Dark Hunger


Page 26



She’d argued against his perception, but now found herself considering if it was true. Had her father scarred her so badly as a child? No, it was far more complicated than that. “The greatest breach of trust,” she found herself saying softly, having moved away from the area under surveillance, “was my mother’s.”


His eyes told her he knew her meaning. Understood the agony that had shredded her as she stood mute beside Marguerite’s grave, Beth’s tiny hand clasped in hers. Jeffrey had been behind them, his hands on their shoulders, his body their rock, strong and there.


“I was so angry at him for not stopping her.” Catching a suspicious concentration of scent, she went down into a crouch, her wings on the cold asphalt. “After the funeral, I struck out at him, screaming that it was his fault when I knew it wasn’t.” Her mother hadn’t survived Slater Patalis and what he’d done to her two oldest babies, no matter if her body had made it out alive.


“You were a child.”


Elena shook her head at Raphael’s response. “I was old enough to know better, but you know what? Jeffrey never, not once, argued against my irrational accusations. Because he blamed himself, too.”


She hadn’t thought about those first days after her mother’s suicide for years, only what came after, when Jeffrey’s broken heart had translated into a cold rage that had him erasing Marguerite from the house and their lives. “Every time I think I understand what we are—Jeffrey and I—I discover another facet and suddenly it’s not so sim—”


Putrid rot, the miasma of death, an undertone of burnt flesh.


“There’s something here.” Her senses hummed. “It’s faint, hard for me to sink my teeth into even though I can sense each of the notes.” Ugly, fetid, unnatural. “Possibly because it’s from a human.”


“Can you follow it?”


“Yes, I think so.”


“I’ll keep watch from above.” Walking a short distance away so as not to disturb the scents, he took off and was lost behind a veil of glamour.


It took painstaking patience to tug on that one faint thread among the dozens that blanketed the area. Blood-for-Less might be on the fringe of the Vampire Quarter, but it apparently got plenty of business—unlike on her previous visit, Elena had heard the heavy murmur of voices from within that indicated Marcia had a full house tonight.


The deeper she got into the Quarter, the more heavily trafficked it became, the central section a favorite among hip young vamps—and suburbanites who wanted to walk on the wild side without going into the more dangerous parts of town. Leggy models, mortal and immortal, were as ubiquitous a part of the landscape as slickly dressed vampires on the prowl, everyone congregating around the clubs that opened their doors after nightfall.


No one dared get in her way.


Keeping her wings folded tight to her back, she made sure her blades were in full view as she tracked. Not that she was afraid of being tackled by a fashionista vamp, she thought with an inward snort. Then again, stilettos were fucking lethal weapons as far as she was concerned.


Ten more minutes of meticulous tracking and she passed out of the central zone and into the Flesh Market. Most tourist guidebooks told visitors to “exercise extreme caution” in this part of the Quarter. Because while the vamps in this area were as stylishly dressed and as urbane, they were older, with darker appetites. Club Masque, up ahead, had a sign at the top of the mortal queue that said, Fresh Meat.


And still the young and nubile and stupid lined up.


Raphael, she said after another block, the stores here shut up for the night and empty of traffic except for a couple who crossed the street when they saw her and a drug dealer who suddenly had urgent business elsewhere. I need to go down this passageway. It wasn’t quite an alley, but according to what she could see with her acute night vision, it was close enough for the homeless.


I have you in my sights.


Squeezing her wings as tight to her back as she could manage, she picked her way through the cardboard castles that housed the flotsam and jetsam of the city. They weren’t exclusively human. Vampires could descend into this shadow life just like their mortal counterparts—all it took was an addiction to something. Certain enterprising bloodsuckers had created recreational drugs that worked on those of their kind, though apparently the high didn’t last long enough for most to bother.


More in vogue were “honey” feeds, where a human donor would get high on certain drugs then allow the vamp to feed. Vampiric biology soon neutralized the drugs, but not fast enough to totally negate the pleasure—and sex, of course, was also often on the same menu. All for a price. Then there was gambling, and the sadder cases where an individual, vamp or human, lost the struggle with personal demons no one else could see.


“Hunter.” The rasping whisper came from a shriveled-up old man tucked up inside a cardboard box fashioned into a home, the “curtains” open to reveal his reddened eyes and the brown-paper-bagged bottle in his hands.


