6 November 2015

Midnight Marked – Chapter One

Chapter One

Late April
Chicago, Illinois

Midnight_MarkedI stood at the corner of Clark and Addison in jeans and a Cubs T-shirt, my long hair pulled into a ponytail through a vintage Cubs cap.

At a quick glance, I probably didn’t look much different from the thousands of humans around me. But I was a vampire, and I’d caught the devil’s eye. So there was a House medal around my neck, a Master vampire beside me, and a dagger tucked into one of my boots.

I stared up at the building, excited as a kid at her first baseball game. The famous red marquee glowed over the hologram of Harry Caray smiling behind thick black glasses that was projected onto the sidewalk.

I’d been a vampire for three hundred and eighty-four days. This was going to be one of the best of those, because I was home.

For the first time since becoming a vampire, I was at Wrigley Field.

“Do you need to take a moment, Sentinel?”

I ignored the teasing tone of the man who stood beside me, the four-hundred-year-old Master vampire who ruled Chicago’s Cadogan House and the parts of my heart that weren’t devoted to great books and good pizza.

I turned to give him a pithy look, expecting to see sarcasm on his face. But there was something softer in those deep-set green eyes. Love tinged with amusement. His hair, thick and gold like summer silk, was tied at the nape of his neck, showing off knife’s-edge cheekbones and a square chin. And although he wasn’t much of a baseball fan, and even though we lived on Chicago’s South Side, he wore a vintage Cubbies shirt that fit his lean body like a very fortunate glove. Ethan Sullivan didn’t wear casual clothes very often, but he wore them as well as he did his bespoke, thousand-dollar suits.

“I am taking a moment,” I said with a grin. “Quit distracting me.”

“Heaven forbid I should do that,” he said knowingly, putting a hand at my back.

“Could you possibly goggle from a booth? I am absolutely starving.”

For once, I wasn’t the one asking to eat. That honor belonged to my best friend, newlywed Mallory Carmichael Bell.

I was still getting used to the name change.

I glanced back at her, her hair as deeply blue as the Cubs’s logo, her petite frame tucked into skinny jeans and a snug blue and red save ferris T-shirt. “Didn’t you eat a granola bar in the car?”

“I did,” she said, “but it’s the only thing I’ve eaten today. I spent half the day bitching at the Order for its record-keeping failure,” she grumbled. “Anyway, I’m starving.”

The Order was the official, if surprisingly incompetent, union of American sorcerers. It wasn’t the kind of complaint you’d expect to hear in front of Wrigley Field, but it wasn’t unusual for our group. Two vampires, two sorcerers, and all four of us trying to nail the city’s most powerful financial and political mogul, who also happened to be the leader of the city’s criminal underground. Our enemy was Adrien Reed, and his organization was known as the Circle. He had supernatural minions, including a sorcerer of his own who’d used his impressive power to transform a vampire into the Master whom Ethan had believed was long dead.

“Let’s discuss the details away from the crowd,” said the sorcerer beside Mallory. Her husband, Catcher Bell, was tall and leanly muscular, with shorn hair, green eyes, and a generous mouth currently pulled into a line as he scanned the crowd for threats.

He wasn’t the only one looking. Ethan had informed the Cubs we’d be attending the game, and given the welcome cadogan house! message on the marquee, they’d decided not to be shy about it. We had to be on our best behavior—and our highest alert.

The evening at the ballpark had been Ethan’s idea—a few hours of normalcy in a month that had involved a mysterious evildoer from Ethan’s past and a new evildoer who believed he could lie, cheat, and steal with impunity. We’d temporarily thwarted Reed, but he’d promised us another round. We were looking forward to the battle, and we were determined this inning would be the last.

Also, my birthday was in a few days. I’d officially turn twenty-nine, although I still looked twenty-seven and three-quarters and would for the rest of my potentially immortal life. There’d been a time when I wasn’t comfortable with the fact that Ethan had made me a vampire—it had been necessary because of a violent attack by another vampire, and not of my choosing—but I’d worked through those issues.

My vampire senses were strong. I’d filtered them heavily because we were surrounded by so many people, but I still heard my name and Ethan’s whispered around us by humans who recognized us from newspaper articles and Internet sites. Ethan had his own fandom; EthanSullivanIsMyMaster.net was a very real thing. Given the e-mails the House’s Initiate Liaison and social secretary, Helen, had intercepted on my behalf, he wasn’t the only one with fans. Personally, I found all of it unnerving. Flattering, but unnerving.

As to the real-world threats, Ethan had ordered me not to be brave, not to engage anyone unless absolutely necessary. Since protecting him and the House was my solemn responsibility as Sentinel, we undoubtedly had different definitions of “absolutely necessary.”

