Taken by Midnight (Chapter Eleven)
Actually, to call it a meeting room hardly did it justice. No less than half a dozen computer workstations sat at the ready on a long table at the back of the room. Boxes of manila files were organized by location and housed in a tall bookcase for easy access. Nearly every inch of wall space was covered with highlighted, pin-dotted maps of New England and detailed investigation charts that would have put most police cold case units to shame. Among those maps and charts were several expertly hand-drawn sketches of young women–faces of a few of the missing, whom the Order and their diligent Breedmates were determined to find.
No, Jenna thought as she took in her surroundings, this was no mere meeting room.
This was a room devoted to strategy, mission, and war.
Jenna welcomed the energy of the place, especially after the disturbing news she'd gotten about her blood work. She had also needed a distraction from thinking about the unexpectedly heated moments she'd shared with Brock in his–or, rather, her–quarters in the compound. She had all but jumped at the chance to get out of there after he'd left. It had been Alex who came looking for her not long afterward, and it was Alex who brought Jenna with her to the Breedmates' war room for some companionship and conversation.
She hadn't wanted to get interested in the work the women of the Order were involved in, but as she sat there among them, it was next to impossible for the cop in her to ignore the scent of a good information chase.
She sat up a bit straighter in her chair at the conference table as Dylan walked over to a laser printer and grabbed the sheet of paper that slid into the output tray.
"What've you got?" Savannah asked.
Dylan slapped the printed page down on the table in front of the gathered women. "Sister Margaret Mary Howland."
Jenna and the others leaned in to look at the scanned image. It was a group photograph of a dozen or so young women and girls. From the style of their clothes, it appeared to have been taken perhaps twenty years ago. The group was gathered on the lawn below the steps of a wide covered porch, the kind of organized pose that schoolkids were sometimes corralled into for an annual class picture. Except in this case, it wasn't a school behind them but a large, unassuming house proclaiming itself to be the St. John's Home for Young Women, Queensboro, New York.
A kindly faced, middle-aged woman wearing a cross pendant and a modest summer dress stood just to the side of the group assembled under the white eave that bore the painted sign. One of the youngest girls stood with the older woman, her thin shoulders held in a caring grasp, her little face upturned and beaming with affection.
"That's her," Dylan said, pointing to the woman with the maternal smile and sheltering arms. "Sister Margaret."
"And she is?" Jenna asked, unable to hold her curiosity in check.
Dylan glanced over at her. "Right now, assuming she's still alive, this woman is possibly our best bet for finding out more about the Breedmates who have gone missing or ended up dead at Dragos's hands."
Jenna gave a small shake of her head. "I'm not following."
"Some of the women he's killed–and probably many that he's still holding prisoner now–came from runaway shelters," Dylan said. "See, it's not unusual for Breedmates to feel confused and out of place in mortal society. Most of us have no idea just how different we are, let alone why.
Besides our common birthmark and shared biology, we've all got some kind of unique extrasensory ability, too."
"Not the stuff you see on TV talk shows or commercials for psychic hotlines," Savannah interjected. "Real ESP talents are often the surest way to spot a Breedmate."
Dylan nodded. "Sometimes those talents are a blessing, but a lot of times they're a curse. My own talent was a curse for most of my life, but fortunately I had a mother who loved me. Because I had her, no matter how confused and scared I got, I always had the security of home."
"But not everyone is that fortunate," Renata added. "It was a string of Montreal orphanages for Mira and me. And, from time to time, we called the street home."
Jenna listened in silence, counting her own blessings that she had been born into a normal, relatively close-knit family, where her biggest childhood problem had been trying to compete with her brother for approval and affection. She couldn't imagine having the kinds of problems females born with the teardrop-and-crescent-moon birthmark had to bear. Her own issues, as incomprehensible as they were, seemed to diminish a bit as she considered the lives these other women had lived. To say nothing of the hell the ones who were dead or missing had been made to endure.
"So, you believe that Dragos is preying on young women who end up in these kinds of shelters?" she asked.
"We know he is," Dylan said. "My mom used to work at a runaway shelter in New York. It's a long story, one for another time, but basically it turned out that the shelter she worked at was being funded and directed by none other than Dragos himself."
"Oh, my God," Jenna breathed.
"He'd been hiding behind an alias, calling himself Gordon Fasso when he moved within human social circles, so no one had any idea who he truly was … until it was too late." Dylan drew in what seemed to be a fortifying breath. "He killed my mom after he realized he'd been unmasked and the Order was closing in on him."
"I'm sorry," Jenna whispered, meaning it completely. "To have lost someone you love to that kind of evil …"
The words drifted off as something cold and fierce bubbled deep inside her. As a former police officer, she knew the bitter taste of injustice and the need to right the scales. But she tamped the feelings down, telling herself the Order's fight against their enemy, Dragos, didn't belong to her.
She had battles of her own to face.
"I'm sure Dragos will get what's coming to him in the end," she said.
