Matchup, p.43
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       MatchUp, p.43
 

          

  a minute, then hit her flashers and dropped the hammer. She knew these roads, that was her advantage, that and a bigger engine in her Jeep.

  Drake made a run for it.

  Speeding through the ever-closing night, his taillights burning bright.

  She drove faster, feeling the tires hum and her heart pound as images of those innocent kids played through her mind.

  On a straightaway, heading to a sharp corner, she roared up behind the older, overmatched Jeep until she was no more than six feet behind him. At the corner he swung wide, hit gravel on the far shoulder, a tire catching on the edge of the asphalt. As she slowed she watched his Jeep spin back across the road, headlights arcing, cutting through the night.

  “Die, you bastard,” she said, hitting the brakes.

  Drake’s Jeep slid off the side of the road, the front-right headlight smashing against a pine, the hood crumpling with a groan, an axle breaking.

  Her vehicle slid to a stop on the shoulder.

  Service weapon in her hand, she stepped onto the asphalt and screamed at his vehicle.

  “Get out. I want to see your hands, and I want you out.”

  He didn’t move.

  “Now! Get out.”

  She advanced, crouching, wishing she was wearing a vest.

  He kicked open his door, then slowly, hands over his head, he emerged from the Jeep. He was dressed in black from head to toe. Black dress shirt, black slacks, black shoes.

  “What’s this about?” he called out. “You nearly killed me. You some kind of psycho cop?”

  “It’s about all those children,” she said, her throat raw. “Keep your hands over your head, and back away. I want you out in the headlights, or, I swear to God, I’ll shoot you.”

  “I don’t know anything about any children,” he called to her, but did as he was instructed, and backed away. “I got a bad fire up there, my phone doesn’t work, I was going to get the volunteer fire department. Could you call them for me?”

  “Shut up,” she said.

  She was at the back of his Jeep and saw through the plastic window the rifle stacked up between the two front seats, ready to use.

  “You were going to shoot your way out, if you didn’t get clear, weren’t you?”

  So why hadn’t he tried to shoot her? Something wasn’t computing.

  “I wasn’t going to shoot anybody,” Drake said, hands still over his head. “I’ve never committed a crime in my life. The worst thing I’ve ever done is let that fire get out of control, and I don’t even have insurance. I think that goddamn Weeks started it, I found out he was doing something in my cabin while I wasn’t here.”

  “That’s not what Phillip Weeks told me,” she said.

  She pushed the Jeep’s door open, switched hands on her pistol, and used her right hand to fish the rifle out of the Jeep.

  “Phillip Weeks is a crazy, drug-addled boy,” Drake shouted. “His old man has fed him opiates since he was ten years old. Nobody’s going to believe a doper like him.”

  She looked at him and said, “You’ve almost got me convinced. You might walk.”

  “Might, bullshit. I’ve got the best attorneys in California. You’re going to be lucky to have your job when they’re finished with you. The best thing you could do right now is forget all this.”

  She looked down at the rifle.

  Large-caliber bolt action, like the gun that had killed Cain. She pulled the bolt back an inch, then shut it, seeing the brassy flash of the cartridge going back into the chamber.

  “You know, you killed the wrong guy down in the river. The guy who saw the girl in the RV. He’s still back there.”

  In a split second Drake reached behind his back and pulled out a pistol.

  She fired.

  He went down, his handgun flying from his grasp.

  The rush in her ears was overpowering, the anger flooding through her veins nearly blinding her. Without thinking, she turned and using one hand, brought the rifle up and fired a single shot through the windshield of her Jeep.

  Glass shattered.

  “What are you—” Drake began, sputtering as he watched, white-faced, bleeding. “No. Wait. I didn’t do anything.”

  She wiped down the stock and trigger with the bottom of her shirt.

  “Wait,” Drake said as the sound of sirens cut through the night. “Those kids. They were better off with me. They wanted to do it. I gave them a place to live and food and made them movie stars. They lived like kings and queens.”

  Rage swelled.

  Blackness pulled at her vision.

  Her finger curled over the trigger of her service weapon.

  “For Christ’s sake.” Drake scrambled for his gun.

  She shot him twice in the chest.

  VIRGIL SHOUTED DOWN AT THE Feds, “He’s gone up the gravel road, away from the county road.”

  The SWAT team, in the light of the fires, started jogging up the road toward Weeks’s cabin.

  “He’s not there anymore,” Johnson muttered.

