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Kiss of Crimson (Chapter Twenty-seven)

Cold sweat trickled down the back of Ben Sullivan's neck as he finished up the first sample of his new batch of Crimson. He hadn't been lying about not having the recipe committed to memory; he did his best to re-create the drug in the absurdly short time he'd been allowed. With barely a half hour to spare, he collected a dose of the reddish substance and carried it over to his test subject. The young man, dressed in filthy blue jeans and a Harvard sweatshirt, slumped against the restraints that held him prisoner in a wheeled office chair, his head down, chin resting on his chest.

As Ben neared him, the door to the makeshift basement lab opened and his dark employer strode inside, walking between the two armed guards who'd been supervising Ben's progress the whole time.

"I didn't have a chance to vacuum-filter the moisture out of the stuff," Ben said, making excuses for the cup of pasty goo he'd produced and hoping to hell he got the recipe right. "This kid looks like he's in rough shape. What if he can't chew it?"

There was no reply, only measuring, deadly silence.

Ben blew out a nervous breath and approached the kid. He knelt down in front of the chair. From under the fall of unkempt hair, listless eyes opened to heavy slits, then closed again. Ben peered up into the drawn, sallow face of what had probably been a good-looking kid at one time–

Ah, shit.

He knew this kid. Knew him from around the clubs–a fairly regular customer–and this was also the smiling, youthful face he'd seen in the photograph just last night. Cameron or Camden was his name? Camden, he thought, the kid Ben was supposed to help locate for the fanged psycho who'd promised to kill him if he didn't oblige. Not that that threat was any more serious than the one Ben faced now.

"Let's get on with it, Mr. Sullivan."

Ben spooned a bit of the raw Crimson out of the cup and lifted it to the kid's mouth. The instant the substance touched his lips, Camden's tongue snaked out hungrily. He closed his mouth around the spoon and sucked it clean, seeming to revive for an instant. A junkie nuzzling up to what he hoped was his next fix, Ben realized, a pang of guilt sticking him.

Ben waited for the Crimson to take effect.

Nothing happened.

He gave Camden more, and then some more again. Still nothing. Damn it. The recipe wasn't right.

"I need more time," Ben murmured as the kid's head lolled back down with a groan. "I've almost got it, but I just need to try it again."

He stood up, turned around, and was shocked to find his menacing patron standing directly in front of him. Ben hadn't heard the guy move at all, yet here he was, looming over him. Ben saw his own haggard reflection in the sheen of the man's dark glasses. He looked desperate and terrified, a cornered animal trembling before a fierce predator.

"We're getting nowhere, Mr. Sullivan. And I'm out of patience."

"You said two hours," Ben pointed out. "I still have a few minutes–"

"Not negotiable." The cruel mouth stretched into a sneer, revealing the bright tips of sharp white fangs. "Time's up."

"Oh, Jesus!" Ben recoiled, knocking into the chair behind him and sending it and the kid held captive on it rolling backward in a clatter of spinning wheels. He stumbled away in a graceless crawl, only to feel strong fingers bite into his shoulders, hauling him up off the floor as if he were weightless. Ben was spun around harshly and sent crashing into the far wall. Agony splintered through the back of his skull as he crumpled in a heap. Dazed, Ben felt behind his head. His fingers came away bloody.

And when he focused his bleary gaze on the others in the room, his heart went tight with dread. The two guards were staring at him, their pupils narrowed to thin slits, glowing amber irises fixed on him like floodlights. One of them opened his mouth on a rasping hiss, baring huge fangs. Even Camden's attention had roused from where he sat several feet away. The kid's eyes burned through the fall of his hair, his lips peeling away from long, gleaming canines.

But as terrifying as those monstrous faces were, they had nothing on the ice-cold approach of the one who was clearly calling the shots here. He strolled over to Ben at a calm pace, polished black shoes moving soundlessly on the concrete floor. He lifted his hand and Ben was rising, drifting back onto his feet as if attached to invisible strings.

