Matchup, p.45
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       MatchUp, p.45

           Lee Child

  authorities on a voluntary basis.

  He paid the cab fare, then looked at Lilliane beside him. “You sure you’re ready to do this?”

  “I’ve never been ready for most of the things that have happened to me, and yet here I am. Hunting lowlifes with a vampire. Next stop, Disneyland.”

  “Yeah. You could be one of the attractions.”

  “I feel like I should be offended by that.”

  “I’ll let you make jokes about me stopping off at the blood bank for a snack if it makes you feel better. In the meantime, we’ve got work to do.”

  He wasn’t used to bringing civilians along on patrols with him, least of all an unarmed woman of questionable powers who might slow him down. As one of the Breed he could traverse miles in mere minutes. He would have done so on this mission, but Lilliane had made it clear before they left the candle shop that this was her problem as much as his and she wasn’t about to sit on the sidelines. So, like it or not, and for the record he didn’t, he was saddled with a partner.

  “I repeat,” he said. “Are you ready?”

  “Do it.”

  They stepped out and the taxi rolled away.

  He’d hoped to have the element of surprise on their side, but as they crossed the street, Ricky Dubois glanced over and spotted the incoming threat. His face paled to a ghostly shade of white.

  Then he bolted.

  Straight into the crowded bar.

  “You take the front entrance,” he told Lilliane. “Flush him out toward the back. I’ll cover the rear of the building and make sure our little rat doesn’t slip his trap.”

  She nodded and they split up.

  He knew he didn’t have to wait and make sure she made it inside. The woman was strong and capable of handling herself. He only hoped she’d stick with the plan to collar Ricky so they could interrogate him, not coldcock the idiot into next week the way she’d done to Danny.

  Not that he blamed her.

  It wasn’t so long ago that his famous temper had ruled him too. He’d been angry at the world. Angry with himself for all the ways he’d failed in life, and for all the things he couldn’t change. Meeting Gabrielle had changed that. She changed him. He couldn’t help wondering if some of Lilliane’s fury might be from self-inflicted wounds as well.

  In another place, another time, he might be interested to find out.

  Right now, all he wanted to do was fix this situation, then get home to his mate and team.

  Lilliane Smith’s problems were her own to solve.

  Calling on his Breed genetics, he flashed past the crowd near the front entrance like nothing more than a chilled breeze. He was waiting at the bar’s back door when Ricky crashed through from inside and stumbled onto the rough gravel.

  Lilliane emerged right behind him.

  Her eyes glowed with that same unearthly fire she’d shown him when he first bared his fangs. For a moment the effect was so jarring, Lucan might have mistaken her for Breed.

  But she was something else.

  And this time she was truly pissed.

  Lilliane pushed the human several feet in the air with a sweep of her hand. Screaming as he sailed high in the air, Ricky came down hard on a rickety old dock at the river’s edge. The rotting wood groaned from the crash, some of the boards cracking as they heaved and rocked over the dark water. Her hands fisted at her sides, she stalked forward onto the dock. Ricky’s wide eyes were locked on her in terror. Beneath him, the old dock swayed as he frantically crab-scrambled for the farthest edge. The wood started to break. The dock pitched violently to the side. Ricky lost his hold. The platform gave way, dumping him into the murky drink.

  Only then did she pause.

  No. More froze.

  Watching, stock-still, as their quarry started swimming away.

  Lucan plowed past her and dove in.

  “YOU WANT TO TELL ME what that was about back there at the dock?” Lucan asked, shrugging out of his soaked black leather trench coat.

  To avoid attracting any more attention, after fishing Ricky Dubois from the Mississippi they’d immediately brought the human to an abandoned house a few blocks away. Inside the neglected ruin that likely hadn’t seen inhabitants since Katrina, they’d conducted a tranced interrogation. He’d given them the name and address of the local private investigator who hired them tonight, but like his pal Danny, Ricky didn’t know how or why Lilliane had ended up on the PI’s radar.

  Now, with Ricky mind-scrubbed and unconscious following his questioning, she watched as Lucan set his coat aside then pulled off his shirt and squeezed the foul water from his clothing. She couldn’t help noticing the complicated pattern of skin markings that danced and swirled over the Breed male’s torso and muscled arms. They weren’t tattoos, not the way their colors changed and moved.

  There was a lot she didn’t know about his kind.

  And vice versa.

  Yet here they were, forced to work together to protect the secrets of both their people.

  “I don’t swim,” she said, belatedly answering his question as to why she froze.

  “All that power and badassery, but you don’t know how to swim?”

  “I know how to swim. I said I don’t swim. Not anymore. Not since . . .”

  Her words trailed off.

  “Not since when?”

  “Since I became what I am.”

  “Which is?”

  “I’m called a Radiant. Fifty-odd years ago I was just a woman. Mortal.”

