2016-17 Appearances * Events

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EXCERPTS: ILLUMINATION (PENTON LEGACY 5) by Susannah Sandlin

Prologue * Frank

Frank Greisser might be director of the world Vampire Tribunal, but what good was that when he was forever hungry, his clothes billowed around his frame, and he’d had most of his own Tribunal members murdered?

He yearned to bleed dry the human feeder in the adjoining room, but the days when vampires drank their fill had passed.

Maybe the nightmare would end soon. Finally, hope had risen for the starving vampire population, or at least for the vampire population who supported him. Rebels would die, slowly and with maximum pain. First to die? The criminals who lived in that hellhole known as Penton, Alabama.

Frank longed for his family home in Vienna, with its view of the majestic Danube and the ancient city center. Instead, he stared out the window of his host’s home at the gaudy lights of New Orleans’s French Quarter. It was an ancient city by American standards but a cheap counterfeit of the European capitals he loved.

Oh well, his stay here would be short. He’d found the ideal partner to lead the new operation designed to help the vampires solve the crisis that had propelled them to the bottom of the food chain. A simple vaccine for a human pandemic had changed the vampire world, altering the blood chemistry of the vaccinated humans. Now, they poisoned any vampire who fed from them. Arrogant vampires who thought a solution would be quick and easy had drained the easy pickings among the unvaccinated.

Frank made a bitter acknowledgement: he’d been one of the most arrogant.

Times grew more desperate, with bad news arriving daily of uprisings and failed attempts at trafficking. Europe and North America were running out of unvaccinated humans from which to feed, even in the rural areas. Few vampires possessed the psychological makeup to live in places where modern civilization had yet to reach. Human governments and their damned immigration laws and border security made it risky to bring in sufficient feeders from third world countries.

And even a vampire could die from a well-placed terrorist bomb.

Then Simon Landry, an ambitious scathe leader from New Orleans, had come to Frank with a scheme brilliant in its simplicity. A plan that could be scaled up as needed, put in place anywhere in the world, and offer a means of survival for vampires willing to swear an oath of loyalty. All it required was sex.

A quiet knock interrupted his thoughts. As Frank approached the door, his movements silent on the plush carpet, he sensed his visitor was both vampire and blood-bonded to him, even before the man spoke.

“Frank, it’s Simon. I have the items you requested.”

He opened the door to his host and newest acolyte. Simon Landry had been turned vampire at a young, handsome thirty-five, five human years older than Frank himself. Vampire years? Frank had at least two centuries on him. Where Frank had been an Austrian of the Habsburg era, the son of a shopkeeper, Simon had grown up here in New Orleans in the 1700s, the son of a wealthy plantation owner. He wore his black hair to his shoulders, where Frank’s blond hair curled around his head like a schoolboy’s. Simon’s blue eyes and fair skin spoke to his French ancestry, but he had the brash, money-focused sensibilities that were purely American.

Best of all, he didn’t allow himself the luxury of sentimentality.

Frank eyed the briefcase Simon had brought with him and set on the suite’s dresser. “These are the dossiers?”

“I already have identified twenty unvaccinated women who are on the young side of childbearing age, so we should be able to use them many times. There is one exception, a woman who’s older. She’ll be an experimental case, but she has other value for us—plus she kind of fell into our laps by hooking up with my familiar while on holiday.”

With the click of a lock, Simon opened the briefcase and handed Frank a pile of manila folders. “I suggest we begin with three or four women—three of the younger women, plus the older one so she can provide care for the others. Once we are sure our warehouse provides a secure holding area, we can expand the project.”

Frank frowned. “Why not get them all pregnant now? I don’t have to remind you how dire the need has gotten. The blood of their offspring is how we’ll survive.”

“Do I look as if I need reminding?” Simon held out his arms to show off his gaunt physique. “But we mustn’t attract attention from the human authorities. Too many young women can’t go missing at once, even if they are loners. Otherwise, the police will stop treating their disappearances as isolated cases and will throw more resources into finding them.”

Simon took a deep breath and leveled his voice. Good decision on his part; Frank would not tolerate insolence.

