Punishment for betrayal is trial by fire.
Rumors run rampant when Raiden, the dead-sexy costar of Hollywood hunk Gabriel Colin, vanishes from the Luna Sunset wrap party. Scrambling to solve the mystery of his vampire maker’s disappearance, Gabriel lands in hot water when his erratic behavior casts suspicion on his involvement.
How long can a bloodsucker last without a steady supply of platelets? Raiden’s about to find out: his maker Justus specializes in cruel and unusual punishment. Rotten to the core, the self-proclaimed “master” preys on the desperate, his insatiable appetite for sadistic torture knowing no limits.
After forming an alliance with Naomi, Raiden’s cryptic former fiancée, Gabriel undertakes a precarious mission to free his muse before the clock stops—and Justus’ vengeful reckoning reaches an infernal climax.
Warning: this book series is intended for adults only. It contains graphic violence and gore, explicit sexual situations, including rape and sexual assault, strong language, and other material readers may find objectionable. Reader discretion is advised.
Gabriel realized Justus had not released Raiden when the singer failed to show at Specular Studio for their Monday-morning cast interview. It was not a stretch of the imagination to hypothesize he might have forgotten, slept in, or simply decided not to attend; nevertheless, Gabriel knew Justus was responsible for his costar’s absence. All weekend he had wrestled with the morality of his decision (however barely remembered) to assist the vampire master in his kidnapping plot. At the time it had seemed correct—justice served, a wrong avenged—but the following day, when Gabriel awoke alone in the Mill Valley house he shared with Justus and Naomi, the niggling feeling of wrongdoing needled him. Justus said he would punish him and be done with it. Or did he?
Despite his frustrating expenditure of energy, Gabriel found he could not clearly recall what Justus had disclosed in reference to his plans for Raiden, even though their last conversation about the topic had taken place just two days ago. Maybe he drugged me. Justus had, after all, overproved his capacity for deception. Part of Gabriel realized he was behaving like the abused partner in a toxic relationship, trussed up like a fly waiting in the wings for death, trapped in Justus’ sticky web. Spider eyes … ever the voyeur, always watching.
Another part, however, craved the familiar pain of rough handling: before turning, he had often caused himself harm. Under Justus’ influence, his masochistic tendencies had morphed into receiving punishment from another rather than from himself.
It needs to end. I must prevent Justus from taking advantage of me. I need to help Naomi leave him. More and more, he feared for Raiden’s safety. I was blind. He’s in danger. Even if he killed Joe, this isn’t right. I must find him and—
“Hey, doofy.” Fagan’s shoulder tap drew him out of his ruminations. “Have you heard from Raiden?”
Wonderful. My least favorite human has chosen the worst possible moment to irritate me. It really is a pity she’s not expendable.
He jerked away and fixed her with a cold glare. “Did you think my answer would change in the past ten minutes since you texted me that exact same question?”
“Sheesh, what’s your damage?” Fagan defensively held out her hands. “Aren’t you worried sick about him?”
Gabriel shrugged. “Raiden’s an adult. He can do what he wants.”
“Yeah, right. You’re super anal about punctuality.” Fagan whapped the conference table. “Forget about your big ol’ boner for him—do you seriously expect me to believe you don’t care where your costar, who’s gonna make you a shit ton of cheese, skedaddled off to?”
Gabriel crossed his arms. “At least he’s done filming his scenes.”
“Do you think he’s, like, gone gone? Or extended vacay gone? Like Charlie Sheen gone or River Phoenix gone?” Fagan chewed her bottom lip. “I hope he’s okay.”
“If he is not ill, he will be after I have finished waterboarding him,” Baza announced, joining them. He heaved his bouncy bottom into the nearest seat and blew out a stale-smelling sigh. “This is entirely unacceptable behavior. He is lucky it is not legal for me to have his legs broken.”
“Yikes.” Fagan grimaced at Baza. “You have some questionable ways of expressing yourself.” She turned to Gabriel. “Do you think he flew back to Japan? What if he drank too much and passed out in an alley somewhere? Maybe we should alert the media. At least post some missing person posters around town. That milk-carton shit works every once in a while.”
