The Hunter And The Hunted
A book in the Otherworld Tales series, 2012
When my publishers asked if I’d consider writing an Otherworld short story for a pre-Thirteen eSpecial, I jumped at the chance. I knew exactly which character I wanted to write about: Eve Levine.
When Eve was first introduced in the Otherworld series in Stolen, she didn’t actually appear in the book-she’d died before the story began. Eve was only important for the role she’d played in the life of her young daughter, Savannah, and for the problems her reputation and past would bring for Savannah’s new guardian, Paige.
Yet as Eve developed, she became a fully-fledged character, itching for her time on stage. She got that chance in the fourth book of the series, Industrial Magic, when Paige winds up in the afterlife and Eve makes a fateful bargain to get her out.
That bargain played out in the next book, Haunted, where Eve got her own story. She hasn’t been an easy character to work into the other books, though. Being in the afterlife, she exists in a separate world and can overlap with other characters’ stories only as a ghost. That limits her potential, which makes me thrilled for any chance to give her a story, as I do here, in Off-Duty Angel.
Another Otherworld character who doesn’t get to narrate very often is Clayton Danvers. None of my guys do. When Bitten launched the series, the official title was Women of the Otherworld… and I was so happy to have an actual series that I didn’t stop to think that it meant my protagonists would all be women. So I quickly began “cheating” by letting the guys narrate short stories and novellas. One of the first of these stories was Stalked, which returns to my werewolves, Elena Michaels and Clayton Danvers, from Bitten. Stalked was originally published in the anthology My Big Fat Supernatural Honeymoon almost five years ago, which means most readers have missed it. I’ve been wanting to reprint it for a while, and this was my chance.
As the Otherworld series draws to a close, it seems fitting to celebrate it with a return to Clay and Elena in Stalked. And Off-Duty Angel makes the perfect segue into Thirteen, where Eve will… Well, you’ll have to check out the excerpt for that.
I had to get rid of the mutt.
Killing him would be easiest but, unfortunately, it was out of the question. If Elena found out, I’d still be hearing about it ten years from now: “Clay couldn’t even get through our honeymoon without killing someone.”
She’d laugh when she said it… in ten years. Right now, she’d be furious.
She’d argue that there were better ways to handle the situation. I disagreed. The mutt knew we were in St. Louis and that by sticking around he was taking his life into his hands. If he’d skittered into the shadows and stayed out of our way, I’d have said, “Fuck it” and pretended not to notice. After all, it was our honeymoon.
Even if he’d just stood his ground and refused to hide, I wouldn’t have made a big deal out of it. Beaten the crap out of him, yes. Had to. The Law was the Law, even if a mutt’s instinct to protect his territory was as strong as any Pack wolf’s. Let one mutt break the rules and next thing you knew, they’d be camping out back at Stonehaven, knocking on the door, asking if they could use the facilities.
But this mutt wasn’t hiding or defending his territory. He was stalking Elena. He’d been following us all morning and was now sitting across the restaurant, gaze glued to Elena’s ass as she bent over the buffet table.
When your mate is the only female werewolf, you get used to mutts sniffing around. I’d spent the last eighteen years dealing with it or, more often, watching her deal with it. With Elena, interference is not appreciated. She can fight her own battles, and she gets snippy if I rob her of the chance. But this was our honeymoon, and damned if I was going to let this mutt spoil it. He had to be dealt with before Elena realized he was stalking her. The question was how.
When Elena walked back to our table, the mutt had the sense to busy himself gnawing on a sparerib.
“You okay?” she asked as she slid into her seat. “You’ve been quiet since the Arch.”
The mutt had started following us at the Gateway Arch.
“Just hungry. I’m fine now.”
“I should hope so. After three plates.” She buttered her bread, then studied me. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I don’t know…” I shrugged and pretended to ease back in my chair, then I lunged and snagged bacon from her plate. I folded it into my mouth. “Nope, still hungry.”
She brandished her fork. “Then get your own or-”
I snatched another slice, too slow this time, and she stabbed the back of my hand. I yelped.
“I warned you,” she laughed.
The women at the next table stared in horror. Elena glanced their way. Five years ago, she would have blushed. Ten years ago, she would have found an excuse to leave. Today, she just murmured a rueful “Whoops” and dug into her potatoes.
I went over and got another plate of food, avoiding the temptation to pass the mutt’s table. He’d made a point of staying downwind outside and now sat partially obscured by a pillar, too far away for his scent to carry. For now, I’d let him think he was safe, undetected.
When I came back, Elena said, “I think I have an outing idea for us. Someone behind me in line was talking about a state park. Could be fun.” Her blue eyes glittered. “Of course, we shouldn’t go during the day when there are people around.”
“Nope, we shouldn’t.” I speared a ham slab. “This afternoon then?”
She grinned. “Perfect.”
When you resort to everyday activities on your honeymoon, you know it’s not going well. Planning our second run already meant Elena was bored and trying very hard not to let me know it.
The first couple of days had been great. With two-year-old twins at home, the only time we normally got away was when our Alpha, Jeremy, sent us to track down a misbehaving mutt. Being on a mission doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy ourselves. There’s nothing like celebrating a successful hunt with sex. Or working out the frustration of a failed hunt with sex. Or dulling that edge of pre-hunt excitement with sex.
But there was also something to be said for skipping the whole “track, capture and maim” part and being able to go straight to a hotel room and lock the door. Still, we could only stay in there for so long before we got restless, and when we came out, we’d discovered a problem with our honeymoon destination: There wasn’t a helluva lot to do.
Back at the hotel, we called home and talked to the kids. Or they listened as we talked and had their answers interpreted by Jeremy. As much as we loved our daily call, we spent most of it braced for the inevitable “Momma? Daddy? Home?” or, in Kate’s case, “Mommy! Daddy! Home!” Jeremy managed to spare us this time, stopping as soon as Logan asked, “Momma where?” and bustling them off with his visiting girlfriend, Jaime.
Next Jeremy and Elena would talk about the kids and discuss any new Pack or council business that had arisen. Normally, I’d listen in and offer my opinion-whether they wanted it or not-but today I told Elena I was going downstairs to grab a map and a bottle of water, then took off.
I was reasonably sure the mutt hadn’t followed us from the restaurant, but I wanted to scout to be sure. We planned to walk back to the hotel, which would give him the opportunity to follow. A cab would have solved that, but if I’d voluntarily offered to spend time trapped in a vehicle with a stranger, Elena would have been on the phone to Jeremy, panicked that my arm was reinfected and I was sliding into delirium.
So I’d suggested we take the long route back. The mutt hadn’t followed. Maybe he’d had second thoughts. If he’d heard the rumors about me, he’d know he could be setting himself up for a long and painful death. But if he’d believed that, he should have hightailed it the moment he crossed our path. So while I hoped, I didn’t trust.
I grabbed a brochure on state parks, stuffed it into my back pocket, then headed out the front door to circle the hotel. I got five steps before his scent hit me. I stopped to retie my sneaker and snuck a look around.
The bastard was right across the street. He sat on a bench facing the hotel, reading a newspaper. Cocky? Or just too young and inexperienced to know I could smell him from here?
I straightened and shielded my eyes, as if scanning the storefronts. When I turned his way, he lifted the paper to hide his face, but slowly. Cocky. Shit.
Normally, I’m happy to show an overconfident young mutt how I earned my reputation. At that age, one good thrashing is all it takes. But damn it, this was my honeymoon.
I crossed the road and headed into the first alley.
There were two ways the mutt could play this, depending on why he was stalking Elena. It could be his misguided way of challenging me. Stupid-any wolf knew his mate wouldn’t lift her tail for the first younger male who sauntered her way. Only a human would fly into a jealous rage and call a man out for it. But if challenging me was his goal, he’d follow me into the alley.
Or he might really be after Elena. He wouldn’t be the first mutt to think she might not object to a new mate.
I walked far enough into the alley to disappear, then crept back along the wall, lost in its shadow, stopping when I could see the hotel door. After a few minutes, a car horn blasted and a figure darted through the heavy traffic. It was the mutt, heading straight for the hotel.
I loped down the alley, circled around the block, then came in the hotel side entrance, beside the check-in desk. I stopped there, partially hidden by a huge fake plant. The stink of the plastic fern overpowered everything else.
I peered through the fronds. There he was, hovering at the other end of the desk, sizing up the staff. Hoping to get our room number?
I stepped out. Just as he turned, a pale blond ponytail bounced past on the other side of the lobby. Elena.
I turned away from the mutt before he realized I’d made him. I opened my mouth to hail Elena, then stopped. If she saw me, she’d head over here. Better for her to keep walking and I’d catch up outside the front doors-
Shit. He’d walked in the front doors. His scent would still linger there, and Elena’s sense of smell is even better than mine. I started walking fast to cut her off.
I yanked the park guide from my back pocket and waved it. I moved to the left, blocking her view of the mutt. She couldn’t smell him from here, but she was in charge of the Pack’s mutt dossiers and might recognize him.
“Got the maps,” I said. “I was looking for water. I can’t find a damn machine-”
She directed my attention to the gift shop.
“Shit. Okay, let’s grab one and go.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the mutt watching us. Elena’s gaze traveled across the lobby. I took her elbow and wheeled her toward the gift shop.
She peeled my fingers from her arm. “I’m looking-”
“The gift shop’s behind you.”
“No kidding. I’m looking for the parking garage exit. I was going to say we can get a water on the drive. It’s too expensive here.”
“Good. I mean, right. The stairs are back there, by the elevators.”
She nodded and let me lead the way.
The park wasn’t busy, so avoiding humans was easy. That took some of the challenge out of it, but a new place to run is always good.
We spent most of the afternoon as wolves, exploring and playing, working up a sharp hunger for the hunt. We’d found a few deer trails, but all of our tearing around scared the small herd into hiding. Probably just as well-in places like this, people pay attention to ripped-apart deer carcasses, and we’d have felt guilty later, knowing we’d nudged the line past acceptable risk. We settled for rabbits, the fat, dull-witted sort you find in preserves with few natural predators.
The snack was enough to still the hunger pangs without making us sleepy, so we followed it up with more games, these taking on an edge, the snarls sharper, the nips harder, fangs drawing blood, working up to the inevitable conclusion-a fast Change back and hard, raw sex that left us scratched and bruised, happy and drowsy, stretched on the forest floor, bodies apart, feet entwined.
I was on my back, shielding my eyes from the sun shifting through the trees, too lazy to move out of its way. Elena lay on her stomach, watching an ant crawl across her open palm.
“What about a second stop for our honeymoon?” I asked.
Her nose scrunched in an unspoken What?
“Well, I know St. Louis isn’t shaping up to be everything you’d hoped…”
“This afternoon is.” She grinned and rubbed her foot against mine. “I’m having a good time, but if you’re not…”
How the hell was I supposed to answer that? No, darling, our honeymoon sucks. I’m bored and I want to go somewhere else.
If it were true, I wouldn’t have minded saying so, though I supposed, being a honeymoon, I’d have to phrase it more carefully. Walking away from a threat set my teeth on edge, but it was better than having this mutt ruin our holiday. Still, given the choice between staying and making Elena think I was having a shitty time, something told me option one-even if it meant fighting a bigger, younger werewolf-was a whole lot safer.
“I’m fine,” I said. “You just seemed a little… bored earlier.”
Alarm brightened her eyes and she hurried to assure me she was most certainly not. I should have known. Any other time, Elena would have no problem telling me she wasn’t enjoying herself. But a honeymoon was different. It was a ritual and, as such, came with rules, and admitting she was bored broke them all.
Shortly after I met Elena, I’d realized that while she squirmed and chafed under the weight of human rules and expectations, there was one aspect of them she embraced almost to the point of worship: rituals. Like Christmas. Ask Elena to bring cookies for the parent-and-tot picnic and she’ll buy them at the bakery and then dump them into a plastic container so they’d look homemade. But come mid-December, she’ll whip herself into a frenzy of baking, loving every minute because that’s part of Christmas.
When the subject of “making it official for the kids’ sake” came up, I knew she’d want the ritual-a real wedding, the kind she’d dreamed of eighteen years ago when we’d bought the rings, her face alight with dreams of a white dress and a new life and happily-ever-after.
Instead of the happily-ever-after, she got a bite on the hand and the kind of new life that had once existed only in her nightmares.
I won’t make excuses for what I did. The truth is that your whole life can change with one split-second decision, and it doesn’t matter if you told yourself you’d never do it or if you stepped into that moment with no intention of doing it. All it takes is that one second of absolute panic when the solution shines right there in front of you, and you grab it… only to have it turn to ash in your hand. There is no excuse for what I did.
After I bit Elena, it took eleven years for her to forgive me. Forgetting what I’d done to her, though, was impossible. It was always there, lurking in the background.
When Elena vetoed a wedding, I thought it was just the weight of human mores again-that it didn’t feel right when we already had kids. So I’d decided I’d give her one, as a surprise. Jeremy talked me out of it, and it was then, as he waffled and circled the subject of “why not,” that I finally understood. There could be no wedding because every step-from sending invitations to walking down the aisle-would only remind her of the wedding she’d planned all those years ago and the hell she’d gone through when it all fell apart.
But the honeymoon was one part of the ritual we hadn’t discussed. So, if a wedding was out, the least I could do was give her a honeymoon.
So I’d planned everything. I’d picked St. Louis because she’d mentioned once that she’d like to go there. I’d made all the arrangements-my way of saying that I’d fucked up eighteen years ago and I knew I was damned lucky we’d ever reached this stage.
The mutt resurfaced at dinner, spoiling my second meal in a day. Not just any meal this time but a special one at a place so exclusive that I-well, Jeremy-had to reserve our table weeks ago. It was one of those restaurants where the lighting is so dim I don’t know how humans can see what they’re eating or find what they’re eating-the tiny portions lost on a plate filled with inedible decorations. But it was romantic. At least, that’s what the guidebook said.
I didn’t know what was romantic about eating in the dark surrounded by strangers, but it matched Elena’s expectations and that was all that mattered. She’d enjoy the fussy little portions, the fancy wines, the fawning wait staff, then fill up on pizza in our room later. Which was fine by me… until the mutt showed up.
As I was returning from the bathroom, he stepped into the lobby to ask the maître d’ for directions. Our eyes met. He smiled, turned and sauntered out.
I knew I should walk away. Take care of him later. But there was no way I could enjoy my dinner knowing he was prowling outside. And if I didn’t enjoy it, Elena wouldn’t enjoy it, and we’d get into a fight about why I’d take her someplace I’d hate only to sulk through the meal. I was determined to make it through this trip without any knockdown, drag-out fights… or at least not to cause any myself.
I waited until the maître d’ escorted a couple into the dining room, then I took off after the mutt.
I found him waiting for me in the lane behind the restaurant. He was leaning against the wall, ankles crossed, eyes closed.
This was one problem with mutts. Not all mutts-I’ll give them that. Some teach their sons basic survival, and a few do as good a job as any Pack wolf, but there are far too many who just don’t give a damn.
Here stood a perfect example of poor mutt parenting skills-a kid not only stupid enough to challenge me but stupid enough to feign confidence to the point of boredom, lowering his guard in the hopes of looking “cool.” Now I had to teach him a lesson, all because his father couldn’t be bothered telling him that I wasn’t someone to fuck with.
Werewolves earn their reputations through endless challenges. Twenty-seven years ago, when I’d wanted to protect Jeremy on his rise to Alphahood, I didn’t have time for that. So I’d sealed my reputation with a single decisive act, one guaranteed to convince every mutt on the continent that the infamous child werewolf had grown into a raging lunatic. To get to Jeremy, they had to go through me, and after what I did, few dared try.
I could only hope this mutt just didn’t realize who he’d challenged and, once he did, a few abject apologies and a brief trouncing would set the matter straight and I could get back to my honeymoon.
I walked over and planted myself in front of him.
He opened his eyes, stretched and faked a yawn. “Clayton Danvers, I presume?”
So much for that idea…
I studied him. After a moment, he straightened, shifting his weight and squirming like a freshman caught napping during my lectures.
“What?” he said.
I examined him head to foot, eyes narrowing.
“What?” he said again.
“I’m trying to figure out what you’ve got.”
His broad face screwed up, lips pulling back, giving me a shot of breath that smelled like it’d never been introduced to mouthwash.
“So what is it?” I asked. “Cancer, hemorrhagic fever, rabies…”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“You do have a fatal disease, right? In horrible agony? ’Cause that’s the only reason any mutt barely past his first Change would call me out. Looking for a quick end to an unbearable existence.”
He let out a wheezing laugh. “Oh, that’s good. Does that line usually work? Scare us off before you have to fight? Because that’s the only reason a runt like you would have the reputation of a psycho killer.”
He stepped closer, pulling himself up straight, just to prove, in case I hadn’t noticed, that he had a good five inches and fifty pounds on me. Which did not make me a runt. I’d spent my childhood being small for my age, but I’d caught up to an average size. Still, mutts like to point out that I’m not as big as my reputation, as if I’ve disappointed them.
“You do have a daddy, right?” I asked.
His face screwed up again. “What?”
“Do you have a father?”
“Is that some kind of Pack insult? Of course I have a father. Theo Cain. Maybe you’ve heard of him.”
I knew the Cains. Killed one of them a few years ago in an uprising against the Pack. “And your daddy warned you about me? Told you about the pictures?”
“Pfft.” He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I’ve heard about those. Photos of some dude you carved up with a hatchet.”
“Whatever. It’s bullshit.”
I eased to the side, getting my nose away from his mouth. “And the witness? He’s still alive, last I heard.”
“Some guy you paid off.”
“It was almost thirty years ago.”
I shook my head. The problem with stupid people is you can’t reason with them. Waste of my time, while my meal was getting cold and Elena was spending our romantic dinner alone and wondering where I was.
I surveyed the dark service lane. There was never a convenient Dumpster when you needed one. I eyed the garbage cans, eyed Cain, sizing him up…
“So when do we fight?” he asked.
“You know. Go mano a mano. Fight to the death. Your death, of course. I’m looking forward to enjoying the spoils.” His tongue slid between his teeth. “Mmm. I gotta thing for blondes with tight little asses, and your girl is fine. Bet she’ll fix up real nice.”
“You know. Get some makeup on. Get rid of that ponytail. Trade the jeans for a nice miniskirt to show off those long legs. You gotta keep after chicks about things like that or they get comfortable, let it slide. Not that she isn’t damned sweet right now, but with a little extra effort, she’d be really hot.”
I shook my head.
“What?” he said. “You’ve never tried?”
“Why would I?”
“Why wouldn’t you?”
I opened my mouth, then shut it. Another waste of time. “So you think if you kill me, you get Elena?”
“Sure, why not?”
“If it didn’t require my death, I’d be tempted to go along with it, just to watch you tell her that.”
“Whatever.” He rolled on his heels. “Let’s get this over with. I’m hoping you brought your chainsaw, ’cause otherwise this fight isn’t going to be nearly as much fun as I was hoping, with your fucked-up arm and all.”
I stopped and then slowly looked up, meeting his gaze. “My arm?”
“Yeah, Brian McKay said you busted his balls last year for having some sport with a whore. He said something was wrong with your arm. You kept using your other one. Tyler Lake says he did it, as payback for what you did to his brother.”
“Yeah? Did he mention which arm it was? This one?”
I grabbed him by the throat and pinned him to the wall, hand tightening until his face purpled and his eyes bulged.
“Or was it this one?”
I slammed my fist into his jaw. Teeth and bone crackled. He tried to scream, but my hand against his windpipe stifled it to a whimper.
