Fear the Darkness
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Nick Gautier was home.
And he was pissed. As the taxi wended its way from the airport in the mid-morning hour toward his Bourbon Street home, and he saw the scars that were still left by Hurritcane Katrina, his blood literally boiled.
How could this have happened? Closing his eyes, he tried to blot out the boarded-up windows and fallen signs. The white FEMA trailers. But those images were replaced by the news feeds he’d seen of victims stranded on rooftops, of res burning, of rioting in the streets...
Nick couldn’t breathe. New Orleans was his home. His touchstone. This city had birthed him. She was his lifeblood. And in one heartbeat, she’d been torn asunder. Crippled. Never in his life had he seen anything like this.
Growing up here, he’d lived through numerous hurricanes over the years. They hadn’t had the money to evacuate for the worst storms so he and his mom would get into her broken-down red Yugo and drive up to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where they would camp out in a grocery store parking lot, eating deviled ham sandwiches made with stale bread and mustard packets, until it was safe to return. Somehow his mother had always made those days fun and adventurous, even when they were hunkered down in the car during tornado warnings.
Then they’d come home to a sight similar to what he saw now, but within a few weeks’ time, everything would be back to normal.
It was now going on two years after the hurricane and still there were closed businesses—businesses that had been there for years and, in some cases, centuries. There were entire areas of the city that looked as if the hurricane had just blown through.
Most of his friends were either dead or relocated. People he’d known for decades.
In one heartbeat everything had changed.
Nick gave a bitter laugh at the thought. He’d changed more than anything else. No longer human, he wasn’t even sure what he was anymore.
The only thing that kept him going was his furious need for vengeance on the ones he blamed for this catastrophe.
He moved his hand to scratch his neck, then froze as he felt the bite mark there. By taking a blood exchange, Stryker had made Nick his agent. If Nick obeyed the Daimon lord, then Stryker would give him the means to destroy the man who’d ruined Nick’s life... and his town.
Acheron Parthenopaus. At one time, they had been best friends. Brothers to the end. Then Nick had made the mistake of sleeping with a woman he hadn’t known was Ash’s daughter. Ash had torn him apart over it.
That he could handle. What had made them enemies was the night Nick’s mother had died and Ash had allowed it. Unlike the other immortal beings who made New Orleans home, Nick knew the secrets that Ash carried. He wasn’t just the Dark-Hunter leader, an immortal warrior who served the goddess, Artemis, and protected mankind from the vampiric Daimons who ate their souls.
Ash was a god. He had the power to do anything he wanted. He could have saved Nick’s mom or at least brought her back from the dead the way he’d saved Kyrian Hunter and his wife Amanda. But Ash hadn’t done that. He’d turned his back on Nick and left Cherise Gautier dead.
Nor had Ash saved this city from the storm. Up until the night Nick had slept with Simi, Ash had loved this city more than anything. Ash wouldn’t have allowed New Orleans to suffer.
But that was before they’d become enemies. Now Ash hated him so much that he’d taken everything from Nick.
Nick paused as the driver’s voice interrupted his thoughts. He looked at the Bourbon Street mansion that had been his home since he’d started working for Kyrian.
“Yeah,” he said under his breath. “It is.”
Or at least it had been when he’d shared this place with his mother. Nick got out and paid the fee, then pulled his suitcase from the seat. Slamming the door shut, he looked up at his house and gripped the handle so tight that his ngers ached in protest.
He’d bought this house as a birthday present for his mother when he’d been twenty. He could still hear her squeal of joy as he handed her the key. See her standing beside him as she stared at him in disbelief.
“Happy Birthday, Mom.”
“Oh Nicky, what have you done now? You didn’t go and kill someone, did you?”
Her question had appalled him. “Mom!”
Still, she’d been relentless as she narrowed her blue eyes on him and stood arms akimbo. “You ain’t doing none of that drug dealing either? ‘Cause if you are, boy, love or no love, I’ll beat you blue.”
