John and qhuinn were a couple of yards behind Zsadist as the three of them approached a low-slung modern house. The place was number six on the list of yet-to -be-hit properties, and they stopped in the shadows of a couple of trees at the edge of the lawn.

Standing there, John had a serious case of the creeps. With its sprawling elegance, it was too much like the home he'd had for such a short time with Tohr and Wellsie.

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Zsadist looked over his shoulder. "You want to stay here, John?"

When John nodded, the Brother said, "Figured. Creeping me out as well. Qhuinn, you hang with him."

Zsadist strode through the darkness, checking windows and doors. As he disappeared around the back of the house, Qhuinn glanced over.

"Why is this creeping you out?"

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John shrugged. I used to live in something like it.

"Wow, you had it good as a human."

It was after that.

"Oh, you mean with... Right."

God, the house must have been built by the same builder, because the facade and the arrangement of rooms was basically the same. Looking at all the windows, he thought of his bedroom. It had been navy blue with modern lines and a sliding glass door. The closet had been barren when he'd arrived, but it had gotten filled with the first new clothes he'd ever had.

Memories came back, memories of the meal he'd had the night Tohr and Wellsie had taken him in. Mexican food. She'd cooked Mexican food and put it all out on the table, big platters of enchiladas and quesadillas. Back then, when he'd been a pretrans, his stomach had been very delicate, and he could remember feeling mortified that he'd only be able to push the food around his plate.

Except then Wellsie had put a bowl of white rice with ginger sauce in front of him.

As she'd taken her chair, he'd wept, just curled his fragile little body into itself and cried for the kindness. After having spent all his life feeling as if he were different, from out of nowhere he'd found someone who knew what he needed and cared enough to give it to him.

That was a parent, wasn't it. They knew you better than you knew yourself, and they took care of you when you couldn't care for yourself.

Zsadist came back up to them. "Empty and unsacked. Next house?"

Qhuinn looked at the list. "Four Twenty-five Easterly Court¡ª"

Z's phone went off with a soft chime. He frowned as he checked the number, then put the thing up to his ear. "What's up, Rehv?"

John's eyes shifted back to the house, but then returned to Z as the Brother said, "What? Are you kidding me? He showed up where?" Long pause. "You are fucking serious? You're sure, you're one hundred percent sure?" When the Brother hung up, Z stared at the phone. "I have to go home. Right now. Shit."

What is it? John signed.

"Can you guys cover the next three addys?" As John nodded, the Brother looked at him strangely. "Keep your phone close, son. You hear me?"

When John nodded, Z disappeared.

"Okay, clearly whatever that is, it's not our biz." Qhuinn folded up the list and put it in his jeans pocket. "Shall we outtie?"

John glanced back at the house. After a moment, he signed, I'm sorry about your parents.

Qhuinn's reply was a while in coming. "Thanks."

I miss mine.

"I thought you were an orphan?"

For a while I wasn't.

There was a long silence. Then Qhuinn said, "Come on, John, let's get out of here. We need to hit Easterly."

John thought for a minute. You mind if we stop somewhere else first? It's not far.

"Sure. Where?"

I want to go to Lash's house.

"Why?"

I don't know. I guess I want to see where this all started. And I want to look in his room.

"How're we going to get inside, though?"

If the shutters are still on autotimer, they'll be up, and we can dematerialize through the glass.

"Well... hell, if that's where you want to go, okay."

The two of them dematerialized to the side yard of the Tudor. The shutters were up for the night, and in a blink they were standing inside the sitting room.

The smell was so bad, John felt like someone had taken steel wool to the inside of his nose and used the shit like a Q-tip ... all the way to his frontal lobe.

Covering his mouth and nose, he coughed.

"Fuck," Qhuinn said, doing the same.

The two of them looked down. There was blood all over the carpet and the sofa, the stains brown from having dried.

They followed the streaks out into the foyer.

"Oh, Jesus..."

John lifted his head. Through the lovely archway of the dining room was a scene right out of a Rob Zombie movie. The bodies of Lash's mother and father, seated in what were no doubt their regular chairs, were facing a beautifully set table. Their pallor was that of sidewalk pavement, a pale matte gray, and their fine clothes were like the rugs, streaked in brown.

There were flies.

"Man, those lessers are sick, for real."

John swallowed down the bile in his throat and walked over.

"Shit, do you really need a close-up there, buddy?"

Peering into the room, John forced himself to ignore the horror and note the details. The platter that the roasted chicken was on had blood marks on the edges.

The killer had put it on the table. After he'd arranged the bodies, most likely.

Let's go up to Lash's room.

Walking upstairs was totally freaky, because they were alone in the house¡ªbut not really. Somehow, the dead downstairs filled the air with something close to sound. Certainly the smell followed John and Qhuinn up the stairwell.

"His crib's on the third floor," Qhuinn said when they got to the second-floor landing.

They walked into Lash's bedroom, and it was such a non-event compared to the shock of the living room. Bed. Desk. Stereo. Computer. TV.

Bureau.

John went over and saw the drawer with the bloody prints. These were too smudged to tell whether or not a swirl pattern had been left. He picked up a random shirt and used it to open the thing, because that was what they did on the TV shows. Inside, more bloody marks, too smudged to read.

His heart stopped beating and he bent down closer. There was one print that was especially clear, on the corner of a Jacob & Co. watch box.

He whistled to bring Qhuinn's head around. Do lessers leave fingerprints?

