Dark Hunger


Page 21



Less than a minute later, she said, “I have to fly out,” to Illium, having grabbed the address from Ransom before he left, his expression tight. “I want you to stay here, keep a watch on Keir.” No sane archangel would target a healer, but there was no guarantee they were dealing with anyone sane. And what better way to cripple New York than to eliminate the one person who had any real handle on the disease?


“You can’t fly alone at night,” Illium reminded her. “It’s a blanket ban.”


“Shit.” She’d forgotten the precaution and it wasn’t one it’d be smart to flout, given the current situation. “Who—” She broke off as the gleaming red motorcycle, which had disappeared in the time she’d been inside, purred to a stop in front of the house once more.


The tall male who slid off after removing his helmet had eyes of deep green and hair of chestnut, his face holding an inherent and lazy sensuality reinforced by his every movement. It would be a mistake, however, to trust that first impression—because while Janvier wasn’t one of the Seven, he worked directly with them. No one held the respect of men that dangerous without being deadly himself.


“I return as per your command, dear Bluebell,” the vampire now said, the cadence of his voice invoking images of bayous dark and mysterious.


Illium’s order was to the point. “Make sure no one gets to Keir. Aodhan is arranging aerial backup—someone should be here within ten minutes.” When Janvier flicked a salute, his motorcycle jacket shifting to reveal the gleaming black butt of a serious gun, Illium turned to Elena. “A lift?”


“Yes.”


His hands around her waist, her own on his shoulders, Illium took off. Though he was whiplash-fast and could maneuver like nobody else she knew, he didn’t have as much brute strength as Raphael, the lift taking longer than it did when it was her consort who held her. Eyes of gold looked into her own as they rose into the starlit sky, the lashes thick black tipped with blue in a natural echo of his hair. “You look angry, Ellie.”


Oh, she was. It didn’t matter that she understood she was being irrational—humans couldn’t be permitted certain knowledge for the good of mortals and immortals alike. And if anyone leaked the news of this disease, it would not only incite panic, it might give Raphael’s enemies the sign of weakness for which they no doubt waited.


Regardless of all that, she was angry at Raphael for being so much an archangel. That, too, was in no way logical or rational, simply a sign that she’d lost sight of the truth of him because he’d become someone else to her. It was a bone-jarring shock to be so bluntly reminded that the man who was her lover was that man only for her. To the rest of the world he was—must be—the lethal, dangerous, and sometimes cruel Archangel of New York.


None of that was something she could share with Illium, this battle a very private one, so all she said was, “It’s been a hard night.”


His expression told her he knew that wasn’t all of it, but he released her without further words as soon as they’d gained the correct altitude, and they flew in silence to the cute little warehouse that functioned as Blood-for-Less’s current base of operations . . . and the heart of the infection.


14


Unsurprisingly, the blood café was open, the doorway glowing with a muted light that would be too dark for most humans, but perfect for its clientele. While the warehouse was technically in the Vampire Quarter, it was on the very fringe, no other vampiric businesses around it. As a result, the area was currently deserted, devoid of foot traffic.


Inside, the warehouse had been partitioned into two sides using heavy black drapes in lush velvet, one side acting as the store and office, while the other was set up with three sets of unexpectedly lovely seating arrangements featuring wine-red sofas accented with black rugs. There was even art on the walls, the black-and-white photographs carefully chosen to add to the darkly sensual ambience.


It was the kind of place that might tempt a group of friends to linger, drink a glass of blood together . . . maybe buy another more expensive one—because when Elena picked up a menu from a nearby side table lacquered in glossy black, she saw that Blood-for-Less also offered a premium service tailored to its market: rich blood flavored or spiced in a number of different ways, but at a price that wouldn’t break the budget, as each serving was relatively small. Attractive enough pricewise that a couple on a date, for example, might buy several flavors to share, and fancy enough that it’d feel like a special occasion.


Smart business.


“Welcome—” The pretty Hispanic woman who’d walked out of the office cut off her spiel the instant she saw them. “Consort.” Ruffles of white lace at her throat and cuffs, teamed with a tightly fitted vest and pants in black, she lowered her upper half in a deep bow. “How may I be of service?” Her gaze flicked to the door that Illium was closing as she rose back up, fear crawling into her eyes with a quickness that told Elena this vamp’s angel hadn’t been kind to her. “I assure you I’ve completed my hundred years. I have my discharge papers—”


Elena held up a hand to relieve the woman’s panic. “I’m not here to take you in, but I need you to answer some questions. How much blood do you have in storage?”


