San Diego, California
The lurid caption under the live video said it all: Runaway Virgin.
Unlike the other women on the SexFlash site, this one was scrubbed clean of makeup. With an odd beauty and youthful innocence, she’d attract clients with money to burn and a lot to hide. The kind of clients who’d get off on the fact that the girl’s lips were parted with fear and shock, the same emotions currently ricocheting through Barrett Miles’s body.
She’d been searching for Jane Small for almost a week, but to actually succeed in finding her . . . to actually confirm she’d been taken by sex traffickers, never mind sex traffickers that catered to vampires or were vampires themselves . . .
After everything Barrett had been through in the past decade--her brother Noah’s death, what she’d seen overseas, what she’d discovered since she’d been recruited by Belladonna--well, she’d have thought she’d be immune to horror by now. Apparently not.
Before she could stop herself, Barrett pressed her fingertips against the monitor screen, as if she could actually reach in and pull Jane out to safety. Help her. Kill her captors. But how?
The only information she’d had up to now was that Jane had disappeared, and her aunt, her legal guardian, believed she’d run away with a young man Jane had recently befriended. A young man named Dante who wore a vial filled with Jane’s blood around his neck and liked to leave marks on her that were closer to bites than to hickeys. A young man who had disappeared around the same time as Jane, only he’d been found days later with his neck torn out and “wannabe” penned on his forehead with a red Sharpie. Of course, given Dante’s predilections and knowing what she did, Barrett had instantly suspected a vampire had murdered the boy and taken Jane.
Unfortunately, Jane could be anywhere. Teenagers were sold for sex on sites like this all over the world. Virgins went for premium prices.
Purity mattered. That went double as far as vampires were concerned. According to Joseph Powell, the blood of a virgin was the best there was. It tasted like nirvana. It provided a euphoric high no controlled substance could come close to duplicating.
Apparently, despite her association with the dead fang banger and true to her ideals when she’d been fourteen, Jane was still a virgin, though Barrett hated to think how her captors had confirmed that fact. It was why Jane was probably going to be some vampire junkie’s fix for the rest of her life unless Barrett could save her. Unfortunately, it was Barrett’s fault the girl was in this predicament in the first place.
All because this girl’s mother had trusted Barrett to keep her daughter safe.
The last time Barrett had seen her, Jane had been fourteen.
Though she’d kept intermittent contact with Jane’s legal guardians, the aunt and her husband, Barrett hadn’t seen Jane’s face again until she’d gone missing and her aunt had given her an updated picture.
Jane’s eyes flickered on the clear screen and seemed to round with recognition. “Miley?”
Barrett jerked and instinctively opened her mouth to respond.
Instead, she snapped it shut, forcing herself to remain silent so she wouldn’t give herself away even as Jane was roughly jerked out of the camera’s range.
Barrett Miles. Miley. It was the nickname Jane had given her years ago thanks to a popular Disney show actress. That meant she could see her. But why would her captors allow that? They had to believe there was absolutely no chance allowing Jane to see her potential buyers could hurt them. That had to mean those potential buyers were trusted. Vetted.
Barrett didn’t fall into that category.
A woman in an overflowing bustier took Jane’s place on the monitor screen.
This one knew the drill. Sultry pout. Thick black hair teased high. Hard eyes. She frowned at Barrett for a moment. “Powell, who the hell is this?” she snapped. “The girl called her Miley.”
“No, no. This is my trusted friend, Barrett Klein. Don’t worry about her. We are looking for someone special and I think we’ve found her.”
Powell’s deep voice came from just behind Barrett, causing her to stiffen slightly. She’d almost forgotten he was there, looking over her shoulder. Waiting, with a born vampire’s patience, for her to choose a girl she liked enough to bring into the bedroom with them.
The image of his gnarled hands on Jane made Barrett sick to her stomach. It was a feeling she was intimately acquainted with. It was how she felt every time Powell put his hands on her.
“Yes.” Aware the woman on the screen still looked suspicious but also slightly mollified by the thought of a potential sale, Barrett pasted a smile on her face. “Let’s go with the . . . virgin. I think she’ll be perfect and you said you haven’t tasted virgin blood in quite some time.”
