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Shades of Midnight (Chapter Two)

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS

Heat blasted out of the Range Rover's dashboard vents as Brock upped the temperature another few degrees. "Damn, it's cold tonight." The big male from Detroit cupped his hands in front of his mouth and blew into his palms. "I hate winter, man. Feels like goddamn Siberia out there."

"Not even close," Kade replied from behind the wheel of the parked SUV, his gaze fixed on the decrepit brownstone they'd been surveilling for the past couple of hours. Even in the postmidnight darkness, with a fresh blanket of snow masking everything in pristine white, the place looked like total shit from the outside. Not that it mattered. Whatever they were peddling inside–drugs, sex, or a combination of both-was bringing a fairly steady stream of human traffic to the door. Kade watched as a trio of frat boys wearing university colors and a couple of bundled-up young women climbed out of a piece-of-crap Impala and went inside.

"If this was Siberia," Kade added once the street got quiet again, "our balls would be jingling like sleigh bells and we'd be pissing ice cubes. Boston in November is a picnic."

"Says the vampire born on a friggin' Alaskan glacier," Brock drawled, shaking his head as he held his dark hands in front of the vents and tried to rub off the chill. "How much longer you think we need to wait out here before our man decides to show his ugly face? I need to start moving before my ass freezes to this seat."

Kade grunted more than chuckled, as impatient as his partner on tonight's patrol of the city. It wasn't the humans that brought Brock and him to this address in one of Boston's roughest areas, but the inpidual purported to be behind the illegal activity. And if their intel proved valid–that the vampire who ran the place was also dealing in another forbidden commodity–then the night was going to end on a very unpleasant, probably bloody, note.

Kade could hardly wait.

"Here he is now," he said, watching as a pair of headlights swung around the corner and a pimpedout black Mercedes with gold trim and gilded hubcaps prowled to a stop at the curb. out black Mercedes with gold trim and gilded hubcaps prowled to a stop at the curb.

"You have got to be kidding me," Brock said, smirking as the spectacle continued. Music throbbed from within the sedan, the rhythmic bass and punching lyrics vibrating impossibly louder as the driver got out and went around to open the back passenger-side door. A pair of leashed white pit bulls were the first to exit the car, followed by their master, a tall Breed male trying hard to look badass even though he was wrapped in a long fox-fur coat and had gone about ten pounds beyond the respectable limits of bling and guyliner.

"Forget about the shit Gideon turned up on this asshole," Kade said. "We'd be in the right to waste him just for going out in public dressed like that."

Brock grinned, showing the very tips of his fangs. "You ask me, I think we ought to waste him just for making us freeze our stones off waiting for him out here."

At the curb, the vampire gave his dogs a harsh yank of their studded leather leashes when they dared to take a step ahead of him. He kicked the one nearest to him as he strode toward the door of the brownstone, chuckling at the dog's sharp yelp of pain. When he and his driver and his pair of hellhounds had all disappeared inside the building, Kade killed the Rover's auxiliary power and opened his door.

"Come on," he said. "Let's find a way in through the back while Homeboy's busy making an entrance."

They moved in behind the building and located a ground-level window half obscured by snow and street rubbish. Squatting on his haunches, Kade brushed away the ice and crusted-over filth, then lifted the hinged panel of glass and peered into the darkened space on the other side. It was a brick cellar, littered with a couple of rotted mattresses, spent condoms, used syringes, and a combined stench of piss, vomit, and various other expelled bodily fluids that assaulted Kade's acute senses like a sledgehammer blow to his skull.

"Jesus Christ," he hissed, lips curling back off his teeth and fangs. "Homeboy's housekeeper is so fired."

He slipped inside, landing soundlessly on the rough concrete floor. Brock followed, 280-plus pounds of heavily armed vampire lighting as quietly as a cat beside him. Kade motioned past the revolting mess on the floor to a pitch-black corner of the room, where a short length of chain and a pair of shackles lay. A strip of silver duct tape had been cast off nearby, with several strands of long, light blond hair stuck to it.

Brock met Kade's hard stare in the dark. His deep voice was more growl than words. "Skin trader." Kade nodded grimly, sickened by the evidence of all that had taken place in this dank, dark basement prison. He was about to head for the stairs and crash the party above when Brock's low curse made him pause.