I dragged him down the wall until his face was level with mine and leaned in, nose to nose. “I’d say that will teach you not to listen to rumors, but you’re a bit thick, aren’t you? I’m going to have to-”
A thump to my left stopped me short. I glanced over as the back door to the restaurant swung open. We were behind it, a dozen feet away, out of sight. I held Cain still as I watched and listened, ready to drag him into the alley if a foot appeared under that door.
Garbage can lids clattered. They were right next to the door. No need to step outside. Just dump the trash-
Cain let out a high-pitched squeal-the loudest noise he could manage with a crushed windpipe. Then he started banging at the boarded-up window beside him. I tightened my grip, my glower warning him to stop. A foot appeared under that door, someone stepping out. I dropped the mutt and dove around the corner.
“Hey! You there!”
I pressed up against the wall. Footsteps sounded. A man yelled at Cain, mistaking him for a drunk. The mutt mumbled something about being jumped, struggling to talk with a broken jaw.
I gritted my teeth. Ending a fight by alerting humans was bad enough, but trying to set them on my trail? That toppled into full-blown cowardice.
I shook it off and retreated before someone came looking for the “mugger.”
Back in the restaurant, I longed to visit the washroom and scrub Cain’s stink off me, but I’d been gone too long already. So I grabbed a linen napkin from a wait station, wiped the blood from my hands as I strode through the dining room and tossed the cloth onto an uncleared table.
Elena looked up from the last bites of her meal.
“Hey there,” she said, smiling. “Thought you’d made a fast-food run on me.”
“Nah.” I took my suit coat from the chair and slipped it on, blocking the mutt’s smell and covering the blood splatter. “Something didn’t agree with me.”
“Lunch, I bet. That’s the thing about buffets-lots of food, none of it very good. So, is dessert out of the question?”
I shook my head. “Just give me a second to finish dinner.”
Our hotel was a few blocks from the restaurant, so we’d walked. To make sure she didn’t smell Cain on me, I had to stay downwind from Elena and keep a gap between us. She didn’t notice the extra distance. Neither of us was much for public displays of affection, so walking hand in hand wasn’t expected.
That only worked until we got to our room. She leaned against me as she pulled off her heels, then she ran her hand up the back of my leg, grinning upside down, hair fanning the floor. She swept it back as she stood, her hand sliding up my leg.
“Pizza now?” she asked. “Or after we work up an appetite?”
I took her hand from my leg, lacing my fingers with hers, elbow locked to keep her from getting too close.
“Hold that thought,” I said. “I’m going to grab a shower.”
Her brows shot up. “Now?”
“My problem at the restaurant? I’m thinking it might be something I rolled in this afternoon. My leg’s itching like mad. Let me scrub it off before I pass it along.”
Her head tilted, the freckles across her nose bunching as she studied me, her bullshit meter wavering. Normal-Elena would have called me on it, but honeymoon-Elena was struggling to avoid confrontations just as much as I was, so after a moment, she shrugged.
“Take your time. I’ll catch the news.”
I ran my hands through my hair and lifted my face into the spray. My forearm throbbed as the hot water hit it. Tomorrow I’d pay for overworking the damaged muscle, but it was worth it if Cain took home proof that Clayton Danvers’s arm was definitely not “fucked up.”
For two years, I’d been so careful in every fight, convinced no one would notice I was favoring my left. I should have known better. Like scavengers, mutts could sense weakness.
I squeezed the water from my hair as I moved out of the spray and looked down at the pitted rut of scar tissue. All these years of fighting without a permanent injury, and what finally does it? One little scratch from a rotting zombie. At the worst of the infection, I’d been in danger of losing my arm, so I couldn’t complain about some muscle damage.
But if rumors were already circulating, I had to squelch them. And maybe even that wouldn’t be enough. Was Theo Cain’s son only the first in a new generation of mutts who’d heard the stories about me and fluffed them off as urban legends or at least ancient history?
I’d first cemented my reputation to protect Jeremy. Now I had fresh concerns-a mate, kids… and a fucked-up arm that was never going to get any better. So how was I going to convince a new generation of mutts that Clayton Danvers really was the raging psychopath their fathers warned them about?
I rubbed the face cloth over my chest, hard and brisk enough to burn. I didn’t want to go through that shit again. What the hell would I do for an encore? What could I do that wouldn’t have Elena bustling the twins off to a motel while she reconsidered whether I was the guy she wanted raising her kids?
Elena understood why I’d taken a chainsaw to that mutt. If pressed, she might even grudgingly admit it had been a good idea. Anesthetic ensured that the guy hadn’t even suffered much-the point was only to make others think he had. Still, only in the last few years had she stopped twitching every time someone mentioned the photos. Admitting I might have been right didn’t mean she wanted to think about what I’d done. And she sure as hell wouldn’t want me doing it again.
I shut the taps and toweled off, scrubbing away any remaining trace of Cain.
As I got out, I could hear the television from the next room. So the news wasn’t over. Good. I had no interest in local or world events-human concerns-but Elena would be engrossed in them. Distracting her was always a challenge… and a sure way to clear my head of thoughts that didn’t belong on a honeymoon.
I draped the towel around my shoulders, then eased open the door to get a peek at the playing field. Through the mirror, I could see the bed. It was empty, the spread gathered and wrinkled where Elena had sprawled to watch the news.
A sportscaster was running through scores. Shit.
I tried to see the sitting area through the mirror, but the angle was wrong. It didn’t matter. If she was finished with the news, I’d lost my chance to tease. I gave my dripping hair one last swipe, tossed the towel on the bathroom floor, walked into the suite and thumped onto the bed, springs squealing.
“All done with my shower. You still ready to work up an appetite-?”
The room was empty.
I rose and strode to the door, heart thudding as I sniffed for Cain. I knew my fears were unfounded. No way would he get Elena out of this room… not without blood spattered on the walls and carpet.
But what if he’d been lurking outside the door? If she’d heard him? Peeked out and he bolted? She’d give chase.
I opened the door and was crouching at the entrance when a yelp made me jump. Down the hall, a middle-aged woman stumbled back into her room, chirping to her husband. For a moment, I thought, Hell, I wasn’t even sniffing the carpet yet. Then I remembered I was naked.
I slammed the door and stalked into the bathroom for a towel. Humans and their screwed-up sensibilities. If that woman saw Elena dragged down the hall kicking and clawing, she’d tell herself it was none of her business. But God forbid she should catch a glimpse of a naked man. Probably on the phone to security right now.
Towel in place, I cracked open the door. When I was certain it was clear, I crouched, smelling the carpet. No trace of Cain. A quick glance around, then, holding the door open with my foot, I leaned into the hall for another sniff. Nothing.
I paused there for a few deep breaths, sloughing off the fear, then strode into the room to search for clues. The answer was right there, on the desk. A page ripped off the notepad, Elena’s looping handwriting: salty crab + no water = beverage run.
Shit. We really should have grabbed more water earlier.
As I pulled on a T-shirt, I told myself Cain was long gone. I’d had him in a death-hold before he could lay a finger on me. A sensible mutt would take it as a lesson in misplaced arrogance, swallow the humiliation, get out of town and find a doctor to set his jaw before he was permanently disfigured. But a sensible mutt wouldn’t have gotten himself into that scrape in the first place.
Cain would back off only long enough to pop painkillers. Then the humiliation would crystallize into rage. Too cowardly to come after me, he’d aim a sucker punch where he thought I was most vulnerable: Elena, who’d just strolled out alone into the night, having no idea that a mutt had been stalking her all day because I hadn’t bothered to tell her.
As I tugged on my jeans with one hand, I dialed Elena’s cell phone with the other. Elena’s dress, discarded on the chair, began to vibrate. Beneath lay it the purse she’d taken to dinner, open, where she’d grabbed her wallet, leaving the purse-and her cell phone-behind.
I grabbed my sneakers and raced out the door.
I didn’t bother checking the gift shop. Elena had already decreed the water there too expensive. Jeremy and I might have had some lean times during my childhood, but Elena knew what it was like to wear three sweaters all winter because you couldn’t afford a coat. Even if she could now afford to buy the whole damned gift shop, she wouldn’t give them three bucks for water that cost half that down the block.
Normally, I respect that, but this was one time that I wished to hell she’d just spend the damned money.
I strode out the front doors, stopped and inhaled. A couple glowered when they had to drop hands to walk around me. I scanned the road, sampling the air. Finally it came. Elena’s faint scent on the wind. I hurried down the steps.
There was a convenience store on the corner, but Elena’s trail crossed the road and headed down the very alley where I’d lain in wait for Cain that afternoon. What the hell was wrong with the shop on the corner? Was the water ten cents cheaper three blocks away? Goddamn it, Elena!
Even as I cursed her, I knew I was really angry with myself. I should have warned her about the mutt. If I’d honestly believed I could keep her in my sights twenty-four hours a day, then I was deluded. Elena would see no reason why she shouldn’t run out for water, even at this late hour. She was a werewolf; she didn’t need to worry about muggers and rapists. But a pissed-off mutt twice her size?
I broke into a jog.
The moment I stepped into the alley, I smelled him. He must have been waiting outside the hotel, formulating a plan. Then his quarry had sailed out the front doors… and waltzed straight into the nearest dark alley.
By the time he had gotten over the shock at his good fortune, he’d lost his chance to catch her in the alley. She’d exited, walked a block, then… cut through another alley.
I raced to that alley, then pulled up short. Cain stood at the far end, his back to me, gaze fixed on something across the road. Elena.
I could drive him toward her… if she’d known he was coming. I circled to the next side road, hoping to cut him off. As I approached the end, I moved into the shadows.
Elena was still there. I could sense her, that gut-level calm that says she’s near.
The streets and sidewalks were empty. Our hotel was in a business section of town. That had looked good when I’d picked it online-surrounded by restaurants and other conveniences. But we arrived to discover those conveniences weren’t nearly so convenient when they closed at five, as the offices emptied.
Around the corner, I saw yet another quiet street, vacant except for a lone shopper gazing at the display of a closed clothing store. I had to do a double-take to make sure it was Elena. It certainly looked like her-a tall, slender woman in jeans and sneakers, her pale blond hair hanging loose down the back of her denim jacket. But window-shopping? At a display of women’s business suits? This honeymoon must have been boring her even more than I thought.
As she studied the display, her gaze kept sliding to the right. I squinted to see what was drawing her attention, but the streetlights turned the glass into a mirror, reflecting…
Reflecting Cain across the road behind her.
She knew he was there. I exhaled in relief. The sound couldn’t have been loud enough for Elena to hear, but she went still before pivoting just enough to see me.
She grinned and started to turn. Then her smile vanished as she jerked her attention back to the window and motioned, palm out, for me to stay put.
A quick sequence of charade moves as she kept her gaze on the display. Nose lifting to inhale, fingers gesturing to the alley to her right, the stop signal again-warning me there was a mutt in that alley.
Another flurry of gestures to say she’d handle it and I could settle into backup mode. Then, mid-motion, she stopped. A slow smile, teeth glinting in the darkness. Seeing that smile, I knew what she was thinking before she glanced over, lips forming the word.
My grin answered.
No game is fair-or much fun-when one of the parties doesn’t realize he’s playing. So Elena took care of that first. She started by drumming her fingers against her leg, her head twisting his way, a subtle hint that she knew Cain was there and was growing impatient waiting for his next move.
While I couldn’t see the mutt, I could picture him, poised at the end of the alley, rocking on the balls of his feet, seeing Elena’s signals but afraid to misinterpret.
She glanced over her right shoulder, hair sweeping back as her face tilted his way, and I didn’t need to see her expression to imagine that, too. I’d seen it often enough. Lips parted, eyes glittering beneath arched brows, a look that translated, in human or wolf, into, “Well, are you going to come get me, or not?”
Cain slingshot from the alley so fast he stumbled. Elena laughed, a husky growl that made me lock my knees to keep from answering it myself. As Cain recovered, she turned my way with a grin. Then she took off, breaking into a sprint, hair flashing behind her.
Cain teetered on the curb and stared after her in confusion and disappointment, the human telling him that a woman running in the other direction wasn’t a good sign. She stopped at the next corner and turned to face him.
He stepped off the curb. She took a slow stride back. Another forward, another back, and it wasn’t until the dance had gone on for ten paces that the wolf instinct finally clicked on and he realized that to her, running away didn’t mean “I’m trying to escape” but “Catch me if you can.”
His broad face split into a grin. He winced, slapping a hand to his broken jaw. When he looked up, Elena was gone. One panicked glance around, then he broke into a run.
Had Elena been a wolf playing this mating ritual for real, she’d have ditched Cain after five minutes, deciding he either wasn’t interested enough or competent enough to track her and, either way, wasn’t worthy of her attention.
He kept losing her trail and backtracking. Or he’d glimpse a pedestrian down another road and take off that way before his nose finally told him it wasn’t Elena. Without a Pack, a werewolf grows up immersed in human society, feeling the instincts of a wolf but not trusting them or knowing what to do with them. Cain seemed to be running on pure lust and enthusiasm, which, while amusing, wasn’t much of a challenge… or much fun.
After he backtracked over my trail twice-thankfully not noticing-Elena decided it was time to end this segment of the game before Cain realized there was a third player. She’d intended to take it to the next level anyway. Hunting in human form was like playing tag with this mutt-not much of a challenge… or much fun.
She led him to a park down by the river, then darted into a cluster of shrubs to Change. Cain caught up quickly-Elena had made sure he’d been right behind her. This time, once he realized what she was doing, there’d been no indecision. After a few seconds of trying unsuccessfully to see her naked through the bushes, he tore off to find a Changing spot of his own.
I guarded Elena until I heard Cain’s first grunt, assuring me he wasn’t about to change his mind. Then I ducked into a hiding place and undressed.
When I came out, she was already stretched out in the shadows, tail flicking against the ground, eager to be off. Seeing me, she let out a soft chuff, her blue eyes rolling, saying, Settle in-this could take a while.
I was looking around when Cain’s bushes erupted in a flurry of rustling, punctuated by very human grunts. He’d barely begun.
Elena’s head slumped forward, muzzle resting on her forelegs as a sigh rippled through her flanks. I growled a laugh and loped off to set up the playing field.
I lay on a flat rock overlooking the path, nose twitching as the river scents wafted past, making me salivate at the smell of fish. I hooked my forepaws over the rock and stretched, back arching, foot pads scraping against the rough, broken edge. I’d been waiting a while, and I could feel the ache in my muscles, urging me to get up, get moving, get running.
I stretched again and peered over the edge. The perfect launch pad. Elena would lead Cain along the path, and, with one leap, I’d have my workout. The chase, the hunt, the takedown-all more satisfying than the actual fight.
A low whine cut through the still night. I lifted my head, ears swiveling as they tracked the sound to a brown wolf a hundred feet away. Cain, whining for Elena, probably worried she’d given up and taken off.
After a moment, she appeared, a pale wraith sliding silently from the shadows. Cain let out a sharper whine and danced in place like a domestic dog seeing his master come home.
Elena continued toward him, taking her time, tail down, head high. She stopped about six feet away, making him come to her, gaze straight ahead, a queen granting her subject permission to approach.
Cain paced, keeping his distance. Her body language was perfectly clear-she was establishing hierarchy-but he didn’t know what to make of it and kept pacing.
When he didn’t accept the invitation to approach and sniff her, Elena started turning away. Again, clear wolf behavior, not snubbing him, just coquettishly saying, Well, if you aren’t interested…
Cain went still. As she presented him with her flank, his head lowered, hackles rising. I leapt to my feet, nails scrabbling against the rock, a warning bark in my throat. But before it could escape, he sprang.
Cain grabbed Elena’s shoulder, teeth sinking in, whipping her off her feet. I raced down the slope as he threw her in the air. She hit the ground, spun, and dove at him, snarls slicing through the night. Cain let out a yelp of surprise and pain as she ripped into him.
I skidded to a stop fifty feet away, still unseen. Ears forward, eyes straining, sight now the most critical sense as I watched and evaluated.
After a moment, I retreated to my perch, my gaze fixed on them, ready to fly back down if the battle turned against Elena.
They continued to fight, a rolling ball of growls and fur and blood. I could smell that blood, his and hers, the latter making a whimper shudder up from my gut. I shook it off and locked my legs, standing my ground.
Finally, Elena backed away, snarling, head down, hackles up. Cain scrambled to his feet, shaking his head, blood spraying. As he recovered, Elena glanced in my direction, as if wondering whether she should finish this herself or follow through on the plan.
My muscles coiled and uncoiled as I danced in place, gaze fixed on him, twice her size, too much for her to handle if she didn’t have to, praying she made the right choice, the safe choice. Of course she did. With Elena, common sense always wins over ego. With one final lip-curling snarl, she ran for the path.
She’d covered half the distance when her muzzle jerked up and she swerved, circling an oak tree and going back the other way. I was scrambling up when I caught the scents: dog and human. I followed the smell and saw a man walking a terrier, heading this way.
Elena looped back, darting a weaving path around every obstacle she could find, trying to buy time. I glanced at the dog walker. An elderly man and an old dog, creeping along, oblivious and unhurried.
As Elena circled a small outbuilding, she dipped, paw probably catching a rodent hole, not enough to make her stumble but slowing her down. Cain lunged. He only caught a mouthful of tail hair. As his snarl of frustration reverberated through the park, the old dog lifted his muzzle in a lazy sniff, then went back to dawdling along beside his master.
Elena disappeared behind the building. A yelp followed, loud enough to make the man look up. Elena’s yelp. I sprang to my feet. She shot from behind the building, a pale streak, low to the ground, running full out now, Cain on her heels.
A third shape shot from behind the building, larger than the first two. No, that was Cain-I could make out the odd drop of his jaw. My gaze swung to Elena and the new mutt behind her. Cain had brought backup. Shit!
I crouched, ready to leap from the rock. The man and dog rounded the corner, bringing them right into my path below. I looked over my shoulder, at the long route, then at Elena, now tearing across the park, heading for the river, getting farther from me with each stride.
A split second of hesitation, and I leapt, sailing over the man and dog and hitting the ground hard on the other side. The little dog started yelping, a high pitched aii-aii-aii. The old man wheezed and sputtered, his gasps echoing the pound of my paws as I raced away.
With my first sprint, I started closing in on Cain. But he wasn’t the one I was worried about. I recognized the other mutt’s scent now. Brian McKay, the mutt Elena and I had rousted last year when he killed a hooker. He might be smaller and older than Cain, but he was a hell of a lot more dangerous, and he was right on Elena’s tail, the gap between us only getting larger.
Come on, circle around! Bring him back to me!
I knew she couldn’t. She finally began to veer, but east, toward the river, heading up an embankment to a set of train tracks. At the top, she started to run back down, then she sheered again, staying the course. McKay bought the fake-out, turning to race down the hill, probably hoping to cut her off in descent. When he saw her swerve back, he tried to stop himself, but he spun too sharp, losing his footing and tumbling down the embankment.
I adjusted my course, heading straight for McKay. He saw me bearing down on him and found an extra spurt of energy, flying to his feet, bruises forgotten as he bolted after Elena.
The clatter of nails on wood told me she was on the train tracks. As we crested the embankment, I saw her tearing along the railway bridge, Cain a half-dozen strides behind.
I caught up with McKay at the bridge’s edge. He faltered, a leg probably complaining from his fall. I launched myself and landed on him. As he went down, his head shot back, throat exposed. I chomped down, eyes shut against the spray of hot blood as I whipped him off his feet. He went wild, all four legs kicking and scratching, body twisting.
I bit harder and slammed him into a bridge girder. His throat ripped on impact, a huge chunk of flesh coming free, my mouth filling with blood. I dropped him, and he fell, shuddering, dying. I bit the back of his neck, swung him up again, and pitched him into the river below.