  He and Johnson crashed through the brush on the bluff, waded the shallow river, and ran down the road to the dude ranch, where everybody staying at the ranch, Katy, her siblings, and her parents, were all standing on the edge of the golf course, looking at the fire in the sky.

  Jim Waller called to them as they passed, “Is that the Drake place? What’s going on up there?”

  They didn’t bother to answer, but piled into Johnson’s Cadillac and headed out to the highway.

  “Gotta be a right turn,” Johnson said.

  A mile up the road, they found Pescoli sitting next to the right front wheel of her Jeep. She was holding a tissue next to her eye, showing a little blood. Up the road, they could see Drake, spread-eagled in the headlights of his Jeep.

  He and Johnson jumped out of the Cadillac and they hurried up to her. She was white faced, her eyes a little glassy, but she answered.

  “I’m not bad. I shot him twice, maybe three times. He thought we had him. He had nothing to lose by trying to take me out.”

  Her hand was shaking a little.

  “He was right about that,” Virgil said and saw the smashed-up Jeep and the body lying in the grass near the shoulder. “You check him?”

  “Enough to know we don’t need an ambulance,” she said, chalk white, her voice distant, almost disembodied. She cleared her throat and focused on Virgil, as if seeing him for the first time. “I wish we could have taken him alive. I wish we could have gotten him in court.”

  “Probably better this way,” Johnson said, avoiding looking at the corpse. “What if he’d gotten off? If what everybody says is true, the cocksucker deserves to be dead.”

  He and Regan both gave Johnson a look, and he muttered, “Okay. Sorry about that ‘cocksucker.’ ”

  Virgil stood up from checking the body and looked at Regan and Johnson.

  “But you’re right. He deserves to be dead. And now he is.”

  LARA ADRIAN AND CHRISTOPHER RICE

  THRILLERS COME IN ALL FORMS. The number of subgenres is staggering, and this story is representative of one of the most popular.

  Paranormal.

  Lara Adrian has made a name for herself in this world where her books are huge bestsellers. True to his namesake (as the son of Anne Rice), Christopher Rice cut his teeth on dark suspense, before shifting to romance. Teaming these two together seemed like an exciting idea, but it also posed a few challenges. The timeline of Lara’s long-running Midnight Breed series spans twenty-five years in the future. Chris sets his stories and characters in the present. So, right away, the clock had to be turned back to a time when Lara’s vampires were unknown inside her imagined world.

  But that played right into their hands.

  Chris’s initial idea was to have his Desire Exchange series character, Lilliane, attacked by someone on her home turf of New Orleans where Lara’s character, Lucan Thorne, could witness both the altercation and Lilliane’s extraordinary powers.

&nbs
p; From there, everything fell right into place.

  Lara wrote the first draft, then Chris rewrote and edited. The title is a bit of an inside thing. Midnight from Lara’s long-running series. Flame from the candles that symbolically form a huge part of Chris’s fictional world.

  The result is a gem.

  Midnight Flame.

  MIDNIGHT FLAME

  THUNDER SHOOK THE TINY FRENCH quarter bookshop as Lucan Thorne handed his cash to the young woman behind the register. Rain had been hammering New Orleans since he arrived from Boston a couple of days ago. As the evening crept toward midnight, the deluge showed no signs of letting up anytime soon either. He didn’t mind getting wet. Besides, this last-minute stop for a special gift before returning home would be worth the trouble and then some.

  The perky blond clerk made change for him and handed it over along with his purchase. “You sure picked a bad night to be out shopping. The city’s a lot more fun when the weather’s nice and everyone’s out having a good time.” When he reached for the paper gift bag, she brushed her fingers over his. “You gonna be in town for a while? I’d love to show you what I mean.”

  Under the fall of his damp black hair, Lucan smiled, baring just the tips of his fangs. “I’m not really a people person.”

  The human sucked in a sharp breath.

  She let go of the bag as if it burned her fingers, blinking fast, her mortal brain no doubt struggling to process what she imagined she’d just seen.

  “Thanks for your help, Krystal,” he said, his fangs now retracted as he slipped the bag into a large inside pocket under his black trench coat.

  “Uh, sure.”

  She gave him a befuddled wave as he left the store.

  As he stepped out to the wet street, he heard the locks on the shop door tumble closed behind him. Revealing himself, or his kind’s, existence to the humans living alongside the Breed wasn’t something Lucan chanced often. As one of the eldest members of his kind, he knew better than anyone how critical it was for the vampire nation to maintain its secret from mankind.

