Authors: Jordan L. Hawk
Tags: #Gay & Lesbian, #Literature & Fiction, #Fiction, #Gay, #Romance, #Paranormal, #Genre Fiction, #Gay Romance, #Demons & Devils, #Psychics, #Vampires
“The demons kept my bodies from decay. If I did not feed enough, the corpse began to fail, until I was forced into a newer one. But you are alive. You heal.”
“So maybe you don’t have to hunt.” Shit, now he was talking aloud to the voice in his head. At least no one was there to see it.
“I refuse to starve. We must go. The other mortal cannot prevent it.”
Wait…if he could keep control long enough, prevent Gray from feeding, would the drakul weaken to the point he could be exorcised?
“The other mortal wishes to trap me in a bottle. Destroy me. But others have tried and none have succeeded.”
A stream of memories, like old film, colorless and with only muted sound: chants and candles and nets of knotted seaweed; silver knives and iron stakes and incense.
Too much; too many. Caleb stumbled, grabbing at the back of the couch.
The parade of memories stopped, and Gray flinched back.
“I do not wish to hurt you. Only to show you there is nothing to fear.”
“I’m not afraid of Starkweather, you moronic demon!” Caleb shouted. “I’m afraid of you!”
“That is foolish. Also, I am not a demon.”
Caleb pushed back to his feet and ran his hands through his hair, letting it fall around him. God, please let Starkweather find something, anything, because he wasn’t sure how much more of this he could take.
Something hit the half-circle window in front of him.
Caleb’s heart impacted the back of his throat. Had it been a bird? Going to the window, he peered out into the water-streaked day. Jesus, if he had to watch some poor animal die in the yard because he couldn’t walk out the fucking door, he’d go crazy.
No bird. But there was a figure in a hoodie standing at the iron gate. Seeing him at the window, it tilted its head back to let him glimpse beneath the hood.
John took another sip of coffee and rubbed eyes which ached from staring at a computer screen for hours. At least most of the records were digitized now; back in the 1970’s, when the agency had first formed, researchers had to consult the original books or badly-photocopied replicas. Now even the rare medieval texts housed in the Vatican had been scanned and uploaded to an international database.
He’d run search after search on vampires. Even using the strictest parameters, he’d ended up with a list of hits as long as his arm—and every damn one of them useless.
Etheric entities had barely begun to be categorized and studied scientifically. The earliest solid work had come in the 17
century, and even then, it was still two-thirds superstition and one-third actual observation. Before the Enlightenment, treatises on NHE’s cast them as demons, angels, or demigods, depending on the cultural bias of the writer. Any observations of their behavior were hopelessly tainted by religious doctrine.
None of the reputable sources described NHEs powerful enough to animate the dead, let alone ones which preyed on other etheric entities. On the other hand, the folklore was filled with garbled stories of walking, blood-drinking corpses, which could only be defeated by trapping them in their graves in some way—including the traditional staking—or through decapitation, removal of various vital organs, or fire. In other words, rendering the corpses uninhabitable.
Considering such measures would kill Caleb, and presumably only force Gray into another corpse, it didn’t really help.
Killing a possessed person was an act of last resort. Some agents regarded it as inevitable, but he viewed it as a failure. And yes, after the forty day period, there was simply no saving the host, whether eager faust or unwilling victim. By then, they were usually preying on other people in some fashion or other, and public safety had to come first.
But he didn’t like it. The incident at the brothel, which Sean had mentioned so flippantly, had left him barely able to sleep for months. Fuck, the human victims had been bad enough; lying on the filthy mattresses, their life energy drained to the point of death…if they were lucky.
The succubi had been worse. They’d been women and girls once, until some stupid pimp decided having a stable of nearly-irresistible prostitutes would be good for business. He’d beaten and terrorized the women into agreeing to a summoning.
John had arrived too late for them: their bodies altered, their minds gone, nothing left but hunger and lust. They’d come at him en masse, beautiful and terrifying, bloody claws ready to rip him to shreds. Kill or be killed.
At least the pimp had been their first victim.
He couldn’t let that happen to Caleb. Fierce, angry Caleb, who defied everyone, human and NHE alike.
