Race to Redemption
Kaelin Trevet always walked softly in Lord Warrick Oman's house, a drafty Victorian monstrosity jutting from a mountainside outside Denver. Oppressive quiet filled the cold corners. Shadows leapt beneath the gas lamps and candles. He stepped to the center of Oman's study, a room that needed the fire kicked up in the hearth. The latch caught behind him with a sharp click.
It had been many years since Kaelin had bowed his head to a Council Lord, though he owned no particular rank as a Sentinel ranger. He had long since acquiesced to and then fought back his demonic nature, and unlike the other rangers he disdained good manners as a substitute for true control.
Lord Oman sat at his desk, hands resting flat on it. For all Kaelin knew, the lord had a pistol in his lap. His back prickled. He kept his MK 23 within easy reach.
A moment of silence passed as they stared at each other. Oman broke it. "I don't like you. I don't like your family. I've never made a secret of it."
Kaelin forced himself to keep looking at Oman. He wasn't saying anything Kaelin didn't know. Most rangers didn't trust or like Kaelin. His presence reminded them that only a thin veneer of civility separated them from the demons they warred against.
"But for this mission, I need you." Lord Oman leaned back in his chair.
Cold welled up in Kaelin's gut; he suffocated it. "A lot of rangers can kill well."
"Not like you," Oman said. "You don't care why or who; you do as you're told."
Kaelin rubbed his thumb and his trigger finger together and nodded.
Oman pushed himself away from his desk and strode to the window, clutching the photograph - not a gun - that he'd hidden in his lap. Grey light filtered in, washing out his features. Kaelin narrowed his eyes. No. It wasn't the light. Lord Oman was pale, drawn.
Oman spoke softly. "Ryanne has been captured. In London."
Kaelin leaned forward, head tipped, unsure if he'd heard correctly. "She's in Bogata."
"No," Oman said. "She is not. CCTV got a shot of her walking from a car to a building." He turned to face Kaelin, worry over his granddaughter apparent in his polished features. "When she missed two scheduled call-ins, I asked your cousin to initiate an FFAS on every government feed he could access. It took four days, but he got a ping in London."
Kaelin hid his surprise. His cousin Marc had developed the Facial Features Advanced Search, but it was still in beta. Interesting that Oman had the pull to use it. But Oman was mostly old school, and proved it by passing Kaelin the glossy of Ryanne on the street surrounded by leather-jacketed thugs. It was crumpled and damp on one edge.
The picture didn't show a gun to her back, but the twist in her posture told him it was there. Not scared, just earnest - making sure CCTV got a decent shot.
Good girl, thought Kaelin. He didn't recognize the men around her. "Who took her?"
"This was taken outside a nightclub run by an enemy cell. I'm told a lieutenant is in charge there," Oman said. "Lorcan. You're well connected with him, aren't you?"
Kaelin schooled his face not to show reaction to the dig. He had a relationship with Lorcan, true, secured by his undercover work on behalf of Sentinel. The CIA and MI5 and Six believed the enemy cell at Mosaic to be the heart of a sizeable drug ring, but Sentinel rangers knew better. After centuries of war they recognized their enemy well enough: demons who murdered humans to gain use of their bodies and to feed on them. He wasn't surprised to hear the operation had moved to London, since Sentinel had run them out of Denver.
"How long have they had her?"
Oman spread his hands. "Three weeks."
Kaelin felt like someone shoved the butt of a rifle under his ribs. "It's too late."
"How long did they torture you before you turned?" The words whipped through the room, lashed up Kaelin's memories.
Left alone for days, strapped to a chair, sitting in his own filth, enduring a constant strobe light. A time of darkness, silence. Finally, a projector showed him hours and days worth of horrific acts. Some filmed, some off a live feed. It had been such a relief to not be alone anymore, even with only cruel demons and screams for company. It had nurtured his demonic addiction for all that blood. He twitched for it, his hands ached for weapons. And then at last, they gave him victims to prove the solidity of his descent. It all fell away to reveal the devil inside. Lorcan found his key to his violent nature immediately. Cage fighting. Shooting. Violence was like cocaine and Lorcan had always been there with the next fix. Kaelin had hit bottom without realizing it.
"A week." No point in lying. It was in his dossier and Oman had access to that.
"I can't let Ryanne go through that," Oman said.
"She already has gone through it," Kaelin said. "Do you have any idea what they can do to her in three weeks? What they've turned her into?"
Lord Oman lowered his head.
