Edge of Dawn (Chapter Seven)
"I know this place," she murmured as the Jeep rolled over the cracked, untended asphalt.
The road led to the entrance of what had once been a park in the days before First Dawn and the wars that followed. Long before that, during another war, the broad expanse of overgrown land and the squatty, elongated D-shape structure at the far end of it had served as a human military facility. Mira peered at the battered, bullet-scarred sign that had once welcomed visitors to historic Fort Taber.
Now the site was weed choked, dense with thickets and bramble. Up ahead, the concrete-block building was a forbidding stronghold, all but obscured by dark foliage and tangled vines. Kellan drove up on it and circled around the side, killing the headlights as they approached the yawning black maw of the fortress's entrance. He rolled into the darkness. Small lights came on deep inside, illuminating what appeared to be the interior of an old, unused gun battery. Up ahead was the black van that had been used to abduct Jeremy Ackmeyer and her.
"Not much of a fleet garage," Mira remarked, turning a sardonic look on Kellan.
"We don't have the Order's deep pockets." He came to a stop near the van and threw the Jeep's brake. "We have to scrape and work for what we have – meager as it is."
He said it not with accusation or complaint, merely fact. But there was the barest note of humility in his voice, and it left her to wonder if he was embarrassed in some way, if he had felt compelled to make excuses to her for the way he and his followers lived.
Kellan swung out of the vehicle and walked around to instruct her to do the same. Given little choice, Mira followed him into the gloom of the place. "Maybe it would be easier for you to find patrons if you did nobler work."
He scoffed, wheeling around on her. "You think we couldn't find people willing to fund our missions if we wanted to? We don't answer to anyone. We see things that shouldn't be going on, and we stop them. We don't dance on command or worry about stepping on delicate political toes. Not even the Order can say that anymore."
"Missions?" Mira tossed back at him. "The Order doesn't go around abducting civilians or disrupting diplomatic assemblies. The Order doesn't sabotage peace talks or appoint themselves the world's judge and jury whenever it suits them."
"Maybe they should." Kellan's eyes blazed with embers of outrage in the dim light of the bunker. "We do what needs to be done, because it must be done."
He started to stalk ahead, away from the parked vehicles and into a wide-mouthed tunnel.
"So self-righteous," she called after him. "I hope you're willing to die for your convictions."
He pivoted now and stormed back to her, his expression dark, thoughtful, even as his irises radiated with amber fire. "Yeah, I guess I am willing to die for what I believe in. Don't tell me you wouldn't be too."
She stood there, unable to argue. He knew her too well to believe any denial she tried to fling at him. Nor did he give her the chance. His fingers clamped down around her wrist and he hauled her after him, through the black tunnel and up a gradual incline, into another bunker. She recognized this one as the rebel base's living quarters.
Kellan's crew was in the sparsely furnished, cavernous main room of the place. Candice was cleaning firearms with the man called Vince and the other one they'd called Chaz. Doc was seated at a weathered metal table, eating from a tin that looked to be old MRE military rations. Straddling a backward-facing chair beside him was a blueberry-haired waif with multiple facial and ear piercings. Her fingers were flying over the touchpad of a tablet computer, not skipping even the smallest beat, when she and the rest of the rebels turned their heads to gape at Kellan and his obviously unexpected companion.
Candice was the first to find her voice. "Um . . . everything okay, boss?"
He gave a curt nod, his hand still fastened tightly around Mira's wrist. "I'm altering course a bit. There's nothing to be gained from releasing one of our captives right now. So, I've decided she stays."
Vince scowled. "You think that's wise, considering who she is and all? We keep one of their own, it could make us a target of the Order."
Kellan's reply was swift and without inflection. "We're already a target of the Order. As soon as word reaches them – which is only a matter of time, hours at most – we become enemies of Lucan Thorne and his warriors."
Vince considered, raking thick fingers through his shaggy dishwater blond hair. Then he nodded as if suddenly understanding, an unfriendly smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "In other words, you think we may need some leverage with the Order. Some kind of bargaining chip if things go south with Ackmeyer?"
Kellan growled, pinning his man with a lethal, amber-bright glare. "This female – this warrior," he said, addressing Vince and the others together, "is mine alone to deal with. She stays under my watch and under my handling only. Understood?"
An immediate and unanimous chorus of murmured agreement answered him, but Kellan was already moving on with Mira in tow. He led her away from his rebel crew and into his private quarters. Mira didn't have to ask if the modest chamber belonged to Kellan; she could smell his scent all around her, the dark, spicy warmth that had long ago been branded into all of her senses.
He closed the door behind them and finally released his hold on her. "If you cooperate with me, Mira, I will not feel it necessary to restrain you."
"I'm touched," she said, glowering at him as she watched him pull a blanket off the lone bed and toss it to the floor.
"But if you make a move to escape," he went on, not missing a beat, "or if you attempt to interfere with my mission goals in any way, I will put you in a cell until this is over."
She studied him as he spoke so stiffly, watched his robotic movements and the way his eyes never lit on her for more than the most fleeting instant. He hated being a party to this, maybe as much as she did. But only he held the power to end it.
