The Shadows(Black Dagger Brotherhood, book 13)(38) by J.R.Ward
The sound of a single-engine boat going at a slow speed came so quietly that, at first, one could not distinguish it from the ambient noises of the forest and the river. But soon enough, the troller came around the bend of the shore, flat and low to the water. There were two individuals sitting in its open hull, both dressed as nothing-doing fishermen in their caps and camo, only the black masks they wore hinting at anything nefarious. Fishing poles were likewise mounted on either side to promote the appearance of innocuous activity, the invisible lines trawling into the current, stretching out behind the stern.
The captain brought the humble craft in bow-first, toggling down on the engine so they landed with a kiss, not a punch.
The cousins closed in as Assail hung back, his own forty at the ready. The scents from the two human males identified them as different, but related, to the two that had come the last time. And the time before that. And so on.
“Where are the others?” Assail demanded.
The men stopped in the process of picking up three out of the five black duffels that had been hidden beneath a camo tarp.
Assail smiled thinly at their surprise. “Did you think I wouldn’t know?”
“I am brother,” the one on the left said in heavily accented English. “He is cousin.”
Assail inclined his head, accepting the explanation. In truth, he did not care who delivered his product as long as they did so on a timely basis, for an agreed price and potency, and without interference from human law enforcement.
So far, so good with this pair.
Moments later, Ehric and his brother accepted the bags and walked off, one facing forward, the other backward so they provided each other cover.
“A moment,” Assail drawled. “If you don’t mind.”
The human men stopped again, and he felt their anxiety sure as if it were a reverberation on the surface of a table, the transfer of energy traveling easily through the air that separated their bodies.
“What else is under there?” he said, pointing to the tarp. “There are two more duffels, are there not.”
The smaller of the pair, the cousin, jerked the cover back into place and went around to the boat’s controls.
“The schedule next month,” the other said. “The same?”
“I’ll be in touch with your bosses.”
Just like that, they were on their way, putt-putt-putting against the sluggish current of the cold water—with someone else’s merchandise along with them.
Frowning, Assail watched as they cut across the waterway, and proceeded parallel to the opposite shore.
A moment later, he returned to the Range Rover, and when he knocked on the front passenger-side window, Ehric put the thing down.
“Yes?” the male said.
“I’m going to follow them.” Assail nodded in the direction of the boat. “They’re dealing with somebody else. I want to find out who.”
With a curt nod, Ehric dematerialized over into the driver’s seat and put the SUV in gear. “I saw that, too. Call if you need aught.”
As the Range Rover took off, Assail turned away and strode back to the water. Closing his eyes, he had to fight his cocaine buzz in order to calm himself, and it was a while before he could spirit himself away on the cold wind. When he reformed some kilometers down the river, he waited until the boat came into view once more. The men were oblivious to his presence as he stood in stillness among the colorful trees and contrasting brown vegetation, watching as they progressed by.
Same engine speed. Same protocol for delivering the goods to him. The question was: who was their next client.
And what kind of drugs were they selling?
Their bosses had agreed to deal with him exclusively in this part of New York state. And whereas competition was good for capitalism, it was not welcome in his territory—also unnecessary to their income statement. His requirements were sufficiently large and established enough that he represented a book of business worthy of respect.
Indeed, it was necessary for there to be honor amongst lawbreakers. For everyone’s good. And he had held up his end of the bargain, arriving consistently with the cash. Month after month after month.
He was prepared to fix this problem, however.
Rhage, Tohr and V headed back to the mansion not long after meeting Applebottom’s pride and joy, with Butch following in the Range Rover. As the three of them resumed their physical forms in the courtyard, a light shining among the lineup of cars got their attention.
Rhage strode over to the open door of the pale blue Mercedes. “Layla—?”
Except there was no one inside fiddling with her purse or bundling up before she headed across the courtyard for home.
He shut the door. “She’s not—”
“Layla!” Tohr barked. “Oh, shit!”
Rhage looked up to the mansion’s entrance. The heavy door into the vestibule was cracked open, a leg extending out at ground level, the ankle and foot propping the panels open.
The three of them bolted up the stairs. As Rhage cranked wide the tremendous weight, V, with his medical background, jumped over the Chosen’s collapsed body and started checking vitals.
“Tohr,” Rhage said. “Call—”
But his brother already had his cell phone up to his ear. “Yeah, Jane? We need you up here in the vestibule. Layla’s collapsed—V, stats?”
As the brother put the phone in V’s face, Vishous said to his mate, “Heart rate’s steady, but slow. So is the breathing. No sign of trauma that I can see.”
“You hear that?” Tohr said, resuming speaking. “Good. Thanks.” As he ended the call, he immediately started dialing again. “She’s bringing Manny and Ehlena.” Back up to the ear. Waiting. Waiting.
He was obviously calling Qhuinn—
For some odd reason, the world went wonky on Rhage: One minute, he was staring down at Layla, and thinking there was nothing more terrifying than a pregnant female facedown on any kind of flooring. The next, the vestibule was spinning around him like a ball on the end of a string, his head the center point of the whizzing-by, his balance oddly uncompromised by the—
“He’s going over!”
Huh. Guess he wasn’t quite as steady as he thought.
When there was a bite on his upper arm, he looked down and saw Tohr’s hand lock on his biceps and hold him up.
Wow. This was manly, Rhage thought.
A round of the Victorian vapors just because a female was—
Qhuinn’s panicked appearance right next to him gave him the wakey-wakey he needed, his mind clearing as the male shoved his way in to get to the female who was carrying his child. Blay, as always, was right behind him, ready to do whatever to support his mate.
“What the hell happened?”Qhuinn demanded.
V started talking. Doc Jane and her team arrived. Medical equipment was outted from a black, old-fashioned doctor’s bag.
Turning to Tohr, who was still holding him up, Rhage heard a strange version of his voice say, “I’m having trouble breathing, my brother.”
Tohr swung his head around. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know. I can’t … seem to breathe.” He massaged his chest with his free hand. “It’s like there’s a balloon in here. Taking up all the space.”
As the medical peeps rolled Layla onto her back, there was cursing from the peanut gallery. Her arm was at an all-wrong angle, the part below the elbow showing a nasty break which must have happened when she fainted.
“Rhage?” someone said to him. “Hello?”
He glanced over at Tohrment. “What?”
Tohr leaned in. “You want some fresh air?”
“Aren’t we outside?” To answer his own question, he looked up to the heavens. “Yeah, we’re—”
“How ’bout we take a little walk.”
“Want to help.”
“Yeah, I get that. But I think going for a stroll’s a really good idea. You’re white as a sheet, and if you pull a lights-out, I can’t guarantee you’re not going to turn someone into a carpet underneath you and we don’t need any other patients right now.”
As his brother pulled on his arm, Rhage kept rubbing his heart. “I don’t know why I can’t breathe…”
The last image he had, as he was pulled away, was of Layla’s face flopping to the side, her eyes wide-open, but unseeing.
“Is she dead?” he whispered. “Has she died—”
“Come on, my brother—”
“No, she’s not. She’s alive.”
Every time he blinked, he saw her blond hair on the marble tile like a liquid spilled, her lips as pale as her cheeks, those jade-green eyes opaque and unmoving.
“Mary? Yeah, Mary, I got a situation with your boy. Can you come home now?”
Who was that talking? Oh, yeah, Tohr. On his phone. The Brother had taken out his phone.
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