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The call came at a most inopportune moment. Striker Dark reached for his phone while keeping his gaze on the queen of England. She cut her eyes at him for a split second, and, without missing a beat, she continued to address the dignitaries with stiff royal aplomb.
After a quick look around, he astral projected out the banquet room's closest exit. He would take the call and get back before the humans present even realized he'd left his seat.
Two of the queen's MI10 agents, a vampire and a leopard shifter, noticed. They were the only Supes (supernaturals) in the room who could follow his departure. They eyed him with distaste. MI10 was a highly classified counterintelligence agency within Great Britain, the counterpart to Striker's own United
States Bureau of Supernatural Phenomena. They both dealt with anything supernatural and kept it hidden from humans, and duties sometimes included protecting royalty and government officials. Two of Striker's own agents were safeguarding the President of the United States right now. But MI10 agents thought themselves a cut above their Yank cousins, and for that reason Striker ignored them completely as he paused in the hallway.
His phone wasn't your typical landline. A crystal, developed especially for him by the tech-support staff at B.O.S.P., drove the gizmo. His clairvoyant powers absorbed the energy it released, and it amplified them. It was like having an omnipresent stalker exploding in his head. Even before he opened the lid he knew something was dreadfully wrong.
His gut flinched, and he couldn't believe the image appearing before his eyes. Hover demons floated and circled five of his agents.
Hover demons could be easily summoned; they killed for pleasure, unlike doom demons, who tortured their victims and demanded payment for their enjoyment. There were as many types of demons as there were types of angels. Angels and demons had their many uses, but Striker refused to summon hovers for anything. They were unpredictable, and in his line of work unpredictability was a detriment.
Black hooded robes covered the demons' bodies and faces, but the flamethrowers and scythes in their hands were clearly visible. His agents were near them, on their knees, execution style. Silver chains crisscrossed their vampire bodies and held them immobile. Striker knew every one of the agents by name. He had trained them himself. They were the elite at B.O.S.P. How could this happen?
In the moonlit background, Striker noticed a wharf. Warehouse lights cast eerie shadows over their faded fronts. Boats rocked against the pier, and he saw the Suter's Marina sign. He knew that place. New Orleans.
A hover paused, the edge of his robe rippling as he lowered the blowtorch and fired. Aquarius, a two-hundred-year-old vamp and one of Striker's OIC's, screamed. A rictus of pain and helplessness distorted his face.
Abruptly, the scythe chopped down on his neck.
His head rolled like a ball and settled near his knees. One blink of recognition from his eyes, and then the life left Aquarius's face forever.
Another demon closed in on the next agent in line. Fizz! Chop! Fizz! Chop! Another shriek. Chop!
Striker wanted to feel sympathy or empathy, but there was nothing left inside to let him feel. He had lived too long on the earth, and it had killed his human sensitivity. It was as if the world had lost all its color and he observed it from an objective, sterile black-and-white environment now. Still, he couldn't look at his own agents, the ones whom he directed and had sent to their deaths, without feeling the injustice. A tiny snarl lifted one corner of his lip, and he felt his fangs extend.
Suddenly the phone's camera turned upward, and a female face he recognized spun into view. Real name: Skye Rainwater, aka Simone Poindexter, aka Lilly Smith. Code name: Culler. She stared back him. Her vibrant blue eyes filled up the screen, the dark, sooty lashes caked with mascara. Eyes so deeply entrenched in his mind that he'd see them the rest of his life.
"Hello, Nightwalker," she said. "Enjoying this little show?"
Striker heard another yell, and it cut the back of his neck like the teeth of a chain saw. "Culler," Striker said. "What the hell are you doing? Help them!"
"I have. Can't you see that?"
So it was real. "How did you set up this bloodbath?"
"Just called Aquarius and told him Raithe was receiving a shipment of girls."
Aquarius should have known better, followed protocol and called Striker. It wasn't the first time Aquarius had broken rank, only this time he'd paid dearlywith his life. "What has happened to you?"
