Appearances were so deceiving.
Dammit, I fucking hate demons’ dens.
And he really did. Of all the shitholes in the world, the demons’ dens were the worst. He hated them. Hated the stench.
Hated the blood and booze. And Jude hated the drugged out demons who flocked to the dens looking for their next fix.
Demons. Talk about an addictive personality. He’d never come across supernaturals who were as hooked on drugs as demons. Some demons, all they lived for was their next hit.
They always had to get more. Had to get lost. To forget.
There were rumors that the demons had to turn to the drugs. Especially if they were unlucky enough to have the whispered Dark Touch.
The Dark Touch. It was another name, a more fitting one, for the psychic powers that turned some demons into conduits for the dregs of human society—killers, rapists, child molesters.
Yeah, the rumors were that the drugs quieted or, in some cases, even severed that twisted link. But the problem was, once the demons started the drugs, it was a fast downward spiral.
Demons just got addicted too fast.
That addiction fear was one of the reasons Zane didn’t so much as drink or smoke. Jude knew the demon had seen his father go down the drug path, with gruesome results.
Jude inhaled, caught the stench in the air, and knew he was in the right place.
Or maybe the wrong one.
The den waited for him. A hole in the middle of hell. Looked like a drug house, smelled like a drug house—because it was a drug house.
But the demons in there, they would talk. They’d tell him all he needed to know about Rogue wolves. Because if anybody knew about predators, it was those bastards.
It had been another grade A bastard who’d led him to this sour side of hell. Mickey had called him—yeah, somehow the bastard was already out on bail—and told him about the den. According to fast talking Mickey, Jude would find exactly what he needed in there.
The tip hadn’t been free, of course. Nothing was free. He’d just have to wait and see what price Mickey demanded. Not that he’d actually pay the bastard.
Jude rapped hard on the old door. A demon with a giant rod shoved through his nose jerked it open. Jude flashed him a twenty.
The demon’s gaze darted over him, then he smiled and eased back.
Erin’s sweet scent clung to Jude’s skin—he’d just had to claim her once more, couldn’t resist that temptation, but the stench of the den wrapped around him as he crossed the threshold.
And he went deeper into the demons’ den.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Mickey McQueen rocked back and forth on his heels. He’d gotten out of jail— finally—and was ready to blow this city.
First he wanted his money.
He stood on the street corner, glancing to the left and to the right. He still couldn’t believe his luck.
That tiger wouldn’t know what hit him.
But he choked back the sound when a long, black car pulled up to the curb.
This was it. His ticket to fast times.
He grabbed the door handle. Jumped inside.
“You told the hunter?”
Damn but it was hot in there. Didn’t the guy know to turn on the fucking air in Louisiana? Mickey gave a grim nod. “Yeah, yeah, told him everything you said.”
Mr. Money had approached him at his arraignment. Mr. Money—Mickey liked to call him that because the bastard was gonna be giving him a shitload of money. He figured the name fit. Mr. Money had paid his bail in cash and promised him a hell of a lot more.
All he had to do was just make one phone call.
Easiest job he’d ever done.
A soft snick of sound—the doors had locked. Must be one of those automatic deals.
Mickey rubbed his fingers together. “You got my money?” He already had it spent. New clothes. Fast ride. Good-bye cops.
The car eased away from the curve. “I’ve got it.”
Fucking A. “So…” He had to know. “What’s gonna happen to the tiger?” He hoped the bastard got torn up. Clawed from head to foot.
The car turned into an alley. Mr. Money glanced over at him, smiling with too-sharp teeth.
What the hell? The guy couldn’t be a shifter.
“I’m going to rip him apart.”
Mickey blinked. “Good. Good.” He realized he was sweating. It was the teeth. His nostrils quivered. No, no shifter scent.
But the guy couldn’t be a vamp because—
“Just like I’m going to rip you open, Mickey.”
“What?” Shit! Mickey scrambled, trying to jerk open the car door.