A quick kill, but during those few minutes, the blood pounding in my ears blocked everything else, and it was only as McKay’s body splashed into the water that I finally heard Elena’s snarls. I started running. Halfway down the bridge, she’d stopped and was facing off with Cain, head down, ears back, fur on end.
At first, the mutt seemed uncertain, prancing forward, then back, like a boxer bouncing on his heels waiting for the signal. As I rocketed down the tracks, paws pounding the railway ties, he stopped dancing and dropped into fighting position, as if hearing the sound he’d been waiting for: the arrival of his backup.
I slowed, rolling my paws, footfalls going silent. Then, right behind him, I hunkered down and let out a low growl. He turned and, had he been in human form, he would have fallen over backward. On four legs, he did an odd little stumble, paws scrabbling against the gravel as he veered toward me.
I snarled, teeth flashing, blood flecks spraying as I shook my head. He glanced over my shoulder, probably praying that the blood was from some bird or rabbit. Seeing no sign of McKay, he knew, and he swerved back, in flight before he’d finished his turn. He made it two strides before saw Elena in his path, snapping and snarling.
I backed up two steps and sat. He looked from Elena to me, the challenger and the road block. Confused, he kept glancing back as if to say, You’re going to jump me, aren’t you?
Elena gave up and rushed him. She caught him in the chest, knocking him backward. They went down fighting.
It didn’t last long. Cain was spooked and distracted, knowing his buddy was dead and the killer sat five feet away, waiting to do the same to him. He managed to do little more than rip out tufts of fur while Elena sank her teeth into his flank, his shoulder, his belly.
Finally, when one bite got too close to his throat, the coward in Cain took over. He threw himself from her and tried to make a run for it, but Elena flew onto his back. She grabbed his ear between her teeth, chomped down hard enough to make him yelp, then yanked, leaving tatters. He howled and bucked. She leapt off the other side, putting him between us again.
He flipped around and took a few running strides my way. I growled. He looked from Elena to me, hesitated only a moment, then flung himself between the girders and plummeted into the river.
As Elena leaned through the metal bars to watch him, I circled her, inventorying her injuries. A nasty gash on her side was the worst of it. A lick to wipe away the dirt, then I moved up beside her. Cain flailed in the water below.
She glanced at me. Good enough? her eyes asked.
I studied him for a moment, then grunted, not quite willing to commit yet. An answering chuff and she loped off across the bridge. I went the other way.
We toyed with Cain for a while, running along the banks, lunging at him every time he tried to make it to shore. When he finally showed signs of exhaustion, Elena gave the signal and we left him there.
A lesson learned? Probably not. Give him a year or two and he’d be back, but in the meantime, he’d have to return to his buddies with a shredded ear and without McKay, and no matter what slant he put on the story, the meaning would be clear: situation normal. I wasn’t suffering from a debilitating injury or settling into comfortable retirement with my family. I’d bought myself a little more time.
Elena lifted her head, peering into the bushes that surrounded us.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “No one can see.”
“Something I really should have checked about ten minutes ago.”
She pushed up from my chest, skin shimmering in the dark. She sampled the air for any sign of Cain.
“All clear.” A slow stretch as she snarled a yawn. “One of these days, we’re actually going to complete an escape before we have sex.”
She laughed. “Why, indeed.”
She started to slide off me, but I held her still, hands around her waist.
“Hmm.” Another stretch, her toes tickling my legs. “So when are you going to blast me?”
“For taking off and running down alleys at midnight?”
“Unless you slipped something past me in the wedding vows, I think I’m still entitled to go where I want, when I want. But do you really think I’d traipse down dark alleys in a strange city for a bottle of water? Why not just stick a flashing ‘mug me’ sign on my back?”
“Well, you did seem a bit bored…”
“Please. That mutt’s been following us since this morning. I was trying to get rid of him.”
“Yes, I know, I should have warned you. I realized that later, but you worked so hard to plan our honeymoon, and I didn’t want this mutt ruining it. I thought I’d give him a good scare and send him packing before you noticed him sniffing around.”
I tried to sound surprised. Tried to look surprised. But her gaze swung to mine, eyes narrowing.
“You knew he was following us.”
I shrugged, hoping for noncommittal.
She smacked my arm. “You were just going to let me take the blame and keep your mouth shut, weren’t you?”
Another smack. “That’s what you were doing at dinner, wasn’t it? Breaking his jaw. I thought it looked off, and I could swear I smelled blood when we were walking back from the restaurant.” She shook her head. “Communication. We should try it sometime.”
I shifted, putting my arm under my head. “How about now? About this trip. You’re bored.” When she opened her mouth to protest, I put my hand over it. “You’re tired of St. Louis. There’s not a damned thing to do except hole up in our hotel room, run in the forest and hunt mutts-which, while fun, we could do anywhere. So I’m thinking, maybe it’s time to consider a second honeymoon.”
She sputtered a laugh. “Already?”
“I think we’re due for one. So how’s this? We pack, head home, see the kids for a couple of days, then take off again. Someplace where we can hole up, run in the forest and not have to worry about tripping over mutts. A cabin in Algonquin…”
She leaned over me, hair fanning a curtain around us. “Wasn’t that where I suggested we go when you first asked?”
“I thought you were just trying to make it easy on me. We can rent a cabin anytime. I wanted this to be different, special.”
“It was special. I was stalked, chased, attacked… and I got to beat the crap out of a mutt twice my size.” She bent further, lips brushing mine. “A truly unique honeymoon from a truly unique husband.”
She put her arms around my neck, rolled over and pulled me on top of her.
Getting an audience with the Fates is like getting an invitation to tea with the queen. Most people in our world never receive one. To actually wrangle one yourself? Damn near impossible. Unless you’re me: Eve Levine-dark witch, half-demon, part-time ghost, part-time angel. I’m in their throne room so often they might as well install a revolving door. Most times, I’m getting hauled in and chewed out-a fake chewing out, as the Fates pretend to upbraid me for breaking some rule or other on a mission, while they’re really just relieved that someone got the job done. Which I do.
Today, though, I’d requested the audience. So they were making me wait in their reception room, watching the mosaics subtly changing as the story of life and death played out on the walls. Finally, the floor turned and deposited me in the throne room, at the foot of the Fate’s dais.
“I have a deal for you,” I said to the oldest Fate, as she snipped a length of life-yarn.
“We’re honored,” she said, peering down with a withering look. “The answer is no. We’ve had quite enough of your deals, Eve.”
“Really? Huh. Then how about you undo the one that makes me a halo-slave for six months a year? If you’re regretting that, we can renegotiate. Or just forget the whole thing.”
She morphed into her sister, a middle-aged woman with long, graying blond hair. “You wouldn’t want that, Eve. No more than we would. While I’m quite certain any offer of yours is not to our advantage, we’ll hear you out.”
“Good.” I reached back to pull off my Sword of Judgment, so I could lean on it, as I usually did in the throne room-if only to make the eldest Fate sputter. But I didn’t have it. I was off-duty. Which was the problem. “I’d like to offer you seven extra days of my time. I’ll voluntarily go back into the angel corps for the next week. In return, you give me two weeks off during my regular shift.”
The youngest Fate came on, laughing. “Truly? You give us one week and we give you two? That is a deal.”
“It is, because you can schedule my downtime whenever you want it. Anytime things get slow, you give me shore leave. Totally at your convenience.”
“Kristof’s still in court, I presume?” The middle Fate had returned.
“Sure, but that’s not why-”
“It is exactly why.” The oldest Fate now. “Your lover is busy. You are bored. You want us to entertain you. Absolutely-”
“Not so hasty, sister.” The middle one came back. “I believe her angel partner would be very happy for her assistance right now.”
I perked up. “Trsiel’s hunting? Who? Or what?”
“It’s a what. He’s hunting for answers, deep in the bowels of the Great Library. We’ve asked him to research the political ramifications of a proposed treaty between two djinn factions. We expected it to take a few weeks, but with your help…”
“Right. Um, now that you mention it…”
“You’ve suddenly remembered another pressing obligation?”
“Yeah. Sorry. Thanks for your time. And if anything-”
“-more exciting comes up?” The Fate smiled. “We’ll call you.”
I flopped onto the front porch swing of my Southern manor. The Fates were right, of course. Kris had been tied up in afterlife court for the past week, and it didn’t look as if it would end anytime soon. I should point out he was the defense attorney, not the defendant. Kristof Nast would never be found in a defendant’s seat. He always bribed, threatened or manipulated his way out of trouble long before it reached that point.
So he was busy and I was bored. That sounds bad, as if I rely on him so much that I don’t know what to do with myself when he’s gone. Actually, I’m more accustomed to being alone. I’d spent most of my mortal life by myself-or with our daughter, Savannah. Even now that Kris and I had been reunited after death, we were apart more than we weren’t. There was my angel gig, for one thing. And we have our own lives outside that. We’ve even kept our own afterlife homes-my manor and his houseboat-though if we’re in the same plane, we rarely sleep in separate beds.
I was bored because I was nearing the end of my latest shore leave. Whenever I first returned from angel duty, I had a long list of things to do. Check on my spirit guide, Jaime. Check on Savannah. Check on Kris’s boys, Sean and Bryce. Check on my afterlife contacts, see if they have anything interesting for me. Call in some chits. Chase down new contacts. Explain to them why it’s really a good idea to have Eve Levine in their Rolodex. Just maintaining my contact network is a job in itself.
But that work was long done. This was the time when I truly would be taking a little R &R. With Kris. Even after nine years here, there are endless nooks and crannies and planes and dimensions we haven’t explored. I suppose I could go on my own, but it really wasn’t the same.
Someone turned onto my block. That wasn’t unusual. I have neighbors, of course, and the regions aren’t exclusive. Ghosts travel. But what caught my attention was the figure itself. A couple of inches taller than my six feet. Late forties. Thinning blond hair. Broad shoulders. Carrying some extra weight, but his big frame hid it, as did his expertly tailored suit.
I flew off the swing, sending it rocking as I raced down the steps. Along the front path, through the gate, down the road, like a war bride spotting her discharged husband.
Kris caught me up in a hug and kiss.
“I thought you didn’t get a break until tonight,” I said.
“I wrangled a recess,” he said. “It’s a brief one, but I wanted to come by. I may have a job for you.”
“Seriously?” I paused. “It’s not research, is it?”
He laughed. “Never. It’s a real celestial-bounty-hunter-worthy mission.”
I threw my arms around his neck and kissed him. “I love you.”
“Uh-huh.” He leaned back. “Did I just get a bigger kiss for giving you a job than I did for the surprise visit?”
“Maybe.” We started walking back to my house. “So what’s the mission?”
“I need you to follow someone. I don’t know the what, the where, the how or even the why. Just the who.”
“Intriguing. Is it connected to your court case?”
“I don’t know. Someone came in to speak to the prosecutor during the trial. It was important enough to earn her a five-minute recess. As I was using the opportunity to stretch my legs, I caught a name and enough of the context to know that the name is very important to the prosecution. Case-changing important. My case? Perhaps. That would explain the urgency, but even if it isn’t mine, finding out more could be useful.”
In life, Kristof and I couldn’t have had more different careers. He’d been heir to the Nast Cabal; I’d been a purveyor of the dark arts. Yet whether it’s the boardroom or the black market, there is one commodity more valuable than any widget or spell: information. And when it came to buying, selling and trading it, no one knew the marketplace better than we did. If this mystery guy couldn’t help Kris’s case, he might be able to help the case of someone who would, in turn, help Kris.
“That’s all I have,” he said. “A name and the hope that it’ll be useful.”
“A mystery,” I said. “Exactly what I’m in the mood for. And-if you’re in the mood and have time-I’d be happy to make up for that kiss.” I waved at my house.
That was one offer Kris never refused.
Even if Lewis Stranz wasn’t up to something, he was certainly keeping me on my toes, which was a pleasant surprise. Tailing people usually involves long periods of sitting in one place, trying not to let my attention wander, because, as soon as it does, I know my mark will actually do something.
Stranz didn’t seem to be doing anything of import. He was just very, very busy. Going here, going there, meeting this person, meeting that one. With every encounter, I had to get close enough to figure out what was going on. That’s not too tough for a witch who’s also an Aspicio half-demon.
My father is Lord Demon Balaam, which makes life as an angel just a little more interesting. It does help in stalking, though, because the power he confers on his offspring is vision enhancement. If I can get on the other side of a wall when Stranz meets someone, I can clear a “peephole” and watch. If I can’t, then that’s when my witch powers come in handy, with blur spells for getting close and cover spells for staying there.
After all that work, I’d discovered that Stranz was simply socializing. Getting together with friends for a walk, a chat, a drink-while we may not need sustenance, we still partake in the rituals of human social life.
As for Stranz himself, my research hadn’t given me any hints to explain the prosecution’s interest. He was a shaman, which meant in the mortal world he’d had a spirit guide, could astral project and had healing abilities. Stranz still had his ayami-his spirit guide-except now the guide inhabited the same plane and had truly become his life partner, as often happens. And healing and spirit travel are absolutely useless in the afterlife. As if to compensate for this loss of powers, ghost shamans get special access to the teleport system, and what Stranz seemed to do with that access was make himself a wide and varied circle of friends. Which was a fun challenge for me, chasing him across the globe. But it wasn’t all that interesting. Until he went to London.
Stranz’s first stop in London was the British Museum, which operates a little differently in the afterlife. In the mortal realm, if you visit a museum exhibit on, say, cave paintings, you’ll get photos of faint-colored lines on dimly lit cave walls, with artist reconstructions of what they might have looked like and theoretical crap about the artist, the purpose, blah, blah, blah. But in the afterlife, if you’re interested in cave paintings, you get yourself over to France and hike out to the caves at Lascaux, and there they are, the colors just as vivid-and the animals just as misshapen-as they were when first painted. If you want to know how or why they were done, you ask one of the painters himself, who lives there, happily telling visitors about his life’s work.
Same goes for pretty much everything you’d find in the British Museum. If you want to explore the past, you just travel. So what is in the afterlife British Museum? Artifacts, pretty much as you’d find in the mortal world version, complete with temporary exhibits. But each artifact is actually a touch portal, which can take you to its natural environment. Access is available to all afterlife residents, except those who’ve had their basic teleportation privileges revoked.
Stranz’s access was fine. From what I’d dug up, he didn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d even need to worry about revocation. A real straight arrow. Born during the Depression, died in the eighties, worked as a family doctor, never had more than a parking ticket in his life. In other words, the sort of person I usually had zero contact with, which made the prosecution’s interest all the more intriguing.
My guess? Stranz was an unwilling-and probably unwitting-pawn in some scheme. A patsy. His squeaky-clean background made him perfect for it, as did his vast number of acquaintances. It was a good bet that one of those “friends” had set Stranz up, either to unknowingly transport goods or information or to take the fall for something.
Which meant, if I was right, that I’d not only be helping Kris, but I’d be helping an innocent guy. That would win me brownie points with the Fates. They get excited when I do good deeds off duty, as if the whole angel gig is finally rubbing off. I might be able to parlay this one into an extra vacation week.
As Stranz climbed the museum’s massive front steps, I lurked in a crowd of the recently dead. You can tell by the dresses and suits-they hadn’t yet learned how to change out of their grave clothes.
I skirted them and hurried on, earning catcalls and whistles from a group of toga-clad young guys lounging on the stairs. I told them where they could shove it-in ancient Latin. That stopped them. One of the gifts that comes with ascended angelhood is a permanent universal translator in my brain. The Fates can’t rescind that when I’m off duty. They’ve just warned me that I should avoid using it for frivolous reasons. Which I do. My definition of frivolous just doesn’t always match theirs.
I spotted Stranz as soon as I entered the museum. He took a left at the Rosetta stone-which, by the way, I can fully translate-then headed through the wing to the room containing pieces of the Greek Parthenon. From there, he teleported to the Acropolis itself. I waited behind Assyrians sighing over friezes as they lamented the late, great sport of lion hunting. Then I cast a blur spell, hurried to the next room and crossed over into ancient Athens.
Like every other place that has passed its heyday, Athens is stuck in its glory years-the good old days of Ancient Greece, before the Romans took over and renamed all their gods. And long before the Ottomans used the Parthenon as an ammo dump and a stray flame reduced it to pretty chunks of marble. Because irreplaceable historic buildings make great places to store gunpowder.
In the afterlife, the Parthenon is still standing, its marble buildings shimmering blindingly white under the midday sun. The grounds were covered with picnickers in garb from across the globe and the centuries. Tourists wound their way through the Acropolis. There were a few guards, but mostly just to make sure no one tried to set up residence.
Most tourists flocked to the Parthenon, the most famous temple on the Acropolis, the one with the forty-foot-tall ivory and gold statue of Athene. When Stranz exited the portal, he headed down the sloping road to the Erechtheion on the Acropolis’s north side. It’s a smaller temple, dedicated to yet another aspect of Athene. Don’t ask me what aspect. I’ve been here; I’ve explored; I’ve never taken the tour.
Stranz headed straight into the temple, meaning he wasn’t touring either. He was meeting someone. Sure enough, as he made his way through the Erechtheion, a woman broke from the gaggle of gawking ghosts and slid after him. I could see they were both heading to the south porch and was about to go around outside to eavesdrop, when the woman… pulsed.
One second she was a solid, fully materialized form, then she faded a little, becoming slightly translucent, before “firming up” again. No one else noticed. I only did because the ability to spot glamours is yet another part of my angel package.
I concentrated on the woman, trying to see what lay beneath her glamour. For a moment, she was just a woman. Late twenties, dark hair, pale skin. Then her skin went as white as the surrounding marble. Her dark hair began to writhe, snakes slithering through it. Two more snakes encircled her arms and a third acted as a belt. Her short skirt and boots stayed the same, but she accessorized with wings. Put the wings together with the snakes and the huntress costume and there was no doubt what I was seeing. An Erinys. Better known as a Fury.
I zipped out of the temple and around to the south, where I cloaked myself in a cover spell and hid under the row of Caryatids-the marble maidens that stand watch over the porch. I could hear three people above speaking in ancient Sumerian, which sounded like they were waxing poetic on the beauty and majesty of their surroundings… until I realized they were just trying to figure out where to grab lunch. I presumed Stranz and the Erinys were up there, waiting for the others to move on.
Erinyes are, technically, demi-demons. But that’s a catch-all term that basically means “not a ghost or celestial spirit.” Within it, the actual degree of demonic varies wildly. You have creatures like Nix, whose sole purpose is to convince mortals to act on their darkest desires. Clearly demonic. Then you get entities like djinn, who take advantage of human greed and offer a deal that usually won’t go in your favor. More mischievous than evil.
Further along are the Erinyes, who were known by the Greeks as goddesses of vengeance. You call on them to avenge yourself on someone who has wronged you, and by “wronged” I don’t mean “cut off in traffic.” It has to be a serious offense, like murdering a loved one. Erinyes have ethics. Strict ones. However, they aren’t going to talk you into turning the other cheek. That’s why they’re classified as demons. They may intend to mete out justice, but they can wreak serious havoc doing it.
Finally, the Sumerians moved on. And the Erinys moved in.
“Do you have what I need?” she whispered to Stranz.
His voice quavered as he said he did. He passed her what sounded like a piece of paper. I managed to clear a peephole through the porch, but there was no way in hell I could see what was written on the paper the Erinys was now reading.
When she finished, she crushed the paper. Light flashed. She opened her hand, and fine ash drifted to the floor. Great.
“That’s what you needed, isn’t it?” Stranz asked.
“It is. I will do as we discussed.”
Which is…? Come on, guys. Give me something…
Light footsteps crossed the porch, heading back inside. One set of footprints, as the Erinys walked away.