"It's not too late to stop this now, Kellan. Obviously your friends are on edge about this crime they've committed, afraid of what the Order will do. They should be afraid. Treason charges are a capital offense, carrying a capital penalty. You have to know that."
Kellan didn't answer, but she watched a tendon tick furiously in his rigid jaw.
"You can release Ackmeyer to my custody before it goes any further." She took a deep breath, still trying to process how it was possible that she could be standing in front of Kellan Archer, pleading with him to turn himself in as a rebel mastermind, before he died a second time. "Release Jeremy Ackmeyer and me tonight, Kellan, and I will tell Lucan and the GNC that you were remorseful. That you and your followers treated us well."
He swung an arch look at her, one dark brow quirked in bleak humor. "Not much of a bargain from where I'm standing."
Mira gave a slow shake of her head. The ache in her breast was sharp at the thought of Kellan facing charges, but what he'd done – even so far – could not be excused without some kind of recompense. "Lucan will be fair, you know that. As fair as he can be."
Kellan grunted. "And if Ackmeyer should die?"
Panic arrowed through her. "You said you didn't kill him. That you wouldn't – "
"If he agrees to my terms," Kellan reminded her. "But if he doesn't . . ."
Mira's throat constricted at the mercenary tone of his voice. "If you don't get what you want from him, you'll have no qualms about killing him in cold blood."
"To save thousands, maybe millions of other lives?" Kellan nodded. "I've killed for less than that under the banner of war. So have you."
"But this isn't war, not yet." Mira stormed toward him, finding it all but impossible to resist pounding her fists against his broad chest. She steeled herself against the urge to strike at him, if only because she knew that touching him – even in anger – would only tempt her toward something more. Something she could not afford to feel for him, not now. Not ever again. "It doesn't have to be war, Kellan. Not if you stop this, right here and now. It's not too late – "
His snarled curse abruptly cut her off. "It is too late. It was too late months ago, when this all began."
He cursed again, more savagely this time, and stormed over to a trunk at the foot of the bed. He dropped down on his haunches, yanked the lock off in his hand, and threw open the lid. "You'll need a change of clothes at some point." He tossed a folded T-shirt at her, followed by a pair of his well-worn sweats. "If you need anything else that I don't have, Candice will get it for you."
"When what began?" Mira asked, inching toward him. "You said this all began months ago. What happened?"
He rose, standing face-to-face with her now. "How much do you know about Jeremy Ackmeyer?"
Mira shook her head. "Beyond his basic resume? Not much." She gave an abbreviated list of his scientific achievements and accolades as best she could recall. Kellan didn't flinch or react, apparently hearing nothing that surprised him. "And obviously you're well aware that he's been tapped to receive a big cash award from Reginald Crowe at the summit gala in a few days."
She watched his lack of reaction and realized something now. "This isn't about political dissent or disrupting the peace summit, is it? You said Ackmeyer has something you want . . ."
Kellan held her searching gaze, his eyes no longer bright with amber fury but banked and cooling, the level hazel that always seemed to bore straight through to the core of her being. "Three months ago in New York City, a Darkhaven male was gunned down in the street by human thugs. An innocent Breed civilian, killed without warning or cause, by men who drove away in a government vehicle."
Mira thought back, frowning, skeptical. "There have been no such killings, certainly not that recent. It would've made headlines. Hell, it would still be in the news."
"No body. No witnesses," Kellan replied. "Or so they thought."
"What do you mean?"
"A woman saw the whole thing. She watched it from her apartment window over the alley where the murder occurred." Kellan's expression was grim. "There was no body because it was ashed on the spot, Mira. The rounds these human bastards shot him with were made of superconcentrated UV light, converted to liquid form. They were bullets made for the express purpose of killing vampires."
Mira considered for a moment, then gave an incredulous laugh. "Come on, Kellan. You can do better than this. Government assassins using liquid UV rounds? That kind of technology is pure science fiction. It doesn't exist."
"No," she insisted. "For one thing, it breaches the ban on potentially catastrophic armaments. It would never get past the GNC for approval. For another, the Order would personally never permit that kind of weaponry to be developed. They would destroy it before they'd let something as potentially devastating as UV bullets come into existence."
He shrugged, unconvinced. "And yet it has been, obviously."
"Then prove it."
He said nothing, merely dug into the pocket of his dark jeans and withdrew a spent bullet casing. "The woman recovered this from the ashes of the dead vampire. He was her lover. She said he didn't have any enemies, was just walking home before sunrise when the humans accosted him, started provoking him with anti-Breed slurs, then shot him dead like an animal. Worse than that."
Mira swallowed past the anger in her throat as she looked at the unmarked, spent round and pictured the horror of what the woman who loved that Darkhaven male must have felt, seeing him killed before her eyes.
"She didn't know who to trust or where to go," Kellan said. "So she came to us."
"Who is she?"
"You saw her in the other room a few minutes ago – Nina. She's a friend of Candice's, now one of my team."
