In the meantime, enjoy the sample...
He was naked, covered in blood, and lying in the floor of a steel cage.
She’d still know Mark Wilder anywhere.
Detective Hope Barton scanned the room from the bottom step, eyes flicking from the cage to the bloody wooden table beside it, to the shackles that hung from blood-splattered cement walls.
The big, dimly lit basement reeked of murder: body fluids, rotting gore, and helpless suffering. Her stomach heaved, but Hope had been a violent crimes detective for two years, and she’d stood over her share of slaughter. Swallowing hard, she forced her dinner back where it belonged and did her job.
“Mark.” Hope strode toward the cage, ignoring the sticky puddles drying on the cement underfoot. She was too busy scanning the room for the key to his cell. There was no sign of one, dammit. “What the hell happened to you?” When he didn’t move, she raised her voice in a cop’s bark. “Mark!”
He stirred and lifted his head from the cage’s dirty floor. One dazed green eye met hers under a shock of matted blond hair. Blood and filth streaked his face, his lips were cut and bruised, and his left eye was swollen shut.
Somebody had beaten the crap out of him. And judging from his bloody knuckles, he’d fought back hard. Which was no surprise. Mark never took anything lying down.
Her gut twisted. How was she going to get him out of here? She grabbed the thick iron bars in both hands. “Mark…” “Mark, it’s Hope.”
For a suspended instant, he stared at her without any recognition at all.
Until he roared with a tortured animal howl and leaped at her in an impossible eight-foot bound. Pure reflex had her jolting back, barely dodging his hand as it shot through the bars.
How did he do that? Nobody could jump like that!
Mark’s lips peeled off snapping teeth, his powerful body straining to reach her with fingers curled into claws. His bare, bloody feet thudded on the bars as he kicked them savagely, trying to bend the steel. His one good eye glittered in frenzy.
He has fangs. She froze, staring at his sharply pointed canine teeth. Sweet God, Mark has fangs!
He sure as hell hadn’t had them in high school. She’d put her tongue in his mouth often enough to know.
As he bellowed and clawed, Hope damn near drew down on him. She managed to drag her hand away from the grip of her shoulder-holstered 9mil. Glock, but it took an effort. I’m not going to shoot Mark Wilder.
God, she ached to call for backup, but she no longer trusted anyone in the department.
Mark finally stopped howling. Clinging to the bars, he stared at her, his good eye feral and desperate, like a wolf’s with one leg in a bear trap. Recognition flickered in his gaze. “Hope?”
His voice sounded broken, raspy, as if he’d been screaming. Screaming for a very long time.
Pity raked at her heart, along with a certain tense relief. At least he’d recognized her. “Yeah, it’s me.” She gave him a twisted smile. “Guess you were right. There is a vampire in Reede County.”
“Told you.” He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth as if fighting some powerful urge. “I warned you…what he was.”
Yeah, but she’d thought he’d lost his mind. The story he’d told her last week had certainly sounded crazy.
* * * *They’d been working their way through a pizza in his den as Blade Trinity roared away on the big flat-screen television, Wesley Snipes killing vampires with a fanged snarl and flashing arcs of his sword.
It was a DVD choice Hope later realized was deliberate.
She’d folded a slice of the pizza and was about to take a healthy bite when Mark said, “I know who killed Joy.”
Hope dropped the slice back on her plate. He’d said he had something to tell her when he’d invited her over, but she’d had no idea he’d meant anything like this. He looked tense, as if he dreaded telling her whatever he had in mind, his green eyes narrow and wary. “I’m listening.”
“Patrick Stone came to my folks’ house the night after Joy died.”
“The tent revival preacher? You think he killed your sister?” Sexual predators often assumed religious covers that gave them access to victims, and they moved around a lot to keep from getting caught.
“Yeah. We thought Stone was going to offer to pray with us or something, like my folks’ pastor had.” Mark braced his elbows on his knees. A muscle in his jaw flexed as he bit off the next words. “Instead, the fucker told us all to forget about her, that she was nothing but a little slut.”
“Oh, my God. He said that to your parents? So how hard did you kick his ass? And how many punches did your daddy get in?” She grinned, imagining Ted Wilder’s reaction to anybody saying something like that about his little girl. Preacher or no, Ted would have taken the guy apart.