I hurried around the building under the cover of a blur spell. I reached the entrance just in time to see the Erinys striding across the main room. She passed behind the three Sumerians, still discussing lunch. I saw her walk behind them… and I didn’t see her come out again. She’d crossed over to another dimension. Which one? I had no idea.
I followed Stranz instead, though I didn’t know what good that would do. Clearly the Erinys was the one to stalk now. Her mission of revenge was almost certainly what Kristof was looking for.
As Stranz crossed back into the museum, I tailed him on autopilot as I flipped through my mental Rolodex. There were two Erinyes I could speak to-one was a contact, one owed me a favor. Neither would inform on her sister, but I might be able to get some information about this particular Erinys. I could also dig deeper into Stranz’s afterlife and figure out why he’d need one of the Furies…
Yet in the afterlife, it’s hard to wrong someone so grievously that they could invoke an Erinys. Murder is out of the question, obviously. Possessions are easy enough to come by, and Erinyes don’t avenge mere theft. And what could the demi-demon inflict on a ghost anyway?
Damn. It had to be a wrong committed in the mortal realm. But I couldn’t imagine Stranz had waited thirty years to take revenge for something from his lifetime. Maybe he’d just discovered that someone he cared about had been hurt or killed. But why would that interest an afterlife prosecutor?
My brain was still spinning when I realized that Stranz wasn’t heading for the exit. I probably should have figured that out as soon as I found myself climbing stairs to the second floor, but as a celestial bounty hunter, I’m so accustomed to following people that I don’t need to engage much of my brain to do it. Once up there, Stranz didn’t seem to be sightseeing or heading to a specific destination. He was just wandering-quickly.
Had he spotted me? I saw no evidence of that. He didn’t glance back or duck down rear hallways or try to lose himself in a crowd. He just kept walking. Through Egypt, then over to Iran and Mesopotamia and across Europe.
Between Europe and Ancient Greece, there was a space for temporary exhibits. Today, it was empty. Well, empty of exhibits. Filled with people. A massive tour group milled about like a herd of lost sheep. Stranz could have gone through them or turned back. Instead he veered into a back hall, moving faster now. He turned, then turned again, getting deeper into the warren of halls. Another turn and…
Silence. One second his shoes had been tap-tapping along. Then nothing. I cast a quick cover spell. Had he heard me? Was he lurking around that corner, waiting for his stalker to pass?
Shoes squeaked on linoleum. Stranz stumbled around the corner, as if he’d been shoved out. He glanced back, face tight with annoyance, and muttered something under his breath as he resumed walking.
I let him round the next corner, then hurried down that side aisle. It was a short one, maybe ten feet long, ending at a door marked “Private” and “Please use other entrance.”
I tried the door. It was locked, and an unlock spell didn’t fix that. When I cleared a peephole, I saw a dark storage room with a massive box blocking the door.
What had Stranz wanted in that room?
I’d come back later. For now, I needed to catch up with-
The hall vanished. There was a moment of darkness, no longer than an eye blink, then I was staring at a wall. I turned slowly.
I was in a small, empty room.
The Fates have been known to reach out and grab me. Very inconvenient. But this wasn’t their waiting room, and I hadn’t done anything wrong. Not wrong enough to be worthy of their attention-they’ve learned to employ a sliding scale with me, which slides ever further toward ignoring most of what I do, because calling me on every broken rule is really too much work. On this mission, though, I’d actually been behaving. Was that the problem? I’d gone too long without getting in trouble and they were growing nervous?
No. They wouldn’t dump me in a small, empty room. I’m a little claustrophobic. The Fates can be a pain in the ass, but they’re never cruel. I paced around the room once and-
Another flicker of darkness and I was back in the museum hall. I’d walked into a dimensional slip-just as Stranz must have. Step on the right spot and in you go. Like a magical version of those bookcases that spin into a secret room.
But the secret room had been empty. Was it a dimensional hiccup? An unused pocket? Or had I missed something? Had that pocket been Stranz’s destination? Did that explain why he’d cut through these back halls?
I put my hands out, ready to start looking for that doorway again. Then I stopped. Stranz. He was on the move. This pocket wasn’t going anywhere. I hurried off to find my target.
I caught up with Stranz on the far side of the second floor, where he met his former ayami-now his wife. A blur spell got me close enough to hear him apologizing for being late. He’d come up the stairs, turned the wrong way and had to circle around the entire floor before he realized his mistake.
“So, what do you want to see?” he asked her.
“Vikings.” She smiled up at him. “I want to see Vikings.”
“Then you shall.” He looped his arm through hers. “When do we need to meet Ted and Anna?”
“In two hours at Seven Dials. There’s a lovely little pastry shop there…”
They wandered off. Two hours of Vikings followed by a visit with friends just a few blocks away. Perfect. That gave me time to check out that dimensional pocket.
I found the room easily this time. There was a certain spot you needed to step on. I did that and was teleported to the pocket, which was… still an empty room.
I set about methodically searching the pocket. I walked over each bit of floor and peered through the wall, but it was like looking out into a black hole. Same with the floor. Yet whenever I passed one section of wall, I felt a buzz, like a low-grade shock. A magical, Hey, there’s something here.
It took some work, but I found the source. A hand-sized section of wall just above the floor. I put my hand against it and-voila!-a dimensional door popped me into… another room.
For a moment, I thought it was the same one. Except when I paced it off, I realized that this room was a couple of feet smaller. Some searching located the door back to where I’d come in. I also found a door into yet another, slightly smaller room.
“Seriously?” I muttered as I paced the new one, bending slightly to keep from hitting my head on the ceiling. “What is this? The Russian nesting doll of dimensional pockets?”
I found another door, into a smaller room, then another, this last one taking me into a long crawlspace, so narrow I’m sure my heart would have been pounding-if it still beat. I crept along on all fours, ignoring the jabs of panic, reminding myself that I knew the way out. Then the crawlspace ended. I crouched there, hitting the walls, then…
The floor gave way and I tumbled down into darkness.
As soon as my feet hit the floor, I leaped up, casting a light-ball spell.
“What is it?” a voice whispered in the darkness.
“A shade,” another hissed. “A mortal shade.”
“No, it is more. Much more.”
I conjured my sword then. Yes, technically against the rules when I’m not on angel duty, but those whispers weren’t in any human language. They were demonic.
A four-foot glowing blue blade materialized in my hand. The Sword of Judgment. I swung it up, and all around me tiny forms skittered back, hissing and growling. I strode to the nearest one and impaled it on the end of my sword as the others shrieked curses. They didn’t interfere, though-they were just happy I’d skewered someone else.
I lifted the squirming demon. It was an imp, actually, a type known as an oni. Ugly little beggar. In Japanese folklore, oni are big, hulking, ogre-like beasts. Personally, I think they just got themselves some good PR. They’re actually about two feet tall, humanoid, with blue skin, red hair, three eyes and long claws on their feet and hands, which I could hear as they scurried about, gibbering amongst themselves.
Oni are usually thought of as a form of ghost, because the name is derived from the Japanese word for “hidden” or “conceal.” Another misunderstanding. They don’t hide themselves-they hide things. Items of value. Usually behind a secret demon gate, which they guard.
I lifted the oni on my sword and peered at it, and when I did, it let out an ear-piercing shriek.
“Balaam!” it cried. “Lord Balaam!”
The imp tried to prostrate itself, which is really hard to do while dangling from a blade. Around it, the others began to whisper, their voices swirling through the darkness.
“Yes, yes! So I said. More than a shade. Much more!”
“Yet not an angel…”
They moved forward now, sniffing and peering at me. I held my ground and listened.
“Not an angel now. Balaam’s now.”
“She comes for him. Her lord father.”
“It is said that she works for him.”
“Balaam is clever. Balaam is wise.”
Actually, Balaam is neither. He’s a conniving bully who threatens and schemes and fights to get what he wants. Which explains a few things about his daughter, I guess.
I stay as far from Balaam as I can, but I do understand him. I also understand that a whole lot of demons-and angels-think I’m a double agent for him. Pisses me off-I’m many things, but I’m not a traitor. Still, the rumor can be useful.
So I didn’t argue. Just kept listening as they chattered.
“He wants the book.”
“Yes, he does. He’s heard of it. Someone has spoken.”
“Someone will pay for his betrayal.”
Their voices came faster now, panicking and thinking as fast as their little brains could think, struggling for a way to get out of this without offending a very powerful demon.
“Yes,” I said finally. “I’ve come for the book. It’s a very important one because it has been…” I took a guess. “Hidden for so long.”
“Yes, yes. Hidden. Lost. But we found it. Yes, we did.”
“Of course you did. The oni themselves are very wise, very clever. I’m not surprised they found this lost book of…”
“Moses,” one helpfully supplied.
“Right. The lost Book of Moses.” Seriously? Moses? What the hell?
Yet it did twinge some buried memory. One about spells, which made absolutely no sense in the context of the dude who led the Israelites out of Egypt. I suppose I should know more about that-with a last name like Levine, I probably had ancestors making that trek with old Mo-but I wasn’t raised in the faith. Or any faith really.
Still, if my brain wasn’t misfiring…
A long-lost spell book? Hell and damn, now those were words to get my dead heart pumping.
I tossed the oni off my sword tip and swung the blade, blue light crackling through the dark.
“I want that book.”
Silence. Then manic gibbering. Finally, one voice, as the others fell still.
“We respect Lord Balaam. We respect the daughter of Lord Balaam. But the book is ours.”
I skewered the speaker and tossed him up, and he shrieked as the others scampered back again.
“Mmm, try again.”
“We-we are willing to speak to Balaam on this matter.” The oni struggled to keep his shrill voice calm. “Negotiate. Yes, yes. We know Balaam is fair. Balaam is powerful but fair. We will negotiate and let him see the book.”
I considered. I could push the matter, but there were a lot of oni. And mass slaughter didn’t seem to be the way to handle this. At least, not until I knew more.
“I’ll be back,” I said. “Have the book ready.”
Human lore tells us that hell is guarded by a three-headed dog. Not true. It’s three giant dogs, the Cerberi. But they do guard hell. Or my own personal version of it: the Great Library.
The Great Library exists only in the afterlife dimensions, the real one having been set aflame when Caesar torched the Egyptian fleets. Yes, further proof that war and historic buildings are not compatible. Or that those running wars don’t give a shit about historic buildings.
I said hello to the girls-Cerberus One, Two and Three. Boring names. Also, insulting, I think. I call them Polly, Molly and Rue. I think they like it. They also appreciate that I stop to pet them, where most hurry past, spurred on by the sight of those foot-long fangs. But the girls really are very sweet and they’re good to me, letting me by even when I’m not on angel duty. As the massive guard dogs may suggest, the Great Library isn’t open to the afterlife public.
I passed the dogs and headed in to find Trsiel. I joke about the Great Library being my version of hell. It’s more of a love/hate relationship. If I’m looking for lost spells or rituals, it’s like a giant candy store where everything is free. If I’ve been sent here to do research, it really is a living nightmare. Chasing people with answers is my kind of research.
I wandered through the collections. I could say I was looking for Trsiel, but really I was just waiting. Sure enough, it took about ten minutes before a gray-haired scholar spotted me and raced off to find my far-more-angelic partner before I got myself into trouble.
I slouched into a chair and waited. Two minutes later, a figure rounded the shelves. He looked as much like an angel as I did-just a regular guy, about thirty, dark haired and olive skinned, dressed in jeans and a pullover. Trsiel is the real deal, though. A full-blood. Or close enough. There are rumors of full-bloods with a shot of human DNA, to help them better understand the people they’re sworn to help. Other full-bloods say that explains Trsiel’s “lowbrow” tastes. I say they can go to hell. Maybe it does, or maybe his more human tastes started the rumors. Doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, it does make him a better angel than most of the ineffective snobs who populate the angel dimensions.
Despite his very human appearance, there’s a faint glow to Trsiel’s skin that gives him away to those who know angels. And for those who don’t, his cover is blown once he opens his mouth-his voice is so richly compelling that every shade in hearing distance will stop to listen.
“Eve,” he said, striding to meet me. “What do you need?”
“Good to see you, too. Been a few months. How are things?”
He fixed me with a look. He knew I’d come for something and he knew I wouldn’t want to endure twenty minutes of chit-chat to get to it. We’d been partners for six years. I spent about as much time with him as I did with Kristof, and we knew each other as well as most couples. It was good to see him after almost three months apart. I wouldn’t say that, but he knew it.
“Lost book of Moses,” I said.
“Hmmm.” He turned and peered down the hall. “Room twelve, shelf three, right beside-”
“Unless you’re going to tell me the actual book is there, you can save it.”
“If the book was there, it wouldn’t be lost.”
I snorted. “I bet half the lost books of the world are in here somewhere. Just mis-shelved.”
“Probably. So if you start looking for that one now-”
“I’d rather fight through a legion of oni. Tell me about the book.” I paused. “Please.”
He waved me into an alcove with more comfortable chairs. Also, soundproof walls.
“You’re talking about the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses. Purportedly a lost text following the Five Books of Moses, also known as the Pentateuch-the first five books in the Hebrew bible. As often happens with sacred texts, a rumor started that parts were removed because they contained so-called dangerous knowledge.”
He nodded. “The Sixth and Seventh Books are believed to be a grimoire, containing incantations to replicate the miracles in the bible.”
He made a face, lounging back. “Depends on your definition of serious. Yes, the book is supposed to exist. Yes, it contains spells that roughly duplicate some of the miracles. Was it actually part of the Books of Moses? Probably not. It just makes a good story, one that has influenced several religious movements. Spiritualism, Hoodooism, Rastafarianism…”
“Influenced by a lost book? How does that work?”
“The original text is lost, but there have been copies for several centuries. Of course, the problem with reproduced grimoires-”
“Is that someone always screws up-a typo, a bad translation-and the spells don’t work.”
“Well, I may have found the originals. Through a secret passage in the British Museum, guarded by oni.”
A Huh? passed over his face, then a blink of comprehension, quickly dowsed, as he got comfortable again, saying as casually as he could manage, “And what led you there?”
“A job for Kristof. I was tracking a shaman who is apparently up to no good. Something to do with a Fury and these texts. I have no idea how the two connect, but I’ll figure it out.”
“Sounds like challenge.”
A flicker of a smile. “Good.”
I pulled my legs up, pretending to get comfortable myself as I studied his face. What are you up to, Trsiel?
My angelic partner is not well versed in the art of deception. It might seem that’s just part of the angel package, but I’ve met full-bloods who rival arch-demons for duplicity. Trsiel is just good by nature. That’s why the Fates paired him with me, hoping he’d rub off. Any transfer, much to their chagrin, has gone in the other direction.
Trsiel is genuinely good, not sanctimoniously or self-righteously good. That means that he’s willing to accept the need to get his hands dirty in the pursuit of justice. Under my tutelage, he’s become an adequate liar, but he’ll never be good enough to fool me. Even when he’s merely “up to something,” he shows his hand. Today he was waving it wildly.
“So,” I said. “Should I bother trying to trick these oni into giving me the book? Or should I just tell them the game’s up and Kristof wants it back?”
“Oh, wait. No. If this is a setup, there is no book.” I sighed. “Damn. It would have been better with a book.” A pause, during which Trsiel couldn’t seem to get a word out. I looked at him. “Or did Kris actually find the book? Because that would be kind of awesome.”
Trsiel’s mouth worked. He leaned forward. “I don’t know what…” One look in my eyes and he slumped. “Shit.”
“Look, it’s not his fault. It was my idea.”
“No, it was. I went to see him a few days ago. I needed advice on a complex demon contract, and he’s the expert. We were talking about you-his case running into overtime, you getting bored-and I suggested he give you a mission. A mystery to solve.”
I stared at him. “You suggested he send me on a wild goose chase? Lie about a mission?”
“It’s not a wild goose chase. It’s practice. A challenge, like you said. He balked at first, but I said it was like other guys giving their wives a weekend in a spa. You’re just a little different from most wives. But it was my idea, so if you’re angry, blame me.”
Was I angry? I felt as if I should be, but Trsiel was right. I’d had fun. I’d been challenged. For me, this was the equivalent of a weekend at the spa. A break from the everyday to calm my restlessness. A mental puzzle with a physical chase. And it was, admittedly, a good puzzle.
“So there is no book?” I said.
“I don’t know. Being Kristof…” He shrugged. “I suspect there is a prize at the end. He wouldn’t get your hopes up like that. It might be a spell or a magical whatnot. I’m just trying to figure out how he got the oni involved.”
“He helped some of them out of a bad contract last year. They owe him.” I got to my feet. “So, presuming the oni really do have a prize for me, let’s go get it.”
“Me? No, I’m supposed to be doing research-”
“Which you hate almost as much as I do. You just don’t complain. But I’ve gotten myself into a potentially dangerous situation, trying to rescue potentially sacred texts from oni. You’re honor bound to help me. So come on.”
Before we left, Trsiel had to go put away his books. God forbid he should leave a mess. Then I took him back to the museum. It wasn’t hard for him to mingle among mortal shades. He just needs to employ a bit of voice modulation, so he only sounds like a guy who should be doing radio. As for the faint glow, ghosts don’t notice that. Even in the supernatural realms, angels are such mysterious entities that most people expect them to come with halos and harps.
I took Trsiel through the first two dimensional pockets, then I went ahead through the smaller ones. This time, I avoided the fall into the final room, dropping instead. When I hit the ground, I conjured my sword as the oni skittered and whispered all around me.
“I’ve come for the book,” I said.
“No, no. You are not Balaam,” one said.
“Balaam would not come,” another replied. “He is a lord. He would send an underling.”
“Yes, she comes in Balaam’s stead. She bears his words. She-”
“Enough,” I said. “The gig is up, guys, but it’s not your fault. I’ll tell Kristof you did great. Slate wiped clean. Now hand over-”
One of the oni screamed. Another joined in and they began scrabbling about like kernels in a defective hot-air popper.
“Umm, sorry I’m late,” Trsiel said behind me.
I turned. “You really know how to make an entrance, don’t you?”
I whistled, trying to be heard over the shrieking. Forget the popcorn analogy. It was more like a tenth-grade booze-fest when the cops show up.
I whistled again. “Hey! Knock it off! He’s with me!”
“You have tricked us,” one oni hissed as the noise level dropped.
“Yes, tricked us. You brought an angel. A true angel.”
“Yeah, yeah. Did I mention the game’s over? I caught on. Now just give me-”
“We give you nothing.”
“Fine,” I said. “How did Kristof want this to play out? Was I supposed to sneak back here? Trick you? Fight you?”
“We do not know this Kristof.” An oni walked out. He was taller than his brethren, with wild orange hair. “You will leave now, witch. Take your angel and leave. Out of respect for your sire, we will permit that-”
“Permit?” I waved my sword. “I’ll leave when I want to. And I’m not leaving without the damned-”
Trsiel nudged me to silence and stepped forward, his own sword conjured but lowered. Respectful. When he spoke, it was with the full-on vocal treatment. “You say you do not know Kristof Nast?”
“Nast?” The oni’s ugly face crinkled. “I know that name. It is a Cabal. But this Kristof…?”
“He is hers.” Another oni pointed a bony finger at me. “I have heard of him. He helped oni.”
“But the oni he helped weren’t you,” Trsiel said. “He didn’t ask you to play a game with Eve, did he?”
More face-scrunching from the leader. “Game? The oni do not play games.”
“Sure, they do,” I said. “Hide-and-seek. And now you’re hiding-”
Another wave from Trsiel. He continued questioning them, and it didn’t take long to realize that they weren’t just trying to prolong the game. A full-blood angel’s voice truly is compelling-it makes you want to listen and to obey. For demons, it’s like a truth serum. These oni weren’t part of Kristof’s scheme. Stranz really had just stumbled into the dimensional pocket by accident, probably as he’d been heading for that “Private” door, adding a little spice to the chase.
