Midnight Rising (Chapter Five)
But he was interested in what she'd found on the mountain outside Jicin – so interested, in fact, he had taken it upon himself to hire a freelance photographer in Prague to go back with Dylan and get a few more shots for the piece.
"You have got to be kidding me," Dylan grumbled as she scanned the message from her boss.
"You'd better get packing, honey. We don't want to miss our train." Janet dropped a collection of half-empty toiletry bottles into a plastic bag and zipped it closed. "Would anyone like the hotel hand lotion from out of the bathroom, or can I have it? And there's also a bar of hand soap in there that hasn't been opened…"
Dylan ignored the chatter from her traveling companions as the trio of them continued rounding up their things in preparation of their departure from Prague that evening.
"What's wrong?" Nancy asked as she zipped up her small suitcase and propped it on one of the two queen beds in their shared room.
"My boss must not realize that when I said I was leaving Prague tonight, that meant I was leaving Prague tonight."
Or rather he did understand, and didn't care. According to his e-mail, Dylan was supposed to meet the Czech photographer tomorrow for a return trip to Jicin.
Marie came over and glanced at the computer. "Is this about your story?"
Dylan nodded. "He thinks it could be interesting with a few more pictures. He wants me to meet someone about it in the morning. He's already set up the appointment for me."
"But we're due at the train station in less than an hour," Janet pointed out.
"I know," Dylan said, as she started typing a reply message to that effect.
She explained that she and her companions were taking the evening train to Vienna – their last stop on the tour before they departed back home for the States. She wouldn't be able to meet with the photographer because as of ten o'clock tonight, she wasn't going to be around.
Dylan finished typing the reply, but as she moved her cursor over the Send button, she hesitated to let the message go. She already had a reserved seat on Coleman Hogg's shit list. If she turned down this appointment – for any reason – she knew without a doubt that she would be kissing her job good-bye.
And as tempting as the thought actually was, getting herself fired was something she really couldn't afford to do right now.
"Damn it," she muttered, sliding her mouse over to click the Delete button instead. "It's too late for me to cancel this meeting, and I probably shouldn't anyway. You all are going to have to continue on to Vienna without me. I have to stay behind and take care of this story."
Rio disembarked in Prague from a train packed with humans. Thanks to the blood he'd consumed and the rage that was coursing through every nerve ending in his body, his Breed instincts were locked on full alert as he stepped onto the platform of the busy station. Apparently his quarry had fled here, to Prague, after their confrontation earlier today. He'd been able to track her scent from the mountain into Jicin. From there, with a bit of mental persuasion, the operator of the small hotel in town had been cooperative enough to direct him toward Prague, where the American female and her companions had mentioned they were heading for the last leg of their stay abroad.
The tranced human had also been persuaded to fit Rio with a lightweight trench coat from the hotel's lost-and-found. Although the taupe garment was out of season and several sizes too small, it did a decent job hiding the worst of the filthy, bloodstained rags he wore underneath. He didn't give a shit about style or his looks, or even his certain stench, but he didn't need to draw undue attention by walking into a public place like some kind of castaway freak show.
Rio tried to mask his muscular bulk and height, assuming a hunched yet purposeful shuffle as he ambled through the busy station. No one gave him anything more than a passing glance, the humans subconsciously dismissing him as one of the dozen-plus homeless unfortunates who loitered near the platforms or slept in corners of the station as the trains screeched and roared through the terminal.
With his head down to hide the scar-riddled left side of his face, eyes intense beneath the fall of his unkempt hair, Rio headed for the exit that would put him on a direct path into the heart of the city, where his hunt for the woman and her damning pictures would resume.
Anger kept him focused, even when his head began to spin in the noisy, harshly lit cavern of the station. He ignored the swamping feelings of dizziness and confusion, pushing them down deep so he could find his course and keep it.
Forcing his vision to clear, he moved through a tight knot of young men engaged in a sudden argument in the middle of the terminal. The verbal contest turned physical as Rio passed, one skinny kid from the group getting shoved into a well-dressed English tourist who was yammering on a cell phone as he hurried for the train. The unwitting mark scowled as he recovered from the very deliberate collision and continued on, unaware that he'd just lost his wallet to the gang of professional pickpockets. The thieves moved off with their score, dispersing into the crowd where they would probably pull the same stunt a few more times before the night was through.
In another time, another place, Rio might have gone after the juvenile delinquents, just to set them straight. To show them that the night had eyes…and teeth, if they were too cocky to take a helpful hint.
But he was through playing the dark angel to the humans who lived alongside his kind. Let them cheat and kill one another. He frankly didn't care. As of lately, there wasn't much of anything he cared about – save his oath of honor pledged to his brethren of the Order.
Damn fine job he'd done upholding that vow.
He'd let them down by not sealing the mountain crypt as they'd trusted him to do several months ago. Now that failure was compounded. Now there was a witness. With photographs.
Yeah, absolutely stellar job he'd done so far.
Now the situation was as fucked up as he was.
Rio strode hard for the station exit, inhaling the countless scents that filled the air around him and processing them with a ruthless, determined concentration.
His feet stopped moving at the first trace of juniper and honey.
He swung his head around, following the tickle in his nose like a hound let loose on felled game. The scent of the one he sought was fresh – too fresh to be anything but immediately present.
Madre de Dios.
The woman he hunted was here, in the train station.
"You sure you're going to be okay by yourself, honey? I don't feel right about leaving you behind like this."
"I'll be fine."
Dylan gave Janet and the other two women quick hugs as the group of them stood inside Prague's central train station. It was busy even at this time of night, the art deco building crowded with travelers, panhandlers, and quite a number of sleeping homeless people.