"I'm tired of being out in the field, risking my life and doing your dirty work for the measly pennies you drop my way."
"We invested half a million in your cover. That is a lot of pennies." Striker's voice turned low, soft and quite deadly. He envisioned wrapping his hands around her neck and squeezing . "How could you betray B.O.S.P. like this?"
"I don't live and breathe the agency like you. I'm a free spirit. And who are we kidding? This is your vendetta, not B.O.S.P.'s. Raithe just helped me see I was on the wrong side."
"I will find you."
"You can try." She cackled, her eyes gleaming bright blue with malice. Then the screen went blank.
Striker thought of headquarters, and Mimi's small angular face appeared in the screen. Anyone looking at her reflection could tell she was a dwarf. What her looks didn't reveal was her penchant for voodoo. She looked bored until she noticed who it was. A grin spread across her face, and she batted her false eyelashes as she fluffed her curly blond hair. "Anything I can get you, boss?"
Striker knew she was referring to something other than work, but he always ignored her advances. And this was no different. He went directly to the point. "I need the dossier on Culler. Send it right away, and see what aliases you can find that are not in our files. And use the psychics. I do not want one stone unturned."
"You got it, boss."
"Any sightings of Raithe?" Striker had recently upped the bounty on Raithe in the paranormal community, but as of yet no one was brave enough to collect the three million dollars.
"No, sorry," she said forlornly. She knew Raithe was on Striker's top-ten wanted list.
"All right, then. Waiting on the dossier."
He closed the device and shoved it in his pocket. He would apologize later to the queen. He didn't have time for niceties or foreign diplomatic dinner parties. He had to find Culler.
She had been his only hope. What had happened to make her turn? They had been so close to catching Raithe. Striker's lip lifted in a tiny snarl as he thought of his nemesis. Raithe controlled much of the underbelly of the human and vampire races. He dealt in everything from drugs to prostitution to providing living victims for vampires to drain and kill. A real nice upstanding vampire was Raithe.
Striker had been hunting Raithe for hundreds of years, and not once had he been able to get this close to him. It had taken ten years of undercover work, but Culler had finally gained Raithe's trust. Striker didn't want to think about the evils Culler must have endured and participated in to prove her fealty to Raithe. Culler kept assuring Striker that she was okay and didn't need a psychological evaluation. She promised Striker she could locate Raithe's den, but she needed more time. Through the years, she'd given Striker several leads on child-pornography rings and snuff-film makers, mostly throughout Europe, even a bordello filled with werepanthers Raithe tortured for his own amusement, but not the one thing Striker wanted: Raithe.
Then Culler had turned on him and joined Raithe. At the thought of his nemesis, Striker felt his fangs jut out more and scrape his lower lip. He tasted his own blood and realized he and Raithe were more similar than he cared to admit. They were both ruthless in their own way, both unable to stop until the other was eradicated.
Takala Rainwater stuffed the last bite of a ham and cheese croissant in her mouth as she saw the road sign for the Woodlawn Terrace subdivision. A cemetery name if she ever saw one. Right up there with Pleasant Green and Quiet Acres.
She made an uneasy face as she turned right, finished off a can of Pepsi, and drove her MINI Cooper down the road. The streets of Fredericksburg looked like any other quiet residential neighborhood in February. Neatly groomed houses lined the block. Rows of dormant flower gardens waited for winter to end and spring to begin. Evidence of a recent snow still painted the lawns in a sheen of white. The pockmarked bodies of melting snowmen waved to her from some of the yards. The only evidence of death here was the name of the road.
She grabbed the note lying beside her and looked at the address Blake had given her. Blake Green worked for the FBI's Data and Statistics Department. A friend since high school. He gleaned information for Takala's private investigating agency, and in return Takala sprung for his dinner at a four-star restaurant once a month.