But if Kristof didn’t set this up, then the oni really were guarding the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses.
“Fine,” I said when Trsiel stopped. “It’s a misunderstanding. But we are going to need that book. So just hand it over and we’ll go. We won’t tell anyone you took it.”
The oni laughed now, cackling and yipping.
“We took nothing,” the leader said. “We found it.” He pulled himself up tall. “And so we keep it.”
“I’m afraid not,” Trsiel said. “The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses are believed to be lost scriptures. As such, they would belong to the Almighty. As an agent of the Almighty, I need to ask you to relinquish them.”
Trsiel had said he didn’t believe they were real sacred texts, so he worded it carefully, to avoid lying. The oni didn’t care. They began gnashing their teeth and moving closer, clawed hands raised, fangs bared. Trsiel subtly motioned behind them-into the dark recesses of whatever dimensional pocket we were in. Presumably the book lay on the other side, as they guarded the door.
I nodded. We could hack our way through the oni, but that wasn’t fair. They had every right to guard what they’d found, and wholesale slaughter would land us in deep shit with the Fates. Contrary to popular belief, the war between the celestial and the demonic isn’t an endless bloody battle. It’s more like a cold war. Has been for eons. An uneasy stalemate, reinforced by endless treaties, including the kind that say two angels can’t massacre oni to get a book, even a sacred one.
We waited there, swords drawn, until they charged. Then we sliced through the first couple-self-defense-and barreled into the darkness. Realizing our goal, the oni leaped in from all sides. I swung behind Trsiel, covering his back as he pushed through the seething mass of imps. Tiny teeth dug into my arms and legs, and hands pummeled me. I shoved them off when I could and cut a swath with the glowing blue blade when I had to. The blade worked better. They saw it and dove out of the way.
We kept going, the blackness so complete now that our swords didn’t do more than illuminate their own metal, blue lightsabers cutting through blackness. Then…
“Shit!” Trsiel said. “Watch…!”
His voice trailed off. Falling. I hit the edge of the floor and teetered for a second. Then two oni jumped me and over I went.
It wasn’t a long drop. It helped that I landed on Trsiel. Above we could hear the oni chittering and giggling.
“Trapped!” one chortled. “Yes, the angels are trapped.”
“Oni didn’t do it,” another said. “They trapped themselves.”
“Yes, trapped themselves.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I muttered, pushing off Trsiel.
I lit a light ball and waved it around.
“Huh, not much of a trap,” I said.
We were at one end of a tunnel that, like the room above, stretched into darkness. A long, black tunnel, presumably with the book at the end.
“Find the book and teleport out,” I murmured. I turned to Trsiel. “It’s not an empty dimension, is it?”
We can’t teleport out of empty dimensions. They’re off the grid. I had to ask the question again, though. He was looking around, hand tight on his sword.
“No,” he said finally. “It’s not empty.”
I didn’t like his tone. “Is something here?”
“I’m… not sure. I think so.”
“Well, hopefully it won’t mind us taking the book.”
I swung the light ball in front of us, to illuminate the way, then I started down the corridor. Trsiel followed, walking backward, covering me now. I didn’t see the need for it. We were in a narrow corridor with nothing in sight. Just-
A growl reverberated through the hall. Trsiel swung in front of me, sword raised.
“It didn’t come from down there,” I said. “Or behind us. It seemed to come from…” I turned to the wall. Then I leaned over and cleared a peephole. “Nothing. Black-”
The wall crumbled. Just crumbled. So did the ceiling. And the wall behind us. We were standing in the darkness. Endless black on every side. I threw my light ball, but all I could see was the glowing sphere itself, going and going and going until it disappeared.
The growl came again. Then the flapping of wings. Leathery, bat-like wings, beating currents of hot air all around us.
“That sounds like…”
“Yes. That’s what it sounds like.”
“But it can’t be. Hell-beasts are only found in-”
An ear-shattering shriek as the beast dove at my head. As I ducked, I swung my sword. It made contact, fluorescent green blood spraying my face. The blood burned as it struck my skin, and I let out a yelp, so shocked at the sensation. Ghosts don’t feel pain. Angels don’t either. Not unless they’re in…
“Hell dimension!” I shouted.
“Which explains the hell-beast.” Trsiel grabbed my arm and yanked me as he stumbled backward over the uneven ground. “Hide your sword.”
I unconjured it and cast a privacy spell so we could speak without our voices being heard. “It can’t be a hell dimension. We didn’t step through a hell-gate.”
“No, we fell through one. I thought I felt it, but it happened too fast.”
“Exactly,” he muttered.
We’d been in hell dimensions before. Very, very rarely, and only when we absolutely couldn’t avoid it. We got in and we got out fast, before anything found us.
“Hold on,” I said. “I’ll cast… Shit!”
Hell dimensions also negated teleport spells. Meaning we were trapped here, in the dark, with a hell-beast. A very pissed off, injured hell-beast.
“Just stay still,” Trsiel murmured.
Right. Hell-beasts hunted like sharks, except they sensed movement through air instead of water. So we stayed still and listened to the flap of its wings as it circled the cavern. Trsiel had found us a spot behind what felt like stalagmites, cold and wet stones soaring up all around us.
The hell-beast swung past a couple of times. I tried to gauge its size, but all I had to go on was the sound of those wings, which really didn’t help at all. There were hell-beasts small enough for us to take on… and some we’d need an army to vanquish.
“The exit,” Trsiel whispered. “We need to find the exit.”
I paused. “Right.”
“We can’t look for that book, Eve. Not here. Not now.”
“We’ll get to the exit, climb out and teleport from the top, before the oni attack.”
It was good. I just would have preferred if it included finding the book. But Trsiel was right-we couldn’t see anything, meaning there was no way to find the book, not while that hell-beast guarded it.
“Maybe if we kill it…” I began.
As if in answer, we heard claws scrabbling to our left. Then more to our right.
“Oni?” I whispered.
“I don’t think so.”
“Damn.” Oni were a threat I could handle.
The claws clicked closer on both sides.
“Any idea where we’d find the exit?” I whispered.
Trsiel paused. Presumably it was back the way we’d come, at the start of the corridor. Since there was no longer a corridor, though… Also, the exit was a hole in the ceiling, which wouldn’t make things easy.
“No,” he said finally. “But I can guess the general direction.”
Something leaped at me, something small and furry, teeth digging into my arm. Pain ripped through it. I conjured my sword and caught a glimpse of a mole-like snout as I threw the beast and brandished my sword, Trsiel doing the same.
We’d been down here long enough for our eyes to adjust, and I could make out a little beyond the glow of our swords. We were surrounded by what looked like a dozen moles, each the size of a fox, blind things, with no obvious eyes but lots of sharp teeth and equally sharp claws. I had no idea what they were-there was no afterlife Darwin willing to brave the hell dimensions to name all the inhabitants.
They were dangerous. They were guarding the book. They’d shred us with those teeth if they got the chance. That was all we needed to know.
Another one leaped at me. Before I could swing my blade, Trsiel had sliced it in two, both halves falling, twitching, to the rocky floor. Two more shrieked as if in shared pain. They jumped. I skewered one. Trsiel lopped the head off the other. Then we heard the beating of massive wings as hot air swirled around us.
“Incoming!” I yelled.
Trsiel gave me a shove. Another mole-fox sprang. I swung, but it was too close to hit. Its teeth sank into my arm. Trsiel yanked it off and threw it aside.
As we started to run, I heard the beat of the hell-beast’s wings. Then silence. I knew what that silence meant and wheeled just in time to see a massive scaled creature diving at Trsiel. I yelled. He dove to the side, but the beast only changed course, talons outstretched. I ran, swinging my sword at those huge talons. The beast yanked them up just in time, and I staggered, spinning with the force of my empty swing.
Trsiel shouted. Something grabbed my sword arm, wrapping around it. Talons caught my shoulder, digging in like daggers, making me gasp, pain blinding me. The ground disappeared under my feet. I looked up to see scales and feathers.
I cast a binding spell, but the beast just kept winging its way up. Then it stopped, and I thought it was just a delayed reaction on the spell-was shocked that it had actually worked. Then the hell-beast screamed. I let out a yelp, too, as acid blood rained down. I heard Trsiel shout something from below but I didn’t catch it, just focused on launching a fireball. As I threw it up against the hell-beast’s underbelly, I saw Trsiel’s sword there, embedded nearly to the hilt. Then the sword vanished as he unconjured it. I threw a fireball straight at the gaping wound. The beast let out an unearthly howl and dropped me.
I hit the hard ground. Which hurt. Trsiel yanked me to my feet as the hell-beast swooped. I saw its head this time-massive furred skull with giant fangs. Trsiel yanked his sword arm back and I was going to tell him it wouldn’t do any good-the beast was still too high to reach. But he didn’t swing the blade. He threw it, like a javelin, straight up at the beast’s throat. It pierced it, and I covered my head as acid blood spattered us.
“Nice trick,” I said. “You’ve got to teach me that one.”
“Later. I think I heard-”
A growl came from deep in the cavern, like the one we’d heard before. Not the hell-beast then, and too loud to be the mole-foxes.
Above our heads, the hell-beast let out a gurgling shriek. It wasn’t dead, obviously. Maybe not even mortally wounded.
“Let’s go!” Trsiel said, hand on my elbow.
We ran. We could hear the hell-beast’s wings flapping as it retreated. Surrendering? Or simply pulling back for another attack?
We continued through the darkness, our swords and a light ball illuminating the way. Then I saw a faint glow across the cavern. I blinked, kicking in my extra vision. It helped just enough to see what looked like a box, with a glow shimmering through the cracks.
“The book,” I whispered as I skidded to a stop.
“No,” Trsiel said. “We can’t-”
The hell-beast shrieked deep in the cavern, followed by a growl to our left. Something was stalking us, not willing to attack unless we tried for the prize it was guarding.
I tried to judge the creature’s size from its growl. I also tried to judge how injured the hell-beast was. The book was only a couple hundred feet away. If I could just-
If I went after it, Trsiel would follow. I could tell him to continue on, find the exit, forget about me, and there wasn’t a chance in hell he’d actually do it, no more than I would if the situation were reversed. We were partners. If I took a risk, I took it for both of us.
I yanked my gaze away from the box. “Okay,” I said, and I let him continue leading me.
As we jogged, there were a couple of times when I swore I heard something moving in the cavern. I tried not to dwell on it-there were probably lots of things in this cavern, all of them ready to make a meal of us. By the time we reached the wall, I could hear only the growling creature, but it stayed too far away to be seen.
We felt along the walls for an exit. I cast my light ball up, searching the ceiling, but even if I found a hole, we’d never get to it. The growling came closer now, and I could make out a huge, dark form slinking toward us. Then I caught the scrabble of claws on rock. Lots of claws. The mole-foxes, with reinforcements.
We frantically searched for an exit, casting teleport spells with every step, praying for a weak spot. A snarl sounded behind us, and I turned to see white fangs, as big as my forearm, flashing in the darkness.
“Here!” a voice called. “Over here!”
A light ball sparked thirty feet away, illuminating Kristof’s face. He gestured wildly, and we ran toward him. As we drew close, we saw the wall shimmering. The exit-not a hole, but a portal. He pushed us through. We tumbled again, falling into a heap in the darkness.
“They return,” a voice hissed.
“How do they return?”
“They have. No!”
The oni started to shriek. Claws scraped at me. Then Kristof murmured, “Hold on,” and he teleported us out.
We landed on our asses in the middle of a jungle, surrounded by ferns the size of trees. Overhead, a tiny prehistoric primate peered down at us, then raced off, chattering.
Kristof looked around, frowning. “Not quite what I was aiming for.”
I laughed and threw my hands around his neck. “It never is.”
As I hugged him, I felt something like a breastplate under his suit jacket. When I backed up to take a look, he flipped open a button and pulled out a faintly glowing book.
“I believe you wanted this,” he said.
I stared down at it. “How…?”
He pushed the book into my hands. “Consider it my apology, for a somewhat misguided attempt to cure your boredom.”
“Oh, you cured it all right,” I said, grinning.
I took the book and flipped through it. It was indeed a grimoire, filled with spells I’d never seen before. I turned to Trsiel.
“Seems to be.” He looked at Kristof. “Thank you for the rescue.”
“But how?” I said, waving the book.
“Trsiel came to warn me that you’d uncovered my plot and might be annoyed with me.”
“When?” I answered my own question. “When you were ‘cleaning up’ your books.”
Kristof continued. “I was in session, so he left a message. When I got a message about oni and the Books of Moses, I realized that, in following my fake adventure, you’d stumbled into a real one. So I went after you.”
I didn’t ask how he’d found us. Ask Kris to teleport us to the beach, and we’d invariably end up in the desert. His sense of direction is hopeless… with one exception. Ask him to find me, and he can do it with the precision of a bloodhound.
“I arrived as you were fighting the hell-beast. You conquered it before I could be of any assistance, so while every creature in that place was tracking you two, I set out to find the book.”
“And they didn’t notice you stealing it?”
A lift of his brows. “Of course not. I was careful. And I replaced it with a spell that emitted a similar light long enough for us to escape.” He paused. “So, am I forgiven?”
“You brought me a secret spell book,” I said. “You are absolutely forgiven.”
Trsiel cleared his throat. “That grimoire…”
I sighed. “It may be a sacred text, which you must return to the Fates.”
“No, I think you can,” he said. “I have research to do. Just make sure you return it in a reasonably timely fashion.”
I grinned. “Thank you.”
We said our goodbyes, and Trsiel teleported back to the Great Library. I looked around. In the distance, something roared. Something very large.
“Where are we anyway?” I asked.
“I have no idea. But it does seem interesting.”
He pulled back a frond. The little simian from earlier was there, spying on us. Seeing Kristof, it raced off again. I laughed.
“While I’m very tempted to explore,” he said, “you do have that book on a limited loan.”
“Mmm…” I looked around. “I think we can do both. A little exploring. A little spellcasting.” I paused. “Unless you need to get back to court.”
“I wrangled a twenty-four-hour recess to pursue something very important.” He gestured to the jungle and then at the book. “Those look important.” He leaned over to kiss me. “That could be important, too.”
I grinned. “It could. All right then. Twenty-four hours alone together, in a prehistoric jungle, with a secret spell book. I do believe my boredom has officially been cured.”
“Good. So where shall we begin?”
The creature roared again.
“There,” I said. “I want to know what that is.”
He smiled. “Of course,” he said, and off we went.
Typical guy. You fight through hell-literally, hacking through legions of beasts and zombies and demonspawn-to sneak home and spend a few stolen minutes with him… and he’s not there.
Eve grumbled as she paced around the tiny houseboat, multihued blood dripping from her sword. “Where the hell are you, Kris?”
Her angel partner, Trsiel, couldn’t cover for her much longer, and she’d really wanted to check in with Kristof. He’d been keeping an eye on the living world for her, watching as his sons and their daughter got caught up in this mess. There really wasn’t much a ghostly father could do to help, but the check-ins made them both feel better.
He wasn’t at the houseboat, though. Nor was he at the courthouse. Eve had gone there to find the justice building shut down. The guard on duty had muttered something about magical wards needing repair, just regular maintenance. Which was bullshit. Afterlife court was closed because the higher powers were racing around commandeering forces to put out fires both on earth and in the afterlife. But they weren’t telling the shades that their world was on the brink of war. No, that wouldn’t do at all. Just pretend everything is fine. And if you see a monstrous beast racing down Main Street, it most certainly is not a hellhound that escaped its dimension. Er, but you should probably notify demon control anyway.
Eve walked into the bedroom and looked around. Their bed was made, the sheets drawn drum tight. Kristof had grown up with maids and cooks and housekeepers, and though he’d happily shed all those trappings after his death, he kept his world here just as neat and orderly as if he still had staff.
Eve wiped her sword on the gazillion-count Egyptian cotton sheets. For a moment, they were smeared with a satisfying rainbow of blood. Then it evaporated into the white cotton. She sighed and sheathed her sword.
“Fine, I’ll leave a proper note.”
She conjured paper and a pen.
Heaven and hell are being torn asunder as angels and demons battle themselves and each other. In the living world, supernaturals continue to barrel toward a war between those who want to reveal themselves to humans and those who know such a revelation will destroy all we hold dear. The veil between the realms grows thinner with each passing moment as we plummet toward catastrophe.
Hope all is well with you.
Hugs and kisses,
She’d just finished when she heard a patter behind her and wheeled to see… nothing.
Another patter sounded on the polished hardwood floor and she looked down to see a white rabbit. It rose on its hind legs.
“Eve Levine,” the rabbit squeaked. “Mighty daughter of Balaam, lord of darkness and chaos. I prostrate myself before you.”
The rabbit attempted to bow gracefully, but its body wouldn’t quite complete the maneuver and it flopped onto its belly. When it looked up at her, its pink eyes glowed with an unearthly light. Eve concentrated hard and a second shape superimposed itself on the rabbit, that of a toadlike lump with jutting fangs and eyes on quivering stalks. She blinked and the bunny reappeared.
“Nice choice of form, imp,” she said.
“I considered a kitten, but that seemed unwise when meeting a dark witch.”
“Witches don’t kill cats. Especially not witches who’ve been recruited to angelhood.” She grasped her sword and lifted it. “Rabbits, however? Rodents. Vermin. Nothing in the manual against that.”
The rabbit backed up. “Please, my lady. Balaam has a legion of imps scouring every dimension for you. He is most eager to speak to you.”
“Is he? And what could my lord demon father want from me?” She gasped in feigned surprise. “Wait… Does it have something to do with this big reveal I’ve been hearing about?”
“Yes, yes!” The rabbit thumped a back leg with excitement. “You have heard of the glorious plan, then? After centuries of hiding, supernaturals have finally found the willpower to reveal themselves and take their rightful place as rulers of the human world.”
The rabbit leaped up. “I knew you would agree. You will help your father, yes? You will join the fight here and you will persuade your earthbound daughter to do the same.”
“Savannah?” Eve tried to keep her voice calm.
“Of course. She is a mighty spellcaster. Mighty indeed. And very well connected in the supernatural world. Lord Balaam has approached her himself, but she has refused his generous offer.”
“Balaam went near my-” Eve stopped short as her sword glowed blue, infused with her fury. But the rabbit-imp didn’t seem to notice. She took a deep, steadying breath. “Foolish girl. Of course I’ll speak to her. She listens to her mother. First, though, you’ll need to tell me everything you know about my father’s plans, so I can properly explain them to her.”
The rabbit told her everything and she thanked it most graciously… then lopped off its head, which flew into the hall at the very moment the houseboat door opened. A tall, broad-shouldered figure filled the doorway. As Kristof Nast stepped in, the rabbit’s head bounced off his polished Italian loafers.
“Eve?” he said, peering at his feet as she walked into the main cabin. Then he saw her and smiled. “If there are decapitated rabbit heads flying, there’s only one explanation. Eve is back.” He stopped as he saw her expression. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s Savannah,” she said. “She’s in trouble. Well, bigger trouble. We need to-”
Light flashed. Kristof disappeared. The houseboat evaporated and Eve found herself in another dimension, surrounded by misshapen beasts, Trsiel at her side, her sword still in hand.
“Oh, hell,” she muttered as the beasts charged.
I led my half brother Bryce away from the rubble of the exploded lab, ignoring his protests, and ignoring Adam, who was sticking close and wincing every time Bryce coughed. I couldn’t blame Adam for worrying. The Supernatural Liberation Movement had injected Bryce with something called a “vaccine against mortality,” which sounded lovely, until you figured out that meant it contained DNA from vampires, zombies, and god only knows what other creatures the gang had rounded up for their experiments.