  “What happened?”

  She shrugged nonchalantly, but the taste of regret hung bitter in her throat. “I made a terrible mistake. One I cannot correct.”

  “Does your mistake have something to do with that strange candle shop back in the Quarter?”

  She nodded, seeing no need to hide the facts from him. “One of those candles, the one meant for me. It found me. The shop. The man who runs it. The ghost who runs it. They all found me. Light this flame at the scene of your greatest passion and your heart’s desire will be yours.”

  “Did you?”

  “My heart’s desire was the white son of the family I cleaned house for. It was 1959. What do you think our chance of success would have been?”

  “That’s not what I asked.”

  “I lit it. And something came out of it I had no words for. I thought they were ghosts at first. But they weren’t. They were more like a force, a force from the spirit world itself. I was supposed to give myself over to it. It filled me, literally. It filled me with a desire to go to him, to make my feelings known. Feelings I knew he shared. But I was one of the few people strong enough to resist. As a result, I was changed forever. Changed into this.”

  With a flick of her wrist she caused the remains of the nearest rotting door to slam shut on its weak hinges. For added effect she flicked her index finger against the ball of her thumb and sent a little trail of gold dust shimmering through the humid air.

  “It’s like the force that came out of the candle that night is trapped in me forever. But it’s more than that. I was offered a chance at true love, and I denied it. I was afraid. I wasn’t ready to risk everything. This,” she said, gesturing to herself, “is my punishment. Alive, but loveless. My powers, my gifts, if you can call them that, I use them to help others find their true desire. But as for me I can’t love anymore. Not like that anyway. Not like I loved him.”

  “What was his name?”

  “Doesn’t matter.”

  His hard gray eyes softened as he listened to her pitiful history. “No wonder you’re mad at yourself and the world. If I didn’t have Gabrielle, if I had lost the chance to have her in my life as my mate.” He blew out a sharp curse and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Lilliane. For everything you’ve been through. It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t seem right. To have your entire existence shaped by one choice like that.”

  She wasn’t accustomed to compassion. Lord, it was so rare she hardly knew what to do with it anymore. She spent most of her
time caring for the other Radiants. Bossing them around. Cautioning them against leaping seven-story buildings in broad daylight or getting their aliases confused. To suddenly have her needs addressed by this inhuman predator whose reputation for cold justice and a general lack of mercy was legend, even among her kind, left her at a total loss for words.

  She watched in awkward silence as he pulled something out of his trench coat, his dark brow furrowed, his broad mouth flattened in a dismayed line. From out of a sodden paper bag, he withdrew a waterlogged book.

  His eyes were filled with disappointment.

  “A souvenir for your lady?” she asked.

  “A novel by one of her favorite authors. A signed first edition. Now it’s only fit for the trash.”

  She caught the author’s name on the jacket and smiled. “I know some people who might be able to help. The business I run, we’ve made a lot of contacts in the city over the years. Maybe when this is over tonight, I can arrange to procure you another copy.”

  He stared at her for a long moment, the hint of a smile playing at the corner of his lips. “You’re a good person, Lilliane Smith. Better than you seem to believe.”

  Reluctantly, she allowed a rare smile to curve her mouth too. “I have a feeling the same could be said of you, Lucan Thorne.”

  He chuckled as he donned his wrung-out shirt, then tossed his wet trench coat and the ruined book onto a pile of rubbish in the corner of the decrepit house.

  “What do you say, partner? Ready to go conduct a breaking and entering on Ricky’s friend with the camera?”

  She nodded. “Let’s get out of here. Oh, and Lucan?”

  He stared at her.

  “It’s Williams. Lilliane Williams.”

  ALTHOUGH THE PEELING, STENCILED SIGNAGE on the door of Harold T. Grainger’s office in the Ninth Ward proclaimed him a private investigator, Lucan was willing to bet the man collected just as many fees for skip tracing and bounty hunting than he did legitimate investigative work.

  Sitting alone in his dingy office, Grainger yammered on the phone at his desk with his back to the door, oblivious, as Lucan silently tripped the lock and he and Lilliane entered.

  “I’m telling you, this footage is the real deal, Bart. The woman threw a grown man halfway across the street with one hand and the big dude in black leather who came to her rescue had a mouth full of fangs and eyes like a pair of glowing coals. What? No, I’m not smoking something, wiseass. I saw the whole thing with my own eyes and I’ve got the damned footage to prove it right here in front of me.” He leaned back in his brown leather swivel chair and chuckled, pausing to munch on a half-eaten Slim Jim. “Look, the point is there’ve been rumors about this Desire Exchange place for years and I’m willing to bet the house this woman’s part of it.” He paused, listening. “Who cares if I don’t own a house? Goddammit. Listen. Never mind how I managed to get the video. You want a piece of this action, or not?”

