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On The Receiving End

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Huntsville, Al,

The Lucky Star Motel

The Night of March 27–28

Shadow branch field agent Merri Goodnight keyed open the door and stepped into the motel room, cool air laden with the scent of rain and the spiced perfume of the clove cigarette she’d just smoked swirling in behind her.

She halted, her gaze caught by the image paused on her partner’s laptop—a teenaged Dante Baptiste in wet, blood-spattered scrubs promising violence with a scorching twist of a smile and a flipped-up middle finger.

A boy coiled and knotted with guilt, with a grief he didn’t dare voice or show—if he even knew how. A boy who Slept with a dead little girl’s plushie orca hidden beneath his pillow.

A shattered boy fighting to hold himself together.

“Goddamn, Em, are you looking at those files again?” Merri questioned. She eyed her partner’s tensed shoulders, his tight jaw. Listened to his hard pounding heart. Smelled anger peppering his anise and fresh ice scent. “Not so sure that’s healthy.”

“Truth, sistah,” Emmett Thibodaux replied, clicking the file closed and swiveling around in the rickety metal folding chair to face her. He rubbed his hands wearily over his beard-shadowed face. “What they did to him . . .” He shook his head.

“Truth, brothah. From the moment he was born.” Merri closed the door, twisting the deadbolt into place with a solid tunk, then rattling the chain into its slot. “The first time I viewed those files, I wanted to find the bastards behind the project and tear them apart, even if it meant I ended up heart-shot, staked, and burned. It would’ve been worth it. And not just because Baptiste is a True Blood, but because—”

“He was a kid,” Emmett finished quietly as she turned back around. “How can they justify a program like Bad Seed? Twisting children into sociopaths just to study them?”

“They did a helluva lot more than that,” Merri said, resting her black suede-jacketed back against the door. “They programmed Baptiste, so maybe they programmed others too.”

“And used them. Shit. Yeah. Roger that, partner.”

“And as for your question? There’s a way to justify almost anything, Em. Hell, you and me? We’ve both played parts in some dark and dirty cover-ups. It was our motherfucking job—even if we didn’t always like it.”

“True dat,” Emmett drawled, his Louisiana roots curling through his voice. “Cleaning up the messes other agencies created, making sure the truth—harmful truth—was hidden, altered, or erased in the country’s best interests. The minds of witnesses wiped. Lives destroyed. A necessary evil. So I kept telling myself, anyway.” He trailed a hand through his short, ginger-spice hair. “I’ve had more than a few sleepless nights thinking about the things I’d done and why. But you’re right; I always found ways to justify everything I did for the SB.”

“Funny how being on the receiving end changes your perspective,” Merri said.

“Don’t it just?”

“And Purcell . . . No wonder that asshole claimed to know so much about Baptiste. The motherfucker helped torture him.”

Seeing the perplexed frown on Emmett’s face, Merri felt twin stabs of guilt and sympathy.

Another wiped memory.

Emmett’s reddish brows knitted together. “Don’t remember that particular conversation,” he muttered. “Not even a goddamned tickle. Am I missing anything important—aside from the fact that Purcell is a sadistic sonuvabitch?”

“Nope. Sounds like you’ve got the key point.”

With a low sigh of frustration, Emmett nodded. “Okay then.” He relaxed against the back of his rust-pocked chair, stretched his long legs out in front of him, and crossed his ankles, one square-toed Dingo boot sliding over the other. Like a man checking for his wallet, he absently patted the Colt parked in the leather shoulder holster strapped over his white button-down shirt with its currently rolled-up sleeves.

Merri had always thought he looked like a pre-squint, pre-scowl Clint Eastwood in his rugged and handsome prime—all hard angles, cabled muscle, and lethal calm—with eyes the deep blue of a sunlit summer iris.

But right now Emmett looked exhausted. Neither of them had slept in the thirty-one hours since they’d fled HQ. Of course, given that Merri had stay-awake pills thrumming through her bloodstream, disrupting her natural rhythms but keeping Sleep at bay, she was in better shape than Emmett.

For now. She’d eventually pay a price for the motherfucking pills and the lost Sleep. But she was in better shape than Emmett in another way—her memory was intact.

Merri’s throat tightened. She couldn’t imagine what it must be like to learn that some of your memories had been stripped from your mind. That they’d been replaced with lies. And you couldn’t tell the difference.

