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The Hand Of God





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New Orleans

March 28

Former FBI ADIC Monica Rutgers gave up on sleeping.

She kicked the twisted and sweat-soaked sheets away from her body and stared at the motel room’s popcorn ceiling as early afternoon sunlight trickled in from around the window shades.

The room smelled stale, dust and sweat and recycled air, restless. But the sharp smell of ozone haunted her nostrils.

The bottle of Bushmills Irish whiskey Rutgers had shared with Sam Gillespie after they’d escaped from shattered St. Louis No. 3 coated her tongue and soured her stomach.

She’d learned the hard way that no amount of whiskey could dislodge the images stuck like black burrs in her mind. Or numb her to their ceaseless prickling.

What had she and Sam Gillespie witnessed in the cemetery? Or, more to the point, who had crafted both destruction and doorway?

Rutgers now knew why Gillespie had asked his questions about Prejean in the cemetery as blue flames danced along crumpled tombs and sirens wailed in the night.

What do you know about his father?

Nothing. Prejean’s mother never said word one about who fathered her baby.

And you never wondered about that?

Didn’t seem important.

Got something that’ll change your mind about that. Something you need to see.

And as the images from the center’s stolen security cam disk had flooded her mind with alternating waves of ice and flame, she’d realized a simple truth.

They’d been utter fools.

A figure steps into the corridor and moves into camera view. His waist-length black hair snakes into the air like night-blackened seaweed caught in a current. His wings, black and smooth, arch up behind him, half-folded, as he kneels on the floor and reaches for one of two figures crumpled together on the tile, Dante Prejean and Heather Wallace.

He fixes his gaze on the woman struggling out from underneath Elroy Jordan’s body—Dr. Johanna Moore.

Do you remember Genevieve Baptiste? My son’s mother?

Your . . . son?

Rutgers had shared Moore’s shock. Had stared open-mouthed and helpless at the monitor as the images continued to dance against her eyeballs, her fingers fumbling for the whiskey bottle’s smooth neck.

In all of the information the Bureau had compiled on Prejean’s friends and associates, the essential fact that Lucien De Noir was not only Prejean’s father but a fallen angel had escaped them.

Who knew fallen angels walked among us, let alone existed?

Rutgers had dismissed De Noir as a wealthy entrepreneur with a taste for beautiful, lean-muscled young vampires in eyeliner and leather. Believed him fond enough of Prejean to buy him a home and a club. Believed that Prejean made it well worth De Noir’s money and time.

How long ago did I stop doing my job? When did I start coasting on assumptions and half-truths? Glancing only at surfaces?

Fools, all of us. But I was the worst kind of fool—complacent.

Rutgers rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands, and threads of orange light unspooled in the darkness behind her eyes. But the images resumed their chilling flow.

The energy surrounding Prejean shafts into Johanna Moore’s body from dozens of different points. Explodes from her eyes. From her nostrils. Her screaming mouth. She separates into strands, wet and glistening. Prejean’s energy unthreads Moore. Pulls apart every single element of her flesh.

Johanna Moore spills to the tiled floor, her scream ending in a gurgle.

One mystery solved: Moore hadn’t disappeared. She no longer existed.

Avenge your mother. And yourself.

And Prejean rises from the fallen angel’s arms, rises up from the floor, bathed in dim red emergency light, his body tight and coiled, blood smeared across his breathtaking face.

And with a touch of Prejean’s hands, Johanna Moore’s life had been unthreaded.

When would he come for the rest of them?

A cold sweat sprang up on Rutgers’s forehead. Stomach knotting with nausea, she rolled out of bed, her nightgown tangling around her legs, and stumbled to the bathroom. She dropped to her knees on the tile, slammed the toilet lid open, and emptied her stomach into the bowl.

Later, resting curled on the cool floor, pain throbbing behind her eyes, she remembered why she didn’t drink. She had neither the head nor the stomach for it. She felt drained, boneless and hollow.