“Whether we wait nine months or twelve makes little difference in the grand scheme,” Simon said. “Don’t forget who is taking all the risk here—finding and procuring the women, making sure they’re pregnant, prenatal care, warehousing, round-the-clock security. It’s not a simple operation.”

He paused. “Or a cheap one.”

Frank glanced up from the project summary page he’d been scanning. “I’ll reward your ingenuity and hard work on this program. Don’t forget that North America will need a new representative on the Vampire Tribunal.”

The previous representative had been the first Tribunal member he’d killed, which still hadn’t prevented the rebel stronghold in Penton from declaring itself a hostile sovereign state. That would change, however.

“Have you given up on the shifter breeding program?” Simon pulled two more folders from the case and sat in the armchair on the opposite side of the small window table from Frank. He reached for the empty glass next to Frank’s half-filled one and poured himself two fingers of Scotch from the bottle on the table. “I haven’t heard of a single success.”

“It was an utter disaster.” Frank reached for his own glass, stifling a shudder. Disaster was an understatement. They had turned shifters into vampires, and vice-versa, hoping to create day-walking vampires who would eat regular food and, in turn, feed other vampires. “All we got were new vampires who were hungry for human food but couldn’t digest it, and monstrous hybrid shifters who had to drink blood to survive but never quelled their appetites.”

Simon’s plan was foolproof, as long as they were careful. Frank opened the top folder to a photo of a young blonde with shoulder-length hair, dark-rimmed glasses, and a serious expression. “Do all the breeders have such unpleasant demeanors?”

“Attractiveness and personality were not among my criteria. I only care if they are of fertile age, unvaccinated, and lack close friends and family ties.” Simon leaned over to see which photo Frank held. “Ah yes, our experimental case. She’s 31 years old and vaccinated. But why not try to breed a vaccinated female with an unvaccinated male and see if we can feed from the offspring? If that works, it greatly expands our options. The key reasons I chose her were her lack of local ties and her training as a physician. She can keep our stable healthy even if she doesn’t work as a breeder.”

Frank laughed. “Our stable of brood mares.” This plan really would offer a solution. If the children of Simon’s stable proved able to feed vampires, they would be sold for future breeding if female—or sold for stud or food if male. When the women passed childbearing age or became uncooperative, they’d be sold as blood whores or drained. Win-win-win.

“This is a pilot program for every city around the world.” Frank leaned forward and gave Simon a piercing look. “It is a brilliant idea, so don’t screw it up.”

Simon grinned wide enough to show the tips of his fangs. “I don’t intend to. This will bring the Tribunal back to power, and I want to be part of it.”

“Has your human familiar agreed to sire the children? Do you trust him to stay detached?”

Laughing, Simon poured another Scotch. “Jonathan has been with me for a decade and he’s delighted. He’ll get his rocks off when I feed from him and get to bang a bunch of women to use up all that testosterone. He says they’re all alike with the lights out—he’s already spent a long weekend with the vaccinated doctor, about six weeks ago. We’ll check soon to see if she’s pregnant.”

Frank smiled. “Just see that he also knows how to keep his mouth shut about his new garden of earthly delights. Have you found the right property for housing?”
Simon opened his remaining file, passed Frank a photo, and got up to spread a map on the floor in front of the table. He pointed to the ribbon of blue that snaked through the middle of the city. “Here’s the Mississippi River, and all along here”—he ran his fingers along the edges of the river—“are warehouses. Quite a few, even inside the city, are empty. I was able to buy two here.” He slid his finger a couple of miles west of downtown. “Railroads and heavy freight traffic separate the warehouses from the area neighborhoods. Most of the nearby warehouses are owned by oil companies or shipping concerns.”

Frank studied the map. “You don’t think it would be better to get outside New Orleans altogether? Aidan Murphy and his crew know this city. Mirren Kincaid almost destroyed half of it last year when his mate was kidnapped. I’m surprised there aren’t still bloodstains on the sidewalks. If the Penton scathe suspects we’re up to anything here in the States, New Orleans is one of the first places Murphy will look.”

