Deeper Than Midnight (Chapter Twenty-nine)

Hunter took her hand in his. Together they walked back to the truck and whatever awaited them at the end of the road tonight.

The senator's holiday house party had been in full swing for two and a half hours and Chase was getting bored.

From his perch in the gloom of the second-floor gallery balcony, he watched the crowd of humans enjoying themselves in the grand ballroom below. Elegantly dressed people strolled and mingled, laughing and airkissing as they attempted to juggle drinks and hors d'oeuvres and a hundred pointless topics of conversation. In the background, the twelve-piece musical ensemble played an alternating selection of secular holiday tunes and upper-crusty classical pieces. Chase couldn't help but notice the burgundy-draped beauty who circled the fringes of the gathering like a mother hen looking after her chicks. Ms. Fairchild made a point of searching out the most hopeless of the wallflowers, engaging them with a smile and a few minutes of what appeared to be genuinely attentive conversation. She made introductions, dragging her socially inept charges into larger groups and standing by until they had found their footing before she moved on to the next one.

He'd guessed based on her businesslike demeanor that she worked for Senator Clarence, but looking at the attractive young woman, Chase found himself wondering if the job description for the bachelor politician had extended beyond party planning and social direction. Maybe the chin-high collar and brusque attitude were just a front. She didn't seem all that chilly now. Maybe she was as hot as her form-fitting gown.

Yeah, and maybe he was losing it, sitting up here in the belfry like Quasimodo when he had more interesting things to do back in the city.

The cold knot of hunger in his gut agreed.

Chase stared down impatiently, spotting the golden boy senator making the rounds with his guests. He was smooth. A consummate professional, pumping hands, kissing wrinkled oldlady cheeks, posing for photographs along the way. It wasn't hard to imagine his charm and polish sweeping him quickly into a higher office. No doubt Dragos had noticed the same thing about him, though Chase shuddered to think what it might mean if the Order's chief adversary started turning his sights on human government figures.

Down below the gallery, there was a sudden hubbub of activity. Two Secret Service agents entered the house through the grand front foyer. Three more opened the dark cherry double doors and held them wide for the party's VIP guest to come inside, another pair of agents bringing up the rear.

Chase had already guessed who the new arrival would be, but it still made his pulse kick with a sharp pang of dread – of dark expectation – as Senator Clarence moved into position to greet the arriving vice president. Applause went up from the other guests as the two men grinned and did the one-armed man hug before moving on to begin the requisite meet-and-greet with the rest of the avid crowd.

Chase noticed he had company coming upstairs, extra security precaution, now that the country's second highest in command was in the building. The armed agent took his position on the other end of the gallery and reported his readiness into the mic clipped to the lapel of his black suit. Chase drew back from the edge of the balcony and melted into the gloom of the hall. As he inched away, he thought he caught a glimpse of a face he recognized all too well. A face that most certainly did not belong among a gathering of humans. The Secret Service agent was parked right out in the open at the other end of the gallery, his big head taking in the surroundings, shrewd eyes trained to spot anything out of line. But he didn't sense the danger that Chase did. He couldn't know that one of the men standing among the other partygoers was no man at all.

Chase bent the shadows around him, gathering them close as he crept toward the railing to steal another glance.

Goddamn, he thought, confirming the worst scenario.

It was Dragos down there.

Like a bee in the midst of a buzzing hive, the vice president made his way with the senator through the excited crowd. All too soon, they paused in front of Dragos. The three of them spoke for a moment, trading chuckles and clasping hands before they began to head off together toward a private room adjacent to the full-to-bursting ballroom. Fuck.

Oh, no.

No, no, no.

Chase knew he couldn't let Dragos go anywhere alone with either one of these important men. He could not let that happen.

Indecision raked him as he struggled to hold his talent in place, his gaze fixed on Dragos's slightest move. Every Breed cell in his body urged him to leap over the balcony and attack – kill the bastard in cold blood, before he even knew what hit him. But to do that would be to expose himself publicly as something other than human. If it were only he that he had to be concerned with, he wouldn't care. But the ramifications of showing himself as part of the Breed were irreversible, and too far-reaching.

Maybe he could create a distraction, something to cause momentary panic. Something to make the vice president's guards rush him away from the party and from whatever plot Dragos was hatching as he grinned alongside him.

