Matchup, p.44
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       MatchUp, p.44
 

           Lee Child

  let her take on these hoods alone. Calling upon his Breed genetics, he moved in front of her faster than any human eye could track. Combat instinct raged through his veins. His fangs punched out of his gums, firing his dark-gray irises to coal-bright amber behind his narrowing, cat’s-eye pupils. He grabbed the second attacker by the collar and held the man aloft, his boots several inches off the ground. The man screamed when he saw Lucan’s face, making a frantic, but futile, attempt to scramble loose from his hold. Across the street, his buddy staggered to his feet and stared slack-jawed. Then he bolted, leaving his comrade to face the music alone.

  “Let me go. Please. I don’t wanna die.”

  Lucan ignored his struggling, whimpering quarry and turned his head to look at the woman behind him. She was beautiful, with an ageless face and deep brown eyes that seemed fathomless in the darkness.

  “You okay?”

  She nodded, studying him in guarded silence.

  “Please, let me go,” the human whined. “I’s only doin’ a job, that’s all. Me and my friend were hired to jump the lady and see what happened. I swear, we weren’t gonna hurt her.”

  The woman scowled.

  Her lovely face held an unearthly, dangerous rage. “Who told you to do this? Who wanted to see what would happen?”

  The answer came a moment later, though not from the hired thug swinging at the end of Lucan’s grasp.

  Headlights blinked on from down an alley across the street.

  The twin high beams cut through the rain as a dark van rocketed out of the side street and swung past them in a scream of burning rubber.

  The lone driver held a video camera in his hand, its tiny red recording light trained on Lucan’s face as the vehicle sped away.

  LILLIANE’S FAMOUS TEMPER SMOLDERED AS she watched the van disappear into the rain-filled night, its taillights swallowed up by the darkness. She cut a glance at the vampire standing next to her.

  “Where did you come from?”

  He grunted, sounding as displeased as she was. “I might ask you the same thing. What’s your name? How did you end up on the radar of this fool and his friend with the camera?”

  Her would-be assailant had since fainted dead away and now hung limp in the big vampire’s grasp. She pursed her lips, her fingers curling tighter around the jeweled handle of her briefcase.

  “Only a few people know about the kind of business I do around here and this guy’s not one of ’em. Trust me.”

  “Trust is earned.”

  He released the unconscious human, letting the man slump to the wet pavement. Gray eyes, shot with amber sparks, met her gaze through the relentless deluge. As she watched, his pupils transformed from narrow vertical slits to rounded pools of black. Behind his lips the points of the big male’s fangs gleamed diamond-bright.

  “Your name,” he said again, more demand than inquiry.

  “Lilliane.”

  “Your last name?” he asked, bearing his fangs slightly.

  “Smith,” she lied, summoning a swell of emotion she knew would fill her eyes with a brief shimmer of gold.

  He seemed dazed by this display for a second, then he introduced himself.

  “Lucan Thorne.”

  She smirked. “Your kind isn’t the only thing that goes bump in the night, Mr. Thorne.”

  He frowned, clearly taken aback. “You’re not Breed.”

  “No.”

  “But you are immortal.”

  “That remains to be seen.”

  In truth, she was uncertain just how to classify what she and the twenty-three other Radiants like her actually were. On some days she felt special. Blessed by her ability to leap several stories into the air, to send would-be attackers flying backward with just a flick of her wrist. She didn’t age. She didn’t get sick. All wonderful things, right?

  But on other days, she felt cursed by the fact that a decision she’d made decades before had robbed her of the ability to feel anything close to romantic love for another being, mortal or immortal. She wasn’t alone in this struggle. There were twenty-three others just like her, extraordinary creatures with extraordinary powers. She served as their mentor and mother, even though she played no role in their creation. But none of them could agree on what to call their condition, just that the exact same chain of events had made each one of them what they were now.

  Lucan stared at her in silent contemplation before glancing down at the unconscious human at his feet. “Lilliane Smith, whoever or whatever you are, it’s obvious that you and I have a big problem here. We need to talk.”

  As much as she wanted to deny it, the Breed warrior was right. “Come with me. Let’s get out of the rain.”

  She stepped into the small courtyard, Lucan Thorne walking behind her, carrying the fainted human over his shoulder.

  “This way,” she said, leading him to the candle shop nestled in the corner of the square.

  The vampire cleared his throat. “I’d rather we go somewhere a bit more discreet, Lilliane. Someplace secure.”