“I disagree.” Simon retrieved the map and rolled it up again. “There’s nothing to tie me or Jonathan to the Tribunal without a hell of a lot of legwork, and even then, everything Jon owns is in his mother’s name, even his house. She’s in a facility for dementia patients, poor soul. It’s like hiding in plain sight.”

Not too much in plain sight, Frank hoped.

“Plain Jane will be the first one you’ll take?”

Simon nodded. “Makes sense to have her in place first since she might already be pregnant—Jon met her last month, spiked her drinks, and had a long, happy weekend without her suspecting she had an important role to play in the salvation of the vampires. I figured we might as well take her as soon as possible since she’s older and the opportunity presented itself. We’re watching, and I’ll take her as soon as I know she’s pregnant.”

Frank handed back the stack of files.

“Good work. Tell your human stud to get to work, close his eyes, and think of vampires.”

And clean blood.

 

Chapter 1 * Nik

Nikolas Dimitrou scanned the back room of the Buckhead Free Clinic in suburban Atlanta. One door, no windows. He didn’t like what he saw.

Institutional cinderblock walls sported a heavy coat of pale mint-green paint, probably intended to provide a sense of calm to the clients of a place that catered to those most vulnerable. But the lack of a window meant he was blind to whatever might be lurking on the city streets outside. The single door led into the narrow clinic hallway. To the left, one would have to traverse at least twelve feet of cheap industrial gray carpeting to reach the back exit, which led into an alley with one way out. Six feet to the right, one would risk exposure to the glass-fronted lobby and the street.

Plus, Aidan had used this place to recruit citizens for Penton in the past, before all the trouble with the Tribunal.

Meeting here again was dangerous. Careless. Sloppy.

But Aidan had chosen it, and Aidan Murphy was the leader of Penton—not just for the vampires, but for humans like Nik who’d joined their cause. Everyone trusted Aidan to make the right choices, and he’d always delivered.

Nik took a deep breath of the antiseptic-tinged air that seemed to fill every medical clinic he’d ever visited, and settled his nerves.

“Take Mr. Brach’s hand, Nik.” Aidan’s calm voice carried a trace of his native Irish accent, even after four centuries. He gestured to the pale, sweaty man who fidgeted in a folding chair behind a small wooden table. “Tell us what you see from our new friend’s past.”

Nik squared his shoulders and sat in the empty chair facing Terry Brach, a human familiar who was anything but a new friend. The petite blond vampire for whom he claimed to be the regular feeder had been asked to wait outside while Aidan judged whether they could be trusted to move a hundred miles southwest to a wide spot in a county road. Penton, Alabama, was the unlikely base of the vampires’ rebel stronghold.

“What do you mean in my past?” Brach withdrew both hands into his lap, out of Nik’s reach. “Marianne told you everything. I’ve been her familiar for years. She feeds only from me. We’re not mated, but we’re lovers. We want to live in peace, away from the war.”

“Then you have nothing to hide, although Penton is hardly away from the war these days. If you come to Penton you’ll be expected to fight.” Aidan leaned against the wall next to the table, his arms crossed. “Let Nik take your hand.”

Nik didn’t like it. Despite the pain it caused, he had agreed to use his psychometric abilities on Aidan’s side of the vampire civil war—Penton’s side. But Aidan was damaged now. Before he and his mate had been gravely injured, the master vampire and head of the rebellion would never have returned to a location where he’d recruited before wartime—when Penton really had been a haven for peace-loving vampires and their bonded, unvaccinated human familiars.

Before, Aidan wouldn’t have chosen a room with only one exit.

Before, he wouldn’t have stationed the human’s vampire master between himself and that single exit.

Yet here they were.

With a sigh, Nik extended his right hand across the table. “Let’s have it.”

Terry Brach’s forehead wore a sheen of sweat like glaze on an undercooked cake. This guy had secrets. “I still don’t understand.”

“Do it, or our meeting ends now.” Aidan’s tone brooked no argument.

Brach settled a pale, damp palm against Nik’s, jumping like a cattle-prod recipient when Nik closed his fingers into a firm grasp. When the man tried to withdraw his hand, Nik gripped harder.