“None. Dad believed the bastard. They both did.” Mark’s big hands flexed between his knees.
“What? That makes no sense. What did you do?”
“Invited Stone outside and tried to knock his teeth down his throat. He blocked every punch, tossed me on my ass…” Mark stopped and took a deep breath. “And then he told me he was a vampire. Showed me his fangs and told me exactly what he did to Joy. In sickening detail.”
“He actually had false teeth made to look like fangs?” That would explain the puncture marks in the victims’ bite wounds.
“No, Hope. He really is a vampire. He said that’s how he made my parents believe him -- he’s got psychic abilities no human can resist.”
A chill raced over her skin, and Hope had to work to keep her face expressionless. On the screen, Wesley showed his fangs in a flash of white against his dark skin. “Let me get this straight. You believe your sister was murdered by a vampire?”
He didn’t look away. “I know how crazy it sounds, but yeah, that’s exactly what I believe.”
* * * *It had to be Post Traumatic Stress. Mark had just left the Marines after ten years in Afghanistan and Iraq as a demolition specialist. A decade of that would give anybody PTSD.
Except it hadn't been the trauma talking. Every word of his wild story had been true.
“Talk to me, Hope,” Mark begged in a ragged voice, leaning against the bars as if all his furious energy had abandoned him. “Help me hang on, or I’m going to lose it again.”
She studied him, frowning. His face was white and bloodless, his lips pale.
“What do you want me to say?”
“Anything. Just talk to me.” He closed his good eye and pressed his forehead against the bars. “How did you find me?”
“Your parents came by the Sheriff’s Office yesterday.” The Wilders had known Hope for years, so they asked for her whenever they needed a cop. “They told me they hadn’t seen you in a week. At first they’d thought you’d just forgotten to call, but when your father kept checking your house and you never came home, they got worried.”
He grimaced. “I’ll bet they’re going out of their minds, after what happened to Joy.”
“Pretty much. Which is when I decided to question Stone after last night’s revival, something I damn well should have done when you said he killed Joy.”
“Hell, I wouldn’t have believed me either.”
Hope turned and began to pace, trying to work off her outraged energy. “You know, Stone actually ordered me to forget those women, as if he expected me to obey him.”
“He did. And you would have, if you’d been an ordinary human.”
She decided not to ask what the hell he meant by that. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know. “So I started asking questions. One of the women from the church hosting the revival told me she’d loaned Stone her mother’s house. The mother’s been dead a year or so, and this lady hasn’t been able to sell the place.”
“And she never will when word gets out about this.” He gestured at the blood-smeared cement.
“Then this morning, Sheriff Williams called me into his office. Said to quit wasting my time with animal kills and get back to work on my caseload. But animals don’t leave finger shaped bruises, and those were human bites, no matter what the coroner said.” Hope turned to face Mark, her hands curling into fists. “Thing is, I’d discussed the cases with the sheriff just the day before, and he’d agreed they were homicides. It was just like you said -- Stone had done something to his mind.”
“Bastard’s got a lot of power.” Mark straightened abruptly, as if someone had goosed him with a Taser. His good eye widened in panic. “What time is it? Is Stone here? You’ve got to get the hell out, Hope, or he’ll…”
“Relax, tonight’s service just started. Which is why I decided to drop by and check out the house, even though I didn’t have a warrant.” She curled a lip at the blood splatter that painted the cinderblock walls. “I smelled the stench of this dungeon of his all the way out on the porch. Instant probable cause. I kicked in the door and followed the reek.”
“For all the good it does either of us.” Mark wrapped his bruised hands around the bars and stared at her with desperate intensity. At least he seemed to be tracking now. “Hope, you can’t touch Stone. Even if you managed to arrest him, all he has to do is use his powers on the sheriff and he’s out the door. Given his strength, I doubt you could bring him in at all. And I don’t want him to get his claws into you too.”
She moved back over to the cage, staying just out of reach in case he tried to grab her again. “How did you end up like this?”
“I was dumb enough to challenge him at my folks’ house.” A bitter grimace twisted Mark’s mouth, and the knuckles of his fists went white from his grip on the bars. “He told me later that’s how he knew I’m Kith. He almost grabbed me that night, but he decided to wait, think it over. Then like a moron, I showed up here and got myself caught.”