  “We won’t find anywhere more discreet or secure in all the city,” she assured him. “Or all the world, probably.”

  She’d been coming to this place when the pair of men assaulted her. And while the shop’s enigmatic proprietor, Bastian Drake, wasn’t likely to welcome this late-night intrusion, the fact that the store’s light was still burning in the window, the fact that the shop itself hadn’t disappeared from sight altogether by way of his powerful magic, was signal enough that she and her unwanted new acquaintance could take shelter inside for a while.

  She opened the door and led Lucan Thorne inside. Shrugging out of her soaked raincoat, she indicated an empty wooden chair and watched as the vampire dumped the human onto the seat.

  “Are we alone here?” he asked.

  “Alone enough.”

  She noticed how his shrewd gaze surveyed the cramped space with its rug-covered, old wood floors and the dozens of thick candles on display in unusual burnt-umber glass containers. “I know the owner of this shop. We won’t be disturbed.”

  “Considering how the rest of this evening’s gone already, you’d better be damned sure of that.”

  She laid down her briefcase. “Suffice to say, the proprietor isn’t exactly what you’d call a people person.”

  The remark earned a cryptic smirk from the massive Breed male.

  “Strange place,” he said, strolling over to a collection of candles shelved on the far wall. He brought one to his nose and sniffed shallowly. Then he jerked his head away, as if his preternatural senses told him he wasn’t merely smelling poured wax and some added fragrance, but something else.

  Something primal, raw. Otherworldly.

  “Smells terrible, doesn’t it?” she asked.

  “That and then some.” He returned the candle to its shelf. “The presentation had me fooled.”

  “That’s because it’s not for you.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “The candle. It’s not meant for you. So to your nose it probably smells like pond water or something worse.”

  “And the one it’s meant for? What will it smell like to them?”

  Her eyes glazed over but held their natural color. “Ever been in love?”

  “I am now.”

  “Ah, you’re sweet.”

  “I’m not talking about you.”

  “And I wasn’t remotely serious, so sheathe those fangs, big boy. Is the love of your life a he or a she?”

  “She.”

  “She’s got a smell, right? A special smell. Not just the smell of her skin, but the way her skin smells when she’s flushed and ready for you, beckoning to you. It’s a smell that makes you feel like you’re in her arms no matter where you are when you smell it.”

  “I suppose so.”

  “If that candle was meant for you, that’s what it would smell like to you. Only none of these candles are meant for you, because you’re already with the love of your life. Or at least it sound
s like it. But if you weren’t, and the love of your life was in your life, but you weren’t man enough to step up and try to make a move, or you had a hundred excuses why it wasn’t going to work and you shouldn’t even try, eventually, you might find yourself here, smelling her smell in one of those candles.”

  “I see.”

  “Do you? Or are you just humoring me? I’m not really sure how to handle skepticism from a vampire, so you’ll have to bear with me for a second.”

  “I’ve got a question. If there isn’t a candle for me here, why’d this place appear to me at all?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Maybe the guy who runs it wanted me to help you. Maybe that’s why I wound up in this courtyard right as you were attacked.”

  His words gave a tense set to her jaw. “Let’s stop speculating and get back to the business at hand.”

  “Fine. You going to tell me what’s in that fancy case of yours, or am I going to have to open it and see for myself?”

  She saw no reason to lie. After all, as he’d pointed out, they shared a common problem tonight. Namely, both of them being revealed to the world as something other than human. She lifted the glossy leather briefcase and flipped the jeweled locks open. Holding the open case in her arms, she presented the contents to him.

  He strode over to look at the half-dozen glowing jars, nestled safe in their cushioned sleeves inside the case. Their illumination seemed to startle the large warrior. He drew back, as wary as any solar-allergic being should be.

  “Is that light captured inside them?”

  “In a manner of speaking.” She glanced at the soft hues that burned like colored embers in the jars. “They hold the pure essence of true desire. That’s a force even more powerful than light. More powerful than most anything in this world, or the next.”

  He swiveled his head and took in the scores of candles that surrounded them. “And your friend who runs this shop. How does he fit into the equation?”

  “He’s not my friend.” Her jaw stiffened. “As for what he does, that’s a long story. And one best saved for another time.”

  The unconscious man slouched in the chair across the room was beginning to rouse.

  “I’ll just say this. I’ve got a little business I run that supplies him with what he needs to run his place. All my customers walk away happy. Most of his do too.”