  As commander of the Order, a cadre of Breed warriors who’d pledged their arms and their lives to protecting the fragile peace with their mortal neighbors, there was nothing Lucan wouldn’t do to ensure the security of both man and Breed alike. And if he thought for one second that the clerk inside the bookstore was any kind of threat to those goals, he’d have mind-scrubbed her on the spot.

  Right now, all he wanted to do was get back to the Order’s headquarters in Boston, where the rest of his team, and his new Breedmate, Gabrielle, awaited his return. After two days in New Orleans, smoothing the ruffled feathers of Breed civilian leaders worried that recent problems in Boston might spill over into other major cities unless the Order got them under control, he was eager to be done with his diplomatic duties. He itched to be back in combat with his warriors. More than that, he couldn’t wait to be back in bed with his sweet Gabrielle.

  The book he’d bought was a present for her. A signed first-edition novel by one of her favorite authors whose bestselling books had proclaimed New Orleans the vampire capital of the world and ignited a global obsession. Hell, decades later, women were still swooning over that certain French bloodsucker who was as sinister as he was sophisticated and seductive.

  Personally, Lucan didn’t understand the appeal.

  And, yeah, maybe he didn’t particularly appreciate competing with that fictional fantasy where Gabrielle was concerned either. But if the book made his mate happy, who was he to disagree?

  Still, his ego needed some reassurance that his fangs were the only ones his Breedmate wanted at her neck.

  Not to mention elsewhere.

  Smiling as he pictured all the ways he and Gabrielle would celebrate his homecoming, he set out to find a lingerie shop to buy her something skimpy. Maybe something with tiny buttons he could bite off one by one as he undressed her.

  Tilting his head down against the sluicing rain, he pushed deeper into the Quarter. He didn’t have much company tonight. The storm had driven all but the most stalwart or inebriated tourists indoors. The restaurants and bars were packed and lively, but the streets outside were practically empty. Only a few shops remained open. Lucan walked past half a dozen T-shirt stalls and several more boutiques hawking everything from gourmet foods to sex toys. He wandered without a plan, trusting he’d eventually spot a window full of the frilly lace things Gabrielle liked.

  How he ended up near a small, tucked-away courtyard filled with banana trees and a babbling fountain at its center he had no idea. Inside the courtyard, a coffee shop employee was just closing up for the night, dodging past the tarp-covered cast-iron tables and chairs outside. Of the handful of businesses that called the courtyard home, only one appeared to be open. Through the relentless curtain of pelting rain, Lucan’s acute Breed vision caught the hand-painted wooden sign above the door.

  FEU DE COEUR.

  A candle shop, he guessed, noting the small gold flame etched above the logo on the weathered wood. Even through the rain he could smell flame-warmed wax. His keen nose seemed to detect something more, but it was impossibly delicate.

  Elusive.

  And now that he was staring closer at the small shop, even the storefront seemed hard to define. It wobbled in a peculiar way, seeming to fade in and out of his sight as if it wasn’t completely solid.

  Or not quite real?

  Curious, Lucan started toward the shop.

  He didn’t get far.

  Before he could cross the small courtyard, he heard the sound of rushing footsteps somewhere on the street outside.

  “There she is. Let’s get her.”

  A male voice, issuing orders in a low tone that only one of Lucan’s kind could pick up from such a sizable distance.

  “You knock the bitch down, Danny. I’ll grab the case.”

  The two pairs of footsteps sped up now, heavy boots running hard through the downpour and coming his way.

  Lucan didn’t like any of it. In a blink, he was out of the courtyard and back on the street, just in time to see a pair of rangy human males beating feet behind a tall, full-figured, and elegantly dressed black woman who was making her way up the street toward the courtyard.

  She toted a briefcase in her right hand.

  The case her pair of fast-approaching attackers were intent on taking unless he stopped them.

  Hadn’t he just been thinking how ready he was to be back on patrol?

  Dispatching a couple of idiot mortal thieves was child’s play, but he’d gladly take it.

  Except he didn’t get the chance.

  No sooner had he moved to take action, intending to leapfrog the woman and position himself between her and the two assailants, than she pivoted on her heels and faced off against the pair.

  Was she crazy?

  One of the two rushed her.

  She tossed him aside with a sweep of her free hand. She was superstrong. Inhumanly so. A spray of gold dust shot out of her fingertips, trailing after her dispatched attacker like an arc of delicate glitter.

  Who, or what, the hell was she?

  Still, there were two assailants and only one of her. And despite the fact that she was something Lucan had never seen before, she was still a woman and he wasn’t about to stand by and
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