An Insider's Guide

Chapter Three


The house was set back from the dirt road and crowded by overgrown bushes and shaggy trees with brown leaves. The design of the thing was a hodgepodge of various architectural styles, with the only unifying element being that they'd all been repro'd badly: It had a roof like a Cape Cod, but was on one story like a ranch; it had pillars on the front porch like a colonial, but was sided in plastic like a trailer; it was set up on its lot like a castle and yet had the nobility of a busted trash bin.
Oh, and it was painted green. Like, Jolly Green Giant green.
Twenty years ago the place had probably been built by a city guy with bad taste looking to start life over as a gentleman farmer. Now everything about it was run down, except for one thing: The door was made out of shiny, fresh-as-a-daisy stainless steel and reinforced like something you'd find in a psych hospital or a jail.
And the windows were boarded up with rows of two-by-sixes.
Z crouched behind the rotted shell of what had been a '92 Trans Am and waited for the clouds above to pull together and cover the moon so he could move in. Across the weedy lawn and gravel driveway, Rhage was behind an oak.
Which was really the only tree big enough to hide the mofo.
The Brotherhood had found the site the night before by stroke of luck. Z had been downtown patrolling the needle park under Caldwell's bridges when he'd caught a pair of thugs dumping a body into the Hudson River. The disposal had been quick and professional: Nondescript sedan drove up, two guys in black hoodies got out and went to the trunk, body was head-and-footed, remains were tossed into the current.
Splish-splash, taking a bath.
Z had been downstream by about ten yards, so when the dead guy floated by, he saw from its grimacing mouth that it was a human male. Normally this would have been cause for doing absolutely nothing at all. If some man had been God-father 'd, that was not his biz.
But the wind changed directions and brought him a whiff of something cotton-candy sweet.
There were only two things Z knew of that smelled like that and walked upright: old ladies and his race's enemy. Considering it was unlikely that Betty White and Bea Arthur were under those hoods channeling their inner Tony Soprano, that meant there were two lessers up ahead. So the sitch was very much on Z's list of things to do.
With perfect timing, the pair of slayers got into an argument. While they went nose-to-nose and did a couple punch-shoves, Z dematerialized to the pylon nearest the sedan. The license plate on the Impala junker read 818 NPA, and there didn't appear to be any other passenger of either the stiff or the quick variety.
In the blink of an eye, he dematerialized again, this time to the roof of the warehouse that flanked the bridge. From his crow's- eye view, he waited with his phone to his ear and a line open to Qhuinn, bracing himself against the rush of wind coming up the building's ass.
Lessers didn't ordinarily kill humans. It was a waste of time, for one thing, because it didn't gain you points with the Omega, and a lot of hassle if you got caught, for another. That being said, if some guy saw something he shouldn't have, the slayers wouldn't hesitate to cash-and-carry him to his royal reward.
When the Impala finally came out from under the bridge, it took a right and headed away from downtown. Z spoke into his phone, and a moment later a black Hummer emerged right where the Impala had come out.
Qhuinn and John Matthew had been taking the night off with Blay at ZeroSum, but those boys were always ready for action. As soon as Z had called, the three raced for Qhuinn's brand-new wheels, which had been parked a block and a half away.
At Z's direction, the boys floored it to catch up with the sedan. While they closed in, Z kept an eye on the lessers, dematerializing from building top to building top as their POS made its way down the river's edge. Thank fuck the slayers didn't highway it or they might have gotten away.
Qhuinn had skills behind the wheel and once his Hummer was tailing the SUV reliably, Z stopped his Spidey shit and let the boys do the work. About ten miles later, Rhage took over from them in his GTO just to mix it up and reduce the chance the lessers would catch on that they were being tracked.
Just before dawn, Rhage had followed them to this place, but it had been too close to daylight to do any kind of infiltration.
Tonight was follow-up. Big time.
And what do you know, the Impala was sitting pretty in the driveway.
As the clouds finally got their act together, Z gave the nod to Hollywood, and the two of them dematerialized to either side of the front door. A quick listen revealed arguing, the voices the same ones Z had heard by the Hudson the night before. Evidently the pair of slayers were still oil-and-watering it.
Three, two . . . one--
Rhage kicked the door to the house open, bootlicking the bitch so hard his shitkicker left a dent in the metal panel.
The two lessers in the hall swung around, and Z didn't give them a chance to respond. Leading with his SIG's muzzle, he popped both right in the chest, the bullets sending the pair pinwheeling backward.
Rhage went on dagger duty, leaping forward, stabbing first one and then the other. As the flashes of white light and the sharp sounds faded, the brother leaped to his feet and froze like a boulder.
Neither Z nor Rhage moved. Using their senses, they sifted through the house's silence, searching for anything that suggested further inhabitation.
The moan that bubbled up into all the quiet came from the back, and Z walked swiftly toward the sound, muzzle first. In the kitchen the cellar door was open, and he dematerialized to the left of it. A quick head jab and he took a look-see down the stairs. A bald lightbulb hung from a red-and-black wire at the bottom, but the pool of light showed nothing but stained floorboards.
