Adrian would have no choice but to kill again tonight. He knew it as surely as he lived and breathed. Just as he knew the world would be better off because of it.
Violence tainted the atmosphere, a foul aura that beckoned him like a siren’s call. Ridding the world of diseased souls was not only a calling for him. It had become an obsession. Every time he struck down a thug or hardened criminal, every time he snuffed out a corrupt soul, he fed the darkness that fueled him, while eliminating another threat to mankind.
The tracking abilities he’d inherited from his Hybrid father kept him on course, allowed him to narrow in on his prey and made him more effective than the entire NYPD. Tonight, his instincts led him through a series of dark alleys backlit by a partial moon and a handful of streetlamps, down to the subway station located on the border of Midtown and the Upper East Side.
The beige tiles complained beneath the assault of his heavy boots as he advanced, their grimy surface carpeted by a scatter of litter. At a nearby corner, water pooled, a result of a neglected leak or a poor drainage system.
He walked between the green metal columns that labored to hold up the vaulted ceiling and the row of wooden benches that served to divide the area between the two tracks. The station was dead silent save for the steady drip of water and the annoying hum of the fluorescent tubes overhead. Adrian stayed focused, following the foul smell of the vermin he hunted. He sensed the dark hum of anticipation underscored by a sharp hunger for violence.
If there was anything he understood, it was hunger, and judging from the sudden shift in the atmosphere, it was about to be fed. A female scream shattered the silence, echoing through the station. Adrian followed the sound to the darkened stairwell, where three thugs cornered a young woman.
They pushed her against the wall, the biggest of the three leering down at her. His intentions would’ve been painfully clear even if Adrian hadn’t possessed the ability to read the bastard’s mind. In that brief moment when Adrian’s thoughts connected with the assailant’s, he saw every perverted act the man had committed. He felt the fear and pain of all the women he’d assaulted, smelled the blood he’d spilled, sensed the pleasure each sick act had triggered within him.
If ever a soul was diseased, it was this one. The guy standing next to him was no better. They were a team, brothers in malice and brutality. Only the third guy didn’t fit. He stood a few feet away, fidgeting, his hands clenching and unclenching with obvious unease. He was only a trainee, Adrian realized, new to the business of rape and murder.
The victim attempted to take a step back, but the big guy yanked her against him. Wrapping his thick arms around her middle, he effortlessly lifted her off the ground. The woman wrestled, kicked and screamed and tried to bite him. His buddy quickly closed in and pressed a serrated blade to her throat, stilling her struggles instantly.
“Release her.” Adrian’s voice held enough menace to intimidate just about anyone, but that wasn’t what impelled the thugs to put their prey down and back away. Among Adrian’s gifts was the ability to plant a suggestion. People obeyed his every command, no questions asked. Most of the time he didn’t have to lift a finger to get the job done, though he could’ve easily taken these three and walked away singing a happy tune.
The instant the woman’s feet touched the ground, she scampered sideways across the wall, but she didn’t attempt to escape. She stood frozen, staring at Adrian with a blend of wariness and curiosity.
The big guy withdrew a gleaming black Glock from his pocket—Adrian had seen enough guns to recognize the make. “This doesn’t concern you, asshole. Walk away while you still can.”
The ground rumbled as a train zipped past, then came to a screeching halt. Adrian took a predatory step toward the gunman. The sociopath aimed the Glock at Adrian’s heart and waited, his expression daring him to make another move, begging him to. Not one to disappoint, Adrian marched forward again.
The train abruptly departed, shattering the stillness, just as the gun went off.
Adrian looked down at his chest. The bullet had cut straight through his brand-new leather bomber jacket. He ran his finger over the jagged hole, shook his head. “Damn shame. I love this jacket.”
The shithead who’d shot him dropped the pistol and stumbled back.
“Pick up the gun,” Adrian commanded. “It’s not good to litter.”
Succumbing to Adrian’s persuasive charm, the guy did as he was told.
“It’s time to clean house.” Adrian directed an unflinching stare at his would-be murderer and pointed to the man’s buddy, the one who shared his bloodlust. “Starting with him.” Never again would these two partner up and hurt another woman.
“Shoot him,” he urged mentally.
