I lean back and look at him. “Do you think she’s controlling Eli?”
Noah’s jaw tightens. His eyes are murky in the shadows of the river. “I’m not convinced of that, darlin’. I wish I was.” He sighs and crosses his arms over his chest. “She rendered me powerless back there, along with you. When you stopped, I stopped.” He sighs. “But I could still see. Still hear. Still understand. And what I saw?” I look at him, and he looks down at me and shakes his head. “Damn, Riley. The grin on Dupré’s face, that look in his eye? Even gave me the fucking chills. She’s sick powerful if she can control you, me, and Eli, all at once.”
A wind gusts by, and it strikes my face and makes me squint. It’s chilly, maybe midthirties. I’m not uncomfortable, but I do notice the temperature. Sometimes I miss it, that very humanlike sensation of being frigidly cold and needing to bundle up and stamp my feet for warmth. Miss the absolute hell out of it.
“Something’s wrong, though,” Noah says out of the blue. “I can’t put a finger on it. But I feel like there’s something we’re not seeing.”
“With Eli?” I ask.
He glances at me. “With all of it.” He grabs me gently by my jaw, forcing me to hold his gaze. “I’ve not been dead so long that I don’t remember what it feels like to have your heart trudged on. Even if Dupré is being controlled by that bitch, it still pisses me off. And I’m sorry you have to suffer it. You’ve not been yourself since Edinburgh. Since it happened.” He pulls my face closer, lowers his almost until our noses touch. “I miss the old, sarcastic, mean-ass, smart-ass Riley Poe.”
I miss her, too. It’s something that I just can’t seem to help, though. Everything is darker now, since Edinburgh. Ugly dark. Coming from me, that’s bad, because I’ve seen the shittiest, ugliest dark there is. This tops it. But maybe I’ve let it get to me. In a way I shouldn’t have, I mean. Maybe that’s part of what’s blocking my abilities. I’m so blinded by grief and fury that I’m not using the extent of my tendencies. It’s why that female was able to control me so thoroughly.
Maybe Noah Miles is onto something.
He grins, still obscenely close to my face.
“How come you’ve not even once pulled that satchel off your neck and tried to seduce me?” I ask jokingly. I narrow my gaze and wait for Noah’s wiseass answer.
Instead, he widens his smile, turns my face loose, and fishes out his iPhone. After a few taps, he flips it around and lowers it. My eyes scan the picture fastened there.
Me. Noah. My mouth latched on to his, sucking his face off.
Then it hits me. I remember. The forest, after I’d dragged Eli and Vic out of the realm. Noah had used his oversensual vampire pheromones to lure me back to reality.
He’d saved my life by doing it.
Still. I glare at him, and punch him in the stomach. “Asshole. You had to take a pic of that?” I punch him again. Harder. “You literally took the time to take a pic? I was out of my mind.”
“Ow,” Noah says, ridiculously clutching his stomach. As if that had hurt him. “You don’t sincerely think I’d pass up a photo op like that, do you?”
“Give me that,” I say, and reach for it. He snatches it back. Lifts it out of my reach.
“Oh, hell no, Ms. Poe. Not on your life.” He grins and stuffs his iPhone deep into his pocket. “Technology is a wonderful thing. And I’ve saved it to my hard drive, so stop fretting about deleting it off my cell—”
A sound distracts me, and I hold up my hand to silence Noah. He’s listening now, too, and through the chilled night air, we both strain. I concentrate, breathe deeply, opening my senses. Closing my eyes, I zone out everything and envision my ear canal as a megaphone, siphoning all abstract noises and sharpening them. At once, I snap my gaze beyond the city lights. Up the river and higher. I strain so hard it almost hurts. Then I hear it. The slightest of sounds. It’s a groggy, faint groan. Female.
And it’s not a groan of pleasure.
I sniff the air, but it’s too far away to tell. I can barely detect where the sound is coming from, and all I can do is start moving in that direction.
“Come on,” I say, and start off at a jog.
Noah’s right beside me.