Z willed the light off down below and Rhage provided cover from upstairs as Z bypassed the rickety steps and dematerialized into the darkness.
On the lower level he smelled fresh blood and heard the staccato click of rattling teeth from the left.
He willed the cellar light back on . . . and lost his breath.
A male civilian vampire was tied by the arms and legs to a table. He was naked and covered with bruises, and instead of looking at Z, he squeezed his eyes shut, as if he couldn't bear to know what was coming at him.
For a moment Z couldn't move. It was his own nightmare in living color, and reality blurred such that he wasn't sure whether he was the one tied down or the guy who was coming to the rescue.
"Z?" Rhage said from above. " Anything there?"
Z snapped to attention and cleared his throat. "I'm on it."
As he approached the civilian, he said softly in the Old Language, "Be of ease."
The vampire's eyes flipped open and his head jerked up on his spine. There was a look of disbelief, then astonishment.
"Be of ease." Z double-checked the corners of the basement, his eyesight penetrating the shadows, seeking signs of a security system. All he saw was a lot of concrete walls and wooden flooring, along with old piping and wiring snaking around the ceiling. No electric eyes or sparkling new power supplies.
They were alone and unsupervised, but God only knew for how long. "Rhage, still clear?" he shouted up the stairwell.
"One civilian." Z assessed the male's body. He'd been beaten, and though he didn't seem to have any open wounds, there was no telling whether he could dematerialize. "Call the boys in case we need transport."
"Already have."
Z took a step forward--
The floor broke apart beneath his feet, splintering right out from under him.
As gravity grabbed him hard with greedy hands and he went into a free fall, all he could think about was Bella. Depending on what lay at the bottom, this could be--
He landed on something that shattered on impact, shards of whatever it was slicing at his leathers and his hands before bouncing up to cut into his face and neck. He kept hold of his gun because he'd been trained to, and because the jolt of pain tightened him up from head to foot.
It took some deep breathing before he could reboot his brain and try to assess any damage.
As he sat up slowly, the chiming sound of bits of glass falling to a stone floor echoed around him. In the circle of light that fell from the cellar above, he saw that he was sitting in the midst of a brilliant shimmer of crystals. . . .
He'd fallen on a chandelier the size of a bed.
And his left boot was facing backward.
"Fuck. Me."
His broken lower leg started to pound with pain, making him think that if only he hadn't looked at the damn thing, maybe he would have kept on not feeling it.
Rhage's face popped over the rim of the ragged hole above. "You okay?"
"Free the civilian."
"Are you all right?"
"Leg's shot."
"How shot?"
"Well, I'm looking at the heel of my shitkicker and the front of my knee at the same time. And there's a high probability I'm going to throw up." He swallowed hard, trying to convince his gag reflex to pipe down. "Get the civilian loose and then we'll see about getting me out of here. Oh, and stick to the rows of nails on the floor. Clearly the boards are weak."
Rhage nodded, then disappeared. As massive footsteps above caused drifts of dust to powder down, Z went into his jacket and took out a Maglite. The thing was about the size of a finger but could throw a beam as strong as the headlight on a car.
As he panned the thing around, his leg problem bothered him a little less. "What . . . the hell?"
It was like being in an Egyptian tomb. The forty-by-forty-foot room was stocked with objects that gleamed, from oil paintings in gilt frames to silver candelabra to bejeweled statuary to whole mounds of sterling flatware. And across the way there were stacked boxes that probably contained jewelry, as well as a lineup of fifteen or so metal briefcases that must have had money in them.
This was a looting repository, filled with what had been taken during the raids this past summer. All of this shit had belonged to the glymera--he even recognized the faces in some of the portraits.
Lot of value down here. And what do you know. Over to the right, close to the packed dirt floor, a red light started blinking. His fall had triggered the alarm system.
Rhage's head popped back into view. "Civilian is free, but unable to dematerialize. Qhuinn's less than a half mile away. What the fuck are you on?"
"A chandelier, and that's not the half of it. Listen, we're going to have company. This place is wired and I tripped it."
"There a staircase to you?"
Z wiped the pain sweat off his brow, the shit cold and greasy on the back of his bleeding hand. As he moved the flashlight around, he shook his head. "Can't see one, but they had to have gotten the loot in here somehow, and sure as hell it wasn't through that floor."
Rhage's head flipped up and the brother frowned. The sound of him unsheathing his dagger was a metal-on-metal gasp of anticipation. "That's either Qhuinn or a slayer. Drag yourself out of the light while I sort this."
Hollywood disappeared from the hole in the floor, his footsteps now whisper quiet.
Z holstered his gun because he had to, and cleared some of the crystal fragments out of the way. Palming his ass off the ground, he braced his good foot and spidered away into the darkness, heading for the security beacon. After backing his ass right up to the damn thing, as it was the only break he could find in the piles of art and silver, he settled against the wall.
When upstairs stayed way too quiet, he knew it wasn't Qhuinn and the boys. And yet there wasn't any fighting.
And then shit went from bad to worse.
The "wall" he was leaning against slid away and he fell flat on his back . . . at the feet of a pair of white-haired, pissed-off lessers.