Like most men, Brett had always liked sex. And like most men, deep down, he considered himself something of an expert lover. Certainly complimentary comments from his previous partners had helped with that impression. There were only so many times a guy could get told he was the best lay ever before he got a big head. But last ‘night’ with Julia had been something else entirely. A sensual and charged experience that had totally blown his mind, one that had kept him close to her as they rested.
With the darkness Julia’s energy had returned, and they’d been on the road for hours. Using her as a bloodhound to track the Bloods, they’d followed the trail to what appeared to be an abandoned warehouse. Now they were crouched in the edges of scrub-land nearby, watching the building. It was surrounded by a chain-link fence that had sections ripped and missing, and the parking lot in front of them was empty of the vehicles that had once loaded here.
He moved closer to Julia, crouching next to her to loop his arm casually around her waist. He couldn’t resist touching her. She was like a drug, one whose lure he couldn’t and didn’t want to escape. At his touch, she smiled at him over her shoulder. He smiled back, an unfamiliar feeling spreading through his chest. One so warm that he had to double-check he hadn’t restarted his heart, just to be sure.
He hadn’t, but the warmth remained. He sat back on his haunches and looked around. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of Dom. Crouched behind them, the bigger man was making silent kisses in the air while thrusting his index finger into his closed fist. Brett flicked him the bird behind Julia’s back.
“They’ve been there. Recently.”
Julia’s voice was soft and light, pitched so it didn’t carry beyond their little group. Approval joined the warm feeling in the middle of his chest. She’d learned quickly that they only needed the tiniest of vibrations in her voice box or movement of her hands to get their attention.
“Okay.” Fredericks nodded, rising from his crouch. “Stay behind us. If the shit hits the fan, get out and back to where we agreed.”
That was the last word on the subject. Silence reigned as the five of them stormed the building. Rendered wraiths in the darkness, they made the chain link fence in front of them, swarming in perfect concert through a gap where the mesh had peeled away from a post. Brett concentrated on the building ahead. He shut everything else out except for the sound of Julia’s heartbeat behind them. He was alert for the slightest movement that could indicate the enemy had seen them, expecting at any moment for snarls and Bloods erupting out of the shadows around the warehouse.
Nothing happened. The shadows remained just pools of darkness that didn’t hide anything sinister. They raced across the loading circle in front of the structure, the slight crunch of stones underfoot all that gave away their position.
He reached the loading bay first. Wrapping his hand around a steel support strut, he swung his body weight around and up onto the platform the forklifts had used to load the backs of the trucks. Black tire marks on the concrete lined up with the battered roller shutters. Five bays.
The others joined him on the platform, skittering up the side of the building as though the change in surface orientation was little more than a minor inconvenience.
Pausing for a moment, he watched to ensure Julia made it up onto the platform alright. He needn’t have worried. She barely altered her stride to run at the same point on the wall he had, reaching up to wrap her hand around the same strut he had. With a graceful leap, she copied his move and landed lightly next to him with her eyebrow raised in query.
Attagirl. She learned fast, by watching him, it seemed.
Turning, he studied the doors in front of them. The darkness presented no problems, his vision adapting until he could see clearly. Fredericks motioned Dom and Kelwood to the left and the right, indicating broken windows higher on the walls.
The two split, jumping onto the walls to crawl up and across to their targets. Vertical surfaces posed no problem anymore. Hell, they could probably climb the Empire State Building if they’d wanted to, like some sort of freaky spider men. He huffed to himself. As long as no one suggested they wear spandex, it was all cool.
The remaining trio turned to the door in front of them. Unlike the other doors, it was the only one that showed recent use. Dints and scrapes at the sides cut into the rust to reveal new metal. There was no way they’d be able to lift the whole thing without alerting anyone within the building they were coming.
A click behind him made both him and Fredericks look over their shoulders. Julia jerked her head to the side and they looked that way. Hidden in the recess of the exterior wall and the interior wall of the platform was a man door.
Grinning, he gave her a thumbs-up, and in the next second he and Fredericks were at the door. He reached out a hand, putting it on the handle and pausing to check for vibrations. Nothing. No footsteps within, no speech, no nothing. Not even the background rumble of a machine running.
He applied pressure on the handle, gently, expected to meet resistance. Instead, it gave with a click, and the door swung open in front of them. He cast a puzzled glance at Fredericks. The Bloods were inhuman killers and assholes to boot, but they were, or had been, soldiers. They wouldn’t leave their lair unlocked for just anyone to wander in.