But it wouldn’t budge. Stupid lock. If he tried hard enough, he’d be able to force it—
Claws came at him. He saw the attack coming from the corner of his eye and he twisted, trying to fight.
The claws slashed right across his throat and the scream building in him never broke from his lips.
Blood splashed onto the front windshield.
The claws came at him again.
I’m going to rip him apart.
When he was done, he shoved the body—what was left of it—out of the car. Blood was everywhere. The scent surrounded him. Soaked his clothes.
He brought his fingers to his lips and licked away the sticky liquid. He loved that rich taste.
But the hyena had been too easy. No fight at all. Like killing a human. Really, he’d expected more.
The tiger wouldn’t be such easy prey. He knew that and had prepared appropriately for Donovan.
After all, he liked to hunt. He liked to kill.
But he didn’t believe in taking foolish chances with his own life.
The tiger would die. No question.
He’d be there for the end.
He yanked the car door closed and frowned at the windshield. That wouldn’t do. The last thing he needed was for someone to see that wonderful blood.
Leaning over, he unlocked the glove box and pulled out the cloths he kept for just such an occasion.
Moments later, the glass was clean. He shoved the cloths back in the glove box and turned on the car. Then he took a deep breath, because he did love that sweet smell.
But he couldn’t linger any longer. Not with the body just outside. The area was deserted, for now, but someone would be coming along soon. They always did.
With a flick of his fingers, he punched the button for the radio and the soft strains of Brahms floated to his ears.
A smile curved his lips. Now it was time to go.
Time for the next kill.
As he backed out of the alley, he couldn’t help but wonder, how long will the tiger fight?
And when he died, would Donovan have time to scream? Or would he die like the hyena, choking on his own blood?
“Down there.” The demon, eyes completely black, raised his hand and pointed down the twisting steps.
The first floor of the den had been completely deserted. No big surprise there. Jude knew the demons liked to be prepared, just in case there were any unexpected and unwanted— usually human—visitors.
So the real action was never up front in a den. No, it was always in the back, or in this case, below.
The faint drum of pounding music teased his ears. Jude deliberately relaxed his shoulders, ready for whatever hell he’d find waiting down there. He brushed by the demon, his nostrils flaring as he caught the stale odor of sweat and cigarettes.
Carefully, he eased down the creaking steps. What was this? A basement? Lower level?
The door behind him swung shut.
Then he heard the sound of a bolt sliding into place. Locking me in.
No, locking them in—because he could hear voices from below. Laughter.
He shook his head. Like a lock was going to hold him in this den. When he was ready to leave, he’d just kick the door down. Easy.
His claws broke free, the brief pain making his heart surge. His canines burned as they lengthened, readying him for the fight to come. He’d go in as a man, but if the shit got too bad, he would go out as a tiger.
His claws scraped over the stair railing as he climbed down the rest of the steps. No rush. The bastards weren’t going to get by him.
The room below was bigger than he’d thought. Not a room, more like three rooms. Thick with smoke, from the flickering flames of candles that were the only light and from hell knew what else. The scents in the air had his nose twitching and burning.
How the demons could handle that crap…
“Hello, shifter.” The voice was loud, mocking.
The rock music kept pounding in the background.
Jude jumped off the last step.
His gaze swept the area. Demons were lounging against the walls. Some were curled up on the floor. Maybe fifteen of them total. He eyed the dark shadows. More bodies could be in there.
Demons and their addictions.
But the guy who’d called to him, he didn’t have that blank, slack look on his face. No, that guy, the big bastard with his black demon eyes, was planted about fifteen feet away. His legs were braced a shoulder’s length apart. His arms hung loosely at his sides, and the guy was smiling. A come-and-get-me grin.
Never a good sign.
The demon lifted his hand. The minions on the ground didn’t move. Jude figured those guys weren’t gonna be moving anytime soon. But the others, those against the walls and those hiding in the shadows, jerked forward, suddenly appearing way too alert and aware.