"We're not alone down here, my man." Brock indicated a barred door all but obscured by shadows and the rusted skeleton of an old box spring that leaned too neatly against it. "Humans," he said. "Females, just on the other side of that door."

Hearing the quiet, broken breathing now, and feeling the current of pain and suffering that rode on the fetid air, Kade moved with Brock toward the lightless corner of the cellar. They pushed aside the old box spring, then Kade lifted the thick metal bar that locked the door from the outside.

"Holy hell," Brock whispered into the darkness. He stepped inside the small room where three young women sat huddled together in the corner, shivering and terrified. When one of them started to scream, Brock moved faster than any of the drugged humans could track him. Reaching down, he brushed his hand over the female's brow, trancing her into silence with his touch. "It's all right. You're safe now. We aren't going to hurt you."

"Have any of them been bled?" Kade asked, watching as Brock willed the other two captives into similar states of quiet.

"They've been beaten recently, so there's bruising. But I don't see any bite wounds. Don't see any Breedmate marks, either," he added, doing a quick check of the women's exposed skin and extremities, looking for the teardrop-and-crescent-moon birthmark that differentiated mortal females from their more genetically extraordinary sisters. Brock gently released the pale arm he held, then stood up. "At least none of these three is a Breedmate."

A small mercy, and one that hardly exonerated the vampire scum who'd been making a business out of trafficking women to the highest bidder.

"Give me a minute to scrub their memories of what they've been through and get them safely out of here," Brock said. "I'll be right behind you."

here," Brock said. "I'll be right behind you."

Kade gave him a tight nod and a flash of fang. "Meanwhile, I'm going to head upstairs and have a little private chat with Homeboy."

With aggression burning like acid in his veins, Kade crept up the steps to the noise-filled main floor of the building, bypassing the orgy taking place under a cloud of narcotic smoke, trippy industrial music, and flashing strobe lights.

In a back office down the hall, he heard the thin rasp of the scumbag he was looking for.

"Fetch me the female who just came in with those Ivy League losers–no, not the blonde, the other one. If she's a true redhead, she's worth twice as much to me."

Kade hung back, grinning as Homeboy's beefy driver-slash-bodyguard came out of the office and saw him standing there in the hallway. The male was Breed, as well, and menace flashed as amber light in his irises when he saw the threat before him now.

"Shh," Kade said pleasantly, a dagger already gripped in his hand and ready to let fly. He released the blade in the instant the driver reached for his own weapon, nailing the big vampire dead center in the throat. The bulky body sagged to the floor, and as the heavy thump carried over the din of music and moaning from up the hall, Kade leapt around the corpse to fill the open doorway of Homeboy's office.

The pair of white pit bulls lunged faster than their master in the ridiculous fur coat could react. Snarling and snapping, the dogs charged Kade. He didn't flinch; there was no need. He caught their wild eyes in an unblinking look of command that brought them both to a sudden halt on the carpeted floor in front of his boots.

All of the Breed were born with their own unique talents–or curses, in some cases–in addition to the longevity, strength, and bloodthirst that were traits of their kind. In Kade, his talent was the ability to connect psychically with predator animals and direct their actions with a simple thought. It was a power he had honed to lethal precision from the time he was a boy in the frozen Alaskan wild, and with animals far more dangerous than these.

"Stay," he said calmly to the dogs, then glanced up at the Breed male who gaped at him from across the small room. "You stay, too."

"What the–who the fuck are you?" Panic and outrage deepened the lines around the vampire's mouth as he took in Kade's appearance, from the black fatigues and combat boots that matched the dark color of his spiky hair, to the impressive collection of blades and semiautomatic weaponry he sported at his hips and on holsters strapped to his thighs. "Warrior," he breathed, evidently not so arrogant–or stupid–that he didn't know some measure of fear at this unannounced visit. "What could the Order possibly want from me?"

"Information," Kade replied. He took a step inside the room and closed the door behind him, pausing to scratch one of the now-docile pit bulls behind the ear. "We've heard some disturbing things about this business you're running here. We need to know more."

