A commotion at the bus stop up the block snapped her out of her pathetic musings. A man was shouting at the people waiting with him. They were backing up, he was advancing . . . and then he turned and looked directly at Gem.
“What choo lookin’ at, bitch?” He swaggered toward the ambulance, his loose-limbed gait a theatrical show of arrogance.
“Go back to what you were doing, buddy,” Kynan said, his voice low and soothing, but edged with warning.
The guy whipped out a gun from the waistband of his sweatpants and leveled it sideways at Ky. “Fuck you, man.”
Gem held her breath. She could handle this, but doing so would reveal secrets best kept that way.
Kynan’s pleasant, let’s-deal expression turned into something deadly and cold. A shiver of both unease and feminine appreciation rippled through her, and she realized that even after knowing him for two years, this was the first time she’d seen the military man he’d once been.
“Give me the gun,” he said, “and you might walk away from this.”
“I ain’t stupid, you motherf—”
Kynan struck, a serpent uncoiling in a lethal blur. The man’s shocked curse ended in a grunt as Kynan took him to the pavement, face-down. In a matter of seconds, Kynan was standing over the man, holding the gun, one booted foot crunched down on his neck.
“Call the police,” he said in a honeyed, easy drawl. As though he disarmed lunatics every day.
Gem sprang into action like a seasoned soldier following a superior’s command. Geez, she had it bad for him. The cops must have been a block over, because by the time she hung up with the 911 dispatcher, a cruiser was rounding the corner. The cops spent about five minutes taking a report, and then they gathered up the stunned thug and took off.
“You’re kinda handy to have around,” Gem said, after the cops were gone, and Judy, her hands shaking visibly as she stuffed condoms into baggies like a robot on an assembly line, agreed with an enthusiastic nod.
Kynan shrugged. “That guy was so out of it he probably couldn’t have pulled the trigger if he’d wanted to.”
He was being modest, but his take-down had probably prevented disaster.
Her cell phone rang with a jaunty jingle. “One second.” She flipped it open, hoping Eidolon had finally gotten off his ass and called back. She’d left him several messages, though most had been with Wraith, who was about as reliable as a witch doctor’s miracle cure. “Doctor Endri.”
The voice froze the fluid in her spine. With forced casualness, she turned away from the others and lowered her voice. “I told you, no. I’ll never help you.”
“Your parents would like you to reconsider. They’re begging, in fact.”
The air exploded from Gem’s lungs in a painful burst. The ability to speak went with her breath, and for a moment it was all she could do to stand upright.
Shock made her fingers clumsy, and she fumbled the phone, nearly dropping it.
“You bastard,” she whispered. “What did you do to them? Where are they?”
The line went dead, and she sagged against the ambulance, cold sweat beading on her skin. What now?
God, what now?
“You okay, Gem?” Kynan was watching her, concern darkening his eyes to nearly black. “Anything I can do?”
She pasted on a fragile smile. “I’m fine. Thank you.” She turned to Judy, whose expression of worry matched Kynan’s. “Can you take me to the hospital so I can pick up my car? I have a family matter to attend to.”
Tayla and Eidolon had ridden through the city in silence for half an hour, since she’d grown tired of arguing. Eventually, he made her hold the gemstone artifact again until they arrived at a run-down apartment complex, that, as scroungy as it was, didn’t compare to the slum where she lived.
He parked around back, between a rusted-out Gremlin and a lowered El Camino, and gestured for her to get out. She did, her bare feet barely registering the flattened cigarette butts and cracked asphalt as they crossed the parking lot. They entered the building, taking steps down to an area she wouldn’t have thought housed apartments. He made her go first, a smart move. It had occurred to her that she could take him from behind and escape, except that if she killed him she’d never learn the location of the hospital.
As they entered the dank bowels of the building, the gurgle of boilers and the smell of mold brought back memories of being homeless and alone, when survival had depended on sleeping in places fit only for rats. She scowled into the darkness lit by a lone, caged bulb at the end of the hall.
“This is the basement.”