"Please," Ben gasped. "Whatever you're thinking, don't… don't do it, please. I can get the Crimson formula back for you. I swear, I'll do whatever you want!"

"Yes, Mr. Sullivan. You will."

He moved so fast Ben didn't know what hit him until he felt the hard bite of fangs in his throat. Ben struggled, smelling his own blood pouring out of the wound, hearing the wet sounds of the creature at his neck drawing deeply at his vein. The fight leaked out of Ben with every draining pull. He hung there, suspended, feeling life flow out of him, feeling consciousness dim along with his will. He was dying, all that he was flowing away from him into a pit of darkness.

"Come on, Harvard, or whatever your name really is," Tess said, guiding the little terrier across the street as the pedestrian light changed.

After closing up the clinic at six o'clock, she had decided to take a walk past Ben's apartment on the South Side, one last attempt to find him on her own before she placed a missing-persons report with the police. If he was back to trafficking narcotics, he probably deserved to get arrested, but deep down she truly cared about him and wanted to see if she could talk him into getting help before things escalated that far.

Ben's neighborhood wasn't the most desirable, particularly in the dark, but Tess wasn't afraid. Many of her clients were from this general area: hardworking, good people. Ironically, if there was anyone to be wary of in this stretch of tightly clustered duplexes and three-deckers, it was probably the drug dealer living in Apartment 3-B of the building where Tess now stood.

A television blared from the unit on the first floor, casting an eerie blue wash onto the sidewalk outside. Tess tipped her head up, looking to Ben's set of windows for any indication that he might be there. The ratty white miniblinds were drawn closed over the balcony sliders and the bedroom window. The apartment was all dark, no light showing from anywhere inside, no movement.

Or… was there?

Although it was difficult to tell, she could have sworn she saw one of the sets of blinds sway against the window–as if someone inside had moved them or walked by them and bumped them, unaware.

Was it Ben? If he was home, he evidently didn't want anyone to know, including her. He hadn't returned any of her phone calls or e-mails, so why would she think he'd want her showing up at his place now?

And if he wasn't home? What if someone had broken in? What if it were some of his drug contacts waiting for him to return? What if someone was up there right now, turning his place upside down looking for the flash drive she had in her coat pocket? Tess backed away from the building, an anxious crawl working its way up her spine. She held Harvard 's leash in a death grip, silently shooing him from the dried-out shrubs that lined the sidewalk.

Then she saw it again–a definite shift of the blinds in Ben's unit. One of the sliders began to open on the dark third-level balcony. Someone was coming out. And this someone was enormous, definitely not Ben.

"Oh, shit," she whispered under her breath, stooping to pick up the dog so she could bolt the hell out of there in the next second.

She started jogging up the sidewalk, braving only the quickest glance over her shoulder. The guy was at the railing of the rickety balcony, peering out into the dark. She felt the savage heat of his stare like a lance slicing through the dark. His eyes were impossibly bright… glowing.

"Oh, my God."

Tess dashed out to cross the street. When she looked back at Ben's building again, the man on the balcony was climbing onto the railing, two more coming out behind him. The one in the lead swung his legs over the edge and dropped, as neatly as a cat, down onto the lawn. He started running up behind her, moving too fast. As if his speed had rendered her own to slow motion, her feet as sluggish as if they' d been mired in quicksand.

Tess hugged Harvard close to her chest and ran up onto the other sidewalk, darting between the cars parked at the curb. She glanced once more behind her, only to find that her pursuer was gone. She knew hope for a brief fraction of a second.

Because when she looked forward again, she saw that he was somehow, suddenly there, less than five paces in front of her, blocking her path. How could he have gotten there so fast? She hadn't even seen him move, hadn't heard his feet on the pavement.

He cocked his large head at her and sniffed at the air like an animal. He–or rather it, because whatever this was, it was far from human–began to chuckle low under its breath.

Tess backed up, moving woodenly, disbelieving. This wasn't happening. It couldn't be. This was some kind of sick joke. It was impossible.

"No." She stepped back and back, shaking her head in denial.

