Arizona Territory, 1883
He’d finally managed to wash the dark, sticky, tar-like blood off his hands. There’d been no hope for his clothes.
He’d had to burn them.
A man couldn’t be too careful. For the likes of Colt Jackson, a Hunter born and bred, danger lurked everywhere, even in a place as innocuous as a worn-out bar that reeked of old tobacco smoke laced with the eye-watering fumes of rotgut whiskey. But neither of those blotted out the telltale stink of sulfur. Something supernatural lurked close by. He’d bet his gun hand on it.
Everything in the little mining town turned ice hub in Arizona Territory seemed coated with a ghostly layer of grit, even the chipped crystal chandeliers overhead. He felt the grit in his lungs and in his nostrils. It stank of putrid eggs and worse, probably from the smokestacks billowing white outside against an endless cerulean sky. He picked up his smeared, nearly empty glass of ice water, leaving behind a dark ring in the pale dust on the scarred, liquor-sticky table.
Hell, the only reason he’d stopped in Wickenburg in the first place was for the ice. Ever since the mines deep in the desert had flooded out and ingenious businessmen replaced the old rock crushers with steam-powered freeze machines, ice had become one of the most profitable commodities next to copper, gold, and silver in this special little sizzling corner of Hell on earth. He glared at his glass. The ice water had cost him almost as much as a good whiskey.
The lithe blond saloon girl he’d been eyeing since he walked in strolled toward him across the warped wooden floorboards worn smooth from the sand of so many boots. Her hips swayed to the sound of the out-of-tune piano plunking away near the stairs that led up to the rented rooms on the second floor. The cheap glass beading on her dark blue off-the-shoulder dance-hall dress flashed in the illumination of the gaslights overhead, creating sparkles to dance along the curves of her pale cleavage.
“Would you like some company, sugar?” Her smile didn’t reach her heavily kohled eyes. She was anywhere between sixteen and thirty. How many men had she had? Worse, did he really care? He wanted the comfort of someone who smelled sweet and womanly. Someone in whose arms he could forget, if only for a few hours, who and what he was.
Colt smiled wide. Enough women had told him his smile was dead gorgeous that he’d learned when to use it to his advantage. He’d dressed with more care than usual tonight, in clean black trousers, a starched white shirt, and a black brocade vest threaded with a pattern of silver and blue he’d been told matched the blue in his eyes. Seemed the effort had been worth it. “Yes, ma’am.”
She cuddled up beside him, throwing a long, smooth leg, bare to the thigh, over his. “So what brings you to Wickenburg, cowboy?”
He slid a hand over her smooth thigh. “Hunting.”
She let out a husky laugh, full red lips tilting up in a come-hither pout. “Most men here are lookin’ to strike it rich in ice. But I knew you was different the moment I saw you. In fact, I’ve seen your face before. What’s your name?”
Colt tensed. He worked fairly hard at keeping a low profile, but every now and then a completely unwarranted wanted poster tended to circulate with his likeness. “Colt Jackson.”
“Relax, handsome,” she said, rubbing her hand over his chest, delving beneath the edge of his vest. He felt the heat of her hand through his shirt as her soft fingers stroked right over his heart. “We get outlaws in here all the time.”
Yeah, but Colt seriously doubted Kousstroke they were anything like him. Her constant kneading touch began to drain the tension out of his shoulders, but only a little. His gun hand had started itching the moment he’d stepped into the bar, and his instincts had never steered him wrong before. Something in this little town wasn’t right.
“So, are you famous? Are you dangerous?” she asked, her fingers threading through his shock of nearly black hair as she wriggled on his lap. Her perfume was way too strong, and verging on unpleasant. Her skin under all that makeup looked dirty. Her blond hair felt stiff and brittle beneath his fingers and he dropped his hand to her waist, feeling whalebone and crisp satin, not silky skin.
“Not exactly,” Colt muttered, finding her less appealing by the moment. “Really more like a modern Robin Hood.”