Gabriel massaged his temples. “I’m sure he’s fine. If Raiden came down with the traveling bug and skipped town, his failure to inform us of his plans is rude and unprofessional, but at least we’ve finished filming our scenes together. Technically he doesn’t need to be here anymore.”
“What about the press?” Fagan countered. “We have another cast interview scheduled next week. It’s gonna seem pretty strange if he’s missing again. You’ve made such a big deal about the ‘new talent,’ talked him up to the point of insta legend, but then he skips the DVD-extras behind-the-scenes chat? Very weird.”
“Merde!” Baza threw his cap across the room. “I should not have indulged your preference for the pretty boy, Gabriel. I should have cast your friend from Mesmerized instead. He is efficient and obedient, n’est-ce pas?”
And effete, Gabriel did not add aloud. Albeit wrong for the part.
“I just don’t get it.” Fagan propped her chin between her hands. “When the shoot started, everything was roses. Raiden was a rookie, but he learned the ropes as well as anyone. Even though he got emo and coked out toward the end, he was fuckin’ incredible in his last scenes. Why the hell would he cut ’n’ run?”
“He was flighty from day one,” Baza opined. “Twitchy, like a lab rat plotting his escape from the maze.” He air-drew figure eights above his paunch. “Sourpuss had a drug problem, no? Nearly all the big stars do.” He winked at Fagan then at Gabriel. “Present company excluded. If I were to wager a bet, I would say … crystal meth. Tina’s beloved among the young and dumb.”
“Raiden wasn’t a drug abuser,” Gabriel defended. Unless you consider blood an illegal mind-altering substance, which it technically is for a vampire.
“Wasn’t?” Fagan narrowed her eyes. “You know something you’re not sharing with us, Gabe?” She put her elbows on the table. “Like, for example, where to find the body of the costar you mutilated in an explosion of murderous rage?”
Goddamn it. Gabriel simultaneously cursed his careless misspeak and Fagan’s sharp ears. “Isn’t. Raiden isn’t addicted to drugs. Wasn’t. Will not be.” He winced. “As far as I know, he’s not deceased either. I’d appreciate it immensely if you’d refrain from making wild accusations with no factual basis. I’m as concerned about Raiden’s whereabouts as you are.”
Fagan held up her hands. “You’re right. I’m wrong. We’re all edgy.” She scanned her phone. “I keep thinking there’s more than meets the eye in his last text.” Holding the cell so Gabriel and Baza could see the screen, she selected the box that contained their correspondence and zoomed in.
R: Just a rust
Gabriel squirmed. Autocorrect. He meant to say Justus. Was that message meant for my eyes? He must have figured Fagan would share her texts once he went missing … or was Justus himself the author? The chill of anxiety rippled under his skin.
“That’s it?” Baza tore open a new pack of toothpicks and jammed one between his two front teeth. “He was probably drunk when he wrote that. Did you see him at the cast party? Il était rond comme une queue de pelle—drunk as a skunk!”
“Ouais,” Gabriel agreed, affecting a lazy drawl.
“But he sent me this message hours later. Maybe he was injured and tried to get help,” Fagan conjectured. “Maybe he couldn’t say what he wanted to say. Maybe someone stole his phone. Holy shit!” Her blue eyes bulged. “Do you think he’s in the yakuza?”
“Goddamn, Fagan.” Gabriel wriggled uncomfortably in his seat. “You harbor a troubling number of nonsensical stereotypes about Japanese men.”
“Yeah? Name ’em,” she challenged.
“Now, now, mes petits,” Baza chided. “No squabbling.” He snapped the toothpick in half between his index finger and thumb. “I have an urgent phone meeting with Raiden’s manager—Matsuda must have the updates.” His eye roll was smug. “I knew this exotic import would be more trouble than he was worth.”
