Chasing the Shadows
Page 7

 Keri Arthur

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"There's something here,” she said.
"Yes,” he replied, wrapping his fingers around hers. “But I'm not sure what."
"It doesn't feel human, whatever it is.” Though her voice was steady, her trepidation shimmered through him.
"Vampire?” Jake queried, stopping on the last step behind them.
"No.” Michael glanced at him, noticing for the first time the slight bulge in his jacket pocket. “And you know from experience guns are not an effective weapon against them." Jake merely grinned. “Maybe, but it sure as hell makes me feel a little safer. You have to let an old man have his illusions."
Nikki snorted softly. “Old man my ass. You could probably outrun me, bad heart and all."
"Damn right, especially if it's a pack of vampires on our tails.” Though he grinned, his tension was evident in the set of his shoulders. “So if it's not a vampire, what the hell is it?"
"Something that isn't scared by a lot of noise,” she muttered. “Something that has been dead for some time."
Jake groaned. “Not a zombie. That's all we need to complete the party right now."
"No, it's not a zombie,” Michael said. “You'd be able to smell it by now if it was."
"What then?"
"I don't know.” He met Nikki's narrowed gaze and almost smiled. She wasn't going to let him get two steps away from her side—not that he wanted to, especially until he knew why that vampire had been sent after her. “Keep close behind me. If you sense anything, tell me, no matter how insignificant you think it is."
She raised an eyebrow and nodded. He tugged her forward and switched to the infrared of his vampire vision. The cloak of darkness lifted completely, and a hazy, humanoid figure appeared in the far corner of the room. One that didn't have a heartbeat or take a breath.
He wove his way through the network of noisy machines and air conditioning units and approached the far wall. The body he could see was behind it.
Nikki stopped in front of the wall and pressed her right hand against the plaster. “It's not solid,” she murmured. “And it holds back death."
He glanced at her quickly. Her expression was as distant as her thoughts, and unease slithered through him. Was this yet another mutation of her psychometry talent? When he'd shared his life force and made her as immortal as he, had he somehow altered her psychic essence? Even now he wasn't sure, and neither he nor Seline had been able to find much in the old texts about thralls—other than one warning that stated it was better not to turn those with psychic talents. It didn't say why, which was damned frustrating. Seline was still looking, but he had a horrible feeling they'd better hasten the search. It wasn't just her talents mutating. There were signs of other changes too—like her night sight.
"Sure looks solid,” Jake said into the silence. He slapped the wall, then frowned and stepped back, running the light across the ceiling and down to the machines behind them. “You know, I thought there was more of a gap between the wall and this unit."
"Maybe there once was—there's another wall behind this one,” Michael commented, his attention still on Nikki. She was moving away, her fingers trailing across the wall, as if feeling for something. “There is a gap of about four feet separating them."
Jake frowned. “Why would anyone want to build a false wall like this?"
"Maybe someone who wants to conceal a hidden entrance." Nikki stopped near the end of the wall, and energy stirred, tingling briefly across his skin.
"Here,” she murmured. “There's an entrance here."
Jake flashed his light across the plaster. “Nik, that wall is as solid as the rest of it." Michael probed the wall with his fingers and found a hairline crack in the plaster, one that extended ceiling to floor. He moved around Nikki and found another four feet along. Looked up. There was a minute gap between the ceiling and the wall, barely noticeable and yet telling. As was the metal rod he could see in the middle of the plaster, thrusting from the ceiling into the floor.
"She's right. It's a doorway of some kind.” He pressed the wall near the crack. He could see the catch—it was just a matter of finding the right way to spring it. Nikki blinked and for a second looked like a dreamer just awakening from a dream. “The entrance is on this side, the exit your side.” She reached up on tippy-toes and pressed her palm against the wall. The whole wall rotated aside, revealing a two-foot gap.
The air that rushed out was thick with age and death. Nikki shuddered, her face white. “There's a body in there somewhere."
He caught her fingers, squeezing them in gentle reassurance. “Yes. Do you wish to remain here while I check it out?"
Her gaze flashed to his. “I think you already know the answer to that." He smiled grimly and tugged her forward. “Then prepare for the worst. It will not be a pretty sight. This one has been dead for a while."
"How can you tell?” Jake asked as he followed them in. The beam of his flashlight danced across the darkness, crisscrossing Nikki's and creating crazy patterns on the cobwebbed brick walls.
"I am a vampire, remember. I saw the body long before you were able to smell it." "Even through the walls?"
Jake's voice died as the beam of the flashlights centered on a huddled, shapeless form at the far end of the small gap. Beside it, there was a hole that led into a deeper darkness. Nikki stopped abruptly, as did Jake.
"Someone's been feasting on the poor fellow,” she said, voice holding a slight tremor. Her revulsion seemed to curl through the link, a wave of horror that stirred his senses, even though death and he were old companions.
"Probably rats coming up from the sewer,” he said, squeezing her hand before releasing it. He squatted beside the body. It was a male, and what remained of his clothes indicated he was a guard of some kind—probably hotel security. If the state of decay was anything to go by, he'd been dead a good two months, if not more—though it was hard to be certain because damp conditions like this often hastened decomposition.
"Has the hotel had any personnel go missing of late?” he asked, examining the corpse's neck and arms.
"Not since I've been here,” Jake said. “But I've only been here a month. It could have happened earlier."
"Can you check the files? Ask around?"
"Yep.” Jake hesitated. “Was he killed by vampires?"
"Yes.” Given the extent and manner of his injuries, it was undoubtedly fledglings who'd attacked him. No vampire who'd been on this earth any length of time was this messy. Or this careless. Leaving a body here like this was nothing short of stupidity—unless, of course, they didn't intend to hang around all that long.