Glossy ruby lips pouted. “It’s so much more fun when you’re dangerous.” He realized that it didn’t matter how much he wanted or needed a woman right now, a tumble wasn’t going to give him what he truly wanted and could never have—a home, a place where he belonged. No matter how delectable she looked, she wouldn’t satisfy the deeper craving.
These days nothing could. There wasn’t a way to feed the hunger that gnawed deep down, belly-deep. It bit into his bones and wouldn’t let go. Hunting was like a drug. Once a man knew supernaturals existed, he saw the Darkin everywhere. Once a Hunter knew that those creatures were the cause behind deaths no one else could explain, duty lay heavy on his shoulders.
Once a Hunter started hunting, he couldn’t just stop.
Evil didn’t take a holiday. Hunting wasn’t a profession, it was a way of life.
For an instant he wished he could be like his older brothers, Winchester and Remington, upstanding citizens who didn’t run from place to place even if they too were named after his pa’s favorite guns. While the Jackson brothers looked a lot alike on the outside, with their pa’s jet hair and wide shoulders and their ma’s blue eyes and winning smile, they were different as could be on the inside.
Winn was a solid, steady, ordinary man. Remy straddled the line, looking respectable but hunting on the side. But being like Winn and Remy wasn’t Colt’s destiny. No, Colt had every intention of living up to the family legend his pa Cyrus “Black Jack” Jackson had started as one of the most notorious outlaws of the western territories, rather than living it down like his brothers. That was the life of a Hunter. Tracking down supernatural monsters one at a time and killing them to make the world a safer place.
Winn and Remy might have shirked their responsibilities to the Legion of Hunters, but he never would. Because once Pa had trained him, he’d revealed something to Colt he hadn’t to Winn or Remy.
There would come a time when the far-flung pieces of the Book of Legend would have to be brought together or humanity would perish. This grimy ice hub was just one more stop in his three-year search to uncover the hiding place of his pa’s portion of the Book to prepare for the showdown with the Darkin, if and when it happened.
“So tell me somethin’, mister. If you’re a gunslinger, where’s your gun?” She snaked a hand down to wrap around the inside of his thigh, rubbing suggestively at his groin and wriggling her bottom into his lap. That got his attention. It’d been a long time since he’d rested long enough to find a woman. If he’d been a less focused man, all the blood would have drained out of his brain right then and there regardless of how she’d looked.
With practiced ease she slipped one leg over the far side so she stra Ke shere ddled him. The damp heat of her seeped right through his britches. He let out a ragged breath and she pressed forward, her soft breasts pushing against his chest as she skimmed the tip of her soft, slick tongue along his neck.
Then he heard it. Right next to his ear. The distinct sudden
of a vampire’s fangs being extended. He caught a sudden whiff of sulfur so strong it burned.
Colt reared up from the chair, but the vampire clung to him, her smooth legs firmly gripping his middle with the strength of a metal handcuff. Knowing he had only seconds to act, he shoved an arm between them, pushing her away from the blood pumping hard and fast in his neck.
Her face was warped beyond recognition, the brows protruded and bent, the eyes red, feral and hungry, her fangs twin white daggers bracketed by stretched ruby red lips. “Now, Hunter, you will die.”
He looked her straight in those red eyes and didn’t flinch. “Ladies first.”
With his free hand he pulled the sting shooter from the holster at his hip. A high-pitched keening sound split the air an instant before he shot her point-blank in the stomach.
The arc of bright blue electricity catapulted her to the floor with a thick thud. She writhed and bucked on the floor like a beached fish, smoke curling in a black wisp from between her red lips.
The piano abruptly stopped. Half a dozen screams echoed in the bar as people came up from their crouch on the floor and stared at the barmaid, then at Colt with accusing eyes. Her face had already returned to its human shape. Her fangs retracted as she lay on the floor in a spreading, glistening black pool that leaked from two charred and smoking holes seared straight through her.
Shit. He hadn’t intended for it to kill her, merely stun her senseless. That would teach him to use one of Marley Turlock’s inventions before it was fully cooked. Marley was a brilliant inventor, but sometimes his ambitions outpaced his execution.
