Chapter Forty-three

Zsadist tracked the lone pale-haired lesser into the maze of downtown alleys. The slayer was moving quickly in the falling snow, alert, scanning, looking for prey among the straggling bar riders who were out in the cold in their club clothes.

Behind him Z was light over the ground, running on the balls of his feet, keeping close but not too close. Dawn was coming fast and hard, and even though he was skimming the edge of night right now, he wanted this kill. All he needed was to get the slayer away from prying, human eyes...

The right moment came as the lesser slowed and considered the intersection between Eighth and Trade Street. It was just a pause, a short internal debate on whether to go left or right.

Zsadist struck fast, materializing right behind the slayer, wrapping an arm around the bastard's neck, and pulling him into the darkness. The lesser fought back, and the struggle sounded like flags flapping in the wind as two male bodies thrashed and jackets and pants whipped around in the cold air. The lesser was on the ground within moments, and Z looked into its eyes as he lifted his dagger. He plunged the black blade into a thick chest. The pop and flare faded quickly.

As Z stood up, there was no satisfaction at all. He was on a violent kind of autopilot. Ready, willing, and able to kill, but moving in a dream state.

Bella was all that was on his mind. Actually, it went deeper than that. The absence of her was a tangible weight hanging from his body: He missed her with a crippling kind of desperation.

Ah, yes. So the rumors were true. A bonded male without his female might as well be dead. He'd heard that piece of bullshit before and never believed it. Now he was living the hard-core truth.

His cell phone rang and he answered the thing, because that was what you did when it went off. He had no real interest in who was on the other end.

"Z, my man." Vishous said. "Got a really weird message in the general voice mail. Some guy wanting to speak with you."

"He asked for me by name?"

"Actually, he was a little hard to follow because he was so wired, but he mentioned your scar."

Bella's brother? Z wondered. Although now that she was back out in the world, what would that male have to bitch about?

Well... other than the fact that his sister had been serviced in her need and there was no mating ceremony on the calendar. Yeah, that was something a brother would get pissed over.

"What's the callback number?"

Vishous recited the pattern of digits. "And he left the name Ormond."

Guess Bella's big, bad older bro wasn't it. "Ormond? That's a human name."

"Couldn't tell you. So you might want to take this careful."

Z hung up, dialed slowly, and waited, hoping he'd managed to hit the right numbers.

When the call was answered, there was no hello on the other end of the line. Just a low male voice that said, "Out of my network and untraceable. So it must be you, Brother."

"And you are?"

"I want to meet you in person."

"Sorry, I'm not into dating."

"Yeah, I can imagine with that face of yours you don't have much luck there. But I don't want you for sex."

"I'm so relieved. Now who the fuck are you?"

"My first name is David. Ring any bells?"

Fury clouded Z's vision until all he saw were the marks on Bella's stomach. He squeezed the phone until he heard the thing squeak, but he was through with the hotheaded stuff.

Forcing his voice into a drawl, he said, " 'Fraid not, Davy. But refresh my memory."

"You took what is mine."

"I steal your wallet? I would have remembered that."

"My woman!" the lesser screamed.

Every marking instinct in Z's body fired off at once, and there was no holding back the growl that came out of his mouth. He whipped the phone away from his face until the sound faded.

"... too close to dawn."

"What was that?" Z said with a nasty edge. "Bad connection."

"You think this is a fucking joke?" the lesser spat.

"Easy, there, wouldn't want you to throw an embolism."

The slayer panted with fury, but then got himself under control. "I want to meet you at nightfall. We've got a lot of ground to cover, you and I, and I don't want to be rushed by dawn. Besides, I've been busy the last few hours and I need a break. I took out one of your females, a nice-looking redhead. Popped her a good one. Buh-bye."

Now Z's growl got into the phone. The slayer laughed. "You Brothers are so protective, aren't you. Well, how about this. I got myself another one. Another female. I persuaded her to give me that number I dialed to find you. She was really forthcoming. Cute little blonde, too."

Z's hand went to one of his dagger handles. "Where do you want to meet?"

There was a pause. "First the terms. Naturally I want you to come alone, and here's how we're going to make sure that happens." Z heard a female moan in the background. "Any of my associates catch your Brothers around and this one gets sliced up. All it will take is a phone call. And they will do it slowly."

Zsadist shut his eyes. He'd so had it with death and suffering and pain. His own and others'. That poor female... "Where?"