Another shot rang out, followed closely by the woman’s startled scream. The dead man plunked to the ground, his damaged soul rising from his body. Adrian called it to him, drawing it deep inside him where it could no longer cause any damage.
He ensnared the gunman’s gaze again. “Now it’s your turn.”
The rapist-murderer raised the gun to his mouth with an unsteady hand.
“Holy hell. No.” The woman verged on hysterical. “What—?” Her voice failed her.
Why was she still here? Any rational person would’ve run away by now.
Adrian couldn’t allow her presence to deter him from his mission. The damage to this man’s soul was irreparable. If he allowed it to remain in circulation, it would continue to contaminate everything it touched, year after year, century after century. He needed to crush it the way one would crush a growing infection.
“P-p-please,” the man begged, his voice muffled by the thick muzzle of the gun. Urine trickled down his leg to puddle at his feet. He didn’t look so intimidating anymore, nothing but a trembling mass of weakness and fear.
Unmoved by the murderer’s pleas, knowing full well how the man had responded to the pleas of the dozens of women he’d tortured and killed, Adrian issued his final mental command. “Pull the trigger.”
A third shot reverberated through the cavernous space, and the vicious predator collapsed, blood gurgling from his mouth. As the light left his eyes, so did his soul. Adrian captured it with a potent blend of avarice and glee.
When the electric thrum in his veins quieted, he rounded on the last remaining assailant, the young guy who stood fidgeting by the stairs. The thug didn’t attempt to flee. Adrian made sure of it. All it took was a carefully planted suggestion and the man accepted his fate. He closed his eyes, waiting for the universe to punish him for the evil lurking inside him.
The woman surprised Adrian by narrowing the distance between them and clamping her hand around his arm. Her grasp was unnaturally strong for one so delicate. She reminded him of a flower, sprouting resiliently in a field of concrete, standing proud as the wind fought to whip her down. “I don’t know what you’re doing, but please stop.”
Apparently she wasn’t only strong but perceptive as well. Somehow she’d figured out what was going on, that Adrian was silently urging her attackers to succumb to their dark nature and commit murder.
“There’s a stain on his soul.” He saw it as clearly as he saw the terror contorting the man’s features.
“He’s young. He can change.”
Adrian shook his head. “They never change.” He’d existed for a very long time. He’d lived among the vile, the depraved, the corrupt, and if there was anything experience had taught him, it was that there was no cure for evil.
The woman held his gaze, appealing to his muted conscience. A conscience his uncle had failed to extinguish the day he’d ripped Adrian’s soul from his body. Sometimes he caught echoes of his past humanity, a weak tightening in his abdomen, a sliding sensation in his chest, but the feeling usually faded before he could truly connect with it.
Tonight, it bit into him with metal fangs.
He focused his attention on the youth, looking for a glimmer of hope, a spark of goodness. Buried deep beneath the anger, the contempt, the driving need to inflict pain, he sensed something he hadn’t sensed in the other two thugs he’d dispatched—a capacity for remorse.
Blood snaked around their feet, leaking from the two corpses and saturating the air with a thick, coppery stench. Adrian hated the smell of copper as much as he hated the substance itself. At least it wasn’t angel’s blood. Thank heavens for small favors.
The girl continued to watch him with wide, expectant eyes that were speckled with green and gray and a hint of brown around the pupils. Those eyes sucked him in, distracted him. Again he wondered why she hadn’t fled the scene yet. What did she care if he killed the men who’d assaulted her? He knew what they would’ve done to her given the chance. They would’ve raped her repeatedly, then left her broken and bleeding beneath the subway stairs.
But she did care. He could tell by the way those deep, fascinating eyes misted. “No one has the right to decide who lives and who dies,” she whispered. “Everyone deserves a second chance.”
Her words awakened feelings inside him he’d believed long dead. Compassion. Guilt. The desire to see approval in another’s eyes. Adrian wasn’t ruled by compassion, he didn’t succumb to guilt, and he most certainly had no desire to impress anyone, especially a human. So this sudden gush of neediness and remorse jolted him more than the gunshot had. It threw him off his game, and he did something that surprised even him. “Go. Get out of here,” he rasped in a rare display of mercy. “Both of you.”
The delinquent didn’t budge, and neither did the woman.