The vampire who attacked me was a fledgling.
He met Nikki's gaze. He saw in her expressive eyes the fear so evident in her thoughts, yet he knew it wasn't fear of the darkness or the body or even the fledglings. It was fear of what awaited them. An evil they couldn't yet see, but whose presence tainted the very air around them. Not that he could feel anything beyond the chill of the stinking air. Whoever was behind the kidnappings was nowhere close; otherwise, he would have been able to sense their presence. The evil he could smell was little more than a psychic overflow from Nikki. Somehow, she was sharing what she sensed with him. He wondered if it was deliberate, or yet another worrying mutation of her abilities. It's a presence that doesn't feel very old, he said.
Jasper wasn't very old, either. Nor was Cordell. She hesitated, rubbing her arms. This feels far worse than either of those.
If the mutilations were anything to go by, then yes, it was. It's not near, Nikki. We're safe for the moment.
For the moment. Her trepidation swam around him, yet it was a fear he knew she would not retreat from. Aloud, she said, “Where does that hole lead?"
"A sewer tunnel, by the look of it."
"Wonderful,” she muttered. “And here I am wearing only sneakers." He smiled. “The nasty stuff is all piped."
She snorted. “A lot of shit flows down the storm drains, you know, and I'm not just talking about human waste."
"You could stay here if you want."
She raised an eyebrow. “One of these days you're going to get sick of hearing the answer to that question."
"Never.” Nor would he stop asking it. Her safety would always be a priority, whether she liked it or not. He threaded his fingers through the warmth of hers again. “Let's go." They climbed carefully through the gap. The brick tunnel beyond was little more than three feet wide and five feet high. Not much room for maneuvering if they were discovered.
"They've gone to some trouble to conceal that sewer entrance,” Jake said, sweeping the light left and right as he came through the hole. “Wonder why?"
Michael shrugged, his reply almost absent as he listened to the silence for movement. “It would suggest the hotel has some major part to play in their schemes."
"But they haven't yet hit the same place twice, so why go to the bother of building a false wall?"
"Maybe they haven't hit the same place twice simply because they haven't yet needed to." Through the hushed darkness came the tremulous sound of a heartbeat. It was distant, full of fear, full of pain. If it was Mark Wainwright's wife, then she needed medical help fast. Even from this distance it was evident her heart was struggling.
"This way,” he said, leading them to the right.
"Are there any vampires nearby?” Nikki's soft question seemed to melt into the darkness, a hushed sound edged with apprehension.
He glanced back at her. Her eyes gleamed with a cold, gold fire in the shadowed darkness that surrounded them, looking almost otherworldly. His uneasiness rose several notches. He wished he'd taken a chance and talked to Elizabeth about thralls. She probably had forgotten more than they could ever discover in the old texts. But Elizabeth was dead, and it was too late now for regrets. He just had to hope Seline could find some clue as to what might be happening to Nikki. And him. "Not yet. Why?"
She hesitated. “There's something here. An essence, watching us. And I hear voices. Lots of voices." He couldn't hear anything, which in itself didn't mean anything. If she was sensing the other vampire, maybe she was also hearing what he could hear.
And if the vampire behind all this was clairvoyant, he could certainly be watching them through psychic means. It would explain how he'd known about Nikki, and why he'd sent someone to kill her. But it still didn't explain how she could sense him. “We'd better hurry." Because if they were being watched, they'd undoubtedly face opposition as soon as they got anywhere near Dale Wainwright. That he couldn't hear or smell another vampire just yet didn't mean anything—not when even the youngest of vampires could move faster than the wind. They continued on, quickly making their way through the damp, dirty darkness. The twin beams of the flashlights danced across the path ahead, highlighting the rubbish swept down from the streets above.
"Is it true alligators can be found in sewers,” Jake asked, swinging his light not at the water near his feet but toward the slimy roof they had to bend to avoid.
They came to a junction, and Michael stopped, studying each tunnel arm. “I've traveled through a few sewers in my time and have yet to come across one.” The heartbeat was coming from his left. He tugged Nikki in that direction.
"That's almost disappointing,” Jake said. “I rather liked the myth of giant alligators roaming the sewers, munching on the unwary."
"There's something much worse that alligators roaming these sewers ready to munch on the unwary,”
Nikki said. Her gaze met Michael's, filled with the fear beginning to explode through the link. “They're coming."
He still couldn't sense anything other than Mark Wainwright's wife, but he didn't doubt her. In many ways, her senses were far more powerful than his. “We haven't got that much farther to go. Let's move it."
They splashed through the shallows, the twin beams of light creating crazy patterns across the darkness ahead. The tremulous sound of the heartbeat got stronger, but across it, he could now hear others. Six of them.
They came to another junction and skidded to a halt. In the middle of the intersection lay a scantily-clad body. She hadn't been dead long—a little less than an hour, if the heat still dying in her body was any indication.
Jake's light swept across the sad form. “Hooker. Probably hasn't even been missed yet."
"No.” Michael released Nikki's hand then stepped over the woman's body. The tunnel directly ahead had been walled off except for a doorway. The unsteady heartbeat was coming from inside.
"No woman deserves to die the way this woman did,” Nikki said softly. “Not even a prostitute." Michael glanced back at her. She was still standing near the body, her arms crossed, her expression a mix of horror and sorrow. But as much as he wanted to walk over and take her in his arms to offer the comfort she so clearly needed, he didn't. Maybe it would convince her of the futility of her quest to share his life, because this death was far from the worst she would ever see if she did.
"Death is an ever-present danger of the trade, and every client a potential nut case,” Jake said with very little sympathy in his voice. He moved around the body and centered his light on the door. “Odd place to build a wall, isn't it?"