Maura studied the mansion in the flickering light of the full moon, trying to dismiss the uneasiness creeping along her spine like invisible fingers. The place was clearly empty, she told herself for the dozenth time. She hadn't seen a sign of any movement of any sort beyond the shifting of the limbs of the mighty oaks that surrounded it and formed a natural tunnel along the long, winding drive that led from the gate through the park-like grounds that surrounded the place.
The drive disappeared behind the stone edifice on the southern side and ended in a carriage house cum garage in the back. She knew. She'd arrived before dark, parked her car in an unobtrusive tangle of honeysuckle vines, and walked the perimeter.
The high stone fence that surrounded the place was well maintained. She hadn't found a break or a single place where crumbling stone might offer an easy hand or toe hold.
The place reminded her of a mausoleum, she decided. That was what was creeping her out. The gothic style of the architecture looked like something straight out of Europe's distant past, not like anything that should be sitting next to a bayou in the U.S. of A.
And yet, it fit right in.
Did the owner fit in, as well, she wondered? Would she discover he was some modern day equivalent of Count Dracula?
It bothered her that she hadn't managed to get so much as a whiff of a description of the man of any kind--the beast master.
There was a weird moniker! Daegon, the beast master. That was all she had after weeks of digging. No last name, no history, no other aliases--Daegon, the beast master.
She hadn't even been able to discover why he was called that if, in fact, there was any reason behind it.
There usually was. She would've thought he'd be called the leather master, though, or maybe the pussy master considering the club he owned. Total freaks! Goths on steroids! She'd felt like she was dressing up for a Halloween costume contest when she'd donned the 'essentials' for getting past the barbarians at the gate, the behemoths that passed as bouncers.
She'd begun to entertain a lot of doubts about the case almost as soon as she began to delve into the dark world little Sheila had been a part of. As far as she could see, the woman had already had one foot in the grave the moment she embraced the lifestyle. She hadn't seen drugs, granted, but it seemed to go with the territory--the leather, bondage--and probably sadomasochistic--orgy-minded clientele of Noir.
If she'd been a betting woman, and she wasn't, that was the reason Sheila had decided to off herself--maybe not even intentionally. She certainly wouldn't be the first idiot that had accidentally hanged herself trying to get a sexual boost from autoerotic asphyxiation.
Her parents wouldn't hear of it, though. Sheila's parents. Her own parents, being best friends with them, were convinced there was something dark going on at Noir and dragged her into it or she wouldn't be sitting in the dark now, staring at the creepy mausoleum the owner of Noir called home.
Well, there was a lot of 'dark'.
What she didn't understand was that the place had never been raided--not once. She'd checked. She still wouldn't have allowed her parents to rope her into investigating except for one tiny little detail. Sheila was the third young woman to frequent the place who'd supposedly committed suicide in the five years since the place opened.
It wasn't much to go on even though her gut reaction was aroused suspicion. She'd studied the files backwards and forwards, talked to the coroner that had performed the autopsies and thoroughly pissed him off, and she'd had to conclude that it was suicide, or accident. There just wasn't anything to indicate anything else.
She wouldn't even have been able to put the three together if she hadn't noticed something nobody else seemed to have noticed--the mark. All three of them had it on the inside of their upper thigh. She didn't know what it was, but it damned sure wasn't a tattoo.
It was the only link between the three young women and the club, though.
And it was probably nothing. She was going to get her ass booted off the force chasing ghosts!
Not tonight, though, she told herself. The owner wasn't home. She'd arrived well before dark. Even without any sign of movement either on the grounds or inside, if there'd been anybody home, a light would've come on long before the moon rose.
The longer she sat trying to think up excuses not to go in, though, the more chance there was that he would come home and catch her trespassing.
To go or not to go, she wondered, studying the house uneasily, feeling a warning prickling along her spine?
If she got caught, she was going to get her ass chewed out by the chief, at the very least. If she didn't at least find something to give her parents to give their friends she was going to have to endure accusing looks from her parents for months.
Shaking her head, she opened the car door and got out. After studying the narrow road leading back through the woods to the mansion for a few minutes, listening intently, and assuring herself there was no sound or sign of an approaching car, she moved briskly to the wrought iron gates of the drive and used the ornamental iron for the hand and footholds she needed to go over. She didn't like being so exposed, but she was pretty sure trying the stone wall would be an exercise in disappointment. The spikes at the top were a real bitch to get over without sticking herself, but she managed it, dropping to the ground on the other side.
She moved quickly then from the open drive to trees and shrubs that lined it. She was positive there was no one home, but she still didn't like the idea of boldly striding across such a wide expanse of lawn in plain sight. She hadn't gone far when she heard a low growl that didn't sound anything like any dog she'd ever heard. Unfortunately, even as she stiffened and glanced back toward the gate, she realized she was far enough from it that there was a good bit of doubt in her mind that she could reach it and climb fast enough to elude whatever it was that she discovered was staring at her from the brush no more than two yards from where she was.
The hunger, never far, was already beginning to make itself known to him and yet Daegon resisted. Noir had seemed like the best solution to his needs when he'd started it, as perfect as anything could possibly be in such a world and considering his limitations. He could feed at will without arousing the sort of attention his overlord deplored--the sort that might inspire his overlord to summon him back to the underworld.
He hadn't been unleashed upon the mortal world to find satisfaction with his lot, after all, but rather as a sick punishment to begin with for displeasing the bastard. He wasn't allowed to feed as he pleased from them, to satisfy his cravings. Only to take what he needed to sustain him and to suffer the torments of the damned to be surrounded, always, by what he hungered for but could only sup from.
It almost seemed to him that it was worse when he'd nibbled at what he wanted to gobble, sucked the meager portion he was allowed. It seemed to make the hunger worse.
He should have known from the look of satisfaction in Trydan's eyes when he'd proposed the club as 'cover' that he was playing right into the bastard's hands, but he'd been too tormented with the pain to think clearly. He'd thought he could gather his slaves together and finally know true fulfillment, if only for a short space of time. He couldn't take all he needed from one of the puny mortals, but together they would make a fine meal.
Trydan hadn't been blinded by needs, though. He'd known immediately what Daegon had planned ... and it coincided nicely with his punishment. Daegon could draw his slaves into one place. It would attract far less attention, but he was still bound by the limitations set upon by the overlord. Only one every two to three days and only what they could give him without surrendering their souls.
He'd still thought it would be better, that he could hedge just a bit. They gathered for him. He didn't have to search, to wait for an opportune moment to feed discreetly. He could feed and the moment he was allowed to feed again, there would be one waiting.
It was almost worse, he discovered. No! It was worse! More torment to be surrounded by them constantly, to watch them feed upon each other and know that he wasn't allowed to touch!