Even now.

She remembered reading the note Emmett had slid under the door of her room in the SB’s visiting agents quarters—a tradition between them whenever they were on the road.

HAHAHA! By the time you wake up, I’ll already be debriefed and lounging in my spacious luxury room! You snooze, you lose!!

Expecting only a routine debriefing, Merri hadn’t given much thought to the fact that Emmett had been called in early, ahead of his Sleeping partner. She’d had other things on her mind—dark, disturbing, unholy things.

Before heading off for her own debriefing, Merri had gone to her partner’s room for an unauthorized chat about her theft of the files she’d downloaded from Prissy-Ass Purcell’s computer, files that revealed Dante Prejean/Baptiste’s true nature and his forced participation in the nightmare known as Project Bad Seed.

But Emmett no longer had any knowledge of Dante Prejean/Baptiste.

The motherfuckers had plucked the knowledge from his mind.

They’ve wiped your memory, Em. They’ve fucking wiped your memory.

No, that can’t be. Why would they? No, no.

I’m next. Part of the reason why is on that flash drive. Maybe what we discovered at the compound is another part of why.

The compound? Shit! What compound? What did we discover?

If that’s gone too, then I’m fucking right.

Merri had realized that not only had Emmett’s memories of Damascus and Baptiste been stolen, they’d been replaced with artificial memories like fairy changelings tucked into the cradle of his recall. Merri had also learned that the details of their original assignment, the one that had placed them on the road to Damascus—the brutal murder of FBI SAC Alberto Rodriguez by Dante Baptiste—had been altered in Emmett’s mind as well.

Deciding to bail on her own debriefing/mind-wiping session, she and Emmett had slipped unnoticed from HQ and escaped from Alexandria.

They’d blasted bat-outta-hell-style down I-81 South, looking for a cheap, skanky-ass motel that accepted cash and didn’t require ID, scrambling to get their stunned minds working long enough to formulate a now-what? plan. Then they’d stumbled across the sleazy broken-neon wonders of The Lucky Star Motel. Refuge by the hour.

“There’s something that’s been bothering me,” Emmett said, his voice reeling Merri up from her mental wallowing and dark reflections. “Bugging the shit outta me, actually.”

Merri snorted and shook her head, her ponytail swinging against her shoulders. “Betrayal. Conspiracies. Memory-tampering. Imminent death. And something’s bothering you?” A smile tugged at her lips. “So spill, brothah. Give it to me.”

“All right. Here’s the million dollar question,” Emmett said. “How do we know our memories haven’t been wiped before? After each assignment?”

Those words hung like smoke in still air, goosing Merri’s pulse and icing her bones. A damned good question. “Well, goddamn.”

She stared at Emmett for a long moment, chewing on her lower lip, considering. Was it possible? Would her mère de sang, Galiana, be able to detect alterations in her mind? She’d have to find out.

Finally, she shook her head. “I guess we don’t know.”

“Ain’t that all kinds of yippee-hooray?” Emmett grumbled, more Louisiana creeping into his voice. “Appreciate the reassurance, Goodnight.”

Merri managed a wink. “Don’t mention it, Thibodaux. Just doing my part.”

“I guess the question now is, what do we do about it?”

“We keep alive and out of reach.” Merri pushed away from the door and crossed to the twin bed farthest away from the window. She plopped down onto the worn quilt, her nose wrinkling at the funky-ass stink of spilled whiskey, sweat, semen, and—what was that stale tomato tang?—ketchup assaulting her nostrils. “Whoo!” she breathed.

The Lucky Star Motel apparently didn’t figure their Rooms-by-the-Hour-and-Half-Hour! guests would have much need for clean bedding—or furniture, for that matter—given the poor excuse of a chair that Emmett’s long, lean-muscled body was draped over.

“Stay alive. Check. Keep out of reach. Check,” Emmett drawled. “What’s our next move, sistah? Go underground? How do we stay off a grid that spans the entire goddamned country?”

“We don’t,” Merri said. “They’re going to find us sooner or later. But maybe we can take control of where and when. I say we find Dante Baptiste.”

Emmett straightened in his chair. “Why the hell would we do that?”

“They wiped him and Damascus from your mind for a reason. We’re going to find out why.”

Understanding glittered in Emmett’s iris-blue eyes. “The fallen angel Stonehenge you told me about and the cave they ringed.”