She hoped Gillespie was suffering too, but given the man was a well-pickled alcoholic, she doubted it. If anything, he suffered hangovers from lack of booze. With a low sigh, Rutgers grabbed the sink’s smooth edge and pulled herself to her feet. She brushed her teeth thoroughly with cool mint toothpaste, scrubbing the taste of bile and acid from her mouth.

Rutgers turned on the shower and yanked her sweat-sodden nightgown off over her head, one sleeve pulling painfully at her curls. She stepped into the shower. The hot water goosebumped her skin. She tipped her face up to the hot spray and allowed the heat to work the tension from her muscles.

A voice whispered up from within the wilderness of her heart. Run. Pack your bags and burn rubber out of New Orleans. Don’t look back. And don’t go home. Take up an anonymous life in some distant place. Maybe if you never think of Prejean again, he won’t find you.

A voice she hushed.

No escape. No anonymous life. No going home.

Not until the monster was dead.

Rutgers wet her hair, slicked it back from her face with her hands. Her heart drummed a fierce rhythm against her sternum.

She hadn’t resigned from the goddamned Bureau just so she could retire to a condo in Miami, play bingo, and write a tell-all memoir.

She’d resigned so she could do the thing that she’d been unable to do as a member of the Bureau—stride into the deep, dark woods to slay the monster at its heart.

She’d resigned so that she’d never have to tell another set of parents that their son or daughter had died carrying out her orders while she sat safe and distant in her tower of concrete and glass.

I deeply regret your son’s loss. He was a fine agent, one you can be proud of.

Rutgers’s chest tightened. Too many bright lives snuffed out or ruined, all because of Prejean.

Now, for reasons Rutgers still didn’t understand, the Shadow Branch had severed the Bureau from their role in Bad Seed and declared Prejean off-limits. No matter how much blood he spilled—agents and innocents alike—Underwood and the Shadow Branch were willing to step back and wave him on.

And warn everyone else away.

Of course, no longer being a part of the Bureau or Bad Seed, Rutgers could go where she pleased, do what she wanted. The Shadow Branch could shove their directives up their collective asses.

As she lathered her skin with perfumed soap, snatches of her whiskey-soaked conversation with Gillespie earlier that morning, after she’d finished watching the disk, drifted through her mind.

Dear God. He’s not only a vampire, he’s the son of a fallen angel.

Fucking spawn of a demon, I think you mean.

Did you know that fallen angels actually exist?

Sure. As a kid I used to watch out my window every night hoping one would fly by so I could make a fucking wish. What the hell do you think?

All right, no need to get snippy. How the hell are we supposed to kill Prejean? He unmade Moore. And what he did at the cemetery . . . We’re out of our league here.

I agree that we’re in way over our heads. But since he can be hurt, he can be killed. We just need to figure out how.

We need help, Gillespie. More information. We’ll only have one chance at this.

I hear you. We blow it and the bloodsucking bastard kills us.

We need to plan if we’re going to succeed. We need to do research on fallen angels. Find an expert to question.

I agree with the planning, but . . . an expert on fallen angel–vampire half-breeds? Good luck with that.

And that was another thing—Rutgers had never imagined working side-by-side with an SB agent, and especially not with Section Chief Sam Gillespie, with his reputation for booze and poor judgment.

A rueful smile tugged at Rutgers’s lips. So what did that say about her own judgment?

Booze hound, obsessed, yes, Gillespie was those things. But she believed the runaway SB chief to be sincere in his desire to end Dante Prejean’s violent life. Gripped with an almost religious fervor to ride with her into those stark and twisted woods with a lance tucked under his arm, ready to tilt with the beast.

Religious fervor.

Remembering the church she’d seen several blocks down from her Best Western motel room, an idea burned bright in Rutgers’s mind. Expert advice.

