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Undead on Arrival
A Crimson Moon Novel
By L. A. Banks
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 L. A. Banks
All rights reserved.
New Orleans ... four weeks after the UCE Conference
Sasha cringed, the large bed and breakfast suite suddenly making her feel claustrophobic. Watching her lover shoot up with demon-Werewolf anti-toxin made Sasha's insides churn. As the squad leader for the US military's Paranormal Containment Unit, she couldn't passively watch this and make it all right, personal relationship notwithstanding. During the past three weeks she'd told herself so many lies, which was easy to do when she didn't actually see Hunter take the meds. But throughout this final week of her official leave the truth had gut-punched her. Everything about Hunter's deteriorating condition not only was antithetical to her job — ensuring that no humans were at risk — but pure and simple broke her heart.
Right now she had to finally admit that her lover was a six-foot-five, 220-pound potential explosive in a civilian environment. Max Hunter had been severely infected. Max Hunter could go through a hard transition on any given full moon, and could possibly wreak unspeakable havoc. Max Hunter was therefore a bio-hazmat. Denial was no longer acceptable. The fact that he hadn't totally Turned yet was probably moot.
"Why don't you go get something to eat, since I know you hate watching me do this." Hunter didn't even look at her as he spoke.
She didn't look at him, either.
"I'd better stay ... in case there's a Reaction."
He laughed a low, hollow laugh and shook his head. "All the more reason I need you to take your sweet ass anywhere but here. I'm practically DOA — or maybe undead on arrival. What the hell."
This time she looked at him. Hard. "All the more reason I should stay — in case I need to shoot your ass."
Sasha paced across the room, hating that he needed to take stabilizing meds. She couldn't watch it. Didn't want to hear the sounds of him working with the syringe, tying off his arm to make the vein bulge. She swallowed hard and forced her gaze out the window while forcing her mind to flee past the panes the way she wished her body could. It was like watching someone slowly inject death.
Sasha closed her eyes for a moment, trying to wrestle Captain Sasha Trudeau, the woman she'd been, to the forefront of her mind. It felt like the walls of Dugan's Bed & Breakfast were closing in on her. How was she supposed to stay here or explain to the barrel-chested Elf who owned the place that he, his patrons, and his entire staff were at risk?
Hunter was not supposed to be this!
All demon-infected Werewolves had been sent back behind the demon doors or exterminated in the region. As far as anyone knew, every infected Shadow Wolf on North American soil had also been exterminated. People and supernaturals felt safe walking the streets again. She and Hunter were United Council of Entities icons of a supposed new era in supernatural diplomacy and law enforcement.
There were supposed to be clear categories of their kind — Shadow Wolves, those of the phyla who were honorable and sworn to protect humans; Werewolves — perhaps not so honorable but they didn't ravage humans unless provoked ... then there was the demon-infected version of their species. Those were the Werewolves that got the deadly contagion and couldn't shake it because they didn't possess the life-saving Shadow Wolf immunity. That was how it had been for eons. That was the way it was supposed to be. Clear-cut and black and white, with no shades of gray.
How had her man fallen between the clearly demarked lines of safety? Hunter was never supposed to fall between the cracks. Was never supposed to be what he sullenly joked about — something undead on arrival!
The normally timid believed in them and had banded together to find uncommon courage in the name of justice. The Fae Parliament had come together in an unusual display of solidarity with the Were Clans and the Shadow Clans to vote out the devious Vampire Cartel, which had masterminded the entire black-market, demon-wolf toxin scheme. Even the Mythics and Phantoms gave up their fierce feudal independence for once to join forces and oust those who supported the illicit demon-toxin trade. Uninfected Werewolf Clans had a fragile peace with the clean Shadow Clans, voting as huge blocs, which left a vendetta on the table with the Vampires. They had to watch their backs; everyone who'd gone against the Vampire Cartel had to stay sharp.
And now her man was fighting a very private, seemingly losing battle against the thing he'd championed at the conference — honor among wolves.
Defeat made each inhale ache as Sasha drew in shallow breaths. There were local business-supernaturals and pub owners to worry about, too, like Ethan McGregor and his gentle, healing wife, Margaret, who also worked at Tulane posing as a human ER trauma unit nurse when not helping out at her husband's tavern. The couple were just now getting their lives back on track, trying to keep unsuspecting human patrons obliviously coexisting with their steady supernatural clientele at their lively Fae ale-house around the corner. She'd half expected The Fair Lady to be firebombed after Ethan and Margaret had testified against the Vamps, effectively putting their lives on the line and exposing themselves and their young children to possible retaliation.