Merri nodded. Images flashed through her mind, images that the SB had strip-mined from Emmett’s memory, images she now carried for them both.

A cave’s dark mouth stretches across the ground, an opening into the earth’s heart . . . Gleaming white statues of winged beings in various postures ring the cave . . . And something moves down in the darkness, something pale and thick, humping along the stone like a gigantic slug, singing, Holy, holy, holy. . .

Blue sparks flicker like fireflies over the white stone, skip along the butter-smooth wings . . . From within the white stone a heart flutters, the sound slowing . . .

Not statues.

Merri senses power in each stone figure, power that tingles against her gloved fingertips. She remembers tales of Fallen magic, whispers of angelic battles.

Her mère de sang’s voice whispered through her memory: I have a suspicion that events beyond the scope of mortals or even vampires might be unfolding.

“Baptiste was there, Em,” Merri said. “He saw what happened, him and Heather Wallace both. We can find out what they know. What they witnessed. Galiana thinks something big might be coming down, a war among the Fallen maybe.”

“Sounds lovely. Christ. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that fallen angels exist,” Emmett said, scrubbing a hand over his face.

“You managed to wrap your jambalaya-stewed mind around vampires just fine. After I proved the point with a very fine ass-kicking.”

“That’s étouffée-simmered, and I knew there was a reason I kept you around.”

“Because I keep your backwater mind propped open?”

A smile quirked up one corner of Emmett’s mouth. “That’d be it.”

“Thing is, we need to find Baptiste,” Merri said, leaning back on the bed and resting on her elbows. “Maybe he headed home to New Orleans, maybe not. Galiana’s looking into it.”

Emmett opened his mouth, but whatever he was about to say was preempted by sudden rhythmic thuds shaking the wall, accompanied by a woman’s bored and toneless moans—“Yeah, that’s it. Uh-huh. Oh. Oh. Oh.”—and enthusiastic male grunts.

Again. One of the hazards of refuge by the hour.

Emmett glanced at his watch. “I’m gonna bet twenty this one’s done and snoozing in five minutes.”

“I’ve got your twenty. Three minutes, then out the door.”

Three minutes later, the steady thumping slowed, then stopped. Two minutes after that a faint snore buzzed through the wall.

A triumphant grin parted Emmett’s lips. “Given that we need our cash, I’ll take an IOU.”

“Generous. Just add it to my tab.”

“Roger that.” Emmett’s expression sobered. “Okay, before I was so noisily interrupted, I was gonna say, even if we find Baptiste, what’s to stop him from just flat-out killing us?” He jerked his head at the laptop resting on the ink-graffitied desk. “You saw what Bad Seed did to him, what he was twisted into. Hell, we even studied his handiwork in Seattle.”

Rodriguez stares up at the glass-domed ceiling light with half-lidded, milky eyes. His throat looks shredded, savaged . . .

“I’ve got a feeling that what we saw in Seattle was a case of Baptiste being used, his programming triggered,” Merri said. “Someone wanted Rodriguez dead, and they used Baptiste to do it.”

“Could be, yeah. And that someone could still be controlling Baptiste.”

“True,” Merri sighed. “That’s what we’ll have to figure out when we find him.”

“Like I said, what’s to stop him from flat-out killing us?”

“We’ve got something he’s going to want,” Merri replied. “You saw what those motherfuckers did to his memory.”

Emmett nodded, face grim. “Bastards tore it apart—more than once.”

“We can give him his past. Contained in a flash drive.”

“Would you be doing this if he wasn’t a True Blood?” Emmett asked quietly.

Merri sat back up, planted her elbows on her knees, and rested her chin in the cup of her hands. She met her partner’s steady gaze. “I’d like to think so,” she replied, “but I don’t know. His being a True Blood is a major factor for me. So is the fact that he was just a baby, a toddler, a child handed over to fuckedup people with fucked-to-shit agendas—just to see what would happen.”

“I hear you. I think of my kids and . . .” A muscle jumped in Emmett’s jaw. “But Baptiste isn’t a kid anymore, he’s twenty-three. He’s a killer. He’s proven that time and again. Bad Seed succeeded with him.”

“Did they? I’m not so sure. He protected the other kids in his foster homes, he loved—” She stopped talking, lifted her head, and held up a just-a-second hand as her mère de sang’s welcome sending brushed across her thoughts.

