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Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Twenty-two)

With a raw cry, Hunter sank his jaws deeper around the vulnerable flesh and tendons. He shook his head, tearing out the vampire's throat and silencing his offending words for good. Blood was everywhere – in his eyes, in his hair. Running down his chin. He tasted it like bitter poison sliding down his esophagus.

He stared down at the desecration, at the savaged horror of Vachon's twitching, dying body, still held upright in his bloodied hands. His head went a bit hazy for a second. Images flashed into his mind.

Vachon, with his hand caught tight and fisted in Corinne's long dark hair, holding her down as he raped her. It was so vivid, so goddamned real.

Fury roared up on Hunter. He tipped his head back on his shoulders and bellowed as a fresh round of images crowded into his vision: Vachon and Dragos, observing the Ancient who was restrained and drugged on a long laboratory table. Not far away, there was a cage of roughly two dozen women, all of the imprisoned Breedmates screaming and weeping as one of them was dragged out by a Minion and walked toward the table like a sacrifice heading for the altar. Hunter groaned, sick with the realization of what he was witnessing. But how was it possible?

Another image slammed into his mind. This time it was Vachon supervising the removal of heavy lab equipment into the back of several large freight carriers under the cover of deep night. Crate after crate loaded into the waiting trucks, with Dragos giving his sober approval from where he stood nearby.

Holy hell.

These were Vachon's memories.

Memories carried on his blood.

Hunter could still taste the awful tang of it on his tongue. He felt his talent stir to life inside him, making itself known to him for the very first time. The blood – Breed blood – gave him the power to look inside another's memories.

Jesus Christ.

This was the gift that had eluded him all his life? He felt sick with the knowledge. He wanted to spit the bitter taste of Vachon's blood from his mouth. Instead he latched on to the vampire's shredded throat and drank some more.

Chase punched the number into the city payphone's keypad for the third time. Then, for the third time, he blew out a curse and slammed the receiver back onto its cradle before the line had a chance to ring on the other end.

"Fuck," he muttered, raking his fingers over the top of his head where a migraine had been pounding for most of the night.

He knew the source of the headache. The same piercing pain was boring into his stomach, urging him to forget the phone call he seemed incapable of making and turn his sights toward something more productive.

His body shook with the need to feed. He tried to ignore the cold jangle of his veins, the knocking deep inside him that had his nerves on edge, restless and twitchy. At least his fangs had receded. His gaze wasn't casting amber light on the filth of the dark inner-city corner where he stood, nor reflecting back at him like slitted cat's eyes in the chipped chrome trim of the payphone box.

He wasn't totally lost, at least. Racked with searing, unabating hunger or not, he hadn't fallen to Bloodlust. He wasn't Rogue, not yet.

Still, he was in a bad way and he knew it.

Not so far gone that he wasn't revisiting everything Murdock confessed and chilled with the ramifications of what it could mean to the Order.

He picked up the receiver again and pounded out the number he knew would somehow route him to the secured line Gideon had set up at the compound. He held his breath as the call connected and started to ring. Halfway through the second tone, the line was picked up.

"Yeah."

Chase frowned, caught off guard by the deep voice that didn't carry Gideon's familiar tinge of a British accent. He started to reply, but the word came out all rusty, his throat parched and burning from the thirst he needed to ignore. He swallowed past the sawdust feeling and tried again. "Tegan … that you?"

"Harvard" came the Gen One warrior's flat reply. It wasn't a greeting. Not even playing at friendly. "What the hell do you want?"

The attitude wasn't undeserved, but it stung nevertheless. Chase drew in a breath and let it out slowly. "Surprised to hear you on dispatch duty, Tegan," he said, hoping to break some of the ice on the other end of the line. "Gideon usually doesn't like anyone playing with his toys down there in the tech lab."

"I'll say it again, Harvard. What do you want?"

So, the ice wasn't going anywhere. He should have figured that, he supposed. After all, he was the one who walked out on the Order. Nothing said they had to take him back or, hell, even acknowledge that he existed. Chase cleared his dry throat. "I need to talk to Lucan. It's important."

Tegan grunted. "Too bad. I'm all you got right now. So, start talking or stop wasting my time."

"I found Murdock," he blurted.

"Where?"

"Doesn't matter now. He's dead." A few yards up the street, a late-night hooker stepped up onto the curb and started rambling toward Chase on spiked red stilettos. Her short winter jacket was unzipped, baring a whole lot of leg and cleavage and too much bare throat for his shaky state of mind. Chase tore his gaze away from the potential meal on heels and dropped his forehead against the cool metal of the payphone box. "Murdock gave me some information that Lucan's going to want to hear. It's not good, Tegan."

The warrior exhaled a ripe curse. "Didn't think it would be. Tell me what you know."