Startled that he’d focused on what marked her as Guild, rather than the wings, Elena paused, a sick feeling in her stomach as her eyes adjusted enough to make out the knife scars on his hands. No hunter was ever left behind by his or her brethren . . . but some chose to walk out into the darkness and never return.


“Hunter,” she replied, giving back the same respect he’d offered her. “The Guild is always open to you.” All hunters paid a percentage of their income to the Guild; one of the reasons why was so the Guild could provide care should a hunter be physically or mentally incapacitated. “I can make the call.”


“I like it out here.”


Elena had no way of knowing what he’d survived, the reasons for his choices, so she made no judgment. “Are you here always?”


A nod.

“I’ll ask one of the Guild patrols to come by with some food.” They’d nudge him into better sleeping quarters, too, when the snow started to fall. “I can ask them to bring along a strong, basic tent for you.” Nothing that would make him a target for thieves. “Is that all right?”


A long pause, his eyes seeming to judge her before he said, “Long as they bring enough for two.” His gaze went to another cardboard enterprise a few feet over and across the narrow passageway. “Got to watch each other’s backs. It’s what we do.”


Elena nodded. “Stay safe.”


“Hunt well.”


Continuing down into the pitch-blackness of the passage until it spit her out the other end, Elena found herself in an enclosed parking lot behind an Asian restaurant; she’d hit the edge of Chinatown. A single yellow streetlamp doused the area in an anemic glow, creating pools of shadow as thick as liquid, the dark green Dumpsters a silent menace.


“Get a grip, Ellie.”


Following the suspicious scent to a broken part of the fence, she managed to get through the chain link without snagging her feathers. The scent was cleaner now, no longer overwhelmed by those of vampires, this area with its cheap and tasty restaurants a mortal haunt, though she knew a couple of angels who were regulars. The restaurants were closed up for the night, all except for a twenty-four-hour noodle place where a worker pushed a mop around while bopping to the music in his headphones.


A bedraggled mutt kept company with her for a block before being seduced by an overflowing Dumpster, though she saw the rotting carcass of more than one dead bird lying in the nooks and crannies. No one had bothered to clean them up here as they had in the restaurant area, and even the feral cats and dogs knew to steer clear of that festering meat.


When she looked around and saw the scaffolding, she realized the reason for the lack of care—no one was currently residing or doing business on this street, and from the looks of things, no construction workers had been by for a few days, either. Permit or money problems, probably.


A sudden end to the scent, there one second, gone the next.


Backing up, she realized the individual she was tracking had gone up the steps of one of the scaffolded buildings. Looks like our carrier is squatting. No security, so it wouldn’t be hard.


Is she present within?


Unless there’s a back entrance.


Wait. A pause before Raphael said, The back entrance is inaccessible.


Then she’s inside. I found one recent scent trail, with an older one beneath, so my take is, she went out to sell her blood and came straight back.


A sudden wind was the only sign that Raphael had landed on the street. Be careful on the steps, she said, having returned to the door. Looks like the target went through that window. Pushed up, the glass missing, it would’ve been just within reach if someone climbed up onto part of the scaffolding. We’ll need your manly muscles to get in. If that’s not beneath Your Archangelness.


His kiss took her by surprise, her mind scrambling to understand the fact that she was being deliciously taken by a man she couldn’t see. Releasing her before she’d gotten her head around it, he began to pry off the boards that barred the front door, doing so with an ease that made it appear the boards were just sitting there.


Thirty seconds later, the door was open.


18


Narrow, but we can get in if we angle our bodies. I’ll enter first.


I’m the hunter, Elena reminded him. I should go first.


Of course you may go first. When I am dead.


Scowling at that statement delivered in an eminently reasonable tone that had fooled her into thinking he was going to agree, she pulled out her crossbow. Go. We’ll argue about your autocratic tendencies later.


I look forward to it.


Since he’d dropped the glamour upon entering, his wings filled her vision until they came out into a more open area of what looked like a private residence, though it might well have been a combined business/home, the lower-floor open plan enough to have functioned as a retail shop.


Upstairs, she said, the scent trail a pulsing beacon.


You do not wish to clear this floor?


It’s only the dead down here. More than a few days, from the degradation of the disease smell. The bodies hadn’t rotted, likely because the house was as cold as a fridge, but it was no doubt the same vampire pox.



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