So I really didn’t want to catch whatever Bryce had either. Before we’d escaped, the woman who’d injected him had suggested it was transmittable. I had to trust they weren’t crazy enough to make it easily transmittable. And if they were? Well, then, I was already screwed. The only way out of the lab had been to drop into a pit of water connected to an underground sewer. Bryce was so weak he’d almost drowned and I’d had to help him. I’d stopped short of giving him mouth-to-mouth when he woke on his own, but we’d had plenty of contact. So I could be infected. But that was a concern for later. Right now, I was just happy to have survived, especially when the whole place had come down on our heads as the liberation movement blew up their own lab.
I’d never been so glad to be tramping-wet, smelly and dirty-down a New Orleans alleyway. Or to see Jeremy Danvers, the werewolf Alpha, or Jaime Vegas, his necromancer girlfriend. Or Adam. Most of all Adam.
Bryce might be my half brother, but I’ve known Adam since I was twelve. Bryce? Well, let’s just say we aren’t close.
“We’ll turn onto the road up here,” Jeremy said. He was scouting the way, limping from the blast. “We should be far enough from-”
He stopped and tilted his head, werewolf hearing picking up something we couldn’t. When he frowned, Adam moved up beside him and whispered, “Trouble?”
“I can hear a police radio. They’re looking for two men and a woman seen leaving the blast site.”
“Two guys covered in dust and bruises?” Adam said. “And a girl who looks like she went swimming in a sewer?”
I looked down at my soaked clothing. The only unscathed one was Jaime, who’d been blocks away when the building went up.
Jeremy said, “Anita Barrington set off an alarm, meaning there will be members of the reveal movement looking for all of us. You’re going to need to hole up until Jaime finds us clean clothing. I’ll go with her while she does.”
“I’ll be-” Jaime began, then cut herself short. As a necromancer, she had no innate defensive skills. As a forty-seven-year-old on the celebrity circuit, she didn’t have any acquired ones either: All she usually had to deal with were hecklers. “I need backup, but I don’t think it should be you,” she finally said to Jeremy. “Bryce needs a guard with superhearing and superstrength. I just need someone to watch my back. Savannah can do that. She isn’t battered and bruised. Her jeans are black and won’t look wet from a distance.”
Jaime gave me her jacket-a cute leather one that we’d bought on a trip to Milan. It was a little short-she’s five-five and I’m nearly seven inches taller-so on me it looked fashionably cropped. With the help of her brush and scarf, we tied my wet hair back and I stopped looking like a drowned rat, even if my sneakers sloshed with every step.
We found the guys a quiet spot to wait. Then we set off.
The Supernatural Liberation Movement. I gave them a vowel and called them SLAM. Their mission was to reveal the existence of supernaturals to the human world. There was a very good reason we hadn’t done this already-because it was stupid. Every time the world found out about us, heads rolled-our heads. Even if we could argue that this wasn’t the Middle Ages anymore, we weren’t just different in gender, skin color, religion, sexual orientation, or any other equality issue. We had powers. Often deadly powers that gave us an advantage over humans. You can bet your ass we wouldn’t be welcomed with open arms… except maybe by military research facilities.
So why was this movement gaining traction? First, the majority of supernaturals are not as tuned in to our world as I am. Through the Cabals and my connection to the interracial council, I had the advantage of seeing things from a global and historical perspective. Second, there are a lot of disaffected supernaturals out there, especially young ones who don’t understand why the hell they shouldn’t flaunt their abilities. For most of my twenty-one years, I’d have agreed with them-I had power, so I used it. All these young supernaturals needed was a man with a plan. And they found him in Giles Reyes-aka Gilles de Rais-a charismatic leader who’d convinced them that a bunch of unusual events in our world-including me, a sorcerer/witch hybrid-fulfilled some kind of prophecy that declared it was time for the big reveal. It didn’t hurt that Giles claimed he was really a fifteenth-century French nobleman who’d stumbled on immortality and had, after centuries of experimentation, found a way to grant it to all his followers. That was the “vaccine” he’d given Bryce. I thought of my brother, who was ready to keel over. Apparently it hadn’t quite been perfected yet.
Now, because of us, Giles’s vaccine had been destroyed before it could be perfected. He was going be pissed. I really wished I could stay to see that, but we had places to go, things to do, a world to save.
When police cars zipped past, sirens wailing, Jaime caught my arm and gestured wildly, laughing, as if sharing a juicy bit of gossip.
We were nearly to the commercial district when a police cruiser whipped around the corner, cut us off, and slammed on the brakes.
“Play it cool,” Jaime whispered.
I hadn’t planned to do anything else.
“Hey, guys,” Jaime said as the officers-a slender, middle-aged woman and a stocky young patrolman-climbed out of the car. “We heard the sirens. What’s going on?”
“A bomb was detonated a few blocks over.”
“Seriously?” Jaime’s eyes rounded as she scanned the rooftops. “Where? I have a blog, and if I could get photos, that would be-”
“Um, bomb, Jaime?” I cut in. “Normal people run the other way.”
“Because normal people don’t have a Twitter feed with a hundred thousand followers.” She took out her cell phone and propped up her shades. “Do you know the address? I can foursquare it now, then tweet photos after we get there.”
“We are not going to a bomb site- we are going to your interview.” I turned to the officers, mouthed, “Hollywood,” and rolled my eyes.
“Can we see some identification?” the woman asked.
“Absolutely,” Jaime chirped, then giggled. “But the date of birth is between us, right?”
Gotta say this-Jaime has the ditzy C-lister routine down pat. The male officer seemed ready to hop back into the car, but his partner insisted on the ID.
Jaime showed her cards and offered to send autographed eight-by-tens. She explained who she was-Jaime Vegas, renowned spiritualist, as formerly seen on the Keni Bales Show and more. The male cop said he’d heard of her and that his sister-in-law would love a signed photo.
“That’s… an interesting way of making a living,” said the female officer-Medina, according to her badge. “You’re free to go on to your interview, Ms. Vegas. It’s your friend here who needs to come with us.”
“What?” Jaime screeched. “No. She’s not my friend. I mean, yes, of course you are, dear.” A pat on my arm. “But she’s my publicist. I need her for the interview.”
“Then you’ll have to reschedule, because she’s coming with us. She was seen entering the bombed building before the blast, then leaving it shortly after.”
“Wouldn’t I need to have left before the bomb, considering I’m still alive?”
Medina’s look warned me not to be a smart ass. “We just want to speak to you.”
“Then speak here.”
“Miss, we have multiple eyewitness reports. That’s enough to arrest you on, but we’d like to give you the chance to talk to us first. Provide some insight into your coconspirators.”
“Coconspirators?” I waved at Jaime. “This is the only person I’ve been conspiring with today. Does she look like a criminal mastermind?”
“You were seen in the company of two men.”
“Two?” Jaime swatted my arm. “Oh my God, you’re so selfish.”
“What did these guys look like?” I asked.
The officers exchanged a look. The woman cleared her throat. “We have preliminary descriptions, but we’re hoping you can add to those. It will certainly help your situation if you can.”
In other words, the only “description” they had was the one Jeremy heard-two guys covered in mortar dust. Whatever they had on me was bullshit. Yes, I’d been inside that building, but I’d gone in through the roof, meaning no one had seen me enter. I’d exited through the sewer. I had a feeling their “witnesses” were members of SLAM.
“If anyone saw me near this building, there’s an explanation. But I’ll come downtown if that helps.” I turned to Jaime. “You go on, do your interview-”
“Absolutely not,” she said. “This young woman is my publicist, and you can’t treat her like a terrorist. I came here to check out venues for a possible charity appearance. That’s right-charity. New Orleans has been through hell, and if you want tourists coming back, you can’t arrest them on the street…”
She continued her diva rant as Medina started leading me toward the cruiser.
“It’s okay,” I said to Jaime, trying to shut her up. “You stay here. Let Adam know I’ve been delayed. He’ll have to postpone the interview. I won’t be long and-”
“Take your hands off her!” Jaime yelled at the cop.
“She’s not touching me,” I said. “Listen, Jaime-”
She aimed a kick at Medina’s shins. It didn’t come close. Intentionally so-the one thing Jaime can do is kick with the precision of a stiletto-clad kung-fu artist.
The younger officer-Holland-grabbed her. “Cut that out,” he said. “Or you’ll be going to the station with her.”
Jaime wrenched free. “Don’t you dare lay your hands on me!” She feigned another kick, and lost her balance, stumbling. “You tripped me!”
“Get her in the car, too,” Medina said.
As Holland muscled her toward the car, Jaime put up little resistance. Once in the backseat, she slid over, making room for me.
“What the hell?” I whispered as Medina shut the door.
“You’re my backup and I’m yours,” she said. “If they take one, they take both.”
While I appreciated the support, I’d rather she made sure Jeremy and Adam got Bryce to a doctor. Before I could protest, the officers climbed into the front seat, and we pulled away. Jaime handed me her cell and whispered, “Call Paige.”
I didn’t. I called Lucas. After he’d answered, I leaned into the gap between the front seats.
“I’m calling Jaime’s manager to cancel the interview. That’s okay, right?”
Medina looked ready to say no, but her partner nodded. “Just keep it short.”
Lucas was waiting patiently, having realized from my comment to Medina that something was up. “Hey,” I said to him. “Can you call Adam at the Daily and postpone that interview and photo shoot. Jaime and I… we kinda got ourselves arrested. Adam’s waiting for us with the photographer. Bryce something-or-other.”
“Dare I ask what’s going on?”
“Mmm, better not. Seems someone thought they saw me near an explosion, which is total bullshit. I’ve been baby-sitting-” I cast a quick glance at Jaime, who faked a scowl. “Um, keeping Jaime company. Anyway, it’s a big misunderstanding that I’m sure will amuse everyone at the office later. I’m hoping this will be cleared up soon, but tell Adam to wait no more than thirty minutes. I know he has important things to do.”
“All right.” Lucas paused, then asked, “Are you both okay?”
“We’re fine. We didn’t embarrass ourselves too badly, so no emergency intervention required.”
Another silence on his end.
“Really,” I said.
Medina twisted to look back at me. “A short call.”
“Gotta go,” I said.
“All right. Let me know if you need legal help.”
“I’m sure we won’t. It’s just questioning.”
Medina signaled for me to cut it off. I said good-bye and handed the phone back to Jaime.
As we drove out of the city, I realized these were state cops. I suppose I should have noticed sooner. It seemed odd for an outside department to be involved in a big-city case, but maybe even years after Katrina, New Orleans was still in a state of bureaucratic upheaval.
We pulled into a small station on a regional road surrounded by forest and swamp. Medina got out of the car as Holland made a note in his book. She opened my door. As I started to climb out, Holland opened Jaime’s door, then stopped dead.
“What’s that?” he said.
I turned to see some kind of black powder smeared on my seat.
“Damn it,” I muttered. “Did I sit in that?”
I went to wipe off my butt, but Medina grabbed my hands and yanked me into position so fast I barely had time to snap, “Hey!” before I stood spread eagled against the cruiser.
Jaime yelped, genuine now, and tried to get out, but Holland pushed her back in and slammed the door.
“Is that what it looks like?” he asked as Medina patted me down. “Something from the bomb?”
“Could be,” she said.
It wasn’t. Whatever ripped that building apart wasn’t some low-grade blasting powder. But showing any familiarity with what had caused the explosion-or bombs in general-seemed unwise.
Medina patted my back pockets.
“Only thing in there is my wallet,” I said. “But go ahead and check.”
She pulled out the wallet. Then she reached into the other back pocket, stopped, and waved Holland over.
“What?” I said.
I tried to twist and look, but she slammed me against the car again. I craned to see, being careful not to move anything but my head. She was holding a folded piece of paper and a crushed cardboard tube sprinkled with black powder.
She shoved me against the car again, then unfolded the paper. Holland leaned over to read it. He swore. His gaze lifted to mine, lip curled in disgust. “So you knew nothing about the bombing? Then why is the address in your pocket?”
“What? No. That wasn’t in my pocket. Not the paper or that powder. Look at my wallet. Notice anything odd? It’s soaked. Like my pocket. That paper and tube are dry, meaning it couldn’t have been in there.”
“Okay, so how did you get wet?” Holland asked.
“I… it’s kind of embarrassing, okay? I fell in a puddle. Landed on my ass.”
“Yes, that is embarrassing,” Medina said. “But not as embarrassing as the truth.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your wallet was in your back pocket. It probably fell into the toilet. I lost a cell phone that way once.”
“No, my jeans are soaked-”
“Then I guess that bathroom accident was even more embarrassing. Or maybe you put these things in your pocket after you got them wet.”
“I’ve been sitting on them, in wet jeans-they’d at least be damp!”
Medina gave me another shove, hard enough that my chin hit the car. My teeth caught my tongue and I tasted blood.
Holland took over, holding me still as Medina tugged my ID from my damp wallet.
“Savannah Levine,” she said. “You’re under arrest for…”
Medina arrested Jaime, too, despite the fact that they had no evidence to suggest she was involved. That’s when I really knew this wasn’t kosher, especially when Holland seemed surprised by Medina’s decision. He didn’t argue. She was the senior partner. But when we got inside and someone yelled that there was trouble with a guy in the holding cell, Holland volunteered to help and got out of there fast.
Medina called over a second officer, a guy barely old enough to be shaving. He took charge of Jaime, who hadn’t said a word since we left the car. When I glanced at her now, she was blinking hard, eyes unfocused.
“Jaime?” I said.
She managed a weak smile. “I’m okay.”
She didn’t look okay. The officer had led her halfway down the hall when I heard a clatter and turned to see her doubled over, emptying her stomach onto the linoleum tiles.
“Oh, God,” she said. “I can’t believe I did that.” Her voice came out thick, words slurred.
“Partying a little early today, were you?” Medina said.
“Wh-what?” Jaime struggled to look up at her, eyes refusing to focus.
I tried to get to Jaime, but Medina yanked me back. “Your friend is fine. She just needs to lay off the booze.” She called to the young officer, “She’s one of those Hollywood types. Probably spent the night on Bourbon Street.”
“What?” I said. “No, we-”
“Should I send the mug shot to the tabloids?” the young officer asked with a grin.
“No, that’s exactly what these people want. There’s no such thing as bad publicity. I’ll handle the processing. Just stick her in the drunk tank.”
“Is that the charge then? Public drunkenness? For both of them?”
Medina nodded. I opened my mouth, but her look made me shut it.
She pushed me into the next open doorway and shut the door behind us as the other officer led Jaime to the cells.
“What the hell is going on?” I said, spinning on Medina. “First you question me about a bombing. Then you arrest me for it. Now you’ve switched to public drunkenness?”
“Would you rather the bomb charge?”
“There is no bomb charge. You-”
“There still might be.”
She cuffed me to a chair, then sat across from me and took out her cell phone. After a minute, I realized the beeps I heard weren’t from texting or e-mailing-she was playing a game.
I yanked on the chair. “You aren’t processing me.”
“Do you want me to?”
Part of me wanted to insist she charge me, just to see if she would, so I could confirm what I suspected was happening. But the rest of me said that was a very stupid idea.
So I seethed and writhed inside while she played her game.
“I want to make a phone call,” I finally said.
“That wasn’t my official call. You’re holding me, so I’m entitled to-”
“You’re entitled to a call if I charge you.”
I closed my eyes and concentrated. Find the core of stillness, then focus all my energy on casting-
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Medina said.
“Whatever you’re doing.”
I leaned forward. “And what would that be?” I met her gaze.”Oh, wait… You know, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do.”
Just as I suspected. “Who are you working for? The moronic liberation movement that bombed their own building?”
Her head jerked up. “Are you accusing me of being a terrorist, Ms. Levine?”
“Is that what you think they are? Good, then we’re on the same page. Either way, holding me is a very bad idea. I’d suggest you reconsider and let me cut you a deal with the Cortezes.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Are you trying to bribe me?”
“If that’s what it takes.”
She leaped up and slammed me and my chair against the wall. As she shoved, she grabbed my shoulder, fingers digging in as she leaned down to my face.
“I don’t know who the hell these Cortezes are, but I can promise you that I’m not afraid of any gang. They can’t buy me and they can’t threaten me. Neither can you. I was giving you a break, Ms. Levine. Holding you on a lesser charge until I could consult with my superiors on the evidence we found in your back pocket. But if you want that charge-”
“No. I don’t. I-I made a mistake.”
“A very big mistake.” She shoved me again, the chair clattering against the wall. “And it’s not going to help your case. Since you don’t seem to like it here, let’s see if you prefer being in the drunk tank with your friend.”
I found Jaime curled up, shivering and pale, in a corner of the holding cell. I tried to rouse her, but she wouldn’t open her eyes. When I said I was going to call a guard, she managed to murmur, “No. Don’t… cause more trouble. Just give… minute. Food… poisoning.”
I glanced around. The cell looked like… well, a cell. About eight by eight feet. A typical spot in a small station for holding people awaiting charges or the onset of sobriety. From the looks of it, more cells were needed. This one now had five occupants. Like Jaime, two were lying on the floor. Drunk, I guessed. At least they were quiet.
There was one bed, currently occupied by a chick with the kind of tattoos that scream “I got this once when I was really drunk.” Except that, judging by the quantity, it was more than once. A lot more, which might suggest it was complete lack of taste rather than serial-drunken stupidity. Her blond hair was frizzled at the ends, as if she’d overused her straightening iron. She wore cutoffs with several rolls of pitted cellulite hanging out below. Her upper half hung too, tank top screaming for a bra.
In short, she was not the sort of person I was in the mood to deal with nicely. Still I tried.
“Hey,” I said. “My friend’s really sick. Do you think she could take the bunk?”
“Go to hell, you skinny-assed bitch.”
All the frustration of the last hour flared and when I grabbed her, my hands glowed white.
The woman shrieked. “You’re burning me. You bitch, you’re-”
I pushed her off the bed and she landed on the floor, half on top of an elderly homeless woman. I apologized to the old woman, but she seemed beyond hearing me.
The biker chick scrambled up and charged. I raised my fists. She put out her claws, scratching and spitting and yowling. A blow to the stomach stopped her before I got my hair pulled. When she staggered back, I downed her with a kick.
“You’re going to regret this,” she whined from the floor. “I know people.”
“Men, you mean. Big, ugly men who ride big, ugly bikes.” I loomed above her. “Word of advice? If you’re going to trash-talk, get your ass off the bitch seat and learn to fight for yourself.”
She whined and hissed a little more, then shut up. Beside her, the old woman straightened.
“Did someone call a lawyer?” she asked.
I turned to the bars. No one was there.
“Is that your lawyer?” she said. “Can he help me? I need to get out of here.”
I followed the old woman’s gaze to the middle of the room. Still no one.
Jaime moaned. I hurried over and helped her to the cot. Before she lay down, she glanced at it.
“I’m not sure I want to touch that,” she said.
“You’re washable,” I said. “But on second thought…”
I pulled off my jacket and wadded it up for a pillow, so her hair wouldn’t connect with whatever critters might be living on the mattress.
“Thanks,” she said. “How much trouble are we in?”
I crouched beside her. “We haven’t been charged with the bombing but… something’s fishy. That powder and note weren’t mine, obviously. Neither of us were processed. Neither of us have been charged. But we’re locked up.”
“Medina works for someone,” Jaime said, her words coming slow, as if it hurt to speak. “The movement or a Cabal.”
“I thought so, too. I called her on it, and now she’s convinced I tried to threaten her with a gang called the Cortezes.”
She stopped and cocked her head. A frown. Then she peered around the cell and at the empty hall beyond.
“Ghost?” I said.
“I’m… not sure. I thought I heard…” She trailed off, shook her head, then paled, as if the movement made her stomach churn. “Oh, God. What did I eat?”