"Dragos is stepping up his game. He's made Minions inside local law enforcement agencies, according to Murdock. Apparently he's also got a hard-on for some local politicians. Murdock mentioned something about that new senator who just got elected."

"Christ," Tegan said. "I don't like the sound of any of this."

"Right," Chase agreed. "But that's not the worst of what I learned. Murdock told me Dragos has his sights set on taking out the Order. He said Dragos talked about using some kind of Trojan horse. I've got a bad feeling it has something to do with the Archers coming into the compound last week."

"You don't say," Tegan remarked, sounding bored now. "News flash for you, Harvard.

After you pulled your disappearing act a few nights ago, the kid coughed up a tracking device. He has no recollection of where it came from or how it got inside him. Since his abductors beat him unconscious soon after they took him, it was probably force-fed to the kid while he was out cold."

"Shit," Chase hissed. "So Murdock was right. And now Dragos knows the location of the compound."

"So it would appear," Tegan replied.

"What's the plan, then? How does Lucan want to handle the situation over there? You can't just sit back and wait for Dragos to make his move …"

Chase realized there was a lot of silence on the other end of the line. Tegan was listening, but his lack of response seemed too deliberate to be misconstrued. "What we do about it is Order business, my man."

There was no animosity in the statement, but the warrior's point was clear enough. Order business. And Chase had no place in the discussion anymore.

"Unless you're calling because you want to come back in," Tegan continued. "If you do, fair warning: You'll probably have to put those fancy Harvard lawyering skills to work if you want to talk Lucan into it. Same with Dante – he's more pissed off at you than anyone else over here."

Eyes closed at the well-deserved rebuke, Chase hung his head and exhaled a long sigh. The last thing Dante needed was to be dealing with this bullshit when his mate was just a few weeks away from delivering their son. "How are he and Tess doing?" Chase murmured. "They settle on a name for that baby yet?"

Tegan was quiet for a long moment. "Why don't you come back to headquarters and ask them yourself?"

"Nah," Chase replied, his mouth on automatic pilot as he lifted his head and glanced out at the drug addicts and prostitutes – losers, all – who loitered around the rundown street in the armpit of Boston's low-rent district. "I'm not even in the city right now. Not sure when I'll be heading back – "

Tegan cut him off with a low curse. "Listen to me, Harvard. You're fucked up. We both know what's going on, so word of advice, don't try to bullshit me. You've got a serious problem. Maybe you're in deeper than you know how to get out, but the fact that you're talking to me right now – the fact that you're standing there, debating whether you're still sane or past the brink of caring, tells me that you've still got a chance to turn your shit around. You can come back in, but you've got to do it before it's too late to set things right."

"I don't know," Chase murmured. Part of him wanted to grab the offered olive branch with both hands and not let go. But there was another part of him that balked at the need for kinship or forgiveness. That part of him couldn't stop looking at the young, all-too-willing woman who had now parked her miniskirted ass against the red brick wall of the building next to him. She'd been watching him too, no doubt experienced enough to read the note of interest in his hooded eyes.

"Chase," Tegan said, voicing his name like a demand as the seconds ticked by without further response. "You've got a serious choice to make, my man. What do you want me to tell Lucan?"

The hooker gave him a nod and started slinking her way over. Chase felt a growl curl up the back of his throat as she drew nearer. The hunger that lurked so close to the surface of his consciousness came alive despite his best effort to tamp it down. His gums throbbed with the emergence of his fangs.

"Goddamn it, Chase." He was already pulling the receiver away from his ear when Tegan's deep voice vibrated through the plastic. "You're digging your own fucking grave."

Chase put the phone back in its cradle, then stepped around to take the young woman into the shadows with him.

Hunter sped through New Orleans on foot, his head still buzzing with the barrage of memories he'd drawn from Henry Vachon's blood. He'd seen unbelievably foul things. Horrible acts carried out on Dragos's approval and through Vachon's own sick will as well. It took all of Hunter's learned discipline to keep from reliving the worst of those memories – the ones involving innocent young Corinne, the violation and torment she'd suffered at the hands of both Breed males on the night she'd been abducted. Hunter trained his focus instead on a different memory siphoned from Henry Vachon in the final moments of the vampire's life.

As he'd breathed his last, a moment Hunter had made sure was spent in supreme agony, Vachon gave up the location of a storage facility in neighboring Metairie – the facility where, within the past few months, Vachon had delivered some of the contents of Dragos's hastily disassembled lab.

The white brick building sat on a flat corner lot near the freeway and the railroad, a block of two-story condominiums across the street and a vacant corporate headquarters next door. Hunter moved silently over the moonlit, cracked concrete of the storage facility's adjacent fenced-in parking lot, past the handful of rental trucks and stored RVs sharing the thin yellow light of a single pole-mounted security lamp. The place was closed for the night, glass doors at the front shuttered from the inside by a metal curtain.