Chase felt his talent slip as he grappled with what course of action to take. The shadows fell away, like mist through his fingers, leaving him standing there unconcealed.

In that very instant, Ms. Fairchild looked up and spotted him. She motioned one of the men in black over and pointed up toward Chase. The agent spoke into his comm device and several others poured in from all directions.

Ah, Christ.

Meanwhile, Dragos was almost out of sight with the senator and the vice president. Chase flashed across the distance to the Secret Service man positioned on the gallery balcony. In less than a second, he'd knocked him out cold and grabbed the pistol from his side holster. Chase fired a single shot into the air. Plaster dust rained down as the bullet sank into the vaulted ceiling. In the ballroom below, chaos erupted.

People screamed and scattered, everyone running for cover.

Everyone except Ms. Fairchild. She stood stock-still in the center of all that madness, looking right at him, her eyes locked on to him like bright green lasers. Chase quickly turned his attention on Dragos. He met the furious glower with equal hatred and fired the agent's pistol before Dragos had a chance to dodge out of the way. The shot hit him dead-on, knocking the vampire off his feet.

Gunfire returned on Chase, exploding around him from every direction. On the ballroom floor below, Dragos went down bleeding. Dead or dying, Chase hoped to hell, but he couldn't be sure.

He ran to the nearest window, then dived through it in a soaring leap. As he sailed into the darkness outside, he felt a shredding blast of pain tear into his thigh and shoulder. He shook it off, dropping down to the snow-covered lawn below.

He heard the pound of footsteps rumbling through the house and over the grounds of the estate. The jangle of weapons, all of them ready to blow the dangerous intruder to kingdom come. Chase vaulted to his feet and took off running.

* * *

Dragos fumed where he lay, bleeding from his gut on Senator Bobby Clarence's ballroom floor. Moments after the gunshot wound that had knocked him flat, screams and chaos still filled the air of the estate. Terrified human party guests scattered like little birds while Secret Service agents swooped en masse to whisk the senator and the vice president out of the room to safety. Damn the Order.

How had they found him? How could they possibly have known to look for him here, of all places?

Dragos held his hands to his stomach as the hysteria continued to swell around him. Although his wound was bad, he had no doubt that he'd survive. The bullet had passed through his body. Already the bleeding was lessening, his Breed genetics well on the way to repairing the damage to his skin and organs.

A pair of black suits and several police officers pushed through the fleeing crowd to reach him. One of the government men spoke low and urgently into the comm device hooked around his ear. The other knelt down beside Dragos, joined by a couple of anxious-looking uniformed cops.

Dragos attempted to sit up, but the Secret Service agent stuck out his splayed palm to discourage him. "Sir, just try to remain calm now, all right? Everything's under control here. We've got help coming for you in just a few minutes."

He didn't wait for compliance. Confident he'd be obeyed, he went back to join his companion, leaving the two local cops to sit on watch. A few straggling party guests shuffled past, hands pressed to their mouths as they glimpsed the spilled blood on their rush to get out of the ballroom.

Dragos grunted, resenting all of these panicked humans almost as much as he despised the bastard from the Order who'd managed to derail months of work with a single gunshot. It was pride more than pain that drew his mouth into a tight line, fury more than fear that had him gritting his teeth so hard behind his lips it was a wonder his jaw didn't shatter. His fangs throbbed, already ripping out of his gums and filling his mouth. His sight, always preternaturally sharp, was growing even more acute now, the edges of his vision filling with amber light. He had to get out of there, and fast.

Before his rage betrayed him publicly for what he truly was.

Dragos glanced over at one of the attending cops – the younger of the pair. The one who belonged to him. Crouched beside Dragos, the Minion awaited his command like an eager hound.

"Tell my driver to bring the car around back," he murmured, his voice hardly more than a whisper. The Minion leaned close, absorbing every word. "And do something to clear this goddamn room of all these prying eyes."

"Yes, Master."

The Minion rose. When he pivoted to carry out the order, he nearly ran headlong into Tavia Fairchild. She stood there, unmoving, her shrewd gaze flicking from the cop who'd almost run her down to Dragos, who looked up at her in rapt but cautious interest. Although she could only have been there for an instant, it had been long enough. She'd heard the Minion address Dragos as his master. He could tell by the slight tilt of her head, the faint narrowing of her eyes, that she was trying to process information that even her keen mind didn't have the basis to comprehend.