He’d scoffed at her warning. “Mom, you know me better than that. I would never do anything to embarrass you in front of your church friends.”
“Then how you get all this money, chere? How you able to buy a house this fancy at your age? You still a baby and I couldn’t afford two bricks off this place.”
“I told you, I’m the personal assistant for a broker down in the Garden District. He put the house in my name, but technically he owns it. He’s letting me rent it from him.” It’d been a partial lie. Part of being Kyrian’s Squire back when Kyrian had been a Dark-Hunter had meant that all of Kyrian’s properties were owned by Nick—at least on paper. This house, though, really was Nick’s. His salary was such that he could have easily bought three houses like this, but his mother would never have believed that he could make that kind of money without breaking the law.
“Broker, hmmm. That sounds like one of those euphemisms for drug dealer to me.”
“Ah, Mom, c’mon inside and see the book room. I’ve already got your chair there so you can read those novels you love so much.”
“Baby, you spoil me. You know I don’t need nothing this big and fancy.”
Yeah, but as a kid, he’d heard her crying enough times in the late night hours that she couldn’t do better for him than their rundown rented room—that the only job she could nd was stripping. “My baby deserves so much better than this.” Meanwhile her parents had lived in a nice home in Kenner and had money to burn. But they’d disowned her the minute she’d become pregnant with him. His mother had sacriced everything to keep her son—her dignity and her future. And though she cried at night that she couldn’t give him the things she thought a boy should have, by day, she was the best mom anyone could have hoped for.
Since the day he was born, it had been the two of them against the world.
“You’ve always taken care of me, Mom. It’s my turn to take care of you. I got a big house ‘cause one day I’m going to give you enough grandkids to ll it full.”
Nick winced as he swore he heard her laughter on the wind before she’d dashed into the house to inspect it. And as he stood there, rain began pouring down on him, soaking him to the bone.
He’d found his mother dead in that chair in the library...
Unrelenting pain and grief tore through him with talons made of steel. They shredded every part of him.
How could she be gone and by such vicious means? Her throat had been ripped out and her body drained of blood. She was all he’d ever had.
“I can give you vengeance.”
It was Stryker’s promise to him. The Daimon lord had told him that if Nick gave him information against Acheron and the other Dark-Hunters and the Squires who served them, then Stryker would give him the power he needed to kill Ash.
It was all Nick wanted.
Then he heard Ash’s voice in his head. “You know, Nick, I envy you your mother. She’s one hell of a lady. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for her.”
“Why did you let her die, Ash?” he snarled under his breath. “God damn you!” But in his heart, he knew who was really to blame for all of this and that hurt even more. If only he’d been a better son. A better friend. None of this would have happened.
He’d been the one who had signed on to this world where danger was an intrinsic part. Had he just told his mother the truth, then she wouldn’t have gone home that night with a Daimon. She would be safe. She was killed because of him and that was a truth that hurt to the deepest part of his being.
Unable to stand it, he forced himself to walk to the keypad on the gate and press the code. He half-expected it not to work, but it did.
He paused by the petunias his mother had planted in a large vase next to the backdoor and moved it over so that he could get the spare key.
Everything was just as it’d been when he’d been human... Only now everything was different. His stomach churning, he opened the door and stepped into his house.
His friend Kyl had told him that there had been some damage to the place during Katrina, but that the house had been restored. Nick had to give them credit, it was pristine. Nothing, other than the absence of his mother, was out of place.
“Oh, Nicky, look! It has one of them garbage disposals! I never thought I’d own something so fancy and look at them tiles on the wall. Is that Italian marble?”
He glanced to the right where the Italian marble bake center was. “Only the best for you, Mom.”
“Oh you spoil me, baby. You’re the only thing right I’ve ever done in my life. I don’t know why God was so good to me that He sent you down from heaven, but I’m glad He did.”