Nik shuddered, closing his eyes at the onslaught of mental images. A cavernous room into whose walls Brach was attaching what looked like metal cages. Drugs and syringes heaped in boxes. Vampires feeding from Terry, all male, including one he recognized: a sworn enemy of Penton.

“Stop it. Whatever you’re doing, just stop!” Brach jerked his hand away and shoved his chair back. “We’re trying to help Penton, to come and live alongside you. Fight with you if that’s what you need. If you don’t want us we can just as pledge ourselves to—”

‘What’s going on?” Marianne opened the door from the hallway, a vision of pale beauty wrapped in a heavy red sweater and black leather coat too heavy for Atlanta, even in mid-November. “Terry, are you injured?” She turned to Aidan. “What have you done to him?”

Aidan hadn’t moved. If Nik hadn’t known better, he’d interpret that stillness as cool confidence. But he knew better. Aidan was conserving his limited energy. He was vulnerable, and Nik wasn’t sure his own Army Ranger skills—human skills—were enough to protect both Aidan and himself if things went too far south. Not against another vampire and her familiar. Terry might get sweaty over having his past read, but the muscles that made his black sweater look like a sausage casing said he could put up a fight.

“Tell us, Nik.” Aidan motioned Marianne to the chair next to her familiar. “Will our new friends be good additions to our community in Penton?”

Nik felt the weight of Marianne’s will pressing against his, and looked at the wall just past her head. No way was he making eye contact. She was trying to control his mind, which shouldn’t be possible since he was blood-bonded to Aidan. Another sign of Aidan’s failing strength.

Instead, he looked at Terry Brach, cocky and calm now that he had fanged backup. The hair on the back of Nik’s neck prickled. Those images he’d picked up told him something was very, very wrong but he’d have to explain to Aidan later. They needed to get out of here.

“It looks promising, but I think we need to discuss it before making a decision,” he lied, pushing back his chair. He stood, arms hanging loosely at his sides, legs apart—a relaxed stance that left him filled with coils of energy ready to unleash if either Terry or Marianne made a move. “We’ll get back to you soon, but now we have another appointment elsewhere. Let’s go, Aidan.”

Aidan frowned, but didn’t contradict the lie. He allowed Nik to nudge him toward the door and into the hallway. Nik glanced back to see Marianne twist in her chair to watch, but she made no move to stop them. The smile on her lips didn’t match the dark hatred in her eyes.

Nik paused for a nanosecond. Front door, or back? Back led to the alley—a good spot for an ambush. Front led through the clinic lobby, and the clinic had been closed for hours. They’d have to break the lock or burst through the glass windows to get out. Nik’s gut told him to head to the front anyway; it would be least expected by anyone who might be watching.

No more time to think.

“C’mon.” He pulled Aidan toward the front lobby. “Hurry. Something’s off.”

Aidan stumbled halfway down the hall, so Nik wrapped an arm around his waist to keep him upright and moving. They were about the same height and weight, but Aidan needed more help than Nik had realized. He was operating at half strength. Maybe less.

And why were Marianne and her human not following?

Nik spotted the trip wire an instant before walking into it. Using instincts honed on the deserts of Afghanistan—rusty, but intact—Nik threw himself and Aidan to the floor, using his jacket to cover their heads and give them meager protection from a blast that sent chunks of plaster and wood-chip missiles raining down. A crash of glass added to the chaos as the front windows burst outward.

The explosive wasn’t a big one, but it was powerful enough to turn the front of the Buckhead Free Clinic into a starburst of jagged glass shards, concrete projectiles, and lung-choking dust and smoke. The rumbles were still echoing when Nik jerked Aidan to his feet with his left hand and shielded his eyes with his right. They had to move fast.

“Protect your eyes,” he shouted. “Head right once we hit the street!”

He used the cloud of smoke and debris as a shield, clamping his left hand around Aidan’s right arm and dragging him forward. If they waited until the dust settled, it would be too late. Alerted by the explosion, snipers would know they’d taken the front exit and be alert for any sign of movement.

Nik had parked his white SUV a block to their left, on the other side of the alley’s exit. Through the cloud of smoke and dust, he saw figures silhouetted nearby. He didn’t wait to see who they were or if they were armed. Assume the worst; hope for the best.