“Just a pastry and a coffee hours ago.”
“A latte. Must have been the milk. I feel like-”
“Did someone call a lawyer?” the old woman warbled again.
I turned to see her staring at an empty spot with a look I recognized from all my years hanging around Jaime. She was seeing a ghost. It happened sometimes with the mentally ill.
“Is it my father?” I said to Jaime. “Is that who you think you heard?”
She nodded, eyes still closed.
“Can you look? See if he’s here?”
A faint, pained smile. “If it was your dad, I’d hear him loud and clear. Kristof Nast does not allow himself to be ignored. He took off to hunt for you after the explosion.” She frowned and opened her eyes. “I didn’t hear back from him-”
She blinked, then stared at the same empty spot as the old woman.
“Oh,” she said.
“Yes, but… faint. Something’s wrong.” She pushed up and struggled to listen. Then another, “Oh.”
“What’s he saying?” I asked.
“He’s barely coming through. Maybe because I’m sick.”
Jaime tried her best to communicate, with no success. When she started getting frustrated, I stopped her and said, “You rest. I may have a second avenue of contact today.”
I nodded at the old woman, who’d been following our efforts placidly.
“Mmm, not sure that’s such a good idea,” Jaime said. “She’s crazy enough to see ghosts, but that also means she’s not exactly coherent.”
“Well, no offense, but you’re not doing so hot yourself. Rest and I’ll see what I can get.”
The biker chick scuttled away as I sat down beside the old woman.
“Are you going to get me out of here?” the old woman said, staring up at the blank space above us.
“You can see him, right?” I said.
“Good,” I said. “So now he’s going to talk and you’re going to tell me what he says.”
“I want out.”
“Which he’ll do, as soon as you’ve helped me talk to him.”
She turned her dark eyes to me. “So you can’t hear him?”
She smiled. “Then I have him all to myself.” She looked up and said, “Get me out of here.”
My father managed to trick her into passing on a message, telling me to demand to call Lucas, but after that, she caught on. She whined at him that she wasn’t stupid and he was supposed to help her, with me. Then she started to wail.
“Ignore her,” Jaime croaked as I tried to calm the old woman. “I can hear him better now.”
I got up and went over to Jaime. My father must have followed, because the woman let out a scream of frustrated rage. She flung her hands out and shouted something I didn’t catch.
Then she smiled and lowered herself to the floor and started mumbling to herself.
“Shit,” Jaime muttered. “She’s not crazy. Or not only crazy. She’s a necromancer.”
“She just banished your father.”
“She used a nastier method. One I’ve never learned because I don’t want to be tempted to use it. It knocks a spirit through dimensions.”
“Shit!” I leaped to my feet and looked around.
“Don’t worry, Savannah. Your dad will find his way back. Or your mom will track him down.”
“Can you let her know?”
She shook her head. “Not now. When she’s on assignment, I can’t call.”
I wanted to argue that this was an emergency, but I trusted Jaime wouldn’t let my father suffer unnecessarily. Okay, she might, but only if my mother wouldn’t find out about it, which in this case, she eventually would.
“All right,” I said. “My father was telling me to go ahead and demand my phone call. I’m not sure I like the sounds of that, but…”
“He wouldn’t suggest that if it wasn’t safe. So go ahead. Try to flag someone down.”
The hall had been empty since I’d arrived. I walked over and leaned against the bars, but couldn’t see anything. I started casting a sensing spell, then stopped. I shouldn’t automatically reach for a magical solution when mundane methods would do the job. Now that I was the spell-powered equivalent of a twelve-year-old, I had to conserve all the juice I had. And, I suppose, it was a good rule in general.
So I called for a guard. When no one answered, I shouted. When still no one came, I started the sensing spell again. Stopped again. Walked over to Jaime.
“Do you have a mirror?” I asked.
“They took my purse and patted me down.”
I stood there, waiting, until she sighed and pulled a necklace from under her blouse. It was a locket. I popped it open. On one side was a tiny picture of Jeremy. On the other, a mirror.
I shook my head. “With some people, it’s hidden weapons. With you, mirrors.”
She pulled a face.
“Watch it,” I said. “Or I’ll make you look in it.”
“No, thank you,” she muttered, raking her fingers through her tangled hair.
I angled the mirror to look both ways down the hall.
“I see a desk,” I said. “But it’s empty. Looks like pages scattered on the floor.”
“Make a ruckus. You’re good at that.”
I yelled again for a guard. Then I grabbed Jaime’s shoes and clanged the bars like a B-movie convict.
I looked again at those dropped pages-someone had left in a hurry. I remembered the biker chick shrieking during our fight. Then the old woman screaming when my father ignored her. If no one had come for that, they sure as hell weren’t coming for my clanging.
I crouched and studied the lock.
“You gonna pick that with your hairpin, sweetheart?” the biker chick sneered.
“No, I’m going to pick it with hers.”
I walked over to Jaime and held out a hand. She plucked two from her hair.
“See, you do come ready for trouble,” I said. “Mirrors, stilettos, hairpins. I get the feeling you’ve been in jail before.”
She flipped me off as she lay back on the cot.
I hunkered down by the lock again. Of course, there is no way in hell you can escape a jail cell with a hairpin. But it made a good cover story while I worked at the door with an unlock spell.
Two days ago I’d been told-by some mysterious otherworld entity-that my spells weren’t actually gone. My power supply had just been cranked way down. Like a neophyte witch, I could build power through practice, and so I’d been practicing.
I’d been able to successfully cast simple things like a light ball. And that fl are of magic with the biker chick had reinforced something I’d experienced once before- that if I tapped deep enough into my power, I could cast on emotion, without even reciting a spell. That was serious mojo. If this temporary power drain meant I could reach that level someday, then it was worth it. But right now, I needed all the juice I could get. I was determined to open this door, however much time and concentration it took. It took a lot. Twenty minutes later I heard a little click.
I stood and pulled on the door. It moved about a quarter inch then caught, something inside grinding.
“You can’t open a cell with a hairpin, you stupid twat,” the biker chick said.
I turned to snarl at her, then gathered that frustrated anger and flung it at the door instead. Another click. When I yanked, it gave a little more, but still wouldn’t open.
“You’re getting there,” said a voice behind me.
I turned to see Jaime, wobbling slightly. She squeezed my shoulder.
“You’re getting it. Just keep-”
The door at the end of the hall flew open, a cacophony of shouts blasting through before it closed again. Silence. Then the thud of heavy boots.
A moment later, a man came into view. He looked like a stereotypical cop, right down to the mustache and lantern jaw. He wasn’t wearing a uniform, though. He was wearing blood. Bare chested. Skin dappled with red. More blood dripping from his hands, which were dangling at his sides, his fingers stubby, nails thickened to claws.
There’s not much I’ll back away from. A werewolf partway into his Change is one of those things.
I backed up into Jaime, my arms wide to shield her. She started around me, her chin going up, mouth firm, lower lip quivering slightly.
“I-I can handle this,” she said.
“He won’t touch me. I’m the Alpha’s…” Her voice dipped, uncertain, then came back stronger. “I’m the Alpha’s mate. He wouldn’t dare touch me.”
“Under normal circumstances, I’d agree. But I don’t think this guy cares.”
The werewolf stopped in front of the cell. If those partially changed hands didn’t confirm something was wrong, his eyes did. Pupils so huge his eyes seemed black. The whites suffused with red. His breathing came hard, ragged.
“Drugged,” Jaime whispered. “Who’s stupid enough to drug a-?”
“Hello, ladies,” the werewolf said, his voice a deep rumble, almost a growl, as if his vocal cords were changing, too. So was his face-nothing drastic, but the planes and angles were off-kilter, making him look disfigured.
“Wh-what’s wrong with him?” the biker chick quavered.
The woman who’d been silent so far-a thirtyish blonde in a suit jacket and slacks-had risen to her feet. “Shut up,” she hissed to the biker chick.
“Don’t we have some pretty ladies here,” he said, his gaze tripping over Jaime and me. “Pretty ladies in a cage.”
“Which is locked,” I said. “If you want in, you’ll need to get the key.”
“Yes.” Jaime stepped closer to the bars and raked back her hair. “If you want to visit us, you need to find the key.”
“Are you fucking-?” the biker chick screeched to a stop.
Frozen. Caught in a binding spell.
“Nice one,” Jaime whispered.
“That wasn’t me.”
The blonde stepped up beside Jaime and flicked open the top button on her blouse. “Go find the key,” she said to the werewolf. “Then we can play.”
He inhaled, nostrils flaring, then lumbered off.
When he was gone, the blonde whispered. “You know what he is?”
“Canis lupus,” I said. “Human variety.”
“And you are?”
“Sav-?” Her eyes widened. Then she nodded. “Good.”
“Not so good. My mojo is on the fritz, so we’re going to need to rely on you.”
“What about…?” she looked at Jaime. “Wait. I know you. You’re-”
“Good on a stage,” Jaime said. “Lousy in a fight. We’ve got another necro.” She nodded at the old woman. “And I’m guessing one reasonably innocent bystander.” A glance at the biker chick, now huddled on the floor.
“Keiran Courville,” the blonde said. “My mojo’s not much better. Been sick as a dog since they brought me in. Drugged, I think.”
“Shit.” I looked at Jaime. Not food poisoning after all. Either Medina or Holland must have injected her somehow. My money was on Medina.
So we had four supernaturals in a cage, three probably drugged. A drugged werewolf on the loose. What the hell was going on?
“You ladies fighting over me already?” a voice asked.
We all fl inched as the werewolf sauntered back into view.
“You need a key,” I said.
“Fuck the key-can’t be bothered. I want in now.”
He grabbed the door and yanked, neck tendons bulging, and the door snapped open.
I stepped in front of Jaime.
“Okay, big guy,” I said. “You know you’re in serious shit right now. That blood tells me someone’s dead. And considering this is a police station, that someone is a cop, meaning-”
He grabbed me by the shirtfront. “You like to use that mouth, bitch? I’ll show you where you can use it.”
“Let me guess?” I said. “Here?”
I kneed him in the groin. Yes, it’s a cheap shot, but I wasn’t really concerned with fighting fair right now. Or with preserving his ability to procreate.
He dropped me on my ass. And he should have dropped himself, because it was a helluva blow. But he only snorted, then came at me as I scooted back.
“Hey, handsome,” Jaime called. “Forget the little girl. I’ve got something you want.”
He looked from me to her, then lumbered toward her. Keiran hit him with an energy bolt.
“What was that?” the biker chick screeched as the werewolf fell back, a scorched spot on his side.
I launched a fire ball- well, more like a firefl y- but my aim was good and it hit him in the eye. He bellowed louder than he had when I’d gotten his crotch.
That shot of rage jump-started his stalled Change. His brow and jaw receded, mouth and nose jutting. Thick, black hair sprouted from his chest and back.
“What the hell?” the biker chick shrieked. “What the fucking hell?”
“Is that a werewolf?” the old necromancer said. “I’ve never seen a werewolf.”
He charged her. I cast a binding spell. It didn’t work. Keiran launched something and maybe it did work, but it didn’t stop him. Didn’t even slow him down. He grabbed the old woman by the hair and wrenched. Her neck snapped. He threw her across the cell. She hit the wall and collapsed like a rag doll.
The biker chick started to scream. Really scream. A high-pitched wail that caught the werewolf’s attention like the squeal of a rabbit. He turned on her.
I tried another binding spell. When it failed again, I grabbed Jaime and shoved her toward the broken cell door, waving for Keiran to follow.
As we tumbled out into the hall, Jaime glanced back. Her eyes widened and she stopped. I pushed her along the hall, and she didn’t struggle, just wrenched her gaze from the screaming woman and the werewolf and didn’t look back again.
I didn’t look back at all. Didn’t dare, because if I did, I might go back and try to save her. If I tried, I’d lose the opportunity to get us out of there. So I didn’t.
The biker chick didn’t scream for long.
The door into the main part of the station flew open. I stopped short, arms flying out to keep the others back.
Medina shot inside, followed by Holland. Both were staring over their shoulders. Medina shut the door quietly, then leaned her forehead against it.
Holland’s gaze stayed fixed on the door. His hands fluttered in front of his chest. It took a second to realize what he was doing. Crossing himself.
“It’s okay, Rory,” Medina murmured, face still against the door. “We’re safe now.”
Holland kept crossing himself and closed his eyes. I motioned for Jaime and Keiran to be still, then crept forward, and slid the gun from Holland’s holster. I had it halfway out before he noticed. He grabbed for it, but I yanked it free. Medina’s head snapped up. She went for her own weapon, but her holster was empty. Her lips parted in a curse.
When Holland opened his mouth, I motioned for silence, using the gun for emphasis. I waved for Medina to open the door. She shook her head.
I stepped forward and whispered, “Open the goddamned door or I’ll-”
Jaime shouldered past, grabbed the handle and pulled. The door didn’t budge.
“It’s a time lock,” Medina said. “It’ll open in a few minutes. But you… you…”
“You don’t want to go out there,” Holland whispered.
Medina nodded. “We’ll be safe in here. Just-”
A sickening crunch from inside the cell. Then a grunt. Medina went still, then snatched the gun from my hands and headed for the holding cell.
I could have warned her. But I figured she already knew something was going on. And she was a cop. Serve and protect the taxpayers. I was a taxpayer.
In front of the cell, she stopped dead.
“Oh my God. Oh my God.”
A grunt. A snort. I ran for Medina. Didn’t mean to. Jaime and Keiran even tried to grab me. I ran anyway.
The werewolf was on all fours, back humped, fur still sparse, a nightmare version of a wolf.
The biker chick was dead. And… no longer in one piece.
The wolf was over her, bloody froth and other bits dripping from his jaws. He growled, fur on end, his drug-hazed eyes fixed on Medina.
“Shoot him,” I whispered.
“The- the bullets. They aren’t…” She swallowed. “They aren’t silver.”
“Oh, for God’s sake.” I reached for the gun.
She yanked it away from me and stumbled back. “No, you’ll only antagonize-”
The wolf ran for the cell door and I slammed it shut. It was broken and wouldn’t lock, but the beast lacked hands, meaning sliding it open would be imposs-
The wolf hit the door. The whole wall shuddered. He took a bar in his jaws and yanked.
“The gun,” I said, wheeling. “Give me-”
Medina started to run toward the time-locked door. I caught her by the leg. She went down. The gun fl ew. She twisted, trying to throw me off as the wolf-
Two staccato shots. I looked back in time to see the wolf collapse. Jaime stood there, gun clutched in her hands. “I see Jeremy’s lessons are paying off,” I said as I got to my feet.
“When you’re the Alpha’s girlfriend, you need to know how to stop those guys.”
She was spelling it out for Medina’s benefit, putting a little extra emphasis on “Alpha” and sliding her gaze the cop’s way. Sure enough, Medina paled.
“Seems she does know something about our side of the universe. Fancy that.” I walked over to her, still huddled on the floor. “By that look on her face, though, she doesn’t know nearly as much as she should. Like exactly who she was taking into custody. And who’s probably on his way right now, tracking down his girlfriend, very pissed off about the situation and about to be even more pissed off when he sees that.” I pointed toward the dead wolf in the cage.
“That’s the problem they were having in lockup when we arrived, wasn’t it? You weren’t just stupid enough to imprison a”-I glanced at Holland, still standing by the door, in shock. I had no idea how much of this was penetrating, but I shouldn’t take chances-“a guy like that, but you drugged him, too. Intentionally released his inner animal.”
“No.” She scrambled up. “I just arrested him. That’s my assignment.”
“From the liberation movement?”
“Yes. I bring in people like us.”
“Like us? What are you?”
“Acies,” she said. A vision-enhanced half-demon, very mild powers. “They give me sedatives, then someone comes to bail the prisoners out and takes them to the lab. Sometimes I find the subjects on my own. Sometimes I’m tipped off. That’s what happened with you. I got a call. My contact didn’t tell me who you were-he just described you and where to find you. The sedatives have always worked.” She glanced into the cell and swallowed. “It must be the latest batch. Everything was fine-”
“Yes, just fine. All you were doing was kidnapping our kind on false charges then selling us as guinea pigs in horrific experiments.”
She bristled. “Those experiments will save us. They’re benign-”
“Benign?” I clenched my fists so hard I heard the faint pops of my knuckles cracking. “Tell that to the subjects they dumped into a watery pit. Before they were dead! Those benign-” I lifted my hands for emphasis and sparks flew everywhere.
Jaime caught my elbow. “How about we skip the blame game. Jeremy will find me eventually, and this is something he shouldn’t walk into blindly.”
She was right. Most werewolves can’t follow a scent when you’ve traveled by car, but Jeremy wasn’t your average werewolf. He had an extra boost of kitsune blood, which helped him find his family when they were in danger. Jaime was family. He’d be on his way.
“Am I drugged?” I asked Medina.
She shook her head. “I only had enough left for one more. You seemed compliant enough.” She gestured at Jaime. “She was the one who was fighting.”
“When you came in here, what were you running from?”
She pointed to the cell.
“There’s nothing else?”
She shook her head.
So the werewolf had been on the loose, and she and her partner ducked in here to escape it, only to trap themselves with it. Which I’d say was fitting, except that they weren’t the ones who’d died for her stupidity.
“So as soon as that lock opens, we’re free to go?” Keiran asked.
Holland lurched from his stupor. “N-no. There’s paperwork. We have to do the paperwork. People can’t just walk out of…”
He looked around, then caught sight of the blood sprayed across the hall floor. He stumbled toward the cell, Medina grabbing for his arm to stop him. Too late. Holland saw what was in there, doubled over and threw up.
He was still retching, Medina at his side, when the time lock on the door clicked. Keiran grabbed the handle. I jammed my foot in the way, stopping it.
Keiran glowered at me. “I’m leaving, okay? I don’t care what the council says about this mess and my ‘duty’ to help clean it up-”
“I was just going to say to be careful.”
I pulled my foot away and she slipped through. I was about to follow, but Jaime caught my sleeve.
“Not so fast,” she murmured. She slid one stiletto into the door opening, then put her ear to the gap.
Medina marched over. She’d pulled her partner away from the carnage in the cage and left him sitting, slumped against a wall, head on his knees. She grabbed the door. When Jaime made a move to stop her, she snapped, “You stay here, until I make sure the witch is okay.”
As Medina went through the door, Jaime gave me a questioning look.
“Hell, no,” I murmured. “I’ve had enough of playing hero. We didn’t send them out as bait. Their choice. Might as well take advantage.”
We could hear Keiran’s pumps receding along the hall, then the softer thumps of Medina’s loafers. A murmur of voices as Medina caught up. The click of a door. We waited for another ten seconds.
“No screaming yet,” Jaime said.
“Always a good sign.”
We slid out.
We crept down the hall. There were two doors at the end. The left one headed to the interrogation room; the right to the main office.
I cracked open the door on the right and listened. A week ago, I’d have been ashamed of myself for being so cautious, called myself a frightened little witch mouse. A week without powers has taught me that the only reason not to take that extra second was ego.
When we heard nothing, I eased open the door and went through first.
Everything was silent and still. I turned to give Jaime the all clear. Then I stopped.
Silent and still. In a police station that’s just been ravaged by a werewolf.
“What’s up?” Jaime whispered.
I lifted a finger to my lips and pivoted, straining to hear.
Jaime tapped my shoulder and I jumped.
“Let’s just go,” she whispered.
She was right. If losing my powers had made me careful, it had also nudged me to the edge of paranoia. A werewolf had just rampaged through an isolated police station where I’d only seen four officers, including Medina and Holland. The other two must be long gone. Or dead. Judging by the blood on the werewolf, I suspected option two. That would explain the silence.