Colt knew better than to wait until the townspeople could get their hands on him and string him up on the nearest tree. So he did what any sensible Hunter would do. He ran like hell.
Five days later he still hadn’t stopped running, but he knew he’d have to stop soon. His eyes were gritty from too much time awake in the saddle, and his clockwork horse, Tempus, was making funny grinding sounds. He wondered if perhaps he’d gotten a small stone or some other object accidentally lodged in the intricate workings of gears and springs that filled the copper belly of the beast, or just pushed his machine too hard across the dusty terrain without stopping to properly oil it. Marley would know.
Tempus clicked and whirred beneath him, the brass hooves kicking up small puffs of dust with every step through the main street. People glanced curiously at him and moved on their way along the wooden walkways.
To the untrained eye, Tempus looked like a black-and-white paint. The cowhide covering not only protected Colt from the copper getting too hot to touch if he rode in the sun too long, but also protecting the clockwork inside from rain and dirt. Only the horse’s brass hooves, solid shining silver eyes, and mechanical noises gave it away. Being as Marley lived in town, the locals were probably used to seeing his contraptions of one kind or another.
Colt pulled the reins, steering the horse up the narrow, winding, dusty road that led up a steep hill to Marley’s house. From a distance the house perched on the bluff overlooking the valley resembled a praying mantis mor Kng s before than a proper house. Various cranes and gadgets stuck out like multiple legs and antennae from the main building, and they often moved at odd intervals.
Tempus came to a rocking stop in Marley’s front yard as Colt flipped off the GGD switch by twisting the horse’s ear into a backward-facing position. Marley had dubbed it that when he’d shouted “Giddyup, God Dammit” at his seventh version of the horse, and it had actually moved. Colt wrapped the reins around the hitching post. Just for show. Tempus wouldn’t go anywhere until pressure was applied to the plate in his back beneath the saddle, compressing the springs that allowed the GGD switch to be engaged. It was what Marley called a double safe precaution against horse thieves.
Not that a thief could get close to Marley’s place. He had artificial eyes stuck here and there that were wired to an enormous lens in his laboratory. He could see who was coming or going at all hours of the day or night. Colt decided he’d hate to see which of Marley’s deterrents an unsuspecting thief might run into. He’d had a close encounter once with one of Marley’s spine-shooting mechanical cacti, and it had been enough for him.
Colt raised his fist to pound on the door, but it opened before he could knock. A man half a foot shorter than Colt peered at him from behind a pair of intricate multi-lensed brass goggles that extended six inches from his face and magnified his brown eyes to enormous proportions.
It was hard to tell exactly how old Marley was. The smooth youth of his face and dark brows competed with a cap of wild snow-white hair on his head. Marley attributed the premature color change to a lightning bolt that had struck him during an experiment. Colt wasn’t sure, but he’d bet it was the side effect of yet another harebrained experiment gone awry. Marley’s inventions, while undeniably brilliant, tended to hit big or miss horribly.
“I say, it’s about time you made it back,” Marley said, his words as clipped and undeniably British as his manner. He wiped his hands on his stained leather apron, then pushed past Colt and headed directly for Tempus, clucking and fussing over the machine like an old mother hen.
Colt grunted, glancing over his shoulder. “Good to see you too.”
Marley was too busy checking Tempus over to reply. He was already bent over double, flipping up hatches and inspecting gears and springs, poking and prodding the beast’s inner mechanics as he muttered to himself.
“I’ll just make myself at home,” Colt said under his breath.
Marley glanced up, his eyes magnified to the size of small saucers behind his goggle thingies, making gold flecks and the ring of darker brown around his irises stand out. “Don’t touch anything.”
Colt nodded. He wouldn’t have dared. Last time he’d tried to move something, he’d gotten a nasty electrical shock from it. Nearly every surface of Marley’s place was covered with a jumble of odd bits of brass and wire, heaps of gears and springs, and stacks of sketches. He’d find a chair and sit, maybe forage for something to drink while he waited for his friend to finish his inspection of Tempus. The only chair available turned out to be the one Marley sat in at his workbench.