"What if something should happen to you?" Janet asked. "Your mom would never forgive us – and I would never forgive myself – if you get hurt or lost or mugged."
"Thirty-two years in New York hasn't killed me. I'm pretty sure I can survive a day here on my own."
Marie's brow furrowed. "And what about your flight home?"
"Already taken care of. I changed everything online back at the hotel. I'll be flying out of Prague the day after tomorrow."
"We could wait for you, Dylan." Nancy hefted her backpack up over her shoulder. "Maybe we should forget about Vienna and rebook our flights too, so we can all go home together."
"Yes," Marie agreed. "Maybe we should."
Dylan shook her head. "Absolutely not. I'm not going to ask any of you to spend the last day of your trip babysitting me when it's really not necessary. I'm a big girl. Nothing's going to happen. Go on, I'll be perfectly fine."
"You're sure, honey?" Janet asked.
"Positive. Enjoy yourselves in Vienna. I'll see you back home in the States in a couple of days."
It took a further round of fretting and tongue-clucking before the three women finally made their way to the departure platform. Dylan walked along with them, waiting as they boarded. She watched the train roll out of the station, then turned to leave with the rest of the people who'd come to see loved ones off that night.
As she walked toward the station exits, she couldn't shake the feeling that she was being observed. Paranoia, no doubt, brought on by Janet's worrying on her behalf. But still…
Dylan glanced around her in a casual pan of the area, trying not to look anxious or lost – emotional beacons for the types of people who liked to prey on stupid tourists. She held her purse in front of her, one arm locked down over it to keep it close to her body. She knew public transportation areas were prime targets for thieves, just like in the States, and she didn't miss the fact that the group of local teens hanging at a bank of pay phones near the exit were casting measured looks at the crowds as they dispersed. Pickpockets, most likely. She'd heard they often ran in packs around these places.
Just to be safe, she cut a wide berth and avoided them, taking the farthest door from the group.
She was feeling pretty street-savvy when she noticed a uniformed security guard walk up to the guys and show them the door. They loped off, and Dylan reached for the push bar on the glass door in front of her.
In the reflection coming back at her from the glass, she saw a familiar face – one that made her heart seize up in her chest.
Behind her, almost close enough to touch her, was a very large man barreling at her from the direction of the train platforms. Fierce eyes seemed to burn like coals under the fall of his dark hair.
And his mouth…
Good God, she'd never seen a more terrifying sneer in her life. A row of perfect white teeth were clamped tightly behind the lips that were peeled back in a feral snarl, pulling the muscles of his lean face into a stark, deadly mask.
It was him – the man she'd found in the mountain cave outside Jicin.
He'd followed her all this way? Evidently so. She'd thought he might be crazy when she saw him earlier that day, but now she was certain. The way he looked at her now, he had to be an utter psychopath.
And he was gunning for her like he meant to tear her apart with his bare hands.
Dylan shrieked; she couldn't hold back her sharp gasp of fear. She ducked away from the exit, pulling a hard left and running, hopefully out of his path. A quick glance backward only made her pulse slam harder.
"Oh, Jesus," she murmured, fright arrowing through her.
It couldn't be him. He couldn't be here looking for her…
But it was him.
And from the knot of terror that was lodged in her throat, she wasn't about to stand around and ask him what he wanted from her.
She raced over to the station security guard and grabbed the man by the arm. "Help, please! Someone's after me." She flung a look over her shoulder, pointing behind her. "He's back there – light trench coat and long dark hair. Please. You have to help me!"
The uniformed Czech frowned, but he must have understood her because he followed her panicked gesture, his narrowed eyes scanning the station. "Where?" he asked, his English thickly accented. "Show me this man. Who is bothering you?"
"I don't know who he is, but he was right behind me. You can't miss him – more than six feet tall, shoulders like a linebacker, dark, dingy hair hanging over his face…"
Feeling safer now, she turned around, ready to confront the lunatic and hopefully watch him be carted off to the local asylum.
Except he wasn't there. Dylan searched the crowds for the big man who would stand out like a rabid, snarling wolf in the center of a herd of milling sheep. There was no sign of him at all. People filed past in ordered calm, nothing out of sorts, no hint of disruption anywhere.
It was as if he'd simply vanished.
"He's got to be here somewhere," she murmured, even though she couldn't find him – not among the throngs entering and leaving the terminal, nor among the station's population of homeless people. "He was right here, I swear. He was coming after me."
She felt like a fool as the security guard's gaze swung back to her and he gave her a polite smile. "Not anymore. You are okay now?"
"Yeah, sure. Okay, I guess," Dylan said, feeling anything but okay.
She cautiously headed for the front entrance of the station. Although it was a beautiful summer night, with clear skies and plenty of people walking through the surrounding park and on the streets leading deeper into the city, Dylan hailed a taxi to take her the few blocks back to her hotel.
She kept telling herself that she must have been imagining things – that she couldn't possibly have seen the man from the mountain cave stalking up behind her in the train station. Still, as she climbed out of the taxi and hurried into the posh lobby of her hotel, her nape continued to prickle with anxiety. The feeling persisted as she stood outside her room door, fumbling with her electronic key card.
As she finally got the door open, a noise behind her made her pause. She glanced around but saw nothing, despite the continued wash of paranoid apprehension that hung over her. She rushed inside like her life depended on it, feeling a startling blast of ice-cold air envelop her in the dark of her room.
"Air conditioner, doofus," she told herself as she reached for the light switch and flipped it on. She had to laugh at her own paranoia, even as she quickly turned all the locks behind her.
She didn't see him until she took a step farther into the dimly lit room.
The man from the mountain cave, the lunatic from the train station, was somehow – impossibly – standing not ten feet from her.
Dylan's mouth dropped open in shock.
And then she screamed.