"I don't know what you think killing them will achieve. Revenge?" When Oman didn't answer, Kaelin added, desperate, "All right. Orders are orders. I'll kill them - not for you, but for her. I owe her that much. You know what she means to me, and fuck you for using it to send me back in there..."
The words died as Oman lifted his dark eyes to Kaelin's face and for the first time, there was no trace of sneer in his expression, only stark anguish.
The cold stone of realization sank inside Kaelin.
"You don't want me to kill them," he whispered. "You want me to kill her."
Walking into the nightclub in London two days later, Kaelin wondered why he'd never realized how the strobe lights reinforced the damage done to him. Every flash, another image of torn flesh passed before his retinas. Nights spent at the club, with its glittering mirrored balls and flashing lights, only drove his indoctrination into violence deeper. Already his hands twitched. He carried - he always carried - and he had to make a concerted effort not to reach for the grip of his gun in his shoulder rig.
The night was early yet. The crowd hadn't built up to its regular intensity. He let his eyes travel over the women in appreciation. He didn't pursue them, though. Not because they weren't beautiful, but because his next conquest would likely end up dead.
Ropes guided the growing queue outside. The center bar hustled with barmen. The dance floor already burst its seams, ice and broken glass crunching underfoot. Criminals sat alongside politicians in curtained booths with thousand-dollar bottle service. A mirrored wall fronted the VIP room, admitting the select few. Those mirrors concealed the heart of the club, the demonic cell that ran the place. He strode to the door and lifted his chin at the guard who challenged him.
"Why are you here?" the guard asked.
Kaelin spread his hands to show no threat. "Lorcan. Now."
The demon, clad in one of the pale-skinned human bodies favored by his kind, scowled and pushed through the door. He closed it on Kaelin's face.
Kaelin smoothed his own scowl before it took hold, knowing better than to waste a show of strength. He memorized every groove and gouge in the door in a supreme effort to remain calm.
The door swung inward, seemingly without a hand. Some claimed the demons would soon master telekinesis, a devilry that could tip the scales of war to the enemy's favor. But not yet. Ryanne stepped into view, her hand still on the lever, and Kaelin's insides jumped.
He'd thought, hoped, she might be amnesic, oblivious to her past. Or maybe they would have brutalized her face and body, as well as her mind. That would make eliminating her easier. But she looked mostly the same. Same economical fighter's stance. Lips pursed, belying their softness. The narrowing of her crystalline blue eyes betrayed her cognizance. He gave her a closer look. Deep shadows circled her eyes and hollowed her cheeks. Dried blood crusted her fingernails.
She stopped him with a hand on his chest. He lifted his arms and allowed her to search him. She took his pistol and the folding blade in his pocket with medicinal ease. He avoided her hollow gaze.
Demons clad in human bodies lounged around the room, seated in chairs and grouped at a table in the corner, paying homage to Lorcan. They all had the same feral look. Lorcan never allowed them to feed enough. A slight rancid smell filled the room. Some of them were getting ripe. They'd need to find replacement bodies soon. More innocent humans would die so the demons could live like people for a little while longer. All the more reason for Sentinel to avenge the humans who died at their hands and protect the ones who hadn't.
Lorcan had defiled his stolen body with teeth and nails filed into short daggers. He shot Kaelin a savage grin and tapped a finger on the table next to his glass. He'd never been much for small talk.
Kaelin allowed his anxiety to escape through the fingers of his left hand. They played piano scales on his thigh. "I've been ordered to kill Ryanne."
Lorcan's eyes narrowed to snake-slits.
"You'll be wondering why I'm telling you." Kaelin shrugged. "You went to the trouble to take her, so obviously she's worth something to you. I thought we might strike a deal."
"You really want her back?" Lorcan asked, his voice grating through Kaelin.
He shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe not. You worked your voodoo and she's on your side now."
Lorcan framed his mouth with his clawed finger and thumb, resting his chin on the heel of his palm. "Obviously. So why are you really here, ranger?"
This was a battle Kaelin was more than willing to lose. He only had one weapon left, but he'd hand over the rest of his arsenal to hold it in reserve.
"That bastard Warrick Oman set me up. If I kill Ryanne, he'll deny he ever gave me orders and get me executed for murder. But if I deny his orders, he'll have me up on charges for insubordination." He glanced away, not having feign the difficulty in admitting this bit. "The Council doesn't exactly consider me reliable. Just my standing here is enough for them to throw me in gaol."
"Caught in your own trap, then," Lorcan said, baring his filed teeth.
"But that's not the most interesting part. Lord Oman himself gave me the order, under the table. I think he actually wants Ryanne dead - his own granddaughter. I wonder why."