She hastily finished her shower, dressed in a gray plaid skirt, white blouse, charcoal blazer, and black pumps. Then, tucking her Glock and her cell phone into her purse, she walked out of her motel room.

THE CHURCH WAS NEARLY empty.

Rutgers eased into a smooth wood pew near the entrance. Just a couple of people lingered in the pews, heads bent, while a few others lit candles for the dead, the early afternoon mass over. Sunlight streamed in through the trio of stained-glass windows above the altar, staining the air with translucent color.

The church was fragrant with the smells of incense and beeswax and polished wood. With fragile hope. A charged and holy hush seemed to resonate throughout the church’s interior as though a song had just ended, the last note lingering at the edge of hearing in the quiet air.

Rutgers spotted the priest in a belted black cassock standing beside one of the confessionals, his head bowed thoughtfully as he listened to a parishioner, a middle-aged black woman in a blue velvet pants suit.

Rutgers wondered how the priest would react to her questions. Would he have any answers for her, any insight on how to send Prejean straight to hell, or would he just listen politely, then usher her, the crazy woman from off the street, back outside.

Prejean cups Moore’s face. His hands tremble. Glow with blue light. Blue flame. His hair snakes up into the air. Blue light shafts into Moore’s body . . .

Rutgers stiffened in the pew, blinked the images away. She felt a sudden and troubling desire for a drink.

Goddamned Gillespie.

Another image flared in her mind, but this one was of Heather Wallace as she’d looked the last time Rutgers had seen her—sitting in Rodriguez’s office, her attractive face composed, her intelligent blue eyes calm as still water as she pretended—quite well, Rutgers reflected ruefully—that she knew nothing about Bad Seed.

A smart move on Wallace’s part. It had kept her out of custody and alive.

But now the Shadow Branch hunted her, eager to unlock the mystery she presented—her mortally wounded body healed by Prejean and without using his blood.

Rutgers glanced at the linen cloth–draped altar, her gaze skimming past the grim crucifix to the stained-glass windows above. Could Wallace be saved? She’d chosen Prejean over her career, the Bureau, even her family. She’d even helped him commit murder. Slept with him.

A pang of something close to grief knifed Rutgers’s heart. The dedicated agent who’d yearned to be a voice for the dead was gone, her soul sucked dry by a goddamned vampire. Wallace was beyond saving.

Lowering her gaze from the sun-soaked images of saints and Christ and angels—white, feathered wings, not smooth and black—Rutgers shifted her attention back to the confessionals.

The priest spoke in low tones to the woman in the blue velvet pants suit, an expression of sincere sympathy on his rugged face. He squeezed her hand between his before offering her a warm and encouraging smile.

A cynical smile tugged at Rutgers’s lips. Go and sin no more?

With a murmured “Thank you, Father,” the woman walked away, heading toward the rows of flickering candles.

Rutgers rose to her feet, looped her purse around her shoulder, and strode up the aisle toward the priest. He looked at her as she approached, his brow furrowing as if he saw something in her body language or on her face that troubled him.

Must be the FBI stride—all authority and grim purpose. I’ve forgotten how to walk any other way.

“Excuse me, Father,” Rutgers said, drawing to a halt in front of him. This close, she realized how tall he was, six-four or six-five, his frame well-muscled beneath his cassock. Gray salted the temples of his close-cropped dark brown hair. “I was hoping I could take a little bit of your time. I need information rather urgently.”

“How can I help?” His voice was smooth and soothing, a slow glide up the Mississippi. She’d bet women flocked to his sermons for the sensual sound of his voice alone.

“Is there somewhere we can speak privately?”

He regarded her for a long moment with eyes the warm color of sunlit honey. “Of course, Ms . . . ?”

“Monica Rutgers,” she supplied.

“Is this an official visit of some kind, Ms. Rutgers?”

Even though her FBI badge was still tucked inside her purse, Rutgers knew she’d only put the priest on the defensive if she displayed it. “No,” she said finally. “And I appreciate any time you can give me, Father.”