The vampire lifted his shoulders and made a half-assed attempt to look confused. "What's to tell? I dabble in a variety of ventures."

"Yeah, I noticed. Nice little venture you've got going down in the basement of this shithole. How long have you been trafficking women?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Now, see, making me repeat myself is not a smart thing to do." Kade crouched low and motioned to the pair of pit bulls to come up alongside him. They sat at his feet like squat gargoyles, staring at their former master and obediently awaiting Kade's command simply because that's what he wanted them to do.

"I'll bet if I told these dogs to rip your throat out, I wouldn't have to ask them twice. What do you think?

Should we find out?"

Homeboy swallowed hard. "I-I haven't been doing it for very long. A couple months short of a year, I guess. Started out with drugs and whores, then I started getting certain … requests." He fidgeted with one of the many gold rings that gleamed on his fingers. "You know, requests for services of a more permanent nature."

"And your clients?" Kade prompted as he rose to his full six-foot-four height. "Who are they?"

"Humans, primarily. I really don't keep good records."

"But you do provide these services" –he hissed the word through his fangs–"to members of the Breed, as well."

It wasn't a question, and Homeboy knew it. He gave another shrug, the collar of his fox coat brushing against his diamond-studded earlobe. "I deal in a cash business, simple supply and demand. Breed or human, the money is all the same."

"And business is good," Kade guessed.

"I'm getting by. Why is the Order so interested in what I'm doing, anyway? You looking for a piece of the action?" he hedged, his smile little more than a slimy split of his lips. "I could cut Lucan in, if that's what this is about. I am a businessman, after all."

"You are scum," Kade said, incensed but not surprised that a bottom-feeder like this would think that he or any of his brethren were for sale. "And if I told Lucan you said that, he would shred you open from chin to balls. You know what? Fuck that. I'll save him the trouble–"

"Wait!" Homeboy held up his hands. "Wait. Tell me what you want to know."

"Okay. Let's start with this. How many of the women you've locked up in that basement and sold were Breedmates?"

A sickening silence lengthened while the vampire considered how best to answer. Even this worthless offal had to know that those rare females bearing the Breedmate birthmark were revered, precious to all of the Breed. To bring harm to a Breedmate was to bring harm to the entire vampire race, for there were no other females on the planet who could carry Breed young in their womb. To knowingly collect a profit from a Breedmate's pain, or to benefit in any way from her death, was about the most heinous thing one of Kade's kind could do.

He watched the other vampire as he would an insect trapped under glass, and in fact, he valued this Breed male's life even less.

"How many, you disgusting fuck? More than one? A dozen? Twenty?" He had to work to bite back his snarl. "Did you sell them unknowingly, or did you make an even bigger profit off their suffering?

Answer the goddamn question!"

With Kade's outburst, the pair of pit bulls rose up onto their feet, their compact muscles taut and straining, both of them growling with menace. The dogs were as attuned to Kade's anger as he was to them. He held the dogs back with only the barest thread of self-control, knowing that if the vampire cowering in front of him had any information of value, he was duty-bound to wring it out of him. Then he could kill him with a clear conscience.

"Who have you been selling Breedmates to? Answer the fucking question. I'm not going to wait all night for you to cough up the truth."

"I-I don't know," he stammered. "That is the truth. I don't know."

"But you admit that's what you've been doing." God, he wanted to waste this piece of shit. "Tell me who you've been trafficking to, before I rip your ugly head off."

"I swear–I don't know who wanted them!"

Kade wasn't about to let it go at that. "Was it more than one inpidual who came to you for the females? What about the name Dragos–ring any bells with you?"

Kade watched with narrowed eyes, waiting for the vampire to take the bait. But the name Kade cast out to him went unacknowledged. Anyone having dealt with the Breed elder known as Dragos–a villain whose evil had only recently been discovered through the efforts of the Order–would surely register some amount of reaction at the mention of his name.

Homeboy, however, was oblivious. He exhaled a sigh and gave a weak shake of his head. "I only dealt with one guy. He wasn't Breed. Wasn't actually human, either. Not by the time I met him, anyway."

"A Minion, then?"