Mira shook her head, trying to absorb everything she was hearing. "Are you trying to tell me that Jeremy Ackmeyer is responsible for this somehow?"
Kellan took the bullet casing from her and slipped it back into his pocket. "It's his technology. It took all this time, but we finally traced the tech back to Ackmeyer. We'd been planning to raid his lab, but the place is a fortress – even more so than his home. But then word arrived that Ackmeyer would be on the move. He was expecting a security escort at his house."
"Me," Mira said, feeling like a pawn.
"We had to act quickly," Kellan explained. "I didn't know Ackmeyer was expecting an escort detail from the Order. It was a daytime op, and with roughly ninety-nine percent of the Order's warriors being strictly night patrol – "
"Who gave you the intel?"
Kellan stared at her. "We have our sources around the city."
"Rooster," she guessed, then barked out a humorless laugh when he didn't deny it.
"The guy is garbage," Kellan admitted, "but he serves his purpose."
"Did you know he was the reason I was assigned to escort duty with Ackmeyer?" She pursed her lips, gave a vague shake of her head. "It was punishment from Lucan, for skewering the little redheaded bastard down in the cage arena at La Notte. I should've aimed for his heart."
Kellan arched a brow. "You really hate him."
"I hate every rebel," she said sharply. "I hate them for what they took from me."
Kellan met and held her simmering stare. When he finally spoke, his voice was sober, deep with regret but not apology. "And now you count me in that number too."
"I never wanted us to be enemies, Kellan. You've done that, not me. You're making certain of it right now, and only you can change that fact."
She watched him, waited for him to tell her it was all a terrible mistake and he would fix it. That he loved her, still, and somehow, together, they would find a way through this dark trap that was closing in on them with sharp, lethal teeth.
But he didn't say any of those things.
"I'll ask you to remember what I said about trying to escape or attempting to interfere with my operation. I don't want this to be any harder on you than it already is, Mira."
She steeled herself to the remorse in his voice, focusing instead on the fact that nothing she'd said had convinced him to change his mind. He was lost to her, as much now as he had been eight years ago.
"Spare me your pity, Bowman. I don't need it. I don't need anything from you."
He looked at her for a long moment, then conceded with a vague nod and left her alone in his room while he stepped out and summoned his rebel troops for a strategy meeting.
It was after midnight and no one had heard from Mira. Word out of D.C. was Lucan was pissed over her neglect to check in from her assignment, but when Nathan heard she was out of contact all day, he'd a cold suspicion that something was terribly wrong. Which was why he had assembled his team that same night and headed to rural western Massachusetts, where Jeremy Ackmeyer lived.
What they'd found at the reclusive scientist's home was a whole lot of bad news and trouble.
The moonlit lawn was scarred with deep tire gouges and shattered headlight glass. Burned rubber had left the paved driveway streaked with black. Half a dozen spent casings littered the ground from what Nathan could only guess was Mira's Order-issued 9-mm.
No sign of her or her vehicle.
No sign of Jeremy Ackmeyer.
"Nothing's tossed inside, but we do have signs of a struggle," Elijah drawled. His face was grave in the darkness as he and Jax rounded the front of the house and approached Nathan near the open garage bay. "Whoever they were, these guys knew exactly what they came for, and they wasted no time getting the hell out once they had it."
"And now they have Mira." Nathan's voice betrayed none of the fury that seethed inside him at the thought of one of the Order's own having fallen into apparent enemy hands. That it was Mira, a female as close to him as any family could be, made his blood run cold and quick in veins.
"Hey, Captain," Rafe called to him grimly from across the side lawn, where the worst of the skirmish seemed to have taken place. "You'd better have a look at this."
Nathan walked over, his nostrils filling with the chemical stench of leaked fuel and vehicle fluids. Another scent drifted on the warm night air too – faint and fading, the lily-sweet perfume of Mira's blood.
Small droplets stained the grass and torn-up ground. Nathan hunkered down on the fouled lawn, brushed his fingers over the drying splatters of the Breedmate warrior's blood at his feet. Mira had been injured, but he would bet all he was that she hadn't gone down without a fight.
"She must've dropped this in the scuffle," Rafe said, holding a slender, hammered-metal object out to Nathan.
He didn't have to look to know what it was.
One of Mira's treasured blades.
Nathan took the hand-tooled dagger from Rafe's grasp. The carved hilt was rough against his fingertips. He turned it over in his palm, reading the words that graced each side of the intricately crafted weapon: Faith. Courage.
He knew Mira had no shortage of the latter. As for the other, he was certainly no fair judge of that. Nathan operated on logic and strength, skills he'd mastered as a child being reared in a madman's assassin ranks. Faith was as elusive to him as magic. In his worldview, it simply did not exist.
But he knew hope. And through his cool logic, he knew a colder fury. He felt it build inside him as he slid Mira's beloved dagger into his weapons belt.
She would survive; he knew that. She would fight the bastards who took her today – whoever they were, whatever their reasons – and her courage would keep her alive, long enough for the Order to reach her.
And when they did, Nathan would see to it that whoever took her suffered.
Before he made them pay for this day with their miserable lives.