It was a lame sentiment, knowingly offered from an emotional arm's length. But she hoped she would be proved right. Sitting with these women now, having gotten to know them all a bit better in the short time she'd been at the compound, Jenna prayed for the Order's success against Dragos. The thought of someone as perverse as he being loose on the world was beyond unacceptable.
She picked up the image printout and glanced at the warm expression of the nun who stood like a good shepherd next to her vulnerable flock.
"How do you expect this woman–Sister Margaret–might be able to help you?"
"Staff turnover is high at youth shelters," Dylan explained. "The one where my mom worked was no exception. A friend of hers who used to work with her there just gave me Sister Margaret's name and that photograph. She says the sister retired a few years ago, but she'd been volunteering in several New York shelters since around the 1970s, which is just the kind of person we need to talk to."
"Someone who's been around the shelters for a long time and might be able to identify past residents from a basic sketch," Savannah said, gesturing to the hand-drawn faces tacked to the walls.
Jenna nodded. "Those sketches represent women who've been in area shelters?"
"Those sketches," Alex said from beside Jenna, "are Breedmates being held by Dragos as we speak."
"You mean they're still alive?"
"They were a couple of months ago." Renata's voice was grim. "A friend of the Order's, Claire Reichen, used her Breedmate talent for dreamwalking to locate Dragos's headquarters. She saw the captives–
upward of twenty of them–locked in prison cells in his laboratory. Although Dragos relocated his operations before we could save them, Claire has been working with a sketch artist to document the faces she saw."
"In fact, that's where Claire is right now, she and Elise both," Alex said. "Elise has a lot of friends in the Breed civilian community here in Boston. She and Claire have been working on a couple of new sketches, based on what Claire saw that day in Dragos's lair."
"Once we have faces of the captives," Dylan said, "we can start looking for names and possible family members. Anything that can help bring us closer to who these women are."
"What about databases for missing persons?" Jenna asked. "Have you compared the sketches to profiles listed with groups like the National Center for Missing Persons?"
"We did, and we've come up empty everywhere," Dylan said. "A lot of these women and girls in the shelters are runaways and orphans. A lot of them are throwaways. Some of them are walkaways, who deliberately cut all ties with family and friends. The end result is the same: They have no one to look for them or miss them, so there were no reports filed."
Renata grunted softly in acknowledgment and seemed to speak from some experience. "When you have no one and nothing, you can vanish and it's like you never existed in the first place."
From her years in Alaska law enforcement, Jenna knew how true that could be. Folks could disappear without a trace in big cities or small interior communities alike. It happened every day, although she never would have imagined it happened for the reasons that Dylan, Savannah, Renata, and the other women were explaining to her now. "So, what's your plan once you have identified the missing Breedmates?"
"Once we have enough of a personal link to even one of them,"
Savannah said, "Claire can try to connect via dreamwalking and hopefully bring back some information about where the captives have been moved."
Jenna was used to quick digestion and comprehension of facts, but her head was starting to spin with everything she was hearing. And she couldn't stop her mind from searching for solutions to the problems being laid out before her. "Wait a second. If Claire's talent led her to Dragos's lair once, why can't she just do it again?"
"For her talent to work, she needs some kind of emotional or personal link to whomever she's attempting to find in the dream state," Dylan answered. "Her link before wasn't to Dragos but to someone else."
"Her former mate, Wilhelm Roth," Renata put in, all but spitting the name like a curse. "He was a vile inpidual, but next to Dragos, his cruelty was nothing. No way could we ever let Claire try to tap into Dragos personally. It would be suicide."
"Okay. So, where does that leave us?" Jenna asked, the word us slipping out of her mouth even before she realized she'd said it. But it was too late to take it back, and she was much too intrigued to pretend differently. "Where do you see things going from here?"
"Hopefully, we can find Sister Margaret and she can help us figure that out," Dylan said.
"Do we have any way to contact her?" Renata asked.
Dylan's excitement dimmed a bit. "Unfortunately, we can't even be sure she's still alive. My mom's friend said she would be in her eighties by now. The only good news for us is that the sister's convent was based in Boston, so there's a chance she could be local. All we have to go on right now is her social security number."
"Give it to Gideon," Savannah said. "I'm sure he can hack into a government computer somewhere and get whatever info we need on her."
"My thought exactly," Dylan replied with a grin.
Jenna considered offering her own help in locating the good sister.
She still had friends in law enforcement and a few federal agencies. It would only take a phone call or an email to call in a few chips, ask for a confidential favor or two. But the women of the Order seemed to have everything under control.
And she was better off not letting herself get entangled in any of this, she reminded herself sternly, as Dylan picked up the phone next to her computer workstation and called the tech lab.
A few moments later, both Gideon and Rio arrived in the war room.
The two warriors received a quick summary of what Dylan had uncovered.
Before she'd even finished explaining, Gideon seated himself at the computer and got busy.
Jenna watched from her seat at the table as everyone else–Savannah, Renata, Alex, Rio, and Dylan–gathered around to watch Gideon work his magic. Savannah had been right; it didn't take him more than a few minutes to hack through a secured, U.S. government website firewall and start downloading the records they needed.