Their movements synchronized, the two of them moved through the doorway, instantly splitting left and right, ready for an attack from within. As soon as they were through the door, two things became apparent. One, the derelict appearance of the warehouse was a sham, and two, it was empty.
He and Fredericks froze, all senses on high alert for anything that could indicate there were Bloods in the building. Apart from Julia’s behind them, there were no heartbeats, not even their own. They’d all shut them down to track more efficiently. But no heartbeats didn’t mean a lot when it came to Bloods. Not when some could do the whole freeze-like-a-statue thing, slowing their hearts right down to one beat every couple of minutes and only bursting into movement when they were ready. Like those street performers who dressed as statues and scared the crap out of people when they moved unexpectedly. But where street performers only looked to elicit a shriek and a laugh from the unwary, Bloods had an entirely more deadly agenda.
So they held still. Listened. Every fiber of Brett’s being was aware, waiting for an isolated beat or some other movement that would lead them to a Blood hidden in the darkness.
Moments passed, stretched into minutes without incident. Dust motes danced in the air around them, sparkling in a sliver of moonlight that had found its way through a chink in the roof.
“The scents are older in here than out front,” Julia said softly, as Dom and Kelwood dropped out of the darkness overhead to land lightly on their feet. “What were they doing in here?”
Brett turned. The middle of the room had been sectioned off, opaque plastic walls creating a building within a building.
“Medical grade sheeting,” Dom murmured, moving forward. He pulled the plastic aside to create a door, the rustle loud in the darkness. They slipped through the gap one by one and found themselves in a corridor of sorts. Brett flitted forwards, not bothering to keep his movements human. Julia knew what he was; he didn’t have to hide or pretend to be something he wasn’t.
He pulled aside a loose sheet of plastic to reveal a small rectangular room with the same plastic walls. It contained a hospital bed and a bedside cabinet. Nothing else. The bed was unmade, the sheets rumpled as though the occupant had just left the room.
“Same here.” Fredericks said behind him. He’d pulled a plastic sheet back on the other side of the corridor to reveal an identical ‘room’. “But not a cell. This stuff wouldn’t even hold a human, never mind a new Blood.”
Moving along the corridor, they pulled sheeting ‘doors’ back to discover eight rooms in all. The door at the end of the corridor though, revealed something different. Brett and Kelwood were the first ones through it, spreading out to cover the layout as the others entered.
“No heartbeats. Nothing moving,” Brett commented, and turned to study the room. Medical equipment was set on the counters, with an examination bed in the middle of the space. It had stirrups at the bottom. There was dried blood across the plastic sheeting. “What is this place?”
Julia paused in the doorway, and a sense of deja-vu washed over her as she looked around. Replace the metal frame and plastic sheeting with actual walls, the concrete floor with bland linoleum, and she was looking at every prenatal care unit she’d ever worked in.
There was blood on the bed.
Ignoring it, she took a seat by the bed in the middle and swung a nearby machine around so she could reach the controls. Keeping her expression set, she turned it on. It was a newer model than she’d worked with, but the base system appeared very similar. Certainly enough that she could work her way around it.
“What is that?” Dom asked, moving forward to look over her shoulder. She didn’t jump, not anymore. Now that she’d been around them a while, it was easy for her expanded senses to pick up the ‘dead’ spots where they were.
“I used to work at the local hospital. I think…yes, this is an ultrasound machine.” The screen flickered as it booted up. She navigated to the last images taken and noted the timestamp on the files. Less than a day ago. She tapped her nails on the side of the keyboard as she waited for the images to load. “How long have you guys been out?”
“Around five weeks, coming up on six.” It was Brett who answered, opening drawers and doors on the units around the walls. She caught a glimpse of medical stuff and blankets, as well as some towels, before he shut them in disgust. She wasn’t sure quite what else he expected to find in there. Perhaps a map to where the Bloods had taken their victims. Would be helpful, but she didn’t think their enemy would be that accommodating. “Why?”
He looked up at her and she was caught. Her cheeks flushed as memories of the day before crowded into her brain, replaying every erotic moment on fast forward. A beep from the machine in front of her broke the spell and recalled her attention back to it.
The first picture showed on the screen. Human fetus, just like every other image she’d seen. Nothing stood out. But why here? The Bloods weren’t the type she’d have pegged for providing prenatal care. Not when they were so set on creating their own master race.
“Shit,” she breathed and flicked back a couple of images, looking at them all in turn. There were eight different case numbers. The men crowded around her, but she ignored them in favor of studying the images, a horrible suspicion forming in her mind. Eight files. Eight rooms. Eight victims.