Hunter, therefore, had to hold the line for more than himself; the community looked up to him ... them. Even her military brass had given her and her squad a much-needed month's leave following the glowing, albeit somewhat doctored, reports — courtesy Xavier Holland — for a mission well accomplished. Bless Doc for his golden pen. Disaster had been averted. After the tragic loss of five-star General Donald Wilkerson, no one questioned her methods as long as they worked and the public was none the wiser. She knew a part of them was scared shitless and didn't really want to know. As far as the brass was concerned, her squad had averted a potential civilian catastrophe — and perhaps they had.
But the fact that one could have occurred meant that the pressure was on from the schizophrenic human military forces, which wanted to learn more about all things preternatural. Brass wanted to know, but didn't want to know. People needed deniability, but also needed to be able to sleep at night. Fear factors had to be addressed. That was real.
That meant sooner or later questions would be asked, there'd be a demand for cogent intel, and anything the least bit suspect would make every high-ranking official up the food chain extremely nervous.
For now, they viewed her and her team as the best operatives to mine sensitive data. However, they didn't know jack about Hunter or the various Wolf Clans she'd kept on the down-low. Yet in the supernatural community, she and Hunter were supposed to be the law, diplomats from the North American Shadow Wolf Clan — protectors of the weaker supernaturals and humans. They'd even won a rare seat for Shadows and Werewolves to co-represent at the UCE Elder's Bench.
Now this ... horrible secret, the kind of thing she'd always sworn she'd never be a party to. Easier said than done. If the Shadow Clans learned of Hunter's struggle, after all they'd been through, they might exterminate him on sight. His own enforcer, Bear Shadow, would be sent. That was the way of the wolf. Clean. Nonnegotiable. Efficient. Then the local pack of his ancestry would grieve in long, mournful howls. His grandfather, Silver Hawk, would be given his remains, and then it would become pack and clan history told orally for generations to follow.
But she also had the other part of her life to worry about, the human side. If her military brass learned she was harboring a potential virus carrier, and had slept with him, they'd have them both targeted. Best case, they'd shoot him and court-martial her for treason, then hang her. At this point, she wasn't really sure that she cared. Her insides were dying very slowly as she watched the man she loved and had once admired slowly become lost to himself. A silver bullet to the center of her forehead would've been more merciful than this.
Sasha gazed out the window from where she sat amid mussed bed linens. Her squad was nearby; she could feel Fisher's presence, along with Woods's. The signature of her wolf familiars was strong enough to raise the hair on her arms, and where those guys were no doubt the rest of her squad would be, too. Clarissa, Winters, and Bradley hung with Woods and Fisher like family, which was a good thing. Couldn't hurt to have two good soldiers with solid wolf senses in a loose formation with a seer, a kinetics guy, and someone versed in the dark arts all watching one another's backs in Voodoo town.
The sadder point, though, was that they'd all bonded like family ... they loved Hunter like a brother, the same way Doc had taken him into his heart like a son. Confusion ate at her mind as she wrestled with the question of who to go to first — Doc, or Hunter's grandfather Silver Hawk? Or maybe she'd quietly speak to the team's biochemist and resident seer, Clarissa, before alerting the elders.
Sasha kept her gaze trained on the window, trying her best to ignore the sight that haunted her peripheral vision — of Hunter prepping a vein. She then mentally shunted aside the sounds in the room until she could only hear the revelry going on at Finnegan's Wake bar across the street ... a fitting name for the merry Fae community that frequented the establishment, but the happiness had long been bled out of their room.
For more than three weeks after the blue-moon-coordinated United Council of Entities Conference, Hunter had hidden his worsening condition from her like a junkie. The only reason he'd been able to shape-shift so quickly at the conference was because Doc had slipped him some meds. If she'd only known then, maybe she could have convinced him to go in for a full eval before it got this far. Hundreds of thoughts battled for dominance in her brain. There had to be something that could be done! Why had he hidden it for so long?
But little by little his condition had grown impossible to conceal from the person who'd shared his body and bed. Now his need eclipsed the shame and he'd simply stopped trying to pretend anymore. It was what it was.
She'd seen the tracks; knew what they were from having taken those same meds at Doc's insistence. After a while, shooting up in less obvious places just didn't cut it; you needed a vein, a mainline artery. Denial had claimed her — making her pray they were spider bites, when she knew better. Now he was needle-dependent ... even though he'd ironically been the one to free her from the purgatory of life on metabolic drugs. There was no justice in the world. Each injection worked more slowly, was more painful. That's how she'd found out — the night he'd shot up in the bathroom and had fallen, convulsing.