Caleb had an incredible will, but Gray was immensely powerful. Why hadn’t he simply forced Caleb out of the way and taken over from the start? Did he simply not want to?
Was it even a choice?
Damn it. Everything had been simple until he walked into the abandoned house.
Sean would say it was still simple, and if John thought it was complicated, he was in way over his head. Or not thinking clearly. Or both.
“Well, well, well. Things not going smoothly for the golden boy?”
Startled out of his thoughts, John looked up. Special Agent Tiffany Ward leaned casually in the doorway to his office, inspecting her perfectly-manicured nails with a studied nonchalance which didn’t fool him for a second. Her black hair was swept up in a complicated arrangement of braids, and makeup accentuated her flawless brown skin. The suit she wore probably cost as much as his yearly salary. Scratch that—just the skirt probably cost as much.
Like himself and Sean, Tiffany had gone to the state school for the paranormally-abled. Unlike them, she hadn’t lived in the barracks, but been dropped off and picked up by a limo every day. She had wealth, beauty, and talent.
Too bad personality wasn’t on the list.
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said, leaning back in his chair in an attempt to look casual.
Tiffany deigned to glance away from her nails and at him. “Kaniyar’s keeping it all very hush-hush, but word’s gotten out. Her favorite boy failed. Brought low by an NHE.”
His face burned and his heart ratcheted up its pace. No one was supposed to know about the abandoned house. The whole thing was classified.
How had Tiffany found out?
He forced a smile onto his lips. “Someone’s been speaking out of class.”
She smiled sweetly back. “You weren’t able to perform. Don’t look so sad, Starkweather—it happens to every man some time or another. What was it, by the way? Wendigo? Therianthrope?”
John’s hands balled into fists below his desk, although he wasn’t sure if he was angrier because there was a leak, or because people thought he’d failed to exorcise a run-of-the-mill NHE. And of course he couldn’t defend himself without revealing classified information.
“Don’t you have some actual work to do, Agent Ward?” he asked stiffly.
Her grin turned malicious. “Too soon? I’m sorry. I’ll just leave you here to think about it some more. Everyone else is.”
She walked out, her heels clicking on the tiled floor, the sound of her laughter burning in his ears.
The phone on his desk rang—an internal call. Someone else hoping to make fun of him? Grinding his teeth, he snatched it up. “Hello?” he growled.
“Agent Starkweather.” Shit, it was Kaniyar. “Report to my office.” Click.
As if this day needed to get any worse.
* * *
Caleb’s breath stuttered in his chest. God, Melanie was all right; he couldn’t have hurt her too badly when he—when Gray—bit her.
But what the hell was she doing here?
He beckoned to her wildly. She shook her head, then nodded at the street behind her. When he shook his head in response, she hesitated, looking around worriedly.
He let out a breath he hadn’t been aware of holding when she crossed the yard. He opened the door, stepping as close as he dared to the spirit ward. The chalk lines on the doorstep were protected by the overhang and hadn’t been blurred by the rain.
What if he asked Melanie to erase them?
She hurried up the brick path…then stopped abruptly when she saw the spirit ward. “Caleb?” she asked uncertainly.
Just hearing her voice sent a wave of relief through him, even though he could make out the bulge of a bandage under her sleeve. “Melanie! Oh my God, I’m glad you’re all right.” Tears burned his eyes, and he blinked them back furiously. “You are all right, aren’t you?”
“I’m fine.” She swallowed convulsively, her eyes darting between him and the spirit ward. Sparks rippled across it, in response to his proximity, but he didn’t think she could see them. “We’ve got a doctor who will treat us off the books, to keep the mals from finding us with a hospital search. You didn’t—didn’t tell them anything about us, did you?”
“Of course not!” Not that he knew much to tell. Hell, he didn’t even know whom she meant when she said “we,” not really.
Her lips pressed together, and worry pooled in her eyes. “You can’t tell them anything, Caleb. People’s lives depend on it.”
What the hell had Melanie gotten herself into? “I just said we were there with some of your friends. I wouldn’t have even mentioned you if the 911 call hadn’t come from your phone.”
“I know you wouldn’t have. The others worried, but…” she shook her head. “Damn it, Caleb, when I saw you fall…and you were just lying there. I thought I’d l-lost you, too. Just like Ben.”