He pulled Aidan right. “Run, damn it!” He feared running might be beyond Aidan’s physical strength, but the vampire managed to keep a stumbling pace. Normally, Aidan could have outdistanced a human like Nik tenfold, but they’d passed normal a long time ago.

They rounded the corner without stopping. Nik wanted to be out of view of the clinic’s front entrance. No one had expected them to run away from their only transportation, and those figures around Nik’s SUV meant their enemies had watched them arrive. He might not know those enemies’ names, but they were Tribunal operatives. No doubt about that. Frank Greisser never did his own dirty work.

The shrill whoop-whoop-whoop of a siren sounded from a nearby block, joined within seconds by a chorus of others. The human first-responders were almost on-scene, their alarms echoing and magnified as the sound waves bounced between the high-rise office buildings.

“Keep going straight, but slow down.” Nik kept Aidan’s arm in his grasp. “Cops are coming and we want the only suspicious characters in the area to be Marianne and her friends.” Not that Marianne was necessarily the vampire’s real name. Or Terry Brach, who in his vision had been providing a nice meal for a notorious Penton traitor, shifter-turned-vampire Fen Patrick. Fen had disappeared three months ago after infiltrating Penton and almost destroying it from within.

Aidan’s breathing rasped as he forced out his first words since they’d fled the back room of the clinic. “When…When did you realize it was a setup? What did you see in that guy’s head?”

“Enough to know those two are no friends of Penton, and they weren’t working alone.” Nik loosened his grip on Aidan’s arm as they slowed their pace. “The rest can wait. We’ve gotta find another way out of here. They’re watching my SUV.”

Aidan stumbled, but regained his balance without falling. “Call Mirren. We need to go home.”

Yeah, no shit. Nik reached into his pocket and was relieved to find his mobile phone still there. A slender crack spiderwebbed its way across the glass screen, but when he pressed his thumbprint on the front button, the device lit up. He scrolled to find the number for Penton’s security chief, Mirren Kincaid. The Scotsman was the biggest man, vampire or human, Nik had ever seen, with a badass attitude to match.

Mirren wouldn’t give a shit about Penton’s resident human psychometric, but Nik didn’t take the vampire’s attitude personally. As much as Nik hated his peculiar gift of reading the pasts of objects and people, Kincaid hated it worse because he couldn’t understand or control it.

But Mirren Kincaid would die for Aidan Murphy, and Nik was relieved to hear his gruff voice answer on the second ring.

“It’s Nik. We ran into an ambush.”

Mirren’s voice was part rumble, part growl. “Aw, fuck me. How’s Aidan?”

They had stopped on the street while Nik talked, hidden in the recess of an office supply shop entrance. Aidan had leaned against the storefront with his eyes closed.

“Weak. Bad. We’re exposed.”

Kincaid cursed again. “Get unexposed, then call with a location. Help’s on the way.”

Strong vampires could sense other vampires; master vamps could even tell friend from foe. The safest place to hide Aidan was in a public place where no vampire would risk an attack even if they spotted him and knew who he was. Nik used the geolocator on his phone to find the nearest coffee shop. There was a 24-hour Starbucks in the lobby of a hotel a block farther from the clinic. Perfect.

“C’mon. One more block.” Nik pulled on Aidan’s arm and got him moving. Along the way, he brushed dust and ash out of Aidan’s dark hair, then shook it out of his own, which was even darker. “Brush more of that shit off your jacket and wipe your face.”

While Aidan tried to dust himself off, Nik did the same, especially on his face. Despite being New Orleans born and bred, Nik had inherited his looks from his Greek father. Olive skin, black hair, and white dust and ash created a noticeable combination.

“Where’re we going?” Aidan’s voice was little more than a whisper.

“We’re having coffee, hopefully in a cafe full of humans.” Nik nudged Aidan to walk faster. “Then we’re gonna wait for Mirren to ride in on his white horse.” Or his beat-up black Bronco.