The big man started moving then, coming toward her. Tess's heart stuttered into a panicked beat, her every instinct clanging on high alert. She pivoted on her heel and bolted–

Just as another beastly-looking man came between the cars and hemmed her in.

"Hello, pretty," he said in a voice that was all gravel and malice.

In the pale wash of streetlight overhead, Tess's gaze locked on the guy's open mouth. His lips peeled back from his teeth in a thick hiss, revealing a huge pair of fangs.

Tess dropped the dog from her limp grasp and sent a terrified scream shooting high up into the night sky.

"Hang a left up here," Dante said to Tegan from the passenger seat of the Range Rover. Chase sat in back like he was awaiting his execution, an anticipation that Dante was about to prolong a bit more. "Let' s swing through Southie before we head for the compound."

Tegan gave a grim nod, then turned the vehicle at the light. "You got a feeling the dealer might be home?"

"I don't know. Worth a look, though."

Dante rubbed at a cold spot that had settled behind his sternum, a strange void that was squeezing his lungs, making it hard to breathe. The sensation was more visceral than physical, a hard tweaking of his instincts that put his senses on full alert. He hit the window control next to him, watching the dark glass slide open as he inhaled the cold night air.

"Everything cool?" Tegan asked, his deep voice drifting over from across the dim cockpit of the SUV. "You heading for a repeat of what happened earlier?"

"No." Dante gave a vague shake of his head, still staring out the open window, watching the blur of lights and traffic as the downtown buildings fell behind them and the old neighborhoods of South Boston came into view. "No, this is… something different."

The damn knot of cold in his chest was boring deeper, becoming glacial even as his palms began to sweat. His stomach clenched. Adrenaline dumped into his veins in a sudden, jolting flood.

What the hell?

It was fear running through him, he realized. Shell-shocked terror. Not his own, but someone else's.

Oh, Jesus.

"Stop the car."

It was Tess's fear he was feeling. Her horror reaching out to him via the blood connection they shared. She was in danger out there. Mortal danger.

"Tegan, stop the fucking car!"

The warrior hit the brakes and dragged the steering wheel hard to the right, coolly skidding the Rover onto the berm. They weren't too far from Ben Sullivan's apartment; his building could be no more than half a dozen blocks' distance–twice that if they had to navigate the maze of one-way streets and traffic lights between here and there.

Dante threw open the passenger door and jumped out onto the pavement. He dragged air into his lungs, praying he could get a tack on Tess's scent.

There it was.

He locked on to the cinnamon-sweet note braided among the thousand other mingled odors carrying on the chill night breeze. Tess's blood scent was trace, but growing stronger–too much so.

Dante's veins ran cold.

Somewhere, not far from where he stood, Tess was bleeding.

Tegan leaned across the seat, one thick forearm draped over the wheel, his shrewd gaze narrowed. " Dante, man–what the fuck? What's going on?" "No time," Dante said. He pivoted back around to the car and slammed the door shut. "I'm taking off on foot. I need you to haul ass to Ben Sullivan's place. It's off–"

"I remember the way," Chase piped up from the backseat, meeting Dante's gaze through the Rover's open window. "Go. We'll be right behind you."

Dante nodded once at the grave faces staring at him, then he swung around and took off at a dead run.

He cut through yards, leaped over fences, sped down tight alleyways, firing off every cylinder of his Breed-born speed and agility. To the humans he passed, he was nothing but cold air, a brush of icy November wind on the backs of their necks as he barreled over and around them, all of his focus honed on one thing: Tess.

Halfway down a side street that would dump him onto Ben Sullivan's block, Dante saw the little terrier Tess had brought back from the brink of death with her healing touch. The dog was wandering loose on the dark sidewalk, its leash dragging limply behind it.

Hell of a bad sign, but Dante knew he was close now.

God help him, he had to be.

"Tess!" he shouted, praying she could hear him.

That he wasn't already too late.

He peeled around the corner of a three-decker, jumping over the toys and bicycles that littered the front yard. Her blood scent was stronger now, a shot of dread hammering his temples.