The news didn't exactly put Kade at ease. Though the creation of Minions went against Breed law, not to mention basic morality, only the most powerful of the Breed could create the human mind slaves. Drained nearly to the point of death, Minions were loyal to their Master alone. Dragos was secondgeneration Breed and held himself above any law, Breed or otherwise. It wasn't a question of whether Dragos kept Minions, but rather how many, and how deeply embedded into human society did they go.

"Would you know this Minion if you saw him again?"

The animal carcass wrapped around the vampire's neck lifted once more with another shrug of his shoulders. "I don't know. Maybe. He hasn't been around for a long time now. Stopped doing business with him about three, maybe four months ago. For a while there, he was one of my regulars, then nothing out of him again."

"You must have been so disappointed," Kade drawled. "Describe him to me. What did the Minion look like?"

look like?"

"Tell you the truth, I never got a good look at the guy. Never really tried, either. I could tell he was Minion, and the dude paid in large bills. Nothing more I needed to know about him." Kade's veins tightened with animosity and a barely restrained rage to hear the ambivalence in his words. He had killed for lesser offenses than this–far less–and the urge to tear apart this worthless excuse of a male was fierce. "So, what you're saying is you repeatedly sold him innocent females who were too drugged up to defend them-selves, with zero regard for what he was doing with them or where they might end up. No questions asked. That about it?"

"I guess you could say I run my business on the basis of 'don't ask, don't tell.'"

"Yeah, you could say that," Kade agreed. "Or I could say that you run your business like an asslicking coward and you deserve to die a slow and painful death." Worry spiked in an acrid stink as the vampire held Kade's stare. "Now, let's just wait a minute. Let me think for a second, all right? Maybe I can remember something. Maybe there is some way I can help–"

"I doubt it." Kade scrutinized him, seeing from the look of scrambling panic on his face that he wasn't going to get anything more useful out of this conversation.

Besides that, he was tired of looking at the asshole.

He reached down to lift the dogs' chins in his palms, glancing into the intense brown eyes of one, then the other. The silent command was acknowledged with a faint twitch of sinew. The pit bulls jumped up onto the desk and sat in front of their former master, their eyes unblinking, sharp-toothed maws open and dripping saliva.

"Good boys," Kade said. He pivoted to leave.

"Wait, so … that's it?" Homeboy asked hesitantly from around the pair of slavering gargoyles that were now perched before him. "I wanna be sure we're cool for now. I mean, I told you everything I know. That's all you want from me, right?"

"Not exactly," Kade said without looking back at the skin trader. He put his hand on the doorknob.

"There is one more thing I want."

As he walked out of the office and closed the door, he heard the pair of pit bulls launch into their attack. Kade paused there, closing his eyes and letting himself enjoy the violence of the moment through his talent's visceral connection to the animals. He felt every breaking crunch of bone, every tear of the skin trader's flesh as the dogs ripped into him. Inside the room, the vampire screamed and wailed, his pain a pleasant punctuation to the music and moaning still carrying on in the other part of the building. Brock came striding up the hallway as Kade was stepping around the corpse of the driver.

"You take care of the females?" he asked as he and his patrol partner met up halfway.

"I scrubbed the memories of their whole captivity and sent them home," Brock said. The big male spared only the briefest glance at the body before arching a brow at Kade. "How about you? Did you manage to get anything out of Homeboy?"

"Turns out he wasn't actually much of a dog person," Kade said around the continued shrieks coming from the direction of the office.

Brock's mouth quirked at the corner. "So I hear. Anything else?"

"Yeah, unfortunately. Asshole's been trafficking Breedmates, just as our intel suggested. His client was a Minion, but he didn't know anything more than that. Never saw the mind slave up close and couldn't describe him at all."

"Shit," Brock said, running a big hand over the top of his head. "So I guess Homeboy was a dead end, huh?"

Kade cocked his head as the last of the howls cut short behind him. "He is now." Brock exhaled a rueful chuckle. "Let's get this place cleaned up and shut down. Got a text from Gideon, asking us to call in when we can. Something about a situation up north."

"Up north, as in upstate?"

"No, man. Farther north than that." Brock met his gaze and held it for longer than was comfortable.

"Something's evidently gone down in Alaska. He didn't say what exactly, just said that Lucan wants you to report in to headquarters ASAP."

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