We passed a quad of cubicles. Something crunched underfoot and I looked down to see a broken pencil. Pens were scattered off to my left. Papers blanketed the floor around the desks. Crimson blood dotted the pages. Only drops, though. Someone wounded and getting the hell out, scattering office supplies in his wake.
I took another step and heard the slam of a car door. I pictured a survivor sitting in the parking lot, gun drawn, waiting for someone- or something- to come out those front doors.
I turned back to Jaime.
“We should look for a side exit,” I whispered.
She nodded. In front was the reception area. To our right, another door hung partially open. As we headed for it, I noticed more blood streaked on the linoleum. Still wet. From the werewolf, I presumed. I steered around it and kept going.
More blood ahead. Lots more. Smeared in front of the partly open door. Lines ran through it. Drag marks. Was the werewolf the only thing responsible for those blood trails? I wasn’t sure enough to go through that door.
“Other way?” Jaime whispered behind me.
I nodded. As we crept back in the direction we’d come, I kept glancing back at the blood smears by the door. What if someone was in there, wounded?
I shook it off. As I’d said, I was done playing hero. While I was sure that Paige-and-Lucas-fostered self-sacrificing side of me would erupt again, it wasn’t popping out while we had a dead werewolf in the back room. We had to escape. This was Medina’s mess. Let her deal with it. Or let the Pack do it-after we got to safety.
“Hello?” a man’s voice called from the reception area. “Is someone here?”
Jaime stopped and looked back at me.
“I want to file an accident report,” he called. “Hello?”
I motioned for Jaime to follow and we backed up to a block of filing cabinets. As I tugged her behind them, I caught a flash of something across the room. Jaime gasped. I wheeled.
There was nothing there.
Jaime had her eyes half closed and was taking deep breaths.
“What’d you see?” I asked.
“Just a ghost. Some kind of-” Another deep breath. “A residual, I think. It startled me. Sorry.”
A residual was a spectral image, usually the replay of a gruesome death, meaning Jaime had every right to look like she was five seconds from puking. But why had I caught a flicker of it?
The guy in reception called out again. I plastered myself back against Jaime. My heart kept thumping. I tried to calm down. It was just a guy. At worst I could play receptionist and get rid of him.
Yet the self-talk didn’t help because it wasn’t the guy making my heart race. I kept thinking about that flash. A niggling doubt in my gut told me to look again.
I peered out and jerked back so fast I elbowed Jaime.
“What-?” she began.
I clamped my hand over her mouth. My heart was thudding so hard now I could barely draw breath. She tugged my hand away and mouthed, “You saw it?”
I nodded. What had I seen? I didn’t know. My brain was throwing out bits and pieces like a jammed movie camera.
Not human. No, not humanoid. That’s what had my mind stuttering, because it wasn’t human and it wasn’t beast, and that wasn’t possible. I lived in a world of monsters, but they were all recognizably human. Only werewolves could change form. This… This wasn’t a werewolf.
Eyes. I’d seen eyes. Cold, unblinking, reptilian eyes scanning the room. Looking for us.
Forget what it was-it was looking for us now and when it found us…
Blood. I’d seen blood and gore dripping from misshapen jaws. I stared at the smear on the floor and now saw more than drag marks. I saw claw marks.
“Hello?” the man called. “Jesus Christ. Someone’s gotta be here.”
A creak. The door opening. A growl. An inhuman cry, half shriek, half snarl.
I leaped from my hiding spot. The thing flew at the man. Literally flew, leathery crimson wings billowing out. Its beaklike snout opened and it let out another horrible cry.
“Holy shit,” the man said. “Holy fucking-”
I hit the beast with an energy bolt. Or I tried to. What came out was a spray of harmless sparks that showered the thing. It gave a screech, more annoyance than pain, and reared back. Four taloned feet flashed. All four grabbed the man. Grabbed him and ripped. Blood sprayed. An arm landed by my feet. The man was screaming. All that blood, and that arm lying at my feet, and the man was still screaming.
Jaime had to drag me a couple of feet before I snapped out of it. I pushed her along ahead of me as we ran for the second door. My sneakers slid and squealed on the blood. A grunt from across the room. The beast. The man had gone silent now. Thank God, he’d gone silent. But that meant the beast had heard my shoes.
Jaime wrenched open the door. We tumbled through. I yanked it closed. The beast hit it with a thud, the wall shuddering. I held it shut with both hands, my feet braced. It threw itself at the door, over and over, shrieking.
Jaime grabbed my shoulder. I lifted my hand to brush her off, then realized she was holding out a steel baton. We jammed it into the handle. The door rocked twice more. Then stopped. Talons clicked on the linoleum as the beast retreated.
I glanced at Jaime. She didn’t ask what that thing was or how it got here. Right now, it only mattered that it was here.
“It’s looking for another way in,” Jaime whispered.
“Which means we need to find another way out.”
I turned. We were in an office. The chief’s office, I was guessing. Big, spacious, filled with natural light… all coming from skylights overhead. Barred skylights. No other exit.
There was a shout. Then an earsplitting screech. I spun toward the door.
“Holland!” I said. “We forgot about-”
A scream cut me short. The same kind of horrible scream I’d heard from the man who’d been torn apart.
Jaime gripped my elbow. “Too late,” she said. “We need to find a way out.”
I stood frozen as the scream was replaced by wet smacking and grunting as the creature devoured the young officer. Then everything went quiet.
I pressed my ear to the door.
Jaime tugged me back. “It just remembered there’s a bigger meal in here.”
I took a step, and nearly landed on my ass. I looked down at what I’d slipped on-the extension of the blood trail that came through the door.
It continued past the massive desk. I took two steps and leaned around to see what looked like rope on the floor. Another step. Not rope. Intestine, stretched out from what remained of a torso clad in…
“Medina,” I whispered, seeing the name plate on her uniform shirt.
That was the only way I would have recognized her. Her legs and one arm had been ripped off. As for her head, it was still attached, barely. Where her face should be, there was a bloody crater.
Jaime stepped around the desk. I blocked the sight.
“There’s someone behind her,” Jaime whispered.
I looked behind the desk. There were bodies there. Two, maybe three. It was impossible to tell. One face stared up from the pile. The blond witch, Keiran.
“Okay,” Jaime said, taking a deep breath. “We need-” She looked around. “Phone. We need to find the-”
Her eyes rounded. She lunged forward. “Savannah!”
Cold steel pressed against my throat.
“I’d say, ‘Nobody move,’” said a raspy male voice. “But I think the knife makes that redundant.”
I started whispering a spell. The blade pressed into my windpipe.
“I’d call that moving,” he said. “Another word and you won’t be speaking. Or breathing.”
“There’s a thing out there,” Jaime said. “Some kind of beast.”
“Demon,” he said. “Demonic, at least. I was testing out a particularly tricky new spell.”
A sorcerer. One who knew witch magic, which explained how he’d appeared from nowhere. Cover spell.
“Who are you?” Jaime demanded, as if reading my mind.
He continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “That beast wasn’t quite what I hoped to summon, but I’ve sent it back now. With a full belly, apparently. Pity about Jackie Medina. A nice person to work with. So dedicated to the cause. So gullible.”
“She wasn’t drugging us to make us more compliant, was she?” Jaime said. “The drugs were supposed to drive supernaturals crazy. Why?”
“Is this the point where I explain my master plan? Um, no. Thanks, but I have more important things to do.”
“Like cleaning up this mess,” I muttered.
“That’s not on my list either. I’m sure either the council or the Cabals have a crime-scene cleaning team on speed dial. And avoiding fallout…?” He chuckled. “Definitely not part of the plan. As for the plan itself, let’s just say it underwent a serious change when Ms. Medina called me and said she had Jaime Vegas and Savannah Levine in custody. The Fates must be smiling on me. Well, not the Fates, maybe, but someone is. I wanted a chance to test my spell, and you gave me a better one than I ever could have imagined. Now, Ms. Vegas, could you do me a favor and call Eve Levine? I know you have her on speed dial.”
“I can’t-” Jaime began.
“Yes, you can.” He gestured at the knife against my throat.
Being told to call my mother or I’d die? Serious déjà vu. First Leah O’Donnell, the half-demon who came back from hell. Now this asshole. Everyone wanted Mom. Which meant, while part of me said I should be scared, I was really just annoyed. And impatiently waiting for this sorcerer to get caught up in negotiations with Jaime and relax his grip enough for me to escape.
“You can call her,” he repeated. “And you will, because if you don’t, I’m going to slit her daughter’s throat and leave her on this pile of bodies.”
“You don’t understand,” Jaime said. “Eve is out of contact. Someplace I can’t reach her.”
“You mean she’s off on an angel assignment.”
Jaime let out a squeaky laugh. “Um, no. Trust me, Eve Levine is no-”
“She’s an angel. Ascended angel. Celestial bounty hunter.”
I looked at Jaime, and waited for a real laugh, not that nervous titter.
Her mouth opened. Closed. She swallowed. She looked at me and blushed.
Angel? My mother was an angel?
I wanted to laugh. Only I couldn’t, because it made sense to me-as much sense as the concept of my dark-witch half-demon mother as a divine agent could.
Leah had said my mother was on her tail. That Mom could keep her from going back to hell. Who could do that except an angel?
When my mother came for Leah, I’d seen her faint outline. I’d also seen something glowing at her side. Something she’d used to slice bloodlessly through Leah’s host body and send her soul back to hell. What could do that except a celestial sword?
Kimerion-a demi-demon who’d been helping us-said Leah must have gotten divine aid to escape her hell dimension. He claimed it was a collaboration between the angelic and the demonic. Then he’d asked about my mother.
That’s why Leah wanted her. That’s why this guy wanted her. Because my mother had a direct line to the celestial.
I felt… Confused. Then that fell away and what took its place wasn’t fear or pride. It was hurt. Hurt because this son of a bitch knew my mother was an angel, and I didn’t. Hurt because I trusted Jaime-trusted her since I was fourteen years old-and now I realized she’d kept something about my mother from me, something important.
Finally, Jaime said, “If you know what Eve is, then you understand that she’s not always at my beck and call. Six months of the year she’s an angel. I can’t summon her. I’m forbidden-”
“You can’t?” he said. “Or it’s forbidden? Those are two different things. If Eve Levine finds out that her daughter died and you didn’t have the guts to try calling her, she’ll reach through the dimensions and rip those guts out through your belly button.”
The blade slid across my throat. I felt the skin split. Felt blood run down my neck. Heard Jaime yelp. Tried to turn, but the blade was still there, cutting in deeper, his other hand wrapped around my hair now, wrenching my head up.
My eyes bulged as I gasped for breath. I found it. Somehow I found it.
I could still breathe. Blood oozed down my neck. But it didn’t spurt. I stopped struggling.
“Good girl,” the sorcerer whispered. “Ms. Vegas, the ball is in your court.”
She was already saying my mother’s name, the words spilling out as she yanked off my mother’s silver ring and clutched it. “Eve, I need you, please, Savannah needs you.”
She paused for breath, and he dug the knife in again and I gasped, eyes rolling in pain, a scream caught in my throat, not daring to let it out, barely daring to breathe for fear it would press my throat harder against the blade.
The sorcerer was murmuring something. A spell?
I stopped the thought. Squeezed my eyes shut. Don’t call her. Don’t call her.
Are you crazy? There’s a knife-
I can’t call her. I won’t. My mother was an angel. A goddamned angel, and if people knew I could summon an angel, I’d have a knife to my throat every week. I had to trust Jaime.
“I-I think she’s coming,” Jaime said. “I feel her, and-”
“Tell her to cross over there.”
He pointed. I tried to look, but the knife wouldn’t let me.
“I-I don’t under-”
“Tell her to cross there. Into the circle.”
Circle? I didn’t need to look now. It had to be something for binding a spirit.
“No,” I said, wheezing. “Jaime, don’t you dare-”
The knife bit in and I yowled. Couldn’t help it, even if it made the blade dig in all the more.
I could barely see Jaime through a haze of red. But I glowered at her, pouring every bit of rage and betrayal into that glare.
Don’t you dare let him bind an angel, Jaime. Don’t you dare.
“I-I can’t tell her where to cross over. It’s not like that. She-”
“Eve!” His voice rose to a shout. “I’m sure you can hear me. You’re going to cross into that circle or your daughter is going to die.”
I closed my eyes and concentrated as hard as I could. Do not cross into the circle. I had no idea who this guy was or what he was up to, but he wanted to harness an angel, and with everything that was going on-the freedom group, the immortality vaccine-we couldn’t let it happen.
I’d tricked Leah. I could trick him, too. I just needed enough time.
The sorcerer restarted his incantation, shouting the words now. I didn’t recognize the spell. Didn’t even recognize the language. Not Hebrew or Greek or Latin.
As his voice rose, he pulled the knife away from my throat, tightening his grip on my hair. He flicked the blood-covered blade to the left. Toward the circle.
My fi st went up, spell on my lips, but he slapped the blade back so hard my knees gave way, only his hold on my hair keeping me upright. He yanked me to my feet.
“The circle, Eve!” he shouted. “Cross into the-”
He stopped. And he laughed, a low, rasping chortle. “Yes. That’s it. Thank you.”
The knife eased on my neck enough for me to look over at the circle and see…
My mother. I saw my mother. Not a faint image or a shadowy apparition. I saw my mother, as real as she’d looked nine years ago, when she’d left our cell to find us a way out of the compound where we’d been trapped. She’d never returned.
“Eve,” the sorcerer said.
She pulled something off her back. A four-foot-long sword, the metal glowing blue.
“Jaime? Tell him he has fi ve seconds to drop his blade or I use mine,” she said, her gaze fixed on him, dark eyes blazing.
I could hear Mom. Why could I hear her? But he could, too. His knife hit the floor with a clatter. He released me and I fell to my knees, hands going to my throat.
“Good,” she said.
She kept walking toward him, but lowered the sword. I stared up at her.
I can see you. And he can see you too, can’t he? Why can-?
My gaze dropped to the floor where my mother was leaving a trail of boot prints.
She shouldn’t be able to leave boot prints.
The hell-beast. He’d summoned a hell-beast and it had materialized. It had crossed the dimensions and physically entered ours.
What had he said before he started the ritual?
I’m testing out a particularly tricky new spell.
“There,” he said to Eve. “I’ve let Savannah go. I just wanted to bring you here, Eve. We have very special plans-”
My mother lifted her sword. Ready to send him to hell, as she’d done with Leah.
She swung the blade. One clean, effortless cut through the torso. The sorcerer’s eyes bugged. His mouth worked. Then his upper half slid to the floor, blood spurting, the shriek dying in a keening gurgle as his legs fell over and he lay there, blinking, mouth still open, any noise he made drowned out by Jaime’s screams.
“What the hell?” Mom whispered.
She backed up, sword held out, gaze fixed on it as if it had come to life in her hand. She slid on the blood and looked down at the floor.
“What the hell?”
She stared at her jeans and blouse, soaked with the sorcerer’s blood.
“What the hell!”
I stood there, watching her and trying hard, very hard, not to look at that horrible, bisected body.
My mother blinked. Then she leaped forward, sword raised, and stabbed the still-blinking sorcerer through the heart, releasing him to death.
Jaime stopped screaming. At least, stopped audibly screaming, fist jammed into her mouth, eyes closed. Then she went rigid. Her eyes flew open and fixed on something I couldn’t see.
“You-you called her,” she whispered. “I don’t know what you did but-”
She flinched and I knew she was talking to the sorcerer’s ghost. My mother jumped forward, but Jaime lifted her hands.
“I-it’s okay. He’s gone.” Jaime looked around. “I don’t understand.”
“I do.” My voice came out soft, barely audible. Then I turned to my mother. “You’re real. I mean, you’re here.”
I stepped forward and reached out. My fingers touched her sleeve. The fabric dimpled under them and then I was touching her. Her. My mother. “Oh, God.”
My eyes filled and she reached for me. I swallowed. Fresh blood trickled down my neck. She stopped short, yanked at her shirt, and wheeled on Jaime.
“First aid. Find a kit. Now!”
Mom ripped her shirt off, buttons popping, and pressed it to my throat. Then she led me over to a chair and made me sit. All I could think was It’s Mom. My mother is here. I can see her. I can hear her. I can reach out and touch her.
I sat there, feeling no pain while she and Jaime tended to my throat. In shock, I guess. I dimly heard my mother say the cut was shallower than it looked-the sorcerer knew what he was doing, inflicting minimal damage while making it look serious.
I didn’t care. My mother was here. Right here. I kept trying to process it, but my brain refused.
They taped me up. No one said much. I think we were all in shock, even Mom, who kept looking over at the bisected corpse as if she expected it to magically mend.
“How… how did he do it?” I whispered. “That’s not possible.” I looked at Jaime. “Is it?”
She shook her head. “Zombies, yes. A ghost inhabiting a living body, yes. Bringing back a ghost in corporeal form? It doesn’t happen. Can’t.”
“Just like you can’t manifest a hell-beast,” I said. “But he did.”
No one answered me.
“We need to go,” Jaime said finally. “We can… figure all this out later. For now, we have to call-” She glanced at the phone, then at the bodies.
“No calls,” I said, snapping out of it. “Or the first person the cops will track down is whoever received a phone call post carnage.”
“Careful, baby,” Mom said. “You probably shouldn’t talk.”
Baby. How long had it been since I’d heard that? Fresh tears made the room swim. I swiped them away as she leaned over, ignoring the blood as she hugged me tentatively, then tighter, when I didn’t evaporate at her touch.
“It’s okay,” she whispered. “Everything’s okay.”
Only it wasn’t. We were in a room with dead people. Dead people who’d been carved up and ripped up and chewed on, and at any moment someone was going to come through the station door and find blood and entrails decorating the chief’s office.
Jaime was right. We had to get out of here. And, yes, that meant that after eleven years, I couldn’t stop to hug my mother, even though she might disappear back to the afterlife at any moment. But that’s how it was. Life isn’t fair. Not when there are bodies to dispose of.
It took about thirty seconds to realize that we couldn’t do it. Hiding the bodies was useless, given the sheer amount of blood. All we could do was take the first-aid kit-which we’d touched-look around and determine that we hadn’t touched anything else except the baton in the door. Take that, too. Smear our footprints in the blood. Hope that my blood would go undetected. Pray we hadn’t shed hairs-rather, pray they weren’t found. Really, in general, we just prayed that the Cortezes could cover this up.
Could even a Cabal cover it up? I wasn’t so sure. Didn’t want to think about that.
Next we went into the locker room to find clean shirts for Mom and me. We grabbed a blouse and a gym top from Medina’s locker. Jaime changed into Medina’s sneakers. They weren’t a great fit, but they’d do, though she insisted on taking her heels, too-they were her favorites. My jacket was back in the cell, remarkably clean. My wallet and Jaime’s purse were in the front room. Mom found our processing papers hidden inside Medina’s desk. We took those, too.
Last and maybe most important was video surveillance. But we got lucky there. The camera was an old tape one that only monitored the reception room. We’d never been in there. I grabbed the tape anyway.
Before we left, I borrowed Jaime’s phone-which had been in her purse-and texted Adam. A simple we’re fine, don’t come after us. Last thing we needed was to have Adam and Jeremy show up right as the authorities discovered the bloodbath within.
I didn’t even have time to put the phone away before he texted back. Can u call?
Mom leaned over to read the screen and shook her head. “Later.”
I texted back soon.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kelley Armstrong is the author of the New York Times bestselling Otherworld series, as well as the young adult trilogy Darkest Powers and other titles. She lives in rural Ontario with her family.
To celebrate the publication of Thirteen, the epic finale to the Otherworld series, we’re giving away thirteen exclusive Otherworld necklaces July 12-24, 2012.
Visit www.penguin.com/thirteen for details.