"Sister Margaret Mary Howland, alive and well, according to the Social Security Administration," he announced. "Collected last month's check for two hundred ninety-eight dollars and some change at an address in Gloucester. It's printing out now."
Dylan grinned. "Gideon, you're a geek god."
"I aim to please." He sprang out of the chair and grabbed Savannah into a fast, hard kiss. "Tell me you're dazzled, baby."
"I'm dazzled," she replied drolly, laughing even as she slapped playfully at his shoulder.
He grinned, shooting Jenna an arch look over the top of his pale blue shades. "She loves me," he said, pulling his beautiful mate into a tighter squeeze. "She's mad for me, really. Can't live without me. Probably wants to take me to bed immediately and have her wicked way with me."
"Hah! You wish," Savannah said, but there was a heated gleam in the gaze she turned on him.
"Too bad we're not having this same luck getting a bead on TerraGlobal," Rio said, his arm wrapping around Dylan's shoulders in what seemed to be an instinctively intimate move.
Renata frowned. "Still no luck there, eh?"
"Not much," Gideon interjected. He must have seen Jenna's confused look. "TerraGlobal Partners is the name of a company we believe Dragos is using to front some of his secret operations."
Alex jumped in next. "You remember that mining company that opened shop outside Harmony a few months back–Coldstream Mining?" At Jenna's nod, she said, "It belonged to Dragos. We believe it was meant to be used as a holding facility for the Ancient once they'd transported him to Alaska. Unfortunately, we all know how that worked out."
"We were able to trace the mining company back to TerraGlobal," Rio added. "But that's about as far as we've been able to get. We know TerraGlobal has lots of layers. It's just taking too damn long for us to peel them away. Meanwhile, Dragos digs himself in deeper, every minute farther out of our reach."
"You'll get him," Jenna said. She tried to ignore the little kick in her heart rate that urged her to strap on a couple of weapons and lead the charge.
"You have to get him, so you will."
"Yeah," Rio replied, his scarred face drawn tight with determination as he nodded in agreement and glanced down into Dylan's eyes. "One day, we are going to get that son of a bitch. He's going to pay for everything he's done."
Under his strong arm, Dylan smiled sadly. She burrowed into his embrace, trying unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn.
"Come on," he said, brushing some of her loose red waves out of her eyes. "You've been putting in a lot of hours on all of this. Now I'm taking you to bed."
"Not a bad idea," Renata said. "Nightfall is going to come early, and I'll bet Niko is still testing out new rounds in the weapons room. Time to go collect my man."
As she said her good-byes and headed out, Dylan and Rio, then Savannah and Gideon did the same.
"You want to come hang out with Kade and me for a little while?"
Jenna gave a mild shake of her head. "Nah, I'm okay. I think I'll stay here for a few minutes, unwind a bit. Been a long, strange day."
Alex's smile was sympathetic. "If you need anything at all, you come find me. Deal?"
Jenna nodded. "I'm fine. But thanks."
She watched her friend slowly turn and disappear up the corridor.
When there was nothing left in the room but quiet and solitude, Jenna stood up and walked over to the wall of maps and charts and sketches.
It was admirable, what the Order and their mates were trying to do. It was important work–more important than anything Jenna would ever have come in contact with in rural Alaska, or anywhere else for that matter.
If everything she'd learned the past couple of days was true, then what the Order was doing here was nothing short of saving the world.
"Jesus Christ," Jenna whispered, struck by the enormity of it all.
She wanted to help.
If she was able–even in some small way–she had to help.
Jenna paced around the war room, a battle of her own waging inside her. She wasn't ready to be part of something like this. Not when she still had so much to figure out for herself. With her brother dead, she had no family left at all. Alaska had been her home her entire life, and now that was gone, as well, a part of her prior existence erased to help the Order preserve their secrets as they pursued their enemy.
As for her future, she couldn't even begin to guess. The alien matter embedded inside her was a problem she never could have imagined, and no amount of wishing was going to take it away. Not even Gideon's mental brilliance seemed capable of extricating her from that tangled complication.
And then there was Brock. Of all the things that had happened to her between the invasion of her cabin home by the Ancient and her current, unexpected–although not unbearable–embrace by everyone in the Order's headquarters, Brock was proving to be the one thing she was least prepared to deal with.
She was nowhere close to ready when it came to the feelings he aroused in her. Things she hadn't felt in years, and sure as hell didn't want to feel now.
Nothing in her life was certain anymore, and the last thing she needed was to involve herself any further in the problems facing the warriors and their mates.
Nevertheless, Jenna found herself drifting over to the computer workstation on the desk nearby. She sat down at the keyboard and brought up an Internet browser, then went to one of those free email sites and created an account.
She opened a new message and typed in the address of one of her friends with the Feds up in Anchorage. She asked a single question, an inquiry to be looked into confidentially as a personal favor.
She drew in her breath, then hit send.