“Vampires and apartments with windows don’t mix,” he said, stopping at one of three steel doors. A sensation like ants crawling up her spine made her shiver. She’d always trusted her gut, and her gut told her that something wasn’t right. When Eidolon rapped on the door, she instinctively reached for her stang, too late remembering she was unarmed.
“Do a lot of vampires live here?” she asked.
“Do I look like the landlord to the undead?” He knocked again and cursed before testing the knob and finding it locked.
He stepped back, and then, in one smooth, powerful move, he kicked in the door. Metal twisted as though a bomb had gone off, and the door jamb splintered. The strength he must possess to do that . . . it was definitely for the best that she hadn’t taken him on without a weapon. She’d put her fighting skills up against his any day, but with the strange losses of muscle control that always struck at the most inconvenient times, she wouldn’t want to risk an attack on him unless she was sure she had the advantage.
“She’ll be pissed if she was just napping.”
Eidolon snorted at that. They entered the apartment, which, though small, proved that vampires weren’t all grim and Goth. No, this was worse. The stuff of nightmares.
Shades of purple and yellow assaulted her vision, from the lavender carpet to the baby-duck-colored, fuzzy lampshade. Even the walls had been slathered with lemon paint. Christ, the place looked like a Muppet slaughterhouse. The nurse who lived here was truly not right in the head. She deserved to die for her horrible taste in décor alone.
Tayla sidestepped to avoid a particularly vile throw rug. “What did she do? Skin Barney?”
Eidolon’s sexy mouth twitched in a relaxed half-smile, though his movements were nothing but lethal grace as he moved swiftly down the hall. She watched him go, disgusted at herself for admiring how nicely his ass fit in his cargos, but unable to look away until a soft thump drew her attention to the kitchen. Once again, she reached for her stang, clenching her fist in annoyance at its loss. Whatever. She was dangerous without it, and after being held prisoner by demons, she was ready to kick some ass.
A scratching noise got her blood pumping a little faster. She followed the sound to a door just off the lilac-accented cubicle of a kitchen. A muffled moan drifted through the door. Bracing herself for battle, she turned the knob.
The door opened into some sort of dark corridor, a tunnel allowing passage for nightwalkers during the day. Blood smears left a trail from as far as she could see to the door, where a na**d, mutilated woman lay at Tay’s feet.
The vampire nurse. The bubble-headed one who’d worn the fuchsia scrubs.
The nurse—Nancy—tried to speak, her lips forming words that never made it past the blood gurgling out of her swollen mouth. Her abdomen lay wide open, a gaping hole from her hipbones to her sternum. Dear God.
Tay grasped the woman’s wrists, bloody stumps with no hands, and dragged her inside. The smell of vampire blood, pungent and metallic, clogged her nose and throat until she nearly gagged.
Nancy curled in on herself with a whimper. Tayla’s heart had hardened a long time ago, but now the shell around it cracked at the sight of the undead nurse’s suffering. Who would do this, even to a vampire? Who would disembowel her, and sever hands from limbs? Even her teeth . . . the vampire canines had been removed.
Eidolon burst into the kitchen. He came to a sudden halt, as though he couldn’t process what he was seeing. A heartbeat later, his expression became a savage, hardcore mask of everything she’d ever associated with hell. Death, pain, rage. This was the demon behind the man.
“Get away from her.”
Tayla bristled at the snarled command, but yeah, she got it; she was the enemy even if she hadn’t been the one to hurt Nancy.
He crouched beside the vampire, spoke in some language she didn’t know but understood nevertheless. The words were urgent, guttural, straight out of the Demon Dictionary of Cuss. The vamp moaned when he lifted her, carried her to the living room and laid her gently on the Barney pelt.
“Hey, Nancy,” he said, his voice no longer a nasty growl but deep and soothing, the one he’d used on Tayla when she first woke up at the hospital. An appreciation for his dedication and skill had her inching forward to watch as he framed the vampire’s face with his hands to keep her from thrashing. “It’s Eidolon. You’re safe now.”