Blake had been searching for evidence of Takala's mother for four years, since joining the FBI. Blake was a bloodhound when it came to finding information, and Skye Rainwater had become one of his obsessions. Finally he'd got a hit this morning. He had flagged the name, and someone must have been researching it, because the flag popped up. He had followed the electronic trail and called Takala all excited, telling her that he'd discovered information in the State Department database on Skye Rainwater. She had two aliases, Simone Poindexter and Lilly Smith. He also gave Takala Lilly Smith's LKA (last known address) here in the States. Surprisingly, it was in Fredericksburg, Virginia, not seventy miles from the Patomani Indian reservation where Takala lived. He also added the usual caveat he did with all the leads he gave her: that the information might be bogus. In this case it could have been planted by the State Department to throw people off Skye's trail. But it was a lead.
Takala wondered how her mother was connected to the State Department, but that was still a mystery to her and Blake. She vowed to worship Blake for the rest of his life and buy his dinner every day for the next twenty years. Blake's ego had seemed worthily pandered to and satisfied, and they had left it at that.
Now Takala felt her heart pounding as she read the numbers. Forty-five was a couple of blocks away. This could be the moment for which she'd been waiting her whole life. Finally, she might meet her mother. Face-to-face. Up close and personal. No room to run.
She had a lot of questions for her, and they were the kind you had to look a woman in the eye while she answered them, like how does a mother just drop three daughters on the doorstep of her mother's home and leave? Even though it was forbidden to speak of anyone who had been abjured from her tribe, Meikoda, Takala's grandmother, had felt Takala and her sisters wouldn't stop asking about their mother until they heard the explanation of why and how they came to live with her. After warning them that she could only tell them once, she had gone on to explain that Skye had left them because she'd refused to marry the man predestined to be her husbandthat's how it was for Guardians. They married whomever the Maiden Bear chose for them. But Skye had refused, spit in the face of the creator of her tribe's white magic. Skye had abandoned her family, her preordained station as the Guardian, and her standing in the tribe to marry for love. It had ended badly, and her husband, Takala's father, had died prematurely of lung cancer.
Meikoda said his death was Skye's reprimand from Maiden Bear. And Skye wallowed in her grief, turning to drugs for solace, until she could no longer care for her own daughters. That excuse didn't mesh if Skye had gone to work for the State Department. No, Takala wanted the truth, to hear it from her mother's own lips. That was if she was still alive. This Lilly Smith could be a dead end.
But Takala couldn't dampen the hope stirring in her, or the dread. What if she found Skye, and it didn't go well? What if she offered no explanation and resented Takala looking for her? Takala decided she'd cross that bridge when and if she ever reached it.
She rounded a corner and slowed. Number forty-five was a modest two-story with a white picket fence. Even a Christmas wreath still graced the door. Real homey. Fit right in the burb-style neighborhood. Maybe Lilly Smith had a family of her own.
At the thought, Takala grimaced and spotted the taxi sitting out front. Plumes of hot exhaust billowed from the muffler, condensing as soon as they hit the cold air. Someone was on their way out.
Takala slowed, about to pull over, when a woman appeared at the door, carrying a suitcase. Takala compared the woman's features to the old photo she'd found hidden in Meikoda's hope chest. Her grandmother had said she'd destroyed every picture of Skye when the tribe renounced her, but Takala knew Meikoda couldn't wipe out all the pictures of her only daughter. She had to have kept one, and Takala hadn't given up until she discovered it. Since finding it, she'd only looked at it a thousand times.
The woman on the porch appeared about fifty, tall, with short jet-black hair. She wore sleek brown slacks and a matching cashmere jacket. Her makeup looked flawless on her square face. Lilly Smith glanced nervously up at the taxi driver, and the classic Rainwater bright blue eyes beamed. Yep. Give or take twenty years and about two feet of long, thick braid, this woman was a dead ringer for the image in the photo.
Takala felt her chest swell and a lump form in her throat. Could this really be her mother? She was about to pull over and discover the truth when all hell broke loose.