“Fetuses. Babies.” She ignored the familiar pain that twisted her heart. Motherhood wasn’t for everyone. “But the dates are wrong. Look here.” She tapped the bottom edge of the screen. “It says week three, but these look more like twelve-week scans.”
She looked over her shoulder. “So, either these women were already pregnant when they were taken—”
Dom shook his head. “Hacked the police reports. None of the partners made any mention of a pregnancy.”
Her lips compressed. “Okay…so they weren’t pregnant before. They’ve all been snatched within the last six weeks—”
“Four weeks,” Dom butted in. “First snatch was four weeks ago.”
“Okay. Four weeks, matches the oldest date here.” She sat back, looking at the screen in horror. “They managed it. They got them pregnant.”
“Holy shit…” Three of them breathed at once.
Julia snorted. “That’s about the size of it. But this is the weird thing. I’ve seen a lot of these and these don’t look like six weeks. More like twelve weeks’ growth….”
They all looked at her blankly. Young and male, they obviously had no clue on things pregnancy related. She arched her eyebrow. “In four weeks?”
Dom whistled between his teeth. “Which means, what…a gestation period of around twelve weeks?”
Julia smiled grimly. “Bingo. In around two months, the first of that asshole McCoy’s ‘master race’ will be born.”
Her announcement dropped into silence. If she hadn’t seen them walking and talking a moment before, she might have been forgiven for thinking the four men in front of her were exhibits from a waxworks museum.
“Fuck!” She’d expected the outburst to come from Kelwood, even Dom or at the outside, Brett. She didn’t expect Fredericks, the oh-so-calm leader, to snarl and lash out, knocking the examination table across the room to slam into a cupboard with a crash. Both tumbled backward, tearing through the plastic wall to leave a gaping hole. Like a wound.
He turned on her, his teeth bared as the fury rolled off him in waves.
“Twice we’ve tracked them and twice now we’ve missed them.” He stalked towards her, murder in his eyes. “And I find it really funny that the only thing that joins those two incidents is you. If it is, if you’re fucking us about, I’ll tear your heart out myself.”
Fear and anger hit her hard and fast, galvanizing her system. The pain in her gums and fingertips was barely noticeable as her fangs and claws burst free, ready to defend herself. Before she could, another snarl tore the air and a blur erupted from the corner of her vision, slammed into Frederick’s side and took him to the ground in a tangle of fists and feet.
“Brett! No!” Julia screamed, stepping forward as Fredericks flipped her lover up and over his head, but a hard arm around her waist stopped her. Dom. He shook his head silently, pulling her backward. She struggled, but there was no arguing with strength like that, so she turned horrified eyes back to the center of the room.
The SARA leader was back on his feet, fists raised as Brett sprang back to his. His eyes were completely white, unseeing as he charged at Fredericks again. He pulled no punches, each blow precisely targeted and lethal. If he’d been facing off against a human, the fight would have been over in seconds.
Instead Fredericks gave as good as he got, slamming vicious blows into any unshielded areas of Brett’s body he could find. It was like two goliaths battering each other, totally matched.
Julia’s fangs receded, her claws disappearing back under her nails with a snick. She’d done this. Set them against each other. Brother against brother. A tear streaked down her cheek.
Dashing it away, she turned to Dom behind her, and murmured. “Might want to get the ultrasound away from them? There might be more information on there we can use to track the Bloods.”
He nodded and let go of her, his expression hard. She could see the suspicion lurking in his eyes. A shiver worked over her skin. Kelwood not trusting her was scary, but she could handle that. The guy was on the edge of madness anyway. But Dom and Fredericks…that was a different matter entirely.
Keeping still, she waited until Dom and Kelwood moved together to recover the ultrasound machine from under the still snarling men, took one last look at Brett, then slipped through the plastic door.
As soon as she hit the corridor she started to run, feet silent on the concrete floor, but she knew it didn’t matter how silent she was. They could track her through movement. She had to get clear and as far away as possible while the fight still raged behind her and they were distracted.
Heart pounding, she pulled every ounce of energy she had to power her body. Snarls and crashes sounded behind her as she burst out through the plastic and into the main warehouse. She hit the door they’d entered through at a run and then she was out, into the darkness of the night.