The look of humiliation in his eyes remained burned into her mind. For all Hunter's strength there was a pleading quality that begged her not to flee, not to leave him, but also not to come help him up as his canines ripped through his gums. She'd been paralyzed in the doorway, just as she was paralyzed now sitting on the side of the bed sipping shallow breaths while he pumped a fist with his belt in his teeth and tightly pulled against his bicep.
Where was his inner wolf ... that pristine, free being who disbelieved in Western medicine? The drugs would make his wolf senses dull. He would no longer be able to hear at peak efficiency, or move like lightning, or see in the shadows ... or become one with the shadows. He wouldn't see auras or sense approaching danger — all the things he'd given her a glimpse off when she came off the meds were now denied him because of a cruel blow of fate. Because an honorable man had tried to do the right thing, he'd been handicapped by the very scourge he'd hunted. He'd battled evil, and it had bitten him, polluting his system so severely that his Shadow Wolf immunity was not kicking in to stop it. The injustice of it stabbed her spirit. There had to be a way to get Max back to normal, back to his glorious Shadow Wolf self. And that was the part that made her so angry that she snarled at him; his inner wolf wasn't fighting back.
Tasting tears as she swallowed hard, she refused to let them fall. "Tap the oxygen out of it," she said quietly, knowing that he was so eager for a second hit of his meds, he was about to make a deadly mistake.
A first-quarter moon washed a blue-white haze across Hunter's handsome, ebony face, and she watched him struggle to stop to take a few seconds to tap the hypodermic. It wasn't even a full moon yet and already he was in agony. She wondered what would happen when the luminous disk in the sky became a waxing gibbous then went full. His disheveled hair spilled in an onyx wash across his broad shoulders. It had lost the eagle feather and leather thong, along with some of its natural luster. That made her sadder as she stared at him wondering if this time would be the tipping point, the point of no return for his Shadow Wolf.
"I waited too long," he said with a wince. "Let it get too near dark and let the moon come up on me. Every time I keep hoping this will be the last, but it isn't."
Sasha stood and quickly walked toward him, drawing on all her military training to remain calm despite the weight on her heart and soul. "Let me prep your needle before you kill yourself," she said in a quiet but firm tone.
"If it's gotten this far where I can't even wait to prep a damned needle," he said with a bitter chuckle, "then it doesn't much matter, does it?"
She held his sinew-thick forearm. "Yeah. It matters to me. Kill yourself on your own watch, but not in front of my face." She snatched the needle from him, held it up to the moonlight, and gave it a few quick taps before expressing some of the serum. "After you take this, we need to talk." She stabbed into a bulging vein without mercy, tears that she'd refused to let fall slightly blurring her vision. "That's a double dose ... more than enough to hold back a hard transition." She yanked the needle out and stared at him as he shuddered and his lids lowered. "Enough to get you high. When did you start double-dosing, Max?"
Hunter nodded and allowed his head to slowly loll back. "Yeah ... enough to get me high."
Sasha hurled the needle across the room and went in search of her jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers. She had to get out before she shot him. Yet at the same time, in her soul she knew it would be the same as murdering the victim.
"You okay?" he asked calmly, finally lifting his head with a lazy smile and appraising her in her French-cut gray cotton briefs and midriff cotton camisole.
"No! I'm not okay," she shouted, whirling around to snatch her nine-millimeter off the dresser and to slip on her shoulder holster over her T-shirt.
"Why not, beyond the obvious?" he said, rubbing his palms down his face and sitting forward in his boxers.
"Why not? Why not! Because you're not okay, Hunter!" Her fingers felt like they'd become fat sausages as she tried to work her weapon into place and zip up her jeans. Her mind was scrambled, her words unclear, her vision blurry. She couldn't breathe.
"So what else is new?" he said drily. "Is this the part where you tell me we're breaking up, or what?" He stood, no longer looking at her, and began searching for his jeans.
"We have to get you to Doc. You have to stop overdosing on the meds. The amount you're taking is —"
"Killing the fucking pain, Sasha," he said in a low, rumbling murmur that came out near a growl. "So if you've leaving me, then do it in one swift, decisive move — like a razor cut. Don't stab me over and over again with the goddamned threat." He yanked on his pants and stripped the belt from his arm as an afterthought. "I've gotta go eat; this bullshit makes me nauseous on an empty stomach. I would ask you to join me, but on nights like this, it's gotta be raw."
For a moment she just stared at him. Then slowly, very slowly, she turned away without a word, opened the door, and walked down the hall toward fresh air.
Excerpted from Undead on Arrival by L. A. Banks. Copyright © 2009 L. A. Banks. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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