“Hmm. It won’t make you jealous? Knowing how incomparably delicious I’ll find her?”
More delicious than me, he meant. And the fact he could joke with her meant he didn’t understand how displeased Jane’s captor was that he’d signed on to the site then allowed Barrett in to see Jane. Then again, as a born vampire he’d be very difficult to hurt or kill so he probably wouldn’t be worried anyway.
Barrett looked up at the silver-haired man behind her; unlike most vampires, he didn’t bother dyeing his hair, although he did wear contacts that disguised his silver pupils. His tall frame was slightly stooped and his large head hung forward. He reminded her of a vulture.
“She can give you better blood. I think we’ve already established that I, on the other hand, give the best . . .” She smiled suggestively.
Powell studied Barrett for a moment, assessing her. His eyes glowed briefly, an unearthly gleam in their unnaturally dark depths, making her wonder if he was trying to read her mind. But she felt none of the mental probing she’d been warned to watch out for. Maybe he wasn’t trying. Or maybe he couldn’t read her mind because he wasn’t powerful enough or because the heavy gold bracelet on her wrist was doing its job. Concealed, of course, inside a designer cuff of glass-beaded silk.
That was just one of the nifty secrets Belladonna had uncovered about vampires: wearing pure high-quality gold blocked a vampire from reading not only a human’s mind, but that of another vampire. Neither Barrett nor her fellow Belladonna agents, each covertly employed by the FBI to hunt down vampire criminals in a world where most humans didn’t even know vampires were real, left home without it.
Not all vampires knew about the gold trick, but since some humans had a natural resistance to being read, they often didn’t make the connection. In Powell’s case, it was entirely possible he suspected she was deliberately blocking his mind-reading powers and was only biding his time until he strip-searched her and killed her.
She sincerely hoped that wasn’t the case.
He did seem to trust her, which meant he had no clue Belladonna existed, or that Barrett’s team members, Ty Duncan and Ana Martin, had been responsible for shutting down Salvation’s Crossing, a vampire blood slave operation in Northern California, two months ago. That could change at any moment, however, and Barrett’s best chance of getting Jane home safe was by getting Powell to buy her.
“Powell,” she prompted, keeping her voice soft. Cajoling. “I want her.”
He smiled. Kissed the top of Barrett’s head and reached down from behind her, sliding his hand down between her breasts and then in between her thighs. It was about as intimately as he ever touched her. She’d never actually had sex with him--a small distinction, considering the other things she had to do, but an important one for her. Her salvation--his inability to keep it up for anyone who was older than a teen--was also a curse for what was undoubtedly a long list of young victims.
He whispered, “We’ll see.”
Then, even as Barrett wanted to shout out and stop him, he tapped a key and the monitor went black.
“Now,” he said, “show me how much you want her. Maybe then I’ll buy her for you.” As a vampire, he couldn’t lie, which meant there was a chance he actually might buy Jane for her, even if it was only a small one. She tilted her head, offering herself to him. He kissed her neck, licked it, and Barrett instinctively braced herself for his bite.
She still jumped when it came. She had no fear Powell would take enough blood from her to turn her into one of his own kind. From what Belladonna had learned before Ty and Ana’s infiltration of Salvation’s Crossing, doing so would result in his own death. Even so, she still felt the swirling nausea that always overtook her when she let him drink her blood. The nausea that signaled her disgust for him and herself.
Closing her eyes, she forced herself to remain calm. She even managed to moan with what sounded like a decent imitation of pleasure.
Inside, however, Barrett’s nausea was swiftly morphing into hatred. Hatred for the vampire who still drank from her throat. Hatred for the brunette helping to pimp Jane out. Hatred for the unnamed, faceless others out in the world who were doing the very same thing to hundreds of girls just like Jane.
Hatred for herself.
Jane Small was about to be sold.
Barrett needed to convince Powell to buy her before anyone else did. At the very least, to tell her how to find the girl.
She had to. Nothing else mattered.
The morning after seeing Jane Small’s face on Powell’s computer screen, Barrett caught a flight to Dulles. Hours later, weary and frazzled, she slammed her palms onto the table inside Belladonna’s library. Special Agent Peter Lancaster’s expression remained impassive, although he had to be surprised by Barrett’s rare show of emotion.
