Threshold

an excerpt

Chapter One



Sutter's hand shook as he slid the keycard into the slot. He missed real keys. He missed the weight of them in his pocket. He missed the artistry that used to go into creating the truly unique ones.

Most of all, he missed the way they always worked because there was never any mistaking which end you had to stick inside the lock.

With a muttered curse at the flashing red light that indicated the door was still secured, he tore the card out of the slot, flipped it around, and tried again. When the light turned green, he twisted the handle and shoved the door open as swiftly as he could, unwilling to miss this narrow window of opportunity modern technology was granting him.

His toe caught on a skinny strip of the worn carpet that had the weft unraveled at some point in the distant past. Blood splattered against the doorjamb as he shot his hand out to grab it to stop him from falling on his face.

He had to blink several times to see the stain he left behind in the empty parking lot's insipid lighting. Fuck. So much for being careful. He needed to clean it off before anyone saw it, not an exciting prospect when he could barely stand on his feet.

The room was like any other cheap motel chain. The full-size bed smelled of all the bodies that had stayed here before him, so much sweat and semen that it mingled into a stink rather than a cocktail he could actually enjoy. Its two flat pillows hadn't been placed with much care. Rather than the voluptuous mistress he longed to sink into, the bed more closely resembled an old woman's desiccated corpse.

Under other circumstances, he would have chuckled at the irony. Tonight, he couldn't afford to waste the strength that would take.

He fumbled for the chain lock, but when he tried to slide it in, it refused to go. Quick inspection showed someone had dented the end of it, misshaping it too much to fit properly into its slide. The cool metal clicked against the plate when he dropped it in disgust. It wouldn't make a difference, of course. As far as locks went, it was flimsy at best. Hell, for that matter, staying at a cheap motel that had hourly rates posted behind the bulletproof glass at the front desk was as good as sleeping in a paper bag, but this was all Sutter had at the moment. Time was running out on him. He had to hope that the motel was out of the way enough to buy him twelve hours before he could get back on the road.

Otherwise, he was a dead man.

Again.

His watery legs carried him to the bathroom, where he grabbed the sandpaper hand towel off its ring and dampened the corner in the sink. He was ready to drop by the time he cleaned the blood from the door, but he held on long enough to make it back to the tiled floor where he could finally shed his clothes without having to worry about staining the carpet. Even if anyone would notice another stain in its mottled spread.

Most of the blood had dried, leaving him with that itchy sensation he hated where it adhered to the sealing edges of lacerations. Some of them were healing already, like the shallow cuts along his shoulders and the top of his back where he'd done his best to dodge those bastard's blades. The slices farther down were still raw from the constant rubbing of the driver's seat in the car he'd stolen to get away, and when he twisted his arm back to prod carefully at them, his fingertips came away sticky and wet.

He needed to sleep on his stomach if he wanted them to heal. The problem with that was the biggest source of his blood loss came from the gaping hole on the left side of his abdomen. Projectile stakes might make it easier for a hunter to take a vampire down from a distance, but they worked for shit when the target was a blur of motion. More often than not, they missed the heart and lodged somewhere else. Sutter was just glad this one had hit below his ribcage. Broken bones on top of everything else would slow him down even more.

The first step he took toward the bed, the world tilted around him. He crumpled to his knees before he could catch himself, whacking his temple against the aluminum handle on the cupboard below the sink. Hysterical laughter bubbled to his lips as he felt fresh drops of blood begin their excruciating journey down the side of his face.

What was another ounce or two gone? He was surprised he had any left to lose, considering he hadn't fed since before the attack.

With his clothes strewn around him, he settled on the floor, leaning back against the sink. His legs were too long to stretch out comfortably, but he did the best he could. He wasn't going anywhere. Black spots battled the clarity of his vision, and everything felt too far away, sounds, sights, smells.

Closing his eyes might be the last thing he ever did, but he lacked the strength to keep them open any longer.

Had it been worth it? By all rights, he should be stuffed and sated at the Den where the only pain he would be experiencing would be that radiating from his spent cock and come-filled ass. His stomach would be full, his skin intact, and he could drift away as the sun rose, secure in the knowledge that he would wake again as it set.

All he'd had to do was stay, and he could have avoided all of this.

But even as he slipped into unconsciousness, Sutter knew one thing.

Running away had been his only option. Regardless of the pain that had immediately followed, he would do it all over again if he had to.

****

When Sutter slept, he rarely dreamed. As far as he knew, vampires didn't. Something about the deepness of the sleep state, he'd always been told. The body went into recovery mode, and everything else was superfluous to that.

The only time they appeared was when he dozed, and that wasn't sleep so much as lucid resting. Though he never told anyone about them, he always rationalized them as daydreams, fantasies of a life beyond that which he had, memories of a time before the world had flipped on its axis. They were harmless, barely memorable when he was awake, certainly never getting in the way of performing his duties. Give Petrus an excuse to punish him? Sutter wasn't nearly that stupid.

Of course, running away probably wouldn't get him a Mensa invitation, but that was a different issue entirely.

So the fact that images came to him after he passed out on the cheap tile floor of the motel bathroom was a surprise, enough so he half-believed he had died and this was actually his purgatory. It couldn't be heaven, not with as many people as he'd killed over the last twenty years, but it didn't reek of damnation enough to be hell, either.

****

Candles flickered in their sconces high up on the walls, the low drone of a thousand bugs underscoring their dance. They made his ears vibrate, and when he tried to stretch to blow them out and give his hearing a rest, the walls grew taller, expanding beyond his reach.

Sutter collapsed against the marble altar, and a deep baritone replaced the buzz.

"Don't move," it soothed. "Everything's all right."

He didn't recognize him. Nobody in the Den had a timbre that rich or a tone that gentle.

"Where am I?" he asked, but his voice, too, was unfamiliar, a dry croak that harkened back to the first day of his rebirth. He tried to swallow and couldn't.

"Someplace safe for now."

"For now?" Terror surged through his veins, replacing the stolen blood that usually flowed there. "Is he coming? He can't. I'm dead if he finds me."

"But I thought you were dead already." For a fleeting moment, Sutter saw a figure looming over him, the candlelight behind the broad shoulders silhouetting his companion in gold, but then a damp cloth pressed over his eyes, blinding him once again. "Stop talking. You need to conserve your strength."

"You don't get it--"

"Neither do you."

Though it took every ounce of energy he possessed, Sutter snatched the cloth away from his face and blinked against the light again. His strange companion was an absence of detail, an empty blot against an emptier world, but though he wondered who would want to be in this place with him, Sutter knew he didn't have the time to indulge the curiosity.

"I have to go." He tried to swing his legs over the edge of the altar, but just like the walls, the sides swelled to impenetrable heights, forcing him back onto its tableau, at the mercy of his shadow jailor. "Please. Don't do this."

"Do what?"

"Let him find me."

"Don't worry." The compress came back, but not before Sutter caught a glimpse of vivid blue eyes filled with sorrow so strong it sprang across the distance between them and suffocated what little power Sutter had left. "I'll take care of everything."