“I’m doing you a favor,” he said, looking pointedly at the rough, unshaven youth. Around his head, the kid wore a red bandana, and tattoos bruised his neck and arms. “Don’t blow it. If I catch you hurting anyone again, if you as much as witness another act of violence and do nothing to stop it, I’m coming after you.”
The guy nodded feebly, finally awakening from his trance, then scampered up the stairs, leaving Adrian alone with the woman.
Exhaling the breath she’d been holding, she released his arm and collapsed against the nearest wall. She brought her hand to her mouth, tried to settle her racing heart. An ordinary man wouldn’t have been able to hear her unsteady pulse from this distance, but Adrian was no ordinary man. Her heartbeat pounded inside his skull like the choppy notes of a drum at the hands of an inexperienced player.
The surprising urge to comfort her gripped him. He wanted to reassure her that everything would be all right, but he didn’t know how. Adrian didn’t belong in the human world, had spent his entire existence policing its perimeter like a well-oiled machine. The human heart was as much a mystery to him as the universe itself.
“Are you all right?” Dumb question, but it was all he could think to say.
A thin stream of blood dripped from her nose, and she wiped it away with the back of her hand. “I’m okay.” Despite her assertion, her words lacked conviction. “Just a little shaken. Not to mention confused.”
She rummaged through her purse and pulled out a tissue, which she pressed to her bleeding nose. “How did you do that?”
“Do what?” He connected with her mind, attempted to convince her that what she’d witnessed was a murder-suicide and nothing more.
But to his dismay, she wasn’t as easy to influence as most humans. Hers was a perfect soul, powerful, untarnished and oddly familiar. Beautiful waves of energy spilled from her body to bounce off him and scramble his thoughts. The unease she elicited within him grew, as did his curiosity about her. He should’ve walked away from her and never looked back, but he couldn’t. He was fused to the spot, chained by an electric force he’d never before experienced and failed to understand.
“I saw a show once,” she said. “A hypnotist made this guy strip down to his boxers, then cluck like a chicken. Is that what you are?”
He couldn’t tell her what he really was. Humans weren’t wired to comprehend things beyond the scope of their mundane world. But he needed to give her some kind of plausible explanation, and this one was as good as any. “You could say that.”
Bewilderment clouded her gaze, as did a potent dose of mistrust. “He shot you. I saw him shoot you. Why are you still standing?”
“Bulletproof vest. I never leave home without it,” he lied.
Accepting his reply as truth, she clutched her fancy purse to her chest, hugging it like a baby. She had no idea what the men really wanted from her. As far as Adrian could tell, she thought this was a run-of-the-mill mugging.
He opted not to correct her misconception. Even if he did, she probably wouldn’t believe him. “What do you have in there worth dying for? And why are you out wandering around the subway past midnight?”
“I’m on a humanitarian mission.”
He lifted a sardonic brow at her unexpected reply. “How’s that going for you?”
“Not so well.” She stared regretfully down at the body twisted at strange angles at her feet. The other lay about two meters away, just as ravaged.
Adrian shook his head in disbelief. The woman was feeling sorry for them. If she knew the monsters they really were, the potential for brutality that had existed within them, she wouldn’t be standing here mourning their passing.
She squeezed her eyes shut, blocking out the ugly sight of death. Or maybe it was him she feared looking at. When her lids sprang open again, her gaze held such disconcerting awe, he was tempted to reach out to her, to gather her close and reassure her she was safe with him.
“Who are you?” she asked.
Her throat worked as she swallowed. “I don’t know whether to thank you for saving my life or run away screaming.”
A dark current cleaved the atmosphere, warned him they were no longer alone. “Run.” He grabbed her by the arm and propelled her toward the stairs. “It’s not safe here.”
He was well aware how she’d interpret his warning. The fact that she’d assume he was the threat shouldn’t have bothered him. But it did. For some reason, the idea of this girl running from him left him feeling cold and hollow inside. But he had no choice. The evil she’d witnessed was nothing compared to the evil that approached.
Vaulting up the stairs, he half-pushed, half-dragged her toward the exit. With an unceremonious shove, he tossed her out the door. “Hurry. Get as far away from this place as you can.”
Adrian gazed deeply into her eyes, hoping his suggestion took root this time. “Because if you stay, you could lose more than your life. You could lose your soul.”