Marked by Midnight (Midnight Breed #11.5)

2,075
05.03.2019

CHAPTER 1

The night sky over London hung thick and ominous, heavy with black clouds still lingering from the evening’s torrential rainstorm. The downpour had lasted for hours, driving most of the city’s residents inside for shelter.

It was an advantage that Mathias Rowan and the three other Order warriors accompanying him on patrol tonight had made full use of, knowing the vampire lair they’d located in Southwark the week before was all but certain to be occupied amid the storm.

While Mathias never found it an easy thing to kill his own kind, the nest of blood-addicted Rogues squatting in the derelict brick building had to be terminated. The collection of human bones tossed in a pile in the back room of the foul-smelling lair had been more than ample justification for the Rogues’ executions.

Rory Callahan, the warrior behind the passenger seat Mathias occupied in the Order’s black Range Rover, let out a howl. “Damn, those were some sick, Bloodlusting fucks.”

Still green and mostly stupid about life, Callahan leaned forward, grinning, the tips of his fangs still visible behind his lip, evidence of the battle rage that had gripped them all during the raid. The youngest of the squad, he hadn’t seen enough death or violence yet to understand how closely every Breed male tread to the madness they’d encountered tonight.

From beside Callahan in the backseat, Deacon, the third member of the team exhaled a low, solemn curse. “They’d been killing for a while. Good thing we ashed them before they got tired of draining homeless people and moved uptown where folks were apt to notice the thinning of their herd.”

Mathias grunted in grim agreement.

Only Liam Thane, the Breed warrior behind the wheel of the speeding vehicle, hadn’t said a word since they’d done their business and left the lair.

Mathias had known the male for more than two decades–back when they’d both been part of a different, and since dissolved, policing organization for the Breed. Mathias had served as director in Boston then, and Thane had worked mostly covert ops around Europe and the United Kingdom.

While no one would ever call the hulking, black-haired vampire jovial, tonight Thane seemed more pensive than usual. Mathias glanced at him from the passenger seat. Thane’s long hair was gathered in a tail at his nape, accentuating the severe cut of his cheekbones and stern jaw. He stared straight ahead, unblinking, focused on the rain-slicked road that followed the bank of the Thames.

“I knew one of them,” he murmured, his gaze unblinking, never leaving the road. “He was a good man once…my cousin, Jacob.”

The vehicle went silent at Thane’s admission, nothing but the hum of the Rover’s engine and the night wind buffeting the windows as it blew up off the river.

Mathias didn’t offer apologies or sympathy. Thane wouldn’t look for it any more than Mathias himself would. They were warriors. They had a job to do and they did it, no matter how unpleasant.

No matter how personal.

Even under ordinary circumstances, the Order’s justice was swift and final when it came to dealing with the diseased killers among their race. After all, it had only been twenty years since the Breed was outed to mankind around the world in a massive Rogue attack. To say that human/Breed relations had been tenuous in the time that followed was putting it mildly.

And now, just days ago in Washington, D.C., the Order had been dealt more cause for concern. A bombing meant to disrupt a world peace summit–using a weapon powered by Breed-killing ultraviolet light–had been thwarted by the Order’s founder, Lucan Thorne, with mere seconds to spare.

The attack, and the war it was meant to incite between the vampire and human populations, had been diffused, its chief architect killed, but the threat remained very real.

The Order had powerful, hidden enemies. They’d eliminated one in D.C., but they’d come away from the battle realizing there was an untold number still operating in the shadows, plotting destruction and waiting for their chance to strike again.

Compared to that, London was fortunate that aside from a Rogue problem that had just been neutralized, the only war taking place in the city was a recent spate of gang violence that had fed half a dozen bodies into the murky water of the Thames last week.

As the Rover rolled through Southwark’s Bankside area, Mathias noticed a cluster of law enforcement vehicles down at the river’s edge. “Christ,” he muttered. “Looks like JUSTIS is fishing another floater out of the drink.”

“You want to head down there and have a look?” Thane asked.