Shit. He blinked rapidly against the sting of tears. “It’s okay. I’m okay.”
“I prayed, the whole time I gave you CPR. When you sat up, I thought God had answered my prayers, but then…”
“I bit you.” He’d never forgive himself. Never.
“I believed she was attacking us.”
Was there shame in the defensive protest?
“I did not understand.”
Caleb fixed a smile on his face, trying to pretend Gray wasn’t there at all. “I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you. How did you find me?”
“We left the house to…to get me treatment.” Her eyes shifted nervously from his face, and shame spiraled through him. “Dave went back later and watched from a distance while the Specs did their thing. When you left with the agent, he followed you here.”
“And Starkweather didn’t notice?” Some federal agent.
Melanie shrugged. “Dave’s a pro. Ex-NSA.”
“Oh.” Presumably, the rampaging demons Starkweather went after didn’t follow him in nondescript sedans anyway. Checking for a tail probably never occurred to him.
Melanie glanced back at him, then down at the spirit ward. “Why are you here? The exorcist got rid of the demon, didn’t he?”
He didn’t want to answer her. Didn’t want to make it real by saying it aloud.
“I do not understand you. I am real whether you speak of me or not.”
“No,” he said quietly.
Her eyes widened in horror, and she took a step back. “Leland said the demon still had you, but I didn’t want to believe it. Oh God.”
“It’s not like that,” he protested frantically. “I swear, I’m still in control. And Starkweather—the exorcist—he’s trying to help. Nothing has changed. I haven’t changed. I’m still good old Caleb.”
“Be silent!” Her voice cracked, and she backed up slowly, as if he might attack at any second. “I-I won’t listen to your lies, demon!”
“Get thee behind me, Satan!” she shrieked. Then she broke and ran, pelting away down the walk.
“Melanie!” he shouted after her. But it was no use.
She was gone.
“You wanted to see me, ma’am?” John asked from the doorway to Kaniyar’s office.
The district chief glanced up from a stack of paperwork when he spoke. “Come in, Starkweather. Have a seat.”
Like the chief herself, the office was the epitome of strict order. No piles of random paper, her inbox clear, her shelves of books and commendations neat and free of dust. There were no cartoons tacked up, or newspaper articles, or family photos. A single minimalist painting hung on the wall behind her: a sunset suggested with only a few spare lines against a field of white.
He sat down in the single uncomfortable chair on his side of the desk and waited. Finishing her casework, she put it neatly aside, before regarding him across her almost-bare desk.
“There are leaks,” he blurted, before she could say anything. “Ward came into my office and had a good laugh at how I’d failed to exorcise a common NHE.”
“Did she?” Impossible to tell what the chief thought. “And did she say who had told her?”
“No.” His face burned, despite his attempt to keep his emotions under control. “She suggested it was all over the office. At least they don’t know about the drakul, but…”
“I see. I’ll have a talk with her.” And damn he was glad he wasn’t going to be the one called on the carpet. “In the meantime, let me worry about the leaks. You worry about Caleb Jansen.”
Kaniyar never said anything she didn’t mean. “Caleb. Not Gray?”
“Congratulations; your hearing is perfect. I ordered a thorough background check on Caleb’s deceased brother and his widow.”
“I already ran a background check on Ben Jansen as part of the investigation,” he said. Damn it, Kaniyar didn’t think him incompetent too, did she?
“Hard as it may be for you to believe, I have access to more channels than you, Special Agent,” she said with the lift of a brow.
Oh. “Sorry. What did the check turn up?”
Kaniyar leaned forward and steepled her fingers under her chin, looking a bit like a Bond villain. “Ben and Melanie Jansen may have had ties to the Fist of God.”
John’s breath caught. “No,” he said loudly. “Caleb isn’t one of them.”
“Seeing as he’s an unregistered paranormal, I’m inclined to agree. Although extreme self-hatred has led people to act against their own race, gender, and sexual orientation, Pittman would have picked up on it during the interview.”
Had Caleb even known? He’d been bitter when SPECTR hadn’t investigated the disappearance of Ben’s body. Maybe he would have felt differently if Ben’s killer had at least been caught. Maybe he wouldn’t have been desperate enough to take any help he could get, even if it came from a bunch of fanatics.