“Where are we eating?” Mallory asked, glancing at the restaurants arranged around the ballpark. The neighborhood had always been crowded on game day, but recent renovations had spawned more bars and pubs and brought out more people.

“Someplace familiar,” Ethan said, then glanced at me. “If you’re ready?”

I grabbed Ethan’s wrist, checked his gleaming steel watch. Tonight’s game was a rare late-night matchup at Wrigley sponsored by a battery company that was giving away Cubs flashlights.

“We’ve got an hour and a half,” I said as Ethan adjusted his watch again. “And I’m going to get one of those damn flashlights.” Since we were awake only at night and usually on a Mission to Save the Vampires and Humans of Chicago Even If They Didn’t Appreciate It, a flashlight would most certainly come in handy. And a Cubs light? Total score.

“I’ll do everything in my power to get you one,” Ethan said. “We’re going to Temple Bar.”

I brightened. Temple Bar was Cadogan’s official watering hole and only a couple of blocks away from Wrigley. I hadn’t had a chance to visit in months.

“They have food?” Catcher asked.

Ethan smiled knowingly. “They’ve ordered pizza in the event Merit was hungry. I understand cream cheese and double bacon is on the menu.”

“You know me too well,” I said. I really wanted one of those flashlights, but I could still appreciate an hour of deep dish with friends. Besides, cream cheese and double bacon was my favorite topping combination—a culinary concoction that could cure most ills, at least in my bacon-addled opinion.

“Let’s get moving,” Mallory said. “Because God forbid Merit doesn’t get her flashlight.”

“They sell flashlights everywhere,” Catcher muttered as Mallory slipped her arm into his and we crossed the street toward the bar.

“You don’t get it,” she said, patting his arm, then glanced over her shoulder. “Husbands. Am I right?”

God, it was weird to hear her say that.

# # #

Temple Bar was a narrow building full of brass, wood, and Cubs memorabilia. The paneled walls were lined with vintage pennants, T-shirts, and game balls, and they’d added a line of bleacher seats scavenged from Wrigley during the renovation. High-top tables and leather booths filled the space, and they’d added a pool table. The bar was packed with vampires in Cubs gear, their supernaturalness obvious from the buzz of magic that electrified the air.

Sean, one of the two vampire brothers who managed the place, rang the brass bell that hung behind the bar. The patrons turned their heads toward the sound.

“Master on the premises!” Sean yelled cheerfully, pointing toward Ethan with his free hand.

The bar exploded with cheers and applause as vampires turned in their seats, craning to get a look at their Master. I took for granted how often I saw Ethan, whether personally or professionally. To the other Cadogan Novitiates, being near him socially was a rarity, a treat. They smiled as we walked in, their gazes still slightly suspicious when they got to Mallory. She’d mostly redeemed herself to the House after a troubling history, but vampires had long memories.

We headed to a four-top. Sean’s brother, Colin, came around the bar, white towel slung over his shoulder. Sean was younger than his brother, but both looked as if they’d stepped out of an Irish travel brochure: tall and lanky, with red hair, blue eyes, and ruddy complexions.

“Liege,” Colin said, giving Ethan a little bow, then smiling at me. “It’s been too long,” he added, playfully squeezing my shoulder. “What’s the occasion?”

“Merit’s first post-fang game at Wrigley,” Sean said, setting a pizza box, paper plates, and napkins in the middle of the table. The scents of spicy sauce, smoky bacon, and cheese filled the air, and the box had one of my favorite words printed across it in bold red letters—saul’s. Not just my favorite kind of pizza, but from my favorite pizza place in Chicago. Ethan had really gone above and beyond.

Thank you, I said, slipping him a glance. I appreciate the effort.

You’ll appreciate it more later, he said, with a wickedness in his eyes that promised delightful things to come—even if the Cubs didn’t pull out a win.

“Well, well,” Colin said, glancing at me. “That’s worth a drink on the house. You’re a gin and tonic girl, right?”

“I am,” I agreed. “And that sounds great.”

“Done,” he said, and looked at Ethan. “Sire?”

Ethan had gotten an upgrade, at least in title, when he became a member of the Assembly of American Masters, a newly created organization intended to give American vampires control of their futures. So far, they’d been very low-drama, which was a nice change from their predecessor.

“I’ll have what she’s having.”

“I knew you’d trust my judgment eventually.”

Catcher snorted. “About food pairings, anyway.”

“A Novitiate takes what a Novitiate can get,” Colin said with a wink. He took Catcher’s and Mallory’s orders, left us with pizza. We exchanged shrewd looks, waiting for someone to make the first move toward a slice.