Jude rolled his neck, getting loose and ready, and the tiger snarled.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” the demon said, that cocky-ass smile still on his face. “Haven’t we, guys?”
A murmur swept through the group. Laughter.
Mickey. Payback would be a bitch. He raised his claws and caught the glint of a knife in the darkness.
Ready for him and armed.
Demons in a den were supposed to be so screwed up on the drugs they couldn’t tell reality from—
“Always hated shifters,” the bastard who had to be the leader muttered. “Fucking animals.”
The demon was trying to piss him off now.
They started to close in, a sea of black eyes.
Stairs behind him. Demons to the front, left, and right. Running wasn’t an option for him. Never had been.
“You’re messing with the wrong guy,” he warned, feeling the burn of the shift pulse through him. It would take a few moments to turn. Vulnerable moments. They’d attack when the shift started. The demons would catch him with their knives and do as much damage as they could.
But once he was in tiger form…
“Oh, no, you’re the right guy, Jude Donovan.” A snap of the demon’s teeth. “You’re the guy we’re gonna carve apart.”
Jude fell to the floor as his bones began to snap and crack.
The demons attacked, knives ready, blades flying. Slashing, stabbing, cutting too deep.
He opened his mouth to scream and the tiger roared.
“Your Honor, I object! This is pure hearsay, the witness has no way to confirm that—” Erin broke off, stumbling. The judge’s face swam before her eyes.
“Ms. Jerome?” Judge Sally Chen called out. “Ms. Jerome, are you all right?”
Erin made a grab for the edge of the jury box. She barely managed to catch herself before she fell face-first onto the gleaming floor. “Ah, yes.” She blinked. The judge’s face sharpened before her, and Erin could see the firm chin and the dark green gaze again. She tried to straighten herself up.
And nearly hit the floor.
“Do you need a recess, ADA?”
She could only manage a faint nod.
“All right, folks. Look, it’s close to quitting time anyway. Let’s resume this case tomorrow morning, eight a.m.” The gavel slammed down.
Erin took a deep breath. Her hand rubbed over her forehead. Her stomach was churning, her knees shaking.
“You okay?” Zane’s voice. The guy had followed her to court and plopped down in the front row.
Right then, she was so glad he was there. Erin shook her head. “No. No, something’s wrong—”
The courtroom disappeared.
“Zane?” This couldn’t be happening.
Black walls. Laughter. Snarls.
Erin jerked her head around, straining to see.
A tiger, with blood matting its white body. Men attacking the beast, slashing and stabbing with knives.
The tiger fell before her. Its head hit the floor. A puddle of blood spread around the fallen animal.
The fur dissolved. Tanned flesh appeared. A man with blond hair, bloody flesh. Not moving. Not breathing.
“Too fucking easy.”
“I thought he wanted the shifter bastard alive.”
“Doesn’t matter—we’ll still get paid.”
“We damn well better.”
The man’s eyes were open—blue and empty. Not like Jude’s at all.
Not like Jude, not anymore.
“Erin!” Her head snapped back. Zane shook her, hard. “Erin, what the hell? Can you hear me?”
She blinked, and the courtroom was back. She was on the floor. Zane’s fingers dug into her arms, and he crouched above her, lines bracketing his mouth. “Jude.”
“No—it’s Zane.” His head lifted and he called out, “Hey, I need some help over here!”
She grabbed his shirt front and jerked him toward her. “Where’s Jude?” Her teeth wanted to chatter, so she clenched them.
Death dreams. She hated them.
How long had she been out? “Where is he?” Close to a scream in a courtroom. Like she cared about the rules then.
“Ah…” He glanced down at her white-knuckled grip. “Your claws are cutting me.”
“He’s in trouble.” Absolute certainty. Too late. Always too late. Lee was still in the hospital. Still in a coma because she’d been too late. And her father was in a grave because she’d been too late.