At once, I stop, turn around, and take off toward the river. Within seconds, I’m at a full run. The moment my boot hits the walkway hugging the river, I leap, over the water, and land in a crouch on the opposite bank. I glance behind me, just in time to see Noah land beside me. I pause and listen for a half second. We’re on the same side of the river as St. Andrew’s, but north of the cathedral. I turn in the direction of St. Andrew’s, and slipping through the shadows, we run. It’s close to two a.m. now, and patrons have thinned and humans are scarce. So the whimpering I’m homing in on, growing louder by the second, worries me. We race up Duncraig Street and turn onto Kenneth, following the human’s groans. I glance at Noah as we run, and I know he hears it now. There’s a cemetery up ahead, the scent of aged decay penetrating my senses and drawing me closer and closer. Fearing to be noticed by anyone simply taking out the trash, I hasten down a dark alley, find my foothold, and leap up to the rooftop. When I glance to my side, Noah’s there. We head across the rooftops, bounding over chimneys and slipping on tiles, until the sound of the human’s heartbeat quickens. The cemetery is there, just ahead, and I pick up speed, leaping down from the roof and landing in a full run. We’re still within the city limits, but the populated areas have thinned. Tomnahurich Cemetery sits on a hillside, and as we hit the single graveled lane within, it starts to wind up the hill from the bottom. I can smell old death, bones, and rotted earth. My eyes search the area in front of me, and although it’s dark out, the pale gray of the headstones stands stark against the blackness of night. Graves reach all the way up to the summit, but the human’s quickened heartbeat pulls me off the path and into the wood. Through the pines and brush we race, and suddenly, I pull up short. On the far side of the hill, I hear it. Gurgling. Choking.
Panicking, I take off, and Noah’s keeping up step for step. I jump up and into the tree limbs overhead, and leap tree to tree to save time. Then, below and ahead, I see them. I see Eli.
And the scene stops my heart.
The female from Hush 51 stands in the clearing. Eli is a few feet away, stone-still.
In the female’s arms is a young woman, the other woman’s mouth latched on to her throat. The girl’s arms dangle, limp and lifeless at her sides. Her body jerks, convulses. Not all the way dead yet.
In the tree, my hand is pressing hard against the rough bark. Noah’s arm goes around my waist and I know he’s doing that to keep me from lunging down. In my heart I know we’re too late.
The woman’s head lifts. Blood trails down her chin. Jesus Christ, it’s a lot of blood. She’s looking dead at me when she smiles. Eli continues to stand, unmoving. Frozen in place.
When my gaze moves back to the female, she throws the human down.
Make sure when your shift is over you go home alive. Here endeth the lesson.
—Jim Malone, The Untouchables, 1987
Can you imagine what it would feel like to have your heart ripped out of your chest? Like, dig their fingers into your skin, break rib bones until those fingers thread through the vessels, find and squeeze your heart, and then rip it out of your body? I can. I feel like it just happened. I don’t feel human anymore. Not alive. Not dead. I don’t know if I feel anything at all, other than fury. And disgust. It sounds dramatic just to think it, much less truly feel it. Right now I don’t give a damn. I want to hurt. Cause pain. Maybe even kill. Now that I think about it, maybe that’s what she wants.
They are baiting you, Riley. You must leave. Do it now.
My body jolts as though I’ve been hit. I’m so taken off guard by the voice in my head that I nearly fall from the twenty-foot tree branch I’m sharing with Noah.
Go now. If they capture you, Riley, they won’t kill you. They’ll torture you. And there’s nothing more you can do. The human is dead. Leave.
I stare through the pine branches and shadows at Eli and the female. My eyes drift to the lifeless body of the innocent human lying on the ground. I am so damn confused and hurt and angry, I feel as though I’m going to self-combust. My breath quickens, and my energy gathers, but before my feet leave the tree branch, Noah’s grip tightens around my arm. I know he won’t let go. If I jump, I’ll land with one less limb.
But if I jump, I’ll still have one good arm left to fight with.
Then I hear it. I hold my breath and cock my head, zoning out everything else around me: the wind, the night sounds. I focus on heartbeats, separating the human ones from the animal ones. There. Back toward the river. And it’s more than one, accompanied by breathlessness.
With a final glance at the female vampire, who wipes her mouth with her sleeve and grins at me, I look at Noah, and he knows. We take off through the trees, and I’m racing now toward the human heart that is beating faster and faster, matching the footsteps as it runs. The moment we clear the cemetery, we’re at top speed, Noah’s a few steps behind me, and . . . I was wrong. Not at the river. One street over. Down an alley. The crying and begging is loud now—loud enough for another human to hear. Noah and I round the corner at the same time.
It’s a dead-end alley—a crossway between two buildings, with a small courtyard at the very end. A young couple stands huddled together, the guy shielding the girl. She’s clinging to his back, her fingers digging into his shoulder so fiercely I can see her knuckles whitening from where I stand.
Two have them cornered—both males. Both young. Well, young looking. They both turn and face me and Noah as we close in. I lunge toward the couple, and the girl screams. I glance at her. Be quiet. Both of you run. Leave. Go straight home. Do it now!