"If they come into contact with something, sure."

I mean, do they leave prints, prints. Not just blanks, but, like, stuff with lines.

"Yeah, they do." Qhuinn came over. "What are you looking at?"

John pointed to the box. On the corner was a perfect reproduction of a thumb... that had no discernible ridges. Like a vampire's would.

You don't suppose¡ª

"No. No way. They've never turned a vampire."

John took out his phone and snapped a picture. Then, on second thought, he took the box itself and put it inside his jacket.

"We done?" Qhuinn asked. "Make my night and say yes."

I just... John hesitated. I need a little longer up here.

"Okay, but I'm going to go through those second-floor bedrooms, then. I can't... I can't be in here like this."

John nodded as Qhuinn left, and felt bad. Jesus, maybe it had been cruel even to ask the guy to come here.

Yeah... because this was fucked-up. Standing around all this shit of Lash's, it was like he was still alive.

Across town, behind the wheel of the Focus, Lash was not a happy camper. The car was a piece of shit, for real. Even though they were in residential traffic, the beater still had no pickup. For chrissakes, it was zero to thirty in three days.

"We need to upgrade."

In the passenger seat, Mr. D was checking his gun, his slim fingers flying over the weapon. "Yeah... um, 'bout that."

"What."

"I think we gonna need to wait 'til the money comes in from the looting."

"What the fuck?"

"I gots me the bank statements, you know, from the last Fore-lesser? That Mr. X? They was in his cabin. And there's not a ton in there."

"Define ¡®not a ton.' "

"Well, it's all gone, basically. I don't know where and I don't know who. But there's about five thousand left."

"Five? Are you fucking kidding me?" Lash let the car decelerate. Which was like taking a vegetable off life support.

Out of money? What the hell? He was like the Prince of Darkness or some shit. And his army's net worth was five grand?

Sure, he had his dead family's money, but as much as that was, he couldn't wage an entire war with it.

"Man, fuck this... and I'm going back to my old house. I'm not driving this tin-can piss box anymore." Yeah, he was so over the whole mommy/daddy thing all of a sudden. He needed a new car ASAP, and there was a spank Mercedes parked in that Tudor's garage. He was going to get in the damn thing and drive it around, and he wasn't going to feel guilty.

Fuck the whole vampire thing.

As he hung a rightie and shot over toward his neighborhood, though, he started to feel sick to his stomach. Except he wasn't going inside the house, so he wouldn't have to see the bodies, assuming they were still where he'd left them¡ª

Shit, he was going to have to go in for the keys.

Whatever. He needed to grow the fuck up.

Ten minutes later, Lash pulled up by the garages in back and got out of the car. "Take this to the farmhouse. I'll meet you there."

"You sure I shouldn't wait?"

Lash frowned and looked down at his hand. The ring the Omega had given him the night before was warming up on his finger and starting to glow.

"Looks like your sire done wants ya," Mr. D said, getting out of the passenger seat.

"Yeah." Shit. "How does this work?"

"You need somewheres private. You gets quiet and he will come to you or take you to him."

Lash looked up at the Tudor and figured that it would do. "I'll see you at the farmhouse. And then I want you to take me to that cabin where all the records are."

"Yes, suh." Mr. D touched the brim of his cowboy hat and slid behind the wheel.

As the Focus wheezed its way back down the drive, Lash went inside through the kitchen. The house smelled really bad, the fruity-nauseating stench of death and decay nearly a solid, it was so strong.

He had done this, he thought. He was responsible for what was stinking up the fine house.

He took out his phone to call Mr. D back, but then hesitated, focusing on his ring. The gold was burning to such a degree, he was surprised it didn't take his finger off.

His sire. His sire.

The dead people here were not his.

He had done the right thing.

Lash walked through the butler's door and into the dining room. With his ring glowing, he stared at the people he'd thought were his parents. The truth was in the lies, was it not. All through his life, he'd had to cover up his real nature, camouflage the evil in him. Minor flashes of his true self had come out, sure, but the core that was his engine had been kept hidden.

Now he was free.

Staring at the murdered male and female before him, he abruptly felt nothing. It was as if he were looking at ghoulish posters hanging off a cinema lobby wall, and his mind accorded them with appropriate weight.

Which was no weight at all.

He touched the dog chain at his neck and felt stupid for the silly feelings that had made him take it. He was tempted to whip it off, but no...The animal it reminded him of had been strong and cruel and powerful.

So it was as a symbol, not from sentiment, that he left it around his neck.

Man, the dead smelled bad.

Lash walked into the foyer and figured the marble floor was as good a place as any to see his true father. Copping a seat, he pulled his legs into himself and felt like an idiot just sitting there. Closing his eyes, he couldn't wait to get this over with and cop the keys to the¡ª

A humming started to displace the silence in the house, the sound emanating from no particular direction.

Lash flipped his eyes open. Was his father coming here? Or taking him somewhere else?

From out of nowhere, a current began to swirl about him, warping his vision. Or perhaps it warped what was around him. In the middle of the maelstrom, though, he was rock steady, struck by an odd confidence. The father would never harm the son. Evil was as evil did, but the blood tie between him and his sire meant he was the Omega.

And, if for self-interest only, the Omega wouldn't hurt itself.

Just as Lash was about to be carried away, when the rush had nearly consumed his corporeal form, he looked up.

John Matthew was on the stairs before him.

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