For what seemed like the first time in the months since Nik had moved to Penton, they caught a break. The Starbucks shone with bright lights and held a swarm of people waiting for espresso, sweetening their lattes, talking, laughing, being human. The air was warm, the aroma of roasted coffee beans a comfort, the crowd dense enough to make any enemy vampire think twice about trying to take them out. Good choice.

Nik deposited Aidan in a corner booth with instructions not to move—not that he could—then stood in line and bought two large coffees, heavy on cream and sugar.

He slid into the booth across from his boss. His friend. The man who’d founded Penton and given him a home. Nik set one of the cups in front of Aidan, even though the vampire wouldn’t drink it; both cups were for Nik. His long night was about to get even longer, and he wouldn’t have the luxury of mandatory daysleep like the vampires.

Not to mention that Mirren Kincaid wasn’t the only one who’d die to keep Aidan Murphy safe. Nik would be right there alongside the big guy.

Aidan appeared to be asleep, wedged into the corner of the booth with his head resting against the wall. Vampires didn’t sleep, but let the guy chill. Nik had no idea what else to do for him. Aidan’s mate, Krys, had been in a coma for the past three months, ever since Aidan had suffered a vicious attack that left his handsome face scarred. Vampires and their mates had weird energy-sharing abilities, and Aidan’s injury had almost killed Krys by sapping her strength while he tried to heal. Now, Krys’s body and mind unconsciously pulled strength from Aidan to stay alive, and Aidan was letting it happen.

If Aidan cut his mental bonds to Krys, she would die. Her mate wasn’t willing to let her go.

The time might be imminent when Aidan had to make that choice or else he and Krys both could die, and Nik wasn’t sure any of Penton’s residents would let that happen. As much as everyone loved Krys, their charismatic leader was the reason they had moved to Penton. Without him, everything they built could crumble. Mirren didn’t want to lead, and Aidan’s other lieutenants, while strong, didn’t yet command enough respect from the remaining citizens.

Nik couldn’t judge Aidan’s decisions about Krys, right or wrong. Who was he to say what a loved one’s life was worth? All he knew was that Aidan couldn’t lead Penton until the situation with Krys was resolved. Tonight had proven it.

Penton might be the town where Aidan had allowed vampires and their familiars to live in peace and safety. It also was the place Nik had come to call home, where he could be at peace for the first time in his life. He couldn’t read the pasts of vampires, and once he’d met and read the pasts of the human residents, life had settled down. He no longer relied on alcohol to dull his senses—a good thing. A guy could only lean on a bottle of Crown Royal so long before it let him fall hard.

Penton was Nik’s last chance at any semblance of a normal life, and he’d fight to protect it. Even bites from a hybrid coyote shifter last fall hadn’t dulled his love for the place. He’d lucked out on that one by not turning hybrid himself.

But Aidan was no longer in any shape to lead Penton, and the fight against the Vampire Tribunal grew fiercer with each ambush and sniper attack. Frank Greisser and his followers were desperate because Penton’s allies were growing. Destroy Penton, the Tribunal believed, and the resistance would disappear.

“What did you see back there? What aren’t you telling me?”

Nik glanced up from his coffee to see a pair of icy blue eyes trained on him. They didn’t look vaguely human. Aidan’s normal eye color was a deep, arctic blue, but vampire irises grew lighter under stress, or in hunger, or—he was told—during sex. That, he wouldn’t know.

“Marianne didn’t even show up in Brach’s memory banks,” Nik said. “I’m guessing they just met for this ambush job.” How much should he tell Aidan now? Not that the man who’d helped put Krys in a coma was involved with Brach. Last thing he needed was a half-dead Aidan Murphy staggering back toward the ruins of the clinic in search of intel on Fen Patrick. No, he’d leave out the part about the traitor until he could talk to Mirren. “I’ll fill in the rest when Mirren gets here.”

“Good. And thanks.” Aidan rested his head against the wall again and closed his eyes. “Cool gloves, by the way.”

Huh? Nik glanced down at his hands and felt a heavy thread of fear shoot through him like a direct shot of adrenaline. Across the back of his left hand, fingers still curled around the cooling cup of coffee, a patch of sleek yellow-brown fur had sprouted.

Copyright 2017 Suzanne Johnson