Dan kepthis eyes fixed on the patch of cracked asphalt illuminated by the car’s headlights. Shadows hemmed in Old Highway 51, broken only occasionally by a glimpse of the interstate through leafless trees. It would have been faster to take I-55 to Ponchatoula, but Dan and Vernon had been drinking a bit more than they probably should have. Dan figured the cops would stick to the interstate, instead of waiting around on a boring-ass two-lane road through a swamp, just hoping someone went by. This way was safer.
Vernon groaned from the passenger seat. “Shouldn’t have had that last shot,” he mumbled.
“Just don’t puke in my car,” Dan warned. Why had he agreed to give Vernon a ride back to Ponchatoula? It would only encourage the guy, who seemed to think they were friends instead of coworkers. He should have left Vernon to sleep it off in his own car back in LaPlace.
Maybe he’d been moved by the holiday spirit. Christmas music spilled over the airwaves and through the car’s speakers, trying to spread a cheer that had seemed genuine back at the warmth of the bar, but now felt false. Everyone tried too hard around this time of year, in Dan’s opinion, as if they could reclaim a childhood joy they may not ever have experienced in the first place.
Whatever. He’d drop Vernon off, then head home. Kayleigh had been begging for this year’s hot new toy for over a month, some doll stuffed with so many electronics it was practically a real baby. He hated disappointing her, but the doll was way out of his price range. Hopefully she’d blame Santa instead of him, and be content with a dollar-store stuffed animal instead.
A glowing ball of blue light crossed the road ahead.
Dan slowed the car sharply, blinking as the hovering ball of light retreated to just within the trees to the right side of the road. “Did you see that?” he asked Vernon.
Dan pulled off the road and pointed. “That.”
“We shouldn’t stop,” Vernon said nervously.
Dan tried to look away from the dancing, bobbing light but found himself unable to do so. It wanted to show him something, he realized. Something important.
Almost without conscious thought, he threw the car into park. He opened his door, dimly aware that Vernon was doing the same on the passenger side. The winter air bit into his skin, and the smell of the swamp rose all around: slow moving water and rotting vegetation.
The blue glow danced enticingly just within the trees. It wanted to show him something. Show him…treasure.
That was it. Treasure. Didn’t they say the pirate Jean Lafitte had buried treasure all over the area?
Excitement rising, Dan walked toward the dancing light, which slowly retreated deeper into the swamp. Behind him, Vernon stumbled. “Wait up,” Vernon called—then began loudly puking.
Good. Dan didn’t want to share the treasure with Vernon anyway. Visions of what he’d buy filled his head as he stepped past the first line of trees and his boot sank into the unstable mud. A new car for Billy—hell, a new house. Kayleigh would have all the toys she could dream of plus all the fanciest gadgets. He’d get rid of his beater and buy a shiny new truck, gleaming in chrome.
It was going to be the best Christmas ever.
* * *
“At least you haven’t screwed up this one,” Tiffany Ward said as she studied Night. “Yet.”
John took a deep gulp of coffee. Caleb had woken him with the news his old schoolmate, former coworker, and head of the Vigilant was in their living room.
“Kaniyar doesn’t know you’re here,” he said, making sure he understood the situation.
“Of course not.” Tiffany stood with her arms folded, her eyes narrowed as she observed Night. Night stared back impassively from his position in the corner of the room. “I agreed to help her track this one to keep it out of other hands, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy it’s in SPECTR hands either.” She glanced at Caleb. “SPECTR doesn’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to drakul.”
“Hey!” Caleb exclaimed.
“Oh please. I know what you did back in Charleston.”
Caleb’s mouth tightened. “Did you know about Yuri and Dru? Before?”
“Unfortunately, no.” Tiffany shook her head. “Two perfectly good drakul, ruined.”
“All right,” John said sharply. “That’s enough, Tiffany. You’ve seen Night. Now you can leave.”
She tipped her head toward Caleb, braids swinging. “Your boy here did some negotiating before you woke up. I get access to the drakul, and in return my people find out what’s on that hard drive.”
John’s blood turned sluggish in his veins. Tiffany’s presence had been a momentary distraction from his real problems—but that was all it was. A distraction. “Did Caleb tell you anything about it?”
“Of course not,” Caleb said, looking faintly hurt. “Not without your permission.”
Tiffany’s dark eyes gleamed with curiosity. “If it was just a personal matter, you’d take it to a computer repair place, which means it’s important. But you don’t want to hand it over to SPECTR’s nerds, which means it’s something you don’t want SPECTR knowing about.”
Instead of answering the implied question, John said, “Do you remember when I came to the state school?”
Unlike John, Tiffany hadn’t lived at the school, but had been delivered and picked up by her family’s chauffer every morning and evening. “Vaguely,” she said. “Believe it or not, I didn’t pay that much attention to you when we were kids.”