  Lucan barely contained his growl as he stole farther into the office. Beside him, Lilliane radiated anger too, all of it focused on the sleazy opportunist seated a few paces in front of them.

  Under the glare of the fluorescent ceiling lights, Grainger’s pale, balding head gleamed like a sweaty cue ball as he rocked in his creaky chair.

  “So, what do you say, Bart? I called you first because we’re friends. Wanted to give you first dibs, but I gotta tell ya. This video is not gonna come cheap. Soon as I can link this woman to one of those rich bitches who head out into the swamp to have their deepest fantasies realized, or some such shit, this whole thing’s gonna blow up. But for now, I’ll be generous. I’m looking for twenty grand, no less.” A pause. “What do you mean you want a clip to prove it’s legit? I wouldn’t shit you, Bart. Yeah, yeah. Okay, sure. I can send you a couple of frames. Tell you what. I’ll e-mail—”

  Some instinct must have finally clued Grainger into the fact that he wasn’t alone in the dank little office. With the skinny tube of processed meat clenched between his molars like a cigar, he swiveled slowly in his chair.

  All the color drained from his jowly face.

  Lucan gave him a flash of fangs. “You have something that belongs to us.”

  Grainger’s mouth opened in mute shock, his eyes bulging in their sockets. The gnawed stick of salted meat tumbled into his lap, along with his cell phone. Lucan severed the connection to the man on the other end of the line with a sharp mental command. Grainger fumbled with the center drawer of his desk, pulling out a revolver, barely holding onto the weapon in his shaking hands.

  “What do you think you’re going to do with that?” Lucan asked, confident that the terrified human wouldn’t be able to squeeze off an accurate shot, much less one that could stop a member of the Breed.

  Grainger’s fearful, bug-eyed gaze bounced between Lucan and Lilliane. “What the hell are you two?”

  Lilliane’s answering smile was cold. “We’re your worst nightmare.”

  Lucan nodded. “If you’re lucky, when you wake up tomorrow, that’s all this will be.”

  “Fuck both of you,” Grainger shouted, overcome with a sudden burst of bravado and stupidity.

  The barrel of the gun wobbled, his finger tightening on the trigger.

  With his mind, Lucan whisked the weapon from the human’s hands and sent it clattering away. Grainger let out a high-pitched scream and threw himself out of his chair, frantically crawling for the door. Lilliane planted the heel of her boot in the center of the mortal’s back, pinning him to the floor.

  “You’re not going anywhere,” she said. “We need to have a little talk about why you’ve been following me.”

  “It wasn’t like that. It wasn’t you I was following,” Grainger sputtered, his cheek mashed into the filthy commercial tile. “Not at first, that is.”

  They exchanged looks.

  “Explain,” Lucan growled.

  “I was on a job. Tailing a cheating husband around the Quarter.” His terrified eyes rolled up to look at Lilliane. “That’s when I noticed you and that fancy briefcase you always carried with you. I saw you going into a candle shop with it one day. And while I was watching you, I swear to God I saw the place just disappear.”

  “What else did you see?” Lilliane asked.

  The investigator squirmed under her foot, but she gave him no room to break loose.

  “What else did you see?” Lucan demanded.

  Grainger wheezed beneath her boot heel. “I started following you after that. Shadowed you for a couple of weeks. And I saw you go into that same shop again. Feu de Coeur. Except the shop was in a different place than before. An entirely different part of the city. And then I knew I wasn’t imagining things. Something odd was going on. I knew there was something odd about you. And I figured it had—”

  “You figured it had what?” she asked.

  “Look, we’ve all heard the rumors. Some place out in the swamp where rich folks go to get their jollies on. Either it’s some club or some weird cult. But they do all sorts of crazy stuff. Some folks come back saying it’s the drugs they were given. Others, they say it’s some crazy shit. People who can lay their hands on them and make their fantasies come true. Almost like they’re transporting them to another world. Look, I didn’t make this stuff up, I’m just saying that is a great story. We’re talking Pulitzer quality.”

  Lucan grunted. “Since when do third-rate PIs give a damn about winning Pulitzers?”

  “Fame is fame, my friend,” Grainger said.

  “And so you decided to hire a couple of stooges to knock the lady over because you didn’t have the balls to get your own hands dirty?”

  “I needed to know what would happen.”

  “You needed to see if you could profit from it,” she said. “Who were you planning to sell your tape to?”

  “You,” Grainger said. “I figured I could sell it to you, to protect whatever secrets you were keeping.”

  Lilliane’s eyes narrowed in fury. “You weren’t out to expose the Desire
Exchange. And you couldn’t have cared less about fame. All you cared about was blackmail?”

  “I never expected to see everything I did tonight,” Grainger
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