“Well, I’m not waiting for your people to play supernatural rock-paper-scissors,” Mallory said, spinning the box so its maw opened toward her, and sliding a piece onto a plate.

“Which would be what, exactly?” Ethan wondered.

She paused, chewed contemplatively, then raised two fingers in a “V,” curled them into would-be claws, and wiggled them like she was sprinkling a spell over us. “Vampire-shifter-sorcerer,” she said. “You can call it ‘VSS.’”

“I think you just invented a meme,” I said, impressed.

“Of course I did. I’m awesome. Pass me the cheese.”

We’d nearly finished the pizza when Catcher gestured toward the pool table. “You play?” he asked Ethan.

“Every now and again.”

“You up for a match?”

Ethan glanced back at me, eyebrows lifted.

I looked at the clock. We’d eaten quickly, still had time before the game started. I would have been perfectly fine getting to the stadium early, watching players warm up and fans file in, balancing Chicago dogs and phones and beers as they did so. But when Ethan glanced longingly at the table’s immaculate green felt and curvy baroque legs, I knew I was lost.

“Go for it,” I said, then cocked my head. “Although I didn’t know you played.”

“I’m not a hustler,” he said, with a smidge of indignancy. “But I play as well as I Master.”

Insecurity was not a trait Ethan was familiar with. “In that case, have fun.”

“You think he’s going to school Catcher?” Mallory asked as they made their way through the crowd to the pool table.

“I don’t know,” I said. That was true enough, although Ethan didn’t do much without a plan for victory—or at least an exit strategy.

I watched him, tall and rangy, select a pool cue, test its weight, and check its flexibility. A pair of vampires rose from their seats near the bar, wandered over to say hello. Blond hair tucked behind his ears, the cue he’d selected in hand, Ethan shook the vampires’ hands, then introduced Catcher. They chatted as Catcher racked the balls, and they prepared to play.

“Will Catcher throw a fit if he loses?” I asked. He was the generally grouchy type. I liked him very much.

“Catcher thrives on moderation and reasoned action.”

I snorted. “And Ethan is humble and operates the House as a democracy.”

“So we’re both full of shit,” she said, then cast her gaze toward her well-toned husband. “If he loses, it serves him right for challenging a vampire in his own place.”

“Maybe not the wisest move,” I agreed.

“Anyway,” she said, scooting closer, “I’m glad they’ve gone. Now we can talk.”

Given the drama of the last few weeks, I assumed she had bad news about evil or magic, and prepared myself for the worst.

“I’m afraid the sex is going to become stale.”

Colin arrived with fresh drinks—a Manhattan for Mallory, another G&T for me. For one last, peaceful moment, I squeezed the lime into the glass, licked lip-puckering juice from my thumb. And then I took a drink, put the glass down on the table again, and did what I had to do. I invited her to talk to me about sex with Catcher.

“Why do you think it’s going to become stale?”

She leaned toward me, arms folded on the table. “I mean, I don’t know. We’re married, and it’s good. It’s really good. And frequent.”

I knew I’d regret it, but couldn’t help asking. “How frequent?”

“At least daily. Sometimes more so. We’re naked a lot,” she said matter-of-factly.

“I would guess so.” And I was doubly glad I didn’t share her town house anymore. Mallory owned the place, and I’d been her roommate before I moved into Cadogan House. When Catcher moved in, there’d been a lot of naked canoodling in the public areas, including the kitchen. I, for one, hadn’t needed to see Omelet à la Catcher’s Naked Ass. “So, it sounds like things are fine right now?”

“They totally are. I guess that’s the part that worries me. It’s just, I love who we are right now. And I know part of being married is becoming ‘comfortable’ with each other. I just don’t want us to become so comfortable that we’re basically just roommates or something. I want to keep that spark alive.” She looked over at him, her eyes shining with love—and a little glazed with lust. And Catcher was alpha male in and out, front and back, and all the way through to the other side.

“Yeah, I don’t think that will be a problem,” I concluded.

“I mean, we can’t keep our hands off each other. That’s why we were late,” she said, winging up her eyebrows.

We’d picked up Mallory and Catcher in one of the House’s enormous black SUVs, since Ethan’s personal vehicle—a sleek black Ferrari—had been destroyed in a car chase with one of Reed’s cronies.

So they’d been at it while we were sitting outside on the curb, completely unawares.

“Well,” I said after a stiff drink, “even if the pace, let’s say, does slow down, being comfortable with each other is pretty awesome.”

I glanced at Ethan, who was standing on the other side of the table, cue in hand like the pike his Swedish countrymen might have used. “Having someone get you is pretty amazing.”

“He does get you, and that’s important.” She grinned. “But you can’t tell me Darth Sullivan doesn’t show you his ‘Dark Side’ regularly.”