<Buenas noches, Merri-child,> Galiana al-Qibtiyah greeted. <We have received word that Dante Baptiste is in New Orleans. He is also involved in some local feud that has resulted in his house being burned to the ground, but I have no details.>

<But he’s all right?>

<As far as we know,> Galiana admitted. <And the llygaid are deeply troubled by their lack of knowledge about this young True Blood.>

Merri frowned. <Why’s that?>

<It seems the llygad in Baptiste’s household has been silent. No word about True Blood. No word about that True Blood being hunted by government operatives.>

<Maybe Baptiste’s llygad doesn’t know.>

<Perhaps, but unlikely. The llygaid intend to find out. But that is their concern, Merri-girl. My concern is you. Since you refuse to come to Savannah—>

<I’m not putting you and your household at risk—>

A mental snort resonated through Merri’s mind. <The Shadow Branch would be starting a war if they came for you here.>

<Not if they destroyed you and everyone connected to you first. I won’t risk it. Emmett and I are going to find the True Blood. Offer him his past. And see if we can free him from those manipulating him.>

<I had a feeling you might say that.> Galiana’s thoughts stilled, a mental sigh. <I even told the Conseil du Sang as much. They want you to be their emissary to Dante Baptiste. They want you to assess his condition, to determine if he can be salvaged.>

<Salvaged? Jesus Christ. He’s a person, not a treasure ship half a mile underwater.>

<You know what I mean, girl. Don’t get on your high horse. As rare and powerful as True Bloods are, no one wants to just throw this boy away. But if he’s too damaged, then he’s much too dangerous to remain . . . free.>

<Shit. Okay. So what’s the procedure if Baptiste turns out to be a stone-cold psychopath?>

<Get away from him, then contact me and I’ll pass the word on to the Elders. They’ll take care of him.>

<All right. Understood.>

<Wyatt should be arriving soon,> Galiana sent. <He has cash, blind credit spikes, throw-away cell phones, blood, and a new car—with clean registration.>

<Thank you so much. Em and I really appreciate your help.>

<Feel free to change your mind at any point, Merri-girl. The most important thing to me is that you keep safe.>

Merri felt a smile curve her lips. <Also understood.>

For a second, Merri felt Galiana’s cool, satin-smooth arms wrapped around her, smelled her clean sweet oranges and almonds scent, then the sensations wisped away as her mère de sang withdrew, their conversation finished.

“Baptiste is in New Orleans,” Merri said, shifting her attention outward and meeting Emmett’s gaze once more. “A car and essentials will be here soon.”

“How is Galiana, anyway?” Emmett asked. “Must be nice to speak to your family, let them know that you’re okay and where you are.”

Merri felt a double pinch of guilt and sympathy. “Look, if I couldn’t send to Galiana, she wouldn’t know any more than Mark does.”

“Which is nothing,” Emmett growled. He jumped to his feet and started pacing. “Mark doesn’t know what’s going on. Doesn’t know I ain’t coming home any time soon. Doesn’t know I’d like him to pack the kids up and go stay with my folks for a while.”

“Em, no. If Mark suddenly ups and takes off, the SB will know you’re in contact with him. He’ll be safer if he knows nothing. Your house landline will be tapped and his cell phone will be monitored.” Merri shook her head. “No contact. Let the SB think we’ve gone completely underground.”

“Shit, I don’t know if I can do that. Leave him and the kids high and dry with no idea what’s happened. Or what danger they might be in.”

“Mark’s in no danger,” Merri said, watching her partner figure-eight the room. “They’ll just keep surveillance on him and the kids and wait for you to make contact.”

Emmett stopped pacing. He looked at Merri. “And what happens when they get tired of waiting?”

“We’ll worry about that when and if.”

Emmett shook his head and folded his arms over his chest. “Not good enough, Merri. Not by half. You don’t have a partner or kids. You don’t know—”

Merri moved, blurring off the bed and onto her booted feet. She poked a finger into Emmett’s chest, cutting off his words. He looked down at her from his lordly six-three, face startled.

“How the hell would you know, Thibodaux?” she demanded, voice harsh. “I was mortal once. A slave, remember? Nothing belonged to us.” Resurrected wails echoed through her memory, cries she thought she’d buried two centuries ago.