Blinking, the vampire pulled herself together with commendable speed. “I just began this business three months ago, so it runs on a shoestring. My present stock is two hundred bottles.”


A knock somewhere beyond the velvet curtains had the owner glancing over her shoulder, before she jerked her gaze back to Elena, perspiration glimmering on her skin. “That’s the donor entrance. I get enough walk-ins to keep the stock relatively steady, but I haven’t yet built up a strong network of regular donors. It can get hairy sometimes—last week I was down to twenty bottles before a group of college students dropped by.” The explanation came out staccato-fast, as if she was attempting to hold back suspected bad news by drowning the air in words.


“I need to see the blood,” Elena said, hating the fact that she now inspired so much fear in a legal, hardworking vampire.

A jerky nod. “Of course.” The shorter, curvier woman led her inside the office and to three large fridges. “Is—is there a problem with my blood?” Her fingers trembled as she tugged at the lace of her cuffs.


“I can’t tell you yet. If you could step out, stay with Illium.”


Opening the nearest fridge once the vampire left, Elena picked up the first bottle, unscrewed it and took a sniff.


Cold iron, a hint of disease . . . but it was a disease she’d scented before.


“Cancer,” she muttered and screwed the lid back on.


It took her a number of hours to go through the entire stock, and by the time she was halfway through, she’d found three that pulsed with the putrid stench she associated with the vampire pox. An angel dispatched earlier for courier duty took the infected blood to Keir as it was discovered, the healer having returned to the labs underneath the Tower.


No others set off her senses.


Regardless, none of the blood in this warehouse could be permitted into circulation. When she informed the owner, the vampire—who, Elena had learned, was named Marcia Blue—almost broke down in tears. “I put my entire payout into this business,” she said, hugging her arms around her body. “I can’t afford to rebuild my stock from scratch.”


“Do you have insurance?”


A shake of the woman’s head. “Premiums were too high, given my location and clientele.” Trembling, she bit down on her lower lip and swallowed in a clear effort to hold back tears. “I made a profit for the first time last week.”


Elena thought of the heartrending unfairness of so much of what had happened over the past three days, culminating in the broken dreams of this vampire who’d put in her time, done her hundred, and she made a decision. “I’ll stake you for a percentage of future profits,” she said, knowing she couldn’t simply give Marcia the money.


Harsh as it might seem, that would make the Tower appear far too generous, the association between it and Elena automatic. And the Tower couldn’t afford to be anything but ruthless . . . as Raphael couldn’t afford to let her humanity alter the balance of power that kept the city stable.


Marcia’s eyes went wide. “You?”


“Yes, I need to start investing my money, and I like your idea. But,” she added when Marcia would’ve spoken, “you understand I’ll have to go over your long-term business plan to make sure it’s a sound investment?” That seemed like the kind of thing an investor would say.


“Of course.” A shaky smile, Marcia’s heart in her eyes. “I’ll send it to the Tower at once.” Bowing again, the other woman looked up, tears rolling down her cheeks. “You won’t be sorry. I swear it.”


Uncomfortable, Elena turned the conversation back to the hunt. “In the meantime, we’ll advance you some clean blood—and you’ll start operations again tomorrow at your normal time. Accept donors as usual but don’t sell any of their blood. Sell only the blood you receive from us. Understood?”


A quick nod.


About to continue, Elena had a thought. “Did you put up a sign explaining tonight’s closure?” If the carrier had returned during that time and become suspicious, he or she might not come back.


It was Illium who answered. “Front and donor door. Just said, Family emergency, back tomorrow.”


Since vampires often considered other vampires with whom they’d served, family, that was an excuse no one would question. “Do you have surveillance?” she asked Marcia.


“No. There was no money for that.”


A quick glance at Illium, a nod in return, and she knew the cameras would be in place before the doors opened the next day. “I need you to keep strict data on who donates what blood,” she said to Marcia. “Tag and label everything.”


The vampire nodded, eyes shrewd. “Someone is selling tainted blood, and the taint’s dangerous.” Carrying on before Elena could interrupt, she said, “I won’t speak a word of this, and I’ll ensure none of the donated blood leaves the café.”



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