"Tess!"

He tracked her like the beam of a laser sight, racing in a mindless panic when he picked up the low snuffles and grunts of Rogues fighting over a prize.

Oh, Christ. No.

Across the street from the building where Ben Sullivan lived, Tess's handbag lay near the curb, the contents spilling out of it. Dante veered right, racing down a foot-worn path that cut between two houses. There was a shed at the end of the path, the door swinging idly on its hinges.

Tess was inside. Dante knew it with a dread so deep it made his step falter.

Behind him, in the split second before he could reach the shed and tear the thing down with his bare hands, a Rogue came out of the shadows and pounced. Dante twisted as he fell, withdrawing one of his blades and slicing it across the suckhead's face. The Rogue gave an unearthly shriek, flying off him in agony as his corrupted blood system got a good taste of lethal titanium. Dante rolled out of his crouch and shot to his feet as the Rogue spasmed into swift death and decomposition.

On the street now, the black Range Rover roared up and lurched to a sharp halt. Tegan and Chase jumped out, weapons in hand. Another Rogue came out of the dark, but he took one look at Tegan's icy stare and decided to run the opposite way. The warrior sprang like a great cat, leaping into pursuit.

Chase must have seen more trouble at Ben Sullivan's apartment, because he held his pistol in ready position and started off across the street at a stealth jog.

As for Dante, he was hardly aware of the peripheral action. His boots were already chewing up earth, moving toward the shed and the terrible noises that were emanating from it. The wet, slick sounds of vampires feeding was nothing new to him, but the idea that they were harming Tess threw his rage into the nuclear zone. He stalked to the flapping shed door and yanked it loose with one hand. It sailed across the empty back lot, instantly forgotten.

Two Rogues held Tess down on the floor of the out-building, one sucking at her wrist, the other latched on to her throat. She lay motionless beneath them, so still that Dante's heart froze in terror as his eyes took in the scene. But he could sense that she lived. He could hear her thin pulse echoing weakly in his own veins. Another few seconds and they might have drained her.

Dante let out a bellow that shook the place, his fury boiling up and out of him like a black gale. The Rogue feeding from Tess's wrist leaped back with a hiss, her blood circling the peeled-back lips and staining the long fangs scarlet. The suckhead twisted in midair, flying up to the corner of the shed's ceiling and clinging there like a spider.

Dante tracked the flash of movement, releasing one of his malebranche blades and sending it airborne. The spinning wheel of titanium made lethal contact with the Rogue's neck. It dropped to the floor with a shriek, and Dante turned his hatred on the bigger one, which had moved around to challenge him to its prey.

The Rogue crouched low in front of Tess's limp body, facing off against Dante with fangs bared and eyes aglow with feral amber light. The suckhead appeared young behind the Bloodlust that had transformed it into a beast, probably one of the missing Darkhaven civilians. Didn't matter; the only good Rogue was a dead one–especially this one, which had its hands and mouth all over Tess, sucking precious life out of her.

Might have killed her already, if Dante didn't get her out of there quick.

Blood screaming into his muscles, Tess's pain and one that was wholly his own galvanizing him for the fight, Dante bared his own fangs and flew at the Rogue with a roar. He wanted to deliver brutal, hellish vengeance, tear the bastard apart piece by piece before gutting it with one of his blades. But expedience was paramount. Saving Tess was all that mattered.

Latching on to the Rogue's snapping jaw, Dante levered his arm and shoved down hard, cracking bones and severing tendons. As the suckhead screamed, Dante flipped a blade into his free hand and buried the titanium-edged steel into the vampire's chest. He shoved the corpse off him and went to Tess' s side.

"Ah, God." Kneeling down, he heard her soft, rasping breath. It was shallow, so thin. The wound on her wrist was nasty, but the one on her neck was savage. Her skin was pale as snow, cool to the touch when he brought her hand to his mouth and kissed her slack fingers. "Tess… hang on, baby. I've got you now. I'm taking you out of here."

Easing her into his arms, Dante gathered her close and carried her outside.

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