Mama! Mama! Mama! MAAAAMAAAA . . . !

Hold on, baby. Mama’s comin’. Give me my child! Master, please!

Throat so tight, she could barely breathe, Merri gave Emmett’s chest another hard jab. He staggered back a step. “You have no motherfucking idea what I’ve been forced to give up. You think you’re the only one? You can just go to hell, Emmett Thibodaux.”

“Aw, Christ.” Emmett’s strong arms wrapped around Merri and folded her into a tight embrace. His heart pulsed hard and fast beneath her cheek. She breathed in his sharp anise-over-ice scent. “I’m an idiot, Merri,” he murmured.

“No argument here.”

“I’m truly sorry—”

“Forget it,” Merri replied, stepping back and tilting her head back to meet her partner’s shadowed gaze. “What you need to remember is that your family will be in very real danger if you contact them in any way. Trust me on that.”

Emmett released his breath in a long, slow exhale, then nodded. “I’ve trusted you every step of the way, I ain’t about to quit now.” His hands slid up from their embrace to squeeze her shoulders once before releasing her. “New Orleans, huh? So we’re gonna visit the bad mofo on his own turf?”

“The bad and beautiful mofo.”

A smile flickered across Emmett’s lips. “Truth, sistah.”

Merri tilted her head and listened as a car pulled into the motel’s drive, tires splashing through rain puddles on the blacktop, then parked; listened to its door creak open. “Wyatt’s here,” she said, a bare second ahead of the quiet knock on the door.

Emmett whipped his Colt from its holster, his karate-trained instincts sharp as a razor-edged switchblade, his finger curled around the trigger. “Let’s be positive,” he murmured.

On the other side of the door, Merri heard the strong, slow rhythm of a vampire heart, felt his banked and controlled energy. Striding to the door, she unchained and unlocked it, then eased it open.

“Hey,” Wyatt greeted, his eyes gleaming with streetlight. A smile curved his lips, giving his handsome face with its hazel eyes and coffee-brown curls a look of mischief. “Got a care package for y’all.”

“Hey back, and thanks.”

“Got something special just for you too, sugar,” Wyatt drawled, his voice all smooth Savannah charm.

Merri drew in a deep breath of rain-chilled air laced with the sharp snap of spearmint, the latter Wyatt’s scent, and allowed her hunger to unwind in anticipation. “Bagged?” she asked.

Wyatt’s mischievous smile deepened, dimpled his cheeks. “Nah. Volunteer.”

“I’ll be right out,” Merri said.

“All right.” Glancing past her and into the room, Wyatt nodded, then added an amiable, “Emmett.”

“Wyatt. Easy drive?” Emmett lowered his Colt.

“Yup. All my drives been easy since I gave up riding.”

Emmett cocked an eyebrow. “Only horses, I hope.”

Wyatt laughed. “Hell, yeah. Only horses.” Chuckling, he turned and walked back to the car, a rain-glistening SUV.

Merri swiveled around to face her partner. “I’ll be back in a few,” she said. She glanced at the grease-spotted bag sitting beside his laptop. The bag was still rolled shut. She frowned. “It doesn’t look like you ever touched your Quarter Pounder and fries.”

“Nope,” Emmett said, reholstering his gun, then slouching into the metal folding chair again. He looked at the laptop. “Kinda lost my appetite.”

“I told you to eat before you looked at the Bad Seed flash drive, Em.”

“You did,” Emmett said. “Wish to hell I’d listened.” He trailed both hands through his hair. “You believe in karma, Merri?”

“To some extent, yeah. But I’ve lived long enough to know that some people never get what they have coming—good or bad.”

“I’ve been wondering if losing those memories was a little bit of karma.”

Merri shook her head. “You never wiped anyone’s memory, so how could it be?”

“I’m responsible for people getting their minds scrubbed.”

“No, we are. Everything we’ve done, we’ve done together. And that means any karma earned would hit us both,” Merri said. “What happened to you wasn’t karma, it was betrayal.”

Emmett looked unconvinced, but he waved her out the door. “Go on with your bad self. I’m good. Maybe I’ll see if I can get a little shut-eye before we hit the road.”

“Good. You could use it, partner,” Merri said, slipping outside. But as she turned to pull the door shut, she saw Emmett awaken his laptop monitor and click open the Bad Seed file again.

Shaking her head, Merri quietly shut the door.

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