She didn’t stop, didn’t slow. Couldn’t afford to. They didn’t trust her, and her flight would only serve to show they’d been right, but there was no way she was hanging about for Fredericks to make good on his threat. Or worse, to see that loss of faith in Brett’s eyes. A moan of pain escaped her lips. Leaving him shattered her heart into a million pieces, but it was better this way. If she could find the Bloods first, she could prove she wasn’t working with them.
But first she had to get away from the SARAs. Which, given how damn fast they were, wouldn’t be easy. Ignoring the gap in the fence they’d used earlier, she tore across the parking lot. Out in the forest, they’d track her quickly. No, she needed to head somewhere with lots of vibrations and scents to hide her movements.
The gate loomed ahead of her. Without thinking about it, she leapt, hit it mid-waist and vaulted over it with ease. She hit the ground running, heading for the road up ahead. They’d avoided it on the way in, but now she headed for the bright lights as fast as she could. Faster than she’d ever run before. The wind ruffled her hair, whipping it away from her face as she followed the track where it angled to run parallel with the road. Engines roared, loud to her sensitive hearing, but it made it easier to pick out the deep rumble of a truck. Digging deep for an extra burst of speed, she glanced back over her shoulder, waiting for it to draw level.
Barely feet away from the spinning wheels, invisible in the darkness, she ran alongside it. Gathered herself. Leapt.
She hit the side with a thump, held for a second, then her hand slipped from its hold. Screaming in defiance, she punched her claws through the metal, holding tight. The wind tore at her, but she didn’t care, watching the outline of the warehouse disappear into the darkness behind them. Crawling up the side of the truck, she tucked herself in behind the cab, curled up as the road sped by mere feet beneath her, and let the tears fall.
The journey passed in a jumbled nightmare of noise and lights. Even tucked into a small ball between the cab and the trailer, she still couldn’t get away from it. The lights of each passing car or SUV found their way into her hiding place to stab deep into her sensitive eyes. She tucked her head against her shoulder and kept her eyes closed to try and avoid it. Locking her muscles into place, she let the road noise lull her into a trance, but she didn’t sleep. Couldn’t sleep. The misery in the center of her chest saw to that.
She’d left Brett, and each passing mile deepened the ragged wound where her heart should be. With each mile, the darkness circling her blood, the awareness at her core she’d been using to track McCoy and his band of merry men, uncoiled a little more. She’d told the SARAs it was a scent, but that wasn’t entirely correct. Some of it was the scent, but that was only a minor part. The rest was a feeling. No, not just a feeling. More like a compulsion tugging at her on the cellular level. She’d be able to follow them anywhere. Which was what she was counting on.
Locking her feelings down, she put her misery aside and concentrated on the darkness within. The feeling had grown steadily stronger over the last few hours. The Bloods had come this way. Possibly even used this road.
The truck slowed and she uncurled herself. She crawled out of her hiding place and up the back of the cab to peer over the top. The wind hit her face, stinging her eyes. Tears streaked and burrowed into her hair, but she ignored them. Up ahead the city lights blazed. Her eyes narrowed. Somewhere amongst them hid the Bloods and the women they’d kidnapped.
Determination surged through her veins. They couldn’t hide. Not from her. Not from a creature they’d created. She could find them. She would find them, and prove to Brett and his ‘brothers’ that she wasn’t like them. She wasn’t a killer like them. Wasn’t a monster.
Concealed in the darkness, she rode out the twists and turns as the truck pulled off the highway and made its way toward a more industrial part of the city. Moving to edge of the cab, she waited until they were with the city limits.
It slowed to take a corner. Gathering herself, Julia leapt down, light on her feet. Even at a low speed such a jump could have severely injured a human, but for her it was no more effort than jumping stepping stones. Pulling her hood up, she shoved her hands deep in her pockets and walked down the street.
Thankfully, when Dom had headed out to get them all replacement clothes, he’d picked jeans and hoodies. Loose enough to conceal her shape and teamed with light sneakers, it was the sort of outfit that would help her blend in anywhere.
Not that she needed to at the moment. The street and the one she turned onto were deserted. A couple of cars drove past her, but she thrust her hands deeper and concentrated on not being seen. Something, an instinct, deep inside told her that none of the drivers would remember her, even if they’d looked right at her.
The flashing red light of a security camera up ahead was a different matter. Whereas before she’d have marched on by without even noticing it, now wariness threaded through her veins. In a parallel of the old ‘vampires have no reflections’ thing, she couldn't fool electronic or recording devices with her little mind trick.
She stopped, tucking herself into a doorway. She didn’t want any record of her presence, not even a fuzzy security image, not with who she had to track down. The likelihood of bloody and brutal violence was high, and even though she planned to disappear into the darkness afterwards, the fewer traces she left of her presence the better.