Hunter circled around to the side, flashing past the closed-circuit camera that watched from the upper corner of the building. Halfway around the building, a metal door marked "No Entry" gave him simple enough access to the facility. Hunter grasped the handle and bent it until the lock mechanism broke loose. He slipped in, and headed for the unit number Vachon's blood memories had provided.

It was located at the far end of the facility's interior hallway. Hunter made quick work of the industrial-strength padlock, breaking it free with a firm yank. He opened the corrugated metal door and stepped inside the ten-by-fifteen-foot box. As he crossed the threshold, he felt a faint vibration in his inner ear and glanced down to see that his foot had tripped a motion sensor's silent alarm. He wouldn't have much time before someone responded to the alert. Fortunately, there wasn't much to see inside the unit. A fireproof safe sat just past the entrance. Toward the back stood a pair of squatty, round stainless-steel drums capped with a hydraulic vacuum seal that looked like a polished metal steering wheel. He recognized the containers from the memories he'd gathered from Henry Vachon, but he would have known their purpose even without the help of his talent.

Cryogenic storage containers.

They were plugged into a large portable power supply, their internal temperature gauges reading negative 150 degrees Celsius. Hunter unscrewed the seal of the container nearest him and lifted the heavy lid. Icy clouds of liquid nitrogen frothed out of the open top. Hunter waved it away and looked inside at the countless vials stored within the deep freeze. He didn't have to pull any of them up to understand they would contain cell and tissue samples, all of them originating in Dragos's secret laboratory.

The physical results of experiments and likely genetic testing, things Hunter could only guess at as he stared at the numerous vials nested several layers down into the container. As astonished as he was repulsed, Hunter turned his attention to the safe. He broke open the small panel door and found a stack of paper files and photographs, along with a handful of portable computer storage disks.

He had to get this material – everything in Vachon's storage unit – into the Order's hands. With that goal in mind, he went to the adjacent parking lot and hotwired one of the box trucks sitting in the dark lot outside. He drove it around to the side entrance and left it idling as he ran back up to the unit to collect the contents.

He had loaded the safe and one of the cryo containers into the truck and was about to turn around and get the last one when he realized he wasn't alone. The silent alarm had apparently gone straight to Dragos, if the Gen One assassin crouched in battle stance outside the open trailer of the truck was any indication.

The big male vaulted off the balls of his feet and sprang forward, a blur of head-to-toe black against the night outside. He crashed into Hunter, driving them both farther into the truck. They knocked against the cryo container, stainless steel ringing out like a bell with the force of the impact.

Hunter came up hard and plowed into the assassin's stomach with his shoulder. The male went down onto his back, but stayed there for only an instant before he was up on his feet once more, coming at Hunter with a dagger gripped tight in his hand.

A vicious fight ensued. Hunter saw a window of opportunity as the assassin swung to dodge one of his blows and left his head and neck an open target. Hunter drove the edge of his hand into the other male's larynx, a dead-on hit that crushed the vampire's windpipe. The assassin wheezed and staggered for an instant, then leveled a murderous look at Hunter and charged forward again with his blade.

Hunter blocked it with a deflective swipe of his arm. He pivoted his elbow, wrapping his hand around the assassin's wrist. The move brought the assassin's forearm down with a hard crack across the front of Hunter's thigh, snapping the limb and rendering it useless. As the blade clattered to the floor of the truck and the assassin lurched forward, Hunter grabbed hold of the black UV collar and swung the Gen One's head down against the edge of the cryogenic storage container.

Blood spurted from the punishing strike. But the assassin wasn't ready to give in just yet. He threw a punch at the front of Hunter's kneecap, a blow that might have taken him down if Hunter hadn't seen it coming. He kicked the assassin back, reaching around to give the lid on the container of liquid nitrogen a hard crank. It unscrewed and Hunter threw it open. Before the assassin could regain his footing yet again, Hunter hauled him up off the floor. He shoved him headfirst into the frothing subzero container, then brought the lid down and held the male pinned beneath it.

It took a few minutes before the vampire stopped struggling.

The body went limp, arms and legs unmoving in the mist of frigid air that continued to pour out onto the floor in a rolling cloud of white.

After another long moment, Hunter lifted the lid. The assassin's head was frozen solid, slack-jawed, the blue lips and dull, unseeing eyes encrusted with ice crystals. Hunter pushed the corpse aside. It fell with a hard thud at his feet, the thick black collar circling his neck crackling as it broke into several pieces and fell away.

The interruption in his current task handled, Hunter went back to grab the last cryo container and load it into the truck.

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