“Wait.” Hope frowned. “What the hell’s a Kith?”
“That’s what vamps call people with the psychic strength to survive becoming a vampire.” Mark leaned his forehead against the bars and closed his eyes. The hollows beneath his striking cheekbones looked deeper, as if he was growing gaunter before her eyes. “The same strength makes us immune to a vampire’s orders, so that’s how they recognize us. Which is how I became a monster.” His good eye opened, meeting her gaze in a blaze of urgent green. “And that’s why you need to stay the hell away from him.”
“And let him go on killing?” She snorted. “Not very damned likely.”
“Hope, Stone thinks you’re Kith too because you refused to back off the case. He’s thinking of turning you. And you don’t want to become that bastard’s toy.”
Hope reached for the cell phone clipped to her belt. No matter what, Mark needed medical attention. He was in shock, suffering from blood loss and God knew what else.
He straightened in alarm. “What are you doing?”
“Calling dispatch for an ambulance.” She started thumbing buttons. “You need treatment. The Rescue Squad carries equipment that can cut into a car. They can slice open those bars.”
“I’d kill them, Hope. I’d kill them all. And you too.” His gaze haunted and urgent, Mark stared desperately into her eyes. Even his tongue looked dry as he licked his lips. “Stone hasn’t given me enough blood. I’m starving. I wouldn’t be able to control myself.”
Hope froze with the phone halfway to her mouth as she stared at him. And finally started to think through the implications. Even if the team managed to subdue Mark -- maybe by drugging him -- what then? He was a fucking vampire. Half an hour after he went to the hospital, he’d be on CNN.
Somebody would shoot cell phone video of his fangs and a few choice shots of this chamber of horrors. And he’d be screwed.
Meanwhile Stone would return from his tent revival, where he was probably choosing a sixth blonde from among the worshipers. Another woman to rape and murder.
That bastard needs to die. It wasn’t the first time in Hope’s law enforcement career she’d had that thought, but it was the first time she intended to carry it out.
She clipped the phone back on her belt with a hand that shook. It had been too damn long since she’d slept, or had anything to eat beyond stale cop coffee and candy bars. Being the lead investigator on five serial murder cases would do that to you. Especially when the killer’s a fucking vampire.
“All right. What do you think I should do?”
His good eye lit with hope, and he stepped closer to the bars. “Go to my house. Look in the garage, under the blue tarp. There are eight pipe bombs and a detonator I built to look like a ball point pen…”
“Wait -- bombs? Pipe bombs?” She stared at him, incredulous. “Do I look like a suicide bomber to you?”
“I’m not talking about blowing yourself up. I sure as hell don’t want you dead. Just Stone.” Mark’s bruised hands wrapped around the bars, and he stared at her with desperate intensity, as if willing her to listen. “I’ve already built everything you need. All you have to do is position the devices, get the hell away, and press the detonator.”
“What if somebody sees me, Mark? They’d think I was some kind of psycho, killing a preacher for giggles. They’d never believe he was a vampire. I’d go to jail for the rest of my life.”
“I know, I thought of all that too. Thing is, it’s the only way to be sure of killing him.”
“What about a stake through the heart? It’d be a hell of a lot less complicated.”
“And a lot more risky.” Mark released the bars and started to pace in long, urgent strides. “What if he woke up before you finished? Hell, we don’t know whether a stake would even work. It could be a myth, like the one about crosses. Holy objects obviously don’t bother him, or he couldn’t be hanging out in churches, waving a Bible.”
Hope grimaced. “Good point.”
“But I’m damned sure those bombs would do the job. That’s why I took the risk of telling you what he was. I knew you wouldn’t believe me, but I wanted you to know why I’d blown the house. Unfortunately, I made the dumbass mistake of casing the house at night, and Stone caught me.” He stopped pacing to rest his forehead against the steel and closed his good eye. His normally healthy tan had leached away, leaving him pale beneath the bruises that spotted his broad shoulders. “Next thing I knew, I was in this cage, slowly starving to death. You and those bombs are the only hope we have of stopping him now.”
Well, at least it was a plan. A crazy plan, but a plan. Hope scrubbed her hands over her face. They were trembling hard now. “So what do I do?”