Lorcan arched an eyebrow. His tone turned speculative. "Maybe she knows something about him. A secret."
"Yes. So that means she's of use to someone alive. I'm hoping that someone is me." Kaelin reached into his jacket pocket. A gun appeared in Ryanne's hand.
Kaelin showed her his lighter, his cigarettes, and a slight smile. "You searched me, Ry, remember? May I sit so we can discuss this further?"
Lorcan nodded, his eyes glaring with intrigue.
Kaelin slid into a chair and let his lanky legs invade the space under the table. He tamped down the tobacco and lighted the cigarette.
"Oman wants Ryanne dead," Kaelin went on. "He also wants me dead. The only weapon I've got against him is whatever Ryanne knows. I just want a little time with her to find out what it is."
"And for this, you'll do what?"
"I'm making my services available to the highest bidder. Right now Oman has money down. But you have more to offer me, Lorcan. You have Ryanne."
Ryanne's gaze didn't flicker at her name.
"You will kill for Mosaic again?" Lorcan said.
"One kill," Kaelin amended.
The demon gave a derisive chuckle. "Five."
Kaelin imagined bullets plugging skulls and sprays of blood. His left hand clenched where it rested on his thigh under the table. Lifting the cigarette to his lips with his right, he blew a smoke ring. Together, he and Ryanne and the demons watched it drift down to the tabletop. Only pure evil made smoke fall like that, and Lorcan had been the one to teach Kaelin to tap into it.
"Two," Kaelin said.
Lorcan arched an eyebrow at Ryanne and ran his hand up her arm. She didn't even shudder.
Lorcan took four days to come up with a job for Kaelin, who hung around the nightclub each night, watching the crowd. As far as Kaelin saw, Lorcan never touched Ryanne and rarely spoke to her. He also limited Kaelin's access to her.
Kaelin did notice a human couple looking at him frequently. When he realized they were nursing drinks rather than enjoying themselves, he took a surreptitious picture of them with his phone and forwarded it to his cousin Marc with a text:
I'll check. Where are you?!
Kaelin didn't answer, just waited for the text confirming his suspicions.
"I see you've noticed our friends," Lorcan said.
Kaelin's phone vibrated and he cast it a glance. MI5. WTF?!
"They're Five," he said.
"They're targets," Lorcan corrected him.
"When do you want me to do them?"
"Not you. I'm saving you for something special." Lorcan jerked a thumb toward Ryanne. "Her."
Kaelin felt his eyebrows climb. Ryanne lingered well away from them, staring through everyone. Kaelin rarely caught her attention. He imagined she focused on some violence in her mind's eye.
If she killed two agents in the heart of London, she was as good as dead. Five would either kill her or capture her, and Sentinel never let their rangers languish in prison. They had too many secrets to barter with. Sentinel always got them out, by subterfuge, negotiation, or shiv.
"Oh, she's ready," Lorcan said, misunderstanding Kaelin's concern. "I suppose the question is whether you are. You're to supervise."
Kaelin nodded and swallowed down the dregs of his drink. The alcohol churned the contents in his stomach as he followed Ryanne outside. Icy rain started to fall.
He felt eyes on his back and turned to look. No one there. The enemy didn't always cling to physical form. Kaelin had no doubt a squad of invisible demons accompanied them on their gruesome duty, ready to report the slightest deviation from their assignment to Lorcan.
He pulled her to a narrow alley with multiple escape routes, ignoring her protests. "They're Five. They're not stupid and they'll shoot back. You're wide open standing out there."
"MI5? But why...?"
It was the first sign of her old self. He cut her off by pressing his mouth against hers. She leaned in to him and ran her hands up his chest and clawed at his jacket, as if she dug deep enough she could unearth his soul. He guarded against the longing it drove through him by watching for the two targets to pass on the other side of the street. After they did, he gently pushed her back.
She stared up at him, lips parted in a near-smile, smelling of alcohol and the heat of want. He'd seen that look before, torn between the fugue of a happy past tangled within a torturous, addictive present. In the mirror.
Kaelin snapped his fingers in her face. She snarled, lashing out. He caught her hands and shoved them down.
"This is your life now," he said. "Get on with it."
She drew a gun, a stainless Ruger that fit her hand well, and pointed it at the agents. Kaelin watched as her finger found the trigger and he leaned closer to her. The hairs on his arms prickled. He watched as goose bumps rose on her skin. The cold? Or his proximity?
No matter. Her hand leapt as the Ruger fired, knocking the shot high. The bullet pelted the bricks over the heads of the agents. They bolted without doing any of the stupid things amateurs would do, like look back to see where the shots were coming from before they secured cover.