“Aloysius,” he murmured. “Father Aloysius.” He glanced around the church, taking stock of those still lingering in the building, then nodded. “We can speak in my office, Ms. Rutgers.”

“Thank you.”

Father Aloysius’s office was at the back of the church, at the end of a long, narrow hallway. He scooped a pile of what looked like hot rod magazines off the chair parked in front of his cluttered desk.

“Please,” he said, nodded at the chair. Dumping the magazines on the carpeted floor beside his desk, he moved around behind it and seated himself. “You mentioned an urgent need for information. About what?”

Rutgers smoothed the back of her skirt underneath her as she sat down and met the priest’s curious gaze. She drew in a breath of air musty with the smells of books with leather bindings and yellowing pages, of crackling parchment and fresh ink.

“This may sound odd, but, trust me, I’m very sincere,” she said. “What can you tell me about fallen angels and demons?”

Father Aloysius’s eyebrows crawled up to his hairline. Blowing out a surprised breath, he leaned back in his chair, the springs squeaking as it rocked back. “I’ll admit that’s not what I was expecting, Ms. Rutgers.”

She chuckled. “I’ll bet.”

“I thought you were going to ask about all the blasted vampires.”

RUTGERS FOLLOWED FATHER ALOYSIUS down to the basement, bits of their conversation from upstairs ringing through her still partially disbelieving ears.

Unmaking people. Destroying the cemetery. Blasting doorways into Hell. If what you’ve said is true—and I’m not saying it isn’t—we might be dealing with something much bigger and even deadlier than a demonic True Blood/Fallen hybrid.

And that would be?

The Great Destroyer.

Excuse me, the Great . . . what?

Destroyer. Cultures throughout the world have been seeded with prophecies about this angelic being and what his or her appearance means for humanity.

And what does it mean for humanity?

Our end.

Do you mean the Antichrist? But that’s just . . . I mean, even if it’s true, he’s defeated and—

The Great Destroyer, the Unmaker, has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity, Ms. Rutgers . . .

The pungent scents of sandalwood and frankincense permeated the closed-in air as the priest led Rutgers down a narrow, well-lit hallway to what looked like a steel door at its end. She noticed a symbol sketched both on the door and above it in what looked like dried blood.

“Protection sigils,” Father Aloysius explained, following her gaze. “Holy script.”

“And who does it keep out?” Rutgers asked.

“Anything not mortal.”

“And has anything ‘not mortal’ put it to the test?”

“Not yet,” the priest admitted.

“How long have you been doing this . . . killing vampires?”

“Just the last year, but we’re learning with each strike.”

Of all the churches in all of New Orleans, I walk into this one, Rutgers mused. Maybe there really was such a thing as destiny or fate.

A keypad rested on the wall beside the door, a tiny green telltale glowing at its base. Father Aloysius quickly punched in a code. A beep sounded from the pad, then Rutgers heard a solid clunk as the door unlocked. Grasping the handle, Father Aloysius pushed the heavy door open. Air laced with the smells of gun oil and candle wax whooshed out of the room.

The priest ushered Rutgers inside. As she went in and looked around, her pulse picked up speed. Hope blossomed within her.

Weapons of all sorts lined the walls: pistols, assault rifles, shotguns, crossbows, stakes of different lengths. Computers rested on workstations. Books were shelved in cases hugging the lower half of each wall.

A bulletin board displayed photos of vamps beneath two headers: MISSION and ACCOMPLISHED.

Father Aloysius followed her into the room, his cassock rustling, and stood beside her. “We’re called the Hand of God, and we meet every Tuesday and Thursday,” he murmured. “We have access to information—both arcane and practical—all around the world. God bless the Church and the Internet.”

Rutgers looked at him, and a grim smile curved his lips as he met her gaze. “Trust me, Ms. Rutgers. We’ll find a way to kill this Dante Prejean. No matter what he is.”

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