Her face shadowed by her hoodie, she watched the sweep of the camera. Rather than being fixed, it swung side to side, panning across the street. Her eyes narrowed. There was a slight pause at the end of each sideways motion, as if something in the mechanism caught when it changed direction. She watched it through three more arcs and returns, counting each time. Six seconds for the arc, two for the glitched mechanism before it started to turn back. She should be out of its line of sight by a count of four, which meant she had six seconds before it swung back and caught her on camera again. She tensed, speeding her heart up and, without moving, coiling energy within her body.
When it started to turn away again, she began to count. One.… Two.… Three.… On four she pushed away from the wall, emerging from the shadows. Five. She raced down the street, arms and legs pumping to build speed. Her hood was whipped away from her face, her hair streaming out behind her. Six. She didn’t bother to pull it back. It didn’t matter. There was no one on the street, and she was out of sight of the camera.
One. She could almost hear the click as the camera caught, more than halfway to the corner. She dug deep and put on an extra burst of speed. Two. The camera was on its return now. Shielding her eyes against the bright street light above, she focused on her goal. One. A last few steps and she reached out, grabbing the brickwork to swing herself around the corner and out of sight of the camera. Two. She was home free.
Plastered against the wall, she paused for a moment, breathing deeply before she realized she didn’t need to. Her lungs weren’t hurting and her heart had returned to the same steady, slow beat as though she hadn’t just run the hundred meters faster than an Olympic sprinter.
A couple of figures further down the street marked the start of the crossover between the night shift on their way home and early morning workers headed in. She pushed off from the wall and started walking, letting the compass inside her draw her ever closer to where the Bloods were hiding. She wouldn’t be able to do anything tonight; the lethargy starting to creep into her limbs warned her that the sun was beginning to rise. She’d need to find somewhere to hole up and start again tomorrow, but she wanted to get a little closer to her target first.
The streets became more crowded and she merged in. Keeping her head down, she moved through them, unseen. A predator in their midst that they were blissfully unaware of. The sound of their heartbeats, so fast and frantic, almost deafened her. The rush of their blood through their veins was a never ending racket, like a washing machine with a damaged drum. How the hell did they stand it? The noise alone would drive her mad.
Even worse, her gums ached and her mouth watered at the smell that rose off their skin, a potent perfume that hinted at the rich blood within the fragile outer layer. She frowned and tried to shrug deeper into her hoodie as her stomach rumbled.
Onadiet, onadiet, don’t think about food, she told herself, because she was not giving in and attacking anyone to drink their blood. That was… no. No way. No how. Sure, they called the Bloods vampires, but that didn’t mean she had to live that way. There were blood-banks…shit like that.
But first, she needed to find somewhere to hunker down for the day, before the exhaustion hit her. Lifting her head, she located a target in the crowd up ahead. Middle-aged with graying hair, he wore the ‘uniform’ of the off-duty factory worker, jeans and a sweatshirt with a baseball cap. Altering her pace and direction to intersect with his, she set up a collision.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Been up all night,” she muttered to cover her hand sliding into his hip pocket. Her fingertips closed around leather, and she pulled his wallet free, shoving her hand back in her pocket before he noticed a thing.
“No problem. Happens to us all.” He gave her a smile, which made her feel even more of a shit since she’d just stolen from him. “You okay?”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
She turned and hurried away. Pulling the wallet from her pocket, she flipped it open. A little girl smiled at her from a photo carefully tucked the window pocket inside. Obviously his daughter.
She couldn’t do it. Couldn’t take a man’s hard earned cash, not when he had a family to support. Before she could think about it, she ran after him.
“Hey! You dropped this.”
He turned, surprise on his face as she handed him his wallet. “Found it on the ground. Your daughter has your smile. Have a good one!”
She left him standing there, pulling her hood up again and disappearing into the crowd. Without money, a motel room was out of the question. She’d need to find somewhere in the back alleys, perhaps an abandoned house or derelict apartment block, to hide away out of the sun.
She swallowed, her throat sore, and ran her hand over her forehead. It came away damp with sweat. Crap, she couldn’t be ill, not now. She couldn’t go to a hospital, not like this. She’d be locked up in a lab and dissected faster than she could say it. Separating from the steady migration of workers, she slipped into one of the darker alleys.
One day’s rest and she’d be fine…she had to be, because those Bloods were going down.
If it was the last thing she did.