At his nod, the big warrior turned off the road and drove toward the small gathering of human and Breed officers who served the Joint Urban Security Taskforce Initiative Squad.

They parked at the periphery of the action and walked over to the crime scene. Triangulated headlight beams pierced the darkness from the shoreline, shining out over the water where a small power boat was approaching. A pair of officers in diving gear sat at the stern, a large, unmoving object draped in a pale tarp at their feet.

Even from several yards away, Mathias’s keen Breed senses allowed him to see–and smell–the dead human they had retrieved from the water.

“I’d have thought the Order’s got better things to do than slum it down in Southwark.”

Mathias turned his head in the direction of the booming, baritone British voice of the JUSTIS officer in charge.

Gavin Sloane was Breed, a towering, wide-shouldered male with sandy blond hair and piercing blue eyes. He came over to greet Mathias and his team with a nod and a ready grin. “If we weren’t friends from way back, I might have to remind you that we got here first, so it’s our party.”

While the relationship between the Order and JUSTIS around the globe was guarded at best, Sloane seemed to understand, as Mathias did, the value of having allies across territory lines. They’d shared case intel from time to time over the past decade or so, and had developed a respect for each other that went beyond their jobs.

Last year, when Sloane finally conceded to settle down and take a mate, he invited Mathias to the reception that followed at the family Darkhaven. Mathias didn’t know who’d been more unnerved by the presence of an Order member at the celebration–Sloane’s highborn Breedmate, Katherine, or his JUSTIS officer brethren.

Sloane’s broad smile didn’t falter as he clapped Mathias’s shoulder in greeting and glanced at the array of titanium blades and semiautomatic firearms holstered on the warriors’ weapon belts from the night’s raid. “Anything JUSTIS needs to be concerned about?”

“Not anymore,” Mathias said. He gestured to the floater being unloaded onto the riverbank. “Anything the Order needs to be concerned about?”

Sloane shook his head. “Just another dead scarab.”

The remark referred to the tattoo each of the recent gang war victims had in common. This death brought the body count to seven. Although it wasn’t unusual to find a corpse in the 213-mile river that spat them out at an impressive average of one a week, the Thames was suddenly choking on members of an unknown, but apparently lethal, new gang.

Mathias and his squad followed Sloane over to the recovery in process. Three JUSTIS officers hoisted the tarp-wrapped body onto the concrete riverbank. As the corpse settled on the ground, the plastic fell away, revealing a large human male.

“No ID on the body,” Sloane said. “We’ll run his prints, but it if this case follows the other six we’re processing, this guy isn’t likely to pop a criminal record either. Aside from the common tattoo on all of the victims, we don’t have much to go on.”

The dead man was dressed in dark, sodden clothing, his harsh, ugly face blanched white in death, contrasting sharply against the russet color of his full beard and shaggy red hair. On his biceps, under the short sleeves of his blood-stained T-shirt, an array of tattoos ran the length of both his beefy arms. The scarab rode the back of his right hand, the same mark and placement as on the six other murdered men.

Sloane dismissed his fellow JUSTIS officers with a curt wave as Mathias stepped closer to the corpse, studying its damage. Multiple wounds peppered the thick neck and barrel chest–deep punctures, many of them concentrated in tight clusters.

He frowned. “The other victims were pulled out of the river with bullets in their heads. This guy was stabbed with something. Repeatedly, and with a hell of a lot of force. Or passion.”

“Dead is dead,” Callahan murmured from beside Mathias and the rest of the team. “Maybe his killing was meant to send a stronger message than the others.”

Sloane shrugged. “It’s possible.”

“The last body surfaced two days ago,” Mathias recalled. Despite the obvious connection to the others, something didn’t feel right about this victim. He looked out at the black water of the Thames, still churning from the earlier storm. The current was pulling hard in the scant moonlight, which barely penetrated the heavy cloud cover overhead. “Which way is the tide running?”

“Out,” Deacon replied.

Away from London, then, toward the North Sea.