Desperation crackled inside her like electricity trapped inside a bulb, straining for release.
Several months ago, she’d been just like every other human on the planet--with no clue that vampires really existed and lived among them. That had changed soon after Peter had recruited her for Belladonna. Now Barrett was only one of a select few who knew that the FBI was engaged in the experimental turning of human military veterans into vampires. As far as the FBI was concerned, vampires were a potential threat despite their queen’s claim that they wanted to exist peacefully with humans. According to FBI Director Rick Hallifax, the best way to counter that threat was by fighting fire with fire, or in this case, vampire with vampire. In theory, his strategy made sense, but creating vampire soldiers that would be loyal to the U.S. government was proving to be a challenging task for several reasons.
First, turning humans was against vampire law and morality; thus, the only vampires that were willing to turn humans into vampires were thugs and criminals. Second, the fact the turner might die as a result of the turning process made it highly probable that vampires were victimizing other vampires to do what the FBI wanted. Hallifax claimed there was no proof of such machinations and that even if there was, it would amount to collateral damage. Third, even as the Turning Program continued, the FBI needed to track down and eliminate the subset of vampire criminals that were exceeding the FBI’s authority and preying on humans. The FBI had labeled these vampires Rogues and formed Belladonna to deal with them. Fourth, as Ty and Ana had learned on their mission into Salvation’s Crossing, someone knew about Belladonna and had enough insider information to set up Ty and Ana, resulting in Ana being forcibly turned herself. Now she and Ty were in hiding; their betrayer was still out there and it was always possible that person could be an FBI mole.
No one at Belladonna knew whom to trust, but they’d had no choice but to keep moving forward, keeping their suspicions a secret, taking advantage of whatever resources and intel the FBI did provide, and following up leads on Rogue criminal activity. Barrett was taking the lead on the sex ring intel, while Collette and Justine worked on a variety of new developments in other areas of vampire crime. Collette had begun a complex investigation into the billion-dollar business of fake pharmaceuticals, focusing on blood products. Justine was staying with the field she knew: women who were in the business of voluntarily selling their bodies, figuratively or literally. Peter, the only other turned vampire in the group, stayed at Belladonna headquarters as their point person and direct link to Carly, Belladonna’s mysterious CEO.
Unfortunately, Peter wasn’t giving her anything at the moment that could help her, and that was making Barrett’s panic rise. Despite her reiterating her request that he buy Jane for her, Powell had refused, saying the asking price was far beyond his means. Which, given how rich Powell was, meant Jane was a valuable commodity indeed. He’d also refused to reveal anything about the people who ran SexFlash or how he’d met them. She’d been afraid to push for more lest she drew Powell’s suspicions and lost her ability to gather any information at all on vampire sex rings, but . . .
“Don’t tell me you’ve come up with nothing, Peter! We work for the FBI and you’re telling me no one can track down a sex ring site when I’ve given them the freaking URL?”
Despite his turned vampire status, Peter was tall and slim with light brown hair, chiseled features, and a smile that was potent when he chose to use it. He didn’t try to charm her now so much as calm her.
“You gave us the URL Powell let you see, Barrett, and clearly someone has swept that trail clean. Without more . . .”
A flash of anger blotted out her other thoughts. What did he mean by “more”? More than what?
More than befriending a blood-sucking pedophile like Powell? More than letting him drink from her? More than doing sneak searches of his place on multiple occasions, risking discovery and death, only to come up empty time and again?
How much more did she have to give before she caught a break?
Anything and everything, she reminded herself. She’d been willing to put her life on the line numerous times to rescue victims she didn’t know. She’d damn well do the same for Jane.
“I’ll go back to Powell’s,” she choked out. “Convince him to buy Jane.”
“Powell is gone. Might be dead, for all we know,” Peter said. “His house has been cleared out.”
Barrett’s body jerked, not in surprise but in despair. She’d known Powell had pissed off the brunette. She’d suspected they might retaliate. But not so fast. Not before Barrett could get something--anything--out of him that might help her rescue Jane. “How?” she choked out.