“You’re ruining Star Wars for me. But to your point, yeah.” I grinned. “He’s plenty skilled with his, you know—”

“You’re trying not to say ‘light saber,’ but you really want to.”

“I really do.” I waved my hands for finality. “Let’s just say he’s got one and he knows how to use it.”

“Katana. Broadsword. Saber.”

“We were supposed to be discussing Catcher,” I reminded her. “And since I’ve seen his, ahem, broadsword plenty of times, I can verify he’s got one. I think every relationship has its ups and downs, its arcs. Sometimes rampant nakedness while a girl is trying to prep her damn Ramen noodles.”

Mallory snorted into her drink. “They aren’t good for you anyway. Too much sodium.”

“I’m immortal,” I pointed out.

“You are that,” she said. “I hope you’re right. Do you think you and Darth Sullivan will be able to keep the spark alive six or seven hundred years from now?”

Immortality wasn’t something I thought about often, mostly because I couldn’t really imagine it. Ethan had been alive for nearly four hundred years. He’d seen war, violence, famine, and empires come and go. Assuming I stayed away from the business end of an aspen stake, I could see all that and more. But the expanse of time wasn’t something I could easily wrap my mind around.

“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “I can’t imagine not wanting him, but immortality is a long time.”

“And if he proposes?”

He’d hinted about it enough, preparing me for its inevitability, that “if” was really a conservative estimate. “When he proposes,” I said, “and if I say yes, then the decision is made. The deal is done, and there’s no going back.”

I smiled at that. Immortality intimidated me; commitment did not.

“Good,” Mallory said, then clinked her glass against mine in a toast. “Let’s drink to commitment. To the grouchy-ass men we love, who really should worship at our feet.” She grinned wickedly. “And do, when the incentive’s right.”

“I feel like we’re getting dangerously close to naked Catcher territory again.”

“We’re only territory adjacent,” she said with a wink. She put her glass down, looked at me for a few seconds. She smiled softly, as if she knew all the world’s secrets.

“What?” I asked.

“Nothing. Just thinking about how much we’ve changed. Vampires, sorcerers, two sexy-as-hell and utterly egotistical men. An awkward adjustment for you, and a detour into darkness for me. And yet here we are, having a drink and preparing to go see the Cubbies.” She clinked her glass against mine. “I’d say we turned out pretty good.”

I couldn’t argue with that.

# # #

Ethan came out strong from the break and nearly ran the table. It was an inadvertent cue bump by a Novitiate who’d had a little too much to drink that spoiled the plan. The Novitiate was apologetic, but what was done was done. Her slip gave Catcher control of the table, and control it he did. He called each shot, nailed each shot, and when he was done, left Ethan staring at the wreckage.

Or so Catcher told the story. Given that his ego nearly matched Ethan’s in size and strength, I guessed the truth was somewhere in between.

When we’d wrapped up and were prepared to (finally!) head to the stadium, Colin refused Ethan’s money and tried to shoo us out of the bar; Ethan, ever strategic, managed to slip bills to Sean on the sly. He preferred to pay his debts.

We emerged into the glorious spring night, the crowd bristling with energy and the sheer joy of being outside after a hard Midwestern winter. And, of course, the possibility of destroying the Cardinals on our home turf.

Ethan held my hand as we followed Catcher and Mallory through the crowd to the gate. Our seats were on the third-base side, which had been my favorite spot for an afternoon of baseball.

Ethan glanced back at me, green eyes glowing. I didn’t think he was much of a baseball fan. Maybe it was vicarious excitement, because I was probably elated enough for both of us. Or maybe he was pumped about the free flashlights. Because I certainly was.

Are you ready for this, Sentinel? Ethan asked silently, using the telepathic link between us, forged when he’d made me a vampire that night a year ago.

I smiled back at him. I am bursting with excitement.

He took my hand, and we walked down the street just like two humans, a couple on their way to a night at the ballpark.

Mallory stopped short and turned back toward us, her expression tight, her gaze focused on something behind us. People grunted and cursed as the stream of people was forced to divert around her, and then us, when we reached her.

“Did you feel that?” she asked.

“Feel what?” Catcher said, looking around to find the threat she’d seemed to identify.

“Something magic. Something bad.” Without another word, she began walking away from the stadium. We fell into step behind her, dodging through the stream of fans headed into the stadium as we moved toward Temple Bar.

But she passed the bar, kept going until she turned into the wide alley that ran beneath the trestle that held up the tracks for the Red Line.

“Mallory!” Catcher called out, and we darted after her into the alley.

The smell of death—overripe and cruel and undeniable—spilled out from the darkness. Something had met a very ugly end here.

Or someone, I realized, glancing at the body on the ground.

 

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