Thane’s pensive glance said he was following Mathias’s line of thinking too. “A couple more turns and the tide would have carried this corpse out to open water. He hasn’t been in the river as long as the others had been.”

“Based on the condition of the body,” Sloane interjected, “we don’t expect this poor bastard’s been dead for even twenty-four hours.” He met Mathias’s gaze with one of concern. “You sensing anything out of the ordinary down here?”

His friend wasn’t talking about investigator hunches or forensic evidence. Sloane was familiar with Mathias’s extrasensory ability.

Every Breed vampire and every half-human Breedmate female was born with a unique ESP or telekinetic gift, some of them more useful than others. Some of those gifts were very dark, more of a curse.

Mathias’s fell somewhere in the middle, though given his choice of occupation, the ability to pick up the psychic traces of violence left behind at a scene where harm was done to someone gave him an edge over most other law enforcement officials.

Still, he wasn’t sure what to make of tonight’s floater. “I don’t feel anything unusual here, but that only means the killing didn’t occur nearby.”

“But you’d know if it did,” Sloane prompted.

Mathias nodded. “Violence leaves a psychic mark on a place, the same way a physical blow leaves a bruise. The trick is finding it before it fades.”

One of Sloane’s men called to him from across the way. He raised a hand in acknowledgment, but kept his gaze trained on Mathias. Shaking his head, he blew out a chuckle. “I tell ya, Rowan, life just isn’t fair. My best parlor trick is the ability to tie a decent sailor’s knot without using my hands. A gift like yours, I’d have gotten promoted to JUSTIS Commissioner by now. Instead, I’m stuck bagging and tagging the city’s dregs on the shit side of town.”

Another vehicle rolled on to the scene, and Sloane’s fellow officer shouted for him again. “About time the medical examiner showed up,” he muttered. “I gotta go handle this. As for you and your team, I know I don’t need to tell you that the Order’s presence down here is going to make some people uncomfortable and twitchy.”

Anxious looks were coming from the unit of human and Breed officers and the newly arrived coroner. Mathias grunted. “I thought uncomfortable and twitchy was standard operating procedure for you JUSTIS folks.”

Sloane smirked. “You turn anything up, let me know, yeah?”

“Sure,” Mathias agreed. “God knows, you need all the help you can get.”

With a low laugh and a one-fingered salute, Sloane pivoted and shuffled off to join his colleagues.

“You see all the ink on this guy?” Deacon said when the warriors were alone with the body. “He’s sporting some seriously hardcore tattoos.”

Mathias glanced down at the elaborate artwork, cold words and cryptic symbols. The meanings of a few were easy enough to comprehend–grim indicators of kill counts and carnage, glorified, bloody depictions of violence and death.

He took out his comm unit and snapped a few quick photos of the dead man and his collection of body art.

Peering closer, Mathias noticed something interesting about one of his tattoos.

“Look at the Celtic cross on his left forearm. The six-pointed star behind it is fresh.”

“And only half-finished,” Thane added, staring down at the reddened skin and black ink.

Even incomplete, the star was intricate, rendered by a highly skilled hand and an artist’s eye for detail.

“Hope the dumb fuck didn’t pay in full for half a job,” Callahan joked lamely.

None of the warriors laughed along with him. Thane and Deacon were looking at Mathias with the same glint of possibility.

“Something’s not right about this whole situation,” Mathias said, thinking out loud. “Six dead members of a gang no one’s ever heard of, now a seventh body turns up days later. Why?”

Callahan shrugged. “Gangs kill each other all the time. If you ask me, we should let them carry on and thank them for saving us the trouble.”

The kid had a point, albeit a wrong-headed one. And dangerous besides. If a gang had ideas about bringing their war into Mathias’s city, under the Order’s watch, they would need to think again.

And something was nagging him about the slayings, even before this last body was pulled out of the Thames. Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on yet. He needed more information. Seemed to him, the best place to begin that quest was the place where tonight’s floater might have spent some of his final hours.