  “Most, huh?”

  “Like I said, long story.”

  Lucan cursed under his breath. “Long story or not, before this is all over tonight, you will tell me.”

  She inclined her head, observing as he stalked toward the unconscious human and hoisted the man upright in the wooden chair. The man’s head lolled before finally facing Lucan. As soon as his bleary eyes opened, the human sucked in air and practically leapt off his seat in terror.

  “Oh, God, no. I thought it was a nightmare.”

  “That’s all it is,” Lucan said, placing his palm against the man’s sweaty brow. “A bad dream. Relax now.”

  The human complied immediately.

  His trembling ceased, along with his panicked stammering.

  “What are you doing?” she asked, setting her briefcase down to draw up beside the vampire.

  “I tranced him. He’ll tell us everything we ask.” Lucan turned his attention back on the calmed human. “You can start with your name.”

  “Danny Boudreaux.”

  Lucan glanced her way and she shrugged, signaling that the name meant nothing to her.

  “What about your friend in the van, Danny? What’s his name?”

  “I dunno. My friend Ricky—he knows him, not me.”

  “Ricky is the other guy you were with tonight?”

  Danny nodded.

  “And what did Ricky tell you about the man with the camera?”

  “He said the dude was offerin’ us fifty bucks to come with him and jump this lady he’s been watchin’ for a couple of months. Said he wanted to see what would happen if we got her good and pissed off.”

  “You succeeded,” she muttered.

  “There was supposed to be an extra hundred in it for us if we could grab the bitch’s briefcase away from her.”

  “A lousy hundred dollars,” she said. “You don’t have the first idea what’s in these jars or what to do with it. And you’d spend the rest of your miserable life trying to figure it out.”

  Lucan slanted her a look. “I don’t think it mattered to anyone what was inside it. The man with the camera knew the briefcase was important to you. He only wanted to test your reaction to the theft. He’s been watching you long enough to know your habits, where to find you.”

  “What for? Just to make a feeble attempt to mug me?”

  His face turned grim. “So he could capture the altercation on video. More specifically, your reaction.”

  She arched a brow as a cold understanding settled on her. “Because whoever’s been watching me knew my reaction would be something more than human.”

  He nodded. “And now he has both of us on video during the attack.”

  “We need to get that camera.”

  “The man who hired you, Danny. Do you know where we can find him?”

  The human shook his head, his eyes closed, his mind still caught in the web of the trance. “I don’t know anything else. Ricky set it all up.”

  Danny slumped and a cell phone screeched with a heavy metal ringtone. The grating noise filled the shop, although it didn’t seem to register with the dazed human at all. Lucan rifled through Danny’s pockets and found the bleating phone.

  “Jackpot.”

  He held the phone up, showing her the name on the screen.

  Ricky.

  He pushed the call to voice mail, silencing the racket. “We have everything we need now. I’ve got a plan.”

  She pointed at Danny. “What are you going to do with him?”

  He smirked. “Mind-scrub the little fuck, then toss him back in the gutter. When he comes to again in the morning, he’ll have one wicked hangover, but he won’t remember a thing that happened.”

  “Nothing at all?”

  “Not a thing.”

  She walked over and punched the human in the face.

  “Feel better?” he asked.

  “Much. Let’s hear your plan, vampire.”

  AFTER DUMPING DANNY IN A side alley a few blocks away from the candle shop, Lucan and Lilliane hailed a taxi and headed to the Bywater to find one Richard “Ricky” Dubois.

  A quick call to Gideon, the Order’s resident computer genius at the Boston headquarters, had been all it took to gather a full dossier on Danny’s erstwhile partner in crime. The GPS tracer Gideon placed on Ricky’s cell-phone signal now led them straight to the small-time thief’s location outside a seedy bar down at the river. The place was packed, never mind that it was also dank and dilapidated, a squat redbrick eyesore sitting about as far off the tourist maps as you could get.

  Lucan didn’t have to guess which of the huddled, drowned rats smoking blunts under the tattered awning at the bar’s entrance across the street was the human he needed to find. He could still picture Ricky’s slack-jawed stare from earlier tonight. Judging from the way he weaved and swayed on his feet, Ricky had been trying to take the edge off his tattered nerves. Better that he ended up here instead of running to the police station with his eyewitness account of paranormal happenings. Although, given Ricky Dubois’s rap sheet, Lucan doubted he would ever approach the
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