Ryanne's breath came in short, strangled gasps. "You fucked my shot."
"Don't blame me. I was just standing here." Kaelin pried the Ruger from her hand and tucked it into the back of his waistband. "Come on."
"Where?" she demanded.
"Back to Lorcan."
Kaelin leaned back and let his elbow rest on the back of the chair next to him. "She missed. It happens."
"You never miss," Lorcan hissed. He stood behind Ryanne, glaring at the back of her neck like he wanted to take a bite out of it.
Kaelin uncurled his hand, revealing his cigarette. He lifted it to his lips and concentrated on the caustic smoke smoldering in his chest. "No. I don't."
"You." Lorcan pointed at Ryanne. "Out."
Kaelin finished his cigarette while she crossed the room and shut the door behind her.
Kaelin curled the cigarette back into his palm and crushed it. "And you'll keep her alive? Give me a chance to find out what she knows about Oman?"
"Get what you need and get rid of her. Clean up this mess. And you still owe me two more kills. Fuck-ups don't count."
Kaelin bared his teeth at the concession and strode toward the door.
Outside, Ryanne followed him at his gesture. She had enough sense not to speak until they left the club, but she spun on him as soon as they hit the sidewalk. "You're going to kill me, aren't you? They didn't even give me a chance. Let me go back. I'll fix it -"
He grasped her arm and kept her walking. She only struggled against his grip for a few steps before settling into stride beside him. He released her to light another cigarette. At the hotel, he had to try twice to slide the keycard into the slot. As soon as the door slammed, Ryanne turned on him again, fingers curled like claws, lips drawn back like a cornered animal.
He caught her arms and held her off as she snarled, "You won't kill me. Not before I kill you."
He let her ease close enough for her to feel the heat of the ember at the end of his cigarette. It lingered near her lips. She tipped her head back as smoke trickled between them. Her pupils widened like bullet holes, inhaling the pale blue irises. It would be so easy to mar her perfect lips with the glowing end, to tighten his hands around her neck -
He shoved her away and spat out the cigarette, crushed it under his heel. A violent shiver coursed through him.
She laughed, caustic and sour. "The thought of killing me really has you fucked up."
"I can get you out of this," he said, wondering just who in hell he was trying to convince.
She snorted and turned to peruse the room. A suitcase rested in the open closet beneath a row of expensive shirts, each hung two inches apart. Each pillow had a strand of his hair beneath it. A pen lay at a precise angle across a dummy number on a pad. Old tricks to detect a room search. She flicked the pen with her finger. It clattered to the floor.
"I am supposed to kill you," Kaelin said. "Those are my orders, from your own grandfather."
"But you can't do it. It's why Grandfather sent you."
"You're not all the way gone, Ry," he said.
"And you're not all the way cured."
"There is no cure." Like an addiction, an obsession, the need to spill blood always thrummed through him. "But you can control it."
"I don't want to control it. I want." She stretched her fingers out, held them at throat height and squeezed the air.
"Killing doesn't scratch the itch," he said. "Just makes it worse."
"It's a start."
Yes, it was. The start of the end. Kaelin fought his omnipresent urge to brawl his way out of this mess. He needed to think, to remove temptation. He pointed to a chair. "Sit."
"Why does your grandfather want you dead?"
She stared up at him, breath coming faster, fingers clawing the arms of the chair. "That I know something sensitive about him was your bluff, Kaelin, not mine."
He had no way to know if she had something on Oman or not, no way to find out, other than torturing her. He walked back to the tiny dressing area to put some space between them and angled the mirrored closet door to reflect her movements.
She perched on the edge of the chair, hands pressed flat between her knees, toes keeping time with her nerves. He wasn't the only one dangerously close to losing it.
Whatever he felt for her - he doubted his capacity for love, but whatever it was - he knew better than anyone what she'd been through. Killing her would be a kindness, really.
Except they had a past. He couldn't just throw it away. She'd been kind to him when no one else was, taken him into her home, her heart, her bed. And it had been so easy to distract her from shooting the agents with just his proximity and a kiss. Whatever Lorcan had done to her, it hadn't erased their past, even if their past had been just a few nights of reprieve from a never-ending war.
The war. Of course. He was a soldier, first. So was Ryanne. He had to find a way to win this battle, even if it cost him soldiers to do it.
The seeds of a plan began forming in his mind. Nobody was going to like it, least of all Warrick Oman. A slight smile crossed his lips, wry in his reflection, making him look a little like his old self, before he'd gone deep under Lorcan's tutelage.