“Now that sounds racist.” Rising out of her chair, Fagan unwrapped a piece of sugar-free watermelon gum and chucked it into her mouth. “I’d offer you a chunk, Gabe, but I know you’re watching your weight.” She blew a bubble that popped inches from his face. “IMHO, you should care more about where the hell your lover disappeared to. Unless, OFC, you had something to do with his MIA status.”
Gabriel sneered. “He’s not my lover.”
“I’m sorry—ex-lover. God only knows what happened between you two, but it turned real ugly real fast.” Fagan mimed swimming. “That ship sailed straight into the rocks. Now it’s fish food.”
A scene from Luna Sunset flashed into his head: Gui stalking Akemi and Lucille before discovering their tryst among the trees. Having reviewed the raw footage of Raiden and Fagan on set, Gabriel had recognized the singer’s authentic arousal as he kissed the beautiful starlet. Despite the righteous anger he had built up toward his maker, his jealousy of Fagan had been stronger. He recalled wishing Raiden had bled her out rather than made out with her. Adding insult to injury, Fagan had seemed all too eager for her costar to get handsy.
One day that tart’s impertinence will lead to her end.
He was not sure which voice had spoken: his own or Justus’ masquerading as Raiden’s. No matter: the thought of spilling Fagan’s meddlesome blood was more appealing than ever. Tamp down the urge, a saner voice advised. Finding Raiden is more important than indulging your temper.
On the way to Justus’ loft, Gabriel had his new driver, Shoney, drop by the nearest corner store so he could buy a pack of Marlboro Lights. The cashier recognized him; Gabriel signed the obligatory impromptu paper-bag autograph with the caveat, “guiltily purchasing these bad habits for a friend.” Fortunately there were no other customers, save a rugged old man in elastically challenged suspenders sporting a sweat-stained Cubs cap and a gold-toothed woman wearing a humongous orange housedress that closely resembled a toddler’s inflatable house. Neither of them seemed to notice they were in the presence of Hollywood’s “it” boy.
Uncaring of the gawkers, Gabriel sparked up a smoke outside the loft’s entrance. He inhaled lungful after lungful of the forbidden nicotine, wishing Raiden were there to join him. Though he still harbored resentment and anger, they were overshadowed by his overwhelming sense of dread that a terrible wrong had befallen his maker. Smoking for two is far less advisable than eating for two. No matter: my fans could stand to see me smoke before they could stand to see me fat.
Pitching the cigarette, he trounced up the stairs two at a time and unlocked the loft with the key Justus had earlier provided. At first he thought no one was there. Then he smelled Naomi, along with a nearly imperceptible whiff of oak, redwood, fir. Woodsy scents. It seemed he had encountered this blend of odors before, though he could not put his finger on when or where. But it wasn’t too long ago.
Naomi posed by the fireplace, resembling a wax figurine: motionless, hands positioned on either side of her head. In her left hand was a dark bunched-up ball of fabric. She wore a long pastel blue-purple dress that brushed the floor. Bare feet with lavender-tipped toes peeked out from her hemline. Her auburn hair, freshly dyed to disguise her white-blond roots, was undone from its habitual braid. Gabriel often wondered about her fashion choices; then again, Justus had a specific look he wanted her to model. Hyperfeminine, almost always in dresses or skirts; stockings, high heels, occasionally fetish wear. How would she style herself if given the choice?
His breath caught in his throat when they connected eyes. Hers were a stark contrast to her pose: dilated pupils, irises the shade of pewter blazing with frigid fury. Something major happened.
Concerned, he strode over to her. “You were supposed to return to the Mill Valley house after confronting Raiden.”
She smiled without her teeth. “Justus and I stayed in Malibu instead.”
“Where’s Raiden?” Gabriel tugged on Naomi’s periwinkle bell sleeve. “What did Justus do to him?”
“You mean what did I do to him?” Her arms dropped heavily to her sides. “I did what I wanted.”
He clasped her wrists as gently as he could manage. “You did what you wanted or what Justus wanted you to do?”
“You know as well as I do there’s no such thing as free will in this family.” Naomi unclenched her left hand and threw the filthy bundle onto the hearth. Striking a match against the stone mantel, she pronounced, “Ashes to ashes.”