"Pardon me, ma'am," the Minion mumbled, stepping out of her way with an awkward bow of his head. He glanced back at Dragos and cleared his throat. "Mr. Masters, I'll be right back."

Dragos nodded, his gaze trained fully on Tavia Fairchild as he lifted himself to a sitting position on the floor. The Minion's effort to cover his slip seemed to satisfy the senator's pretty assistant. As the officer walked away, her look of confusion muted into one of concern as she turned back to Dragos.

"Paramedics have been called and an ambulance is on the way …" Her voice trailed off. She looked ill, the color in her cheeks draining away as she drew nearer to him and gaped at all the blood soaking his white silk tuxedo shirt and the ballroom floor underneath him. Her balance seemed a little off as she wrapped her arms around her middle. She met his eyes if only to avoid looking at his injury, and gave a small shake of her head. "I'm sorry. I'm just a little woozy. I don't do well in these types of situations. I've been known to faint at the sight of a skinned knee."

Dragos permitted a small curve of his lips. "You can hardly expect to be perfect at everything, Miss Fairchild."

She frowned, visibly embarrassed. At least her queasiness seemed to help her forget about his Minion's careless slip of the tongue. She squared her shoulders, snapping herself back into the role of the consummate professional. "I've just left Senator Clarence and the vice president, Mr. Masters. They're both unharmed and in Secret Service custody as we speak. Their main concern was for your well-being, of course."

"There is no need," Dragos assured her. "I'm certain the wound appears much worse than it truly is." To demonstrate, he started to get up on his feet.

"Oh, I don't think you should – " She rushed forward to assist him, but it was her body that wobbled more than his, her face going pale again, cheeks sallow.

"I will be fine," Dragos told her. As he spoke, the Minion police officer came back into the ballroom and took Tavia's place at his side, gently removing her as he informed Dragos that his car was waiting out back as requested.

"Don't you think you should wait for the EMTs?" she asked, incredulous. "You've been shot, Mr. Masters. You've lost an awful lot of blood."

He gave a mild shake of his head as his Minion helped him take a few steps. "It will take more than this to stop me, I promise you."

She looked less than convinced. "You belong in the Emergency Room."

"My personal physicians are best equipped to look after me," he replied, unfazed as he was smoothly escorted away by his Minion and another officer who'd come over to lend a hand.

"Besides, you have other, more pressing things to take care of, Miss Fairchild."

He gestured toward the open front entrance of the house, where outside, the yard was beginning to crowd with arriving news vans and bright camera lights. Tavia Fairchild straightened her burgundy gown and lifted her head, visibly girding herself for the onslaught of reporters already pushing their way into the house. In the distance, the siren from the arriving ambulance screamed.

As he was being led away, Dragos heard the young woman's low, whispered curse, but when he glanced back at her, Tavia Fairchild was marching out to meet the throng of vultures like the very picture of poised calm.

"Is it true the gunman had been lurking in the senator's house?" someone shouted at her.

"Where are the vice president and the senator now?" another reporter demanded. And still more panicked questions, one after the other: "Was the shooting an attempt on Senator Clarence, or is there reason to believe the vice president was the intended target?"

"Could this have been a possible terrorist act? Did anyone see the shooter?" "Is it true there was only one man responsible for the attack?" "Do the police or Secret Service know anything about who might have done this, or why?"

Dragos smiled to himself as he exited out the back of the house. Perhaps tonight's unexpected chaos would prove useful to him. Perhaps all the frenzied questions and worry were just what he needed to drive the final nail in the Order's coffin.

The bullet he'd taken tonight had been a shot fired over his prow – one he was damned good and ready to return.

As he climbed into his waiting limousine, Dragos retrieved his blood-splattered cell phone from the pocket of his tuxedo jacket. No more waiting for the opportune moment to strike against the Order. It was time to shut them down hard. Permanently, if he had anything to say about it. With his call to a backwoods landline in northern Maine ringing on the other end, Dragos watched through the limo's dark-tinted windows as Tavia Fairchild stood under the lights of a dozen news cameras, calmly addressing the agitated crowd.

While she assured them all that everything was under control, Dragos gave the go-ahead on a mission that would soon send the entire city into a state of total hysteria.