Tayla thought she had long ago lost the ability to feel pity for the monsters she hunted, but this . . . this threatened to shatter her defenses. The oddness of the emotion and what it meant didn’t have time to register before Nancy’s lips moved, spilling blood down her chin. Eidolon put his ear to her mouth.
The muscles in his back grew more and more rigid the longer he listened. “I’m going to help you, Nance. Hold on.” He rapidly ran his hands over her body with gentle efficiency, pausing to probe the edges of the smooth gash in her belly. When she cried out, he drew back.
“I need my medical kit, but I’ll be right back,” he said to her, and she shook her head, her eyes going wide with panic. “It’s all right. I’m not going anywhere. Just a few feet, okay?”
Wondering what he was up to, because he hadn’t brought a medical bag inside, Tayla watched him fetch a cleaver from the kitchen. He shot her a keep-your-mouth-shut look as he knelt beside Nancy once more, the wicked blade concealed at his thigh.
He tenderly ran a finger across her cheek and then bent, brushed his lips across hers in a gesture so touching that Tayla swallowed a lump of emotion. “I’m going to make it better, lirsha. Close your eyes.”
Nancy relaxed, utter trust softening her expression, and for a moment, her pain seemed to melt away. She did as he’d asked.
The realization of what Eidolon was about to do struck Tayla like a roundhouse kick to the gut, knocking the air from her lungs. “No,” she gasped, without even knowing why.
In a blur of motion, he brought the knife down on Nancy’s throat. Blood exploded in a fine mist as her head separated from her neck. Her entire body flamed and burst into ash. The burning hot dog odor of vamp flambé swamped the room like invisible smoke.
Shoulders slumped, Eidolon hung his head and remained so still Tayla wondered if he breathed. And for a moment, she could almost pretend he was human, mourning over the loss of a loved one. It didn’t seem possible that he could love, but there it was, and something inside her wanted to reach out to him. The need to do so, the warm, subtle glow of it, bloomed like a poisonous flower, a terrifying yet beautiful weed to be destroyed before it spread. She’d never reached out to anyone either for help or to offer comfort. Doing so exposed weakness, got people killed.
Eidolon’s head snapped up, eyes glowing gold. Silver flashed; he launched the cleaver, impaling it in the wall. Forget surgery. The guy wielded a knife with deadlier skill than any OR required.
Still on his knees, he threw back his head and roared, a furious, raw sound that drove her backward until the backs of her knees struck the couch. Rage and danger emanated from him in scorching waves she could feel on her skin, and the hair on the back of her neck stood up.
Her gaze cut to the knife. Just a few steps . . .
Her hand closed on the hilt; his hand closed on her arm.
“Sonofa—” In an instant, her spine cracked against the wall and his forearm crushed her throat.
“What do you know about this?” She couldn’t speak, could barely breathe thanks to his choke hold. “Tell me!”
He emphasized his last words with more pressure against her windpipe. Fury burned her blood as badly as the lack of oxygen burned her lungs. He’d caught her off-guard, but it wouldn’t happen again.
She struck. Hard, fast, in the ribs. A hook to the leg knocked him to the ground. He was up in a flash, and she had to hand it to Hellboy, he had moves.
He swung. She blocked, buried her fist in his gut.
“I do this for a living, asshole, so you don’t have a chance.”
As though he hadn’t heard, or didn’t care, he lunged, and she flew back against the wall again. The whole wall thing was getting old.
“Is The Aegis responsible?” He spun her, took her to the floor. The impact rattled her teeth and made her abdomen throb at the site of her stitches.
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!” She elbowed his jaw and rolled so she was on top of him, squeezing him between her thighs. “What’s your problem?”
His snarl vibrated through her as he roughly jerked her beneath him, pinning her with his weight. “My problem is that someone, probably The Aegis, is slicing up my kind and selling their parts in the human and demon magical black markets.”
And that’s a problem, why? Probably something she shouldn’t say out loud. She wriggled and tested his grip. “If The Aegis was involved, I’d know. They aren’t.”
“That’s not what Nancy said.”
“And you believed her? A vampire?”