She wasn’t wrong. “Your mistake.”
Tiffany glanced from Caleb to Night. “You’re probably right about that,” she said, surprising him. “I thought you were just some dumb white boy whose parents had been brainwashed by too many hours of watching bigoted preachers on TV. I assumed there was nothing unusual about you. Yet here you sit with two of the most powerful entities on the planet following you around like a pair of puppies.”
John stiffened. Whatever had happened to him as a kid, it had no bearing on Gray’s love for him. And Night was only there because he was curious about Gray. “What can I say? I have a winning personality,” he said with forced lightness. “So you don’t remember if there was anything unusual about my arrival at the state school?”
She frowned. “Only in that everyone was gossiping about that fucked-up place you were in before. It was a reminder of what might have happened to us in other circumstances, so of course everyone was whispering about you, speculating on what kind of things an anti-paranormal Bible camp might have put you through. Why?”
“Because the place was even more fucked-up than any of us thought.” He held his hand up to forestall her questions. “I don’t know much right now, Tiffany. I wish I did.”
“All right, then.” She paused, considering. “Are you going to turn the drakul loose?”
“Trust me, no one’s forcing him to stay,” Caleb muttered.
Night’s glowing eyes remained on Tiffany. “This mortal believes you are corrupted, Gray.”
Tiffany started slightly. Gray slid to the surface, Caleb’s brown eyes turning to obsidian. “She is wrong,” Gray said. Static sparked in his hair and the smell of ozone and desert sand kissed by rain flooded the small apartment.
Tiffany took a careful step back, so she wasn’t standing between two drakul. “I think you fulfill an important purpose,” she said to Night. “One that doesn’t involve being leashed to SPECTR. If you want to leave, I’ll take you with me now.”
“No,” Night said.
When he didn’t elaborate, Tiffany let out a long breath. “All right.” Her gaze cut to John. “I’ll take your hard drive with me. If Kaniyar does find out about whatever this is, I was never here, understood?”
“Understood.” He leaned tiredly against the couch. “Thanks, Tiff.”
She gave him a curt nod, tucked the hard drive into her Gucci purse, and made for the door. When she opened it, Zahira stood on the other side, hand raised to knock.
Zahira’s eyes widened in alarm; from her vantage, all she could see was a stranger and Gray on full display. Tiffany, however, turned back to John. “Starkweather…”
“Special Agent Zahira Noorzai, this is Tiffany Ward.” Zahira had read the unredacted reports on the battle they’d fought on Fort Sumter. “Tiffany, Zahira knows everything. We trust her.”
Tiffany’s eyes narrowed. “You have a history of trusting the wrong people, so forgive me if I’m not reassured.”
She pushed past Zahira and vanished down the stairs. Zahira stepped inside and shut the door hastily, as if worried someone else might wander inside. “John?”
Gray and Caleb switched places. “She’s helping us,” Caleb said. While he explained the situation to Zahira, John wandered over to the small dining room table.
The torn paper Zahira had pieced together still lay there, silent and damning. EXORCISE US it shouted at him in large, urgent letters.
The naga in the facility beneath the Center had recognized his face. Said her host had waited for his return.
He picked up the necklace he’d removed from the naga’s body after Night killed her. It was just a simple gold chain, decorated with a crescent moon and a star that might have been zircon or a tiny diamond chip, he didn’t know. The sort of thing a teenage girl might wear as a keepsake.
He’d failed that girl when he didn’t return before her forty days were up, and the fact of it lay heavy on his soul. Having his brain wiped was probably a better excuse than most, but every time he imagined her alone in the dark, hungry and waiting, clinging to the hope of a rescue that would never come…
He fastened the chain around his own neck and tucked the charm beneath the edge of his shirt. It was the only truly tangible evidence he had to hold on to at this point. The metal felt cool against his skin, as though some of the chill of the underground facility still clung to it.
“John?” Caleb called.
John blinked. “Sorry. I zoned out. What it is?”
Caleb and Zahira both looked sympathetic. “I was just telling Caleb that Chief Fontaine called me on the way over here,” Zahira said. “There’s been an incident, and since SPECTR-NOLA is still short-handed for the holidays, she wanted me to take a look into it. I thought Caleb and Gray might come with me?”
“I’ll come too.” He needed to get out of his own head for a while, and a case was as good a distraction as any. “It isn’t as though I can do much else but wait for Tiffany right now.”
Caleb picked up his heavy coat and slung it on. Pointing at Night, he said, “You. Stay.”
Night cocked his head. “Are you going to hunt?”
“That depends on what we find,” Zahira replied.
“Then I wish to go.”
Caleb didn’t look thrilled. John put a hand to his arm, but said, “You can come, Night, but please stay in the car until we need you.”
Night made no verbal answer, but rose to his feet. Caleb sighed and went to the door. “Fine. Let’s go see what fresh horror is being served up today.”