"Six-o'clock showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in Lucas Square. You sit in the back. I'll find you."

The phone went dead, only to ring again immediately.

Now V's voice was strangled. "We have a situation. Bella's brother found Wellsie shot in his driveway. Get back home, Z. Right now."

John watched from across the desk as Tohr hung up the phone. The man's hands were shaking so badly the receiver rattled in its cradle.

"She probably forgot to turn that cell on. Lemme try the house again." Tohr picked up. Dialed quickly. Flubbed the numbers so he had to start over. And all the while he was rubbing at the center of his chest, his shirt in disarray.

As Tohr stared into space, frozen as their home phone rang, John heard footfalls coming down the hallway to the office. A horrible feeling went through him like a fever's bloom. He glanced at the door, then shifted his eyes to Tohr again.

Tohr obviously heard the heavy pounding, too. In slow motion he let the receiver fall to the desk, the sound of the ringing over the open line loud in the room. His eyes fixated on the door, his hands gripping the arms of his chair.

As the knob turned, voice mail kicked in and the sound of Wellsie's voice came out of the receiver. "Hi, this is Wellsie and Tohr. We can't get to the phone right now..."

Every one of the Brothers was out in the hall. And Wrath was in front of the grim, silent group.

There was a clatter and John looked back at Tohr. The man had jacked up onto his feet and knocked his chair over. He was trembling from head to foot, sweating through his shirt in great patches under his arms.

"My brother," Wrath said. There was a helpless tone to his voice, one totally at odds with his fierce face. And that powerlessness was terrifying.

Tohr moaned and grabbed at his sternum, rubbing in fast, desperate circles. "You... can't be here. Not all of you." He put one hand out as if to push them all away and then he backed up. Except there was nowhere to go. He banged against a file cabinet. "Wrath, don't... my lord, please, don't... oh, God. Don't say it. Don't tell me... "

"I'm so sorry..."

Tohr started to rock back and forth, arms going around his middle as if he were going to throw up. His short breaths went in so fast he began to hiccup, and he didn't seem to exhale at all.

John burst into tears.

He didn't mean to. But reality was dawning and the horror was too hard to bear. He dropped his head in his hands, and all he could think about was Wellsie backing out of the driveway like it was just another day.

When a big hand pulled him up out of the chair and he was held against a chest, he thought it was one of the Brothers. But it was Tohr. Tohr was holding him hard, clinging.

The male started to murmur like a crazy man, his words fast and incomprehensible until they finally coalesced into some kind of meaning. "Why wasn't I called? Why didn't Havers call me? He should have called me... Oh, God, the baby took her... I knew we shouldn't have gotten her pregnant..."

Abruptly everything changed in the room, as if someone had turned up the lights or maybe the heat. John felt the shift in the air first, and then Tohr's words dried up as he obviously sensed it, too.

Tohr's arms loosened. "Wrath? It was... the baby, right?"

"Get the boy out of here."

John shook his head and held on to Tohr's waist with a death grip.

"How did she die, Wrath?" Tohrment's voice went flat and his hands fell from John. "You tell me now. Right fucking now."

"Get the kid out of here," Wrath barked at Phury.

John fought as Phury grabbed him around the waist and picked him up off the floor. At the same time Vishous and Rhage positioned themselves on either side of Tohr. The door closed.

Outside of the office, Phury put John down and held him in place. There was a moment or two of silence... and then a raw scream shattered the air as sure as if the oxygen were a solid.

The burst of energy that followed was so strong it shattered the glass door. Shards splintered and sprayed out while Phury sheltered John from the shrapnel.

One by one down both lengths of the hall, the fluorescent ceiling lights exploded, flashing bright and leaving streamers of sparks to bleed down from the fixtures. Energy vibrated up through the concrete floor, leaving cracks that ran into the cinder-block walls.

Through the busted door John saw a whirlwind in the office, and the Brothers were backing away from it, arms in front of their faces. Pieces of furniture whipped around a black hole in the center of the room, one that was vaguely shaped like Tohr's head and body.

There was another unearthly howl and then the inky void disappeared, the furniture came crashing down, the trembling in the floor stopped. Papers fluttered to a gentle rest over the chaos like snow over a traffic accident.

Tohrment was gone.

John pushed himself out of Phury's arms and ran into the office. As the Brothers looked on, his mouth opened and he screamed without making a sound:

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