But he couldn't look at Ryanne when he gestured to her, not in the eye.
"Where are we going?" she asked.
"To finish the job you started."
This late, the nightclub pulsed with soul-shuddering intensity. Intoxication permeated the place, as if the walls sweated alcohol and drugs. Dancers thrashed and writhed en masse, making it difficult for Kaelin and Ryanne to traverse the floor. Fortunately, they didn't have to go far to find the agents. They all caught one another's eyes and stopped, hands instinctively moving to weapons.
Kaelin turned away. Keeping a firm hold on Ryanne, he pulled her back out the way they'd come, snaking through bodies. The agents followed.
Ryanne started to struggle, but he tightened his grip enough to nearly crack her wrist bone.
"You're going to get us both killed," she said when they were outside.
"I wonder if that wouldn't be for the best," he said, pulling her into a slow jog.
"They're going to catch up with us." She spoke loudly over a clutch of giggling women.
"That would be the point," Kaelin answered said. "How else are we going to shoot them?"
"What - ?" A jerk on her arm cut her off; he led her into an alley. They pressed their backs against a brick wall perspiring centuries of damp London smog.
He peered around the corner. Too many people between them and the agents, who looked alert and wary, guns hidden in order to spare the drunken people a bad scare. They aren't people to the enemy, Kaelin reminded himself. They were obstacles or tools. Means to an end. Think like the enemy to defeat them.
Kaelin held his gun in his right hand and worked the slide with his left, chambering a bullet. He pressed the back of his head against the brick wall. His lungs automatically drew in a deep draught of damp air and released it. Ryanne opened her mouth to speak. His hard glare closed it.
The people on the sidewalk parted, giving him an open shot. He leaned around the corner and put a bullet between the agents. Bystanders ran screaming. The agents ducked, rolling behind a parked car, and Kaelin threw out a couple of more shots for good measure, clearing the scene. The agents met his volley with a hail-fire of bullets. Ryanne and Kaelin cringed against the brick.
After the street fell silent, he tossed his gun out onto the sidewalk.
Ryanne stuttered at him, her mouth working words that wouldn't come.
"Put your hands up," he said. "You don't want to get shot when they come for us."
She regained some of the stiff spine the evil had instilled in her. "What the hell are you doing?"
"I told you I don't want to - "
"Either you come or you die. Put your hands on your head." When she didn't comply, he shoved her hands up toward her tousled hair and held them to her head. Their faces were close. He smelled sleet and fog closing in, and Ryanne, the stink of demon thick on her.
He let his hands slide down her cheeks, cupped her chin, felt her pulse. It quickened under his fingers. He closed his eyes, released her, and laced his fingers over his scalp.
"We're surrendering," Kaelin shouted, and stepped out, feeling Ryanne in his shadow.
A flashlight spotlighted them against the mirrored plate glass of the shop at their backs. The agents ran toward them, guns up. They slammed Kaelin and Ryanne against the cold glass, searched them with bruising hands, and advised them of their rights as black vans screamed onto the scene.
"Nice ride," Kaelin said to his cousin Marc as he slid into the tight seat of the Jaguar and folded his long legs into the foot-well.
"Not as nice as Ryanne's," Marc said, lifting his chin at the limousine Lord Oman had sent to fetch his granddaughter. He pulled away from the curb. "Are you going to tell me what this was all about? Why the arrest?"
Kaelin explained about Oman's orders. "Lorcan made the mistake the enemy always does, underestimating humans. Five has had me on their radar for years, and they noticed me right away. When things got tight, arrest was my best option. It was either that or actually kill them and let Ryanne die with the enemy."
"The Council is less than pleased."
"Why? I gave the Five enough intel to shut down the cell for the time being, and Sentinel barely had to lift a finger."
"Right. Never mind the small detail that you shot at British agents - again."
Kaelin shrugged and lighted a cigarette, cracking the tinted window. "I missed."
Marc tsked. "I wouldn't have had any idea you here unless you'd texted me the other night."
"Good thing I did, then."
A smile skipped across Marc's lips. "All that, and you didn't think to call for back up?"
"Oman wanted it kept quiet."
"Oman set you up. And there's not a damned thing we can do about it." Marc cursed under his breath. "You know you're set for disciplinary action when we get back? And if you're lucky, some shit mission in the jungle, watching moss grow."
"That sounds pretty good about now."
"You could use a break, then?"
"Not as badly as Ryanne needs one."
Her limousine turned a corner ahead and was soon lost in traffic. Kaelin drew on his cigarette, watching the ember flare. Exhaled smoke trickled down his chest like a slow-moving waterfall.