: people talking and laughing as they strolled by, vehicles rumbling over cobblestones on the adjacent avenue, the musician on the nearby corner segueing from one soulful tune to another. The aromas of roasting meats and spicy sauces put a traitorous growl in Corinne's stomach.

Hunter looked back at her then, his head cocked in question.

"Okay," she said. "I could eat something, I suppose."

"Then come with me," he replied, already stalking back toward the room. Corinne followed, part of her simply eager to be down on the vibrant street outside, back among the living. A more cautious part of her understood that if she was to put her plan in motion tonight – seeking a way to contact Henry Vachon on her own – then she had better fill her stomach and gird herself for the desperate mission that lay ahead of her.

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